“Christ is King”

A Sermon for the Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King

Preached at

Trinity Episcopal Church

in Easton, Pennsylvania

November 22, 2020

O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the

earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those

who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people

everywhere may seek after you and find you, bring the nations

into your fold, pour out your Spirit upon all flesh, and hasten

the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,

now and forever. Amen.

Hashem Melech, Hashem Malach, Hashem Yimloch

Hashem melech, (The LORD is King)

Hashem malach (The LORD was King),

Hashem yimloch (The LORD will be King)

le-olam va-ed (Forever and Ever)

Ahalell Hashem Elokim (I will praise the LORD G-d)

ve-agadlenu be-toda (and will make him great with gratitude)

Ahalell Hashem (I will praise the LORD G-d)

Elokim ve-agadlenu be-toda (and will make him great with gratitude)

Yod ve’He ve’Vav ve’He ve’ (YHWH)

Hashem elokeinu Hashem echad (The LORD our G-d, the LORD is one)

Yod ve’He ve’Vav ve’He ve’ (YHWH)

Hashem elokeinu Hashem echad (The LORD our G-d, the LORD is one)

Hashem melech, (The LORD is King)

Hashem malach, (The LORD was King),

Hashem yimloch (The LORD will be King)

le-olam va-ed (Forever and Ever)

Most of us probably do not pay too much attention to greetings—formal or informal. Though we might give some thought to how we want to greet someone who is important. We will probably want to find out what title we ought to use in addressing them. And, if we ever have the occasion to be presented to a reigning sovereign, we may well want to practice our bow or curtsy!

Each time we gather to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we begin with a greeting and a response. We probably have just taken it for granted. After all, it seems so routine and normal that we do not even think about it unless—to our surprise—the Rector decides to change it for Advent, for Lent, or for Easter! Then we make sure that we have the bulletin at hand so that we do not say the wrong thing!

I did a bit of research and discovered that the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England, and even the Anglican Church of Scotland all currently use some version of “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

The Orthodox Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, begins “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.”

In true Anglican fashion, the Episcopal Church chose to “split the difference,” and to routinely use this form: “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and forever. Amen.”

Whatever else one might say about John Chrysostom, and, sadly,he is known to have said some very mean things in some of his writings—and even in some of his sermons, about women and Jews, and others—when it came to liturgy, he made every effort to make use of prayers which may have, in fact, been used by the Primitive Church and by Judaism.

For instance, the introduction or greeting which he used to begin the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, appears to be taken, in large part, from the “berakah” or Jewish prayer of blessing. Almost all of the most  important Jewish prayers of thanksgiving or blessing begin with these words, “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam,” or “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, Ruler of the Universe.” Of course, there is a shift in emphasis, from “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God,” to “Blessed is the Kingdom of God,” and then the Patriarch of Constantinople goes on to spell out who he understands the Triune God to be.

We are a nation born in Revolution—we fought a war for our Independence—to escape from the perceived tyranny of George III and the House of Hanover. Thus, we are not really accustomed to hearing talk of “Kings,” and “monarchies.” Ironically, the very language which we use to speak of church buildings and structures contain remaining traces of that kind of language, though.

In Greek, the word for King was “basileos.” The palace in which the king lived, or the hall in which the king’s throne was found was called a basilikē. The Romans and, later the Christian Church, borrowed the word and translated it into the Latin word “basilica.” The basilica was the house, or the hall, in which the Church met or gathered for worship. It ceased to be a king’s house and became a house for the church, also known as the “domus ecclesiae,”—the “church-house.”

It seems to me, that the most helpful way to think of the Feast of Christ the King, Christ the Sovereign, Christ the Ruler, is to think of it as the Feast of Christ as head of the gathered community of faith—Jesus, the Christ (the anointed one, the Messiah of Israel), as Shepherd of the flock of the People of God. After all, today’s Gospel (Matthew 25: 31-46) speaks of “sheep” and “goats!”

We use this Feast to conclude our Liturgical Year. It provides us with the opportunity to look back and to evaluate. What has this year of Grace been like for us as a community of faith? Have we accomplished the tasks and the goals with which we began last Advent? It also provides us with a challenge. Next Sunday, the First Sunday of Advent, we begin a new Liturgical Year. What will our priorities be? What will we need to do to faithfully respond to the invitation of Jesus to become “Beloved Community?”

It seems entirely appropriate that at this “liminal moment” in which we end the old liturgical year and prepare to begin the new one, that our Lectionary shares with us the “Last Judgement Message” of our Lord, taken from the Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Imagine that it is like an inaugural speech. In it, Jesus lays out the values, priorities, and goals of the Reign of God, of the Beloved Community. I hope that we really are shocked, but also motivated and inspired, by the items on the agenda which is given to us.

What does it mean to be Beloved Community? According to Jesus it means

  • Feeding and caring for the hungry and thirsty
  • Welcoming the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, the outsider, the “other”
  • Clothing the naked, the homeless, the poor
  • Caring for the sick (whether physically, mentally, or spiritually)
  • Visiting prisoners (and any others who are institutionalized)

There are no words about accumulating wealth, gaining power and control, denominational growth and expansion, or even evangelizing! These are not abstract principles or theories. They are concrete directives. Choosing to do them means happiness, brings joy, and blessing. Failing to carry out these commands brings sadness, alienation, and loss.

If we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord, Master, Ruler, King, Shepherd—or whatever term we find meaningful—we must choose to carry out the mission which he has entrusted to us. If we have failed to do that to the best of our ability this past year—as individuals, or collectively—there is good news. It is not too late. As we are reminded elsewhere, “This is the acceptable time, this is the day of salvation.”

The lovely hymn with which I began this Sermon today reminds us “God is King, God was King, God will be King, forever and ever. Amen.” May we heed the call of God our King to make God’s love real and present in the lives of those whom God has entrusted to our care.

If we choose to accept God’s  invitation to be transformed into Beloved Community; by caring for the hungry and the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners, we will become a source of blessing. Our actions, carried out with love, will bless God. And the church-house, the little “basilica” where we gather as a community of faith will be filled with the very presence of Jesus the Christ, Jesus our King, Jesus our Shepherd. He is present in Word, in Sacrament, and in each person who is marked as Christ’s own forever and is welcomed into the household of faith.

Perhaps Love

A Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

October 25, 2020

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church

In Easton, Pennsylvania

“Teach us to rely on your strength and to

accept our responsibilities to our fellow citizens, that together

we may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for

the well-being of our society; that we may serve you

faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name.

For yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted

as head above all. Amen.”

Modified from “A Season of Prayer for an Election,” by Forward Day by Day.

Our Presiding Bishop, The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry (formerly the Bishop of North Carolina) likes to remind us, “If it is not about Love, it is not about God.” Clearly, he takes to heart the admonition that we hear our Lord share with us in today’s Gospel, “He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Bishop Curry has also spoken expansively about the ways in which the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement seeks to make that love real, present, and effective in our world today as “Beloved Community.”

Today, I would like to reflect with you on what it means for us to love, to be a people committed to love, and to explore the possibility that love is an answer to the most pressing questions which we face at a time of profound crisis in our world, and in our nation.

As wonderful as the emotion of love can be—and we use phrases like “walking on air,” to describe it—love, as Jesus teaches us, is far more powerful. It is the ultimate force for good in creation which holds all of reality together in close and unbreakable bonds. The bonds of this love are so strong, St. Paul reminds us, that not even life or death can tear them apart. Love is the very essence of who God is! God is love, we are reminded, over and over again!

