a call and a claim

a sermon, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017

Jesus called his disciples, before saying, “Follow me”,[1] declaring the purpose, the reason for the call, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is near.”[2]

Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

This same good news he sends them out on a missionary journey to proclaim. But his accompanying instructions are hardly as appealing. A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.” Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.” Then a consoling, but, given what has been said, confusing word: “Don’t worry.”

Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!

Now, in Jesus’ time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were necessary. To go into the world with his counter-cultural, contra-status quo message of unconditional love and justice inevitably would lead to trouble with secular and religious authorities. And Christian conversion could erupt in discord within one’s family.

Moreover, Jesus’ message of hardship was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in the name of God.

Still, what sense do we make of these biblical insights into the hard texture of discipleship?

In our day and time, Jesus’ words seem, sound alien. Mainline American Christianity, in which the Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, generally knows little about bold prophetic proclamations that provoke persecution. Verily, there have been historical moments when Christian reticence to speak in the public square from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day justifiably has led to the charge that the church is a non-prophet organization! However, our Christian sisters and brothers in some regions of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East can testify to the truth of Jesus’ words. To be his disciple can and does put them in direct, at times, violent confrontations with governments and the followers of other faith and secular traditions.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can attest to the vivid reality of Jesus’ warning that proclamation brings trouble, particularly in the recent past and current generations when the divisions between conservative and progressive Christians have been and are so pronounced; the right denouncing the left as so inclusive and relativistic that it stands for nothing and, indeed, is no Christianity at all and the left decrying the right as narrow and doctrinaire, far from Jesus’ all-embracing love.

Today, putting all this aside, I focus solely on Jesus’ message. For if we take it and him seriously, there is, in his instructions for the missionary journey, an unmistakable and immutable call and claim on any, every disciple, of any and every age, in any and every age. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world – and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice – proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.

 

Illustration: Jesus Commissions Disciples, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 4.19

[2] Matthew 4.17a

the greatest power

a sermon, based on Matthew 28.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Easter Day: The Sunday of the Resurrection, April 16, 2017

Easter is about power. The greatest power in this world and the next. Power, to quote my namesake apostle, that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[1] Power in the words of the song, “to dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go.”[2] Power over death. The power of love.

I behold this power in this morning’s gospel, perhaps paradoxically, not in God, who, save for “an angel of the Lord”, is absent. Nor in that angelic messenger who descends “like lightening with clothing white as snow.” Nor even in the risen Jesus who suddenly appears with words of comfort.

Where do I see it?

“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb.”

There is power!

Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Mary and Mary loved Jesus to the end. They believed in him and his impossible dream of the coming kingdom of God. They didn’t run away like the other disciples, the men. They stood by Jesus throughout his agonizing final hours. They hoped, fought against that unbeatable foe, death. They watched him die. They bore with savagely broken hearts their unbearable sorrow. Theirs was a love that endured all things.

Then, loving Jesus beyond the end, Mary and Mary went to the tomb. The entrance sealed with a large stone and guarded by Roman soldiers with little sympathy, verily, hostility for them. Theirs was a love that runs where the brave dare not go. Love that never leaves. Love that ever lives. Love that never dies. Love that raises the dead! For in their living love, Mary and Mary were the first to hear the Easter message, “He is risen!” and the first to see the risen Jesus.

Today, I pray we see that Mary and Mary could see Jesus because they, in their bearing-believing-hoping-enduring-all-things-love, mirrored and matched, embraced and embodied the love of a God who risks everything, even life itself, for our sake.

Today, I pray we, trusting that God’s love is already embodied in us by virtue of our creation –  whoever we are from wherever we come with whatever we believe – will see in the risen Jesus who we are by virtue of his salvation and, thus, that we are to be as he is, living incarnations of unconditional and universal love and justice in this world.

When we see, believe, know that, then not only can we say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” but also we are risen, indeed! Alleluia!

