Sunday, August 20, 2017

What a Wonderful But Broken World

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 20, 2017

Year A, Proper 15: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:10-28

What a Wonderful But Broken World
            Well, that was quite a week, huh?
            For me, it was very much a week of contrasts.
On the one hand, as you all know, our country was caught up in the aftermath of last week’s violent white supremacist protests and the counter-protests in Charlottesville – including the response, or responses, of the president.
 Meanwhile, overseas there was yet another terror attack, this time in Barcelona, and catastrophic mudslides in Sierra Leone.
But, on the other hand, while all of that and more terrible stuff was going on, a few of our St. Paul’s adults and I spent much of last week over at Old Bergen Church, participating in a “summer peace project” called, “Building a Neighborhood Together.”
            We couldn’t have known this months ago when we started planning, but this super-positive event with its beautifully diverse group of kids and adults arrived right on time.
            While our country seemed to be tearing itself apart, we sang and danced and meditated and played and talked about peace and shared ideas about what a peaceful neighborhood might look like – and, using their own imaginations and creativity, the kids built a cardboard city that included the “Peace International Airport” and “The Peaceful Apartments” and, maybe inevitably, a McDonald’s, one that even had a, hopefully peaceful, drive-thru!
            Led by our own Gail, over the course of the program the kids learned a repertoire of several different songs, but for me the most beautiful, the most touching, and the most timely was “What a Wonderful World,” a song made famous by Louis Armstrong, that I’m sure many of you know:
            “I hear babies cry. I watch them grow. They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
            We live in a wonderful, but very broken world.
There are armed-to-the-teeth Nazis on the march, with their ugly and hateful words and symbols, with their rage and violence, defiling our streets and airwaves and even, if we let them, defiling our own hearts.
Last weekend in Charlottesville, they attacked the counter-protesters and even killed one, the courageous Heather Heyer.
            There is violence and the threat of violence on our own Jersey City streets – last week we suffered our fourteenth homicide of the year, but it seems that barely anyone even noticed.
There is poverty that leaves so many with groaning stomachs, poverty that forces people out of their homes and onto the streets.
            There are our own personal troubles and fears. There’s our own brokenness, our own stinginess when it comes to love. There is our own tendency - even here in the church - to divide people into our kind of folks and not our kind of people. There is our own reluctance to share our blessings.
We live in a wonderful, but broken world. So, God invites us to make our world more wonderful, to heal what’s broken, by setting aside our own fears and prejudices and by being even more loving and generous.
            And, I’m sticking my theological neck out here a little bit, but, I think that’s what’s going on in today’s gospel lesson:
            God invites God’s Son to heal what’s broken, by being even more loving and more generous.

            If you’re not familiar with today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ encounter with the persistent and bold Canaanite woman, well, then, this story may come as a bit of a shock, because in it we find a very human Jesus behaving in such a seemingly un-Jesus-like way.
            Maybe it’s because Jesus was out of his comfort zone: he’s in or at least near a place called Tyre and Sidon, a non-Jewish land, where a desperate woman, a Canaanite, a non-Jew, approaches him, begging him to help her tormented daughter.
            Apparently, she’s been annoying the disciples, which sounds about right, since they so often didn’t get what following Jesus was all about.
But, even if you’ve only been paying half-attention in church, you know how this should go down:  Jesus will heal the girl, let the disciples have it for their hard hearts and little faith and then move on to the next teaching or healing.
            Routine work for Jesus, right?
Just another day at the office for the Messiah!
            But, instead, in this case, Jesus flatly and, it sounds to me, coldly rejects this non-Jew, this Canaanite woman and her desperate plea, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
            But, remarkably, she doesn’t give up, though. Instead, she kneels before Jesus, begging, “Lord, help me.”
            And then Jesus says his most un-Jesus-like words of all, saying to this poor and desperate woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
            Now, if I were insulted by Jesus, I’m pretty sure I’d just slink away, devastated and ashamed, but instead this incredible woman replies, pointedly and boldly, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
            And, you know, the way I read this exchange, this amazing and really kind of shocking scene, it seems to me that in this moment our brother Jesus hears the call to heal what’s broken and make the world even more wonderful – maybe in this moment he realizes that God’s love is bigger than even he, the Son of God, had realized – that God loves both Jews and Canaanites – that God’s love is for absolutely everybody.
            Jesus says to the persistent and bold Canaanite, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
            And, her daughter was healed instantly.
We live in a wonderful, but broken world. And God invites us to make our world more wonderful, to heal what’s broken, by setting aside our own fears and prejudices and being even more loving and generous.

