Sunday, September 17, 2017

Forgiveness Is Power

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 17, 2017

Year A, Proper 19: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness Is Power
            So, by now many of you know that I’ve got a few little jokes that I use all the time – and maybe by now some of you are wishing I’d knock it off – or at least come up with some new material!
For example, sometimes when people ask me how I’m doing or kindly express concern that I’m not getting enough rest, I’ll smile and say, “I’m OK because, you know, I only work on Sundays!”
At that, people usually either laugh a little, or roll their eyes, or look at me with confusion – not sure if I’m serious or not.
Well, of course I don’t just work on Sundays but maybe some of you wonder what exactly it is I do during the week.
Well, we have our weekday services, and I attend a ton of meetings, and I make pastoral visits, and take care of the business of the church, but most of all, I spend a lot of time simply listening to people.
Sometimes they make an appointment to see me or they’ll just come by or call the office. Sometimes people will stop me on the street and just start talking.
Often they’ll share some challenge or struggle in their life and hope that I’ll know a way to fix whatever is wrong.
It took me a while to realize that I must have been absent the day they gave out magic wands at seminary, a long time to accept that I can’t really “fix” anybody’s situation – that all I can do is listen, and offer a shoulder to cry on, and pray, of course – all I can do is offer my companionship on this road of faith that we’re all walking.
Sometimes, people will come and see me because they’re having a crisis of faith. And, that’s no surprise since, you know, it’s hard to be a Christian – it’s hard to trust God when the world seems to be going to hell, it’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself, even harder to love our enemies.
It’s hard to give generously when we have so many responsibilities and there’s that tall pile of bills waiting for us on the kitchen table, it’s hard to be faithful in worship when we’re so tired from the week or we’re suffering from aches and pains, and it’s hard to pray for someone we don’t like one bit, or maybe even fear.
It’s all very hard and only possible with God’s help, God’s grace – which, fortunately, is always offered to us.
Amen? Amen.
            And, maybe there’s nothing harder about Christianity than what we heard today in the exchange between Jesus and Peter.
            Peter approaches Jesus and asks a really good question:
            “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
            Wouldn’t you like to know the backstory behind that question?
            Something not so good must have happened, right? It seems that Peter has been wronged and he wants to know just how far he has to go with this forgiveness business that I’m sure he’s heard Jesus talk about a ton of times.
            Maybe to cover himself and show he’s not stingy with forgiveness, or maybe just to show Jesus that he’s been paying attention, Peter picks a big number: seven.
            Even today, forgiving someone seven times for the same offense would seem pretty generous to most of us, right? But for first century Jews, seven was more than seven: it was the number that represented infinity.
            So, that’s a lot of forgiveness.
            But, Jesus, in his usual Jesus way, takes it even further, replying,
            “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
            An infinite infinity of forgiveness.
            Christianity is hard, right?
            The truth is that even the most forgiving of us are probably not quite up to speed in the forgiveness department – oh, we may be good at forgiving little things, maybe, but the big stuff, that’s hard.
            That’s why we marvel at examples of extraordinary forgiveness.
            For example, in today’s first lesson from Genesis, we heard the tail end of the story of Joseph and his brothers.
            You may remember how out of jealousy the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt – ah, family – where he rose to become a powerful official in the Pharoah’s government.
            It’s a long and wonderful story but the bottom line is that when Joseph has the opportunity to get his revenge, he instead offers bighearted forgiveness.
            As we heard him say to his brothers:
            “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
            Pretty amazing, right?
            And, of course, we marvel at modern-day examples of extraordinary forgiveness, too.
