Sunday, December 29, 2013

Our Relationship Status with God

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 29, 2013

The First Sunday after Christmas
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 147:13-21
Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7
John 1:1-18

Our Relationship Status with God
            Some of you know that I really try to get the word out about St. Paul’s on the social media sites facebook and twitter.
            Part of my daily routine is to get up early in the morning, fix a cup of coffee and then fire up my computer. I try to post something every day on the St. Paul’s facebook page – usually information about the holy man or holy woman we’re honoring that day, reminders about our service schedule or a heads up about upcoming events.
            It’s amazing to me that our facebook page gets so many “hits” – sometimes over a thousand a week - allowing people who aren’t able to be physically present to still be part of our extended community.
            It’s wonderful.
            Then there’s my own personal facebook page. I try each day to post some verses of scripture or a prayer or a quote that I hope might be meaningful to some people. As a rule I almost never post anything about my personal life. I feel like being a priest is already very public and people already know quite a bit about my life, thank you very much.
            But, I do give my basic information. So, people who click on my facebook page know that I live in Jersey City and they know where I went to school and they know that I’m the Rector of St. Paul’s.
            And they also know what facebook calls my “Relationship Status.”
            Actually, facebook offers its users eleven different possible relationship statuses.
            It’s comprehensive list, some statuses very clear while others are deliberately vague. They are: single; in a relationship; engaged; married; in a civil union; in a domestic partnership; in an open relationship; it’s complicated; separated; divorced; widowed.
            There are many people who share big news about their personal lives by changing their facebook relationship status. Getting serious with someone? “Single” is changed to “In a relationship.” A marriage comes to an end? The relationship status is changed. Want to be mysterious? Same thing.
            Lots of times I’ve learned about major life changes among friends and even family through a change in facebook relationship status.
            Relationship status.
            The truth is Christmas commemorates a profound change in our relationship with God.
            For all of us, for all of humanity, God changes our relationship status by becoming one of us in Jesus.
            And we heard reflections on that change in relationship status in the today’s two lessons from the New Testament.
            Today’s Gospel lesson is once again the powerful, achingly beautiful, cosmic view of Christ’s birth offered by the Prologue of the Gospel of John.
            Most scholars agree that the Gospel of John is the last of the four gospels to be completed, probably around the year 100, seventy or so years after the earthly lifetime of Jesus.
            So, the Gospel of John is the product of divine inspiration working through decades of Christian experience – decades of Christian reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
            The author of the Fourth Gospel proclaims that God has come among us in Jesus of Nazareth – that when we look at Jesus we see God - and now everything has changed.
            “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
            In and through Jesus, God changes our relationship status.
            Probably no one understood this change in relationship status better than St. Paul.
            As we were reminded just the other day on the Feast of St. Stephen, Paul (or Saul as he was known then) was a Pharisee and a persecutor of the first followers of Jesus. He kept an eye on everyone’s coats as they stoned Stephen to death.
            But after his dramatic conversion experience, Paul has the remarkable and unexpected insight that Jesus is the Messiah not only for Israel but of the whole world.
            Paul has the insight that through Christ our relationship with God has changed – we are no longer slaves but are now God’s beloved children.
            And Paul has the insight that through Christ our relationship with each other has changed – we are no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, but one in Christ. We are beloved sisters and brothers.
            Our relationship status has changed.
            And we hear Paul describe that change of relationship status in today’s lesson from the Letter to the Galatians.
            The letter is written much earlier than the Gospel of John, probably around the year 55, just two decades after the Resurrection. Paul is writing to mostly non-Jews, Gentiles, in churches, small Christian communities, that he founded.
            But, it’s not just a “Hi, how are things going?” letter. No, Paul has gotten word that others – probably Jewish Christians – have brought a different gospel to the Galatians. It seems that these Jewish-Christians are telling the Galatians that in order to follow Jesus they must – even though they aren’t Jews – follow the Jewish Law.
            And some of the Galatians seem to be doing just that.
            Well, Paul is infuriated. He’s angry because the Jewish-Christians deny Paul’s status as an apostle. (I’m sure you’ve all heard what happened to Stephen!) And, Paul’s upset because they seem to be missing the whole point of the gospel: in and through Jesus everything has changed.
            Our relationship status with God has changed.
            So, Paul writes to the Galatians, reminding them of the story:
            “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”
            Our relationship status with God has changed from “slave” to “adopted child” and “heir.”
            On facebook when you look at your own page you’re reminded of your relationship status. And when we look at other people’s pages we can see their relationship status.
            Well, one of the reasons we come here to church week after week is to be reminded of our relationship status with God.
            We come here and are reminded that in and through Christ our relationship status with God has changed.
            Our big challenge is to live our lives with love and integrity and faithfulness so that our family, friends and neighbors are able to look at us, to listen to us, and see our relationship status with God – to see that in Christ we are beloved children of God.
            May it be so.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tired of Christmas?

