Resurrection

God is not God of the Dead, but of the Living

A sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

God is not God of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is talking to some Sadducees about the resurrection. And that conversation isn’t happening in a vacuum. In the Gospel of Luke, this discussion happens after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the temple and the casting out of the money changers. Then, Jesus teaches in the temple, and this conversation is one of them.

But the tension in the story is this: We are coming up on Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion. So when the Sadducees, who were the temple aristocrats, come up to Jesus with their questions, they aren’t doing it in good faith. They’re trying to catch Jesus out, embarrass him, or put him in legal or political danger.

Jesus, like the Pharisees, was known to teach the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees, however, did not believe in the resurrection or any of the other of the Pharisees’ teachings. For them, the only scripture was the five books we call the Pentateuch, the Jewish Torah. Their primary concern was with the worship of the temple in Jerusalem. So when they ask about a childless woman with seven husbands in the resurrection, they are simply giving the believers in the resurrection a bad time. There is a law in Deuteronomy commanding a brother to marry his brother’s widow and giving a procedure for him to refuse to marry her.  It’s not clear, even in Jesus’ time, how often these marriages to a brother’s widow really took place, and the idea of it happening seven times for one woman was totally absurd in the realities of the first century. However, the law was there in scripture and it gave occasion to present a conundrum to Jesus, to make him explain something about this resurrection—what happens after we die?

The resurrection in Judaism, and for Jesus and Paul or the rest of scripture, was never about the disembodied soul. It was about the resurrection of the body. The Sadducees questions assume that the world of the resurrection would be a continuation of life as they knew it, with its relationships still in the same way that they were on earth. Their view of life and of God was very concrete and literal—like most people of their time, and most people nowadays, to tell the truth. The problem with being so concrete and literal is that it locks in lots of assumptions that are based on our very narrow experience—truly just the things that have happened to us in our lifetimes and a few things we might have been taught or read—or maybe seen on the Internet.

I cannot remember any time when I was growing up when we didn’t have a TV. For me, television was always there, even though TV broadcasting only began a few years before I was born.  My mother grew up on a farm that didn’t

Snake River farmland near where Mom grew up.

have electricity until she was ten years old. Of course, that meant that there was no electric pump to bring water up out of the well, so no running water. For rural people of her parents’ generation, that was just how normal life was. It wasn’t remarkable and they couldn’t really imagine another way that life might be. I can’t really imagine everyday life without electricity, even though I know the historical facts. If we have a power blackout, normal life stops and we struggle until the lights come back on. Living every day like that? Inconceivable.  Of course, things have changed even more since I was a kid. I can remember what it was like before computers and cell phones and other electronics, but now I’m so used to them, I have to work at remembering.

There are lots of things that have existed or that will exist that are perfectly true, but that we cannot imagine or understand. So these guys are asking Jesus smart-alecky questions about what life is like on the other side of that horizon which is death. Their interest is in all the details and their demand is that it fit together with what they have experienced, and understand, and can imagine. We know those guys couldn’t imagine electricity, how could they really imagine the resurrection? We know that God raised Jesus from the dead. But it is not within our imagination or ordinary experience. Jesus tells the Sadducees: “In this age people marry and are given in marriage…but in that age and in the resurrection from the dead they neither marry nor are given in marriage…they cannot die any more…they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees isn’t a detailed description of the afterlife. What Jesus is describing is how our imagination falls short, how our ways of thought and expression put inappropriate limits on the truth of God. Jesus doesn’t say that in the resurrection people become angels. What he says is that they are like angels in that they can’t die any more. He does say that in the resurrection we are children of God—our source is God, we are cared for and valued by God as god’s own.  But do we really know or can we really imagine how that will be?  Not in any detail except that we will be dwelling in God’s love. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be details and complexity, but anything we can say about it is a metaphor not the concrete thing in itself.  The more I work with older people, and people who are closer to their own death, and the closer I get to my own death, the more I see that those people are comfortable with that. We cannot see over the horizon of death, but that’s okay, because God can be trusted, how it will be, will be God’s love.

