Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Power of Persistent Prayer

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
October 20, 2019

Year C, Proper 24: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

The Power of Persistent Prayer
            So, lately I’ve been surprising myself a little.
            I’ve mentioned to you before that, by nature, I tend to be a kind of anxious person – worrying over all sorts of things, quick to see obstacles and potential disasters ahead, both real and imaginary.
            I tend to focus on what’s missing, on the half-empty glass.
            With God’s help, I’m working on that, but I also have to accept that this is how I am and not get anxious about being anxious!
            But, anxious or not, the truth is that we’ve had a rough few weeks around here.
            A longtime St. Paul’s parishioner, the much-loved matriarch of her family, has died, and a couple of parishioners have suddenly and shockingly become seriously ill.
            Last week I told you the unwelcome news that the boiler that heats the church and the hall has reached the end of the line and a couple of days ago we found out that replacing it will cost something like $35,000.
            And, on top of that, we learned that we will not receive a grant we were counting on to cover about half the cost of the new restroom.
            And…now it’s the time of year when we focus on stewardship.
            This can be a really joyful time when we take stock of – and celebrate - all the many ways that God has blessed us, both individually and as a pretty rockin’ church!
            But, it can also be a stressful time.
            Will we pledge and give enough so that we can do some great things for Jesus both in here and out in the world?
            Will we pledge and give enough so that we can pay our many bills, including the unexpected ones that keep popping up?
            Are we going to be a little club that exists mostly for the benefit of us, its members, or are we going to shine the Light of Christ boldly and generously into an increasingly shadowy world?
            We will soon find out!
            So, it’s a lot.
            But, here’s the thing:
            Despite all of these very real things to worry about, to my surprise, I actually feel pretty good.
            And, I think I know why.

            In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke we heard this strange, even somewhat humorous, parable – what’s usually called the Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge.
            As usual, we’re not given too much background information, just that there is a judge in the city “who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”
            We know the type, yes?
            And there is a widow who keeps coming at him demanding justice – or, actually, the word can also be translated as “vengeance,” which changes the feel of things, doesn’t it?
            Maybe surprisingly, the judge gives into the widow, saying to himself, “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”
            By the way, what’s translated as “wear me out” is actually a boxing term meaning something like, “punch me in the eye.”
            So, the judge gives in to the widow, at least in part, because she is powerful and intimidating – the parable kind of reverses the way we would normally think of things, right?
            Normally, we would say that judges are very powerful while widows, not so much.
            Yet, then and now, widows (or, really, any women on their own) have to be clever and tough and, yes, persistent, in order to defend themselves and their children and their dignity and their property.
            So, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that the widow got her way, even if it may have meant using a threat of physical violence.
            It’s quite a little story – and then Jesus connects it to prayer, and the need to be persistent in prayer.
            Now, prayer is not about threatening God (though we’re welcome to get angry with God sometimes - there’s a long history of that, just flip through the Psalms and you’ll see.)
            And, prayer is not about wearing down God, somehow talking God into doing what we want God to do.
            God already knows what’s best for us and is always ready to bless us in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.
            So, we persist in prayer not to change God’s mind but to change us, to allow God to draw even closer to us, to make more room in our heart for God, to give us the confidence and strength that we need to face even the biggest and most frightening obstacles.
            In the case of our parishioners who have recently taken ill, in each case I know that they can feel the power of prayer supporting them and supporting all of us who love them – and all of that love and grace and power is having a real effect on their recovery.
            Thanks be to God.

            And then there’s me.

            The other day I received an email from someone I’m very close with, someone I love very much: a parishioner from my former church.
            Over the years we have been through life and death together: the death of her daughter and later the death of her husband – and, I also had the honor of officiating at the wedding of her granddaughter.
            You go through all of that together and you can’t help to form an unbreakable bond.
            Lately, she’s been going through her own health challenges and I’ve been worried about her, praying for her.
            The other day, she emailed me, updating me on her progress.
            And, here is how she ended her message:
            “You’re always in my prayers, mainly for the strength to keep doing all you’re doing.”
            So, despite our many challenges here, no wonder I feel pretty good!
            It’s the power of persistent prayer!
Prayer doesn’t fix the boiler or pay the bills or make disease go away (at least not usually), but prayer does give us the strength and faith to face whatever comes our way, knowing that we – and, most especially, God – are all in this together.


