Month: June 2019

Do you want us to Command Fire to come down from Heaven?

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 30, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?

James and John were pretty typical church members. They had an assignment, and the people they were assigned to work with wouldn’t go along, so they got mad and decided to burn the whole place down.

Unfortunately, church people often act just like the secular world acts – they try to use power to force people to do what they want. We see this all the time. People take a sentence or two from Jesus or scripture, and they try to force others to do their will, the same way people with wealth and power think they can get everyone to do what they want, because they want it.

Of course, in James’ and Johns’ case, they thought they were going to accomplish all this with miracles, holy power and fire from heaven.

And what was Jesus’ reaction?

“But Jesus turned and rebuked them.”

Jesus is about something different than power and wealth, influence and coercion. He’s certainly not about burning down the villages of people who don’t accept him.

But what is Jesus about in this gospel lesson then? Let’s look at how it begins. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

What a simple sentence, but how much it contains.

We need a little back story to understand what is going on here. This is not long after the Transfiguration, when the disciples saw Jesus shining in glory on top of the mountain with Moses and Elijah, and heard the voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”  And what Jesus said, that the disciples should have listened to was the following: “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” Like Elijah, like the other prophets, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, to pronounce the word of God against human sinfulness and exploitation, and to be handed over to those very sinners. In our Gospel passage today, Jesus crucifixion is described as his “being taken up” just as Elijah and Moses had been taken up into heaven. Jesus and his disciples are on the road to Jerusalem—to announce the Gospel, to live the Gospel of freedom in God. As St. Paul says to the Galatians this morning, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore and do not submit to the yoke of slavery.” St. Paul contrasts the freedom of the gospel with the inclination of the world, to “bite and devour” one another and he warns Christians against falling into these things among themselves.

We follow Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, the way to our freedom. And on that way, the realities of this world, seeking to devour, debilitate, and destroy God’s people are on display. Following Jesus is real. And by real, I mean: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus is one of the homeless, not of those who are secure in fine houses. If any of us suffers hardship, Jesus has also faced that; he has sympathy with that suffering. He has set his face toward Jerusalem, that we might have freedom from the suffering that is inflicted by the forces of this world, yet to follow him means to face those things with him. It is not easy and saying we’re his followers as a way to show off, just won’t cut it.

They all gathered around him, “I’ll follow you … but” … and all of the explanations and good excuses and procrastination follows. You know how it works, I certainly do—there is something important that you have to get done, but it will require work, concentration or dedication—like maybe, writing a sermon, for instance—why is it that just before you sit down to get to the job, all the important things that you haven’t done for the past six months come up? Cleaning out the corners of your house? Doing that repair job you were asked to do ages ago? Following Jesus is one of those things that we find ways to avoid, telling ourselves all the excuses in the world.

The powers of this world do not want to hear from Jesus that they should regard the well-being of the little ones and the oppressed of this world to take precedence over their power, wealth and comfort.  It is easy enough to see that these past couple of weeks. There is no reason to hold hundreds of children—Babies!—in detention facilities near our southern border. There is no reason that they be held in conditions that are worse even than prisoners in Rikers Island are held—and that’s a shame for our society, too. Yet what do we get from those in power? From our government? From those who call themselves “Christians” but use that word only to support everything that a party in power does so that they can have influence? Evasion, rationalization, fear-mongering based on untruths and the inclination of people to think the worst of people of a different color, or from a different country, or who speak a different language. They would rather burn it all down including all those children, than take the risk of freedom, of giving away power, of actually following Jesus.

Jesus knew that this would happen. He knew that it would happen to him. But in his love, he reached out to us, to invite us to follow with him, so that we can be free, so that we can live generously, so that we can live as God wants: living for one another, with one another without selfishness or manipulation.

This week is our big national holiday. The fourth of July is associated with patriotism. But people often forget what that means. We are not a military state, that has never been the identity of the United States. The fourth of July is INDEPENDENCE DAY – it is a celebration of peace and freedom for everyone, no matter who they are. It is not a celebration of power or domination—to assert that is the most unpatriotic thing that can be said in America. We celebrate freedom for each and every person, young and old, of every race and religion—of those who have little and those who have been fortunate that they may share with others.