I never thought I’d be preaching about Nazis, but this is where we find ourselves.
            But, actually, for a long time now, I’ve been interested in how the institutional Church behaved in Nazi Germany.
            A handful of brave and bold ministers and priests resisted the Nazis and paid high price for their courage and integrity. But, the tragic reality is that most of the clergy either kept their heads down and minded their own business, or they wholeheartedly supported Hitler’s twisted and evil ideology.
            I’ve long wondered what I might do – and what the American Church might do – if a similar situation arose here in our country.
            Well, I don’t have to wonder so much anymore because, last week in Charlottesville, clergy from many different religions and denominations, many wearing their distinctive clothing, stood with the peaceful counter-protesters, risking something big for something good, offering love and solidarity in the face of hate and division.
            And, I’m convinced that my clergy colleagues and I would do the same thing if white supremacists should ever make the unwise decision to march here in Jersey City.
            Finally, there is Heather Heyer, the seemingly ordinary 32 year-old paralegal who couldn’t and wouldn’t stand by when hate came to town and sacrificed her life for love and peace when a driver drove murderously through the crowd.
            In the days that followed we learned that it seems Heather was who she was because of the family that raised her.
            Her father Mark Heyer, said, “I’m proud of her. I’m proud of her standing up. She had more courage than I did. She had a stubborn backbone, that if she thought she was right she would stand there and defy you. If I understand her, she wanted to do it peacefully and with a fierceness of heart that comes with her conviction.”
            Most remarkable of all, Heather’s father offered forgiveness to her killer. He said, “I just think what the Lord said on the cross. Lord forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”
            And then there was Heather’s formidable mother, Susan Bro, who displayed an almost supernatural calm when she spoke at the funeral. She said, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what – you just magnified her.”
            So, yes, it’s been quite a week, a week of contrasts.
It was a week when we were powerfully reminded that we live in a wonderful, but broken world.
As Jesus recognized long ago, thanks to the bold and persistent Canaanite woman, we are called to heal what’s broken, by being even more loving and more generous.
We are called to follow the example of Jesus and also those who stand up to hate, and even those who offer forgiveness in the midst of terrible suffering and loss.
And, if we’re sincerely willing to work with God to heal our wonderful but broken world, then I am convinced that the words of the beautiful song sung by our kids last week will be even more real, more true:
“The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people going by. I see friends shaking hands, saying, ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’”


Sunday, August 13, 2017

To Boldly Go...

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
August 13, 2017

Year A, Proper 14: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

To Boldly Go…
            Since I talk about it often enough, most of you know that, before I was a priest, I was a teacher – and my last teaching job before hanging up my chalk and going to seminary was at my alma mater, St. Peter’s Prep.
            I think about those days a lot. Like any kind of work, it had its ups and downs, but for the most part it was a wonderful and meaningful way to spend my life – and get paid doing it!
            One of the traditions at Prep, both then and now, is the “Senior-Faculty Dinner,” which is exactly what it sounds like: near the end of the school year the members of the senior class and the faculty have dinner together and celebrate four years of teaching and learning.
            The seniors put on skits, poking (usually gentle and good-natured) fun at some of us teachers.
            And, each year one teacher is invited to address the seniors.
            Well, one year they asked me to give this speech.
            To be honest, I felt a lot of pressure and nervousness. It was kind of intimidating to speak in front of most of the senior class, plus many of my colleagues.
            On top of that, since I had the reputation of being funny (or, at least, I thought I had the reputation of being funny!), I felt some pressure to get some laughs.
            But, I didn’t want it to be all about amusing the audience. I really wanted to use this opportunity to say something meaningful. So, I thought back to when I was a high school senior and wondered what I would say to my eighteen year-old self if I had the chance.
            As I thought back to those days, I remembered and realized how cautious I had been.
            For whatever reason – and I’m honestly not sure what it was, maybe it was all those ego-shattering math classes that I just barely survived – by the end of high school I had lost faith in myself and, I suppose, I had lost faith in God, too.
And so, lacking faith in myself and in God, I decided to play life as safe as I could, choosing to go to college very close to home, not really challenging myself, not doing the big things that I had thought about doing, like studying abroad or joining the Peace Corps.
Unlike my TV hero Captain Kirk, I chose to not boldly go much of anywhere at all.
And, so that day, all those years later, standing up in front of the senior class in the Prep cafeteria, with some embarrassment, I told them my story and I urged them not to make my mistakes, but, instead, to take good chances, to, as our bishop likes to say, risk something big for something good.
I told those young men “to boldly go.”

