Sunday, April 19, 2009

Low Sunday

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 19, 2009

Year B: The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
(1 John 1:1-2:2)
John 20:19-31

Low Sunday

It’s really too bad that the Second Sunday of Easter is traditionally a “low Sunday.” It’s too bad because each year we hope that the joyful spectacle of Easter will inspire people to come back the following Sunday for some more – even if we don’t have brass and timpani. And it’s also too bad this is traditionally a “low Sunday” because the gospel that we always hear on this day – the account of Jesus twice appearing to the disciples in the locked room – has so much to say to us, right here and now.

Today’s gospel lesson is from the Gospel of John. Most scholars think this fourth gospel was the last to be written, some time around the end of the First Century – several generations after the earthly lifetime of Jesus.

The Evangelist John is writing to a primarily Jewish community that faced an excruciating choice. For the first few decades the Jews who believed that Jesus was the messiah had continued to live as Jews. But by the year 100, for a variety of reasons, being a Jewish Christian was becoming increasingly impossible.

The Jewish Christians at the end of the First Century had to make a choice. They could no longer have it both ways.

It’s important to remember this excruciating choice because it largely accounts for the glaringly negative references to “the Jews” in the Gospel of John that tragically have helped fuel two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism. We hear it even in today’s passage. John tells us the disciples were hiding in a locked room “for fear of the Jews.” We need to remember that the disciples themselves were Jews!

So, near the end of the First Century the Evangelist John is writing to a community faced with a very painful choice.
On the one hand, they could remain faithful to the traditions of their Jewish ancestors and surrender their faith in Jesus.

On the other hand, they could reject their Jewish identity and place their faith in Jesus the resurrected messiah – the resurrected messiah who they could not see in the flesh.

But, they couldn’t have it both ways.

I’m sure one of the stumbling blocks to choosing option number two - one of the things that made it hard to choose Jesus - was that people at the end of the First Century were unable to see the resurrected Jesus in the flesh.

In other words, the first audience for the Gospel of John was essentially in the same position as we are all these centuries later – we are all challenged to believe in the resurrected Jesus we cannot see in the flesh.

It turns out that John is writing as much to us in the 21st Century as to those people at the end of the First Century. We have to make a choice. We can’t have it both ways.

Not so long ago, it was sort of possible for Christians to have it both ways, wasn’t it? Not so long ago, pretty much everyone went to church. After World War II the church went on a building spree, planting churches throughout the suburbs - churches that were packed with young families. In those days, I’m told, going to church was one of the things you did – it was one of the major ways people were expected to be involved in the community. And sports teams wouldn’t dare schedule practices on Sunday mornings!

When I was a kid in the ‘70s the blue laws were still in effect in Hudson County. I can remember going to Two Guys – sort of the Wal-Mart or Target of its day – and seeing the chains that separated the grocery section from the rest of the store. On Sunday in Hudson County you could by a steak but you couldn’t buy a sweater.

For better or for worse, except in Bergen County, those days are over.

Today, our culture certainly does not encourage us to go to church. And, let’s face it - we get no benefit or acknowledgement from the world if we actually go to church.

If anyone even notices, they probably think it is “nice” that we go to church or they think that we are a hangover from an earlier, more religious age. And since church is no longer the thing to do, it would be very easy to roll over on Sunday morning and go along with the rest of the culture.

And I don’t need to tell you, practices and games and all sorts of events are now routinely scheduled on Sunday mornings.

And so just like the people at the First Century, you and I are faced with a difficult choice. Just like the people at the end of the First Century, we can’t have it both ways.

On the one hand, we can go along with the larger culture – we can live pretty much like everybody else – we can live like our neighbors who think our faith is a lot of nonsense or irrelevant or quaint.

Or we can put our faith in the resurrected Jesus we cannot see in the flesh.

And since we’re here – even on “Low Sunday” – I guess we’ve made our choice.

But what about all of those other people out there? What about all those people who were here last week and who we won’t see again until Christmas? What about all of those people who haven’t heard or experienced the Good News that we proclaimed right at the start of today’s service: “Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”

What about all those people out there?

