Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saved by Beauty

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 25, 2011

Christmas: The Nativity of Our Lord
Isaiah 62:6-7, 10-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20

Saved by Beauty

As usual, Christmas has been just so beautiful here at Grace Church. The church looks great, yesterday’s pageant was as charming as ever, and somehow Dr. Anne and the choirs keep topping themselves with gorgeous music.

Surrounded by all of this beauty reminds of a line from a character in a Dostoevsky novel. The character says, “The world will be saved by beauty.” “The world will be saved by beauty.”

Actually, for Christians that’s half-right. The world will be saved by beauty and the world is already saved by beauty – by the beauty of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the holy one whose birth we celebrate this morning.

Now, often the world doesn’t seem very beautiful at all. But, sometimes during times when we’re really paying attention, when we’re really mindful, we can see clearly the beauty that saves the world, the beauty that will save the world.

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where most births – though sometimes quite difficult and painful - are moments of great beauty.

A couple of months ago close friends of ours had their first child. Although she was a little early everything went just about as well as possible. After a short labor a healthy baby girl with a thick shock of dark hair on top of her head was welcomed joyfully into the world.

My wife Sue and I went to the hospital a few hours later to see the new parents and to meet the baby. I was moved by the beauty of what we found in the hospital room. The new mother’s eyes glowed with joy as she held and nursed her newborn daughter. The father was excited and proud to show off his daughter while also busily working the phone – calling and texting to spread the good news far and wide. Other family members and friends arrived, relieved and overjoyed.

“The world will be saved by beauty.”

Now, before you think I’ve gotten all sentimental, I also noticed a starkness to the beauty of the scene in that hospital room. There were deep lines under the mother’s glowing eyes. Even an easy birth takes a physical toll. And I glimpsed a dawning recognition in both new parents that this was as real as it gets: their daughter is really here, beginning that day a life that, like all of our lives, will be filled with some mixture of sadness and joy, failure and success, fear and hope.

It was a big moment. And that day in the hospital with our friends and their newborn child I saw the beauty that will save the world.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had a different kind of hospital room experience where I also saw the beauty that will save the world.
As many of you know, after a valiant effort, the doctors reached the conclusion that there was nothing more that could be done for our beloved parishioner Phyllis. Her two sons honored her wishes by not keeping her alive through extraordinary means.

When the time came to disconnect the machines, with Phyllis unconscious and comfortable, we had a short service at her bedside and shared communion. Then her sons stood on either side of her bed, each holding one of her hands, and began to tell wonderful stories from their childhood. There were tears and there was also laughter.

Although unconscious, in her last moments in this life Phyllis was surrounded by love and laughter. And in the midst of pain and sorrow in her family’s love I had the privilege of seeing the beauty that will save the world.

This morning we heard Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s a story that remains beautiful no matter how many times we’ve heard it, no matter how familiar it’s become.

There’s the beauty of the angel appearing to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. There’s the beauty of the heavenly host singing their great hymn, “Glory to God in the highest heaven!”

There’s the beauty of the shepherds seeming to drop everything to go see for themselves the newborn savior and then later returning, “Glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”

But, there’s nothing sentimental about this story. There’s a stark beauty to the story of Jesus’ birth, too. Mary and Joseph seem to be alone in the world. Although hospitality was an important practice in the ancient world, no one in Bethlehem seems willing to welcome Mary, Joseph and the child. Instead the Messiah enters the world humbly, primitively, placed in a feeding trough meant for animals.

Most of us can only imagine the terror of heartbreakingly young Mary, maybe just 13 years old, giving birth to her son in such harsh conditions. And then later, maybe while resting and beginning to recuperate, she and Joseph receive a visit from the shepherds telling them – or reminding them – that their child is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

And then there is the beauty of young Mary treasuring all of these words and pondering them in her heart.

I’m sure Mary didn’t yet understand that the world would be saved through the beautiful life of her son. We who know the rest of the story see this beauty in Jesus’ teaching – his call to love God and to love one another. We see this beauty in the parable of the prodigal son whose father rushes out to welcome him home, no questions asked. We see this beauty in the feeding of the multitudes – the overflowing abundance of God that fills everyone - and there are even leftovers. We see this beauty in the parable of the Good Samaritan when it’s the outcast who shows mercy. We see this beauty in Jesus’ bold declaration that in God’s kingdom it’s the poor and the hungry and the mourners who are blessed. We see this beauty in Jesus’ command to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us and to pray for those who hurt us.

The world is saved by beauty.

We can even see the beauty of Jesus’ life in the horror of the cross where he completed his life of love by asking God to forgive what seems most unforgivable.

And, at last, the world is saved by the beauty of Easter morning when God does the most beautiful thing imaginable by doing what God always does, turn death into life.

The world is saved by beauty.

It’s Christmas morning and right now we are surrounded by beauty.

Yet, for some of us here and for lots of people out there the world doesn’t seem beautiful at all – and lots of us don’t feel saved at all.

So, God’s work continues. And God calls us, invites us, to be part of the ongoing salvation of the world.

We’re called to be beautiful – to love each other like brand new parents love their child and as children love their dying mother.

We’re called to be beautiful – to offer hospitality to all the Marys and Josephs who are out there right now, alone and frightened in the world.

We’re called to be beautiful – to forgive one another especially when they – or we - seem most unforgivable.

We’re called to be beautiful – to give of ourselves without counting the cost and expecting nothing in return.

Dostoevsky’s character got it half-right. The world is already saved by the beauty of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And now that work of salvation continues through us – through the Body of Christ on earth – through all of us here at Grace Church - through whom the world will be saved by beauty.

Merry Christmas.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Marginal Mary

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 18, 2011

Year B: The Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
(Romans 16:25-27)
Luke 1:26-38

Marginal Mary

Today we begin the final week of Advent – the final week of preparation for Christmas, which ready or not, arrives a week from last night.

With time growing short, we can feel a shift in our Christmas preparation. It feels like a change in the weather.

I’m sure you’ve all got everything done but out in the world Christmas preparations are getting more frantic. The mall parking lots are packed as people scramble to cross the final items off their Christmas list. If it hasn’t started yet, soon we’ll be receiving emails from online retailers warning us that time is running out to get items purchased and shipped in time for Christmas. As usual at the end of the week I’ll finally get to the card store only to find that just about all the really nice cards are long gone.

And we can feel a shift in our preparation here in church.

It’s still Advent but this afternoon we’ll have a performance of Messiah followed by the greening of the church and a potluck supper. All week it will still be Advent yet the church will be decorated for Christmas, bathed in that wonderful evergreen scent.

And we can feel the shift in preparation in today’s gospel lesson.

For the last two Sundays the spotlight has been on John the Baptist. We’ve had “purple preparation” courtesy of the prophet who prepared the way for the Messiah through his message of repentance and forgiveness.

But now finally today we finally get to the blue preparation of hope and joy. The spotlight turns from John the Baptist to the other central Advent figure – Mary, a heartbreakingly young girl probably about 12 or 13 years old. A girl from Nazareth, a town so unimportant that it’s never even once mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Out of the four gospels it’s only Luke that has much interest in Mary. Matthew tells us about the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective and Mark and John are silent about the nativity.

But, Luke is very interested in Mary. And I think Luke is interested in Mary not only because it’s a wonderful story that has enchanted and inspired people for two millennia. Luke is interested in Mary because her story tells us a lot about God and tells us a lot about us.

Luke is writing for a primarily non-Jewish Christian audience – people who were already followers of Jesus. But their Gentile friends and family would have known lots of stories about miraculous births so Luke’s story of a divine messenger appearing to a human woman telling her that she would carry the Son of God wouldn’t have raised too many pagan eyebrows.

“Oh, sure, human-divine births happen all the time. No big deal.”

What would have surprised the Gentiles was who is chosen for this awesome task of bearing God into the world: Mary of Nazareth – a nobody – a girl who lived way off at the margins of society.

Life was almost unimaginably hard for just about everyone in the ancient world – very much including the Jews in the First Century. And in a harsh time Mary would have had it tougher than just about anyone else.

She lived in Galilee – a rural backwater.

She was young in a society that valued age.

She was female in a society ruled by men.

She was poor: which meant she was almost inevitably destined for a life filled with unending backbreaking labor ended only by what we would call a shockingly premature death.

She lived in a society in which a woman gained status only through having a husband and giving birth to children. But now the angel has given her news that will end any hope having a “normal” life. Luke doesn’t tell us but obviously Mary must have known and worried that her betrothal to Joseph was at risk. And she must have known only too well that the busybodies in little Nazareth who minded everybody’s business would be gossiping about her pregnancy and the birth of her child.

In her time and place people would have looked at Mary and seen someone way off on the margins of society – nobody special at all.

But, God saw who she really was and chose marginal Mary to carry the Messiah into the world.

Look at how Luke describes marginal Mary and get a glimpse of what God saw in her. She must have been just about completely uneducated but she is deeply thoughtful. Instead of running away in fear from the angel, Mary ponders what this totally unexpected announcement means.

