Author: Drew Kadel

Blessed are they

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 17, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Last week the lessons and the sermon were about God’s call and about Jesus’ calling his first disciples. Today’s gospel reading begins about a chapter later in the Gospel of Luke. In the meantime, Jesus had gone around with these disciples, preaching and healing. There were more disciples added, and then just before our lesson begins, Jesus chooses a group of the Twelve, who are also called apostles, which is a Greek word meaning ambassadors. Selecting twelve is almost certainly symbolic and it probably refers in some way to God’s choosing and caring for the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Twelve is a symbol of completeness.

So having completed the appointment of the Twelve, it is time for Jesus’ teachings to be presented.  Here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain, just as Moses did with the tablets of the law, and Jesus speaks to the gathered multitude, which is described as basically the whole world, not just Galilee, but all Judea and Jerusalem, and not just all the Jewish areas but also Tyre and Sidon, the coastal cities in the gentile area. So Jesus, in effect, is presenting this teaching to all the world. This entire long chapter of Luke is the presentation of Jesus’ teaching. It’s often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain and it is very similar to the Sermon on the Mount. Like the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teaching here begins with Beatitudes, or Blessings. We know God through being blessed by God. Someone said this week that in these blessings, we know how God is with humans and in the Woes, we see how humans set themselves against God.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

God is here for us, strengthening us, comforting God’s children in all the difficult times of our lives. God is FOR those who suffer, God is WITH those who suffer or don’t have enough, God is WITH us when we lose—whether it is loved ones who die, or friends who move away, or institutions that change or decay. God is with those who mourn, giving comfort and strength, holding us patiently and without judgement waiting for that time that it makes sense for us to see that life goes on, and laughter can be in the future or even the present.

Jesus goes on to say something that is perhaps a bit more challenging to take in: “Blessed are you when people HATE you, and when they EXCLUDE you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man… for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” When I taught courses about early Christianity and how the early Christians were hated and persecuted in the ancient Roman Empire, I was often asked Why? Why didn’t the Romans just let those nice Christians be? An associated question is why did all those ordinary people put that nice religious teacher on a cross?

The more privileged lives that people lead, the more difficult it is to see the dynamics of anger and oppression. If you’re on the top of the heap, then that just looks like the way things are and ought to be—you’re totally happy to go along and be nice to everyone… as long as they don’t step out of line and suggest that something needs to change.

Notice that when Jesus talks about being blessed, he doesn’t talk about being angry or violent. What he does talk about is the prophets. The prophets spoke the word of the Lord—they expressed God’s compassion and comfort to God’s people. They expressed messages of hope and blessing. Exactly as Jesus does in today’s Gospel lesson. But what particularly characterizes the prophets is that they were bold in criticizing and denouncing the rich and powerful who violated God’s love for the poor; who exploited power for their own comfort while God’s people suffered.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is from one of those prophets, Jeremiah. He puts it like this: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.” Jeremiah was one of those prophets who had the most conflict with false prophets. Those false prophets pandered to the wishes and fantasies of the wealthy and powerful, making comfortable pronouncements that made the choices of the rulers easy for them—and totally wrong. So Jesus says, “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Think about this for a moment. If you automatically say just what you know someone wants to hear, it’s easy right? And there are plenty of social situations where that’s just fine. But now think of situations where what that person wants to hear is that it’s okay for them to hurt others, steal from those who have the least, ridicule those who are hurting or alone, laugh at those who are mourning. When we do that, we become false prophets. In fact, we make it harder for that person to wake up and receive God’s blessing of generosity and compassion. And those who want to be spoken well of that way, when they look for self-aggrandizement no matter the cost… well… as Jesus says, “Woe to you… for you have received your consolation.”

Jesus teaching is about blessing. It is people who curse themselves. God is present with us now, and blesses us in all our vulnerability, in whatever station we find ourselves. It takes courage to accept that blessing in the midst of all the cowards who put themselves against God, to be well-thought of, or rich, or those thousand other things that disregard God’s call to compassion, generosity, and caring community.  We join those disciples of Jesus, we are guided by the teaching of his apostles, we live in the blessings of Jesus and we give those blessings outward into our community.

Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,

nor lingered in the way of sinners,

nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

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.

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Who will go for us?

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 10, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

Each of the four Gospels has an account of Jesus calling his first disciples, and they aren’t the same. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is down by the Jordan River where John the Baptist is doing his work, and two of John’s disciples follow him home, then they invite others who Jesus invites to follow him. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee and invites first Peter and Andrew who were standing on the shore, throwing their net into the sea, and later James and John, who were mending nets in their father’s boat. In those cases, the disciples immediately follow Jesus. Today’s Gospel, from Luke, is a little bit different. Those differences are very human, and I think, pretty amusing.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had already been preaching and teaching for a while before he encountered the disciples. So when he was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he wasn’t just walking along the beach, noticing the fishermen working, he was surrounded by all sorts of people, wanting to hear what he had to teach, to be healed and so forth. So, in order to be able to teach the large crowd and not to be overrun, he sees a boat and climbs into it and asks Simon Peter to row out a little way from the shore so he could address the crowd. What exactly Jesus said isn’t recorded, but I’m sure that what Jesus taught was pretty similar to what he taught on other occasions: good news to the poor, repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand, perhaps some parables or parts of the Sermon on the Mount. At the end of his teaching, Jesus didn’t ask the fisherman to take him back to shore, but to row out in deep water and put out his nets. Peter resists, because he is exhausted. He’s been working all the night, and hasn’t caught any fish. A day of work and nothing to show for it, no pay, nothing to eat. Sometimes life can be difficult and discouraging. It wasn’t the end of life—he would survive to fish the next day—but life can be on the edge, even for a person who has a job.

Jesus insists, so the fishermen continue to row. All of a sudden, there’s a huge unexpected bounty of fish in their nets—more than they had ever caught at one time. What happens next is what I find funny—they go from being exhausted and depressed because of a lack of fish, to being panicked and afraid because of too many fish. They get help from the other boat, they fill both boats to the point that they nearly sank. As they get to shore, Simon Peter falls down on his knees in front of Jesus. He sees this as a miracle, this bringer of the Word of God has clearly done something from God and he’s very afraid. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Where have we heard that before? In our Old Testament Lesson, which is the account of the call of the prophet Isaiah, he says: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”

Being aware of the presence of God is a frightening thing. It makes clear how people truly fall short of God’s goodness, how truly inadequate we are of embodying and teaching the truth. Even though it’s suddenly his best day of work ever, Peter is overwhelmed—how can this be? What is God doing with me?

It’s possible to get everything we imagine we want, and yet not have any idea of what it’s for, or what our next step is. And Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be one who nets people.”

Peter, Andrew, James and John were thus called to follow Jesus as he traveled around Galilee, healing, preaching and teaching; and as he journeyed to Jerusalem and his crucifixion and resurrection. But God’s call is not limited to these disciples alone, or to prophets like Isaiah. Each of us is called out of our particular limitations: our fear, or our poverty; our anger or our disappointment; we are called out of having too much or struggling to have enough, to live lives worthy of the Gospel—to be Jesus’ witnesses and hands right here. It is fearful to be called by God, because when we hear that call—and know that it is God—we are aware of the perfect love of God and all too aware that our own love is far too imperfect. How can the perfect God make use of such imperfect and flawed creatures?

The answer is God’s mercy. That is both the simplest, most straightforward fact—and the deepest of all possible mysteries. In God’s compassion for all God’s children, God chose to call us, in all our sinfulness, to be the vessels of his compassion. That is the Gospel—the opportunity to live and deliver God’s mercy into this world.

The epistle lesson we heard today from First Corinthians is how Paul states this. In fact, it is the earliest account we have of the Gospel message that the early church proclaimed, because he is repeating what he had been taught from the beginning:

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (which is the Aramaic name that we know as Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred sisters and brothers…then to James, and 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…”

 

Paul also was aware of his unworthiness. But he proclaimed the mercy of God—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, so that we might have life—life as abundant as that great haul of fish and as joyful as the opportunity to share it with others in God’s love.

