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.
            Amen.
           
           

           
            

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?
            Why?
            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.
            Amen.

           
           
             

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.
            Amen.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

God Gives Us Some Space


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 28, 2017

Year A: The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

God Gives Us Some Space
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            You may remember that a couple of weeks ago I mentioned how my oldest friend’s mom, after years of grueling cancer treatments, decided to enter hospice, where over very difficult days, her life drew to a close.
            Obviously, as many of us know only too well, the death of a loved one is a heartbreaking experience.
            And, it can be particularly hard for children who may never have faced death before and now have to grapple with the reality that our lives here on earth don’t go on forever, that people in our lives will die, no matter how much we wish otherwise, no matter how much we love them.
            Not easy.
            In the case of my friend, he and his wife brought their young daughters to the hospice to see their grandmother one last time.
            Their older girl, about 5 ½ years old seems to have understood just enough of the seriousness of the situation to be frightened by what she saw, choosing to stay in the hallway, sneaking an occasional peek into the room where her grandmother would die.
            I had lunch with my friend last Monday when he told me an amazing follow-up to this story.
            Not long after her visit to the hospice, his daughter asked her parents if she could watch again the movie, Inside Out.
            If you haven’t seen it, you really should.
            It’s an extremely clever and deeply moving (you’ll need tissues) animated movie about a little girl named Riley who has an idyllic childhood until her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. After leaving behind almost everything and everyone she knew, Riley struggles to adjust to her strange new surroundings.
            I’m sure quite a few of us can relate to that experience.
            What’s most clever about the movie is that most of it takes place in Riley’s head as five personified emotions – joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust – try to help her adjust to her new reality.
            So, a couple of remarkable things: my friend’s daughter remembered seeing the movie months earlier and recognized that she was going through an experience not so different from young Riley in the movie, trying to make sense of a new reality.
            And, here’s the thing: she asked to see the movie alone.
            When I heard that, I wondered what I would have done as a parent. I suspect I would have said, no, no, let’s watch this movie together as a family, thinking that it we’d better keep an eye on our daughter and make sure she’s OK.
            But, my friends wisely and lovingly allowed her to watch alone, gave her some space to face her own powerful emotions, to take a big step toward growing up.
            And, you know, that choice to give a little girl some space to figure it out on her own reminded me of God.
            You’ve heard me talk about God’s presence.
            I firmly believe that God is present all the time in our lives, especially here in this holy place, in Scripture, in our extended hands of peace, in the Bread and the Wine, in the service we offer to others, in all of it.
            God is present, but God isn’t some “helicopter parent” smothering us with anxious love, solving all of our problems for us, preventing us from ever really growing up.
            No, God gives us some space.
            I think that God must have given us space right from the start.
            Mystics have imagined that right at the moment of creation, God had to withdraw a little bit so that a real universe, a real world could develop - a real world where our choices have consequences, a real world where we’re given the opportunity to use our minds and our emotions to make our way through life, a real world where life is so precious and sweet precisely because it doesn’t last forever.
            God gives us some space.
            God gave us some space at the start of creation and God gives us space when the Risen Christ ascended into heaven, leaving his dazzled friends staring up into the sky with, I always imagine, their mouths hanging open.
            No longer seeing the Risen Christ in the flesh the way the first disciples did, gives us some space to grow up and be who we really are – to be the Body of Christ in the world.
            We have some space to be the Body of Christ in the world, pouring out love to one another, especially the people that the world dismisses as having not much value, the people that the world looks at as nobodies, even the people the world teaches us to fear and hate.
            We have some space to be the Body of Christ in the world, offering a different vision than what’s on the news or on the street, offering a downside-up vision of a world where the most blessed are the poor, those who hunger and thirst, those who mourn.
            We have some space to be the Body of Christ in the world, not judging people based on their looks or their bank account or their politics or their religion or lack thereof or even the worst thing they’ve ever done, not judging people at all.
            Yes, like my friends allowing their daughter to watch the movie alone, God gives us some space.
            But, of course, God doesn’t ever abandon us.
            As that little girl watched that movie, her parents were just down the hall.
            And, in the same way, the Holy Spirit, which we will especially celebrate next week, the Holy Spirit is always with us, pouring out grace, giving us strength and wisdom, helping us as we try to make sense of a real world filled with both sadness and joy, and as we try to make sense of our own hearts bubbling with very real and powerful emotions.
            God gives us some space, but the Holy Spirit is with us, as we, no matter how old we are, do the hard but necessary work of growing up.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Amen.
           

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.