If you were here last week you may remember that we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration, we remembered that mysterious mountaintop experience when Peter, James, and John witness Jesus transformed and they overhear his conversation with Moses and Elijah and, if that weren’t enough, they even get to hear the voice of God.
I love the Apostle Peter because, like us, he so often doesn’t really get it, so often fails spectacularly – but, you know, on the mountain he did OK.
He realized that he and the others had witnessed something spectacular, so he wanted to build shrines right there on the mountain, wanted to memorialize that most amazing experience.
Not a bad idea, but instead, Jesus and his friends go boldly down the mountain and continued the holy work of teaching and healing, of speaking truth to power and paying a high price for doing so.
And now, in today’s gospel lesson, in yet another mysterious scene, Peter takes center stage once again.
Jesus had just fed the multitudes with miraculous loaves and fishes, and then, we’re told, that he “dismissed the crowds.”
That night, the disciples were caught in a big storm which sounds like it was scary even for experienced  fishermen – and then they were even more alarmed when Jesus appeared to them walking on the water.
As he so often does, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”
Easier said than done, so, no surprise, the disciples remained afraid.
But, lovable Peter, who so often got it wrong, gets it right this time, too, putting his trust in Jesus, and boldly going out of the boat, stepping out onto the sea, able to take a few miraculous steps before fear got the better of him and he called out to Jesus, who was right there, ready and quick to save.

Back at the Senior-Faculty Dinner, I spoke very personally – more personally than I normally did at school – but, of course, I didn’t tell them everything.
I didn’t tell them that now my faith in myself and my faith in God were stronger than when I was eighteen and, in fact, I was getting ready to hang up my chalk and step out into an unknown, a little frightening, but mostly exciting future, to boldly go to seminary and prepare to become an Episcopal priest.
Since making that big move, there have been times when I’ve felt like Peter, felt like I was sinking – times when things weren’t going as well as I had hoped or when I kicked myself because I wasn’t as sensitive or caring as I should have been or even times when I wondered if I had made a big mistake – there have been times when my faith has faltered and I’ve felt like I was sinking, but each time I’ve discovered Jesus to be right there, right here, ready and quick to save me.
The truth is that we are called to risk something big for something good, “to boldly go” out there, out onto the sea, not alone like Peter, but together, holding hands – knowing that we can reach out for help when we get ourselves in trouble, when the current seems to be pulling us down, when it seems we have little or, even no faith.
And, when I look around, I see St. Paul’s and Incarnation – I see the Episcopal Church in Jersey City – “boldly going” in new directions, venturing to new places, taking on new ministries.
Last week I was so pleased and proud when Glenda and Patricia got up and told us about their experience at the weeklong choir camp in Camp May.
I know that they had been nervous about going – it’s a long way for two kids from Jersey City – a long way to go and be with a bunch of strangers. But, they overcame their fear and had the most wonderful experience and sang the offertory anthem with newfound confidence, skill, and joy.
To boldly go.
And, we’re just a couple of weeks away from launching the new Triangle Park Community Center, risking money, energy, time, and, yes, even the possibility of failure, risking some big things for something good, the possibility of serving and working with our neighbors in Greenville – a community where we have longed to be for more than twenty-five years.
To boldly go.
And, as you know, we’re beginning conversations about uniting St. Paul’s and Incarnation. We are neighbors with not always the best history but over the past few years we have become truly friends, brothers and sisters, and, by God’s grace, someday soon, we will become one – become an even stronger and bolder church, more able and willing to serve our community.
To boldly go.
Obviously, we are living in stormy days and even the most experienced among us may be frightened or even terrified.
 With the flippant threats of nuclear war, with Nazis – Nazis in 2017! – brazenly showing their faces and their hatred, carrying torches marching through the streets of Charlottesville, chanting their vile slogans, injuring and even killing peaceful and, yes, very bold counter-protesters, with a President unwilling to condemn this disgusting racism, with all of the storms in the world and in our country - plus our own personal storms - it would be easy to lose faith in God and ourselves, easy to get scared and become cautious.
But just like he called out to Peter and the other disciples, Jesus calls out to us here today, saying, “Do not be afraid.”
Jesus calls us out of the boat, to boldly go onto the water, and into our future, together.


