Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Temptation to Despair

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
February 18, 2018

Year B: The First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

The Temptation to Despair
            Today is the First Sunday in Lent and by now you’ve probably noticed changes to the look of our church and the feel of our service.
            Most of the shiny things have either been put away or veiled.
            There are no flowers – and we’re not saying the “A word” until Easter.
            There’s more focus on confession, repentance, and, yes, thank God, forgiveness.
            And, as we always do on the First Sunday in Lent, we heard the story of Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by Satan.
            The Gospels of Matthew and Luke give us a lot more detail about the exact kinds of temptations that Satan devised for Jesus – Satan tempted Jesus to use his divine power for his own benefit or glory – you know, turn stones into bread to fill our Lord’s empty belly – or jump from the top of the Temple and be caught by angels – this way everyone will know that Jesus really is God’s Son.
            Matthew and Luke give us these details but not the economical Mark, whose account we heard today – Mark, who simply says that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days – a number that reminds us of Israel’s forty years of exodus in the wilderness.
Mark simply tells us all we really need to know: Jesus was in the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan.
            I really like that Mark omits the exact nature of the temptations faced by Jesus because, let’s face it, I can’t really relate to those specific temptations faced by Jesus: we aren’t tempted to turn stones into bread, or to jump, confident that angels will swoop in and catch us.
            No, I prefer to use my imagination – to imagine what Jesus faced out there in the wilderness – to imagine what temptations Satan crafted especially for Jesus of Nazareth.
            Satan is quite skilled at coming up with temptations carefully crafted just for us – but there are some temptations that are close to universal, and some temptations that seem to be almost contagious during certain times and in certain places.
            Like, the temptation to despair.
            We know that Jesus himself experienced the temptation of despair – maybe in the wilderness but definitely on the cross, when everybody he loved (or just about everybody) abandoned him to his senseless, bloody, and shameful death – the cross when he could no longer feel the presence of the Father, when he quoted Psalm 22 and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
            And, I think many of us today are sorely tempted to despair – tempted to despair because our country seems to have turned into a horror – with the rich growing ever wealthier while the poor lose even the little that they have  - with people who have lived here for years, decades sometimes, contributing to our communities in ways large and small, being ripped from their homes and families because they don’t have the right papers – with the apparently deep sickness of sexual harassment and abuse that is only beginning to be uncovered – with the rollback of protections of air and water, sentencing future generations to an even more poisoned planet – and, yes, with yet another school turned into a house of death as another broken, and, in this case, heartbreakingly young, person had no trouble at all getting a weapon of mass destruction and unleashing it on children trying to learn and teachers trying to teach.
            I know I’m tempted to despair – and I bet many of you are, too.
            One of the things about despair is that sometimes it’s quite obvious – think of the drunk passed out on the sidewalk – but more often we’re pretty good at hiding it.
            We go about our business looking like everything’s normal and fine.
            Our government goes through the motions – legislation proposed, press conferences held, the flag fluttering over the White House at half-staff after the latest massacre – and the media cover most of it as if it’s all perfectly normal.
            The North Korean cheerleaders show up at the Olympics in their pretty red outfits and with their frozen smiles, going through their choreography perfectly, and yet we know there is despair behind those masks.

