Sunday, September 29, 2013

At Our Gate

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

Year C, Proper 21: The 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91: 1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

At Our Gate
            Two Sundays in a row, now, we’ve heard parables from the Gospel of Luke that are meant to get us thinking about how we use our wealth – how we use all the good gifts that God has given us – how we use our time, how we use our talent, and, yes, how we use our treasure.
            If you were here last week you may remember that we heard the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. Jesus tells the story of the manager who was accused by his boss of wrongdoing and now faces the real possibility of losing everything.
            The shrewd manager quickly decides to get in touch with the people who were indebted to his boss. He cuts their debts (really cutting out his own commission) and, he hopes, makes friends with the debtors. He hopes that the debtors will take him in when he loses everything.
            Instead, the boss praised the shrewd manager for his… shrewdness.
            Jesus suggests that we need to be equally shrewd with our time, talent, and treasure – to use them for good – to use them so we may be with God forever.
            And now, today, we heard a second parable that is also meant to get us thinking about how we use our wealth – how we use our time, talent, and treasure.
            And in today’s parable we meet someone who didn’t do such a good job of it and is now, we’re told, enduring eternal torment in hell.
            For the past few weeks on Wednesdays after the healing service we’ve been having pretty lively Bible study discussions looking at the gospel lessons for the following Sunday.
            One of the things we’ve noted is that Luke is such a good writer. In just a few words, with just a few careful brushstrokes, he captures Jesus’ parable and paints a vivid picture that I bet we can all imagine.
            In today’s parable he very quickly sets up a dramatic contrast between the unnamed rich man and poor Lazarus.
            Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”
            “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”
            Jesus, through Luke, paints a very vivid picture indeed.
            Notice we’re not told anything more about Lazarus except that he’s poor, he’s lying at the rich man’s gate, he’s hungry, and he’s covered with sores licked by dogs.
            We’re not told whether he’s a good, kind, faithful or religious person. All we know is that’s he’s a poor man living a horrible life.
            But, since God has a special love for the poor and suffering, when Lazarus dies we’re told that he “was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”
            God has a special love for the poor so Lazarus goes to heaven.
            And… the rich man goes to the other place to be tormented.
            Talk about a reversal of fortune!
            So far, though, we don’t really know anything about what’s in the rich man’s heart. All we know is that he lived a luxurious life.
            But, it’s in hell that the rich man shows his true colors.
            He looks up to heaven and asks Abraham to send Lazarus down to give him a drink. He’s in hell and he expects poor Lazarus who suffered so much in life to be his servant. And the rich man goes further, asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers about the terrible fate that awaits them unless they change their ways.
            Even in the next life – even in hell – the rich man thinks that Lazarus (who’s in heaven!) is still somehow beneath him and should be serving him!
            It’s a powerful and unsettling parable – maybe especially unsettling for us who live in the richest country on earth.
            As I’ve thought about the parable – and especially about the rich man – I’ve come to the conclusion that rich man’s biggest mistake, his greatest sin, was not seeing Lazarus – Lazarus who was right at his gate! – not seeing Lazarus as a human being beloved by God.
