Fear

The assurance of things not yet seen

A sermon for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 11, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This verse is very well known and it’s often treated as a philosophical definition of faith. But our reading from Hebrews isn’t a philosophical treatise—it speaks of people of faith and how God provided for them amidst great challenges.

This past Wednesday, I was driving over to the church for a meeting with Paula and Jennifer about some matters that relate to the financial challenges that Trinity faces. And I was listening to the radio as I was driving through the Bronx in that rainstorm we had that afternoon, and a story came on about the mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. The reporter was talking to a woman who had lost a family member in that shooting. She had said she was a woman of faith and the reporter asked her: “Does this shake your faith?” I wish I could quote the woman’s response exactly—because it so clearly summed up what it means to be a person of faith in such a difficult time. But I was driving in the rain, so I couldn’t take notes. As I remember, she said she couldn’t really say where God was in all this, or what was happening. She didn’t think that God wanted her loved one to die like this. Her faith is that God loves her and those people who were killed. But right now, she doesn’t know what to do or think.

What she said was something like that—very real, not tied up into a neat package with a pretty theological bow, but still knowing the essential of faith, that God is love, even when we don’t feel it.

The thing is, our faith in God is our life; and when our life is shaken, our faith IS shaken. I can easily believe that that woman felt very shaky, probably still does. And I wouldn’t blame her a bit if she was afraid and anxious. That is how you feel when your life is shaken.

If we pay attention to scripture, it is at precisely such times that God acts for God’s people, even though they don’t see it, don’t feel it, don’t understand it, don’t believe it. Our Old Testament lesson and our Epistle tell the story of Abraham, who at ninety years old was childless and without an heir. His wife Sarah was about the same age and had always been barren. God sent him out to look at the stars. Remember, this is long before the electric illumination of our big cities made the stars seem so much fewer. A couple of weeks ago, when we were visiting my mother and staying at my sister’s house in central Oregon, we went out at night and looked at the moonless night sky. The sky was so vast and dark, filled with all sorts of stars, even shooting stars. The Milky Way was fully visible. A couple of dozen people might be able to divide up the sky and make some kind of count of the stars you see from New York city. But out there in the mountains, the stars are literally uncountable. And that is what God says to Abraham: “Count the stars, if you are able to count them—So shall your descendants be.” God’s promise and the hope of Abraham came before there was any way that it seemed feasible—there was no plan, there was nothing you could see, except, perhaps, the stars.

Hope is not just anything you happen to wish for.  It is certainly not arrogantly thinking that God will give you the specific things you have decided you need to carry out some plan you have come up with. Hope is far more flexible than that. Hope is about living in God’s love.  And sometimes … that life is shaken, sometimes our faith is shaken, and sometimes that means that our hope appears to have been shaken as well. But that’s just it. Our faith is assurance of things hoped for—things NOT SEEN. Like that woman I heard on the radio who could not see what God was doing, we wait in faith for God’s action, for the fulfillment of God’s promise.

But what is God’s promise? Is it comfort? Or wealth? Or well-being?  Despite what you can hear if you turn into just the right TV broadcast, none of those things is promised by God. God’s promise is God’s love: God’s love for us and a life in which we are formed into being God’s love. That promise will be fulfilled—it is being fulfilled here each day—but the things that happen along the way? The things we like to call the results of our plans? Those things are not what God has promised. God has promised to make us his people, what more can we ask than that?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The promise is glorious, but our life of faith is in the real world, not some fantasy world of easy prosperity.  Though we do not know what God’s future holds for us, Jesus nevertheless tells us to be prepared. To take action, live lives of generosity, giving to those who are in need, keeping our lamps lit, looking for the signs of where God is leading us, ready to serve God at any turn—even in our most unlikely or off-putting neighbor. We don’t always experience this life of generosity and discipleship as the kingdom, because it’s often hard work and sometimes disappointing, but living as God’s love in expectation of the kingdom is how we see God’s future for us.

