Generosity

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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Lord, when was it that we saw you?

A sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, November 26, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…

Today is the last Sunday before Advent begins. It is often called the Feast of Christ the King and it is indeed the day when we celebrate Jesus Christ as our Lord and King. Funny thing about that though—the King we celebrate is powerless. He has no wealth, no army, he doesn’t even have much influence with the powerful or the wealthy. How does this king rule? “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger…”

Jesus is a stranger…in this world of ours he doesn’t fit in. Certainly not with those who make it clear that people are to be judged as good people based on their success in making money and fitting in with the “right kind of people.” Jesus was all about hospitality, about welcoming people and attending to their needs. And plenty of the people he welcomed and feasted with, were one way or another the wrong kinds of people: tax collectors, sinners, women accused of being prostitutes—even those Samaritans, that ethnic group that was just a little bit on the wrong side of the religious and ethnic divide from Jesus’ Jewish heritage.

So this stranger Jesus is the King we celebrate. But not a foreign king like Alexander the Great, the Greek who conquered the world, or Augustus, the Roman emperor who ruled the world up to Jesus’ time. Jesus is strange because power, prestige and control are not what he’s about.

The image he presents in the Gospel reading today is this:

The judgment day is presented, and the Son of Man is standing on the plain with all the angels, sorting out people just the way

that everybody knew a shepherd would separate the sheep and the goats into separate groups, treating each species according to its own needs and nature.

I read it this way: After it’s all over, after the course of life is run, we’ll just see. The Son of Man comes in glory to invite his people in. It is really the invitation that he has been giving us all along, and the kingdom is not so much different as we have right now, truth be told. It’s just hard to see it sometimes amidst our anxiety and worry—perhaps it’s difficult to see the kingdom while we ourselves are busy producing the problems that the Kingdom of God heals. But Jesus is here.

Two weeks ago, I attended a meeting of Calvary’s Good Shepherds who work with Mother Ann to visit and care for the sick and shut-ins of our community. Our youth group gathers together to support one another and to reach out for the good of others—today they are putting up the Angel Tree, which gives us an opportunity in cooperation with Readington Township Social Services to give gifts and convey caring and hope to people who are having a difficult time and perhaps not seeing so much brightness in the coming season. Our parishioners share the joy of Christ’s love with our community in hosting Halloween Trick or Treaters and having a float in the Christmas Parade. This Friday some of us will take warm hats and scarves as well as needed toiletries and supplies to the Seaman’s Church Institute to give to merchant sailors who are far from home and often quite isolated. And our Way of St. Paul Group is working hard on listening to one another and all of you in the congregation—in helping us work on ways to foster deeper connection among us and to discern more clearly where God is leading us together.

This story about the sheep and the goats might tempt some to try to keep score: how many times did I help the needy? How many times did I fail to see Jesus? But Jesus’ teaching is not about keeping score. It’s about character. What sort of people are we becoming? You notice that both groups—both the blessed and the accursed—are surprised by their status. The reason for this is not because it is some sort of secret magical trick meant to keep us on edge. The blessed don’t know because it has become so much of their character to respond with generosity and respect to everyone—particularly those who are hungry or thirsty or alone—that it doesn’t even occur to them to do it any other way. And the accursed, their character becomes so defensive and self-centered, that they are surprised that everybody else doesn’t do it like them. “Oh, I’m sure I fed the hungry somehow—didn’t I have that on my schedule in between my spa treatment and foreclosing on those mortgages?”

When the habits of Jesus’ love for us become the habits of our hearts, we are indeed blessed. When we actually look and see what others need, and offer them in generosity that cup of cool water, or that helping hand, it builds us up inside. Our reverence for God’s people builds reverence for God, and it is in God that we live in joy.

As St. Paul said in the Epistle to the Ephesians today:

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 called you…

May we all rejoice as we live in the power of the humility of Christ our King.

