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.

“Blessed is He who comes.”

 

A SERMON FOR
THE SUNDAY OF THE PASSION: PALM SUNDAY
APRIL 5, 2020

PREACHED AT
TRINITY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
EASTON, PENNSYLVANIA

Palm Sunday Altar 2

It is right to praise you, Almighty God, for the acts of love by
which you have redeemed us through your Son Jesus Christ
our Lord. On this day he entered the holy city of Jerusalem in
triumph, and was proclaimed as King of kings by those who
spread their garments and branches of palm along his way.
Let these branches be for us signs of his victory, and grant that
we who bear them in his name may ever hail him as our King,
and follow him in the way that leads to eternal life; who lives
and reigns in glory with you and the Holy Spirit, now and
forever. Amen.

Baruch Haba (Blessed Is He Who Comes)
Baruch haba b’shem Adonai
Blessed is He who comes
Baruch haba b’shem Adonai
Who comes in the name of the Lord.

The verse which I just shared with you is from one of the very first Messianic Jewish songs that I encountered, and was composed by one of the best-known musicians of that movement, Paul Wilbur. I quickly grew to love this song. It seems to be a surprising mix of major and minor—of happy and sad. It seems entirely appropriate for today.

When I think of that crowd which celebrated the arrival of our Lord and which welcomed him into the Holy City of Jerusalem, on that first day of Holy Week, I can not help but recall that they were Messianic Jews. At that point, there were no Christians. There were those who loved and followed Jesus, there were those who anxiously prayed for the coming of the Messiah—though there was no unity in thought as to what the coming of the Messiah would mean—and there were those who were afraid and threatened by the movement which Jesus had begun. The latter group were happy with the way that things were-or else had made some accommodation with those in power and were afraid of change.

For each of these disparate groups, Jesus had provoked a crisis. His words and actions forced them into making a choice. He confronted power, injustice, and oppression. That is never a safe thing to do! There is always a price to be paid for those who call out for justice, righteousness, and peace.

The difficult thing for us who celebrate the transition from Lent into Holy Week is that as Paul Harvey famously reminded us, “now, we know the rest of the story.” It is challenging for us to remain focused in the moment and to allow the events of Holy Week to unfold for us. It is almost as if though we need to deny ourselves the knowledge of what is coming in order to really enter into each of the transformative experiences of the week.

The current celebration in most of the liturgical churches in an uneasy balancing act between two worlds. We celebrate both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday on the same day. The two celebrations are quite unique and, in a way, complimentary. Yet, there is a level in which they remain distinct. Because the tradition of reading the Passion on this Sunday was intended to prepare us for Holy Week by giving us a kind of “heads up” about the importance of each of the days of the Paschal Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ; the celebration of Palm Sunday somehow seemed to get “lost in the mix.” The two Gospel readings which we here today begin with Palms, but soon move—and quite quickly—into table, garden, cross, tomb, empty tomb in a garden, and Post-Resurrection appearance. It feels like a kind of marathon. By the time that we finish reading and listening to the Passion, we have forgotten about the beginning. Palm Sunday is overlooked and forgotten in light of what follows.

Today, I would like to reflect with you on what the events of Palm Sunday might have meant to each of those three groups I mentioned at the beginning, and on what all of this could mean to us-here and now.

The Liturgy of the Palms, which tells the story of the Triumpful Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, shares a most fascinating Psalm, Psalm 118. Dr. Brant Pitre, a renowned Roman Catholic Biblical scholar explains that for First Century Jews, this Psalm had become identified with hopes for the Messiah. And so, whenever the Psalm was prayed, it was connected with hopes for deliverance and rescue by God. That literally is what the word “hosanna” means.

Hosannah, LORD, hosannah! *
LORD, send us now success.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; *
we bless you from the house of the LORD.
God is the LORD; he has shined upon us; *
form a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar.

In the Gospel of Matthew though, there is a slight twist to the words, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

The unruly crowd which greets Jesus welcomes him as a descendant of the House of David, and this has clear messianic overtones. Each King of Israel had been anointed with blessed oil on the day of his coronation-thus the literal connection to the word “mashiah”: which means anointed one. The surprise, though, is that the reference to palms had another connotation. Psalm 118 cries for the messiah to be greeted with a procession of branches (or palms) which will ultimately lead to the Temple where he will offer a sacrifice on the altar. Some understood this to mean that the messiah would also be a priest. In any case, the very optimistic and hopeful liturgy which unfolded on Palm Sunday reverberated with clear hopes The crowd repeatedly cried out, “Hosannah,” save us, rescue us, deliver us.

