Sunday, July 27, 2014

Risk is Our Business

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 27, 2014

Year A, Proper 12: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105: 1-11, 45b
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Risk is Our Business
            So, do we have any Star Trek fans here today?
            I’ll admit to being a fan – not quite a dress up in a costume, put on a pair of pointy ears and go to a convention kind of fan – but still a fan, especially of the original series with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock and the rest of the crew of the Starship Enterprise – the original series that first aired all the way back in the late 1960s.
            I’m enough of a fan that I’ve seen most of the original episodes many times. And, as Sue can tell you, I can and do quote lines from the shows and movies all the time.
            She doesn’t find that annoying.
            Anyway, when I first started thinking about Jesus’ parables that we heard today I was reminded of a line said by Captain Kirk in one episode:
            “Risk is our business.”
            For the past few Sundays we’ve been making our way through the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew – a section of the gospel that contains a collection of Jesus’ parables.
            It’s a little hard to define what a parable is, exactly.
            This doesn’t quite capture it, but parables are very short stories with multiple meanings. In fact, the more we reflect on Jesus’ parables the more meaning – the more meanings – we’ll discover.
            Jesus uses parables to describe the kingdom of heaven – the kingdom of God which is not just heaven but the kingdom of God which is the transformed here and now – the earth as God has always meant for it to be.
            Jesus’ parables are drawn from everyday life back in the First Century. Two weeks ago we heard the Parable of the Sower – the everyday image of a farmer planting seeds on good and not so good soil. Last week we heard the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds – weeds and crops getting all mixed up in a field much as they did back then and still do even right here in our own church garden.
            Jesus used these everyday images – and, most likely, he used them over and over again - as he traveled around teaching and healing in one village after another. Jesus told these parables over and over so people remembered them until they eventually made it into the gospels where we’ve been reading them and puzzling over them ever since.
            In today’s gospel passage we heard a bunch of Jesus’ parables.
            “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…”
            “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…”
            Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven starts small – small as a mustard seed or yeast – and grows into something amazingly large and substantial.
            And then we get to the two parables that I’d like to talk about today.
            Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
            And then, along the same lines, Jesus says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
            Through these parables, Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God is so valuable that we should risk everything for it.
            Risk is our business.
            Risk.
            Most of us know all about risk, don’t’ we?
            Yesterday and today we’re especially celebrating the history and cultures of the Caribbean. We had an amazing time marching and dancing in the parade and the party is continuing today with great music and delicious food.
            So, I’ve been thinking about those of you who were born and grew up in the islands – in places that were maybe not wealthy but where there was the security of close-knit families and communities, places where everybody knew your name.
            And yet you – like countless others from so many other places, took the risk of leaving all that comfort and warmth behind and coming here – here where there’s winter! – You came here hoping for a better life for yourself and your family.
            Risk.
            And all of us take risks all the time.
            In our sometimes dangerous city we take calculated risks – what streets are safe and which aren’t – what time is too late to be on the street or to take the bus – the doorbell rings and we answer the door for someone we don’t know, taking the risk that they mean us no harm.
            Some of us have taken the risk of serving our country or serving our community – wearing a uniform that’s a symbol of sacrifice and honor but also serves as an attractive target for violent people.
            Others of us have taken the risk of starting our own business or leaving a job for something we hope will offer more opportunity.
            We’ve taken the risk of loving someone else knowing that sometimes our love is rejected and sometimes relationships that seemed so solid get bruised and broken.
            We know all about risk – it’s risk that has brought many of us here – it’s risk that has brought us together.
            People back in the First Century took a lot of the same kinds of risks but Jesus calls them – calls us - to even more than these everyday risks.
            Jesus himself faithfully risked everything for his mission – for the kingdom of God - and, of course, in the end, Jesus gave away his life on the Cross.           
            Jesus is clear: if we’re going to truly follow him then risk is our business.
            We’ve already found the treasure. Just look around. But are we really willing to risk something – to risk everything – for God?
            I don’t know.
            But, I do see signs that we are risking more and more for God’s kingdom.
            I see us risking our hard-earned and all too limited resources to invest in our future here at St. Paul’s, giving even when it means we have to cut in other areas of our lives.
            I see us risking mockery and scorn from people on the street when we took church to McGinley Square on Friday evening. Here in church we know that we’re safe and surrounded by people we know and who are more or less on the same page with us when it comes to faith. Out there who knows? And yet, we took the risk.
            We took the risk of the marching and dancing in the parade yesterday. I’m sure there were some people who thought it was weird and, I don’t know, maybe even inappropriate for a church to march in the parade. Yet, we took the risk of being out there with the people spreading the Good News with people who may have forgotten it – or who maybe have never even heard it.
            We’ve found the treasure here at St. Paul’s.
            My prayer is that we’ll continue to look for ways to leave our little safe and secure St. Paul’s island.
            My prayer is that we’ll boldly go out into the world, risking it all for God.
            My prayer is that we Christians will remember that, “Risk is our business.”
            Amen. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Already, But Not Yet, in Jersey City

