Sunday, May 21, 2017

Guided by the Holy Spirit in a Time of Anxiety

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 21, 2017

Year A: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

Guided by The Holy Spirit in a Time of Anxiety
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            If you were here last week, you may remember that I mentioned that I had just hit a milestone birthday – and let me say thanks for your kind wishes, and for that delicious cake.
            But, as it turns out, that’s not my only milestone this year.
            Sort of unbelievably, this year is the tenth anniversary of my seminary graduation and ordination as a deacon and a priest.
            In fact, the other day, on Facebook, one of my seminary classmates posted some pictures from our graduation day and, sure enough, there I was – looking surprisingly young - and dark-haired!
            Seeing those pictures got me thinking back to those days – which, as probably every graduate knows, were, of course, days of joy and a sense of accomplishment – but also days of anxiety.
            I tend to be a little anxious to begin with, but in this case, I was feeling anxious because three years earlier I had left a pretty good gig that I enjoyed very much – teaching History down at St. Peter’s Prep – to step into the unknown and the uncertain.
            Even back then, it was clear that the Church was in decline, with fewer people coming to church and so fewer churches able to support full-time priests. And, since I have kind of a limited skill set, I wondered and worried about what I would do if I couldn’t get one of those increasingly rare jobs.
            I bet you know the feeling.
            The details may be different, but I bet most, if not all, of us have experienced that same kind of anxiety:
            What’s going to happen? Will everything work out? What will I do if things don’t go according to plan? What if I’m not good enough?
            Feel free to add your own anxieties!
            In today’s lesson from the Gospel of John, we pick up right where we left off last week.
            We’re back at the Last Supper and it is a scene of great anxiety.
            Last week, we heard Jesus trying to get through to his friends about his upcoming death, reassuring them that, while they will be separated for a while, they know the way to the place where Jesus is going – they know the way to the place of reunion.
            The Apostle Thomas speaks for the rest of them, anxiously admitting, “Lord, we do not know the way to the place where you are going. How can we know the way?”
            And, now in today’s passage, Jesus tries to reassure his friends that, although he will no longer be with them in the same way, they will not be orphans because they will have the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, forever.
            Most scholars think that this gospel, the Gospel of John, was completed around the year 100, seventy or so years after Jesus’ earthly lifetime, seventy or so years after that anxious last supper in Jerusalem.
            John is remembering that long-ago anxiety but he also has in mind the anxiety of his own community, a community that was being torn and divided in a time after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, a time when it was no longer so easy to be both Jewish and Christian at the same time, a time when there were angry disagreements about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.
            But…John also knew that over those seventy years, despite the odds, at least part of the community had stuck together and, in fact, the Good News of Jesus had already spread throughout the Mediterranean world.
            So, John could look back over those seventy years and know that Jesus had kept his promise and sent the Holy Spirit to guide us, to guide us - especially in a time of anxiety.
            And, now here we are.
            Whatever is going on in our personal lives – and I know for many of us there is a whole lot of personal worry about health and finances and relationships – whatever is going on in our personal lives, here in the US we are living in a time of anxiety.
            Keeping up with the news is exhausting and terrifying, with multiple scandals being alleged nearly every single day, a general sense of instability and mistrust and decline and a kind of shabbiness that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced, but maybe some of our parishioners from less stable countries know these feelings only too well.
            Just in the last few days we saw shocking images of the Turkish president’s bodyguards beating up protestors on the streets of Washington DC - and also a more familiar but still terrifying nightmare as an apparently crazed man drove his car into the crowd at Times Square.
            And, closer to home, it’s been a violent few months here in Jersey City with so much shooting, so many wasted lives, and we anxiously note that the summer heat has just begun.
            So, I’ll admit that I feel anxious, but I also know in my heart that Jesus hasn’t left us orphaned, that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, is at work guiding us and protecting us, even in, especially in, a time of anxiety.
            As a friend of mine says, “I don’t have to believe it, because I’ve seen it.”
            Ten years ago, I graduated seminary with great anxiety, wondering if I had made a big mistake, giving up a good and stable job that I loved, for an uncertain future.
            But, as some of you know, not long after graduation day, an opportunity opened up – an opportunity in the suburbs that I could not have imagined for myself and, honestly, at the time, didn’t really necessarily want for myself.
            But, a mentor of mine told me to go for it, because at Grace Madison I would learn so much about what makes a healthy church go, and then I could apply that learning when I finally got back to the city – and, he said, that I would make friends at Grace who’d want to help me and my church later on.
            Prophecy.
            The Holy Spirit at work.
            So, Sue and I found ourselves living in beautiful, green Madison and in that unlikely place we found so many wonderful, lovely, generous people – and, sure enough, I learned a lot and made friends who have been eager to help me ever since the Holy Spirit guided us back home here with all of you.
            So, yes, like the disciples gathered at the Last Supper, like John’s community at the turn of the first century, like so many people in so many times and places, we find ourselves living in a time of anxiety.
            And, inevitably, there will be mistakes, losses, regrets, and suffering. There seems to be no way around that for any of us.
            But, I can look back over my life so far – and I can look at our life together – and I know that Jesus has kept his promise and sent the Holy Spirit, to guide us, especially in a time of anxiety.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Amen.

