Sunday, January 07, 2018

Identity

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 7, 2017

Year B: The First Sunday after the Epiphany – The Baptism of Our Lord
Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

Identity
            As some of you know, I recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood.
            It was very low-key, which was just fine by me, but I certainly appreciated the acknowledgement and the kind words I received at the 10:00 service a couple of weeks ago.
            As you might expect, reaching such a milestone got me reflecting – got me thinking about these past ten years (which, sometimes feel like they have gone by in a flash and other times feel like a whole lot longer than a decade!).
            And, this milestone got me thinking about how I got into this in the first place, my early days as a parishioner here at St. Paul’s, and then my three years at seminary.
            As you know, before I was a priest I was a high school History teacher.
            I taught for about 15 years, and for my last seven years in the classroom, I taught at my alma mater, St. Peter’s Prep.
            Over that time, being a teacher became a major part of my identity – maybe the major part of my identity. I think that’s how a lot of people thought of me (“Tom Murphy the teacher”) and, frankly, that’s how I thought of myself, too.
            And, teaching at Prep was a big part of my identity, too.
            I was never a total Prep fanatic like some other alums, but the school had played a huge role in my life and teaching there was such a thrill and such an honor – and it was also a wonderfully warm and loving experience because I had the chance to work beside many friends, including some of my best friends.
            At Prep, I had a clear identity – and, while I’m sure that there were some people who weren’t crazy about me (hard to believe, I know!), for the most part I felt loved and respected – felt like I belonged.
To me, teaching at Prep felt like:
            “This is who I am.”
            …Except for that gnawing sense of God calling me to something else.
            Deciding to leave Prep and go to seminary full-time was one of the boldest moves I’ve ever made – and while I thought it through carefully, there were a few consequences that I just didn’t consider, just didn’t anticipate.
            One consequence I didn’t consider was how traumatic it would be to lose such a big part of my identity.
            “Tom Murphy, the Prep History Teacher” was no more.
            I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be to leave a big, warm, loving place where everybody knew me and (I think) most liked me and go to a new place where no one knew me, where I was a student and not the teacher, and where and I had to introduce myself and allow others to get to know me while (and I definitely didn’t realize this at the time), in a very real way, I didn’t know who I was anymore.
            I’m guessing that even if you never left teaching to go to seminary, most if not all of you can imagine what that felt like - because I’m pretty sure that eventually all of us lose identities.
            We lose an identity when we leave a job.
            We lose an identity when an important relationship ends, either through break-up or death.
            We lose an identity when the last child leaves the nest.
            We lose an identity when we retire.
            We lose an identity when we become disabled or grow ill.
            You can come up with other examples I’m sure.
            And, if we look around our country and the Church we see people shedding all kinds of identities – we’re losing our identity as Americans devoted to the common good and replacing it with much smaller and often destructive identities – increasingly seeing ourselves as consumers or worker bees or, most unfortunately, as political partisans, concerned with winning at all costs, seeing our country – seeing life itself – as a zero-sum game: If you win, I lose. And, if I win, you lose.
            And, here in the Church, denominational identities are fading away. It wasn’t too long ago that there were a good number of absolutely rock-solid committed Episcopalians, but now, I think most people simply choose a particular church that meets their needs or their tastes.
            Some of this is good and some not so good, but all of this shedding and loss of identity forces us to face some essential questions:
            “Who am I?”
            “Who are we?”
            “What is my truest identity?”
            “What is our deepest identity?”
            Yesterday morning, a few hearty parishioners braved the bitter cold to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany here at St. Paul’s.
            We retold the story of the wise men from the East, eluding a frightened and murderous ruler, to visit the newborn King, to give gifts to this King born to nobodies in an out of the way place.
            It’s a beautiful story – the Epiphany – the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah for the whole world.
            But, today, on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we remember an even more important event than the visit of the wise men. Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus
            You know, just like all of us, Jesus had lots of identities.
            He was a Jew, a Galilean, son of Mary, a brother, a friend, a craftsman, a teacher, a healer, …
            But in the water of Baptism, God reveals Jesus’ truest, deepest identity.
            We’re told that just as Jesus “was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
            And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
            In the water of Baptism, Jesus recognizes his truest, deepest identity: beloved Son of God.
            And then, right after his Baptism, Jesus begins his work, first by resisting temptation, and then by heading out into the world, gathering a few friends and followers, teaching and healing, challenging the powers that be, and finally getting rejected and abandoned by just about everybody, and finally getting killed in an especially shameful and horrific way.
            There were surely lots of times of fear and frustration, thoughts of ending the mission and just going back to the carpentry shop, but Jesus stuck with it, saw it through, because, I think even when pretty much everything else was stripped away, he never forgot his Baptism, never forgot his truest and deepest identity:
             Son of God – loved with a love that was - and is - greater even than death.
            And, the best news of all is that what was true for Jesus is also true for us.
            It’s in our Baptism that our truest and deepest identity is revealed to us and to everybody around us.
            We are beloved children of God – loved with a love greater even than death.
            And so, just like for Jesus, our Baptism should send us out into the world, loving and serving one another, proclaiming that life is not a zero-sum game, that when we give to others, when we “allow” others to “win,” we are all blessed.
            And, just like for Jesus, there have been and there will surely be hard times, times when we might want to end our mission, times when we might want to just live like everybody else.
            There will be times when we will lose some of our cherished identities - times when we lose jobs, times when we lose those we love, times when we just can’t do what we used to be able to do - but there is nothing, nothing, that can ever steal our deepest, truest identity:
            Beloved children of God.
            This is who we are.
            Amen.
           
