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 1970s, the great historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a book she gave the title: A Distant Mirror. It is about the 14th century in Europe, particularly the 100 Years’ War, when a great number of the countries of that continent were led by their kings, dukes, popes and others to fight for conquest and power, perhaps occasionally in self-defense, but certainly for dominance.
I cannot remember if Professor Tuchman declared clear winners, but she concluded that all of them lost no matter how much land, how many people, how much bounty they gained. Her point was that each of these rulers, having invested so many of their country’s resources in war over an extended period of time, succeeded in bankrupting his country, so much so that the recovery was hard and slow.
This was a “distant mirror” to the period of the Viet Nam war and its consequences for us as a nation.
When we think of resources, it is not just the things that money can buy: weapons and the means to deploy them. The biggest resource was brave young men who went off to fight in the wars. Just imagine if those whose lives were taken or destroyed had not been conscripted— how many more teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and inventors would have populated those countries and contributed to their well-being. Another sacrifice was the hearts of those women who loved them and who were left to raise their children alone. Think further, for in many places hope died for a long time. The loss of so many, the crippling poverty because fields and crops and forests had been destroyed, the lack of safe and secure homes, the lack of a source of inspiration for children caused depression in every way and every kind.
So, even in that overwhelmingly masculine-dominated society, the women and children paid a dear price, some as collateral damage and almost all of the others in the lack of opportunity to gain knowledge and skill.
Tuchman’s book illustrates that these leaders were willing to spend whatever it took to win—including human lives, without seriously considering the greater consequences.
I begin with this because I think this is what Jesus is addressing in today’s gospel passage, and because so many world leaders are speaking loosely and glibly about going to war, the most deadly brinkmanship there is.
Jesus says, “What king, going out to wage war against another king will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with 10,000 to oppose the one who comes against him with 20,000? Today we might add tallies of things like ships, planes, bombs, missiles, atomic weapons. Jesus’ statement puts the spotlight on leaders in a way that we may assess and measure the cost of the drive to win, to dominate, because we weigh it in terms of the harm they cause. This is not a statement of pacifism; it is rather a statement about wisdom and good judgment and being faithful to the people one serves as their leader, to do one’s best for them.
Continuing on this larger, societal scale, Jesus also says, “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down to estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him….”
Let’s bring this home. What if Jesus had said, “Which king, intending to build a WALL, does not first sit down and estimate the cost to see whether he has enough to complete it?”
That question is a current existential and political dilemma for us, not even bringing in the further question of whether a wall is the best way to accomplish an objective, whether a wall will even work. All of us have views on this and I think we are in the midst of something with no easy solutions. And there is little courage or statesmanship on the national level. Whatever may come of this, the danger is a massive depletion of resources and the sowing of ever greater division in this country and between us and other countries.
This gospel may hit home even deeper if we substitute a few more words for those of Jesus: “What priest and congregation, wanting to build a parish hall, does not first sit down and estimate the cost to see whether they have enough to complete it? Otherwise, when they have laid a foundation and are not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule them….”
This seems to be the major source of frustration, some friction and some division in our congregation. In the 75 or so days since I first interviewed with the Wardens and the Vestry, this seems to be the issue around which we have real disagreement, and I have heard several sides. It sometimes seems difficult to imagine how to proceed from here. To abandon the original vision and the effort already given, and call it a failure would be a difficult and costly decision to make, surely causing the loss of members who are vital to this community. To go ahead with the original vision and plan has seemed unworkable enough that there are revisions being prepared for us to consider. Unfortunately, much of that work of revision has been limited to the building itself, while over these past few years some of the needs are changing, and I think this calls for a revisioning that we, Trinity’s current members and some others, can do together.
What many of you do not yet see are the new opportunities that are emerging—opportunities to have a bigger dream with new partners. These are so new that the Vestry discussed them just this week.
I think many of these opportunities will be visible in jointly sponsored programs by the end of the year, programs that benefit both us and the Newport community. They will be consistent with the mission of Trinity to serve as a faith community where we have served for 321 years.
It is my hope that we shall not plunge ahead and deal with the building first. If we do we are not likely to build something that will suit any expansion. The Vestry is looking to see whether partnering with Seamen’s Church Institute and Newport Community School might work for us and them. We shall decide in late September whether to go ahead or not, and if we do this would mean using both the Church and Honyman Hall much more fully than we do at present. We think if that is successful then we shall consider what might be needed for all of us on the site of the Carr-Rice building. All this has been developing since the beginning of August when each of these bodies approached us.
Personally, I am very excited. This feels like the Holy Spirit is dangling the possibility of a larger vision in front of us, one that will stretch our imagination and stretch our hearts. If this continues, that will be a powerful reason to go ahead with our capital campaign because of expanded purpose and opportunity.
While standing here on the mountaintop (our pulpit), ten feet above criticism, I have found a new set of Ten Commandments which I want to commend to you:
I. Thou shalt ask lots of questions, because the Vestry really wants to be transparent.
II. Thou shalt volunteer to be part of the thinking and planning groups as they emerge, for the Vestry is looking for internal partnerships as well.
III. Thou shalt read the eTower each week for more news and updates.
IV. Thou shalt come to whatever meetings are held to discuss possibilities and what is being tried.
V. Thou shalt keep an open mind.
VI. Thou shalt speak thy peace as clearly as thou canst, for we cannot move forward without having clarity and yet we cannot hold back the Holy Spirit just out of fear or disagreement.
VII. Thou shalt NOT label people thou disagreedst with.
VIII. Thou shalt Not give ultimatums either internally or aloud, like saying, “If that happens, I am out of here.” When we think that way we make it come true by boxing ourselves in.
IX. Thou shalt speak to thy friends when they are ready to make an ultimatum, telling them you love them and asking them to hold it in and let go a bit.