            Although the rich man knows his name, the rich man doesn’t see Lazarus as a fellow human being – a human being with his own hopes and fears, with his own burdens and disappointments, with his own loves and dreams.
            Instead the rich man sees Lazarus as a thing.
            The rich man sees Lazarus as “poverty,” as “ugly sores being licked by dogs” and maybe as an annoyance or an inconvenience that he has to step over on his way in and out of his home.           
            This is very much a parable for our own times.
            Our culture encourages us to see people as things – as things for our own use and pleasure.
            We often see people – people right at our gates - not as fellow human beings beloved by God, but as things.
            On line at the supermarket we see the cashier not as a human being with her own hopes and dreams but as simply a thing that exists to ring up our order quickly and accurately.
            On the bus or on the PATH train, we’re surrounded by human beings burdened with their own disappointments and fears, yet often we just look at them as things – things that get in our way - things that we judge based on what they’re wearing, on their hairstyle, on the color of their skin.
            And, right at our gates – just outside our church, just outside our home, just outside our place of work – there are the modern-day Lazaruses. Right outside our gates are the poor and the hungry – the physically poor and spiritually hungry longing to satisfy their hunger with what falls from our table. Lazarus is right at our gates, beloved by God simply because he or she is poor and suffering.
            So, the question is, do we see our Lazaruses as things, as “poverty” as “sores licked by dogs” as “inconvenience” or “annoyance”? Or do we see the Lazaruses of today as fellow human beings, beloved by God?
            Are we willing to help them?
            Are we able to love them?
            How we answer those questions will make all the difference in our lives, both now and in the future.
            How do we at St. Paul’s answer those questions?
            Today is a big day in our parish life.
            After the service we will have our annual parish meeting. We will elect new vestry members. We will look at our church finances. We will celebrate what, with God’s help, has been accomplished. And we’ll dream a little bit about the future.
            Above and beyond all of that, my hope is that today marks the beginning of a new era.
            For so long we have been focused on the survival of St. Paul’s. Will people keep coming to our church? Will we attract new people? Will people pledge? Will they pay their pledge? Will we preserve our endowment? And on and on…
            I get those concerns. I’ve shared those concerns. And, those concerns have led some wonderful people to take great care of this place and preserve what God has given us.
            But, let me tell you something. I am absolutely convinced that God is not even close to being done with St. Paul’s.
            Just the opposite.
            God and we are just getting started.
            God has a beyond our wildest dreams future in store for us.
            And I believe that future has begun with us turning our focus away from concerns for our survival and seeing – really seeing – and serving the Lazaruses out there.
            God doesn’t want us to be like the rich man in the parable.
            God wants us – calls us – expects us to really see Lazarus and to feed him – to feed him with the food that we collect each month – to feed him with the bottomless love of God – to feed him the special love that God has for the poor and suffering – to feed him with the love that we experience here at St. Paul’s – to feed him with the love of Jesus Christ.
            Today marks the beginning of a new era.
            Now, let’s see – let’s really see – who’s at our gate.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