Marginal Mary is faithful – although she surely doesn’t understand or imagine all of what’s in store for her, she puts her trust in God. She says to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Gentiles – and Jews for that matter - would have been surprised that God chose marginal Mary to bear God into the world. Just as they would have been skeptical that her son – who was born and lived almost his whole life on the margins – could really have been the Son of God.

And even Christians have sometimes struggled with the idea that God chose a woman from the margins to be mother of the messiah.

There is a Second Century text called the Proto-Gospel of James that didn’t make it into the Bible although it was very popular for centuries and influenced a lot of Christian art. And in this very interesting text marginal Mary is given a back-story that takes her from the margins of society right into the heart of First Century Judaism.

The author of the Proto-Gospel of James tells us that when Mary was three her parents brought her to the Temple. He writes,

“And the priest of the Lord received her and gave her a kiss, blessing her and saying, ‘The Lord has made your name great for all generations. Through you will the Lord reveal his redemption to the sons of Israel at the end of time.’ He set her on the third step of the altar, and the Lord God cast his grace down upon her. She danced on her feet, and the entire house of Israel loved her.”

The Proto-Gospel claims that Mary lived in the Temple until she was twelve and betrothed to Joseph. It’s a charming story but I’m glad it didn’t make it into the Bible because it undoes Luke’s point that God has chosen the last person you’d expect, marginal Mary, for the most important task of all time.

Luke knows that God’s choice of marginal Mary tells us something important about God and about us. Luke knows that God’s choice of marginal Mary tells that God has a special love for the poor and the outcast. And Luke knows that with God’s choice of marginal Mary the world is turned downside-up. Since Luke knows all of this, he has Mary sing her great song about God:

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

So, what does this have to do with us here in Madison today as begin our final preparations for Christmas?

Since God has a special love for the people on the margins, you and I as followers of marginal Jesus, son of marginal Mary, are called and expected to share God’s special love for our brothers and sisters on the margins of our society.

So, we’re called to have the soup kitchen sign up sheet filled out so quickly and fully that there’s a waiting list to donate food and there are so many volunteers that they’re tripping over each other to serve the hungry and the homeless.

We’re called to overflow the Food for Friends barrel with the best food we can afford, dropping off so much food that we create a temporary safety hazard in the lobby.

We’re called to visit people in nursing homes not just around Christmas or on other special days but on a random Tuesday.

We’re called to sit with the unpopular kid in the cafeteria at lunchtime or to befriend the neighbor who seems strange or who’s maybe just plain annoying.

We’re called to reach out to our friends and family members who’ve been out of work for what seems like forever even if it means confronting our own fears about our fragile security.

We’re called to reach out to people who are sick even if it means confronting our own fears about illness and death.

We’re called to give as much as we can to the people on the margins – people who can’t even dream of the kinds of lives that most of us enjoy.

And we’re called to face the maybe unsettling truth that most of us live far from the margins, far from Nazareth, far better than just about anyone else past or present.

Like a change in the weather, there’s been a shift in our Christmas preparation. With a week to go, the spotlight is on faithful, courageous, marginal Mary who said yes to God and carried marginal Jesus into the world.

Today you and I can best say yes to God, best prepare for Christmas and best honor Mary if we share our wealth, share our time and share our love with God’s beloved marginal people.


Sunday, December 04, 2011

Purple and Blue Preparation

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 4, 2011

Year B: The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
(2 Peter 3:8-15a)
Mark 1:1-8

Purple and Blue Preparation

In her sermon last Sunday Lauren talked about how in a very real way we Christians live in two worlds – the world of the church and the world outside the church doors. That’s always true, of course, but we’re probably most aware of our split existence during these weeks leading up to Christmas.

This time of year both worlds encourage us – urge us – to prepare in very different ways for Christmas. Out in the world that preparation mostly means buying and buying some more and also wrapping presents, decorating our homes, and getting cards and packages into the mail.

The church also encourages us – urges us – to prepare for Christmas. Here in this world during Advent there are two types of preparation – two types of preparation that I’ll call purple preparation and blue preparation. And in order to really prepare for Christmas we need both types of preparation – purple and blue.

This Wednesday evening I’ll be leading my first Compline for Kids service since I’ve been back. Many of you know that the program begins with the children and me making pizza in the church kitchen. I remember being a little, um, hesitant when I first heard that this was part of my job, but over the years I came to enjoy it. And I think the pizza is pretty good, too.

Anyway, once the pizzas are in the oven, the children usually work on some craft or service project that Mary Lea has created. Then we say grace. Then we eat. And then we come into church for a beautiful, if a little chaotic, service of music and prayers and a brief reflection from me.

I remember a couple of years ago trying to think of a visual way to talk about Advent when finally I decided to use our Advent vestments to illustrate the purple and blue sides of Advent.

At the service with the children gathered around me I held up the chasuble (that Lauren is wearing right now) and began my talk. Unfortunately, the children – who, of course, normally would hang on my every word – now only wanted one thing: to touch the chasuble… with their greasy pizza hands. At the last second I pulled the vestment away from them, just barely avoiding a serious altar guild crisis!

Maybe that didn’t work so well. But, I still think our vestments offer a good illustration of the purple and blue sides of Advent.

Many of you remember when the color for Advent was purple and it was a season of repentance and sacrifice very much like Lent. In many churches (including here) in more recent times there’s been a shift to blue – a color associated both with hope and with the Virgin Mary. And that’s very appropriate since Mary is one of the central figures of Advent – the young woman who said yes to God, accepting the awesome gift and responsibility of bringing Jesus into the world.

Although blue now dominates the season we still haven’t lost the purple – if you look carefully it’s right here in the lining of our vestments. And the purple is very much in our gospel lesson both today and next Sunday when the spotlight shines on that great prophet of repentance, the other central figure of Advent, John the Baptist. Or, as he’s called in the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptizer.

So, whether we like it or not, during Advent the church gives us two Sundays worth of John the Baptist – two weeks of purple preparation - because the truth is that without repentance we can’t truly experience the hope of Advent. And without repentance we can’t truly experience the joy of Christmas.

Today we heard the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark. Most scholars agree that Mark is the earliest of the four gospels to be written, probably around the year 70 – drawing on stories about Jesus that had been passed around for decades both orally and in writing.

Mark is both the oldest and the most barebones of the gospels. Apparently the author doesn’t know about or isn’t interested in any birth stories about Jesus. If all we had was the Gospel of Mark there’d be no Christmas pageant.

Instead of birth stories, Mark opens his gospel with a simple but profound declaration: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

It’s kind of redundant to begin the gospel… by telling us it’s the beginning of the gospel. But that opening makes more sense when we consider that the Greek word that’s translated as “the beginning” can also mean “the starting point, foundation, origin.”

Mark’s opening line suggests that the story of Jesus’ life that he’s about to tell is the foundation of the good news that his community was sharing and experiencing in the First Century. And Mark’s story of Jesus’ life is the starting point of the good news that you and I share today.

Mark begins his beginning by looking back to the prophets of Hebrew Scripture.

The prophets had two main roles. One was to call the people to repentance. Over and over the prophets called the people to turn away from their wrongdoing and to turn back to God.

The prophets’ second task was to offer a vision of the world transformed by God – to offer a vision of what the world could really be like, of what the world was always meant to be like. The prophets offered a vision of a world that was and is possible if only we accept the invitation to turn back to God.

In today’s first lesson from Isaiah the people of Israel have endured exile in Babylon but now that bleak time is drawing to a close – as the prophet says, the term has been served, the penalty has been paid.

Then Isaiah offers a vision of a transformed world where “every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low.” Isaiah offers a vision of a world in which “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together.”

In the gospels John the Baptist is presented as the last of the Hebrew prophets – he plays the role of messenger described in Isaiah and he dresses like Elijah. Like the prophets before him he calls the people to repentance – he calls them to turn away from wrongdoing and to turn back to God.

And, like the prophets before him, John the Baptist also offers a vision of a world transformed by God – a transformation that begins with the birth of Jesus, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.

Mark tells us that John’s message of repentance was popular – people from the country and the city came to be baptized by him in the Jordan. And Josephus a near-contemporary Jewish historian agrees that John had a wide appeal.

John’s popularity shouldn’t surprise us. I’m sure back then people felt the weight of their sin – really felt the burden of not loving God and not loving one another.

I’m sure back then people were quick to put their own self-interest above the needs of others. I’m sure back then people found it easy to look the other way when they saw people suffering in mind, body or spirit. I’m sure back then people chose to assume the worst of others rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt.

The offer of repentance and forgiveness – symbolized by washing in the Jordan would have been very attractive.

And I’m sure that many of us here today feel the weight of our sin – really feel the burden of not loving God and not loving one another.

Fortunately, God still invites us to repent. Fortunately, God still offers forgiveness. If only we turn back to God.

So, it’s now the Second Sunday of Advent and the spotlight is on John the Baptist. We’re given this time of purple preparation so we can truly experience the hope of Advent. We’re given the opportunity to repent so we can truly experience the joy of Christmas.

