Sunday, September 28, 2014


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 28, 2014

Year A, Proper 21: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

            If you’ve been in church these past few Sundays, you may remember that we’ve been making our way through the Gospel of Matthew, hearing Jesus teach about how we are called to forgive and forgive again, and hearing Jesus teach about God’s overflowing – and even downright unfair – generosity.
            At the same time, the way Matthew tells the story, Jesus has been journeying to Jerusalem where he knows and we know - and the disciples are starting to know - that he will face rejection, arrest and death.
            Now, in today’s gospel lesson we’ve skipped ahead a bit.
            Jesus is in Jerusalem.
            And his arrival in the capital city has made a quite an impression.
            He was greeted by a parade – a celebration we reenact every Palm Sunday.
            We’re told a large crowd welcomed this unexpected king from Galilee, laying their cloaks on the road and waving palms as he passed, shouting,
            “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
            As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus then goes to the Temple – the center of Jewish religious life – and “drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”
            Probably more than anything else he did, this bold attack at the religious establishment is what ultimately gets Jesus arrested and killed.
            But, wait, there’s more!
            We’re told that – in the Temple - Jesus heals the blind and the lame.
            And, finally, in a frightening display of power, we’re told that when Jesus finds a fig tree without fruit, he curses the tree saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!”
            “And the fig tree withered at once.”
            Which brings us to today’s exchange between Jesus and the chief priests and the elders.
            The religious leaders want to know where – or from whom - Jesus is getting the power and authority to do these amazing things.
            Now, to me, this sounds like a legitimate question.
            If someone here at St. Paul’s started performing miracles – as the local religious leader I would want to know what’s going on. Why are you doing these things? Where – or from whom - is your power coming from?
            But, Jesus thinks – or knows – that the religious leaders are insincere in asking these questions.
            So, in response Jesus brings up a sore subject: John the Baptist.
            John is a sore subject because he had been really popular with the people but not so much with the religious establishment. You’ll remember that John had very little use for “holy” men in their long and flowing robes.
            So, Jesus reopens an old wound asking these holy men, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?”
            They are reluctant to give John too much credit but also don’t want the crowd to turn against them in favor of the still-revered John. In the end, the holy men can only answer, “We do not know.”
            And Jesus refuses to answer their question about the source of his authority.
            Instead, Jesus offers a parable about two sons.
            The one son refuses to work, saying “I will not,” but later changes his mind and gets to work.
            The second son tells his father what he wants to hear, “I go, sir,” but then takes the day off.
            Obviously, Jesus is condemning the religious people who say all the right things, who say “I go, sir” but then refuse to do God’s work.
            So, I wonder, who are we in this parable?
            Who are we in this parable?

            One of the sometimes fun, sometimes quite challenging, parts of my job is that people ask me a lot of questions.
            When I was in seminary we were warned to be ready for the “Coffee Hour Question.” You know, you’re chatting away, nibbling on a donut, when somebody sidles up to you and asks a tough and complicated question like, “Why does a good and loving God allow so much suffering in the world?”
            Other people can just shrug and throw up their hands and walk away. But, as religious professionals we are expected to offer some kind of an answer.
            By the way, we don’t have time to talk about that today!
            And sometimes I do get questions like that – and I’m more or less prepared to take a stab at answering them.
            Other times I get questions out of the blue that just make me sad.
            For example, one time out in Madison I was at a meeting of local community leaders who were concerned about substance abuse.  I was the clergy representative.
            Anyway, after this particular meeting a woman approached me sheepishly and said, “Can I ask you a question?
            “Sure,” I said.
            She asked, “Does your church…help people?”
            I was so startled by the question, I stammered a little, “Well, yes, of course…I mean, sure we help people.”
            Later I found out that she had approached other churches and had discovered, at least in this case, that they didn’t – they refused to - help people.
            These churches “talked” but didn’t actually “do”.
            What a question! “Does your church help people?”
            And here’s another one.
            Some of you know that for a year I was the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Florida. One time I answered the phone and heard a very hesitant voice on the other side.
            In fits and starts he began to tell me a little bit of his story. Eventually I understood the main issue was that he was gay and he was a Mormon. I said, something like “OK” and “uh-huh.”
            And then he got to the heart of the matter and asked his question: “So, I guess what I want to know is, would I be welcome at your chapel?”
            Again, I was startled and saddened by the question.
            “Yes, of course!” I said. I’m not sure he really believed me. But, he came to check out one of our services and, in fact, he became a pretty regular member of our little university congregation.
            But, obviously, he asked that question because he had experienced rejection elsewhere. He wanted to know if we were real when we said, “All are welcome.”
            Some churches “talk” but don’t actually “do.”
            So, I wonder again, who are we in today’s parable?
            Are we the church that says we help people but when the time comes we fail to step up?
            Are we the church that says “All are welcome” but actually we aren’t so welcoming to some people – to strangers, to people who seem different, to people we may not like for whatever reason?
            Or are we the church that maybe is at first a little reluctant to help – we’re all busy and stressed out by our lives, after all – but we come through in the end?
            Are we the church that is tempted to just stick with the people we know and like but pushes itself to welcome absolutely everybody?
            We have the flowing robes, the beautiful temple, and all the right words.
            But, who are we in today’s parable?
            People out there, people all around us, are asking questions…

