“Go, find my sheep where’er they be.”

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 25, 2021

preached at

Trinity Episcopal Church

in Easton, Pennsylvania

“Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13: 20-21, KJV)

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.

Who'll go and help the Shepherd kind,
Help Him the wandering ones to find?
Who'll bring the lost ones to the fold,
Where they'll be sheltered from the cold?

Out in the desert hear their cry,
Out on the mountains wild and high;
Hark! 'Tis the Master speaks to thee,
"Go, find My sheep where'er they be."

176769635_1578897455633017_8621190774752528577_n

One of the most astonishing, and distinguishing features of the Holy Gospel According to Saint John, is that it features a series of seven “I Am” Statements. Jesus presents a series of images, metaphors, explanations of who he is and what he is about. He uses common, every day, objects—things which would have been very familiar to those who were listening to his words.

But, Jesus gives them a new shift, a new focus, a new view. And that is both exciting and perplexing at the same time! In doing so, he identifies with these images, and invites his listeners—and us—to think about them in a different way. We are challenged to look beyond a literal and superficial examination of these images, and to find in them hidden meaning and value. They open new ways of thinking about God’s Realm, about Beloved Community—and about our own mission as disciples of Jesus.

Just to remind us, here is a list of the “I Am” Statements:

  • I am the Bread of Life (John 6:35)
  • I am the Light of the World (John 8:12)
  • I am the Door (John 10:9)
  • I am the Good Shepherd (John 10:11,14)
  • I am the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25)
  • I am the Way and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6)
  • I am the Vine (John 15:1, 5)

Bread, Light, Door, Shepherd, Resurrection and Life, Way and Truth, and Vine. Wow! These are images which none of us would have used to speak of God, of community, or of ourselves. And yet, each of these images is like a mirror. In it we see a reflection of something transcendent, something mysterious, and something transformative. We see not only reality as we perceive it to be—but prophetically—reality as it could be, as it was created to be, as God intended it to be!

Today is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It is the day in which we are invited to look at just one of these statements, “I Am the Good Shepherd.” We are invited to think and pray about what it means to be a Shepherd, what it means to be a Sheep, what it means to be part of a flock, and how all of this is connected to “Beloved Community.”

Sadly, the whole shock and surprise of this image is lost on us! Few of us grew up on a farm. Even fewer of us raised sheep. And the images in which Jesus is depicted as Good Shepherd are so saccharine, that we are tempted to just see them and quickly move on.

The scandalous image of a shepherd from first century Judaism does not even occur to us! In seminary, for instance, I remember being shocked when one of my professors (who loved to scandalize his naïve students) said to us, “Good Shepherd? There is no such thing!” His point was that shepherds were perceived to be filthy, smelly, generally ritually unclean—and normally disreputable. It was not a vocation that most parents would have wanted for their children. Thus, it is almost unimaginable in the Gospel of Luke, for instance, that it is to a group of shepherds that the good news of the birth of the Messiah was first announced. That is literally the last thing that anyone would have expected. Shepherds! Really?

It would be harder to imagine anyone who would have been farther removed from the center of power. Shepherds would not have been in the room where it happened! Even worse, they were often understood to be quite mercenary. You got what you paid for! The image of “sheep stealer,” then as now, was one which was quite common. King David might have used a sling to keep his family’s sheep safe, but he appears to be an exception! Knives, and clubs, and swords were probably more commonly used than a shepherd’s crook. There was also the expectation that losing a certain number of the sheep was just the cause of doing business. After all, the shepherds had to eat too (and so did the wild and hungry beasts)! And were the hired hands really willing to fight “mano a mano” with wolves, bears, and other predators?

Imagine for a moment, that shepherd is used as an image for anyone who holds and exercises authority! Then, as now, it is far easier to think of those who have abused their authority, have neglected those entrusted to their care, and have mistreated the sheep–rather than those who have cared for them, protected them, and loved them. This is at the heart of the debate in our country about the role, value, and purpose of “law enforcement.”

We are challenged by our BIPOC Siblings–(Black, Indigenous, or People of Color–for brevity, I will here after use the acronym)–to examine the systemic racism which they experience–on a daily basis–at the hands of those who have sworn to defend and protect them!

Depending on the color of our skin, we will have radically different perspectives about “peace officers.” For BIPOC persons, shepherd is a loaded word! It is not a word which immediately brings feelings of comfort, safety, and rest.

Our Presiding Bishop and Primate, the Most Revered Michael B. Curry shared an incredibly powerful and moving personal reflection at the Celebration of Compline with the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota on the evening of April 20th, following the announcement of the guilty verdicts in the murder trial of George Floyd. In his remarks, Bishop Curry shared his own painful life experiences of having been taught to be wary of the Police. The message which he learned as a young man, just learning to drive, remained true for most of his life, “Don’t fight them back because you can’t win. They can kill you and get away with it.” If you have the time, I invite you to prayerfully listen to Bishop Curry’s words—and I will post the link with the text of this sermon on my blog.