We Christians live a split existence, so while we answer the world out there when it urges us to prepare for Christmas by buying and buying some more, let’s make sure we also answer the call to repent – to turn away from whatever separates us from God and from one another. Let’s make sure we turn back to God.

Then, freed from the burden of our sin, we’ll truly be able to experience the blue preparation of Advent. Freed from the burden of our sin, we’ll truly be able to experience the hope of a world transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Freed from the burden of our sin, we’ll truly be able to experience the joy of Christmas.


Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Long Loneliness

Grace Episcopal Church
Madison, NJ

The Messenger
December 2011 - January 2012

The Long Loneliness

After Sue and I returned from Florida in mid-August we rented from some friends an apartment in downtown Jersey City, just around the corner from where we lived when were first married. Those few months felt like a slow-motion homecoming as we gradually put the pieces of our lives back together again. Sue resumed her studies, but, aside from filling in at various churches on some Sundays, I had the mixed blessing of a good bit of free time. During beautiful late summer and early autumn days I took long walks around the old neighborhood and often took advantage of the quick and easy access to Manhattan.

I also used this time to read as much as I could. Browsing in a bookstore one day, I spotted and bought The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy Day (1897-1980). Born into a non-religious family, as a young woman Day was drawn to the writer’s life, both as a journalist for radical publications and also as a Hollywood screenwriter. She traveled in artistic circles, counting the playwright Eugene O’Neill as a friend. Then Day’s life took a wholly unexpected and radical change. To the dismay of her common law husband, around the time of their daughter’s birth, Dorothy Day began to feel Christ’s call.

After formally entering the Roman Catholic Church in 1927, she prayed for God to show her how to live out her sense of vocation as a writer committed both to the poor and to building God’s kingdom here on Earth. She received her answer in 1933 when in the depths of the Great Depression, she and a handful of others founded a movement called The Catholic Worker. While living in voluntary poverty, Day and her coworkers churned out a newspaper (still published today), opened houses of hospitality in Lower East Side slums, and protested against war and injustice, leading to heated debates and frequent arrests.

Some of Dorothy Day’s views were controversial within the Catholic Church and even among some in the Catholic Worker. For example, during World War II she remained an adamant pacifist. Yet, even those who were sometimes exasperated by her recognized that her life and work were rooted in a radical attempt to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ. At great cost to herself and those around her, she sought to love her neighbor – especially the poorest and most broken – as herself.

Today there are over 200 Catholic Worker communities around the world, and there is a move underway in the Catholic Church to canonize Dorothy Day a saint. During these days of economic uncertainty, deepening poverty and rampant militarism, Dorothy Day’s faithful witness remains as provocative and challenging as ever.

At the conclusion of her autobiography, Day writes, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

I’ve reflected on these words a great deal over the past few months. Many of you know that Sue and I had a lonely time in Florida. We hadn’t realized just how challenging it would be living so far from our families and friends. Fortunately, even during that difficult year we were sustained by the love we received and shared in community. The people at St. Michael’s Church welcomed us with open arms and were incredibly gracious when we announced that we were leaving much sooner than anyone had expected. At the university chapel we held our services on Sunday evenings followed by a free supper lovingly prepared and provided by parishioners at local Episcopal churches. Each week undergraduate and graduate students sat beside the homeless and the poor – all attracted by a free home-cooked meal and the promise of warm fellowship.

And then there was the love we received from so many of you in the Grace Church community. Your prayers, calls, emails, cards, gifts, and even a couple of visits, helped us to remember that we were in your hearts and still very much part of this wonderful community.

Now, amazingly enough, we’re back in this place where we receive love from one another when we pray together and work together and play together. We’re back in this place where we receive Love each time we stretch out our hands and take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.

As both a new church year and a new calendar year begin, I give thanks that right here at Grace Church we discover and receive the only solution to the long loneliness: the love that comes with community.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

New Year's Eve

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 20, 2011

Year A: The Last Sunday after Pentecost – Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
(Ephesians 1:15-23)
Matthew 25:31-46

New Year’s Eve

Well, we made it back in time for the last Sunday after Pentecost – the last Sunday of the church year – the feast of Christ the King. In a way, today is like the Church’s version of New Year’s Eve.

Of course, people have all sorts of New Year’s Eve traditions – maybe getting together with family and friends, or going to Times Square (which seems like a nightmare to me), or watching Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve on TV or maybe just skipping the whole thing and going to bed early.

And New Year’s Eve is a natural time for reflecting on the past year and making those quickly broken resolutions for the year ahead.

In today’s lessons the Church has given us a pretty clear and appropriate theme for reflection: God’s judgment.

Now, I know very well that this is a wonderful church made up of very fine people so maybe thinking about God’s judgment doesn’t bother you too much. But, I’ll be honest, thinking about God’s judgment makes me really nervous.

Thinking about God’s judgment makes me remember my personal failings, the ways I’ve fallen short, the ways I’ve hurt people, the ways I haven’t been as loving or as generous as I could have been.

And God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires are known and from whom no secrets are hid, knows my failings even better than I know them myself.

Then there’s our collective responsibility and guilt. We humans have created a world in which a few live in great comfort and nearly everyone else lives in desperate poverty. We humans have literally trashed the good creation - from the huge garbage patch swirling in the North Pacific to space debris orbiting the planet.

Fortunately for all of us, God’s mercy always trumps God’s judgment.

I don’t know whether it made him nervous, but the Prophet Ezekiel definitely thought a lot about God’s judgment. He lived during one of the bleakest periods of Israel’s history. In the 6th Century BC, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, including the Temple. Since it was believed that in a sense God lived in the Temple maybe we can only begin to imagine how traumatic this was. And then most of the people were taken from their home and exiled in Babylon.

I’m sure many people felt that somehow God was absent. Ezekiel believed that God was punishing the people, yet, even in the midst of this disaster, Ezekiel didn’t think that God had abandoned the people. Ezekiel believed that God was still very much at work doing what God always does, turning fear into hope and death into life.

In the passage we heard today, God speaking through Ezekiel declares that since it’s the leaders who have caused this calamity, God is going to step in and personally take control of the flock.

“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”

I will feed them with justice.

Despite our individual and collective failures, God doesn’t give up on us. Instead, God’s justice feeds us by showing us and reminding us how we are meant live. God’s justice feeds us by showing us and reminding us that we are born to love one another, especially the poorest and the weakest, and we are born to take care of the creation that God has entrusted to us.

At the end of the passage we heard from Ezekiel, God promises to set over the people one shepherd. And of course we Christians recognize that one shepherd as Jesus.

And in today’s gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus has a lot to say about judgment.

Probably this passage was originally about judgment of the gentiles – not Jews and not followers of Jesus. And it’s interesting that Matthew quotes Jesus as seeming to say that these non-believers aren’t going to be judged on their lack of belief but on their actions. These non-believers will be judged on how they treated Jesus’ followers!

Did they offer compassion to Jesus’ followers who were hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned? If yes, then Jesus says that these non-believers will enter the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. If not, well then the news isn’t so good.

Now, if this passage really is directed at non-believers then what does that mean for us?

Certainly we are all called to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, house the homeless, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned.

There’s always a lot more we could and should do but we don’t have to look too hard to see people here in this community answering that call when we drop items into the Food for Friends barrel or spend the night at the homeless shelter or take a tag or two off the Christmas angel tree or sit at the bedside of a dying friend reading from the prayer book or some lines of poetry.

But, as followers of Jesus you and I are called to an even higher standard.

And we hear that higher standard in the Baptismal Covenant.

As followers of Jesus we’re called to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.

We’re called to resist evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

We’re called to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

We’re called to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.

We’re called to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.

It’s quite a tall order and if you’re like me you may be starting to feel nervous again as you consider just how far short we fall from striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being.

The truth is that we can’t do any of these on our own but only, as the response says, “with God’s help.”

And although they’re daunting, by setting these high standards God is feeding us with justice. God’s justice feeds us by showing us and reminding us how we are meant live. God’s justice feeds us by showing us and reminding us that we are born to love one another, especially the poorest and the weakest, and we are born to take care of the creation that God has entrusted to us.

It’s the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last Sunday of the church year. It’s the Church’s version of New Year’s Eve.

It’s a good day to reflect on God’s justice and judgment and the ways that we’ve all fallen short of both the minimum standards of taking care of one another and how we’ve fallen short of the high standards set by Christ the King.

But, since God’s mercy always trumps God’s justice, there’s no reason to be nervous. No matter how much we’ve fallen short, next week a new church year begins and we get another chance.

Right here at Grace Church, we get a new year to pray together and to support one another when, like for the people of Israel in exile, it seems like God is absent and our whole world is falling apart.

We get a new year to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and imprisoned.

We get a new year to take better care of the good creation that God has entrusted to us.

We get a new year to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.

And we will - with God’s judgment, God’s mercy, and God’s help.

Happy New Year!


Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Unfinished Work of Love

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Lyndhurst NJ
October 23, 2011

Year A: Proper 25 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

The Unfinished Work of Love

In this morning’s Old Testament lesson, we heard the story of the death of Moses. For the past few weeks we’ve been following the story of Moses – this reluctant leader who was called by God to shepherd his people out of Egyptian slavery and into the freedom of the promised land.

The Exodus story is filled with testing and quarreling but through it all Moses remained steadfast in his determination to do the work that God had given him to do.

That’s why there’s a deep poignancy to today’s story of Moses’ death. He is undiminished even in his great age. It’s not old age or illness or battle that end his life. Instead, God’s command brings his life to a close.

The story of Moses’ death brings the story of the exodus to a close and marks the end of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible.

There’s one last element of this story that is particularly moving.

Despite his steadfastness and patience and courage and stamina, Moses is unable to complete the work God has given him to do.

Moses is given the chance to glimpse the promised land but he doesn’t live long enough to see his people return to their homeland. Moses leaves behind unfinished work. His unfinished work is handed off to Joshua and the next generation.

I guess that we can all relate to leaving things – both important and not so important – unfinished.

How many of us have started a home improvement project only to abandon it when we’ve gotten tired or bored or overwhelmed?

How many of us have taken up a hobby or a musical instrument only to set it aside long before we’ve gotten all our stamps into albums or been able to play a piece of music all the way through?

How many of us have started keeping a journal, only to call it quits after a few days or maybe weeks?

And then there are some more important things that we leave unfinished.

Before I became a priest I was a high school history teacher. At the end of every school year I would scramble to cover all the material that I thought was important. And every May and June I’d realize there was no way that I could get the job done to my satisfaction.

Maybe you’ve had the same kind of experience at work. Maybe you’ve had that experience at the end of the day or the week. Or maybe you’ve had that experience at the end of a career. Maybe when you’ve retired you realized there were lots of things you wanted to achieve that would remain forever unfinished.

Maybe you’ve had that experience with your children or grandchildren. There are all sorts of things you wanted to teach them, all kinds of experiences you wanted to share with them. But, before you know it, they’re all grown up and you realize that the work of parenting will forever remain unfinished.

It’s really important for us Christians to realize and remember that our work will always be unfinished.

And just what is our work as Christians?

Often it feels like our work as Christians is struggling to keep the church doors open – to make sure that our community of faith remains alive to meet our spiritual needs and the needs of the world around us.

So, we spend lots of time trying to balance the budget, to keep the roof from leaking, to keep the furnace going, to arrange for supply clergy, to…well, most of you know the drill better than I do.

And that’s good work and it’s important work.

But, in today’s gospel lesson Jesus reminds us of our most important work.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been hearing excerpts from the Gospel of Matthew describing Jesus’ activities in Jerusalem. This teacher and healer from sticks arrived in the capital city on what we call Palm Sunday and then immediately made quite an impression by chasing the money changers out of the Temple.

Then he taught using parables – parables that suggested that God was not so pleased with the religious leaders – people who were so, so proud of their careful religious observance.

The way Matthew tells the story, the religious leaders – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – are understandably angered by Jesus’ criticism.

Which brings us to today’s spiritual debate between the Pharisees and Jesus.

The Pharisees ask him out of the 613 laws in the Torah, which one is the greatest?

Matthew claims that the Pharisees asked this question to “test” Jesus. I’m sure that’s true, but maybe they also sincerely wanted to know what this infuriating and mysterious rabbi from Galilee really thought was the greatest commandment.

There’s a story that the great Jewish teacher Rabbi Hillel (who lived just a little bit before Jesus) was asked by a Gentile to have the entire Law explained to him while he stood on one foot.

The great rabbi replied, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

Jesus’ answer is similar – though stated more positively.

Jesus quotes Deuteronomy about loving God with all that we have and all that we are.

And Jesus quotes Leviticus about loving our neighbor as our self.

This is our most important work: to love God and to love one another.

In our world broken by sin and suffering, loving God and loving one another is the hardest work of all. And it’s work that, no matter how loving we are, will always remain unfinished.

St. Paul understood and embraced our unfinished work of love.

After his conversion he spent the rest of his life sharing the Good News of Christ all around the Mediterranean world, setting up little Christian communities in place like Thessalonica, an important Greek trading city.

Paul went there and did the work of a Christian, the work of love.

In today’s second lesson we heard how Paul recalls his work of love among the Thessalonians:

“But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become dear to us.”

Paul moved on to other places, accepting that his work of love among the Thessalonians would remain unfinished. Instead, it was up to people there – the next generation – to take up the work of love – a work that would forever remain unfinished.

Our work of love remains forever unfinished. And maybe that’s discouraging. After all, most of us really like to cross items off our to-do list.

But, I think the unfinished nature of our work should comfort us.

The martyred Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, once wrote:

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

Long ago God chose Moses to take on the important work of leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Despite the years of testing and quarreling, Moses remained steadfast in his determination to do the work that God had given him to do. And in the end, although Moses had glimpsed the promised land, he had to leave his work unfinished.

Today in a world broken by sin and suffering, God chooses us to take on the most important work of all – the work of love.

Every once in a while, like Moses, we may glimpse the promised land. But, like Moses, we too will leave our work unfinished.

And that’s OK.

All God the master builder asked of Moses and Paul and all God asks of us is to be workers – to do the work of love, right here and right now.


Sunday, October 09, 2011

Invitations to the Banquet

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 9, 2011

Year A: Proper 23 – The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Invitations to the Banquet

It's good to be home.

Many of you know that my wife Sue and I lived in Florida for a year where I served as the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Florida and rector of a nearby church.

At the university chapel the Sunday service is at 5:30 in the evening, followed by a dinner prepared each week by parishioners of local Episcopal churches. Those faithful Episcopalians love preparing some special home-cooked foods for the often stressed-out students whose diet usually consists of institutional food, or fast food, or whatever else they can grab cheaply and quickly.

So on Sunday evenings we were treated to meals like baked ham with fresh green salads and fresh vegetables followed by dessert of ice cream homemade brownies.

Word about good, free food gets around, of course. So, our Sunday dinners not only attracted students but also some local poor and homeless people.

At the end of a long Sunday I’d often find myself sitting at a table with a graduate student in acoustical engineering who was sitting beside a homeless man who each night slept on a bench outside our chapel who was sitting beside a young woman who was preparing to live and teach in France after graduation who was sitting beside a veterinary student who was sitting beside a man who walked the neighborhood streets and loved to play tennis, sometimes even practicing his swing at the table while mumbling to himself, who was sitting next to a parishioner from a little church in a small Florida town who was happily watching everyone enjoying her food.

And observing that scene, when I was really mindful, really paying attention, I’d think, this is what the kingdom of God is really like.

Family, friend and stranger – we are all invited to the banquet.

In Florida we met many wonderful people and we were offered many opportunities and challenges, but after a while both Sue and I realized that we needed to be closer to our friends and family.

So, in August we moved back to New Jersey. I’ll be starting a new position next month. In the meantime we’ve been renting an apartment in downtown Jersey City – just around the corner from where we lived when we were first married.

In my free time I’ve been taking lots of walks around the neighborhood, and I often pass by my grandparents’ old house on Coles Street.

So, they’ve been on my mind more than usual. And when I think about them I nearly always remember the Thanksgivings my family celebrated in that house. Each year my grandmother cooked for her children, their husbands and wives, and eventually their children, beginning with me. So, each year the guest list grew longer and longer and yet somehow we all managed to squeeze into a modest living room and kitchen.

But, it wasn’t just immediate family on the guest list. Each year there would be some distant relatives whose connection I can’t explain, or the man who owned the shade store where my grandmother worked and his wife, or another stray person or two who obviously needed a place to celebrate the holiday and so received an invitation from my grandparents.

Now, when I walk past my grandparents’ house, when I’m really mindful, really paying attention, I think, that’s what the kingdom of God is really like.

Family, friend and stranger – we are all invited to the banquet.

It’s hard to believe, but it was nearly eleven years ago that Sue and I were looking for a spiritual home. Based on the recommendation of a colleague, of mine we came here to check out St. Paul’s. It was the Second Sunday of Advent.

I was immediately struck by the beauty of this church and moved by the friendliness of the welcome. The music was beautiful and the sermon was both smart and inspiring.

But, it was the passing of the peace that I’ll never forget. We were used to people in church hoping that no one would sit near them so that during the peace they could avoid physical contact and just give a polite wave. But, here at this church the people seemed genuinely happy to see one another, happy to be together, so just about everybody was out in the aisle, shaking hands, giving hugs, along with some pecks on the cheek.

Near the end of the peace on our first Sunday here, the rector walked up to Sue and me, reached out his hand and said, “I’m Dave Hamilton. Welcome to St. Paul’s.”

Obviously this place and its people – many of you – have shaped my life in ways that I could scarcely have imagined that first Sunday more than a decade ago.

