Sunday, October 25, 2020

"Prophets of a Future Not Our Own"



The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
October 25, 2020

Year A, Proper 25: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

“Prophets of a Future Not Our Own”
        For many weeks now we have been hearing the central story of the people of Israel – their great exodus from slavery in Egypt – led by God and Moses on a forty- year adventure through the wilderness.
It was a journey filled with many twists and turns.
The people got hungry and grew impatient – they even got a little nostalgic for their days of enslavement!
The people gave into the familiar temptation of turning away from God and choosing instead to worship the gods of the world.
Moses was in the unenviable position of trying to keep the peace between God and this troublesome people – but Moses also had the great privilege of entering God’s presence, learning God’s name, and receiving God’s law.
And now, this long and eventful journey is drawing to a close.
At last, the people of Israel are approaching their long-promised land.
But, as we heard today in one of the most poignant moments in all of Scripture, Moses will stand on a mountaintop and get a glimpse of the Promised Land off on the horizon, but he will not live long enough to enter it. 
Instead, it will be Moses’ successor, Joshua, who will lead the Israelites on the last leg of their journey home.

It’s hard for us to hear this final Moses story without thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr., right?
On April 3, 1968, Dr. King spoke to an overflowing crowd in Memphis. He was there to support striking sanitation workers.
Maybe with a sense of premonition, and most definitely echoing the story of Moses, Dr. King said, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
Less than 24 hours later, Dr. King was assassinated.

As I was thinking about Moses and Dr. King, these two prophets who led so many on the way but were not able to reach their much longed-for destination, I was reminded of words that were attributed to the great El Salvadoran bishop and martyr Oscar Romero. It turns out that he didn’t say them actually, but they’re still beautiful and important. Here’s part of it:
“We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”
We are prophets of a future not our own.

If you’ve read the last couple of my weekly messages, you know that I’ve been thinking even more than usual about history – about my history – about the history of Incarnation and the history of St. Paul’s – and about our history together.
The other day I was flipping through the pages of our parish register, the big old book where we record all of our baptisms and funerals.
I love looking at all of the names and admiring the beautiful penmanship of days gone by.
I think about how each of the names listed, each of the services recorded, carried so much meaning – the hope of new life in baptism and also the hope of new life in a funeral – new life that we can’t really see as the water is splashed into the font – new life that we can’t really see as a casket is lowered into the grave.
And, yet.
And, I can’t help looking at the signatures of all of my predecessors – including the first, Fernando Putnam, who came here all the way from Vermont to start a church in what was then the countryside – there were sheep just down the road - and my good friend Frank Carr – each of them added their own gifts into the mix, building up the church for their own time, yes, but also leading the people toward a future that they knew they would not live to see.
And, that’s what we’re meant to be about, too.
We are also called to be prophets of a future not our own – each of us contributing our gifts for the here and now, yes, but also laying the foundation for a future that we can maybe just glimpse over the horizon.
Can you see it?
It’s over there, beyond Election Day and the healing of our plague.
It’s over there, beyond political partisanship and selfishness and deceit.
It’s over there, where our weapons have been beaten into plowshares, where we practice war no more.
It’s over there, in the place where the poor and the mournful really are blessed, and the mighty have been cast down from their thrones and the lowly have been lifted up.
It’s over there, in the place that to which God has been leading us, the place that God has intended for us, all along.
Even in our time of trouble, even though we are so tired from our long journey and are so frightened about what is yet to come, even with all of that, if we look and maybe squint a little, we can see that promised land off in the future.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
That sounds, I know, a little grandiose.
And, let’s face it, we’re not Moses and we’re not Dr. King.
We’re just plan folks, right?
But, even if we’ll never be famous and no one will ever write books about us, we really can be prophets of a future not our own.
And, in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus shows us how.
For the past few weeks we’ve been hearing about the conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus.
They’ve been asking Jesus questions, trying to trip him up, hoping to weaken his support among the people and maybe even get him into hot water with the Romans.
Each time Jesus has swatted them away, and now today we’re told that one of these leaders, a lawyer, asks Jesus a question “to test him.”
“Teacher,” he asks, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Now, there are a lot of commandments in the Jewish Law – 613 to be exact – but like other rabbis Jesus has no trouble distilling all of that law into its essence.
Jesus replies by quoting Scripture, by offering commandments that are in fact two sides of the same coin:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind.”
And,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
There’s nothing easy about any of that – like the Promised Land, it’s beyond our reach.
It’s only with God’s help that we can try to give all of our love to God – it’s only with God’s grace that we can even hope to love our neighbors as ourselves – to love especially the people who drive us up the wall, the people who look and think, and, yes, vote differently than we do.
But, it’s only when we live lives of love that we can lead one another to the Promised Land.
It’s only when we live lives of love that, like Moses and Dr. King, in our own small way, we become prophets of a future not our own.

