Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sunday Nov. 24: The Puzzle of a Crucified King

Sermon 20131124
St. John’s Church, Yonkers
Christ the King, Proper 29C

Are any of you puzzled by the gospel reading? This is Christ the King Sunday.  Today we celebrate that Christ has the victory over sin and death.  Today we celebrate that to him all things shall bow, on heaven and on earth, and acknowledge the glory of his name, the glory of the only son of God.  Today we celebrate that all history, all the universe seeing his example of love, compassion and forgiveness acknowledges him as King of kings and Lord of Lords.

So why are we having a story about the crucifixion?

If this is puzzling to you, that is not surprising; yet it is important to heed this puzzle, because in it is one of the central mysteries of our faith.

Christ the king came to serve, not be served. The kingly authority of Christ comes from service, from love, from compassion, from forgiveness.

The opposing view is that physical strength and force, the ability to harm and destroy, is the source of authority.  Another way to say this is that sometimes we have to be practical rather than do the right thing.  This is often the view of earthly kings and powers.  This was the view of the Roman Empire.  And if one views the cross from this point of view, then on the Cross Christ was defeated, not victorious.

Yet Jesus shows his authority on the cross.  When condemned unjustly to die he prays to God, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is true power: the desire to show compassion even on those who do you ill.

Do we really believe this?  I don’t mean do we say we believe this.  I mean do we make this real in our lives day by day? Do we look at our life as successful if we have served others, if we have forgiven those who wrong us, if we make personal sacrifice because we love and care for others?  If we are honest with ourselves do we lead our lives this way? 

I sometimes wonder what was going on for the thief on the cross.  I mean he is angry at the other thief who is mocking Jesus.  At this final moment of his life he has a flash of clarity.  He considers that his punishment is just because he is a thief.  But he sees Jesus and sees injustice.  When he sees Jesus he sees a man whose crime was healing people, winning theological discussions, pronouncing people forgiven, trusting God.  I sometimes think the thief in his mind considered Jesus na├»ve, but in his goodness and simplicity beautiful.  I sometimes imagine the thief is in a way humoring Jesus because he admires him.  He chooses at this moment to go along with Jesus’ point of view even though it is not really his own.  He says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”

The other thief mocks Jesus saying, “Call down heavenly forces and free us”  The other thief is seeing the world from the point of view of this world where might makes right.  But the thief who ask Jesus to remember him, whatever he thinks about the world really in the depth of his heart, sees the beauty, the goodness, the wonder of a man on a cross forgiving his enemies and trusting God even as he dies a torturous death.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

And what does Jesus say, “Truly this day you will be with me in paradise.”  In the face of a terrible death.  In the middle of the most final moment Jesus continues to put his faith and hope in God, and gives that faith and that hope to this criminal.

On the cross, the faithful, the hopeful, the good, the compassionate, the forgiving, the loving Jesus has the victory.  He exercises true power.  He reigns supreme from the tree in this moment of glory.  This is why, when Jesus told his disciples it was the time for him to go to Jerusalem to suffer death he called it “his hour to be glorified.”

It is Easter that shows this to be true.  Christ rising from the dead, appearing to his disciples, appearing to 500 at one time, turning the lives of the apostles upside down with joy and amazement, it is Easter that is the crown Christ wears after he has sat on the cross, his throne.

Kings and governments may rule from palaces with armies to back them up.  And I am not even saying that in this world where man hunts man that it is a bad thing.  St. Paul says it is a necessary thing for there to be social order.  But the truly important work is the work you and I do every day.  It is the service we perform for one another. 

Service such as the work Adam has done for us for 40 years here, keeping our plant ready for our worship and programs. 

It is when we greet one another warmly, learn each other’s names; it is when we welcome the newcomer with a smile and learn about their lives, their joys and struggles; it is when we buy a toy for a child who has none, or help a neighbor by giving food or connecting them to someone with a job such as Mother Teresa did; it is when we invite someone to eat with us so that we can listen to the burdens of their heart; it is when we point out injustice to our civic leaders and demand change, such as Martin Luther King or Ghandi have done; it is when we care for our neighbor and do not judge them, as Pope Francis said “Who am I to judge”;  It is when we learn to give sacrificially with joy for our neighbor’s aid;  It is when we trust God with the future and the outcomes, simply putting our hearts and minds toward the doing of good today.

