Thursday, April 17, 2014

In Remembrance of Me

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

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

In Remembrance of Me

            Every Sunday when we come to church we do lots of different things: we pray, we sing, we listen to a couple of passages of Scripture, and I preach.
            We exchange the peace and then our focus shifts to the altar and we prepare for communion.
            Each Sunday we pray the words of the Eucharistic Prayer – remembering and reminding us all of that night in Jerusalem some two thousand years ago around the time of the Passover when Jesus gathered with his closest friends in the Upper Room.
            A few weeks ago some of us had the powerful experience of an instructed Passover Seder, taught by our friend Rabbi Debby Hachen of Temple Beth-El. I bet that meal reminded many of us of what we do each Sunday when we bless the bread and the wine and eat and drink, just like Jesus and first disciples.
            Maybe we can imagine the scene in Jerusalem long ago, when Jesus gathered with his closest friends and disciples.
            It’s dark with just a few candles giving a shadowy light. The room is fragrant with the smell of food. We can hear the breathing of the disciples gathered around. Maybe we make eye contact and then quickly look away.
            What is happening? What’s going to happen next?
            Jesus knew that his time was growing short. And with sinking stomachs the disciples were beginning to realize that the One they called teacher and Lord – the One who they believed was the Messiah was going to be taken from them.
            In these last hours together, Jesus tried to get across to his friends what’s most important.
            This bread is my body.
            This wine is my blood.
            Do this in memory of me.
            I will always be with you. No matter how bad things seem, no matter how lost you are, I will always be with you. No matter what, I will always be with you when you come together to pray, to bless, to eat the bread and drink the wine.            
            This is my body.
            This is my blood.
            Do this in memory of me.
            And we know that Jesus’ first followers didn’t forget.
            This evening we heard a short passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. As far as we know, Paul never met Jesus during his earthly lifetime. But, he tells us in his letter that he has heard about the Last Supper from the Resurrected Christ. Or maybe he just heard about it from people who had known Jesus – from Peter and James and others.
            Thanks to Paul we know that right from the start the followers of Jesus continued to get together, to pray, to bless, to eat the bread and drink the wine. They continued to do all of this in memory of Jesus.
            Writing just a couple of decades after the Last Supper, Paul teaches this tradition to the Corinthians and just about everybody he meets as he travels around the Mediterranean world, sharing the Good News of Jesus.
            But, the Last Supper wasn’t only about the bread and the wine.
            Actually, the Evangelist John doesn’t even include that tradition in his telling of the Last Supper.
            Instead, he offers the powerful image of Jesus getting up from the table, taking off his outer robe, tying a towel around himself, pouring water into a basin and washing the disciples’ feet.
            If we were there, I suspect that we’d react like Peter, “Lord, you are going to wash my feet?!”
            But, through this menial and servile act, through this symbolic act but more than symbolic act, Jesus offers one of his most powerful teachings.
            We Christians who take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts – we are meant to go out into the world and offer love. We are meant to – actually we are commanded to – offer loving service to everyone, but especially to the poorest and most vulnerable.
            Not just talk. Not just symbolism. But, really roll up our sleeves and get to work serving each other and serving those in need.
            To be honest, the Church, we Christians, have done a better job remembering the bread and wine than we have remembering and washing the feet.
            We don’t always obey Jesus’ command to love one another the way he has loved us.
            But, there’s still time.
            Look, listen, in the flickering candlelight, Jesus is still teaching.
            Jesus is still teaching us how to live and how to love.
            This is my body.
            This is my blood.
            Wash the feet. Serve one another. Love one another.
            Do this in remembrance of me. Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Hosanna! Save Us!

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
April 13, 2014

Year A: The Sunday of the Passion – Palm Sunday
Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

Hosanna! Save Us!

