Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Voice of the Good Shepherd

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
April 26, 2015

Year B: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

The Voice of the Good Shepherd

            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            As many of you know, once a month we – usually Gail, Vanessa, Dee Dee and I - go over to the Liberty House Nursing Home on Montgomery Street and offer a healing service.
            We pray and sing together, hear one Bible reading, and then I go around offering to anoint each person with Holy Oil and to say a short prayer for healing.
            We’ve been going over to Liberty House for more than a year now and I have to admit it’s become a highlight of my month.
            It’s a hard place – like every nursing home I’m sure the residents wish they could be in their homes, with their families and friends, living the lives they used to live.
            Over the past year we have gotten to know some of the regulars.
            The old woman who sits in the front row, always delighted to see us, quick to talk about her deep faith in God and how good God has been to her. Sometimes she seems completely engaged with us in the present and then other times she gets confused, talking about her parents as if they are still alive, still keeping her in line.
            There’s the woman in the wheelchair who is always eager – super-excited, really - to show off her bracelets or sometimes just the service bulletin we’ve just given her.
            There’s the man who always brings some kind of percussion instrument and happily plays along with Gail.
            There are a whole bunch of regulars and it’s been great to build a kind of relationship with them, even if we only see them once a month and don’t even know their names.
            There’s another a woman – an older woman, always nicely dressed, always seated in the back – she seems pretty alert until you try to communicate with her – then it’s just a blank stare.
            Each month I ask her if she’d like to be anointed and each month she just looks back with no expression – no sense that she hears or understands the question – so I just move on to the next person.
            Anyway, as part of the service each month we say the 23rd Psalm – the King James version - which is more familiar to an older crowd than the more contemporary translation we said in church today.
            This past Wednesday when we were saying the 23rd Psalm I happened to look back at the woman in the back who stares blankly at me and I saw she was saying the words:
            The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            I thought about that woman joining us in saying the 23rd Psalm when I reflected on the words of Jesus in today’s gospel lesson.
            Jesus uses an image that has become most familiar to us Christians – we are the sheep and Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
            In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus says that there are other sheep who don’t belong to this fold but they will listen to my voice and we will eventually be one.
            Listening to the voice of the shepherd.
            I’m sure that the old woman at Liberty House reciting the words of the 23rd Psalm has heard the voice of the Good Shepherd throughout her life – has the heard the voice of the Good Shepherd so often and so clearly that the words are still shining in her mind and heart, still clear even in the fog of dementia.
            Of course, I’m sure she heard and learned those words - they were planted deeply in her mind and heart - thanks to other good shepherds who guided her in her early years – maybe her parents, or pastors, or Sunday school teachers – she learned about the Good Shepherd thanks to other good shepherds in her life.
            And, the truth is that the Good Shepherd calls all of us to be good shepherds, too.
            People hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in and through us.
            In today’s reading from the First Letter of John we hear this:
            “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
            “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
            “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth or action.”
            People hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in and through us when we pass on the faith to our children and grandchildren, teaching them about God’s love, teaching them the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm, planting those words deep enough for a lifetime.
            More important even than that, people hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in and through us when we lay down our lives for each other, when we love in truth and action.
            People hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when we donate 1,239 diapers to families in need – giving to people we will never even know.
            People hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when – even when our own budgets are tight and our cupboards aren’t as full as we’d like – we still bring a can or box of food for someone in need.
            People hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when we organize with people from across the city, determined to get our voices heard, to improve our schools, parks, and streets - especially in the long neglected neighborhoods of Bergen-Lafayette and Greenville.
            And people hear the voice of the Good Shepherd when we gather here week after week, even when – especially when – we don’t feel like it, supporting one another in prayer, friendship, and love.
            People hear the voice of the Good Shepherd through other good shepherds – they hear the voice of the good shepherd in and through us.
            So, who knows, maybe 90 years from now, in the early 22nd Century, when nearly all of us are long gone, some of our St. Paul’s kids will, thanks to us, still know the voice of the Good Shepherd – will still know that the Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Sunday, April 19, 2015