When Jesus ends his answer, he describes what God said to Moses out of the burning bush. “He speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” God—not of the dead, but of the living… we are able to have faith in God and we are able to imagine and understand, so that we can live. The real importance of us understanding and talking about the resurrection of the dead is in how it affects our living. We live in hope because death is defeated, death is not the end, in Christ we are living. God is God of the living, not of the dead.  But in that hope, we do not know, nor can we fully imagine what God has in store for us.

We don’t even know the shape that the church will take. I mean that for the church as a whole and for this congregation in this place. In our imagination, we fill in the future from what we have known from the past. But the future is not the past and what God has in store is at least as different as the world of 2019 is from my mother’s world on that farm in eastern Oregon in the 1930s. It is safe to let go of things we want to cling to, for God is the God of the living, and in that age those who live in God’s hope are like the angels and the children of God who cannot die any more.

I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me;

incline your ear to me and hear my words.

Show me your marvelous loving-kindness,

O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand

from those who rise up against them.

Keep me as the apple of your eye;

hide me under the shadow of your wings,

From the wicked who assault me,

from my deadly enemies who surround me.

If they do not Listen to Moses and the Prophets

A sermon for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 29, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

There is a deep irony to this last sentence of today’s Gospel. The Gospels are not written as mystery stories with a surprise ending. They are the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. This story that Jesus told is not about the dead, it is about the living. The story starts, “There was a rich man…”

A lot of the stories in the Gospel of Luke talk about rich people:  The rich young man who asked Jesus how he might attain everlasting life; the rich man who tore down his granaries to build bigger ones; the rich man who had a steward; the rich tax collector Zacchaeus who followed Jesus.  Rich people were a fact of life in the ancient world, more noticeable than now, perhaps, because there were fewer of them and the gap was even bigger than it is today, since there wasn’t really much if any middle class. Jesus did not condemn any of these people for being wealthy, the gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke, observe how they behave.

In the Gospels, the stories are there to be readily understood, to make their point clear. And one thing that was clear in the ancient world was that if you were rich, you were free to act.  Slaves’ lives were very circumscribed and most of the things that they did were things they had to do. The rich had plenty of discretion and choices available to them. They could choose among comforts, places they might go, when to be generous, and they were responsible for what they did. Most people were poor and had far less discretion. But in the case of a rich man, it was clear: he had choice in what he did and the responsibility for it.  But we have choices and responsibility too, even when we’re not rich. Jesus’ stories that mention rich people aren’t told because his words only applied to rich people. He was just using his hearer’s understanding of what it meant to be rich in that day and age, to illustrate that all of us are responsible for our actions.

So Jesus is telling a story. A folk tale or a parable, really. It’s about a rich man and a beggar whose name is Lazarus. That is to say, a person responsible for his own actions and someone who was suffering and unable to take care of his own needs. The rich man is described as feasting sumptuously every day—that appeared to be the sum total of his occupation. In fact, the rich man isn’t even given a name because there isn’t anything to say about him beyond that he was only taking care of himself, and ignoring the needs of others, or, in this case, Lazarus.  He’s characterized by self-indulgence and self-pity. Even after the rich man dies and is begging Abraham for relief, he wants Lazarus to be used as a slave, to bring him water.

This story isn’t moralistic in the way we moderns understand fables. It’s not saying that the rich man learned anything after he died and was in the same miserable condition as Lazarus. Look what he does: He asks for the servant to return from the dead to warn the members of his family about his heritage or legacy. He still gives not one whit for Lazarus the beggar, nor the people of Israel—he cares only for himself and his own. And there’s no reason to believe that the brothers he wants warned were any different. They weren’t going to change and respect the warning of Lazarus—even if a man were raised from the dead.

This story is about the respect of the living for the living. The prophets spoke to Israel about justice, about respect for the poor and the weak. The books of Moses spoke about respect for the strangers living in the land. The rich man in this story had no excuse—because of his wealth he was fully responsible for his actions. His lack of compassion was his own, it was not forced on him by God or by circumstances. Yet somehow, he behaved as if it was. “Let Lazarus bring me water.” “Send Lazarus to warn my brothers.” As if some special personal warning would guide them to take care of their interests, as if God owed them those things that they denied to other human beings, as if their only problem was a lack of information. This man’s life was impoverished because he lacked compassion and mercy, the basic building blocks of an abundant spiritual life. He was free and able to avail himself of all the generosity of God, the wisdom of the Torah, and the passion of the prophets, but instead he looked to himself, to his own self-centered benefit—and ultimately, self-pity. There was no magic solution, some astonishing miracle was not going to change that. We are called to be God’s people, to rejoice in God’s gift of love to us, to rejoice in the opportunity to live generously and not like this man who time after time, dove deeper into self-indulgence and self-pity.

