Month: May 2019

And Let everyone who is Thirsty, Come

A sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Today’s second reading is the culmination of the book of Revelation, and since that is the last book of the Bible in some ways it is the culmination of the whole thing. The lectionary leaves out several verses near the beginning of the passage, so I would like to read the first part of that reading again with those verses included so you can get the full effect.

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (Rev. 21:10-24)

This is the vision of the Holy City of God, the vision of our future and the future of the universe—majestic, awe inspiring—and it makes no sense. The measurements reported, make a cube which, if superimposed on the United States, would stretch from the northern tip of Maine to Winnipeg, Manitoba, (I realize that Winnipeg isn’t in the U.S., but it just won’t fit!) to the southern tip of Texas and over to Miami, Florida, as well as reaching a thousand miles above the end of the earth’s atmosphere. A big city. It is composed of pure gemstones and is made out of transparent gold—whatever that is. The images cascade over us, images of grandeur, beauty, value, and purity, but in the end we really can’t envision or comprehend this as an actual thing. For instance, where do the people fit in? The book of Revelation envisions God triumphant over evil and destruction, and God’s people at peace and in God’s presence. And this we can accept with great confidence.

Yet what the vision of the future is really saying is that we don’t know. As wonderful as heaven will be, what it will be is inconceivable. This passage points out things that won’t be needed—the sun and the moon, the great sources of light, for God will be the source of light and there will be no night. We will somehow be transformed, with no need of sleep or darkness. And there will be no need for a temple or a church or any other place of worship for God will be directly present to be all worship and comfort for all of existence.

Think about that for a minute.  If you take away that many reference points, we can’t really imagine anything at all—not as a concrete reality.

We really don’t know what the future holds. We shouldn’t confuse our imagination or our aspirations with knowing the future. Our faith assures us that God is here and will ultimately be even more present, with richness beyond all imagining. Our images of heaven, or the afterlife, or the end of this world are only metaphors for the love of God. Those who dredge through the text of the book of Revelation and claim to have discovered exact events that are going to happen are simply not reading the Bible faithfully.

We also do not know what the future holds for our country, our families, ourselves, or our church. Indeed, we plan, based on what we know about the present and likely patterns of things that will occur, like the sun coming up in the morning, and paying taxes on April 15. But with all the glorious and varied possibilities in this world, the things that we expect are going to happen, whether in national politics or here at Trinity church are guesses that almost certainly will need to be adjusted and often are totally wrong. When we build images of our future, we should be careful of which building blocks our imaginations use.

In today’s gospel this guy is lying by this pool in Bethesda where people are expecting to be healed if they can get into the water first, after some event happens that stirs up the water. Jesus asks him if he wants to be made well. The man’s response was not ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but an explanation that everybody was getting in before him. His imagination was that this was the one and only way to become well. Jesus told him to rise and he became well, even though he never got to the pool and even if those religious leaders who had their own prescribed solutions were angry because Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath. The ways in which we will be healed and share in the increasing abundance of God’s life happens despite the limitation of our imagination or our understanding.

When envisioning our future, it’s important to incorporate God’s love, and the human love and good things that are there to share.

Last week, a group of Trinity parishioners met with me to talk about a process of discernment that I have been trained in.  Over the next few months, they will organize an ongoing discernment process, including a special day when each of you will be invited to hear another person share their best experience of the love of God at Trinity and their wishes for the future, and for your best experience to be heard as well. But as I’ve been talking about in this sermon, really, can we know how God’s love will manifest itself among us ultimately? Like the Holy City of God, we cannot. And at times, we all feel discouraged, like the man lying by the pool where everyone else stepping over him and he couldn’t make it to the one place he thought he could get well.  We may even be tempted, like many in the wider church, to talk about a dying church, to speak using metaphors of death and decay.

But what did Jesus say to the man lying by the pool in Bethesda? “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” And he did.

A better image for this living congregation, right here at Trinity, might be as the Israelites traveling through the sea and the desert to a new place. Or perhaps, that inconceivable, indescribable holy city that our lesson from Revelation describes.

We can’t know the future of Trinity any more than we know which days it will rain two years from now. We can’t describe what decisions anyone might make, to be here or elsewhere, to give money here or to some other organization. We can’t say, exactly how we will encounter Jesus on the road. But what we do know is that God’s healing love is here—among you.  There may not be somebody to carry us over to the water, but Jesus is here to make us well. The future of God’s glory is greater than any of us can ask or imagine, and God’s glory is here, among us, in the Bronx.