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
April 19, 2015

Year B: The Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

            Today’s gospel passage – from the Gospel of Luke – is a lot like what we heard last Sunday from the Gospel of John – the story of the Risen Christ appearing to the doubting Apostle Thomas.
            As I’m sure you remember, the Risen Christ shows Thomas his wounds, invites him to touch them – and believe.
            In today’s passage there’s no Doubting Thomas but once again the Risen Christ appears and shows his wounds to his startled and terrified disciples, who, understandably, think they must be seeing a ghost.
            But, they - and we - learn that this is no ghost when the Risen Christ asks for something to eat, takes a piece of broiled fish and eats it.
            Ghosts don’t eat – so the disciples and we are in mysterious territory: the Jesus who was crucified lives again in a new, transformed, but still physical way.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            After eating the fish, we’re told that Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to understand the Scriptures – how the Scriptures predicted all that had happened to Jesus.
            And then Jesus concludes with this:
            “You are witnesses of these things.”
            Well, you and I weren’t in Jerusalem two thousand years ago but we are witnesses to these things, too.
            During Holy Week we walked the way of the cross and since the Easter Vigil, the joy of Easter has soaked this place in love and joy.
            And, just like the first disciples, we aren’t supposed to just sit around and talk amongst ourselves about these things.
            Jesus said to the first disciples: You are witnesses of these things.
            We are witnesses.
            But, what does that mean?
            What does that look like?
            Well, these past few weeks leading up to last night’s beautiful recital I’ve been thinking a lot about Fr. Carr – The Rev. Francis Carr – our Tenth Rector and a wonderful friend to me – I think of him still as my spiritual grandfather.
            He used to sum up the Christian life as a life of love, forgiveness, and service.
            Love, forgiveness, and service.
            We are witnesses for Christ – witnesses of Christ – when we live lives of love, forgiveness, and service.
            Now, here at St. Paul’s we’re certainly not perfect, but I think that we do pretty well in the love and forgiveness department.
            Especially considering how diverse we are, this is a remarkably loving and forgiving place. Fifteen years ago, Sue and I saw it the first time we came to a service here when it came to time for the peace and pretty much everybody was out in the aisle greeting each other with love and, every once in a while, I’m sure, extending a hand of forgiveness.
            Through all the ups and downs of the years, that’s something that’s never changed.
            But, then there’s service.
            Together we’ve focused a lot on service to the community, haven’t we?
            We have our monthly community suppers and free community yoga and craft guild (now with coloring for adults). We host our neighborhood association and continue to welcome 12-step groups to meet here. Plus there’s Girl Scouts, our wonderful summer camp, and our many collection drives – most recently collecting 1,163 diapers for families in need.
            But, there’s so much more to do – and, even though we’ve grown, we can’t do it alone.
            During our many long conversations about the church, Fr. Carr used to say to me something like, “When you’re rector of St. Paul’s…” (yes, somehow, he knew) “…I want you to connect with other clergy and work to serve the people of Jersey City.”
            And, that’s what I’ve tried to do.
            Some of you know that for more than a year Rev. Laurie and I and about thirty other Jersey City clergy members from different faiths and denominations have been working with a community organizer named Frank McMillan so that our voices – not just the voices of the rich and powerful - can be heard by politicians.
            In recent months, we have begun to include lay people in this effort – including several St. Paul’s parishioners.
            And now today at the 10:00 service, we are going to set aside time for what are called “house meetings” to learn from you – to learn from each other – what we think are the important issues in our community.
            My hope and prayer is that more of us from St. Paul’s will get involved in this great effort – and find other ways - to serve our neighbors, to serve the people of this city.
            Just like the first disciples, you and I are witnesses to the joy of Easter.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Now, let us be witnesses by living lives of love, forgiveness, and… service.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Easter Together

