Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Agents of Grace

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
Christmas Day, 2007 – RCL 2

Isaiah 62:6-12
Titus 3:4-7
Psalm 97
Luke 2:1-20

Agents of Grace

It’s good to be at Grace Church at Christmas. There’s been so much going on – so many services, so much preparation, so much beautiful music – so much Grace! For many of us it’s been just about all grace all the time.

And now this morning we’ve come to the heart of the Christmas season – Christmas Day itself. It’s good to be here, because it would be very easy for Christmas Day to be an afterthought. It would be easy for us to be like the rest of our society and already impatiently move on to the next thing. I don’t need to tell you that the society’s calendar is a little different than the church’s calendar. For the world, Christmas began back around Halloween and as of this morning Christmas is officially over. I am sure the TV commercials are already running encouraging us to take advantage of the big after Christmas sales. (I’m actually a little surprised that stores aren’t open today…)

But that’s the world’s calendar. Let’s remember that the church calendar is very different. For us, this is not the end of the Christmas season, but just the beginning. But, if we’re not careful we can get swept up with the rest of the society and really miss out on Christmas. If we’re not careful we can miss out on the whole point. If we’re not careful we can miss the grace that God gave the world that first Christmas – and the grace that God continues to give us here and now.

It’s good to be at Grace Church at Christmas. It’s good because Christmas truly is the season of grace.

Grace. It’s the name of our church. And for some it’s their own name. But what exactly is grace and why is Christmas the season of grace?

Well, the catechism in the prayer book gives us a great definition of grace: “God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.”
Grace: “God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved.” Christmas truly is the season of grace.

And we sure do need grace. It’s pretty obvious that something has gone terribly wrong. Life, the world, was not supposed to be this way. In the Bible we have the description of God being so very pleased with creation. But then something goes horribly wrong. Human beings, represented by the Adam and Eve, turn away from God, reject God, hide from God. And so pain and suffering and sadness enter our lives.

God could have just given up on us. Instead the Bible tells the story of God over and over reaching out to humanity – making covenants, trying to be in relationship with us. But, you know the story – over and over human beings follow the example of Adam and Eve and turn away from God – over and over we reject God’s offer of friendship.

And so we come to Christmas. Christmas, the ultimate act of grace. Christmas, the supreme gift of grace. Christmas, unearned and undeserved. Christmas, when God reaches out in the most extreme way by becoming one of us in this newborn child – this Jesus – born in the middle of nowhere, born to a couple of nobodies.
But, God couldn’t do this on God’s own. God needed the people we’ve been hearing about in church over these past few weeks. God needed the people we saw in the pageant yesterday. God needed agents of the grace.

God needed Mary to carry Jesus inside her. God needed Mary to set aside her doubts and fears. God needed Mary to take the risk, to risk the gossip and the snickering, to risk her marriage to Joseph, to risk her life itself. Mary could have said no. Instead Luke recalls her saying to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The prayer says Mary was “full of grace.” But more than that by saying yes to God, Mary became an agent of grace.

God needed Joseph. As Mother Lauren pointed out in her sermon on Sunday, Joseph was an extraordinarily honorable man. Greeted with the news of Mary’s pregnancy he could have rejected her and even had her stoned to death. Instead Joseph says yes to God, stays with Mary, and raises Jesus as his own. By saying yes to God, Joseph became an agent of grace.

God needed John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus. We don’t really know how John got from the comfortable life of a priest’s son to the life of a prophet out in the wilderness preaching repentance and forgiveness. We can be sure that like the other prophets before him he received a call from God and was given a choice. John could have said no and remained in relative comfort but instead he said yes to God. By saying yes to God, John the Baptist became an agent of grace.

And the same is true for the rest of the cast. The shepherds could have shaken their heads in disbelief – maybe the wine they had drunk that night was stronger than usual – after all why would an angel appear to them? And who sees angels anyway? And who sees angels who say that the Messiah is born to a couple of nobodies just down the road? Instead the shepherds say yes and become agents of grace.

The wise men could have taken a pass on the long trip following a star to Israel of all places. Because of our faith we tend to think of Israel as being a very important place, but most of the rest of the ancient world saw it as no place important – a backwater – noteworthy only for its odd religious belief in one God. But the wise men said yes and so they too became agents of grace.

So Christmas is the story of God’s grace. It’s the story of God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved.

And Christmas is also the story of ordinary people saying yes to God and becoming agents of God’s grace.

So you know what the question is. We can skip right over it and move on to those big sales tomorrow. We can skip right over it and start thinking about the next thing – vacation, New Years Eve, whatever. We can ignore the question but this Christmas, this festival of grace, this Christmas will we say yes to God? This Christmas will we say yes to God and become agents of grace?

The truth is God is asking us for help all the time. God is asking us to be agents of grace. The request may not be quite as dramatic as what Mary and Joseph and the rest received, though you never know. But today and everyday God is still asking the question. Will you help me?

Sometimes God’s grace can come very suddenly – we tend to call that a miracle.
Usually, though, God’s grace can come over a very long period of time. Think of how many centuries God reached out to humanity before that first Christmas. So it can take a long time and usually God’s grace takes the form of a series of nudges in the direction God knows is best for us.

Certainly for me Saturday’s ordination was a day of extraordinary grace – unearned and undeserved. But as I’ve thought and reflected on it, that day was the result of God’s grace nudging me and guiding me through all sorts of mistakes and detours until God finally got me where I was meant to be. It took a long time and required many agents of grace to get me here. And I was so happy that so many of those angents of grace were in church on Saturday.

I want to tell you one story of grace from that day. I have an uncle named Jimmy who was always sort of the wild child in my mother’s family. He married his high school sweetheart and they had two kids, a daughter and a son. For a time things seemed to be going pretty well for them. Jimmy had a good job; they had a nice house in the suburbs, and all the rest.

Unfortunately, Jimmy had a problem with alcohol and drugs. To make a long and horrible story short, Jimmy ended up losing everything – his job, his home, his family. He has not had any contact with his children in sixteen years. Ten years ago he was working at a gas station and each night he went back to his apartment and drank until he passed out.

That life took its toll. He had a stroke and without money he ended up in a nursing home in Newark – where he has lived ever since. Slowly he has recovered; building a new and sober life for himself – but still the loss of contact with his two kids was an open wound.

Some of my relatives tried to figure out a way to get him to my ordination but logistically it just wasn’t possible. And so on Saturday while the rest of my family was here in church Uncle Jimmy was in the nursing home in Newark, as usual.
And then his phone rang. And it was his daughter calling. It was his daughter. He had not seen or spoken to her in 16 years. But she had kept his phone number and after all this time she was reaching out to him. It took a long time but through agents of grace God had nudged her enough so that she was able to take this huge step and begin reconciliation.

Let’s stop there. Just as in today’s gospel we leave Mary and Joseph with their newborn child let’s leave Uncle Jimmy on the phone with his long lost daughter.
And let’s reflect on all the grace that has brought them all to this moment. Let’s all reflect on all the grace – unearned and undeserved – that has brought us all here this morning.

And on this Christmas let’s say yes. Let’s say yes and be agents of God’s grace.


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Wounded and Bold

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 2007

Wounded and Bold

In these last few weeks as I prepare to be ordained to the priesthood, I have been spending some time reflecting on how exactly I have gotten to this major landmark in my life. I remember one time years ago my father once said that in our lives we seem to go from one random event to another, but at certain points we can look back and see that what seemed random at the time was actually part of a journey with definite shape and purpose. I am not sure now when and why he said that, but having a gotten a little older and hopefully having gained some perspective, I can see that he was right. As I look back I also realize that it is the people we encounter even more than the events we experience that make our journeys unique.

An offhand remark in the faculty room at St. Peter’s Prep led Sue and me to St. Paul’s Church in Jersey City seven years ago. It was there in that beautiful wood frame Victorian church that we found the spiritual food that we needed so much. It was also at St. Paul’s where I met two of my great friends and clergy role models. More than once they have half-jokingly referred to themselves as my spiritual father and grandfather.

I can vividly remember how stunned and moved I was by the exchange of the peace that first Sunday at St. Paul’s. Frankly, Sue and I were a little overwhelmed by the exuberance and warmth of the congregation. These people seemed genuinely happy to be in church together! Although we were sitting in the back of the church, the priest approached us, extended his hand and said, “I’m Dave Hamilton, welcome to St. Paul’s.”

And so began one of the closest friendships of my life.

I believe that my sense of vocation was reawakened by the example of Dave’s priesthood. At St. Paul’s he never allowed himself to be placed on a pedestal. Instead, there was always a powerful sense of authenticity in his ministry, and especially in his preaching. Although he was a strong leader, there was always the honest acknowledgement that he was like us - a broken person trying to faithfully follow the way of Jesus Christ. Later when I read Henri Nouwen’s classic book The Wounded Healer I immediately thought of Dave – this man who had found great success in a thriving suburban parish only to painfully lose it all. Yet, when all seemed lost, he recovered and was gloriously reborn as a city priest, first at Trinity+St. Philip’s Cathedral and then at St. Paul’s. Dave, very open about his alcoholism and recovery, did not dwell on his wounds in self-absorption but rather honestly allowed his wounds to shape his ministry. It is a challenging model, but the only way to authentic ministry.

