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.


Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Defense of Marriage

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 4, 2009

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 22
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Psalm 26
(Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12)
Mark 10:2-16

The Defense of Marriage

Back in 1996 Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. The law, which has grown ever more controversial over the past thirteen years, declares that states do not have to recognize same-sex marriages performed and recognized in other states. The law also states that the federal government defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.

I’m going out on a limb and assume that those of us here in church today hold widely different views about this law and its attempt to “defend” marriage.

However, wherever you stand on the issue, I think we can all agree that there is nothing radical about this law. In the United States back in 1996 - and to a lesser extent today - the majority of Americans defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman. So, although it raises some constitutional issues, there’s nothing at all radical about the Defense of Marriage Act – it simply wrote into law the belief of the majority.

Jesus, however, has some very radical things to say about marriage.

To understand just how radical Jesus was on marriage we need a little background on marriage and divorce in First Century Palestine.

First, contrary to what we might think, divorce was fairly common among Jews in the First Century. It was something that people simply took for granted. Jewish Law supported divorce. Here are the relevant verses from the Book of Deuteronomy:
"Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again as his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord, and you shall not bring guilt on the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession." (Deut 24:1-4)

Notice a couple of things about this passage. In order to divorce his wife a husband simply has to find “something objectionable” about her. The rabbis debated what might be included under “something objectionable.” Some rabbis limited it to sexual misconduct while others said it could be something as seemingly trivial as preparing a bad meal or even if the husband became fond of a more beautiful woman.

Second, notice that divorce is simply taken for granted in that passage from Deuteronomy. In fact, it’s not really concerned with divorce. Instead, the concern is the first husband remarrying his former wife. Remarriage was seen as defiling the land of Israel.

Finally, and this will be no surprise, notice that the woman is powerless and voiceless. The husband writes a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her away. And in that time and place a woman divorced by her husband was in a very dire situation.

The Jewish historian Josephus, a near-contemporary of Jesus, writes that – surprise! – only a man could divorce. He also tells us that an ex-wife could only get married again with her ex-husband’s consent. Talk about adding insult to injury!

That was the world in which Jesus lived. I’m sure that everybody, or nearly everybody, simply took it all for granted. That’s just the way it is. A man can get a divorce whenever he wants to. A woman has no say. I mean, isn’t that obvious?

And so along come the Pharisees to, as the gospel tells us, “test” Jesus. Now, as we’ve mentioned before, the Pharisees probably get a bad rap in the New Testament – in part because the early Jesus movement may have been in competition with the Pharisees. We don’t know much about them but it seems like the Pharisees were devoted to ritual practices in an effort to make everyday life holy.

Some scholars think that the Pharisees disagreed among themselves about divorce. Maybe they really wanted to know what Jesus thought about divorce! In any event, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

In typical Jesus fashion, he bounces the ball back at them, asking, “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees know the law and so they refer back to that passage from Deuteronomy.

It’s here that Jesus does something unexpected and radical. Jesus tells them that the law about divorce was given because of human hardness of heart.

I don’t know about you, but the instructions about divorce in Deuteronomy sound pretty hard to me. I have some trouble imagining what could be more hardhearted than to be just handed the divorce certificate and shown the door. But then again human beings are always able to come up with some kind of cruelty.

Jesus, it turns out, is not so concerned with Deuteronomy. Instead Jesus offers the ultimate defense of marriage by reaching all the way back to the beginning of the tradition – to the creation account in the Book of Genesis. Jesus says that in the Adam and Eve story we see God’s intention for marriage.

In that very familiar story God realizes it is not good for human beings to be alone and so God attempts to create for Adam a “helper as his partner.” So, first God creates the birds and the animals for man to name. But, as nice as the animals were none of them quite cut it as a helper or partner.

Obviously you know what happens next in the story. God creates woman. Adam says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” One of my Old Testament professors in seminary translated Adam’s words as, “Now that’s more like it.”

