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Grace Church in New York

Restoring All People Within Our Reach To Unity With God And Each Other Through Jesus Christ

Grace Church

in New York

Restoring All People Within Our Reach To Unity With God And Each Other Through Jesus Christ

Sermons with Manuscripts

Sermon – November 5, 2023

God Re-Members

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring
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 The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
All Saints’ Sunday
November 5, 2023

Some of them have left behind a name … But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.  (Ecclesiasticus 44:8-9) 

Many years ago – actually, many decades ago – I looked ahead at the lifetime of sermons I would need to write.  I decided that the only way to survive would be to create a repository of thoughts and illustrations for every conceivable preaching topic.  I would have a file on every one of them to avoid being caught flat-footed when it was time to write a sermon.  One of those files is labeled “All Saints.”  Earlier this week when I opened the file, I found a newspaper article that I had saved way back in 1998.  The gist of the story tells how a military family, separated by deployment, stayed in touch using a miraculous new thing called email.  In fact, email was so new and novel that they still spelled it the old-fashioned way: with a dash between the “e” and the “m.”  E-mail. 

Back and forth went the e-mails from Texas to Bosnia, where Daniel, the father, was part of the U.S. peace-keeping force after the brutal civil war earlier in the decade.  In one e-mail, Daniel wrote the following to his wife:

We spent the day at the war-crime mass-grave dig site … In the area where we were, the Serbs had held a large number of people captive for a while before they killed them.  On one large tree by the road, some poor woman, who knew she was going to be killed, carved her name – RADZJA – in the tree, probably so the world would not forget that she once lived.  One of {our} soldiers saw the name, heard the story and decided to give his soon-to-be daughter that name.  All his children’s names start with R, and he had been looking for a good one for his daughter.  I imagined that Radzja was very happy to know that she will not be entirely forgotten.[1] 

All those years ago, I put Radzja’s story in the All Saints’ file because it reminded me then, and reminds me still about what we are trying to do today.  If you had to choose just one word to describe our celebration of all the saints, the word might be: Remember.  In her final, terror-filled moments, Radzja wanted to be remembered.  She wanted the world to know that she once lived, and loved, and breathed the air.  She was here, every bit as much as the names on our All Saints’ list once were here.  Today, our duty and delight is to remember them.  We light candles in their honor, and in accord with the reading we heard from Ecclesiasticus, we sing the praises of famous men – and famous women, too – our ancestors in their generations.  Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise.  But of others, there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never been born.  Yes, we try to remember, but the problem is human memory itself.  Eventually, we forget.  The tree where Radzja carved her name – is it still there?  The soldier’s daughter who received her name – does she know the story?  The candles we will hold –how long can they burn?  Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years and memories and monuments away. 

Nevertheless, the writer of Ecclesiasticus continued: But these also were godly people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.  Not forgotten by whom?  Not forgotten by God.  God remembers.  And I think I am on safe theological ground to say that God spells the word “remembers” the old-fashioned way: with a dash between the first “e” and the “m.”  God re-members us.  God puts us back together.  You and I have biological life because our hearts beat and our lungs fill with breath.  But biological life ends.  Death is the ultimate denier of membership in the human family.  What we need is the life Jesus has to give: spiritual life, eternal life, the life we believe begins in the water of baptism.  Eternal life is to live, and move, and have our being in God.  Eternal life is to have God call us to mind.  It is to have God re-member us, even after death.  In the church, we have a word for it when God re-members us.  We call it resurrection. 

The prophet Ezekiel (37:7) saw a vision of God’s re-membering Israel.  Dry bones came rattling together and took on flesh and lived.  Ezekiel was caught up in the mind of God, witnessing God’s re-membering and resurrecting his people.  I suspect that to be in the mind of God is to know life far more abundantly than we know life and consciousness now.  Even better is the promise of Jesus that because of his cross and resurrection, the memory of us causes God to smile, not frown.  The light of God’s countenance shines upon us. 

In the parish pledge letter that many of you have received (and is still coming to some of you), I wrote about how the light from the resurrection stained glass window reflects off the brass nameplates of the columbarium and makes them shine.  Who belongs to these names left behind?  Who are these like stars appearing?  Who are these whom God re-members.  It turns out the saints are just folk like you and me.  Indeed, none of us are perfect people, but the lives of those around us may be a better repository of saintliness than any filing system.  So let us sing a song of the saints of God: patient, and brave, and true.  And let us even declare, “I meant to be one, too.”  Yes, let’s take a moment and participate in God’s work of re-membering. 

I remember Mary Keane.  Mary was the first person whose ashes were interred in the columbarium.  When Mary died in 2015, no one had been a member longer than she.  In the long history of Grace Church, stretching back now over two-hundred years, fourteen rectors have served the parish.  Mary’s membership of Grace Church touched on half of the rectors – seven in all.  She first appeared to Walter Russell Bowie, the 8th Rector, when she was a little girl in the 1930s.  Then she appeared to the next five.  Then last of all, as to one untimely born, she appeared also to me, number-14.  Seven out of fourteen!  Think of the incredible span of history that Mary experienced within this Christian family. 

Alas, longevity alone doesn’t necessarily make us saints.  If you paid attention to today’s Gospel passage (Matthew 5:1-12) – the Beatitudes – you might think that suffering has something to do with it.  If so, Mary had the credentials.  Mary suffered from a degenerative form of MS that rendered her wheelchair bound beginning in the 1980s.  Yet for all those years Mary still embraced life with uncommon grace and courage.  I can recall early on in my time here having lunch with Mary and her husband Ted at their apartment.  It would be difficult for me to understand what Mary was trying to say, but she was beautifully patient until I either heard her correctly or Ted was able to translate.  I would leave those lunches, walking back here to Grace Church deeply moved by the way Mary waited on the Lord.  She went through a great ordeal, yet shined with the light of Christ. 

I remember Richard Scalera.  Richard was a fixture at Grace Church.  He was an usher, a lay reader, and also served as an acolyte.  When he carried the processional cross he would hold it high and straight.  He would turn his corners with crisp, military precision.  He was a godsend at our many Sunday afternoon Evensong services, like the one we’ll have today.  Typically we’d be scrambling for an acolyte.  Richard would invariably show up and gladly go to work for the Lord he loved and knew. 

I remember one Sunday afternoon, when Richard was the crucifer.  At the end of the service, he was leading the choir and clergy down the center aisle, carrying the cross in stately stride and with great dignity.  Two-thirds of the way through the nave Richard passed by a man in a pew who had come in during the middle of the service.  The man was a big, strapping guy clearly living life on the margins.  He didn’t seem to know where he was, or what he should be doing.  Needless to say, the man certainly wasn’t singing the final hymn.  But when Richard came by in all his solemn formality, the man in the pew was so moved by the sight that he straightened his back and saluted.  It was a sustained, rigid salute, so that by the time I came by I wasn’t sure whether I should salute him back, or say, “At ease, soldier.”  Richard brought out the best in the poor fellow.  Richard, we remember you.  We salute you. 