Although just like people in the First Century we can’t see Jesus in the flesh, the truth is that if the Church really is the Body of Christ then we are Jesus in the flesh.

John the Evangelist describes that in today’s gospel when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit onto the disciples. If we weren’t paying attention, we might have missed that in today’s gospel not only do we have two resurrection appearances we also have Pentecost!

Jesus gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit so we – the Church - can be his body in the world.

We glimpse a probably idealized view of the early Church as the Body of Christ in the snippet that we heard from the Acts of the Apostles: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…”

And when we are open enough to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, when we are of one heart and soul, then the world can look at us and really see the Risen Christ in the flesh.

On Good Friday, even though I was expecting it, I was still so moved when all of the young people in the choir quietly took their places during the three-hour service. So many were present, even though it was spring break in Madison, even though many of the older kids had been up most of the night during the Maundy Thursday lock-in. For me, on the day we remember Jesus’ death, in those faithful young people I could see the Risen Christ in the flesh.

At our best, at our most open, when we are of one heart and soul, the world can look at us and see the Risen Christ in the flesh.

The other day Eliot Knight was outside the post office when someone pointed out the Recycling Ministry sweatshirt he was wearing. Eliot began his R.M. spiel when the person said "I know! I help out at Eric Johnson House next to Church of the Redeemer in Morristown. I know about you. You're one of the few churches that do what you say you do!”

At our best, at our most open, when we are of one heart and soul, the world can look at us and see the Risen Christ in the flesh.

During Lent our kids and their parents donated 593 cans of tuna – think about how many people were fed by that generosity! And, in part because we stepped up our contributions, Food for Friends in Dover said they had enough food and we are now able to give our donations to the Apostle’s House in Newark. (And in case you’ve forgotten, today is cereal day and next week is 100% fruit juice!)

At our best, at our most open, when we are of one heart and soul, the world can look at us and see the Risen Christ in the flesh.

If you were at the 9:00am service on Easter you know that Bishop Charles Keyser - whose daughter and grandchildren are parishioners here – was our guest celebrant. At the end of the service during the recessional, the bishop’s granddaughter – Lena Caroline – stepped out of the pew, took her grandfather’s hand and they joyfully walked down the aisle together. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen and made my Easter.

You and I, we’ve made our choice, but all of those people out there face a choice between the world and the church. It’s not an easy choice, but we can make it a little easier for them. At our best, at our most open, when we are of one heart and soul, the world can look at us and see the Risen Christ in the flesh.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Not Merely Speculation

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 12, 2009

Year B: The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4
Mark 16:1-8

Not Merely Speculation

Even if we weren’t churchgoers the supermarket would remind us that it’s Easter. We would see the overflowing shelves of candy and those little pink and yellow marshmallow chicks. And there are also palm crosses and lilies for sale.

And when we check out of the supermarket we would probably see newsmagazines devoting their covers to stories that speculate about Jesus or some of the other figures from the New Testament. They often have headlines like “Who was the real Mary Magdalene?” or “The Search for the Historical Jesus.” And sometimes these articles speculate about the really big question, the question that cuts right to the heart of our Easter faith – “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?”

I never read those magazines, although I admit I do skim them sometimes when if the line at Shop Rite is a little long.

I also never really watch the so-called documentaries on channels such as The History Channel or the Biography Channel that speculate about the same questions and claim to offer answers, and even proof one way or the other.

And, of course, you can find the same kind of questions being asked and “answers” and even “proof” being given on the Internet, too. The other day I visited one of the news sites I look at frequently and stumbled across an article called “10 Reasons the Resurrection Really Happened.”

I guess the headline piqued my curiosity so I went ahead and read the whole article. It turns out that the ten reasons offered by the author all hinge on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.

You’re probably familiar with this famous piece of cloth that bears the image of a crucified man. Scientists and scholars have offered all sorts of explanations for the shroud, ranging from elaborate hoax to physical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.

Since the article I read is called “10 Reasons the Resurrection Really Happened” obviously the author doesn’t think the shroud is a hoax.

