Fear

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.

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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.

The Lord was not in the Wind

A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, August 13, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

In the fourth watch of the night, he came walking toward them on the sea.

If last Sunday had not been the Feast of the Transfiguration, the Gospel would have been the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which immediately precedes what we hear today. In the Gospel of Matthew, the reason that Jesus is out there at a remote place by the Sea of Galilee is that he had been informed that Herod Antipas was comparing Jesus to John the Baptist; and everyone knew that Herod had had John killed for calling out Herod’s immoral behavior. As Jesus was trying to withdraw to reflect and pray, the crowds came. It was late in the afternoon, and Jesus made sure that they had food.

So our lesson today begins with Jesus sending his disciples ahead with the boat, while he got rid of the crowds and went up on the mountain to pray, which was why he was there to begin with.  So why did he send the disciples off in the boat? Because they needed to get to the other side.  Most of them were fisherman, and they knew how to use a boat—better than Jesus did because he was a carpenter. So that evening, they were headed off, across the lake while Jesus was up on the mountain alone; praying.

Though they knew how to row it was tough going, because the wind was blowing directly at them. And as they struggled through the night, a storm came up.

I grew up in arid country, and storms can appear quickly. When I was a kid, I was fishing with my dad, an uncle and three cousins in a small boat in the middle of a reservoir not that much smaller than the Sea of Galilee. In the middle of a sunny afternoon a cloud came in from the west and suddenly there was a storm—the waves were higher than the gunwales of the boat. My dad got the motor started and we went straight for the nearest point on the shore. As soon as the boat touched the beach, it filled with water. It was a frightening and dangerous time.

Out there on the water there was no place to take cover.  The disciples had been struggling out on the open water all night, and it was dark. When the storm suddenly came up, the text says, literally, it was the fourth watch of the night, which meant the time between 3 a.m and 6 a.m. There they were, far from shore, without even a 35 horsepower Evinrude to get them out of danger.

And Jesus appears, walking toward them on the water. It didn’t calm their fears—they thought they were seeing a ghost. Out there in the dark, everything seemed threatening. Not just the real possibilities of the boat sinking or capsizing, but everything. Their fear, which was in a real sense reasonable, magnified every other thing around them and made everything frightening, even the saving presence of Jesus. When I read this story again, I realized that it resembles nothing as much as the accounts of Jesus resurrection appearances. He appears, and is seen but not recognized until he speaks, he reached out his hand so that Peter could touch him and know that he was not a ghost. Jesus is present, the fear calms, and the storm calms, and they are safe.

So why didn’t he just stay with them and keep them safe? One reason is that he had something else to do—he was out there on that hillside to pray and reflect. And why shouldn’t these professional boat rowers be the ones to take a boat across a lake? The danger that the disciples were in was not unusual. Back then, people lived closer to the forces and dangers of nature than we do today. Everyday life could put you in peril that we mostly can’t imagine today.  In our more technologically advanced age, the dangers are more technologically mediated, like automobile accidents or nuclear missiles. Our fears and anxiety more often emerge with relationship to people and institutions—will there be enough money? Are those unhappy faces signs of a conspiracy against me? Will things work out so my kids can learn and be happy? Will there be a war?

Yesterday, we saw a violent eruption of hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. At its root is the self-pity and infantile anger of white supremacists who can’t bear the thought of others having equality of dignity with white people in our country. Their anxieties have morphed into blame and evil. And people were injured and died.

Like the disciples, we are responsible human beings out in a world with its dangers and with anxieties that magnify and distort those dangers to the point that we see ghosts of our fears at every turn.  A large part of the polarization and partisan conflict is due to anxieties constructing dangers that aren’t there and making it harder to deal with the real dangers and evil that threaten us. It is particularly disturbing when people of great power intentionally magnify anxieties and threaten multitudes with danger and destruction.

Jesus appears in the midst of the storm, not to do a magic act and make the danger go away. That’s not what the miracle is. The miracle is the healing of the fright, the presence of the life-giving power of God. At the beginning of the lesson, Jesus is dismissing the crowds, just as I do, or a deacon does at the end of the Eucharist, “Go forth, in the peace of God.” At the end of the lesson, he brings peace, not just to the disciples, but to the forces of nature. His presence gives courage—even though, as Peter demonstrates, in the midst of all of this we can slip and start to sink. We often overthink things, think of why we are beyond God’s help, think that Jesus is on the other side of the lake, or perhaps on the other side of a historical or philosophical divide. Somehow, the last place we expect him is in the middle of our turbulent storm. Yet at the darkest time, there he is, “Take heart. It is I, do not be afraid.”