By drawing us all the way back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden, Jesus defends marriage by reminding us what it’s all supposed to be about. Marriage is a great gift from God so that we can share our lives with another who helps to carry our burdens and share our joys – to be both helper and partner. The bond of marriage is so close that we become, as Jesus says, “one flesh.”

Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that marriage in their own time – and perhaps our own – has become twisted and distorted. If a man can simply toss out his wife because of a bad meal then we are a long way from sharing the joys and burdens of life – we’re a long way from being both helper and partner, we’re a long way from becoming one flesh.

Jesus is radically defending marriage by reminding the Pharisees and us what marriage is all about. It’s not about handing out certificates of divorce and tossing your wife out of the house. Marriage is also not about legalisms, pre-nuptial agreements, quickie weddings and quickie divorces in Vegas, or serial monogamy.

Jesus radically defends marriage by reminding us that marriage is about being both helper and partner.

Which brings us to the hard teaching in today’s gospel. Jesus privately tells his disciples, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

First, notice even here Jesus is radically challenging the status quo. Even suggesting that a woman could divorce her husband must have seemed bizarre to the disciples.

Hopefully the context of First Century marriage and divorce helps us to understand what Jesus is saying. But, it’s still a hard teaching and the Church has struggled with applying this hard teaching from the very beginning.

In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes that followers of Jesus who are married to unbelievers should stay married. But he includes an exception to that rule, writing, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound.” (1 Cor. 7:12-16)

In the Gospel of Matthew, written after Mark, Jesus’ teaching is softened a bit. In Matthew Jesus says, as saying, “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery.” (Matt. 5:32)

In the centuries since the Church has recognized that life – and particularly married life – is complicated and so the Church has struggled with Jesus’ teaching on divorce. Many of you know the solution of the Catholic Church known as an annulment – in which the Church declares there never was a valid marriage so there is no obstacle in remarrying.

In the Episcopal Church the canons on marriage evolved until 1973 when remarriage was allowed in the church with the bishop’s permission.

There are still some hardliners who think that Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Mark about divorce are very clear and we should simply stick to that.

But, when we put today’s gospel passage into the context of First Century Judaism and especially into the context of the whole Gospel we know that we are called to offer love and not condemnation. And if we really listen to what Jesus is saying, we recognize that Jesus isn’t primarily concerned with divorce.
Instead, Jesus is radically defending marriage by calling us back to the heart of marriage – two becoming one and serving as partners and helpers through the joys and burdens of life.

For those of us who are married, let us pray that God will give us grace to strengthen our marriages.

And may all of us always support those who are married and those who are divorced with love and compassion.


Saturday, October 03, 2009

Funeral Sermon for Alpheus J. Dolan

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 3, 2009

Sermon for the Funeral of Alpheus J. Dolan
Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 35-38, 42-44, 53-58
John 14: 1-6

“Number 5”

The lesson I just read comes from the account of the Last Supper in the Gospel of John. Jesus is saying farewell to his friends and they are beginning to realize just what this means. Jesus is going to die. Jesus – their friend, their teacher, their Lord – will no longer be with them, at least in the way they have known.

Even two thousand years later we can still feel the urgency of Jesus as he tries to assure them that he is going ahead to prepare a place for his friends.
And all these centuries later we can still hear the sadness, fear and confusion when the Apostle Thomas says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

And then Jesus tells his friends more than they can understand, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.”

In his own quiet and practical way, Al Dolan placed his trust in Jesus as the way, and the truth and the life. He lived a life of faithfulness and dedication. And we’ve come together here this morning to mourn the loss of this good man, to give thanks for his well-lived life and to pray for him, his family and for all of us who miss him already.

Each time I visited Al, without fail, he would ask how things were going at Grace Church. Many times he told me how proud he was of this church.
Al was, of course, interested in how the people – especially his old buddies - were doing, but, to be honest, he was at least as interested in the furnace, the wiring, the plumbing, the bell and all the other things that unfortunately I know almost nothing about.

