Sermons

Some of the sermons I have preached.

The time is fulfilled…Repent

A sermon for the first Sunday of Lent, February 18, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Our lectionary is on a three-year cycle, and in the other two years, the first Sunday of Lent’s gospel reading is the temptations of Jesus from Matthew or Luke. This year we have the Gospel of Mark and the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness go past so quickly that you hardly notice them. Rather than going into the depth of the experience of the temptations and the values and message of Jesus within them, Mark shows how these things are connected together—Jesus coming from Galilee, his Baptism by John, the heavenly voice confirming Jesus as the son of God, the temptation in the wilderness, the arrest of John and Jesus proclamation of the kingdom of God. In seven verses Mark sweeps through all these things and shows how they are connected.

They are connected as the essential background of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist’s call for repentance was the context for Jesus’ appearance. It was John’s arrest by the soldiers of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, that was the occasion of the beginning of Jesus proclaiming of the Good News. Later in the Gospel, Mark tells the story of the why and how of John’s arrest and execution. This Herod was corrupt, cruel and selfish.  Though he was a Jewish ruler of a Jewish principality, he was the client of a foreign power. John had pointed out his sexual immoralities and, more importantly, how he was unfaithful to his people, acting against the best interest of the people of Galilee and Judea. This was entwined with John’s preaching to the crowds about their repentance. It was not just the leaders who had to be held accountable to God, but everyone. Repentance was necessary—not feeling bad, but changing their lives; choosing each day to live in God’s justice. That was the messenger, preparing the Lord’s way, crying in the wilderness. And Jesus was in the wilderness, being formed in truth and served by angels.

John was taken into custody by the soldiers of Herod Antipas. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: repent and believe in the good news.” It is the first Sunday of Lent and we begin that journey with Jesus, the journey which ends with his arrest by the religious police and the Roman soldiers; his execution on Calvary. His message to the people in Galilee is the same as John’s was, down by the Jordan on the eastern edge of Judea: Repent, the Kingdom of God is here. What is that Kingdom? We know some of it: Jesus was a healer, he cast out demons, he taught people hope, character, and faithfulness. He embodied God’s mercy and that was his teaching. Entering the Kingdom of the most merciful God is easy—you just rejoice in God’s mercy, live as God’s merciful children.

Of course, to be God’s merciful children… To even think about being joined to God’s mercy… If you look around at what happened this week down in Florida, what happens every day in our country, even here… To claim to have anything to do with God’s mercy takes change, it takes repentance: a restructuring of ourselves and the way we operate…getting our priorities right. The safety and well-being of young people has to be a higher priority than things of this world: prosperity or success or making political points; or having the things we want. It takes courage to repent, because it means living in a new way. Repentance is the opposite of taking refuge in a world of fear and anger and blame. The Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is not the self-indulgent world of Herod Antipas, but the generous world of Jesus, who brought life and hope to others and didn’t avoid the very real risk to his own person. All through this coming season of Lent, we will see that Jesus’ loving actions, his teaching and his prayers all lined up in perfect accord. For our prayers or our thoughts to have any meaning, they must align with our repentance, and amendment of life. That is to say prayers and action are one. If a person thinks that they can toss in some prayers to make others feel better while planning or doing actions that contradict those prayers, that is blasphemy.

So we look at all the gun violence in this country, punctuated by mass shootings of children and an epidemic of gun suicides. It can look hopeless, practically and politically. Fifty years ago, when I was a teenager, there was another epidemic that everybody thought was hopeless: automobile fatalities. It had reached the rate of five and a half fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles travelled. Now it is just over 1 per 100 million miles. There are actually more than 15 thousand fewer traffic fatalities this year than 50 years ago while the country’s population is more than 50% larger. How did this happen? What caused the reduction of this epidemic? It wasn’t one simple solution, and it took years. A national commitment was made to reduce traffic fatalities. Different things were done: roadways and guard rails were improved, seatbelts and eventually airbags were required in cars. Cars were made structurally safer. Laws against drunk driving were toughened and enforced more stringently. Laws were changed, and some people didn’t like them.