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 25, 2013

Christmas Day
Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-4
Psalm 98
John 1:1-14

Tired of Christmas?

            Merry Christmas!
            Here in church we’ve just gotten started celebrating Christmas.
            We took Advent very seriously. During the four Sundays of Advent, here in church and maybe in our lives outside of church, we tried, with God’s help, to slow down at least a little. During Advent we tried, with God’s help, to be a little quieter than usual.
            During Advent, we prepared with John the Baptist, reflecting on the ways that our ways are not God’s ways – and repenting, aiming, with God’s help, to turn our lives around in a God-ward direction.
            During Advent, we prepared with Mary, the young girl who said “yes” to God and carried God into the world in the most intimate way imaginable.
            And during Advent we prepared with Joseph, the righteous man who from the start offers mercy to Mary and her unborn child and, in the end, is willing to risk something big for God.
            And then on Sunday, after our service, we finally moved into Christmas.
            It was a little chaotic in here, with parishioners putting up Christmas wreaths, flowers and decorations; the choir rehearsing; the acolytes being put through their paces; and the girls practicing their dance moves.
            It was crazy-busy on Sunday afternoon, but it all was done out of love and joy – it was all done so we could offer God – and so we could offer our community – our best thanksgiving for God’s greatest gift, Jesus.
            Merry Christmas!
            Here in church we’ve just started celebrating Christmas.
            But, of course, out in the world a lot of people seem to have been celebrating Christmas since, what, Halloween? Or maybe even earlier.
            By now, by Christmas morning, much of the world – including maybe some of us – may be just plain tired of Christmas – or just plain tired.
            One year when I was in my early twenties and unemployed, I took a job at Macy’s Herald Square during the so-called Christmas season.
            I spent about three months working in the store’s book department. It’s long gone now, but back then Macy’s actually had a pretty good book department.
            There were some things about the job that I liked.
            First of all, I needed the money. So that was good.
            And I loved working around books.
            And I loved being in the middle of the city at that time of year.
            But, there were other things I didn’t love so much – and that convinced me that I never wanted to work retail again.
            Many of the customers – even in the book department – were stressed out by the holiday and willing, either consciously or unconsciously, to take out their stress on the help.
            It was also physically exhausting work.
            I was young then but I remember being so tired – and my feet were so sore – by the time I got home.
            And, finally, after a while, I just got tired of Christmas.
            Of course, Christmas music was piped throughout the store. But the book department was right across the hall from “Santa Land” so there was also other Christmas music, along with the screams of hundreds of excited and impatient children, echoing across the hall, and into our department – making for a cacophony of holiday “cheer.”
            Tired of Christmas.
            Of course, it’s not just people working retail who get tired of Christmas.
            I think of parents, who on top of all that they do day in and day out, work so hard to provide a beautiful holiday for their children.
            I remember my own parents on Christmas morning when I was a kid.
            My sister and I (though more me than her, to be perfectly honest) would usually get up very, very early on Christmas morning – more like sometime during Christmas night – because we just couldn’t wait another minute to open our gifts under the Christmas tree.
            My parents would without fail join us and share in our excitement and joy.
            I never gave it a thought at the time, but they probably could have used at least a little more sleep.
            Maybe some of you’ve had a similar experience.
            So, after months of what the world calls the Christmas season and these busy, busy, last few days, it’s perfectly understandable if we’re feeling just a little tired of Christmas.
            And, whether we’re bursting with excitement and joy or just plain tired or even maybe depressed by the holiday cheer that we’re not feeling, this Christmas morning we’ve all come to the right place.
            Last night, we heard the story of Jesus’ birth as told by the evangelist Luke. It’s a very earthy story of the heavily pregnant Mary and her fiancée the good man Joseph making their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem where she gives birth to her son and places him into an animal’s feeding trough, the best she and Joseph could do for the Son of God.
            It’s a glorious story of angels appearing to shepherds, proclaiming the most amazing – the best – news of all time: the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord is born nearby. Naturally, the shepherds go to check this out for themselves. And discover that it’s all true.
            But today, we heard a very different Nativity story – the story of Jesus’ birth as told by the evangelist John.
            John pulls way back – way back from Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the angels.
            Using some of the most powerful and beautiful language of all time, John gives us the really wide view – the cosmic view - of Jesus’ birth.
            “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
            The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not – does not – overcome it.
            We weren’t in Bethlehem with Mary and Joseph and the angels and the shepherds.
            But, this morning, we celebrate the most amazing – the best – news of all time.
            In and through Jesus, the light of God has entered the world.
            In and through Jesus, including right here in Jersey City, right here at St. Paul’s, the light of God continues to enter the world.
            And the darkness of the world – the darkness of our tiredness, the darkness of our burdens, the darkness of whatever makes us sad, the darkness of poverty and homelessness - the darkness of this violent and broken world has not and can never overcome the light of Christ.
            Just look around.
            So, whether you’re tired or bursting with excitement, merry, merry Christmas to all of you – Merry Christmas to us all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"No Place for Them in the Inn"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve: 10:00pm Service
Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20