            

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Shape of Our Lives

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 14, 2017

Year A: The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

The Shape of Our Lives
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Lately I’ve been thinking more than usual about death.
            Part of that, I’m sure, is because yesterday I celebrated a milestone birthday, which, among other things, reminded me that life goes by quickly and every day is precious.
            And, I’ve been thinking about death because for the past week, the mother of my oldest friend was in hospice, in that mysterious in-between time and space between life and death. She died yesterday afternoon.
            And, on top of that, as we all know, today is Mother’s Day: a joyful day for many but, for at least as many people and for all kinds of reasons, it’s a hard day – a hard day for people like my friend now facing life without his mom.
            Well, now that that I’ve officially bummed you out, let me remind you that today is the Fifth Sunday of Easter – it’s still Easter – but in today’s Gospel lesson we look back, look back before the Resurrection – we look back before the arrest and death of Jesus – we look back to the Last Supper.
            Jesus has gathered with his closest friends one last time. And, the way the Evangelist John tells the story, at this final meal, Jesus, like a teacher preparing the class for the final exam, tries to get his disciples and friends to focus on and finally get what’s most important.
            And, as every teacher knows – and, I guess, every student knows, too – this is no easy task.
            But, one thing’s for sure: at this final meal, the disciples are beginning to understand that their friend and teacher – the one who they had come to believe was the long-awaited messiah – was going to suffer and die.
            You can hear the confusion and dismay and fear in the disciples’ voices.
            Thomas asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
            And Jesus replies with the now-famous words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
            And, for the past two thousand years, we Christians have been reflecting on, puzzling over, the meaning of all that.
            What does it mean for us that Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life?
            As some of you know, this is the gospel passage that we often read at funerals – yet another reason I’ve been reflecting on death.
            We hear these words as we mourn the death of a brother or a sister, as we reflect on their life, and, most of all, as we celebrate the great Christian hope of new life.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            You know, in the days after a death, during the viewings and visitations, during the funeral, as we talk with one another and hear people reminisce about the deceased, we often get a sense of what this person was all about.
            At a really good funeral, we begin to see what shaped this life.
            Which might – should - get us thinking, what is shaping of my life?
            Last Sunday, after the 10:00 service, a parishioner hung around until I was free and then he said, “Can I ask you a question?”
            I was expecting some serious issue in his life, or something about the sermon, or about whatever’s been going on at church.
            But, no, instead, he asked, “Why don’t Episcopal churches have crucifixes?”
            After a startled hesitation – I definitely wasn’t expecting that – I said that it’s true that crucifixes aren’t so common in Episcopal churches – that usually we have unadorned crosses signaling that Jesus isn’t on the cross anymore.
            But, then, I said that, in fact, some Episcopal churches do have crucifixes, and, in fact, St. Paul’s has a crucifix.
            He looked surprised. I pointed above us to the small crucifix that hangs on a beam right in front of the pulpit.
            I assume it was placed there so that each time a preacher stands in the pulpit he or she would be reminded that our job, my task, is to preach Christ, and to remember his great sacrifice that opened the way to new life.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            I’m embarrassed to say, though, the truth is that I almost never pay much attention to that crucifix, or to any other cross, for that matter.
            And, I think that for a lot of us, unfortunately, the crucifix, the cross, has become just part of the backdrop, part of the clutter, part of the decoration, of our lives.
            But, for us Christians, the cross, and especially the crucifix, is meant to shape our lives.
            If we accept Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, then we’re expected to live lives of loving sacrifice, following the example of the crucified Jesus by giving away our lives in loving service to others.
            Very difficult. Only possible with God’s help.
            And, of course, the way of Jesus is not – and never has been – the way of the world.
            Just the opposite, really.
            Which is really too bad.
            Now, I’m not going to name names, but you can pick up any newspaper or turn on any news channel and see what happens when a celebrity or politician never sacrifices anything at all, but instead worships his own wealth, power, and fame, worships only himself.
            Sooner or later, that selfishness, all those impossible-to-satisfy appetites, lead to nothing but unhappiness, a total lack of joy, a kind of insanity, and, finally, self-destruction – sometimes destroying others along the way.
            And, it’s not only politicians or celebrities.
            For too many people, our lives are misshaped by what we want or what we think we’re entitled to, the never-ending pursuit of maybe even just a little more money or security or approval or stuff or whatever it is we think will finally, truly satisfy us.
            If our lives are misshaped by those desires, then we’re doomed to unhappiness and, self-destruction, too – sometimes destroying others along the way.
            And, yes, all too often, the Church itself has forgotten that the crucifix, the cross, should shape its life.
            Instead, all too often, the Church has focused on its own power and influence, has focused lately on just surviving, keeping the doors open. Too often, the Church focused on our own petty little internal issues and debates that seem absolutely ridiculous and irrelevant to the hungry but skeptical people out there
            Too often, we’ve focused mostly on feeding ourselves and our own people - focused on having our own needs met - and, maybe, giving to others if, by some chance, there’s anything left over when we’re done.
            All too often, we’ve given the side-eye to outsiders – to those who seem different, not really our kind of people. We’ve looked at them with suspicion, as a threat to the way things have always been.
            Definitely not the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus.
            And, sure enough, just like with politicians and celebrities or anybody, that kind of misshapen selfishness ultimately leads the Church - St. Paul’s or Incarnation or any church – to joylessness, sickness, and, finally, self-destruction – sometimes destroying others along the way.
            My friends, if we’re going to witness to the love and power of Jesus, then the cross must shape our lives.
            We’re called to live like Stephen, who, as we heard in today’s first lesson, proclaimed the Good News and was rejected and killed for it – and, yet, just like Jesus himself, even as he died, Stephen prayed that God would forgive those who had wronged him.
            So, you and I, we’re not there yet, we still have a ways to go, but I hope that when our time comes, when people gather for your funeral and for mine, when they tell stories and share memories, when they begin to see the shape of our life, they’ll see the loving sacrifice and loving service that opens the way to new life.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Amen.
            

