Sunday, July 29, 2012

Responding to God's Abundance

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 29, 2012

Year B: Proper 12 - The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 1:1-15
Psalm 14
(Ephesians 3:14-21)
John 6:1-21
Responding to God’s Abundance
            At first glance, today’s lessons don’t seem to have much to do with each other.
            At the heart of lesson I just read from the Gospel of John, is a powerful story that’s familiar to many of us: Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes. It’s the only one of Jesus’ miracles – or “signs” as the Evangelist John calls them – that is included, with some variations, in all four of the gospels.
            And it’s easy to see why all four evangelists would think this story is important enough – even essential - to include in their accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. Think about the elements included in John’s account of the feeding that we just heard.
            Jesus is presented as firmly in control of events. We’re told he saw the large crowd approaching and asks Philip, “Where are we going to buy bread for these people to eat?” Typically, John tells us that Jesus only asks this to test Philip because Jesus knows all along what he’s going to do.
            As usual, the disciples are presented as more or less clueless, still unable or unwilling to recognize Jesus’ power. Philip says there’s no way they could have enough money to feed all these people. And Andrew has found a boy with five loaves and two fish. But, there’s no way that could be enough for all these people, right?
            There’s also Eucharistic imagery. Later, in John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet but doesn’t say anything about the bread and wine being his body and blood. But here at the feeding, John points out that the Passover is near and Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, and gives it to those seated around them.
            And, finally, there’s the miraculous part of the story. After everyone is satisfied, all 5000 people, somehow there are baskets of bread left over.
            How could this have happened?
            Well, this could simply be a supernatural act of Jesus. Or, maybe the 5000 people were so moved by what they had seen and heard Jesus doing that they reached into their own bags and shared the bread that they had been saving for themselves.
            I prefer option number two, but either way it’s a miracle, or as John prefers to call it, a sign.
            However it happened, the feeding of the 5000 is a powerful sign of God’s overflowing abundance.
            As many of you know, this summer some of us have been reading After You Believe by N. T. Wright. One of the key points he makes in the book is that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mark the beginning of God’s Kingdom on earth.  And, so if we listen to Jesus – if we watch Jesus – we see what God’s Kingdom will be like.
            So, today we learn that God’s Kingdom will be a place of overflowing abundance – where there will be enough for everyone. God’s abundance is so great that there will even be a lot of left over.
            Jesus’ life, death and resurrection mark the beginning of God’s kingdom on earth, but we don’t have to be Bible scholars to know that God’s kingdom on earth is still a work in progress. The world is still filled with poverty, hunger, violence, despair and sin.
            God invites us, calls us, even in a sense needs us, to help finish the job – to help build God’s kingdom on earth
            In today’s Old Testament lesson we continued with the story of David.
            Now, David was someone who was well aware of God’s overflowing abundance. As we’ve heard in recent weeks, God chose the unlikely David, Jesse’s youngest son, the shepherd boy, to be king of Israel.
            As king, David lives a life of relative comfort in Jerusalem, his capital city, in a palace made of rare and valuable cedar. And, as we heard last Sunday, the presence of God in the ark is there with him in Jerusalem.
            God has given him so much – and yet…
            It’s rare for ancient literature to criticize the king, but that’s what we heard in today’s sordid lesson from Second Samuel.
            Think about how David is presented here.
            He’s a coward or maybe just lazy. We’re told it’s springtime, “the time when kings go out to battle,” but David stays behind in his capital, sending others to fight his battles.
            He’s a voyeur. We’re told that David rises from his afternoon nap – it’s good to be the king! – and checks out Bathsheba bathing and immediately wants to know more about her. He asks about her, apparently hoping to add her to his harem.
