Sunday, February 17, 2008

Nicodemus: From Sign to Sacrament

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 17, 2008

Year A: The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a
(Romans 4:1-5, 13-17)
John 3:1-17
Psalm 121

Nicodemus: From Sign to Sacrament

These past few days I feel like I have been haunted by Nicodemus. In today’s gospel lesson John paints a mysterious, ambiguous and powerful picture doesn’t he? Nicodemus the Pharisee, Nicodemus a leader of the Jews, makes his nighttime visit to Jesus the Son of God.

Nicodemus is interested in Jesus. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is, as he puts it “a teacher who has come from God.” Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus has performed signs that only God could have allowed.

But, you know, John doesn’t really tell us why Nicodemus goes to see Jesus. Obviously Nicodemus already knows about Jesus and his work and his message. He knows about Jesus. And yet he seems to want more. But, John makes a point of mentioning that this meeting takes place “by night.”

Nicodemus knows about Jesus, he wants more, but he’s afraid.

Most of the commentators on Nicodemus agree that he represents those who sympathized with Jesus but were not quite able to go public. They knew about Jesus but they weren’t able or willing to publicly proclaim Jesus as messiah and Son of God. Maybe you know the type.

I think the story of Nicodemus is haunting to me and maybe to you because this knowing about Jesus, this wanting more, and this fear of what that more might be rings true to our experience.

Many of us know about Jesus, we want to be closer to Jesus, but we know very well that being closer to Jesus will come at a cost, so we are afraid. And often we end up keeping Jesus at an arm’s length. Like Nicodemus, we come to Jesus under the cover of darkness rather than in the light of day.

Nicodemus is impressed by the signs performed by Jesus. He seems to think, seems to hope, that this is all Jesus is – a miracle-worker, someone given special powers by God to do things like turn water into wine. If this is all Jesus is – miracle-worker then that’s great. It’s great because then nothing more is asked of Nicodemus or of us. Nicodemus seems to think that these signs are the truth – that the signs are all there is.

And signs are important, aren’t they? All types of signs. Have you ever said something mean about someone and then stubbed your toe? Ah, see a sign – you better be nicer. Or, your old TV breaks and so you see it as a sign to get a nice high-def flat screen set? See, honey, it’s a sign! And, of course, there are all sorts of printed and painted signs that we rely on.

Over the past six months I’ve driven back and forth between Madison and Jersey City a fair amount. I remember when I first started making the trip how it felt like an eternity but gradually the more I did it the shorter the distance seemed. Especially on the trips back to Madison I have come to notice the signs – signs that serve as landmarks, signs that point the way home.

Not long after I get on to 78 West there’s a sign for Madison Honda. Each time I see it I think, OK, I’m on my way. A few miles along and there’s a sign for Gary’s Wine and Marketplace. OK, getting closer. And then I know I’m getting really close to home when I see the familiar sign with Episcopal shield and the precise distance to church.

When you really start to look for them, you notice that we are surrounded by signs – traffic signs, billboards, notices, and of course bumper stickers. Religious groups are big into signs - trying to get their message out or to create what the secular world would call a brand. I’m always interested in religious bumper stickers.

I worked with a guy once who was a particularly devout Christian and the back of his car was covered with Christian bumper stickers. The two I remember were “My boss is a Jewish carpenter” and “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace.” Of all the religious signs out there though, probably the most familiar is the one held up at pretty much every professional sports game. This one – the one that reads simply “John 3:16.” Which of course is the familiar verse that we just heard in today’s gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Yes, signs are all around us and signs are certainly important. But signs only point to the real thing. The Madison Honda sign simply points to Madison Honda. The Gary’s sign simply points to Gary’s. The Episcopal Church sign simply points to…well, of course, you get it.

Very obvious. But in religion, in our spiritual life, signs can be dangerous. We can think that the signs are enough. Or maybe like Nicodemus we can hope that the signs are enough! But, All the bumper stickers, all the John 3:16 signs in the world don’t make us faithful Christians. The signs point to the truth, but they are not the truth themselves.

Jesus is asking Nicodemus for more and Jesus is asking us for more. Jesus gives Nicodemus an answer to a question he hasn’t asked out loud – maybe he was too afraid to ask. Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” That “born from above” can also be translated born anew or born again. In a laughably literal way Nicodemus responds to him “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Is he kidding? I think Nicodemus is being literal to avoid the challenging truth that Jesus is telling him. It’s not only knowing about Jesus. Being impressed by the signs isn’t enough.

To use Rite One language Jesus is telling Nicodemus - and Jesus is telling us - that we must offer and present to God our selves, our souls and bodies.