This story is deeply ironic. Jesus WAS raised from the dead. And the people of his time didn’t listen to Jesus, anymore than they listened to all the prophets of Israel. As we heard this morning from Amos, one of the earliest of the prophets in the Old Testament:

Alas for those who are at east in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.

 

God has raised Jesus from the dead, exactly so that we may listen to the prophets rather than have our ears stopped by the indolence of self-satisfaction. There is no point in gathering riches—it is in living life for others that we are  richly blessed.

Feed my sheep

A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.

Today we have the stories of two resurrection appearances. The resurrected Jesus appears to Saul on the road to Damascus. He also appears to Peter and six others on the beach of the lake of Tiberius, also known as the Sea of Galilee. One thing these stories share in common is that, at first, no one recognized Jesus.

The story that was read first is usually called the Conversion of St. Paul. Which is interesting because it’s not actually a conversion story. Paul was a devout Jew before this event and he remained a devout and observant Jew for the rest of his life. Paul himself describes what happened, not as a conversion, but as an appearance of the resurrected Lord. In his First Letter to the Corinthians he says this:

[Jesus] was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

In our lesson from Acts this morning, the form of the story is not so much that of a conversion. It’s more akin to the way prophets are called. Think of Moses and the Burning Bush. Or Isaiah in the Temple when the prophet responded: “Here am I Lord. Send me.”

So here are we are, on the road to Damascus. There’s a flash, overwhelming light, Saul falls from his donkey. And a voice says: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Saul’s response? “Who ARE you Lord?” Now, commentators have singled this passage out as a very strange thing. Saul knows he is being called—but he doesn’t know that Jesus is doing the calling. Put another way: he knows he is being called, but he does not see.

Why doesn’t he see Jesus? Well, there is that blinding flash from heaven, but I think the key is the very beginning of the lesson: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” Saul’s anger, his hatred, so overcame him—he was already not seeing—he was not seeing at whom he was angry, just the self-righteousness of his anger. And Jesus says to him, “Why do you persecute ME.” The ones that Saul persecuted were members of the church. He had nothing to do with Jesus’ persecution before his death, but what Jesus said to him was it didn’t matter. In persecuting the church, Saul was persecuting Jesus. Saul was blinded, and helpless and he was guided into the community that he had been persecuting for support and healing. And he was healed, and when he was able to see, he could see that in his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, he was called to proclaim him, even beyond his own Jewish nation and to bring the news of what God has done in Jesus to all the nations.

The other resurrection appearance is the last chapter of the Gospel of John.  Some time after the first resurrection appearances of Jesus, seven of Jesus’ long-time disciples are back in Galilee, at that lake where Jesus had first called them away from their jobs as fishermen. And Peter says, “I’m going fishing.” We don’t know why they were there or what they were doing, but I think they were discouraged and lost. They didn’t know what to do—so they just defaulted back to their old ways. What happened next was that these professional fishermen were out in the dark and couldn’t find any fish, despite their skill and years of experience.

Jesus appears on the beach, but in their discouragement and confusion they don’t recognize him. Jesus asks them about their catch, and gives them a little advice. All of a sudden, their net is filled and Peter recognizes Jesus—and then Peter puts on his clothes and goes in for a swim—go figure. On the beach, there’s a charcoal fire, not unlike the charcoal fire that was in the High Priest’s courtyard, where the slaves and soldiers were warming themselves when Peter denied Jesus. And Jesus is barbecuing fish.

For me, this scene always brings back a wonderful memory from my childhood. I was fishing with my family off the Oregon coast early one summer morning. As dawn broke, we all caught our limit and we drove back to my uncle’s house in Portland, where we barbecued our catch. There is nothing quite like Pacific salmon caught just a few hours ago cooked over coals. That’s how I imagine the disciples responded to this wonderful breakfast after their long night at sea. But as to Jesus? They sort of recognized him and they sort of didn’t. The Gospel says: “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.”

