Mercy

You look for Truth deep within me

A sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, March 18, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

I love our psalm for today.  Psalm 51 is one of the most powerful and beautiful of the songs of Israel. Its text is the basis for some of the most beautiful Christian Music that I know. The reason for that, is that it speaks beautifully of God’s loving-kindness, the harmony of God’s compassion and life-giving spirit. It is classified among the Penitential Psalms and indeed that is what it is, a psalm of penitence par excellence.

But penitence and repentance are often not well understood. When it says, “wash me through and through from my wickedness,” we are tempted to think that it only refers to being particularly awful and that we somehow should find really bad things to think and say of ourselves. But that’s not it at all. Our text for today, from the middle of this psalm, describes it best: “For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly.” Deep within us, all of us, is the truth, and that truth is deep wisdom. But that is also our deepest secret, because inside is also where our hurts, and fears, and confusions dwell. We are vulnerable—if the wrong people found out those deep secrets we could be damaged, damaged terribly, even destroyed. And thus, many people avoid the truth within themselves entirely, and in closing themselves off from the truth of their sinfulness, transgressions and fears, they also close themselves off from the wisdom of God, from the source of life—sometimes even from life itself.

All of us are subject to this, to one degree or another, because all of us are fearful and everyone at some point wants to hide, at least to hide something or to hide from someone. I have seen when someone insists that they have nothing hidden, that they have never committed a sin, have never needed to ask God or anyone else for forgiveness. A psychologist would tell you that such a person is a psychopath. A person that fears that at the core of their being is nothing, or at least nothing that could be loved. Such people trust no one, and ultimately, others learn not to trust them.

But God searches for truth deep within us. God can be trusted to find the blessing of our spirit. God’s loving-kindness and mercy touches us where we are most vulnerable and tender. Even when no other human being could be trusted with our secrets—fears, sins, misdeeds, unrealistic aspirations, embarrassing quirks—God can be trusted. In amongst all our vulnerabilities the love of God searches out and finds that beautiful creature who God created.  God calls forth our bountiful spirit in the joy of his saving help.

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus says that the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. And how does he say he is glorified? He says it is like a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying—that in giving up being a single piece of grain that the bounty of a new harvest appears. We are called to penitence, precisely for the bounty of new life, to allow God to search us inwardly, to acknowledge and accept that we need mercy, that we need to trust God. We need to give up protecting all the things that are hiding that spirit which God seeks to reveal in us.

Not every person can be trusted with our inmost vulnerability. Sometimes people betray one another, sometimes people don’t understand, or they just gossip. Being free from those things that we have hidden doesn’t mean regarding all our sins as meaningless or trivial. Penitence is acknowledging the truth to God, of giving up the fearful things we cling to in order to avoid the real danger of being a free person in God, that is to say, a Christian as Jesus is calling us to be.

This is a journey we don’t take alone, however.  We are in a community that is travelling with Jesus along the road to Calvary, along the road to his Resurrection and ours. It doesn’t have to be abstract or strictly internal—most of us do discover others who we can trust to share at least some of the difficulties of our journey. Certainly, those who benefit from the many AA groups that meet here every week day would tell you how important it is to them. Some things need to be sorted out in an even more secure and safe way. That’s why the church provides the sacrament of Reconciliation. If you aren’t familiar with it, you can find it beginning on page 446 in the Book of Common Prayer. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church doesn’t treat this as a duty for everyone. But it is an opportunity to sort out and give over to the God of all mercy those things that might get in the way of our abundant and joyful life. Priests are trained that the confidentiality of this sacrament is beyond ordinary confidentiality. It is sealed in the trust of God’s transforming mercy.  I’m pleased to schedule the sacrament of Reconciliation with anyone who contacts me, and there are plenty of other priests who are happy to do so as well. It is God that is merciful, all the time. If is a privilege to help someone recognize it and know it.

Let us pray:

For behold, you look for truth deep within me,

and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

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.

Hide your face from my sins

and blot out my iniquities

Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence

and take not your holy Spirit from me.

