Fear

Even a hundredfold

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 12, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus was at the beach, as many of us would like to be during the summer.  Today’s Gospel says he “sat beside the sea.”  Then it got way too crowded, so he got on a boat and started to tell the people stories.

The parable of the Sower is well known, though people today may not be as well-acquainted with the behavior of seeds and plants as Jesus’ first hearers would have been.  The image is of a farmer or farmhand planting grain in the spring.  Today, this is done with large machines that plant all the seeds in precise rows at a very high volume per minute.  A farmer in ancient times had to do all this by hand, reaching into his bag of seed and flinging the seed across the plot of ground. The skilled and careful farmer would be sure that most of the seed fell on the good soil that had been tilled; the less careful worker might have more of his seed go astray.

Some waste was the norm, as Jesus’ listeners knew full well, so it’s not as though they would think that some seed landing on a footpath, or rocks, or thorns, meant that the farmer was not realistic, or even a particularly careless fellow.  The last section of today’s gospel reading has an allegorical interpretation of the parable. It is portrayed as being in another context at another time. Certainly, that allegory is a common way that this story has been interpreted, but there is good reason to believe that Jesus first presented the story to be listened to and understood literally, on its face as a story about the familiar world.

The farmer sowing seed is a familiar bit of reality, and in that reality, we can see the real difficulties of life—the complete loss when birds take the seed before it can sprout; the immediate hope in seeing seed quickly sprout followed by disappointment at the equally fast failure of the weak seedlings on the rocky ground.  We know these things in our own lives and our own country: brash promises about health and well-being by a president who negligently scatters all the seed of public commitment to sacrifice for the common good on the hard path of his vanity and dreams of magical commercial re-awakening, so that the seed of possibility of public health is snatched up by new and uncontrolled infection. The good soil of solid public health measures like contact tracing and careful monitoring has been neglected. At the same time, he has sown among the thorns of fear and racism, inciting people who are fearful and angry to act on their worst impulses, to choke out all truth and good will.

But the focus of this parable is not on the thorns and troubles pressing in on every side.  The bulk of the seed landed on good, fertile soil and the yield was amazing! A hundredfold, sixty-fold, even thirty-fold was several times higher than the yield Jesus’ hearers reasonably expected from their crops. And that brings us to the point of all this: The Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God is here in the middle of the reality we are living in: God shares our difficulties and faces the evils of this world with us. Jesus’ life is in our real world; he faced times and rulers as harsh or harsher than our own. But in that reality, the Kingdom is abundant good. We share the bountiful love of God, even when things don’t work out for us. In fact, we have the possibility to live through these times with a spirit of generosity, helping one another, being there for those who are hurting the most. The opportunity to be generous gives those who provide it a bit of the bounty of the Kingdom—though we should always take care that what we do is for the sake of others and not simply to make ourselves feel good. By giving, the church can become God’s Church, but it is not the success of that institution called Church that is the yield of the Kingdom. The love of God, always supporting us and giving the opportunity to serve God’s people—that is the Kingdom of God, and the bounty of life, and the reality of our lives all at the same time.

This summer, our New Testament epistle readings are from the letter of Paul to the church at Rome. Paul doesn’t use the term “Kingdom of God,” but what he preaches is very much about the same kingdom I have been talking about. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Despite the power of sin, and of corporate evils and personal shortcomings, there is no condemnation. For Paul, as well as Jesus, the overwhelming joyful news of God’s coming is in the midst of the difficulties of the real world. The gifts of God—and the possibilities for us in this world, transformed by his kingdom—are enormous, unlimited even. If difficulties cause someone to stumble, to lose confidence or even to do bad things, she or he is not condemned or lost.  Each of us is the child of Christ and part of his body. Paul continues: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. … But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

You are the field in which the seed of God’s kingdom is planted and also the agents to nurture that Kingdom. It is through God’s spirit, and not by our strength or talent that the Kingdom grows.  Accept the gift of the spirit of Christ in you, and rejoice in God’s bounty: Thirtyfold, sixtyfold, even a hundredfold.

You are of More Value than many Sparrows

A sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost, June 21, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.

Five years ago this week, a young man, who described himself as a white supremacist, shot and killed nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Sunday following was Fathers’ Day, as today is. Five years ago, I ended up rewriting the sermon that I had mostly already written when the news broke about the murders in Charleston. That time was not unlike our time today. It has been five years and more and this country is filled with racist acting-out. And the vocation of fathers is the same as it was then—living up to the challenge of doing the right thing to nurture and protect children.

