Cure the Sick, Raise the Dead, Cleanse the Lepers, Cast out Demons

Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.

One thing we know about Jesus. Before all else, he was a healer. Not wonder worker, but a healer. And when we look at his teaching in the Gospel of Matthew that we’re reading this year – mostly in the Sermon on the Mount – we find that his teaching is not high-flown philosophy. Jesus’ teaching is words of healing. “’You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Words to heal broken human society and mend the spiritual hurt that hate causes within us. Jesus cast out demons that damaged peoples’ spirits and he healed them. That’s what he did.

It doesn’t take much looking to find something terribly broken and in need of healing in our world today. The demons of hatred and racism are abroad in the land, boldly lying and stirring up violence. If a country ever looked like sheep without a shepherd, it is ours right now.  Some may be inclined to look for strong, harsh leadership to get everyone in line. But that would not be those who follow Jesus. Jesus leads with compassion … and healing.

He looks at us—confused and frightened sheep without a shepherd that we are—and says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” So many in need of healing, so much need for compassion. So he summoned disciples and empowered them to heal the sick and cast out demons. Many hands were needed, the compassion of more than just Jesus, of all his disciples.

Healing in this world is a big job. Resisting and casting out the demons of racism, of callous selfishness, of hate and defamation is a huge job. When we are baptized we renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, and we renounce the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. In other words, we have already signed on to this—this ministry of healing and of casting out demons.

But what does this mean, how do we do this? A lot of the brokenness in this world, that nurtures the growth of these demons, is a combination of moral laziness and selfishness. It’s easy to lash out at and blame people based on their race, or social position—to label them as lazy, dirty or stupid. It’s also easy to see oppression and social inequality and say, “That’s just how the world is, I can’t do anything about it.” And when we become possessed by such demons, we are blind to injustice and hatred. The world appears to be what it is and no one takes responsibility for curing what hurts people. Just scramble to the top, and don’t worry about people who are still suffering, or, pretend that you care, when all you care about is success and domination. This moral laziness and blindness afflicts most of the white people in this country and it’s a threat to us all. It is a threat to any world of peace, justice and equality for our future or our children’s future.

Jesus awakens us and sends us out to cast out those demons, to awaken people, to reach out with his compassion and to heal us—to make us whole. So first, and I know that this happens a lot among us: pray. Pray for one another, for our children and friends who are not among us, pray for our country, and especially pray for those who are afflicted with blindness and these demons that damage the children of God.  Second, be courageous, reach out and show Christ’s compassion, don’t be afraid to contradict those who accept the power of these demons. It is Jesus who is sending you out, don’t be afraid to be the agent of healing others.  Jesus is our shepherd, he keeps us from feeling helpless, and he sends us to share that gift with all his children.

“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

As St. Paul says in today’s lesson:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God … and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

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

Except this Foreigner?

A sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Of the ten lepers that Jesus healed, nine of them went to the priests as Jesus told them, and the other one was a Samaritan who came back to Jesus, praising God. Jesus commended the Samaritan.

The Samaritans were a large minority group in Palestine in Jesus’ time. They shared a common heritage with the majority Jewish population, but there were religious and cultural differences and the two groups had almost nothing to do with one another. If you asked around, most people in that day would tell you that the Samaritans were lazy, dirty, and dishonest and that their worship was idolatrous. Of course most of the people saying these things knew nothing about Samaritans. For one thing, the Samaritans’s religion was based exclusively on the observance of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. So much for being idolatrous. But the Samaritans were foreigners in their own country, and therefore, not to be trusted.

At least, that was the popular wisdom of Jesus’ day.

So Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Perhaps Jesus is being a bit mischievous here. The other nine did do as Jesus told them. They did what was prescribed by the religious commandments and had a priest verify that they were healed. Jesus upset everyone’s expectations by praising the person who did not do what he told him to do. Everyone’s expectations of the Samaritan notwithstanding, Jesus told the Samaritan: “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” The example of healing, of new life, of glorifying God, and of faith, is the faith of this foreigner and outcast. God is free, and is not captive to our expectations.

The Old Testament lesson is about the healing of another leper. Naaman, the Syrian, was a powerful military commander for the Aramaeans, a nearby kingdom which at that time had the upper hand over Israel. The early part of this lesson sounds like familiar recent news: the representatives of a powerful country approach a weaker country with implied threats and a show of force, seeking a favor. And so, Naaman shows up outside the house of the prophet Elisha with “horses and chariots.”

