Faith

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.”

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Living in Good Faith

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Those devouring the homes of the widows and praying at great length for show, these shall receive condemnation in greater abundance.

The Gospel this morning picks up at the end of a series of dramatic encounters between Jesus and people who wanted to catch him out or trip him up. You may remember two weeks ago, Jesus healed the blind beggar, Bartimaeus who then followed him on the way to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. What follows in the Gospel of Mark is an intense series of events, including Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple. That is followed by different groups of people, basically all people with notable ecclesiastical status approaching Jesus with loaded questions appropriate to their group: “By what authority do you do these things?” “Is it lawful to pay the poll tax to Caesar?” “Who would a woman be married to in the resurrection if she became the widow of seven brothers in sequence?” “What is the greatest commandment?”

You know these kind of questions, posing as sincere or curious, but really in bad faith, trying to manipulate a conversation to criticize or embarrass the person being asked the question. The questions aren’t questions, they are attacks. Jesus answered them with grace and compassion. And that is the context for the first part of today’s Gospel:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus is talking about this bad faith behavior. It’s not about costumes, or offices or what group or party people might belong to; Jesus is taking note of how these people manipulate their image as pious and respectable, solely for their own benefit without regard for the well-being of others. It describes plenty of people who regard their own religious practices and piety as deeper religion than caring for others—“they devour widows’ houses” without a thought that it has anything to do with their Christian faith. The depth of our prayer and the depth of our compassion are the same thing.

So Jesus talks about this widow. She puts two lepta into the treasury. They were just little wafers of copper, far smaller than a penny and not worth much even in a world of poor people with very little cash. As we come into stewardship season many sermons will be preached on this: some will talk about her giving of her substance, all that she had. Others will note that the lady got away with giving almost nothing, just those two tiny discs, so maybe they can too! Most people won’t say that aloud.

But I think Jesus is less concerned with what went into the box than in observing the woman. A widow, it says. It was well-known in that time and place that widows were the most financially imperiled, with precious few possible sources of income, and vulnerable to being cheated or bullied out of whatever assets they may have inherited. Yet this woman maintained her dignity as a member of the community. She took part in the shared responsibility of the community. She gave of what she had. She was devout in the way she lived her life, though those around looked past her, if not down on her. She is contrasted with those who display their wealth, their piety and their smarts in trying to show up Jesus in the marketplace of teachings in the Temple precincts.

What Jesus taught, and what Christianity is, is not high-flown or complex. It’s about living in faith—good faith rather than bad faith. It is simple generosity rather than trying to trick people and show them up by appearing to be the most generous one, or the most religious one. Not that the goal is to wait to be pure before doing anything: if the widows keep their houses and the poor are fed, it’s a good thing in any case. But Jesus is unimpressed by any competition to be seen as the best—he’s impressed by the simple faith of the widow: living in God’s mercy, simply, humbly, generously; accepting God’s generosity and rejoicing in it.

This is my last Sunday at Calvary. Over the past 14 months we have walked the path of Jesus together. I have received much blessing from you, from your generosity and hospitality, your willingness to grow and change.  Calvary celebrates being a welcoming community, and as it lives that mission, there are more and more depths of God’s hospitality that we discover in our life together. As you move forward and Fr. Nathan joins you, you will discover more ways in which Calvary will be the welcoming community that God wants. What makes me most proud is that you are a community that will change and see the new opportunities God has in store—nothing that we have done together will be forgotten, but nothing will stay unchanged. Our life together is simple. We worship together, celebrate together, sing together, learn together. We have shared our stories with one another. Following Jesus is not a matter of learning every detail of everything he said or did. It is not about demonstrating that we have the most thoroughgoing practices of piety or engagement with every Christian practice that has ever been. Following Jesus is living out his compassion, of seeing when someone needs a cup of water and giving it to them, knowing when someone needs to be listened to just a little longer. Jesus’ compassion doesn’t just indulge peoples’ desires, it calls them to be more compassionate themselves and to grow away from self-indulgence and self-pity.  Jesus loved those people who he criticized just as much as those that he comforted. So, thank you for having compassion to me, and walking with me for this past year. You will continue to walk with Jesus in the years ahead.

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One hundred years ago today was the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I. It’s the source of our Veterans’ Day. On that day, my grandfather was with the Fifth Marines in the Argonne Forest, the final campaign of the war. A few months before, he had been in the Battle of Belleau Wood, which is a defining moment in the modern Marine Corps. Half a century ago, when I was a teenager, I asked him about the war, because I hadn’t heard anything about it from him. We talked for a while. He said, “It was terrible.” He told me about people he saw who were killed, about poison gas and losing his gas mask. He paid a significant personal price in that war. But the thing is, for him, and for most of the veterans that I have known, being in the military or being in a war, was not about being different, or part of a special group. It was about being part of us—about going home to Kansas, marrying and having twelve kids and building a farm and losing it in the dust bowl. And moving on. Raising the kids, being part of a functioning society where people could prosper and grow together. I know that for my grandfather, Armistice Day was about the end of war and the chance to build peace. So thank you to those who are veterans, for your service, particularly for your service in helping to build peace.

