Fear

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.

Advertisements

The Seed would Sprout and Grow, He does not Know How

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

In March, several of us gathered together with Mother Ann on a Saturday morning to read the entire Gospel of Mark aloud to one another. It took about an hour and a half. It’s a profound experience. You get a real feel for the urgency of the story moving forward so quickly; the Gospel of this Jesus moving toward its ending; the crucifixion and the proclamation of his resurrection at the empty tomb. Today’s Gospel lesson is from the fourth chapter of Mark, so I quickly re-read the first four chapters. It starts with John the Baptist calling for repentance and baptism. Jesus appears, is baptized, and emerges in Galilee proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Gospel.” Then what we have is a series of vignettes of Jesus casting out demons and healing people and being criticized for doing so, usually for flimsy or legalistic reasons that masquerade as piety. And then we arrive at Chapter Four and Jesus starts talking about seed.

Why the sudden shift? From the outset of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Now he’s explaining it. The word kingdom always referred to the ruler, not to an organization or a region.  You would have the kingdom of a despot, or the kingdom of a tyrant, or of an emperor. In last week’s Old Testament lesson, the people demanded a king, and God’s basic response was, “You’ll be sorry, but here you go…” The idea was, if you had an army and drove out any other army, then you were the king. At that time, it wasn’t a question of whether a dictatorship or a democracy or some other form of governance would prevail—the question was who would be the ruler. So when Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, he’s talking about the Rule of God, pre-empting the authority of the rulers of this world.

Jesus starts by demonstrating God’s rule—casting out the demonic forces that spread hate and distort our views of the world, and healing the sick and those who suffer. In today’s passage, he explains what it all means: “The rule of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow.” God is ruling and the seed is growing, but it’s growing of itself. It arises and it is not under any particular control. These little bits of nothing, that make up just a smidgen of what you would grind up to make your daily bread or breakfast cereal, they are alive and they are free. Scattered on the ground, they sprout, take root, and grow. The planter does nothing to make it happen. Now some of us have gardened, and even farmed, and we know many things go into having a successful crop—removing weeds, making sure there is the right amount of water, and so forth. But the seeds grow of themselves, their life is free. And so it is with the rule of God. Life is free, it is abundant, and it doesn’t appear because we control it.

Another thing. The Rule of God doesn’t work out like we expect it to. The second parable in today’s Gospel is also about seed—but it focuses on the single mustard seed—small, but when it grows… it grows and grows… and the mustard plant becomes huge, among the biggest of annual plants, big enough for birds to nest in. All from one very small seed, confounding the expectation of our human intuition. Our human intuitions often lead us astray. We make quick assumptions, based on a couple of observations, and rely on them to make complex judgments. That is dangerous if we don’t adjust those judgments as we go along. In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Samuel was instructed by God to go clandestinely to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new king. After arguing a bit with God, Samuel follows instructions and goes to see Jesse and his sons. Samuel follows his intuitions and assumes that the tall, strong, good-looking, confident eldest son is the one that God was talking about.  He makes the assumptions that we are all inclined to make. But God calls Samuel to something deeper and much less obvious. After going through all of the candidates that anyone, including Jesse and Samuel, would have thought were appropriate, none of them was actually the one called to be anointed to serve as King of Israel.  It was the little kid, who had been detailed to stay out with the sheep, the least likely candidate, the one who violated all the intuitions and assumptions of those who thought they were discerning. The truth is much deeper than our impulses and the rule of God is not about how we feel about things, or what we choose in order to feel good about ourselves.

The Rule of God is the rule of love—not coercion or control. It is the rule of life growing healthily according to God’s design and not our intuition. God’s Rule is the rule of hope and freedom, not of desolation and violence.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
Icon by Kelly Lattimore https://kellylatimoreicons.com/gallery/

This week we have seen things in the news that are problems stemming from human intuitions that coercive control and intimidation can solve problems. When children are taken from their parents, that is a violent act. The purpose is to control, intimidate and deter people—it is to terrorize people. We have a name for that. This kind of thing happens, not when people decide that they want to be evil, but when they decide that their intuition to control and coerce will be the shortcut to making everything fine. It is not the Rule of God. It is the temptation against which Jesus teaches us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The demons which Jesus cast out are those temptations to evil that embed themselves in people and institutions. They terrorize people and become barriers to trusting the God of Love.

The Kingdom of God is here, like seed scattered in the fields and growing to maturity. At that time God will harvest it, God will harvest the harvest of love.

St. Paul said it this way to the community at Corinth this morning:

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away: See, everything has become new!

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.

Comfort my people

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term…”

These words were first spoken to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. It had been a very difficult time: dragged away from their homeland after military conquest and at least two generations in captivity in a foreign land and now they were faced with the possibility of return—a daunting possibility for weary people.

So the prophet speaks: “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”—make a straight highway in the desert, completely flat with every valley filled and the hills graded down, so you have a completely straight shot, an easy ride back home to Jerusalem… Kind of like I-78 to Newark, but without as much traffic.

