Sunday, July 27, 2014

Risk is Our Business

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 27, 2014

Year A, Proper 12: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105: 1-11, 45b
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Risk is Our Business
            So, do we have any Star Trek fans here today?
            I’ll admit to being a fan – not quite a dress up in a costume, put on a pair of pointy ears and go to a convention kind of fan – but still a fan, especially of the original series with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock and the rest of the crew of the Starship Enterprise – the original series that first aired all the way back in the late 1960s.
            I’m enough of a fan that I’ve seen most of the original episodes many times. And, as Sue can tell you, I can and do quote lines from the shows and movies all the time.
            She doesn’t find that annoying.
            Anyway, when I first started thinking about Jesus’ parables that we heard today I was reminded of a line said by Captain Kirk in one episode:
            “Risk is our business.”
            For the past few Sundays we’ve been making our way through the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew – a section of the gospel that contains a collection of Jesus’ parables.
            It’s a little hard to define what a parable is, exactly.
            This doesn’t quite capture it, but parables are very short stories with multiple meanings. In fact, the more we reflect on Jesus’ parables the more meaning – the more meanings – we’ll discover.
            Jesus uses parables to describe the kingdom of heaven – the kingdom of God which is not just heaven but the kingdom of God which is the transformed here and now – the earth as God has always meant for it to be.
            Jesus’ parables are drawn from everyday life back in the First Century. Two weeks ago we heard the Parable of the Sower – the everyday image of a farmer planting seeds on good and not so good soil. Last week we heard the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds – weeds and crops getting all mixed up in a field much as they did back then and still do even right here in our own church garden.
            Jesus used these everyday images – and, most likely, he used them over and over again - as he traveled around teaching and healing in one village after another. Jesus told these parables over and over so people remembered them until they eventually made it into the gospels where we’ve been reading them and puzzling over them ever since.
            In today’s gospel passage we heard a bunch of Jesus’ parables.
            “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…”
            “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…”
            Jesus says, the kingdom of heaven starts small – small as a mustard seed or yeast – and grows into something amazingly large and substantial.
            And then we get to the two parables that I’d like to talk about today.
            Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
            And then, along the same lines, Jesus says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”
            Through these parables, Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God is so valuable that we should risk everything for it.
            Risk is our business.
            Most of us know all about risk, don’t’ we?
            Yesterday and today we’re especially celebrating the history and cultures of the Caribbean. We had an amazing time marching and dancing in the parade and the party is continuing today with great music and delicious food.
            So, I’ve been thinking about those of you who were born and grew up in the islands – in places that were maybe not wealthy but where there was the security of close-knit families and communities, places where everybody knew your name.
            And yet you – like countless others from so many other places, took the risk of leaving all that comfort and warmth behind and coming here – here where there’s winter! – You came here hoping for a better life for yourself and your family.
            And all of us take risks all the time.
            In our sometimes dangerous city we take calculated risks – what streets are safe and which aren’t – what time is too late to be on the street or to take the bus – the doorbell rings and we answer the door for someone we don’t know, taking the risk that they mean us no harm.
            Some of us have taken the risk of serving our country or serving our community – wearing a uniform that’s a symbol of sacrifice and honor but also serves as an attractive target for violent people.
            Others of us have taken the risk of starting our own business or leaving a job for something we hope will offer more opportunity.
            We’ve taken the risk of loving someone else knowing that sometimes our love is rejected and sometimes relationships that seemed so solid get bruised and broken.
            We know all about risk – it’s risk that has brought many of us here – it’s risk that has brought us together.
            People back in the First Century took a lot of the same kinds of risks but Jesus calls them – calls us - to even more than these everyday risks.
            Jesus himself faithfully risked everything for his mission – for the kingdom of God - and, of course, in the end, Jesus gave away his life on the Cross.           
            Jesus is clear: if we’re going to truly follow him then risk is our business.
            We’ve already found the treasure. Just look around. But are we really willing to risk something – to risk everything – for God?
            I don’t know.
            But, I do see signs that we are risking more and more for God’s kingdom.
            I see us risking our hard-earned and all too limited resources to invest in our future here at St. Paul’s, giving even when it means we have to cut in other areas of our lives.
            I see us risking mockery and scorn from people on the street when we took church to McGinley Square on Friday evening. Here in church we know that we’re safe and surrounded by people we know and who are more or less on the same page with us when it comes to faith. Out there who knows? And yet, we took the risk.
            We took the risk of the marching and dancing in the parade yesterday. I’m sure there were some people who thought it was weird and, I don’t know, maybe even inappropriate for a church to march in the parade. Yet, we took the risk of being out there with the people spreading the Good News with people who may have forgotten it – or who maybe have never even heard it.
            We’ve found the treasure here at St. Paul’s.
            My prayer is that we’ll continue to look for ways to leave our little safe and secure St. Paul’s island.
            My prayer is that we’ll boldly go out into the world, risking it all for God.
            My prayer is that we Christians will remember that, “Risk is our business.”

