Friday, July 10, 2020

Remediating the Soil

“Remediating the Soil”

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

(Matthew 13:1-9)

I grew up in Country Village, a housing development built in the early 1960s at the southern end of Jersey City. Back then it was sort of a little slice of suburbia in the city, its curving streets teeming with kids riding bikes, playing ball, and the outdoor activities that were popular before the advent of video games, cellphones, and all of the other gadgets that capture our attention. The homes had small backyards, and most of the residents took great pride in their little patches of lawn and flowers. Of course, as with all with neighborhoods, there were some problems, but for the most part it was a very safe and nurturing place to grow up.

Country Village was and still is somewhat isolated from the rest of the city. When I was growing up, a rail line that we all called “The Tracks” marked the eastern edge of the development, while on the west there was busy Route 440. Today the highway looks about the same as it did back then but the scenery around it sure has changed! Roosevelt Stadium stood where Society Hill is today. By the 1970’s the decrepit stadium was long past its glory days but still hosted rock concerts (with the sound easily reaching our house), an ice skating rink, and for a few years, a minor league baseball team. All around the stadium there were factories, some shuttered and decaying and others still in use. It was a gritty industrial area, not easy on the eyes or the nose. But, worst of all was what we usually couldn’t see or smell: the soil was poisoned.

And, by the 1990s, it was discovered that these poisons (especially chromium) had spread far and were making many residents terribly sick. In response, a determined group of local lay people (including our own Diane Maxon) and clergy created the ICO (Interfaith Community Organization) to force the responsible (and stubbornly resistant) corporations to clean up their mess. It wasn’t easy, but like David long ago, these persistent people knocked down Goliath. It took many years of protests and a drawn-out and complicated court case, but at last that land along the highway has been transformed. It is now good soil, ready for new life.

The Bible opens with the insistence that God’s creation is good, very good. We are good, very good. The fundamental human problem is that sin pollutes our goodness. And, our sinfulness – our greed, selfishness, and deceit – ends up polluting God’s good creation as we spread poison into the ground and into the air, polluting the earth and polluting other people.

Back in the 1990s, people around here uncovered the poisons that were just beneath the surface of daily life. And, now, for the past few months many of us white people have been in the midst of a much more widespread and challenging uncovering as we discover the pollution of racism and white privilege that is in our own hearts and lives, as we finally see that all of our our systems, including law enforcement, education, the economy, the church, politics, all of them are contaminated and in desperate need of remediation.

A few decades back, the good people of the ICO faced a herculean battle against powerful corporations and pollution that had seeped into the ground. May their courage and persistence inspire us as we face a greater challenge of uncovering and remediating what’s even worse than chromium, the pollution that is killing our society.   

As always, Jersey City Together (part of the expanding New Jersey Together) has been hard at work researching, learning, planning, and uncovering some startling facts about just how deeply the poison has seeped into our life in this state. For example, we have the worst racial disparities in our prisons. African-Americans are twelve times more likely as whites to be incarcerated in state prison. Hispanics are twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites. And, here’s the statistic that really shocked me: median wealth (the value of all assets) for white families in New Jersey is $352,000 (the highest in the nation) while the median wealth for African-American families and Latino families is $6,100 and $7,300, respectively. Just look at those numbers and realize what that vast disparity means for people all across the state, for us and our parishioners and neighbors.

Just as in the past, the only way to remediate these deep inequities is to work together. So, I hope that you will join us on Monday, July 27, 7:30pm to 8:30pm on Zoom, when we begin to prepare for a statewide action in August. Please register here:

On Sunday we will hear one of Jesus’ best-known parables. Although commonly called the “Parable of the Sower,” the focus of the parable is not so much on the sower but on the seeds and the soil. From the very beginning, God has been spreading the good seeds of love and health and justice but, unfortunately, our soil has been poisoned for so long, and many of those seeds have died. But, God is still at work and still offers us the chance to remediate the soil of our hearts and the soil of our society. With God’s help, we have the chance to finally be good soil, ready for new life.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

“God Meant For Things To Be Much Easier Than We Have Made Them”

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

Year A, Proper 9: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:11-18
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

