Truth

By what authority?

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things?”

What’s going on in this story? This event takes place during that time we remember as Holy Week, after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and before his betrayal on Maundy Thursday.  He has knocked over the tables of the money changers in the temple, saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” The following day, he’s back teaching in the temple when this confrontation takes place. The chief priests and elders were like religious and civil authorities of any time and place—they wanted to keep things quiet and cover up anything wrong, or disturbing, or contradictory in places where they seek to maintain control. That’s why Jesus brings up John the Baptist when he’s questioned.

John had appeared out in the wilderness of Judea a few years previous. He was very much in the tradition of the prophets, like Elijah, Amos, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. They were about uncovering wrongs and disturbing people who were all about protecting their comfort and influence, rather than following the challenging way of God. Prophets often performed physical signs to emphasize God’s word—Jeremiah wore a yoke to symbolize the oppression that Babylon would bring, for instance. So John the Baptist went out into the desert by the River Jordan, the traditional boundary and entry into the land of Israel, and there he had people repent of their sins and be washed in the waters of that river as a sign of repentance from their sins—from their denial of how they were a part of the evil of their time, of exploiting others, and being part of the death-dealing and self-serving corruption that arose during the dynasty of Herod—the rulers of Judea that served at the behest of the occupying Roman empire. John was arrested and later executed for publicly calling out Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for his immorality and corruption. All four Gospels connect John’s arrest with the beginning of Jesus’ public preaching.

I once heard someone describe John’s preaching as “weak tea” because all that John said in his preaching was to do things that people were legally obligated to do and to live with compassion—things like don’t coerce others, bully them or take bribes.  We mostly like our religion to be bigger, more flashy, doing things wholesale with lots of fireworks—I guess that would be stronger tea than John offered.  Thing is: John meant it.  The way people live their everyday lives makes a difference. God does not demand much—no grand show, no championships in ascetical practice, just living justly and compassionately.  John the Baptist had no time to be fashionable or political. He lived the life of the prophet and that meant that he wasn’t about to coddle injustice or dishonesty. So they killed him.

These elders and chief priests knew all about John the Baptist. These were political guys; they knew that John spoke the truth and it was exactly the kind of trouble they needed to cover up. Jesus knew and he was notifying them—the truth was not going away.  God was not going to stop calling people to justice and compassion.  They answered Jesus, “We do not know.” Because they couldn’t think of any other answer to make this issue disappear. The authority of both Jesus and John the Baptist was truth, the truth of God’s love and justice, and like so many, these authorities needed to deflect the conversation away from that.

So as they paused, as they weren’t sure what to do, Jesus began to tell a little story. We know those kids. At least those of us who have had teenagers know them. Heck, I’ve been those kids, both of them.  If you ask my wife, she will tell you that I’m the one that promises to do everything and then, hours later, is still flipping through Facebook or doing whatever else than the chores I’d promised. Lots of people like to pose as the really righteous, or the really religious or the one who will get things done. But the focus of Jesus’ story is on that other kid, the one who didn’t cooperate at first, who did not appear to be the righteous one. But he had a conscience, he was able to turn, to repent, and to be generous and drop his self-serving choices. That’s the truth that God requires of us, to be able to turn, and to give, not to protect our reputation and privilege, but to humbly do the will of God.

“John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.”

The Kingdom of God can be built even from those that are most despised, and even those we respect the least—what is required is to turn away from anxiety about our own standing and success, and to follow the truth of God.

Paul is saying the same thing in this marvelous passage that was read this morning from his letter to the Philippians:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

That doesn’t mean Paul is saying we should want to be regarded as the most humble, religious or generous people around. What Paul is saying is look out for the interests of others. Our life in Christ is focused on the well-being of somebody besides ourselves. It’s also not important to focus on the times we failed to do that – now is the time to look out for the good of others: the weak, the poor, those who are disrespected by others, especially by those who watch out for their own reputations and perquisites. Paul continues:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

Notice that this obedience that resulted in death on the cross, was this very teaching that we hear today. Being a Christian is simple, and requires nothing fancy, just the humility to follow Jesus on his path along with all those who are able to turn and give up their fear.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