It is when we do these simple things that we are dwelling in Christ’s kingdom, the one true kingdom that will endure throughout eternity. It is when we stive to live this way, and always ask forgiveness when we fail, that we begin to see Christ’s kingdom.  This is the kingdom that gives peace and joy.  This is the kingdom where our souls can be satisfied.  This is the paradise Jesus promises to the thief, ...  and to us.

“Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

In the name…  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013: Let the One Who Started the Story also Write the Ending

Sermon 20131110
St. John’s Church
Proper 27C
The Sadducees were the ruling group in the Religious Establishment of Jesus’ day.  They strictly interpreted the Torah and were resistant to what they saw as outside influences.  They held in suspicion the idea of a resurrection of the dead.  This is not an idea that you will find explicitly in the teaching of Moses.  It is similar to an idea found in some ancient religions that there is life after death.  The Egyptians had complicated religious and burial rites associated with life after death.  But life after death is not an idea developed in the books of Moses.  It was a belief among the Pharisees who felt that God’s justice would reward those who adhered to the law even in the face of torture and persecution, and it is a teaching that Jesus held.

But the Pharisees did not believe in resurrection of the dead and they set Jesus up with a convoluted, even amusing little conundrum.  In Mosaic law if a man dies without leaving children to his widow one of his brother is obligated to marry her to give her children.  It is a merciful law because women cannot survive without family in that culture.  So what if, the Sadducees ask, 7 brothers married the same woman and they all died.  Whose wife would she be in heaven?  It is a good argument.  I thought of widowed people I know who have had multiple spouses they love.  The Sadducees point out that in an afterlife these folks are going to feel pretty awkward.  It is clever.  It is insightful.  It is humorous.

Yet also there is not only a tone of philosophical argument in the situation, there is also some mockery.

Jesus takes this challenge very seriously.  He says that they do not understand.  The life of the resurrection is not just a continuation of this present state.  It is a new state.  More like the life of Angels than the life where one gets married and has children.  And he goes even further; he quotes scripture, to say that God, when speaking to Moses through the burning bush, says I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  I am God of the living not the dead.

I’ll be honest.  I took this reading very seriously this week.  I got out one of my old theology text books.  I read commentary.  I discussed it with clergy and lay.  I take it very seriously because the Resurrection is at the center of our faith.  It is an keystone part of the Christian hope.

There are many people, including many clergy, I believe even Bishop Spong, who do not see Jesus’ resurrection as an event one could call historical.  And they are not on as shaky or surprising a ground as you might imagine.  The eternal life that Jesus brings us is one that transforms our hearts.  When we are baptized we are sacramentally made part of a new reality.  We declare we have died and risen with Christ.  We enter through faith into the Kingdom of God in a time outside of time; though our eyes and ears do not see it, our faith does.  Understanding the resurrection in this way is faithful to Jesus’ teaching that we cannot understand the resurrection in the same categories as the Sadducees, just more life on this earth.  The Resurrection is not just a future event, it is something that is already breaking into the world, and we are to seek it now, not to just wait for it after death.

However for me I hold onto a belief in the resurrection.  To be honest, if I did not believe in the resurrection I would not be here preaching to you.  Sure, I would still believe in God, but I would be pretty annoyed at him, because this life does often seem unfair, especially to the most vulnerable.  I would still pray.  They tell us prayer is an activity which has its own benefits even from a health perspective.  I would probably even participate in church to some extent.  I would for sure still study theology because the study of theology, the discussion with friends about God and wonder and life is the most delicious activity known to man.  But I would not be a priest.  And I certainly would not be before you today.  However, I do believe in the Resurrection. I don’t believe in all the Biblical miracles.  I am a very modern man nurtured in a modernist culture, however, just looking at things I do believe that Jesus rose from the dead .