            I’ve mentioned it before, and I’m sure many of you remember the story of Charles Roberts, who it seems was unable to forgive himself for his own past misdeeds and who blamed God for the death of his young daughter, and one day back in 2006 walked into an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, opened fire, shot eight of the ten young girls present, killing five of them before killing himself.
            This would have been just another tragic mass murder in a country that loves its arms so much, except for what happened next:
            The Amish immediately offered forgiveness.
            That same afternoon, the grandfather of one of the girls publicly offered forgiveness.
            The same day, some Amish visited the Roberts family to console them in their loss.
Later, one the Amish families invited the Roberts family to the funeral of their little girl – and, finally, the Amish outnumbered the non-Amish at the funeral of Charles Roberts, the man who had inflicted so much pain on them – had taken away their children, their greatest treasures.
And, even more recently, just a little more than two years ago now, I’m sure many of you remember the senseless massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, when Dylann Roof, a young white man horribly twisted by racism, walked into a Bible study and after sitting for a while opened fire, killing nine people, including the church’s pastor.
At Dylann Roof’s bond hearing, Nadine Collier, whose mother was among those killed, said to the young murderer:
“I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk with her again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul… You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
            A year later, Nadine Collier shared an insight she gained from this horrific experience. She said,
            “Forgiveness is power. It means you can fight everything and anything head on.”
            Forgiveness is power.
            She’s right – and we see that power in Joseph forgiving his brothers, the Amish and the people of “Mother Emanuel” forgiving those who had taken so much from them – and we see that power in Jesus himself, hanging on the cross, praying to the Father to forgive those who had wronged him so terribly.
            Now, at this point we might be thinking that these are all kind of extreme situations, the stuff that makes the news, and so doesn’t really apply to us or the people we know, the people we’re sitting with right now.
            But, we’d be wrong.
            After listening to so many people, one thing I’ve learned is that many of us, maybe all of us, carry some deep wounds or, if we’re fortunate and have healed a bit, maybe now they’re just scars – and, unfortunately, most of that hurt comes at the hands of other people – maybe physical or emotional abuse, or some kind of betrayal, or, perhaps, profound disappointment.
            And, sometimes those wounds and scars are self-inflicted.
            There’s so much pain, right here.
            And yet, Jesus calls us, commands us, to be like God and forgive – which, as I believe we mentioned, is hard – and, I want to be absolutely clear about this, depending on what’s going on, especially in an abusive or some other dangerous situation, forgiveness isn’t necessarily the first thing we need to deal with.
            But, eventually, we’ll need to face the command - and maybe even the need - to forgive – to forgive someone who’s hurt or wronged us and, maybe, we might even need to forgive ourselves.
            So, just how can we be like God and forgive?
Just how can we be like Jesus and Joseph and the Amish and the people of Mother Emanuel?
            Just how can we tap into the power of forgiveness?
            Well, I don’t know exactly. But, I’m pretty sure the key is community – community just like this.
            When we’re all alone, alone with our wounds and our scars, alone with our fears, hurts, and grievances, forgiveness may seem nearly impossible.
            But, when we’re part of something larger, when we listen to each other and offer a shoulder to cry on, when we pray together and walk beside each other - when we come here each week and listen to these old, old stories and say these prayers and sing our songs – well, I know that God works with and through all of that, uses all of that and more to give us an ever-stronger sense of who we are and whose we are and what we’re about, so that, like those heartbroken Amish and the grieving people of Mother Emanuel, like Jesus himself, we too can have the confidence and courage to tap into the power of forgiveness, not just once but  maybe seven times, or even seventy-seven times.
            Hard? You bet. But, with God’s help, we can do it.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Our Special Vocation

