Faith

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.

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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.”

Traveling light

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

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

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

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

Here is the text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s pray once again our collect for today:

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

 

It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles

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

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show us the Father and we will be Satisfied

A sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”

How many are you are familiar with this number? 80 sextillion, 268 quintillion, 300 quadrillion? …. That’s the number of miles a particle traveling at the speed of light would have travelled since the big bang (give or take a few hundred quadrillion).  So you can imagine that right?  Maybe we can make it a bit more familiar—think of an airline pilot, flying the maximum number of hours per year over a 40-year career.  That might reach nearly 20 million miles—so this number is only a bit more than 400 trillion times that distance. The thing is, we don’t have any scale to make any sense of those distances. And over those distances what we might experience is vastly more diverse and unexpected than the variation between a life on a sailboat in the ocean, or living in the high desert where I grew up, or the dense, big city of New York, or the Himalayan mountains where my niece’s mother grew up. Reality: Richer, bigger and more complex than we can actually imagine.

The thing is, God is much bigger than that. 80 sextillion miles? In the palm of God’s hand. The truth is richer, bigger, deeper and more wonderful than we could ever fit into our minds. So even when we think we are being hard-headed and scientific, our minds work in a universe of metaphor.  So when Philip says to Jesus, “Show us the Father…” what could that mean? When it says, no one has ever seen God, it’s not because God is shy, or because God is hiding. In this world, where we cheapen words by using a dozen superlatives to describe things that are quite ordinary, God is truly in-comprehensible—more than the circuits of our brain can take in. And the person who thinks they might aspire to that… well they have to increase their brain power a little just to get to the point of seeing that they really can’t.

In a mechanistic universe, where physical manipulation was what counted, that would be all we could say. But that’s not where we live. God, the vast and the incomprehensible, is love. The source of life and the source of love embracing and upholding the universe. So show us—with all the un-love, death and destruction in this universe—show us the Father of Love.

Jesus replied, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus was the one sent into this world, a person from God’s point of view, not from the point of view of human fearful confusion or self-serving hate, but the very image of the infinite God. Remember this, love is not just whatever we want it to be, all comfy and without pain or loss or challenge.

Those of you who were at Mary Pierce’s funeral two weeks ago, may remember that my homily was on this same lesson from John.  I will repeat a bit of what I said then: Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper and he has given them the only commandment that he ever gave: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Judas has left the supper to go arrange his betrayal, and Jesus assured Peter, the one who was most confident and demonstrative about his dedication, that he too would deny him.  Those were the facts and Jesus says immediately, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Jesus’ compassion was not about everything being just fine, or nothing to be troubled about. Jesus says this in the midst of a real loss.

We know the love of the infinite and eternal God in his son who was betrayed, executed, died and was raised by God from the dead.  God among us, and that’s how we can see and know God. I heard a review on the radio of a new documentary about Roger Stone, who is a political operator. He’s had a lot of recent success, and one thing that he has said more than once, is “hate is a stronger motivator than love.” He’s right of course. If you want a shortcut to power in this world, find what people fear and hate, then amplify and steer it. It’s much easier to find a thousand cowards to hate and kill, than fifty courageous people who will suffer in order to be compassionate to those who suffer. That does not change reality—the living God is the God of love, we see him, we know him, we can talk about him because we see and know who Jesus was, how he healed, and listened, and cared for those who suffer. How he stood up for them, and was taken up on the cross.  This talk of the origin of all things as love, is it strange? Is it made up? The creation is the intimate fruit of its creator, the creator created because he loves that creation.

Today is Mother’s Day. When we think of mothers, we can get all sentimental and tell a bunch of half-truths, or we can think about real mothers: my own, yours, your own experience of being a mother, or the husband of a mother, or a daughter or a son. There are all sorts of people who are mothers, but one thing they have in common, whether they like it or not, is an intimate relationship with a person. Sometimes a person becomes a mother by adoption, or nurtures others who are not their children. Other times a biological mother isn’t involved in the raising of her children, and sometimes women lose babies or are unable to have a child. And they grieve. But in every case that bond between a mother and child is a powerful connection—a creation of an independent life. The love between mothers and children is as complex as all of human life—the 3 a.m. feedings, or the meltdown of a mom who’s frustrated at no time for herself, are just as much a part of that love as the beautiful moments of affection and the joyful rewards of happy, growing children becoming responsible people in this world. It’s not just a responsibility, or a gift—it is real life moving forward in its deepest connection—the creators living for the creation.  And thanks are never what motherhood is about. Though these human beings who have become creators deserve our recognition and gratitude. Thus the Day, which is only a sign, not any real compensation.

Our life, and our world are God’s creation. In creating, God has bound himself as a mother is bound to her child. In Jesus, we know that God has not abandoned us, or left us to our fear and hatred. In Jesus we have the love of the Father and of the Mother, we know compassion and we are invited to live in that compassion—a life of love for others.

Here are the first and last sentences of our epistle lesson today from the first letter of Peter: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—“ “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.”

Let us live in God’s mercy and as God’s mercy and rejoice.