Sunday, July 08, 2018

Weakness and Strength

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
July 8, 2018

Year B, Proper 9: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
Psalm 48
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

Weakness and Strength
            If you were here last week, you may remember that in my sermon I talked about how we live in an age of miracles.
            We really do.
            In many cases, medicine is able to heal what would have disabled or killed us, even just a couple of decades ago.
            Our computers and cellphones give us the ability to instantly communicate over great distances, and they give us access to nearly unlimited information.
            But, there’s always a cost, always a shadow side, to any progress we make.
            In our case, one of the costs of this open access to information, this never-ending flow of news, is that we don’t really focus on any one thing for very long.
            Frankly, our attention spans are shot.
            That’s why I was very glad that last week The New York Times devoted an entire special section of the paper devoted to checking in with people – mostly women, but not all – who had taken the great risk of publicly telling their stories of sexual harassment and abuse:
            The #MeToo movement.
            It may feel like it was a year ago, but actually it was just a few short months ago when the monstrosity of one Hollywood producer was exposed, miraculously opening the floodgates as women found the courage to publicly tell their stories of cruelty and fear and long-lasting emotional scars.
            And, suddenly, one by one, famous men began to fall like dominos: politicians, actors, newscasters, businessmen, men who had been widely respected and who had shaped our national conversation were now publicly disgraced and dislodged from their jobs.
            Of course, there are still many who have not yet faced their day of reckoning.
And, there are also “ordinary” women who have their own terrible stories to tell, stories that rarely, if ever, make the news.
And, so far at least, the Church seems to have skated by, though we have plenty of our own stories of abuse – and some of the business of our General Convention going on right now in Austin is finally facing this most un-Christian legacy, repenting, and trying to hold people accountable.
            So, yes, as a society and as a Church we have a long way to go, but, nevertheless, seemingly overnight, the media realized that we’ve had an epidemic on our hands.
            Of course, women have known this all along.
            Near as I can tell, there is no woman who hasn’t experienced sexual harassment or abuse: from enduring leering and whistling on the street to far, far worse.
            In an effort to make sense of this epidemic, we’ve done at least a little bit of reflection, a little bit of soul-searching on how and why our society is infected by this epidemic – or, at least we did that for a week or two until we moved onto the next headlines.
            Fortunately, it doesn’t take a whole lot of reflection or insight to realize that sexual harassment and abuse have absolutely nothing to do with love, or even, for that matter, little or nothing to do with sex.
            Instead, it’s all about weak men desperately seeking power – the insatiable hunger for more and more twisted and never really satisfying power: the power to make someone else uncomfortable – the power to inflict pain – the power to turn a person into a thing – the power to destroy someone’s future - the power to make someone else do something she really does not want to do.

            Needless to say, this twisted hunger for power – this abuse of power - is most definitely not the way of God.
            God is the most powerful of all, and yet God never, ever forces God’s Self on us.
            Instead, God freely offers God’s love and healing – freely offers grace - to us, and we are always free to say yes or to say no.
            Today’s Gospel lesson gives us a vivid illustration of this dynamic: God offers love and healing, but the response is always up to us.
            We pick up right where we left off last week: Jesus has just healed the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years and Jesus has just brought Jairus’ twelve year-old daughter back to life.
            Now, after all this miraculous activity, we’re told that Jesus returns to his hometown.
            Although Jesus had asked everybody to keep quiet about his healing, you know how people are, right? So, undoubtedly word has gotten back to Nazareth that their local boy has been doing good.
            We might expect Jesus to be welcomed home as a hero, that his own neighbors and kin would want some of that same healing that he’s performed elsewhere, but that’s not the case at all.
            Instead, the people who looked and sounded like him, the people who had known him his whole life, they flat out reject what’s offered to them – shocking even Jesus himself – and we’re told that because of their unbelief Jesus could do almost nothing in the place he knew better than anywhere.
            God is the most powerful of all, and yet God never, ever forces God’s Self on us.
            Instead, God freely offers God’s love and healing – God’s grace - to us – and we are always free to say yes or to say no.

