Sunday, August 31, 2014

We Can't Afford to Buy Cheap

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 31, 2014

Year A: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Romans 12:19-21
Matthew 16:21-28

We Can’t Afford to Buy Cheap
            “Only a rich man can afford to buy cheap.”
            That’s one of my favorite expressions. I first heard it from a friend who told me that his grandfather liked to say it.
            We can update it to “Only a rich person can afford to buy cheap.”
            And it’s true isn’t it? We’ve all bought cheap to save ourselves a couple of bucks only to end up paying even more when our cheap air conditioner conks out or our cheap shoes give us expensive foot problems or cheap food gives us pricey health issues.
            I was reminded of that expression when I reflected on today’s gospel passage. Once again, Peter is at center stage.
            Oh, Peter, Peter, Peter…
            Things had been going so well.
            In last week’s gospel passage we heard Jesus ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
            And the disciples reported back, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
            And then Jesus asked them another question – THE question: “But who do you say that I am?”
            And, of all people, it was Peter who gives the right answer:
            “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
            The other disciples might have been surprised that Peter answered correctly. But, I bet they were even more surprised when Jesus announced that Peter was to be the rock upon which he would build the church.
            It was a really good day for Peter!
            Now today we pick up right where we left off last week – but what a difference a week, or a few bible verses, can make.
            Jesus is beginning his journey to Jerusalem.
            The tone is now very different.
            The Evangelist Matthew signals this change in tone, writing: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must undergo great suffering…” Jesus begins to show and explain that he will be arrested, be killed, and on the third day would be raised.
            So far, the disciples have been on a wonderful adventure with this amazing Jesus.
            They’ve traveled around with him and tried to figure out the meaning of his parables.
            They’ve looked on in wonder when just a few loaves and a couple of fish somehow feed thousands of people, with plenty of leftovers.
            They’ve been frightened when they saw Jesus walking towards them on the water – and maybe even chuckled as Peter doubted and began to sink into the depths.
            The disciples have come to understand – at least a little - Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, as the Son of God.
            Now, all along the disciples have paid a price for following Jesus. I’m sure there was disapproval from family, friends and neighbors as they went off following this strange teacher from Galilee who proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near.
            But now…now things are about to get serious. And costly.
            Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die – and to rise again.
            This time Peter doesn’t do so well. He doesn’t react well to Jesus’ revelation. He seems to only hear the first part, the part about Jesus’ death.
            We’re told that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him – that’s a strong word, rebuke, isn’t it?
            Peter rebukes the “Messiah, the Son of the living God,” “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
            And then Jesus does some of his own rebuking, hurling some strong language at Peter the rock: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
            The faithfulness of Jesus is going to cost him his life.
            And, Jesus says, our faithfulness to Jesus is going to cost us, too.
            It’s going to cost us to deny ourselves and take up our cross.
            But, Jesus says, the reward is finding true life.
            This is one of those situations when even a rich person can’t afford to buy cheap.
            So, the question for us is: are we willing to pay the cost of following Jesus?
            Certainly Christians around the world are paying the cost aren’t they?
            Just in recent weeks the barbaric terrorist group called ISIS (“The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq”) has been on the warpath slaughtering – sometimes crucifying - Christians and members of other religious minorities who refuse to convert to Islam.