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 20, 2014

Year A, Proper 11: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Already, But Not Yet, in Jersey City
            For the past few Sundays we’ve been hearing excerpts from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
            As you may remember, Paul was a very faithful Jew – a Pharisee, in fact – who did not know Jesus during his earthly lifetime. As a young man, Paul (or Saul as he was then known) persecuted some of the first followers of Jesus – the people who claimed that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
            But then Saul had his own life-changing encounter with the Risen Christ.
            That mysterious experience transformed this remarkable man from Saul the persecutor to Paul the Apostle.
            As he reflected on his encounter with the Risen Christ, Paul realized that since God had raised Jesus from the dead, that means that the old world had come to an end and a new age had begun.
            And since that new age had already begun, there was no time to waste!
            So Paul along with others began to travel among non-Jews telling them the Good News of Jesus – the good news that salvation wasn’t just for Jews but was for everybody.
            God was ready to adopt us all as God’s children!
            Paul proclaimed this glorious new age had already begun but was not yet complete.
            It was already but not yet.
            And we hear the “already, not yet” in today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
            Most scholars think that this letter was among the last written by Paul – that it reflects his most mature understanding of what Jesus means for the whole world.
            The new age has already begun but is not yet complete.
            In his Letter to the Romans, Paul uses the beautiful and vivid image of childbirth to capture the “already, not yet” state of things.
            He writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
            Paul says that this already, not yet time – this in-between time – is like the groans of labor as new life is created.
            In recent days we’ve been painfully reminded that we live in the already, not yet – in this groaning, in-between time.
            On the one hand we don’t have to look far to see all kinds of signs that the joyful new age has already begun.
           
