Sunday, May 31, 2015

God Says, "I Love You"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 31, 2015

Year B: The First Sunday after Pentecost – Trinity Sunday
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

God Says, “I Love You”
            There are many, many people around us who are so very spiritually hungry.
            It’s something I think about all the time.
            There are thousands of them all around us right here in Jersey City – I bet there are hundreds right here on Duncan Avenue.
            Over the past two years that I’ve been here I’ve tried to meet some of these people – to let them know that I’m – we’re – here. Standing outside before the services is very helpful with that!
            I’ve met a lot of people who love that our beautiful church is here, anchoring the block – providing a small oasis from the noise and concrete of the city.
            Many of them talk to me.
            Some of them will even come to some of our cultural events.
            But, so far anyway, most of them won’t come to church.
            And, there are all sorts of reasons why they won’t join us here.
            I’m sure for some they’d rather spend Sunday morning in the park, or at Wonder Bagels, or just sleeping in. I can certainly understand that, especially considering how hard people work during the week.
            For others, they won’t come because they have been hurt by the church.
            Obviously this makes me very sad and angry.
            And then there are others – probably the biggest group - who simply don’t believe what we proclaim about God and Jesus – and who have the very mistaken idea that somehow you’ve got to believe everything all the time in order to join us here at St. Paul’s.
            I’ve discovered that many of these neighbors are agnostics – they believe that there might be a god or some kind of spiritual energy or force behind all that is – but this god or energy or force is ultimately unknowable by us humans who, after all, are just specks living on this tiny rock in the vastness of the universe.
            I understand and respect that point of view.
            But, the truth is that our entire Judeo-Christian tradition offers a very different message.
            We believe that we can, to some extent, actually know the Spiritual Energy behind all that is – that the Spiritual Force behind everything wants to be known by us – that, in fact, God loves us – little us, just specks living on this tiny rock in the vastness of space.
            God loves us.
            I hope that many of you have had – or will have - the experience of finding the right time to say, “I love you” to someone special in your life.
            Sometimes that can happen fast, right?
            We meet someone and right away we know that this is “the one” – and we share our feelings - we say, “I love you.”
            In other cases it can take a very long time – maybe we’re shy or lack self-confidence – or maybe we’re separated by distance or circumstance – or maybe the other person isn’t ready to hear it – whatever the reason, it can take a very long time before we find the right moment to say, “I love you.”
            In either case, of course we hope that the other person will say it back to us, will say “I love you, too.”
            Sometimes, yes; sometimes, no, right?
            It’s not so different for God.
            God had to wait a really long time until God could begin saying, “I love you” to us.
            God began by choosing Abraham and his descendants, by liberating the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, by giving the Law and sending the prophets.
            Over and over, God said, “I love you.”
            And, sometimes the people said, “I love you, too.” And, sometimes not.
            Of course we show our love not just by saying the words but through our actions.
            Most of all, we show our love most clearly and powerfully when we reveal ourselves – when we share what’s deep in our hearts – when we invite our beloved to know who we really are.
            And the same is true for God.
            In today’s gospel lesson – the story of the Pharisee Nicodemus visiting Jesus by night – we heard the all-time most famous gospel verse – the words that sum up the entire gospel, sum up Christianity.
            John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life.”
            God says, “I love you” not just through words or even actions but by revealing God’s very Self to us - by joining us – us - just specks on a little rock in the vastness of the universe.
            When we look at Jesus we see what God is really like.
            In and through Jesus, God says, “I love you.”
            I love you so much that I’m willing to take all that you can dish out – the rejection, the mockery, the torture, the thorns, the nails, the spear.
            And, after all that, I still love you.
            Thanks to Jesus, what we’ve come to understand is that it’s not just that God loves us but that God is love.
            God is a loving community – a Trinity – of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – God is a loving community who loves us – who wants to share that love with us, who says to us over and over again, “I love you.”
            God says, “I love you” each time we appreciate the beauty of this tiny rock that we get to live on in the vastness of the universe.
            God says, “I love you” each time we mysteriously get the strength to go on when things seem hopeless – each time we get help from family and friends in our moments of need.
            God says, “I love you” each time we gather here in all our beautiful diversity – each time we pass the peace – each time we gather at the Table to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
            And, yes, God says, “I love you” when we work up the courage to tell someone special in our lives that we love them - and they say, “I love you, too.”
            So, I understand, respect, and, yes, love our agnostic friends and neighbors.
            And, trust me, I don’t have everything figured out – I’m a guy on the road just like everybody else – but, I believe that God so loved – so loves – the world that he gave – that he gives – his only Son.
            Over and over, God keeps on saying, “I love you.”
            The response is up to us. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Days after Pentecost