Trinity & St. Philip’s Cathedral, Newark NJ
September 28, 2013

The Ordination of Miguel Hernandez to the Transitional Diaconate
Jeremiah 1:4-9
Psalm 84 (Hymn 517)
Acts of the Apostles 6:2-7
Luke 22:24-27

            You’ve probably noticed that over the past few months, and especially in the last week or so, lots of people have been caught up in a kind of “Pope-Mania.” That probably includes at least some of you. Although I’m an Episcopal priest, I’ll admit that I’ve been excited, fascinated and inspired by the first bishop of Rome from the Americas, Pope Francis.
            Showing the powerful effect one leader can have, from the start Francis has set a new tone in the Vatican and across the entire church. And, like Francis the beloved friar from Assisi, this new pope is teaching through simplicity and love what living the gospel life looks like.
            When he has been given the opportunity, he has declined to sit in judgment of others.
            He has been willing to listen to various points of view.
            He has displayed fearlessness and radiated joy.
            When powerful forces seemed to be on the unstoppable march to war, he invited everyone to fast for peace.
            He has shed most of the many trappings of his office, pulling off the nearly impossible feat of living simply in the midst of great opulence and splendor.
            And, on top of all that, he’s very much a 21st Century leader. He engages the media – spending a couple of hours talking freely and seemingly off the cuff with reporters on the long flight back to Rome from Brazil.
            And… he uses twitter like a real social media expert. This pope tweets like crazy!
            If you’ve seen his tweets, you know that they are very simple and beautiful messages about God’s love and mercy - about the centrality of Christ in our lives.
            Like his predecessor, Francis tweets using the handle, “@pontifex.”
            “Pontifex” is a nod to one of the pope’s many titles, one that was inherited from the Roman emperors: “Pontifex Maximus.”
            “Pontifex Maximus” means “greatest priest” or “high priest.” I’m sure we can all agree that, unless you’re Jesus, that title is kind of immodest and really a bit much. And, I bet it’s a title that’s more than a little embarrassing for Pope Francis.
            But, you know, that word “pontifex” literally means “bridge-builder.”
            “Bridge-builder.” That’s a powerful image for a Christian leader, isn’t it?
            It looks like Pope Francis is working hard at being a good bridge-builder, reaching out to the disenchanted and disenfranchised - extending his hand in friendship and respect to Jews, Muslims and even atheists.
            But, it’s not just the Bishop of Rome who is called to be a pontifex. It’s not just the pope who is meant to be a bridge-builder. And, for that matter, it’s not just bishops, priests and deacons who are called to be bridge-builders.
            The truth is that all Christians – all of us - are called to be bridge-builders.
            If we are going to fulfill our sacred mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, then we are going to have to build lots and lots of bridges.
            If we are going to do the work that God has given us to do, then, with God’s help, we all need to build bridges to the many people all around us who are hurting -the many people who can’t pay their bills – the many people who are carrying nagging guilt and shame – the many people who mourn profound losses – the many people who dread the future – the many people who don’t know where to turn for help – and the many people who would never even think of turning to God – never even think of turning to Jesus – never even think of turning to the Episcopal Church.
            Yes, we are all called to be bridge-builders.
            But, out of all of us, it’s the deacons who are most called – and expected – to build bridges.
            As we heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, right from the start the deacons were called upon to offer a ministry of service – and, actually, a ministry of service that apparently others were too busy or unwilling to perform.
            And since those early days the diaconal ministry and identity has been developed and refined into the work of bridge-building.
             Deacons are expected to build bridges between the Church and the world.
            Part of that bridge-building is reaching out and sharing the Good News of Christ to the disenchanted and the disenfranchised – reaching out to the poor, the lonely, the guilty, the frightened, the lost, the bewildered, and the helpless.
            And at least as important is the deacon’s ministry of interpreting to the Church the “needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”
            In this diocese we are so blessed by our deacons, who every day are out there in the world building bridges.
            We are so blessed by our deacons, who live out their vocation in such beautiful and devoted ways – proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed, feeding the hungry, providing young people with opportunities to serve, ministering to the deaf, and so much more.
            And we are so blessed by our deacons who, on occasion, pointedly remind the Church of its Christ-given obligation to serve the least among us.
            The diaconate is a beautiful and profound ministry.
            And, Miguel, this is the sacred order of bridge-building that you are about to enter.
            Of course, you’re not quite a boy like Jeremiah was when God called him to his holy work. And, unlike Jeremiah, you’re already open to letting God speak and work through you. And, unlike Jeremiah, you’re already quite eloquent – in two languages!
            In fact, you’ve been at the work of bridge-building for a long time.
            In thinking about your journey I thought how even your distinguished work at Bell Labs, improving how we communicate with one another, was really at heart all about building bridges.
            And during your long and frequently obstacle-filled road to ordination you’ve been building bridges all along – sharing the Good News, making connections, reaching out to people who maybe didn’t know they could find a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.
            All along your long road to ordination you’ve been nurturing individuals and communities and you’ve challenged the Church to care for people we might otherwise easily overlook.
            It turns out that all along, you’ve been a pontifex. All along, you’ve been a bridge-builder.
            Now, today we’re here to recognize what God has been doing in and through you for a long time.
            And we’re here to pray and celebrate as you take on an even deeper commitment to building bridges as a deacon.
            And, God willing, in about six months we will all reassemble for your ordination to the priesthood.
            In the eyes of the world and maybe even in the eyes of the Church, your time as a deacon will be short. Yet, all the best priests I know carry inside themselves a deacon’s heart.
            So, Miguel, my prayer for you on this sacred and joyful day is that with God’s help you will continue and deepen your work of building bridges between and among individuals and communities.
            May you be a pontifex.
            May you – and may we all – lay people, deacons, priests and bishops - be bridge-builders. With God’s help, may we reach out in love to the disenchanted and the disenfranchised – to the poor, the lonely, the guilty, the frightened, the lost, the bewildered, and the helpless.
            May we all be bridge-builders.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

