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.