Trinity Church has many challenges. How we respond to them will be part of how God shapes the future. I do not know what will happen, God seldom delivers according to OUR specifications. I do know that we will have life together, share faith together, and live as God’s generous and loving people together.  Do not be afraid, or at least if you are, know that God will keep you safe anyway. In particular do not be afraid of living generously and of shaping our life together in ways that benefit those who aren’t part of the present community within these four walls. We are not here for ourselves, we are here as ambassadors of God’s love.

“If he comes in the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those servants. But know this, if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

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Into the Land of Promise

A sermon for Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

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

Today is the feast of Pentecost when the church celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is also the day when Paislee Eliza Scott is being baptized into Christ. One version of the Pentecost story is our lesson from the book of Acts. The Spirit alights on the apostles like tongues of fire and they are understood by everyone in their own languages, while the apostles preach the Gospel.  But the coming of the Holy Spirit is not just about a dramatic public event of evangelism. The Holy Spirit has always been regarded by the church as the presence of God, enlivening and guiding it. But we are like Philip—we can’t see it, even when it is standing there staring us in the face: “Lord, show us the Father.” “How long have you been with me Philip, and you still cannot see me?” Jesus answered him. “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

This is the reason that Pentecost is one of the chief days to baptize new Christians. Paislee receives the spirit of truth in baptism, she encounters Jesus in the washing of water and in encountering Christ’s love in the church. That is in you, as Christ abides in you. It is not just her parents and godparents and grandparents who promise to raise her up in the Christian faith and life, it is all of us who take that responsibility.

This is the promise and the reality of Jesus to us, to all of us. But there is no cause to be complacent about that, or to pat ourselves on the back, or to think that God abiding in us makes us or our decisions better than anyone else’s. The World, pre-occupied in serving self, cannot receive the Spirit because it does not see or know him—too often the Church paradoxically becomes that World, pre-occupied with fears and schemes, rather than the courage and love of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, the Spirit does guide us, in our weakness and our blindness.

St. Paul says this, just a few verses later in his letter to the Romans following our epistle lesson for today: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Holy Spirit is not something superficial, nor is it something emotional; rather it is the power of God among us, between us and within each of us, guiding and healing us in his love.

The passage appointed from this same chapter today starts: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” In the Roman Empire everyone was very familiar with slavery and with adoption. The economy of the empire was based on slavery, from the lowest and harshest of menial labor in the mines to very high functionaries in the households of the wealthiest aristocrats.

Wealth and comfort for the owners proceeded from the work of the slaves, yet they counted as nothing, they were regarded as invisible and of little or no worth. Any slave could be beaten or even killed, without the master having to even explain. Many early Christians were slaves and a substantial number of other Christians at the same time were owners of slaves. Everyone intimately understood the fear that dominated the lives of the slaves. Jesus, described himself as a slave to all—a most extraordinarily radical thing. Equally radical was that the church asserted that they followed this man, and honored him as God.

Adoption was also common in the Roman Empire, though not nearly as many people were adopted as were slaves. Many Roman emperors were the adopted sons of the previous emperor. If a man of wealth and property did not have a son who he judged satisfactory to be his heir, he would choose someone to adopt as his son.  Today, wealth is more often handled through corporations that have complicated succession plans. In the Roman Empire being adopted was a typical succession plan—those who were adopted achieved higher status and security than they had previously.

So St. Paul says, “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Holy Spirit, which the church receives on Pentecost takes us out of fear and slavery through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. As we baptize Paislee, she is adopted into Christ—no one can take her into slavery, she is God’s child. And not only that, every one of us is now adopted, not by a wealthy landowner, or by a Roman Emperor, but by the God who created heaven and earth. When we boldly and audaciously sing, “Our Father…” at the breaking of the bread, that Holy Spirit is bearing witness “with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” as St. Paul says. And he continues, “If, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Suffering is indeed real, we can expect it, and the Holy Spirit enables us to face it squarely–without fear.

Paislee enters life without fear, she receives the Holy Spirit to join us without fear, we are emboldened by that same spirit to receive her and give her life in Christ, unafraid and filled with God’s blessing.

