Sermon for Pentecost 4 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The way we read scripture in church is by its nature problematic, necessitated by the fact that few would show up weekly for hours-long expositions on lengthy bible passages (though the Puritans may be one modern exception that proves this rule). Because we tend to get thematically connected “snippets” of scripture from week to week, the lack of context for a particular lesson may obscure its meaning. Here I don’t mean the historical and cultural and linguistic context of a passage, though that is always in danger of being lost. I mean, much more simply, reading a passage without the rest of the text that surrounds it can give us exactly the wrong impression of its meaning and relevance.

This morning’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah is a perfect example. The five short verses we heard a few minutes ago might strike us as positive and hopeful. Jeremiah seems to be congratulating the prophet Hananiah for preaching a message of peace and liberation. He seems to be saying “Right on [that’s my modern translation of the word “Amen”] let the Lord bring back the captive Israelites from Babylon like you said!” This is exactly the opposite, though, of what Jeremiah is saying in this morning’s lesson.

In the preceding chapter, God told Jeremiah to warn Zedekiah the King of Judah–who had been appointed king by the Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar–and all the people of their land not to rebel against Babylon but to remain in the uncomfortable situation of being a tributary to that great Empire and to come to terms with the fact that many of their countrymen had been deported and scattered throughout the empire as a means of discouraging rebellion. As a sort of object lesson, Jeremiah had fashioned and placed himself in a wooden yoke to symbolize the status which his nation would have to come to terms with and endure. He also gives a stern warning to those who might listen to a more welcome prophecy:

Thus says the LORD: Do not listen to the words of your prophets who are prophesying to you, saying, `Behold, the vessels of the LORD’s house will now shortly be brought back from Babylon,’ for it is a lie which they are prophesying to you.

In the chapter from which this morning’s lesson is taken, we are told that less than a year after this display another prophet does just what Jeremiah had warned against. Immediately preceding the lesson we heard, Jeremiah records:

In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of Zedeki’ah king of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, Hanani’ah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the LORD, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying,”Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which Nebuchadnez’zar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jeconi’ah the son of Jehoi’akim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the LORD, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.”

Jeremiah’s response is not “Right on, let the Lord bring back the captive Israelites from Babylon like you said!” Rather he employs sarcasm and irony to shame, we might even say to poke fun at, Hanaiah’s overly-optimistic prediction.

So, we might interpret Jeremiah here, tongue firmly in cheek, saying something like, “Oh yeah, all those doom and gloom prophets were a real buzzkill. Go ahead and revolt against Babylon. It’ll be easy! Plus, Nebuchadnezzar is going to through a party for all the captives and give them cake and ice cream before he lets them walk home.”

Apparently, Hananiah didn’t get the sarcasm, or didn’t care, and immediately after this morning’s lesson he took the wooden yoke off of Jeremiah and broke it to pieces. And what did Jeremiah do? He went home and then, at God’s command, came back with an iron yoke in place of the wooden one. Oh, and then Hananiah was struck dead. A decade later, King Zedekiah would rebel against Babylon, hoping an alliance with Egypt would make him prevail, but he was captured, Jerusalem and its temple were utterly destroyed, and the Jews would end up spending sixty years in exile before Cyrus the Great and the Persians would defeat their captors and let them return.

There is both a practical and a spiritual lesson this can teach us. The practical one is simple enough, but how easy we forget it. If somebody tells you exactly what you want to hear, he may not have your best interests at heart. He may, rather, just want to curry favor or manipulate you for his own ends. If something seems too good to be true, it may well be. I’m overly credulous, so I know this to be the case; for example, I should never be trusted to buy a car by myself.

The spiritual lesson is a harder one. There are obvious examples that hardly bear mentioning- the “Prosperity Gospel” approach of promising success and riches if you send enough money to the church or televangelist or whomever is really low-hanging fruit. Assuming that’s not where most of us are, though, I do think there is an even more pernicious trap we are all prone to fall into.

I have often heard folks say something like “I always leave church feeling better than when I arrived.” This can be both good and dangerous, I think. It’s wonderful when the experience of worship gives us comfort and peace when we so badly need it. It can be dangerous, though, if our entire spiritual life only serves to make us feel better. I think I said in a sermon some weeks ago, that God both comforts the afflicted and arouses the careless. Sometimes what each of us needs is to find God’s healing, calming balm applied to our weary hearts, and that should not be discounted. Sometimes, though, what each of us needs is for the Holy Spirit to give us a kick in the pants, to convict us when we are called to be more faithful or loving than we have been.