I have also been profoundly shaped by my spiritual grandfather, the rector emeritus at St. Paul’s, Frank Carr. Although he is more than twice my age, over the years he and I have also developed a close friendship. His example encourages me to be bold in my ministry. When he was graduating from seminary in the early 1950s, the bishop of Montana (then still an outpost of the Wild West) asked if any of the newly-minted Episcopal deacons had the boldness to go minister in the frontier. Only Frank Carr, born and raised in Boston, answered the call went west. He began a ministry that took him to Olympia, Beverly Hills, Ft. Worth and finally Jersey City. In addition to his example of boldness, Frank has also given me what I think is the best definition of the Christian life. He always says it is a life of love, forgiveness and service. Even today, burdened with blindness and other ills, he continues to live out the Christian life and his ordination vows as he ministers to a large network of people across the country and through a deep prayer life.

My ordination gives me a good occasion to reflect on Dave and Frank and the many other people who have given my journey its distinctive shape. Maybe this month, as a new church year begins and a calendar year draws to a close, we can all reflect on the people who have been with us – and continue to be with us – as we follow the way of Jesus Christ. And, since in our baptism we are all called to be ministers, maybe this month we can acknowledge our own wounds and go forth to love, forgive, and serve with authenticity and boldness.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Christ the King: Back to Basics

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 25, 2007
Year C, Proper 29 RCL: The Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ the King

Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Christ the King: Back to Basics

Wow, this is an exciting time of year isn’t it? I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving. I know here at church we had a wonderful service and a delicious brunch. I was so full I was glad that Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s house was delayed.

And now with Thanksgiving behind us whether the Church likes it or not society is moving into what it calls “the Christmas season.” Stores and some homes are already decorated. You probably know that some stores opened as early as 4:00AM on Friday to attract bargain-hungry shoppers. Here in Madison, Main Street is beautifully decorated and Santa arrived on Friday evening. In Friday’s mail Sue and I even received our first Christmas card!

Yep, it sure is an exciting time. And here in church we mark the last Sunday of the church year with a feast that sounds pretty grand and exciting – the feast of Christ the King. When I hear that grand title, Christ the King, I think of many of the paintings and statues that show Jesus wearing beautiful clothes and a golden crown on his head. So, all in all it feels like a time to celebrate – Christmas is coming in just a few weeks and today it’s the feast of Christ the King!

And, sure enough, today’s first lesson seems to fit this grand spirit very well. Listen again to the language used to describe Jesus in the letter to the Colossians:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible. Whether thrones or dominions or rulers and powers – all things have been created through him and for him.”

Wow! I don’t know about you, but after hearing that grand description of Jesus I’m ready to burst into “Crown him with many crowns.” But, Dr. Anne, I guess we have to wait until the recessional, huh?

And then we come to the Gospel lesson. When I first looked ahead to today’s lesson I sort of expected to find something grand and exciting like maybe… the transfiguration – Jesus glowing on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. Or I expected to hear about Jesus gloriously ascending into heaven. I expected to hear another story that would make me burst into “Crown him with many crowns.”

But, instead, what Gospel does the church offer us on Christ the King Sunday? What Gospel does the Church offer us on the last Sunday of the church year? What Gospel does the Church offer us as we all look ahead to Christmas?

The Church offers us the stark, horrifying image of Jesus hanging on the cross, the last hours of his life. The Church offers us this image of fragile Jesus, broken and bloody, being mocked, wearing a crown of thorns. What kind of king is this? What kind of celebration is this?
“Crown him with many crowns” takes on a very different sense now.

The Church says, here, this is Christ the King – here’s our king – our king Jesus dying on the cross.

Somehow things suddenly seem a lot less festive.

So what’s going on here? Why isn’t the Church with the program? Why isn’t the Church offering us a grand and exciting message this morning to match the excitement out there in the world?

In thinking about today’s sermon, I’ve been reflecting on a clergy discussion we had here on Tuesday. The issue of the day was how the church can get its message out into the modern world. Mother Lauren and I and a few others focused on some simple questions. Of course, it’s the simple questions that are always the toughest to answer!

These supposedly simple questions boiled down to: Who is Jesus? Who is this Christ the King? What does it mean?

How can the Church have a message for the world unless we know who Jesus is?

It was a great discussion – being clergy types we threw around some heavy-duty theological terms like redemption and atonement. We talked about the grammatical structure of Aramaic versus the structure of Greek. We talked about all sorts of things, and, of course, we never did quite come up with answers to these seemingly simple questions.

Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King? What does it mean?

Basic stuff. Many of us are in church a lot, but it’s easy for us to forget the basics. It’s easy to forget what it all means. Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King?

Now I suppose we could always fall back on the Nicene Creed. After all, every Sunday we stand and say the creed, which was crafted in part as an attempt to answer these questions, but if we pay attention to what we’re saying, the creed may in fact raise more questions than it answers. When I have taught about Christianity and Islam in my history courses I’ve always contrasted the creed of Islam – one simple, easy to remember sentence, with the Nicene Creed – which, let’s face it, is not so easy to remember. For fun I would ask if any of the regular church-goers in class could say the Nicene Creed from memory. Not one student was able to do it. Until my last year as a teacher when amazingly a kid recited it flawlessly from memory! (I took that as a sign that it was time to go…)

Anyway, it’s one thing not to remember it, but what does it mean? What does it mean? Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King? What does the creed say about Jesus? You know it… “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.” (scratch, scratch.)

What does it mean? Who is Jesus? Who is Christ the King?

Maybe because of the season, I’m reminded of the movie The Nightmare before Christmas. Have you seen it? A bunch of us watched it during movie night here at church a few weeks ago.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, this synopsis may sound a little bizarre, but bear with me. The movie imagines that Halloweentown – a place filled with vampires and ghouls that is responsible for producing Halloween each year – is ruled by a king, a skeleton king, named Jack. Jack’s been in the Halloween business for a while and he has gotten bored. After Halloween, feeling depressed, he goes for a walk wondering what to do with the rest of his life. During this sad walk, Jack the king of Halloweentown happens to stumble on Christmastown – the place, ruled by Santa Claus, that is responsible for producing Christmas every year.

OK, are you still with me? Well, Jack the king of Halloweentown is amazed by Christmastown. Santa’s elves are busily preparing toys for the big day, there’s good cheer everywhere, the snow, the ornaments, the twinkling lights are all so beautiful.

So when Jack sees Christmastown, he thinks he’s found the answer to his problem – this year he and the vampires and ghouls over at Halloweentown will be in charge of Christmas. Bad idea.

To get ready for Christmas, Jack tries to figure out what makes Christmas tick. “What does it mean?” he asks. “What does it mean?” So he scientifically conducts a series of experiments, analyzing the chemical properties of Christmas tree ornaments, examining the contents of stuffed animals, trying to cut out paper snowflakes, and even getting his own Santa suit. “What does it mean?” Jack asks.

If you haven’t see the movie I won’t spoil what happens next, except to say that Jack learns the hard way what Christmas means – he learns it’s not about the ornaments, the stuffed animals, or even the Santa suit.

Jack, the skeleton king, learns that Christmas is about love.

And today, on the feast of Christ the King, today as the church year comes to an end, today as we look ahead to Advent, today as the world enters what it calls the Christmas season, today the Church takes us back to the Cross to remind us what it all means.

With so much going on in and out of the church we can easily lose sight of the basics. We can lose sight of what it all means. We can lose sight of who Jesus is. We can lose sight of Christ the King.

By recalling the Cross on this festive day the Church offers us the grandest, most exciting message of them all. In Jesus God says this is who I am. In Jesus’ life of self-giving love God says this is who I am. In Jesus God shows us the way.

As it says on our youth group t-shirts, “Love is a verb.” The whole sweep of Christ’s life is an act of love. From the manger in Bethlehem to the cross at Calvary to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday – the whole sweep of his life reveals to us that it’s all about love. But, like Jack Skellington, we Christians can get focused on the things that aren’t so important and miss what it’s all about. Like Jack we ask “What does it mean?” Like Jack, we can miss that it’s all about love.

Christ is king because he gives of himself – freely and fully. Christ is king because he lives a life of perfect love, even dying on the cross.

As we begin a new church year, as all the excitement around Christmas begins, let’s not forget the basics. Let’s not forget that in Jesus we see who God really is. Let’s not forget that in Jesus we see that it’s all about love. And let’s not forget that Christ is king.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Joy of Accountability

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 18, 2007
The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Year C: Proper 28 RCL

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
(2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)
Luke 21:5-19

The Joy of Accountability

Until the past few months I had lived pretty much my entire life on the academic calendar. Both as a student and as a teacher my life was marked marking period by marking period, semester by semester, school year by school year. Just the other day, I caught myself thinking that pretty soon I could catch up on a few odds and ends during Christmas vacation. And then I remembered that, at least for a long time, there would be no more Christmas vacations for me.