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Graft in our hearts the love of your name

A sermon for the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

I intentionally skipped over the gospel lesson last week because it is only the introduction to this week’s gospel. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples to reflect on who he is, what his significance is. They talked for a while about what other people thought Jesus was, who he resembled and so forth, and then Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter was the one who responded and he said what his experience had led him to believe: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God!” Peter was perceptive and correct. He knew that Jesus, the man that he knew, in his life and his teaching and his actions was bringing the healing compassion of God into the world. And this insight was so important that it was the foundation of the church, the assembly of the forgiven, so Jesus gave him his name: Rock—Petros is simply the Greek word meaning rock.

Why is this important to know for our Gospel reading today? Because there’s a dramatic moment in today’s reading when Paul responds to Jesus telling him he must go to Jerusalem, suffer and die, by saying, “God forbid it, Lord!” and then Jesus says: “Get behind me, Satan!”

Jesus just called Peter his rock and now he’s calling him Satan? What, indeed, is going on here?

Today’s reading has to do with the real love and compassion of God. It’s not what we like to think of as truth and compassion – something that doesn’t disturb our comfortable lives, our routines, our safety. That’s what Jesus was going to encounter in Jerusalem – people who were comfortable living untruthful and self-serving lives, believing they were entitled to their comfort.  And Jesus knew what the result would be of speaking to them of God’s truth and compassion. Someone once said to me in another context, “if you poke a narcissistic system, all you will get back is rage.” Jesus was realistic, far more realistic than so-called realists who counsel avoiding the truth if it creates difficulties.

Like the rest of us, Peter had grown up surrounded by that kind of realism and he reacted in just the same way. He took his friend aside. He had been Jesus’ friend for a long time and Jesus had just told Peter that he was the foundation of his church that was to come. So Peter reacted like any friend steeped in the realism of the world would have, he took Jesus to task.

“Get behind me Satan!”

Peter was responding from the position of the demons of this world—those forces that push for untruth and avoidance of responsibility; those forces that easily accept the suffering of others to avoid the discomfort of encountering the truth. It’s easy to think of such things as “smart” or “grown-up” when what they are is cowardly and what they do is build up evil consequences. Given enough time those evil consequences will be detached from the people who caused them to the point that the evil appears to come out of nowhere. In other words, demons are created. Those people who caused Jesus’ suffering weren’t especially evil, they were ordinary, worldly leaders, urbanely sophisticated, with good connections. They were regarded as having prudent judgement. They arranged to have our healer and Lord killed.

Jesus didn’t so much take this personally; he wasn’t worried about himself. Jesus was concerned to bring the love of God, the mercy of God, the compassion of God to all people, including those he had to face in Jerusalem. After setting Peter straight about what is wisdom and what is demonic, Jesus began to teach all his disciples. I think we can read it to include us: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The love that Jesus lived is not limited or unique to him. The depth of truth and compassion that took him to Jerusalem also guides his followers, and the consequence of following Jesus may well be painful, it may indeed involve loss. Certainly in Christian history, it has even involved the literal loss of life. To be sure, when I talk about deep truthfulness, I am not talking about delivering facts in a way calculated to hurt our competitors or enemies, or even “inadvertently” saying things out of resentment or anger that might be true, but are not compassionate. Living in the compassion of Christ involves the courage to be truthful, even to ourselves about our own lack of compassion (sometimes that’s known as confession).

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Abundance of life involves the boldness to live for others and being serious enough to continue that when it is not easy—putting the priority on one’s own life is the surest way to end up wandering in dissatisfaction and misery—we see it daily: the voracious need for affirmation and adulation among the most selfish and entitled; who already have the most. Surely they are losing their lives.

It is a challenge living, as we do, in a context of great wealth, where we and our children hear over and over again from people around us, that the basis of value is in having things and money. Those things are not life, that money is not value. Value is in human caring, caring that extends beyond ourselves, that rejoices in abundant happiness of others. Jesus says it right here: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” Take up your cross, and follow him. Do not be afraid. You will be surprised at the abundance of joy, when you give away your fear, and your anxiety about what you might keep.

