Sunday, December 17, 2006

Joyful, Costly Grace

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Year C: The Third Sunday of Advent
December 17, 2006

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-9
Psalm 85
Luke 3:7-18

Joyful, Costly Grace

You know, Advent is kind of a two-sided season. On the one side we spend these four Sundays getting ready for the big celebration of Christmas. And so hopefully in the midst of all the usual holiday busyness we spend some time reflecting on what it means that God so loved the world that He sent us Jesus. But then there’s that other side of Advent when we are supposed to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus – the last days, the days of judgment. And so hopefully in the midst of all the usual holiday busyness we spend some time reflecting on parts of our life that need some work – the times when have we failed to love God and love our neighbor. That’s why during Advent churches like ours are decorated in purple – the same color we use during Lent.

Now, the way it’s supposed to work is that the first two Sundays of Advent are when we focus on the Second Coming – so they’re more serious and somber. But, the second two Sundays are when we get ready for the joy of Christmas. And today, the third Sunday of Advent, is supposed to be the most joyful – that’s why we break from the purple and use a pink candle.

Of course you all know that when I realized that I would be leaving House of Prayer I didn’t feel very joyful at all. But when Pastor Judy and I decided that I would end my time here today, I thought well at least it’s the third Sunday of Advent – the most joyful Sunday of Advent. So even if we’re not feeling particularly joyful at least I can count on today’s lessons to lift our spirits.

And things started off well didn’t they? Those readings from Zephaniah and Philippians are joyful aren’t they? Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Psalm 85 is one of my favorites with that wonderful line “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” And then we turn to the Gospel and once again we join the crowds going down to the Jordan to be baptized by John.

And John greets us with – “You brood of vipers!” These people who are so eager to be baptized – John calls them snakes! Hey wait a second! What happened to the joyful third Sunday of Advent? I mean, we have the pink candle and everything! Why would the church offer this reading today? It certainly doesn’t sound very joyful to be called a snake!

I mean, it’s not a compliment right? We wouldn’t say, “Oh, Chris is a great guy – he’s a real snake!” No, we call people snakes when they are mean, selfish and sneaky. Snakes probably get a bad rap, but it’s no accident that the devil takes the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden story. Snakes are slithering, slinky and scary. It’s just not very nice to call someone a snake.

Especially these people going down to the Jordan – they seem to be doing the right thing. I mean, they are going to John to be baptized – it’s not like they’ve gone to make fun of him or to hurt him. It doesn’t seem very polite for John to welcome these people by calling them “a brood of vipers” – a bunch of snakes. It sure doesn’t seem like a good way to grow your church! Could you imagine if we welcomed people here to House of Prayer by calling them snakes? During the announcements we could have them stand up, tell us their names, and then we’d all shout – you brood of vipers!”

But, despite the insults, people keep coming to John to hear him preach and to be baptized by him in the Jordan. So what’s John up to? Well, he knows these people. He knows that they think all they have to do is get dunked in the Jordan and everything will be all right between them and God. These people think that just because they are Jews – sons and daughters of Abraham – then they are all set. John rejects all those assumptions and warns them - and us - that faithfulness to God is not so easy – it’s not about getting a splash of water or belonging to a certain group of people. John tells them - and tells us - that faithfulness to God requires us to repent and to sacrifice. Really John is saying we need to change our ways. Why? Because when we repent and sacrifice we open our hearts and allow God to transform us. Not easy, but definitely worth it.

You know, I’m reminded of my time as a high school teacher. At the start of the school year every once and a while a kid would let me know how happy he was that he got a teacher we’ll call “Mr. Smith” - who everyone knew was very easy. Probably hoping to get me to react, the student would say something like, “It’s great, Mr. Murphy. In Mr. Smith’s class we don’t have to read the textbook or have tests and quizzes. We just get to talk about politics and sports. He’s so cool!” I would nod and smile and say something like, “Good for you – sounds like you’ve got it made.” Then a few months would go by and I’d see that same kid and I’d ask, “Hey, how’s it going? Are you still enjoying Mr. Smith’s class?” And very often the student would put on kind of a half smile and admit that, although Mr. Smith was a great guy and all, he did kind of miss the reading and the quizzes.

I guess this actually was a pretty good learning experience for kids like that. Because in school as in all of life it’s only through challenge and sacrifice and, yes, some suffering that we are able to grow and move toward fulfilling our potential. It’s only through challenge and sacrifice that we are transformed. Not easy, but definitely worth it.

So John warns the crowd and warns us. If we’re serious about being faithful to God, it’s going to cost us. If we’re serious about being faithful to God, we’ll have to give away that second coat. If we’re serious about being faithful to God it’s going to cost us.

Maybe some of you have heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German pastor, theologian and martyr who was actually very much influenced by the time he spent in the 1930s studying at Union Seminary in New York. While he was in New York on Sundays he would visit some of the black churches in Harlem, most especially Abyssinian Baptist Church. There he fell in love with the Spirituals and he was moved by preachers who knew and preached that faithfulness to God came at a cost.

Later Bonhoeffer wrote a wonderful book called The Cost of Discipleship. In it he wrote about what he called cheap grace and costly grace. He writes that cheap grace is “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” Bonhoeffer doesn’t come right out and say it, but cheap grace is no grace at all.

For Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John the Baptist – and I believe for all of us – the only real grace is costly grace. Bonhoeffer writes that costly grace is “costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.” For Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John the Baptist – two men who gave their lives for the truth - the only real grace is costly grace. And for us, too, as followers of Jesus Christ, the only real grace is costly grace.

In a real way I know that this morning I am what they call “preaching to the choir.” If ever there was a church that knew about costly grace, it’s this beautiful House of Prayer. Over the past year and a half as I have gotten to know you – to know this place – time and again I have been deeply moved by the many sacrifices that you have made to keep this church going. I have been inspired by the generosity and genuine care that you show each other week after week, year after year. I am sure, like my high school student, there have been many times when you wished just for once it could be easy – that it didn’t have to always be such a struggle. I am sure that like those people who stood before John the Baptist there have been times when you thought that you were entitled to have this church and shouldn’t have to work so hard at it. But if it were easy I’m not sure the Circle of Prayer would be quite so powerful. If it were easy, I’m not sure this church would be as special as it is - and be so difficult for me to leave.

Like John the Baptist and Dietrich Bonhoeffer we know that there is only one way. We know the only real grace is costly grace. We know there is no Christmas without Advent. We know there is no forgiveness without repentance, no love without sacrifice, no life without suffering. And as I’ve said before from this pulpit, if we ever forget that the living God is a suffering God – here at House of Prayer there’s a powerful reminder hanging right over the altar.

You know, it’s interesting that John chose to call those people snakes. I’m sure John was trying to insult them – or at least to get their attention. But although they are slithery and slinky and scary, snakes also have the amazing ability to shed their skin all in one piece. They shed their skin to get rid of parasites – they shed their skin to stay alive. Although in our tradition snakes have been mostly associated with evil, other cultures have seen the snake – with its ability to be transformed by shedding its skin - as a powerful symbol of renewal and resurrection.

And really, isn’t that what John the Baptist was trying to teach the crowds? Isn’t Baptism all about renewal and resurrection? Isn’t our Christian faith all about renewal and resurrection? And isn’t House of Prayer all about renewal and resurrection? Look around – God is faithful. All the hard work, all the sacrifice and suffering has brought House of Prayer to this time of renewal and resurrection. We can taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Together, thanks be to God, we snakes are shedding our skin and beginning a new life!

What do you know? This Third Sunday of Advent is joyful after all.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

God is Present, God is Faithful, God Wins

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
November 19, 2006
Year B: BCP Proper 28
Daniel 12: 1-13
Hebrews 10: 31-39
Mark 13: 14-23
Psalm 16

God is Present, God is Faithful, God Wins

Well, I’m glad that I heard Pastor Judy’s sermon last week before I sat down and read our readings for today. If you were here last week, you may remember that she shared with us that her favorite thing about the Bible was its honesty. The writers of Scripture don’t try to cover up the bad parts of the story. The writers of Scripture don’t paint a pretty picture so that we’ll feel better about ourselves and the world. Judaism and Christianity don’t pretend that somehow if we sign up for these religions we will be spared life’s pain and sorrow. The Bible is not a self-help book that promises to give us a pain-free life. In fact, very often Scripture warns that if you answer God’s call things are going to get tough. Sometimes very tough. And so we read passages like the ones we heard today and we wonder, where’s this “Good News” I’ve heard so much about? Well, here’s the Good News in a nutshell: although life can be very hard and painful the whole message of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation can be summed up in word – Emmanuel. God with us. Especially when everything is falling apart, especially when the worst thing we could imagine has happened, the Bible insists that God is with us, that God is always faithful, and in the end God wins.

But, it’s true, at first glance today’s readings paint a pretty grim picture. The prophet Daniel is writing during a very bleak period in Jewish history – the Second Century BC. Israel was under the rule of a man who hated the Jews and put many of them to death. Worst of all, he desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem – for Jews, the most sacred place on earth. A pagan altar was built in the Temple and a pig was sacrificed on it. You can imagine how horrifying this was to the Jewish people. We can imagine how they lost hope. We can imagine them asking, why doesn’t God protect us? Why does God allow us to suffer? Everything seemed to be falling apart. The worst thing they could imagine has happened. And yet, in the midst of all this pain, suffering and fear, Daniel hears God say that God will be faithful to God’s people. The worst thing possible has happened and yet Daniel insists that God is present, God is faithful, and God wins.