Here’s a bit of what I said in my sermon five years ago. I told a little story about a storm coming up when we were fishing on a lake when I was a little kid, and my Dad struggling to start the motor on the boat before it filled with water.

On this Father’s Day, I remember my own father, who died 15 years ago this month. For him, being a father was about loving and enjoying children and giving them a model of dignity and respect. When there was any sort of emergency or crisis, his first response was to protect the children—even though some people might not recognize that was what he was doing when he was focusing on getting that cranky outboard motor to start in that thunderstorm.

Likewise, the witness of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina has always been to foster the dignity, respect and well being of the African-American community in South Carolina.  The Reverend Clementa Pinckney and his companions were not the first members of that congregation who suffered and died, witnessing for the Gospel and the dignity of every human being. He was a father to two daughters, as well as serving and caring for Mother Emanuel AME Church. His ministry included being a state senator, because there is much work to be done in that state for legislation to protect the dignity and safety of all people. On this Father’s Day, let us remember that it is the vocation of fathers, as well as all of the rest of us, to have the courage to do the right thing, to stand up to protect those who are vulnerable, particularly when we have reason to be afraid ourselves.

In our reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning, he says:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? … For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

We live in a world filled with death. And death doesn’t come just for bad or violent people; violence doesn’t just come for violent or bad people. And we know that violence came for Jesus. He faced up to it for us all – his death came as he stood up for us. And St. Paul is saying that in our baptism, we participate in that: in Christ’s courageous compassion for his children, even unto death. That is the baptism that we participate in. It can be hard to think about, in a real world where there are truly frightening things happening. That is the real world that Christ came into. But it was in his compassion and courage, even unto death, that he brought us life and truth. God raised him from the dead because that life of his could not be contained by the powers of death. That is the life that he brings to us, the resurrection from the dead—abundant life in a life of generous courage, of caring for the children and the weak, of living compassionately not for ourselves, but for God’s Children.

Hear once again, the words of Jesus:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Let us approach the throne of Grace

A sermon for Good Friday, April 10, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge.

He didn’t answer. There was nothing to say. Who Jesus was, in his very essence, frightened the chief priests and the elders. So they hated him.

And what could Jesus say to contradict that fact? He couldn’t deny that he was there for the poor and the powerless. He also knew that healing this world would change things for the powerful, the self-satisfied, and those who derived their comfort from the exploitation and suffering of others. Jesus didn’t answer because he was indeed, in his person, bringing in the Kingdom of God, and that was what they were accusing him of—of disrupting their kingdom of corruption, fear, and anger.

As I read the passion according to Matthew this week, I am struck by the images of powerlessness. The spirits of death are abroad—and the demonic forces are out to have their way, which will end with the death of the Lord of Life. And even the powerful can’t stop those demonic forces. Even Pilate—normally, a powerful ruler—is helpless. Not blameless or innocent, but helpless. Helpless before those demonic powers. The chief priests and the elders are the same—all the ways they live their lives to protect their position of wealth and power are disrupted by this healer. Those supposedly powerful people didn’t realize that when they turned their back on healing and caring, and pledged themselves to their own selfish ends, they gave up control to those same demons that control Pilate. And for those people in the crowds mocking Jesus and mocking God—it is the same story. They are looking to a god of magic, of violence and control, not the God of healing and of life.

But the helplessness is not just of those that were possessed by the powers of death. Jesus, like all humans, was subject to their power—the powers of death were as real for him as for all of us. Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross—there was no choice, no heroic what-ifs, no possibility for him to do otherwise—he was helpless. And so also were Jesus’ faithful followers, the women, including Mary Magdalene—they could only stand there helplessly, watching from a distance. And even Joseph of Arimathea, even though he was wealthy and powerful, a member of the Council—all he could do was watch and wait until the end, when he laid Jesus in a tomb.

All of us are helpless right now in the face of so much illness and death. And our leaders are helpless, especially those who give in to the same kinds of power struggles and corruption, instead of seeking ways to care for others. We pray, we mourn, we are frustrated as this inexorable illness runs its course. We often fool ourselves, like Pilate, or the elders, or those who taunted Jesus, that somehow we can have everything under control. Then we are puzzled when the powers of death, fear and hatred take their own course and we are helpless, unable to steer or stop them. The cross defeats all human pride, all of our smart solutions, all of our wishful thinking.