When I was 14 in 1968, I got my driver’s license in Idaho. We were very proud of that and thought it was our God-given right.  Of course, I got in two accidents before I was 16. The age for driving was raised in states like Idaho, much to the consternation of teenagers, and some parents who found it convenient to have the kids drive themselves and do errands.  It took a lot of changes to reduce traffic fatalities. They are not entirely eliminated and still a tragedy when they occur, but they are no longer an increasing epidemic, we don’t assume that somebody we know will be killed in a car crash.

To address gun violence takes national repentance and a national priority for safety, for less gun violence. It requires good faith in looking for solutions from all parties, it takes some inconvenience and adjusting of expectations, and an orientation toward safety in all respects of gun ownership, handling and use. Guns can be made safer, and particularly dangerous weapons can be gradually eliminated. They aren’t needed any more than a .50 caliber machine gun or a rocket launcher. Guns are tools and our culture should develop in the direction of not having them be tools for killing people, least of all, high school students and teachers.

Immediately after his baptism the spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. He was tended by the angels of God. He came to his home country of Galilee calling for repentance and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He went among them, casting out demons and healing them.

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Wash your face…

A sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.

Some of you have probably noticed that in a couple of minutes after hearing this from Jesus, we are all going to have ashes spread on our faces. Then many of us will go out and people will see that we are Christians fasting on Ash Wednesday. Sometimes they notice Christians observing this fast by having elaborate meals at the best restaurants. Every once in a while someone asks me about this: “How can I be sure that I am doing this completely right? I want to be sure that I am doing what God wants me to.” The short answer to that is, you can’t, you aren’t, and you won’t. You can’t be sure that you are doing things completely right, you aren’t doing everything that God wants you to, and even when you convince yourself and those around you that you are doing everything you can possibly do, you will be fooling yourself.

Repentance is not about doing everything right: It is about living in God’s mercy. Our lives are a gift, and our ability to do good for others is the result of God’s generosity to us. As our psalm says, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.”

In the gospel, Jesus calls our attention to the behavior of the religious hypocrites. You know that you’ve seen people like those Jesus is describing. Folks who cover up meanness and selfishness with a great show of piety. We know how such hypocrisy can hurt. It hurts us when others are mean and cover it up with sanctimoniousness. We can see how this hurts others, and we know perceptions about church people behaving this way – right or wrong – are among the reasons why people stay away from the church in increasing numbers. It’s not difficult to see faults like this in others – the question is whether we can see it in ourselves.

Notice that Jesus isn’t naming names here. Jesus is talking to those who might be his disciples; he’s talking to us.  What is easy to see in others, is very difficult to see in ourselves. It is typical of the human condition be more generous toward ourselves than toward others. Unless, of course, we are more grandiose even in our hard feelings toward ourselves and judge ourselves as so much worse.

But that’s not the message of Ash Wednesday. The message is: We live in God’s mercy. We live in the joy of God’s generosity.

Thus we are called to reflection today on God’s goodness and how we might live more abundantly in that goodness. In this world, we know that people hurt one another and cause and allow suffering. But that’s often an occasion to reflect—is there some way in which my own behavior causes someone else to stumble? Or feel rejected? Or less than fully God’s precious creature?  This kind of examination isn’t a way to feel bad about something. Quite the opposite. It is a time to see opportunities to be more welcoming, more affirming, more forgiving.

Sometimes the faults that we see in ourselves gives us a bit of a sense of humor about similar faults in others. Thirty years ago I was training in the Princeton University Library to enter and modify records into their computer system. I would be perturbed when I discovered errors. You could tell who had made them, because their initials were on the record. How could they be so careless? A few months in, I found mistakes and opened up the record, and behold, there were my initials! After a number of these, I adopted a more forgiving view. As we live life and go through many things, it’s possible to be more accepting of faults and missteps in others, recognizing that we have our own faults and make mistakes.