The death of Moses is an important part of Israel’s story so it’s no surprise that for thousands of years sages and rabbis have studied it very closely.
And, over time, they’ve discovered some gaps in the story.
What exactly was the cause of Moses’ death?
Who buried him? Was it God?
Why was this most important gravesite not remembered and honored?
And these gaps led many to conclude that Moses hadn’t died in the usual way and that, in some sense Moses was still alive.
That was certainly a common belief by the time of Jesus in the first century.
But, setting aside the supernatural possibilities, the truth is that Moses is still alive. He lives on in the law and he certainly lives on in the stories that Israel and we continue to tell to this day.
In the same way, Dr. King lives on, alive every time people stand up for people like the striking sanitation workers in Memphis, every time someone insists the Black lives really do matter.
And here at church, I’ll tell you that I feel the presence of Fernando Putnam, who came from afar to do the hard work of starting a little church in the countryside. 
The sheep are long gone but his legacy lives on in us.
And then, there’s Frank Carr.
You old timers know that I was very close with Fr. Carr in his last years when he was living just across the street, blind but still very engaged with the world and the church.
I spent many hours with him when he would tell so many stories from his life, especially his time as rector here in the 1970s and 1980s.
I have to tell you that, long before I was ordained, he was absolutely convinced that someday I would serve here as rector.
And he would – I was going to say, make suggestions, but, honestly it was more like giving orders – he would tell me in that booming voice of his what I should do when I was rector of St. Paul’s.
At the top of his list was making friends, and working closely with, my clergy colleagues here in Jersey City.
Fr. Carr did not live to see my return. But, when I finally took up my work here, in my first week or two, with Fr. Carr’s “orders” echoing loudly in my head, I began calling around to local clergy, introducing myself, hoping to set up times to meet.
Not long after that, I walked over to Old Bergen Church to have lunch with Pastor Jon Brown.
As I stepped off their elevator (yes, they have an elevator and a parking lot, and no, I don’t want to talk about it!) – as I stepped off the elevator, there was an old man waiting.
He looked at me in my black shirt and clergy collar and he asked,
“What church are you from, Father?”
I said, “St. Paul’s, over on Duncan Avenue.”
And, he kind of looked off into the distance, and said, “St. Paul’s? I haven’t met a minister from St. Paul’s since…Frank Carr!”
For a moment, it felt like I had stepped into the Promised Land.

“We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”
But, by loving God and loving our neighbor - by following God’s lead into the Promised Land - we play our own small part in creating that future.
Amen.  

Friday, October 23, 2020

Our Wall of Memory



“Our Wall of Memory”

One Sunday, not too long after my ordination, I was invited to serve as the guest celebrant and preacher at another church. I was happy to be there, but I find it difficult to preach to people I don’t know, ignorant of their history, customs, and expectations. Preaching from an unfamiliar pulpit, it’s easy to accidentally step on a sensitive spot, causing offense when none was intended. I can’t rely on my “inside jokes.” I can’t use shorthand for themes that I know my parishioners have heard me preach about many times. So, partly because I was nervous and partly because I’m just this way, that morning I arrived at the church much earlier than was necessary. This gave me plenty of time to familiarize myself with the space, get everything set up, and to chat with parishioners as they arrived.

While waiting to start the service, I spent a few minutes looking at the many historical photos that lined a long hallway that led to the parish hall. The first images on this “wall of memory” were from the church’s founding back in the nineteenth century, and then, as I made my way down the hall, the photos moved through the changing styles of the twentieth century. It was interesting to see the pious expressions of the clergy, and touching to see all the joyful and proud faces of parishioners gathered for significant events in the life of the church or posing for annual “class photos” of the choir.

And then, sometime in the 1990s, the photos stopped. I looked to see if the gallery continued around the corner, but there was nothing.

What happened?

I would guess that this wall of memory fell victim to declining membership, or the loss of the one or two parishioners who took an interest in archiving church history, or maybe the arrival of a priest not so interested in the past. Whatever happened, the sad truth is that this particular church is far from unique. To use St. Paul’s as an example, it would probably be easier for me to learn details about what happened here in the 1890s than it would be to find out what was going on in the 1990s.  We have a fairly detailed history of the church’s first 100 years and a brief addendum written fifty years later. Still, much of our relatively recent past is already growing hazy in the memories of longtime parishioners – and it’s getting foggy in my memory, too! 

Having created detailed ministry plans over the past decade, the Incarnation “side of the family” has a somewhat better grasp of its history. Yet, the recent deaths of Eugenia Suthern and Sidney King have meant an incalculable loss of institutional memory. Over the past seven years, I was part of many conversations when Sidney would passionately (and in great detail) tell the Episcopal Church’s somewhat checkered history in Jersey City. Some of us know that story in broad strokes, but today I could kick myself for not paying even closer attention, taking detailed notes, or even recording him.  