X. Thou shalt open thy heart to this as well as thy mind.
From my vantage point, as I have been trying to communicate in person and in writing is that healing is happening, and with that ideas are starting to emerge. We do not need to rehearse the problems of the earlier part of this venture endlessly, and it is time to stop trying to find others to blame. That is done and what is done cannot be changed. But what comes tomorrow is change itself, in our attitudes, our relationships and in the hope God gives us. It is my conviction that God is with us in this and my expectation God will continue with us every step of the way if we are faithful.
One of the Bible verses with which we conclude Morning Prayer is this one from Ephesians which I find particularly appropriate today:
Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. [3:20,21]
+James L. Jelinek
August 25th (the day of the sermon) was a day of commemoration for the first “20 and odd” enslaved Africans brought to America 400 years ago. They began to establish the English Colony at Point Comfort, Virginia. Several were then transported to establish and build the Jamestown Colony. To commemorate African ancestors and their descendants who have had a large share in building what became the United States, bells will ring across the nation. Trinity Church bells rang for four minutes, one minute for each 100 years. This sermon was inspired by the texts for the day and this special act of Commemoration.
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday August 25th 2019
The Reverend Alan Neale
“Free Birds or Caged?”
A few words from the poem Caged Bird by Maya Angelou
The free bird thinks of another breeze… and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
And the big fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn… and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams… his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied… so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill… of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill… for the caged bird sings of freedom.
Here Maya Angelou describes poignantly and perfectly the two societies of caged and free, of those who experience de facto awful fear and those who lives are filled with awesome wonder.
This is the dichotomy well expressed in our epistle Hebrews 12 – the awfulness of Mount Sinai that dared not even be touched and the awesomeness of Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. The scene around the first is ominous for the eye and ear with burning fire, darkness, gloom, windstorm and noise of trumpets. The scene around the second is truly winsome with angelic choir, warm community, and the joy of forgiveness and acceptance.
I think that much of our lives as individuals, families or nations is spent in this dichotomy, either submerged by captivity or enhanced by freedom. We are at our best as we work for freedom and at our worst as we settle for captivity within ourselves and for others.
For eighteen years the woman in Luke’s Gospel 13 had been crippled, “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight”. But her captivity was soon to end as with a word Jesus calls her to him and announces, “Woman you are set free.”
This is indeed the ministry constantly, avowedly of our Lord Jesus. The same Lord Jesus who at the beginning of his ministry proclaims “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release for the captives…” Luke 4:18.
For any confined by resentment, fear, shame, anger… Jesus stands before them, maybe even some of us, and aches and yearns to set them, set us free.
When the doleful prophet Jeremiah admits his sense of inadequacy (a damning captivity often imposed upon us and, so wretched, at times accepted by us as true) the Lord propels him from captivity to freedom. This dynamic brings to mind the athlete Joe Namath who once said, “Until I was 13, I thought my name was ‘shut up’).
Listen to this exchange (Jeremiah 1:6-8) “6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.”
Friends, this transition from fear to courage, from bondage to emancipation is most particularly experienced and most securely possessed as we give ourselves to worship. Listen to these words from Hebrews 12:28 “28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; 29 for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” It is our best efforts at worship that will secure for us freedom and allow the consuming fire of God to wrestle dross and trash from our lives. It is this authentic worship that both comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable; it is this authentic worship of which Abp. Donald Coggan when he said, “We are here to feed the sheep not entertain the goats.” Bible commentator Bryan Whitfield writes, “The goal of our worship is not entertainment, nor do we consume worship as a commodity. To worship God is to encounter God, to hear God’s voice, to be transformed. True worship does not leave us as we are, at ease with illusions of our own power and significance. Rather, it makes us aware of the impermanence of all human lives and institutions as we bow in awe before the permanence, might and splendor of our God… who is a consuming fire.”
Today, at Noon, the nation marks 400 years since the arrival at Point Comfort in Virginia of “20 and odd” captive Africans. It was their forced labor which helped establish the first permanent English colony in North America. From their landing at Point Comfort several were transported to historic Jamestown. To commemorate African ancestors and their descendants who have had a large share in building what became the United States, bells will ring across the nation. Seven churches on Aquidneck Island will participate… chiming will last four minutes, one minute for each one hundred years.
In today’s Gospel Jesus vigorously names the leaders as “hypocrites” for the shameful way they offered freedom selectively – generously affording it to their animals and inhumanely refusing it to the woman.
The leaders, Luke tells us, were put to shame; the rest rejoicing at the wonderful things Jesus was doing.
Lord, we want to be redeemed from shame and heartily rejoice at your commission… “to set the captives free.”
The Rev. Alan Neale
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.
Does God ever give up?
I’ve spoken about that wager God has with God’s Self, that humans can give themselves back to God and grow into peaceful and loving relationships with each other and let go of pride of place and the whole notion of being first, having the best, but rather come to know ourselves and be grateful to be who we each and all are—beloved children of God. We have that wonderful line in Psalm 139: “Lo, I am fearfully and wonderfully made and that my soul knows right well.” Meditate on that for an hour this week and let God reveal more to you about yourself than you already know, and take in deeply how much God loves you.
I think God just keeps on trying to believe this about us creatures, but sometimes the prophets who speak for God are full of rage which they claim as God’s rage, and sometimes, like today in this passage from Isaiah, we seem to hear God as crestfallen, so disappointed in us as to be ready to withdraw. We have this lovely image of a vineyard, where everything has been done just so, from the clearing and planting, to building the fence and the winepress, and then the careful weeding and pruning and tending to it. But instead of yielding big, luscious grapes, full of juice and ripe with flavor, they are small and dry and possibly very sour, not good for eating and hardly suitable for making good wine.