            It turns out that she’s married to Uriah – one of David’s best soldiers. Notice that Uriah and Bathsheba live very close to the royal palace – a sign of Uriah’s importance.
            This is bad enough so far, but then David gets Bathsheba pregnant and begins plotting. First he wants Uriah to go and be with his wife in an effort to hide his paternity. And when that doesn’t work – Uriah is loyal and trustworthy throughout the story – David sends Uriah to his death in battle.
            It really is a sordid story of deceit and cowardice.
            It would be easy for us to dismiss this old story as having nothing to do with us. After all, we’re not kings or queens. We don’t have royal power and royal wealth. And, even if we did, we would never behave like David, right?
            But, before we dismiss this old sordid story of deceit and cowardice as irrelevant, let’s dig just a little deeper.
            Ultimately, this is a story about sin. This is a story about a man who knew God’s abundance better than just about anyone. Yet, David wasn’t moved by God’s abundance to be grateful or to be generous himself. Instead, David is incredibly and horribly selfish, wanting more, wanting what he could not have, and not caring about the consequences.
            In a way, David’s story is a retelling of the first sin, isn’t it? In the creation story, God had shared overflowing abundance with the first man and woman, and yet rather than being grateful they want more, they want what they could not have, not caring about the consequences.
            But, those consequences turn out to be all too real.
            So, what does all of this have to do with us?
            Well, we are like David and the 5000 well-fed people gathered around Jesus that day in the field. Most of us are well aware of, and enjoy, God’s overflowing abundance. Yes, we live in uncertain economic times. And, yes, some of us have real economic worries.
            But King David – and for that matter most people alive or who have ever lived - couldn’t even imagine the comfort and wealth that most of us enjoy on a daily basis.
            The question is, how do we respond to God’s overflowing abundance?
            Are we like David, never satisfied and willing to selfishly – and sinfully – take more and more, regardless of the consequences for us or for others?
            Or are we like the people gathered around Jesus that day? Are we moved by God’s overflowing abundance to be generous – to share the bread that we have stashed away in our bags or pockets?
            Are we willing to work with God – to help God – build the kingdom here on earth?
            Some of you may remember that at this year’s annual meeting, I talked about how we are called by God to re-gift what God has so generously given to us. Then, going out on a limb, I challenged us – dared us – to raise $5000 on Souper Bowl Sunday for the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown.
            And you may remember that we more than met that goal, raising $5,460.50.
            Now, that’s a great example of recognizing God’s overflowing abundance and re-gifting.
            I’m going to push my luck again.
            I’m coming up on the fifth anniversary of my arrival here at Grace. And, I hope you know how much I love it here – and love you.
            Grace is an amazing, loving and generous community. But, I’ve always hoped we’d do better with the Food for Friends barrel. On average, we have around 300 people in church on Sunday and yet the Food for Friends barrel is only full when someone or some family makes a Costco run. Which is great – but that doesn’t leave the rest of us off the hook.
            So, I’m going to challenge us – dare us – to be like those people gathered around Jesus, and at least fill that barrel every week. I want to hear Kit complaining about how much unexpired food he has to pack up every week to bring to Dover! I want to hear Capt. Ed warning that all that unexpired food is blocking the door and creating a fire hazard!
            So, what do you think, can we do it?
            Obviously, our generosity will help hungry people.
            But, just as important, filling the barrel will also be an act of mindfulness, reminding us that most of us experience God’s overflowing abundance every day.
            In and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has inaugurated the kingdom of God on earth. God invites us, calls us, even in a sense needs us, to help finish the job – to help build God’s kingdom on earth.
            How we respond is up to us.



