Sunday, May 20, 2018

God's Holy Wind is Blowing

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & The Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 20, 2018

Year B: The Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

God’s Holy Wind is Blowing
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Ten days ago, early in the morning, just a few of our fellow parishioners, along with Rev. Gary, gathered right over there in the chapel to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension.
            Always forty days after Easter and so always on a Thursday and so, here at St. Paul’s that mean it’s always at 7:30am, we never get a big crowd for Ascension.
            That day, I was at the monastery in Kentucky on retreat and, oddly enough, the Trappist monks seemed to completely ignore the Ascension – I kept waiting but there was no mention of it at any of the many services I attended.
            And, I don’t know, but maybe that’s as it should be because, as recorded in the New Testament, the Ascension is, yes, amazing, but it’s also a pretty small and almost private event, as Jesus disappears from sight, taken into heaven.
            It must have been a confusing and disheartening experience for the disciples, whose heads were probably still spinning from Jesus’ death and resurrection. Maybe they were just beginning to make sense of all of that - and now Jesus is gone again -gone, but not before promising to send the Holy Spirit to them – and to all of us.
            And, of course, that’s what we celebrate today!
Ten days after the Ascension – fifty days after Easter – the Holy Spirit was sent to those first disciples in Jerusalem two thousand years ago – and this is no private, personal moment – this is big and public and very loud!
            You can hear the author of the Acts of the Apostles strain to describe what happened on that first Pentecost – a sound like the rush of violent wind – divided tongues as of fire – and the disciples are somehow able to speak the Good News in foreign languages!
            And the bystanders in Jerusalem that day they were understandably confused, too – trying to make sense of this bizarre and unexpected scene, with some people falling back on my personal favorite explanation for the inexplicable:
            “They are filled with new wine.”
            And, let’s admit that Peter’s reply that it can’t be the wine because it’s only 9:00 in the morning, isn’t totally convincing!
            But, it wasn’t wine.
            It was – and is – God’s Holy Spirit.
            Our human language is limited and so we struggle to describe – to find the right words for the Holy Spirit.
            The advocate.
            The comforter.
            And, we try our best to come up with the right images of the Holy Spirit, too.
            There’s fire, of course.
            And, the dove.
            But, one of the most ancient images of God’s Spirit is breath or, maybe even better…wind.
            A holy wind blew through Jerusalem that first Pentecost two thousand years ago – and God’s holy wind continues to blow not just in Jerusalem but all over the place, blowing off the roof, uncovering all sorts of stuff that’s been carefully hidden for so long.
            Yes, God’s holy wind has been blowing fiercely through our land these past couple of years – especially these last few months - uncovering all kinds of rot that many of us couldn’t see, or chose not to see.
God’s holy wind has uncovered the rot of rampant sexual harassment and abuse – harassment that for so long has turned workplaces and homes and even just our sidewalks and streets into danger zones – harassment and abuse that has hurt so many, all of those women (plus more men than we might think) all declaring “me too.”
God’s holy wind has uncovered the rot of racism in our land – racism that we all knew still existed but maybe had dared to hope was slowly on its way out – that now in our “post-racial” society (remember that?) it was something that respectable people would never discuss in public – something that was reduced to merely “dog whistles” and winks rather than anything too blatant – but now we see our racism only too clearly, don’t we?
We see this rot in the lawyer (a lawyer!) in New York City (in New York City!) who was caught on video freaking out because people were speaking Spanish.
We see this rot in the white entrepreneurs beginning to profit handsomely off of marijuana, selling the same drug that has landed so many young men of color in jail, burdened with a criminal record, all but destroying their possibilities and opportunities.
