Month: August 2019

Yesterday and Today and Forever

A sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, September 1, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

That sentence is the culmination of the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is deep assurance of God’s steadfastness in love for us—that the Jesus we know doesn’t change, he can be relied upon to be there for us, if we are but ready to understand him as he is. But what is going on in our reading for today?

Hebrews is an anonymous discourse, written in the first century.  Of all the writings of the New Testament, its writing is the most literary and polished.  The more polished a piece of writing is, the more difficult it is to convey in translation, because every word is carefully chosen to fit together with the words around it. I realized this when I looked at the Greek to see what word was translated as “mutual love” in the first sentence: “Let mutual love continue.” There is nothing wrong with the translation that we have—it translates the words and sentences accurately.  But on first reading, it can appear that it’s just a list of good things to remember, not particularly connected with one another. But in Greek, these exhortations are tied together by related words that show us the progressive logic of the Christian life of love.

Let me render this in awkward English to illustrate: “Let brotherly/sisterly love continue, but don’t neglect love of strangers, for hidden in that, some have entertained angels. And remember the prisoners, as though suffering the mistreatment they receive along with them in your own bodies. (And speaking of being in one shared body) keep the marriage bed undefiled. Be not-silver-lovers but be content with what you have.”

This passage weaves together the different kinds of love and not-love that make up the everyday Christian life and experience. It starts with the familiar: the everyday experience of love of the sisters and brothers who we know well and care for. This kind of love isn’t less than other kinds—it’s pretty much the foundation.

But what’s being emphasized is that Christian love doesn’t stop there. Christian love isn’t just for insiders. Even more important is the love of strangers, which is what that word “hospitality” really means—the stranger. Not the ones we know and have social obligations and relations with, but the wanderer on the road, the one we will never see again. By illustration the text alludes to Abraham, who received his greatest blessing—that is to say, the promise of his son and a legacy of a great nation—he received that blessing by stopping and welcoming three strangers on the road on a hot summer’s day.

But it is not just the strangers who we may encounter, but also those who are locked away and out of sight. This could refer to Christians, who like St. Paul found themselves imprisoned because their witness to the Gospel challenged those in power, so that they seized people and locked them up. Or it might recognize that people were seized for arbitrary reasons and held in terrible conditions unless they had the wealth or influence to gain release. That was in the Roman Empire – but it still happens today – for example to people whose immigration papers don’t convince the authorities, even to children in the hospital for cancer treatment. These distant people who we can’t see; we are one with them as well, as if we are one body with them as we are with Christ.

Next, there’s the reference to a shared experience in the body, the text circles back from the most distant and invisible of relationships, to the most intimate and familial— “Let the marriage bed be held in honor by all.” All this love of brothers and sisters and strangers and far-away prisoners does not reduce one’s obligation to those closest or change those obligations. No other kind of love exempts us from the basics of cherishing those in our own household and maintaining the integrity of those relationships. After this exhortation is another word that contains “love,” but in this case it has the prefix that means “not”—literally, a “not-lover of silver,” is what the readers are exhorted to be. The opposite of being one in flesh with another is to focus your love, your life and your future on dead metal, on cash.  Chasing money will not take care of insecurity or of anxiety about it.

This is a simple summary of the Christian life, but Hebrews continues: “God has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” So, when this text says, “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today and forever,” it is this simple Christian life of love that it is referring to, living in generosity, with care for others, near and far, and with responsibility to one another, not looking for shortcuts through greed or self-indulgence.

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus has occasion to observe some people in a situation that they probably thought was hospitality. But rather than love of stranger, or even brotherly love, the gathering was quite the opposite: everyone was jockeying for power and prestige, looking for the best seats, seats that would indicate their proximity to power and that would command high regard. And the host was a big part of this—the guest list was compiled with an eye to enhancing his prestige in the community and perhaps even his wealth. Lives more akin to silver-lovers than stranger-brother-sister-lovers. And Jesus—who is the same, yesterday, today and forever—gives them advice: “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed.”

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Stood up straight

A sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“She stood up straight and began praising God.”

