Sunday, July 23, 2017

Bad Farmer

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 23, 2017

Year A, Proper 11: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 Bad Farmer
            Two Sundays in a row now we’ve heard agricultural parables from Jesus – and in both cases Jesus describes practices that would drive any self-respecting farmer or gardener absolutely bananas.
            I read one commentator who pointed out the bad farming practices in these parables and joked that maybe Jesus should stick to carpentry and leave farming to the experts!
            Anyway, if you were here last week, you may remember we heard what’s usually called the “Parable of the Sower,” where Jesus describes a sower dropping precious seeds all over the place – on good soil, yes, but also on rocky soil and even among the thorns.
            We said anyone who wasted all those seeds would be fired from any farm – and would even be encouraged, gently, to step down from our own gardening committee here at St. Paul’s.
            And now, today, we heard another agricultural parable with even more bad farming practices.
            We’re told that a sower sowed good wheat but an “enemy” came along at night and sowed weeds in the same field.
            The slaves notice the weeds growing up and suggest to the master a wise course of action: gather up the weeds.
            This would be the way to go because as any farmer or gardener knows, weeds can choke the “good” plants – and, on top of that, if the weeds aren’t rooted out they will spread even more “bad” seeds and in the end you’ll be left with a field of weeds.
            But, the master doesn’t go along with this wise course of action – and for an interesting reason – pulling up the weeds would also involve pulling up the wheat – it’s not always so easy to separate wheat and weeds – and, maybe, as a lot of gardeners know, sometimes it’s not even easy to tell them apart.
            No, instead, the master chooses to wait until the harvest, when the wheat and the weeds can be separated and, we’re told, the weeds will be burned.
            Bad farming.
            Now, this may sound strange to you, but as I thought about this parable, I was reminded of my teaching days – especially the first few days of the school year.
            In September, as each class would file into my room, I’ll admit it, I would size up my students.
            I hesitate to mention this, because I know most of our teachers and kids aren’t quite ready to think about school, yet, but…
            In those first few classes of the new school year, I’d be looking out at their faces and their body language, trying to get a sense of who’s going to be a pleasure to teach – and who’s going to be a pain in the...
            Some kids looked very alert, very sharp, seeming to hang on every word, nodding along with me, furrowing their brows as they pondered the “profound wisdom” I was offering them, and, of course, laughing at my jokes.
            And, then, there were others who, right from the start, looked bored out of their minds, staring out the window, or horsing around with the kids next to them, and, not only not laughing at my jokes, but rolling their eyes at what seemed to them the stupidest stuff they had ever heard in their life.
            In some ways, I – and maybe you, too – do the same thing here in church.
            New people arrive and we try to size them up. Do they seem into it? Does it seem like they’ll fit in with the rest of us? Are they attentive in worship? Do they laugh at the priest’s jokes?
            Others seem to pay no attention at all, seem to be here only because someone is making them be here, don’t seem like they would fit in with the rest of us, and don’t even crack a smile at the priest’s jokes!
            Well, the lesson I’ve learned over and over first as a teacher and now as a priest, is that I’m terrible at telling wheat from weeds.
            Some of those kids nodding along with me and laughing at my jokes turned out to be not paying much attention at all, and some turned out to be royal pains in the…neck.
            And others who seemed checked out and un-amused turned out to be listening to every word and thinking and learning, and turned out to be wonderful students.
            And, the same thing at church.
            Quite a few times, new people have arrived and I’m sure that they’re going to love it here and fit right in and become longtime members of our community – and then we see them maybe once or twice but never again.
            And, others come who don’t seem into it, who don’t seem like they’ll fit in, and it turns out they enrich our community in ways that we could have never predicted.
            So, it turns out, we’re not so good at distinguishing wheat from weeds.
            Which is just as well, because that’s not our job.
            It’s God’s job to distinguish the wheat from the weeds – not ours.
            And, now, since we’re among friends, I’m going out on a limb a little, and you don’t have to agree with me on this, but here goes:
             I think maybe in God’s eyes there are, in fact, no weeds at all.
            For farmers and gardeners, “weeds” are just plants that we don’t want or we think don’t serve any real purpose – and, yet, often enough we discover that these “weeds” have surprising and beneficial gifts for us.
            And, one thing I’ve learned first as a teacher and now as a priest, is that often the even the “weediest” people have surprisingly good gifts for us, or, at the very least, are carrying around very heavy burdens that should make us feel compassion for them, should make us love them.
            And, of course, and I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but it’s entirely possible that there are people out there, or even in here, who see us, not as wheat but as weeds!
            So, it seems to me that if we are able to see goodness even in some pretty weedy people, then God is certainly able to see it, too.
            And, yes, like in the parable, maybe some day in the future, God really will separate the weeds from the wheat.
            But, for now anyway, the God who wastes all of those seeds and the God who lets the weeds grow up with the wheat – this God has chosen to be a pretty bad farmer.
            And, that, my friends, is very good news for us all.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Sweet Wine of God's Love

