Compassion

You shall not bow down to them or worship them

A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

You shall not bow down to them or worship them…

Today’s lesson from the Old Testament is the beginning of the law as God gave it to Moses—it is the Ten Commandments. They are worth memorizing, and certainly that was one of the virtues of the old-fashioned way of doing things—such texts would be absorbed into people’s minds, their way of doing things, into their hearts. They can be found at Exodus Chapter 20 in your Bible, or at pages 317 and 318 or page 350 in the Book of Common Prayer. It wouldn’t hurt to refresh your memory.

I noticed something in looking over the text, however. The text of the first four commandments is more than three-quarters of the text of the ten commandments. Why is that? The law is not a set of rules that we can use to protect ourselves by obeying them. The living God is far too free and dangerous for that little fantasy of ours to be true. The law is the statement of the relationship between God and God’s people.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” God’s mercy brings his people out of the house of slavery. God is the God of compassion, justice and life—no other God is acceptable. A God who does not bring life and freedom is no true God.

The next three commandments—about idols, making wrongful use of the name of God, and about the Sabbath continue to define who God is in relation to God’s people. The other six commandments define our relationship to God as well—being accountable to living a responsible life in God’s community. But let’s consider the longest of the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…

And it continues for thirty-six more words. God has defined our relationship according to mercy, compassion, justice, life. Bowing down in worship to things of the world change that focus to things like power, wealth, personal success. To win any of those things is not intrinsically merciful, compassionate, just or life giving. In ancient Israel, idolatry referred to what anthropologists might call “magic,” which is to say using things of this world to manipulate powers in the world. This was done, largely, for individual advantage, or the advantage of one’s close associates. In the Old Testament, it wasn’t really that this magic or those powers didn’t exist but rather that bowing to them violated the relationship with God—it could mean worshiping death, or the means of death for others rather than devotion to the God of Life, of Compassion, of Truth. The true God, the ultimate God is the God of life and mercy. The powers of death are not an alternate God, they are powers and things within this world which take advantage of the fears, selfishness and dishonesty of human beings. We moderns tend to think that we have outgrown such things, but they are very much real and very much with us.  That is why the first question in presenting a person for baptism is: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Think about this world, all the systems, organizations and ideologies that pressure and manipulate people’s decisions and feelings. The almost magical way that Google or Facebook presents you with ads that are tailored to your own very needs, the ways in which we ourselves conclude derogatory things about members of groups that we aren’t part of—based on—repeated rumors that we might hear on our favorite radio station, or things on our twitter feed, or the feelings and attitudes of parents, friends and relatives. These things have precious little to do with the God of mercy, justice and compassion. The God who freed the slaves and brings his children to safety.  Worshiping forces in this world—be they the internet, or political party, some idea of the power of science (other than the real truth of science which is that it is supposed to be about trying things out and being honest about mistakes and when hypotheses need to be changed) or social pressure—worshiping any of these things and bowing down to them breaches the relationship of faith in the Living God. Often people do not see how they are drifting into the worship of death until it is too late.

A priest that I know became very concerned when a girls’ softball team in a neighboring town advertised a raffle of an assault rifle to raise money to go to a tournament. He offered to pay their expenses instead, but that couldn’t happen since the raffle had been announced already.  So he bought most of the tickets and won the rifle.  He announced that he would have it destroyed and turned into a work of art.  This had some notoriety for a while and he received all sorts of messages.  He shared one of them with me. The person took him to task for destroying the gun. Like me, Fr. Jeremy has had plenty of experience with the rough language that filled the message, but what was striking was what he said, “how dare you destroy that beautiful weapon? How would you feel if someone smashed an image of Jesus Christ?”

I’m sure he would deny it, but in his message this man put a gun on a level with the Word made Flesh, God come amongst us. Note that the man had no claim to the gun, it belonged to Jeremy, a machine made of metal, wood and plastic. But its symbolic function was powerful enough to trigger his outrage—to call the destruction of this machine made from the earth, an act of blasphemy. Holiness, reverence and worship was invested in this machine, whose design was solely to cause death.

There are many such symbols, systems and ideas in this world, which serve a God-given purpose but which become idols, controlling the allegiance of people and turning them to the worship of death.

A week ago, a man broke out some windows from his high-rise hotel room and sprayed a crowd with automatic gunfire for ten minutes, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500. From what we have learned so far, Stephen Paddock wasn’t known very well, not even by the two wives and a girlfriend he had lived with. It’s a fair bet that we will come to know much about him and his grievance. Such a grievance couldn’t be proportional to the death and injury he caused—that could only be proportional to emptiness and fury that gives reverence to death over life.

