“Jesus did not blame them, nor does he blame us.”

“Jesus did not blame them,
nor does he blame us.”

A sermon for Good Friday
preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Friday, April 19, 2019

Celebrant      We glory in your cross, O Lord,
People          and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue of
                      your cross joy has come to the whole world.

Black veiled cross

When I was a graduate student in early modern European history at Fordham, I recall with surprise a comment from one of my professors: “The kind of history we write all depends on what kind of eye glasses we wear when doing the research.” Until that moment, I had a kind of “naïf” view of history. I thought that it was just a matter of doing honest research, allowing all the “facts” to be uncovered and then trying to weave the information together in some interesting way.

It had not occurred to me that the “axis of analysis,” as I came to learn the “eye glasses” for historians is called, determines which “facts” we “see” when we do research. For instance, we were told that “good history” would always include an analysis of at least gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, power structures, and faith. And, there are ways to find those things—one must learn how to “look for” what is not visible at first glance. An analogy, which I came to treasure, is that of the diamond. It has many facets. To tell the “true” story of the diamond, each of those facets have to be taken into account.

Later, I came to realize that the same tools which are useful in history are also useful in theology-and in faith in general. This evening, I would like to ask you to join me in a new exploration of the “good news” of Good Friday.

The call and response which I chose to use at the beginning of the sermon this evening—from the revised version of our Book of Occasional Services—is a paradoxical one. The same conflicting ideas are born out in the very language which we use to describe this day. “Good Friday.” One might well be tempted to ask, “What is good about it?” And what about this day would lead us to adore and bless the very one crucified?

One of the dangers of fundamentalism is that in making the Crucifixion the exclusive focus of faith, everything else becomes distorted. For instance, if Holy Week had ended with this Good Friday, there would not be much reason for hope. It would be a day full of only sadness, fear and distress. It would be a day of escalating tragedy in which events just horribly spun out of control and kept getting worse and worse. It would be a day of disappointment, abandonment, torture and humiliation. It would be a day in which evil, injustice and oppression had triumphed. What a sad day, indeed. And yet, as our scriptures remind us, that is precisely the kind of day which those who “have no hope” experience daily. That is very sad!

In our tradition, though, we celebrate the Sacred Tridiuum—three days in which the mystery of the Passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ form a single reality. So, as important as this day is, we do not stop here. We march on in faith and in hope towards the Resurrection. It is the Resurrection—and not just the events of Good Friday which is the cornerstone on which our faith rests. It is the Resurrection which is the ultimate Good News.

At the same time, it is essential that we experience each of these days fully. Today is Good Friday and not Easter Sunday. So, we are challenged to enter into the reality of this day. Previously, I shared with you an invitation to allow each of these days to unfold in our own lives—as they did in the lives of Our Lord and his friends. To take us by surprise. That is what I would like for us to reflect on this night.

We often fail to really “see” what is going on at the Crucifixion. There is so much action, so many things happening that it all becomes a kind of blur to us. There are so many details that we can easily lose focus on what is most important. There is, though, another danger. If we allow pre-conceived notions to blind us, we may not be able to notice what is really happening. To put it bluntly, we have spent so much time looking for someone to blame that we have failed to really “see” what took place.

As you are no doubt aware, tonight is also the First night of Passover. It was a feast of freedom and hope which Jesus, his family, and friends would have celebrated each year. Sadly, it has become a day which was marred over many centuries by acts of cruelty and violence by Christians against our Jewish Sisters and Brothers. That is a fact which we must acknowledge—to our regret and shame. Although there are many causes for this bizarre behavior, one of the primary reasons seems to have been that Christians in earlier times blamed all Jews for the death of Jesus. They left Church on Good Friday and attacked the Jewish ghetto crying out for death to the “Christ-killers.” This was among the very darkest moments in Christian history. That claim of “blood libel” and “deicide” against those of the Jewish faith led to horrible atrocities and may well be at the root of the persistent evil and sin of anti-Semitism in Western Christianity.

In short, the propaganda suggested that the Crucifixion of Jesus was the worst thing which had ever happened in human history! The Son of God was humiliated, tortured and abused. He died alone, abandoned and forgotten on a cross outside of Jerusalem. It was an unforgivable sin, and someone—whoever it was that was responsible—must pay the ultimate price for this horror.

This is a very human way of thinking—and a way which does not represent the best of humanity. In it there is a need for someone to be hurt, to suffer, to experience­—in retribution—all the things that Jesus did. It is the logical progression of “lex talonis,” or “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” It cries out for someone to blame—to be punished. This irrational thinking has nothing to with the Faith of Israel or with the Faith of Jesus!

  • There are, of course so many people who could have been blamed:
  • The riled-up mob, which cried for Jesus’ death. Jesus did not blame them.
  • Annas and Caiaphas—the spiritual leaders in Jerusalem. Jesus did not blame them.
  • The Sanhedrin. Jesus did not blame them.
  • King Herod. Jesus did not blame him.
  • The Apostles who got scared and ran away. Jesus did not blame them.
  • Peter, who denied Jesus three times. Jesus did not blame him.
  • Judas Iscariot who conspired against Jesus and caused his arrest. Jesus did not blame him.
  • Pontius Pilate—the only one with the power of life and death. Jesus did not blame him.
  • God, who could have stopped the Passion at any moment. Jesus did not blame God.