I remember Peter Benet.  No rector could ask for a more supportive, worldly-wise, faithful, generous parishioner than Peter Benet.  He was a vestry member, a warden, and an usher.  As an usher, he didn’t just carry other people’s gifts to the altar in the offering plates, he was all in himself.  I’ll always remember when we were in the asking phase of the Bicentennial Capital Campaign way back in 2008.  One evening I sat down with Peter and Diana in my office and put a number before them, secretly fearing that they would erupt in outrage and tell me I was out of my mind.  I half expected that they would leap across the coffee table and strangle me!  They did nothing of the sort.  With his characteristic wink of an eye, Peter promised they would think it over, and then he spoke words of amazing grace.  “Thank you for doing this,” is what he said.  Peter was thanking me for asking the people of Grace Church for money.  Apparently, not all of my thirteen illustrious predecessors were eager to do it.  So, in Peter’s honor, my promise to you is that I will continue to ask the people of Grace Church for money.  Even today.  Especially today! 

Today is not only All Saints’ Sunday, it is also that most wonderful day of the year we call Pledge Sunday.  If you think I have a thick file at home labeled “All Saints,” you should see the one for Pledge Sunday.  Its contents would overwhelm any one sermon.  Fortunately, the saints who are “just folk like me” provide a better repository of grateful giving and generosity than any filing system ever could.  Mary, Richard, Peter, and a great multitude of others from every generation at Grace Church gave sacrificially of themselves to support the work of the Lord through this place and people.  Why did they do it?  Why do we do it?  Why do we ask everyone to make an annual, financial gift or pledge?  Of course, we have a budget to make and bills to pay.  But the church budget is not the primary thing.  We don’t give towards a budget.  We give out of gratitude.  Hopefully, your annual gift or pledge speaks to how grateful to God you are for all the blessings of this life.  One sure and certain characteristic of sainthood is gratitude.  Saints are grateful to God. 

Note that the pledge envelope has two parts that we ask you to complete.  The top portion of the envelope asks you to list some of the particular blessings of God you’ve known in the past year.  What will they be?  Let them be large and small, mysterious and mundane, sacred and profane.  Let them speak of all the ways that God has broken into your life with the love of family, friends, and pets.  Let them speak even of the times that tried your soul, because in retrospect we can see ourselves as blessed when going through a great ordeal.  Mark down life itself – that by the grace of God you and I not only are, but are aware of it. 

Once we’ve remembered the great deluge of God’s blessings, then comes the bottom portion of the giving envelope that asks you to make a financial commitment for 2024.  The number you write is an expression of gratitude to God.  Let it put a smile on the face of God.  Let it be a tangible way to say thank you, Lord, for all the blessings of this life.  Thank you, Lord, for the virtuous and godly examples of all your saints: for Mary, Richard, Peter, and Radzja.  Radzja, I’m sure, is happy to know that she has not been entirely forgotten.  Far from it.  She lives, and moves, and has her being in the mind and memory of God. 

Thank you, Lord, for knitting us together in one communion and fellowship: for re-membering us, so that with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, we may come before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple.  And he who sits upon the throne will shelter us with his presence … and he will guide us to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one, too. 

[1] “I Miss You,” by Dennis McCafferty.  USA Weekend, December 11-13, 1998.

Sermons – October 22, 2023

The Gates of Hell

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring
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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 22, 2023

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus … I will go before you and level the mountains.  I will break in pieces the doors of bronze.  (from Isaiah 45:1-7)

Isaiah’s reference to doors of bronze reminds me of the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, who lived from 1840-1917.  Perhaps Rodin’s most recognizable work is called The Thinker, a statue of an unclad, anonymous man sitting on a rock, resting his chin on his right hand, and thinking: thinking, as Rodin himself described, “with every muscle of his arms, back and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”  About what, you may ask, is The Thinker thinking?  Rodin originally created The Thinker to sit near the top of a much larger work that he came to call The Gates of Hell.  In 1880, Rodin’s commission was to create a great doorway for a new museum in Paris.  He chose as his theme Dante’s Inferno, and thus it is the suffering of the damned and their descent into hell that The Thinker looks down upon and ponders.  The Paris museum never came to pass, which left Rodin free to work and rework The Gates of Hell until he died thirty-seven years later.  Eventually six bronze casts were made from the original plaster model, the first of which is nearby at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. 

Some time ago I was at the Rodin Museum and stood before The Gates of Hell.  It is startling to behold.  Two immense bronze doorways, under a central tympanum, inside a decorative frame create a chaotic scene of irresistible downward momentum.  Nearly two-hundred sculpted figures, like a waterfall of humanity, are either teetering on the edge, or tumbling into the depths of hell.  Everything is collapsing.  Everyone is falling: down from the heights of human existence, down to a heap in the bottom of a basement with depths we neither know nor have conceived.  The Gates of Hell present such downward force as to suggest no one can rise against it, and no one can escape the closed doors of bronze. 

The Gates of Hell is a particularly apt sculpture for our time.  Everyone is falling.  Everything is collapsing.  What do I mean?  Of course, foremost on our minds is the raging war in the Holy Land.  As we all know, two weeks ago Hamas terrorists from Gaza invaded Israeli communities, butchered over a thousand people, and took hundreds of others hostage.  Israel quickly declared war, began bombing Gaza to rubble, and now plans ground offensive to vanquish Hamas.  The whole thing has created a humanitarian crisis, especially for innocent Palestinians trapped in Gaza with nowhere to go.  The world is in an uproar.  Meanwhile, we see the war criminal, Vladimir Putin, laughing with delight in hopes that western nations will be distracted from his ongoing, savage invasion of Ukraine.  In fact, this past week Putin attended a summit meeting in China with other tyrants, despots, and dictators who want to create a new world order with their own totalitarian regimes leading the way.  So we sit like The Thinker, watching the collapse of the damned – potentially the whole damned world. 

Forgive me.  You haven’t come to church to hear bad news about the state of the world.  We should set our minds not on political things, but on spiritual things.  When the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they were attempting to entangle him in the same, false dichotomy.  In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-22) Jesus brilliantly sidestepped the question because it struck at the age-old, yet misguided desire to separate the affairs of earth from the business of heaven.  You see, within the Judaism of Jesus’ day, certain groups adamantly believed that truly spiritual people should shun the material order.  They should not dirty their hands with earthly goods, especially unclean Roman coins that had the emperor’s idolatrous image and claims stamped on them.  God and money don’t mix.  Mystery and matter cannot dwell together, they reasoned. 

Nevertheless, the divide between spirit and substance was then, and remains today, and always shall be irrelevant.  We who are dwellers in time and space have no choice but to deal with the rough stuff of the earth.  We have no access whatsoever to the spiritual realm except through God’s created order – that which we can taste and see and touch.  Jesus saves us not from the world, but in the world and through the world.  So when the world starts melting away, spiritual and non-spiritual people alike do well to be alarmed and concerned about the gates of hell that seem to be closing behind us.  But can we do anything beyond sitting like The Thinker, pondering the demise of humanity?  Can anyone reverse what seems to be an irreversible downward plunge? 

