Neighbors

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind

A sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

It is fairly common for Christians to think because Jesus says this in a controversy with the Pharisees, that he came up with it, or at least that he was saying something that they disagreed with. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus’ answer was from the scriptural text that is most important to all Jews, and certainly the Pharisees. From the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, it is known as the Shema: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Jesus is telling these figures of the religious establishment that he fully shares and agrees with the most essential point of their belief: that it is God and God alone that deserves reverence and obedience.  In fact, in the Gospel of Luke, a young lawyer asks Jesus about how to attain eternal life, and Jesus asks the lawyer what the law says and it is the lawyer who tells Jesus exactly the words that Jesus repeats to the Pharisees. It’s not complicated, it’s not secret, it’s not innovative—it’s just very serious business.

In Luke, the young lawyer tries to justify himself, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. You’ll have to wait until that text comes up for a sermon on the Good Samaritan, however.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Note that he doesn’t say, “Act like you love the Lord with all your heart” or “be really showy with how pious you are” or “tell everybody if they don’t believe and act just like you do that they will be damned to hell.” The command is to live in God’s love—always—at all times and in all ways. Most people have a god that is far too small, a mascot god that does what they want, makes them comfortable, helps them feel justified in however they do things. That is not the One God of Scripture. The true and only God is no one’s mascot. I once calculated approximately how far a particle traveling at the speed of light would have travelled in the 13 billion years since the Big Bang—80 sextillion miles and change. All of that distance, in all directions, could fit in the palm of God’s hand. God’s love is likewise infinite and it is not subject to manipulation—by magic, or self-serving rhetoric, or use of power over others, or by any attempt to turn the Gospel upside down.

We like to duck out of our responsibility to the one God, who created everything that is and who loves even the poorest of god’s creatures, and find some kind of religious expression that will confirm our prejudices and privileges. It’s always a temptation. Jesus came to hold people to the truth—I think that is what is behind his question at the end of this lesson about the Messiah—the Pharisees were looking back at an idea of the Kingdom of God based on David the monarch of Israel from a thousand years before—Jesus says the Kingdom of God is infinitely more. Ultimately, Jesus speaking the truth and meaning it resulted in the discomfort that led to his crucifixion.

That seems like a big jump, but it’s not. Because it is not a matter of words or philosophies and discussion groups. The problem was Jesus really meant it and held people accountable to loving God in their lives and actions.

It was not a controversial or unusual thing to continue his quote from the Shema with his next sentence: “And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That quote comes from the holiness code in the Book of Leviticus, which lays out how the holy people of God are supposed to behave. Thus, it interprets what it is to love God with all your heart in terms of a person’s behavior. Loving other people and valuing their welfare every bit as much as you value your own is living the love of God.  The God of heaven and earth leads us beyond what is good for us and into what is good. Abundant life is life for others, living in generosity, living in God with our entire heart, soul, mind and strength. Living this way is not a matter of being more religious or better than the ordinary—actually it is very ordinary and it isn’t optional at all.  Being connected in love is what gives life—it is redirecting concern toward maintaining ourselves or our own community that causes life to shrivel.

At Calvary, we have the opportunity to live for others. Some of us walked last week in the CROP walk up in Clinton. Some of us will give contributions today for the relief of those affected by recent natural disasters in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and California. Over the next months we will have the opportunity to reflect on how our lives, our life together and our individual lives in the world of work and community, affect the well-being of others and how we can grow in compassion.