This part of the story also reminded me of some conversations I had, a little over twenty years ago, when I went to South Africa. When we visited Soweto, people told us what it was like just a couple of years before under apartheid. The South African Defense Forces would drive up in armored fighting vehicles they called “Hippos” to intimidate and keep an eye on anyone who might be taking an independent action or having free discussions. Those chariots and horsemen in our Old Testament lesson today were the equivalent.

Elisha is not intimidated. He sends out a messenger to tell Naaman: “Go wash in the Jordan.” The powerful man is enraged, because he expected more respect. Also, he didn’t think very much of that creek that the Israelites called the “Jordan River.”

Nonetheless, he ended up going and washing in the Jordan, and he was healed. His power, his bluster, and his intimidation did him no good—only the realistic words of the prophet and the mercy of God.

People like to think they can keep the upper hand. Even in church we think that our expectations and the solutions protect our regard of ourselves are what should prevail.  Sometimes, we even think that’s really the Will of God. The truth is, we don’t know the will of God for us or for this church. The healing that we need comes from God, not from some power center, or wealthy outside patron. Naaman had to find humility to do what the prophet said before he could be healed. We all have to have humility to listen to Jesus to be healed and to find our way forward.

Last Sunday we gathered together as a parish, and we listened. Among the themes that emerged in the self-descriptions from this parish was Commitment to Serve—that for a number of the people here, they felt most alive and connected to God when this church came together to serve others outside the bounds of this congregation: in the Caribbean Festival, the Gospel Choir interacting with other churches, in our Thrift Store, out on the sidewalk, interacting with this neighborhood and helping a few who can’t even afford the discount prices.  It’s in having the courage to give beyond the bounds of any expectation of receiving back, of welcoming the foreigner and offering healing, that we can be and become the healthy church that God wants—that we can be where the Kingdom of God occurs.

That man, that Samaritan suffering leprosy—he had a priest to go to who would pronounce and ratify his healing—but he returned to Jesus. He praised God because he was healed—as foreign as he had been made to feel in his own land, he was healed and given hope. He was included and his praises of God were included and added to the prayers of the angels and saints. “Your faith has made you well, get up and go on your way.” God has healed us and included us in God’s Kingdom, he invites us to get on our way, to do his business of praising him.

From today’s psalm, let us pray:


Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart

in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the Lord!

they are studied by all who delight in them.

His work is full of majesty and splendor,

and his righteousness endures for ever.

He makes his marvelous works to be remembered;

the Lord is gracious and full of compassion.

The works of his hands are faithfulness and justice;

all his commandments are sure.

They stand fast for ever and ever,

because they are done in truth and equity.

He sent redemption to his people,

he commanded his covenant forever; holy and awesome is his Name.



Stood up straight

A sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“She stood up straight and began praising God.”

When I rejoined you at Trinity earlier this year, I met with the vestry and we agreed that I would function here, as I did at previous parishes in California and New Jersey, as your Interim Priest. What does that word “interim” mean?  I’ve been a priest for a long time, and expect to continue as one, pretty much permanently, so it’s not my being a priest that is interim. And Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania has been a church for quite a while, and will continue as a vital congregation in the Body of Christ, long after I have left, so Trinity is not an interim church. We are in a somewhat extended period between the last period when there was a settled priest living in the rectory, and the next era, when we expect to have consistent clergy leadership and a vision and plans for Trinity’s ministry in place. Together, we are in an interim season; a season of growth and discernment.  The job of a priest in an interim time is to help guide the congregation into the best possible spiritual state, so that all the decisions of the congregation will be to choose the best possible blessing that God has in store.

But before we talk about the possibilities for the work that God has put us here to do, let’s turn to our Gospel lesson.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in a congregation, teaching. In that congregation is a woman who has been crippled, bent over and suffering, for eighteen years. Let’s pay particular attention to the text here. When we moderns see a description of a person who is suffering, we usually think of specific physical problems that we hope can be addressed by the wonders of modern medical science. But what the text in the Gospel says is that the woman had a spirit that had crippled her. Injuries or disease are not actually mentioned. In the Gospels, Jesus heals and casts out spirits as often as he teaches—perhaps more often. What are these spirits? They are not the horror movie creatures we think of, or the stuff of superstition. Spirits are not material—but they are very real. They are woven into our life to the point that we don’t even notice them.

God’s love is simple and God does not create malign spirits. Human love likewise should be simple, but human fear, hate, greed and many other manifestations of our lesser selves distort relationships. And it’s not just individuals—it’s the whole of communities and societies. Over time all of the negative things weave together and generate spirits.  Since so many people’s fears and desires are involved, these spirits are beyond the control of any single person, rather, they influence people and groups in ways that the individuals themselves usually don’t understand.