            Whenever North Korea is in the news, I’m often reminded of the one totalitarian country I’ve ever visited.
            Back in the 1980s, I was able to go to East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, which, as I used to tell my students, was neither “democratic” nor a “republic.”
            You may remember that it was the communist part of Germany, the part occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II.
            Germany itself was occupied and divided into west and east, and so was its capital city, Berlin.
            Life was so bad in the communist part of the country that over three million people fled to the West – the drain of people became so huge and destabilizing that in 1961 the Russians and the East Germans took the desperate step of building a wall around West Berlin – a wall that officially was explained as a defense of the Wast but of course was really just meant to keep people from fleeing the eastern, communist side.
             The people in the East were quite literally penned in by the wall – or, actually, a couple of walls, as well as a no-man’s land protected by landmines and towers manned by guards with orders to shoot to kill anyone trying to escape.
            I remember being so nervous the first time I crossed from the free West to the communist East – shaking a little bit as I showed my passport and visa and handed over the money that was the cost of entering.
            I remember wondering what it would look like and feel like to be on the other side.
            Finally, my friend and I were waived through and entered the East – and, and, it all looked and felt perfectly…normal.
            People were going about their business. Stores were open. Cars and streetcars made their way up the avenues.
            But it didn’t take too long for us to be recognized as Americans – maybe our jeans or our sneakers gave us away – and some brave East Berliners approached us, trying to make a deal to get valuable US Dollars or West German Marks so they could buy things not available in the official, legal stores.
            Over the course of my brief time in the East, I could almost forget that in fact I was in fact in a giant prison – that at the end of the day with my US passport I could cross back into the West and freedom but all of the people around me were trapped – and behind the seeming normalcy there must have been such deep despair.
            And, because my ability to see the future is very poor, it looked to me like this was the way it was going to be for a very long time – it looked like that wall and all that despair could not and would not be broken.
            But, not too long after I was there, that wall did come down – and I’m sure many of you remember those amazing pictures from 1989 - pictures of people partying on the wall, dancing and drinking – cars passing freely through the once fortified checkpoints.
            The Berlin Wall came down for lots of reasons but one of them is that there were people in the East – people who were jailed in a giant prison – there were men and women, including Christian pastors and lay people, who never gave in to the temptation to despair – people who, despite the apparent hopelessness of their situation, never lost hope - people who believed that no wall is strong enough to hold back the power of love and goodness.
            And, it’s hard for me to believe, but by now, that wall has been down longer than it stood – and, if you go to Berlin today, you have to look pretty hard to find any sign of that once seemingly immovable wall.
No wall is strong enough to hold back the power of God.

Long ago, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness.
And, today, you and I are in a wilderness, too – an often frightening and bewildering and discouraging wilderness – a wilderness where hatred, meanness, fear, and violence are on the loose, and seem to have the upper hand.
But, Jesus resisted the temptations he faced, including the temptation to despair.
And, with God’s help, you and I, together, we can resist the temptation to despair, too.
            Just look at the incredibly impressive kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who witnessed and experienced so much horror, but instead of giving into despair are speaking out with such fire and eloquence, calling our leaders to account, and saying no more of this.

Like Jesus, we can return from the wilderness and do the work God has given us to do – trusting, knowing, that nothing, nothing can separate us from God’s love – and that no leader, no ideology, no political party, no special interest group, no amount of money, and no wall is strong enough to hold back the power of God.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Fitting Together

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
February 4, 2018

Year B: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

Fitting Together
            “I could write a book!”
            You’ve probably heard somebody say that when they’ve been talking about their work or their family – describing some bizarre behavior of the people with whom we work or live.
            Or, maybe you’ve said that yourself.
            “I could write a book!”
            A lot of us may say that, but I really admire people who actually do it – what an amazing thing to put in the time and effort - to be creative and disciplined enough - to write a book – or to write even more than one!
            You know, we actually have a few published authors here at St. Paul’s.
            A couple of years ago Emily Barker published a magical novel and has been hard at work on the sequel. And, a year or two ago, Rebecca Reilly published a well-received volume of her poetry. You may remember that we had parties for both of them – pretty cool.
            And, of course, as you’ve heard, during Lent we’ll be reading and studying one of the books written by our Priest Associate, Gary Commins.
            There was at least one published author in my previous parish, too. Her name is Cali Yost and she’s published a couple of books, including one called Work + Life.
            In that book, which is aimed at professional people but can apply to anyone, Cali makes the case that it’s a mistake to seek “balance” between our work life and our personal life, a mistake to think that somehow, someday, we’ll ever achieve perfect harmony among the different pieces of our lives.
            Instead, she argues that we need to fit together the different pieces of our lives: fit together work, family and friends, recreation and rest – and our fit will change depending on what’s going on in our lives.
            I thought of Cali’s notion of “work + life fit” as I reflected on our gospel lessons, both last week and today.
            Last Sunday and this Sunday we’ve heard about Jesus’ first day at work – the first day of Jesus’ public ministry, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark.
            It’s a day in the life of Jesus.
            If you were here last week, you may remember that Jesus’ day began with him in the synagogue, where he taught with power and authority and where he was confronted by a man possessed by “unclean spirits” – demons who know exactly who Jesus is and want nothing to do with him.
            In a demonstration of divine power, Jesus cast out these unclean spirits, leaving everyone present staring with awe and wonder.
            A day in the life of Jesus.
            Today we pick up where we left off, with Jesus and his first disciples leaving the synagogue and going to the house of Simon Peter and Andrew – maybe hoping for some down-time – maybe hoping for a home-cooked meal, but there’s to be no rest yet because it turns out that Simon’s mother-in-law is there, ill with a fever.
            So, Jesus keeps working - he heals the woman – and we’re told she immediately begins to serve them.
            I always smile at that, thinking especially of all the mothers and grandmothers who have no choice but to serve others even when they’re not feeling very well at all – but, for Mark, the mother-in-law is meant to be a model of discipleship – someone who is healed by Jesus and immediately begins to serve others.
            We’re told that the Good News of Jesus spreads and “the whole city was gathered around the door.” Jesus continues to heal many, continues to cast out demons.
            But, you know, even Jesus needs rest and refreshment, so we’re told that he got up in the early morning, before sunrise, and headed out to a deserted place to pray.
            (I imagine him tiptoeing out of the house, trying not to wake up anyone, hoping for a few minutes of alone time.)
            But, you know how it is, we’re told that Simon and others “hunted” for Jesus (and if that sounds vaguely ominous, you’re right).
Not much alone time for Jesus!
            In this day in the life of Jesus, during his first day at work, we don’t see a balanced life but we do see him fitting together the pieces of his life: the teaching, the healing, time with friends, and time for prayer.