There is no evidence of any kind that a road like that was ever built, but the prophet is saying: God is taking care of you, will take care of you and you will make it, and you will be God’s people. The people did make it back to Judea, to Jerusalem and without the journey being a particularly noteworthy hardship. God sent the prophet Isaiah to speak to them because they were weary and fearful.

Now, the word of hope and encouragement from God does not in any way deny the realities and difficulties of this world. It says here, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” We can be afraid, we are afraid, and things do happen, of which we have been afraid…

So many things in the news, in our national consciousness. So many instances and patterns of sexual intimidation and bullying—almost as if the way to success has been to hurt and shame others; to use a bit of advantage to degrade others and make oneself comfortable. This is not unlike the tyrants and despots of ancient days who the prophets of Israel prophesied against. It is what Jesus came to save us from, despite what a certain candidate for public office wants to suggest in trying to protect his own taking advantage of teenaged girls. Sometimes we even find these things happening in religious institutions, even our own Episcopal church. People find pious, theological or righteous sounding words to mask their own self-serving and destructive behavior.  Jesus called it out in his own generation—he faced it. God come among us faced this for us. And yet we see it persisting in our own day.

It’s enough to make you weary, and fearful.

But then what does the prophet say to those weary and fearful people?

Get you up to a high mountain,

O Zion, herald of good tidings;

lift up your voice with strength,

O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,

lift it up, do not fear;

say to the cities of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

God’s comfort for his people is at the same time his call. Lift up your voice, do not fear! That is the only thing that any of us can do to combat that malignant fear that infects this country and which protects those who lash out and even kill the powerless. Here is your God!: The God who came into this world, not in an imperial palace, or even in the courts of the privileged, but as a powerless baby in a stable in an out-of-the-way little town.

That God: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather them in his arms, carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This God protects his people and in so doing calls us all to not fear, and to lift up our voice and say that we are not afraid.

There are many things that people fear. For some of us, it is losing our privilege or security, for others it might be fear of being the target of abusers and bullies, whose cowardice leads them to selfishly destroy and demean others. But we are a new creation in Christ. This Advent we look toward his coming. In him, in that powerless child, the spiritual power of fear is broken. We can stand and speak the truth—the truth that the only value that counts is compassion, God’s compassion for us and our compassion for one another.  Things happen, the grass withers, the flower fades, but we fear them not because we are in the presence of the Lord.

In today’s letter from Peter it says: “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Justice, and freedom from fear, are painfully slow in arriving, but it is God who is patient with us. Let us hear again the end of this lesson:

But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Lift up your voice. Do not fear, but proclaim that the God of justice is here, to hear and protect us all.

Came to Visit us in Great Humility

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

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, which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility…

Today we begin the season of Advent. In the four Sundays before Christmas we prepare for the feast where we celebrate God come into this world, as a human being, specifically as a helpless and powerless baby from a family that was basically poor. One way that Christians celebrate this feast of the Incarnation is to give gifts, in honor and rejoicing that Jesus is in this real world where real things are important.

Of course, the culture around us sort of overemphasizes that a bit. The stuff outshines the star and even the baby. But even while the church affirms the enjoyment of Christmas and its material aspects, it has always prepared for it in a very different way. Advent is not about stuff. It is not about a baby. It is not about buying or cheery songs about snow. Advent is about the coming of the Lord; the day when all humanity shall see and be accountable to God. The images in our lessons are not light or superficial—in fact, they can be downright scary. “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

In other words, prepare to meet your God.

But why? Why can’t we just have a merry little Christmas and be all cozy and party as the days grow dark and the weather gets cold? It’s a good question. I like to have fun and enjoy the holidays. But let’s remember, Christmas is real—Jesus really was born and came into this real world for us. And the world he came into, and continues to come into is very real indeed, and it is not all sweetness and light.

We live in a time and in a world where it is all too easy to listen to our fears, to let them take shape in groups that we can blame or be angry at.  It’s easy to listen to confident and glib people tell us why we should be scared, and who we should blame. In our time, we are well acquainted with the works of darkness.

For example, on Wednesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury who is the senior member of the clergy of our worldwide Anglican Communion, found it necessary to make this statement:

“It is deeply disturbing that the President of the United States has chosen to amplify the voice of far-right extremists. Britain First seeks to divide communities and intimidate minorities, especially our Muslim friends and neighbours. Britain First does not share our values of tolerance and solidarity. God calls us as Christians to love our neighbour and seek the flourishing of all in our communities, societies and nations. I join the urgent call of faith groups and others for President Trump not just to remove these tweets, but to make clear his opposition to racism and hatred in all forms.”

