Sunday, August 11, 2013


St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Jersey City NJ
August 11, 2013

Year C, Proper 14: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

            Some of you know that math was by far my weakest subject in school. I hated it. I didn’t understand it. I must have been absent the day the teacher explained what was the whole point of math. And, what was most upsetting was that math regularly did a number on my grades. (Pun intended.) There were plenty of marking periods that I was kept off the honor roll because of my poor math grades.
            In my junior year of high school I took Pre-Calculus. It’s a long – and still, to me, not yet quite funny – story. Almost everybody else in the class was a senior. There were also a few of mathematically advanced juniors – and there was me – with my seat, appropriately enough, all the way in the back of the classroom.
            Anyway, for me Pre-Calculus was a horror show, an academic bloodbath. Some of my friends tried to help, but for the most part I had no idea what was going on in the class. When I went to the teacher to ask for extra help she’d ask me why I hadn’t paid attention when she had explained all of this in class.
            I was often sick to my stomach before class and nearly shaking with fear before tests.
            One day, though, the teacher returned our tests and somehow – it really must have been a minor miracle – I got an “80.” I couldn’t believe it! I was overjoyed and very pleased with myself.
            And then a couple of weeks later we got our next test back. Again I looked at my grade in disbelief. An “80” again! I can still feel what it was like to see that comfortably passing grade. After she finished passing out the tests, the teacher called to me,
            “Murphy, come up here.”
            I expected some words of congratulations and encouragement – a little pat on the back. Or, maybe, I was going to be held up as an example for the rest of the class: “See what happens when you work hard, when you don’t give up?”            
             Instead, when I got up to her desk, she looked me in the eye and asked,
            “Murphy, you know what your problem is?”
            Then, in a stage whisper she said, “You’re complacent!”
            Knowing only too well that the whole class of seniors and mathematically advanced juniors had just listened in on this little exchange, I made the long walk back to my desk, wondering how it was possible that getting two 80s in a row meant that I was complacent – meant that I was satisfied with the ways things were – that I was smug because of my comfortably passing test grades – that I was unwilling to do more – to try harder – to reach for an even greater goal.
            All these years later, I’m still not sure I really was complacent in that Pre-Calculus class. Terrified, yes; Pleased by two 80s in a row, yes; complacent, maybe.
            But, complacency – being self-satisfied – is a real danger for people like us, for people of faith, and especially for us regular churchgoers.
            For those of us who are here most Sundays, it can be easy to slip into the idea that just coming to church is enough – that just showing up here fulfills everything God expects of us – that we’ve done our bit. And if we make that mistake, we can easily become complacent about how we live the rest of our lives.
            I bet we’ve all known people like that. I bet we’ve all been that person, at least sometimes.
            The complacency that follows from deciding that showing up is enough is especially dangerous because we end up leading double lives, being hypocrites. We say and do one thing when we’re here but then say and do very different things when we’re out there in the world.           
            In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah we heard loud and clear a very major prophetic theme: God is displeased when our worship and our everyday lives don’t come close to matching up.
            In fact, speaking through Isaiah, God sounds downright disgusted!
            “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats…bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.”
            And if God were speaking through Isaiah to us today, maybe we’d hear: “I have had enough of your empty prayers; I do not delight in your hymns.”
            And, I guess we could just keep the rest: “bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.”
            Then, still speaking through Isaiah, God declares what’s most important:
            “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed...”
            Yes, complacency is a real danger for those of us who come to church a lot. It’s easy to slip into the idea that just showing up is enough – that just being here makes us Christian. And it’s dangerous – and displeasing to God – if what we say and do in here doesn’t come close to matching up with what we say and do out there.
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus addresses another danger of complacency. When we’re complacent, we stop paying attention – we stop looking for Jesus in the world around us, among the people that we meet at work or school, on the bus, or on Bergen Avenue or Kennedy Boulevard.
            Jesus says, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”
            If we’re complacent it’s unlikely that we’re “dressed for action” or that we “have our lamps lit.” If we’re complacent, it’s unlikely that we’re being mindful – really paying attention – really looking for Jesus – really on the watch for ways to “seek justice and rescue the oppressed.”
            By now, most of you know how much I like that we have a lot going on here at St. Paul’s.
            For example, as I think I’ve mentioned before, we have worship not only on Sunday but every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We celebrate the Eucharist on all the major feast days, no matter what day of the week they fall on.
            Our food collection container in the back of church is filling up faster and faster every week as more of us remember to pick up something extra at the market for our hungry neighbors. Each third Saturday of the month we have more and more food to bring over to the food pantry at Church of the Incarnation.
            Next Sunday afternoon we’re going to host the Garden State Episcopal Community Development Corporation’s volunteer dinner. We’ll be extending hospitality to and serving the generous people who give so much time and talent to people right here in Jersey City who are in need.
            I could go on. It’s a lot. And, frankly, it would be easy for us to say that’s good enough. It would be easy for us to say, you know, we’re comfortable with a couple of back-to-back 80s. It would be easy for us to grow complacent.
            But, Jesus calls to be “dressed for action,” to be alert, to be ready, to look for opportunities to match what we say and do in here with what we say and do out there.
            So, imagine with me, St. Paul’s one year from now…
            A number of parishioners have generously volunteered to serve as worship leaders allowing us to offer at least one service every day of the week. People from all around the neighborhood discover St. Paul’s as a house of prayer for all people.
            Imagine with me, St. Paul’s one year from now…
            Inspired by what we’ve seen every third Saturday over at Incarnation, a number of parishioners decide to host food pantry here at St. Paul’s that’s open on, let’s say, the first Saturday of the month. People from all over the neighborhood discover St. Paul’s is a place where what we say and do outside in the world really match up with what we say and do in church.
            Imagine with me, St. Paul’s one year from now…
            Inspired by what we saw at Garden State Episcopal’s volunteer dinner, a number of parishioners, including some of our young adults, decide to get involved as volunteers themselves. Some work at the food pantry. Some mentor young people. Others tutor kids, yes, maybe even with their math homework. Next year we’re proud not only to host the volunteer dinner but also to see Garden State Episcopal honor some of our own parishioners.
            That’s just what I imagine. I’m sure we all can imagine lots of wonderful ministries, lots of exciting possibilities, for us individually and together as a church.
            So, today’s lessons remind us that we need to avoid complacency. Jesus calls us to be “dressed for action,” to be alert, to be ready, to look for opportunities to match what we say and do in here with what we say and do out there.
            We’re called to be on the watch for ways to “seek justice and rescue the oppressed.”           
            It’s a big challenge. But, we all know that, with God’s help, we can do amazing things, right here at St. Paul’s.