“No Place for Them in the Inn”

            Merry Christmas!
            In the gospel passage I just read, Luke writes, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
            “No place for them in the inn.”
            This past Thursday afternoon I had the privilege of participating in the Fifth Annual Interfaith Homeless Memorial Service, sponsored by our friends at Garden State Episcopal Community Development Corporation.
            Many of the people who were in church that day are homeless, there to remember lost friends or maybe just to enjoy the church’s heat, or to get the free meal and the food and toiletries, like toothpaste, that were distributed after the service. Or, maybe, they were there for all those reasons.
            No matter the reason, I’m sure everyone who was there would agree it was a very powerful and moving service. Members of the clergy read Jewish, Christian and Muslim scripture. And one pastor read the stirring, hopeful words of the great reformer activist, Dorothy Day:
            “What we would like to do is change the world--make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do.”
         During the service we prayed and lit candles for the shockingly large number of homeless people who died right here in Hudson County over the past year.
            This year the service was held over at the Old Bergen Church. The church was already beautifully decorated for Christmas – decorated with all the usual poinsettias, wreaths, Christmas trees and the rest – not so different from St. Paul’s.
            And, at first it felt disorientating – wrong, somehow - to be having this kind of service surrounded by all the joyful sights and smells of Christmas.
            But, then I thought, actually nothing could be more appropriate, nothing could be more right, nothing could be more truly Christmassy, than drawing attention to the plight of the poor and the homeless.
            After all, it’s on this glorious night, surrounded by all the joyful sights and smells and sounds of Christmas, that we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Lord, Jesus the Savior. We celebrate the birth of Jesus, born poor and homeless.
            Each year on Christmas Eve we hear the story of Jesus’ birth as told by Luke.
            Luke sets the stage by mentioning the Emperor Augustus – the one who much of the world acclaimed as the King of kings – Augustus, who much of the world worshipped as a god – Augustus, who much of the world thought of as the lord.
            Little did Augustus or Governor Quirinius or any of the other famous and powerful men back in the First Century suspect that God was about to enter the world in the most unexpected way.
            God could have entered the world with trumpets blaring and lightning flashing and thunder rumbling.
            God could have entered the world in Rome, in the emperor’s palace, or in Jerusalem, or some other center of political or religious power.
            But, instead, God chose to enter the world in the insignificant town of Bethlehem.
            Instead, God chose to enter the world through a “nobody.” God chose to enter the world through Mary – a peasant girl the world would have seen as in every way unimportant and unremarkable.
            But, God saw – God knew – that this unremarkable girl was most remarkable.
            God chooses to enter the world accompanied by Joseph, a good man but a man who couldn’t even provide a decent place for his fiancée to give birth – a man who couldn’t do better for Mary and the child than a manger – which sounds sort of nice but is just a fancy word for a feeding trough used by animals.