Paul says: “The works of the flesh are obvious: …idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions… those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Who does inherit the Kingdom? He continues, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.”

We shouldn’t fool ourselves, it is costly to live in that way, the manipulations of those forces of selfishness work always to undermine lives of generosity as the forces of brutality seek to undermine patriotism.

The Gospel lessons for the coming months will be the teachings of Jesus as he and his disciples make their journey to Jerusalem. It is a profound journey and we are invited to also be his disciples. We are on this journey and Jesus tells us, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Let us pray:

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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O Lord our Governor, How Exalted is your Name in all the world!

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world!

Today is Trinity Sunday. This is the Feast Day of the name of this parish, its patronal festival, if you will. But the Trinity is not a traditional patron saint, the Trinity is the Christian understanding of the nature of God.  As our psalm today says, God is to be exalted in all the world, it is the majestic God that created all things that protects us and cares for us, that leads us into all truth. When Christians talk about that God, we talk about the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity is the faith of Israel: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is one God, and only the one true God is worthy of worship. This has always been the Christian affirmation—we worship the one God, the God of truth. The ancient world had a marketplace of Gods. You could take your pick of the ones that were around, negotiate for the best deal you could get, find the most advantageous terms. But Israel rejected all that for the one true God, the God of Truth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who would hold them responsible for lives of faithfulness and compassion. “You shall have no other gods before me.” This has been the essential teaching of the Christian church at all times, from the very beginning to the present.  But as we Christians describe God, we must describe our experience of Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One, and the Holy Spirit enlivening and guiding the church.

This can sound all very high falutin’ and metaphysical, but what I am trying to put forward here is a humble doctrine of the Trinity. It’s not that we are somehow better because of the Trinity—that our belief automatically means that we are free from all the inclinations to be unjust that the prophets spoke against, or mistakes in how we describe or follow religious truth. What it means is that we are humbly, before God, confessing Christ.

There is one God, the God of truth and justice. You shall not bow down to idols or make up other kinds of supernatural justifications for what you want. Indeed, affirming God the Holy Trinity puts to the lie the many representations of Christianity that use Bible verses and assertions of religious traditions to rationalize hate and cruelty and limiting God’s love to those who have someone’s stamp of approval.

Christians have always affirmed that there is one god, the True God, who was from the beginning, before all things. But Christians also know God in the person of Jesus the Christ, who lived among us as the truth. The distinction between Jesus and every other human being is not some magical potion. Jesus was God’s love for us, walking among us, living as a man from God’s point of view—that is, a life lived entirely for the good of others. This was not just the appearance of God walking on earth, but God whose love made him as close to us and as vulnerable as any human being. He lived in love and healed the sick, and the sinfulness and selfishness of human beings caused him to be killed.

The doctrine of the Trinity is how we Christians try to make sense of our experience of the God of Truth, so distant and so close, so powerful and so vulnerable. We teach and we believe that the God of Love has come among us and that God’s love among us is the Holy Spirit.

But what does that mean? The Holy Spirit is understood and misunderstood in many ways by many people, Christian and otherwise. And even those who claim direct experience of the Holy Spirit—surely most of them have some experience—but how do we know it is the Holy Spirit? What does Jesus say? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” … “and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” The description of the Holy Spirit is about the love of God.

And it has to do with following Jesus commandments—but what are they?  At the Last Supper, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he gave them a commandment.  In fact, it is his only commandment in the Gospel of John: “Love one another as I have loved you.” Period. That’s it. Easy enough. Of course, the way that Jesus loved his disciples and this world was costly indeed—that evening he was led away to be tried and executed. We are invited, commanded really, to become part of God’s love by loving God’s children, in the most costly way, by giving of ourselves.

Love is not grandstanding, it is seeking the good of someone. You don’t have to die to do that, and no one has to know what caring for another person might cost you. Love is not how we feel, it is helping another, it is being called to stand along with them. Perhaps we do feel good when we do that, but the feeling is not the love, not this kind of love. Today is Father’s Day, and when I think of my own father’s love, I think of his helping me, his teaching, his being there to protect me and encourage me—not really anything about the expression of feelings, just love in acts, that’s what ultimately counts.