God invites us to give ourselves to love in such a radical way that we become transformed. We are called to become a vessel, a fountain, a source of love. We are called to allow that love to overflow in such a profligate way that we show love in every thought, word, and action. But, of course, this will only be possible if we have first experienced that kind of amazing, delightful, joyous, and transformative love. Unless we know the power of love in our own lives, how can we possibly share love with anyone else? I am convinced that this is the single most important issue in the history of our world. It is nothing new, and it will remain a perpetual issue for us. It is all about love!

What does is mean for us to be a Beloved Community? How can we enable this healing, redemptive, and transformative love which we proclaim to become a source of “light, salt, and yeast” in our world?

The German Jesuit and theologian, Karl Rahner, once suggested that love is unique in one essential way—it is expressive. All love reaches out. All love is generative. True love is always more than something which is focused inward. And so, love inevitably creates relationships, interactions, and community.

We recall the story of the testing of Adam and Eve in our Garden-home of Eden. Through their actions they discovered that there are three essential relationships: The Relationship with God, the Relationship with others (community), and the Relationship with Creation and/or Nature. Each of these relationships challenged them–and challenge us–to be people of love. And the kind of love which we are invited to have is not an insignificant or trifling thing. No, on the contrary it is a passionate, powerful, and creative reality: “love with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” In other words, we are called to throw ourselves into the abyss of love.

But how do we evaluate our love—as individuals, and as a community? How can we know whether the love we profess is real? We must assess our love. We must ask ourselves difficult—and perhaps, painful questions. What is the effect, the impact, the consequence of this love? Is it truly expressive, creative, empowering, and transformative?

Recently, I was taken by surprise by a reflection by Pastor Sarah Hardman of the Third Way Church, from the mountains of Western North Carolina. Sarah did something completely unexpected with St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. She used those beautiful words as an invitation to self-examination. She challenged her listeners to view the qualities of love, which St. Paul describes so movingly, in a new and powerful way.

How can we know if we are authentically being loving? How can we know how to show love? “Are we patient? Are we kind? Are we envious? Are we boastful? Are we arrogant? Are we rude? Do we insist on having our own way? Are we irritable? Are we resentful? Do we rejoice in wrongdoing? Do we rejoice in truth? Do we bear all things? Do we believe? Are we really people of faith? Do we hope? Are we able to endure difficult challenges, and not lose hope–when that is needed? Do we reason in immature and childlike ways? Do we act like spoiled children—expecting to have our every desire be met? Do we reason in selfish and self-centered ways? Have we grown up? Have our thoughts, and words, and actions made love real, present, and effective in our world? Or, have we been an unbelievable, and distracting, gong or a noisy, clanging cymbal? Have we really been about God, or has it, too often, mostly been about us?”

I must tell you that Pastor Sarah’s invitation–to conversion, to change, to growth, and to transformation–went directly to my heart! When asked as questions, St. Paul’s words were uncomfortable to hear. Wow, I have a long way to go in my attempt to love, to be loving, and to even understand what love is all about!

The $64,000 question is “Where do we go from here?” What would it take for us to move from an inauthentic love to an authentic one? What can we do to become Beloved Community? How can we really love God, neighbor, and creation with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength?

We find ourselves as a nation, and as a global human community in a time of unprecedented crisis. We are faced with a pandemic which threatens the lives, security, and stability of everyone. No one is immune! In our own country this also comes at a time of change and growth regarding our besetting sins of Racism and White Supremacy. It is not that these sins have been any worse recently than they have been throughout our past. It is rather than they have been revealed to us in heart-breaking and brutal display because of advances in technology.

It comes at a time in which we are called to realize that equal justice and equality under our system of law does not exist—and has never existed! Violence, and hatred against BIPOC persons, against Women, against our LGBTQ+ siblings, against immigrants and refugees, and against our Jewish and Muslim siblings have been normalized! And we are faced with a difficult choice—Will we stand up, and speak out, on behalf of love? Will we mouth empty and meaningless cliches–or will we fight with all we have and with all that we are for love? Will we love God? Will we recognize the image of God in every single person? Will we treasure and protect the beautiful creation which God has entrusted to our care?

In just a few days, we will elect officials to represent us. How will we choose? Have we prayed about this? Have we asked God to help us know for whom we should vote? Have we been open to the movement of God’s Spirit in these matters? I am convinced that prayer is essential!

It is not helpful to ask God to bless a particular candidate or ideology that we happen to like! It is not helpful to tell God what the outcome of these elections ought to be. What is helpful is to ask God to lead us and to guide us into what is best for all! What is helpful is to ask God to show us how to be truly loving. What is most helpful is to pray “Your will be done.”

Our Friends at Forward Day by Day, have provided us with an excellent resource: “A Season of Prayer: for an Election,” a novena, which we can pray in the nine remaining days leading up to the election. Every day there is a different prayer for us.

Your challenge, my challenge–should we choose to accept it–is to seriously pray in the next few days! Let us put aside all anger, bitterness, resentment, hatred, and violence. May we open our hearts to love! May we be patient! May we be kind! May we listen to each other! May we encourage and support each other! May our words and our actions inspire hope, faith, and belief! May we be a source of healing and consolation to each other! May we become ever more fully Beloved Community, and may we share God’s love with every person we meet (in person or online)!

Father Andrew posted the link to “A Season of Prayer,” on our parish webpage and included it the most recent edition of Glad Tidings. It is provided to you today as an insert to the bulletin. Please join with us in praying this novena, over the coming nine days.

Regardless of the outcome of this election, we are broken, we are divided, and we are a hurting nation. Only love can begin to heal and repair our deep wounds. Though we are often told that God is love, and that we ought to be people of love, we must never forget that means loving everyone—whether we find them lovable, and easy to love—or not!

The beautiful fourth chapter of the First Letter of John makes this clear to us: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

The answer we have been desperately seeking is found in Jesus’ words which we heard today. Jesus asks us, and invites us, to love! ““’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

“He’s in the Midst of our Storm”

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Preached at

Trinity Episcopal Church

In Easton, Pennsylvania

September 27, 2020

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p. 824)

“He’s in The Midst” by The Bishops

As you travel down life’s road, He is with you every day.

With every step you take, He’s walked ahead of you.

And every night as you lay down, angels are camping all around.

I’ll never be alone, for He is in the midst.

Chorus:

He’s in the midst of our storm

He’s in the valley we walk through

Where two or three are gathered in his name, He’ll be there too

When you feel so all alone

He is standing next to you.

He’s with us now, our Lord, He’s in the midst.

Several days ago, I saw a rather surprising meme on Facebook, “We are not all in the same boat, but we are all in the same storm.”

It feels to me as if we are in the middle of a storm. This feels like one of those once in a thousand-year storms. The winds are blowing at hurricane force. The rains are torrential, the waters are rising. Will any building survive the gale force winds? Will the waters rise above our roofs? Will we be swept away? If the raging waters overwhelm us, will we find a plank onto which we can cling with all our might? Or, will the waters rise over our heads and bear us down to our doom?

We are on an ark. We are crowded onto a small boat in the midst of a huge ocean. We can no longer see the shore. The waves crash all around us, the winds threaten to overturn our vessel. In our fear, we are tempted to cry out to God, “Do you not even care that we are about to drown?” In our fear, we are tempted to wrestle with the Captain for control of the ship. We think that only we may know how to safely guide the ship to shore, and so we fight among ourselves. We give into panic as the ship seemingly veers out of control.