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
April 12, 2015

Year B: The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
John 20:19-31

Easter Together
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Happy Easter!
            I’m still recovering from our Holy Week and Easter celebrations last week.
            We had a powerful Holy Week as we walked the way of the cross with Jesus, as we walked on the streets of Jersey City, carrying the cross – carrying the love of Christ – into places of despair and death – right now in our community, right here in Jersey City.
            For me, one of the highlights of Holy Week was our Holy Saturday service at 9:00 in the morning.
            Most Episcopal churches don’t offer this service and that’s too bad because I think it’s one of the most powerful of them all as we pause for a few minutes and really reflect on the strange in-between time between the Cross and the Empty Tomb.
            Since I had asked Vanessa to be the lector at the Holy Saturday service, I knew she was going to be there but I wondered if anyone else would show up. Surprisingly, it turned out that ten of us were present for this short simple service – which, now that I think about it, feels a little like being at a wake. And like a wake, it’s very good – it’s necessary to have others there with you – it’s good and necessary to be in community – it’s good and necessary to be together.
            And then it was Easter!
            For the Easter Vigil, St. Paul’s and Incarnation gathered together as one faith community, beginning in shadowy darkness and then glowing in the light of Easter, rejoicing together in the light of Christ.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            By now the world has moved on from Easter – the candy’s all been eaten – the baskets put away for another year and the world has moved on to whatever’s next, I don’t know, Mother’s Day, maybe.
            Of course, you’ve heard me say – and I’m sure you’ve heard other priests say – that, for the Church, Easter is not just a day – Easter is not just Easter Sunday with the hats and beautiful flowers and gorgeous music – but Easter is a whole season.
            And, we experience Easter together.
            Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter we hear the story of the Apostle Thomas who was not present with the other disciples that first Easter night when Jesus suddenly, miraculously, mysteriously appeared in the locked room – when Jesus breathed on the disciples in what amounted to a little Pentecost, giving them the power to forgive sins.
            But, Thomas wasn’t there, wasn’t together with the other disciples.
            Thomas wasn’t part of the community – at least not that night.
            I always wonder where he was – why he wasn’t with the others.
            He could have been off hiding, understandably afraid of the authorities who had arrested and killed Jesus.
            Or, maybe he was on some ordinary task, off to buy food or to check on a sick relative.
            But, in my imagination, I see him out in the wilderness somewhere – out in the desert all alone – shouting in despair up at the starry sky – crying out to God, “Why? How could all of this have happened? How could Jesus have been betrayed by one of his own – by one of us? How could all of us – how could I – have abandoned him as he hung on the cross? How could Jesus, how could the Lord – the one we thought was the messiah – how could he now be dead?”
            Well, wherever he was, Thomas missed the first appearance of the Risen Jesus.
            Instead, he gets the news from the other disciples – and, of course, Thomas doubts their story of Jesus’ resurrection.
            Since he’ll always be known as “Doubting Thomas” I’ll just point out that he doesn’t doubt Jesus so much as he doubts the report of his fellow disciples. And, let’s face it, he knows these guys – and knows they aren’t the most reliable group.
            But then a week later, Thomas is together with the others and has his encounter – finally experiences Easter – when Jesus appears to the disciples, appears to Thomas inviting him to touch his wounds, and to believe.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            For Thomas, and for us, we experience Easter together.
            And we hear about that Easter way of life – that togetherness is today’s other readings.
            In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a very “togetherly “ picture of the early church, describing them as “of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned as held in common.”
            In the second lesson the author of First John describes a Christian community that’s a fellowship – a fellowship with one another and a fellowship with God the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
            And we even hear the “togetherly” image when the psalmist sings, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is when brethren live together in unity.”
            We experience Easter together.
            Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for solitude – and we certainly can meet Christ during the times when we are alone and quiet.
            But, like Thomas and the first disciples, we’re most likely to meet the Risen Christ when we are together.
            And we’ve seen that over and over again, haven’t we?
            We’ve met the Risen Christ – wounds and all – when we’ve come together as the Episcopal Church in Jersey City, maybe most of all on Good Friday when we carried the cross – carried the love of Christ – into places of despair and death.
            We met the Risen Christ on Saturday night when those two beautiful baby girls were baptized – not in some private ceremony with just family and friends present but in church, with all of us here together.
            And we meet the Risen Christ most especially each time we come to the table – not dining alone – but here together, reaching out our hands and taking the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our souls.
            So, it’s still Easter for all of us here, together.
            It’s finally Easter for the Apostle Thomas who finally sees the Risen Christ and believes.
            It’s still Easter – it’s still Easter for us – it’s still Easter for us together as we meet the Risen Christ.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Unexpected Jesus

