Courage

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.

Blessed are You

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 2, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

 

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are YOU when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

In the Sundays leading up to Lent, our lectionary is taking us through the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as told in the Gospel of Matthew. Last week he called the first disciples and the lesson ends: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Next, Matthew describes the great crowds who came from all over to follow Jesus. Jesus’ response to those crowds was to teach them. Over the next few Sundays we will be going through this detailed account of the teaching of Jesus, which is best known as the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching is the fundamental foundation of Christian spirituality.

The introductory part, which I just read, is called the Beatitudes—the blessings, or the description of those who are blessed. Sometimes people take these Beatitudes one at a time, but really, taken together, they are Jesus’ outline of the spirituality of the Christian life.

The Beatitudes start with “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Who are the poor? They are those who have little or nothing left to lose. The more that people and organizations have things that they might lose, the more afraid they become of risking those things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But it is the Kingdom of God that gives life, not the things that we might have lost or still could lose.

And yet, many of those things that we might lose are good, are created by God, and give us joy. It hurts to lose them. The second beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Sometimes the things we give up or lose are things, or status, that we like, that we have come to depend upon, or that we feel defines us. And adjusting to that kind of loss is a type of mourning. Sometimes we mourn for people who have meant a lot to us. In our own community, we have lost people, long-time members—and we grieve. Losing a spouse or a child or another close loved one hurts immensely, and it continues to hurt for a long time. The comfort that God gives does not take that hurt away, or explain away our sorrow. God comforts us by traveling the road with us, healing our hurts, and giving mercy.

When Jesus says “Blessed are the meek,” we need to understand something about that word. Meek has taken on a meaning in the past century that is misleading. We are inclined to think of meek as meaning primarily passive and submissive, but the word in this passage does not mean that—it means gentle, courteous, and humble. One doesn’t inherit the earth by being timid or weak; rather it is by the strength of being humble, listening, and giving credit to the dignity of others. The humble person neither trumpets their advanced status in the Kingdom, nor resents what they have given up for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Being meek does not mean that you don’t speak out when you see wrong or injustice. It’s only the meek and humble who can authentically hunger and thirst for justice (which is the same word as righteousness). Those who, in the core of their being, hunger and thirst for righteousness are fed, not by seeing it completed in this world, but by humbly receiving sustenance and life in God’s Kingdom so that they may continue to look for, and find the possibility of more justice in this world.

And as we struggle to find more justice or righteousness in the church or in the world, we would become embittered and lost, were it not for God’s mercy to us, guiding us into the path of being merciful human beings. For who can be just or righteous in this world? It is certainly not those who are always convinced of their own rightness. It is in dwelling in that mercy that we can approach pureness in our heart and mind, perhaps getting a glimpse of what God has in store.

Notice here, that we have gone through all of this before we get to peacemaking. Making peace is not something you achieve by splitting the difference, or agreeing to not talk about disagreeable things. Making peace where there has been real contention takes the most profound of risks, courage, humility and strength. The children of God who are the peacemakers must be living day by day in God’s kingdom for anything like peace to make sense.

Jesus is totally in the real world. Notice that the next step in the beatitudes, indeed the consequence of making peace, is being persecuted for righteousness sake. Don’t expect living as a Christian and as a peacemaker to make your life peaceful and easy. This is the first Sunday of Black History Month—you can’t go very far in reflecting on the history of Black peacemakers—Absalom Jones, Alexander Crummel, Martin Luther King, Jr.—without seeing that their persecution, suffering and even martyrdom, are directly connected with their speaking out and living for the sake of peace with justice.  The peace and love of Jesus Christ can be profoundly disruptive, particularly for those who think they have this religion thing under control.

 

 

So that summarizes Jesus’ outline of the Christian spiritual life.

Jesus teaches us and the crowds the way of life. But what he teaches is not important because it is new or different. It is important because he lived it and shared God’s mercy and compassion.  It is a mistake to talk about the Sermon on the Mount as representing “New Testament teaching” as if it were different from the “Old Testament.”  Jesus’ life and teaching are consistently a commentary on the scriptures of Israel.  Hear again our Old Testament lesson for today: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Over the next three weeks, the Sermon on the Mount will illustrate how Jesus’ humble walk with God interprets the scriptures of Israel. God blesses those who accompany him on that walk, rejoicing in God’s Kingdom, finding God’s peace, purifying their hearts, receiving and giving God’s mercy and comfort.  May all of our spirits become poor enough and empty enough to inherit the reign of God.

