Month: February 2019

Thoughts on the present crisis in the United Methodist Church …from an Episcopalian

The United Methodist Church has finished its special General Conference in St. Louis which was gathered to address divisions over questions relating to sexuality, same sex marriage and the ordination of gay persons. The votes were in favor of the “Traditional Plan” which favored continuing the statements the United Methodists put in their official documents 40 years ago, saying that “homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith” and stepping up enforcement of disciplinary rules based on that. It is clearly a crisis for the many faithful members of the United Methodist Church, especially those who are LGBTQ and closely connected with communities who affirm their inclusion.

The following is a post that I put up on a couple Facebook groups. It seems appropriate to put this out more publicly now.

In another context, I posted in support of someone who warned against trying to “poach” United Methodists at this time. My point is about anxiously trying to benefit our church by recruiting others in a crisis — this is quite different from welcoming refugees who have severed their attachment to a church, who no longer have a viable church home, in effect. It is really unseemly to conclude for other people that their church is not viable; they are the ones in the position to make that judgement, and just because they are suffering, doesn’t mean they aren’t living the Gospel. In fact, in the Fall of 2014, when the conflict and suffering was worst for us at GTS is among the times when I have felt that I was living the Gospel along with others the most fully.

I think that United Methodists have vital faith communities and reasons for being and continuing where they are, though this is one of those times, like October 2014 was for us, when things shift and new directions may begin.

So I have been affirming many things about the Methodist church, but I also want to say something about my observation of that church that may appear to run counter to that, but I don’t want to be misunderstood when I say it: The United Methodist Church is an essentially unstable and untenable coalition of irreconcilable parts. It has largely been held together by a strong central authority structure: bishops elected by regional assemblies, who have strong authority but who are accountable to that regional assembly rather than to their local conference (i.e. diocese).

I worked at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington for 2 1/2 years and got to know the Methodists pretty well in that time. The coalition of Methodists stretches from Holiness/Fundamentalist types on the right wing, to theological liberals almost indistinguishable from Unitarian Universalists on the left. There is also a broad middle, which Wesley represented, which was more liturgical and high church with a theology that would fit closely with that of most Episcopalians. Even before the departure of ACNA, etc., the Episcopal Church had hardly any members that could be compared with the fundamentalist end of the Methodists, even allowing for the differences in ecclesiology — our most authoritarian anglo-catholics or evangelicals were small in number and less far out than the more fundamentalist end of the UMC. Likewise, while we have some extreme theological liberals, even unto nontheists & agnostics, they are much smaller in number and more attuned to traditional Christian practice and theological constructions than you find in the UMC. The moderate, more orthodox/liturgical/ecumenical wing of the Methodists is large, but not in any way dominating like it is in TEC. This crisis may end up breaking up this untenable coalition.

I don’t think that self congratulation in the Episcopal Church is called for or helpful. I also don’t think that merger or absorption of portions of the fragmented Methodists will be ecclesially helpful to either body. But prayer, friendship and welcome for them is part of faithfulness — they are called to a season of faithfulness now, and we will see where God leads them.

Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of they saving embrace: So clothe us in thy Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know thee to the knowledge and love of thee; for the honor of they Name. Amen (BCP p. 58)

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Do Good to Those Who Hate You

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 24, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Jesus teaches us, just as he taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him. They followed him not only to learn about what he might teach, but because in encountering Jesus, people were healed. Before the story we heard last week, the one where Jesus began his teaching with the Beatitudes, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath.

There is no doubt that Jesus was a healer and he cast out demons. If you approach the documents that we have with an historical eye, we can be more certain in saying that what he was known for was his exorcisms and his healings – more than for his teachings. Yet, he also wasn’t a magician and did nothing particularly showy.  Despite the crowds, what we know of Jesus was how plain and ordinary he was. His healing and his teaching were the same: What he did was move people from the self-absorption of fear and pain to the honesty of healthy life in God.