Let us pray again in the words of our collect for today:

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

A prophet’s reward

A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017

Trinity Episcopal Church, Roslyn, New York

As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

Our lesson from the book of Jeremiah this morning shows two prophets in conversation, Jeremiah and Hananiah. Hananiah has just made a prophesy:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house… and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon.”

As we read it in today’s lectionary, it would appear that Jeremiah is agreeing with him:

“Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord and all the exiles.”

All of the people of Judah deeply wanted this good news, and so did Jeremiah. He wanted the restoration of the wholeness of the people and peace with all his heart. There’s only one problem. Hananiah’s prophecy was not true. The story continues this way: Jeremiah says, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.” Hananiah breaks the wooden yoke, which Jeremiah had put on his own back to represent the rule of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. And then, Jeremiah has another word from God: “Go tell Hananiah, ‘Thus says the Lord: You have broken the wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them!” Hananiah died within a month and the exiles remained in Babylon seventy more years.

Jeremiah had not been exactly agreeing with Hananiah. Not at all. Hananiah had painted a vision for his country that had everything that everyone wished for. Jeremiah wanted the same things, but he was skeptical. It did not fit with what he honestly saw, or the words he heard from God.

“The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient time prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

In the words of modern-day twitterspeak, shorter Jeremiah would be: IF. If the word comes true, then the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

In our church and in our country, people are anxious for good news, for news of peace and prosperity. Sometimes, we try to cut the story short, looking for a quick, happy ending. Even the framers of the lectionary seem to want to cut the story short in a misleading way, so that things can be peaceful and resolved on a summer morning.  But the false prophet Hananiah brought nothing but a brief, transitory false hope, based on a story made up from the wishes and fantasies of people.

The word of God, however, is only the story of truth, and that can contain some darkness, nastiness and evil. It can take longer to realize than we wish. The falseness of wishful thinking can make things worse: Jeremiah pronounced that the consequence of Hananiah’s removing the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s back was that an iron yoke was placed on the people of Israel—wishful thinking about Nebuchadnezzar did not make the Babylonians go away or make their rule any more humane. It did not shorten the time of exile or reduce its pain. The only prophesy that could give any healing or hope is the truth. Jeremiah sternly spoke the truth of God’s love and called the people to return to God—to God’s truth and God’s love.

This weekend is when we celebrate Independence Day in our country. We rejoice in love of country and express our patriotism.  Just as Jeremiah did. We are in a troubled country at a troubled time. For many, the solution is to express hopefulness and say that all will be well if we simply express our loyalty to happy outcomes that are just around the corner.  Throughout the whole book of Jeremiah, the prophet was constantly running afoul of that kind of view—he might want things to turn out fine with a minimum of conflict and suffering—but he had to tell the truth. Likewise, in our country, we have to live with and acknowledge the truth of the fearfulness, anger, distrust and dishonesty that arises around us. Of cruelty masquerading as political necessity and thoughtless panic taking the place of constructive engagement. I’m not going to talk about policies here, or about personalities, but there is no magic solution in our country. Patriotism and hope can only emerge in full truthfulness and courageous compassion.

The same can be said for the church at the present time: the Episcopal Church and all Christian churches. Quick and superficial fixes will not address the issues and anxieties of the present time. It is only in the truth that there is a pathway forward.

The truth is simple: it’s what is in this morning’s Gospel: “whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones…” It is our anxieties that are complex. Like those who listened to Hananiah, we want a quick solution that restores everything to its previous comfort. However, that is not, and never has been the promise of God.

The prophet who prophesies peace and delivers it in truth is Jesus. For our country or our church, all he offers is truth. Truth that is not magic or easy. The peace that he gives is found in living his compassion—that is a very challenging peace indeed, but the rewards are greater than the return of the vessels from Babylon.

We are welcomed into this world by God, and we live by extending that welcome:

Listen once more to what Jesus said:

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

I have seen the Lord

A sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Mary Magdalen went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”

Today is the feast of the Resurrection of Jesus. On this day, God has raised from the dead, the one that the powers of this world had killed, and he brings us life and freedom from death and oppression. Today he brings us into eternal life.

