Hope

And laid him in a Manger

A sermon for Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.

So how did baby Jesus end up in a feed trough?  A year or so ago, I read an article by a scholar who suggested that the way we have been reading this sentence for centuries is mistaken. We have all seen the Christmas pageants, some of which include a kid in the role of the mean innkeeper who tells Joseph and Mary they can’t come in— “Go stay in the stable!” But the thing is, the words we translate, and what we understand by those words, don’t always match up with how things were when the words were first written. Remember, this is a long time before Mr. Marriot built his first hotel or before Motel 6 started its first franchise. In fact it’s a long time before the first public houses and inns of medieval England, which is how most of us think of the word “Inn.” When people traveled in first century Palestine, they usually found some connection, often a distant relative, who would let them couch surf.

Of course, they didn’t have a couch—the houses were quite small, basically a room where the whole family slept and a spare room used for gatherings, dining, and such like. Sometimes that area was the upstairs of the house, like the room where Jesus had his last supper with his disciples.  The word we translate as “Inn”—

kataluma, was used for that room.  At the far end of the living quarters was where the family brought in its livestock at night. Why? Because there were predators and thieves abroad, and people didn’t want to risk losing their few precious animals by leaving them outside.  And at that end, there was a trough dug in the dirt floor to feed the animals and encourage them to stay in place overnight. If we were sitting in the 250-year-old farmhouse where Paula and I live outside Frenchtown, this would be much easier to understand: in previous times, spaces were small and people lived close together and at close quarters with their animals.

So imagine, the house is filling up with guests, travelers who maybe came to town for the census registration. People were used to piling in at close quarters, sleeping virtually on top of each other. Not a big deal. But this young woman who has arrived is starting to go into labor. What would the mother of the household do? Typically, she would get the kids to take the animals outside and watch them, clean up the end of the house where the animals normally were, and make room for Mary so that she could have some privacy, dignity and space while she delivered her child.

She laid him in the manger, for there was no space in the other room. Of course, there are other possibilities, there might have been some kind of public lodging and a stable. Either way, what we see are very ordinary people, without power or wealth, making do with what’s available, and bringing life into a very crowded and complicated world.

What we know of Mary is that she was courageous and generous. Rejoicing in the love of God. Generously giving of herself.

But the great generosity in all this is God’s generosity. God rejoices in life so much that God joined this world of very ordinary people, as vulnerable as the rest of us, subject to hardships, and sorrow and grief. Vulnerable to danger, indeed to death.  And Mary took that fragile newborn, and wrapped him carefully and lay him down where there was space, in a trough where the animals had eaten. Among my favorite Christmas music are classical pieces that set the medieval Latin text: O Magnum Mysterium—it’s translated:

O great mystery,

and wonderful sacrament,

that animals should see the new-born Lord,

lying in a manger!

 

The image that God’s love for creatures is so great that they were the witnesses of the moment of the Incarnation, is so beautiful, and it emphasizes that what God loves in us is our life—not our accomplishments, our intelligence, or our worldly possessions—but life itself—ordinary, difficult, joyful—rejoicing in God’s generosity, God’s love, God’s presence among us. Even as a small child.

Word of the birth spreads and the first people the messengers of God, the angels, seek out are shepherds.  I remember as a kid thinking that shepherds were some exotic, dreamy guys with big hooks, living an ideal existence. I had no idea that they were the same thing as sheepherders, whose wagons you could see up in the mountains of Idaho when I was young. Scruffy guys, not well respected, well washed, or well paid. On the low side of ordinary by most people’s lights. Years later I discovered that that is exactly how the shepherds were regarded in ancient Palestine—not trusted, not respected. But God sent the angel to announce to them: 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.

It was in this way, by manifesting his glory to the very ordinary and humble workers, that God chose to reveal his great work in the world. God blesses human life in his own human life, and blesses our love by giving of himself.

So the shepherds said, “Let’s go!” Let’s see this thing! And they went and they saw the baby in the feed trough.  Everybody was astonished when the shepherds told them about it, but the shepherds, they rejoiced and glorified God and praised God, because this was pretty wonderful and amazing.

