SERMON, September 3, 2017
What does Jesus mean when he says that anyone who wants to become his follower must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him?
Let’s first make clear what he doesn’t mean. He does not mean that God intends to load each of us down with a disagreeable burden to bear as a penalty for our bad behavior, or as a sort of goad to spiritual growth. We hear this idea expressed in phrases like, “This child of mine… or this wife… or this unpleasant boss at work… or this arthritis in my shoulder is “my cross to bear.” This is inconsistent with all the rest of Jesus’ teaching about his intent for us: “for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light, and you will find rest for your souls…” He criticizes the Pharisees of his day for loading religious behavioral or ceremonial burdens on their listeners, and doing nothing to help them find their way forward.
Jesus is giving his listeners—and all of us-- clear and compelling guidance. Taking up our crosses and following him is about putting to death those influences in us or around us that would lead us away from God. We must avoid the two ever-present idolatries of giving our highest allegiance to the State (in his day, to Caesar, and the ruthless laws of the Roman Empire) or to Self.
Pay taxes to Caesar? A delicate dance, because allegiance to Caesar meant more than paying taxes. It meant the confession that “Caesar is Lord,” the ultimate authority and fixed reference point.
Crucifixion is meant to be publicly humiliating, a menacing reminder to everyone walking along the Roman roads of the consequences of failing to honor the Emperor. So taking up our crosses and following Christ is a way of saying to Caesar, or to any state, “You can’t take my life from me. I have already given it away to my Lord.”
We also need to die, Jesus tells us, to The Glorious Cult of Me, the service of self. Sinatra’s theme song, “I did it my way.”
Or listen to Walt Whitman’s creed from “Song of Myself”: “I believe in the flesh and the appetites…Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touched from, The scent of these armpits: aroma finer than prayer, This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.
If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it…”
Or, we can turn the classic text of godly love inside out to see a clearer image of the worship of me:
The Glorious Kingdom of Me is impatient; is not particularly mindful of others; is envious, ever mindful of what others have that I lack; is boastful, is arrogant, is rude. Always insists on its own way; is irritable, and dependably resentful; you get the picture.
Jesus is telling us that faith in God is not a minor add-on, a little touch up to make life more pleasant, or to make us feel a little better about ourselves. Faith in God is not like a trip to the General store: a little coffee, some fruits and vegetables, a box of 16 penny galvanized nails, a couple of hymns and prayers at church from time to time…Jesus knows that we need a psychological shift of orientation if we’re to move beyond slavish obedience to the State, or our reflexive worship of our own preferences and comforts.
Image of electric generator vs. the grand electric grid. We need to deliberately hit the “off” switch on the Glorious Kingdom of Me.
What does this devotion to God, and denial of self look like?
(Conclude with Romans list. We put a parishioner’s name first, before each of the directives.)
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Brothers and Sisters, this is what it looks like when we take up our crosses and follow our Lord, Jesus. Let’s do this good thing.
Sermon, Proper 15, RCL A
Healing broken and strained relationships
Imagine that I’m out riding my bike. A car, trying to avoid a scurrying cat, dodges in front of me. I crash my bike into the curb. It wasn’t my fault, but now I’m injured. The scrapes and bruises are disfiguring. I’m injured, and it hurts long after the initial event. I don’t care properly for the wounds, and they get infected, causing additional tenderness and pain. We know the physical phenomena of injury and healing. But the same kind of language can be used to describe our emotions and our relationships. This week, we see God’s power at work in reconciliation, putting people back into functional, peaceful relationships with one another.
We may remember last week’s Joseph narrative. There is enough pain, sadness, betrayal, deception, hostility, and unforgiveness in this little family to keep psychotherapists, storytellers, and Broadway show producers in business for generations. Relationships are strained and broken in every direction. There is little circumstantial basis to hope for any eventual improvements in these family relationships.
And yet… and yet… The Biblical refrain is that with God, all things are possible. Even though Joseph is sold as a slave, the Lord is with him, and he wins his master’s favor. Even though he is betrayed again in Egypt by Potiphar’s wife, who is annoyed that he won’t sleep with her, the Lord is with him, and he wins the jailkeeper’s favor. When he is finally released from prison, the Lord is with him, and he wins the Pharaoh’s favor. He continually rises above considerable and frightening adversity, and achieves good things in every sphere of responsibility entrusted to him.
Is there anything we can learn from his example, 3600 years later? We can see a pattern in Joseph, and in Jesus. Healing and reconciliation, or at the very least, disinfection of an old injury—come through love, humility, sacrifice, and forgiveness. And these are possible for us when we remember that God is with us. In the 23rd psalm, we see this understanding rehearsed. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me… I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Today, this morning, God is with us.
To believe that “the Lord is with us” should bring us hope. The Biblical stories, and Christ’s ministry and teaching all direct us to trust in God’s invincible goodwill toward us. God wills for goodness, joy, love and peace to flourish within us and among us, even though our fallen and disfigured world throws obstacles in our path in a routine way. The challenge of faith is to connect with this God of good will and love, not simply when we rest in gardens of pleasantness, but in the midst of chaos, injury, adversity, and uncertainty.
Remember: Suffering in this world is mandatory; misery is optional.
The most powerful moment in the Joseph story comes in his reconciliation with his certifiably unkind, ill-mannered, hostile, self-seeking, bad siblings. There is no suggestion that there is any hidden decency or winsome virtue in any of them that make might them deserving of Joseph’s merciful kindness. I can come up with three possible explanations for Joseph’s gracious disposition.
1) That he perceives his life from a God’s eye view, from above, through a truly spirit-filled perspective. He has learned, through faith, that God’s ways are better than our ways, and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. He has learned to look for God’s redeeming hand in his life, working goodness even from the obvious evils that he has endured. He perceives that what these brothers meant for evil was reworked in God’s design for their benefit.
2) That he is aware of having received merciful treatment and second chances when he has been in a bad situations. He is able to see beyond his own setbacks, injuries, unjust treatment and inconveniences to recognize that he has enjoyed God’s mercy and favor. He has learned what we ask in the Lord’s Prayer, that we be forgiven as we forgive; that as we are merciful, so shall we obtain mercy. He knows that enjoying gracious favor and extending gracious favor must go hand in hand.
3) That he is aware of a God-given relationship in his family with intrinsic, unavoidable duties. In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, there is an angry encounter between the father and the self-righteous first-born son. The boy recounts the wasteful, irresponsible, sinful behavior of his younger sibling. He refers to him with disdain as “this son of yours.” When the father appeals to him to see the goodness in the lad’s return home, he corrects the perspective. He says “this brother of yours was lost and now is found; was dead, and now is alive.”
The fifth commandment of Moses spells out the duty of children to honor their parents. But the deeper truth of owing loyalty to every family member is expressed in this earlier, pre-Mosaic, story of Joseph and his brothers. Families are not meant to fracture. Relationships are supposed to be tended and mended. Relatives are not disposable commodities. We are designed to love and help one another to the highest possible degree, even when it is complicated, inconvenient, and unmerited.
This isn’t just ancient, high-minded ethical theory. When in my adolescence, my family was split by divorce, successive remarriages, and another round of divorces, there was plenty of anger and fault-finding throughout the cast of characters. When I came to accept Christ’s teaching, leadership, love and mercy in my early twenties, I began to experience God’s guidance in a personal way. Along with that faith came the understanding of my obligation and opportunity for reconciliation. I asked God’s help in prayer. I sought out my former step-parents. I asked their forgiveness for my uncooperative role in adding to family stress and sadness. I forgave them for their parts in the conflict. That helped free all of us from the lingering poison of resentment. We stopped clinging to memories of sick, sad, and dying relationships. We had the freedom to move forward in our respective lives, even if we never saw one another again.
My parents’ divorces had entailed pretty terrible hostility in many directions, just among my two parents and the four of us, their children. Before my father died, in 2003, we all made deliberate efforts to let go of what was past, to reclaim whatever was good or hopeful, and to try to build better patterns of communication and mutual care. Our mother is still with us, and the same efforts have borne good fruit with her. Today’s possibilities, and our tomorrow’s hope need not be determined by the worst episodes in our yesteryears. Joseph in Egypt, Jesus in Galilee, and the Holy Spirit in these hearts makes that beautifully clear to us!
Reconciliation need not be this daunting and dramatic. It can be as simple as asking forgiveness of a child at bedtime for losing ones temper and yelling. It can be as simple as acknowledging to a spouse, “Honey, I’m sorry I was short with you, and preoccupied when you wanted to talk. You’re the most important person in my world. Let’s find a moment to talk. I want to know what you’re thinking and going through.”
I don’t share these things with you because I’m St. Wonderful The Reconciler, but simply to offer living proof that it can be done, that it has been done, and that it works.
That power, love, freedom, and new horizon is available to all of us as we, like Joseph, take the opportunities God gives us to be reconciled. Our Lord is clear about the blessedness of those healing steps. We don’t act from our natural inward pain, or the remembrance of another’s role in bringing these injuries. We act upwardly, in aspiration of realizing Jesus’ directions for faithful spiritual life. Those of us who have taken those steps can commend them. It is worth the risk, the emotional and spiritual venture. I encourage every one of you to ask God’s help and guidance to pursue the reconciliation that God makes possible.
When we ask in doubt and disbelief, “How shall this be?...”
Hear the encouragement of the angel Gabriel.
“With God, all things are possible.”
SERMON, July 23, 2017
Every one of us with a clergy collar, who has taken solemn vows to preach and teach the truth and love of Christ, has a choice to make each Sunday. We can either tell pleasant fairy tales in which life serves up some irritants, but that’s okay, because God will make it all go away soon, and we’ll all live happily ever after… Or, we can pray, “Lord, your will be done,” take a deep breath, and bring the best of heart, mind, soul and strength to present as compellingly as we can, what Jesus actually said and did. Pray for me to do the latter, which is the only version that promises to do any of us any good.
Today’s gospel reading gives us the parable of good seeds and bad seeds. It’s an attempt to help us get a handle on the evil that we see in the world.
The story tells us a few things that are as trustworthy today as they were in the agrarian society in which Jesus sketched the analogy.
Malicious, hateful acts are still acted out in our day with adverse effect on people who don’t deserve any of it. People still imagine, scheme, and execute devious plots to cause others harm.