In recent weeks, Bishop Hughes has spoken about the vast amounts of our diocesan story that we simply do not know. This institutional amnesia is probably true for many of our churches, but it seems to be particularly true of traditionally Black churches. Perhaps, these communities were too busy fighting for survival to spend much time collecting and preserving history. And, when those churches have closed, and the last parishioners have dispersed, the story is lost. Or, maybe the story is just too painful to recall. 

Of course, even seemingly forgotten stories can still echo through generations in surprisingly powerful ways.

If we are to continue stepping into a healthy and honest future, we must know our story, celebrating our blessings and achievements while also acknowledging our errors and failures. This strange and unsettling time might be just the moment for us to fill in as many of the blank spaces of our individual and collective memories as we can. Rev. Laurie and I have begun investigating the best ways to gather, share, and preserve our memories. We’ll have more to say about this project, but for now, I hope you’ll take some time to think about your part in the story of our church, to imagine your place on our “wall of memory.”

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Dual Citizens





The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
October 18, 2020

Year A, Proper 24: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Dual Citizens

As you all know, one of my main responsibilities is offering pastoral care to parishioners. Back before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time visiting people when they were hospitalized or shut in at home or in nursing homes.
Over the years, there have been a few times that I’ve been asked to do the same for people who are not parishioners – usually they’ve been relatives or friends of parishioners. Of course, I see that as a privilege and I’m happy to do it. 
A long time ago now, the family of one of those non-parishioners wanted to thank me, so they offered to take me out for a rather fancy dinner.
I tried to beg off, saying that it really wasn’t necessary, that I was just doing my job, etc. But, when I realized that my “no thank you” was hurting their feelings, I agreed. So not long after, we gathered at one of the nicest restaurants in town for what promised to be a delicious but maybe kind of awkward dinner with people I didn’t know well.
As the dinner went on, maybe after the first or second glass of wine, the conversation turned from pleasant and non-controversial topics like church and family matters to…politics.
I grew increasingly uncomfortable and tried to gently steer our conversation in other directions. 
“Wow, this food is delicious, isn’t it? My goodness!”
No luck. More politics.
They had gone on for a while when they turned to me and asked what I thought.
I tried smiling and made a little joke that I’ve used in similar situations a few times before and since. I held up my hands and said,
“I’m sorry. There are two things I don’t talk about:  religion and politics.”
They looked at me for a moment, definitely not getting the joke and clearly not hearing the message.
After a brief pause, they resumed,
“Yeah, but, what do you think about…?”
Sigh.
It was a long night.

You regular viewers of our Sunday services may have noticed that I haven’t said much about the big election that we still sort of think is a couple of weeks away but is, in fact, already underway in much of the country as way more people than usual vote by mail, or use the new drop boxes as Sue and I did the other day, or  wait in shockingly long lines to vote early.
I haven’t said much about the election because there is so much chatter happening 24 hours a day on cable news and on social media.
And, honestly, I’m not sure I have anything much to add that hasn’t already been said a million times.
And, on top of everything else, there has already been quite a lot of religion mixed into our overheated partisan politics already.
Most Evangelical Christian leaders and most of their followers long ago made their choice – just as most progressive Christian leaders and their followers have made their choice, too.
Some Christians – including, as we’ve seen, some Roman Catholic bishops - have declared themselves to be single-issue voters – and, going even further, they’ve said that faithful members of their churches have only one choice in this election.
Now, it’s actually true that Christians have only one choice in this election, and in every election: we must vote our conscience.
We must vote for the candidate we think is most likely to move us even just a little bit closer to the kingdom of God – closer to the land of mercy and justice, the land where the poor and the vulnerable are honored and cared for, the place where the stranger is welcomed as if Jesus himself were at the door.
And, we vote our conscience knowing that no single candidate, no political party or ideology will ever match up completely with our faith.
You know, one of the biggest mistakes the church makes is getting too cozy with the powers of the world.
Throughout history, the church has made this mistake over and over
We saw that mistake with many progressive Christians during the Obama years, looking away from policies and actions that should have drawn more scrutiny and concern.  And we certainly see that mistake even more clearly with evangelicals now. 
The truth is that even the best-intentioned politicians will inevitably use the church for their own purposes, inviting the church to a coveted “seat at the table,” seducing the church into thinking that the end justifies the means, blinding the church to all sorts of injustices committed by even the nicest people in power.
The truth is that we live in a fallen and broken world.
It’s a world that requires compromise and making the best choices we can.
It’s a world that requires us to speak truth to power, no matter how much power tries to distract us or to buy our silence.
And, you know, if there’s a blessing in this particular election, maybe it’s the loud and clear reminder that we Christians live in two very different different kingdoms – the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God.
We Christians have dual citizenship.