ResurrectionIf we are doubtful, confused, and muddled in this life and don’t know what to think, then we are in exactly the position of those first disciples, like Mary Magdalen, to whom Jesus first appeared. She saw Jesus, and she thought he was the groundskeeper. She was so pre-occupied with her own grief, that at first she couldn’t recognize that she was talking to her teacher, the Lord of Life.

When you read your Bible closely, and read the accounts of the resurrection, there is always confusion and doubt at first. It’s not because Jesus wasn’t actually there. The confusion, the doubt, the grief, the despair – those were all what the people to whom Jesus appeared were feeling. The Resurrection of Christ is here today but it takes conversion to see him. And when I say conversion, what I mean is giving up those things inside all of us—doubt, grief, despair, hatred—those powers of this world that grab hold of our spirit, and keep us from seeing the truth.

This morning we are baptizing Savannah. And I’m going to break off from my sermon for a minute to say this: This is my second Easter I have had the pleasure of worshipping with you as your priest. And the number of beautiful children I have been asked to baptize—and even more important, the way this congregation upholds their children and their young people—has been a true joy to witness.

Which is going to be the main point of the rest of my sermon. It’s no accident that we are baptizing Savannah on Easter. Her parents asked me when their daughter could be baptized, and I said, “On Easter.” I’m usually not that definite or directive, I can let a lot of rules slide when it seems helpful. But the church baptizes on Easter, because we are baptized into Christ’s resurrection. It’s not just a vending machine where you get the right credential. 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 her parents so that she 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 this child 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. 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.

In conclusion, I will share the end of a sermon that is over 1500 years old. It is attributed to John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople. His last name is a nickname that was given to him after he had been preaching for a while. It means, “Golden Mouth.”

Enter all of you therefore into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the Day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally all of you! The calf is fattened; let no one go forth hungry!

Let all partake of the Feast of Faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let none lament their poverty, for the Universal Kingdom has been revealed.

Let none mourn their transgressions, for Pardon has dawned from the Tomb!

Let no one fear Death, for the Savior’s death has set us free!

He that was taken  by Death has annihilated it!

He descended into Hell, and took Hell captive!

He embittered it when it tasted of His Flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah proclaimed, “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!

It took a body, and face to face met God! It took earth, and encountered Heaven! It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?”

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the Angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and Life reigns!

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

For Christ being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that slept. To Him be glory and dominion through all the ages of ages!

The Stones would Shout out

A sermon for Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“If these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

This Lent, we have been moving with Jesus along his path toward Jerusalem, the path to his resurrection. Today he has reached Jerusalem, and this week is about what happened in Jerusalem—that is to say, what it takes to understand and live in Christ’s resurrection.

Jesus has come to Jerusalem, to Bethany, to the home of his friends Martha and Mary and Lazarus. And he gets a colt and has it draped in garments and starts a procession into the city. There was nothing ambiguous about this in the ancient world: a solemn procession with the leader on horseback, greeted by crowds was how conquering kings entered a city. Now, Jesus was on a little donkey—that turned the values of the Roman Empire upside down, but the meaning was clear: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people said that, and it disturbed the religious leaders. “Shut them up, Jesus!”

And Jesus replied that the stones…
Remember at Jesus’ baptism—right before—John the Baptist said that God could raise up the Children of Abraham from the stones? Jesus replied that those stones would cry out if the people were silent. The Kingdom of God was entering Jerusalem—Jesus was bringing the resurrection from the dead into the city. The time had come to acclaim God’s presence with joy.

But the leaders were scared. They had made deals with the ruling powers, and those didn’t take into account the Kingdom of God. It was safe, it kept the forms of religion, and it kept the living God out of it.

Thus commences Holy Week and the final teaching of Jesus. Almost a quarter of the Gospel follows the entry into Jerusalem as Jesus teaches in and near the temple. He has a quiet meal with his disciples, and they learn about his gift of himself, his body and blood. The power of the resurrection in the life of being servants to one another.