“God Meant For Things To Be Much Easier Than We Have Made Them”
            During these past few months of pandemic, there has been a whole lot for us to miss, hasn’t there?
            I find myself feeling nostalgic for experiences that I took for granted not so long ago: going out for dinner with friends, the chance to get away for at least a few days of summer vacation, the ability to walk through the park without getting angry at the many people not wearing masks, and, of course, I miss being together with all of you here in church.
            One of things I really miss about church is Communion.
            I love making my way down the Communion rail, seeing all the different ways people approach the altar – some walking with difficulty and determination, while kids race each other in a not very reverent but so joyful rush, impatient to get what they know is the Good Stuff.
            When I’m about to give the wafer, some people are eager to make eye contact, looking up expectantly while others look down, as if shy about receiving such an awesome gift.
 Some of your hands are spotted and bent with age and pain, while others are smooth, not yet lined by the hard work and cares of life.
            So, I hope you can tell, I miss sharing Communion with all of you – sharing with you the food that Jesus gives us for the journey – food that we can receive spiritually through Facebook, though it’s not quite the same.
And, I also miss baptisms.
            Now, if you’re a long time parishioner, you may be groaning a little bit, thinking, oh, here he goes again about Baptism!
            So, yes, as I may have mentioned before, I love baptizing people.
            I love reminding people – and reminding myself – that in the water of Baptism, God makes an indissoluble, an unbreakable, bond – no matter what we do or don’t do, God won’t give up on us.
            It’s truly the best news ever.
            In Baptism we are signing up – or, more often, getting signed up - to be a Christian, beginning a way of life, a way that, if we’re doing it right, should be very different from what goes on out in the world.
            So, when I prepare people for Baptism, I spend a lot of time going over the Baptismal Covenant – God makes a big promise to us in Baptism and in response we make some big promises, too.
            We promise to keep praying and breaking bread together (even if it’s on Facebook).
            We promise to resist evil and to ask for forgiveness when we fall short, when, as St. Paul says, we do the very thing we hate.
            We promise to proclaim the Good News through our words and actions.
            (I always say those first promises are hard, but not that hard. Now we get to the really hard promises…)
            We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbor as our self.
            And, we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
            We know – and say – that we can only live out these big promises with God’s help.
            But, they’re still difficult.
            It’s not easy to follow the way of Jesus.
            Jesus himself warns us that his way is not the easy way.
            If you’ve been with us the past few Sundays, you may remember that we’ve been hearing Jesus sending his disciples out into the world. And, Jesus warns the disciples back then – and warns us disciples of today – that the world isn’t always going to like what we have to say – that if we preach love to a hateful world, we may find ourselves in some big trouble.
            Maybe realizing that disciples past and present might be having second thoughts about following his difficult way, Jesus promises us that God loves us and knows us, knows us so well that every hair on our head is counted.
            That’s reassuring, for sure, but still, I think we can all agree that loving all our neighbors, working for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of everybody, even the people we may despise, even the people who may give us good reason to despise them – this way of Jesus is difficult.
            But, then, at the close of today’s Gospel passage, Jesus calls us to him, offering us rest, saying, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
            Jesus says, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

            I’ve sat with – walked with - those words all week.
            And, it seems to me, that the way of Jesus – the way of loving our neighbor –  is easy and light because any other way of life, the way of the world, is so much more difficult, so much heavier.
            As Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, once said:
            “God meant for things to be much easier than we have made them.”
            We can all think of people – people in our own lives, celebrities, maybe even ourselves sometimes – we can all think of people who have chosen the way of the world.
            We can all think of people who have chosen greed, who are only concerned about their wants and needs, convinced that if they have more than everybody else – if they have just a little more than they already have – well then, then, they will be happy and content.
            We can all think of people who have chosen hatred and fear and, yes, racism – demonizing whole groups of people, building ever higher walls to keep “them” out, arming themselves to the teeth, thinking that all of their hardware and security systems will keep them safe, will protect them from the troubles of life.
            And, yet, when we look at those people they always look so miserable, don’t they?
            No matter how much they have, no matter how much security they’ve installed, no matter how superior they think they are, their faces always tell the story.
            There have been so many memorable images from the past few months – “Black Lives Matter” painted in giant yellow letters on the street leading to the White House, the toppling of Confederate statues and the lowering of the Mississippi state flag, the President standing in front of St. John’s Church holding up the Bible – lots of pictures we won’t soon forget.
            But one that has been really haunting me is the picture of a husband and wife standing outside their mansion, located on a “private street” in St. Louis, as peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters passes by.
            He’s cradling a long-barreled gun and she’s waving a pistol.
            Now, we could spend a lot of time reflecting on if the roles were reversed – if this were a Black couple pointing weapons at white protesters – then this story would have had a very different ending.

            But, setting that aside, did you see their faces?
            I can’t know what’s in their hearts, of course, and some news reports described the two, who are both lawyers, as supporters of civil rights and even Black Lives Matter, I don’t know, but looking at their faces, I saw anger and bewilderment and so much fear – maybe fear that all that they had accumulated and thought was secure behind gates on a private street could be lost in an instant – a fear so great that they were willing to step out with their weapons to intimidate but instead they ended up just being ridiculed.
            It sure is a tough way to go through life.
            As Dorothy Day said, “God meant for things to be much easier than we have made them.”
            Or, maybe even more to the point, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
            So, especially these days when disease and hatred are on the loose, when we sure are missing each other and so much that we took for granted not so long ago, especially during this difficult time, Jesus calls us to the way of love.
            The way of Jesus begins in Baptism when God promises to never let us go, and continues at the altar when we hold out our hands and receive all the Good Stuff that we need for the journey.
            The way of Jesus is challenging, for sure, but, so long as we stick together, it’s also easy and light.
            And, if you don’t believe that, just look at the hard and heavy ways of the world

Friday, July 03, 2020

The God of Paradox is at Work

“The God of Paradox is at Work”

“God, who is preached and represented in this world by the One who was crucified and rose from the dead, is the God of paradox: what people consider wise He considers folly, what people regard as madness He considers strength, what people consider great He sees as small, and what they find small He regards as great.”