Why aren’t the disciples seeing Jesus? Because they had yet to give up their despair and confusion, just like Saul needed to surrender his anger and hate. They needed to change.

Jesus then talks with Peter. This, in a particular way, is the call of Peter: First Jesus focused Peter on his love, then–“Feed my sheep. Amen. Amen. When you were younger, you could go where you chose, but when you are older, others will lead you, even where you don’t want to go.” Peter is responsible for loving Jesus in his body, the church—and the consequences of that love are much like they were for Jesus. Peter is called to lead those sheep into the love of Jesus—to love as Jesus loved us, courageously, generously, compassionately.

When Peter and Paul finally see the risen Lord, they are changed. But they aren’t changed in who they are in their essential beings. The change is that they are called to serve; to reach out; to proclaim the life of the risen Christ in a world where there is too much death, hate, anger and fear. Christ comes to us as we are, however that may be. He calls Christians out of their fear, or anger, or confusion, or complacency. Jesus gives his life, so that we may give. He appears to us to call us forward to be transformed to tend and to heal one another.

From our psalm today:

You have turned my wailing into dancing;

you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.

Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;

O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.

Every Eye will See Him

A sermon for the second Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tombs!

Easter continues. The disciples were gathered in a locked room for fear… And the risen Jesus just appeared in the midst of them. Christ is not just risen because the occasion is cheery and the flowers are blooming.

Christ appears and the wounds of his crucifixion are real.  In the real world, the powers of death are very real indeed. The powers of hate and intimidation have their effects. But God has raised Christ from the dead and that changes the meaning of all of these things.

“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him” … even those who pierced him…  We have life, not because we have made an agreement with earthly powers, so that they don’t take it away from us. We have life because God, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, has given us the gift of life.  It is easy to fall into believing that the real world gives us life when we obtain status or wealth, or if we work for somebody who has those things. I used to think, “Oh, I’ll be able to fix things, if I can just get to being an important enough leader…” Others think that large amounts of money will help them to fix things for themselves and their families. There’s nothing wrong with having money and there is nothing wrong with serving in an important position; but when we focus just on those things, when we believe that achieving those things will give us life, it’s at that point that we start to compromise with the powers of death. Sometimes people try to justify getting more advantage by thinking it will somehow be good for everyone. They think: This is just a small manipulation of the truth, or I’m just trying to gain an advantage for my organization, or my political party, or my company. This isn’t unusual at all—and in our national politics one of the parties has pushed this to the point of being a cynical parody of itself.

The Way of Death is seductive, it masquerades as the way of the Real World. But it is not. The real world is the Way of Life. The Resurrection of Jesus binds us together, we have the life of generosity extended and received, of community where we are bound together in good times and in difficult times, with people that we like, and especially, with people that we don’t get along with, yet they are part of us. The Resurrection shows that life is not dependent on compromise with death—God gives us life in love, not in outwitting others and maneuvering to the top.

The crucifixion and the resurrection confirm that what Jesus’ opponents said and did was real. They could kill him and defeat any worldly plans that he or his friends might have had. The way of death is powerful, but it does not give life.

Jesus’ friends had locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. They did not know what to do. Despite the lock and the barred door, he came to them. “Peace be with you. I send you into the world just as I myself have been sent.” He sends us forth in life, to bring life and to give life. The forces of death are there, but God will defeat them. In Christ, God has defeated them. Receive the Holy Spirit; if you forgive the sins of anyone they are forgiven—sinners though they have been, imperfect and fearful as they might be.  And whoever you hold fast, they are held fast—it does not matter if they aren’t with the program, or if they are fearful or angry or compromising with the world. You hold them fast and they are part of you. (A few years ago, I preached a whole sermon on why I translate this sentence this way. It’s a mistranslation and a misunderstanding to think that Jesus’ disciples are retaining the sins of others—it’s their brothers and sisters themselves that they are holding fast).

St. Thomas in India

This Gospel includes the story of Faithful Thomas. Not Doubting Thomas. While his friends were locked up and afraid, Thomas was out. Somewhere, away, doing we know not what. And he came back and he had not been there when Jesus brought peace and his spirit to his fearful friends. They could not make him understand, and they disagreed. But they held him fast with them. He was their brother and they remained with him and he with them. They shared in receiving the power of life, though they did not understand. And, a week later Jesus appeared. Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus brings life to Thomas, and as the Gospel lesson ends, it says, “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

We rejoice in life, in the freedom that God gives us and the opportunity to be bound together in his love. As our lesson from Revelation says:

“Jesus Christ [is] the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.”

