Sunday, July 28, 2013

Dead in Our Trespasses or Alive Together with God?

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 28, 2013

Year C, Proper 12: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Hosea 1:2-10
Psalm 85
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13

Dead in Our Trespasses or Alive Together with God?
            I’m sure, like you, I’ve been fascinated, shocked, repulsed, dismayed and embarrassed by the latest revelations about Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman who, until a couple of days ago, was considered the front-runner to be the next mayor of New York City.
            Until the latest news broke about his continued online misbehavior, his story looked like a classic American story of a great fall from power or fame followed by a glorious redemption and return. We’ve seen this story many times before – just ask Bill Clinton or the countless celebrities who’ve managed to bounce back from poor decisions and personal weakness.
            But, it looks like Mr. Weiner isn’t quite ready for redemption.
            Watching him at his news conference the other day, with his long-suffering wife at his side, I thought he looked not ashamed but certainly exhausted.
            More than that – worse than that – I thought his eyes somehow looked dead.
            I was reminded of Weiner’s dead-looking eyes when I began reflecting on today’s second lesson - from the Letter to the Colossians.
            Like with all the letters in the New Testament, we don’t know the whole story – we only have one side of the conversation - but it seems that the Colossians have been less than faithful as well. They haven’t exactly rejected their faith in Jesus. But, instead of being faithful to the Gospel, instead of being faithful to the Good News, instead of being faithful to Jesus, the Colossians have strayed a bit – looking also to philosophy and to other traditions for answers and for truth.
            Paul – or whoever wrote this letter, we’re not sure – is very unhappy about this turn of events. So he reminds the Colossians – and reminds us – of the great gift we’ve received in Christ. The author writes, “And when you were dead in trespasses…God made you alive together with him…”
            Anthony Weiner is someone who at the moment might be described as “dead in trespasses.”
            But, of course, he’s not the only one.
            We don’t have to look far to find people dead in their trespasses. In our own city there’s been an epidemic of gun violence – senseless shootings that are supposedly gang-related. If you follow the local news there have been disturbing stories of child abuse. And there are all the other horrors going on behind closed doors that we’ll probably never hear about.
            But we don’t even have to look that far. At one time or another – and maybe more often than we’d like to admit – we’ve been less than faithful and caring to the people we love and who love us. And we’ve all been less than faithful to God.
            More often than we’d care to admit, we’ve all been “dead in our trespasses.”
            It’s a story as old as humanity itself. God offers love and life but instead we choose sin and death.
            We certainly heard a very graphic example of unfaithfulness in today’s Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Hosea.
            Hosea lived during the 8th Century BC, a time when the people of Israel were divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the North and Judah in the South. At that time both kingdoms were under threat from much more powerful neighboring kingdoms.
            Hosea was a prophet of the northern kingdom, which was called Israel. And he prophesied as Israel began to weaken under pressure from the Assyrian Empire. Eventually, in the year 722 BC, the Assyrians finally crushed Israel.
            In his prophesies Hosea uses very graphic language and images – uses words we don’t usually say in church! - to describe what’s going on between Israel and God.
            According to Hosea, God told him to marry a promiscuous woman because in a way that’s what Israel has become. Instead of being a faithful partner with God, Israel has cheated – Israel has been promiscuous – choosing other gods, choosing to break God’s Law.
            So, we’re told that Hosea married the promiscuous Gomer who bears three children. (By the way, like something out of an episode of Montel or Maury, the implication is that Hosea isn’t the father of these children.) Each child is given a name symbolizing the broken relationship between God and Israel.
            Through the Prophet Hosea, God says some very stark and frightening things: “I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel.” “I will break the bow of Israel.” And, finally, through Hosea, God says the most frightening and terrible thing of all: “You are not my people and I am not your God.”
            It would seem that Israel was indeed dead in its trespasses.
            Yet, the good news for Israel - and the good news for us - is that God’s mercy always trumps God justice.
            So, even the harsh prophet Hosea ends on a note of forgiveness and hope. Hosea prophesied: “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”
            Israel was dead in its trespasses and yet there always was and always is the offer – always the hope – of life together with God.
            God’s mercy always trumps God’s justice.
            For us Christians, the ultimate sign of God’s mercy is Jesus. In Jesus, God comes among us. In Jesus, we see what God is really like.
            And in today’s gospel reading from Luke, Jesus teaches us how to pray.
            The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar to us, I wonder if we still hear it. I wonder if we even begin to recognize and appreciate the awesomeness of what we’re saying and what we’re doing.
            Through his teaching, Jesus invites us – we who have so often been less than faithful to each other and to God – invites us to have an intimate relationship with God – with the Creator of all that ever was, all that is and all that ever will be. Jesus invites us to have the same kind of relationship that he has with “Our Father.”
            And then Jesus invites us to ask for forgiveness while we also promise to forgive all those who have wronged us – all those who are indebted to us.
            God’s mercy always trumps God’s justice – God wants to open the door when we knock –God wants to give us only good things – fish instead of snakes, eggs rather than scorpions – God always offers love and life.
            Through his teaching on prayer, Jesus invites us, who are so often dead in our trespasses, to be alive with God.
            So, whenever we see a famous person like Anthony Weiner crash and burn, maybe we can use their misbehavior as an opportunity to take stock of our own lives – to reflect on the times we’ve been less than faithful and caring to the people we love and who love us – the times we’ve all been less than faithful to God.
            And when we face the times we’ve been dead in our trespasses may we remember that God, “Our Father,” is always ready to offer love and life, to offer mercy more than justice.
            May we who are dead in our trespasses choose to be alive together with God. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Dwelling in God's Love