            As I hope you all know, today is the day of our Annual Meeting – it’s the day we take stock of a year – in this case, a particularly eventful year - in the life of St. Paul’s Church.
            And, just like Jesus spent his day fitting together the different pieces of his life, we’ve spent the last year – the last few years, actually – fitting together the many different pieces of our church life.
            Recently I was having a conversation with someone who, to my surprise, had done some online research about me – about us here at St. Paul’s.
He had gone on the Episcopal Church’s website and found the page with data about St. Paul’s, specifically our attendance and our income – and had printed out the graph.
            He held up the sheet for St. Paul’s and wanted to know how and why we have grown so much in recent years.
            It was kind of a weird conversation, but he was right – we have had a lot of growth here at St. Paul’s these past few years
            Many of you were not here five or so years ago, and even for those of us who were here, it’s a little hard to remember how different our church was back then.
            It had gotten very small – we had just one not very well attended service on Sunday and the summer camp, and that was about it.
            Money was really tight and there were some longtime parishioners who wondered how much longer ministry could continue here on Duncan Avenue, many who feared that we would soon join the long list of closed churches.
            But, by God’s grace and thanks to the hard work and faithfulness of many, we have added and fitted together so many pieces of our church life.
And, the biggest and most important of those pieces is worship – our three Sunday services and also our ambitious schedule of weekday services. Week after week, month after month, we bathe these old walls in prayer – and I think – no, I know - that this has made all the difference in our life together.
            And then, there are all of the many other pieces of our church that I hope you will read about in our voluminous annual report – Altar Guild, choirs, Sunday School, Youth Group, Men’s Group and on and on.
And, just like Simon Peter’s mother-in-law who as soon as she was healed immediately started serving others, more and more we’ve reached out beyond our doors. We have fitted together so many other pieces, pieces that feed lots of hungry people – our Stone Soup Community Suppers and the Last Friday Lunch at the homeless drop-in center, our increased giving to the food pantry - and also our many excellent arts and music events, which feed people with so much beauty, as well as the occasional challenge.
            And now, in an unexpected turn of events, God has chosen to fit together two very big pieces – St. Paul’s and Incarnation – two pieces that had been broken apart long ago but now are being assembled into something more beautiful than we could have ever imagined or dared to hope.
            Thinking about all of this, I’m struck by the fact that all of this fitting-together work here has been happening while our country seems to be heading in the other direction, while our country seems on the verge of shattering into pieces, while norms that we long took for granted are broken, while at least some of us value our little piece so much that we are willing to risk the good of the whole.
            But, as always, God continues to work, right in the midst of our mess, right in the midst of our brokenness – and right in the middle of Jersey City.
            So, don’t be surprised if God has even more surprises in store for us.
Because I’m sure that God is collecting even more pieces and will be hard at work assembling them right here on Duncan Avenue – after all, this is what God does.
Fitting together is God’s reconciling work.
            And, I’m sure that the fitting together here at St. Paul’s won’t be completed while I’m rector, won’t even be completed before all of us are gone, but how marvelous it is to witness it, how amazing to be part of it!
            In fact, you know, we could write a book!
            Thank You all – and Amen! 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The "Unclean Spirit" of Fear