The suffering and death of Jesus is real. The suffering and death in our city is real. We cannot wish it away or pretend it away. We are left, like his Blessed Mother and his friends, only with his love for us and our love for one another—and we mourn that he has died.

We enter this time, between now and Easter morning, when God seems absent and we are helpless, because our help is only in God. There is a great feeling of desolation, but it is at those times, that we are most in the arms of a loving God. God is all in all, even when we don’t know it, or we can’t appreciate it. And we are waiting. And we will wait, as they did on that hillside outside Jerusalem, for an Angel of the Lord to tell us that He has risen.

From our Epistle reading from the Letter to the Hebrews:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

 

Lord, if you had been here…

A homily for the fifth Sunday in Lent, March 29, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus began to weep.

Jesus’ friend Lazarus was sick. Jesus was a couple of days journey away, and he did not get there before Lazarus died. We are all at that point now. People are afraid & suffering, people we know are coming down with this disease. I have heard this week that one of our parishioners that hasn’t been able to be at church for a few months has tested positive. It is so frustrating not to be able to reach out, not to be able to do things. And like Martha’s sister Mary, it is only natural to think, “if only…”—if only you had been there, if only they had kept better isolation, if only… if only… And Jesus wept.

God has loved us so much that he sent his only Son to share our human nature, to love us and to suffer along with us.  He healed the sick—that is how most people saw him—he healed the sick even on the sabbath when the rules said he wasn’t supposed to—and yet—Lazarus was dead, and had been in the tomb for four days. His body was starting to decay. And Jesus shared in their suffering and grief, in fact in their descent into despair.  He wept.

God’s love descends to the depths with us—even when we don’t know it or feel it—God’s love in Christ Jesus is here with us and for us, even when we face the hardest of realities and even when we are fearful. God is the source of life, and Jesus told them to roll away the stone, and cried out: Lazarus, come out! The Healer brought his friend, the brother of those women who were his friends, back to life. “Unbind him,” he said, “let him go.”

Even though we are helpless, and bound by the fear of illness and death, God brings life and peace. As St. Paul says in our lesson today: “If the Spirit of him who raise Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”  Though we feel helpless, or may be fearful, Jesus unbinds our spirit, gives us freedom to live on—as I have seen this congregation live on, reaching out to our neighbors, praying and caring for one another.

Let us pray once again, Psalm 130:

Out of the depths have I called to you, Lord;

Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.

If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss,

O Lord, who could stand?

For there is forgiveness with you;

therefore you shall be feared.

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

in his word is my hope.

My soul waits for the Lord,

more than the watchmen for the morning,

more than the watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, wait for the Lord,

for with the Lord there is mercy;

With him there is plenteous redemption,

and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

 

Live as Children of the Light

Homily for the fourth Sunday in Lent, March 22, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania and Grace Church, West Farms, Bronx, New York

“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

That’s Jesus’ disciples asking that question. It’s so easy to leap to conclusions about other people and their situation. “THOSE people must be responsible for all the bad things that happened to them, and probably for the things that are happening to us too!” In other words, it’s got to be somebody’s FAULT, there has to be somebody to BLAME!

Our Gospel today is quite a story, a farce, really.  Everybody saw this man as a blind beggar, and when he wasn’t begging and he wasn’t blind any more they couldn’t recognize him at all. That’s the way it is with so many of us, isn’t it? We latch onto some external characteristics and think we know what people are about—without even appreciating their real humanity. Yet of all the people in this story: Jesus disciples, the teachers and officials of the community, the neighbors and even the man’s parents—this man, who everyone called “blind beggar” was the only one who could see who Jesus was, what he was doing, and how God’s mercy was working in the world.

