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The Model Shepherd

A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me.

This Sunday in the church calendar, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We always read from the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John: “I am the good shepherd.” Now, those of us who know only a little simple Greek might translate it as “I am the beautiful shepherd.” The Greek adjective means good in the sense of proper or ideal. One commentator translates it, “I am the model shepherd.”

When Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd he’s not describing what someone might encounter if he or she met a real-life shepherd.  He is describing what could be, what we might hope for, how it might be in the kingdom of God. The ideal shepherd; the shepherd in the imagination of those immersed in the Psalms and the writings in the Old Testament about David the shepherd king; the model shepherd lived a life entwined with the flock that he owned. His livelihood depended on them, and they depended on his protection and guidance, for they were defenseless against predators and couldn’t survive in the wilderness if separated from the flock and the shepherd. The model shepherd would know each of those sheep and keep track of every one.

Think about it—the sheep were the shepherd’s life. Without them there was no livelihood, no present, no future, no independence, no dignity. When you have something that important, it is worth sacrificing to keep. You contrast that with someone who is paid a few dollars a day to show up for a job, who has no promise of a future, no ownership and no real commitment to the sheep beyond the daily wage. The tradeoff for that person is very different. If there are big risks or serious sacrifices to be made, why would the hired person make them? Why not go out and find another job? Wolves are dangerous, and your own life is more important than somebody else’s sheep.

We needn’t be disapproving of the wage worker. Jesus is the model shepherd, and he goes further than any pretty good shepherd would do: he lays down his life for his sheep. Not just some sacrifice, or some risk—he actually lays down his life. When he says this, we know we are moving beyond actual sheep herding and remembering his crucifixion and resurrection.

The epistle lesson from First John starts like this: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The life of Christ leads us into our life IN Christ. The Model Shepherd tends his flock, but we are more than sheep, we are responsible to one another, we are responsible to love and live ethically FOR one another. John asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” Of course, one answer to that is to not see the need, to look away or explain that it is someone else’s responsibility. Then, there is the kind of love where people are only talking about doing good, so that they can feel nice about it. That’s why it is important to remember that we are forgiven people, not necessarily people who are always perfectly loving or truly caring. There is one Model Shepherd, and it’s not me.

First John continues, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” No representation of ourselves as the Good Shepherds, no talk about how many sweet feelings we have about others, just reaching out to meet the real needs of others, seeking the healing and well-being of one another.

In the Gospel, Jesus continues: “I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” It is easy to think that we have our little parish and it’s like a little sheepfold, where Jesus protects us and we feel welcome and at home and we have Jesus as our very own Good Shepherd and we can just settle down with Jesus and go to sleep. But our Model Shepherd doesn’t run things that way—“I have other sheep” maybe those sheep are a bit different or strange to us and our Shepherd calls us to extend ourselves, our sheepfold, our welcome to them.

If any of us loved being welcomed by this church community, the next, even more important step, is to extend that welcome to someone else, to care for someone else’s joys or triumphs, someone else’s challenges or tragedies. A caring community isn’t just that we have our cares met, but about living that care going forward. And that means caring for someone new, at least new to your personal circle of concern. The sheep from another fold are from the future and the present, not from what used to be or what we’ve been comfortable with.

This is a welcoming parish, we have each been welcomed by the Model Shepherd, and he welcomes new sheep every day, we see them all around us, not just here, but wherever we go. Jesus directs us beyond where we are comfortable. He lays down his life for us, that we can take some small risks for him. Jesus is shepherd of those who are beyond our doors, those who don’t agree with us, and those who don’t fit in with whatever group we may be part of. The Good Shepherd invites us to his hospitality, that we can extend that hospitality to others, to those flocks in another fold. We abide in him, and he makes us one flock, with one shepherd.

From today’s Psalm:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;

you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

 

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Wash your face…

A sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret.

Some of you have probably noticed that in a couple of minutes after hearing this from Jesus, we are all going to have ashes spread on our faces. Then many of us will go out and people will see that we are Christians fasting on Ash Wednesday. Sometimes they notice Christians observing this fast by having elaborate meals at the best restaurants. Every once in a while someone asks me about this: “How can I be sure that I am doing this completely right? I want to be sure that I am doing what God wants me to.” The short answer to that is, you can’t, you aren’t, and you won’t. You can’t be sure that you are doing things completely right, you aren’t doing everything that God wants you to, and even when you convince yourself and those around you that you are doing everything you can possibly do, you will be fooling yourself.

Repentance is not about doing everything right: It is about living in God’s mercy. Our lives are a gift, and our ability to do good for others is the result of God’s generosity to us. As our psalm says, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is his mercy great upon those who fear him.”

