Sunday, December 27, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Ann Fiske Atchison

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 27, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Ann Fiske Atchison
Wisdom 3:1-5,9
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 14:1-6a

It’s Not About Us

Today’s gospel reading comes from the story of the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. It’s one of the most familiar parts of the whole Bible isn’t it? We retell the Last Supper story every time we have communion and we retell it in all of its detail and power in the days leading up to Easter.

But, although it’s a familiar and old story, it’s lost none of its intensity. We can still feel how intense it must have been in that room when Jesus gathered with his closest followers and friends.

Part of the intensity of the experience is that Jesus was running out of time. He knows that the time has just about come for him to be arrested, handed over to the authorities and to die on the Cross.

Since Jesus knew he was running out of time, at the Last Supper he tried to get across to his disciples the most important things. He knew all too well that in the past they’ve been a little thick-headed and haven’t always understood, so now is the time for clarity. Now is the time for intensity.

Jesus sums up his message with crystal clarity and burning intensity. At the Last Supper Jesus said to them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Jesus knows that words alone may not get his message across. Many times Jesus has told his friends that they should not worry about status and prestige and wealth, but that instead they should live lives of loving service. Now, though, was the time for clarity and intensity. Jesus got on his hands and knees and washed the feet of his friends. Through this lowly and menial act, Jesus says to his friends and followers, says to us here today – this is how you are to live. You are to offer loving service to one another.

In other words, Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

Over the past six or seven weeks the Atchison family has been through its own intense experience. It’s been a privilege to be with them – to be with you – from the day after Ann’s fall and broken hip, through surgery, hopes for recovery, and the growing realization that Ann’s life was drawing to a close.

It was an intense experience but like the Last Supper so long ago, it was an experience that produced crystal clarity.

I’m pretty sure her family already knew this, but through this intense experience it became crystal clear to me that Ann Fiske Atchison really understood Jesus’ message. Ann lived her life in a way that showed she understood that it wasn’t about her. For Ann, it was always about the love and service for her family, her friends and her church.

Whenever she could, Ann attended our Wednesday morning Healing Eucharist. Once she was no longer able to drive, I would often pick her up and give her a ride to church. Each week on the short ride we would chat away. It’s only during these past few intense weeks that I realized she almost never talked about herself. Instead, much of the time she would fill me in on her family and especially she would talk about how grateful she was that all of her children helped her out so much.

During these intense weeks I saw for myself the loving bond of this family. Several times I told Whitney, Patty, Rob and Doug that this family was a textbook example of how this is supposed to happen. The way they supported one another and especially the way they showered love on their mom was an inspiration. If Ann ever doubted it, in these last few weeks she was convinced beyond a doubt that she was deeply loved.

Whenever I’d compliment the Atchison kids on how good they were being for one another and for Ann, they’d always point back to their mom and say they learned how to live, to love, this way from her. And, they said, they were just giving back the love she had given them for so many years.

Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

Ann loved her family and she also loved her friends. Sure enough another frequent topic of conversation on our rides from Lorraine Road to Grace Church was her dear friend, Anita Cole. They had been very close friends nearly their entire lives. Anita had gotten sick a few years back and Ann missed her and was so concerned about her – it was a worry that she brought up often.

As I mentioned, our Wednesday service is a healing service. Each week at that service, Ann would stay kneeling at the altar rail, waiting to be anointed with Holy Oil. Despite her own dimming eyes and weakening limbs, Ann never one asked for healing for herself. Instead, without fail, she would say softly, “For Anita.”

Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

Ann loved her family and her friends and she also loved her church. Grace Church, where she was a parishioner for her whole life, was the third major topic of conversation on our Wednesday morning drives through the streets of Madison.

It’s true to her character that she served the church in two very much behind the scenes, almost invisible ways. She served on the altar guild – the unsung heroes of Grace Church who wash and polish and iron and who do so much to make this sacred place so beautiful. Ann’s other major area of service was sort of at the other end of the church spectrum. For many years she was one of the money counters – the group that gathers in near anonymity to do the crucial work of counting the collections after the Sunday service.

She showed her love for this church in other tangible ways. I never knew this, but Ann paid for the restoration of one of our stained glass windows, which she dedicated in memory of her parents. If you haven’t seen it, check it out after the service. It’s the rather haunting window of Jesus reaching out his arms in invitation that’s in the back on this side of the church. When her brother Denny died, she donated a chalice and paten in his memory – sacred vessels which we use all the time and which will be used when we celebrate the Holy Eucharist together in a few minutes.

Ann’s love for this church became very apparent just a few months ago. On a Friday night we had a potluck supper and invited people who had grown up at Grace Church to share some of their memories. It was a fun and poignant experience.

Ann’s contemporaries, Gene Carpenter and Don Van Court put on an unforgettable slide show with amazing photos of Grace Church from the days of their childhood. Ann was there and seemed to have a wonderful time reminiscing. She brought an artifact which she proudly showed to me and others – it was the certificate recording her confirmation long ago right here at Grace Church.

Through her life as a parishioner, Ann confirmed her love for this church through her service and her generosity – service and generosity that will live on.
Jesus tells all of us, it’s not about you. Jesus tells us it’s about the love we share and the service we give to one another.

At the Last Supper, despite Jesus’ intensity and clarity, the disciples are still devastated at the thought of Jesus’ death. Jesus promised his friends that he would go ahead and prepare a place for them. Jesus told them, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

In despair and confusion, Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” And Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”

Through her life, Ann Fiske Atchison knew that Jesus is the way, and the truth and the life. She knew that life wasn’t about her, but about the love and service she shared with others – with her family, her friends and her church.

Now Ann has gone to the place prepared for her by Jesus – the place of perfect love and service. For the rest of us, however, the journey continues.

On our journeys through life we can carry the memory and the example of Ann. Her memory and example teach us that we really can live lives of love and service. Ann’s life is a reminder that it’s not about us – it’s about the love and service we share with one another.


Reflection Time

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 27, 2009

The First Sunday after Christmas
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Reflection Time

We all know that Advent is supposed to be a time of quiet preparation and reflection, but in reality for many of us Advent is a whirlwind of shopping and planning, checking items off our list, making sure we’re ready for Christmas.

For many of us, the chances of actually reflecting about the meaning of Christmas on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day are pretty slim. Instead for many of us, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are times to gather with family and friends, exchange gifts, eat – and maybe drink - too much. And, for others of us, it can be a sad time when we feel the sting of who or what we’ve lost, or perhaps never had.

Despite the best efforts of the Church, most of us don’t have the chance to really reflect on the meaning of Christmas during Advent or on Christmas Day itself. Most of us just don’t have reflection time.

And maybe that’s OK – at least for a while. Maybe it’s OK to get wrapped up in the experience – to enjoy the decorations and the carols and hymns, to celebrate with friends and family, and even to feel the absence of what’s missing.

Maybe that’s OK because, of course, we need to actually have the experience before we can begin to reflect upon it.

In Luke’s telling of Jesus’ birth, he tells us that Mary treasured and pondered in her heart the amazing experiences of the angel Gabriel’s appearance and the arrival of the shepherds to see her son, the newborn King. But, I’m willing to bet that having just given birth in less than ideal circumstances, right then and there Mary didn’t have a whole lot of time for reflection on what all this meant. Like all mothers of newborns, an exhausted Mary had too much to do. Reflection time would have to be later.

And the same is true for the first followers of Jesus. So many remarkable things happened so quickly. According to tradition, Jesus’ earthly ministry lasted an action-packed three years. In the middle of miracles and teaching and confusing parables and disturbing predictions, when was there time to reflect?

It was only after Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus’ followers began to reflect on what his birth, life, death and resurrection meant for them and for the whole world. It was only after Jesus was no longer physically present with them that the first Christians had reflection time.

And in today’s lessons we heard two examples of the early Church reflecting on Christmas, reflecting on what it means for us and the world that, in Jesus, God became incarnate; that, in Jesus, God has come and lived and died as one of us.

First up is St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The best guess is that this letter was written around the year 55 – already a couple of decades of reflection time had passed since the earthly life of Jesus.
One of the problems in reading Paul’s letters is that we only have one side of the correspondence – we don’t know exactly what issues provoked Paul to write what he has. In the case of the Letter to the Galatians, Paul was writing to urban Christian communities he had planted in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey.

It seems that most of the people in these communities were gentiles, not Jews. But, since Paul had been away some other Jewish followers of Jesus arrived and tried, probably with some success, to convince these gentile Christians that they needed to observe Jewish Law.

The question of whether gentile Christians needed to obey Jewish Law was the hottest debate in the early Church.