 

I will give you Words and a Wisdom

A sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

As one who always writes out his sermons in full, this gives me pause.  Is Jesus really saying don’t prepare in advance? And how does that fit together with our collect for today, “Grant us to so read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest [the Holy Scriptures] that we may ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life?”

First, we should really look at the scriptures, especially the one in which Jesus says this. Jesus is in Jerusalem, talking with his disciples about the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was there—actually pretty new and solid looking—it had been rebuilt by Herod the Great, just a few decades before. Jesus said not even one stone would be left in place—utter destruction.  This section of the Gospel of Luke is a picture of chaos, violence, and fear.

By the time the Gospel of Luke was written down, the scenes in this lesson were actually happening to Christians.

Stones from the Temple after the Romans destroyed it

The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, and Christians were sometimes finding themselves dragged in front of magistrates and others, imprisoned, persecuted or beaten. Even St. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, wrote some of his letters from prison.

So when Jesus says:

“But before this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to congregations and prisons and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

…the readers of the Gospel of Luke knew that it was not just a flight of rhetoric. There were real things to be afraid of.  There are real things to be afraid of in our own time. Immigrants are imperiled, children are separated from their parents and put in cages; white supremacists and anti-Semites are emboldened to menace and intimidate innocent people; and gun violence continues to increase unabated. People who speak the truth in the face of these things can and do face danger—it’s not so different than two thousand years ago.

So Jesus said to the disciples, to the Christians of the late first century who were facing arrest and persecution: “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare a defense in advance.” Jesus had empathy for all these people, that is, he knew and felt how they felt. He took them seriously. But he wasn’t so sympathetic with their desire to be let off the hook, to escape the reality that was facing them. They were afraid, but Jesus addressed them as his disciples, not just students or followers, but as people formed by the discipline of Christ’s love, of the values of his compassionate courage, as people whose character is growing into the love of God—love not for self, but for all of God’s creation, especially those who are vulnerable.

When he says “don’t prepare your defense in advance,” what I believe Jesus is saying is that this is not about defending yourself at all, it is not about a plausible speech, it is about presenting yourself as Christ presented himself—an offering and sacrifice to God. The truth of God’s compassion does not make us any less vulnerable, it does not make the truth hurt any less. We are accountable for being Christians, for standing for the truth in compassion, for insisting on respect for the dignity of every person. This is in no way partisan. Every Christian is equally required at all times to stand up with compassion for peace and against indignities against anyone, particularly when the tide of group emotions is looking for scapegoats and victims.

In the earlier part of the lesson, Jesus warns the disciples, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘the time is near!’ Do not listen to them.”  It is so easy to grab hold of plausible rhetoric, and people who promise the world, or even eternity, if you only follow them.  We certainly have seen that. As Christians, we follow Jesus, and Jesus alone. So how do we distinguish following Jesus, from accepting the word of some bearded white guy standing in a pulpit?

Please join with me in a simple exercise of discernment. Don’t tell me what you are thinking, but reflect on these questions in the privacy of your own heart.

In this time of fraught national division, what is God calling you to do?

Now. What is fear calling you to do?

Finally. What is love calling you to do?

In the long run, as we grow into Christ, who is the love of God, our discernment of where God is calling us to go, and what love is calling us to be will converge into the same thing.  And perfect love casts out fear, as real as the fear may be—but that might take a while. That’s OK—the love of God is bigger than all of us.

So, it says, right here in the Bible: “Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. … You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

In conclusion, let’s join once more and read today’s psalm, Psalm 98, together in unison:

 

Sing to the Lord a new song,

for he has done marvelous things.

With his right hand and his holy arm

has he won for himself the victory.

The Lord has made known his victory;

his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.

He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel,

and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands;

lift up your voice, rejoice and sing.

Sing to the Lord with the harp,

with the harp and the voice of song.

With trumpets and the sound of the horn

shout with joy before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it,

the lands and those who dwell therein.

Let the rivers clap their hands,

and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,

when he comes to judge the earth.

In righteousness shall he judge the world

and the peoples with equity.

Stood up straight

A sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“She stood up straight and began praising God.”