There is a humorous old story about the wicked devices of envy at work between a couple of Russian peasants. “A magical fish offers to grant one wish to a Russian peasant. He is wondering which treasures he should request from the fish. Then, the fish explains that whatever the peasant wishes for and receives himself, his neighbor will receive double. The peasant thinks it over and says, “Ok, then… I want you to poke out one of my eyes.”
In the more troublesome category of real life, most of us have just seen on the news the report of five Florida teens who, last week, watched, mocked, recorded, and did absolutely nothing to help a man who was drowning in a pond not far away. They did not call anyone to help. Following his death, they posted their video on social media, as though they were proud of their aloof, derisive behavior. We, like Jesus’ disciples, are right to ask, “Dear God, how is it that such cruel, foul, and unjustifiable acts are done by neighbors to one another?”
As ghastly as this complete failure of empathy is, we should also ask whether any church members ever tried to look into these young faces and teach: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
Jesus doesn’t attempt a comprehensive treatise on the nature of good and evil. As usual, he gives his listeners a challenging piece to consider that should enable them to know what they, themselves, should do if they wish to serve God.
First, Jesus asserts that evil is real and has a spiritual source, just as goodness and righteousness do. This illustration of the surreptitious sabotage of a neighbor’s field was a fact of history.
William Barclay writes: Tares were one of the curses against which a farmer had to labour. They were a weed called bearded darnel… In their early stages the tares so closely resembled the wheat that it was impossible to distinguish the one from the other. When both had headed out it was easy to distinguish them; but by that time their roots were so intertwined that the tares could not be weeded out without tearing the wheat out with them.” (Barclay, New Testament Commentary)
Even though nature could supply weeds enough to confound a gardener, the practice of deliberately scattering these seeds in another’s garden was known in ancient Palestine.
The second useful bit of information for us is that we, human beings, are ill-equipped to make distinctions among ourselves about who is worthy and righteous (the wheat) and who is the evil impostor (the tares). It is interesting that when Jesus speaks of the final harvest--the judgment of God which will reveal everyone and everything for what it truly is—he says that the messengers of God will “collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin… and all evildoers.” Even in this brief parable, Jesus acknowledges that there are complex causes and sequences that lead any of us to corruption and wrong behavior. In most of the daily settings of our lives, we can not possibly presume to know what all the background factors are that might lead any of us to act or speak as we do. We may recognize a plainly sinful outcome. We cannot know all that has contributed to that regrettable act or disposition in another person. And so, Jesus directs us away from the role of presuming to judge one another’s spiritual status.
But the third useful bit of information is to assure us that we can all hope for and expect a just resolution of good and evil in God’s design for this world. God, who is the author of justice, is also the author of compassion and mercy. This God will sort out whatever justice or mercy requires with a spiritual capacity that we can only dimly understand or imagine. But whatever rewards and blessings--or grievous realizations--come to pass on the Day of Judgment, they will be based in the glorious nature of a wise, just, loving and merciful God. And the revelation of the deepest truths about any of us will be without the shadows of suspicion or masks of pretense. We will all be known for the deepest facts of our being in the light of our Creator’s loving will for us.
It is the fact of that judgment, that revealing of what is true about us, of whether or not we are meaningfully connected with God and given to God’s will, that is the fourth useful teaching of this parable. Jesus is telling us that our lives matter enormously. Our thoughts, fantasies, words, choices, actions, our relationships--or refused relationships; our worldly distraction or spiritual maturity all have consequences. The main point of this harvest analogy is not that fire will burn what is to be destroyed, or that the light will be wonderfully bright in God’s presence. Those images are the cues for us: a faithful connection to God is most dearly and importantly to be desired; it will lead, ultimately, to glorious and amazing outcomes. Our failure to connect with God, to experience God’s loving help and guidance; to receive his cleansing and strengthening Spirit; to enter into his purposes of compassionate sharing and kindness toward our neighbors… This evasion of and resistance to God’s intent for us can only result in the most grievous kind of spiritual disconnection from God, from life itself. Jesus describes that realization as marked by the deepest sort of sadness and disillusionment, of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus’ point is that this outcome is most truly to be avoided!
I believe that this interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, with dramatically different outcomes for dramatically different spiritual natures, is faithful to his consistent teaching. Jesus loves us too much to let us languish, becalmed by a false confidence that nothing we do or don’t do really matters. He always speaks the truth. His motive is always love for us. His will for us is that we, with him, and in him, overcome all that is false, overcome the sin of the world, and enter surely into our Heavenly Father’s Kingdom. Amen.
Fathers’ Day, June 18, 2017
Proper 6, RCL C Sermon
On this American Father’s Day, let’s have a look at our culture’s understanding of fathers. The popular idea in America is that if I am a guy, and I have a beer, a ball game and a bass boat, it’s “Mission accomplished!” We, Christian people, believe that we can aim higher.
The search of a son for his father is a durable, universal theme in classical literature (see Telemachus’ travels around the Mediterranean in search of the illustrious and mostly absent father, Odysseus). In religious texts: “I shall arise and go unto my father, and say unto him, father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee…” In popular culture, we consider the movies based on the theme of a young man yearning for a better relationship—or any relationship at all—with Dad: Hoosiers, Angels in the Outfield, Field of Dreams, Captains Courageous (w/ Spencer Tracy) Finding Nemo, Up, Pinocchio, or Mrs. Doubtfire; We all know the the Harry Chapin song, “Cat’s in the Cradle:” “When you coming home, Dad?” “I don’t know when; but we’ll get together then… You know we’ll have a good time then.”
Psychologists are increasingly observing the markers--among women who have had secure and loving relationships with their fathers--of increased self-confidence, self-regulation, and educational and career achievements.
In our religious tradition the view of God as our loving heavenly father is a consistent figure of Jesus’ speech. The Lord’s Prayer, the most common expression of faith in the Christian world begins with that image. We know the obvious, general reference in the 10 Commandments to honor our mothers and fathers. Way back in Deuteronomy, Chapter 6, fathers are explicitly assigned a responsibility to lead their families in their devotion to God:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
The Hebrew scriptures and the mainstream Christian tradition have been criticized in recent years, primarily by seminary professors, as promoting an oppressive patriarchy that misrepresents God, demeans women, and mis-shapes the social order. Doubtless there are, in our religious tradition, as in every human tradition, distortions of design and abuses of authority. Every one of us can recite litanies of men, throughout history, behaving badly, and especially if they are—whether through their athletic status entertainment celebrity, or financial or political power—in those exalted positions that feed their sense of invincibility.
I argue that most men need the kind of guidance and assignment of obligations that our biblical faith provides. David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless America, points out that men, given their inclination toward promiscuity and “paternal waywardness,” are not ideally suited to fatherhood. “Because men do not volunteer for fatherhood as much as they are conscripted into it by the surrounding culture, only an authoritative cultural story of fatherhood can fuse biological and social paternity into a coherent male identity.
Even the secular anthropologist, Margaret Mead, observed that fatherhood, defined as participatory, sustained parenting by men, is more of a social construct than it is a biological instinct.
She wrote that any society that would be called civilized and flourish must build inducements for men to care for the women with whom they have children, and provide for the children of those unions.
Whatever else is going on in the biblical tradition, there is an explicit assigning of responsibility to men to take responsibility and to attend to the well-being of their families. Authority and responsibility generally go hand in hand. So one way to read the instructions to men in the biblical tradition is to cultivate traits that do not arise spontaneously in nature. The corrective step for that is to take the lead in guiding, guarding, and providing for their families. And this is to counter a naturally occurring male disinclination to take on that fostering role.
If we have eyes to perceive and minds open to read without prejudice, I believe that we can learn about the salutary roles of men, and of fathers in particular, in our biblical tradition. That story both illustrates and directs us towards the values of loyalty, humility, self-discipline, sacrifice, the intentional training of the next generation, and above all, a love that continues—in the face of trials and adversity—to seek the well-being of the other.
Let’s do the broad brush assessment of American culture. Imagine for a minute that we interviewed, at random, one hundred nuclear families even in this fairly idyllic and fairly stable and conventional parish. If we asked the mothers and the children in those households what aspects of family life could be better, I suspect that in most of the homes, somewhere in the wish list, we’d hear the desire to see more of Dad, to have more significant interactions with Dad, not to see just the depleted and preoccupied Dad who is generating an impressive income in the marketplace. We would hear the desire to have a richer experience of Dad’s love and affection. And that’s in the best of circumstances.
A qualifier, before we look into some troublesome cultural currents : We know and cheer those incredibly dedicated mothers, extended family members, and resourceful, loving people in our midst, raising children without the conventional design of dedicated fathers. We know those people who gloriously defy the odds, and steer around problematic patterns widely seen in our society. To them, all credit and honor are due. But they would be among the first to acknowledge that theirs is an overtime, extremely difficult challenge!
Let’s look at our national picture, at our urban and rural poor populations, at the family groupings that lack continuity over time, and at the steadily rising rates of children born to single parents. If we look at those settings where Dad is virtually absent from the lives of mother and children, hundreds of studies consistently show the correlations between father absence and undesirable outcomes for children and families.
In the little bit of study I did on-line, on U.S. government, Harvard University, and Commonwealth of Massachusetts studies. Looking at reviews of the sociological and psychological research on father absence, I found these distilled conclusions.
“Children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological (or adoptive) parents.” (http://www.fatherhood.gov/statistics/index.cfm)
On the bright side, the studies show that “Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior, and avoid high-risk behaviors such as drug use, truancy, and criminal activity compared to children who have uninvolved fathers.”
(The Spread of Single-Parent Families in the United States since 1960, by David T. Ellwood and Christopher Jencks, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, October 2002)
Recent research indicates that 40.8% of all children born in the United States, in 2013, were born to a non-married parent. In other words, 41% of all American children born do not have the promise or commitment of a father’s active involvement, attention, or support in their lives going forward.
What about trends in our own Bay State? In 1990, in Massachusetts, statewide, births to unmarried parents were at 24.7%; There has been a steady annual increase in births to unmarried parents through 2011 to 34.8%.
Our urban centers tell a troublesome story. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Office of Data Management and Outcomes Assessment, published the following findings of births in 2011 and 2012. (Published in August, 2014) (Online source: www.mass.gov/eohhs/docs/.../birth-report-2011-2012.pdf)
In New Bedford, 65.7% of births were to unmarried parents.
In Fall River, 64.1% of births were to unmarried parents.
In Boston, the figure was 42.3.
In Springfield, 70.8% of all births were to unmarried parents.
In Lawrence, 71.1% of all births were to unmarried parents.
