Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Moment of Baptism

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
January 12, 2020

Year A: The First Sunday after Epiphany – The Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

The Moment of Baptism
            If you’ve been here more than a few times you have probably heard me talk about how much I love baptizing people.
            It is just about my most favorite thing that I get to do as a priest.
            But, there’s something that I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about and that’s the moment of Baptism.
            As most of you know, our baptisms here usually take place right in the middle of the 10:00 service.
            After I’m done with my sermon, I invite the family and friends and everyone else to join us in the back of the church, gathering around the font.
            Gail provides a little musical cover for what is typically a kind of chaotic scene as the family of the person (usually a child) to be baptized aren’t always sure about what’s happening and what’s the right thing to do, and other people have to decide if they’re going to make the move or just stay put
            But, somehow we all get where we’re going, though before I continue the service I always have to make sure that the soon to be baptized person and the parents and godparents haven’t gotten lost in the crowd.
            We try to perform baptisms, like we try to do everything else in this sacred place, with solemnity and dignity, but the truth is it can get a little messy as people try to find their place in the bulletin, people in the back strain to see and hear, and of course lots of people jockey for the best position, trying to capture the whole thing using their cellphone cameras, meanwhile missing out on the actual experience.
            But, no matter how chaotic and confusing, there is always the moment of Baptism.
             It doesn’t matter if the child sleeps through the whole thing or screams her head off, it doesn’t matter if the adult seems a little embarrassed or is moved to tears, no matter if this place is packed or there’s just a few of us, in the moment of baptism I can see or feel something happen between God and the baptized:
God makes an unbreakable, indissoluble bond.
God says, you are loved, you are mine forever.
God encourages, live your life knowing that I will never let go of you.
It’s all very amazing.
And, part of what makes baptism amazing is that this is an experience that we share with Jesus himself.
All four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism, though they tell it in somewhat different ways.
And, right up front, we have to acknowledge that there is awkwardness to the fact that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.
It’s a little awkward because we know that John preached a baptism of repentance but we believe that Jesus the Son of God was without sin, so there was no need for repentance.
Today we heard the account of Jesus’ baptism that’s in the Gospel of Matthew.
And, if you notice, Matthew tells us that John recognizes that Jesus is his superior. John acknowledges the awkwardness of the scene. John tries to “prevent” Jesus from presenting himself for baptism, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
And Jesus responds in a way that’s a little hard for us to understand, saying:
“Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
This baptism isn’t about repentance but yet it seems that in some way Jesus needed to be baptized.
And, maybe, God needed Jesus to be baptized.
God and Jesus needed that moment of baptism, when all the distractions of the world faded into the background, when all the noise of the world grew silent, that moment when God was able to speak loud and clear:
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I well pleased.”
If he didn’t know before, now in the moment of baptism, Jesus knows who he is and whose he is.
Which is a very good thing, because three of the four gospels tell us that immediately after his baptism, Jesus is alone in the wilderness for forty days – or, actually, not quite alone because the devil is there tempting him.
But, Jesus is able to withstand those temptations, is able to endure hunger and thirst, able to stay strong in times of trouble, because of that moment of baptism.
Now, you and I may not spend days and nights alone in the wilderness, but it sure feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?
It feels like we’re in the wilderness when we’re burdened by trouble and fear and grief, when we’re tempted to do what we know what’s not right, when the very foundations of our life and our world prove to be not as solid as we had thought.
But, like Jesus, we are able to withstand, able to endure, able to stay strong, because of that moment of baptism.
The only problem is that, unlike Jesus, most of us were baptized as babies.
That doesn’t make our baptism any less real, doesn’t make the moment of baptism any less important, but it does mean that we need to be reminded.
I was baptized downtown at St. Boniface Church which today is condos, so I guess the place of my baptism is now in someone’s apartment, but I can be reminded of my baptism every time I walk in here and see the font, every time we make our way in a chaotic procession to the rear of the church, every time we hear and see the moment of baptism.
Just as in the River Jordan long ago…
God makes unbreakable, indissoluble bond with us.
God says to us, you are loved, you are mine forever.
And, God encourages us, live your life knowing that I will never let go of you.
The moment of baptism.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Only God Is Forever

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

This week brought the sad news that Marist High School will close at the end of this school year. As many of you know, my father taught at Marist for many years - and our Senior Warden Patrice Maynard is an alumna. Founded in 1954, Marist has long been a fixture near the Jersey City - Bayonne line but, like many Catholic schools both here and across the country, it was ultimately doomed by the drop in religious vocations, changing demographics, the rise of charter schools, the declining role of religion in the lives of many, and I'm sure lots of other factors.