            Here at St. Paul’s, week after week, we enjoy beautiful worship and warm fellowship. Our church continues to grow and become healthier and even more committed to spreading the good news of Jesus.
            Already.
            Many Sundays as I stand at the altar rail and watch you all come forward to receive communion, I think to myself, “The Kingdom of God is like this.” People of all different backgrounds and life experiences, all different ages and colors, all coming forward hungry and expectant, ready to take the Body of Christ into our bodies and into our souls.
            Already.
            We’ll be spreading the Good News on Friday evening when we take our church into the world, holding a service at McGinley Square, offering the Good News of Jesus – offering Jesus himself - without walls.
            Already.
            And on Saturday, lots and lots of people will see us marching in the West Indian parade. And I have no doubt that God will use our joyful presence to remind at least some of the hungry people of our city that they can find the good food right here and at Incarnation and Grace Van Vorst.
            Already.
            Last Saturday afternoon Sue and I and my parents and lots of other happy people attended the wedding of my cousin Danny and his long-time girlfriend, Kristen. It was right over at St. Aedan’s. I was honored that they asked me to be part of the service – and pleasantly surprised that the Catholic priest went along with it (up to a point, of course.) There was real joy at the service and at the party afterwards as these two fine, generous young people – a firefighter and a teacher - made a lifelong commitment of love.
            Already.
            And then… the next morning we woke up to the horrible news of the shooting of young Officer Melvin Santiago, killed before he knew what him, assassinated by a seemingly out of his mind Lawrence Campbell, just a few blocks from here.
            Not yet.
            The reactions to the bloody deaths of Officer Santiago and Mr. Campbell uncovered and revealed all kinds of ugliness and pain in our city – uncovered and revealed all kinds of ugliness and pain that’s usually ignored by the media and the powers that be but that many of us in this room have to live with everyday.
            The ugliness and pain of young people without hope and opportunity, the often justified mistrust of the police and other authorities, racism and classism, a longstanding lack of leadership, a city more divided than ever into haves and have-nots and never-will-haves, whole neighborhoods mostly unaware of other parts of the city just a mile or two away.
            Not yet.
            On Tuesday the mayor invited the city’s clergy to a meeting to discus the situation. The meeting was at the Bethune Center so I decided I would drive right down MLK Drive to see the situation for myself.
            I’ll admit I was frightened – scared and saddened by the heavily armed officers looking more like the military than cops on the beat. I was frightened by the obviously angry people on every corner, some of whom looked at me in my Honda wearing my clerical collar with undisguised disdain.
            And then I got to the Bethune Center and saw an entire block of TV news vans with reporters already interviewing clergy members and community activists, adding more hot air to keep the fire burning.
            Not yet.
            Like many of you, I’m sure, all of this sadness and fear here in our city, plus what’s going on around the world, and whatever is going on in our own lives, has got me feeling down this week. I’ve been discouraged by so much suffering and pain, by our many problems that seem so big and unsolvable.
            But, like our friend St. Paul, in my heart I really believe that, despite appearances to the contrary, the new age of love and salvation has already begun.
            I’ve mentioned before that for the past five or six weeks, members of the clergy have been praying at places in our city where homicides have occurred. The first couple times there were only a few of us and we were weak and uncertain, careful not offend each other’s traditions and customs.
            But, the past couple of times, our numbers have been growing. Not only is our prayer for the dead and for peace gaining strength and confidence, but a real trust and friendship is growing among us.
            My hope is that we will find ways for not just clergy but all of us to be present in the pain of our city and to groan right alongside our suffering brothers and sisters.
            My prayer is that God will use us – use St. Paul’s and the Episcopal Church in Jersey City - to do what God always does, turn the groans of labor into the joyful shouts of new life.
            I don’t know how exactly that’s going to happen.
            But, with St. Paul, here at St. Paul’s, I know that the new age has begun.
            Already.
            Amen.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Doom of Independence


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
The Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
July 6, 2014

Year A, Proper 9: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:11-18
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