I liked the academic calendar because it has a definite beginning. I liked the start of each new school year – the new books to read, the notebooks yet to be written, the seemingly endless possibilities. Each year, I’d think “this year is going to be different.” And then the reality of school would set in – some classes were good, some were hard and some were boring. Some of the bindings of those new books remained unbroken and those nice clean notebooks became filled with doodles along with line after line of notes. Despite my best intentions, I’d slip into my usual patterns

I also liked the academic calendar because it has a definite ending. We won’t be in this class forever. This class will end. This semester will end. This school year will end. Someday we will graduate. Sometimes it may seem like forever, but there is an ending. But, of course, there’s not only an ending – for students, at least, there is also accountability. In class like every other teacher I was asked about five million times, “Will we be graded on this?” And usually the answer was yes. Year after year, students are judged and graded. Year after year students are held accountable.

The academic year: beginnings, endings, and accountability.

It turns out that the church year is not so different from the academic year. There is a definite beginning and an ending. And, although we may choose to ignore it, there is also accountability. Now we are coming to another ending. Next Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year and then we start a new church year on the First Sunday of Advent. And so, as we come to the end of the church year, sure enough, this morning’s lessons focus on endings and accountability.

These are not easy things to think about or to preach about. I’d much rather look with anticipation to the start of another church year – all the hope and the possibilities – the hope, the excitement, that this year will be different. But, sorry, we can’t skip a step. If we hope to spiritually “graduate” we need to reflect on endings and accountability.

So let’s start with our Old Testament lesson. The prophet Malachi lived in the time after many of the Hebrews had returned from the Babylonian exile. They had rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem – and just like at the start of a new school year there had been tremendous hope and optimism – this time things were going to be different, this time things were going to be better. But, surprise, surprise, just like any human institution, the Temple had become corrupt. In the righteous anger of Malachi (“See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble”) seems to fueled by the disappointment that the religious establishment has become corrupt.

And so Malachi warns the ending is coming and that there will be accountability.

Five hundred years later, Jesus is unimpressed by the splendor of the Temple. Jesus was, of course, very critical of the religious establishment that had become corrupt and hypocritical. And so Jesus prophesies the end of the Temple.
Two thousand years later, it’s easy for us to shrug. For us, the Temple is just another historic structure that has vanished into the rubble of history. But for the Jews of Jesus’ time the thought that the Temple – the holiest place in the universe, the place where God lived – could be destroyed must have been very disturbing, to say the least. And, of course, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 – the Temple, the holiest place in the universe, the place where God lived – the Jewish people were scattered throughout the ancient world and had to rethink their faith in a world without the Holy of Holies.

Jesus warns that the ending is coming and that there will be accountability.
Now, I’d just as soon pass on accountability. As a student I used to get very nervous before tests. Just last January I had to take what’s called the General Ordination Exam – a week-long set of tests on Scripture, Theology, Liturgy and so on. If Bishop Beckwith had called and offered to exempt me from the exam you better believe I would have said yes.

But, he never called and so I was held accountable for what I had, or hadn’t, learned in seminary. Accountability. We’d all like to avoid it – but we also need it. Accountability – we’d all like to avoid it – but it’s a sign that we are loved
I remember at one of the high schools where I taught there was another history teacher – a veteran and very popular teacher – who never made his students accountable. His students never had homework, never had to bring books to class, the tests were jokes and I don’t think he ever bothered to grade them. He spent his class periods sharing his political views. At least once he wrote the words “Us” and “Them” on the board and then listed the names of the faculty according to their supposed political beliefs. I never did find out whether I was an “us” or a “them.”

Anyway, I often taught freshmen. Later as juniors and seniors they would sometimes stop by and see me. At the start of the year the kids who had gotten (let’s call him) Mr. E would be excited and try to get a rise out of me, a teacher who was famous for pop quizzes. “Yo, Mr. Murph, Mr. E’s so cool. He really respects us and cares about us and wants to know what we think. He talks to us about other teachers and he never gives quizzes or tests. You don’t even have to read the book”

I’d take all this in, smile, and say something like “Well, it sounds like you have a pretty good deal with Mr. E. Congratulations!”

And then the months would pass and sometimes those same students would stop by for another visit. I’d ask how things were going in Mr. E’s class. Not always, but often enough, kids would admit that his class wasn’t as cool as they had thought. And even once in a while one of them would admit that they even missed my famous pop quizzes.

They didn’t say it, but they were smart enough to realize that the way Mr. E ran his class and treated them was actually deeply uncaring and disrespectful. By not demanding accountability Mr. E was shortchanging these students and showing that he just didn’t care them, their learning, their growth as students and as people.

There are many who want, or even expect, that the Christian life will be easy. I’m not sure how people can read the Bible and think that this is supposed to be easy. I mean, just look at today’s passage from Luke, “…they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

Whew. Yet somehow Christians get the idea that God loves me, nothing else is required, and everything is going to be just swell. And God does indeed love us beyond our understanding. But part of that love is a demand of accountability. You and I will be accountable for our actions. You and I will be accountable for how we respond to God’s love. And it’s through that accountability that we can graduate and become the people God knows we really are.
If God didn’t hold us accountable, then God’s love wouldn’t be love at all. In fact, God would be pretty much like Mr. E.

To push the school metaphor just a little further, the life and teachings of Jesus show us that good news that God is the greatest teacher and the most merciful grader of all. This little passage from Luke that we heard today sure is scary on its own. But when we put in context it becomes much less scary.

Throughout his gospel, Luke has depicted Jesus spreading love and hope through his teaching and healing. Just before Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, he observes the poor widow making her seemingly insignificant and yet incredibly generous donation to the Temple. It’s just a few sentences and yet it’s one of the most powerful lessons in the whole Bible.
And this is how we are held accountable. How much have we been like the widow who gives all that she has?

I can only speak for myself. I haven’t been like her very much at all.
So, because God loves me I am held accountable. Because God loves all of us we are all held accountable. And because God is merciful, we get another chance. In two weeks we begin again. In two weeks we begin a new church year – a new year filled with hope and possibilities.

But before we turn the page let’s take some time and allow God to hold us accountable. Let’s give thanks for accountability. And then let’s move on and really mean it when we say “This year is going to be different.”

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Funeral Sermon for Elizabeth Mallery Korsgaard

Funeral Sermon for Elizabeth Mallery Korsgaard
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 10, 2007

Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Lamentations 3:22-26, 31-33
John 14:1-6

Grief is the Price We Pay for Love

Today’s second lesson, from the Book of Lamentations, powerfully reminds us that grief and love are joined together. This gathering today powerfully reminds us that grief and love are joined together.

This has been a time of tremendous grief. Beth, of course, had been sick on and off for quite some time, but her death came much faster than pretty much anyone expected. Her family grieves, and a whole community grieves too. How powerful and moving that hundreds of people took the time to come to the funeral home to honor Beth and to support her family during this time of grief. And now all of us are gathered here in this sacred space to honor Beth and to support her family.

We grieve because a wonderful, loving person has died. I actually only got to know Beth in the last days of her life. Meeting her, getting to know her, was an amazing experience. I’ve told some people, I feel like a much longer friendship was compressed into a very short period of time. In just a few days and under difficult circumstances, she and I connected and became friends.

When I shared with Mark this sense of connection I felt with Beth, he nodded with a slight smile and told me that this was a common experience when it came to Beth. She connected with people. She genuinely cared about how you were doing. More than one person has recalled that when you talked to Beth you got the sense that she gave you her full attention. Almost everyone has noted Beth’s many walks around town – and how she made friends up and down the streets of Madison, spreading love and joy. Beth always remembered to ask after a sick friend or relative, even as she carried the burden of her own illness.

So we grieve because this wonderful, loving person has died. We grieve because Beth has died – this person with a keen intelligence; this person who was filled with love of her family; this person who was filled with a love of life. This person who was filled with love for children, for the community, for literature. This woman who lived with love and joy.

So our church this afternoon is filled with grief – but hopefully not only grief – because grief and love are joined connected. Another Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth II of all people, captured this connection very well when she once said “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

Grief is the price we pay for love.

The first day I met Beth at Morristown Memorial Hospital I asked her what kept her going through so much pain and suffering. She didn’t miss a beat, looked at me right in the eye and said it was her faith that kept her going. Now, the truth is that sometimes people will say that to people like me because they think it’s the right answer, or the answer that a member of the clergy wants to hear.

So the next day when I saw Beth again I asked her to say more about how her faith supported her. She shared with me how she felt God’s presence with her as she faced all the tests and treatments, the pain and the fear.
And the presence of God that she felt was love. She felt love. This divine love that she felt didn’t come in the form of visions or a booming voice from heaven. This divine love that she felt in came in the form of her family and friends who loved her and supported her. The people who held her hand, cried with her, laughed with her, grieved with her. Just as Beth had been a sign of God’s love for so many now she was comforted by the love of so many.

Grief is the price we pay for love.

She and I talked about how even God seems unable to separate grief from love. Right at the start of our tradition, there’s that poignant image of God wandering through the Garden of Eden looking for his beloved Adam and Eve, who were hiding in shame. Grief is the price God pays for love. God becomes one of us in Jesus – whose life was filled with betrayals and disappointments by those he loved. Grief is the price God pays for love. And finally human beings reject God and nail God to the cross. Grief is the price God pays for love.