This is where God seems to give up, taking away the protection, the caregivers and even the rain. Then comes the revelation, through Isaiah: the vineyard is you, O Israel, the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting. There’s still that note of tenderness, that revelation of affection, but the further dimension that if God is not abandoning them entirely, God is at least withdrawing from them to wait for them to come to justice and to choose righteousness. Remember, in an image like this one, the rain that comes to soak the parched earth and cause shoots to sprout and spring up is God’s word delivered through the prophets. In this chapter of Isaiah we don’t hear the anger we heard in his preaching last week, but there is this deep sense of sadness and lamentation: what more could I have done? This is so like the wailing plainchant we use in the Way of the Cross on Good Friday when we travel from station to station singing God’s song: O my people, what have I done to you? Testify against me!”
It is one thing to hear God the Creator, the Father of Humankind being angry. So many of the prophets spoke from that tone, that mode, scolding, shaming, spitting out rage and threats of punishment and damnation. I grew up in a fairly moderate branch of the Lutheran Church, where we heard very little hellfire and brimstone from the pulpit, but as I entered adulthood, I think my major sense of God the Father was that of “the Celestial Sniper.” No matter what, God was going to get you for something. Oh, there was salvation in the end, but that would come after a good bit of purging and cleansing, a treatment that was bound to hurt.
Then one day I tried The Episcopal Church. It was a tiny congregation in a town of 3200 and a college of 500 called Carthage, so of course the patron was the great early theologian, St. Cyprian of Carthage. A big saint for a little church.
I was enjoying the liturgy with all its beauty, and then we got to the Prayer of Humble Access, in which we name that “God’s property is always to have mercy.” I was blown away; it knocked my socks off. There it was in the heart of the liturgy, the revelation that Anglicans believe God is first and foremost, merciful, full of mercy. That’s when I knew I was finding a new spiritual home. [I wish we could find a better place for it in the liturgy, since it is too penitential to use after we are absolved of our sins. It’s like stooping down and picking them all up and taking them home again.]
Back to Scripture: this week it is Jesus who is angry. “I came to bring fire to the earth.” Elsewhere he talks about bringing a sword. And he uses all these examples of division, as if he purposely wants to drive wedges between. That seems so inconsistent with his gospel of love, his warning to do no harm. If we remember that fires can have a positive dimension as well as a very fearful one when we think of a house burning or the inferno of a forest fire. I have a small prairie between my house and the lake where I live, and every year I hope to do a controlled burn at a certain time in April, because the weeds sprout first and then a couple of weeks later the prairie grasses and wildflowers push through the earth. The weeds love to spread and grow tall to grab all the space and the sun, and a controlled burn cuts off their first sprouting and give the other plants a chance. It’s not easy. The past two years we had 15” and 10” snowfalls in mid-April, which stayed on the ground a good while due to a cold snap, and then the winds were so high it was dangerous to do a burn. So the weeds had the upper hand.
I think this is what Jesus is talking about when he talks about division. It is about pruning, cultivating for maximum health and growth and strength, and there are some who make themselves available for the pruning and others who don’t. It is our choice, and I think Jesus is just naming reality here, not threatening us.
I’d like to reflect a bit on anger at this point, mainly because we are seeing so much of it in our society right now, and with such tremendous efforts to justify or even excuse it. Let’s remember that anger is always rooted in fear. That’s why Jesus says again and again, “Be not afraid.” We heard it again just last week, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” Depending on the degree of fear, we can go to great extremes with our anger. On a social level we are seeing the rise of a very exclusive nationalism in almost every “first world country,” those with some of the natural resources, but with almost all of the money. And these movements are all very angry, venomous, belittling some people because they do not belong for some reasons the group has decided on. And when we belittle, we grow in ourselves the attitude that it is all right to hate this people and treat them badly. We forget that collect in Morning Prayer saying that God has made all people of one blood.
It is interesting that Jesus uses an image of separation to speak against separation. He is not wanting to separate us from each other, but he is describing how we will divide ourselves that way if we do not try to separate ourselves from our baser attitudes and behaviors. What we need to be afraid of here is our own unbridled passions, particularly anger. And I don’t hold much stock in what some call “righteous indignation.” It’s indignation, all right, but it is rarely righteous. It is usually the compounding of a bunch of angers that have been building up in us and when we finally explode it is disproportionate to the event that teed us off, and then it is destructive. It’s like shooting a squirrel with an elephant gun.
The Rt. Rev. James Jelinek
PENTECOST 9 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.
Isaiah the great prophet was speaking to the people of Israel in a situation very different from Hosea’s time. The difference is overwhelming. Last week we heard that intimate and tender moment of seeing God as a young parent, bending over, picking up her or his little child simply to kiss the child on the cheek. How delightful!
This week Isaiah blasts off with: “I’ve had enough of you and your burnt offerings. What good do they do me? I don’t need them; I don’t want them and especially since they make you feel so totally pious and self-righteous. Don’t you realize I know how you lie and cheat and steal and gossip and slander? You are not confessing to me that you have come to a realization of what you are doing and how much harm you are causing, how much you are dividing our society, how much you are using others. You are not repenting and trying to make amends and trying to reform yourselves. All you are doing with these elaborate sacrifices is trying to bribe me so that I won’t take notice or will let you off the hook.
When you stretch out your hands to beg for even more, I won’t listen to you. Your prayers are all about yourselves; you never pray for anyone else, and that kind of selfishness and self-centeredness is not becoming to you. It is more than a disappointment to me. When you add hypocrisy to your greed, it is ugly; it is vulgar; it is shameful and disgusting.
Again, God reminds them: You know what I want: Clean up your act, both outside and inside and I’ll recognize it when I see you doing good–seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow, (to which we might add) and the strangers among you. And since we today live in a time of cumulative damage to the environment, not thought of in Isaiah’s day, we need to add caring for the environment.
