Sunday, February 9, 2020 – A Shrinkage Problem

Sermon “A Shrinkage Problem”. Sunday, February 9, 2020. Trinity Church, Newport RI. The Reverend Alan Neale

Below the sermon audio is the sermon text, basically what was preached in the pulpit! This was a moving sermon for me to reflect upon and to preach. The Gospel hymn spoke of “the heart” and I chose “Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to thy accord” as the sermon response instead of the creed.

 

 

A sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday February 9th, 2020. The Reverend Alan Neale, “A Shrinkage Problem”

Psalm 112:8 “Their heart is established and will not shrink” (Coverdale Version, not in any of the traditional translation s of the Bible [I researched more than twenty!] but the Coverdale Version… but more of that anon).

Psalm 112:8 “Their heart is established and will not skrink.”

I worked in retail for only a few years in between colleges and during summer months (and somehow the UK retail industry survived; I reflect now with amazement that in one large store I was put in charge of kitchen cabinets and in a central London store I was in charge of their boating department – those poor customers, I knew nothing at all about the wares I was charged to sell).

It was during that time that I came across what is a significant problem in the retail industry – it is called the shrinkage problem. One retail magazine had this quotation: “In the retail world, shrinkage, or shrink, is the term used to describe a reduction in inventory due to shoplifting; employee theft; administrative errors such as record keeping, pricing, and cash counting; and supplier fraud. … While retailers have to factor loss into their bottom line, it is a costly problem for all.”

Well, in 1535, Myles Coverdale presented the first complete Bible in English to King Henry VIII. Friends, for no reason at all (that I can find) he introduced the word “shrink” into my text and ever since then it has been repeated in every Anglican Prayer Book including our own 1979 Book of Common Prayer. I contacted two learned clergy on Aquidneck Island and asked for their explanation; one said simply “there’s no answer to your question” and the other “it is the way it has always been”!

Well, Bishop Myles Coverdale, today I thank you for your unique translation; your decision (I pray prompted by the Spirit of God) seized my attention as I read the lengthy passages for today… your decision has caused me to reflect on the “clear and present danger” (thank you, Supreme Court) before all of us spiritual people… doing our best as we journey on our path to prevent “shrinkage of the heart”.

Looking at Psalm 118 I see three warning indicators that presage the onset of “heart shrinkage”.

A shrinking heart is limited in scope (verses 1-3)
A shrinking heart is rarely exercised (verses 4-5, 9)
A shrinking heart is self-sufficient (verses 7-8)

A shrinking heart is limited in scope. The Psalmist begins by encouraging his readers to “fear the Lord”. This is no craven, timorous, pusillanimous creeping before the Lord but an awesome awareness of the majesty of God; remember in our Eucharistic prayer we are those made bold to stand before God, to approach (Hebrews 4:16) the throne of grace with confidence. The Psalmist speaks of the vastness of God’s presence and blessing not only throughout space but also throughout time. A shrinking heart spends little time exploring the vastness of God and God’s creation, love and grace; perhaps untaught, perhaps badly taught it finds sanctuary only in the most secret corner.
Compare these words that I heard in the Senate Chamber this past week (words quoted from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s speech on May 30th, 1884): “Above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart” – a mighty heart forged in the vastness of opportunity before it.

A shrinking heart is rarely exercised. In today’s Psalm the reader is given the most bountiful of examples to follow, of patterns to emulate, of models to imitate… be merciful and compassionate (v.4), be generous and just (v.5), give freely to the poor. Perhaps through fear or memories of abuse, the shrinking heart looks not for opportunities to serve but rather opportunities to hold tightly and in that very experience of lack of generosity… it faces the challenge of heart shrinkage… more and more… and more. Years ago I remember a fairly new member to a church I served, agreed fairly readily to become stewardship chair (not the most sought after ministries in the church). I was moved not only by Richard’s willingness but also by this simple motto, adage, maxim that shaped his approach to stewardship. He said, “I believe people at best aspire to generosity.” Four decades of parish ministry have left me a little jaded and cynical but his clarion call often returns to me, “Remember at their best people aspire to generosity.” This is the stuff and experience that makes for growing hearts; its absence leading to heart shrinkage. This week I came across what I thought to be a moving quotation from St. Augustine (not found in some weighty tome but in a Richard Cornwell novel!) – “I did not love but I yearned to love.” A shrinking heart knows neither to love nor even to yearn to love.

A shrinking heart is self-sufficient. There are those shrinking, tender, feeble hearts that have been so wounded in their past that they prefer not to stretch out and ask for help; their abused vulnerability becomes now the excuse or rationale for their shrinkage. The heart that extends, the heart that expands, the heart that enlarges is the heart that accepts the vocation to ask for help, to “put trust in the Lord”, this is the heart that is established (vv. 7-8).
Recently I received a letter from a friend who not been in contact for many months, he has suffered much anguish in these past months. He realized it was time to reach out (rather like the Prodigal Son who “comes to his senses” and returns home Luke 15:17). I was intrigued by the Freudian spelling error as the letter opened, “Farther Neale” – “father” spelt “farther”. Yes, for too long we had been too far apart.

Since last April I have rarely talked at length about the “seven cardiac arrests” I suffered and the ensuing road I trudged towards recovery; I learned profoundly what I had never learned through decades of pastoral ministry and years of study – that a heart once damaged takes a long time to heal and it affects the whole person and their dearest. For weeks my world became smaller and smaller, this is the way I wanted it but it caused my heart to shrink. For weeks I teetered on the brink of self-absorption and missed opportunities to exercise my heart in acts and words of generosity. And for weeks I closed the shutters and barred the doors… so worn out by days of total dependence upon others that I, I thought, I could do it no more. Thank God for a dear and loving wife who ultimately cajoled me into inviting others to come sit, talk and walk with me.

Friends, physically or spiritually (and I sense the line is thin) we need take care to prevent heart shrinkage as people and as a community – for this the world is hungry. Let this me our prayer (Psalm 119:32) “Lord, enlarge my heart.” AMEN

Sunday, February 2, 2020 – The Presentation of our Lord

THE PRESENTATION OF OUR LORD — February 2, 2020

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

The past few weeks we have had some wonderful lessons about being called into servant ministry.  We have seen and heard Jesus in his encounters with Andrew and Simon Peter, and with James and John.  I would have liked to speak about those calls, but we needed to look back to 2019 to remember where we have been and to assess how much growth and healing we have experienced together.  Our Wardens and Treasurer spoke profoundly about the life of and in this parish and all the ways we have been blessed by the Holy Spirit.  It was a good celebration topped off by a tasty lunch.  I don’t play the violin, yet this image came to me this week: serving among you is like playing a Stradivarius, and I rejoice greatly in that and in you.

Today I want to look forward with you as continue moving the search for a new rector for Trinity.  We have done the Portfolio which describes us, and now the Vestry and the Search Committee have to look ahead at what we are being called to by the Holy Spirit, those things that we definitely must continue because they are part of the essence of who we are, and those new ministries that may be on the horizon, especially those for which a new rector may have the skills to lead us.

I am especially mindful of this right now because this past weekend the Diocese of Minnesota elected its next bishop—#10.  I am #8.  I did not read much about the candidates before the election, because I did not want to have an opinion when friends from the diocese contacted me.