Now, especially standing here in this place with all of you, when I look back on those wonderful days and remember so many special people, many of you here today and also those who have died, like Fr. Carr and Bertha, Cortez, Sarah, Gertrude Clarabell, Frieda, Harriet, and Arthur, I think this is what the kingdom of God is really like.

Family, friend and stranger – we are all invited to the banquet.

Like other Jewish teachers, Jesus used the image of the banquet, the feast, to describe what life with God is like. Joyfully sharing food, drink and fellowship – that’s what the kingdom of God is really like.

In today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, we pick up where we left off last week. Jesus has entered Jerusalem and in a bold move chased the moneychangers out of the Temple, directly attacking the center of Jewish religious and political life.

Obviously that got the attention of the religious leaders. Matthew follows up that bold move with Jesus offering three parables that accuse at least some of the religious leaders of rebelling against God – and warning that because of that rebellion they are not going to enter the kingdom of God.

Instead, Jesus says that God is going to send out a lot more invitations to the banquet.

Family, friend and stranger – we are all invited to the banquet.

God sends the invitations. The only question is how do we respond.

In today’s lesson from the Book of Exodus, we have the famous scene of the Israelites growing impatient waiting for God and Moses. They fall back on the false comfort of an idol – in this case, a golden calf.

By leading the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert, by offering them food and drink, God had extended a very tangible invitation to the banquet.

The ancient Israelites weren’t bad people. They were just frightened and impatient. And, this time, out of fear and impatience, they put their faith in a dumb idol. This time, they rejected God’s invitation.

No one here is melting down their gold and making golden idol. But, especially during these tough times facing our country and our world and facing many of us personally, like the ancient Israelites at the foot of the mountain we can forget how God has blessed us. We can forget the banquets we’ve enjoyed. We can give into despair and hopelessness and fall back on the false comfort of an idol.

We aren’t bad people. But, these days many of us are frightened and impatient people. And, out of fear and impatience, we put our faith in dumb idols. We reject God’s invitation.

We know there are consequences when we reject God’s invitation. Matthew likes to quote Jesus warning about “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

But, the good news for the ancient Israelites, the good news for the chief priests and the good news for us is that even when God gets fed up with us, even when we rebel against God, God’s love and mercy always trump God’s justice.

So, our persistent God keeps sending out invitations. Over and over, we are invited to the banquet.

We accept God’s invitation when we open our eyes and our hearts – really paying attention to how God is at work in the world around us.

We accept God’s invitation when we allow God to work through us by sharing what we have and reaching out our hand to welcome the stranger in our midst.

We accept God’s invitation each time we gather at the altar, reach out our hands and take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.

Finally, we accept God’s invitation when we put on our spiritual wedding robe and take the feast we share here each Sunday out into streets of Jersey City - out into a world starving for the love and joy of Christ that we receive here at St. Paul’s.

And when we accept God’s invitation, and when we really live like we’ve accepted God’s invitation, then someday we’ll reach the promised land that has been prepared for us, the promised land I glimpsed at a table in Florida and at my grandparents’ Thanksgiving feast, the promised land I’ve seen right here on Duncan Avenue.

When we accept God’s invitation, and when we really live like we’ve accepted God’s invitation, then someday we’ll feast in the kingdom where family, friend and stranger are all gathered at the great banquet.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

In a Desert of Testing and Quarreling

The Church of the Transfiguration, Towaco NJ
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Lincoln Park NJ
September 25, 2011

Year A: Proper 21 – The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

In a Desert of Testing and Quarreling

For the past few Sundays we’ve been making our way through the great liberation story found in the Book of Exodus.

Throughout their exodus from Egypt the Israelites experienced the power of God in extraordinarily vivid ways. Two weeks ago we heard the story of God allowing them to escape from the mighty Egyptian army by parting the sea.

Last Sunday we heard the story of the Israelites hungry in the desert and beginning to wonder if this whole exodus thing was such a good idea and if Moses was in fact the leader they needed. In response to their need, God provides manna – the bread of heaven.

And today we pick up with the Israelites getting understandably nervous about the lack of water. They demand that Moses give them water to drink. Once again they wonder if this whole exodus thing was such a good idea and if Moses is in fact the man for the job.

Once again God comes through for them, providing water gushing from the rock.

For the Israelites, the desert was a place between the familiar, if difficult, past and an uncertain and frightening future. For the Israelites, the desert was a place of testing and quarreling.

Even after experiencing God’s love in the desert the Israelites asked one of the saddest and fundamental of all questions:

“Is the Lord among us or not?”

Well, in many ways we find ourselves today in a desert of testing and quarreling, don’t we?

I’m between jobs at the moment so I’ve been able to keep with current events even more than I usually do. But, you don’t need to pay close attention to know that we are in the desert of testing and quarreling.

Our economy just can’t seem to get going. We limp along month after month with anemic growth or no growth at all. Unemployment is a profound crisis – with millions of people giving up on finding a job anytime soon – or maybe ever. There are fears that our young people will become a lost generation – a generation never able to fulfill its potential and certainly unable to live lives as full and rich as their parents and grandparents.

Around the world, Greece is on the verge of default and Europe is at the edge of a banking crisis. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is entering a new and dangerous stage while we wonder what kind of autumn and winter will follow the Arab Spring.

And there are the things that don’t get much news coverage. There’s a staggering humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Horn of Africa with millions facing starvation. And, whatever happened to the people of Haiti after last year’s devastating earthquake? And, whatever happened to those leaking Japanese nuclear reactors and the people who lost their homes after the earthquake? For that matter, what all the people still suffering as result of Hurricane Irene, including many right here in this community.

Like the long-ago Israelites in the desert, we also lack faith in our leadership. Confidence in the president has eroded and I’m sure you’ve seen the ridiculously low poll numbers for Congress.

And that’s just what’s going on in our country and around the world. I’m sure many of us here this morning are facing our own personal challenges and fears.

Like the ancient Israelites, we are in a desert of testing and quarreling.

And like the Israelites, maybe we also ask one of the saddest and most fundamental questions of all:

“Is the Lord among us or not?”

No one knew more about times of testing and quarreling than St. Paul. Paul, you’ll remember, had been a Pharisee actively involved in persecuting the early followers of Jesus. Then he had an extraordinarily powerful encounter with the Resurrected Christ that set his life off in a totally unexpected and unprecedented direction.

Paul spent the rest of his life traveling around the Mediterranean region telling people the Good News of Jesus Christ and setting up little Christian congregations. Paul knew times of testing and quarreling. The people who actually knew Jesus during his earthly lifetime weren’t so sure about Paul – and weren’t sure that the Good News of Jesus is really for everyone.

Paul’s knew times of testing and quarreling. Travel was difficult and dangerous. Paul often competed against other traveling preachers who were more eloquent and better looking and who taught things that were easier for people to accept.

Paul knew times of testing and quarreling because no sooner would he leave a congregation then he’d hear that they were doing exactly what he had told them not to do and so he’d have to write letters full of reprimand and what he hoped were clear instructions.

Paul knew times of testing and quarreling. We know from his letters that he was often beaten and arrested. In fact, the letter we heard a piece of today – the letter to the Philippians – was written during one of the times Paul was in prison.

Paul knew times of testing and quarreling yet he kept going because of love. Throughout the ups and downs of Israel’s history God had shown God’s love through signs both big and small – during the Exodus God had shown God’s love in the parting of the Sea, in the manna from heaven and in the water gushing from the broken rock.

Now, Paul was overjoyed to tell everyone that God had shown God’s love in the most amazing way – in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

One of the places Paul shared this good news was Philippi, a city in Macedonia, in what would be today eastern Greece. Paul founded a Christian congregation there and it seems to have had a special place in his heart.

Paul writes to the Philippians because apparently there is some kind of division in this beloved congregation. Once again for Paul and the Philippians it’s a time of testing and quarreling.

But, rather than criticizing the Philippians, Paul writes them what’s essentially a love letter.

Paul reminds them of his own love and most especially he reminds them of the love that they – and we – see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s a special kind of love – the most rare of loves – a love that is so generous, so sacrificial, that it is, finally, self-emptying.

The love of Christ is the love that’s poured out in his teachings and the healings. It’s the love that’s poured out on the people hardest of all to love – on the tax collectors who cheated people out of their hard-earned money and the prostitutes, who blatantly violated the law.

The love of Christ is the love that was emptied out on the Cross. And the love of Christ is the love that was replenished three days later in the empty tomb.

In a desert of testing and quarreling Paul tried to imitate Jesus and to live a life of self-emptying love. Paul did that by allowing God to work and love in and through him.

Paul encouraged the Philippians to also live lives of love. He encouraged the Philippians to allow God to work and love in and through them. As Paul writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

I don’t know you, so I don’t know what’s going on in your lives or in the life of this church. But, I do know that as a people we are in a desert – we are in the place between the familiar, if difficult, past and an uncertain and frightening future. We are in a desert of testing and quarreling.

The question is: how do we respond?

Maybe we grumble and complain like the Israelites in the desert, maybe even asking the saddest and most fundamental question of them all,

“Is the Lord among us or not?”

