Month: March 2019

Let us Eat and Celebrate

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

I have sinned against Heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called you son.

Most people are familiar with the story that Jesus told in today’s Gospel lesson. At least most people are familiar with the title that is usually used for it: “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” However, I think it’s important to notice that this is really a story about a family—there are three main characters, the prodigal son, his older brother, and his father.  When Jesus told parables, he wasn’t telling allegories where each character in the story is just a symbol for something else. The parables are stories about familiar things that illustrate something real, characteristics of our universe that are spiritually important to attend to. So…the most powerful male figure in the parables aren’t stand-ins for God, they are men whose lives and decisions are as complex as anyone else’s. That will be important to remember later in this sermon.

The son who takes his inheritance and squanders it is a good illustration of repentance. He does some things that are foolish and selfish and comes to a point that he realizes that he has done wrong, that the consequences of the way he has been living are terrible. He decides to change and then he goes and apologizes to his father and asks forgiveness.  In this story, the father pre-empts the end of the apology because he is rejoicing and welcoming back the son he has never stopped loving—even when he was lost to him. But in repentance the apology precedes any forgiveness and only after that does reconciliation follow.

This younger son does not look good in any reading of the first part of the story. But people often leap to the conclusion that everything that he does is outrageous and purely bad. People love to be outraged and to find others to condemn— “At least nothing I’ve done is that bad, I can justify everything I’ve done…mostly.” But as I read the story in Greek, it doesn’t necessarily read like he’s such a villain. It says that he wanted the father to give him his share of the family business. It doesn’t really mention an inheritance. So the young man wanted to set out on his own, develop new business ventures in a far-away land of opportunity.  The story says that when he got there, he scattered his wealth around.  In retrospect, we can conclude that he didn’t act shrewdly because he wasn’t a success. But one of the things people do in building up their business is to spread the wealth around, ingratiating themselves to a lot of people who might be helpful. He didn’t plan on the famine. Lots of people don’t plan for reverses in the economy that could cause their business to fail.

I’m only defending this young man to show that he is more normal than most people think, what he did is similar to things we see happen or even do ourselves, fairly frequently.  Clearly, he wasn’t wise in handling his finances. He wasted the money his father gave him, he was the big spender, partying, rather than investing in his business. When the crops failed and prices went up, he had no way to get by and he had to take a degrading job that didn’t even provide enough to live. It’s a picture of a failure of a young person, due largely to his own arrogance.

If we condemned and threw away every person who ever had this kind of failure, much of humanity would be in the garbage heap. As I mentioned, the father didn’t reject his son, but continued to love him. Part of the truth of this parable is that this is what parents do—they continue to love their children even when they disappoint them.

The elder brother was not so happy. He resented that the capital had been taken out of the business, his own responsibilities had been made greater, and his father had not recognized his efforts or his loyalty. This is why I don’t think the father represents God in this parable. Truth to tell, this family situation had been difficult even before the younger son left. The father is not a bad guy here, but he had not made either son adequately aware of his love throughout this story: He didn’t show gratitude for the elder son’s work and somehow he failed to give the younger son a place in the household where he could be happy and fulfilled. The father is an ordinary person, and not an omniscient, omnipotent, all-benevolent God.

We are ordinary people. In our families and our churches, we are often pre-occupied with our own problems, and it’s hard for us to think about the needs of everyone involved. We’re often tempted to throw up our hands and say: “I’ve done everything, I can!” Everything, perhaps, but listen to what the person really needs. The Prodigal Son asked for his share of the family business. It was what he believed he wanted, but was it what he really needed? What I think he really needed required harder work from his father than just handing over the money. The father needed to recognize both his sons’ contributions, taking their ideas and efforts seriously—real partnership and recognition of their needs and aspirations.

When people leave the church, it is seldom because of problems with belief, even when that’s what they say. People leave because they don’t trust the community with their questions or their needs. People leave because their experience has been that they have not been taken seriously or their deepest values have been dismissed or discounted. This is an issue for the entire church in our time, in our country, and elsewhere. Our inclination is to look for fault, either in those who are here or those who aren’t.