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 27, 2013

The Wedding of Pauline Eddy and Nigel Fraser
Genesis 2:4-9, 15-24
Psalm 128
Ephesians 5:1-2, 20-33
John 5:9-12

Dwelling in God’s Love
            The passage I just read comes from a lengthy part of the Gospel of John that’s called the Farewell Discourse. It’s Jesus saying good-bye to his disciples.
            Jesus knows that he is running out of time. Jesus knows that soon he will be arrested and executed. So, since time is short, Jesus wants to teach – wants to get across to his often thick-headed followers – what’s most important.
            In the short passage I read today, Jesus reminds the disciples about the love that they have experienced – the love that they have shared.
            Jesus tells his closest friends and followers, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”
            “Abide in my love.”
            That word “abide” is unusual, isn’t it?
            It’s not a word that we use very often. And, when we do use it, it’s often meant negatively. Maybe you’ve heard somebody say something like, “I can’t abide So-and-So.” Or, “I can’t abide liverwurst.” Or, “I can’t abide country music.” Or, “I can’t abide long sermons.”
            You get the idea.
            But, in the gospel Jesus uses the word “abide” in the most positive way imaginable.
            Jesus says, “Abide in my love.”
            Which really means, “Live in my love.”
            Or, maybe even better, “Dwell in my love.”
            And that’s been God’s great hope for all of us right from the start.
            God wants us to dwell in God’s love.
            In today’s first reading we heard part of the creation story from Genesis. In that story God creates the heavens and the earth and then God forms man from the dust and God breathes life into the man and then God creates a beautiful garden from the man. In the story God creates all the earth’s creatures to keep man company.
            But, still, there’s something missing.
            And then, I think we can all agree that God outdoes God’s self and creates woman to be man’s helper and partner.
            Seeing woman for the first time, the man says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”
            Which might be loosely translated as, “Now, that’s more like it!”
            Man and woman were created to dwell in God’s love.
            And man and woman were created to dwell in each other’s love.
            And what was true for the first man and woman remains true for us. We are made to dwell in God’s overflowing love. And we are made to dwell in each other’s love.
            Unfortunately, in the creation story the first man and woman almost immediately forget that they were made to dwell in God’s love and in each other’s love. Instead, they listen to the voice of the serpent, disobey God, and even hide shamefully from the God who loves them – the God who seeks them out.
            And just like the first man and woman, we also often forget that we’re made to dwell in God’s love and in each other’s love.  We get distracted. We give into temptation. We stumble and fall. We disrespect each other. We don’t love one another as Jesus has loved us.
            So, every once in a while God sends us a reminder – a reminder that we are made to dwell in God’s love and made to dwell in each other’s love.
            Which is part of why we are here today.
            It’s been a privilege to help Nigel and Pauline prepare for today and for married life.
            And during these months I discovered what most of you already know – these are two extraordinarily kind, bright, generous, and dedicated people.
            Over the course of their lives, like all of us, they’ve faced hard times and disappointments. But, those experiences planted the seeds for the remarkably rich and mature love that they now share – a love that, God willing, will continue to deepen for many years to come.
            They abide – they dwell - in each other’s love.
            So, we’re here today to support these two wonderful people. We’re here to pledge our love and support during the inevitable tough times that, like all of us, Pauline and Nigel, will have to face.
            But, most of all, we’re here to be reminded of what life is all about – what we’re all about.
            Whether we’re married, single, widowed or divorced, God’s great hope is that we’ll abide – that we’ll dwell - in God’s overflowing love and that we’ll abide – that we’ll dwell - in each other’s love.
            Today we’re reminded of what life is all about – what we’re all about - because we see the love shared by Nigel and Pauline.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Contemplatives in Action