Listen to a portion of the blessing that we will do over the water of baptism in a few minutes:

We thank you Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

Who will go for us?

A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 10, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

Each of the four Gospels has an account of Jesus calling his first disciples, and they aren’t the same. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is down by the Jordan River where John the Baptist is doing his work, and two of John’s disciples follow him home, then they invite others who Jesus invites to follow him. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee and invites first Peter and Andrew who were standing on the shore, throwing their net into the sea, and later James and John, who were mending nets in their father’s boat. In those cases, the disciples immediately follow Jesus. Today’s Gospel, from Luke, is a little bit different. Those differences are very human, and I think, pretty amusing.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had already been preaching and teaching for a while before he encountered the disciples. So when he was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he wasn’t just walking along the beach, noticing the fishermen working, he was surrounded by all sorts of people, wanting to hear what he had to teach, to be healed and so forth. So, in order to be able to teach the large crowd and not to be overrun, he sees a boat and climbs into it and asks Simon Peter to row out a little way from the shore so he could address the crowd. What exactly Jesus said isn’t recorded, but I’m sure that what Jesus taught was pretty similar to what he taught on other occasions: good news to the poor, repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand, perhaps some parables or parts of the Sermon on the Mount. At the end of his teaching, Jesus didn’t ask the fisherman to take him back to shore, but to row out in deep water and put out his nets. Peter resists, because he is exhausted. He’s been working all the night, and hasn’t caught any fish. A day of work and nothing to show for it, no pay, nothing to eat. Sometimes life can be difficult and discouraging. It wasn’t the end of life—he would survive to fish the next day—but life can be on the edge, even for a person who has a job.

Jesus insists, so the fishermen continue to row. All of a sudden, there’s a huge unexpected bounty of fish in their nets—more than they had ever caught at one time. What happens next is what I find funny—they go from being exhausted and depressed because of a lack of fish, to being panicked and afraid because of too many fish. They get help from the other boat, they fill both boats to the point that they nearly sank. As they get to shore, Simon Peter falls down on his knees in front of Jesus. He sees this as a miracle, this bringer of the Word of God has clearly done something from God and he’s very afraid. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Where have we heard that before? In our Old Testament Lesson, which is the account of the call of the prophet Isaiah, he says: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!”

Being aware of the presence of God is a frightening thing. It makes clear how people truly fall short of God’s goodness, how truly inadequate we are of embodying and teaching the truth. Even though it’s suddenly his best day of work ever, Peter is overwhelmed—how can this be? What is God doing with me?

It’s possible to get everything we imagine we want, and yet not have any idea of what it’s for, or what our next step is. And Jesus said to him, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be one who nets people.”

Peter, Andrew, James and John were thus called to follow Jesus as he traveled around Galilee, healing, preaching and teaching; and as he journeyed to Jerusalem and his crucifixion and resurrection. But God’s call is not limited to these disciples alone, or to prophets like Isaiah. Each of us is called out of our particular limitations: our fear, or our poverty; our anger or our disappointment; we are called out of having too much or struggling to have enough, to live lives worthy of the Gospel—to be Jesus’ witnesses and hands right here. It is fearful to be called by God, because when we hear that call—and know that it is God—we are aware of the perfect love of God and all too aware that our own love is far too imperfect. How can the perfect God make use of such imperfect and flawed creatures?

The answer is God’s mercy. That is both the simplest, most straightforward fact—and the deepest of all possible mysteries. In God’s compassion for all God’s children, God chose to call us, in all our sinfulness, to be the vessels of his compassion. That is the Gospel—the opportunity to live and deliver God’s mercy into this world.

The epistle lesson we heard today from First Corinthians is how Paul states this. In fact, it is the earliest account we have of the Gospel message that the early church proclaimed, because he is repeating what he had been taught from the beginning:

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (which is the Aramaic name that we know as Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred sisters and brothers…then to James, and all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called…”

 

Paul also was aware of his unworthiness. But he proclaimed the mercy of God—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, so that we might have life—life as abundant as that great haul of fish and as joyful as the opportunity to share it with others in God’s love.

