Sunday, March 30, 2014

To See As God Sees

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 30, 2014

Year A: The Fourth Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

To See As God Sees
            Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. That means we’ve been at this Lent business for a while now, so the Church in its wisdom sets aside this Sunday to lighten the mood a little – to encourage us – to remind us - that Easter is not too far off.
            This Sunday is called Laetare Sunday, from a Latin word meaning “Rejoice.” In England and I’m guessing in former British colonies around the world this is Mothering Sunday – when mothers are honored much as we do in this country in May on Mother’s Day.
            And you’ve probably noticed that, to symbolize the lightening of our Lenten mood, I’m decked out once again in the rose vestments.
            It’s the Fourth Sunday in Lent – Laetare Sunday! Rejoice! Lent is almost over and soon we will celebrate the joy of Easter!           
            But, actually, although I wouldn’t mind saying the “A” word, I’m not in a hurry for Lent to be over. Part of that is because Holy Week and Easter are pretty grueling for us professional Christians. But part of it is because, so far, we’ve had a good Lent here at St. Paul’s.
            This may sound weird but I’ll be sorry to see Lent end.
            Our Sunday attendance has been good and parishioners – many of you - have been coming out for our special offerings.
            Not that it’s a Lenten event, but our weekly service at Christ Hospital has gotten off to a great start – thanks to your support.
            Stations of the Cross has been very popular, drawing about a dozen people each Wednesday evening – almost too many, actually, considering the narrowness of our side aisles.
            But, even in our narrow aisles, walking the Way of the Cross is a powerful spiritual exercise. If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll come join us at least once this Lent.
            We’ve begun our Saturday morning adult confirmation / refresher class with lively discussion about the Church and our own faith stories.
            But for me the highlight of this Lent has been our group that’s reading the book, Speaking of Sin.
            Now, I picked the book so of course I knew I liked that. But, I’ve enjoyed so much our discussions among the interesting, thoughtful and diverse group of parishioners who’ve joined us.
            In our second session we talked about how we would define sin.
            What is sin?
            Well, the Prayer Book offers a solid and clear definition of sin: “Sin is seeking our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all of creation.”
            In our group we talked about different definitions of sin and types of sin. And then one parishioner in our group talked about sin as not paying attention – sin as failing to be mindful – sin as not paying attention to God at work in the world– sin as the failure to be mindful of God at work in our lives, at work in the people all around us.
            Sin as not paying attention – failing to be mindful.
            I was immediately reminded of a quote by the great writer John Updike that I read years ago. I’ve never been able to again find the exact quote but the gist of it was that since, as far as we know, we’re the only creatures who have any sense of the grandeur of creation, our unique vocation as humans is to pay attention.
            In the Book of Genesis, God saw everything that God had created and God knows that, indeed, it is very good.
            We are called to see as God sees.
            And, today’s lessons are all about seeing as God sees.
            In our Old Testament lesson from First Samuel, the Prophet Samuel is sent by God find a new king to replace Saul.
            God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new king.
            Now, any reasonable person would think that the new king should be one of Jesse’s oldest, strongest, most experienced sons.
            But, of course, that’s not God’s way – that’s not seeing the world as God sees the world.
            In the words of First Samuel: “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
            So, Jesse presents his sons one after the next, but Samuel knows that God has not chosen any of them.
            Samuel asks, “Are all your sons here?”
            And, of course, Jesse and everybody else had assumed that the youngest son, the weakest, the least experienced, would never be chosen so he wasn’t even presented to Samuel. Instead, the youngest, weakest, the least experienced son was given the job of keeping the sheep.
            Samuel is able to see as God sees and anoints David as king.
            And then today’s long gospel reading is all about sight.
            It’s the story of one of Jesus’ greatest miracles – or signs as the Evangelist John prefers to call them – Jesus gives sight to a man blind from birth.
            And, as always in the Gospel of John, this story operates on a couple of different levels.
            Some people can see and others can’t – or won’t.
            After Jesus performs the sign – after the man washes in the pool of Siloam and gains his sight – some people are unable or unwilling to see. Some people are unable or unwilling to see as God sees.
            Some people think it can’t be the same person – this can’t be the blind guy who used to sit and beg, right? Some people can’t see because they don’t expect to see – they don’t expect see the wonders of God at work right there all around them – God at work in the people in their lives.
            Then there are the Pharisees. In the story the Pharisees are presented as unable or unwilling to see. They get caught up in rules and regulations, noting that Jesus healed the blind man on the Sabbath – surely a violation since it wasn’t an emergency and could have waited until sunset.
            True enough, but really misses the point doesn’t it?
            This man was blind but now he can see!
            And then there are the parents. They are able to see but they’re afraid – so afraid that they are unwilling to boldly proclaim what’s happened to their son. Instead, they pass the buck saying, “ask our son; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
            Then, finally, there is the man born blind.
            Obviously, he physically receives his sight and is able to see. Amazing enough.
            But, the man born blind receives an even deeper gift of sight.
            At the end of the story, Jesus finds the man and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
            He answers, “And who is he sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”
            And just like the story we heard last week when Jesus revealed his identity to the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus says to this formerly blind man who now sees: “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”
            The seeing man says, “Lord, I believe” and immediately worships Jesus.
            This formerly blind man is able to see as God sees.
            It’s Lent – this holy season when we reflect on – when we speak of – sin. In the words of the Prayer Book, we sin when we seek our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all of creation.
            We sin when we neglect our special vocation to pay attention to God at work in the good creation, to be mindful of God at work in the people all around us.
            We are called to pay attention so we can see as God sees – to see the good creation - to see the value and the potential of the David’s of the world – the youngest, the weakest, the least experienced.
            We are called to pay attention so we can see as God sees – to see the good creation – to love the man blind since birth begging, day after day on the sidewalk.
            And when we finally pay attention and see as God sees – when we value and love the weakest and the poorest  - when we really see the good creation - then God and we will truly rejoice.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cosmic Thoughts

