Sunday, February 19, 2012


Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 19, 2012

Year B: The Last Sunday after Epiphany
2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
(2 Corinthians 4:3-6)
Mark 9:2-9


Lately I’ve been having trouble with focus.

Part of my problem, frankly, has been a reluctance to admit that I’m getting older and that just as my hair is getting grayer and grayer, my eyes just aren’t working as well as they used to.

So, really out of vanity, I had resisted getting reading glasses until finally last week Sue got tired of watching me struggle to read tags on clothes or to read the small print on restaurant bills and dragged me not quite kicking and screaming to the drugstore to buy…these.

I noticed my sharpened focus right away when I read the newspaper. Then, after Sue left for her class, I picked up the book I had been reading in fits and starts – usually able to get through a few pages before my tired eyes would lead me to put it down and maybe turn on the computer or TV instead.

When Sue came home hours later I was still in the same spot on couch, happily reading away – with a renewed focus on my book.

But, usually it’s not that easy to solve the problem.

It’s hard to focus, isn’t it?

There’s so much going on – so many distractions.

First, there’s all that’s going on in the world and in our country. It’s hard to know what’s really important, what’s worth paying attention to and what we can safely ignore. How concerned should we be about the financial collapse of Greece or the possibility of Israel launching a preemptive strike on Iran? How much attention should we really be giving to a presidential election that’s still many months away? How much time should we spend trying to make sense of whether the economy is really improving or if statistics are really telling the full story? And then there’s all the time I spent this week reading about the sad life story of Whitney Houston…

Over the years I’ve occasionally made pastoral visits both in homes and hospitals where the TV seemed to be permanently set to cable news. I’m reminded of my grandfather who after he retired spent much of the last decades of his life sitting in the kitchen listening to round the clock news on 1010 WINS.

I wonder how he could really focus on what was most important when he kept hearing over and over about the terrible traffic near the Elmhurst gas tanks …just like I wonder how any of us can focus on what’s most important, when we’re distracted by the steady drumbeat of crisis that’s pounded out day after day by cable news.

It’s hard to focus, isn’t it?

It’s hard to focus on what’s most important because there’s so much stuff going on in our lives – and in the lives of the people we love most. When I hear about the complicated and demanding schedules of families in this church I’m amazed that parents and children don’t just collapse under the weight of so much to do. Then there’s all the stuff we worry about – for ourselves and others. There are the worries about health and employment. And there are the worries that somehow life has passed us by or is passing us by. There are the worries that somehow we’re missing the boat – that somehow we were meant to be more than we seem to be.

It’s hard to focus, isn’t it?

And then there’s so much going on here in church. I remember when Grace Notes was simply printed on a single tri-fold piece of paper. Don’t look at it during the sermon but today Grace Notes has evolved into a twelve page magazine jam-packed with information about all the good stuff coming up in Lent!

I’m glad to be at a busy church but it doesn’t always make it easy for me – and maybe for some of you – to stay focused on what’s most important.

I wonder if Jesus sometimes found it hard to focus.

Just about everything we know about Jesus’ earthly comes from the four gospels. This year we’ve been reading the Gospel of Mark, probably the earliest of the four, completed around the year 70.

Apparently Mark doesn’t know about or isn’t interested in Jesus’ birth and early life. Instead he jumps right in with John the Baptist preaching repentance in the wilderness.

You may remember near the start of the Epiphany season we heard what happened next: one day a grown-up Jesus appears and is baptized by John. And you may remember that Mark tells us that as Jesus came up out of the water “He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

And then Mark describes a dizzying series of events for Jesus: temptations in the wilderness, the calling of the first disciples, exorcisms and healings, debate with the Pharisees, teaching with parables, the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and finally a growing realization that Jesus would pay for his mission with his life.

With all of that going on, I imagine at least sometimes it must have been hard for our brother Jesus – and certainly for the disciples - to focus on what was most important.

Fortunately, God wants to sharpen our focus.

And I think that’s what God was up to that day on the mountain when Peter, James and John saw Jesus wearing clothes of dazzling white - transfigured – transformed – before their very eyes.