            What we’re doing here this morning is very ancient.
            We know that since at least the 4th Century some Christians have been remembering and recreating Jesus’ seemingly triumphant arrival in Jerusalem.             
             And, of course, since the very beginning of our faith, Christians have been gathering together to remember and retell the story of Jesus’ arrest and death.            
            And so, since what we’re doing is so ancient, it’s also decidedly low-tech.
            In recent years I’ve read lots of news articles about how people today so much time looking at screens.
            At work many people spend just about their whole day working at the computer. I know that even my job finds me spending too much time sitting at my desk tapping away at my keyboard.
            And, of course, many of us are pretty well addicted to our so-called smart phones. We compulsively check our email. We – especially our young people but lots of us – repeatedly text family and friends and update our facebook, and instagram and whatever other social media we’re into.
            A lot of people worry that we’re getting disconnected from each other – that we don’t really have many face-to-face conversations. It’s been suggested that kids today have trouble reading facial expressions because their senses haven’t properly developed staring at all those screens.
            And, in part because our eyes are glued to all our screens and devices, people just don’t participate in community events the way they used to.
            And, I think that’s all true.
            But, you know, people still, as the old song goes, “love a parade.”
            The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade still attracts millions of people and millions more watch on TV.
            And even smaller, local parades still attract people.
            Here in Jersey City, just a few weeks ago, people lined the Boulevard for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This summer, the plan is for St. Paul’s to march in the West Indian Day Parade, which always draws a big crowd.
            And, each Sunday here in church we have our own little parade of acolytes, choir members and me at the start and finish of our services.
            Today we started the service with a bigger parade than usual – as we carried our palms from the Parish Hall into the church, remembering and imitating the parade long ago when Jesus entered Jerusalem.
            We’re told that there was a crowd of disciples and others ready to greet the one they called the Prophet from Nazareth.
            The crowd has gathered for a parade – they wanted to witness a big show as a new king enters his capital city.
            But, the crowd wasn’t there only for the spectacle.
            As Jesus enters the city, they cried “Hosanna” – a combination of two Hebrew words meaning “save us.”
            Hosanna! Save us!
            The people looked to Jesus – hoped – that Jesus would be the long awaited messiah to save them from the Romans – to get them their independence – to restore their greatness in the eyes of the world.
            But, right from the start there are signs that the crowd is in for a surprise and, yes, maybe even a big disappointment.
            Rather than riding a mighty horse, we’re told that this odd king from Nazareth enters Jerusalem riding a donkey. This humble king isn’t going to challenge the Roman occupiers as many people had hoped. This meek king isn’t going to rule over a new golden age of Israel. This Son is going to be a very different monarch than King David.
            Hosanna! Save us!
            But, it won’t take long for the crowd to realize that Jesus doesn’t offer that kind of salvation.
            It won’t take long for the crowd to realize that Jesus won’t challenge the empire – at least not in the way that they expected.
            There won’t be a great military showdown – no glorious battle for the underdog to defeat the world’s mightiest empire.
            For Jesus, there won’t be a crown of gold and jewels.
            And so, out of disappointment and disgust, the people – people just like us, really – will choose to save the bandit Barabbas.
            Just like us, people two thousand years ago looked elsewhere for salvation.
            Hosanna! Save us!
            And, finally, Jesus the meek and humble king will submit, will take all the brutal punishment human beings can dish out and die a disgraceful death on the cross.
            What no one grasped at the time was that Jesus, the meek and humble king, really was offering salvation – was really offering salvation to all of us.
            Jesus saves us by showing us who God really is – the God who loves with a bottomless love.
            Jesus saves us by showing us who we really are – who we were always meant to be.
            Jesus saves us by calling us to love and live as he loves and lives – to love with a self-emptying love – to give away our lives – to give away ourselves in loving service to each other, in loving service especially to the poorest and the weakest.
            Back in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, people came out for an old-fashioned, low-tech spectacle – people came out for a parade welcoming the new king to his capital city.
            Not long after, people came out again for another kind of old-fashioned low-tech spectacle – the people came out for another parade – this time to watch this disappointing meek and humble king die a criminal’s brutal and humiliating death.
            In one sense, today and again on Good Friday we’re recreating those parades, those spectacles.
            But, really, we are here for a different kind of spectacle – to see – to remember - to experience – the self-giving love of God poured out into the life, death, and, yes, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
            Hosanna! Save us!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