I remember years ago saying to a priest who was retiring and trying to hand pick his successor: “if you were getting a divorce, would you try to choose your wife’s next husband for her?”  He took some offense at that.  I took offense at his actions; because in my role it was always important to prevent an end run around the Holy Spirit.  The reason dioceses are generally pretty firm in setting the guidelines for the search process is because that way the Holy Spirit has a chance and no individual or small group can hijack or manipulate the process.   A bishop does not try to control the outcome—that choice is between the congregation and the Holy Spirit.

There are two types of call.  One is what we term vocation, when someone is called to be a deacon or a priest or a lawyer or a baker or a plumber or just about anything.  When one discovers his or her true vocation life can be tremendously fulfilling and meaningful.  Some people may be tremendously gifted at something, but it does not feel like a vocation to them, yet they may be wise enough to find a hobby that serves as their vocation.  One definition for this type of vocation is when the spirit of the work and the spirit of the person come together.  That meeting is usually the work of the Holy Spirit.  That’s what happened to Andrew and Peter and James and John and so many others in scripture and ever since.

Sometimes a vocation is so strong that others see it.  When someone sees this in a child as Simeon and Anna do with Jesus, we consider them prescient, which is a way of knowing something that is only beginning to emerge.  Simeon has been told that he will not die before he sees the Lord’s Messiah, and when he takes Jesus into his arms, he is overwhelmed, and utters the words that we now call the Nunc Dimittis, “Master, you are dismissing your servant in peace, as you promised, for my eyes have seen your salvation, your light, your revelation and your glory.”  It is a holy moment for him.

It is also a holy moment for Anna who tells everyone this child is the one who will redeem Jerusalem.  We see this happen again at Jesus’ baptism when the dove descends on him and a voice sounds out from heaven, and again at his transfiguration when he is turned dazzlingly bright and has a vision of Moses and Elijah that is so real and so powerful that Peter, James and John see it, too.  And they, too, hear God speaking to them: “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

The other type of call is to a particular ministry in a particular place.  There were some very fine candidates for bishop in Minnesota, but what became evident in the walkabout when they spoke in front of different groups all over that huge state, was that one of them was being moved by the land and the history of the Episcopalians there.  People saw and heard that happening to him, just as Simeon and Anna saw the Spirit in Jesus.  He was elected.  In a diocese that has been in ministry with Native Americans since before it was incorporated, we were all sensitive to the land we lived on, because the Native Americans taught us how to love it.  Minnesota has for years had the finest Department of Natural Resources in the country; I believe it is because of that heritage.  We were also made aware that the rest of us are all descended from immigrants, so the diocese continues to broaden its cultural heritage.   During the 17 years I was there we added Hispanic ministry, ministry with and among Liberians, with Somalis, with the Karen people from northern Thailand, and in 2006 we confirmed and received 275 people into The Episcopal Church who came originally from Viet Nam.  They have become the first Hmong congregation in the Anglican Communion.  It was a powerful Spirit-led experience for so many in the diocese, because so many contributed their money and their prayers, and over 800 people were in the cathedral for that confirmation liturgy.

The month before the first group of Hmong knocked on one of our church doors, I had said to the Diocesan Council that we could not start any more special ministries or missions because they were already fifty per cent of our budget, more, I think, than any other diocese in TEC.  Well, the next month I went back to the Council and said, “Do you remember what I said last month?  Well, forget it.  What do we do when the Holy Spirit dangles a mission opportunity like this right in front of us?  We have to say ‘yes.’”  And we did.

That is true for us at Trinity.  I think it was the Holy Spirit that dangled the opportunity to partner with Newport Community School and Seaman’s Institute.  What else do we need to be open to right now?  Clearly, we need to do something among ourselves to be more open to and inclusive of children, and we have to start from the bottom up, with the children we have, and then add on the grades above as our children grow up.  What we discern about missions and ministry during the next four months will greatly shape the picture of the skills we need in the next rector.  Clearly, we need someone who can work collaboratively and openly with others, who enjoys being with and teaching children and teaching others how to teach children, and who has a heart for evangelism—and the ability to help all of you incorporate new members into this church community.  That’s a start; I am sure there will be more.

I describe this second type of vocation/call as a meeting of the spirit of the community and the spirit of a priest, and we might add, the spirit of the place.  Trinity Church is definitely a place.  Its walls have been prayed up many times over during these 294 years.  Trinity has the aura of sanctity from the faith of those who have gone before and are undergirding us in our faith and at the same time encouraging and calling us from beyond.  Never doubt that the Holy Spirit has been and is here.

May I go in a slightly different direction to look at what goes on inside a person who is considering another ministry?  Many years ago, after serving in a very large parish in Memphis, I thought it was time to be open to a call to another ministry.  Our rector, the best mentor I ever had, shared with me an old adage about seeking and listening to a “call.”  The adage goes like this:

“If the rewards are clear and the call is vague, watch out!  The devil is lurking.”

Conversely, “If the rewards are vague and the call is clear, watch out! The Spirit is stalking.”

My friends, this has served me wonderfully well over the past fifty years, and with good spiritual directors to keep me true and honest, I can say that I believe I was truly called to serve where I have been.  I have a few gifts, so I knew people might want me to serve among them, but I was always trying to listen to why God might want me to serve among them.  I found early on that one learns more clearly that a call is from the Holy Spirit when one is able to do difficult things in a given ministry.  We clergy want a congregation that is easy to love, just as you want that in a priest.  Yet congregations need someone they can deeply trust to be there for their greatest good.  That takes a lot of prayer and introspection in the life of a priest, the ability to say “I’m sorry,” the ability to forgive—not just at the Absolution, but in the daily-ness of our relationships, and the ability to bless, not just with the words of the Benediction, but in the way the priest affirms individuals and brings them together in spiritual bonds.

I urge you to step up your prayers on behalf of the Search Committee and the Vestry, that they may grow in their ability to see the Spirit in people.  And I urge you to pray for those people yet unknown to us who are considering us as a flock whom they might serve among.  And remember, no priest is perfect, so we are looking not for the perfect shepherd, but for a good shepherd.  Amen.

+James L. Jelinek, Interim Rector                                                                                                                                                                                                               Trinity Church, Newport

 

 

Epiphany III – Sunday, January 26, 2020

THE THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY 2020

ANNUAL PARISH MEETING

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

 

I would like to do something a little different this morning.  As usual, I will refer to today’s scriptural readings, but I want to talk about the State of the Parish in terms of it.  And because I am talking about us as a body, I shall not name any names in the sermon.  I shall thank particular people for their ministries and leadership at Trinity during the meeting itself.

 

The priest in charge of my parish back home was visiting me last week with his wife because each of us are good friends.  Some of you met David and Marilyn in church or at coffee hour, and they felt very welcome.

 

We clergy talk shop a lot, and during one of our conversations the subject of annual meetings came up.  David shared something he did at his first annual meeting of his former parish, some twenty years ago.  His predecessor had not served them well, and they were a pretty wounded bunch when David became rector.  That day he passed out copies of the lessons, one lesson per table, but each lesson at two or three tables.  He asked them to look at the lesson in front of them and then try to describe in biblical terms what they thought they were about at that time in the parish’s life. The most memorable response he got was from a long-time parishioner who was currently serving on the Vestry.  The man stood up and said, “I guess we are mending the nets.”