And we can see that in this Gospel story. Jesus calls the woman over, lays his hands on her, and she stands up straight and begins to praise God. God healed her, the spirit that weighed her down was gone. But right away, the manifestation of the spirit shows up again. A leader of the congregation is very upset at Jesus for healing this woman.  His reasons were actually bogus because pronouncing God’s blessing and touching another person are not prohibited on the Sabbath. But the man’s anger was real, and the argument was intense.

What’s happening here?

Psychologists and therapists use systems theory to talk about similar things that they see. Frequently, when a member of a family who has been ill or troubled in some way becomes well, someone else in the family becomes ill or begins to behave in inappropriate ways. The spirit that may manifest itself in an individual seeks to maintain itself, and it affects the other people who are involved with the person who has undergone a change.

This woman stands up straight and is healthy. And the leader attacks Jesus—making this woman well changes things, this man’s comfort and control of the situation, perhaps his prestige—are all destabilized, all called into question. He probably thought he was just enforcing the rules. But it was his fears, and the fearfulness of the entire community—going back at least eighteen years—that were speaking. It was definitely not the love of the God who had blessed Abraham and guided Moses through the wilderness.

How does Jesus respond to the man’s fear and anger? He doesn’t criticize those fears, and accuse those affected by the spirit, or try to diagnose them and tell them what they should do; he healed the woman and helped her to stand upright. He explains the law, in terms of the love of God. Everyone will lead their animals to life-giving water on the Sabbath, as Jesus led this woman to abundant life. It takes courage to be healed, and it also takes courage for a community to live with healing within it.

Spirits don’t quickly disappear, it takes honesty and acceptance, the courage perhaps to accept changes in one’s own position, to rejoice that others are loved and healed. Jesus came to heal us all—he paid the price for healing our spirits—and he rejoices with us, with that woman who stood up straight and with every healing of a person, or a relationship, or a community, or a world.

Trinity is a congregation of great courage, love and hope. I have seen this congregation face great hardship with great dignity and compassion. Our children are deeply loved and blessed and this neighborhood knows us for generosity and welcome. Every month our thrift store reaches out to the neighborhood—it provides some revenue, but more importantly, what I have seen is how our neighbors are helped—by getting clothing and other items that that they need—but also by receiving gifts of respect and neighborliness that helps to build up a community that has had more than its share of being torn down and disrespected. Our new fellows are just arriving. They are a big part of our ministry of respect in this neighborhood, as they learn and experience by serving in this city. Trinity is a blessing in this city. It has been a blessing for me and for my wife Paula.

Trinity is a blessing, but Trinity will continue to be blessed by God. Together we will discover that blessing.

As we follow Jesus together, there will be healing and change—perhaps mild, and not as dramatic as the story in the Gospel today—or perhaps unexpected and surprising. But Jesus will heal our spirits. This is how the Gospel lesson today ends: “The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”

Let us pray, once again the collect for today:

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.

Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone

A sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, March 3, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.

Today is the Last Sunday after Epiphany. The season that follows Christmas and Epiphany ends this week and Lent begins with Ash Wednesday which we observe at noon this Wednesday. The Gospel for this Last Sunday after Epiphany is always the Transfiguration of Jesus. I’ve always had a difficult time understanding or appreciating the Transfiguration. Jesus was always God, what difference does it make if his face was shiny?

I think that our passage from the Old Testament this morning can help. Moses was on the top of a mountain for 40 days, listening to God, receiving the Torah, the wisdom and guidance and structuring of life for Israel. Moses was receiving the Law from God and then he brought it down the mountain to the people. And the text says, “he didn’t even know that his face was shining.” Perhaps radiant, like our face would be after receiving a wondrous gift, or more likely, that the awesome and wonderful presence of God was still abiding in Moses after he listened to God.

Jesus is at the top of a mountain in today’s Gospel. He took with him Peter and John and James, the three first disciples he called. They were there and Jesus started to pray, talking with God, and his face began to shine. Like Moses, as Jesus listened to God, his face shone. He wasn’t on the mountain to have his face shine, or to look in a mirror. Jesus was there to listen to God. And there were Moses and Elijah. All three of them were dwelling in God’s glory. And what were they talking about? They were talking about Jesus’ exodus. That’s what it says in the Greek text—Moses, who led God’s people in their exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom, was talking with Jesus about his exodus, bringing God’s people into freedom. This conversation with the prophets is actually a continuation of the conversation Jesus was having with his disciples in the verses right before this story.