Give me the joy of your saving help again

and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

 

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That the World might be Saved through Him

A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

As we journey through Lent, we are recalling that the whole thing is about the overwhelming mercy of God. Our salvation is not mostly about God and a little bit about good things that we do, and it is definitely not about God, plus making some good choices, and being nice, and pretty good-looking and saying a few of the right words, either. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world that the whole world might be saved through him. It is God’s mercy; God’s love for every one of us that makes life and hope possible.

The text for today’s sermon is the Gospel of John, chapter three, verse seventeen. Why didn’t I choose John 3:16, like those guys write on the signs they wave at the football games and anywhere they can get in front of a TV camera? Because if we stop at the end of John 3:16 without including the next verse, we misunderstand completely what Jesus is saying. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. . . . Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Some mistakenly think that John 3:16 is about believing, and earning eternal life through believing. That couldn’t be more wrong. We who believe know that God has come into the world to save this world, through his life, his overwhelming mercy brought to us in spending that life with us and for us, even to being lifted up on the cross. But when I say us, I don’t mean this small group gathered here this morning, or some people who wave signs in front of cameras. I mean that God sent his Son into the world—that the whole world is saved by him.

The Gospel passage does talk about condemnation. Condemnation is real. Most of us have felt it, experienced it. Indeed, the question of God’s mercy and salvation wouldn’t be very meaningful to us, or at less not very compelling, if it were not for the reality of condemnation. What is that condemnation, where does it come from? The Gospel says this: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come into the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” People condemn themselves by turning from the light and running away from the truth.

The Old Testament lesson is a story from the fourth book of Moses, the Book of Numbers. It is another grumbling in the wilderness story—there are a lot of those, perhaps because people grumble a lot. Here is their complaint: “There is no food… and we hate this food that God has given us.” The food available for the Israelites back then probably did not compare with Calvary Church’s St. Patrick’s Day potluck next Saturday—where we share with one another as in God’s heavenly banquet.

Have you ever noticed that the people who complain the most and pity themselves the most are those who are used to having the most and being the most privileged? So in this story, God basically says, “Oh you don’t like the food? Try snakes.” For some reason they did not like the snakes either. Of course, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” I don’t think my kids would have liked the snakes either. But somehow, in this story, the children of Israel end up knee-deep in snakes.

Somehow, a lot of people end up deep in trouble, deep in condemnation, and they don’t see that it is the result of their own self-pity and anger; or in accepting the hurt and anger of other people and letting that define them. While we do this, God has something else for us. God’s way is mercy, not condemnation. His way is constant love from the beginning and healing of our hurts.

And that’s where those snakes come in. God had Moses lift up a snake, and the people focused on something beyond their self-condemnation and they were healed, they were saved. And so our Gospel lesson begins: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” It is the mercy of God, the gift of God, that heals us, that heals this world.

We are invited to live in the light of Jesus—by living a life of welcome and acceptance, of generosity of spirit, of being merciful and leaving self-pity behind. We are called to proclaim God’s love for the entire world, to live together as a body building one another up, not as individuals competing against others for a reward they can’t have.

He sent for his word and healed them; and saved them from the grave.

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy;

and the wonders he does for his children.

Let them offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving;

And tell of his acts with shouts of joy.

The time is fulfilled…Repent

A sermon for the first Sunday of Lent, February 18, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Our lectionary is on a three-year cycle, and in the other two years, the first Sunday of Lent’s gospel reading is the temptations of Jesus from Matthew or Luke. This year we have the Gospel of Mark and the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness go past so quickly that you hardly notice them. Rather than going into the depth of the experience of the temptations and the values and message of Jesus within them, Mark shows how these things are connected together—Jesus coming from Galilee, his Baptism by John, the heavenly voice confirming Jesus as the son of God, the temptation in the wilderness, the arrest of John and Jesus proclamation of the kingdom of God. In seven verses Mark sweeps through all these things and shows how they are connected.

They are connected as the essential background of Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist’s call for repentance was the context for Jesus’ appearance. It was John’s arrest by the soldiers of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, that was the occasion of the beginning of Jesus proclaiming of the Good News. Later in the Gospel, Mark tells the story of the why and how of John’s arrest and execution. This Herod was corrupt, cruel and selfish.  Though he was a Jewish ruler of a Jewish principality, he was the client of a foreign power. John had pointed out his sexual immoralities and, more importantly, how he was unfaithful to his people, acting against the best interest of the people of Galilee and Judea. This was entwined with John’s preaching to the crowds about their repentance. It was not just the leaders who had to be held accountable to God, but everyone. Repentance was necessary—not feeling bad, but changing their lives; choosing each day to live in God’s justice. That was the messenger, preparing the Lord’s way, crying in the wilderness. And Jesus was in the wilderness, being formed in truth and served by angels.