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 16, 2017

Year A, Proper 10: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:9-14
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Sweet Wine of God’s Love (Or, Lessons Learned on a Summer Vacation)
            As many of you know, for most of the past two weeks, Sue and I were away on vacation out West.
            It was the longest trip we’ve taken in quite a while, and, in fact, even a little longer than we had planned since our return flight was first delayed and finally canceled, forcing us to spend one more night in a hotel, courtesy of United Airlines.
            Aside from that mishap, it was a pretty good and restful trip.
            One of the highlights was the day we spent on a bus tour of wineries in Sonoma and Napa Counties, just outside San Francisco.
            Much of California’s wine is produced in these almost indescribably beautiful places – so beautiful that, truthfully, I would have been perfectly happy just riding around on the bus just looking at the scenery, at the rolling hills covered with row after row of grape vines.
            But, we did get off the bus and toured three of the wineries, listening to the wine growers describe their work – and, yes, getting to sample a little bit of their work, too.
            Our favorite winery was the first one we visited, a relatively small “boutique” winery that doesn’t even sell its wine in stores, just to people who subscribe to their club or who, like us, stop by for a tour and tasting.
            I always enjoy meeting people who take their work – their craft - so seriously, who are excited (or, at least, seem excited) by what they do, even if they’ve been at it for a long time.
            So, it was fun to listen to these craftspeople enthusiastically share with us all the care that goes into growing the vines and producing their wines.
            Most interesting of all, at this first winery we visited we had the chance to actually walk into the vineyard, to see for ourselves the vines, all planted by hand and yet perfectly spaced and so straight, to hear how this particular winery doesn’t use any pesticides or artificial fertilizers, that they care for the plants and cultivate the soil the old fashioned way, producing grapes so fine and tiny they looked more like peas than the grapes we buy at Shop Rite.
            It was a fascinating and kind of moving experience to hear about – and to actually see - the care taken to plant all of those seeds, row after row after row, and the care given to nurture them into strong vines.
            Now, at this point, if you’re still with me, you may be thinking that you see where this is going: that God is like those vineyard workers, carefully planting seeds in good soil.
            But, actually, the parable we heard today from Jesus, tells us otherwise – and, I think, our own experience tells us otherwise, too.
            It turns out that God is not careful with God’s seeds at all – God is almost, we might say, wasteful – dropping seeds all over the place, planting God’s Word in good soil and not so good soil.
            God would get fired from any self-respecting winery – and might even be gently and respectfully asked to step away from our own garden committee here at St. Paul’s!
            It turns out that God doesn’t really discriminate. God hopes for the best, generously offering God’s Word all over the place, offering the Word where it is likely to be well-received and offering God’s Word where it is likely to be rejected and wither away.
            So, since God has chosen to be this kind of sower, it’s most important for us to cultivate our own soil – and to cultivate the soil around us – so that God’s Word can really take root and, in our lives, we can truly produce the sweet wine of God’s love.
            With God’s help, we cultivate our own soil by carving out even just a few minutes for prayer and, especially, by coming here, week after week, even when we don’t feel like it, especially when we don’t feel like it.
            And, with God’s help, we cultivate our own soil and the soil around us by welcoming and loving and giving and, maybe most and hardest of all these days, appreciating and sharing the beauty and goodness that’s all around us.
            And, in fact, when you really do look around, you see there really is a whole lot of cultivating going on!
