Third Sunday after Easter 2019

  Easter III, 2019                

Do you remember last week’s gospel reading?  (I know, it was a long time ago….)  And even if you were not able to get to church last Sunday I’m sure you are aware of the famous “Doubting Thomas” story, locked doors, wounds, you know.  Do you remember how the story ends?  Let me remind you.  Here’s the last sentence: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”

Now in the literary world we call that “an ending.”  Up music, roll the credits, drive safely everyone, and thanks for coming.  The writer of John’s gospel ends his entire work by telling his audience that there are a lot more stories about Jesus that he could tell, but he’s not going to because he has given us enough to believe in Jesus and become his followers.  Enough is enough.  The end of Chapter 20 is the actual end of John’s original gospel.  So this morning I just read chapter 21 to you, which most scholars believe was added by another writer much later – maybe even as much as a hundred years later.  Why do scholars think that?  Well, John ends chapter 20 by saying in effect, “I’m not going to tell you any more stories about Jesus.”  And then chapter 21 begins, ”Here’s another story about Jesus.”  Why would the same writer do that? Just because chapter 21 is not original, that doesn’t mean we can ignore it or dismiss it.  It’s part of the New Testament canon, which means we have to account for it in some way, however, we also need to be honest about what it is doing here and the purposes of the second writer, which may have been different from the purposes of the first writer.

I’d like to do two things with this story in today’s sermon.  First I’d like to share why I think this chapter was added to the gospel, and second, to share one thing the story has to say to us, today.

I begin by wondering why anyone would want to add something to John’s gospel.  John seemed to be pretty happy with it.  It’s not like an unfinished symphony where the composer dies before the final movement can be written.  John wrote a complete gospel and felt it was sufficient for his purposes.  The only reason I can think of to add another story is that there was something going on the faith community that was reading John’s gospel that needed to be addressed – or there was something not going on that should have been going on, and because John’s gospel was read and respected in that same community, someone added another story to correct the situation. Someone added chapter 21.

So here’s what might be the second writer’s motive.  We know from our study of the gnostic gospels that late in the second century, around 170 or 180 AD, roughly 100 years after John wrote his gospel, the majority of the Christian church was becoming much more structured and organized, especially around the authority of the bishops.  The gnostics, who were active at this time, rejected the bishops and instead advocated for direct and personal connection with the Holy Spirit as their authority.  By tradition, Peter was the first bishop of Rome, and was famously given the name “Petros” (Rocky) by Jesus who said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”  All subsequent bishops can trace their consecration to Peter, known as “apostolic succession.”

The problem here is that by the end of John’s gospel, Peter is not looking so good.  In the garden of Gethsemane he cuts off the ear of a servant and Jesus has to stop what he’s doing and heal the poor guy.  Then in the high priest’s courtyard, standing around warming fires, he denies Jesus three time, “I do not know the man!”  Later, Peter doesn’t even stick around to witness the crucifixion and death of his leader.  John reports that only Mary, and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” were present at this death. Three days later, the women who had gone to the tomb to anoint the body, find that Jesus’ corpse is missing; so, they run to tell Peter, who takes off for the tomb.  He walks inside and sees the linen cloth. “The disciple whom Jesus loved”  is right behind him, and John writes that he “sees and believes.”  Even Thomas in chapter 20 “sees and believes” when confronted with the wounds of the risen Christ.  John never reports that Peter “believes.”

So in order to strengthen the authority of the bishops in a church that is rapidly consolidating into a coherent order, Peter’s image needs a makeover.  And chapter 21 is more than happy to oblige.  There is the charcoal fire on the lakeshore, reminiscent of the warming fires the night when Jesus is tried.  But the previous three denials are now countered with three affirmations: “you know that I love you.  You know that I love you.  You know that I love you.”  After these affirmations, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep,” a directive for this future bishop of Rome and by extension to all future bishops.  The bishops feed the flock, and no one else!  Take that you gnostic heretics!

I don’t know about you, but personally, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about gnostic heretics in 2019.  It may have been a very big deal back in 170, but currently it remains their concern and not ours.  So even if this story was inserted to cast Peter in a more favorable light, there are elements here that speak to us today.  So let me finish by commenting, not on Peter’s character, but on the setting of this story.  It is after the resurrection and Peter along with six other disciples have returned home to Galilee, where it all started, and have taken up their former profession of fishing.  They take their boat out at night, in the darkness, casting their nets on the left side of the boat, which turns out to be the wrong side, and consequently they catch nothing.  As day breaks, in the full light of day, a stranger on the shore instructs them to cast their nets on the right side, and they haul in an abundant catch, overwhelming, reminiscent of the feeding of the multitudes, or six water jars filled with the best wine, more than what is needed.  Clearly, this is a sign that Peter should give up fishing, for God has other work for him to do.  Jesus, a stranger no longer, tells him to feed the flock, and to follow him.

When we experience resurrection our lives are supposed to change. We aren’t supposed to retreat back into our pre-resurrection ways.  The resurrection is not just for Jesus.  When you deny yourself.  When you take up your cross daily, and when you follow him, it will lead you to a death – and from a faithful death, God will raise you to a new life.

                Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

And don’t think that resurrection only refers to what happens when our mortal bodies die.  The resurrected life is now.  It is the constant goal of the Christian way.  Come out of the darkness and into the full brightness of day.  Cast your net on the right side, and haul in the abundance of God’s grace and mercy and love.

In Christ’s name, Amen.

Christmas Eve 2018

Sermon Christmas Eve 2018

It’s Christmas Eve ….. so let’s talk politics!  Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius, conducting a census, and collecting taxes, all matters of governing.  That’s how Luke’s Christmas story begins after all, with politics.  Many biblical commentators  think that Luke included these details in order to place the birth of Jesus in a particular historical time slot. Some commentators add that these details also justify Joseph and Mary travelling from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south, an event most eight-month pregnant women would want to avoid.  But I wonder if there is more to it than that.  I wonder if Luke had something else in mind when he included these political details in his narrative, because everything with which this story begins would have left a bitter taste in the mouth of every first century Jew.  Luke begins his Christmas story by making his listeners drink bile.  Here’s what happened.