Paul was not pleased to hear about what’s going on in the Galatian churches. Paul was provoked to write very clearly how he thought the birth of Jesus has changed everything. What Paul wrote is undoubtedly the product of many years of reflection time – time spent reflecting and praying on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Paul has come to the conclusion that Jesus has changed forever our relationship with God.
Paul writes that the Law had served as our disciplinarian. That was a very precise term in Paul’s day. A disciplinarian was a household slave who supervised the discipline of children. It seems like it wasn’t a particularly warm, loving relationship but it kept the kids in line.

But now thanks to Jesus all of that changes. Paul writes that, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

Paul claims that the disciplinarian is no longer needed, because, through Jesus, God has bridged the gap separating us from God. God has adopted us as children. So, now, along with Jesus we can cry to God, “Abba, Father!”

Imagine how much reflection time Paul needed before he could arrive at such a rich and beautiful understanding of Jesus and how his birth changed everything.

The Gospel of John was written near the end of the First Century – some sixty years after the earthly lifetime of Jesus. The whole of John’s gospel, and especially the famous prologue that we heard today, is obviously a product of much prayerful reflection time – reflection about Jesus, about God, about philosophy, and much more. After decades of prayerful reflection time, the Gospel of John offers a cosmic view of Jesus’ birth.

John begins his prologue by echoing Genesis, “In the beginning…” John boldly attempts to describe some of God’s inner life, writing that the Word was with God, that the Word was God and that all of creation came into existence through the Word.
Again, undoubtedly after much reflection time, John is inspired by God to take the next leap. The Word of God who was with God, who was God, through whom everything came into being, the Word of God “became flesh and lived among us.”

And just like Paul, John has come to understand that the birth of Jesus, the birth of God’s Son, the Word of God taking flesh, has changed forever our relationship with God.

John writes, “(But) to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” John offers a more cosmic view than Paul, but he gets to the same place. The birth of Jesus has changed everything. Through Jesus, God has bridged the gap separating us from God. God has adopted us as children.

Here’s one last example of someone who had put a good deal of prayerful reflection time into the meaning of Jesus’ birth. One of my favorite early Church Fathers is Irenaeus of Lyon, who was a bishop in the Second Century. So he lived and wrote a century and more after the earthy life of Jesus.

Irenaeus was especially influenced by St. Paul and built on Paul’s understanding of what Jesus’ birth means for us. Undoubtedly after much reflection time, Irenaeus developed his idea of recapitulation. In a nutshell, Irenaeus looked back to the Garden of Eden story and recognized that it was because of a human being that our relationship with God got broken.

Irenaeus suggests that in Jesus, God recapitulates creation. In Jesus, God unites with us and gives all of us a second chance. In Jesus, God fixes what got broken by sin, and adopts us as God’s children.

So, merry Christmas! For us here today it’s still Christmastide but for the rest of the world Christmas is over and it’s time to move on to the next thing.

But, for us Christians, Christmastide offers us an important opportunity. As some of the Christmas excitement begins to fade the Church gives us the opportunity for prayerful reflection time.

Today’s lessons offer us the inspired, prayerful reflections of Paul and John on the meaning of Jesus’ birth. Plus, we have 2000 years of Christians such as Irenaeus and many others reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ birth.

And now, on this First Sunday after Christmas, you and I are invited to take some of our own prayerful reflection time, to really reflect on what it means for us that in Jesus, God has come and lived among us.


Friday, December 25, 2009


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 25th, 2009

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


You may not believe this, but I’ve been told that the so-called Christmas season can be very… stressful. There are many sources for this holiday anxiety. For many of us there is the anxiety of trying to get everything done for last night and this morning – presents bought and wrapped, house cleaned, food prepared, table set, fingers crossed that there’s no family drama to spoil the holiday.

For others of us, the stress comes from a different place – the sadness we may feel about someone we love who is sick or has died. For us, there is the challenge of being in “good cheer” when all we really want to do is get back into bed, pull up the covers and wake up when Christmas is over.

Christmas can be stressful for kids, too. Teachers have been known to cram a lot of work and tests into the last days of school before Christmas vacation. And, I’m sure this isn’t true for the kids here today, but I used to worry that I’d be judged as naughty, not nice, and there’d be a bag of coal waiting for me under the tree on Christmas morning.

I wish I could tell you that the Church is free of stress and anxiety today and in the days leading up to Christmas. Unfortunately, the truth is just the opposite. It takes a lot of work and planning by many people to put on the spectacular celebrations last night and here this morning.

Everyone has different ways of dealing with stress and anxiety. One of the things I try to do to calm myself down is try to focus on what’s most important, what’s essential.
And, as far as Christmas is concerned, there are three essential pieces.

First, of course, we need to gather together. Second, we need to hear the old, familiar and yet still-so-powerful story of the birth of the Messiah. Finally, the last essential ingredient for a Christmas celebration in church is hymns.

Can you imagine a Christmas celebration without hymns? Can you imagine Christmas without these poetic texts set to music to praise God? I know some of us are uncomfortable singing, and yet, for even the most tone-deaf it’s hard to resist singing just a little bit of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” or “Joy to the World”.

Hymns are essential to our celebration today and in fact they’ve been an essential part of the Christian life right from the beginning.

Hymns are certainly an important part of the Gospel of Luke. In fact, Luke uses several hymns to help tell the story of Jesus’ birth.

First Mary, while visiting with her relative Elizabeth, bursts into song, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…”

Second, Luke tells us that the priest Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and sang a hymn prophesying about his son John the Baptist: “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways…”

Today we heard and sang the third hymn. The heavenly host appears before the shepherds, singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven!”

These hymns are rich and powerful and they have all inspired so much beautiful music. But, as I thought about today’s angelic hymn – a hymn that is so familiar and seemingly so simple, I started wondering what exactly are these angels singing? What does it mean to sing “Glory to God”? What is glory?

In the Bible, the word glory is used in two different ways. The first meaning is the honor and esteem we should give to God because, well, God is God. As our creator, and the source of life and love, God is worthy of our praise and so we give honor to God.

But there is second meaning of glory in the Bible. Although God is invisible, the people of Israel came to understand that sometimes they could see signs of God’s power and presence – what they called God’s glory. So they were able to see God’s glory, they were able to see God’s power and presence, in the tabernacle they carried those forty long years in the desert and they could see God’s glory, they could see God’s power and presence, in the Temple. In today’s gospel lesson Luke tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds “and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, both meanings of glory meet one another.

The angels sing out and give honor, give glory to God, because in that feeding trough in Bethlehem, the shepherds, along with Mary and Joseph and even the animals, were about to see God’s power and presence.

In that helpless newborn child, born in the humblest of circumstances, they and we see God’s power and presence – we see God’s glory.
In that helpless newborn child, born to a young mother with so much to ponder in her heart and an adoptive father who had to take a very great leap of faith, we see God’s power and presence – we see God’s glory.

In that helpless newborn child, wrapped with bands of cloth and lying in a feeding trough used by animals, we see God’s power and presence – we see God’s glory.
And when we see God’s glory the only correct response is to give God glory – to give God honor and praise and thanks for living among us in Jesus. So Luke tells us, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

But, there’s even more to God’s glory than the story of Jesus’ birth.

On Christmas, of course, our focus is on Jesus’ birth, but we can never lose sight of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Just because it’s Christmas, we don’t take down the crosses in church. Just because it’s Christmas we don’t forget about Good Friday and Easter. Just as we do each Sunday, in a little while, we’ll gather at the table, remember the Last Supper and we will see Jesus, see the glory of God, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Just like those long-ago shepherds, just like Mary and Joseph, we also see God’s glory in Jesus and the only correct response is to give God glory.
But, there’s even more to God’s glory.

In our baptism, we become the Body of Christ in the world. So, if we are open and paying attention, we can see God’s glory in one another and the only correct response is to give God glory.

Over the past few weeks, right here in this little part of the Body of Christ called Grace Church, I’ve been reminded that if I’m open and paying attention I can see God’s glory and the only correct response is to give God glory.

I saw God’s glory in a family gathered around their dying mother, united in love, holding her hand, kissing her forehead, and telling her over and over as she slipped away, “We love you, Mom.” “We’re going to be OK, Mom.” “You did a great job and now you deserve to rest.”

Glory to God in the highest!

I saw God’s glory in the elderly parishioner, recuperating from a broken hip, who in the midst of his painful rehabilitation came up with an idea for a new ministry. He offered to come with me as I visit people in nursing homes and rehab centers and be a living example of hope for people working at their own rehabilitation.

Glory to God in the highest!