What Jesus presents is simple, anyone can do it—you don’t have to be smart, well-educated, or a religious superhero. However, it is a challenge to be honest and generous in your life. And it requires courage, because there are real-world consequences for being honest and generous in a world dominated by fear, selfishness, and self-serving dishonesty.

Some people think the things that Jesus says in today’s Gospel are unrealistic or even soft-headed. Love those who hate you? In America nowadays, whenever we hear the word “love” we think about hearts and roses. But that’s not what Jesus is taking about. In the New Testament, “love” means action and engagement for the sake of the good of someone else. Of course, when we do that successfully, it may make us feel good, because living generously and making someone else’s life better is a good thing. But love is not about the feeling, or being addicted to getting the feeling, or the positive feedback. Jesus points this out a little later, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”

Then, when Jesus talks about loans and giving things away, it gets pretty intense: “if they take your coat, give them your shirt”; “lend, expecting nothing in return.” Jesus knows his customers. People rationalize and lie to themselves and others about how badly they have been treated and how terrible the others are. I’ve so often heard people who don’t like these words of Jesus, turn the conversation to macro-economics—but he’s not talking about that, he’s talking to us. Can we live more generously than we do? Is someone else in need? Is there a misunderstanding about who owes what? Jesus is encouraging everyone to find a way to live generously and to stop rationalizing their selfishness. Accept even a real wrong to your own interest, for the sake of truthfulness and justice in society. This is not about coddling wrong; it’s about stepping away from defensiveness and self-justification. Even when we must stand up for justice, it is not for our own advantage or comfort that we stand, but for the sake of those who are harmed by the contemptuous and violent. The fierceness of compassion is far different from the rage of self-defense and selfish rancor.

When Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,”—isn’t that impossible?  I mean aren’t we going to be upset if people do bad things to us and our loved ones? If love were about feeling good, it would be impossible. But what Jesus has to say is not about making you, or anyone else in our country, feel good. Christian love is not desire, or even friendship, but concern and action for the good of others.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” He does not say, do everything they want, or pander to their cruel whims. Rather, we should look for their ultimate good, for their healing and health. If you are taking care of a cranky and spoiled child, it is not loving to let them run into a busy street or hurt their little sister or brother. Pray for your enemies, for their well-being, for them to be guided to just actions—even it is in spite of themselves. It sometimes means that you have to stand up to a person who is destroying their life or the lives of others.

Does it require courage to follow Jesus’ teachings? Yes. Is it too hard for ordinary Christians? No. Healthy Christians know to seek the good of others before self. They also are honest about their own fears and their own selfishness, and they seek to repent and believe the Gospel daily. It is the pretense of acting like we are better than others, or the justification of selfishness and self-interested manipulation of the world around us that is unacceptable.

Jesus doesn’t say that life in the real world is easy. He just doesn’t pity us, rather he loves us and looks for our good.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

We are blessed and we are healed by Jesus’ love for us and the courage of his honesty. We are called to be Christians in this world, in this country, at this time.

Let us pray once again our collect for today:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

 

Blessed are they

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 17, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Last week the lessons and the sermon were about God’s call and about Jesus’ calling his first disciples. Today’s gospel reading begins about a chapter later in the Gospel of Luke. In the meantime, Jesus had gone around with these disciples, preaching and healing. There were more disciples added, and then just before our lesson begins, Jesus chooses a group of the Twelve, who are also called apostles, which is a Greek word meaning ambassadors. Selecting twelve is almost certainly symbolic and it probably refers in some way to God’s choosing and caring for the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Twelve is a symbol of completeness.

So having completed the appointment of the Twelve, it is time for Jesus’ teachings to be presented.  Here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain, just as Moses did with the tablets of the law, and Jesus speaks to the gathered multitude, which is described as basically the whole world, not just Galilee, but all Judea and Jerusalem, and not just all the Jewish areas but also Tyre and Sidon, the coastal cities in the gentile area. So Jesus, in effect, is presenting this teaching to all the world. This entire long chapter of Luke is the presentation of Jesus’ teaching. It’s often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain and it is very similar to the Sermon on the Mount. Like the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching here begins with Beatitudes, or Blessings. We know God through being blessed by God. Someone said this week that in these blessings, we know how God is with humans and in the Woes, we see how humans set themselves against God.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

God is here for us, strengthening us, comforting God’s children in all the difficult times of our lives. God is FOR those who suffer, God is WITH those who suffer or don’t have enough, God is WITH us when we lose—whether it is loved ones who die, or friends who move away, or institutions that change or decay. God is with those who mourn, giving comfort and strength, holding us patiently and without judgement waiting for that time that it makes sense for us to see that life goes on, and laughter can be in the future or even the present.