Let us pray once more our Collect for today:

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you 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 ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

Advertisements

Go and do likewise

A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

Two Sundays ago, our lectionary Gospel readings set out with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Today’s lesson directly continues in the Gospel according to St. Luke. The journey started in Jesus’ home district of Galilee, in the far north of Palestine to Jerusalem, in the southern part of Palestine. A large part of the journey is through the district of Samaria. That roughly overlaps where the northern Kingdom of Israel was before the Assyrians overran it and then the Babylonians invaded and took many from the southern Kingdom of Judah into exile. In that district of Samaria was a large number of towns populated by Samaritans. The Samaritans regarded themselves as the true followers of Moses—they observed the laws of the Five Books of Moses and offered sacrifices on Mt. Gerizim, which they believed was the place that God had appointed, not Jerusalem. The Jews, including those who were the majority in Galilee as well as those from Judea, regarded the temple in Jerusalem as The Holy Place. The Jews believed that the Samaritans had intermarried with idolaters, that their worship was polluted, and that they were generally a people not to be trusted. These two groups did not have an amicable relationship. In fact, they got along better with the gentiles with whom they shared no common traditions, than they did with each other.

When Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, he sent messengers out and a Samaritan town rejected them. Jesus’ disciples, the brothers James and John, whose nickname was the “Sons of Thunder” came to Jesus and suggested that they should call for God to rain down fire on that village. That epitomized the relationship of the Jews and the Samaritans.

In our reading today, a lawyer stands up, and in this case, he’s a man trained in the interpretation of Jewish law. It’s clear from the way the text is written that his questions are meant to test Jesus and put him in a difficult place, to make him say things that would not be popular with the crowds.  So when he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he’s not looking for an answer, but a debate.   Jesus agrees with him, “Do this and you will live.” There is no difference in the essential core of the spiritual life and the Jewish law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

But now the lawyer wants to pin Jesus down, “And who is my neighbor?”

He was looking for Jesus to draw for him the boundaries of the righteous and the unrighteous.

When Jesus tells the story, he doesn’t give guidance on how to decide who your neighbor is.  Do you see that? He doesn’t give a narrow or a broad definition. He doesn’t say one group is neighbors and another is not. He doesn’t say that some might become neighbors in such and such a way.  He doesn’t say, you’ll know they are neighbors by their love of you. He does not even say that everyone is your neighbor.

Jesus tells a story about how to BE a neighbor. Not to figure out who to treat like a neighbor, just how to be one. And in this situation, at this time, Jesus chose to tell this Jewish lawyer about a Samaritan who behaved like a neighbor. The man who was beaten by robbers was clearly Jewish, like Jesus and the lawyer, and the two other characters in the story were clergy—a priest and a Levite. The religious people in this world may think that being religious makes them much more neighborly, but that isn’t the case. Not according to Jesus.

Jesus chose as his illustration of who could be a neighbor, a person that all of his hearers, not just this lawyer, but also his own disciples, especially James and John, regarded with disrespect and anger. When Jesus described the Samaritan, when he saw the man injured by the road, Jesus said that he was moved by compassion—the Greek root of the word implies that he felt the man’s pain and need from deep in his insides.

Jesus turns to his questioner and says, “Who acted like a neighbor?”

“The one who showed mercy.” There was no other possible answer to Jesus’ question.  Jesus refused to respond to the question of who your neighbor is. Instead he said, “Go and do likewise.” This was not necessarily good politics, but it was what Jesus meant.

This week—I’m not sure what to say.  The shooting of Alton Sterling and of Philando Castile by police officers. Shootings that would not have happened to white men. Then Thursday night, the massacre of police officers in Dallas, Texas Dallas Police Shootingwho were conscientiously doing their job of keeping a peaceful protest safe.  Anger and fear reacting in violence.  We are in a country where everybody seems to shout—“NOT MY NEIGHBOR!” And even those who are quiet, quietly see others as the transgressors, the untrustworthy, the scary— “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But it was one of those transgressors, one of those Samaritans, who was deeply moved by compassion. Who saw the humanity of the wounded man, who put himself on the line for the sake of his healing.

It’s easy enough to see how people habitually do not treat one another as neighbors. It’s easy enough to see the disastrous results of that.  What is not easy to see is how to unravel the violence, the hate, and the simple self-pity of those who allow violence to flourish. I don’t know what to say.

But it was obvious, even to his hostile questioner, when Jesus asked, “Which one of the three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who into the hands of the robbers?”  It was the one who showed him mercy. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Let us pray our Psalm for today, once more. Psalm 25:1-9 in the insert.