Sunday, October 13, 2019

In This Together

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
October 13, 2019

Year C, Proper 23: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66:1-11
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

In This Together
            As you know, a big part of my job is visiting the sick and since right now we have several ill parishioners, I’ve been spending even more time than usual in hospitals.
I don’t know how often you’ve been in hospitals but if you go a lot and keep your eyes open one of the things you notice is that illness is one of the great equalizers of life.
I’m not saying everybody receives the same quality of care. That’s definitely not true, especially in our country.
But, it is true that if you go to the hospital and walk through the waiting room filled with anxious family and friends, or if you walk the halls and glance into the rooms, you see all different kinds of people, united by illness and the hope for healing and health.
In our daily lives we are often split up into our different ethnic, religious, and economic groups, but in the hospital, we are reminded that we are all in this together.

 At first glance, today’s gospel lesson seems straightforward enough, but, as usual, when we dig deeper into Scripture we discover there is a lot going on here.
            So, here’s the story: we’re told that Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem, passing through an in-between place – a place that’s neither Jesus’ homeland of Galilee nor the homeland of the usually despised Samaritans.
Jesus is in this in-between place where he encounters ten men with leprosy who beg him for mercy.
            Jesus doesn’t lay hands on them and doesn’t say any words of healing.
Instead, Jesus tells them to go present themselves to the priests.
In an act of faith, they don’t argue with Jesus that, uh, he seems to have forgotten to heal them. They just go. 
            And, sure enough, as they make their way to the priests they were “made clean.”
            But, only one of the now ex-lepers returned to personally thank Jesus.
            And, as a little kicker, we’re told that the one ex-leper who returned was a Samaritan.
            That doesn’t surprise us too much because thanks to the famous parable we’ve been conditioned to think of Samaritans as “good” but a Jewish audience would have found the goodness or the thankfulness of a Samaritan to be a pretty big surprise.
            (And, since presumably the other nine lepers were Jews, there would have been the surprise that they did not thank Jesus, at least not yet. After all, let’s not get judgmental. The other nine may have been simply off following Jesus’ instruction to go to the priests.)
            Anyway, the obvious lesson to draw from this story is the importance of thankfulness, right?
            And, who could argue with that, right?
Especially us here today who have so much to be thankful for – for our lives and for each other - our lives together here as church, as this beautiful expression of the Body of Christ.
But, while not denying the importance of thankfulness, I want to back up to the start of the story and the ten men with leprosy.
Just like people in hospitals today, the very real differences among the ten men with leprosy – nine Jews and one Samaritan – those differences that would have been very real among the “healthy,” well, they didn’t matter so much anymore, did they?
No, the in-between places of illness and misfortune don’t respect our nationalities or ethnicities, how much money we have in the bank, our politics, or even our religion.
Illness and misfortune remind us of the great truth that we are in this together.
But, we often choose to ignore or forget this truth, don’t we?
In fact, unfortunately there are powerful forces at work in the world and in our country and even in our own community – powerful forces that seek to divide us in all sorts of ways – powerful forces that insist that it’s us versus them, when the truth is that there is no “them,” only “us.”
There’s no “them,” only “us.”
We are in this together.

One of the things I find a little frustrating about Scripture is very often we don’t know what happened next – we don’t know what happened to the people we meet so briefly, people who were touched by the power of God and then went on with their lives.
So, I would love to know what happened next to the ten men cured of leprosy.
Did the nine others ever seek out Jesus to thank him?
How did their families respond when they returned home, no longer disfigured by disease?
Did they go on and live their lives more faithfully, with greater compassion for the suffering, because they had received so much mercy from Jesus?
Did they become disciples of Jesus, telling and retelling their story of healing?
We don’t know, though we’re always free to imagine.
But, unfortunately, I think we can be sure that after their healing the one Samaritan and the nine Jews went their separate ways – they left the in-between place of illness and returned to their homelands, back to a sense of “us” and “them.”
Happens all the time.
In some ways, it’s kind of like church, isn’t it?
As you’ve heard me say a million times, one of the glories of our congregation is our diversity.
It’s a cliché but we really are a beautiful mosaic of all different kinds of people bringing so many different experiences and gifts and, yes, burdens, each time we gather together here to pray and to celebrate, each time we gather at the Lord’s Table.
There is no “us” and “them” in here.
But, that often changes once we leave this room – sometimes as soon as we get to coffee hour and quickly divide up into our “territories.”