And then…

We have just gone through it…

What happened? Rodger assigned to me the role of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. What happened with him? He had all the power. Legions of Roman soldiers to enforce any order. Pilate talks to Jesus and what does he perceive? Truth, gentleness, courage, hope. Not a violent revolutionary or a robber. Pilate was a politician and a bureaucrat—he did not want to get involvedCrite stations of the cross with the squabbles of these local people—he had no respect for any of them. He tried to pass the buck—the local politician in charge of Jesus’ home region happened to be in town, maybe he would take responsibility? Well…no… Pilate thinks that maybe he can have Jesus whipped, like you do with slaves and others that don’t matter, and just let him go—let the matter drop. But somehow it doesn’t work, the pressure keeps up, there isn’t any way that Pilate can get out of this without consequences. And above all, Pilate did not want to have consequences—he would rather let truth and hope die. He would judge that there had been a crime and pass out the death penalty for it just to avoid the pressure. Just to serve his time and get back to Rome with honor and reward.

Everyone wants to get by without consequences. So the consequences came to rest on Jesus. He was executed on a cross. The people were silent, those that did not taunt him, or call for his death.

And the stone—which the builders rejected—has become the chief cornerstone. The path for the resurrection of Jesus went directly through this rejection—through the rejection of responsibility by every one of us. It is only by the gift of God, the mercy of God that our hearts can be full enough to walk with him in his path of service, and responsibility, and respect. Because there are consequences of living in the truth, consequences for all of us. The freedom of the resurrection is dear, its price is high—and not just for Jesus.

God’s love for us calls us forward, toward the resurrection life: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

This week, we walk together with Jesus on his way.

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

The only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart has made him known

A sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

No one has ever seen God. The God who created the heavens and the earth, the galaxies and the elements is too big, too complicated for anyone to comprehend. Some are brilliant at observing, thinking and reasoning; others have tremendously powerful religious experiences. Yet none of them can say in all honesty that they have seen God in God’s fullness—the finite human mind, and indeed all the minds in all ages put together, and all the computers and books that we might put together to help us, cannot hold, or comprehend God.

Human beings are but one small slice of God’s glorious creation.

Yet God loves this world and God loves human beings. And that love is also far more than we can comprehend. God loves us so much that from the beginning he chose to be among us. Jesus is what a human being is from God’s perspective—his love is genuine, his honesty is compassionate, he does not give in to the temptation to make his allies and benefactors comfortable at the expense of those who nobody cares about. God’s Word became flesh. In him, the unknowable God is made known.

Anyone who looks and listens can understand Jesus, his compassion, his calling people out when they represent themselves as being the holy or righteous ones while they are really just trying to get the advantage over others; his courage for the sake of others, especially the poor and the weak. When people don’t understand, it is because they wish not to understand that listening to Jesus might disrupt their strategy to be on top, or their desire to hold on to things or status. The stories, the images, the message, and the life of Jesus are not incomprehensible—all it takes is openness to the truth—he is The Way, The Truth, and The Life. What is incomprehensible, is the love of God, that God would do this—spend everything so that human creatures could know how to live humanly. The compassion of Jesus, is the compassion of God and the only way to be human is to live in God’s compassion. To choose against compassion is to choose hate, and that will eat you up and destroy you. The Word became Flesh to give us life, abundant and joyful life, not destruction. It is not some manual of instructions that he brings, not a set of teachings or rules to memorize. It is the very life of Jesus, God come in the flesh, that shows us God’s compassion – how to live as compassionate human beings.

The Latin word for “becoming flesh” is Incarnation. And God’s becoming flesh and blood with us is so important that the Church celebrates the feast of the Incarnation for twelve days. Thursday night, we had mass on Christmas Eve. Today is the third full day of that feast, the first Sunday of Christmas. We feast and celebrate. We call to mind that the power of Jesus’ love is in his entire life, even as a tiny baby. allan-rohan-crite-Baby JesusToday we celebrate and rejoice in his coming. This afternoon, to continue our celebration, the young people of this church, that is to say, the church of the twenty-first century, will present a pageant, recounting the birth of our Savior at the beginning of the first century.

