Some of the sermons I have preached.

Even a hundredfold

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 12, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus was at the beach, as many of us would like to be during the summer.  Today’s Gospel says he “sat beside the sea.”  Then it got way too crowded, so he got on a boat and started to tell the people stories.

The parable of the Sower is well known, though people today may not be as well-acquainted with the behavior of seeds and plants as Jesus’ first hearers would have been.  The image is of a farmer or farmhand planting grain in the spring.  Today, this is done with large machines that plant all the seeds in precise rows at a very high volume per minute.  A farmer in ancient times had to do all this by hand, reaching into his bag of seed and flinging the seed across the plot of ground. The skilled and careful farmer would be sure that most of the seed fell on the good soil that had been tilled; the less careful worker might have more of his seed go astray.

Some waste was the norm, as Jesus’ listeners knew full well, so it’s not as though they would think that some seed landing on a footpath, or rocks, or thorns, meant that the farmer was not realistic, or even a particularly careless fellow.  The last section of today’s gospel reading has an allegorical interpretation of the parable. It is portrayed as being in another context at another time. Certainly, that allegory is a common way that this story has been interpreted, but there is good reason to believe that Jesus first presented the story to be listened to and understood literally, on its face as a story about the familiar world.

The farmer sowing seed is a familiar bit of reality, and in that reality, we can see the real difficulties of life—the complete loss when birds take the seed before it can sprout; the immediate hope in seeing seed quickly sprout followed by disappointment at the equally fast failure of the weak seedlings on the rocky ground.  We know these things in our own lives and our own country: brash promises about health and well-being by a president who negligently scatters all the seed of public commitment to sacrifice for the common good on the hard path of his vanity and dreams of magical commercial re-awakening, so that the seed of possibility of public health is snatched up by new and uncontrolled infection. The good soil of solid public health measures like contact tracing and careful monitoring has been neglected. At the same time, he has sown among the thorns of fear and racism, inciting people who are fearful and angry to act on their worst impulses, to choke out all truth and good will.

But the focus of this parable is not on the thorns and troubles pressing in on every side.  The bulk of the seed landed on good, fertile soil and the yield was amazing! A hundredfold, sixty-fold, even thirty-fold was several times higher than the yield Jesus’ hearers reasonably expected from their crops. And that brings us to the point of all this: The Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is here in the middle of the reality we are living in: God shares our difficulties and faces the evils of this world with us. Jesus’ life is in our real world; he faced times and rulers as harsh or harsher than our own. But in that reality, the Kingdom is abundant good. We share the bountiful love of God, even when things don’t work out for us. In fact, we have the possibility to live through these times with a spirit of generosity, helping one another, being there for those who are hurting the most. The opportunity to be generous gives those who provide it a bit of the bounty of the Kingdom—though we should always take care that what we do is for the sake of others and not simply to make ourselves feel good. By giving, the church can become God’s Church, but it is not the success of that institution called Church that is the yield of the Kingdom. The love of God, always supporting us and giving the opportunity to serve God’s people—that is the Kingdom of God, and the bounty of life, and the reality of our lives all at the same time.

This summer, our New Testament epistle readings are from the letter of Paul to the church at Rome. Paul doesn’t use the term “Kingdom of God,” but what he preaches is very much about the same kingdom I have been talking about. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Despite the power of sin, and of corporate evils and personal shortcomings, there is no condemnation. For Paul, as well as Jesus, the overwhelming joyful news of God’s coming is in the midst of the difficulties of the real world. The gifts of God—and the possibilities for us in this world, transformed by his kingdom—are enormous, unlimited even. If difficulties cause someone to stumble, to lose confidence or even to do bad things, she or he is not condemned or lost.  Each of us is the child of Christ and part of his body. Paul continues: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. … But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

You are the field in which the seed of God’s kingdom is planted and also the agents to nurture that Kingdom. It is through God’s spirit, and not by our strength or talent that the Kingdom grows.  Accept the gift of the spirit of Christ in you, and rejoice in God’s bounty: Thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold.

You will Find Rest for your Souls

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 5, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

For the past several weeks, I have been preaching about the very serious, anxiety producing, and sometimes evil things that are happening in our country. Facing those things is important. But it is also important to rest, take a break, and have a time of peace. Especially on this summer holiday weekend. So I’ve decided today’s sermon would be a little different.