Today we begin to focus more intentionally on our stewardship, how we use the gifts and blessings we have received from God.
Many of us still think of stewardship as church fundraising. And, while it’s true that we do need quite a bit of money to keep this old place running, stewardship is about much more than paying the bills – it’s about expressing our thankfulness to God – it’s about using the good gifts God has given us.
Although we are not quite there legally, over the past year and a half or so we have come a long way in uniting St. Paul’s and Incarnation.
I could be wrong, but my feeling is that most of us really do think of us as one church now – that, in that sense, there is no “us” and “them.”
Amen to that.
But, this year my prayer is that, with God’s help we deepen that unity, to recognize that we really are in this together – that there is no “them” to do what we are unwilling to do – there is no “them” to write a check and cover our expenses, no “them” to host Family Promise, no “them” to straighten up the kitchen, no “them” to raise our kids in the faith, no “them” to welcome newcomers, no “them” to fill up the food donation bins, no “them” to fight the good fight with Jersey City Together, no “them” to pray for the many people on our prayer list...
There is no “them” only “us.”
And, so as we focus on stewardship, as we move forward as a beautiful mosaic church, let’s be like the ten with leprosy at the start of today’s gospel lesson, in the in-between place, begging for the mercy of Jesus, and aware that we are most definitely in this together.
And, for that, I am truly thankful.


Sunday, October 06, 2019

The Power of Lament

The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
October 6, 2019

Year C, Proper 22: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Lamentations 1:1-6
Lamentations 3:19-26
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

The Power of Lament
            The other day a parishioner said to me that it feels like there’s a lot of sadness in the air these days.
            And, I think she’s right about that.
            Life always brings a mix of joy and sorrow, but lately, at least for me, more of my time seems to be occupied by sadness.
            I feel sad about the state of our world as we seem unable to take the action necessary to prevent catastrophic damage to our planet, as more and more people feel they have no choice but to flee their homes and everything they’ve ever known, as brutal leaders believe, probably rightly, that they can get away with deceit, massacres, torture, and concentration camps.
            I feel sad about the state of our country, where once again we are consumed by bitter political battles and inspiring leadership – or even just competent leadership - is in such short supply, where Republicans and Democrats can attend the same meetings and somehow draw exact opposite conclusions, where so much energy is devoted to politics and so little to actually solving our many problems.
            And, I feel sad about our own community here where so many people are suffering – illness and injury, relationship problems and family squabbles, unemployment and underemployment, unsafe neighborhoods and crumbling schools, a sense of despair and the sinking feeling that there’s no way out.
            So, yes, there’s a lot of sadness in the air.
            But, you know, we Americans are not so great at expressing this sadness, not so good at… lamenting.
            Instead, from an early age, we’re taught to project a sunny optimism – to hold on desperately to the belief that somehow everything will work out just the way we want it to – and, please, whatever you do, do not burden anyone else with your problems.
            (If I had a dollar for every time a parishioner has been in the hospital or has gone through some other hard time and not let me know - and then afterward said to me something like, “I didn’t want to bother you because I know you are busy…”)
            And, this isn’t just an American thing.
            It’s also a Christian thing.
            In today’s gospel lesson the disciples say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”
            And, don’t we all ask for the same gift, especially when times are tough?
            But, often we get the mistaken idea that expressing sorrow or fear or even anger somehow means that we lack faith – that our sorrow, fear, or anger mean that we no longer believe in God.
            And, sometimes this American and Christian reluctance to face our sorrow gets mixed together.
            Some of you may remember Norman Vincent Peale who led Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan for forty years – where, by the way, he was pastor of a young Donald Trump.
Today, Peale is remembered mostly as the author of a bestselling book called, The Power of Positive Thinking.
            In his book he encourages the reader to imagine succeeding, using positive thought to drown out negative thought, to minimize obstacles, to develop a strong self-respect, and to believe that you receive power from God.
            That sounds like a lot of today’s televangelists and new age gurus, doesn’t it?
            Now, obviously, I’m not saying that this is all wrong or that positive thinking is not important.
            But, I am saying that, generally, we Americans and we Christians are not so good at honestly expressing our sorrow, not so good at simply sitting for a while with our sadness and grief.
            It’s like what most of us do during Holy Week: we skip over the pain of Good Friday and rush on to the joy of Easter, avoiding the cross to get to the flowers and chocolate.
            And this is too bad, because we miss what I’ll call, with all due respect to Norman Vincent Peale, “the power of lament.”