I've now lived long enough to see many religious institutions of my childhood and young adulthood vanish. I was baptized at St. Boniface Church on First Street, which is now condos. Sue and I were married at St. Peter's Church on Grand Street, which is today the St. Peter's Prep cafeteria. Nearly all of the Catholic schools of Hudson County have closed. And, you longtime Episcopalians will remember that Jersey City was once dotted with "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" signs, but these days it's just Grace and us.

As a sentimental person who loves local history and is committed to the church, this is all very sad, upsetting, and, yes, frightening. However, it's also a reminder that only God is forever. As much as we love our traditions and our institutions, as much as we tend to our old buildings, our focus must always be on the God who will never decline, who will never close.

This Sunday when we hear the story of the Baptism of Jesus, we'll be reminded that just as God the Father and Jesus the Son are one, we are united with God forever. In the water of Baptism, God makes an indissoluble bond with us. No matter what we do or don't do, no matter what happens to our institutions, God will never let go of us. It's the best news ever.

See you on Sunday,


Sunday, January 05, 2020

After Christmas: A New Chapter

The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation
January 5, 2020

Year A: The Second Sunday after Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Matthew 2:1-12

After Christmas: A New Chapter
            Happy New Year!
            So, as you may have noticed, the world pretty much moved on from Christmas about a week and a half ago, but here in church it is still Christmas, though just barely.
Tomorrow we will celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany but just in case you can’t make it to church on Monday at noon, today we heard the story of the wise men from the East, most likely from Persia, which is modern-day Iran.
The wise men boldly followed the star all the way to the newborn King in Bethlehem, where they presented their symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Those items may not have been such great gifts for a baby, but they appropriate for a king – for a God - who will die for his people.
            The story of the Magi is beautiful and mysterious and powerful – representing that Jesus is a gift for the whole world.
            But, already there are shadows looming over this story – one shadow in particular named Herod, the local king who is none too pleased to learn of this royal birth and who will soon hatch a bloody plot, trying (and, thanks in part to the Wise Men, failing) to eliminate this newborn rival.
            As you know, Joseph and Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath, staying there until the coast was clear and they were able to return to their hometown of Nazareth and get on with their lives.
            It was the start of another chapter of their lives.
            In the time just before and just after Jesus’ birth there had been so much excitement and wonder and struggle and fear: angelic appearances, miraculous pregnancies, giving birth in a most inhospitable place, shepherds, wise men, threats of murder, fleeing as refugees – so much  - but now that was over.
            Now Joseph and Mary and the young Jesus settled into the next years of their lives – a time that we know almost nothing about. All we have is just the one story that Luke tells us of the boy Jesus staying behind in the Jerusalem Temple, scaring the wits out of Mary and Joseph when they realize that he’s missing.
            Aside from that one incident, the gospels are silent about Jesus’ youth, adolescence, and young adulthood - silent until the adult Jesus presents himself to John to be baptized in the River Jordan - a story we will hear next week.
            Of course, this large gap in the story of Jesus hasn’t stopped people from trying to imagine what those years were like – and I think there are few things we can say with confidence.
            It was surely a time of hard work  - hard work for Joseph the craftsman and hard work for Mary as she took care of their home – hard work for both of them as they raised Jesus – and hard work for Jesus himself who would have been expected to contribute to the household as soon as he was old enough.
            It was surely a time marked by the rhythms of the Jewish year, with Sabbath every week and occasional trips up to Jerusalem and its Temple for the great feasts, exciting times when this little family from a small town in Galilee would be in the big city, surrounded by Jews and other people from all around the Mediterranean world.
            It was surely a time when the current events of the world, the clash of empires, and the desire by some Jews to kick out the Romans from their land, would have been going on in the background but usually didn’t have too much effect on the daily struggle to be fed and sheltered and clothed.
            Yes, life was surely hard for Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
But they would have always had their memories of angels and shepherds and wise men bearing gifts.
And, I suspect Mary and Joseph would have seen signs of God at work in their lives and in the life of the growing-up Jesus – signs like how good it feels to hold hands or to watch the sun rise and set each day or to offer a simple act of kindness to someone in need – signs like a boy slowly learning about the world around him, learning about his people and his God, learning how to build a good sturdy table, and eventually learning that he was indeed God’s holy child – and realizing that some day he will need to leave home and begin his work.
And so today, we find ourselves at the start of another chapter.
It’s still Christmas, but just barely. The wise men are offering their gifts and will soon depart, heading back to Persia by a different route to avoid Herod.
When you return here next week to celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, most, if not all, signs of the holiday will be gone.
And, despite our New Year’s Eve hopes for peace and health, unfortunately, the world is a little more dangerous and a little more frightening than it was just a week ago.
As you’ve no doubt seen, large parts of Australia are on fire and our never-ending war in the Middle East seems to be about to heat up once again – just two of the troubles churning away in the background of our lives.
Here at home, we have our own challenges – with worries about health and money, fears about violence, sadness about broken relationships, and regret about wrong decisions.
Life is hard with long hours of work and not enough pay – or, even worse, no work at all.
But… we have our Christmas memories of little children dressed as lambs baa-ing their love of Jesus – memories of the church so beautifully decorated, of music still ringing in our ears, of gifts given to children in need – we have our Christmas memories of light shining into darkness and the darkness never, ever able to overcome it.
And, now, as we start another chapter, if we look, we’ll see signs of God at work in our lives – signs like how good it feels to hold hands or to watch the sun rise and set each day, or to offer a simple act of kindness to someone in need – signs like children and grandchildren learning about the world around them, learning about God, learning to love one another as God has loved us – signs like people bravely standing up for our planet, and calling for peace on the streets of Jersey City and peace around the world.
And, in this new chapter, as always, we need to be like Joseph and Mary, who held on to each other and who, most of all, held Jesus so very close.
We need to stick together and we need to hang on to Jesus – or, actually, let Jesus hang on to us – Jesus, the light of the world, the light shining into the darkness and, no matter what, the darkness cannot and will not overcome it.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