The Doom of Independence

            I hope you’re having a good Independence Day weekend.
            Thanks to Hurricane Arthur, most of July 4th itself was pretty wet, but nowhere near as bad as it might have been. And then the rest of the weekend has been beautiful.
            This weekend we celebrate independence.
            Of course, July 4th marks the birth of our country when a group of generally wealthy white men formally declared our break from the British mother country.
            Fortunately, in the Declaration of Independence those rich white men used beautiful and lofty language about our natural, God-given, equality and our “inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
            Back in 1776, we had a long, long way to go to make those beautiful and lofty words a reality for all Americans. In the years since, we’ve made some progress thanks to the hard work, courage and sacrifice of many.
            But, we don’t have to look far to know we still have a long way to go.
            So, this weekend, we celebrate our independence from Britain.
            And, maybe less consciously, we celebrate independence itself.
            We deeply value our independence. Maybe too much.
            And, we start valuing our independence at a very early age.
            I’m sure we’ve all witnessed infants throwing tantrums because they can’t get or can’t do what they want – the frustration at not being able to get out of the playpen or the highchair. And, sometimes, I guess the tantrums are just fury at not being in control, rage at not being able to do it on their own.
            As they get older, children are often on the lookout for ways to assert their independence.
            Most of you know that I grew up here in Jersey City, in Country Village to be specific. For grammar school, my sister and I both went to Our Lady of Mercy, which, was our parish church.
            But, when I was ready to start school, OLM hadn’t yet opened their kindergarten. So, I went to PS 30 on Seaview Avenue – not too far from home but as a little kid it felt like a pretty good distance, and it was certainly not in Country Village!
            There was a boy the same age as me, named Michael, who lived across the street. As I remember it, our mothers would take turns walking us or driving us to and from school.
            This must have gone on for months.
            Then, one afternoon, we got out of school. I think it was my mother’s turn to pick us up. There were a lot of parents and other adults waiting, but I didn’t see my Mom.
            But, I probably didn’t look that hard because I had gotten it into my head that Michael and I should just… walk home on our own.
            I easily talked Michael into it and off we went. In my memory, we came out onto Gates Avenue, walked down Gates, across the four lanes of Kennedy Boulevard, to Seaview Avenue, to Romar Avenue, to Neptune Avenue, and then into Country Village and home.
            Independence Day!
            Now, today we live in a much more safety-conscious world so I doubt Michael and I could have gotten to the Boulevard without the crossing guard or somebody asking questions about why these two little boys were walking home alone. But, back then, nobody asked any questions.
            So, what happened?
            I’m not sure about Michael but, of course, I got into big trouble.
            It could have been bigger trouble. I could have been hit by car or abducted or gotten lost.
            But, still, I got into trouble.
            And, that’s what happens.
            Now, don’t get me wrong, some independence is good – eventually I walked back and forth to school on my own - but when we try to be fully independent, when we depend only on ourselves, when we refuse to work together, and most especially, when we try to go it alone without God, we get into trouble.
            St. Paul certainly understood that we get into trouble if we try to go it alone.
            Today we heard one of the best-known passages from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
            Paul writes, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
            Paul is writing in the first person but he’s almost certainly not talking about himself; he had a rather high opinion of his own righteousness.
            It sounds like Paul is writing about those times when we fail to live up to our best intentions. Certainly that happens all too often, but Paul is after something bigger and more important and more frightening.
            Paul argues that even if we do everything we’re supposed to do, even if we do everything right, even if we follow all the rules, even if we cross only at the crosswalk, even if we wait for the green light and the “walk” sign, even if we do everything we’re supposed to do, we’re going to get into trouble.
            If we go it alone, we are doomed.
            Paul argues that we’re doomed because sin is really powerful.
            But, maybe just as important, if we go it alone we’re doomed because we’re not really made to be independent.
            It’s just the opposite, really. We’re meant to depend on each other – to work together, to share each other’s burdens, to hold each other up, to walk together through the streets of life.
            And, most of all, we’re meant to be dependent on God – the God we know in and through Jesus.
            In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is very critical of the people around him, this generation that has rejected both John the Baptist and him. Jesus is especially critical of the so-called “wise and intelligent,” the people most likely to think they can do it alone. It’s a pretty harsh passage, but then Jesus invites everybody, absolutely everybody, especially the weary and the heavy burdened. Which would be just about everybody, I think.
            Jesus uses the image of a yoke, a wooden beam that allows oxen to pull their load – to pull their load together.
            Jesus invites us to give up our independence and take his yoke upon us.
            And, here’s the thing: when we give up our independence and follow Jesus, ironically enough, we become truly free.
            When we give up our independence and follow Jesus we become truly free to live the lives we were made to live, truly free to journey home together – truly free to journey home together joyfully, lovingly, and safely.
            Amen. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Binding