To you, O Lord, I life up my soul, My God, I put my trust in you:

Let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O Lord.

and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me,

for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love,

For they are from everlasting.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions;

Remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.

Gracious and upright is the Lord;

Therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

He guides the humble in doing right

And teaches his way to the lowly.

All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness

To those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

Trinity Sunday

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.

Today is Trinity Sunday. The feast of the Holy and Blessed Trinity, God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the name day of this church and congregation. Fundamentally it is about our worship and adoration of God, who gives us life. And mercy. And hope.

We celebrate God, but we also celebrate this Trinity Church. I have been with you a little over a year and a half, pretty much every Sunday. Here’s what I have seen: a congregation with life and courage. From the outset, I noticed how important respect for one another is here.  There is a joy in being together, worshiping God and sharing in meals and our times together. There is particular joy in the nurture of children in this church. Easter 3Young people are taught the faith and they take leadership roles in the services. And everyone enjoys hearing our youth choir sing.

I arrived here the day after Fr. Allen Newman died and shortly before the death of Keith Warren. Besides grief over losing two beloved brothers in Christ, Trinity lost two major leaders. Which meant there was understandable anxiety: How would things get done? How could the church move forward?

On this Trinity Sunday, a year-and-a-half into my ministry, I am here to report that Trinity Church got the important things done and it is moving forward. I will tell you what I have seen, but first I want to say something about my role as priest here.

There’s a part of my ministry that everyone sees here: On Sunday, I preach the Gospel and celebrate the Eucharist with you. Those are very important things, and there are things I do here that not everybody sees. But there are also important things I don’t do that are often done by clergy when a parish has a full-time priest. I don’t manage the budget or supervise employees. I don’t choose the music or put together the liturgy or service bulletin. I don’t manage the Sunday School and I don’t round up the stewardship and fundraising programs. In the beginning, I didn’t even attend vestry meetings, though that has changed recently. Yet that has all been done. How? You have done it. You, the members of this body, took responsibility for being the church and making it run. And this isn’t just a question of the nuts-and-bolts of what it takes to make an organization run. Each of the groups and families in this congregation works hard, with generosity of spirit, to make this a place of spiritual awakening, respect and hope.

What have I seen in my time with you? I see outreach to this neighborhood, through an after-school ceramics program, which gives possibilities in artistic expression and positive attention for kids who really need this enrichment. I see women from a local homeless shelter welcomed at Christmas time as our guests—receiving dignified respect as well as a festive meal.

And our sick and homebound are not forgotten. Our pastoral care committee and others visit the sick, and Jeannie Seaman is a lay Eucharistic visitor who brings communion to the shut-ins. And when Jeannie was in the hospital, she herself received visits, organized by parishioners. When I have gone to visit those who are sick or in hospital, I have never gone alone—Trinity members have always gone with me because it is in their DNA to be community together.
Then, we have an acolyte core that includes young and old—we have our altar guild—we have our choir. It’s not only their serious dedication to the tasks of preparing our Sundays for worship, it’s also the reverence displayed toward God that makes it possible for us all to enter into the mysteries of faith—together.

This is a family that loves being together. I once described it as a group that would have a feast at the slightest provocation. We rejoice in God’s love, and in this short time we have baptized Logan, Ethan, Aiden, Jael, Demetrius, Amiyah, Savannah, and Zyhir into the body of Christ in our midst. The Body of Christ is alive and continues forward into the future.

These things that I have seen are the manifestations of the spirit of this Trinity Church of Morrisania which is enlivened by the Holy Spirit to bring forth Christ’s love into the world. It is not a fearful spirit or one that is only worried about its self-preservation. We have received God’s generosity in Jesus Christ and we look to share his hospitality with all his children.