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 23, 2014

Year A: The Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Cosmic Thoughts

            Lately I’ve been thinking about space.
            Not space in the sense that we need more space here at St. Paul’s, though that’s true enough, but space like… the universe.
            You may have seen the story in the news this past week that scientists have observed evidence of the first moments of the universe. I won’t even try to explain how scientists have figured this out – it involves using radio telescopes to observe ripples in space-time - but it seems that right after the so-called “Big Bang,” when the universe was only trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth second old it expanded at a speed far greater than the speed of light – in the first moment the universe went from nothing to become, well, the universe.
            And these same scientists go even further, speculating that our universe may be just one of an infinite number of universes. The New York Times described it this way:
            “…beyond our own universe there might be an endless number of other universes bubbling into frothy eternity like a pot of pasta bubbling over.”
            And then I’ve also been watching the new version of the TV show, Cosmos.
            Anybody else seen it?
            It’s very well done with outstanding special effects.
            The first episode explored the mind-blowing vastness of our universe – and the unfathomable vastness of infinite universes beyond our own.
            Now, I don’t know about you, but, while this stuff is fascinating, I also find it a little upsetting, even a little depressing.
            Trying to wrap my head around the great age of the universe – some 14 billion years – and the vastness of just our universe not to mention infinite universes gets me feeling really, really small and really unimportant.
            Of course, you don’t have to think about space to feel unimportant. Probably all of us feel that way at least sometimes.
            Ever feel like nobody pays any attention to you? That nobody bothers to really get to know you?
            At school we may feel small and unimportant if we’re not on the honor roll or if we’re not a good athlete. At work we may feel small and unimportant if we get passed over for a promotion or a raise or, worse, if we’re laid off. If we’re older we may feel small and unimportant when people no longer take us seriously, no longer think we have anything to contribute. I could go on.
            All of us at one time or another – maybe a lot of the time – feel small and unimportant.
            Well, at the heart of Christianity, there is a mind-blowing idea – the idea, the faith, the wondrous realization that the God who flipped that first cosmic switch – the Spirit who made everything out of nothing – the Source of all that is and ever will be - actually knows us and truly cares about seemingly small and unimportant people like us.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we meet someone who probably felt pretty unimportant: the unnamed Samaritan woman who has a mind-blowing encounter with Jesus at the well.
            It’s a rich and complex story filled with lots of telling details.
            We tend to have very positive feelings about Samaritans thanks mostly to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But, Jews of the First Century would not have felt so positively about the Samaritans.
            The Samaritans were descended from the old northern kingdom of Israel that had been destroyed back in the early 700s BC. But they had intermingled with other people and that made them, in the eyes of the Jews, no longer really part of the family.
            Although split off from the Jews, the Samaritans continued to follow the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible. But they didn’t recognize the Temple in Jerusalem instead worshiping God on Mount Gerizim. That was another source of friction with their Jewish cousins.
            So, here’s Jesus cutting through Samaria on his way from Judea back home to Galilee. It’s likely that Jews in Samaria would have kept a low profile, trying to avoid any encounters with Samaritans. And the feeling was probably mutual.