            Here at St. Paul’s, we’ve grown ever more welcoming and loving and generous – and we’ve just plain grown, with more people coming here more regularly, enriching us all as we pray and serve together, as we love God and one another.
            And, even out in our broken world, there’s a lot of cultivating going on out there, too.
            Being a bit of a news junkie, I kept up with current events even while on vacation. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that!
            For the past couple of weeks and, really, for many months now, most of us, no matter where we stand politically, have been engrossed by the doings of the President and his family.
            But, this week, a former President managed to make the news.
            Now, Jimmy Carter may not have been a great President, but he has certainly been our greatest former president ever, devoting the four decades of his long post-presidency not to enriching himself but to doing many good works, very much including Habitat for Humanity, cultivating soil for people by building new homes, creating a chance at a new and better life.
            So, there he was the other day, 92 year-old Jimmy Carter, recently recovered from brain cancer, hard at work building houses in Winnipeg, Canada, when, as you may have heard, he was overcome by dehydration and hospitalized.
            All the usual expressions of concern and hopes for a speedy recovery were issued and I’m sure newspapers and cable news dusted off their Carter obituaries, just in case this was the end of the road for the peanut farmer with the toothy grin from Plains, Georgia.
            But, no, as you may have seen, the next day, presumably pumped full of fluids, Jimmy Carter was back at work, cultivating soil by building a house for those in need and offering a powerful example, once again, of what it looks like to produce the sweet wine of God’s love.
            Speaking of wine, one last thing about our winery tour.
            Our bus driver was an older gentleman, an Irishman named Tom McDonough. He drove the bus and also along the way he offered running commentary over the P.A., telling us in his lilting brogue about the history and geography and economy of the wine country.
            Aside from the pleasant Irish accent, that’s all very standard for this kind of tour but what struck both Sue and me was how, after leading this tour probably many, many times, he still took such delight in what he and all of us were seeing and experiencing that day, admiring the rolling hills covered with row after row of vines, wondering at the beauty of the sunlight hitting San Francisco Bay as we drove over the magnificent Golden Gate, insisting that he really wanted us all to have just the most wonderful time.
            Mr. McDonough made such an impression on us that we referred back to him for the rest of the trip, imagining what Tom McDonough would say, especially when things didn’t go quite as we had planned.
            So, as we waited and waited for our delayed flight we imagined Tom saying something like, “Look at all these beautiful people here at the airport, so many eager to get to their destinations and reunite with their loved ones.”
            Or, “This long delay has given us an unexpected opportunity to explore the airport and discover all it has to offer!”
            And when our delayed flight became a canceled flight, we thought of Mr. McDonough expressing delight, “Isn’t it marvelous that we’ve been given a little more vacation?”
            Or, “What a treat that we get to experience another hotel, courtesy of United Airlines!”
            It may seem weird, but in his own seemingly small but actually very powerful way, Tom McDonough the bus driver cultivated the soil of our hearts, helping us to better appreciate the goodness and wonder of life even when things don’t go quite as planned.
            So, you know, maybe surprisingly this God of ours doesn’t really discriminate. God hopes for the best, generously offering God’s Word all over the place, offering the Word where it is likely to be well-received and offering God’s Word where it is likely to be rejected and wither away.
            Since God has chosen to be this kind of sower, it’s most important for us, with God’s help, to cultivate our own soil – and to cultivate the soil around us – so that God’s Word can really take root and, in and through our lives, we can truly produce the sweet wine of God’s love.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

