Sunday, August 17, 2014

True Religion

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 17, 2014

Year A, Proper 15: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 45: 1-15
Psalm 133
Romans: 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: 10-28

True Religion
            One of the developments here at St. Paul’s that makes me happiest is that we are deepening our connections to the surrounding community. We’re meeting more people in the neighborhood. And more people in the neighborhood are noticing us and want to get to know what makes us tick.
            Our neighbors want to know: What’s our faith all about? What do we believe? Why do we give up our valuable time and come here week after week?
            Maybe people ask you questions like that when they find out that you go to St. Paul’s.
            They certainly ask me.
            In fact, over the past few months I’ve had several pretty lengthy conversations with people in the neighborhood sincerely curious about our church, what we believe and how we live out our faith.
            Unfortunately, nearly always these people come to these conversations with very negative views of the church and of the clergy.
            They are what Chris called in his sermon a couple of weeks ago the “nones.” These are people unaffiliated – and usually want to stay unaffiliated - with any organized religion.
            Often these “spiritual but not religious” people assume we’re small-minded, petty and judgmental and, frankly, irrelevant in today’s modern, messed-up world.
            I try to explain and show that not all religious people are judgmental.  I try to explain that we do care about our community and the world. I try to convince them that there’s another way to be religious.
            I try to explain that we genuinely love one another, that we pray for each other especially the sick and the suffering week after week, sometimes for years as we did for our dear brother Ken who was at the top of our prayer list for so long. And we rally around each other, hold up each other up, during times of loss and sadness as we have this past week since Ken died.
            We do this not because we’re some selective club but because we really love one another, just like Jesus told us to.
            What do you think? Am I giving an honest and accurate picture of how we practice our religion here at St. Paul’s? I think so.
            But, it’s a tough sell to people so turned off by the church, by organized religion.
            Today’s gospel passage is a little complicated – there’s a lot going on here - but it gives us a very powerful contrast of two very different ways to be religious.
            On the one hand, we have the Pharisees who are in a dispute with Jesus about religious rules.
            On the other hand, there’s the Canaanite woman who desperately wants Jesus to heal her sick daughter.
            Let’s start with the Pharisees.
            Just like today, back in the first century there was a lot of diversity in Judaism. Then as now there were different Jewish groups that emphasized certain traditions – groups who had their own ideas on how God should be worshiped and obeyed, their own ideas on what it meant to be part of God’s chosen people.
            The Pharisees are the Jewish group that gets the most attention in the gospels. Unfortunately, almost all of that attention is negative.
            That negativity probably reflects real historical tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. And it almost certainly reflects competition between the Pharisees and the first followers of Jesus.
            Probably one of the reasons those first followers of Jesus and the Pharisees competed so fiercely was because in at least some ways they were alike. For example, unlike most Jews, both the Pharisees and the early followers of Jesus believed in life after death.