Don’t be fooled by the loudest voices, or the roaring of the storms, or the great earthquakes or cataclysms. Remember Elijah—he was told to go to the mountain and wait for the Lord. And it was not the storm, or the earthquake or the fire that revealed the Lord. It was the sound of sheer silence.

 

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul…

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher…

That’s a quiet enough phrase. Simple really. We have one teacher, Jesus. It is enough to be like him. I take him at his word, that’s all that’s required of us, nothing more.

Then you think about it—it is pretty scary. Jesus went about healing, but many took offense. Why? I don’t have a special conduit into the minds and motivations of people today, let alone 2,000 years ago. But in a world in which many are ill, and where illness permeates the society or the system, somebody benefits.  It may not always be one hundred percent clear, how, but for instance, beggars on the street are an easy source of virtue for those who give small alms and go on their way. You may remember in Lent, Jesus healed a blind beggar who then stood up for himself, challenging the condescension of the Pharisees—that was troublesome. Jesus cast out demons and changed the perspective of who was holy and what was holy and when they were holy. Real compassion brings about change and it will make people uncomfortable.

Projection is a wonderful thing. Someone is upset or offended by something someone says, or does, and the only way they can deal with it is by attributing their own motives, fears or evil intent to the person who is upsetting them. Jesus’ opponents had seen Jesus casting out demons and they said he must be in league with Beelzebul, the Prince of Demons. But what they were really doing was projecting their own fears, or their own malice.

Let me say something here about demons and the demonic.  Demons are in fact real. The demonic crops up in our lives far more than we recognize. I’m not talking about cartoon or movie versions of the demonic, I’m talking about the reality that our Baptismal service is addressing when we are baptized:

Do you renounce Satan and all the Spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

 

Demons are human realities, human creations, not divine ones. They are realities in the same way an image or a brand or a belief are real.  For instance, the image of Marilyn Monroe has a power and a social significance separate and apart from the person who is associated with it.  In fact, it exists and exercises influence apart from anyone who might own or purport to control trademarks or property rights involved with it. Demonic realities are slipperier and have more power.  That is because they carry the power of evil which everyone avoids taking responsibility for.

The easiest demon to see in our country is racism. Some individuals might be said to be possessed or consumed with racism, but even if you eliminated those, racism would persist, even among those who can’t see it or deny it. The dignity, even the very visibility of African Americans and others is dismissed without thinking about it, suspicion and distrust based on no evidence except race crop up, and find expression in actions even when we don’t think about it, or approve of it, and particularly when we aren’t thinking. The thing is, no living person is responsible for the existence of racism and no action by any individual or group will make it disappear, though it may be cast out or its effects ameliorated at some times and some places.

But this isn’t a sermon about racism, it is about the demonic, the insidious evils that affect our lives—not things that we will, or things that we created, at least not as individuals. You can see the demonic in abusive families or addictions. You can see it in political discourse. Nowadays we can see that pretty close up. The demonic lives by fear, anger, hate and resentment—but not just any fear or anger. The demonic arises when people deny and cover up those things to the point that nobody really remembers where they came from—everybody, when confronted, can point to a prior instance of offense or terror, unkindness or disrespect that comes from somebody else.  Jesus, in his compassion began to cast out these demons, and triggered the vast resentment that got him crucified.

Jesus wasn’t naïve, he knew what was happening and what was going to happen. But the evil in this world, embodied in those demons was destroying human life, ripping apart society—and Jesus had come to bring life.

So Jesus turns to his disciples and says:

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.

Jesus is talking to us. The only way to cast out or limit the demons of this world is through stopping the denial and holding them up to the light—in compassion, and not in self-serving fear or anger—but in the compassionate love of Jesus. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

This is not without consequences, Jesus would not expect it of his followers if it were not important; if life itself did not depend upon it. Pain, conflict, ostracism, even death can result from not cooperating with the culture of denial, anger and fear in this demon filled world.  It’s serious business to be Jesus’ disciple, and not to be undertaken flippantly or with any self-regard or self-righteousness. Jesus says, “Do not fear them, Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” The much greater danger is the death of the spirit that comes from accepting the demonic as normative, denying that evil exists, and taking that fear and anger and despair into your soul.

The peace that Christ brings is not cheap. In a world where human beings hurt and demean one another daily, a life of respect and compassion is outside the norm, it requires attention and courage, else we slip into the morass of self-serving anger and cruel despising of others. Yet it is peace, and it is a joyful thing to live in Christ’s love—life is indeed possible, we are not dominated by the despair of this world.

As St. Paul said it today:

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also much consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.