            Anyway, Jesus sends the disciples to go buy food, sits at the well to rest, and when a Samaritan woman approaches, he speaks to her, “Give me a drink.”
            We aren’t told her name but if we pay attention to the details we learn some important things about this woman. Notice we’re told that the encounter she has with Jesus at the well took place around noon. Doesn’t make much sense to draw water from a well in the middle of the day – the hottest part of the day. And where’s everybody else? They drew their water in the morning or will be there later in the evening.
            So, the woman is alone at the well. And in her conversation with Jesus we learn that she has had a rather complicated, apparently difficult life. She says she has had five husbands and the one she has now isn’t her husband. Hmm.
            Jesus does not condemn the woman but it’s fair to assume that this complicated personal life has made her an outcast in her community – an unimportant, maybe even despised, person who chooses – or is forced - to draw water from a well in the middle of the day when no one else is around.
            And there at the well Jesus and the woman have a conversation not so different in some ways from the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that we heard last week. Remember how Jesus and Nicodemus were talking on two different levels? Jesus says you must be born again and Nicodemus wonders how a man can enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time.
            Well, in this case the woman is understandably suspicious of this odd Jewish man who is asking her for water. They really shouldn’t even be speaking to each other!
            Then Jesus says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
            Now, the woman has no idea what this strange man is talking about. She sensibly points out that this is awfully big talk for guy with no bucket. And, the well is deep.            
            But, like Nicodemus, though she doesn’t really understand she is intrigued by this stranger and by his mysterious words. She wants this living water – this living water that she doesn’t understand – this living water that quenches thirst for ever.
            Jesus then addresses part of the Jewish-Samaritan conflict over what’s the right place to worship: Mt. Gerizim or the Jerusalem Temple. Essentially, Jesus says it doesn’t really matter anymore where we worship. What matters is how we worship.
            Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”
            And then finally in a remarkable moment Jesus reveals to this unnamed woman – this nobody – this outcast with a complicated past – Jesus reveals to this seemingly unimportant woman that he is the Messiah.
            The woman leaves her water jar – that’s no longer so important, is it? – and runs off to the city. She tells the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
            “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”
            This unnamed woman – this outcast with a complicated past – realizes that she is known – really known. She realizes that she is known, warts and all, and yet she is not condemned. She is really known and for her this is good news that she can’t wait to share with others.
            The Samaritan woman at the well, you and I, all of us, live in an incomprehensibly vast universe – or maybe even more incomprehensible than that - an infinite number of universes.
            And, all of us at one time or another – maybe a lot of the time – feel small and unimportant.
            And yet, at the heart of Christianity, at the core of our experience as Christians there is the mind-blowing idea – the idea, the faith, the wondrous realization that the God who flipped that first cosmic switch – the Spirit who made everything out of nothing – the Source of all that is and ever will be - actually knows us and truly cares about seemingly small and unimportant people like the woman at the well.
            No matter what we’ve done or haven’t done, no matter how complicated our lives have been, God who is Spirit knows and cares about seemingly small and unimportant people just like us.
            That’s good news worth sharing.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