An Idle Tale?

A sermon for Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“They remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”

Today is the day of the Resurrection. We celebrate that God has raised Jesus, the Lord of Life, from the dead. In Jesus’ resurrection, death has been defeated, and it is established that the real truth and essence of this world is life—life eternal and life present.

We live in a world where many focus on death. Some even believe that death is the real and final reality, while others use the threat or fear of death to gain power and use it over others. The Gospel is not happy talk or wishful thinking. Every account of Jesus’ resurrection includes a portion like this, where Jesus’ followers are confused, doubtful, and depressed.

Christ is risen and those apostles were depressed!

The women told them…

And these guys in charge just—didn’t believe them.

“You know women … they just tell idle tales. Us men are serious, we’re busy being depressed and discouraged.”

But God had raised Jesus from the dead. Peter… he was confused enough about the whole thing that he went to check out the tomb… and there, where the body had been laid were the cloths that Jesus had been wrapped in, but no body was in them. It hadn’t been unwrapped and taken someplace else—it was just not there.

In our church, it’s possible to be discouraged and depressed. It’s possible to think that things aren’t as good as they used to be. We see sacred spaces catch fire and burn down—the great Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France or small historically black churches attacked by an arsonist in Louisiana—and we grieve, but not only grieve but start to tell ourselves a story of decay and defeat—you hear things about “decline of Western Civilization” or some such.

However, as much as we may grieve losses or face difficulties, the truth is NOT that death is winning and everything is falling apart. The truth is that all things are transitory, but the love of God remains forever. Death may do its worst, but Christ is risen from the dead. Here in this church, Christ is alive. I have experienced Christ’s healing love here. I’m willing to bet, so have some of you. Think and remember. … … Think of a time you have experienced God’s love in this place. Think of who has been here. Maybe someone in need of compassion or healing. Perhaps someone who listened to your story, or shared a prayer or music with you.  Think of all the children in this place: They will be the leaders of the church and the Christians of the rest of this century.  Yes. Death is a real thing, but in Jesus, God has defeated death and brought eternal life. There is no longer time to fear or to moan and feel sorry for ourselves. God has given us the priceless gift…his Son who brings us life, right here, the shining reality in the midst of all those other realities.

I am a realist. I’m pretty pragmatic. And I’ve lived a few years and watched what passes for management and leadership in this world of ours. There is nothing hard-headed or realistic about cynicism or selfishness. People may use negativity and fear, and gain some sort of relative success by scaring other people and lording it over them, but they don’t build anything that has permanent value or live in real abundant life. A realistic approach to this world requires the courage to hear the truth and live in compassion. A successful life is not one of fantasies fulfilled and self-indulgence; success is life in the Resurrection from the Dead in Jesus Christ. Realistically, we see the love of God in our children; our sisters and brothers. Realistically, we know that joy in life comes from a generous life of compassion, giving credit to God who has not abandoned us.

In our lesson from First Corinthians, St. Paul says,

“In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being.”

We know Jesus, and the hard fact is: he is alive. The cynics, the power mongers, and the fearful are wrong—Jesus’ courage in compassion, his truthfulness despite the powerful, his generosity in his entire life have been vindicated. Our fearfulness and selfishness may distract us and make it look like death is the human fate, but in Jesus’ resurrection, we see true humanity, the humanity that God has created in us, the image of God in which we can live.

It is here and now that we live in this hope, not in some nostalgic past time or fantasy future. You know that God is here, and you know that because God loves you. It is in this real world that Christ is risen. It is in this world that we rejoice with the joyful and have compassion with those who suffer. Here in this place. At Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania—of Morrisania, since it was first a village in the heights above New York City; of Morrisania, when some urged the congregation to move to better-off neighborhoods; of Morrisania, when the city wanted to take the land for its own purposes. Trinity stayed here in Morrisania, joyfully and courageously serving and providing spiritual guidance, through boom and bust in the fortunes of its neighborhood. The resurrection of Christ has been proclaimed here all that time and it continues.