             
           

           
           
           
           
            

Monday, December 25, 2017

Cosmic Christmas

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation
December 25, 2017

Christmas Day
Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-12
John 1:1-14

Cosmic Christmas
            Merry Christmas, everyone!
            Last night this was the place to be as we gathered to re-tell, to hear, once again the old, old story that never grows tired no matter how many times we hear it – the story of God coming among us in a new and unexpected, unprecedented way – born to a couple of nobodies in an out of the way place – born into a cold and shadowy and mostly unwelcoming world – a world that, fortunately, God loves no matter how much we mess it up, now matter how many times we mess up.
            Merry Christmas!
            As we do every Christmas Day, this morning we heard the nativity according to the Gospel of John.
            In John’s version there are no angels and no shepherds, no manger, no Mary and Joseph, and not even a baby Jesus.
            Instead, John pulls way back and gives us a universal view of Christ’s birth:
            A Cosmic Christmas.
            John understood that the Word who has been from the beginning, the Word who was with God, the Word who is God - the Word, this greatest and inextinguishable Light, has come among us in and through Jesus Christ.
            After reading and hearing John’s take on the Natvity, saying “Merry Christmas” doesn’t seem to quite cut it, right?
            Here in church Christmas is just getting started – twelve whole days – but meanwhile out in the world Christmas is just about over – the “after Christmas” sales are about to begin.
            And, the truth is that what the world calls the “Christmas Season” is pretty exhausting, especially for parents and for those who work retail – pretty exhausting for us church professionals, too!
            But, unless you are a complete news addict like me, one of the good things about the so-called Christmas Season (at least, usually) is the opportunity for distraction from current events. With any luck, the week between Christmas and New Year’s might actually be a slow news time, though these are not normal times.
            It’s been pretty grim out there lately, so I wouldn’t blame you if you’re no longer following the news very closely - though, you know, occasionally there are some stories that are a little off-beat and get you thinking.
            For example, a couple of weeks ago astronomers announced that for the first time they have observed an object from beyond our solar system in our solar system, an asteroid from elsewhere in the galaxy, spinning its way through our neighborhood.
            Have you seen pictures of this?
            It’s about a quarter-mile long and looks like a rock that is shaped like a cigar.
            Astronomers in Hawaii named the mysterious asteroid “Oumuamua,” a Hawaiian word for “scout” or “messenger.”
            And, sure enough at least few scientists raised the possibility that Oumuamua was actually not a natural object, not a rock, but in fact a probe created by an alien civilization, just as we have sent probes out to explore space.
            Probably not, but just to check, telescopes have been pointed at Oumuamua scanning for any unnatural sounds or signals.
            So far, as far as I know, nothing – which is probably for the best.
            Meanwhile, it was announced that for a number of years the Pentagon has been looking into “unidentified flying objects” and the possibility that we’ve been visited by – and even had encounters with aliens.
Depending on your temperament this will all strike you as either exciting or scary – will seem like possibilities worth exploring, or just another example of our government wasting our hard-earned money on ridiculous projects.
In any event, it seems there are several possibilities:
First, it’s possible that we are interesting and unusual enough that we’re being checked out by alien civilizations.
But, it’s also possible that any other civilization is so far away that they could never get here, just as we can’t get there.
And it’s also possible that maybe we’re it – that in the entire universe maybe we are the only ones who can appreciate the cosmos, maybe we are the only ones who can celebrate the vastness of it all, maybe we are the only ones who can marvel at the grandeur and the complexity of creation, and maybe we are the only ones who can know and praise the God who dreamed up all of it – the God who sustains every molecule, every breath, every orbit, and every galaxy.
Whatever the truth of life out there, all of these possibilities point to a great and essential truth here, maybe the most important meaning of Christmas - something that, unfortunately, we often forget:
We matter.
Every living thing on this precious and perhaps one-of-a-kind earth matters.
The people camped in cardboard boxes out on the porch of Old Bergen Church and Donald Trump – they all matter.
The people who received a pile of Christmas gifts this year and the people who’ve never ever received a gift – they all matter.
We – you and I – all those who have lived and those not yet born - we all matter.
We all matter so much that God came and lived among us – and lives among us still.
When we remember, when we recognize, this great and essential truth, then we can really celebrate John’s “Cosmic Christmas” – celebrate today with our songs and prayers and, even more important, celebrate every day by treating one another, treating every living thing, treating this earth “our island home” as if it all matters infinitely.
Because it does.
And, we know that for sure because “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Merry Christmas to you all.
Amen.