 

Illustration: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902). Note: Tissot portrays the women peering into the tomb, which is empty save for the presence of “an angel of the Lord” clad in white, who tells them, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here,  for he has been raised”, bidding that they, “Come, see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28.5, 6). (Although Matthew mentions that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb, Tissot depicts three women. I believe his biblical reference is Matthew 27.56, speaking of the women who had followed Jesus and witnessed his death: Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.) Also, the soldiers Pontius Pilate had dispatched to keep watch at the tomb (see Matthew 27.62-66) are depicted having reacted to the appearance of the angel, as Matthew recounts, For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men (28.4).

Footnotes:

[1] 1 Corinthians 13.7

[2] From The Impossible Dream from The Man from La Mancha; words by Joe Darion and Mitchell Leigh (1972)

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 39, Good Friday, April 14, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On Good Friday: O Jesus, through Your life and ministry, especially with the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the least and the last, all whom You claimed as first in the sight of Your Abba, Father, You confronted and convicted the status quo of power and privilege held in the hands of the few and lorded over the many.

For this, You, Love and Justice incarnate, by fear and hatred were condemned and crucified.

For this, You, Who welcomed all, were deceived by one of Your own with a betraying kiss from bitter lips, despised by those into whose hands You were led, denied and deserted by Your followers and, as You, from the Cross of Your suffering and dying, dared to cry out, by God.[1]

Crucifixion (1894), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

As the prophesied sword of anguish pierced the soul of the watching, weeping Blessed Mary, Your mother,[2] by the power of Your Spirit, erect and establish Your cross at the heart of my living, that I, dying to my selfish-self, never abandon You in the disenfranchised and dispossessed, the last and the least, the still constantly crucified of this world. Amen.

Pieta (c.1560), Luis de Morales (1512-1586)

 

Illustrations:

Crucifixion (1894), Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge (1831-1894)

Pieta (c.1560), Luis de Morales (1512-1586)

Footnotes:

[1] See Matthew 27.46 and Mark 15.34: And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Amidst his sorrow, sensing his abandonment by God, I take great heart that Jesus did not abandon, forsake, or otherwise forswear God. For Jesus, relying on scripture (Psalm 22.1; my emphasis), cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His abiding address to God as “my” I interpret as his bounden belief in and continued call upon the One in whom he placed his ultimate trust.

[2] See Luke 2.25-35 (especially verses 34-35, my emphasis): There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

eternal life today!

a sermon, based on John 11.1-45, Romans 8.6-11, and Ezekiel 37.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017

Lazarus is sick. His sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus.

At this point in John’s gospel about the marvelously magnanimous and miraculous Messiah, if I were reading it for the first time, to the question, “What would Jesus do?” I would expect him to rush to Bethany. But what does Jesus do? He delays! Two days! Then goes to Bethany, arriving after Lazarus has been in the grave four days, which is a biblical way of saying Lazarus is really dead![1] (Martha, later, speaks of the stench of her brother’s decaying body, which the King James Version renders more dramatically, “He stinketh!”)

The disconsolate sisters express their disappointment, “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus cries at the grave of his friend. Some bystanders say sympathetically, “He really loved Lazarus” and others, more skeptically, “Why couldn’t, why didn’t he save Lazarus?”

Jesus testifies that his love for Lazarus is a power greater than death. To Martha’s declaration of belief in the resurrection from the dead, Jesus responds with this momentous word, “I am resurrection!”

Raising of Lazarus, Alessandro Magnasco (1715-1740), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

This word, the opening exhortation of our burial rite,[2] expresses the heart of our Christian theology: Yes, we die, yet, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have eternal life.

Eternal life. Often understood as life after death, life beyond the grave, particularly in an exalted tranquil state of existence. Yet I say to you that eternal life is not only about dying with the hope that we will rise again like Lazarus, like Jesus on some future, everlasting tomorrow to dwell with God, but also to live with God today! When Jesus says, “I am resurrection and I am life,” he means now!

Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God – God’s life, the realm of God’s being and doing, God’s unconditional love and justice for all – is at hand.[3] Available today! Not only did Jesus come teaching, he came reaching out with arms of love to all in acts of justice for all.