The biblical prophets were masters of both calling people to a greater faith and instilling hope for God’s provision in God’s time. Somebody like Hananiah might make a more successful preacher or televangelist, if success were measured not in a growing faithfulness and deepening spirituality, but in terms of people in the pews and money in the plate. But if our “success” is to be assessed in terms of our growth into “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” we may need more Jeremiahs, more Isaiahs, more John the Baptists.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel “in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” May God give us the ears to hear such messengers and the hearts to accept his message spoken through them, even when that message is uncomfortable–even when it calls us to repentance and growth and hard work–because God’s Kingdom is not won easily, but the prize is life and salvation in this world and the next.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 2 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I must admit, this morning’s Gospel reading always makes me a bit embarrassed when it comes up. The apostles are instructed to lead peripatetic, itinerant lives as heralds of the Gospel. “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.” No wonder the second half of this morning’s gospel which begins with those words is optional in our lectionary. It’s a discomfiting reminder. Here I am with every intention of staying settled for a while, with a stipend and a rectory and a pension and plenty of changes of clothes.

I guess this is just the nature of serving an established institution versus a nascent movement and these are just the concessions we make to the world we live in, but I hope this stark difference between the lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed and the lifestyle of the apostles continues to make me a bit uncomfortable, lest I become complacent merely relying on an institution and forgetting about being a laborer in a pilgrim church.

It seems to me that the more important reminder in these words is not necessarily that each of us is individually called to a kind of unsettled lifestyle, but that the Church herself is always being called to this vocation, to be a sort of apostolic, evangelistic pilgrim in a world which may sometimes accept but will often reject its message of radical love and the healing of social ills and the proclamation of salvation coming from outside us- frustrating our designs on control and self-sufficiency.

This is especially hard for us to grasp, though, considering our history, particularly as Anglican Christians. Our heritage is that of a state-sponsored religion before our establishment on this continent, and even after disestablishment in the newly formed United States, we remained a sort of de-facto state church. We’ve got the national cathedral and the now-famous-again, for better or worse, claim of having “the church of the presidents.” We’ve got our cathedral in Washington (the epicenter of political power) and our church center in New York (our nation’s financial and media capital) because for a long dang time people really cared about what the Episcopal Church might have to say about the issues of the day.

Now, here is a hard teaching. That’s probably not what we are anymore. Granted, Presiding Bishop Curry has been getting a lot of airtime lately (even more than when he preached at the royal wedding!), and whatever you think about him, I’m glad that at a moment when we’ve gotten a little attention we have a presiding bishop who is not afraid of talking about Jesus, unlike his predecessor, but that’s another sermon. That’s likely to fade away eventually, though. Converting to the episcopal church to get ahead in politics or business hasn’t been a thing for decades, and I say thank God for that.

There is some really good news here, I think. I believe we are at a point where the church is, for the first time in centuries, given the opportunity to go out without gold and silver and extra tunics and sandals, to live into the apostolic vocation. This is not an easy thing; it is a great challenge, in fact. Even so, it is a tremendous gospel opportunity. When all the nonsense is stripped away, when all the worldly, practical reasons for following (or claiming to follow) the Lord Jesus Christ are no longer a matter of convenience, we can get back to the heart of the matter. This isn’t about winning friends and influencing people. This isn’t about getting ahead in life. This isn’t even about having a bully pulpit before the princes of this world. It’s about following Jesus, loving those he gave us to love, and inviting others to share in the same pilgrim journey. Wealth and power and prestige can, of course, be a great blessing for the church or for a person if the institution or the individual is very careful to use those gifts faithfully. However, they can easily become dangers and distractions and even idols if the central message of Christ’s saving work becomes obscured by their trappings.