At the parish meeting a couple of months ago we discussed together a new project that grows out of this spirit. The New York Internship Program of the Episcopal Service Corps will be working with Trinity to bring interns in residence here, beginning in 2017. This is a big project, and it takes a lot of preparation. Paula Roberts and Eleanor Chesterfield are leading the way on this and participating in the steering committee of the project.  One of the things that the project will do is provide a certain amount of revenue to offset the costs that the parish has been incurring to maintain the rectory where the interns will be living. In itself, that is important, because it helps to stabilize the finances of the parish.  But as a priest and a theologian, what is more important to me is that half-a-dozen young adults will be here and learn from the spirit of this parish, to learn how you live out respect, love and joy here in the south Bronx. And they will share that forward, in this part of the city that so much needs to receive respect and hope, they will share this spirit—in their work assignments, and in being resident seven days a week here on this block, and in their participation in the congregation. The interns will be enlivened by their contacts here in this church and in turn they will contribute to the life and ministry and hope of the congregation that is already here.

This is what YOU do, and who YOU are: God’s people, living in the joy of God’s presence. It may feel at times like we are small, or have few resources. But God is not small, and the abundance and riches of God outstrip all the opulence of the most wealthy places in the city.

The Trinity is how we know God: the Father and creator of all things in the whole of the universe, in Jesus manifesting God in demonstrating how to be human, and the Holy Spirit transforming us and incorporating us into the life of God. It is here at this Trinity Church that I have seen the Holy Spirit doing this.

As our psalm says:

Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,

What is man that you should be mindful of him?

The son of man that you should seek him out?

You have made him but little lower than the angels;

you adorn him with glory and honor;

O Lord our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world.

You who were once far off

A Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, July 19, 2015

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the Blood of Christ. For he is our peace…

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus said to his apostles: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going and they had no leisure, even to eat.” That happens … and it is important sometimes for all of us to take rest, step back and allow our bodies, minds and spirits to recover and re-energize. Last week, Paula and I took time away—we went to Boston for a few days to visit my granddaughter and her parents, then we spent several days on Cape Cod Cape cod marshwith our friends Josh Davis and Danielle Thompson. Josh is a theologian, who until recently, was on the faculty with me at General Theological Seminary; his wife, Danielle is an Episcopal priest. We had a wonderful time with them, visiting, playing with their kids, walking on the beach, and Josh and I spent hours talking theology.  It’s what you do on vacation, I guess.

One of the things that Josh mentioned was that he had been looking at the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. So often, Christians regard Galatians as a place where Paul is saying that the Gospel has superseded or negated Judaism, by giving a better way that is free from the law. But that isn’t what Paul is saying at all. What he says is that the Jews remain Jews and the gentiles remain gentile and they are united in Christ. That Jesus, the Jew, included those who were not Jewish into participation in God as a pure gift, not destroying their separate cultures, and at the same time including those who practiced Judaism in Christ without changing their practice and obedience to Jewish law.

Christ has come into the world, and the unity of human beings, is not in being alike, but in being united with him. It was the great and extraordinary gift, that the God of Israel bestowed this belonging on the Messiah of Israel—that is what that Greek word Christ means—to those who were not otherwise part of Israel. Galatia was a part of that area that is now modern Turkey. Ephesus was a city substantially west of there, on the west coast of modern Turkey. Our epistle lesson this morning was written to the Christian community at Ephesus, which like the Galatians, was made up of gentile Christians with few Jewish members.  In our lesson, the unity of all people in Christ is emphasized.  But we would be mistaken to think that when Paul talks about Christ breaking down the dividing wall between the groups he means that Christ is abolishing differences.

The lesson says this: “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” The wall is the hostility between people, not their differences. All through the writings of Paul he is contending with one party or another, where leaders arose who tried to simplify their own lives by saying that the church should be one, and that should be by everyone conforming to their culture, observances and way of living. Eventually what happened was that Paul lost out. Rather than Jews living observantly, being one component of the diverse body of the Messiah, they were eliminated or conformed into the gentile church; Jews were regarded as the enemies and rivals of the Church. The results of that have been tragic.

