Prisoners

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing

A sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 24, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

In the Gospel of Luke, this is the first record of Jesus’ teaching. After his baptism and his temptation in the desert, the Gospel tells us that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit and went around preaching in Galilee, his home region. And when he got to his home town of Nazareth, the Gospel describes that teaching.

He opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, the sixty-first chapter, where the prophet announces the hopeful message of God’s redemption for Israel, his summons for them to return from exile. Jesus teaches the meaning of the text, and that meaning is himself. “Today this House of hospitalityscripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” As we proceed through the Gospel toward Easter, it will become more and more clear what it means, that he himself is the meaning of the word of God. Today, let’s look at the text he reads: “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…”

So is the Good News of God’s love mainly for the poor?  Could be. Certainly the song that Jesus mother sang before he was born says, “He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.”

God is here for those who suffer and those who have needs that are more than they can handle. Yet it doesn’t just mean that God has pity on the poor or gives cosmic handouts to the needy.  In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a slave who was forgiven a tremendous debt, but then immediately grabbed another slave who owed him a very small debt and had him thrown in jail—being poor, or of low estate did not justify him in being unmerciful to others. Jesus did not come to change the order of things in order to privilege a different group, he came to give release to the captives, sight to the blind—a time of the Lord’s favor—when ALL the oppressed are free.

It is significant, of course, that he starts with the poor. Those who get the least respect, are just as entitled to full honor and respect as those who presume that they are the ONES who are entitled. It is not so, that some are entitled to honor and others can be dismissed. ALL are worthy of our respect. ALL of us have God’s respect and love, right now. Jesus is telling us that—the challenge is to us, and to everyone—how do we respect the ones who God loves and respects, particularly those who are pushed to the side, dishonored in their social status, or physical disability, or their place on the economic ladder. God gives us freedom, what do we do with it?

Jesus announced: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This means two things—first, it is in Jesus that these promises are fulfilled—his person and his life make the difference. Next week’s gospel lesson continues this story, and I will talk about what happens when Jesus made that announcement in my sermon next week.

But the other thing is, TODAY, the good news to the poor is announced, TODAY the release of captives and recovery of sight to the blind, TODAY the oppressed go free. This year is the year of the Lord’s favor, not some day in the far off future, when we get around to it, some day when the rich get tired of being rich, until, literally, Kingdom come. God is not waiting for justice, or mercy. The mercy of God, the right of those who are poor and oppressed to find freedom is right now. In Jesus, we are freed from the values that say whatever has been established by those in power is how it has to be. God’s mercy is here, in Jesus Christ. In us, in his mercy, we live as merciful, in his hope, we are generous and share our lives, in his courage and his way of the cross, we courageously face the difficulties that this world has brought and will continue to bring. We live in the year of the Lord’s favor.

Once again, let us pray in the words of our collect for today:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi

A Sermon at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd

The General Theological Seminary, New York

February 17, 2015

Amen, Amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

When I was told that I was to preach on the feast of Janani Luwum, Archbishop of Uganda and martyr, I had a little Brian Williams episode. I told several people that I had a classmate in my entering class at CDSP in 1976 who arrived six weeks late for the beginning of classes because he had to walk to Nairobi, Kenya from Uganda because his archbishop had been killed by the government of Idi Amin. The problem is, that when I looked up the death of Archbishop Janani Luwum, he was killed on February 17, 1977, at least five months after John Mbishibishi arrived in Berkeley, California to start classes.

I remember talking with John after the Archbishop was killed, and John knew him, but only from a distance. His bishop and diocese were further south than Janani Luwum had been before being made Archbishop of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. I conflated two events in my memory, much like Brian Williams did. Since some people here don’t remember the 1970s, I’ll review the relevant history here. Idi Amin was the commander of the army of Uganda who supported Milton Obote in 1967 when he suspended the constitution and took all powers of the government himself. A few years later, each correctly judged that the other could not be trusted—Amin acted first and took over in a military coup. He was able to consolidate his power because hardly anyone could believe that anyone would be as brutal and corrupt as Obote.

For Idi Amin it was about personal power and obedience to his whims. He would use ideological or religious justification to attack groups that he suspected might be loyal to someone else, including entire ethnic groups such as those who had been Obote’s base of support. He deported nearly 600,000 Ugandans of Asian ancestry and seized their businesses. He shifted his allegiance from Israel to Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya because of military and financial support. And in July of 1976, he invited terrorists who had hijacked an Air France flight to Israel to land and keep the plane and their hostages at the Entebbe airport in Kampala. Israeli commandos raided that airport and rescued most of hostages, killing the hijackers and a number of Ugandan soldiers. Idi Amin was humiliated and became furious and retaliated violently.

My classmate, John Mbishibishi was scheduled to fly out of Kampala a week or two later. It seemed to him like it would be better to go to another airport, so he walked to Nairobi, though it meant missing our 5 week intensive Greek and Music boot camp and the first week of the fall quarter.