When I rejoined you at Trinity earlier this year, I met with the vestry and we agreed that I would function here, as I did at previous parishes in California and New Jersey, as your Interim Priest. What does that word “interim” mean?  I’ve been a priest for a long time, and expect to continue as one, pretty much permanently, so it’s not my being a priest that is interim. And Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania has been a church for quite a while, and will continue as a vital congregation in the Body of Christ, long after I have left, so Trinity is not an interim church. We are in a somewhat extended period between the last period when there was a settled priest living in the rectory, and the next era, when we expect to have consistent clergy leadership and a vision and plans for Trinity’s ministry in place. Together, we are in an interim season; a season of growth and discernment.  The job of a priest in an interim time is to help guide the congregation into the best possible spiritual state, so that all the decisions of the congregation will be to choose the best possible blessing that God has in store.

But before we talk about the possibilities for the work that God has put us here to do, let’s turn to our Gospel lesson.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in a congregation, teaching. In that congregation is a woman who has been crippled, bent over and suffering, for eighteen years. Let’s pay particular attention to the text here. When we moderns see a description of a person who is suffering, we usually think of specific physical problems that we hope can be addressed by the wonders of modern medical science. But what the text in the Gospel says is that the woman had a spirit that had crippled her. Injuries or disease are not actually mentioned. In the Gospels, Jesus heals and casts out spirits as often as he teaches—perhaps more often. What are these spirits? They are not the horror movie creatures we think of, or the stuff of superstition. Spirits are not material—but they are very real. They are woven into our life to the point that we don’t even notice them.

God’s love is simple and God does not create malign spirits. Human love likewise should be simple, but human fear, hate, greed and many other manifestations of our lesser selves distort relationships. And it’s not just individuals—it’s the whole of communities and societies. Over time all of the negative things weave together and generate spirits.  Since so many people’s fears and desires are involved, these spirits are beyond the control of any single person, rather, they influence people and groups in ways that the individuals themselves usually don’t understand.

And we can see that in this Gospel story. Jesus calls the woman over, lays his hands on her, and she stands up straight and begins to praise God. God healed her, the spirit that weighed her down was gone. But right away, the manifestation of the spirit shows up again. A leader of the congregation is very upset at Jesus for healing this woman.  His reasons were actually bogus because pronouncing God’s blessing and touching another person are not prohibited on the Sabbath. But the man’s anger was real, and the argument was intense.

What’s happening here?

Psychologists and therapists use systems theory to talk about similar things that they see. Frequently, when a member of a family who has been ill or troubled in some way becomes well, someone else in the family becomes ill or begins to behave in inappropriate ways. The spirit that may manifest itself in an individual seeks to maintain itself, and it affects the other people who are involved with the person who has undergone a change.

This woman stands up straight and is healthy. And the leader attacks Jesus—making this woman well changes things, this man’s comfort and control of the situation, perhaps his prestige—are all destabilized, all called into question. He probably thought he was just enforcing the rules. But it was his fears, and the fearfulness of the entire community—going back at least eighteen years—that were speaking. It was definitely not the love of the God who had blessed Abraham and guided Moses through the wilderness.

How does Jesus respond to the man’s fear and anger? He doesn’t criticize those fears, and accuse those affected by the spirit, or try to diagnose them and tell them what they should do; he healed the woman and helped her to stand upright. He explains the law, in terms of the love of God. Everyone will lead their animals to life-giving water on the Sabbath, as Jesus led this woman to abundant life. It takes courage to be healed, and it also takes courage for a community to live with healing within it.

Spirits don’t quickly disappear, it takes honesty and acceptance, the courage perhaps to accept changes in one’s own position, to rejoice that others are loved and healed. Jesus came to heal us all—he paid the price for healing our spirits—and he rejoices with us, with that woman who stood up straight and with every healing of a person, or a relationship, or a community, or a world.

Trinity is a congregation of great courage, love and hope. I have seen this congregation face great hardship with great dignity and compassion. Our children are deeply loved and blessed and this neighborhood knows us for generosity and welcome. Every month our thrift store reaches out to the neighborhood—it provides some revenue, but more importantly, what I have seen is how our neighbors are helped—by getting clothing and other items that that they need—but also by receiving gifts of respect and neighborliness that helps to build up a community that has had more than its share of being torn down and disrespected. Our new fellows are just arriving. They are a big part of our ministry of respect in this neighborhood, as they learn and experience by serving in this city. Trinity is a blessing in this city. It has been a blessing for me and for my wife Paula.

Trinity is a blessing, but Trinity will continue to be blessed by God. Together we will discover that blessing.

As we follow Jesus together, there will be healing and change—perhaps mild, and not as dramatic as the story in the Gospel today—or perhaps unexpected and surprising. But Jesus will heal our spirits. This is how the Gospel lesson today ends: “The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

Let us pray, once again the collect for today:

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.