There we have it: the core of the Judeo-Christian ethic. Notice that it is not a code of rules. It is not a set of principles. It is the journey of falling in love with the world and those who surround us, risking empathy and compassion and learning how to serve with mercy. This is summed up in the refrain of that wonderful Ghanaian hymn, “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.” [602, Hymnal 1982]
Through Isaiah God invites us: “Let us argue it out.” If you think there is a better way to undergird and surround human society with health rather than division, I want to hear it. Well, who among us want to argue with the omnipotent, omniscient and overwhelming presence we know God to be? I can think of a few, but perhaps they don’t see God as I do, this loving energy of creativity and blessing Who is omnipresent when we open the eyes of our minds and hearts to see.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is trying to describe this way of living as faith, and he does not imply wishful thinking or pollyannish optimism. He writes: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” As one of my mentors said in a sermon many years ago, this is a reversal of the old adage “seeing is believing.” It is, rather, “believing is seeing.”
The writer uses Israel’s ancestors and particularly Abraham as examples, but my favorite is Moses when he goes up the mountain and encounters God in the burning bush. God gives Moses his mission for, with, and on behalf of the enslaved people of Israel. “How will I know this is real,” Moses asks. In other words, “Give me a sign.” And God says, “You’ll know it is true when you again worship me on this mountain.” Way to go, God! What kind of a sign is that? I want the sign first, not after we’ve lived through all the dangers between now and then. We all want the sign first, don’t we, but as we just heard, “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Jesus speaks from just that experience. Even though he has already been rejected by some, scorned by many, verbally attacked by still others, and even though some have already tried to kill him, he still speaks with “the conviction of things not seen.”
“Do not be afraid, little flock.” Jesus acknowledges their smallness in the world, their smallness even among the people of Israel, yet he encourages them to live liberally and generously. The Way of Jesus, or “the Jesus Movement,” as our Presiding Bishop calls it, is characterized by the liberality of love. We did not earn the love God gives us, so how can we expect others to earn love from us? That is much different from earning trust. It seems to me that our human nature is such that we can love without trusting, but we cannot trust without having love.
Jesus gives them an image of making for themselves “an unfailing treasure in heaven.” By “unfailing” I think he means two things: 1) that this treasure will never run out like money in the bank does when we live recklessly, in fact the more we practice loving the more we have to give away; and 2) that this treasure cannot be taken away, because it is the reality of an internal place where heaven and earth are joined, that place called faith and sometimes hope. The promise is that we are going to inherit the kingdom, so what else is there to worry about?
Jesus concludes with the statement, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We so often hear that the other way around: where your heart is, there will your treasure be. That does describe much of our charitable giving, doesn’t it? Think of “heart” here as “love” or “loving” and “treasure” as “faith” or “faithing” (to use it as an active verb). Think of music, if that is our primary passion, our love. If our heart is in music we shall have the faith (the active means) to support music with our contributions to the symphony, classical radio, the choir, schools of music, and so on. We do the same thing with all kinds of important things: art, education, medical research, micro-loans to third world people, food banks, shelters, animal care and welfare, the environment—you know the list. You probably give to as many as or more of them than I do. That kind of giving comes from the heart and is manifest in a check or a money transfer.
Now what if our treasure is “faith” in itself, or “hope” in itself? Then we are inspired to invest our very selves: body, mind and soul in order to bring about the fruits of faith and hope for others around us or those who come after us. I certainly want our grandchildren’s grandchildren to hear the Gospel preached in this place and lived out in grace and mercy.
When “faith” is our treasure, we make the investment first so that our very hearts may grow into wholeness. This is why I give to the Church and some other bodies that exist to convert us from narrowness and selfishness and inspire us to gratitude and generosity.
I want to share something personal, not intending to boast, but to indicate how much I believe this, that whenever I talk about money I come from a place that is honest and real and true. St. Paul asks, “How do you account for the hope that is in you?” That is what I want to share. For many years I have given away well over a tenth of my income before taxes, a full tithe and more to the Church as a whole, and the rest to many other organizations that serve well in our larger society. I do this because I want God to stretch my heart into loving more. And I still go to church, even though I am retired and could anonymously get away without doing so. I go to church because I am as prone as anyone else to fall into judging people, becoming annoyed with others, finding shreds of prejudice within myself that I thought I had purged or given away, or holding a grudge for some slight. I go to church every week because when I look around I notice that some of my fellow parishioners have gotten on my last nerve and I have held onto something against someone else in such a way that I have again become enslaved to some unhealth or ill health. So I come to hear the words and the Word, and I hear grace in the word and absolution and blessing. And, most of all I receive that wonderful gift of Jesus Himself in bread and wine, Body and Blood. He gave that to us and named it as Himself; and He gave Himself for us that we may be free.
I am free again. You are free again.
+James L. Jelinek, Trinity, Newport
It was as if today, Epiphany Sunday, saw the most perfect confluence of themes and opportunities to talk and think about Worship, considered by some to be the greatest lack and the greatest need of the Christian and the Church.
The 8am service, the Adult Study (Worship #1) and the “All Age Gather Together” gave me glorious opportunities to preach and teach about worship. It was inspiring to hear and see Trinity Church filled with the shouts of “Wow” as we considered an expression for worship.
The basic text of the 8am sermon is below the audio; I regret we have no record of the “Worship & Wow” talk at 10am!
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday January 6th, 2019 – Epiphany
The Reverend Alan Neale
“The Greatest Lack”
Matthew 2:11 “We have come to worship him, to pay him homage.”