This virus that occupies all of our attention and has changed how we are living; many people want to label it as something—a punishment from God, or someone’s fault, a reason to blame or be angry at someone. Some even see it as proof that God is not there or that God is cruel. But just like what Jesus said of the man in today’s lesson: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  What Jesus clearly means here, is what he immediately set about doing: he healed the man, gave him his sight, allowed him to see, allowed his insight and dignity to flourish.  The works of God are healing, not spreading disease or blindness. People want to snap their fingers and have all problems and challenges disappear. “Why couldn’t God do this or that? Why didn’t God make everything automatically just the way I always wanted?” But notice, when Jesus heals this man, it is not instantaneous: he takes time; he makes mud; he spreads it on the man’s eyes; he talks to him; gives him instructions of where to go and how to wash. Healing and coming to see the truth is a process that takes time. Being God’s people in this world is a process that takes time. Nothing is more important than living a compassionate life, and that is a process of much learning.

We live our lives at this difficult time. It is not a test from God, it is not a punishment from God. Yet it is a time when God’s work of healing does work in our lives. We pray for others, reach out on the phone, we are thankful for those who work so that others may be safe, fed or healed. In this time, our compassion can grow. Christ is here to heal and save us—there is nothing to fear, we live in God’s compassion.

As St. Paul says in today’s Epistle:

Once you were in darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true… but everything exposed by the light becomes visible for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

 

A Letter during Coronavirus

Many of the members of Trinity Church do not use email or other internet based communications, so this letter is being sent, along with a much more practical letter from our Senior Warden via physical post to all of our members this week.

A Letter Homily to the people of Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx New York

March 18, 2020

John 20: 19-23

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were sealed for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you hold anyone fast, they are held fast.”

Dear members of Trinity:

This lesson from the Gospel of John is from the day of Jesus’ Resurrection. He had been raised, Mary Magdalene had seen him! Yet they were locked up in their room. Why? Well it was only three days since Jesus had been seized and crucified, and the same dynamic that led to his death might still be awaiting them. They had real reason to be afraid and they had to stay in.

We have real reason to be afraid, for ourselves perhaps, but also for those others who might become ill if this virus spreads too quickly—if our hospitals and healthcare workers aren’t able to keep up with all the cases of very sick individuals that arrive. We are sealed in our rooms, but…

“Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  They and we may have cause to be afraid, but we should not be fearful. Jesus is here for us at this time as he was for his disciples. He showed the wounds on his hands and his side—demonstrating that violence and injury are real, the danger is not a fantasy or a bad dream—the virus is real. Yet he brings us that Peace which surpasses all understanding. We have hope because amid this Christ is present with us and among us, even when we are alone. His Holy Spirit he has breathed upon his church, even when we can’t gather.

The translation of the last sentence in this lesson is a better one from what you will see in most bibles. I explained this in a sermon at Trinity that you can see here on the internet:

https://drewkadel.wordpress.com/2015/04/12/god-will-hold-us-all-in-his-love/

We are unable to gather in our church building through Easter at least, but all of us are held fast in God’s love. As the Church we are commissioned to hold one another fast, to pray, to listen and to uphold those who are weary and afraid. Remember, that story goes on with the return of Thomas, who though he was doubting was held fast among his church until Jesus appeared to him and gave him his peace.

If anyone wants to reach me to talk for any reason, please do call. My number is (917) 626-5465. I’m glad to hear from you. My email is kadel.andrew@gmail.com

Now…

May the Peace of God that surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

And the Blessing of God Almighty: + the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit + be among you and remain with you always.

Blessings,

Fr. Drew+

Who was Tempted in Every Way as We Are

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the slanderer.”

We are inclined to look at the wrong things when we think about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. “Oh wow, forty days of fasting in the wilderness, what self-control!”, we think.

It’s true that most of us aren’t up to forty days of desert survival on our own with no food and limited water. But it’s not a world record. It’s a serious time of reflection, a serious time of withdrawal from the world. It’s the same amount of time that Moses spent on the mountain when he received the law from the Lord. It’s not trivial, and such a fast achieves something in terms of clarity and spiritual growth, but the fact that Jesus fasted does not distinguish him from other seriously spiritual people.

And that Devil: We’re pretty sure we know what he’s like. We’ve seen Halloween costumes and even some medieval paintings, depicting this demon with horns and a tail. But it’s a mistake to think of a single demon or even a demonic force opposed to God enticing Jesus and engaging in a test of wills with him. In Jesus’ time, the Greek word “diavolos,” which we hear as “Devil” had a straightforward meaning that everyone would have understood, even if they were also thinking of a personified demon. It meant slanderer, or someone who tells falsehoods to damage the reputation of someone else; someone who misleads others.