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Already, But Not Yet, in Jersey City

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 20, 2014

Year A, Proper 11: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139:1-11, 22-23
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Already, But Not Yet, in Jersey City
            For the past few Sundays we’ve been hearing excerpts from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
            As you may remember, Paul was a very faithful Jew – a Pharisee, in fact – who did not know Jesus during his earthly lifetime. As a young man, Paul (or Saul as he was then known) persecuted some of the first followers of Jesus – the people who claimed that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
            But then Saul had his own life-changing encounter with the Risen Christ.
            That mysterious experience transformed this remarkable man from Saul the persecutor to Paul the Apostle.
            As he reflected on his encounter with the Risen Christ, Paul realized that since God had raised Jesus from the dead, that means that the old world had come to an end and a new age had begun.
            And since that new age had already begun, there was no time to waste!
            So Paul along with others began to travel among non-Jews telling them the Good News of Jesus – the good news that salvation wasn’t just for Jews but was for everybody.
            God was ready to adopt us all as God’s children!
            Paul proclaimed this glorious new age had already begun but was not yet complete.
            It was already but not yet.
            And we hear the “already, not yet” in today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
            Most scholars think that this letter was among the last written by Paul – that it reflects his most mature understanding of what Jesus means for the whole world.
            The new age has already begun but is not yet complete.
            In his Letter to the Romans, Paul uses the beautiful and vivid image of childbirth to capture the “already, not yet” state of things.
            He writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
            Paul says that this already, not yet time – this in-between time – is like the groans of labor as new life is created.
            In recent days we’ve been painfully reminded that we live in the already, not yet – in this groaning, in-between time.
            On the one hand we don’t have to look far to see all kinds of signs that the joyful new age has already begun.
            Here at St. Paul’s, week after week, we enjoy beautiful worship and warm fellowship. Our church continues to grow and become healthier and even more committed to spreading the good news of Jesus.
            Many Sundays as I stand at the altar rail and watch you all come forward to receive communion, I think to myself, “The Kingdom of God is like this.” People of all different backgrounds and life experiences, all different ages and colors, all coming forward hungry and expectant, ready to take the Body of Christ into our bodies and into our souls.
            We’ll be spreading the Good News on Friday evening when we take our church into the world, holding a service at McGinley Square, offering the Good News of Jesus – offering Jesus himself - without walls.
            And on Saturday, lots and lots of people will see us marching in the West Indian parade. And I have no doubt that God will use our joyful presence to remind at least some of the hungry people of our city that they can find the good food right here and at Incarnation and Grace Van Vorst.
            Last Saturday afternoon Sue and I and my parents and lots of other happy people attended the wedding of my cousin Danny and his long-time girlfriend, Kristen. It was right over at St. Aedan’s. I was honored that they asked me to be part of the service – and pleasantly surprised that the Catholic priest went along with it (up to a point, of course.) There was real joy at the service and at the party afterwards as these two fine, generous young people – a firefighter and a teacher - made a lifelong commitment of love.
            And then… the next morning we woke up to the horrible news of the shooting of young Officer Melvin Santiago, killed before he knew what him, assassinated by a seemingly out of his mind Lawrence Campbell, just a few blocks from here.
            Not yet.
            The reactions to the bloody deaths of Officer Santiago and Mr. Campbell uncovered and revealed all kinds of ugliness and pain in our city – uncovered and revealed all kinds of ugliness and pain that’s usually ignored by the media and the powers that be but that many of us in this room have to live with everyday.
            The ugliness and pain of young people without hope and opportunity, the often justified mistrust of the police and other authorities, racism and classism, a longstanding lack of leadership, a city more divided than ever into haves and have-nots and never-will-haves, whole neighborhoods mostly unaware of other parts of the city just a mile or two away.
            Not yet.
            On Tuesday the mayor invited the city’s clergy to a meeting to discus the situation. The meeting was at the Bethune Center so I decided I would drive right down MLK Drive to see the situation for myself.
            I’ll admit I was frightened – scared and saddened by the heavily armed officers looking more like the military than cops on the beat. I was frightened by the obviously angry people on every corner, some of whom looked at me in my Honda wearing my clerical collar with undisguised disdain.
            And then I got to the Bethune Center and saw an entire block of TV news vans with reporters already interviewing clergy members and community activists, adding more hot air to keep the fire burning.
            Not yet.
            Like many of you, I’m sure, all of this sadness and fear here in our city, plus what’s going on around the world, and whatever is going on in our own lives, has got me feeling down this week. I’ve been discouraged by so much suffering and pain, by our many problems that seem so big and unsolvable.
            But, like our friend St. Paul, in my heart I really believe that, despite appearances to the contrary, the new age of love and salvation has already begun.
            I’ve mentioned before that for the past five or six weeks, members of the clergy have been praying at places in our city where homicides have occurred. The first couple times there were only a few of us and we were weak and uncertain, careful not offend each other’s traditions and customs.
            But, the past couple of times, our numbers have been growing. Not only is our prayer for the dead and for peace gaining strength and confidence, but a real trust and friendship is growing among us.
            My hope is that we will find ways for not just clergy but all of us to be present in the pain of our city and to groan right alongside our suffering brothers and sisters.
            My prayer is that God will use us – use St. Paul’s and the Episcopal Church in Jersey City - to do what God always does, turn the groans of labor into the joyful shouts of new life.
            I don’t know how exactly that’s going to happen.
            But, with St. Paul, here at St. Paul’s, I know that the new age has begun.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Doom of Independence