 

Idolatry is commitment to powers that are contrary to life, contrary to God—gaming this world by using the power of death to get an advantage.

.           It is the God of Life who brought the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It is the God of life that brought Jesus into this world to proclaim his mercy and compassion. If is the God of life that raised Jesus from the dead and who makes life, compassion, justice and peace possible for all his people. Do not join with those who make idols in our time, and do not bow down to them.

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By what authority?

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things?”

What’s going on in this story? This event takes place during that time we remember as Holy Week, after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and before his betrayal on Maundy Thursday.  He has knocked over the tables of the money changers in the temple, saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” The following day, he’s back teaching in the temple when this confrontation takes place. The chief priests and elders were like religious and civil authorities of any time and place—they wanted to keep things quiet and cover up anything wrong, or disturbing, or contradictory in places where they seek to maintain control. That’s why Jesus brings up John the Baptist when he’s questioned.

John had appeared out in the wilderness of Judea a few years previous. He was very much in the tradition of the prophets, like Elijah, Amos, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. They were about uncovering wrongs and disturbing people who were all about protecting their comfort and influence, rather than following the challenging way of God. Prophets often performed physical signs to emphasize God’s word—Jeremiah wore a yoke to symbolize the oppression that Babylon would bring, for instance. So John the Baptist went out into the desert by the River Jordan, the traditional boundary and entry into the land of Israel, and there he had people repent of their sins and be washed in the waters of that river as a sign of repentance from their sins—from their denial of how they were a part of the evil of their time, of exploiting others, and being part of the death-dealing and self-serving corruption that arose during the dynasty of Herod—the rulers of Judea that served at the behest of the occupying Roman empire. John was arrested and later executed for publicly calling out Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for his immorality and corruption. All four Gospels connect John’s arrest with the beginning of Jesus’ public preaching.

I once heard someone describe John’s preaching as “weak tea” because all that John said in his preaching was to do things that people were legally obligated to do and to live with compassion—things like don’t coerce others, bully them or take bribes.  We mostly like our religion to be bigger, more flashy, doing things wholesale with lots of fireworks—I guess that would be stronger tea than John offered.  Thing is: John meant it.  The way people live their everyday lives makes a difference. God does not demand much—no grand show, no championships in ascetical practice, just living justly and compassionately.  John the Baptist had no time to be fashionable or political. He lived the life of the prophet and that meant that he wasn’t about to coddle injustice or dishonesty. So they killed him.

These elders and chief priests knew all about John the Baptist. These were political guys; they knew that John spoke the truth and it was exactly the kind of trouble they needed to cover up. Jesus knew and he was notifying them—the truth was not going away.  God was not going to stop calling people to justice and compassion.  They answered Jesus, “We do not know.” Because they couldn’t think of any other answer to make this issue disappear. The authority of both Jesus and John the Baptist was truth, the truth of God’s love and justice, and like so many, these authorities needed to deflect the conversation away from that.

So as they paused, as they weren’t sure what to do, Jesus began to tell a little story. We know those kids. At least those of us who have had teenagers know them. Heck, I’ve been those kids, both of them.  If you ask my wife, she will tell you that I’m the one that promises to do everything and then, hours later, is still flipping through Facebook or doing whatever else than the chores I’d promised. Lots of people like to pose as the really righteous, or the really religious or the one who will get things done. But the focus of Jesus’ story is on that other kid, the one who didn’t cooperate at first, who did not appear to be the righteous one. But he had a conscience, he was able to turn, to repent, and to be generous and drop his self-serving choices. That’s the truth that God requires of us, to be able to turn, and to give, not to protect our reputation and privilege, but to humbly do the will of God.

“John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.”

The Kingdom of God can be built even from those that are most despised, and even those we respect the least—what is required is to turn away from anxiety about our own standing and success, and to follow the truth of God.