They are in the World and I am Coming to You

A sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter, June 2, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Do not leave us comfortless, but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us.

Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. Paula and I went to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square for their solemn high mass celebrating the feast. Our friend David Hurd played Olivier Messiaen’s l’Ascension suite—his extended meditation on Christ’s Ascension. The music was beautiful and uplifting, and it reminded me of some of the themes of this time in the church calendar before we reach the end of Eastertide next Sunday as we celebrate Pentecost.

If we are quite literal about following the story from lectionary and the book of Acts tell, what we come up with is the following: Jesus finished his time teaching his disciples after the Resurrection and then, this past Thursday, he rose into heaven. Then there was this period of time before the Holy Spirit descended on the Feast of Pentecost, and we’re now right in the middle of that time. Jesus is up there – somewhere – and we’re just here waiting for the Spirit to come down.

But I’m not at all sure that we should be that literal about our worship calendar or the chronology in the Book of Acts. After all, in the Gospel of John, Jesus didn’t wait around to give the Holy Spirit to the disciples: He gave it to them in the upper room, the first time all his disciples got to see him after the crucifixion. (He appeared to Mary Magdalen earlier, but this was the first time he appeared to them all.)

We all have times when we feel bereft and comfortless, not knowing where the Spirit is, or what will happen next.  The final movement of Messiaen’s suite on the Ascension is a meditation on a text that comes from the same prayer of Jesus that is our Gospel lesson today: “I have made your name know to those whom you gave me from the world … And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” Jesus ascended to the Father because he had been with his disciples, he had loved them and shown them the truth about God—the way to God. God raised Jesus from the dead, and then Jesus spent time showing his disciples how to live in the resurrection. They knew all they were going to know, and God was glorified and God’s Son ascended into heaven.

The story from the book of Acts this morning is complicated and long—an eight-hour sermon might only get us to the midpoint—but looking at these adventures of Paul and Silas illustrate a bit of how it is that we live in the Resurrection of Jesus.  This is their first visit to Europe—up until then, Paul had only been in Asia. They are strangers in this European city and there are these religious charlatans, exploiting a slave girl who tells fortunes. As I read it, she’s taunting Paul and Silas, making fun of them and trying to drive them away. Her bosses want the attention on her, they want the money that comes in when she gets all the attention. We get to see a bit of Paul’s character as he gets annoyed and drives out the spirit and disrupts her show. The slave owners start making anti-Semitic accusations, getting the crowd enraged, and finding a magistrate they knew to imprison the apostles. From the point of view of this world, Paul and Silas were bereft, abandoned, even defeated. But in the context of the resurrection of Jesus, Paul and Silas viewed this experience, as well as all other experiences, as an opportunity to glorify God—in the midst of this tremendous difficulty, they knew the goodness of God. How do we know this? Because it says: They sang hymns and psalms in the prison.  And when the earthquake came—this tremendous earthquake that opened the doors and broke off the chains that were holding them—anyone would expect prisoners to run away, wouldn’t they? But that’s not what happened. Because Paul had compassion on the jailer, who was afraid he would be punished if the prisoners escaped. “But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’” And it was more than his compassion – Paul also had the courage to show the jailer the way to true life, life in the Resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus came among us, that we might live abundantly and that we might give to others, just as he gave to his first disciples. He was in the world, but now it is we that are in the world. Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, that they all may be one.”  That’s an amazing thing, Jesus has ascended and blesses his people through us, as we share his word of compassion, of healing, of caring. Jesus’ disciples, not least of which are those who are here right now, are the essential and vital part of Jesus’ life in this world right now. God is glorified in us, in this world, living Christ’s love with the courage to be for others, even in hard times.

Here at Trinity Church we know that Jesus has called us. He has called us to be in this place, to be Jesus’ ambassadors right here. That’s not necessarily the most convenient thing, or the best-paying job. But Trinity is far more beautiful than that jail in Philippi where Paul was, and there are plenty of wonderful people to bless, all around us.

“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

An Idle Tale?

A sermon for Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“They remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Today is the day of the Resurrection. We celebrate that God has raised Jesus, the Lord of Life, from the dead. In Jesus’ resurrection, death has been defeated, and it is established that the real truth and essence of this world is life—life eternal and life present.

We live in a world where many focus on death. Some even believe that death is the real and final reality, while others use the threat or fear of death to gain power and use it over others. The Gospel is not happy talk or wishful thinking. Every account of Jesus’ resurrection includes a portion like this, where Jesus’ followers are confused, doubtful, and depressed.