The Ongoing Redemption of the World

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 2, 2017

Year A, Proper 8: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

The Ongoing Redemption of the World
            It’s funny the things you remember, right?
            Years ago I happened to read an article written by an atheist. I don’t remember exactly what the piece was about but I remember that in it he declared that, of course, he didn’t believe in God, but that even if there were a God, this God would have long ago gotten bored by our predictability and disgusted by our bad behavior, and gone off somewhere and left us on our own.
            And you can kind of understand why he felt this way, right?
            I can almost imagine God getting fed up with us, particularly these days when our old and persistent sins of hatred and greed and cruelty and bigotry all seem to be very much on the loose.            
            Especially if you watch the news a lot, it can all seem quite depressing and hopeless.
            But, our faith and, I’d argue, our own experience, teach us that God has not given up on us, but that instead God continues to be at work in large ways and especially in seemingly small and easy to miss ways, doing what God always does, transforming hate into love, turning death into new life.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus points to the infinite value of even small acts of generosity, even the simple act of offering a cup of cold water.
            And, so God invites us to be part of the great work of transforming hate into love and turning death into new life, one cup of cold water at a time.
            It’s funny, the things you remember.
            Back in the early to mid-1990’s I taught History at St. Vincent Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school right in the middle of the Central Ward of Newark.
            I remember very well when I went there for my interview.
            I remember riding the bus from Penn Station up Market Street, looking out the window at block after block of rubble-strewn lots, a city that had barely begun to recover from the 1967 riots and economic collapse.
            It all looked as hopeless as could be.
            What was I getting myself into, I wondered.
            Well, anyway, my interview that day was the longest and still the best of my life.
            I spent much of the day talking with Sister June who was - and still is - the head of the school.
            She told me the story of St. Vincent’s - the story of how back in the late ‘60s, when pretty much everyone who could get out of Newark was getting out of Newark, when schools and other institutions were closing or fleeing to the suburbs, the Sisters of Charity and their coworkers made the brave and faithful commitment to stay in the city and offer a quality education to the girls of Newark and the surrounding towns, girls, who, let’s just say it, the world dismissed as really not worth much effort at all.
            But, through the grim days of the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, the faculty and administration of St. Vincent’s offered love and respect and, maybe most important of all, high expectations, to hundreds and hundreds of girls.
            One cup of cold water, at a time.
            It was an honor to play a small part in that holy and noble effort and, now, thanks the miracle of Facebook, I’ve been able to catch up with quite a few of the girls I taught back then.            
            To be honest, it’s a little shocking that they’ve begun to enter their forties!
             But, it is deeply moving to see many of them doing so well, now raising their own beautiful families and, most of all, it is gratifying that so many of them are involved in work that makes the world a better place: teachers, doctors, nurses, scientists, lawyers committed to social justice, one after the other, so many of them, each in her own way, handing out cups of cold water to the so very thirsty people of their communities.
            And, look what’s happened to Newark!
            Today, if you take that same bus up Market Street that I took twenty-five plus years ago, the rubble-strewn lots have been replaced with rows of townhouses and new businesses and schools. It’s not perfect by any means but where there was hopelessness and death, there is now new life.
            Now, I’m not saying that this is because of St. Vincent’s, but I’m not saying it’s not because of St. Vincent’s, either.
            One more memory from my long-ago interview:
            Amid all the discussion of history and teaching, Sister June slipped in a little Theology, as well.
            She said that she saw her work and the mission of the school as part of “the ongoing redemption of the world.”
            “The ongoing redemption of the world.”
            As Christians, we believe that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus redeemed the world, freed the world from sin and death.
            This work is already done, but it is not yet completed, since, as the atheist writer pointed out, and as we can all see with our own eyes, things are still pretty bad, sin and death are still very much on the loose in the world.
            And, that “not yet completed” part is where we come in.
            We’re called to live like we really believe what we say we believe.
            We called to live like sin and death are really defeated and that, ultimately, thanks be to the God who doesn’t give up on us, love and life win.
            And, that’s the way of life that beautiful little Isabell is about to get signed up for in the water of Baptism, that’s the way of Jesus that we all signed up for, or got signed up for, in our Baptism.
            When we share the Good News, when we forgive and ask forgiveness, when we love and respect one another especially the hard to love and the hard to respect, when we give away our lives in service to others, then love and life really do win.
            Like those brave and faithful nuns and the other teachers at St. Vincent’s back in the seemingly God-forsaken Newark of the late ‘60s, with God’s help, Isabell and all of us can decide to play our own seemingly small but oh-so-important part in the ongoing redemption of the world, right here, offering one cup of cold water at a time.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rooted in Jesus

