Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Citizens of Heaven Need to Speak Up

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
March 17, 2019

Year C: The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

The Citizens of Heaven Need to Speak Up
            The story of God and us really begins with Abram – soon to be Abraham - a faithful man who was asked by God to leave his home and travel to an unknown new land – a man who thought he and his wife would never have children of their own, yet God says that his descendants will be as numerous than the stars in the night sky.
            The story of God and us begins with God making a promise – a covenant – a contract – with Abraham and his many descendants – a promise made in the strange story we heard in today’s first lesson from Genesis.
            It seems that in the ancient world contracts were made by doing what we heard today: killing animals and cutting them in half.
            Then the two parties making the agreement would “cut the deal” by walking between these pieces, indicating the bloody consequences if either side broke the contract.
            Kind of gruesome, but it does get the point across, right?
            But, what we heard today isn’t just any regular contract between two people about land or money.
            This is a covenant between God and God’s people.
            So, notice what happens when God makes this covenant with Abraham – only God “walks” between the animal parts, not Abraham, because God knows very well that Abraham and his descendants – that we - will not be able to completely keep our end of the agreement.
We will break God’s Law – we will turn to other gods – we will reject the prophets sent to us – we will, from time to time, lose faith in the God who called Abraham to a new land, to a new way.
            But, since God made a one-sided contract with God’s people, God doesn’t ever give up on us.
No matter what, God always keeps God’s side of the bargain.
No matter what, as Jesus says so beautifully in today’s gospel lesson, God wants to gather us together, hold us close, as a hen gathers her chicks.
God will not give up on us  - will not let us go, no matter what.
And, that’s very good news, but…it doesn’t let us off the hook.

In today’s second lesson, St. Paul writes to the church in Philippi that their “citizenship is in heaven.”
That’s a surprising word to use, right? Citizenship. It would have caught the attention of people living in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago where citizenship or the lack of it made a big difference in people’s lives – just as citizenship or the lack of it makes a big difference for us living in the United States today.
And, just like American citizenship, our heavenly citizenship comes with many benefits and also many responsibilities, not in heaven but right here and right now.
As “heavenly citizens” living on earth we are expected – with God’s help – to try our best to keep our end of the deal with God – to love God and to love our neighbor – our Jewish neighbor, our Christian neighbor, our Muslim neighbor, our Hindu neighbor, our atheist neighbor, our neighbor who we really don’t like or trust – we are to strive to love them all.
Unfortunately, if you turn on the news for just a minute or two or even just walk down Bergen Avenue, it’s clear that we’re not really doing such a great job of keeping our contract with God, not doing such a great job of meeting the responsibilities of our heavenly citizenship.
It’s easy to get discouraged.
But, God doesn’t give up on us, so we must not give up on ourselves.

As I’ve thought about how we can respond to the difficult times we’re living in, I keep returning to Baptism.
We Christians gain our heavenly citizenship through Baptism – that’s our own little citizenship ceremony – and at each Baptism we make and renew important promises, including the promise to proclaim the Good News of Christ in what we say and what we do.
I bet that most of us would say that deeds are more difficult and more important than words. Just think of the expressions we use:
 “Words are cheap.”
  “Actions speak louder than words.”
We criticize people who are “all talk and no action.”
There’s truth to all of that – and if you’ve been here more than ten minutes you know very well that I’m very much about doing – I’m always trying to get us to do more - to serve more people – and that’s not going to change – but I think, especially these days, words are at least as important – and at least as difficult – as deeds.
I began writing today’s sermon on Friday morning after the news broke of the terrorist massacre in New Zealand where, as you know, yet another angry and armed man opened fire on worshipers – in this case attacking two mosques – killing 50 people and injuring some 20 more.
This time it was New Zealand and mosques, while not long ago it was a synagogue in Pittsburgh and an African-American church in Charleston.
One of the things that these horrific incidents have in common is that before the unspeakable violence there were words – ugly words and hateful words and fearful words - words that in a civilized society should have been unthinkable and definitely unspeakable – but in the cesspools of the Internet and among hateful extremists here and abroad – and, yes, among politicians who know better but cynically stir up hate to win applause and votes – the unthinkable and the unspeakable are thought and spoken more and more.
It can be a really short trip from word to deed, so, no surprise, there are some twisted men who put these ugly words into terrible action.