What happened to the Apostles in those days we call Easter is astonishing.  Men who were  seen as small and mousy became bold enough to spread a movement throughout the Roman Empire and the world.  Eventually even the Emperor himself came to worship the crucified one.   Their transformation in this life, leaves me with little option but to believe they did encounter Jesus, he did appear to them, he was present to them, and he is present to them and to us still.

There was a series on NPR for a week where they invited people from many faiths to talk about belief in life after death.  A Rabbi made a wonderful argument.  He says that he believes in life after death because of justice.  The promise of this life seems broken.  There is far too much suffering, far too much wickedness, far too much pettiness of spirit and downright meanness on earth to believe that the potential, the righteousness of God has been satisfied.  I am restating his argument in my own words; I hope I am not misrepresenting him.  He says God’s justice demands that there be more than this life.

This sentiment rings in my heart.  I look at all the people I encounter.  I see such suffering in their lives.  I see relationships broken because of a perversion of God’s intent.  I am saddened by lost opportunities for beauty, and love, and fellowship, and joy, and peace, especially in the lives of some people who seem caught in circumstances that overwhelm them, and I think this is not what I feel in my heart to be true.  God is going to right this, if not in this life, then in another.

This argument about God’s justice and my perception of the life of the Apostles are enough to support my faith.  They are enough to allow me to believe with a good  sense of intellectual integrity.  I can declare and celebrate saying, “Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!”

However, I this week I cam to realize my arguments are bad, bad that is when compared to what I came to realize this week.  I came to realize I had ignored the most compelling and indeed the most obvious reason to have faith in the resurrection.   Jesus says at the end of his argument that God is the God of the living not the dead.  And then it dawns on me, Jesus is the expression of God’s love.  God loves us. 

God does not just give us new life and everlasting life because he wishes to set right the promise latent in creation.  He does it because he loves us.  Jesus does not just come to set things right because he wanted the job to be done right.  He does it because he desires us.

The apostles were not just transformed because they had hope of everlasting life.  They were transformed because Jesus loves them, and they have come to love him with a life consuming passion.

God wants us to rise to new life because God wants us.  When our hearts grasp this.  When we realize that the resurrection is not just the solution to a problem, but that the resurrection is the embrace of a lover, it is the offering of a relationship of mutual desire, then we realize that desiring God is the purpose of our life, and that desire is so beyond human estimation that nothing can thwart it, not even death. To find satisfaction in God.  To Want God.  When God becomes our greatest treasure.  When God brings us joy.  When we learn this in our hearts.  When we embrace this divine truth, death and life pale in comparison to this love, to this miracle of life: God wants to give himself to us. 

May we throughout our lives give ourselves to God, and know the joy of partnership with the divine! 

Sunday, November 3, 2013: Pineapple Upside Down Cake & The Saints of God

Sermon 20131103
St. John’s Church Downtown Yonkers
Sunday After All Saints’

Pineapple upside down cake is a wonderful thing.  It is cooked with the top on bottom, the pineapple rings and cherries on the bottom slightly caramelizing and browning to make a wonderfully delicious and attractive top to the cake once it is turned upside down.

Luke’s Gospel is a kind of pineapple upside down cake.  He sees much of what goes on in the world upside down to what our normal human understanding tends to think.

In Luke’s gospel the Baby Jesus, savior of the universe, is born in a stable. Angels announce this wonderful birth not to kings or to the entire world on the BBC but to poor shepherds, the poorest of the working poor.  When Mary sings her song in thanksgiving for the child she bears, the “Magnificat”, she says the poor have been filled with good things and the rich sent empty away, the mighty have been cast down from their thrones and the lowly have been lifted up.

And as if this was not enough we have another great upside down turning today in Luke’s version of the beatitudes which we have just read.  Jesus says that the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are persecuted are the ones who are blessed.   And he says that those who are rich, have plenty to eat, who laugh and have a good time, and are praised by all are unfortunate.  Woe to them!