I’ll spare you all ten reasons offered by the author, but here are two: First he writes, “Had the image been painted on the cloth by a forger, the paint traces of the pigment would have remained on the surface. The color here penetrates the cloth evenly from one side to another. Note: In this, it is more like a scorch.”

And second, “Speculation: the scorch might have been made by radioactivity attendant upon the resurrection. Whether or not it is pertinent, the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe produced measurable radiation that determines that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old. If the scorch on the shroud is the result of radiation, it could have been radiation that reconstituted the dead body. But that is merely speculation.”

Yes, I think we can all agree that that is “merely speculation.”

Now, if you’re looking for reasons to prove the resurrection of Jesus really happened, at first glance it would seem the Gospel of Mark doesn’t offer much help. What we just heard this morning is what most scholars believe is the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, probably the earliest of the four gospels. And that original ending is quite open-ended, isn’t it?

The women go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. They find the large stone rolled away. Inside the tomb they find a young man dressed in a white robe who tells them Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead to Galilee. And the gospel ends, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

And at first glance it would seem that Mark’s gospel gives us the least amount of proof of all. There are no stories of Jesus appearing to the apostles, showing his wounds to Thomas, appearing on the road to Emmaus. Nothing like that.

Mark ends with “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
You can see why apparently a little later on, some Christians thought it was necessary to add a little more to this gospel, kind of summarizing the post-resurrection appearances found in the other gospels.

But, with his open-ended ending Mark offers us profound proof of the Resurrection.

And, if you want that proof, just look around you.

Everyone sitting here is a living reason why the resurrection really happened.

Everyone sitting here and all Christians around the world are living proof of the transformation that occurs when people encounter the risen Christ.

Mark doesn’t tell us how it happened, but those frightened women fleeing the tomb and those frightened apostles who had gone off into hiding when Jesus was arrested, were transformed into bold women and men who proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Peter who had denied Jesus three times in his greatest hour of need is transformed and proclaims the Gospel, gives up his life for the Gospel.

Paul the Pharisee who never met Jesus during his earthly lifetime, Paul who persecuted the first followers of Jesus is transformed into a man who spends his life tirelessly traveling around the Mediterranean world, boldly proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And even if we don’t know all the details, we know that the Jesus movement – the early Church – survived the extreme trauma of Jesus’ death – the church survived the deep shame of Jesus dying on a cross.

And the church survived because Jesus’ first followers were transformed by their encounter with the resurrected Jesus.

And that’s not merely speculation.

In his gospel, Mark doesn’t have to spell that out because he is writing around the year 70, a couple of generations after the earthly lifetime of Jesus. Mark doesn’t have to spell it out because that audience, that community, would have been well aware that the story didn’t end with a handful of frightened women running from the tomb in terror and amazement.

Those first readers and hearers of the Gospel of Mark, a couple of generations after the earthly lifetime of Jesus would have known the story of transformation because they were the living result, the living proof, of that transformation.

It’s not merely speculation that you and I are here this morning at Grace Church, two thousand years later, because of the transformation that took place so long ago when the first disciples encountered the resurrected Jesus.

And it’s not merely speculation that you and I here this morning at Grace Church, are also here because of the transformation that has occurred in our own lives when we encounter the resurrected Jesus.

We may have our own personal stories of encounter and transformation, but we all share the experience of encountering the resurrected Jesus in the water of baptism and especially in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

Yesterday morning a handful of us were present for the Holy Saturday service. There is no communion at that service. In fact, on Good Friday the day before we had administered all of the consecrated bread and wine, since the Eucharist would not be celebrated again until the Easter Vigil last night.

It’s not merely speculation that part of the power of the stark and simple Holy Saturday service is that we experience Jesus’ absence – echoing what the first disciples must have experienced the day after Jesus’ death.

And seeing your faces and your hands week after week as you come to receive Communion I know it’s not merely speculation that in some mysterious and inexplicable way we experience the resurrected Jesus right here in bread and wine.

So Mark gives us an open-ended conclusion to his gospel. He doesn’t spell out the story of transformation when the first disciples encountered the risen Jesus.

