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.