For BIPOC communities, the radical message of Jesus will have the same impact today, as it did when he spoke this word millennia ago! They challenge us to imagine “community policing,” as a series of partnerships in which everyone involved in community is invited and empowered “to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.” (Borrowed from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs).

This is a very different view than the one we have if 911 is called today! This is the kind of vision which Bishop Curry speaks of when he shares his hopes for Beloved Community. And he reminds us, that this is very much a work in progress, “Our work now goes on . . . the struggle continues.”

Let me cut to the chase. In our readings today, there are two ideas of shepherding which I would like to briefly explore with you.

First, Jesus says something which always mystifies me: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Just who are these “other sheep?” Saint Augustine went so far as to describe it in this way, “Many that God has, the Church has not. And many that the Church has, God has not.”

Who are these other sheep, indeed? For me, it feels like they could well be those whom we “other.” We find it all too easily to exclude them, to push them to the margins, to dehumanize, and to dismiss them. We fail to love them, value them, encourage them, support them, and empower them. We fail to recognize beloved persons who are created in the image and likeness of God.

Most often, we do this out of ignorance, blindness, and lack of self-awareness (we do not recognize our privilege, our biases, our prejudices). But sometimes, it is intentionally done. Sometimes it is “us against them.” Sometimes it is fear which motivates us, and, sometimes, it is a sinful and destructive hatred which “justifies” our desire to act in ways which are clearly opposed to and antithetical to the “good news” of Christ!

Jesus’ message is unambiguous: the “others” are his sheep! Even if we choose to exclude them, God will not! And, it may be in the very act of choosing to exclude them, that our own membership in God’s sheepfold is determined. Those are not easy words for us to hear! Those are not easy words for me to hear! A recent post on Facebook put it this way, “I would rather be excluded for those I include, than included for those I exclude.” In Beloved Community there are no strangers, aliens, exiles, or “others”!

Secondly, why is it that we never think of ourselves as shepherds? We are tempted to think that this is a vocation which applies to someone else; to those who are elected, to those who are professionally trained, to those who are powerful, to those who are ordained. What if the vocation of shepherd is an essential and integral part of the ministry of all the baptized? What if each and everyone one of us are called to both shepherd and to be shepherded?

Our reading today from the First Letter of John presents us with this invitation—and challenge: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Yes, “let us love one another.” Let us become Good Shepherds, and not bad ones. Let us work tirelessly to include, to heal, to reconcile, and to build up. Let us not only profess our love but let us prove it in the concrete actions which we undertake to make that love real, present, and effective!

I chose to begin today with a song from my childhood, “Bring them in.” It reminds me—it reminds us–that we are all called to “go and help the shepherd kind, to bring them in from the cold, to find them wherever they be.” After all, isn’t that what others have already done for us? Isn’t that the reason that we find ourselves inside the flock rather than looking in from outside?

So, today, on this Feast of the Good Shepherd, I salute each of you and bless you in your ministry of shepherding God’s sheep—wherever you find them, wherever they may be! God bless you as you do whatever you can to “bring them in.” God bless you, Good Shepherds of the fold!

“To change often.”

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church

in Easton, Pennsylvania

March 21, 2021

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us,

in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront

one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work

together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus

Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”—John Henry Cardinal Newman

There are several ideas which have been used to think about the Season of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, our Book of Common Prayer used two of them. The early church, we were reminded, spoke of Lent as the time which notorious sinners were reconciled and welcomed back into communion. It was also the final season of preparation for the Catechumens who were preparing for their full reception into the Body of Christ through the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist. I find it interesting that in both of these cases, there is a singular reality: a sinner, a Catechumen and groups of sinners and Catechumens. In either case, it was also a season in which others—who were neither notorious sinners or Catechumens prepared to celebrate the life-giving and transformative mysteries at the heart of the Christian faith—the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One way of understanding the connection between these seemingly competing ideologies of Lent, is that both are really struggling to understand what it means to be converted, to change, and to become. What is conversion about anyway? Is it a single dramatic life-changing moment-like, for instance, the experience of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus? Or is it rather, a slow and gradual process that takes place over years-over a lifetime? Is it possible that there are elements of both? Are there memorable moments which may or may not be rather dramatic, and many other ordinary moments which reveal new insights, and new ways of thinking?

