Sunday, March 29, 2020

Death Is Not the End

The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
March 28, 2020

Year A: The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

Death Is Not the End
            Today’s collect, or opening prayer, speaks of “the swift and varied changes of the world.”
            And when I first read it, I thought, “well, that’s for sure.”
No matter how isolated we may be – no matter how isolated we may be trying to be – the coronavirus has managed to change all of our lives.
            We are afraid of getting sick, and that those we love might get sick.
            There are the economic shocks that many of us are already beginning to feel. Some of our parishioners have lost their jobs and undoubtedly more of us will be filing for unemployment in the days and weeks ahead.
            Even with a check on the way from the government, we wonder how we will pay our bills and keep enough food in the house.
How will we meet our responsibilities to those who are counting on us?
            We worry how our kids are handling this huge disruption, how they will learn without in-person school, how they will cope without being with friends, without much opportunity for play.
            This is also a time with so much disappointment.
            These disappointments may not be matters of life and death but they still hurt our hearts.
            I think especially of kids in high school and college, especially seniors, who were looking forward to all of the milestones of that special time – taking the lead in their schools, graduation and prom and commencement – and saying goodbye to their classmates, beginning the new chapter of adulthood.
            When the weather has allowed, I’ve still been taking my early morning walks in a nearly deserted Lincoln Park, where I have to say the birds seem to be enjoying our absence – one of the ball fields is almost completely occupied by dozens of robins, nature always quick to fill a vacuum.
            These days there are just a few of us making our way along the road and no sign of the high school and college track teams who would usually be out for their runs, whizzing past this slow-moving middle aged guy.
            So many activities and even whole seasons postponed and canceled.
            So much disappointment.
            And that’s true here at church, too.
            This is normally a busy and exciting season for us.
            And, I’m so sad that our youth and adult confirmation classes have been halted – that we won’t be able to take our Good Friday procession to places of violence – that we won’t get to baptize people at Easter.
            And, I’m disappointed that our Lenten book study is paused, too.
            As some of you know, I had chosen a book about the Apostles’ Creed, that ancient and basic statement of Christian faith.
            I chose to look at the Apostles’ Creed because if you go to church regularly you hear lots of words – the words of Scripture, the texts of our hymns and prayers, lots of talk from the clergy – so many words that sometimes we may lose sight of what’s most important – we might miss what is the heart of our faith.
            In a seminary class one time – I don’t remember the context – but the professor asked us to sum up the Christian faith in just one sentence.
            While most of us were just beginning to consider that, maybe trying to come up with something profound or clever, one of my classmates yelled out:
            “Death is not the end.”

            I’m not sure that’s the sentence I’d use but it’s a good one, especially in times like these.

            Death is not the end.

            And, that’s certainly the experience of the people of Israel.
            Over and over in the great sweep of their relationship with God, it seemed like they had reached the end – wandering in the wilderness hungry and thirsty – giving into the temptation of trusting other seemingly more powerful gods  - years of brutal occupation and heartbreaking exile.
            And, yet, over and over, no matter what, the story of God and Israel lives on.
            Death is not the end.
            In today’s first lesson, we heard the Prophet Ezekiel’s vivid and rattling vision of a valley of dry bones.
            Ezekiel’s vision comes from a time of exile, when many of the people of Israel were cut off from their homeland, isolated from their kin, and the years were dragging on and some were dying far from home.
Understandably, there was a loss of hope – there was despair that maybe the story of God and Israel was reaching its end.
            But, God is the God of life, not death, and, as Ezekiel saw, and as the people of Israel have seen time and time again, God is able to breathe new life into those dry bones, restoring what had seemed to be lost forever.
            Death is not the end.

            If you tuned in last week, you may remember that we heard the story of one of Jesus’ greatest signs: the gift of sight to the man born blind.
            That gift was a miracle for one man but it is a sign for the rest of us, a sign of what God offers all the time: the gift of sight.
            And now today we heard the story of Jesus’ greatest sign of all, raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.
            This story is found in yet another lengthy passage from the Gospel of John. And, as you could hear, there is a whole lot going on this story but today I’d just like to focus on a couple of key elements.
            First, John makes it clear to us that Lazarus is really dead. This isn’t a coma or some other kind of deep sleep. This is death with all of its indignities. Lazarus has been dead for four days and the stink of death is all too real.
            Second, Jesus is upset.
            It’s in this passage that we encounter that famous, shortest verse: “Jesus wept.”
            Since death is real, Jesus weeps for Lazarus and for his sisters, Mary and Martha.
            Jesus weeps for the grieving crowd, people stunned by the reality of their loss, desperately and even angrily looking for God in this moment of suffering.
            And, maybe Jesus weeps out of frustration with his followers who still – still, after everything – still don’t get it.
            And so, to the shock of everyone - Jesus raises his friend from the dead, signaling once and for all the glory of God working in and through him.
For Lazarus and his sisters and for all who loved him, this was an astoundingly amazing miracle.
But, for us, it’s a sign:
Death is not the end.