When I think about this delicate balance, threading that needle with a camel to use Jesus’ own image, and how more straightened circumstances can be a blessing in disguise, I am often reminded of a wonderful hymn by an unlikely modern saint. The hymn is “O God of Earth and Altar” and its author, the great apologist and critic G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was an English convert to Roman Catholicism, active in the early twentieth century- after Catholic emancipation but while practicing that form of Christianity was still extremely unpopular and considered unpatriotic. So he knew what it was for one’s faith to lack power and prestige in a way we Anglicans have, as I mentioned, now need to come to terms with for the sake of following Christ alone. We cannot sing the hymn, sadly, because of our current covid-related restrictions, but I encourage you to open your hymnal if you have one at home (it’s hymn 591) or look it up on YouTube after church, because I think it captures beautifully both the challenge and the opportunity we have as Christians in the 21st Century to reevaluate what’s really important for the future not just of our institutions but, more importantly, of our efforts to bring that saving message to all the world. And so, I will conclude this sermon with that hymntext:

O God of earth and altar,

Our earthly rulers falter,

The walls of gold entomb us,

Take not thy thunder from us,

From all that terror teaches,

From all the easy speeches

From sale and profanation

From sleep and from damnation,

Tie in a living tether

Bind all our lives together,

In ire and exultation

Lift up a living nation,

Sermon for Easter 7 2020

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We find ourselves in a peculiar transitional period right now, what a religious anthropologist might call a “liminal space”– that threshold period between an old reality and a new one, which may be full of hope but which can also create some disorientation and confusion. We are sharing this experience of liminality not only in the larger culture but within the church. We are starting the slow process of emerging from lockdown into a slow, deliberate reëntry into a new phase of our parish’s common life, just as many of you are experiencing a slow, deliberate reëntry into a world with hair salons and restaurants and the like.

And both of these transition periods are or will be very strange, disorienting, perhaps disconcerting. I’ve not yet been to a restaurant or barber (I may not for some time), but I can report that setting up an appointment to be the only customer in Best Buy, shepherded through the store by my own personal “Geek” was a somewhat surreal experience.

It will be even more strange when we take our first, tentative steps toward the resumption of public worship in this space. The space will look different, for one thing- it may strike some of us as too sterile. Some pews will have to be roped off, the prayerbooks and hymnals will have to be removed, there will be stations set up for bulletins and offering plates and sanitizer and extra masks, and your view of the altar will be partially obscured by a tripod for livestreaming (which I would encourage you to try to think of not merely as an electronic gadget in your field of vision, but as your fellow parishioners who will have chosen to continue joining us virtually for the time being). We will not see everybody we are accustomed to seeing, both because many will choose to remain at home and because we may need to have more services spread out throughout a Sunday. This is both keep our numbers at any one liturgy low enough to be in compliance with social-distancing requirements and to ensure adequate sanitation between those liturgies. We will not be able to see each other’s faces fully, as the diocesan guidelines require masks. We will not be able to share the sign of peace in the robust way to which this parish is accustomed. We may be able to catch up to some degree in the churchyard before or after church on sunny days, but we’ll not be permitted to sit down share a cup of coffee and have a proper chat in the parish hall. We will not be able to sing together, though some have suggested that were a familiar piece to come up during the Offertory, humming may be acceptable (we’ll see; the bishop suggested in a meeting I had with him last week that hearing familiar tunes to which we weren’t able to properly sing could be more painful than comforting, and I can see his point).

Most painful of all, while we will be permitted to gather we will be forbidden during this first, liminal phase from receiving the Blessed Sacrament. The determination made by those who crafted the diocesan guidelines, which many of you have read, is that there is simply no sufficiently safe safe way to administer Communion (even in one kind) at this time. You and I may disagree with that determination. It is, however, the bishop’s godly counsel, and I am bound by the oath of obedience I made over a decade ago to follow it.

Nevertheless, it is a great sadness. No doubt there will be some (perhaps many) who would otherwise have returned when public worship resumes who will not, because being in the church, beholding the sacrifice of the altar, and being unable to receive the Very Body of Christ sacramentally will simply be too painful. I get that. Nonetheless, I believe there is also something objectively salutary about attending to the worship of God in person (however painful or disappointing it may be) that transcends anything we may or may not “get out of it.”

There are two things I’d like to ask all of you to consider as we enter this new phase. First, consider how this time may be analogous to the time in which the apostles found themselves during this time we (luckily or perhaps providentially) find ourselves in during the church year. We are in this ten-day period between Christ’s ascension into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. They, too, were in a liminal space.