March 21st is a dual celebration this year. For all the Western Church it is the final Sunday of Lent. It is a time of transition. Next Sunday will be the beginning of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday we will being to recall the pivotal experiences of the life of Jesus: the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem by riding on a donkey while the gathered crowd welcomes him as the messiah, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We will recall the Last Supper and the Institution of the Eucharist with the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday. We will recall the agony in the Garden, the arrest, and the trials of Jesus. We will recall the Way of the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Death and Burial, and finally the Resurrection. And then, in the fifty days which follow, we will examine the appearances of Jesus to his disciples as they struggle to understand what all of this means to them—personally and as a community of faith.

For the Benedictine family of monastics, and those connected to them, though, March 21st is the Feast of the Transitus—a fascinating word—the commemoration of the happy and holy death of Benedict of Nursia. I will have more to say about that in just a few minutes.

This final Sunday of Lent offers a moment to look back on this past month. How has Lent been for us this far? Did we choose to give up something this year? Did we choose to take on some good work or practice? In either case, how has that gone for us? Lent is not about accumulating gold medals for perfect observance. It is rather a very concrete season in which we struggle to understand change, growth, and conversion. It is a season in which we come to understand that there are things in us which are deeply rooted. To move from practice, to habit, to changed behavior is a real struggle. It is not easy. It is challenging. It is frustrating. Inevitably, we will fail in our attempts. But what do we do then? Do we give up? Do we throw our hands up in despair? Do we say that we tried, and we were just not able to do it? Or, do we admit that we failed, and start over? The challenge is to persevere—and not only during Lent, but in all of our lives.

Lent, then is like a way to understand the whole Christian life. It begins by saying yes to God’s gracious invitation. And then we try to find our way. If we are gifted with guides who have walked the journey before us, and who are able to help us understand what we encounter along the way, we are blessed indeed. Along the way, we will be fed and nourished and empowered to keep traveling towards our destination. If we travel with others, we are more likely to safe and protected from harm and dangers. And then something amazing happens. As we grow, we find that we have something to contribute. We will be able to assist others who join us along the way. In time, we may become leaders rather than novices or new believers. Together, we form a Beloved Community, a company in which each person is loved, respected, welcomed, affirmed, valued, and treasured. A host which spans time itself, and in which we have a foretaste, a foreshadowing of the joys which await us at the completion of our journey.

It is important, though, not to get distracted. The danger is that if we focus on the wrong things, we will find ourselves going down the rabbit hole and wasting valuable time, energy, and resources. This is especially true of the week which lies ahead of us. Remember this, Holy Week is not about how much Jesus suffered—it is about how much Jesus loved. It is about understanding the power of that saving, healing, and redeeming love to transform us from strangers, aliens, and outsiders into family, into community, into Church. It is all about love. And, as our Presiding Bishop reminds us, “If it is not about love, it is not about God.”

I mentioned, though, that today is the also the Feast of the Transitus, of the death of Holy Father Benedict. In the Dialogues of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, there is a wonderful account of the last days of Benedict’s life. There is the final meeting with his Sister Scholastica (in which humbly learns about the power of her faith and prayer). Then comes the vision of her death—with her soul ascending to heaven as a dove. Benedict is then gifted with a vision in which he sees that connection of all reality—bathed in the warmth and light of God’s love. Finally, when he realizes that his life has come to a natural conclusion, Saint Benedict goes to the oratory, receives the Body and Blood of Christ. With his brothers surrounding him, and holding his hands up in prayer, he dies.

This is said to be a celebration of a happy death, and Benedict is viewed as the Patron of happy death because, as the Benedictine hymn, the Ultima, phrases it, Benedict’s good death was “anointed and serene.” It showed that the man of God, the man of faith, the man of prayer concluded his life as he had lived it—loving, serving, seeking God in prayer and in community.

Many of us have been tempted to think that this past year has been a time of Lent. The pandemic has called up to leave behind the “normal,” the “comfortable,” the “routine and familiar,” and to journey to a new place. It has been a frightening detour for us. And yet, it has also been a time of unexpected insight, growth, and change.

The past year has allowed us to struggle both to understand and to combat the coronavirus. Our world has been devastated by the impact of this disease. In our own country alone, the CDC website indicated that more than 538,000 people have died. This crisis will prove to be a defining moment for us—we will speak of life “before and after” Covid 19.

This past year has also allowed many of us to understand that our country has been afflicted with another devastating disease-that of White Supremacy. The deaths of countless Black women and men—some recorded on video—have opened our eyes to the constant violence with which Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color are afflicted on a day-to-day basis.

