Sunday, July 14, 2019

Real Life Mercy

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
July 14, 2019

Year C, Proper 10: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Real Life Mercy
            It was great to get away for a few days of vacation last week. And, although I wouldn’t have said no to a little more time off, it’s good to be back here with all of you.
            I know some people don’t like to travel. Maybe that includes some of you. There’s the hassle of traffic and long lines, the squeezing into tight seats on a plane, the discomfort of being in unfamiliar places, and all the rest of it. I get all of that but I really do like traveling.
            I even like the airport – by now Sue has adjusted to my need to get to the airport well ahead of our departure time, in part because I’m just like that, and in part because I enjoy the people-watching, seeing all of the sometimes excited and sometimes frazzled people as they prepare to travel across the country or around the world.
            And, while not deliberately eavesdropping, of course, sometimes you overhear a little bit of conversation that sounds funny or leaves you scratching your head.
            Since we traveled to a resort, our whole vacation was kind of like that – surrounded by strangers of all kinds – and overhearing snippets of what people were talking about.
            Of course, people being what they are, this was not always pleasant.
            For example, one afternoon we were having lunch while next to us there was a couple (from Scotland, it turned out), and next to them were two American guys who, it seemed to me, were well into a mostly liquid lunch.
            Anyway, these two guys struck up a conversation with the Scottish couple, telling them how great the Scots are, how they can take a joke about themselves (I guess unlike some unnamed other ethnicities…).
            At one point, the louder of the liquid lunch guys asked, “What language do you speak in Scotland?”
            Before the couple could answer, the quieter liquid lunch guy said with a hint of embarrassment, “English.”
            His louder friend nodded, saying, “I was going to say that your English was really good!”
            So, this was excruciating.
But, it got even worse because eventually the conversation turned to… politics and the current administration in Washington.
            I thought I could feel the Scots tense up.
But, that might have just been me.
            The louder liquid lunch guy began talking about the humanitarian crisis at our southern border, where, as you know, many thousands of children and adults are being held in very poor conditions, with severe overcrowding and limited or no access to showers or not even a toothbrush and toothpaste.
            The louder liquid lunch guy’s monologue about immigration went on for a bit and while I couldn’t hear everything that he was saying, his general attitude about this national disgrace was along the lines of “regrettable, but whadda ya gonna do, right?”
            But, here’s what he said to justify what we’re doing at the border – here’s what I heard loud and clear – here’s have been thinking about ever since. He said:
            “We can’t run the country like a church.”
            “We can’t run the country like a church.”
            I have to admit when I first registered what he said, I smiled a little bit, because anyone who’s ever had to deal with institutional church bureaucracy would never think it would be a good idea to run a country like we run the church.
            There’s no bureaucracy like a church bureaucracy!
            But, of course, loud liquid lunch guy wasn’t offering the poor Scottish couple a witty commentary on the inefficiencies of the church.
            No, what he was saying was that all of that nice Christian talk about welcoming the stranger and loving your neighbor as yourself and turning the other cheek, all of that “soft” stuff is just fine for behind church doors or in the pages of the Bible, but in the “real world” – in “real life” – we’ve got to be cold, and calculating, and, yes, sometimes even cruel.
            “We can’t run the country like a church.”
And, if we’re honest with ourselves, I wonder how many of us believe exactly the same thing – not just about how we run our country but also about how we run our lives.