I think that’s what God was up to that day on the mountain when Peter, James and John saw the transfigured – transformed – Jesus standing beside Elijah and Moses.

That day on the mountain God sharpened the focus of Peter, James and John – and maybe even the focus of Jesus. That day on the mountain God reminded them – and reminds us today – that God’s mission is transformation.

God’s mission is the transformation of the world into what it was always meant to be.

God’s mission is the transformation of all of us into what we were always meant to be.

God transforms us and transforms the whole world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

At the Transfiguration, God now speaks so everyone can hear, “This my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Jesus’ work began at his baptism.

And then after his Transfiguration – after his transformation - Jesus comes down off the mountain and takes up his difficult work with a new focus – a focus on the betrayal and suffering ahead – and a focus on the ultimate transformation that awaited him after his sacrifice on the cross.

All of these centuries later, and maybe especially in this time and place, there are so many distractions that make it hard for us focus on what’s most important.

We are coming to the end of the Epiphany season and are about to start Lent, but no matter the season, God wants to sharpen our focus on what’s most important.

God wants to sharpen our focus on our work that began – that begins – at our baptism.

God wants to sharpen our focus on what’s most important: God’s mission of transforming us and transforming the world.

So, I think that’s what God is up to when suddenly we get the urge to come back to church after having been away.

I think that’s what God is up to when something in a Scripture passage or a hymn or a prayer touches our hearts.

God wants to sharpen our focus.

That’s what God is up to when we know about people in need, like say those who are fed every day at a soup kitchen, and are moved to give and to serve.

That’s what God is up to when we realize that we love someone – a parent, a friend, a spouse, a child – more than we ever thought we could love anyone.

God wants to sharpen our focus.

That’s what God is up to when a person we’ve wronged forgives us or we’re able to forgive someone who has hurt us.

That’s what God is up to when we find the strength to love and the courage to hope.

God wants to sharpen our focus.

God’s mission is the transformation of the world into what it was always meant to be.

God’s mission is the transformation of all of us into what we were always meant to be.

God transforms us and transforms the whole world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

And God continues that mission – God’s mission of transfiguration - God’s mission of transformation - right here and now, when we put on our spiritual glasses… and focus.


Sunday, February 05, 2012

Love, Not Magic

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
February 5, 2012

Year B: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 40:21-31
(Psalm 147:1-12, 21c)
(1 Corinthians 9:16-23)
Mark 1:29-39

Love, Not Magic

Who here is familiar with Penn and Teller?

They’re magicians – Penn’s the tall, talkative one and Teller is the short, silent partner. They’re both who’ve been around for a few decades now, appearing on TV and for the past few years they’ve had a regular gig out in Las Vegas. Sue and I have seen them a couple of times and - though not appropriate for young children – they put on a pretty entertaining show.

They do all sorts of magic tricks – some traditional and others amazingly creative and seemingly very dangerous.

What sets Penn and Teller apart from other magicians, though, is that they often explain how they do their own tricks. During Teller’s famous red ball trick, Penn usually tells the audience, “It’s done with thread!”

Penn and Teller also delight in explaining how other magicians - and also psychics - manage to pull off their seemingly amazing feats. They’re happy to explain how the woman in the box is never in any danger of being sawed in half or how the psychic can figure out the name of your long-lost relative. Needless to say this doesn’t make them too popular with magicians and psychics!

Well, Penn and Teller would have had a great time if they lived in First Century Palestine, during Jesus’ earthly lifetime.

In those very pre-scientific days, as among many today, there was a profound belief in the spirit world. In particular, people believed in – and feared - the power of evil spirits – of demons – who were always hard at work causing pain and suffering, especially in the form of possession and illness.

That firm belief in a powerful spirit world provided many opportunities for magicians, sorcerers and enchanters to roam the land claiming they had special powers or knew just the right mix of herbs and potions or understood how to cast spells that could cure whatever ailed you – from demonic possession to a skin disease to infertility to, well, you name it.

From this distance it’s hard to judge how many of these magicians were charlatans out to fool people in pursuit of fame and fortune and how many really believed they had special powers or knowledge. And there were probably some magicians who were some mix of fraud and sincere belief.

