Mercy

I saw the holy city coming down from the sky from God

A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Today we are observing the Feast of All Saints. It’s one of the most important feasts on the Christian calendar.  Officially it happens on November 1, but since people don’t get that day off to come to church, we are celebrating it today.  Of course, Halloween is the Eve of All Saints, so the day before All Saints people prepare for the Feast by imaginatively envisioning all that is scary or evil or demonic, ridiculing those things—purging them through acts of ridicule or perhaps experiencing the terror of what evil could be. Mostly nowadays people just have fun, they don’t take the demonic seriously.

I’ve spoken before about the demonic forces that Jesus casts out—not the caricatures we play with on Halloween—but the ways in which human fears, selfishness and anger take on dangerous and independent forms because people avoid facing them and push them off onto others. People often project the danger and evil onto others, like, for instance immigrants or Jews, when the real demon comes from their own fearfulness and anger, which is then projected onto someone else or some generalized force.

Both Halloween and All Saints are exercises in holy imagination. In appreciating real things by imagining them in more vivid and concrete images. When we talk about saints, we usually think of famous people or great heroes—people with inspiring stories whose lives can be examples of how Christians can be. Many people think of St. Francis of Assisi, who lived a life of poverty to show Christians the freedom that comes in living for others. Many think of him as being all about loving animals. He did love animals, but much of what he did with animals was to teach people to rejoice in their simplicity and to emulate the birds and creatures in their free response to God’s love and beauty.  A couple of weeks ago, the Roman Catholic Church canonized St. Oscar Romero who was Archbishop of El Salvador. He lived his ministry as bishop in advocating for the well-being of the poor of his country who were oppressed by a ruthless and exploitative military regime. He was shot and killed at the end of his sermon at a eucharist in memory of a woman, the mother of a newspaper editor; a woman who had in her own ways reached out for the good of the poor,  and who had been killed a year before.

People like Francis and Oscar have big stories and dramatic lives that we think about. Sometimes these spark our imagination of how we can live, but often we develop caricatures of what saints are that are no more accurate or useful than our caricatures of demons on Halloween.

We might have heroes in our lives, but that is not what saints are. Saints are the Holy People of God. And when I say, the Holy People of God, I mean You. Being a saint is not about living a life of punctilious perfection or of winning the race of being the most generous, good and nice person who anybody ever saw. Being a saint is being truly yourself, truly the person that God created you to be. The most important characteristic of a saint is being someone who has received God’s mercy—that would be all of us. So if we are afraid, or angry, or selfish, we don’t have to deny that—we accept that we are these and other things that are much in need of God’s mercy and we offer them to God.  In God’s mercy, we are not crippled by our sins, nor do we project them into demons, but we know that we are loved and that we can love in return.

The reading from Revelation introduces the image of the heavenly city, the perfected Jerusalem descending from the sky.  It is the imagination of our future with God: “The home of God is among mortals…he will dwell with them and they will be his…”  Two years ago, I led a Bible study group on the entire book of Revelation. It’s quite a wild ride—from ecstatic throngs praising God in the courts of heaven to the horrors of war, famine and disease—reflecting a world as chaotic and dangerous as our own. Some of the images in the book of Revelation are far scarier than anyone could think up for Halloween. The image of the Heavenly Jerusalem emerges in that context of fearfulness and demonic oppression in the Roman Empire.

God knows the realities we experience, and also the fantasies and fears that arise as people respond to difficulty and uncertainty. The final truth is that the home of God is with us. And when I say final, I don’t mean, far away, after everything is done with, God will take care of us. What I mean is that the truth is, in the midst of confusion, fear, anger—the real truth is God’s presence, wiping away every tear, giving mercy to all his children, to all his Holy People, to all his Saints.

This is what is important about saints. The temptation is to be buffeted about and give in to all those things out there that confuse and frighten us, but we can renounce them. In a few minutes we will re-affirm our baptismal vows and renounce those things. The stories of saints allow us to imagine life when evil has been renounced. Our imagination of the heavenly city is one story, but there are thousands of stories, millions of them.

