Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Real "War on Christmas"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
Year B: The Nativity of Our Lord
December 24, 2005, 11:00PM

Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7
Psalm 96: 1-4, 11-12
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2: 1-20

The Real “War on Christmas"

After all these centuries, the story has lost none of its power. Mary and Joseph desperately searching for shelter. Placing the newborn baby Jesus in a manger – the Son of God in a feeding trough for animals. The angels appearing to the shepherds with their wondrous message of good news. The young mother Mary – probably just thirteen or fourteen years old – pondering in her heart all that she has seen and heard. It is a rich, deeply moving story and tonight all around the world people are once again retelling and rehearing it in countless languages and places. But, I think tonight, maybe more than ever, we need to ask a difficult question – Yes, it’s Christmas, but so what? What difference does Christmas make for us here in Jersey City at the end of 2005? Really, what difference does it make for any of us that Jesus was born? So what?

What difference does Jesus’ birth make, especially as we consider our world in 2005 – I don’t need to remind you that for the world this has been in many ways a terrible year – beginning just after Christmas last year when the horrific tsunami struck Asia killing thousands upon thousands of people. What difference does Christmas make in the face of suffering such as that, or for the victims of hurricanes and earthquakes? What difference does Christmas make for those who suffer because of evil human acts? Our own little parish has faced much sadness and suffering this year, with members of our St. Paul’s family no longer able to be with us this Christmas. Some have died, others are unwell. Some have anxiously faced surgery or waited for test results. In the midst of all this suffering and anxiety – here and around the world - what difference does Christmas make? It’s Christmas – so what?

Well, it certainly seems like a lot of people care a great deal about Christmas. During a time when American men and women are bravely sacrificing their lives fighting a dangerous and difficult war, the media, especially certain cable news networks and personalities, have been pouring out reports and commentary on the so-called “war on Christmas” that apparently is taking place across our country. In a recent five-day period, one cable news network broadcast fifty-eight stories about this attack on Christmas – a battle which seems to be taking place mostly in America’s stores where cashiers and sales clerks have been criticized for wishing people “Happy Holidays” rather than saying “Merry Christmas.” One well-known commentator angrily declared, “I am not going to let oppressive, totalitarian, anti-Christian forces in this country diminish and denigrate the holiday!” And, “I’m going to use all the power I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that!” He went on, “There is no reason on earth that all of us cannot celebrate a public holiday devoted to generosity, peace and love together! And anyone who tries to stop us from doing it is gonna face me!” Um, merry Christmas?

We may or may not agree with this kind of talk, but I actually do believe there is a kind of war on Christmas going on today, but it’s a war that has nothing to do with what some in the media are yelling and screaming about. It’s a war that has nothing to do with saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” No, instead it’s a kind of war that goes on inside our own hearts. And if we can understand this internal war – a war that we’ll never see covered on TV – we may be able to answer this Christmas question: so what?

A 17th Century mathematician and philosopher named Blaise Pascal said that there is in every person a God-shaped void that only God can fill. That rings true to me – that in each of us there is a space, an emptiness that hungers for God – a God shaped void that only God can fill. But, even though only God can heal that emptiness we do a pretty good job of looking for other ways to fill that void – and there are lots of people out there who are more than willing to help us.

You name it, we try it. Some use alcohol or drugs to fill that emptiness. Others turn to food. Or sex. Or we try to make the people in our lives fill this emptiness. Those of us who have the means – and even some of us who don’t - turn to buying stuff – lots and lots of stuff. If I only have – fill in the blank – then I’ll truly be happy. And, of course, manufacturers, stores and advertisers are more than willing to try to convince us that these things will truly make us happy. That these things will fill the void we feel in our lives. But, it’s not true – and on some level we know it’s not true, and yet many of us fall for it each and every time, year in and year out. Now don’t get me wrong, most of this stuff is perfectly fine and enjoyable – believe me, my family will tell you I like Christmas presents at least as much as anybody else, but none of these things that we buy or unwrap will make us truly happy if we haven’t filled that God-shaped void in our hearts. And hoping that stuff is going to feed us spiritually ultimately can lead us to self-destruction.

And, that’s the real war on Christmas – because what is Christmas, really? What is the “good news of great joy” that the angels announce to the startled shepherds in the field? The good news is that God has come to fill that God-shaped void inside of us. God has heard our cries – O Come, O Come Emmanuel – and God has come into the world in Jesus. In Jesus, God and humanity – God and us - meet in a new, decisive, and transforming way. In Jesus God says “This is who I am.” And in Jesus God also says to us, “This is who you really are – this is what I dream you will be. This is what humanity will be.” That’s the “so what” of Christmas – our God-shaped void is filled by Jesus. We are saved.

Actually, not quite. It turns out the Christian message is really an invitation. In Jesus, God shows us the way to be what we were created to be. In Jesus, God shows us what life with God is like. But, it’s still only an invitation – we are free, so it’s up to us to respond. We need to open our hearts, put our faith in God, to live like Jesus – to allow God to fill that void that only God can fill.

And that’s the hard part. And that’s why even we Christians who should know better – and do know better - still try to fill that God-shaped void other ways like by misusing stuff rather than turning to God. In a way, it’s easier isn’t it to just go to down to the Newport Mall, or even all the way out to Short Hills, and search for joy and happiness? It’s easier, except of course, it doesn’t really work.

In Jesus, God reveals both who God is and who we really are. And so as we read the whole Gospel story we have a really clear sense of what God is calling us to, what God wants us to be. To be like Jesus, we are called to offer loving service to others. We are called to teach and to heal. We are called to condemn sin, especially hypocrisy. We are called to preach repentance and reconciliation. We are called to love – especially people we don’t particularly like and even those who are our enemies. To choose life, not death. To follow Jesus is not to sit around waiting for heaven, but to transform life here on earth – and if Christmas teaches us anything it is that God values life on earth, our here and now human life very, very much.

All this is all very hard for us to do, but we know that the Lord is with us – holding us up, praying with us, leading us on. And maybe most importantly, the Lord is suffering along with us. After all, to be Christian is certainly to believe in a suffering God.

One of the things I love about the Bible is its honesty - it never pretends that any of this is easy. It was not easy for Mary to accept the amazing news the angel told her – “How can this be?” she asked. It was not easy for Joseph to accept what God called him to be and to do – to stand by Mary and to be father to this child. It was not easy for Jesus to preach repentance and love, to resist temptation, and to be abandoned and rejected. And it is not easy for God – forever reaching out, desiring relationship with humanity, and over and over being abandoned and rejected. And, of course, the ultimate rejection took place on the cross. Yet, God forever seeks us and so is able to transform what seems to be a crushing defeat into a spectacular victory. The resurrected Jesus reveals our own future – if we accept the Christmas invitation and allow God fill that God-shaped void in our hearts.

So, tonight let’s call a truce in the real war on Christmas. In faith, let us open our hearts to God. Like Mary, let us ponder in our hearts all that God has done in our lives. Like Joseph, let us have the courage to put our faith in God, even if, especially if, we are frightened or confused. Like the shepherds, let us look with awe and wonder at the miracle of Jesus – the Word of God – made flesh in the world. Like the angels let us boldly proclaim “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.”