Those of us who grew up long ago in the Episcopal Church recognize the first part of this as the “Comfortable Words” that were said right after the confession and absolution every week in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer communion service. Sometimes they are said in the Rite I Eucharist. When I think about it, it is very appropriate to hear these words every week—Jesus says who he is for everyone—I will give you rest—my yoke is easy. The Gospel is good news for everyone; you don’t have to be one of the elite. His yoke is easy, and you don’t have to be a great mystic exercising ascetic discipline, you don’t have to be smart or well educated, you don’t even need to be as well-off as your neighbors, or as good as you expect yourself to be. “Come to me”—Jesus welcomes each one, and refreshes us all, particularly in our harried, too fast, too many expectations contemporary existence.

All of us need to hear that regularly, and anybody who thinks they have outgrown it or is too advanced to need it, is probably mistaken. That’s what Jesus says to us, but what do we say to one another? The top of today’s Gospel lesson has a pretty good summary: Jesus compares the current generation – I think the current generation 2,000 years ago was probably not measurably different than the generation we are in – he compares them to bratty kids in the market place, who complain whether somebody dances or whether they mourn. Nothing is ever good enough or satisfactory. Sometimes it’s noted how mean kids can be, I’ve certainly seen it and even been on the receiving end of it when I was a child. However, people don’t actually outgrow that, they just get better at concealing it, though maybe not, if you spend much time on Twitter or Facebook.

Jesus points out that religious people were the same way with John the Baptist and with him. John was a scary prophet, who spent a lot of his time fasting, praying and calling people to repentance. Rather than listening to him, those who represented themselves as religious said, “Oh, he has a demon, and besides I don’t like his choice of clothes.” Jesus, on the other hand, spent a lot of time enjoying people, extending hospitality and accepting hospitality from others. The same people responded, “Way too much partying here, and those people he welcomes are just not the right kind of people.”

Jesus’ words are comfortable and simple: Come to me—Everyone! Rest with me awhile. But people, often those who claim to be the very ones to whom Jesus is extending his invitation, will find ways to make those words complicated and definitely uncomfortable, especially for those who are not the right kind of people.

Someone once said, “Since we know that at least one homeless person will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, we ought to be careful about the way we treat the rest of them.” People like to draw circles around themselves and have some people inside the circle and others outside. But Jesus makes it hard for us to get away with that kind of thing. For one thing, he had the very characteristics that people of his time—and some still in our time—would use to exclude him. He was a Jew, he hung around with sinners and, in regard to sinners, he was an equal opportunity offender: tax collectors and political collaborators, the poor and the zealot anti-Roman insurrectionists, the prostitutes and the Pharisees, the widows and centurions were all people with whom Jesus shared hospitality and his life.

Jesus leads us into a realm that includes possibilities that we resist, and welcome that we often can’t believe. Thus he said,

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Beyond our power and planning, the Kingdom of God is built by the innocence of infants, yet includes even the arrogant and the fearful, and others who are not as welcoming as Jesus. It even includes our political opponents and those who are clearly mistaken. For all of us are called in those comfortable words:

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”


When the Word of that Prophet comes True

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

 Our lesson from the book of Jeremiah this morning shows two prophets in conversation, Jeremiah and Hananiah. Hananiah has just made a prophesy:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house… and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon.

As we read it in today’s lectionary, it would appear that Jeremiah is agreeing with him:

Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exiles.

All of the people of Judah deeply wanted this good news, and so did Jeremiah. He wanted the restoration of the wholeness of the people and peace with all his heart. There’s only one problem: Hananiah’s prophecy was not true. The story continues this way: Jeremiah says, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” Hananiah breaks the wooden yoke, which Jeremiah had put on his own back to represent the rule of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. And then, Jeremiah has another word from God: “Go tell Hananiah, ‘Thus says the Lord: You have broken the wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them!” Hananiah died within a month and the exiles remained in Babylon seventy more years.

Jeremiah was not exactly agreeing with Hananiah. Not at all. Hananiah had painted a vision for his country that had everything everyone might wish for. Jeremiah wanted the same things, but he was skeptical. It did not fit with what he was really seeing. Or the words he heard from God.

The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient time prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

The key word in this passage is “when.” WHEN the word comes true, THEN the Lord has sent the prophet.

In a time like we are going through, people are anxious for good news. For news that the pandemic is over, that we will have peace and prosperity, and that the evil power of racism and injustice will come to an end.  Sometimes, we try to cut the story short, looking for a quick, happy ending. Even the framers of the lectionary seem to want to cut the story short in a misleading way, so that things can be peaceful and resolved on a summer morning.  But the false prophet Hananiah brought nothing but a brief, transitory false hope, based on a story made up from the people’s wishes and fantasies.