God Tweets

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 16, 2014

Year A: The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

God Tweets
            Last Sunday Bishop Beckwith made his Episcopal visitation over at the Church of the Incarnation. Since it was the second Sunday of the month – the Sunday I usually celebrate and preach at Incarnation – I was there and basically served as the deacon at the service.
            As many of you know, the bishop’s visit only comes around every couple of years so it’s a pretty big deal when it happens. Churches want to be at their best so a lot of time goes into preparation – shining the silver, vacuuming the carpets, cooking up a feast and trying to get as many parishioners to come to church as possible.
            And, last Sunday at Incarnation was no exception.
            The church looked great, it goes without saying that music was spectacular, there was a good-sized crowd and everybody, including the bishop, seemed quite happy.
            Whenever he makes a visit, the bishop offers an adult forum either before or after the service.
            He usually talks about his role as bishop – how he is a symbol of unity with the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, and within our diocese.
            Last week he also talked about how the church has changed over the past few decades. He talked about how in the past Episcopal churches had no trouble attracting people. Pretty much all they had to do was paint their doors red, play music that was reasonably on key, and offer sermons that were no more than fifteen minutes long. If you did those relatively simple things then the people would come.
            The bishop then acknowledged that is no longer true - and hasn’t been true for a long time. It’s no longer that easy for an Episcopal church – for any church – to attract people.
            A generation or more of people have grown up with little or no contact with the church – with very little interest in what goes on here in places like this. We are dismissed as relics, as irrelevant, as foolish or worse.
            So, the bishop said, we’ve got to figure out new ways of presenting our message to the world – we need to try new approaches – we need to take our story and our ministry out to the streets – we need to go out to where the people are.
            The red doors, the on key music and the fifteen minute sermons are no longer enough.
            He held up “Ashes to Go” as an example of a new more active approach.
            He mentioned our service last summer at Liberty Park and looked ahead to the Good Friday procession that’s in the works. Some of you know that we’ll be doing an outdoor Stations of the Cross right here in our neighborhood – and each station will be a place where there’s been an act of violence in Jersey City. The Rev. Laurie Wurm and I have been working with the police to identify the sites and plan the route. The bishop plans to join us. It will be a great event – and a unique opportunity to take the church – to take the Good News - out into the streets.
            Many of you know that we’ve been doing other things to get the word out about what goes on here behind the red doors.
            One of the things I’ve spent a lot of time on is using social media to spread the word about St. Paul’s. Those of you on facebook know that St. Paul’s usually posts something every day – information about our services and events, photographs, prayers, a little history about the saint of the day.
            Hundreds of people view our St. Paul’s facebook page every week. Amazing.
            Unfortunately, a lot of young people are leaving facebook behind for other social media sites – which makes me dread having to learn how to use them and to spend time posting items there, too.
            Just having red doors would be so much easier and a lot less time-consuming!
            Besides facebook, we do use one other social media site, though: twitter.
            Do you know how twitter works?
            On twitter you are limited to 140 characters – letters and punctuation. So, unlike on facebook where you can – and people do – go on and on, when you post on  twitter - when you tweet - you have to get right to the point.
            There have been times when I’ve struggled to squeeze what I wanted to say, using lots of abbreviations, into just 140 characters.
            I have no idea how many people see our twitter feed. I know our St. Paul’s twitter has only 87 followers - not very many. But, I do know that it’s a useful exercise to try to get your message across in as few words, with as few characters, as possible – especially when we’re trying to reach people who are unlikely to ever open our red doors on their own.
            Twitter isn’t very old – it was created just in 2006.
            But, as I reflected on today’s gospel lesson, I thought, in a way, God has been tweeting – has been sending brief, to the point messages - to us for a very long time.
            In today’s gospel lesson we have the rich story of Nicodemus, the Pharisee who comes to Jesus by night.
            Nicodemus probably represents a group of Jewish people who respected Jesus, who acknowledged that his signs and miracles indicated that he was a holy man, who were curious about Jesus, but were not – yet – willing to recognize him as messiah or Son of God.
            Notice that Nicodemus calls Jesus, “rabbi,” which means teacher. True enough but hardly the best title for Jesus.
            Jesus and Nicodemus have a rich and complicated exchange.
            There are humorous misunderstandings as Jesus and Nicodemus talk to each other on totally different levels.
            Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
            That is a little mysterious and sure enough Nicodemus totally misses it. He replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
            Jesus tries again, this time alluding more clearly to baptism: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
            Now, if you were paying attention to the lesson you may have noticed that there’s a shift in the middle. The questioning Pharisee Nicodemus isn’t mentioned again. And, in fact, it seems like it’s no longer Jesus who is speaking.
            Instead, we hear God speaking through the Evangelist John. We hear God speaking through John’s community of Christians sometime around the end of the First Century.
            We hear probably the best-known, best-loved verse in the New Testament: John 3:16.
            John 3:16, which it just so happens is short enough - 129 characters in English including the quotes – just short enough to be a tweet:
             “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
            And then there’s the next verse, John 3:17, which is also short enough – 125 characters - to tweet:
            “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
            Now, there’s a whole lot of theology packed into those two little verses, these two tweets from God. I could preach on them for a lot longer than 15 minutes.
            But, these two verses – these two “tweets” – sum up the whole gospel: the God who created all that is loves us with a bottomless love – a love so great that this God was willing to live among us not to condemn us for all the ways we mess up but to save us from ourselves.
            That is the Good News we proclaim.
            Our challenge is not just to proclaim it here in church behind our red doors but out in the world where people have very little interest in what goes on in here. We need to proclaim this Good News to the people out there who dismiss us as relics, as irrelevant, as foolish or worse.
            We need to proclaim this Good News – to tweet this best news ever – to a world that is still hungry for God’s love.
            Oh, one more thing about Nicodemus, the questioning Pharisee who came to Jesus by night.
            He appears again near the end of the Gospel of John.
            After Jesus had died and his body was removed from the cross, we’re told that Nicodemus came “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.”
            At what seemed to be the end of the story, Nicodemus came to anoint the body of Jesus.
            “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
            “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Goodness of Life

The Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
March 14, 2014

Funeral Sermon for Theresa Richardson-Reid
Isaiah 61:1-3
Psalm 23
Revelation 21:2-7
John 14:1-6

The Goodness of Life
            The passage I just read comes from the story of the Last Supper as told in the Gospel of John.
            Try to imagine the scene. Jesus knows – and the apostles are beginning to realize – that Jesus’ earthly lifetime is coming to an end. Soon he will be betrayed, arrested, condemned, and killed in one of the most brutal ways devised by the ruthless Roman Empire.
            At the Last Supper, the apostles – Jesus’ closest followers and friends – are beginning to realize that things are not going to turn out the way that they had hoped. Their friend, their teacher – the One they had recognized as the Messiah – was going to leave them.
            Jesus tries to reassure his sad and frightened friends, saying, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
            But, Jesus’ reassurance didn’t really help – at least not yet. I bet, especially today, that we can imagine at least some of the pain, the confusion, the disappointment, that the apostles were experiencing that evening in Jerusalem.
            Certainly we can hear pain, confusion, disappointment, and maybe even frustration, in the voice of the Apostle Thomas when he questions Jesus:
            “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
            I’m not sure if Jesus’ mysterious answer was much comfort for Thomas and the other apostles, at least not yet:
            “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
            Pain, confusion, disappointment.
            The apostles are grief-stricken because they had placed their trust in Jesus, because they had left their old lives behind in order to follow Jesus, because they loved Jesus.
            And, the apostles are also grief-stricken because in their time with Jesus they had experienced the goodness of life.
            Yes, the apostles had the chance to witness all the amazing wonders: to see Jesus’ healings, to hear Jesus’ teachings, to see other people’s faces light up when they saw something in Jesus that they had never seen in anyone else before.
            But – and it’s easy to forget this - with Jesus the apostles had also experienced the goodness of life in simpler, though no less extraordinary ways.
            The apostles had experienced the goodness of life just by being together – by telling stories, by praying together, by eating and drinking, by singing. Jesus and the apostles experienced the goodness of life simply by enjoying each other’s company.
            After Jesus’ death, life just won’t be the same for the apostles.
            And I know, after our sister Theresa’s death, life just won’t be the same for us either.
            Unfortunately, I didn’t know Theresa, and listening to this morning’s remembrances makes me wish even more that I had known her. I didn’t know Theresa, but over the past few months I have gotten to know her younger son Timothy. And I’m sure that his goodness and faithfulness is very much a reflection of his mother’s finest qualities.
            My sense is that when you were with Theresa you experienced the goodness of life.
            She enjoyed, celebrated, and shared the simple but extraordinary goodness of life – family, friends, hospitality, travel, eating and drinking, singing, and simply enjoying the company of family and friends.
            And so, just like the apostles long ago, many of us here today are pained, confused and disappointed by the loss that we have been experiencing over these past few days.
            The hard truth is that we will not be able to enjoy the goodness of life with Theresa in quite the same way again.
            At the Last Supper, Jesus reassured the apostles that if they followed the way – his way - there would be a great reunion in God’s house where there are many dwelling places – dwelling places prepared by Jesus himself.
            That great reunion began on Easter morning and continues for all eternity.
            In her life, Theresa followed the way of Jesus – Theresa followed the way that leads to the great reunion.
            And now, Theresa’s journey on the way is completed.
            And so, today, we celebrate. We’ll even break our Lenten fast and joyfully cry out, “Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”
            Theresa’s journey on the way is completed.
            But, for us, the journey continues.
            And just as Jesus offered himself to the apostles and to Theresa, Jesus offers himself to us: “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
            We are invited to follow the way of Jesus – to love, to serve, to forgive.
            We are invited to follow the way of Jesus – to tell stories, to pray, to eat and drink, to sing, and to simply enjoy each other’s company.
            And, if we, like Theresa, follow the way of Jesus then we too will complete our journey at the great reunion – the great reunion in God’s house where there are many dwelling places – the great reunion in God’s house where there are many dwelling places prepared by Jesus for Theresa – dwelling places for us all.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