In fact, Jesus did not blame anyone! Jesus forgave everyone! What beautiful and compassionate words, “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus was not about playing the blame game. And, even, in his pain and sorrow and agony, he chose to love, to forgive, to heal and to reconcile. He chose love over hate and forgiveness over claims for justice or retribution. Now that is good news!

Why then was Jesus crucified? I suspect that this is one of those questions which everyone will have to answer for herself or himself. After long prayer and reflection, I have come to this understanding. God did not cause, intend or want Jesus’ death. Jesus was more than some sacrificial lamb who had to die to atone for the mistakes of Adam and Eve. Jesus’ death was not necessary to appease an offended God or to pay the price for the sins of fallen humanity.

A reflection on Facebook by a “Southern Pastor’ recently phrased this well:

  • Jesus died on the cross because he offended those in power.
  • Jesus died on a cross because he challenged the status quo.
  • Jesus died on a cross because love would not sit silently by as those who had little were being stepped on, used, and abused by those who had so very much.
  • “Why did Jesus die on a cross?”
  • Jesus died on a cross to show us what love looks like in action.

The answer that I find in the story of Jesus’ passion, is that we humans nailed Jesus to the Cross—all of us. Why?

  • Because we were afraid of the message that Jesus proclaimed.
  • Because Jesus threatened our safe and secure faith.
  • Because Jesus said that we must love the poor and needy.
  • Because Jesus said that we could have no part in violence, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and blaming and still be his followers.
  • Because Jesus said that we had to love and care for everyone.
  • Because Jesus said that we would have to change and grow to fully enter into God’s realm—in a word, conversion.
  • Because Jesus refused to exclude, shame, or condemn anyone.
  • Because Jesus taught that true leadership is found in loving service.
  • Because Jesus put his words into action and modeled what he preached—showing us that it is possible to live the life he spoke of.
  • For all these reasons and a million more, we nailed Jesus to the tree.
  • Because we did not understand Jesus and because we did not know what we were doing!

 Now here is the miracle! Jesus’ loving Abba did not strike us dead, or curse us, or punish us for what we had done to God’s beloved child! God accepted our sacrifice and transformed it. He raised Jesus from the death which we imposed on him. And, he offered us—as he had already done so many, many times in the past—the possibility of a new beginning. God offers us the fullness of life: physical, mental, and spiritual—now and always. God’s unconditional love will not be limited by human frailty, fear and sin. God does not blame us. Just the opposite—God loves us and wants only what is good for us. Now that is good news!

At our recent Bicentennial Quiet Day, Mother Barbara Crafton shared a powerful insight. “It is not that Jesus’ death was worse than the death of anyone else. The important thing is that Jesus’ death was our death.” It is true that there are even worse forms of death than Crucifixion. But what is also true is that God knows what it means to live fully—and totally—as one of us. God also knows what it means to suffer our death. As St. Paul tells us, “in Baptism, we have died with Christ—we also rise with him to newness of life.” We gave death; God gives life!

It is also important to remember that Jesus was not abandoned or alone in his Passion. His mother, the Beloved disciple, and some other women were present to him and ministered to him when he was most vulnerable and afraid. Not everyone ran away! A few loved Jesus so much that no power on earth would have kept them away from him. The arms that held him as a baby in that manger in Bethlehem now held his lifeless body as it was taken down from the cross. As that beautiful hymn, Stabat Mater Dolorosa reminds us, “She beheld her tender Child, saw Him hang in desolation, till His spirit forth He sent.”

Make no mistake. Jesus died and was buried. We do not have to be afraid and run away anymore. Fear is useless. What is needed is trust!

Even on that altar of the cross, Jesus blessed us with healing, forgiving, and reconciling love. From his wounded side flowed water and blood. The healing waters of new life—of Baptism. And the blood of his abiding sacramental presence with us: “The blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation. The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”

What can we take away from this? God loves us totally, completely, and unconditionally. Jesus proved that love in laying down his life at our demand. Just as Jesus gave himself over to our death, he invites us to take up his life.

There is a beautiful hymn by Nancy Honeytree which expresses the promise of Good Friday so well, “Live for Jesus. That’s what matters. And when other houses crumble mine is strong. Live for Jesus. That’s what matters. That you see the light in me and come along.”

Jesus does not blame us! Let us be done with blame and guilt! Let us learn to truly live—in Jesus’ resurrected life—as members of God’s beloved community.

“Let me know you in the now.”

“Let me know you in the now.”

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
Easton, Pennsylvania
April 7, 2019

Almighty and ever living God, in your tender love for the
human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take
upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross,
giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant
that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share
in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.

“Lord, deliver me
Break my heart so I can see
All the ways You dwell in us
That You’re alive in me

Lord I long to see
Your presence in reality
But I don’t know how
Let me know You in the now”
From “Know you in the Now.” By Michael Card

Several weeks ago, Father Andrew preached a very moving sermon. I have reflected on it almost daily in the weeks which have followed. And that, by the way, is a helpful practice which I suggest to you. Each Sunday, try to find one line—or one verse from Scripture to carry with you through the week. He said, “The most radical word that Jesus ever said was “Today.” He went on to share with us how challenging it can be to let go of both the past and of the future so as to fully live in the present.