 “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” … (Rev.21:22)

‘The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”

And let everyone who is thirsty come.

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.’ (Rev. 22:17)

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The Lamb at the Center of the Throne will be their Shepherd

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Five years ago, Paula and I went to Italy. In Ravenna we saw churches that were over 1500 years old whose walls were covered with beautiful mosaics. One of the most memorable is a depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, a young man with flowing hair, carrying a cross in his hand as a staff, surrounded by sheep, all looking to him for guidance and affection. It was quite moving, in part because it doesn’t look much like our modern, standard depictions of Jesus, and yet it is the same Jesus, our shepherd. The Good Shepherd was the most common image in early Christian art. There are even earlier examples than these mosaics from times when very few Christian artifacts were preserved. Early Christians recognized in Jesus, the characteristics that our psalm for today attributes to God:

He provides our needs; takes us to good places of nourishment and refreshment; guides us in the right paths; and when we are in danger and the presence of evil, he is with us comforting and protecting us; he welcomes us even when we are surrounded by trouble; he blesses us with goodness and mercy at all times.

The simple and steadfast goodness of Jesus was the day-to-day focus of the Christian community from its earliest days—just as it is now. In that mosaic, all six sheep have their heads turned in Jesus’ direction though they are in different parts of the picture, at different distances from him, and doing different things. Christ is their protector and guide in all things.

These images tell us something about God and about us, but they don’t limit God. If we turn to today’s reading from the Book of Revelation:

“A great multitude that no one could count, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…They will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd…”

Now, what we find is that God’s people are facing dramatic difficulties, just like we do today. But the peace and assurances of the 23rd Psalm are still in place as the passage in Revelations continues: “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Today on Mother’s Day, I realize how maternal that image is: God is a shepherd, but God is also our mother, holding the crying child, comforting her, and wiping away all those tears.  God nurtures us and sees to our growth into adulthood.

Of course, most us aren’t shepherds, and don’t know that much about shepherds work in real life. But most of us do know a bit about mothers. Some of us here, indeed, are mothers. And you know the challenge of that job: how it is difficult and never-ending, how sometimes it seems like you never get thanked. We can understand the depth and intimacy of God’s love for us by looking at the love of mothers, but it is a mistake to think that being a real mother or a good mother is at all like the infallible goodness of God, or of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who died on the cross for his flock. Every mother is a distinct human being, with strengths and with failings. Some give all they have and more, others act as mothers and nurturers for children that they have not borne and take on all the demands of the needs of children who have not yet grown into responsibility. Indeed, motherhood doesn’t end when kids reach eighteen or twenty-one years old. Ask my mom: she’s still dealing with kids who need to grow into adulthood sixty-five years later.

Not everyone has an idealized experience of their mother—some indeed suffer abuse, or inattention. Motherhood is a state that women are immersed in, ready or not—a frightening reality of nearly infinite responsibility. It is not in ideal performance that a person is a mother—it is in accepting and cherishing the life that enters into yours, it is in making do, aspiring to love as best you can, of looking for those children to thrive. Motherhood is possible only as grace, God’s merciful presence leading, healing, guiding into health and sustenance. No one manufactures perfect children, that’s not what it means to be a mother. No. It is living in God’s mercy with those little ones entrusted to you, offering their possibility and aspirations up to God. It is such a challenge to live for children that way, never knowing what turns their lives will take. We honor mothers today, not for efficient achievement, but for dwelling in the unpredictable community with kids who don’t realize what gifts they’ve been given, until so much time has passed.

Our human communities survive only through the grace of God. Our own inclinations and failings would break us apart, were it not for God’s continuing presence and comfort. The Lord is patient when our patience breaks down, the Lord is generous when we’re tired of giving, the Lord guides us to enough when we’re are at the end of our human abilities.

On this Mother’s Day, listen once again to the words of our Psalmist:

The Lord is my shepherd;

I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures

and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul

and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me,

you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

 

 

Feed my sheep

A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.

Today we have the stories of two resurrection appearances. The resurrected Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus. He also appears to Peter and six others on the beach of the lake of Tiberius, also known as the Sea of Galilee. One thing these stories share in common is that, at first, no one recognized Jesus.