Christ is risen and those apostles were depressed!

The women told them…

And these guys in charge just—didn’t believe them.

“You know women … they just tell idle tales. Us men are serious, we’re busy being depressed and discouraged.”

But God had raised Jesus from the dead. Peter… he was confused enough about the whole thing that he went to check out the tomb… and there, where the body had been laid were the cloths that Jesus had been wrapped in, but no body was in them. It hadn’t been unwrapped and taken someplace else—it was just not there.

In our church, it’s possible to be discouraged and depressed. It’s possible to think that things aren’t as good as they used to be. We see sacred spaces catch fire and burn down—the great Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France or small historically black churches attacked by an arsonist in Louisiana—and we grieve, but not only grieve but start to tell ourselves a story of decay and defeat—you hear things about “decline of Western Civilization” or some such.

However, as much as we may grieve losses or face difficulties, the truth is NOT that death is winning and everything is falling apart. The truth is that all things are transitory, but the love of God remains forever. Death may do its worst, but Christ is risen from the dead. Here in this church, Christ is alive. I have experienced Christ’s healing love here. I’m willing to bet, so have some of you. Think and remember. … … Think of a time you have experienced God’s love in this place. Think of who has been here. Maybe someone in need of compassion or healing. Perhaps someone who listened to your story, or shared a prayer or music with you.  Think of all the children in this place: They will be the leaders of the church and the Christians of the rest of this century.  Yes. Death is a real thing, but in Jesus, God has defeated death and brought eternal life. There is no longer time to fear or to moan and feel sorry for ourselves. God has given us the priceless gift…his Son who brings us life, right here, the shining reality in the midst of all those other realities.

I am a realist. I’m pretty pragmatic. And I’ve lived a few years and watched what passes for management and leadership in this world of ours. There is nothing hard-headed or realistic about cynicism or selfishness. People may use negativity and fear, and gain some sort of relative success by scaring other people and lording it over them, but they don’t build anything that has permanent value or live in real abundant life. A realistic approach to this world requires the courage to hear the truth and live in compassion. A successful life is not one of fantasies fulfilled and self-indulgence; success is life in the Resurrection from the Dead in Jesus Christ. Realistically, we see the love of God in our children; our sisters and brothers. Realistically, we know that joy in life comes from a generous life of compassion, giving credit to God who has not abandoned us.

In our lesson from First Corinthians, St. Paul says,

“In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being.”

We know Jesus, and the hard fact is: he is alive. The cynics, the power mongers, and the fearful are wrong—Jesus’ courage in compassion, his truthfulness despite the powerful, his generosity in his entire life have been vindicated. Our fearfulness and selfishness may distract us and make it look like death is the human fate, but in Jesus’ resurrection, we see true humanity, the humanity that God has created in us, the image of God in which we can live.

It is here and now that we live in this hope, not in some nostalgic past time or fantasy future. You know that God is here, and you know that because God loves you. It is in this real world that Christ is risen. It is in this world that we rejoice with the joyful and have compassion with those who suffer. Here in this place. At Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania—of Morrisania, since it was first a village in the heights above New York City; of Morrisania, when some urged the congregation to move to better-off neighborhoods; of Morrisania, when the city wanted to take the land for its own purposes. Trinity stayed here in Morrisania, joyfully and courageously serving and providing spiritual guidance, through boom and bust in the fortunes of its neighborhood. The resurrection of Christ has been proclaimed here all that time and it continues.

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating,” God says in the prophet Isaiah, “for I am about create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” God rejoices in you and creates hope right here, right now. God is building this place and we have received the benefit. The hope is of new creation, based on the love of God that we know here.  For Christ is risen from the dead! We live in his life, we are his body and his compassion in this place. Death no longer is the victor, Christ is alive and with him, so are we.

 

Alleluia. Christ is Risen.

The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

Do Good to Those Who Hate You

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 24, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Jesus teaches us, just as he taught his disciples and the crowds who followed him. They followed him not only to learn about what he might teach, but because in encountering Jesus, people were healed. Before the story we heard last week, the one where Jesus began his teaching with the Beatitudes, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath.

There is no doubt that Jesus was a healer and he cast out demons. If you approach the documents that we have with an historical eye, we can be more certain in saying that what he was known for was his exorcisms and his healings – more than for his teachings. Yet, he also wasn’t a magician and did nothing particularly showy.  Despite the crowds, what we know of Jesus was how plain and ordinary he was. His healing and his teaching were the same: What he did was move people from the self-absorption of fear and pain to the honesty of healthy life in God.