John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Does it mean being impressed by Jesus’ signs – the turning the water into wine and all that? OK. But it’s more than signs. Does it mean accepting Jesus’ teaching? Sure. But it’s more than that.

In his book The Heart of Christianity the scholar Marcus Borg points out that we have lost the original meaning of belief and believe. We tend to think of it up in our heads – well, I believe that’s true but I’m not totally sure. Or, I believe it and nothing you can say can convince me otherwise.

But Borg points out that before the 17th Century believe actually meant to love. The words believe and belove are closely related.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Jesus is telling Nicodemus and Jesus is telling us the thinking and the knowing are fine. The signs are pointing us in the right direction. But, Jesus is calling Nicodemus and Jesus is calling us to more. Jesus is calling us to belove – to give our self, to give our soul and body, to be born again and to live forever in the love that is God.

It’s a lot to ask.

In a way, Jesus is telling Nicodemus and telling us that we need to move from signs to sacraments. Our catechism defines sacraments as outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

In other words, sacraments are signs that actually give us what they point to. It’s as if the Gary’s sign out on 78 actually sold wine.

Think of the two great sacraments - Baptism is a sign of our new birth in Christ and our new birth in Christ takes place at our baptism. The Eucharist is a sign of Christ’s presence and the Eucharist actually gives us Christ’s presence.

And by believing in Jesus the Son of God - by beloving Jesus the Son of God - we become living sacraments too. We become signs of Christ and we also become Christ’s physical presence in the world. We become the Body of Christ – not just a sign, but a sacrament.

Of course, we know almost nothing about Nicodemus. But he does reappear later in John’s Gospel and it seems that Jesus’ call to move from sign to sacrament has transformed him.

In John 7 Nicodemus reappears, presumably in broad daylight, and boldly stands up for Jesus against his fellow Pharisees. The Pharisees pointedly ask Nicodemus “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” Nicodemus the Pharisee who came to Jesus fearfully at night is now publicly associated with Jesus.

And Nicodemus appears one more time after Jesus’ death on the cross. He and Joseph of Arimathea handle the burial of Jesus’ body. And John gives us an important detail. John tells us that Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about one hundred pounds – which would be about 75 of our pounds.

That extravagant generosity to Jesus is no accident. John is telling us that Nicodemus has been transormed. Nicodemus moved beyond just knowing about Jesus and Jesus’ signs. Nicodemus came to believe in – came to belove – Jesus. In anointing the body of the Son of God, Nicodemus became a living sacrament.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Benediction for the Jersey City Lincoln Association Dinner

A Benediction for the Jersey City Lincoln Association Dinner, February 12, 2008

God of our Fathers and Mothers,

We thank you for the gift of Abraham Lincoln.

We thank you for his courage, wisdom, and steadfastness.

We thank you also for the faithful witness of the Lincoln Association of Jersey City.

We ask you to raise up leaders like Abraham Lincoln in our own time. We ask for leaders who offer malice toward none and charity to all.

Loving God, we ask you to raise up in our own time leaders who do not presume that you are on our side.

Instead, give us leaders like Abraham Lincoln who hope always to be on your side.

Bless our great city with prosperity and wellbeing for all. Bless all of us gathered here tonight.

Give all of us the strength to finish the work we are in.

We ask all of this confident that you alone are perfect peace and perfect liberty.


Sunday, February 03, 2008

Transfiguration: A Preview

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 3, 2008
Year A: The Last Sunday after Epiphany

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
Matthew 17:1-9

Transfiguration: A Preview

Today’s gospel offers us the familiar, mysterious story of the Transfiguration. It’s a brief story with some quick, powerful, vivid images. Jesus with three of his disciples up on the mountain. The face of Jesus shining like the sun – his clothes dazzling white. Elijah and Moses appearing. Peter very sensibly suggesting they memorialize this big day. And then, as if all this weren’t enough, the voice of God declares “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
There is a lot going on here – and it’s hard to make sense of it all – it all happens so quickly. As I’ve thought about it I’ve come to realize that the Transfiguration is not so important on its own. In fact, the Transfiguration is really kind of like a movie preview. The Transfiguration just gives a glimpse, just a taste, of what’s to come.

Now, if you still go to the movies you know that previews have gotten kind of long – and most of the time they pretty much tell the whole story of the movie – or at least show most of the best, or funniest, parts. The Transfiguration isn’t that kind of a sneak preview. Bear with me, but the Transfiguration is actually a little bit like the preview for the new Star Trek movie.