Mark doesn’t have to spell out that transformation because you and I and Christians all around the world are the living result of that transformation. And you and I and Christians all around the world continue to be transformed by our encounters with the risen Christ.

And that’s not merely speculation.

Happy Easter.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Faithful Witnesses

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 10, 2009

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 69:1-23
John 18:1-19:37

Faithful Witnesses

In church on each Good Friday we hear the Passion According to St. John. I think it’s obvious that John’s gospel is chosen for this solemn day because of its power and its vividness and its beauty.

Most scholars believe that the Gospel of John was written near the end of the First Century – decades after the earthly lifetime of Jesus - and after decades of reflection on Jesus - reflection on his life, death and resurrection.

And near the end of the First Century the author of John’s Gospel was writing for a community that was now faced with an excruciating choice. For the first few decades after Jesus’ earthly lifetime it had been possible for Jewish believers in Jesus to continue to worship in the synagogue. For those first few decades it was possible to both Jewish and Christian.

But by the end of the First Century both Judaism and Christianity were changing. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, believers in Jesus were increasingly claiming that he was divine, and meanwhile more and more non-Jews were discovering Jesus and seeing him not only as the Jewish messiah but the messiah for the whole world.

And so near the end of the First Century the Jewish followers of Jesus faced a choice. Continue to follow Jesus and cut themselves off from Jewish life or reject Jesus and remain in the faith tradition of their ancestors.

You can imagine just how difficult that choice must have been.

I mention this not because you and I are faced with difficult choices in our own lives – although that’s certainly true. I mention this little history lesson because for most of Christian history parts of the Gospel of John – and most especially the Passion – have been used to justify Christian anti-Semitism.

And so each time we read these scriptures it is necessary to remind ourselves of the context in which they were written. The Jesus movement began as a Jewish movement and the Gospel of John was written by Jews, primarily to Jews and for Jews.

And so the later “Christian” idea that the Jewish people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus would have been incomprehensible to the author of the gospel and its first readers.

What they would have understood, though, was that, in Jesus, God had entered the world in a personal and physical way and nearly everyone – despite hearing the teachings, despite seeing the miracles – nearly everyone rejected Jesus and nearly everyone went along with putting Jesus to death.

And that’s the horrifying truth we recall on Good Friday – the horrifying truth that God entered the world in Jesus and human beings rejected him, abandoned him, and killed him.

Although written decades later, the description of the Passion of our Lord in the Gospel of John is so powerful, so gripping, and so vivid that it’s the version of the Passion that we turn to each Good Friday.

This powerful, gripping and vivid gospel captures our imaginations, doesn’t it? How many of us as we heard the familiar story being told once again were able to imagine it in our mind’s eye?

Can you imagine Peter, the man of action, impulsively grabbing a sword and cutting off the slave’s ear?

Could you see the shrewd yet puzzled face of Pilate questioning this so-called king of the Jews? Pilate asks, “What is truth?”

Could you see the beaten and bloodied Jesus mockingly dressed in a purple robe and wearing a crown of thorns? Could you see God having entered the world in Jesus and now turned into a figure of ridicule?

As I’ve reflected on the Passion this year the image that I keep on returning to is the vision of Mary and the Beloved Disciple standing there at the foot of the Cross.

And from the cross Jesus looks down and says, “Woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother.”

Now, most of us have seen all of this in art, or in passion plays or in movies. And even if we haven’t, John’s gospel is so vivid that we can imagine the scene very easily. Yet, I find it difficult to imagine the expression on Mary’s face and what she might say confronted by the horror of watching her son die in agony before her.

When I do try to imagine it, I keep thinking back to a couple of weeks ago – March 25, to be exact – when we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation.

Luke tells us that the Angel Gabriel appeared to the young Mary with the words, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

And then the angel goes on to tell the startled Mary, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And, Mary, of course, takes that great leap of faith and says yes and brings Jesus – brings God - into the world.

Little did Mary know what that yes was going to mean for her, for Jesus and for the whole world. Oh, she would have known how hard it would be for her and for Joseph to bring this child of dubious paternity into her society. And she would have been well aware that in her time and place at least half of the children died in infancy or early childhood. And she would have known that even if everything went right, her child would be fortunate to live 40 years.