The God of mercy calls us to a life of mercy. The season of Lent is a season of God’s mercy, a season of seeing possibilities to be merciful and to be encouraging. The way of this world is so often to be competitive and to find ways to be “one up” on others, to pretend to be perfect or better than others, and without need of mercy or the need to be merciful. But we belong to Jesus, we are not of that world, or at least, we are not owned by that world.  The great gift is God’s mercy—who would turn away from that, just to be right? Jesus says,

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

That treasure is the treasure of mercy. The merciful God giving us the opportunity to be merciful and compassionate people. If you think back a couple of weeks, when we gathered in the parish hall, the very things that emerged from your conversations, between twos and at your tables, that characterized why Calvary Church is important were that it is a place of welcome, acceptance, not judging, extending welcome to others, and joining together in the worship of God. These are characteristics of mercy, of being merciful people who have first known the merciful love of God. That is where our treasure is—our hearts are in God’s mercy and we see opportunities to live and grow in being merciful each day.

Have you not known?

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

In our Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. On the second Sunday of Advent, I preached about this same chapter of Isaiah, but the earlier part, based on Handel’s Messiah: “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people.” This beautiful chapter tells of God’s caring and protecting of people, despite the difficulties and dangers we face, and contrary to fearful and idolatrous human solutions.

Today’s lesson talks about the real nature of God. “He who sits above the circle of the earth”—that is to say outside of human experience, transcending the cosmos as we can understand or envision it.  It is naïve of some modern people to think that the prophet thought of God as a man sitting in outer space or physically above the sky.  The disc of the earth was the entire cosmos of people’s experience and imagination for the people of ancient Israel—the stars were on a huge inverted bowl that defined that disc—God is beyond all that they, or we understand, beyond the horizon of our experience or imagination.

That’s in contrast to the idols of our construction and imagination: things that can be manipulated and used for self-serving purposes. Today’s passage follow’s one that discusses idols that are simply made of wood with gold overlay. People are inclined to regard power and wealth as things that will protect them, make their lives better.
But Isaiah observes:

[God] brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Security via power and wealth is an illusion, or perhaps, more properly, a delusion. It is tempting to think that, if having enough is good, or being confident and strong makes us feel secure, then having more than we need will keep us from ever being in need and having huge power that makes us stronger and more dangerous than others will protect us from ever feeling unsafe. This is something that is abroad in our country today: very popular and very dangerous. It is what Isaiah saw, and what he was called to speak the word of God against: “he brings princes to naught, and the rulers of the earth as nothing.” Though fear tempts us sometimes to follow these delusions, we know that they don’t work.

Last Sunday we gathered together and worked very hard for several hours. Basically, we were listening to one another’s experiences about what had made us feel most alive, most spiritually engaged, most deeply satisfied. What you came up with can be summarized as our experience in this community of being welcomed, accepted, included, and having the opportunity to extend that to others, and to worship God together in that community of welcome, acceptance and inclusion. None of the lasting and permanent values that we shared had to do with holding power, or achieving or keeping great wealth. Whenever there are fears, they are fears of not having enough to continue to welcome and be welcomed, to open ourselves to accept others, to have regular, deep and nourishing common worship of God. The source of our bounty is the God of all creation—none is hidden or exempt from God’s love or God’s justice. The manipulations of the powerful or the privileged will not prevail, indeed they are illusions which will end quickly in embarrassment.

Our Gospel lesson today continues directly after last week’s lesson where Jesus taught in the synagogue and healed the man with the unclean spirit, the one who was fearful that Jesus would destroy them by bringing the truth of God among them. They went from that synagogue to Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law was sick with a fever. He reached out his hand to her, he supported her and the fever left her. She was returned to health, and she did what she was always about, hospitality and welcome, serving the guests in her home. The point of the story is not about magical healing powers that do away with germs, the story continues with Jesus healing the whole town—bringing health and return to healthy, welcoming, accepting and including ways of living. It says that Jesus cast out demons and silenced them—they wanted to say how they knew him, put their own spin on the situation through fear, anger, selfishness, hunger for power, manipulation—but Jesus brought health, welcome, God’s compassion into that town. Then he continued and brought the same: the message of the Kingdom of God, throughout his country of Galilee.