This Jesus says, “I am resurrection and I am life” today!

This Jesus came to Bethany and comes to Laurens today! This Jesus comforted Mary and Martha and comforts us today!

This Jesus raised Lazarus and raises us today!

This Jesus loves us justly and just loves us today!

This Jesus lived and died and rose again to call us not merely to worship him, saying, “Lord, Lord,” but to follow and serve him as people of love and justice today![4]

As Christians, eternal life is not merely a matter of living and dying, then being raised from death to live forever. Eternal life is living life now filled with God’s Spirit.

So Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again!”[5]

Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

So Paul wrote to the Romans, “The Spirit is life…and the Spirit of God dwells in you.”

So God set Ezekiel down in the valley of dry bones. When Ezekiel prophesied to the bones, they came together – bone and sinew and flesh – but there was no life until God sent ruach, wind, breath, Spirit!

The vision of the valley of dry bones (1866), Gustav Doré (1832-1883)

God’s Spirit gives life. Spirit-filled life is God’s life. God’s life is eternal life. Therefore, we don’t have to wait until tomorrow on that “great gittin’ up mornin’” in heaven![6] We have eternal life today!

So, may this song be our daily prayer:

Breathe on (us), breath of God,

fill (us) with life anew,

that (we) may love what Thou dost love

and do what Thou wouldst do![7]

And:

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on (us).

Melt (us), mold (us), fill (us), use (us).

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on (us)![8]

 

Illustrations:

Raising of Lazarus, Alessandro Magnasco (1715-1740), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

The vision of the valley of dry bones (1866), Gustav Doré (1832-1883). Note: Doré depicts the resurrections of the dead in various stages of the reconstitution or re-membering of their bone, sinew, and flesh; in the foreground, skeletal remains and in the background, on the left, fully enfleshed figures. Note also Ezekiel silhouetted against the clouds.

Footnotes:

[1] According to an ancient Jewish belief, the soul stays near the body for three days after a person’s death, then departs, never to return to the body.

[2] I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord and I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord (The Burial of the Dead, Rite One and Rite Two, respectively, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 469 and 491).

[3] See Matthew 4.17 and Mark 1.15

[4] Here, I refer to Matthew 7.21: Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

[5] John 3.7

[6] A reference to the rousing Negro spiritual, In Dat Great Gittin’ Up Mornin’

[7] From the hymn, Breathe on me, Breath of God, verse 1; words by Edwin Hatch (1835-1889); my alterations

[8] From the hymn, Spirit of the Living God; words by Daniel Iverson (1890-1977); my alterations

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 12, Tuesday, March 14, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On following Jesus: O Jesus, You call me to follow You; in my life’s walk, setting the metaphorical feet of my mind and heart, soul and spirit only where You trod; being as You are and doing as You do with unconditional love and justice for all, at all times. O Jesus, You know how incomprehensible, how impossible this is for me! Because You are You and I am me with the unfathomably boundless distance between Your Being and mine. And because of the nature of the repentance, my repentance necessary in order to follow You; the repentance that is following You – daily, hourly, moment by moment turning away from my way toward You. This is incomprehensible, impossible for me concerning my conscious thoughts and feelings, intentions and actions, and still more inconceivably irresoluble regarding my unconscious self! O Jesus, knowing that I cannot do this, I pray, in Your Spirit, with the psalmist, “Have mercy on me, O God…and cleanse me from my sin”[1] and “cleanse me from my secret faults.”[2] And whilst I pray, by Your same Spirit, deepen my faith, my trust in You and Your salvation that I may know that I follow You not beseeching You to save me, but rather because You already have. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Psalm 51.1a, 2b

[2] Psalm 19.12b

what are you thinking?

ash-wednesday a sermon, based on Isaiah 58.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

“Is this the fast that I choose?”[1] The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people, declaring God’s word, really, God’s question.