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 25, 2017

Year A, Proper 7: The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:8-20
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Rooted in Jesus
            Some of you know that this past week my Dad and I took a trip to Baltimore.
            Because we were there primarily to see a couple of baseball games, we stayed in a hotel just a block away from Camden Yards, the beautiful ballpark home of the Orioles.
            Despite the fact that the Orioles aren’t playing very well, we still had a great time, though there was one scare.
            On our second evening there, we had just settled into our seats at the ballpark when suddenly a police helicopter began hovering over us, soon joined by a couple of TV news helicopters.
            You can imagine the noise as they circled around us.
            At first I didn’t know what was going on, but then I noticed over behind left field what looked like smoke coming from the area of our hotel.
            Being just a bit of a worrier, sure enough I began to worry.
            With everything going on in the world and in our country, my thoughts quickly turned to possible terrorism, since a big crowd of people heading to a ballpark might be a tempting target.
            Then I overheard a couple of people behind us say that, yeah, they had trouble getting to the ballpark because there was, “a big fire at the hotel over there.”
            I don’t think my dad heard that and I didn’t say anything to him, but I felt that dreadful drop in my stomach, as my imagination ran wild with visions of fire consuming our hotel and all of our stuff, including my car keys that I had left behind in the room!
            Trying with mixed success to keep calm, I used my phone to search for news on what was happening.
            After a few nervous minutes, I found it: there had been a steam explosion under the street outside our hotel.
            Almost immediately after I figured out what was going on, my sister texted me, frightened because she had received a notice at work about an explosion near Camden Yards in Baltimore.
            Later we’d see that the explosion had left a wide crater right in the middle of the street and spewed debris up onto our hotel and the surrounding buildings, with chunks of asphalt and concrete smashing several car windows.
            The steam was so hot that the fire department had to hose down our hotel to prevent its façade from melting.
            Amazingly and fortunately, there were only five minor injuries.
            And, one other thing that I noticed: the trees along that street were all kind of small and ordinary, kind of scraggly, and yet they all did just fine, with just a layer of dust covering their leaves and branches.
            Apparently, their strong roots got them through the powerful blast.
            The next day, when we were both interviewed by the local media (I don’t want to say that we became minor celebrities, but…), we reflected on the randomness of the whole experience. We had walked by that very spot just an hour or so before the explosion.
            And, in the days since, I’ve thought back to those moments of fear, when I didn’t know what was going on, what was going to happen, when I feared the worst.
            And, you know, those few fearful moments gave me just a taste of the fear that so many people experience so much of the time.
            There’s a lot of fear going around, right?
            There’s certainly a lot of fear all around the world, fear of war and terrorism, fear of environmental catastrophe, of climate change tipping past the point of no return, dooming our children and their children to a much hotter and stormy world.
            There’s certainly a lot of fear here in our country, fear of losing a job or not being able to find a job, fear of being priced out of our home and our neighborhood, fear of sickness, fear especially these days of losing health insurance and not being able to get covered because we don’t have enough money or because we have a preexisting condition – and, let’s face it, if they look hard enough, they’ll find a preexisting condition in each and every one of us.
            There may even be fear here in church, fear of the changes that have already occurred – new people and new ways of doing things – and fear of the very big news that we first learned last weekend – that our brothers and sisters at Church of the Incarnation have voted to begin conversations about uniting with us.
            Now, things may not be quite so bad as the days of the Prophet Jeremiah when he heard people whispering, “Terror is all around!” but there’s no doubt there is a lot of fear going around.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew gives us kind of a mixed bag of Jesus sayings, and some of them are a little hard for us to hear or understand.
            But, the core of today’s lesson is the simple but oh-so-important and timely message from Jesus: “Do not be afraid.”
            Do not be afraid when the world around us seems to be going to hell.
            Do not be afraid when the street explodes and helicopters hover.
            Do not be afraid when we’re in danger of losing home or job.
            Do not be afraid when two churches start on the road to becoming one.
            Do not be afraid even when it looks like we might lose our very lives.
            Do not be afraid, because we are loved, so very loved, and of more value than many sparrows (with all due respect to the sparrows), and God will never, ever, let go of us, no matter what.
            That’s always a good message, right? But, let’s be honest. Being not afraid is easier said than done, right?
            I don’t know about you, but when someone says to me, “Don’t be afraid,” I get afraid.
            When someone says, “Don’t panic,” I panic!
            So, how? How can we be not afraid and face the future with confidence?
            Well, I think of those scraggly trees in Baltimore with roots strong enough to survive the powerful blast.
            We’re not trees, of course, but we can be rooted in Jesus, giving us the strength to stand tall together and get through the storms and explosions of life.
            And, that’s what we’re about here at St. Paul’s.
            Here in this safe and holy place, behind the protection of these four walls, we become rooted in Jesus.
            We’re rooted in Jesus through our Baptism.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we really read - really listen to - Scripture.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we pray for those in need, when we pray for at least some of the frightened people beside us and out in our broken world.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we extend a hand of peace not just to the people we know or like but especially to those we don’t know and maybe don’t like one bit.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we eat the Bread and drink the Wine, uniting with Jesus and with one another.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we take up our cross,  not waiting to be asked to help out but  offering ourselves and our skills and our work and out time in loving service to our community.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we at least try to love the people who drive us up the wall.
            When we’re rooted in Jesus, although bad stuff will still happen, there is nothing to fear.
            Yes, there will be real challenges when we walk out through the church doors – sometimes even just into coffee hour.
            Yes, there will be real challenges when we go out into the world which is often not so holy or safe – out into the world with all of its uncertainties and dangers, when sometimes steam pipes blow up and health insurance is lost, the world where people get hurt and things get broken and not everything can be put back together the same as before.
            So, that’s why it’s so important to be here, not just once in a while, but as often as we can, because it’s especially here in this holy and safe place that we put down deep roots in Jesus.
            And then, like those scraggly trees in Baltimore, in the eyes of the world we may not look like much, but rooted in Jesus – loved by the God who will never, ever, let go of us - there is nothing, nothing, to fear.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Touching the Future