What Jesus presents is simple, anyone can do it—you don’t have to be smart, well-educated, or a religious superhero. However, it is a challenge to be honest and generous in your life. And it requires courage, because there are real-world consequences for being honest and generous in a world dominated by fear, selfishness, and self-serving dishonesty.

Some people think the things that Jesus says in today’s Gospel are unrealistic or even soft-headed. Love those who hate you? In America nowadays, whenever we hear the word “love” we think about hearts and roses. But that’s not what Jesus is taking about. In the New Testament, “love” means action and engagement for the sake of the good of someone else. Of course, when we do that successfully, it may make us feel good, because living generously and making someone else’s life better is a good thing. But love is not about the feeling, or being addicted to getting the feeling, or the positive feedback. Jesus points this out a little later, “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”

Then, when Jesus talks about loans and giving things away, it gets pretty intense: “if they take your coat, give them your shirt”; “lend, expecting nothing in return.” Jesus knows his customers. People rationalize and lie to themselves and others about how badly they have been treated and how terrible the others are. I’ve so often heard people who don’t like these words of Jesus, turn the conversation to macro-economics—but he’s not talking about that, he’s talking to us. Can we live more generously than we do? Is someone else in need? Is there a misunderstanding about who owes what? Jesus is encouraging everyone to find a way to live generously and to stop rationalizing their selfishness. Accept even a real wrong to your own interest, for the sake of truthfulness and justice in society. This is not about coddling wrong; it’s about stepping away from defensiveness and self-justification. Even when we must stand up for justice, it is not for our own advantage or comfort that we stand, but for the sake of those who are harmed by the contemptuous and violent. The fierceness of compassion is far different from the rage of self-defense and selfish rancor.

When Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those that hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,”—isn’t that impossible?  I mean aren’t we going to be upset if people do bad things to us and our loved ones? If love were about feeling good, it would be impossible. But what Jesus has to say is not about making you, or anyone else in our country, feel good. Christian love is not desire, or even friendship, but concern and action for the good of others.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” He does not say, do everything they want, or pander to their cruel whims. Rather, we should look for their ultimate good, for their healing and health. If you are taking care of a cranky and spoiled child, it is not loving to let them run into a busy street or hurt their little sister or brother. Pray for your enemies, for their well-being, for them to be guided to just actions—even it is in spite of themselves. It sometimes means that you have to stand up to a person who is destroying their life or the lives of others.

Does it require courage to follow Jesus’ teachings? Yes. Is it too hard for ordinary Christians? No. Healthy Christians know to seek the good of others before self. They also are honest about their own fears and their own selfishness, and they seek to repent and believe the Gospel daily. It is the pretense of acting like we are better than others, or the justification of selfishness and self-interested manipulation of the world around us that is unacceptable.

Jesus doesn’t say that life in the real world is easy. He just doesn’t pity us, rather he loves us and looks for our good.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

We are blessed and we are healed by Jesus’ love for us and the courage of his honesty. We are called to be Christians in this world, in this country, at this time.

Let us pray once again our collect for today:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

 

Put on the Armor of Light

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life

This is the beginning of today’s collect for the First Sunday of Advent, that is to say, they are the first words of the Christian new year. The “works of darkness” enfold us. We live in a world that is filled with darkness—willful blindness, suspicion, corruption, and hatred. That darkness can affect us; make us reactive and suspicious; tempt us to hate and pay back evil with evil. In our Gospel for today, Jesus says:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

In such a time, the forces of darkness can cause damage to many things: the peace of society, safety for individuals, material well-being. But worse still is the spiritual damage of being caught up in that darkness, corruption, hatred, blindness.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Don’t give in to blindness, but see our redemption drawing near. Following Jesus gives us light in the darkness. In our Collect for today, we pray that God will give us grace—that’s grace, which is a gift from God’s mercy, not some strength of our own—grace to put on the armor of light—NOW in the time of this mortal life. The light of truth protects us and allows our spirits to be healthy, even in difficult times. In this real world, we can be of earthly use in addressing the problems around us, because we are protected by the armor of light. The darkness can weigh us down; make us depressed or unmotivated; cause us to be fearful and discouraged. Yet Jesus says: “Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down with [this] dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

It’s at this very time that Christ comes among us bringing our greatest hope and the opportunity for our greatest spiritual triumph. As the Collect says, “in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.” It is in his humility of being a person just like us, but not captured by the darkness, which makes him the one who can be the final judge of all people. His compassion and mercy reveal the truth of all of us, including every way in which any of us might give in to those pervasive forces of darkness. He brings us the armor of light, so that we can live in freedom and joy.