However, this gift of life was a threat to some in authority, convincing them that this worker of signs must be gotten rid of once and for all.
And so now we quicken the pace of the journey to Jerusalem, where Jesus the worker of signs will first be greeted with waving branches, welcomed as a king, but soon everything will seem to go terribly wrong and Jesus who gave sight and life will die on the cross.
But, you know, the only reason why still tell these Jesus stories is because of Easter morning.
God is the God of life, not death.
Death is not the end.

Like the people of Israel in exile and the people gathered around the tomb of Lazarus, we are in a time of fear, grief, and disappointment.
Even those of us relatively young and healthy are painfully aware that sickness and death are potentially lurking in every encounter, during each trip outside the house.
We are being forced to reflect on what’s most important – on who is most important.
And, right on schedule, today, “among the swift and varied changes of the world,” we are reminded of a basic truth at the heart of our faith:
God is the God of life, not death.
And, you know, this morning, thinking of those bones rattling back to life and imagining Lazarus unbound, and anticipating the empty tomb in the garden, I am so tempted to get ahead of myself and just say the “A word” already - but we’ll save that for two more weeks.
Death is not the end.
And that’s more than enough for now.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Gift of Sight

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
March 22, 2020

Year A: The Fourth Sunday in Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

The Gift of Sight
            One of the less important, but still real, effects of our present crisis is that it is getting hard to keep track of what day it is.
            That’s true in our personal lives – and it’s true for church, too.
            Fortunately, today we have a big change in liturgical color – from purple to rose (not pink!) signaling that we have reached the Fourth Sunday in Lent, offering us the hope that soon our Lenten journey will end in the garden where women will discover the empty tomb and the disciples will soon understand that love does defeat hate and life conquers death, once and for all.
            For this reason, the Fourth Sunday of Lent is usually called Laetare Sunday, from a Latin word meaning “to rejoice.”
            Rejoice! It will soon be Easter!
But, this has been the most extraordinary Lent of our lives, a time spent focused not so much on the usual Lenten business of giving up pleasures like chocolate or taking on the holy work of repentance, but instead it’s been a time shadowed by worry, illness, and loneliness.
            So, this year a liturgical color change is probably not going to be enough to get us rejoicing.
            This year, even the knowledge that Easter is just a few weeks away is probably not going to be enough to get us rejoicing.
            But, I believe that by gathering together today even in this less than perfect way, by saying these familiar words, and, most of all, by hearing and reflecting on God’s Word, we can find the joy that we so desperately need.
            Because today – just like every day – God offers us the gift of sight.

            As we did last Sunday, today we heard a lengthy and complex lesson from the Gospel of John.
            There is a lot going on here.
            There are the disciples who see a blind man and ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
            And there’s Jesus who gives the challenging and uncomfortable answer that this poor man had been born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
            And there’s the concern among some that Jesus gave the gift of sight to the man on the Sabbath – the day when no work was allowed, not even healing, unless it was a matter of life and death.
Now to be fair, Jesus’ critics do have a case to make, since this poor man had been blind his whole life and could surely have hung in there for a few more hours – but, it’s a strange argument to make since it really misses the point
My God, a man born blind has just been given the gift of sight!
            And, even stranger is how people give this newly-sighted a man a hard time, asking him seemingly irrelevant questions, asking the same questions again, instead of just marveling at the miracle that has occurred.
            You’re really blind if you can’t see a miracle, like that, right?
            I mean, short of raising someone from the dead, it’s hard to imagine anything more miraculous than giving sight to someone who has never seen.
            It’s a miracle – and even with people giving him a hard time, even with his parents playing it cool and keeping their distance – it was by far the best day ever for this man.
            You know, in the Gospel of John, these wonder works of Jesus are actually not called miracles.
            No, instead, John calls them signs.
            Because as wonderful as gaining sight was for this one man, in fact what Jesus does is offer a sign – a sign that points to a deeper and essential truth not just for one person but for us all.
            Today – just like every day – God offers us the gift of sight.

