Month: September 2019

If they do not Listen to Moses and the Prophets

A sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 29, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

There is a deep irony to this last sentence of today’s Gospel. The Gospels are not written as mystery stories with a surprise ending. They are the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. This story that Jesus told is not about the dead, it is about the living. The story starts, “There was a rich man…”

A lot of the stories in the Gospel of Luke talk about rich people:  The rich young man who asked Jesus how he might attain everlasting life; the rich man who tore down his granaries to build bigger ones; the rich man who had a steward; the rich tax collector Zacchaeus who followed Jesus.  Rich people were a fact of life in the ancient world, more noticeable than now, perhaps, because there were fewer of them and the gap was even bigger than it is today, since there wasn’t really much if any middle class. Jesus did not condemn any of these people for being wealthy, the gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke, observe how they behave.

In the Gospels, the stories are there to be readily understood, to make their point clear. And one thing that was clear in the ancient world was that if you were rich, you were free to act.  Slaves’ lives were very circumscribed and most of the things that they did were things they had to do. The rich had plenty of discretion and choices available to them. They could choose among comforts, places they might go, when to be generous, and they were responsible for what they did. Most people were poor and had far less discretion. But in the case of a rich man, it was clear: he had choice in what he did and the responsibility for it.  But we have choices and responsibility too, even when we’re not rich. Jesus’ stories that mention rich people aren’t told because his words only applied to rich people. He was just using his hearer’s understanding of what it meant to be rich in that day and age, to illustrate that all of us are responsible for our actions.

So Jesus is telling a story. A folk tale or a parable, really. It’s about a rich man and a beggar whose name is Lazarus. That is to say, a person responsible for his own actions and someone who was suffering and unable to take care of his own needs. The rich man is described as feasting sumptuously every day—that appeared to be the sum total of his occupation. In fact, the rich man isn’t even given a name because there isn’t anything to say about him beyond that he was only taking care of himself, and ignoring the needs of others, or, in this case, Lazarus.  He’s characterized by self-indulgence and self-pity. Even after the rich man dies and is begging Abraham for relief, he wants Lazarus to be used as a slave, to bring him water.

This story isn’t moralistic in the way we moderns understand fables. It’s not saying that the rich man learned anything after he died and was in the same miserable condition as Lazarus. Look what he does: He asks for the servant to return from the dead to warn the members of his family about his heritage or legacy. He still gives not one whit for Lazarus the beggar, nor the people of Israel—he cares only for himself and his own. And there’s no reason to believe that the brothers he wants warned were any different. They weren’t going to change and respect the warning of Lazarus—even if a man were raised from the dead.

This story is about the respect of the living for the living. The prophets spoke to Israel about justice, about respect for the poor and the weak. The books of Moses spoke about respect for the strangers living in the land. The rich man in this story had no excuse—because of his wealth he was fully responsible for his actions. His lack of compassion was his own, it was not forced on him by God or by circumstances. Yet somehow, he behaved as if it was. “Let Lazarus bring me water.” “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers.” As if some special personal warning would guide them to take care of their interests, as if God owed them those things that they denied to other human beings, as if their only problem was a lack of information. This man’s life was impoverished because he lacked compassion and mercy, the basic building blocks of an abundant spiritual life. He was free and able to avail himself of all the generosity of God, the wisdom of the Torah, and the passion of the prophets, but instead he looked to himself, to his own self-centered benefit—and ultimately, self-pity. There was no magic solution, some astonishing miracle was not going to change that. We are called to be God’s people, to rejoice in God’s gift of love to us, to rejoice in the opportunity to live generously and not like this man who time after time, dove deeper into self-indulgence and self-pity.

This story is deeply ironic. Jesus WAS raised from the dead. And the people of his time didn’t listen to Jesus, anymore than they listened to all the prophets of Israel. As we heard this morning from Amos, one of the earliest of the prophets in the Old Testament:

Alas for those who are at east in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

 

God has raised Jesus from the dead, exactly so that we may listen to the prophets rather than have our ears stopped by the indolence of self-satisfaction. There is no point in gathering riches—it is in living life for others that we are  richly blessed.