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Life in the Sheepfold of Jesus Christ


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 7, 2017

Year A: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Life in the Sheepfold of Jesus Christ
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            It’s the Fourth Sunday of Easter – it’s still Easter – but today we shift our focus from stories of the Risen Christ appearing to the disciples – today we shift our focus to one of the best-loved Christian images: Jesus the Good Shepherd.
            Jesus the Good Shepherd calls us to live in his sheepfold.
            The question is: how do we know that we’re hearing the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd?
            And, while we’re at it, how do we know that we’re really living in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ?
            For an answer, we need to look at today’s first lesson, the reading from the Acts of the Apostles – a passage that gives us a glimpse, maybe a little idealized, but a glimpse of what life in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ looks like.
            We’re told that these very early Christians were baptized and “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
            We’re told that the apostles performed “wonders”  - and that these early Christians “had all things in common” and “distributed their wealth to those in need.”
            And, we’re told, “they ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
            That’s what the Christian life looks like.
            We know that we’re hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd – we know that we haven’t gone astray – we know that we’re living in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ – when our life – and, when our church – is marked by prayer and fellowship and generosity and joy.
            A couple of weeks ago, I heard the voice of the Good Shepherd when I attended a conference in Chicago with Episcopalians from across the country.
            The conference was about what they called “the unholy trinity”  - the unholy trinity of racism, poverty, and gun violence.
            I heard the voice of the Good Shepherd when we gathered in that city so scarred by violence and traded stories of suffering and loss, traded stories of how the Church has or hasn’t responded to this scourge.
            I told the group about our Good Friday Stations of the Cross and our all too frequent clergy prayer services whenever there’s a homicide in Jersey City, prayer services that have become not so very well attended, perhaps because many have become numb to the bloodshed on our streets.
            The heart of the conference was a march through the streets of Chicago, led by many of our bishops in their flowing red robes, led by some of us carrying tall, stark wooden crosses, all of us singing songs of hope.
            We gathered in a park and heard from a white Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Michael Pfleger, who has served for many years as an activist pastor in a mostly African-American parish in Chicago’s South Side.
            He’s a passionate speaker who had no trouble getting the crowd fired up. The phrase that’s stuck with me was when he declared that the church has developed a case of “laryngitis.” He called on us to clear our throats and to speak up and speak out on the great moral issues of our day, that most unholy trinity of poverty, racism, and gun violence.
            There, on the streets of Chicago, I heard the voice of the Good Shepherd.
            And then, this past Thursday night, I had another experience of living in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ.
            On a day when many of us witnessed the grotesque spectacle of a group of mostly rich men celebrating at the White House after voting in favor of effectively taking away health insurance from an estimated 24 million people, on a day when it would have been easy to give in to despair, a couple of hundred Jews, Muslims, and Christians – including Bishop Beckwith and Cardinal Tobin - gathered at a Baptist church in the heart of Newark, declaring that we were going to stand with our neighbors who are under attack – who have been under attack by both the previous administration and, with even more intensity, by the current administration.
            We heard stories of ICE agents going after the “low-hanging fruit,” certain easy to catch people who are undocumented, like the man who was picked up as he dropped off his 13 year-old daughter at school, arrested as the girl looked on in terror, or the honors student at Rutgers who maybe spoke out a little too loudly, drawing unwanted attention.
            We heard the haunting question asked decades ago by the great African-American theologian, Howard Thurman:
            “What does the message of Jesus have to say to people whose backs are against the wall?”           
            At the end of the event, all the clergy were invited up to the sanctuary and all of the lay people were invited to stand, and, holding hands, we sang, and we pledged that we would stand beside those whose backs are against the wall, determined to build and defend the beloved community.
            And, there in a Baptist church in Newark, I knew I was living in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ.
            Finally, here at St. Paul’s, we know we’re hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd when we not only feed ourselves, which we’ve always been good at, but when we feed our brothers and sisters out there, our neighbors who are so hungry, hungry to fill their stomachs and hungry to fill their hearts.
            We know we’re living in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ when we prepare and serve our monthly lunch at the homeless drop-in center, offering food every bit as good as what we serve parishioners and family, serving food and hospitality and love and joy to people who will never be able to repay us.
            We know we’re hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd at our Stone Soup suppers when all different kinds of people, parishioners, neighbors, friends, strangers, all break bread together, enjoying delicious food and lively conversation, a reminder that it is so good indeed to be together.
            We know we’re living in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ when at our Tuesday afternoon tea, a neighbor we had never met before showed up, anxious and desperate for community, starving for human contact, and here – right there in Carr Hall – she found people ready and willing to offer her refreshment, and cake, and conversation, and, simply, welcome.
            We know we’re living in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ at coffee hour, when we’re as welcoming to the person who’s here for the first time as we are to the friends we’ve known for years, when we pace ourselves with the food to make sure everybody gets something, and when we receive whatever food has been prepared for us and offered to us, never with criticism, but always with grateful and joyful hearts.
            How do we know that we’re hearing the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd?
            And, how do we know that we’re really living in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ?
            We know that we’re hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd – we know that we haven’t gone astray – we know that we’re living in the sheepfold of Jesus Christ – when, like the first Christians, our life – and, when our church – is marked by prayer and fellowship and generosity and joy.
            And, if we live and act that way on our own - and together here at St. Paul’s - and, the more we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and live in his sheepfold, then more and more hungry and lost people, more and more people with their backs against the wall, will look at us, and they’ll know, and they’ll say…
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sometimes the Road to Emmaus is Bergen Avenue