            The Pharisees also wanted to make everyday life holy. Actually, that sounds like a pretty good thing, right? The Pharisees wanted to make everyday life holy by encouraging everybody to follow traditions that went above and beyond the Law – practices that before had only been required of religious professionals, like the priests.
            Apparently, one of those practices was ritually washing one’s hands before eating.
            In the passage just before what I read today, we’re told that the Pharisees and the scribes ask Jesus why his disciples don’t ritually wash their hands before eating.
            This rather accusatory question gives Jesus the opportunity to talk about true religion.
            Like the prophets before him, Jesus doesn’t criticize the Law and religious practices. But, Jesus insists that following the rules – eating the right foods, washing our hands according to some tradition – is not what’s most important.
            Jesus teaches that what’s most important is what’s going on in our hearts.
            Jesus says, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. Far out of the heart come evil intentions…”
            True religion is all about a loving heart.
            After Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, we’re told he went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon, non-Jewish lands.
            And there – or near there – Jesus encounters one of the most vivid characters in the entire gospel, this unnamed but so loving and so determined Canaanite woman.
            This loving – desperately loving – mother cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
            But, Jesus – acting very un-Jesus-like – ignores her. And the disciples are just annoyed by her.
            But, she doesn’t give up. She loves her daughter and even though she’s not Jewish she trusts this Jewish holy man – or more than a holy man - named Jesus.
            “Lord, help me.”
            But, Jesus, sounding even less like himself, seems to insult her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
            Insulted by Jesus. That would’ve shut up most of us.
            But, not this woman.
            She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
            Jesus finally relents and heals her daughter.
            “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
            It’s quite a story.
            This persistent, loving Canaanite woman – a stranger – a foreigner! – shows that true religion is all about a loving heart.
            We know she loves her daughter – and like every parent here she’d do any thing for her child. But. make no mistake, she’s religious.
            She worships Jesus, calling him “Lord” three times.
            And she has faith in Jesus. In fact, she’s the only person in the gospel who is said to have “great faith.” She’s quite a contrast with Jesus’ own disciples like Peter who over and over reveal they have only little faith.
            This woman trusts that even when Jesus seems to insult her and refuse her plea, ultimately Jesus will offer salvation for daughter and for herself.
            True religion is all about a loving heart.
            So, our neighbors want to know: what kind of religion do we practice here at St. Paul’s?
            Are we like the Pharisees as presented in today’s gospel, quick to judge and too focused on rules and regulations?
            Or are we like the Canaanite woman, loving each other and faithful to Jesus no matter what?
            Do we remember – do we demonstrate to our neighbors and to the world – that true religion is all about a loving heart?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Beat of Love