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 21, 2013

Year C, Proper 11: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Contemplatives in Action
            For the past couple of Sundays our gospel lessons have very much been about “doing.”
            You may remember that two weeks ago we heard the story of Jesus sending out the seventy disciples to all the towns that he intended to visit. The seventy were sent to tell people about Jesus, to offer peace and healing, and to declare, “the kingdom of God has come near.”
            And remember how amazed the disciples were at all that they were able to do. After they return they say to Jesus with a mixture of surprise and amazement, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.”
            The seventy were sent out to do things – to offer peace and healing in Jesus’ name, to declare, “the kingdom of God has come near.”
            And then last week we heard the story of the lawyer who asked Jesus a question, trying to test him.
            The lawyer asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            And, the lawyer answers his own question by quoting Scripture, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
            The lawyer knew what he must do. But there was something missing. There was something important he seemed not to know.
            The lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
            The lawyer knew all about doing but he was missing deeper understanding. The lawyer knew all about doing but he lacked the deeper understanding that comes only if we spend time in prayer, in reflection, in contemplation.
            “What must I do?”
            I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of question I ask myself pretty much every day, often many times each day.
            What do I have to do today?
            What should I be doing today?
            Lots of days I make a To-Do List, trying to remember and put on paper all the things I need to do, both for church and in my personal life.            
            And, it is a really satisfying feeling to cross items off the to-do list…phone call made…sermon written…emails answered…conversations had…litter boxes cleaned…dishes put away…on and on, day after day. I even enjoy writing our worship services into the parish register: another service held, another one in the book, something else done.
            I like to be busy so it makes me happy to write up a long to-do list and then cross off the items one by one.
            I bet a lot of you are the same way.
            “What must I do?”
            Well, in today’s gospel lesson we meet someone who I bet liked to keep busy, who kept at least a mental to-do list. Today we meet Martha. “Martha, Martha” who was “distracted by her many tasks.”