I wonder what the followers of Jesus thought of all this? I suppose that many of them were excited that the Rabbi, whom they loved so dearly, appeared to finally be getting the honor, respect, and acknowledgement which they thought he so profoundly deserved. This “over the top welcome” must have seemed too good to be true. They began this Holy Week full of hope. They had made it. Jesus had made it. He was now a power to be reckoned with. For them, this may have been like an inauguration. Now they waited excitedly to see what Jesus was going to do and how he was going to begin to push for the changes which had been at the heart of his prophetic ministry for several years. I can only imagine too, that in a more self-serving way, they were wondering what their own reward would be for having faithfully followed him from obscurity to this meteoric rise to fame.

Among the others, who greeted Jesus that day, there were some who hoped for the coming of the messiah for other reasons. One group were incipient rebels and revolutionaries. They had daily suffered the abuses and cruelty of the Roman occupation and were filled with a zeal for independence and freedom. Like the Maccabees before them, they longed to throw off the brutal yoke of the oppressor. They waned to restore the throne of David—or at the very least political and military independence. There was a desire to return to the “glory days” of David and Solomon—when Israel had been at the peak of power and influence. For this group, Jesus showed promise of become a rallying force which would unite the people into a rebel army.

There was a second group of onlookers that day. These were the poor, the needy, the broken dregs of society who were struggling just to survive. In a world in which they felt overlooked, forgotten, ignored, and devalued, they found in Jesus “good news” which seemed too good to be true—God did love them and care for them after all. They actually did have value and worth. They were not so much concerned with political and military concerns–they literally longed for enough bread and water to make it through the day. In Jesus, they had found someone who spoke kindly to them, who was unafraid to touch them–filthy and sick as they were. They had also found someone who made the lame walk, the blind to see, and the deaf to hear. He had restored dead Lazarus to life! Jesus was not afraid to interact with women, with lepers, with foreigners, and sinners. His love was inclusive, welcoming, and generous. For the first time, they were able to imagine a future in which they too would be included, loved, and valued. Because it was–and Matthew is quite clear about this–the final days of preparation for the Pilgrim Festival of the Passover–Jerusalem was filled with Jewish tourists from all over the Mediterranean.

On the sidelines, watching all this, were the “powers that be”; the Roman authorities, the party of the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, and other Jewish religious authorities. There were also curious, and alarmed, representatives of competing Jewish sects; Pharisees, Essenes, and numerous others whose identities have been lost to history. Each of these groups viewed Jesus as a threat, as someone who was in danger of “upsetting the cart,” as he had earlier upset the commerce of the Temple. This was a moment in which they realized that these dangerous messianic hopes must be crushed—and the sooner the better, before things really got out of control. There is a fascinating lyric from Jesus Christ Superstar in which Judas attempts to reason with Jesus and to warn him, “I am frightened by the crowd. For we are getting much too loud. And they’ll crush us if we go too far.”

The Good news for us, at the beginning of this Holy Week, is that in Jesus the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah, the Son of David, God has truly come to us. To love us, to forgive us, to heal us, to strengthen, and to empower us. God has come to enable us to become a force for good, for inclusion, and for generous loving service to those in need. God has come to break down walls and barriers. God has come to establish justice, equality, and freedom. God has come to lift up the lowly, the forgotten, the poor, the hungry, the widow and orphan. God has come to welcome the foreigner, the stranger, the “other.” In God’s family, and house, all will be welcome. And so, like those who found new hope in Jesus, we cry out, “Hosannah Son of David.” Save us, rescue us, deliver us!
In the days to come, we will walk with Our Lord through the Streets of Jerusalem.

On Maundy Thursday. we will gather in the Upper Room to celebrate the last Passover of Jesus, and his last Supper. Here Jesus will institute a New Passover and will identify himself with the Bread and Wine of the Seder. He will wash the feet of his disciples and give us a new commandment that we must love and serve each other. We will journey with him to the Garden of Gethsemane, the Garden of the oil press, on the Mount of Olives. We will fall asleep as Jesus struggles to accept the cost of love and service. After a time of anguished prayer, he will surrender in love and absolute trust to his Father.