Never before have I been so conscious of the presence of worship throughout the Christmas story –
angelic choruses sing in heavenly places “Glory to God in the Highest”;
tired shepherds, inspired by the angels, trek to Bethlehem and there… they worship;
wise men (maybe three) journey across foreign lands all that they may kneel and worship and, of course,
we cannot forget the animals that evocatively kneel before the One who has made them all and with animal voice worship.
And all our Christmas carols enjoin and charge us to come and worship… Christ, the new-born King.
All of my resolutions for 2019 this is, I think, my primary resolve… to worship the Lord as often as possible, wherever possible, in as many ways as possible.
A.W.Tozer was a tremendously powerful Bible teacher and preacher in the 20th century; as his ministry grew so he becomes ever more conscious of the greatest lack of the church… worship. He wrote many books on worship including this one “Worship – The Reason We Were Created”.
On page 13 he writes, “I can safely say, on the authority of all that is revealed in the Word of God, that any man or woman on this earth who is bored and turned off by worship is not ready for heaven.”
Do I, do you, want to get ready for heaven… worship, worship, worship the Lord?
Matthew 2:11 “We have come to worship him, to pay him homage.”
As we move more deeply, more constantly, more intentionally into worship so a new alertness, sensitivity and awareness grows within our souls.
We learn what is significant in and around our lives; we accept the reality of the world in which we live and we deepen in our understanding of God’s nature and God’s relation to us.
Worship & Significance. Isaiah 60 and Psalm 72 tell of the arduous and long journey embarked upon by the wise men; some have reckoned it to be about 400 miles, maybe two to three weeks by camel or a month on foot. At some point, as their hearts were turned to worship, so they saw their studies, their books, their astrological plans… all as having an absolutely new significance and they responded.
Friends, as you and I surrender afresh to worship this year we will discover a new significance in so much that we have taken for granted, almost tended to overlook and ignore. Ideas and words, plans and friends will suddenly carry a new potential as we repeat these words, “We have come to worship Him, to pay Him homage.
Worship & Realism. You and I know that the pleasant story of the birth of Jesus is ravaged by the anger and jealously of Herod; so beside himself with fury and rage that he orders a massacre of babies. It’s all there in black and white though we would rather put it aside and be done with such horror. The worship of the magi does not blind them to the austere realities of this world and so they respond to the call not to return to Herod.
Friends, as you and I surrender to worship this year we will not therefore be shielded from harm and horror, pain and grief but our worship makes us strong so all this, and more is put into the context of our God who is King.
Worship & Divine Understanding. As the erudite and learned and magical friends set out on their journey I suspect they have little sense of the One to whom they journey to worship. I suspect their packing was done in a fairly inclusive and comprehensive manner; that potential gifts were not limited to gold and frankincense and myrrh. I hope that in the existential moment of connection with the baby they felt they could do no other than offer these bizarre gifts at a stable crib. Yet we know the significance of these gifts… gold for the King, frankincense for the Priest and myrrh for the Savior.
Friends, as you and I surrender to worship this year I promise you that we will gain a deeper understanding of the One we worship, an understanding that will make an impact on our deepest being. Our worship will lead to that sure knowledge that we are children of the King, we are prayed for by the Priest and we are rescued by the Savior.
Yesterday was the Memorial Service for Beth Graham, a loving and gracious light in this Trinity community. Rather an unusual passage was chosen for the second reading… a passage from Revelation, chapter 4 (1-11)… a passage that attempts to describe the unbelievable, constant, varied worship in heaven.
And then I saw it… it wasn’t unusual at all for the words of John reminded me that I have opportunity, even today, to get ready for heaven… let’s get ready even now. AMEN
Maybe it’s the time of the year, maybe it’s the roiling of political waves, maybe it’s having endured over ten days of weakness but today’s sermon is definitely different style with different emphasis and yet… it focus is on two very powerful women (Mary and Elizabeth).
The sermon text is below the sermon audio.
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday December 23 2018
The Reverend Alan Neale
“Congress and/or Cathedral”
Perhaps some of you will be surprised (but I think not) that often clergy are adversely criticized because their sermons are too… political. Though the cynic in me suspects this translates as, “You don’t agree with me.”
In light of the avalanche of political happenings this week, I have been so tempted to look for some sandy burrow where I may hide my head (and if it’s spiritual, all the better).
There is a fear (a reasonable, rational fear) that the gospel will be distorted by secular values and ideologies. There is a fear (a reasonable, rational fear) that the eternal will be dissipated by the temporal, that our passports to heavenly places will be replaced by earthly visas that will fade and decay.
But the demarcation of a realm called “politics”, which is to be kept separate from another realm, “religion”, is itself the fruit of an ideology that is alien to scripture. I am so often reminded of Lord George McLeod’s pithy comment that to God… “matter matters.” To believe that what happens in our DC Congress is separate from, should by untouched by, what happens in our DC Cathedral makes no sense to the readers of Scripture and the followers of Jesus.
The readings for this last Sunday of Advent (2018), as we teeter on the very brink of Christmas… the readings remind us, the “politicisation” of religion is present in the Bible, and particularly in Luke’s Gospel. For the Blessed Virgin Mary, as for the Hebrew prophets, the spiritual is not something wholly separate from the physical. The work of the Spirit transfigures, transforms our material relationships so that they embody the justice and compassion of God.
We cannot avoid this truth… the Magnificat speaks of this transfiguration: of the poor being “lifted up and filled with good things”, and the rich “sent away empty”. As Pope John Paul II wrote “From Mary, who in her Magnificat proclaims that salvation has to do with justice, there flows authentic commitment to the rest of humanity, our brothers and sisters, especially for the poorest and most needy, and to the transformation of society”.