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation
Jersey City, NJ
January 28, 2018

Year B: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

The “Unclean Spirit” of Fear
            Well, so far, so good.
            Our first two Sundays worshiping together as an unified congregation have gone very well, with even more people in church last week, probably thanks to milder weather and, yes, more parking.
            More important than attendance, these past two weeks there has been such a wonderful spirit in this room, in this sacred space, and also next door during coffee hour.
            After last week’s 10:00 service, my father mentioned to me that the style of my sermon seemed a little different than usual. That could be, I guess, though I wonder if he wasn’t just picking up on the increased energy here – and my own response to all of that joy.
            These past two weeks have been the culmination of a lot of work – a lot of work by the Holy Spirit and a lot of work by the leaders of our two congregations. It has been a busy but exciting time to lead our church – to lead with Gary and with our dedicated lay leaders.
            And, you know, one of the challenges of leadership is knowing when you might be pushing too hard – when you might be overwhelming people with ideas, and events, and tasks.
            I know I’m guilty sometimes of pushing too hard.
            More than once my dad has said, “It’s hard work being an Episcopalian!”
            About two weeks ago I was afraid that maybe I had really pushed too hard.
            As some of you know, for the past few months Gary and I and a few others have been trying to start a chapter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship here in the Diocese of Newark.
            We planned to make a big push at our diocesan convention, which was this past weekend.
            At one of our planning meetings someone had the idea of making orange ribbons (which represent gun violence awareness) and distributing them to everyone at convention and even having extra to be shared with family, friends, and fellow parishioners.
            It was decided we needed about 600 ribbons.
            You know the next question, right?
            Who would make 600 orange ribbons?
            Hesitantly, I said, well, we have a craft guild at St. Paul’s and I can ask them if they would be up for the challenge.
            The next day I worked up the courage to call my mother who, as most of you know, coordinates the craft guild.
            After we exchanged the usual pleasantries, trying to sound as casual as I could, I told her that I needed a favor.
            I explained about the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and convention and about the orange ribbons, and finally asked if she thought the craft guild would be up for this.
            She asked, “How many ribbons are we talking about?”
            I cleared my throat, and then confessed, “Um, 600?”
            There was a long pause at the other end of the line and then finally, “600?!? Are you crazy?”
            Well, you now the rest of the story: last week after the 10:00 service some of the craft guild members along with other parishioners stayed behind and twisted and pinned all 600 orange ribbons, in an amazing act of generosity and dexterity.
            And, at convention these past two days I was so proud to see so many people, including our bishop, wearing orange ribbons, ribbons made by us.

            If you were here last week you may remember that we heard about the start of Jesus’ public ministry, when he began to gather his disciples, calling two pairs of fisherman brothers – Peter and Andrew and James and John – calling these seemingly ordinary working men to follow him.
            I doubt that these guys knew what they were getting themselves into when they left their boats and nets but soon enough they discovered that this Jesus of Nazareth was a great teacher and a great healer – and more than a healer, he was an exorcist. Jesus is able to cast out what the Evangelist Mark calls “unclean spirits.”
            Now, I’ll admit that with my modern sensibilities and my concern about confusing illness with demonic possession, exorcism isn’t a part of Jesus’ life and ministry that I talk about very much, but it’s clear from the Gospels that casting out “unclean spirits” wasn’t just a kind of sideline for Jesus – it was a central part of his work.
            In fact, the casting out that we heard today is Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of Mark, highlighting its importance in Mark’s story of Jesus.
            You know, one of the themes running through the gospels is the fact that although the disciples have front row seats for Jesus’ teaching and healing, and, yes, front row seats for his exorcisms, the disciples have a hard time figuring out who or what Jesus is exactly.
            They have such a hard time recognizing Jesus’ identity that the Church actually sets aside a special day to celebrate when the Apostle Peter finally figured it out!
            But, one of the odder aspects of the Gospel is the fact that, yes, the disciples and others have trouble recognizing Jesus’ identity, but the “unclean spirits,”– they know exactly who Jesus is – yeah, the demons, they know Jesus only too well and they want nothing to do with him.
            As we heard today, the unclean spirit possessing the man says,           
            “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
            The unclean spirit knows exactly what’s coming and, sure enough, faced with the divine power of Jesus the unclean spirit will fold like a gambler who’s overplayed his hand.
            Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And Mark tells us, “And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”
            And, I imagine everybody else there looking with wide eyes and opened mouths, wondering at what they had just witnessed.