The word of God, however, is only the story of truth. And the truth can be dark and address some very bad, even evil matters. It can take longer to realize than we would like. But the falseness of wishful thinking can make things worse: Jeremiah pronounced that the consequence of Hananiah’s removing the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s back was that an iron yoke was placed on the people of Israel—wishful thinking about Nebuchadnezzar did not make the Babylonians go away or make their rule any more humane. It did not shorten the time of exile or reduce its pain. The only prophesy that could give any healing or hope is the truth. Jeremiah sternly spoke the truth of God’s love and called the people to return to God—to God’s truth and God’s love.

We look at the news and around the country the number of cases of corona virus are increasing alarmingly in some places, while people in government eliminate measures that can slow its spread—making claims that there is nothing to worry about and that the economy will get better. Some of these government people also fantasize that telling police to crack down on lawful protests will make this country’s problems with racism and injustice disappear. Throughout the whole book of Jeremiah, the prophet was constantly running afoul of that kind of view—he might want things to turn out fine with a minimum of conflict and suffering—but he had to tell the truth. Likewise, in our country, we have to live with and acknowledge the truth of the fearfulness, anger, distrust and dishonesty that arises around us. Of cruelty masquerading as political necessity, and thoughtless panic taking the place of constructive engagement. There is no magic solution in our country. Patriotism and hope can only emerge in full truthfulness and courageous compassion.

The same can be said for the church at the present time: the Episcopal Church and all Christian churches. Quick and superficial fixes will not address the issues and anxieties of the present time. It is only in the truth that there is a pathway forward.

The truth is simple: it’s what is in this morning’s Gospel: “whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” It is our anxieties that are complex. Like those who listened to Hananiah, we want a quick solution that restores everything to its previous comfort. However, that is not, and never has been the promise of God.

The prophet who prophesies peace and delivers it in truth is Jesus. For our country or our church, all he offers is truth. Truth that is not magic or easy. The peace that he gives is found in living his compassion—that is a very challenging peace indeed, but the rewards are greater than the return of the vessels from Babylon.

We are welcomed into this world by God, and we live by extending that welcome.

Listen once more to what Jesus said:

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

You are of More Value than many Sparrows

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 21, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.

Five years ago this week, a young man, who described himself as a white supremacist, shot and killed nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Sunday following was Fathers’ Day, as today is. Five years ago, I ended up rewriting the sermon that I had mostly already written when the news broke about the murders in Charleston. That time was not unlike our time today. It has been five years and more and this country is filled with racist acting-out. And the vocation of fathers is the same as it was then—living up to the challenge of doing the right thing to nurture and protect children.

Here’s a bit of what I said in my sermon five years ago. I told a little story about a storm coming up when we were fishing on a lake when I was a little kid, and my Dad struggling to start the motor on the boat before it filled with water.

On this Father’s Day, I remember my own father, who died 15 years ago this month. For him, being a father was about loving and enjoying children and giving them a model of dignity and respect. When there was any sort of emergency or crisis, his first response was to protect the children—even though some people might not recognize that was what he was doing when he was focusing on getting that cranky outboard motor to start in that thunderstorm.

Likewise, the witness of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina has always been to foster the dignity, respect and well being of the African-American community in South Carolina.  The Reverend Clementa Pinckney and his companions were not the first members of that congregation who suffered and died, witnessing for the Gospel and the dignity of every human being. He was a father to two daughters, as well as serving and caring for Mother Emanuel AME Church. His ministry included being a state senator, because there is much work to be done in that state for legislation to protect the dignity and safety of all people. On this Father’s Day, let us remember that it is the vocation of fathers, as well as all of the rest of us, to have the courage to do the right thing, to stand up to protect those who are vulnerable, particularly when we have reason to be afraid ourselves.

In our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning, he says:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? … For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

We live in a world filled with death. And death doesn’t come just for bad or violent people; violence doesn’t just come for violent or bad people. And we know that violence came for Jesus. He faced up to it for us all – his death came as he stood up for us. And St. Paul is saying that in our baptism, we participate in that: in Christ’s courageous compassion for his children, even unto death. That is the baptism that we participate in. It can be hard to think about, in a real world where there are truly frightening things happening. That is the real world that Christ came into. But it was in his compassion and courage, even unto death, that he brought us life and truth. God raised him from the dead because that life of his could not be contained by the powers of death. That is the life that he brings to us, the resurrection from the dead—abundant life in a life of generous courage, of caring for the children and the weak, of living compassionately not for ourselves, but for God’s Children.