Paul is saying the same thing in this marvelous passage that was read this morning from his letter to the Philippians:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

That doesn’t mean Paul is saying we should want to be regarded as the most humble, religious or generous people around. What Paul is saying is look out for the interests of others. Our life in Christ is focused on the well-being of somebody besides ourselves. It’s also not important to focus on the times we failed to do that – now is the time to look out for the good of others: the weak, the poor, those who are disrespected by others, especially by those who watch out for their own reputations and perquisites. Paul continues:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Notice that this obedience that resulted in death on the cross, was this very teaching that we hear today. Being a Christian is simple, and requires nothing fancy, just the humility to follow Jesus on his path along with all those who are able to turn and give up their fear.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Traveling light

 A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

People often base their ideas about the Bible on rumors they have overheard, or popular prejudices, or images they have seen based on those things rather than paying attention to the biblical text itself. So the Israelites cross the Red Sea and we envision Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments. The sudden parting of the sea with walls as straight and plumb as we see on those steps that Dan Holzli has been fixing outside our kitchen, with ground in between so dry that a hygrometer would read zero moisture. And we hear about the chariots and we see the same Charlton Heston in the Roman chariot race in Ben Hur. These images—great film images as they may be—get in the way of hearing the story as it is.

The chariots of the Egyptians—1500 years before the Romans began racing with their own version of chariots—those Egyptian chariots carried a crew of at least two, perhaps three or four, with a driver and archers meant to chase down scattered soldiers or fleeing Israelites.

Here is the text:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.”

It’s still pretty miraculous but the imagery is less like a conjuror’s trick and more like a stormy night during a war. One little linguistic note—the term that gets translated as Red Sea, is more accurately rendered Sea of Reeds, and might refer to a swampy lake which existed until the Suez Canal was dug through that area. In any case, the wind blew all night and the Israelites walked across on the ground that was exposed. You may note that in the account of the Passover that was read last week, the Israelites were traveling extremely light and quickly. Dry ground for them was not measured by a hygrometer, but that it was firm enough to walk across. The Egyptians were armed heavily, their chariots the equivalent of a Bradley fighting vehicle, but with narrow iron tires. To accomplish their aims of overtaking the fleeing slaves and wiping them out with arrows and swords, they needed those vehicles, so they pursued across the mud flats in the dark.  They were panicked and weighed down by all their equipment, and it was too late to turn around and get to safety. They found themselves unable to achieve their goal of dominating or killing this group of foreigners who had been in their midst. Stuck in the mud, they died as the storm ended and the water returned to its normal place.

The Israelites, who were pretty ordinary people, by the way, as we find in looking at their history for the next forty years after this point and going forward… the Israelites were led by God across the sea to safety and freedom. Moses was their leader, but he didn’t look like Charlton Heston. In particular, he didn’t speak with the brash confidence of Charlton Heston.  Moses had some sort of speech impediment or perhaps severe shyness. He couldn’t speak much in public or argue in debates with the Egyptian leaders. He had to rely on his brother to do the talking for him. Moses had to rely on God’s guidance, the guidance of God’s love, not on his own brilliance or strength.

In following where God led, the Israelites had to travel light. You may remember last week’s reading from Exodus: at the Passover, as the Israelites were preparing to be brought out of the land of Egypt by the Lord, they were fully clothed, with sandals and walking staff and cooked their bread in haste, without leavening it, so that they would not be held back by all things that people usually convince themselves that they need.  They followed the Lord along with Moses, and led by the cloud, they crossed the Red Sea without getting bogged down in the mud.

In the Egyptians with their chariots, we see how people are often bogged down … with selfishness, violence … seeking to get the upper hand over others.  Last week, I gave a bit of a spoiler about today’s Gospel lesson. These lessons are always intertwining.  This King had a major audit of his books and the first slave he brings in, somehow owes him ten thousand talents.  I looked up what a talent was—it was a measure that was about a cubic foot, and when it is money, it is a talent of gold or maybe silver. 10,000 cubic feet, that’s a lot of silver.  That amount would have been enough to keep a legion in the field for several years in those days.  So Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole, but he’s deadly serious—this man, though he was forgiven a debt larger than anyone could conceive of repaying, immediately turned around and treated the first poor fool to come along with great brutality. Talk about stuck in the mud of his own violence and selfishness—perhaps that has something to do with how he got into such great debt in the first place.

God has given us another path. With Jesus, we can travel light by living in his compassion with his courage. In this world of ours, we can feel like we’re burdened with ten-thousand talents of debt—it’s tempting to try to hold on, focus on the loss of all that, figure out how to make our chariot run through the mud so that we can win. But in Jesus, we see something else, generosity, not winning; compassion not cruelty; sacrifice for the sake of others, not fear.