It is easy for us to criticize the People of Israel in the wilderness. And we often do. More often than not, they are depicted as complainers, as whiners, as people who are impossible to please. And poor Moses, he has our sympathy! He has the seemingly impossible task to trying to guide them through the desert. Talk about herding cats!

There are some things which we might want to keep in mind as we read the amazing story of the Exodus.

It is easy for us say that “they” should have trusted in God! After all, we know the rest of the story. We know about Joshua, Judges, Chronicles, and Kings. We also know about Saul, David, and Solomon. We know about Antiochus Epiphanes and Judah Maccabee. So, for us, it is easy to think of 40 years as “an instant” in a history which literally lasts for thousands of years.

We were not slaves in Egypt! We have no idea what it meant to reduced to chattel slavery. We can not imagine what it would be like to lose freedom, independence, and dignity. We can not imagine what it would be like to forced to labor for cruel and sadistic masters who hated us so much that they literally attempted to eradicate our race from the face of the earth! Not only chattel slavery, but genocide!

We can not imagine what it would have been like to have been so controlled and so deprived that we were never allowed to make even the simplest of decisions for ourselves—and then to be on our own in a unknown and frightening place. We can not imagine an existence so precarious that we were afraid to trust that we would make it through “today,” let alone worrying about the problems which “tomorrow” might bring.

Too often, we confuse Moses’ voice with God’s voice. Notice that in the passage which we heard today, it was NOT God who was complaining about the people of Israel, it was Moses! Poor God–talk about having to listen to everyone complain! The Israelites complained about God, and about Moses. And Moses did the same! And yet, God did not seem to be especially troubled by any complaints! When Israel or Moses called out for help, God heard and answered the plea. God provided for the essential needs in unimagined and delightful ways: Manna, quails, and water.

It is interesting that later generations looked back on the time of wandering in the desert as the “good old days.” They came to view that experience as the fire which refined and molded a weary and bruised group of emancipated slaves and transformed them into a community in a covenanted relationship with God.

For just a moment, we are challenged to remember the etymology of Israel. Jacob wrestled with an angel for an entire night—and almost won the fight! To commemorate that epic battle, his name was changed! Jacob became “Israel. His new name could mean, “He contended with God,” or “he struggled with God.” Israel, then as a people, as a nation, as an extended family, then, found a true calling, a vocation—to wrestle with God.

The amazing thing, is that like Abraham, like Jacob, like the later prophets, the people of Israel were in such a secure relationship with God that they were never afraid to tell God what they thought, what they wanted, what they needed, what they desired. When things do not go the way that they wanted, they never hesitated or were reluctant to make their opinions known. They had every expectation that God would listen to them, would hear them, and would seriously consider their opinion. There was no fawning, no obsequious self-effacement. They spoke to God as adults, and expected God to return the favor. They knew that, in return, God would tell them the truth—whether they wanted to hear it or not!

This was a relationship of oftentimes brutal honesty. And this kind of relationship required trust and commitment—required love! For it work, both parties must be yoked together, and unable to walk away! Problems had to be solved, solutions had to be found. Misunderstandings had to be cleared up. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing had to be often used—or it would be unendurable misery for everyone!

What does it mean to thirst? What does it mean to hunger? What does it mean to have no security net? What does it mean to be totally and completely dependent on others? Can we imagine the heat and frustration of the desert? Can we imagine the endless walking—not even knowing where we are going, or if we will ever get there? Can we imagine feeling so hopeless that we are tempted to just lie down to die? Can we imagine looking back and thinking that even the brutality of slavery might have been better? At least that was something which was known. There were strategies for coping with that. There were even a few consolations—the onions were tasty, after all! But to trust in the unknown, the unproven, the new. Now that takes courage! That takes faith! That takes trust!

Our Christian faith is centered on the reality that “God is with us” in the saving and healing mystery of Jesus. Son of Israel, son of God, our Lord knew what it was to hunger. On the cross, he too struggled to breathe! He too cried out that he thirsted! Even in the midst of that passion, of that suffering, of that pain, of that hurt and misery—he persevered in trusting God. He did not hesitate to question or to wrestle. Despite the lack of answers that he found, he chose to continue to trust!

What was it that gave him hope? What was it which allowed him to believe, and to trust in the face of despair and defeat? It was ultimately the unshakable conviction that he was not alone. Just as God had traveled through the desert with the People of Israel, Jesus continued to trust that God was with him. Even his honestly announced fear that God might have abandoned him did not cause him to lose hope. And that trust was vindicated in the Resurrection. He recognized that God was in the midst of the storm that he was passing through

In the midst of the storms which we face personally, in the midst of the storm which we face as a nation, what can we do? What can offer us hope? Like the People of Israel, we can trust that God is with us in the midst of our storm. Like Jesus, we can trust that God knows the confusion, the fear, the debilitating helplessness which we experience.

As the beautiful hymn from the letter to the Church at Philippi reminds us, humility is a virtue which can serve us well. We do not know everything. We do not have all the answers. We are often wrong. We often fail to even ask the right questions. We need to learn how to listen We need to learn how to be present to others, to unite with them in solidarity, to show them love. We need to learn that the most important thing we can do is to just “be there.” We need to learn how to forgive, to reconcile, and to work together. We need to learn how to overcome differences of opinions and to find common ground. We need to learn how to wrestle—not just to win, but to become and to build relationships!

God is with us,

“He’s in the midst of our storm

He’s in the valley—or the desert–we walk through

When we feel so all alone

He is standing with us!

He’s with us now, our Lord, He’s in the midst.”

Who do we find in our Sacred Scriptures?

A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

August 23, 2020

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church

in Easton, Pennsylvania

A Prayer of Welcome

Loving God,

Open our hearts to those most in need:

The unemployed parent worried about feeding his or her children,

The woman who is underpaid, harassed, or abused.

The Black man and woman who fear for their lives.

The immigrant at the border, longing for safety.

The homeless person looking for a meal.

The LGBT teen who is bullied.

The unborn child in the womb.

The inmate on death row.

Help us to be a nation where

          every life is sacred,

          all people are loved,

          and all are welcome.

          Amen.

The Rev. James Martin, S.J.

Black Eyed Susan on Bird Bath 08-21-2020

 

When I was a diocesan seminarian, many years ago, before I left for the monastery, I participated in a fascinating retreat. The retreat master asked us a very surprising question, “Can you find yourself in Sacred Scripture?” That was, honestly, something which had never occurred to me before! I had always thought that the stories found in Scripture—both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Christian Scriptures were about other people. It had never occurred to me that they might have something to do with me!

He went on to suggest something even more radical. He said that if we wanted to make the stories of the Christian Scriptures meaningful for those with whom we would be sharing them, we would have to find a way to re-tell them in ways that would make sense to them. He made a daunting proposal to us. What would it be like to write a Gospel that used characters and locations and foods from our own culture? What would it mean for me to write a Southern Mountain Gospel in which Jesus, the Disciples, the friends and followers of Jesus, the authorities—religious and civil—looked, spoke, and acted like me? I am sorry to say that I never took him up on that invitation. But, it is a challenge which has haunted me from the edge of everything I have done ever since that day. It is something which I aspire to do—and hope to do before I die.

The point, I came to realize, is that unless the Scriptures are so real to us that we can hear the voices of those who are speaking, view the animals, the flowers, and see the places where the actions unfold; unless we can smell the streets, taste the food, and feel the texture of the clothing, it will not be possible for us to convincingly share those stories with the life-changing power which is contained within them. Clearly, the retreat master must have been influenced by the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, because this was the radical approach which he proposed.