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 16, 2014

The Funeral of Kenneth Maynard
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Psalm 27
Revelation 7:9-17
John 14:1-6a

The Beat of Love

            As his death approached, Jesus gathered with his friends for one last meal.  Throughout his ministry Jesus had warned his disciples what was going to happen to him, yet they couldn’t or wouldn’t understand, refused to accept, refused to believe, that the One they had recognized and followed as the messiah was going to die.
            But, gathered for what was clearly their last meal together, the truth must have begun to sink in.
            The four gospels give somewhat different accounts of the last meal shared by Jesus and his disciples.
            The passage we just heard comes from the Gospel of John.           
            In this gospel, Jesus reassures the disciples that although he is leaving them, they know the way – they know the way to God – they know the way to the place where they – where we - will all be reunited.
            Yet, the Apostle Thomas speaks for all the disciples, speaks for all of us, when in confusion and fear, and, yes, doubt, he asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
            And Jesus says: “I am the way…” Jesus tells the disciples – and tells us here today – that in and through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus shows us the way to God.           
            For two thousand years or so we Christians have reflected on – and sometimes fought about – what exactly is the way of Jesus.
            But, it’s really not so complicated.
            The way of Jesus is love.
            The way of Jesus is to love God and to love one another.
            The way of Jesus is love – not mushy, sentimental love, but sacrifice – love that is revealed in giving away our lives for others.
            Well, we know that Ken Maynard understood that the way is love, don’t we? We know that Ken understood that the way is love because that’s exactly how he lived.
            The beat of Ken’s life was love – this solid guy was a loving son and brother – a loving husband and father and father-in-law – a loving friend and a loving parishioner right here at St. Paul’s.
            I didn’t really know Ken very well until the past few months. The great ordeal of his illness kept him from church for a long time. But, visiting him in hospitals and rehabs and finally at home, it became clear to me that Ken knew that the way is love.
            And it also became clear to me that despite the pain and despite the fact that he certainly didn’t want to die, Ken was at peace.
            He was at peace because he knew that he had lived his life the right way. He knew that he had offered unconditional love to his beloved wife, Althea and to his daughters Velma and Patrice and to his son-in-law, Randolph. And he already loved – and so wanted to meet – his yet to be born granddaughter.
            One time I asked him if he had any unfinished business. He stopped and thought for a moment, looked right at me, shook his head and said, “No.”
            Ken was at peace because knew that he had followed the way.
            The way is love.
            As I got to know Ken, I learned some things I didn’t know.
            For one thing, he was a whole lot cooler than I had thought. I was surprised about the motorcycle – and isn’t that a great picture of Ken smiling on his bike? He had a real passion for motorcycles and cars and even when not feeling well would get really animated talking about them.
            Even in his last weeks he took a keen interest in Patrice’s choice of a new car.
            One time he asked me what I drove. When I told him a Honda Fit, there was… an awkward silence. He was polite about it but was obviously unimpressed.
            And, I also didn’t know about his love of music.
            Ken had no use for today’s pop music and pop musicians who didn’t or couldn’t master the craft and appreciate the art. I can still see and hear him saying the names “Lady Gaga” and “Kanye West” with undisguised disgust.
            But… you could really get him going about jazz.
            He loved playing it and talking about it and listening to it.
            One time near the end when Ken was in that hazy world between life and death, when it wasn’t clear if Ken was aware of his surroundings, Althea spotted Ken tapping his finger, listening and keeping time with Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5.”
            And, you know, in a lot of ways Ken’s life was like jazz.
            The beat of Ken’s life was love.
            And like a jazz musician, he stuck close to his band-mates, to Althea, Velma and Patrice, playing close attention to what they were playing, attentive to subtle changes, inspired by the music of their lives, and together the beautiful and loving Maynard family made joyful music.
            And, man, Ken Maynard improvised.
            Talking with Ken it was clear that he was more than a little surprised at the twists and turns of his life.
            He lived places he never expected to live – a guy from Harlem ends up in Jersey City?! And he worked at jobs he never expected to work.
            Throughout his years, Ken kept his steady beat of love but he improvised all the way, playing tunes he never expected by selling educational materials, by driving a bus, and, finally, making the best of a terrible illness.
            And now Ken’s life with us here has come to an end.
            It’s a real and painful loss.
            We are going to miss him terribly.
            The music of the Maynard family won’t ever sound quite the same.
            But, the music of Ken’s life hasn’t ended.
            Ken is now in the full presence of God, joyfully playing mysterious chords and glorious melodies that not even the great musicians here today can ever begin to imagine.
            And, as we follow Ken’s example and love one another – as we follow Ken’s way and improvise through all of life’s twists and turns, the sweet song of Ken’s life will continue to echo through the years among us, and even among people not yet born.
            So, let’s join Ken and follow the way of Jesus.
            Let’s live like Ken - and keep the beat of love.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Storm Preparation