            After bombing in his hometown, we’re told Jesus heads back out on the road, continuing his healing work, and now he also deputizes the twelve, sending them out two by two, continuing his work.
            Well, we know these people, right?
            Not a particularly impressive group, and they must have looked especially unimpressive with no bread and just their barebones possessions.
            Jesus knows that some, most probably, will reject these less than dazzling messengers and their message, so he instructs his followers that when they are rejected, to move on, shaking the dust from their feet.
            God never forces God’s Self on us, and, on top of that, God usually chooses the people who seem the weakest and least impressive to do God’s work.
            We can hear that in today’s second lesson, in Paul’s second letter to the troublesome church in Corinth.
            If you were paying attention and thought Paul sounds a little defensive in this passage, you’re probably right.
            The problem seems to have been that there was another group of teachers teaching a somewhat different Gospel than Paul.
            And, these teachers (Paul facetiously calls them “super apostles”) seem to have been more appealing than Paul himself – maybe they were more eloquent, or better dressed, or maybe even healthier.
            In the passage we heard today, Paul writes openly about his “thorn in the flesh.”
            There’s been a lot of speculation about what that thorn was exactly, but it seems to have been some kind of ailment – maybe a spiritual problem or maybe something involving his eyes or maybe a speech impediment.
We don’t know. But, this “thorn in the flesh” was something that would have made it harder for people to accept Paul’s message – that would have led people to turn away from Paul and to turn to those who appeared healthier, who seemed to have their act more together, who seemed more powerful.
            This must have driven Paul bananas. Yet, here in his letter, Paul revels in his weakness, understanding the great truth that God chooses the seemingly weak for the most important missions.
            Paul writes, “For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

God is the most powerful of all, and yet God never, ever forces God’s Self on us.
            Instead, God freely offers God’s love and healing – God’s grace - to us – and we are always free to say yes or to say no.
            And, God usually chooses the seemingly weak to do God’s work.
            So, we shouldn’t be surprised when women who had lived in fear and resignation for so long are finally able to stand up, boldly declaring “me too” and begin to bring down seemingly powerful men, and start to unravel a rotten culture.
            And, we shouldn’t be surprised when God sends us – seemingly weak us – we shouldn’t be surprised when God sends us out to call seemingly powerful people to change their ways.
And we shouldn’t be surprised when God sends us out – seemingly unimpressive us – out there, to freely offer God’s love to absolutely everybody.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

We've Never Had It So Good

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
July 1, 2018

Year B, Proper 8: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

We’ve Never Had It So Good
            In 1952, the Democrat Adlai Stevenson ran for President using the slogan, “You Never Had It So Good.”
            He lost the election, so I guess not enough people agreed with that sentiment.
            “You never had it so good.”
            In some ways, though, we’ve never had it so good, right?
            These days unemployment is very low – good for workers though not so good for us as we try to find a new coordinator for the Triangle Park Community Center.
            And, as we’ve talked about before, we live in an age of miracles.
            Thanks to modern medicine, ailments that terrified us and would maybe have even done us in just a few decades ago are now not such a big deal.
            I think about cataracts.
            When I was a kid, I remember the grown ups whispering about these mysterious cataracts (I heard them as “Cadillacs” which made it even more confusing) as if they were one the worst things that could happen.
            And the truth is, back then cataracts meant eventual blindness, unless you were brave enough to undergo very delicate surgery and endure a long and difficult recovery.
            Now, though, as some of our own parishioners have seen with your own eyes, it’s become a routine, in and out of the office, procedure.
            My father had his second eye done a couple of weeks ago and now we’re getting used to his face without glasses – and getting used to the fact that now he really doesn’t miss a thing – we’ve got to watch those eye rolls!
            Medicine is now so sophisticated that I’m pretty sure doctors could easily take care of whatever ailed the two very ill people we heard about in today’s gospel: Jairus’ daughter lying near death, and the poor woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve long years.
            We’ve never had it so good.
            And of course, technology that was science fiction when I was a kid is now commonplace.
            Many of us carry around cellphones way more sophisticated and powerful than Captain Kirk’s communicator.
            We’ve never had it so good.
            But, there’s always a shadow side, right?
            The dramatic, life-saving, life-transforming improvements in healthcare carry a hefty price tag, costs that we’re still figuring out how to pay for as a society – or, at least, should be trying to figure out, anyway.
            And, the small computers that we carry around with us mean that we’re pretty much always connected, on call all the time, and at the mercy of a never-ending stream of news and information, much of it not so good, and some of it distressing and even downright terrifying.
            And, maybe worst of all, this constant stream of news means we don’t stay focused on any one thing for very long.
            Just this past Wednesday, I was wrapping my head around the stunning upset victory in a New York Democratic primary of a twenty-eight year-old woman over one of the most powerful members of Congress – I was just trying to learn her name (It’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, by the way), just trying to learn about her and her amazing story when the news came that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was stepping down.
            And then there was the massacre in the newsroom in Annapolis.
            This news and information overload is messing up our sense of time – things that happened just a couple of weeks ago seem like they happened months ago.
            Remember the North Korea summit? Feels like six months ago, at least, right?
            (It was actually not quite three weeks ago.)
            So, today I’d like to rewind just a couple of weeks to the sudden and heartbreaking and hard to understand suicides of two celebrities: the designer Kate Spade and the celebrity chef and TV host Anthony Bourdain.
            I knew who they were but I didn’t know much about them, but I was struck by just how stunned and upset so many people were by their deaths – and how their terrible exits got us thinking about and talking about despair and suicide - well, talking about that for a couple of days, at least, until we moved on to the next thing.
            The suicide of these two who seemed to have never had it so good, led to some reflection on the despair that seems to permeate our society and, tragically, has led to an increase in suicide in the United States, up an alarming 25% since 1999!
            It’s a complicated and intensely personal issue and I’m no mental health professional, but it seems like at least part of this epidemic is caused by the breakdown in community – we just don’t do things together like we used to – civic organizations are in decline – many churches are emptying out – and more and more of us are alone and we are despairing.