            We may be not so good at lamenting the sad parts of life, but the Jews, our elder sisters and brothers in faith, have a long history of openly and honestly grieving loss.
            Today we heard two passages from the Book of Lamentations.
            In the year 586 B.C., the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem (including Solomon’s Temple) and took many of the people into exile in Babylon, where they desperately tried to hold on to their identity as God’s people, while surrounded by people who worshiped other gods.
            Meanwhile, other Jewish people were back home living among the ruins, wondering if they had a future without their Temple, hoping that God had not abandoned them forever, and, most of all, lamenting all that had been lost.
            And that deep sadness gave birth to the Book of Lamentations and listening to its words today we can still really feel the great sadness of long ago.
            The author of Lamentations personifies Jerusalem as a woman weeping bitterly in the night, abandoned by those who loved her, friends have turned against her.
            Even the roads in and out of the city mourn, because people no longer come to the ruined city for the great festivals.

            By now, all of this focus on loss and sorrow may have you wishing that you had slept in or gone to brunch or got a head start on the food shopping, but if you had done those things you would have missed the key message:
            The power of lament is that it makes us recognize our complete dependence on God.
            Positive thinking and all the rest of it has its value but the danger is it gives us the false hope that, on our own, we can work our way out of whatever mess we are in.
            Just be positive, keep smiling, and everything will work out.
            Lament, on the other hand, means we acknowledge that everything’s a mess and there’s only so much we can do on our own, but we trust that God is with us even in, especially in, the worst times.
            And so, even in the midst of great sorrow and destruction, and recognizing that what has been broken can never be put back together exactly as it was before, the author of Lamentations declares, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
            The power of lament.

            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells the disciples who have asked for an increase of faith that if they had faith the size of a tiny mustard seed they could do truly amazing things.
            And, as bad as the news has been this past week, there was at least one story that suggests that Jesus really knew what he was talking about.
            I’m sure most of you have heard the story of the tragic killing of Botham Jean, a black man, born in St. Lucia, an accountant, loved by his family and respected by his colleagues, who was killed in his own home by an off-duty Dallas police officer, a white woman named Amber Guyger.
            Guyger claimed that she had entered his apartment by mistake, thinking it was her own place, and shot Jean thinking that he was a burglar.
            Considering the continued racism of American society and especially the racism that infects the justice system, many were surprised that Guyger was convicted, though she received a relatively light sentence of ten years.
            (Let’s be honest, if the roles were reversed, it’s safe to assume that a black man would be looking at much longer time and maybe even the death penalty.)
            What got everybody’s attention was what happened during the sentencing.
            Botham’s brother, Brandt, said he forgave Guyger for killing his brother and, not only that, he hugged her, right there in the court room.
            Now, I don’t know what it took to get to that point but I imagine that for more than the past year Brandt Jean along with the rest of his family have done a whole lot of lamenting, lamenting the senseless loss of Botham, this bright and much-liked man, full of promise.
            No amount of positive thinking was going to fix this situation.
            Their family and their lives could never and will never be put back together exactly as they were before.
            But, it seems to me, this grieving family knows their total dependence on God, and that faith – that increased faith – gave one man the power to do something far greater than hurling a mountain into the sea.
            That is the power of lament.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