In the Wilderness

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 9, 2014

Year A: The First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11
In the Wilderness
This year we had the most amazing Ash Wednesday.
            We had three services here at St. Paul’s, each a little different from the other. At the evening service we were joined by our friends from Church of the Incarnation. It was solemn and beautiful and even, though it sounds wrong to say it, a little joyful.
            And then there was “Ashes to Go.”
            As I’ve mentioned before, I had never offered ashes to people on the street though that practice has been growing in the Episcopal Church and elsewhere over the last few years.
            In the morning Irma, Vanessa, Andy and Dee Dee and I stationed ourselves outside the kiosk at McGinley Square. Sue and I went back for the evening rush. The reactions to our presence and our offer were all over the place: puzzlement, suspicion, rejection, maybe a little mockery, curiosity, eagerness, and gratitude. And then there were all the people on the buses whose faces we could barely make out. But they were looking at us out there in the cold, maybe remembering and wondering.
            In total I “imposed” ashes on the foreheads of 42 people. And I know for some people it was the first time. Over the past few days I’ve thought a lot about that experience. It was a day of seed-planting. And I have no doubt that, as usual, God will take those seeds and do things that, for the most part, we’ll never know about.
            And now, it’s Lent.
            The word itself comes from a Germanic word for spring – which holds true in the Northern Hemisphere.
            But, all of us are now into these forty days of repentance and preparation.
            I’m sure you’ve noticed that the church looks different.
            We’re in purple, the traditional color of penitence. Most of the shiny things have been put away or covered.
            And this morning’s service is different. We started with penitence. Some of the prayers are different. We’re going to say the contemporary Lord’s Prayer. And we are most definitely not going to say the “A” word until the Great Vigil of Easter.
            Most of you know that during Lent we’re offering some special opportunities for prayer and learning. On Wednesday evenings there’s the Stations of the Cross and our Lenten book study, Speaking of Sin. And on four Saturday mornings I’ll offer the adult confirmation / refresher class.
            All of these changes and offerings are meant to help us have a richer more prayerful lent – to be better prepared for the joy of Easter that lies ahead.
            And then there’s the Scripture that we’ll be hearing in church during Lent.
            No surprise, the lessons appointed during Lent are meant to help us reflect on the big themes of repentance and preparation.
            Today we heard the story of Adam and Eve giving into temptation, disobeying God, eating the forbidden fruit, and messing everything up for all of humanity.
            And we heard the story of Jesus out in the wilderness for forty days where he is tempted but, unlike the first man and woman, he doesn’t give into temptation.
            It’s St. Paul who draws the connection between Adam and Jesus. In his letter to the church in Rome he writes, “For if the many died through one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.”
            In the wilderness Jesus resists temptation and begins his work of restoring the world to what it was always meant to be.
            But, I’d like to stay in the wilderness for a while longer.
            Jesus spent his forty days and nights in the wilderness facing and resisting temptations – those recorded in the gospel and, I bet, others that weren’t recorded.
            What about us?
            I’m guessing most, if not all, of us have had our own times in the wilderness – maybe right here in Jersey City – maybe in our homes or at school or at work.
            I’m guessing we’ve all had our own time in the wilderness – times when in the words of today’s collect we’ve been “assaulted by temptation.”
            The assaults of temptation take lots of different forms of course. We can be tempted to do something we know is wrong – tempted to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt someone, to take advantage of someone else for our own pleasure or advantage.