It is the Kingdom of God to which we are called together. Health and fearlessness, not the fear and manipulations of this world. We live in what is permanent and not what is illusion.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

With Authority, and he Commands the Unclean Spirits and they Obey…

A sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, January 28, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Today is a special day of discernment for Calvary which will finish with our Annual Parish Meeting. 2017 was a year of transition for Calvary. Father Harry Mazujian left as Rector at the end of February. Mother Ann Holt and Deacon Jack Hain stepped in with outstanding liturgical and pastoral leadership. The people of Calvary took responsibility for the activities and programs of the church with the faithful and diligent leadership of our Wardens, Jean Good and Karen Sammer. Karen Sammer and Doug Reagan organized the discernment team, which has put in an incredible amount of work in preparing Calvary’s profile and vision for a new rector. Jennifer Poruczynski has been marvelous in staffing Calvary’s ministries as our diligent and reliable administrator. We have also been blessed by the work of the Way of St. Paul team, Bob Violette and the wonderful choir, our youth, the Tuesdays at Ten Group, the Shepherds who visit the sick and shut-in, and parishioners who organized new initiatives this year, including being a part of the Flemington community’s Halloween observance and Christmas parade.

Thank you to all, and thank you to all our members and friends who support one another and what we mean to God’s people.

I came to Calvary in September because working with churches in transition is what I do. What I love about this work is that transition is a time of change, a time when we can recognize what is vitally important and what can just … change. An important part of our time together today is appreciating together how important what happens at Calvary really is. Our mutual support and witness, and living God’s love for the world together make a real difference for that world, especially here in this community of Flemington and Hunterdon County. Calvary is a resilient community and as this congregation goes through the changes of this transitional time together, it is becoming stronger and more focused on what is truly meaningful.

Becoming whole is what our Gospel lesson is about today. It’s important to remember that Jesus was a healer. We often think of him as a teacher and preacher, which can make us miss how important healing was to him. What he did was to heal and cast out demons, far more than even teaching and preaching.  We see this here in the Gospel of Mark. It starts with John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and then Jesus comes to Galilee and gathers his disciples.  And then this story, the first time that Jesus is teaching a congregation.

What’s of note in our Gospel lesson today, is that though we are told that Jesus is teaching or preaching, what is it that he’s really doing? He’s healing.

We don’t actually hear the content of Jesus’ teaching here, but we are told about his hearers’ reaction. The congregation at that synagogue in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, were astonished. This was something new. This is what they said: “What is this? A new teaching, with authority, and he commands the unclean spirits and they obey him.” And that was the foundation of his ministry.

Today, we will have time to think about our focus and what is it we want as our foundation for our ministry at Calvary and in our community. We’ll each have time to talk and we’ll each have time to listen. It will be a time of reflection and a time of fellowship.

Please take a few moments in silence, to reflect along with me:

Imagine a Church in which every parishioner is welcomed into a place where God’s love shines and lives are nurtured and transformed in Christ…

Imagine a Church in which every parishioner is valued as a unique Child of God and empowered to offer their gifts to the benefit of the congregation and the community at large…

Imagine a Church in which every parishioner is inspired to live their dreams of making a better world in which Christ’s peace, justice, and love is available to all…

Our imagination is based on remembering things we have seen and experienced, what we know is possible and is real. As our Psalm for today says:

God’s work is full of majesty and splendor,

And his righteousness endure for ever.

He makes his marvelous works to be remembered;

The Lord is gracious and full of compassion.

He gives food to those who fear him;

He is ever mindful of his covenant.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice;

All his commandments are sure.

 

Come, let us remember who we are, and whose we are, and imagine what we can become as the People of God…

After this Holy Eucharist we will gather in the parish hall, and work together on remembering Calvary Church as the people of God.

 

Repent, and Believe in the Good News

A sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 21, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God’s coming near, of the healing and hope for the world. And the first thing he does when he gets there is to call the apostles. Jesus came to Peter, Andrew, James and John and said, “Follow me.” So they followed, and it all seems pretty simple and straightforward. Not much to it, really. Stop sweating, working with the nets, for hardly any return, and go out and chat with people. Of course, thinking of it this way leaves out the rest of the Gospel.

So let’s turn to our Old Testament lesson today, from the book of Jonah. When you read today’s passage, it sounds like God told Jonah to go preach to Nineveh and preach and everybody repented and things were good—God calls, the prophet answers the call and things work out.