            The story of the sisters Mary and Martha appears only in Luke’s gospel. You may remember, though, that they also appear in John’s Gospel when Jesus raises their brother Lazarus from the dead.
            Anyway, in Luke’s story, Jesus comes to visit the two sisters. This kind of thing probably happened a lot. Jesus was a wandering teacher and healer who relied on the hospitality of his friends and followers. And it seems that many of his friends and followers were women who provided him, and his disciples, food and shelter, who offered hospitality.
            On this particular visit, the sisters respond to Jesus’ presence in very different ways.
            Mary sits at the Lord’s feet and listens to him. That posture was a way that Mary acknowledged Jesus’ authority. Mary was a disciple sitting at the feet of her teacher.
            Meanwhile, Martha of course is frustrated that Mary seems to be just… sitting there. Martha’s angry that her sister isn’t offering any help.
            I bet most, if not all of us, sympathize with Martha. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been in the situation where somehow we’re the ones doing all the work while the people who could be helping – the people who should be helping - are just sitting around having a great time for themselves.
            But, though we can sympathize with Martha, the truth is that she made a couple of big mistakes that day Jesus came to visit.
            First, despite her best efforts, she broke the rules of hospitality.
            Martha is “distracted by her many tasks.” She’s so distracted that she’s not paying attention to her guest – bad enough but even worse when we remember that her guest is Jesus!
            Then she is even more inhospitable when she tries to drag her honored guest into a fight with her sister. Martha asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work myself? Tell her then to help me.”
            But, Martha’s mistake is much greater than just being inhospitable. Because of her long to-do list, because of her busyness, Martha misses what’s most important. With Jesus right there in her home, Martha misses out on the only thing that’s needed.
            Jesus takes this rather awkward situation and uses it as a teachable moment.
He tells the complaining sister, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
            So, what about us?
            What must we do?
            Jesus told Martha and tells us here today that the only thing that’s really needed – the thing that makes everything else possible – is to be quiet, to be still, and listen for the voice of Jesus.
            First and foremost we’re called to be like Mary. We’re called to be contemplatives – to be people of prayer – to be people who sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.
            But, of course, that doesn’t mean we’re supposed to just sit around all day.
            We are also called to be like Martha. We’re called to be people of action. We’re called to be like the seventy sent out by Jesus to proclaim peace, to offer healing, to love God and to love our neighbor, to announce that the kingdom of God has come near.
            As Christians we are called to be like both Mary and Martha. We’re called to be contemplatives in action.
            By now, most of you have realized that my love of keeping busy extends to church. I really believe that St. Paul’s should be a busy place. My dream is to have at least one service every day of the year. My hope is to have more than just two services on Sundays. My plan is for St. Paul’s to be deeply connected to our surrounding community, so that everyone knows us an oasis in the neighborhood and a church that really helps people. My expectation is that our little food collection container in the back of church will be overflowing every week.
            It’s a long to-do list. I think Martha would approve.
            But, if we’re not like Mary we’re likely to fail. If, first and foremost, we’re not contemplatives, if we’re not people of prayer, if we forget the “one thing,” if we ignore “the better part” then we’ll burn out, eventually turn against each other, and ultimately fail in the work that God has given us to do.
            Long ago the lawyer asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            What must we do?
            The answer is first to be like Mary – to be contemplatives – to be people of prayer – to be people who sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.
            And, with that foundation, we’re also called to be like Martha – to be people of action, like the seventy sent out by Jesus to proclaim peace, to offer healing, to love God and love our neighbors, to announce that the kingdom of God has come near.
            We are called to be contemplatives in action.
            So, let’s put that at the top of our to-do lists and begin.
            May it be so.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Risking Something Big for Something Good