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 24, 2015

Year B: The Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

The Days after Pentecost
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Today is one of the great feasts of the church year: Pentecost.
            It’s fifty days after Easter – fifty days after the Resurrection – and ten days since the Ascension when Jesus was taken from our sight.
            And now, as promised, the first disciples in Jerusalem have received the gift of the Holy Spirit – transforming them from bumbling, fearful and confused off and on followers of Jesus into bold, courageous and eloquent Christian disciples and witnesses.
            On Pentecost, thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church is born.
            One of the things I love about Pentecost – yes, I love our church picnic but even more important than that – one of the things I love about Pentecost is that it isn’t a one-time event.
            The other big feasts: Christmas, Transfiguration, Easter, Ascension are all onetime events – Jesus was born only once, was transfigured with Moses and Elijah only once, was raised and ascended only once.
            But, Pentecost…Pentecost happens all the time.
            God is constantly pouring out the Holy Spirit on us – offering us the same gift that the early disciples received back in Jerusalem, 2000 years ago.
            Here are two times and places that I’ve seen the Holy Spirit lately:
            As many of you know, last Monday night there was a big community organizing meeting over at Old Bergen Church.
            As you also know, St. Paul’s has been part of the effort – along with about 30 other congregations – to get a new community organizing movement started in Jersey City – to allow the voices of people like us heard in the halls of power.
            I was so moved by what I experienced at that meeting last week.
            First, there were so many St. Paul’s people there – thank you – about thirty of us connected to this church took the time to care about our city. And, our own resident miracle worker, Gail Blache-Gill once again practically created a choir on the spot!
            And then, one by one, representatives of all these different Jersey City congregations – people of different faiths, colors, ages, and languages – all stood up and told us what they heard from people in their communities, in their neighborhoods, on the bus, all over the place.
            Finally, near the end, my friend, The Rev. Frances Teabout, got up and preached a mini-sermon calling us all to action – challenging all of us to allow ourselves to be sent – she cried out, “Send me!” over and over – challenging us all to not pass the buck to others but to take up this great work.
            For me – and I think for many of us there – it was another Pentecost.
            And then, in just a little bit, we’re going to have another Pentecost right back there at the font, when Koren is baptized.
            In and through the water of baptism, God is going to pour out the Holy Spirit on Koren – making a bond with her that is indissoluble, can never be broken no matter what she does or doesn’t do for the rest of her life.
            And God is going to pour out the Holy Spirit on us – right here, in just a few minutes – reminding us of our own baptismal promises – that was us back there once – and giving us the strength to try, with God’s help, to keep those promises.
            We’re celebrating Pentecost – and in a few moments we’re going to experience yet another Pentecost.
            It’s Pentecost.
            But, you know, almost as important as Pentecost is what comes after Pentecost.
            Back in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago, the disciples had a remarkable experience, filled with the Holy Spirit, giving them remarkable abilities, making them so joyful that some people thought they must have been hitting the wine even though it was only 9:00 in the morning.
            But, what about the next day? What about the day after Pentecost?
            Those first disciples could have woken up with a kind of spiritual hangover, thinking to themselves, wow, that was an amazing experience, but then it’s the next day and they can’t speak foreign languages anymore – it’s the next day and they feel pretty much the same as always. The disciples could have easily just gone back to their same old ways of living.
            And the same is true for us.
            What about the next day? What about the day after Pentecost?
            For those of us who were at Old Bergen Church last week and had that amazing experience did we wake up on Tuesday morning with a kind of spiritual hangover, thinking, wow, that was an amazing experience, but then went back to our same old ways of living, with the once-powerful words “Send me” softening to just a weak echo in our heads?
            And what about tomorrow - for Koren and us?
            We are having a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit here today, but what about tomorrow?
            Will we wake up with a kind of spiritual hangover, thinking, wow, that was an amazing experience – witnessing a baptism, being reminded of our own baptism -but then go back to the same old, back to our old ways of living.
            Well, we’re told that Pentecost wasn’t just a day for the first disciples – it transformed them permanently.
            They continued to share the Good News – continued to break bread together and to pray together – began spreading the word about Jesus out from Jerusalem to the rest of the Mediterranean world and eventually even to Duncan Avenue.           
            There would be more special days when they really felt the presence of the Holy Spirit but there would also be plenty of seemingly ordinary days.
            Yet, even then, God was pouring out the Holy Spirit.
            And the same is true for us.
            Tomorrow is a holiday, but most of us will more or less go back to our usual lives – we won’t be dressed in red – or get to hear phenomenal music – or watch a baptism – or have a picnic with a 100 or so other people.
            It’ll be the day – the days - after Pentecost.
            Yet, God will still be pouring the Holy Spirit onto us giving us the strength to be the Body of Christ in the world.
            Pentecost didn’t happen just once.
            Pentecost isn’t only one day.
            Pentecost happens all the time.
            In fact…Pentecost even happens on the day – and the days – after Pentecost.
            Come Holy Spirit, stay right here with us, and fill us with your love.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Not Belonging to the World