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
April 5, 2015

Easter Day
Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
John 20:1-18

Unexpected Jesus
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Happy Easter!
            We had a very rich and powerful Holy Week, the days leading up to this great festival of love and new life.
            On Thursday evening we reenacted the footwashing, when Jesus showed his disciples – shows us – what love looks like.
            On Friday we carried the cross of Christ into places of violence and despair in our community – sharing the love of Christ and making holy plots of earth stained by bloodshed.
            And then last night we began in darkness until the light of the Risen Christ was brought into our shadowy church, until the love of the Risen Christ was brought into our often shadowy world.
            We baptized two beautiful baby girls, Lena and Michelle.
            And then, finally, the lights came on and we cried out with great joy:
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen today! Alleluia!
            And now this morning we are here – and thanks to a lot of hard work – including a quick clean-up of a quite a lot of candle wax last night - this old church has never looked more beautiful or smelled more fragrant.
            Gail and our choir and our guest musicians have been making so much gorgeous music – and there’s lots more to come.
            There are so many great Easter hymns – and we’re going to get to sing them today in the next few Sundays of Easter.
            But, oddly enough, as I’ve been reflecting on today’s gospel lesson the hymn that’s been stuck in my head isn’t an Easter hymn at all.
            It’s an Advent hymn that I bet many of you know:
            “Come Thou Long-expected Jesus.”
            Today’s gospel passage is one of the most poignant and moving in all of Scripture. Even though I’ve read it – and now have read it aloud - many times, it still chokes me up every time and often I have to hold back tears.
            We’re told that Mary Magdalene discovered that Jesus’ tomb had been opened.
            Imagine the horror of that for a second.
            She ran and got Peter and the Beloved Disciple who race to the tomb, look inside – don’t know what to make of it all – and go back home.
            But Magdalene stays at the tomb, weeping.
            Those tears. It was all so terribly sad – everything that had happened to Jesus and now the final indignity of a robbed grave.
            But then angels appear.
            And then someone else appears and asks Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
            We know it’s Jesus but we’re told that Mary thinks it’s the… gardener.
            Over the centuries lots of people have speculated about why Mary is not able to recognize Jesus, why she was unable to recognize the Risen Christ.
            Some say, she couldn’t see through her tears.
            Others say, the sun was in her eyes.
            In at least one painting, Jesus is pictured wearing a hat, which conceals his identity.
            But, I think the most likely explanation – the truest explanation - is that Mary simply didn’t expect to see Jesus. In fact, encountering a walking, talking, somehow miraculously living Jesus was the last thing – the last person – she expected to meet in that place of despair and death.
            Unexpected Jesus.
            But then, Jesus calls her by name, “Mary!”
            And Mary finally recognizes unexpected Jesus, “Rabbouni!”
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Now, I’m hoping that we’re here today because we’re expecting Jesus to be here. And I hope that we can feel the presence of Jesus in one another, in the beauty of this place, in our beautiful Easter music, and most especially in the Body and Blood of Christ, which we’ll receive in just a few minutes.
            But, speaking for myself – and, if you don’t mind, I’m going to speak for you, too – most of the time, like Mary Magdalene I don’t expect to meet Jesus out there in the world.
            Unexpected Jesus.
            And, yet, when we pay attention we do discover unexpected Jesus, especially in places in places of despair and death.
            So often I’ve been at the bedside of someone gravely ill surrounded by suffering family members and friends – places of despair and death, for sure – and yet, somehow, unexpectedly, Jesus shows up, pouring out grace and strength during these times of trial and sorrow.
            Sometimes, it’s only later that I recognize him.
            I’m sure many of you know what I’m talking about.
            Unexpected Jesus.
            And then on this past Friday, on Good Friday, when we marched through streets littered with broken glass and ugly graffiti, when we paused at places where a “beloved child of God” had been shot or where a “beloved child of God” had been killed and hammered a nail into a large wooden cross to remember their suffering, when we visited street corners that are quite literally places of despair and death, well, I should have expected it, but sure enough Jesus showed up there, too.
            Unexpected Jesus.
            It was beautiful to look at the diverse crowd from all different branches of the Christian family who made the walk – it was moving to see some of our own parishioners carry that wooden cross through our streets – it was piercing to see and hear people hammer another nail into the cross – and it was extraordinary to see the reactions of bystanders and neighbors, including a woman looking down from her apartment window, sobbing.
            Once again, unexpected Jesus appears in a place of despair and death.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            My prayer is that during Easter and beyond, even through our tears, even when we’re blinded by the glare of life, even when – especially when - we’re in places of despair and death, we’ll expect to find Jesus right there – right here – loving us, and calling each one of us by name.
            Because here’s the Good News of Easter – here’s the best news ever: unexpected Jesus – long unexpected Jesus - is here.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Where's Jesus?