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 18, 2017

Year A, Proper 6: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

Touching the Future
            I know today is Father’s Day, but, if you don’t mind, I want to take a minute and talk about my mom.
            As some of you know, after more than a quarter century of teaching Special Education here in Jersey City, my mom is retiring.
            Last week, Sue and I and the rest of my family attended her retirement party with many of her colleagues, both present and past.
            It was a wonderful party, with her colleagues reminiscing about her with obvious affection and humor – and my mother herself trying to sum up all of those years in the classroom.
            For me, though, the high point was when my mom was presented with a binder containing letters written by her students, expressing how much her hard work and kindness had meant to them.
            Since that night, I’ve been thinking about all the lives that my mom touched over all those years of teaching, her colleagues, the parents of her students, and most especially the children themselves – children who in this case, all too often, the world sees as not worth very much at all, and yet, are so precious to God.
            Speaking as a former teacher myself, sometimes you know when you’ve made a difference, but, I think, much more often we have no idea how much our work touches lives.
            We definitely have no idea how our love and kindness, our hard work and generosity, will live on in the lives of those we touch – and how our love and kindness, our hard work and generosity, will continue to echo down through the generations, will live on long after we’re gone, long after we’re just a name on a list, and, long after we’re not even that.
            As the teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe famously said, “I touch the future. I teach.”
            And, it’s not just teachers, through our hard work and our love, all of us can touch the future.
            Touching the future.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus assigns some hard work to the twelve apostles: to cast out the evil spirits of the world, to heal what’s sick, to proclaim the Good News in word and deed.
            Jesus doesn’t give these assignments to the apostles so that they can somehow earn their salvation.
            No, this work is the opportunity for the apostles to respond to the love and salvation they had already found in and through Jesus, to respond to that love by spreading it around to as many people as they could, especially the broken and helpless.
            And, the Evangelist Matthew uses this opportunity to give us the roster of the twelve apostles.
            Funny thing about the apostles, though.
            I recently read a book called Apostle and in it the author visits the alleged resting places of the twelve.
            Over the course of his study and conversations and travels he discovers what I know because every year I have to come up with something to say on each feast day honoring the apostles:
            We know almost nothing about the apostles.
            Oh, sure, we know a bit about the big ones – Peter, James, and John – and Judas Iscariot, of course, and some of the others have little cameo appearances in the gospels, like when Thomas famously expresses his doubts.
             But, how about James son of Alphaeus or Thaddeus or Simon the Cananaean?
            We know just about nothing about them. They’re just names on a list.
            In fact, some of the different lists of the twelve found in the gospels don’t even contain exactly the same names.
            So, it seems that, within just a few decades, the Church’s memory had already gotten a little fuzzy, definitely remembering that there had been twelve apostles, but no longer remembering much at all about many of them.
            Of course, although the Church forgot the apostles’ biographical details almost immediately, God doesn’t forget.
            And, although the Church forgot them almost immediately, the work of the apostles continued to echo down through the generations – that’s why there was a Church that eventually wanted to write down the story of Jesus and his friends.            
            The work of the apostles continues to echo down through the centuries - that’s why we’re still here today.
            The apostles touched the future by doing the work God had given them to do.
            Now, the apostles didn’t do this work so that they could somehow earn their salvation.
            No, their work was the opportunity for the apostles to respond to the love and salvation they had already found in and through Jesus, to respond to his saving love by spreading it around to as many people as they could, especially the broken and the helpless.
            In a few minutes, I’ll have the privilege of baptizing Obi Okere, this little boy who might very well live into the 22nd Century – a chance for me and for all of us to, quite literally, touch the future.
            A lot goes on during a Baptism, but one of the most important things is we all get reminded of the work that God has given us to do – the work that God promises to help us do: to gather here for prayer and worship – to resist evil – to proclaim by word and example the Good News – to seek and serve Christ in absolutely everybody – to respect the dignity of every human being.
            We do this work not to earn God’s love or to save our souls, but to respond to the love and salvation we’ve already found in and through Jesus.
            And, each time we try to love those who are hard to love – each time we try to see Christ in the person the world dismisses as not worth very much at all – each time we try to respect the dignity of someone who maybe doesn’t even respect his own dignity – each time we just try, with God’s help, to do these very hard things, we do the work God has given us to do.
            And, each time we just try, with God’s help, to do these very hard things, our love and kindness, our hard work and generosity, will live on in the lives of those we touch and will continue to echo down through the generations, in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, into the 22nd Century and beyond, long after we’re gone and forgotten by the world.
            Each time we try, with God’s help, to do these very hard things, we do the work God has given us to do – and, we touch the future.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

God Doesn't Go It Alone

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 11, 2017

Year A: The First Sunday after Pentecost – Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