Sunday, September 21, 2014

How Much is Enough?

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 21, 2014

Year A, Proper 20: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

How Much is Enough?

            As a species we seem to have a hard time recognizing how much is enough.
            There are, of course, people here in Jersey City and right here at St. Paul’s who don’t have enough – not enough work, not enough money to pay the bills, and certainly not enough to save for the future.
             And, of course, there are many millions around the world who have nowhere near enough – people who struggle to survive on a dollar or even less a day.
            But, here in rich America, often we really do have a hard time figuring out how much is enough. And big business and the media have no interest in helping us to decide how much is enough.
            Just the opposite; they preach more, more, more…
            So, generally, we eat and drink too much.
            We buy too much stuff – there for a while one of our few growth industries was storage unit facilities, built to hold all the stuff we couldn’t fit into our apartments or houses.
            There are more hoarders out there – and for all I know, in here – than we’d ever imagine – people who fill up every available square foot with more and more stuff – stuff that’s often junk and maybe even literally garbage but for the hoarder there’s just never enough.
            Because of intense economic pressure, many of us work way too much – way more than people in other countries like ours. We leave so little time for family and friends, for rest, and for God.
            Our inability to figure out how much is enough is having devastating effects on the planet, as we burn through natural resources at an alarming rate, leaving little for other creatures, and leaving a bleak future for future generations.
            On Friday night I flew back home after a funeral in Florida. It was a clear night and so pretty much the whole way home from northern Florida to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Newark I could see the sparkling lights of humanity sprawling over what looked like almost every square foot.
            How much is enough?
            Well, if it makes us feel any better, this is not a new problem.
            We see it right in the beginning of the story of God and us, when Adam and Eve are given paradise. In the creation story, God gives the first man and woman a beautiful garden where together they can enjoy an endless number of delights for all eternity.
            But, as the insightful creators of this story recognized, even paradise would not be enough for us.
            Adam and Eve wanted more than that so they eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and get themselves cast out of Eden but, fortunately, they are never exiled from God’s love.
            How much is enough?
            As we heard in today’s lesson from the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel had a hard time figuring out how much is enough.
            Last week we heard the story of how the Israelites miraculously escaped from the Egyptian army. Thanks to God, Moses was able to part the sea allowing the Israelites to escape and leaving the Egyptian soldiers to a watery grave.
            Pretty amazing.
            In today’s reading we pick up one month later and the Israelite attitude towards Moses and his brother Aaron – and really their attitude towards God – might be described as, “What have you done for us lately?”
            The Israelites are already nostalgic for the “good old days” back in Egypt.
            They moan, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
            Now, don’t get me wrong. Their hunger is real. A month in the desert is no joke.
            So, we’re told that the Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”
            First, quails appeared and covered the camp.
            This is actually something that happens to this day. These little birds migrate from Africa to Europe they fly over the Sinai desert and sometimes drop dead to the ground from exhaustion.
            And then in the morning we’re told there was a layer of dew around the camp that left a fine, flaky substance.
            We have a good idea what this was too – to this day desert insects ingest tree sap and then excrete it onto tree branches where it crystallizes and falls to the ground.
            A little disgusting, I’ll admit. But, Nomads use it even today as a sweetener.
            They call it, you guessed it, manna.
            That’s all very interesting, but God uses the manna to teach the Israelites – and to teach us – an important lesson about enough.
            The people are commanded to gather only enough manna for that day – about two quarts. They are required to trust that God will provide more manna tomorrow.
            Except on the sixth day, when they will gather enough for that day and for the next, the Sabbath, the day of rest.
            And then we get to hear Jesus on the subject of how much is enough.
            The challenging – maybe even infuriating - parable that we heard today comes a little after a section of the gospel when a rich young man asks Jesus what must he do to have eternal life. He says that he’s already followed the Law to the letter – but what else must he do?
            So Jesus tells him that if he wants to be perfect he should sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus.
            The rich young man can’t do it. Apparently he thinks that if he gave everything away to follow Jesus he wouldn’t have enough.
            In today’s parable the landowner pays all the workers the same amount – those who worked all day and those who just started at 5:00PM.
            Then as now, this parable insults our sense of fairness.
            We would all flip out if we found out that coworkers who worked a lot less than we did were making the same amount of money as we were.
            Maybe you’ve had that experience. Infuriating. Insulting. Hurtful.
            Time to start looking for a new job.
            But, this challenging parable is not about our sense of fairness but instead it’s about God’s overflowing generosity.
            Just as the Israelites received enough manna every day during those long years in the desert, God also gives us – all of us – enough.
            Except, just like Adam and Eve, we keep messing things up.
            We mess up paradise so that some get way more than enough and many more get nowhere near enough.
            We mess up paradise, clinging to our stuff, preventing us from accepting God’s gift of true life.
            We mess up paradise, poisoning the earth, risking a permanent and all too real exile from the kind of life we experience today.
            God keeps teaching us lessons about how much is enough.
            It’s past time for us to start listening and to change our ways.
            Enough is really enough.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