That’s the reason why we begin that time of year that everybody calls the “Christmas Season” by talking about the final judgment and the coming of Christ as the judge of all.  It’s because we rejoice in that humble child, the one who is free and brings freedom in the midst of a world filled with the works of darkness. That baby wasn’t protected by an army or divine security patrol. He was protected by the love of a mother and a father who had no power, nor money, nor any more security for themselves than any of us. The judgement of God is here, now, in this time of our mortal life. It is God’s compassion for us and our life of growing into God’s compassion.

It’s been more than two years since I last preached here at Trinity. I have often thought of you, sometimes even mentioned you: your faithfulness, your challenges, your joy. When I read today’s Epistle lesson from Paul to the church at Thessalonika, I was struck by how I feel about this congregation:

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

It is God that leads us into hope and abundance. God shows us the way and keeps us safe with the armor of his light. With this new year in the church’s life, God calls Trinity Church to discern that way, what it is to follow Jesus and to be God’s joyful people.

From today’s lesson from Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Casting out Demons

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.

Today’s gospel lesson is a continuation of last week’s gospel. And it’s not just the next scene—it’s part of the same message. Last week we heard about how the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. Jesus teaches them that being the greatest doesn’t matter at all, and he shows them a powerless and neglected child who is the real example of how to welcome God. It’s not about winning, it’s about serving and welcoming.

I can sort of hear the disciples trying to defend themselves: “But Jesus, there was this guy …  he was casting out demons. We told him to stop, because … because he wasn’t with us!”  Basically, Jesus says, “No.” Not only is it NOT the most powerful and prestigious person who is first in the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom is not brought by some winning team. There was this man they didn’t know who was casting out demons. I have said at other times that I believe that there are indeed demonic forces abroad in this world—those forces of hurt and hate that nobody will take responsibility for. Everyone looks the other way and shakes their head and says, “That’s awful.”  But no one sees themselves in those awful things that happen, even though the suffering is human suffering caused by human society.  Casting out demons is essential work in healing this world. It is not easy work.

So this man in the Gospel reading was unknown to the disciples, a stranger, and they didn’t trust him—how could he be casting out demons in the name of Jesus? The disciples knew how special Jesus was, and they felt pretty special being his followers. John, one of the inner circle, says that he took it upon himself to put this guy in his place, after all, it was Peter and Andrew and James and John who were called by Jesus, not this exorcist.  John looked to his special relationship with Jesus and saw it as a reason to forbid the man from healing.

We live in a world much in need of healing. If God is to heal the conflict in our country and our world, it will take far more than our intelligence, or teaching, or effort or opinions. Salvation of this world will come from more than one team, or one set of interpretations. Prayer is powerful, it changes things and it heals.  But it is not just the prayers of one person that God uses, but of all of creation.

Let’s go back and remember the part of this reading that we heard last week—it’s right before this week’s reading in the Gospel of Mark: “Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” It is the care and healing of those who are powerless, neglected and ignored that Jesus cares about. He’s still holding the child when he says to the disciples, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Gentle Jesus, talking to his friends and followers; not the Pharisees or his rivals. Being a Christian is not about being on the winning team, it is about being humble enough to serve. But when I say humble, I don’t mean looking down at your shoes and doing whatever those that are more confident, powerful or privileged say. Christian humility is having the confidence to stand for the gospel of service, of honest generosity in welcoming Him who came for us and gave his life for us on the cross.

There was a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The woman who testified, spoke clearly and courageously. She answered all questions forthrightly, even when her answers didn’t conveniently make her look to be the hero or to have all the information perfectly worked out and under her control. She described, and was questioned in great detail about the most traumatic event in her life. She was courageous and truthful. After her testimony, no one said that she was not credible or was not telling the truth. She opened her testimony by saying that she was terrified. She was terrified because she knew what would happen to a woman who spoke up about being sexually abused by a powerful and privileged man. She knew about the demons that would be unleashed … and they were. Christine Blasey Ford spoke up for the sake of casting out demons and the healing of herself and all of us. But those demons find a way to come out in full force—the rage, self-pity and turning blame back onto the victim or anyone who supported her are what she feared and what happened.  This sort of demon emerges when truth is told about a subject that power wants and expects to remain silent. I’ve experienced it in the church, and it’s not limited to any one political party. Indeed, it is not so much the individuals but the nexus of power itself—the demons if you will—that controls them. Sexual violence against women is an aspect of keeping some who are powerful empowered and disempowering those who are vulnerable. Dr. Ford was courageously vulnerable in her testimony, and by it many are freed and healed, the ranting of the demons notwithstanding. Casting out demons and being healed takes tremendous courage, and its cost is real. And like the disciples learned from Jesus, the power to cast out demons does not always come from the sources we expect, or those who support us.

