“Bring them In”

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

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania

Good Shepherd Painting for Easter 4A -cropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ is truly risen!

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

of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Resurrection Icon

 

 

 

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

 

Must Jesus bear the cross alone?

A SERMON FOR
GOOD FRIDAY
APRIL 10, 2020

PREACHED AT
TRINITY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
EASTON, PENNSYLVANIA

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

Good Friday Veiled Cross at Trinity in Bethlehem 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blessed is He who comes.”

 

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

PREACHED AT
TRINITY EPISCOPAL CHURCH
EASTON, PENNSYLVANIA

Palm Sunday Altar 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Unspeakable Sweetness of God’s Love.”

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

Preached at
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania.

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

Temptation of Jesus from Mount Athos

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent at Trinity in Easton 2020

Holy Martyrs of Uganda, pray for us

A Sermon for the
Feast of
Archbishop Janani Luwum

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

February 19, 2020

Archbishop Luwum.jfif

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My eyes have seen your salvation”

A Sermon for the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple

Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania
February 2, 2020

O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who
call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand
what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and
power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ
our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:

A Light to enlighten the nations, *
and the glory of your people Israel.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

Presentation-in-the-Temple

 

The words of the Canticle which I just shared with you are taken from the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke. For those who pray the Daily Office, they are very familiar. They are used each night at the conclusion of the Office of Night Prayer, otherwise known as Compline. This Canticle is sometimes better known by the Latin title of the first few words, “Now you may let your servant depart in peace,” or Nunc Dimittis.

It is interesting that the last song which the Church chooses to sing at the very end of the day is a song about light. “This is the light of revelation to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.” And yet, it makes sense when we remember that in the Jewish mind of the First Century, the day begins at Sunset and not at dawn. Thus, it is that the day begins with a time of rest—a mini-Sabbath, if you will, which strengthens one for all the tasks which will take place in the second part of the day—after waking in the morning. It is the time of quiet, of peace, and of rest. It is a time of preparation for what is yet to come—for what remains unknown. It is a time in which the efforts and plans of humans are laid aside—a time which is, perhaps, more fully governed by God.

There is perhaps also a sense in which it is a time that requires trust. We do not see well in the dark, and so are often unaware of things which lie outside the small area of light. In an era before electricity, or even flashlights, the darkness must have seemed much more intense. And especially in the cold winter, the nights must have seemed so very long. In such a time, in such a season, there must have been a hunger, a longing, a burning desire for warmth and light—and for the safety which they promised.

Night, though, also reminded those who lived in that time of the presence and promise of God. From the total and encompassing darkness, God created light—the Sun, the Moon, the Stars of the Sky. God illuminated creation and declared it good. Through the drops of rain falling after the flood, God caused light to permeate the rain and created the rainbow-a reminder of God’s abiding love and care for all of creation—and a promise of mercy and compassion. Moses saw God’s presence in the burning bush—which blazed but was not consumed and heard that the very place where he was standing was made holy by God’s presence. The people of Israel were consoled and comforted on their journey by the Pillar of Fire which illuminated the darkness of the desert through which they traveled for forty years. And, the menorah of the Temple reminded the People of God of the Eternal Presence of God in that most holy of places on earth—the very locus of the encounter between heaven and earth. It was, perhaps for this very reason, that the Sabbath candles were kindled at sunset each Friday night and then extinguished at the end of the Sabbath at sunset on Saturday night. It marked a separation between the sacred and the profane.

The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple is a feast of light. This feast is also a feast of transition. It marks the definitive end of the Christmas season in some traditions. And it moves us forward to the brief interlude between the infancy of Our Lord and the inauguration of his Public Ministry which is recalled each year at the beginning of the Season of Lent. The account of the Presentation is found only in the Gospel of Luke.

It is helpful to recall the context in which we find this passage. The Gospel of Luke, we remember, is part of a two-volume history of salvation. In three phases, the entire unfolding of God’s saving actions in history is recalled: The Stage of Israel, the Stage of Jesus, and (especially in the Acts of the Apostles) the Stage of the Church.

This first stage, the Stage of Israel, uses common imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures to remind us of God’s actions in the past. Thus, there are Priests (like Zechariah), old people without children (like Elizabeth), visiting angels (like Gabriel) Prophets (like Anna and Simeon), The Shepherds in the field remind us of King David, from the city of Bethlehem. And above all else, there is the Temple—the house where the Lord abides.