Many of us, when we honestly look at our lives, come to realize that one of the reasons that we do not accomplish the things which are important to us is that find it difficult to really live in the here and now. We sometimes are so afraid of the past that we can be incapacitated by guilt about past mistakes, failures, and sins. We worry so much about what “might happen,” that we find that today has slipped away without our lives being any different than they were before.

On this last Sunday in Lent, perhaps it is time for us to take an inventory of this Season of Lent. Did we get out of this Lent what we hoped we would? As a result of the things which we either gave up or else took on, are we different people? Have we grown closer to God? Have we grown closer to others? Have we appreciated and valued the gift of God’s creation? I very much hope that the answer to each of these questions will be a resounding yes. But, if not, it is never too late!

In my first year of Seminary, I had a class called “The Mystery of Salvation.” We had it right before lunch and so the seminarians—who are often witty and cynical at the same time–called it “The Misery of Salivation.” Later, I came to realize that they might have been more profound than they realized. Are we invited to be so hungry for God that we literally salivate? I reflected on this the first time that I ever attended the Orthodox Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and saw that they actually use a kind of “liturgical bib” when receiving Holy Communion. Of course, in their case it makes sense because the leavened bread is dipped in wine and then communicated using a kind of “liturgical spoon.”

In “The Mystery of Salvation,” our professor told us, “There are really only three essential questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we responsible for along the way?” It seems to me that the last question can give us some insight into how it is that we come to find God in the here and now.”

A word, which I find either used or suggested throughout our readings today is “new.” New things, when we first encounter them, can take us by surprise. They challenge our preconceptions and often cause us to see things in a new way. We do not always like that. It can be easy to think or to say, “But I have always done it that way. The truth is that the way we have always done things has not always worked out so well for us.

The Prophet Isaiah tells us that “God is doing something new.” God certainly took the people of Israel by surprise when, through Moses, he told them that they would be delivered from slavery. I can imagine that message was received with great skepticism. After all, slavery was all that they knew. When we listen to their complaints in the wilderness, afterwards, it seems clear that it was almost impossible for them to really trust that God could provide for their needs in the here and now. Instead of recalling that slavery had been cruel, oppressive and dehumanizing, they occasionally longed to return to what was “safe and dependable” even if it meant eating onions and bitter herbs. Because of that fear, they said “no” to God’s invitation to enter the land of Promise. They had to wander there for forty long years–until every living person who had a “slave mentality” had died. Only then, would it be possible for God to do something new for them, with them, and through them.

The writing from Isiah, though, is written at a later time, a time in which the prophets begin to speak of God doing something truly new—and for those who heard the message this “new thing” was unwelcome—God’s message of hope, love and covenant would be a message for the whole world, and not only for the People of Israel. That was a hard message for them to hear. Even today it is a hard message for us to hear. When the Episcopal Church boldly proclaims that “everyone is welcome,” each of us are challenged to let go of our own prejudices and discomforts. If God calls someone to be part of our community, who are we to say no? And then, we are called to not only tolerate their presence, but to actually learn to love them!

The tone which I hear in the Psalm is a response to that invitation to the new, “What wonderful things God has done.” But I think it could also be “what wonderful things God is doing here and now.” They are wonderful to behold. Let us truly be glad and rejoice in them.

Saint Paul shares with his favorite community, the Church in Phillipi, his own surprising experience of finding God in the new. The contrast which he makes between his “old way of life” and the “new way of living” could not be more pronounced. In this beautiful passage he reflects on the unbelievable way in which his life was transformed. He shares how it came about that his focus shifted. To put it quite simply, in his old life the focus was on him. And in the new life, the focus is on God.

There was a very clever meme on Facebook that said, “Humility is not about thinking less of myself; it is about thinking of myself less often.” When Paul learned to place his focus on God, he discovered God’s presence in the here and now. And that changed everything! It was that realization that God was truly with him in every circumstance of his life that gave him the courage to persevere and to press forward. He learned too, that he did not have to worry about what was coming. His life was one in process. With God’s help he was making daily progress towards his goal. He did not have to worry that he had not yet arrived. If he allowed God to be in control of the journey, it would all work out as God wished—and, in fact, would be better than anything he could have come up with on his own.

In this final Sunday in Lent, we come to a pivotal moment of transition. In just a week we will enter into Holy Week. And at that time, we will begin an amazingly fast-paced journey through the most important moments in the life of Christ and into the mysteries which lie at the very core of our personal and collective faith. In the reality of the passion, death, and resurrection, we will encounter the fullest expression of God’s all-encompassing love. Remember the saying, “Holy Week is not so much about how much Jesus suffered, it is rather about how much Jesus loved.” It will be a week that, if we allow it to do so, could change our lives completely.

