Lent

Born from above: the journey to baptism

A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come for God.”

Nicodemus was a devout Jew, a Pharisee, and a member of the ruling council. He comes to Jesus, genuinely searching for the truth of God. Notice that he comes from the dark—the imagery is that he is in the dark, he does not know, so he comes to Jesus and is enlightened.

The Gospel lessons during Lent this year trace the traditional path of the catechumenate, or the course for preparation for baptism from the ancient church continuing through to today. Last week, Jesus focused us on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” and “worshiping the Lord and serving only him.” Today, Nicodemus comes from the dark to ask Jesus about the true teaching of God. And Jesus tells him how to experience the Kingdom of God.  “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being begotten from above.”

One of the characteristics of the Gospel of John is that people who are talking with Jesus misunderstand him, often with comic results. This is the first instance.  It’s sometimes difficult to pick up what’s happening if you don’t know the language because puns don’t usually translate that well from one language to another.  There are two words in the Greek of this passage which have double meanings: “gennan” can mean “born” or “begotten” and “anOthen” can mean “from above” or “again.” A lot of translators miss the joke so they translate it to make sense of Nicodemus’ response: “born again” and that Nicodemus understands Jesus to be talking about going through the birth process in the flesh, coming out of one’s mother’s womb again. What Nicodemus does not know, but the readers of John’s Gospel do, is the prologue of the Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were begotten, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

In modern American English, we seldom use the word begotten, which refers to the father’s role in the development of a baby as opposed to the mother’s, so the ambiguity in Greek is also ambiguous for us. But we see that Nicodemus completely missed Jesus’ meaning. Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the Kingdom of God is for those who are born from God, not from any markers of human descent at all. It is Jesus, the Son, the Word of God, that gives life and brings light out of darkness. We are born from God, even though we are only born once from the human perspective.

So we have Nicodemus approaching Jesus—and he doesn’t understand, even though he is educated and a religious leader. Jesus teaches Nicodemus and his teaching goes on past what we have read in today’s gospel lesson. Even in today’s lesson, the teaching is dense, packed with meaning. At one point Jesus compares God’s action in himself with something that Nicodemus would have recognized—when Moses lifted up poisonous serpents on poles so that the Israelites who had been poisoned would see them and be healed.  Beholding Jesus brings healing to Nicodemus, to us and to the world.

Nicodemus is an archetype of the catechumen. He is initially in darkness, but he comes into the light of Jesus. Initially he is puzzled, he misunderstands and makes mistakes. And it takes time, the preparation, the conversion, the learning—they don’t happen in a single day or a single session. There is much to learn and to experience on the Christian journey.

Nicodemus appears twice more in the Gospel of John.  In the seventh chapter, Jesus had been encountering opposition and there were plots against his life. Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” And the chief priests and Pharisees were talking with the temple police, “Why did you not arrest him.” And Nicodemus spoke up, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing does it?” Nicodemus was hearing Jesus, and seeing the Kingdom of God, yet he was still on his way.

Later in the Gospel, after Jesus’ crucifixion, when Joseph of Arimathea got Jesus body to put it in the tomb, Nicodemus also came and brought the mixture of spices, weighing a hundred pounds, to prepare the body for burial. Nicodemus had come from the dark, and had witnessed Jesus life.  Being born from above was more involved than many might think. It was more difficult than re-entering a mother’s womb—he witnessed the death of the Lord of Life.

We move forward in the journey toward baptism. With Nicodemus, we learn. We learn of the Lord of Life, the love and mercy of God, and we learn of how very intertwined our life is with the world of human sin and pride. The reality of the death of the Messiah is essential in understanding the Word that was with God in the beginning, in being born from above as true children of the father.  In Nicodemus we don’t see the resurrection…he does not know about that until after the last time we see him.

So in our story of Nicodemus we have the beginning of the journey toward baptism. The journey of Lent continues as our life and learning continues.

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Advertisements

The Slanderer

A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By his grace we are able to triumph over every evil, and to live no longer for ourselves alone, but for him who died for us and rose again.”

 

The power of his Resurrection and the sharing of his Sufferings

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 13, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

When we read the letters of St. Paul, he is usually in an argument with someone.  I actually think that it is because lots of people like to steer the church in directions that give them an advantage over others and Paul had his hands full dealing with them. But whatever the case, it’s clear that here Paul was making his case against a group of people who insisted that every Christian had to be circumcised according to Jewish law. The church in Philippi was mostly gentile, not Jewish, and it is not really clear whether the Christians who were advocating this were Christians who were also practicing Jews, or whether they were Christian converts who just saw that circumcision was an important rule in scripture and were therefore teaching that everyone had to follow that rule.