The Holy Spirit is God’s love. Simple as that: God standing with us, upholding us when we don’t know how to stand, for ourselves or for someone else. The Holy Spirit supports us and holds us together. But the Spirit doesn’t just hold us together, otherwise the church would have ended with those first disciples holding one another together.  The Spirit is here among us, to reach out, beyond our comfortable confines, to convey God’s love, and our own respect to others, the many people around who need a little more respect and care, in this time in our country when those things are so scarce. As Trinity Church discerns God’s course for us over the next few months, we will discover more concretely how this church is challenged to do that.

The Holy Trinity upholds us, binds us, comforts us and leads us into the truth of God’s compassionate life in Jesus Christ.

Let us pray:

Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.

You have set up a stronghold against your adversaries, to quell the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,

What is man that you should be mindful of him? the son of man that you should seek him out?

You have made him but little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor;

All sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.

 

O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your name in all the world!

Into the Land of Promise

A sermon for Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Today is the feast of Pentecost when the church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is also the day when Paislee Eliza Scott is being baptized into Christ. One version of the Pentecost story is our lesson from the book of Acts. The Spirit alights on the apostles like tongues of fire and they are understood by everyone in their own languages, while the apostles preach the Gospel.  But the coming of the Holy Spirit is not just about a dramatic public event of evangelism. The Holy Spirit has always been regarded by the church as the presence of God, enlivening and guiding it. But we are like Philip—we can’t see it, even when it is standing there staring us in the face: “Lord, show us the Father.” “How long have you been with me Philip, and you still cannot see me?” Jesus answered him. “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

This is the reason that Pentecost is one of the chief days to baptize new Christians. Paislee receives the spirit of truth in baptism, she encounters Jesus in the washing of water and in encountering Christ’s love in the church. That is in you, as Christ abides in you. It is not just her parents and godparents and grandparents who promise to raise her up in the Christian faith and life, it is all of us who take that responsibility.

This is the promise and the reality of Jesus to us, to all of us. But there is no cause to be complacent about that, or to pat ourselves on the back, or to think that God abiding in us makes us or our decisions better than anyone else’s. The World, pre-occupied in serving self, cannot receive the Spirit because it does not see or know him—too often the Church paradoxically becomes that World, pre-occupied with fears and schemes, rather than the courage and love of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the Spirit does guide us, in our weakness and our blindness.

St. Paul says this, just a few verses later in his letter to the Romans following our epistle lesson for today: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Holy Spirit is not something superficial, nor is it something emotional; rather it is the power of God among us, between us and within each of us, guiding and healing us in his love.

The passage appointed from this same chapter today starts: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” In the Roman Empire everyone was very familiar with slavery and with adoption. The economy of the empire was based on slavery, from the lowest and harshest of menial labor in the mines to very high functionaries in the households of the wealthiest aristocrats.

Wealth and comfort for the owners proceeded from the work of the slaves, yet they counted as nothing, they were regarded as invisible and of little or no worth. Any slave could be beaten or even killed, without the master having to even explain. Many early Christians were slaves and a substantial number of other Christians at the same time were owners of slaves. Everyone intimately understood the fear that dominated the lives of the slaves. Jesus, described himself as a slave to all—a most extraordinarily radical thing. Equally radical was that the church asserted that they followed this man, and honored him as God.

Adoption was also common in the Roman Empire, though not nearly as many people were adopted as were slaves. Many Roman emperors were the adopted sons of the previous emperor. If a man of wealth and property did not have a son who he judged satisfactory to be his heir, he would choose someone to adopt as his son.  Today, wealth is more often handled through corporations that have complicated succession plans. In the Roman Empire being adopted was a typical succession plan—those who were adopted achieved higher status and security than they had previously.

So St. Paul says, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Holy Spirit, which the church receives on Pentecost takes us out of fear and slavery through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. As we baptize Paislee, she is adopted into Christ—no one can take her into slavery, she is God’s child. And not only that, every one of us is now adopted, not by a wealthy landowner, or by a Roman Emperor, but by the God who created heaven and earth. When we boldly and audaciously sing, “Our Father…” at the breaking of the bread, that Holy Spirit is bearing witness “with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” as St. Paul says. And he continues, “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Suffering is indeed real, we can expect it, and the Holy Spirit enables us to face it squarely–without fear.