 

“Mending the nets!”  Isn’t that an apt description of what a parish needs to do in a time of healing?  I think that’s what you were doing this past spring and summer before I arrived and also since then with all the “koinonia” events.  You were weaving people together, as they chose to venture out of their homes.  You were not tying people up, but loosely gathering each other in warm and rich fellowship that continued to grow deeper throughout the year.  I saw it happening among you.  You got to know people you had never talked with before even though some of them sat only three boxes away in church for the past year.  And as you met each other, you grew to like and enjoy each other.

 

I noticed this at coffee hours which lasted longer and longer as we stood on the walkway with the restored fountain gurgling merrily behind us.

 

I noticed this in meetings, especially, for when I first arrived when new ventures were discussed, there was some suspicion and distrust in some of the voices, as if some might be trying to get over on others.  I think the Portfolio Committee had a lot to do with changing that.  They worked so hard writing descriptions of the parish from so many angles and then they invited you to chew on them.  Some were chewed up.  But they took your comments seriously and made changes reflecting the conversations.  They did this not just once, but three or four times, and each time they re-wrote those descriptions.  When the so-called deadline for submission to the diocese came near, they shared it one more time with the parish and then the Vestry, and you as a parish seemed to love it.  The Profile had become your document, not just the Committee’s, and that is entirely due to the transparency they practiced—maybe the first such experience of that here in some time.

 

You mended a lot of nets in October, when so many of you volunteered as you were able to serve in the Pumpkin Patch.  Many of you talked about how much joy and delight it brought you, especially watching the children’s eyes grow in wonder——soooo many pumpkins, soooo many goodies, and the oh-so-lovely Cinderella in her magic coach.  This brought neighbors in from Newport and the island and tourists from all over the world.  I wonder how many other churches are planning to try a Pumpkin Patch this coming fall.

 

You were mending nets when you brought the parish and our friends together for the Silver Tea and the preview party.  It was truly a feast of goodies, some to eat here and some to take home, and the best goody of all, good conversation and laughter.

 

We have a group here whose net-mending is historical—our many guides who celebrate our lovely church, sharing historical events and stories both about the building and some of what has happened here over three centuries.  When I watched visitors leave after a guided tour, everyone seemed to be wearing a smile or looked awe-struck by what they had just seen and experienced.

 

Very importantly, we have a long-standing and revolving group of volunteers called TLC—Trinity Loving Care.  I think that is the most thorough, most loving, most widespread group of pastoral volunteers I have ever seen.  They were mending nets constantly.  Every time one of them helped someone else, you reminded that person that no matter how confined s/he was by age or infirmity, s/he still belongs, is remembered and is cared for.   People who are shut-in at Trinity are not shut out.

 

Of course there are the many among us who volunteer to help and serve the Community Meal, a net-mending ministry we do at the heart of Newport for the sake of others.  A story: perhaps a dozen years ago one of our seminarians had formerly been a professor and, naturally, she liked to do most things in her head—nothing wrong with that but I wanted her to stretch a bit, to learn how to do ministry with her heart as well.  So one year I insisted that her field education should be at a local parish’s soup kitchen.  She volunteered, begrudgingly, and was certainly not happy with me.  Well, God is so good.  On her first evening there, another professional woman came in from her work, still handsomely dressed. As she was putting on her apron, she said to the seminarian, “I love to come here every week, because you never know what face Jesus will wear this time!”  I heard that story from the seminarian who told me that moment changed her whole attitude.  I tell the story because that woman putting on her apron so expectantly reminds me of you who volunteer.  It is one thing to serve and treat PLUs (People Like Us).  It is altogether different to serve those we do not think are like us.  But when we serve often enough we learn that they are JLUs—Just Like Us.

 

One consistent and committed group of net-menders here is the Vestry.  They encourage us all, challenge us, and witness to hope and trust.  They invest themselves—tons of time, talent and treasure, and it shows.  There have been differences between them, but when the net has unravelled or broken, they address each other and the problem with care and concern and, I believe, in love.  They do their mending.  And as they have gotten closer, trust has grown among them, and I think that has led the rest of us to trust them all the more.  During the recent budget process, which some have described as the most thorough and transparent in recent memory, they discussed values and priorities before they got to the budget itself, and then they went over every single line item so they are all clear about how we are steward’s of God’s money.  They have listened to you throughout the year, and the budget reflects the parish as a whole.

 

We can do so much more this year because you have all grown so much in stewardship.  Pledges are up over 25%, which is rare in any parish in any year, and almost unheard of during a time of transition.  I have been quite blunt and matter of fact in talking about money and our need to be more responsible, and instead of getting upset, you expressed gratitude for getting a clear picture of where we are.

 

At our meeting later I will thank the team of net-menders with whom I serve daily, our parish staff.

 

Personally, I am grateful to those who help shape and teach in our Sunday School.  I have left this for last because this is my single biggest concern as we move ahead.  We need more teachers—not just the parents of our children.  And we need more children.  In this case more means richer: richer relationships, richer learning, and richer community.  This has to be the number one priority as Trinity moves ahead.

 

Lastly, I want to tell you what joy it is to serve among you, and Ezekiel (EZ), my poodle, tells me it is a joy for him too.  I thank God for restoring me from some serious health problems and a total lack of energy a year ago, so that I can try to serve you well, because you need and deserve that.  I have seen the Spirit’s work among us and I am so very glad and joyful.

 

Mending the nets is an on-going concern.  Sometimes they break and sometimes they just wear out.  Like the laundry, mending the nets is never done.  But I think we have sufficiently caught up with the much-needed mending that we may offer our praise and gratitude to God.

 

And now, let’s go fishing!  Fishing for people!  We are ready!  Amen.

+James L. Jelinek, Interim Rector

“Aha!” – Sunday January 5, 2020

This Sunday there were three Gospel stories from which to choose; I think many came to church expecting the “wise men” Gospel from Matthew but instead I chose the story from Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus is separated from his parents without their knowledge. Eventually he is found… but, amazingly, in the Temple in deep conversation with religious and theological leaders. Quite a few “aha” moments flying around.
The basic text for the sermon is underneath the sermon audio.

 

 

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport, RI; Sunday January 5th 2020 The Reverend Alan Neale; “‘Aha’”

It is our Greek friend Archimedes whose name is linked forever with moments of sudden discovery; sometimes called “aha” moments. The story goes that the king wanted Archimedes to discern whether his crown was made of gold. For many days Archimedes fretted about an answer until one famous day when, while taking a bath, he realizes the solution and then, allegedly, leaps from his bath and runs through the streets naked shouting “Eureka – I’ve found it”. Truly a quintessential “aha” moment.

Our minds but more especially our spirits (because they are eternal) can be laboratories for such discoveries though running around wet and naked are not crucial to the task, rarely required.

I think one “aha” moment occurred for the world to see when, a few days ago, there was a papal “hand swat” when Pope Francis (jerked backwards by an ardent fan) slapped a woman’s hand and clearly looked either in pain or disgruntled or both. This was an “aha” moment as we recognized, what we really should already know to be true, that the Pope (any Pope) is human and subject to human failings. Thank God, the “aha” moment continued the next day when the Pope made public apology to the woman. In a few hours we were propelled into seeing the humanity but also the Christian nature of the man.

