Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sleepwalking through Life

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
November 30, 2014

Year B: The First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Sleepwalking through Life
            It’s Advent! Happy New Year!
            Over the past few weeks we’ve been anticipating this day – this start of the new church year - as we’ve begun looking ahead to the Last Day when we will be judged on how we’ve lived our lives, how we have used the many gifts that we’ve been given.
            Ideally – and we’ll try our best here at St. Paul’s – Advent is a time to slow down a little, to pray a little bit more, to prepare for the birth of Christ and to take stock of our lives – to reflect on the ways that we have and have not loved God and our neighbors.
            I say ideally because, of course, for many of us this is the craziest time of year as we make a mad dash to shop and do all the other stuff that goes into making a nice holiday for the people we love.
            And, in fact, the crazy busy time has already begun, including for me.
            This past week has been incredibly full with all sorts of wonderful things happening from the interfaith Thanksgiving service on Monday evening to our Thanksgiving community dinner on Thursday.
            And for me there was another major event, wedged right in the middle of the week.
            A few weeks back I was invited to speak at St. Peter’s Prep’s interfaith Thanksgiving service. I was asked to represent the “Christian tradition,” which certainly sounded like a tall order indeed.
            To be honest, I really hesitated to say yes to this invitation.
            Prep played a vey important role in my life – in both my intellectual and spiritual development. As many of you know, I both attended St. Peter’s as a student and later was a history teacher there until I left to go to seminary and pursue ordination.
            It seemed weird and uncomfortable to go back to that place now as a priest.
            But, I’ve been trying lately to really face what scares me, so after hemming and hawing for a few days I said yes, I’d do it.
            Preparing for my talk and then finally being there in the Prep gym with 900 or so boys, plus teachers, administration and staff was a little disorienting.
            I sat there waiting my turn to speak, thinking how it has been almost thirty years – thirty years! – since my graduation.
            And, it’s already been more than ten years since I had left the faculty.
            That seems like a whole lot of time to me.
            And, I wondered, how much of that time was I really paying attention to what was going on in my life?
            How much of that time was I really mindful of what was going on in the lives of people around me?
            How much of that time was I really awake to how God was at work in my world?
            How much of that time was I really alert to the opportunities to serve other people?
            Or, have I been mostly just sleepwalking through life – going mindlessly through the motions, one day after another until the years start to really pile up?
            That’s what I was wondering in the Prep gym on Wednesday.
             Maybe you’ve had a similar experience, maybe at a milestone birthday, or when it’s time for retirement or during the illness or death of a loved one.
            Have we really been paying attention or have we been sleepwalking through life?
            I’m afraid the answer for me – and probably for many of us – is that I’ve been doing a lot of sleepwalking.
            Well, the Church sets aside Advent – these four Sundays before Christmas as a time of waiting and a time of paying close attention.
            And we hear the wake up call very clearly in today’s gospel lesson.
            The passage I just read comes from a part of the Gospel of Mark called the “Little Apocalypse” – the little revelation.
            And in this passage Jesus is revealing the signs of the last days – and they are very vivid signs, “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
            And then the Son of Man will appear with great power and glory.
            Jesus warns his disciples that no one – not even Jesus himself – knows the day or the hour so they – we – need to “beware,” “keep alert,” and “keep awake.”
            I find it hard to believe that Jesus’ first followers had trouble keeping alert and keeping awake – Jesus is right here! – but, we know from the gospels that they sometimes literally dozed off at important moments.
            And I find it hard to believe that the first readers and hearers of Mark’s gospel had trouble bewaring, keeping alert and keeping awake – after all, they lived during tumultuous times as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70. Yet, even those early Christians needed to be reminded to beware, keep alert and keep awake.
            And, if those early Christians needed to be reminded, then we 21st Century American Christians really need the reminder to pay attention, to be mindful, to stay awake.
            Our whole world is filled with all sorts of distractions – all our electronic devices especially our smart phones are designed to distract us – check email, text, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter - plus there’s our old favorites radio and TV, and all the rest.
            All these distractions keep us from focusing on what’s most important.
            They fool us into thinking we have all the time in the world.
            And sometimes those distractions can be downright dangerous.
            As you know, I try to stand outside church before our services, greeting parishioners, neighbors, and strangers.
            Very often people will come walking along so engrossed in looking at their phones or listening through their earbuds that they do not see or hear me when I say hello (unless they’re ignoring me, which is possible, but I don’t think so).
            But, it’s worse than that because when I’m standing outside I also see people driving down Duncan Avenue – often at speeds much higher than 25 miles per hour – as they text away or stare intently at their phones, risking their own safety and the safety of others.
            Just as texting while driving is dangerous, so, as Advent begins, Jesus warns us that failing to pay attention, failing to keep awake, is spiritually dangerous.
            It’s Advent. Happy New Year!
            It’s Advent – it’s time to prepare and be ready – it’s time to pay attention – it’s time to wake up and stop sleepwalking through our lives.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Kingdom of Thanksgetting or The Kingdom of Thanksgiving?