For nearly seventy years, the Israelites were held captive in Babylon. Now, with the fall of the Babylonian Empire to the Persian army, the people, their liberation finally come, their hated exile over, return home. But their suffering in poverty and powerlessness continues. Their land, in ruins. Basic necessities, lacking. Neighboring nations, poised to strike.

israelites-return-to-their-homeland-1670-domenico-gargiulo-1609-1675The people, literally hungering and thirsting for God’s favor, fast – abstaining from food and drink, donning coarse sackcloth, smearing their faces with dust and ash; ancient, ritual signs of sorrow meant to get God’s attention.

But no relief comes. Because, Isaiah says, their fast, an external display of humility, is a mask for hypocritical, unchanged, selfish hearts. Even in poverty, some, less poor than others, seek to maintain whatever privilege they possess, which the poorer among them would wrest from their hands.

“Is this,” God, through the mouth of Isaiah, asks, truly, demands, “the fast that I choose?” Do you really believe that outward, ritual display without deeds of mercy, without common acts of common assistance to address common need satisfies My hunger for righteousness? Do you really believe that superficial religiosity, artificial piety reflects My kingdom, My community of love and justice? What are you thinking?

God’s people have sinned, “missing the mark”,[2] failing to fulfill God’s calling. However, this prophetic chastisement isn’t a negative job evaluation or a poor performance review. For the issue is not about doing, but being. Not about duty, but identity. The people have misunderstood not what they are to do, but who they are. They don’t have a mission to do God’s love and justice. Rather the God of love and justice has a people in whom that mission takes flesh, thus lives and labors.

So, Isaiah declares that an acceptable fast is deeds of mercy, which, when done, do not, will not, cannot gain the reward of God’s blessing, but rather are the signs that the people already are blessed by God, verily, are God’s blessing for others. Deeds of mercy do not, will not, cannot win salvation, but rather reflect that salvation already has come, verily, that the spirit of salvation, healing, wholeness “lives and moves and has its being”[3] among the people.

Thus, it does no violence to the text, indeed, it is to unearth its truth to change the word “then” to “when.”

Is not this the fast I choose?

To loose the bonds of injustice,

To undo the thongs of the yoke,

To let the oppressed go free,

To break every yoke?

To share bread with the hungry

To bring the homeless poor into the house

To cover the naked

To hide not from our sisters and brothers in need.

Again, not “then,” not if we do these things, this will be the result, but rather “when” we do these things it is a sign that already:

Our light breaks forth like the dawn,

Our healing arises speedily

God answers even before we call…

This is a biblical way of saying that we already have embraced, embodied the love and justice of God’s very nature.

So, this Lent, let us not do deeds of self-sacrifice, even self-denial. Rather let us be acts of mercy, particularly for those who are “other” than we.

Thus when God saith, “Is not this the fast that I choose?” verily, “Are not you the fast that I choose?” we will be able to answer, “Yes!”

 

Illustration: Israelites return to their homeland (1670), Domenico Gargiulo (1609-1675)

Footnotes:

[1] Isaiah 58.5a (emphasis mine). The Hebrew scripture appointed for the day is Isaiah 58.1-12.

[2] The word sin is derived from the Greek, ‘amartia, literally meaning “to miss the mark.” The image may be conceived as that of an archer whose arrows (symbolic of one’s life’s intentions, indeed, aims) land all places except the center of the target (of life, Who is God).

[3] Words from A Collect for Guidance, The Book of Common Prayer, page 100 (based on Acts 17.28)

witnessing to truth

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Isaiah 49.1-7 and John 1.29-42, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2016

isaiah-1896-1902-james-tissot

Over 2500 years ago, Isaiah spoke to the people Israel exiled in Babylon. Defeated, dispirited, they needed no prophetic word of correction, but rather consolation. In God’s name, Isaiah proclaimed, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

God recommissioned the people to be “a light to the nations,” the whole world, to witness to the truth that the quest for salvation, for prosperity and peace involved suffering and survival.