I believe that today’s Gospel from Luke 2 shows evidence of “aha” moments both for Jesus and for his parents.

Verse 42 sets the scene for these crucial revelations: “42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.” There is much to be said for us to develop habits of worship, of prayer, of meditation, of service, of giving… to do such things “as usual”. The habitual does not war against the spontaneous, the known does not dampen the revelatory… a regular practice, “as usual”, is the good soil for us to discover and receive new truths about ourselves, about God and about our relationship with God.

And so the twelve year old boy, traveling as usual to Jerusalem, loses track of time and purpose; I feel confident that it was not Jesus’ intent to cause his parents distress and alarm but something happened, maybe something like an “aha” moment, that led him back to the temple… but not only that, led him into the center of theological discussion “46 He was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

Here surely was an “aha” moment that was going to shape the life and thinking and purpose of Jesus!

Mary and Joseph were subject to two “aha” moments in this precious Gospel story. Listen to Luke: “43 After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him.” “When they did not find him” – here is surely one of the most poignant “aha” moments; when our assumptions that God is with us, on our side, defending our prejudices are shaken and we realize “we have left Him behind”. Or when we come to realize that years of faithful church attendance have somehow left us without a vital and authentic experience of God and assurance of God’s love and grace.

The second revelation for the parents was when they entered the temple and observed this miraculous, strange scene of their twelve year old son in deep and fruitful conversation with religious leaders. Their first reaction was more than understandable: “48When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” But then comes the “aha” moment as Jesus tries to help them understand, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house, doing my Father’s business.”

We are told the parents did not really understand but nevertheless the family was reunited, Jesus leaves the temple willingly and resumes his dutiful relationship with Mary and Joseph.

And Luke concludes the story with these words, “52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” What we see in the temple is not a fait accomplait, it is not a completed work, a done deed… what we see in the Temple gives strength and energy to continue to work of growth in wisdom and stature.

This Gospel story urges me to renew a commitment to regularity in prayer, worship, reading, service and giving; this Gospel story encourages me to look for those moments of revelation when I see/experience more deeply God’s love and grace for me and for others.

At the end of the story of the wise men (Matthew 2:12) we read that they returned home a different way, maybe indicating in part they returned home different people.

We can be sure that Jesus, Mary and Joseph returned home to Nazareth a different way, a different people. What they had seen and heard would help to begin changes in their lives that would affect them so very deeply.

Let us be bold and expect, ask the Lord to offer us moments of new revelation and deep understanding so that we will return to work, to family, to living… “by a different way”.

AMEN

“Awesome Beginnings” -Sunday, December 29, 2019

 

Today’s Gospel is the phenomenal, breath-taking, theologically explosive reading of John 1:1-14. Oh sermons could be preached on this Gospel without end (of number, or of time). I preached on what I thought was prominent for the time though, in the preparation, I mused a lot on the absence/discouragement of poignancy in our lives… perhaps because it makes us all a little more sensitive and fragile (oh dear, God forbid!). After such a long gap, it was a blessing to preach again.

The text is below the sermon audio.

 

 

Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport, RI
Sunday December 29 2019
The Reverend Alan Neale
“Awesome Beginnings”

I think with our familiarity with today’s Gospel, we easily forget the jolt it brought to its first readers. “In the beginning” was a phrase that had resonated throughout centuries and hundreds of scrolls but it was known to read as such “In the beginning God created…”. Now there is a new beginning, well what seems a new beginning, as the Gospel thunders with these opening words, “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.

Here is the most simple of commixing Hebrew and Greek thought… the former with the emphasis on person, the latter with emphasis on reason.

Although in a sense it is all so artificial we all face a new beginning as New Year’s Eve clocks strike twelve and 2020 begins. This time last year Wendy and I were anticipating 2019 with great joy and excitement especially as we planned a visit to UK, Vietnam and Cambodia… we knew not what the rest of 2019 would bring. This year, looking to a new beginning, Wendy and I are a little anxious (mindful of recent events) but John 1:1 is an encouragement… In the beginning, in every beginning, there is the person and purpose of God…

In fact I believe the whole of today’s Gospel brings to each of us a reasonable and sure hope for the year to come as we reflect on the poignancy, the proximity and the power of God.

Poignancy. Listen to these verses from the Gospel: “He was in the world, the world came into being through him, yet he was unknown by the world. He came to what was his own and his own people did not receive him.” Here surely is one of the most poignant stories… of a son rejected by his father, of a community no longer able to survive economically, of excess wealth displayed in television advertising as children sit at home with barely enough to eat and surely little expectation of bright new toys. I think the Gospel should move us to experience this strange sensation of poignancy more often… of course we battle it as we ignore, or deflect or muffle it but maybe our experience of poignancy makes us malleable to love and to serve the Lord. And when we are most overcome ourselves by a weighty sense of poignancy, we can take heart… God knows!

Proximity. Listen to what I can only describe as a bombshell in religious literature… John 1:14 “And the Word became flesh… and lived among us.” Bishop Temple described Christianity as “the most materialistic of all religions”’ and Lord George McLeod once commented on this verse “Matter matters”. The world is alive, vibrant with this truth… and as this finds a home deep in our being so we cannot look on others, on ourselves, on any situation as godless, hopeless, beyond redemption, beyond the pale. This time of the year is often a time for reflection, for the inward journey and in that journey we will discover hopes and fears, secrets and skeletons – friends, nothing we discover, nothing that we have tried to hide is beyond the touch of God… The Word became flesh… everything, even that which draws us from the love and service of the Lord.

Power. “To all who received him, who believed on his name… he gave power to become children of God.” The Greek word for received suggests a warm and thorough welcome of the heart, the Greek word for belief suggests a determined commitment of the mind. And the promise of all this… that we become children of God… born of God. It is surely the birthright of each person in this church that she, he should know this special relationship with God; a relationship that moves far beyond an acknowledgement of God as Creator, that moves each of us to be able to cry (in the words of St. Paul), “Abba, Father…”. In this relationship there is no room for the lurking murmur of blame, nor the overbearing sense of shame.
I’m not sure it’s appropriate to share New Year Resolutions, oh for a variety of reasons, but this I will share with you all… this coming year I hope for a heart more ready to be touched and moved by poignancy, I want to have eyes to see and ears to hear God in all things and all people and all challenges and I want to cherish and nurture my status (given by God) as a child of God so that my spirit may not be too readily daunted.
Maybe you will share this with me this coming year?
Amen

Advent IV – Sunday, December 22, 2019

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

 

I shall be brief this morning, since we have already added two dimensions to this liturgy.

 

I want to talk about Joseph because we rarely say much about him and we do not have a very clear picture about him—who he was, what led him to make the choices he did.  And we have no intimate details of his relationship with Mary or even with Jesus.  He’s like the mother of the groom at a wedding, the least of the principals, except, we hope, to her son.

 

We know Joseph was older than Mary and was already established in his trade as a carpenter, for that is how they referred to him: Joseph the Carpenter.  But that is about it.

 

We also know from the portion of Matthew’s gospel for today that Joseph thought there was something wrong in staying in a relationship with Mary, for though they had never “known each other” in the Biblical meaning of that phrase, Joseph had no idea how she became pregnant, but she definitely was.  He was ready to end the relationship because the child was not his.  He also did not want to make a public fuss to shame or dishonor Mary.