Jesus said:

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Then he said to the disciples:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

It is clear the exodus that Jesus is discussing with Moses and Elijah is his journey to Jerusalem and his crucifixion. But notice, despite all the shining and lights and unusual appearances, the disciples were asleep. Somehow, they weren’t paying attention to what was going on, even though Jesus had just told them. Have you ever seen that? People who should be attentive to really important things, just spacing out and dozing off? Me too, I see it every day when I look at things happening in this country, people dozing off when they should be attending to making this a more truthful, compassionate society. Taking offense when someone points out a racist trick they have pulled. Lots of dozing off, especially among Christians.

The transfiguration happens at the point in the Gospel when Jesus finishes his ministry of teaching and healing in Galilee and begins his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. There is plenty of healing and plenty of teaching to come, but now, if you are following Jesus, you are following him to Jerusalem. No dozing off, no turning back.

Peter and James and John drowsily wake up as Moses and Elijah are finishing their conversation with Jesus—they just catch the end of it. Peter said something nonsensical and they were covered by a cloud.

“This is my Son; my Chosen; Listen to him!”

… listen to him…

Wake up to the healing that Jesus’ compassion brings.

It is not cost free. This is a world in which compassion, truthfulness, and generosity are often met with evil, greed, and thoughtlessness.

The Gospel lesson ends with Jesus healing a boy who has been continually attacked by a demon, thrown into convulsions over and over. The disciples were useless. Jesus said, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?” That generation was not unlike our own. But Jesus confronted that demon and healed the boy. He confronts the demons of hatred and evil with his own self. And it concludes, “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” We must wake up to the greatness of God.

The season we are moving into is Lent. Lent is a season of waking up. It is definitely not a season of sadly giving up stuff and seeing how much we can show off how deprived we are making ourselves. Lent is a time to attend to the Greatness of God, to the miracle of God’s compassion in a world of hate. It is a time to be healed by God’s costly love.

Jesus’ face and even his clothes shone, because he was filled with the Glory of God. Yet he didn’t know it, he was always filled with God’s glory and he wasn’t paying attention to how he was perceived. He was focused on bringing God’s word of love to God’s children, each of us. Jesus brought that love to that boy, by healing him. Healing—and all of our life—is a process; it takes time, and it continues as long as we live. Healing is for individuals, but also for communities, our church as a whole, even our buildings.

Everything that is worthwhile takes time; together we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and we grow in health and are brought together as Christ’s church in this place. I bid you to join us in a holy Lent, beginning this coming Wednesday.

Let us pray:

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Go on your Way

A sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 28, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Many sternly ordered him to be quiet

Bartimaeus sat by the road in Jericho where it took off toward Jerusalem.  People tolerated him. They let him sit there. He was blind and not of any use to anyone, so he sat there and they would give him tips from time to time, which was all he had to survive on. They tolerated him, and sort of felt good when they gave him alms.

But there was this guy passing through town, a pretty big deal, a healer and preacher and there was a big group following him. And Bartimaeus cries out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is not normal.  “Son of David” was a messianic title, not a normal way to honor a person—and no one there had ever heard anything about Joseph or Mary having any descent from the royal family of Israel. Bartimaeus was a beggar because he was blind, now was he also crazy? And he shouted, and they tried to stop him—this was embarrassing.  “Son of David, have mercy on me!” and Jesus stopped.

Jesus had been called extravagant things before. Demon-possessed people said he was the Son of God, and he told them to be silent. But when he heard Bartimaeus, he said, “Call him here.”  Of course, all the people who had been disrespecting the beggar changed their tune and started scrambling around to look helpful.

And Jesus calls him over and he jumps up and goes to him and Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Interestingly, that’s the same question Jesus asked last week. But he was talking to James and John, two of Jesus’ inner circle, and Jesus doesn’t give them what they ask, because they asked for the preferred places, at Jesus’ right and left hands. In this case, he asks Bartimaeus, “What do YOU want?” and Bartimaeus answers, “Rabbi, I want to see.”

Realize, languages don’t always match up. The translation we have read today says, “I want to see again.” Indeed, the Greek means that—one word is translated, “see again.”  But the same word is also used to mean, “look up,” as in “Jesus looked up into heaven” when he was blessing the loaves and fishes. This man wanted to see, and it certainly can be understood straightforwardly, that he was tired of being blind and sitting there by the road. Who wouldn’t be? But let’s look at what happens next. Jesus had called Bartimaeus, right? And when Bartimaeus asks to see, Jesus says, “Your faith has healed you—Go.” And where does Bartimaeus go? Does he go home, or back to his family, or looking for a job? He follows Jesus on the way.