"Lord, Come and See"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
April 6, 2014

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

“Lord, Come and See”

            Last Sunday we heard the story of one of Jesus’ greatest miracles – one of his greatest signs, to use the language of the Gospel of John: Jesus gives sight to the man born blind.
            And now today we heard the story of what is arguably Jesus’ greatest sign: the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is a powerful and rich and amazing story of Jesus giving new life to his friend Lazarus.
            And, the way John tells the story, it’s this unprecedented and awesome act that finally convinces the authorities that this Jesus of Nazareth is simply too dangerous to let live for much longer.
            After Jesus raises Lazarus, the “powerful” people begin to plot against the One who is powerful enough to raise the dead.
            This story is about Jesus, so it’s no surprise that we don’t know much about Lazarus.
            We know his name; we know the names of his two sisters; we know he’s from the village of Bethany, which was just east of Jerusalem; we know he’s ill.
            And we know that Jesus loves him.
            Although we don’t know much about Lazarus, the first part of this story is in many ways a common, very human story – an all too familiar story to those of us who have faced the death of someone we love very much.
            We all know what usually happens when someone we love is very sick and near death.
            Family and friends gather around, in a kind of deathwatch. If the person is conscious, we may try to express our deepest feelings – to say things we might not have ever been able to say before.
            We might ask for forgiveness – or give forgiveness.
            Those of us gathered around try to keep up each other’s spirits, maybe by telling stories of happier days. If we’re strong enough for it, we might even begin making funeral plans. What funeral home will we use? Is there a cemetery plot? Did the dying person have any special requests?
            And we also send word out to family and friends who may live at a distance. Today that’s as easy as picking up a cell phone and punching some buttons. But, in the First Century, getting the word out required sending a messenger.
            So, Mary and Martha send a message to their friend Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
            It’s at this point that things get unusual.
            We would expect Jesus to drop everything and run to be with Lazarus and his sisters. Instead, he delays two days.
            Jesus waits because Jesus understands that, just like the man’s blindness that we heard about last week, Lazarus’ death will be an opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed.
            By the time Jesus and the disciples – including a surprisingly bold Thomas – arrive in Bethany, we’re told that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days.
            Lazarus is not just dead. He’s very dead.
            Throughout this story we hear more examples of the miscommunication between Jesus and others – talking past each other on different levels.
            Jesus tells the disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”
            The disciples think there’s nothing to worry about. What’s the big deal if Lazarus is just asleep?
            Later, Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”
            Martha, naturally enough, thought that Jesus was talking about the last day, rather than something that was about to happen in just a few minutes, right here and now.
            In the Gospel of John, Jesus is almost always presented as supremely in control – more divine than human, really.  But, today we get a rare glimpse of Jesus the human being, Jesus our brother.
            Remember two weeks ago in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well? We’re told Jesus stops at the well because he’s tired.