We have those saints among us—those who visit people who are lonely or ill; those who welcome strangers; those who faithfully adorn our worship spaces with little or no thanks; those who diligently work to improve our facilities and maintain our physical plant. In more than a year here at Calvary I have encountered many saints and their work. Works of mercy—of giving mercy and receiving mercy.  Take a moment to think of the past year… how has God dwelt among us? Who has done a small act of kindness or been generous in a way that you might not have noticed before? How has it been possible for you to be welcoming, generous, merciful?

I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked among God’s saints in this place and I anticipate that you will grow in your sainthood in the coming years.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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Go on your Way

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

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Many sternly ordered him to be quiet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thunder Twins

A sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 21, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

You’ve got to love James and John, these sons of Zebedee. They just keep coming after it. When the disciples talk about who the greatest one is, they start the conversation; when they get Jesus alone, they ask for the places of honor; in one of the gospels, even their mother gets in the act, trying to get the best places for her boys. They even had a great nickname: Boanerges, which means “Sons of Thunder.” Basically we’ve got the Thunder Twins here.

Jesus loved these guys. He put up with all their tricks, even though it was a bit puzzling at times. Why would they even WANT to be at his right and left hand in his glory, when we read in the Gospel of John that Jesus was glorified on the cross? A lot of people don’t realize this, but when Jesus chose his disciples, he didn’t choose them because they were the greatest geniuses. Not even because they had “potential.”  It appears that these guys thought a lot of themselves, and perhaps they thought that they were in a movement where it would mean a lot to be the chief lieutenants, maybe Jesus’ designated successors. They clearly didn’t get what Jesus was about.

I’ve sometimes noticed that when Jesus told his disciples that “the first shall be last,” we in the Episcopal Church decided that that meant that we should put the Bishop, or whoever was wearing the fanciest clothes at the back of the procession and make that the place of honor. Jesus just shakes his head. Jesus chose for his disciples pretty much a random sample of goofballs, illustrating that the Kingdom of God is made up of people who receive God’s mercy. They weren’t all the same, but none of them were grand or great. Each in his own way had failings and shortcomings, and Jesus loved each of them.

The Thunder Twins were a couple of guys pretty full of themselves. Insofar as I can tell, their resumes included being assistant fishermen on their father’s boat on an inland lake, until one day, in the middle of the day, they just left everything to go follow some guy. And they got a nickname that probably indicates they were loud talkers. They weren’t great strategists or rhetoricians, neither wealthy nor skilled at obtaining wealth. But they thought very highly of their own prospects. I’ve known a few such guys. Once or twice I met him in the mirror. But Jesus loved these guys, not because they were full of themselves, but because he loved them. They were human and he was their friend.

They may well have known that when Jesus asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” that he was referring to difficult times ahead. They loved him, they were with him, even when they didn’t get it … at least, not completely.

Of course, once the issue of preference and status was raised, the whole crew got into a row. It might not have occurred to some of the others to ask to be at Jesus’ right hand, but now that you mention it, it’s a good thing to be offended about. Jesus stops it. “It is not so among you.” The Kingdom of God is not one of preference and advantage. When God is in charge, each of us receives mercy and love enough, no matter how needy we are. If our need is to lord it over others, then Jesus brings us more mercy and a new way to be God’s children and servants.

Here at Calvary we are beloved by God, each in our own quirkiness, and our own neediness, and in our own goodness. We have the opportunity, in being ourselves, to grow into the generosity and the welcome of God. We have the privilege to give, to help, to serve others, not out a need to have status or rack up achievements, but from the overwhelming mercy and love of God. Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but living humbly as one who is loved and who receives great mercy makes it possible to discover and share greater gifts than we would have in seeking to be first. There is no need to hold on to the things that will increase our own status or power—we have more to give. Here at Calvary there is an abundance of gifts, of people, intelligence, of good lives lived, of youth and possibilities ahead, of prosperity that can be shared. There is no need to be fearful or to seek further reassurance, Jesus is here, he serves us and invites us to serve his world. “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This is said another way in our epistle reading from Hebrews:

He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness;… Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.”