But that’s not God’s approach, it’s not what Jesus is saying. We are welcomed with God’s open arms, we are celebrated, and we join in a feast, not because of what we do, but because we are loved. And God’s children who we don’t see this morning? God welcomes them where they are and invites them to the feast. Notice here that I say God welcomes them to the Feast—not to filling the role we want them to take, or to do the work, or make the contributions we think they should make. We are all welcomed by God’s mercy. We are here because of God’s mercy—all of our lives’ journeys lead us to the love of God, as we are valued in our own precious story. We are invited to listen and care for one another; for those we encounter and know in our lives—those people of such value, that we treasure even when they are far away.

You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble

you surround me with shouts of deliverance.

Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord;

shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

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Holy Ground

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The place on which you are standing is holy ground.

In today’s lesson we see Moses. He had an interesting history—one we read about in the book of Exodus. But at this moment when we run into him, it is almost as if he has no history. He has broken off contact from the family who raised him—a different family from the one he was born into. He was a long way from his original home—he may have been out on the coast of Arabia. He had married a woman out in that distant place and was working for her father. And that job, tending sheep, was neither idyllic, nor romantic, nor very well-paying. Moses was making do as he had to, as best as he could.

He was tending sheep out in the arid mountains of the Sinai Peninsula, running the sheep, trying to find enough for them to eat. In the midst of this drudgery, Moses sees a fire. Or rather, he sees fire, and when he looks at it, there is a bush with all this fire—but nothing is burning. The bush is there, the fire is coming out, but the branches and leaves don’t catch fire—they aren’t burned up.

“Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” All of a sudden, in the middle of this ungrounded life of his, Moses was standing on Holy Ground. And he didn’t know what to do.

The voice continued: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses didn’t even know his father. But God still called him. Here he was far from the land where he was born and grew up, which was Egypt, and far from the land of the Israelites, the people who were his parents, but whom he never really knew. He was up on a mountain, not far from Arabia, and the God of Israel was speaking to him. “I have observed the misery of my people and I have heard their cry. I send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

And Moses said something that I believe can be loosely translated as: “Huh?”

Most of us think, “If God talked to me out loud, I’d be right there, ready to go.” But, in the real world, Moses was standing there with a bunch of sheep that belonged to somebody else. “How am I supposed to do all that? Face Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites who don’t trust me and have no reason to trust me?” Moses tried to duck, to get out of being responsible and to avoid being generous with his life, as most of us are inclined to do.

God said, “I will be with you.”

Moses was there on Holy Ground—listening to the One, the holiest of holies, the Truth, the Life, the Way. This would be an astounding religious experience.

Back when I was in school, all the fashionable writers talked about “peak experiences” and “mountaintop experiences.”  What they were referring to was the experience that Moses is having, right here in this lesson, generalized for their mid-twentieth century audience.

But if you look closely at what is happening here, it is not about Moses, it is not a great mystical or euphoric experience for him.  He is on that mountain to be sent by God: “I hear their cry on account of their taskmasters, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” God sends Moses for the sake of his people, for the sake of the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed. Moses isn’t being rewarded at all, he’s not having a great experience for his own bliss. God is reaching out with compassion for his people’s sake.

And Moses is sent to lead the Israelites for God’s glory, not his own—yet, how many would reject Moses? How many would fear the disruption of leaving behind their oppression? Over the next forty years, Moses heard the complaints of some who longed for the security of their oppression in Egypt. From the flames the voice told Moses, “I am who I am. Tell them that I AM sent you.” The one who exists alone from all time and to all time is the God of their ancestors and he judges that they should be brought up from their oppression.

We talk about God’s judgment a lot. And we usually think that it means something bad for somebody, either for ourselves or for our adversaries, or at least somebody.  We think that judgment means that God is angry and out to get somebody. The judgment of God has consequences in the real world, but those consequences are the consequences of God’s compassion. God came to deliver the Israelites out of his compassion, and the Pharaoh is portrayed as totally lacking in compassion and opposed to compassion. It did not work out so well for Pharaoh to fight against the compassion of God.