After We're Found

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

Year C, Proper 20: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

After We’re Found

            I think most of you know that, for the most part, I don’t choose the readings that we read and hear in church. Some Sundays there are options, but usually we follow the same cycle of Bible readings, known as a lectionary, as other Episcopal churches, along with lots of other denominations including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians.
            I think it’s really good that so many Christians across the country and around the world are reading and hearing the same Scripture passages on any given Sunday. It’s a reminder that we are all part of Christ’s Body.
            Last Sunday, if you were in church you may remember we heard two wonderful and powerful parables from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin.
            Even if you weren’t here you may remember the parables: the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep behind and goes in search of the one who is lost. And a woman turns her house upside down for her lost silver coin.
            In both cases, after what’s lost has been found, the shepherd and the woman invite everybody to a big party to celebrate.
            Jesus teaches that this is what it’s like in heaven when those who are lost are then found. There’s a big party.
            Those two parables are so beautiful and clear they practically preach themselves.
            Now, in the Gospel of Luke the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are followed by what’s usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You remember the story: after squandering his inheritance the son returns home hoping to be hired by his father to do even the most menial work. Instead the father runs out to greet his lost son and throws a big party to celebrate his return.
            Pretty much the same theme as the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, right?
            Lost and found.
            But, what happens after we’re found? What happens after the party?
            Well, in their wisdom the creators of the lectionary skip the Parable of the Prodigal Son, giving us instead the passage from the Gospel of Luke that I just read: it’s called the Parable of the Dishonest Manager or, sometimes, the Parable of the Shrewd Steward.
            It’s a parable found only in the Gospel of Luke. In fact it marks a shift in theme in the Gospel of Luke – from lost and found to a deep concern about how we use our possessions.
            What happens after we’re found? What happens after the party?
            Well, today’s Parable of the Dishonest Manager challenges us to think about how we use our wealth.
            Let’s be honest – the use of our wealth – our money, our possessions, our gifts – is usually the last thing we want to talk about. We tend to think it’s nobody’s business.
            But, this is what the lectionary has given us. So, let’s take a look at this challenging parable again.
            It’s the story of a manager who is fired by his boss, for some kind of alleged squandering of the rich man’s property. To protect his future, the manager begins to cut the debts of his boss’s debtors. Jesus concludes the parable by saying that the master praises the unjust manager for acting shrewdly.
            So what’s going on here?
            Well, first of all, we have to admit that we don’t know for sure that the manager actually was fired for just cause. Who knows, maybe the boss was wrong for firing him. Wouldn’t be the first time – and certainly not the last time – that someone was unjustly fired!
             Secondly, commentators suggest that it was customary for people like the manager to earn their money through commissions, by taking a percentage for themselves. So, in the parable, when the manager reduces what the people owe the boss, in reality he’s eliminating his own cut in the hope of making people happy so that he won’t be out on the street when he loses his job.
            So, he’s not stealing from the boss. And that’s why he’s praised by the boss for his clever thinking.
            But, what does this story have to do with us here today? Why did Jesus tell this story and why did Luke decide to include this parable in his gospel? After all, Luke could have just left it out.