            Jesus lived in a time and place of despair, too.
            Back in the first century, the Jewish people chafed under the rule of an oppressive empire.
            Plus, they had the all the usual things to worry about – getting enough food to survive and the very real fear of illness and death.
            Jairus must have been in a panic about his daughter’s serious illness.
            And the hemorrhaging woman had endured so much suffering.
            Yet, despite what must have been very real despair, there they are in the community. There they are in the great crowds gathered around Jesus, asking for and receiving the great miracle of new life.
            The truth is, though, that Jesus didn’t physically heal all or even most of the many sick people around him. I’m sure there were other sick children who died and other hemorrhaging women who died of their illness.
            And, for that matter, both the daughter and the hemorrhaging woman eventually died.
            So, while the physical healing is obviously important, especially to these two people and those who loved them, it’s not the most important thing.
            The most important thing is the spiritual healing, the hope for new life, the signs of new life that people saw – and still see - in and through Jesus.
            And that spiritual healing nearly always – you know, maybe always – happens in community, just as it did that day when Jesus revived a much-loved daughter and stopped the bleeding of a long-suffering woman.

            That’s why the bishop carries a stick to keep the community together and that’s why I spend a lot of time to trying to get you to come to church, despite the heat, despite the tiredness, despite the despair – because the healing takes place in community.
            Like many of us, I get down about much of what’s happening in our country, especially when I spend too much time looking at Facebook or scrawling through Twitter.
            And, like all of us, I’ve got my own stuff to worry about, too.
            Sometimes, I can feel the tide of despair rising from my belly to my chest, up into my head, clouding my vision.
            You know that feeling?
            But, thanks be to God, so often when we’re together, I’m healed.
            A couple of weeks ago at the fundraiser dance which was so beautifully put together (and raised nearly $4000 for our church), I looked around at this beautiful diverse community smiling and laughing and dancing, and my vision cleared.
            We’ve never had it so good.
            And on Wednesday night, as I sat through a seemingly endless City Council meeting, I looked around at the other tired but persistent Jersey City Together members, sticking it out, advocating passionately and intelligently and, finally, persuasively, for affordable housing at Bayfront along Route 440, and my vision cleared.
            We’ve never had it so good.
            And then on Thursday evening, despite the threat of severe thunderstorms and sauna-like humidity and heat, a bunch of Jews, Christians, and Muslims and I’m sure people of other faiths and maybe no religious faith at all, gathered downtown praying and singing in solidarity with the parents and children separated at the border.
            My favorite moment was when a Muslim family read for us a passage from the Koran. As a man read in Arabic and then a woman gave the English translation, I noticed one of the adorable little Muslim girls who was standing bravely with her family. This girl was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Take Me to Grandma’s. I’m Over It.”
            I thought, you know what, kid, I’m over it too, and suddenly my vision cleared.
            We’ve never had it so good.
            Yes, for many of us times are tough and they may very well get worse before they get better.
            We may be tempted to despair.
            But my prayer is that no matter what we’ll stick together, because it’s here in community that we are healed.
            It’s here that we just might see that despite everything, we’ve never had it so good.
            Thanks be to God.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Seeds of Hate Or Seeds of Love?