            But, I think the greatest temptation we face is giving into despair.
            We live in a broken world with so much suffering. We live in a world where sometimes airplanes vanish from the sky, where houses burn killing an elderly couple and their two adult sons. We live in a world where people are routinely treated as things to be used and thrown away. We live in a world where cancer spreads, vision dims, memories fade, and the people we love die. We live in a world where sometimes relationships get broken. We live in a world where one wrong move can lead to much pain and suffering.
            Much of the time it’s difficult to see or feel the presence of the angels ready to wait on us the way they served Jesus in the wilderness. Much of the time it’s difficult to see or feel the presence of the loving God who is right here suffering along with us, hard at work turning weeping into joy, turning death into life.
            One of my times in the wilderness happened in an unlikely place: Florida.
            Some of you know that for a year Sue and I lived in Gainesville, Florida where I served as the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Florida and as rector of a small church a couple of miles from the center of town.
            We went there because on paper it looked like a good fit, piecing together my academic and church backgrounds. We went there because we had both lived in New Jersey our whole lives and felt it was the right time to be bold, to try something new before we grew too old and settled.
            The people at both the university chapel and the church could not have been friendlier, more welcoming and supportive. We met some really amazing people in Gainesville.
            But, it didn’t take us long to realize that this was not the right move.
            We were simply too far from everyone in our lives.
            The breaking point came at Christmas. That was the year that up here there was a blizzard at Christmas. Flights were canceled and we couldn’t get home to be with family and friends. Instead we were alone in an emptied-out college town at the holidays. And on top of that we had to put our much-loved but so sick cat to sleep.
             It was a terrible time.
            I made the decision to try to get a job back here in the Diocese of Newark. I interviewed at two churches. I knew one was a long shot but the other was very enthusiastic. They flew Sue and me up from Florida to meet with them. It was all very positive and hopeful until I got the phone call that they had chosen someone else.
            I was – we were - in the wilderness facing the temptation to give in to despair.
            And, I’ll admit that unlike Jesus there were times when I gave into that temptation and I despaired – despaired that we’d ever get back home, that we’d ever be able to put the pieces of our lives back together again.
            Then, thanks to unforeseen circumstances my old position at Grace Madison became available, setting the stage for eventually getting back home here with all of you.
            Now looking back on our Florida wilderness experience it wasn’t exactly forty days and nights in the wilderness with no food and water, facing the assaults of temptation. People have suffered and are suffering far, far worse than not being able to get home from Florida.
            But, that experience has left its marks. It shook my self-confidence and has made me more careful and thoughtful when I make decisions.
            And it also taught me something that maybe Jesus also learned during his time in the wilderness: unseen and unexpected angels are standing by ready to wait on us. And, most of all, we’re never really alone in the wilderness. God is right there – right here - suffering along with us, hard at work turning weeping into joy, turning death into life.
            It’s Lent: a special time set aside for repentance and preparation.
            During this holy season and throughout our lives we face the assaults of temptation. Sometimes, like Adam and Eve, we’ll give in. And, other times, like Jesus we will resist.
            But, no matter what, when we face these powerful assaults of temptation, we are never, ever, alone in the wilderness.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Here on St. Paul's Mountain