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Jersey City NJ
April 4, 2015

Year B: The Great Vigil of Easter
Genesis 1:1-2:2
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13
Exodus 14:10-15:1
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 6:3-11
Psalm 114
Mark 16:1-8

Where’s Jesus?

            Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            The Gospel passage I just read is the original ending of the Gospel of Mark, which almost everybody thinks was the first of the four gospels to be written.
            It contains lots elements found in the other, later gospels.
            The women go to the tomb and, horrifyingly, find that the stone has been rolled away.
            The women encounter a mysterious figure, dressed in a white robe, who tells them the most shocking, most amazing news of all time:
            “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            The women are instructed to share the news with Peter and the other disciples – to share the news that Jesus is risen and that he was going to meet them all back in Galilee, back where his mission had begun.
            Mark tells us, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
            Most scholars think that’s the original ending of the Gospel of Mark.
            Unlike in the other gospels, in the Gospel of Mark, we don’t actually see the Risen Christ – there are no stories of Jesus appearing mysteriously in a locked room – no stories of Jesus inviting Thomas to touch his wounds – no stories of appearing to disciples on the road to Emmaus.           
            There’s none of that. Which, maybe, feels a little bit like a letdown.
            But, actually, Mark tells us all that we really need to know.
            The young man in white says, “He has been raised. He is not here.”
            Jesus is no longer in the tomb.
            Jesus is no longer in the place of seeming failure, the place of death and decay.
            But, aside from saying he’s on his way to Galilee, it’s true that Mark doesn’t tell his first readers and hearers – he doesn’t tell us this evening – where exactly Jesus is.
            Where’s Jesus?
            Mark doesn’t tell where Jesus is because, of course, his first readers and hearers knew exactly where the Risen Christ was.
            And, you and I know where the Risen Christ is today.
            Just look around.
            Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            The Risen Christ is not in the tomb – not in the place of seeming failure, death, and decay but the Risen Christ is alive and here among us this evening – living in and among us, the people of St. Paul’s and Incarnation.
            Now, you may have missed it because it was a little dark in here, but already this evening we had a powerful encounter with the Risen Christ.
            We encountered the Risen Christ at the baptismal font when Velma and Randolph presented Lena and when Esther and Aaron presented Michelle – when they presented their beautiful baby daughters to be baptized.
            We encountered the Risen Christ when we recalled our own baptism – and the promises that we made or were made for us.
            We encountered the Risen Christ in the water of baptism where, as St. Paul tells us, Lena and Michelle died and rose again with Christ – in the water of baptism where God made an indissoluble bond with these two beloved children – in the water of baptism where God made an unbreakable bond with us all.
            We encounter the Risen Christ here in this beautiful, old building when we reach out to each other, loving one another, being there for each other in good times and not so good.
            We will encounter the Risen Christ in just a few moments at the Lord’s Table where we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, taking the Risen Christ into our bodies and into our hearts.
            And, hopefully, our encounters with the Risen Christ here this evening, and each time we gather at Incarnation or St. Paul’s, will give us eyes to see the Risen Christ out there – out on the streets of Jersey City – out there – at work or at school or at the supermarket or the mall.
            Hopefully our encounters with the Risen Christ will give us eyes to see the Risen Christ in the man stumbling drunk on Bergen Avenue or the heartbreakingly young woman begging for change near the escalator at the Journal Square PATH station – eyes to see the Risen Christ in the people we like the least – the people who scare us – and maybe even the people who hurt us.
            The women arrived at the tomb only to find that the stone had been rolled away.
            The young man dressed in a white robe greeted them with the most shocking, most amazing news of all time:
            “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”
            He is no longer in the tomb.
            Where’s Jesus?
            The Risen Christ is alive with us, right here and now.
            But, don’t take my word for it.
            Just look around.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Cross and Failure

The Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
April 3, 2015

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1-19:42

The Cross and Failure

            It’s Good Friday – a somber and sad day, for sure, but you and I know – we are anticipating - that Easter is on the horizon.
            It’s Good Friday but we all live in the time after Easter.
            That’s true for us and it was true for the people who wrote the gospels – who all wrote decades after the earthly life of Jesus.
            When they wrote the story of Jesus they knew what was going to happen – what had happened on Easter Day.
            Actually, if they hadn’t known about – hadn’t experienced - the Resurrection there would have been not much point in remembering Jesus. If they hadn’t known about the Resurrection Jesus might be just a footnote – another would-be messiah – a failure among countless failures throughout history.
            The truth is that on that first Good Friday in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, pretty much everybody who knew about Jesus must have thought that the cross was indeed the end of the story of this teacher and healer – this would-be messiah – this supposed king of the Jews - from Galilee.
            Pretty much everybody must have thought that the life of Jesus of Nazareth had ended in a disappointing, humiliating, bloody, and all too final, failure.
            Certainly the religious officials and Pontius Pilate who had condemned him to death must have thought Jesus was a failure and whatever kind of movement he was trying to start with all that kingdom of God talk – well, obviously that was all a big failure, too.
            What must Jesus’ family have thought in Jerusalem or back in Nazareth that day? All along, they had been kind of embarrassed by Jesus anyway, thinking he must have had a demon, urging him to come home, to be a small-town artisan like his father, Joseph.
            And, now, they must have thought, look what had happened? Failure.
            Judas Iscariot must have felt a crushing sense of failure. Whatever he was trying to achieve by betraying Jesus – perhaps provoke him into being the kind of messiah he and other wanted – a king riding a mighty horse instead of a humble colt – well, whatever Judas had wanted, that had ended in failure as well.
            And, Jesus’ other followers – what must have been running through their minds that day in Jerusalem?
            Yes, sure, there were all the amazing, sometimes confusing, head-scratch-causing teachings of Jesus.
            Yes, sure, there were the miracles and signs – demons expelled, sight restored, loaves and fish multiplied, even the dead raised.
            But, clearly they had followed the wrong rabbi. I mean, look at him up there, hanging on the cross like a common criminal, a failure.
            And then of course the disciples themselves had failed most spectacularly.
            They had all – or nearly all – abandoned him during his greatest moment of need – had left him to his excruciating and shameful death.
            And no one failed more spectacularly than Peter.
            The “rock” proved to be not so solid after all – denying his Lord to save his own skin and then overcome with guilt and remorse when he realized what he had done and remembered that Jesus had known that he would fail the test.
            And then there’s Jesus himself.
            Perhaps our brother Jesus also sensed failure as he seemed to be forsaken by everybody, seemingly forsaken even by God.
            Failure seemed to be all around in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday.
            Well, we don’t have to read the Bible to learn about failure, do we?
            All of us carry around a sense of failure.
            Sometimes we really have failed – we’ve failed to achieve our goals – we’ve failed to be as “successful” as we had hoped – we’ve failed to be as “successful” as our brother or sister, as our neighbor across the street - we’ve failed to live up to our highest ideals – we’ve failed to be the people that we say are – we’ve failed to be the people that everybody thinks we are.
            Sometimes we just have a general feeling of failure – that somehow we’re just not good enough, not smart enough, not talented enough – that we have failed to make the most out of our lives.
            And then there’s the human failure all around us.
            We saw that so clearly this morning on our Stations of the Cross procession – the failure of senseless violence – the failure of us to look out for each other – the failure to be outraged that so many of our people have to put bars on the windows of their houses – the failure to be outraged that so many of our young men are living behind bars.
            We all know a whole lot about failure, don’t we?
            During Lent some of us over at St. Paul’s read a book called Looking Through the Cross. It’s very good and I recommend it.
            In the book there’s a chapter called “The Cross and Failure” – and I’ve been thinking about that a lot.
            First off the author points out that the only reason we know about Peter’s colossal failure is because Peter must have told and retold the story of his denying Jesus to save his own skin.
            Why would he do that?
            Like all of us, wouldn’t he have preferred to keep this horribly humiliating failure as quiet as possible.
            The author suggests that Peter must have told the story because he knew from his own experience that God took his failure – can take our failures – and creates new life and new possibilities.
            Peter the denier became truly the Rock who gave away his life for Christ.
            God does God’s best work with failures – or what seem to be failures.
            As the author writes, “The story of the cross introduces us to a God who loves failures: in fact he can do more with failures than he can with those who have never experienced their own frailty and weakness.”
            And so this morning we – with all of our personal and collective failures – we carried the cross into the midst of failure – into places of violence and despair – and I trust that God used us this morning and will continue to use us to transform our community, turning failure into hope, transforming death into life.
            And I know this – we know this – because, like the writers of the gospel, we live in the time after Easter – the time when God took what everybody thought was failure – when God took Jesus, who everybody thought was a failure – God took the seeming failure of a crucified Jesus dead in the tomb and raised him to new life – doing most spectacularly what God always does – turning failure into hope, transforming death into life.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Feeding and Washing