When I rejoined you at Trinity earlier this year, I met with the vestry and we agreed that I would function here, as I did at previous parishes in California and New Jersey, as your Interim Priest. What does that word “interim” mean?  I’ve been a priest for a long time, and expect to continue as one, pretty much permanently, so it’s not my being a priest that is interim. And Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania has been a church for quite a while, and will continue as a vital congregation in the Body of Christ, long after I have left, so Trinity is not an interim church. We are in a somewhat extended period between the last period when there was a settled priest living in the rectory, and the next era, when we expect to have consistent clergy leadership and a vision and plans for Trinity’s ministry in place. Together, we are in an interim season; a season of growth and discernment.  The job of a priest in an interim time is to help guide the congregation into the best possible spiritual state, so that all the decisions of the congregation will be to choose the best possible blessing that God has in store.

But before we talk about the possibilities for the work that God has put us here to do, let’s turn to our Gospel lesson.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in a congregation, teaching. In that congregation is a woman who has been crippled, bent over and suffering, for eighteen years. Let’s pay particular attention to the text here. When we moderns see a description of a person who is suffering, we usually think of specific physical problems that we hope can be addressed by the wonders of modern medical science. But what the text in the Gospel says is that the woman had a spirit that had crippled her. Injuries or disease are not actually mentioned. In the Gospels, Jesus heals and casts out spirits as often as he teaches—perhaps more often. What are these spirits? They are not the horror movie creatures we think of, or the stuff of superstition. Spirits are not material—but they are very real. They are woven into our life to the point that we don’t even notice them.

God’s love is simple and God does not create malign spirits. Human love likewise should be simple, but human fear, hate, greed and many other manifestations of our lesser selves distort relationships. And it’s not just individuals—it’s the whole of communities and societies. Over time all of the negative things weave together and generate spirits.  Since so many people’s fears and desires are involved, these spirits are beyond the control of any single person, rather, they influence people and groups in ways that the individuals themselves usually don’t understand.

And we can see that in this Gospel story. Jesus calls the woman over, lays his hands on her, and she stands up straight and begins to praise God. God healed her, the spirit that weighed her down was gone. But right away, the manifestation of the spirit shows up again. A leader of the congregation is very upset at Jesus for healing this woman.  His reasons were actually bogus because pronouncing God’s blessing and touching another person are not prohibited on the Sabbath. But the man’s anger was real, and the argument was intense.

What’s happening here?

Psychologists and therapists use systems theory to talk about similar things that they see. Frequently, when a member of a family who has been ill or troubled in some way becomes well, someone else in the family becomes ill or begins to behave in inappropriate ways. The spirit that may manifest itself in an individual seeks to maintain itself, and it affects the other people who are involved with the person who has undergone a change.

This woman stands up straight and is healthy. And the leader attacks Jesus—making this woman well changes things, this man’s comfort and control of the situation, perhaps his prestige—are all destabilized, all called into question. He probably thought he was just enforcing the rules. But it was his fears, and the fearfulness of the entire community—going back at least eighteen years—that were speaking. It was definitely not the love of the God who had blessed Abraham and guided Moses through the wilderness.

How does Jesus respond to the man’s fear and anger? He doesn’t criticize those fears, and accuse those affected by the spirit, or try to diagnose them and tell them what they should do; he healed the woman and helped her to stand upright. He explains the law, in terms of the love of God. Everyone will lead their animals to life-giving water on the Sabbath, as Jesus led this woman to abundant life. It takes courage to be healed, and it also takes courage for a community to live with healing within it.

Spirits don’t quickly disappear, it takes honesty and acceptance, the courage perhaps to accept changes in one’s own position, to rejoice that others are loved and healed. Jesus came to heal us all—he paid the price for healing our spirits—and he rejoices with us, with that woman who stood up straight and with every healing of a person, or a relationship, or a community, or a world.