In the gospel, Jesus calls our attention to the behavior of the religious hypocrites. You know that you’ve seen people like those Jesus is describing. Folks who cover up meanness and selfishness with a great show of piety. We know how such hypocrisy can hurt. It hurts us when others are mean and cover it up with sanctimoniousness. We can see how this hurts others, and we know perceptions about church people behaving this way – right or wrong – are among the reasons why people stay away from the church in increasing numbers. It’s not difficult to see faults like this in others – the question is whether we can see it in ourselves.

Notice that Jesus isn’t naming names here. Jesus is talking to those who might be his disciples; he’s talking to us.  What is easy to see in others, is very difficult to see in ourselves. It is typical of the human condition be more generous toward ourselves than toward others. Unless, of course, we are more grandiose even in our hard feelings toward ourselves and judge ourselves as so much worse.

But that’s not the message of Ash Wednesday. The message is: We live in God’s mercy. We live in the joy of God’s generosity.

Thus we are called to reflection today on God’s goodness and how we might live more abundantly in that goodness. In this world, we know that people hurt one another and cause and allow suffering. But that’s often an occasion to reflect—is there some way in which my own behavior causes someone else to stumble? Or feel rejected? Or less than fully God’s precious creature?  This kind of examination isn’t a way to feel bad about something. Quite the opposite. It is a time to see opportunities to be more welcoming, more affirming, more forgiving.

Sometimes the faults that we see in ourselves gives us a bit of a sense of humor about similar faults in others. Thirty years ago I was training in the Princeton University Library to enter and modify records into their computer system. I would be perturbed when I discovered errors. You could tell who had made them, because their initials were on the record. How could they be so careless? A few months in, I found mistakes and opened up the record, and behold, there were my initials! After a number of these, I adopted a more forgiving view. As we live life and go through many things, it’s possible to be more accepting of faults and missteps in others, recognizing that we have our own faults and make mistakes.

The God of mercy calls us to a life of mercy. The season of Lent is a season of God’s mercy, a season of seeing possibilities to be merciful and to be encouraging. The way of this world is so often to be competitive and to find ways to be “one up” on others, to pretend to be perfect or better than others, and without need of mercy or the need to be merciful. But we belong to Jesus, we are not of that world, or at least, we are not owned by that world.  The great gift is God’s mercy—who would turn away from that, just to be right? Jesus says,

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

That treasure is the treasure of mercy. The merciful God giving us the opportunity to be merciful and compassionate people. If you think back a couple of weeks, when we gathered in the parish hall, the very things that emerged from your conversations, between twos and at your tables, that characterized why Calvary Church is important were that it is a place of welcome, acceptance, not judging, extending welcome to others, and joining together in the worship of God. These are characteristics of mercy, of being merciful people who have first known the merciful love of God. That is where our treasure is—our hearts are in God’s mercy and we see opportunities to live and grow in being merciful each day.

Have you not known?

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 4, 2018

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

In our Old Testament reading for today, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. On the second Sunday of Advent, I preached about this same chapter of Isaiah, but the earlier part, based on Handel’s Messiah: “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people.” This beautiful chapter tells of God’s caring and protecting of people, despite the difficulties and dangers we face, and contrary to fearful and idolatrous human solutions.

Today’s lesson talks about the real nature of God. “He who sits above the circle of the earth”—that is to say outside of human experience, transcending the cosmos as we can understand or envision it.  It is naïve of some modern people to think that the prophet thought of God as a man sitting in outer space or physically above the sky.  The disc of the earth was the entire cosmos of people’s experience and imagination for the people of ancient Israel—the stars were on a huge inverted bowl that defined that disc—God is beyond all that they, or we understand, beyond the horizon of our experience or imagination.

That’s in contrast to the idols of our construction and imagination: things that can be manipulated and used for self-serving purposes. Today’s passage follow’s one that discusses idols that are simply made of wood with gold overlay. People are inclined to regard power and wealth as things that will protect them, make their lives better.
But Isaiah observes:

[God] brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Security via power and wealth is an illusion, or perhaps, more properly, a delusion. It is tempting to think that, if having enough is good, or being confident and strong makes us feel secure, then having more than we need will keep us from ever being in need and having huge power that makes us stronger and more dangerous than others will protect us from ever feeling unsafe. This is something that is abroad in our country today: very popular and very dangerous. It is what Isaiah saw, and what he was called to speak the word of God against: “he brings princes to naught, and the rulers of the earth as nothing.” Though fear tempts us sometimes to follow these delusions, we know that they don’t work.

Last Sunday we gathered together and worked very hard for several hours. Basically, we were listening to one another’s experiences about what had made us feel most alive, most spiritually engaged, most deeply satisfied. What you came up with can be summarized as our experience in this community of being welcomed, accepted, included, and having the opportunity to extend that to others, and to worship God together in that community of welcome, acceptance and inclusion. None of the lasting and permanent values that we shared had to do with holding power, or achieving or keeping great wealth. Whenever there are fears, they are fears of not having enough to continue to welcome and be welcomed, to open ourselves to accept others, to have regular, deep and nourishing common worship of God. The source of our bounty is the God of all creation—none is hidden or exempt from God’s love or God’s justice. The manipulations of the powerful or the privileged will not prevail, indeed they are illusions which will end quickly in embarrassment.