Jesus goes on to say something that is perhaps a bit more challenging to take in: “Blessed are you when people HATE you, and when they EXCLUDE you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man… for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” When I taught courses about early Christianity and how the early Christians were hated and persecuted in the ancient Roman Empire, I was often asked Why? Why didn’t the Romans just let those nice Christians be? An associated question is why did all those ordinary people put that nice religious teacher on a cross?

The more privileged lives that people lead, the more difficult it is to see the dynamics of anger and oppression. If you’re on the top of the heap, then that just looks like the way things are and ought to be—you’re totally happy to go along and be nice to everyone… as long as they don’t step out of line and suggest that something needs to change.

Notice that when Jesus talks about being blessed, he doesn’t talk about being angry or violent. What he does talk about is the prophets. The prophets spoke the word of the Lord—they expressed God’s compassion and comfort to God’s people. They expressed messages of hope and blessing. Exactly as Jesus does in today’s Gospel lesson. But what particularly characterizes the prophets is that they were bold in criticizing and denouncing the rich and powerful who violated God’s love for the poor; who exploited power for their own comfort while God’s people suffered.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is from one of those prophets, Jeremiah. He puts it like this: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” Jeremiah was one of those prophets who had the most conflict with false prophets. Those false prophets pandered to the wishes and fantasies of the wealthy and powerful, making comfortable pronouncements that made the choices of the rulers easy for them—and totally wrong. So Jesus says, “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Think about this for a moment. If you automatically say just what you know someone wants to hear, it’s easy right? And there are plenty of social situations where that’s just fine. But now think of situations where what that person wants to hear is that it’s okay for them to hurt others, steal from those who have the least, ridicule those who are hurting or alone, laugh at those who are mourning. When we do that, we become false prophets. In fact, we make it harder for that person to wake up and receive God’s blessing of generosity and compassion. And those who want to be spoken well of that way, when they look for self-aggrandizement no matter the cost… well… as Jesus says, “Woe to you… for you have received your consolation.”

Jesus teaching is about blessing. It is people who curse themselves. God is present with us now, and blesses us in all our vulnerability, in whatever station we find ourselves. It takes courage to accept that blessing in the midst of all the cowards who put themselves against God, to be well-thought of, or rich, or those thousand other things that disregard God’s call to compassion, generosity, and caring community.  We join those disciples of Jesus, we are guided by the teaching of his apostles, we live in the blessings of Jesus and we give those blessings outward into our community.

Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,

nor lingered in the way of sinners,

nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,

And they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,

bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;

everything they do shall prosper.

Who will go for us?

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 10, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

Each of the four Gospels has an account of Jesus calling his first disciples, and they aren’t the same. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is down by the Jordan River where John the Baptist is doing his work, and two of John’s disciples follow him home, then they invite others who Jesus invites to follow him. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee and invites first Peter and Andrew who were standing on the shore, throwing their net into the sea, and later James and John, who were mending nets in their father’s boat. In those cases, the disciples immediately follow Jesus. Today’s Gospel, from Luke, is a little bit different. Those differences are very human, and I think, pretty amusing.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had already been preaching and teaching for a while before he encountered the disciples. So when he was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he wasn’t just walking along the beach, noticing the fishermen working, he was surrounded by all sorts of people, wanting to hear what he had to teach, to be healed and so forth. So, in order to be able to teach the large crowd and not to be overrun, he sees a boat and climbs into it and asks Simon Peter to row out a little way from the shore so he could address the crowd. What exactly Jesus said isn’t recorded, but I’m sure that what Jesus taught was pretty similar to what he taught on other occasions: good news to the poor, repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand, perhaps some parables or parts of the Sermon on the Mount. At the end of his teaching, Jesus didn’t ask the fisherman to take him back to shore, but to row out in deep water and put out his nets. Peter resists, because he is exhausted. He’s been working all the night, and hasn’t caught any fish. A day of work and nothing to show for it, no pay, nothing to eat. Sometimes life can be difficult and discouraging. It wasn’t the end of life—he would survive to fish the next day—but life can be on the edge, even for a person who has a job.