On Good Friday, we will be in the crowd loudly shouting, “crucify him,” as Jesus is tried, condemned, humiliated, tortured, and then publicly executed. Or else, we will be among those who are frightened and who run away.

On Holy Saturday—the Sabbath–we will gather at the tomb, numb, cried-out, heart broken and full of anguish, as all our hopes seem to crash around us in defeat.
That night, at the beginning of the first day of the week, the day of the New Creation, we will gather in the dark to welcome the light of Christ. We will follow the Paschal Candle, the new Pillar of Fire, to the altar. We will hear the Exulset, that Hymn of Deliverance, that Hymn recounting Salvation History, that Hymn which welcomes our Messiah to save and to deliver us, here and now. We will join with Sisters and Brothers who will, through the saving waters of Holy Baptism, cross through the sea into the New Exodus. And, we will hear that glorious Easter Proclamation, “Christ is Risen. Christ is Truly Risen.” We will join with those women and other disciples at the Empty tomb to encounter our Risen Lord.

In this Holy Week, we will face obstacles. In a time of pandemic, we will not be able to assemble together as God’s beloved Children. Many among us will be ill and in danger. Some, sadly, will be dying. Others will be risking their own safety to care for those who are ill; doctors, nurses, health care personnel, first responders, and family members.

This year, as every year, we will also be called to reflect on the ways in which this annual celebration of the core mysteries of our faith, as followers of Jesus. has been twisted over so many centuries into anti-Christian acts. For centuries, these Holy Days were the most terrifying and fearful ones which our Jewish Sisters and Brothers experienced in so many parts of the world. After hearing the Proclamation of the Passion, Christians ran into the ghettoes and shtetels and began pogroms of violence and hatred against the very family of Jesus.

I conclude with a final thought which so often has reminded me of what Holy Week, and what Christianity are ultimately all about, “Holy Week is not so much about how much Jesus suffered, as it is about how much Jesus loved.”

Baruch ha ba—Blessed is Jesus, our Messiah, who comes—who comes to save, deliver, heal, and restore us–in God’s name-b’Shem Adonai.

“The Unspeakable Sweetness of God’s Love.”

A Sermon for the
First Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2020

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Almighty God, who for our redemption gave your only-
begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious
resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant
us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him
in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son
our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Temptation of Jesus from Mount Athos

There is a lovely quote from the Prologue of the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict (verses 48-50) which gives us excellent advice at the beginning of Lent: “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.”

 

The single most important liturgy of the entire year is the Great Vigil of the Resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  (The text is found in the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 285). The Great Vigil is  the summit of our worship—and the very model of what Christianity is all about. The powerful symbols and prayers which are used that night provide the best articulation of the Christian message. If it is true that “Prayer shapes belief,” and I think that it is, then we must constantly use the Vigil as our source of inspiration—and as a catechetical tool to explain everything else. In particular, it seems to me, that the Season of Lent—in order to really be effective, and to make sense to us, must be understood in light of that new fire, the Christ-light of the Paschal Candle, and the Easter Proclamation—the Exsulset.

In the past few years, I have come to feel ever more strongly that we have just been getting it wrong about Lent. When I reflect on my own experience and listen to what others tell me about their own experience of Lent, I conclude that for most of us, Lent does not seem to really make much of a difference in our lives. It is a bit like making a resolution for a New Year. Many of us were “guilted” into giving something up. We felt that if we wanted to be authentic disciples of Jesus, we had to become Penitents. We had to give something up—something which would be unpleasant—something which would be a sacrifice—something that would enable us to imagine (if only in the smallest of ways) what the passion and death of the Lord was all about. Sadly, the result was that most of us became miserable, unpleasant, disagreeable, and cranky. And, then when Lent was over, we just went back to our lives as if though Lent had never happened.

There was a negative downside, though. It was easy to pat ourselves on the back and say, “That was a Good Observance.” It led to self-congratulation and self-righteousness. Like the Pharisee in the Temple we could say, “Thank you God that I am not like those other lukewarm Christians who did not take Lent seriously.”