Just a few years ago, I was blessed to attend the Episcopal Latino Ministry Competency Course at Sewanee. One of the presenters there, invited us to view the Scriptures—and especially the Gospels from the perspective of those who “live on the border.” This was another fascinating insight. We were challenged to view the Gospel stories from the perspective of those who were excluded from our society, from our institutions, and from the structures of power which dominate so much. What would it mean to read those stories as an immigrant at the border? As a Black person? As a person of Color? What would it mean to read those inspired words as a Woman, as an LGBTQIA person, as a Jew, as a Muslim, as a Hindu or Buddhist? What would it mean to read the words and actions of Jesus as someone who had been hurt by organized religion, as someone who had been abused? What would it mean to read of banquets and feasts when one was homeless, and hungry, and naked, and ill, or afraid?

Is it possible for each of us to find ourselves in those stories? Can we find a loving God who cares for us, who values us, who treasures us, and who calls us to loving service—to ministry in our own homes, and communities, and in our wider world? Is it possible for us to find the “other” in those stories? And if we really want to do that, how do we even get started?

One of the greatest blessings of the Twentieth Century was “Liberation Theology.” Drawing inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and from many other sources, this theology sought to unshackle the power of Sacred Scripture for those who exploited, oppressed, victimized, and excluded. This “theology of those at the bottom,” looked to the Gospels and especially to the words and actions of Jesus to find ways to take on systemic injustice, racism, and prejudice. They found in Jesus a revolutionary who had come to bring social transformation. They found a Jesus who invited all to inclusive community—where the abundance of God’s generosity provided more than ample resources for the needs of all. Often working in poor villages and communities of “los de abajo,” as they were called, these liberationists did not hesitate to proclaim that Jesus was on the side of the poor, the weak, the oppressed, and the marginalized. They said that Church and other institutions must have a “preferential option for the poor.” And, to the surprise of no-one, their prophetic teaching was met with anger, hostility, and violence by those in power. Archbishop Romero is but one example There are many, many others. We can not forget, for example, the Sisters who were also martyred in El Salvador.

What is it that prevents us from entering this kind of a dialog with Scripture? I think that it is our own experience. It is the blinders which we wear every day. It is the “privilege” which, at first unconsciously, blinds us to the presence of others. It isn’t that we don’t want to see them, or their reality, it is just that we are oblivious to them! They are invisible to us.

Am I a man? If so, I will probably not pay much attention to women in scripture. Am I White? If so, I am far less likely to view BIPOC as being present in Scripture—when obviously they are there! Am I a Christian? Then I am less likely to see others who are not Christian (and I probably make the mistake of assuming that all the “good people” are Christians, when almost none of them were—at least in the way that we understand that term after the first century of the Common Era.).

The invitation then, is for me to take off my blinders. The invitation is for me to read Scripture as if though I was a woman, a BIPOC person, a homeless and poor person, an immigrant, someone who is not a Christian, or even a person of faith. In so doing, I might well discover a Jesus whom I had never known? I might well discover a surprising, loving, and powerfully challenging God. I might be challenged to become an anti-racist, an anti-misogynist, an anti-homophobe, or anti-transphobe. I might be challenged to become a pro-Semite, a pro-Muslim, a pro-Inter-faith dialog partner. I might be challenged to work for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the homeless. I might suddenly realize that in each of these, I am able to find, to love and to serve Jesus.

Just in case you were tempted to ask, yes, but what does any of that have to do with the readings appointed for our use this day? I would like to share with you, a brief reflection recently written by the Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta, the Right Reverend Robert Wright.

“Deliverers: Moses became the great deliverer but who delivered Moses? There’s no Exodus without the faithfulness of women. Shiphrah and Puah remembered that God is God alone and refused Pharaoh’s order to kill all the newborn male children. Moses’ mother, Jochebed, and her daughter Miriam masterminded a plan to float Moses in a basket to the house of Pharaoh and to Pharaoh’s daughter. And Miriam arrives just as Pharaoh’s daughter lays eyes on Moses with an offer to find a wet-nurse, Jochebed, Moses’ and Miriam’s own mother!

That’s how God’s most amazing intervention in human history began, with the defiant, genius, faith of a few women. They found the edge of things and made their faith stand there. Did they think their faith would change the course of human history? Doubtful.

Still, God has a habit of pulling together the small acts of the people of faith to make a grand masterpiece. Maybe Moses becomes a deliverer because he was trying to live up to the delivering faith of the women all around him. We need the faith, bravery, and defiance of the daughters of Shiphrah, Puah, Jochebed, and Miriam now. Mary McLeod Bethune is right, “the true worth of a race can be measured by the character of its womanhood.” – Exodus 1:8-2:10”

Jesus asked his disciples a question, “Who do you say I am?” May we find in Jesus all those who have been rejected, excluded, oppressed, and victimized. Because I think that this  may well be the only place, we will be able to find the “Messiah,” the “Son of the Living God.”

“This world is my home!”

A Sermon for the
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

July 19, 2020

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the
needs of every living creature: Make us always thankful for
your loving providence; and grant that we, remembering the
account that we must one day give, may be faithful stewards
of your good gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with
you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

This World Is Not My Home

This world is not my home by Brumley

This world is not my home I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

Oh lord you know I have no friend like you
If heaven’s not my home then lord what will I do
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

This song has been attributed to the famous Southern Gospel composer Alfred E. Brumley. However, it has been suggested that the origin of the song is far older, going back to that amazing genre of the African-American Spiritual in the Southern United States.  It seems to have been first published just after the end of the First World War, and then was popularized in a succession of Stamps and Baxter Hymnals. Outside of churches, it came to some renown, due to a recorded version by Jim Reeves in 1962.

It is a song which I remember hearing sung in church in my Baptist childhood, and of hearing it sung with great longing and sadness—often accompanied with tears, and perhaps with shouts.

It is a fascinating song, a song of the oppressed, and seems to have been especially loved by the poor, the weak, the needy. For them, it is a song of hope-trust that though God’s reign may not ever be accomplished in this wounded and damaged world, it will not be overcome. There will be a new world, a world of justice, peace, and equality.

Sadly, this song reflects a sense of defeat. Those who sing it most compellingly have given up. They have decided that this world is—and can never be—their true home. In this world of violence, hatred, bigotry, and injustice, one is forced to endure for a season. They have abandoned any hope that change is possible or will ever come. They have decided to put their eggs in the heavenly basket. For centuries, those who were oppressed: Black Persons, Indigenous Persons, Persons of Color, Women, LGBTQIA Persons, and those viewed as “other” because of their place of origin, the language they spoke, or the faith which they practiced dreamed of a real home. They dreamed of a place in which they would be welcome, loved, valued, and accepted. They dreamed of a world of peace and harmony and beauty. That world, with its hope, and not this one, was their true home.

Clearly, they never stopped struggling to make this world a better one. And the progress which was purchased at such a painful cost bears witness to that struggle. I suppose that if they had ever been able to unite, and to concentrate on this world, there might have been a bloody and violent revolution. That remains a possibility, even today. If ever those who are oppressed truly loose hope, they are not afraid of violence–there is no other option remaining for them to pursue.