Jesus lived in a time when the people of Israel were painfully aware that they were living in two different kingdoms.
As God’s chosen people, they followed God’s Law as precisely as possible.
But, at the same time, they lived under Roman occupation.
And, as we’ve talked about before, the Romans were pretty easy to live under, so long as you didn’t try to rebel, and so long as you paid your taxes – the vast amount of wealth collected from all across the empire that kept the imperial operation going.
And, if you caused trouble or refused to pay the tax, there would be swift punishment meted out to you and, perhaps, your people.
All of the Jewish people of the first century lived with this tension and fear, especially the religious leaders who desperately wanted to keep the peace, both because they didn’t want their people annihilated, and because they wanted to preserve their own position and power.
As we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks, Jesus was not at all impressed with the religious leaders of his time. He taught parables that seemed to say that these learned men with their long robes and prestige were, in fact, rebelling against God and were in danger of losing everything.
Speaking as a religious professional myself, that’s not something that any of us want to hear.
And now in today’s gospel lesson, this conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders continues when some of these religious leaders respond to his Jesus’ thinly veiled criticism with… a question.
It’s a question that was very much in the air back then: should Jews pay the tax to the Roman emperor? Should they pay the tax using Roman coins that bore the emperor’s image, coins that often contained religious language, naming the emperor as “Lord” or even “Son of God”?
It’s a good question.
I love how the religious leaders begin by trying to butter up Jesus a little:
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”
And then they ask Jesus their important and tricky question:
“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Jesus, of course, is onto to their game.
If Jesus says, yes, it’s legal, he’s likely to lose the support of at least some of his followers.
And if Jesus says no, then, I don’t know how, but this news just might get back to the Romans… and Jesus would face quick and brutal punishment.
Before Jesus replies, in one of the most famous moments in the gospels, he asks for one of the coins bearing the emperor’s image, and then he gives his answer:
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
And the religious leaders slink off, disappointed that Jesus has avoided their trap.

The truth is that we live in a fallen and broken world.
It’s a world that requires compromise and making the best choices we can.
We Christians have dual citizenship.
So, we follow the law.
We pay our taxes.
We follow our conscience and vote for the people who we think will best move us even just a little bit closer to the kingdom of God – knowing that no candidate or party or ideology will ever totally match up with the gospel.
Yes, we are dual citizens.
But, that does not mean that we divide our hearts.
Long ago, Jesus said we should give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God.
Left unsaid by Jesus, but what would have been understood by first century Jews and should be understood by us, is that everything belongs to God, most of all our hearts.

So, we are about to enter what will probably be the most intense political weeks of our lives.
No doubt, there will be lots of angry words and falsehoods and bitter disputes.
So, especially during this difficult time, let’s stick close to the church.
Let’s stick close to one another.
Let’s stick close to God, trusting that God is not going to let go of us now.
And, most of all, let’s remember that we may be dual citizens, but Lord is our king.
Amen.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Keeping the Faith



Keeping the Faith

More than two years ago, we had our first dinner-dance fundraiser, celebrating the unification of St. Paul’s Church in Bergen and the Church of the Incarnation. That first party and the one that followed a year later were such good times, filled with good food, music and dancing, much laughter, and some pretty nifty prizes, too. We had expected to continue this new tradition in June, but, as with so much else, the pandemic got in the way, forcing us to postpone our event until the danger passes.

At this year’s event, we were planning to celebrate two significant milestones in the long history of the two congregations that God has woven into our one church. This year marks both the 160th anniversary of St. Paul’s and the 110th anniversary of Incarnation! Unfortunately, we won’t get to party together anytime soon. However, we can still reflect on our long history, giving thanks for our spiritual forebears, and drawing inspiration and courage from them as we face our troubled times and an uncertain future.

As with any long-standing institutions, there is plenty of good and not so good in our history. I often think of the split that happened at St. Paul’s, not long after its founding, when many people left to start St. John’s over on Summit Avenue. That exodus left St. Paul’s in a somewhat fragile state for decades (though it probably also saved our beautiful wooden church from the wrecking ball). There is also the deeply shameful and profoundly disturbing story of how all of the Episcopal churches in Jersey City made Black people feel unwelcome, encouraging them to start a church of their own. It was a grave sin that necessitated the creation of Incarnation – a profound example of what God does all the time: transforming death into abundant new life.

There have been times when our pews were packed with young and old alike, and the church calendar was full of social and spiritual events. And there have been days when people became scarce, and money and hope seemed to be running out, leading some to wonder just how much of a future we had left. Finally, there has been the miracle of the last few years. The people of Incarnation took the bold step of leaving their longtime spiritual home, making a journey that may have seemed like just a few city blocks but actually required overcoming the great distance caused by bad history. By God’s grace, we have experienced a union that somehow feels to me like a reunion, a restoration of the way we were always meant to be.

Often, when I need to make an entry into our parish register, I take a little time to flip through the pages, trying to imagine all of those baptisms, weddings, and funerals from years gone by. I think of how each of those entries is a slowly fading remembrance of joy or sadness. Most of all, each entry is a memorial of faith. Our spiritual forebears knew hard times, made plenty of mistakes, and were no better than we are at seeing the future. Yet, through good times and not so good, our church mothers and fathers kept the faith. 