Our Gospel lesson today continues directly after last week’s lesson where Jesus taught in the synagogue and healed the man with the unclean spirit, the one who was fearful that Jesus would destroy them by bringing the truth of God among them. They went from that synagogue to Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law was sick with a fever. He reached out his hand to her, he supported her and the fever left her. She was returned to health, and she did what she was always about, hospitality and welcome, serving the guests in her home. The point of the story is not about magical healing powers that do away with germs, the story continues with Jesus healing the whole town—bringing health and return to healthy, welcoming, accepting and including ways of living. It says that Jesus cast out demons and silenced them—they wanted to say how they knew him, put their own spin on the situation through fear, anger, selfishness, hunger for power, manipulation—but Jesus brought health, welcome, God’s compassion into that town. Then he continued and brought the same: the message of the Kingdom of God, throughout his country of Galilee.

It is the Kingdom of God to which we are called together. Health and fearlessness, not the fear and manipulations of this world. We live in what is permanent and not what is illusion.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

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.”

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

A sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, Mother’s Day, May 8, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

Our lesson today comes at the very end of the Book of Revelation; the very end of the Bible. It is an invitation and a promise. The images of the Spirit and the Bride refer to the Holy Spirit—the life of God which enlivens the church, and the Bride of Christ, which in the Book of Revelation, is portrayed both as the church and as the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, which is an image of the Kingdom of God. Both the Spirit and the Bride say “Come”—inviting all to enter in.

At the same time, “Come” is also prayer for the return of Jesus. “Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus” was a common prayer for Christians in the first hundred years or so of the church.  It continues, “Let everyone who hears say, `Come.’” The whole assembly, including us, at this time, is about welcome and inviting. The good news of God’s overwhelming love is for sharing, and healing, and giving life.

The next sentence is: “Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” The living water that enlivens our spirit, and gives us hope is the possession and property of no human being. It is the gift of God—take it as a gift. Today there are many who are thirsty, many whose spirits are hurt, lost, angry, discouraged and dying in their spirit. They are thirsty, and yet when they look toward the living water, they see it surrounded with barriers; toll collectors; people who think they own the well. The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” “Let everyone who is thirsty Come! Take the water of life as a gift.” It is yours, it is ours, it is for all of us.  Yet even more, it belongs to the one who promises, “Surely, I am coming soon.” The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the one—that Jesus who we know has come for us, with mercy and healing. In his promise and his name, the water is freely given—life is here in the sharing.

Last Thursday, the church observed the Feast of the Ascension when Christ left his disciples and ascended into heaven. He may have ascended, but make no mistake: Jesus is still with us, welcoming and healing and making us one.  Our Gospel lesson today is a prayer from the Gospel of John, which Jesus prayed at his last meal with his disciples. He prays for all of us who believe in him. “The glory that you have given me, I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…”  We live in the Glory of God, we live in the divine life, not because we are so good, but because God loves us and dwells in us and we in him. We celebrate God’s glory because of the gift of the water of life.

Madonna CriteToday is also Mother’s Day.  We celebrate the gift and life and ministry of Mothers: those in our midst and those who have touched our lives.  When we talk about the indwelling of our life in God, mothers may particularly recognize what it means to have life indwelling and intertwined with their own.  Not just in the gestation and birth of a child—mothers’ nurturing never ends, they continue to be intertwined with children long after they have become adults. We appreciate mothers, and some are mothers who aren’t the biological mothers of those children they serve. Sometimes it is tempting to be sentimental about mothers and idealize their role. But there is nothing sentimental about it. Watching out for the well-being of a child is hard work, and the thanks that mothers get hardly balances the anxiety and sacrifice they put up with for the sake of those children. At least in the objective world. The miraculous thing is how frequently those mothers will tell you, right in the midst of the difficulty, that it is their greatest joy to be the mother of this boy, or that girl or all these children. There are lots of kinds of mothers—some are more saintly than others, some have more or less privilege to share with their children, some wish that they could be more patient, and others that they could do more things. Some have had to give up children into the care of others. The mother’s life is a real life with all of its joys and imperfections, just like every human life. But theirs, in particular, is interwoven in this intimate way with those children who they nurture.

So when Jesus says, “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me,” we should realize that intimacy of God with all of us is an analogy of the mother with her children: we are at once, the source of the greatest anxiety and the greatest joy for God. We are cared for abundantly and rejoiced over abundantly, even at those times that we might try to avoid loving all of God’s children, or properly attending to our spiritual responsibilities.

The Spirit and the Bride say: Come

And let everyone who hears say: Come!

And let everyone who is thirsty Come!

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!

The grace of the Lord be with all the saints. Amen.