But the Christian story, and the story of Beth Korsgaard, is that love wins. Grief is the price that God and we pay for love. But as the author of Lamentations writes, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.” Yes, we experience the grief of Good Friday but in the end we celebrate
the love of Easter Sunday.

Beth understood that grief is the price we pay for love, but her whole life points to the power, the indestructibility of love. All the love that she poured out into the world has not died, but will live forever.

Beth’s journey has come to an end. Beth’s journey that began in God’s imagination, her journey that was lived out right here in Madison, has come to an end in the place that Jesus has prepared for her. Beth is home with God forever.

But you and I, we’re not home yet. We’re still on our journey. How will our journey end? Will we face the end of our lives with the same kind of confidence and peace that Beth knew? Or will we be filled with doubts and regrets? What will it take for us to live the best lives that we can?

Only we can answer those questions. We can look to Beth as an example, as a role model. We can look to Beth as someone who knew the way. If we open our hearts to God we can be like Beth and deeply love our families and friends. We can be dedicated to our community. We can live a life of love and service.

It’s not too late for us, there’s still a ways to go on our journey. So let’s all honor Beth by remembering her, but more importantly, by following her example. Grief is the price we pay for love, but let’s love anyway. Let’s go for long walks and share love and joy with the world. Let’s be like Beth.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thanksgiving and Service

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 2007

Thanksgiving and Service

Some of my most vivid childhood memories revolve around Thanksgiving. Each year my parents, my sister and I would drive across Jersey City to my grandparents’ house. Like any family we had our own little rituals. We would always notice that somehow the White Castle fast-food restaurant the passed on the way was doing a brisk business – on Thanksgiving! And then when we arrived at the house my sister and I would race into the kitchen to see if we could help ourselves to a sneak preview of my grandmother’s turkey stuffing. The crispiest parts were always in high demand. The whole time my grandmother would pretend not to notice, unless of course, our scavenging got out of hand; then we would be shooed away.

Over the years my aunts and uncles built their own families, which made for a pretty tight squeeze in the kitchen and the living room that was transformed into a dining room for the occasion. Plus, there were always assorted others who were invited by my grandmother – relatives whose relation to us was a bit convoluted, friends and neighbors, and even occasionally her boss from the shade store where she worked. Like many families we would ooh and gasp as the food arrived on the tables. And then we ate and ate. We ate sweet fruit cup, we ate mashed potatoes, we ate gelatinous can-shaped cranberry sauce, we ate vegetables, and of course we ate turkey and we ate that delicious stuffing.

I would give a lot to taste my grandmother’s stuffing just one more time. Yet, as I think back to those happy, crowded Thanksgivings I know that there was something very important missing. It seems strange to me, but the truth is we never really gave thanks. Oh, we thanked and complimented my grandmother, and the aunt who brought the broccoli and cheese casserole, and the cousin who baked the fantastic desserts. But, although most of my relatives were faithful churchgoers, we still somehow never gave thanks to God that we were sitting at this table instead of a table at White Castle.

For whatever reason, I think many of us are a little shaky when it comes to giving thanks. In many churches I have noticed that during the Prayers of the People we are much more vocal praying for our needs and the needs of others than we are when we offer thanks to God for the gifts we have been given. We all have our struggles and challenges, for sure. And yet we have been given so much!

In my own life I have much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. Moving to Madison and being part of the Grace Church community these past few months has been wonderful gift. I give thanks to God (and to Mother Lauren!) for the opportunity to pray and work with all of you. Having talked with many of you, I know that you also are very grateful to be part of this church. To invoke Ignatius of Loyola one more time, he believed that once we became aware of God’s great generosity and mercy to us we must respond with loving service to others. And that’s precisely what I see so many doing week after week at Grace Church. Maybe since I’m still new I can see that loving service a little more clearly than those of you who have been around for a while.

Let me give you just one example. Many of you know that one Sunday a month a group from Grace Church heads over to the King James nursing home for a service of Noonday Prayer. Nursing homes can be difficult places, churning up all sorts of fears and anxieties within us. Yet, the two services that I have attended have been joyful, not frightening. I have been so moved by people from our church giving up a good bit of their Sunday afternoon to wheel people into the dining room, to lead prayers, to preach and most especially to sing. For the October service Petra Schemmann had volunteered to play the piano and at the last minute her daughter Julie bravely volunteered to come along and play the flute. I wish all of you could have been there to hear and see loving service in action. It was as good as my grandmother’s stuffing!

As we prepare for Thanksgiving let’s all give thanks to God for the many gifts we have been given. And let’s all open our hearts to offer loving service to God and one another.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Funeral Sermon for Mrs. Bertha Young

Funeral Sermon for Mrs. Bertha Young
St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 24, 2007

Isaiah 6:1-3
Revelation: 9-17
John 14:1-6

An Oak of Righteousness

Right around the time that my wife Sue and I started to come to church here at St. Paul’s my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and died a few weeks later. As it turned out, her illness mostly took place during Christmas vacation so I had the chance to spend more time with her than I had since I was a little kid.

During those days in Christ Hospital we talked about lots of things. She reminisced about her life – the happy times and the not so happy. She pretended that everything was pretty normal, but she knew that her life was drawing to a close. At one point she looked at me very seriously and said, “I know where I’ve come from and I know where I am going.” “I know where I’ve come from and I know where I am going.”

After she died I remembered those words and I got to wondering if I would be able to say the same thing when my life draws to a close. Could I have that same kind of confidence that I had lived my life as well and as fully as I could? Could I have the same confidence that death is not the end? Could I have the same confidence that Jesus had gone ahead to prepare a place for me and that I would be with Jesus forever? To be honest, I was more like the apostle Thomas in today’s gospel asking, “How can we know the way?”

Well, as soon as I met Bertha she reminded me in many ways of my grandmother. Both of them were strong, faithful women who knew the way. They knew how to live. Bertha lived her life as well and as fully as she could. Bertha was deeply proud of - and fiercely protective - of her family. Bertha dearly loved and sorely missed her late husband Bill. Bertha lived her life with zest and a whole lot of confidence. As Belinda said to me just a few days ago, “She was the boss to the end.” In the words of the prophet Isaiah, she was an “oak of righteousness.” I like that Isaiah’s image of the oak – solid, not easily bent or broken. The oak of righteousness that displays the glory of God.

Over the past months visiting “the boss” in the hospital or sitting on the porch in Jersey City or talking on the phone she was always very brave and boasted that she felt fine. Bertha was always quick to change the subject to what was going on with me or Sue or the church. She reflected back on her life, expressed no regrets and seemed ready to face whatever the future would bring. I’m sure there was some fear there too – but she wasn’t about to let me see that.

And so again I found myself wondering, would I face the end of my life with the same kind of confidence and peace. Would I reflect on my life and feel all in all I had done the best I had? That I had lived the kind of life I was supposed to live?

And, really, these are the questions for all of us today. Bertha has completed her journey. Bertha has completed the journey that began in God’s imagination and now has ended back with God forever. Bertha, our oak of righteousness, is home again.

But you and I, we’re not home yet. We’re still on our journey. How will our journey end? Will we face the end of our lives with the same kind of confidence and peace that Bertha knew? Or will we be filled with doubts and regrets? What will it take for us to live the best lives that we can?

Only we can answer those questions. We can look to Bertha as an example, as a role model. We can look to Bertha as someone who knew the way. If we open our hearts to God we can be like Bertha and love our families and friends deeply, fiercely. We can be dedicated to our church – especially to this church - to our community. We can live life with zest and joy. We can laugh easily and love deeply. We can place our trust in Jesus who has gone ahead to prepare a place for us.

It’s not too late for us, there’s still a ways to go on our journey. So let’s all honor Bertha by remembering her, but more importantly, by following her example. She wasn’t perfect and we’re not perfect. But, today let us pray that we can be like Bertha. Let us pray that we can live lives of love and service. Let us pray that we can be oaks of righteousness, displaying the glory of God.


Monday, October 01, 2007

Ignatius of Loyola: A Spirituality for Our Time

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 2007

Ignatius of Loyola: A Spirituality for Our Time

One of the goals for my first few weeks at Grace was to be present for as many events as possible so that I could get a sense of the life and ministry of our church and to meet as many parishioners as I could. After three wonderful, busy weeks I can tell you in all sincerity – there is a lot going on at Grace Church! I have been so impressed and moved by the deep and costly commitment that many of you make to the ministries, committees and activities of this vibrant church. Whether we’re enjoying the Men’s Breakfast at the Bagel Chateau first thing on a Friday morning, praying the Daily Office in the morning or evening quiet, offering a Sunday afternoon service at a nursing home, or throwing a great party after an ordination, it’s clear that the Kingdom of God is being built here on Madison Avenue and King’s Road.