The Jewish governor of Syria, Herod Archelaus, (one of the Herod boys) was an extremely poor administrator and made a mess of things.  So the Emperor exiled him to France and installed one of his most trusted and capable generals, Publicus Sulpicius Quirinius. To re-establish order, one of the first things he did was to conduct a census.  He wanted to know who he was ruling.  Once that was completed he instituted a new way of paying taxes.  Up to this point most people paid their taxes in kind, and being mostly farmers or herders, that meant in grain or livestock.  Quirinius ordered all taxes to be paid in money – coins -which presented the local Jewish population with two challenges.  First of all, Roman coins typically bore the image of either a god, goddess, or emperor, and usually included an inscription declaring the emperor to be divine.  Even touching such a coin violated parts of the Ten Commandments such as “…having no others gods but me”….and “…no graven images.”  Secondly, most farmers lived by the barter system, which meant that they would need to borrow money to pay their taxes.  Then if their crops failed, which happened regularly, they would fall into debt.  Luke begins his Christmas story by reminding his listeners of Rome’s power, Rome’s brutality, and Rome’s disregard for the Jewish faith.

But then Luke switches gears and introduces a young couple, engaged but not yet married, Mary and Joseph, who must follow the decree and travel to Joseph’s ancestral village, Bethlehem, to register for the census.  Mary and Joseph are the antithesis of Rome’s power.  They are simple, hard-working peasants from a small town in Galilee.  While in Bethlehem (which is incidentally the hometown of Israel’s greatest king, David,) Mary gives birth to a son, who will not be named for eight days, according to Jewish custom. Right about that time in the hills outside of town, a messenger from God appears to a group of night shepherds, telling them of the birth and declaring that the baby is a savior, a messiah, and a lord.  And at that moment, our translation of the text says that a multitude of messengers of God join the first one.  But the original Greek text gets it right.  It is a heavenly army that joins the first messenger.  The emperor has an army, and God has his.  The shepherds too are antithetical to Rome’s power.  They are not rich, not educated, hold no positions of authority, but they have been chosen to be the first people on earth to learn of the birth of Jesus, the incarnation.  You know, its one thing to be a shepherd: basic, hard-working, peasant stock. But it’s something else to be a shepherd who pulls the night shift – really basic!  Yet this is the group that the messenger chooses first, before any others, to hear the news about the birth.

It seems to me that Luke is not just telling the story of Jesus’ birth, but in doing so is also setting up two contradicting realities.  On the one hand there is the Roman reality which is all about dominance, control, fear, violence and wealth.  (Did I mention that Quirinius was filthy rich?) On the other hand there is God’s reality that is all about faithfulness and reliance on God’s grace and goodness and concern for one’s neighbor.  Who is going to win between these two realities?  Which will capture the hearts of the people?  By which will people be inspired to construct and order their lives?  Augustus, Quirinius, taxes and a powerful Roman army on one side, and an unmarried, pregnant women, night shepherds and a heavenly army on the other.  Everything depends on it – everything.  Rome is powerful and possesses the most sophisticated and well-trained and well-equipped military in the world. It is not threatened by small bands of Jewish guerrilla fighters that roamed the hills of Israel in Jesus’ day. And just in case you were thinking that all those fancy titles the messenger of God rattled off to the shepherds would certainly tip the scales in God’s favor, the Emperor Augustus had fancy titles too.  There’s a stone inscription in the ancient city of Prienes, in western Turkey that refers to Augustus as, and I quote: …a savior, who makes wars to cease and shall put everything in peaceful order, whose birth signaled the beginning of good news for the world.”  Sound familiar to anyone?  Tit for tat.

So who’s going to win out?  It looks like all the cards are stacked in Rome’s favor.  Jewish peasants going up against the Roman Empire feels a little bit like the Saugerties High School football team going up against the Super Bowl champs.  But if Luke really thought that there was no chance of victory  whatsoever why is he writing a book and calling it “good news” – gospel?

He knows something, and its not in the Christmas story that we hear tonight, at least not explicitly.  It is a detail he mentions in his gospel a few paragraphs earlier: pregnant Mary is a virgin.  Now in case you skipped your high school biology class when the teacher talked about how babies are made, let me bring you up to speed.  Virgins cannot be pregnant.  It’s impossible.  Scientifically it cannot occur.  And I’m not saying that there are only a handful of instances in medical history of virgins becoming pregnant, I’m saying there are none.  And yet,….and yet, Mary is pregnant.

When Luke includes this little detail in his narrative he’s not just trying to illustrate what a special guy Jesus was for having a unique in utero experience.  Luke is telling us all that in God’s holiness there is hope.  Impossible things can happen, so even the unlikely or unexpected are now within the realm of possibility.

Now, I’m not saying that God makes everyone’s fantasies come true.  What I’m saying is that God brings hope.  Rome was by far the most powerful force on the planet when Jesus was alive.  But the Roman Empire fell, while the church of God lives on.  Humans live amidst temporal things.  God deals in things eternal.  Luke knows who will win in the end.  The things that truly matter will come to pass, even if that seems totally impossible at the moment.

Luke begins his Christmas story with the taste of bitterness and ends it with the sweet odor of hope.  We have been given good tidings of great joy – this child is born.

 

In Christ’s name.  Amen.

Advent III 2018

Sermon – Advent III, 2018            The Wrath to Come                                                                                                Luke 3: 7-18

I think September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday.  The next weekend synagogues and churches throughout the country were packed.  Those were scary times; uncertain times.  Passenger jets were turned into instruments of murder and destruction.  Two icons of the New York skyline were gone – just gone, like that.  What else might happen? What other plots were the terrorists planning and when would they occur?  Some clergy proclaimed it was a sign of God’s punishment on America for the sin of…..fill in the blank – whatever sin that particular pastor saw as primary.  For me, I saw it as nothing more complicated than human revenge.