You also go into the vineyard

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”

Today’s Gospel lesson is another parable from Jesus. As I said last week, parables are not allegories, which is to say, the characters and events are not symbolic stand-ins for things and people that we know about.  Basically, they are just stories to illustrate something. So when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” He’s not saying that the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner, he’s certainly not saying that the landowner is God. The kingdom of heaven is like this story.

This story is a bit unusual—it catches our attention. Not the first part where he finds day laborers throughout the day. At grape harvest, time is of the essence, as many hands as possible are important to get the ripe grapes in before they start to dry out or fall off the vine. But then comes time for pay. That’s when it gets interesting—people who had only worked a single hour received as much as those who had worked for twelve.  The people who worked all day were upset—and probably most of us would be too.  How unfair! We worked more, we deserve more!  Or at least those others deserve less.

In looking out for ourselves, we sometimes over-estimate our own work and other virtues and the difficulties we face at the same time as we underestimate others abilities and their difficulties.  That’s kind of the way that people work. It’s more important to be aware of that tendency than to condemn ourselves or others when we figure it out.

So all the people who had been working all day were angry. If we take a peek at this morning’s lesson from Exodus, we see that it takes less than a chapter after being saved from slaughter by the Egyptians for the Israelites following Moses to get angry. Angry has become a pretty popular thing to be.

All those folks were quick to conclude that the landowner was being unfair—or that Moses or even God is unfair in not giving us what we think should be our fair portion. The landowner was unimpressed. At the beginning of the day, the workers were satisfied to work for a denarius—a silver coin a bit smaller than a quarter that was typically what a day laborer was paid for a day’s work. Why did he pay the others that came later the same amount?  We don’t know—the people who were angry certainly thought it was unfair and unequal—but one could speculate why a landowner would do this. Maybe he just didn’t want to get into complex accounting—a day’s wage was a single coin, why start subdividing and messing with small change? Perhaps—and this wouldn’t make the people who had worked all day happy, but as a long-time boss, I have seen this—perhaps the latecomers were better workers and he wanted to make sure that they would want to work for him the next day.  Maybe the landowner realized that a denarius really only covered the basic needs of his workers and he wanted all the workers to be able to be healthy and fed for the next day of work.

When the landowner asked the last ones he hired why they weren’t working, they told him, “Because no one has hired us.” I can remember times looking for work when I didn’t have a job, perhaps some others have experienced this, being ready to work, looking, willing to take anything and no opportunities appeared. That is likely the experience of those hired at the eleventh hour—desperation, discouragement, having a hard time holding on to hope. So this man hired them and they took the job at the end of the day, to work for whatever bit they might get.  There was nothing requiring the landowner to pay them a day’s pay, no expectation of it at all. The landlord would not explain or justify himself to the gripers,

Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go: I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

“Are you envious because I am generous?” When I read this story, that is the key—the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s overwhelming generosity, God’s compassion for those who are beyond hope, discouraged, last in line, or at the bottom of all the advantages and opportunities. “The last will be first” in God’s Kingdom. It’s a kingdom of grace, not of self-pity, selfishness, or envy.  Fair is not what we desire for ourselves, but how abundant life and healing is given to all God’s children.

Living in Christ means looking beyond our self-interest, and enduring the challenges that comprise the real world we live in. It is praising God for God’s generosity, not so much his generosity to us, but God’s generosity in giving life and well-being to those who may not expect it, those that are last in the eyes of the worldly around us.  We praise God for bringing us together with all humanity and glorify God for giving life and hope when it seems near to running out.

Let’s conclude with words from today’s psalm:

Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name,

Make known his deeds among the peoples.

Remember the marvels he has done,

His wonders and the judgments of his mouth.

He led out his people with silver and gold;

In all their tribes there was not one that stumbled.

Egypt was glad of their going,

Because they were afraid of them.

He spread out a cloud for a covering

And a fire to give light in the night season.

They asked, and quails appeared,

And he satisfied them with bread from heaven.

He opened the rock, and water flowed,

So the river ran in the dry places.

For God remembered his holy word

And Abraham his servant.