It would be irresponsible to fail to mention that, and I say this to our shame, religion was often used by those in power to control and to “keep in their place” those who were oppressed. There is truth in the saying of Karl Marx that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

That is, of course, ironic, because that kind of reigion is the worst form of distortion and abuse. At our very best, we are called to have a “preferential option” for the poor, and for all who are oppressed. We are called to work for peace, justice, healing, reconciliation—change and transformation. Here and now. If we fail to do that, we transform the blessing of the one home God has given us into a gated community for a privileged few—a paradise, here-on-earth—and a work-house, a debtor’s prison for the majority—a hell, here-on-earth.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson to be learned in the Torah, in the Pentateuch, in the Five Books of Moses, is found almost at the very beginning of the Book of Genesis. We encounter the first humans-Adam, “created from the Earth” and Eve, “mother of all the living.” We see their inseparable connection to creation. They are formed and fashioned from the living earth. God molds and shapes them from soil, from dust. God perhaps makes a kind of paste from water, a kind of clay. Then, as at the dawn of creation, when the breath of God breathed on the water, God breathes life into them. They are one with the earth, one with creation, at home in the beauty of the Garden which God prepared for them as a home.

As the story unfolds we discover the sad consequence of human sin—not just error, or mistake, but sin. We human beings so often choose to manipulate, to attempt to control, to dominate, to oppress, to exploit, and to injure. In doing so, WE—and not only our ancestors who have gone before us, WE damage the three primary relationships which are part of God’s plan for us: a relationship with God, human relationships, and our relationship to creation. WE disconnect ourselves and distance ourselves from God. WE choose what it wrong, evil, and sinful, and then hide to avoid accepting responsibility for our actions. WE hurt, wound, and even kill others. Their blood cries out from the ground for justice. But WE claim that they are “other,” and that they are not our very sisters and brothers. WE pollute, trash, and devastate creation. WE view it is an object to be exploited for our pleasure and wealth. WE fail to love, to nurture, and to wisely serve as caretakers and stewards of creation. WE have collectively set our house on fire. No wonder WE would like to claim that this world is not our home. That would let us off the hook. That would exonerate us. That would take away our responsibility. That would mean that we wait for someone else to put out the fire which WE have kindled!

There is a haunting line from the Psalm 11:3, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” I completely understand why some argue that it might be better to just let our house burn down, and to build a new one! If constructed on a foundation of love, justice, and equality, such a new home might well have room for all. Such a home might have a banquet table with a seat for everyone, and such an abundance of food and drink that everyone would feast. Everyone would eat to their fill. No one would be hungry, and no one would be excluded. All would be servants and none would be oppressed.

Lest we be tempted to think that this message is not also at the very heart of the Christian Scriptures, please let us remember the powerful words we hear today from St. Paul the Apostle, in his Letter to the Church at Rome: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Scholars can debate whether St. Paul thought that this new creation would only come with the return of Jesus, or whether this was something that God had planned for the here and now.

What might happen, though, if we served as midwives? What might happen if we struggled through this painful childbirth and brought to birth the creation which God intended? What might happen if we allowed God to bestow on us adoption, redemption and new creation? Perhaps the Gospel of Matthew provides the answer we long to hear: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Loving God, please help us to realize that this world is our home. Please help us to realize that we do belong here. Please help us to feel at home in this world which you have lovingly created—both now, and forevermore.

“Come on in and make yourself at home.”

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Pride Sunday
June 28, 2020

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Flags at Trinity in Easton 09-22-2019
Today, on Pride Sunday, 
we remember all of our LGBTQ siblings.
We pray for all people who are lesbian and gay.
We pray for those who are bisexual, or pansexual.
We pray for those who are asexual.
We pray for those whose sexuality cannot be so crudely defined.

We pray for all of our transgender siblings, be they binary or non-binary.
We pray for intersex people.
We pray for those in social transition, and for those who do not need to transition.
We pray for all those who suffer from dysphoria, and especially for those who wish to change, or are changing their bodies. Amen.

If I were asked to list the top ten most significant or valuable concepts or insights which are found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, in the top three, I would list hospitality. In fact, hospitality is such an essential component of the overall message of those scriptures that if you were to remove it, those scriptures would not have the same meaning, the same promise, and the same challenge.

One way to understand the People of Israel is that they were–individually and collectively–called to practice the ministry of welcome, of hospitality and of inclusion. This action on their part was to be an act of gratitude for the love and hospitality which God had already extended to them through numerous acts of generous love—in the covenants, in the giving of the law, and in the promise that—as a people on a journey—God traveled with them as they went on the way.

The visitor was sacrosanct. The arrival of a visitor was not an interruption—it was a cause for celebration. It was a pleasant surprise! Everything stopped. All at once, the whole mindset of the household changed. They switched into “hospitality mode.” It was all about a connection, a relationship, an interaction which had value and meaning-in-itself.

Even names were given to ritualize and to explain what was happening. The person who welcomed the visitor was called a “host,” or a “hostess.” They opened the door, greeted the person who was there, invited them in, and did everything in their power to make them feel welcome, appreciated, and cared for. The person who showed up—probably without warning—was called a “guest.” They were not a stranger, a foreigner, an outsider, or an interruption—they were to be received and treated as “one of the household”—as a member of the family.

In various Mediterranean cultures, there is a remnant of this idea. In Spanish, for instance, a guest will often hear the phrase, “Mi casa es tu casa.” We usually translate it as “My house is your house.” But I think that is a poor translation. What it really is saying is “this is your home. You are welcome here. Come in. Take your shoes off. Make yourself at home, feel welcome, feel comfortable, feel free to be yourself. Relax. Enjoy. Celebrate with us.”

When the guest arrived in the Biblical accounts, he or she was received with ritual, and with ceremony. The sandals were removed, the feet were washed—and perhaps anointed with fragrant oil. Remember that there were no water fountains or refrigerators. Water was a scarce commodity. Someone had to walk to the well, to the wadi, or to the creek and haul it back in a vessel of some sort. It might be stored in the shade or in the coolest part of the tent. How good that water would have tasted on a hot day. How refreshing that water would have felt on those tired, and dusty feet.

And then, there was a meal—perhaps even a party. The whole community might even be invited. After all, the visitor would have news to share and stories which would inform and entertain. Food would be prepared—not the ordinary run-of-the-mill home cooking. A feast would be prepared! The very best would be brought out and shared. They might even slaughter the fatted calf—the poor fatted calf rarely has a happy end to the story—but that is a topic for some other sermon! All of this, of course, took time. No one was in a hurry. While the meal was cooking, and the table prepared (obviously women and slaves did the hard work of hospitality) there was time to talk, to sing, to tell stories, and to share food and drink.

The interesting thing is that the hospitality was done without the expectation of any return. The presence of the guest was viewed as a gift, and as a blessing. Hospitality was a way of acknowledging that gift and of attempting to celebrate it. There was a traditional notion that the guest might offer something especially important—they might offer a blessing for the hospitality which they had received, they might give thanks, and in doing so, they might convey the very blessing of God. In Greek that “thank you,” that blessing was truly “good grace,” ev charisto—”Eucharist.”

Jesus spoke to his closest friends about hospitality. He reminded them that they were on a mission, they were on a journey. They were travelers on the way. They must depend on others for welcome, for refreshment, for hospitality. They may not even have a simple home warming gift, or a host gift to offer. But they did have something of value. They carried with them the good news of God’s welcoming and inclusive love for all. Anyone who welcomed them, who made room in their home or at their table for these messengers of God would welcome, not only them, but the one who sent them. In welcoming the disciple, God would be invited in, and would be made welcome. God would sit down with them at table and be one-with-them.