            God chooses to enter the world and nobody even knows.
            Well, almost nobody.
            It’s the shepherds – low class people, for sure – who are given the inside word first by one angel and then by a multitude of the heavenly host singing their great song,
            “Glory to God in the highest.”
            The young peasant girl Mary must have been so, so tired – so tired after traveling in a harsh land while far along in her pregnancy, so tired after the anxious search for a place to give birth and so tired from giving birth.
            And, yet, Luke tells us, that the young peasant girl Mary treasures the words from the awestruck shepherds – treasures this most amazing experience – and ponders all of it in her pounding heart.
            Of course, this old, old story doesn’t end there in Bethlehem in the feeding trough. There will be much more for Mary to ponder in her heart.
            Eventually Jesus – born on the margins of society - begins his ministry, teaching and healing and declaring that God’s kingdom has drawn near.
            And eventually some politically and religiously powerful men of the world did take note of this teacher and healer – this nobody that a only a small band of disciples sort of, sometimes, recognized as king – and, sure enough, the politically and religiously powerful men disposed of him on the cross – disposed of him as easily and as bloodily as they dispose of countless truth-tellers and troublemakers throughout history.
            And the politically and religiously powerful men thought that was that – they thought that they and the world were done with Jesus.
            They were so wrong.
            Three days later, God raised this man from the dead. God raised Jesus, who had been born to a couple of nobodies and placed in a feeding trough used by animals.
            And it’s because Jesus is raised from the dead, it’s because love and life defeat evil and death, that we are here all these centuries later, re-telling this old yet ever-new story here in this beautiful place on this special night.
            It’s Christmas – a joyful time to celebrate – to celebrate like we’re doing right now here in church – a joyful time to celebrate with family and friends – a joyful time to celebrate by giving gifts, by singing, by holding tight to those we love most in the world.
            Maybe, though, we can also celebrate Christmas – we can also celebrate the gift of Jesus – by caring about and caring for Jesus’ own people, Jesus’ own people, the poor and the homeless, the “unimportant” and “unremarkable” people, the “nobodies,” for whom there is still no place in the inn.
            Jesus is surely found right here in church, most especially in the bread and wine we will receive in just a few minutes.
            But, Jesus is also surely found right now huddled in a doorway on Bergen Avenue, or panhandling under the Turnpike overpass, or hoping against hope for a bed at a homeless shelter.
            I mentioned that the other day at the homeless memorial we read a quote from Dorothy Day. Here’s how that quote ends. May it be our prayer on Christmas, and always.
            “… There is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”
            Merry Christmas to you all.

God's Helpers

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 24, 2013

Christmas Day: 4:00PM Service
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

