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.