No Great Chasm

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
September 29, 2019

Year C, Proper 21: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

No Great Chasm
            Just as we did last year, for the past few weeks we have changed the language we use at the 10:00 service, employing more contemporary, more gender-neutral, language than what is found in our Prayer Book.
            For some this is a wonderful and long-overdue move that you think should be made permanent, and for others it’s something to be endured until Advent when, yes, we’ll go back to more traditional language.
            And, probably some have barely noticed any difference.
            I think that one of the most striking changes is in the language of the confession that we say together. Listen:
            “We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
            We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.”
            Actually, that last line, “the evil done on our behalf” recently sparked a little social media storm among some Episcopal clergy and lay people who wondered and debated if we really can or should ask forgiveness for actions that we have not personally done, but have been done for us, or from which we benefit.
            I get the objection, and while it is a little complicated, I believe that we can and probably should ask forgiveness for evil done on our behalf, for the systems and policies that make us richer and fuller and more comfortable, while others are left out, neglected, hungry, and frightened.
            To say the least, this has been a challenging week – a challenging week for our own church community and a challenging week for our country and the world.
There’s been a lot of news lately, from massive environmental protests all around the world to a terrifying UN report on the state of the world’s oceans to, of course, the start of an official impeachment inquiry.
            There’s been so much going on that you may have missed a news item that deserved to get more attention.
            Every year, the President sets the number of refugees who can be admitted into the United States. This past week the Administration announced that for the next twelve months the U.S. would admit 18,000 refugees. To give that number some context, in 2016 the number was 110,000 refugees.
            No surprise, lots of people are upset about this, including the Episcopal Church, which has condemned this decision
            Keep in mind that it takes years of careful vetting before refugees are able to settle here. We’re not talking about people sneaking into the country. Refugees are people who are fleeing violence and oppression who are using a legal system that was first created after World War II.
            The Administration argues that it must reduce the number of refugees (earlier the word was they were actually considering lowering the number to zero) because of the increase of asylum claims at our Southern border.
            Maybe that’s true and maybe it’s not, but I’ll just say that this is a country of about 300 million people where, except for the poorest among us, we live better and more securely than people in most parts of the world.
            There is a wide divide – a “great chasm,” to use the language of today’s gospel lesson, between most of us and most of them.
            Although as we struggle to pay our bills it may not feel like it, the truth is that most of us live more like the rich man of today’s parable, while so many people around the world are like poor Lazarus, lying hungry, pitiful, and neglected, just outside our gates.
            If you were here last week, you may remember that we heard one of Jesus’ most difficult to understand parables, what’s usually called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward or Manager.
            Today’s parable – the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus – is much easier to grasp but that doesn’t make it any less challenging.
            It’s a parable of great divides.
            It’s a parable of rich and poor living side-by-side and yet living very different lives.
            And, it’s a parable of great reversals: in the next life poor Lazarus is rewarded with the great honor of resting in the “bosom of Abraham” while the rich man is in agony in the place of judgment (though, I do wonder just how bad the agony was since he's still pretty chatty!).
            It’s also a parable about just not “getting it” – after all, even from Hell the rich man thinks he’s in a position to give orders: send Lazarus to bring me a drink – send Lazarus to warn my brothers!
            Some people never learn.
            But, there’s one little detail in this parable that has especially caught my attention.
            Since we’re nice people, we might be inclined to forgive the rich man for living it up while Lazarus was starving and suffering outside his door. We might try to rationalize his selfishness. We might try to let him off the hook by saying, well, maybe he didn’t know that Lazarus was out there.
            After all, we all get caught up in our own stuff and sometimes we no longer see what is right in front of us – no longer see who is right in front of us.
            There’s just one problem with that: in the afterlife we learn that the rich man knew Lazarus’ name. He knew him. And still, he didn’t help.
            And, so, the rich man is condemned.

            Today the world and our country face many big issues.
And, we are always called to follow our faith and our consciences and to do our part.
            But, since the bigness of these problems and our deep political divisions can be overwhelming and depressing, we often choose to ignore the news from faraway places and from Washington, to look away from “the evil done on our behalf.”
We may choose to just keep our mouths shut to keep the peace (Thanksgiving dinner is just around the corner!).
            We may choose to “stay in our lane,” as they say.
            Personally, I don’t think that’s the way to go, but I can understand it, and, honestly, I find it tempting myself.
            But, even if we look away from the world and from Washington, the hard truth is that, just like for the rich man in the parable, right here in our neighborhood, right here in our “lane” there are people hungry for the crumbs that fall from our table.
            And, so, in just a few weeks, from November 3 to November 17, Family Promise will once again send guests to stay right here: parents and children without a home of their own who will live in make Carr Hall and our upstairs rooms.
            And, if you open your heart, if you choose to help with this great effort, you will learn the names of these parents and children.
            And, I am confident that, unlike the rich man in the parable, we won’t look away and ignore the people whose names we know, but instead we will open our gates even wider, and share with them much more than crumbs.
            We’ll make room in our spiritual home.
            We’ll make room at our table.
            We’ll make room in our heart.
            There will be no wide divide – there will be no great chasm – between us.