Sunday, August 06, 2017


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
August 6, 2017

The Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Peter 1:13-21
Luke 9:28-36

            It’s a little hard for me to believe, but, I’ve been a priest for almost ten years and so, by now, after having celebrated the Eucharist many hundreds of times, quite a few of the words of the service are etched pretty deeply in my memory.
            Like, for example, the words of absolution I say after we make our confession of sin.
            “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ…”
            But, a couple of months ago at our 10:00 service, something unusual and a little unnerving happened.
            Maybe some of you who were here noticed it.
            After we had knelt and made our confession, I stood up as I always do and began to say those familiar words, “Almighty God…”
            But then my memory failed me and I completely forgot the rest of the words. It all just flew out of my head.
            In my confusion, I managed to string together a few sort of similar words that I trust got the job done – God’s going to forgive us no matter what I say or don’t say – but, it really bothered me that I had forgotten something that I thought I had known so well.
            I think I was probably just tired or distracted and, fortunately, I haven’t noticed any other memory problems, but in that moment I had just a small, confusing taste of what it’s like to really forget, to lose one’s memory.
Of course, like probably all of us, I’ve known people, including some people I’ve loved very much, who as they aged grew forgetful or confused, and some who developed full-blown dementia.
            It’s a terrifying and deeply sad thing, right?
            It’s terrifying and sad for lots of reasons but one of the big ones is that, to a large extent, it’s our memory that makes us who we are.
            Thanks to our memory, we know who we are and whose we are.
            Thanks to our memory, we know who we love and who loves us.         
            But, the truth is, even if we’re in perfect health, it’s sometimes hard to remember these most important things, especially when the going gets tough, especially when there are so many distractions, so many pressures, and so many fears, especially during times of (as today’s collect says), “disquietude.”
            Today we celebrate, we remember, the Feast of the Transfiguration.
We remember this mysterious mountaintop experience - a preview of Easter, a glimpse of heaven - when Peter, James, and John see Jesus transformed before their eyes, and witness the appearance of two of the greatest biblical figures, Moses and Elijah.
These three disciples get to overhear a conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – a conversation about Jesus’ “departure.”
            Even the often-dense Peter realizes that he has witnessed something remarkable, so he wants to memorialize this experience by building three shrines, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.
            No sooner does Peter get this perfectly reasonable suggestion out of his mouth, than the experience becomes even more awesome when they – and we – get to hear the voice of God say:
            “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
            And, then… it’s over.
            This powerful, mysterious, literally awesome experience - a preview of Easter, a glimpse of heaven - lives on only in memory.
            Jesus and his disciples came down from the mountain, and continued the ministry of teaching and healing, this holy work that will be so very threatening to the religious and political leaders that they’ll plot against Jesus, arrest him, torture him, and finally kill him.
            Jesus will “depart.”
            During those hard days it must have been so difficult to remember the preview of Easter that Jesus and his friends had glimpsed on the mountain – hard for his disciples to remember and maybe even hard for Jesus himself to remember.
            And even after the empty tomb, even after Easter, even after the Ascension when Jesus “departed” again, back when the Church was so small and struggling for survival, during those days of “disquietude,” it must have been hard for the first followers of Jesus to remember all of those amazing experiences, all of the puzzling sayings and miraculous healings, even hard to remember the mountaintop experience with Moses and Elijah and even the voice of God.
            But, they did remember – just like the Jews, they remembered by coming together to tell their stories over and over again and eventually writing them down and reading them and copying them and spreading them around so that even when individual memories faded and failed, the stories – the Story – would never be forgotten.
            As an example, today’s second lesson comes from what we call the Second Letter of Peter, and was probably written around the year 100, maybe even later than that, written long after the Apostle Peter was dead, written by a faithful Christian who heard, remembered and wrote down the story of the Transfiguration, which has been passed down to us.
            Thanks to our memory, we know who we are and whose we are.
            Thanks to our memory, we know whom we love and who loves us.
            The Church is a community of memory.
            And, I don’t know about you, but in our time with all of its distractions, pressures, and fears – in our time of so much fast-paced change and so much noise and oh so big challenges, in the midst of all this “disquietude,” sometimes I feel like I’m in danger of forgetting more than just the words of absolution.
            Sometimes, even as a “professional Christian,” I feel like I’m in danger of forgetting the big stuff, forgetting the stories, forgetting the Story.
            So, we gather here in church week after to week is to have our own little mountaintop experience, to get a preview of Easter, a glimpse of heaven.
We come here as a community of memory to remember – to remember the old but somehow always new stories – and, especially, to remember who we are and whose we are – to remember who we love and who loves us.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Tree