Since I have been associated with St. Paul’s for so long now, I don’t have to turn through too many pages of the register before I start recognizing a few family names, people I’ve heard of, and whose legacies are still alive. As I move deeper into the book, I start seeing the names of those I’ve had the privilege of knowing and people I get to pray with to this day. I always love to see the signatures of Frank Carr and Dave Hamilton, two of my predecessors and great friends, who both helped to shape and nurture my vocation. And then, even after more than seven years as rector, it still amazes me and touches my heart when I get to the last few pages in our big, old book and see my signature over and over, just the latest in a long line of clergy who’ve had the privilege of serving in this holy place. 

Together, all of us are part of this story, a combined 270 years of prayer and ministry in Jersey City! Just like those who went before us, our life together has been and will be a mix of joy and sorrow, with a fair number of mistakes and failures. The future is uncertain and often frightening, but I take courage knowing that our spiritual forebears have walked ahead of us. With God’s help, those imperfect people kept the faith. And so will we.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

God Does Not Give Up On Us



The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
October 11, 2020

Year A, Proper 23: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

God Does Not Give Up On Us

When I first reflected on today’s Scripture lessons – especially the story of the golden calf and Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Banquet – I thought of…Christmas.
Not Christmas in general, but a particular Christmas, a particular Christmas Eve, maybe about five years ago.
That year, the weather was very mild. It was so warm that, even before the late service, I was able to stand outside and welcome people as they arrived for church.
You know how it is on Christmas.
Usually all of the regulars are here, plus people we may only see a couple of times a year, and also at least a few people who have never been here before.
It’s wonderful.
Anyway, this particular Christmas Eve, I was standing outside, welcoming friends, acquaintances, and strangers, including a woman I recognized from the block, who, to the best of my knowledge, had never come to any of our services.
We actually had a few moments to have a very pleasant chat on the steps, and then I directed her to the usher for her bulletin, and that was that.
Now, I don’t want to brag, but I think we do a pretty good Christmas Eve here.
Our church is always beautiful, of course, but it’s even more beautiful when it’s dressed up with garlands, wreaths, and poinsettias.
Everyone looks so nice and most people are pretty happy to be here – it is Christmas, after all.
The music is over-the-top great - and the sermon is usually pretty short.
So, what’s not to like, right?
Anyway, at the end of the service, as usual, I was both exhausted and buzzing with energy.
Gail was still leading the choir in the extended rendition of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” – why dontcha? – and the music was just bouncing off the walls, with the congregation happily singing and clapping along.
I was standing at the back of the church, greeting people as they were leaving, exchanging wishes of “Merry Christmas.” 
When it was the turn of the woman from the block who had never been here before, she looked pretty happy, I thought. So, I said something like, “I’m glad you were here. Hope you enjoyed it. Maybe you’ll join us again sometime.”
And she looked at me and with a perfectly pleasant expression and said, “Oh, I don’t think so.” 
And then she made her way out of the church.
Ugh. Ouch.
Now, I’ve been doing this long enough that I don’t take things like that too personally, but it was hard to not be a little stunned, somewhat hurt, by her rejection.
And, to make matters worse, she lives on the block.
So, that means, in the years since, I’ve seen her many times. And I’ve been tempted to ask her why she was so sure she wouldn’t be back – why she had rejected us – but each time I’ve decided to leave well enough alone.
I’ve thought, well, should she ever change her mind, she knows where to find us.
The story of God and us is a story of invitation.
God invites us to be friends in the garden.
God invites us to be God’s people forever.
God invites us to feast at the banquet.
God invites us to be the kind of people we are always meant to be.
The story of God and us is a story of invitation – and, for the most part, it’s a story of us rejecting God’s invitation.
The story of God and us has been a story of us straying, looking elsewhere for meaning, satisfaction, comfort – and, most of all, love.
And yet, despite all of that rejection, for reasons known only to God, God continues to extend the invitation. 
God does not give up on us.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we heard about a real low point in the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt to the promised land. 
Moses has been up on the mountain with God for longer than expected, and the people lose faith – they lose faith in the God who had led them out of slavery and through the wilderness – the God who had given them manna to sustain them during their journey.
The people grow impatient and lose faith in God and in Moses – and, you kind of get the feeling that they’ve been itching to get themselves a new god anyway, a god more like all the other gods of the ancient world.
Although the Israelites had received a special invitation from God, this time – and not for the last time - they choose instead to be like everybody else.
So, they instruct Moses’ brother Aaron to come up with new gods for them to follow.
And Aaron instructs them to chip in their gold to this effort – which is interesting, right?
By giving their gold, the Israelites are literally invested in worshiping these new idols – and I can’t help thinking of people today who invest so much in the idols of the world – devoting their whole lives to pursuing wealth or fame or power – and, yet, they always seem to end up so unhappy.
There’s a cost to rejecting God’s invitation.
Anyway, Aaron fashions a golden calf, and the Israelites bow before it and sacrifice.
Meanwhile, up on the mountain, God sees what’s going on and is not happy. In fact, we’re told that God threatens to destroy the people for their terrible rejection.
But, Moses saves the day. He very cleverly reminds God that it will make God look bad if the Israelites perish (God, what will the Egyptians think?). And Moses reminds God about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and the promise of countless generations more numerous than the stars in the sky.
And so, once again, God does not give up on us.