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation
September 10, 2017

Year A, Proper 18: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Our Special Vocation
            Well, there are way more than two or three of us gathered here today so we know that the Lord is most definitely here among us!
            Amen? Amen!
            But, although the Lord is most definitely here among us, let’s face it: there are shadows hanging over today’s celebration.
            In the last week, Houston and the surrounding area had barely begun to dry off and assess the enormous damage and loss when our attention turned to another, even more powerful and destructive storm.
            As you all know, Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, inflicting almost unimaginable damage and loss, wounds and fears that are so personal for many of us here in church, since we have such deep connections to the West Indies.
            Obviously, our fundraiser for Texas and Louisiana has now become an effort to help the people of the islands, as well.
            And now, as Hurricane Jose is menacing many of those same islands, the still-powerful Irma is churning and blowing its way through Florida, leaving us anxious about the safety of people in another place where many of us have connections…
            Including my wife Sue and me.
            As some of you know, we lived in Florida for a year when I served as the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Florida and rector of a small church called St. Michael’s, in suburban Gainesville.
            To be honest, it was uncharacteristically bold for us to up and move from New Jersey to a strange new place and, although we didn’t stay very long, I learned a lot about myself during that Florida year, learned that it’s important for me to be close to family and friends even if I don’t see them as often as I should, learned that I’m not really a college chaplain, learned that my ministry is in the parish.   
            And, I learned about the deep and lasting pain of division and disunity.
            Where two or three are gathered, the Lord is there.
            And, unfortunately, where two or three are gathered there’s likely to be conflict and division, too.
            St. Michael’s, the small parish where I served, had a lot going for it. Our committed and faithful members worshipped in an architecturally interesting church with some of the best acoustics I’ve ever heard, located at a major intersection and with a big parking lot that makes my mouth water just thinking of it.
            And, it hadn’t always been a small church.
            In fact, it had been one of the bigger churches in the Diocese of Florida until a split took place a few years before I got there.
            Now, I only heard one side of the story, but it seems that the election of the first openly gay bishop in the church drove the priest at the time to lead nearly the entire congregation out of the Episcopal Church.
            They started a new “Anglican” church just a few blocks away. Where there had been one church, now there were two.
            The first Sunday after the split there were exactly four parishioners at St. Michael’s for worship.
            Although that was a few years before I got there, the pain was still very raw.
            There was pain for those who remained, who were left with the enormous challenge of keeping a church going with just a handful of people.
            And, there was pain for those who left, who abandoned the place where all of those baptisms, weddings, and funerals had taken place, where all of those potluck suppers had been eaten and all of those vestry meetings had been endured.
            Part of what made the split so hard was that both “sides” would run into each other all the time, in the supermarket or the bank, at their kids’ soccer games, sitting a table or two away at restaurants.
            It was like a really bad divorce, but one involving several hundred people.
            Occasionally, especially when I first arrived, some of the people who had left stopped by St. Michael’s (probably to check out the new priest), and I would see them look longingly at their former spiritual home, abandoned because of conflict and disunity.
            Well, those of us who’ve been around for a while know that Episcopal churches of Jersey City have had more than our fair share of conflict and division, too, right?
            Incarnation itself was born because, tragically, a century ago, African-Americans were not welcome at the other Episcopal churches, including this one – an unpleasant history that we will need to face and acknowledge and in some way repent for in the months ahead.
            And, I don’t know, but perhaps there are things in Incarnation’s past that might require some reflection and repentance, too.
            Certainly, for far too long our churches basically ignored each other. I know I had been a parishioner here at St. Paul’s for about two years before I learned that Incarnation was just a few blocks away. In fact, I know the exact date. It was September 11, 2002 when the first anniversary service was held there. I remember people being amused when I asked if I needed to drive there!
And, when we didn’t ignore each other we competed with each other – I’m not sure which is worse – in any event, less than Christian behavior that, in the end, left us all in pretty bad shape.
We've come a long way, right?
            Where two or three are gathered, the Lord is there.
            And, unfortunately, where two or three are gathered there’s likely to be conflict and division, too.
            As we heard in today’s Gospel lesson, there’s nothing new about this – conflict and division seem to have been present in the Church from nearly the beginning (depending on your personality, this is either reassuring or depressing!).
            And, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus lays out a detailed procedure for how to deal with conflict and division in the community, one that, if all else fails, would mean the exclusion of one or more from the community.
            But, we are meant to understand that when that happens it’s a terrible failure – a failure to be what God dreams we will be, a failure to be who we really are: the Body of Christ, the community where, as St. Paul writes, all we owe one another is love, nothing but love.
            Unlike my church in Florida, we at St. Paul’s and Incarnation aren’t embarking on a split but something maybe even more challenging, a union – more challenging but more faithful, an answer to the prayer of Jesus that we be one as he and the Father are one.
            During this process, two or three will be gathered so we know the Lord will be there, will be here, but we also know that when two or three are gathered there’s likely to be at least some conflict and disagreement.
            So, we all need to pray – I’m not kidding, seriously pray – for the guidance and grace of the Holy Spirit.
            Because here’s the thing, and something I believe with all my heart:
            Since I’ve been back in Jersey City, I’ve become convinced that our beautifully diverse and yet, for the most part, remarkably harmonious congregations, we have a special vocation.
            Because, of course it’s not just a couple of churches in Florida that have been broken by conflict and division.
            No, our world and our country and even our rapidly changing city with its stark division of haves and have-nots, all of it is so clearly and often bitterly divided.
            We don’t talk to each other, don’t understand each other, don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt, don’t much like each other, and we certainly don’t love each other.
            Now, you and I, Incarnation and St. Paul’s, we’re not going to fix all of that, but I really believe that we have a special vocation to show at least Jersey City that there is another way – that even with all of our bad history, even with our diversity in so many ways, even with our occasional disagreements and misunderstandings, we really can be a united community of love – we can show the world that when two or three or, hopefully, way more than that, gather together, the Lord is indeed right here and right now.