But I doubt that Mary could have anticipated the horrible scene she faced on that first Good Friday – watching her son, abandoned by his friends and followers, take agonizing breath after agonizing breath, hanging, dying on the cross.

Mary and the Beloved Disciple and the handful of other women who remained were powerless. All they could do for Jesus was stand as faithful witnesses.

As I thought about this I was reminded of a story about my grandmother. Before I was born, one of her sons died of leukemia. And each year after that on his birthday, my grandmother would have mass on that day offered in his memory. Anyway, this one year not long before she died, my grandmother as usual went to church on his birthday and was shocked and devastated when it was announced that the mass was being offered in memory of someone else.

I could hear the deep hurt and even anger when she told me the story later. After mass she went to the church office and asked the secretary what had happened. Apparently the secretary was apologetic but kind of nonchalant about it. She said something like, “Oh sorry – you know these things happen.”

I’ll never forget what my grandmother said next. With tears in her voice she said, “This is all I can do for my son.”

“This is all I can do for my son.”

At the foot of the cross, all Mary and the others could do was pray and be faithful witnesses.

And that’s why so many of our young people were here last night, keeping the vigil before the Altar of Repose. And that’s why we are here today.

We are not here to do anything. There is nothing really to be done except to pray and to serve as faithful witnesses to the horrifying truth that God entered the world in Jesus and human beings rejected him, abandoned him, and killed him.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like much. But, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of being faithful witnesses just because it seems we aren’t “doing” anything.

John’s version of the Passion doesn’t include this, but Matthew and Mark tell us that from the cross Jesus cried out a verse from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Since we know what comes next, we know, of course, that God hadn’t abandoned Jesus and the faithful witnesses huddled at the foot of the cross, seemingly doing nothing, would have served as a reminder of God’s presence and God’s love and God’s power to turn death into life. The faithful witnesses would have served as a reminder that with God hope is never lost.

When Jesus looks down at Mary and the Beloved Disciple and says “Woman, here is your son” and “Here is your mother” he announces the birth of the Christian community of faithful witnesses.

And just as Mary and the Beloved Disciple stood as faithful witnesses, you and I today are called to be faithful witnesses. We are called to stand with those who are suffering in mind, body or spirit.

We are not called to give easy answers like, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” We are not called to try to “fix” people – because in truth we can’t.

We are called to be faithful witnesses – to stand with those who suffer. We are called to be signs, to be reminders of God’s presence and God’s love and God’s power to turn death into life.

On Good Friday, and every day, we are called to be faithful witnesses, to serve as a reminder that with God hope is never lost.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Two Bookend Experiences

Trinity + St. Philip's Cathedral, Newark NJ
Service of Renewal of Ordination Vows
April 7, 2009

The Tuesday in Holy Week
Jeremiah 1:4-9
Psalm 119:33-40
Matthew 9:35-38

Two Bookend Experiences

At Grace Church in Madison where I’m the curate I have sort of a running joke with the rector, Lauren Ackland. It’s not particularly funny, so don’t feel obliged to laugh. The joke is whenever I’m faced with the task of preaching a difficult text or whenever inspiration doesn’t seem to be striking I often say, “Lauren, don’t worry - it’s no problem, I’ve got it – I’ll just talk about myself.”

Even though by now she’s heard this routine many times, Lauren is very polite so she’ll usually at least smile. Not quitting while I’m ahead, to get a laugh, sometimes I push it a little further and start to say something in “preacher voice” like, “I’m reminded of one day when I was in third grade, I was sitting in math class, and…”

At this point - if I still haven’t gotten a laugh - then I usually back away slowly and slink back to my office and get to work on the sermon.

I had one of those situations a couple of weeks ago when, like many of you, I guess, I had to preach on that bizarre story from Numbers about God sending poisonous snakes to kill the Israelites and then instructing Moses to create an idol, which apparently did the trick. As for the prohibition against idolatry – it seems there’s an exception in case of attack by poisonous snakes.