John was taken into custody by the soldiers of Herod Antipas. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: repent and believe in the good news.” It is the first Sunday of Lent and we begin that journey with Jesus, the journey which ends with his arrest by the religious police and the Roman soldiers; his execution on Calvary. His message to the people in Galilee is the same as John’s was, down by the Jordan on the eastern edge of Judea: Repent, the Kingdom of God is here. What is that Kingdom? We know some of it: Jesus was a healer, he cast out demons, he taught people hope, character, and faithfulness. He embodied God’s mercy and that was his teaching. Entering the Kingdom of the most merciful God is easy—you just rejoice in God’s mercy, live as God’s merciful children.

Of course, to be God’s merciful children… To even think about being joined to God’s mercy… If you look around at what happened this week down in Florida, what happens every day in our country, even here… To claim to have anything to do with God’s mercy takes change, it takes repentance: a restructuring of ourselves and the way we operate…getting our priorities right. The safety and well-being of young people has to be a higher priority than things of this world: prosperity or success or making political points; or having the things we want. It takes courage to repent, because it means living in a new way. Repentance is the opposite of taking refuge in a world of fear and anger and blame. The Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is not the self-indulgent world of Herod Antipas, but the generous world of Jesus, who brought life and hope to others and didn’t avoid the very real risk to his own person. All through this coming season of Lent, we will see that Jesus’ loving actions, his teaching and his prayers all lined up in perfect accord. For our prayers or our thoughts to have any meaning, they must align with our repentance, and amendment of life. That is to say prayers and action are one. If a person thinks that they can toss in some prayers to make others feel better while planning or doing actions that contradict those prayers, that is blasphemy.

So we look at all the gun violence in this country, punctuated by mass shootings of children and an epidemic of gun suicides. It can look hopeless, practically and politically. Fifty years ago, when I was a teenager, there was another epidemic that everybody thought was hopeless: automobile fatalities. It had reached the rate of five and a half fatalities for every 100 million vehicle miles travelled. Now it is just over 1 per 100 million miles. There are actually more than 15 thousand fewer traffic fatalities this year than 50 years ago while the country’s population is more than 50% larger. How did this happen? What caused the reduction of this epidemic? It wasn’t one simple solution, and it took years. A national commitment was made to reduce traffic fatalities. Different things were done: roadways and guard rails were improved, seatbelts and eventually airbags were required in cars. Cars were made structurally safer. Laws against drunk driving were toughened and enforced more stringently. Laws were changed, and some people didn’t like them.

When I was 14 in 1968, I got my driver’s license in Idaho. We were very proud of that and thought it was our God-given right.  Of course, I got in two accidents before I was 16. The age for driving was raised in states like Idaho, much to the consternation of teenagers, and some parents who found it convenient to have the kids drive themselves and do errands.  It took a lot of changes to reduce traffic fatalities. They are not entirely eliminated and still a tragedy when they occur, but they are no longer an increasing epidemic, we don’t assume that somebody we know will be killed in a car crash.

To address gun violence takes national repentance and a national priority for safety, for less gun violence. It requires good faith in looking for solutions from all parties, it takes some inconvenience and adjusting of expectations, and an orientation toward safety in all respects of gun ownership, handling and use. Guns can be made safer, and particularly dangerous weapons can be gradually eliminated. They aren’t needed any more than a .50 caliber machine gun or a rocket launcher. Guns are tools and our culture should develop in the direction of not having them be tools for killing people, least of all, high school students and teachers.

Immediately after his baptism the spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. He was tended by the angels of God. He came to his home country of Galilee calling for repentance and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He went among them, casting out demons and healing them.

Wash your face…

A sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.