They will sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord.

Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly;

he perceives the haughty from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe;

you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;

your right hand shall save me.

 

In his Time the Righteous shall Flourish

A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Our Gospel story this morning is the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. People usually call this the story of the Three Kings. The problem is that, when you look at the story in the Bible, it’s clear that these guys are not kings. It says Magi, which definitely doesn’t mean king—it probably means something like astrologer, sage, or maybe astronomer. Maybe even magician or sorcerer. And another thing is that it doesn’t say how many there were. There were three gifts named, but there could have been two or twenty Magi in this group that appeared in Jerusalem.

But the really big thing is that the main character in this story is Herod, not the Magi, or Joseph, or even Jesus. Herod was the King of Judea, but he wasn’t descended either from David or any of the Hasmonean kings who had ruled Judea in the previous century. His father was Idumean, which meant that most of the Jewish population didn’t regard him as legitimately Jewish, let alone as a real king. But Herod was a brilliant politician—he managed to be an ally and supporter of both sides in the Roman civil war that resulted in the establishment of the Roman Empire. He maintained his rule and power through wily manipulation of political factions and the backing of the Roman military. He used people’s fears and suspicions of one another to neutralize their suspicion of him. He presented himself as an alternative to Roman domination, while using Roman power and occupation to maintain his own domination of this kingdom. It was a precarious balancing act, to maintain this power. Herod was suspicious that at any turn, someone might do something to overthrow him—and he was right. Tyrants are always insecure for good reason.

So these astronomers show up, sharing their observations and their interpretations of them. Of course, Herod was frightened. They were talking about a person with legitimate claims to his office. No matter what Herod or the Romans thought about his right to reign, an heir to David could greatly increase resistance to him and undermine the Romans’ plans. Herod plots. He secretly talks with the Magi, asks them to find this infant king for him.

Today’s lectionary reading ends with the Magi finding Jesus and his mother, giving their gifts and paying him homage. But the story in the Gospel continues. These are people whose job is interpreting dreams, and their dreams tell them not to trust this Herod guy. They leave Bethlehem by an alternate route. Joseph also has a dream, and heads south with the child and his mother. But the story continues:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the Magi, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the Magi.

The evil and cruelty are easy enough to understand. This man had power and he wanted to keep it. Being cruel to powerless children was efficient for a ruler with no governing values except staying in power. It’s nothing new, people saw it back then, the Gospel of Matthew observed it and described it; we see it now.

The Gospel proclaims that that is NOT God’s way. The King in Bethlehem was not powerful but a helpless infant. The King in Bethlehem was not a raging narcissist, out for himself alone, but Jesus, living compassionately for others, protected by a loving and courageous mother. They were protected and brought to safety by her husband, a humble man, doing what he needed to do, and going where he needed to go for the well-being of his family. God protected that infant through those who listened to God, those who knew to follow where God was leading them.

Our world has dangerous and evil things in it, dangers and evil people, and the Bible never implies otherwise. In our lesson from Isaiah it says, “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.”  We experience these things, and that is why the stories in the Bible are so compelling. But the message is that God does rescue us from this evil. God uses the good and compassionate Joseph to rescue the infant Jesus; God prevails upon the consciences of those astrologers from Persia to listen to their suspicions of Herod and avoid him. God enlightens us to see the light of Jesus—who lives a life of pure compassion, pure integrity, pure love. God calls us to live lives of compassion, integrity and generosity for others for the sake of the well-being of this world, and not for selfish gain, or illusory power. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that doing so will be easy—that there will be no danger, or anger, or confusion. Following Jesus includes the fear and anger of people like Herod, or those who crucified Jesus. We are blessed because we can be generous, we can be compassionate, we can live life abundantly and not be overcome by that fearful selfishness that characterizes this world.

That company of Magi brought what they could. They gave the child gold, frankincense and myrrh, all the precious things they had. They rejoiced and we rejoice because that child, the new king, the different king has come into this world where we live. Jesus is here—his light shines in the Bronx.