            God offers us the gift of sight – the ability to see with our eyes, of course – but also the grace to see with our hearts – the blessing to see with our souls.
            God offers us the gift of sight to see the beauty and goodness all around us, to see God’s works revealed.

            And, as disorienting and distressing this time has already been, God is giving us the gift of sight right now.

            A few stories:
So, the other day an elderly parishioner who lives on her own texted me with news that she described as miracles.
            Like a lot of people, this woman was getting concerned that she was going to run out of toilet paper, and she asked if I could buy her some. I went to the supermarket to look, but, no surprise, the shelves were empty.
            But, it turns out I wasn’t the only one looking.
 Now this woman has not been to physical therapy for many months and yet her physical therapist got in touch with her, asking how she was doing, asking if there was anything she needed.
Toilet paper.
And so the physical therapist took the time and, yes, the risk to look all over Jersey City, finally finding a precious twelve-pack at a 99-cent store and dropping it off at the woman’s apartment.
And then, the next day the maintenance man of her building knocked on her door, yelling, “Look at your door!” and left.
When she opened the door she found a bag with ten more rolls of toilet paper!
Reflecting on this experience, here is what she wrote to me: “So, out of the heavens, not manna, but toilet paper fell to earth and landed at my feet!”

God offers us the gift of sight to see the beauty and goodness all around us, to see God’s works revealed, right here and now.

Another parishioner posted a beautiful story on Facebook about reconnecting with an old friend.
Years ago, they had worked together and become like sisters, but then, you know how it is, people move, phones are replaced, numbers are lost, and before they knew it, they hadn’t talked for about two years.
Then, out of the blue, the other day the parishioner’s friend called, explaining that she had been trying to call for a long time but had gotten the message the number was “not available.”
When they heard each other’s voice, the parishioner said that they “screamed with joy”.
Our parishioner wrote, “We almost cried and hugged each other from the heart.”

God offers us the gift of sight to see the beauty and goodness all around us, to see God’s works revealed, right here and now.

And then there have been our daily prayer services over the phone – “Church By Phone” we’re calling it.
When we started on Tuesday I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, not sure if anyone would call in, not sure if these unusual services would be satisfying, but I have to say they have been just so beautiful.
Although we can’t see each other with our eyes, I feel like we can see each other with our hearts as we hear some very familiar voices and sense of the depth of the prayers that are being offered.
One of the things I realized right away is that there is a lag time with conference calls and so I’ve been forced to speak and pray much more slowly than usual.
Normally, I’m kind of in a rush and the words go by and then I’m on to the next thing.
But, not this time.
And, so in a way that I never have before, I’m seeing the words of these prayers – words like these from the Lord’s Prayer:
“Save us from the time of trial.”
And, in a way that I never have before, I’m seeing all of you praying with so much heart, and longing, and faith.
And, right now, yes, it’s only Sue and me here in church this morning, but somehow I’m seeing all of you more clearly than when we’re all here together.
 I’m really seeing all of you, gathered around your screens, hungry for the Word, hungry for the Bread of Life, hungry for the community we love so much.

God offers us the gift of sight to see the beauty and goodness all around us, to see God’s works revealed, right here and now.

Long ago, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind, giving that man the greatest miracle – the best day - of his life.
But, for the rest of us, that one miracle is a sign – a sign that points to a deeper and essential truth:
Today – and every day – God offers the gift of sight.
And for that, especially in this time of trouble, we should rejoice.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Thirsty People

The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
March 14, 2020

Year A: The Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Thirsty People
            So, there are some thirsty people in today’s lessons.
            In the first lesson, we find the people of Israel in the midst of their long exodus out of Egypt and they are experiencing – and expressing – some serious remorse about following Moses into the wilderness.
            The people aren’t at all shy about criticizing their leader, saying, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
            Moses is frustrated and worried. He complains to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”
            God comes to the rescue, instructing Moses to strike a rock with his staff. Water gushed out of the rock, quenching the thirst of the people.
And then there’s a kind of haunting end to this story.
Moses names this place Massah and Meribah because it was there that the people asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Is the Lord among us or not?”