I have just recently arrived here at Calvary. But what I have experienced is a community of caring and mutual support, people who care deeply about their children and young people overall. We live in hope because Christ is alive—not burdened by fear of death, or the ghost of ten thousand talents, but traveling light. Our job together is to explore and discover who we are as Christ’s community here in Flemington and then to listen and watch for where God is leading us.  As they were led by the pillar of cloud and fire, we are led and protected by the cross of Christ, and we discern it in the love of God, in God’s generosity and peace.

Let’s pray once again our collect for today:

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Not an ideal, but a divine community

A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.

If you take today’s Gospel lesson by itself, in isolation, it looks like an outline of a dispute resolution manual for litigation in the church. It’s often approached that way, but I think that is a big mistake. This lesson is the middle of the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. In this chapter, Jesus’ disciples ask him the question, “who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” and he responds by pointing out the humility of a small child. Not only is the child a model for us all, but “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

This chapter is about God’s welcome and God’s mercy. Today’s lesson is sandwiched between the Parable of the Lost Sheep—where the shepherd leaves his flock to go search for the single missing sheep—and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant—where the servant is pardoned of a great crime and a great debt but then turns around and brutally deals with another servant who owed him a small amount.

The context of today’s gospel is illustrations of God’s compassion and the life of compassion—of Jesus’ expectation of generosity of spirit and energy, and of the ugly consequences of selfishness and a lack of mercy. In case you’re not familiar with the story, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant ends thus: “ ‘Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

So this passage is about life in the community of mercy and compassion. It’s about including the little ones who might be lost, overlooked or put to the side. When Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you…” he’s not giving instructions on how to find the sinners and put them to right; he’s not setting as a goal tossing out all the bad people who make life miserable—what Jesus is talking about here is living together in God’s mercy.

I’ve been reading a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together.  It is about life in Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.

God’s grace—in other words, it is the gift of God that our community is filled with imperfect people, people definitely in need of God’s mercy, and it is the gift of God that our overly perfect expectations are shattered, leaving the real community in its place. There is no Christian who is not in need of compassion—from God, and from our sisters and our brothers.  Those who think their goal should be to be so perfect or self-sufficient as to not need compassion will find themselves frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed and unhappy. And if there is someone who thinks they have no need of forgiveness or compassion, that is a very serious problem indeed, for them or anyone whose lives are affected by them.

So when Jesus says, “… go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” it’s not about identifying who is in the wrong, who is the sinner, who is the bad person. It is not about that at all, it is a matter of honesty among the sinners in God’s community, of communicating clearly about hurts and offenses taken. Sometimes that communication is hard or frightening, and it takes another—someone outside the relationship, someone to help communication or provide support when getting truth told is a daunting prospect.  This passage frankly acknowledges that there might be situations where relationships are so badly damaged and trust so ruptured that reconciliation won’t take place. It is clear that such things happened in the churches we know about from the New Testament and historically in every age. But Jesus is not looking for a community where there will be no disagreements or hurts. Quite the opposite, Jesus creates a community where there will be hurts and breaches of trust, and in his presence they will be healed. We are called to be the mercy of Christ and it takes real work to live that honestly and compassionately.

The lectionary chops the lessons in some odd ways sometimes, and today is one of them. Today’s lesson is followed by the parable of the Unmerciful Servant—one who asserted his rights in a brutal and uncompassionate way—a warning to those who would cleave to the values of this world rather than the mercy of God’s Kingdom. But the ending of todays’ lesson is interrupted.  Here’s how the section ends in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Again, Amen I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name. I am among them. Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”

Then Jesus launches directly into the parable I just mentioned. It’s on good authority that we constantly misunderstand this lesson. St. Peter himself wants to limit the mercy in the community to a certain number of offenses before you’re tossed. Jesus’ response is basically to shake his head—No! Not just a number of times you can count—seventy-seven! (Some manuscripts actually say seventy times seven—perhaps he really meant seven to the seventieth power.) We are held fast in the community of God’s mercy. The realities of sins, missteps or offenses do not break the fabric of that divine community—we are blessed to live in the honesty of Christ’s mercy.  St. Paul says it this way in today’s epistle:

“You know what time it is, how it is now the time for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.”

I’m very happy to join with all of you here at Calvary.  As we walk together in the light we will focus on Jesus and how he leads us into the compassion of God. Church is not about the priest, or program, or success. It is about our lives being incorporated into the mercy of God in the real world.