            

Sunday, December 24, 2017

This Demented Inn

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve
Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20

This Demented Inn
            Merry Christmas everyone!
            Well, tonight this is certainly the place to be, isn’t it?
            This is the place to be because so many people have worked so hard to make this old building look its best – there’s been a whole lot of cleaning, and decorating, and polishing, and rehearsing, and setting up, going on these past few days.
            This is the place to be because we get to hear all of this gorgeous music and we get to just soak it in beside people we’ve known for years and also people we may never have seen before – people who go to church all the time and people who never do - all gathered here tonight for a glimpse of beauty – all gathered here tonight for a word of hope.
            And, tonight this is the place to be because of the story – this old, old story that never seems to grow tired – this old, old story of the world caught up, as usual, in its business – in its business of counting heads and making money and gaining power - business that seems oh so very important – while off to the side, hidden in the corner, noticed by almost nobody – God enters the world in a new and unprecedented and unexpected way.
Through a couple of “nobodies” named Mary and Joseph, God’s Light shines into a very shadowy world.
            Merry Christmas!
            As I’ve thought about the Christmas story, I’ve realized that different parts of the story speak to me more clearly, more powerfully, depending on what’s going on in my life – and depending on what’s going on in the world.
            This year my mind and my heart keep circling back to the still shocking and heartbreaking truth of “no place for them in the inn.”
            The God who dreamed up all that is – the God who sustains every galaxy, every orbit, every breath, every molecule - that God enters our world – enters our humanity – and right from the start this God is pretty much turned away – the best we are willing to do is offer a stable or a cave – and a feeding trough meant for animals has to double as a crib.
            No place in the inn – no room for Christ in our world.
            The other day I came across a quote from the great 20th Century monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton that I’d like to share with you tonight.
            Merton writes, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world."
            “With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world.”
            I have no doubt that Christ is present with us here tonight – present in the beauty of our worship, present in the people beside us, present in the Word and the music and especially present in the Bread and Wine that we will soon receive.
            Yes, Christ is present here, but I wonder if Christ is not completely comfortable here – kind of like a man not used to wearing a suit and tie, tugging at his collar – or a woman not used to wearing a dress feeling self-conscious – or a baby wearing a frilly baptismal gown and howling her head off.
            Yes, Christ is present here in this sacred space, but Christ is most at home, most comfortable with, his best friends - with the other people for whom there is no room, the other people who do not belong, the other people who are turned away from the demented inn that is our world.
            On Thursday over at Old Bergen Church, as we do each year, we held our interfaith homeless memorial service, reading the names of the dead and offering care packages (including the 558 pairs of socks we donated) and a hot lunch to those who are still living on the streets.
            And, as I looked out at that crowd, I thought, Christ is right at home here, here with the smelly and the addicted, with the hungry and the thirsty, and, yes, even with those who are always asking for money to fill a make-believe prescription or for carfare to go visit an imaginary cousin down in the South Jersey.
            And, tonight, by now the Christmas Eve service over at Old Bergen Church is done, and Christ and his friends have climbed back up on to the porch, ready to spend another night in their cardboard camp.
            And, Christ is at home with those who have traveled a far, those desperately trying to escape poverty and oppression and violence, leaving behind Syria and other seemingly god-forsaken places, leaving behind all that they know and love to come to places like America, places like Jersey City, hoping for the best, but not always receiving it.
            And, Christ is at home with those who couldn’t quite work up the energy or the enthusiasm to get dressed and come to church tonight – the people who don’t feel the joy of the season, not at all - the people overwhelmed by the pile of bills and endless doctor’s appointments – the people worried that they will soon join those camped out on the church steps – the people so disappointed by the way their lives have turned out.
            As Merton says, it is into this world, into our “demented inn,” that Christ has come uninvited, unwelcomed, and barely noticed.
            And, it is in this “demented inn” that Christ hangs out with all of the others who don’t belong, all of the others who are rejected.
            So, yes, tonight and tomorrow morning, this is the place to be – as we gather to tell our stories and sing and pray and receive the Bread and Wine, as we celebrate that the God who dreamed all of this up and sustains every moment – this God has come among us in Jesus Christ.
            But, especially now, in a time and place so cold and frightened and mean and, yes, shadowy, my hope is that in the days and months ahead we will head out and be where, yes, we will be uncomfortable, but where Christ is most at home.
My prayer is that by hanging out with and serving Christ’s best friends, we will really be like those couple of “nobodies” named Mary and Joseph, who welcomed God in a humble and out of the way place.
            And, if, with God’s help, we even just try to do that, then I believe this time next year – next Christmas - our world will be even just a little bit less like a demented inn and even just a little bit more like the beautiful garden it was always meant to be.
            Merry Christmas to you all.
            Amen.
           