The writer of our second lesson, from the Epistle to the Hebrews, is brutally honest. He writes, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Written a couple of generations after the time of Christ, the writer of Hebrews is trying to encourage Christians to remain faithful even though things are obviously not going well. He writes, “…you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution.” It’s easy to imagine these persecuted early Christians having second thoughts – you know, maybe it would be better to go back to Judaism or back to worshiping the emperor. Maybe this whole Jesus thing was a big mistake – or maybe it was a fraud. Why doesn’t God protect us? Why does God allow us to suffer? Everything seemed to be falling apart. The worst thing they could have imagined has happened. Faced with all this suffering and all these questions, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews insists, “But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved.” God is present, God is faithful, God wins.

And finally we come to Jesus. Today’s gospel lesson is taken from the thirteenth chapter of Mark, which is sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse.” Jesus is predicting the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem – which did of course happen when the Romans burned it down in the year 70. Jesus describes a chaotic, terrifying situation –he feels sorry in particular for pregnant women at this time. Jesus is predicting the destruction of the holiest place on earth – the collapse of Jewish civilization - and warns that his followers will not escape the suffering. But, if you read all of Mark 13 what you discover is that while Jesus admits that things are going to get tough – there will be a great deal of suffering and loss – yet he calls on his followers through all their pain and fear to be faithful because God is present, God is faithful and God wins.

These are not easy things to talk about or to preach about. We already know that life can be very hard, painful and sad. So what do these old stories of suffering mean for us here at House of Prayer near the end of this bloody and painful year of 2006? As we look out at the world what do we see?

Well of course we see an ongoing war in Iraq that has killed and maimed thousands and thousands of servicemen and women and has brought the Iraqi people from the brutality of Saddam Hussein to the terror of chaos. And despite what some say, there seems to be no easy way to end the bloodshed. To commemorate Veterans Day last Saturday afternoon, for about six hours, the names of all the servicemen and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan – nearly 4000 people – were read aloud at Grace Church in Nutley. I read for about twenty minutes and it was almost unbearable – the only way to get through it was to focus on just reading the names and not thinking that there are real people behind those words. Not thinking that these were people who loved and were loved. Not thinking that these were people who had hopes and dreams and now all of that was lost.

And like our Jewish and Christian ancestors we ask: Why didn’t God protect them? Why does God allow us to suffer?

And closer to home, here at House of Prayer, we’ve had our share of sadness and suffering this year. Some of us have faced or are facing serious illness. Some of us have cared for someone who is sick. Some of us have lost a loved one. Things are not turning out the way we expected, the way we hoped - we are losing our leader and wonder what the future will bring. These old buildings have served long and well, but, although they’re shinier this morning, they are showing their age. Where will we find the money, the time, the energy to do all the things that need to be done?

Like our Jewish and Christian ancestors we ask: Why doesn’t God protect us? Why does God allow us to suffer?

If we are true to our faith we have to admit there are no easy answers to these questions. A year and a half ago I spent the summer working as a chaplain at Christ Hospital. It was, as you might guess, a very powerful, painful and challenging experience. Very often (every day, really) I met people – both patients and their families – whose whole lives had been thrown into total chaos by accidents and illness. Very often people would say something like, “I never thought something like this could happen to me.” “I always thought things would stay the way they had always been.” I was glad that my job as chaplain was to listen, ask questions, but not to offer answers. After all, what answers could I offer anyway? What do I know?

I discovered as I talked to these suffering people that very often they had no connection to a faith community. Many of them had stopped going to church long ago for all the usual reasons. But, now, faced with a catastrophe, they were lost – they often felt very alone, asking questions like “Why me?” If they thought about it all, God seemed very remote and unreal.

This was so tragic because I truly believe that we mostly experience God in community. Sure, sometimes we can feel God’s presence in our personal prayer, but that is no substitute for being here together. The message of today’s readings – the message of the entire Bible is Emmanuel – God with us. But that’s no promise that we’ll be free of suffering – just the opposite really. So we are called to stick together – to support one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to pray for one another, to love one another. We find God in our community as we gather week after week. We find God in our prayer circle and our fellowship. We find God in coming together to clean this place up! We find God in being there for one another in good times and bad. And, of course, we find God at this holy table.

The only thing I have ever experienced that comes close to the catastrophes described in today’s readings took place on September 11, 2001. The night before I had actually taken my first class at the seminary, so I began that crisp, clear day with great excitement and hope for the future. Maybe I had found what I was supposed to do with my life. And then the world came crashing down as my students and I watched through our classroom window as those horrible events unfolded a mile away.

Like our Jewish and Christian ancestors we asked: Why doesn’t God protect us? Why does God allow us to suffer?

In those first few chaotic hours, wondering if this was just the beginning of a series of attacks, I tried to get in touch with Sue who was working in Manhattan at the time. I checked our answering machine and in the midst of frantic calls from Sue’s family there was a message from Dave Hamilton, the rector of our church. He wanted to make sure we were OK and told us that there was going to be a Eucharist at church that night.

It took hours for Sue to get back to New Jersey. Exhausted and stunned and afraid we made our way to church on that eerily quiet night. In the face of yet another catastrophe, the Christian community came together once again to tell our story - the story of Jesus – the crucified and risen Lord. The story of Emmanuel – God with us.

In his homily Dave said something that I’ve never forgotten and that helped get me through those difficult days. He quoted the famous Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin. William Sloan Coffin gave a sermon after the death of his son in a drunken driving accident. Faced with this unbearable loss and asking the same questions that we and our ancestors have asked, William Sloane Coffin said, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

“God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

In that little community in Jersey City we got no easy answers but we were reminded of God’s loving presence among us. We were reminded that even when we face the unexpected, when life become chaotic and terrifying, even when we face unbearable loss, God is fully present among us – suffering with us and pouring out grace upon us. In our faith there is no promise of a painless life. But, in the Cross we know that God is a suffering God. And in the empty tomb we know our story ends not in suffering and death but in resurrection and new life.

So let us today, in the midst of our fears and suffering, give thanks to God for the gift of community – for the gift of this community – for this House of Prayer – where in good times and bad - we truly best know Emmanuel – God with us. God is present, God is faithful – and God wins.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Saints: Our Life Coaches

The General Theological Seminary
The Chapel of the Good Shepherd
All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2006
BCP: Service 1
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14
Revelation 7: 2-4, 9-17
Matthew 5: 1-12
Psalm 149

The Saints: Our Life Coaches

All Saints’ Day is a big day on the church calendar. It’s a big day here in the chapel – the thurible is smoking away, the big candlesticks are on the altar, attendance is a bit higher than a usual Wednesday. Yes, All Saints’ Day is a big day for us church people. But for most people, even most Christians, today is much better known as “the Day after Halloween” – the day Rite Aid discounts all that leftover candy. So since most of the world, and most of the church, pays no attention to All Saints’ Day, why do we make such a big deal out of it? What’s our relationship with the saints anyway? And since God gives us all we need, why do we even bother with the saints?

Things were so much simpler when I was a child. Growing up Roman Catholic in a very Roman Catholic town like Jersey City, saints – official, canonized saints - were part of the spiritual air. Our churches were filled with their statues – and not whitewashed tasteful statues like the ones here in the chapel, but statues with bright, some might say garish, colors. (My wife says they all had blue eyes.)

Statues of the Virgin Mary standing on top of the world wearing what looked like a toga and cape stood in front of many, many homes. And of course there were lots of churches named for Mary including St. Mary’s, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Our Lady of Victories, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Czestochowa and Our Lady of Mercy - where my family went to church and my sister and I went to school.

The saints – official, canonized saints - were so familiar that to a kid they seemed pretty much as real as anything else. They were just there, part of life’s background.

We saw the saints as this large, colorful cast of characters who had done extraordinary, super heroic things in their lives and now were in heaven hard at work praying and interceding, pulling all sorts of strings with God to keep us out of trouble here on earth.

We were taught that we could pray to the saints with very specific requests. A vivid memory from elementary school is the time our principal, Sister Ellen, came on the PA system in a panic because she had lost the giant ring that held the keys to the school. All of us had to stop whatever we were doing and immediately pray to St. Anthony (of Padua, not the Desert) who we all knew specialized in finding lost items. All together we said,
St. Anthony, St. AnthonyPlease come downSomething is lost And can't be found.

To no one’s surprise a little while later Sister Ellen came back on the PA to let us know that our prayers had worked and the big ring of keys had indeed been found. St. Anthony had done it again. Here’s another one: every February the whole school would go to church to have our throats blessed on the feast of St. Blaise. And if you were a kid who hadn’t given much thought to throat diseases, well, now you had something new to think about.

There was, and is, a deep devotion to St. Jude, patron of hopeless causes. For years every Tuesday my grandmother would cross the ten lanes of traffic leading to the Holland Tunnel to get to St. Lucy’s Church so she could make her novena, a special set of prayers, to St. Jude.