But people turned to faith. People who hadn’t darkened a church doorway in decades, if ever; people who had no idea what occurred in worship – came.  They knew they had to do something.  They knew they had to be somewhere.  Now, I don’t know why they came, or what they were looking for, or what they needed, or thought would happen.  But in the face of inexplicable evil, death, and destruction people turned to God.  Perhaps they believed they were fleeing the wrath to come, looking for a place of safety. I don’t know.  But on the next Sunday attendance was not quite so robust, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around Sunday morning had pretty much returned to normal.

I’ve heard the gospel I just read to you my whole life.  I’ve preached on it numerous times, but it wasn’t until last week that I wondered - for the first time - what “wrath” is John talking about?  Nothing specific comes to mind.  He lived in the middle of the Pax Romana, a 200-year period when wars ceased because Rome was so powerful and so brutal that no one dared take them on.  So the “wrath” was not warfare. And although Luke knew about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, John did not, so it would have seemed out of place if that was what he meant.  Or I guess you could think of it as a pearly-gates kind of judgment event for each individual, but does that qualify as “wrath?”

I really don’t know to what he is referring.  I can only speculate.  I can only guess.  But maybe it would help to put the phrase in context.

John had set up an unauthorized, satellite purification station on the banks of the Jordan River, catching pilgrims on their way to offer sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem.   Presumably they are the “crowd” to whom he makes his comments in the reading.  He basically says to them, “Don’t think that just because you’re following the rules that everything is going to be all right for you. You might very well be a ‘child of Abraham’ but that by itself is not going to be enough.  You have to act like it.  You have to connect your sacrifice with your heart and truly feel your repentance. Empty rituals are just that – empty.”

“So what are we supposed to do?” the crowd asks.  And John tells them to take care of each other.  If someone has more than they need, share with someone who doesn’t have enough. And remember he is talking to poor people here.  There was no middle class in biblical times.  John was not saying, “If you have 3, 4, or 5 coats hanging in your closet you will probably be okay if you donate one to charity.”  John is not telling the crowd to toss some spare change into the paper cup.  He’s saying that if you are storing an extra coat in case the one you have now wears out or gets ruined, take it out of storage so someone who needs it now can use it now.  And if at some point in the future your current coat gets ruined, then someone else will provide for you.  Take care of each other.

John is talking about a new order, a time of honesty, integrity, justice, rightness, and generosity.  He’s talking about an order in which even Rome’s employees, tax collectors and soldiers stay within the proper limits of their jobs and don’t abuse their positions of power to illegally line their own pockets.  That new order is associated with wrath because birthing that newness will be vehemently resisted by those who benefit from the existing order.  They will not readily or willingly give up their power or wealth or control of others because all of that brings them a life of ease and luxury.

There will be wrath – not revenge like on 9/11 – but struggle between two visions of humanity.  One vision, like Rome, says there is nothing wrong with exploiting others if you possess the power to achieve and maintain it.  The other vision, like John and Jesus, says that our lives are enriched not by luxury but by relationship.  It says that if our neighbors are in distress we feel it too.  It says “we” is stronger than “me.”

John makes it clear: the new order is coming.  He says, “….the wrath that is to come…”  He does not say, “if it comes,”  or “should it come” or “in case it comes.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the arch of history is long but it bends toward justice.  The new order is coming.  It has not come fully in two thousand years.  It may not come tomorrow.  It may not even come in our lifetime, but it is coming.

So, prepare the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight.

 

In Christ’s name, Amen.

Pentecost XXII October 21, 2018 Be good to make good

Sermon – October 21, 2008   Pentecost XXII             Job 38:1-7, 34-41

Let me tell you about my Friday.  I woke up feeling pretty good.  I had two appointments on my calendar: fire inspector at 10 am, and Finance Committee at 1 pm.  Very manageable.

Then right after breakfast I got a call from my eye doctor.  (“I’m scheduled for cataract surgery on Tuesday.)  They had not received the consent form from my primary physician stating that I am healthy enough to undergo anesthesia and the surgery.  Oh no, I had forgotten to take the form with me when I had my annual physical last week.  What should I do, I asked.  So I called my primary physician’s office but she wasn’t scheduled to be in the office until 12:30, but I was told she had an opening at that time, and could I come in to the Poughkeepsie office for an exam if needed, and could I fax them the form.  Well we don’t have the capability to fax, so I gave them my eye doctor’s number and they could sort it out.  Then I called the warden to say I may not be available for the Finance Committee meeting at 1.

When I hung up I scurried down to the church basement because at our last fire inspection we had three violations that needed to be corrected.  The kitchen fire extinguisher was out of date, there were flammable items stored within a 6’ radius of the church furnaces, and we needed to have an exhaust fan and hood installed over the kitchen oven.  I had the fire extinguisher recharged in September, I felt I could schmooze the inspector over the oven hood by showing him documentation that we had tried to have one installed but the contractor bailed on us, but I needed to check the furnaces, and sure enough someone had put things too close, so I quickly moved them away.

The inspector showed up and everything was going fine until we got to the oven hood and he told me that the State was cracking down and he couldn’t put the Village in jeopardy so he had to direct us not to use the oven until a hood was installed.  My heart sank as I thought about the pork dinner we are hosting in two weeks.  I dashed off an emergency email to our Vestry with the news.

At one o’clock the Finance Committee members arrived when the office phone rang.  It was Central Hudson saying they were going to cut off power in 45 minutes for non-payment of bills.  I drove to Kingston to make a $1,500 payment in cash.  It might have been a scam but I didn’t want to take the chance.

So let me recap: in the span of four hours the pork dinner was in jeopardy, I might not be having my eye surgery, I had to come up with $1,500 dollars in cash, and the Finance Committee meeting had been cancelled.  I was feeling a little bit like Job.