The message of Micah and his fellow prophets has a political dimension: he denounces the faithlessness and injustice of the rulers of his day, and, like Mary, looks forward to their dethroning. The verses we heard this morning proclaiming that “Bethlehem of Ephrathah, one of the little clans of Judah”, will bring forth “one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days”, locates God’s decisive act of redemption in those whom the world disregards and despises.
Actually the amazing vision, the startling promise of Micah is that God will restore a remnant… a remnant composed of the marginalized (Carol Dempsey, New Collegeville Bible Commentary: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk). This is fulfilled as God raises up his “lowly handmaiden” to bear his Word made flesh; the marginalized Mary (and Elizabeth) carelessly ditched to the edges of society (for no fault of their own)… these marginalized ones are carriers of life and hope to the world.
The poor are often talked about: sometimes to stigmatize, sometimes to support… but their own voices are rarely heard. But in Luke’s Gospel, these are the ones through whom God speaks and acts. The Magnificat declares the power of the poorest in history, both by its content and by the identity of its proclaimer.
I am relieved, encouraged to note that while the voice and vocation of the poorest is central to Luke’s account, it is God, always God who is the ultimate initiator. The Blessed Mary is the supreme example of discipleship. She shows each generation of Christians what it means to be receptive to God’s word and to mediate his grace; Mary speaks to me and you this morning and says… “Your vocation is to respond, to allow, to submit”. The Magnificat is not a call to work for justice in our own power, but a celebration of God’s saving work.
This does not render us passive spectators. In Mary, we see that receptivity to God involves courage and tenacity. In John Paul II’s words, “she is also a model, the faithful accomplisher of God’s will, for those who do not accept passively the adverse circumstances of personal and social life.”
Mary’s song is the fruit of a deep contemplation of the events in her life and the life of her aged cousin, and of the Hebrew scriptures. It draws heavily on the song of Hannah, who, like Elizabeth, was without child for many years (1 Samuel 2). But it is also full of phrases from the Psalms and the prophets. As St Bonaventure writes, the canticle “shows that the fulfilment of all promised blessings has come about, and therefore brings about the fulfilment of all praise and canticles”.
The Magnificat is both a song of rejoicing and a summons to struggle.
And just a little Advent starkness before the panoply of Christmas… our epistle reminds us, the body that is being nurtured in Mary’s womb will be nailed to the cross – a song of rejoicing and a summons to struggle .
Just as John the Baptist leaps to herald Jesus in the womb, so his execution will prefigure Jesus’s treatment at the hands of the religious and political authorities – a song of rejoicing and a summons to struggle.
The joy of the visitation will, in time, give way, not only to the pain of childbirth, but to the far greater pain — for Son and mother alike — of Calvary – a song of rejoicing and a summons to struggle
In the Easter victory, this world’s death-dealing powers are cast down, and the crucified one is exalted.
As Advent draws to a close, we look forward to the day when the whole creation is drawn into the fullness of that victory, we promise (as best we can) not to surrender nor dilute that hope and we resolve to look for the ways in which God calls us to work with Him.
AMEN (so be it).
It’s often said that the Church of God is called to an Eucharistic/Thanksgiving Community; but also it is called to be an Advent Community carrying a strong and resilient hope into the world. The sermon text is below the sermon audio. I cannot help but note that President Bush (#41) speaks of accepting Jesus as His Savior… what a blessing!
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport; Sunday December 9th 2018; The Reverend Alan Neale; “All will be well”
In 1907 composer Victor Herbert and lyricist Henry Blossom produced a two act operetta entitled Mlle. Modiste. One of its songs contained this phrase repeated over… and over… and over again… “I want what I want when I want it.”
It seems to me that if ever there was to be a collection of Advent Antithetical Hymnody this would be #1 – it is immodestly self-centered, it is unapologetically narrow and it is unashamedly impatient.
“I want what I want when I want it.”
Compare and contrast Paul’s Letter to the Christians in Philippi chapter 1, verse 6: “6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Here the focus is not on self, not on wants and definitely not on immediacy.
Listen to the same verse but this time in the Message Translation: “There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.”
The four weeks of Advent (so inconveniently but of necessity) just before Christmas charge us to cultivate patience… whether that cultivation be in the primal soil of personal relationships, the perennial soil of unfulfilled dreams or the petty soil of daily inconveniences too myriad to name.
St. Paul helps the Philippian Christians to nurture patience as they reflect:
1. “that God began a good work”
2. “that God will bring it to completion” and
3. God is working to a schedule… “the day of Jesus Christ”
“God began a good work”. There is a great solemnity about this work “began” (enarchomai) which only appears in one other place in the New Testament. In Galatians 3:3 Paul is beside himself as he writes to the Galatian Christians, “3 Are you so foolish? Having started (enarchomai) with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” Perhaps their impatience to harvest the fruit of the Spirit led them to forsake God and rely on self… how very foolish.
Our lives begin as God breathes life into them, even our apparent decision to follow Christ is pre-empted by God’s decision to choose and love us. How foolish to allow our impatience to ignore God and rely on self. John Stott comments, “The human will blows hot and cold, is firm and unstable by fits and starts; it offers no security of tenure. But it is the will of God that is the ground of salvation.”
“God will bring it to completion”. The verb here has a continuous sense and may be better translated as “God will evermore put his finishing touches to work, long ago inaugurated – oh my lament with so many projects is “oh, that’ll do” but not so with Ms. Wendy and not so with God. This is no theistic deity who having launched the creation as some heavenly jape leaves it to its own devices while she/he lounges on the verandah of eternity. No this God is constantly at work with the created order and Advent is a liturgical jolt to our system… urging us to wait, to see where God is at work and then happily to work in cooperation with Him. The Advent question to be asked constantly of ourselves, our community is… “Where is God in this? What is God doing?” To quote Stott again, “The assurance that God gives us not only guarantees the outcome; it guarantees every experience of every day, for “in all things God is putting the finished touches”. Good news, bad news, difficulty, blessing, unexpected happiness, unexpected trouble…” in all things God is at work. Advent pleads with us to slow down, take note, be changed and give thanks.