How is that possible? One way, I think, it to seize hold of the notion that each day must be fully experienced on its own merit. Let us fully enter into each day—but in doing so, let go of all the others. Let us forget what is coming and allow each day to take us by surprise—as they did to both our Lord and to his friends. On Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday forget that Good Friday is coming. On Good Friday and Holy Saturday morning, forget that there will be a Resurrection. And at the Great Vigil of Easter (which I invite each of you to please attend), be surprised that the Light of Christ has conquered the darkness of sin, death, and hatred. Be astonished at the Easter Proclamation” “Christ is Truly Risen.” What wonderful new news indeed!

The Gospel passage we heard today is one of my all-time favorites. Jesus returns to his home-away-from-home in Bethany. This is a place where he can just “be himself,” It is a place where he can relax and let go of all the problems that he faces. It is a place, as we could say, where he is “family member” and not just a friend. He once again shares a lovely evening with his dear friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.

With them he shares the unexpected gift of life which has been returned to Lazarus. He feasts on another incredible meal prepared by that five-star-cook, Martha. And, he receives perhaps the most personal and loving gift that he ever received in his entire life. His friend Mary shares with him what might well be her life’s savings. She breaks open a bottle of outrageously expensive perfumed oil and anoints his feet with her hair. The room is filled with the fragrance of that oil. It is such a loving, intimate and personal act of generosity and love there is really no other experience in his life with which it may be compared.

This anointing restores and refreshes the Lord’s tired, worn, and calloused feet. It offers, as oil always does, healing and strength—but this time, for his last journey. Perhaps it is this act of love and generosity which empowers Jesus to enter into that Holy Week, with the knowledge that he is deeply, totally, and unconditionally loved.

In this selfless gift, Mary models what Jesus will do, in turn, when at that Last Supper, which is soon coming, he will share the gift of his abiding presence in the elements of bread and wine. He will show that true leadership is about loving service when he washes the feet of his own disciples.

The aroma of that loving home in Bethany will go with him, through that entire Holy Week which is coming—through his passion and death and into his Resurrection.

Today, and in the coming days of Holy Week, may God break open our hearts with his love so that we truly see—and know that God is with us “in the now.”

anointing-his-feet-2

“Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”

“Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”

 

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2019
Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in 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.

Baruch haba b’shem Adonai
Blessed is He who comes
Baruch haba b’shem Adonai
Who comes in the name of the Lord

This chorus is from my favorite Messianic Jewish hymn. I first discovered it, I think, not long after I moved to New York City in the early 90’s. I had been sent there to pursue a Ph.D. in Early Modern European History (which, as it turns out, I chose not to complete). But while there, I also worshipped for a number of years in Messianic Jewish Synagogues—first in White Plains, and later in Manhattan.

This song was very important to me. It was the first song which I learned which had lyrics in Hebrew. It seemed to me to be a most powerful song with a kind of haunting minor melody. Right away, I realized that these were words which Our Lord Jesus Christ himself had spoken—in the place where we hear it today in the Gospel According to St. Luke. Later, these words are heard again—in the mouths of those who greet Our Lord and welcome him to the Holy City of Jerusalem on that Passion Day when he was greeted with Palms.

I did not realize at that time, how important this Gospel passage would become to my own understanding of God, though. And that is something which I would like to share with you today.

Now you might be well tempted to ask, “Why was it that someone who was raised as a Southern Baptist in Western North Carolina and then became a Benedictine monk would choose to Preside at Eucharist on Saturday evening or Sunday morning and also schlepp off to Synagogue on Saturday morning?” Well, if you know me, you know that religion—in all its varieties and expressions, has always fascinated, intrigued, and delighted me. But, when I was in college, I discovered—to my shock—that my Mammaw Cook’s family—the Bunten/Bunton family—might well have originally been Jewish. That discovery launched me on a quest to try to understand Judaism.

The life-changing realization in all this is something which is completely obvious—but which had completely passed right by me. Jesus was Jewish! His mother was Jewish. His foster-father was Jewish. His disciples and his Apostles were Jewish! Almost everyone he ever knew, who he shared his life with and loved was Jewish. Wow! Jesus was not a Christian! That changed everything!

In the course of the years which followed, I made another huge discovery. Almost everything which I had ever been told or taught about Judaism was either wrong—or else distorted. Even worse, much of the theology which I had learned as a young person was laced with anti-Semitism. Judaism was viewed through a fundamentalist lens which saw it only as being useful as a preparation for Christianity.

The very language which was used spoke of Judaism as the “old” and of Christianity as the “new and improved.” There were horrible distortions which portrayed Judaism as a religion of “law and wrath” and of Christianity as a faith of “love and mercy.” And of course, in this view, the Westernized and sanitized Jesus was the opponent and even enemy of a backward-looking Judaism. He was the good person and his enemies the Pharisees were blind, ignorant, mean, and even evil.

Later, I came to realize, that this perspective was derived from a very selective reading of the Hebrew Scriptures (please note that I intentionally avoid the use of the term “Old Testament” which is offensive to Judaism) and a focus on the more polemical aspects of the life and preaching of Saint Paul. Clearly, the folks who taught me had not invested time in reading the writings of the Prophets or the Gospels in their entirety. They picked and chose. And they chose the worst passages which supported their views.