You know the story of Job – a good man, a righteous man, and man of faith who treats everyone with respect, and so God rewards him – so the story goes- and he prospers.  Then one day when God is bragging to the devil about the goodness of his people, the devil challenges him: “If you took away all of Job’s wealth, his farm, his family, his reputation – if you took away all of the blessings he has received, he would turn on you and resort to evil.  The only reason he’s good,” the devil taunts, “ is because he gets the goodies.”

But God trusts in Job’s faithfulness and takes up the challenge.  Then one by one, all of Job’s blessings are taken away.  Job doesn’t know what to think.  So in this new and unpleasant reality he is visited by a series of friends who provide a platform for the author to explore and talk through the various explanations and theories.  “How can God be just if for no reason, committing no offense, all of Job’s blessings have turned to curses?  Where’s the justice in that?”  Or, “how can God be orderly when the life of this faithful man has turned to chaos?  If creation was orderly then it stands to reason that good behavior results in blessing, and bad behavior results in punishment.  Job has done nothing wrong, yet his life has fallen apart.  Chaos seems to have won out.”  At one point Job even wonders, ”How am I better off than if I had sinned?”

This theological theory of “goodness results in good things” is found in many parts of the Hebrew scripture, for example in the Book of
Deuteronomy.  In that book the Babylonian army is bearing down on Jerusalem and the writer urges people – no, pleads with people to be good, follow the law, show God they can live faithful lives and maybe, just maybe God will send the army off in another direction.  In other words: be good and good things will happen for you.  The Book of Job could be subtitled: When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Like last Friday for me.  Okay, I’m not Mother Teresa or Rev. King, but I’m an okay enough guy and I try to do good….a vast majority of the time!  So why did everything fall apart for me on Friday?  Was God punishing me?  Was I being targeted for some grievous sin?  Or was God testing me like with Job, or just having a little fun at my expense?

Well it turns out the Book of Job is not about Job…it’s about God and about the kind of world God created which all of us inhabit.  There is an order to creation but it’s not the simple order of: do good – get good/ do bad – get bad.  Instead creation is ordered in a much more sophisticated and complex way.  I know I’ve used this illustration before but it fits here so I’m going to use it again.  Life is like a game of poker.  In poker everyone is dealt a hand, but no two hands are alike.  Now if poker was a simple game the person with the highest cards would win and the game over, but there’s much more to the game.  Poker involves betting (how much or how little) bluffing, reading your opponents, knowing when to hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em.  It’s a sophisticated and complex game, just like life.

The Book of Job tells us that being “good” is not about getting “good” but about “making” good, that is, sharing with God in the creative process.  How do we shape our communities so that everyone thrives?  How do we heal wounds so that the hurt can be put behind us?  How can we respectfully share competencies when inadequacies reveal themselves?  How do we turn earth into a heavenly place?

God asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  And the faithful response is, “Right beside you.”

In God’s name, Amen.

Pentecost XIX Baptism as Gateway to Life

Pentecost XIX  Baptism as Gateway to Life

The baptism today at the 10 o’clock service gives me the opportunity to talk a little bit about this sacrament of the church, and the role it plays in our common life.  In my opinion, baptism is the doorway into the Christian way of living.  It is not a one-time event that we sort of “check the box” and then forget about it.  It is not a “bucket list” item to be placed alongside a whole host of other “to do’s.”  Baptism is the defining identity of Christian people, in fact, sometimes “the church” is called “the baptized community” because that’s what it is.  That’s who we are.

So let’s take a quick look at the role baptism plays in the life of the faith community and how it has evolved over the years.  Way back when the followers of Christ came together, after Jesus’ resurrection, they already knew what it meant to follow Christ.  They had been doing so for years.  However, as time went on, and they began attracting others who never knew Jesus, and especially as non-Jews were attracted through the missionary work of Paul, Barnabus, Timothy and others, the leaders of the community realized they needed to institute some sort of training and education for the converts, so they could make the changes necessary to become a follower themselves.  In a world filled with gods: Egyptian gods, Roman gods, Greek gods, Persian gods, this god of Israel was doing a new thing – raising a dead man to a new knd of life.  This God was not only powerful but also compassionate.  This God was not only commanding but also merciful.  This God was both just and moral, and was showing the world how we could behave with each other in new and life-giving ways. It was an exciting time spiritually and lots and lots of people wanted to sign on.

The leaders came up with a two to three-year program that they called the “catechumenate” which in Greek simply means to teach someone orally, we might call it “tutoring.” (This is also where we get the word “catechism.”)

So in the early days of the Christian faith, before being baptized, converts would undergo a couple of years of basic training where they would not only learn about Jesus, but they would also reorder their lives so that the way they conducted themselves was consistent with the gospel of Christ.  The catechumenate was sort of a Christian “boot camp.”

Last week after our daughter was married my sister from Minnesota and her male friend, Ed, stayed with us for a few days.  Ed had served in the Marine Corps and at one point was stationed in Maine, so he and Gwen drove up there to see where he had lived and worked for a time.  He talked a little bit about being in the Corps and about how difficult making the adjustments to that style of life had been.  During boot camp the drill sergeants sort of tear the recruits apart and then put them back together again as Marines.  In boot camp the soldiers not only learn how to fight in wartime, but they also learn what it means to be a Marine – semper fidelis – and to live that life.

The same sort of thing occurred during the catechumenate.  Early followers of Christ did not behave like many of the people around them.  They did weird things like care for the sick even though it meant they might get sick themselves, pay out of their own pockets to buy burial plots for criminals who died in prison, and share what they had with those who had little or nothing.  Such a lifestyle was not easy and required discipline and commitment, so a training and preparation period was needed.  And when the catechumens were ready to commit, they joined the rest of the followers and stayed up all night long before Easter morning, singing and praying.  Then as the sun rose, the light of the new day, the beginning of a new way of life, the catechumens were baptized, washed in a lake or river, drowned and then reborn in the image of Christ, connecting through ritual their new life with the death and resurrection of the Christ.  Because living a Christian life took maturity and discipline, all of the early Christians were adults.

Baptism is the gateway into a way of life, a life that imitates the life of Christ.