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating,” God says in the prophet Isaiah, “for I am about create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” God rejoices in you and creates hope right here, right now. God is building this place and we have received the benefit. The hope is of new creation, based on the love of God that we know here.  For Christ is risen from the dead! We live in his life, we are his body and his compassion in this place. Death no longer is the victor, Christ is alive and with him, so are we.

 

Alleluia. Christ is Risen.

The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!

Renouncing the Powers of Death

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 3, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

This was the conclusion of Jesus’ first sermon in his home town. A few minutes later,

“They were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

This kind of thing happens in churches. I’ve been a priest 37 years, so I know. Jesus told the people some things that were true, and they liked them and admired him; then he pointed out some things that they weren’t expecting and which weren’t so comfortable… Where’s that cliff?

Even people who have committed to following Jesus can become deaf to his words and turn against the Spirit of Life. It’s not because he’s difficult to understand. He’s not. It’s because death is seductive—it’s easier to hold onto what makes us comfortable and to hate anything that interrupts our comfort. … But somehow on that day, Jesus slipped back out through the crowd, avoided their anger and went on to preach the Good News in other places. The very inclination of church people to be seduced by death is the reason that it is so important to pass on the Gospel of Jesus to our children. If we just allow ourselves to be seduced by what is comfortable, we’re all seduced by death, but if we listen to Jesus, he will heal and change us, and he’ll keep us from throwing him and the other children off the cliff.

This morning we are baptizing Maximus Xavier Emmanuel. Baptism is not just a vending machine where you get the right credential, it is entering into life together. Together, we are converted into the Truth, by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.

Let’s open up our prayer books to page 302 and the pages that follow. I want us all to go through this together, because this is serious business. We are all called, not only the godparents, but all Christians who take responsibility for being baptized into Christ—we are all called to support this child and his parents so that he can be brought up in the Christian faith and life. This means that we have to be the Church, and live our Christian life in our daily work and society, so that there will exist for Max and others who will be the Church of the 21st century, a Christian faith and life to grow up in. We are called to live in the Truth, and not give into the real forces of evil that exist in this world.

The rest of the baptismal service is about how we do that. We renounce the spiritual forces and evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.  These aren’t demons like spooks in movies or on TV. Likening these evil powers to TV shows is one of the ways that we avoid living in the truth. Destructive spiritual powers exist in the real world and they are—what? They are the behavior of real human beings who are acting in their own self-interest and who, usually, are telling themselves they aren’t doing these things. That they’re not behaving with prejudice—even hatred—toward their neighbor because of the color of his skin, or where she went to school, or what country he was born in. These evil powers are greater than the individuals who think, do, or feel these things. The powers have a life of their own, they seduce individuals and create an environment where their evil seems normal or unavoidable. Other people are destroyed by that kind of behavior, and nobody takes responsibility for that kind of evil human creation. Christians are called on to renounce those things, to renounce hatred and racism, and prejudice; to renounce disrespecting others because of where they come from, or their education, or social status. Doing this is not simple, it’s not a matter of saying it one time and then forgetting it. Renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness is a lifetime affair—we discover the workings of those powers in our environment and in ourselves over and over throughout our lives.

If we are truthful, we recognize that we do not have the power to defeat those powers, even in our personal lives, let alone in the society around us, where we see manifestations every day in the news. Fascism and terrorism feed on one another, and neither our anger nor our fear can do anything but help them grow. The power that can defeat the forces of hatred, death and destruction is the grace of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In him, God has the courage that we need to live honestly and with care for all God’s children.

If we continue on pages 304 and 305, this is the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, this is how we persevere in resisting evil, this is the Good News that we proclaim, this is how we seek and serve Christ in all persons and strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human person. Christ went through everything that we go through, that any one of us goes through. He died. Real death. He was, from beginning to end, a human being from God’s perspective, entirely human, entirely the incarnation of the love of God. His heart was filled with the truth, and he could see the forces of death and destruction—and he loved all those people, yes those who were allied with the forces of death against him—yet he took not those powers of wickedness into his heart. The word courage is derived from the word for heart—in Jesus, God has the courage for all of us, to live and to reject those forces of evil all around us, and have life. To celebrate and rejoice in that gift of life.