The story that was read first is usually called the Conversion of St. Paul. Which is interesting because it’s not actually a conversion story. Paul was a devout Jew before this event and he remained a devout and observant Jew for the rest of his life. Paul himself describes what happened, not as a conversion, but as an appearance of the resurrected Lord. In his First Letter to the Corinthians he says this:

[Jesus] was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to 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 an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

In our lesson from Acts this morning, the form of the story is not so much that of a conversion. It’s more akin to the way prophets are called. Think of Moses and the Burning Bush. Or Isaiah in the Temple when the prophet responded: “Here am I Lord. Send me.”

So here are we are, on the road to Damascus. There’s a flash, overwhelming light, Saul falls from his donkey. And a voice says: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Saul’s response? “Who ARE you Lord?” Now, commentators have singled this passage out as a very strange thing. Saul knows he is being called—but he doesn’t know that Jesus is doing the calling. Put another way: he knows he is being called, but he does not see.

Why doesn’t he see Jesus? Well, there is that blinding flash from heaven, but I think the key is the very beginning of the lesson: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” Saul’s anger, his hatred, so overcame him—he was already not seeing—he was not seeing at whom he was angry, just the self-righteousness of his anger. And Jesus says to him, “Why do you persecute ME.” The ones that Saul persecuted were members of the church. He had nothing to do with Jesus’ persecution before his death, but what Jesus said to him was it didn’t matter. In persecuting the church, Saul was persecuting Jesus. Saul was blinded, and helpless and he was guided into the community that he had been persecuting for support and healing. And he was healed, and when he was able to see, he could see that in his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, he was called to proclaim him, even beyond his own Jewish nation and to bring the news of what God has done in Jesus to all the nations.

The other resurrection appearance is the last chapter of the Gospel of John.  Some time after the first resurrection appearances of Jesus, seven of Jesus’ long-time disciples are back in Galilee, at that lake where Jesus had first called them away from their jobs as fishermen. And Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” We don’t know why they were there or what they were doing, but I think they were discouraged and lost. They didn’t know what to do—so they just defaulted back to their old ways. What happened next was that these professional fishermen were out in the dark and couldn’t find any fish, despite their skill and years of experience.

Jesus appears on the beach, but in their discouragement and confusion they don’t recognize him. Jesus asks them about their catch, and gives them a little advice. All of a sudden, their net is filled and Peter recognizes Jesus—and then Peter puts on his clothes and goes in for a swim—go figure. On the beach, there’s a charcoal fire, not unlike the charcoal fire that was in the High Priest’s courtyard, where the slaves and soldiers were warming themselves when Peter denied Jesus. And Jesus is barbecuing fish.

For me, this scene always brings back a wonderful memory from my childhood. I was fishing with my family off the Oregon coast early one summer morning. As dawn broke, we all caught our limit and we drove back to my uncle’s house in Portland, where we barbecued our catch. There is nothing quite like Pacific salmon caught just a few hours ago cooked over coals. That’s how I imagine the disciples responded to this wonderful breakfast after their long night at sea. But as to Jesus? They sort of recognized him and they sort of didn’t. The Gospel says: “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”

Why aren’t the disciples seeing Jesus? Because they had yet to give up their despair and confusion, just like Saul needed to surrender his anger and hate. They needed to change.

Jesus then talks with Peter. This, in a particular way, is the call of Peter: First Jesus focused Peter on his love, then–“Feed my sheep. Amen. Amen. When you were younger, you could go where you chose, but when you are older, others will lead you, even where you don’t want to go.” Peter is responsible for loving Jesus in his body, the church—and the consequences of that love are much like they were for Jesus. Peter is called to lead those sheep into the love of Jesus—to love as Jesus loved us, courageously, generously, compassionately.

When Peter and Paul finally see the risen Lord, they are changed. But they aren’t changed in who they are in their essential beings. The change is that they are called to serve; to reach out; to proclaim the life of the risen Christ in a world where there is too much death, hate, anger and fear. Christ comes to us as we are, however that may be. He calls Christians out of their fear, or anger, or confusion, or complacency. Jesus gives his life, so that we may give. He appears to us to call us forward to be transformed to tend and to heal one another.

From our psalm today:

You have turned my wailing into dancing;

you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.

Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;

O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.