Hear again the words of the prophet Isaiah: Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus … I will go before you and level the mountains.  I will break in pieces the doors of bronze.  Isaiah spoke these words to the Jews at a time of utter devastation in their national life.  The menacing, nearby nation of Babylon had invaded the kingdom of Judah.  The attackers ransacked the capital city of Jerusalem, and carried the whole population off to languish in exile, behind the closed doors of Babylon.  The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that Babylon had a hundred doors of bronze in the city wall.  For the Jews, these were the gates of hell that held them captive for decades under the iron fist and watchful eye of their vanquishers.  They were helpless, in the bottom cellar of a basement they could neither have known nor conceived.  The Babylonians had humbled the Jews with such downward force that no one could rise against it, and no one could escape the closed doors of bronze.  All they could do was sit and think like The Thinker about the collapse of the world. 

Then, God sent the pagan King Cyrus of Persia to break in pieces the doors of bronze..  Isaiah pointed to Cyrus on the move and proclaimed to his fellow captive people that here was not merely a servant of God, here was not just a doer of good deeds.  Rather, here was God’s anointed.  The word “anointed” would have stunned the captive Jews.  It had messianic overtones.  But was it true?  Let history be your guide.  Cyrus did indeed come and break down the bronze gates of Babylon.  He rescued the Jews, allowed them to go home, and actually funded the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.  The return from exile became one of the great moments in the sacred story of God’s people, not unlike the Exodus from Egypt.  For them, for us, and for the whole watching world it is a sign planted in history that God’s will is to raise up that which has been cast down. 

King Cyrus of Persia and the return from exile is an apt story for our time.  But you may wonder: was it a fluke, or a coincidence, or a lucky turn of a friendly card that we shouldn’t count on happening again?  Or, was God really at work in that time and place, doing what God wills and works for in every time and place?  Was God, through Cyrus, really raising up a people who had fallen? 

Nearly six-hundred years after Cyrus a small band of Jews was trying to find language to describe another remarkable reversal of humanity’s downward plunge.  They were trying to describe the resurrection of Jesus and their experience of his continued, living Spirit among them.  He who was dead had come to life again, had walked among them, and was still known to them in the breaking of bread.  How could they explain it?  They searched the Scriptures.  They read the Psalms and studied the prophets.  They undoubtedly paused over the one whom Isaiah had called anointed – King Cyrus – who had broken Babylon’s doors of bronze and rescued their ancestors centuries ago.  As they read they surely connected the dots between Cyrus and Jesus, also called anointed.  They dared to believe that the same power of God that brought the Jews home from exile also brought again from the dead their Lord Jesus Christ.  Cyrus foreshadowed Jesus.  The return from exile foretold Easter.  Easter was inviting them to believe that God, through Christ, had done nothing short of reversing the downward momentum of death. 

Our challenge now is not to sit like The Thinker, pondering the downfall of humanity.  It is instead to bet our lives on Easter.  To be a Christian is to live in the light of Easter, wagering with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength that love is stronger than death, that good shall triumph over evil.  It is to walk by faith, not fear.  In other words, God’s calling to us in these troubled times is this: Don’t just sit there, do something.  Walk by faith. 

It’s in this context of walking by faith, not by fear, that I wish to talk for a moment about some parish family business.  By now most of you should have received in the mail or read in the Weekly Epistle the brochure entitled “Making All Things New.”  Note well, the brochure isn’t about the annual campaign that pays the utility bills and keeps the ministries going.  The good news is, we’ll talk about the annual campaign in two weeks!  Actually, “Making All Things New” isn’t a campaign at all, at least not yet.  Right now we’re merely in a discernment phase, exploring the feasibility of raising significant funds for building restoration.  It’s no secret that large segments of plaster in the church do not sing the praises of the God who raises up that which has fallen.  Meanwhile, the exterior facades of the parish house and rectory are beginning to look like Herman Munster’s house at 1313 Mockingbird Lane.  Our buildings are sacramental.  They are an outward and visible sign, or an expression of the grace and faith that is in us.  They should proclaim to the world that Easter is true, and that God loves the rough stuff of the world he has made, and all the people who inhabit it.  So the challenge before us in the coming year will be to walk by faith, not by fear, and open ourselves to the Spirit of God, whose will it is to make all things new. 

What does it look like to walk by faith?  At the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, once I got past The Gates of Hell, I was transfixed by another bronze sculpture of six larger than life figures walking in a tightly knit group with pained, agonized expressions on their faces.  I wondered: who are these morose people marching together, and where are they headed?  Were they members of Grace Church, after hearing about an annual and a capital campaign all in one sermon?  No, they are The Burghers of Calais. 

 In the year 1347, during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, the city of Calais had been under a lengthy siege.  Food and water inside the walls eventually gave out, and to avoid starvation the city leaders asked for terms of surrender.  King Edward III of England declared that if six burghers – or, leading citizens – would present themselves to him, wearing nothing but sackcloth and nooses around their necks, he would spare the rest of the citizens.  In response, six men volunteered to give their lives so others might live.  They opened the city doors and walked through the gates of hell, presumably to their executions.  This is the moment that Rodin captured in his work.  As it turned out, the Queen of England interceded on behalf of the six Burghers, and persuaded Edward to spare their lives. 

The Burghers of Calais is a particularly apt sculpture for our day – a wonderful counterbalance to The Gates of Hell.  In a time of unimaginable distress, they were willing to walk by faith.  They were willing to give all they had, even life itself, and behold: they received life back again, and won life for their fellow citizens. 

I want to walk with such faith, and not by fear, trusting in God whose will it is to raise up that which is cast down, to make all things new, to open unto us the gates of everlasting life.  For thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus …  I will break in pieces the doors of bronze.

Sermon – September 24, 2023

Yes, It Is Art

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring
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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2023

They grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  (Matthew 20:11-12)

Let’s begin with a fun fact from the annals of television history.  It was thirty years ago this past week when “60 Minutes,” the CBS news magazine, aired one of its most controversial segments in the history of the long running program.  The segment was entitled, “Yes … But is it Art?”  The narrator was the late Morley Safer, who at the time was a highly respected journalist and co-editor of the show.  During the twelve minute segment, Safer ridiculed the 1990s world of contemporary, abstract art.  He accused the artists themselves of being frauds, the dealers of being con-artists, and the buyers of being “victims of a trashy hoax.” 

To make his case, Safer took his viewers to a Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art, where the auctioneer didn’t know if a Gerhard Richter monochrome gray panel was a vertical or a horizontal piece.  He mocked a Cy Twombly work entitled, “Untitled,” as “a canvass of scrawls done with the wrong end of a paint brush.”  Then he interviewed a prominent collector who had purchased and proudly displayed in her gallery three urinals, much like you could find in any public men’s room, except these were not hooked up to plumbing.  Nearby was a pure white canvass by the minimalist artist, Robert Ryman.  Safer shook his head in dismay as to how an essentially blank canvass could be called art.  But he seemed to take the most umbrage with the artist Jeff Koons, who upheld a common vacuum cleaner as art, and sold one to a collector for $100 thousand.  “Worthless junk” is how Safer dismissed most of the art of the 90s. 

