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Sermon from Lent 2

Lent 2    Gen 15:1-12, 17-18;Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35            2/21/2016

1. In 4th grade – when we studied state history – it was drilled into us that PA is a commonwealth, not a state, and that there are only three others in the US (MA, KY, VA). We were told that the title was a reminder that it was founded for the common good, not the benefit of a few.

In the Revised Standard Version of the Bible the word translated “citizenship” in the second lesson in our current New Revised Standard Version was translated “commonwealth.”  The Greek word, politeuma – from the root for “politics” – can mean either.  My Greek dictionary translates it as “a state, community.”

That makes me think the older translation of “commonwealth” – although archaic, is probably better. Webster defines “Commonwealth” as “the whole body of people united by common consent to form a politically organized community; a state conceived as founded on law and united by agreement of the people for the common good.”

2. In Phil 3, Paul writes about the Christian’s commonwealth or place of belonging. It is a text I recite at the committal of a body or cremains – we belong not to ourselves, nor to our government, but to God. Our commonwealth or citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body.  (This, by the way, is the reason we do not have national flags in the sanctuary – here we are citizens of heaven.) Our minds are not to be on earthly things – what we can see and touch – but on the savior who comes from heaven bringing God’s kingdom, and on that kingdom.

In the first lesson today, Abram is dissatisfied with his present life. Although he is rich and successful he has no heir through whom the promise of many descendants that God made can be fulfilled. So he is invited to worship God – to sacrifice an offering to God – and to hear the promise renewed. God makes a covenant with Abram that not only will he have many descendants, but that they will possess the land from Egypt to the Euphrates.  But this is a promise about the future, something for which Abram will look forward the rest of his life.  Even once he has an heir, he will to trust that the promise of many descendants will be fulfilled far in the future – that his commonwealth is with God in the future of God’s rule, not in the present.

3. Jesus, in his lament over Jerusalem, echoes this idea of where our good – our well-being – is to be found, as this gospel foreshadows the last Sunday of Lent, Passion Sunday: “Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”(Lk 13:34)

Even though Jesus is working against the power of evil now in his casting out demons and healing, it is on the third day – of his resurrection – that he will finish that job. His death and resurrection in Jerusalem (and also his triumphal entry) are foreshadowed in the words: “you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”   In the meantime he is going to be about the work God sent him to do even if it leads to his death. His commonwealth is in heaven.

4. When our minds are set on earthly things we easily fall into the trap of believing, as did Jesus’ hearers, that the way things are is the way they should be – that God agrees with us and is completely pleased with us. But Lent, with its emphasis on repentance –  turning around, changing direction – and these texts are here today to disabuse us of that notion.

The first step in repentance is acknowledging that the way things are in this world is never quite what God has in mind, never quite the kingdom of God which is coming in the future. If we are comfortable and satisfied with this world as it is, we are easily seduced into tolerating evil.  It takes repentance for us to see how we cooperate with evil.  It takes repentance for us to be open to the messengers God sends to bring words we do not want to hear, but words we need for a change of heart and direction. Sometimes those messengers are quite unexpected.

5. At the start of WW II in Eisiskes, Lithuania, the Jews were rounded up by SS units and its Lithuanian auxiliary and driven to the Jewish cemetery. There they were lined up in front of a previously dug trench,  ordered to strip, and then shot.  A 16 year-old boy, Zvi Michalowski, fell into the trench unharmed before bullets killed those with him (including his father). He waited in the trench under the other bodies until nightfall and then crawled out.

Naked and covered with blood he went to a nearby peasant house. The resident chased him away with the words “Jew, go back to the grave where you belong.” He went to several other houses with the same result, and then to the home of an old widow that he knew who lived at the edge of the forest. She too drove him off, grabbing a firebrand and waving it before him as if exorcizing a demon.

In despair he went back to the widow’s home and said to her: “I am your Lord, Jesus Christ. I have come down from the cross. Look at me – the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent.”  This time she crossed herself, and fell on her knees.  She took him in, washed and fed him for the three days he had requested, at which point he was able to join partisans in the forest and survived the war. (The Holocaust, Martin Gilbert)

6. The widow’s response was a religious one. She recognized the truth in the boy’s words, that in him the Lord was coming to her. She recognized him as included with her in the commonwealth of God -that she was getting a glimpse of the savior she was awaiting. She knew her citizenship was not only here but also in heaven, otherwise she would not have risked her life in this world by taking him into her house.

May we, unlike the residents of Jerusalem, be so open to repentance – to turning around, changing direction – that we too can recognize the presence of Christ in the imperfect messengers he sends to us. May our minds not be set -fixed – on earthly things but on the one who comes in the name of the Lord. May we recognize our true citizenship in heaven, in the commonwealth of God, and pray “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Truth and Numbers

Truth and Numbers

I’ve just finished skimming through the Muhlenberg College Annual Report 2013-2014.  I am proud to be a Mule, a 1971 graduate of this fine institution of higher education.  I’m even prouder that my alma mater has grown in excellence in all things since I left its beautiful confines.

