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.