Many Christian communities, both in the United States, and around the world, use another name for the last Sunday in June. It is also “Pride Sunday.” It is a day of acknowledgement and of thanksgiving for the presence of LGBTQIA persons in our communities. It is a day in which we give thanks for the acceptance and inclusion of LGBTQIA persons—not only in our churches—but in our families, among those we count as friends and colleagues—and in our society at large.

We celebrate legal victories: the right to marry, the right to equal protection under the law, and of protection from many forms of discrimination. We recall the Stonewall Revolt, the martyrdom of Harvey Milk, and the countless marches and protests which followed. And yet, we acknowledge that the full work of inclusion has not yet been completed.

In reflecting on the importance of Stonewall, some 51 years ago, Representative Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts had this to say, “”When the police officers moved in to try to clear out and arrest the patrons at a gay bar. And it was in the early hours of the morning when patrons inside said no! And part of the resistance was started by a black, trans woman, Marsha Johnson, who threw the shot glass heard round the world. Picked it up, threw it at a mirror, shattered the mirror. The resistance that spun into the hours and then the days, and then the celebrations of Pride that sparked out of that as a recognition of what happened.”

Marsha P Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson
August 24, 1945 – July 6, 1992

The role played by Marsha Johnson is essential. Without the impetus provided by Trans Women—and Trans Women of Color—the Gay Rights struggle for justice, equality, and inclusion would not have happened. How ironic, those who were least welcome, those who were most bullied and mocked, those who were most excluded—and at the very fringes—were the very ones who enabled the possibility that everyone might be included!

In reflecting on the success of Stonewall, Dr. Eric Cervini, the author of The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America, commented that LGBTQIA rights was only possible because of the insights and gains already made by the Civil Rights movement and by the Women’s Rights movement. Stonewall did not happen in a vacuum. In a country torn apart by the Vietnam War, people had learned the power of taking to the streets to agitate for change.

Today, we are confronted with a difficult—with a painful truth. Among the most vulnerable members of our society are our Trans Siblings—and especially our Trans Siblings of Color. In 2020 alone–this year–in the United States, 16 Trans or non-gender binary persons have been murdered! Almost without exception, these are persons of color! We hear this on the news every few weeks—and yet, it seems that nothing is being done to stop this massacre. Lest we be tempted to think that this is something which happens elsewhere, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, a Black transgender woman was killed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 9th. This was a brutal murder. After her death, Rem’mie’s body was mutilated and she was tossed into the Schuylkill River—like refuse, like trash.

Dominique Fells

Dominique Rem’mie Fells
July 30, 1992 – June 8, 2020

God reminds us that we must practice hospitality, welcome, and radical inclusion! We must make a place in our hearts, in our homes, at our tables, in our church, and around God’s altar—for everyone. When we receive the least of these-our beautiful and vulnerable Trans Siblings—we receive and protect Christ. We receive, embrace, protect, and shelter God.

“I do earnestly repent.”

A Reflection at a time of National Crisis
June 6, 2020

Almighty God,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
maker of all things, judge of all men:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins
and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent,
and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous unto us,
the burden of them is intolerable.
Have mercy upon us,
have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;
for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
forgive us all that is past;
and grant that we may ever hereafter
serve and please thee in newness of life,
to the honor and glory of thy Name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Mary embraching George Floyd

This prayer for Repentance—and Confession of Sin, comes from the Liturgy for the Holy Eucharist, Rite One, from the Book of Common Prayer. In the years in which I worshipped at St. Paul’s in Carroll Gardens, in Brooklyn, it was a prayer which I came to know and love. The very language, solemn, archaic, and brutally honest; always drives home to me the reality that I so often fail to live up to my calling to love and to serve God—and God’s people.

There are, though, other moments in a lifetime, in which one comes to understand that one’s own actions have damaged the three primary relationships: God, other humans, and creation. In such moments there can be such a sense of sorrow and regret that a paradigm shift comes about. In such moments of grace, conversion, metanoia, change, and growth become a possibility. The very language of this prayer hints at that reality. There is a transition from “we are heartily sorry for our misdoings, the remembrance of the them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable” to “grant that we may hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life.” This shift, this change, is truly good news. It is possible to move forward. It is possible to begin anew. And yet, it only becomes possible when one admits the wrong, the harm, the hurt that one’s actions—or failure to act have caused.

For many years, I have been an advocate of institutions owning up to, and admitting wrong. I feel that it is a moral imperative that the government of the United States publicly and formally acknowledge the besetting sin of chattel slavery, of segregation, of Jim Crow and of the institutional brutality against African Americans. I have hoped that the same might be enacted by The Episcopal Church, by each Episcopal diocese in the continental United States, and by Episcopal parishes as well.

And yet, I have recently come to realize that is not enough. I am truly a hypocrite if I call for the repentance of others and fail to repent myself. If I want the movement of repentance to begin, I now understand that it must begin with me.

As I have grown to understand the evil and deceptive reality of white privilege, I have come to appreciate how truly insidious and cunning it is. I have benefitted, and daily benefit, from the perception that I am caucasian. Despite the fact that I do not view myself as “white,” that does not matter. That is how others view me. They are not always able to see my indigenous ancestry. And so, I am able to move through the daily interactions of society in a way that is easy, effortless, and safe. I am unlikely to be feared, confronted, or mistreated because of the color of my skin.

As a gay man, I understand the pain of oppression—though in a qualitatively different way. For People of Color who are also, LGBTQ, there is a double burden to bear. I am spared that! And yet, I understand, from personal experience, the pain of physical violence from homophobes who “gay bash.” And so, I have some sense of what that feels like to be attacked, to be beaten, and to be helpless in such a traumatic and unexpected situation.

The recent movement and cry for justice, through protest, following the lynching of George Floyd–another event in a seemingly endless chain of brutalities like this in every part of our country–has given me hope. Is it possible that systematic change is finally possible? Is it possible that equal justice is within our grasp? Is it possible that we could finally move towards a society in which every person is valued, loved, and treasured?

After a time of prayer, in part reflecting on the coming feast of the Most Holy Trinity–that feast of the reality of God as all encomapssing and empowering love–I have come to acknowledge that many of the groups to which I have belonged have been deeply racist–either by intentional act, or by the failure to speak out against racism–sometimes over many centuries. For my own participation in those groups-and for my own acts of commission and omission, I earnestly repent.

I am not an official representative of the Southern United States, of the Blue Mountains, or of the State of North Carolina. And do, I do not pretend to speak on their behalf. However, I am a son of these places and was raised there. I was shaped and formed by them. Without knowing it, or understanding it, my basic notions of what is, and what ought-to-be came from there. And so, for the times that I have failed to understand how those ideas excluded, hurt, or failed to treat every human person with love and respect, I repent.

I am not an official representative of the Episcopal Church, of the Diocese of Bethlehem, or of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton. I do not pretend to speak on their behalf. However, I am a part of these ecclesial communities. I love them, and have been unfailingly affirmed, encouraged, and empowered by them. For any time in which any of these communities has failed to love, to respect, to value and to protect the dignity of any human person, I repent.

I come from a family which “owned” enslaved persons. I come from families who fought to defend the institution of chattel slavery. I come from a culture which brutalized, oppressed, excluded, exploited, and dehumanized black women and men. For the times in which I failed to speak against that, for the times that I benefitted from white privilege, for the times that I failed to work for justice and for the equality of all, I repent.

For times in my youthful ignorance and bigotry, when I used racist language, for times that I listened to racist humor and did not object, for the times that I mistreated anyone because of the color of their skin, I repent.