Archbishop Janani Luwum

Archbishop Janani Luwum

The biography in Lesser Feasts and Fasts says that Janani Luwum was responsible for twenty-four congregations when he was first ordained. My classmate John wasn’t in charge of quite as many congregations as Archibishop Luwum was, maybe as few as eight or as many as thirteen (I can’t remember), even though he had already been ordained for several years before coming to the U.S. I do remember that he had to found a school in every village, because, as strict evangelicals, people had to be able to read the Bible before the church would agree to baptize them as adults, or to baptize their children. John said that it was a very big thing for him, after several years of ministry, that the church was able to procure a bicycle for him so he didn’t have to run between the villages.

In context, this is regular ministry, not really so much different or more challenging than the ministry which we are called to in this century and this country. As Archbishop, Janani Luwum had responsibility for a large and diverse community and a number of institutions, including Makerere University. President-for-Life Amin regarded both the church, which included many people from ethnic groups from whom Obote had drawn support, and their university as threats to him and his government. Amin’s soldiers ransacked the University that summer and the Archbishop spoke up in defense of the university and the Christian people of Uganda. He had little choice. It was his responsibility to speak the truth, and even many of those who tried to placate, support or befriend Amin ended up being the object of his anger and violence. In February 1977, unidentified people stormed into Luwum’s house searched it, and produced weapons they claimed they had found there. Christian leaders were rounded up and accused of plotting to kill Amin. Eventually most of them were released, but not Janani Luwum. As his colleagues left, he said to one of them, “They are going to kill me. I am not afraid.”

That’s pretty matter of fact. And I must say, that John Mbishibishi was also matter of fact in describing his own life, not dramatic or self-interested, the facts speak for themselves. We needn’t assume that Archbishop Luwum was not anxious or did not feel fear of what he was about to go through. But he knew this text: “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” He was not afraid to accept the reality that resulted from his choices. And he had been choosing, in his entire life as a Christian and as a priest, to be forthright for the good of others.

We think of martyrs as having dramatic lives, or at least dramatic deaths. We think of them as superheroes of the faith. But they are just people, who live Christian life day by day. It takes courage to tell the truth and it takes courage to be accountable for your decisions. There is always a cost. Sometimes Christians live in dramatic situations, and the cost they pay is dramatic. I am quite confident, that living or dead, in fantasy or in person, Janani Luwum would regard nothing as a greater compliment than to have it said of him that he was a Christian. He was a grain of wheat that fell to the earth and died, but has borne much fruit.

But another thing that the Archbishop would definitely say, is that it is not Janani Luwum that we remember, but Jesus, who glorified God in his hour. As he was lifted up, he draws all people to himself, to the mercy of God, the Glory of God, and his tender care for us. Brothers and sisters, let us join with Janani Luwum as servants of the living God.

Perpetua, Baptism, and the Lenten Journey

A sermon at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, March 9, 2014

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The most popular understanding of Lent is that it’s a season for self-improvement. A time to do all the drudgery of spiritual spring cleaning—maybe lose a little weight—so that we can really notice how happy we can be when Easter comes. But the origin of Lent isn’t that at all. Lent was the season of the final preparation of the catechumens (that is, the people who were preparing for baptism, much as we have an inquirers class going on at St. Mark’s now)—this was the final stage, of a very intense inquirers class.
The Gospel lessons from this year’s lectionary actually reflect this: we start with Jesus own baptism—where the tempter tries to distract his focus, and he responds “One does not live by bread, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”—in other words, he remained focused on the wisdom of God and the scriptures. Next Sunday is Nicodemus who learns about being born from above. The following Sunday is the Samaritan woman at the well who learns about living water from this stranger who deeply and mysteriously knows everything she has been hiding from herself, then the man who was born blind who receives his sight and can see the truth, and finally Lazarus who is restored to life. Lent is the new life of baptism, and together we walk the way to participation in Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism and re-affirmation of baptism at Easter, the feast of Christ’s resurrection.
We walk this way with the catechumens, those learning the essentials of the way of Christ—as, I guess, we all still are.

PERPETUA
I would like to tell you about a catechumen who means a lot to me. She died one thousand eight hundred and eleven years ago last Friday. We know this, because there was a public entertainment in Carthage to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday in 303 and that entertainment included having Perpetua and her companions face wild beasts and gladiators in the arena. The birthday of such an important person as the emperor is a matter of public record: March 7. The Romans weren’t always persecuting the Christians in those days, but sometimes regional governors would decide that it was important to make an example of those who wouldn’t make the prescribed sacrifice of a bit of incense to the Emperor’s genius. So, early in 303, a number of young Christians were arrested. Perpetua was twenty-two years old, she was married—though we hear nothing about her husband—and she had a little baby, and like the rest of her companions, she was a catechumen, preparing for baptism.
The reason that Perpetua is so important to me is that I’ve done some work on the writings of early Christian women, and the central part of the little work that is entitled The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas was actually written by Perpetua. Her account of her experience during her imprisonment is the earliest Christian writing that is unambiguously in a woman’s own voice.
After an introduction by an editor, these are the first words she writes:

While we were still under arrest (she says) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. “Father,” said I, “do you see this vase here, for example, or water-pot or whatever?” “Yes, I do,” said he. And I told him: “Could it be called by any other name that what it is?” And he said, “No.” “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.” At this my father was so angered by the word “Christian” that he moved toward me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.