And on this holy night and always let us be like Jesus – Jesus who makes all the difference for us and for the world. Jesus who teaches and heals. Jesus who loves and sacrifices. Jesus who is present right now in our community here in Jersey City, right here at St. Paul’s and here in a special way in the meal of bread and wine we will share. Jesus who reveals both who God is and who we truly are meant to be. Now, that’s something to celebrate! Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 04, 2005


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
December 4, 2005
The Second Sunday of Advent: Year B
Isaiah 40: 1-11
2 Peter: 3: 8-15a, 18
Mark 1: 1-8
Psalm 85


Advent is usually my favorite church season. I love the sense of anticipation, the building excitement about Christmas. We wait and we watch. Week by week we light the Advent candles. Some of us open the little doors on our Advent calendars. Churches like ours are beautifully decorated in blue, others maybe in a bluish purple. Of course, it’s the start of the church year, the alpha – the beginning – once again it’s a fresh start, a chance to try again, a time to begin the story anew – we find John the Baptist back in the wilderness, crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John’s back down at the Jordan, baptizing with water and prophesying the one who will baptize with the Spirit. Once again the angel appears to the young Mary with a fantastic, almost unbelievable, announcement. She says yes and God mysteriously and miraculously becomes one of us. It’s Advent - usually my favorite season.

But there’s the other side of Advent, the purple side, the penitential side, the omega side, the side that looks ahead to the last days. To use seminary language – it’s the eschatological side – no matter what you call it, it’s the side of Advent I usually prefer to ignore. During Advent while we look back to the days leading up to Jesus’ birth we also look ahead to the end – the end that Jesus describes in the reading from Mark we heard last week on the First Sunday of Advent. For me, and probably many of us, this eschatological side of Advent – this looking ahead to the last days - is much less appealing, maybe even downright frightening. The lighting of the Advent candles each week seems less like the buildup to a joyful birth than the countdown to God’s judgment.

When I began thinking about Advent this year I saw only the purple side. Frankly, hasn’t the world seemed pretty eschatological lately? For many months not a week has gone by without some new horror occurring somewhere in the world – horrors produced by nature such as hurricanes and earthquakes that kill tens of thousands of people in an instant and the human-made horrors of war and terrorism. And, of course, there are the threats of more to come, whether carried by flu-infected birds or the unattended packages that I am reminded of and warned about each day while waiting for the PATH train.

So it was in that spirit – the spirit of our broken and exhausted world – that I approached this Advent and today’s readings. Today’s psalm, Psalm 85, immediately caught my attention. This psalm powerfully speaks to this Advent. Maybe written after the time of exile in Babylon, the psalmist looks back with gratitude for all the good things God has given – “You have been gracious to your land, O Lord” “You have forgiven the iniquity of your people” “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”

At the same time the psalm acknowledges that right now things are not the way they should be, the way they were meant to be - we still have a way to go, we still need more restoration. “Will you be displeased with us forever? Will you prolong your anger from age to age? Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you? Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

And finally, the psalm looks ahead to the future not with fear, but with confidence. “Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven. The LORD will indeed grant prosperity and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.”

When I read the beautifully rich language of this psalm – mercy and truth meeting, righteousness and peace kissing, I was reminded of a word from one of my favorite books, a novel called Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, which as it turns out has just been made into a movie starring Richard Gere. The movie has gotten so-so reviews. I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t speak to its faithfulness to the book, but the book is a wonderfully wise reflection on love, family, spirituality, and even spelling. One of the characters, a middle-aged woman named Miriam is motivated by a mysterious mix of religion and mental illness to steal seemingly random and insignificant items from stores and people’s homes. Inspired by Jewish mysticism, she believes that through her petty theft she is somehow reassembling all the pieces of matter that were shattered in the moment of creation. She calls this strange collection “perfectimundo.” Perfectimundo – restoration back to the way things were meant to be.

Well, unlike Miriam, we certainly don’t need to steal shoes and ashtrays and carefully arrange them in a storage locker to experience “perfectimundo” – restoration back to the way things were meant to be. Actually, didn’t we experience a little perfectimundo a few moments ago listening to Psalm 85? “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Isn’t that a glimpse of what we might call “perfectimundo”? Isn’t that a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven – the kingdom that breaks into the world in a new and decisive way when Mary says yes to the angel? And isn’t that also a taste of the Kingdom of God we look forward to on the last day?

How does the psalmist respond to this perfectimundo, this restoration back to the way things were meant to be? “I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him.” I will listen to what the LORD God is saying. Our psalm today calls us to listen, calls us to live mindfully, to really pay attention. It is Advent! God is at work restoring the world – bringing mercy and truth together, inviting righteousness and peace to kiss each other. Perfectimundo.

In the midst of our tired and broken world, this Advent, and always, we are called to do some hard work. We are called to listen and to watch, to remember and to anticipate. We are challenged to be mindful. In that spirit, and in preparing for today’s sermon, over the past few weeks I have tried to be a little more attentive and to look for God’s work of restoration in my life and in the world. I would like to share two of my discoveries with you.

It just so happens that the Second Sunday of Advent has a special meaning for my wife Sue and me. For the first couple of years we were married, our Christian faith was not much of a part of our lives together. Teaching at a Jesuit high school I had lots of opportunities for prayer and community – masses, prayer services, and retreats were all a big part of my life at school. But Sue and I came to recognize that we wanted to belong to a faith community together – this was something missing from our relationship. So, five years ago on the first Sunday of Advent we went to a Saturday evening mass at a local Catholic church - which will remain nameless to protect the innocent! To be charitable, let’s just say we didn’t find what we were hoping to find. It was, for both of us, a major disappointment.

The following week I was telling this story to a colleague (some of you may remember her – Patty Nickerson) who mentioned in an offhanded way that she went to the local Episcopal church, St. Paul’s, that was actually just a few blocks from our house. In part because as a local history buff I was curious to see the inside of this Victorian wood frame church, Sue and I went to St. Paul’s the following Sunday.

Perfectimundo – restoration to the way things were meant to be. We found not only a beautiful building but a lovely service with gorgeous music. We heard an intelligent, honest sermon. At the sign of peace, instead of a quick handshake with the person in front of or behind us, the St. Paul’s family was out in the aisle greeting and embracing one another. The rector made sure to say hello and welcome us to the church. I remember sitting in the pew that first Sunday watching the rainbow of people one by one kneel at the altar rail to receive communion. And, just when I thought this powerful experience was over, came the invitation to coffee hour. For some reason, at this church people did not – the moment they heard the words “go in peace” – race to be the first out of the parking lot. Instead, they socialized with one another. For an hour! Or even longer! Perfectimundo!

That day remains very special for both Sue and me. Of course we did not know then that we were starting out on a pathway that has led to some pretty amazing changes for both of us. And we did not know that Dave would become such a very close friend. I don’t know if any of you ever watch the TV show Boston Legal, but each time I see the warm friendship between the character Denny Crane (played by the great William Shatner) and Alan Shore I am reminded of my friendship with Dave – but, of course, ours is without the drinking, the cigars, or the dementia. Yet, all at once, he’s somehow brother, father, best friend, mentor, and the greatest priest I know, a treasured gift. Perfectimundo.