I know most of would rather not – I know most of us would rather look away - but I don’t think anything is going to change – and, actually, things are likely to get much worse - unless we heavenly citizens start to speak up.
If we’re scared, we have one another and we know we have a God who always keeps promises.
But, it’s time – it’s long past time - for us to use our words – beautiful words and loving words and courageous words.
After all, as the theologian I live with reminded me, in the beginning was the Word.
So, we’re called to speak up about what we experience right here in our beautiful church.
We’re not perfect by any means and we’re not always as welcoming to people who are a little different – who rub us the wrong way – who don’t fit into our little church cliques – but, for the most part, this diverse group of heavenly citizens gets along pretty well, proving that it really is possible for us to love one another, despite our many differences.
We’re called to speak up – and now I’m talking especially to my white brothers and sisters – we are called to speak up when we hear people spewing racist and hateful garbage – this could be among our own families and friends or at work or school or on social media – but we are called to speak up and say this is wrong and this is disgusting and this is most definitely not the way of God and I want no part of it.
We’re called to speak up in our communities – to speak up with other people of goodwill.
After the massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, I was asked to speak at the rally held down at City Hall, representing the Christian community.
I really felt the weight of this huge responsibility.
I speak in public often enough so I don’t usually get too nervous – but I was very anxious that day – worried that I wasn’t eloquent enough or wise enough - worried that my words wouldn’t be right for this somber occasion – worried that I would say the wrong thing and accidentally do more harm than good.
I agonized over every word in my speech. In the end, I think it went OK but the truth is all I really had to say was this:
 Hating certain groups of people and slaughtering innocents is never the way of God.
It’s really as simple as that. But it’s not enough just to think it or to believe it. We have to say it, too.

The story of God and us – the story of the divine hen and her human chicks - begins long ago with God making a covenant – a one-sided contract promising to never give up on us, to never let go of us, no matter what.
We are so blessed – but we are not let off the hook.
And today in our broken and angry and heavily armed world, as heavenly citizens it is our responsibility to use both our words and our deeds to love God and to love our neighbor, all of our neighbors.
May it be so.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