Some of you have probably noticed that in a couple of minutes after hearing this from Jesus, we are all going to have ashes spread on our faces. Then many of us will go out and people will see that we are Christians fasting on Ash Wednesday. Sometimes they notice Christians observing this fast by having elaborate meals at the best restaurants. Every once in a while someone asks me about this: “How can I be sure that I am doing this completely right? I want to be sure that I am doing what God wants me to.” The short answer to that is, you can’t, you aren’t, and you won’t. You can’t be sure that you are doing things completely right, you aren’t doing everything that God wants you to, and even when you convince yourself and those around you that you are doing everything you can possibly do, you will be fooling yourself.

Repentance is not about doing everything right: It is about living in God’s mercy. Our lives are a gift, and our ability to do good for others is the result of God’s generosity to us. As our psalm says, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.”

In the gospel, Jesus calls our attention to the behavior of the religious hypocrites. You know that you’ve seen people like those Jesus is describing. Folks who cover up meanness and selfishness with a great show of piety. We know how such hypocrisy can hurt. It hurts us when others are mean and cover it up with sanctimoniousness. We can see how this hurts others, and we know perceptions about church people behaving this way – right or wrong – are among the reasons why people stay away from the church in increasing numbers. It’s not difficult to see faults like this in others – the question is whether we can see it in ourselves.

Notice that Jesus isn’t naming names here. Jesus is talking to those who might be his disciples; he’s talking to us.  What is easy to see in others, is very difficult to see in ourselves. It is typical of the human condition be more generous toward ourselves than toward others. Unless, of course, we are more grandiose even in our hard feelings toward ourselves and judge ourselves as so much worse.

But that’s not the message of Ash Wednesday. The message is: We live in God’s mercy. We live in the joy of God’s generosity.

Thus we are called to reflection today on God’s goodness and how we might live more abundantly in that goodness. In this world, we know that people hurt one another and cause and allow suffering. But that’s often an occasion to reflect—is there some way in which my own behavior causes someone else to stumble? Or feel rejected? Or less than fully God’s precious creature?  This kind of examination isn’t a way to feel bad about something. Quite the opposite. It is a time to see opportunities to be more welcoming, more affirming, more forgiving.

Sometimes the faults that we see in ourselves gives us a bit of a sense of humor about similar faults in others. Thirty years ago I was training in the Princeton University Library to enter and modify records into their computer system. I would be perturbed when I discovered errors. You could tell who had made them, because their initials were on the record. How could they be so careless? A few months in, I found mistakes and opened up the record, and behold, there were my initials! After a number of these, I adopted a more forgiving view. As we live life and go through many things, it’s possible to be more accepting of faults and missteps in others, recognizing that we have our own faults and make mistakes.

The God of mercy calls us to a life of mercy. The season of Lent is a season of God’s mercy, a season of seeing possibilities to be merciful and to be encouraging. The way of this world is so often to be competitive and to find ways to be “one up” on others, to pretend to be perfect or better than others, and without need of mercy or the need to be merciful. But we belong to Jesus, we are not of that world, or at least, we are not owned by that world.  The great gift is God’s mercy—who would turn away from that, just to be right? Jesus says,

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

That treasure is the treasure of mercy. The merciful God giving us the opportunity to be merciful and compassionate people. If you think back a couple of weeks, when we gathered in the parish hall, the very things that emerged from your conversations, between twos and at your tables, that characterized why Calvary Church is important were that it is a place of welcome, acceptance, not judging, extending welcome to others, and joining together in the worship of God. These are characteristics of mercy, of being merciful people who have first known the merciful love of God. That is where our treasure is—our hearts are in God’s mercy and we see opportunities to live and grow in being merciful each day.

You shall invite each other to come under your Vine and Fig Tree

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!

Nathanael was a follower of John the Baptist. So was Andrew and Philip. So Philip came to his friend Nathanael all excited. “We’ve found him! We’ve found him! The One!”

And Nathanael’s response was “… and that would be who?” And when he heard that it was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, Nathanael says to Philip, “Now think about this. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was a no-place, a bit like Murphy, Idaho, the county seat of a desert county with about as much land area as New Jersey, near where I grew up. The main notable feature about Murphy was that it had one single parking meter.