 

That was Joseph’s resolve as he went to sleep on the night of this story.  Then something totally unexpected happened: an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him the child was from the Holy Spirit.

 

We could spend days discussing the use of the term Holy Spirit this early in this gospel, more days talking about whether Joseph might buy a certain bridge if it were available, and even more days discussing whether it is essential that Mary was and remained a virgin at his conception.  We are not going to do that, because most of those discussions would lead nowhere.  How do we second-guess God?  If you want to try, go ahead, but that is not my task this morning.

 

Just remember that there are stories in many contemporary eastern and middle-eastern religions where gods consort with human beings, again, in the Biblical language, “where gods know human females carnally.”  [I trust that will not shock your sensibilities, which is why I use such brazen language.]

 

Within that middle-eastern confluence of religions and beliefs, it would not have been unusual even for a good man and a devout Jew, which certainly describes Joseph, it would not have been unusual to believe that “the other gods did that with humans,” so there is a lot of openness to the idea that the God of the Hebrews might do this too.  And while Joseph who is described as a good and devout Jew, he very well might have had less than a clear view about monotheism.  So many cultures, so many religions, so many gods.  Joseph tried to be faithful to his.  He  believed in the God of Israel, but he knew many believed in other gods as well.

 

Leave it to an angel: the angel went further, saying this child to be is a son and tells Joseph to name him Jesus.  The angel tells Joseph this, not Mary.

 

When Joseph awoke from that dream, it was clear he believed this and did exactly what the angel told him.  It was Joseph who gave Jesus a home and took Jesus as his son.  That was an act of faith.

 

Let’s skip ahead a couple of weeks in liturgical time and a couple of years in historical time.

 

The magi or wise men or three kings or astronomers or all of the above or whatever they were had dreams, too.  One dream about following a star changed their lives and led them on a journey.  Of course, they visited a king’s palace to see a prince, and may have been taken in by the king’s interest in this new child.  The star led them to Jesus, and after seeing him, they had expected to go back to Herod on the way home and share with him the name of Jesus, his parents and where they lived, as Herod suggested, so Herod might make a visit.  They had a dream.  Was it one of them who shared the dream and everyone else bought into the meaning of it? Or was it that they each had a dream but the message was essentially the same: do not go back to Herod; go back a different way.  Whatever, they did.

 

Joseph had three more dreams and each one told him to do something for Jesus, something to protect him and keep him from harm.

 

Joseph’s second dream came after the wise men left and an angel warned Joseph to get up and take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, for Herod was seeking to kill Jesus when he found Jesus.

Again, Joseph listened to the dream and went to and stayed in Egypt until Herod died.  When Herod died, Joseph had a dream in which an angel told him, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”

 

Sorry to say, but this third angel did not have the whole picture.  S/He was wrong.  Even Joseph had a strong hunch about that when he found out that Herod’s son Archelaus was the new king.  However far they got on the journey back to Israel, one night, in a fourth dream, yet another angel came with a correction or revision of the message: don’t go there, so he went to the district of Galilee and made his home in a town called Nazareth.  (A side note, the prophets had prophesied that this Son of God/Son of Man would be called a Nazorean, so this fulfilled more prophecy and helped the generation just after Jesus understand and welcome this news better than most of us do.)

 

For a long time, I have been fascinated by Joseph.  Jungian psychologists and psychiatrists consider him the most clear example in Christian and other myths of the one who personifies the care of the Being of Christ.  (If any of you want to play with this on Jungian terms, ask me and we can do an adult forum on this.)  Basically, I am fascinated by Joseph because he listened to his dreams, attributed at least four of them to God, and staked his very life on them, and even more importantly, at some point, Joseph’s “yes” to God about being Jesus’ earthly father was similar to Mary’s powerful claim: “Be it unto me according to your word!”  They were both obedient servants, obedient in terms of listening to revelations that were personally directed to them, and overwhelming to simple peasant folk in the culture of that time.

 

Let’s get back to us, because all these stories and events are spectacular, but I am always concerned about how we take them in.

 

Have you ever had an experience like this?  It is about dreams that help us to understand who we are and what it is that God is calling us to be and to do.  It may be very direct and basic, like “get over yourself and forgive someone.”  It may be much broader like how to invest the rest of your life, whether you are 17 or 77.  There may have been an angel in the dream, and probably not, especially since so few of us imagine angels from day to day.  I have had dreams that have called me to change the course of my life, whether to begin something new or to let go of something that was diminishing or defeating me.  Sometimes it was a single powerful dream and  at other times it was a series of dreams because I would never have understood the message in a one-time event or occasion.

 

This is not just about me.  I cannot tell you how many times people have shared some of their most powerful dreams that caused them to change their lives—perhaps a new direction, perhaps a powerful and wonderful letting go, perhaps a simple recognition and sudden realization of the gift that one is to the world in which one lives.

 

I deeply believe that God relates to us in our dreams, especially those dreams in which we see ourselves bringing goodness and grace and health and help into the world.  That is not a dream of grandiosity.  That is a time when HOPE transcends fear and doubt. That is a dream of our soul having a healthy influence on the world/society around us.  This is an area or arena in which we, who are taught modesty to the nth degree, need to affirm with the psalmist (139): “lo, I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”   Wonderfully: “full of wonder.”

 

Sometimes we learn this in a dream, because our daily conscious lives are not big or broad enough to take such wonders in.  Sometimes we learn this when a good friend says something unexpected to us, which may be either a compliment or a complaint or criticism.

 

Sometimes God speaks to us when we look in a mirror and see some dimension of ourselves for the very first time, and recognize that as a call to be brave enough to be bigger than we have been.

 

The themes of Advent are Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.  The spiritual emphasis of Advent is about practice: Stop!  Look!  Listen!  Watch out!  (Doesn’t that sound like first grade?)

 

The challenge is: be prepared!  {Doesn’t that sound like scouts?)

 

If we practice these dimensions of Advent well during these four weeks, we may listen more deeply all year.

 

We have two more days of listening before receiving the greatest gift we ever receive.  AGAIN.  Amen.

 

+James L. Jelinek, Interim Rector

Trinity Church

 

 

Advent III – Sunday, December 15, 2019

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

 

 

The image of the desert in bloom in the passage from Isaiah, recalls a trip I took with some of my seminary friends a year and a half ago.  We went to Phoenix, AZ, and it was my turn to line up the restaurants, the museums and other adventures we would have.  One of them was a sunrise ride/sail in the gondola of a hot air balloon.  Our gondola could carry 28, plus the pilot, and we learned that when they inflated that beautiful balloon, it held millions of cubic feet of air.  I was sure this was on everyone’s bucket list, as it was on mine.  Not so.  Four of the nineteen of us went up in the air.  It was spectacular, and we got to see coyote and deer near but unaware of each other, and rabbits scurrying out of the way.  Most of all, it was the blooming time for some yellow flower and the view was superb and magnificent.  So when Isaiah calls up this image, it speaks to me deeply.