Good thing his pal Gene Carpenter, who has forgotten more about these buildings than I’ll ever learn, would regularly update Al on all the technical aspects of life at Grace Church.

Al wanted to know about the mechanics of Grace Church because, as many of you know, he was the one who had designed, built and maintained much of what makes these old buildings go.
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus assures Thomas and the other disciples that he has gone to prepare a place for us – a place to live with God forever.

Al is surely alive in that place, in the presence of God, but Al Dolan also lives on in the wires and switches and circuits and control panels that are quietly and faithfully doing their work right now all around us.

In part because he had the mind of an engineer, a mind that was always eager to design and build, it was always interesting to talk with Al – and to follow his train of thought.

Over his last months when he couldn’t do much else, he had a lot of time to think. In our talks he told me how he was trying to fit together all the pieces of his long life. He looked back to his childhood. He reflected on life as a husband, father, and grandfather. I hear he was a particularly doting grandfather, making a daily stop with Caroline at the bagel shop on the way to school. In fact, they were such regulars that one day the bagels were on the house!

As he worked at putting together the pieces of his life, Al looked back on his professional life – his accomplishments during a long career at Westinghouse. He also reflected on his deep friendships with Peg Helmers, who died just a few months ago, and Ginnie Brandt, who’s here with us this morning.

One memorable afternoon Al and I went through his family photo album – filled with so many remarkable pictures. What a wonderful keepsake for your family!
As I turned the pages, there was Al’s mother, the lovely and rather bohemian-looking concert pianist married to Al’s father who seemed to always be the sober-looking businessman. There was Al and his brother, Court, as boys growing up in Queens. There was his beloved wife Betty and there were his children, Jack and Lu Ann. And finally there was his son-in-law Mike and his granddaughter, Caroline.

And, as we turned the pages of the album and talked, Al puzzled over his life – how did he get to this point, how did all the pieces of his life fit together?
Just the other night, a line in a novel I’m reading jumped out at me because I think it may capture what Al was feeling as he looked back over his life, trying to fit all the pieces together.

In the novel there are two old men who grew up together and have been lifelong friends. They loved to tell stories about their youth and to laugh about them, even though to others the stories seemed not particularly funny. Other people couldn’t see the joke. Here’s the line from the novel’s narrator that grabbed me:
“The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.”

Near the end Al found a great deal of peace. It was a great gift when Mike and Lou Ann moved in with him and an even greater gift that Lou Ann got to be with her dad at the end.

The last time I visited as usual I asked how he was doing. He pointed and told me that he spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about that locomotive. At first I didn’t know what he was talking about, but then I looked over my shoulder and on a shelf above the window there was a model of a steam locomotive.
He told me the story of “Number 5.” When he was about five years old Al had ear surgery. Al’s father gave him this model engine, Number 5, as a gift. He had kept this deeply meaningful gift for all of these years.

As Al looked up at the engine with its headlight shining forth, true to form, he patiently explained to me how a steam engine worked.

But then he said that now Number 5 didn’t have much of a power source, just enough to keep the little headlight going but not enough to actually move. Number 5 had only a little power and sat on just a bit of track.

After a long pause, I asked Al how it made him feel seeing Number 5 that way.
He said one word, “Peaceful.”

I don’t know that Al was ever able to put together all the many pieces of his long life but lying there in bed that day near the end of his life he felt the love he had received from his father so long ago – the same kind of powerful love that Al shared with so many over the course of his long life. And that love was just a hint of the divine love Al is experiencing in the presence of God right now.
Al Dolan lived a good and faithful life and now he has completed his journey back to God.

Al’s journey is over, but for us, the journey continues. Last night here at Grace Church the bishop dedicated and blessed our new building – a building Al took great interest in and lived to see in person. There is great symbolism in that timing.