I saw God’s glory in the person who drove through the middle of a violent snowstorm to bring an old and sick cat to the vet – making it possible for that beloved family pet to die knowing for sure that it was cared for.
Glory to God in the highest!

I saw God’s glory in the parishioner who has personally visited nearly all of the organizations supported by our outreach funds, in the person who drops off food into the Food for Friends barrel hoping no one sees, and the team from Grace Church who went to Jersey City to lead the funeral of someone they never even met.

Glory to God in the highest!

Just like those long-ago shepherds, just like Mary and Joseph, we also see God’s glory in Jesus and the only correct response is to give God glory. On Christmas and every day you and I are the Body of Christ in the world and despite our stress and anxiety if we are open and pay attention we can see Jesus – we can see God’s glory – in one another.

And so along with the angels the only correct response is to sing, Glory to God in the highest!


Sunday, December 13, 2009

First Repentance, Then Rejoicing

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 13, 2009

Year C: The Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Canticle 9
(Philippians 4:4-7)
Luke 3:7-18

First Repentance, Then Rejoicing

How is it possible that we’ve already reached the third Sunday of Advent? The weeks are just flying by and it feels like we are hurtling towards Christmas. We had a little debate about it at the other day at the Men’s Breakfast, but I checked – Christmas is just a week from Friday. Wow. Advent is supposed to be this season of quiet waiting, reflection and anticipation, yet I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling the anxiety of time running out.

Anyway, here we are, ready or not, the Third Sunday of Advent. And, as you’ve probably noticed by now, this is the Sunday we set aside the blue Advent vestments and bring out the beautiful rose vestments.

Traditionally today is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word meaning “rejoice.” As Lauren mentioned in last week’s sermon, in the past there was a pretty heavy penitential aspect to Advent - it was considered by many to be a little Lent. The third Sunday was set aside as a time to take a little break from all that penitence, to inject a little joy into Advent, recognizing that we were getting close to Christmas.

Although in modern times the Church has softened the penitential side of Advent, we’ve held onto Gaudete Sunday, this Advent Sunday to rejoice. So out come the rose vestments and maybe some of you use a pink candle in your Advent wreath at home.

Maybe you noticed, however, there is however a little problem with Gaudete Sunday.

In the readings from Zephaniah and in the First Song of Isaiah (and the Epistle to the Philippians) the theme is clearly rejoicing. So far so good. In the words of Isaiah, “Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things, and this is known in all the world.”

But the gospel lesson seems to be off-message. Here we have what seems to be a very different theme: repentance. We heard the familiar story of John the Baptist preaching repentance to those he calls a “brood of vipers” – otherwise known as his congregation. John’s preaching is so tough that Luke’s last line is almost comical, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

Um, where exactly is the good news that John was proclaiming? Where is the rejoicing in this gospel for Gaudete Sunday?

Well, I puzzled over this question for quite a while. Finally I realized that if we rearrange the order of today’s lessons, we really can find the good news, we can really find the joy in Gaudete Sunday.

Here’s the good news: first repentance, then rejoicing.

First repentance.

In today’s gospel we once again find John preaching repentance and baptizing the crowds in the River Jordan. Hearing John’s harsh message we might wonder why in the world people came to this prophet in the river.

John himself seems skeptical that the crowd is there for the right reasons. He warns them they need to drop their sense of spiritual entitlement – being a descendant of Abraham doesn’t get you far with John. And John tells them being a descendant of Abraham won’t get you anywhere with God, either.

John tells them to drop their sense of spiritual entitlement because we are all going to be judged on if we bear good fruit. John tells them we will be judged on the way we live our lives.

John gives them a tough message and yet they still come to him. Maybe part of the reason people came to John despite his harsh message was because he offered very clear, concrete instructions on how to lead a life “worthy of repentance.” Have two coats? Give one away. Have food? Give some of it away. If you’re a tax collector, don’t take more than you’re supposed to. If you’re a soldier, don’t shake down anyone for money.

John is very clear and concrete. By the way, it’s no surprise that Luke includes these examples that challenge economic inequality and oppression. Remember this is the same gospel in which the Virgin Mary sings that God “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich has sent away empty.”

Ultimately, though, maybe the people came to John despite his harsh message because in their hearts they knew they needed repentance. They knew that their lives were headed in the wrong direction. They were burdened by the knowledge that they were not living the kind of lives that God intended for them.

Luke tells us that the people were “filled with expectation.” What were they expecting? They were expecting, desperately hoping, that John would be the messiah. They were expecting, desperately hoping, that John would be the one who would free them, who would lead them from repentance to rejoicing.

First repentance, then rejoicing.

John is an important and interesting character, but, really, he is the last in a long line of prophets calling the people to repentance, to change their ways, to turn back to God.

In our Old Testament lesson we heard from another of those prophets. We don’t know much about the Prophet Zephaniah. He apparently lived in Jerusalem in the 6th Century BC. This seems to have been one of those times when the people of Israel had gone astray. They were worshipping idols, acting in unethical and immoral ways, and in general just not paying any attention to God. You know, the usual.

In response to this misbehavior, the Book of Zephaniah contains a series of prophesies about the Day of the Lord – the day when God was going to issue judgment on this unfaithful people.

Most of the Book of Zephaniah is gloom and doom. It would seem that the Day of the Lord is not exactly good news. Here’s how God describes the Day of the Lord, according to Zephaniah:

“I will bring distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.” (1:17)

You can check it out at home if you’d like, but that’s a fair example of what most of the Book of Zephaniah is like – most, but not all. Today we heard the conclusion of Zephaniah where the prophet offers a very different vision – a vision of salvation and rejoicing.

Zephaniah says that some faithful people will repent – and that repentance will be the gateway to joy. Just before the passage we heard today, Zephaniah offers this vision of these faithful, penitent, transformed and joyful people:
“They shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. They will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.”
First repentance, then rejoicing.

So, what does all this have to do with us?

Can we relate to the people of Israel in Zephaniah’s time? Can we relate to those people who had gone astray, who were worshipping idols, who were acting in unethical or even immoral ways, who in general were just not paying any attention to God?
Can we relate to those people who came to see John the Baptist? Do we carry around a sense of entitlement? Do we know in our hearts that we need repentance? Do we know in our hearts that our lives are headed in the wrong direction? Do we know that we are not living the kind of life that God intends for us?

Are we expecting, desperately hoping, for the One who will free us, the One who will lead us from repentance to joy?

Well, if so, we have some very good news. This really is Gaudete Sunday – this really is a day to rejoice.

First repentance, then rejoicing.

Our lessons may have been a little out of order today, but the rest of the service is in perfect order. In just a little bit we will kneel and say the familiar words of the confession. Just before that we always have a few moments of quiet. Today, let’s really use that time. Let’s really take a moment think of how we need to repent. Today, let’s really pay attention to the familiar words.

And if we really repent, if we really say sorry and promise to try to live in a more faithful way, then we have created just enough room for God to lead us into rejoicing.

And the order of the service captures this perfectly, doesn’t it?

After we hear the words of forgiveness we move on to the rejoicing that is the peace and the rejoicing that we receive the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Finally, we leave this place rejoicing in God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s gift of himself in Jesus.

On this Gaudete Sunday, we have one very clear theme: first repentance, then rejoicing.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
December 2009


Some Saturday nights I go to sleep anxious about the next day’s sermon or eager to get as much rest as I can, knowing that I have a long Sunday ahead. But a few weeks ago I went to bed on a Saturday night without a worry in my head, looking forward to a relatively easy and enjoyable day of church. Lauren would be preaching so there would be no tossing and turning about the sermon. We had a couple of baptisms scheduled. Finally, in the afternoon I planned on heading down to House of Prayer in Newark (a wonderful church where I had served as a seminarian) for its 160th anniversary celebration. I fully expected it would be an easy, but memorable, day.

Before I dozed off, did I pray? Did I give thanks to God for the many wonderful gifts in my life? I can’t say for sure.

Around 4:00 Sue woke me up out of a deep sleep with shocking and terrifying words, “I think I have to go the hospital.” I tried to focus as I stumbled around the house, getting ready to leave, my heart racing, trying to make sense of what was happening, trying to stay calm.

In the car, driving as quickly as I could through the dark, deserted streets to Morristown Hospital, I tried to fall back on my clergy training and attempted to be a “non-anxious presence” for Sue. As I tried to radiate calm, inside I was thinking that this was one of those moments when your life takes a turn – the grim diagnosis, the phone call in the night, one wrong move, words spoken that can never be taken back or forgotten. As a priest, of course, I spend much time with people in the midst of those moments. Now, I thought, it was our turn. I believed we were in one of those moments when everything changes.