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It takes great courage to be simple and to follow Jesus. It’s easier to go along and to pretend to be better than we are. Yet we can be builders of peace, just like that old widow with her two tiny copper coins.

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life; Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

To Whom can we go?

A sermon for the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Lord, to whom can we go?

Today is the fifth Sunday in a row that the Gospel lesson is from the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. Starting with the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus explained that he is the Bread of Life and in him, and by partaking in his body, we abide in God and God in us. Some may hear this as bland or everyday Christian piety. But when Jesus said it, it was anything but bland. It was a huge controversy, and at the end of the lesson all those disciples and all those thousands of people who came to hear Jesus preach and received bread on the hillside were upset and went way. Jesus was alone with the twelve, no one else would stay, and he asked Peter, “Do you also wish to go away?”

The gospel is a challenge, not a joyride. When we say Jesus is the Bread of Life, that doesn’t imply the cake and cookies and sumptuous meals and everything we think we want. The Bread of Life is the fundamental nourishment of our spirit, the food to get us through the difficult journey. It does not promise power, it just gives us Jesus. And those people who had been hanging around realized that Jesus was on the way to the cross, and he wasn’t going to make their lives any easier, or make them more powerful, or even get rid of the Romans for them.

They left, and Jesus asked that question of Peter. Peter’s answer really struck me this week. I think it is my answer too: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

It was a discouraging time for both Peter and Jesus. What may have looked like success was all gone. We can’t assume that Peter wasn’t interested in success—that he didn’t want to have a successful group, even an organization. But they were all gone. In particular, all those who were there as joiners of successful groups had just walked off. The situation forced Peter to consider why he was there and what he was doing. All the organizational and institutional reasons had disappeared. The idea of a movement that would somehow restore Israel—perhaps as a purer, more loving religion with people helping one another, or perhaps as a political movement that would get rid of the occupying Romans and restore justice—was gone. I don’t know exactly what had been in Peter’s mind in the previous days or weeks or months. But on that day, he said, “To whom can we go?” Where else or what else makes any sense, or has any truth?

The story of Jesus is not one of triumph. And as much as we often would like it to be, being his church isn’t a matter of triumph or success. A while back, I read a book, entitled “Church Refugees.” In it, a sociologist named Joshua Packard interviewed people from a growing category of Christians, who are sometimes referred to as “the Dones.” These are people who have been active in their churches but stop. They are “done with church.” Interestingly, in this research, this group of people did not leave because they were challenged by the Gospel, or because they lost their faith in God; rather they left because characteristics of the church became barriers to their following God and growing spiritually. Judgementalism in congregations and preoccupation with structures rather than service often led to breakdown of spiritual community, at least in the experience of these people. It happens increasingly among people whose experience in many congregations is enough to make them “done with church” altogether. They find themselves alone, with Peter’s question, “To whom then, can we go?”

Peter says these words to Jesus, and he continues, “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” When Peter says this, it is not when he is leading the church or defining doctrine. Peter says this when both he and Jesus are basically “done.” The people had come, and they wanted many of the things that they saw, but when they came to see the truth, that Jesus was talking about transforming of their spirit, not about giving them security, power and bread in excess in this world, they went away. Peter and the others in that small group of twelve saw the truth as well, and they knew they could not be part of that large group walking away. They saw the truth and they had no place else to go.

Jesus said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” The spirit takes us out of concern for ourselves and puts us in a life of generosity. The flesh that Jesus mentions is a preoccupation with our own well-being that blocks us from living in generosity. This happens in churches and other organizations as well as in individuals. The community that is fearful and preoccupied with its own existence, its own material needs, its own desire for the security of the flesh becomes unable to be generous in the spirit. At that point, it is not surprising that some faithful Christians become “done with church.”

In my own life, there are certainly times when I have been very nearly “done with church;” discouraged by being part of an institution pre-occupied with preserving an image of itself that was never real—perfect, successful and never wrong.  What brings me back from being done is my experience of the real church in a real congregation: a community that respects Christ and one another. The temptation is always there to be afraid, to turn inward for fear of losing the flesh and substance of the church. But in any of these cases, we are in the same place as Peter and the twelve. “To whom can we go?” The answer is: to him who we know is the Holy One of God.