            I’ve been moved and inspired by the courage of Canon Andrew White, Vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, called “The Vicar of Baghdad,” an Englishman who for years has chosen to stay in Iraq, ministering to people of all faiths in that shattered land.
            A few weeks ago Canon White emotionally told the story of how ISIS had brutally killed an infant that he had baptized – a child who had been named Andrew in his honor – a child killed because he was Christian.
            Paying the cost of following Jesus.
            The videotaped beheading of the American photojournalist James Foley horrified our country and much of the world. What you might not have heard was that Foley was a committed Christian, a Roman Catholic educated at Marquette University, a Jesuit college in Milwaukee.
            Growing up in the church and especially at Marquette he learned that being a Christian means living a life of service and not counting the cost.
            It was his faith that led him to become a photojournalist.  James Foley believed that he could help the suffering people in places like Libya, Syria and Iraq, by bringing their stories to the world.
            Paying the cost of following Jesus.
            And far away from news cameras, every day Christians bravely live out their faith and worship in underground churches in some of the least hospitable countries – places like Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea. Every time they gather just to pray they risk arrest… and worse.
            Paying the cost of following Jesus.
            So, what about us? We don’t face the same kinds of dangers as Christians in the Middle East or China, but, do we try to buy our discipleship on the cheap?
            Like Peter do we try to deny that our faith is going to cost us?
            Well, of course, we can only answer that for ourselves.
            But, I see signs of more and more of us willing to pay more of the cost of our faith.
            I see it in more people dragging themselves out of bed to come to church on Sunday.
            I see it in the increased – the truly sacrificial - giving to our church.
            But, I think for most of us, the greatest cost is not getting up early on Sunday or even giving more of our limited resources.
            No, the greatest cost is a living bit more like those Christians in inhospitable lands. The greatest cost is living our faith out there – outside of these beautiful old walls – being Christians out there in the world.
            That takes courage doesn’t it?
            But, as Jesus understood and taught, the rewards are so worth it.
            One example.
            On Friday evening some of us gathered at Journal Square for our third “Church to Go” service. I’ll be honest that I’ve been a little grumpy before these services. I appreciate their value but they are a lot of work to put together. It’s kind of a pain to drag all of our church stuff to some street corner. And there’s the wind and the noise from cars and buses and people. And there’s the danger of bird poop.
            But, most of all, you just never know who you’ll have to deal with. Will there be people hurling insults, mocking us, or, maybe worst of all, simply ignoring us?
            Well, at Friday’s service a number of the local homeless people came over to check us out.
            Sure enough, one guy gravitated over to me.
            And, I’ll admit, I thought, “Here we go…”
            I could smell the booze on his breath and see his unfocused eyes.
            He tried talking to me throughout the service.
            I tried to find the right balance between being kind to him, but not letting him distract me or others.
            At one point he asked me for a Bible. When I told him I didn’t have one with me he was disappointed, saying, “The Bible is our light.”
            And then it came time for communion.
            Rev. Laurie distributed the bread and I offered the glass of consecrated grape juice.
            When I got to him, he was standing reverently, holding up his little wedge of pita bread…with tears streaming down his face.
            Nothing needed to be said.
            As Jesus understood, and as Peter and the other disciples came to understand, as Christians throughout the ages and today around the world understood, there’s a cost to faithfulness – a cost to following the way of Jesus.
            But, the rewards…
            This is one time that none of us can afford to buy cheap.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