The real lesson in today’s Gospel comes with the Devil—the slanderer—posing three questions to Jesus. Like all slanderers, he tries to confuse the issues, he seeks to undermine clarity. Each question is designed to get Jesus to focus on his own power and concerns, to regard the spiritual as magic. Most important, they’re designed to take the focus off God and onto Jesus. The slanderer wanted Jesus to think it was about having super-powers like Spider Man or one of the X-men, rather than being God’s human child.

After all, Jesus was human, he was hungry. “There’s no reason to go hungry—just do a magic trick—take care of what YOU want in ways that aren’t available to others.” But Jesus remains calmly clear on the Source of mercy, the Source of Life.

Then, taking Jesus to the top of the Temple, the slanderer tells Jesus to get God to dramatically show off his power. But Jesus is not about power. He is simple. He is about God’s love and mercy. It is not about showing off and taking care of Jesus, it is about God’s love for all of God’s people. And Jesus says: “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ “

The slanderer isn’t done yet. He offers all power to Jesus, nakedly and grandly: “all the kingdoms of the world in their splendor.” And Jesus sends him away, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

We’ve heard about three kinds of power in today’s Gospel lesson: material, religious, and political. Powerful people, and those who desire power, regard these as magic forces that can take the place of human honesty, compassion, generous work, and plain common sense. Jesus focused on telling the truth and healing people—that was not popular with those who wanted only power—but it was good enough for Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven is gained through loyalty to the Lord of Heaven, not in gathering power to ourselves.  In that Garden, so long ago, the woman listened to the tempter, picked that unripe fruit and gave it to the man, and from then on, humans have listened to their fear and used falseness to try to fool God. Jesus was not fooled or fearful.

In Lent, we are called to shed our burdens of fear and our inclinations to grasp at ineffectual ways to control the world around us. We are preparing for baptism, where we die to self, and live to real life, the life of Jesus whose life burst the tomb of death.

It’s OK to give up something for Lent. It’s best to give up things that add to your confusion and take your focus away from generous living. It makes no sense to give up Twinkies for Lent and then buy a case of them at Costco to have after Lent is over.  That would be a way to continue to focus on Twinkies rather than the Kingdom of God. The discipline of Lent is to focus on where God is leading us, to find the abundance of life in the opportunity to live for others, to give up on self-pity and worry. The time of Lent is not a test of strength, or of our resistance to temptation. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” or another translation, “Do not bring us to the test.” Do not attend to the Slanderer, follow Jesus, in him we receive life as a gift, and that gift is the resurrection from all death.

As we will pray in our Eucharistic prayer:

“It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin: By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.”

The Kingdom of Heaven has come near

A sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany, January 26, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”

Last week, our gospel story was from the Gospel of John, and in it was the call of Andrew and then the call of Peter. Today’s gospel story is from the Gospel of Matthew and in it is the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John. Two different Gospels, two different writers, two different stories remembering the call of Jesus’ first disciples.  In John, they were over by the Jordan, east of Jerusalem while John the Baptist is still out baptizing people. In Matthew, the story takes place after John was arrested. They are on the beach at Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, far to the north of Jerusalem.

The lesson begins: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” It was a very dark time. The leader of the movement for repentance and hope had been taken—the powers would no longer tolerate him and by extension, they wouldn’t tolerate this movement, of which Jesus, by being baptized, was a part. Precise time frames are difficult to draw out of ancient texts like the Gospel of Matthew. But we know that after his baptism, Jesus withdrew into the wilderness and was tempted and then he heard that John was arrested and then went to Galilee. Time has passed between Jesus’ baptism and the point at which he proclaims, “the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” During that time, Jesus reflected. He knew the darkness and lived among those who were in darkness.  And Matthew refers to our lesson from Isaiah:

“In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

Jesus began to proclaim: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”  Though John the Baptist had been saying pretty much the same thing, now Jesus IS the light.

What does Jesus mean when he says repent. Repent of what? Repent of the shadow of death. Of fear. Of hatred. It is time to live in God’s Kingdom and not in the kingdom of Herod or the Empire of Caesar. But what is God’s Kingdom, how do we know it? Jesus gave his disciples a prayer, which we have all been taught, and which we all say every day. It describes the Kingdom—indeed in living it, it is God’s Kingdom.  “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, just like in Heaven. Give us today the bread we need. Forgive us our offenses as we forgive anyone who offends us. Keep our faith and character from being tested, but save us from evil.”  Living in God’s Kingdom is simple, easily understood, but also challenging—especially challenging to our selfishness, our anger, our fear, and our inner darkness. And Jesus calls on everyone to repent. Jesus calls us to repent. He is the light. God’s kingdom is the light that shines light on our inner darkness and gives us a way toward a life of generosity of spirit and of compassion.