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
August 10, 2014

Year A, Proper 14: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Storm Preparation
            If you’ve been in church during the past few weeks you may remember that we’ve been hearing some of Jesus’ parables – these very short stories that contain profound depths of meaning.
            And then last week we heard one of Jesus’ living parables.
            A huge, hungry crowd had followed Jesus to a deserted place. At first Jesus’ disciples try to pass the buck but Jesus tells them that they are to feed the hungry crowd. All they have is a meager five loaves and two fish.
            Yet, everyone is fed. And there were even leftovers!
            The kingdom of God is like a banquet where the little we have to bring turns out to be more than enough.
            And now today we pick up right where we left off last week in the Gospel of Matthew.
            After feeding the crowd, Jesus dismisses the disciples who head across the sea in their boat. Meanwhile Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.
            Finally some alone time!
            Meanwhile, the boat holding the disciples gets “battered by the waves, was far from the shore, for the wind was against them.”
            The disciples are caught in a bad storm.
            And then they see Jesus walking on the water and they were terrified. After Jesus reassures them, Peter asks Jesus to command him to also walk on the water. Which he’s able to do… until he grows frightened by the wind and begins to sink.
            Jesus saves Peter and chastises him for being of little faith, for doubting.
            In his very fine sermon last week, Chris mentioned at first being underwhelmed by some of Jesus’ miracles which seem more like stunts: changing water into wine at a wedding, multiplying bread and fish, and, I bet, he’s add walking on water to that category.
            But, of course, as Chris noted, these aren’t stunts at all. Instead they are powerful symbolic acts.
            The disciples are far from the safety of the shore and are caught in rough seas.
            We know all about rough seas – we know all about bad storms, don’t we?
            In recent years, we’ve watched a great American city get submerged by Hurricane Katrina. We’ve been shocked by the loss of life and angered as the rising waters revealed who matters in our society and who is considered expendable.
            And closer to home, we’ve faced two major hurricanes.
            I was actually between jobs when Hurricane Irene hit. Sue and I were renting an apartment in downtown Jersey City for a few months. I remember the sense of dread as it became clear this was going to be a bad storm. We decided to stay downtown though I moved my car up to the higher ground of St. Paul’s just in case.
            I remember barely sleeping that night as the winds and the rain hit. And then I got up early went downstairs and peered into the basement only to see rising water making its way up the stairs.
            Very scary.
            And, of course, we all have vivid memories of Hurricane Sandy – the property damage, the loss of power, but also neighbors banding together in a time of disaster.
            Yes, we’ve experienced meteorological storms abut we’ve also all endured storms in our own lives, too.
            Some of us are in the middle of a storm right now.
            We’ve faced the storms of illness – our own health scares and the sicknesses of those we love.
            We’ve faced financial storms – the times when we are in danger of drowning in a sea of bills and past due notices – the times when we might – or even do – lose our homes, our businesses, our possessions.
            We’ve faced family and relationship storms, too – probably not as bad as what went on Jacob’s family that we heard about in today’s Old Testament lesson, but still bad enough: family members who are feuding and no longer are on speaking terms – betrayals and disappointments – broken relationships and shattered families.
            We know all about storms. They are, unfortunately, an inevitable part of our lives.
            As a priest it’s my privilege to often be with people in the midst of storms, those times when the waves get rough and the wind is blowing against us.
            Everybody responds differently to these storms but really there are two groups of people. Some people are prepared for the storm and others are not.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we know that Peter and some of the other disciples were fishermen so presumably they knew all about storms are were at least somewhat prepared.
            But, they were prepared in another way, too.
            They knew Jesus.
            Yes, when they first see a man – or it must be a ghost - walking on the water they are frightened, as anyone would be, but then they hear his voice,
            “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
            Peter knows Jesus. He knows that voice. And so Peter takes those few hesitant steps out onto the water. And when he fears, when he doubts and begins to sink, Jesus is there to catch him, to hold on to him, to bring him to safety.
            You all know that I encourage everybody to come to church – to come to church not just once in a while but as often as possible. That’s why we offer all of these services, to create as many ways into the church as we can.
            Of course, I encourage people to come to church because it’s part of my job.
            And I want the church to grow and be as healthy as it can be.
            But, I also know, as somebody said to me recently, “this works.”
            This works.
            Coming to church week after week and hearing these old stories, singing our songs, reaching out offering peace to one another, taking the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and hearts, enjoying each other’s company in coffee hour, being involved in our ministries outside of church, you know what all of that is?
            It’s the spiritual equivalent of storing up on bottled water, canned food and batteries.
            Being here and serving out there is storm preparation.
            Storm preparation doesn’t make us perfect or fearless but it does help us to know the voice of Jesus.
            Peter was sinking and terrified. You know, in their panic, drowning people sometimes reject and even fight off rescuers.  
            But, not Peter.
            Peter was far from perfect. Peter had only little faith.  Peter doubted. But, Peter knew Jesus – he knew that voice - and was saved from the depths.
            When you and I are right here – when we do the ministries we do – we also get to know Jesus. We also get to know his voice.
             And since we’ve prepared, when the waves get rough and the wind blows against us, we will know the voice of Jesus.
            And when we’re sinking into the depths, we, though of little faith and much doubt, can accept Jesus’ love and hold tight to his saving hand.
            We are here for storm preparation.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Two Banquets

Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
August 3, 2014

Year A, Proper 13: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14: 13-21

Two Banquets
            If you’ve been in church the past few Sundays, you may remember that we’ve been making our way through a collection of Jesus’ parables in the 13th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
            Jesus was a master teacher – the master teacher - who used parables to teach his lessons – to get his message across – both to his own disciples and the crowds who followed him looking for healing and other miracles.
            Jesus uses his parables to point us towards the very hard to describe kingdom of God. (Or, as Matthew prefers to call it, “the kingdom of heaven”.)
            We can’t quite absorb what the kingdom of God is. So, Jesus uses his parables to help us get a taste of God’s kingdom – not just heaven where we’ll go after we die – but God’s kingdom here and now – the earth transformed into what God has always dreamed it could be.
            Jesus uses his parables to help us get a taste of God’s kingdom where we are transformed into what God has always dreamed we could be.
            Parables are hard to define, but they are essentially very short stories with multiple meanings. In fact, the more we reflect on Jesus’ parables, the more meanings, the more meaning, we will discover.
            So, using his parables, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a farmer sowing seeds all over the place – on good soil and not so good.
            The kingdom of God is like a field where the wheat and the weeds grow up together but eventually the weeds are gathered up and burned.
            The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed or like yeast – it starts small but then grows into something big and amazing.
            The kingdom of God is so precious it’s like a merchant in search of fine pearls who sells all that he has for one pearl of great value.
            And now today we move from the thirteenth into the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. We move from parables to a living parable.
            Today we heard the story of one of Jesus’ most amazing miracles: the feeding of the multitudes.
            Like all the best teachers, Jesus doesn’t just tell us. Jesus shows us.
            In the feeding of the multitudes, we get a taste of the kingdom of God.
            Although Jesus withdraws to a “deserted place,” the crowds keep following Jesus. They’re hungry for healing, hungry for teaching, hungry for hope, hungry for God’s love.
            And, they’re also just plain hungry.
            One of my favorite parts of the story is how the disciples try to pass the buck. It’s not their problem that all these people have followed Jesus to the deserted place. It’s not their problem that these people didn’t plan ahead – that they didn’t bring enough food.
            Jesus doesn’t put up with the passing of the buck, though. He tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”
            So, they gather up what they have, which isn’t much, just five loaves and two fish.
            And yet, with Jesus, not much turns out to be more than enough. We’re told that those five loaves feed about five thousand men, plus women and children.
            In the feeding of the multitudes Jesus offers us a living parable.
            The kingdom of God is like a banquet where we bring the little we have and there’s more than enough for everyone.
            Not surprisingly, this story must have made quite an impression on the disciples and the others who were there. The miraculous aspect is amazing, of course. The taste of the kingdom of God is beautiful, too. And, the early Christians picked up on the foreshadowing of the Last Supper and the sacred meal that we will share right here in a few minutes.
            The feeding of the multitudes made such a big impression that, in fact, it’s the only miracle story found in all four gospels.
            But, Matthew, whose version we heard today, does something unique with the story.
            He places it right after the story of another, very different kind of banquet.
            Just before Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ miraculous feeding, he tells the story of a royal birthday party. The birthday boy was Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great. You may remember that Herod abandoned his wife to marry Herodias, who was his brother’s wife. A lot of people criticized him for this, including John the Baptist.
            Anyway, Herod celebrated his birthday with a big bash. You’ll remember the daughter of Herodias (elsewhere called Salome) danced for the king. It must have been quite a dance, because Herod swears he’ll give the girl anything she wants.