My second Advent discovery concerns a very different church. Just a few months before the end of World War II the allies launched a devastating raid on the German city of Dresden – a city which had long been regarded as one of the most beautiful in Europe. The city burned for week and over 30,000 people were killed. After the war Dresden was in the eastern, communist, side of Germany. The East German government set out to rebuild Dresden but decided to leave one of the city’s architectural jewels, the massive and ornate Lutheran Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, standing as a burned-out ruined shell. For over forty years it stood as what one person described as “a gaping wound” - a stark and haunting reminder of the horror and the cost of war.

Once Germany was reunited the government decided to rebuild the church, a project which took a decade and over 200 million dollars to complete. Much of the money came from people in Germany’s wartime enemies, Britain and the United States. The gold cross that tops the church was donated by the British city of Coventry, which itself was crushed by German bombings during the war. This cross was created by the son of an English pilot who dropped bombs on Dresden in 1945. Perfectimundo – restoration to the way things were meant to be. I was fortunate enough to be in Dresden in 1995 and saw some of the early stages of the reconstruction. The church was surrounded by giant metal shelves holding carefully labeled pieces of masonry - an immense jigsaw puzzle that was finally rededicated just a few weeks ago, at the end of October.

It’s a puzzle completed by combining the dark, burned stones of the original church with new light colored sandstones. And perhaps that’s a fitting symbol for our Advent this year – a kind of bluish purple to remind us that while we have a ways to go, God is at work – bringing about restoration, restoration back to the way things were meant to be. So once again let’s join John down at the river. Once again let’s sit with Mary and ponder the words of the angel. And like the psalmist let us celebrate God’s past graciousness and forgiveness. In the midst of our tired and broken world let us look carefully for the times and places today when mercy and truth meet, and righteousness and peace kiss each other. And let us look to the future with confidence, knowing that truth shall spring up from the earth and righteousness shall look down from heaven. Let us wait and watch. Let us light our candles. It’s Advent! Let’s pay attention – after all, perfectimundo is all around us.


Sunday, October 23, 2005

In Your Heart You Know He's Right

House of Prayer Episcopal Church, Newark NJ
October 23, 2005

Year A: Proper 25 BCP
Exodus 22: 21-27
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
Matthew 22: 34-46

“In Your Heart You Know He’s Right”

Breathe on us, Breath of God, fill us with life anew,
that we may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.

The twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost does not exactly sound like a particularly special day – let’s face it we’re not talking Easter, or Christmas, or even Epiphany here. And yet, in this Sunday’s Gospel passage, in this little exchange between Jesus and one of his opponents, we find ourselves very close to the heart of the Christian message, the heart of our lives in Christ. When an unnamed Pharisee challenges Jesus to name the greatest commandment, Jesus quotes from the Bible, the Book of Deuteronomy, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Creatively then Jesus links that commandment with a verse from another Bible book, Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells the Pharisee that these commandments are the heart of the matter, the way to understand everything, what it’s all about: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Reflecting on this passage for the last few days, waiting patiently for inspiration to strike, I’ve heard one name over and over in my head…Barry Goldwater. Now, some of you are old enough to remember Barry Goldwater, but you won’t be put on the spot – although that would probably be a lot of fun. For those who don’t or won’t admit that you remember him, Goldwater was a longtime Republican senator from Arizona and the unsuccessful Republican candidate for president in 1964. But, you’re probably asking, why in the world think of Barry Goldwater today? Well, I think, I hope, the reason is that in 1964 Goldwater used one of my all-time favorite political campaign slogans – “In your heart you know he’s right.” “In your heart you know he’s right.” This arrogant political slogan might actually help us in reflecting on today’s gospel.

Of course we don’t know much about the Pharisee who questions Jesus, but he’s still an interesting character. Most translations describe him as a lawyer, but maybe scholar of the law would be better. Any Pharisee, or scholar of the law, worthy of the name would have been familiar with the scripture Jesus quotes.

Yet, what did this scholar feel or think when Jesus creatively linked these two concepts together – love of God and love of neighbor? And it’s amazing how Jesus seems takes this leap like it’s no big deal, no sweat. What was the reaction of this scholar of the law to Jesus’ deep but almost casual answer? Well, it’s too bad that Matthew does not record the Pharisee’s response to Jesus’ answer, instead moving on to Jesus’ own questions for the Pharisees. Maybe this scholar was surprised, or shocked, or unsatisfied, or disturbed, or impressed. We don’t know, but I’m going to guess that this Pharisee felt what I sometimes feel and maybe you feel when we read the Bible and hear Jesus speak this way, when we hear Jesus teach with authority – in our hearts, we know he’s right. Love of God, love of neighbor. Of course, that’s what it’s all about. This truth is what we need to remember when we read all the Scriptures. Of course, of course. In our hearts, we know he’s right.

If that’s true, if in our hearts we know Jesus is right, then what’s really terrible is how often we choose to ignore the truth that Jesus taught the Pharisee and is teaching us today. We know it in our hearts, we’ve heard it repeated a million times, and yet we choose to live in ways very different from love of God and love of neighbor.

What makes our actions really upsetting is that if we miss this central commandment, which we know in our hearts is right, we’ve really missed it all. We can’t hope to understand the God revealed in the Scriptures, we can’t hope to know Jesus, we can’t hope to understand ourselves, we can’t really be Christians, if we miss or forget this teaching.

So if this is so important, so crucial, why today do we, maybe even nice church-going folk like us, miss this great commandment so often - forgetting it, ignoring it, tucking it away behind some old clothes in our dresser drawer? I think we can agree that there are many reasons – reasons that might be dumped into a big crate and labeled “sin.” I’m sure by now you’ve all figured out you’re your own ways to sin, but today I offer one sin from my own collection – the destructive sin of self-centeredness.

I’m sorry to say that unfortunately, I have found it very easy to forget this simple, profound truth that Jesus is teaching us today. Especially during my first year over at the seminary, I found it very easy to forget this greatest commandment.

As some of you know, in my previous life for fifteen years I was a history teacher. It was a job I really liked – I liked history, I liked kids, and I liked sharing history with them – watching them struggle, think and grow. I especially loved the opportunity to build a little community in each of my classes. And, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I liked the attention I received as a teacher too. (The summers off weren’t bad either.) My last year as a teacher was really good and I left feeling positive about the past and excited about the future.

So after a relaxing summer, seminary began. Almost immediately I felt shaky – had I made the right decision leaving the sure thing, leaving my little school community? I had to deal with anxieties that reminded me a lot of when I was in high school - Would I fit in? Would I make friends? Do well academically? Maybe most scary of all, would I be able to learn how to sing, or even just chant? (At least the music professor eventually determined that I wasn’t tone deaf – now that was some welcome good news!) But, what if I had made a big mistake? Whose idea was this anyway?! Well, I thought, with sickening turns of my stomach, there was no turning back – I doubted my Roman Catholic high school would welcome me back, even if my old job were available. As my confidence dropped I just did not feel like myself – I lost my sense of humor, felt tired, weird, and scared.

But by the grace of God, and the support of people who care about me, I got through it and did OK. I have to say, though, it was a big relief to finish the last day of classes and head for home.

Then, of course, after a couple of weeks it was on to what’s called CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education, where I worked as a chaplain in a hospital and hopefully learned some pastoral skills. One of our first things we did was to create a “Verbatim with God” – we had to write down a little conversation between God and us. It shocked and hurt me how frustrating and difficult I found this exercise. I tried talking to God, but nothing – I could not imagine what God and I might have to say to each other. In the end my dialogue turned out to be more like a monologue – me trying to talk with God but seemingly getting no divine response.