Jesus insists, so the fishermen continue to row. All of a sudden, there’s a huge unexpected bounty of fish in their nets—more than they had ever caught at one time. What happens next is what I find funny—they go from being exhausted and depressed because of a lack of fish, to being panicked and afraid because of too many fish. They get help from the other boat, they fill both boats to the point that they nearly sank. As they get to shore, Simon Peter falls down on his knees in front of Jesus. He sees this as a miracle, this bringer of the Word of God has clearly done something from God and he’s very afraid. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Where have we heard that before? In our Old Testament Lesson, which is the account of the call of the prophet Isaiah, he says: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”

Being aware of the presence of God is a frightening thing. It makes clear how people truly fall short of God’s goodness, how truly inadequate we are of embodying and teaching the truth. Even though it’s suddenly his best day of work ever, Peter is overwhelmed—how can this be? What is God doing with me?

It’s possible to get everything we imagine we want, and yet not have any idea of what it’s for, or what our next step is. And Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be one who nets people.”

Peter, Andrew, James and John were thus called to follow Jesus as he traveled around Galilee, healing, preaching and teaching; and as he journeyed to Jerusalem and his crucifixion and resurrection. But God’s call is not limited to these disciples alone, or to prophets like Isaiah. Each of us is called out of our particular limitations: our fear, or our poverty; our anger or our disappointment; we are called out of having too much or struggling to have enough, to live lives worthy of the Gospel—to be Jesus’ witnesses and hands right here. It is fearful to be called by God, because when we hear that call—and know that it is God—we are aware of the perfect love of God and all too aware that our own love is far too imperfect. How can the perfect God make use of such imperfect and flawed creatures?

The answer is God’s mercy. That is both the simplest, most straightforward fact—and the deepest of all possible mysteries. In God’s compassion for all God’s children, God chose to call us, in all our sinfulness, to be the vessels of his compassion. That is the Gospel—the opportunity to live and deliver God’s mercy into this world.

The epistle lesson we heard today from First Corinthians is how Paul states this. In fact, it is the earliest account we have of the Gospel message that the early church proclaimed, because he is repeating what he had been taught from the beginning:

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (which is the Aramaic name that we know as Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred sisters and brothers…then to James, and all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called…”

 

Paul also was aware of his unworthiness. But he proclaimed the mercy of God—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, so that we might have life—life as abundant as that great haul of fish and as joyful as the opportunity to share it with others in God’s love.

They will sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord.

Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;

he perceives the haughty from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;

you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;

your right hand shall save me.

 

Renouncing the Powers of Death

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 3, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

This was the conclusion of Jesus’ first sermon in his home town. A few minutes later,

“They were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

This kind of thing happens in churches. I’ve been a priest 37 years, so I know. Jesus told the people some things that were true, and they liked them and admired him; then he pointed out some things that they weren’t expecting and which weren’t so comfortable… Where’s that cliff?

Even people who have committed to following Jesus can become deaf to his words and turn against the Spirit of Life. It’s not because he’s difficult to understand. He’s not. It’s because death is seductive—it’s easier to hold onto what makes us comfortable and to hate anything that interrupts our comfort. … But somehow on that day, Jesus slipped back out through the crowd, avoided their anger and went on to preach the Good News in other places. The very inclination of church people to be seduced by death is the reason that it is so important to pass on the Gospel of Jesus to our children. If we just allow ourselves to be seduced by what is comfortable, we’re all seduced by death, but if we listen to Jesus, he will heal and change us, and he’ll keep us from throwing him and the other children off the cliff.

