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.