- Tomáš Halík

After months of quarantine, stay-at-home orders, closed businesses, Church By Phone and Communion on Facebook, most of us have long since grown tired of Covid-19 and are desperate to move into the “new normal,” whatever that is going to look like. After all of the suffering and loss endured by the people of our region, our local leaders have moved cautiously and sometimes, as in the case of indoor dining, changed course, despite public pressure and the significant economic impact. Elsewhere in the country, as I’m sure you know, many leaders failed to learn from our painful experience, reopening too quickly and widely with predictably devastating consequences. We may be tired of the virus, but it seems the virus is not tired of us.

While eager to welcome as many of you as possible back to church, the leadership of our congregation is choosing to be cautious, not so much out of fear but out of love for one another. So, in-person worship and other events will resume no sooner than the first week of August. I know this is disappointing to many (and maybe a relief to others), but I hope that we will continue to look for the gifts that God continues to give us during this strange and difficult time.

God is the God of paradox. God sees the world in a downside-up way, and acts accordingly. So, in God’s view – in God’s “kingdom” – it’s the poor and the mournful and the suffering people who are the blessed ones. The God of paradox comes among us as a “nobody” born in the humblest of circumstances, raised in a small town not known for producing much good, and whose life and mission seemed to end as a miserable failure. But, as the theologian James Cone writes, when all hope seemed to be lost, God took the cross, “a symbol of death and defeat” and “turned into a sign of liberation and new life.”

God is the God of paradox. Our Christian faith is built on paradox, calling us to take up our cross, insisting that we must give up our life in order to save it. In the gospel lesson we will hear this Sunday, Jesus declares that God hides the truth from those who think they are wise and reveals it to “infants.”  If church has always been part of our lives, if we think we’ve somehow “figured out” Christianity, all of this paradox may be hidden from us, fading into the background of our faith and our lives, preventing us from seeing things as they really are.

But, God does not miss an opportunity! And, I believe God is hard at work, rearranging our vision, helping us to see the world through God’s eyes, inviting us to see – and maybe even help build – a downside-up world during this time of paradox.

So, in the eyes of the world, right now the church looks awfully weak. Never in our long history has the church been closed for more than a week or two, usually due to bad weather. Now, as you know, we haven’t been able to gather in-person since March. And yet, when we might expect that our bonds of commitment would have started to weaken, we have in fact grown even stronger. Way more of us are praying “together” during the week and on Sundays, and it sure sounds to me like we are praying with more depth and fervor than when we were sitting in our pews. The God of paradox is at work in this time of paradox.

Across our country, longstanding injustices are being exposed and long-demanded changes that used to seem just too hard to tackle are falling with little resistance. Statues of Confederate leaders (usually erected decades after the Civil War in an effort to rewrite history and to intimidate Black people) have been swiftly removed and hauled away. After years of stubborn resistance, the Mississippi legislature quickly voted to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag. And, it’s not just symbols, as important as they are. More people are looking carefully at government budgets, calling for resources to be shifted from the police (who, as Jon Stewart recently said, for too long have been asked to do more than they can manage, in effect serving as a kind of border patrol between the “two Americas,” the haves and the have-nots) to people and programs with a better chance at actually fixing our deep-seated problems. And, maybe most paradoxical of all, during a time when one would expect people to be circling the wagons and only looking out for themselves and those they love, it’s like our hearts have finally been cracked open and many more of us are able to empathize with the suffering and oppressed. The God of paradox is at work in this time of paradox.

And on Monday evening, several local pastors and I took to the Internet for a frank, and sometimes uncomfortable, conversation about racism and the church. I doubt that we would have had this discussion during normal times when we all would have been caught up in our daily routines and the usual demands of leading our churches. (Or, I should just speak for myself: I would have tried to use the excuse of busyness to avoid having this discussion.) But, it was during this time when we are apart that about 1,200 people (!) came together to watch us, and more have been catching up with the recording. Why did so many tune in? I’m sure there was some curiosity and maybe a sense of obligation to support the pastors, but I suspect that many recognized that this is a different kind of time when God is rearranging our vision, helping us to see the world through God’s eyes.

So, although it’s hard to be patient during this difficult and frightening time, God is not missing an opportunity to give us some unexpected but much-needed blessings. As we wait for the reopening of our church building, the God of paradox invites us to be even closer together while we are still apart, to continue opening our hearts and our eyes, and to help build the downside-up world that God has seen and hoped for all along.