We live in a time when compassion is difficult to find, especially in the public arena. Fear and distrust multiply. And thus the prophets and Jesus were sent to the people to tell them to repent, for the judgment of God is at hand—the compassion of God is arrayed against those forces seeking to use fear, anger, and death to control and oppress people and destroy compassion. This is a time of difficulty, perhaps even tribulation.

And Jesus tells a parable. A landowner looks at his garden and there’s a fig tree, which hasn’t born fruit, and his first response is to have it cut down. But the gardener says, wait. Have patience, have compassion, let me work with the tree; fertilize it, water it, cultivate it. In time, it may yet bear fruit.

This place where we are right now is a holy place. It is holy ground. And not just because of the stained-glass windows or the beautiful wood with the stenciling of the creed and the commandments. It is holy ground because God’s love has been manifested here, in this part of the Bronx, by the Gospel of God’s compassion reaching out here in this part of this city.  Trinity Church has been here through many changing times: when the city built these housing projects, they wanted to take this building as part of it, and the church fought back and won. And why? For the stenciling on the wood? No. It was because this holy place would remain as God’s witness of compassion for all the new people who moved in. And when the Bronx went through very hard times, Trinity church was a beacon of courage right here, for those who might be afraid.  You are sitting on holy ground, called to be God’s people showing forth God’s compassion right here.

Remember how you have been loved by God, right here, in this community, on this holy ground. God’s compassion, God’s judgement and God’s deliverance of God’s people is our present and our future, right here in this holy place.

As our psalm today says:

I have gazed upon you in your holy place,

that I might behold your power and your glory.

For your loving-kindness is better than life itself;

my lips shall give you praise.

So I will bless you as long as I live

and lift up my hands in your Name.

 

Jesus was Famished

A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

When the forty days were over, Jesus was famished.

Right at the beginning of this story, Luke emphasizes that Jesus was hungry. Well, wouldn’t you be after forty days without food? Of course, any human would be, and just like the rest of us, Jesus is human—there is nothing supernatural in Jesus’ experience, or strength, or knowledge. The Gospel is quick to point out that Jesus’ temptation is human temptation. When we consider Jesus’ temptation and his response to temptation, we can’t get off the hook by saying, “Well he was God, but you can’t expect a human being like me to behave that way.” He was a human being with all the challenges that humans face, who responded in a way that is within God’s vision for humanity.

Jesus was forty days worth of hungry. So the Slanderer (that is what that word we pronounce as “Devil” means in Greek)—the Slanderer says, “Well, if you’re so special, here’s a big rock, make it be bread and eat your fill.” Rocks were plentiful out there in the wilderness around the Jordan River. Jesus is hungry, like any of us would be. The Slanderer says, “Take the short cut, give up on all this struggle we’ve been in.” Jesus’ response, is “One doesn’t live by bread alone.” People live by the truth of God, by God’s compassion, by living the life of generosity—not by making common cause with this Slanderer. And, as is always the case, the Slanderer doesn’t give up. He comes back with the more of the same, but now it’s dressed up in fancier, bigger, more enticing images: “Look—all the kingdoms of the world—all the power and riches and security that there is—just join in with my crew, be my guy, you know I can provide you all these things. All it takes is to join up, do what you know I want. Accept a little corruption, do a few lies, be my sycophant. Because you know, I do the slander the best, I can get you all these things, just join up and worship me a little, it doesn’t hurt. Then you get everything.”

This situation happens far more frequently than we like to imagine. It happens gradually, most of the time, and it’s often disguised. We are not very likely to see a cartoon devil looming over us, saying, “Worship me! I’ll give you all this stuff!” Not literally. And there is always a way to rationalize it—“That’s not REALLY the devil, and that’s not ACTUALLY worship!” But it is all so very common for human beings to want a big score. It is really common to think that taking a few shortcuts won’t make that much difference—to think to oneself that the hurts caused to others aren’t REALLY that big—or at least that’s the rationalization. And there are plenty of people who have gone further down that road, who know that they can take advantage of people who want that chance to give into temptation and make the big score. Their power is magnified by the greediness of others. They can be skilled at getting others to do misdeeds to please them. This is the dynamic of corruption and it is as old as civilization. We have it now. It is making a comeback in our national government. Giving in and becoming part of that corruption has its rewards. Sometimes, the most corrupt live a life of luxury and influence, and when some of their misdeeds come to light, someone is sure to dismiss them, because of an “otherwise blameless life.”