Hostility was masked in the church by conformity and was replaced by fear and hatred. People find it simpler to have only one kind of people. Or rather two kinds of people, “Our People” and “Bad People.” That then makes it easier to control: our people can then gradually let some of the Bad People become part of our people, by becoming like our people. That is not the message of Jesus or of St. Paul, who said it this way: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the Blood of Christ. For he is our peace…” It is the mercy of God and the undeserved gift of being admitted to Christ that gives any of us hope and life abundant. It is not ours, Christ is not our possession, we are his. We don’t serve Christ by giving up our own distinctiveness or opinions, neither do we serve him by failing to accept those who differ from us.

The Body of Christ takes its beauty from its many forms, from the depth of people’s commitment to their own cultures and traditions and from the respect between peoples. This is not easy or automatic—in fact it is easier at times to see the walls of hostility than to see that respect. We are not united in a Christian culture, but in Christ. It takes the action of God, the mercy of God, the gift of God to make this happen.

As our lesson from Ephesians concludes:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are build together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

You will never wash my feet

A sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”

What’s going on with this foot washing?

Slavery was prevalent in the Roman Empire. The economy depended on it. Its existence was hardly ever questioned, since people are not inclined to question things that look necessary for the economy to function. Wealthy households had slaves, and a characteristic duty of a slave was to wash the feet of guests whose feet were dirty from walking dusty roads in sandals. It didn’t require intentional humiliation for it to be a demeaning job. In more humble households where there were no servants, the task was given to the women.

Washing of the feet was associated with the people who were held in the least esteem. Men were used to simply dismissing those who washed the feet. Nicer men would nicely dismiss the slaves or the women, nastier men would be more rude, but all in all those who washed feet were meant to get out of the way and be dismissed from further thought.

Peter always shows up in the Gospels as a normal guy. He’s like the rest of us. When we’re being really pious, we pretend like we’re different, but mostly we know that we are faking it when we do that. Peter was not a nasty guy, but he was also not particularly refined, neither was he someone who covered up his thoughts and feelings. He was not excessively pious about Jesus. Jesus was his friend. This friend was the person he esteemed more than anyone in the world. This friend was his teacher and leader, and the person that Peter believed the world should take more seriously than anyone else. And that Friend stood up and got ready to wash feet—how could he? To give up all that esteem and take the role of someone to be dismissed: a woman or a slave? And in this season of Passover when we remember our people’s liberation from slavery? Ridiculous. In such bad taste. Giving up a serious role to become a nothing–You will never wash my feet!

You see, nowadays you would have a hard time finding people who would actually say that, though you might often encounter people who readily dismiss others and count them as nothing, as not worthy of respect or attention. But in the scripture, Peter is always there to say it out loud and then to learn from Jesus’ teaching. It was powerful, because right there, Jesus was becoming one of those who was dismissed—how can we be of any account if we are those who are dismissed? Don’t we have to act like we’re important?

Foot WashingJesus kept on washing the feet. James, John, Andrew, Peter … Judas. Jesus was the least, and in that he was their teacher and Lord. The servants, and even the women were of equal importance and dignity as those who sat at the table. Jesus was not a teacher who brought his students knowledge or skill that would give them power or wealth. He said to them: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” No one should be dismissed, ignored, disregarded. All are important, and our self-importance is the one thing that won’t make it into the Kingdom.

The term “Maundy” in Maundy Thursday, come from the Latin word that we get the word “mandate” from, it means commandment. In this Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us one commandment, a “New Commandment”, but really the only commandment: “That you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Love. Love. Love. It can be so simplistic and meaningless, can’t it? But in his washing the feet of the disciples Jesus is very specific: who do they dismiss? Who do we dismiss? Most of us have, at one time or another been dismissed by others. Like Peter, the temptation is to try to get into a position where we can do the dismissing, where we are in control or in power. But Jesus shows us God’s grace, God’s costly grace, where the power of God lifts us up in our humility and gives us the greatest dignity in the privilege of washing one another’s feet, knowing every person is important.

Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Good Friday, April 3, 2015

Three Hour Service from Noon until 3 pm

The service combined the Good Friday Liturgy with an extended expository reflection on Isaiah 52-53, Stations of the Cross, 10 hymns and the reading of the Passion. The following homily was preached after the Passion. It is one that was preached at Holy Apostles in New York City in 2013 and at Trinity Ossining in 2014.

 

“It is finished.” What is finished? We might be tempted to pass over these last words–Jesus has been through a lot. So have we–all through the journey of Lent there are references to Jesus’ cross or his crucifixion, and then this week the story is told at least two different ways. It is draining to go through this execution–and there are so many ways, in the mass of the detail of Jesus’ suffering, that we can miss the point—

One way is to abstract from Jesus’ real life and reduce the crucifixion to a theological principle. One way this has been done is to assert that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy the debt owed to God for all the sins and crimes of humanity, other times I run into preachers and theologians who are at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus’ suffering was the most or the worst possible—but in both cases, Jesus suffering and death becomes symbolic and detached from his actual life and in fact, from ours.

At the other pole, it is common to focus on our own emotional response, and all the details of Jesus’ suffering to the point where we are overwhelmed. There is a great danger in this—when faced with such enormity of suffering, human beings lose their perspective, and either fall into despair or disavow their own place in this—“Who is responsible for doing this injustice to this good man?” How often in Christian history have people asked that question and then answered it with… “The Jews”? And it’s not any better to ask the same question and answer it with “the Romans”, or “the military industrial complex” or “the Tea Party.”

The life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels is, above all, a real life of a real person. The authenticity of his humanity shows us who God is. The way in which he lived his life reveals to us what we can be. If we say that he is sinless or perfect, it is not a perfection that makes Jesus distant or unapproachable…it is not in trivialities that Jesus is perfect, but in his life of love. We see it in the joyful teacher, the host who gives bread to the crowds on the mountainside, the obedient Son who supplies gallons upon gallons of wine for the wedding guests. We see his love in the courage to heal people when he wasn’t supposed to, for loving people who everyone knew were sinners.

And he led his disciples, inexorably, and against their better judgment, to Jerusalem. In that sacred city, all that was significant of humanity was gathered: pilgrims and people celebrating the feast, imperial bureaucrats and soldiers to enforce empire, religious officials trying and hoping to keep everything from falling apart, and religious zealots and nationalist insurrectionists trying to blow everything up. Jesus came to them in Jerusalem, as he comes to us in the Bronx, to love them. And what we see, in a concentrated way, is what people usually do: they are fearful, greedy, some scheme and find ways to assert power over others, others avoid doing what they know is right because it will be difficult. They are all concerned for themselves, afraid to give, because they might lose something. Each person plays a part, whether priest, or soldier or disciple or bureaucrat—and Jesus, the real, living, loving Jesus—is put on the cross.

Looking down, he sees there a disciple whom he loved, and his mother. And he says “there is your mother” and “there is your son.” Look, and love. Attend not to your own hardship, but love and care for one another. Jesus had no power to stop all the ugliness and violence of the turn that human reality had taken on that day, but he looked with love on those people and reminded those who could hear to get outside of their own concerns and to take care of one another.

After this, … Jesus knew that all was now finished. When Jesus had received the wine, he said. “It is finished.”

It was completed, this life of abundance and love. All aspects of humanity had been faced, and loved and blessed. Even this ugly death he blessed and embraced. For three days it could not be known that that the ugliness and fear and cowardice and hate of Jesus friends and enemies alike had been redeemed and transformed by this Life.

His life was really complete, facing and incorporating that universal human reality that we avoid: his death. Three days in the tomb. Yet we are here, the church is here, because God in Jesus did not let death be the final word or the defeat of that life—the generous, hospitable, and all loving life of Jesus encompassed and incorporated all that human confusion and evil could muster, and brought forth a new creation. But the resurrection … that’s the story for Sunday morning.