This morning we are baptizing Maximus Xavier Emmanuel. Baptism is not just a vending machine where you get the right credential, it is entering into life together. Together, we are converted into the Truth, by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.

Let’s open up our prayer books to page 302 and the pages that follow. I want us all to go through this together, because this is serious business. We are all called, not only the godparents, but all Christians who take responsibility for being baptized into Christ—we are all called to support this child and his parents so that he can be brought up in the Christian faith and life. This means that we have to be the Church, and live our Christian life in our daily work and society, so that there will exist for Max and others who will be the Church of the 21st century, a Christian faith and life to grow up in. We are called to live in the Truth, and not give into the real forces of evil that exist in this world.

The rest of the baptismal service is about how we do that. We renounce the spiritual forces and evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  These aren’t demons like spooks in movies or on TV. Likening these evil powers to TV shows is one of the ways that we avoid living in the truth. Destructive spiritual powers exist in the real world and they are—what? They are the behavior of real human beings who are acting in their own self-interest and who, usually, are telling themselves they aren’t doing these things. That they’re not behaving with prejudice—even hatred—toward their neighbor because of the color of his skin, or where she went to school, or what country he was born in. These evil powers are greater than the individuals who think, do, or feel these things. The powers have a life of their own, they seduce individuals and create an environment where their evil seems normal or unavoidable. Other people are destroyed by that kind of behavior, and nobody takes responsibility for that kind of evil human creation. Christians are called on to renounce those things, to renounce hatred and racism, and prejudice; to renounce disrespecting others because of where they come from, or their education, or social status. Doing this is not simple, it’s not a matter of saying it one time and then forgetting it. Renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness is a lifetime affair—we discover the workings of those powers in our environment and in ourselves over and over throughout our lives.

If we are truthful, we recognize that we do not have the power to defeat those powers, even in our personal lives, let alone in the society around us, where we see manifestations every day in the news. Fascism and terrorism feed on one another, and neither our anger nor our fear can do anything but help them grow. The power that can defeat the forces of hatred, death and destruction is the grace of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, God has the courage that we need to live honestly and with care for all God’s children.

If we continue on pages 304 and 305, this is the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, this is how we persevere in resisting evil, this is the Good News that we proclaim, this is how we seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human person. Christ went through everything that we go through, that any one of us goes through. He died. Real death. He was, from beginning to end, a human being from God’s perspective, entirely human, entirely the incarnation of the love of God. His heart was filled with the truth, and he could see the forces of death and destruction—and he loved all those people, yes those who were allied with the forces of death against him—yet he took not those powers of wickedness into his heart. The word courage is derived from the word for heart—in Jesus, God has the courage for all of us, to live and to reject those forces of evil all around us, and have life. To celebrate and rejoice in that gift of life.

Baptism is not just a ceremony or an occasion for a party. Baptism is our life together in Christ. Maximus Xavier Emmanuel enters eternal life today. We know, as well as he soon will, that that life is not always smooth and not always easy. There are forces of evil abroad and sometimes they get close to us, just as they entered into Jesus’ home congregation on that day when he came preaching good news to the poor, good news for everyone. Renouncing and continually resisting the seductions of evil takes a community, a community that supports one another in seeing God’s mercy. Max and other children need this community to renounce that evil with them and for them—and whenever any of our children, as it says on the bottom of page 304, “whenever they fall into sin” we will support them as they “repent and return to the Lord?”  Of course, that doesn’t just apply to little kids, or teenagers, or even young adults—whenever any of us gives into the seductions of selfishness, greed or spiritual sloth—we, as a community welcome back, we are ourselves welcomed back, as we return to the Lord.  Never mind that sometimes we’ve looked to throwing somebody off a cliff, Jesus laughs at us and welcomes us back too.

St. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, that had had some serious dissension and dark times, wrote the passage we heard this morning as the epistle. He’s talking about love—Christian love as it works when we live out our baptism.

It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, it believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. …we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end… Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.