Just this week, we have been forced to realize that our Asian siblings have been singled out for scapegoating and abuse. They have been blamed for a pandemic which has nothing to do with them as individuals or as a group. For many of us, this has served as a wake-up call. Our BIPOC sisters and brothers have clearly told us that this is nothing new. This is what has been happening since the first Europeans arrived on our shores on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in 1585. Yet, to most of us, the violence and racial hatred remained invisible. We just did not see it! Rather than a coronavirus, it is a cancer which has eaten at the very organs, flesh, and bones of our community. Like the coronavirus, which attacks and often permanently damages the lungs, it has left us gasping for breath. While our Sisters and Brothers were profiles, harassed, assaulted, shot and killed, and smothered to death on our city streets by the very law enforcement officers who vowed to serve and protect them, we collectively have not been able to breathe.

It must be a moment of change, of growth, of transformation, of conversion for our country. We must finally choose to renounce—once-and-for-all—the sins of White Supremacy and Racial Hatred. Love means that we choose to stand in solidarity alongside our family members who are of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin. Only then will Beloved Community be possible!

Our Lord used a beautiful image to describe this reality of change, growth, and conversion. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We may be tempted to fear that we have become a diseased, dried up, and useless grain of wheat. We may be tempted to throw up our hands in defeat and say that nothing can be done. We may be tempted to fear that we are dying. If, as Paul reminds us, “we are buried with Christ in death, and rise with him to the new life of Resurrection,” there is every reason to think that we may yet bear abundant fruit There is every reason to believe and to hope!

“It’s Me, O Lord.”

A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania

January 31, 2021

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so
move every human heart and especially the hearts of the
people of this land, that barriers which divide us may
crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our
divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, 823)

“It’s Me, O Lord.”

It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.

Not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
Not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.

Not my mother or my father, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
Not my mother or my father, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.

Not my stranger or my neighbour, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.
Not my stranger or my neighbour, but it’s me, O Lord,
Standin’ in the need of prayer.

Not long after I became a parishioner at St. Bart’s in the City of New York, I think it was in 2007, Bishop Gene Robinson was invited to speak at the Rector’s Forum. He began his remarks by sharing a surprising thought.

Since the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire did not have a cathedral, the Bishop visited at and presided at a different church each week. After just a few weeks as bishop, Robinson came to a fascinating realization. At each parish, there were homeless people wondering around the church during the service. He was astonished to realize that everyone accepted this, no one seemed to be bothered by it, and no one did anything about it. No one confronted them, no one tried to control them, no one tried to force them to “behave in church,” and no one tried to kick them out. The problem, he learned, was that most of the visitors were people who had been expelled from mental institutions as a result of cuts in budgeting.

Bishop Robinson went on to say, that this was one of the happiest moments in ministry for him. In it he realized how truly loving, welcoming, and inclusive the parishes in that diocese were. To this day, it remains one of those things that I contemplate when I dream about what Beloved Community could be. And, it remains a challenge for me—and for us. How close are we to realizing that experience of church. Do we honestly have the love, the patience, the tolerance to welcome even people whom we might find annoying, distracting, frustrating, and inconvenient. What if they are smelly, dirty, loud, and frightening. What if they interrupt our worship with their screams?

The accounts of the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus do not give us the impression that he got off to a good start. In my favorite account, found in the fourth chapter of the Holy Gospel according to Saint Luke, following his inaugural sermon, we hear this account, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” This took place in the Synagogue where Jesus was a member. And the would-be murderers were people who had known him for his whole life. Faced with an experience like that, I suspect that most preachers would quickly reevaluate their vocation. This goes far beyond criticizing the preacher for going on too long!

Today, we hear another account of the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry—this time from Mark. It is helpful to remember that this is the very first Gospel to have been put into writing—most likely some time after the year 70 of the Common Era. And thus, it gives us one of the very earliest views into the actual words and actions of Jesus.

This is a story of a surprising reversal of what one might expect to find in a community of faith. At first everything appears to go quite well. It is depicted as a pleasant and welcoming community. Jesus is present on the Sabbath. He and his friends are welcomed to the Synagogue. It is an open and appreciative community. After the readings from the Torah and the Prophets, Jesus is allowed to teach and preach. His sermon is well-received. In fact, the congregation appears to be very receptive. They are astonished by the “power” of Jesus teaching. His words move them, and warm their hearts. Had the account ended there, we might well have been tempted to think that this would be the beginning of a huge success story. We would expected that Rabbi Yeshua was off to a good start.

Things suddenly take an unexpected turn, though, and the story unfolds in a way that shocks and confuses all who are present. Mark’s Gospel is disappointingly concise—and very matter-of-fact. It does not give us the details which would help us to enter into the story more easily. Since “inquiring minds want to know,” we are left asking questions—rather than finding everything explained for us. We are forced to do the hard work of trying to unpack the account and find the meaning which it contains.

All at once, the service is interrupted in a very dramatic way. One of the congregants—we are told that he is a man with an unclean spirit—jumps up and starts yelling! What a surprise!