My job, the only one that I have, is to encourage you to cast away those works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Our hope is not in fearfully pretending, but in trusting in the living God—putting on the armor of his love, his mercy, his tenderness for his people. It can be a fearful thing to give up the darkness, to face fear and to see others as they are—people, not caricatures. The temptation is to go back to that cloaking of darkness—But you know what else is fearful? Those images of judgement in the readings today from Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark. God tears open the heaven and comes among us—those fearful behaviors won’t hide us from the appearance of the living God. “You do not know when the master will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn…” The judgement is terrifying only to those who think that they can protect themselves, and use the works of darkness to make themselves invulnerable.

God took the first step—doing the most amazing thing—he entered into our world—into this world at a time fully as troubled as our own—in the most vulnerable of all possible ways: as an infant, born to young parents of no power or influence, with little enough security for themselves: “in great humility…” no grand tutors or teachers, no background, position or wealth. It was that very humility, that vulnerability that Jesus had as his armor of light. For God is not about power, but about love; not about protecting what we have, but about generosity. The armor of light is not about always being right, it is about always having God’s mercy, about being a human being along with other human beings—knowing that they need mercy and that we receive mercy together.

St. Paul had Calvary Church in mind when he wrote this:

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the Grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord…God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

So I was afraid

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid.”

The gospel lesson today is another of Jesus’ parables. I have said before that Jesus’ parables are not allegories about God—they are stories. In this parable, it would be a particularly bad mistake to think of the man with all the property as God, because this is a story about slavery, and the relationship of human masters and slaves.

Why is there so much about slavery in the New Testament and why is it stated in such a matter-of-fact fashion? Because the economy of the Roman Empire was completely dependent on slavery, at least 10 percent of the population of the empire, and 30-to-40 percent in some areas. Ignoring slaves would be as unreasonable as ignoring the existence of people who make their living at fast food chains or as laborers working for close to minimum wage.  Some people did ignore slaves, treating them as though they were invisible, but for Jesus and the early Christians, slaves were fully human; what happened to them mattered.

This parable takes the form of a folk tale, in which two characters are used to set up the story, while the third character is used for the punchline.  So, I want to just look at the third slave’s situation.  He was afraid. Slavery was quite common, but it was also common for slave-owners to beat, abuse or humiliate their slaves. This was a slave-owner known to be harsh, perhaps even proud of it. We can be sympathetic with this enslaved man; the consequences of his master’s wrath might be very harsh indeed.

The slave was entrusted with a lot of money, basically a cubic foot of silver or gold (and at that time, silver was rarer than now, almost as precious as gold). The amounts might be exaggerated for effect, but it wasn’t unusual for some slaves to be entrusted with important responsibilities, including handling their master’s money. When a story in the New Testament refers to a steward, it’s almost always about a senior slave entrusted with administration of the master’s property. So it was a big responsibility: a bucket of precious metal belonging to an unforgiving owner. And the slave focused on that beating and his fear of it. And in his fear, he thought of nothing except avoiding the risk of punishment and all he could think of was not losing that treasure.  He thought the safest thing was to bury it, I suppose in a place where no one would look.

If you look at the top of the story, it says that the master entrusted his property to the three slaves—in other words, he gave it to them to manage. That was certainly how the first two understood it. In any kind of management, it is important to balance various kinds of risks, to use good judgement, make plans and use your resources prudently. Excessive risk is not good—the 100% return on investment that the first two delivered seems large, probably exaggerated, but we can assume that it was wise and not reckless trading—things would not have gone well for the slave who lost two or five talents of his master’s money. But anyone who works professionally in risk management will tell you that there is no way to eliminate 100% of risk, indeed if all your energy and resources goes into eliminating one risk, you are certain to fall victim to another risk … or simply cease to function. The third slave, in seeking to eliminate his risk, was left with only his fear … and his worst fears were realized. There were all sorts of possibilities for him, clearly the climate for trading was good for the others, he had plenty of resources, there were safe investments to make. Yet his fear took him in the direction of what he feared, and he lived in misery and without hope.

I’ve been asked to talk about stewardship this morning. As stewards of God’s bounty, we are called to a life that is free of fear. We live in the blessing of God’s mercy, and our lives are filled with hope, with realistic hope. Hope is not about wanting resources without limits—that is the province of what our psalm today calls “the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” Christian hope is based on a community of generosity emerging from God’s mercy and love, generosity right now, in whatever situation of plenty or privation we might find ourselves. We have God’s mercy, and in this community we have more than enough; we have more than enough because God’s love binds us together, we can live and have no need to fear. We live in Christ’s love and in that we have the imagination to be able to help and care for others—we don’t focus on fearfulness and put our resources in the ground out of reach and out of use.

On this consecration Sunday, I encourage you all to consider your whole lives, all of the ways in which you are interconnected with others, all of your responsibilities. Spiritually we are called to love God in every sector of our lives, and to be good managers of the abundance of mercy that God has entrusted to us. Remember that we are all accountable to one another—it is in becoming trustworthy companions to one another that we discover the joy of God’s generosity and live in God’s hope.

St. Paul put it this way, in this letter to Thessalonica, one of the very earliest of Christian writings:

Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

 

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.