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
November 23, 2014

Year A, Proper 29: The Last Sunday after Pentecost – Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

The Kingdom of Thanksgetting or The Kingdom of Thanksgiving?

            One of the questions I often ask myself – and sometimes in sermons ask you – is, how are we different from the world?
            How is our Christian way of being – our Christian culture – different from the way people live their lives out there – how is our culture different from the world’s culture?
            I think, unfortunately, that often the answer is not much.
            Let’s face it, much of the time we live our lives pretty much the way everybody else does, for better or for worse.
            Most of the time, looking at how we live our lives, people would not necessarily know we are Christians, unless they notice us wearing a cross-shaped piece of jewelry, or happen to spot us dressed up and out of the house early on Sunday morning, or they catch us entering or leaving church.
            But, actually, you know, I think it’s at this time of year, that many of us are most different from the rest of the world – it’s during the so-called “holiday season” that we are most counter-cultural.
            The world has already jumped into the so-called Christmas season while next we’ll begin Advent.
            As we all know, we’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday.
            But, if you’ve been watching TV or listening to the radio you know that really the world will be celebrating “Black Friday” – the official start of the holiday shopping season, when people line up outside stores and in mall parking lots in the middle of the night to get deals on whatever it is they’re buying for others or for themselves.
            In the last few years, “Black Friday” has backed into Thanksgiving itself, with more and more stores open on that day that, until pretty recently, was seen as set aside for turkey, family, and football.
            You may have heard that this year Lord and Taylor is running ads with the slogan, “Thanksgetting.”
            “Thanksgetting.” That about sums up life in the kingdom out there, doesn’t it?
            But, today as we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King we are reminded that, as Christians, you and I are called to be citizens of a different kingdom.
            We are called – we are baptized – to be citizens of Christ’s kingdom.
            There really are two kingdoms.
            There’s the Kingdom of Thanksgetting.
            And there’s Christ’s kingdom, the Kingdom of Thanksgiving.
            Every day we get the chance – we get many chances – to choose which of those kingdoms we want to live in.
            Jesus teaches us that the choices that everybody makes now will determine our ultimate fate.
            That goes for everybody, Christians and non-Christians alike.
            And, if you don’t believe me, listen to Jesus in today’s gospel lesson.
            For the past few Sundays we’ve been hearing some pre-Advent gospel passages with Jesus teaching about being prepared for the last day when we will give an account of our lives.
            We heard the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, only five of whom were wise enough to pack enough oil so they were ready to greet the bridegroom when he arrived.
            And last Sunday we heard the Parable of the Talents – the two slaves who were bold enough to invest what the master had given them and the one slave who was so afraid that he played it safe, ending up losing everything.
            But, you know those parables were meant for people who are followers of Jesus. They guide us on how to live as Christians.
            But, today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew is different – now Jesus is speaking to and about the whole world.
            Jesus begins, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…”
            And, what determines if people are counted among the sheep or counted among the goats?
            What determines if people are blessed or cast away?
            Feeding the hungry – or not.
            Offering drink to the thirsty – or not.
            Welcoming the stranger – or not
            Clothing the naked – or not.
            Caring for the sick – or not.
            Visiting prisoners – or not.
            The kingdom we choose to live in now determines our ultimate fate.
            So, what’s it going to be?
            Do we live in the Kingdom of Thanksgetting where it’s all about our own needs and wants, where we focus on what we lack rather than the many blessings that we have received?
            Do we live in the Kingdom of Thanksgetting where we fool ourselves into thinking that if we just have a little more money or more stuff everything will be fine?
            Do we live in the Kingdom of Thanksgetting where we look away from those in need, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned?
            Or…do we live in the Kingdom of Thanksgiving where, yes, of course we are aware of our troubles, but mostly we’re grateful for the good gifts that we have received?
            Do we live in the Kingdom of Thanksgiving, recognizing that money doesn’t buy happiness and true joy comes from giving rather than receiving?
            Do we live in the Kingdom of Thanksgiving where we don’t look away from those in need, but instead feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, heal the sick and visit the imprisoned?
            We can only answer that question for ourselves.
            And, speaking for myself, I live in the Kingdom of Thanksgetting sometimes – a lot of the times – but sometimes, at my best, I live in the Kingdom of Thanksgiving.
            But, here at St. Paul’s, in lots of different ways – from rallying around our fellow parishioners who are suffering to our community Thanksgiving supper - I see us living more and more in Christ’s kingdom, in the Kingdom of Thanksgiving where, with God’s help, we love and support each other and serve people in need all around us.
            Out in the world, it’s the Kingdom of Thanksgetting.
            Here at St. Paul’s, at our best, it’s the Kingdom of Thanksgiving.
            Which kingdom do we choose?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Perseverance in Prayer