Friday, September 08, 2017

Peace Is Indeed Possible

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Third Annual Choral Festival of Peace
September 8, 2017

Peace Is Indeed Possible

Our Minister of Music, Gail Blache-Gill, has given me the daunting task of offering a reflection on peace.
It’s a daunting task because it’s a big subject and it’s getting late and, let’s face it, there’s nothing I can say that would be as profound or as beautiful as the music we’re hearing tonight.
Three years ago when we offered the first Choral Festival of Peace, we chose the September JC Friday because it’s close to the anniversary of the September 11 attacks – and, actually, that year it fell on September 11 itself.
We remembered that shocking day of deep blue skies when, especially for those of us who were here in the metro area, whatever sense of security we thought we had was taken away from us, that terrifying and tragic day when our peace, and so much else, was shattered.
Since then, we’ve endured sixteen years of war and rumors of war, sixteen years of terror and the fear of terror – a whole generation has grown up knowing nothing else.
And, during these years our peace has also been broken by partisanship so extreme that many of us can’t see “the other side” as fellow Americans, let alone as brothers and sisters, God’s beloved children.
During these years our peace has been broken by economic anxiety, the loss of jobs for many and, for some, little hope of ever finding employment.
Our peace has been broken by anxiety of warming temperatures and rising tides and ferociously destructive storms.
And, our own personal peace has been broken by our individual hurts and wounds and fears.
So, what to do?
Of course, we could just accept that this is how it’s going to be.
Or, maybe we could, with God’s help, take a few steps toward rebuilding – or maybe just building – peace.
As individuals, we might take up the challenge of truly living mindfully, of recognizing that, as the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes and teaches,  “peace is every step.”
So, even in a gritty city, we can breathe in and breathe out and recover the wonder that we are alive, right here and now – we can look up at the clouds in the sky and we can look down at the beautiful flowers growing stubbornly even in the most inhospitable soil – we can see the people we pass on the street, the people we work with, go to school with, and even the people we live with – see their gifts and their burdens – we can at least try to love even those who are so hard to love.
And, collectively, I think the biggest obstacle to peace is that we sell ourselves short. We don’t see or maybe have just forgotten just how much power we have.
You know, one of the more surprising themes of the gospels is that Jesus’ closest followers and friends have a really hard time figuring out who he is and what he’s about. They get it wrong all the time.
But, at the same time, in the gospel stories the demons know exactly who Jesus is – they have no trouble recognizing him and respecting his power and authority.
And, I wonder if the same isn’t sort of true for us, no matter what our religious background, or if we’re not religious at all.
Too often we’re not able to recognize the power of goodness and love – we’re not able to see that when we get together and harness that power then evil doesn’t stand a chance and peace can be restored.
For example…
Just last week the Episcopal churches of Jersey City had a meet and greet at our new community center, a storefront at Triangle Park down in Greenville.
We brought some food and offered arts and crafts for the kids, the DJ pumped out some loud music and we all wondered what would happen.
Well, what happened was lots of people came out of their homes to see what was going on and they ate and danced and did arts and crafts and they talked to us.
And, one of the things we heard from our beautiful new neighbors is that for years their little park has been ruled by the evil of addiction and by those who feed that demon.
Yet, for a few hours at least, armed with nothing more than hot dogs and sandwiches and soda and cake and, most of all, love and care, we took back that park and made it a place of peace - and evil beat a retreat to the shadows
And, you know, it wasn’t even that hard to do. Actually, it was fun!
We were armed with nothing more than hot dogs, sandwiches, soda and cake – armed with nothing more than genuine care and love.
Later, I’m sure the demons returned, but, for a time, peace was restored, and I know we can do it again.
So, for me, that experience at the park and our time together here tonight are powerful reminders that, yes, even in these hard times, peace is indeed possible.
Thank you.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Everyday Temptations