So, by now, maybe you’ve forgotten about today’s gospel lesson – the rather disturbing parable of a king who was none too happy about being stood up by the guests he had invited to a lavish wedding banquet for his son.
Not only did they decline the king’s invitation but, we’re told, that the guests seized the king’s slaves, mistreated them, and even killed them.
The understandably enraged king sent his troops to destroy these guests and even burn their city.
And then, the king extended the invitation to the people out on the street – the good and the bad – and, presumably, they all had a fine time – except for the one person who was not wearing a wedding robe  - who was thrown out of the party and into the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
So, what are we to make of this parable that certainly seems to suggest that, actually, maybe sometimes God does give up on us.
But, that can’t be right.
And, what are we to make of this parable that doesn’t sound very much like Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness – his call that we are to be like God and forgive seventy times seven times – that we are to offer infinite forgiveness?
Well, I think today’s disturbing parable only makes any kind of sense in context.
The Evangelist Matthew places this parable as part of a larger dispute between Jesus and the chief priests and the Pharisees, the religious professionals who are suspicious of Jesus.
I mean, who gave this “nobody” from Nazareth the authority to teach and to heal?
After all, Jesus did not have the required paperwork - he had not been officially licensed to do any of this – at least, not as far as the priests knew.
And, there is another bit of context for us to consider: by the time the Gospel of Matthew was written, it was clear that most Jewish people did not recognize Jesus as the messiah – and, on top of that, by the time the gospel was written, Jerusalem, including the Temple, had been destroyed in the year 70.
And, it was tempting - and wrong - for these early Jesus followers – and for Jesus followers ever since – to see the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem as punishment by God.
But, what does any of this have to do with us?
What might this difficult parable have to say to us today?
Well, first, for religious professionals like me, it’s a reminder that God is going to call use who God is going to call and use – even if they’re not officially licensed by the church.
And, since Jesus had so much trouble with the religious professionals of his time, my colleagues and I are called to humility – to not get full of our selves. Instead, instead keep our eyes open for God on the move in unlikely places and surprising people.
Second, no matter how Christians have understood this parable, it’s important for us to remember that God has made an eternal promise to the Jewish people – it’s divine invitation will never be canceled, no matter what.
And, third, and this is for all of us, what we wear to the banquet is important.
Now, I can’t imagine that Jesus was ever concerned about wearing the right clothes, so I think the person who got thrown out of the banquet for not wearing a wedding robe is a reminder for us that we are called to more than just showing up to the banquet.
We are called to clothe ourselves with righteousness, to live lives that are filled with mercy, generosity, and love – that’s the outfit we’re supposed to be wearing.
We are meant to clothe ourselves with the words of St. Paul: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
And, we really can rejoice because the story of God and us continues.

        For reasons known only to God, despite all the golden calves we make and worship and invest in, despite rejecting God all the time, God continues to invite us to the banquet.
God does not give up on us.
So, you know what? I think the next time I see our neighbor from Christmas Eve, I’m going to get over myself and just say, hi.
Amen.

 



Friday, October 09, 2020

Living the Mission




“Living the Mission”

Over the past few months, I’ve talked with many people who have already been laid off, or “furloughed,” and others who live in fear that they will soon receive a pink slip, throwing their lives into sickening uncertainty. Although it was a long time ago, I still remember the gripping fear of unemployment, the false but haunting sense of failure, and deepening gloom.

In the fall of 1991, I was unemployed. Not long before, I had moved out of my parents’ house and rented a tiny apartment in Bayonne. It felt like I had just stepped into adulthood, but now it looked like I might have to retrace my steps and move back into my childhood bedroom. At first, I was reasonably confident that I would find work, but the months ticked by, and nothing turned up. Finally, early in the new year, and with almost no money left in the bank, I interviewed for a teaching job at St. Vincent Academy in Newark, an all-girls high school sponsored by the Sisters of Charity.

I’m not sure if my desperation showed, but I was hired. My new job helped me keep my apartment, and it also provided me a perfect place to develop as a teacher and as a human being. I’ve said many times that I “grew up” at SVA. I learned from my students and colleagues, especially the sisters and other women who, while so many had fled Newark, devoted their whole lives to the school. I only stayed for about six years before returning to my alma mater, St. Peter’s Prep. But, although I’ve been gone from SVA for a long time, I’ve always felt indebted to the Sisters of Charity and wondered if there might be a way to pay them back somehow.