This is why Paul trots out his pedigree as a lifelong observant Jew at the beginning of the lesson. Paul’s argument is not that he hasn’t followed the rules, or even that he doesn’t like them—he is saying that one doesn’t get to the resurrection by following these rules. He’s also saying that imposing them on others distracts from the true path.

We are here in Lent, following the way of Christ, preparing for Easter. The path that Jesus walks winds toward Jerusalem, and his confident life of loving and healing disturbed the powers of this world. He was outside of their control and the powers of this world crucified Jesus. Freedom in Christ, and healing in Christ is not without cost. He paid with his life.

Paul recognized the priceless value of Christ’s healing and Paul gave up all the privileges and all the things that he had valued before. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…” In his resurrection, Christ was free from all the power, not just of death, but of those forces that gain power by allying themselves with death. For Paul, the path to life is the righteousness from God that is based on faith. He was glad to to pay the price for that, which is following Jesus, even to the cross.

Now, we can get too melodramatic about that—it’s not about finding dramatic ways to die or high-profile ways to suffer. Honestly and courageously following Jesus is costly because it means giving up the defenses we use to trick others, or exploit others, to keep ourselves safe. It means that we won’t be saved by finding some big rules to follow, that will define us as better than others. There is no reason to expect that following Christ will suddenly make everyone else honest or kind.

We share in his sufferings by becoming like him. And in sharing with him is abundant life, the real life of the resurrection.

Mary of BethanyIn the Gospel lesson today, Jesus was approaching Jerusalem. Bethany, where Martha and Mary lived, is basically a suburb of Jerusalem. And there is a dinner, just before the time that we commemorate as Holy Week is about to start. And Mary does something very unusual. She anoints Jesus’ feet. While anointing of the head, to perfume and moisten the face, was quite common, hardly anyone ever had their feet anointed. Except for a corpse at the time of burial. This is a particular expression of Mary’s relationship with Jesus and her recognition of what he was doing, what was about to happen. Judas focuses on the perfume that she used to anoint Jesus—it was costly—more than a person could really afford. So aren’t we supposed to all be about serving the poor? Shouldn’t the rule be that we turn everything into cash and use it to take care of the poor? Whether Judas wanted to steal the money or not, he misses the point. The generosity of Christ is in the giving of himself, binding us together in relationship to him and one another. Mary knew that Jesus was about to die, and in the act of anointing she was binding herself to him in her grief.

This relationship between Mary and Jesus means much more than the abstract idea of getting cash together to give to the poor, however good following that rule might be.  Indeed, people of all sorts are lifted up by a generosity that includes connecting them together by real expression of respect.  Mary understood Jesus, she knew that he had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, that he brought life, but she also knew that he was about to die. The sentence in the Gospel of John that immediately precedes the beginning of today’s Gospel is: “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”  She anointed his feet, she was grieving and praying for life.

St. Paul said: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” In Christ we have the resurrection from the dead, but in living toward that resurrection we love, and lose, and grieve. Abundant life is not gained by wrapping ourselves up into a package of rules and putting ourselves on a storage shelf. That is more like abundant death. Mary anointed the feet of the living Jesus for burial. In this world of death we continue to live. In our grief we receive life.

The righteousness of God is his love for every one of his children. We are blessed in that love, and our life is an opportunity to be a blessing for others.

As our psalm for today ends:

Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

 

The place on which you are standing is holy ground.

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The place on which you are standing is holy ground.

In today’s lesson we see Moses. He had an interesting history—one we read about in the book of Exodus.  But at the moment we run into him, it is almost as if he has no history. He has broken off contact from the family who raised him—a different family from the one he was born in. He was a long way from his original home—he may have been out on the coast of Arabia. He had married a woman out in that distant place and was working for her father. And that job, tending sheep, was neither idyllic and romantic nor very well paying. Moses was making do as he had to, as best as he could.

He was tending sheep out in the arid mountains of the Sinai peninsula, running the sheep, trying to find enough for them to eat. In the midst of this drudgery, Moses sees a fire. Or rather, he sees fire, and when he looks at it, there is a bush with all this fire—but nothing is burning. The bush is there, the fire is coming out, but the branches and leaves don’t catch fire—they aren’t burned up.