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
The Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
July 6, 2014

Year A, Proper 9: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Psalm 45:11-18
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

The Doom of Independence

            I hope you’re having a good Independence Day weekend.
            Thanks to Hurricane Arthur, most of July 4th itself was pretty wet, but nowhere near as bad as it might have been. And then the rest of the weekend has been beautiful.
            This weekend we celebrate independence.
            Of course, July 4th marks the birth of our country when a group of generally wealthy white men formally declared our break from the British mother country.
            Fortunately, in the Declaration of Independence those rich white men used beautiful and lofty language about our natural, God-given, equality and our “inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
            Back in 1776, we had a long, long way to go to make those beautiful and lofty words a reality for all Americans. In the years since, we’ve made some progress thanks to the hard work, courage and sacrifice of many.
            But, we don’t have to look far to know we still have a long way to go.
            So, this weekend, we celebrate our independence from Britain.
            And, maybe less consciously, we celebrate independence itself.
            We deeply value our independence. Maybe too much.
            And, we start valuing our independence at a very early age.
            I’m sure we’ve all witnessed infants throwing tantrums because they can’t get or can’t do what they want – the frustration at not being able to get out of the playpen or the highchair. And, sometimes, I guess the tantrums are just fury at not being in control, rage at not being able to do it on their own.
            As they get older, children are often on the lookout for ways to assert their independence.
            Most of you know that I grew up here in Jersey City, in Country Village to be specific. For grammar school, my sister and I both went to Our Lady of Mercy, which, was our parish church.
            But, when I was ready to start school, OLM hadn’t yet opened their kindergarten. So, I went to PS 30 on Seaview Avenue – not too far from home but as a little kid it felt like a pretty good distance, and it was certainly not in Country Village!
            There was a boy the same age as me, named Michael, who lived across the street. As I remember it, our mothers would take turns walking us or driving us to and from school.
            This must have gone on for months.
            Then, one afternoon, we got out of school. I think it was my mother’s turn to pick us up. There were a lot of parents and other adults waiting, but I didn’t see my Mom.
            But, I probably didn’t look that hard because I had gotten it into my head that Michael and I should just… walk home on our own.
            I easily talked Michael into it and off we went. In my memory, we came out onto Gates Avenue, walked down Gates, across the four lanes of Kennedy Boulevard, to Seaview Avenue, to Romar Avenue, to Neptune Avenue, and then into Country Village and home.
            Independence Day!
            Now, today we live in a much more safety-conscious world so I doubt Michael and I could have gotten to the Boulevard without the crossing guard or somebody asking questions about why these two little boys were walking home alone. But, back then, nobody asked any questions.
            So, what happened?
            I’m not sure about Michael but, of course, I got into big trouble.
            It could have been bigger trouble. I could have been hit by car or abducted or gotten lost.
            But, still, I got into trouble.
            And, that’s what happens.
            Now, don’t get me wrong, some independence is good – eventually I walked back and forth to school on my own - but when we try to be fully independent, when we depend only on ourselves, when we refuse to work together, and most especially, when we try to go it alone without God, we get into trouble.
            St. Paul certainly understood that we get into trouble if we try to go it alone.
            Today we heard one of the best-known passages from Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
            Paul writes, “For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
            Paul is writing in the first person but he’s almost certainly not talking about himself; he had a rather high opinion of his own righteousness.
            It sounds like Paul is writing about those times when we fail to live up to our best intentions. Certainly that happens all too often, but Paul is after something bigger and more important and more frightening.
            Paul argues that even if we do everything we’re supposed to do, even if we do everything right, even if we follow all the rules, even if we cross only at the crosswalk, even if we wait for the green light and the “walk” sign, even if we do everything we’re supposed to do, we’re going to get into trouble.
            If we go it alone, we are doomed.
            Paul argues that we’re doomed because sin is really powerful.
            But, maybe just as important, if we go it alone we’re doomed because we’re not really made to be independent.
            It’s just the opposite, really. We’re meant to depend on each other – to work together, to share each other’s burdens, to hold each other up, to walk together through the streets of life.
            And, most of all, we’re meant to be dependent on God – the God we know in and through Jesus.
            In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is very critical of the people around him, this generation that has rejected both John the Baptist and him. Jesus is especially critical of the so-called “wise and intelligent,” the people most likely to think they can do it alone. It’s a pretty harsh passage, but then Jesus invites everybody, absolutely everybody, especially the weary and the heavy burdened. Which would be just about everybody, I think.
            Jesus uses the image of a yoke, a wooden beam that allows oxen to pull their load – to pull their load together.
            Jesus invites us to give up our independence and take his yoke upon us.
            And, here’s the thing: when we give up our independence and follow Jesus, ironically enough, we become truly free.
            When we give up our independence and follow Jesus we become truly free to live the lives we were made to live, truly free to journey home together – truly free to journey home together joyfully, lovingly, and safely.