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
April 30, 2017

Year A: The Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Sometimes the Road to Emmaus is Bergen Avenue
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Although our Easter flowers are beginning to droop and have been removed to the hall, and although our alleluias don’t have quite as much oomph as they did a couple of weeks ago, it’s still Easter.
            It’s still Easter for us – and it’s still Easter for the two disciples in today’s gospel lesson.
            Yes, it’s still Easter, it’s the end of a long first Easter Day, for Cleopas and the other unnamed disciple – perhaps “Mrs. Cleopas” – who are heading home to Emmaus, sad and confused about all that they had experienced and heard about in Jerusalem over these last few momentous days.
            The story of the Risen Christ appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus reminds us of what our faith is all about:
            You and I are on a journey, and on this journey we meet Jesus in Scripture, and the breaking of the bread - and we meet Jesus in the stranger.
            One of the key elements of this story is that Cleopas and the other disciple offer hospitality. And, without knowing it, they offer hospitality to Jesus himself.
            Now, on the road, the two disciples had good reason to be suspicious of strangers. There was still a lot of fear that what had happened to Jesus – arrest, torture, death – was going to happen to his followers, too.
            Plus, there was the usual fear of strangers – the fear of the unknown – the fear of being robbed or hurt or even worse.
            Yet, at some risk to themselves, they open up to this stranger, sharing the hope they had placed in Jesus, the sadness they felt about his death, and the confusion they were experiencing after hearing reports of his resurrection.
            The two disciples offer hospitality to the stranger. And, without knowing it, they offer hospitality to Jesus himself.
            And then, at the end of their journey, they offer even deeper hospitality, inviting the stranger into their home, offering him food and rest, giving Jesus the opportunity to reveal himself in the breaking of the bread.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            The story of the Risen Christ appearing to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus reminds us of what our faith is all about:
            We are on a journey, and on this journey we meet Jesus in Scripture, and the breaking of the bread, and we meet Jesus in the stranger.
            We Christians are meant to offer hospitality, treating the stranger as if he or she were Jesus himself.
            It’s a lesson that I’ve learned many times, but it’s a lesson I seem to need to relearn, need to be reminded of hospitality, all the time.
            As some of you know, for a year I was chaplain at the University of Florida.
            The chapel and student center where I worked – and where we lived – was on the main drag and, as you might suspect, we attracted a good number of homeless people who came looking for money and food, or even just a bathroom.
            But, there was one homeless man named Jesse who lived on our grounds, sleeping and spending much of the day drinking on a bench right outside the chapel door.
            To be honest, in the beginning, I was concerned about his wellbeing and, yes, I was worried about how his presence looked – that it would scare away people from coming to the chapel.
            But, I had inherited this “problem” and I decided I would just have to tolerate him living with us.
            Although he literally lived outside our door, I didn’t really get to know Jesse until he started coming to Morning Prayer. When he first showed up, I cringed. What would people think? Would his smell drive the others away?
            But, then, during the service it was time for people to add their own prayers. And, I have to tell you that Jesse prayed like I’ve never heard anyone pray – the most beautiful prayers from deep in his heart, prayers not for himself but for so many others, including me.
            When we offered even just a little hospitality to this homeless drunk man, every person at our services encountered the Risen Christ.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            I’ve never forgotten Jesse, but I still need to be reminded of the importance of hospitality, reminded over and over again.
            Like, for example, this past Wednesday.
            For a couple of unexpected reasons, it was a very busy day.
            Late in the morning I was walking on Bergen Avenue, hurrying back to church, when I reached the Wonder Bagels corner.
            As often happens, one of the guys who hang out around that intersection, but someone I didn’t recognize, called out to me,
            “Hey, Pastor!”
            I hope he didn’t see my eye roll.
            I tried to just wave – smile - keep going, but he called out again,
            “Hey, Pastor, wait. Let me ask you something.”
            With probably another eye roll, I thought for sure he was going to ask for money – money that would be quickly spent at Royal Liquors or on something even worse – but instead, he looked right in my eyes and said he was really hungry and nodded toward Wonder Bagels and asked if I would buy him something to eat.
            I took a deep breath, thinking I don’t really have time for this, time for the long lunchtime line, but said OK, hopefully with at least some enthusiasm.
            When we got to the counter, the young woman working there realized what was going on and threw in a chocolate chip cookie, winking at me, and mouthing, “No charge.”
            When we got outside, I was still in a hurry, but he stopped me, thanking me over and over again and then he said that we had met before – that we had talked outside of the church one day a few weeks ago – and that he would surprise me one day and come to a service.
            I don’t know if that’ll ever happen, but when he reminded me of our previous meeting, I felt a little like Cleopas and the other disciple when their eyes were opened:
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            But, some of us need even more reminders so, later that same busy afternoon, near the same spot, I was hurrying past Dunkin’ Donuts when one of the guys, a different guy, called out to me,
            “Hey Rev!”
            I hope he didn’t see my eye roll.
            I tried to wave – smile - keep going but he called out to me again. I stopped, thinking he was just going to ask for money – money that would be quickly spent at Royal Liquors or on something even worse – but instead he asked,
            “Would you pray with me?”
            Surprised, I said sure, and asked if there was something specific he wanted to pray for. He said, “No, I just wanna pray for everybody.”
            He put his hand on my shoulder, and I prayed, not as good as Jesse, but as best as I could.
            Just before I finished, he said, “And, we should pray for the president, too.”
            Yes. Yes, we should.
            He told me his name and I told him mine and he hugged me.
            He said, “I love you, Rev” and hugged me again.
            As I walked away, and, yes, I’ll admit it, after checking that my wallet was still in my back pocket, I realized that I had gotten yet another reminder of what this is all about:
            We are on a journey, and on this journey we meet Jesus in Scripture, and the breaking of the bread, and we meet Jesus in the stranger.
            We Christians are meant to offer hospitality, treating the stranger as if he or she were Jesus himself.
            We are like Cleopas and Mrs. Cleopas on the road to Emmaus – and, sometimes, believe it or not, the road to Emmaus is Bergen Avenue.
           Alleluia! Christ is risen!
           The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
           Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Wounded God