God Doesn’t Go It Alone
            If you’ve been coming to St. Paul’s for more than a few weeks, you’ve probably noticed that we recently made what I think is a pretty big change to our Sunday services.
            It’s a change that I’ve considered for a while and I’ve talked about it with the other members of the staff and with the vestry.
            For some time now, our parish prayer list has grown very long – by my count there are more than 75 people on it right now, plus the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls and our friends over at Majestic and the people suffering under war, violence, and terrorism, and the imprisoned – so many people who feel they need our prayers – so many people who have asked for our prayers.
            But, when thinking about our service there’s a lot to consider. I know that for those of you who come from a more Protestant background our service doesn’t feel long at all (at an hour and change Baptists are just getting warmed up!) but for others it does, and we need to keep their – your - wants and needs in mind, too.            
            So, with a good bit of regret, starting on Easter we stopped saying each name on the prayer list, but, for the record, we do continue praying each name at the weekday services.
            Since that long prayer list had become kind of a distinctive feature of St. Paul’s, I’m honestly a little surprised that only a couple of people have mentioned this change to me.
            And, in case you’re wondering, I’m sure that we’ll continue to tweak it, maybe praying by name for those who’ve been added in the past week or those whose needs are especially critical.
            Anyway, thinking about all of this gives us an opportunity to ask some important questions about prayers of petition, prayers when we ask God for something – something for us or, more often, I think, something for others.
            First, can we agree that God already knows what’s best for us, and it’s not like we can talk God out of one thing and into another, right?
            So, why do people ask us to pray for them and for those they love?
            Why do we feel compelled to pray for our needs and the needs of others?
            Why does Jesus teach us to pray to God for the coming of God’s kingdom, and for our daily bread, for forgiveness, and to deliver us from evil?
            Well, I’m not sure! But I think I have an idea.
            Today is the First Sunday after Pentecost – Trinity Sunday – the day when we’re invited to celebrate and reflect on the mysterious inner life of God – our understanding that God is one in three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
            Many minds far greater than mine have pondered and written about this deep and ultimately unknowable mystery and, truthfully, it feels like a fool’s errand to me, except to say that the Trinity teaches us that when we look as best as we can into God’s heart what we discover there is community.
            Even in God’s heart, God doesn’t go it alone.
            And so, it makes sense that when God decided to create, God made a real creation where our choices and our actions have real consequences – a real creation where the God who doesn’t go it alone invites us to be part of the action – invites us to be part of the healing – invites us to be part of the building of God’s kingdom.
            God doesn’t go it alone and so we are invited to be part of God’s community.
            God doesn’t go it alone and so we are commissioned by Jesus to invite others to be part of God’s community, too.
            What an honor, right?
            What an honor to be invited into God’s community, the community where everyone is valued and loved, no matter where we come from or what we look like, no matter how many mistakes we’ve made, no matter the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives.
            What an honor to be commissioned to invite others into God’s community, to invite maybe like the street preacher I saw and heard yesterday outside Lincoln Park, but more likely and, I’d say, more effectively, to invite by living the kind of joyful and loving life that others want a taste of, to invite by personally extending a hand to a neighbor and say, come and see.
            And, finally, what an honor to pray for those many, many people on our parish prayer list and the many people on our own personal prayer list, to pray not to change God’s mind or to talk God into doing what we want but to open our own hearts so we really can be part of God’s action, part of God’s healing, and part of building of God’s kingdom.
            No, God doesn’t go it alone - and God doesn’t want us to go it alone, either.
            So, God is always pouring out grace on us - and God has given us one another to do this work together, the strong supporting the weak, the experienced showing the way for the newcomer, the rich sharing their abundance with the poor.
            God doesn’t go it alone - and God doesn’t want us to go it alone, either.
            Finally, one last thing about our prayer list.
            One of the things that Susan, Vanessa, Gail, and I do at our weekly staff meeting is review the prayer list, adding people who’ve asked to be added and, especially when we used to read all the names, looking to trim the list whenever possible, if there’s been healing, if in some way, prayers have been answered.
            But, recently, someone still very much in need of our prayers asked to be removed from the list, saying that it bothered him to hear his name read aloud, bothered him to see his name printed among those long columns of names on the bulletin insert.
            I honored his request, but reluctantly, and I know a few others who know about this continue to hold this person in prayer.
            But, I’ve thought a lot about it and, while on one level it might simply be a case of embarrassment – you know, feeling shame to be in need of prayer – I think there is something even deeper going on.
            When we stop and think about it, if we really take prayer seriously, it’s nearly overwhelming to consider that people would care enough to give up precious time to pray for us, even if, especially if, they don’t even know us.
            And, it’s overwhelming to consider that the God of the universe would have any interest in hearing prayers offered for us.
            It can be hard to accept that we’re worth the time, or the effort, or the love.
            But, we are.
            All of us.
            And, we know this because the God whose very heart is community – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – this God doesn’t go it alone but invites us, every single one of us, to be part of the action.