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

Year A, Proper 12: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Tree
            I’ve mentioned to you before that one of my most favorite things is to show off St. Paul’s to people who are here for the first time.
            As you may remember from when you first walked through our front doors, people almost invariably ooh and ah when they first walk in here, marveling at the magnificent woodwork and how beautiful and well-preserved it all is.
            And, it’s not just the church building.
            This year especially we’ve been getting a lot of compliments on the garden, and a few neighbors have even been so inspired that they’ve offered help with planting, and tilling, and watering.
            As you know, last week we were joined by the wonderful choristers from Trinity Church in Los Alamos, who were last here four summers ago – a lot of water under the bridge for them, and for us here at St. Paul’s.
            In fact, their visit got me thinking of all the changes that have happened here since their last visit.
            First of all, we were a lot smaller back then – many of you weren’t even part of our community the last time they were here.
            And, yes, at the same time, there were people here then who are gone now – people who have died, or become too frail, or moved away, or decided this wasn’t the place for them, or who just drifted away from the church.
            Four years ago, there was no choir and there was no Gail (at least not here at St. Paul’s!).
            There was no Sunday School and no air conditioning in the church (the choristers, not used to our humidity, were particularly happy about that improvement!).
            We still had the old, worn red carpet and the dangerously broken front stairs.
            It’s a lot of growth and change in a small time.
            We’ve been blessed.
            At one point during the choir’s visit last weekend, after having been out walking the streets for a while, their director, John Singleton, observed that St. Paul’s is a wonderful oasis in the city.
            And so it is, right?
            That having been said, these old buildings and the grounds require a lot of effort, a lot of sweat and, yes, a lot of money, to keep them looking good and serving our parish and the community so well.
            And, sometimes things go wrong.
            For example, on Wednesday afternoon I went downstairs into the rectory basement and discovered a pond covering about a quarter of the floor: water was spurting from a leaky pipe.
            The plumber arrived and painted a bleak picture, saying it might be necessary to dig up the yard in front of the rectory as well as part of the sidewalk and even the street, which would then need to be re-paved.
            My heart sank, but we had no choice to proceed.
            But, sometimes things work out and by Thursday afternoon the plumber announced that he had been able to solve the problem and that he had saved us “ten thousand dollars.”
            I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ll take it!
            Let the people say, “Amen.”
            And then there were the raccoons.
            As some of you know, a while back a group of raccoons (a group of raccoons is called “a gaze,” by the way. I looked it up!), a gaze of raccoons managed to gnaw their way into the crawlspace at the top of our church tower, where they settled into their own private Duncan Avenue condo, making themselves at home, and making a very big mess.
            And, as you might guess, it turns out that it’s no so easy to dislodge a gaze of raccoons from such prime real estate.
            In fact, because raccoons are not only cute but really smart and clever, it requires experts and a lot of time and effort and, yes, money to get them out and keep them out – and to clean up after them.
            You know, in a natural environment, raccoons often live in the hollows of trees – and so, to the raccoons, our beautiful, old, and wooden, St. Paul’s was just another tree – bigger than some but certainly not the biggest.
            To the raccoons, St. Paul’s was simply a tree, standing ready to offer them shelter from the hard life of the city.
            Well, of course, we’re not raccoons or birds, for that matter, but our church, with all of its many branches, offers us shelter, too – offers us a safe place to make our spiritual nest – a safe place to discover and cherish and nurture the treasure that is God’s kingdom.
            Yes, like a gaze of raccoons, some of us will sometimes make a mess here in our tree – sometimes a literal mess like what the kitchen occasionally looks like after coffee hour or some other event, but more often a spiritual mess caused by us not being as welcoming or as loving or as forgiving as we ought to be, as we know we should be.
            But, unlike how we had to deal with the adorable but destructive raccoons, we don’t drive away our brothers and sisters from our tree – no matter how much of a mess they – or we – make.
            Just the opposite, actually.
            No, we’re called to slide over a bit, to make a little more room in our tree, to even make a little more room on our own individual branch, to make a little more room for whoever shows up, messy or not.
            We’re called to make a little more room for the people out there who are still looking for a beautiful oasis in an often hard city, the people who still seek the treasure that is God’s kingdom, the treasure that can be found right here, in our tree.