We don’t pick this up from the lectionary, but the very next story in the Gospel of Mark is the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Bartimaeus followed Jesus from Jericho to Bethphage and Bethany near the Mount of Olives. Holy Week, Jesus’ final week and his journey to the cross, began with crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Before that, the only person in the Gospel of Mark to address Jesus as the Son of David, was the blind beggar, Bartimaeus.

He was a man of no account, and blind. Yet he had the vision to see Jesus, the Messiah. The courage to speak it aloud, when everyone around him wanted it kept quiet. The love of God that Jesus brings is costly, and it is not always comfortable. Jesus transforms this world, not by handing out and blessing power, but by healing his servants.  Following Jesus on the way is not a lark, but a life of love and sacrifice. I doubt that Bartimaeus had a really clear idea of what the Son of David would be. We know that he never had seen Jesus when he first said it—he was blind when he said, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” The vision of our way forward is not clear, it is not easy, and it is not accomplished by keeping things the way they were.

“Go. Your faith has made you well.” Go where? The blind man could see that he should follow Jesus down the road, but where do we go, each of us? Or the lot of us, together as a parish?  Last week, it was announced that the Rev. Nathan Ritter will be joining Calvary as its new priest in charge on November 25. Over the past year, we have walked together and listened together. We’ve listened to one another and to Jesus. We’ve joined Jesus on the road, and sometimes the way forward has seemed as obscure as it did for Bartimaeus before he heard that Jesus was approaching. But together we see Jesus in one another, in the opportunity to welcome new life, the opportunity to welcome Fr. Nathan. Jesus says, “Go your way,” and like Bartimaeus we can take that as the opportunity to follow Jesus on his way.

The difference between the blind man whose request was granted this week, and the two disciples of the inner circle whose request was not granted last week, is that those two disciples, at that moment, were asking to be put above others—expressing their anxiety for their own security in competition with others; while Bartimaeus asked simply to see. He expressed his deepest and most real need, and it was both to physically see and to see the way of God, the Kingdom of God, the road of servanthood.  The one that nobody thought should have any privilege or even any rights cried out to Jesus for mercy. It didn’t matter what those with influence thought or said, Jesus gave him mercy, real mercy, real life. Jesus has mercy for each of us, real mercy, for our deepest hurts and our deepest needs. Where do we go? Jesus asks us. When we are healed, we follow him on the way of servanthood.

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and that we may obtain what your promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for and ever. Amen.

Casting out Demons

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.

Today’s gospel lesson is a continuation of last week’s gospel. And it’s not just the next scene—it’s part of the same message. Last week we heard about how the disciples were arguing about who among them was the greatest. Jesus teaches them that being the greatest doesn’t matter at all, and he shows them a powerless and neglected child who is the real example of how to welcome God. It’s not about winning, it’s about serving and welcoming.

I can sort of hear the disciples trying to defend themselves: “But Jesus, there was this guy …  he was casting out demons. We told him to stop, because … because he wasn’t with us!”  Basically, Jesus says, “No.” Not only is it NOT the most powerful and prestigious person who is first in the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom is not brought by some winning team. There was this man they didn’t know who was casting out demons. I have said at other times that I believe that there are indeed demonic forces abroad in this world—those forces of hurt and hate that nobody will take responsibility for. Everyone looks the other way and shakes their head and says, “That’s awful.”  But no one sees themselves in those awful things that happen, even though the suffering is human suffering caused by human society.  Casting out demons is essential work in healing this world. It is not easy work.

So this man in the Gospel reading was unknown to the disciples, a stranger, and they didn’t trust him—how could he be casting out demons in the name of Jesus? The disciples knew how special Jesus was, and they felt pretty special being his followers. John, one of the inner circle, says that he took it upon himself to put this guy in his place, after all, it was Peter and Andrew and James and John who were called by Jesus, not this exorcist.  John looked to his special relationship with Jesus and saw it as a reason to forbid the man from healing.

We live in a world much in need of healing. If God is to heal the conflict in our country and our world, it will take far more than our intelligence, or teaching, or effort or opinions. Salvation of this world will come from more than one team, or one set of interpretations. Prayer is powerful, it changes things and it heals.  But it is not just the prayers of one person that God uses, but of all of creation.

Let’s go back and remember the part of this reading that we heard last week—it’s right before this week’s reading in the Gospel of Mark: “Jesus sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” It is the care and healing of those who are powerless, neglected and ignored that Jesus cares about. He’s still holding the child when he says to the disciples, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Gentle Jesus, talking to his friends and followers; not the Pharisees or his rivals. Being a Christian is not about being on the winning team, it is about being humble enough to serve. But when I say humble, I don’t mean looking down at your shoes and doing whatever those that are more confident, powerful or privileged say. Christian humility is having the confidence to stand for the gospel of service, of honest generosity in welcoming Him who came for us and gave his life for us on the cross.