We don’t know how many of these births are to parents who live together, unmarried. We don’t know how stable these relationships are over the long run. We don’t know how many of these couples might make commitments to one another, and to their children, if and when their employment situations are more secure.
Okay, that’s more that enough inert sociological data. We can see that things are changing all around us.
Whatever the prevailing trends in our culture concerning fatherhood might be, we, in the Christian tradition, have faith, hope, love, and an amazing offer of Good News to all! We have Christ’s demonstrated promise that he can lead us into abundantly joyful, productive, and purposeful lives of committed loving. We have an incredible wealth of encouragement in Holy Scripture and in Holy Community about men of humility and faith, of courage and character, of love, loyalty, and commitment.
We have exemplars in our congregations of fathers who have taken their responsibilities to wives and children as central, lifelong, defining goals of their lives. Let’s take our bearings from them and emulate what is excellent and helpful.
Among us there are those, who, like Job, habitually reach beyond their immediate households to act as fathers for others who will flourish through their care. They teach in our schools; they build homes for poorer neighbors; they coach our children and given them music lessons; they head up our scout troops; they guide others in career and education paths; They pray for others to experience healing and to know God’s saving love. Listen to this description of them from the 29th chapter of Job:
I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him.
The man who was dying blessed me; I made the widow's heart sing...
I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger.
I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.
This is our goodly heritage of fatherhood. God, help us to be these men.
And for those of us who have grown up in families where these traits of fidelity, care, and consistency were not modeled; or whose fathers died too soon, or were never involved; or who have seen our own flaws and mis-steps bring dismay or injury to our families; Or for those who are discouraged and uncertain how to re-claim a relationship or to re-build a reputation: We serve a Lord whose name is Redeemer. He makes all things new; He gives beauty for ashes; He frees us from what is past, delivers us from evil, and promises, like a loving father, never to leave us or forsake us.
Dear God, help us to be a church that celebrates, forms, and raises good and faithful fathers. Please help us all to know you as our gracious, ever-present, loving heavenly father, now and always. And help us all, as your faithful disciples, to introduce all who yearn to know this kind of love to You. Amen.
Easter Sermon, April 16, 2017, Rev. Geoffrey T. Piper
Alleluia… Christ is risen. But how do we know that? Who says he is risen? And even if he is, what difference does it make to us in 2017?
My father told me a story once about his favorite professor’s outlook on the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. A graduate student in British Literature at Columbia University asked William York Tindall what he made of the New Testament claims that Jesus was raised from the dead. Mr. Tindall pondered for a moment, and replied, “If it didn’t happen… it should have.”
Now that’s a witty answer. To say that Christ’s resurrection is an event “to-be-wished” is a nice step in the direction of faith. But it doesn’t commit us to anything that can change our lives, or transform the world.
Let’s try to address two simple questions today:
1. How can we trust in the apostles’ claim that Christ is risen?
2. If Jesus is risen, what difference does that make for us?
Let’s start with a comparison of a believable, eyewitness account and a fabricated story.
The first gospel, Mark’s, was composed about 40 years after Jesus’ death. Let’s assess memory at the distance of 40 years from the original event. I can tell you what I was doing this month, 44 years ago, in 1973. (I won’t tell you most of what I was doing or thinking, as you might have me de-frocked.) On the afternoon of April 16, 1973, I was a high school senior in Sheffield, Massachusetts, a varsity baseball player in spring training. Here’s my story: That year, at age 17, I pitched three no-hitters; I hit eleven home runs, and had a .525 batting average. Because I’m a lefty, a had a great pick-off move for anyone trying to steal second base. I was recruited by the Red Sox AAA affiliate in Pawtucket. I was the youngest recruit on the squad.
Pretty impressive, eh? Well, yeah, it’s impressive… until you ask someone who was actually there to verify the story. You could ask my sister, Emilie. “Is that what happened with your brother 44 years ago?” She’d burst out laughing. She’d tell you—honestly—“No! That is a total fabrication! That spring of his senior year he was an utterly unremarkable baseball player. He pitched two or three innings, but mostly he played first base. He never hit any home runs. He never wore a baseball uniform again after that season.” And that would be the gospel truth. End of story. No Hall of Fame for this ball player.
Why should we believe the folks who wrote down the stories of Jesus’ resurrection from 40 to 70 years after the events described? Because of the honesty with which they portrayed their own unfaithfulness to Jesus. Everything in the writers’ characterization of themselves tells of how difficult it was, and how slow they were to recognize what was taking place before their own eyes. The central mystery and event of the Christian faith was nowhere within their vision when it occurred. We read of their confusion, doubts, fears, incredulity, despair, astonishment, and reluctance to believe this resurrection account! Luke’s gospel describes the women reporting to the men about their confrontation with Jesus, risen. And what is the response of these well-trained, Christian spiritual leaders? Luke 24:11: “They did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
There is nothing of the style of self-aggrandizing fabrications, in which they would have been portrayed as the heroic harbingers of new life, announcing mercy and everlasting life to all the world. They are scared half to death. They are hiding from the authorities. They are uncomprehending. They are distrustful of one another and of their own experiences.
That is what they felt, thought, and believed. That is what any of us would have felt, thought, and believed, had we been there.
These all took time and repetition to sink in. And that process is exactly what the New Testament narratives record for us. And all of human history, from that frightful and astonishing encounter at the cemetery at dawn, moves in the direction of growing recognition of Jesus’ as God’s anointed Son.
Had Jesus’ life simply—and truly--ended with the crucifixion, we would have had, as our last memorable images, the mockery of ignorant, brutal Roman soldiers in a twisted form of entertainment: dressing Jesus up in fake royal garments, play-acting a coronation scene with a crown of thorns, pretending to bow to his highness, the King of the Jews. More to the point, none of would ever have heard that account, because it wouldn’t have been written down as a meaningful event. Jesus, along with thousands of other agonizingly executed slaves and foreigners in the Roman Empire, would be one more sad, unnoticed statistic in the unfolding of an uncaring, cruel cosmos.
Had this story of resurrection been a clever hoax, it would have been crushed by the near unanimous opposition of the religious authorities who had turned Jesus over to Pilate for a death sentence. It would have been suppressed by the political actors in Herod Antipas’ government, who had already beheaded John the Baptist. It would have been silenced through the ferocity of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, that saw 500 Jews per day crucified, until the was destroyed and the population scattered.
Instead, what we have is a growing tsunami of praise, among people of every nation, tribe, language and place, gaining in scale and velocity for two thousand years. What we have is a growing chorus of devotion, singing with true-hearted voices, from a multitude that no one can number, that Jesus is their “King of Kings, and Lord of Lords… and he shall reign—in our hearts, and in our fellowship, in this world--forever and ever.” How do we come to this glorious outpouring of honor from the scene of him whom ignorant fools mocked, thinking his claim ridiculous?” (Interpreter’s Bible, John, p. 772.)
OK… Something must have happened, we surmise. Jesus, in some fashion, rose from the dead. “But what difference does that make for us? We already had the example of his teaching. We had the stories of how he went about doing good. Why do we need a resurrection? For an image of new life? We already had bunnies and tulips in spring.”
Let’s let the Apostle Paul--who understood his passionate Judaism as fulfilled in Jesus--answer that outlook. Remember that he, too, had a personal encounter with the risen Lord. He writes the following passage to the believers in Corinth, twenty years after Jesus’ death.
“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”
The central power and glory of Christ’s death and resurrection is not that one man, once in history, came back from the other side. It is that God can save us all, forgive us all, and restore our fellowship with Him in Spirit. Through the cross and the empty tomb, God has done for us what none of us could ever do for ourselves. Apart from Christ’s gracious forgiveness and restoration, the best we, or the world can say to the sum total of the horrors, injustices, personal failures, shame, violence, and brokenness of our human lives is “I’ll get you for this…” or “forget about it.” You have never met a person on the planet whose life has been transformed for the better either by vengeance, or by ignoring the pain and cost of what is past.
Our risen Lord says to us, Ernie, I suffered this death and came out from this grave site this for you; Nathalie, I did this for you; Brian; Shelley; Michael; Doris; Geoffrey; James; Liza… Each of you! I have done this for you as an incontestable demonstration of my love for you. I want you all to be free and healed from what it past. I want you to know my love, my good will, and the promise of your new life today. I want you to experience my power, at work in your spirit. I want to enable you to live the life you have always wished you could live. I want to free you from the fear of death. I promise you, instead, eternal life alongside me, in God’s presence.”
Hear afresh Jesus’ words to Mary from the mouth of the empty tomb. “Go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”
The glorious truth of the resurrection of Jesus’ is that his faithfulness becomes our inheritance. The ancient Jewish truths of God’s love, mercy, and power come true in a way that extends salvation, not just to Israel, but to all humanity. Jesus’ Father becomes our father; his God, our God. Christ is not waving goodbye to us as he moves into God’s presence. He is intent on raising us with him. Raising us from sin, from death, from our past broken lives. Raising us in Spirit, in hope, in love, generosity, and service toward one another. Raising us to a new, promising destiny in this world, and to eternal life in the next.
That, I believe, is no fabricated fiction. It is a miraculous fact on which we can all bet our lives.
(Invite the children forward.) In a minute, we’ll have a message of Good News that we should share with everyone. When that message comes to you, be sure that you share it with someone who doesn’t have it. Be sure to take the message home with you for a reminder. But we’ll need to practice first.
Whisper, quietly to the person right next to you: “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!”
Now look at your family members, and call out to them by name… like this “Leslie: Alleluia, Christ is Risen!”
Now let’s all look up to heaven, and shout for all the world to hear, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!”
St. Gabriel’s Sermon, March 12, 2017 by Mr. Harry Easterly
Lift high the cross
The love of God proclaim
‘Til all the world adore
His Sacred Name
Many thanks to all of you at St. Gabriel’s and especially to Rector Geoffrey Piper and Deacon Cathy Harper for the support I have received and am receiving in the formation process for the diaconate. This is a rich and varied experience which for me feels like being an archeologist just beginning an excavation at a site twenty civilizations deep: it will take the rest of my life to get not even half-way through. Patsy continues to support, love and encourage; this is an essential for me.
I love being a student, so seeing and researching the architecture of our faith tradition is catnip for me. The only problem is that I seesaw back and forth between feeling like a post-doctoral fellow and a child in pre-kindergarten.