Yes, Star Trek. I don’t know if any of you are Star Trek fans. Or if any of you will admit that you’re a Star Trek fan! I’ll admit that I’ve been since I was a kid – not quite a put on pointy ears and go to a Star Trek convention kind of fan – but I was an eat my dinner in front of the little black and white TV and watch Star Trek reruns kind of fan. Anyway, in December a new Star Trek movie with new actors playing Kirk and Spock and the rest will be coming out.

And a few weeks ago they started showing the preview. The whole thing lasts less than a minute. It starts out with a shot of a welder at work and then there are shots of what looks like some kind of metal and odd angles and then at the very end there is a glimpse of the familiar starship Enterprise and we realize we’ve been watching the ship being built. And across the screen flash the words “Under Construction.” OK, I admit to having watched it a few times online. And I admit that it’s a very effective preview – I can’t wait to find out more about the movie and to see it in December.

Transfiguration - a sneak preview. Just a glimpse. Just a taste. A preview of what’s to come. Under construction. Transfiguration.

Just as we’re about to begin Lent, the Transfiguration is a preview of the glory of Easter. It’s a preview of the glory of resurrection. It’s a preview of the glory of Heaven. Transfiguration is a last little alleluia before we enter a season of penance and sacrifice and later the great joy of Easter. It’s a preview – we can’t see the whole picture yet. It’s just a glimpse of what’s under construction for Jesus and a glimpse of what’s under construction for all of us.

The Transfiguration is also a call for us to pay attention. It’s a call to mindfulness. Just as I’ve carefully studied that Star Trek preview over and over to pick up clues about the movie, we are all called to pay close attention so that we don’t miss the glimpses, the previews of the glory that is to come.

I’ve noticed that very often these glimpses, these previews of glory, happen in the midst of suffering. Maybe God knows that’s when we need the encouragement – it’s when we need the hope. The evangelist Matthew seems to understand this. He places his Transfiguration account right in the middle of a bleak part of his gospel. Matthew reports that the Pharisees and the scribes continually try to trick Jesus with their questions. They are trying to figure out how to get rid of the troublesome rabbi. And Jesus himself has begun to predict his own death – to the shock and dismay of his disciples. Jesus has told them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Yes, for Jesus and his followers the storm clouds are gathering on the horizon. The realization is sinking in that Jesus’ ministry is going to cost him and cost his followers a great deal. And it’s at this time of anxiety and fear that Jesus, Peter, James and John have this mountaintop experience. It’s at this time of anxiety and fear that they get a preview of the glory that is to come.

Of course, the Transfiguration doesn’t make all the bad stuff go away. Even there on the mountain Jesus has to say to the disciples, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And we know all the suffering that Jesus and his followers had yet to face. But in the midst of anxiety and fear and suffering the Transfiguration is a glimpse, a preview of what’s come.

Some of you know that everyone who hopes to be ordained spends time training as a chaplain – usually in a hospital. It’s called Clinical Pastoral Education – CPE. IT was the most intense and most valuable part of my whole seminary experience. I did CPE at Christ Hospital in Jersey City for most of one summer. Talk about a time of anxiety and fear! I was anxious working in a hospital with surrounded by sick and sometimes dying people – people who were looking to me for comfort, hope and sometimes unfortunately even looking to me for answers. I was anxious and afraid. And, of course, many of the patients, their family and friends were anxious.

And yet in the midst of all that anxiety and fear when I prayed and paid attention I was able to experience some real Transfiguration moments. I was able to glimpse the glory of God. I was able to get just a taste of what awaits us. I was able to see what God has under construction for all of us.

I remember an old woman in the hospital who was dying. It wasn’t a good death; the doctors were trying to keep her alive and so she was enduring a lot of suffering. I visited her day after day – often she was confused and would speak nonsense. But one time her eyes cleared, she looked at me intently and I’ll never forget what she said. She looked at me like it was the most important thing she ever said, and she whispered, “I never knew I could love my children so much.”

There was another patient, a woman, about my age. She had clawed her way out of desperate poverty in Jersey City, gone to college, gotten a good job, and then was diagnosed with breast cancer that despite all the treatments was spreading throughout her body. She was one of the people the nurses called “frequent fliers” – she was in and out of the hospital all the time. I talked to her for many hours. She was skeletal and in great pain. Her family was mean and uncaring. She had every reason in the world to be angry and bitter. And yet this woman who had so much suffering and anxiety and fear once said to me that she used to ask God “why me? And then when I saw all the other sick people in the hospital after a while I began to ask God, why not me?”