Hear once again, the words of Jesus:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Cure the Sick, Raise the Dead, Cleanse the Lepers, Cast out Demons

Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.

One thing we know about Jesus. Before all else, he was a healer. Not wonder worker, but a healer. And when we look at his teaching in the Gospel of Matthew that we’re reading this year – mostly in the Sermon on the Mount – we find that his teaching is not high-flown philosophy. Jesus’ teaching is words of healing. “’You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Words to heal broken human society and mend the spiritual hurt that hate causes within us. Jesus cast out demons that damaged peoples’ spirits and he healed them. That’s what he did.

It doesn’t take much looking to find something terribly broken and in need of healing in our world today. The demons of hatred and racism are abroad in the land, boldly lying and stirring up violence. If a country ever looked like sheep without a shepherd, it is ours right now.  Some may be inclined to look for strong, harsh leadership to get everyone in line. But that would not be those who follow Jesus. Jesus leads with compassion … and healing.

He looks at us—confused and frightened sheep without a shepherd that we are—and says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” So many in need of healing, so much need for compassion. So he summoned disciples and empowered them to heal the sick and cast out demons. Many hands were needed, the compassion of more than just Jesus, of all his disciples.

Healing in this world is a big job. Resisting and casting out the demons of racism, of callous selfishness, of hate and defamation is a huge job. When we are baptized we renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, and we renounce the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. In other words, we have already signed on to this—this ministry of healing and of casting out demons.

But what does this mean, how do we do this? A lot of the brokenness in this world, that nurtures the growth of these demons, is a combination of moral laziness and selfishness. It’s easy to lash out at and blame people based on their race, or social position—to label them as lazy, dirty or stupid. It’s also easy to see oppression and social inequality and say, “That’s just how the world is, I can’t do anything about it.” And when we become possessed by such demons, we are blind to injustice and hatred. The world appears to be what it is and no one takes responsibility for curing what hurts people. Just scramble to the top, and don’t worry about people who are still suffering, or, pretend that you care, when all you care about is success and domination. This moral laziness and blindness afflicts most of the white people in this country and it’s a threat to us all. It is a threat to any world of peace, justice and equality for our future or our children’s future.

Jesus awakens us and sends us out to cast out those demons, to awaken people, to reach out with his compassion and to heal us—to make us whole. So first, and I know that this happens a lot among us: pray. Pray for one another, for our children and friends who are not among us, pray for our country, and especially pray for those who are afflicted with blindness and these demons that damage the children of God.  Second, be courageous, reach out and show Christ’s compassion, don’t be afraid to contradict those who accept the power of these demons. It is Jesus who is sending you out, don’t be afraid to be the agent of healing others.  Jesus is our shepherd, he keeps us from feeling helpless, and he sends us to share that gift with all his children.

“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

As St. Paul says in today’s lesson:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God … and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

O Lord our Governor

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void

Today is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday when we celebrate the Christian teaching about God. I have preached other times about our understanding of the threefold nature of God, about how the proclamation of the one God fits with our experience of God in Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God the Father. Today I want us to think about the foundation of it all: God the creator and sovereign ruler of this universe.

We have heard the first chapter of the Bible this morning. Out of a formless void, God, the source of all, created our universe. Compared to other readings we have, it is long. That is important, because God’s creation is big, long and complex. Sitting through several minutes of an ancient description of creation is nothing compared to waiting the billions of years of star formation, the cooling of the earth and formation of the seas and the evolution of life. The first chapter of Genesis shows seven days, or stages. Seven days, each equally important, God sovereign over all of them, calling them into being and blessing them. And on one day, the activity of only one of those days, God created all the life we see on the land and in the air, all the birds and animals, human beings among them. Humanity didn’t get a separate day, human beings, for all of our pride, and all the effects we have on this world, and all our responsibility; human beings don’t get our own day of creation, we are part of the animal world.

In our pridefulness, we try to get around that—as if being created in the image of God makes us somehow God and entitled to ignore the dignity of other creatures. Human beings are really good at rationalizing their pridefulness. It is easy to give in to our self-centeredness and ignore the dignity and value of other creatures: to be heedless of others to make it easier on ourselves. It is easy to extend this disregard to other human beings. If we let this go long enough, it grows into self-perpetuating forces of evil like racism and greed. It was in facing and resisting similar forces in the Roman Empire 2000 years ago that Jesus was crucified.