I choose to share my personal repentance with you today, because I realize that this is something which I have never done before! Certainly, it something which I have never done in a public setting. It is, in this community of faith-which I love, and which has been a true home for me for so many years, that I choose to be open, honest, and vulnerable. It is here, where I have been loved, encouraged, and affirmed through very painful and difficult moments in my life, that I choose to ask for your forgiveness for my failure to live as an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ,

Over the past few years—really since the time of the brutal murder of Trayvon Martin, my heart has grown increasingly weary. Each additional murder, each additional brutality, caused me to think and to pray, “Surely this will be the last time this happens. Surely, we will realize that this is wrong. Surely we will find a way to stop this!” And, yet, I did nothing to take a stand. I did not protest, I may have posted a few comments on Facebook, but that is about the extent of it. I now see that my failure to act and to speak in a clear and unambiguous way, allowed the racism and the brutal oppression of my Black siblings to continue unquestioned. I have to acknowledge, to my great sadness, that I did not do what I had the power to do. While I am not deluded into thinking that I might have made a huge difference. I realize that I could have made a small one, perhaps an important one, and I did not.

I feel that we are at a moment of crisis—as a nation, as a community of faith, and as members of the Jesus Movement. And so, I feel an obligation to share with you in this act of repentance–a moment of conversion, of change, of growth, to which I have been called by a loving God who our tradition acknowledges and worships as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Leaving aside any attempt to explain in any detail the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, I share with you the insight of our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, “God is love, and if it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” Recently, he reiterated clearly, and powerfully, themes which have marked his preaching to us in the years that he has served in this role. “The opposite of love,” Bishop Curry reminds us, is not hate. “The opposite of love, is selfishness.” Choosing to love, he tells is, is not an emotion or a feeling–love is a commitment. To love means to be choose not to be selfish, to choose not to be self-centered. It is a choice we make to value, to treasure, to serve each other.

I will go so far as to say that the single greatest commandment that our Lord Jesus Christ gave, might have been the new one which he gave to his companions in the upper room—if you want to be my disciples you must love each other, you must wash each other’s feet. This is the kind of love which our Presiding Bishop invites us to embody though our thoughts, our words and in our actions. Love is the building block on which the Beloved Community will be established.

We are reminded too, that it was in Antioch, that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. “See how they love each other,” we are told, was the way that the people of Antioch described them. It is the ultimate litmus test. Do we love each other? Do we wash each other’s feet? Will we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self? Will we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? It is only with God’s help that we will be able to do these things.

Karl Rahner, the great German Jesuit theologian, used words, somewhat like these to explain his understanding of the Trinity. God the Father loves from all eternity. That love is real, effective, and powerful. That eternally begotten love is the Son. There is an all encompassing and reciprocal love between the Father and the Son. That reciprocal love is the Holy Spirit. The essence, the nature, the ultimate reality of God, then, is love. Whenever we love, whenever we serve, whenever we act or speak in love, we make God present—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“Remember I am with you,” our Lord reminds us in Matthew’s gospel. In love, in repentance, in forgiveness, and in caring for each other, we fill find that love, and be transformed by it.

“Bring them In”

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 3, 2020

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Good Shepherd Painting for Easter 4A -cropped

Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon your servants the
forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of
grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy
and wonder in all your works. Amen.

1) Hark! ’tis the Shepherd’s voice I hear,
Out in the desert dark and drear,
Calling the sheep who’ve gone astray,
Far from the Shepherd’s fold away.

Refrain:
Bring them in, bring them in,
Bring them in from the fields of sin;
Bring them in, bring them in,
Bring the wand’ring ones to Jesus.

This lovely hymn from my Baptist childhood uses one of the most familiar images of Jesus—in it he is described as a compassionate shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, who rescues them from danger, and who lovingly brings them home to safety.

The Great and Glorious fifty days of Holy Pascha, of Easter, share a common element with the Holy Seasons of Advent and Lent. Each of them is divided by a special Sunday: the Third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete” Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Lent is called “Laetare” Sunday, and the Fourth Sunday in Eastertide is called “Good Shepherd” Sunday. In each case, these Sundays provide a moment to pause and reflect—the season is now halfway completed. They also provide an invitation to refocus and to concentrate on an upcoming reality: The Nativity of the Lord, Holy Week and Easter, and the Feast of Pentecost.

Good Shepherd Sunday takes us by surprise. In the past weeks we have been reminded of those first Post-Resurrections of the Lord to the Apostles, gathered in the “Cenacle” or the Upper Room, to those same Apostles one week later (with the inclusion of Thomas), and to the Disciples, on the Road to Emmaus. Today, we switch to the Gospel according to Saint John, and hear the surprising moment of self-revelation in which our Lord speaks of one of the primary ways in which he will be understood by the Apostles and Disciples as they begin to proclaim the Good News “to the ends of the world.” It also connects with their preparation for the coming Pilgrimage Feast of Shavuot, fifty days after the Passover, known to us, more commonly, as Pentecost—from a Greek word meaning fifty.

Anyone who heard the term, “Good Shepherd,” in the First Century Jewish world, would have probably thought that was an oxymoron. Good Shepherd? There aren’t any! The general stereotype was that shepherds were a disreputable group. Most of them were hired hands. Few of them were believed to be honest or trustworthy. It is no mistake that the term “sheep stealer” was in common use. Even if exceptional shepherds were “above board,” they were still considered to be ritually unclean. They were dirty, filthy, unwashed, and smelly. They lived on the fringes of society. Mommas did not want their babies to grow up to be shepherds.

And yet, the Scriptures—Hebrew and Christian—challenge this stereotype. David, the greatest king, was a shepherd as a boy. Using the same sling with which he defended the sheep entrusted to his care, he brought down the mighty Goliath. The Twenty Third Psalm movingly speaks of God as a shepherd—and in these days of pandemic, those consoling words of God’s presence with us even in the shadow of death, are especially meaningful. In the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the first announcement of the birth of the Christ, the Messiah, comes to shepherds in the fields, watching their flock by night. On the far outskirts of society, lonely and rejected, they are the first who come to worship. As is so often the case, this passage makes clear the surprising—even shocking– inclusivity of God’s love for all.

One of the things which is most surprising about the Good Shepherd, in the Gospel of John, is the deep connection of love, respect, and intimacy between the Shepherd and each sheep. For the Good Shepherd, the sheep are not a commodity, or an item to be valued only for what they produce (wool) or the product which they could become (mutton or sheepskin). They are inherently worthy of love, care, and respect. The shepherd knows them so intimately that he names each of them. They love and trust the shepherd, in return, and know his voice. They will only follow him—and no one else. The shepherd cares for his sheep so profoundly that he will do whatever it takes to protect them and to keep them safe—even to the point of sacrificing his own life, if that is necessary.

What is not clear here, is that sheep are not the brightest or the wisest of animals—when I lived in France for a semester in 1981, the young daughter of the family with whom I lived had a favorite word-“ bête.” As Sophie used it, it clearly meant “stupid.” Literally, it means “sheep.” “You are a dumb lamb!” Sheep are easily distracted, and have a propensity to scatter, to run away, and to become lost. As they go exploring, they give little thought to danger. Before they realize it, they have become lost, frightened, and are in danger. The bleating cry of the lost sheep is especially sad. They are not capable of finding the shepherd or the flock again.