And as he is saying this, Jesus walks down on the beach of that big lake in northern Palestine that is sometimes known as the Sea of Galilee. He sees these guys working. “Come with me, we have much more important work to do.” Jesus invites them to invite others into the kingdom. And they come along with him as “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

Jesus is here to heal the sickness and darkness in this land too. We are called to follow him in the good news of the kingdom and to share the light of his love.

In the time of King Herod

A sermon for the second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 5, 2020

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

In the time of King Herod …

Today, for the Gospel, I read a little more than the lectionary requires. There are a few reasons for this.  One is that we aren’t having a service on Epiphany, the traditional “Three Kings Day” when the story of the visit of the Magi is read. Another is that the lectionary provides three Gospel lessons to choose from and two of them are from the same chapter. But the main reason is that this chapter is one story, and I want to talk about the whole thing.

King Herod is the threatening presence that appears throughout this chapter. Herod the Great was a client king of Judea, owing his allegiance to the Romans, but having their permission to run things pretty much as he pleased in his territory. He was a brilliant politician in the sense of being able to ingratiate himself with the powerful, especially the Roman Emperor, while keeping the populace from rising up against him.  During his reign, many military installations were built and the temple in Jerusalem was reconstructed on a much grander scale than before.

Herod Speaks with the Magi — Mosaic, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, Italy

Today’s Gospel shows us his character.  A group – we don’t know how large – of Magi arrived from the east. Magi weren’t kings,they were probably Persian astronomers or astrologers—the distinction in those days wasn’t as clear as it is now. They observed and measured stars and planets and their movements in the sky. And from those observations, they concluded that something very special was happening in Judea. A star indicating the birth of someone of world-changing significance. The magi were educated and intelligent, and perhaps even wise, but they, nonetheless, thought the way that most people do: “A person who will change the world? That must be a new king, growing up in the seat of power!”  So they went to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem.

And it’s here that we see Herod’s character. The magi ask after the newborn king and Herod reacts with suspicion. He plots, consults with his advisors, and manipulates the visitors: “Go find him, then come back to me and let me know where he is, so I can pay my respects.” Herod is cautious, cunning, and fearful. And he had no conscience. When the magi left the country without telling him, he had every child that might have, in his mind, posed a danger to him killed without even knowing who he might be looking for.

Herod used power only for himself. And when someone has more power than they have concern for the good of others, it becomes a great evil. But power did not take away Herod’s fear. In fact, his fear was increased by his desire to hold on to power. The slaughter of those children is a horrible example of the fearfulness of a powerful leader. As with Herod, fear often expresses itself as violence, but violence cannot take away fear, it only increases it. We see things like this happen in our world, and in our own country, every day. Not only that, but people in power seek to spread fearfulness among those who don’t have power as another way to hold onto power. They say: You should be afraid and you should turn to me to protect you!

But if there is fear and misuse of power in this Gospel lesson, where shall we turn? This lesson has a powerful answer, more powerful than all of man’s fears and hungering after power.

Listen to what happens next. “After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.” Throughout the early chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, God’s messenger’s come to Joseph in dreams. In the first, the angel said, “Do not be afraid to take this woman as your wife.” Now that the baby has been born, the angel tells Joseph to get up and take the baby and his mother out of Herod’s reach, into Egypt, the land where Israel had been held captive and enslaved generations before. It was a difficult solution, not an ideal one, by any means, but the baby was safe. Joseph did not act fearfully or violently, he took his family to safety. And several years later he brought them back, carefully again to a safe place, not to Bethlehem his home, but to Galilee, far away from the son of Herod, a man who was Herod’s equal in fearfulness and violence.

Contrary to the fear and violence of Herod, and all those who have inherited Herod’s misplaced love of power, God’s message to the faithful is NOT to be afraid. Don’t participate in the fear and violence that the powers of this world want us to be engaged in. And I’m not saying that it’s easy to let go of fear and to be at peace. Peace is not a passive, it takes a clear commitment and pragmatic action. In other words, achieving peace and justice requires solving problems in ways that work right now, even when we know the solutions are far from ideal.