When they read today’s Gospel, for instance. They focused on the negative:
—King Herod was an evil fox who wanted to kill Jesus. If he is typical of other Jews or of most Jews that is a very frightening belief! It certainly goes a long way towards understanding how supposed People of Faith committed such atrocities against Jews for millennia.
—Jerusalem is a city which kills the prophets and is most important for having killed the Lord. In this view there is none of the joy which Jesus experienced in “making Aliyah” or going up to the Holy City. There is none of the beauty of this city in which God’s temple was located. There is no sense of the longing which Jews everywhere felt, “if I forget you Jerusalem,” or “next year in Jerusalem.”
—Even worse, they focused on that one line—“You were not willing!” This focus is truly terrifying because it completely demeans Judaism and suggest that Jewish believers then—and later—were intentionally blind, stubborn and, duplicitous. It sowed seeds—really weeds—of bigotry, racism, xenophobia and prejudice.

The saving grace for me in this—and I mean that quite literally—was to read this passage clearly! And then, from all the less important and less significant words emerged this one astonishing verse: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”Mother hen with chicks

Now that is a surprising image! It is a Jewish image. It is an image that someone from the country—from a small town—knew well. It is not an image which makes as much sense to city-dwellers. It tells us a great deal about Jesus. It also reveals something amazing about the God of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, of Isaac and Rebekah, and of Jacob and Leah and Rachel.

In this image, God is maternal! God is loving, kind, caring, and compassionate. How interesting. Jesus did not say that he was like a rooster—with claws and beak—to use in fighting for and to protect his chicks. He did not say that he had a loud cry. to warn of danger, and perhaps frighten the enemy away. He did not say that he was an angry person making a list and checking it twice to find out who was naughty. He did not say that he was looking for evil sinners and law-breakers to send to a hell which they richly deserved.

No, he used a motherly image. Imagine the surprise of picking up the hen and discovering that she was covering all those little chicks. With her arms, she was keeping them close to her—keeping them warm and safe. Making them feel loved and secure—even treasured. That is the image which Our Lord Jesus Christ used to speak of himself. That is the image which he used to speak of God. And that is the invitation which he offered—and offers to us today. I think, as Bishop Curry might say, that is the Good News in this Gospel. “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.” And that is what about Bishop Curry’s plea to us to become a “Beloved Community” is all about.

This past Thursday, I was blessed to have lunch with a wonderful and delightful man. He is a musical director at a historically African-American congregation. His own story is truly amazing. He was raised in the deep South and is the child of a family which recently came from Africa. And so, he comes from a very distinct context. Southern, and black, but not a descendant of slaves. He spent his childhood in the South, but the rest of his life has been lived here. He has many “homes”: Nigeria, Louisiana, and Northeastern Pennsylvania. He is a person of tremendous faith. That has exposed him to a wide variety of religious experiences—the Anglican/Episcopal tradition of his childhood, Charismatic and Pentecostal worship as a young adult, and finally a home in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Winston shared with me a beautiful story. When he was in college, he worked in a home for foster-children who were in transition. Many of the children there had been in the system for their entire life. They had moved from house to house and through various institutions as well. Their experience reveals a dark side of all this. The young people in that home often had experienced the very worst of a flawed and failed system.

Winston encountered a young black man who was troubling to the predominately caucasian staff. They feared that there was something wrong with him. He seemed to be fixated on his hair. From their perspective, he constantly scratched his head and pulled on his hair. They feared that he could have a psychological problem. They wondered if he needed counseling, treatment or even medication?

Winston knew what the problem was—almost immediately. This young man had dry skin and was in need of moisture. His dry scalp had become irritated and no doubt was painful. It hurt and annoyed him. Like any wound which we have, he could not leave it alone! And so, it became a major irritation. The other care givers just did not understand because this was foreign to their experience. Winston went on to tell the amazing story of his caring for this young man. He massaged a soothing and healing ointment into the scalp. He knew to do this because his mother had often ministered to him in ths same way,

My first thought was, “That young man did not have anyone to love him. No one understood him, or took him seriously. No helped him.” And then Winston came along. Winston loved him! His action changed everything. My faith tells me that Jesus was present in that touch. It was Jesus, through Winston, whose touch comforted, consoled, soothed, and healed that young man. That was God! This was a God who like a loving mother hen gathered that young man to his chest.

The very next day, with that story still fresh in my memory, I learned of the massacre with had taken place at two Mosques in New Zealand. The horror deepened with each successive hour. More than 50 people in two houses of prayer—in  Mosques in which they had come to worship Allah were slaughtered by a white supremacist.

There have been so many of these horrible incidents—and yet this one had an impact that none of the others had (though sadly each of them should have had the same impact). For me, this was the first time, since knowing and loving the Muslim community of the Lehigh Valley, that something like this had happened. I could easily imagine my friends at the Lehigh Dialog Center and Respect Graduate School at worship in their beautiful mosque on Industrial Drive. And so, it felt personal to me.

But for this to have happened in New Zealand—a peaceful and inclusive country—did not make sense to me. It is a country which has intentionally welcomed and valued immigrants. A haven for the oppressed. Why there? It pains me to say it, but in our own country this has become so commonplace that it no longer surprises me. But not New Zealand.

