Sunday, December 14, 2014

104 Years of Witnessing and Testifying

Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
December 14, 2014

Year B: The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

104 Years of Witnessing and Testifying
            Happy 104th Anniversary!
            I’m told that your centennial celebration four years ago was quite the blow-out with the Presiding Bishop herself honoring you with her presence.
            So, for the 100th anniversary you get the PB.
            And, for the 104th anniversary, you get…me.
            All kidding aside, it is a great honor for me both as your friend and brother and as rector of St. Paul’s to be with you at this wonderful celebration.
            And today we’re also celebrating the Third Sunday of Advent.
             Pretty amazing. Doesn’t it feel like Advent just started?
             Yet, look, it’s already the Third Sunday of this holy season of waiting and watching – this sacred time of preparation.
            Just one more Advent Sunday to go.
            I love Advent so I’m always sorry to see it slip by so quickly.
            But, Advent used to be different than it is now. Some of you remember that Advent used to be a more penitential season – a lot like Lent.
            In recent years, though, there’s been an attempt to downplay the penitential aspects of Advent, to give it its own identity and not just a “little Lent.”
            Back when Advent was more penitential than it is now there developed the idea of softening up a little bit on the third Sunday – to remind people that the days of preparation were almost over – to encourage people that God was soon to enter the world in a new and unique way with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
            So, today on the Third Sunday of Advent we put away the purple vestments in favor of the rose – such a great color on me, right?!
            We celebrate “Gaudete Sunday” which comes from a Latin word for “rejoice.”
            Rejoice! Our long time of waiting is almost over!
            But, first…just like last week, we once again meet John the Baptist.
            If you were in church last week, you may remember that we heard the barebones account of John the Baptist and his ministry given to us by the earliest of the four gospels, the Gospel of Mark.
            Today we heard another take on John the Baptist, this time courtesy of the Gospel of John – the Fourth Gospel, considered to be the last of the four gospels to be completed.
            The Fourth Gospel’s description of John the Baptist is very similar to what’s found in the other gospels – some of the language is almost exactly the same – but there is an interesting difference in emphasis.
            Once again, John the Baptist makes it clear that he isn’t the messiah – he insists that One far greater and more powerful is coming.
            Once again John the Baptist insists that he is not worthy even of the lowly task of untying the sandal of the far greater One who is to come.
            In the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is a baptizer but above all he is “a man sent by God” “as a witness to testify to the light.”
            In the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is a witness testifying to – testifying about - Jesus.
            And you and I are called to do exactly the same.
            We are sent by God to be witnesses who testify about Jesus.
            And, what I know about the history of the Church of the Incarnation tells me that this is a vocation that you and those who have gone before you have taken very seriously.
            You have been – and are – witnesses testifying about Jesus.
            The church’s very history is a witness testifying about Jesus.
            As you know only too well, Incarnation was born out of the terrible sin of racism. Incarnation was born at a time when Episcopalians of color were shamefully unwelcome at the other Episcopal churches of Jersey City, including my own church.
            Rather than giving up on Christ or abandoning the church, your ancestors in faith formed this new church as a witness testifying about Jesus’ love for absolutely everybody.
            And for a little more than a century, there have been and continue to be so many Incarnation ministries – so many ways that the people of this church have been witnesses – so many ways that you have testified about Jesus.
            I think about the birth of the community development corporation that now goes by the name of Garden State Episcopal but in a very real way was born right here at Incarnation. How many people have been helped – how many have encountered the love of Christ thanks to the witness of our – your - CDC?
            I think about your many youth programs past and present – the girl scouts, young people in the choir, the summer camp, and more.
            How many kids have encountered the love of Christ thanks to your kind and patient testimony?
            I think about the emergency food pantry offered here month after month and your monthly community suppers, open to absolutely everybody.
            How many people have encountered the love of Christ thanks to the witness of your generosity?
            I think about your phenomenal music program – a choir and Minister of Music who got the “frozen chosen” at last year’s diocesan convention up out of their seats, singing, and not wanting the music to stop - a choir that now travels around the diocese, most recently at Ft. Lee last Sunday night.
            How many people have encountered the love of Christ through the testimony of your music?
            Throughout your history the people of Incarnation have followed the advice of St. Paul in his First Letter to the Thessalonians that we heard this afternoon:
            “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
            Hard to do but, with God’s help, for 104 years you’ve done it.
            There’s just one thing that makes me sad. My sense is that, by necessity, most of the time you’ve done your work on your own.
            For most of our history the Episcopal churches of Jersey City have done their own thing and have, let’s say, “neglected” each other.
            But, you know, rejoicing, praying and giving thanks becomes more powerful – and a lot more fun – when we are together.
            A couple of weeks ago Rev. Laurie and I were videotaped talking about our Good Friday Stations of the Cross procession. The video will be shown at our diocesan convention next month as one of the so-called “Mission Minutes.”
            And, when I think about my year and a half as rector of St. Paul’s, most of the highlights are the times that people from the three Jersey City Episcopal churches have been together: our New Years Day service and brunch, our Good Friday procession, the Pop-Up Eucharists, our youth events, our picnics at Liberty Park.
            It would have difficult for each individual church to do these things on our own, but, whether we realized it at the time or not, together we were – we are – powerful witnesses testifying to the power of God and the love of Jesus Christ at work in our lives.
            For the past 104 years, Incarnation has been witnessing, testifying, to the love of Christ.
            For me and the people of St. Paul’s – and I think I can speak for Rev. Laurie and Grace Van Vorst – it is a great joy to witness and testify together.
            I can’t wait to see what’s yet to come.
            Meanwhile, Advent is slipping away.
            It’s already the Third Sunday – Gaudete Sunday – a day of rejoicing.
            John the Baptist has been sent by God as a witness testifying to the light.
            Soon, very soon, it will be Christmas and we will celebrate the gift of God with us.
            But, after receiving this greatest of all gifts, we are sent by God.
            Like those who have gone before us in faith here at Incarnation, we are sent by God to be witnesses who, through our actions and words, testify about Jesus.
            May it be so.