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
June 17, 2018

Year B, Proper 6: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

Seeds of Hate Or Seeds of Love?
            If we’re Facebook friends, you know that pretty much every weekday I post a Scripture verse or a quote from a great Christian, past or present.
            I don’t remember when or why I started doing this, but I’ve been at it for a long time now, and enough people have told me it’s meaningful and helpful for them that I’m reluctant to stop – plus, this seemingly small act early morning searching through Scripture and reflecting on the words of holy women and men has evolved into an important part of my own spiritual practice.
            Sometimes the Scripture or saint of the day don’t quite offer what I’m looking for, so my next stop on the search for inspiration is a website that lists the names of prominent people who have died on that particular day.
            Maybe you think that’s a little weird or morbid, but I find it really interesting!
            Anyway, that’s what I was doing this past Tuesday morning – scrolling through the names of the dead - when I saw a name that will probably be completely unfamiliar to all of you but that I know well:
            Michael von Faulhaber, a Roman Catholic cardinal, who died on June 12, 1952.
            Faulhaber was the Archbishop of Munich, Germany, for a very long time, from 1917 until his death, and he also happens to have been a distant relative of mine – my great-grandmother’s cousin. (If you google him, I think you’ll see a resemblance to my father.)
            I’ve been interested in Faulhaber because of this family connection, and also because he found himself leading the church during what the psalmist calls a day of trouble – a very real day of trouble during the rise and fall of Hitler and the Nazis.
            As I’ve mentioned here before, the sad truth is that there were relatively few German Christians – and relatively few German Christian leaders - who heroically resisted the Nazis.
Instead, most Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, either enthusiastically followed Hitler and his inhuman agenda or chose to keep a low profile to save their skin, and to save their churches.
I’ve often wondered what I would do in such circumstances.
            For his part, Cardinal Faulhaber steered a middle course.
            As a patriotic German, he appreciated Hitler’s call to restore Germany’s greatness and seems to have even managed to convince himself that Hitler, this profoundly immoral man, was in fact a faithful Christian.
            Faulhaber was well aware of what was happening to the Jews. At first there were seemingly small acts limiting their freedom, then destroying their businesses and livelihoods, and eventually ripping them from their homes and sending millions to misery and death – but, at least at the start, Faulhaber’s attitude seems to have been that the Jews were strong enough to take care of themselves – that it wasn’t his problem.
            The Church was his problem, and he was able to see the Nazi threat to the Church. His main goal, no surprise, was protecting the institution and its people.
            One of the threats he saw was the call among some Nazis to deny the Jewishness of Jesus and his first followers – there were even demands that the Church delete the Old Testament from the Bible.
            If Faulhaber is remembered at all today it’s for a series of relatively bold sermons he gave during Advent in 1933, insisting that the Hebrew Scriptures formed the foundation of the Christian faith – and that the Church would die without those Jewish roots.
            He should get some credit for that, at least, but unfortunately, during the day of trouble, Faulhaber wasn’t able to translate his concern for the holy book of an ancient people into care for the Jewish brothers and sisters suffering so terribly in his own time and place.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, we heard Jesus tell two parables about seeds, and as I hear them today, I hear Jesus teach us about their enormous power – the enormous power and potential of small things.
            God seems to have been interested in the power of the small for a very long time – long ago choosing a small and insignificant people as God’s own – and, as we heard today, choosing David, choosing a youngest son, choosing the one so insignificant that his family left him out in the field tending the sheep when the prophet Samuel came to anoint Israel’s king – surely God wouldn’t choose the youngest and least experienced, the smallest, to lead God’s people!
            The power and potential of small things.
            Unfortunately, the power and potential of small things cuts both ways, doesn’t it?
            A tiny seed can produce food for many – a tiny seed can produce what Jesus calls “the greatest of all shrubs,” providing a shady home for the birds of the air.
            But, just like a how few rogue cells can produce powerful life-threatening cancer, bad seeds can produce great destruction.
            That’s why Jesus is always so concerned with what’s going on inside our hearts.
That’s why Jesus still shocks us by saying that what’s going on inside our hearts is just as important as what we actually do – something as small as just a feeling can produce great goodness or terrible destruction.
            So Jesus offers the still shocking teaching that we’ll be judged for the anger in our hearts just as sure as we’ll be judged for murdering someone – that we’ll be judged harshly for even just saying to another person, “You fool.”
            Jesus offers the still shocking teaching that if we look at another person with lust, it’s as if we’ve committed adultery.
            Jesus offers the still shocking teaching to remove whatever small piece – a hand or an eye – to remove whatever small piece of us causes us to sin.
            Jesus teaches that what’s going on in our hearts is just as important as what we actually do.
            The power and potential of small things.