And now this morning I’m faced with one of those challenging situations again with the task of preaching to you – most of whom have been ordained far longer than I have been – preaching to you about…ordained life.

So, although I’m not a kid anymore, I can really sympathize with Jeremiah when he tries to wiggle out of the task he’s been given from God by saying he’s only a child.

But, Lauren, don’t worry – I’ve got it – I’ll just talk about myself!!

Having lived almost my whole life in Jersey City, I wasn’t able to come up with any poisonous snake stories, but I have had lots of experience with the ordained. And, as I’ve reflected back, I realize that I have had two bookend experiences that have shaped my understanding of what it means to be ordained. These two bookend experiences have shaped my understanding of our vocation, the kinds of lives we are called to lead as deacons and priests.

The first of these bookend experiences was way back in about 1971, when I was three or four years old. As good Roman Catholics, each Sunday my parents and I went to church – in this case St. Boniface Church in downtown Jersey City. One of the priests there was named Jack Egan – some of you Hudson County folks may remember him. He was actually one of the many Roman priests who had been radicalized be Vatican II. But, of course, as a little kid I knew nothing about that – all I knew was when he came down the aisle to shake my hand at the peace, I always refused.

I can’t explain why – maybe shyness or standoffishness - but that is my earliest church memory. The priest, smiling, extending his hand, and I shake my head no, or turn away, as my embarrassed parents smile apologetically.

Fast-forward about thirty years. By then I was married, still living in Jersey City and now teaching history at St. Peter’s Prep. My wife Sue and I were having trouble finding a church home. A fellow teacher said that we should take a look at her church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, which was actually just a few blocks from our house.

Since I’m interested in local history I thought this would be a chance to see the inside of this historic church. The Sunday when we visited St. Paul’s we discovered a beautiful church with a diverse and welcoming congregation, great music and intelligent and passionate preaching.

But what sticks out most in my memory is the exchange of peace. People seemed genuinely happy to see each other and to offer one another a sign of peace. People were out in the aisles, shaking hands and hugging one another.

Sue and I didn’t know how to react. This was very friendly. Very different from what we were used to – maybe you’ve seen this - people hoping no one would sit near them so they could just give a little wave rather than having any physical contact.

Anyway, near the end of the peace the priest approached Sue and me, reached out his hand and said, “I’m Dave Hamilton. Welcome to St. Paul’s.”

This time, instead of standoffishly turning away, I reached out my hand in return and began a journey that has led to me standing here today.

These two bookends – these two stories of priests reaching out – symbolize for me the kind of lives we are called to lead as ordained people.
Reaching out is the heart of ordained ministry.

The work that Jesus describes as the “harvest” is our vocation. It’s the vocation of reaching out to people – to a world – that is surely at least as harassed and helpless as the people of Israel were during Jesus’ earthly lifetime.

And when we stop and think about the enormity of that vocation, I am sure all of us have felt overwhelmed.

Fortunately, though, as I frequently need to be reminded, it’s not really about us. No, our task is simply being open enough to allow God to work through us – open enough to allow God to reach out through us – to reach out to a world desperate to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and to see that Good News in action.

And - as I’ve already discovered in the short time I’ve been ordained - if we are open enough to allow God to reach out through us - it’s amazing what can happen.

As Gail Godwin writes in her novel Evensong, “Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more of you.”

I’ve heard the bishop quote that line and I quoted it in some the things I wrote for the Commission on Ministry when I was in the ordination process.

But I am only now beginning to realize just what it means.

“Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more of you.”

To be honest, there are plenty of times when I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into and think, you know what, I should have stuck with teaching history. I mean where’s the good news in poisonous snakes? And I do miss Saturday night. And I could really live without having to chant in front of so many talented singers. And I used to have the whole summer off – what was I thinking giving that up!?

But at my best, when I am open enough to allow God to do God’s work through me, then I remember this really is my vocation and that by reaching out God keeps making more of me.

When I’m open enough to allow God to do God’s work, when I’m open enough to allow God to reach out through me, then the visit to the hospital seems to happen at just the right time or an image in a sermon seems to land in someone’s heart, or I run into someone on the street or in the supermarket and it’s like they’ve been waiting for me and their fears and joys just pour out of them right then and there.