As we all know, things evolve, they change, they adapt as times change.  Around the year 250 AD, the number of followers of Christ had grown to about 10% of the population.  Which meant that Christians were now marrying other Christians and having children.  But since baptism was only open to adults the parents began to ask the church leadership what status their children had in the community.  The leaders decided that children and even infants could be baptized as a sign of their membership in the community, but they would have to undergo a catechumenate as they approached adulthood.  This is what led to the sacrament of confirmation – confirming for themselves what had been pledged for them as children.  Godparents were assigned as catechists to train the children and assist them as they grew into the “full stature of Christ.”

Things continued to evolve, and I’m not sure exactly when and how it occurred, but at some point the sacrament of baptism lost its dramatic, life-changing emphasis, and was just sort of “done” without much fanfare or celebration.  Maybe it was because the entire culture in the West had adopted Christian values and it was all around us and people thought it would naturally shape children as they developed.  Or maybe it was the rise of Sunday Schools that took the place of adult catechesis, but whatever it was, baptism lost its punch, its power.

Let me tell you a story of just how far things strayed from those early days.  When I was rector of Christ Church in Poughkeepsie, one of our parishioners was turning 90 years old and we wanted to have a little party for him at coffee hour. I knew he had grown up in the parish and that it might be fun if I could find when he was baptized in the parish register and share that with everyone at his party.  I knew his birth year, (subtract 90 from the current year) so I started combing through the register and soon found the entry of his baptism.  I had assumed it occurred on a Sunday morning at a worship service, but I was wrong.  It happened at 10 am on a Wednesday morning in his parent’s house on Adriance Avenue.  He wasn’t even baptized in the church, or with parishioners around to witness and support.  I just hope his father took the morning off from work to be there, but I can’t be sure.

Fortunately, since the 1960’s all of the mainline churches are rediscovering the importance of baptism as the gateway to living a Christian life, and recognizing all Christians as ministers of the gospel. As we heard in the reading from the Book of Numbers earlier, the spirit of God is not limited to the leadership, but is dispersed among lots and lots of people, “…would that all of God’s people…” bear the spirit of God.

So it turns out that baptism is not a once and forget about it event, rather it is the beginning of life’s greatest journey, as we seek to represent that loving, merciful, compassionate, generous, just and moral God in the world.  We constantly put ourselves to the task of study and observation, reflection and examination so that we give it our best effort.  And I want to be clear, I’m not just talking about the study of the bible or theological books.  We need to know our surroundings, our culture, our neighbors, if we hope to respond faithfully and fully.  So, baptized Christians, watch current movies, read fiction and non-fiction, visit local sites, get to know your neighbors, ask questions, talk, listen.

At my parish in New York City I had a couple from Sri Lanka that had a baby girl and wanted her baptized.  They also asked if one of their Buddhist friends could be a godparent.  I had never been confronted with this situation, nor had it been covered in seminary, so I did my research.  I learned that Sri Lanka is 70% Buddhist and that the couple planned to return to Sri Lanka within a year or two.  I thought and prayed on this for awhile and then told them “yes.”  It seems to me that if this little girl is going to have 70% of her playmates and school friends as Buddhists, she needs to know about their tradition so that they do not seem foreign or strange or “wrong” but rather as fellow travelers on the faith journey.  Word got out that I had done this and I got a call from my bishop asking, ”What the heck?”  I wrote him an explanation which he then shared with the diocesan liturgy committee and I’m happy to report that they have now made a provision for supportive, non-Christian roles in the sacrament of baptism…oh, and by the way, I got to keep my job.

In just a few minutes we will welcome Isabella into the baptized community with the rest of us. 
Together we will seek unity rather than division; compassion rather than cruelty; and justice rather than revenge. We welcome her as a fellow traveler as she joins to tell the world that there is good news.

 

In Christ’s name.  Amen.

The frontispiece photo of a baptism is from San Augustin Church in the Philippines

Truth is Salvation

Last Sunday when we left our hero, the great king David, he had ordered the murder of one of his soldiers and impregnated the now departed man’s wife.  The great king was not looking so great. As we pick up the story today we learn that God is not all that happy with the leader he chose and favored.

The job of a prophet is to speak for God, so we are introduced to a new character in the drama, Nathan, prophet of God.  It’s up to Nathan to step up and tell the king the bad news, that God is displeased with his behavior, but before doing so he wisely realizes that this will require a certain delicacy. David is a powerful man who seems to have lost his conscience lately by the murder of Uriah and the rape of Bathsheba. Nathan could easily find himself in a very difficult position if he isn’t careful.  He must speak the truth to David, but he needs to do so in a way that David will hear it, recognize for himself the evil he has done, and make the appropriate response: repentance.  Not only is this is a tall order but Nathan’s life is at stake as well.

·      Now Nathan could have just walked up to David and blurted out the obvious, “David, you are a murderer and a rapist and you need to repent,” which probably would have resulted in his swift execution. He prudently chose another path – he told a story.  The story was about a rich man and a poor man and how, out of his greed, the rich man stole the one lamb the poor man possessed and served it as dinner to his guests  This atrocity occurred while the rich man possessed whole herds of sheep himself.  Under a monarch the king executes all branches of government, which means in addition to making the laws, David also operated the judicial system and served as judge.  Enraged by the rich man’s evil actions, David vows that the rich man will pay for this crime four times over.  “Who is the culprit?” he implores Nathan.  “Give me his name so I can punish him to the fullest extent of the law.”  And I suspect after a deep gulp, Nathan summoned all his courage and told David, “The man is you.”

Fortunately for Nathan, David heard the truth in the story and he repented.  David turns out to be a great king after all.  This episode is an example of what we call “speaking truth to power.” Everyone carries around their own sense of truth.  Just because two people see and hear  the same event doesn’t mean they will interpret what happened in the same way.  The result is: disagreement, conflict, lack of understanding, and in some cases it may even lead to attacks or outright warfare.  One person says, “We should tax the wealthy at a higher rate because they have more money,” while another person says, “we should lower taxes for the rich so their businesses can create more jobs and pay workers higher wages which will bump them to a higher tax bracket and the government can pay its bills.”  Which of those is true?  In a way, they both are, but not everyone agrees which course should be followed.