And thirdly, “God is working to a schedule to “the day of Jesus Christ.””
Advent is a complicated time and that is a gross understatement. We cannot, as our Bishop reminded us this week, we cannot pretend that Christmas distant (there is no theological frontal lobotomy that would make that possible) but here, right now, we are called to observe the way in which Jesus comes to us daily, often, momentarily, privately, loudly, sensitively, cautiously and then… we are called to put all of this into the perspective of that one great day to which all creation is steadily, surely, securely moving. There is no chaos, there is no frustration, there is no disappointment that will cause this schedule to collapse. Though our Old Testament/Hebrew Scripture prepares us for a day of gloom and doom, the day of Jesus Christ will be one of rescue, liberation and redemption… which those who have died have already tasted and of that day they know the truth.
President George Herbert Walker Bush was once asked if he had ever been “born again,” he hesitantly answered, “I think I would ask for a definition.” He later explained, “If by ‘born again’ one is asking, ‘Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?’ then I could answer a clear-cut ‘Yes.’ No hesitancy, no awkwardness. Yet if the question was whether there had been one single moment, above any others, in which my life has been instantly changed, then I can’t say that this has happened, since there have been many moments.” The Advent Hope cultivates a visionary alertness that waits “for the many moments.”
A good friend, a mentor of mine would patiently listen to my woes and then, looking at me fiercely, would say, “Alan, it will all be well.” Out of context you might think this inane, ineffective, insipid but in the moment… it carried all I needed to hear. It truly restored my soul for I knew two things… he believed what he said, and he knew it to be true in his own life.
Paul, in prison with a death sentence hanging over him, says this to the Christians in Philippi “I am confident, I do not have the slightest doubt…” all will be well. This is our Advent Hope for which we need pray an Advent Life. AMEN
This sermon was preached at the early service (with too many digressions, sorry!); the later service was an “all-age affair” and so the talk was more participatory with visual aids. One visual aid involved asking children to come look into a case where I had a picture of a special saint… they opened the case, looked in and saw themselves in the mirror. Every child smiled… and it was as people left church and I greeted them by name prefixed by “saint”. It should cause our hearts and lives to smile that we are loved and liberated, made whole by God.
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday November 4 2018. The Reverend Alan Neale; “Stunned by Sanctity”
How many saints do you see around you this morning? Of course in some churches and other places of worship saints and saintly people are celebrated in stained glass windows, elegantly written epitaphs and sometimes gorgeously sculptured monuments.
But, putting these possibilities aside, how many saints do you see around you this morning? Well, I see as many saints as I see faces (including the couple of faces I cannot see behind the altar; oh and maybe even mine as well).
Over the centuries we have succumbed to the delusion that saints inhabited an exalted landscape and breathed a rarified atmosphere. With doubtful modesty strengthened by erroneous theology and suspect anthropology we have strayed from the Biblical (both Hebrew and Christian Scripture) truth that sainthood is not only accessible but also actual… today, right now.
When St. Paul writes to the Christians at Corinth he knows them to be a… naughty group of people. They argued, they were immoral, they compromised, they vacillated… it was to them that he needed, of all the churches, to write the glorious hymn to/of love (“though I speak…”).
And yet to these pastoral pains in the side, he begins his letter by addressing them as saints… I Corinthians 1:2 “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”; and as Eugene Petersen (who recently died) writes in his magnum opus The Message Translation” – “believers cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.”
And how Paul addresses the Corinthian Christians so he addresses all those who receive his letters… no matter the degree of malfunction, no matter the degree of waywardness, no matter the degree of rebellion… he names, nominates and declares them to be “saints”.
Friends, our problem is that we begin too much from our own perspective and far too little, far too rarely, do we consider ourselves from God’s perspective.
His is always the initiative, the preemptive strike, the first cause and so today (Isaiah 25:9) we are told that “God destroys the shroud that is set over us, that God wipes away tears from our eyes, that God saves us as we wait for him”. It is in our very passivity that God is at work and determines our status as saints!
His is always the initiative, the preemptive strike, the first cause and so today (Revelation 21:6) “Behold, I am making all things new”. It is in our very passivity that God is at work and determines our status as saints.
And in our Gospel for today (John 11) we see a saint in the making – Lazarus, he who knows full well the weakness of his flesh and the creative power of his Lord. Now, as Anne Marie reminded us in a different context last week, there is a crucial distinction between resurrection and resuscitation. Lazarus in our Gospel story is not resurrected, he is resuscitated to die again one day… and I sometimes muse whether Lazarus somehow, in some way, regretted that he had been called back but called back he is and he walks in the knowledge of two great truths – He is Loved and He is Liberated.
The first great truth… He is loved… John 11:3 “Master, the one you love so much is very sick”… the one you love so much.
He is loved… John 11:36 “The Jews said, ‘See how much he loved him.”
The defining mark of sainthood is to be loved by God; the transforming energy of sainthood is to know that we are loved.
“God so loved…” (John 3:16); “God commends his love to us…” (Romans 5:8)
The second great truth… He is liberated… John 11:38 “38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” And “43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!””
He is liberated… 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Stones/barriers to life in abundance are rolled away and the bands/the cords that hold us back from living and loving are broken, stripped away.
The defining mark of sainthood is to be liberated by God; the transforming energy of sainthood is to know that we are liberated.
“For freedom, Christ has set us free…” (Galatians 5:1), “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
This side of eternity we often relapse but our citizenship in heaven is secure, our status as saints is solid.
Of course at All Saints’ we remember those who have died… who stand on a distant shore, those whom we love but see no longer. Friends, these are those who witness and testify and affirm to us that the love of God is boundless and the liberation of God is thorough.