When we read our “Verbatims with God” in our CPE group I had a sinking feeling, a kind of panic, as I realized that my classmates all seemed to be a lot closer to God than I was. Even if they had problems, at least they were actually had some kind of relationship with God! Concerned, one of the CPE supervisors said that my conversation with God, my relationship with God, seemed lifeless. I can still feel how hard that word hit me. Lifeless.

Looking back on all of this now, I realize that I was an example of what happens when we forget what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel. Under the stress of a big change, I had turned in on myself. I had lost sight of the central truth that we are born to love and born to be loved. Instead, in my fear and insecurity, I had become self-absorbed, self-centered, closed to the love coming to me from God through the people in my life. And since I was so focused on myself I was certainly not very able crack open my heart and offer love to the people I encountered in my life.

This love of God and love of neighbor that Jesus is teaching us about, in Greek it’s called agape, this love is action. This love that Jesus is teaching us about is a commitment, a doing. It’s a total life of love – since we can’t separate our love of God from our love of neighbor, even if we wanted to. But, we can’t do this love; we can’t even really accept this love, if we can’t stop thinking about ourselves.

The fact is if we’re self-centered we’re not going to be able to love the way Jesus calls us to love. It reminds me of another one of Jesus’ best-known and most difficult sayings, which Matthew places in Chapter 10. Jesus tells his followers, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Here, and in the Great Commandment, in the Beatitudes, throughout the Gospels – and truly throughout Jesus’ life, we are called over and over again to a life of love. And if we sometimes feel unloved, as a friend of mine says, all we need to do is look at the Cross to remember just how much we are loved. The entire message of the Bible it seems to me can be summed up in that beautiful name, Emmanuel – God with us. So if we feel lifeless and lost we know that God is with us and God doesn’t give up. God is tirelessly, constantly at work in our lives, providing us with new opportunities to love and be loved.

Back to my CPE story. After my lifeless “Verbatim with God”, I realized with a shock just how far I had drifted from God during that first difficult seminary year. God and I put all this to good use. That sadness drove me to work harder at figuring out just what I believed about God in my life. Somehow that lifelessness helped my prayer as I cried out in a way I hadn’t in a long time, “Where are you, God?” and “Help!” And somehow facing my own little fears and insecurities helped make me much more sensitive to the fears and needs of the patients I visited each day. My own crying out to God helped me to really pray with people facing illness and loss who were also crying out to God – People asking in their own ways “where are you?” and “help!”

Being present in the confusion and anxiety of patients and their families was certainly not easy, but it served as a reminder. Being present for love and reconciliation among patients and their families served as a reminder too. It was a reminder of what Jesus is teaching us today, a reminder of the truth of God, the truth that lies at the heart of our lives – that we are born to love and be loved – this is who we really are – this who God calls us to be – this is who God dreams we will be. And in our hearts we know Jesus is right.

A couple of weeks ago when I was walking through downtown on my way to the vestry meeting here at House of Prayer, I stopped in front of a beautiful church on Washington Park. Doug tells me it had been home to a Presbyterian congregation, a group that hung in there as long as it could, but finally closed its large, beautiful church not long ago. Maybe some of you know it. I felt sad looking at this building, wondering what would happen to it now. Then I looked up above the doorway and carved into the masonry were the words: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Whoever they were, these departed Newark Presbyterians got it – they understood what is most important. And in a small way they continue to share this good news through the building they have left behind.

So on this plain, old 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, we are reminded of the simple, beautiful truth of our life in Christ – all that we are commanded to do and be. To love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind. And to love our neighbor as ourselves. Today let us go forth from this house of prayer remembering what Jesus teaches us - that we are born to love and be loved. In our hearts we know he’s right.


Sunday, August 07, 2005

Suffering and Faith

St. Paul's Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 7, 2005

Year A: Pentecost 12
Jonah 2: 1-9
Psalm 29
Romans 9: 1-5
Matthew 14: 22-33

Suffering and faith. Working as a chaplain at Christ Hospital this summer I’ve thought a lot about these two big issues - suffering and faith – which are also at the heart of today’s readings. This may sound strange but of the two, suffering and faith, I really think suffering is the easier one for us to deal with.

Suffering is certainly pretty easy to identify in today’s readings. We begin with the wonderful, bizarre story of Jonah stuck for three days in the belly of the big fish. In the news these past couple of days we’ve heard about some modern-day Jonahs haven’t we, Russian sailors trapped in their submarine, finally rescued this morning. Anyway, Jonah is probably the crankiest, most difficult prophet in the entire Bible. When God tells him to go east, Jonah goes west. It’s that stubbornness that leads Jonah to the unappealing position we find him in today – trapped inside a fish’s belly. Jonah is suffering.

Then we have Paul, the faithful Jew, so hurt and so disappointed that most of his Jewish brothers and sisters have not recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Paul is so upset about this that he even considers having himself cut off from Christ for the sake of his people. Paul is suffering.

And finally we have Peter – the eager apostle trying to do the best he can – trying to faithfully follow the Lord. So he goes charging out of the boat onto the lake heading toward Jesus. I love the image of what happens next – when Peter gets afraid and begins to sink. I always think of those old cartoons when someone like Wile E. Coyote races off a cliff and stays up in the air - until he recognizes the danger of his situation. You know… Yes, as he had that sinking feeling, Peter was suffering.

Let’s face it, suffering is easier to talk about than faith because lots of times it seems like suffering is all around us. Faith, on the other hand, is a lot harder to pin down. Can we have a show of hands – who here has ever suffered? That’s what I thought.

Obviously a hospital is a place filled with a lot of suffering. Many days as I have made my visits around the hospital, just before I enter patients’ rooms, I get that sinking feeling, a little bit like Jonah and Peter. What suffering will I be faced with now?

I think of the man in his 70s I visited with for a long time last week. He is devastated by his sister’s death and now he is betrayed by his own body as he struggles to breathe and to walk. His life seems to have been shattered into a thousand pieces. He is suffering. Or the alcoholic in his 40s, bloated, jaundiced and dying as his liver and kidneys fail. Sitting with his elderly mom and dad as they struggle with the anger they feel towards their son and maybe, if they admit it, the anger they feel towards God. Suffering. Or the 20 year-old young man I met in intensive care – a feeding tube up his nose, his eyes glazed and his scared young girlfriend sitting sadly by his side. Suffering.

We don’t have to look far to find suffering. But what about this morning’s other theme, faith? More than the issue of suffering, it is the issue of faith that has troubled me during my time working in the hospital. Sure, nearly every patient I meet claims to believe in God, and all the Christians say they believe in Jesus. But I have a feeling that lots of people say this because they think that’s what the nice chaplain wants to hear. It’s sort of like asking a lonely person if they have friends. Often they’ll say “Oh, sure, I have friends”. But then if you ask who their friends are, it turns out they have no one. With the patients, when I try to dig a little deeper and ask how their “faith” helps them or how they experience the presence of God – usually I get lots of ums and shrugs. I think this is very sad and discouraging.