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 14, 2013

Year C, Proper 10: The 8th Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Risking Something Big for Something Good
            If you were in church last week you may remember that we heard the story of Jesus sending out the seventy to heal the sick, to cast out demons and, most of all, to proclaim that the kingdom of God had come near.
            In my sermon I called the seventy Jesus’ “advance team.”
            I’ve still been thinking about that story. I imagine it must have been both frightening and exciting for those seventy followers of Jesus to be sent into the unknown.
            It must have been like riding a bike for the first time after the training wheels have come off: exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. It must have been exhilarating to go out and offer peace and healing. It must have been terrifying to enter unfamiliar towns and share the Good News about Jesus and the kingdom of God.
            The seventy took big risks. They took a big risk by going out to unfamiliar places, offering peace and healing. The seventy took a big risk by proclaiming the kingdom of God had come near. The seventy took a big risk on Jesus.
            To borrow a phrase from William Sloan Coffin, the seventy “risked something big for something good.”
            And then, remember how the story ended?
            The seventy returned to Jesus amazed at what they had been able to accomplish in Jesus’ name. With maybe more than a little surprise, they said to Jesus, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”
            Today we pick up in the Gospel of Luke right where we left off last week.
            But, today we meet someone who’s very different from the seventy.
            He’s described as a lawyer – a lawyer who stands up to test Jesus.           
            He tests Jesus by asking, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            Jesus recognizes that this isn’t a sincere question. Jesus is well aware that the lawyer, who’s presumably an expert in the Law of Moses, already knows the right answer.
            So, Jesus tosses the question right back to him.
            And, sure enough, the lawyer quotes from Leviticus and Deuteronomy:
            “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
            Jesus congratulates him for getting the right answer. But then the lawyer asks Jesus what seems like a surprising question, “And who is my neighbor?”
            Luke editorializes a little bit, writing that the lawyer asked this because he wanted to “justify himself.” But, I’m not so sure about that. It sounds like a sincere question to me. It’s possible that even after years of study and reflection on God’s Law, the lawyer really wants to know the answer: “who, exactly, is my neighbor?”
            Sincere or not, the lawyer’s question gives Jesus the opportunity to tell one of his most important parables, one of his most-loved and least-followed examples: the Good Samaritan.
            Jesus begins, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”
            Jesus’ listeners would have recognized the scene and been not at all surprised by the crime. In First Century Palestine, like in much of the world today, robbers and bandits roamed the roads. Travel was a dangerous business. And, apparently, the road between Jerusalem and Jericho was especially dangerous.
            Jesus goes on to say that two men with special religious authority and responsibilities, a priest and then a Levite, came down the road and when they see the injured man, one after the other they each cross to the other side of the road.
            Now, let’s stop there for a second. You may think and you might have even heard that the priest and the Levite avoid the injured man, cross to the other side, because they were concerned about becoming ritually unclean – that somehow Jewish Law prevented them from helping someone in need.
            That’s absolutely not true. Jewish Law and teaching is very clear that people are obligated to help those in need. And even if they did become ritually unclean they could always do whatever it took to become purified.
            No, it wasn’t religious law that prevented them from helping. More likely, it was fear. Whoever had attacked this man might still be lurking around. Or maybe they feared it was a trick – maybe the man was only pretending to be injured. Or maybe the priest and the Levite simply had places to go, people to see, and things to do. And those places, people and things were more important than helping someone in need.