And our psalm for today says:

Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the King’s Son;

That he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice;

That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people,

and the little hills bring righteousness.

He shall defend the needy among the people;

he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.

He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, from one generation to another.

He shall come down like rain upon the mown field,

like showers that water the earth.

In his time shall the righteous flourish;

there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

The Shepherds returned, Glorifying and Praising God

A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“They were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…”

Tonight’s Gospel story places us in a world where many were right to be terrified. The Emperor Augustus was the first Roman emperor. The Romans had been around and expanding for a while, conquering other countries, but Augustus was the one who brought one-man rule and consolidated the world empire. He was the first who could decree that all the whole world should be enrolled and taxed. Augustus had a lot of power; for one thing, he had at his disposal the Roman army, which also served as the police force, and that army were never known for restraint and gentleness in enforcing imperial decrees. The early Roman Empire, when Augustus was consolidating his rule, was indeed a fearful time for most people. Everyone was being herded to their places of origin to facilitate efficient and organized registration. And so this man and his fiancé have to travel almost a hundred miles, mostly on foot. And she’s in the last stages of pregnancy. The whole thing sounds pretty frightening to me.

Yet, in Bethlehem, they found a place to stay. What it says here in the Gospel was that Mary wrapped the baby up warm and put him in a manger, because there wasn’t any space for them in the spare room. There’s no reference to a Motel 6 with no vacancy or even to a late medieval English country inn. Mostly people like Joseph and Mary found a place to stay with distant relatives or friends of friends if they traveled away from home. Hospitality was a duty in the ancient Near East and most honored it.

But Palestinian houses were not that big, usually only a single room with an upstairs that resembled what we would call a sleeping loft that was used for various things, including entertaining guests. That room was full, maybe with other guests, maybe the stuff stored there made it too crowded for a woman to go through labor and delivery. At the far end of the main room of the house, away from where the family slept and ate, was where they brought in their animals for the night to be safe from thieves and predators. So there would be a manger there for fodder to keep the cattle occupied and quiet through the night. There’s no mention of the animals being there when Mary put Jesus into the feed bunk, we just fill that in with our imaginations. Maybe this night the animals were left outside with a guard, while this mother had her baby.

In this frightening world, Mary found a safe place for her baby. It wasn’t luxurious—it was a feed trough—but he was warm and loved and safe.

So then we have these shepherds. They are outside, protecting their animals through the night. They are not very high up the social ladder. They aren’t wealthy owners of large flocks—those people spent the night at home in bed. These are probably hired hands, barely getting by. Hired shepherds were regarded as low, vile, untrustworthy—the whole list of things that poor and disadvantaged groups always get called—that’s what you find in ancient descriptions of shepherds.

And the angel of the Lord appeared to these shepherds. And the literal text in Greek translates, “And they feared fear very big.” A lot of fear. And some of that is awe in the presence of the most holy, the Glory of God, but it’s the fear also of those in an insecure and dangerous situation faced by new and unknown power.

So the angel says to them, “Don’t fear.” The angel tells them to see what God is doing. Notice that if the angel just told them that a young, unmarried woman had just had a baby in town, in a place where cattle spend the night, it would have been pretty much no news, let alone good news, nothing different in this fearful chaotic world.  But …

“For see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The fearful shepherds heard the army of God’s angels singing and they went to Bethlehem. They saw that baby. That human being who we know was always living as a human being from God’s perspective, the perspective of love.

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace …”

It is God’s doing and not ours. God loved Mary, the mother of that child, who loved him, cared for him, kept him safe and warm. The Source of Love knew he was loved as his mother held him there.

In a world filled with chaos and fear, the shepherds saw God’s glory right there. And the angel army sang, “Peace on earth” – not peace sometime else or somewhere else: Peace on this earth. Peace is the opposite of fear and chaos. We often think of peace as just the absence of war or violence, but that is not really it. Shalom in Hebrew and the concept of peace overall, signifies wholeness and health. Peace brings integrity of existence—the opposite of chaos and fear.