            And now today, we catch sight of Jesus overcome with emotion.
            I bet we can all relate to that. I know I can. Have you ever gone into a wake or a funeral pretty well calm and composed and then when you’re surrounded by brokenhearted, weeping people you find yourself beginning to crack and tears well in your eyes?
            Jesus asks where they have buried Lazarus. The crowd replies, “Lord, come and see.”
            And then right there in Bethany, surrounded by grieving Martha and Mary and a distraught crowd, Jesus weeps.            
            Then immediately, Jesus performs his most amazing sign.
            “Lazarus, come out!”
            “Unbind him, and let him go.”
            This is a powerful and rich and amazing story of Jesus giving new life to his friend Lazarus.
            And, the way John tells the story, it’s this unprecedented act that finally convinces the authorities that Jesus of Nazareth is simply too dangerous to let live for much longer.
            After Jesus raises Lazarus, the “powerful” people begin to plot against the One who is powerful enough to raise the dead.
            And, up to a point, the raising of Lazarus foreshadows the empty tomb on Easter Day. But Jesus won’t simply be resuscitated like Lazarus, he’ll be transformed – still himself but radically changed.
            But, I’ve been wondering, does the Lazarus story have anything to say to us today, right here and now?
            And, as I’ve reflected on that I’ve focused on the moment just before Jesus weeps.
            When Jesus asks where they’ve buried Lazarus, the crowd says, “Lord, come and see.”
            It’s an unusual moment because usually it’s Jesus who says, “Come and see.” It’s usually Jesus inviting people – inviting us – to an abundant new life.
            Come and see.
            But, this time it’s the people inviting Jesus to come and see.
            And, what are they inviting Jesus to come and see?
            In today’s Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Ezekiel has a vision. God brings him to a valley of old, dry bones.
            God tells Ezekiel that these bones represent the people of Israel during their time of exile: hopeless and dead.           
            And that’s what the people at Bethany invite Jesus to come and see:
            Hopelessness. Loss. Death. Decay.
            And Jesus weeps. And Jesus gives new life.
            Especially during Lent, you and I have the opportunity to invite Jesus to come and see.
            “Lord, come and see.”
            Maybe when we pray, or when we walk the Stations of the Cross, or when we make our confession, we can say to Jesus, “Lord, come and see.”
            Lord, come and see our hopelessness.
            Come and see the bills we don’t know how we’ll pay, come and see the empty shelves in our kitchen cabinets and refrigerators, come and see all the people begging up and down Bergen Avenue, come and see the beautiful world that we’ve polluted and ruined.
            Lord, come and see how we’ve messed up.
            Come and see how we’ve hurt the people we care about the most – how we’ve hurt even ourselves. Come and see our upside-down priorities, our selfishness and our lack of care for the poorest and the weakest.
            Lord, come and see what’s dead in our lives – come and see the dreams that have faded, the losses that we still mourn, the faded friendships and broken families that hurt our hearts.
            Lord, come and see. Come and see it all.
            And when we invite Jesus to come and see – to come and see what is already known and seen – I have no doubt that Jesus still weeps.
            And I have no doubt that Jesus still does what he always does – turns death into new life.
            If we invite Jesus to come and see, Jesus does for us just what he did for Lazarus.
            Jesus calls us out of our graves.
            Jesus unbinds us.
            And Jesus gives us new life.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