The emergency room was nearly empty. Apparently the injuries of Saturday night had already been bandaged and the new day’s wave of emergencies had not yet arrived. Once it was 6:00, I called Lauren and told her what was going on and that I wasn’t sure if or when I’d be in church. She told me not to worry about church and to update her on what was happening.

Although it took a few anxious hours, the doctors did figure out what was going on and Sue underwent a brief procedure that solved the problem. Exhausted and relieved, Sue and I stopped for breakfast and then returned home. I looked at the clock in the living room. All of this had happened before noon.

No surprise, we were both grateful that this frightening experience had ended much better than we had dared to hope. Like anyone who has a close-call, we had a renewed appreciation for the simple gifts of our everyday lives – the nice place to live, the purr of our cat, meaningful work, and the company of one another.

As the day went on my sense of gratitude for Grace Church deepened. Since this had happened on Sunday morning, everyone who was in church that day heard that I had taken Sue to the hospital early in the morning. Knowing that (obviously) Lauren couldn’t get to the hospital for a while, one parishioner took it upon himself to drive to the hospital after the 7:30 service to offer us some much-appreciated pastoral care. When I got home and went on the computer, waiting for me was a pile of concerned emails from parishioners. After I sent out a parish-wide email to let everyone know Sue was OK, another avalanche of emails arrived. Flowers were delivered and a dinner was prepared for us. How blessed we are to be a part of Grace Church!

Since that difficult, but memorable, day and with the approach of Thanksgiving, I’ve been trying to be more mindful of the many wonderful gifts in my life. The other day in the New York Times there was a review of a new book called The Gift of Thanks. The reviewer quoted a line from the book that really jumped out at me: “Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention, deliberately beholding and appreciating the other.”

As we approach the end of this year, and look to the start of the next, it is all too easy for us to be anxious about what is yet to come – what life-changing moments will we face, what will be broken, what will be lost. My plan, though, is to be more deliberate, to pay closer attention, to behold and appreciate all the “others” in my life – the people, the places and the experiences that make life so rich and rewarding. On Sundays, during the prayers when I hear the words, “We give thanks for all the blessings of this life,” I am really going to give thanks to God for all the blessings of my life and all the blessings of our life together.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Shock of Advent

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 29, 2009

Year C: The First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-9
(1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)
Luke 21:25-35

The Shock of Advent

We’ve known all along that this day was coming. We’ve known all along that Advent was coming. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned in my sermon that we would be saying good-bye to the green vestments of the long season after Pentecost and putting on the blue of Advent. Last week Lauren preached on the Feast of Christ the King, the relatively modern feast we celebrate on the final Sunday of the church year. Downstairs in children’s chapel, each Sunday they’ve been moving the arrow on their church calendar, moving closer to the blue strip, representing the first Sunday of Advent, and the start of a new church year.

We’ve known all along that Advent was coming, and yet Advent still comes as a shock.

Part of the shock of Advent comes from the fact that this year everything just seems a little off, doesn’t it? I know some people around here chalk it up to Labor Day being so late, throwing us off balance and making all the autumn events seem to come up so fast.

Part of the shock of Advent comes from the fact that Grace Church been pretty busy too. Just think about the past few months, or take a look at the past couple of issues of The Messenger – the clothing sale, the auction, the blessing of Grace Hall, Halloween Concert, Costume Sunday, First Fridays, soup kitchen days, Habitat for Humanity build, acolyte festival, Far Out Fridays, the talent show, and much more…plus at least one church service every single day.

There’s been a lot going on at Grace, and for many of us there’s been a lot going on in our lives outside of church – deaths and births, illnesses and recoveries, unemployment and new work, decisions to be made and decisions made for us.

Part of the shock of Advent comes from the fact that it is completely off the calendar that the rest of America follows. Last time I preached I described us as living in an in-between time, somewhere between Halloween and Christmas, summer and winter. Well, as far as the rest of America is concerned, that in-between time has come to an end.

As far as the rest of America is concerned, once that last mouthful of pumpkin pie is eaten, and really even before that, it is Christmas. You probably remember those horrifying stories last year of people being trampled in stores on the so-called Black Friday. Instead of trying to tone down some of the craziness around the day after Thanksgiving, as I’m sure you know, some retailers simply tried to spread out the craziness by opening their stores on Thanksgiving itself.

But I think all of these reasons still don’t entirely explain the shock of Advent. Even for those of us who are regular churchgoers, part of the shock of Advent comes from the content of Advent.

Even for those of us who are regular churchgoers, we often think of Advent as simply the lead-up to Christmas. When we think of Advent, we often still have Christmas pageant images in our head, Gabriel appearing to Mary, Joseph’s dream, Mary visiting Elizabeth. And there is some of that. One side of Advent is the anticipation of Christmas – we might call that the blue side of Advent.

But there is another side of Advent – the purple side. It’s the side of Advent that calls us to look ahead to the end, rather than to look back at the birth of the Messiah. It’s the side of Advent that challenges us to listen, to prepare, to be alert for the last day.

The shock of Advent is actually the content of Advent – we are challenged to both look back to the birth of the Messiah and to look ahead to the end, to look ahead to the judgment that we will all face.

Maybe we’d rather be at the mall, after all.

But, we’re here - and look at the gospel the church offers us today. It’s taken from the Gospel of Luke and it comes from a section of the gospel in which Jesus makes prophetic predictions.

The first set of predictions which we didn’t hear today (but you may remember we did hear Mark’s version a couple of weeks ago) involved the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Luke’s gospel was almost certainly written after the Romans in fact destroyed the Temple and so the accuracy of Jesus’ prediction would have impressed the first readers and hearers of Luke.

But then there’s this second, impossible to verify, set of predictions. Jesus predicts cosmic events and events on earth that will point to the arrival of the Son of Man and the day of judgment.

And this section of the gospel concludes with Jesus warning us to “be on guard” and “to be alert” so that, unlike Advent, these cosmic and ultimate events do not come as a shock.

Taken by itself, this little snippet from the Gospel of Luke is pretty challenging and scary. I know I’d rather be talking about Christmas instead of the day of judgment. But, of course, we don’t have to take this little snippet by itself – we have the whole gospel available to us.

We have the whole story of divine love so great that God came and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth. We have the whole story of Jesus’ life, his teaching, and his sacrifice on the Cross. Finally, we have the whole story of Easter – the story of God’s love being more powerful than death.

Just in case we found this little passage from Luke frightening, today the church also gives us a hopeful little snippet from the Prophet Jeremiah. The setting is the 6th Century BC, Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple have been destroyed, and much of the people of Israel are living in exile in Babylon. It must have seemed like everything was lost. Yet, in the midst of this fear and suffering, Jeremiah presents this promise of God’s presence and God’s love.

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the House of Judah.” “In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”

And in Jesus Christ, you and I have God’s promise to be with us even to the end of time.

Advent may still come as a shock, but there doesn’t really need to be a scary side to this season.

However, Jesus’ call to “be on guard” and to “be alert” is real, serious, essential, and very difficult. All of the noise and all of the distractions of the world make it very difficult to pay attention to how God might be at work in our lives.

It’s difficult, but absolutely essential to pay attention.

The other day I was listening to the radio and I heard about the National Day of Listening. It’s sponsored by Story Corps, the organization that has set up booths around the country where people can record interviews with friends and relatives. Since 2003, more than 50,000 interviews have been recorded and stored in the Library of Congress.

On the National Day of Listening we are invited to take the time to have a deep conversation with someone else – and to really listen to what they have to say. And, I’d add, we might very well discover God at work in and through that other person.

When is the National Day of Listening? It was on Friday, on “Black Friday,” when the world was calling us to something very different than listening.

The good news is the church offers us more than a day of listening. Advent, the start of a new church year, is a time to prepare for Christmas and to look ahead to the day of judgment. But maybe the true shock of Advent is we are given this special time to pay attention, a whole season to listen for God.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Aida Suarez

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
November 25, 2009

The Funeral of Aida Suarez
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Psalm 23
2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9
John 14:1-6a

The Language of Love

One of my favorite parts of my job is teaching the youth confirmation class. I’m a little surprised I like it as much as I do, because, I wouldn’t have expected a class full of teenagers that meets on Sunday nights to be fun for them or for me.

Part of the fun, at least in the two years I’ve done it, comes from the fact that the kids are all over the place when it comes to their faith. Some have been involved in the church their whole lives, rarely missing a Sunday. And there are others I’ve never seen before and who, for all I know, haven’t been in church since their baptism.