Sunday, July 22, 2012

Where Does God Live?

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
July 22, 2012

Year B – Proper 11: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Psalm 89:20-37
(Ephesians 2:11-22)
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Where Does God Live?

            Well, we survived another Vacation Bible School!
            Actually, we more than survived. It was a great success and a lot of fun, thanks to the hard work of Mary Lea, our adult volunteers, the youth counselors and Dr. Anne.
            Maybe it’s because I missed VBS last year year, but the children this year seemed particularly happy, enthusiastic and cooperative. It was a great time.
            Our theme this year was the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. I had the privilege of playing Daniel while Mary McManus was a very convincing and often very funny prison guard.
            Although on one level our VBS was about Daniel, in reality all week we focused on something much more important than that wonderful old story.
            In Grace Hall, on the very first morning, Mary Lea asked the children a very important and profound question:
            “Where does God live?”
            Almost without exception, the children immediately pointed their index fingers up to the ceiling and the sky beyond.
            I’ve been thinking about that question all week. Where does God live in my life? Where and how do I meet God?
            Where does God live?
            Well, we have a good idea how the people of ancient Israel would have answered that question.
            They believed that in some mysterious way, God’s presence was in the Ark of the Covenant. In a sense, they believed that God lived in the Ark - which was a portable box or chest that, according to tradition, contained the two tablets of the Law that had been given by God to Moses.

            It was this Ark that, housed in a tent, had led the people of Israel on their long journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

            Where does God live? For the people of ancient Israel the answer was the Ark.

            If you’ve been here lately, you know that for the past few Sundays in church we’ve been hearing the story of the rise of David from lowly shepherd to God’s choice as Israel’s king.

            Last Sunday, we heard the story of David and all the people with him joyfully bringing the Ark to David’s capital city, to Jerusalem. It was, it seemed, the ultimate sign of God’s favor and support.

            Where does God live?

            Well, David would have answered, God lives in the Ark, which is now in my capital city. God lives in Jerusalem.

            Today we heard the next installment of the David story.

            God lives in the Ark, but David realizes that there’s something wrong with this picture.  He says to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I’m living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”

            To his credit, David realizes that he shouldn’t have a better living arrangement than God. So, with Nathan’s encouragement, David decides he’s going to build a house – a temple – for God.

            Not to be cynical, it’s possible that David’s motive was not quite so pure. After all, a magnificent temple housing the Ark would crown the glory and triumph of David’s rule.

            Well, God says no to a house – reminding Nathan and David and us – that God doesn’t need a fancy house or even a temple or even, for that matter, a beautiful church building.

            God turns the tables on David and says that God will give David a house, a dynasty. And we know that it will be David’s son and successor, Solomon, who builds the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, providing an opulent house for God – whether God wants it or not.
            Where does God live?

            We Christians believe and proclaim that in and through Jesus, God lives among us in a new and amazing way.

            In Jesus we know what God is really like.

            Where does God live? God lives in Jesus Christ.

            Two thousand years ago at least some people recognized God’s power and presence in Jesus. These desperately hungry, lost, broken people reached out to Jesus over and over again.

            Mark tells us the people reached out so much that Jesus and the disciples “had no leisure to eat.” To escape the crowds for a while they went by boat to a deserted place, but that didn’t work.
            And then later when they got out of the boat, people brought the sick to Jesus, desperate for his healing touch, desperate to be in the presence of God’s love and power.

            In many ways, two thousand years later, not much has changed.

            In Jesus, we know what God is really like.

            Where does God live? God lives in Jesus Christ.

            So, we still come flocking to Jesus. Just like those people two thousand years ago, we desperately hungry, lost, broken people reach out to him over and over again.  So, we come to this place week after week.

            It’s here that we meet Christ in Scripture and in our fellowship when we reach out our hands in peace to one another.

            It’s here that we meet Christ in the water of baptism, through which God makes an unbreakable bond with us.

            It’s here that we meet Christ in our prayers and our hymns.

            And, most of all, it’s here that we meet Christ in the bread and the wine, when in some mysterious way we take God into our bodies and into our hearts.

            But, as maybe David came to understand long ago, we know that God also lives beyond this ark, beyond this temple, beyond the walls of this sacred space.

            God lives where we reach out and offer service to one another, never asking for anything in return.

            God lives in the simple feeling of holding someone’s hand – that profound gesture and feeling, expressing love, friendship and comfort.