Prideful people think that they have power or rights or sovereignty over others. But God our creator is sovereign. It is God who is worthy of respect and worship and every one of God’s people is equally worthy of respect and dignity. When I see people in public office call for troops to be called out against American people, encouraging police to attack non-violent demonstrators, shooting tear gas into a quiet crowd gathered in a park and then rushing them with shields and clubs, attacking reporters and driving priests and aid workers from the porch of St. John’s Church, just so that man could parade around, holding up a Bible—puzzled about what to do with it; never ONCE bowing to Almighty God, praying for the well-being of those people or anyone else, not to mention never, ever asking God for forgiveness—when I see that, I mourn for our country. The arrogance of human beings evaporates before the majesty of God. Anyone who claims power as a right, and acts as if that power entitles them to disrespect and hurt other human beings is subject to the judgement of God.  The judgement of God is God’s mercy, but for those who are merciless, who say that we should grant no quarter to those who stand up to injustice—for those merciless people, the mercy of God is fierceness, like the wrath of a mother hen protecting her chicks—or perhaps like a mother grizzly bear.

We are God’s children…all of us are God’s beloved children. On this day, the day, our church’s name day, we honor Almighty God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Honoring God is having humility before the sovereign Lord of All—and not allowing those arrogant fools who don’t have that humility to oppress God’s other children and all God’s creatures.

Keep our city and our country always in your prayers, particularly at this time.  Let us pray in the words of today’s psalm:

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

Out of the mouths of infants and children

your majesty is praised above the heavens.

You have set up a stronghold against your adversaries,

to quell the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,

What is man that you should be mindful of him?

the son of man that you should seek him out?

You have made him but little lower than the angels;

you adorn him with glory and honor;

You give him mastery over the works of your hands;

you put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts of the field,

The birds of the air, the fish of the sea,

and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.

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

Receive the Holy Spirit

A sermon for Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

Today is Pentecost, the Sunday fifty days after Easter when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church. This text from the Acts of the Apostles—about the mighty wind and the tongues of fire and the disciples speaking in every discernable human language—this is what we usually associate with the day and event of Pentecost.

What the person who wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts is describing is how the Gospel spread from Jesus’ preaching in Galilee to the whole world, in every language and to every nation. The telling of that spread is emphasized with the drama of the violent wind and tongues of fire and the speaking in tongues.

But that’s not the only Pentecost story.

Our lesson from the Gospel of John tells another story about the church receiving the Holy Spirit:

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain any, they are retained.’

This is the third time in the last two months that I talked with you about this same passage from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel of John. That’s because it is important to us now in at least three different ways. On March 18th, I wrote a letter which was sent to everyone on Trinity’s mailing list. I included this lesson in that letter. The reason I chose this lesson that day was because of the way the chapter begins. On that very first Easter Sunday, the very day of the Resurrection, Jesus’ disciples were locked inside and fearful; unable to go out because of danger and not knowing what the future held. Their circumstances were very like our own in the early stages of this epidemic. There’s plenty to be fearful and upset about. Being locked in that upper room protected the disciples from the crowds and the violence of the Roman authorities, but it also increased their isolation and fear. They had barred the door to keep the danger out … and Jesus walked right in … even though the door remained locked. And that first letter I sent to you was really about the first thing that Jesus said: “Peace be with you.” Even when our anxieties are based on real things of which we should be concerned, or even afraid, they do not rule us. It is the peace of God that Jesus brings us—that peace which surpasses understanding—that banishes panic and makes it possible to live as God wants us to.

About a month later, on April 19, the Sunday after Easter, the Gospel for the day included this same passage. It also included the next part which talks about Thomas—the famous “Doubting Thomas” passage. Thomas had not been there with the others when Jesus appeared and he was not prepared to believe what they told him. This story illustrates what Jesus had said about giving them the Holy Spirit: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven and if you hold anyone fast, they are held fast.” The community held Thomas fast, when he was weak, alone and unready. They held him fast though he had to grow into faith. The church is a community, not of a group of people who have already gotten everything right and done everything perfectly; it is a community holding one another fast as we live in God’s mercy and grow into God’s love. Then Jesus appeared to Thomas, and Thomas fell at his feet, proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!” and Jesus blessed him.

So today is the third time we return to this lesson. The theme of the lesson has always been the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit. I’ve talked about the Holy Spirit the past two Sundays. God has raised Christ from the dead, and the Church lives by the Holy Spirit, which is none other than the Love of God. We are held together by God’s love—and God’s love extends beyond our immediate church community, our neighborhood or our city. Our church, our neighborhoods, our country, our world—they are all God’s beloved children. Christ came into the world, not to condemn the world, but that through him all the whole world might be saved. Jesus gave his disciples the Holy Spirit in that locked upper room, but the Spirit was given to them not just for those inside the room, but to be shared out into the whole world.