To See As God Sees

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 30, 2014

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

To See As God Sees
            Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. That means we’ve been at this Lent business for a while now, so the Church in its wisdom sets aside this Sunday to lighten the mood a little – to encourage us – to remind us - that Easter is not too far off.
            This Sunday is called Laetare Sunday, from a Latin word meaning “Rejoice.” In England and I’m guessing in former British colonies around the world this is Mothering Sunday – when mothers are honored much as we do in this country in May on Mother’s Day.
            And you’ve probably noticed that, to symbolize the lightening of our Lenten mood, I’m decked out once again in the rose vestments.
            It’s the Fourth Sunday in Lent – Laetare Sunday! Rejoice! Lent is almost over and soon we will celebrate the joy of Easter!           
            But, actually, although I wouldn’t mind saying the “A” word, I’m not in a hurry for Lent to be over. Part of that is because Holy Week and Easter are pretty grueling for us professional Christians. But part of it is because, so far, we’ve had a good Lent here at St. Paul’s.
            This may sound weird but I’ll be sorry to see Lent end.
            Our Sunday attendance has been good and parishioners – many of you - have been coming out for our special offerings.
            Not that it’s a Lenten event, but our weekly service at Christ Hospital has gotten off to a great start – thanks to your support.
            Stations of the Cross has been very popular, drawing about a dozen people each Wednesday evening – almost too many, actually, considering the narrowness of our side aisles.
            But, even in our narrow aisles, walking the Way of the Cross is a powerful spiritual exercise. If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll come join us at least once this Lent.
            We’ve begun our Saturday morning adult confirmation / refresher class with lively discussion about the Church and our own faith stories.
            But for me the highlight of this Lent has been our group that’s reading the book, Speaking of Sin.
            Now, I picked the book so of course I knew I liked that. But, I’ve enjoyed so much our discussions among the interesting, thoughtful and diverse group of parishioners who’ve joined us.
            In our second session we talked about how we would define sin.
            What is sin?
            Well, the Prayer Book offers a solid and clear definition of sin: “Sin is seeking our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all of creation.”
            In our group we talked about different definitions of sin and types of sin. And then one parishioner in our group talked about sin as not paying attention – sin as failing to be mindful – sin as not paying attention to God at work in the world– sin as the failure to be mindful of God at work in our lives, at work in the people all around us.
            Sin as not paying attention – failing to be mindful.
            I was immediately reminded of a quote by the great writer John Updike that I read years ago. I’ve never been able to again find the exact quote but the gist of it was that since, as far as we know, we’re the only creatures who have any sense of the grandeur of creation, our unique vocation as humans is to pay attention.
            In the Book of Genesis, God saw everything that God had created and God knows that, indeed, it is very good.
            We are called to see as God sees.
            And, today’s lessons are all about seeing as God sees.
            In our Old Testament lesson from First Samuel, the Prophet Samuel is sent by God find a new king to replace Saul.
            God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new king.
            Now, any reasonable person would think that the new king should be one of Jesse’s oldest, strongest, most experienced sons.
            But, of course, that’s not God’s way – that’s not seeing the world as God sees the world.
            In the words of First Samuel: “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
            So, Jesse presents his sons one after the next, but Samuel knows that God has not chosen any of them.
            Samuel asks, “Are all your sons here?”
            And, of course, Jesse and everybody else had assumed that the youngest son, the weakest, the least experienced, would never be chosen so he wasn’t even presented to Samuel. Instead, the youngest, weakest, the least experienced son was given the job of keeping the sheep.
            Samuel is able to see as God sees and anoints David as king.
            And then today’s long gospel reading is all about sight.
            It’s the story of one of Jesus’ greatest miracles – or signs as the Evangelist John prefers to call them – Jesus gives sight to a man blind from birth.
            And, as always in the Gospel of John, this story operates on a couple of different levels.
            Some people can see and others can’t – or won’t.
            After Jesus performs the sign – after the man washes in the pool of Siloam and gains his sight – some people are unable or unwilling to see. Some people are unable or unwilling to see as God sees.
            Some people think it can’t be the same person – this can’t be the blind guy who used to sit and beg, right? Some people can’t see because they don’t expect to see – they don’t expect see the wonders of God at work right there all around them – God at work in the people in their lives.
            Then there are the Pharisees. In the story the Pharisees are presented as unable or unwilling to see. They get caught up in rules and regulations, noting that Jesus healed the blind man on the Sabbath – surely a violation since it wasn’t an emergency and could have waited until sunset.
            True enough, but really misses the point doesn’t it?
            This man was blind but now he can see!
            And then there are the parents. They are able to see but they’re afraid – so afraid that they are unwilling to boldly proclaim what’s happened to their son. Instead, they pass the buck saying, “ask our son; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
            Then, finally, there is the man born blind.
            Obviously, he physically receives his sight and is able to see. Amazing enough.
            But, the man born blind receives an even deeper gift of sight.
            At the end of the story, Jesus finds the man and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
            He answers, “And who is he sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”
            And just like the story we heard last week when Jesus revealed his identity to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus says to this formerly blind man who now sees: “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”
            The seeing man says, “Lord, I believe” and immediately worships Jesus.
            This formerly blind man is able to see as God sees.
            It’s Lent – this holy season when we reflect on – when we speak of – sin. In the words of the Prayer Book, we sin when we seek our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all of creation.
            We sin when we neglect our special vocation to pay attention to God at work in the good creation, to be mindful of God at work in the people all around us.
            We are called to pay attention so we can see as God sees – to see the good creation - to see the value and the potential of the David’s of the world – the youngest, the weakest, the least experienced.
            We are called to pay attention so we can see as God sees – to see the good creation – to love the man blind since birth begging, day after day on the sidewalk.
            And when we finally pay attention and see as God sees – when we value and love the weakest and the poorest  - when we really see the good creation - then God and we will truly rejoice.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cosmic Thoughts