Please don’t shoot the messenger!  I am merely opening a time capsule.  These were Safer’s views, not necessarily mine.  What is more, you may be glad to know that the contemporary art world did not take Safer’s challenge lying down.  In fact, they rose up and raked him over the coals for months on end.  They accused Safer of being smug, disrespectful, and oblivious to the questions contemporary art was trying to raise in society.  The segment was a cheap shot, they said.  It was a lampoon that was beneath Safer’s reputation as an otherwise fair and respectable journalist.  He had abused his platform, said one artist.  For his part, Safer held his ground, and in answer to his own question, “But is it art?” his answer was a firm no.  In no way were the objects he featured worthy of being called art. 

We come now to the two readings we have heard today that are about the standards of worth.  They are about the criteria by which we judge something or someone deserving or undeserving.  In the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-16) we’ve heard a parable that Jesus told about a certain landowner who needed help in harvesting the grapes from his vineyard.  Back then, if you needed work, you could go to the market place and hope to be hired on as a farm hand for the day.  But you had to be prompt because the work began at 6:00 in the morning and lasted until 6:00 in the evening.  So at 6:00 a.m. the landowner hired on those who were ready and agreed to pay them one denarius each, the usual daily wage.  Then for some reason he went back to the market place and hired on more laborers, and agreed to pay them “whatever is right.”  He did the same thing at noon, and again at 3:00 p.m.  Finally, at 5:00 p.m., with one hour left in the working day, he hired on still more laborers. 

At 6:00 in the evening, all the workers lined up to receive their pay.  The late-coming laborers hired on only an hour before went first, and to everyone’s delight, they received one denarius – a full day’s wage – the wage agreed upon by the earliest laborers.  The others standing in line must have thought the landowner was paying one denarius per hour, and that they would receive much more than their original agreement.  But such was not the case: everyone received one denarius, from the earliest laborer all the way to the last: one denarius each. 

Imagine this: in a stunning overnight breakthrough, negotiators on both sides of the Hollywood writers’ strike reach an agreement, and everyone goes back to work.  How do they do it?  With a blanket rule that everyone in the industry makes one level salary – from the writers, to the stars on the silver screen, to the stuffed suits in the executive suites of the studios.  No doubt, the guy who tears your ticket in half before you head up the escalator at the Regal will be happy, but the talent will grumble and the productions will suffer.  Or try this: the news out of Detroit tomorrow morning is that the Big Three automakers have solved their labor disputes with the UAW, thus ending the strike before it gets out of hand.  How do they do it?  Again, by applying a new industry-wide standard that will govern compensation for all employees.  Everyone gets paid exactly the same: from the highest executives to the newest hires, from those who work hard to those who hardly work.  Merit and performance will be of no consequence.  Bonuses will be divided equally.  Do you think it will work?  Do you think the brightest and the best will sign on to work in such vineyards?  I don’t think so. 

It won’t work in Hollywood.  It won’t work in Detroit.  And it won’t work in the vineyard, either.  The late-comers certainly won’t complain.  But the early workers grumble to the landowner: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  How dare you make them equal to us!  How dare you lump us in the same category as these late-coming loafers!  In no way should these last be called worthy.  On what criteria is the landowner basing his judgments?  What are the standards or worth?  Perhaps it is perceived need.  The landowner senses that all workers need a full day’s wage whether or not they have earned it, so he gives it to them.  Perhaps the standard is effort: the late-comers worked really hard, so they deserve a full day’s wage, regardless of how much they harvested.  Or perhaps the standard is based on productivity.  The early workers were inefficient.  That’s why the landowner had to hire workers throughout the day, and in their short time in the field the late-comers picked just as many, if not more grapes. 

All of the speculation is to read more into the story than Jesus ever intended.  The parable is a mystery.  I suppose it can mean whatever you want it to mean.  The truth is that none of our human standards of worth make sense of it.  Obviously we have principles of justice at work in the vineyard that are foreign to our way of thinking – principles of justice that we only dimly understand.  Listen to the landowner’s response to the grumbling laborers: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong: did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”  Jesus then concludes the parable by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last.”  It seems that the only conclusion we can safely draw from the parable is that God’s justice is not our justice. 

Jesus’ parables are rife with the scandal of God’s justice.  They are full of unworthy people getting good things they do not deserve: late-coming laborers receiving a full day’s wage, unmerciful servants being forgiven, prodigal sons being welcomed home with a party, lost sheep being searched for and found.  The operating principles of these parables – that Jesus claims are the ethics of the kingdom of God, that he claims reflect the mind of God – are summed up in a word: grace.  God chooses to give to each his or her due according to undeserved generosity, unlimited forgiveness, and unwarranted compassion.  In theory, we love the grace that saves a wretch like me.  It’s just that we aren’t so sure about all those other wretches out there.  The first shall be last?  The last first?  Yes, but is it fair?  Is it justice?  We grumble. 

It’s the same story in today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Jonah.  Jonah grumbled when God had the audacity to judge the people of Ninevah worthy of divine love.  Let’s forget for a moment about Jonah being swallowed by a whale and then spewed up on the beach.  The real story here is that the Hebrew people have been laboring to live according to God’s standards.  They judged themselves worthy before God according to God’s law.  The people of Ninevah, by contrast, were a nation of Gentiles who couldn’t have cared less about keeping of God’s law.  They’d been out plundering and pillaging and having a grand old time.  But when God ordered them to repent, at the eleventh hour they repented.  In fact, it’s comical how thoroughly they repented.  The king of Ninevah ordered even the cows to repent (Jonah 3:8).  Try to imagine a cow wearing sackcloth and ashes.  Get the picture in your mind and ask, Yes, but is it art?  Is it justice?  God seemed to think it was.  God spared the Ninevites. 

Jonah was indignant.  Jonah would rather have died than share a place in God’s eyes with a Ninevite.  He was offended that God would bend to such last minute chicanery as making  cows repent.  God was supposed to clobber the Ninevites.  Jonah had set up a lawn chair outside the city to watch (Jonah 4:5).  In Jonah’s mind, accepting such a stunt and putting the Ninevites in the kingdom of heaven along with the Jews made about as much sense as calling a vacuum cleaner art.  What is the standard?  Listen to what God said to Jonah: “And should not I pity Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also any animals?”  The standard is grace.  Infuriating grace.  Maddening grace.  Amazing grace.  Saving grace.  Yes, but is it fair?  Yes, but is it art?  It is art, insofar as the parable is talking about faith.  Your faith is art.  Your relationship with God is a work of art, and grace is the standard by which it is judged.  What shall we say about grace?  What shall we say about faith – yours and mine? 

First, a word about life in Christ to the late-comers.  You may fear that your medium is new, and that you will never find a place alongside people who practice the more recognizable, classic expressions of faith and discipleship.  In short, you fear that in the eyes of God you are forever “Untitled.”  What does this parable say to you?  It says, Press on.  God is trying to express the Holy Spirit through you – through all of us.  The abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock, defended his drip paintings by saying, “The modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements.  It seems to me that the modern painter cannot express this age – the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio – in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.  Each age finds its own technique.”  Likewise, Vincent Van Gogh.  No one today questions the genius of Vincent Van Gogh, the mentally tortured Dutch painter.  Yet in his own time people had serious reservations about his work.  The common critique was that they appeared to be done in haste.  In a letter to his brother, Van Gogh surmised that if people thought his works were done too quickly, it was probably because they looked at them too quickly.  The take-away here?  Even traditional forms once were new, so press on. 