            So, for whatever reason or reasons, the priest and the Levite decided not to risk something big for something good.
            And, then the Samaritan comes along.
            Actually, Samaritans were related to the Jewish people. It’s a long story, but in the First Century Jews and Samaritans were enemies. Jews and Samaritans avoided each other as much as possible. Jewish people of Jesus’ day would have had a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea of a “good Samaritan.”
            But, that’s who Jesus describes in the story. In fact, “good” doesn’t really do him justice. The Samaritan takes a big risk, offering healing, pouring oil and wine on the man’s wounds and bandaging them. The Samaritan takes a big risk, putting the man on his animal, bringing him to an inn, and paying for his stay in advance.
            Like the seventy, the Samaritan, risks something big for something good, shows mercy, offers healing and peace.
            The Samaritan, the despised enemy, is the true neighbor.
            Today, even people who know nothing about Christianity know what a “Good Samaritan” is.
            Lots of hospitals are named “Good Samaritan.”
            There are what are called “Good Samaritan” laws that protect people who offer assistance to those in need.
            And, every once in a while, we hear about people acting as “Good Samaritans.”
            Last week there was a story in the NY Daily News about a New York cop named Joe Pecora. As it happens, I taught Officer Pecora when he was a student at St. Peter’s Prep.
            Anyway, on a recent rainy day Joe was at a tense and busy crime scene on Ninth Avenue when he spotted a blind man named Rod Clemons trying to cross the street. Joe could have looked the other way, but instead he sprang into action, offered his arm, assisted the man across the street, and even helped him find an ATM and a drug store.
            The scene just happened to be captured by a Daily News photographer.
            Officer Joe Pecora, who was a great kid, is now also a Good Samaritan.
            And then, last week, the Port Authority honored two men who sprang into action after a woman passed out onto the tracks at the Grove Street PATH station. While everyone else stood frozen in shock and fear, and as a train entered the station, the two risked something big for something good, jumping onto the tracks and saving the woman.
            Two more Good Samaritans.
            I’m sure that when most of us hear stories like these we wonder if we would be “Good Samaritans.” Would we help the blind man cross the street or would we look the other way? Would we be courageous enough to jump on the tracks as the PATH train barreled into the station? Do we have what it takes to be a “Good Samaritan? Are we willing to risk something big for something good? Or are we more likely to be the priest and Levite, and look away, cross to the other side, avoid trouble, and decide not to take a risk?
            I don’t know.
            But, especially after hearing about last night’s “not guilty” verdict in Florida, I keep going back to the lawyer’s haunting question to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
            Jesus could have answered that our neighbors are the people who live beside us. Jesus could have answered that our neighbors are our family and our kin and our ethnic group; that our neighbors are the people who think and look like us.
            But instead Jesus answered with a story about a man risking something big for something good, crossing all sorts of religious and cultural boundaries, helping someone he had been taught to think of as the “other,” as an enemy, as someone likely to be ungrateful and maybe even dangerous.
            So my prayer for all of us here at St. Paul’s is that we’ll be generous, bold and brave.
            My prayer is that we’ll take risks for Jesus.
            My prayer is that, like the seventy, we’ll take a big risk by going out to unfamiliar places – unfamiliar places maybe just down the block or around the corner, offering peace and healing in Jesus’ name, proclaiming through word and deed that the kingdom of God has come near.
            And my prayer is that when we encounter a neighbor in need, we’ll be like the Good Samaritan and take a risk.
            May we as Christians, as followers of the One who risked and gave his life for us, have the grace to risk something big for something good.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Sacred Journey