They will sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord.

Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;

he perceives the haughty from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;

you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;

your right hand shall save me.

 

Renouncing the Powers of Death

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 3, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

This was the conclusion of Jesus’ first sermon in his home town. A few minutes later,

“They were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

This kind of thing happens in churches. I’ve been a priest 37 years, so I know. Jesus told the people some things that were true, and they liked them and admired him; then he pointed out some things that they weren’t expecting and which weren’t so comfortable… Where’s that cliff?

Even people who have committed to following Jesus can become deaf to his words and turn against the Spirit of Life. It’s not because he’s difficult to understand. He’s not. It’s because death is seductive—it’s easier to hold onto what makes us comfortable and to hate anything that interrupts our comfort. … But somehow on that day, Jesus slipped back out through the crowd, avoided their anger and went on to preach the Good News in other places. The very inclination of church people to be seduced by death is the reason that it is so important to pass on the Gospel of Jesus to our children. If we just allow ourselves to be seduced by what is comfortable, we’re all seduced by death, but if we listen to Jesus, he will heal and change us, and he’ll keep us from throwing him and the other children off the cliff.

This morning we are baptizing Maximus Xavier Emmanuel. Baptism is not just a vending machine where you get the right credential, it is entering into life together. Together, we are converted into the Truth, by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.

Let’s open up our prayer books to page 302 and the pages that follow. I want us all to go through this together, because this is serious business. We are all called, not only the godparents, but all Christians who take responsibility for being baptized into Christ—we are all called to support this child and his parents so that he can be brought up in the Christian faith and life. This means that we have to be the Church, and live our Christian life in our daily work and society, so that there will exist for Max and others who will be the Church of the 21st century, a Christian faith and life to grow up in. We are called to live in the Truth, and not give into the real forces of evil that exist in this world.

The rest of the baptismal service is about how we do that. We renounce the spiritual forces and evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  These aren’t demons like spooks in movies or on TV. Likening these evil powers to TV shows is one of the ways that we avoid living in the truth. Destructive spiritual powers exist in the real world and they are—what? They are the behavior of real human beings who are acting in their own self-interest and who, usually, are telling themselves they aren’t doing these things. That they’re not behaving with prejudice—even hatred—toward their neighbor because of the color of his skin, or where she went to school, or what country he was born in. These evil powers are greater than the individuals who think, do, or feel these things. The powers have a life of their own, they seduce individuals and create an environment where their evil seems normal or unavoidable. Other people are destroyed by that kind of behavior, and nobody takes responsibility for that kind of evil human creation. Christians are called on to renounce those things, to renounce hatred and racism, and prejudice; to renounce disrespecting others because of where they come from, or their education, or social status. Doing this is not simple, it’s not a matter of saying it one time and then forgetting it. Renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness is a lifetime affair—we discover the workings of those powers in our environment and in ourselves over and over throughout our lives.

If we are truthful, we recognize that we do not have the power to defeat those powers, even in our personal lives, let alone in the society around us, where we see manifestations every day in the news. Fascism and terrorism feed on one another, and neither our anger nor our fear can do anything but help them grow. The power that can defeat the forces of hatred, death and destruction is the grace of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, God has the courage that we need to live honestly and with care for all God’s children.

If we continue on pages 304 and 305, this is the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, this is how we persevere in resisting evil, this is the Good News that we proclaim, this is how we seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human person. Christ went through everything that we go through, that any one of us goes through. He died. Real death. He was, from beginning to end, a human being from God’s perspective, entirely human, entirely the incarnation of the love of God. His heart was filled with the truth, and he could see the forces of death and destruction—and he loved all those people, yes those who were allied with the forces of death against him—yet he took not those powers of wickedness into his heart. The word courage is derived from the word for heart—in Jesus, God has the courage for all of us, to live and to reject those forces of evil all around us, and have life. To celebrate and rejoice in that gift of life.