Harvey Cushing was the father of neurosurgery, surgery of the brain, and Chief Surgeon at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital 100 years ago. One morning, he and his entourage were seeing patients in the private wing of the hospital. As he entered the room of an elderly doyen, she said, “Oh, Dr. Cushing, I don’t wish to be examined by the students.” Professor Cushing gently took her hand and sat at the bedside, saying, “Madam, we are all students.” And aren’t we Christians all students? We study in different ways and at different paces: some read and ponder, some pray, some tend to loved ones, some mend fences, some come early and some come late. But we are all beginners every day.
However, much more important and rewarding for me is the opportunity and encouragement to spend time in prayer, confronting my brokenness, listening for the Holy Spirit and waiting with as much patience as I can muster for the healing and grace that we all have been promised.
Some wise person told me that the key to each Sunday’s scripture readings is the Collect for the week– the Cliff Notes to the Bible readings as daughter Rachel has called it. So, let’s take a look and unpack this one.
So shall we look at the Collect together and relate it to the messages in the lessons for today?
O God, whose glory is always (and everywhere) to have mercy… Mercy is that broad, that capacious category of benevolent thought and action where one might have expected or ought to expect harshness or retribution.
Portia says to Shylock in The Merchant of Venice,
The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven
Upon the race below. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Once upon a time, Patsy and I paid a visit to the bed-bound, dying mother of a close friend. His younger sister was in the living room, looking particularly miserable. Their relationship had long been uneasy, with mutual disappointment and recriminations. “I don’t know how to handle this,” she said. The Holy Spirit spoke through my lips, “Go into her room, kneel at the bedside and ask for her blessing.”
“How do I do that?”
“Put her hand on your head and ask her to say aloud all those things that she wants for you in your life ahead.” When Sister came out, she was no longer troubled; she was transformed. In that merciful moment, through the grace of God, their relationship had been healed, set back on a track that had eluded them perhaps since she was an infant. When we listen to the Holy Spirit and follow the dotted line, good things happen, we can be refreshed, our burdens lifted. This was a merciful moment and all those who participated were twice blessed. As Willy Wonka said, “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”
As we will see in a minute it is the lack of such mercy that is at the crux of Jesus’ displeasure and disappointment with the Pharisees. For the Pharisees, every increment of theological precision, each verbal or behavioral exactitude, excluded and marginalized many - just as we do with our readiness to judge, our personal classification systems, our blindness to the needs of others. Those are the times when we are merciless and have turned our faces away from God. This is the phariseeism that was so off-putting to Jesus.
And so to the Collect again.
Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways… Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, a nice touch by St. John, because Nicodemus really is in the dark. A well-to-do man, a generation older than Jesus, a leader of the Jewish council, he has spent a lifetime learning, observing and teaching the Law, the 613 actions that signify sanctity, and paying attention to the Midrash, the voluminous interpretations of the Law. As a Pharisee, he would have kept scrupulous distance from anyone who was ritually unclean. In his introduction, he acknowledges his respect for Jesus’ power and authority as coming from God.
In many of Jesus’ encounters with Pharisees, he is wary or scathing, calling them, among other things, a brood of vipers. To Nicodemus, he is gracious but does not accept his remarks at face value. In the verse before today’s reading, chapter 2 verse 25, John says of Jesus, “For He Himself knew what was in everyone.” Jesus knows who Nicodemus is; he can take the measure of his heart. And it appears small and is turned in the wrong direction. But Nicodemus is welcome in Jesus’ presence; Jesus loves him, God loves him just as He loves all of us. As our presiding bishop Michael Curry says, “God loves you just as you are – but He’s not going to leave you that way.” ”God loves us just as we are – but He’s not going to leave us that way.”
As He often does, Jesus gets right to the issue at hand with Nicodemus:
We may be allowed to think that Nicodemus has some inkling of this. Nicodemus has come at a time when he could expect more than a brief interview; the crowds have dispersed. And he came at some risk to his standing and reputation. Perhaps he is in that place described by Dante in the first words of the Divine Comedy,
Midway in the journey of this life
I found myself lost in a dark place
And the right path appeared nowhere.
This is the midnight of the soul. From his fasting in the wilderness, Jesus knows what this is about. If and when we come to this place ourselves, Jesus is there with us. It is part of His grace and favor, part of God’s mercy. But we have to be open and receptive, ready to be born again and, maybe, again and again..
Back to the Collect,
And bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith… For me, these two do not go easily together; this is a hurdle for me. A penitent heart means I am all too aware of my deficiencies, my failures, my backsliding, my brokenness, my sinfulness from my mother’s womb. With a penitent heart, I can, at least at first, say only, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Lord, I’ve done it again.” In these times, the sun is not shining brightly in my neck of the woods. Steadfast faith, on the other hand, is the power and the glory of the Holy Spirit shining through me, through my thoughts, words and actions. Blessedly I also see it readily in others, often and everywhere.
Does anyone remember Bongo Boards? A wooden cylinder with a groove cut around the middle and a 3 foot slab with a lengthways slat beneath. The skill and fun was in balancing with your feet on top, learning how to sway comfortably and easily back and forth. This is a picture I can hold as I ask for guidance in learning to sway to the rhythm of God’s love between these two poles of a penitent heart and steadfast faith. Practice and willpower alone will not achieve that balance, at least for me.
Jesus knows that the Pharisees are out of balance, not alive to the Spirit. He says with absolute authority, “Verily, verily, I tell you that a full rich life, basking in the warmth of God’s love is available, but in only one way. You and everyone like you have to begin again, following the path of the Spirit, which I have been preaching, the crowds have been witnessing and which you have been dismissing.” You must be reborn in the Spirit and accept that the Spirit will take you where it wills. From this muddle, you can only proceed to another muddle without rebirth. Back up, star again, be reborn, but this time “from above,” in the Spirit.
In the PBS series Hero of a Thousand Faces, Bill Moyers had an extended interview with Joseph Campbell, long-time professor of Comparative Religion and Mythology at Sarah Lawrence College. Moyers asks at one point about man’s search for meaning. Campbell immediately corrects him, “ Man is not searching for meaning. He searches for the joy of being alive.” It is just this joy of being alive to the fullness of what God has created in us and around us that is missing from the rigid pharisaic way. And it is just this joy that God promises through belief in Jesus Christ and his message, a message so simple a child can understand and so complex we can study and think and pray and worship for a lifetime and still not penetrate the depths of the mystery.
When, in response, Nicodemus seems particularly backward, Jesus becomes almost scornful. “If you cannot grasp even this most simple of concepts, how can I instruct you in more complex ones? If you are so earthbound, so concrete, so attached to the idea that moral achievement holds the key, you (we) are not available for the transformation that I Jesus offer you (us), right here and right now.
And so again to the Collect,
To embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word… Before I and, maybe you, get too comfortable with our superiority to those wicked Pharisees, let us remind ourselves that we may be Pharisees in a slightly different way. Their box was 613 rules by which life is lived, God codified, controlled and boxed in.
One prayer teacher suggests that, as we pray, we wait at the beginning of our prayer time for God to enter and speak before we rattle off our “honey-do” list – that we pause to let the Holy Spirit speak in a what is often a still small voice. As Aaron Burr says to Alexander Hamilton in Lin Manuel Miranda’s hop-hop musical, “Smile more and talk less.”
Be confident that God is seeking us. This is the faith part. God is not lost or missing in action – we are. Let us sit still, conserve our strength and let the Rescuer come to us. Don’t let us continue to make it hard to be found and saved.
And to complete the Collect,
Jesus Christ your Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.
We recall how we began this Lent and every Lent: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
God has been present from eternity. We are here for a limited time. Be careful. Be trusting. God loves us as we are, but he’s not going to leave us this way. He has promised that he is not going to leave us this way
“We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree. Then wither and perish, but naught changeth Thee.”
Perhaps you will find a way to bless someone close to you today in whatever fashion you find appropriate. Hands on head or holding that person close or touching a hand.
Perhaps you will reorder or rethink your prayers today or tomorrow. Maybe you will think to add a prayer time to your schedule. As simple as, “Come, Holy Spirit, come”. Pray more, talk less. Turn off the radio or the TV for a period, darken the screens. Breathe in the love of God – it’s there waiting for all of us.
Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love, make haste to be kind and may the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you now and forever.
10/23/16 Sermon by Rev. Geoffrey T. Piper
"Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt…” Here is Eugene Peterson’s contemporary paraphrase of that line from The Message: “Jesus told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people…”
If that phrase doesn’t grab our attention, then we’re not paying attention. The prevalence of these behaviors (have you watched any coverage of the presidential campaign?)—trusting in ourselves, and in our own righteousness… coupled with the derisive view of others as failed or inferior people—is frighteningly common in our day and place!
If Jesus were to offer this parable in the context of our current political discourse, a listener would remonstrate: “But it’s all true! The Pharisee really does tithe; we saw his tax return! He is not a thief or an adulterer! He really does fast twice a week. He’s a demonstrably better man than that waste of skin, the failed tax collector!”
Clearly, trying to walk with God is fraught with the perilous occupational hazard of self-righteousness. If we imagine that we, ourselves, are the source of whatever goodness we claim to have achieved; if we aim at excellence, and then develop a smug sense of superiority; if our reference point for virtue is not Almighty God, but a flawed neighbor… then we are precariously self-deceived about our right standing with God.
If the chief outcome of all our spiritual exercise is not grateful humility, but self-congratulating pride; and if our view of our imperfect neighbors is one of derision and disparagement, than we have seriously missed what God is trying to do in us and through us. Jesus teaches us that honest humility, admitting and facing our own brokenness, acknowledging our own need for God’s restoring and redeeming ministry, is the healthy remedy for this misguided self-worship.
Friedrich Sleirmacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, first published in 1799
This backdrop is evident in the first line of Schleiermacher's text, "It may be an unexpected and even a marvelous undertaking, that any one should still venture to demand from the very class that have raised themselves above the vulgar, and are saturated with the wisdom of the centuries, attention for a subject so entirely neglected by them. ... Now especially the life of cultivated people is far from anything that might have even a resemblance to religion."
I want to share with you an excerpt from David Brooks, The Road to Character, published in 2015 by Random House.
First chapter: Resumé virtues vs. Eulogy virtues
Middle chapters: character sketches of notable people who took very seriously the intersection of their inner lives with the work they undertook in the world.
The last chapter: The Humility Code:
I love the quote attributed to a participant in and A.A. meeting: “I’m not yet the man that I ought to be. I’m not even the many that I want to be. But I thank God, by His grace, that I’m not the man I used to be.”