Wherever they are in their faith, I try to make the class a place where, maybe for the first time, they can have an adult conversation about Christianity.

We cover a lot of ground in the class, including a couple of sessions on the Bible.

As a little exercise I hand out different English translations of the same Bible passage. We read them aloud, noting the many differences, both large and small, among the different translations.

As you might guess, discovering all of these different translations in the same language freaks these kids out. These are all in English yet they’re so different. Since they are good American schoolchildren they want to know the right answer. They’ll ask, well, which one is the right translation?

The truth is, I tell them, that I have my preferences, but I’m sure each translator could make the case for how he or she translated these verses from the First Century marketplace Greek of the New Testament.

The important thing is not to get caught up in particular translations or individual vocabulary, but instead to focus on the meaning, the essence of each particular passage.

In the passage from the Gospel of John that I just read we find Jesus with his closest friends at the meal that came to be known as the Last Supper. Jesus has already gotten down on his knees and washed the feet of his friends. Jesus has told them if they want to be his followers they must do the same – if they want to be great they must offer loving, menial service.

And now Jesus has told his friends that he will be with them just a short while longer. Jesus tells them, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Finally, as the end draws near, Jesus tells the disciples that he is going ahead of them to prepare a place where they will once again be together.

All of this happened nearly 2000 years ago in a place far away from Cuba, Jersey City or Brick Township. Most scholars believe that Jesus spoke Aramaic and we know that the Gospel of John was first written in Greek.

And, yes, there are many different translations of this passage.

But what is the essence of this passage? The essence is that Jesus is running out of time and so he’s trying to get his message through to his friends. The essence is Jesus telling them – and telling us - to love by serving. The essence is Jesus telling them – and telling us - not to worry, it may seem like everything is lost, but in fact love is more powerful than death.

Jesus may have spoken Aramaic, the gospel was written in Greek, but what we are hearing is the language of love.

Over the course of her long life, Aida Suarez knew all about the challenges of translation. Since I’ve never lived more than 30 miles from where I was born, it’s hard to imagine the journey that was Aida’s life.

Imagine being the mother of young children in Cuba whose husband went ahead of her to America to lay the foundation for a better life in a new land. Then imagine coming to this strange new land, coming to Jersey City, unable to speak the language and yet faced with the challenge of raising a growing family so far from all that was familiar, all that was known.

Aida knew all about the challenges of translation.

But Aida was able to overcome and transcend the challenges of translation because she spoke the language of love.

Many times my wife Sue has spoken of her memories of her mother day after day working double-shifts at Colgate, then coming home exhausted and falling asleep sitting in her chair. Then getting up and doing it all over again the next day. Aida did this not because she enjoyed the work, but out of loving service for her family, out of her sense of duty to do all she could for her family.

Aida overcame and transcended the challenges of translation because Aida spoke the language of love.

I only met Aida and Rey when they were older and living down the Shore. Since my Spanish was limited to the signs I saw on PATH trains, “La via del tren es peligrosa” and “No fume” it wasn’t so easy for us to communicate, but since both Aida and Rey spoke the language of love they welcomed me into the family with warmth, laughter and pleasure when I polished off plate after plate of delicious food – and I still miss those great meals topped off with strong coffee and delicious flan.

Seeing Aida and Rey speak the language of love together was a delight and an inspiration for all of us who are married. Of course they sometimes exasperated each other, but sitting at their dining room table it was obvious they still adored each other even after so many years and such a long journey together.

And, if there were ever any doubt, Rey proved he also spoke the language of love by taking care of Aida on his own as Alzheimer’s ravaged her mind – taking care of her until just a couple of days before his death.

Jesus told his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Aida’s last years were difficult. We are all well aware that Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease and it did its worst to Aida.

The disease took away just about everything, but not quite everything. To the end Aida never lost her essence. Right to the end Aida spoke the language of love.

For us, dealing with a person who has Alzheimer’s disease is an extraordinary experience. For people who work in nursing homes, unfortunately, it is part of the daily routine.

Yet, when it became clear that Aida’s life was drawing to a close so many of the nursing home staff were genuinely saddened that she was going to die. Over and over they came by to say good-bye, to give her a kiss, to tell the family how much they loved her. And, amazingly, some of the staff from her old nursing home across the road, where she hadn’t lived for a couple of years, also came over to say good-bye to Aida.

These good people who face so much suffering every day recognized that Aida had never lost her essence – that to the end she had spoken the language of love.

Now Aida’s long and not always easy journey has come to an end. Her essence has returned to the God who imagined her into existence. Her essence has gone to the place prepared for her, the place where love is the only language.

Aida’s journey has come to an end but for us the journey continues. When time was growing short, Jesus got on his knees and washed the feet of his friends, speaking to them in the language of love, saying this is how you are to live. Love one another as I have loved you.

In the life of Aida Suarez we see that it really is possible, no matter what happens, to speak the language of love.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

The In-Between Time

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 15, 2009

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 28
1 Samuel 1:4-20
Psalm 16
(Hebrews 10:11-25)
Mark 13:1-8

The In-Between Time

Maybe you’ve noticed that we’re living in an in-between time. If you drive or walk around you can see that some people still have their Halloween decorations up while others have put out their cornucopias and cardboard turkeys in anticipation of Thanksgiving. And, many retailers are desperately trying to get us into the spirit to buy Christmas gifts by putting up their decorations and assembling piles in their stores.

We’re living in an in-between time – a time somewhere in the middle of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Autumn is an in-between time isn’t it? Just in the past week or so some days I’ve had to scrape frost off my car in the morning and other days – and sometimes the same day – I’ve been outside in short sleeves. Here in church there have been days when it’s not clear if we need the heat or the air conditioning on.

We’re living in an in-between time – we’re living in autumn – a time between summer and winter.

Our country is going through an in-between time, too. The economic slide seems to have slowed or even stopped, yet most of us aren’t taking sighs of relief just yet as unemployment continues to rise – officially above 10 percent and in reality much higher. We’re living in the in-between time. The seemingly never-ending debate about health care reform continues to drag on. We’re in the in-between time – is it going to pass and if it does will it make things better or worse? We don’t know yet. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind on. Iraq seems more stable but is so fragile anything can happen. Meanwhile Afghanistan is a mess and the president is pondering a troop surge.

We’re living in an in-between time – a time between recession and recovery, a time between war and peace.

The Church is in the midst of an in-between time, too. The long season after Pentecost – this is the 24th Sunday after Pentecost! – is drawing to a close. This will be the last Sunday for a while that Lauren and I will be in green. Next week is the Christ the King and we’ll be in white. And, unbelievably, the following Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent and so we’ll be in blue for those four Sundays of preparation before Christmas.

We’re living in an in-between time – a time between church seasons – not quite Advent, but almost – an in-between time.

And, sure enough, there is an “in-betweeness” to the lesson from First Samuel and the lesson from the Gospel of Mark.

The lesson from First Samuel tells the wonderful story of Hannah’s faithfulness which leads to the birth of her son, the Prophet Samuel. And Samuel will turn out to be very much an in-between figure. Before the time of Samuel, unlike everyone else at that time, Israel had no king. It was one of their defining characteristics. God was Israel’s king.

But, during Samuels’s life the Israelite monarchy will begin, first under Saul and then under David. This was not an easy transition. Samuel lived during a difficult in-between time.

The passage I just read from Mark comes from an in-between section of that gospel.

In fact, we heard two distinct scenes today – two scenes that form the bridge between two sections of Mark’s gospel.

In the first we find Jesus and his disciples coming out of the Temple in Jerusalem. Remember, for Jews, the Temple was the holiest place on earth – the place where in a sense God lived. The disciples, sounding very much like country bumpkins on their first trip to the big city, say to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”

And then Jesus makes his terrifying prediction of the Temple’s destruction, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Of course, the Romans did set fire to and destroy the Temple during their great siege of Jerusalem in the year 70, forty or so years after the earthly lifetime of Jesus. The prediction came true. Some people think that Mark wrote his gospel after the Temple’s destruction and so projected this fact back to make Jesus look more prescient than he probably was. On the other hand, lots of people in Jesus’ time were unhappy with the religious establishment and predicted the Temple’s demise.

Ultimately, the prediction is not so important. What matters is Mark placed this grim prediction at the end of the part of the gospel in which Jesus is very critical of the religious establishment and the religious establishment doesn’t like it one bit.

This section of the gospel begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and then Mark tells us on the next day Jesus dramatically drives out the moneychangers and the sellers from the Temple.