Trinity is a congregation of great courage, love and hope. I have seen this congregation face great hardship with great dignity and compassion. Our children are deeply loved and blessed and this neighborhood knows us for generosity and welcome. Every month our thrift store reaches out to the neighborhood—it provides some revenue, but more importantly, what I have seen is how our neighbors are helped—by getting clothing and other items that that they need—but also by receiving gifts of respect and neighborliness that helps to build up a community that has had more than its share of being torn down and disrespected. Our new fellows are just arriving. They are a big part of our ministry of respect in this neighborhood, as they learn and experience by serving in this city. Trinity is a blessing in this city. It has been a blessing for me and for my wife Paula.

Trinity is a blessing, but Trinity will continue to be blessed by God. Together we will discover that blessing.

As we follow Jesus together, there will be healing and change—perhaps mild, and not as dramatic as the story in the Gospel today—or perhaps unexpected and surprising. But Jesus will heal our spirits. This is how the Gospel lesson today ends: “The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

Let us pray, once again the collect for today:

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky

A sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 18, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Today’s Gospel lesson continues directly after the passage we heard last week. Last week, Jesus says, “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Now he is criticizing people who don’t know how to interpret the present time. So which is it? Isn’t this contradictory? On the one hand we can’t know or predict and on the other we are supposed to know how to interpret the present time. Let’s look a little closer.

In both passages, Jesus is telling us to pay attention, to be vigilant. In the first, Jesus is calling out people’s tendency to be smug and complacent—people love to use their piety and assumptions about God to lay out expectations about what God will do, to get way out beyond any evidence and take their ease in being self-satisfied, because, “Hey, nothing’s going to happen to me. I’m good, no reason to be concerned about all this stuff happening to other people, God will take care of it.” Jesus is having none of this – we are called to discipleship, not self-satisfaction. The salvation that he brings is for the healing of the world, not for individuals to just wallow in their own privileged and comfortable role as “the saved.”

So Jesus continues to call for vigilance. Human beings can see things in the world. Long before weather satellites and Doppler radar, people paid attention to what was happening with the weather. It was always important to know when to take cover from an impending storm, or when to get ready to plow a field on a good day with calm and dry weather. Our advanced technology measures things accurately and records lots more information than an individual can see, so we read about the weather or watch the forecast on TV and we know pretty well what weather is coming. But people in earlier times were sensitive to what was going on, they needed to pay attention to things like the direction of the wind, the color of the sunset, the smell of the air. So when Jesus mentions a cloud rising in the west, or a south wind blowing, people knew what he was talking about, because that’s what they did. They noticed these things all the time and understood what they meant.

Jesus is using this to point out that we can see what is going on in the world, if we only pay attention, if we are vigilant and attentive.  Yet, how many manage to not see the things that are before their eyes. Our psalm for today says,

How long will you judge unjustly,

and show favor to the wicked?

Save the weak and the orphan;

defend the humble and needy;

Rescue the weak and the poor;

deliver them from the power of the wicked.

They do not know, neither do they understand;

they go about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

Our government and so many of its supporters go about in darkness, judging unjustly, separating children from their parents and putting them in terrible conditions, doing everything they can to favor the rich over the poor—somehow not seeing what is happening, somehow believing that oppression is freedom, somehow thinking that it is Christian to favor the powerful and rich at the expense of the humble and needy.  Jesus says you can see the rainclouds, you can feel the south wind, or the red sunset: Why can’t you see what is happening in this world?

People are blind to what they don’t want to see. People find rationalizations to explain away the truth when they are more comfortable by not acknowledging it. The head of immigration services for our national government went on TV a few days ago and said that the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty was only about welcoming European immigrants who could take care of themselves. That is clearly not what that poem by Emma Lazarus, descended from a South American Jewish family, was intended to signify. It was never the case that the bulk of the immigrants from any country came in with resources and jobs that made them totally independent from the outset. Yet it is true that this man and many who agree with him cannot see the truth about our times or about themselves. Most truly don’t see how self-interested and deluded they are. Those who most benefit and most support white supremacism in our country are the ones who most vehemently deny its existence—they really don’t see it, they really don’t understand its malignance and its danger to our country. That is the real danger.