Jesus, in this story, is facing what every person faces—the temptation to join in the corruption of this Slanderer, the temptation to cooperate with the hurt or devaluation of others for the sake of personal gain or security. There are people who directly manipulate others, but there are also spiritual forces abroad in society that summon all the corruption, greed and insecurity there is and what we get are things like anti-Semitism, racism or just plain old cynicism about human possibility. Jesus confronts the trickery of this Slanderer, this demon. He says, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Worship only the God of Truth and Compassion. The God who lives for others, who gives us life in this real world, life beyond death or fear of death.

Jesus casts out this demon, sends him away, but the Slanderer still comes back. Notice that the next step is that the Slanderer gets all religious on Jesus. “You’re so holy. You must be at the very top of the Holy Chart. Rely on that, you can get all the power that you need by using God. Just step of the edge of the roof here… Surely God will protect you and underwrite all your spiritual power.” Corruption takes place in religious contexts too. You may remember that a lot of Jesus’ teaching is about the misuse of spiritual power. Many of the problems we see today are the result of clergy and other leaders asking for too much trust from people, sometimes of children. Thinking that trust was theirs to use, and abusing others in doing so.

And what Jesus says to all of this is, simply: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

This is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent is a time to be attentive, to see the Slanderer for what he is. Jesus’ choice to send him away is a human choice that any of us can make at any time. It’s the choice for freedom, even when breaking from the bonds of corruption is painful. The Lenten journey of repentance is a process of accepting new life, of recognizing the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. Life in freedom is God’s gift, it always has been, and is today.

Here is how it’s described in our lesson from Deuteronomy today:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our Ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O lord, have given me.

You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Remember, O Mortal

A homily for Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Remember, O Mortal, that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.

As we begin Lent we listen to God’s call for repentance as the prophet Joel, St. Paul the Apostle and Jesus present it. As Paul says, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” When Jesus talks about it he is quite practical: “Don’t show off, don’t try to impress others with your piety.” Above all, don’t try to fool God.

When the ashes are administered today and on every Ash Wednesday, the words that accompany them are, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” You, O mortal one, are dust and to dust you shall return. The reality of those ashes is that we are human and mortal. Not that we are bad. Not that we have failed to be something special.  The ashes are a sign of reality beyond our fantasies about ourselves.

As humans, we love to get ahead of ourselves. We think, if we can be big heroes or somehow perfect, then everything will be fine. We’ll get out of the mess we’re in, and God will be pleased, or maybe we won’t need God at all. It has always been so, going back to that story about those ideas that the first people got about that piece of forbidden fruit they ate – that they then turned around and blamed the snake for.

And lots of times, people want to convince their neighbors, or God, or themselves—or somebody—that they are achieving those goals of saintly behavior; performing out there, for everyone to see, acts of philanthropy or pious behavior or heroic virtue.

And Jesus says…

“Really? Do you really think you are impressing God with all this?”

Be human. Live as you really are. What you really are is God’s child, who God loves so deeply that there’s no earning of that love to be done. Really, does a child really need to do anything to earn a parent’s love?  Assuming of course, that the parent is not terribly damaged and afraid of their own humanity.

Repentance means returning to our true humanity, to accepting who we are, accepting that sometimes we get ahead of ourselves, and do dumb things or even hurtful things, but above all accepting that we are God’s human, mortal children. Repentance is accepting God’s love. Giving thanks is a part of accepting God’s love. Being generous is a part of accepting God’s love. Paying attention to the things that distract us and get us spinning fantasies about how we might be something other than God’s simple human child. In other words, paying attention by adopting a Lenten discipline that might include structures of prayer, or fasting, or rejoicing in God’s generosity as a part of accepting God’s love.

A holy Lent is a time of attention to being human. Being human is not a come down. It should not be a disappointment. Being human is something to rejoice in—we rejoice because the reality that God has created is a reality of life and of love. Let us live this Lent rejoicing in God’s generosity to us.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, March 3, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.