The Samaritan Apostle

A sermon at St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014

 

Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

The Gospel today is long. That’s because it’s a great story and there’s no way to break it up.

The woman in this story was a Samaritan. The Samaritans show up a number of places in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of John and we often skip over, or misunderstand who the Samaritans are, or especially how they were regarded among Jesus’ hearers. Under kings David and Solomon there was a united kingdom of Israel which broke into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah after Solomon’s death. The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, represent the religion and perspective of the southern kingdom of Judah. The capital of the northern kingdom was Samaria until it was destroyed by the Assyrians about 200 years later. It was another century and a half later that the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.

There is still a very small community of Samaritans who live on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and live according to the laws in the Torah and offer sacrifices there. There is a complex and interesting history of the Samaritans which I won’t go into, but they were a substantial population during Jesus’ time, not quite as large as the Jewish population, but many villages in the part of Judea between Jerusalem and Galilee were populated by Samaritans. The Jews and the Samaritans had different understandings about the origins of the Samaritans though their shared scriptures varied only in whether God should be worshiped at the temple on Mt. Gerizim or on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

The account that was accepted by the Jews (and supported by the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah) was that the Assyrians had destroyed and deported most of the residents of the kingdom of Israel (thus the 10 lost tribes of Israel) and settled non-Israelites who were also idolaters in the land. Any Israelites who were left had intermarried with these idolaters—thus any of their worship was polluted, idolatrous and heretical. The Samaritans believed on the other hand, that they carried on the true traditions of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and that the Judeans had profaned the worship by moving it from Mt. Gerizim to Jerusalem. This was very serious business; each group regarded the other as worse than other sorts of foreigners because of their betrayal of what was most holy. Of course, other characteristics were attributed to these people, as people do with groups that are despised—they were dirty, dishonest, ignorant… From either group’s perspective, not only would you not want your daughter to marry one, you wouldn’t want to come into contact with one of them at all.

So that’s the background of this conversation—Jesus asks THAT sort of woman for a drink of water. And she responds as you would expect—“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And the entire long discussion involves all the main points of Samaritan theology and their differences with the Jews. She was so intent on arguing her points, that she couldn’t hear that Jesus was saying something completely different—as he told her about living water, and true worship, she responds with the Samaritan theological talking points: Jacob gave this land and well to his son Joseph, the ancestor of the Samaritans, and true worship is on Mount Gerizim, not Mount Zion.

But Jesus is not trying to win a theological debate—he’s talking about being alive in the presence of God. The turning point is when, in a very tight place, she asserts the Samaritan understanding of the returning Messiah and Jesus says to her: “I am the one, the one who is speaking to you.” This personal connection breaks through her defenses, and convinces her that this life he offers her is something different than the old debates between one group and another. The whole point of her being at that place was to fill up her water jar and take it back to townNiagara Springs—but she leaves the water jar there and she goes and tells everybody in town—“Come and see…Could this possibly be the Messiah?”—in fact this makes her the first apostle, that is, one sent to bring others to Christ. One might say that she leaves her jug and brings Living Water to the town.

This story is so rich and full that it really would warrant a whole Lenten study series to fully appreciate it. Being transformed through receiving the living water of Christ directs us toward baptism and Easter which are the real point of Lent. Among the many insights that can be drawn from these lessons today, the one that I would like to point out is that this woman had some real legitimate religious traditions and theological understanding, but she was stuck—one can surmise that a lot of it had to do with personal issues, that she was trying to hide and defend at the same time. When she really met Jesus she had to give up, not the religious truth, but how she formulated them, and how she defended herself and her group. As we move forward in faith, and face new situations in a changing world, sometimes we also have to be ready to give things up and change when Jesus asks us to follow him…maybe even leaving the water jug behind.

And God said to Moses: “Strike the rock and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

And Jesus said, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

On Asparagus and being a neighbor

A sermon at St Mark’s Church in the Bowery, February 23, 2014

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.