Paislee enters life without fear, she receives the Holy Spirit to join us without fear, we are emboldened by that same spirit to receive her and give her life in Christ, unafraid and filled with God’s blessing.

Listen to a portion of the blessing that we will do over the water of baptism in a few minutes:

We thank you Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

They are in the World and I am Coming to You

A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, June 2, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Do not leave us comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us.

Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. Paula and I went to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square for their solemn high mass celebrating the feast. Our friend David Hurd played Olivier Messiaen’s l’Ascension suite—his extended meditation on Christ’s Ascension. The music was beautiful and uplifting, and it reminded me of some of the themes of this time in the church calendar before we reach the end of Eastertide next Sunday as we celebrate Pentecost.

If we are quite literal about following the story from lectionary and the book of Acts tell, what we come up with is the following: Jesus finished his time teaching his disciples after the Resurrection and then, this past Thursday, he rose into heaven. Then there was this period of time before the Holy Spirit descended on the Feast of Pentecost, and we’re now right in the middle of that time. Jesus is up there – somewhere – and we’re just here waiting for the Spirit to come down.

But I’m not at all sure that we should be that literal about our worship calendar or the chronology in the Book of Acts. After all, in the Gospel of John, Jesus didn’t wait around to give the Holy Spirit to the disciples: He gave it to them in the upper room, the first time all his disciples got to see him after the crucifixion. (He appeared to Mary Magdalen earlier, but this was the first time he appeared to them all.)

We all have times when we feel bereft and comfortless, not knowing where the Spirit is, or what will happen next.  The final movement of Messiaen’s suite on the Ascension is a meditation on a text that comes from the same prayer of Jesus that is our Gospel lesson today: “I have made your name know to those whom you gave me from the world … And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” Jesus ascended to the Father because he had been with his disciples, he had loved them and shown them the truth about God—the way to God. God raised Jesus from the dead, and then Jesus spent time showing his disciples how to live in the resurrection. They knew all they were going to know, and God was glorified and God’s Son ascended into heaven.

The story from the book of Acts this morning is complicated and long—an eight-hour sermon might only get us to the midpoint—but looking at these adventures of Paul and Silas illustrate a bit of how it is that we live in the Resurrection of Jesus.  This is their first visit to Europe—up until then, Paul had only been in Asia. They are strangers in this European city and there are these religious charlatans, exploiting a slave girl who tells fortunes. As I read it, she’s taunting Paul and Silas, making fun of them and trying to drive them away. Her bosses want the attention on her, they want the money that comes in when she gets all the attention. We get to see a bit of Paul’s character as he gets annoyed and drives out the spirit and disrupts her show. The slave owners start making anti-Semitic accusations, getting the crowd enraged, and finding a magistrate they knew to imprison the apostles. From the point of view of this world, Paul and Silas were bereft, abandoned, even defeated. But in the context of the resurrection of Jesus, Paul and Silas viewed this experience, as well as all other experiences, as an opportunity to glorify God—in the midst of this tremendous difficulty, they knew the goodness of God. How do we know this? Because it says: They sang hymns and psalms in the prison.  And when the earthquake came—this tremendous earthquake that opened the doors and broke off the chains that were holding them—anyone would expect prisoners to run away, wouldn’t they? But that’s not what happened. Because Paul had compassion on the jailer, who was afraid he would be punished if the prisoners escaped. “But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’” And it was more than his compassion – Paul also had the courage to show the jailer the way to true life, life in the Resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus came among us, that we might live abundantly and that we might give to others, just as he gave to his first disciples. He was in the world, but now it is we that are in the world. Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, that they all may be one.”  That’s an amazing thing, Jesus has ascended and blesses his people through us, as we share his word of compassion, of healing, of caring. Jesus’ disciples, not least of which are those who are here right now, are the essential and vital part of Jesus’ life in this world right now. God is glorified in us, in this world, living Christ’s love with the courage to be for others, even in hard times.

Here at Trinity Church we know that Jesus has called us. He has called us to be in this place, to be Jesus’ ambassadors right here. That’s not necessarily the most convenient thing, or the best-paying job. But Trinity is far more beautiful than that jail in Philippi where Paul was, and there are plenty of wonderful people to bless, all around us.

“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”