Now for a word to the grumblers.  You are wondering: what then is the point of laboring in the vineyard?  What is the point of bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat?  What is the point of struggling with the commandments and trying to be a holy people if everyone gets the same in the end?  Well, it could be that you have looked at the parable too quickly.  Remember: without the grace of God, we are all untitled, and without even minimalist meaning.  Then consider a finer point: the Ninevites were spared, yes.  But the early laborers, if they had stopped their grumbling, might have realized that they’d spent the day working shoulder to shoulder with the owner of the vineyard.  If they’d stopped their grumbling, they might have heard him call them, “friends.”  Perhaps friendship with the landowner is the whole point, and the greatest reward. 

A humorous little poem by an anonymous author may sum it up for the late-comers and the grumblers, for the first and the last, for you and for me.  Listen:

I dreamed death came one night, and heaven’s gate swung wide;
With kindly grace an angel ushered me inside.
And there to my astonishment stood folks I’d known on earth;
Some I’d judged and labeled as unfit, and of little worth.
Indignant words rose to my lips, but never were set free;
For every face showed stunned surprise: no one expected me!

Sermon – September 10, 2023

The Third Option?

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring
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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 10, 2023

Jesus said, “For where two of three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.”  (Matthew 18:20)

Earlier this year, I was participating in one of our Saturday outreach projects at the Red Door Place.  As you may know, the Red Door Place is the local feeding and clothing ministry that we support financially and with volunteer hours.  The volunteer days are great, and let me tell you why.  The Red Door Place is close by, located just over on 7th Avenue at 13th St.  You don’t need help from a satellite in outer space to find it.  You work side-by-side with fellow parishioners, and get to know them in a different setting.  Perhaps best of all, you can sign up for the morning or the afternoon shift – or both if you really want to make a difference.  As for me, a night owl who likes to sleep in on Saturdays, I’ll take the afternoon shift every time! 

On the day in question, when I arrived lunch preparations for over 200 people were well underway.  I immediately joined a vegetable chopping station.  At length I noticed that the refuse bin was overflowing with avocado pits and peels, broccoli stalks, onion skins, celery leaves, and all manner of compostables.  This, I learned, was bound for the garbage unless someone were to take it to the green market at Union Square.  But whom should we send, and who would go for us?  Then said I, “Here am I.  Send me.”  I loaded up the bags on a cart and began the trek.  I must confess that along the way I was feeling insufferably pleased with myself.  I was feeding the hungry, saving the planet, and increasing the steps on my Fitbit – all at the same time, and all without having to get up early that morning.  It was a great day to be me. 

Also, I was anticipating that the compost people were either going to love me or hate me.  They might love me because of all the compost I was bringing, but hate me because I knew from other visits that their bins are usually full.  Where were they going to put my enormous offering?  When I reached the compost station I found a young man seated comfortably in a lawn chair.  I said to him, “You’re either going to love me or hate me.”  He took one look at the overflowing bags I had brought and knew exactly what I meant.  But this guy was the epitome of chill.  He replied, “Actually, there’s a third option.  I don’t care.”  Then he pointed to an empty bin behind the tent and said, “there’s plenty of room there.”  All the way back to the Red Door Place I pondered the merits of his wit and wisdom: “Actually, there’s a third option.  I don’t care.” 

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you, you have regained that one.  But it you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you so that every word my be confirmed the evidence of two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:15-16).  In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we’ve heard how Jesus laid out an active, orderly plan for conflict resolution and possibly discipline in the church.  Normally, we take these words of Jesus merely as good, sound advice for any organization of people.  In fact, they are.  If Person A has a problem with Person B, Person A should go directly and privately to Person B, instead of talking it up with Persons C, D, E, F, and G.  If a low-level, face-to-face meeting fails to bring about reconciliation, only then should more people be involved.  Try to avoid escalation, and work diligently to mend the broken relationship.  Such good advice.  Imagine the peace and harmony that would prevail if we took it. 

Nevertheless, the gospel isn’t merely good advice, it is primarily good news.  Thus, we need to probe beneath the words to discover the good news that precedes and follows the good advice.  The first thing we might ask is: to whom, specifically, were these words addressed?  The answer is clear: to the members of the church.  But who are the members of the church?  Well, the church is not just any gathering of people.  It is not a social club, not a service organization, not a therapeutic institute.  True, while you’ll find all of these elements in the church, they are not at the core.  At the core is the presence of God, as Jesus taught and lived it.  The church is the community of people who are committed to a promise, and a goal: experiencing the presence of God, through Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  So Jesus was speaking to not generally to everyone, but specifically to members of the church, who by virtue of their baptism, were engaged in a specific vocation. 

A second question to ask is: are these, actually, the words of Jesus?  Some say no, they could not be.  The words presume the operation of a fully organized church, but the church did not yet exist during the ministry of Jesus in Galilee.  The church only came into being after his death, resurrection, and giving of the Spirit.  Thus, some conclude that these are the words of later Christians, decades into the business of being the church.  It’s true that the words reflect development in the Christian movement, and in their current form cannot be exactly what Jesus said.  Yet it’s also clear that the words are true to the mind of Christ, and that their meaning goes back to him.  They are consistent with the parables he told about seeking the lost, and the sayings he spoke about God’s care for those who have gone astray.  Let this mind be in you, which as also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).  What these words ultimately challenge members of the church to do is leave no stone unturned in the effort to reconcile, and stay in fellowship with each other.  In other words, for us the third option cannot be an option.  When it comes to the welfare of another member of the church, lounging in a lawn chair and declaring, “I don’t care,” is not a way that is open to followers of Jesus. 

Ah, but the third option always tempts us into inaction.  If you read between the lines of what we heard today in Matthew, it’s likely that some members of the church were living egregiously sinful lives and unrepentant about it.  Today we would say it’s none of our business how other people live their lives.  As long as they don’t hurt anyone else, who are you to point out the fault when the two of you are alone?  Perhaps we should find ways to applaud the behavior of those who challenge ethical norms.  Last month The New York Times (8/27/23) ran an opinion piece entitled, “The Case Against Being a Good Person.”  The gist of the article seems to suggest that moral codes and commandments inhibit us from discovering our true selves.  To support the theme, other columnists admitted to and commended their vices, the list of which includes doing drugs, lying, shoplifting, gossiping, sleeping around, even wearing polyester. 

What do we do when we encounter people whose values differ sharply from our own?  Suppose within Grace Church a vocal faction were to arise composed of people who refuse to compost their compostables.  God forbid!  What would we do?  Ghost them?  Shun them?  Would we dare follow Matthew’s plan for a painstaking process of mutual understanding and reconciliation?  I’m not saying it never happens, but usually we choose a variation on the third option, which is not to care.  I think of an old Doris Day song from the 1950s movie musical, Calamity Jane:

 In the summer you’re the winter,
in the finger you’re the splinter,
in the banquet you’re the stew. 
Say, I can do without you. 