It takes courage to look at the present time, to see it, to stand up for truth. Standing in Jesus’ love, being his compassion, is not a passive or a convenient thing. Being Christ’s Body isn’t some simple program. Because it involves being Christ’s Body all the time, in all parts of our life, seeing the truth that is before us. In the Gospel, Jesus says,

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.

It is not about starting fights, or violence—it’s about seeing the truth and living the truth in a world in which so many cleave to darkness, rather than be illuminated by the compassion of Christ and see the truth that is before their eyes.

Many of you know that my mother died last Thursday. She had been a shut in for a long time, but enjoyed the opportunity to read tons of books. However, about a month ago she became very ill and couldn’t move in bed. I spoke with her on Wednesday and mercifully she died in her sleep overnight. She was prepared for this life to end. When I was young, I talked with my mom a lot. She was very thoughtful and she saw many things that others ignored, particularly out in that cow country where the prosperous ranchers often distorted politics to their own advantage. It was in those long conversations with mom that I was first able to look beyond myself and think critically, to know God and also to be skeptical of some of the things that happen in the church—to see the reality in front of me and to interpret the present time.

Please turn to page 499 in the Book of Common prayer and join with me in prayer for Bernice Kadel:

Give rest, O Christ to your servant with your saints,

where sorrow and pain are no more,

neither sighing, but life everlasting.

You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Give rest, O Christ to your servant with your saints,

where sorrow and pain are no more,

neither sighing, but life everlasting.

The assurance of things not yet seen

A sermon for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 11, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This verse is very well known and it’s often treated as a philosophical definition of faith. But our reading from Hebrews isn’t a philosophical treatise—it speaks of people of faith and how God provided for them amidst great challenges.

This past Wednesday, I was driving over to the church for a meeting with Paula and Jennifer about some matters that relate to the financial challenges that Trinity faces. And I was listening to the radio as I was driving through the Bronx in that rainstorm we had that afternoon, and a story came on about the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. The reporter was talking to a woman who had lost a family member in that shooting. She had said she was a woman of faith and the reporter asked her: “Does this shake your faith?” I wish I could quote the woman’s response exactly—because it so clearly summed up what it means to be a person of faith in such a difficult time. But I was driving in the rain, so I couldn’t take notes. As I remember, she said she couldn’t really say where God was in all this, or what was happening. She didn’t think that God wanted her loved one to die like this. Her faith is that God loves her and those people who were killed. But right now, she doesn’t know what to do or think.

What she said was something like that—very real, not tied up into a neat package with a pretty theological bow, but still knowing the essential of faith, that God is love, even when we don’t feel it.

The thing is, our faith in God is our life; and when our life is shaken, our faith IS shaken. I can easily believe that that woman felt very shaky, probably still does. And I wouldn’t blame her a bit if she was afraid and anxious. That is how you feel when your life is shaken.

If we pay attention to scripture, it is at precisely such times that God acts for God’s people, even though they don’t see it, don’t feel it, don’t understand it, don’t believe it. Our Old Testament lesson and our Epistle tell the story of Abraham, who at ninety years old was childless and without an heir. His wife Sarah was about the same age and had always been barren. God sent him out to look at the stars. Remember, this is long before the electric illumination of our big cities made the stars seem so much fewer. A couple of weeks ago, when we were visiting my mother and staying at my sister’s house in central Oregon, we went out at night and looked at the moonless night sky. The sky was so vast and dark, filled with all sorts of stars, even shooting stars. The Milky Way was fully visible. A couple of dozen people might be able to divide up the sky and make some kind of count of the stars you see from New York city. But out there in the mountains, the stars are literally uncountable. And that is what God says to Abraham: “Count the stars, if you are able to count them—So shall your descendants be.” God’s promise and the hope of Abraham came before there was any way that it seemed feasible—there was no plan, there was nothing you could see, except, perhaps, the stars.