Jesus’ relationship with the religious establishment goes downhill from there. The scribes and the Pharisees repeatedly question Jesus and in return he challenges their authority and criticizes their hypocrisy. Finally, we end up with what we heard last week - Jesus watching the poor widow give all she has – her two small copper coins – to this corrupt and doomed religious establishment.

So, the first scene of this little in-between section of Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction.

The second scene marks the beginning of the next section of Mark’s gospel – a section that is often called the “Little Apocalypse.” Apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning revelation. Apocalyptic literature – which was pretty common in Judaism before and during Jesus’ earthly lifetime – offers mysterious revelations about the supernatural world and usually is focused on the end times.
So in this second scene, Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives – which, by the way, is the place where the Prophet Zechariah had predicted God would begin to redeem the dead at the end of time. Zechariah predicted that it would be here that the new age begins.

Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives with Peter, James, John and Andrew, gazing over Jerusalem with the Temple sitting proudly in the center and he makes disturbing predictions. The “Little Apocalypse” begins.

Jesus predicts there will be false teachers and even some who will claim to be Jesus himself. He predicts wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes.
Jesus warns the disciples that these events are not signs of the end, not signs of Jesus’ return.

Instead he tells them – and tells us – “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Jesus is telling his disciples, Jesus is telling the first readers of the gospel and Jesus is telling us that we are living during the in-between time – a new age is yet to be born – we’re not there yet - this is but the beginning of the birth pangs, he says. And Jesus is honest with them and us - the in-between time is not an easy time.

The first readers and hearers of Mark’s gospel knew all about the hardships of the in-between time. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the failure of Jesus to return were deeply disturbing to these early followers of Jesus. A few years before, across the Mediterranean, the followers of Jesus were brutally scapegoated for the great fire that burned much of Rome in the year 64.

Yes, those first readers and hearers of Mark’s gospel knew all about the hardships of the in-between time. But thanks to the gospel they also knew that the in-between time was not the only time. Things might look bleak, but in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the first readers and hearers of the gospel saw that a new age was being born.

And the same is true for us. We also live in the in-between time when often things can seem pretty bleak. But thanks to the gospel we also know that the in-between time is not the only time. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we know that a new age is being born.

And if we keep our eyes open, in this in-between time, we can catch glimpses of the birth of this new age.

This past week on November 11 here in the United States and around the world there were ceremonies honoring those who had fought and those who had sacrificed their lives in war.

We honor these brave men and women on November 11 because that was the date back in 1918 when Germany surrendered at the end of World War I.
Throughout that war the armies of France and Germany were locked in brutal and hellish trench warfare – spending years fighting over a few feet of land. I’m sure that most of those French and German soldiers must have believed that this is how it would always be, that France and Germany would be mortal enemies forever.

We know better, of course. The war and the war that followed it were not the end but part of the in-between time. Although, few could have imagined it, a new age was being born.

This year for the first time the president of France and the chancellor of Germany participated together in a ceremony marking the end of the war. The New York Times headline read, “France and Germany Use the Remembrance of a War to Promote Reconciliation.”

A new age is being born.

In his remarks, President Sarkozy said, “German orphans wept for their slain fathers in the same way as French orphans. German mothers felt the same pain as French mothers as they stood before the coffins of their fallen sons.”
In that powerful ceremony and in those beautiful words we glimpse the birth of a new age.

But, we’re not there yet. You and I are still in this in-between time. Jesus is honest with us – it’s not going to be an easy time. But like Hannah, you and I can place our trust in God who is right here with us in this in-between time. And, like the first disciples, we know that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus a new age is being born.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Adventure of Stewardship

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
November 2009

The Adventure of Stewardship

We all owe thanks to this year’s Stewardship Committee. Under Karen Koster’s able leadership, the committee has developed an informative, creative and exciting stewardship campaign. The testimonials given in church over the course of several Sundays were inspirational and challenging. The very attractively-designed printed materials clearly explain how pledging at Grace Church works and how the church pays its bills. If we haven’t already, I hope that all of us prayerfully consider our pledge for 2010 and return our pledge cards by Sunday, November 15th.

The stewardship campaign is important, but of course stewardship is much more than the once-a-year filling out of a pledge card and the periodic writing of a check to Grace Church. Just how important is stewardship? Well, stewardship is so important that a resolution approved at the 1988 General Convention of the Episcopal Church declared it to be “the main work of the Church.” The resolution also included these stirring words, “Stewardship is an adventure, an expedition into the kingdom where we find our lives through losing them for the sake of the Gospel. It is an invitation to offer our gifts for the purpose for which we were created – the only purpose that will fulfill us.”

It may seem strange to describe stewardship as an adventure. But, stop and think about it. What could be a greater adventure than committing ourselves to what really matters – to serving God by serving God’s people? If you’re not convinced, or if you think it’s not really possible to find our lives through losing them for the Gospel, the history of the Church is replete with the stories of men and women who have gone on the adventure of stewardship – who have given of themselves in truly remarkable ways. Each year on October 14 the Church honors one of the great adventurers in stewardship, Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky (1831-1906).

Schereschewsky was born to Jewish parents in Lithuania. Although he was orphaned at a young age, he was considered to be a promising young man so he received an education geared toward becoming a rabbi. While studying in Germany he came into contact with Anglican missionaries and also read a Hebrew translation of the New Testament. These experiences transformed his life, leading him to convert to Christianity, come to the United States, and prepare for ordained ministry. He began by studying at a Presbyterian seminary but after two years he joined the Episcopal Church and completed his studies at the General Theological Seminary in New York.

Schereschewsky’s adventure in stewardship was just beginning. Upon his graduation and ordination to the diaconate in 1859, he volunteered to serve the fledgling Anglican church in China. During the long voyage he taught himself how to write in Chinese. After his arrival, he was ordained a priest and began his monumental work of translating parts of the Bible and the Prayer Book into various Chinese languages. In 1877 he was elected Bishop of Shanghai where he later founded St. John’s University. He served as bishop until 1883 when he was forced to resign because of an attack of paralysis.

Although he had already lived a remarkable life, Schereschewsky’s adventure in stewardship was still not over. Despite many obstacles, he found a way to return to Asia and continue his translations. Here’s how his last years are described in the biographical sketch in Lesser Feasts and Fasts: “With heroic perseverance Schereschewsky completed his translation of the Bible, typing some 2,000 pages with the middle finger of his partially crippled hand. Four years before his death, he said, ‘I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.’”

Our adventure in stewardship may never take us out of Morris County. Nevertheless, what was true for Schereschewsky is also true for us. Each one of us has been given many gifts by God and we are called to give them all away in the service of God and our neighbors. Our current focus on stewardship provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our gifts and abilities and to look carefully for ways to serve. We may hesitate, afraid to try something new or thinking that we’re not up to the job. I’m sure there must have been many times during his long and adventurous life when Schereschewsky thought he wasn’t up to the task God had given him. Yet, each time, in the unlikeliest and most challenging situations, God’s grace gave him the strength he needed to do God’s work.

When we hesitate to use our gifts or don’t feel up to the adventure of stewardship, this sentence from the Collect for the Feast of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky can be our prayer to God:

“Lead us, we pray, to commit our lives and talents to you, in the confidence that when you give your servants any work to do, you also supply the strength to do it.” Amen.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Margaret Helmers

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 31, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Margaret “Peg” Helmers
Isaiah 35:1-10
Matthew 6:19-21; 25-33
John 14:1-6a

The Priority of Love

Even after two thousand years the passage I just read from the Gospel of John has lost none of its power. The setting is the Last Supper and there is a sense of urgency as Jesus says good-bye to his friends.

At the Last Supper Jesus knows he has only a short time left to teach his disciples. And what he wants to teach them is the priority of love. Jesus teaches them about the priority of love in his actions and in his words.

Jesus teaches them about the priority of love when he gets down on his knees and washes the feet of each of his disciples.

After he’s finished Jesus says to his disciples, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

As this lesson about the priority of love was beginning to sink in, Judas leaves to betray Jesus and then Jesus tells the disciples that he will be with them just a little while longer.

Jesus tells his friends, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Right to the end, Jesus is teaching them about the priority of love.

Of course, it’s hard for the disciples to accept that Jesus is going to die. In the midst of their sadness and fear Jesus promises them death will not break the love they have for one another. Jesus promises that he is going ahead to prepare a place for them. Jesus tells them that they know the way to the place where he is going.

In his confusion and despair Thomas says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

And Jesus says in reply, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

In the Last Supper, once again Jesus teaches the disciples about the priority of love.

Not right away, but after Easter when they realized that Jesus has conquered death and after Pentecost when they received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the disciples follow Jesus’ example and go out and live lives in which love is the priority.