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More Shrewd in Dealing with their own Generation

A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 22, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

Today’s gospel reading is well known among preachers as one of the hardest of Jesus’ parables to interpret and preach on. Part of that is because people often think that Jesus’ parables are allegories where one of the characters is God. Another piece is that we often expect Jesus’ stories to be moralistic and tell people how to behave. Today’s parable proves that those things aren’t always true. Jesus’ stories are about the real world of human experience. There is nothing particularly moral about anybody in this story and the rich man is definitely NOT God. Let’s step back a bit and just listen to the story as a story. It’s easy enough to retell this in a contemporary idiom:

There was a CEO of a very large company, a national or international concern that makes a lot of money in many ways.  It came to his attention that one of his regional or divisional managers was not doing so well. The manager had been there a long time and had a very good salary, but unlike the rest of the company, this manager’s area of responsibility was on the decline—accounts were being cancelled and going to competitors, market share was declining, revenue was down while at the same time expenses were up.  Something was wrong. It probably wasn’t criminal—an embezzler would cover his tracks better. The CEO sends a message notifying the manager that there would be a Special Review of that division’s performance. The manager in question didn’t just fall off the turnip truck—he knew what that meant. In this company, a Special Review meant the end for the manager. And usually those reviews were used to document how to justify eliminating most of the severance and bonus eligibility for the manager on the way out.  He still had kids in college, lots of expenses, and it was way too early to retire.  And the job market at his level for people his age was none too good, especially because his most notable achievements were years ago.

So our manager considers his situation. And he comes up with a plan. He finds the most important of the accounts that his division oversees and he goes to see the person in charge of each one. I can’t say the specifics of what he worked out with them. It may well have involved criminal actions—it certainly violated the terms of his employment arrangements with his company. In a few days, he had made personal and professional arrangements that were so advantageous to the clients that they made consulting arrangements with him that guaranteed enough income for his kids to get through college and for him to reach retirement with at least as good a situation as he would have had if he had served his time with the company without being fired.

When it came time for the Special Review, the CEO could see what had happened, at least in outline. In all likelihood, the company would decide not to get investigators involved in the details of its operations and finances, and its attorneys would simply work to contain the damage and keep the manager from expanding his advantage. They wouldn’t necessarily be pleasant, but they weren’t going to be able to recover much either.

The CEO shakes his head, and says to the manager, “Wow! If you had been this creative and aggressive for the company for the past five years, I would have put you in charge of a lot more!”

That’s how I read the end of the parable when it says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Jesus tells a realistic story about his time, which is exactly parallel to this modern story. Nobody in the story is a moral exemplar—each person was out for his own advantage.

Jesus is talking to his disciples. He says, look—out there, even the unrighteous find ways to adapt, they find ways to get done what is important, when to take a risk to achieve a goal. The manager who had been indolent and wasteful and complacent was not shrewd or commended by either the CEO or by Jesus. And so it is with the children of light. Sometimes, they too, think that all they have to do is let someone else love their brothers and sisters, after all, we will be forgiven, so what responsibility do we have to be resourceful and perform our best for the Kingdom of God?

There’s a word in today’s Gospel that occurs a couple of times and is translated as “wealth,” or “money.” It’s actually a Hebrew word that is nonetheless used in the Greek gospels: Mammon. Mammon is a word that doesn’t appear in the Old Testament but it’s found in several other Hebrew texts. It means property, or assets. It has a neutral connotation in itself. Of course when you look at the dealings of this manager, you are looking at “unjust Mammon.” The priorities of the CEO and the manager were indeed Mammon. They were shrewd and efficient in how they dealt with it, and obtained it—the point at which the CEO decided to call in the manager to discipline him was when that manager was not shrewd and efficient with the Mammon entrusted to him. The manager’s later faithfulness to Mammon was what got the CEO’s admiration.

We live in a time and a society where Mammon gets all the attention and admiration. And those who really get the admiration are those who are clever and single-minded in its pursuit. The prophet Amos saw a similar situation about 2800 years ago. God called on Amos to say this:

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain and the Sabbath so that we may sell wheat?’ … The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”

We are called to be people of God, not Mammon.

It’s tempting to try to play both sides—get a little of that comfort, a little of that exploitation—just a little, you know. Jesus says no. Being God’s people is a full-time job. It takes as much focus to be compassionate, generous, and fierce for the good of God’s little ones as it does to get rich. Rejoicing in God’s love and discerning how we can live out that love doesn’t leave room to be preoccupied with plotting how to get the next edge of profit the moment you get on the street. We live in a time when it is becoming obvious how much our country is damaged by corruption and greed. As Christians we must be as shrewd as that crafty manager in living in generosity and integrity. We are the slaves of God, not of wealth:

No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

There is a collect from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, that brings this all together. Let us pray.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who declarest they glory and showest forth thy handiwork in the heavens and in the earth. Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men; for the sake of him who came among us as one that serveth, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

You Look for Truth Deep within Me

A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 15, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Without you we are not able to please you…

Today, we welcome our new Fellows of the New York Service and Justice Collaborative community living here in the rectory at Trinity Church of Morrisania. Christine, Emily, Jack, Duncan, Megan and Hannah will be spending a year here, living in the Bronx, and working in different parts of New York City. What they will learn and how others will benefit, is still to unfold in the coming year. Certainly, those who have done this in previous years have had profound experiences, of learning, of service, and of being changed in the process. But no one’s experience was ever exactly what they expected. The adventure for our fellows and the adventure for the rest of us is that the bounty of life that lies ahead is unknown. Those who believe they know everything that is going to happen (especially those who think they know and think it’s all going to be BAD) just aren’t listening and watching very carefully. What God has ahead is a surprise.