The shepherd must go looking for them. There is that beautiful line from the 53rd chapter of the Prophet Isaiah which I memorized so many years ago as a Baptist child in summer Vacation Bible School, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.” So many of those paintings—and stained-glass windows—depicting Jesus as Good Shepherd—show him carrying, in his arms, a single lost sheep whom he has rescued from the “desert, dark and drear.”

The Christian Church has traditionally seen, in today’s Gospel, allusions to the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. In Baptism, each lost sheep, is rescued by Jesus. Each sheep is named—some cultures use the term “Christian name.” Each sheep is signed with the cross and anointed with consecrated oil, and thus is “claimed as Christ’s own forever.” Each sheep is then welcomed to the flock of Christ, to the household of God. And, we are reminded that our Lord is not only the Good Shepherd, he is also the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Our Good Shepherd actually did lay down his life to protect us, for our well-being, health and salvation.

As members of the sheepfold of Jesus, we are called to imitate his example by caring for our Sisters and Brothers in the sheepfold. We are called to reach out to each sheep who has become lost and frightened and shivering in the cold. We are called to seek them out, to love them, and to bring them in. The final verses of that song with which I began my thoughts today expresses this well.

2) Who’ll go and help this Shepherd kind,
Help Him the wand’ring ones to find?
Who’ll bring the lost ones to the fold,
Where they’ll be sheltered from the cold?

Refrain:
Bring them in, bring them in,
Bring them in from the fields of sin;
Bring them in, bring them in,
Bring the wand’ring ones to Jesus.

3) Out in the desert hear their cry,
Out on the mountain, wild and high;
Hark! ’tis the Master, speaks to thee,
“Go, find My sheep where’er they be.

Refrain:
Bring them in, bring them in,
Bring them in from the fields of sin;
Bring them in, bring them in,
Bring the wand’ring ones to Jesus.

Christ is truly risen!

Dear Ones, I wish to each of you a Blessed and Holy celebration

of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Resurrection Icon

 

 

 

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus
Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of
everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the
day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death
of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Must Jesus bear the cross alone?

A SERMON FOR
GOOD FRIDAY
APRIL 10, 2020

PREACHED AT
TRINITY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
EASTON, PENNSYLVANIA

Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of
all who suffer: Let the cry of those in misery and need come
to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all
their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve
them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.

Good Friday Veiled Cross at Trinity in Bethlehem 2019

Must Jesus bear the cross alone
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for ev’ry one,
And there’s a cross for me.

Over the past few years, I have spent more time thinking and praying about Good Friday, than about any other single day in the liturgical calendar. In part, this has come about because I have come to rethink Easter, and Lent. It is also because I have to come to reconsider my life-long belief in a specific way of understanding the meaning of the crucifixion.

As strange as it might sound, this re-examination came about when I joined a crowd of several hundred on 42nd Street in cramming into a sold-out showing of “The Passion of the Christ.” I went to the movie because I was fascinated that there was a sudden and unexpected interest in Jesus. I was quite curious to learn how the Passion was going to be portrayed. I also wondered what it would be like to hear Aramaic, the day to day language First Century Judaism spoken conversationally. I was most grateful for subtitles in English!

The movie turned out to be transformative, though in a way I would never have expected. As the movie progressed, I found that I was literally becoming nauseated! The cruelty and the brutality it depicted made me sick. I found that there was a bizarre sadism at work—an almost glee at what was unfolding. I left the movie wondering what the point had been? It seemed that the primary point was to show how brutal the torture and execution of Jesus had been. Surely there must have been more than just that!

Is that what Good Friday is all about? Is it a day in which we focus on how much Jesus suffered? When I was in seminary, one of my scripture scholars shared something which I have never forgotten, “Holy Week is not about how much Jesus suffered, it is rather about how much Jesus loved.”

Some historians have spoken of two besetting sins of the United States: chattel slavery of enslaved Africans and their descendants; and the genocide of Native peoples. Christianity too has a begetting sin: Antisemitism!

If someone had to be blamed for the death of Jesus, many Christians chose to singe out the Jewish people as-a-whole. Narrow fundamentalist and literalist Christians failed to distinguish between Jewish authorities such as the High Priest and the Sanhedrin (who tried and condemned Jesus, and then turned him over to the Roman authorities) and the average first century Jew in Jerusalem (who had no power to influence or impact these kind of decisions). Horrible charges of deicide and blood libel were made against innocent Jewish communities-which were already forced to live in ghettos or villages at some distance from “Christian dwellings.”

For these poor, abused, and exploited Jewish settlements, the single worst day of every year was Good Friday. On that day, following the reading of the Passion from the Gospel of John, vigilantes—fired up by preaching in the Churches, attacked the villages and individual Jews. The atrocities were unimaginable! Sadly, these attacks were often condoned by Christians and Christian authorities. Even if they thought such actions were wrong, they rarely seem to have spoken out against it.

This approach also let the Roman authorities off the hook. In the end, it was Pontius Pilate who made the decision to crucify Jesus. It was Romans who finally condemned Jesus to death, and who carried out that execution.

Another issue is that all of this makes Jesus appear very passive. In this view, things happen to Jesus. His role is to passively accept, “like a lamb led to the slaughter.” My reading of the Passion Narrative shows Jesus as someone who is active. And here is the good news. The active love of Jesus transforms the horrible things which happen to him and makes of them an offering—a sacrifice. Remember that the etymology of sacrifice is sacra facere, which literally means “to make holy.” Jesus chooses to forgive those who hurt him, never stops loving everyone, and offers hope and consolation to the other victims who are suffering with him. Jesus is the High Priest who lovingly pours out his life on the altar of the cross. From his own wounded side flow the healing water of Baptism and the Blood of the New Covenant.

What about God? I am troubled by ideas which suggest that God had always planned the death of his beloved Son on the cross. Even worse is language which suggests that this was almost like a legal transaction in which God demanded a bloody and brutal price to atone for human sin. While all of the Christian Scriptures were written in retrospect—looking back on Good Friday and attempting in a limited way—the best that we could ever do—to make sense of what happened, it seems apparent, at least to me, that God too mourned during the Passion and death of Jesus.

Who then killed Jesus, and why? We did! Humans did! Fragile, broken and wounded, we reacted to the challenging and frightening reality of Jesus by resorting to violence. That is what we do when we are confused, and frightened–when we feel threatened. His message of radical and unconditional love and service was too much for us. It meant that we would have to change, we would have to learn to be generous and serve, we would have to learn to think of others first. That was too much for us!

God, though, was present to Jesus at every moment. It was the knowledge of his Father’s unconditional and absolute love for him which allowed Jesus, in turn, to extend that same love, even to those who tortured and killed him. God took and transformed the self-offering of Jesus and changed all of human history by raising Jesus from the dead. Resurrection was God’s response to human violence and cruelty. We offered death, God offered and offers life!

St. Paul reminds us that each of us who has been Baptized in Christ was buried with Christ in death and raised with him to the new life of Resurrection. This means that what happened to Jesus also happens in our own lives. The cross of Christ is not only something which happened to him. Every hurt, every pain, every sorrow that we will ever experience is united to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us:

“Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

As we take up and carry our own cross, we have the opportunity to extend love to anyone who suffers, to anyone in need, to anyone who is neglected, abused, oppressed or mistreated. God will receive our own offerings, unite them to the sufferings of Christ, and will make of them a source of healing and love.

As the primitive church in Antioch learned, that kind of love will be so different and so obvious that it will be impossible to miss in our world. By that love the world will know that we are disciples of our Lord. Who knows, it might inspire them to be open to also taking up their cross?

As the words from the Stations of the Cross remind us, “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you: Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.