There was a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The woman who testified, spoke clearly and courageously. She answered all questions forthrightly, even when her answers didn’t conveniently make her look to be the hero or to have all the information perfectly worked out and under her control. She described, and was questioned in great detail about the most traumatic event in her life. She was courageous and truthful. After her testimony, no one said that she was not credible or was not telling the truth. She opened her testimony by saying that she was terrified. She was terrified because she knew what would happen to a woman who spoke up about being sexually abused by a powerful and privileged man. She knew about the demons that would be unleashed … and they were. Christine Blasey Ford spoke up for the sake of casting out demons and the healing of herself and all of us. But those demons find a way to come out in full force—the rage, self-pity and turning blame back onto the victim or anyone who supported her are what she feared and what happened.  This sort of demon emerges when truth is told about a subject that power wants and expects to remain silent. I’ve experienced it in the church, and it’s not limited to any one political party. Indeed, it is not so much the individuals but the nexus of power itself—the demons if you will—that controls them. Sexual violence against women is an aspect of keeping some who are powerful empowered and disempowering those who are vulnerable. Dr. Ford was courageously vulnerable in her testimony, and by it many are freed and healed, the ranting of the demons notwithstanding. Casting out demons and being healed takes tremendous courage, and its cost is real. And like the disciples learned from Jesus, the power to cast out demons does not always come from the sources we expect, or those who support us.

We follow Christ. And Jesus is not interested in who is in control—he is interested in the healing of this world. “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

Be opened!

A sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

The Gospel of Mark begins in Judea, at the Jordan where John the Baptist baptizes Jesus. Then Jesus appears in his home province of Galilee, where he heals and teaches. Up until today’s lesson, all the action of the Gospel takes place in Galilee, mostly traveling around and across the large lake on its eastern side that is known as the Sea of Galilee.

Today’s lesson is the first time when Jesus is outside of predominantly Jewish territory. He had been having a controversy with other religious leaders, the one we heard about last week. He went northwest to the coast, to an area that is now Lebanon, to a gentile city named Tyre. It says that Jesus didn’t want anyone to notice he was there. None of his friends or disciples are mentioned on this journey, so Jesus is alone in a foreign culture. It says, “he could not escape notice.”

I imagine him there, trying to blend in and look like everyone else in the area. That’s kind of hard to do when you’re out of place, among foreigners. But he WAS noticed. And it’s kind of odd. He had been getting quite a bit of attention in Galilee, among the Jews, but the issues there were of concern to the Jews, not the gentiles over on the coast. He was there, taking time for quiet, a breather, letting things cool down. And the person who noticed him didn’t notice his unusual clothing, or his accent. Nothing outward. She was desperate to have her daughter healed from a distressing condition—she came to Jesus to have the demon cast out. How did she know that Jesus was an exorcist and a healer? We don’t know. She saw him, she knew him, she begged him for the sake of her daughter to cast out the demon.

Jesus’ response surprises and puzzles us: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” He’s focusing on his people, the Jews, whose country he has just left to take a break from controversy. When you’re in the middle of a a serious controversy you remain focused on what’s involved with that. Jesus loved his people, sought healing for them, honesty in how they lived their lives, devotion to God that was not self-serving. This was not abstract philosophy, but really touching people and healing them, and feeding people with real bread. And his context was the Jewish people of Galilee—and he was being attacked for it, among those he loved and healed.

So here he is away from that, getting rest, getting clarity. He’s gone outside the situation to get some perspective, and a gentile woman, who is not involved in the controversy with Jesus’ own people comes to him. Jesus responds, “First take care of the children”—surely, they still needed a lot of attention and healing. His work with them was not finished yet.

The woman, however, was focused on something else, her daughter, so she didn’t give up, she responded, bravely, directly, extending Jesus’ metaphor: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And Jesus listened. This also was practical healing, what was asked was not about Jesus’ preoccupation with the controversies in Galilee over the people he loved there— “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Then Jesus leaves Tyre. The route that is described is circuitous. He goes north through Sidon and then loops back into the country on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee than his own country, the Decapolis or “Ten Towns” which were a primarily gentile area. There he encounters a man who is deaf and can’t speak clearly. Once again, Jesus doesn’t want to be noticed, he takes the man aside in private. He reaches out, touches the man’s ears, his tongue and says, “Ephphatha.” The Gospel explains this word, because it is Aramaic, not the Greek of the Gospel. Aramaic was the language of the whole region of greater Syria. It was spoken among the Jews of Galilee, but it was also the language of the gentiles of this area. To this gentile man, he said, “Be opened.”