Baptism is not just a ceremony or an occasion for a party. Baptism is our life together in Christ. Maximus Xavier Emmanuel enters eternal life today. We know, as well as he soon will, that that life is not always smooth and not always easy. There are forces of evil abroad and sometimes they get close to us, just as they entered into Jesus’ home congregation on that day when he came preaching good news to the poor, good news for everyone. Renouncing and continually resisting the seductions of evil takes a community, a community that supports one another in seeing God’s mercy. Max and other children need this community to renounce that evil with them and for them—and whenever any of our children, as it says on the bottom of page 304, “whenever they fall into sin” we will support them as they “repent and return to the Lord?”  Of course, that doesn’t just apply to little kids, or teenagers, or even young adults—whenever any of us gives into the seductions of selfishness, greed or spiritual sloth—we, as a community welcome back, we are ourselves welcomed back, as we return to the Lord.  Never mind that sometimes we’ve looked to throwing somebody off a cliff, Jesus laughs at us and welcomes us back too.

St. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, that had had some serious dissension and dark times, wrote the passage we heard this morning as the epistle. He’s talking about love—Christian love as it works when we live out our baptism.

It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, it believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. …we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end… Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

 

Mitties DeChamplain

THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD for Mitties McDonald DeChamplain, priest, will be offered on Saturday, June 2, at 10:00 AM, in the church of St Mary the Virgin in NYC. The Right Reverend Andrew M. L. Dietsche, bishop of New York, will be the celebrant. The Right Reverend Allen K. Shin, bishop suffragan, will be the preacher. A reception in the Parish Hall will follow the liturgy. Mother Mitties’ ashes will be interred at a later date at Saint Athanasius Episcopal Church at the Cathedral Center of Saint Paul, Los Angeles, California.

Because we will be at my daughter Lisa’s wedding this weekend, I will be unable to attend Mitties’ funeral. I was asked to write a piece for the service bulletin, which I share here before we get on the plane.

 

The Rev. Mitties DeChamplain was passionate about three things: her students, animals (especially her kitties), and the church. In the church, her most prominent role was preaching and teaching preaching. One of the things she emphasized to her students was having a high “Jesus Count” in your sermon. That’s basically a shorthand for the theological responsibility of the preacher. A sermon that has a high Jesus Count is focused on our Savior, not the preacher, and it’s concrete, rather than indulging in vague sentiment or doctrinal abstractions. Most important, it’s grounded in the human and humane, which came directly from Mitties’ appreciation of life and her desire to encourage each person to discover their own voice and speak in their own way.

Mitties loved cats, and she was always finding a way to love one or two more. I remember her crossing barriers into an off-limits area to rescue a kitten from a construction zone. Every year in observance of St. Francis Day, she would bless the animals at General Seminary, both those resident on the Close and any from the neighborhood that came. We still have a photograph on our refrigerator of Mitties in a red and gold cope cradling our white bulldog Thekla’s head to give her a blessing. For us, it epitomizes Mitties love of God’s creation.

Mostly Mitties loved her students – being with them gave her life and she dedicated everything to them. She nurtured them as future ministers of the Word and as friends. She counseled them and was consistently there for them. Mitties was very gentle, even retiring, but if the time came to stand up for her students she was fierce, whether with the administration or with the operators of jackhammers outside her preaching laboratory sessions. She travelled all over to support students at their ordinations; more than anyone I know. That love continues and it’s clear that those students return that love for Mitties, and also to their congregations.

A few weeks ago, we found out that Mitties was in the hospital again and that her condition was grave. A group of us gathered in her room in the ICU to be with her as life support was removed – colleagues and students and parishioners from St. Clement’s, St. Mary the Virgin, and Trinity Morrisania. We prayed and sang hymns and talked to her and to one another about our feelings for her. The next day, my wife Paula and I visited in the late afternoon. We prayed and read psalms. Paula started reading Facebook posts to Mitties, describing how her friends and family loved her, and showing her pictures that people had posted. We can’t know if she heard us, but her breathing became slower, gentler, and, eventually stopped.

Mitties died in the midst of the church that she loved so much and to which she had dedicated her life. “Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; … May your rest be this day in peace and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.”

–Drew Kadel