Baptism is not just a ceremony or an occasion for a party. Baptism is our life together in Christ. Maximus Xavier Emmanuel enters eternal life today. We know, as well as he soon will, that that life is not always smooth and not always easy. There are forces of evil abroad and sometimes they get close to us, just as they entered into Jesus’ home congregation on that day when he came preaching good news to the poor, good news for everyone. Renouncing and continually resisting the seductions of evil takes a community, a community that supports one another in seeing God’s mercy. Max and other children need this community to renounce that evil with them and for them—and whenever any of our children, as it says on the bottom of page 304, “whenever they fall into sin” we will support them as they “repent and return to the Lord?”  Of course, that doesn’t just apply to little kids, or teenagers, or even young adults—whenever any of us gives into the seductions of selfishness, greed or spiritual sloth—we, as a community welcome back, we are ourselves welcomed back, as we return to the Lord.  Never mind that sometimes we’ve looked to throwing somebody off a cliff, Jesus laughs at us and welcomes us back too.

St. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, that had had some serious dissension and dark times, wrote the passage we heard this morning as the epistle. He’s talking about love—Christian love as it works when we live out our baptism.

It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, it believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. …we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end… Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

 

The Year of the Lord’s Favor

A sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 27, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

In the Gospel of Luke, this is the first record of Jesus’ teaching. After his baptism and his temptation in the desert, the Gospel tells us that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit and went around preaching in Galilee, his home region. And when he got to his home town of Nazareth, the Gospel describes that teaching.

He opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, the sixty-first chapter, where the prophet announces the hopeful message of God’s redemption for Israel, his summons for them to return from exile. Jesus teaches the meaning of the text, and that meaning is himself. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” As we proceed through the Gospel toward Easter, it will become more and more clear what it means, that he himself is the meaning of the word of God. Today, let’s look at the text he reads: “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

So is the Good News of God’s love mainly for the poor?  Could be. Certainly the song that Jesus mother sang before he was born says, “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.”

God is here for those who suffer and those who have needs that are more than they can handle. Yet it doesn’t just mean that God has pity on the poor or gives cosmic handouts to the needy.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a slave who was forgiven a tremendous debt, but then immediately grabbed another slave who owed him a very small debt and had him thrown in jail—being poor, or of low estate did not justify him in being unmerciful to others. Jesus did not come to change the order of things in order to privilege a different group, he came to give release to the captives, sight to the blind—a time of the Lord’s favor—when ALL the oppressed are free.

It is significant, of course, that he starts with the poor. Those who get the least respect, are just as entitled to full honor and respect as those who presume that they are the ONES who are entitled. It is not so, that some are entitled to honor and others can be dismissed. ALL are worthy of our respect. ALL of us have God’s respect and love, right now. Jesus is telling us that—the challenge is to us, and to everyone—how do we respect the ones who God loves and respects, particularly those who are pushed to the side, dishonored in their social status, or physical disability, or their place on the economic ladder. God gives us freedom, what do we do with it?

Jesus announced: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This means two things—first, it is in Jesus that these promises are fulfilled—his person and his life make the difference. Next week’s gospel lesson continues this story, and I will talk about what happens when Jesus made that announcement in my sermon next week.

But the other thing is, TODAY, the good news to the poor is announced, TODAY the release of captives and recovery of sight to the blind, TODAY the oppressed go free. This year is the year of the Lord’s favor, not some day in the far off future, when we get around to it, some day when the rich get tired of being rich, until, literally, Kingdom come. God is not waiting for justice, or mercy. The mercy of God, the right of those who are poor and oppressed to find freedom is right now. In Jesus, we are freed from the values that say whatever has been established by those in power is how it has to be. God’s mercy is here, in Jesus Christ. In us, in his mercy, we live as merciful, in his hope, we are generous and share our lives, in his courage and his way of the cross, we courageously face the difficulties that this world has brought and will continue to bring. We live in the year of the Lord’s favor.