In this stage we feast on the songs, or Canticles, which in story form remind us of singers from the Hebrew Scriptures. Each of the Songs of Praise find a place in the daily worship of the Church—the Gloria, “Glory to God in the Highest” commonly recited at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist—and modified as the conclusion to the Psalms, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” The Benedictus, that song of the Priest Zachariah, “Blessed be the God of Israel,” is used at Morning Prayer, or Lauds. The Magnificat, that hymn of the Virgin Mary, “My Soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” is sung at Evening Prayer or Vespers, each night, And the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, “Now Lord you may let your servant depart in peace,” concludes the Office of Night Prayer, or Compline, and brings to a conclusion the daily round of prayer at the close of each day. Yet, as we have already remembered, it is at the same time, also the beginning of the day,

In an earlier time, in which candlelight was far more precious, and treasured, this Feast was often called “Candlemas.” It was quite literally the Mass at which the candles to be used during the coming liturgical year were blessed. It was also a day in which the faithful brought their own candles to church to be blessed. There was a tradition in some places that the blessed candles were a visible reminder of God’s love and protection in time of trouble. And so, the blessed candles would be lit during storms or inclement weather. They would be placed at the bedside of those who were seriously ill. They would be lit at the bed of the mother in labor—and as a light to welcome the new-born child—into the world, into the family, into the home. And so there would often be a procession—early in the morning illuminating the darkness as they marched into the church to celebrate the Mass which recalled that the babe of Bethlehem was the “light of revelation to the nations.”

The account of the Presentation is another reminder to us, of the devout piety of Mary and Joseph. They are observant Jews. They fulfilled the requirements of the Law by entering their son into the Covenant with God by his circumcision on the eighth day following his birth. They named him as a child of God: “Jesus,” “Yeshua,” “Joshua,” -a name which means “God Saves.” And now, forty days later, they bring him to the Temple to complete two remaining commands. His mother comes to be Purified following childbirth—and to return to the secular work as mother, wife, and housekeeper. And, as first-born son—one who belongs to God—Jesus is brought to the Temple to be presented to God and to be redeemed or “bought back” so that his parents can raise him in their home.

Anna and Simeon are fascinating people. They appear to us—or at least to those who may be younger—as ancient. They are both in their “twilight years.” They are both preparing for the end of their lives. I suppose that Corporate America might well look at them and think that they are not very successful. They have devoted their entire lives to fasting, prayer, and service in the Temple. They have become fixtures there—a consoling presence to all who come at moments of transition. They welcome those who bring offerings to God to request help, or in thanksgiving. They greet babes, and parents, and especially mothers. They are a kind of two person welcoming committee, who over generations, must have been familiar to families, to pilgrims, and to all who came to find God. They reveal to us, that people at any and every stage of life can be and are called by God. They remind us of the gifts of experience, and faithful service over decades. They also remind us that in the Hebrew Scriptures, God often surprised the old—those whom we might imagine just want to comfortably enjoy retirement by asking them to do astonishing things—to go to a new land, or to begin a family. Things which we might imagine would be impossible to do.

I think that it is not going to far to suggest that Simeon plays a uniquely symbolic role. He is a prophet who celebrates the fulfillment of God’s promises through the prophets. He is a patriarch who welcomes the child of Promise and tenderly takes him into his arms to cuddle and caress him-to lay his hand on the child’s head in blessing. He is a priest who holds the child up and Presents him to God. And he is a herald who announces to all who hear his words, who this child is, and what his presence will mean to the whole world.

Luke does not have the story of the Magi, and so this is the moment in which God’s revelation to the Gentiles is announced. This child will welcome all into God’s family and kingdom—and not only the People of Israel. Like the Shekinah—the very presence of God in the Temple, “God’s glory,” this child will be the “Glory of Israel.” And yet, from the beginning we are warned that Jesus will be a “sign of contradiction,” that his coming will upset the status quo and cause an upheaval in the established order, and that even his mother’s heart will be pierced with a sword (as his own heart will be pierced on the cross). So, even in this lovely and tender moment, the seeds of sorrow are planted.

Simeon, though, celebrates God’s own fidelity to him, personally. God’s promise has been fulfilled. He has seen and held in his own arms the Messiah. And, in that moment, he realizes that God’s promise has been even better than he could have imagined. And so, he concludes with the words which each of us would be blessed to be able to say at the end of our own life:

“Lord, you now have set your servant free *
to go in peace as you have promised;

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
whom you have prepared for all the world to see.”