Today is the Last Sunday after Epiphany. The season that follows Christmas and Epiphany ends this week and Lent begins with Ash Wednesday which we observe at noon this Wednesday. The Gospel for this Last Sunday after Epiphany is always the Transfiguration of Jesus. I’ve always had a difficult time understanding or appreciating the Transfiguration. Jesus was always God, what difference does it make if his face was shiny?

I think that our passage from the Old Testament this morning can help. Moses was on the top of a mountain for 40 days, listening to God, receiving the Torah, the wisdom and guidance and structuring of life for Israel. Moses was receiving the Law from God and then he brought it down the mountain to the people. And the text says, “he didn’t even know that his face was shining.” Perhaps radiant, like our face would be after receiving a wondrous gift, or more likely, that the awesome and wonderful presence of God was still abiding in Moses after he listened to God.

Jesus is at the top of a mountain in today’s Gospel. He took with him Peter and John and James, the three first disciples he called. They were there and Jesus started to pray, talking with God, and his face began to shine. Like Moses, as Jesus listened to God, his face shone. He wasn’t on the mountain to have his face shine, or to look in a mirror. Jesus was there to listen to God. And there were Moses and Elijah. All three of them were dwelling in God’s glory. And what were they talking about? They were talking about Jesus’ exodus. That’s what it says in the Greek text—Moses, who led God’s people in their exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom, was talking with Jesus about his exodus, bringing God’s people into freedom. This conversation with the prophets is actually a continuation of the conversation Jesus was having with his disciples in the verses right before this story.

Jesus said:

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Then he said to the disciples:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

It is clear the exodus that Jesus is discussing with Moses and Elijah is his journey to Jerusalem and his crucifixion. But notice, despite all the shining and lights and unusual appearances, the disciples were asleep. Somehow, they weren’t paying attention to what was going on, even though Jesus had just told them. Have you ever seen that? People who should be attentive to really important things, just spacing out and dozing off? Me too, I see it every day when I look at things happening in this country, people dozing off when they should be attending to making this a more truthful, compassionate society. Taking offense when someone points out a racist trick they have pulled. Lots of dozing off, especially among Christians.

The transfiguration happens at the point in the Gospel when Jesus finishes his ministry of teaching and healing in Galilee and begins his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. There is plenty of healing and plenty of teaching to come, but now, if you are following Jesus, you are following him to Jerusalem. No dozing off, no turning back.

Peter and James and John drowsily wake up as Moses and Elijah are finishing their conversation with Jesus—they just catch the end of it. Peter said something nonsensical and they were covered by a cloud.

“This is my Son; my Chosen; Listen to him!”

… listen to him…

Wake up to the healing that Jesus’ compassion brings.

It is not cost free. This is a world in which compassion, truthfulness, and generosity are often met with evil, greed, and thoughtlessness.

The Gospel lesson ends with Jesus healing a boy who has been continually attacked by a demon, thrown into convulsions over and over. The disciples were useless. Jesus said, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” That generation was not unlike our own. But Jesus confronted that demon and healed the boy. He confronts the demons of hatred and evil with his own self. And it concludes, “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” We must wake up to the greatness of God.

The season we are moving into is Lent. Lent is a season of waking up. It is definitely not a season of sadly giving up stuff and seeing how much we can show off how deprived we are making ourselves. Lent is a time to attend to the Greatness of God, to the miracle of God’s compassion in a world of hate. It is a time to be healed by God’s costly love.

Jesus’ face and even his clothes shone, because he was filled with the Glory of God. Yet he didn’t know it, he was always filled with God’s glory and he wasn’t paying attention to how he was perceived. He was focused on bringing God’s word of love to God’s children, each of us. Jesus brought that love to that boy, by healing him. Healing—and all of our life—is a process; it takes time, and it continues as long as we live. Healing is for individuals, but also for communities, our church as a whole, even our buildings.

Everything that is worthwhile takes time; together we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and we grow in health and are brought together as Christ’s church in this place. I bid you to join us in a holy Lent, beginning this coming Wednesday.

Let us pray:

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.