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.