Peg Helmers was a person of deep faith, someone who trusted that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. Peg Helmers was a person who expressed her faith just as Jesus hoped his followers would, not so much in words but through the priority of love.

Peg died on July 29, which on the church calendar happens to be the Feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany.

That day I remember thinking that the story of Mary and Martha tells us something important about Peg and the life she lived. The story of Mary and Martha and the life of Peg Helmers tell us something important about the priority of love.

Do you remember Mary and Martha? Along with their brother Lazarus they were very close friends with Jesus. There is a famous story about the two sisters in the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus is visiting Mary and Martha. Martha is trying to be a good host, so, as Luke politely puts it, she was “Distracted by her many tasks.” Meanwhile her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching – and not lifting a finger to help her sister.

Finally Martha can’t take it any more. She complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Pretty reasonable request, right? But Jesus says to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Often people interpret this story as the world is divided into Marthas – the doers and Marys – the spiritual. But that can’t be right because we’re all called to be doers and to be spiritual.

This story of Mary and Martha is really about priorities – of staying centered on what’s most important in life.

It’s a story about the priority of love – love of Jesus and love for one another.

And Peg was certainly a person who understood the priority of love.

Peg’s life was centered on her faith, her family and her friends.

Many of you here today know better than I do the life of loving service she lived. You know the loving service she offered to her family, her friends and her church.

In our conversations her mind would often look to the past – growing up in Springfield, visits to grandparents in Manhattan, studying math at Rutgers, her marriage to Carl and especially raising Kristin, Carl and Peter in Florham Park.

She loved the beauty of God’s creation – and we can hear that love of nature in the lessons the family selected for today’s service. Here at Grace Church that love of beauty and nature was expressed in her longtime service as a flower arranger. And she was not just a flower arranger but also a teacher of others. So, although she is no longer here to decorate the altar, those she taught continue her tradition of service.

She loved her family dearly. Many times she expressed her gratitude that her three children had turned out so well. She missed her late brother John, an Episcopal priest. Although, she reminded me just about every time, “We called them ministers, not priests.” She cared deeply about her brother Charles and relished the weekly phone conversations with Lura down in Florida.

And Peg was a loving friend. In the little living room of her house where we usually met on the end table there were two framed photographs – one of Al Dolan and the other of Ginnie Brandt.

It was a privilege to get to know Peg in these last years of her life. They were not easy years. It was a time of illness, pain and setbacks. Some setbacks were bigger than others. It was traumatic for Peg when she could no longer drive. It was hard for her accept that she needed help to take care of herself.

But through it all she never forgot the priority of love. When I would visit we had a little routine. I’d ask how she was doing. She’d admit to being in pain or being frustrated that she couldn’t do the things she wanted to do. But then she’d look at me and smile and say, “But, I can’t complain.”

And then I’d say, no, she could complain a little.

Once that was out of the way, she would turn the attention away from herself and ask how I was doing, how things were at the church, and if I had seen Al recently.

Right to the end, Peg never forgot the priority of love.

Peg’s long journey has come to an end, and she is in the place prepared for her by Jesus, experiencing the fullness of God’s love.

For us, however, the journey continues. The life and teaching of Jesus call us to the priority of love. The life and example of Peg Helmers show us that it really is possible, here and now, to live a life in which love is the priority.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Kind of Crowd are We?

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 25, 2009

The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 25
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8
(Hebrews 7:23-28)
Mark 10:46-52

What Kind of Crowd are We?

Although the Gospel of Mark is probably the earliest of the four gospels to be written, that doesn’t mean that it is a simplistic piece of work. Actually, it’s clear that the Evangelist Mark took great care in drawing from earlier traditions and stories about Jesus as he shaped his gospel. The gospel is not a random series of events. Mark offers clear themes that run through the gospel.

The central theme is the Passion of Jesus Christ. For Mark, Jesus’ identity and mission and meaning can only be understood in light of the Cross and the empty tomb.

All of other Mark’s themes are connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection. So, as we’ve seen, over and over the disciples don’t really “get” Jesus. Part of that lack of understanding is probably historical fact, but part of it, for Mark, is the truth that the disciples can’t really “get” Jesus until after his death and resurrection.

We’ve also seen the theme of the so-called “Messianic Secret.” Over and over Jesus warns his followers not to tell anyone about the miraculous things they’ve seen him do. All of this secrecy doesn’t really make sense unless Jesus – and the Evangelist Mark – recognize that only after Jesus’ death and resurrection will we be able to understand who Jesus was and what Jesus was doing.

Finally, we’ve seen the theme of faith in the Gospel of Mark. For Mark, faith is not primarily about agreeing to set of statements about Jesus. Instead, faith is described more as persistence in the face of adversity, trust in Jesus despite all the obstacles that might be in our way.

Probably the best example we’ve seen before Bartimaeus is the Syro-Phoenician woman from a few weeks ago. Remember how persistent she was in asking Jesus to heal her child – how persistent she was even after Jesus seems to spurn her? For Mark, faith is that kind of persistence and trust.

All of Mark’s big themes – the centrality of the Passion, the misunderstanding of the disciples, the Messianic Secret and faith as persistence and trust are drawn together in the wonderful and powerful story we just heard this morning.

The healing of Bartimaeus brings us just about to the end of Jesus’ journey with his disciples to Jerusalem. Mark tells us this healing of the bland man takes place in or near Jericho – which is some seventeen miles from Jerusalem. The journey is coming to an end - the shadow of the Cross is looming ever larger. Along the way Jesus has been trying – with mixed success - to teach his disciples through words and also through acts of healing.

Today’s passage picks up right where we left off last Sunday. Remember, Jesus had once again predicted his suffering, death and resurrection, and James and John – not getting it, as usual – asked if they could have special seats at Jesus’ right and left. Then Jesus tried once again to teach the disciples that the person who is truly great is the person that serves.

That’s still a tough lesson for us, but kids seem to get it. Last week in my homily in the children’s chapel I asked the kids, “What makes somebody really great?” I expected answers like someone with a lot of money, or a fancy car, or being famous. Instead, without missing a beat, one little girl shot up her hand and said, “Being great is when you help people and are nice to people.”

So much for my homily!

Anyway, unlike our kids, the disciples don’t get it. Then we pick up today when Jesus and his disciples come to Jericho. Can you imagine the scene? Notice Mark tells us there’s a large crowd around Jesus – his efforts at secrecy are either no longer working or he’s no longer trying. And then sitting on the roadside is Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. He’s a nobody in a world filled with nobodies. Even his name is not really a name. It literally means “Son of Timaeus.”
Nobody is paying any attention to this beggar, this nobody, when suddenly he shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This is a big moment – less than twenty miles from Jerusalem for the first time Jesus is publicly declared to be the royal messiah and Jesus does not rebuke Bartimaeus or tell him to keep his identity a secret.

Instead, it’s the crowd, presumably followers of Jesus, who sternly order this nobody, this blind beggar, to be quiet.

But Bartimaeus won’t be silenced. His faith is persistent. He shouts out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Mark tells us Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”

The crowd quickly changes its tune. “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

Notice Jesus restores Bartimaeus’s sight without even touching him. Instead, Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Once again Mark reminds us that faith is persistence in the face of adversity, faith is putting our trust in Jesus despite all the obstacles that might be in our way.

Although Jesus tells Bartimaeus to “go” he doesn’t go off by himself. Instead, Mark tells us that this nobody who had a persistent faith in Jesus became a disciple and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem and all that awaits him and the other disciples there.

It’s a rich and powerful story. But what does it have to do with us?

There are a lot of possibilities, but as I’ve thought about this story I keep getting drawn back to the crowd and the two different ways they treat Bartimaeus.
At first they dismiss him as a nobody – just another blind beggar in a world filled with suffering, desperate people. But when Jesus shows an interest in him, the crowd quickly changes its tune and treats Bartimaeus with much more respect.
I’ve wondered how I would have behaved in the crowd. I’ve wondered what kind of crowd are we?

Do we ignore the nobodies of the world? Do we turn a deaf ear to the pleas of those who are in need? Do we try to keep Jesus to ourselves and not share the Good News with people who are outside our group?

Or do we say through our words and our actions to the suffering in the world, “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.”

I think if we’re honest we have to admit that our crowd is a mix of both.

At our best, the other day we were the kind of crowd that served over 180 Bartimaeuses at the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown. And, I might add, apparently for the first time in the history of the soup kitchen it was all men serving the food that day.

At our best, we’re the kind of crowd that spends many hours out on a truck named Bruno accepting donations and delivering furniture for the Bartimaeuses of Northern New Jersey.