            It’s good to be the king, right?
            Or maybe not.
            The girl’s mother tells the to tell the king, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
            After Jesus learns about John’s beheading, he withdraws to the deserted place. We can imagine that he wants to grieve and to pray. And maybe Jesus was frightened for his own safety.
            But it’s there in the deserted place that Jesus offers a very different kind of banquet.
            Two banquets.
            Herod’s banquet was lavish and filled with hatred and death.
            Jesus’ banquet was simple but filled with love and life.
            So, here’s the question for all of us: which kind of banquet do we want to attend?
            Around the world and closer to home there are plenty of banquets filled with hatred and death.
            We’ve all seen on the news how the Israelis and Palestinians continue their dance of death, both sides shedding innocent blood day after day.
            But we don’t have to look that far to find a banquet of hatred and death.
            We all know about and many of us have been effected by the violence and despair in our own community - right here in Jersey City. I attended a community meeting last week where people of color were understandably angry about how they’ve been treated and are still treated by the police and others in authority. And others pointed out that we are in danger of losing most of another generation to despair, to crime, to drugs, to the street, to long jail sentences and to early death.
            And then there’s the humanitarian disaster unfolding at our southern border as tens of thousands of children flee the violence and lack of opportunity – flee the banquets of death - in places like Honduras and Nicaragua. These children come here desperate to reach the relative peace and prosperity of the United States.
            These children arrive here only to be greeted by angry Americans, screaming hatred and fear, holding signs with slogans like, “Not my kid. Not my problem.”
            Herod’s banquet of hatred and death is still going strong, here and all around the world.
            But, Jesus’ banquet of love and life is also still underway. Frankly, it’s a much better party. And, despite the odds, it’s growing.
            Jesus told the disciples – tells us, “You give them something to eat.”
            And when we give them something to eat, sure enough, we get a taste of the kingdom of God.
            And so, the kingdom of God is like the monthly community meal at Incarnation where absolutely everybody is welcome.
            The kingdom of God is like Garden State Episcopal’s emergency food pantry right here downstairs in your parish hall, feeding the hungry and offering hope and love.
            The kingdom of God is like the three Episcopal churches taking the risk of going out to street corners and marching in parades, feeding people the Good News through our obvious and overflowing joy.
            And Jesus’ banquet is still underway all around the world.
            You may know that, like us, many European countries have struggled with immigration in recent years. It’s been difficult for many of them to welcome people who look and sound so different, who come from very different places with very different cultures.
            One of the countries that has struggled with newcomers is Sweden.
            This past week the New York Times ran an amazing story about Ebba Akerman, a young woman who teaches Swedish to immigrants in her country. Through her teaching, she discovered that these immigrants had little to no contact with Swedes.
            Then she came up with a very Jesus-like plan to try to change that. She calls herself the minister of dinners in the Department of Invitations.  What does she do? She hosts dinners and invites Swedes and immigrants to come and break bread together to get to know each other at least a little, to begin bridging the cultural gap and start to discover a common humanity.
            It’s not easy work and sometimes things go wrong but I’d say those meals – like Jesus’ banquet long ago - offer a taste of the kingdom of God.
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus offers us a living parable. The kingdom of God is like a meal where all are welcome, a meal where the little we have to offer is more than enough.
            You and I live out this parable each time we reject Herod’s banquet of hate and death.
            You and I are invited to live out this parable right now when we gather at Jesus’ banquet of love and life…and get a taste of the kingdom of God.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Risk is Our Business