God's Team

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 24, 2014

Year A: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

God’s Team

            I know that you’ll find this hard to believe, but when I was a kid I wasn’t very athletic.
            Actually, I’m not very athletic today either, but that’s not important right now.
            When I was a kid, I really liked school, for the most part. But there were a couple of things I wasn’t too crazy about.
            I think I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t like math. I wasn’t good at it. And aside from basic arithmetic, I never really understood what the point of it was. Since math is one of the major subjects, I had to face my dislike and fear and frustration day after day. After a while, I got used to it and only got really worked up when there was a big test.
            The other part of school I didn’t like very much was gym.
            This we only had once a week, I think, so there was plenty of time to work up some real dread of what this week’s gym class would bring.
            It was frustrating not to be particularly coordinated – not to be among the fastest or the strongest.
            But, the worst part of gym class was when the class would be divided into teams to play games that usually seemed to involve hurling large rubber balls at kids on the other team.
            Just like math, what was the point of that, anyway?
            I’m guessing that gym class – if today’s kids have Phys. Ed. at all - is different these days. But, back in the ‘70’s, you know how it went…
            The gym teacher would select two of the kids – in my memory it was always two of the most athletic and strongest kids – to choose who would be on their team.
            Oh, man, how I dreaded this.
            We’d all be lined up and one by one we’d be chosen.
            As each name was called – each time a captain pointed a finger – my stomach would drop just a little lower until finally one of the captains chose me.
            I may be blocking the memory but I don’t think I was usually the last one chosen – there were kids worse than me, believe it or not - but I wasn’t among the first or even in the middle either.
            And then we’d go crazy hurling the big rubber ball at each other.
            And then, never soon enough, the ordeal of gym class would be over for another week.
            Of course, I can’t blame those long-ago team captains for the choices they made. Like anybody else in their position, they wanted to win so they selected the players who seemed most likely to help them enjoy the thrill of victory.
            And, it’s not so different when we grow up, is it?
            Most of us have been on job interviews when we hope that the captain – the boss – will think that we are just what the team – what the company – what the church - needs to achieve success.
            Employers look at our skills and our experience – our track record – and then select the person they think will be best. Sometimes the finger is pointed at us – and sometimes it’s not.
            That’s the way the world works.
            But, that’s not how God works.
            God, who knows us better than anybody – far better than we even know ourselves – always seems to choose the least likely people to do God’s work in the world.
            God’s way is a lot different than the world’s way.
            Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, over and over we’re told that God picks the least likely people to important jobs on God’s “team”.
            In today’s reading from the Book of Exodus we heard the story of the birth of Moses in Egypt.
            We know that a few years down the line God will choose Moses for the incredibly difficult challenge of leading the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and to freedom in the Promised Land.
            Moses really doesn’t want the job, doesn’t think he’s the one who should be chosen. He argues with God that he has a speech impediment – maybe he was a stutterer – surely there’s someone better?
            But, God chooses the unlikely Moses for this most important task.
            And in today’s gospel lesson we heard another story of a very unlikely person chosen for a very important job.
            Peter is one of the most beloved of all the characters in the gospel. We love him so much because most of us can see something of ourselves in him. He’s a worker – a fisherman – who wants to do the right thing but often falls short, makes mistakes, is not as good and faithful as he had wanted to be.
            Sound familiar?
            Just a couple of weeks ago we heard the story of Jesus walking on the water.
            Remember how when Peter realized that it was Jesus, he told Jesus to command him to also walk on the water? Jesus gives the command and Peter comes boldly out of the boat able to take a few steps on the water. But then the wind kicked up and Peter got scared and he began to sink into the depths until Jesus pulled him to safety.
            Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
            If Jesus did things the world’s way, he might have had a competition to see who had the most faith, who could walk on water the longest.
            But, that’s not God’s way.
            And we know that later, during Jesus’ time of greatest need and despair, Peter will cowardly deny that he’s a disciple, will deny even knowing Jesus, not once or twice but three times.
            Peter does much better in today’s gospel passage, confessing that Jesus is “…the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
            But, let’s not give Peter too much credit.
            Jesus says that Peter hasn’t figured this out on his own but has received a revelation from God. But, despite all of his many character flaws, Jesus chooses this most unlikely person, this uneducated, sometimes cowardly, often confused, but mostly well-meaning person, to be the rock, to be the leader, of his team.
            Once again, God didn’t choose the strongest or the smartest person. Instead, God chose a very unlikely, seemingly unqualified person to do God’s work in the world.
            God’s way is not the world’s way.
            So, the good news is that this isn’t gym class. God is not selective. God points at all of us – the athletic and not so athletic, the eloquent and the stutterers - God chooses every single one of us – to be on God’s team.
            God knows us better than we know ourselves – God knows all of our weaknesses, all the mistakes we’ve made, all the stupid things we’ve said and done – and God knows all of our gifts and strengths.
           So, calls us just like God called Moses and Peter to do the important work of loving God and one another, of giving away our lives serving God and our brothers and sisters.
            We’ve all been picked to be on God’s team.
            Thanks be to God.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

True Religion

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 17, 2014

Year A, Proper 15: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 45: 1-15
Psalm 133
Romans: 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: 10-28

