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.