I think also of the book by CS Lewis called The Great Divorce, in which he describes hell as a city that is forever expanding in every direction.  Why?  Because the residents keep moving further and further away from each other.  It’s as if a minute or two after meeting, they all conclude, “Say, I can do without you,” and away they go in every direction. 

For those who insist on reading today’s passage from Matthew as good advice, it can be just that: good advice for staying off the road to hell.  But again, the gospel is good news, not just good advice.  The good news that precedes and follows the good advice is that God does not want anyone to go to hell.  The third option is never an option for God, even when it comes to the most notorious of sinners.  The heart of God is not to be aloof and dispassionate.  The Spirit of God is to care.  The mind that was in Christ is the mind of God.  In the Word God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, we heard today (33:7-11): As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? 

 To save Israel, God engaged in a ceaseless rescue effort.  God sent Ezekiel and the other prophets to be sentinels, to warn them against the ways that would carry them away from his presence.  Finally, the same Word of God became flesh in Jesus, to deliver us from evil, and make us worthy to stand in God’s presence.  To be sure, people experience the presence of God in numerous ways: in nature, through the sacraments, in music and worship, through art and beauty.  But what we hear today is the sure promise of Jesus that by committing to care deeply for other believers, we connect with him.  Jesus said, “For where two are or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” 

 The church is a unique organization.  Yes, like any family or association of persons, the church is filled with all sorts and conditions of people: from the wise to the foolish, from the saintly to the sinful, from the workers to the watchers.  What is more, the church is hardly exempt from the unattractive dynamics of human behavior that afflict other assemblies.  Yet, the difference is that in all the messiness of our togetherness, the Spirit of Christ is in our midst.  When we gather in groups of two or three, twenty or thirty, or two-hundred to three-hundred, whether it’s in worship, fellowship, a committee meeting, or an outreach project, we do so intentionally in the name of Jesus.  We gather not because we don’t have anything else to do, but to take Jesus at his word when he promises to be in the midst of us.  The presence of Jesus is our promise.  To experience the living God is our goal. 

So here we are on a another Welcome Back Sunday.  The church awakens from our summer slumber.  You’ll see lots of activity, and you may wonder what is the point of it all.  Well, believe it or not, we do have a goal.  One evening this summer I was out on a walk with my son Luke, the purpose of which was, of course, to enjoy time together, but also to increase the steps on my Fitbit.  We were making our way up Greenwich Street, towards the meat packing district.  From a block or so away I heard the sound of a bouncing basketball.  Sure enough, at King Street we came upon a man shooting baskets.  He was agile and quick, with a spring in his step.  He dribbled well, and pulled up into some fine looking jump shots.  Out there alone by himself, he was anything but lethargic and dispassionate. 

The problem was, he never made a single basket.  Not one time did I hear or see the ball go swoosh through the net.  Why not?  The reason is simple.  There was no net.  There was no rim.  There was no backboard.  He was playing against the blank wall of a building.  The man had no goal. 

We do have a goal.  Our goal is to experience the living God.  Our promise is the presence of Jesus, who said, “For where two of three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” 

Sermon – July 23, 2023

Peace in our Time?

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring
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Peace in our Time?

The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 23, 2023

The servants of the householder said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How, then, has it weeds?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” (Matthew 13:27-28a)

Here we are, deep in the heart of what ought to be the lazy, hazy days of summer, yet the news and today’s Gospel reading both are filled with the invasions of an enemy into neighboring wheat fields. In the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, the war criminal and President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, continues to press his territorial claims, and prosecute his illegal war. Now in the Baltic Sea he has imposed a naval blockade to prevent Ukrainian grain from reaching hungry populations. Thus, Putin adds to his resume world hunger, atop hundreds of thousands of needless deaths, atop the destruction of entire Ukrainian cities. Truly, to see his image on screen is to look into the face of evil. It is to gaze into the eyes of a dead soul.

History tells us of a world leader from not so long ago whose soul was similarly dead. In the spring of 1938, the German Chancellor, Adolph Hitler, eyed the nations of Europe with the stated goal of reuniting all the German speaking people under one rule. Of course, his true intentions were to capture the world, but no one knew it at the time. Or perhaps, no one wanted to know. Hitler gambled correctly that the people of France and Britain had no stomach whatsoever for another war. So he moved his troops into the Rhineland, he moved his troops into Austria, and nobody lifted a finger to stop him. Finally, in May of 1938, Hitler ordered his generals to have the troops ready by October to take the Sudetenland, the mountainous region protecting Czechoslovakia from Germany.

Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of England, wanted to stop Hitler, but he also loathed the idea of sending Britain into another world war. Chamberlain declared himself to be a man of peace to the depth of his soul, so in pursuit of peace he arranged three face-to-face meetings with Hitler. Hitler assured Chamberlain of Germany’s good will toward England and France. They would all live in peace if they could simply settle the Sudeten question. “This is the last territorial claim I have to make in Europe,” said Hitler. Chamberlain believed him, as did the French, and thus they signed the infamous Munich Agreement, ceding the Sudetenland to Germany. The Prime Minister returned to England and waved the Munich Agreement to cheering crowds, declaring it “peace with honor. I believe it is peace in our time.” Sadly, the Munich Agreement was neither honor nor peace, and the carnage of World War II ensued. The truth is, had any nation stood up to Hitler over the Sudeten question, not only would he have backed down, but his own German generals would have arrested him for the reckless course he was pursuing. How ironic that Chamberlain, the man of peace, actually made things worse in his pursuit of peace.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer, his wheat field, his loyal servants, and his enemy. The farmer intends nothing but the best for the field. He and his servants sow the good seed into it, and wait for nature to take her course. But something goes wrong – something that is not a random occurrence, or an act of nature, or a matter of bad luck. No, what goes wrong is deliberate and calculated. While the farmer and his servants are sleeping, an enemy with territorial ambitions of his own comes and sows weeds among the wheat. What is more, the weeds that the enemy sows aren’t just any old weeds. They are copycat weeds that look so much like wheat only late in the growing season can anyone tell the difference.

When the servants begin to suspect the incursion, they approach the farmer with the only plan that would seem to make sense: Let’s get the weeds out of the wheat before it’s too late. Let’s take action while we still can take action. Let’s not just stand here, let’s do something. Strangely, the farmer says no: No, let’s not just do something, let’s stand here. Not only do the weeds and wheat look identical, but their roots are hopelessly tangled together. Thus, if you pull up the weeds, you will also pull up the wheat, says the farmer. You’ll make things worse. We’ll lose the whole crop, and possibly the field itself, which is just what the enemy wants.

The field full of weeds isn’t just the farmer’s problem. The farmer’s field, states the parable, is the world. The field is your life and mine. The field is creation. The creation is full of goodness and potential. Yet the creation is also full of evil and death. St. Paul, in today’s reading from Romans (8:12-25), describes how the whole creation is in bondage to decay. God did not intend sickness, suffering, and death to be part of the field he planted. But something has gone terribly wrong, and now the creation waits with eager longing for deliverance.