God’s Helpers
            Merry Christmas!
            It’s Christmas Eve! The day we’ve been waiting for and preparing for during Advent has finally arrived.
            Christ is born.
            The great transformation and renewal of the world has begun.
            And, no matter how many times we hear it, the story of Jesus’ birth as told by Luke never loses any of its power, does it?
            Luke tells the story of Mary, a young girl maybe only 12 years old, pregnant with her first child. She and her fiancée Joseph, a good man, make their way from their hometown of Nazareth to Bethlehem. And once they get to Bethlehem, they can’t find a decent place to stay, let alone a decent place to give birth to a child.
            We can imagine their exhaustion and their fear.
            We’re told that after giving birth Mary placed her newborn son in a manger. Which, I guess, doesn’t sound so bad – and we make it look kind of nice in the nativity scene below me – but a manger is a feeding trough used by animals.
            A manger is where animals eat.
            That’s how Jesus the Son of God was born.
            That’s how Jesus the Son of God spent his first hours on earth.
            Now…not that anyone has asked for my opinion, but if I were God I would have done things very differently.
            With God’s way, only a few people know that the Son of God has been born. Only Mary and Joseph and a few low class shepherds know that Jesus has been born.
            But, if I were in charge, I would have made sure that absolutely everybody knew that the Son of God has arrived in the world.
            If I were in charge, there would have been flashing lightning and crashes of thunder.
            There would have been the biggest parade ever.
            And there would be lots of beautiful music, performed by the best musicians and singers.
            If I were in charge, the Son of God wouldn’t arrive in an out of the way place like Bethlehem but right in the center of the action, in a really important city – like maybe New York, or Washington, DC or Rome or Jerusalem.
            And, actually, if I were in charge, the Son of God definitely wouldn’t arrive as a helpless baby who needs the care of parents. No, if I were in charge the Son of God would suddenly appear as a fully grown, walking and talking adult – ready to teach us all the things that we need to know – a fully grown, walking and talking adult ready to help us and to save us.
            But, obviously – and fortunately - I’m not in charge.
            And God chose a very different – a very unexpected - way to enter the world.
            And when we stop and think about the story of Jesus’ birth to a couple of nobodies in an out of the way place in very primitive conditions, isn’t it amazing that this is the way God chose to enter the world?
            God created the whole world, the whole universe, so that means that God could enter the world any way that God wanted to.
            Yet, God chose to enter the world poor and helpless.
            The newborn Jesus really, really needs the help of Mary and Joseph. And, since we know what babies are like, Jesus is going to continue to need Mary and Joseph and other helpers for a long time.
            And they do it. They help Jesus grow up – feeding him, clothing him, and teaching him.
            Mary and Joseph and lots of other people whose names we don’t know were God’s Helpers.
            Isn’t it amazing that God needs helpers?
            But, you know, that’s God’s way.
            God always reaches out – reaches out to us - for help.
            God wants us – in a way, God even needs us – to be God’s helpers.
            When we were Christmas caroling last week somebody gave me this hat. It says, “Santa’s Helper.” No, I’m not going to put it on. But, maybe we can all imagine ourselves wearing an invisible hat that says “God’s Helper.”
            “God’s Helpers.”
            We know what it meant for Mary and Joseph to be God’s Helpers. But, what about us? What would it look like for us to be God’s helpers?
            Well, one way we could be God’s helpers is by telling people about Jesus and telling people about how much God loves us. Today a lot of people have forgotten about God and God’s love. And there are a lot of people who have never even heard about God and God’s love.
            People – people right here on Duncan Avenue, right here in Jersey City – have forgotten or don’t know about God’s love – the love that we see so clearly today in the helpless newborn Savior.
            But, much better than telling people about God’s love is actually sharing God’s love with people – with our family and friends and our neighbors and, sometimes, even people we don’t know and will never even meet.
            We are God’s helpers when we don’t judge other people.
            We are God’s helpers when don’t pick on people who are weak or different – even when, especially when, everybody else is doing it.
            We’re God’s helpers when we choose to sit next to the unpopular person, when we’re kind to someone we really don’t want to be nice to – when we’re kind to somebody we don’t even like.
            And we’re God’s helpers when we help the many people all around us who are like Mary and Joseph – people who don’t have much of anything – people who don’t have much food or clothing – people who don’t have homes and need shelter – people who are hungry – people who are alone and lonely.
            We are God’s helpers when we share what we have with those who have less.
            We are God’s helpers when we help prepare the world for the great transformation that began in the most unlikely and humblest place in Bethlehem two thousand years ago – the great renewal of the world that continues right here and now.
            It’s Christmas Eve.
            The day we’ve been preparing for during Advent has finally arrived.
            Christ is born.
            Christ is born - not the way you or I would’ve done it, which, actually, would probably look more like the kind of beautiful celebration we’re having today.
            Instead, Christ is born to a couple of nobodies in an out of the way place in very primitive conditions.
            Christ is born helpless.
            Christ is born needing helpers.
            And, today, God still wants us – still, in a way, needs us - to be God’s helpers.
            So, let’s all put on our invisible hats - and be God’s helpers.
            Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Good Man