Why do you quote this contemporary secular columnist? Job says it better, as does Amos, and Micah, and Isaiah… As does the Sermon on the Mount or any of Paul’s epistles. The wonder, for me, is that this articulate voice, and this un-purchased commentary comes from one who has made a mid-life course correction in his most basic outlook on life. It comes from one who is enmeshed in the central elite organs of our culture, Yale University and the New York Times, from whom we have not heard respect for Biblical and spiritual things for the past fifty years.
What does the Lord require of us? Let’s listen to Micah lay it out for us:
“With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly – walk humbly--with your God.”
SERMON, Proper 22, RCL C, 2016 10/2/2016
Our Old Testament lessons today are hard to hear. The first reading is from a sorrowful collection of Hebrew songs and poems called Lamentations. It was written soon after the fall, and utter destruction, of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The Jews remained displaced from their homeland for about 60 years, until 539 B.C., when King Cyrus the Great of Persia, conquering the Babylonians, allowed the Jews to return to return and rebuild.
Try to imagine, as one with vivid memories of a homeland no longer accessible, of the proud Holy City on the hill systematically demolished, her people scattered.
“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate, her priests groan;
her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.
Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper…”
We can be sure that, in our day, many of the former residents of Syria, Iraq, Libya, Iran, the Sudan, and Nigeria—anywhere that jihadis set off bombs in marketplaces and kidnap civilians as sex slaves; anywhere that civil warriors or sectarian despots aim to annihilate or subjugate their opponents—refugees know and groan these lamentations. Where can we turn for help? Where can we go for safety and hope for our children? Who can deliver us from this madness?
The psalmist writes of the same era of Babylonian captivity:
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
when we remembered you, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them up
on the trees in the midst of that land.
For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth:
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
How shall we sing the LORD'S song
upon an alien soil?
Some of us try to engage with the news clips and documentaries covering the ongoing violence, oppression, and forcible displacement of civilians throughout the Middle East. We’re told that in 2015 alone, 4.9 million of these desperate souls were Syrian; 2.7 million of them are Somalian; and 1.1 million are from Afghans. An additional 7.6 million people from other nations took their possessions on their backs last year, and fled for asylum or a new start elsewhere in the world. Some of the neighboring Middle Eastern countries are trying to absorb or sustain them for the short run, including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Many are applying for refugee status in European countries, with Germany topping the list of desirable landing sites.
Most are Arabic speaking. Most are Muslims, fleeing Muslim violence. The circumstances are further complicated as world powers contribute arms and troops to try to influence the outcomes in line with their national interests, for good or ill. Many risk hazards and death in trying to flee. I believe that the ultimate answers to this crisis will be found, but not primarily in the political and military powers struggling for supremacy. I believe they will be found in the faith and in the compassionate hearts of people worldwide. All these refugee statistics are human beings, made in God’s image. It is that understanding that will lead to solutions.
So what do any of us know about war, displacement from home, and the struggle to connect with God while under the domination of a foreign power? At least one of our parish grandmothers remembers life as a little girl in Germany, receiving, hosting, and feeding people whose cities, homes, and lives had been shattered by the Allied bombing campaign that continued night and day, on industrial and civilian centers, from 1942 through the war’s end in 1945. She knows these songs of lamentation. And she leads us in hosting and feeding our hungry neighbors, here, among people who were once her national enemies.
What can the rest of us do? My own belief is that Jesus lived, died, and rose again to claim us all as God’s children, loved, forgiven, and set free from whatever holds us down. I believe that Christ has modeled and mapped a way for people everywhere--from every class, tribe, and nation--to live together in peace and well-being. I believe, with Christians everywhere, that we have been commanded to do unto others as we would have others do unto us. I believe, with Christian people throughout history in all places, that these are the songs we have been given to sing. These are songs that sorrowing hearts might rejoice to hear and to learn.
How can we sing these songs in such a troubled, divided world? Here are some “choirs” that are already bringing this renewed hope.
Leslie, our children, and I have supported World Vision since early in our marriage. Listen to their faith statement: “Our faith in Jesus is central to who we are, and we follow His example in working alongside the poor and oppressed. We serve every child in need that we possibly can, of any faith, or none. We partner with faith leaders throughout the world, equipping them to meet the needs of their communities.” I encourage any of you to go to their website, worldvision.org. Click on News and Stories, Refugees, and see what mustard seeds of faith are doing to work salvation among suffering people. Consider what your prayers and gifts can do through their disciples dedicated to Christ’s service in this generation.
Closer to home, we celebrate and share in the work of Habitat for Humanity. We, in our high-brow, secular New England culture, sometimes systematically ignore or avoid the role of devout Christian faith in motivating people to transform the world for the better. I suspect that some of you may not know why Habitat for Humanity does what it does. Listen to their mission statement: “Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.” (repeat) Seeking to put God’s love into action… Can we get out of bed in the morning, and before we look in a mirror or brew the coffee, say, “My purpose in life today in to put God’s love into action.”
Wait, there’s more! Listen to a couple of Habitat for Humanity’s Core Principles:
Here’s another source of motivation and guidance: “In response to the prophet Micah’s call to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God, we promote decent, affordable housing for all, and we support the global community’s commitment to housing as a basic human right.”
Can you recognize the source and power of the spiritual faith conviction that guides this transformative organization? Can you begin to trust that God has equipped every single one of us with some little, crunchy, just-barely, particle of faith that He means us to put into action? Hammers, nails, and the generous smiles of volunteers preach the Good News of Christ’s love without a word being spoken. Our faithful work equals someone else’s home and security.
What can we do to put struggling neighbors in safe homes right here on the South Coast? We can join fellow parishioners and founding members, Jack and Sandy Beck, Nancy McFadden, Leslie Piper, Cathy Harper, your rector, the former president, Robin Ragle-Davis, and the new president, Ryan Hill, and other volunteer helpers you already know from St. Gabriel’s. None of us can put a family in a home by ourselves. Together, with Christ’s power alive among us, great things come from invisible impulses that God places within us.
Whatever you do in response to the real struggles of neighbors, far and near, don’t opt out. Don’t shrug off a role for you and your family by saying, “Somebody else caused this problem; somebody else can solve it.” The whole heartbeat of the Christian faith is this summed up in the first part of that famous quote, John 3:16. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…” Not God so loved me; or God so loved the people who share my customs and manners…
God so loved the world--the whole messy, complicated, mis-directed, fractious bunch of us--that He sent Jesus to save us. And that incomparable gift is meant to elicit our true, heartfelt, and sacrificial service of one another in return. Let’s be sure that we all show up for duty, as grateful and faithful servants. Don’t ignore your call. Don’t miss your chance. Amen.
Presidential Campaign 2016
SERMON, Proper 20, RCL C, 9-18-2016
Every four years, Americans go through a national drama called the Presidential election. At it’s basest, it is any two persons hoping that docile, credulous, vacuous, and uncritical voters will believe that the candidates can herald “positive change” if only the electorate will give them their votes and a little cash. Even better, these champions will not require any effort from the citizens in bringing about the new world order. Better still, they will guarantee the voters more money and government benefits, while reducing taxes, and assuring them that someone else will cover the cost. Every individual and family, the nation and the world will come round to fulfill their vision. They will convince the public that this is inevitable by repeating their mantra, ever more loudly, and by occasionally waving their fingers to show that they really mean it.
I love the following quote from Samuel Johnson, one of the finest wits in English literary history, who lived and wrote in London, England in the first part of the 1700s.
"How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure." (repeat)
Dr. Johnson was as keen an observer of his society as he was of the human soul. As he thought carefully about what contributes or detracts from any person’s contentment or sense of well-being, he concluded that neither a society’s rules and regulations, nor the person at the top of the government system, can make much difference in human hearts, for good or ill. The rhyme concludes:
“Still to ourselves in every place consign'd,
Our own felicity we make or find.”
In short, Johnson discerned, the good life isn’t conferred on us from any of the supreme powers around us. It is the achievement of a faithful heart that humbly seeks after virtue and decency.
One would never come to that conclusion in 2016 by attending to the presidential campaign, or to the news cycles—driven by the ratings and the ad revenues they generate. We are told, implicitly, that everything important for us hangs in the balance, depending on the outcome of this election. The news anchors report and analyze every comment, tweet, and cough of Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, along with those of their surrogates. Listening to them, we are told to anticipate The End of the World as We Know It or Paradise Regained, depending on who is elected to Executive Office. Only one person will make us prosperous, secure, and happy, we’re told, or will personally set the world on an irretrievable course toward decay and doom.
What does our Christian faith tell us about all this? Does the Kingdom, the power, and glory reside there, in the occupant of the White House?
Or might the true hope and promise of our nation be located elsewhere? Perhaps in the one Isaiah spoke of when he wrote: “unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” What was Jesus telling us all when he announced--for those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear—“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and is within you?” Perhaps the true hope and promise of all people everywhere is in the dispositions, outlooks, attitudes and actions that originate within each of us, that are manifest in our families, and in our local communities. What does it mean for us to believe that the Kingdom of God is real, active, and within us?
We get a glimpse into the answer in today’s epistle lesson from St. Paul to his younger protege, Timothy. We heard this passage:
"I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity."
In our contentious presidential campaign season, it is easy to imagine that Paul lived in the good old days, when leaders led, and subjects served in peaceable security. God was in his heaven, and all was right with the world. Right? Certainly Paul could not have known what sorts of problematic leaders we are dealing with in 21st century America. Let's investigate that idea.
Paul’s epistle was written between 63 and 65 A.D. Here are three of the governments through which Paul had lived.
-We have King Herod the Great, who came to his throne around 37 B.C.E., and died shortly after the birth of Jesus. This is the murderous despot in Israel who suspected several members of his own family of contending for his throne. He arranged for the execution of his second wife, Mariamne, and her mother, Alexandra; He killed his brother-in-law, Kostobar. He tried and executed the two sons he had with Miriamne, Alexander and Aristobulus; and finally a third son, Antipater. Historians write of his savage ambition. There was a sardonic play on words in Greek about him: that it was better to be Herod’s hus, (a pig, whose life was safe, given the kosher laws forbidding the eating of pork) than to be his son, huios.
- In Rome, we have Caligula, ruling from A.D. 37-41, one of the most depraved emperors in the sordid history of Roman emperors. Historical sources "focus upon his cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and sexual perversity, presenting him as an insane tyrant." He was assassinated by Roman military leaders in hope of restoring sanity to imperial leadership, and to save the empire.