One of the lesser-known gems of Grace Church is the contemplative prayer group led by Mary Lea Crawley that meets in the Children’s Chapel at 9:15AM on Saturday mornings. After hectic weeks of starting a new job and moving to a new place I have found this practice of centering prayer to be an enormously valuable opportunity to get back in touch with God, who so often is best found and heard in silence. Of course, it is possible to practice centering prayer on your own, but there is something powerful in being present with others who are being mindful and attentive. I hope you will consider joining us on Saturday mornings.

I especially want to invite you to an expanded edition of contemplative prayer on Saturday, October 20. From 9:15AM to 1:00PM I will offer a “quiet day,” or a mini-retreat, on the spirituality of the Sixteenth Century mystic and founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, who is commemorated by the Episcopal Church on July 31. Some of you know that before entering seminary I taught at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey’s lone Jesuit high school – and also my alma mater. Although I was aware of Ignatius and the basic outline of his spirituality, it was only after I had left St. Peter’s that I became increasingly interested in Ignatian Sprituality. In my last semester at seminary I wrote my thesis on how two very different Jesuit high schools attempted to put Ignatian Spirituality into practice.

I am convinced that Ignatius offers a spirituality for our times and a spirituality particularly well-suited for busy people trying to juggle work, family, church and community responsibilities. Someone has summed up Ignatian Sprituality as “a spirituality for busy people.” What exactly is Ignatian Spirituality? Pedro Arrupe, who renewed the Jesuits in the mid-20th Century, described Ignatian Spirituality as “Constantly seeking the will of God.” In short, Ignatius was concerned with discernment. He believed that we could become aware of God’s love and will by reflecting on our own everyday experience and especially through the use of our imagination. And he believed that once we became aware of God’s love and will we would experience metanoia – a change of heart that would transform our lives.

There is much more to say about Ignatius and his spirituality so I hope you will join Mary Lea and me on October 20th for a day of prayer, learning, sharing and reflection. We will have a simple breakfast available. Please let me know if you’re coming or if you have any questions or comments.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shrewd for God

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
Year C, Proper 20: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2007

Amos 8: 4-7
Psalm 113
(1 Timothy 2:1-7)
Luke 16:1-13

Shrewd for God

I’d like to begin with a shameless plug. You may have heard that on Saturday, October 20, we’re going to have a special expanded edition of contemplative prayer. I’m going to lead an exploration of the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, Sixteenth Century mystic, best known as the founder of the Jesuits. I hope you’ll be able to join us because I really believe that Ignatius offers us a spirituality very well suited for our own time.

For me, one of the most helpful parts of Ignatian Spirituality involves the use of the imagination. When reading Scripture, Ignatius encouraged people to imagine themselves right there in the middle of the action – to imagine what the people and places looked like, to hear the sounds and to smell the smells. And then Ignatius urged his followers to reflect on how and what they felt as they placed themselves in the middle of the biblical action.

So, that’s what I tried to do with today’s gospel lesson – with this strange parable told by Jesus. I imagine myself sitting among the disciples with the Pharisees and others hovering in the background. All eyes are on Jesus as he begins another parable. We’ve already heard the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son, so we’re rubbing our hands together in anticipation of another good one from Jesus.

Then he begins telling the story of this manager who is fired by his boss and to protect his future begins to cut the debts of his boss’s debtors. At this point my eyes begin to glaze over – I don’t have much of a head for finance and this story is nowhere near as interesting as the prodigal son. So my mind is drifting, thinking about what to have for lunch, when Jesus snaps me back to attention by saying that the unjust manager is praised by his master for acting shrewdly.

So the manager is praised for ripping off his boss? Does that make any sense?

And then, here comes the kicker – Jesus says “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

What?! Even Luke seems to have some trouble with this parable because he ends it with a set of Jesus sayings that sort of relate to the parable but don’t seem to match up exactly. Luke quotes Jesus saying “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Fair enough, but how does that fit with “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

This really is shocking! It sure got my attention! Could Jesus be actually encouraging dishonest behavior? Is that possible? Well, as I’ve reflected on Jesus’ words this week it seems to me that we have here one of the rare instances of the gospels capturing Jesus’ sense of humor. Although not much of his humor is found in the gospels, I’ve always thought that in reality Jesus must have been very funny.

Here it seems to me Jesus is being sarcastic, essentially saying – “Go ahead, make friends with people here so they can invite you into their eternal homes.” But, of course, no one here on earth has an eternal home. Instead, in a humorous way (probably a lot funnier in the original Aramaic) Jesus is reminding us of the most important thing – Jesus is reminding us that we should be friends with God so that we will be invited into the eternal home – life with God forever.

OK, so one problem down. But, what about the supposedly crooked manager being praised by his boss for trimming the debts that he was owed. And remember, the boss had fired the manager for squandering his property. Huh? How can this make any sense? Do we praise people for ripping us off? No, of course not.

So what’s this about? Well, first of all we have to admit that we don’t know for sure that the manager actually was fired for just cause. Who knows, maybe the boss was wrong for firing him. Secondly, commentators suggest that it was customary for people like the manager to earn their money by taking a percentage for themselves. So when the manager reduces what these people owe the boss, in reality he’s eliminating his own cut in the hope of making people happy so that he won’t be out on the street when he loses his job. So, he’s not really stealing from the boss and that’s why he’s praised by the boss for his clever thinking.

To me that’s the only way this parable makes any kind of sense. But, what does this story have to do with us here today? Why did Jesus tell this story and why did Luke decide to include this confusing parable in his gospel? After all, Luke could have just left it out.

Luke includes this parable because it offers another way for Jesus to tell us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. Shrewdness usually has a negative connotation, but there’s bad shrewd and then there’s good shrewd. Jesus is telling us to be good shrewd – to be shrewd in our faith life. Jesus is telling us to be shrewd in figuring out how best to serve one another and to serve God. Jesus is telling us to use the same shrewdness that we might use with our investments, our 401ks, our real estate, our career planning – Jesus is telling us to use that same shrewdness to take care of our souls, to take care of one another, so that we can be with God in the one true eternal home.

Jesus is telling us that a life of faith requires us to be shrewd. Jesus is telling us to be shrewd for God.

And that message really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to us. When we look back at the history of the Church over and over we see holy people using great shrewdness in order to build the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I’m told that in two weeks Grace Church will become a real zoo when we remember St. Francis of Assisi. I can’t wait to see all the pets that will be brought here for a blessing, although I’m not so sure about poisonous toads!

Of course, St. Francis is a much-loved saint but there’s a danger that we over sentimentalize him by sticking him out in the birdbath. In reality Francis was very shrewd. In a time when many in the Church were more concerned with worldly power and wealth, Francis chose the exact opposite. Francis believed that it was possible to truly live the gospel life – by imitating Jesus and giving up everything to serve God. Francis helped to reform the Church not through argument or confrontation but by example. And sure enough, while the high and mighty of Francis’ day are all mostly forgotten, Francis’ example of simplicity, faithfulness and generosity continue to inspire the Church.

Francis was shrewd for God.

Closer to our own time we have the example of Martin Luther King, Jr – someone else who can be over sentimentalized. The fact is, Dr. King was very shrewd. Following the example of the Mahatma Gandhi, King chose non-violence not just because he thought he was being true to his Christian faith but because he knew that would be the most effective strategy to achieve the goals of the civil rights movement. Although certainly he felt rage against the injustices faced by his people, he was shrewd enough to know that violence against the racist white authorities would be counter-productive. Instead, of course, all the weapons in the world would have little effect against the sight of thousands of people from all walks of life peacefully protesting.

And of course today Dr. King’s opponents are all mostly forgotten while his example continues to inspire us. Martin Luther King was shrewd for God.

Now, a little closer to home. So far I’ve seen a good bit of shrewdness for God right here at Grace Church. On Monday I had the pleasure of attending the Outreach Committee meeting – what an amazing experience to be part of a serious discussion on how Grace Church can most shrewdly use its resources to serve God by serving our neighbors. We could of course just give away money and congratulate ourselves on our generosity. But instead the group seriously reflected on the best course of action. And sometimes that meant saying no. It was a business-like meeting in the best sense of the word.

Our Outreach Committee is shrewd for God.

Finally, back to Ignatius of Loyola. One of the principles of Ignatian Spirituality is the idea of the magis – which literally translates as “the more.” Very often people interpret Ignatius’ meaning as “what more can I do for God?” And that’s true enough, except you’ll be happy to know that Ignatius doesn’t mean it necessarily as putting a few more things on our already full plate. Instead, Ignatius means “more” in the sense of depth – how can we deepen our commitment to God? How can we serve God and serve others more deeply?

In reality, Ignatius is challenging us to more shrewdly use our resources to build the Kingdom of God here on earth.

And so in today’s Gospel, through this very unusual parable, Jesus is challenging us to learn from the shrewd manager – not to be shrewd for our own benefit, but to be shrewd for God so that we may be invited into God’s eternal home.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Journey Home

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
August 12, 2007: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Year C: Proper 14
Genesis 15:1-6
Hebrews 11:1-16
Luke 12:32-40
Psalm 33

The Journey Home

In a conversation years ago I remember my father saying to me that as we live our lives we seem to go from one random event to the next. But later as we look back on our lives these random events don’t seem to so random after all and we realize that we have been on a journey.