            Today’s gospel lesson begins with a lawyer asking Jesus a not very good question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            It’s a not very good question because eternal life is not something that is earned by good deeds – and it’s certainly not something that is “inherited” – eternal life is a gracious gift from God.
            But, Jesus plays along with the lawyer, asking him about what is found in Jewish Law and the lawyer gives the correct answer: love of God and love of neighbor.
            Jesus congratulates him on getting it right but the lawyer doesn’t quit there. No, he asks another question, a much more interesting question:
            “And who is my neighbor?”
            And, if you think about it, by asking, “who is my neighbor?” he’s really asking, “who is not my neighbor?”
            In his usual Jesus-like way, Jesus doesn’t answer him directly but instead offers what is now one of his best-known and most-loved parables.
            Parables are stories that are set in ordinary places and familiar situations, but are meant to shock us and to get us thinking about the world and our lives in new and different ways.
            For us here today, one of the challenges with the best-known and most-loved parables is that it’s hard for us to be shocked by them anymore. We make the mistake of thinking that since we’ve heard this many times in church that we’ve got this story figured out, that we know what it “means.”
            But, for the Jewish people who first heard this story there would have been at least two big shockers – and, if you don’t mind, I’m going to talk about these two shockers out of order.
            They would not have been shocked by what happens to the poor man, presumably a Jew, on the road down from Jerusalem to Jericho, which was notoriously dangerous for travelers who could and often did fall victim to robbers.
            But, the second shocker in this story is that a Samaritan is the hero. As we talked about just a couple of weeks ago, although they were related to each other and read some of the same Scriptures, Jews and Samaritans had very different ideas about worship, about the Messiah, and about lots of other things.
            Like many family feuds, it was bitter and it lasted a long time.
            So, many Jews would have had a hard time believing that there was even such a thing as a “good Samaritan” and would have been shocked to hear about the great mercy he showed to the injured man on the road.
            It would have been shocking to consider a Samaritan a neighbor and it would have been shocking to consider that a Samaritan could treat a Jew as a neighbor.
            So, that’s shocker number two.
            Shocker number one is the behavior of the priest and the Levite, the first two people who encounter the half-dead man and, instead of helping him, they cross over to the other side of the road and hurry on their way.
            For centuries, Christians have heard this story and assumed that the priest and the Levite didn’t help because they wanted to maintain their ritual purity - that they didn’t want to be contaminated by blood or, even worse, a corpse.
            And, believing this, Christians have used the behavior of the priest and Levite as an example of how Jews supposedly prefer law over love.
            Wrong, wrong, wrong.
            The first Jewish hearers of this story would have been shocked by the behavior of these two religious men because Jewish law – God’s law – insists that helping a person in need takes precedence over all other considerations, including ritual purity, which was not an issue anyway since it seems that the priest and the Levite were heading from Jerusalem to Jericho.
            The shocker is that these two men of faith did not fulfill the law.
            And, I wonder why.
            I can easily imagine that they were concerned about their own safety. After all, the bandits who left the man half-dead might still be lurking around, waiting for more victims.
            Maybe they were on a tight schedule and couldn’t “afford” a delay.
            Maybe they just didn’t want to get involved.
            And, maybe, just maybe, these two religious people made the choice they did because consciously or unconsciously they thought that all of that love of God and love of neighbor stuff was fine when they were safely worshiping in the Temple or comfortably reading the Bible, but in the “real world” – in “real life” – where it will really cost us, we’ve got to be cold, and calculating and, yes, sometimes even cruel.
We can’t run the country – we can’t run our lives - like a church.

            I don’t need to tell you that we are living through difficult times.
            There is cruelty and suffering all around us: along the southern border and also closer to home in the Elizabeth detention center and in county jails, including our own.
            Of course, the cruelty and suffering is not limited to undocumented immigrants.
            Just take a walk down Bergen Avenue or through Journal Square.
            Or, just turn on the news anytime.
            And so just like the loud liquid lunch guy and the lawyer, just like the priest and the Levite and the Samaritan, we all face difficult choices.
            Do we see others as neighbors – especially the least and the lost - especially people different from us - especially people we don’t particularly like or even trust?
            Do we take the faith we say we believe and the Good News we receive safely right here – do we take that love out into the “real world,” out into our “real lives,” where it will almost certainly cost us something?
            Like the Samaritan, do we show real life mercy?