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 7, 2013

Memorial Service for Juney L. James, Jr.
Lamentations 3:22-26, 31-33
Psalm 121
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
John 11:21-27
The Sacred Journey
            One of the more difficult challenges for a priest is to offer a homily at the funeral for someone we never had the chance to meet. And, unless our paths crossed here at St. Paul’s years ago, that’s the case today. I had never had the privilege of meeting and knowing Juney. But, reading about him and hearing about him makes me wish that I had.
            Although I didn’t know Juney, I do know some of his family pretty well. So, I know he comes from people who are strong in the face of adversity – people who love generously and smile easily – people who have known great sadness but who are the last to give up hope.
            Everything I’ve read and heard about Juney tells me that’s the kind of person he was. So, I know even now, a few months after his death, your grief must be very deep. But, I also imagine that you’ve spent a lot of time remembering happy days together. And, knowing the deep faith of Juney’s family, I’m sure that over the past few months you’ve taken comfort in the Lord’s promise to never abandon us – the Lord’s promise to be with us always, even to the end – the Lord’s promise that death is not the end for those who trust in him.             
            I pray that those happy memories and our Lord’s promises will comfort you and help your grief and healing.
            Like most, if not all, of you I live my life focused on the day to day: what do I need to get done today, this hour, this minute; paying bills that need to be paid; trying to keep up with family and friends; making grocery lists; chilling out in front of the TV…you get the idea.
            But, when I stop, take a breath, give myself some quiet and really pay attention, I’m reminded that life is a journey.
            We are all on a journey together – a journey from God to God.
            Since we’re usually focused on the day to day, most of the time we can’t really see the shape of our journey. But, at the big milestones of life, especially births and deaths, we do get a sense of our sacred journey that’s full of unexpected twists and turns, our sacred journey that’s marked by moments of profound grief and overflowing joy.
            And our brother Jesus’ earthly life was also a sacred journey – a journey from the manger in Bethlehem – to growing up in Nazareth – to beginning his ministry in the waters of the River Jordan – to facing betrayal, rejection and death in Jerusalem.
            Today we heard about one of the biggest moments of Jesus’ sacred journey in the passage I just read from the Gospel of John.
            To back up just a bit, Jesus has arrived in Bethany after the death of his friend Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary. We’re told that Lazarus has already been in the tomb four days. Four days. All hope would seem to be lost.
            In the passage I read today, Martha goes out to greet Jesus. She expresses great confidence in him, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask him.”
            Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”
            She understandably misunderstands, thinking that Jesus is looking ahead to the last day. But, despite her confusion, Martha expresses deep faith in Jesus.
            We didn’t hear the rest of the story.
            Jesus next encounters Martha’s sister Mary who also expresses faith in Jesus. But, she weeps. And the people around her weep. And, Jesus himself began to weep.
            Jesus, the Son of God, experiences – knows – the profound sadness and grief we feel when someone we love dies.
            And then Jesus performs his greatest sign of all – raising the dead man who had been in the tomb four days.
            Hope conquers grief. Love is stronger than death.
            The raising of Lazarus is one of the most important moments in Jesus’ sacred journey. Maybe, in a sense, it’s a moment when Jesus recognizes more clearly who he really is – understands better the nature of his life and his mission.
            Maybe it’s a moment when Jesus recognizes that his own life would end in a way leading many to believe that all hope was lost. But, three days later, through the empty tomb the whole world would someday come to know that hope is stronger than grief and love conquers death.
            Now, Juney’s sacred journey – his sacred journey from Antigua to Jersey City and back to Antigua – has come to an end.
            Along the way of Juney’s sacred journey, I’m sure like all of us he made some mistakes, turned left when he should’ve turned right, disappointed others and even let himself down.
            But, along the way of Juney’s sacred journey it’s obvious that he brought much joy and fun to so many people both here and back on Antigua.
            And, along the way of Juney’s sacred journey, he gave life to six children and five children.
            Now, Juney’s sacred journey has come to an end, back home on Antigua, but really back in the full presence and glory of the God who imagined him, created him and loved him through the bad times and the good times.
            But, for us, the sacred journey continues.
            So, as we grieve, as we remember and celebrate Juney, may we also stop and pay attention to our own lives.
            May we remember that we are all on a sacred journey filled with lots of twists and turns – a sacred journey from God back to God.