We take the healing of this deaf man and the exorcism of the girl with a demon as literal healings, and we should. But notice, in this journey Jesus is bringing healing to people outside his home country and people, even though he is not drawing attention either to himself or to these healings. Jesus is heading home, yet these people out in the world beg him for healing, and he heals. When he says to the man, “be opened,” it is not just that the man can hear; the man speaks clearly; he opens up and starts to tell about what Jesus has done. Though Jesus tried to get them to stay quiet, the man and his friends kept announcing the good news. Jesus compassion and his healing power were spreading into the world in spite of any effort to limit it.

The church is a community of healing. It has been created by the outpouring of Jesus’ compassion and his healing power. But that healing power is not something we own, and living in Jesus’ love isn’t something that is contained within the bounds of the community. We gather together to tell about Jesus’ healing—how he casts out demons of fear, delusion, rage and distrust; how he makes us able to hear, to really hear and not be deluded by the noise of our desires that distorts and blocks our ability to listen to the simple truth of God’s love.

We gather on this Rally Sunday, to start a journey of a new program year, a new school year. We will learn together and share fellowship together and pray and be healed together. But the real point of doing this is beyond this gathering—where we encounter those in the world who may be suffering, in need of healing, acceptance or in need of the clear voice of unaffected love. We are gathered to follow Jesus’ call, to be his love in this world, to listen to those outside. It is we who should trust in God, trust God to be healing, without our telling God or others how to do it. It is God that heals, and God uses our ears to listen and our presence to show his compassion.

From our lesson from Proverbs:

The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.

Where did this man get all this?

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

Jesus went home, and he taught in the synagogue and it was pretty impressive. But THEY knew his background. “That Mary woman, he’s her son. Yeah, we know about that family. He’s just a rough carpenter, sometimes picked up work framing houses—but I hear now he mostly just wanders around the countryside with those ‘disciples’ of his.  He’s better off just wandering out of here.”

Around home, they know all the down sides of people. When we know people from a long time back, we’re not so inclined to be polite about them, and we’re not so inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt—because we think we know them. But with strangers, it’s different. Especially when someone appears successful, well-dressed, wealthy, powerful. Despite the fact that we really don’t know them, we want to think of them as perfect. And we want to imagine that the people we endorse are perfect—perfectly powerful, perfectly good-looking, no blemishes or doubtful aspects to their background, and certainly never disagreeing with us, or calling our behavior into question.

Jesus was a hometown boy, and the people remembered every little thing, every jealousy, every mistake, every disagreement. By the way—when we talk about Jesus being the incarnation of God, we tend to think that he didn’t make mistakes. I think that’s wrong. He was a human being, and there is no reason to think that, for instance, as a Palestinian kid, he did calculus and differential equations as a three-year-old. His perfection was in being the perfect manifestation of God’s love, and that did not mean that he was never annoying to his elders or contemporaries. So he came to his home town, and he preached in the synagogue. And at first, they listened and the insight touched them, it was extraordinary, but then they said, wait… we know this guy, he’s not so impressive…he’s not a great philosopher, he’s a carpenter.  And we know his family… you know, one of those families—in fact those brothers, James and Joses, I had some dealings with them…

Like the rest of us, the people of Nazareth were looking for something really big, and really impressive, and from sources that could not possibly be criticized. And you know what? Those sources don’t exist, because ever since Eve saw that apple and got into that conversation with the serpent, criticism and suspicion have been a big part of how people do business. So great acts of power… the people of Nazareth weren’t going to see those.

What did Jesus do?  It says, “he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Jesus reached out and healed, and pretty much nobody noticed.  Because he was familiar, and not driving the newest car, or wearing the fanciest clothes, no one noticed that he reached out to the sick and healed them. No flashes of lightning or puffs of smoke, no fireworks like we saw this week, he just laid his hands on a few sick people and cured their disease.