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 23, 2014

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

Cosmic Thoughts

            Lately I’ve been thinking about space.
            Not space in the sense that we need more space here at St. Paul’s, though that’s true enough, but space like… the universe.
            You may have seen the story in the news this past week that scientists have observed evidence of the first moments of the universe. I won’t even try to explain how scientists have figured this out – it involves using radio telescopes to observe ripples in space-time - but it seems that right after the so-called “Big Bang,” when the universe was only trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth second old it expanded at a speed far greater than the speed of light – in the first moment the universe went from nothing to become, well, the universe.
            And these same scientists go even further, speculating that our universe may be just one of an infinite number of universes. The New York Times described it this way:
            “…beyond our own universe there might be an endless number of other universes bubbling into frothy eternity like a pot of pasta bubbling over.”
            And then I’ve also been watching the new version of the TV show, Cosmos.
            Anybody else seen it?
            It’s very well done with outstanding special effects.
            The first episode explored the mind-blowing vastness of our universe – and the unfathomable vastness of infinite universes beyond our own.
            Now, I don’t know about you, but, while this stuff is fascinating, I also find it a little upsetting, even a little depressing.
            Trying to wrap my head around the great age of the universe – some 14 billion years – and the vastness of just our universe not to mention infinite universes gets me feeling really, really small and really unimportant.
            Of course, you don’t have to think about space to feel unimportant. Probably all of us feel that way at least sometimes.
            Ever feel like nobody pays any attention to you? That nobody bothers to really get to know you?
            At school we may feel small and unimportant if we’re not on the honor roll or if we’re not a good athlete. At work we may feel small and unimportant if we get passed over for a promotion or a raise or, worse, if we’re laid off. If we’re older we may feel small and unimportant when people no longer take us seriously, no longer think we have anything to contribute. I could go on.
            All of us at one time or another – maybe a lot of the time – feel small and unimportant.
            Well, at the heart of Christianity, there is a mind-blowing idea – the idea, the faith, the wondrous realization that the God who flipped that first cosmic switch – the Spirit who made everything out of nothing – the Source of all that is and ever will be - actually knows us and truly cares about seemingly small and unimportant people like us.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we meet someone who probably felt pretty unimportant: the unnamed Samaritan woman who has a mind-blowing encounter with Jesus at the well.
            It’s a rich and complex story filled with lots of telling details.
            We tend to have very positive feelings about Samaritans thanks mostly to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But, Jews of the First Century would not have felt so positively about the Samaritans.
            The Samaritans were descended from the old northern kingdom of Israel that had been destroyed back in the early 700s BC. But they had intermingled with other people and that made them, in the eyes of the Jews, no longer really part of the family.
            Although split off from the Jews, the Samaritans continued to follow the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible. But they didn’t recognize the Temple in Jerusalem instead worshiping God on Mount Gerizim. That was another source of friction with their Jewish cousins.
            So, here’s Jesus cutting through Samaria on his way from Judea back home to Galilee. It’s likely that Jews in Samaria would have kept a low profile, trying to avoid any encounters with Samaritans. And the feeling was probably mutual.