We are Supposed to Be Different

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
September 14, 2014

Year A, Proper 19: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

We are Supposed to be Different

            I haven’t said much about this lately, but one of the things that makes me happiest at St. Paul’s is that, thanks to hard work of some very faithful people, we’ve managed to maintain our schedule of weekday worship now for more than a year.
            Week in and week out we gather for Evening Prayer on Tuesday, Healing Eucharist on Wednesday morning, and Morning Prayer on Thursday.
            For the past six months or so a few of us have been heading up to Christ Hospital on Thursday afternoons.
            Plus, we’ve had a service on each of the major feasts – as we will on Monday for Holy Cross Day.
            I love weekday worship because it symbolizes the fact that we’re Christians all the time – not just on Sundays.
            As we gather week in and week out we bathe this beautiful old room in prayer – prayer for all those on our prayer list – prayer for our broken world – and prayer for intentions known only by God and us.
            And, at least some of the weekday services give me the chance to just sit in the pew – to just go to church, thank you very much.
            Finally, the weekday services give us the chance to get to know some of the holy women and holy men of the past who we honor in our church calendar.
            Sometimes I know very little about these holy people myself – so I need to do some research before I give a homily. I think of it as part of my “continuing education.”
            Other times, I know their story pretty well.
            For example, this past Wednesday we honored a man named Alexander Crummell.
            Crummell was born in New York City in 1819 to a free black woman and a former slave who were both active in the abolitionist movement.
            He was bright and received a good education – a good education that was interrupted when a mob destroyed the school he was attending in New Hampshire. As you might have guessed, the mob was unhappy about the presence of black students in that school.
            Crummell felt called to Holy Orders and applied to General Seminary in New York. He was denied admission – because he was black.
            He was eventually ordained in Massachusetts in 1842 and then applied for work in Philadelphia. The bishop of Pennsylvania was willing to  allow him to serve there on the condition that he – and any black congregation – would not be allowed to sit in diocesan convention.
            Alexander Crummell rejected those conditions and left for England where he’s believed to be the first black man to earn a degree from Cambridge.
            He was one of the early believers in Pan-Africanism, the idea that Africans in Africa and among the diaspora in the Americas needed to work together. He put Pan-Africanism into practice, going to Liberia where he helped the growth of the Episcopal Church.
            Finally, he returned and served in Washington DC where he founded the first independent black Episcopal church in our capital city.
            Alexander Crummell lived a remarkable and inspiring life. He must have known a lot about the difficulty – the cost – of forgiveness.
            Crummell’s life was made so much harder by vicious racism, especially racism in the church.
            Racism in the church will come as no surprise to most of us here.           
            Right here, as you know – the Church of the Incarnation exists because, to our shame, in the past people of color were not welcome in the other Episcopal churches of Jersey City.
            We might try to excuse that ugly behavior by saying, well, that’s how it was in those days. Everybody was racist. They didn’t know any better. They were just like everybody else.
            But, here’s my point in telling you all of this: We are supposed to be different!
            We Christians are supposed to be different from the rest of the world. If our values are the same as everybody else’s then we should really close up shop - sell our buildings and all of our stuff and spend our Sundays just like everybody else - in the park or in bed or at the mall or doing our chores or whatever.
            We are supposed to be different!
            And one of the big ways we’re supposed to be different is we are called to be forgiving people.
            If you were here last week you’ll remember that in the lesson from the Gospel of Matthew we heard Jesus give very specific instructions on what we should do if a member of the church sins against us.
            And the answer was – keep reaching out to them, over and over again.
            Very different from the world – where let’s face it, forgiveness is hard to come by and second, third, hundredth chances are almost unheard of.
            Evidently, our old friend Peter can’t believe Jesus is serious about all this forgiveness business.
            Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
            Seven times of forgiveness is a lot.
            But Jesus requires even more of us – seventy-seven times worth of forgiveness. Or maybe seventy times seven times worth of forgiveness.
            Jesus calls us to offer infinite forgiveness.
            The world is slow to forgive and quick to hold a grudge.
            We are supposed to be different.
            Which is awfully hard, isn’t it?
            So, why are we called to be forgiving people?
            Well, today Jesus offers a parable that is kind of like a commentary on one of the more challenging parts of the Lord’s Prayer where we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
            In the parable, Jesus tells the story of a king who forgave the debt of one of his slaves. We’re told the slave owed the king ten thousand talents – an impossibly huge debt – like us owing someone a billion dollars today. There is no way that the slave could ever, ever pay back the king even if he was sold along with his wife and children and all his possessions.
            And yet the king forgives this astronomical debt.
            God forgives. Not just once or twice or seven or seventy times seven times, but God forgives forever.
            One of the worst, most inaccurate, images we have of God is the old man with the long flowing beard watching our every move and marking down in his heavenly ledger every time we mess up.  
            We have this idea that when we die we’ll have to face that long, horrifying list of mistakes and sins.
            But, Jesus is clear that God is willing to forgive it all.
            Unless…we refuse to forgive others.
            God is a forgiving God.
            And we are called to be forgiving people.
            Out there, the world is slow to forgive and quick to hold a grudge.
            But, we Christians are supposed to be different.
            It must have been very hard for Alexander Crummell to offer forgiveness to the many people in the church who wronged him.
            And it’s hard for us to offer forgiveness to people when they wrong us, too.
            But, we are supposed to be different.
            We are called to be forgiving people.
            So, today let’s really ask God to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Back to School