No Shortcuts

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
March 10, 2019

Year C: The First Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

No Shortcuts
            One of the advantages to living and working where I have spent much of my life is that I usually know the fastest ways to get around.
            For the most part, I know these streets and neighborhoods pretty well.
            I remember a couple of years ago I gave my father a ride somewhere here in town and at one point as I was cutting down side streets he turned to me and said, “You’re like a cab driver.”
            I don’t want to brag, but it’s kind of true!
            But, it wasn’t always so.
            Almost twelve years ago when I first started working at Grace Church in Madison I literally (and maybe figuratively too!) had no idea where I was going.
            It was a totally unfamiliar place and so, especially during the early days, whenever I needed to drive anywhere I would look up the address on Mapquest and print out the directions and place them on the passenger seat next to me.
            Sometimes if the route was particularly tricky I would summarize the directions on a post-it and stick it on the steering wheel.
            So there I would be driving around the suburbs, glancing down at the seat next to me or at my little post-it (which would sometimes fall off) – it’s amazing that I didn’t get into accident, though I made more wrong turns than I care to admit.
            At some point Sue suggested I get a GPS and, as usual, I was reluctant to have yet another gadget, some new piece of technology, in my life. But, I was also tired of getting lost so I went along with it.
            Having this little screen and its disembodied voice in the car with me took some getting used to and especially in those early days the technology was imperfect, sometimes taking me on roundabout routes or even in circles and also sometimes the GPS would be a second or two late, causing me to miss a turn – and I’d hear the robotic voice say with what sounded like just a hint of annoyance,
            But, over time the technology has improved so much and now I don’t even use a GPS device. I just open an app on my phone, and away we go – and now it even tells me which lane to be in – and, what’s my favorite feature, it even suggests shortcuts.
            Yes! Save four minutes! That feels like hitting the jackpot – what a joy to avoid some traffic and arrive at my destination a whole four minutes early!
            Seriously, shortcuts really are great when we are driving from point A to point B.
            But…when it comes to our spiritual life – when it comes to the Way of Jesus – shortcuts are in fact very dangerous temptations.
            As we do every year on the First Sunday in Lent, today we heard the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness – forty days of temptation by the devil.
            We’re told three of the temptations that the devil offered to Jesus:
            “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”
            “Worship me and I will give you all the glory and the authority in the world.”
            “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the Temple and let the angels save you, revealing to everyone your true identity.”
            You know, it’s kind of surprising, but when you stop and really look at these temptations you notice that there’s nothing bad about the ultimate outcomes.
            Bread is good, especially for someone starving in the wilderness.
            The world really would be a much better place if Jesus were given all glory and authority.
            And, wouldn’t it really be something to see Jesus caught by angels, proving that he is the beloved Son of God?
            There’s nothing bad about any of these temptations except that they are shortcuts – and when it comes to our spiritual life – when it comes to the Way of Christ – shortcuts don’t ever really work – shortcuts are dangerous - they wouldn’t get Jesus to his ultimate destination - and they won’t get us to where God wants us to be, either.
            The shortcut would be Jesus magically turning stones into bread, but the way of life is all of us giving away our bread and fish – sharing what we have – and Jesus taking those gifts, blessing those gifts, and making more than enough for everybody – making more than we could have ever imagined.
            The shortcut would be doing the wrong thing in order to achieve worldly power but the way of life is Jesus showing that true kingship, true leadership, isn’t selling your soul, isn’t lording it over other people, but is instead giving away your life in loving service.
            The shortcut would be some dramatic display of divine power – like jumping off the temple and being saved by angels, but the way of life is Jesus nailed to a tree, showing us more clearly than we could have ever imagined how much God loves us – showing us most clearly that even when we do the worst thing imaginable – even when we kill the Blameless One - God still doesn’t give up on us and, in the end, love defeats even death itself.
            If Jesus had taken these shortcuts we would have never made it back to the garden, never made it to the empty tomb, never made it to where the Risen Christ reveals himself to Mary Magdalene, and to us.
            Unfortunately, the temptation to take shortcuts is still very real for us Christians today.
            And that’s especially true during this holy season of Lent.
            There’s the always popular shortcut of living pretty much like so many people out in the world – looking out for our selves and our own and turning away from those who are suffering.
There’s the shortcut of loving and being kind to the people we love and like, but being mean and unwelcoming to those who are different or who we don’t like or who we don’t know.
There’s the shortcut of showing up here for communion and community just from time to time or just when we feel like it or just when it’s convenient.
There’s the shortcut of giving away a little bit but never really giving so much of ourselves and our resources that it hurts – that it causes us to sacrifice something we really like or want.
Taking care of our selves and our families - and saving our time and our resources - are all good things, right?
And, the truth is nobody would blame us for taking these shortcuts – look at all the time and energy and money and even love we would save!
But, for us these shortcuts are dangerous temptations because they won’t get us to our ultimate destination – won’t get us to where God wants us to be.
So, this Lent, I challenge myself and I invite you to take the long way.
Let’s walk together the Way of the Cross – let’s walk together the Way of Life – let’s pray and let’s sacrifice and let’s give.
It wasn’t easy for Jesus and it won’t be easy for us, but together we’ll reach our beautiful destination – an Easter that’s not just pretty flowers and tasty chocolate and fancy hats – but an Easter that is truly new life.
No shortcuts.