Now I guess this all might sound a little weird to those of you on the Protestant side of our Episcopal family. Well, weird or not, I can tell you that growing up in this environment makes quite an impression. When I was about seven or eight I remember realizing that a handful of saints seemed to be getting most of the prayers – Mary, Joseph, Anthony, Francis, Jude and a few others. Yet when I looked through books of the saints there seemed to be a whole lot of them who were not getting much business at all. Being a practical, shrewd city kid, I thought it would be a fine idea to pick one of these less-popular saints and ask him to be my personal saint. This way I’d get more individual attention. I have no idea why, but I chose a Fifth Century pope, St. Leo the Great – whose feast happens to be next week. For a few years every once in a while I’d turn to my friend Leo – the pope who negotiated with Attila the Hun – and ask for a little help with my troubles – which usually involved math.

As I grew up, all of this stuff about the saints – official, canonized saints - began to seem a little silly and childish. The idea that Pope Leo the Great was in heaven watching out for me, praying for me, helping me with my long division, seemed pretty hard to believe. And so at some point I put the saints away in my psychological toy box – the saints were tucked away with Captain Kirk and my stamp collection. I said good-bye to Leo and the rest of the saints.

Or so I thought. One of the great things about my time here at General has been rediscovering the saints. It turns out that I had misunderstood a couple of things about the saints. First, although we might depict them in statues as kitschy one-dimensional Technicolor images of perfection, the truth is the saints – the official, canonized saints – were plain folks. Just people trying hard to be faithful Christians. In their times and places they faced all the familiar struggles and challenges and temptations and disappointments. I mean, turn to just about any page in St. Augustine’s Confessions! What made these people official, canonized saints was the fact that through it all, despite doubts and missteps, they kept trying to follow Jesus, they kept answering the call of Jesus. They opened their hearts to the ultimate goal – life with God forever. And, of course, somebody remembered to suggest them for canonization. They are the famous men and women whose names we remember and praise.

Something else I misunderstood – yes, there are the official, canonized saints. I got that. But I bet that those of you from the Protestant side of the family have appreciated much better that there is a deeper, more scriptural understanding of saints as all those who put their faith in the Living Christ. They are the “famous” men and women whose names maybe we don’t remember, yet as the author of Ecclesiasticus assures us, “their glory will never be blotted out.” What I misunderstood back in Jersey City is that all of us – in all the sinfulness, in all the messiness, in all the ordinariness of our lives – all of us are called to be saints too.

But, still, so what? What could the saints mean for us in 2006? Well, in today’s lesson from Matthew’s Gospel once again we are faced with the Beatitudes. Once again we imagine in our mind’s eye Jesus on the mountain offering his vision of life in the new community, life in the Kingdom of God. For Matthew the Sermon on the Mount is the centerpiece of Jesus’ entire message and ministry – blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are the followers of Jesus who are reviled and persecuted.

In my imagination I can see at least some of the people on the mountain listening to this and rolling their eyes. This is nonsense! What is Jesus talking about? Give me a break, there’s nothing blessed in being meek or in being persecuted!

And sure enough two-thousand years later much of humanity in all its cynicism, violence and blindness rolls its eyes and rejects the vision and message of Jesus. And so it’s still a great challenge to be a follower of Jesus. Of course, God gives us all we really need – but it’s very easy, even for us in here in this beautiful, sacred place, to read the Beatitudes and be tempted to throw in the towel, to say, no way, this is impossible, this is just too hard. It’s easy for us to say following Jesus is too difficult, we can’t do it.

And this is where the saints, both “official” and “unofficial” come in. Veterans of Church History 1 will remember that very often the early church used athletic images to describe the Christian spiritual life. In maybe the best-known example, St. Paul in First Corinthians urges Christians to run the race in such a way that we might win it and receive the imperishable prize.

I was never much of an athlete, but I do know that all athletes need coaches. In fact it seems we all need coaches. There is actually a new profession that has developed over the past twenty years called the “life coach.” According to the website of the International Coach Federation there are 9000 life coaches in 70 countries. What does a life coach do, you ask? Again from the website, “Professional coaches provide an ongoing partnership to help clients produce fulfilling results in their personal and professional lives.” A woman who had been life coached told the New York Times “Coaching helps you make a decision about where you want to go, and what you want to be.”

Sounds pretty good, actually. But you know God has given us the original life coaches, the saints – “official” and “unofficial.” Yes, Jesus does give us a very challenging vision in the Beatitudes. It seems nearly impossible. But, we have the saints, and hopefully we have each other, to pray for us, to support us, to encourage us, to cheer us on, to console us when we fail, to celebrate when we succeed. Our life coaches in heaven and our life coaches on earth can’t do our work for us, of course, but they, we, can help point the way to the full life promised by Christ.

Oh, one more thing. Right around this time three years ago I came here to General for the prospective students’ conference. Maybe like some other prospective students, I was very nervous and doubtful about the whole thing. I remember thinking - what am I doing here? I have a job I like - I’m a teacher. This whole idea of leaving that comfortable life behind, leaving my friends, leaving my students, giving up my paycheck, coming to seminary, becoming an Episcopal priest, this is just crazy. It’s too hard, too much.

And then we prospective students came here to the chapel for the Eucharist. I sat down and looked at the service sheet and at the top it said “Leo the Great.” It turned out that this conference was taking place on November 10, the feast day of my old, personal saint, my friend, Leo.

Coincidence? Maybe. But to me it felt like in a very direct way this saint, Leo, my life coach, was saying come on, keep going, don’t be afraid, you can do it, I’ll be right here with you every step of the way.

So today let us offer thanks and praise to God for all our life coaches, for all the famous men and women, for all the saints.


Sunday, September 24, 2006

Called to Lead, Called to Serve

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
September 24, 2006

Year B: Proper 20
Wisdom 1:16-2:1-22
James 3:16-4:6
Mark 9:30-37
Psalm 54

Called to Lead, Called to Serve

I wonder what it’s like to be Mark Beckwith this morning. Yesterday as many of you know he was elected the next bishop of Newark on the third ballot. It all happened so surprisingly fast that I missed it – by the time I got to the convention at lunch time we already had a new bishop-elect.

Well, this morning I imagine Mark Beckwith standing among his congregation up in Worcester, Massachusetts and reading today’s gospel. He must be feeling a mix of emotions – excitement, fear, joy and sadness. A huge weight of responsibility has just been placed on his shoulders. But, whatever mix of emotions he’s feeling, the fact is he has been called to be a leader, he has been called to be our leader. So it must be something the day after the election to stand among your people and read Jesus’ surprising, upside-down words to the bickering disciples. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Ah. So, congratulations Bishop-elect Beckwith – sure you get the fancy title, the pointy hat, the purple shirt, and all the rest – but today Jesus is reminding this new bishop that since he is called to lead he is called to be servant of all. Poor guy!

But wait a second! You know, actually Jesus isn’t only talking to Mark Beckwith this morning – Jesus isn’t even only talking to bishops or priests this morning. No, Jesus is talking to all of us. Jesus is calling all of us, each in our own special way, to lead. Jesus is calling each of us, each in our own special way, to serve. In our baptism we all have accepted the challenge of leadership and service. Let me remind you of a couple of the questions in the Baptismal Covenant:
* Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
* Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
* Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

If we answered “I will, with God’s help” to these questions (and I know we did!) then we – all of us – not just bishops and priests and wardens - have accepted the call to lead and to serve.

In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel I love that the disciples are once again bickering – really rings true, doesn’t it? And what are they arguing about? Of course -who is going to be number one, who is going to have power. Typical. But when we take a closer look at this story we see that Mark has the disciples bickering right after Jesus has revealed something awesome and amazing and frightening. Jesus has predicted his own betrayal, death and resurrection. No surprise, the disciples don’t understand what Jesus is saying and they are afraid. But rather than ask Jesus to explain his amazing prediction, they change the subject to something much more manageable – they argue about who’s going to be in charge – who will be the greatest.

So here Jesus has revealed the heart of his mission to his closest friends. But rather than opening themselves up to this overwhelming reality, the disciples close back in on themselves.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever felt that it’s all too much to handle? That there’s too much going on? Maybe you’re trying to juggle two jobs? Maybe you can’t find a job? Maybe you have a new opportunity but you’re not sure if you’re up to the challenge? Maybe the kids are driving you nuts? Or are your parents driving you nuts? Maybe you or someone you care about is facing illness? Like the disciples have you been confronted with something big and challenging but rather than opening yourself up to it have you closed up within yourself?

I know that I have been going through something like that lately. I’ll even admit this in front of a member of the Commission on Ministry. As many of you know, the end of the long road to ordination is almost in sight for me. But lately I’ve been having a hard time being enthusiastic about the seminary and even the church. I find that I’m tired of all the fighting about sexuality and power. I’m tired of people being totally sure they are right and that God is on their side. I’m tired of the seminary and the often tense and intense environment over there. And, of course, like you I’ve been very sad that Pastor Judy, and probably I, will be leaving House of Prayer. So, anyway, although I had a great summer I’ve pretty quickly gotten myself into very negative rut. Could just be senioritis, but I think it’s more than that. The expression that Sue has heard me say too often, and even my parents have heard, is “I’m just sick of it.”