If you look at the news, the agents of chaos are abroad. It’s entirely understandable that people are afraid. The devils of chaos will do their worst and many will be terrified, but God has come among us, bringing peace even as a newborn infant. We worry about money and we worry about the church, but God’s angel army sings, “Peace on this earth to all people in God’s overwhelming mercy.” When we say, “Do not be afraid,” it is not because those agents of chaos aren’t out there, or that there aren’t bills due, and obligations to meet. The angels and the saints and the church, present, past and yet to come, say, “Do not fear,” because God is bringing peace among us, that is to say, God is bringing us together, binding us together as a whole in the integrity of Christ’s love.  Fear paralyzes us, but God’s peace makes it possible to live, to be courageous and to be generous in all aspects of our lives.

So the shepherds said what the angel had told them about the child and everyone was amazed. But for Mary, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

Let us also glorify God, for what he has done among us.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born this day of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and forever.

Put on the Armor of Light

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life

This is the beginning of today’s collect for the First Sunday of Advent, that is to say, they are the first words of the Christian new year. The “works of darkness” enfold us. We live in a world that is filled with darkness—willful blindness, suspicion, corruption, and hatred. That darkness can affect us; make us reactive and suspicious; tempt us to hate and pay back evil with evil. In our Gospel for today, Jesus says:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

In such a time, the forces of darkness can cause damage to many things: the peace of society, safety for individuals, material well-being. But worse still is the spiritual damage of being caught up in that darkness, corruption, hatred, blindness.

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Don’t give in to blindness, but see our redemption drawing near. Following Jesus gives us light in the darkness. In our Collect for today, we pray that God will give us grace—that’s grace, which is a gift from God’s mercy, not some strength of our own—grace to put on the armor of light—NOW in the time of this mortal life. The light of truth protects us and allows our spirits to be healthy, even in difficult times. In this real world, we can be of earthly use in addressing the problems around us, because we are protected by the armor of light. The darkness can weigh us down; make us depressed or unmotivated; cause us to be fearful and discouraged. Yet Jesus says: “Be on guard that your hearts are not weighed down with [this] dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”

It’s at this very time that Christ comes among us bringing our greatest hope and the opportunity for our greatest spiritual triumph. As the Collect says, “in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.” It is in his humility of being a person just like us, but not captured by the darkness, which makes him the one who can be the final judge of all people. His compassion and mercy reveal the truth of all of us, including every way in which any of us might give in to those pervasive forces of darkness. He brings us the armor of light, so that we can live in freedom and joy.

That’s the reason why we begin that time of year that everybody calls the “Christmas Season” by talking about the final judgment and the coming of Christ as the judge of all.  It’s because we rejoice in that humble child, the one who is free and brings freedom in the midst of a world filled with the works of darkness. That baby wasn’t protected by an army or divine security patrol. He was protected by the love of a mother and a father who had no power, nor money, nor any more security for themselves than any of us. The judgement of God is here, now, in this time of our mortal life. It is God’s compassion for us and our life of growing into God’s compassion.

It’s been more than two years since I last preached here at Trinity. I have often thought of you, sometimes even mentioned you: your faithfulness, your challenges, your joy. When I read today’s Epistle lesson from Paul to the church at Thessalonika, I was struck by how I feel about this congregation:

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

It is God that leads us into hope and abundance. God shows us the way and keeps us safe with the armor of his light. With this new year in the church’s life, God calls Trinity Church to discern that way, what it is to follow Jesus and to be God’s joyful people.

From today’s lesson from Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

I saw the holy city coming down from the sky from God

A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Today we are observing the Feast of All Saints. It’s one of the most important feasts on the Christian calendar.  Officially it happens on November 1, but since people don’t get that day off to come to church, we are celebrating it today.  Of course, Halloween is the Eve of All Saints, so the day before All Saints people prepare for the Feast by imaginatively envisioning all that is scary or evil or demonic, ridiculing those things—purging them through acts of ridicule or perhaps experiencing the terror of what evil could be. Mostly nowadays people just have fun, they don’t take the demonic seriously.

