Month: January 2019

The Year of the Lord’s Favor

A sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 27, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

In the Gospel of Luke, this is the first record of Jesus’ teaching. After his baptism and his temptation in the desert, the Gospel tells us that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit and went around preaching in Galilee, his home region. And when he got to his home town of Nazareth, the Gospel describes that teaching.

He opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, the sixty-first chapter, where the prophet announces the hopeful message of God’s redemption for Israel, his summons for them to return from exile. Jesus teaches the meaning of the text, and that meaning is himself. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” As we proceed through the Gospel toward Easter, it will become more and more clear what it means, that he himself is the meaning of the word of God. Today, let’s look at the text he reads: “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

So is the Good News of God’s love mainly for the poor?  Could be. Certainly the song that Jesus mother sang before he was born says, “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.”

God is here for those who suffer and those who have needs that are more than they can handle. Yet it doesn’t just mean that God has pity on the poor or gives cosmic handouts to the needy.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a slave who was forgiven a tremendous debt, but then immediately grabbed another slave who owed him a very small debt and had him thrown in jail—being poor, or of low estate did not justify him in being unmerciful to others. Jesus did not come to change the order of things in order to privilege a different group, he came to give release to the captives, sight to the blind—a time of the Lord’s favor—when ALL the oppressed are free.

It is significant, of course, that he starts with the poor. Those who get the least respect, are just as entitled to full honor and respect as those who presume that they are the ONES who are entitled. It is not so, that some are entitled to honor and others can be dismissed. ALL are worthy of our respect. ALL of us have God’s respect and love, right now. Jesus is telling us that—the challenge is to us, and to everyone—how do we respect the ones who God loves and respects, particularly those who are pushed to the side, dishonored in their social status, or physical disability, or their place on the economic ladder. God gives us freedom, what do we do with it?

Jesus announced: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This means two things—first, it is in Jesus that these promises are fulfilled—his person and his life make the difference. Next week’s gospel lesson continues this story, and I will talk about what happens when Jesus made that announcement in my sermon next week.

But the other thing is, TODAY, the good news to the poor is announced, TODAY the release of captives and recovery of sight to the blind, TODAY the oppressed go free. This year is the year of the Lord’s favor, not some day in the far off future, when we get around to it, some day when the rich get tired of being rich, until, literally, Kingdom come. God is not waiting for justice, or mercy. The mercy of God, the right of those who are poor and oppressed to find freedom is right now. In Jesus, we are freed from the values that say whatever has been established by those in power is how it has to be. God’s mercy is here, in Jesus Christ. In us, in his mercy, we live as merciful, in his hope, we are generous and share our lives, in his courage and his way of the cross, we courageously face the difficulties that this world has brought and will continue to bring. We live in the year of the Lord’s favor.

This year. The Lord’s favor is here for Trinity Church in Morrisania. We will have our annual meeting this afternoon. And, as Paula Roberts said to me the other day, the meeting is about Trinity’s future, not the past. We look forward to what God is calling us to be. God has given us all many gifts. Take a moment to reflect—how has God’s love manifested itself here? What have you seen, felt or known? — –A couple of weeks ago, I heard our youngest group recite “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” and the Lord’s Prayer. God’s love is in the children of Trinity Church. You may remember something else, some other ways the Lord has favored us.  This church is firmly founded on the love of God, we will thrive and survive together, as God has called us. God’s love brings us through all adversities into this year of the Lord’s favor.

Once again, let us pray in the words of our collect for today:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

The Gift of Humanness

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord.

Our Epistle lesson today is a familiar one. We often talk about the varieties of gifts that God gives to various people. Frequently, sermons are preached that focus on tasks and ministries, and the things that people do as the variety of gifts and callings. But I would like to look at this a different way. Perhaps our gifts and our ministries aren’t so much the things we do, as who we are. The varieties of gifts are varieties of character. The Gospel affirms our differences from one another more than any static ideal of who a Christian might be.