My faith has given me an insight into this horrible reality. Those who were slaughtered—at worship and prayer in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist were not victims—they were martyrs. And Jesus was present with them in their passion. He was the mother hen who gathered them to his chest.

Those who were slaughtered—at worship and in prayer—at Temple Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha in Pittsubrgh by a white supremacist were not victims—they were martyrs. And haShem, Adonai Elohenu was present with them in their passion. He was the mother hen who gathered them to his chest.

Those who were slaughtered—at worship and in prayer—at the Grand Mosque of Quebec City by a white supremacist were not victims—they were martyrs. And Allah was present with them in their passion. He was the mother hen who gathered them to his chest.

Those who were slaughtered—at worship and in prayer—at the Al Noor mosque and the Linwood Islamic Center in Christchurch, New Zealand by a white supremacist were not victims—they were martyrs. And Allah was present with them in their passion. He was the mother hen who gathered them to his chest.

Blessed are these martyrs for faith who come to us in God’s name. May they know the fullness of God’s light, love and peace—now and forever. And may we on behalf of God the merciful, the compassionate, work tirelessly to create Beloved Communities in which these acts of violence will never again be possible. Baruch haba b’shem Adonai.

What is Lent all about, anyway?

Lent in EastonWe all have axes to grind–here is mine. I am convinced that Lent has far more to do with preparing to celebrate THE RESURRECTION (than only Good Friday). It reminds us more of the practice of the early church to prepare Catechumens for complete incorporation into the Body of Christ (Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist) than with the “reconciliation of notorious sinners”.

Here is the invitation to Lent which we are given in the Book of Common Prayer (pp. 264-265)

“Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great
devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and
it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a
season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided
a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of
notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful
were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to
the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation
was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all
Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”

Thus, I am often troubled (and yes annoyed) by the almost exclusive focus on penance! Even so, our Book of Common Prayer (p. 265) gives some excellent advice about how to get something out of Lent:

“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.”

(I broke up the passage to emphasize the five suggested steps.)

By the way–a much better word, I think, is “conversion”–“turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” Lent is a season of Revival, a time of renewal, a time of discovery, and a time for growth. Seen in that light, these tools are amazingly helpful. The ultimate questions for me each year are these; How am I alienated or isolated from God, others, and creation? In what ways am I wounded, hurt and broken? What steps can I take to be more deeply and fully connected, integrated, healed and loved?

The Light of Revelation

A sermon preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
February 3, 2019
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

“This is the light of revelation to the nations, and the glory of your people, Israel.”

IMG_9308This antiphon comes from St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, the motherhouse of the Swiss-American Congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict. It was used with the Nunc Dimittis, that beautiful canticle taken from the account of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. It is a song of praise that the Priest, Simeon, sings, as he holds the baby Jesus in his arms and realizes that God’s promise that he would live to see the Messiah has been fulfilled.

In this song, he tells us that his own eyes have seen the fulfillment of God’s plan for salvation in the person of this child who is God’s light made manifest—both in the Temple (the glory of Israel) and to the gentiles (the light of revelation to the nations).

Our Scriptures, both Hebrew and Christian, use powerful images which speak to us of God’s presence in the world. They remind us that God was present from the very first instant of creation, that God loved all that was created, and that God continues to guide creation to an ultimate goal—a goal which includes us. Even more, God’s plan depends on our involvement as co-creators, as participants, and ultimately as grateful recipients of God’s loving care.

Of all the images, perhaps the most interesting is light. From the very first “let there be light,” through the pillar of fire which led Israel to freedom from slavery through the wilderness, light symbolizes God’s presence in a most powerful way. A light that leads and guides. But also a light which warms, protects and comforts.

Thus, it should come as no surprise to us that light is an equally important image in the Christian scriptures. In fact, I always think of a Trinity of images from the Synoptic Gospels, “light, salt, and yeast.” Really, they are all saying the same thing—that they—and by inference, we—have the power and ability to transform the world.

They also serve to teach us about the significance, value, and importance of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. They give us clues about what his presence in the world means—for the area surrounding his birth (one thinks of Shepherds the field awakened by light and the song of angels), for the whole world (the visitation of the Magi on Epiphany—who were led there by the light of a star), and finally for the People of Israel (The Feast of the Presentation in the Temple). It then follows, that the reality of Christ is most fully present in the light of the Resurrection. And we can not forget the tongues of flame which appear on the heads of the Apostles at Pentecost.

These feasts of Light—Christmas, The Epiphany, The Presentation (also called Candlemas, because it is the day on which the Candles to be used in church and at home are blessed), the Easter Vigil (with the lighting of the new fire and the Paschal Cande, and the three fold proclamation of the “Light of Christ,”) and Pentecost serve as a model and inspiration for us. They remind us of a world of darkness, confusion, and alienation which is pierced and transformed by God’s light. It is the story of salvation—and especially as it is presented in the two-volume history of salvation: The Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke and The Acts of the Apostles—a story told in three phases: the stage of Israel, the stage of Jesus, and the stage of the Church.

It is just as important to remember that the darkness which we encounter in this beautiful story is a metaphor which encompasses all the forces which work against God’s plan.