In your compassion, there is a lot to remember this week in that world: remember on the anniversary of September 11th, those who died sixteen years ago in the World Trade Center and those who still mourn them; remember also those in harm’s way at this time, including those suffering from the earthquake in Mexico, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, and those suffering from Hurricane Irma which is now passing through Florida. Trust in God, and hold God’s children in your hearts.

Graft in our hearts the love of your name

A sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

I intentionally skipped over the gospel lesson last week because it is only the introduction to this week’s gospel. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples to reflect on who he is, what his significance is. They talked for a while about what other people thought Jesus was, who he resembled and so forth, and then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter was the one who responded and he said what his experience had led him to believe: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God!” Peter was perceptive and correct. He knew that Jesus, the man that he knew, in his life and his teaching and his actions was bringing the healing compassion of God into the world. And this insight was so important that it was the foundation of the church, the assembly of the forgiven, so Jesus gave him his name: Rock—Petros is simply the Greek word meaning rock.

Why is this important to know for our Gospel reading today? Because there’s a dramatic moment in today’s reading when Paul responds to Jesus telling him he must go to Jerusalem, suffer and die, by saying, “God forbid it, Lord!” and then Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Jesus just called Peter his rock and now he’s calling him Satan? What, indeed, is going on here?

Today’s reading has to do with the real love and compassion of God. It’s not what we like to think of as truth and compassion – something that doesn’t disturb our comfortable lives, our routines, our safety. That’s what Jesus was going to encounter in Jerusalem – people who were comfortable living untruthful and self-serving lives, believing they were entitled to their comfort.  And Jesus knew what the result would be of speaking to them of God’s truth and compassion. Someone once said to me in another context, “if you poke a narcissistic system, all you will get back is rage.” Jesus was realistic, far more realistic than so-called realists who counsel avoiding the truth if it creates difficulties.

Like the rest of us, Peter had grown up surrounded by that kind of realism and he reacted in just the same way. He took his friend aside. He had been Jesus’ friend for a long time and Jesus had just told Peter that he was the foundation of his church that was to come. So Peter reacted like any friend steeped in the realism of the world would have, he took Jesus to task.

“Get behind me Satan!”

Peter was responding from the position of the demons of this world—those forces that push for untruth and avoidance of responsibility; those forces that easily accept the suffering of others to avoid the discomfort of encountering the truth. It’s easy to think of such things as “smart” or “grown-up” when what they are is cowardly and what they do is build up evil consequences. Given enough time those evil consequences will be detached from the people who caused them to the point that the evil appears to come out of nowhere. In other words, demons are created. Those people who caused Jesus’ suffering weren’t especially evil, they were ordinary, worldly leaders, urbanely sophisticated, with good connections. They were regarded as having prudent judgement. They arranged to have our healer and Lord killed.

Jesus didn’t so much take this personally; he wasn’t worried about himself. Jesus was concerned to bring the love of God, the mercy of God, the compassion of God to all people, including those he had to face in Jerusalem. After setting Peter straight about what is wisdom and what is demonic, Jesus began to teach all his disciples. I think we can read it to include us: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The love that Jesus lived is not limited or unique to him. The depth of truth and compassion that took him to Jerusalem also guides his followers, and the consequence of following Jesus may well be painful, it may indeed involve loss. Certainly in Christian history, it has even involved the literal loss of life. To be sure, when I talk about deep truthfulness, I am not talking about delivering facts in a way calculated to hurt our competitors or enemies, or even “inadvertently” saying things out of resentment or anger that might be true, but are not compassionate. Living in the compassion of Christ involves the courage to be truthful, even to ourselves about our own lack of compassion (sometimes that’s known as confession).

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Abundance of life involves the boldness to live for others and being serious enough to continue that when it is not easy—putting the priority on one’s own life is the surest way to end up wandering in dissatisfaction and misery—we see it daily: the voracious need for affirmation and adulation among the most selfish and entitled; who already have the most. Surely they are losing their lives.

It is a challenge living, as we do, in a context of great wealth, where we and our children hear over and over again from people around us, that the basis of value is in having things and money. Those things are not life, that money is not value. Value is in human caring, caring that extends beyond ourselves, that rejoices in abundant happiness of others. Jesus says it right here: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” Take up your cross, and follow him. Do not be afraid. You will be surprised at the abundance of joy, when you give away your fear, and your anxiety about what you might keep.

Let us pray again in the words of our collect for today:

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles

A sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost, August, 20, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.