Or, maybe, we remember that we’ve seen God’s self-emptying love most clearly in Jesus. Maybe we remember that we’ve seen God’s self-emptying love in Paul. Maybe we remember that we’ve seen God’s self-emptying love in special people in our own lives.

Remembering all the self-emptying love that we’ve seen, maybe we open ourselves up to God, letting the same mind be in us as was in Jesus.

In a desert of testing and quarreling, maybe we open ourselves up to God, emptying out our lives in love.


Friday, September 16, 2011


The Wedding of Jeremiah and Lori Shaw
Spray Beach Chapel, Long Beach Island
September 16, 2011

1 John 4:7-16
John 15:9-12


Today’s first reading was taken from the First Letter of John. It was written pretty late by New Testament standards – sometime near the end of the First Century. It’s a passage that’s often read at weddings, so for at least some of us the language is familiar. And like everything else that’s grown familiar there’s a danger that we no longer see or hear what it means – what it’s really about.

“God is love.” That sounds almost trite. We might shrug and ask, “What else is new?”

The First Letter of John was written for a Christian community broken by division. We don’t really know what caused the division, but it’s no surprise. You may have noticed that heated arguments and bitter separations are pretty common among religious people…

The author of First John realizes that these followers of Jesus have missed the whole point.

The whole point is love.

In this passage, written originally in Greek, the author of First John summarizes how for Christians the whole point is love. And he’s not the first follower of Jesus to realize that the whole point is love.

Half a century earlier St. Paul wrote about love in a letter to the Corinthians – another passage that’s often read at weddings.

In that letter Paul writes, “and now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Both the author of First John and St. Paul agree: the whole point is love.

Now, of course people in Greece and elsewhere in the ancient world knew about love before Christians came along in the middle of the First Century.

In fact, the Greeks had three different words for love.

There was eros, which generally referred to physical love.

And there was philia, the affection among family and friends.

And then there was a third kind of love – a kind of love that almost never appears in Greek writing before the New Testament. This third type of love is agape – selfless love.

For people in the ancient world, agape - selfless love - was almost unheard of. Both eros and philia offered pretty obvious benefits – physical pleasure and the security of having people around who would watch your back.

But, people wondered what’s the benefit of agape? What’s the benefit of selfless love?

One modern writer has described agape this way, “It is utterly impractical and makes no sense, but it is real. It comes from God.”

Not only does agape come from God, but, as the author of First John realized and proclaimed, God is love – God is agape.

God reveals God’s selfless love in creation – in this dazzling universe, this beautiful planet, and in special places like this island.

For us Christians God reveals God’s selfless love most clearly in Jesus. In the selfless love of Jesus, God says, this is who I really am. And in the selfless love of Jesus, God says to us, this is who you really are.

It turns out that we are made for agape – we are made for selfless love.

Of course, we often forget - or try to forget - that we are made for selfless love and instead look for other, less loving ways to find fulfillment – and fail every time.

Fortunately, every once in a while we get a wonderful reminder that we are made for agape – we are made for selfless love.

And so here we are today. Here we are today witnessing the love of Lori and Jerry - this agape story that is also a classic Hudson County love story that began when their paths crossed one evening in a Hoboken bar.

In talking – through the modern miracle of skype - with Lori and Jerry to prepare for today it was clear to me (even through a fuzzy computer connection) that their hearts are wide open to each other. From nearly the start of their relationship they shared the hurts that come from being on earth for a few decades. From nearly the start they shared the fears about what the future might bring. And from nearly the start they shared the hopes of what a life together could be.

Now, today in this ceremony they are formalizing the gift of selfless love – the gift of agape – the gift that they have already given to each other.

You and I are here as witnesses. We’re here to pray. We’re here to celebrate. We’re here to promise our support whenever times get tough.

And, if we keep our eyes and our hearts open we’re also here to glimpse the agape of God in the love shared by Lori and Jerry. We are here to glimpse in the love shared by these two wonderful people the love that is patient and kind, the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

We’re here to glimpse in Lori and Jerry’s love the selfless love of God – the love that never ends.


Sunday, September 11, 2011


St. Agnes’ Episcopal Church, Little Falls NJ
September 11, 2011

Year A: Proper 19 – The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35


Ten years ago I was a history teacher at St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, just beginning to explore what I thought might be a call to be a priest.

At Prep, my classroom was on the top floor with large windows that offered a spectacular view of the Lower Manhattan skyline, just across the Hudson River.

Ten years ago today, as that horrific morning unfolded I felt fear like I had never felt before – fear for myself and fear for my students sitting at their desks, stunned and confused. While some teachers continued to conduct their classes in an effort to keep some semblance of normalcy, I decided to turn on the radio so my students and I could listen to the history that was being scorched into our lives just across the Hudson and at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field.

Later that day, after school had been dismissed, a friend and I walked, trying to get as close to the river as we could. From my classroom windows I had seen the towers fall, yet as I turned the corner onto Montgomery Street somehow I imagined that the towers would still be standing – burned out husks maybe – but still standing.

Getting my first good look at the smoldering and brutalized skyline I felt absence – the absence of the towers and the absence of the thousands of people who just a few hours earlier had been going about their business on a beautiful late summer morning.

Later that day, I mourned the absence of seemingly ordinary World Trade Center places that I would never see again: the PATH Station, the newsstands, the Borders Book Store, the Krispy Kreme donut shop. I remembered when I was a kid seeing workers laying the bricks in the floor of the mall that was under the towers. Now that pavement and so many other familiar sights were all gone.

And on that terrible day I mourned what felt like the absence of God.

Like me, lots of people felt God’s seeming absence that morning.

But, not everyone.

Certainly the people responsible for these evil acts mistakenly felt that God was on their side. For them, the proof of God’s presence and support was in their successful strikes at symbols of American power and wealth.

And there were some in our own country who saw the attacks as signs of God’s punishing hand or as a lifting of God’s protection.

But, as the days went on, others of us felt what I’d say was a more authentic sense of God’s presence.

We felt God’s presence in the excruciatingly beautiful phone messages left by doomed men and women trapped in the burning towers to those they loved.

We felt God’s presence in the stories of heroism – the story of two men carrying a handicapped woman down the 68 flights of stairs in the North Tower, further risking their lives in an act of compassion – and the story of the firefighters bravely marching up the stairs through intense heat and poisonous smoke, overcoming their fears through a profound sense of duty.

We felt God’s presence in the story of the passengers of United Flight 93 who gave their lives to prevent even greater tragedies on that terrible day.

We felt God’s presence in the short “Portraits of Grief” the New York Times published for each 9/11 victim – the stories of dads who loved coaching their kids’ little league teams, the immigrants who were washing dishes in a humble start to the American dream, the recent college graduates beginning their first real jobs, all those firefighters and cops from the outer boroughs, and on and on.

Ten years ago we were terrified and brokenhearted and furious – and I know those feelings are still raw in us.

It’s been a time when a lot of us have turned to God, looked for God, raged at God, pleaded with God, bargained with God, or just wondered about God.

For some of us God has seemed achingly absent. For some of us God has felt powerfully present. And for most of us, I think, somehow God has felt both absent and present.

Which raises the basic but essential question: Who exactly is this God who can seem both achingly absent and powerfully present?

Reflecting on who God is has been on my mind more than usual because I just finished reading a provocative book that came out a couple of years ago called The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, who is skeptical but respectful of religion. In his book, he traces how our perception of God has evolved in fits and starts over thousands of years.

Wright makes the point that the only hope for the world is if our perception of God continues to evolve.

Today’s lessons illustrate beautifully how our perception of God has evolved. Today’s lessons also challenge us to take the next evolutionary step in our perception of God.

From Exodus we heard the familiar and yet still powerful story of the parting of the Red Sea. Israel’s God manipulates nature so that his people might escape from the Egyptians who were in hot pursuit.

It’s a great story of God’s liberating power – a story that still inspires people yearning for freedom. It’s also a story that’s told entirely from Israel’s perspective – reflecting Israel’s perception that their national god was acting to protect and liberate them.

But, our perception of God has evolved from a national god to a loving God of all. Our perception of God has evolved to the point that today we wonder about all those drowned Egyptian soldiers. Our perception of God has evolved so we might recognize that while God could rejoice in Israel’s liberation, at the same time God’s heart could also break for the dead Egyptian soldiers and for the families and friends who would soon be pained by grief.

Our perception of God has evolved from a national god to a loving God of all.

The greatest evolutionary leap in our perception of God is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus, we see most clearly what God is really like.

Over the past weeks we’ve been making our way through the Gospel of Matthew. Out of the four gospels Matthew is often considered the most Jewish and it is certainly the gospel most concerned with life in the Christian community, life in the church.

Last week, you may remember we heard Matthew’s account of Jesus telling the disciples what to do if someone seems to be in danger of falling away from the community or if someone actually does break with the community.

Essentially, Jesus tells the disciples that no one is to be excluded. We Christians are meant to go to bend over backwards to hold the community together.