For something written over 1800 years ago, Perpetua’s writing about her relationship with her father seems pretty familiar. Her writing is unaffected, but passionate, and, at least to my ear, authentically expresses the experience of a young person from a world far away in time, place, and culture. The striking thing about Perpetua’s text is the calm confidence, and even joy, that she shares with her fellow Christians in prison. She writes: “Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honour, realizing that we possessed some great power within us.” When she was anxious or concerned, it was for her baby’s well-being, or for the suffering of her deceased brother, who she saw in a dream. When she expressed sorrow, it was entirely for her father and other non-Christians who were distressed at her suffering and that of the others. These catechumens rejoiced not for suffering, but in being with Christ. Perpetua writes about several dreams or visions which she had in prison. This is the end of her account of one of her first visions:

“Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb: tall he was and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child. He called me over to him and gave me, as it were a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’

In North Africa, in the second and third Christian centuries, those who were baptized received, in addition to the bread and wine of communion, a cup of milk and honey. In this vision, Perpetua is describing heaven, the culmination of the spiritual journey, and she describes it in the terms of the baptismal liturgy. Interestingly, she interprets the vision as a message that she won’t be released or spared suffering in the arena. But for her, it is a message of life and hope, not death.

Lent is a season of life and hope. We travel along with these catechumens, those in Carthage and those here at St. Mark’s, we travel with Winnie, as she speaks a word of truth and hope on yet another side of the world. In that journey we receive life as a gift, not as something we earn by lifting ourselves by our bootstraps or resisting a piece of candy. With Jesus and with Perpetua we focus on the life that God gives us and we move on toward that new life of the resurrection.

So, what if the rapture actually happened, and we didn’t know anybody who made the first cut?

So, what if the rapture actually happened, and we didn’t know anybody who made the first cut?

An old gent named Harold Camping predicted that the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011 so I did myself some figuring and we had a little fun on Facebook. So this one’s not a sermon.

OK, so what if the rapture actually happens today? But just suppose that the number of the righteous included, is not everyone who has an I ❤ Jesus bumper sticker, but just the old number from Revelation, 144,000. Let’s take Mr. Camping’s span of 7000 years since Noah as when righteous people might come from. Assuming, for the sake of staying away from higher actuarial/exegetical mathematics than I am comfortable with, that there is an even distribution over time, there would be 1440 righteous people alive at any given time, if you use 70 year generations (i.e. 100 generations over 7000 years) and only 823 if the generation is figured at 40 years (175 generations).

Thus, there would only be between 750 and 2000 people disappear in this rapture gizmo OVER THE ENTIRE WORLD. Thus something like 1 or 2 people out of 10 million. That many people go quietly missing for a while everyday, and usually it’s not reported (cause many people don’t care and others know the people will show up again)–So maybe there was a rapture and none of us know anybody who made the first cut.
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Anne Lane Witt, Ronald Young and 2 others like this.

Andrew Kadel
May 21, 2011 at 4:05pm · Like

Jean Mornard Whoa! That’s some bodacious math you’ve got there, Drew!
May 21, 2011 at 4:21pm · Like

Robyn Barnes this may be the best rapture I’ve heard of
May 21, 2011 at 4:25pm · Like

Michael E. McCue Oh, how silly of me, I just thought that 144,000 was a numerical metaphor. 12 tribes of Israel 12×12=144. That is a gross by the way. if that is not bad enough some of my parishioners(I mean inmates) are students in the Family Radio School of the Bible and I have unknowingly helped them with their enrollment. But then again, how many free Bible Correspondence programs are there that lead to an unaccredited ARE degree. That is Associate of Religious Education. If there was a free unaccredited Episcopal Bible Correspondence program with free cassette tapes that the men could do in their cells I would steer them toward it. Well I am still here, the world seems to be still here, maybe I had better prepare a sermon for tomorrow after all.

May 21, 2011 at 4:42pm ·

Andrew Kadel @Michael McCue – you know the line from the old spiritual “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t goin’ there…” I’m just sayin, maybe it’s even less than that– which, ironically can be good news to some of those inmates who have consistently been told that they are the ones going to hell. …I think that a decent exegetical case could be made (at least in the context of unnaccredited correspondence courses) that the ONLY ONES to be saved would be 144000 inmates. Let’s think about that. I was talking with one of ours that graduated this week, and she is preparing to be a prison chaplain. I thought about you.

May 21, 2011 at 4:50pm · Like · 1

Michael E. McCue Thanks Drew, by the way, since we made tobacco contraband and only have non-fat milk in the chow hall(no more 2%) the convicts may be the healthiest people in California. Who is this student who is going to be a prison chaplain, I’d like to talk to her.
May 21, 2011 at 4:57pm · Like