“Come no closer. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” All of a sudden, in the middle of this ungrounded life of his, Moses was standing on Holy Ground. And he didn’t know what to do.

The voice continued: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Moses didn’t even know his father. But God still called him. Here he was far from the land where he was born and grew up, which was Egypt, and far from the land of the Israelites, the people who were his parents, but whom he never really knew. He was up on a mountain, not far from Arabia, and the God of Israel was speaking to him. “I have observed the misery of my people and I have heard their cry. I send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

And Moses said something that I believe can be loosely translated as: “Huh?”

Most of us think, “If God talked to me out loud, I’d be right there, ready to go.” But, in the real world, Moses was standing there with a bunch of sheep that belonged to somebody else. “How am I supposed to do all that? Face Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites who don’t trust me and have no reason to trust me?” Moses tried to duck, to get out of being responsible and to avoid being generous with his life, as most of us are inclined to do.

God said, “I will be with you.”

Moses was there on Holy Ground—listening to the One, the holiest of holies, the Truth, the Life, the Way. This would be an astounding religious experience.

Back when I was in school, all the fashionable writers talked about “peak experiences” and “mountaintop experiences.”  What they were referring to was the experience that Moses is having, right here in this lesson, generalized for their mid-twentieth century audience.

But if you look closely at what is happening here, it is not about Moses, it is not a great mystical or euphoric experience for him.  He is on that mountain to be sent by God: “I hear their cry on account of their taskmasters, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” God sends Moses for the sake of his people, for the sake of the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed. Moses isn’t being rewarded at all, he’s not having a great experience for his own bliss. God is reaching out with compassion for his people’s sake.

And Moses is sent to lead the Israelites for God’s glory, not his own—yet, how many would reject Moses? How many would fear the disruption of leaving behind their oppression? Over the next forty years, Moses heard the complaints of some who longed for the security of their oppression in Egypt. From the flames the voice told Moses, “I am who I am. Tell them that I AM sent you.” The one who exists alone from all time and to all time is the God of their ancestors and he judges that they should be brought up from their oppression.

We talk about God’s judgment a lot. And we usually think that it means something bad for somebody, either for ourselves or for our adversaries, or at least somebody.  We think that judgment means that God is angry and out to get somebody. The judgment of God has consequences in the real world, but those consequences are the consequences of God’s compassion. God came to deliver the Israelites out of his compassion, and the Pharaoh is portrayed as totally lacking in compassion and opposed to compassion. It did not work out so well for Pharaoh to fight against the compassion of God.

We live in a time when compassion is difficult to find, especially in the public arena. Fear and distrust multiply. And thus the prophets and Jesus were sent to the people to tell them to repent, for the judgment of God is at hand—the compassion of God is arrayed against those forces seeking to use fear, anger and death to control and oppress people and destroy compassion. This is a time of difficulty, perhaps even tribulation.

And Jesus tells a parable. A landowner looks at his garden and there’s a fig tree, which hasn’t born fruit, and his first response is to have it cut down. But the gardener says, wait. Have patience, have compassion, let me work with the tree; fertilize it, water it, cultivate it. In time, it may yet bear fruit.

God’s compassion, God’s judgment and our hope for freedom from oppression are the same thing. Jesus heals us, and leads us with him to Jerusalem without fear. In Moses, God brought his compassion to Israel. In Jesus, God brings compassion to all of us, blessing us with freedom and eternal life.

On this last Sunday of Black History Month, let’s conclude with the Collect for the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant, you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at

Martin Luther King, Jr. , Ralph Bunche  and Abraham Heschel from an exhibit on Moses

Martin Luther King, Jr. , Ralph Bunche
and Abraham Heschel from an exhibit on Moses

last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in thename of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

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

A sermon for the second Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

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

The Gospel lesson today is puzzling at first glance.  Why does Jesus react so intensely to this warning from the Pharisees? The lesson as we read it starts, “Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’” Sounds like good advice, from caring neighbors: “Run away and hide, the powerful and cruel dictator that killed your cousin, John, is coming to get you.” It sounds like they want Jesus to be safe. Maybe they did. Jesus responds with a message to Herod: “I am casting out demons and performing cures today. And tomorrow…”

It is no more likely that any of these Pharisees knew Herod well enough to deliver Jesus’ message than it is that anyone who talks to me could take such a message to the mayor of New York City. It may well be that I have met someone who has had a conversation with Bill de Blasio, but none of them can just walk into his office. Neither could these Pharisees. Jesus was talking to them.