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 22, 2013

Year A: The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Matthew 1:18-25

A Good Man
            This happens every year, but I can’t believe we’ve already reached the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
            It seems like just the other day I was standing up here talking about our beautiful blue Advent hangings, pointing out the symbolism of the Alpha and the Omega.
            And it seems like just the other day that we started talking about the main characters of Advent: there’s the charismatic and demanding prophet, John the Baptist. And there’s Mary, the young girl, probably just 12 years old, who at great personal risk and sacrifice says, “yes” to God. Mary says “yes” and carries God into the world in the most intimate way imaginable.
            But there is another important Advent character, someone who I recently saw referred to as the “Forgotten Man of Advent.”
            And that forgotten man is Joseph, the character who takes center stage in today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew.
            The gospel describes Joseph as “a righteous man.”
            And based on Joseph’s actions, it’s clear that Joseph is a good man.
            Thinking about Joseph the good man I was reminded of the title of a short story by the writer Flannery O’Connor:
            “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
            Not to get too down on my gender, but over the years I’ve heard enough women express exactly those sentiments.
            “A good man is hard to find.”
            Recently I was talking to a woman who has several teenage daughters. She was telling me that she didn’t mind so much when teenage boys looked at her daughters with, let’s say, um, interest. But, she said, it drives her absolutely crazy when adult men leer at her girls – something that she said happens all too often.
            “A good man is hard to find.”
            And that recent conversation reminded me of another conversation from a long time ago.
            Back in the early 1990’s I taught in an all-girls Catholic high school in Newark. Looking back on it, many of those girls had a whole lot more wisdom and maturity than I had back in those days.
            One day in class – I have no idea now what exactly we were talking about – one of the girls said to me, “Mr. Murphy, you don’t understand. There aren’t that many good boys for us.”
            That girl seemed so sad and resigned when she said it. And the other girls all nodded in agreement. It’s a little moment that, obviously, that made a big impression on me. I’ve never forgotten it.
            “A good man is hard to find.”
            I suspect that the situation wasn’t so different back in the First Century. Then as now probably a lot of men were not so interested in keeping their commitments. I’m sure that a lot of men were looking for a woman to be a servant and to be a baby-maker. And probably a lot of men didn’t exactly respect and honor, through word and deed, the women to whom they were married.
            But, then as now, there were some good men.
            And, it turns out that, in Joseph, both God and Mary find a good man.
            While Luke tells the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth through the eyes of Mary, Matthew tells this earthshaking story from the point of view of Joseph.
            What do we know about this good man?
            We know that he’s engaged, or betrothed, to Mary.
            Now, yes, today engagements are a big deal – often there’s the ring and the engagement party and the wedding preparations and all the rest. But, although it can be upsetting and disappointing, it’s not very difficult to break an engagement. Happens all the time and life goes on.
            But, in First Century Judaism, if you were engaged, like Joseph and Mary, you were as good as married. The two families would have worked out the match. The engagement could only be broken for a really big reason, like, for example, infidelity.
            According to Deuteronomy, a woman in what appeared to be Mary’s situation, was to be returned to her father’s house and would be stoned to death for the shame she had brought upon her family.
            So, when Mary “is found to be with child,” no one would have blamed Joseph for being furious and feeling humiliated. An ordinary man would have simply obeyed the law and sentenced Mary to a horrific and deadly fate.
            Yet, we’re told, Joseph is a “righteous man.” So, even before his dream Joseph was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.” So, Joseph “planned to dismiss her quietly.”
            God and Mary have found a good man.
            But, Joseph is better than good.
            In the Old Testament, God often communicates with people by using messengers – angels – and through dreams. In Joseph’s case, we’re told, God uses both methods of communication. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him the over the top – who’s ever going to believe this? – news about Mary’s child.
            And what does Joseph do?
            Most of us would have shaken off the dream as ridiculous.
            Maybe the most open-minded of us would have taken the angel’s message seriously but it would have been too hard to swallow our pride, too painful to endure the ridicule of neighbors and family, just too challenging to treat this child as our own.
            Yet, we’re told, Joseph did as the angel commanded.
            And when the child is born, it’s Joseph who names him – signifying that he is the legal father.
            And he names him Jesus, which means God saves.
            In Joseph, God and Mary find a good man.
            There is a tradition that Joseph died while Jesus was still relatively young – that Joseph didn’t live long enough to see Jesus take up his ministry and mission – didn’t live long enough to see Jesus rejected and killed – didn’t live long enough to see Jesus rise again.
            But, there’s no doubt that Joseph shaped Jesus the man, whose life is marked by the greatest righteousness and the most extraordinary mercy – mercy even to those who, according to the Law, should have been stoned for their behavior.
            So, what about us? Men, especially, but what about all of us?
            What can we learn from Joseph’s example?
            Well, Joseph teaches us, no matter what, to take our commitments absolutely seriously.
            Joseph teaches us not to judge but to always show mercy.
            Joseph teaches us to be open to God who is speaking to us in all sorts of different ways – certainly through the people in our lives, maybe through our dreams and, who knows, maybe through an angel or two.
            Finally, Joseph teaches us to take risks, to risk something big, for God.           
            In Joseph, God and Mary found a good man.
            But, a good man – a good person - is still hard to find.
            So, how about us?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rejoice! God's Around and We Can Find Him