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 7, 2014

Year A, Proper 18: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Back to School
            Well, it’s back to school time.
            I guess by now every teacher and kid has been back in the classroom. For some this is exciting. For others it’s depressing to say good-bye to summer. I’d guess for most it’s somewhere in-between.
            We’ll mark the start of the school year in a little while with our second annual blessing of the backpacks.
            Back to school.
            Most of you know that before I got into the priest business, I was a teacher.
            Over the years I taught all different levels from grammar school to college and lots of different subjects though mostly high school history.
            It’s been ten years since I left the classroom.
            Sometimes it feels that long – or even longer. Other times it feels like I just wiped the chalk dust off my fingers or went looking for another red pen so I could correct student essays.
            Thanks especially to facebook, I’ve been able to keep up with a lot of former students. It’s fun – and sometimes frightening – to see them more than grown up, out making lives for themselves, now sending their own kids to school.
            And sometimes it’s sad when I learn how a former student’s life has gone off the rails. And a few of them have even died, which is always hard to accept.
            Especially being back in Jersey City, every once in a while I’ll run into a former student.
            This happened on Friday night when I was down at the Park Tavern supporting Ace Case and his JC Friday gig.
            This familiar-looking twenty-something guy came over to me and said, “Are you Mr. Murphy?”
            I said, “I used to be…”
            We laughed and spent a few minutes catching up on our lives.
            This time of year I think back a lot to those days.
            And sometimes, especially this time of year, people will ask me if I miss teaching.
            And, I do, at least sometimes.
            I miss the company of lots of people, especially colleagues. I miss the excitement when I would see the proverbial light-bulb go off when a student learned something new, or had his or her assumptions challenged.
            And, I’ll admit, I do miss the clear lines of authority in the classroom.
            I was the teacher. They were the students.
            In my very early days as a teacher I used to yell a lot. I used to yell because I was young and insecure, not really sure how to teach, and not really sure how to manage a classroom.
            And sometimes I got so mad that I’d throw kids out of my class.
            I guess all that yelling and throwing out made me feel better for a few minutes, but it was not a very effective way to teach – and it was a terrible way to build relationships with my students, to forge a community in my classroom.
            With time and experience I realized the key to teaching was to somehow let my students know that I genuinely cared about their learning – about their future – cared about them – loved them.
            Often I did that through humor.
            Sometimes it was developing a sense when something was wrong in a kid’s life and quietly reaching out.
            But, once my classes knew that I genuinely cared about them, that I loved them, I found there was rarely any need to yell.
            Unfortunately, things are a little more complicated outside the classroom, out in the world – at work or at home – and, yes, even in the church.
            The lines of authority aren’t quite as clear as they are in the classroom.
            But, the same principle applies: love has to be our foundation.
            Which brings us to today’s lessons.