            Anyway, Jesus sends the disciples to go buy food, sits at the well to rest, and when a Samaritan woman approaches, he speaks to her, “Give me a drink.”
            We aren’t told her name but if we pay attention to the details we learn some important things about this woman. Notice we’re told that the encounter she has with Jesus at the well took place around noon. Doesn’t make much sense to draw water from a well in the middle of the day – the hottest part of the day. And where’s everybody else? They drew their water in the morning or will be there later in the evening.
            So, the woman is alone at the well. And in her conversation with Jesus we learn that she has had a rather complicated, apparently difficult life. She says she has had five husbands and the one she has now isn’t her husband. Hmm.
            Jesus does not condemn the woman but it’s fair to assume that this complicated personal life has made her an outcast in her community – an unimportant, maybe even despised, person who chooses – or is forced - to draw water from a well in the middle of the day when no one else is around.
            And there at the well Jesus and the woman have a conversation not so different in some ways from the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that we heard last week. Remember how Jesus and Nicodemus were talking on two different levels? Jesus says you must be born again and Nicodemus wonders how a man can enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time.
            Well, in this case the woman is understandably suspicious of this odd Jewish man who is asking her for water. They really shouldn’t even be speaking to each other!
            Then Jesus says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
            Now, the woman has no idea what this strange man is talking about. She sensibly points out that this is awfully big talk for guy with no bucket. And, the well is deep.            
            But, like Nicodemus, though she doesn’t really understand she is intrigued by this stranger and by his mysterious words. She wants this living water – this living water that she doesn’t understand – this living water that quenches thirst for ever.
            Jesus then addresses part of the Jewish-Samaritan conflict over what’s the right place to worship: Mt. Gerizim or the Jerusalem Temple. Essentially, Jesus says it doesn’t really matter anymore where we worship. What matters is how we worship.
            Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
            And then finally in a remarkable moment Jesus reveals to this unnamed woman – this nobody – this outcast with a complicated past – Jesus reveals to this seemingly unimportant woman that he is the Messiah.
            The woman leaves her water jar – that’s no longer so important, is it? – and runs off to the city. She tells the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
            “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”
            This unnamed woman – this outcast with a complicated past – realizes that she is known – really known. She realizes that she is known, warts and all, and yet she is not condemned. She is really known and for her this is good news that she can’t wait to share with others.
            The Samaritan woman at the well, you and I, all of us, live in an incomprehensibly vast universe – or maybe even more incomprehensible than that - an infinite number of universes.
            And, all of us at one time or another – maybe a lot of the time – feel small and unimportant.
            And yet, at the heart of Christianity, at the core of our experience as Christians there is the mind-blowing idea – the idea, the faith, the wondrous realization that the God who flipped that first cosmic switch – the Spirit who made everything out of nothing – the Source of all that is and ever will be - actually knows us and truly cares about seemingly small and unimportant people like the woman at the well.
            No matter what we’ve done or haven’t done, no matter how complicated our lives have been, God who is Spirit knows and cares about seemingly small and unimportant people just like us.
            That’s good news worth sharing.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