The distortion happens when Lent is conceived of as primarily a time of Penance. In the common view, it is thought of as a time of preparation for Good Friday. Even in the Instruction, which is given to us on Ash Wednesday, there is a strand of this thought. In it, we are reminded that Lent was a season in which Notorious Sinners were reconciled to God and to the Church. I am not entirely sure what it takes to be a notorious sinner—other than getting caught and having everyone know what we have done—but I wonder know what it would take to cause someone in that situation to want to change. I doubt that most of us would fit into that category anyway. It is one thing to have a horrible notion of humanity—the Reformers, for instance, spoke of total depravity. But it seems to me that is rarely an understanding that causes people to want to change.

From my perspective, a healthier view is that Lent is a season of conversion-change, of growth, and of transformation. We are also reminded–in that same Ash Wednesday Instruction–that Lent was also the season in which the catechumens were prepared for the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. This, I think, is what Lent is really all about.

Lent should be a joyful season, not a penitential one, in which we prepare to celebrate—not primarily Good Friday—but Easter Sunday. It is a season in which we begin to discover the reality of God’s love for us, It is a season of hope in which we begin to realize that we are called to a new kind of life, a new way of thinking, and a new way of acting in this world. It is a season in which we begin to change into the people that God loved us and created us to be. It is not only a season of preparation for those preparing for Baptism. It is a season in which we unite with them as we prepare to renew the vows of our own Baptism.

If we put on these new hopeful and joyous Lenten glasses, we are suddenly able to find new meaning in the Sacred Texts of God’s word and in the Prayers of our own Tradition. At the very center of that new view is the concept which our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, so often repeats to us, “If it is not about love, it is not about God.”

The explanations offered to us in the accounts of the Temptation of our Lord have often been discussed in ways which are disconnected from their theological context. So often, these explanations have seemed to stress the vast distance between Jesus and us. Although these explanations hoped to convince us of the true humanity of the Lord, they often left us feeling that we could never be able to resist temptation in the way that Jesus did. And many were left wondering if Jesus was really tempted at all? After all, an exclusive focus on the divinity of the Lord seems to conceal his humanity. In such a way, those who presented this view often concluded that while this victory over temptation and sin might well be true of Jesus, it could never be true of them.

What they failed to understand is that the meaning, the value, and the purpose of annually recounting these powerful stories from the life and experience of Jesus is to enable us to understand that the humanity of Jesus is precisely the place where the “rubber meets the road.” The humanity of Jesus is the very locus of revelation in which we come to understand that there is meaning for us in our own broken lives and frail humanity. It is not just that “the original sin of Adam and Eve” is overcome. It is rather that we are given a solution as to how we can grow to become fully human ourselves.

While the reality of these temptations is something which I do believe actually happened in the lived experience of Jesus, I also think that the way in which they are presented to us in Scripture is grounded in an approach intended to instruct us and to teach us how to apply this to our own lives. Jesus is presented as the “New Adam,” as the “New Exodus,” and as the new embodiment of Israel. He is the New Emmanuel who comes to show us how God responds to the challenges and difficulties in life–in ways which are generous, and loving and empowering rather than self-centered and destructive.

In these accounts we see the ways in which humans who are, after all, created in image and likeness of God and then declared very good, could choose to respond when we are empowered and transformed by the love of God. We see what could happen if we re-ordered our own values, priorities, and goals to align with God’s values, goals and priorities. We learn what is possible if we choose to say yes to God. We discover God’s own plan for overcoming all the dichotomies which lie at the very root of evil, hatred, injustice and oppression. We are given hope that God’s plan will not be thwarted by the power of evil, hatred, and cruelty—but will be vindicated by the transforming power of love.

An image which I find quite useful is that of tools. In the experience of the Temptation, we are presented with three tools which we can use, not only in Lent—but daily, to enter into the way of Love. These tools are prayer (the third temptation), fasting (the first temptation), and alms-giving (the second temptation).

Jesus, like the people of Israel, journeyed into the desert. There he spent 40 days and nights in prayer. It is sad that the theological significance of the desert and of 40 days need to be explained to us. For the first century Jewish audience which heard these words, there was an immediate recall of all the images from the Hebrew Scriptures: garden, and desert; Noah, Moses, and Elijah. Testing and Confusion juxtaposed with water, manna, ravens, and God’s loving generosity.