We follow Christ. And Jesus is not interested in who is in control—he is interested in the healing of this world. “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

For there is forgiveness with you

A sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice

Our psalm today is a cry of desolation. The psalmist is lost and in trouble, bereft.

“Lord hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication. If you Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?”

At times of great loss, or confusion: loss of a clear path, human beings can feel desolation.

In today’s reading from the Second Book of Samuel there is a cry of desolation, this one from David, the King. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” David was bereft. His most beautiful and talented son had been killed by David’s own soldiers. The background of this is very complicated; filled with rape, violence, war and intrigue.  The portion of this book between the lesson we heard last week, in which the prophet calls David to account for causing the death of Uriah to this story where David’s son is killed is a set of tales that makes the Game of Thrones pale by comparison.  Absalom rebelled against his father. He raised a large army and caused David to flee Jerusalem. It’s a complicated story, with many motivations, yet one thing stands out to me as the source of this chaos: David failed to respond seriously and to implement justice when his daughter Tamar was raped by his eldest son, Amnon.

David had many wives and concubines, so his many children had different mothers. Tamar and Absalom had the same mother, so Absalom was particularly enraged by Amnon’s outrage against Tamar, his half-sister. David was upset, but did nothing to address the situation, so Absalom arranged for Amnon to be killed and over the next several chapters, chaos, intrigues, violence and war ensued. David continued to fight the war, but didn’t want Absalom hurt.  In war, people get hurt and die. David knew that, or at least, you would think that he did.

We all learn to idealize and think of David the King as a hero, never in the wrong, and always favored by God. But when we read the actual text of the scriptural stories, that’s not what we see. David was very human, very flawed. In combat and certain kinds of politics he was often bold, courageous, and skilled. But when it came to his personal life and his family, he was not courageous or clear about what was important.  He wanted things to go well for himself, to be comfortable, to get whatever women he desired, to have his sons get what they wanted and not to cause him trouble. He wanted the handsome, strong, smart Absalom—this young man who so resembled David himself—as his heir. David didn’t have the courage to sort these things out, to act in ways that would have offended Amnon but brought him to accountability; to seek justice and vindication for his daughter Tamar; to confront the schemings and intrigues of his chief general, Joab; or to speak honestly and frankly with Absalom early enough to address his grievances and perhaps prevent his rebellion. So David went from being a man with ultimate power in an expanding country to…

“Absalom! Oh my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

… to desolation. Make no mistake, David’s desolation was a result of his blindness to his own selfishness.

“If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?”

Such spiritual blindness as David had is common. I would venture that anyone who believes that they have never been blind in that way, to some degree, is likely still pretty blind. As the psalm says, “If you were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand?” It takes great courage to acknowledge our own blindness and misdoings. Many people avoid facing these things because they believe they will be condemned—indeed people will condemn you if they have a chance, especially those who are blind to their own misdeeds and selfishness. But here, we believe in God, and we take our courage from God’s forgiveness of us. Believing that God’s vindication is more important than human condemnation, we can become more human, free and alive. We can see things as they are. The psalm continues:

For there is forgiveness with you;

therefore you shall be feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him;

in his word is my hope.

My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning,

more than watchmen for the morning.

 

Most of us, perhaps all of us have or will face a time of desolation. A time of loss and bewilderment. Often it has nothing to do with our moral blindness or misdeeds—even when it might, the connection is usually far different than anyone would likely make at the time. It doesn’t matter, forgiveness is with the Lord. In the courage of that forgiveness we can hope to see things as they truly are.  Hope is in the reality of God’s world and of God’s love. But we don’t see it, not really, not in the darkness of desolation. Like watchmen in the darkest hours of the night, all we can do is wait… and hope. The shape of God’s fulfillment of our hope will never be exactly as we wish. David had lots of wishes. And those wishes … he thought they were what he deserved … but they were ultimately his desolation. It takes courage to hope in God, to hope for the reality of God’s compassion and mercy, God’s compassion for every living creature.

O Israel, wait for the Lord,

For with the Lord there is mercy;

With him there is plenteous redemption,

And he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

 

Let us pray:

 

Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.