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
November 22, 2014

Evensong Celebrating the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Ordination of The Rev. Lauren Ackland to the Priesthood
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 150

Perseverance in Prayer
            A couple of weeks ago I received in the mail the invitation to today’s wonderful celebration in honor of my friend and mentor, someone I love and respect so very much, The Rev. Lauren Ackland.
            As usual, I carefully examined the card, making sure that my name was spelled correctly and noting the size of the font used to identify the name of the preacher.
            And then I noticed that the invitation declared that I would be giving a homily.
            Now, I don’t go to staff meetings at Grace anymore so I wasn’t part of the discussions that led to the use of the word “homily” rather than “sermon,” but I’m going to guess they revolved around how long I was going to preach and the length of the whole service.
            What happens if the service is too long? Will people think this satisfies their church obligation for the weekend? Will they skip church tomorrow? Will they – you - say, “Come on, we just went to church yesterday? Surely that counts!”
            So “they” went with “homily,” implying a short sermon, some brief remarks and then I’m done and we finish up the service, move on to the reception and the rest of our day, and most of us – you - hopefully go to church again tomorrow.
            Well, I’m sorry. But I’ve come all the way from Jersey City and, moreover, I feel that today’s occasion calls for something more than a homily.
            Thirty years – thirty years - of ordained ministry is, with God’s help, a major achievement and worthy of great celebration – and certainly merits a sermon, not just a homily.
            Besides, Lauren preached magnificently at both my own ordination to the priesthood right here at Grace more than seven years ago – and again at my celebration of new ministry at St. Paul’s Jersey City.
            So, now it’s my honor to return the favor.
            Thirty years.
            How many of you were at Lauren’s ordination?
            I know George was there and in fact read that same lesson from Isaiah we just heard. I’m told that, in typical fashion, he threatened to revise the words of the prophet to, “Here am I; send her!”
            He didn’t go through with it.
            But, you know, in a very real sense thirty years ago God sent both Lauren and George together on this adventure in ministry, a journey that took them from Manhattan, from their much-loved General Seminary and Church of the Ascension first to the rather unlikely spot of Oakland/Franklin Lakes where they did such great work building up St. Alban’s and then finally here to Grace Church, where as you know, she is the first woman to serve as rector.
              Through it all, Lauren and George have been a tremendous team.
             “Mr. Lauren Ackland” has been a strong and loyal, if somewhat offbeat, support for Lauren – for her life and work.
            I, of course, wasn’t at Lauren’s ordination. I mean, come on, thirty years ago I was just a child!
            But, thinking about today got me thinking about my own ordinations – both the grand celebration here at Grace and my ordination to the diaconate at our cathedral.
            At my diaconal ordination Bishop Beckwith said something that has stuck with me.
            In his sermon, the bishop said to us about-to-be deacons, “We pay you to pray.”
            “We pay you to pray.”
            I know that sounds a little commercial, kind of transactional – and I’ve never heard the bishop use that expression again - but over the years I’ve heard his words echo in my head especially during those times when I haven’t been as faithful as I should be in my personal prayers.
            “We pay you to pray” has been a reminder to me that prayer needs to be -must be - behind and beneath and above and through all the work I do as an ordained person.
            Just in case we forget the centrality of prayer for clergy, in the priestly ordination service the bishop asks the about-to-be priest, “Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and private, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for others, offering all your labors to God, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit?”