Just a note on Pharisees, who were they? In the Gospels, we run into one side of an argument without the background that the original hearers would have known. The Pharisees were a group within first century Judaism, probably not so much an organized group, but a category of people within the Jewish community.  They were devout and sincere religious people, they sought to fulfill their religious obligations, and encourage seriousness about religion. Move them to this century, they would be the people who are in church pretty much every Sunday, make their pledge and pay it, and attend the Annual Parish Meeting. In other words, they were like us. And they were very aware of how precarious existence—particularly the existence of their people and their religious observance—can be.

To the Pharisees, Jesus was not safe. They told him that HE was not safe, but really it was themselves and the things they cared about that were not safe.

This Gospel lesson picks up in the middle of a longer passage. In Chapter 13 of Luke, Jesus was traveling through Galilee, teaching and healing, and heading toward Jerusalem. People asked him about Galileans who the Roman governor had killed in Jerusalem—did they suffer because they were sinners? And Jesus said: No. Then he took that as an occasion to call all to repentance—sudden death reminds us that we can’t put off turning and dedicating our lives to the Kingdom of God. Jesus is travelling toward Jerusalem, unafraid, and living the life of a prophet: healing, teaching, and telling the truth.  Jesus may have been unafraid, but these other folks were pretty apprehensive. Some people did not like the truth, particularly if it made them uncomfortable. Particularly if they were Roman governors, or client kings, like Herod, who had armies to express their dissatisfaction.

But for Jesus, healing, casting out demons, teaching the truth of the Love of God, and going to Jerusalem were all part of the same thing. “Jesus, listen to our fear, Herod’s going to kill you, run away… we don’t care about healing…let the demons stay… run away, we want to be safe.” It is our fear that gives the demons their power.  Powers emerge from human systems and take on a life of their own. And when people are afraid, demons, such as racism, appear and thrive. The demonic is not a few bad people thinking or saying bad things—it is everyone giving in to fear, and turning their back and refusing to face that evil or even admit to its reality.

So Jesus said to them, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today. And tomorrow…” Suffering and death are real, but in facing the demons and casting them out, it is Jesus holy act of life and love. He is on his way to the Holy City—Jerusalem—at the center, where both the love of God and the demonic embodiment of fear and hate are focused.  He says, “I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” He walks forward in love, love for his people, love for the city of Jerusalem, yes, love for the Pharisees who want him to leave so they can pretend like the demons infecting their country and their life just aren’t there. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

It is Lent and in Lent, we focus on how our lives are filled with the love and blessing of God, and how we can live into God’s love. The psalm today is a psalm of hope: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” Our hope is with Jesus, who takes us with him, healing the sick, casting out demons and winding his way toward Jerusalem.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sums it up in this way in his sermon, “Antidotes for fear”:

Courage faces fear and thereby masters it.  Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it.  Courageous men never lose the zest for living even through their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live.  We must constantly build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.

 

 

The Spirit led him into the wilderness

A sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, February 14, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit descended on him and the voice came from Heaven: You are my Son the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

That is who Jesus is. The rest of that chapter in the Gospel of Luke is never read in the lectionary—it continues to tell who Jesus was: He was thirty years old when he began his work, that is to say, a fully adult man, no longer a youth. It then gives his genealogy from the one who was called his father all the way back through the history of Israel to the first human being. Then we get our Gospel lesson for today, it defines further who Jesus is, what it means to be the Son of God, the Chosen One.

The spirit led him into the wilderness and he was tempted by the devil. There are three temptations here. In each, Satan wants Jesus to do something that would make him different from other human beings. “You’re hungry—wave your hand and make the rocks into bread; you want to fix things, I’ll give you power over all the whole world; you’re God’s chosen Son?—jump off the top of this building and God will save you…”  But Jesus doesn’t. Those things were not even close to his identity. For lots of people, the idea of the Son of God means just these things: being able to have whatever you want, whenever you want it; having the power to move people around and make them do things and to be perfectly protected by God all the time and even be able to flaunt it. And plenty of people will tell God to do it that way, and tell others that Jesus was that way.

But he wasn’t.

The beloved Son, was among God’s people as one of them. The lectionary does some odd things with the order of the Gospel text—the section of Luke’s Gospel that immediately follows this section was what I preached on three weeks ago, the day after the blizzard: “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” THAT is the meaning of the Son of God, that is who Jesus is. Jesus lives a life that is what God wants in a human life, not the life that human beings think they would like if they were God.