About a year ago, an SVA colleague and friend, Sister Noreen Neary, got in touch with me, asking if I might consider joining the Seton Ministries Board of Trustees. Sister Noreen explained that the board is responsible for governing, supporting, and advocating for the sponsored ministries of the Sisters of Charity, including schools like SVA, hospitals, and other good works. I didn’t feel particularly well qualified for the position (and, I suppose it’s an unlikely post for an Episcopal priest), but I trusted Sister Noreen’s judgment. And, I thought, at last, this might be an opportunity to finally “pay back” a long-ago act of kindness that changed the course of my life.

I was recently appointed as the liaison from Seton Ministries to St. Elizabeth University (known until recently as The College of St. Elizabeth) in Morristown. To begin this work, I spent Monday morning getting a tour of the campus from a happy, proud, and enthusiastic student, and meeting with many of the administrators, including the university’s president. There was a whole lot of information to absorb, and I still have much to learn, but a thread ran through each conversation: everyone had a clear understanding of the university’s mission. Each person expressed the mission in somewhat different ways, but they all understood it, and they all saw their work as contributing to the mission.  

From my student tour guide to the president, each person described a university that stands in solidarity with the poor and is committed to serve the community. Each person told me that they aim to send out graduates to be leaders who serve others. Each administrator recognized the privilege of guiding and teaching students who are often the first in their families to go to college.

It was clear that these good and dedicated people are living the mission.

It reminds me so much of St. Vincent Academy, where some sisters and other teachers and administrators have lived the mission for many decades. And, it reminds me of St. Peter’s Prep, where, even more than in the days when I was a student, every teacher, administrator, and student understands the school’s mission to form young men of “competence, conscience, and compassion.” Of course, like all institutions, these schools face their share of challenges, but I do not doubt that their longevity and continued success rest on having a clear mission - and living that mission, with God’s help.

The church has much to learn (or, remember) about mission. Maybe this is surprising for an institution that is so old. Still, too often our mission has been simply to continue doing what we’ve been doing, to figure out how to keep the doors open (or, these days, keep the services live-streamed) for another week, to care for our members - and, on the side, if there’s time, energy, and money left over, to do some good in the community. These are all worthwhile tasks, but probably not inspiring enough to draw the same kind of commitment that I’ve encountered at SVA, Prep, and SEU – institutions where people know the mission, and are devoted to living the mission.

There’s so much going on right now, and plenty to worry about, very much including unemployment. But, since the pandemic has prevented us from doing much of what we usually do, maybe this is an especially good time to think more deeply about the  church’s mission. Why are we here? What is God calling us to do with the gifts that we have been given? What kind of mission would excite us? What would inspire other people, especially young people, who are desperately looking for hope and light in this grim and shadowy time? Imagine if our church settled on a mission so clear and compelling that we would all know it in our bones and easily describe it to others. Imagine a mission that other people could see in who and what we are. And, most important of all, imagine if we were all living the mission!