The important things that God does are not fireworks. We come to God for salvation, but that word salvation—it does not mean dramatic rescues, or big rewards far away and a long time off—salvation means healing, salving, of our souls, our relationships, our bodies and our society. Sometimes, especially close to home, that healing comes without all the fanfare that we might want or expect. Jesus healed a few sick people, and that was all that was necessary. Then he sent out those twelve who were with him. Two by two they went with nothing.  Just themselves, no resources. And what did he tell them to do? “Whenever you enter the house stay there.” That’s all, stay there. Nothing big, nothing dramatic and nothing about what wonderful people the disciples were, or even how wonderful Jesus was. So they were there, they talked about the love of God and repentance. In the process here’s what the Gospel says happened, “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

Sometimes we think, “Oh, if I just lived in Bible times, or the times of the early church!” or “Oh, if there was just the opportunity to know what God is clearly calling me to do, and the chance to do it.” I’ve certainly thought that at times. But if we look at Jesus and his disciples, their life was much like our lives, and what they did, was what we do, they came together, talked about the love of God, prayed for the sick and anointed them with oil.

Friends we are living in Bible times. There has never been a time when the world needed healing more, or when there was more hate abroad in the world. Jesus sent his disciples to be with people to bring peace to their houses, just to be there with them. God is the one who casts out demons, but we gather together and pray—like the disciples we may have no bread, no bag, no money in our belts—but God cures the sick and gives us life, not through drama, but through his presence.

St. Paul said this to the church at Corinth:

God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

There are no limits on God’s Love

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“Then he put them all outside … and went in where the child was.”

After the storm that was in last week’s lesson, Jesus and the disciples got back in the boat and crossed back to where they were before. Immediately, Jesus is back among the chaos of the crowds, and we have a story of two healings. Often these two are pulled apart and discussed individually, even by biblical scholars, but I think it’s important to look at them together.

One of the leaders of the church comes to Jesus and begs him to come heal his daughter. Jesus has compassion and goes along with this community leader—just as he is doing this, the other story interrupts. A woman, a part of this crowd—a woman who has suffered with a condition for a dozen years, which has ruined her life—she pushes through the crowd to get close to Jesus, the healer. The blood, the force of life, which has been flowing out of her, has made it so that she cannot be touched by a man. She pushes close to reach out to touch this man, the healer. He felt the force leave him and he turned to see her. “Daughter your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Jesus had compassion on this woman, who had been an outsider, who transgressed by touching him. He healed her, and commended her trust in God.

This was in the middle of crowds pressing around, all sorts of pressure and confusion. And the other story returns. Jesus is standing there and people come from the house of the religious leader and say, “She’s dead. Let the teacher go away.” Practical, realistic, discouraged people, just giving up. Jesus looked at these fearful and discouraged people and said, “Do not fear, only believe.” The people believed that the chance for healing was lost, so they dismissed the healer. But Jesus would not accept their resignation and dismissal, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus knew far more about life than they knew about death.

Jesus got to the house, and the people laughed at him. He said she was asleep, and they laughed at him, and Jesus said to them, “Please, just go outside for now.” He took the parents into the room, took the girl by the hand and said, “little girl, get up!” And she did. Jesus had compassion on the child, and on those parents of hers, those respectable leaders of the community, and he had compassion on that woman, the ruined outcast. All at the same time. He did not listen to those who were telling him “don’t bother, go away.” Jesus won’t listen to hopelessness, rather he has compassion for those who hurt, who are confused, who are fearful.

There were two healings on that day. Most people would have advised Jesus to pay attention to just one or the other, to choose, to choose the more worthy or the one with the greatest need or the one that agreed with them. Jesus would not do that, and as everybody started to argue more with him, “he put them all outside.” We think we know about compassion and healing, but we don’t, not really—Jesus just tends to healing and being compassionate. Jesus just shakes his head and sends them outside—there are no limits on God’s love, in particular, not limits that we contrive.

People are often most hurt by the limits that others put on God’s love—usually, trying to defend their own claims on God or their own privilege, they conclude that others should get out of the way—like that woman with the hemorrhage, she shouldn’t interrupt Jesus getting to the house to heal the important man’s little girl.

Jesus has mercy and compassion for more than just us here—his compassion is for all those outsiders, for those refugee families being held in detention in the southern deserts, for children taken from their parents. At Calvary, we know that we are called to be a welcoming community. We know that, not because I said it, but because that’s what arose out of our community gathered together. That’s what’s important here, what’s important to you. Anyone who is welcomed, is first a stranger, an outsider—like the woman who suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years, outcast and destitute. Jesus calls us to welcome those who aren’t inside, but outside, those who aren’t “just the right kind of people,” and perhaps people who like that woman, might make others just a bit uncomfortable.  Why? Because there is always something about every person that is a little on the outside, that makes somebody uncomfortable, and if we don’t give mercy on that score, we’re all on the outside. Our psalm today says,

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.


Jesus welcomed them and brought God’s mercy. When they had given up hope, even for their own daughter, Jesus went in anyway, and said, “Talitha cum.”

I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope.

My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning,

More than watchmen for the morning.