As Christians, we live in hope. Hope is not wishful thinking and it’s not about the future, at least not the far-off future. With all God’s creatures and all God’s people we receive the gift of life, and living that life is hope. As a fragile baby and in his resurrection from the dead, Jesus continues that life that is our hope, not exalted or proud, but very ordinary. Let us join those sheepherders :

“An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them—and 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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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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.

So I was afraid

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid.”

The gospel lesson today is another of Jesus’ parables. I have said before that Jesus’ parables are not allegories about God—they are stories. In this parable, it would be a particularly bad mistake to think of the man with all the property as God, because this is a story about slavery, and the relationship of human masters and slaves.

Why is there so much about slavery in the New Testament and why is it stated in such a matter-of-fact fashion? Because the economy of the Roman Empire was completely dependent on slavery, at least 10 percent of the population of the empire, and 30-to-40 percent in some areas. Ignoring slaves would be as unreasonable as ignoring the existence of people who make their living at fast food chains or as laborers working for close to minimum wage.  Some people did ignore slaves, treating them as though they were invisible, but for Jesus and the early Christians, slaves were fully human; what happened to them mattered.

This parable takes the form of a folk tale, in which two characters are used to set up the story, while the third character is used for the punchline.  So, I want to just look at the third slave’s situation.  He was afraid. Slavery was quite common, but it was also common for slave-owners to beat, abuse or humiliate their slaves. This was a slave-owner known to be harsh, perhaps even proud of it. We can be sympathetic with this enslaved man; the consequences of his master’s wrath might be very harsh indeed.

The slave was entrusted with a lot of money, basically a cubic foot of silver or gold (and at that time, silver was rarer than now, almost as precious as gold). The amounts might be exaggerated for effect, but it wasn’t unusual for some slaves to be entrusted with important responsibilities, including handling their master’s money. When a story in the New Testament refers to a steward, it’s almost always about a senior slave entrusted with administration of the master’s property. So it was a big responsibility: a bucket of precious metal belonging to an unforgiving owner. And the slave focused on that beating and his fear of it. And in his fear, he thought of nothing except avoiding the risk of punishment and all he could think of was not losing that treasure.  He thought the safest thing was to bury it, I suppose in a place where no one would look.

If you look at the top of the story, it says that the master entrusted his property to the three slaves—in other words, he gave it to them to manage. That was certainly how the first two understood it. In any kind of management, it is important to balance various kinds of risks, to use good judgement, make plans and use your resources prudently. Excessive risk is not good—the 100% return on investment that the first two delivered seems large, probably exaggerated, but we can assume that it was wise and not reckless trading—things would not have gone well for the slave who lost two or five talents of his master’s money. But anyone who works professionally in risk management will tell you that there is no way to eliminate 100% of risk, indeed if all your energy and resources goes into eliminating one risk, you are certain to fall victim to another risk … or simply cease to function. The third slave, in seeking to eliminate his risk, was left with only his fear … and his worst fears were realized. There were all sorts of possibilities for him, clearly the climate for trading was good for the others, he had plenty of resources, there were safe investments to make. Yet his fear took him in the direction of what he feared, and he lived in misery and without hope.

I’ve been asked to talk about stewardship this morning. As stewards of God’s bounty, we are called to a life that is free of fear. We live in the blessing of God’s mercy, and our lives are filled with hope, with realistic hope. Hope is not about wanting resources without limits—that is the province of what our psalm today calls “the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” Christian hope is based on a community of generosity emerging from God’s mercy and love, generosity right now, in whatever situation of plenty or privation we might find ourselves. We have God’s mercy, and in this community we have more than enough; we have more than enough because God’s love binds us together, we can live and have no need to fear. We live in Christ’s love and in that we have the imagination to be able to help and care for others—we don’t focus on fearfulness and put our resources in the ground out of reach and out of use.

On this consecration Sunday, I encourage you all to consider your whole lives, all of the ways in which you are interconnected with others, all of your responsibilities. Spiritually we are called to love God in every sector of our lives, and to be good managers of the abundance of mercy that God has entrusted to us. Remember that we are all accountable to one another—it is in becoming trustworthy companions to one another that we discover the joy of God’s generosity and live in God’s hope.