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 15, 2013

Year A: The Third Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Rejoice! God’s Around and We Can Find Him

            When I first showed Vanessa Foster the rose-colored vestment that I’m wearing today she said, matter-of-factly, “That’s not really your color.”
            And, she’s right, it’s not really my color.
            So, I’m glad that rose is a color that we only use in church on two Sundays. One is a Sunday in Lent. And the other is, obviously, today, the Third Sunday of Advent.
            This Sunday actually has a special name. It’s called “Gaudete Sunday” from a Latin word that means “Rejoice.”
            In the past, Advent was a much more somber, more penitential season than it is now. We used to – and many churches still do – use purple for Advent, just as we do for Lent, the most somber, the most penitential church season.           
            So, for a long time, since the Middle Ages, it’s been the custom that the Third Sunday of Advent is set aside as a break from all that purple penance – a Sunday to rejoice – a Sunday to rejoice that Christmas is getting close – a Sunday to rejoice that God is soon to enter the world as a helpless baby born to a couple of nobodies in an out of the way place in the humblest of circumstances – a Sunday to celebrate that God loves us enough to come among us to live, teach, heal - and die and rise again.
            But, although Advent has lost most of its penitential feel, maybe it’s good that we still set aside a Sunday for the rose vestments – that we set aside a Sunday at this time of year for rejoicing.
            Because, let’s be honest, a lot of us - for many real and good reasons - may not feel much like rejoicing.
            We might not feel like rejoicing because we’re stressed out by the holiday.            
            A lot of us are stressed out by all the running around – stressed out by the long list of the things that we need to do – the stuff we need to buy to get ready for Christmas. A lot of us are stressed out by the fact that we don’t have the money to give our children and grandchildren all that they’d like – all that we’d like to give - for Christmas.
            We might not feel like rejoicing because the holidays make us sad.
            For a lot of us, Christmas makes us painfully aware of all that we’ve lost. Some of us have lost jobs and a sense of security and hope for the future. Some of us grieve broken relationships. Some of us worry about family and friends who are sick. Some of us mourn family and friends who have died. At this time of rejoicing we remember and miss happier Christmases.
            We might not feel like rejoicing because of all the suffering in our community and around the world.
            There’s the violence.
            Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. One deranged young man, armed to the teeth, slaughtered twenty little children and six adults before killing himself. After the massacre lots of politicians talked about finally doing something about gun violence. But, a year later not much has changed. There was another school shooting in Colorado just this Friday. Since Newtown, at least 194 more children in our country have been killed by gunshots.
            Then there’s the poverty.
            When I dropped off our toy donations at Garden State Episcopal the other day, I spoke with someone who works there who was visibly upset. He was upset because so many people – more than ever, he said - were coming to the office desperate to find shelter for themselves and for their families. They were looking for shelter that just doesn’t exist here in Hudson County. He told me the story of one man who works for UPS but doesn’t have enough money for rent. So, what does he do? He catches sleep in a McDonald’s that’s open 24 hours.
            This past week The New York Times ran a remarkable and heartbreaking story about an 11 year-old girl named Dasani. (Yes, she’s named for the bottled water.) She and her family are caught up in the mostly hidden and totally horrible world of homelessness, living for the past couple of years in a squalid and dangerous shelter in Brooklyn. It’s an extraordinary piece of journalism and I urge you to read it.