            And the ordinand answers, “I will.”
            Now, I could stand up here all afternoon and talk about how amazing Lauren is – she’d hate that - but, let’s name it: she is remarkably hardworking, totally dedicated to the church, patient enough to sit through innumerable interminable meetings, smart – really smart, a gifted preacher and a thoughtful liturgist, a sensitive listener, a wise counselor, a good shepherd indeed, and much more.
            Lauren, how’re you doing over there?
            But, behind and beneath and above and through all of those qualities, Lauren Ackland is a person  - a priest – a rector of prayer.
            She takes her ordination vow to pray with utter seriousness.
            With God’s help, Lauren perseveres in prayer.
            She perseveres in her public prayer, rarely missing any of the daily services offered here at Grace, and she perseveres in her private prayers.
            I think even people who don’t know Lauren well can sense this prayerfulness. It’s a big reason why she is universally respected in the Church.
            Now, I can’t explain how prayer works – Lauren probably can, why don’t you ask her during the reception  – but, I think it has something to do with God wanting to share power and responsibility with us.
            Anyway, all I know is that prayer does work.
            Prayer works. And, if you don’t believe me, just look around.
            I remember when I first interviewed to be curate here at Grace. I was newly ordained and in desperate need of a job, but, as some of you know, this city kid had some misgivings about moving to the suburbs.
            That’s a story for another day, but I remember during the interview being stunned by Lauren’s description of life at Grace – so many vibrant ministries, so many people – including children and even men, so many gifted, generous people – lots and lots of them.
            There were so many services, so many kids and adults in the choirs – all volunteers, thank you very much - and there was even music at the 7:30 service on Sunday mornings – which seemed a little early to me but, um, did I mention I needed a job?
            Now, as someone from a struggling little church in the city, I remember thinking, how can this be? Sitting in her office near the end of the interview, I finally just asked, why? Why was Grace thriving? What made Grace tick?
            Without hesitation, Lauren credited the health of Grace Church to the daily prayer offered here, prayer that bathes this room, prayer that has blessings more powerful and numerous than we can know or imagine.
            Over my two stints at Grace, I recognized that Lauren was right about the importance of daily worship. But I think the answer is a little deeper and more personal than that.
            Grace has thrived and continues to be a great blessing for so many of us because it is led by Lauren Ackland, a person – a priest – a rector of prayer.
            Somehow, I don’t know how exactly, Lauren’s prayers ripple out into all the ministries that happen here.
            Those prayers have touched – touch - all of our lives.
            And, I know for sure that those prayers are heard in places served by those Lauren has mentored, including in a little church in Jersey City.
            So, today we give thanks for thirty years of ordained ministry - a major achievement and worthy of great celebration, surely meriting a sermon more than a homily.
            We give thanks for the amazing partnership, the continuing journey, of Lauren and George.
            We give thanks for thirty years of ordained ministry, for all of that hard work and tireless devotion to duty, but most of all, for all of those prayers that you have offered to God for us all.
            We honor those thirty years with today’s celebration.
            But, it seems to me, that we honor Lauren best first by going to church tomorrow – the sermon wasn’t that long! – and, most of all, we honor Lauren when we follow her example, when we, you and I, all of us, with God’s help, persevere in prayer.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Bishop Thomas Goes to India

