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.