            So, what does a long ago exorcism have to do with us, here today?
            Well, it seems to me that we don’t have to look very hard or very far to find “unclean spirits” wreaking havoc in our city, in our country, and around the world.
            In fact, there are so many unclean spirits – anger and jealousy, racism and so many kinds of hatred, greed and selfishness, violence in word and deed – so many unclean spirits crying out and wreaking havoc that it’s a little hard to know where to begin.
            But, I think the “unclean-est “ of all the unclean spirits and the spirit we see doing its demonic work so effectively today is fear.
            It’s fear that causes us to hate the stranger and build walls to keep people out of our lives, out of our land.
            It’s fear that causes us to hold on for dear life to what we have, refusing to share with others.
            And, yes, it’s fear that causes us to arm ourselves to the teeth, no matter the consequences, no matter that our guns don’t make us safer – quite the contrary, no matter how many people, no matter how many innocent people, no matter how many children, pay for our unclean spirit with their lives.
            With all the news of the government shutdown and DACA and CHIP and a president who makes news every single day, and the horrible hit-and-run on the Boulevard just a few blocks away from here, plus all the other stuff going on in our own lives, you may have missed the school shooting in Kentucky the other day.
            Actually, you probably have missed the at least 11 school shootings this year (remember, it’s still only January) and the 50 or so that have taken place this school year.
            In Kentucky, this time it was apparently a 15 year-old student who did the shooting. He killed two other students, Bailey Nicole Holt and Preston Ryan Cope, both also 15, and wounding 21 others.
            Later, later in the news it was reported that Bailey was able to call her mother as she was dying.
            The sad fact is that our unclean spirit of fear has gotten us into such a mess that our schools have become fortresses – and our unclean spirit of fear has made these events so common that we barely notice – they don’t make the front page, or if they do they’re quickly forgotten.
            At this point we barely remember the massacre in Las Vegas, where 58 people were killed and 851 people injured – just a few months ago, back in October.
            And, we barely take note of the shots ringing out up and down some of our avenues and side streets.
            Like the man in the synagogue long ago, we are possessed by unclean spirits, especially the unclean spirit of fear.
            And, just like the unclean spirits of two thousand years ago, the unclean spirits of today know the power of Christ – they know the power of Christ’s people and all people of goodwill when we work together – so they do everything they can to keep us divided and distracted – to make us too numb, too overwhelmed, and, most of all too afraid, to cast them out.
            And, yet, think of all those orange ribbons.
            Last Sunday nobody really felt like sitting in the parish hall and making all those ribbons, but, accomplishing that daunting task in about an hour and a half was a tiny - but beautiful - taste of what we can accomplish when we work together, when we allow Christ to work in and through us.
            Next week, both St. Paul’s and Incarnation will have our annual parish meetings when we’ll look back at an eventful year and look to the challenges and opportunities in the year ahead – at least the ones we can see from here.
            My prayer is that Christ will cast out the unclear spirit of fear that still may be within us - cast it out so that Christ can then use us to exorcise the unclean spirits that possess our society and cause so much pain and sorrow.
            And, here’s the thing: the unclean spirits know very well that if we, the Body of Christ in the world, get our act together, well, then like a gambler who’s overplayed her hand, they won’t stand a chance.