These are the very realities which are also addressed in our Baptismal Covenant. There, of course, it is framed in a positive light. There we pledge, promise and covenant to work for things which oppose those forces.

But, more and more, I find it imperative to name them. I do so again today, knowing full well that you have often heard me speak them, denounce them, and oppose them: racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and religious bigotry, injustice, oppression, hatred, violence and war.

The light of Christ, the light of the Resurrection, the Light of Pentecost will illumine these evils and reveal them so that–rendered visible, they may be confronted and dis-empowered. It is a time of winter for us. In this time we feel the cold, we fear the dark, we long for the light. In the same way, we cry out for the coming of God’s inclusive kingdom in all its fullness and beauty. We long to be warmed and to dine at a family banquet at which all are welcome, loved, and fed.

There is another beautiful antiphon: Jesus Christ is the light of the World, a light no darkness can extinguish.” This antiphon was often sung at the beginning of Evening Prayer as the candles were lit. It reminded those gathered for prayer that as they gather in darkness to end the day, and then to rest, they will be accompanied through the dark by a light which will never go out or ever be extinguished.

Now you have been patient thus far but may well have wondered what all of this has to do with the readings which we have just heard? I want to suggest to you that one way to look at the image of light is use it as a kind of magnifying glass.

If we have arrived at a stage in life in which our vision is not quite what it once was, we appreciate the value of eyeglasses. They are a kind of specialized magnifying glass-individually created for each of us—to allow us to see things which are small, which are close to us, and which are far away. I suppose that if we became trapped on a desert island and still had them on us (hopefully intact), we might be able to use the old girl scout or boy scout trick of letting the light shine through them to catch straw on fire.

In our Scriptures we speak of a special kind of sight—a kind of magnifying glass—which God gives us to see the world as God sees it—which is called “prophetic vision.” In our readings today, it appears to me that a common theme is that of finding God in unexpected people, places and things. Or to use the earlier metaphor, finding light in places in which we might have thought it was not—and could not be present.

The prophet Jeremiah, points to a common error of perception. We humans have consistently undervalued the young. We are tempted to think that “they don’t know nothing.” We use phrases like “they are inexperienced” and “naïve.” We are often quick to dismiss “youthful enthusiasm.” We realize that life has a way to beat down young dreamers and to cause them abandon those hopes and dreams which they once possessed.

The prophet Jeremiah, though, reminds us that “God is no respecter of persons.” The young, and especially the young also have boundless energy. They have the determination, drive, and—yes, they have the time which is needed to plan and to bring that plan to fruition. We would do well to listen to them, and to learn from them!

I am reminded of that anecdote from Chesterton. When told by an older person that “Youth is wasted on the young,” he replied, “Yes, and wisdom on the old.” Imagine a world full of youthful enthusiasm coupled with wisdom and experience. That is God’s plan.

February is not only the month of Candlemas, and of Ground Hog Day, but also of Valentine’s Day. Our Reading from The First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians is really quite challenging. It speaks of the essence of love. It makes clear that love is not a catchy “Hallmark slogan.” Nor is it a sentimental concept that makes us “feel good” for a few minutes. Love is connected to sacrifice “sacra facere”—literally it is something which has the power to make us holy. Love, though, is not only about “what is in it for me.” it is primarily about doing for others. Love is about social justice, and about caring for those in need. Love is modeled on the example of God who first loved us without asking anything in return. It is modeled on the sacrificial love of Christ who loves us and pours himself out for us. It is modeled in the love which we are invited—and challenged to share with others.

And our Gospel, this day, reminds us of finding God in the here and now. Our Gospel passage today takes up where it left off last Sunday. I want to remind you of something that Father Andrew said last week—something which has stayed with me all week. “We are called to let go of our memories (the past) and of our dreams (the future) and to live in the present. The most radical word that Jesus ever said was ‘today.’”

Jesus shocks his audience by telling them that God is present in the here and now. Not only are they reluctant to hear that, they become so angry that they choose to kill him to silence that message. They recognize that they are being called to let go of all their cherished preconceptions and certainties and to recognize that God’s message and promise is far more inclusive than they thought—or would like to believe.

Why? Because it will mean that they will have to change, to transform and to grow. Because it means that God also loves gentiles, and foreigners—yes, God loves even Greeks and Romans. Imagine that!

The same is true for each of us. What would it mean if I chose to live as a person of light? What would it mean if we chose to be a source of Light in the Lehigh and Delaware Valleys? What would it mean if the Episcopal Church practiced the Way of Love—which our Presiding Bishop is inviting us to do? What would it mean if all the children of Abraham; Jews, Christians and Muslims united to bring God’s light to a cold, and shivering world?

A final thought, this is Black History Month. Yesterday, I was blessed to be able to visit St. John AME Zion Church in Bethlehem. They invited us to their sanctuary and shared with us their denominational history and their congregational history. They also shared with us the story of the African-American Community in Northampton County.

What a lovely afternoon. I learned so much, and can not tell you how truly gracious, hospitable and welcoming they were. I plan to go back to visit—and to worship with them some Sunday (and if they have food, I may be the last one to leave).