I can’t remember now why we were talking about that, but the image of looking back and seeing life as a journey – a journey with important landmarks on the way – has stuck with me ever since.

Sometimes it’s only later that you realize you’ve passed a landmark and other times you know you’re reaching a landmark as it’s happening. And today’s one of those times when Sue and I know very clearly that we have reached an important moment in our journeys.

You know, in many churches the preacher gets to choose the bible text that he or she is going to preach on. And on this bittersweet landmark day I know what passages I would have chosen. But in the Episcopal Church, like many other churches, we follow the lectionary so preachers have to deal with whatever texts are appointed for the day.

I’ve noticed, though, that almost always – or maybe even always, the texts that come up in the lectionary are appropriate for what we as a community are facing. In a remarkable way God seems to use the lectionary – something put together by people – God seems to use the lectionary to speak to us. And much of the preacher’s job is to listen carefully to these texts and hear what God is saying to us at this moment in our journey.

So I wasn’t surprised when I looked ahead to today’s readings – although they aren’t the ones I would have chosen, I should have known that God would speak loud and clear to us here today. We begin in Genesis with God saying to Abraham, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield.” So far Abraham has trusted God. He left his home in Mesopotamia, he’s successfully battled some local kings, but still he doubts. Still he’s unsure. Still he’s afraid. And so God reassures Abraham of his presence and protection. “I am your shield.” And God also promises the future – God promises that Abraham’s descendants will be more numerous than the stars. And so, at least for now, Abraham puts his trust in the Lord.

In the gospel passage that we just heard Jesus also tells his disciples, tells us not to be afraid. And he also warns us to reflect on where we put our treasure. Once again we hear one of Jesus’ most famous sayings: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

For me today God speaks most clearly and directly in our reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews. The author of the epistle reflects on the story of Abraham leaving his homeland and celebrates all the good that was born out of Abraham’s faithfulness. For me and maybe for all of us today, the most important part of the passage comes at the end. The author of Hebrews writes about the holy people who have died: “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But, as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed he has prepared a city of them.”

In all three of this morning’s lessons God is reminding us that we are on a journey. We are on a journey to our true home. And our true home is life with God forever.

But, it’s so easy for us to forget this essential truth. It’s so easy for us to get so attached to places and things. It’s been so easy for me to get attached to Jersey City – to St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s Prep; to Wonder Bagels and Rita and Joe’s; to Lincoln Park and to the PATH train; to a little house on Highland Avenue. Yes, it’s so easy for us to think that the here and now is our true home, it’s easy for me to think that Jersey City is my true home, when in fact my true home – our true home - is life with God forever.

So it’s hard for Sue and me to leave Jersey City and to leave St. Paul’s. The word I’ve been using a lot lately is bittersweet, but to be honest these days it seems more bitter than sweet. So much of our identity is wrapped up in this place. Living here nearly all our lives we know the shortcuts, we know the stories, we know the people, we know the restaurants – we know this place. And now God is asking Sue and me to put our faith in him and set out for a place we barely know at all.

I know that many of us here have moved - many of us have left our homes. I know that many of us here this morning have moved distances far greater than from Jersey City to Madison. And I’m sure that in many cases leaving home was difficult, painful and sad. For Sue and me Jersey City seems like our home and all of you have places that seem like your home.

But the great truth we celebrate today is that our true home is not in Jersey City, or Belize, or Nigeria or Boston. Our true home is with God forever.

Our true home is with God forever so of course that means that we’re not there yet. We are on a journey. Since our true home is with God forever, that means that all of us are like Abraham so long ago - we are on a great journey home. In a sense our journey is a great circle. We have come from God and now we are on a journey home to be with God forever.

Like any journey there are dangers along the way. We may get lost. We may grow tired. We may wonder if the destination is worth the trouble after all. We may even forget why we started out on this journey in the first place.

And this is where the church comes in. Why are we here today? Why are many of us here every Sunday? The church can’t be an end in itself. The church is not the destination. Instead, the church is sort of like the rest stop on the highway. It’s the place where we and our fellow travelers take a “safety break.” The church is the place where we stop to get fed. The church is the place where we get refueled so we have the strength and energy to continue on with the rest of our journey.

Talking about the church often we use word “home.” Maybe you’ve seen it - there’s a church downtown that has a banner outside that reads “Find a Home at Holy Rosary.” That’s fine and basically harmless – and we might even be tempted to steal their slogan - but the word home is not really accurate for the church. I love this place very much – I love this building and I especially love this congregation, but it’s not my home. This church has been a major landmark on my journey, but it’s not my home. It’s not my home, and it’s not your home either.

Our true home is with God forever.

Just because our true home is with God, doesn’t mean that the church – that this church – isn’t important. Far from it. We have very important work to do.

It’s here that we find rest and offer rest to others. It’s here that we find food for the journey and offer food to others. There is a whole world outside those doors that is tired and hungry. Worse than that, there’s a whole world out there that is on a journey home to God and does not even know it.

For those of us who are in the church, those of us who love the church, sometimes it can come as a shock to encounter people for whom the church is not a place of comfort but is a foreign or even hostile land. People who do not know that this is a place to rest and a place to be fed. People who do not even know that they are on a journey to the God who loves them.

Last week Sue and I were at a wedding reception for a friend who had gotten married a few weeks before. They asked if I would pray at the start of the reception. So I wrote some prayers, wore my collar, and waited to be called to the microphone. When the time came I said a few words about the occasion and asked everyone to join with me and say “Lord, hear our prayer.” After the first prayer the response was a little weak so I reminded them “Lord, hear our prayer.” And someone who was sitting to my right yelled out “Whatever…”

I was heckled! Now, I guess I should have let it go, but Sue and I had just seen the episode of TV show “Last Comic Standing” when the comics were challenged to heckle one another. So, maybe inspired by that, I went back at my heckler and said “Whatever?! Let’s get into the spirit of this occasion.”

Not the most clever thing I’ve ever said, but I think people were surprised that I responded, so there was some laughter and a few claps and then we continued with the prayers with some better participation. I’ve thought a lot about that incident. Probably this person had already had too many drinks. But the hostility I heard in that person’s voice has stuck with me. What happened on that person’s journey to make them so hostile to prayer? Has the church offered this person rest and food for the journey?

It’s just one story, but the bottom line is by the grace of God we have a big job to do. There’s a tired and hungry city outside the doors of St. Paul’s. We have rest and we have good food to offer every week. We must open wide those doors, go out and tell this city of 300,000 people that Jesus loves them and so do we. We must show that love by being a rest stop for all who are on this great journey. It’s a challenge but I believe all it really boils down to is my friend Father Carr’s beautiful definition of the Christian life: love, forgiveness and service.

Maybe our church’s job of love, forgiveness and service is a little harder than usual because this is a time of anxiety for many of us. Quite a few of you have noticed our declining numbers and have worried about the future of St. Paul’s. Many of you have been concerned about who will be the next rector. I’ve certainly been anxious about the same questions.

But, brothers and sisters, God is speaking to us loud and clear in today’s lessons. Just as he told Abraham, God is saying to us “Be not afraid, I am your shield.” God is reminding us that where our treasure is our heart will be also. God is saying come on, keep going, finish the journey home. God is saying I am with you every step of the journey. God is saying be not afraid. Be not afraid. Be not afraid.

So now let us continue our journey to our true home. Let us continue our journey to life with God forever.


Sunday, July 01, 2007


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 1, 2007

Year C: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, BCP Proper 8
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62
Psalm 16:5-11


A couple of weeks ago I was walking home at around nine o’clock at night. When I got near the mosque that’s on West Side Avenue just off of Sip Avenue, I saw dozens of people making their way to say evening prayers. Maybe some of you have seen the same sight at other times of the day. As I walked the last few blocks home I began to think how amazing this was. All these people were interrupting whatever they were doing to come and say their prayers – to come and worship God. It appeared that they were putting God first. And if they’re faithful Muslims they interrupt whatever they’re doing five times a day to say their prayers.

Since that night I’ve thought a lot about this kind of commitment to God. And I’ve contrasted it with my own commitment to God, my own commitment to prayer and worship. I’ve contrasted it with the kind of commitment that most of us Christians show – or don’t show – day in and day out. I mean, what would it take to get dozens of us to drop what we’re doing and come to church to pray every night at 9:00? Let’s be honest, we have a hard enough time getting people to come here once a week on Sunday morning!

Of course, we may not agree with all their beliefs and practices, but I think there’s a lot that we can learn from our Muslim brothers and sisters. Most important is their commitment to God and to their faith. This is the kind of commitment that Jesus is calling for in today’s gospel lesson from Luke. Luke paints the scene with almost no details. Someone who wants to be a disciple says to Jesus “I’ll follow you but ‘first let me go and bury my father.’” And Jesus responds with words that to our ears maybe seem harsh and unfeeling, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” With these seemingly harsh and unfeeling words, Jesus is calling this disciple and calling us to make our relationship with God the most important in our lives. Jesus is calling us to make our commitment to God first and foremost. Jesus is calling us to be disciples.