Sunday, June 30, 2019

"It" Can Happen

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
June 30, 2019

Year C, Proper 8: The Third Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

“It” Can Happen
            You don’t have to look very hard or very far to find celebrities or politicians – or, ahem, celebrity-politicians – who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of fame and fortune, power and pleasure.
            Lots of people, famous and unknown, are convinced that if only they get enough of these things then, then they will be finally satisfied, finally at peace, finally secure, finally sure of their own worthiness and lovability.
            Well, you know where this is going, right?
            It’s a tragic and old, old story. We’ve seen it played out in the Bible, in mythology, in literature, and every week in the tabloids that some of us flip through on line at the supermarket (not me, of course, but probably some of you).
It’s a tragic and old, old story: people who seem to have it all – piles of money, the adulation of millions, power over other people – and yet, somehow, it’s still not enough.
            It’s never enough.
            And, despite all that they have, there’s little peace in their hearts and in their lives.
            Instead, they crave more applause, an even fatter bank account, higher highs, more, more, more…
            It’s a sad story.
            Some of you know that one of my favorite celebrities is William Shatner, who became famous more than fifty years ago playing Captain Kirk on what I’m sure you’ll agree was the best TV show ever, Star Trek.
            Shatner has been famous for as long as I’ve been alive, beloved by millions, richer than he could have probably ever imagined, and he’s still remarkably active at the hard-to-believe age of 88. He’s achieved so much you’d think he would feel a real sense of accomplishment.
            But, even with all of his fame, fortune, and fans, even with middle-aged men getting teary-eyed when they meet him in person (or, so I’ve heard), even with all of that, Shatner has spoken openly of still feeling dissatisfied and unfulfilled.
            As he’s put it: “It hasn’t happened yet.”
            And, I think most of us non-celebrities can probably relate to that feeling.
            If we’ve lived long enough, we’ve all thought that if only we could have that experience – or get that job – or have that relationship – or live in that house – or have that much money in the bank – if only we had our own church parking lot - if only we had that, then, then finally we would be satisfied and be at peace.
            It hasn’t happened yet.
            And it hasn’t happened yet – and, spoiler alert, it is not going to happen – it hasn’t happened yet because we were made first and foremost for God.
            And, it’s only when we put God first – it’s only when we make our home with God - it’s only then that we can know true peace.
            As the great theologian St. Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”

            Today’s gospel lesson marks a turning point in the story of Jesus as told by the Evangelist Luke.
            Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, beginning the journey to his capital city where he will be first greeted with great joy but where the mood will quickly change and he will be rejected, abandoned, tortured, and left for dead.
            Along with his disciples, Jesus begins this final journey by going from his homeland of Galilee into Samaria.
            Now, because of the parable of the Good Samaritan we tend to think of Samaritans as, well, good, but the truth is Jews and Samaritans had a tense relationship with each other. It was actually kind of a family feud. Jews and Samaritans were related to each other but had different histories and had very different ideas about Scripture and worship and the messiah.
            But, still, as unpleasant as it might have been for all involved, the most direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem was through Samaria. Not surprisingly, the Samaritans don’t want to have anything to do with Jesus. And also not surprisingly, the disciples James and John – both Jews, of course - don’t take this rejection well at all and provide us with the latest episode in our long-running series, “The Disciples Just Don’t Get It.”
            Apparently James and John (and probably the other disciples, too) hadn’t been paying attention when Jesus taught that we should turn the other cheek and that we should love our enemies. Instead, they ask permission to… call down fire from heaven in order to destroy the Samaritan villages.
            Luke simply says that Jesus turned and “rebuked” them – a strong word. Personally, I’d like to know what a probably highly frustrated Jesus actually said to these guys, but we can probably imagine, right?
            Anyway, so far this is a pretty routine story with two very familiar ingredients:
Number 1: Some people reject Jesus.
Number 2: The disciples just don’t get it.
But the second half of today’s gospel lesson is much more unsettling challenging – and gets us to the heart of the matter.
As Jesus continues on in his journey to Jerusalem, he encounters three people.
The first takes the initiative and says boldly to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
To which Jesus replies that, unlike foxes and birds, he has nowhere to lay his head – he has no earthly home of his own. Jesus seems to be saying: understand that if you really go through with this – if you really do follow me – you may lose your home – or, what you had thought of as your home.
And then, Jesus encounters two other people and in these cases it’s Jesus who takes the initiative and says to them, “Follow me.”
They both seem interested and willing to become disciples, but they have other priorities, priorities that involve home - or what they had thought of as home.
One says, “First let me go bury my father.”
And the other says, “Let me say farewell to those at my home.”
But, Jesus says to both of these interested, willing, and, yes, responsible people that, no, this isn’t good enough.
It must have been shocking when Jesus said these words.
I mean, who can object to wanting to bury a parent or to saying goodbye to those we love before setting out on a long journey?
It must have been shocking two thousand years ago and I bet if we really listen to these words it’s still shocking for us here today.
And it seems to me that Jesus means these words to be shocking – shocking us to get our priorities straight – shocking us to put God first in our lives – shocking us to recognize that our true home is with God – that, no matter how much we love our homes and our families and our neighborhoods and our jobs – now matter how much we love all of those usually very good things – our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
And then – and here’s the thing – when we really do allow ourselves to rest in the God who loves us just the same no matter how much or how little we achieve – when we really do put God first  - then “it” finally happens.
And, if we want to know what “it” is, in today’s second lesson from the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul gives us quite a list.
For Paul, “it” is the fruit of the Spirit.
“It” is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
“It” is kind of the exact opposite of the celebrities and politicians – and celebrity-politicians – who always crave more.
And, sure, it’s easy to judge them as we flip through the supermarket tabloids (uh, you, I mean you.)
But, the truth is that most, probably, of us have our priorities out of order – maybe not as messed up as celebrities who get turned around by fame, but we all put someone or something in the first place that should belong only to God.