A New Understanding of Holiness

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
January 1, 2020

The Feast of the Holy Name
Psalm 8
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

A New Understanding of Holiness
            Happy New Year!
            If you’re like me, you probably use words all the time that you understand what they mean but if someone were to ask you to define it, you might struggle a little bit.
            This is probably especially true with religious language.
            Since today is the Feast of the Holy Name, let’s take for example the word “holy.”
            We all understand what it means, right?
            And, we could all come up with some synonyms like “sacred” or “blessed.”
            But, what does “holy” actually mean?
            Well, on the most ancient level “holy” means to be set apart from the ordinary and the everyday.
            Probably all ancient people had a holy river or a holy spring or a holy mountain, places that were seen as having a special spiritual quality and were not like all of the other ordinary rivers, springs, or mountains.
            Judaism had and has a strong sense of holiness.
            The Jerusalem Temple was constructed to emphasize holiness: the outer court was open to everybody but as one moved closer to the center the access became more restricted until finally at the very center of the Temple was the “Holy of Holies” the holiest of all places, hidden behind a large veil, where only the High Priest was allowed to enter, and only just once a year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.
            But it’s not just the Temple.
            There’s the Sabbath, a holy day set apart and quite different from the other six days of the week.
            There are the various rituals, especially circumcision, which all Jewish males were and are expected to undergo, including, as we just heard, Jesus of Nazareth.
            Like other religious people, we Christians have our own sense of holiness, though I’d argue that it has faded a lot in recent decades and today most people who claim to be Christians live pretty much like everybody else. Certainly, Sunday is seen much more as the second day of the weekend instead of a particularly holy day.
            (Which is an amazing change when you consider that within my own lifetime blue laws were still on the books here in Hudson County, meaning that on a Sunday you could go down to Two Guys on 440 and buy a loaf of bread but you could not buy a pair of pants. Why? Because it was Sunday, a holy day, a day unlike all of the others. Buy your pants some other day!)
            But here’s the thing: in and through Jesus, God offers us a new understanding of holiness.
            When Jesus died on the cross, we’re told us that the veil in the Holy of Holies was torn in two – symbolizing that our sins have been forgiven and the separation between God and us has been overcome.
            In and through Jesus, the holiest of holiness – God – has come among us as a living, breathing, and loving human being.
            As Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians, probably quoting a very early Christian hymn, Christ Jesus was equal to God but he humbled himself to become one of us, even allowing us to do our worst to him – and then God raised him from the dead and so every knee should bend at the holy name of Jesus.
            A new understanding of holiness: it’s not about separation anymore.
Just the opposite.
Since God became one of us then humanity itself is holy.
And, if that’s true, then we should treat one another as holy ones.
            Imagine if we really gave that a shot, with God’s help.
            Imagine if we really tried to see the people around us, the people we love, yes, but especially the people who get on our nerves, the people who mess up all the time and seem to be just terrible failures, the people we don’t like at all, even the people we fear like those guys dealing drugs in Triangle Park, imagine if we tried to see them as holy ones – as people so special and so valuable – so blessed - that God came among us and lived and died and rose again - for them.
            If we really gave that a try, it would be the best New Year’s resolution ever.
            Happy New Year, everyone!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