Nothing in scripture or tradition spoke of Nazareth, there were no prophecies about the town, no prominent families or powerful associations. Nobody expected the Messiah or anything else good to come from Nazareth. Nathanael wasn’t so much swayed by the enthusiasm of friends, and he didn’t go along with what Philip said just to be polite. As a follower of John the Baptist, he took this Messiah stuff pretty seriously, and there is no reason to just take the word of someone who has gotten all emotional, even if he is a friend.

Philip says, “Come and see.”

One of the most puzzling exchanges in scripture is what happens next. I think there are pieces left out that would have made more sense to people who knew more about the followers of John the Baptist than we know today. Jesus sees Nathanael coming and he says—“There’s an Israelite in truth, but without deceit.” The first person who had the name Israel was the Patriarch Jacob, who was well-known for deceiving everybody—he tricked his brother, his father, his father-in-law… Yet Jacob also wrestled with the angel of God and received the vision of the ladder to heaven, access to the way and presence of God. So Nathan is Israel without the tricks.

When Jesus says this, Nathanael perceives that he somehow knows him—“Teacher, where did you get to know me?” The answer to Nathanael’s question is cryptic: “I saw you under the fig tree.”

Fine. He saw him under the fig tree. To our modern ears it sounds like Jesus saw Nathanael standing in the shade. But it meant something different to those in the time of John the Baptist.

Commentators have a lot of theories, and most of them admit they are all speculation. Here’s something that people back then who knew a bit about John the Baptist and his followers and who knew their scripture would know: The prophet Zechariah (who just happened to have the same name as John the Baptist’s father) had prophesied about six centuries before, as the people of Judah returned from the exile in Babylon. He was encouraging the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. He spoke of a messianic figure, called the Branch. And at one point he writes this: “I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of Hosts,

and I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day. On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.” So Jesus’ reply to Nathanael is “I saw you under the fig tree.” I think that Nathanael heard in that statement the fulfillment of that prophecy, “I will remove the guilt of this land in a single day.” The image of being under your own vine and fig tree is one of restoration of a tranquil and prosperous life, a life of peace and hope. The vision of hope for Nathanael and God’s people.

Our psalm for today says, “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.”

Jesus knew. He knew that Nathanael longed for the Kingdom of God, he longed for that time when everyone would share hospitality under his own vine and fig tree. Nathanael, the Israelite with no deceit turns to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

We live in God’s kingdom, and that is not a kingdom of wishful thinking or pretending that things are how somebody thought they should be.  We are known by God, our lives and our hopes are knit together by God. But, in Jesus, those hopes aren’t just any fantasy we might have, nor do difficulties and distractions just fade away.  Nathan says to Jesus that he is “the King of Israel.” And that would be how he envisioned the Messiah’s coming. Jesus knew Nathanael, and loved him, and invited him to follow. But that following was not to indulge what Nathanael imagined he wanted or was going to get, but the reality of the Kingdom of God, of Jesus’ road, not just to Galilee to preach and teach, but to Jerusalem, to face and defeat the powers of death. “You will see greater things than these, Nathanael, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

This weekend we remember a man who Jesus knew and invited to follow him. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke directly, without guile or deceit about his experience and that of his people. It was never easy, and the outcomes of standing up for justice and fairness were never unambiguous.  Much of what Dr. King hoped for has not been realized in the way that he wished, and certainly not as soon as he wished. Racism is still common in our country and comes to the surface in disturbing ways, even for those of us who might be more likely to be beneficiaries of the effects of racism, rather than to suffer. Dr. King’s witness, of standing for a society of respect and dignity for every person, shows us a way to move forward, practically in our society, even though the road is hard, and with many delays and surprising challenges.

At Calvary Church, we live in the Gospel of Jesus. He knows us as he knows Nathanael. He invites us to follow him, to follow him on the way. And like Nathanael, we will be surprised. We might have envisioned one outcome, but the Vine and Fig Tree that comprise God’s mercy for us, will be different. Much more abundant, with deeper joy, and much more challenging.

As it says in our psalm: “You press upon me behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. … You yourself created my inmost part; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful and I know it well.”