This year. The Lord’s favor is here for Trinity Church in Morrisania. We will have our annual meeting this afternoon. And, as Paula Roberts said to me the other day, the meeting is about Trinity’s future, not the past. We look forward to what God is calling us to be. God has given us all many gifts. Take a moment to reflect—how has God’s love manifested itself here? What have you seen, felt or known? — –A couple of weeks ago, I heard our youngest group recite “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” and the Lord’s Prayer. God’s love is in the children of Trinity Church. You may remember something else, some other ways the Lord has favored us.  This church is firmly founded on the love of God, we will thrive and survive together, as God has called us. God’s love brings us through all adversities into this year of the Lord’s favor.

Once again, let us pray in the words of our collect for today:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

The Gift of Humanness

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord.

Our Epistle lesson today is a familiar one. We often talk about the varieties of gifts that God gives to various people. Frequently, sermons are preached that focus on tasks and ministries, and the things that people do as the variety of gifts and callings. But I would like to look at this a different way. Perhaps our gifts and our ministries aren’t so much the things we do, as who we are. The varieties of gifts are varieties of character. The Gospel affirms our differences from one another more than any static ideal of who a Christian might be.

This twelfth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the beginning of a discussion of the gifts of the spirit that culminates in First Corinthians 13—that glorious hymn to Christian love: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” When we get to the end of the discussion, Paul shows that it all comes down to love—all the varieties of gifts, and all of the varieties of ministries. But this doesn’t mean they all look the same, or that all of God’s loving people are identical. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” It’s common to think that there is one good or best way to be a Christian, one set of behaviors that makes people say, “isn’t she a good Christian?” Perhaps nudge the children and say, “You need to be exactly like that.” But no. There is a great variety of gifts. People have different characters, different motivating enthusiasms, different times and ways in which they do good for the sake of others.  Sometimes we even disagree with what someone else does, because it isn’t what we would do.  But there are varieties of gifts and varieties of callings. We are called by God, not to a particular job, or to a particular role; we are called by God to be human, to be human in the particular way that God calls each one to be.

So in today’s Gospel reading, the first thing that Jesus does after his encounter with John the Baptist at the Jordan, the first thing he does after his baptism, is take this group of guys to a party. The first thing in Jesus’ ministry is a party—and when this party, swelled in size by this group of young men enjoying themselves, runs out of wine—Jesus makes more wine! They continue to enjoy themselves and celebrate that wedding. The first thing in Jesus’ ministry is an act of human joy, human generosity.

Our gifts from God are our human joy, our human generosity, our human life. To follow God’s call is to live more truly that humanness that is God’s gift to us. Indeed, it is human freedom that is God’s call and God’s spiritual gift. That spiritual gift is not the ability to hate, or destroy or to curse Jesus and his compassion. The freedom of the spirit is the ability to grow and live in God’s love. When scripture talks about bondage to idols, it’s referring to those things that use the power of hate and selfishness to defeat humanity—defeating the humanness of others looks very powerful—but it is bondage to dead idols and death.

This weekend we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King lived a life fighting against those idols. He spent his life preaching life and hope. There is no doubt that the gunshot that killed him came from the power of idolatry—people worshiping the power of death and trying to kill life. But Martin was not about death or power, he was about life. Let’s look at his life.  He grew up in a Baptist parsonage in the American South. His life growing up was in the midst of the era of Jim Crow segregation, and he saw the debilitating effects of racism on the whole society around him.

Now, when we look at a person who is a hero and a saint, it is of utmost importance to see who they are as a whole human being. Every human being has their own character, their own limitations, their own sin. Every human being is gifted by God with humanness in their own particular way. It’s tempting to think that a saint is EVERYTHING: great at everything, who overcame everything and has no faults. But that’s not true and it keeps us from seeing the real humanness that is the gift of God. We don’t focus on what Martin wasn’t or on what he was less good at—but we should keep in mind that who he was and what he did was living in God’s specific gifts of the spirit to him. He’s renowned as an eloquent speaker. His father was an influential preacher and he grew up in the church. He was trained to be a preacher and he had a talent for it.