We Celebrate Christmas Because of Easter

The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
December 29, 2019

Year A: The First Sunday after Christmas
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147:13-21
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

We Celebrate Christmas Because of Easter
            Merry Christmas!
            By now much of the world has moved on from Christmas: gifts have been unwrapped and many of them will be soon forgotten; radio stations have returned to their regular music; and I’m sure there are already some trees lying abandoned and forlorn on the sidewalk, ready to be picked up and tossed into garbage trucks.
            The world has moved on to the next thing (New Year’s Eve, I guess).
            But, here in church, Christmas only got started on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
            Christmas continues here today and will continue over the next week.
            Having said that, it is true that even here in church the most intense and most festive time is drawing to a close.
            And, I’ve already begun evaluating our Christmas celebrations and soon the staff and I will meet to talk about what worked well and what may need to be changed for next year.
            I’ll say that this year’s pageant went very well – the kids did a great job – thanks to the direction of some very patient adults. And, as always, Gail did a fine job producing so much wonderful music at all of our services.
            Attendance was a little higher at the pageant service and on Christmas morning, but there were many fewer people at this year’s “Midnight Mass” service on Christmas Eve.
            As usual, there are probably lots of reasons why fewer people were able to join us: some people were out of town; some people were sick; some people were just worn out from all the holiday preparations.
            But, I have to believe that this year some people stayed away because of the nearly daily shootings that have been plaguing Jersey City in recent weeks.
            We all remember the horrific violence and bloodshed on Martin Luther King Drive a couple of weeks ago but there have also been lots of other shootings in that same neighborhood and also around our Triangle Park Community Center and even right here in the neighborhood around our church – there was a shooting on Christmas Eve at Montgomery and Bergen, and the other day there was a shooting at the gas station on Duncan and West Side.
            I don’t pretend to know what’s going on, lots of people speculate that it’s gang violence, but it’s frightening to have shots ringing out in our neighborhood, at places so familiar to us, and I can certainly understand if some people may have decided it was wiser just to stay home behind locked doors, safe and secure.
            I’ve heard some people say that things didn’t use to be this way – and I’m now old enough to have those thoughts myself.
            But, although today the widespread access to military-style weapons adds additional terror, and some among us do seem to settle scores with bullets rather than the fists that were used in the past, the truth is that we humans have always been prone to violence – the violence of abuse within families, the violence of criminals, and also also the violence on the national and international level as tyrants crush dissent and empires are always hungry to gobble up more land and more wealth.
            There are long shadows in our sinful world.
            Jesus was born into our sinful world and long shadows will follow him his whole life.
            Just yesterday, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, we remembered that King Herod feeling threatened by the newborn king of the Jews, tried to kill Jesus in his infancy, forcing Joseph and Mary and Jesus to become refugees, fleeing into Egypt.
            And, of course, eventually religious leaders and Pontius Pilate finished the job – or thought they had finished the job – by nailing Jesus to the cross, a particularly cruel form of state-sponsored violence.
            And then a few decades later, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem itself, including the Temple. The Jewish people, including the Jews who followed Jesus as messiah, wondered if the end of the world had come.
            And yet, writing after all of this horror, the author of today’s gospel lesson (from the opening of John) insists that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
            Although we’re in the middle of celebrating Christmas, what we Christians should always celebrating is Easter – God raises Jesus, revealing that love is stronger than hate, life is stronger than death, and that violence, no matter how terrifying and destructive, does not get the final word.
            We celebrate Christmas because of Easter: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
            And it’s because of Easter that we can shine the light of Christ out into our shadowy world.
            But, in these uncertain times, I confess that I don’t always know how best to do that.
            I recently heard that someone asked after the recent outbursts of violence, “Where’s Fr. Tom?”
            Well, I’m right here trying to figure it out like everybody else.
            I don’t always know how best to shine the light of Christ but I know that staying home behind locked doors is not the way.
            So, as we begin another year together I’m praying for guidance.
            Maybe it’s time for me to finally work up the courage to walk up and talk to the young guys hanging around Triangle Park probably dealing drugs, time to make myself vulnerable, to allow them to get to know me, to build up trust, and together find a better way than settling scores by shooting at each other.
            Maybe it’s time for us to get back out on the streets, praying at places of violence, casting out the demons of rage, hate, and fear by sprinkling Holy Water on our cracked and glass-strewn sidewalks.
            Maybe it’s time for us to really commit to Jersey City Together and work closely with people of goodwill from all across our city.
            Whatever the way forward, I refuse to give in to fear and I hope you won’t either.
            The shadows may be long, but light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, can not, will not, overcome it.
            We celebrate Christmas because of Easter.