I’m reminded of this every time I read a Muhlenberg publication.  This time I started by reading College President Peyton Helm’s article called “Raters of the Liberal Arts: Pick Your Poison.”  President Helm discusses the current craze for outside institutions and publications to rate colleges and universities ranging from the sublime, like Top Liberal Arts Colleges, to the ridiculous, like Colleges Most Obsessed with Squirrels.

Then he reminds readers that what they are about to experience in looking through the glossy annual report, packed with gorgeous photos and dauntingly good statistics, is that all of this really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that people are educated by the school and our society is bolstered by its graduates.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story.

This is a difficult truism for those of us who have dedicated our lives to the Church of Jesus Christ.  It is normally our deep longing, our compulsion, for the Church to grow beyond all expectations, to our buildings to burst at the seams as they are magnify the Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in praise and service.

And just this week the Roman Catholics in New York City announced that they would close dozens of churches.  Our Synod struggles continually to aid congregations to not only keep their doors open, but also to stay relevant to the mission of the Gospel in our various contexts.  But then I need to ask, how do you measure these things?  What marks a ministry as successful?

Business tells us that the stronger the profit is the more successful the institution is.  The arts tell us that the more that the art is consumed (museum visitors, concert goers, etc.) the more successful the enterprise is.

Jesus tells us that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is there.  Seems like that’s ultimate success.  Having the Lord of Life in your midst.

Not that this is an easy thing for me.  I will always hold on to the wish, the deep desire, to see pews packed with eager worshippers, because I know that what we do together shapes us, forms us, molds us, as nothing else can do, making us God’s loved children and emissaries in continually evolving, ever-new ways.

So for me there’s a balance to be struck.  Like the faculty and administration of Muhlenberg College we strive for excellence at Holy Trinity.  But like their President, we need to be reminded that the ultimate goal is not numbers.  It is praise.

 It is life lived in the heart of God.

When The News Turns Bad

When The News Turns Bad

“It feels like everything is imploding.”  I forget which one of us said it, but the other quickly agreed.  I was talking to a clergy colleague about…things…this morning, a gloomy day in Manhattan when the news seems to be continually, irreversibly bad.

Certainly we have been consumed with angst, worry, horror at the hideous drama that is Ferguson.  People’s lives being tossed around as if they are nobodies.  A sense of home challenged beyond all understanding.  Terrible acts of humiliation.  Lies, deceit, the evil goes on and on.

Speaking of which, do I need to write about ISIS?   Or about Ebola, not only in Africa, but also in Texas?  Enough said.

But the Church, isn’t the Church an island of peace and hope and joy?  What a wonderful thing that would be.  Sitting at 65th and Central Park West, let’s say, an oasis of otherness in the midst of the stormy world.

Church, however, is an expression of the Body of Christ.  And the Body of Christ is people.  Therein lies the rub.  This has been drawn to the attention of the nation in the last few days following 8 of the 11 full-time faculty at the General Theological Seminary, the only official church wide seminary of the Episcopal Church, located in Chelsea between 20th and 21st Streets finding themselves without teaching positions.  The conflict?  All too human.  The Dean and President, along with the Board of Trustees, in battle with the faculty.  I know on whose side I stand, but that’s not the point of this essay.  The point is that all is human, all is too, too human in our world.

I find myself looking at the stock market machinations today, a thing I do too often.  At the moment down by 187.46.  Ugh!  The rich and certainly getting far richer than ever, but those of us in the middle class are finding it more and more difficult to meet our obligations, let alone be generous with our resources.  We fear.  And there is no comfort in the markets, at least not for me.

Imploding.

Of course, I preach and teach and write often about the amazing riches that have been given to us.  I still hold to that.  But those riches are not emotions. They are things.  Right?

Jesus talks about these things in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Matthew 21:33-46.  A landowner invested heavily yin a vineyard and it was successful.  So successful, in fact, that his workers repeatedly killed those who tried to harvest the grapes for the landowner.  They wanted that riches themselves.  So after they have killed numerous people from the landowner’s cohort, including his son, the landowner had had enough.  He had all of his workers murdered.  It sounds like the classic story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.  But look at it this way: all of life is imploding.  No one wins.  The workers are dead, their families starve, the landowner’s son is dead and he is left with a depleted staff and a harvest full of emptiness.

 Thanks be to God, there is hope: After they have heard this ugly parable Jesus tells his listeners that those who have been rejected can look to the One who was rejected, Jesus himself.

It’s a difficult parable, but it’s one whose message is big and bold and bright: trust above anything, anyone else in God’s love for us in Christ Jesus and all will be well.  And allow yourself to concentrate on producing the fruits of the kingdom of God.  Mercy, justice, peace, happiness, wholeness of spirit even when our bodies are besieged, wholeness of community even when our beliefs are assailed, wholeness of the future, even when it looks least possible.

Produce the fruits of the kingdom by building relationships, respecting others, especially those who are difficult or different.  And work for equality in every sense of the word.  Listen.  Listen actively by reflecting and learning and lowering defenses.

You can do it because God in Christ is present with you.  The world will not implode, as it seems.  “‘The stones that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the LORD’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes!’”