St. Paul put it this way, in this letter to Thessalonica, one of the very earliest of Christian writings:

Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Paul wrote this letter to the Church at Philippi from prison. The word that is translated here as “Rejoice,” is Chairete. There is a footnote in my Bible which says it could also mean “Farewell.” It is a word that was frequently used for a greeting – it means joy, but also connotes peace, quite similar in usage to the Hebrew word Shalom. As Paul reaches this last section of the letter where he sums up and bids his farewell, he emphasizes it, like, “Farewell in the Lord, but I mean, really, Rejoice.”  Paul rejoices in this community which he came to love long before and in the love of God. He rejoices in the ability to live for others and to encourage the Philippians, and he encourages the Philippians to rejoice, not in what they have received for themselves, not in any comfort or material well-being, but in their ability to serve and give to others.

Some of the most encouraging and inspiring Christian writings have come from pastors who were imprisoned. In the twentieth century Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his “Letters and Papers from Prison.” The notable thing about these writings from faithful pastors is that they don’t dwell or focus on their own plight, or even how God might be doing something for them, or how they feel about things. Rather their perspective of concern for their correspondents on the outside emphasizes God’s call. In the case of Dr. King, he was reminding his fellow pastors of God’s call to justice and compassion for those who were oppressed by unjust laws; in the case of Bonhoeffer he was sending encouragement to family, friends and colleagues in the ministry for them to have courage and hope in the midst of the Nazi terror and the raging war around them. Near the end of Dr. King’s letter he writes:

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

St. Paul gives thanks for the ministries of two women in the congregation, women who had struggled along with him in his work—he encouraged them to continue steadfast and enjoined the congregation to support them in that. He rejoices in the opportunity to serve, and to see the service that others extend to others in the love of God. Knowing his perspective was from prison made his words of thanksgiving and encouragement all the more potent, for he was not serving himself, but the Kingdom of God.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” The Greek word meaning “gentleness” refers to flexibility and reasonableness, the opposite of rigidity or harshness—everyone should know that when they approach you, you will be humble and listen.  Paul is not saying this to showcase people who are naturally gentle, but rather to remind each of us that our interactions with one another require flexibility from the outset and at all times.

Then he says, “the Lord is near, do not worry about anything.”  Usually when somebody says that, the smart and worldly answer is, “Easy for you to say.”  This is one of the things about letters from prison. That cynical, discouraged and often argument-winning remark comes up short against the reality of what it means to be in prison. We don’t know whether it was at the end of this imprisonment or some later imprisonment that Paul was beheaded.  When he says, “Do not worry about anything,” he means it, and he’s not whistling in the dark. He’s not talking about ignoring his chains or our situation. He’s not talking about giving up on planning or concern about the realities of finances, of expenses or of revenue. What St. Paul is saying is exactly what is not easy to say: the outcomes of our planning, and the vagaries of human existence may not be what we envision, and our comfort may be intruded upon, but God remains present and his mercy is with us—encouraging us in our gentleness of spirit to rejoice rather than to worry.  It is not that our physical wellbeing and our presence in this world does not matter—Paul encourages all of our desires and needs and concerns to be expressed in prayer to God. But note, each of those prayers is to be with thanksgiving, thanksgiving that Paul gives for the generous and helping spirit of his congregation, of their concern beyond themselves.

As we are bound in the network of prayer into the body of God’s love we discover the peace of God. That peace is not from material security—it is the peace that comes from the prison, whether it is in Birmingham, Berlin, or Ephesus—the peace of rejoicing in the generosity of God known in the love and generosity of God’s people.