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

Year A: The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

The Wounded God
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Last week we had the most amazing Easter celebrations here at St. Paul’s.
            I think they were about as perfect as anything we’ve ever done, about as perfect as our worship can be.
            This place always looks great, but on Sunday it was a glimpse of heaven.
            I loved looking out at so many people, so many diverse and beautiful people, who came to church for many reasons, I guess, but, in the deepest parts of their hearts, they – we – were here for Good News, for the best news of all time:
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            The music at the Easter Vigil and the 10:00 Easter Day service was about as good as it gets – and at 10:00 we started with the premiere of our Children’s Bell Choir.
            When I heard those beautiful tones rung by our beautiful kids, I knew everything was going to be just fine.
            And, of course, there were the baptisms.
            What an honor and a blessing to baptize Liam and Luca McCahill at the Vigil (who were pretty good sports during a long service that went way past their bedtimes) and then on Easter morning to baptize Luca Thompson who gave a nice loud cry as he officially joined our Christian community.
            I could go on, but, thanks to the hard work of some dedicated and loving people, it all really was amazing.
            On Sunday afternoon, despite being pretty tired, it felt like I practically floated out of church.
            It really was Easter.
            And, since Easter is more than just a day, since Easter is a whole season of fifty days, it’s still Easter today.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed!
            It’s still Easter for us and in today’s gospel lesson it’s still Easter for the disciples.
            Actually, for them, it’s Easter evening.
            But, unlike us, they’re not joyful, at least not yet. For the disciples, it must have been a most confusing time.
            These closest followers of Jesus were still understandably afraid of the authorities, afraid that what had happened to Jesus was now going to happen to them, so afraid that they kept the doors locked.
            But, at the same time, some of them had seen the empty tomb, and by now all of them had heard the stories of something unexpected, had heard that maybe God had made yet another unexpected turn, made the most unexpected turn of all, raising Jesus from the dead.
            When I try to visualize the scene, I can imagine the room as very quiet but I can also imagine the room filled with lots of chatter as the disciples traded stories, trying to make sense of what had happened, of what was happening.
            Suddenly, into this most confusing scene, steps the Risen Christ.
            A locked door is no obstacle for him.
            “Peace be with you,” he says.
            And, then, notice what the Risen Christ does next: he shows his wounds, shows his wounded hands and his wounded side.
            Jesus knows that the disciples will recognize the Risen Christ most clearly by his wounds.
            This is still the same Jesus, risen, transformed, and wounded.
            The wounded God.
            Of course, not everybody was there that night to see the Risen Christ.
            The Apostle Thomas was absent and when the other disciples tell him about seeing the Risen Lord he famously doubts them, and knowing the disciples’ track record, I’m pretty sure we would doubt them, too.
            But, Thomas doesn’t just doubt. Thomas insists that he will only recognize Jesus by his wounds:
            Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
            And, sure enough, we’re told that a week later the Risen Christ appears again to the disciples, and this time Thomas is there.
            The Risen, but still wounded, Christ shows Thomas his hands and his side – and that’s all the apostle needs to see.
            In joy and shock, Thomas cries out the truth, saying more than he probably understood, “My Lord and my God!”