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 27, 2014

Year A, Proper 12: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105: 1-11, 45b
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Risk is Our Business
            So, do we have any Star Trek fans here today?
            I’ll admit to being a fan – not quite a dress up in a costume, put on a pair of pointy ears and go to a convention kind of fan – but still a fan, especially of the original series with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock and the rest of the crew of the Starship Enterprise – the original series that first aired all the way back in the late 1960s.
            I’m enough of a fan that I’ve seen most of the original episodes many times. And, as Sue can tell you, I can and do quote lines from the shows and movies all the time.
            She doesn’t find that annoying.
            Anyway, when I first started thinking about Jesus’ parables that we heard today I was reminded of a line said by Captain Kirk in one episode:
            “Risk is our business.”
            For the past few Sundays we’ve been making our way through the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew – a section of the gospel that contains a collection of Jesus’ parables.
            It’s a little hard to define what a parable is, exactly.
            This doesn’t quite capture it, but parables are very short stories with multiple meanings. In fact, the more we reflect on Jesus’ parables the more meaning – the more meanings – we’ll discover.
            Jesus uses parables to describe the kingdom of heaven – the kingdom of God which is not just heaven but the kingdom of God which is the transformed here and now – the earth as God has always meant for it to be.
            Jesus’ parables are drawn from everyday life back in the First Century. Two weeks ago we heard the Parable of the Sower – the everyday image of a farmer planting seeds on good and not so good soil. Last week we heard the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds – weeds and crops getting all mixed up in a field much as they did back then and still do even right here in our own church garden.
            Jesus used these everyday images – and, most likely, he used them over and over again - as he traveled around teaching and healing in one village after another. Jesus told these parables over and over so people remembered them until they eventually made it into the gospels where we’ve been reading them and puzzling over them ever since.
            In today’s gospel passage we heard a bunch of Jesus’ parables.
            “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…”
            “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…”
            Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven starts small – small as a mustard seed or yeast – and grows into something amazingly large and substantial.
            And then we get to the two parables that I’d like to talk about today.
            Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
            And then, along the same lines, Jesus says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
            Through these parables, Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God is so valuable that we should risk everything for it.
            Risk is our business.
            Most of us know all about risk, don’t’ we?
            Yesterday and today we’re especially celebrating the history and cultures of the Caribbean. We had an amazing time marching and dancing in the parade and the party is continuing today with great music and delicious food.
            So, I’ve been thinking about those of you who were born and grew up in the islands – in places that were maybe not wealthy but where there was the security of close-knit families and communities, places where everybody knew your name.
            And yet you – like countless others from so many other places, took the risk of leaving all that comfort and warmth behind and coming here – here where there’s winter! – You came here hoping for a better life for yourself and your family.
            And all of us take risks all the time.
            In our sometimes dangerous city we take calculated risks – what streets are safe and which aren’t – what time is too late to be on the street or to take the bus – the doorbell rings and we answer the door for someone we don’t know, taking the risk that they mean us no harm.
            Some of us have taken the risk of serving our country or serving our community – wearing a uniform that’s a symbol of sacrifice and honor but also serves as an attractive target for violent people.
            Others of us have taken the risk of starting our own business or leaving a job for something we hope will offer more opportunity.
            We’ve taken the risk of loving someone else knowing that sometimes our love is rejected and sometimes relationships that seemed so solid get bruised and broken.
            We know all about risk – it’s risk that has brought many of us here – it’s risk that has brought us together.
            People back in the First Century took a lot of the same kinds of risks but Jesus calls them – calls us - to even more than these everyday risks.
            Jesus himself faithfully risked everything for his mission – for the kingdom of God - and, of course, in the end, Jesus gave away his life on the Cross.           
            Jesus is clear: if we’re going to truly follow him then risk is our business.
            We’ve already found the treasure. Just look around. But are we really willing to risk something – to risk everything – for God?
            I don’t know.
            But, I do see signs that we are risking more and more for God’s kingdom.
            I see us risking our hard-earned and all too limited resources to invest in our future here at St. Paul’s, giving even when it means we have to cut in other areas of our lives.
            I see us risking mockery and scorn from people on the street when we took church to McGinley Square on Friday evening. Here in church we know that we’re safe and surrounded by people we know and who are more or less on the same page with us when it comes to faith. Out there who knows? And yet, we took the risk.
            We took the risk of the marching and dancing in the parade yesterday. I’m sure there were some people who thought it was weird and, I don’t know, maybe even inappropriate for a church to march in the parade. Yet, we took the risk of being out there with the people spreading the Good News with people who may have forgotten it – or who maybe have never even heard it.
            We’ve found the treasure here at St. Paul’s.
            My prayer is that we’ll continue to look for ways to leave our little safe and secure St. Paul’s island.
            My prayer is that we’ll boldly go out into the world, risking it all for God.
            My prayer is that we Christians will remember that, “Risk is our business.”

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Already, But Not Yet, in Jersey City