At our best we’re the kind of crowd that volunteers much time and energy to the clothing sale and the auction, to strengthen our own community, help our neighbors and to raise money to continue our work.

At our best, even in a tight economy, we’re the kind of crowd that sacrifices many thousands of dollars from our church budget to offer outreach money to support so many organizations that serve the Bartimaeuses of the world.

At our best we’re the kind of crowd that reaches out to the lonely and the ill and frightened and the despairing – the people who feel like Bartimaeus, blind, off on the side of the road calling out to Jesus for mercy. At our best, we pick up the phone just to talk and tell them we care. At our best, we stop by the house or visit them in the hospital or the nursing home – places filled with Bartimaeuses.
At our best, we are the kind of crowd that says to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

But, if we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes we’re the kind of crowd that ignores the nobodies, the kind of crowd that looks out only for itself, the kind of crowd that tries to keep the Good News of Jesus to itself, the kind of crowd that says “Quiet!” when the nobodies cry out for mercy.

The bottom line is we need to be like that crowd around Jesus that day so long ago. Obviously they weren’t perfect but they were following Jesus, listening to his words, and most importantly, following his example.

When Jesus heard the cry of Bartimaeus he stood still and said “Call him here.”

The crowd around Jesus followed his example, noticed the nobody, and said “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

What kind of crowd are we?


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bewildered, Yet Faithful

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 18, 2009

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 24
Job 38:1-7
Psalm 104:1-9, 25,37c
(Hebrews 5:1-10)
Mark 10:35-45

Bewildered, yet Faithful

To be honest, many of us are a little groggy today after last night’s amazing auction. It was a phenomenal event. And, it was also a great example of stewardship at work – people giving their time, talent and treasure to serve God, the church and others.

There’s been a whole lot of great stewardship going on here at Grace. In case you’ve forgotten, aside from all the many usual activities, we had the very successful clothing sale, the beautiful evensong and delicious potluck supper for the bishop’s blessing of Grace Hall, we had an inspiring and creative start to this year’s stewardship drive, and – who can forget - we had the blessing of the animals on St. Francis Day.

I know some people go out of their way to avoid it, but I really love the blessing of the animals. This year there were few, if any, really exotic animals but lots of beautiful dogs, cats, rabbits, as well as photos of dogs and cats, along with a fair number of stuffed animals.

Looking out at the congregation during that service, I was impressed by just how well-behaved the animals were. And, I got to wondering what must be going through their brains: This isn’t the park or the vet, what is this place I’ve been brought to? I recognize the people I live with but who are all these other people? Why are we here with all of these animals?

The smell of our hands as we blessed these pets must have bewildered these poor animals. “What is that creature that’s reaching out to me? Oh no – it’s a cat-dog-rabbit-man?!”

I guess the pets that were here did OK, but they really must have been bewildered by the whole experience.
Much of the time our lives aren’t so different, are they? Isn’t much of life bewildering? Don’t we often find ourselves wondering why things happen the way they do?

Life is filled with bewildering events – think of the people going about their lives in Samoa when suddenly a tidal wave rushed in and destroyed much of their world. Think of the person who has taken painstaking care of her health only to be told by the doctors that she faces a terminal illness. Think of the person who has always overachieved at work and yet receives word that, along with everyone else in the department, he has to clean out his desk by the end of the day.

Life is often bewildering.

But, it’s not just life itself that’s bewildering. Aren’t people themselves bewildering? Why do people sometimes act more generously and kindly than we would ever expect? On the other hand, why do people sometimes do the strange, destructive and often self-destructive things they do?

And don’t we sometimes bewilder ourselves? Why do we sometimes surprise ourselves and act more generously and kindly than we might have expected? On the other hand, why do we sometimes do the strange, destructive and often self-destructive things we do? St. Paul sums this up nicely in his letter to the Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (7:15)

Life is often bewildering.

Especially for us in the “helping professions” – but really for everyone – it is very tempting to offer easy explanations or false assurance during the bewildering moments of life.

How often when we’ve heard someone tell us about some problem or tragedy have we tempted to say – or in fact said – something like, “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK. I’m sure everything will work out for the best.”

Or how often have we been tempted to say – or in fact said – something like, “It’s all part of God’s plan” or even “God must be testing you”?

Probably the hardest lesson I learned the summer I spent training as a chaplain at Christ Hospital was resisting the temptation to offer the false assurance or the easy answer. It was hard to resist the temptation to “fix” people and their bewildering problems. I was especially hard to resist that temptation especially when it seemed like that’s what people wanted.

I remember one patient who had a relatively minor physical illness but who was profoundly lonely. When she was done telling me her rather sad story she looked at me and said something like, “And now I would like you to tell me how to solve this problem.”

She was bewildered. I tried to remember that my job was not to offer easy answers or false assurances but to be a sign of God’s loving presence and to help her ask for God’s grace in the midst of her bewilderment.

Speaking of bewilderment, for the past few weeks we’ve been hearing snippets from the Book of Job. It’s an unusual book of the Bible. We know pretty much nothing about when and where it was written. But, all of that doesn’t matter so much because the Book of Job is a piece of folklore that really speaks to people in all times and places. You remember the main points of the story, right?
Satan, the accuser or the prosecutor of the heavenly council, reports to God that he has been on the prowl all over the earth, implying that there are no righteous people. God responds by insisting that Job is “a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.”

Satan doesn’t buy it and replies that Job is blameless and upright only because he has been so richly blessed by God. Take that away and Job will surely curse God to God’s face.

God agrees to the challenge as long as Job’s life is spared.

So, Job, this blameless and upright man, will suffer bewildering loss and pain.
Now, the Book of Job is frequently offered as a help with the age-old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But, if you think about it, the story doesn’t really offer a satisfying answer to that question.

The character of Job is often held up as a model of patience. Maybe you know the expression, “the Patience of Job”. Again, if you read the book, you find out that’s not really true. Job is perfectly willing – and frankly justified – to complain mightily to God about what has happened to him. And in the reading we heard today, God is dismissive of Job’s complaints and is depicted as essentially unknowable and other. It’s not a very attractive view of God. But, on the other hand, God is present and despite everything God never abandons or stops caring for Job.

Job may not be patient but he remains faithful in the face of all the bewildering things that happen to him. And that’s really what this book is about. The Book of Job asks if it’s possible for us to hold on to our faith in the midst of the bewilderment of life. Despite everything is it possible for us to trust in God?

The Gospel has something to say about that, too. In today’s lesson, once again the disciples are bewildered. Mark organizes his gospel around the journey of Jesus and his disciples to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus is very clear with his disciples that at the end of this journey he will be betrayed, tortured, killed and then will rise again in three days.

These predictions by Jesus must have been bewildering for the disciples. It’s right after one of the predictions of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, that James and John make their request to sit in glory beside Jesus.

Jesus has made another of his bewildering predictions and in the midst of their bewilderment these two disciples want the easy answer and false assurance from Jesus. They want Jesus to say something like, “Don’t worry, things might be tough now, but you’ll be exalted in heaven.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t fall for this. First he’s brutally honest – if you’re with me you’re going to suffer. And then he tells them that it’s not for him to give special seats in paradise.

Finally, in the midst of their bewilderment, Jesus calls James and John and all the disciples to faithfulness – a faithfulness that is best expressed by imitating the loving and sacrificial service of Jesus.

Jesus tells the disciples - and is telling us - that we express our faith in loving and sacrificial service – the giving of our time, talent and treasure. And it’s in sacrifice that true greatness is found.

So, life was bewildering for Job and for the disciples and life is often bewildering for all of us.

In the Book of Job God is depicted as kind of cold and distant, but nevertheless God is shown as present in Job’s bewilderment.

We Christians know a good bit more about God than the creators of the Book of Job. We Christians know that God loves the world so much that in Jesus he came and lived and died and rose again among us. And as St. Paul also wrote in his letter to the Romans, nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The question behind the Book of Job and the challenge for all of us is remaining faithful even in the midst of our bewilderment. And Jesus teaches us in the Gospel that our faithfulness is best expressed in loving and sacrificial service.

Fortunately, we don’t have to look very far to see that loving and sacrificial service all around us. Behind last night’s auction and all the wonderful things that happen here, there have been people offering stewardship – sacrificing their time, talent and treasure. I’m sure there were times when many of our fellow parishioners were bewildered by the large and small challenges of life. Yet, they persisted, they kept going, they remained faithful, they gave of themselves.

My prayer is that all of us may remain faithful to God and express our faith through loving service to one another – by giving our time, talent and treasure.