Sunday, March 03, 2019

Ora Et Labora

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
March 3, 2019

Year C: The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43a

Ora Et Labora
            Some of you know that our new bishop, The Rt. Rev. Carlye Hughes, has been spending a lot of time getting to know the people of her new diocese and allowing us to get acquainted with her and her vision for our church.
            There have been several popular “Breaking Bread with the Bishop” events with more to come, and she has also been meeting individually with each member of the clergy.
            She came down to Jersey City a few months ago, giving me a strong incentive to finally clean my office – though to look at it now you’d never know!
            It was a relaxed conversation that lasted for more than an hour.
            She asked me about my background and how things were going here.
            She asked what role I saw myself playing in the diocese.
            And then she asked about my self-care, which, unfortunately, is not always my strong suit.
            But, I was able to tell her about my long early morning daily walks in the good weather – and I was able to tell her about the retreat I made last May, fulfilling a longtime dream of visiting the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.
            I was feeling pretty self-satisfied about these examples of superb self-care, but then she said something like, “OK, that was last year. How about this year? Have you scheduled your next retreat?”
            I stammered a little bit…um…well…uh…no – because to be honest I had thought about last year’s retreat as checking off an important box in my life, not necessarily as something that should be an annual event.
            Anyway, after our meeting I did book a retreat for this year, this time not as far away as Kentucky, but at another monastery in Upstate New York – and I’m already looking forward to it very much.
            If you know anything about monks and monasteries you know that the twin pillars of their lives are what is called in Latin, “Ora et Labora.”
            Prayer and work.
            In the case of the monks I visited in Kentucky, they spend their days and their nights gathering frequently in their chapel for prayer – eight different services every weekday – the first at 3:15 in the morning and the last at 7:30 at night.
So, monks get to bed early.
And the monks spend the rest of their time working to keep up the monastery and especially producing the products they sell to pay the bills, which in the case of the monastery in Kentucky includes making chocolate fudge.
            So, on top of the natural beauty and holiness of that place, there’s also the smell of chocolate wafting through the air.
            Not bad at all!
            Ora et Labora.
            Prayer and work.
            We tend to think of prayer and work as two different things, but the idea for the monks – and for us - is that over time prayer and work get woven together so that eventually you can no longer tell where one begins and the other ends.
            Prayer and work and work and prayer.
            Among other things, Jesus was very much a man of prayer.
            The Gospels remember him praying while surrounded by his disciples and other people and they also record him going off by himself for a while, climbing up a mountain, to spend some time in prayer.
            But, as the author of our Lenten book says, the mountains of Israel aren’t all that tall – Jesus doesn’t go very far – and, maybe to his disappointment, he’s usually found pretty easily by the people who go looking for him.
            So, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus and his closest disciples – Peter, James, and John, went up on the mountain to pray – and there they have a most powerful spiritual experience – a glimpse of Easter – a taste of Resurrection - as the face of Jesus is transformed and his clothes are dazzling white.
            And then, as if that weren’t enough, Moses and Elijah appear – two figures from Israel’s past - figures who were believed to have been taken up into heaven.
            No surprise, Peter doesn’t want this moment to end and so he suggests that they build dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – but before Jesus can respond to that the cloud appears and they hear the voice from heaven:
            “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him!”
            After all of this, after what we call the Transfiguration, there are no words – and notice there’s no further discussion about Peter’s suggestion of staying on the mountain.
            No, instead, Jesus and his friends come back down off of the mountain, back to the large crowd gathered and waiting - and Jesus gets right back to work.
            Prayer and work and work and prayer.
            There’s yet another desperate parent – a father – who begs Jesus to heal his son, his only child.
            Jesus’ disciples had tried to heal the boy but had failed and Jesus seems irritated by this – maybe he wishes he were still up on the mountain with Moses and Elijah – or maybe he knows that the disciples aren’t working and praying as hard as they should - but he heals the boy and the crowd is astounded at “the greatness of God.”

            Jesus is a man of prayer, but more than that, he is the supreme example of someone for whom prayer and work are woven together, woven so closely that we can’t tell where one begins and the other ends.
            Ora et labora.
            Prayer and work and work and prayer.
            And, today it’s not just monks who are called to this way of life – we are all called to prayer and work and work and prayer.
            Easier said than done, right?
            But, as we begin Lent on Wednesday, more important than giving up chocolate or skipping meat on Fridays, the most important thing we can do – the best self-care we can do - is to set aside even just a little bit of time for prayer.
            (And, yes, I’m preaching to myself at least as much as I’m preaching to you!)
            We don’t need the perfect time and place – we don’t need a mountain or even a hill and we certainly don’t need a monastery, as nice as those places are.
Instead, as Jesus says, we can just close the door to our room and spend a few minutes with God – as the author of our Lenten book says, keeping it simple, keeping it short, keeping it frequent, and keeping it real.
And, the more we do that, we’ll find that our prayer and our work will become woven together – prayer and our job – prayer and going to school – prayer and going to the supermarket – prayer and spending time with family and friends – prayer and the ministries we do here together.
Our prayer and our work will be woven together – and we will all be astounded at the greatness of God.
Prayer and work.
Ora et Labora.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Answering to a Higher Authority