I’ve spoken before about the demonic forces that Jesus casts out—not the caricatures we play with on Halloween—but the ways in which human fears, selfishness and anger take on dangerous and independent forms because people avoid facing them and push them off onto others. People often project the danger and evil onto others, like, for instance immigrants or Jews, when the real demon comes from their own fearfulness and anger, which is then projected onto someone else or some generalized force.

Both Halloween and All Saints are exercises in holy imagination. In appreciating real things by imagining them in more vivid and concrete images. When we talk about saints, we usually think of famous people or great heroes—people with inspiring stories whose lives can be examples of how Christians can be. Many people think of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived a life of poverty to show Christians the freedom that comes in living for others. Many think of him as being all about loving animals. He did love animals, but much of what he did with animals was to teach people to rejoice in their simplicity and to emulate the birds and creatures in their free response to God’s love and beauty.  A couple of weeks ago, the Roman Catholic Church canonized St. Oscar Romero who was Archbishop of El Salvador. He lived his ministry as bishop in advocating for the well-being of the poor of his country who were oppressed by a ruthless and exploitative military regime. He was shot and killed at the end of his sermon at a eucharist in memory of a woman, the mother of a newspaper editor; a woman who had in her own ways reached out for the good of the poor,  and who had been killed a year before.

People like Francis and Oscar have big stories and dramatic lives that we think about. Sometimes these spark our imagination of how we can live, but often we develop caricatures of what saints are that are no more accurate or useful than our caricatures of demons on Halloween.

We might have heroes in our lives, but that is not what saints are. Saints are the Holy People of God. And when I say, the Holy People of God, I mean You. Being a saint is not about living a life of punctilious perfection or of winning the race of being the most generous, good and nice person who anybody ever saw. Being a saint is being truly yourself, truly the person that God created you to be. The most important characteristic of a saint is being someone who has received God’s mercy—that would be all of us. So if we are afraid, or angry, or selfish, we don’t have to deny that—we accept that we are these and other things that are much in need of God’s mercy and we offer them to God.  In God’s mercy, we are not crippled by our sins, nor do we project them into demons, but we know that we are loved and that we can love in return.

The reading from Revelation introduces the image of the heavenly city, the perfected Jerusalem descending from the sky.  It is the imagination of our future with God: “The home of God is among mortals…he will dwell with them and they will be his…”  Two years ago, I led a Bible study group on the entire book of Revelation. It’s quite a wild ride—from ecstatic throngs praising God in the courts of heaven to the horrors of war, famine and disease—reflecting a world as chaotic and dangerous as our own. Some of the images in the book of Revelation are far scarier than anyone could think up for Halloween. The image of the Heavenly Jerusalem emerges in that context of fearfulness and demonic oppression in the Roman Empire.

God knows the realities we experience, and also the fantasies and fears that arise as people respond to difficulty and uncertainty. The final truth is that the home of God is with us. And when I say final, I don’t mean, far away, after everything is done with, God will take care of us. What I mean is that the truth is, in the midst of confusion, fear, anger—the real truth is God’s presence, wiping away every tear, giving mercy to all his children, to all his Holy People, to all his Saints.

This is what is important about saints. The temptation is to be buffeted about and give in to all those things out there that confuse and frighten us, but we can renounce them. In a few minutes we will re-affirm our baptismal vows and renounce those things. The stories of saints allow us to imagine life when evil has been renounced. Our imagination of the heavenly city is one story, but there are thousands of stories, millions of them.

We have those saints among us—those who visit people who are lonely or ill; those who welcome strangers; those who faithfully adorn our worship spaces with little or no thanks; those who diligently work to improve our facilities and maintain our physical plant. In more than a year here at Calvary I have encountered many saints and their work. Works of mercy—of giving mercy and receiving mercy.  Take a moment to think of the past year… how has God dwelt among us? Who has done a small act of kindness or been generous in a way that you might not have noticed before? How has it been possible for you to be welcoming, generous, merciful?

I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked among God’s saints in this place and I anticipate that you will grow in your sainthood in the coming years.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.