This twelfth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the beginning of a discussion of the gifts of the spirit that culminates in First Corinthians 13—that glorious hymn to Christian love: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” When we get to the end of the discussion, Paul shows that it all comes down to love—all the varieties of gifts, and all of the varieties of ministries. But this doesn’t mean they all look the same, or that all of God’s loving people are identical. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” It’s common to think that there is one good or best way to be a Christian, one set of behaviors that makes people say, “isn’t she a good Christian?” Perhaps nudge the children and say, “You need to be exactly like that.” But no. There is a great variety of gifts. People have different characters, different motivating enthusiasms, different times and ways in which they do good for the sake of others.  Sometimes we even disagree with what someone else does, because it isn’t what we would do.  But there are varieties of gifts and varieties of callings. We are called by God, not to a particular job, or to a particular role; we are called by God to be human, to be human in the particular way that God calls each one to be.

So in today’s Gospel reading, the first thing that Jesus does after his encounter with John the Baptist at the Jordan, the first thing he does after his baptism, is take this group of guys to a party. The first thing in Jesus’ ministry is a party—and when this party, swelled in size by this group of young men enjoying themselves, runs out of wine—Jesus makes more wine! They continue to enjoy themselves and celebrate that wedding. The first thing in Jesus’ ministry is an act of human joy, human generosity.

Our gifts from God are our human joy, our human generosity, our human life. To follow God’s call is to live more truly that humanness that is God’s gift to us. Indeed, it is human freedom that is God’s call and God’s spiritual gift. That spiritual gift is not the ability to hate, or destroy or to curse Jesus and his compassion. The freedom of the spirit is the ability to grow and live in God’s love. When scripture talks about bondage to idols, it’s referring to those things that use the power of hate and selfishness to defeat humanity—defeating the humanness of others looks very powerful—but it is bondage to dead idols and death.

This weekend we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King lived a life fighting against those idols. He spent his life preaching life and hope. There is no doubt that the gunshot that killed him came from the power of idolatry—people worshiping the power of death and trying to kill life. But Martin was not about death or power, he was about life. Let’s look at his life.  He grew up in a Baptist parsonage in the American South. His life growing up was in the midst of the era of Jim Crow segregation, and he saw the debilitating effects of racism on the whole society around him.

Now, when we look at a person who is a hero and a saint, it is of utmost importance to see who they are as a whole human being. Every human being has their own character, their own limitations, their own sin. Every human being is gifted by God with humanness in their own particular way. It’s tempting to think that a saint is EVERYTHING: great at everything, who overcame everything and has no faults. But that’s not true and it keeps us from seeing the real humanness that is the gift of God. We don’t focus on what Martin wasn’t or on what he was less good at—but we should keep in mind that who he was and what he did was living in God’s specific gifts of the spirit to him. He’s renowned as an eloquent speaker. His father was an influential preacher and he grew up in the church. He was trained to be a preacher and he had a talent for it.

But Dr. King’s real eloquence came from his passion and his clear view of the facts. He may have been a Baptist preacher and the leader of a civil rights organization, but his real call was to be human; as only he could be human. He knew the importance of dignity and the indignities that so many suffered, he knew the ravages of poverty and how the treatment of the poor unjustly limited lives and caused unnecessary suffering. And he knew that militarism and war increased these sufferings and unequally caused those who were minorities or poor to take the brunt of the suffering of war. For him, his humanity made it necessary to stand up and fight those things. It’s irrelevant to talk about his sacrifice in doing these things—his humanity and integrity demanded that he stand up and speak, and lead others. Sure, he had the talent and education to get a well-paying job and turn his back on all these things, but it would have been at the cost of his humanity, at the cost of giving up the gift that God had bestowed upon him.

None of us is called to be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But each of us is called to be human as God has called us to be. To celebrate, to love, to be generous, to have integrity—“There are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit; and there are varieties of services but the same Lord.” I can’t describe anything like the whole variety of God’s calling or how each person can be gifted by their best humanity. But it is a challenge to leave behind the realm of idols and the power of hate and death to live in the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit of Life.

How priceless is your love, God! your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

They feast upon the abundance of your house; you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light.

Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you, and your favor to those who are true of heart.