                        

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Smallness

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 17, 2017

Year B: The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Canticle 15
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Smallness
            “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, often called “Gaudete Sunday,” from a Latin word meaning, “rejoice.”
            The change in color from blue to rose is meant to signal that, ready or not, our Advent time of waiting and preparation is almost over.
            Today we begin to shift our attention from John the Baptist, that fiery prophet of repentance and baptism, and focus on Mary, the young woman from the countryside who said yes to God and changed everything.
            God is about to come among us in a new way!
            Rejoice!
            I started today’s sermon with words from today’s second lesson, from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Rejoice always.
            Easier said than done, right?
            Especially these days with our many personal troubles and fears, with our incessant 24-hour news cycle, for many of us it’s hard enough to rejoice sometimes, hard enough to rejoice once in a while, let alone rejoice always.
            We certainly hear a lot of rejoicing going on in Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, which we said today in place of the psalm and we hear a lot of rejoicing in the hymn, Tell Out My Soul, which is a poetic paraphrase of the Magnificat.
            In the Gospel of Luke, pregnant Mary sings her song while she is visiting her kinswoman Elizabeth, who, it turns out, is also miraculously pregnant - pregnant with the future John the Baptist.
            Thinking about that scene, I’m struck by the contrast between this intimate but not so unusual encounter – two pregnant women sharing the excitement of new life – and the big words of Mary’s Song:
            “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”
            “Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord!”
            And, I think it’s that contrast between the small intimate encounter between two pregnant women and the big words of Mary’s Song – it’s that contrast that shows us the way to rejoicing sometimes and, maybe, even rejoicing always.
            Because the truth is that God’s greatness is found most easily, most clearly, in smallness – as small as a baby being knitted together in the womb – as small as a feeding trough meant for animals but doubling as a crib.
            God’s greatness is found most easily, most clearly, in smallness – as small as holding the hand of one we love, as small as half a room in a nursing home – as small as a last breath.
            Rejoice – because God’s greatness is found in smallness.
            I haven’t mentioned it lately, but we continue to offer our monthly healing service over at the nursing home on Montgomery Street – and continue to pray at all of our services for its residents and employees.
            To be honest, after four years or so of going over there, it’s become kind of routine for us. Gail, Vanessa, and I know what works and what doesn’t. We know who’s likely to interrupt the service by yelling or wisecracking and we know who’s going to sleep through the whole service.
            Occasionally one of the employees at the nursing home will call me, asking me to come over and offer “Last Rites” for a resident who’s life is drawing to a close.
            This never becomes easy, exactly, but by now I’ve done it so many times that it also has become routine.
            Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I got one of those calls. As I made my way over there, I imagined the scene I was about to walk into: probably a very old and sick person lying in bed, unconscious, approaching the end of life, with no one else in the room.
            But, when I got to the room, I was startled to find a young woman – certainly younger than me - lying in the bed – her eyelids heavy, drifting in and out of consciousness, but still pretty alert.
The dying woman’s mother and sister were there, clearly exhausted by grief, but, and this is a little hard to explain, but they were so still, so seemingly grace-filled and peaceful, even in the face of such sadness, such loss.
They didn’t really need the prayers, the ritual.