            Well, the parable is meant to get us thinking about our relationship with our wealth – about money and our stuff – and about all the many gifts that God has given us.
            In the parable, the manager was careful to use his wealth to ensure a safe future for himself. Now, that’s something we already know . We all know that how we use our wealth helps to determine our future.
            But, Jesus goes further. Jesus suggests that how we use our stuff will help to determine our ultimate future – our future in what he calls the “eternal habitations.”
            So, Jesus is clear: a lot is riding on what happens after we’re found. A lot is riding on how we use our money and our things – a lot is riding on how we use our wealth.
            Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
            Now, Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see a lot of us choosing wealth over God. I don’t see a lot us serving wealth.
            Instead, I know that many of us struggle financially. I know that for many of us each month, each week, each day, it’s a challenge to make ends meet – to pay the rent, to buy the groceries, to cough up the bus and PATH fare, to scrape together money to pay doctors, to make car payments and come up with the car insurance premium, to buy the things the kids and grandkids are begging you to buy them, and on and on.
            I know that many of us live this close – maybe just one paycheck away, maybe even less than that  – from dramatic and terrifying changes in our lives.
            And yet, despite those financial pressures – or maybe because of those financial pressures - St. Paul’s has always been a community of overflowing generosity.
            Just since I’ve been back here as rector, each time I’ve asked you to step up the response has been overwhelming. So many of you have sacrificed, happily offering your time, talent and treasure.
            I don’t think I’ll ever forget the dinner we threw for the volunteers from Garden State Episcopal CDC. Talk about overflowing generosity! So much delicious and lovingly prepared food!
            And our donations to the food pantry have gone from a trickle to a flood – so much so that this last month things were starting to get a little out of control in the back of church. Even with our tight budgets, more and more of us are remembering to pick up an extra item or two for our most vulnerable neighbors.
            And, let me tell you, we’ve already gotten a reputation at Garden State Episcopal as a wonderfully generous church. I couldn’t be happier or prouder.
            And you have been increasingly generous with St. Paul’s itself.
            Pledges for 2013 have continued to come in. People are paying the pledges they have made – and sometimes even going beyond their pledge. Even at the weekday services, people have been generously dropping bills and checks into the offering plate.
            I know that many of you have noticed that there have been a few weeks when we have collected over $1000 in the offering. That kind of generosity feels great. It’s a sign – just one sign, but an important sign – of how much we love God, how much we love St. Paul’s and how much we believe in the exciting future that God wishes for us all.
            Partly because, like most of you, I hate talking about money and partly because I know you get it – I’ve suggested that we have a low-key stewardship campaign this year.
            Next Sunday when we have our annual meeting I will share some ideas and dreams that I have about our future together. And I know that you have your own hopes and dreams for St. Paul’s.
            Those ideas and dreams – yours and mine – are only possible with God’s help and with all of our support.
            So, for now, my prayer is that we all reflect on today’s challenging parable. Jesus is clear: a lot is riding on what happens after we’re found - a lot is riding on how we use our money and our things – a lot is riding on how we use our wealth.
            So, may we resolve to use our wealth – our money and all that God has given us – shrewdly, carefully, lovingly – to ensure the beyond our wildest dreams future that God wishes for us all.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lost and Found