And each Sunday at the peace as I make my way down the aisle I remember my two bookends. Sometimes little kids see me coming in this weird outfit, smiling. I reach out my hand and they turn away in fear, or, who knows, maybe standoffishness. And I think – vocation!.

And there are other times when I’ll spot newcomers, go over, reach out my hand and say, “I’m Tom Murphy. Welcome to Grace Church.”

May the renewal of our vows inspire us to even greater openness, allowing God to reach out through us into the harvest.


Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Good (!) News from the Greater Church

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
April 2009

Good (!) News from the Greater Church

Since Grace Church is a big and busy place our monthly vestry meetings tend to be packed with lots of business – reports about various ministries, discussion about finances, and planning for future events. In addition to all of that, at each meeting at least a little bit of time is set aside for “News from the Greater Church.” During this part of the meeting Lauren and I take a few minutes to report on what has been happening in the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Newark. Sometimes we happily tell the vestry about the ordination of a new priest or the institution of a new rector in a nearby church. Unfortunately, all too often we share sad news about continuing arguments in the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church about the interpretation of Scripture, human sexuality, and, of course, money and property. Dwelling on the strife in the “greater church” can be discouraging and often it’s a relief when this part of the meeting is over and we return to the business of Grace Church.

Over the past few months, however, I have had some wonderful experiences of church beyond Grace Church, so I thought I would use this month’s message to share some good news from the greater church!

On February 8th, the youth confirmation class and I attended the annual Absalom Jones service at Trinity + St. Philip’s Cathedral in Newark. Although perhaps a little too long, this was a powerful experience of the Church at its best. Many people from across the diocese attended the service to honor the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church. This joyful celebration, led by Bishop Beckwith, featured first-rate music performed by choirs from around the diocese and a challenging sermon from the Rev. Renee Hill, an Episcopal priest and Director of Programs at the Temple of Understanding, a multi-faith education organization in New York. And then the confirmands and I finished off this great day with a dinner at Five Guys on Main Street in Madison!

The following weekend I was at St. Paul’s in Chatham serving along with the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton and the Rev. Michael Sniffen (who was sponsored for ordination by Grace - you may remember him as “our seminarian Michael”) as a spiritual director for Happening, the diocesan retreat for high school age youth. I was very impressed by Ms. Kai Alston, the diocesan youth missioner, as well as the young people from around the diocese who planned and led the retreat. In their talks, the retreat leaders movingly shared some of their own experiences and challenges and offered deep reflection on the place of faith in our lives. One of the best features of the retreat is that it brought together young people from places such as Newark, Chatham, Paterson, and Phillipsburg who otherwise might never have encountered one another but have now become good friends. I came home from Chatham inspired by theses wonderful young people from around our diocese.

In early March our 12 youth confirmands and I made a diocesan confirmation retreat at All Saints in Bergenfield. We were there with people from a number of different churches, including All Saints in Glen Rock and Grace Church in Newark. Again, it was a fantastic opportunity for us to meet others from around the diocese. It was easy to work with this group of young people who were able to have fun playing games such as “Confirmation Jeopardy” but also able to speak freely and honestly about their faith and why they were seeking Confirmation. Many of our confirmands enjoyed their meeting with Bishop Beckwith. They were pleasantly surprised to find out that he is a “normal person” who is genuinely interested in their lives.

Finally, also in early March, George Hayman and I took a tour of St. Philip’s Academy, the Episcopal elementary and middle school housed in a dramatically transformed candy factory in the Central Ward of Newark. We were led around by a remarkably sharp, poised and proud middle school student. He showed off the gym where we saw the fencing team practicing, the cafeteria where he informed us about the organic and nutritious food served there, the rooftop garden where students grow some of their own food, and classrooms creatively decorated and featuring state of the art technology. It is clear that the students at St. Philip’s are receiving a first-class education. I encourage you to visit the school’s website to learn more:

These experiences have renewed my pride in being a member of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Newark. We are part of something very good!