We see this rot in Puerto Rico, much of which is still in shambles eight months after Hurricane Maria, a situation that would not be tolerated, would still be in the news every single day, if we were taking about any other place in America.
(I wonder why that is?)
We see this rot in a federal government that, more than ever, seems mostly interested giving the wealthy and powerful even more wealth and power.
After each school shooting (you probably saw the statistic that so far this year more students and teachers have been killed this year than active duty military personnel) – after each school shooting, God’s holy wind reveals the cowardice and insincerity of so many elected officials with their rehearsed and meaningless calls for “thoughts and prayers” – God’s holy wind uncovers the fact that some among us love our guns – or love the false security that comes from our guns – more than we love innocent kids and teachers.
And, God’s holy wind has been blowing strong through Jersey City, too – uncovering carefully hidden rot here at home.
Last Tuesday evening, the wind wasn’t even a metaphor – the wind really did blow as a big and powerful storm came through! We talked about canceling the Jersey City Together action about tenants’ rights but decided to take our chances and go for it.
And, sure enough, God’s holy wind blew through this old room that night as about 200 people braved the storm to learn about their rights and to hear from fellow tenants, all of whom live nearby and two who live right across the street, as they told disturbing and heartbreaking stories of life with crumbling walls and leaking pipes and infestation of roaches.
We learned that in at least one building right across the street, where some of our parishioners live, every single tenant is paying an illegally high rent.
These brave tenants told of disrespect and harassment by landlords, whose only interest seems to be squeezing as much money as possible out of their properties, no matter the human cost.
It’s hard to see all of this, hard to talk about it, I know, but fortunately, God’s holy wind doesn’t only uncover the rot, doesn’t just reveal our carefully hidden sinfulness.
Fortunately, God’s holy wind also reveals the good stuff – the blessings – that we might otherwise miss.
God’s holy wind certainly blew the roof off of St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, England yesterday when a descendant of slaves gracefully and confidently married into the royal family – who could’ve imagined! And our own Presiding Bishop, another descendant of slaves, brought the Black Church to the House of Windsor – and, man, he did us proud by preaching a dynamite sermon all about the power of love.
            And then just a few hours later, God’s holy wind blew through St. Peter’s Church in Morristown when another competent and confident woman of color was elected on the first ballot to be our next bishop – the Rev. Carlye Hughes, who will the first woman and first person of color to serve as Bishop of Newark.
And, finally, it’s clear to me that God’s holy wind has also been blowing right here as our two churches are coming together, moving towards unity.
God’s holy wind has uncovered how much we… like each other – how well we fit together – and, yes, I’ll say it, how much we love each other.
This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago when we had our parish meeting about the future name of the unified church.
To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect and I worried a little that our discussion about this important subject might get a little uncomfortable, a little heated – that it would undo at least some of the good progress we’ve made.
But, if you were here that day, you know that it was actually kind of a dull meeting. Right from the start, pretty much everyone was in agreement that the name should be some version of “St. Paul’s and Incarnation.”
It was such a non-issue that at least half the room wasn’t even paying any attention to what we were talking about.
This level of harmony would have been unimaginable even just a year or two ago.
Yes, God’s Holy Spirit – God’s holy wind – has been blowing strong, uncovering all kinds of carefully hidden rot in our society – and also uncovering unimaginable goodness right here in this place.
And, God’s Holy Spirit also gives us breath – gives us the courage and the voice to denounce evildoing and to speak up for the oppressed.
And, most of all, just like for the first disciples, God’s Holy Spirit gives us breath – gives us the courage and the voice to proclaim through our actions and words the Good News, the best news of all-time:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