True Religion
            One of the developments here at St. Paul’s that makes me happiest is that we are deepening our connections to the surrounding community. We’re meeting more people in the neighborhood. And more people in the neighborhood are noticing us and want to get to know what makes us tick.
            Our neighbors want to know: What’s our faith all about? What do we believe? Why do we give up our valuable time and come here week after week?
            Maybe people ask you questions like that when they find out that you go to St. Paul’s.
            They certainly ask me.
            In fact, over the past few months I’ve had several pretty lengthy conversations with people in the neighborhood sincerely curious about our church, what we believe and how we live out our faith.
            Unfortunately, nearly always these people come to these conversations with very negative views of the church and of the clergy.
            They are what Chris called in his sermon a couple of weeks ago the “nones.” These are people unaffiliated – and usually want to stay unaffiliated - with any organized religion.
            Often these “spiritual but not religious” people assume we’re small-minded, petty and judgmental and, frankly, irrelevant in today’s modern, messed-up world.
            I try to explain and show that not all religious people are judgmental.  I try to explain that we do care about our community and the world. I try to convince them that there’s another way to be religious.
            I try to explain that we genuinely love one another, that we pray for each other especially the sick and the suffering week after week, sometimes for years as we did for our dear brother Ken who was at the top of our prayer list for so long. And we rally around each other, hold up each other up, during times of loss and sadness as we have this past week since Ken died.
            We do this not because we’re some selective club but because we really love one another, just like Jesus told us to.
            What do you think? Am I giving an honest and accurate picture of how we practice our religion here at St. Paul’s? I think so.
            But, it’s a tough sell to people so turned off by the church, by organized religion.
            Today’s gospel passage is a little complicated – there’s a lot going on here - but it gives us a very powerful contrast of two very different ways to be religious.
            On the one hand, we have the Pharisees who are in a dispute with Jesus about religious rules.
            On the other hand, there’s the Canaanite woman who desperately wants Jesus to heal her sick daughter.
            Let’s start with the Pharisees.
            Just like today, back in the first century there was a lot of diversity in Judaism. Then as now there were different Jewish groups that emphasized certain traditions – groups who had their own ideas on how God should be worshiped and obeyed, their own ideas on what it meant to be part of God’s chosen people.
            The Pharisees are the Jewish group that gets the most attention in the gospels. Unfortunately, almost all of that attention is negative.
            That negativity probably reflects real historical tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. And it almost certainly reflects competition between the Pharisees and the first followers of Jesus.
            Probably one of the reasons those first followers of Jesus and the Pharisees competed so fiercely was because in at least some ways they were alike. For example, unlike most Jews, both the Pharisees and the early followers of Jesus believed in life after death.
            The Pharisees also wanted to make everyday life holy. Actually, that sounds like a pretty good thing, right? The Pharisees wanted to make everyday life holy by encouraging everybody to follow traditions that went above and beyond the Law – practices that before had only been required of religious professionals, like the priests.
            Apparently, one of those practices was ritually washing one’s hands before eating.
            In the passage just before what I read today, we’re told that the Pharisees and the scribes ask Jesus why his disciples don’t ritually wash their hands before eating.
            This rather accusatory question gives Jesus the opportunity to talk about true religion.
            Like the prophets before him, Jesus doesn’t criticize the Law and religious practices. But, Jesus insists that following the rules – eating the right foods, washing our hands according to some tradition – is not what’s most important.
            Jesus teaches that what’s most important is what’s going on in our hearts.
            Jesus says, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. Far out of the heart come evil intentions…”
            True religion is all about a loving heart.
            After Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, we’re told he went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon, non-Jewish lands.
            And there – or near there – Jesus encounters one of the most vivid characters in the entire gospel, this unnamed but so loving and so determined Canaanite woman.
            This loving – desperately loving – mother cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”
            But, Jesus – acting very un-Jesus-like – ignores her. And the disciples are just annoyed by her.
            But, she doesn’t give up. She loves her daughter and even though she’s not Jewish she trusts this Jewish holy man – or more than a holy man - named Jesus.
            “Lord, help me.”
            But, Jesus, sounding even less like himself, seems to insult her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
            Insulted by Jesus. That would’ve shut up most of us.
            But, not this woman.
            She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.”
            Jesus finally relents and heals her daughter.
            “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
            It’s quite a story.
            This persistent, loving Canaanite woman – a stranger – a foreigner! – shows that true religion is all about a loving heart.
            We know she loves her daughter – and like every parent here she’d do any thing for her child. But. make no mistake, she’s religious.
            She worships Jesus, calling him “Lord” three times.
            And she has faith in Jesus. In fact, she’s the only person in the gospel who is said to have “great faith.” She’s quite a contrast with Jesus’ own disciples like Peter who over and over reveal they have only little faith.
            This woman trusts that even when Jesus seems to insult her and refuse her plea, ultimately Jesus will offer salvation for daughter and for herself.
            True religion is all about a loving heart.
            So, our neighbors want to know: what kind of religion do we practice here at St. Paul’s?
            Are we like the Pharisees as presented in today’s gospel, quick to judge and too focused on rules and regulations?
            Or are we like the Canaanite woman, loving each other and faithful to Jesus no matter what?
            Do we remember – do we demonstrate to our neighbors and to the world – that true religion is all about a loving heart?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Beat of Love