Here at Calvary, we live in God’s generosity–on Friday we shared in the fellowship of the Oktoberfest celebration. We encourage one another in our ministries in our everyday lives, as we all grow into the compassion of God in Jesus. We will soon celebrate the love of our neighborhood children on Halloween and then the following Sunday, All Saints Sunday, we will baptize Flynn and Grant, affirming our own baptisms for the sake of their Christian lives going forward. We have much to rejoice about.  Primarily it is that peace of God, that Shalom of God, which surpasses anything we can understand, figure out or worry about—it is that peace that guards our hearts and gives us opportunity to rejoice.  Let us listen to Paul’s final words of farewell, that is, rejoicing—you can see that in the farewell is the beginning of an ongoing path of abundant life:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Listen to him

A sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration August 6, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is fixed on the day of August the sixth. Every few years that day is on a Sunday, and since it is a major feast of the Lord, it supersedes the lessons for the Sunday.

Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake they saw his glory—Jesus was praying on that mountain and the groggy disciples saw God’s glory manifested in his face. I have always found the Transfiguration difficult to preach, because it is not the same kind of story that we usually see in scripture—rather than being about instruction, or making a moral point, or showing Jesus confronting the powers, or healing, or welcoming—the Transfiguration is an image: Jesus on the mountain, praying, transformed in the glory of God and accompanied by the two key prophets of Israel, Moses and Elijah.

The story is at a key position in the Gospels, but it is not really about something happening to Jesus. We see Jesus praying, and his face reflects the presence of God, the love of God, the Glory of God. It is not that he doesn’t always manifest these things, but up on that mountain, alone, with nothing else happening and the disciples just sitting there, they could see his face, and the Glory of God in it. His clothes were a dazzling white, the garments of celebration and joy, for wedding feasts, or the coming of the Kingdom of God. Moses and Elijah also appeared in God’s glory. Moses had received the law before God’s face, Elijah had been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire; through them God had guided his people, encouraged them, corrected them.

The Gospel says that they were speaking with Jesus about his departure—if we are looking at the Greek, it says that they were speaking to him about his EXODUS, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.  In other words, as, God did with Moses, he set the people of Israel free in the exodus from Egypt, so God would set all of us free in what Jesus would do in Jerusalem. The Exodus was not cost-free, there was forty years of wandering in the desert, suffering, complaints, people died. So also, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem entailed his suffering and death. And being Jesus’ people—living in his resurrection—is not cost-free either. We are called to die to self, die to selfishness and scheming, to abandon self-serving ideas of privilege and our own self-righteousness or entitlement.

But this is called the Glory of God. The glory is the celebration of life, not fear. Glory is the celebration of God present with us now, and in the time to come. God’s glory is God’s presence—and not what we tell God, or what we think we want.

God is with us, in the face of Jesus, dressed in dazzling white and celebrating with us. Peter is awake but groggy. Later in the Gospel, on another mountain, Peter and the other disciples sleep while Jesus prays. In Gethsemane, they are lost and confused, and Jesus is alone with God. Unlike in Gethsemane, on this mountain the disciples see the Glory of God in Jesus face.  So Peter sees it, though in his grogginess he doesn’t really understand what Moses and Elijah and Jesus are saying about Jerusalem. Peter sees the prophets, he sees Jesus among the other two, great archetypal prophets, and he perceives the Glory of God, and he says, “Let’s build three booths!” Three because now we have three great prophets and Jesus is one of them. But the cloud comes and covers them all. And the voice. The voice speaks. “This is my Son, the one I have chosen. Listen to him.”

Jesus is the one, not one of the three; but the only begotten Son. The prophets give us context for the love and action of God. The Glory of God is not whatever we make of it, it is the love of God in this real world, saving God’s real people—in the Exodus, in the word of the prophets, in the faithfulness of Israel and the call to repentance. But at the end, Jesus is the one—the Chosen.

And suddenly, the cloud is gone and the three disciples are alone with Jesus. The Glory of God has not gone away, but those special manifestations evaporated. And they were silent.

There was nothing more to say. There was Jesus. The Glory of God and the voice from the cloud said, “This is my chosen one, listen to him.”

We listen to Jesus’ compassion, we know his healing; healing of hurt, sorrow, or despair. We listen to his words of hope—hope that will not disappoint us, because it is grounded in Jesus’ real presence with us, courageously, in this real world. The glory of God shines in his love that will never fade or abandon us.