"Walking Around Shining Like the Sun"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 13, 2018

Year B: The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

“Walking Around Shining Like the Sun”
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            A couple of weeks ago when The New York Times published a special section in the paper containing a series of photographs from 1978.
            There was a newspaper strike that summer and in order to scrounge up a little work some newspaper photographers approached the New York City Parks Department with the idea of photographing people using the city’s parks.
            Maybe surprisingly, the Parks Department said yes and so the photographers fanned out across the city, taking pictures of people enjoying a break from the city by hanging out or playing in parks, but the pictures were quickly forgotten and were never released, until now.
            The images of these people in the fashions and hairstyles of that time took me right back to those days – I could almost hear the pop music blaring from transistor radios!
            These forty year-old pictures are also a helpful reminder to not idealize the past.
            You don’t have to look very hard to see signs that these were not the best days in the history of New York City, or any city for that matter.
            There’s lots of graffiti and broken benches and trash – a reminder of that time when a broke city couldn’t keep its streets safe or clean and the subways were like something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
            Yet, despite all of that brokenness – or maybe because of it – there is also something endearing and appealing about these pictures.
            I guess part of their draw is nostalgia for people my age or older, but there’s something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until a few days later the Times published a letter from a reader about these pictures.
            The letter-writer wrote,
            “What struck me immediately about the photos was that in each one, people are engaged with one another and their real-time activities. People looked at each other, spoke to each other, listened to each other, paid attention to their surroundings. No phones competed for their attention.”
            And, that’s exactly right.
            Thanks to these small but powerful computers that most of us carry in our pockets or in our bags we are able to access a world of information – but many of us have become addicted to this never-ending flow of stimulation.
            Probably we’ve all seen parents glued to their phones as their children vie for their attention or couples sitting side-by-side staring at their screens rather than into each other’s eyes – and, I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but maybe we’ve been those people.
            And then some of us are actually required by our work to always be connected, to always be reachable, to always be “on.”
            This super-connection and over-stimulation has serious spiritual consequences.
As William Wordsworth wrote a couple of hundred years ago, “The world is too much with us.”
            You wonder what he would say if he could see us today!
            In today’s gospel lesson we heard part of Jesus’ long farewell prayer as recorded in the Gospel of John.
            And in Jesus’ prayer, we can hear his care and concern for his disciples – for us – who somehow must manage to be “in” the world without being “of” the world –his prayer that we are not to allow the world to be too much with us.
            In the case of both Wordsworth and Jesus, we should probably put “the world” in quotes – because they’re not talking about God’s good creation.
No, instead they are talking about the mess of a world we’ve created, a world stained by sin, a world that we can see so clearly, especially these days, is broken by greed, corruption, and lies.
            For centuries Christians have struggled to figure out just how to live in this broken world but not to be of this world – how to not fall in line with the priorities and values of the world.
            And some have even taken the radical step of withdrawing from “the world” – and going off to live and pray in a cave or in a convent or a monastery.
            One of those radical Christians was Thomas Merton, born in 1915, a highly educated and rather complicated guy, who in 1941 thought he was leaving the world when he entered a strict Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky, a place called the Abbey of Gethsemani.
            There’s a wonderful photograph of him at the monastery on his ordination day He’s holding a newspaper and laughing about how much he’s missed since he had left “the world.”
            But, if you know anything about Merton, you know that to his surprise stepping away from the world and living in the quiet of the monastery, cutting off much of the world’s stimulation, allowed him to see the truth – to see the world more clearly - both as it is and as it was meant to be.
            And so from his monastic isolation he began to engage with the great issues of the day – writing about atomic weapons and the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and much more.