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

The Funeral of Kenneth Maynard
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Psalm 27
Revelation 7:9-17
John 14:1-6a

The Beat of Love

            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 and through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus shows us the way to God.           
            For two thousand years or so we Christians have reflected on – and sometimes fought about – what exactly is the way of Jesus.
            But, it’s really not so complicated.
            The way of Jesus is love.
            The way of Jesus is to love God and to love one another.
            The way of Jesus is love – not mushy, sentimental love, but sacrifice – love that is revealed in giving away our lives for others.
            Well, we know that Ken Maynard understood that the way is love, don’t we? We know that Ken understood that the way is love because that’s exactly how he lived.
            The beat of Ken’s life was love – this solid guy was a loving son and brother – a loving husband and father and father-in-law – a loving friend and a loving parishioner right here at St. Paul’s.
            I didn’t really know Ken very well until the past few months. The great ordeal of his illness kept him from church for a long time. But, visiting him in hospitals and rehabs and finally at home, it became clear to me that Ken knew that the way is love.
            And it also became clear to me that despite the pain and despite the fact that he certainly didn’t want to die, Ken was at peace.
            He was at peace because he knew that he had lived his life the right way. He knew that he had offered unconditional love to his beloved wife, Althea and to his daughters Velma and Patrice and to his son-in-law, Randolph. And he already loved – and so wanted to meet – his yet to be born granddaughter.
            One time I asked him if he had any unfinished business. He stopped and thought for a moment, looked right at me, shook his head and said, “No.”
            Ken was at peace because knew that he had followed the way.
            The way is love.
            As I got to know Ken, I learned some things I didn’t know.
            For one thing, he was a whole lot cooler than I had thought. I was surprised about the motorcycle – and isn’t that a great picture of Ken smiling on his bike? He had a real passion for motorcycles and cars and even when not feeling well would get really animated talking about them.
            Even in his last weeks he took a keen interest in Patrice’s choice of a new car.
            One time he asked me what I drove. When I told him a Honda Fit, there was… an awkward silence. He was polite about it but was obviously unimpressed.
            And, I also didn’t know about his love of music.
            Ken had no use for today’s pop music and pop musicians who didn’t or couldn’t master the craft and appreciate the art. I can still see and hear him saying the names “Lady Gaga” and “Kanye West” with undisguised disgust.
            But… you could really get him going about jazz.
            He loved playing it and talking about it and listening to it.
            One time near the end when Ken was in that hazy world between life and death, when it wasn’t clear if Ken was aware of his surroundings, Althea spotted Ken tapping his finger, listening and keeping time with Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5.”
            And, you know, in a lot of ways Ken’s life was like jazz.
            The beat of Ken’s life was love.
            And like a jazz musician, he stuck close to his band-mates, to Althea, Velma and Patrice, playing close attention to what they were playing, attentive to subtle changes, inspired by the music of their lives, and together the beautiful and loving Maynard family made joyful music.
            And, man, Ken Maynard improvised.
            Talking with Ken it was clear that he was more than a little surprised at the twists and turns of his life.
            He lived places he never expected to live – a guy from Harlem ends up in Jersey City?! And he worked at jobs he never expected to work.
            Throughout his years, Ken kept his steady beat of love but he improvised all the way, playing tunes he never expected by selling educational materials, by driving a bus, and, finally, making the best of a terrible illness.
            And now Ken’s life with us here has come to an end.
            It’s a real and painful loss.
            We are going to miss him terribly.
            The music of the Maynard family won’t ever sound quite the same.
            But, the music of Ken’s life hasn’t ended.
            Ken is now in the full presence of God, joyfully playing mysterious chords and glorious melodies that not even the great musicians here today can ever begin to imagine.
            And, as we follow Ken’s example and love one another – as we follow Ken’s way and improvise through all of life’s twists and turns, the sweet song of Ken’s life will continue to echo through the years among us, and even among people not yet born.
            So, let’s join Ken and follow the way of Jesus.
            Let’s live like Ken - and keep the beat of love.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Storm Preparation