Over the past few Sundays we have been making our way through the gospel of Luke. We heard Jesus teach his famous “Sermon on the Plain” – “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”

Then Jesus put those teachings into action by performing three miracles – healing the centurion’s slave, raising the widow’s son from the dead, and forgiving the woman who bathed his feet with her tears. After all this teaching in word and deed, last week we heard Jesus ask his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” In other words, after all you have seen and heard – do you get it now? Do you understand what I’ve been trying to tell you, what I’ve been trying to show you? Luke tells us it’s Peter who gets it – at least for now. Peter says that Jesus is “the Messiah of God.”

And now we come to today’s passage when, as Luke puts it, Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. We know that this isn’t just any trip to the capital city. Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus has set his face to go to his destiny on the cross. Jesus has made the total commitment to see his mission through to the end. And so now Jesus challenges his disciples to make the same kind of total commitment. And so now Jesus challenges us to make the same kind of total commitment.

Jesus is calling us to make our relationship with God the most important in our lives. Jesus is calling us to make our commitment to God first and foremost. Jesus is calling us to be disciples.

And let’s make no mistake about it; Jesus is giving us a choice. It’s the most important choice in our lives. But, we can say no. Luke makes sure we understand that we have a choice by pointing out that the Samaritans don’t accept Jesus. As Luke puts it, the Samaritans don’t receive Jesus. The disciples want the Samaritans to be punished for their choice but Jesus refuses to go along with that. We are free to say no to God. We are free to say no to making God first and foremost in our lives. We are free to say no to discipleship.

Why would we say no? Well, St. Paul offers quite a laundry list of reasons in his letter to the Galatians, doesn’t he? He includes idolatry in the list, but maybe idolatry could sum them all up. What is idolatry but putting something, or someone, in the place of God? For some of us, our idols might be money or sex or alcohol. For some of us our idols might be anger or jealousy or quarrels. Paul warns us that if we choose to put these things in place of God we will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But we all knew that already didn’t we? We all knew that the “works of the flesh” that Paul lists in his letter to the Galatians were not good for us.

But, Jesus goes even further than Paul. Jesus doesn’t tell us that we have to place our commitment to God above bad things like drunkenness and carousing. We all know that already. Jesus goes even further than the story of Elijah and Elisha that we heard in today’s Old Testament reading. Elijah allows Elisha to go and slaughter his oxen and feed the meat to the people – and then to follow Elijah. Sounds reasonable – but it’s not good enough for Jesus. Jesus tells us that we have to place our commitment to God above even good things – above feeding people; above saying good-bye to our loved ones. Jesus tells us that we have to place our commitment to God even above very good things – very good things like taking care of loved ones who have died.

Jesus is calling us to make our relationship with God the most important in our lives. Jesus is calling us to make our commitment to God first and foremost. Jesus is calling us to be disciples.

So what? What’s the point of all this? Why should we make our relationship with God the first and foremost in our lives? Why should we be disciples?

It seems to me that St. Paul answers that question at the start of today’s reading from Galatians. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” If we put God first in our lives, then we are truly free to love and serve as fully as we can. If we put God first in our lives, then we are no longer so concerned about ourselves and our own needs. If we put God first in our lives, we can really be available to live out the great commandment to love God and to love our neighbor.

If we put God first in our lives then we are truly free and truly alive.

Someone else who understood why we should our relationship with God first was Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th Century founder of the Jesuits. The past few months I’ve been reflecting a lot on Ignatius and I believe he has important things to say to us today. Ignatius believed that to be a Christian disciple we need to be “indifferent” to all created things.

Now “indifference” is a funny word. We usually mean it as “uncaring.” But that’s not what Ignatius means. Instead, he means that we should set aside anything – or anyone – who prevents us from loving and serving God as fully as possible. Once we are free of those attachments – attachments even to good things and good people – then we are really free to love and serve. Then we can be truly free and truly alive.

Years ago I remember a Jesuit friend of mine telling me that he wanted a new radio but he had to ask his superior’s permission first. I remember thinking how silly that seemed. I mean, it’s just a radio! But it wasn’t really about the radio – it was about the danger of becoming too attached to material possessions. And this attachment could prevent him from loving and serving as fully as he could.

Ignatius of Loyola himself modeled this “indifference” when he sent his closest friend, Francis Xavier, to serve as a missionary to India. Once Xavier left for India these two friends knew that they would never see one another again. Very difficult. But indifference even to their own friendship gave them both the freedom to love and serve as fully as possible – to be truly free and truly alive.

So, my friends, Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus has made his commitment to fully love and serve. Jesus has set his face to go to his destiny on the cross. Jesus has made the total commitment to see his mission through to the end. And today Jesus is challenging us to make the same type of total commitment.

How will we answer? Will we be like the Samaritans and say no? Or will we say yes to God? Will we put God first and foremost in our lives? Will we allow ourselves to be fully free to love and serve? It’s the most important choice of our lives.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Miracle of Compassion

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 10, 2007
BCP: Year C, Proper 5 – The Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 17:17-24
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17
Psalm 30

The Miracle of Compassion

Some of you may remember that two summers ago as part of my preparation to be ordained I worked as a chaplain up at Christ Hospital. It was an exhausting but powerful experience. I don’t need to tell you that hospitals are intense places – places of great suffering and joy, places of death and life. For me, one of the hardest parts of my job was when patients and their families told me that they were praying for – that they expected - a miracle to happen.

I always felt very uncomfortable in those situations. As a priest-to-be these suffering people expected me to back them up and say “Absolutely, keep on praying for that miracle.” I knew, though, that in most – if not all – cases there would be no miracle. But the Scriptures and Christian history are filled with miracles – so who was I to dash their hopes?

During that summer we were given the assignment of leading a prayer service and giving a sermon - on suffering - in the hospital chapel. The service was carried live on closed-circuit TV throughout the hospital. So we knew that it was possible that patients, their family and friends might be tuned in to hear what we had to say about suffering.

During his sermon, one of my classmates told the story of how he and his wife had struggled to have a child. He came from a different culture and so it was kind of shocking to hear that his family and friends encouraged him to divorce his wife and find a woman who would give him a son or daughter. He didn’t divorce her – instead together they prayed and prayed. For years they prayed. And then… she became pregnant. And pregnant again. And pregnant one more time. And then they told God thanks but three’s enough.

Then, as now, that got a good laugh. However, he concluded the sermon with the point that if we pray hard enough God will give us what we want. I sat there in the chapel angry and upset. I imagined the people upstairs in those rooms – lying in bed, hooked up to machines, or sitting beside a loved one – and listening to that sermon. If we only pray harder God will give us a miracle. Why hasn’t God given us a miracle?

As you might guess, later we chaplains had quite a heated discussion about that sermon and about miracles. From my perspective, who would want to believe in a God who can heal people and ease their suffering but chooses not to? Why would God offer miracles to some and not to others? And what do I as a member of the clergy say to people who are suffering and begging for a miracle? What do any of us as Christians say?

The person who gave the sermon defended himself by pointing to the miracles performed by Jesus throughout the Scriptures. He insisted that if we pray hard enough God will give us a miracle.

He could have used today’s gospel lesson as an example. Today Luke tells this very beautiful story of Jesus being moved by the sight of a widow burying her only son. Luke writes that Jesus “had compassion for her” and so raises her dead son from the dead.

It’s a very beautiful story. But, this little excerpt from the gospel doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on its own.

Then as now the world was filled with intense suffering. In Jesus’ world – with no medicine and poor diets – death was a very familiar presence. Jesus would have seen sick people, dying people, and funeral processions every day. But the gospels don’t tell us that Jesus healed every sick person he met. The gospels don’t tell us that Jesus raised every dead person he saw. So, what’s going on here?

To really understand this event we have to look at what else Luke writes. In the previous chapter, Luke recalls Jesus’ most important teaching – here it’s called the Sermon on the Plain. In the sixth chapter of Luke Jesus teaches about his ministry and message. I’m sure his words are familiar to many of us:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Later, Jesus says “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you.”

Jesus is teaching that God is compassionate. God cares about us. God loves us. And Jesus is teaching that we are called to be compassionate, too. As a great teacher, Jesus knows that we don’t really learn much through words, through lectures – through what teachers sometimes call “chalk and talk.” Instead, Jesus knows that people learn best through experience. And so after all these beautiful words Jesus goes into action and shows us what he means. He performs miracles as signs of God’s compassion. He performs miracles to call us to be compassionate, too.

The seventh chapter of Luke contains three great miracles. The first is when Jesus heals the centurion’s slave. All the people tell Jesus how the centurion is a good man and deserves to be helped. The centurion himself is humble and says he does not deserve to come under Jesus’ roof but believes that Jesus can heal his slave. Jesus is moved by the faith and goodness of this Roman soldier and heals the slave. It’s a wonderful story, but I suppose we could all agree that this good soldier – who asked nothing of himself, only for his slave – deserved a miracle.

The second miracle is today’s gospel lesson. Notice we know nothing at all about the dead man. We don’t know if he was good, faithful, hardworking, or honest. We know nothing about him except that his mother is mourning him deeply. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter whether this man was good, faithful, hardworking or honest. Through this miracle Jesus is showing us that God offers new life to everyone – there’s no test that has to be passed. God is compassionate to all. God cares for all. God loves all of us.