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
February 24, 2019

Year C: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38

Answering to a Higher Authority
            I must be starting to get old, because when I look back on my childhood it seems so different from what kids experience today – it almost feels like a whole different world.
            As I’ve mentioned to you before, I grew up down in Country Village where, in the 1970s, there were lots of young families, lots of kids around my age.
            There were no personal computers yet and video games were just beginning, so, in the good weather all of us, even a kind of bookish kid like me, would spend a lot of time outside, playing in the middle of the street, interrupted only by the occasional cry of  “Car! Car!” that shooed us to the sidewalk for a minute.
            We played and we rode our bikes, all under the eyes of many of our mothers who watched us from the kitchen window, often while talking on the phone.
            Although a fight would break out every now and then and there were some cranky older neighbors who complained about the noise or objected to us crossing onto their property, for the most part it was a pretty happy and peaceful way to grow up.
            But, of course, we couldn’t be outside all the time, so the other main activity was watching TV – watching the handful of channels that were available back then – during the day watching repeats of old shows from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
            So, there was a lot of I Love Lucy, The Munsters, The Addams Family, Lost in Space, The Brady Bunch, and on, and on.
            But there weren’t just the shows – there were also the commercials.
            Nowadays, some of us have devices or streaming services that allow us to fast-forward through commercials or skip them entirely, but back then there was no escape and through repetition they became at least as memorable as the shows themselves – which was, of course, the whole point.
            So, back then I probably had no idea what indigestion was, but I knew that the “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” of Alka-Seltzer would offer “oh what a relief.”
            I objected to some of the midweek suppers my mother put on the table because I knew full well, just like everybody else, that “Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day!”
            And, I also knew that not all hot dogs were created equal – and I knew this important fact thanks to a memorable commercial for Hebrew National.
            It was a simple set-up: we see Uncle Sam holding a hot dog in his hand and then an announcer points out that the government allows hot dog makers to use frozen beef and fillers and byproducts and other unappetizing things, but Hebrew National doesn’t do any of that because…
            “We answer to higher authority.”
            The camera pans upward, above Uncle Sam to the clouds, and left unsaid is that this “higher authority” is God.
            The point was that, unlike Oscar Meyer and the rest, Hebrew National follows the Jewish dietary laws - it keeps kosher.
            And, although the commercial is a little silly (though effective – I remember it clear as day forty years later), it does point to a truth.
            Since they first came to understand that they had a special relationship with God, that they had a covenant with God, the Jewish people have understood themselves as being under a Higher Authority, held to a different standard than the other people around them.
            Like all of us, they sometimes fall short, but for thousands of years they’ve understood they are to treat other people as they themselves would want to be treated – that they were to welcome the stranger into their land – that they were to treat animals humanely – that the command for Sabbath rest was not just for Jewish men and women but also for foreigners, for slaves, and even for the beasts of burden.
            Jesus was born into this culture and grew up with this understanding – that he and his people answered to a “Higher Authority” – and, through him, we his followers are also now answerable to God.
            But, Jesus builds on this Jewish understanding, asking – requiring – even more than any of the great prophets and teachers who came before him.
            We are not just to respect and be decent to our enemies – we are to love them.
            We are not just to be peaceful – we are to offer our other cheek to be struck.
            We are not just to be generous – we are to give to everyone who asks of us.
            We are not to judge – never to condemn.
            We are to forgive, no matter what.
            This is some of Jesus’ most difficult teaching – and it raises challenges and even some dangers, doesn’t it?
            I can imagine the crowd around Jesus scratching their heads wondering how in the world anyone could do this.
            Actually, I don’t have to imagine it because, as I pondered these words, I was scratching my own head, wondering how anybody could do this, wondering what in the world to say about these most challenging commands.
            And, as I’ve thought about it, I think maybe for that first crowd and for us today, these hard teachings most of all remind us just how fallen the world is – how broken we are – how far we are from the way things were meant to be – how the Kingdom of God has not yet fully arrived.
            The truth is we can’t yet fully live into these commands because, as we seem to be reminded every single day, in our fallen world there are some people who abuse others – there are some people who must be stopped from hurting other people – there are people who are treated like doormats or far worse, and that is surely not what God wants.
            The truth is we can’t yet fully live into these commands because in our broken humanity there are a few who have so much and many who have so little and if we give to every outstretched hand we will find ourselves destitute and with our own hands outstretched – and that is surely not what God wants.
            The Kingdom of God has not yet fully arrived.
            But, that does not let us off the hook.
            We are not allowed to simply shrug and say, “Oh well, this is the way it has to be, so let’s ignore or forget about what Jesus has to say.”
            A certain hot dog maker didn’t give into the temptation of saying “Well, since everybody else is using coloring and additives, I guess that’s the way it has to be, so let’s give up our standards and offer a cheaper product like everybody else.”
In the same way, we shouldn’t give into the temptation of saying that our broken world and fallen humanity will always be broken and fallen and that’s just how it’s going to be.
            We are children of God and we answer to a Higher Authority.
            And, you know, people today are way more interested in what’s in their food than we were back in the 70s.
            Change is possible.
            Now, I’m not saying that’s because of Hebrew National franks, but I do know that the more we are loving and generous and merciful – the more we are like God – then, with God’s help, the world becomes more like what it was always meant to be.
            The more we are loving and generous and merciful then there will be fewer enemies and more friends – there will be fewer people who have to beg with outstretched hands – there will be less judgment and more forgiveness – and there might even be more kids able to play outside in their own neighborhoods, without a care in the world.
            We still have a long way to go, and we’re going to fall short a lot of the time, but if we follow the way of Jesus, if we answer to the Higher Authority, then the Kingdom of God draws ever closer.