            Probably the most famous incident in Merton’s life occurred in 1958 when he was in Louisville running errands for the monastery.
            Standing at the corner of Fourth and Walnut he suddenly had a mystical experience, a vision of the world as it was always meant to be, a vision of the world as it really is.
            He saw, really saw, the people passing by, just going about their business at that bustling corner.
            Later he wrote, “Then it was as if suddenly I saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.”
            And Merton added, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
            Wow, right?
            I’ve been interested in Merton for a long time and, since like for all or most of us, “the world” is too much with me – and since I am also very richly blessed – last week, as some of you know, I was able to drive to Kentucky and spend a week on retreat at Merton’s monastery.
            I was able to withdraw from “the world” for a few days.
            And, I have to tell you it was amazing.
            The monastery is in a secluded spot, more beautiful than I had imagined, surrounded by acres and acres of trees and farmland.
            It was so quiet – the Trappist monks don’t talk much and we were all expected to be pretty much silent. Just about all I heard were the birds chirping, cows mooing and roosters greeting the dawn, and the monks chanting during their daily services, the earliest of which is at 3:15am.
            I could only get a cellphone signal in a couple of spots, so, for the most part, I really was able to leave behind “the world” and appreciate the beauty of the world that God created, and always intended for us to enjoy.
            I’m so grateful for this wonderful time, but I have to admit that I didn’t have some big breakthrough profound spiritual experience at the monastery.
            For the ride home – about 700 miles – I had thought about trying to push through and drive all the way in one day, but after about eight hours my right foot started to hurt and I realized I was beginning to lose focus – kind of dangerous when doing 80 on the interstate, so reluctantly I pulled off somewhere in southern Pennsylvania and got a room at a Holiday Inn just beyond the highway exit.
            After I checked in, I was hungry and went looking for a place to eat. I looked around at all the motels and fast-food places and the stores selling discounted cigarettes and all the traffic and all the concrete and thought how ugly it all was, and how already the monastery was feeling a like a whole different world, almost like a dream.
            After dinner, back at the hotel, I noticed that a fair number of my fellow guests were bikers – middle-aged men and women wearing their leather jackets with lots of patches, bandanas, the whole uniform.
            I try not to judge, but let’s just say that I was wary.
            The next morning I got up early to take advantage of the complimentary breakfast – a good deal, by the way – and, sure enough, some of the bikers were already up and at it, already at tables with their food and coffee.
            I sat next to one table of biker women and couldn’t help overhearing their conversation.
            It turned out that they were on some kind of history tour and one of the women was talking excitedly about the chance to see the spot where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
            Judge not, right?
            But then, another middle-aged biker couple arrived – a man and a woman, dressed, like the others, in the full outfit. This woman, though, woman wore sunglasses and tapped a cane in front of her.
            She was blind!
            The first thing I thought of was how it’s scary enough to ride behind someone on a motorcycle, but how scary it must be to not be able to see what’s going on around you!
            Now, I have to tell you that the man – her husband, I assume – was so incredibly gentle and tender with his blind wife, gently holding her arm and guiding her along.
            “Here, sweetheart, there’s a chair for you.”
            “Here, honey, I got you a bagel. It’s right here. Is there anything else you’d like?
            “OK, I’ll leave you ladies to talk, but I’ll be right over there, honey.”
            The whole scene was so touching and beautiful. I didn’t want to be rude but I didn’t want to look away, either.
            I’m not sure I’d say that this loving man and his blind wife were shining like the sun, but it was pretty close.
            So, yes, the world we’ve created is a mess and may very well get a whole lot worse, but the world that God created and continues to create is still out there, still in here, and it’s still very beautiful.
            It’s as beautiful as people enjoying each other’s company in a broken-down park.
            It’s as beautiful as a biker lovingly caring for his blind wife.
            All of this beauty all around us, created by the God who loves us enough to come among us, and to die and rise again!
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Assistant Vinegrowers