You know, we don’t know what happened to those three people who really wanted to follow Jesus but who were challenged to put God first, ahead of everyone and everything.
But, if they really did accept that great challenge, I bet they discovered that by making their home with God they were able to love the people in their lives more generously, more wholeheartedly, than they had ever thought possible.
“It” might have happened back then.
And, “it” can happen for us today.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Casting Out Evil Spirits, Then and Now

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
June 23, 2019

Year C, Proper 7: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Psalm 42
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Casting Out Evil Spirits, Then and Now
            Today’s gospel lesson, the story of Jesus casting out demons from a man in the land of the Gerasenes, has been troubling me all week.
            And, if you live here in our neighborhood and regularly walk Bergen Avenue, as I do, maybe this vivid and powerful story will trouble you, too.
            It’s a story that is found, with some differences, in Mark, Matthew, and here in Luke.
            In Luke, it is the one and only time that Jesus leaves Jewish territory and enters a non-Jewish, Gentile land. Just in case we weren’t sure about that, we’re told that there are swineherds tending their pigs, so we know that we’re not in Israel any more!
            The gospels don’t agree on the name of this place and scholars are not sure exactly where it was, aside from the vague description that it was “opposite Galilee.”
            And maybe that vagueness is part of the point.
            The country of the Gerasenes could be just about anywhere.
            We’re told that Jesus and his disciples arrive in this unfamiliar territory, where they are immediately met by a terrifying “welcoming committee” of one: the pathetic figure of a man possessed by demons.
            We’re not told how the disciples reacted to this scene, but knowing them I’m guessing that it was something like: “Uh, Jesus, what do you say we get back on the boat and go back home?”
Luke paints quite a terrifying picture of this poor man – living in the tombs, naked, probably carrying on all the time and scaring the wits out of everyone else in town.
We’re told that he is possessed by a “legion” of demons. In the Roman army, a legion was made up of anywhere from four to six thousand soldiers, so this man is possessed by many, many demons.
            Luke doesn’t say it, but this man is often described as an outcast, but that’s not quite true. In fact, we’re told that his neighbors had at least tried to do something - to protect themselves and to protect him from himself - keeping him under guard and in shackles, but it was no use – the demons were just too powerful for human efforts.
            And near the end of the story, we’re given the little detail that this wreck of a man had a home and it makes me wonder if he also had a family – people who loved him and missed the person he used to be - people who must have been horrified and heartbroken and even ashamed to see what had become of him.
Anyway, as usual, while Jesus’ closest friends are generally unable to figure out who Jesus is, the demons always recognize Jesus right away. They know exactly who Jesus is - and they respect his power.
            The poor possessed man shouts at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”
            Interestingly, even the demons do not want to be sent into “the abyss,” so Jesus gives them permission to enter the herd of pigs, the pigs who then promptly throw themselves into the sea.
            But, the conclusion of the story is not as neat and clean as we might expect.
            The poor man now freed of his demons becomes a disciple and shares the good news of what Jesus has done for him.
            But, his neighbors in the land of the Gerasenes are not so enthusiastic about the miraculous work of Jesus of Nazareth.
            The swineherds must be understandably unhappy about suddenly losing their livelihood, but the other people in town are afraid and ask Jesus to leave them.
            Perhaps seeing the power of God at work right in front of them in their own town made them uncomfortable, raising difficult questions about how the world really works – raising difficult challenges about how they should live their lives.