O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

You would uproot the Wheat along with the Weeds

A sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

“In gathering the weeds, you would uproot the wheat along with them.”

So the scene is the same as last week’s gospel. Jesus is still out on the boat, talking to the same people he as talking to on the beach about seeds. As the story continues, the field is planted, and inexplicably, there are all sorts of weeds growing among the grain. The word for “weed” refers to something similar to what we called, “cheat grass” where I grew up. It resembles grain, except it’s inedible for people and gives little sustenance to livestock. But you can’t easily see the difference between it and grain until it starts to blossom and grow its seed. By then it has developed a root system that is much more extensive and stronger than wheat.

The servants see the problem—weeds! Invasive weeds, taking up the soil and nutrients and water! Bad thing, we must do something! Just like everybody else, they see a problem, get anxious about it, and jump to a solution. The farmer, however, looks with the eye of experience. The weeds are going to reduce his yield, there is no doubt. But if these weeds are pulled up now, the grain will be removed at a greater rate than the weeds, and the yield will go down to zero. During this cycle, the number of weeds is the number of weeds, leaving them won’t result in more, so leave them. We will get the wheat that ripens—we will deal with the weeds when there is wheat to harvest. The fruit of the wheat field will nourish people, provide bread, be sold to supply for the needs of the farmer’s household. A superabundance of weeds is only one of the ordinary calamities that typically face farmers; that make a situation that promises easy abundance into difficulty and privation. The farmer waits and judges the ripeness of the wheat. At the right time the weeds are pulled out and separated from the nourishing crop. There is a big bonfire, getting rid of the nuisance and the waste. Then the remaining wheat is gathered—and there is food for all.

So why is this, as Jesus said, like the Kingdom of Heaven?  Note first of all that this is a real-world situation—we expect a beautiful, uniform field of wheat, growing perfectly, moving from green in the springtime, to golden at harvest—but what we get is disrupted by weeds and other occurrences, that are just not ideal. I’ve been reading a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Life Together.  It is about life in Christian community. Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal, but a divine reality. Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams.

God’s grace—in other words, it is the gift of God that our community is filled with imperfect people, people definitely in need of God’s mercy and it is the gift of God that our overly perfect expectations are shattered, leaving the real community in its place. And the Kingdom of God happens in the real world, a world with difficulties and disappointments.  And indeed, some of those things that happen are evil, or are the result of evil.  So, we don’t just say that whatever happens is fine, or certainly not that it is the will of God. We stand up to evil for the sake of the good of others. But we don’t go around weeding out imperfections, as if every annoyance or imperfection was evil.

Those servants were very anxious about those weeds. That’s understandable—the weeds were going to reduce the yield and make them look like they weren’t doing their job properly. But acting on that anxiety could have been utter disaster, resulting in a long winter with little or no food available. In living with imperfection and disappointment the community grows and shares in God’s love. And when evil—that is to say those forces that hurt and destroy the children of God through selfishness, fear or hatred—when evil afflicts such a community, the love of that community gives it the courage and resilience to respond and repel the evil and to be a source of life for God’s children.

I’m not convinced that the ending of this lesson, with its apocalyptic allegory, fits with Jesus’ original story. It’s a bit annoying that the framers of the lectionary left out the two intervening parables so that the interpretation naively appears to be a part of the story. In the Gospel of Matthew, the story of the weeds is followed by the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast. Then the party breaks up and Jesus goes into the house with his disciples where they ask for more explanation.  That literary break is very important—we move from the public ministry of Jesus to the organized teaching of the disciples—that is to say, the church of Matthew’s day.  In the Matthew Gospel, the problematic weeds are evil people, reflecting the intense conflicts of the church in the last decades of the first century.  But still, note this: the ambiguity is the same. It is not up to the disciples or the children of the kingdom to decide and separate the weeds and the wheat—it is angels that do the reaping at the end of the age. Until then we grow together.  As for the consequences of evil being a furnace of fire with weeping and gnashing of teeth… if you claim the right to be truly and unrepentantly evil, hurting and destroying the children of God… well … we all take our chances, don’t we?