But Dr. King’s real eloquence came from his passion and his clear view of the facts. He may have been a Baptist preacher and the leader of a civil rights organization, but his real call was to be human; as only he could be human. He knew the importance of dignity and the indignities that so many suffered, he knew the ravages of poverty and how the treatment of the poor unjustly limited lives and caused unnecessary suffering. And he knew that militarism and war increased these sufferings and unequally caused those who were minorities or poor to take the brunt of the suffering of war. For him, his humanity made it necessary to stand up and fight those things. It’s irrelevant to talk about his sacrifice in doing these things—his humanity and integrity demanded that he stand up and speak, and lead others. Sure, he had the talent and education to get a well-paying job and turn his back on all these things, but it would have been at the cost of his humanity, at the cost of giving up the gift that God had bestowed upon him.

None of us is called to be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But each of us is called to be human as God has called us to be. To celebrate, to love, to be generous, to have integrity—“There are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit; and there are varieties of services but the same Lord.” I can’t describe anything like the whole variety of God’s calling or how each person can be gifted by their best humanity. But it is a challenge to leave behind the realm of idols and the power of hate and death to live in the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit of Life.

How priceless is your love, God! your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

They feast upon the abundance of your house; you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light.

Continue your loving-kindness to those who know you, and your favor to those who are true of heart.

In his Time the Righteous shall Flourish

A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Our Gospel story this morning is the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. People usually call this the story of the Three Kings. The problem is that, when you look at the story in the Bible, it’s clear that these guys are not kings. It says Magi, which definitely doesn’t mean king—it probably means something like astrologer, sage, or maybe astronomer. Maybe even magician or sorcerer. And another thing is that it doesn’t say how many there were. There were three gifts named, but there could have been two or twenty Magi in this group that appeared in Jerusalem.

But the really big thing is that the main character in this story is Herod, not the Magi, or Joseph, or even Jesus. Herod was the King of Judea, but he wasn’t descended either from David or any of the Hasmonean kings who had ruled Judea in the previous century. His father was Idumean, which meant that most of the Jewish population didn’t regard him as legitimately Jewish, let alone as a real king. But Herod was a brilliant politician—he managed to be an ally and supporter of both sides in the Roman civil war that resulted in the establishment of the Roman Empire. He maintained his rule and power through wily manipulation of political factions and the backing of the Roman military. He used people’s fears and suspicions of one another to neutralize their suspicion of him. He presented himself as an alternative to Roman domination, while using Roman power and occupation to maintain his own domination of this kingdom. It was a precarious balancing act, to maintain this power. Herod was suspicious that at any turn, someone might do something to overthrow him—and he was right. Tyrants are always insecure for good reason.

So these astronomers show up, sharing their observations and their interpretations of them. Of course, Herod was frightened. They were talking about a person with legitimate claims to his office. No matter what Herod or the Romans thought about his right to reign, an heir to David could greatly increase resistance to him and undermine the Romans’ plans. Herod plots. He secretly talks with the Magi, asks them to find this infant king for him.

Today’s lectionary reading ends with the Magi finding Jesus and his mother, giving their gifts and paying him homage. But the story in the Gospel continues. These are people whose job is interpreting dreams, and their dreams tell them not to trust this Herod guy. They leave Bethlehem by an alternate route. Joseph also has a dream, and heads south with the child and his mother. But the story continues:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the Magi.

The evil and cruelty are easy enough to understand. This man had power and he wanted to keep it. Being cruel to powerless children was efficient for a ruler with no governing values except staying in power. It’s nothing new, people saw it back then, the Gospel of Matthew observed it and described it; we see it now.

The Gospel proclaims that that is NOT God’s way. The King in Bethlehem was not powerful but a helpless infant. The King in Bethlehem was not a raging narcissist, out for himself alone, but Jesus, living compassionately for others, protected by a loving and courageous mother. They were protected and brought to safety by her husband, a humble man, doing what he needed to do, and going where he needed to go for the well-being of his family. God protected that infant through those who listened to God, those who knew to follow where God was leading them.