It’s sad because the message of the entire Bible can be summed up in one word – “Emmanuel” – “God with us.” Throughout the Scriptures God promises one thing over and over – God promises to be with us always. God promises God’s presence. God does not promise an easy life. God does not promise a life without suffering. God does not promise miracles. God promises one thing - God promises to be with us through all the suffering – and all the joy – of life.

And yet so many of us, especially in times of great suffering, struggle to feel God with us. Must be frustrating for God! I think part of our problem is that we have turned faith into an intellectual activity. We’re too much up here in our heads and too little down in our hearts. We say “I believe this, that and the other thing.” OK, that’s fine, I guess. But what happens when we experience something that causes us to question or doubt all those “I believes”? What happens when we get that sinking feeling like Jonah, Paul and Peter? Unfortunately I think what often happens is the faith up here in our heads evaporates and we are overcome by fear and doubt. Since we don’t feel God’s presence we think, maybe we were kidding ourselves, fooling ourselves, lying to ourselves. The intellectual faith, the faith of our brain, is not enough to give us strength in our times of need.

But if not an intellectual faith, then what? Well, maybe the word “faith” itself offers an answer. Our English word “faith” comes from the Latin word “fido” which means “to trust, to confide in.” “To trust, confide in.” It turns out that really faith is a verb, it’s an action, it’s a doing. Faith is a practice. Faith really is putting our trust in God. Faith is not somehow convincing ourselves that what’s written in a holy book is true. Faith is not convincing our brains that what people in fancy robes tell us is true. No, faith is the act of putting our trust in God. Faith is placing our confidence in God. Simple, profound, and for me at least, really hard!

Faith is the work of our lives. Not easy and, sure, we will doubt and hesitate – especially when times get tough. But as we practice our faith – by praying with our whole hearts, by serving our brothers and sisters, by coming to church and praising God - as we practice our faith our relationship with God deepens and matures. As we really pay attention to the world around us, as we are mindful – our faith deepens and matures. We are not just called to say “I believe this, that and the other thing.” It’s more than that. As we practice our faith, as we live our lives, we are called to open our hearts and place our trust in God, to make room for God, to confide in God, to rest in God. And by developing that deep trust in God’s presence, we will be stronger when those tough times come.

Really if we think about it, keeping up with God is not so different from keeping up with friends and family. Who wants to be the person who never makes time for other people and then ends up alone wondering where are all the people close to me? Why is no one visiting or calling me? Oh yeah, I never really bothered with them, did I? Same with God. To feel God’s presence we need to work on our relationship with God – to make some room for God - that is faith.

So the message of today’s readings is pretty clear. In the midst of their suffering Jonah, Paul and Peter reached out, opened their hearts, put their trust in God. As we especially see with Peter, their faith wasn’t perfect – they doubted and stumbled. But that’s OK because in the end they put their trust in God, creating more and more room for God to work in and through their lives.

If we know anything about the lives of Jonah, Paul and Peter we know that their faith in God did not guarantee an easy, painless life. Far from it. But their faith, their putting trust in God, did guarantee a deeper and deeper relationship with God – a different kind of sinking feeling – a sinking into the One who is love and the source of all life - a sinking into the One who never abandons us even if, like Peter, we are of little faith. Amen.

Now, as it happens, in a second we will stand and say the creed. Maybe today we can say these words not only with our brains and mouths, but also with our hearts – hearts open to the presence of God.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Parable of the Sower

St. Paul's Church in Bergen
July 10, 2005

Year A: 8 Pentecost
Isaiah 55:1-5;10-13
Psalm 65: 9-14
Romans 8: 9-17
Matthew 13: 1-9; 18-23

You know I really love living in the city, but sometimes being a city person causes some big challenges when it comes to reading the Bible. After all, the Bible is a document written a couple of thousand years ago by people in the Middle East who were mostly farmers and shepherds. I mean, what do we living in Jersey City in 2005 know about sheep and shepherds? We are pretty cut off from nature here. When was the last time you even saw sheep in Jersey City? Or even in Bayonne? And yet, this agricultural imagery pops up over and over again in the Bible, and today’s readings give us some great examples.

In Isaiah we have mountains and hills bursting into song. Hmm, OK, singing mountains. The Psalmist declares, “May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing and the hills be clothed with joy.” Right – hills clothed with joy. And, in today’s Gospel we have the famous parable of the sower. Lots of agricultural imagery for us city slickers – people pretty cut off from nature in this paved over place- to deal with.

Just like it’s easy for us to feel cut off from nature, it’s also easy for us to be unaware of God’s presence in our lives; easy for us to be unaware of God’s presence in the world. Especially in times like this when we turn on our TVs in the morning and once again see the slaughter and suffering of innocent people as they make their way to work – trying to get by in the world. It’s very easy for us to lose our sense of God, our sense of the holy, our sense of God’s abundant love, in a world such as this.

How frustrating this must be for God! Especially frustrating for God when we hear the way God is described in this morning’s readings. Here is God as a God of abundance and extravagance. A God whose Spirit is present in the beautiful world around us. A God whose Spirit is present inside our own beautiful hearts. A God who overflows with love.

I don’t know where I heard this, but there is an ancient idea that says that, in a way, God could not help but create the universe. That God was so full of love, it couldn’t be contained. God’s love and creative power overflowed and resulted in the world, the universe. And if we really take the time to pay attention to the world, to nature, we can see God’s presence all around us – even right here in Jersey City.

For the past few weeks most days I’ve been walking from home to Christ Hospital. I’ve tried to take different routes to see as much as I can and to avoid boredom. One thing I have noticed is how many people, on these grimy blocks and gritty streets, have taken the time to plant and tend beautiful flowers. In the midst of cars, trucks and buses belching exhaust – here are marigolds, roses and hydrangea. These flowers don’t really serve any practical purpose, except to make the world more beautiful. It’s kind of crazy and seemingly wasteful, but also moving and a powerful sign of hope and life.

And doesn’t God work the same way? God did not have to make the planet beautiful. God did not have to give us the ability to appreciate beauty. Yet, there it is. And, sure enough, the closer and deeper we look at things, the more beautiful they turn out to be. Have you ever seen the elegance of DNA – the actual building blocks of life? Many people who doubt God’s existence have second thoughts when they see the complexity and beauty of DNA. Or how about some of the images from the deepest parts of the universe – distant galaxies, and immense clouds generating billions of stars? Incredibly awesome and beautiful. There really is an extravagance, an overflowing abundance, in God’s loving, creative power. God really is the farmer that Jesus describes sowing his seeds – on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns, and yes, on good soil. Now even this city boy knows that you should try to get as much seed as you can on good soil – you should try to be very careful. But that’s not how God does it. God’s out in the middle of the Boulevard throwing seeds left and right! God is abundant, God is seemingly wasteful, God is overflowing.

And since, as St. Paul reminds us today, the Spirit of God dwells in us, isn’t it true that at our best we are abundant, seemingly wasteful and overflowing – just like God? Don’t we, at our best, deep in our hearts, have a huge reserve of love? But, what do we do? We ration the love – we try to conserve it. It’s like we say, “I’m sorry, I can’t love you too much because I might use up all my love!” It’s even hard for many of us to say the words – as if, somehow, we have a limited supply of even just the word “love.” Unfortunately, lots of times, we only open our hearts and allow the love to pour out when we are in life and death situations. And, then, sure enough, in those extreme moments, we find that we have more than enough love to go around. We become like the farmer, we become like God, tossing love on the asphalt and the concrete.