            At the start of today’s long and complex gospel lesson, it’s Jesus who is thirsty.
            That’s surprising. We don’t usually hear about Jesus’ physical needs.
And it’s also surprising that Jesus is in the land of the Samaritans.
            Now, because of the famous parable we tend to think of Samaritans as “good” but back in the time of Jesus, Jews and Samaritans did not get along at all.
            It’s a long story, but Jews and Samaritans were related, they were kin, so it was a kind of family squabble and many of us know how bitter those can be.
            Jews and Samaritans shared the five holy books of the Torah, but disagreed about pretty much everything else, especially about the right place to worship – an issue that comes up in the conversation at the well.
            So, it’s surprising that Jesus is in Samaria and it’s really surprising that Jesus strikes up a conversation with a Samaritan woman.
She is certainly surprised, asking, “How is that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
But, instead of just asking for water, taking a drink, and leaving it at that, Jesus begins to teach her, hinting at his identity and telling her that he offers “living water.”
Just like Nicodemus last week didn’t get it, at first the Samaritan woman doesn’t get it either.
And who can blame her? Living water? That’s some big talk about living water for a guy who doesn’t even have a bucket!
But, unlike Nicodemus who seemed closed off to what Jesus was saying, the woman is intrigued and curious and, yes, thirsty for this living water, this living water that will somehow quench her thirst forever.
And then Jesus throws a curveball, asking her to go get her husband, revealing that he knows that she has had a rather complicated marital history.
The woman is understandably impressed – how could he have known all of this? And, she expresses her faith in the coming messiah.
And then in the most surprising twist of all, Jesus reveals his identity to this Samaritan woman.
It’s the first time in the Gospel of John that he has spoken so openly!
Jesus reveals his identity to this woman who seems to have been a loner – maybe even an outcast - drawing water all by herself under the heat of the noonday sun – this woman with a complicated and maybe even scandalous past.
Jesus quenches the thirst of this woman who maybe had been thirsty for so long she didn’t even know anymore just how thirsty she was!
And what does she do?
She immediately puts down her water jar and goes to share the living water of Jesus with everyone in her city, a city filled with people who may have looked at her with scorn, a city that I’m sure was filled with lots of other thirsty people.
It’s quite a story.

And now here we are today in a time of crisis.
You’re all out there at home and Sue and I are alone here in church.
People are frightened and even panicked, rushing to the supermarket to hoard all kinds of items, some that make sense, some that don’t, but giving very little thought to neighbors who also need diapers and formula and baby wipes and milk and water and, yes, toilet paper.
We look at each other cautiously and even suspiciously as potential sources of contagion or we deny the whole thing is happening and live recklessly, putting everybody else at risk.
We are taking extraordinary actions that I’ve certainly never experienced before, emptying out office buildings, closing schools for weeks, and, yes, something I never thought I would do: closing churches – closing churches for three weeks and maybe even longer than that.
And, like the people of Israel in their long ago time of crisis, maybe we are also asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
Well, I’m here to tell you that the Lord is very much among us in this time of trouble.
I can’t tell you how many people here in our own community have reached out to me asking if anybody needs help, offering to give up time and their own money, to lend a hand, to quench the thirst of people they know and the many more they don’t know.
Yesterday morning I was walking back home along Duncan Avenue when a neighbor stopped me to talk. Of course, we talked about the coronavirus and she shared with me how frightened she is and listed all of her risk factors related to age and health and then she surprised me by saying that she has some extra canned food that she will leave on our porch so that I can give it to people in need.
The Lord is among us indeed!

Times like these are very difficult for us all but if we pay attention they also offer us some important lessons.
In our case, there are two important lessons that I hope we will learn.
First, there are so many thirsty people among us.
There are so many people, including right here in our own parish, who, in the best of times, live right on the edge, whose cupboards are never full - and get awfully empty during the second half of the month.
There are so many people who work really hard and yet earn so little – who work so hard but can barely pay the bills and certainly don’t have enough to buy two weeks worth of groceries and medicine, who don’t have anything saved for a rainy day let alone rainy weeks or months, who can’t take sick days, who don’t have health insurance and so rely on the ER for healthcare, or just take their chances.
We’ve known that there are thirsty people around us, but now we really know.
And the second lesson is another one that we knew already but somehow need to learn again and again. It’s what our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said:
We are all in this together.
For too long we’ve kidded ourselves that as long as I have a job, as long as I have health insurance, as long as I have food in the cupboard, as long as I have money in the bank, then it didn’t really matter that the person next to me on the train - or the person beside me in church - didn’t have all of those things.
For too long we’ve made the big and sinful mistake of thinking that there’s “us” and there’s “them.”
You know, the Jews and Samaritans shared history and heritage and belief.
They lived next door to each other.
            But often they didn’t get along with each other and maybe didn’t even care if the other lived or died.
They had a hard time imagining the other as “good.”
But they were family – they were kin.
And so are we all.
So, just like Jesus the Jew - Jesus the Messiah -entered Samaritan territory and offered living water to a very thirsty woman, in this time of crisis let’s share the living water of love with the many thirsty people all around us.