But this is the world in which Jesus and his first followers lived. This was a world that expected exorcisms to occur. This was a world in which people looked for miraculous healings and honored people who could perform them.

I’m sure Penn and Teller would have delighted in trying to expose them as frauds.

As we’ve mentioned before, for most of the Sundays this year we’re going to be making our way through the Gospel of Mark – the earliest and the most barebones of the four gospels.

And the Evangelist Mark likes to tell us that people were impressed by the teaching of Jesus. Last week we heard about Jesus and his first followers arriving at Capernaum, a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee.

Mark tells us that on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. He writes, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Mark then goes on to tell us that there was a man with an “unclean spirit” – an unclean spirit who recognizes who Jesus is – the Holy One of God.

Jesus performs an exorcism – using language and a formula that are found in other accounts of exorcisms from around that time. So, although I’m sure we’d all be quite surprised to have an exorcism this morning here at Grace Church, people in the synagogue in Capernaum probably weren’t shocked at all. Exorcisms, while not routine, were not unheard of in that time and place.

Then we move from the synagogue to the home of the brothers Simon and Andrew. Jesus is told at once that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick in bed with a fever. We’re told that Jesus “took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Again, this kind of healing would have been familiar and expected in the ancient world. In fact, people at that time - and maybe even we - might even start to think that Jesus was just another magician or sorcerer like those guys out roaming around selling their “special” powers.

But, there are some key differences.

First of all, Jesus doesn’t do anything to promote himself – just the opposite, really.

Maybe because he doesn’t want to be associated with the charlatans, throughout the Gospel of Mark Jesus specifically tells his followers not to say a word about the mighty wonders they’ve seen. For example, in today’s lesson, Jesus goes off by himself to pray even though – or maybe because - the word about him has gotten out and everyone was searching for him.

Second, Jesus’ miracles are not merely physical healings. Jesus’ miracles are part of his teaching. Jesus’ miracles are about the transformation of the whole person.

And Mark makes this point in the little snapshot of Simon’s mother-in-law. It’s almost comical: she’s healed and then immediately she began to serve them. But, in those few words, in that little scene, we see not magic but the true power of God to transform us from broken, sick people into people who give away our lives in humble, loving, and generous service.

Over the past few months, Lauren and I have been doing a lot of anointing of the sick. At our Wednesday morning healing Eucharist some members of the congregation stay at the altar rail to be anointed for themselves or for another or sometimes both.

And then both of us have been visiting – and anointing - people who are ill – in homes or hospitals or nursing homes.

It’s one of the great privileges of my life and work. Because I want to be careful about what I say, I just about always say the same prayer when I anoint someone – it’s basically right out of the book:
“I lay my hand upon you and anoint you with oil, in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, beseeching him to uphold you, to fill you with grace, so you may know the healing power of his love.”

“The healing power of his love.”

Love, not magic.

I always hope and pray that the people I anoint will recover, but sometimes they don’t. Just in the last few months we’ve anointed two parishioners repeatedly, but they still died.

To be honest, it would be unbearable and I’d give up anointing people if I thought it was only, or even mostly, about physical healing.

But, it’s not. After all, eventually Simon’s mother-in-law died even though Jesus had healed her fever that day in Capernaum. She died just as all of us will die someday.

What’s most important is God’s love – that healing power of love that we experience in and through Jesus – that healing power of love that transforms us, even in – or especially in - times of great suffering.

And I know the healing power of God’s love is real because I’ve seen it.

I’ve seen the healing power of God’s love when in times of great sadness and fear, in a hospital room filled with beeping and blinking machines, people are able to express… joy, to remember happy times, to give thanks for good gifts, and sometimes are even able to laugh.

I’ve seen the healing power of God’s love when a person found Grace Church in the phonebook and called asking if a priest would hear her confession. After she made her confession and I pronounced absolution I could actually see a physical change in her face as a huge burden of shame and guilt was lifted off her soul.

Love, not magic.

We don’t like to admit it, but in some ways we’re all broken and sick and all in need of the healing power of God’s love.

We all have fears and regrets and doubts. We all suffer loss and will lose more in the future. We all carry heavy baggage - though we try to fool everyone, including maybe ourselves, into thinking we’ve got our act together and don’t have a care in the world.