The terrible attacks in London a few days ago brought back lots of 9/11 memories. Remember when we heard the heartbreaking messages left by victims on answering machines and voice mail? What did these people say over and over? “I love you. I love you so much. Tell the kids I love them. I love you so much.” In the middle of so much pain and suffering – in the worst soil I can imagine – an overflow of love.

Isn’t this the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus describes in today’s Gospel? Isn’t this God planting seeds here, there and everywhere? Isn’t this what Paul describes as the “Spirit of God” dwelling in us? Isn’t this the love and joy described by Isaiah – love and joy so powerful that it causes nature itself to burst into praise?

This summer at Christ Hospital I’ve had a fair share of extreme moments. One patient has haunted me. She was in the hospital for about three weeks, and after a short while it became clear that she was dying. I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with her and her family during those last days. One time when we were alone, she looked at me intently, grabbed my hand and said, “I never thought I could love my children so much.” “I never thought I could love my children so much.”

And sure enough, as each of her children and her grandchildren sat by her bedside, she held their hand and said over and over in her slurred and hoarse voice, “I love you.” “I love you.” “I love you so much.” And through tears and smiles they told this dying woman how much they loved her. An abundant, overflowing love.

Isn’t this what Jesus is telling us today about God? Jesus tells us that God is overflowing with love – pouring love out even in the harshest, rockiest, least promising places. Tossing seeds here, there, and everywhere. An abundant, seemingly wasteful, overflowing love.

And today we are challenged to be both the good sower and the good soil. All we need to do is open our hearts – by loving and by being loved. To love extravagantly and abundantly just like God - who creates the galaxies and the marigolds.

Today let us pray that we will open our hearts to love, so that the mountains and hills shall burst into song, and the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sermon on the Feast of St. Alban

Christ Hospital
June 22, 2005

Sermon on the Feast of St. Alban

In the Episcopal Church today is the day that each year we remember St. Alban. I guess he’s not a household name, not one of the better known saints – people like St. Francis or St. Anthony – but I think he is someone worth remembering. He lived in Britain a long time ago – way back in the third century. At first he was not a Christian, but during a time when the Romans were killing Christians, Alban took in a Christian priest and hid him from the Romans. As they were living together, Alban came to admire the priest’s holiness and decided to become a Christian. Eventually the Romans came to Alban’s house and Alban did something really amazing. He put on the priest’s clothes and was arrested, tortured and eventually killed in the priest’s place.

So today we remember Alban as a remarkably courageous and faithful person. He made the supreme sacrifice; he gave his life to protect someone he cared about. But, I find myself wondering about the other character in this story – the priest. Imagine for a second, the priest is someone who has committed his life to his faith. He’s obviously a holy man and a good teacher. We know that Alban is so impressed by him that he becomes a Christian and then Alban even gives his life for the priest.

I wonder, how did the priest feel during all of this? Well, it seems to me that even with his faith, the priest was probably pretty afraid of the Romans. After all, we know he did hide from them in Alban’s house. The priest must have known very well that if he was captured the Romans would torture him and kill him. Maybe the priest even had some doubts about his faith. Maybe the priest wondered – where is God? Why is God letting me down? Why is God letting this happen to me? Sure the priest talked a good game – he was a good preacher and a good teacher. But now he was really suffering and I bet he was searching for the presence of God.

And I believe in this story God works through Alban. The student teaches the teacher. Alban puts his faith into action. By putting on the priest’s clothing, Alban literally lifts the burden, for a time. Of course, Alban’s sacrifice doesn’t make everything all better. The Romans are still around and it’s safe to guess that eventually they caught up with the priest and he had to suffer too. But I think in the midst of the priest’s suffering and pain he would have remembered Alban’s sacrifice – and seen it as a sign that God is at work in the world. Maybe the priest would have seen Alban’s sacrifice as a reminder that God does not promise a life without pain and suffering, but God does promise to be present in our suffering – and we can see God at work if we are really mindful – if we really pay attention. In the words of Psalm 34, “Taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who trust in him!”

I have to admit that I have felt very intimidated preparing for this talk today. To be honest, I’ve dreaded it! I have wondered how can I stand here in the chapel and talk about suffering when so many of you watching in your hospital rooms are facing the challenges and fears of illness. So, I humbly offer my own experience – I hope and pray that something in my own story can offer you some hope – some sense that God is present, even right now, especially right now, when maybe things seem very bleak and the suffering is great.

I used to be a high school history teacher. It was work that I enjoyed very much, and I think I was pretty good at it! But about four years ago my grandmother was sick right here in Christ Hospital. Since it was over my Christmas vacation I was able to spend a lot of time with her – more than since I was a kid. We got to talk a lot. It was a great gift. I really admired how she had lived her life so faithfully and faced her illness with peace and confidence. She taught me more about faith than a thousand sermons and books. After that experience I got to thinking seriously about my own life and I came to believe that God might be calling me to be something other than a high school teacher – that God might be calling me to be a priest.

To make a long story short, I found myself this past September beginning to study in a seminary. The teacher was now the student. It was a difficult experience – it was hard to leave my old, familiar life. It was hard to give up my paycheck. It was hard to give up control. I used to grade papers and now professors were grading my work! How dare they! It was a hard year and I found myself exhausted and drained by the end. I often wondered - where is God? Had I made a big mistake? I felt loss and fear.

Recently someone asked me if I feel God’s presence in my life. I’m embarrassed to say I fumbled around for an answer and the best I could come up with was “well, sometimes, I guess.” But since that conversation, over the past few days I really thought about God’s presence in my life – I tried to really pay attention. I was surprised by what I saw.

Last week I was walking through the Journal Square PATH station on Saturday afternoon. I noticed a man who was disheveled and probably homeless – unfortunately a pretty common sight at the Square. Then I saw a very nicely dressed woman looking around nervously, almost as if she was trying to make sure that no one was watching. She quickly walked over to the man, reached into her bag, handed him a package and said, “Here’s something for you to eat.” Just as quickly she was gone. A brief, beautiful moment. But, looking back on it, it was for me a sign of God’s presence in the world – even right here in Jersey City!

This past Sunday I visited a different Episcopal church, one out in the suburbs. It was a very nice service, but I was startled when it came time for the collection. As I placed my crumpled bills into the collection plate, the usher took my hand, forcefully shook it and said “Mr. Murphy, I want to thank you. I’ll explain later.” My wife looked at me and I shrugged, I didn’t think I had ever seen this man before. After the service he caught up with me in the back of the church. It turns out that three years ago he and his wife had decided to send their son to my old school because of what I had said during a talk I gave at the school’s open house. The father was so happy and enthusiastic – it seemed to be one of the best decisions their family had ever made. He was so proud that his son was growing into a fine young man, doing well in school – active in the church – he had just returned from a weeklong service trip where he worked to help the hungry and the homeless. I have to admit I was a little embarrassed by the father’s gratitude, but it was also for me another sign of God’s presence in the world. It was a reminder that God is at work in me and the people around me – even when I’m not paying attention.

Finally these past few weeks serving and learning here at Christ Hospital have been great gifts. The staff has been so kind and generous, even though they are so busy and under so much pressure. And it has been such a privilege to talk and pray with the patients. You have shared your stories, your joys and sorrows. You have told me about your doubts and your faith, your fear and your hope.