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 29, 2014

Year A, Proper 8: The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42
The Binding
            Parents love their children.
            There are some very sad and troubling exceptions, but for the most part parents love their children with the most intense love that we can experience in this life.
            Most parents would do anything for their children - would, without a second thought, give up their own lives for their children. I see that kind of sacrifice around here all the time. So many of the parents here at St. Paul’s – so many of you - work so hard – work sometimes beyond exhaustion - to make sure your beloved kids have opportunities – have the best life possible in this often tough and dangerous city.
            Parents love their children. And that’s especially true – intensely true – for parents who had difficulty conceiving children.
            Maybe you’ve known people who endured fertility treatments or in-vitro fertilization to get pregnant. Some people employ a surrogate mother. And, of course, many wonderfully generous people adopt.
            Those parents – who desired a child so much – who kept trying despite the odds – who had children when they thought they couldn’t have children - those parents love their kids with an especially intense love.
            Abraham and Sarah were part of that group.
            The Book of Genesis tells the story of how God had called Abraham and Sarah to leave behind their old lives, to leave behind their home, to head out into an unknown land.
            God commanded Abraham to give up the past.
            And, in return, God promised that Abraham would be the father of a great nation.
            There was just one problem. Abraham and Sarah couldn’t conceive.
            You may remember last week we heard the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael. Because she couldn’t conceive, Sarah had given the slave woman Hagar to Abraham and together they had a son, Ishmael.
            But then, in their very old age, God gave Abraham and Sarah a child of their own, Isaac. We can imagine – some of us don’t have to imagine – Abraham and Sarah’s intense love for Isaac, their miraculous gift from God.
            All of this makes the story we heard today – what’s called “The Binding” of Isaac - so powerful, poignant and, yes, disturbing.
            Once again God calls Abraham. And Abraham responds, “Here I am.”
            Abraham is paying attention, ready and willing to obey God.
            Once again God sends Abraham out – this time with his beloved, miraculous,  son and two servants – this time to a place called Moriah where Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac.
            Earlier, Abraham had been commanded to give up the past.
            Now, Abraham is commanded to give up the future.
            They arrive at Moriah and Abraham tells the two servants to wait while he and Isaac worship and then return together – which sounds like a lie. Abraham may simply be lying to the servants and to Isaac – and maybe even lying to himself. Or, maybe it’s not a lie. Maybe Abraham hasn’t lost hope – maybe Abraham still trusts God’s mercy.
            Abraham places the wood on Isaac’s back.
            Isaac, no fool, realizes - wait a minute! - we have everything for a sacrifice… except the lamb.
            The Bible doesn’t describe how Isaac reacted when he realized that he was the lamb. But, it doesn’t seem like Isaac put up a fight. It seems that he submits to his elderly father. It seems that, like his father, Isaac also submits to God.
            Then they arrive and Abraham binds his son and takes the knife, prepared to obey God’s command, prepared to sacrifice his beloved son, prepared to sacrifice the future.
            And then at the last moment an angel orders Abraham to stop.
            Abraham passes the test.
            Abraham’s obedience, his total devotion, is rewarded.
            After the passage we heard today, God renews the original promise to make Abraham the father of a great nation, with descendants as numerous as the stars, as numerous as the sand on the seashore.
            The Binding of Isaac is a powerful, poignant and, yes, disturbing story.
            I bet a lot of us have trouble accepting what seems to us like God’s cruelty – testing Abraham by commanding him to kill his son.
            But, in ancient times, no one would have seen God’s command as cruel. Difficult and painful, yes, but not cruel. Throughout the ancient world, in every religion, the gods demanded sacrifice.
            And sacrifice means giving up something we value very much.
            It wouldn’t have been much of a sacrifice if Abraham didn’t value his son, if he didn’t love Isaac so much.
            The point of the story was and is Abraham’s total trust in God – Abraham’s total faithfulness and obedience to God.
            And God rewards that total trust, total faithfulness, total obedience with great blessing – blessing for Abraham and for the many generations that followed.
            So, what does any of this have to do with us here today?
            God certainly isn’t going to command us to sacrifice our children. And God isn’t even going to ask us to sacrifice a ram, or even a cat.
            But, God still calls us to sacrifice.
            God still calls us to total trust, faithfulness and obedience.
            In the story, Isaac was bound by his father for sacrifice.
            Well, today we’re going to have a different kind of binding.
            In a few moments, I’m going to have the great joy of baptizing Jasmine. Unlike Isaac long ago, Jasmine knows what she’s getting herself into. In the water of baptism, God is going to make an unbreakable bond with her – God and Jasmine will be bound together forever – linked by a bond that is indissoluble.
            And you and I are going to be reminded that we are also bound with God.
            In baptism, God has made an unbreakable bond with us – no matter what we do or don’t do – God will never dissolve the bond that holds us together.
            And just like God long ago commanded Abraham to sacrifice, so God commands us to sacrifice.
            God commands us to sacrifice what’s valuable to us – to sacrifice our precious time by coming here and praying together and breaking bread together – to sacrifice our pride by admitting when we mess up and promising to change our ways – to sacrifice our selfishness and self-interest by loving our neighbor as ourselves, by loving everyone even our enemies – to sacrifice our wealth by giving to those in need - to sacrifice ourselves by giving away our lives in loving service.
            God commands us to sacrifice – maybe not as difficult as sacrificing a beloved child – but pretty challenging nonetheless.
            And, like Abraham, when we sacrifice we are richly blessed.
            We are blessed with bonds of love – bonds of love between God and us – bonds of love among us all.
            Just look around.
            Amen. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