            As I’ve thought about Cardinal Faulhaber and his day of trouble, I’ve thought about how the Nazi menace started with such small seeds of hate.
            At first, the Nazi Party was a fringe group, seen as unimportant, led by a man who was seen by most serious people as a joke, someone who could be easily controlled by wiser statesmen, who could use this ridiculous man to hold on to their own power and carry out their agenda.
            And, then other small seeds of hate were planted.
            The transformation of aimless young people into Nazi thugs.
            The rallies with their mindless chants of hatred.
            The passage of laws limiting the freedom of Jews, and others like gays and the disabled and even Jehovah’s Witnesses, all those who were seen as undesirable, those seen as the cause of the nation’s troubles.
            And, sooner than one would have imagined, one of the most civilized lands on earth, the country that produced magnificent literature and sublime music, that country and those people launched a massive project to round up and kill millions of people and instigated the most destructive war the world had ever seen.
            It all started so small, with such small seeds, that perhaps we can understand how Faulhaber and so many others, concerned with their daily business, could have missed it, and eventually found themselves morally compromised and even fighting for their own survival in the day of trouble.

            And now, you and I find ourselves living in our own day of trouble.
            And, it’s not too hard to see the small seeds that have grown quickly into noxious weeds that threaten so much today.
            After September 11, our country was briefly, beautifully, united but also so very terrified – that was the whole point of the attacks, after all – and our government quickly began taking unprecedented actions, planting many small seeds that have brought us to this point:
            Among other things, our government created the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement – better known as ICE – an organization with a cool name but often brutal tactics – ICE, whose officers frequently defend their actions, including as we all know now separating children from their parents, defend their actions with the chilling and all too familiar claim that that they are just following orders.
Our government planted many small seeds by launching endless wars in faraway places, and torturing captives at Guantanamo Bay and at secret sites all around the world.
Our government became even more secretive, limiting the freedom of the press.
            All these small but powerful seeds – all these small seeds that most of us missed, or if we paid attention we accepted them because we were led by people we rightly or wrongly believed were decent, humble, honest, and well-intentioned, never considering what might happen if we ever found ourselves led by people with obviously less noble traits.
            And so now, in the day of trouble, we seem to be getting very friendly with  “Hitler” and turning our back on “Churchill.”
            Now, in the day of trouble, truth itself is under daily assault.
            Now, in the day of trouble, children are being forcibly taken from their parents and warehoused – and the Attorney General of the United States quotes Romans 13:1 to defend that policy, using the same out-of-context verse about obeying the government that was much beloved by Christians who justified slavery and, yes, Christians who supported the Nazis.
            Just like Cardinal Faulhaber and so many others in the past, now, in the day of trouble, you and I, we Christians, face some big choices, some big questions:
            What kind of powerful seeds do we allow to be planted and to grow in our hearts?
            And, what kind of powerful seeds do we plant in the world?
            Seeds of hate?
            Or, seeds of love?