            At the start of my sermon I mentioned how this gospel story as been troubling me all week.
            It’s been troubling me because the poor man possessed by the legion of demons reminds me of someone – someone I’ve seen many times and someone who, if you’ve spent any time on Bergen Avenue over the last couple of years, you’ve seen, too.
            He’s a man possessed by his own demons, the demons of mental illness and addiction. For a while now, he’s been on Bergen Avenue and around McGinley Square, wearing rags, compulsively drinking and smoking, bobbing and weaving in perpetual motion, ranting in a language that I think is probably English but the snippets I’ve heard are incomprehensible to me.
            Everyone, even the other alcoholics and drug addicts, give him a wide berth. I’ve never seen him interact with another human being.
            I’ve seen him early in the morning and late at night – and it’s always the same except when he’s overcome with exhaustion or intoxication (or, probably both) and passes out flat on his back, sometimes right in the middle of the sidewalk - his demons seemingly silent, at least for a time.
            I’ve seen him for years but just this past week I realized that I haven’t seen him lately and I’m afraid that his story didn’t end as happily as the story of a similar man possessed by demons long ago, a man healed by Jesus.
            Because the truth is, unlike the people in the land of the Gerasenes, I certainly didn’t make any attempt to try to help him, no attempt to protect him from himself, or to even offer him the small kindness of a dollar or a bite to eat.
            Instead, I tried to steer out of his way.
            Just like pretty much everybody else.
            But, there’s something else.
            Despite the strength of their chains, the Gerasenes were not able to help their poor neighbor on their own. Only God, working in and through Jesus, could unbind the man – only God, working in and through Jesus, could cast out the demons, freeing the man from the spiritual chains that bound him.
            And, so when I think about my neighbor – our neighbor – out there on Bergen Avenue, not only did I shy away from him, not only did I decline to offer him kindness or help, but I’m also pretty sure I never even prayed for him.
            It didn’t occur to me that God might just be powerful enough to free the poor wreck of a man so many of us passed by on the street.
            At least the Gerasenes had a good excuse – they didn’t know God, at least not yet.
            But, I spend my life in or next door to church so I have no good excuse.
            And, neither do you!
            Maybe praying for the man on Bergen Avenue didn’t occur to me because, just like for the Gerasenes, it raises some difficult questions about how the world really works – difficult challenges about how we should live our lives: questions and challenges so difficult that, like the Gerasenes, we may get so disturbed and frightened that we simply want Jesus to go away.
            In today’s second lesson from the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul makes one of his key points: that there should be no divisions among us – that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.”
We are all one in Christ Jesus.
            And we are the Body of Christ in the world.
            And that truth comes with many blessings, blessings we experience each time we gather together here.
But, if we really are the Body of Christ in the world, then we have more power and responsibility than we might like to think.
            So, as much as we might prefer to look away from and give up on the human wrecks like the man who cried out to Jesus long ago and the man ranting and raving on Bergen Avenue in our own time, we are called to offer healing – maybe through a small kindness but especially by remembering them in our prayers, trusting in the power of God who can cast out every evil spirit, then and now.