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
April 2, 2015

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Feeding and Washing
            Today we enter the most sacred days of the church year.
            The Church invites us to reflect on the last days of Jesus’ earthly life when he gathered with his friends for one last meal, when he was betrayed and arrested, and when he died on the cross.
            At the same time, let’s be honest, it’s hard for most of us to “be in the moment” because we’re already anticipating – already looking ahead to - Easter.
            Certainly, for those of us who work in and for the church, this is especially difficult since we can’t wait until Saturday afternoon to prepare for Easter.
            One of the things I’m really looking forward to is our Easter Vigil on Saturday evening. It’s one of my favorite services of the year and it will be extra special this year because I’ll have the honor of baptizing two beautiful baby girls, Lena and Michelle.
            This past Saturday I met with the parents of Lena and Michelle to talk about the service and as we were talking I was struck by just how adorable these two little girls are and how much they are loved and cared for by their parents.
            Of course, they love their daughters not because they are commanded to love them, although there are legal and moral commands about that. No, they love their children because that’s the way life is supposed to be – that’s the way we are meant to  be – that’s who we really are.
            It was beautiful to see.
            But, I was also struck by how completely dependent those little girls are – and will continue to be for quite a while – how dependent they are on their parents, who, among other things, will feed them and wash them for years to come.
            Feeding and washing: this is what love looks like.
            If you were in church this past Sunday you know that together we read the Passion according to Mark.
            No matter how many times we hear the story of betrayal, brutality, denial, abandonment, blood, and death – no matter how many times we hear the story of Jesus’ arrest and execution – it never loses its power.
            This innocent man who was God’s beloved Son was rejected by people just like us and condemned to the shameful death of a common criminal, hanging on a cross, crying out to God who seems to have abandoned him.
            It is a powerful story – the most powerful story.
            But, because Jesus’ arrest and death is so powerful and so central it’s easy to miss the fact that all four gospels spend very little time focusing on the cross.
            That’s understandable, isn’t it?  For people who knew Jesus in the flesh or knew people who knew Jesus in the flesh, his death must have been almost too painful to remember and to contemplate.
            So, it’s no surprise that the authors of the gospels would want to avert their gaze, to look off elsewhere, to hurry away from the cross just like most, if not all, of Jesus’ followers and friends did that day on Calvary.
            The gospel writers don’t spend too much time at the foot of the cross.
            But, they do spend a lot of time at the Last Supper.
            Looking back after Easter, the early Church was determined to remember what Jesus did – what Jesus taught – at that somber gathering, that sad and uneasy meal in the upper room.
            And there are two most important things that the Church remembered from that night.
            The first is the feeding.
            Writing a couple of decades later, Paul handed on to the Corinthians what he had learned from some who were there that night:
            Jesus “took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”
            And then he took a cup and said, “’This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
            Jesus feeds those gathered at the Last Supper and commands us to remember him by feeding each other.
            The Gospel of John – which we heard tonight - gives a lot of attention to the Last Supper but, oddly enough, John actually doesn’t contain anything about the bread and the wine.
            Instead, John tells us lots of other things not found in the other gospels. And probably the most important thing is what we heard tonight, the foot-washing.
            Even after all  these centuries it’s still a little shocking isn’t it? The intimacy of it. The lowliness of it.
            We can easily imagine ourselves being Peter – thinking and saying no way is Jesus going to wash my feet!
            But, Jesus says to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
            And Peter finally get it – and insists that Jesus wash his feet – and his hands and his head, too!
            Feeding and washing: this is what love looks like.
            The God who we know in and through Jesus is a God who loves us like the parents of Lena and Michelle love their little girls.
            The God who we know in and through Jesus is a God who loves us like a parent tenderly feeding us and washing us.
            The God who we know in and through Jesus is a God who loves us enough to die for us.
            And the God we know in and through Jesus is a God who calls uscommands us - to feed each other – to feed not just our own children, but to feed all of God’s children.
            God calls us – commands us - to wash each other’s feet – to lovingly serve not just our family and friends, but everybody, especially the smelliest and the dirtiest and the hardest to like and love.
            Feeding and washing: this is what love looks like.
            This is the gift of Jesus to us.
            Feeding and washing: this is what love looks like.
            Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
            May it be so.