Just this Friday I hit a low point. In the morning we had a class meeting over at the seminary about General Ordination Exams and beginning to look for jobs. Oh, boy – more stuff to worry about - really not what I felt like talking about. I went home and instead of working on this sermon as I planned, I just sort of moped around feeling anxious and just plain old unhappy.

Finally when Sue got home we talked about my gloomy mood. And as we talked I realized that I had turned in on myself. Faced with some big, exciting, but frightening changes I forgot what it’s all about and why I had gotten myself – or God had gotten me – into this in the first place. And as I read and re-read today’s gospel I came to understand that Jesus is calling all of us to lead by serving. Jesus is calling all of us to set aside our petty bickering. Jesus is calling all of us to move beyond ourselves, move beyond our fears, beyond our wants and open ourselves up to the full life that God dreams for us. Jesus is just up ahead of us on the road – calling to each of us, saying “Come on, I have something wonderful to tell you – you are called to lead – you are called to serve.”

And so the disciples were called to move beyond their own fears and to lead and serve. And so we are called to move beyond our fears and to lead and serve.

During the bishop election there were two phrases from the candidates that stuck in my head. The candidate from Florida, Chip Stokes, talked about how he would challenge our churches to be excellent. I know some people were put off by that, maybe even here at what some of you call the “slightly less than perfect church.” But I thought a lot about what he said and I wondered what exactly it would mean to be an excellent church. Stokes talked about things like having a physical plant that was in tip-top shape, a full program of activities, and so on. Fair enough. But the more I thought about it, I decided that excellence for a church can’t just be the same as excellence in a school or the business world. Excellence for a church can’t just be the bottom line – although of course finances are important. And anyway in today’s gospel Jesus makes it very clear that his standards are not the standards of the world.

Which brings me to the other phrase that has stuck in my head these past few weeks. When asked to define evangelism, our next bishop, Mark Beckwith, quoted a 19th Century missionary who said “an evangelist is one beggar telling another beggar where the bread is.”

A powerful image. And it seems to me a great definition of what it means to be an excellent church and to be true Christian leaders and servers. As I said to Pastor Judy a couple of weeks ago, House of Prayer is excellent in ways that really matter – yes, sure, the buildings may still need some work, but here we genuinely care for our sisters and brothers. Anyone who was here last week and stood in our Circle of Prayer knows the power of that love and care. We are a real Christian family.

And also last week in the midst of sadness and fear we came together for the International Festival. Maybe the numbers weren’t quite what we might have hoped, but once again this little church came together to celebrate and to enjoy each other’s company. At one point as the music was blaring and lots of kids were running around, Deacon Kathleen leaned over to me and said “This is a real family church!”

And so it is. House of Prayer is a family church and it is an excellent church. But our new bishop’s words still ring in my ears – an evangelist is one beggar telling another beggar where the bread is.”

So my fellow beggars, we are called to do some work. We are called to move out beyond ourselves and to serve the world beyond those doors. We are called to set aside our own fears and anxieties and reach out for the full life that God has promised us. In our baptism we Christians are all called to be leaders - we are all called to be great - we are all called to be excellent. We are called to serve.

These next few important months maybe we can take some time and reflect on how we at House of Prayer can reach out even better to the beggars of every kind who are just outside those doors in Newark and beyond. We know where the bread is – it’s right here – it’s here with us – it’s in the Word of God, it’s in our prayer circle and especially at our altar. We know where the bread is – it’s in our care and love for one another. We know where the bread is – it’s playing on the swings out in the church yard, enjoying good food and dancing (or trying to dance) to a reggae beat. Oh, we know where the bread is, all right. The question is - will we let the other beggars know?

As we face the future we may feel fear and anxiety. But today’s gospel reminds us that Jesus is on the road with us every step of the way. He’s calling us to lead; he’s calling us to serve. Jesus is on the road just up ahead of us saying, “Come on, I have something wonderful to tell you – you are called to lead, you are called to serve.”

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Transfiguration and Transformation

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Year B: The Feast of the Transfiguration
August 6, 2006

Exodus 34: 29-35
2 Peter 1: 13-25
Luke 9: 28-36
Psalm 99

Transfiguration and Transformation

Well, sisters and brothers, it’s always nice to come home to House of Prayer! And it’s especially nice to be here for Transfiguration, one of the major feasts of the church. I’m sure that most of us have something really special planned for this afternoon – maybe a traditional Transfiguration dinner and then later we’ll exchange Transfiguration gifts? I see Stella is here, back from Florida. I know she has a big Transfiguration party tonight. I wasn’t invited, though. I guess it must be “out of sight out of mind…” I’m sorry that this year I didn’t get around to sending out Transfiguration cards…you know, it’s been kind of busy…Hmm…you’re looking at me kind of funny. Don’t tell me you don’t have special Transfiguration customs here at House of Prayer!? Oh boy, I’ll have to talk about this with Pastor Judy when she returns!

I’m just kidding, of course. Although it really is one of the most important feasts of the church - maybe because for us it falls in the summer - the truth is that Transfiguration doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. And that’s too bad. Transfiguration is about what happens to Jesus on the mountain. But, Transfiguration is also about what happens to Peter. Transfiguration is also about what happens to us. Peter opens his heart to the power of God in Jesus Christ and he is transformed. And if we open our hearts to God’s power we can be transformed too.

Besides the fact that it’s summertime, I suspect there’s a deeper more troubling reason that we ignore Transfiguration. The scene that Luke depicts in today’s gospel lesson is really mysterious and strange. It’s very hard to explain exactly what’s happening here. We have the familiar scene of Jesus going off to the mountain to pray and Peter and some of the other disciples struggling to stay awake. So far, so good. But then Jesus is mysteriously transformed and then Moses and Elijah appear “in glory” talking to Jesus. And then, as if this wasn’t enough for one night, the voice of God commands, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Wow! This is a lot to take in and to try to make sense of. Listening to Luke’s account I think we can hear him straining to come up with the words to somehow describe this awesome experience. And so, since the Transfiguration story is so mysterious and supernatural, we’re more than happy to let it pass by and not spend too much time trying to figure out what all this might mean for us.

And you know what, we can just skip over the Transfiguration… unless of course you’re asked to preach on the Transfiguration! So as I thought about and prayed about the Transfiguration, first of all I realized I was very relieved that Peter was there and that we have a record of what he had to say about all of this. I’m always happy when Peter appears in the gospels because so often he’s a really good stand-in for us. Over and over Peter – this great apostle and saint - tries his best but let’s face it much of the time he really just doesn’t get it. So the good news is that there’s hope for us all!

So, anyway, Peter witnesses this amazing event on the mountain and what’s his response to all that he’s seen and heard? I know, let’s build three booths – one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. We’ve just had a wonderful, powerful experience – let’s build a shrine, this way we can come back and remember the Transfiguration year after year.

Now I think this is a perfectly reasonable response. I’m a big local history fan and I enjoy reading historical markers that tell me on this spot in this year something important happened. In fact there’s a historical marker right outside on the front of the rectory telling the story of that old building and the 1887 invention of motion picture film upstairs in the attic. Now that’s some important history, but just imagine if we had seen Jesus, Moses and Elijah out on Broad Street! We would definitely want to put some kind of monument to mark the spot. And each year we would come back and remember that amazing experience. “Remember when we saw Jesus on Broad Street? Were you there? Oh sure, I saw him too. Wasn’t that something?” But the truth is, year by year our memory would fade and eventually all of us who experienced this amazing event would be gone. And our monument would just be collecting dust on the side of the road.

So, Peter’s suggestion is perfectly reasonable. He says, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” And then Luke adds, “Not knowing what he said.” Peter’s suggestion is reasonable, but unfortunately he just doesn’t get it. At least not yet. The Transfiguration is not about marking the spot where exactly these events took place. The Transfiguration is about Jesus, God’s beloved Son, God’s Chosen One. And the Transfiguration is about the transformation that takes place in us when we open our hearts to the power of God in Jesus Christ. The Transfiguration is about the transformation that takes place when we do what the voice of God says – listen to Jesus! Transfiguration is about something that never fades away.

But because we resist opening our hearts to this transformation in Christ, just like Peter we’re more than happy to move along onto next week’s subject.

But this is a huge mistake. Because if we do give in to fear and just ignore the Transfiguration we’re missing out on who we are really called to be. And unless we are transformed by the power of God in Jesus Christ I believe there can be no meaningful and lasting transformation in our lives and in the world. No transformation in us – no transformation in the world. And I think we can all agree now more than ever the world desperately needs to be transformed. The world needs Jesus and the world needs us!

One of the nice things about today’s lessons is that not only do we get to hear from Peter at the Transfiguration; we also get to hear from Peter near the end of his life in the reading from Second Peter. Now we hear from a wiser Peter who has reflected for many years on what he had experienced with Jesus. I’m sure there were times when he wondered if it had all been a dream. Was that really Moses and Elijah talking with the Lord?