They remembered that it was in the wilderness that Israel was truly formed as a community. It was in the desert that Israel learned to trust in God. It was in the desert that Israel prepared to take on all the obstacles which could prevent them from becoming a source of blessing and hope for every nation. It was in the desert that Israel found God and learned to communicate with God. The desert–rather than the garden–was the place of hope. The desert became a model for conversion, for turning away from self and for turning toward God.

In those long forty days in which the human Jesus focused on God and prepared himself to discern God’s will in his own life, he prayed. That prayer was effective. It connected him to his beloved father. It gave him the answers that he was seeking. It opened his eyes to God’s plan for him and for all of humanity. It enabled him to say yes!

This commitment to prayer is reiterated in the third temptation. Here, Jesus learned to say yes to God-and to say no to anything else which offered an “easy way out.” He learned that there are no simple answers in life. And he accepted that there may well be a difficult price to pay for signing on to God’s plan.

It reveals the difference between magic and faith. God will not force or compel us to do what is right. We must choose to do what is good and just. In so doing we will become participants and co-workers with God to bring creation to its intended fulfillment.

It would be impossible to hear of Jesus fasting—freely taking on hunger and thirst—without thinking of all who hunger and thirst without having made the choice to do so. We live in a word of abundance in which there is more than enough for everyone to be fed. And yet, there is such waste and such greed that so many have nothing to eat. Children go to school hungry each morning and go to bed each night without having had anything to eat. Families have no food to prepare or any way to procure the ingredients to cook even a simple meal. People lack the means to grow their own food or the resources to purchase it.

Droughts and floods, war and violence all interrupt or prevent the production of food. In this first temptation, Jesus refuses to magically transform stones to bread. He recognized that hunger can only be overcome through human effort and struggle. A just society only comes about through the abolition of injustice, hated, and oppression. And, in any case, humans need more than bread and water. We need God’s choice food of unity, love, and equality.
This bread, which we find in God’s word—we learn must be applied. It is the healing remedy which God generously offers to the wounded world in which we live. If we choose to fast, we too enter into solidarity—not only with Jesus—but with all who hunger and thirst for justice. We learn what their daily experience is like. And we realize that we have the power to make a difference. In so doing we too will be changed and transformed. In that hunger we will be fed and will find that the deepest desires of our heart will be fulfilled.

The second temptation is in many ways the Rosetta Stone for understanding how God’s plan works. This temptation is really about the danger of being self-centered. We learn that it is all too easy to take God for granted and to presume on the knowledge that God is able to provide for our needs. It is entirely another matter to trust that God will in fact provide in situations which for us seem impossible.

When we are surrounded by darkness, it is not easy to believe that light will be found. When we are cold and shivering, it is difficult to trust that there is warmth in the world. In this moment, Jesus learned to stop thinking about himself—and his own needs– and to, first, place his focus firmly on God, and then, secondly, to think of everyone else.

For this reason, the traditional tool which has been derived from this temptation is that of almsgiving. It is by being generous to others who are in need that we avoid the danger of expecting that God will miraculously solve all the problems which we face, and which our word faces. It is not so much that this kind of magical thinking puts God to the test—rather it exonerates us from rising to the challenge of sharing the gifts, talents and resources which with which God has blessed us to make a difference in the world.

Lest we be tempted to think that we have only these three tools, though, that same Ash Wednesday Instruction reminds us that we have a whole tool kit (with at least seven tools) to use this Lent—and each day—to truly turn away from sin and to say yes to God. “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

Here is an unsolicited suggestion. Are you looking for simple things which you can do which might inspire you and help you to grow this Lent? Here are two ideas.

First, what about starting to attend the Adult Forum each Sunday morning. You are at Church already—or you could come to church a bit earlier than usual. All you have to do is to stop and grab some coffee and walk on down the hall. You might be surprised at what you learn. You might find new ideas or practices which could be helpful. You might be surprised to learn that you are the answer or that you have the answer to some problem which has stumped everyone else.

Second, each Wednesday night this Lent, there will be the opportunity to come to church to pray to listen and to learn. Together we will be exploring that many ways in which it is possible to seek and to find God. We will be sharing our own experiences of how we have gone about that. We will be exploring the often unexpected and surprising ways in which God is revealed to us.