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

Year A, Proper 28: The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Judges 4:1-7
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25: 14-30
Bishop Thomas Goes to India
            Those of you who were here last week may remember that I said it’s beginning to look a lot like…Advent.
            Advent is the time when we prepare both for the birth of Christ and for the last day.  Advent is still two weeks away, but our lessons from the First Letter to the Thessalonians and from the Gospel of Matthew have a distinctly Advent ring to them.
            Once again Jesus offers a parable that is meant to get us thinking seriously about how God will judge us.
            In the parable, a man who is about to leave on a journey entrusts his property to his slaves.
            We’re told “to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, each according to his ability.”
            Our word “talent” meaning something we’re good at comes from this parable. In Jesus’ time a talent was a kind of money. We don’t know exactly what a talent was worth – but it was worth a lot – maybe the equivalent to 15 years worth of wages for a typical worker.
            So the master gives a lot of wealth – a lot of responsibility - to each of the slaves, even the one who receives only one talent.
            And, as you heard, two of the slaves do quite well, doubling their talents.
            But the slave who received only one talent buried that one talent in the ground for safekeeping.
            I know I sympathize with that poor slave who obviously thought he was doing the right thing. If he had invested the one talent he might have made a profit like the other two slaves but he might also have lost that one talent – that one oh so valuable talent – and have to face the master empty-handed.
            And, apparently the slave is convinced that the master is a harsh man, so, you know, it’s definitely better to play it safe.
            Except, as we heard, the master is displeased by the slave’s “conservative investment strategy.” He calls the slave “lazy and wicked” and casts him into the “outer darkness” “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
            The slave who was given the one talent seriously misread the situation. And the consequences are terrible
            Maintenance was not enough.
            The status quo – keeping things the same - was not enough.
            Instead, the slave was expected to be bold, to take chances, to, as our bishop likes to say, “risk something big for something good.”
            It’s one of my favorite lines. And I’ve used it in other sermons.
            “Risk something big for something good.”
            Today’s parable about taking risks for something good – about taking risks for God - got me thinking about a friend of mine.
            He’s actually a new friend – someone I’ve gotten to know since I arrived back here in Jersey City as your rector.
            I’ve mentioned before that I belong to the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Jersey City. It’s a group made up of local clergy, mostly from traditionally black churches. We meet once a month for fellowship and to talk about some of the issues facing our churches here in the city.
            Anyway, at the IMA I’ve met some good colleagues and made some fine friends.
            One of those friends is a man named Earlin Thomas, who is the pastor of Shield of Faith Ministries, a little church he operates out of the first floor of his home down near the bottom of Duncan Avenue, across from Lincoln Park.
            The church is on the first floor and he and his wife live upstairs.
            Bishop Thomas used to work on Wall Street, making I assume good money, insuring a comfortable life for him and his wife.
            But, then after a powerful conversion experience, he left all that behind and entered the ministry – a much less comfortable life, I’m sure.
            He started his church and he also began an Internet radio station that broadcasts 24 hours a day from a tiny studio carved out of some of his church space.
            Bishop Thomas works nights for the county and then comes home and hosts a live show with music and inspiration for several hours. One time he interviewed me over the phone to talk about our Good Friday Stations of the Cross service.
            I’m pretty sure he only gets a couple of hours of sleep each day.
            All very impressive, right?
            But, it gets better.
            The Shield of Faith Broadcasting Network has listeners all around the world, including in India. Some Christian pastors in India who heard the station contacted Bishop Thomas, inviting him to come to their country to preach, to teach, to baptize, to bring Bibles in the local language.
            I remember when Bishop Thomas first told me about this invitation and how he was planning to go.
            I’ll be honest, I was sure this trip would never happen. Flying to India is a major, expensive undertaking. Plus, I found it hard to believe that my friend would go to the other side of the world to work alongside people – total strangers - he had met through his Internet radio station.
            Well, about a month ago it became clear that he was going. All by himself. The IMA gave him some money and I gave a donation from my discretionary fund to help with incidental expenses.
            And, right at this moment, Bishop Thomas is in India preaching, teaching, and baptizing. On Facebook he’s posted beautiful pictures of himself – he’s a big African-American guy – standing in the middle of an Indian river, surrounded by joyful people - making new Christians.
            He checks in with me pretty much every morning on Facebook, letting me know that he’s OK and asking for my continued prayers.
            I’m amazed and so impressed that he’s been able – been bold and courageous enough - to really do this.
            I imagine the master in today’s parable would say to Bishop Thomas, “Well done. You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
            My friend Earlin is in India, sharing the Good News, risking something big for something good.
            So, what about me?
            And, what about us here at St. Paul’s?
            About two years ago I met with our bishop and suggested that the diocese might find some money to support one quarter of my salary, allowing me to serve full-time as rector of St. Paul’s.
            And, yes, I admit I used the bishop’s line about “risking something big for something good.”
            Well, as many of you know, he went along with it and until May of 2016 the diocese will pay 1/4th of my salary.
            Over the time we’ve been together we may not have gone to India but we’re not playing it safe by burying our talents, either.
             We have begun to move out of our safe, cozy little church. We’ve begun connecting to the community in new and exciting ways.
            We’ve begun taking risks, risking more and more for something really good.
            We risked spending Good Friday praying at sites of terrible violence and worshiping out on the street.
            We’ve risked giving sacrificially, providing money, food, toothpaste, infant formula and more, supporting those who work with the most vulnerable in our community.
            We’ve risked increasing our financial support of St. Paul’s – it’s not yet where it needs to be but we are getting there, slow but sure.
            We’ve risked opening our doors to all sorts of community events – for meetings, for monthly suppers, for arts and cultural events - providing a safe and welcoming place for lots of people, neighbors and total strangers, most of whom will probably never become members of our church.
            It’s all good.
            But, you know, we have been given so much – just look around at this beautiful old church and this amazing, diverse, gorgeous gathering of people.
            We’re the ones who have been entrusted with at least five talents.
            God has given us so much – and expects us to not just protect and preserve it but to use it to produce even more for God.
            My friend, Bishop Thomas, is in India risking something big for something good.
            And, today I challenge myself – and I challenge all of us at St. Paul’s – to move beyond maintenance and the status quo – beyond just keeping things the same - to truly risk something big for something good, to risk something big for God.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
November 15, 2014

The Funeral of Amreeth P. Seepersaud, Sr.
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 14:1-6a


            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 I just read 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.           
            What is the way?
            What is the way of Jesus?
            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 sacrificial love – love that is revealed in the hard work of serving others, of giving away our lives for others.
            Well, we know for sure that our brother Amreeth Seepersaud understood that the way is love – that the way is the hard work of sacrificial love.
            I know that over the past year or so many of us in this room who love Amreeth have been praying for a miracle – praying that God would offer a miraculous cure, causing the cancer to disappear from our brother’s body so he could get back to the life that he wanted so much to live.
            We didn’t get that miracle.
            But, it seems to me that over the years - and especially in the past year - we have received even greater miracles.
            First, we have received the miracle of just knowing and loving this good man.
            You don’t need me to tell you that it has been a difficult year or so since Amreeth received his devastating diagnosis of cancer.
            But, I’ve learned that this kind of severe illness often reveals who a person really is – this kind of suffering uncovers what’s in a person’s heart.
            Like all of us, Amreeth wasn’t perfect. Like everybody else, over the course of his life he made his share of mistakes, but, in case there was any doubt, this past year of illness revealed that Amreeth’s heart was full of love and faith.
             So, as hard as it’s been, it has also been such a privilege for me to walk with Amreeth and Sheila over these months, through the lows of chemotherapy and failing energy and the highs of good days when life seemed to return nearly to normal.
            Although I’ve known the Seepersauds for a long time, over the past year I really encountered the loving and faithful heart of Amreeth.
            Or, should I call him Paul?
            Or, maybe Ramesh?
            Over the past year I learned that this man of several names was a great dad to Amreeth Jr. and Kishore.
            When he talked about his family, it was obvious that Amreeth really enjoyed being a father.
            He got truly enthused when he talked about his days as a scout leader and what that meant to him and to his boys.
            One time when he was talking about scouts I said the words “Pinewood Derby” and his eyes widened and he broke into a wide smile.
            “Pinewood Derby. I haven’t thought about that in years.”
            Amreeth loved his sons and later that love grew to include their wives and their children.
            And, Amreeth sure loved his wife.
            Over the past difficult year it was very moving and inspiring to witness the love shared by Amreeth and Sheila, to see them truly live out their marriage vows of loving, comforting, honoring, and keeping each other, especially in times of sickness.
            It was powerful to see Sheila pretty much drop everything to be there for her beloved husband, advocating for him with his doctors and the nurses and everybody else at the hospital, insuring that he got the best possible care, spending so many nights sleeping on a bed in his hospital room, caring for Amreeth until literally his last breath.
            Just a few days before he died, I happened to be visiting the hospital and I wasn’t really sure if Amreeth was aware of my presence – he was looking off in the distance as if gazing at a faraway land.
            But, then Sheila walked into the room and his eyes immediately focused, locked on to her and his mouth widened into a gentle smile and he gave her a little wave – delighted to see her even through, especially through, the fog of illness and painkillers.
            Amreeth had a loving heart.
            And then, there was Amreeth’s faith, which was quiet but it was so strong.
            I told him several times that I hoped I would face illness as gracefully and faithfully as he did.
            From the first time Amreeth told me about his diagnosis to his last weeks, he maintained complete trust in God.
            For as long as he could he came to church, both on Sundays and often to our healing service on Wednesdays.
            He was always eager to receive communion – to be nourished by the Body of Christ.
            He was always ready to accept laying on of hands and anointing with Holy Oil.
            Yes, of course, he wanted to live longer – he wanted more time with Sheila and the rest of his family and his friends – he would have gladly welcomed a miraculous cure - but he also knew that no matter what he was in God’s hands and God’s love was never going to let go of him.
            And, you know, Amreeth’s strong and quiet faith, in the face of great pain and suffering,  is itself a great miracle.
            Today, for many of us, the hard truth begins to sink in: Amreeth’s life with us here has come to an end.
            It’s a real and painful loss.
            We are going to miss him so very much.
            But, you know, God had one last miracle for Amreeth – and God has one last miracle in store for us.
            Amreeth’s heart of love and faith lives on in the full presence of God.
            God has not let go of Amreeth.
            And, as our brother believed, as our brother knew, God’s love will never let go of us.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Awake with Trust, Oil Flasks Full of Faith

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
November 9, 2014

Year A, Proper 27: The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13
Awake with Trust, Oil Flasks Full of Faith
            Some of you know that I try to take Monday as my day off.
            Unlike other Mondays, this past Monday morning I decided to get up off the couch and go into New York for the day.
            I took a route that I usually avoid, taking the PATH to the World Trade Center so I could catch the subway uptown.
            Even after more than thirteen years, it’s still a little disorienting for me to arrive at the trade center. Partly that’s because it’s still a huge construction site. But, mostly it’s because the old station and the lost towers were such a part of my childhood and young adulthood – there were few places more familiar to me.
            And then, as we all know and most of us are old enough to remember, it was all gone in just a few hours.
            As it turns out, you may have seen on the news that Monday was a historic day at the site because the first few hundred workers were reporting to their offices in the glass-covered Freedom Tower.
            Things were not yet normal – and, I suppose never will be normal again – but, as is God’s way, hope and new life were growing out of fear and death.
            Then I took the subway uptown and when I came up out of the station the first thing I heard was the little tinkle of a bell – the Salvation Army men and women were at their post, ringing their bells, asking us to remember the neediest.
            On the streets of New York, and in malls and stores all across our country, it’s beginning to look a lot like…Christmas.
            Meanwhile, although we’re thinking about and planning our Christmas celebrations, it’s not Christmas at all.
            Here in church we’re celebrating the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, thank you very much!
            But, actually, if you pay attention you may notice that in church it’s beginning to feel a lot like… Advent.
            In just a few weeks we’ll begin Advent, that holy season of preparation.
            During the four Sundays of Advent we prepare for the birth of Christ, of course, but we also prepare for the last day – we prepare for the day of Christ’s return - we prepare for the day when we will need to give an account of our lives – we prepare for the day when our old lives end and our new lives begin.
            We certainly heard the Advent theme of preparation for the last day in today’s gospel passage.
            Jesus tells a vivid parable of ten bridesmaids, five of them foolish and five of them wise, who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.
            Jesus tells us that, “when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”
            The bridegroom was delayed so the foolish bridesmaids ran out of oil for their lamps while the wise were ready with their full flasks of oil.
            It’s interesting that the wise don’t share their oil with the foolish. Instead the foolish had to go buy oil, forcing them to miss the bridegroom and getting shut out of the wedding banquet.
            Jesus concludes the parable with these stark words, “Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But, he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
            “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
            The first readers and hearers of Matthew’s Gospel lived in a dangerously unpredictable world. Death lurked around every corner. Illnesses that today we would barely even notice or can take care of with a quick visit to the doctor and the pharmacy, back then could quickly lead to the grave. There was the nearly constant threat of violence and war. Average life expectancy for a First Century Jewish male peasant was… 29.
            The first readers and hearers of Matthew’s gospel – mostly Jewish-Christians - were still stunned that in the year 70 the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem including, most traumatically, the Temple, for Jews the holiest place on earth, the place where the presence of God dwelled.
            So, for all sorts of reasons, the last days were on everybody’s mind.
            The Temple was destroyed. Surely Jesus would be returning soon. We need to be ready, be prepared.
            For a long time here in America we liked to think, tried to fool ourselves, really, that our world is orderly and predictable, that we aren’t as vulnerable as people in most of the rest of the world.
            The past thirteen years have been a rude awakening to the fact that we’re in the same boat as pretty much everybody else.
            I imagine that the crashing down of the Twin Towers into ashes of sorrow must have been nearly as traumatic for us as it was for First Century Jews to witness the destruction of the Temple.
            Since September 11, 2001 we’ve endured seemingly endless war, heightened security precautions, and a weak economy that has stripped us of pretty much any sense of security.
            There have been huge storms swamping some of our biggest cities and a drought threatening much of the West.
            Plus, we live in a city with large pockets of poverty and crime, where some of us risk our lives just walking to and from the bus stop.
            And, many of us have illnesses or have suffered our own personal losses that remind us of the fragility of life, that we all will die, ready or not.
            Jesus says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
            We’re called to keep our oil flasks full, prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom.
            We need to be prepared.
            But, what does that look like?
            What does it look like to keep awake? What does it look like to keep our oil flasks full? What does it look like to be prepared?
            Well, we don’t have to come up with abstract answers to those questions.
            Instead, we at St. Paul’s and at Incarnation have known people in our lives who stayed awake, who kept their oil flask full, who were prepared.
            At St. Paul’s so many of us are mourning the death yesterday of our dear brother, Amreeth Seepersaud.
            We are praying for him and especially for Sheila and his sons and his whole family and his many friends.
            For me, it was such a privilege – so inspiring – to walk with Amreeth on this journey since he received his diagnosis about a year ago.
            Like all of us, Amreeth was imperfect, yet he lived his life and he faced his illness and the reality of death with deep faith and quiet courage. Of course, he wanted to live longer, to be with his family and friends, to be with us, yet he knew the great truth that his life and death were in God’s hands – and, no matter what, God was not going to let go of him.
            And so when the time came on Saturday morning, in a profound way he was awake with trust, his oil flask was full of faith, he was prepared to meet the God who had created him and supported him through his whole life, especially during the last year.
            And at Incarnation, many of us are still missing Florine Wilson so very much.
            I remember when I first met Flo at a meeting of the three Jersey City vestries.
            We began by introducing ourselves, saying something about ourselves.
            Flo introduced herself as, by the grace of God, a survivor.
            She went on to talk about her bouts with illness though I remember thinking at the time that this woman was talking about something more than cancer.
            It was a privilege – it was inspiring – to walk with Flo on her journey that began when she entered the hospital this summer.
            During that time I learned that, by the grace of God and a good friend, Flo was indeed a survivor. Through hard experience she learned that even if she might have tried to leave God behind, God was never going to let go of her.
            She lived her life with faith, love, and generosity.
            Flo didn’t want to die. Just the opposite since she loved her family, her friends, and her church so very much.
            I remember visiting her during the summer at Christ Hospital and she was talking so excitedly about our Jersey City Episcopal worship and barbeque in Liberty Park and how much she wanted to wear her red shirt and be with us, worshiping God with her friends in that beautiful place.
            That was not to be.
            But, when Flo’s time came, in a profound way she was awake with trust, her oil flask was full of faith she was prepared to meet the God who had created her and supported her through her whole life, especially during these last few months.
            So, here in church, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Advent.
            We are reminded that in our unpredictable world even the holiest temples and mightiest towers fall.
            We are reminded that we are vulnerable.
            We are reminded that someday – we do not know the day or the hour - we will die and be asked to give an account of our lives.
            We are reminded that we need to be prepared.
            We are reminded that we need to keep awake with trust - to keep our oil flasks full of faith – trust and faith that, as is God’s way, hope and new life grow out of fear and death.
            We are reminded that we need to be prepared.
            We are reminded that, with God’s help, we need to be faithful and loving, just like Amreeth and Flo.