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            The disciples recognize the Risen Christ by his wounds.
            This is still the same Jesus, risen, transformed, but still wounded.
            The wounded God.
            You know, if we were God, if we were writing the story, I bet that after Easter, we’d make sure that Jesus’ wounds were completely healed, that they vanished without even the faintest scar, right?
            But, no, the wounds of Jesus remain, reminding us of the cross, reminding us that, in a sense, God is wounded, too – reminding us that, if we look, this wounded God can be seen in the wounds, and among the wounded, all around us.
            So, yes, last week we recognized the Risen Christ when we gathered for our Easter celebrations, when we heard the glorious music and smelled the fragrance of the flowers, when we washed three children in the water of Baptism and when we heard the Word of God and received Christ’s Body and Blood.
            But, if we looked, we could also recognize the Risen, but still wounded, Christ on Good Friday.
            If we looked, we could also recognize the Risen, but still wounded, Christ when we were joined by a man whose wife had just died a few days earlier in a very public and tragic way, a man who couldn’t think of a better place to be than walking with Jesus and walking with us.
            If we looked, we could also recognize the Risen, but still wounded, Christ when we walked up and down the streets and sidewalks, sidestepping broken glass and gaping holes in the concrete, past some well-kept homes and many more in disrepair, as we were watched by people hanging out of windows or hanging out on corners, trying to make sense of this strange spectacle.
            If we looked, we could also recognize the Risen, but still wounded, Christ in the faces of at least two grieving mothers who walked with us, two women still mourning the senselessly violent deaths of their sons, whom they loved so much.
            If we looked, we could also recognize the Risen, but still wounded, Christ, at each station, at each place where a brother or sister was injured or killed, dying for not very much at all, so many wounded and wasted lives.
            If we looked, we could also recognize the Risen, but still wounded, Christ, in the police officers walking and riding with us, men and women who go to work each day not sure if they’ll make it back home, cops who, at the end of our walk, all came forward to gratefully to receive a blessing.
            As the Apostle Thomas understood, if we look, we can recognize Risen Christ in the wounds. We can recognize the Risen Christ in the wounded – and not just on Good Friday.
            Last week, on Easter Day, while you and I were still floating after our beautiful celebrations, there was yet another shooting in Jersey City, a shooting that left a nineteen year-old young man dead and a ten year-old girl seriously injured.
            If we look, we can also recognize the Risen, but still wounded Christ, right there at that bloodstained spot on Ocean Avenue.
            And, the wounds are not just a result of violence and murder.
            If we look, we can recognize the Risen, but still wounded, Christ in the wounds of the people around us, the people who are so disappointed by how their lives turned out, the people who are so afraid of the future, the people mourning lost loves, the people regretting the roads not taken, the people who couldn’t work up the courage or the energy to be here with us last week.
            And, yes, if we look, we can recognize the Risen, but still wounded, Christ in our own wounds, in our own woundedness.
            Last week the Risen Christ was especially present here in this beautiful place, but the Risen Christ was and is also always especially present in our wounds.
            The wounded God lives among - and loves - all of us wounded people, breaking through locked doors to say, “Peace be with you.”
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Amen.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Turning Toward the Risen Christ