 

Because you are searching for a rector, I want to speak today as someone who has served as a rector, and some of my closest colleagues who have done the same.  Every year since 1989, some portion of the General Theological Seminary Class of 1970 has gotten together for the better part of a week.  The first couple of days are social, dinner at the home of the host, a special restaurant and a museum or local sight during the daytime.  Then we go off for three days of being together to tell our stories since the last time.  One of our group is a gay guy with an outrageous sense of humor who told us that when a friend asked him with surprise and doubt, “What can you possibly find to talk about during that time?”  Richard, never at a loss for words, answered, “Well, at our age, it always starts with an organ recital.”

 

What I want to share most is that we were all “formed” together over three years by the faculty who taught us, the rhythm of daily prayer and singing and Eucharist in the chapel, and in that environment we found disciplines of prayer and work that served us well over the years.  I have a number of good and true friends from places where I have lived and served, but these guys, and since retirement, spouses too, have become a profound extended family.  We have gone through all the joys and sorrows of life together, including someone being deposed from the priesthood for a while, a few divorces, alcoholism, the serious illnesses of many of us, loss of children, spouses, some of our group and numerous beloved pets.  We met  each other over fifty years ago, when others who knew me then were wondering how on earth Jim Jelinek could become a priest.  My classmates’ friends felt that way about them, I learned, and at first I think we all felt that way about each other: him, a priest?  No way.

 

But time and practice and good disciplines and people attentive to our prayer life shaped us all.  We weren’t all best buddies, although some of us were closer friends than others.  It was after we started coming together annually that we really got to know the essence of each other, so that we could see how we each, with very different talents and skills, a wide range of political views both within the church and publicly, came together with a tremendous similarity of values, about honor and integrity and what it means to be a pastor and priest, about what the prophets and the apostles and disciples stood for and gave their lives for.  We have each learned for ourselves the cost of being God’s servant, why we continue to serve, and we know very well that our brothers have been on the same journey.  We know, most of all, that we have to be as honest with each other as we have to be with ourselves when we look in the mirror each morning.  That is always a test.  One glance is about being presentable to go out in public with what I have.  The longer look is about who I am, and am I being true.  We the men of General from 1970, have called ourselves “the Chelsea boys,” since the seminary close or quadrangle is named Chelsea Square.  We are truly brothers in faith and life and practice, and those we are or have been married to confirm that again and again.

 

Let’s go back to Isaiah for a moment: at first trying to reach out particularly to people “around my age”—that is when the body has started speaking more loudly and dramatically than we might like, Isaiah gives us images that seem impossible:

 

“The the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped”—OH do I have friends who hope and pray for that, especially my brother-in-law who never seems to find the right hearing aid, after spending thousands again and again.

 

“Then the lame shall leap like the deer” — Oh, my poor feet, if you hear that, remember that when you land, IT WILL NOT HURT!

 

“And the tongue of the speechless shall sing with joy!” — May anyone with stutters/halting speech/an inability to speak/and, shall we add, the fear of speaking listen: this is for you.

 

The rest of the passage is about safety and security which brings relief, thanksgiving and joy.

 

Central to all of this is the message from the Letter of James (5:7): “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.”  The Greek word for patience is “patior”, which means “to suffer well/to bear up well.”  None of us likes to choose to suffer, and most of us do not suffer well.  We groan and moan and complain and whine, and if we are suffering in silence it is because we are moping and in a quietly sour mood, doing all of our complaining internally when not aloud.  Really: doesn’t a good groan or moan or an oof! elicit some sympathy, which doesn’t change the pain but lets us know that someone cares for us.

 

To suffer well.  I have known some who have suffered well. I put them up for sainthood.

 

That is the downside of illness.  The gospel today seeks to remind us of the upside.

 

Let’s do a little Biblical theology first.  In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist’s disciples go to Jesus with a very direct question from John himself: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

 

Jesus does not say “yes” or “no.”  He does answer both profoundly and directly: “Tell John what you hear and see.”

 

He is saying: “Look!  Listen!  Experience this—what is happening now!”

 

Then Jesus gives an incredible litany of the blessings that come from his presence and ministry: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

 

There is no way Jesus could have answered that question from John with a yes or no.  It was all about the results that would come if God’s gift to the world came among the people of Israel.  Once he heard that report, John never doubted, and he paid with the price of his life.  My friends, many of us have to pay with some agony or anguish at the anger or even loss of a friend or more, but very few of us ever have to pay with our lives.  In thousands of years, there are very few martyrs, comparatively speaking.  Yet it is real and painful to take a stand on behalf of the suffering of the world and suffer the disdain and disparagement and even the separation of others.

 

Years ago I read a book on the Huguenot resistance in Switzerland and parts of southeastern France during WWII.  The title is, if I remember correctly, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, and the subtitle was what engaged me: “When goodness happened in the village of Le Chambeau”  (sp?).  Isn’t that intriguing?  “When goodness happened.”   I love that phrase, but the central story takes too long to tell, so I want to talk about “when hope happens.”  That’s like all the crocuses blooming in the desert which seems so dead for so much of the year, and then, suddenly, whether anyone is there to notice or not, it bursts into more life than we can ever imagine for a desert.

 

I want to make this very much about us, because your pledging this fall has been so much about hope, about new possibilities, and I have seen heroic leaps of faith.  I don’t want to quote numbers, although every number I would quote would make the Vestry as a body, the Stewardship Committee, and all of you, including people pledging for the first time as new members, those numbers would be a cause of celebration for all of us, for all of you.

 

Now can you imagine, that even with all this heroic effort, because we had big dreams, and because our buildings and grounds always have a way to grind us down with needs that we have put on the back burner for years, the people and matters we most wish to fund are being pushed back by those we seem to need to fund.  As I hear and read the budget, we are close to a balance, but I know the Vestry does not want to present an unbalanced budget when all of you have shown so much faith and confidence in where God is calling us and where we are going.

 

My sense is that we are within a few thousand dollars of a balance, which, in a budget over $400k, is usually not serious.  My sense is that you have been bold in your pledging, and you would like the Vestry to be similarly bold if the risk is not great.

 

Again, this is very much about us as a parish, and you have, as a parish, suffered and rejoiced and/or triumphed.  We might interpret your pledge increases as a simple affirmation that the current path is a good/right one.  We might interpret  your pledge increase as a sign of hope and faith.

 

I serve here for the greater good of the parish, not as its protector [to protect is usually to preserve what is, not to improve or grow it.]  I think you have spoken by your pledging out of hope and faith, and it is our responsibility to take some reasonable risks.

 

Of course, everyone can argue what “reasonable” is, and that’s why this is part of a sermon and not a debate.

 

May we all listen deeply to the Holy Spirit, when we all have our own sense of economics and what safety and security mean.  Amen.

 

+James L. Jelinek, Trinity Church

Sunday, December 8th – Advent II

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

 

I love the season of Advent because of its quietness and call to introspection, and the promise always of learning more, for the word itself means “to come,” or “that which is to come.”  Yet it is difficult to preach during this season because Jesus rarely appears in any of the lessons except as a reference to another story, even in the gospels.  Today we have a reference to Jesus in Isaiah, when the author says, somewhat vaguely, because it is a prophecy, “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.”  I have some tree stumps on my property in Wisconsin, and new shoots come out of those stumps every year, never strong enough to become a new tree, but Isaiah speaks of just such a shoot that will bring overwhelming new possibilities for all of creation: harmony between creatures who are mortal or edible enemies, and the possibility of peace when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

 

So there we have a reference of the one who is to come, whom we believe is Jesus the Christ, for that is what we have named this promised saving being, or savior. We usually spell the word with an “ior,” but when the British who speak our mother tongue speak of Jesus himself, not just anyone who might save someone from something, they spell the word “Saviour.”  That spelling sets Jesus apart, makes him unique, identifies him as a man, a being, a particular person who is far above and beyond even the most gifted of human beings.