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City, NJ
April 29, 2018

Year B: The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Assistant Vinegrowers
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The other day I met someone who lives in Country Village, the same neighborhood down on the city line of Jersey City and Bayonne where I grew up and where my parents still live.
            Talking with this Country Village resident got me thinking about my childhood back in the 1970s and early 1980s in that little section of the city with backyards and stand-alone houses and curving streets that had been deliberately planned to look and feel like a miniature suburbia – in fact, just in case we didn’t get it, there are even streets down there named “Suburbia Drive,” Suburbia Court,” and “Suburbia Terrace.”
            It was in many ways an idyllic place to grow up.
            There were a lot of young families and lots of kids.
Many of us kids would troop off together each morning to Our Lady of Mercy School, just a few blocks away but it usually felt like quite a trip, except on math test days when somehow it felt like I got to school in no time at all!
Many of us would go home for lunch (can you imagine?) where in my case, in the early years, my mom would be home and have made a sandwich for me, which I usually ate while catching a cartoon or some other show on TV – and then it was back to school for the afternoon.
I do remember wondering what it was like for the kids who stayed in for lunch. What fun was I missing?
In the good weather, after school all of us kids – even one nerdy boy who would have been perfectly happy staying inside reading books and working on his stamp collection – all of us played outside.
And, of course, in the summer, in my memory at least, we were out from dawn to dusk, running around, riding our bikes, playing, and, yes, occasionally fighting – all of this watched over by attentive parents and other neighbors looking out from their kitchen windows.
It was like Mayberry right here in Jersey City!
It wasn’t perfect of course. It wasn’t just kids who sometimes fought. The adults, too, would have their disagreements and little feuds would get started, sometimes brief and sometimes forever.
And, I’m aware now that there were certain kinds of people who didn’t – and for several reasons probably couldn’t – live in our neighborhood, but, all in all, my sister and I were fortunate indeed to grow up when and where we did.
And, in those days, throughout this city – and in communities throughout our country – it wasn’t much different – lots of people outside: playing, talking, fighting, and loving – developing and strengthening webs of relationships.
Today, though, when I return to Country Village even on a beautiful summer day those same streets are eerily silent – and the same is true in other parts of our city and our country – as people have retreated behind their doors, behind their screens, and those webs of relationships have frayed, and in many cases have snapped.
We no longer play, talk, or love – and most of our fights are now on cable news or social media.
We don’t know each other anymore – and we can see the consequences all over the place, from the meanness of our politics to the profound loneliness that so many of us endure.
This is not the way things were meant to be.
Fortunately, if everything works the way it’s supposed to, when we come here we get a taste of the way things are supposed to be.
I’ve talked to enough of you to know that many of you – maybe even all of you – first came here because you were hungry for community.
Certainly that’s true for Sue and me.
And it’s for community that we keep coming back, week after week.
These past few months, and even just these past couple of weeks, our attention has been drawn even more than usual to the importance of community – the importance of our community – and just what makes our community so special and nourishing for us.
In the Church, we use lots of different metaphors and images to describe the Christian community.
Last week, it was shepherd and sheep imagery. By happy coincidence, that was the Sunday when our own local shepherd, our bishop, made his final visit with us. And, as he always does with the kids, he used his crozier – his shepherd’s staff – to humorously but memorably act out his role of keeping the sheep together and sometimes having to give a little poke when a couple of sheep begin to act out.
There’s a lot of work involved in getting ready for a bishop’s visit. We try to make our church look and sound its best. We make a few changes to the service. And, you may not know that we’re also required to present our parish registers for the bishop’s inspection – these mostly old and fragile books that record all of our services, all of our Communions, and Baptisms, and weddings, and funerals.
I love pulling the registers out of the safe and flipping backward through the pages, looking at all the names – at first I know many of them very well and then gradually I don’t recognize any of them anymore – and yet, somehow, all of us – the dead, living, and the yet to be born – all of us are part of this sheepfold, all part of this community.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are the sheep who hear his voice and do our best to stay close to him.
And now this week, in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus uses a different metaphor, a different image for our community. He says to his disciples, and to us here today:
“I am the vine, you are the branches.”
Jesus is the vine. We are the branches. And, in this metaphor, God is the vinegrower, tending and pruning.
I assume that God could do this vineyard work solo, however, for whatever reason, God invites us to be assistant vinegrowers, tending to the often delicate branches and even grafting new branches onto to the Christian vine.
You may remember I mentioned that last summer Sue and I went on a winery tour out in beautiful Napa and Sonoma counties in California. At each stop the vinegrowers explained the process of tending the vines and then transforming the grapes into wine.
I’ll admit that I was only half-paying attention to all of that technical stuff (I was on vacation after all – and the sips of wine began to catch up with me and didn’t exactly help my focus) but I do remember how each branch is so delicate and each grape is so precious – and it all requires so much care.
And as God’s assistant vinegrowers, that’s the work we are called to do – and, fortunately, we don’t need to know anything about agriculture to do it – all we need to know is how to love one another – to love the branches we’ve known for a long time and to love the fresh new branches just now being grafted onto the vine of Christ.
All we need to know is how to love the branch that is Incarnation and how to love the branch that is St. Paul’s.
As the author of First John says in today’s beautiful second lesson:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
After the bishop makes his visit, he and the priest have a follow-up conversation about how things went and what he observed during his visit, complimenting the good stuff and making some suggestions for improvement.
            It’s a great opportunity to learn from someone not really part of this particular community but who is an expert in what makes a healthy Christian community.
I don’t know about you, but I felt really good about the bishop’s visit last week and, frankly, I was looking forward to our conversation.
And, thank goodness, he had a great time with us, and complimented us on all that we have accomplished together.
He also made a couple of comments about our community that are especially important and I want to share them with you.
Reflecting on the strength of our community here, he said it felt like all of the work we’ve done out there in the community, has not only benefited the people outside our doors but has also strengthened us sheep here in the sheepfold.
If you were here at the 10:00 service last week, you’ll remember that we renewed our Baptismal Vows and then the Bishop invited us to come forward to be blessed with Holy Water. The bishop noted that not only did almost everybody come forward but that you – we – approached him with open faces, joyfully ready, eager even, to receive the good gifts that God gives us.
Finally, you know, unifying two churches is no small job – and we still have some tasks ahead, including today when we discuss our name – but the bishop said that he didn’t really feel any anxiety here – that we know we still have work to do and there will surely be bumps along the way – but we also love one another and know that we are loved, no matter what.
So, while out in the world – even in Country Village – we may not love or even know each other anymore - our web of relationships may have frayed and even broken – but here, here in this sheepfold, here on this branch, our community of assistant vinegrowers is strong, and our bonds are getting stronger.
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!