Just as the life and work of Al Dolan helped to lay the foundation for our lives today, so too with God’s help the life and work of Al Dolan can serve as an inspiration for us to live the rest of our lives with his kind of dedication and faithfulness.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Henry Hudson, Stewardship and the Midlife Crisis

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
October 2009

Henry Hudson, Stewardship and the Midlife Crisis

Recently there have been a number of commemorations and exhibits both here and in the Netherlands marking the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in what would come to be known as New York Harbor and the great river bearing Hudson’s name.

I went to the Museum of the City of New York during my “staycation” in August to see one of these exhibits, “Manahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City.” I was fascinated to see how a group of natural scientists and computer wizards have created images displaying what Hudson and his crew on the Half Moon would have seen as they sailed into the wide and deep harbor, filled with hope that they had found the gateway to Asia.

The explorers sailed through waters teeming with fish and other aquatic life. Manhattan itself was covered with a lush forest while to the west the marshes of what would some day be called Hudson County undoubtedly reminded the Dutch crewmembers of home. According to the exhibit, when Hudson arrived Manhattan was home to “627 species of plants, 85 species of fish, 32 species of reptiles and amphibians, 233 species of birds and 24 species of mammals.” Observing this abundance, I am sure that Hudson and his crew thought that this land offered unlimited, inexhaustible resources. Of course, 400 years later, we know that the rich natural resources of Manhattan and the surrounding region were all too finite. No one would confuse Hudson County and the Netherlands today!

When I was young I saw my life just how Hudson and his crew must have seen this green new world. Of course, I was conscious of death but my life seemed unlimited and inexhaustible. Maybe you had the same kind of experience. But now as I make my way through my fifth decade I am becoming acutely aware that my life and the lives of those I care about are all too finite. I wouldn’t exactly call it a midlife crisis, but I am being more careful about my priorities and especially with how I spend my time. I am trying to be a better steward of the time God has given me.

Obviously, better stewardship of time will mean different changes and adjustments for each one of us. For me, it has meant virtually eliminating television from my life. There are a handful of shows that I still watch if I am feeling worn out or could use an easy laugh, but there aren’t any programs I schedule into my life. Instead, I’ve been trying to make more time for reading. I’ve set the completely unrealistic goal of reading a book a week, including some of the classics, such as Crime and Punishment and Heart of Darkness, which somehow I missed along the way.

I’ve also been trying to do a better job of tending to my relationships. Like many of you, my wife Sue and I are busy people and it’s all too easy to lose track of one another in the frenzied pace of daily life. We’ve been trying to make time so we can share the ups and downs of life – maybe over dinner or just together on the couch after full days in the classroom and at church. Reaching out to other people in my life continues to be problematic. I admit that months easily slip by without talking to friends and relatives. How many of us have been shocked to realize just how long it has been since we have talked with a good friend or a close member of the family?

Finally, and most importantly, there is my relationship with God. I remain challenged by something Bishop Beckwith said at my ordination to the diaconate. Addressing us newly minted deacons he said, “We pay you to pray.” Since I spend so much time in church it may seem odd that this is such a challenge. But since church is also my work it is remarkably easy for my own spiritual life to fall by the wayside. It’s a challenge to be a good enough steward of my time that I leave even just a little room in my life to pray and to listen for what God might be calling – or nudging – me to be and do.

By now you know that Stewardship season is just about upon us. The Stewardship Committee has been working hard to help us all to become even better stewards of our resources. Naturally, much of the focus in coming weeks will be on our essential financial support of Grace Church and its ministries. I have some thoughts about that as well, and soon you’ll be hearing from me on stewardship of our financial treasure.

Money, of course, is not the only treasure we have been given. During this time when we are thinking carefully about stewardship let’s be sure to give some attention to how we use our time. Are there time-wasters that we could - or even should - remove from our life? Can we find the time to reach out to a friend or relative – especially if we know they could use a boost? Are we carving out some time for service to those in need? Finally, and most important, are we offering even just a few minutes a day in quiet prayer?

Although for each of us the answers to these questions will be different, as we focus on stewardship it is crucial to be mindful of how we use our precious and all too finite resource of time.