Using our own words we have prayed to God the hope of Psalm 31:
“Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
For you are my crag and my stronghold;
For the sake of your name, lead me and guide me.”
“Into your hands I commend my spirit,
For you have redeemed me,
O Lord, O God of truth.”

I think the story of St. Alban and the priest, and the story of our own lives, teach us that God is indeed present, both in the good times and in the times of pain and suffering. This afternoon let us pray that we will open our hearts and our minds to God’s presence among us so that God may be our comfort and our strength, our hope and our support, our light and our way.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Jersey City Evangelism

St. Paul's Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Year A
Pentecost 4
June 12, 2005

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Well, I was hoping that our Sunday readings would get a little easier during this hot and humid summer weather! But, no such luck. It turns out that today’s readings cut very close to the heart of our faith. We are reminded of all the many gifts God has given us. And then we are challenged to respond to God’s generosity. How do we respond? What are we, right here at St. Paul’s in Jersey City, called to do?

In the Old Testament reading from Exodus, God has given the gift of freedom to the Israelites. God says to Moses: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” God challenges them to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” How do the Israelites respond to this profound gift? They accept the Covenant, this special relationship with God. “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Really easy to say, perhaps, but when you think about it, an awesome challenge. To be God’s holy people. To give full devotion to God. A challenge that the people of Israel will struggle with throughout the ups and downs of history that we read about in the Old Testament.

Last week in the Gospel we heard about Jesus’ call to Matthew – the despised tax collector. Last week I somehow managed to hear three very different sermons, by three very different preachers, on that gospel passage. All three noted that Matthew is called by Jesus not because he is worthy, or holy, or good. Matthew is called because he is simply a human being, created and loved by God. Matthew is called because God is merciful. And what hope that gives us who are also not so worthy or holy. But, you know, I think we’d love it if that’s how the story ended. Matthew, and you and I, are called by Jesus despite – or because – we are unworthy and we spend the rest of our lives sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to his teaching, witnessing the miracles, trying to figure out the parables, and sharing some great meals. It wouldn’t be hard to take, would it, if to be a Christian all we had to do was hang out with Jesus? Sign me up!

It would be sort of like if all it meant to be a Christian was to go to church. I’m guessing most of you, like me, enjoy coming here. I think I’ve seen most of you before. It’s a great place, right? Each week we gather together, follow ancient rituals, hear the old stories – brought to life through great preaching, listen to fine music, we pass the peace, we break bread together – both up here at the altar and a little while later during coffee hour in the parish hall. It’s a highlight of my week and it makes me sad to imagine not being here.

And this church year in particular St. Paul’s has been on quite a roll – Bishop Croneberger’s visit, the bazaar, wonderful Christmas and Easter, great new people in our congregation, a website, the church school, a powerful Confirmation service just a few weeks ago (with nice pictures in the paper), the foosball championship later today, the summer program about to start…it’s been a wonderful time at St. Paul’s. The church looks great and feels great. I really can’t wait to see what happens next!

But all the wonderful things that happen here – in the end they are not what being a Christian is all about. If for us, being a Christian means just going to church – even a powerful, friendly, loving church like ours – then we have not really lived into God’s challenge to be faithful Christians.

“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest…”

The church’s mission, this church’s mission, is to give us the food that we need, the tools that we need, the support that we need, to be like Jesus – to bring the good news to the world. It turns out that Matthew’s back in today’s Gospel, isn’t he? He didn’t get to spend the rest of his life hanging out with Jesus. No, Matthew and the rest are given the challenge to go out and proclaim “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Back then the twelve, and now today, we, are sent out into the harvest.

The fancy word for going out into the harvest is evangelism – a word that is maybe not too popular in the Episcopal Church. It’s a word that turns off a lot of people. It’s a word that has gotten kind of a bad reputation because some have abused it. But evangelism really means to be a “messenger of good news.”

There’s no other way to be a Christian, except to live as an evangelist – a messenger of the Good News.

Now, before anyone objects, I’m not saying that we should all meet tomorrow morning at the bus stop over on Bergen Avenue with our Bibles in hand and preach the Gospel to the commuters. Although, some are called to do exactly that. But I do believe that we are all called, all challenged, all expected to be evangelists – messengers of the Good News. But we are called to be evangelists in our own way – there’s no one size fits all when it comes to evangelism.

One of the greatest Christians, St. Francis of Assisi, once said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” I bet most of the time we evangelize in ways we don’t even suspect. Not so much by what we say, but by how we live our lives. When we are caring and compassionate. By being good husbands and wives, loving parents and loving children. By listening to the other person with our hearts and our minds. Really listening and caring. Really paying attention. Not hiding our faith, but not force-feeding it either. Not preaching at people (sorry, what I’m doing now doesn’t count!) but really not preaching at people but being courageous enough to share what Christ has done in our lives.) Resisting injustice, standing up for the despised and the outcast. Living our lives in a mindful way – remembering what Jesus says in today’s Gospel – “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Remembering that God is at work in our daily lives and all the people we encounter every day - and living our lives in a way that shows that we really believe that. This evangelism is not necessarily done with a lot of talk. “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

I’m reminded of how my friend Father Carr sums up the Christian life – it’s a life of love, forgiveness and service.

Just yesterday I was walking through the Journal Square PATH station on my way home from the diaconal ordinations at the cathedral in Newark. I saw a disheveled homeless man – unfortunately a pretty common site at the Square. But then I saw a very nicely dressed woman who seemed to be looking around a little nervously – almost as if she wanted to make sure no one was watching. And then she quickly stepped over to the homeless man, reached into her bag, and said “Here’s something for you to eat.” Just a brief, beautiful moment. But certainly in that moment the kingdom of heaven had come near.

All of the people who have really influenced my faith life have done it not so much by what they said but how they lived their lives. They have made me want to be like them. My grandmother, Rita, was one of the holiest people I’ve ever met. I wish you could have met her. Yet, although she certainly wanted to pass on the faith to me and her other grandchildren, she never once preached to me, or even taught me about the faith – with words. Yet she taught me so much by the way she lived her life – with love and simplicity, selflessness and faithfulness. Sharing the experience of her final illness and death was one of the most powerful times of my life. I’ll never forget how she faced death with utter serenity and courage – confident that indeed the kingdom of heaven had come near. For me, there was more evangelism in that experience than in a thousand sermons or books. It was that experience that got me thinking about and praying about the priesthood. And I really still feel her support as I make my way on the road to ordination.

I’m also reminded of my fifteen years as a full-time teacher. Sue’s probably sick of hearing this by now, but after a while I came to the conclusion that what was more important than the subject I was teaching was that I somehow expressed that I genuinely cared about my students and that I demonstrated a sincere love of learning. Everything else would fall into place after that. Not so different from the Christian life is it? Love of God and love of neighbor. Everything flows from that.

You know, overall, it doesn’t seem like Jesus was a big talker either. Yes, of course, there are the sermons and the parables. But more than his words, I think Jesus gathered and taught his followers through his actions. Let’s face it, most of the time the disciples didn’t get what Jesus was talking about anyway! It’s not about the words, but the life. Remember last week, Jesus simply says to Matthew “Follow me.” And Matthew got up and followed him. I don’t think those two words “Follow me” had any kind of magical power. Instead, it seems to me, what convinced Matthew was the simple yet profound act of this great teacher and healer reaching out – especially reaching out to one so despised by society. For Matthew, that day, the kingdom of heaven was near.