The third miracle in this chapter occurs when Jesus goes to a Pharisee’s house for dinner. A woman who is described as a “sinner” is there and bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and then anoints his feet with ointment. You know how the story goes – the Pharisee is shocked and criticizes Jesus for allowing this “bad” woman to touch him in this way. Jesus, though, is moved by her faith, forgives her sins and sends her off in peace. Maybe we wouldn’t normally think of this as a miracle – but it’s as miraculous as healing the slave and raising the dead man back to life. Rather than just telling us that God forgives, rather than just telling us to forgive, Jesus allows us to experience forgiveness. Jesus allows us to experience that God is so compassionate that God forgives everyone – even those who religious leaders say are unforgivable and untouchable.

It seems to me that these miracles are important not so much for the physical healing that takes place. After all, like all of us, eventually the centurion’s slave and the widow’s son will die. No, it seems to me that these miracles are important as signs of God’s compassion for all people – for Romans and Jews, for slaves and free people, for good people and people who seem not so good. These miracles are signs of God’s compassion for all people - for people whose names we don’t even know.

Jesus performs miracles to point to the great truth, the saving truth, that God is compassionate towards us. God cares for us. God loves us. Jesus performs miracles to point to the great truth that we are called to be compassionate, we are called to care, we are called to love.

So, how about us? How compassionate are we? Just like in Jesus’ time we are surrounded by a suffering world. All around us people are sick, people are mourning the dead, people are begging for forgiveness. There are people in this very parish who are sick, lonely and frightened. Right now God is calling us to be like Jesus. God is calling us to offer compassion not just to some people. God is calling us to offer compassion not just to people we know. God is calling us to offer compassion not just to “good” people. God is calling us to be like Jesus and offer compassion to everyone. God is calling us to be like Jesus. God is calling us to offer the miracle of compassion.


Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Trinity: The Perfect Relationship of Love

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 3, 2007
Year C: The First Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday)

Isaiah 6:1-8
Revelation 4:1-11
John 16:5-15
Psalm 29

The Trinity: The Perfect Relationship of Love

I remember on Trinity Sunday last year I visited a suburban church that had a rector and a newly ordained assistant. When it came time for the sermon the rector said that often veteran priests avoid the tough job of preaching on the Trinity by giving the task to their assistants. But, he said that since “He wasn’t that kind of guy” he would preach the sermon and not pass it off to his assistant. I remember thinking, “Oh, come on, don’t cop out - make the assistant do it – let’s hear what someone newly ordained has to say about the Trinity.”

Well, here we are a year later with another piece of evidence that God has a sense of humor. Since it looks like no veteran priest is going to step in and take over for me, it falls on me, one day after ordination, to preach on Trinity Sunday. It’s a difficult assignment because, like any mystery, the Trinity – our belief in one God in three Persons – is beyond our understanding. I’m afraid that using our brains to somehow figure out the inner life of God is not going to get us very far.

Of course the great mysteriousness of the Trinity hasn’t stopped theologians and church leaders from arguing over the meaning of the Trinity and how these three divine Persons – Father, Son, Holy Spirit - interact among themselves and interact with us. The Nicene Creed that we say each week was an attempt to get Christians on the same page about what the early church had come to believe about this one God in three Persons. The creed is helpful, maybe, but it certainly doesn’t explain the profound mystery of the Trinity.

So, what to make of the Trinity? There’s an old story of the great Church Father, St. Augustine, one day walking along the beach contemplating the Trinity. Up ahead he saw a little boy digging a hole in the sand. The boy then ran out into the waves, scooped up a bucket of water, and ran back to pour it into the hole. He did this a few times until finally Augustine approached him and asked, “Boy, what are you doing?” “See that ocean out there?” the boy asked. “I’m going to pour that ocean into this hole.” “That’s impossible,” said Augustine. “You cannot fit the ocean in that tiny hole.” The boy looked up at him and replied, “And neither can you, Augustine, fit the Trinity in that tiny little brain.” The story goes on to say that the boy then disappeared, as apparently he was an angel.

But, just because we will never understand how one God can be in three Persons doesn’t mean that we should stop wrestling with and reflecting on the Trinity. Just the opposite! After all, even though we know we’ll never understand it, what could be more important than reflecting on the nature of God? Preparing for this sermon, this past week I’ve prayed and thought a lot about the Trinity. And preparing for ordination, I’ve reflected a lot on the church. And I have three points that I want to share with you this morning: First, the Trinity is a relationship – it is the perfect relationship of love.

If we really reflect on the Trinity we realize that God in Three Persons is a perfect, loving relationship. God is love, but God is not just love. After all, what is love without an other, or others? Not much at all. No, God is not just love – God is not just love sort of floating around out there. The Trinity tells us that God’s very essence is a perfect relationship of love. This is who God really is – a perfect relationship of love. The relationship is perfect so as Jesus says in today’s gospel, “All that the Father has is mine.” There is no division among Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some of the early Christian theologians described the relationship among Father, Son and Holy Spirit as an eternal dance of love. In class my Church History professor actually acted out the dance with two of my classmates – which made us laugh but also helped me to remember this powerful image of Father, Son and Holy Spirit dancing away for eternity.

My second point is that the amazingly Good News for us is that in Jesus Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we are invited to participate in God’s eternal relationship of love. In Jesus Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we are invited to participate in God’s eternal loving dance.

The whole sweep of Scripture tells the story of God reaching out to men and women – trying over and over to build a relationship with us. From the tragic image of God searching the garden for Adam and Eve who are hiding in shame to God becoming human in Jesus, over and over God has invited us into relationship.

How we respond to that invitation is the big question of our lives. I probably don’t need to tell you that often we get ourselves into trouble when we try to fill our need for relationship with God by desiring lesser things. How often do we try to fill our need for God’s love by turning to material things? If I just have …. then I’ll be happy. Never seems to work, does it?

Instead, we are invited to open our hearts and allow God to build a relationship with us. And hopefully we respond to God’s invitation by building loving relationships with one another. It seems to me that relationships of love are what the Trinity is all about and loving relationships are what we as Christians should be about.

Third point. Somebody asked me a while back – “What’s the church for? What’s the point?” The question was so fundamental that it threw me off a little. But the truth is the church is about relationships. At its best, the church is a place where we can open our hearts and allow God to build a relationship with us. And, at its best, the church is also a place where we can deepen our relationships with one another.

In this season after Pentecost, as I begin my ordained ministry and as St. Paul’s begins this important interim period, I think it’s crucial for all of us to reflect on what the church is for – to provide a place where our relationships with God and with our sisters and brothers may be nourished and supported. The church must be a place where all of us can accept God’s invitation to be part God’s eternal, perfect loving relationship.

Today’s lesson from Isaiah offers powerful images not only of Isaiah’s call but also, I believe, of our life together in the church. First, we have this grand image of God on a throne and the angels singing their hymn of praise: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

“Holy, holy, holy” – these words are so familiar to us from the Eucharist. But what do they really mean? What does it mean to say God is holy? In ancient Israel holiness meant something set aside from the ordinary and connected to the divine. For us, I believe the same is true. We need to rediscover the holiness of the church. This place cannot be like any other place. This isn’t a social club or a meeting hall. This must be a place of prayer. This must be a place where we come to worship the loving, dancing God who is calling us into relationship. The church must be a holy place.

Next, we have Isaiah’s recognition that he is unworthy of this relationship with God. Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips.”

And what happens next? Isaiah is purified; Isaiah is forgiven by an angel. If the church is really going to a place where our relationships with God and one another can grow, then the church must be a place of forgiveness. Often we need forgiveness from God. I don’t know how many of you know this, but Episcopal priests can hear confessions and offer absolution. I don’t think too many people take advantage of that – which is too bad. But, if you’re not comfortable facing a priest, in our services we almost always have a confession of sin – and if we’ve made a sincere confession – God forgives us. God forgives us every time. And, of course, sometimes we need forgiveness from one another. The church must be a place where we can ask one another for forgiveness and it must be a place where we offer forgiveness to one another.

Finally, in my favorite part of this passage, God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah answers, “Here am I; send me!” Like Isaiah, we in the church are invited to serve God. God is still asking. “Whom shall I send?” And hopefully like Isaiah we will respond generously, “Here am I; send me.” All of us in the church are called to offer loving service to God by offering loving service to one another. I’m so happy that St. Paul’s has begun collecting food for those in need – it’s a wonderful start to answering God’s call.

Like St. Augustine on the beach, we will never understand the Trinity. But as we reflect on one God in three Persons we realize that God is a perfect relationship of love. The Good News of Scripture - the Good News of Jesus Christ - is that all of us are invited to be in a relationship with God. And, at its best, the church is the place where we can accept God’s invitation and our relationship with God can grow.

In these days after Pentecost, here at St. Paul’s let’s be like the Prophet Isaiah and accept God’s invitation. Let’s be part of the perfect relationship of love that is the Trinity - one God in three Persons.