“Turn this stone into bread!” Take the way out that only someone with the privilege of a godlike sorcerer could take. Be comfortable, when anyone else would be hungry. It is not that Jesus did not eat, or that he did not enjoy life… but out there in the desert, in that time alone and fasting, what would it mean for Jesus to just snap his fingers and have a six-course meal appear? Would that be good news to the poor? Would it accomplish any of the things which God chose to do by sending his son among us? “One does not live by bread alone”—Jesus is about life, and that life is for and with others.

“I will give you authority over all the kingdoms of this world.” How often do we think that we could solve all problems if we just had enough political power? Just put me in power—I wouldn’t do all these selfish things or make all those mistakes? How often have we been disappointed in our leaders? The levers of power manipulate and change those who look to wield them—it takes great realism and humility to accept positions of power and to do any good. Systems of power have a life of their own, and they quickly become idols.  Those that believe that “just a little more power and it will work” are addicted. The devil said to Jesus, “Just worship me and it will all be yours.” Jesus’ response is straight from the Ten Commandments: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Only him. That’s not so easy—others get ahead by taking shortcuts, grabbing power, they become the privileged, maybe it even becomes hereditary. But that. Is not Good News for the Poor.

Absalom JonesYesterday was the day on the church calendar when we remember Absalom Jones. Absalom Jones was an African-American who had been a slave in Philadelphia and had purchased the freedom of his wife and himself. He was a lay preacher at a Methodist Church along with Richard Allen, and when those who had power in the congregation decided that the African-American members had to be segregated up in the gallery during worship, Allen and Jones led them out of that church and formed a Free African Society. Absalom Jones founded a congregation within the Episcopal Church where black Christians could worship freely. Eventually, he was ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, the first African-American to be ordained. He was an eloquent preacher and leader of the community, a conscience for the church against slavery, though that conscience was much resisted for many years. The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas still worships and thrives in Philadelphia today. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” It takes courage to do that, and you can’t wait until you have control of the kingdoms of this world, or for the power over those kingdoms to make it easy. Christ turned from that approach and comes to us, preaching Good News to the Poor.

“So throw yourself down from the temple.” Impress everybody, it will all be easy. Jesus just looked at him, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Easy was never part of the deal. Jesus is here among his people, in life with its real difficulties. It is life in its reality that he celebrates. Those angels praise God and minister to his Chosen one as he brings God’s mercy and healing to God’s people. He walked the way of the cross—he was walking that way all through this. The joy of his presence, his feasting with sinners, his comfort of those who grieve, his good news to the poor and all who suffer, and his being killed on a cross by the powers of this world; all of these things are connected, they are the same thing. God is present with us, living, being and bringing us the truth.

As St. Paul said in his letter to the Romans that we read this morning:

The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sustain me with your bountiful spirit

A homily for Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful spirit.

We gather today to begin Lent. Immediately after the imposition of ashes we will say Psalm 51, the great penitential psalm which has been repeated by Christians and Jews for millennia. I would like to reflect with you on this psalm.

Lent is a time for the renewal of life. It is a time to focus ourselves on the gift of life that God has given us. It is common to think that it is about sin and feeling bad about it. But you can do that any time: the Psalm says “I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.” Our sin; our falling away from the goodness that God has for us, is real, but it is not for us to wallow in sinfulness, or to commit the further sin of despair.

This psalm is about God’s mercy… “according to your loving kindness in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”  God’s compassion propels us forward in our lives, even if we want to pack it in, and give up.  It says, “behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.” We can be distracted by the things of this world. Have you turned off your cell phone? Is the anger and pre-occupation of this political season upsetting you? But when we listen to God in the secrecy of our heart, the truth is there. That truth is God’s love, deep within every person. The purpose of our penitence, and indeed of all our lives, is to discover that love of God, to step forward just a bit, and live a little more in that love.

Listen to how the Psalm progresses after that:

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me and I shall be clean indeed. Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.

Lent is not a sad season, it is the season where that body that has been broken is purified and focused so that may rejoice. We live and we move toward Easter. We live in this real world, where death and sin, distraction from love and attention to hate are real things that surround us. Remember, Jesus was in the midst of just this reality, and in it and from it, he really died. At Easter, God raised him from the dead, and none of these things have power over life any more. Our journey to the cross is a journey to life.

I shall teach your ways to the wicked and sinners shall return to you.

Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.

Open my lips, O Lord, And my mouth shall proclaim your praise.