Sunday, June 04, 2017

Guided by the Holy Spirit in the Days of Decision

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 4, 2017

Year A: The Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Guided by the Holy Spirit in the Days of Decision
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Today is the fiftieth and final day of the Easter Season – it’s the great feast of Pentecost when we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit on that memorable long-ago day in Jerusalem – Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to us today here in Jersey City.
            But, first I want to back up to this past Monday, which, you’ll remember, was Memorial Day.
            On the day set aside to remember and honor the men and women who have sacrificed their lives in the service of our country, we had the usual civic rituals: parades and speeches – some took the time to reflect on this profound generosity and many more simply enjoyed a day off from work and school, maybe taking advantage of Memorial Day sales.
            On Memorial Day, I turned to our prayer book, to a prayer called the “Thanksgiving for Heroic Service.” It begins:
            “O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.”
            This year, for whatever reason, it was the phrase “the day of decision” that caught my eye and got me thinking and praying.
            The day of decision.
            Or, better, the days of decision.
            I love the story of the first Pentecost that we heard in today’s first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles - the mystery and the power of the whooshing sound from heaven and the divided tongues like flame resting upon the disciples – this divine energy sending the disciples out into the streets of Jerusalem announcing the Good News in many different languages so that all the people no matter where they were from could understand – it was all so mysterious and powerful and unusual that some thought that these Jesus people must be wasted, though, as we heard, it was just 9:00 in the morning!
            I love the story but I also think, you know, for the disciples that day and for the people in Jerusalem who saw and heard them, it would have been easy to believe, it would have been easy to be guided by a Holy Spirit that was making such a big scene.
            The real challenge must have begun later that first Pentecost day, and the next day, and the weeks and years ahead – when the Holy Spirit seemed to quiet down and there were so many days of decision.
            How challenging to be guided by the Holy Spirit when there is no big show, no pyrotechnics, when people just shrug their shoulders at the Good News, or roll their eyes in mockery, and go about their business – and we’re tempted to live just like them, to live just like everybody else.
            How challenging to be guided by the Holy Spirit when living in an empire ruled by people who only care about their power and wealth, who see compassion and love not as virtues but as signs of weakness, who dismiss the poor and the sick as losers, who view the world as a harsh place where if you win then that means I must lose.
            How challenging to be guided by the Holy Spirit when your faith – our faith - might actually cost something – our wealth, our reputation, our wellbeing, and, yes, maybe even our life.
            How challenging to be guided by the Holy Spirit in the days of decision.
            Funny thing about days of decision, though.
            Sometimes we know when they’re coming, you know, the date is circled on the calendar: the date when we’re enlisting in the military or leaving one job for another – the date when she says there’s either a proposal and a ring or she’s out of here – the date we get married or move or retire…
            But, much more often, we have no idea when a day will be a day of decision.
            So, we need to know who we are and whose we are. We need to know what we’re about. We need to be ready.
            For example, last Friday people were riding on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon – and we can imagine the scene, right?
            People listening to music streaming through their ear buds, staring intently at their phones, gazing out the windows, maybe dozing off a little, trying to avoid human contact in such close quarters, all of that and more going on when suddenly an enraged man began screaming anti-Muslim insults at two women, one of whom at least, wasn’t even a Muslim.
            The day of decision had arrived.
            Again, we can imagine the scene, right?
            I’m sure that some tried to ignore the ruckus, counting how many more stops until I can get out of here, while others looked on, concerned or frightened. Who knows, maybe one or two even approved of this harassment.
            But three men on the train made the decision to stand up, risk their safety and even their lives, and defend these two women, these complete strangers. And, as you know, two of the men sacrificed their lives in that day of decision and the third was seriously injured.
            One of the men killed, Rick Best, was a Roman Catholic who had served twenty-three years in the Army, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. After leaving the military, he had gotten involved in local politics saying, “I can’t stand by and do nothing.”
            The other man killed was Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, just 23 years old, a recent college graduate who, as he lay dying on the train, called out, “I want everyone on the train to know I love them.”
            No matter what these men believed or didn’t believe, they knew who they were and what they were about – they were ready – and it certainly looks to me that the Holy Spirit guided them to give away their lives in loving service to the most vulnerable – the Holy Sprit guided them on the day of decision.
            So, today is Pentecost.
            Now, we may not have whooshing wind from heaven or divided tongues like flame. We may not be able to preach the Gospel in all of the languages spoken on Bergen Avenue, but it’s still a pretty wonderful celebration here at St. Paul’s – and, I don’t know about you, but I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit – God’s Spirit of love, courage, and wisdom – right here and right now.
            So, right here and right now, together in this beautiful place, it’s kind of easy to believe. Here it doesn’t cost us much to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
            But, we know that later today, or maybe tomorrow, when we’re not here in church wearing red with our brothers and sisters, we’ll face the challenge of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us.
            We may not be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice like our brave military or like the men on the train in Portland.
            But, without a doubt, we’ll certainly face the challenge of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us - at home or at school or at work or in the store or on the bus or on the PATH train.
            It won’t be easy, but we know who we are and whose we are – we know what we’re about.
             With God’s help, we really can love, we really can sacrifice - we really can be guided by the Holy Spirit in the days of decision.