Hope is not just anything you happen to wish for.  It is certainly not arrogantly thinking that God will give you the specific things you have decided you need to carry out some plan you have come up with. Hope is far more flexible than that. Hope is about living in God’s love.  And sometimes … that life is shaken, sometimes our faith is shaken, and sometimes that means that our hope appears to have been shaken as well. But that’s just it. Our faith is assurance of things hoped for—things NOT SEEN. Like that woman I heard on the radio who could not see what God was doing, we wait in faith for God’s action, for the fulfillment of God’s promise.

But what is God’s promise? Is it comfort? Or wealth? Or well-being?  Despite what you can hear if you turn into just the right TV broadcast, none of those things is promised by God. God’s promise is God’s love: God’s love for us and a life in which we are formed into being God’s love. That promise will be fulfilled—it is being fulfilled here each day—but the things that happen along the way? The things we like to call the results of our plans? Those things are not what God has promised. God has promised to make us his people, what more can we ask than that?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The promise is glorious, but our life of faith is in the real world, not some fantasy world of easy prosperity.  Though we do not know what God’s future holds for us, Jesus nevertheless tells us to be prepared. To take action, live lives of generosity, giving to those who are in need, keeping our lamps lit, looking for the signs of where God is leading us, ready to serve God at any turn—even in our most unlikely or off-putting neighbor. We don’t always experience this life of generosity and discipleship as the kingdom, because it’s often hard work and sometimes disappointing, but living as God’s love in expectation of the kingdom is how we see God’s future for us.

Trinity Church has many challenges. How we respond to them will be part of how God shapes the future. I do not know what will happen, God seldom delivers according to OUR specifications. I do know that we will have life together, share faith together, and live as God’s generous and loving people together.  Do not be afraid, or at least if you are, know that God will keep you safe anyway. In particular do not be afraid of living generously and of shaping our life together in ways that benefit those who aren’t part of the present community within these four walls. We are not here for ourselves, we are here as ambassadors of God’s love.

“If he comes in the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those servants. But know this, if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

You fool!

A sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, August 4, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.

To me, one of the most ominous things about the parable that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel, is that it makes no sense in twenty-first century American culture. Basically the story is that the guy’s business is doing really well, so he decides to invest in improved facilities, expand his operation and put away something for the future.

So what is Jesus getting at? This is the prescribed course for success that you would get anywhere, from self-help books to financial advice columns or tomes by Nobel Prize winning economists. What this guy does embodies the values of contemporary American culture.

So I guess Jesus is calling us all fools. No wonder most people don’t come to church anymore. But why does he say it? And why do we miss his point? Let’s look at the story, what’s in it? There are crops, an abundance of crops, barns, business planning, success. The man even has a soul, you know because he talks to it: “Soul, you have ample goods…relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Pretty much the American Dream, complete. What’s not in this story?

There is nobody else in the story.

No one.

Just the rich man and his thoughts for his own security and comfort.

In recent decades, Americans have increasingly moved toward admiring people simply for the sake of achieving wealth and comfort; perhaps because we aspire for the same for ourselves. But these are non-Christian values. It’s not that comfort or planning or even wealth are bad, but what do we value, what are our priorities, what do we seek after in our lives? First, the better question not what, but who do we value. God’s people are all around us, each with a need for kindness, compassion, generosity. The Kingdom of God is not made up of isolated individuals, each with her own castle. Rather it is the Body of Christ where each interrelated member is generous to the others and thrives through the hospitality of the whole Body.

Today’s reading from Colossians emphasizes this: “…you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourself with the new self — which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.”

Our values as Christians are to grow in kindness and connection with others. Pre-occupation with our own survival, our own comfort or our own wealth, either as individuals or as a church, is unworthy of the Gospel of Christ. Christ calls us to be encouraged, and to have the courage to live lives of generosity and caring. As we raise funds for the preservation of this building, we remember that the purpose of that is generosity to others, not self-preservation.

The concluding words of the Gospel lesson about the fool are: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God.” The permanent value of all that we gain is in giving to others; it is foolish to think that holding on to things makes one wealthy.

The Epistle to the Colossians continues with words that describe the wealth of Christians, so I’ll conclude with this passage:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”