Peter, maybe thinking this is crazy, asks for a clarification. Just to be clear, Peter asks how often he should forgive a church member who sins against him. Seven times?

Now, seven was a special number meaning perfection or completeness but just so there’s no confusion Jesus goes totally overboard and says, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Yes, we are to hold people accountable for their actions. Yes, we are to strive for justice. And, yes, we are to forgive and forgive and forgive.

In its original context the gospel message of infinite forgiveness is clearly meant for life within the church.

And, let’s be honest, that’s hard enough. Forgiveness isn’t so easy in the church where too often relationships get broken and too often we hold on to our grudges for dear life.

But, what if the next evolutionary step in our perception of God is the hardest step of all?

What if we perceive that God is calling us to break the cycle of violence and revenge once and for all?

What if we perceive that the loving God of all is calling us to extend infinite forgiveness out into all the world?

Anne Lamott once wrote, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.”

Today of all days we remember that we’ve had a terrible past and there’s nothing we can do to change that.

The only hope for a better future is taking the next evolutionary step in our perception of the loving God of all, who offers infinite forgiveness to all.

The next evolutionary step in our perception of God won’t happen on the battlefield or in the chambers of Congress. The next evolutionary step in our perception of God won’t happen on cable news channels or out on the presidential campaign trail.

The next evolutionary step in our perception of God will be when we hold people accountable for their actions, strive for justice, and, most of all, are truly willing to forgive seventy-seven times – to forgive and forgive and forgive.

The next evolutionary step in our perception of God will be when we break the cycle of violence and revenge. The next evolutionary step in our perception of God will be when we give up all hope of having had a better past and dedicate ourselves to building the kingdom of God here on earth – the kingdom where all of God’s people – all of us - will finally live in peace.


Sunday, August 28, 2011

True Religion

St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Millburn NJ
August 28, 2011

Year A: Proper 17 – The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105: 1-6, 23-26
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

True Religion

In today’s collect we made several requests of God, but the one that really jumped out at me was asking God to “increase in us true religion.” I’ll admit that I don’t always pay as much attention to the collect as I should. Maybe you don’t either! But, over the past couple of days I’ve found myself wondering just what is “true religion” and what would it look like if “true religion” really did increase in us.

Right off the bat, we have to acknowledge that for many the very word “religion” carries a whole lot of baggage. I don’t know you at all, but since we’re here in church on the morning of a predicted major hurricane I suspect that all of us here this morning are to some extent “religious.”

But, because of all the religious baggage in our country and around the world, how many of us would admit to being “religious” to our colleagues at work, or on line in the supermarket, or with our classmates at school, or even with our own families and friends?

No, we know all too well what’s written on the tags hanging from religious baggage. One label reads “Closed-minded.” Another says, “Judgmental.” Another, “Ignorant” Still another says, “Bigoted.” And then there are the tags written in blood that say “Threatening” and “Violent.”

Now, I know that’s not what we want written on the tags of our religious baggage – and that’s not the kind of religion that we pray God increases in us – and, in fact, not the kind of religion that God would ever want to increase in us.

Obviously, religion doesn’t mean – or, shouldn’t mean – being closed-minded or judgmental or ignorant or bigoted and certainly not threatening or violent.

But, what does religion mean? What does it mean to be religious?

I think today’s lessons offer very powerful descriptions of religion and what it means to be religious.

In today’s gospel lesson we heard the first time Jesus predicts his fate: his arrest, his suffering, his death and his resurrection. It must have been a very shocking revelation for Jesus’ friends who had left behind their old lives to follow this rabbi who taught and healed like no one they had ever seen before.

I’m sure all the disciples were upset, and maybe none more than Peter.

I think most of us love Peter so much because we can relate to him. We can relate to his bumbling. We can relate to his usually trying to do the right thing but often coming up short. And we can relate to sometimes letting down the people we care about most.

But, like us, sometimes the very human Peter gets it right. Remember last week we heard Peter really getting it. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am? Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Peter must have felt like a million shekels – there’s nothing better than giving the right answer when the teacher asks a tough question!

Jesus tells Peter he is blessed. Peter isn’t blessed because he’s smarter or more insightful than the other disciples. Jesus tells Peter he is blessed, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

Peter got the answer right not because he was smart or insightful but because he was open to God at work in him. Because Peter’s heart was open to God he recognized Jesus for who he really is.

Contrast last week’s scene with what we heard today. Peter is so shocked by what Jesus has just said that he’s closed to God working in and through him.

Peter is so consumed by fear and anxiety that he isn’t able to hear everything Jesus is saying. Peter seems to miss the big point: that Jesus would rise again on the third day. I imagine all Peter heard was Jesus saying, “undergo great suffering…and be killed.”

And so, motivated by shock and fear and anxiety and, yes, love for his teacher, Peter “rebukes” Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

For his part, Jesus reflects the seriousness of Peter’s error by speaking harshly to his disciple, calling him “Satan” and telling him that Peter the rock has become a stumbling block.

Like Peter, we too can be motivated by shock and fear and anxiety.

Certainly there’s plenty in the world to be shocked by, to be afraid of, and to be anxious about.

I’m sure most of us spent much of the past few days anxiously tracking Hurricane Irene as it made its destructive way up the East Coast.

We worry that we have damaged the planet so much that we look to a future filled with ever more destructive storms and extreme weather.

We are afraid that our political system and our economy are both broken beyond repair, threatening our children and grandchildren lives far less prosperous than our own.

And we have our own personal anxieties – that occasional pain in our chest, that we’ll be the next one in the department to be let go, that losing our keys is the first sign of impending dementia, and even that a new rector will change all the things we really love about St. Stephen’s.

But if we’re truly religious, then our eyes and our minds and our hearts are open to God.

So, asking God to “increase in us true religion” means asking God to open our eyes to see God at work in the world around us.

Asking God to “increase in us true religion” means asking God to open our minds to understand how God is at work in the world around us.

And asking God to “increase in us true religion” means asking God to open our hearts so we can live lives inspired by love rather than lives motivated by shock, fear and anxiety.

I think that’s what St. Paul is getting at when he writes to the early church in Rome,

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

That’s what “true religion” looks like.

“True religion” has its own baggage. But here’s what’s written on the tags hanging from true religious baggage: “love,” “mutual affection,” “show honor,” “ardent in spirit,” and “service to the Lord.”

We live in a time of fear and anxiety. Yet, the God who spoke to Moses long ago – the God was and is and will be – is still at work right now early 21st Century.

The God who raised Jesus on the third day – the God who was and is and will be – is still at work right here in us, and through us, and with us at St. Stephen’s

We pray that God will increase in us true religion so that, like Peter, our hearts will be open and we will recognize Jesus as Messiah, Son of the Living God.

We pray that God will increase in us true religion so that in a world filled with anxiety and bad religious baggage, our lives will be tagged by love, generosity and service.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

More Than We Can Ask Or Imagine

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
August 14, 2011

Year A: Proper 15, the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

More Than We Can Ask Or Imagine

Many of you know that one of the first things I did when I arrived in Gainesville last year was to start offering Morning Prayer each weekday at the chapel – or, actually, in the chapel garden.

I did that for a couple of reasons but mostly because like everybody else I can get a little lazy. But, I realized that if I put Morning Prayer on the schedule then - no matter how lazy or busy I was - I had to start my day with prayer.

At the end of Morning Prayer the officiant may say one of three verses from Scripture. My favorite of these verses is from Ephesians. It begins:

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…”

That’s a beautiful description of how God is at work in our lives.

If our hearts are open, God takes us to unexpected places.

If our hearts are open, God brings amazing people into our lives.

If our hearts are open, God uses us to heal our broken world.

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…”

I’ve been hearing that verse from Ephesians in my head as my time here with all of you in Gainesville draws to a close. Over the past year God has done more in my life than I could ever have asked or imagined.

And I’ve also been hearing that verse in my head as I’ve been reflecting on this week’s lessons, in which, as usual, God does more than anyone could have asked or imagined.

You may remember that last week we heard the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. They were jealous that Joseph was his father’s favorite. They were angry that Joseph had dreams in which they bowed before him. And, don’t forget, they were irritated that their father honored Joseph by giving him a fancy robe with long sleeves.

Ah, family!

To make a long story short, Joseph did very well in Egypt, rising to a position of great honor and power.

The rest of his family didn’t do as well. Things got so bad that during a time of famine, Joseph’s brothers go to Egypt looking for help.

At first, Joseph played some mind games with his brothers who don’t recognize him. The last of these games was demanding that Benjamin, the youngest and Joseph’s only full brother, stay behind in Egypt as a slave.

In an act of great courage and love, Judah, who had been primarily responsible for selling Joseph into slavery, offers to take Benjamin’s place because he knows the loss of both Joseph and Benjamin would devastate their father.

It’s a powerful moment and an amazing reversal. It’s so powerful and amazing, in fact, that in the passage we heard today Joseph breaks down and reveals his identity to his shocked brothers.

The healing of a family broken by jealousy, deceit and violence begins.