There are other stories I could tell you, but my experience in Christ Hospital with those two women has stayed with me. In a time of fear and anxiety through them I was able to glimpse God’s glory – to get a preview of what God has under construction for all of us. I was able to glimpse the power to love more than we could ever imagine. I was able to glimpse such humility that in the midst of great suffering asks why not me?

I don’t need to tell you that we live in a time of great anxiety and fear. The problems of our world sometimes – maybe usually - seem insurmountable: The desperate poverty, the polluted environment, the widespread hatred and violence. Many of us are concerned about the economy. In conversations around church I’ve come to understand just how fragile finances are for many of us.

And, of course, the church isn’t immune to anxiety and fear. During the weekday services we read all the names on the parish prayer list. It’s a long list. And each time it reminds me just how much suffering and anxiety there is here in our community. And, although this is the healthiest church I’ve ever been part of, at last week’s parish meeting we acknowledged a dip in attendance and financial concerns. And regardless of finances the start of a building project is always a time of anxiety.

And so just as Jesus went to the mountain to pray this is a time for us to pray. This is a time for us to pay attention. This is a call to mindfulness.
And if we pray, if we pay attention, if we are mindful, I believe – I know – that we will glimpse our own transfiguration. If we look around, if we keep our eyes and ears open, we will see a preview of the glory that God has under construction.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Episcopalians and Race

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 2008

Episcopalians and Race

A little more than a century ago in his groundbreaking book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois famously declared “…the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” DuBois was undoubtedly correct in his prediction about the last century. Certainly there was much remarkable and lasting progress made in guaranteeing civil rights for all Americans. However, just in case we somehow thought that the issue of race had been settled before the turn of the millennium, the current presidential campaign has again exposed the racial strains and scars that continue to stress and blot American society. As an American institution, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Episcopal Church has a decidedly uneven record when it comes to race. For me, three key figures highlight this ambiguous legacy.

Absalom Jones (1746-1818) was the first black man to be ordained in the Episcopal Church. He was born into slavery but managed to teach himself to read and later enrolled in a night school for blacks run by Quakers in Philadelphia. He eventually purchased first his wife’s freedom and then his own. After his emancipation Jones and Richard Allen became leaders of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church where they dramatically increased black membership, stirring up the racism of white members. When the church leadership tried to segregate the blacks into an upstairs gallery, Jones and Allen led their people out of the church. Jones and Allen became leaders of the Free African Society which built a church that in 1794 was admitted by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania as St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones was ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1802.

I had never heard of Alexander Crummell (1819-98) before I began my studies at General Seminary. In the seminary chapel each morning the sacristans begin to prepare for the day’s worship by lighting a candle beside an icon of Crummell that hangs in a prominent spot in the chapel. The icon and the daily candle-lighting ritual serve as a powerful reminder of – and atonement for - a shameful episode in the seminary’s history. Crummell had been educated at an interracial school in New Hampshire and discerned a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. His application in 1839 to General Seminary was denied because of his race. Crummell was persistent, though, and after private study was ordained in the Diocese of Massachusetts. After ordination, Crummell went on to study at Cambridge and then went as a missionary to Liberia, where he became one of the leading figures in that African republic. He eventually returned to the United States where he led the fight against segregation in the Church by forming the organization that later evolved into the Union of Black Episcopalians.

Like every other American institution, the Episcopal Church was tossed and turned by the political and social turmoil of the 1960s. Many in the Church were galvanized by the martyrdom of Jonathan Myrick Daniels (1939-65), a seminarian from the Episcopal Theological (now Divinity) School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Daniels and other seminarians answered the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. to participate in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Unlike the other seminarians who stayed down South for a few days before returning home, Daniels stayed for months, eventually being arrested after picketing whites-only stores in Ft. Deposit, Alabama. After a brutal week in jail, Daniels and the other protestors were released. On the day of the release, while waiting for a ride back to town Daniels and some of the others approached a store to buy a cold drink. They were met by a shotgun-wielding white man who threatened them and took aim at a seventeen-year old black woman, Ruby Sales. Daniels pulled Sales aside and was killed instantly by the shot intended for her, becoming a martyr for the cause of civil rights for all of God’s people.

In a society still burdened with racism, it is important for us to reflect on, and learn from, the lives of these remarkable Episcopalians. In a world distorted by sin, we are called to live out the promises we make in the Baptismal Covenant to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to love our neighbor as our self, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. As a small step toward living out those promises, I invite you to join Mother Lauren and me at Trinity + St. Philip’s Cathedral on Sunday, February 10th at 3:00PM for the annual service commemorating the life of Absalom Jones. It is a wonderful event, and our presence can be a sign of our commitment to justice and peace for all.