But God knows. And so we’re all offered the healing power of God’s love.

We’re offered God’s healing power of love through the support of family and friends.

We’re offered God’s healing power of love when we pray, when we listen to God’s Word, when we’re anointed and most especially when we take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.

God’s healing power of love can transform us just as it transformed Simon’s mother-in-law. God’s healing power of love can transform us from being sick and broken into people who give away our lives in humble, loving, and generous service to one another and to God.

The truth is, there’s nothing here for Penn and Teller to debunk because it’s love, not magic.

May God fill us with grace so we may all know the healing power of God’s love.


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Rooted in Worship

Grace Episcopal Church
Madison, NJ

The Messenger
February 2012

Rooted in Worship

I have had a wonderful first few months back at Grace Church! It’s been a time of unpacking (with, unfortunately, still more boxes waiting) and a time to re-immerse myself into parish life. It has been a great joy to be with you again – to pray and worship together, to work the line at the Community Soup Kitchen, to hang out at the Men’s Breakfast each Friday at the Bagel Chateau, to enjoy good food and drink and even better fellowship at social events, to begin a new Confirmation class, and so much more.

It’s been a joyful time and, frankly, it’s also been a strange time. It’s rare for a priest to return to a parish. For that matter, it’s unusual to move back into a house after being gone for about 15 months. When Sue and I were moving back into Surrey Lane a neighbor came over and introduced himself and pointed across the street to his house. When I told him that I remembered him, he exclaimed, “It is you – you are the same people! That’s never happened before!”

Before I came back I wondered how much the church might have changed during our time away. And I wondered Рto use the clich̩ Рif it really would be possible to come home again.

As for changes, of course there is the obvious and sad absence of parishioners who died during the months I was away. Preaching on the Feast of the Holy Name (January 1) I observed how Grace Church had suffered some especially painful losses in the preceding year, including Joe Adamczyk, John Cassidy, Bill Foster, Larry Taber and Phyllis Hendry. All of them - each in their own way - contributed so much to our life together and are so dearly missed.

In addition to those who died, there are some who moved away because of family obligations or to pursue new opportunities. And, sadly, there are some who discerned that the next steps of their faith journey meant leaving our community. Although we are all poorer for their absence, we continue to be blessed by the gifts they shared while they prayed and sang and served with us.

Then there are the many new parishioners who have arrived since I left in August, 2010 – and visitors and seekers who are continuing to discover us week after week. I’m starting to make progress, but there are so many names to learn! I’m impressed and pleased by how many have already gotten involved beyond coming to church. Some are attending Graceful Gatherings, or joining the choir, or attending First Friday potluck suppers, or participating in our many programs for children. This blast of newcomer energy and enthusiasm was made manifest a few weeks ago when I called up a relatively new parishioner asking for a favor. Without hesitation she said, “Oh, I’d do anything for Grace Church!”

Of course, there have been other changes. Some programs have run their course while new offerings keep popping up on the calendar. However, the core of Grace Church remains very much the same.

I remember when I first interviewed with Lauren for the position of curate back in the spring of 2007. After she described all the vibrant ministries that went on here, I asked her why she thought Grace was so healthy and thriving when so many other churches – including churches in similar communities – were withering on the vine. She said she believed it was the daily services offered here – day after day we gather to offer our prayers and our worship. She chalked up Grace Church’s health to the daily worship that “bathes” our church in prayer – the daily worship symbolizing that the Christian life is not just something we do for an hour (give or take!) on Sunday.

We remain rooted in worship. Sometimes our worship is a tiny congregation – or even a congregation of one – at Evening Prayer, bearing the gift and responsibility of praying on our behalf. Sometimes our worship is the Wednesday Eucharist when we pray for God’s healing power of love. Sometimes our worship is the Thursday Eucharist when a faithful group of friends gathers for prayer and fellowship. And sometimes our worship is a large Sunday morning service filled with gorgeous music, lifting us beyond ourselves and helping us glimpse the presence of God.

I’ll close with this quote from Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace. It sums up how I feel about being back home here with all of you, rooted in worship: “We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us his own.”