Jesus' Advance Team

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 7, 2013

Year C, Proper 9: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Jesus’ Advance Team
            Well, it’s been a pretty big week for Jersey City! I know some of you attended the inauguration on Monday of Mayor Fulop and the City Council. By all reports, despite some rain, it was a great event.
            Last Sunday afternoon, some of us attended a really wonderful service at Mt. Pisgah AME Church to pray for, and to bless, our city’s new leaders.
            I’ll admit that my expectations for this service were pretty low. It’s always dangerous when you get a large number of pastors and politicians together in a place where there is a captive audience and a microphone. I was dreading long sermons thinly disguised as prayers and tedious  self-serving speeches from the politicians.
            But, in fact, this was one of the best services I have ever attended.
            First of all, the music was spectacular. Gail Blache-Gill, the Minister of Music over at the Church of the Incarnation, rehearsed and conducted what was called the “Jersey City Interfaith Choir.” If you know her work you won’t be surprised that she did a magnificent job.
            And I was so proud that five of our parishioners sang in the choir – representing St. Paul’s among singers from only five other congregations.
            At the service all of the major faith traditions were represented and given the chance to offer prayers from their own sacred texts. It was very moving to see a Hindu holy man sitting beside a Muslim imam sitting alongside a Coptic priest sitting with a Protestant woman preacher sitting by a Catholic priest.
            Seeing all those religious leaders praying together reminded me of one of Jesus’ favorite phrases, “The kingdom of God is like…”
            I bet that Jesus would say something like, “The kingdom of God is like religious leaders who disagree about many things coming together to pray for the city, its people and its leaders.”
            And then there was just one speech from a politician. Mayor Fulop offered some very poignant remarks about his relatives who died in Nazi concentration camps and then called all of us to be one Jersey City.
            As I sat there listening to the mayor and seeing the council people so full of excitement and energy, I thought about how much their lives were about to change. People have very high expectations. Their jobs can easily become 24/7 and, if they’re not careful, consume them. And then there is the loss of privacy. It’ll be difficult to walk down the street or sit in a diner without being recognized, interrupted, greeted and engaged in conversation.
            So, for politicians like the mayor and for officials higher up, there is a whole entourage surrounding them, supporting them and protecting them.
            And part of that entourage is what’s called the advance team.
            You know, they’re the people who visit a place ahead of the leader, making preparations so the visit goes as well as possible for the leader and for everyone else involved.
            It’s an important job.
            Well, it turns out that Jesus also had an advance team.
            And we heard about Jesus’ advance team in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke.
            Luke tells us, “…the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”
            As you might guess, that number “seventy” is not random. It probably echoes the 70 elders that Moses picked to help him with his work. There was also a Jewish tradition that there were 70 countries in the whole world. So the choice of seventy members of Jesus’ advance team links Jesus back to Moses and may also look ahead to the spread of Christianity beyond the Jews and among non-Jewish people, called the Gentiles.
            Jesus tells his advance team that the “harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Jesus knows that there are a lot of people out there who are hungry and thirsty for the Good News.
            But, being on Jesus’ advance team is not easy work. Jesus acknowledges the danger, saying, “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
            Jesus’ advance team has to travel light. “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.”
            Jesus’ advance team’s mission is urgent so there’s no time for chitchat along the way. Jesus says, “Greet no one on the road.”
            So, what’s the advance team supposed to do?
            Jesus’ advance team is supposed to offer peace to the people they meet. The advance team is supposed to offer healing, declaring to the sick and the suffering, “the kingdom of God has come near.”
            And, we’re told that the seventy members of Jesus’ advance team, maybe to their own surprise, seem to have had a lot of success. Luke tells us that they “returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’”
            Jesus sent out the first seventy members of his advance team long ago. And Christianity has been around for a long time now.
            But, the truth is that Jesus is still sending out an advance team. Jesus is still sending out an advance team into an often hostile and dangerous world. Jesus is still sending out an advance team to offer peace and healing to a world broken by senseless violence; to offer peace and healing to a world scarred by simmering hatred; to offer peace and healing to a world disfigured by selfish materialism.
            By now you know where I’m going with this. Today, Jesus is calling us to be part of his advance team. Jesus is sending us out to share peace and to offer healing. Jesus is sending us out to prepare the world for him.
            And we probably don’t usually think of it this way, but we really become members of Jesus’ advance team at our Baptism.
            And we do our work as members of Jesus’ advance team when we try to keep the promises made at our baptism.
            We do our work as members of Jesus’ advance team when, with God’s help, we gather together to break bread and pray; when we resist evil and, when we fail, when we repent and return to the Lord.
            We do our work as members of Jesus’ advance team when we, with God’s help, proclaim the Good News by word and example; when we seek and serve Christ in absolutely everybody, loving our neighbor as ourselves.
            We do our work as members of Jesus’ advance team when we, with God’s help, strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of all people.
            Just like two thousand years ago, being a member of Jesus’ advance team is a tough job. And may be even tougher for us than it was for those first seventy team members long ago. Today, unfortunately, a lot of people out there have been hurt or turned off by the Church. Today, unfortunately, a lot of people out there dismiss us as hypocrites or fools with our heads in the clouds or in the sand. Today, unfortunately, lots of people out there look for help, strength and hope anywhere but here – look for help, strength and hope from anyone but Jesus.
            So, yes, we have a tough job.
            But, remember Jesus sent out the first members of his advance team in pairs. We don’t do this work alone. We support each other. That’s a big reason why we come together here week after week.
            And we don’t do this work alone because it’s God who gives us the grace, skill, patience and persistence to be a member of Jesus’ advance team.
            So, when we leave this place today may we, the members of Jesus’ advance team, with God’s help, offer peace and healing to our hurting world. May we be signs in an often hostile and dangerous world that the kingdom of God has come near.  Amen.