-Leviticus 19:9-10

The lesson from Leviticus today is from what scholars call the “Holiness Code.” It’s a set of instructions of how the people of Israel are to be a holy people, dedicated to God. There are paragraphs that talk about right worship and ritual purity, but just as much, the commands of God about being a holy people are about ordinary everyday things. Things that were not special to the Israelites, but were simply things that were expected of upstanding people: “You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until the morning,” for instance.

The text I quoted is one of those. It defines gleaning. In our urban context, we might not be familiar with it, or, if we know about it, we might be inclined to romanticize it or think it’s a particularly religious thing. I grew up in Idaho, prosperous farming country. For over forty years, my father sold insurance to farmers, mostly to cover their farming business. When I was very little, my earliest memories are of living in a little house in the countryside. My parents were young and just starting out, and they were renting what had been a “hired-man’s house” from a prosperous farmer down the road. Sometimes I would walk with my mom along the country road. The banks of the irrigation ditches were allowed to grow wild, with sunflowers and weeds and grass.

AsparagusBirds would take shelter there and sometimes build their nests. The ditch banks belonged to the farmers’ fields, but nobody particularly cared what you did on the ditch banks as long as you didn’t divert the water. One of the things that we did, even long after we moved to town, was to hunt for wild asparagus on the ditch banks. This was a kind of gleaning, you didn’t have to be poor or on the margins of society. In the spring, lots of people would drive slowly along country roads until they spied a little colony of the vegetable. It was fun, it was good to eat, and commercially grown asparagus was almost unknown in Idaho at that time. The thing is, the boundaries of the fields were more or less necessary waste space. You couldn’t efficiently harvest crops out to the very edges, and those margins became in effect part of the commons which people could share, if they followed the unwritten rules. Allowing this and other kinds of gleaning wasn’t seen as particularly virtuous or holy, it was simply being part of being relaxed neighbors.

So what’s the deal in the Leviticus passage? The most important part of being holy is leading a decent, common-sense, human life. But there’s always someone who wants to game that—to scrape just a little closer to the edge of the field; or even to enhance their relative position by making someone else’s life just a little harder, even if there is no positive gain in doing that. Why send your slaves out to rake up all the loose grapes that have fallen to the ground? It nets little or nothing. Certainly not compared to the benefit of being a good neighbor.
Jesus was teaching in a different historical period—a thousand years or more after the time depicted in the Leviticus passage. In those days of Roman occupation people could be compelled to carry burdens for the army, for instance, and society was more complex with more towns and cities. But Jesus’ concern is the same – he didn’t want people to try to establish rights over others just to assert some kind of advantage over them. Jesus uses extreme imagery of radical non-resistance and absolute generosity, but that’s not to establish a new game with higher stakes—some sort of all or nothing game. Jesus is challenging us to give up on self-justification based on playing around with rules and rights, and to pay attention and become real neighbors.

Neighbors are people that you share things with, and that you have to get along with in order to have a functioning life. It doesn’t mean that they are people you like, or agree with or even share tastes or cultural preferences. The more complex the society, the more complex is the question of our neighbors.

One response to this complexity is to define more clearly and tightly who neighbors might be. Corporations have always existed for the benefit of their owners, the stockholders, but in the past couple of decades this has been pushed to its logical and most efficient limit (as philosophers would say, its reductio ad absurdam)—no neighborly action is justified unless it can be demonstrated that it enhances shareholder profit. Some try to limit the complexity of who they deal with, based on culture, ethnicity, visa status, or political allegiance. And this is not true of only one end of the political spectrum. It is easy to seek out enclaves of like-minded friends, and to shut out and ignore those that one assumes might think or say things that would make you uncomfortable.

But Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…”

It takes great courage to take Jesus at his word and to face our complex society with openness and generosity of spirit. It can be costly, as it was for Jesus, to love those who aren’t your sisters and brothers but it is really the only way to healing and holiness. As the passage from Leviticus ends: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”