 

I am particularly moved by the psalm this week, Psalm 72, which refers to the hope of Israel always to have a king and ruler who will be there for the good of, the support of, the protection of, and the teaching of the whole of the people of Israel.

 

The psalmist asks for justice for the king and righteousness for his son.  It is not that the king needs justice for himself, he needs to mete out justice to all of his subjects.  And his son needs righteousness, not for his own sake of being morally correct and justifiable, but for the sake of the people he will one day rule, that he may be a person of peace and hope and trust.

 

Have you ever noticed that Hebrew psalms never speak in terms of selfishness, of self-aggrandizement, in reference to what is best for ME with no thought of the needs and values of someone less fortunate than that ME.

 

Be forewarned, what I am about to say next may seem troubling and partisan to some of you.  I have to note that this week, news reports said that America has reached the lowest level of unemployment in decades.  There is something worth celebrating there.  This was also true in the mid 1990s when every income level/group (how do we say that) was at its most prosperous and with the strong belief that this would continue), our government decided to cut welfare and food benefits.  When this country did that during the mid-90s, with no need to do so, I feared that we were selling our soul as a nation that had strongly held to our Jewish-Christian heritage, believing deeply in God’s preference for the poor, as evident throughout Jewish and Christian scriptures.  So this week we heard this is about to happen again.  We are on the verge of making the poor suffer again.  We have done a super tax cut for people with a high level of income, which may be fine, but do we have to pay for it by cutting the poor out of the little we provide for them to survive.  I realize I am becoming political here, but there are some injustices, given Judeo-Christian history and spirituality, that I, as someone who has committed my life to God’s promises to the poor and the Church’s commitment to the good of the whole, I cannot be silent in moments like this.  It is often necessary to cut corners and save money in times of great economic crisis.

 

It is an altogether different matter to do so when the common good will not be lessened or diminished by caring for the poor and disenfranchised.  It is not caring for the poor that will tax our democracy beyond its limits.  And it certainly reveals more faith in the power of money than in our Lord and God.

 

This is what John the Baptist is railing about when the Pharisees and Sadducees come to him for baptism.  He is downright nasty, calling them a brood of vipers, a snake being the lowest of the low as we remember the creation story.  He is furious that they are counting on their heritage to save them, the fact that they descend from a wealthy or sophisticated or learned family.  But they are not living justly, not pursuing or living in righteousness, and their hypocrisy is too much for him to stomach.  These are the folks whom Jesus will later describe as wearing long tassels on their prayer shawls, claiming the best seats in the synagogue, and expecting everyone to pay deference to them.  Of course, the others who were coming for baptism were sinners, too, but John finds them easier to love.  Our hearts go out to someone who is truly repentant after doing a wicked thing, but we grind our teeth in anger when the wickedness is coupled with hypocrisy.

 

What John says to the whole crowd is the important thing here: “I  baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. . . .”

 

John is certainly aware of our need to clean ourselves up from time to time, on the inside as well as the outside, which is why he makes the comment about baptizing with water.  But he also glimpses something about the one who has been promised as a savior for Israel, that he will bring something more: a spirit of energy and power and grace, enough to set them on fire with love for all of the rest of their lives and move them further to set those around them on fire, too.

There is a lesson from Isaiah (6:1-8) that we often read at ordinations.  It is a vision of the throne room of heaven with God musing as he sits upon the throne.  Seraphim are flying around, and hosannas and hallelujahs are being sung.  And God muses about sending someone out to save his people.  “Whom shall I send; who will go for me.”  And Isaiah stands there and blurts out: “Here I am Lord, send me.”  And one of the seraphim takes a set of tongs and brings him a white hot coal and touches it to his lips.  It is a searing moment in every way.  It is indelible, never to be forgotten or removed.

 

I remember the first time I was asked to preach on it at an ordination.  The more I read through and prayed over that lesson and what it meant to me to be a priest, in good times and difficult times, both with and without courage, except as God gave it to me, and the image I came up with is that when we are ordained we are called to kiss the fire.  Just as we go down into the waters of death with Christ in baptism, so do we kiss the fires of life in ordination.  The waters can drown us, the fires may burn us to a crisp.  I think I scared the hell out of some of those ordinands that day.  But, from what many said, I think they got it, too.  Amen.

 

+James L. Jelinek

Trinity Church

Thanksgiving Eve – Wednesday, November 27, 2019

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

 

 

In the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, we are hearing a new directive from God, a new commandment, which is fitting because the words ‘deutero’ and ‘nomy’ mean “second law” in Hebrew.  While the first giving of the law seemed to be full of a lot of what we should not do, this one is different, because it gives the people a directive to do something good: to give away something, because they have just been blessed with abundance in the harvest, and to celebrate, to rejoice for the goodness they have received.  Part of this celebration is a religious ceremony, when they take their offering to the priest of the Lord and when you give it to him, you shall recall who you are and where you came from.  They came from/were descended from a wandering Aramean, Abram, by name, whom God encountered, renamed Abraham, made a covenant with him and blessed with increasing resources.  The covenant was God’s promise to be with him and his descendants forever, and Abraham’s promise in return to be faithful to God and to teach his descendants to do the same by modeling for his children what faithfulness.

 

Abraham became wealthy, enough to leave an inheritance to his son Isaac, who in turn left his inheritance to Jacob and Esau, although Jacob was shifty enough to cheat his brother out of their father’s blessing.  Nevertheless, God blessed both with even more riches, though they lives estranged from each other for a long time.  Their story reveals one of the deep human flaws that we see several times lived out in Hebrew scripture, the jealousy and estrangement and worse that can happen between members of the same family.  We saw it in Cain and Abel and we shall see it again between Joseph and his brothers, and a number of other places.  Even among Jesus’ disciples, James and John argued who was the greatest of them, wanting to sit on his right hand and his left, and fully expecting that they were better than the others and deserved these two places of honor.  Jesus firmly discouraged such thinking.

 

When the Israelites gave their gifts of first fruits to the priest they were encouraged to consider all of their history, including the worst of the captivity in Egypt after the time of the great famine and well after Joseph’s death, and in that memory to recall all the things God did to bring them out of captivity, through a long and perilous journey, and into a land of milk and honey, all the way through that journey appearing before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

 

Many years ago, when I lived in Cincinnati, I was walking down the street on a Saturday morning and came to Plum Street Temple, the oldest Jewish house of worship in the area.  They had just finished some liturgy, most of the people had gone, but the doors were still open so I went in.  I found on one of the pews a leaflet of the day’s liturgy which was the equivalent of our confirmation rite.  Like at the seder, there were questions and responses that recalled some of the most important moments in their very long history.  There was also a canticle which I had never seen before, the Dayenu, which was to be said antiphonally, with a reader or cantor doing the first half of the verse, and the people responding “Dayenu,” which in English means “It would have been enough!”  or “It would have sufficed us.!”  It focuse mostly on the time of the Exodus from Egypt, and includes some of the later history as well, step by step.  I’ll start at the beginning and give you a sample.