God Tweets

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

Year A: The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

God Tweets
            Last Sunday Bishop Beckwith made his Episcopal visitation over at the Church of the Incarnation. Since it was the second Sunday of the month – the Sunday I usually celebrate and preach at Incarnation – I was there and basically served as the deacon at the service.
            As many of you know, the bishop’s visit only comes around every couple of years so it’s a pretty big deal when it happens. Churches want to be at their best so a lot of time goes into preparation – shining the silver, vacuuming the carpets, cooking up a feast and trying to get as many parishioners to come to church as possible.
            And, last Sunday at Incarnation was no exception.
            The church looked great, it goes without saying that music was spectacular, there was a good-sized crowd and everybody, including the bishop, seemed quite happy.
            Whenever he makes a visit, the bishop offers an adult forum either before or after the service.
            He usually talks about his role as bishop – how he is a symbol of unity with the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, and within our diocese.
            Last week he also talked about how the church has changed over the past few decades. He talked about how in the past Episcopal churches had no trouble attracting people. Pretty much all they had to do was paint their doors red, play music that was reasonably on key, and offer sermons that were no more than fifteen minutes long. If you did those relatively simple things then the people would come.
            The bishop then acknowledged that is no longer true - and hasn’t been true for a long time. It’s no longer that easy for an Episcopal church – for any church – to attract people.
            A generation or more of people have grown up with little or no contact with the church – with very little interest in what goes on here in places like this. We are dismissed as relics, as irrelevant, as foolish or worse.
            So, the bishop said, we’ve got to figure out new ways of presenting our message to the world – we need to try new approaches – we need to take our story and our ministry out to the streets – we need to go out to where the people are.
            The red doors, the on key music and the fifteen minute sermons are no longer enough.
            He held up “Ashes to Go” as an example of a new more active approach.
            He mentioned our service last summer at Liberty Park and looked ahead to the Good Friday procession that’s in the works. Some of you know that we’ll be doing an outdoor Stations of the Cross right here in our neighborhood – and each station will be a place where there’s been an act of violence in Jersey City. The Rev. Laurie Wurm and I have been working with the police to identify the sites and plan the route. The bishop plans to join us. It will be a great event – and a unique opportunity to take the church – to take the Good News - out into the streets.
            Many of you know that we’ve been doing other things to get the word out about what goes on here behind the red doors.
            One of the things I’ve spent a lot of time on is using social media to spread the word about St. Paul’s. Those of you on facebook know that St. Paul’s usually posts something every day – information about our services and events, photographs, prayers, a little history about the saint of the day.
            Hundreds of people view our St. Paul’s facebook page every week. Amazing.
            Unfortunately, a lot of young people are leaving facebook behind for other social media sites – which makes me dread having to learn how to use them and to spend time posting items there, too.
            Just having red doors would be so much easier and a lot less time-consuming!
            Besides facebook, we do use one other social media site, though: twitter.
            Do you know how twitter works?
            On twitter you are limited to 140 characters – letters and punctuation. So, unlike on facebook where you can – and people do – go on and on, when you post on  twitter - when you tweet - you have to get right to the point.
            There have been times when I’ve struggled to squeeze what I wanted to say, using lots of abbreviations, into just 140 characters.
            I have no idea how many people see our twitter feed. I know our St. Paul’s twitter has only 87 followers - not very many. But, I do know that it’s a useful exercise to try to get your message across in as few words, with as few characters, as possible – especially when we’re trying to reach people who are unlikely to ever open our red doors on their own.
            Twitter isn’t very old – it was created just in 2006.
            But, as I reflected on today’s gospel lesson, I thought, in a way, God has been tweeting – has been sending brief, to the point messages - to us for a very long time.
            In today’s gospel lesson we have the rich story of Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night.
            Nicodemus probably represents a group of Jewish people who respected Jesus, who acknowledged that his signs and miracles indicated that he was a holy man, who were curious about Jesus, but were not – yet – willing to recognize him as messiah or Son of God.
            Notice that Nicodemus calls Jesus, “rabbi,” which means teacher. True enough but hardly the best title for Jesus.
            Jesus and Nicodemus have a rich and complicated exchange.
            There are humorous misunderstandings as Jesus and Nicodemus talk to each other on totally different levels.
            Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
            That is a little mysterious and sure enough Nicodemus totally misses it. He replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
            Jesus tries again, this time alluding more clearly to baptism: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
            Now, if you were paying attention to the lesson you may have noticed that there’s a shift in the middle. The questioning Pharisee Nicodemus isn’t mentioned again. And, in fact, it seems like it’s no longer Jesus who is speaking.
            Instead, we hear God speaking through the Evangelist John. We hear God speaking through John’s community of Christians sometime around the end of the First Century.
            We hear probably the best-known, best-loved verse in the New Testament: John 3:16.
            John 3:16, which it just so happens is short enough - 129 characters in English including the quotes – just short enough to be a tweet:
             “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
            And then there’s the next verse, John 3:17, which is also short enough – 125 characters - to tweet:
            “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
            Now, there’s a whole lot of theology packed into those two little verses, these two tweets from God. I could preach on them for a lot longer than 15 minutes.
            But, these two verses – these two “tweets” – sum up the whole gospel: the God who created all that is loves us with a bottomless love – a love so great that this God was willing to live among us not to condemn us for all the ways we mess up but to save us from ourselves.
            That is the Good News we proclaim.
            Our challenge is not just to proclaim it here in church behind our red doors but out in the world where people have very little interest in what goes on in here. We need to proclaim this Good News to the people out there who dismiss us as relics, as irrelevant, as foolish or worse.
            We need to proclaim this Good News – to tweet this best news ever – to a world that is still hungry for God’s love.
            Oh, one more thing about Nicodemus, the questioning Pharisee who came to Jesus by night.
            He appears again near the end of the Gospel of John.
            After Jesus had died and his body was removed from the cross, we’re told that Nicodemus came “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”
            At what seemed to be the end of the story, Nicodemus came to anoint the body of Jesus.
            “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
            “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”