            I haven’t always preached on them but each Sunday we’ve been hearing excerpts from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Most scholars think that that this letter was written towards the end of Paul’s life, after years of preaching and teaching – after years of reflecting on the Good News of Jesus Christ.
            And what Paul has come to understand is that love has to be our foundation.
            In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
            But, even if love is our foundation…there will still be conflicts, even in – maybe especially in – the church.
            We’re a pretty happy bunch here at St. Paul’s, but obviously sometimes we hurt each other – usually unintentionally but since we’re humans I’m sure occasionally we hurt each other on purpose with an unkind comment or somehow pushing others out of our way for what we want.
            Maybe we hurt each other by failing to express gratitude.
            Maybe we hurt each other by judging based on looks or age or even, God help us, race or nationality.
            We might think that these kinds of hurts – this kind of sin – wasn’t a problem in the early church.
            And we’d be wrong.
            We know we’d be wrong because we have plenty of evidence that there were strong disagreements – even fights – in the early church about all sorts of things that maybe don’t seems so important to us but were a big deal at the time.
            And we know for sure that the very earliest Christians hurt each other – sinned against each other – because of the gospel passage we heard today.
            In fact, the Evangelist Matthew tells us that Jesus gave very specific instructions on how we should handle conflict – how we should deal with sin – in the church.
            Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”
            A private discussion. If the other listens to you, then we’re done and everything’s fine. But, if not then Jesus says step two is to bring one or two witnesses to confirm your grievance.
            And, if that doesn’t work then tell it to the whole church. And if the offender still doesn’t listen and change his or her ways, Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
            Which sounds like we’re done, doesn’t it?
            The offender is gone – cast out – “thrown out of class” for good.
            Except that’s not God’s way – that’s not the way of Jesus.
            Love is the foundation.
            God loves us and never gives up on us and never casts us out – no matter what we do or don’t do.
            God doesn’t throw us out of the classroom.
            Only we can cast ourselves out.
            So, when Jesus says that the offender should be as “a Gentile or tax collector” that means the offender is exactly the kind of person Jesus reached out to and hung out with – the offender is the kind of person we as Christians must continue to reach out to, over and over and over again – never giving up no matter how long it takes.
            And just in case we miss that point, in the very next section of the gospel, which we will hear in church next Sunday, Matthew gives us this:
            Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
            And Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you seventy-seven times.”
            Seventy-seven times of forgiveness is a lot of forgiveness but Jesus really means even more than that - infinite forgiveness.
            Because love is our foundation we are called to offer infinite forgiveness, no matter what.
            God doesn’t throw anyone out of the classroom.
            And, neither should we.
            It’s very difficult – it’s much easier to yell and to throw people out of our church, to throw people out of our lives.
            It’s very difficult to love and forgive no matter what. In fact, it’s so hard that we need to learn it over and over in throughout our lives.
            So, let’s all head back to school and learn and re-learn the way of Jesus.
            Let’s go back to school and learn again that love is the foundation.