But after all those years of prayer and reflection the voice of old Peter insists that what he saw and heard on that mountain was real. And then he uses a very beautiful expression when he says that we should pay attention to his message “as to a lamp in a dark place.” “As to a lamp in a dark place.” Peter has spent years praying, thinking, reflecting on his experiences with Jesus and the other disciples. And what has happened to him? Peter has been transformed. Peter has grown from being that sincere but bumbling fisherman to being a great Christian leader who now is passing on his wisdom to the next generation.

Transfiguration – the power of God to transform us. And the good news for Peter - and for us - is that we don’t have to “get it”. The most important thing is for us to be open to the power of God working in us and in the world around us. Openness can be hard. It’s easy to close ourselves up. But for Peter and for us that openness to God’s power comes through prayer and simply paying attention. Look at the Transfiguration story again. It’s no accident that all this happens when Jesus has gone to the mountain to pray. And Peter and the other disciples are able to see this amazing scene because they are paying attention – they have stayed awake and they have seen God powerfully at work in the world around them.

Prayer and paying attention – as to a lamp shining in a dark place. It’s really as simple, and as awesome as that. Prayer and paying attention are the beginning of our own transformation into the people God dreams we will be. Prayer and paying attention are the beginning of our transformation into the people who we really are.

And what would our transformation look like? We know the answer to that. Just look around. We experience some of that transformation each week here at House of Prayer. Our transformation would look like – it would be – love. Our transformation takes us from being maybe self-centered, frightened, suspicious, doubtful people into loving people. We become people who love without counting the cost. We can become people who really do see Jesus, Moses and Elijah out on Broad Street! That’s the power of Transfiguration.

Again, think of Peter. This fisherman who doesn’t really “get it” is transformed into a man who gives up everything for Christ. At the end, according to tradition, he gives even his very life for Christ when he is crucified in Rome.

Since this transformation makes us who we really are, we adults ought to pay more attention to young children as our role models in life and in faith. Children who have not yet become hardened and cynical by the world. Here’s one example: Last weekend Sue and I were at a child’s birthday party. One of the kids there was a five year old boy named Thomas. In his young life Thomas has already had his fair share of troubles – his parents have split up he’s had some behavioral problems. Anyway, that afternoon he was happily playing with another five year old boy, a kid he barely knew, named Noah. After a while Thomas came over to his dad and with great seriousness and sincerity said, “I love Noah so much.”

Now I admit that my first thought was to dismiss him: “Oh that’s very cute. But, come on, give me a break, you don’t love Noah – you don’t even know him! You’re too young to even know what love even is!” But this week as I reflected on the Transfiguration I kept going back to that little moment at the party. I came to see that young Thomas’s declaration of love for his new friend Noah was a beautiful glimpse of what our transformed, transfigured lives, can be. His innocent words were a reminder of who we really are and of who God calls us to be. When we are transformed by the power of God in Jesus Christ - we love!

So there you have it. Maybe we should have a Transfiguration party! Happy Transfiguration Day! Let’s set aside our fears and on this summer day let’s celebrate Jesus, God’s Chosen One. Let’s celebrate God’s power to transform us and our world. Today we are reminded that all we need to do is open our hearts, through prayer and paying attention, to God’s presence and power among us. Like Peter we can know Jesus as God’s Chosen One. Like Peter we can be transformed. Like Peter our message of love can be like a lamp shining in a world that has grown very dark. And like a little boy named Thomas we can say to our brothers and sisters, “I love you so much.”


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Mustard Seed Moments

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Year B: Proper 6
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 18, 2006

Ezekiel 31:1-6, 10-14
2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Mark 4:26-34
Psalm 92

Mustard Seed Moments

Being a city person, sometimes the farming examples in the Bible leave me a little confused and scratching my head. I mean, in Jersey City the closest I ever get to a farm is the produce section at Shop Rite!

But in today’s gospel Jesus describes the Kingdom of God using a farming example that even us city people can understand.

What is the Kingdom of God like? It’s like someone scattering a tiny mustard seed on the ground and miraculously it grows into a plant, ripe for the harvest. It grows into a plant big and sturdy enough to hold a bird’s nest. These tiny seeds eventually provide food and shelter for many.

I think we can understand this seed image because if we think about it we are here in church because we have experienced people planting tiny mustard seeds in our own lives. We have experienced simple acts of kindness and generosity. Acts of faith and hope. Maybe these seeds were planted by our parents. I think the mustard seed parable is especially appropriate for Father’s Day because, at their best, fathers are called to do lots of small but deeply powerful things for their families. My father is a teacher now, but when my sister and I were growing up he had an office job that he hated. Yet, day after day he got up in the morning and forced himself to do something he really didn’t want to do – for us. To the world, this is a simple, little thing, not really worth mentioning – just one man taking care of his family, doing his duty. But of course there’s nothing simple or little about it. Like so many others, through his sacrifice he was planting seeds of love and hope in his family. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like.

You’ll notice that Jesus is not talking about the past or the future. Instead, by using the simple example of a seed, Jesus is reminding us of something amazing and wonderful – truly Good News - we can begin to experience the Kingdom of God here on earth. We can experience the Kingdom of God out in the fields or even right here on the streets of Newark. If we really pay attention, if we are mindful, we can experience the Kingdom of God right here, right now. If we really pay attention, if we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and plant even the tiniest of seeds we can help to build the Kingdom of God, right here at House of Prayer and right now in June of 2006.

I don’t know about you, but I am relieved that Jesus uses the tiny mustard seed as his example of the Kingdom of God. Anything bigger than a mustard seed would be just too much to handle. You know, since I have been off from school I’ve had some extra time to read the newspaper. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that in many ways things are not going very well in our cities, our world, and our church. The paper is filled with senseless death and destruction – and not only in faraway places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s really overwhelming – way too much to handle. Just this past week in my hometown Jersey City a young man was stabbed and killed right in the middle of Journal Square and a teenage girl hanging out on a cliff drinking beer fell to her death while reaching for her cell phone. What in the world can we do to stop our young people – or people of any age – from putting themselves or others in danger? Let’s face it, we’re just a little church in Newark. What can we in this little church do to stop this terrible waste of precious life? The challenges facing our cities seem overwhelming – way too much to handle.

And then there’s the world itself. Again, I don’t need to tell you that the newspaper is filled with stories of war, famine, corruption, and pollution. Many millions of people around the world and in our own country live in fear of natural disasters. Did you see the devastation in Indonesia after the recent earthquake – and now many of these same people are facing a volcano that is erupting! And, of course, much of our own Gulf Coast still lies in ruins after last year’s storms – and another hurricane season has already begun. The challenges and problems of the world seem overwhelming – way too much to handle. Let’s face it, we’re just a little church in Newark, what can we do?

And, lastly, you may have heard that these days we have a few problems in the Episcopal Church. As many of you know, (and a couple of our young people are experiencing) right now the Episcopal Church is in the middle of its General Convention, trying to find a way to bridge the gap between those who think gay people should be fully welcomed and celebrated by the church and those who believe that by accepting homosexuality the church is turning away from God - rejecting the Bible and two thousand years of Christian teaching. The church is trying to hold together people who say that the Holy Spirit has led us to a new understanding and people who think we have fallen into Satan’s trap. What in the world can we here at House of Prayer do about this? Let’s face it, we’re just a little church in Newark. Really, what can we do? The challenges facing the Episcopal Church seem overwhelming – way too much to handle.

So, have I got you feeling overwhelmed yet? Is there anything we can really do about all these problems? Is there anything we can really do to ease all this suffering? What can we do? Jesus gives us the answer in today’s gospel. Here’s the Good News. Jesus says we are all called to begin small – just a mustard seed – and then we are called to trust that God will take the tiny seed that we plant and grow something that feeds and shelters many. What a relief – we don’t have to do everything. All we need to do is to open our hearts and allow God to work through us. All we need to do is to pay attention, to be mindful, to look for opportunities to plant seeds. We don’t know how God will work with what we have planted – just as the farmer doesn’t know how the seed grows into the shrub. All we Christian “farmers” need to do is to look for what we might call “mustard seed moments” – chances for us to plant seeds and then let God do the rest.

Getting ready for today’s sermon these past few days I have been on the lookout for some of these “mustard seed moments.” I’d like to share a couple with you.

My home parish, St. Paul’s in Jersey City, runs a summer program for kids. I have seen the program in action a few times – I’ve actually tried to do some Bible study with these kids, and believe me they ask some really tough questions! Anyway, it’s a great program – a fun, safe place for city kids in the summer. It’s a bargain, but in reality of course some people in the community can’t afford it. This year a member of the choir – a professional singer who I’ve always thought of as a nice, talented person but not really part of the parish – offered to pay the entire fee for one kid during the summer. That’s over 600 dollars. This was offered quietly and privately from someone who came to church to sing but apparently realizes the Christian life calls us to give of ourselves. It’s a quiet, generous, powerful “mustard seed moment.” And who knows what God will do with this act? How will this child be affected by spending the summer at St. Paul’s? How will others be transformed by this selfless act? What kind of plant will be produced by this tiny mustard seed?