The setting of today’s Gospel is that Jesus had been healing people on the shore of the lake, where they landed after that stormy night that we read about last week. People were broken, sick and infirm, and Jesus made them whole with his touch. And some religious people came along who were very worried about whether Jesus’ disciples were washing their hands properly. In fact, the healing didn’t matter at all to them, it was the forms of purity that were all-important. Jesus points out to these ultra-religious people that their technical compliance with rules is really a way to avoid complying with one of the most important of the Ten Commandments, “Honor your father and your mother.” Then, today’s passage begins and Jesus says to the crowds: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

It would be a mistake to think that by saying this, Jesus is against Judaism or against a particular Jewish group, like the Pharisees, who were the most devout and active religious group in Palestine in those days.  Many prophets and rabbis had said similar things.

What Jesus was saying was: Stop trying to game the system. Stop using your religious observance as a way to feel superior to others. Once people get into positions of power – in business, in government, in the church – they often turn sanctimonious and say to others: If you’re not doing what I say you should do, then you’re defiled. Jesus won’t go along with this. It is what comes out from the inside that defiles, Jesus says. The products of hatred, disrespect and selfishness defile the people of God. “Murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” How much do we see these on the national scene nowadays? How often are they excused – even by the President of the United States? How is it that his councils of advice have resigned, except for those religious leaders who he appointed to give him spiritual guidance?

It takes a transformation and cleansing of the heart to live the life of God’s compassion. It takes courage to heal. In our Gospel today, the religious people took offense. Jesus was aware that they would. People protect their selfishness, and their self-serving manipulations; especially religious people. The holiness of God is not revered by honoring a form, an image, an idol, a statue. God is revered by accepting God’s mercy, by living from God’s generosity—seeking the good of others, welcoming those who have not been welcomed, healing the broken hearts of those who suffer or who have been rejected. It takes courage to be with Jesus in this way, because he won’t necessarily let us off the hook, settling into the comfort of our own self-righteousness, or into the isolation of our own hurts.  He gives us no room to be smug.

It’s no accident that the story about the woman whose daughter had a demon follows directly after this in the Gospel of Matthew. The disciples, of course, represent the church, and like the church, we love the disciples and we’re with them and they show us the truth of the Gospel as much in how they misunderstand it as by how they live it.  Jesus has moved from the scene of conflict with the Pharisees and healing the multitudes out to the coast. There’s some indication that he went out to the shore, to get away from a lot of what had been going on – not that different from why people are out on the Jersey Shore or Cape Cod right now. It was foreign territory and Jesus was on a break from his mission to change and heal his fellow people of Israel.

It’s kind of fashionable nowadays for preachers to criticize Jesus in this passage, putting themselves in a position of moral superiority, seeing Jesus as insulting the woman, not seeing the dignity of the woman or his responsibility toward her right away. I read it a bit differently. Jesus is walking and this woman makes her plea. And he remains silent, reflecting, taking it all in. She’s upset and she knows that Jesus casts out demons, and this is about her daughter who she loves. And Jesus is silent, just walking.  And the disciples are just like all these church people, and even, perhaps especially clergy, who have the quick answer, the decisive fix, and they know how to get rid of problems. “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

I’m not certain who Jesus is talking to when he says the next sentence. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Maybe to the disciples. Not exactly as a reproof to them, but reminding them of his focus.  Maybe reflecting to himself, “who are the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But the woman heard him and courageously and tenaciously engaged him. “It isn’t fair to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs.” And she expands on the metaphor, “even the dogs eat the crumbs.”

Jesus says: “Great is your faith.” This isn’t because Jesus lost the argument, no matter how convincing the loving mother was. It’s that he understands her faithfulness. And her faithfulness isn’t to some doctrine or rule. Her faith is demonstrated through her deep compassion for another, for her child, which gives her the courage to stand up to Jesus.

We’ve seen another example just this week come out of a terrible national tragedy. That was when Heather Heyer’s mother said at her daughter’s funeral: “I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I’ve got give her up, we’re going to make it count.” In the Gospel story the woman’s child is described as having a demon. There’s no specific or graphic description, but as I’ve said here before, that the demonic is a human, not a divine or magical reality. The demons are the results and symptoms of the evils of a society, where the angers, fears and selfishness are pushed off and dislocated: sometimes onto the weak or vulnerable, sometimes onto the most fearful or angry. Jesus saw this woman’s depth of faith and compassion and he said, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the child was healed immediately, just as those in the crowds were healed, those people who Jesus addressed, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My Yoke is Easy

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, 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.”

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.”