I chose that example because it is fairly benign and serves as an illustration.  Other examples hold greater risk, especially when speaking truth threatens the power of the powerful.  In my experience, powerful people like their power and they want to keep it.  They usually don’t appreciate hearing that their power is causing abuses or evil.  Yet, this is the job of prophets – ancient and modern.  Now unless God appears in front of us and tells us exactly what to say and tells us to whom we must say it, (something, by the way, that has never happened to me) we need to approach the role of prophet with care and humility.  We need to be aware that what we believe is “God’s honest truth” might actually be nothing more than our personal opinion.  There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion and sharing that with people in power, we just need to see it for what it is.  We should never claim to be speaking for God when actually speaking for ourselves.

But whether it is our opinion, or God’s truth, we need to be as wise as Nathan and figure out how to speak to power.  Our godly task is not just to say what is true, but to express it in a manner that will be heard and not rejected outright, but also accepted and followed with an appropriate response.  That will take some thought, imagination and creativity.  Sometimes it also takes luck.

As you know I travel to Albany on occasion to speak to our elected officials and share my opinions with them.  I try to form my opinions after study and prayer.  I once went to Albany with New York State Pride in hopes of adding “sexual orientation” to the list of conditions that carry additional punishment when a crime is committed.  These are called “hate crimes” because a person is attacked, not for what they have done, but simply being who they are. Also on the list are: race, gender, country of origin, religion, etc.  My senator at the time was not in favor of adding this item to the list.  His argument was this: a crime is a crime is a crime and crimes have punishments.  We don’t need to complicate the law by saying that when certain people are attacked the perpetrator receives extra punishments.

When I arrived for my appointment the senator was not available so I met with one of his staff, a woman.  This happens all the time and I was used to it.  I voiced my opinion and she recited the senator’s position.  On the drive up the Thruway to Albany I noticed a sign that read: “speeding fines doubled in work zones.” I decided to share that with her, making the point that the State of New York already adds extra punishment to crimes when the individuals are especially vulnerable. Highway workers are especially vulnerable to speeding traffic so the law tries to protect them by deterring speeders.  I told her that people who are gay or who have some of the stereotypical mannerisms associated with being gay are especially vulnerable to attack so the law should try to protect them by adding punishments when they are attacked.  I didn’t know that the woman’s husband was a highway worker, but the Senator voted in favor of the law that year and it passed.  They say you can either be “good” or “lucky.”  I don’t know hope good I was in that interview, but I definitely got lucky and it was for a good cause.

 Finally, one of the reasons we need to gather the courage and speak truth to power is that the truth is salvation.  David heard the truth in Nathan’s story and he repented.  If Nathan had not spoken up David may have continued to walk the path he was on.  Unchanged, how many more women might he have taken?  How many more crimes would he have tried to cover up?  How many more innocent men would have met their death?  We will never know because after Nathan told his story we never hear of David engaged in another crime.  He recognized his sin and turned himself around.  Truth can feel scorching and harsh, but is also cleansing, healing and it is salvation.  It saved David and if we can hear it, it can save us too.

In God’s name.  Amen.

 

 

The Not-So-Great King David

A thousand years before Jesus lived God chose a young man to be king, a great king, over the Jewish people. His name was David.

As a boy David killed the great Philistine warrior, Goliath.  He continued to excel on the battlefield and grew famous throughout the land as a fighter and military strategist.  The people of the southern kingdom chose him as their king, and after the death of King Saul, the people of the north chose him too.  He united all the lands of the Jews, and through military campaigns pushed the boundaries of their empire to include much of the Middle East.  David was smart, handsome, popular, successful, and rich.  Everything he touched turned to gold.  He got used to having everything go his way, and he knew that God favored him, both personally and as a leader.

Then something happened: one spring morning, the great king, David, was walking along the roof of his palace, enjoying the cool morning air. His army was laying siege to the city of Rabbah, so there was nothing for him to do there and he returned to Jerusalem to wait.  As he walked and looked out over the city he governed, he happened to notice a young woman nearby taking her morning bath.  He didn’t recognize her, but he was entranced by her beauty.  Her name was Bathsheba and she was lovely, I mean, strikingly so. In that moment mother-nature came alive and he wanted her.

One of the things we know about human beings is we want what we want. “What do you want for dinner?”  “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Where do you want to go on vacation?”  We may not always get what we want, but that doesn’t mean we no longer want it. Are there things you want but can’t afford? Your heart may still be set on it even if you don’t have the money to buy it.  We want what we want.

David usually got what he wanted so, without thinking, (and that will key to what follows) he wanted Bathsheba. The story is simple and direct. He sent someone to find out who she was.  Then he sent someone to take her. She came.  He slept with her. She got pregnant. 

This was not about love, or relationship, or commitment or sharing a life together.  It was about David taking what he wanted.  This incident is usually called “adultery” by biblical commentators.  To me, it sounds like what we call rape.  It was power and lust functioning without any thought about consequences.  We want what we want.  Why does the name “Harvey Weinstein” come to mind at the moment?

But consequences for David came anyway even he hadn’t thought of them. A woman who was not David’s wife was pregnant while the woman’s husband was away fighting a war. You can’t hide pregnancy for very long.  David’s palace staff knew Bathsheba had come to David.  For the first time in his life the great king was in trouble.  What should he do now?

As the story continues we hear of one of the most sordid tales in the bible.  There is a lot of violence and injustice in the bible, but there is nothing as gruesome as what follows: deception, disregard for innocent life, tragedy, and blindly following orders, orders that are clearly immoral.