Of course all the gospels have the greatest turning upside down of them all, Christ comes to us in this world bringing healing, wisdom, truth, compassion and fellowship with God and rather than being welcomed like the Red Sox were in Boston this weekend with a parade, he is outcast, executed as  criminal.

I think there is an attraction for us when Luke turns our normal thinking upside down.  We deeply sense that the world is not what it should be.  Though humanity has done many wonderful things, no matter what our accomplishments, we watch as injustice, hatred, violence, greed, back stabbing, intolerance, cruelty, snobbery, indifference infect our lives like mold in bread which sends its ugly smelly putric tendrils all through the loaf making what is good repulsive. 

Humanity has a sense that the world lacks something it needs, and much of our private and corporate lives is spent trying to put our finger on it, and seeking to correct.  The writer of the book of Daniel, who wrote our first reading, also had this sense.  

He was brought up on Moses and the Prophets and he saw the world as a place where God was the center of life, the king subordinate to God in order to serve the people, and the priests and peoples live in peace justice and harmony as a community. The law of Moses even has periodic correctives to any imbalance that might happen with years when the slaves were to be freed when debts were to be cancelled and ancestral lands returned to the correct clan.  They had an idea of what it meant for there to be “Shalom” in the world, rather than this mold we experience.

But dream goes unrealized.  Kings misbehave.  Neighbor exploits neighbor. foreign armies and kings conquer the land, exile or kill the people, and destroy the temple.  The beasts in our first reading represent a series of empires which upset the balance of the people of God in this way, with the most cruel being the fourth empire, that of Alexander the Great and his successors, who even set up statues of foreign gods in the very midst of the temple.

But Daniel has more to say not in today’s reading.  He also sees one like the Son of man coming to restore the Shalom, the order that should be for God’s people, with God in the center, and the king and people serving God.  He calls it the kingdom of God.  And this is the hope the prophets create, an expectation for a king, a messiah, an anointed one, who will set all right, who will establish the kingdom of God.

But Jesus and Luke insist that we see upside down.  Jesus and Luke tell us we need to change our expectations, set them up as God desires.  A great king cannot come to impose order on the people.  The kingdom of God cannot be top down. That simply leaves the very mold of force and coercion in the very fabric of society which spoils the dream every time.

Jesus and Luke turn it upside down by saying that shalom comes not from outside, but from inside us.  The kingdom enters not with the king but with the subjects who choose the shalom of the kingdom of God.  It is not by forcing others, but by opening ourselves to God that the kingdom of God takes place.  When we commit ourselves to the process, and it must be a great commitment, the world begins to be put aright, it gets turned upside down in the correct way, like pineapple upside down cake, because we are allowing the kingdom of God to take place in our lives.

This is visible in the lives of saints whom we celebrate today.  When we think of saints, we think of the extraordinary ones.  But we know that Sainthood is not only heroic acts.  If sainthood was about heroism it would not make sense of the Beatitudes and the woes.  Sainthood is a quality of heart, a humble heart before God, open to God’s healing.  Most of the saints who have gone before us remain unnamed.  They may not have done great heroic acts, but they allowed the kingdom of God to take place in their hearts and lives.  They became the kingdom of God in the world, just as Christ did, through the Holy Spirit.  It is not a quick fix.  It is not like taking a pill.  It is more like athletic training, it is more like marriage. 

St. Ephraim of Syria says that when simply one person allows the heart to be fixed on God the resulting benefits touch the lives of thousands.

We at St. John’s are asked to be that for Yonkers.  In our simplicity, and in our humility, we are asked to let God touch our hearts and make us the kingdom of God in the middle of a world off track.

 In just a moment we will be asked to renew our commitment to Christ.  And we will be asked to renew vows concerning our whole lives, vows which we know we can only keep with God’s help.  And we will pray for God to enable us to keep these vows.  I challenge myself, and I ask each and everyone of you to take these vows and these prayers very seriously.  Yonkers needs saints, not necessarily heroes, but people humbly open to God.  And I believe God is asking us to be those people.  In..