If we step back for just a moment, we are allowed to try to make sense of this story Is this the first time that something like this has happened in that Synagogue? Is a person who regularly attends? Is it possible that this person often disrupts the service? We do not have answers to these questions, of course. But one possibility is that this is the kind of community which Bishop Robinson discovered as a new Bishop in New Hampshire.

The question, then, is what is the purpose of places of worship? It is the question of why do we choose to go to Church? It is the question of what do we expect to find there? It is the question of what is most truly and fully needed. To be blunt, is church exclusively a place we go to find comfort, encouragement, and hope. Or, is it possible that church is also a place where we are offered the opportunity to be challenged, to be made uncomfortable, and to be confronted with difficult-even painful questions?

The interaction between Jesus and the man with the unclean spirit might give us some answers. The first thing to note is that the Gospel makes a clear distinction between the man and the spirit. It is the spirit who asks questions and offers opinions—not the man. And, thus it is the spirit, and not the man, who is rebuked! If we choose not to focus on whether or not this is a demon, in the way that watching too many horror movies late at night might cause us to do, we encounter a very profound reality. The humanity of the possessed person is revealed to us. This is someone who is deeply wounded, hurt, and suffering. The possession has broken his spirit. This is someone who is desperately in need of love, of healing, and of hope. This is someone who constantly lives in fear. His life has been completely disrupted by forces beyond his control. His is a life of fear, of suffering and pain. He is at a loss as to what to do. His community is at a loss as to what to do. And yet, he has not been chained, has not been excluded, has not been muzzled. Clearly, he is loved.

It is interesting that Jesus allows the spirit to ask questions: What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? By the forces of chaos and disruption, By fear and hopelessness, Jesus is confronted. What will his ministry be? What will he offer to those who are hurting and in pain. With what words and actions will he comfort, console, and encourage.

Jesus responds immediately to the unclean spirit. He rebukes and expels the spirt. He restores the man to health, to wholeness, to normal life. He is restored to his family, to his community, to himself. Jesus accomplishes something which no one else has been able to do!

The paradox here, is that we come to realize that this afflicted, wounded, and suffering person represents something far more important. He represents the community. It is to this very community that Jesus has come to love, to serve, to heal, to restore, and to empower.

Should we choose to accept this image, it says some very important things about us. We need those who are wounded, who are suffering, who feel excluded—far more than they need us. We need to hear their questions; we need to have them confront and challenge us. We need to provide them a safe space in which they may speak truth as they have experienced it. We need to have them awaken our awareness to things which are all around us that we do not see and do not understand. We need to have them shake us free from our comfort, and from our privilege. We need them to help us realize that we are also wounded, broken, and in pain. Only then, will it be possible for us to be healed as well. Only then, will Beloved Community be a possibility.

We need people who appear to be “other!” We have no idea what their lives are truly like. If we have not experienced rejection, oppression, discrimination and prejudice, those realities will seem meaningless to us. If we are not Black, Indigenous or Latino, we will be blind to the reality of Racial hatred. If we are not female, we will not understand misogyny or exclusive and manipulative patriarchy. If we are not LGBT+, we will not understand homophobia or transphobia. If we are not Jewish, we will not understand anti-Judaism. If we are not Muslim, we will not understand Islamophobia. If we are not from some other culture or ethnicity, we will not understand xenophobia.

Jesus comes, not only to rebuke and expel unclean spirits. He also comes to give voice to those who have previously been silenced. He comes to open privileged eyes and hearts to injustice, inequality, racial hatred, misogyny, bigotry and to all the forces of division, fear, and violence. Jesus comes to heal and restore communities.

The invitation then, is to realize that it is not only others who are in need of God’s love and healing. It’s me! Only if each of us is truly open will it be possible for this promised reconciliation and love to be effective. Only then will we truly become Beloved Community.

“Not anyone else, but us O Lord. We stand in the need of prayer.”

The Holy Family were Refugees

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day
January 3, 2021
Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania

A Prayer for Refugees from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Dear Lord Jesus, your family on earth knew the life of refugees when they fled to Egypt. Bless all who seek refuge on this earth. Meet their needs for safety and for home. Move the hearts of your people to show them welcome. Cause wars to cease and bring justice to the nations that no one will need to flee again. In your great mercy, Lord hear our prayer. Amen.

The early Church seems to have been troubled that there were four different Gospel Accounts—and that that these accounts appeared, at times, to contradict each other. Thus it was that around the year 165 of the Common Era, the “Christian Apologist,” Tatian, set out to weave all of the Gospel accounts into one narrative. And thus was created the “Diatessaron,” one of the most important works ever created by a Christian author.