            At one point in the article, the smart, strong and sensitive Dasani says, “God’s somewhere around, we just can’t find him.”
            “God’s somewhere around, we just can’t find him.”
            Those words have haunted me these past few days.
            “God’s somewhere around, we just can’t find him.”
            I bet that most, if not all of us, at least some of the time, and maybe especially at this time of year, feel just like Dasani.
            “God’s somewhere around, we just can’t find him.”
            Last Sunday, we were reintroduced to that wild and powerful prophet, John the Baptist. John was dressed in camel’s hair and eating wild honey and locusts, preaching repentance, baptizing people in the River Jordan, and calling people to prepare for the more powerful One who is coming.
            And remember how John the Baptist described that more powerful One?
            "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
            Well, in today’s gospel passage we meet up with John the Baptist again, but this time under very different circumstances. He’s in prison. And we know – and probably he knows – his fate. John will be executed.
            So an imprisoned, maybe despondent, and certainly not rejoicing John the Baptist sends a question to Jesus:
            “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
            In a way, like Dasani, John knows that God’s around, but he just can’t find him.
            Maybe part of the reason John can’t find God is because Jesus isn’t exactly what John had expected. Jesus doesn’t seem to be winnowing or burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.
            Listen again to Jesus’ reply: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
            Yes, there is stress and suffering and violence and despair all around us. The world is so broken that we may find it hard to rejoice. And, like John the Baptist, and mayble like Dasani, we may have all sorts of preconceived notions that make it hard to find God.
            But, Jesus tells us if we look and listen, we find God at work in and through Jesus himself. And if we look and listen, we find God at work right now healing our broken world – we even find God hard work in and through us.
            If we look and listen, if we help each other to look and listen, we find God - and we find plenty of reasons to rejoice.
            Some examples.
            Not even a year ago the Roman Catholic Church chose a new pope – a South American Jesuit who through his gentle and loving example has reminded the world that the Christian life is a loving and joyful life. Pope Francis has declined to judge others and has stood up boldly for the poor and the defenseless.
            This new pope has unexpectedly captured the imagination of much of the world – and just this past week was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”
            Rejoice. God’s around and we can find him!
            And, this week the world said goodbye to one of the giants of our time. Leaders came from around the world to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela, this remarkable man who took a free South Africa down the roads of goodness and forgiveness. And his reconciling example and the joyful celebration of his life seems even to have led President Obama to shake the hand of Raul Castro, the leader of our old, old foe, Cuba.
            Rejoice! God’s around and we can find him!
            And, right here at St. Paul’s, so many of us have responded so generously to buying Christmas gifts for needy children, donating small mountains of groceries for the food pantry, and offering over 200 tubes of toothpaste, giving the poor and the homeless the basic dignity of clean teeth.
            Rejoice! God’s around and we can find him!
            So, yes, it’s the Third Sunday of Advent. The rose candle is lit and I’m dressed to match. It’s “Gaudete Sunday,” a day set aside to rejoice.
            And, yes, for many of us, for lots of real and good reasons, it’s hard to rejoice.
            Yet, if we look and listen – and if we help each other to look and listen – we discover signs that God’s around and we can find him.