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
March 2, 2014

Year A: The Last Sunday after Epiphany
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 84
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Here On St. Paul’s Mountain
            This past Wednesday night I had my first meeting with a couple whose wedding I’m going to officiate in a few months.
            Usually meeting an engaged couple is a wonderful experience – and this was no exception.
            It’s always joyful and inspiring to be with two people who are in the midst of the mountaintop experiences of falling in love and deciding to make a lifelong commitment to each other.
            When I meet with a couple for the first time, I try to learn about them – about their families, their backgrounds, what they love about each other, and how God fits into their lives and the love that they share.
            On Wednesday night, when talking about his faith, the groom mentioned that he had attended a Catholic high school out in the suburbs.
            I told him that I am an alumnus of St. Peter’s Prep – which happens to be a sports rival of the school that he went to.
            Suddenly there was tension in the room. He looked nervously at his fiancée. Quickly, I assured him that I would still do the wedding and we could still be friends. And then he said something that surprised me.
            He said that his high school wasn’t particularly religious.
            That surprised me because St. Peter’s Prep was and still is a religious school. His remark surprised me and made me a little sad because it was at St. Peter’s Prep that I really began to think seriously about God, about Jesus, about my faith and my doubts. It was at St. Peter’s Prep that I began to wonder what God’s call to me might look like.
            The highlight of that time was the retreat I went on in junior year. Then, as now, the retreats are called “Emmaus.” (At Prep for some reason they pronounce it EM-OWSE rather than EM-AY-US like the rest of the world.) The name comes from the story in Luke’s gospel of Jesus appearing to the disciples on the road on Easter Day.
            The retreat was held in a rambling, old yellow Victorian house owned by the Jesuits in Sea Bright, right on Ocean Avenue just across the seawall from the beach and the Atlantic.
            During those couple of days some of my fellow classmates and I along with a few upperclassmen and adult leaders, really reflected on God’s place in our lives. There was powerful sharing about hard experiences that some of us had – the deaths of family members, broken relationships, absent or over-demanding parents, and so on.
            It was intense and powerful and moving.
            It was a mountaintop experience right there at sea level.
            And then, those few days of retreat were over and we had to go back to our lives. We tried to hold on to the experience by wearing our Emmaus crosses around school but the grace of those few days faded as we came down the mountain to the less than holy challenges of Pre-Calculus and trying to get a date for the prom.
            I hope that you’ve had a mountaintop experience or two in your life. They don’t have to be especially religious or church-related. Like the couple I met this week, it could be the experience of falling in love, finding “the one” and making a lifelong commitment. It could be holding your child in your arms for the first time. It could be reconnecting with an old friend. It could be getting that promotion at work or just knowing that you’re good at what you do. It could be asking forgiveness and receiving it. It could be forgiving someone, letting go of an old hurt.
            The Bible, of course, is full of often quite literal mountaintop experiences. We heard about two of them today: Moses on Mount Sinai and, in today’s gospel lesson, the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus and his “inner circle” of apostles, Peter, James and John are up on the mountain when suddenly we’re told that Jesus is “transfigured before them and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
            That would be enough to qualify as a mountaintop experience but then Moses and Elijah appear beside Jesus. Most commentators think that Moses represents the Law and Elijah represents the Prophets. And there were old traditions that both Moses and Elijah hadn’t died but had been taken up into heaven.
            And then, finally, there’s one last great epiphany. The voice of God speaks, echoing the words heard at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”
            On the mountain at the Transfiguration, Jesus and the apostles are given a sneak preview of the Resurrection. They are given a glimpse of heaven.
            And then, it was over. Peter wants to memorialize the event by building a shrine but it was over.
            It was time to come down off the mountain.
            And we know – and Jesus knew - what awaits Jesus once he comes off the mountain – betrayal, arrest, mockery, blood, pain, and death.
            I like to think that through those hard days ahead when all hope seemed to be lost, Jesus and the apostles managed to hold on even just a little to their mountaintop experience.
            I like to think that even surrounded by despair and death, they managed to remember Moses and Elijah and most of all the voice of God recognizing Jesus and telling the apostles to listen to him.
            And then, finally the sneak preview of Resurrection and glimpse of heaven they received on the mountain comes into full, glorious view on Easter morning when Jesus’ tomb is empty - when love defeats death once and for all.
            Easter – Resurrection - is the ultimate mountaintop experience.
            Although we may not think of it this way, each Sunday here in church we get to have a mountaintop experience.
            Here on St. Paul’s Mountain we are hopefully able even for just a few minutes to set aside the burdens and worries of our lives.
            Here on St. Paul’s Mountain we can hear the voice of God, can experience God’s unconditional love, we can get a sneak preview of Resurrection and a glimpse of heaven.
            Here on St. Paul’s Mountain we meet Jesus in Scripture, in one another and most especially in the Bread and Wine.
            And then, each week it’s over.
            And then, we come down off the mountain and face all the trials, challenges, and fears of our lives – many of them much more frightening than Pre-Calculus, more challenging than finding a date for the prom.
            But, like Jesus and the apostles, we can hold on, at least a little, to our mountaintop experiences – we can remember what we experience here on St. Paul’s Mountain and carry it with us through our week and our lives.
            And I know that’s possible because of that retreat I went on back in high school. That was just about thirty years ago now, and yet over the years when I’ve lost my way or been frightened I still draw on that experience in the rambling, yellow Victorian house in Sea Bright.
            And, to this day, my Emmaus cross sits on my desk reminding me of my long ago mountaintop experience at sea level.
            Now, we’re here having our own mountaintop experience.
            In the words of St. Peter, “It is good for us to be here.”