Unlike Tatian, modern Biblical Scholarship affords us a different perspective. Rather than being afraid of, or embarrassed by, the differences in the Gospel narratives, we celebrate them—because these unique details give us powerful insight into each of the four distinct communities of faith which chose to share the “Good News,” of God’s saving, healing, emancipating, and empowering plan throughout the entire course of human history.

The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, literally the “Good News,” as shared with us by the Community of Matthew would not make much sense if divorced from the Jewish faith and experience of that community. Matthew is full of borrowed imagery. Jesus is seen as the “New Israel,” the “New Passover,” the “New Exodus,” and the “New Moses.” For Matthew’s community, Jesus embodies the entire experience of the People of Israel. He relives it, and gives it a new spin—tells it in a new and surprising way. Matthew likes to take well-known and commonplace themes—and then reveal them in a new and unexpected light. His listeners—and later his readers—would have begun in a world which was seemed very familiar and understandable. But, then, there would be an unexpected, and sometimes uncomfortable twist, which would cause everything to need to be rethought, questioned, and examined.

Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have “Infancy Narratives.” They are like an overture to an orchestra. They introduce the main themes, and sounds, which later will be developed and expanded. They introduce us to ideas, to concepts, and “set the stage” for what is to come! I am often saddened that these stories are recalled and retold once a year—and are then put away. I am tempted to ask, what would happen if we paid greater attention to these accounts? What would happen if we used them as a tool of analysis—a way to explain and reinterpret what comes later? What if they are the key to understanding the deepest meaning—and a meaning which might not always be obvious to us without these tools?

The hero of Matthew’s Infancy Narrative is Joseph. When we hear his name, we are reminded of that other Joseph the Dreamer. And yet, there is a difference, the dreams this Joseph has do not require an interpretation. They do require faith, though. When we first hear the message they contain, they do not seem to make much sense to us. How could a betrothed partner possibly be pregnant through the intervention of God? How could a powerful figure like King Herod even be aware of the existence of an insignificant child born to a simple family in Bethlehem. Yet, even though this Joseph is confused, he is willing to take the message seriously. He is willing to trust in the messenger. He is willing to trust in God. Joseph is willing to say “yes” to God. And, as a result, God’s plan unfolds.

It is a very rare thing for us to have a Second Sunday after Christmas Day. As a result, we find that the normal flow is disrupted—and that may not be a bad thing. Usually, we move from Annunciation to Nativity to Epiphany. Despite the celebration of the “Holy Innocents” right after Christmas, we normally move from Epiphany to Baptism. In doing so, we fail to properly celebrate the Flight into Egypt. What this means is that we miss an essential part of the story. We fail to understand the importance and significance of the formative experience of the newly formed Holy Family. And thus, we fail to properly understand who Jesus is—and what the “good news” of his life will mean.

Only Matthew shares this story. Only Matthew explains to us how it is that Joseph, Mary and Jesus make the incredible journey from the “City of David,” where Jesus is born to Nazareth in Galilee, where he will be raised in obscurity until he begins his public ministry.

The great irony here is that the evil king is not pharaoh. It is Herod the Great. The King of Judea is a paranoid, violent, and vicious dictator. He is the very antithesis of King David—from whom Joseph is descended. There is no corroborating evidence outside the Gospel of Matthew to support the account of the Slaughter of the Innocents. And yet, it does not seem at all out of character for an insecure tyrant who even had members of his own family murdered. Anyone Herod believed to be a threat had to be eliminated.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were identified as a potential threat by Herod’s network. He was clearly not going to tolerate anyone who might become a rival. And so, they were expendable. Just to make sure that the threat was completely eliminated, he orchestrated a mass murder. Kill any potential threat. That was Herod’s plan.

And so, the Holy Family became political refugees. Literally fleeing for their lives, they made their way to Egypt. Like that earlier Joseph, and the whole family of Jacob/Israel, they had no alternative but to become refugees and to throw themselves on the mercy of a foreign and alien culture. Again, with great irony, they were provided with a place of safety and refuge. They were given hospitality. They were taken in by those who were considered to be their enemy. In a place where they might have feared that they would be turned away, rejected, refused, they found a home.

This family, which we call holy, was completely vulnerable. They had no legal recourse. There was no justice for them. Their lives did not matter. They were disposable! To flee quickly, and to avoid attention—in so far as that is possible—means to travel lightly. It means to take nothing with you. It means that along the dangerous and perilous way, one must rely on the kindness and compassion of others. It means that one must beg for food, for water, for shelter. It means living in fear. It means that one is identified as vulnerable. It means never knowing if one will be safe, if one will arrive at the destination intact. It is a life of fear, and danger, and worry. One is completely powerless. One lives in constant fear of being robbed, of being attacked, of being bullied.