Here is what Jesus said:

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father

So whoever eats me will live because of me. …

The one who eats this bread will live forever.”

 

He rebuked the Wind, and said to the Sea, “Peace”

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 24, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The Sea of Galilee is an inland freshwater lake near the current border between Israel and Syria. It’s quite large, but not nearly as large as Lake Champlain, large enough for a fishing industry, but small enough that one could always see the other side. When I was a little kid, I went fishing with my father pretty frequently. One place we fished was at a local reservoir that was about a quarter the size of the Sea of Galilee. There was one time that we were out in my Dad’s small boat with an uncle and three of my cousins, trolling for bass and mostly catching catfish in the middle of Lake Lowell. Like the Sea of Galilee, Lake Lowell is in the midst of arid farming country. The sun was hot, the sky was blue, without a cloud. Well, except for one tiny one far off to the Southwest. So we were out fishing for a while, and suddenly that little cloud was overhead—I don’t know how long it had been, not long—suddenly it was getting dark and windy and rain was starting to pelt down. As we retrieved our lines, my Dad struggled to get the main motor of the boat started. The waves were higher than the sides of the boat. As soon as the motor started, Dad pointed the boat toward the closest point on shore and ran full speed onto the rocky beach. As soon as we stopped, the boat completely filled with water.

It was scary to be out in the middle of a desert lake in a sudden storm. The disciples’ boat was probably not much bigger than our boat. It was dark, so they couldn’t see the storm coming. When the storm arose they were in real danger and they knew it. The waves were coming into the boat and all they had were their oars working against the wind. They didn’t even have a 35-horsepower Evinrude to push them to shore. And there was Jesus. Asleep in the back of the boat. Remember, he had been doing a lot of healing and teaching and dealing with a lot of people over the past few days. Sometimes it was so crowded he didn’t have time or space to eat. We all know that feeling—sometimes, like Jesus, we all just crash on the nearest couch cushion.

Teacher! Don’t you see that we are perishing? The disciples were about out of their minds. Jesus looks up and says, “Peace! Be still!” I don’t know whether he was talking to the disciples or to the wind. They certainly thought that he stopped the wind, and perhaps that’s just what the story is about. But when I read the story more carefully, it’s about danger and fear.  I remember my Dad, as that storm was coming up, he was very focused. I don’t know how he was feeling, but he was calm, making sure the fishing lines were in the boat, and attending to the cranky old Evinrude, making sure it started, making sure we got to the shore. There really wasn’t any time for panic.

Now the text says that Jesus, “rebuked the wind, and talked to the sea.” The facts were real, the threats from the natural forces were real. Jesus faced those forces of nature and spoke to them and they calmed down for him. We shouldn’t be so naïve or so arrogant as to think that every fact and every threat in nature will be dissolved by the subjective feeling of faith or believing or confidence. That’s not what is going on here. What happened here raises this question: “Who then is this man, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The stilling of the storm reveals Jesus as someone different: the Lord of the Sea and the Sky, the Son of God, who is here to protect his people. He has told them to cross the lake and he is with them, protecting them on that journey.

If we look ahead, in the next verse Jesus and his disciples land at a place and are confronted by a man from the tombs, a man living among the dead, who is possessed by a Legion of demons. This journey is to cast out demons and restore the dead to life—the storm in our story today takes us into the very real dangers and the very real fears that we experience along the way in our journey to life and health in Jesus. We are called on a journey that is not necessarily safe, and it almost certainly will have hardships. The journey is toward abundant life, life in God. We are not significantly different or better than Jesus’ first disciples, there are times of fear or anxiety. Things are happening and it’s unclear where God is or what God is doing. And Jesus is just asleep in the back of the boat. What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen to our families? This church? This country?

Jesus! Jesus, Jesus! Don’t you see that we are perishing??

And he says …

Be still.

[ …   …   …]

Why? Are you afraid?   Reflect on that a minute. All these things that cause fear, are they keeping you from rowing the boat, getting your line in out of the water, cranking up that outboard motor?

Then the next thing he says—let’s leave off our theological overlay and translate it from ordinary Greek: How is it you do not have trust, or confidence?

 

God is here. Loving us and protecting us. Loving us forward into life, into living in ways that might be less comfortable, but more life-filled. Into life filled with hope because we accompany Jesus in healing and giving life to others, a life of thanksgiving and generosity. Our Faith in God is our Trust in that Love that God gives, our Confidence that God gives life to all God’s people.

I don’t want to forget today to thank Mother Ann Holt for her ministry among us. She is an example of calm among storms, and wisdom when people might be lost or fearful. I have learned much from her, and appreciate her great skill and faithfulness as a pastor. Remember those times that Ann has given love, caring and guidance to each of us. We carry that in our hearts and our lives. Thank you Ann, for continuing with us in our life together in Christ.