History, biblical, modern, and post-modern, confirms that our Jewish sisters and brothers – from their exodus from Egypt, through their sojourn in the Sinai wilderness, in the horror of the Holocaust, and unto this day when the bigotry of anti-Semitism still cries, “Christ-killers” – know the cost in suffering and the promise in survival of their witness to the world.

st-john-the-baptist-preaching-anastasio-fontebuoni-1571-1626-palatine-gallery-florence-italy

Over 2000 years ago, John the baptizer declared to the people around the River Jordan near Jerusalem what God was doing in Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John witnessed to the truth that the quest for salvation, for healing and wholeness involved sacrifice.

Jesus, through his life and ministry, seeking the least, last, and lost, proclaiming a radical return to the heart of the law of life – love God, love neighbor – and challenging the status quo of the selfish and unshared privilege of secular and religious powers and principalities, charted a course that wended its way to Calvary, ending on a sacrificial cross of crucifixion and death.

Today, we read the prophecies of Isaiah and John. Prophecies of witness. A witness to truth. A truth involving suffering and sacrifice.

“Witness” is derived from the Greek martus, bearing the same root of the word “martyr.” For to witness does not mean to behold a truth with physical sight, but to testify to it, always being prepared to walk toward and, if necessary, through death’s door.

Today, we read the prophecies of Isaiah and John in this weekend when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr.; celebrating his life, commemorating his legacy. Nearly fifty years ago, Martin prophesied, testifying to the truth that the American dream of universal equality and the opportunity to enjoy the Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”[1] was unfulfilled.[2] In bearing, in being that witness, Martin was murdered, martyred.

That prophecy, that dream remains unfulfilled. Today, America is a land where all cannot say, “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”[3] Where people still are judged not by the content of their character, but by their skin’s color, class status, sexual orientation, gender, or chosen creed; any, all of which able to determine the access or lack to the fullest range of life’s opportunities. Where abiding poverty in a land of abundant plenty still daily crushes the heart of hope. Where presidential candidates still play the “pokered cards” of race, class, and creed hoping to amass the winning number of electoral chips.

Yes, we have made progress. Speaking personally, I will be 65 this year and, in my lifetime, there was a time when I, as an African American cleric, would not have been the priest-in-charge of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, South Carolina; such was the reigning and restrictive racial divide in our society and in our church. Yet, as there remains much progress to be made, to paraphrase Robert Frost, there are promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.[4]

The bright beacon of Epiphany’s declaration that Jesus’ life and ministry of love and justice are for all people, for the whole world casts its searing, scathing light on the reality that the prophecy, the dream of the universality of equality remains unfulfilled.

ronald-stuart-thomas-photograph-by-christopher-barker

The late, great Ronald Stuart Thomas,[5] a Welsh Anglican cleric, is one of my favorite poets. His lucid, austere verse speaks deeply of common human emotions and experiences. In his poem, Judgment Day, Thomas expresses the regret of one who, like the rich man of Jesus’ parable, dead and entombed in Hades, looks up, too late recognizing those who in life were beneath him and thus he never saw:[6]

In health happy, (I was)

Careless of the claim

Of the world’s sick

Or the world’s poor.”[7]

The dream of the world’s least, last, and lost remains unfulfilled. In 2017, how will I, you, we respond so that the regret of Judgment Day never is ours?

 

Photographs:

me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006, by Walt Calahan

Ronald Stuart Thomas by Christopher Barker

Illustrations:

Isaiah (1896-1902), James Tissot

St. John the Baptist Preaching, Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626), Palatine Gallery, Florence, Italy

Footnotes:

[1] From The Declaration of Independence

[2] See The American Dream, Dr. King’s commencement address delivered at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania on June 6, 1961.

[3] The closing words of King’s I Have a Dream speech, delivered on August 28, 1963 as the keynote address of the March on Washington for Civil Rights.

[4] From the poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

[5] Ronald Stuart Thomas (1913-2000)

[6] See Luke 16.19-31

[7] From “Judgment Day” (my emendation), R. S. Thomas – Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix Giant, Orion Publishing Group, London, 1993), page 105