Despite all that, Joseph guided, guarded, and shepherded his family to safety. But he was never the same. His family was never the same. in this harrowing journey, he learned to completely depend on God. And that faith, that trust, that hope was vindicated. He was warned, in another, and final dream (that we know of) that it was safe to return—but not to what had been his home. He could not return to Judea, but instead traveled to Galilee. And there he made a home for his family.

The Good News is that Jesus knew firsthand what it was to be viewed and treated as an alien, as a foreigner, as a stranger. He knew the fear, the worry, the struggle just to live in a time of chaos, hated, and violence. He knew what it was to be a minority in a foreign culture. He must have faced the daily struggle to fit in—to face prejudice, inequality, and injustice. The life of a migrant is never easy. One is always waiting for the “other shoe to drop.”

From this experience can come an amazing insight into the experience of all who are marginalized, who are vulnerable, who are oppressed, mistreated, and exploited. Thus when, in the Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew, we hear our Lord speak powerfully of God’s love for those who are on the margins of society, we understand that he speaks—not just in theory—but from deep personal experience.

The invitation, and the challenge for us, as we begin this New Year, is to embrace our foundation as a community in which the weak, the vulnerable, the outcast, and the excluded are the very ones who are embraced by God’s love and care. In ministering to their needs, and in receiving them in love, we minister to that Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

“Unexpected gestures of love”

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
In Easton, Pennsylvania
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 20, 2020

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have
known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced
by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion
be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and
reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now
and forever. Amen.

Votive Candles in Bethlehem December 2020

Last evening, I had the pleasure of participating in the Virtual Posada celebrated by the Latino Community of the Cathedral of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Due to the pandemic, it had to be a virtual Posada, rather than an In-Person Celebration. And yet, there was so much about the ritual which was familiar. The most noticeable absence was the delicious meal which is usually served at the end.

In case you are not familiar with the tradition—it is a popular one in much of the Latinx World—from Mexico to Chile and Argentina. The particular form—such things as music and prayers often vary. But, at the very center of the Posada is a ritual. The community is divided into two parts. The first part contains Joseph and Mary. They go door to door knocking, and seeking shelter. Those inside the “inn,” engage in a dialog with those outside—which is often sung. After being turned away time after time, there finally comes a moment in which the doors are thrown open and those outside are welcomed inside.

The Posada is used as a preparation for the commemoration of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. When I lived in Hamilton Heights, in New York City, the congregation of the church where I served celebrated it as a kind of novena. For several nights leading up to Christmas they gathered each evening in a different home to celebrate this ritual. It had a way of taking them away from the distractions—from the shopping frenzy– which might have prevented them from really focusing on what the final days of Advent is all about. It challenged them to realize that the preparation for Christmas is both a personal and a community undertaking. By gathering in fellowship to worship, to sing, and to share hospitality—each person was invited to open their hearts and home to the Holy Infant, and to their family. Perhaps more importantly, the community was challenged to open and welcome the light of Christ into their midst. In a time of often bitter cold and darkness, the light and warmth which “God with Us” offers seems especially important.

The fourth Sunday of Advent reminds us how unexpected and surprising the good news of the incarnation was! Mary was taken by surprise, Elizabeth and Zechariah were taken by surprise; Joseph was taken by surprise. Even those who were most anxiously awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel were astonished at the way in which God chose to act. It does not seem to be an exaggeration to suggest that the whole story of salvation is that in every generation, in every time and place, God has chosen to reach out in love—in the most merciful, empowering, liberating, and encouraging–and surprising–ways. This truly is Gospel, “good news.”

Perhaps more astonishing is that God chooses not to act alone, but rather invites us to participate in the unfolding story of salvation. Each of us, like Mary, are invited to welcome God into our hearts, into our homes, into our families, into our community, into our workplace, into our world. If we, like Mary, are willing to trust, and to say “Be it done to me in accordance with your word,” we too will make the love of God real, present, and effective.

Trust is needed—is, in fact, essential–because there are so many uncertainties, We do not know what the consequences of our saying yes will be. We do not know how others will choose to respond. Will they join with us to help build up Beloved Community in which all are welcomed, included, empowered, and sheltered? Or, will they find the good news to be too frightening, too challenging, too demanding? Will they choose to share the light and warmth of Bethlehem, or will they choose to hoard the light and warmth they find while others shiver in the darkness and the cold?

It has felt for many of us that this year has been the darkest. and the coldest, that we can ever recall. The coronavirus took us by surprise! We felt hopeless and powerless as it spread so quickly, The numbers which we hear seem unreal to us. More people have died in a single day—in several single days—that those who were martyred on 9-11. More than 300,000 of our siblings in this country have died in less than a year, It is quite possible that this number will continue to grow even more rapidly, day by day, for the foreseeable future.