And so I speak to you, and to myself, as saints of God… let us thankfully receive these gifts of love and liberation today, open to radical change in ourselves, in our church, in our family, in our community.
Thanks be to God… and let all the saints say “AMEN.”
Sunday, October 28, 2018 Proper 25B
A recorded sermon by:
The Rev. Canon Anne Marie Richards
Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday October 21 2018
The Reverend Alan Neale
So… it seems I was so excited to get to the theme of the sermon that I felt entitled to miss the reading of the Gospel! Suddenly it occurred to me that something was missing and so, until I learn how to edit the recording, for this post you hear Gospel and sermon. There was quite a lot of reaction to the “entitlement” theme… interesting. I should have spent more time working on the text…
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday October 21 2018; The Reverend Alan Neale “Entitlement”
As I grow older I try to grow a little more mellow (day by day), I sometimes regress, but generally it is a positive journey. One way I try to express this newfound “mellowness” is by letting cars out into traffic. I try not to do it so much as to annoy the drivers behind me but generally… I will slow down and let cars into traffic except… (oh dear) except when a car forces itself forward as if… as if… what’s the word?… as if it is somehow entitled and this “entitlement” just sticks in my throat, causing the right leg to stiffen on the accelerator… oh sinful man that I am!
Entitlement is an attitude of “I am owed”, maybe you can hear it in this anecdote?
Martha Grover writes “I ask my father to read an article about male entitlement and emotional labor.
He says, “Can you just tell me what it says?””
Or more clearly… I am a college graduate, I am entitled to a good job; I am a senior citizen, I am entitled to the respect of younger generations; “I’ve been good to my friends, so they owe me their loyalty.… the list is endless.
It seems our culture loves to foster these notions in us. Years ago McDonald’s restaurants built an entire ad campaign around the slogan, “You deserve a break today.” And later, it was “You owe it to yourself to buy a Mercedes Benz.” Society continues to bombard us with the message that we are such fantastic people, we are entitled to an equally fantastic way of living.
To some degree, we all have entitlement feelings. We carry around a sense of being owed for something we have done or for some wonderful trait we have. When we feel entitled, we focus on what we are owed, not what we might need to give to others. It is a “one-way street” mind-set. When these feelings are strong and people don’t meet our expectations, we then find ourselves bitter, resentful, and angry. Relationships can be (and often are) destroyed by feelings of entitlement.
It’s all there in our readings today both from Hebrew Scripture (Job) and the Gospel (Mark).
Job 38… clearly Job is suffering from a serious bout of entitlement, exacerbated by his friends who feel entitled to offer gratuitous, platitudinous and grievous counsel.
The Lord takes Job to ask… “Who in the name of… Heaven do you think are? Were you engaged in the creation of the world… no! Did you get busy with measuring cosmic and global lines… no! Did I see you partying with morning stars and heavenly beings… no!”. The purpose of this vigorous engagement between Creator and Creature was not intended to belittle Job but rather to put him in right perspective, right relationship with his God.
And entitlement rears its ugly head again in Mark 10. The brothers James and John approach Jesus with a marked sense of entitlement… they’re owed for their service, their sacrifice, their loyalty. And their entitlement not only empowers them to approach Jesus privately but then to make ridiculous demands above and beyond their fellows. And look what happens… the others get angry.
I want to take a pause here and underline, stress what I believe to be one of the most challenging words of Jesus (Mark 10:43): “but it shall not be so among you” (literally, “not thus however shall it be among you”).
Beyond the church there may well be a prevalent attitude of building up endless funds of money for the proverbial “rainy day” – “but it shall not be so among you” where trust and faith and generosity are nurtured.
Beyond the church there may be petty jockeying for position and influence – “but it shall not be so among you” where humility and service characterize Christian living.
Beyond the church there may be gossip, palace intrigue and partisanship – “but it shall not be so among you” where the vocation to unity is central, and where confession, forgiveness and restoration is paramount.
Governed, dominated, shaped by a craven sense of entitlement… Jesus cries out, yearning to reach deeply into my heart and yours… “IT SHALL NOT BE SO AMONG YOU”.
Thank God for the Letter to the Hebrews… chapter 5, for here we discover a functional, healthy, gracious way to live.
The writer prepares us for the sublime as he writes first of the High Priest… a position of singular honor, a function of unique ministry, a vocation of sublime nature.
Listen Hebrews 5:4 (Message Translation) “No one elects himself to this honored position. He is called to it by God”.
And this, my friends, prepares us for the theological, Christological coup-de-grace as the writer then says of Jesus, “Neither did Christ presume to set himself up as high priest, but was set apart by the One who said to him, “You are my Son; today I celebrate you!”.
Jesus gives us the example of a beautiful life liberated from the thrall of entitlement, the corrosion of self-aggrandizement, the nastiness of self-absorption.
And what Jesus sets as divine example so he enables by divine power… the power to trust God, to surrender to God.
It is central, it is crucial, it is core to the divine nature that God though entitled to everything, demands nothing and so thus we live in a kingdom of grace, we breathe an atmosphere of grace, we labor in a workshop of grace.
And because of Jesus we gain entitlement to be able to say, “We are beloved of God, chosen and precious” – from this primal psychic entitlement healthy living, healthy relationships become possible.
Talk of stewardship of money, time, skill… all such talk challenges our sense of entitlement and urges a commitment to gratitude. “For” as Dr. Brene Brown argues, “what separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude.”
Steve Maraboli (Behavioural Scientist) writes “A sense of entitlement is a cancerous thought process… void of gratitude and deadly to relationships”.
From this deadly disease, Lord, please set us free… free to give, to serve, to love… free to be! AMEN