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
August 10, 2014

Year A, Proper 14: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Psalm 105: 1-6, 16-22, 45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Storm Preparation
            If you’ve been in church during the past few weeks you may remember that we’ve been hearing some of Jesus’ parables – these very short stories that contain profound depths of meaning.
            And then last week we heard one of Jesus’ living parables.
            A huge, hungry crowd had followed Jesus to a deserted place. At first Jesus’ disciples try to pass the buck but Jesus tells them that they are to feed the hungry crowd. All they have is a meager five loaves and two fish.
            Yet, everyone is fed. And there were even leftovers!
            The kingdom of God is like a banquet where the little we have to bring turns out to be more than enough.
            And now today we pick up right where we left off last week in the Gospel of Matthew.
            After feeding the crowd, Jesus dismisses the disciples who head across the sea in their boat. Meanwhile Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.
            Finally some alone time!
            Meanwhile, the boat holding the disciples gets “battered by the waves, was far from the shore, for the wind was against them.”
            The disciples are caught in a bad storm.
            And then they see Jesus walking on the water and they were terrified. After Jesus reassures them, Peter asks Jesus to command him to also walk on the water. Which he’s able to do… until he grows frightened by the wind and begins to sink.
            Jesus saves Peter and chastises him for being of little faith, for doubting.
            In his very fine sermon last week, Chris mentioned at first being underwhelmed by some of Jesus’ miracles which seem more like stunts: changing water into wine at a wedding, multiplying bread and fish, and, I bet, he’s add walking on water to that category.
            But, of course, as Chris noted, these aren’t stunts at all. Instead they are powerful symbolic acts.
            The disciples are far from the safety of the shore and are caught in rough seas.
            We know all about rough seas – we know all about bad storms, don’t we?
            In recent years, we’ve watched a great American city get submerged by Hurricane Katrina. We’ve been shocked by the loss of life and angered as the rising waters revealed who matters in our society and who is considered expendable.
            And closer to home, we’ve faced two major hurricanes.
            I was actually between jobs when Hurricane Irene hit. Sue and I were renting an apartment in downtown Jersey City for a few months. I remember the sense of dread as it became clear this was going to be a bad storm. We decided to stay downtown though I moved my car up to the higher ground of St. Paul’s just in case.
            I remember barely sleeping that night as the winds and the rain hit. And then I got up early went downstairs and peered into the basement only to see rising water making its way up the stairs.
            Very scary.
            And, of course, we all have vivid memories of Hurricane Sandy – the property damage, the loss of power, but also neighbors banding together in a time of disaster.
            Yes, we’ve experienced meteorological storms abut we’ve also all endured storms in our own lives, too.
            Some of us are in the middle of a storm right now.
            We’ve faced the storms of illness – our own health scares and the sicknesses of those we love.
            We’ve faced financial storms – the times when we are in danger of drowning in a sea of bills and past due notices – the times when we might – or even do – lose our homes, our businesses, our possessions.
            We’ve faced family and relationship storms, too – probably not as bad as what went on Jacob’s family that we heard about in today’s Old Testament lesson, but still bad enough: family members who are feuding and no longer are on speaking terms – betrayals and disappointments – broken relationships and shattered families.
            We know all about storms. They are, unfortunately, an inevitable part of our lives.
            As a priest it’s my privilege to often be with people in the midst of storms, those times when the waves get rough and the wind is blowing against us.
            Everybody responds differently to these storms but really there are two groups of people. Some people are prepared for the storm and others are not.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we know that Peter and some of the other disciples were fishermen so presumably they knew all about storms are were at least somewhat prepared.
            But, they were prepared in another way, too.
            They knew Jesus.
            Yes, when they first see a man – or it must be a ghost - walking on the water they are frightened, as anyone would be, but then they hear his voice,
            “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
            Peter knows Jesus. He knows that voice. And so Peter takes those few hesitant steps out onto the water. And when he fears, when he doubts and begins to sink, Jesus is there to catch him, to hold on to him, to bring him to safety.
            You all know that I encourage everybody to come to church – to come to church not just once in a while but as often as possible. That’s why we offer all of these services, to create as many ways into the church as we can.
            Of course, I encourage people to come to church because it’s part of my job.
            And I want the church to grow and be as healthy as it can be.
            But, I also know, as somebody said to me recently, “this works.”
            This works.
            Coming to church week after week and hearing these old stories, singing our songs, reaching out offering peace to one another, taking the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and hearts, enjoying each other’s company in coffee hour, being involved in our ministries outside of church, you know what all of that is?
            It’s the spiritual equivalent of storing up on bottled water, canned food and batteries.
            Being here and serving out there is storm preparation.
            Storm preparation doesn’t make us perfect or fearless but it does help us to know the voice of Jesus.
            Peter was sinking and terrified. You know, in their panic, drowning people sometimes reject and even fight off rescuers.  
            But, not Peter.
            Peter was far from perfect. Peter had only little faith.  Peter doubted. But, Peter knew Jesus – he knew that voice - and was saved from the depths.
            When you and I are right here – when we do the ministries we do – we also get to know Jesus. We also get to know his voice.
             And since we’ve prepared, when the waves get rough and the wind blows against us, we will know the voice of Jesus.
            And when we’re sinking into the depths, we, though of little faith and much doubt, can accept Jesus’ love and hold tight to his saving hand.
            We are here for storm preparation.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Two Banquets

Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
August 3, 2014

Year A, Proper 13: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7, 16
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14: 13-21

Two Banquets
            If you’ve been in church the past few Sundays, you may remember that we’ve been making our way through a collection of Jesus’ parables in the 13th Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
            Jesus was a master teacher – the master teacher - who used parables to teach his lessons – to get his message across – both to his own disciples and the crowds who followed him looking for healing and other miracles.
            Jesus uses his parables to point us towards the very hard to describe kingdom of God. (Or, as Matthew prefers to call it, “the kingdom of heaven”.)
            We can’t quite absorb what the kingdom of God is. So, Jesus uses his parables to help us get a taste of God’s kingdom – not just heaven where we’ll go after we die – but God’s kingdom here and now – the earth transformed into what God has always dreamed it could be.
            Jesus uses his parables to help us get a taste of God’s kingdom where we are transformed into what God has always dreamed we could be.
            Parables are hard to define, but they are essentially very short stories with multiple meanings. In fact, the more we reflect on Jesus’ parables, the more meanings, the more meaning, we will discover.
            So, using his parables, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is like a farmer sowing seeds all over the place – on good soil and not so good.
            The kingdom of God is like a field where the wheat and the weeds grow up together but eventually the weeds are gathered up and burned.
            The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed or like yeast – it starts small but then grows into something big and amazing.
            The kingdom of God is so precious it’s like a merchant in search of fine pearls who sells all that he has for one pearl of great value.
            And now today we move from the thirteenth into the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. We move from parables to a living parable.
            Today we heard the story of one of Jesus’ most amazing miracles: the feeding of the multitudes.
            Like all the best teachers, Jesus doesn’t just tell us. Jesus shows us.
            In the feeding of the multitudes, we get a taste of the kingdom of God.
            Although Jesus withdraws to a “deserted place,” the crowds keep following Jesus. They’re hungry for healing, hungry for teaching, hungry for hope, hungry for God’s love.
            And, they’re also just plain hungry.
            One of my favorite parts of the story is how the disciples try to pass the buck. It’s not their problem that all these people have followed Jesus to the deserted place. It’s not their problem that these people didn’t plan ahead – that they didn’t bring enough food.
            Jesus doesn’t put up with the passing of the buck, though. He tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”
            So, they gather up what they have, which isn’t much, just five loaves and two fish.
            And yet, with Jesus, not much turns out to be more than enough. We’re told that those five loaves feed about five thousand men, plus women and children.
            In the feeding of the multitudes Jesus offers us a living parable.
            The kingdom of God is like a banquet where we bring the little we have and there’s more than enough for everyone.
            Not surprisingly, this story must have made quite an impression on the disciples and the others who were there. The miraculous aspect is amazing, of course. The taste of the kingdom of God is beautiful, too. And, the early Christians picked up on the foreshadowing of the Last Supper and the sacred meal that we will share right here in a few minutes.
            The feeding of the multitudes made such a big impression that, in fact, it’s the only miracle story found in all four gospels.
            But, Matthew, whose version we heard today, does something unique with the story.
            He places it right after the story of another, very different kind of banquet.
            Just before Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ miraculous feeding, he tells the story of a royal birthday party. The birthday boy was Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great. You may remember that Herod abandoned his wife to marry Herodias, who was his brother’s wife. A lot of people criticized him for this, including John the Baptist.
            Anyway, Herod celebrated his birthday with a big bash. You’ll remember the daughter of Herodias (elsewhere called Salome) danced for the king. It must have been quite a dance, because Herod swears he’ll give the girl anything she wants.