So, there you have it. Like the ancient Israelites, like Matthew and the other first followers of Jesus, God has been good to us here at St. Paul’s. Like Matthew and the first followers of Jesus, we are called to be God’s holy people. We are called to be evangelists. We are called to be messengers of the Good News.

So, sister and brother evangelists, we have come once again to this holy place on Duncan Avenue to be fed with spiritual food. Let us pray that we will go forth into the world in peace and that God will grant us strength and courage to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart. Let us pray that God will give us the confidence to preach the Gospel at all times, if necessary using words. And since the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, let us pray with Jesus that God will send out laborers – will send us out – into the harvest. Right out there, just outside those doors.


Sunday, March 20, 2005

Palm Sunday

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
Year A – Palm Sunday
March 20, 2005

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I want to begin by admitting that I have been feeling a little discouraged lately. It seems like everywhere I turn I see misery and suffering and loss. I think we could all agree that the world is an absolute mess – war, poverty, even a string of heartbreaking, brutal murders right here in our own city. In this messy and broken world of ours I find myself sitting in class over at the seminary learning about long-ago monks and prophets. And I sometimes ask, what is the point of all this? The world is such an absolute mess, what difference can I possibly make? What difference can the church make in a broken world that opposes, hates and mocks what Christianity teaches?

This is a good day to ask these difficult questions because today we have come very close to the heart of Christianity. We are powerfully reminded that two thousand years ago, right here on our messy and broken earth, God revealed God’s self in the person of Jesus Christ. Human beings, not very different from you or me, heard his message of love, saw his miracles, listened to his teaching – and killed him. Despite all of the images of the cross that surround us, that dangle from necks and decorate our churches, I think we often forget this profound, terrible and terrifying truth. Human beings killed the revelation of God.

He was killed not because he was a mystic, or a healer, or a prophet, or a teacher – although he was all of those things. He was killed because in a messy and broken world he called for justice, reaching out to people on the margins of society – the poor and the despised – the disposable people – people not really needed or wanted. He offered a vision of a different kind of world, one built on the foundation of love. He was killed because he spoke the truth to power and power did not like it one bit.

But, you and I, we’re not powerful religious or political officials, so what about the ordinary people back in Jesus’ time - you know, people like us? Well, it seems at least some of them wanted to welcome and accept Jesus, after all we heard them today, didn’t we, singing “Hosanna” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. But in the end, even the average person didn’t want to hear the truth and it’s not hard to imagine that a lot of these same Palm Sunday folks are in the crowd just a few days later crying out for the criminal Barabbas. People not so different from us killed him. Another unhappy story in a world full of unhappy stories.

But part of what makes the Christian story so powerful is this fact that it really does take place in the dirty, messy, painful, real world, involving ordinary people like us in extraordinary events. Sure we try to clean it up and gloss over some of the more difficult parts, but the truth close to the heart of our story is a brutal execution. The earliest followers of Jesus understood this. I mean, isn’t it surprising that the writers of the Gospels – writing decades after the events they were describing – didn’t try to clean things up a bit?

In an age that glorified the noble death – death with calmness and dignity or death on a battlefield, the Evangelists must have cringed, must have been embarrassed, by what happens to Jesus - and they certainly must have been embarrassed by the behavior of his closest followers – and yet they kept it all in the Gospel. There’s the big strong fisherman Peter, the Rock Jesus called him, cowardly denying Jesus three times and then being overcome with shame when he hears the cock crow the third time. We even see Jesus, praying in the garden to God that this cup might pass, and later crying out from the Cross, quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There’s the account of the Roman soldiers mocking Jesus, stripping him, jamming a crown of thorns on his head, casting lots for his clothes. Finally, we have Jesus dying the shameful death of a criminal on the cross – his terrified apostles off in hiding, but with some brave women looking on from a distance, surely devastated and heartbroken.

Now, we have all seen enough movies and TV shows, that I think we could easily come up with a better story – maybe something like Jesus as some kind of a superhero who only pretends to die on the Cross, and when no one is looking pulls out the nails, jumps down from the Cross and gets his revenge using his superpower strength on the Romans and the Jewish religious leaders who thought they had finished him off for good. Later he gathers with his apostles and has a good laugh about those stupid Romans and priests and plans his next adventure. Now, if you don’t like that story, I’m sure you could come up with an even better one of your own. There’s only one problem, none of our stories would be real. Our stories wouldn’t take place in the real – messy and broken world.

What gives the Christian story its power is its authenticity, its realness. The Christian story doesn’t take place up in heaven, but right here in the messy and broken world that we recognize and experience every day.

I recently read a magazine article about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which sits on what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem. Now you would expect that this church at this very holy site would be something beautiful and spectacular – along the lines of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Instead, I was shocked to read, this church at this very holy place, is an absolute, falling-apart, mess. Part of it is a burned out ruin. Part of it has been covered in scaffolding for decades. The walls are blackened by soot. The floor stones are dangerously uneven. The railings are loose. The only entrance is a little doorway that you have to crouch under to enter and exit. It’s a disaster.

Even worse than that, the different branches of the Christian family all bicker and feud over their rights to use the church. There are little chapels and altars throughout this not very large church, set aside for different denominations. The Coptic chapel is large enough for exactly one person at a time. And yes, in case you’re wondering, we Anglicans have our chapel too. The author of the article describes a fight that recently broke out between Roman Catholic Franciscans and Greek Orthodox priests that had to be broken up by Israeli police. Oh, and there’s a group of Ethiopian monks who camp out on the roof of the church and live there as squatters. So, there you have it, one of the holiest sights in all of Christianity is a complete mess.

My first reaction in reading this was shock and disgust. How pathetic that such a special place was in such bad shape and how embarrassing that Christians behave there in such petty and childish ways. In fact, the Christians behave so badly that it’s a Muslim family that keeps the keys to the church! Yet, the more I reflected on this sad situation the more I thought that this broken and divided church building in Jerusalem is actually a very powerful symbol of the broken and divided Christian church and our own broken and divided world. And it’s also a reminder that Jesus came into this same broken and divided world – and it was here that he showed us another way. It was here that he lived, and loved, and taught, and prayed, and healed, and forgave, and died, and three days later…

So, if we claim Christ then we need to take up his work of redeeming this world of ours. Faced with a broken and divided world and a broken and divided church, we can’t retreat into our own little worlds and say I have no need of you. Like Jesus, we need to reach out to the oppressed, the disposable people, the people who are despised by the world. We need to speak the truth to power and to speak the truth with love. And we need to do all of this right here, like Jesus, in the real world.

This is frightening stuff. We don’t know what the future will bring. There may very well be painful consequences. There’s real risk involved in following Christ. And it would be so much easier to just mind our own business. But each week, also here in the real world, we are strengthened by the Word of God, fed by the Eucharist, and loved by our little Christian community right here at St. Paul’s.

And unlike Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who, for now, we leave sitting at the tomb in mourning and in fear, we know how the story ends.

Today we are now very close to the heart of Christianity. God is revealed in Jesus Christ, right here, right now, in our broken and divided world. Jesus shows us the way to a world built on love. What happens next is up to us.