But here in New York City we’re all still locked in our houses—how do we share that Holy Spirit into the world? Especially now, this week, when, in addition to coping with the sadness and difficulties of a pandemic that still ravages our community, we also watch the results of hundreds of years of systemic racism playing out across our country and in our city.

If anyone doubted that we live in a world filled with fear, hate and violence, this week would put an end to that doubt.  This week, a police officer in Minneapolis kneeled on the neck of a man until he died. This happens far too often in our country, far too often to black citizens. And there is no recognition of the reality and virulence of racism by far too many people. People are angry and they protest. The reports out of Minneapolis and other cities paint a cloudy picture—whose violence or whose property damage? What is clear to me is that the President of the United States and some in law enforcement have less interest in peace or in solving the underlying dynamics that led to these deaths and riots than in trying to blame others and distract from their own shortcomings.

So what does this have to do with sharing God’s love out in God’s world, of life in the Holy Spirit? Right now, locked up in our homes, we are as close to those problems in Minneapolis as we would be if we were out shopping, going to school and coming to church. The reality of the demons of anger and racism are no further or closer to us whether we are indoors or out. When we are baptized, we renounce “Satan, and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”  Chief, in our day, among those evil powers are hatred and racism. The point is that they’re demons, they have a life of their own—you don’t just say, “ok, no more racism” and it happens—renouncing racism is a spiritual struggle for everyone. It’s a spiritual struggle for someone like myself, who, as a white man is the beneficiary of racism, but it is also a struggle for those who suffer from racism. The assaults of racism can sap the spirit and distract from the real struggle to overcome it. That struggle will only be won by the action of the Holy Spirit. That peace that Jesus brings his disciples gives us the ability to be courageous and compassionate. The Peace of God is God making us whole, focused, and not overwhelmed by fear, panic or anger.

What is more needed right now than the courage of compassion? Than building justice through efforts effectively directed by inner peace? What is more important to our brothers and sisters and to our country and our world as a whole than prayers of love and compassion for the healing of hate?

I know that there are a number of people in this congregation who pray deeply every day. That’s what I’m talking about, living Christ’s love happens every day. The Holy Spirit is among us, holding us together. Now, more than ever, the world needs our prayers. And it needs what this church is already doing: Caring for its community and its neighbors and supporting the new generation of leaders that will bring the Holy Spirit to the world.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Protect them in Your Name

A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, May 24, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Last Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension.  After talking to his disciples, Jesus ascended to heaven. It is still another week to Pentecost, when the church celebrates the Holy Spirit breaking into the church.  From the standpoint of the church’s liturgical narrative, this is an odd time.  You might think, “Jesus is gone and the Spirit isn’t here.” That might make some anxious. And this past couple of months, there has been much to be anxious about. Sometimes clergy get anxious about stopping anxiety. It can become a vicious cycle.

But there is one thing that stops all that anxiety: Knowing the truth.

The Gospel lesson today is from Jesus’ long prayer at the end of the supper with his disciples, just before he’s arrested. It is often called his “High Priestly Prayer.” The truth, from any perspective, was that this was the end of this journey together with these disciples. There was no turning back, and no return to the good old days of wandering around Galilee, teaching and healing and doing miracles. Jesus says this:

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.

He does not deny the pain of separation, or of his death. Yet in his prayer he knows that what his disciples needed, they have gained from him: “For the words that you gave to me I have given to them and they have received them.”

At this point in the Gospel, the resurrection still lies ahead. In the time between Easter morning and the Ascension, he taught them to interpret and understand the scriptures: “It is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations,” it says in the Gospel of Luke as it is read on the Ascension. These are things that could not be understood or appreciated without the experience of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. And then he told them, “You are witnesses of these things.” His followers now hold within themselves the whole truth of Jesus, and as witnesses they are responsible for living that truth and sharing it.

And so, at this point, Jesus leaves his followers to it. Jesus ascended to his Father and they are responsible for being his witnesses, his church. At this moment, they are left with that. It is enough—the Gospel is within them. The Gospel is within us and among us. Without any miraculous pyrotechnics or miracles, or sure signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit, we have the Truth within us and that suffices.