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

Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4
John 20:1-18

Turning Toward the Risen Christ
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            You know, throughout history, God has been a God of unexpected turns – from choosing the small and not very powerful Israel to be God’s people – to deciding to come among us in and through Jesus of Nazareth, born to a couple of nobodies in an out of the way place, a king who washed the feet of his followers and suffered a shameful and torturous death on a cross.
            Yes, throughout history, God has been full of unexpected turns, but no turn is more unexpected and earth-shattering than what we celebrate today.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Although the disciples had seen God perform many amazing acts, had seen God make many unexpected turns in and through Jesus, they all thought the cross and the tomb was the end of the story – that, as much as they had loved Jesus and as closely as they had followed him, as much as they had hoped – in the end, Jesus had turned out to be just another charismatic leader struck down and crushed by the powers of the world.
            And, yet.
            And, yet we’re told while it was still dark Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb – the tomb that had been sealed by the heavy stone.
            John doesn’t tell us why Mary Magdalene was there
            But, I imagine that, in the midst of her shock and inconsolable grief at the loss of her Lord, she didn’t really know what to do with herself, so she returned to this place of death.
            And, maybe, somewhere deep in her heart, she was hoping against hope that after so much tragedy, God would somehow make one last unexpected turn.
            At first, she finds the empty tomb. Can it be that this horrible story has only grown worse?
            And then, after Peter and the other disciple (who were no help at all, by the way) went back home, there are two angels, and then, finally, without understanding what’s going on, Mary turns away from this place of death, and turns toward life, turns toward the Risen Christ!
            “Mary!”
            “Rabbouni!”
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Throughout history, God has been full of unexpected turns, but no turn is more unexpected and earth-shattering than what we celebrate today.
            On that first Easter morning, love defeats hate and life conquers death, once and for all.
            And, yet.
            And, yet, we see war and rumors of war flaring up in too many parts of the world, terrifying weapons being deployed and innocent life taken without a thought.
            And, yet, we see a rise in hate and hate crimes right here in our own country.
            And, yet, once again on Good Friday, we made our way through the streets of Jersey City, visiting and praying at so many places of violence and death, carrying shirts bearing the names of the 25 brothers and sisters murdered last year here in our city.
            Though the war is won, hate and death continue to battle on.
            So, you and I, as followers of the Risen Christ, we’re called to turn away from the places of death in our hearts, to turn away from our hatreds and grievances and fears, to turn away from scapegoating certain people as the source of all our problems, to turn away from holding on for dear life to the little we think we have.
            Yes, we’re called to be like Mary Magdalene, called to turn away from the places of death and turn toward the Risen Christ.
            And, we turn to the Risen Christ by doing our best to keep the baptismal promises that are about to be made on Luca’s behalf, the baptismal promises that we are about to renew.
            With God’s help, we turn away from the places of death and turn toward the Risen Christ each time we pray and break bread together, each time we resist evil, each time we ask forgiveness for our sins, each time we proclaim the Good News, each we seek and serve Christ in absolutely everybody, especially those we don’t like one bit, and each time we strive for justice and peace among us all.
            Those are some big promises and we’re sure to fall short, but with the help of the God of unexpected turns, with the help of the God who raised Jesus from the dead, we really can be more faithful, more generous, and more loving than even we ever thought possible.
            Maybe now more than ever, we are called to be like Mary Magdalene, called to turn away from the places of death and turn toward the Risen Christ.
            It won’t be easy, but there’s really nothing to fear, because…
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Amen!
           