Let us bless the Lord and rejoice in his love for us. As it says in today’s psalm:

Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise you God, O Zion;

For he has strengthened the bars of your gates;

he has blessed your children within you.

He has established peace on your borders; he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

 

Merry Christmas!

The tongue of a teacher … to sustain the weary with a word.

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

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 13, 2015

Then he began to teach them…

allan-rohan-crite-the-last-supperJesus is our teacher. It is from him that we learn the truth. But sometimes it’s hard to recognize the real Jesus in the midst of all the fantasies and images that people put forward about Jesus. People have always tried to understand Jesus by seeing him as in some ways similar to themselves. That’s why the picture of Jesus behind our altar looks more like the men who worshiped here when it was painted than it looks like any Palestinian Jewish peasant of two thousand years ago. That is a phenomenon that has good and bad consequences and is important to think about, but it is not what I’m talking about here. Jesus teaches us, but we skip over things we should hear and substitute things that we would rather hear.

Jesus teaches us about the freedom of God, and about our freedom, about abundant life in the Kingdom of God.  The teaching of Jesus is not hard to understand, you don’t need to have a college degree, or some special magic glasses. Jesus tells us the Good News, and how we are to live so that it is good news for us, and it is not too high or too hard for any of us.  The thing is, the Kingdom of God is in this real world that God created. And this real world was good enough for Jesus and he teaches us and leads us into that Kingdom. And you don’t get there by cheating, by ignoring what Jesus is teaching and making up your own kingdom.

Jesus was walking with his disciples. The sequence of events in the Gospel of Mark just before this, was that Jesus fed the Four Thousand, then there was a controversy with the Pharisees who demanded a sign and a discussion with the disciples about the danger of the Pharisees and of Herod. Then Jesus healed a blind man at Bethsaida. Jesus fed. He taught. He healed. Now he’s walking with his disciples and he asked them,  “Who do people say that I am?” There’s no trick and no secret here. The disciples knew the buzz about Jesus, and they answered, “John the Baptist, or Elijah or one of the prophets.” These were good people, known for telling the truth, for challenging people and leading them to God. This is what the disciples were hearing from all over, even Herod was afraid that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life. And then Jesus asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, the most outspoken leader of the group, spoke for them, “You are the Messiah.” For Peter and the rest, Jesus was more than a prophet—he was the anointed one of God, the one who was to lead Israel into the Kingdom of God.

But then … Jesus began to teach them. Jesus told them about the real world, about what would happen to this teacher and prophet.  This is how Jesus told the disciples about the Resurrection from the Dead. But they were working on a different story of who the Messiah was, and what Jesus was teaching was not what they were prepared to hear; Peter and the rest had already filled in the blanks with their own story. That story was magical and wishful thinking, not the real world that we live in. Of Course. If you are wishing for things, you don’t wish for suffering and rejection, certainly not for your beloved Teacher. Of course, you wish for God to make things fine and comfortable for everyone. But Jesus wasn’t wishing, he was teaching, and he was teaching about the real world. Peter thought that he had the power to protect Jesus. He did not. He thought that he had enough dedication and commitment to stay with Jesus and never reject him, and he thought that others would also stay with Jesus and not reject him. He was wrong. On both counts.

I have talked about suffering in other sermons. Certainly the question of suffering is here in this lesson, and it is real and important, but I want to talk about another piece of this.  Jesus was teaching about being engaged in the real world, in what actually happens. And in fact, he was not talking dismally and hopelessly; he was describing how you get to the resurrection of the dead. Peter wanted to skip the uncomfortable steps and it just got past him that in doing so he was also missing the resurrection. We live in a world where people usually want to skip over the uncomfortable, workaday steps of real world existence and go right to already having their goal, which is usually power, privilege and wealth, in one way or another. In that selfish skipping over reality, it is other people who get skipped over; it is generosity and caring that are lost. It is abundant life that this world loses in striving to be the top. Jesus brings abundant life, and he teaches it this way: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

We rejoice in the constant love of God. God has given us this real world, filled with abundant life, the opportunity live in generosity, in the midst of God’s love for his children.

Listen once again to a word from this morning’s lesson from the Prophet Isaiah:

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.”