And then Jesus said:

“Amen. Amen, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Traveling light

 A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

People often base their ideas about the Bible on rumors they have overheard, or popular prejudices, or images they have seen based on those things rather than paying attention to the biblical text itself. So the Israelites cross the Red Sea and we envision Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments. The sudden parting of the sea with walls as straight and plumb as we see on those steps that Dan Holzli has been fixing outside our kitchen, with ground in between so dry that a hygrometer would read zero moisture. And we hear about the chariots and we see the same Charlton Heston in the Roman chariot race in Ben Hur. These images—great film images as they may be—get in the way of hearing the story as it is.

The chariots of the Egyptians—1500 years before the Romans began racing with their own version of chariots—those Egyptian chariots carried a crew of at least two, perhaps three or four, with a driver and archers meant to chase down scattered soldiers or fleeing Israelites.

Here is the text:

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land, and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.”

It’s still pretty miraculous but the imagery is less like a conjuror’s trick and more like a stormy night during a war. One little linguistic note—the term that gets translated as Red Sea, is more accurately rendered Sea of Reeds, and might refer to a swampy lake which existed until the Suez Canal was dug through that area. In any case, the wind blew all night and the Israelites walked across on the ground that was exposed. You may note that in the account of the Passover that was read last week, the Israelites were traveling extremely light and quickly. Dry ground for them was not measured by a hygrometer, but that it was firm enough to walk across. The Egyptians were armed heavily, their chariots the equivalent of a Bradley fighting vehicle, but with narrow iron tires. To accomplish their aims of overtaking the fleeing slaves and wiping them out with arrows and swords, they needed those vehicles, so they pursued across the mud flats in the dark.  They were panicked and weighed down by all their equipment, and it was too late to turn around and get to safety. They found themselves unable to achieve their goal of dominating or killing this group of foreigners who had been in their midst. Stuck in the mud, they died as the storm ended and the water returned to its normal place.

The Israelites, who were pretty ordinary people, by the way, as we find in looking at their history for the next forty years after this point and going forward… the Israelites were led by God across the sea to safety and freedom. Moses was their leader, but he didn’t look like Charlton Heston. In particular, he didn’t speak with the brash confidence of Charlton Heston.  Moses had some sort of speech impediment or perhaps severe shyness. He couldn’t speak much in public or argue in debates with the Egyptian leaders. He had to rely on his brother to do the talking for him. Moses had to rely on God’s guidance, the guidance of God’s love, not on his own brilliance or strength.

In following where God led, the Israelites had to travel light. You may remember last week’s reading from Exodus: at the Passover, as the Israelites were preparing to be brought out of the land of Egypt by the Lord, they were fully clothed, with sandals and walking staff and cooked their bread in haste, without leavening it, so that they would not be held back by all things that people usually convince themselves that they need.  They followed the Lord along with Moses, and led by the cloud, they crossed the Red Sea without getting bogged down in the mud.

In the Egyptians with their chariots, we see how people are often bogged down … with selfishness, violence … seeking to get the upper hand over others.  Last week, I gave a bit of a spoiler about today’s Gospel lesson. These lessons are always intertwining.  This King had a major audit of his books and the first slave he brings in, somehow owes him ten thousand talents.  I looked up what a talent was—it was a measure that was about a cubic foot, and when it is money, it is a talent of gold or maybe silver. 10,000 cubic feet, that’s a lot of silver.  That amount would have been enough to keep a legion in the field for several years in those days.  So Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole, but he’s deadly serious—this man, though he was forgiven a debt larger than anyone could conceive of repaying, immediately turned around and treated the first poor fool to come along with great brutality. Talk about stuck in the mud of his own violence and selfishness—perhaps that has something to do with how he got into such great debt in the first place.

God has given us another path. With Jesus, we can travel light by living in his compassion with his courage. In this world of ours, we can feel like we’re burdened with ten-thousand talents of debt—it’s tempting to try to hold on, focus on the loss of all that, figure out how to make our chariot run through the mud so that we can win. But in Jesus, we see something else, generosity, not winning; compassion not cruelty; sacrifice for the sake of others, not fear.

I have just recently arrived here at Calvary. But what I have experienced is a community of caring and mutual support, people who care deeply about their children and young people overall. We live in hope because Christ is alive—not burdened by fear of death, or the ghost of ten thousand talents, but traveling light. Our job together is to explore and discover who we are as Christ’s community here in Flemington and then to listen and watch for where God is leading us.  As they were led by the pillar of cloud and fire, we are led and protected by the cross of Christ, and we discern it in the love of God, in God’s generosity and peace.