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

Year C, Proper 19: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Baptism of Jeremiah Batiz
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Lost and Found
            How many of you remember a store called Two Guys?
            Here in Jersey City there was a Two Guys store down on Route 440 and Communipaw, where later there was a Shop Rite. And when I was growing up here in the 1970s, Two Guys was one of the places where I think pretty much everybody went to shop.
            Two Guys was kind of like the Target or Wal-Mart of its day.
            It was a big store that sold pretty much everything from clothes to sporting goods to furniture. It had an arcade that was popular with the kids. It had a cafeteria. It also had a supermarket. So, at Two Guys you could buy everything from a gallon of milk to a winter coat.
            Except on Sundays because back then the Blue Laws were still in effect. I can remember going to Two Guys and seeing the thin chain closing off the whole store except for the supermarket.
            On Sundays you could buy a gallon of milk but not a winter coat.
            Well, anyway, when I was growing up we went to Two Guys a lot.
            And I remember often getting bored when my mother’s shopping would take longer than I thought necessary. And sometimes I would wander off and explore a little on my own.
            Well, one time, I wandered off – probably just a few aisles away – and then when I came back to where my mother had been, she was gone. 
            I couldn’t find my mother.
            And my mother couldn’t find me.
            Now, this was a more innocent time, so I’m not sure my mother immediately jumped to the frightening conclusion that something terrible had happened to me – that maybe I had been abducted.
            But, I’m sure that she was worried.
            Well, after searching for a while, I had the presence of mind to go to the courtesy counter at the front of the store. After I told my story, one of the employees made an announcement over the PA system, booming across the store: “Mrs. Murphy your son is waiting for you at the courtesy counter.”
            So embarrassing.
            A few moments later my mother arrived.
            I can’t remember her reaction, which leads me to think I’ve blocked that out of my mind. I’m sure she was irritated, maybe even angry.
            But, I’m sure she was also relieved that I was OK and that we were reunited.
            I’m sure many, if not all of us, have had similar experiences of getting lost and then being found.
            And, in a very real way, “Lost and Found” pretty much sums up the story of human beings and God.
            Over and over, both as individuals and as a species, we wander away from God and become lost.
            Often we get lost by accident, making a wrong turn, allowing ourselves to grow apart from God. Suddenly, like me at Two Guys all those years ago, we realize that we don’t know the way back – it’s been so long and we’ve traveled so far that we don’t know where to begin - we can’t seem to find God. Maybe we ask others for help. Maybe we don’t.
            Other times, though, we become lost on purpose – we try to hide from God because we are ashamed of something - or some things - we have done that we know are wrong.
            Think of that story near the start of the Bible when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit. Suddenly they realize their nakedness. Suddenly they are ashamed. And what do the first man and woman do?
            In the story we’re told that God walks through the garden, looking for his creation, looking for man and woman.
            God calls out, “Where are you?”
            And the man and woman hide from the God who created them and loved them because they are ashamed.
            Well, the Good News for Adam and Eve and the Good News for all of us is that no matter how or why we have become lost, God never stops looking for us.
            God never stops offering us another chance to repent, to change our ways.
            God never stops calling out to us, “Where are you?”
            In fact, God is so determined to find us that God came and lived among us so we could really know God in and through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
            Lost and found.
            And that’s what today’s two parables are all about.
            We’re told that the Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling because Jesus was hanging out with the wrong people, with the lost people – Jesus was welcoming, maybe even hosting, sinners - and eating with them.
            And so, in reply to their grumbling, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.
            He begins the parable of the lost sheep with a question that we can easily miss: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine of them in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”
            Um, actually, Jesus, I’d definitely spend a lot of time looking for the lost coin but no way would I leave the 99 in the wilderness and go looking for the lost sheep.
            Think about it. If we lost one sheep wouldn’t we all cut our losses and protect the 99 sheep that we still have? Of course. Makes total sense, right?
            But, that’s not how God operates. God never gives up. God never stops offering us another chance to repent, to change our ways.
            God never stops calling out to us, “Where are you?”
            And, notice that both parables end with a big party.
            The shepherd comes home, calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”
            And the woman calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that was lost.”
            And, really, that’s what we’re about here each Sunday.
            All of us get at least little lost pretty much all the time. We wander away from God. We forget about God. We do things that we know we shouldn’t. We fail to love God and fail to love our neighbors as ourselves. We choose not to respect the dignity of every human being. We break our baptismal promises.
            All of us get at least a little lost pretty much all the time.
            And, someday, young Jeremiah will wander away from God and get at least a little lost, too.
            Yet, the Good News is that God will never give up on Jeremiah or any of us. God never stops calling out to us, “Where are you?”
            And what do we do when we hear God’s call, when we allow God to find us?
            Well, we gather here on Duncan Avenue! We have a big party to which everyone is invited – a big party with music and singing, with hugs and laughter, with bread and wine.
            Right here and now at St. Paul’s, God says to us – God shouts with joy to all of us – “Rejoice with me for I have found those who were lost.”
            Lost and found.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Jesus Community