David sends for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, from the siege. David tells him to go to his house, assuming he and Bathsheba will make love as couples do.  But Uriah does not go to his own house out of a sense of loyalty to his comrades who are still on the front lines.  How can he enjoy a night with his wife while they are away from their homes serving their country?  How could he return and face them?  He sleeps at the palace gate.  David had plotted that they sleep together and then when the baby is born everyone would think that Uriah was the father.  Don’t you hate when things don’t work out as you had hoped?  But David can’t give up.  He hatches another plot.

David writes a message to Joab, his field commander.  It says: when you go into battle, make sure Uriah is at the front of the line.  As the enemy moves forward order our troops to pull back so that Uriah will be left alone and killed by the enemy. The story includes a cruel and tragic irony:  Uriah himself carries his own death message to Joab, who must have recognized this as murder, but he follows the king’s orders anyway.  How can he do that?  How can he be involved in the unnecessary death of one of his own soldiers?  He must have held a deep fear of the great king.  But for David, even though Uriah is dead, Bathsheba is still pregnant, and he still has a problem.

There is so much evil on display in this story.  We read it and wonder how could anyone ever fall to such a low level?  How could anyone ever behave that way, and treat people like that?  I could never do that.  I mean, I might make mistakes now and again, but to do the kind of thing David did – no – never – not me!

Really?  Are you sure about that? You have never done anything without thinking through the consequences?  You have never let your wants and desires take control of your actions?  Maybe you have never done something as terrible as planning the death of an innocent person, but most of us have done something that put us in a difficult position, even a desperate position.  We want what we want, and sometimes that desire is so strong it takes over everything else.

And that is what got David in trouble.  He didn’t think.  He didn’t stop and reflect.  He didn’t use his imagination to project himself into the future when sleeping with Bathsheba was still theoretical and had not yet become history.  Maybe you have never raped anyone or murdered anyone – (I hope not!)  But that doesn’t mean you aren’t like David in other ways.  Have you ever done something really stupid without thinking it through?  Most of us have, and that is what we share with David.

The lesson here is quite simple.  Before acting, take a moment and reflect on the consequences of that action.  Use your imagination.  Wonder what will happen, and then ask yourself this question: am I prepared to deal with the results of my actions?  If the answer is “no”… don’t do it. Don’t.  Just don’t.  Wants and desires change.  What you want today will probably not be what you want next month.  When I was younger I wanted a sailboat.  Sarah and I lived near the ocean and I would see all those sailboats gliding across the bay and I told myself how wonderful that would be.  But I get seasick.  I would have been miserable.  When I stopped and reflected on that fact, I realized I was not prepared to deal with the consequences of owning a sailboat. I no longer want a sailboat, and I’m fine with that.  In fact, I’m really glad I don’t have one.  I don’t enjoying feeling seasick.

There is a second and more important question to ask: what do I really want?  What do I want deep down, at the center of my being?  What kind of a person do I want to be?  David was a great king with incredible success.  But he is also remembered as a rapist and a murderer.  Is a few moments of enjoyment worth a lifetime of misery and a tarnished legacy?

The story of David and Bathsheba, and Uriah and Joab is one of the most horrible stories in the bible.  Knowing what we all have in common with David, let’s not make it our story too.

 

Lent I 2018

This morning I deliver a sermon I don’t want to preach. You’ll see what I mean in a bit.

We have now begun our 40 day Lenten journey to Holy Week, Good Friday, and Resurrection – “new life in Christ.”  Most of us in the room here have been around for a while.  We completed our youth a long time ago.  We’ve been through marriage and family and career, and now maybe grandchildren, and we wonder “new life in Christ?”  Is there anything “new” at this point?  Haven’t we just about seen it all?  Can there be any growth, any progress, any deepening of our Christian faith?  Or has our faith become as calcified as our knee joints sometimes feel?  When we learned to balance a check book did we also learn who Jesus was for us and it hasn’t changed much since?

It matters who we think Jesus is, and what is important to him.  If you’re going to follow someone you better have a pretty good idea of who he or she is or you might find yourself in a place you never intended to go. And, of course, Jesus is not the same person for everyone – not even for everyone who claims to be a follower.

“What would Jesus do?”  That’s what it all boils down to, and unfortunately he is no longer in the flesh to tell us straight out. So, we have to keep our ears and our hearts and our minds open and pray that we get it right, always mindful that we might not.

In today’s gospel we hear that Jesus is baptized by John and receives God’s holy spirit. He returns to his homeland of Galilee up north and begins to proclaim the good news. Now not everyone agrees today on what that “good news” looks like.  For example, some people think it means doing away with abortions, but others disagree. Some people think the good news means strictly following the law of the land, while others claim to act out of a “higher law.”  Interpretation is everything.

Now in spite of all the various interpretations of who Jesus is and what he would do, I believe there are a handful of basic interpretations upon which all of Jesus’ followers would agree.  For example, every person is to be respected by virtue of their creation. If God saw fit to bring someone into existence, we must show that person respect.  Even the worst, most heinous criminals must be respected as human beings and given due process under the law.  And with respect comes consideration for everyone’s unique and specific personality. (You know you are the only person like you in the entire world, right?  Unique and specific.)  There is no level playing field in this life.  Instead everyone has been dealt a hand and like master poker players our job is to play the hand we’ve been dealt to the best of our ability.  There are other things we all agree on, but this morning I would like to focus on just one – in fact, we said it just a few minutes ago when we recited the Ten Commandments, and that is: murder is wrong.

Now “murder” and “killing” are not the same thing.  We sometimes kill animals for food or protection, but that’s not a sin, not evil.  We kill human beings sometimes when they become a danger to themselves or others, and in times of war.  In such cases it is always a tragedy but its not a sin.  “Murder” is defined in the religious community as the “wanton destruction of innocent life.”  Even when there is no immediate threat or danger, a murderer will take a life because he or she decides it would be better for them to do so.

In a few minutes we will pray for the 17 teenagers and teachers who were murdered in Florida this past week.  They posed neither a threat nor a danger to the shooter, yet their lives ended.  They had families and friends.  The were making plans for college and work.  They were just beginning their lives and then, in a moment, no more.  This is not the sermon I want to preach, yet I feel to keep silent dishonors those who died.  What would Jesus do?  The coach who took the bullets so his students could escape – he is the Christ. He gave his life as a ransom for many.