I spoke last week about the Holy Spirit, and next week will be Pentecost with the tongues of fire and many languages and all that. The Holy Spirit is essential in the life of God’s church. But this quiet time, these ten days between Ascension and Pentecost, are not a time of being bereft or anxious. It is a time of hope, of being responsible for living in the Truth and being its witnesses. Our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this morning ends with their return to the city, to that upper room, and it lists not only the Eleven, but also several other disciples including women and it says, “all these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” Notice that unlike the time before they had seen the resurrected Jesus, they are not waiting fearfully, but praying, living in hope, integrating that truth into their lives. Next steps would come, but first they prayed and envisioned.

We gather here online and pray. We are here for one another, really much as when we gather in person—with a kind word, a prayer, perhaps a phone call. There will come a time when we can return to our church building, but right now, we are in that quiet season of reflection and prayer. Listening to God and how God is leading us forward in the truth. As we think about how things will be and what Trinity will do, we reflect on the love of God, the generosity of God, and the mercy of God. If we gather together, it is not for ourselves, but for the upbuilding of God’s people and if we stay apart, it is to be generous to others, to lessen the spread of this disease, to make it safe for our elders and for all the people of New York. That is the Truth—mercy and generosity contributing to the health of us all.

Jesus has ascended to the Father, but he is still the man from God’s point of view, and it is he that blesses us with his compassion and good humored acceptance.

Since Easter, we have been reading the first letter of Peter in our epistle readings. Today we used the reading that was appointed from Acts instead, but hear the ending of this great letter:

“Resist the Slanderer or Devil, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”

The Spirit of Truth, whom the World cannot Receive

“I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”

Jesus is talking here about the sending of the Holy Spirit. The word that Jesus uses that is translated as Advocate, is parakletos—Paraclete. That’s a Greek construction that means “one called to the side of someone.”  So, as a priest, I might be called to the side of a person in the hospital or to someone who is grieving. A lawyer might be called to stand alongside of someone with legal problems or a friend to stand along with a friend in need. So, Jesus is talking with his disciples about his own departure, his crucifixion, and he says, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another one to stand with you.” Jesus stands with us and God calls the Holy Spirit to stand with us in our life.

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

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

Love is not grandstanding, it is seeking the good of someone. You don’t have to die to do that, and no one has to know what caring for another person might cost you. Love is not how we feel, it is helping another, it is being called to stand along with them. Perhaps we do feel good when we do that, but the feeling is not the love, not this kind of love.

The Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is God’s love. Simple as that: God standing with us, upholding us when we don’t know how to stand, for ourselves or for someone else. The Holy Spirit supports us and holds us together.

Jesus says, “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” The Love of God is the Truth. In the face of all the un-love, hatred and violence in this world, the Truth is the Love of God. Why does Jesus say the world can’t know this?  In the Gospel and the Epistles of John, that term “World” has a specific and special meaning that doesn’t necessarily match everything that others might mean when they use that word.  It refers to that realm that looks to itself and its own benefit—to succeed in that world makes one powerful and wealthy, and in the world’s eyes those things are all that count.  It was pretty much the values of the Roman Empire, at least of the ruling elites of that empire, but sharply distinct from the values of Christ and Christians. It’s not that we don’t see those values cropping up from time to time. Perhaps more now than ever.   The World, in this sense, has no room in its values for the love of God—it encourages love of self and protection of self, not being called to support those who are poor, or sorrowful, or passionate for justice. The World cannot receive the Holy Spirit because it cannot open itself to love—if it did, it would cease to be the World.

The Spirit of the World rules by fear, and even those most successful in it are fearful, perhaps even more than those who are less successful. We can all be distracted and drawn in by the Spirit of the World from time to time. It’s possible to even try to steer the church by guides of worldly success and fearfulness. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth is much larger and more compelling than the Spirit of the World. The world measures success by power, money, and security—Christ measures by the commandment of love: are we living in love.

At Trinity, we don’t have much by the measures of the World, but we are abundant by the measure of Christ. In this time, when everyone is confined close and isolated, when there is real danger and grief, God has sent the Paraclete to stand beside us. I look around, and what I always see is someone reaching out to those who are most alone or disabled to be sure they are provided for. I call someone, and they say, “Yes, Father Kadel, people from the church are calling me all the time.” We are supported, not because we are perfect in our outreach, or because no one is ever overlooked, but because God is here at all times, supporting us. God’s love comforts each of us, even in loneliness and isolation.