            God lives in the beauty and majesty of nature – in the pull of the tides, in the sparkling stars of the nighttime sky and even the steady purr of a cat on our lap or the bark of a dog that’s overjoyed to see us walk through the door.

            God lives all around us – if only we pay attention, if only we keep our eyes and ears open, if only we keep our hearts open.

            Where does God live? On that first day of Vacation Bible School, most of the children answered by pointing their index fingers to the sky.

            But, it turns out that our kids are much better theologians than that. Over the course of the week the kids put together a “God Sightings” board on which they listed different ways and places and people where they saw God.

            Where does God live? Here are some of the answers given by our children:

            “At the pool.”

            “At the mall.”

            “Building a sandcastle.”

            “On my hammock when I fell off but didn’t get hurt.”

            “In my heart.”

            “In my mommy and daddy.”

            “In my sister.”

            “When the doctor said I was OK.”

            “In the trees.”

            “In the Bible.”

            “In thunder.”

            “At night when I’m scared.”

            “In flowers.”

            “In the clouds.”

            “In a big hug from my aunt.”

            That’s where God lives in our kids’ lives. Where does God live in our lives?

            Where does God live?



The Love That Turns the World Downside Up

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Wedding of Stacey Small and Kyle Bossard
July 20, 2012

Colossians 3: 12-17
Psalm 67
Matthew 5: 1-10

The Love That Turns The World Downside Up

            We members of the clergy sometimes use a kind of shorthand when we talk about officiating at weddings. We’ll say something like, “Yes, I’m really looking forward to marrying Stacey and Kyle on Friday!”

            And, like all of you, I really have been looking forward to this great day when we celebrate the love and commitment of these two exceptionally fine people.

            But, I’ve been married for fifteen years so I’m not marrying anybody.

            Actually, my job is not so different from yours. We are all here as witnesses to this beautiful event. We’re here to cheer on Stacey and Kyle, promising our support and care not just for today but long after the tuxedos have been returned and the wedding dress has been carefully stored away.

             We witnesses are promising that we’ll be there for Stacey and Kyle during the years ahead, in good times and not so good.

            So, no surprise, today’s ceremony is all about love.

            But, this love isn’t just romantic love – though that kind of love is important and wonderful and anyone who knows these two knows that they are very much romantically in love.

            But, the love that God has given to Stacey and Kyle is much richer and much more life-giving and much longer-lasting than romantic love.

            The kind of love that God has given to Stacey and Kyle is the kind of love known in Greek as agape – the self-giving, self-sacrificial, self-emptying love of God.

            And those of us who know Stacey and Kyle know that they really do share agape love – the kind of love that inspires us to sacrifice for one another, the kind of love that moves us to put the needs of the other ahead of our own.

            They’ve shared this kind of love with each other for a while, but today here in this sacred space, in front of us and in front of God, Stacey and Kyle are publicly pledging to continue sharing God’s self-giving, self-sacrificial, self-emptying love with each other.

            Now, Stacey and Kyle, it’s wonderful for all of us to witness the love that you share with one another. And I don’t want to take attention away from the two of you on your big day. And, I don’t want to put any extra pressure on you. Well, maybe a little.

            But, this agape love that God has given to you and that you share with one another is much bigger and more important than the two of you.

            For our second reading today you chose what’s known as the Beatitudes – these challenging, mysterious and almost bizarre – teachings of Jesus.

            In the Beatitudes, Jesus offers a vision of a downside-up world in which the poor in spirit receive the kingdom of heaven, in which the mourners are comforted and the meek inherit the earth.

            In the Beatitudes, Jesus offers a vision of a downside-up world in which those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, in which the merciful receive mercy, in which the pure in heart will see God and in which the peacemakers will be called children of God.

            Now, I don’t know about you, but that’s not really the world I usually see when I open up a newspaper, turn on the TV, or go online.

            But, that’s the kind of world that God has always meant for us to have – the kind of world that God has always dreamed for us to have.

             In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus shows us is that there is only one force powerful enough to turn broken old world downside-up.