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 3, 2017

Year A, Proper 17: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Everyday Temptations
            A lot can happen in a week, right?
            Last Sunday many of us were down at Liberty Park with our friends from Grace and Incarnation, enjoying one of the most beautiful days of the year, as we celebrated and sang and ate and drank and basked in the sun together.
            You may remember that in last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
            And, in reply the disciples rattled off a list of the usual suspects: Elijah or John the Baptist or some other prophet.
            And then, Jesus asked his closest followers a more pointed, more personal question, “But, who do you say that I am?”
            Of all people, it’s Peter, the so-called “Rock” who so often wasn’t very solid at all, the fisherman who often messed up and didn’t quite get it, it’s Peter who, this time anyway, gets the answer exactly right:
            He says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
            A lot can happen in a week.
            For days now we’ve been watching scenes of devastation and heartbreak as a storm that was described as “unprecedented” overwhelmed our country’s fourth-largest city and the surrounding areas, killing at least thirty-one people and displacing thousands of people whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed and who now face the dangers of disease and chemical explosions and contaminations and even alligators.
            A lot can happen in a week.
            And then this past Thursday evening, after thirty or so years of thinking about it and talking about it and dreaming about it, the Episcopal Church finally returned to the Greenville neighborhood in the southern part of Jersey City.
            The Triangle Park Community Center was born at a meet and greet where we served food and offered arts and crafts for kids and just talked with many of our new neighbors, who gave us an earful about the neighborhood – the crime, the lack of activities for kids, the woeful state of the little park that gave our center its name.
            Although the neighborhood does indeed a lot of work, the people were diverse and beautiful and friendly and our meet and greet was a truly wonderful time, I’d say one of the top ten events we’ve done.
            I’m excited to see what takes root at Triangle Park!
            Now, in today’s Gospel lesson, we pick up right where we left off, but unlike last week when Peter got the answer exactly right and made his big confession of faith, there are now shadows over Jesus and his disciples.
We’re told that Jesus began to share with his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, where he will suffer, be killed, and raised on the third day.
That must have been hard and confusing to hear, a lot to take in all at once, and, sure enough, Peter, who did so well last week, now messes up big time.
He seems to have not heard or understood the part about Jesus rising on the third day, but instead, understandably, focuses on Jesus’ suffering and death – and he finds that idea completely unbearable.
We’re told Peter pulls Jesus aside and “rebukes” Jesus – a strong word – “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Now, at this point, we might expect Jesus to quietly try to console Peter, explain things a little bit, repeat to him about the third day, but instead Jesus really lets Peter have it:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
            You know, usually, we only talk about the temptations of Jesus once a year when we hear the gospel account of his forty days in the wilderness when Satan tempted Jesus to use his power for his own glory or well-being – come on, throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you – come on, you’re starving so just go ahead and turn this stone into bread.
            Jesus successfully resisted those temptations and so I think that we assume or fool ourselves into thinking that those were the only temptations he faced during his earthly lifetime. But, I’m sure that’s not the case. I’m sure just like all of us, our brother Jesus faced everyday temptations throughout his life – and, maybe, no greater temptation than the temptation Peter unintentionally placed before him – the temptation to turn away from the work that God had given him to do – the temptation to live a “normal” life, to be pretty much like everybody else.
            This “everyday temptation” was all too real for Jesus so he angrily shuts Peter down.
            And, you know, we Christians face the same kind of everyday temptations, too.
            Just like Jesus, we’re tempted to turn away from the work God has given us to do, tempted to live a “normal” life, to be pretty much like everybody else.
            Just like Jesus, we’re tempted to turn away from the work God has given us to do because it’s hard, and risky, and it’s going to cost us.
            Just listen to Jesus in today’s gospel lesson:
            “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
            Or, listen to St. Paul in today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Romans:
            “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you.”
            This is the work we are called to and it is so very tempting to turn away from it and just live like everybody else.
            Which brings me to Joel Osteen.
            I’m only somewhat familiar with him and his message, since I go to church all the time so I don’t really need or want to watch church on TV, but I know some of our parishioners watch and enjoy him.
            As you probably heard, reporters questioned why he didn’t open his massive church (which seats an unbelievable 16,800!), didn’t open his church to people who were fleeing the storm and seeking shelter.
            The first response was that the church itself was flooded and inaccessible but then some reporters went there and found it to be OK.
            Then Joel Osteen made a media blitz, appearing on lots of TV news shows standing in front of large piles of supplies that had apparently been donated, announcing that the church was now open for those in need and explaining that they hadn’t opened the church in the first place, because the government hadn’t asked them to open it.
            Now, there’s no way for us to know what was really going on there, and it’s not my job to judge Joel Osteen or anybody else for that matter, but that sounds to me like giving into the everyday temptation to turn away from the work that God as given us to do, giving into the temptation to live like everybody else, protecting our investments, protecting our beautiful property, closing our doors to those in need, waiting to be asked to serve others rather than taking the risk of stepping up.
            Osteen’s actions resonated with me because I could imagine myself, I could imagine us, in a similar situation saying, yes of course we want to help, but our beautiful floor and carpet, but we only have one bathroom, but we’re just a small church, but nobody asked us, but, but, but…
            But, on Labor Day weekend and always, our work is to give away ourselves in loving service to God and one another, especially those in need.
            So, my prayer is that we’ll give generously to Episcopal Relief and Development, give not just the dollar bill that’s crumpled up at the bottom of our pocket or purse, but give so that it requires some real sacrifice on our part.
            My prayer is that we’ll step up our regular food donations, which, as usual, remain pretty meager, that we’ll give away food at least as good as what we ourselves eat and serve to those we care about.
            My prayer is that at least some of us will support the new community center – there is so much talent in this room, so let’s use it to serve our new friends, our brothers and sisters around Triangle Park.
            Oh, like Jesus and like Christians throughout the ages, we’ll still face the everyday temptations to turn away from this work, to be “normal,” to live pretty much like everybody else, but, as Jesus taught us by his own example: giving away our lives in loving service to God and our brothers and sisters is the way of life.