- At the actual time that Paul composed this letter to Timothy, we have the infamous Roman Emperor, Nero, ruling from A.D. 54-68. Nero is suspected by historians of having caused the Great Fire of 64 A.D., which was subsequently blamed on Christians. A historian writes,"The entire Christian populace was implicated and became fair game for retribution. As many of the religious sect that could be found were rounded up and put to death in the most horrific manner for the amusement of the citizens of Rome." This included contending with gladiators, being dipped in tar and set alight as torches, and being torn to pieces by wild beasts in the Colosseum.
So if Paul urged the devoted Christians of his era to pray for these leaders, that the early Christians might enjoy the blessings of quiet and peaceable lives, in all godliness and dignity, we can see that the stakes were pretty high. Have we a sense of our imperative to pray for, and to give ourselves over to the best outcomes in our day?
Perhaps one of the most vexing problems for our political system is the role of money. Remember that staggering statement we heard in this morning’s gospel, that nobody can serve both God and money? The English language furnishes us a good word for the one who tries to have it both ways. The word is venal, an adjective, from the Latin, meaning, for sale. It refers to the willingness to sell one's influence, or to confer benefits, especially in return for a bribe. This word has a perjorative connotation. A venal act is a dishonorable one, in that it offers something that should not be sold for money. People of honorable character resist the temptations to venal exchanges.
It may be one of our cultural blind spots that we celebrate the goodness of a “free market” in almost any imaginable context. “Money talks!” we cheer. Our Republican nominee tells of the routine gifts of cash he has made to candidates and legislators on both sides of the aisle. Our Democratic nominee is defending herself from numerous charges of granting insider access to the big donors. A US News & World Report article states, “Of the $1 billion spent in federal elections by super PACs since 2010, nearly 60 percent of the money came from just 195 individuals and their spouses… Campaign reform advocates say the amount of money spent is not inherently a problem; rather, it's the fact that a tiny number of extraordinarily wealthy individuals are bankrolling the majority of that spending.” And we euphemistically call that, in our time and place, “the exercise of free speech.”
Here is what I believe, and what I commend to you in this messy election season. Jesus refused to accept the role of the supreme earthly leader when he was at the peak of his earthly influence. When his disciples clamored for the positions of authority and influence in his regime, he taught them that greatness was found in the servant’s work, by doing the dirty and lowly jobs of seeking the well-being of the others around him or her. Jesus teaches us that our primary, defining citizenship is in a spiritual kingdom. Our primary responsibility is to serve the eternal one who has already come to serve us; who came to live, die, and rise for us; who came to lead us in offering our gifts--our blood, sweat, tears, toil, prayers; our wealth, time, and strength; our mercy and our love—to make this world turn out right. How are we currently joined with Him in this saving work?
Please, don’t allow anyone to beguile you that your well-being, and the ultimate well-being of the planet rests in the hands of Herod, Caligula, Pontius Pilate, or Nero. Nor will it reside in the capitals of Washington, London, Beijing or Moscow. Don’t pray for God to appoint some supreme earthly leader who will make the world’s problems go away, and usher in the righteous reign of the superior people. That is irresponsible, unfaithful madness!
What does Jesus tell us? We are already citizens in a government whose Chief Executive has earned his place at the top, and is not up for re-election. You are the ambassadors for the only Kingdom that can ever bring peace on earth. You are the treasurers with wealth to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. That power is in our checking accounts and investments. The neighborly kindness that welcomes the stranger and houses the refugee children is your kindness. You are the secretaries of defense, to guard your households from the dangers and seductions of false pleasures and promises. You are the Secretaries of Health, Education, and Welfare, healing, guiding and tending one another. The integrity, honor, fairness and decency by which our nation can be strengthened is primarily that which you embody, because Christ lives in you. You are the salt of the earth, spicing it and preserving it from decay. This parish church, and the role each one of you plays in it, is the light of the world. That’s what the King of Kings tells us. We are His nominees for this redeeming work. Will we accept these roles in the service of this Lord?
Let’s concentrate our hope, prayer and loyalty, then, in our Wonderful Counselor, Jesus Christ. His, alone, now and forever, is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory. Place your trust entirely there.
Sermon Proper 17, RCL C, 8/28/2016
“Increase in us true religion…” we prayed a moment ago. The sentence implies that it is possible for us to be drawn away from God into false beliefs and practices. It also implies that we can either drift away from God or be drawn more deeply and surely into God’s Spirit. No matter what religious tradition or seeking path we come from, we could probably all agree that true religion should genuinely expresses the true nature, purpose and power of God among us. The most blessed, and best of us will always make God’s love and presence known to the rest of us.
In my own childhood, spending more Sundays than not in Episcopal Church worship, I’m not sure that I followed a true religion. What my parish Church preached and taught fit squarely with Jesus’ message. What I believed was a little different. I believed that the ultimate goal of life was to secure my place among the academic elite of the nation by admission to “a good school.” The assumption was that all the other doors of the culture to the Good Life would open from that high platform. As our family didn’t have wealth, or real estate, or connections in the spheres of family, business, or politics, the most accessible on-ramp to an elite sector was through academics.
Regarding the service of God, I was ambivalent. God was an inscrutable subject. And the academic elite I aspired to join was smugly dismissive of religious faith and most established traditions in any area of the culture. The service of our neighbors was a nice idea, in the category of good manners. But it wasn’t a guiding principle of my daily life. Not until Jesus became the uncontested guide, source, and Good Shepherd of my daily life.
In the prophet, Jeremiah’s view, and in Jesus’ view, genuine spiritual life is not merely a set of conventions that takes our flesh and blood and adds the refining touches of good sense and good manners… It is not just a stylish touch-up, but a new creation, introducing God’s own indwelling presence, God’s Spirit, into the heart of our being. True religion, from the Christian perspective, is one that recreates us as human embodiments of divine wisdom and compassion.
This premise might help us to understand what today’s lessons are showing us.
Jeremiah traces a vivid image, comparing two different sources of water necessary for survival in that dry area. Jeremiah describes the providence of God as a “fountain of living water,” which the people of his day have exchanged for Gods of their own invention. By comparison, the people’s misdirected devotion is compared to cisterns the people have built for themselves: flawed, cracked, and unfit to fulfill their intended purpose. The agonized appeal of God is “Why would you forsake the real thing--the God who delivered, saved, and provided for you-- for a false, ridiculous substitute, and one that doesn’t work? Why would you adopt a false faith after having experienced my care at first hand?”
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews similarly wants his readers to offer God the real deal. He enjoins the integrity of right belief and good conduct. The basis for both right belief and good conduct is a vibrant, humble, deep reliance on God’s presence and power. True religion must be rooted in this larger life of the Spirit, and not in our own natural preferences for self-serving conveniences and conventions. “Not my will, but thine be done.”
And that brings us to Jesus’ seemingly inexplicable behavior as a Sabbath dinner guest at the home of a ruling Pharisee. To any of us, it is hard to see anything but the most preposterously discourteous chastising of both his hosts and his fellow guests. Which of us would ever try to publicly challenge a person of high standing in the community, in his or her own home, about who he or she has chosen to invite to dinner? And then to turn on the other guests and presume to correct their behavior as they choose their seats? What on earth is he thinking?
As I have thought about this passage through the week, I have concluded that Jesus has one overriding motive. He wants his colleagues to understand the truth… the truth about God and about themselves. He simply won’t settle for honoring lesser conventions of politeness or regard for social status as though these were the ultimate values of life.
First off, whenever the New Testament writers speak of the Pharisees, it is a kind of shorthand device. The readers or listeners will know that these are the contemporaries of Jesus who were most scrupulous about teaching and keeping every detail of an ever-expanding set of laws, ceremonial regulations and duties. Predictably, many of those who strove most assiduously to fulfill all these rules were susceptible to a kind of self-congratulatory smugness about their own righteousness, and the comparative shortcomings of all the lesser, “little people” around them who lacked their religious achievements. The peril of this disposition was an inordinately high self-regard. Jesus was continually in conflict with them as he tried to get them to recognize the merciful compassion of a God who longs to gather all his children--wise or simple, secure or struggling, conspicuously virtuous or mindful of their awful failings—back to himself.
So it is against this backdrop of the self-congratulatory self-sufficiency among many of his listeners that Jesus tries to get them to see deeper truths about God.
“What if,” he proposes, “What if, instead of simply gathering to celebrate and share with your high status, like-minded, affluent and socially respected peers… What if you opened your hearts to recognize the humanity, dignity, the longing for recognition and good things shared in all your neighbors? What if you saw with God’s eyes and God’s heart, and deliberately included those who had no resources to pay back your favor? Knowing the power of generous hospitality, what if you made it a point, as God does, to invite those seen by conventional worldly culture as weak, as awkward, as needy or flawed? What if, instead of merely celebrating all the good things you have received along with the others in your club, you decided, like your Heavenly Father, to be compassionate and helpful in using all those good things?
In short, he asks, “Have you ever considered how your religious and social lives and commitments would look if, in your hearts, the love of God was primary, rooted and flourishing there?”
I don’t think that Luke’s portrait of Jesus is of a censorious scold. This is one who is trying to bring the faithful people of his day to see how much better they can be, how much finer, purer, and more true to God they can be… if they will only see beyond their human pride and self-serving customs to God’s love for His world. God’s way is higher than our ways. Jesus wants us to join him, focused on God’s priorities. He wants to make whatever changes we must make—turning to God, humbling ourselves before God, opening our hearts to God, seeking God. And out of that sincere devotion, we can begin to obey God’s directives to love, to share, to give, to serve.
Yes, we’re to love our families, friends, and near neighbors, and in doing so, to show the world an example of our loyalty. Jesus calls us further: welcome the stranger, reconcile with your enemy; show compassion whenever we have the power to influence another for the better. God calls us beyond natural affection.
Yes, we’re to take pride in our achievements and to enjoy the comforts God has provided us. But Jesus calls us further: to see the undeveloped potential in others who have fallen short; to see the image of God in the poor, the disfigured, the sick and suffering. God calls us beyond mere comfort.
Yes, we’re to use our minds, our educations, and the advantages we have been given to build good careers and solid reputations. Yes, we are to celebrate and enjoy the fellowship we have along the way with those who make the journey with us. But in God’s heart there is more to us, and more for us than this. That is what Jesus is trying to get us all to see.