God's Gang

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 22, 2014

Year A, Proper 7: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

God’s Gang

            I don’t know the first thing about soccer but I’m impressed by how excited so much of the world gets about the World Cup.
            I was at a meeting this week with someone who told me that he and his son were about to leave for Brazil to see four World Cup matches. He told me that when they had booked this trip long ago they had no idea what countries they would get to see compete. As it turns out that one of the games they’ll get to see the USA vs. Germany. I’m sure it’ll be an amazing experience.
            On the one hand, these games bring out nationalism – there’s lots of flag-waving and anthem-singing and chanting all the rest. But, the games also remind us of our common humanity – these athletes demonstrate amazing skill and stamina whether they come from big, rich countries or small, poor ones. And, every once in a while, a small country scores an upset over a powerhouse.
            The World Cup has sparked lots of soccer-related stories in the news.
            The other day while I was driving I heard on the radio a story about an organization that tries to provide lower income people and homeless people with the opportunity to play soccer. The story focused on a tough Brooklyn neighborhood called East New York. Although many of the people who live there come from soccer-crazed countries, there aren’t too many chances to play.
            Why? Well, first there isn’t much open-space in the neighborhood for soccer fields.
            That makes sense.
            And then the reporter mentioned another reason: gang turf wars make some streets too dangerous to cross. People in that neighborhood might have to literally risk their lives to cross the street to go play a game of soccer.
            That made me sad. And it surprised me, though I guess it shouldn’t have.
            We have plenty of gangs and gang-related violence right here in Jersey City – right in the neighborhoods where many of us live.
            Not quite two weeks ago two young men were shot and killed while sitting in a car on Van Nostrand Avenue. As far as I know the police haven’t released more information but no one would be surprised if this was a gang-related killing.
            And, many of us know that lots of other stuff happens on our streets goes that never makes it into the news.
            There’s nothing new about this and certainly nothing unique to a particular ethnicity. People have always grouped themselves for safety and for power. We don’t usually call these groups gangs – we use nicer words like nationalities, or extended families, or even religious denominations.
            We group ourselves together. And we classify others as outsiders who are unwelcome on our turf.
            That’s what we humans have been doing all along – we’ve been forming gangs.
            Us versus them.
            Meanwhile, all along God has been trying to get through to us that there’s no us versus them. There’s just we. There’s only supposed to be one gang – God’s Gang – the gang where all are welcome.
            We hear about God’s Gang in today’s reading from the Book of Genesis.
            God chose Abraham to be the father of God’s people. It’s encouraging that in choosing Abraham, God chose a dysfunctional family to begin the spread of God’s message. There’s hope for us all.
            Anyway, in today’s reading we hear about the weaning of Isaac, the son of Abraham and his wife Sarah, this child born miraculously in Sarah’s old age. Now, back when it seemed that Sarah couldn’t get pregnant she had given the slave Hagar to her husband. Together Abraham and Hagar had a son named Ishmael.
            But, now that Abraham and Sarah have a son of their own, Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael gone. Sarah can’t stand having this slave woman and her son in their family – in their gang – on their turf.
            As we heard, in the story Abraham goes along with this after God assures him that Hagar and Ishmael will be OK. They’re expelled from the family – out of the gang - and go off on their own. But, God doesn’t abandon them. We’re told that God heard Hagar’s cry of despair. And God blesses Ishmael, making him the father of a great nation.
            Now, the usual interpretation is that Ishmael is the father of the Bedouin tribesmen who live south of Israel. The usual interpretation is that they are related to the Hebrews but inferior.