Consider this morning’s reading from Acts. Jesus has ascended and the apostles and the Blessed Virgin go to the upper room and devote themselves to prayer. No doubt they were disoriented; perhaps they were confused. Now here’s the real confusing part! Those who joined us online for the Ascension Day mass heard the very end of Luke’s Gospel: Jesus ascends to heaven and the apostles (all eleven of them) leave glorifying God and spend their time praising him in the temple. Luke wrote that. We just heard the first several verses of Acts excepting its preface. Here the Apostles (all eleven of them; Luke makes certain to list them by name) go not to the temple but to the upper room to join Jesus’ mother and kinsmen and pray there, alone.

Is Luke simply contradicting himself? Had he forgotten between writing volume one and volume two of his account how it had actually gone down? I don’t think so. I think maybe some of the apostles were struck by how wondrously they beheld the glorification of their Lord and could not but praise him in the temple and other apostles were struck more keenly by the fact that Jesus was now, once again, taken away from them. Perhaps at different moments during this ten-day period any individual apostle may have felt more joy or more loss, more consolation or more desolation. Perhaps Peter and John and James and the Blessed Virgin weren’t quite as prepared to be quite a cheerful about this as the remaining eight apostles, so maybe they spent more time in the upper room while the others spent more time in the temple. Who knows? I suspect, though, that they are all listed together in both Luke and Acts because whatever their individual, personal feelings, they were nevertheless all of one accord where it really mattered. They all knew that for the sake of the church which was to be born on Pentecost they must do all in their power to stay focused on worshiping God, however that might have looked, and praying–wherever they might have been during that confusing liminal time–that the Paraclete would send them out in power for the sake of the Gospel when the appointed time had come.

So it will be during our own liminal time which, God willing, may start for us as soon as June 7th. Some will come to the temple to glorify God as best they can under new, strange circumstances. Others will stay in the upper room for some time. Some will come to the building on a Sunday and others will continue to join us via livestream. Perhaps the Comforter has not yet descended and alighted upon us, but we continue to pray for that in whatever way we best can.

And that leads to the other point for your consideration, which is beautifully summed up in our Lord’s final prayer with his apostles before the crucifixion, a portion of which we heard just a few minutes ago: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus follows four chapters in John’s Gospel of what has been called his “farewell discourse” with what is called his “high priestly prayer”: a chapter-long request that his father would keep his disciples and all Christians who would come after united in his love. The very last thing Jesus prayed for before his Passion, after three long years of ministry, was that believers would maintain the bond of peace, love, and unity no matter what the power of evil might throw at them. This was not just because being nice is nice or because warm fluffy feelings are the most important thing in the world.

It was and is because the only way believers can live out their faith and help draw other people to the Lord Jesus is by showing a world so often defined by division and chauvinism and partisanship and a host of evils that keep us from loving each other that there is another way. There is, I believe, one and only one other way. That way is to find in the love shared between the God the Father and his Only-Begotten Son the kind of love that can hold us together in spite of everything that militates against our unity. The salvation of our souls is dependent on this, and so is the salvation of the whole world.

And what is the practical implication of this truth in this time? I think it is this. There will be some who come back to the church building, we hope on June 7–God and our cleaning supply distributor willing–, and there will be many more who do not. We cannot, cannot, allow ourselves to judge a brother or sister based on what decision he or she makes in this regard. We cannot, cannot, permit ourselves to assume the one who stays home is unduly fearful or faithless nor can we permit ourselves to assume the one who comes is simply ill-informed or reckless. We cannot, cannot permit our absence or presence to be simply a political statement we use to shame a fellow-member of the body. We must bear with one another and love one another all the more, whatever they decide is most appropriate for themselves, trusting that they came to that decision in a spirit of prayer and goodwill.

Now is neither the time for judgment nor for self-congratulatory virtue signaling. Now is the time for forbearance and patience and respect and the kind of Christian love that makes all those possible. We are entering a liminal phase–an extended Ascensiontide in the midst of pandemic–and we do not know how long this period will be. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority,” said Jesus to the apostles in response to a similar concern in this morning’s reading from Acts. However long it lasts, though, we must spend it praying and working together for peace, unity, and concord within the Body of Christ. These are the virtues of the Kingdom of Heaven which we can, I am convinced, begin to cultivate within and among ourselves in this life in assurance of the life of the world to come.

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.