What are we to do? The farmer’s inaction puzzles us. We are people of good will who don’t want to stand idly by while someone else of ill and arrogant intent rises up against the meek of the earth. The legacy of Neville Chamberlain is troubling. It wasn’t that he stood idly by. He was hardly inactive. No, he vigorously pursued peace. Yet the case could be made that the man of peace failed to distinguish the wheat from the weeds. As late as September of 1938 he said this after a meeting with Hitler: “In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.” So Chamberlain pressed on in pursuit of peace, but his good intentions actually made the situation worse.

Years ago I heard a story about an airplane pilot who would fly food aid into famished regions of Ethiopia. The missions were daring and harrowing. He would often come in under fire, and land on runways that had been mined. But the need was great, so it was all worth the risk. He felt that he was accomplishing enormous good. No, he wasn’t saving the world, but he was succeeding in making life better with every load he delivered. Or so he thought. Only later did he learn that every time he took off after leaving the food, local insurgents would raid the villagers, often kill them, steal the food, and then use it to bribe young boys to join their warring faction. The pilot was devastated to learn that his efforts to bring food to hungry people were only increasing the violence. Despite his good intentions and deeds, he was making things worse. Indeed, the hindsight of history will judge us all who try to do our best in the moment.

Will we ever know peace in our time? I want to warn you that the parable takes us to an uncomfortable place, and leaves us there with ambiguous, even dubious advice on how to run the farm. The farmer takes no overt action. He lifts not a finger in reaction to his enemy. Allow both to grow together, is what he says. Perhaps the farmer is on to something. Perhaps the farmer is offering us something unique. The farmer is offering a different strategy that is truly radical, counter-cultural, entirely Christian, and a much more narrow road to travel. In telling the parable as he did, Jesus revealed that God is apparently willing to live with an alarming degree of weeds in the field. No, I don’t think the parable is a call to pacifism, but we should always tilt towards peace instead of aggression. Neville Chamberlain’s successor as Prime Minister was none other than Winston Churchill. I don’t think anyone would call Churchill a pacifist, but he did write this remarkable paragraph that’s worth hearing alongside the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Let anyone with ears listen:

Those who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems, who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign Power, have not always been right. On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint. How many wars have been averted by patience and persisting good will! Religion and virtue alike lend their sanctions to meekness and humility, not only between men but between nations. How many wars have been precipitated by firebrands! How many misunderstandings which led to wars could have been removed by temporizing!

Churchill’s words are sobering to a sabre rattling world. Was Jesus suggesting that pacifism is a blanket rule you can apply to every situation. I don’t believe he was. It would be reading too much into the parable to assume that the farmer took no precautions the next time he planted his crop. Would he stand by again and mount no defense? Not likely. But this time he would allow both to grow together. The strange way of the farmer and of Jesus is the way of the kingdom of God. Each of us – in prayer and in consultation with other Christians – needs to agonize over where and when and how it is appropriate to make it our way. When do we gather the weeds, and when do we suffer them? When should we be ready to fight, and when should we bow our heads? These are questions with no easy answers, and no one solution will fit the challenge of every moment. Yes, we need to stop those who are shooting missiles and weeds into neighboring wheat fields. We also need to hear the stories of those who have strived after a different way.

Some of you may remember Canon John Andrew, who was Priest in Charge of Grace Church from 1999-2001. I recall a story he told about a friend of his from England. Leonard Wilson was the Anglican bishop of Singapore during World War II. Because he was an Englishman, Bishop Wilson was arrested, held in a prisoner of war camp, and subjected to frequent and severe beatings. The man who was his principal torturer would mock him between lashes of a cane to the bottom his feet. The torturer once asked the Bishop if he still believed in God. The Bishop replied, “I do.” After inflicting him with more moments of agony, the torturer asked, “Then why doesn’t God save you?” And with strength that the Bishop recalls could only come from the Holy Spirit, he replied, “God does save me. He does not save me by freeing me from pain, but he saves me by giving me the Spirit to bear it.” Finally, the torturer asked the Bishop why he didn’t at least curse him for striking him and mocking him. And the Bishop replied, “Because I am a follower of Jesus Christ, who taught us that we are all brothers.”

The end of the story occurred several years after the war, when the Bishop had been released from the camp and returned to his work in Singapore. As he was making a Confirmation visit to a church in his diocese, he found that one of the candidates presenting himself was none other than the prison guard who had tortured him. Indeed, the wheat had overcome the weeds. The wheat had converted the weeds simply by bearing them, by practicing patience and persisting good will.

“Let both grow together,” said Jesus. Again, the parable offers no easy answers to the thorny questions of our day, or any day. But if this strange way of the farmer, this way of Jesus, this way of the kingdom of God can transform a man such as a sadistic prison guard, perhaps we can hold out hope for the world, and even the world’s most wayward children. Perhaps we can hold out hope that we will all know peace in our time, and not just in our own time, but for all time. A verse of the wonderful Welsh hymn (621 vs.5) we’ll sing today describes the Christian calling well:

Now with gladness, now with courage,
bear the burden on thee laid,
that hereafter these thy labors
may with endless gifts be paid,
and in everlasting glory,
thou with brightness be arrayed.

(The quotes by Churchill and the story of the Munich Agreement are found in The Gathering Storm, Winston S. Churchill, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1948.)

Sermon – July 9, 2023

Come to Jesus

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring
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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 9, 2023

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.  (Matthew 11:28-30)

If you go looking for statues in Union Square, in the southwest corner you will find one of Mohandas Gandhi.  Gandhi, as you know, was the Hindu leader of India’s struggle to throw off British colonial rule.  After World War Two an exhausted British Empire finally granted the Indian people their independence, but the country soon fell into horrific strife along religious lines.  Hindus and Muslims were killing each other on the streets, and Gandhi responded with a hunger strike that he would continue until the violence stopped. 

Whenever I see the statue of Gandhi, I remember a particular scene from the 1982 biographical movie, starring Ben Kingsley.  At one point in the hunger strike, a distressed Hindu man comes to Gandhi, confessing that he and his family had been caught up in the violence.  The Muslims had killed his young son, and in retaliation, the man had killed a Muslim child.  “I smashed his head against the wall … I am going to hell,” says the man, overwhelmed by the burden of his own guilt.  Gandhi tells the man that he knows a way out of hell.  The Hindu man should go out into the street, find an orphaned boy whom no one wants, take the child into his home, and raise him as his own son until he is fully grown.  “Only be sure that he is a Muslim,” says Ghandi, “and raise him as a Muslim.”  In the film the Hindu man is stunned, and breaks down sobbing.  Which is the more intolerable burden to bear: his own guilt, or the price he would have to pay to atone for his guilt? 

Jesus said, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Gandhi’s encounter with the guilt-stricken Hindu man is purportedly true.  But even if the moment didn’t occur exactly as Hollywood depicted it, the scene has probably played itself out in reality countless thousands of times in the long, bloody history of humankind: an impulsive revenge killing, followed by crushing guilt.  Some people, especially those caught up in Russia’s criminal war against Ukraine, will indeed stagger under such heavy burdens.  Others, like those of us here, I pray, have lighter loads to shoulder.  Nevertheless, whatever the weight of whatever burden you are trying to carry, today we’ve heard the gracious invitation of Jesus, who says, let me carry it for you.  Imagine: all the baggage that sin, the world, the devil, and we ourselves pile onto our shoulders, Jesus offers to take. 