The problem is, that this is exactly NOT what the book of Jonah is about. This bit is from the middle of the story, while both the beginning and the end of the story give a very different view. The story actually goes like this: God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against its wickedness. Jonah’s immediate response was to head in the other direction. Instead of going across the desert to Iraq, Jonah got on a boat headed to Turkey, or maybe Italy, perhaps New York. This is where the whale comes in. God was not amused by Jonah’s response, and sent a big storm, and the crew of the boat threw him overboard to keep the boat from sinking.

It worked and a big fish or whale swallowed Jonah and spewed him out back on the beach where he started. That’s where we get today’s lesson. God says it again, and Jonah trudges off to Nineveh, and walks into the huge city, and tells everyone to repent, and they take him seriously, and do it.

Fine. Except that’s not the end of the story. Jonah is very unhappy with this outcome. He had expectations. He had said that in forty days Nineveh was going to be overthrown, and that’s what he wanted to see. And if God was going to change the deal, Jonah was just going to go off and sulk. Jonah wants to die, because God is merciful to the people he wants to punish. Jonah wants God to do what he wants him to do, and be the way that Jonah thinks God should be, which oddly enough, is just like Jonah.

God, however, is a living God, who does not resemble Jonah, or me, or even you. God’s love is beyond our understanding—deeper and wider than our imagination can take in. So, God calls his people, he calls his prophets, his apostles, his priests, his witnesses to the truth, mothers and fathers and children—and we think we understand that call. Peter and Andrew and James and John thought they understood when Jesus said, “Follow me.” Perhaps they even believed they knew what it meant to become fishers of people. But responding to the call to follow Jesus works out differently than we expect, at least the first twenty or thirty times we start out. Jonah actually had a pretty good idea of what God wanted, and that’s why he took off in the opposite direction. It was not going to work out that his enemies were going to be punished and Jonah’s angry fantasy satisfied.

Not everyone’s fantasies are angry, like Jonah’s. Many times in my life, my fantasies have been more grandiose and self-centered than angry. As individuals and as a church, we have ideas and expectations that are sometimes visions of God’s kingdom and sometimes fantasies to make ourselves comfortable. God’s call to us is in the real world, and it leads us in ways that we often don’t expect. Jonah found that God’s mercy abounds, even beyond our own regions of comfort. Those first disciples also discovered the abundance of God’s mercy—it took time for them to understand that that mercy called them to go with Jesus into places that challenged them more than they imagined.

Jesus brings us good news, THE Good News that God is here with us. That God’s mercy and compassion are right here, in this place for all of us; for every one of God’s children without any need to pass a special test, or have special skills or achievements. God loves you and welcomes you. Jesus calls each of us, like he did his apostles. Like God called Jonah. The Good News, of course, is also for that other person, the one who might make somebody uncomfortable, the ones that Jonah ran away from. We think we know that they won’t accept the Good News, or at least not respond to God’s call with appropriate repentance.  Sometimes we are just like Jonah that way. And what does our lesson today say?

Jonah cried out, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Jesus’ apostles, in their journeys with Jesus, also had similar experiences, with the outcasts and lepers, the Samaritans and the Gentiles, with many who they assumed would reject the Gospel, or who God healed and transformed before they believed.

We have God’s mercy, God’s Kingdom, right here among us. The challenge is to accept and live in that love—to follow the call of Jesus and to see where else he bestows that Good News.

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.

You shall invite each other to come under your Vine and Fig Tree

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!

Nathanael was a follower of John the Baptist. So was Andrew and Philip. So Philip came to his friend Nathanael all excited. “We’ve found him! We’ve found him! The One!”

And Nathanael’s response was “… and that would be who?” And when he heard that it was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, Nathanael says to Philip, “Now think about this. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a no-place, a bit like Murphy, Idaho, the county seat of a desert county with about as much land area as New Jersey, near where I grew up. The main notable feature about Murphy was that it had one single parking meter.

Nothing in scripture or tradition spoke of Nazareth, there were no prophecies about the town, no prominent families or powerful associations. Nobody expected the Messiah or anything else good to come from Nazareth. Nathanael wasn’t so much swayed by the enthusiasm of friends, and he didn’t go along with what Philip said just to be polite. As a follower of John the Baptist, he took this Messiah stuff pretty seriously, and there is no reason to just take the word of someone who has gotten all emotional, even if he is a friend.