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Endurance



The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
October 4, 2020

Year A, Proper 22: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Endurance
        I haven’t looked back at my sermons from the past six months, but I think I’ve begun about half of them by saying something like, “Well, this has been a very difficult week.”
And, sure enough, here we are this morning – and, once again, it has been a very difficult week.
It was a week that ended with sobering images of the President, infected with the virus that has sickened and killed so many, slowly making his way from the White House to the helicopter that flew him to the hospital – leaving open lots of questions about his future, the future of many in his administration and party, and the future of our country.
And here in our own lives and in our own community, this week some have lost loved ones, others have undergone surgery and now face a long recuperation, some are still unemployed and others wonder how long they’ll be able to hold onto their jobs.
Meanwhile, teachers and students are still at it, trying to somehow teach and learn through screens. And, as always, those who have plenty of resources will probably do just fine, while those without will fall ever further behind.
It has been a very difficult week.
It has been a very difficult year.
And what is yet to come?
So, last Sunday feels like about a month ago – but last Sunday, during our virtual “coffee hour” with Bishop Hughes, it was so moving and heartening to hear many of you talk about what has been keeping you going during these tough days.
I was so glad and relieved that our Sunday services here on Facebook and our weekday services on the phone have been important lifelines.
They’ve been important to me, too.
As I said during coffee hour, I set up the phone services for you but they’ve sustained me as much anybody else.
There are two other practices that have kept me going 
One, which you’ve heard me talk about a million times, is my morning walk in Lincoln Park.
Right after Morning Prayer, I scoot out the door and aim to walk for about 90 minutes. During that time, I pray or just I let my mind wander. I try to keep my eyes open for signs of God’s grace and God’s presence – these days I see it in the changing season, the leaves shading from green to red and brown – and I take a picture or two for the “Fall Festival” I’ve been posting on Facebook.
And, during my walks, I see God’s grace and presence in the people around me – often the same people at the same time, in the same place, doing the same things.
There’s the older couple, always walking hand in hand as they listen to tinny music from a transistor radio.
There’s the man, bent with age, pushing his walker, determined to keep going.
On the track, there are the high school and college kids, young and strong and fast, delighted to race their teammates, preparing to run for real against their competitors.
And, there are the serious runners, often wearing shirts from marathons they’ve participated in, who easily lap me several times, straining to achieve goals known only to themselves.
So, these morning walks have kept me going.
And, also, as I mentioned in my weekly message, I’ve renewed my old friendship with reading.
Most mornings, I’ve been getting up even earlier than usual and trying to spend about a quiet hour or so, just reading. It took a while to regain my attention span, which was partially fried by social media and life’s distractions, but this morning reading time has been a huge help.
Last week, I read a book about St. Paul – one of my favorite saints, not just because of our church’s name, but because he’s so human – capable of great faith and courage but also sometimes jealous and insecure and frustrated and angry.
In his letters, Paul sometimes describes a faithful life as an athletic competition, especially as a race – a race that we run toward the goal of life with God forever.
We heard that imagery right at the end of today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul writes:
“…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the heavenly goal of God in Christ Jesus.”
St. Paul is a model of endurance – faced with so many setbacks and disappointments he kept going, he kept running the race that was set before him, trusting that Christ was with him and that Christ would give him the strength that he needed to reach his goal.
Endurance.
Just like Paul, you and I are called to endure, to run the race that is set before us.
And, just like Paul, Christ is with us, too, giving us the strength that we need to reach our goal.
As Bishop Hughes said last week in her sermon, God has already given us everything that we need.
We have all that we need to endure.

And, we don’t need to believe that because of what St. Paul wrote two thousand years ago, and we don’t need to believe it because of what the bishop preached last week.
During these terrible months, we have seen it with our own eyes.
We have experienced and displayed endurance.
Still don’t believe it?
Well, for years we talked about figuring out a way to live-stream our services, but when the pandemic struck and we had to close our doors, my tech support here pulled everything together in just a few days – and we’ve continued to refine our online worship ever since.
When I arrived here a little more than seven years ago, one of my goals was to eventually offer at least one worship service every day of the week. As most of you know, for years we had three regularly scheduled services, but doing anything more than that just seemed beyond our reach. But, when the pandemic struck, we quickly began gathering on the phone – a lot of us - three times a day, Monday through Friday. And, there’s at least one person out there who’s been pushing us to expand to Saturdays, too!
And, maybe even more amazing, our outreach ministries have not only endured, but they’ve grown!
The Triangle Park Community Center buzzes with activity almost every day. There, in that long neglected neighborhood, people find a place of welcome, a place to grab a sandwich or a cup of coffee. Two weeks ago the food pantry served 179 families – 366 adults and 214 kids. Our center is a place where kids are able to do their schoolwork, and soon an SAT Prep class will begin. Parents are able to get much-needed diapers and formula, items that are so expensive in stores. And the clothes and books that are on racks, right out there on Old Bergen Road, help people to stay decently dressed and intellectually stimulated.
Meanwhile, Deacon Jill’s DJ Free Market continues to receive from those who have and share with those who do not – and they’ve partnered with lots of other wonderful organizations in town. And, as I announced last Sunday, The Lighthouse 2 will soon open in its new Union City location – offering a warm welcome to asylees and refugees, people who have been made to feel most unwelcome in or country over the past few years.
And, we have endured in smaller, quieter ways, too.
It’s not really safe for us to serve lunch at Garden State Episcopal’s homeless drop-in center, but last week Sonia prepared a mountain of sandwiches that were brought over there to feed our poorest and hungriest sisters and brothers.
And, I think, in a strange and mysterious way, during this time when we’ve been forced to be apart we have somehow grown closer together.
There’s more reaching out going on – more phone calls made – more handwritten cards dropped in the mail.
I know at least one person spent quite a bit of time ahead of the bishop’s visit helping other parishioners learn how to use Zoom, doing her best to make sure that everyone felt included on that special day.
And, finally, at the end of this pretty terrible week, our old, taped-together church boiler was disassembled and removed from the basement, and the new one is here – still mostly in pieces but soon to be assembled and ready to provide warmth for whenever we can all return to this holy place.
Because we know that our race is not over yet.

So, yes, this has been such a hard time, yet another difficult week.
And, no doubt, there are more hard times and difficult weeks ahead.
But, like that old man bent by age, pushing his walker through the park every morning – and like all of the good teachers determined to somehow reach their students even through screens - and like St. Paul traveling all over to share the Good News with as many people as he could – we will run the race that is set before us.
Christ is with us, giving us all that we need, promising that, no matter how bad things look, we will endure.
Amen.