The good news, of course, is that it could have been far worse. Had we not worn masks, had we not practiced good hygiene, had we not socially distanced and sacrificed gathering with friends, family, and loved ones, the number might have been doubled, or tripled, or even worse, New light and warmth emerges in the form of two vaccines, But, the immunization of our global community will take time. And until we are all vaccinated, we must continue to do what is in our power to protect not only ourselves, but so many others.

What do we do, then, in times of confusion, in times of uncertainty, and in times of change and transition? The lesson of the Fourth Sunday of Advent is that we choose to risk trusting–and choose to say yes to God, We do so because God has proven to be faithful to us in the past, We do so because we constantly find examples of the unexpected ways that God is with us right now–in uncountable and unexpected gestures of love. We do so because we have every reason to believe that God will, indeed, coninue to be with us as we move forward.

As a parish family, we find ourselves, this final Sunday of Advent at an unexpected moment of change—of transition. This past week, our Rector, Father Andrew, shared with us, the news that he will be leaving Trinity after many years, When I heard the news, I found myself thinking that, in the more than ten years in which I have been blessed to be part of this amazing community, whenever I have thought of Trinity, I have automatically thought of Father Andrew—as well as of so many other loving, and encouraging people, It will be challenging for me to imagine us without Father Andrew.

But, just as I firmly believe that God chose Father Andrew to share an important part of this journey with us, I believe that God will guide us through the transition of calling a new Rector  who will  love us, guide us, and shepherd us on our journey forward, That does not mean that the transition will be an easy one, or that we will have answers as soon as we might wish, However, this is a time in which we–as the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus movement at the Forks of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers–are invited to trust in God, and to say yes, If we are willing to take that step of faith, I feel confident that God will handle the rest.

On behalf of our parish family, I wish to tell Father Andrew and Peg, how deeply grateful we are for so many years of loving, generous, and sacrificial service. We are better, stronger, and healthier because you said yes to God’s invitation to work with us. Together, we have accomplished quite impressive things for God. That will not change when we are no longer together. May God strengthen you in the time remaining with us, and may God bless and prosper whatever ministries and opportunities come to you in the months and years ahead. God go with you, in all that you do!

My dear family, let us pray with all our hearts,  and with all our minds, that we will come together in this time of transition, of change, of growth. Let us trust that, just as God has proven to be faithfully with us, and among us, for more than two centuries, God is with us now. And, God will be with us as we move forward.

As we journey, in these few brief remaining days to Bethlehem, let us prepare our hearts, our homes, and our world for the coming of God’s love, God’s light, and God’s warmth to transform the cold and darkness which we see.

“Christ is King”

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

Preached at

Trinity Episcopal Church

in Easton, Pennsylvania

November 22, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

now and forever. Amen.

Hashem Melech, Hashem Malach, Hashem Yimloch

Hashem melech, (The LORD is King)

Hashem malach (The LORD was King),

Hashem yimloch (The LORD will be King)

le-olam va-ed (Forever and Ever)

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

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

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

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

Yod ve’He ve’Vav ve’He ve’ (YHWH)

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

Yod ve’He ve’Vav ve’He ve’ (YHWH)

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

Hashem melech, (The LORD is King)

Hashem malach, (The LORD was King),

Hashem yimloch (The LORD will be King)

le-olam va-ed (Forever and Ever)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps Love

A Sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

October 25, 2020

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church

In Easton, Pennsylvania

“Teach us to rely on your strength and to

accept our responsibilities to our fellow citizens, that together

we may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for

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

faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name.

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

as head above all. Amen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s in the Midst of our Storm”

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Preached at

Trinity Episcopal Church

In Easton, Pennsylvania

September 27, 2020

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

“He’s in The Midst” by The Bishops

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

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

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

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

Chorus:

He’s in the midst of our storm

He’s in the valley we walk through

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

When you feel so all alone

He is standing next to you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is with us,

“He’s in the midst of our storm

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

When we feel so all alone

He is standing with us!

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

Who do we find in our Sacred Scriptures?

A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

August 23, 2020

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church

in Easton, Pennsylvania

A Prayer of Welcome

Loving God,

Open our hearts to those most in need:

The unemployed parent worried about feeding his or her children,

The woman who is underpaid, harassed, or abused.

The Black man and woman who fear for their lives.

The immigrant at the border, longing for safety.

The homeless person looking for a meal.

The LGBT teen who is bullied.

The unborn child in the womb.

The inmate on death row.

Help us to be a nation where

          every life is sacred,

          all people are loved,

          and all are welcome.

          Amen.

The Rev. James Martin, S.J.

Black Eyed Susan on Bird Bath 08-21-2020

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This world is my home!”

A Sermon for the
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

July 19, 2020

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

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

This World Is Not My Home

This world is not my home by Brumley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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