He deals gently with all of us.  We see him dealing gently with the Thunder Twins, even when they mistake their faults to be leading virtues. He deals gently with us, even when we are afraid or mistaken. We live together in God’s mercy, and in that we can take joy.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Because of your Hardness of Heart

A sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 7, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

And Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

He took the children in his arms and held them. He kept them safe, so they knew they were loved, and he blessed them. And not because they were cute; or that he liked the way that they played.

In the last couple of weeks, the Gospel has been showing some of the bad sides of Jesus’ followers. And that can be uncomfortable because they resemble us, more in the ways that they are annoying and problematic than in any other way.  It continues today. We’re in a new scene in the Gospel, they had walked to a new region. There was this controversy, which I’ll get back to, and then the disciples decided to be Jesus’ “handlers.” They knew how annoying little kids can be, wanting attention, making noise, looking out for what they want first. So the disciples decided to clean things up and push away those kids and their parents. Jesus would have none of it. He knew how annoying adults could be, wanting his time and attention for themselves, talking over others to get their opinions in first, manipulating everything for their own self-interest.  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

The only thing that really distinguishes us adult disciples from these children is that we think that we are different, grown-up, and in charge.  And Jesus holds us in his arms and blesses us. It is not our in-chargeness that he holds and blesses, it is that we are his children, whether well-behaved or not.

People like to always get an advantage, to show that they are just a little ahead of everyone else. And it’s not uncommon for people to try to outsmart God, or to at least trick themselves into believing that whatever scheme or privilege they want to hold onto is God’s eternal plan.  So these Pharisees come up and ask Jesus about marriage and divorce. Almost always, these confrontations have an agenda, the debates at this time were about when it was legitimate for a man to divorce his wife.  Sometimes it helps to translate the Greek words literally, it shows the frame of mind and assumptions that were going on: They asked Jesus when it was permitted for a man to dismiss a woman.  There was no question about how a woman could get rid of a man, just how the guy could be justified in getting rid of a woman. The implication is that the woman might become a burden to a man, so how could he get rid of her? The various rabbis had different positions on this, and your answer to this question defined where you stood as a teacher in Israel. So Jesus said, “What did Moses say?” The Pharisee’s answer was a man could write out a certificate and divorce the woman—they were waiting for Jesus to explain what exactly that meant, when and how, and for what reason. This is important, of course, because a guy has to figure out how to do what he wants and remained justified, and it’s important for lawyers and scholars and pastors to work it out so he does these things and still feels good.

Jesus surprises them. He doesn’t explain how to make the law of Moses work. Instead he says that it’s a colossal fail. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.” Divorce in this culture was a convenience for men. For the women it was a financial and social disaster. Their livelihood and prospects were pretty much completely cut off. The teachings of the rabbis and the certificate of divorce were intended to control this somewhat, to make the men more accountable, and to give the women who had been sent out at least the theoretical chance to re-marry and recover. But Jesus turns to the men and says: conforming with this regulation does not justify you, you don’t get your financial advantage, or comfort or your new young wife through appealing to Moses.  Jesus refers to the creation—that a man leaves his parents and is joined to his wife and they become one flesh. A family is formed and it is not up to the arbitrary choice of a person to break that up. You can’t just make your choices holy by appealing to some provision in the law—that woman is part of you, not a possession to be discarded. But things do happen in this real world, divorces occur, families are torn apart and people are hurt. Because of our hardness of heart, provisions have to be made. Provisions are made for people to live. He took them up in his arms, and embraced them, laid his hands on them and blessed them.

The love of God and the grace of God is not so that we can be grown-up, dominant, have the upper hand or be rewarded for being the cleverest. We enter the Kingdom of God as a little child: loved, forgiven, given another chance.  Loved; not encouraged in hurting other children, but in being cared for and learning to be a caring person. God gives his grace, and provisions for us to make it in this hard world filled with difficult choices, not to make it okay to harden our hearts, but to let us live, to experience becoming one flesh, one body in Christ. He embraces us and blesses us, not because we are the grown-ups, or the experts or the leaders, but because we are his children, partaking of his flesh, and being healed so that we can go out again into that world.

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever, and ever. Amen

 

 

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.

 

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.