 

 

 

If you had brought us out of Egypt and not carried out judgment against them, Dayenu!

If you had carried out judgment against them and not destroyed their idols, Dayenu!

If you had destroyed their idols and not smitten their first-born, Dayenu!

If you had smitten their first-born and not given us their wealth, Dayenu!

If you had given us their wealth and not split the sea for us, Dayenu!

If you had split the sea for us and not taken us through on dry land, Dayenu!

If you had taken us through on dry land and not drowned our oppressors, Dayenu!

 

It continues like this, a detailed accounting of all the blessings of the Exodus and the time in the Wilderness until they arrived at the Land of Promise.  In our modern world where advertising and pictures of the rich and famous constantly seduce us into believing we need more, subtly persuade us that we do not have everything we need or want, this canticle is a good antidote, a reminder of the depths of the problems our ancestors faced and their need to remember from what they have come and how blessed they are.

 

We Christians have our liturgies of praise and thanksgiving as well, most predominantly the Holy Eucharist, the thanksgiving we pray for God’s saving acts throughout history.  Both Fr. Neale and I have preached on that theme this fall, so I want to simply point to a few things.

 

Jesus warns his followers not to work for the food that perishes, that is, the foodstuffs we put in our mouths to nurture our bodies.  Rather, he says, work for “the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

He concludes with this: “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

 

I think this is what Paul knows deeply inside by the time he writes the letter to the Philippians, because he says something so outrageous that he only dare say it if he knows with his whole being: ‘the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding(!), will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 

One last note from this passage from Deuteronomy: after setting down their gifts before the Lord and bowing to the Lord, the Israelites are told, “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”  How like the first Thanksgiving in this country, when the early settlers came together for a feast and invited their Native American neighbors to join them.

 

I would like to make a suggestion to you for your Thanksgiving Dinner.  It is not another dish to prepare, nothing more to shop for, just something simple yet profound to do.  Sometime during dinner, when people are enjoying delicious food and, I hope, the loving warmth of family, ask them all to share with the rest of the people at the table what they are most grateful for this year.  Amen.

 

+James L. Jelinek,

Trinity, Newport

Sunday, November 24 – Christ the King

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the climax of our liturgical year.  Jesus’ ancestors passed down the scriptures from ancient times which we know as the Hebrew Bible.  In those writings we hear many references to the kings of the past, particularly the great King David, and there are numerous prophecies of a great king and savior to come, a descendant in David’s line.  Just after Jesus’ birth, the Magi arrive, led by a star and seeking to greet the newborn king.  Of course, they go to Herod’s palace, but Jesus is not there.  The star leads them further, to a humble stable in Bethlehem, where they first see the Light of the World.

Throughout much of his life, especially those three or so years of his public ministry of teaching, preaching and healing, Jesus seems to have heard the word “king” in reference to himself.  One of his temptations in the wilderness is about having all power and authority, but he shuns that goal, knowing his call is to stay on the path God has given him.

When he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he hears the crowd singing, “Hosanna to the son of David,” a clear reference to the Davidic line.  As he walks up the steps of the Temple, he turns at the top to look at the crowd who want to make him king.  The temptation is there for him again, and it is real.

We tend to dismiss or diminish this temptation because we know the end of the story, but remember the person Jesus was while on this earth.  A pastor’s heart, a shepherd’s heart beat in his chest.  Remember all the times we hear of his compassion; remember him weeping at Lazarus’ tomb; remember him looking down from the Mount of Olives while he was praying, watching so many wounded and unhappy people and remember his words: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, I would have taken you under my wings, as a hen takes her chicks, but you would not let me.”  Do you hear the deep sadness in his lament?  So when the crowds acclaim Jesus as the Son of David and want to make him king that day, can you imagine that Jesus might have been tempted one last time?    That’s the part of Jesus that may have been tempted by the power to heal all of humanity.  But Jesus reaffirmed God’s order of creation rather than seeking to impose his own.  Jesus looked at the crowd, turned and silently walked away.  His silence said everything.

In the next week, the final week of Jesus’ life, the week we call holy, how many times is the word “king” used in speaking to Jesus or about him?  At his trial, Pontius Pilate says, “So you are a king, then.”  But Jesus says simply, “You say so,” in other words, I am not claiming that.  Somehow Pilate is moved, for after Jesus has been nailed to the cross, some soldiers hang a sign above his head written in four languages: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”  The High Priest and the rabbis were furious and the High Priest said, “Do not say ‘King of the Jews,’ but that he said he is King of the Jews.”  Pilate answered tersely and firmly, “What I have written, I have written.”

Jesus’ throne is not made of rare woods, precious stones and gold and silver; it is a simple wooden cross.  What a way to treat a king!  And how do we understand God’s asking Jesus to bear this, to endure such agony and anguish and pain?

There’s a collect in Morning Prayer for Fridays, that helps me to understand this, and perhaps it will help you:

“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy before he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified; Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

The last collect in Morning Prayer goes one step further, as we address our prayer this time to Jesus:

“Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace;” [what a wonderful image, stretched wide to embrace the whole world, not merely the ones we want to include!].  The prayer concludes with a petition that we offer asking God to give purpose to our lives: “So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you.”

The ultimate recognition is that Jesus is the King of Hearts, the King of every heart, as in that great hymn:

“At the Name of Jesus every knee shall bow, every tongue confess him King of glory now; ‘tis the Father’s pleasure we should call him Lord, who from the beginning was the mighty Word.

In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue all that is not holy all that is not true; crown him as your Captain in temptation’s hour; let his will enfold you in its light and power.

Christians, this Lord Jesus shall return again, with his Father’s glory o’er the earth to reign; for all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow, and our hearts confess him King of glory now.”

Today we are blest to have another baptism, John Bury Weld McLaughlin, and during this liturgy his parents and godparents will literally give John back to God, promising to be responsible to him and for him and with him, and promising to live prayerfully and witness their faith with and in their own lives to help him grow up in a relationship with Jesus.  The language we use here is very strong, and imagine for a moment that we were baptizing John in a river or lake, for we say, “we go down into the waters of death and are raised up to newness of life.”  In another prayer, to make sure we hear it and take it seriously, we paraphrase this, asking that “all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection.”  Christ the King, resurrected!

Today is also Stewardship Sunday, a day when we pledge allegiance to the King of Kings and his Body the Church, which our Presiding Bishop ++Michael calls the Jesus Movement.  This refers to the movement of God’s love into our hearts and the movement of God’s love through us into the hearts of those we meet along the way.  It is not so much a movement of traveling, but rather a movement of gathering, the Spirit moving to gather us to be of one heart even when we cannot be of one mind.

This is a day of thanksgiving for all that we are, all that we have, all that we receive, and it is a day of thanksgiving for the blessed mission God gives us to reach out to the lost, the broken, the wounded, the grieving, the lonely, the forgotten, and to those who do not yet know their need of God.

From what I have seen in the pledges already received, there is a lot of gratitude among you, a lot of hope, and a confidence that we are walking with God.  May those of us who have not yet affirmed our faith and pledged our loyalty be so moved as well as we make our promises.  Amen.

 

+James L. Jelinek, Trinity Church