            Agape – this love that God has given you and that you share with one another – is the only force powerful enough to turn our world downside-up.

            If you’re open to it, with God’s help, the love that you share will radiate through the streets of downtown Jersey City, down the halls of NYU, around your office, among your family, friends, colleagues - and if you’re so blessed, this love will live within your children.

            And, actually, those of us here today are more than just witnesses of your love. Because, if we’re open to it, the love that you share reminds all of us – single, married, divorced or widowed – that God has shared agape with all of us, too, and God expects us, each in our own way, to share that love with the world.
            Now, again, no pressure, but together your agape love and our agape love can maybe, just a little bit, tilt this broken old world of ours into the kind of world in which the hungry are filled and the peacemakers are called children of God.

            I don’t know, maybe that sounds far-fetched.

            But seeing the love that God has given you, the love you share with each other, and feeling the love that is today filling this sacred place, helps me believe that together, with God’s help, Stacey, Kyle and all of us, really can turn the world downside-up.


Sunday, July 01, 2012

"Go Into Your Room and Shut the Door"

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
Associate’s Message
July 2012

“Go Into Your Room and Shut the Door”

I’ve mentioned many times before that one of my favorite things about Grace Church is the fact that we offer at least one public service of worship every day of the year. I am very much sustained by attending Morning and Evening Prayer, where usually I can just be a member of the congregation, listening and praying along with everyone else. As many of you know, we also have regularly scheduled Holy Eucharist services on Wednesday and Thursday morning, each with its own flavor and emphasis and both great gifts for those of us who attend regularly.

At a recent weekday Eucharist the gospel lesson was the passage from Matthew that we read every year on Ash Wednesday. Here are the opening verses (6:1-6):

Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

This is always a challenging and awkward passage to deal with on Ash Wednesday when we’re all receiving a very visible and public sign of our Christian faith. But, although we should always be on guard against practicing our faith to impress other people, I happen to think that this is not a big issue for most of us at Grace Church today. Some of you probably remember a time when it was expected that nearly everyone went to church and so at least some people went primarily to see and be seen and maybe to connect with people with similar interests or of the same class.

At least around here, those days are long over. No one really cares – or is impressed – when they see us going to church. Today most of us come to church because we think it’s good for us. Today most of us come to church because we are fed by the Word of God, the prayers, the music, the fellowship and, most of all, the Body and Blood of Christ.

But, Jesus’ other point, the crucial importance of private and personal prayer, is one that I know challenges me and maybe you, too. Jesus’ point reminds us of the awesome and humbling truth that the God who made all that is wants to have a relationship with us – wants to know us and wants to be known by us. One of the most powerful and poignant moments in the whole Bible comes near the beginning. After Adam and Eve have disobeyed God they are frightened and ashamed. In the story we’re told that God comes through the garden looking for them asking the heartbreaking question, “Where are you?”

In a sense, God has never stopped asking that question. And we answer by setting aside time – even just a few minutes – for private prayer.

Easier said than done, I know. Many of us are busy and overburdened. Yet, there are prayer practices that we can fairly easily weave into our lives. Recently I heard a parishioner say that throughout her marriage each night she and her husband said the Lord’s Prayer together before going to sleep – a simple and beautiful practice she has continued on her own since his death.

When I’m at my best, I like to pray the Examen, a practice developed by Ignatius of Loyola. Essentially it’s a chance to take stock of my life in a prayerful way, to reflect on the times when I’ve been drawn to God and times when I’ve felt far from God. It’s a chance to ask forgiveness for the ways I’ve fallen short of the call to love and to ask God’s help to do better now and in the future.

Maybe you already have private prayer practices. If not, I encourage you to try carving out even just a minute or two – to “go into your room and shut the door” and begin answering God’s call to us. Jesus tells us that God will reward those who pray in secret. The reward isn’t health or wealth, but a deepening sense of God’s loving presence, giving us the faith and strength to face life’s many challenges and opportunities.