Now someone you know. Of course, Lucye has been organizing an upcoming trip with young people to go down to New Orleans and to help with the rebuilding. I should let her tell the story but last week she and some of her crew went to St. Stephen’s in Millburn. They talked about what they hope to do and then offered the parishioners at St. Stephen’s the chance to write a prayer or a message of hope on the work gloves that they will be using in Louisiana. What a great idea and what a powerful symbol! The people of St. Stephen’s offered not only their prayers but also over 600 dollars for this effort. Mustard seeds are being planted in Millburn, too! Is this trip going to solve the problems of the Gulf Coast? Of course not, but who knows what God is going to do with this work and those prayers? In a real sense, thanks to God, all the mustard seeds we plant today continue to grow throughout eternity in ways that we can hardly imagine.

And then there is the Episcopal Church. Oh boy. I wonder what our young people who are out at General Convention would say to those on all sides of the issues tearing apart the Episcopal Church. What would they say to those who suggest that we cannot pray together? What would they say to those on all sides who say to beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, “We have no need for you.” What would we say? I would say, come to House of Prayer. Set aside your differences and come to church with us. Come as you are – imperfect and broken. Come to our imperfect and broken church and join hands in our circle of prayer. Come kneel with us, and reach out our hands and take this holy bread and wine. (Or grape juice, if you prefer!) I think they might say – and I know I would say – if you think we can’t be a church together, before you walk away come to House of Prayer.

Well, it just so happens that one of our young people at convention actually spoke at one of the hearings. Charles, a “mustard seed” who has grown up in this church, and was nurtured not only by his mom but by so many others here, spoke out in favor of a resolution called “Justice, Respect and a Living Wage.” This resolution challenges the church to support workers’ rights, especially the right to form a union and earn a living wage. Let me quote Charles’ statement from the convention – a real “mustard seed moment”:
“We talk about the great work we do as a church – justice for this and justice for that. Who do you think put those pitchers of fresh water on your table? Who put those clean table cloths on your table? Who do you think cleans these carpets after we leave? And these people – many of them immigrants – do not even make minimum wage, much less a ‘living wage.’ C’mon, people. This is your chance to improve the lives of people right here.”

Sure, we’re just a little church in Newark. But, we sure can plant mustard seeds! And we can have faith that God will take what we have planted – what we have planted in sometimes very rocky soil – and in ways we can’t imagine, transform each little seed into a rich harvest. We can have faith that God will transform each little seed into a beautiful plant, a plant providing food and shelter for many.

This is our Christian faith. Of course we can clearly see the many challenges facing our cities, our world and our church. And although we may sometimes get afraid or discouraged, Jesus reminds us that our job is to open our hearts and build the Kingdom of God, right here, right now, one mustard seed at a time.


Sunday, June 04, 2006

Pentecost is Our Day

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
Year B: The Day of Pentecost
June 4, 2006

Acts 2:1-11
1 Corinthians 12:4-13
John 20: 19-23
Psalm 104:25-32

Pentecost is Our Day

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on us.


Well, Happy Pentecost! Pentecost is a great day because this is our day – today the Holy Spirit is poured out onto us. Today the Holy Spirit is breathed into us – into us right here at St. Paul’s in Jersey City. The past few weeks we have been through Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Ascension Day – and they were great and powerful days for sure, but Pentecost is a church feast that is really about us, right here and right now.

I mean, let’s face it, we weren’t there when Jesus was welcomed with waving palms into Jerusalem. We weren’t there when Jesus blessed the bread and wine at the Last Supper. We weren’t there when Jesus was nailed to the cross. We weren’t there when the apostles peered into the empty tomb. We weren’t there when the resurrected Jesus told Thomas to touch his wounds. We weren’t there when the apostles were left staring into the sky as Jesus ascended into heaven. No, we weren’t there for any of that – but we are right here in Jersey City during June of 2006 and right at this moment we’re having our own Pentecost, a Pentecost just as real and powerful as what the disciples experienced two thousand years ago. Today the Holy Spirit is being poured into us, breathed into us. It’s up to us to open our hearts to the Spirit. It’s up to us to let the Holy Spirit transform us into true disciples. It’s up to us today to walk out the doors of St. Paul’s and transform Jersey City and to transform the whole world. Today is Pentecost – today is our day!

It’s the end of the Easter season but it’s also the birthday of the church. Pentecost is the beginning of the church, the start of our Christian transformation. We just heard the lessons - as promised, the disciples were given the Holy Spirit and the church is born. Remember, even after the resurrection the disciples had been fearful, clueless people hiding out behind locked doors. Now the power of the Holy Spirit transforms them into true Christian disciples, boldly proclaiming the Good News of Christ in every language. Pentecost transforms the disciples into men and women willing to risk everything for Christ.

But, unlike Easter, Pentecost is not a one-time event – the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that began on that long-ago Pentecost continues today – right here and right now – right here on Duncan Avenue at St. Paul’s in Jersey City! Pentecost is not really about the transformation of a few Jewish men and women from 2000 years ago. Pentecost is really about the transformation that takes place in our own lives – when we open our hearts to power of the Holy Spirit and are transformed from being fearful, self-centered people into bold, loving Christian disciples. Pentecost is about our transformation and the transformation of the world.

Yes, Pentecost is about us and our continuing transformation into Christian disciples. Pentecost is about our individual transformation - and it’s also about our group transformation. You may have noticed that today’s lessons actually contain two Pentecosts. In the Acts of the Apostles we have sort of the “Big Pentecost” - the powerful depiction of the divided tongues as of fire descending on the disciples and then the disciples speaking in many languages. In John’s Gospel we have the “Little Pentecost” - Jesus simply breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. Two very powerful images expressing the same reality – the gift of the Holy Spirit given to Christ’s followers.

In both accounts, though, the Holy Spirit is given – poured out or breathed – in public – in the community, not individually. Jesus doesn’t call the disciples one by one and breathe the Holy Spirit on them. (Jesus doesn’t quietly say something like, “Andrew, come over here for a second – I want to give you something.”) Instead the Holy Spirit is given collectively, in the community. Just like today, Jesus doesn’t call us to be disciples but then say, “Shh, don’t tell anyone about this – keep this to yourself.”

This is really important, and maybe something we’d like to forget. Despite what many people may say – and even what we might like to believe – our Christian faith is not a private matter. We cannot be transformed and then keep it to ourselves. We can’t be a “secret disciple.” You know what some people say about us Episcopalians? That we’re the “frozen chosen.” That’s not good enough! It just doesn’t work that way. Our transformation takes place here in church and in the world around us. As Christians, each in our own way, we are called to be transformed and then to go out and share the Good News, transforming the whole world.

Whether we like it or not, the power of the Holy Spirit and our transformation by the Holy Spirit is a public event. One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is that, as you know, we usually celebrate the sacrament of Baptism in the middle of our Sunday Eucharist. All of us assembled take part in the baptism – we are all here to witness to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, to remember and renew our own baptismal vows, and to pledge our support for a new Christian – we pledge our support both individually and as a community. Every Baptism is a Pentecost.

I’d like to share two examples of this uncomfortable, public, Pentecost Christianity that you and I have been baptized into. Last week out at House of Prayer we had a good discussion about Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. I’m sure many of you know his story. When he was a teenager the white minority government in his country imposed the brutal system of apartheid on the black majority. Tutu was first a school teacher but in part because he was frustrated by the restrictions on what he could teach, he was ordained a priest. By the early 1980s he was one of the most outspoken opponents of this ugly, racist regime. In 1982 he declared to a government commission, “Where there is injustice, exploitation and oppression, then the Bible and the God of the Bible are subversive…Our God…is a God of surprises, uprooting the powerful and unjust to establish his kingdom.” In 1984 the world recognized Tutu’s willingness to speak truth to power and he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thanks to the courage of Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and others, in 1994 the white minority regime in South Africa was peacefully replaced with a multiracial government. It’s truly one of the great miracles of our time. But the miracle didn’t stop there. Next, President Mandela put Tutu in charge of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Both Mandela and Tutu understood the difficult truth that those white people who had done wrong were also victims of this evil system. So they were given the chance to make a full confession of their wrongdoing and in return received amnesty. The victims and their families were also given the chance to tell their stories to the commission. And so the healing began. How hard it must have been for people of color to offer forgiveness to these often brutal white people! How was forgiveness and reconciliation possible? Well, Tutu and the others opened their hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit and allowed themselves and their world to be transformed. It’s truly a Pentecost story.

Now another Pentecost story, this one a little closer to home. This past week I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting Bob Castle. You may have read in the paper that he was honored by the local historic preservation group as a living Jersey City landmark. Some of you who have been around for a while may remember that he was the rector of St. John’s on Summit Avenue back in the 1960s. When Castle got the job at St. John’s the bishop warned him that this would not be a good career move. That turned out to be a correct prediction, because Castle was not content to hide his Christianity within the church walls. Instead, Castle got involved in the big issues of his day – the civil rights and anti-war movements. You don’t have to agree with his politics to admit that Castle courageously carried his faith through the church doors and out into the world – forcefully speaking out and fighting against poverty, corruption, racism, violence and war.

On one memorable occasion, he brought garbage that had filled city-owned buildings and dramatically dumped it on the steps of City Hall. (That got their attention!) This white guy from the jWest Side famously befriended members of the Black Panthers – while opposing violence, he stood with them against racism and oppression. When Jersey City seemed to be in danger of descending into the chaos of race riots that devastated cities such as Detroit and Newark, Castle – a white man trusted by many in the black community - went out into the streets and helped to defuse the situation. And, unlike many other big cities, Jersey City didn’t burn and collapse.