However, this story is not about punishment or destruction. It is about the challenge of life in the real world. Life in Christ is life in hope—a community that shares life and finds life in the mercy that God has for each of us, for all of God’s children.

St. Paul is addressing this in this morning’s epistle:

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” It is that Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact we suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him.

 

That reference, to “Abba” may in fact be the earliest reference we have to the Lord’s Prayer—the prayer Jesus gave his disciples—we are disciples in being God’s children: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Paul did not address idyllic and perfect Christian communities, he wrote to churches who experienced conflict or suffering. And he continues:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

We are God’s people, gathered here. Our hope is in the divine reality of a community gathered in diversity and imperfection, discovering God’s mercy together.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of you Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

God’s love has been poured into our hearts

A sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

 

This year, the lectionary takes the gospel lessons from the Gospel of Matthew. You might remember that in January and February, there were several Sundays from the Sermon on the Mount, which is Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ teachings. The first section begins, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” and its last section begins, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” That is chapters five through seven.

Today’s gospel reading begins in the last part of the ninth chapter. What happened in the two chapters that lead up to it? When Jesus came down from the mount, he began healing people. In these two chapters, I count nine separate stories of Jesus healing one or more people, as well as another when he calmed a storm while his anxious disciples were out at sea in a small boat. There is nothing accidental about this. Hard-headed historical scholars agree that what we know about Jesus is that he was crucified during the time that Pontius Pilate governed in Jerusalem and that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. Jesus was not a generic miracle worker, and he was not an innovative philosopher—his teachings were clarification and holding people accountable to the scriptures: Jewish law and the teachings of the prophets.

So he looks up and sees the crowds—I think we can safely take that to signify all of humanity, every person, particularly at some time—and Jesus has compassion, because there they are harassed and helpless—the Greek could as easily be read, “troubled and cast-down, or oppressed.” They are like sheep without a shepherd: anxious, aimless, in danger of being scattered and harmed. Jesus had been healing, bringing health to a number of people, but unhealth and evil still affected the community.

At this point in the Gospel the section introducing Jesus’ teaching and healing comes to an end. The call of the disciples, which began just before the Sermon on the Mount is completed, and we get the list of the twelve. Now they have seen, and learned, and Jesus sends them out: “Proclaim the Gospel, ‘The Kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”

Notice that Jesus sends them out without equipment, supplies or the wherewithal to purchase them. The disciples are not donors or patrons or the people in charge. All they have to give is peace. In other words, they bring the compassion of Jesus, nothing more, nothing less. The compassion of the one, who they would learn later, would be crucified for that very compassion.  What they bring is the Spirit of God, which is the love of God, caring for the well-being of God’s creatures before all else—before even self.

Jesus can send out these twelve because they themselves have been healed. They have received not just the outward blessing of a commission, but also the inner healing from God as they have gone about with Jesus. They have not only seen him giving peace and healing, but he has given his peace to them—in that little boat, he woke up, and rebuked the winds, and there was total calm. It is out of that calm, that peace, that they can now go to the towns and villages and tell about the Kingdom of Heaven.

At this point, Trinity Church is at a somewhat similar time. Mother Margo has begun her sabbatical, and so also Trinity as a congregation begins its sabbatical. A sabbatical is a time of refreshment more than anything else. We are Christ’s disciples because of what we receive, not because of what we do. In living lives of thankfulness and embodying Christ’s compassion many things may be done. Yet all that we can really share or give is the peace of God and the compassion of God, as did the twelve that Jesus sent out.

A sabbatical is a time for reflection on the gifts of God’s compassion that we have received and continue to receive. This is an opportunity to pause—and listen. The peace of God comes to the fore—at the right time, in God’s time, all of Jesus’ disciples become part of the network of Christ’s compassion in this world. In other words, things do happen, but in this summer of sabbatical, let us take time to listen—to realize the true source of our peace, which is God—to put aside the anxieties of our world, our country and our personal challenges, and believe in the truth—the compassion of Jesus. We have one shepherd, it is Jesus. Our faith is in him.

St. Paul put it this way, in his letter to the church at Rome:

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 not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 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.