I invite you to do something this month to learn about the contributions of black folks to our country and to our county. Learn something from black history, address some important issue like racism, violence against African-Americans, inequitable incarceration, or voter suppression of minorities. Read some work of literature or listen to music or poetry by African-American authors. Check out with the NAACP is doing locally and get involved. Be light. Make a difference. Don’t allow this month to end without having been challenged, and having grown.

Inspired—even impelled–by the love of Christ, we are called to be a light in this world—a light that no darkness will ever extinguish.

Reading Paul in Epiphanytide with The Episcopal Church

Romans 1: 1-7

As a gay man who was raised in a very conservative and traditional Southern Baptist home, I was not a huge fan of Saint Paul in my childhood. I was also struggling to come to terms with my own sexual orientation at the very moment when Anita Bryant caused Southern Baptists to lose interest in drunks—the primary sin we heard about until that time—and to become fixated on gay sex! Well, having been raised in an alcoholic home, I felt as if though I had left the frying pan and had jumped into the fire. Sadly, that was exactly what I thought God wanted for me—to be damned to hell for all eternity because I was evil and sinful and flawed.

Years later, in seminary, I was blessed to understand that even conservative Roman Catholics had to accept that many of those problematic passages had either been mis-translated or else poorly applied. So, I became willing to give Saint Paul another chance! Just after I was ordained to the Priesthood, I presided at a Mass of Thanksgiving in my home parish of Saint Elizabeth of the Hill Country in Boone, North Carolina. The pastor, a Jesuit, told a funny story. At a recent wedding someone complained that the “wives be submissive” passage was used. The Pastor replied, “I did not write it and I did not choose it for this Liturgy. Go complain to someone else.”

I am actually delighted that our Presiding Bishop and Primate has invited us to read together and to share about Saint Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome. I look forward, in the days to come, to re-reading this text in its entirety. That is something which I have not done in years.

Today I choose to focus on the greeting which Paul so often uses in his “authentic” writings. “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul uses this greeting to those whom he knows well—and in the case of the Letter to the Romans, to those he does not know at all, but hopes to come to know. Charis kai irene. Grace and peace. What fascinating words.

Grace brings to mind other words—charis, charity (or caritas in Latin) sounds much like love. What is grace anyway? One way might be something like “the freely given love which is bestowed by God on everyone.” Of course, it only has an impact if one chooses to receive it and allows it to take root in the garden of our heart. Not given to us because we are good, not withheld from us because of our mistakes, failings or defects. Simply given because God loves us. The very antithesis of that Calvinist idea of limited atonement. It might also call into question the theory of total depravity. After all, if God said that creation was good, that we were created in God’s image and likeness, and that God freely showers grace on us—that makes us pretty special.

It is interesting that the same Paul who waxes eloquent about faith, hope and love, here begins by wishing his readers peace. Irenic from the Greek irene is a word we know so well. And yet, we live in a world of chaos and division. A world of violence, hatred, prejudice, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, injustice and xenophobia. Peace is the opposite of all that. Peace is what happens in God’s kingdom. Peace is a bridge across chasms and rivers which divide people. Peace is the righteous mob that tears down the wall.

Paul then uses these two wishes to center us, to comfort and assure us, to engage in dialogue with us–from the very beginning. Grace and Peace from God and from Jesus Christ. Yes, what a wonderful way to begin this letter to us and to invite us to enter ever more fully into the mystery of God’s love—more to come in the passages ahead.

The Solemnity of the Circumcision of Our Lord Jesus Christ-Why it matters.

On the eighth day following his birth, in fulfillment of the covenant between God and Abraham. Our Lord Jesus Christ was circumcised and was named (Luke 2: 21). By this act he was entered into the People of Israel and his name, Yeshua, “God Saves,” gave some insight into what his life would come to mean.

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This feast is essential because it refutes all the anti-Semitic prejudice which infected Christianity for millennia. Our Lord was Jewish, his mother was Jewish and his foster father was Jewish. Even more importantly—they were observant Jews. They understood God having reached out again and again in covenant love to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, through Moses, to David and through the prophets.

The early Church also saw in this babe of Bethlehem that Yeshua or Joshua was at the same time the “light of revelation to the nations,” a feast which we will celebrate as the Ephipany this coming Sunday.

But today is also called the Solemnity of the Mother of God. As Wikipedia reminds us this feast is ultimately Christological—rather than Mariological because it has more to do with asserting that Jesus is both human and divine, than in awarding any special or unique honor to his mother: “The feast is a celebration of Mary’s motherhood of Jesus. The English title “Mother of God” is a literal translation of the Latin title Mater Dei, which in turn is a looser rendering of the corresponding Greek title Θεοτόκος (Theotokos), literally meaning “Bearer of God” dogmatically adopted by the First Council of Ephesus (431) as an assertion of the divinity of Christ. The title is thus fundamentally Christological rather than Mariological.”

Here is a prayer for the Mass of the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God: “God our Father, may we always profit by the prayers of the Virgin Mother Mary, for you bring us life and salvation through Jesus Christ her Son who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

And here is the old (1662) collect provided by the Prayer Book Society: “ALMIGHTY God, who madest thy blessed Son to be circumcised, and obedient to the law for man: Grant us the true Circumcision of the Spirit; that, our hearts, and all our members, being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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