The other night somebody asked Castle how he decided what causes were worth fighting for. He answered that he believed that something was worth doing only if it had a cost to him personally. “It’s got to cost you,” he said. And sure enough his work in Jersey City ended up costing him a great deal. For quite a while this outspoken priest was basically unemployable in the Episcopal Church – the bishop had been right after all, St. John’s really wasn’t a good career move. Castle actually ended up running a general store with his family in Vermont for years. But, the Holy Spirit is always at work and eventually he returned to the church, landing at St. Mary’s in Harlem, once again taking the Christian message out from the sanctuary and into the streets – and speaking the truth to power.

Of course, we’re not called to be exactly a Desmond Tutu or a Bob Castle. In their own times and places they found their ways to live out their Christian vocation. But on Pentecost, and every day, each of us in our own way is called to open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit. We are called to allow ourselves to be transformed and to grow into our transformation. As St. Paul writes, we are each called to use our manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Our job together here in church is to reflect on what gifts of the Spirit we have been given and then, even though it’s going to cost us, rise above our fears and each in our own way bring our gifts out those doors and into a very broken and hungry world.

So, today is Pentecost. Today is our day. Today the Holy Spirit is poured out onto us. Today the Holy Spirit is breathed into us. Right here, right now. It is up to us – us, the people of St. Paul’s. All of us. Today is our day. Today it’s up to us to respond, to open our hearts, allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us, to transform Jersey City, and to transform all of creation.

Sweet Holy Spirit. Sweet Heavenly Dove.
Stay right here with us, filling us with your love.
And for these blessings, we lift our hearts in praise.
Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived
When we shall leave this place.


Sunday, April 30, 2006

It's Still Easter and It's Still Lent

House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Year B: The Third Sunday of Easter
April 30, 2006

Acts 4: 5-12
1 John 1:1-2:2
Luke 24: 36b-48
Psalm 98: 1-5

It’s Still Easter and It’s Still Lent

It’s great to be back at House of Prayer for the Third Sunday of Easter. I don’t know about you, but actually it feels like to me that Easter was quite a while ago. We’ve moved on to the next thing. I’m finishing (OK, starting) term papers and getting ready for exams. The stores have long since discounted the chocolate bunnies and even the peeps. Easter, it seems, has been put away for another year. But in the Church, at least, it’s still Easter. It’s still Easter.

Today’s readings give us a very dramatic before and after picture. Or, actually I guess I should say they give us a dramatic after and before picture. In the first reading from Acts we find the apostles Peter and John imprisoned by the Temple authorities for healing the sick and publicly teaching that Jesus is the Messiah who has risen from the dead. Questioned by the most powerful men in Jerusalem, the lowly fisherman Peter boldly tells the priests that Jesus, the man who they handed over to Pilate to be executed – the stone that was rejected – has become the cornerstone. This Jesus who was killed as a common criminal, has become the way to salvation. To speak that way to the chief priests must have taken a lot of courage! Remember, both Peter and John knew very well that if the religious establishment could get rid of Jesus, they could just as easily get rid of these two nobodies.

But in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel we have a very different picture of the apostles. Not much courage or boldness here – more like fear and confusion. It’s still Easter – it’s Easter night. Earlier in the day, remember, Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene and the other women found the empty tomb, and heard from the two men in “dazzling clothes” the most amazing news – Jesus is risen! Of course, when the women told the men what they had seen and heard, the guys were understandably skeptical, but, to his credit, Peter runs to the tomb - where he finds only linen cloths. His Lord was gone. Could it be true? Could it really be true? Could Jesus really be risen from the dead? It’s still Easter.

Then Luke tells a wonderful story of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They don’t recognize it’s Jesus at first, not until he breaks the bread and vanishes from their sight. It’s my favorite passage in the Bible and I’m tempted to preach on it right now, but this morning all we need to know is that these two disciples don’t actually make it to Emmaus. No, they turn back to Jerusalem and tell the other followers of what they have seen and heard. Jesus is risen! We saw him in the breaking of the bread! It’s still Easter.

This is where today’s reading from Luke picks up. Try to imagine yourself as one of Jesus’ followers right now – especially one of Jesus’ male disciples. These guys had really let down Jesus. I’m sure Jesus was disappointed, but he probably wasn’t surprised. He knew their weaknesses better than anyone. Remember what had happened in the garden the night he was arrested? The disciples couldn’t even stay awake for Jesus. And when the going got really tough, the disciples got going all right. According to Luke, they abandoned Jesus to die alone on the cross. As Luke rather politely puts it, “all his acquaintances, including the women who followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”

Now, I’m going to guess that the amazing news that Jesus had risen, the reports that people had actually seen Jesus and talked with Jesus, would, yes, make the disciples wonder and hope, but this news would also make the disciples very uncomfortable and even afraid. I mean, the feelings of guilt must have been intense. Think for a moment of a time that you really let someone down. Still feels terrible, doesn’t it?

So now imagine you abandoned Jesus in his great moment of need. You left him to hang on the cross to die alone, to die the most shameful death, to die nailed to a tree as a common criminal. And now it seems somehow that Jesus has risen from the dead. I’m not sure that I could face Jesus, or would want to face Jesus, after all that has happened. What if Jesus is angry? Who could blame him? What if Jesus now rejects us because we failed him, abandoned him, rejected him, in his greatest moment of need? I am sure the disciples were very sorry. I am sure the disciples repented for what they had done, or for what they had not done. I am sure the disciples hoped, somehow, for forgiveness. It’s still Easter.

And then late that night Jesus appears. “Peace be with you,” he says. It seems to me that those simple, beautiful words are meant to immediately let the disciples know that, yes, they are forgiven. Although he has every reason in the world to at least be angry, Jesus instead offers peace. But, notice that Jesus does not pretend that nothing has happened. How uncomfortable it must have been for the disciples to see those wounds. To see the nail marks in his hands and feet. To truly face what had happened. To be reminded of the real pain and suffering of Good Friday. But, although they can’t, and shouldn’t, forget what has happened, the disciples who were filled with sorrow and repentance are forgiven by Jesus.

It’s still Easter. In fact, repentance and forgiveness is a powerful, central part of the Easter story. And it’s a powerful part, or should be a powerful part, of the church’s message today. Notice in today’s gospel how Jesus describes the mission of the church – uh, that would be our mission, yours and mine – “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all the nations…” Repentance and forgiveness of sins. I wonder how much attention the church actually gives these days to repentance and forgiveness. And yet Jesus says proclaiming repentance and forgiveness is the mission of the church!

The disciples must have been amazed and very relieved to hear Jesus call for repentance and offer forgiveness. So it turns out that yes, it’s still Easter, but in a sense, it’s still Lent too.

You know, I love the church seasons as much as the next person. I like when we shift our focus in Advent and Lent, Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. I like when we change colors, prayers and music. I like that we get to see all the beautiful vestments and altar hangings that we’re blessed to have here at House of Prayer. But, there’s a danger if we take the seasons too literally. We can end up dividing our faith into boxes – sort of like the boxes where we might keep our Christmas or Easter decorations. You know, well it’s Lent so let’s open up the “Lent Box” and take out the awareness of our sinfulness and need to repent, and God’s ever-willingness to forgive us. Repentance, that’s a nice decoration for Lent. And when Lent’s over we put repentance back into the “Lent Box” and it’s out of sight until next year. Because, now it’s Easter, so let’s crack open that box, move the bunnies and baskets out of the way, take out the alleluias, the joy, the sense of Jesus with us even now.

Well, if that’s what we do then maybe we would be better off getting rid of the seasons, or maybe just celebrating all the seasons all the time. Sure, the different colors in church might clash and not look so nice, (and I guess the altar guild won’t be happy) but mixing the seasons together would be a reminder that yes it’s still Easter, but in a sense it’s also still Lent. Yes, hopefully we experience the joy of the resurrection, but at the same time hopefully we also can still feel our sinfulness and need for forgiveness. All year long – not just during certain seasons.

This is important because at the center of Christianity is transformation, a change of heart. That’s what the disciples experience as they move from fear and failure to courage and confidence. Peter’s heart is transformed by Jesus’ forgiveness. He goes from being the man who cowardly denies Jesus three times to being the man we read about in the Acts of the Apostles today – boldly telling the priests and the scribes that Jesus the messiah has risen from the dead. What a powerful transformation – what an amazing change of heart! And the transformation doesn’t just happen once. Through prayer and by trying to live the Christian life, year after year season after season, it grows and deepens. That’s the power of Christianity! And that power, the power of the Holy Spirit, is available to all of us right here, right now in the House of Prayer!

How does this transformation start? I think there’s only one way, and that is through repentance. Admitting the times we have failed, the times that we have abandoned God and abandoned our brothers and sisters. Turning to God and asking for forgiveness. In today’s epistle reading from First John we heard such a hopeful message, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Even if it scares us, and if we’re being real it should scare us, we can repent and offer our confession to God. And we can do this with confidence because we know that God is ready always to forgive – in fact, it is God who is calling us to repentance and forgiveness. And Jesus is saying to us right here and now as he said to the disciples long ago, “Peace be with you.”