             

Saturday, April 15, 2017

God Turns Toward Us

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
April 15, 2017

The Great Vigil of Easter
Genesis 1:1-2:2
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13
Exodus 14:10-15:1
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 6:3-11
Psalm 114
Matthew 28:1-10

God Turns Toward Us
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Well, we’ve heard a lot of Scripture this evening, haven’t we?
            And, you know, when that Scripture was written most people believed that the earth – that they, that we – were at the center of the universe.
            And, if we were at the center of the universe, it’s not too surprising that God would take a keen interest in what was going on here on this planet.
            But, although we all know a few people who think they are the center of the universe, over the centuries, we have come to understand that our planet, as beautiful and as precious as it is, the only planet we’ve got, is just a speck in an incomprehensibly vast universe.
            We are small, very, very small.
            The psalmist understood this long ago when he wrote, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, what is man that you should be mindful of him?”
            And yet, although Liam and Luca and all of us are small, God is mindful of us.
            We are of infinite value to God.
            And, so, tonight, we re-told the stories of God’s saving deeds in history, just a few of the more memorable times when God has turned toward us and saved us from disasters, usually, let’s face it, disasters of our own making.
            We began with the story of creation, the story of God turning to us, creating all that is out of love.
            And, whenever I hear that story I always think about what happens just a little later, how the first man and woman mess up and, out of their new experiences of shame and fear, they try to hide from God.
            I think of that heartbreaking moment when God comes through the garden looking for the man and woman, turning toward them and calling out, “Where are you?”
            And, through the centuries, God continued to turn toward us, continued to call out to us with, again, let’s face it, limited success.
            Finally, God turned toward us and came among us in and through Jesus of Nazareth – and, at first, even that attempt didn’t seem to go very well, did it?
            On Good Friday, Jesus seemed like a heartbreaking, tragic failure.
            But, then God took an unexpected turn – God made the most unexpected turn of all - shining light into the shadows, love conquering hate, and life defeating death – the most unexpected turn that we celebrate tonight:
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Now, tonight, God turns toward us again, and God especially turns toward Liam and Luca, making an unbreakable bond with them in the water of Baptism, a bond that can never ever be dissolved no matter what they ever do, or don’t do.
            They and we are of infinite value to God.
            And, so God offers Liam and Luca and the rest of us the water of baptism and the Body and Blood of Christ.
            God turns toward us, and, in and through Jesus, offers us the way: pray and break bread together, resist evil, ask for forgiveness when we mess up, share the Good News, see Christ in everybody – especially the people we hate and fear, strive for justice and peace.
            And, though we’ll never be the center of the universe, the more that Liam and Luca and the rest of us follow this way, the more we choose love instead of hate, the more we choose life instead of death, then this beautiful and precious planet really will be the good creation for which God has dreamed, and worked, and sacrificed so much for so long.
            On Easter, once again, God turns toward us – little us – raising Jesus from the dead and offering us all new life, new life, new life!
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!