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…”

If our hearts are open, God takes us to unexpected places.

If our hearts are open, God brings amazing people into our lives.

If our hearts are open, God uses us to heal our broken world.

Today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew might, at first, seem a little disjointed.

It begins with Jesus challenging the teaching of the Pharisees, who usually get a bad rap in the New Testament. We don’t know as much about the Pharisees as we’d like but it seems that they were interested in sanctifying everyday life. So, they intensified some of the demands of Jewish Law, for example requiring ritual hand washing before meals.

There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of practices unless of course they become more important than the way we actually live our lives. In the gospel, Jesus emphasizes that it’s not our rituals but our moral behavior that makes us clean or unclean.

Important words for the Pharisees and for us - and then almost immediately Jesus is challenged to put those important words into practice.

Jesus goes into the non-Jewish territory of Tyre and Sidon where he encounters a pushy and persistent Canaanite woman. She honors Jesus when she shouts to him, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Now, this is a familiar scene. Throughout the gospels we see Jesus in these kinds of situations – people begging him for healing. But, in this case, Jesus acts in an un-Jesus like way.

After all, she’s both not Jewish and a woman. So, Jesus and any other Jewish man shouldn’t have anything to do with her.

The disciples want to get rid of her – undoubtedly her shouting was attracting a crowd in this foreign land. Jesus offers a very narrow vision of his mission when he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The woman persists, “Lord, help me.”

And then Jesus does something very un-Jesus like. He insults the woman:

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Yet, even after this ugly insult, the woman not only persists but is quick-witted:

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

And then, impressed by her faith and maybe her wit, Jesus relents, and heals her daughter instantly.

This is a difficult passage for us to hear. It’s often interpreted as a story about faith and persistence – and, in part, it’s certainly about that. But, if that’s all that this story is about, what does it say about God? Would God’s attitude towards the woman really be, “If only you had gone back at Jesus after he insulted you then your daughter would have been healed! Too bad you didn’t have more faith and persistence!”

No, this passage isn’t so much about the Canaanite woman. This story is much more about Jesus. There has always been a tendency in the Church to overemphasize either Jesus’ humanity or his divinity. I think in our time the tendency is to focus so much on his divinity that we lose sight of Jesus our brother, a flesh and blood human being who had to learn and grow like we all need to learn and grow.

In this passage we glimpse a flesh and blood human Jesus who was challenged by a persistent Canaanite woman to put his important words into practice.

The rules say no contact with this woman. But this quick-witted woman seems to have reminded Jesus that our conduct is far more important than our rituals.

And maybe in that encounter Jesus had the nearly overwhelming realization that his identity and his mission were far greater than he had previously believed.

Maybe Jesus’ heart was opened to realize that he wasn’t only the long awaited Messiah of Israel, but he was also the Savior of this Canaanite woman and her daughter - and the Savior of the whole world.

Maybe in that encounter with the persistent woman, Jesus recognized that in him and through him, God was doing more than this Jewish peasant from Nazareth could have ever asked or imagined.

And now it’s our turn. We’re all aware of the challenges we face in our lives, our families, our community and the world. But, God is at work today in Gainesville just as God was at work when Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers and when Jesus chose healing over rules and regulations.

If our hearts are open, God takes us to unexpected places.

If our hearts are open, God brings amazing people into our lives.

If our hearts are open, God uses us to heal our broken world.

“Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.”


Sunday, August 07, 2011

Little Faith

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
August 7, 2011

Year A: Proper 14 – the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Little Faith

Last Sunday we heard Matthew’s account of Jesus feeding the multitudes. The crowd had followed Jesus, hungry for his teaching and maybe a healing or two. The only problem was now there were thousands of people in a remote place. As the day grew late the disciples grew concerned about how all of these people were going to get fed. They tell Jesus to send the crowd into the villages so they can buy food.

Instead, Jesus tells the disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

The disciples have very little. They are only able to offer five loaves and two fish. It certainly doesn’t seem like they have nearly enough.

Yet, Jesus is able to take their little offering and transform it into food that feeds a multitude – with baskets of leftovers completing the picture of God’s abundance.

Today we picked up right where we left off in the Gospel of Matthew – the story of Jesus walking on water and calming the storm.

Matthew drew upon the earlier Gospel of Mark when he wrote his own account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Since there’s so much of Mark in Matthew, it’s interesting to note when Matthew adds some additional details to what’s in the earlier gospel.

For example, Matthew’s account of Peter’s “little faith” isn’t found in Mark.

Peter isn’t sure if it’s really Jesus or if it’s a ghost. But, he bravely says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

After getting the word, Peter – a fisherman who knew the dangers of the turbulent sea all too well - bravely gets out of the boat and takes a few steps on the water towards his Lord.

When he gets understandably frightened and begins to sink, Peter cries out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reaches out to him, catches him, and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

“You of little faith” is the usual description of the apostles in the Gospel of Matthew.

“You of little faith” sounds like a put-down, but I’m not so sure.

After all, God seems to be very good at making something awesome out of something very little.

God is good at taking tiny mustard seeds and growing trees that provide shelter for many.

And we just saw God’s ability to turn little into awesome in the miracle of feeding the multitudes when Jesus took the little offering from the disciples and transform it into food that satisfies a multitude – with baskets of leftovers.

Actually, all God seems to require of us is “little faith” – the faith that leaves us open to God’s power working within us – the faith that leaves a small space in our hearts where God can do the work of transforming us and transforming the world.

And it’s noteworthy that it’s Peter who is of little faith. Peter is often depicted as kind of a well-meaning bumbler. And, as we know, he will let Jesus down in his greatest moment of need – abandoning and denying his crucified Lord.

Yet Peter’s little faith is enough to get him out on the water – Peter’s little faith is enough to get Peter to take a few steps toward Jesus – Peter’s little faith is enough for him to cry out to Jesus for help.

And we know that God will take Peter’s little faith – and working from that small place in the fisherman’s heart - transform him from bumbler and coward and denier into an apostle who gave his life for Jesus and the Gospel.

So, I don’t think “little faith” is a put-down.

But, if we’re honest, I think we all wonder if we have even Peter’s little faith. Would we really take even a step or two out onto the water towards Jesus?

Does our doubt crush our little faith and close off the small space in our hearts?

Like Peter, our doubts become most apparent in turbulent times.

And we are certainly living in turbulent times.

The loss of life caused by the shooting down of one of our helicopters in Afghanistan on Saturday is a reminder that our country is involved in wars that, despite the bravery of our troops, we know will end not with victory but, at best, ambiguity.

Our economy and many economies around the world continue to sputter -leaving so many of us unemployed or underemployed or frightened that we are about to take a place in the long lines of people looking for work. Unemployment benefits are running out and there doesn’t seem to be the money or the will or even the compassion to extend them.

For the first time in our history Americans really believe that their children won’t have it as good as they did.

Over the past few weeks the world watched as leaders of both parties made a spectacle of themselves in dealing with the debt ceiling – a spectacle for which we’ll all pay. But, that was really just one example of the dysfunction and corruption that prevents our elected officials in Washington and Tallahassee from setting aside ideology and self-interest for the good of the people.

And then there is the turbulence in our own lives.

Like every community, some of us here are facing serious illness or worried about the health of someone we love. Some of us are battling addiction. Some of our relationships are strained or have ruptured. Some of us feel guilty about things we’ve done or things we’ve left undone.

And there is the turbulence that comes when a priest gets ready to leave. What will happen to the church? What will our next priest be like? Will the next priest be in place before momentum is lost and people begin to drift away?

In turbulent times it’s easy to doubt - and hard to have even little faith.

Actually, though, our idea of doubt might not be exactly what Jesus meant.

When Jesus asked Peter, “why did you doubt?” he wasn’t asking Peter why he was skeptical that a man could walk on the surface of a turbulent sea.

Instead, when Jesus asked Peter why he doubted, he was asking why didn’t he hold steady? Why didn’t he remain steadfast? Why didn’t he keep going?

Peter had heard Jesus teach and had seen Jesus heal and had seen Jesus feed the multitudes. So why he didn’t Peter trust that the Lord would hold him up and keep him afloat?

In this turbulent time, you and I are like Peter trying to walk on the turbulent sea.

During my year here I’ve gotten to know you well enough to know that you’ve seen the power of Jesus to teach, heal and feed. So I know you’ll hold steady. I know that doubt won’t crush your – our - little faith. I know that doubt won’t close off the small space reserved for God in our hearts.

We have little faith – we make a small place in our heart – when we hold steady, when we remain steadfast, when we keep going even when we’re frightened or tired or bewildered.

We have little faith – we make a small place for God in our heart – when we stick together, make time for prayer, extend peace and forgiveness to our neighbors, sing our hymns, and take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.

With all his flaws and failures, Peter still had little faith and made a small place in his heart for God. And God used that little faith and that small place to transform Peter and to transform the world.

As usual, God made something awesome out of something very small.

The good news is that what was true for Peter is just as true for us – what God did for Peter, God can do for all of us - for all of us of little faith.