Most importantly, we will be reminded that each of us are called by God—each of us have a “vocation” or a “call.” A vocation is not something which happens to only a select few or especially holy people. Each of us need to be challenged to discern the question, “What is God’s call for me?” And together we will affirm our individual calls and our collective vocation to become God’s Beloved Community. Please come out into the desert with us Wednesday nights this Lent to hear and to answer God’s call.

In this Holy and Joyous Season of Lent, as we prepare to renew our Baptismal Vows and Commitment, may we so fully experience God’s love for us that our hearts overflow with unspeakable sweetness: “For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with the unspeakable sweetness of love—and come to share in the fullness of God’s reign.”

Lent at Trinity in Easton 2020

Holy Martyrs of Uganda, pray for us

A Sermon for the
Feast of
Archbishop Janani Luwum

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

February 19, 2020

Archbishop Luwum.jfif

While attending graduate school at the Jesuit University of New York City—the Rose Hill Campus of Fordham University, in the Bronx–I lived and worked part time at St. Benedict Parish in Throgg’s Neck. It was one of the largest parishes in the Archdiocese of New York and had a congregation of around 4,000 members. As a result, there were LOTS of funerals, weddings, and baptisms. Consequently, it had a large staff. One night at supper there were six priests at the table: two from Nigeria, one from India, one from Sri Lanka, and two from the U.S. It was at that point that we realized that all of us were from former British Colonies! It really was a fascinating conversation. Four of the priests had actually been raised in areas controlled by the British—and the two U.S. citizens were shocked to learn how similar the experiences of education and politics had been for the other more recently “liberated colonials.”

The sad reality, though, was that each of us acknowledged, to a greater or lesser degree the negative impact which that colonial legacy had on our countries. While most of Africa and Asia which had been controlled by Britain had not found it necessary to engage in a bloody revolutionary war to gain independence, so many of those areas had been devastated by bitter partisan wars after the British left. This was especially true of Africa.

One has only to think of Nigeria, for instance. When the Europeans sat down at a table at the “Congress of Berlin,” in 1878 and “carved up Africa” into spheres of influence, they gave no consideration to the indigenous peoples who lived there. They lumped together peoples who had been at war for centuries and who spoke over three hundred different languages—not dialects! Oddly enough, English allowed all of them the possibility of communicating with each other—something which had been impossible previously.

When the British left, though, it was a bit like the collapse of Yugoslavia after the fall of communism. Without an autocratic central authority to force everyone to obey, chaos broke out and violent struggle ensued. Sadly, in many cases, the military seized control and dictatorships emerged. Those who often were from out of power tribes were violently oppressed.

I could say, “ironically,” but instead, I will say “Providentially,” there was one—and really only one autonomous source—which was able to “speak truth to power,” and that was the Christian Church. In the case of so many countries in Africa, that meant the Anglican Church. One has only to think of South Africa, for instance, and of Bishop Tutu.

Uganda was a different reality. In Uganda, Christianity had struggled from the beginning with violent oppression. The faith which emerged in Uganda had been sown in the blood of the martyrs. As Wiki tells us: “The Uganda Martyrs are a group of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts to Christianity in the historical kingdom of Buganda, now part of Uganda, who were executed between 31 January 1885 and 27 January 1887. They were killed on orders of Mwanga II, the Kabaka (King) of Buganda.”

In the twentieth century, a new “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” came to power in Uganda. Idi Amin. I grew up hearing horror tales about him—he is even alleged to have gone so far as to have consumed the roasted flesh of his enemies—following their brutal torture and execution. He appears to have been willing to use all the power at his control to take down anyone who opposed him—even in the smallest way.

Today we recall the brave Christians who stood up to Amin—remembering especially the clergy of Uganda-and Archbishop Janani Luwum, who was martyred under orders from Amin in February 1977.

The challenge which faces us today, is to recognize the evil legacy of imperialism. We care called to love, honor, and respect the dignity of every person—without exception. May we continue to struggle against unjust regimes which brutalize and oppress those who are most vulnerable—in every part of the world. And, through the intercession of all the martyrs of Uganda, may their beloved country truly know justice and peace.

A final, and slightly unrelated thought. If you would like to view a fascinating movie which depicts the horrors of life in Uganda in the 1970’s, I recommend the 1991 movie, Mississippi Masala, starring Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury.