Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Essential Thing is Love

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen Jersey City NJ
October 26, 2014

Year A, Proper 25: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

The Essential Thing is Love
            As most of you know, before I got into the priest business I was a teacher. It was a job I loved very much and, in some ways, I still miss teaching a lot.
            Lately I’ve been thinking about my teaching days more than usual because of my role in A Legend of Communipaw where I play me – or the old me: “Mr. Murphy” who in the play tries to teach his mixed-grade class about the history of the Dutch in New Jersey.
            I may be out of the teaching biz but because I have a bunch of teachers in my family and among my friends, and because it’s an important issue for all of us, I try to keep up on issues in education.
            I’ve been looking at who’s running in our Board of Education election next week. And I’ve also been following a little the debates and controversies around the Common Core standards – the controversial attempt to set national standards for what our kids are able to do – standards for what they should know.
            Whatever you might think of Common Core, it’s an attempt to answer one of the oldest and most vexing questions in education: what is essential?
            I thought about that question a lot as a history teacher – especially after a few years when I realized that although we covered a whole lot of material in class, kids seemed to usually only remember my goofy jokes.
            So, in later years I focused on a few key themes, looking at various events as examples of those themes at work rather than as just isolated events.
            To be honest, I’m not sure if that approach worked any better.
            What is essential?
            Of course, it’s not only in school that we ask that question.
            I bet many of us ask that question all the time when we’re at work. What is essential for me to get done today? And what can wait for tomorrow or next week?
            And I’m sure we ask that question at home, too.
            What is essential for me to get done in the house before I go to sleep tonight?
            Parents have to always ask what is essential for their children: dinner, homework, bath, brushed teeth, a good night’s sleep, and on and on.
            What is essential?
            We ask that question here at church, too, as we make decisions about how we spend our limited resources – your pledges and the gifts of people who have come before us - to build God’s kingdom in this place.
            What is essential?
            And, of course, we ask that question when it comes to our faith. And, I’d guess, it’s a question asked by people of every faith.
            What is essential?
            Over the centuries, lots of Christians have taken a crack at figuring out what is essential for us Christians.
            In just a little while we will stand and say the Nicene Creed, developed by bishops back in the 4th Century after a messy, rather political process, to answer the question: what is essential for Christians?
            The answer they came up with was that it is essential to believe certain statements about God and the church.
            For the past few weeks some of us have been reading Being Christian by Rowan Williams. What is essential? In his book Williams says that the essentials are Baptism, the Bible, Eucharist and prayer. It’s a fine book and a pretty good list.
            What is essential?
            Well, in today’s gospel passage, we get to hear Jesus’ answer to this question.
            Jesus is in Jerusalem being challenged by the religious leaders of the day.
            This time, we’re told, that the Pharisees send one of their own, a lawyer, to test Jesus, asking, “…which commandment in the law is greatest?”
            This was a potentially tough question because then and now the Torah, the Jewish Law, contains 613 commandments. That’s a lot, which, naturally, led to the question: what is essential?
            Other Jewish leaders answered that question, maybe most famously the great sage Hillel (who lived just a little earlier than Jesus) who said: “What is hateful to you do not to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary on it; go and learn it.”
            What is essential?
            Jesus says:
            “You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
            And, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
            Jesus says the essentials are love of God and love of neighbor, which are really two sides of the same coin, aren’t they?
            Jesus says the essential thing is love.
            Now, maybe in school one of the essentials we learned in English class were the parts of speech, you know, being able to identify a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and so forth.
            So how about love? Which part of speech?
            Well, for Jesus it’s pretty clear that love is a verb.
            The essential thing is love.
            And, love doesn’t mean just sitting around thinking loving thoughts about God and our neighbors.
            The essential thing is love – and love is a verb.
            So, loving God and loving our neighbor means doing – means taking action to express that love.
            Love is praying for the suffering people all around us, praying for people we know and don’t know, especially those who have no one to pray for them.
            Love is forgiving those who hurt us.
            Love is caring about and actually helping the people we don’t like, especially - hate to tell you - the people who drive us absolutely nuts.
            Love is calling up or visiting someone who is in trouble or suffering.
            Love is digging deep and sharing what we have with those in need – maybe by making financial contributions or remembering – finally remembering - to bring items for the food pantry.
            Love is taking a chance on a different, better future for ourselves and the people we cherish.
            Love is the essential thing – and love is a verb.
            Throughout our lives – in school, at work, at home, at church – it is so easy to lose sight of what’s most important – to forget what is essential.
            So today, Jesus gives us a reminder.
            The essential thing is love of God and love of neighbor.
            The essential thing is love.
            And love… love is a verb.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Blessing Return

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 19, 2014

Year A, Proper 24: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22
A Blessing Return
            So, today we get to hear Jesus on everybody’s favorite subject: taxes!
            Taxes have always been a hot-button subject in the United States. Our country got its start in large part because we didn’t want our tax money going to England.
            And to this day, the easiest way to get elected is to promise no new taxes, or, even better, to lower taxes.
            Americans who are otherwise perfectly law-abiding people are when it comes to taxes sometimes willing to walk very close to the line – or even take a chance and cross the line and do a little cheating on their taxes.
            People justify not paying or cheating, just a little, on their taxes in all sorts of ways.
            “It’s my money.”
            “The government takes too much of my paycheck!”
             “I don’t want my money paying for bombs or welfare or the space program or…” whatever it is we happen to dislike.
            “Everybody cheats on their taxes, a little.”
            Please don’t raise your hands if any of these rationalizations apply to you!
            Every once in a while there will be a story in the news about celebrities like Teresa and Joe from The Real Housewives of New Jersey who cheated on their taxes or even somehow just didn’t pay taxes, sometimes for years.
            I’ve even had some friends and acquaintances who have admitted sheepishly that they might have a missed a year or two of tax returns, here and there.
            Well, I don’t know about you, but even if I was tempted to cheat on my taxes I wouldn’t because…I find the IRS scary.
            Here at St. Paul’s, I’m usually the one who brings in the mail. And, every once in a while I’ll find in the mailbox a very official-looking letter from the IRS. I always feel a split-second of panic and dread until I make sure that the letter is addressed to the church and not to Sue and me personally.
            I still worry when it’s addressed to the church - but I figure if it’s about the church I can share whatever the problem is with the wardens and vestry.
            At the same time, unfortunately, I’m not the most super-organized person when it comes to keeping all my documents and forms in good order.
            So, Sue can tell you that this toxic combination of worry and disorganization means every year I get a little bonkers when it’s time to gather up all our receipts and pay stubs and W-4s and W-2s and all the rest.
            Every year I worry that we have lost some important form or too much or too little money was withheld from our paychecks.
            You’d be amazed how complicated clergy compensation is (we spent a lot of time working on it at last week’s Finance Committee meeting), so I worry that something has gone horribly wrong and I’m going to end up with a huge tax bill or worse.
            At least so far – it’s all worked out OK.
            But, I’m still very careful with our taxes. And I bet you are, too.
            Well, taxes were a hot button subject back in First Century Israel, too.
            During the earthly lifetime of Jesus, Israel was occupied by the Romans. Some Jewish people, like the priests figured out ways to get along with the Romans, while others actively rebelled. Most probably just kept their heads down and went about their lives as best they could.
            But the Roman occupation meant that there was always great tension usually just beneath the surface.
            That tension was one of the reasons why the priests and elders were so concerned that Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem as a king, threatening to upset the fragile peace between Rome and Jerusalem.
            And the Roman occupation made taxation a hot button subject.
            Many Jews were unhappy about having to send their limited wealth off to faraway Rome – having to pay to support their oppressor.
            Which brings us to today’s gospel passage, where we pick up right where we left off last week.
            We’re in Jerusalem and the religious leaders are challenging Jesus.
            This time we’re told it’s the Pharisees who want to trap Jesus.
            And we’re told that the Herodians – people who support Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet ruler of Galilee - are also there.
            Anyway, the Pharisees try to trap Jesus in an impossible situation by making him choose between God and the emperor. They ask Jesus,
            “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
            But, Jesus easily evades their trap, saying,
            “Give… to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
            For centuries that verse – better known in its King James translation, “render unto Caesar that things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” – for centuries that verse has been used to get Christians to obey the government.
            I don’t know, maybe that’s what Jesus meant.
            But, as I’ve reflected on this passage I hear Jesus reminding us to be as careful with our obligations to God as we are with our obligations to Caesar, to the government, to the IRS.
            Most of us are, if not anxious then at least careful, as April 15 approaches.
            But, are we anywhere near as careful about our obligations to God?
            How careful are we about our obligation to love one another the way God has loved us?
            How careful are we about our obligation to forgive those who hurt us – and to ask forgiveness when we mess up?
            How careful are we about our obligation to share the Good News through our lives, through our actions and words?
            How careful are we about our obligation to love our neighbors as ourselves, to see Christ in absolutely everybody, especially the people we don’t like one bit, the people we can’t stand?
            How careful are we about our obligations to God?
            What if, say every April, God required us to file a return, itemizing all the ways that we had loved and served other people?
            Which would be more complete, our income tax return or, let’s call it, our blessing return?
            In today’s gospel lesson, some people tried to trick Jesus into choosing between the government and God.
            Jesus slipped easily out of their trap and instead reminded the Pharisees and the Herodians – and Jesus reminds us today - to be as careful with our obligations to God as we are with our obligations to Uncle Sam.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
October 12, 2014

Year A, Proper 23: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

            For a couple of reasons, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Fr. Frank Carr, who was rector of St. Paul’s in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
            I wasn’t a member of St. Paul’s back then, but did get to know him very well during the last eight years or so of his life, when I spent a lot of time visiting with him in his apartment just across the street.
            I think of him as my “spiritual grandfather.”
            When I consider my ministry here with you, I often hear his booming voice in my head. And, truthfully, his fingerprints are all over the work I do as rector.
            He used to tell me lots of stories about his priesthood in the various places he served. He told those stories in part because he liked to reminisce but also because he wanted to teach me what he thought was most important about being a priest and leading a church.
            One theme that he used to hit on a lot was that in Jersey City back in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, there was great collegiality among the clergy from many different denominations. It seems that back then priests and ministers knew each other and worked together.
            I’m pretty sure that Fr. Carr would be surprised – and very pleased - by the friendship that’s developed among the three Jersey City Episcopal churches. He’d be delighted by the work that we are doing together. And, I know he’d love the different ways that we’ve been serving alongside the clergy and people from many different faith communities throughout the city, from the Good Friday Stations of the Cross to our upcoming second annual interfaith Thanksgiving service.
            And, actually, back in the day, Fr. Carr and his wife Lee were very much responsible for the warm relations among Jersey City clergy.
            Whenever a new clergyman (they were pretty much all men back then) arrived, he and his wife would receive an invitation from Fr. Carr and Lee to a beautiful dinner in the rectory.
            And, it wasn’t just clergy. I’m told that Fr. Carr and Lee were famous for their hospitality, inviting all sorts of people into the house for elegant and delicious meals, welcoming people into their home for feasts, for banquets.
            Now, here’s where I’m afraid I’m not going to be imitating Fr. Carr.
            The truth is that Sue and I are a very different couple from Lee and Frank. I’m pretty sure that neither of us has the energy or time to throw even one fancy dinner party let alone to entertain regularly.
            And, we have too many cats!
            So, if you’ve been waiting for an elegant banquet in the rectory, I’m sorry!
            And, you know, even if we rallied and found the time and strength to throw a Carr-style party, I really wonder how many people would even come.
            Maybe I’m just rationalizing, but the world has changed so much and so many of us are so busy, I wonder how many people would want to give up that much time to eat and to socialize.
            Now, in my defense, I may not throw a dinner party but I do send out lots of invitations to all kinds of events – most recently the IMA banquet, our community supper, the Men’s breakfast, and lots of other church events and activities.
            Sadly, most people never reply to my emails of facebook invites.
            Most sign-up sheets remain nearly blank.
            Most of us – out of busyness or distraction or lack of interest – never respond to the invitation.
            It can be frustrating and disappointing, but I don’t take it personally (at least not usually!). (And, talking to my colleagues, I know they have the same experience.)
            And, I confess, I’m guilty of it myself – more than once I’ve conveniently let an invitation get buried under a pile of mail or failed to respond to an e-vite or facebook invitation.
            Sometimes I don’t respond to the invitation, either.
            Well, God knows all about sending invitations. God’s been inviting us all along. Unfortunately, God also knows all about what it’s like to have invitations ignored or even rejected.
            Let’s take a look at today’s gospel passage, where we pick up right where we left off last week.
            Jesus is in Jerusalem, in the midst of a dispute with the chief priests and elders. They’ve been, let’s say “concerned,” by some of Jesus’ actions – chasing the moneychangers and other businesspeople out of the Temple and healing the sick and the disabled.
            They are troubled that at least some people in the capital city have welcomed Jesus as a king.
            The chief priests and elders want to know where – or from whom – Jesus gotten this amazing power.
            In reply, Jesus warns the religious leaders that they are making a big mistake – that they are rejecting God’s invitation just as their predecessors rejected the prophets who came before.
            Jesus replies to the religious professionals who aren’t responding to God’s invitation – who are in fact rejecting God’s invitation – with another parable. In this one, Jesus – who, it’s clear, enjoyed a good party - uses a favorite image, comparing God’s kingdom to a feast, a banquet, a wedding banquet.
            The kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet given by the king for his son.
            No surprise, the king pulls out all the stops for this royal wedding, inviting his guests to a sumptuous feast.
            You’d think that anyone would jump at the chance to attend a royal wedding, but in this case we’re told that the invited guests “made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized (the king’s) slaves, mistreated them and killed them.”
            The rest of the parable seems to deal with the fact that many Jewish people back in the First Century did not recognize Jesus as the messiah, which is one of the reasons that “other guests” – non-Jews – Gentiles - were eventually invited to the banquet, filling the wedding hall.
            But, I want to back up and focus on the first round of invitations.
            The king sends out invitations and we’re told that the invited guests “made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them and killed them.”
            God is still sending out invitations – all the time.
            God invites us to the banquet.
            How do we respond?
            I doubt that anyone here is going to mistreat or kill anyone, let alone God’s messengers.
            But, I can certainly see myself making light of God’s invitation. I can see myself ignoring God’s invitation and instead focusing on my own stuff – all the many items on my to-do list, all the ways I keep myself busy with things that seem important and even things that are clearly not so important.
            God invites us to the banquet.
            God invites us here week after week to get the best taste of the kingdom of God, taking the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and souls.
            God invites us to the banquet.
            God invites us to fellowship with each other – at the community supper or the Men’s Breakfast or the craft guild or the Thanksgiving meal we’re going to offer to the community, or by just taking the time to keep in touch with family and friends, the relationships that give joy and meaning to life.
            God invites us to the banquet.
            God invites us to serve each other – by remembering to bring an item for the food pantry or to bring a can or two of infant formula – God invites us to serve each other by picking up the phone and calling someone we know is sad, frightened or lonely – God invites us to serve each other by giving not just out of our extra but to give as a real sacrifice.
            God invites each of us to the banquet.
            Are we too busy and distracted to reply to God’s invitation?
            Or are we those who say yes to God and are gathered into the wedding hall for the best party of all time?
            God invites us to the banquet.
            How do we respond?

Sunday, October 05, 2014


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 5, 2014

Year A, Proper 22: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46


            This past Wednesday evening we had the first session of our fall book group. By our count, about twenty of us are reading a wonderful little book called Being Christian by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury.
            About fifteen of us came to the first session where we had a lively conversation about the first chapter of the book that covers Baptism.
            In that chapter, Williams reminds us that “for many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to a live out a threefold identity: that of prophet, priest and king.”
            And sure enough, today’s gospel lesson focuses on Jesus the prophet.
            What is a prophet?
            We tend to think of prophets as people who predict the future. And, of course, there’s some truth in that.
            But, prophets have a much more important job than predicting the future.
            Williams writes, “The prophet…is somebody whose role is always to be challenging the community to be what it is meant to be – to live out the gift God has given to it.”           
            We may not always think of him this way, but Jesus was, among many other things, definitely a prophet. Through his teaching and his healing, Jesus reminded the community to be what it was meant to be.
            Which sounds straightforward enough. Except, almost always, the community did not and does not want to be reminded of what it is meant to be.
            For example, let’s take a look at today’s gospel passage where we pick up right where we left off last week.
            Jesus and his closest disciples have arrived in Jerusalem where they have attracted a good bit of attention – not all of it positive.
            A crowd waving palms and placing their cloaks on the ground greeted Jesus as he entered the capital city.
            He goes to the Temple – to the heart of Jewish life – and chases out the people who were conducting business there, reminding everyone that the temple was meant to be a house of prayer.
            We’re told that, right there at the Temple, Jesus heals the sick and the lame.
            And, if you were here last week, you may remember that the chief priests and elders are not happy. Apparently they don’t want to be reminded by this teacher from Galilee of what they’re meant to be.
            Instead, they want to know where – or from whom – Jesus is getting this authority.
            That dispute continues today as Jesus tells another parable.
            It’s a sad little story – an allegory, actually – about God, the leaders of Israel, the prophets and Jesus.
            The point of the parable is that over the centuries God has sent prophets to Israel. And, over and over again, the religious leaders have usually rejected these prophets, abused them and even had them killed.
            And now, at last, God has sent another prophet - his own Son - and the religious leaders are treating him the same way they treated the earlier prophets.
            Jesus the prophet is getting the same kind of treatment that most other prophets get.
            Yet, God continues to send us prophets.
            And, every once in a while, we encounter a prophet who really manages to get through – who really does remind us of who we are meant to be – who really reminds us of who we really are.
            Yesterday we honored one of those great prophets, Francis of Assisi, with our annual animal blessing.
            I love the animal blessing, though we run the risk of turning Francis into a cute little man who was only interested in preaching to the birds.
            In fact, Francis was one of our greatest prophets.
            He lived in the late 1100s and early 1200s, a time when the church had accumulated great wealth and worldly power – a time when the church had almost forgotten the Jesus who was poor, who challenged us to give away our possessions, who turned the other cheek, who hung out with the wrong kinds of people.
            And then along comes Francis.
            He had known the comforts of wealth but, after a powerful spiritual experience, rejected it all to the shock and dismay of his family.
            Francis chose a life of radical poverty and simplicity that was in stark contrast to the fabulous wealth and enormous power enjoyed by the popes and the cardinals and the rest of the chief priests and elders.
            Francis remained a loyal son of the church, respecting the church’s authority, but through his example – not really through words – but by just actually living out the gospel – he reminded the Christians of his time and place of who they were meant to be – Francis reminded them of who they really were.
            And, all these centuries later, the simplicity and joy of Francis still remind us of what we’re here for, still reminds us of the gift God has given us.
            At this point, we may be feeling all warm and fuzzy. After all, who doesn’t love St. Francis?
            We may even be thinking of other Christians, past and present, who have been prophets reminding us through their lives and example who we are meant to be – who we really are.
            But, in his book, Rowan Williams gives us the rather scary news that through our baptism we Christians are called to be prophets too.
            We are meant to be prophets who look around the church and ask, “Have you forgotten what you’re here for?” “Have you forgotten the gift God gave you?”
            We are called to ask those questions of the church. And we are called to ask and challenge one another – not in a nagging and annoying way – but in a loving way - to be who we are meant to be – to be who we really are.
            That doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to pointing fingers at people who are doing things that we think they shouldn’t be doing.
            Although there are times when we are called to speak up and take a public stand, recognizing that we may have to pay a price, most of the time we prophets of St. Paul’s are not called to condemn people for, say, breaking one or more of the Ten Commandments.
            No, like Francis, we are meant to be prophets through how we live our lives.
            When we love each other, when we forgive one another, when we give to the poor and to support our work together, when we hang out with the wrong kinds of people, when we welcome absolutely everybody to our beautiful old church…
            When we live like Jesus then we will be prophets. Not everyone is going to like us, but we will remind people of who we humans are meant to be – we will remind people of who we humans really are.
            When we live lives of love and service, we will be prophets. Like many prophets before us, we may be rejected, but we will remind people of what we’re here for – reminding people of the gifts God has given us.
            We are called to be – we are baptized to be – prophets.
            May it be so.