Just as that repentance and forgiveness transformed the apostles from a bunch of cowards hiding in a locked room to bold people risking and sacrificing their lives to proclaim Jesus as messiah, so we too will be transformed. Our hearts will be changed. That’s the power of God working through us – transforming fear and death into hope and new life. It’s still Easter and it’s still Lent. Thanks be to God!

Someone who understood the need in our lives for both Lent and Easter was our new friend Lancelot Andrewes, the 17th Century English bishop we reflected on this morning in the spirituality group. I will close with one of his beautiful prayers, which I hope can be our prayer today:

Let us pray.
Blot out, O Lord, as a thick cloud of night our transgressions
and as a morning cloud our sins,
make us children of the day and of the light,
grant us to walk chastely and soberly as in the day.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin.
Keep us from the arrow that flieth by day,
and from the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday;
deliver us from the hand of the hunter and from the noisome pestilence;
from the evil of this day keep us.
Today salvation and peace be to this house.
O let me hear thy loving kindness, for in Thee is my trust;
show Thou me the way that I should walk in,
for I raise my soul to Thee.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Faithful Thomas 1.0

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
April 23, 2006

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

April 13, 2006

Year B: The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 3:12a, 13-15, 17-26, 13-15, 17-26
1 John 5:1-6
John 20:19-31
Psalm 118:19-24

“Faithful Thomas”

I’m not just saying this because I’m a Thomas too, but I think the Apostle Thomas has gotten a bad rap thanks to our reading today from the Gospel of John. Obviously, John criticizes Thomas as someone who actually needs to see Jesus in order to believe in Jesus. Now, before all the Peters and Andrews of the world start congratulating themselves, let’s remember that the other apostles didn’t believe Mary Magdalene’s story of the resurrected Jesus, either. They needed to see Jesus too. But we don’t use the expression “Doubting Peter” or “Doubting Andrew,” do we? No, it’s only Thomas who seems forever to be stuck as the doubter.

And let’s face it, Thomas does say “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And so Jesus gives Thomas what he seems to need – Jesus shows him his wounded, resurrected body; invites Thomas to touch, to believe. And then Thomas says maybe more than he actually understands, crying out to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” It’s Thomas more than the others who really recognizes who Jesus really is – “My Lord and my God!”

Yes, Thomas is a doubter. But, I would like to suggest to you that Thomas is also for us a model of faith. One of my professors at the seminary has said something a few times over the past semester that has gotten stuck in my head. This professor has suggested that we are wrong to say that doubt is the opposite of faith. No, he says, the opposite of faith is certainty.

I’ve thought about that a lot these past few months. And I think he’s right. I could be wrong, but certainty seems so easy – it seems almost dishonest. It’s like enjoying the happy, sunny Easter Sunday morning without living through the drizzly gray Good Friday. I mean, honestly, how can we go through our lives, seeing and experiencing all the mindless and purposeless suffering that we do, and not sometimes wonder – where is God? Why does God allow these terrible things to happen? Maybe this sounds strange to say in church, but it is very healthy and normal to doubt, to question, to be skeptical.

Now, if we think of faith as having convinced ourselves of something, if we think of faith as something you either have or you don’t, if we think of faith as something that you can get but can also lose, then doubt can be a truly frightening experience. As a young man, Martin Luther was very concerned about how he could know he had enough faith. He wondered, what if I need just a little more faith? Or, what if I was supposed to say just one more prayer? What if I don’t have enough faith? What if I haven’t done enough? He called the predicament the “terrified conscience.”

After agonizing about this for a while, Luther finally came to realize that it’s not about us, but instead it’s about God and God’s grace. Luther came to understand that faith is not a thing that we can possess, but instead faith is opening our hearts to let God’s grace work within and through us. In a real sense, faith is a way of living, it’s not a thing that we either have or we don’t have. Faith is a verb, not a noun.

If we recognize what faith really is, then it’s pretty easy to see Thomas as a man of faith much more than a man of doubt. Faithful Thomas, not Doubting Thomas. Truthfully, we don’t know too much about Thomas, but he seems to be a man of action, a courageous man, a true disciple of Jesus. Back in Chapter 11, Thomas says to the other disciples, “let us go, that we may die with him.” Despite that boldness, the events leading up to Good Friday must have been shocking and frightening to Thomas as they were for others. Like nearly all of Jesus’ followers, of course, Thomas stayed away from Golgotha. He didn’t hear Jesus cry out from the cross in agony or ask God to forgive his persecutors. He didn’t see Jesus breathe his last.

What happens next is crucial. If faith is just a thing then it’s very easy to imagine Thomas giving up in the face of this horrible execution. I was fooled. I thought this Jesus was the messiah, but I was wrong. Look at what’s happened to him – the most shameful death of all. I should have listened when people mocked me and said I was crazy to follow this carpenter.

But, faith is not a thing, it’s an openness to the power of God. Faith is not having everything figured out, it’s a trust that God is at work in the world, restoring the world to the way things were meant to be. So what does Thomas do after Jesus’ death? Well, we don’t know, but we do know that he is not fearfully hiding with the other disciples. Maybe he went off by himself to pray and to try to make sense of these horrible events, this huge disappointment. Maybe he cried out to God – Why did you let this happen? Jesus preached the Kingdom of God was near – why did you let his enemies arrest him and kill him? Was it all fake? Was I fool for following Jesus? What do I do now?

Maybe that sounds like doubt. But, really, it is faithfully reaching out to God. It’s honestly admitting to God that this does not all make sense – but I’m not going to give up, I’m not going to close myself off, no matter how much I’m afraid, or confused, or skeptical.

So what does Thomas do when the other disciples tell him about the resurrected Jesus? Is he doubtful? You bet. But the story doesn’t end there. He doesn’t say some first century equivalent of “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” He goes back with the disciples to the house – despite his doubt, he is still open to the possibility that God is at work, that things are not quite as they seem, and that death is not really the end of the story.

It’s that openness that gives Thomas the insight and the wisdom to say to Jesus more than he probably understood, “My Lord and my God!”

Faith - that openness to God, that trust in God, is easy to talk about but not so easy to live out in our daily lives – it’s not even easy when you’re like me and surrounded by church nearly all the time. It’s a constant struggle to be open and mindful – to really pay attention for God at work in the world around us. But, here’s the good news - we don’t have to do the work. If we’re open even a little, if we leave even just a little room for God, then God will do the rest.

My Good Friday experience this year is a good example. This year I was in charge of the Good Friday service at the seminary chapel. Since this is an important service, and everyone there is sort of an expert who knew how it was supposed to work, there was a lot of pressure on me and others involved, to do our jobs right. Everything turned out fine, although honestly I didn’t get to really experience the service because I was paying attention to all the little details. After that was done, I literally had to run in the rain carrying my vestments in a garment bag, ten blocks north to Penn Station to catch a train to get to House of Prayer in time for the beginning of the Good Friday walk at noon. Again, not a very open and mindful experience.

I just made it, and when I walked into church someone said, “Oh good, our crucifer is here.” Now, no one had told me that I was to carry this big wooden cross from House of Prayer to the next church a few blocks away on Broad Street. So I sat there, feeling irritated and taken for granted, angry that no one had bothered to even ask me about this ahead of time. Stewing in my negativity I wondered, what’s the point of this? What am I doing here? This is silly, just a waste of time. I have to admit, I was also trying to figure out how I was going to carry the cross and I was also hoping that I wouldn’t embarrass myself if the cross turned out to be very heavy. Needless to say, again, not very open or mindful.

Once the service was over, I stepped up to the altar, picked up the cross, put it over my shoulder and slowly walked down the aisle. Somehow, there was just enough space for God to cut through my bad mood and my self-centeredness. I began to forget my irritation and began to realize, to feel - It’s true, our story is really real – God came into the world and the world rejected God, but God transformed that defeat into victory.

As I walked down the aisle, I touched the roughness of the wood; I felt its weight on my shoulder. As I led the procession out of the church, wearing my black cassock, carrying this large cross through the streets of downtown Newark I could see the mix of curiosity, surprise and even sadness on people’s faces as they looked at me, and looked at the cross. I could hear the hush that seemed to fall even though cars and buses continued to drive by. After all these years the story has lost none of its power. And when we arrived at the next church, I felt an odd bond to the person I handed the cross over to – that in some way we were sharing a very special experience of discipleship. For a moment anyway, the doubts and fears fell away – the wounded Christ was really present - “My Lord and my God!”

I am sure in the years after seeing the still-wounded, yet gloriously resurrected Christ, Thomas still sometimes wondered and doubted. It was all so amazing. Had it all been a dream? What did it mean? In a way, it seemed like everything had changed, and yet nothing had changed. Death was defeated, yet there was still plenty of evil and suffering and death all around. According to a wonderful tradition, Thomas brought the Good News all the way to India. Wherever he ended up we can be sure that, despite his doubts, despite his uncertainty, he remained faithful - he remained open to God’s work all around, and within, him. And as he faced a martyr’s death, even if he had doubts, even if he was not totally certain, “Faithful Thomas” must have cried out to Jesus once again, “My Lord and my God!”