But what about us?  What us as followers of Christ?  What would he have us do?  Here’s my answer:

I don’t claim to know what a legislative correction looks like.  I don’t think changing our laws, by itself, will solve completely what’s going on.  And I’m not opposed to guns.  If people want to hunt, or if they live in an unsafe neighborhood and feel they need a gun for protection, I see nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I wish the hunters would take out a few more of the deer that eat the flowers and shrubs here in our churchyard.  But an assault rifle in the hands of a troubled and unstable teenager makes absolutely no sense to me.  As I read the Constitution that’s not what the 2nd Amendment is about anyway.  Some may disagree – okay.

But something needs to change, and we, as followers of Christ, need to be part of it.  What would Jesus do?  Overturn the money exchange in the Temple courtyard.  Make a fuss.  Speak out. Call. Write. Visit.  Demand saner laws.  I don’t have the whole scenario worked out, but we need to start because if nothing changes, nothing will change.  If nothing changes now, we cannot expect a different outcome in the future.

Finally, what’s at stake here?  Were the teenagers who died “our children” or were they “Florida’s children?”  If we answer “Florida’s children” we are in trouble.  Those teenagers were ours.  They were family, our sons and our daughters, and they must not die in vain.  Columbine. Sandy Hook. Benton, KY, San Bernardino, Marysville, WA, Knoxville, Parkland, and that’s just a partial list.  Who’s to say Saugerties won’t be next?  Do you think we are immune? Do you think we are special or more favored than those other communities?  Who’s to say some troubled person down the street is not storing up guns and ammunition right now?  It’s legal.

What would Jesus do?  Act.  The time to act is now, not when they start carrying the body bags out of the high school.  I’m sorry to be so graphic.  Remember, I didn’t want to preach this sermon and I hope I never have to again.  But if we sit idle and silent, when another shooting occurs, the blood of the murdered will be partially on our hands.

We follow someone who believes that every life is sacred and worthy and valuable.  Let’s prove him right.  In His name.  Amen.

Easter IV, 2018

Every year on the fourth Sunday in Easter season we hear readings about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. 

You may remember it from last year and it will happen again in 2019.  Shepherds and sheep were a crucially important part of life in the ancient Middle East.  Sheep were well adapted to the climate and terrain, and they provided essential materials to sustain human communities, such as meat, milk (which could also be made into cheese) and wool for clothing, which was especially helpful on chilly nights.  However, being somewhat dimwitted and having no features like horns or fangs for fighting and defense, sheep needed guardians, protectors, shepherds.  Because if sheep disappeared; if they were completely wiped out by predators, life in the ancient world would change dramatically.  Shepherding was an essential role in the survival and well-being of ancient communities, and so it is not surprising that the bible contains over a hundred references to sheep and shepherding.

Shepherds were strong, constant, courageous, and dedicated workers who knew each sheep under their care individually.  So why, I ask myself, does this topic always occur during the Easter season?  What does the risen life have to do with the devoted and caring work of shepherds?  Well, if you ask the question that way, the answer is: not much, really.  However, if you listen carefully to the gospel I just read to you (John 10: 11-18) there is a line that provides a link, a point of connection to the passion narrative: Jesus says, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  As soon as we hear that line, we are instantly transported back to Calvary and cross, agony and death.  Of all the biblical references to shepherds in the bible, this is the only one in which the shepherd considers sacrificing his own life so that the sheep may live.

I wonder what it takes to do that?

We hear stories of soldiers on the battlefield taking enemy fire to save their brothers.  Or you may have heard the recent news story of a police officer who traded places with a hostage of a bank robbery and it cost him his life.  I tell myself that I would gladly – immediately – sacrifice my own life for one of my children. (Although I also pray regularly that neither of my children are ever in a position that their lives are threatened).

Now what these three examples have in common: the soldier, the police officer, the parent, is that they all have a deep, deep, all-encompassing love.  I’m not talking about romantic love, but rather a love that puts the welfare of the other above one’s own welfare.  They all possess a love greater than life itself and so one life is sacrificed in the service of love.

The gospel reading is very clear about who will NOT give their life for the sheep: the hired hand, the paid-by-the-hour shepherd who is just doing his job - watching sheep.  “They pay me to watch, not to die.”  The hired hand has no love for the sheep themselves.  When his shift is over, presumably, he goes home and doesn’t give the sheep another thought.

On the other hand, John tells us that Jesus is the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.  Now there is another and more important aspect to this arrangement.  I’d be willing to bet that in those three examples I gave you: soldier, police, parent, the only thing in their minds was showing their love.  The soldier sees that his brothers are in danger so he steps into the line of fire and takes the bullets himself.  The police officer is not thinking, “Is this a situation where I might lose my life?”  No, all he thinks is that a young woman, a mother of two needs to survive so she can continue to raise her children.  And the parent will do anything, give anything, stop at nothing to preserve the life of a child.  Worries, concerns, or fears of losing one’s own life in the process never come up.  There is only love.  And when we show our love for another we may end up losing our life.

But its not suicide, in fact, if anything it’s the exact opposite of suicide.  The goal of suicide is to end one’s life.  The goal of love is to give everything to the beloved, even if that is the ultimate gift – one’s own life.

The paradox of love is that when we love someone we give everything we’ve got. We empty ourselves out.  It’s all gone.  We drain every last drop of who we are, and yet……we feel like we are the one’s who have received it everything.

When we love deeply we will lose our life.  We surrender it all to the beloved and on some occasions that might mean our physical death as well.

John’s gospel is not a training manual for beginning shepherds. Instead John uses the common and well-known profession of herding to illustrate what’s involved in the deepest expression of love.  Jesus said, “As the Father loves me, so I love you.  Now you love one another.”

In Christ’s name.  Amen.

- Rev. Michael Phillips, Vicar