Philip says, “Come and see.”

One of the most puzzling exchanges in scripture is what happens next. I think there are pieces left out that would have made more sense to people who knew more about the followers of John the Baptist than we know today. Jesus sees Nathanael coming and he says—“There’s an Israelite in truth, but without deceit.” The first person who had the name Israel was the Patriarch Jacob, who was well-known for deceiving everybody—he tricked his brother, his father, his father-in-law… Yet Jacob also wrestled with the angel of God and received the vision of the ladder to heaven, access to the way and presence of God. So Nathan is Israel without the tricks.

When Jesus says this, Nathanael perceives that he somehow knows him—“Teacher, where did you get to know me?” The answer to Nathanael’s question is cryptic: “I saw you under the fig tree.”

Fine. He saw him under the fig tree. To our modern ears it sounds like Jesus saw Nathanael standing in the shade. But it meant something different to those in the time of John the Baptist.

Commentators have a lot of theories, and most of them admit they are all speculation. Here’s something that people back then who knew a bit about John the Baptist and his followers and who knew their scripture would know: The prophet Zechariah (who just happened to have the same name as John the Baptist’s father) had prophesied about six centuries before, as the people of Judah returned from the exile in Babylon. He was encouraging the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. He spoke of a messianic figure, called the Branch. And at one point he writes this: “I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of Hosts,

and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.” So Jesus’ reply to Nathanael is “I saw you under the fig tree.” I think that Nathanael heard in that statement the fulfillment of that prophecy, “I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day.” The image of being under your own vine and fig tree is one of restoration of a tranquil and prosperous life, a life of peace and hope. The vision of hope for Nathanael and God’s people.

Our psalm for today says, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.”

Jesus knew. He knew that Nathanael longed for the Kingdom of God, he longed for that time when everyone would share hospitality under his own vine and fig tree. Nathanael, the Israelite with no deceit turns to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

We live in God’s kingdom, and that is not a kingdom of wishful thinking or pretending that things are how somebody thought they should be.  We are known by God, our lives and our hopes are knit together by God. But, in Jesus, those hopes aren’t just any fantasy we might have, nor do difficulties and distractions just fade away.  Nathan says to Jesus that he is “the King of Israel.” And that would be how he envisioned the Messiah’s coming. Jesus knew Nathanael, and loved him, and invited him to follow. But that following was not to indulge what Nathanael imagined he wanted or was going to get, but the reality of the Kingdom of God, of Jesus’ road, not just to Galilee to preach and teach, but to Jerusalem, to face and defeat the powers of death. “You will see greater things than these, Nathanael, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

This weekend we remember a man who Jesus knew and invited to follow him. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke directly, without guile or deceit about his experience and that of his people. It was never easy, and the outcomes of standing up for justice and fairness were never unambiguous.  Much of what Dr. King hoped for has not been realized in the way that he wished, and certainly not as soon as he wished. Racism is still common in our country and comes to the surface in disturbing ways, even for those of us who might be more likely to be beneficiaries of the effects of racism, rather than to suffer. Dr. King’s witness, of standing for a society of respect and dignity for every person, shows us a way to move forward, practically in our society, even though the road is hard, and with many delays and surprising challenges.

At Calvary Church, we live in the Gospel of Jesus. He knows us as he knows Nathanael. He invites us to follow him, to follow him on the way. And like Nathanael, we will be surprised. We might have envisioned one outcome, but the Vine and Fig Tree that comprise God’s mercy for us, will be different. Much more abundant, with deeper joy, and much more challenging.

As it says in our psalm: “You press upon me behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. … You yourself created my inmost part; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful and I know it well.”

And then Jesus said:

“Amen. Amen, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

And laid him in a Manger

A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.