            To be honest, I had walked into that room pretty much on autopilot, but I was awakened to see the greatness of God in the smallness of shallow breaths and the determination to face - really face - something so tragic, so heartbreaking.          
After I left them, still a little dazed, I stopped at the nurses’ station and asked if it would be OK to drop in and say hi to a resident who I visited from time to time. I’ll call her Maria, though that wasn’t her name.
Maria, who was in her early 70’s, had attended our monthly services from the start and I could tell that, unlike many in our congregation, she was still alert and was particularly interested in what we were doing and saying.
For most of the residents, the music is their favorite part – but Maria enjoyed my little homilies the most – so I liked her right away!
Anyway, after a while I began making trips over to the nursing home to visit Maria in her room – actually her half of a room, the size of a modest closet, really – and learning her remarkable story.
She had grown up an only child, kind of solitary, and, she entered the convent when she was really still just a girl, as was the custom in the Catholic Church as recently as the 1960s.
Like many nuns of her generation, she eventually left the convent, though she remained a deeply faithful Catholic. She went on to pursue higher education in Biology, eventually earning a PhD (with honors) from Cornell.
She went on to a distinguished scientific career, running labs, traveling to conferences and delivering papers, and so on.
(I know this because she told me – and because she gave me her resume, maybe because she thought I might not believe her!)
Then, her health began to fail and one disaster after another befell her. Finally, more than pretty much anybody I’ve ever met, she ended up losing everything – her home, her career, her books (a loss she mourned especially deeply), and all of her money.
She ended up a ward of the State (with a state-appointed guardian who had the power to approve or disapprove every single expense, including even something as small as a pair of shoes) and she ended up living in a half a room over at the nursing home.
She usually only left the nursing home for doctor’s appointments.
Her life was one of the most tragic I’ve ever encountered – and, one level, her life in the nursing home was the pretty much the smallest life I’ve ever experienced.
And, yet, she remained a deeply faithful person, someone who, despite all of her misfortune, still loved God – was, in fact, in love with God.
She was a deep pray-er and she was also a profound spiritual poet.
Here’s a sample:
I can only trust / that you will continue to lead me / through that unquestioning trust / which is faith / it is only you, my Beloved / who matter / all my gifts are given/ it is for you to decide / how and when / they are to be used /for your glory / not mine.
During our times together in her little half-room, sharing our stories, praying and having communion together, I experienced God’s greatness.
Rejoice – because God’s greatness is found in smallness.
That day a few weeks ago, after I had given Last Rites to the dying young woman and when I went to the nurses station to ask about visiting Maria, the women behind the counter looked stricken and whispered, “Oh, she died, just a couple of days ago. She had been sick, in the hospital.”
I felt my stomach drop and tears come to my eyes. In the hours and days that followed, I felt angry that no one had called me and I felt guilty that too much time had passed since I had last checked in on her.
Most of all, I felt profoundly sad that she died alone in the hospital and there was to be no service, no memorial, to commemorate the end of this remarkable life.
But, the more I’ve thought about it, I’ve concluded that, although I would have liked to pray with her at least one more time, there was something fitting about her death, something appropriate about the smallness of it.
She died alone, alone with the God who loved her – the God she loved so deeply. And, that’s more than enough.
Because the truth is that God’s greatness is found most easily, most clearly, in smallness – as small as a baby being knitted together in the womb – as small as a feeding trough meant for animals but doubling as a crib.
            God’s greatness is found most easily, most clearly, in smallness – as small as holding the hand of one we love, as small as half a room in a nursing home – as small as a last breath.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Amen.