Jesus is telling us that we can, with God’s help, experience lives of infinitely more joy and brightness than we can ask for or imagine. As God’s spiritual children, we are all designed to become more than high achievers. We are to be the loved and forgiven exemplars of faith, hope and love to a fractured, fearful, darkened and confused world. The best of us will always make God’s love and presence known to the rest of us. And so we pray, increase that true religion in every one of us, even if it puzzles us, stretches our comfort zones, and troubles us. Keep after us, Jesus, until we get it right. Amen .
[We’re right, I believe, to question religious expressions that seem to be mere extensions of human pride, self-centeredness, intolerance, and which promote attitudes of superiority. We’re right to challenge anyone’s religious rationales for violence, or that lead toward derision of those considered to be infidels or “outsiders.” If--as Christians believe--there a God of love, mercy, and compassion, then we can confidently pray to God, asking for more of love, mercy, and compassion to be manifest in and among us.]
Sermon: Joint worship service, with 1st Congregational Church of Marion, 7/31/16 Proper 13, RCL C
Jesus warns us all away from inertia, using material wealth as a parable.
We can expect a bad outcome when we behave like the man with one talent, who buried his treasure in the ground. Even the little we have will be taken from us. Similarly, we can expect a bad outcome when we behave like the man who has more wealth than he knows what to do with, and so builds bigger barns to store it up. Neither one of these actors puts what he has to work for the benefit of the community of which they are a part. Neither one of them ventures, that is, attempting to make something better or finer, or attempting to bring something new and useful into being. In our Christian vocabulary, neither one of these characters acts as a good steward of what is entrusted to him. They regard their material wealth simply as objects that belong to them, with which they can do whatever they want. Neither accepts the responsibility to make the wealth entrusted to them work for good.
We might take a spiritual lesson from the cycle of wealth production and management that we observe across generations. Opportunity, to Privilege, to Entitlement. It is a common phenomenon that a person starts without much, and by clever ideas and hard work amasses wealth over a lifetime. He or she leaves the next generation with a more affluent starting point, and, along with that, passes along some of the ethics of clever initiative, work and thrift. The base of wealth grows further, and sums are put in trust funds for the next generation. The third generation inherits its wealth, and, unfortunately, sometimes, a sense of unearned entitlement replaces the earlier values of initiative and responsible work. Folks simply expect wealth to create and replenish itself, as the natural state of things. The capital earned in earlier generations is spent down, and gradually disappears.
I argue that there is a similar dynamic with moral and spiritual capital, and the effect is has in civilization, across generations. In the microcosm of the ancestors of our two congregations, we can observe the pattern. In my grandfather’s generation, Christian education was a central part of nearly every prep-school’s campus life. Whether our grandparents attended Tabor, Exeter or Andover, St. Paul’s, Choate, Milton or Northfield, Williston-Northampton, Kent or Hotchkiss, they were in a Christian chapel several times a week. Their curricula led all students to basic Biblical literacy. The Apostles’ Creed and the 10 Commandments were in every Sunday School’s basic memory assignments. In our public schools, the Lord’s Prayer was coupled with the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag through 1963, when I was eight years old. People knew that YMCA and YWCA stood for the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations.
Out of that cultural consensus, and the customs that naturally attended them, came some of the quaint and good local traits are still found in some instances today. We don’t lock doors; we leave keys in the ignition, because we trust our neighbors to have decent character traits. We don’t steal from one another. The seniors among us reflexively check up on one another, comforting the sick. We readily share with a neighbor. Do you remember borrowing a cup of something from a neighbor because stores were closed on Sundays?
But over the next two generations those same schools and cultural institutions that conveyed our collective moral ballast have jettisoned all but the external forms of religious, spiritual, and moral formation. It should not surprise us to see, in the larger culture all around us, growing expressions of narcissism, sexual abuse, crime, cheating, violence, human trafficking, drug and alcohol use as our culture has failed to replenish the basic character traits of self-restraint that our Judeo-Christian faith once provided.
We as wrong-headed as trust-fund adolescents with a sense of entitlement if we imagine that faith in God, trust, honesty, character, respect for authority, charity, voluntarism, tolerance for differences, and neighborly love simply are the natural baseline for every society. Even our quaint little local community will come apart, morally and socially, if we imagine that none of us has a responsibility to contribute to and replenish the spiritual and moral capital in our generation.
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, is famous for his diagnosis of the breakdown of social capital… Here is an excerpt from a 2011 WSJ article, written by a prominent English rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, in which Putnam’s work is cited.
“At the end of 2010, [Putnam] wrote in "American Grace," Social capital has not disappeared. It is alive and well and can be found in churches, synagogues and other places of worship. Religious people, he discovered, make better neighbors and citizens. They are more likely to give to charity, volunteer, assist a homeless person, donate blood, spend time with someone feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger, help someone find a job and take part in local civic life. Affiliation to a religious community is the best predictor of altruism and empathy: better than education, age, income, gender or race.”
“Much can and must be done by governments, but they cannot of themselves change lives. Governments cannot make marriages or turn feckless individuals into responsible citizens. That needs another kind of change agent. Alexis de Tocqueville saw it [200 years ago], Robert Putnam is saying it now. [Civilization] needs religion: not as doctrine but as a shaper of behavior, a tutor in morality, an ongoing seminar in self-restraint and pursuit of the common good.”
Britain's chief rabbi on the moral disintegration since the 1960s and how to rebuild, By Jonathan Sacks, August 20, 2011
Wall Street Journal: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424053111903639404576516252066723110
OK, then, what should we Congregational and Episcopal Christians do in 2016? I offer these three simple steps as critically important:
1) Can we please recognize the substantive similarity of our Christian faith, our shared moral compass and ethical norms, and our mission to share Christ’s spiritual disciplines of prayer and service as the basis for more intentional fellowship with one another? Together, we play golf, go fishing, play tennis, earn money, go shopping, attend parties, race sailboats… Our children go to school together, date one another, and marry one another. We even keep the same Sabbath, sing the same hymns, read the same Bible lessons, and pray the same prayers on the same Holy Days. Why must we pretend to be so foreign and different from one another as followers of Jesus Christ?
2) Can we please, officially collectively name and repudiate the idea that we are essentially in competition with one another for the dozen or so already-formed Christians who move to our community each year? Our mission field in Marion alone is supposed to be, and in God’s eyes, is, the three to nine thousand persons who wander through this town with no contact of any kind with any of our churches. Can we contend together against secularism, materialism, political corruption, cynicism, hedonism, consumerism, environmental degradation, and nihilistic militant Islamism? Can we, like fellow oarsmen in a crew race, congratulate one another when any one of us rows well? So let’s drop this erroneous, unhelpful, and I suspect, diabolical idea that we are in competition with one another to keep our institutions funded. We are here to shine Christ’s light and to make disciples. Can someone say “Amen?”
3) If that last statement is true, then let’s do this. Let’s encourage one another’s ministries at every possible point. Did you, our beloved Congregational neighbors, know that we published, for the last two weeks, promotional news of your summer fair because we want you to succeed and flourish? Do you know that every time Pastor Sheila’s name comes up in my conversation with someone, I cheer her to the heavens for the faithful and loving leader she is? Can we systematically share information with one another about any and every new initiative—educational, musical, our outreach--to engage our neighbors with the Good News of Christ’s love? Is there any reason that we can’t invite one another to attend any and every event we launch?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, Our Lord poured out his life that the world might know the riches and wonders of God’s love for all. Let’s ask God’s help to free us from all that inhibits that witness today. And once we can clearly see Christ in one another, let’s bring word of that glorious, redeeming one to an increasingly chaotic world that rightly looks for evidence among us to prove that Christ truly lives.
Sermon, Proper 6, RCL C, Justice and Grace 6/15/2016
through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion…
Why shouldn’t we simply pursue and celebrate justice as our ultimate, sufficient, and appropriate service to God and to our neighbors? Isn’t justice a good thing? Why do our Lord and our Church say that justice needs the counterbalancing virtue of compassion? Let’s explore this relationship, and see what God may be telling us today.
In the Old Testament story we are introduced to the wicked King, Ahab, and his even more wicked Queen, Jezebel. The King makes a reasonable and generous offer to buy his neighbor’s vineyard. The King’s venality is revealed in his thinking that anything and everything can be bought and sold. He is stymied by the idea that some things, like honor, or family loyalty, are not for sale. We see a version of retributive justice for the royal couple’s villainy prophesied through the prophet, Elijah. He announces that God has perceived their greed, lies, fraud, murder, and theft. Naboth’s unjust death means that there is no possible remedy or consolation for him. Horrid, dishonored deaths are prophesied for Ahab and Jezebel, and the end of their royal family line is predicted. In this basic and raw iteration of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” the royal couple’s maliciously evil conduct is punished by harsh and violent deaths and dishonor. There is no courtroom process. God brings justly deserved doom directly. This is one version of justice.
Another version of justice has surfaced in some parts of our American culture. It can be characterized as restitutive, or restorative justice. Rather than emphasizing the punishment of the offender, this approach tries to assure fair and appropriate restitution toward the offended, and, as a corollary good, the rehabilitation of the criminal actor. The aim is "to repair the harm they've done – by apologizing, returning stolen money, or through community service.” It is more frequently attempted with younger offenders, and often entails dialogue between the one who has acted badly, and those who are the victims of that behavior. We saw this in the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. “Restorative justice is about the idea that because crime brings injury, justice should heal.”
That brings us toward the prayer with which we opened our worship: that through God’s grace, we might minister God’s justice with compassion… For centuries, Christians in the Anglican tradition have recited these words in worship: “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live; and hath given power and commandment to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins: He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.
The concept of unmerited favor, of receiving better treatment than mere justice would allow, is at the heart of God’s grace toward us. This is the example that we see in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus expresses God’s care for the shamed woman who is lavishing blessing and gratitude on him. His ministry to her has demonstrated that she can be forgiven for her past and restored to a new life of hope and promise. Show me a man or a woman who does not need or want that gift!
I have been reading David Brook’s newest book, The Road to Character, published in 2015. Some of you will know him as the commentator counterpart to Mark Shields on the weekly PBS program, News Hour. He writes an editorial column for the New York Times. He has been dubbed “the liberals’ favorite conservative.” Here is where it gets interesting for a Sunday morning homily.