Our world has dangerous and evil things in it, dangers and evil people, and the Bible never implies otherwise. In our lesson from Isaiah it says, “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.”  We experience these things, and that is why the stories in the Bible are so compelling. But the message is that God does rescue us from this evil. God uses the good and compassionate Joseph to rescue the infant Jesus; God prevails upon the consciences of those astrologers from Persia to listen to their suspicions of Herod and avoid him. God enlightens us to see the light of Jesus—who lives a life of pure compassion, pure integrity, pure love. God calls us to live lives of compassion, integrity and generosity for others for the sake of the well-being of this world, and not for selfish gain, or illusory power. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that doing so will be easy—that there will be no danger, or anger, or confusion. Following Jesus includes the fear and anger of people like Herod, or those who crucified Jesus. We are blessed because we can be generous, we can be compassionate, we can live life abundantly and not be overcome by that fearful selfishness that characterizes this world.

That company of Magi brought what they could. They gave the child gold, frankincense and myrrh, all the precious things they had. They rejoiced and we rejoice because that child, the new king, the different king has come into this world where we live. Jesus is here—his light shines in the Bronx.

And our psalm for today says:

Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the King’s Son;

That he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice;

That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people,

and the little hills bring righteousness.

He shall defend the needy among the people;

he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.

He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, from one generation to another.

He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,

like showers that water the earth.

In his time shall the righteous flourish;

there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

The Only Son who has made Him known

A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, December 30, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

No one has ever seen God. The God who created the heavens and the earth, the galaxies and the elements is too big, too complicated for anyone to comprehend. Some are brilliant at observing, thinking and reasoning; others have tremendously powerful religious experiences. Yet none of them can say in all honesty that they have seen God in God’s fullness—the finite human mind, and indeed all the minds in all ages put together, and all the computers and books that we might put together to help us, cannot hold, or comprehend God.

 

Human beings are but one small slice of God’s glorious creation.

Yet God loves this world and God loves human beings. And that love is also far more than we can comprehend. God loves us so much that from the beginning he chose to be among us. Jesus is what a human being is from God’s perspective—his love is genuine, his honesty is compassionate, he does not give in to the temptation to make his allies and benefactors comfortable at the expense of those who nobody cares about. God’s Word became flesh. In him, the unknowable God is made known.

Anyone who looks and listens can understand Jesus, his compassion, his calling people out when they represent themselves as being the holy or righteous ones while they are really just trying to get the advantage over others; his courage for the sake of others, especially the poor and the weak. When people don’t understand, it is because they wish not to understand that listening to Jesus might disrupt their strategy to be on top, or their desire to hold on to things or status. The stories, the images, the message, and the life of Jesus are not incomprehensible—all it takes is openness to the truth—he is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. What is incomprehensible, is the love of God, that God would do this—spend everything so that human creatures could know how to live humanly. The compassion of Jesus, is the compassion of God and the only way to be human is to live in God’s compassion.

To choose against compassion is to choose hate, and that will eat you up and destroy you. Some appear to think that merely using the word, “Jesus,” takes the place of listening to him; that piously calling themselves “Christian” means that compassion isn’t necessary; and that it is okay to trumpet their own righteousness while despising the poor and blaming those who suffer. There are Christians in our country who are happy to see children incarcerated in camps in Texas and New Mexico without even basic medical attention. When our Gospel says that Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not accept him,” it is referring to such people. We are called to receive him, not just in forms of words, but by internalizing God’s compassion, living truthfully and thus humbly, by being God’s children, not defending ourselves through hate of others, but in lives of generosity.

The Word became Flesh to give us life, abundant and joyful life, not destruction. It is not some manual of instructions that he brings, not a set of teachings or rules to memorize. It is the very life of Jesus, God come in the flesh, that shows us God’s compassion – how to live as compassionate human beings.

The Latin word for “becoming flesh” is Incarnation. And God’s becoming flesh and blood with us is so important that the Church celebrates the feast of the Incarnation for twelve days. Monday night, we had mass on Christmas Eve. Today is the sixth full day of that feast, the first Sunday of Christmas. We feast and celebrate. We call to mind that the power of Jesus’ love is in his entire life, even as a tiny baby. Today we celebrate and rejoice in his coming.

Let us bless the Lord and rejoice in his love for us. As it says in today’s psalm:

Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise your God, O Zion;

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates;

he has blessed your children within you.

He has established peace on your borders; he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

Merry Christmas!