            But, another way of looking at it is, yes, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac have a special place as God’s chosen people. But, God blesses everyone. Hagar the slave and her son Ishmael were expelled from the gang but they were still welcome in God’s gang.
            Later, some Hebrew prophets offered a vision of the last days when all our divisions would be erased and all the nations, all the gangs of the world, would gather at Mt. Zion and worship the one true God.
            Kind of like God’s World Cup.
            We Christians believe that those last days have begun. God’s World Cup has begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
            In his earthly lifetime, Jesus had no interest in human gangs.
            Jesus stressed out his followers and outraged the authorities by reaching out to people he had no business talking with, crossing streets he shouldn’t have crossed. In the gospels Jesus is remembered reaching out to women, tax collectors, children, Samaritans, Pharisees, pretty much everybody he met.
            Jesus invited everyone to be part of just one gang: God’s Gang.
            In today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus warns that it’s not easy to be part of this gang.
            And at first glance, God’s Gang sounds pretty much like any other gang.
            If we’re part of God’s Gang, we’ll be accused of all sorts of stuff.
            If we’re part of God’s Gang, we’ll have to risk our lives.
            If we’re part of God’s Gang, we’ll have to put that allegiance above all other responsibilities – even including, even especially, family.
            Sounds just like the gang keeping kids from playing soccer, right?
            Except that everyone is invited to be part of God’s Gang.
            And, as membership in God’s Gang grows, there is less bloodshed and suffering as we – all of us - find our true identity and unity as God’s children.
            Let’s be honest. The world is a tough place and it often seems that God’s Gang isn’t doing too well. But, when we look carefully we can see signs that God’s Gang is growing.
            Here are two signs – one far away and one close to home.
            For more than a thousand years, for all sorts of reasons, Christians have been broken up into rival gangs: the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Anglicans, all sorts of Protestants and on and on. For more than a year, Pope Francis has been busy bridging divisions, inviting everyone to be part of God’s Gang. He’s become good friends with the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of Orthodox Christians. Along with the Patriarch, he recently held a prayer summit at the Vatican with the presidents of Israel and Palestine. All of this was unthinkable not long ago.
            This past week the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of our Anglican gang, visited the Pope at the Vatican for the second time in a year. They spoke about different ways that our two gangs could work together, which the pope summed up as the “Three P’s” – prayer, peace and poverty.
            At the end of their time together, the Pope – the Pope! - bowed his head and asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to bless him.
            God’s Gang is growing.
            Closer to home, a couple of weeks ago some local clergy representing Jews, Christians and Muslims – gangs that often don’t get along - met to discuss the possibility of praying at places in Jersey City where there have been murders. We reached an agreement and hoped we wouldn’t be called to do this anytime soon.
            A day later those two young men were shot on Van Nostrand. A week later a group of us – a rabbi, an interfaith minister, a Methodist pastor and two Episcopal priests – gathered at the spot and offered prayers for the dead young men, for the perpetrator, for peace on our streets and around the world.
            That group of clergy has all kinds of theological differences and yet at that moment it felt like we were all part of God’s Gang – the gang that offers peace and love – the gang where everyone is welcome - the gang that can build a world where kids of all different nationalities can cross any street they want and play a game of soccer.
            In and through Jesus, God invites us – all of us – to be part of God’s Gang.
            It’s up to us to say yes.
            Amen. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