Today’s lessons are about God’s active mercy.  Lots of people think that mercy and forgiveness are just passive and automatic: “God has to forgive, because that’s the nature of God, it’s no big deal, it just happens.” There’s no reason to believe that. God owes us nothing. NOTHING. To anybody. We need to take seriously that scene on the top of Mount Sinai. While Moses was away, working things out with God, the smart, self-reliant, smug, and scared people in the camp got the upper hand and decided that they had a new-fashioned solution that resembled the worship of their slave-masters in Egypt.  And God was … not pleased.

This was not why God had made of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob a numerous nation and God did not have Moses lead them out of Egypt to behave like this: “Now let me alone that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them!” It’s a mistake to think of God as a harmless old fool that you can provoke to no end and then just get what you want.  God offered to make of Moses a new people, but Moses knew that he was a part of that people, “of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants,” Moses loved them and Moses interceded for them, not for himself, but for all the people. So in this story, God relents, has mercy on all the people, and puts up with all the drama that the troublesome people put in God’s way.

Jesus was dealing with his own set of grumblers in today’s Gospel. Grumblers who could find sinfulness in the people Jesus chose to hang out with, though they were less likely to see it in themselves. He tells two parables, one of a shepherd going out to find a straying sheep, the other of the frantic search for a lost coin. I’ve preached plenty of times about the sheep, and people like those sheep because they are fuzzy and cuddly, but today I’ll talk about the second parable. The two parables really are much more similar than we think. They are both about personal financial crises easily envisioned by a typical family in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ first hearers didn’t care that much about the cuteness or cuddliness of the lamb. The flock was the livelihood of that family. Likewise, in the parable of the Lost Coin, we’re not talking about loose change. The ten drachmas in question were the financial reserves of that household—representing a week or ten days pay. People then, as now, lived from payday to payday. Ten silver coins was all that there was for contingencies. I read in a recent study, that about two-thirds of Americans don’t have enough savings to pay for a five-hundred-dollar emergency, like a car breaking down or a trip to the hospital emergency room. So, think about it: When all you’ve got is so much less than $500 to cover a potential disaster, the loss of one-tenth of that reserve would be a very big deal.

So Jesus describes the woman doing what most of us would do when we found critical sums missing: she diligently, methodically looked in every corner of the house, every possible way to find that one coin – a whole days pay for a laborer of that time.

A couple of weeks ago, I lost my keyless car key that costs a lot to replace. I looked and looked and couldn’t find it. A day, or maybe two, later, Paula looked again and found it, out of the way, in a place you wouldn’t expect, where we thought we’d already looked. And we rejoiced, just like that woman who recovered her money.  I’m sure we’ve all had similar experiences.

In these parables, Jesus likens this search, this intensity and even anxiety, and rejoicing at finding the coin, to God’s search for the sinner—the one who has wandered off, who has not done what is expected of them. Which is why Jesus spent his time with people that were disapproved of by all the folk who regarded themselves as good.

God’s mercy is active. It isn’t something that we have a claim on. We can’t check a box and force God to do what we want, any more than we can force other people to do as we say, no matter how good our reasons are for wanting them to do it.  In nearly forty years as a priest, I can testify to this: People won’t do as you say. Or at least not as I say. God knows, and Jesus teaches, that people respond to love. We can’t program exactly how they will respond, because people are free, and they are complicated, and even when we love them, they can still be pretty messed up, especially the ones who think of themselves as pretty good. Seeing ourselves honestly, as St. Paul did, “I was a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence,” as today’s epistle says—seeing ourselves honestly is how we can change, how we can accept others, and how we can know and accept God’s mercy.

In the year to come, all of us at Trinity will have the opportunity to look at ourselves and our church, to honestly see who we are and to clearly see God’s mercy in our lives together. Likewise, the fellows, in exploring new situations in a new city, will have the opportunity to honestly see more of themselves, and of their new environment and indeed the entire world.  This is a world filled with God’s mercy and God’s joy in God’s people. We have but to look honestly and to see it.