Your Name shall be Abraham

A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, February 25, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you…

Today’s lesson from the Old Testament is the call of Abraham. At least parts of it.  And the Epistle is St. Paul’s interpretation and application of that story in his letter to the church at Rome. Abraham lived at least as far before the time of St. Paul as our own time is after Paul’s. In fact there are no marker events, rulers or cultures that locate Abraham in history. If scholars estimate when he might have lived, it is usually some time around 2500 years before the birth of Jesus.

What was read today is only a small bit of the story of Abraham. In all it’s a very complex story that has within it the roots and indeed, most of the content of the identity and values of Israel: the Israel that came out of Egypt with Moses, the Israel of David the King, the Israel that went into exile in Babylon and returned.

The story of the covenant with Abraham is the story of God’s people. It’s more complex than our readings this morning. It would take a very long class indeed to explore the story and its implications fully. The reading from Romans makes it clear that Abraham’s story is our story as well. This is a story in which Abram and Sarai receive new names, Abraham and Sarah, and a new identity—they are God’s people destined to become a nation of God’s people. St. Paul interprets it this way:

[Abraham] grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also.

Abraham recognized in God’s promise who he was and what he would become. And we can recognize in Jesus who we are, and what we can become.

A couple of weeks ago, when I preached on the Transfiguration, I mentioned today’s gospel lesson.  Mark’s Gospel is so concise and all its parts fit closely together. It is not just Mark’s Gospel where everything is connected, it’s our Christian faith. What we believe is not just a bunch of random stories telling us to be nice—Christian faith is a way of life which makes our world coherent, in which the values of compassion, sacrifice, generosity, welcome and justice grow out of what God has done in Jesus Christ. What we believe and what we do are one. Mystical prayer and caring for the least of God’s children are the same action. So in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says to us:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.

At this point in the gospel, Jesus is about to embark on his journey to Jerusalem. The reference to the cross is clear: Jesus will give up his life for his followers, for us. Jesus is challenging us to live for the good of others and to be willing to incur real loss and face those things we fear in doing so.

It’s common for people to try to dodge the impact of what Jesus is saying either by over-dramatizing what it means—so that it only refers to heroic situations of being literally killed for a very narrow set of reasons—or by minimizing his demand and reducing it to an inner disposition or belief with no consequences in the real world. “Take up your cross” is an invitation to life. Abraham was invited by God to leave home and become something more than himself. He had to give up one name and take on a new identity—and not for himself but for a people created and guided by God. There were many consequences of that covenant with God, and developing into the people of God involved danger and discomfort and doing things that did not directly benefit Abraham. That faith that was reckoned to him as righteousness was life for others, life for God—the foundation of good and life that is beyond human calculation or self-interest.

As Christians, our identity is as Jesus’ followers, as the people of God who travel along with him. We live in his love, the caring and tender love of God. But Jesus makes clear that the only way that that can be done is by living truthfully—a life for others. To have our life—a life of vitality and abundance, a life where the present and the future are filled with value, and to build a loving community, a life of confident faithfulness that will hold us eternally in the presence of God—to have that life means being prepared to lose all those things we mistake for life and try to hold on to. First of all fear: fear of losing things, fear of being found out, fear of not being loved, or fear of other people who might be difficult for us to love. But also the image of ourselves that we hang onto, the image of the things it takes to make people respect or love us, the things we hold onto because we confuse them with life. Jesus tells us not to be afraid, not to fear losing that life, because abundant life is from generosity and faithfulness, from living for others, not clinging to things we might lose.

Jesus continued to Jerusalem, living abundantly, healing and freeing people along the way. The consequence in this world was his death on that cross—the fears and selfishness of this world could not abide it. But the consequence also was that God raised him from the dead—the powers of fear, or sin, or selfishness, or death had no power over him. God is faithful, faithful to Abraham, to Jesus, to Paul and to each of us. Our journey with Jesus is a journey into life—life of welcome, of generous community, of living in the Resurrection.

Traditionally, Lent is a time to give up things. But what we give up is not what our hearts’ desire. What we give up is death. Living generously with the good of other people in this world as our aim brings the life that is our heart’s desire, our identity in God.

Praise the Lord, you that fear him; stand in awe of him, O offspring of Israel;

All you of Jacob’s line give glory.

For he does not despise the poor in their poverty;

Neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them.

My praise is of him in the great assembly;

I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied and those who seek the Lord shall praise him:

“May your heart live for ever!”

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,

And all the families of the nations shall bow before him.

Repent, and Believe in the Good News

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

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

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

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

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

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

Philip says, “Come and see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Jesus said:

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