In his Time the Righteous shall Flourish

A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Our Gospel story this morning is the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. People usually call this the story of the Three Kings. The problem is that, when you look at the story in the Bible, it’s clear that these guys are not kings. It says Magi, which definitely doesn’t mean king—it probably means something like astrologer, sage, or maybe astronomer. Maybe even magician or sorcerer. And another thing is that it doesn’t say how many there were. There were three gifts named, but there could have been two or twenty Magi in this group that appeared in Jerusalem.

But the really big thing is that the main character in this story is Herod, not the Magi, or Joseph, or even Jesus. Herod was the King of Judea, but he wasn’t descended either from David or any of the Hasmonean kings who had ruled Judea in the previous century. His father was Idumean, which meant that most of the Jewish population didn’t regard him as legitimately Jewish, let alone as a real king. But Herod was a brilliant politician—he managed to be an ally and supporter of both sides in the Roman civil war that resulted in the establishment of the Roman Empire. He maintained his rule and power through wily manipulation of political factions and the backing of the Roman military. He used people’s fears and suspicions of one another to neutralize their suspicion of him. He presented himself as an alternative to Roman domination, while using Roman power and occupation to maintain his own domination of this kingdom. It was a precarious balancing act, to maintain this power. Herod was suspicious that at any turn, someone might do something to overthrow him—and he was right. Tyrants are always insecure for good reason.

So these astronomers show up, sharing their observations and their interpretations of them. Of course, Herod was frightened. They were talking about a person with legitimate claims to his office. No matter what Herod or the Romans thought about his right to reign, an heir to David could greatly increase resistance to him and undermine the Romans’ plans. Herod plots. He secretly talks with the Magi, asks them to find this infant king for him.

Today’s lectionary reading ends with the Magi finding Jesus and his mother, giving their gifts and paying him homage. But the story in the Gospel continues. These are people whose job is interpreting dreams, and their dreams tell them not to trust this Herod guy. They leave Bethlehem by an alternate route. Joseph also has a dream, and heads south with the child and his mother. But the story continues:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the Magi.

The evil and cruelty are easy enough to understand. This man had power and he wanted to keep it. Being cruel to powerless children was efficient for a ruler with no governing values except staying in power. It’s nothing new, people saw it back then, the Gospel of Matthew observed it and described it; we see it now.

The Gospel proclaims that that is NOT God’s way. The King in Bethlehem was not powerful but a helpless infant. The King in Bethlehem was not a raging narcissist, out for himself alone, but Jesus, living compassionately for others, protected by a loving and courageous mother. They were protected and brought to safety by her husband, a humble man, doing what he needed to do, and going where he needed to go for the well-being of his family. God protected that infant through those who listened to God, those who knew to follow where God was leading them.

Our world has dangerous and evil things in it, dangers and evil people, and the Bible never implies otherwise. In our lesson from Isaiah it says, “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.”  We experience these things, and that is why the stories in the Bible are so compelling. But the message is that God does rescue us from this evil. God uses the good and compassionate Joseph to rescue the infant Jesus; God prevails upon the consciences of those astrologers from Persia to listen to their suspicions of Herod and avoid him. God enlightens us to see the light of Jesus—who lives a life of pure compassion, pure integrity, pure love. God calls us to live lives of compassion, integrity and generosity for others for the sake of the well-being of this world, and not for selfish gain, or illusory power. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that doing so will be easy—that there will be no danger, or anger, or confusion. Following Jesus includes the fear and anger of people like Herod, or those who crucified Jesus. We are blessed because we can be generous, we can be compassionate, we can live life abundantly and not be overcome by that fearful selfishness that characterizes this world.

That company of Magi brought what they could. They gave the child gold, frankincense and myrrh, all the precious things they had. They rejoiced and we rejoice because that child, the new king, the different king has come into this world where we live. Jesus is here—his light shines in the Bronx.

And our psalm for today says:

Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the King’s Son;

That he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice;

That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people,

and the little hills bring righteousness.

He shall defend the needy among the people;

he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.

He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, from one generation to another.

He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,

like showers that water the earth.

In his time shall the righteous flourish;

there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.