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 20, 2014

Year A, Proper 11: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Already, But Not Yet, in Jersey City
            For the past few Sundays we’ve been hearing excerpts from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
            As you may remember, Paul was a very faithful Jew – a Pharisee, in fact – who did not know Jesus during his earthly lifetime. As a young man, Paul (or Saul as he was then known) persecuted some of the first followers of Jesus – the people who claimed that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
            But then Saul had his own life-changing encounter with the Risen Christ.
            That mysterious experience transformed this remarkable man from Saul the persecutor to Paul the Apostle.
            As he reflected on his encounter with the Risen Christ, Paul realized that since God had raised Jesus from the dead, that means that the old world had come to an end and a new age had begun.
            And since that new age had already begun, there was no time to waste!
            So Paul along with others began to travel among non-Jews telling them the Good News of Jesus – the good news that salvation wasn’t just for Jews but was for everybody.
            God was ready to adopt us all as God’s children!
            Paul proclaimed this glorious new age had already begun but was not yet complete.
            It was already but not yet.
            And we hear the “already, not yet” in today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
            Most scholars think that this letter was among the last written by Paul – that it reflects his most mature understanding of what Jesus means for the whole world.
            The new age has already begun but is not yet complete.
            In his Letter to the Romans, Paul uses the beautiful and vivid image of childbirth to capture the “already, not yet” state of things.
            He writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
            Paul says that this already, not yet time – this in-between time – is like the groans of labor as new life is created.
            In recent days we’ve been painfully reminded that we live in the already, not yet – in this groaning, in-between time.
            On the one hand we don’t have to look far to see all kinds of signs that the joyful new age has already begun.
            Here at St. Paul’s, week after week, we enjoy beautiful worship and warm fellowship. Our church continues to grow and become healthier and even more committed to spreading the good news of Jesus.
            Many Sundays as I stand at the altar rail and watch you all come forward to receive communion, I think to myself, “The Kingdom of God is like this.” People of all different backgrounds and life experiences, all different ages and colors, all coming forward hungry and expectant, ready to take the Body of Christ into our bodies and into our souls.
            We’ll be spreading the Good News on Friday evening when we take our church into the world, holding a service at McGinley Square, offering the Good News of Jesus – offering Jesus himself - without walls.
            And on Saturday, lots and lots of people will see us marching in the West Indian parade. And I have no doubt that God will use our joyful presence to remind at least some of the hungry people of our city that they can find the good food right here and at Incarnation and Grace Van Vorst.
            Last Saturday afternoon Sue and I and my parents and lots of other happy people attended the wedding of my cousin Danny and his long-time girlfriend, Kristen. It was right over at St. Aedan’s. I was honored that they asked me to be part of the service – and pleasantly surprised that the Catholic priest went along with it (up to a point, of course.) There was real joy at the service and at the party afterwards as these two fine, generous young people – a firefighter and a teacher - made a lifelong commitment of love.
            And then… the next morning we woke up to the horrible news of the shooting of young Officer Melvin Santiago, killed before he knew what him, assassinated by a seemingly out of his mind Lawrence Campbell, just a few blocks from here.
            Not yet.
            The reactions to the bloody deaths of Officer Santiago and Mr. Campbell uncovered and revealed all kinds of ugliness and pain in our city – uncovered and revealed all kinds of ugliness and pain that’s usually ignored by the media and the powers that be but that many of us in this room have to live with everyday.
            The ugliness and pain of young people without hope and opportunity, the often justified mistrust of the police and other authorities, racism and classism, a longstanding lack of leadership, a city more divided than ever into haves and have-nots and never-will-haves, whole neighborhoods mostly unaware of other parts of the city just a mile or two away.
            Not yet.
            On Tuesday the mayor invited the city’s clergy to a meeting to discus the situation. The meeting was at the Bethune Center so I decided I would drive right down MLK Drive to see the situation for myself.
            I’ll admit I was frightened – scared and saddened by the heavily armed officers looking more like the military than cops on the beat. I was frightened by the obviously angry people on every corner, some of whom looked at me in my Honda wearing my clerical collar with undisguised disdain.
            And then I got to the Bethune Center and saw an entire block of TV news vans with reporters already interviewing clergy members and community activists, adding more hot air to keep the fire burning.
            Not yet.
            Like many of you, I’m sure, all of this sadness and fear here in our city, plus what’s going on around the world, and whatever is going on in our own lives, has got me feeling down this week. I’ve been discouraged by so much suffering and pain, by our many problems that seem so big and unsolvable.
            But, like our friend St. Paul, in my heart I really believe that, despite appearances to the contrary, the new age of love and salvation has already begun.
            I’ve mentioned before that for the past five or six weeks, members of the clergy have been praying at places in our city where homicides have occurred. The first couple times there were only a few of us and we were weak and uncertain, careful not offend each other’s traditions and customs.
            But, the past couple of times, our numbers have been growing. Not only is our prayer for the dead and for peace gaining strength and confidence, but a real trust and friendship is growing among us.
            My hope is that we will find ways for not just clergy but all of us to be present in the pain of our city and to groan right alongside our suffering brothers and sisters.
            My prayer is that God will use us – use St. Paul’s and the Episcopal Church in Jersey City - to do what God always does, turn the groans of labor into the joyful shouts of new life.
            I don’t know how exactly that’s going to happen.
            But, with St. Paul, here at St. Paul’s, I know that the new age has begun.