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 8, 2013

Year C, Proper 18: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

The Jesus Community
            It’s been two Sundays already since many of us gathered in Liberty Park to celebrate with parishioners from our Jersey City sister churches, Grace Van Vorst and the Church of the Incarnation.
            Now, I’ve already admitted publicly that I had some misgivings about doing this. I worried about the weather, transporting all of our church stuff – the bread, the wine, cups and plates, linens and all the rest. I wondered if we’d have enough food. I was curious how many people would actually bother to show up.
            Well, as you know, as usual there was no reason to worry.
            The weather could not have been more perfect.
            And it was a truly wonderful service.
            Lots of people from all three churches were there – and everybody seemed to have a great time praying and singing together, lining up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, eating really delicious – and plentiful – food, playing games, meeting new friends and renewing old friendships, and just soaking in one of the most spectacular spots in all the world.
            Lots of people I talked with that day were already looking forward to doing it all again next year.
            Standing at the altar and looking out at the crowd, I marveled at the beautiful diversity of the congregation. There were people of all different shapes, sizes and colors. There were infants curled up in their mothers’ arms, children running around charged with unlimited energy, people like me who were beginning to think about taking a nap and the elderly and disabled slowly making their way around leaning on canes and walkers.
            I imagine that some people who were there weren’t sure how they were going to make next month’s rent – and others who were there have more money stashed away than they will ever be able to spend.
            Some of our families have been here for many generations while others are just beginning to put down roots in this old soil.
            We live in every neighborhood in Jersey City – and beyond.
            Standing at the altar, it was a beautiful sight to behold.
            And what brought all of us together?
            What brings us all together here, week after week?
            There are probably lots of answers – habit, our parents make us, the priest guilts us into it, the need for fellowship, the desire for beauty and meaning in an often ugly world.
            But, behind and beneath and above all of those reasons, we come here for Jesus.
            We come here because, although we have our doubts and questions and uncertainties, we still hold on to the heart of Christianity – we still trust that Jesus is the way – we believe that Jesus offers us the way to live, the way to be truly free, the way to life forever with God.
            We come here – all shapes and sizes and colors, all different stations in life – because we are disciples of Jesus – because we are members of the Jesus Community.
            And we become members of the Jesus Community in the water of baptism – when we die and rise again with Christ.
            We become members of the Jesus Community in the water of baptism – where God makes an indissoluble bond – an unbreakable bond – with us.
            Now, it just so happens that we’re going to have a baptism here next week.
            And during that baptism, little Jeremiah will die and rise with Christ.
            During that baptism, God will make an indissoluble bond with Jeremiah.
            And we’ll all be reminded of our baptism.
            And we’ll also be reminded of the promises we made – or were made for us – at our baptism.
            We’ll be reminded that we promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship – that we promise to resist evil and when we sin repent and return to the Lord – that we promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News – that we promise to serve Christ in all persons – that we strive for justice and peace among all people.
            It’s a lot to promise.
            It requires a lot of sacrifice.
            Even with God’s help, those promises and sacrifices take a lot of effort.
            In our baptism, we really promise - as a disciple – as a member of the Jesus Community - we really promise to put Jesus first in our lives.
            Which is really what today’s challenging gospel lesson is all about.
            We’re told large crowds are following Jesus.
            We can imagine they are an excited, rowdy bunch. They are eager, maybe even impatient, to see Jesus’ next miracle. They want to know who’ll be the next to be healed. They want to witness Jesus performing another exorcism. They want to hear Jesus tell another entertaining, if puzzling, story or parable.
            And, then, Jesus turns to them and says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
            “Hate.” Strong, strong language, right?
            This teaching is also found in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Obviously Jesus’ strong language made quite an impression on the first members of the Jesus Community. It wasn’t something they forgot.
            And I bet it gets our attention, too. It’s not something we’re likely to forget, either.
            Hate our parents? Hate our spouses and children? Hate our brothers and sisters? Hate life itself?
            Well, we think of “hate” as an emotion, a feeling - which it is.
            But, we know enough about Jesus to know he doesn’t want us to hate anybody or anything, except sin.
            So, what’s going on here?
            Well, Jesus doesn’t mean “hate” as an emotion. Instead he means “hate” as “turning away from” or, better, “detaching from.”
            To put it more positively, Jesus says to us if we want to be a disciple, if we want to be part of the Jesus Community then we have to take up our cross and put Jesus first in our lives.
            Very difficult. But, when we do that – or, rather, when, with God’s help, we try to put Jesus first in our lives - then the truth is we are able to love our parents, our spouses and children, our brothers and sisters, love our very lives, more generously and fully than we ever thought possible.
            But, don’t take my word for it.
            Just think back to the beautiful sight of the Jesus Community gathered in Liberty Park.
            Think back to the people of all different shapes, sizes and colors. Think back to the infants curled up in their mothers’ arms, children running around charged with unlimited energy, the people like me who were beginning to think about taking a nap and the elderly and disabled slowly making their way around leaning on canes and walkers.
            When, with God’s help, we try to put Jesus first in our lives then the truth is we are able to love more generously and fully than we ever thought possible.
            Don’t take my word for it.
            Just look around.
            Look around at this beautiful Jesus Community that gathers here week after week – praying and celebrating, laughing and crying, singing and hugging, filling up containers of food for the hungry, checking in on elderly or sick neighbors or friends, welcoming absolutely everybody - all shapes, sizes and colors.
            So, I’m really excited about Jeremiah’s baptism next week.
            I’m excited that in the water of baptism, Jeremiah will die and rise again with Christ.
            I’m excited that in the water of baptism, God will make an indissoluble – an unbreakable bond – with Jeremiah.
            And, as Jeremiah dies and rises again with Christ, we’ll all be reminded of our baptism. We’ll all be reminded that we are called to be disciples. We’ll all be reminded that we are called to put Jesus first in our lives.
            And we’ll be reminded that all of us – with all our different shapes, sizes and colors – all of us from all different stations in life - are beloved members of the Jesus Community.
            Thanks be to God.