The first questions you might want to ask are, who is this Jesus who offers to carry our heavy burdens, and is he indeed able to lift them?  In today’s reading from Matthew, Jesus speaks of his credentials: All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  In these words about his unique relationship with God, Jesus seems to be saying this: if he is able to bear all that God has handed over to him, then certainly he is able to handle all that you can give him as well.  The One who offers to help is indeed able to give help. 

Do you want his help?  Sometimes we think that great merit is involved in carrying our own heavy burdens.  The rugged individual who neither needs nor asks for anyone’s assistance has always been an attractive figure in the American psyche.  But the stern, silent type who claims to need no help is a model for mental illness, not mental health.  People do terrible things to themselves and to others when they live under the crushing weights of guilt, grief, and anger: three intolerable burdens that Jesus offers to bear for us, by the way.  In the next few moments I’d like to paint a thumbnail sketch of each of them, roughly, with a very broad brush: guilt, grief, and anger. 

First, the heavy burden of guilt.  Innumerable people walk through every day with the millstone of guilt around their necks.  We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.  What is worse, we cannot undo the past, and the memory of our own hurtful deeds can return to haunt the guilty soul.  Here is a woman – a good person – who attends her 20th high school reunion.  Over drinks and dinner she reconnects with old friends and they remember their adventures.  They recall one period that involved some relentless bullying of another girl, who in earlier grades had been their friend.  The bullied girl had eventually moved away before graduation, and no one knew what became of her.  “It was just high school stuff,” says one friend.  But the woman remembers that she and her posse had taken the mean-girl act to new levels of cruelty.  In fact, she’d been party to making her former friend’s life a living hell.  All these years later the woman is grieved by the remembrance what she did.  She wants to apologize, but how?  Once back home she tries to discover whatever might have become of the bullied girl, but she can find no trace of her, no digital footprint at all.  Was she even still living?  Suddenly for the woman, the burden of her guilt is intolerable.  To quote an old phrase from The Book of Common Prayer (p. 331) concerning our sins: The remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.  What is the way out of hell?

In today’s reading from Romans (7:15-25), St. Paul, himself complicit in a murder, writes about his own ongoing burden of guilt: I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand … Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  But then he goes on to write: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  There is, therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Paul is reflecting on what has been the experience of millions: that when you come to Jesus you find in him and his cross the forgiveness of your sins, the release from guilt, and the unburdening of crippling remorse.  I know the way out of hell, is what Paul seems to be saying.  Come to Jesus. 

Second, the intolerable burden of grief.  What could be more devastating than to hear the word “dead” pronounced over one whom you love?  For many people, the loss of a beloved triggers the unraveling of their lives.  To be sure, you try to soldier on, playing along that you’re “doing just great” and “moving on,” and “having a nice day,” as the world insists you do even before the grass grows green over the grave.  On your back, however, is an emptiness of unbearable weight.  That’s what grief is: an emptiness of unbearable weight that allows no rest for the one trying to shoulder it.  But Jesus said, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  What do we find when we come to Jesus?  We find the promise of eternal life.  His mighty resurrection demonstrates to us that death is not the last word in life.  When our mortal bodies lie in death, life is changed, not ended.  Likewise our relationships with those we love and see no more are changed, not ended.  We have a reasonable and holy hope, and a joyful expectation of eternal life with our departed loved ones.  So grief is a second heavy burden that Christ, over time, can carry.

Third and finally, the burden of anger.  Anger is perhaps the most disfiguring and fatiguing of all the weights we try to carry through life.  When someone hates us or harms us in any way, our tendency if not to lash out, is to ball up the grievance and roll it along with us wherever we go.  Concerning anger, sometimes we resemble a member of the insect family called the Scarab beetle, otherwise known as the dung beetle.  What dung beetles do is find a pile of animal manure, roll up a little ball of it, and push it along wherever they go, spreading it everywhere, feeding off it, raising their young in it.  We do the same thing with anger.  I’m told that dung beetles perform a useful ecological function.  We should leave such work to them.  For us, anger is exhausting and corrosive. 

I know: letting go of your anger is easier said than done.  How does Jesus relieve us from carrying the burden of anger?  Perhaps his promise of a great Day of Judgment, when all the hidden hurts of human history will be revealed and addressed, can help us begin to release our grip on the grievances we carry.  All unrepentant workers of iniquity will be caught in the spotlight of God’s justice.  If you’ve been handed a ball of dung, know that your adversary will one day stand before the judgment seat of God.  Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:19).  But know this as well; write this down; be careful: you and I, too, will undergo the searching judgment of God.  It’s no wonder that Jesus said, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23).  We live in a moral universe of God’s own creation.  Nobody, ultimately, gets away with anything.  Come to me, says Jesus.  Come to Jesus, says Paul.  We know the way out of hell. 

So those are three heavy weights our Lord offers to carry for us: anger, grief, and guilt.  How do we turn them over?  What does Jesus really mean when he says Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me?  What he offers us is not a new set of teachings to master, not more laws to follow, not more rules to obey.  These tend only to increase the load, not lighten it.  Likewise, what Jesus has to offer is not merely inaccessible church jargon, or even worse: vague, mystic, spiritual psycho-babble.  Instead, what Jesus offers us by the power of the Spirit is his living presence and constant companionship.  Thus when anger threatens to consume us, when grief overwhelms us, when guilt accuses us day and night, we can say to the Lord who lives, “this burden is intolerable.  Please carry it for me.”  Remember that you make this request not to an imaginary friend, but to the living Jesus.  And if the world hands you back your burden thirty seconds after Christ has taken it from you, say to the Lord again, “this burden is intolerable.  Please carry it for me.”  And he will.  It’s been my experience and delight again and again that the invitation of Jesus is not just a future promise by and by, but a present reality in the here and now.  He truly does provide rest for the souls of those who come to him. 

Many years ago I officiated at the funeral of a young man who had died from an accidental overdose of pain medication.  The deceased man had lived in the neighborhood, and had come to church enough so that I knew who he was.  His life partner was named Hudson, and Hudson staggered under the sudden, unbearable weight of grief.  In the months following the funeral Hudson would make frequent appointments with me, hoping that I might have some word to help lighten his load.  After three or four such visits I finally said, “Hudson, come to church.  I really can’t help you if you don’t come to church.” 

I went on to explain to Hudson that if he didn’t come to church, all that I had to offer him was advice.  It might be good advice.  It might be bad advice.  Either way, it would be nothing more than worldly advice.  But if he would come to church – not once, not twice, but as an ongoing, holy habit – he would come to Jesus.  He would meet Jesus in the Word, in the Sacraments, and in the community of people gathered in Christ’s name.  Yes, coming to church is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace: coming to Jesus. 

Sadly, Hudson looked at me as if I were suggesting he embark on a hazardous and technically unexplainable journey into the outer stratosphere.  He actually winced at the idea of coming to church.  “I could never do that,” he said.  He went away sorrowful, and I never saw him again. 

Hear again the words of Jesus, who says to us, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. 

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Grace Church

802 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
(212) 254-2000

An Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New York

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802 Broadway, New York, NY 10003, (212) 254-2000

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