So how did baby Jesus end up in a feed trough?  A year or so ago, I read an article by a scholar who suggested that the way we have been reading this sentence for centuries is mistaken. We have all seen the Christmas pageants, some of which include a kid in the role of the mean innkeeper who tells Joseph and Mary they can’t come in— “Go stay in the stable!” But the thing is, the words we translate, and what we understand by those words, don’t always match up with how things were when the words were first written. Remember, this is a long time before Mr. Marriot built his first hotel or before Motel 6 started its first franchise. In fact it’s a long time before the first public houses and inns of medieval England, which is how most of us think of the word “Inn.” When people traveled in first century Palestine, they usually found some connection, often a distant relative, who would let them couch surf.

Of course, they didn’t have a couch—the houses were quite small, basically a room where the whole family slept and a spare room used for gatherings, dining, and such like. Sometimes that area was the upstairs of the house, like the room where Jesus had his last supper with his disciples.  The word we translate as “Inn”—

kataluma, was used for that room.  At the far end of the living quarters was where the family brought in its livestock at night. Why? Because there were predators and thieves abroad, and people didn’t want to risk losing their few precious animals by leaving them outside.  And at that end, there was a trough dug in the dirt floor to feed the animals and encourage them to stay in place overnight. If we were sitting in the 250-year-old farmhouse where Paula and I live outside Frenchtown, this would be much easier to understand: in previous times, spaces were small and people lived close together and at close quarters with their animals.

So imagine, the house is filling up with guests, travelers who maybe came to town for the census registration. People were used to piling in at close quarters, sleeping virtually on top of each other. Not a big deal. But this young woman who has arrived is starting to go into labor. What would the mother of the household do? Typically, she would get the kids to take the animals outside and watch them, clean up the end of the house where the animals normally were, and make room for Mary so that she could have some privacy, dignity and space while she delivered her child.

She laid him in the manger, for there was no space in the other room. Of course, there are other possibilities, there might have been some kind of public lodging and a stable. Either way, what we see are very ordinary people, without power or wealth, making do with what’s available, and bringing life into a very crowded and complicated world.

What we know of Mary is that she was courageous and generous. Rejoicing in the love of God. Generously giving of herself.

But the great generosity in all this is God’s generosity. God rejoices in life so much that God joined this world of very ordinary people, as vulnerable as the rest of us, subject to hardships, and sorrow and grief. Vulnerable to danger, indeed to death.  And Mary took that fragile newborn, and wrapped him carefully and lay him down where there was space, in a trough where the animals had eaten. Among my favorite Christmas music are classical pieces that set the medieval Latin text: O Magnum Mysterium—it’s translated:

O great mystery,

and wonderful sacrament,

that animals should see the new-born Lord,

lying in a manger!

 

The image that God’s love for creatures is so great that they were the witnesses of the moment of the Incarnation, is so beautiful, and it emphasizes that what God loves in us is our life—not our accomplishments, our intelligence, or our worldly possessions—but life itself—ordinary, difficult, joyful—rejoicing in God’s generosity, God’s love, God’s presence among us. Even as a small child.

Word of the birth spreads and the first people the messengers of God, the angels, seek out are shepherds.  I remember as a kid thinking that shepherds were some exotic, dreamy guys with big hooks, living an ideal existence. I had no idea that they were the same thing as sheepherders, whose wagons you could see up in the mountains of Idaho when I was young. Scruffy guys, not well respected, well washed, or well paid. On the low side of ordinary by most people’s lights. Years later I discovered that that is exactly how the shepherds were regarded in ancient Palestine—not trusted, not respected. But God sent the angel to announce to them: I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

It was in this way, by manifesting his glory to the very ordinary and humble workers, that God chose to reveal his great work in the world. God blesses human life in his own human life, and blesses our love by giving of himself.

So the shepherds said, “Let’s go!” Let’s see this thing! And they went and they saw the baby in the feed trough.  Everybody was astonished when the shepherds told them about it, but the shepherds, they rejoiced and glorified God and praised God, because this was pretty wonderful and amazing.

As Christians, we live in hope. Hope is not wishful thinking and it’s not about the future, at least not the far-off future. With all God’s creatures and all God’s people we receive the gift of life, and living that life is hope. As a fragile baby and in his resurrection from the dead, Jesus continues that life that is our hope, not exalted or proud, but very ordinary. Let us join those sheepherders :

“An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them—and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”