            It’s good to be the king, right?
            Or maybe not.
            The girl’s mother tells the to tell the king, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
            After Jesus learns about John’s beheading, he withdraws to the deserted place. We can imagine that he wants to grieve and to pray. And maybe Jesus was frightened for his own safety.
            But it’s there in the deserted place that Jesus offers a very different kind of banquet.
            Two banquets.
            Herod’s banquet was lavish and filled with hatred and death.
            Jesus’ banquet was simple but filled with love and life.
            So, here’s the question for all of us: which kind of banquet do we want to attend?
            Around the world and closer to home there are plenty of banquets filled with hatred and death.
            We’ve all seen on the news how the Israelis and Palestinians continue their dance of death, both sides shedding innocent blood day after day.
            But we don’t have to look that far to find a banquet of hatred and death.
            We all know about and many of us have been effected by the violence and despair in our own community - right here in Jersey City. I attended a community meeting last week where people of color were understandably angry about how they’ve been treated and are still treated by the police and others in authority. And others pointed out that we are in danger of losing most of another generation to despair, to crime, to drugs, to the street, to long jail sentences and to early death.
            And then there’s the humanitarian disaster unfolding at our southern border as tens of thousands of children flee the violence and lack of opportunity – flee the banquets of death - in places like Honduras and Nicaragua. These children come here desperate to reach the relative peace and prosperity of the United States.
            These children arrive here only to be greeted by angry Americans, screaming hatred and fear, holding signs with slogans like, “Not my kid. Not my problem.”
            Herod’s banquet of hatred and death is still going strong, here and all around the world.
            But, Jesus’ banquet of love and life is also still underway. Frankly, it’s a much better party. And, despite the odds, it’s growing.
            Jesus told the disciples – tells us, “You give them something to eat.”
            And when we give them something to eat, sure enough, we get a taste of the kingdom of God.
            And so, the kingdom of God is like the monthly community meal at Incarnation where absolutely everybody is welcome.
            The kingdom of God is like Garden State Episcopal’s emergency food pantry right here downstairs in your parish hall, feeding the hungry and offering hope and love.
            The kingdom of God is like the three Episcopal churches taking the risk of going out to street corners and marching in parades, feeding people the Good News through our obvious and overflowing joy.
            And Jesus’ banquet is still underway all around the world.
            You may know that, like us, many European countries have struggled with immigration in recent years. It’s been difficult for many of them to welcome people who look and sound so different, who come from very different places with very different cultures.
            One of the countries that has struggled with newcomers is Sweden.
            This past week the New York Times ran an amazing story about Ebba Akerman, a young woman who teaches Swedish to immigrants in her country. Through her teaching, she discovered that these immigrants had little to no contact with Swedes.
            Then she came up with a very Jesus-like plan to try to change that. She calls herself the minister of dinners in the Department of Invitations.  What does she do? She hosts dinners and invites Swedes and immigrants to come and break bread together to get to know each other at least a little, to begin bridging the cultural gap and start to discover a common humanity.
            It’s not easy work and sometimes things go wrong but I’d say those meals – like Jesus’ banquet long ago - offer a taste of the kingdom of God.
            In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus offers us a living parable. The kingdom of God is like a meal where all are welcome, a meal where the little we have to offer is more than enough.
            You and I live out this parable each time we reject Herod’s banquet of hate and death.
            You and I are invited to live out this parable right now when we gather at Jesus’ banquet of love and life…and get a taste of the kingdom of God.