Brooks describes himself as an observant conservative Jew. So he has a solid grounding in Biblical monotheism. Listen to what he says about living the Christian faith: "There's something just awesome about seeing somebody stand up and imitate and live the non-negotiable truth of Jesus Christ," Brooks told The Gathering, an annual meeting of evangelical Christian philanthropists, last October. He hardly hid his religiosity under a bushel there, telling the crowd, "I want you to know that I am for you and I love you," he said, noting that he attends a Bible study class.
In the introduction to his new book, Brooks disclosed a personal reason for writing it: "I wrote it to save my soul." Inspired by the authentic Christian joy of what he calls "incandescent souls," Brooks decided to find out what makes them tick. "A few years ago I sent out to discover how those deeply good people got that way. I didn't know if I could follow their road to character (I'm a pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter and better than I really am). But I at least wanted to know what the road looked like."
“The authentic joy of incandescent souls…” You know who some of those people are! More astonishing still, you have the opportunity to be one of those authentically joyful incandescent souls!
Breaking News at Newsmax.com http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/david-brooks-new-york-times-convert-christianity/2015/04/17/id/639149/#ixzz4BMIlj1gM
On the chance that some of you may benefit by a refresher in how God’s justice and compassion work to forgive us, to free us from our past, and to energize us for compassionate service, here is an excerpt from the Road to Character. It nicely encapsulates this conservative Jew’s understanding of the spiritual dynamics of redemption in Jesus Christ. So here is Piper, quoting Brooks, telling about Tim Keller (the chief pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City), talking about St. Augustine, referring to St. Paul, speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, who bears witness to the love of our eternal Heavenly Father. This Good News clearly still has the power to engage searching, thoughtful hearts and minds! Brooks writes:
Augustine came to conclude that the way to inner joy in not through agency and action—it’s through surrender and receptivity to God. The point… is to surrender, or at least suppress your will, your ambition, your desire to achieve victory on your own. The point is to acknowledge that God is the chief driver here, and that he already has a plan for you. God already has truths he wants you to live by.
“What’s more, God has already justified your existence. You may have the feeling that you are on trial in this life, that you have to work and achieve and make your mark to earn a good verdict. Some days you provide evidence for the defense that you are a worthwhile person. Some days you provide evidence for the prosecution that you are not… In Christian thought, the trial is already over. The verdict came in before you even began your presentation. That’s because Jesus stood trial for you. He took the condemnation that you deserve.
“Imagine the person you love most in the world getting nailed to wood as penalty for the sins you yourself committed. Imagine the emotions that would go through your mind as you watched that. This is, in the Christian mind, just a miniature version of the sacrifice Jesus made for you. As Keller puts it, “God imputes Christ’s perfect performance to us as if it were our own, and adopts us into His family.”
“God wants to give us a gift, and we want to buy it.” (Jennifer Herdt, Putting on Virtue.) We continually want to earn salvation and meaning through work and achievement. But salvation and meaning are actually won, in this way of living, when you raise the white flag of surrender and allow grace to flood your soul…
“This…flows from an awareness of need, of one’s own insufficiency. Only God has the power to order your inner world, not you. Only God has the power to orient your desires and reshape your emotions, not you.” (The whole book is worth reading. I gave it to everyone in my family this past Christmas. If you want to cut to the chase on the power of Christ to search us out, reclaim us as God’s own, and rewire our spiritual circuitry for love, joy, and service, go to Chapter 8.)
Friends, this gift, this incredible story, this renewed and resurrected relationship with God is our inheritance. Please don’t exchange it for merely temporal diversions, for obsession with work or with recreation. Don’t try to build on the false premise that your “meritocratic impulse can win victory for God and then you’ll get rewarded for your effort.”
(Brooks, p. 206)
Jesus is still creating authentically joyful incandescent souls. This is a better outcome than mere justice, because none of us would fare very well in a verdict where only our virtue and vice are introduced for judgment. Accept this amazing gift of God’s restoring compassion. Accept that you have already been accepted. Accept what Jesus brings to you, and for you… that he may do something truly glorious in you and through you… among us… and for the blessing of this generation.
Rev. Geoffrey T. Piper
Base on John 20:19-31
The disciples asked among themselves, “Where is Jesus?”
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
Take my lips, O Lord, and speak through them, take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen. This was the prayer that Reno Harp, the rector of St. Stephen’s Richmond where Patsy and I grew up, said before every sermon.
Can you remember the feeling of a time, perhaps a dark night alone, when you were snug in bed and you heard a noise in the house? Or maybe that grip of fear came when you were in a foxhole, or in a doctor’s waiting room or sitting outside the boss’ closed office door.
When we lived in Mons in Belgium, we had a new baby and I took the older two children to the town square for a celebration on St. George’s Day, complete with dragon. Kate, a small 6 year old, was on my shoulders and Jason, a husky 9, held my hand. The square began to fill up and the press of bodies against us was alarmingly uncomfortable. This sensation escalated to near panic as the crowd began to move, carrying me with it whether I wanted to follow or not. I became convinced that if I dropped Kate or let go of Jason’s hand, they would be trampled.
How much more fearful must the disciples have been, locked in the same room perhaps as the one where just 72 hours before Jesus had broken bread and offered wine: “Take, this is my body. This is my blood”. Where he told the 12 that one of them would betray him, saying “Judas, don’t play games with me. Do what you are going to do and do it now. The room where Mary Magdalene came to announce the empty tomb.
Where is Jesus?
The disciples were frightened…confused…whipsawed by the tumultuous events of the previous 8 days: the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, Jesus’ arrest, and his death by slow asphyxiation on the cross.
Have we not all had times when our happy expectations fail, the floor seems to have fallen away and our world seems upside down? Triumph and success suddenly crash and burn.
And Jesus suddenly appears among them...without fanfare.
And he says to them - what?
“Let me explain all that has happened?”
“Let me quote to you from the Tanahk, the Old Testament to show you how all this was foretold?”
“Why didn’t you stand by me?
No. He says “Peace be with you.”
In Aramaic, shlama alekhun. Chill out.
This was a time for hot cocoa, a hug and a “blankie”. Jesus was the one they leaned on in life.
Hear from John 13:23 One of the disciples, the one Jesus loved dearly, was reclining against him with his head on his shoulder.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to be in his presence? Perhaps you have been in a group when someone of importance or heft arrives: a rock star, a diva, a beautiful person who makes heads turn. The room changes shape and size – one’s attention and whole body is pulled forward as if by a magnet.
Imagine what the 10 disciples must have felt, to see Jesus – definitely dead 48 hours before, a limp bloodless corpse with nail holes and wounded side, now surprisingly and comfortingly alive.
After Jesus “departs,” who walks in? Thomas. Do we know Thomas? Of course we do. He’s practical, down to earth, stolid, logical. He wears stout shoes and remembers to have them regularly resoled. I mean, the other 10 have been hunkered down, terrified that they will be betrayed and killed painfully and Thomas has gone out - for a beer or to see a girlfriend or to the grocery store or to have his hat blocked.
“We have seen the Lord” – or words to that effect, probably a babble of competing, enthusiastic voices asking him to share in their joy. “Can you believe it? Jesus was here, in this room, talking to us. Absolutely no question that it was him.
And Thomas’ response is much in the vein of Eeyore, friend of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh. “Oh, sure. Pull my other leg. Seeing is believing and I haven’t seen.” And then, he does. He sees and he believes.
After that, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen me in the flesh and yet have come to believe.” This is an interesting phrase, a remarkable choice of words, isn’t it? Come to believe. Not arrive at belief but journey…struggle… overcome obstacles…go through dry patches…take wrong turns…suffer doubt and confusion…withstand questioning…even ridicule and contempt…ignorance.
So why do we do that? Why do we persist in coming to believe? Is it because we have found early in life - or much later for us slow learners- that life without Jesus, without Abba, Father God, without the Holy Spirit is stale, shopworn, fruitless, dull – auf deutsch, langweilig, en francais, ennuyeux, en espanol, aburrido – not worth living?
Will you read aloud with me? The last sentence of the Gospel, beginning with “But these things…”
But these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and through believing you may have life in his name.
There was a PBS series long ago about Joseph Campbell, long time professor of Comparative Mythology and Comparative Religion at Sarah Lawrence, author of many books, known for his signature phrase, “Follow your bliss.” Bill Moyers asks Campbell about man’s search for “meaning.” Campbell corrects him, saying that women and men search not for “meaning” but for the experience of being alive. And this is what Jesus offered then and offers now: the experience of being fully alive. (Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder: “It’s alive!”)
This winter, in Florida, Patsy and I heard a sermon in which the topic was the impact of Jesus’ message. But I left the church somewhat confused. Had I nodded off when the priest told us what the message was? Was the message so obvious that it didn’t need to be stated? Did the priest forget to tell us what the message was?
I certainly don’t want you to leave with similar questions. Jesus’ message is this: God’s Kingdom is here, right now, as close to you as your next breath. It is a “free gift” as they say on TV. All you have to do is let it in.
This is easy because we receive it by Grace. We don’t merit it. Don’t deserve it. Can’t earn it.
But it is extremely difficult because we forget. From minute to minute, our knowing slips away. We fall asleep to this most crucial piece of information. And what disguise does that forgetting wear? False pride, sloth, unreasonable anger, self-pity, defensive anxiety and fear, overbusyness, intellectual perfection, chasing the brass ring?
So shaming and frustrating when we pull ourselves up short and say, “I’ve done it again.” Fallen asleep to Jesus’ teaching, his fundamental message.
Where is Jesus?
Even good things, like maturity…experience…intelligence…riches…learned degrees…material and personal success …seem to make no difference and may even be detrimental, to be barriers to receiving the gift and being fully alive. Consider: There is no road map. Rules don’t work. The only way is The Way – capital T, capital W - alertness to the reality of the moment as God gives them to us, seeing Jesus in every one we meet.
And how do we do that? Is it teachable? Is it learnable? Are we educable? When the traveler asked at the Grand Central Station Information Desk, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” the chorus of bystanders intoned, “Practice, practice, practice.” And what constitutes practice? Prayer…meditation…study…confession…earnest conversation with others.
Here is William Wordsworth from 1798, giving voice to his sadness and bereavement in one of the Lucy Poems. We can ask ourselves: who is Lucy to the poet? What has he lost – a love… innocence…hope… his faith?
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye
Fair as a star when only one
Is shining in the sky
She lived alone and none could know
When Lucy ceased to be
But she is in her grave
And, oh, the difference to me.
Well, Jesus is not in his grave
And, oh, the difference to me.
Where is Jesus?
Where, oh where is Jesus for you?