Let’s pray once again our collect for today:

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Not an ideal, but a divine community

A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.

If you take today’s Gospel lesson by itself, in isolation, it looks like an outline of a dispute resolution manual for litigation in the church. It’s often approached that way, but I think that is a big mistake. This lesson is the middle of the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. In this chapter, Jesus’ disciples ask him the question, “who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” and he responds by pointing out the humility of a small child. Not only is the child a model for us all, but “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

This chapter is about God’s welcome and God’s mercy. Today’s lesson is sandwiched between the Parable of the Lost Sheep—where the shepherd leaves his flock to go search for the single missing sheep—and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant—where the servant is pardoned of a great crime and a great debt but then turns around and brutally deals with another servant who owed him a small amount.

The context of today’s gospel is illustrations of God’s compassion and the life of compassion—of Jesus’ expectation of generosity of spirit and energy, and of the ugly consequences of selfishness and a lack of mercy. In case you’re not familiar with the story, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant ends thus: “ ‘Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

So this passage is about life in the community of mercy and compassion. It’s about including the little ones who might be lost, overlooked or put to the side. When Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you…” he’s not giving instructions on how to find the sinners and put them to right; he’s not setting as a goal tossing out all the bad people who make life miserable—what Jesus is talking about here is living together in God’s mercy.

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. There is no Christian who is not in need of compassion—from God, and from our sisters and our brothers.  Those who think their goal should be to be so perfect or self-sufficient as to not need compassion will find themselves frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed and unhappy. And if there is someone who thinks they have no need of forgiveness or compassion, that is a very serious problem indeed, for them or anyone whose lives are affected by them.

So when Jesus says, “… go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” it’s not about identifying who is in the wrong, who is the sinner, who is the bad person. It is not about that at all, it is a matter of honesty among the sinners in God’s community, of communicating clearly about hurts and offenses taken. Sometimes that communication is hard or frightening, and it takes another—someone outside the relationship, someone to help communication or provide support when getting truth told is a daunting prospect.  This passage frankly acknowledges that there might be situations where relationships are so badly damaged and trust so ruptured that reconciliation won’t take place. It is clear that such things happened in the churches we know about from the New Testament and historically in every age. But Jesus is not looking for a community where there will be no disagreements or hurts. Quite the opposite, Jesus creates a community where there will be hurts and breaches of trust, and in his presence they will be healed. We are called to be the mercy of Christ and it takes real work to live that honestly and compassionately.

The lectionary chops the lessons in some odd ways sometimes, and today is one of them. Today’s lesson is followed by the parable of the Unmerciful Servant—one who asserted his rights in a brutal and uncompassionate way—a warning to those who would cleave to the values of this world rather than the mercy of God’s Kingdom. But the ending of todays’ lesson is interrupted.  Here’s how the section ends in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Again, Amen I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name. I am among them. Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”

Then Jesus launches directly into the parable I just mentioned. It’s on good authority that we constantly misunderstand this lesson. St. Peter himself wants to limit the mercy in the community to a certain number of offenses before you’re tossed. Jesus’ response is basically to shake his head—No! Not just a number of times you can count—seventy-seven! (Some manuscripts actually say seventy times seven—perhaps he really meant seven to the seventieth power.) We are held fast in the community of God’s mercy. The realities of sins, missteps or offenses do not break the fabric of that divine community—we are blessed to live in the honesty of Christ’s mercy.  St. Paul says it this way in today’s epistle:

“You know what time it is, how it is now the time for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day.”

I’m very happy to join with all of you here at Calvary.  As we walk together in the light we will focus on Jesus and how he leads us into the compassion of God. Church is not about the priest, or program, or success. It is about our lives being incorporated into the mercy of God in the real world.

In your compassion, there is a lot to remember this week in that world: remember on the anniversary of September 11th, those who died sixteen years ago in the World Trade Center and those who still mourn them; remember also those in harm’s way at this time, including those suffering from the earthquake in Mexico, the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, and those suffering from Hurricane Irma which is now passing through Florida. Trust in God, and hold God’s children in your hearts.