It is tempting to buy in to the fearfulness and anger of those who are fearful and angry; to live reactively and participate in the indignities of violence and hatred. But God came among us as one of us so that we may live without fear, with the dignity of God’s love for all of God’s people. Christ lived a whole life among us, healing our wounds, healing our indignities, teaching us to live without fear. Even as he was subjected to the worst indignities and killed on the Cross, he was not fearful or hateful. When the world had done its worst, the peace that he brings was revealed as God raised him from the dead. We are made safe, not by acting on our fears but by being transformed in the wisdom and love of God.

As St. Paul said in the letter to the Ephesians this morning:

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

The power that can save us, is the power of God’s love, not the power of Herod’s fear. If we do as Joseph did, following the directions of the angel to get up and go, we can live in the joy of God’s presence with integrity and dignity.

Today’s Collect sums this up beautifully. Let us pray:

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

Do not be Afraid to take Mary as your Wife

A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The days are short right now. Yesterday was the shortest day of the year. It’s a very dark time of year.

The Gospel of Matthew starts at a dark time for Joseph. The woman to whom he was betrothed was going to have a child and he was not the father. Remember, the first churches where the Gospel of Matthew was read did not know anything of the Gospel of Luke, which has a lot more scenes of hope and joy—of the Annunciation of the Angel to Mary, her journey to meet Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem, the shepherds or the manger.

No, what happens as the story of Matthew begins, is a story of a man who is in crisis. This is a life turned upside down. You can feel Joseph’s despair and his resignation when the Gospel says, “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

In the cultural context of Joseph’s time, he could see no way out. Life was over, hope was gone.

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”

And even though Joseph’s world had been turned upside down, his expectations of what his life should be like had been short-circuited by this baby, who was not his own, still, there was this dream. And an angel appeared in the dream and said:

 “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary for your wife.”

Do not be afraid. That’s a statement that’s much more radical than our 21st century American culture might be inclined to think. In Joseph’s time, being told not to be afraid wasn’t the same as the kinds of sayings we hear all the time today, like “live in the present” or “believe in yourself.”

Because, in Joseph’s time, this wasn’t just about him and his fiancé and her child. For Joseph, the problem of Mary’s child would upend a highly structured and strict society. They would be ostracized, and to be ostracized in that society meant to be cut off from all means of making a living and supporting a family, and, therefore, certain death. To say “do not be afraid” to a man contemplating certain death is not just a nostrum to help get through life – it is a radical statement.

But the angel persists:

“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

In this dream a new world, a new picture, a new hope takes shape. None of the facts, indeed none of the difficulties, really changed, but God entered in, and brought hope. And this hope was not so much to address Joseph’s personal issues, but God’s blessing for all people.

In our lesson from Isaiah, King Ahaz, a much earlier descendent of King David, refused to look for God’s sign—he wanted to look to himself and his own solutions to the wars he faced with the neighboring nations. “I will not put God to the test,” in other words— “let’s not let God have anything to do with our business.” Then the prophet says to him:

“Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.”

The sign from God brings a new perspective, a new picture, a new world. Ahaz was refusing to see and God sent the sign anyway; Joseph could not see and the angel appeared in that dream. With Jesus, God had a different idea for the world.

“God’s son, descended from David according to the flesh and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship,” as St. Paul put it.

The good news for the church is the same as it was for Joseph. “Do not be afraid … the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. He will save his people from their sins.” Even though the angel appeared, even though God entered in, the years ahead were not easy, safe or secure for this young family, and Christians should not expect those things for themselves, either. This church is here because generations of Christians built and maintained it. The beauty of this building isn’t accidental, it is the beauty and dedication of those who have worshiped here, who continue to worship here. Today our children present music and praise to God—they are the church, living in faith in God’s presence here.  We welcome every young person here, because the hospitality of Jesus is why we gather at all.

“They shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.”

So Joseph awoke from sleep, and he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife; he was with her when she had her son; and he named him Jesus.  On Christmas Eve, we will gather again in God’s church to celebrate that birth. Joseph’s hope is our hope—to welcome Jesus and to live simply as servants of Christ.  And it is in that hope that the glory of God is in the life of this world and its people.