Friday, November 01, 2013

Sunday, October 25, 2013: One Open, One Not

Just a picture I like
Sermon 20131027
St. John’s Church

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Luke 18:9-14

St. Augustine and St. Cyril of Alexandria when commenting on this passage compare both the tax collector and the Pharisee to sick people.  They compare sin to sickness.  The Pharisee did NOT report his symptoms to God his doctor, whereas the tax-collector did, and thus the tax-collector went home in an open and real relationship to God the great physician, not the Pharisee.  The tax collector is on the path to healing.

The Pharisee does many good things.  I wish we would all do them.  He prays.  He practices simplicity by fasting.  He is a good steward giving the tithe, the 10% to support the worship of the community.  But practicing religion also means an inner disposition is necessary.  A willingness to be open and honest before God, even when it means facing up to things about ourselves which make us uncomfortable or even ashamed.  It is only by being totally honest and open to God and to ourselves that we can realize the greatness of the blessing we have from God.

We know that the other man is a tax collector, someone who extorts high taxes from already suffering people for a foreign occupying and brutal Empire.  But we do not know the rest of his life.  We do not know the hardships he has been through.  We do not know what it is like to be him.  We should be humble by not making assumptions based on our first impressions of people.  We do know that he is aware of his sins, and he is bringing them to God.  He is staying connected to God in an open honest relationship.  And Jesus says he went home justified, that is in right relationship with God.

When we tell God all the good things about ourselves and we take credit for them, we are making a big mistake.  Those good things about us have their origin in God.  Our purpose is to be humble even in our thanksgiving, overwhelmed by the great generosity shown us.  These gifts can fill us with joy and they are also meant to be shared with others.  When our hearts know love sharing them is a double blessing.

The Pharisee took credit for these things, and thus considered himself better than other people, better than the tax collector.  The sin of the Pharisee is not only pride, that is lack of humility before God, but also judgment, holding in disdain what God loves.  God loves us all.  God loves the tax collector, and wants us not to condemn one another, but to keep channels open so that we can be instruments of his healing.

What if that tax collector moved by his guilt turned to the Pharisee for help?  What kind of help could that Pharisee be since he held the tax collector in disdain?  When we judge or condemn people can we remain open to them?  Or what if we find ourselves in need of their help, what kind of groundwork have we laid for that to be able to happen?

Jesus showed us this kind of humility, this kind of openness to God.  He is the only person in history we believe that could claim to truly be without sin, but because he understood that to be human, to be humble before God meant to stay in relationship with all humans, he joined us in our sin.  He suffered abuse in our broken political and religious systems.  He experienced the betrayal of friend and family.  He suffered death for us on a cross.  He did not claim exemption from all that happens to humanity, rather he made himself available, he even embraced humanity, because he understood that by embracing us God could minister to us through him, and se he became our savior.  The resurrection shows it so sweetly!

Not to judge others is hard.
Not to try and feel better than others is hard.
Not to take credit for the good things God has given us is hard.
The first step is to admit to God when we are doing it.
God will heal us.
God will lead us into the holy path when we open our hearts to him.

The reason we want to abandon judgment, and pride, is not because we want God to love us, or because we want to be saved.
God’s love is beyond question.
We can trust Jesus to be working in us to save us.
We do not need to worry about those things.

We ask God to deliver us from judgment and pride because when we are free of them we can enjoy life so much more, we can have more happiness, more joy.  And God can use us to bring that joy into the lives of others.  We can enjoy God and one another more.

An analogy might be made to a banquet.   We are not trying get an invitation to the banquet.  The banquet is already spread before us.  We are putting away judgment and pride so that we can actually taste and enjoy the banquet.

Let us pray that God will put away our pride and our judgment
And that God will enable us to love God and our neighbor, so freely, so selflessly, that we know a delight surpassing all that we can hope for.

When we put out our hands to receive communion today let us open our hearts to taste God’s goodness.