God the Dancer

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
June 15, 2014

Year A: The First Sunday after Pentecost – Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-2; 4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

God the Dancer
            I have been on a kind of “spiritual high” since our magnificent Pentecost celebration last Sunday.
            For me, it was not only one of the best services we’ve celebrated since I’ve been rector. It was one of the very best services I’ve ever experienced.
            The weather was perfect – maybe a little warm, but we have our air conditioning! We had knockout music and a packed church. Everybody looked so good decked out in their Holy Spirit red. I had the privilege of baptizing three beautiful children, Olivia, Charlotte and Amir. Standing at the font and feeling the joyful and expectant crush of the crowd around us was a very powerful experience.
            We prayed over our new altar. We congratulated our Sunday School children and gave gifts to our recent graduates.
            And then we topped it off with an all-time great St. Paul’s picnic. It was a little bit like the loaves and fishes – despite the larger than expected crowd there was more than enough delicious food for everyone.
            One of the highlights of our 10:00 service was the dance offered by some of our girls and led by Patrice Maynard. I had seen a little bit of their rehearsals so had some idea of what they were going to do. I knew it would be really good, but it was excellent.
            And then something happened that I didn’t expect.
            Patrice broke into this amazing high-energy solo dance right in the aisle.
            Now, I remember Patrice dancing here at St. Paul’s when she was a kid. I told her after that she’s still got it – she’s still a great dancer.
            How many of you like to dance?
            Because I’m so “smooth and graceful” I know you’ll be surprised that I’m not much of a dancer. You can just ask Sue if you don’t believe me.
            I remember in high school going to Prep dances that were held in the school cafeteria. There were lots of boys like me who couldn’t quite muster the courage to let loose and dance. So they set up a row of chairs on either side so the wallflowers would have a place to sit.
            Years later when I taught at Prep and chaperoned dances, I used to joke that nothing much had changed. Twenty years after graduation, I was still standing off to the side watching other people dance.
            Now, pretty much the only time I dance is at weddings – when I do the white guy two-step with Sue during some of the slow songs.
            Last week we celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. And today on the First Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate and ponder the mystery of the Trinity – this mind-blowing impossible to explain belief that God is One in three Persons.
            God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
            God is Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.
            Now since it’s pretty tough for us to wrap our heads around the idea that God is one and three at the same time, Christians for many centuries have tried to come up with analogies and metaphors and images to make the ultimate mystery a little less mysterious.
            St. Patrick made probably the most famous attempt, using the shamrock, the three-leafed clover to explain to the Irish how God can be One and Three at the same time.
            Some of the early Church Fathers used the Greek term perichoresis, which means rotation, to describe the relationship among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father dwells in the Son and the Son dwells in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit dwells in the Father and round and round they go.
            Others have taken that rotation image and made it less abstract by describing the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in a great and cosmic dance, dancing together in love for all eternity.
            God is the great dancer.
            And God could have left it at that. God doesn’t need anyone or anything.
            The Trinity could have danced away alone for ever.
            Yet, apparently God doesn’t want to dance alone.
            God chooses others – chooses us – to be part of the divine dance.
            In today’s first lesson from Genesis, we heard the familiar story of creation, the biblical explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. God chooses to share God’s love with all of creation. God chooses to share God’s love especially with us.
            God invites us to the dance.
            Sometimes we accept the invitation. Other times, more often, we decline.
            We know in just a few verses after what we heard this morning, there’s the story of Adam and Eve. Talk about invited to the dance! Yet, we know how the story goes. The first man and woman choose not to dance with God, choosing their own wants and desires instead.
            Throughout the Old Testament we hear the story of God using prophets and other holy men and women to invite Israel to the great dance. Sometimes they accepted the invitation. Other times, more often, they declined.
            And then, finally, God joined us in and through Jesus of Nazareth. God brought the dance right here to earth. God invited us to dance, to dance by loving our neighbor as ourselves, by loving our enemy, by giving away our lives in loving service to God and one another.
            We declined that invitation – actually, we destroyed that invitation - at the Cross, in the ugliest way imaginable.
            And yet on that first Easter Day, God extended the invitation to the dance once again. The resurrected Christ says, “Peace be with you” and breathes the Holy Spirit on us.
            Now, the invitation is issued to us here today.
            Once again, God invites us to be part of the dance of love.
            We accept the invitation to the dance in the water of baptism. We accept the invitation each time we ask and receive forgiveness. We accept the invitation each time we stretch out our hands and take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and our souls.
            God invites us to be part of the divine dance of love.
            We accept that invitation each time we reach out to someone in trouble, each time we offer forgiveness, each time we share our bounty with those in need.
            We accept God’s invitation each time we go out into the world and through our actions and our words, we teach about Jesus. We accept God’s invitation each time we share the Good News, making disciples on Duncan Avenue, on Storms Avenue, everywhere.
            For all of eternity, God the great dancer is dancing away.
            Father, Son and Holy Spirit are dancing their dance of love.
            The Good News is that God invites us to the dance.
            The Good News is that at God’s dance there are no chairs along the side.
            The Good News is that at God’s dance there are no wallflowers.
            The Good News is that, if we say yes, we can all dance with God.
            Amen.