The Holy Spirit can be so surprising—it’s not that the Holy Spirit is whimsical, or arbitrary. It’s not that the Holy Spirit is some sort of whoosh of feeling. The thing is, distractible as we are, pre-occupied with our own concerns as we are, we sometimes miss the love that God has for us, and for all God’s children. There are opportunities to be generous or compassionate that we may have missed that suddenly come to our attention—movements of the Holy Spirit—God’s love moving into the world. When we see it, and are incorporated in it, and able to act in the generosity of God’s compassion, it can be a wonderful feeling—but that feeling is not the Holy Spirit. The Love of God moving in this world is the Holy Spirit.

He says, “I will not leave you orphaned… because I live, you also will live.” All of us are called at one time or another to stand with someone, to be their comforter or their guide.  At this time in particular, so many need others to stand alongside them, particularly because it must be physically at a distance.  It is a privilege to stand with you, and more of a privilege that God’s Holy Spirit among you supports me.

From today’s psalm:

Come and listen, all you who fear God,

and I will tell you what he has done for me.

I called out to him with my mouth, and his praise was on my tongue.

If I had found evil in my heart, the Lord would not have heard me;

But in truth God has heard me;

he has attended to the voice of my prayer.

Blessed be God, who has not rejected my prayer,

nor withheld his love from me.

There are Many Dwellings

A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Easter, May 10, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.

Today is Mother’s Day and we have a Gospel reading where Philip, the Apostle, says, “Show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Figures. This guy was looking straight at Jesus and he still wasn’t satisfied. “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?”  God, the foundation and origin of all things, all things beyond the sun and this solar system, enfolding all the galaxies and stars in the palm of his hand, isn’t just something that we can show or look at. There’s too much of God to even see, though we see beauty in God’s creation, and life in nature. Most of all, we know God’s love, chiefly in his coming among us, as one of us, in Jesus Christ.

We cannot see God, but we can see mothers. That nurturing relationship we think about with mothers is specific, concrete and individual. All mothers are human, and, therefore, they have all the problems and shortcomings that beset all human beings; as with all of us, they are sinners of God’s own redeeming. Sometimes we miss that, because our love and admiration for mothers – especially in popular culture – make it appear as though they could never be sinful, or impatient, or make a wrong decision about their lives or their families. Some of us listening and watching are mothers or have acted in a mother’s role – but we all had mothers. And whether our mothers gave the kind of love we all want, or struggled with their very human problems, they are and were our mothers, and they lived, and their children grew up, entirely by the mercy of God.

I point this out, because mothers have pressure enough in raising children, without the added pressure of unrealistic images of what good mothers should be. The best mothers are real people, doing what they can for the children they love. That’s particularly important to remember right now, when we are all cooped up at home and there’s no relief available, even of the kids being away at school during the day. On this Mothers Day, we should be especially grateful to mothers, but mostly we should appreciate what goes into being a mother, and be merciful and kind to those who might fail at times and understanding as well, to those who have difficulties with their mothers. Because in the real world the consequences of motherhood are very real, and lives don’t always come out the same.

My mother, Bernice Kadel

My own mother died last summer. She had chronic breathing problems, among other ailments. Sometimes, my sister and I think it was a mercy that she passed away before this pandemic of a severe respiratory disease came around. Mom’s life was not without difficulties, but I always remember her encouraging me and my siblings, and other younger people, to make good choices in their lives and not just to give in to the expectations of others. If I learned anything from my mom it was to respect others as they are and not expect them to be just like me.  We had planned to go to Oregon this summer to commit her ashes to the ocean, but we had to cancel that trip because of this epidemic. This is a difficult Mother’s Day for lots of people, so many things that we would normally do have to be put off. So, especially this year, we remember and thank all the mothers, our mothers, grandmothers, adoptive mothers, biological mothers, stepmothers, and nurturers of all sorts. Be well and know that you are important and appreciated.

Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwellings,” dwellings enough for each of us, different enough to accommodate our different needs, dwellings to keep us safe and secure. We are comforted because God is here for us. Even in the midst of fearful times and in the midst of our own fear, we are safe and can be calm and assured, because Jesus is with us, loving us, showing us the Father. God is tremendous, not in the sense of pretty good, or better than any alternative; God is tremendous—outshining the sun and all the stars at once, of making all possibilities and all hopes available at once. And yet, in Jesus, in Jesus’ compassion and courage, in his generosity and love, we see God. And in him we take comfort: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Though we are in our own dwellings, not necessarily sure of our security, and not as able to reach out to mothers and children and others, we are secure in God’s love, and also all of us, as Christ’s children.

As our lesson from first Peter says:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.