Friday, September 06, 2013

On the Way

The Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
September 5, 2013

Funeral Sermon for Gladys V. Mahaley
Isaiah 61:1-3
Psalm 23
Revelation 21:2-7
John 14:1-6
On the Way
            As his death approached, Jesus gathered with his friends for one last meal.  Throughout his ministry Jesus had warned his disciples what was going to happen to him, yet they couldn’t or wouldn’t understand, refused to accept, refused to believe, that the one they had recognized and followed as the messiah was going to die.
            But, gathered for what was clearly their last meal together, the truth must have begun to sink in.
            The four gospels give somewhat different accounts of the last meal shared by Jesus and his disciples.
            The passage we just heard comes from the Gospel of John.           
            In this gospel, Jesus reassures the disciples that although he is leaving them, they know the way – they know the way to God – they know the way to the place where they – where we - will all be reunited.
            Yet, the Apostle Thomas speaks for all the disciples, speaks for all of us, when in confusion and fear, and, yes, doubt, he asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
            And Jesus says: “I am the way…” Jesus tells the disciples – and tells us here today – that in his life, death and resurrection, Jesus shows us the way to God.           
            In my imagination I see Thomas and the other disciples later spending a lot of time trying to figure out just how exactly Jesus is the way to God. And maybe, especially in times of grief and loss, we wonder about that ourselves.
            How is Jesus the way?
            A big part of the answer, I believe, is found just a little bit earlier in John’s account of the Last Supper.
            John tells us that during supper, Jesus “poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”
            After he was done, Jesus tells the disciples, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
            There it is: The Way.
            Jesus is the way not only when we believe in him, but, more importantly, when we follow his example.
            We are on the way of Jesus – we’re on the way to God – when we follow Jesus’ example of loving service.
            We are on the way when, even when faced with suffering and loss – especially when faced with suffering and loss – we continue to serve others and serve God.
            We are on the way of Jesus when we wash each other’s feet.
            Over the course of her life, Gladys Mahaley washed a lot of feet, didn’t she?
            I first heard about Gladys – about “Aunt Gladys” – just a couple of weeks ago when her niece Dee Dee told me about the trip she and Gladys were making out to Milwaukee to celebrate the 70th birthday of Gladys’ beloved son, Hoyt.
            I remember thinking how great it was for Gladys – and for Hoyt – that, despite her age, she was able to make that long trip, to be present for that great celebration.
            It wasn’t until Gladys died, though, that I learned of her long, long widowhood. I’ve been thinking and praying about what it must have been like for Gladys, a young mother, to get the news that her beloved Hoyt had been killed in valiant service of our country.
            What must it have been like to receive Hoyt’s Purple Heart?
            What must it have been like as the truth sank in that she was a “Gold Star Widow?”
            What must it have been like to piece together a different kind of life than what she had expected and hoped for?
            I imagine that, in her own way, like the Apostle Thomas long ago, Gladys asked Jesus, “How can we know the way?” “How can I know the way?”
            Of course, we can’t really ever know what goes on in a person’s heart.
            But, you know better than I, that during these decades of widowhood, during her long and full life, Gladys found the way.
            Over her long and full life, Gladys walked in the way of Jesus.
            Over and over, in her own way, Gladys was always willing to grab a towel, get on her knees and wash the feet of her son – wash the feet of her family – wash the feet of those in need.
            And there it is: the Way.
            As Jesus’ death approached he reassured his friends that, although he was leaving them, they knew the way – they knew the way to God – they knew the way to the place where we will all be reunited.
            Jesus told them, tells us here today, “I am the way…”
            Gladys’ journey on the way began in the water of baptism, when she died and rose again with Christ.
            And now Gladys has completed that long journey – a journey filled with unexpected twists and turns – a journey filled with painful loss and overflowing joy.
            Gladys has returned to the God who imagined her into being, the God who guided her and supported her in good times and not so good, the God whose love she shared with so many in her life.
            But, for us here today, our journey continues.
            Fortunately, like Gladys, we know the way.
            The way is to love.
            The way is for each of us in our own way to grab a towel, to get on our hands and knees and wash the feet of our family and friends and especially to wash the feet of those who are in need.
            Gladys knew that the way is to love.
            And, having seen her example, we also know that the way is to love.