As today’s psalm says:

For behold, you look for truth deep within me,

and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure;

wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

Make me hear of joy and gladness,

that the body you have broken may rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

Refresh my Heart in Christ

A sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 8, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?

Today is the only day in our lectionary that we read an entire book of the Bible. The letter to Philemon is 25 verses long. We

Saint Onesimus

heard the first 21—all we missed is a final practical note and greetings from some of Paul’s companions. Unlike most of Paul’s letters, this one is addressed to an individual. Philemon was a leader of a church that met in his home, probably in Colossae, in what’s now western Turkey. The main issue addressed in the letter is the status of a slave named Onesimus.

No one who has considered this letter deeply is satisfied with what Paul says here. Slavery in the Roman Empire was every bit as brutal and exploitative as American slavery was. It was pervasive and the Roman economy relied on it. In the Roman Empire, slaves were not slaves based on race; people usually became slaves by being captured in war or sold because they owed debts. Indeed, one of the main factors driving military conquest in that era was the desire to get more slaves to work in fields and mines and to be sold as personal servants. Those who were prosperous and had a fine standard of living were a tiny minority. Some people lived humbly as craftsmen or the like, but most people lived in poverty. Or they were slaves.

It’s not really possible to make a case to justify this system. Oppression was the norm, except for a very small percentage of people.  Slaves were regularly humiliated and beaten. At that time, slavery was pervasive and integral to society—people at that time were no more likely to think of society without slaves, than we would think about a society without banks today.

Jesus and Paul both knew and taught that all people were fundamentally equal before God. Paul said it in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” But Paul doesn’t say that slavery should be abolished, here or elsewhere. That allowed some Christians to rationalize slavery and other unequal treatment of people for the next 2,000 years. There’s no escaping that this is bad, but it’s something we are forced to grapple with in this reading today.

When Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison. What he had already said about God raising an executed criminal from the dead, of God’s love for even the lowest and most humble of people, and about human freedom from tyranny, were enough to get him thrown in jail. From jail, Paul wrote to Philemon.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about being ready: ready for the Kingdom of God, ready to be Jesus’ disciples. There is no room for distraction—you have to pay attention, just like the person planning to build a tower—you have to be ready for what it costs to be Jesus’ disciple.

That’s what Paul is doing here: he is both doing what is most likely to help his friend and protégé, Onesimus, and he is teaching his friend Philemon what it takes to be Jesus’ disciple in this case.

There’s another thing to understand here. Letters in the ancient world, even letters between individuals, weren’t private in the way we think of private correspondence. Paper was expensive and delivery was costly. When a letter was received it was normal for it to be read aloud and passed around—shared with relatives or members of the community down the road, or, if it was important enough, recopied and circulated among people who were interested.  You can tell from the structure and mentions of people in Paul’s letters that he expected this to happen. And so did Philemon.

Paul first thanks Philemon for his love and faithfulness and thanks God for those traits. This isn’t just flattery, and it is not simply to impress the other readers and hearers of the letter. Paul reminds Philemon of what is important and essential in his relationship with God and with other community members, including Paul. In remembering their mutual respect and affection, Paul renews and enhances their love. Building discipleship includes remembering that God’s love is manifested in people and encouraging one another in that. As Jesus disciples, we need to remember this, encouraging and remembering how God’s love is manifested in one another, more love is generated, and more possibilities for hope are born.

Then Paul confronts Philemon with the next step in actually being Christ’s disciple: “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” It is Philemon’s responsibility, not just to accept Onesimus back because Paul says so, but as an integral part of being a disciple of Jesus and living his love. You might call this the “business end” of Paul’s request and Paul doesn’t just rely on how Philemon might feel about it. He writes a promissory note in the original: his own signature, promising to pay. All the arguments that Philemon and the rest of us might make up to justify excluding or punishing this Onesimus or somebody who doesn’t make us comfortable don’t cut it with Paul. He puts his own self on the line for the sake of Onesimus and for helping Philemon become the disciple Christ wants him to be: “Receive him as your beloved brother! Not as a slave!”

Paul says to Philemon, “I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you…Refresh my heart in Christ.” Refresh my heart—live that life of love that Christ has brought us into.

Being Jesus’ disciple is not always easy. The main way that it’s not easy is remembering what we owe to God—our whole lives, the grace of being accepted by God means that being Jesus’ disciple means extending ourselves and accepting others outside of those outside our usual circle of friends and family? We give thanks for that—that Christ’s love extends beyond ourselves and refreshes the heart of all of God’s people.

As it says in our psalm:

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,

and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,

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

everything they do shall prosper.

 

Be refreshed in that Living Water.