The seed of the Kingdom

A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

As many of us would like to be during the summer, Jesus was at the beach.  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.  This situation is not unlike what we experience in our personal lives as well as in the church. Things go wrong, sometimes dramatically, sometimes in minor ways, and our enthusiasm can be undercut when things turn out not to be as well founded as we believed.  Jesus’ world is the Kingdom of God.  That Kingdom partakes of reality as stark as that of anyone’s world.

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.   The Kingdom of God is here in the middle of our ordinary reality, and Jesus has sympathy with the difficulties we find in the real world.  But in that reality, the Kingdom is abundant good.  We share the bountiful love of God, even when things don’t work out in the most comfortable possible way for us. In fact, the opportunity to be generous, gives those who provide 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 any struggles or 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 the everyday 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.

Poets, not hearers who deceive themselves

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

14th Sunday after Pentecost, August 30, 2015

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.

We live in a world where people attribute everything to God, or nothing to God. As if every random thing that happens has been planned out and dictated by God, or, on the other hand that God isn’t there at all, or God is relevant to nothing. Our epistle lesson this morning, from the letter of James, says something quite different.

child and gift“Every generous act of giving and every perfect gift” is from God. It doesn’t say, “all the stuff we get or want” is from God, it says, “Every generous act of giving…” We detect God, we perceive God, and we understand God in the generosity of people. There is a famous passage in the First letter of John, describing God: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God in them.” We see God in others when we see that un-self conscious generosity that puts the needs of others first. I know the presence of God in my life, when I have the gift of being able to give for others without looking to my own gain.

People like to turn it around and make someone else responsible for their troubles and if no one else is convenient then it’s all God’s fault. God is the giver of perfect gifts, the God of love, but it so easy to quickly defend ourselves and to blame.

The letter of James continues: “My beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” How often do people get this backwards and become quick to speak and slow to listen? That’s particularly the case when we’re defending ourselves and trying to tag somebody else with being ungenerous or unkind, quick to win the argument. That quickness to speak goes along with a slowness in listening, and in that slowness, we miss the generosity of God.

Attend! Be quick to focus and listen to the living, the most generous, the most perfect God. But that is just the beginning of this passage. It is not enough to just hear good things, and listen to the right answers. It is not enough even to memorize the right answers. Copying out answers from the Bible, or from Dr. Phil, or Oprah or anyplace else will do you no good. Here is how the passage from James continues: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” It is not enough to just know the right rhetoric. It is when the Word of Life becomes the fabric of your life and governs your way of doing things that it makes a difference.

When I was looking at the Greek of this lesson, I noticed a little detail. That word, “doers” is not a very common or graceful word in English. It’s a good enough translation. In Greek, the word is  ποιητης [poietes] which means a person who does something, but it is also the same word that is used in Greek for a poet–ποιητης [poietes] is the origin of our word poet. A poet takes language and a story and does something with them and does something new that makes more sense and conveys more truth than was there before—at least, that’s what a good poet does. Living the Christian life is much like being a poet: in our lives, we receive the gifts of God, we hear, we listen—any artist spends much time absorbing the world around her. But that is crafted by the artist into something new, something is done so that a new and true gift is made for the world.

I noticed the next sentence in this lesson for the very first time when I was preparing this sermon. It says, “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.” That image in the mirror, that image that comes from looking at ourselves, doesn’t really reveal the truth about ourselves. Self-absorption does not make the poet. It is the integration of the whole of reality, of getting beyond ourselves, that we become doers of the word, poets with our lives. The text continues, “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” That doing is the poetry of our lives, and that perfect law is the generosity of God that manifests in the generous lovingness of people. That blessing in our lives is the doing of God’s generosity in lives of thanksgiving.

Please listen once again to our psalm for today:

Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?

            who may abide upon your holy hill?

Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right.

            who speaks the truth from his heart.

There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend;

            he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.

In his sight the wicked is rejected,

            but he honors those who fear the Lord.

He has sworn to do no wrong

            and he does not take back his word.

He does not give his money in hope of gain,

            nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things

            shall never be overthrown.