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 17, 2015

Year B: The Seventh Sunday after Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

Not Belonging to the World
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            This past Thursday morning a handful of us gathered here to celebrate Ascension Day, a principal feast of the church that commemorates Jesus’ ascension into heaven forty days after Easter.
            Ascension Day marks a momentous turning point for us Christians.
            Jesus is no longer physically present here in the world.
            Actually…that’s not exactly true.
            Jesus does remain physically present in the world in and through us – in through the Church, the Body of Christ in the world.
            And, of course, Jesus remains physically present in his Body and Blood that we receive each time we gather at the Lord’s Table.
            Today’s passage from the Gospel of John is part of a long section of that gospel called the Farewell Discourse – it’s Jesus’ long good-bye to his disciples at the Last Supper.
            Jesus knows he is about to be arrested and killed and so knowing that time is short he wants to get through to his disciples what’s most important.
            The section we heard today comes from near the end of the Farewell Discourse.
            Jesus prays to God the Father, thanking God for the disciples who have believed that Jesus came from the Father.
            In his prayer it sounds like Jesus is ascending – or has already ascended.
            And, in Jesus’ prayer there is a lot of talk about the world.
            Jesus says that he does not belong to the world – and in fact is no longer in the world.
            Jesus says that the disciples also don’t belong to the world – but, of course, they – and we – are very much still in the world.
            We Christians are in the world but don’t belong to the world.
            Or, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
            If you follow the news, you may know that this past week there was a lot of talk about the state of Christianity here in the United States.
            Christianity has been in decline in Europe for decades but the United States has remained a solidly Christian country, at least in name.
            For a very long time a very high percentage of Americans have identified themselves as Christians and have said they go to church, at least sometimes.
            But, that’s changed – and continues to change.
            According to a report released this past week by the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of American adults identified as Christian, a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points lower than another Pew study in 2007.
            And, let’s be honest, we know that 71 percent is a highly inflated number.
            The Christian decline is happening across the country in most denominations especially among young adults who don’t seem very interested in getting involved with organized religion, especially Christianity.
            Instead, these young people are content to remain unaffiliated – to be spiritual but not religious.
            And, here’s something else to think about: at least a quarter of the people who were raised Christian have left the faith. Nineteen percent of all American adults are ex-Christians.
            Needless to say, this report generated a lot of talk – and anxiety – in church circles.
            So, why are people leaving the church and abandoning the Christian faith?
            It’s complicated – but I think a major factor is that all too often we Christians have failed to be who Jesus says we are – we have failed to be who we are supposed to be – we have failed to be who we really are.
            All too often, we have been in the world and we have belonged to the world.
            The truth is that, all too often there has been little or no difference between the way we Christians behave and the way the world behaves.
            And, I’m not just talking about those so-called Christians with their hateful signs picketing funerals of soldiers and celebrities – and I’m not just talking about the fakes on TV offering to heal and bless in return for a donation – all major credit cards accepted.
            No, I’m not talking about them. I’m taking about us.
            In many ways St. Paul’s is a most amazing church – and you know I love it and I love you – but the sad truth is all too often there’s been very little difference between the way we behave here and the way world behaves out there.
            All too often, we have been in the world and we have belonged to the world.
            And, I’m right there with you.
            If I’m honest, I have to acknowledge that all too often I belong to the world, too – quick to judge and slow to forgive; concerned too much about my own wants, comfort and security; annoyed by and suspicious of people looking for help.           
            All too often you and I have been in the world and we have belonged to the world.
            No wonder people – especially young people who can smell a phony a mile away – no wonder they ask why in the world they should get up early on Sunday and go to church – no wonder that people ask what’s the point of our Christian faith if we live pretty much like everybody else.
            No wonder so many have become unaffiliated – have become ex-Christians.
            But…there’s good news. And the good news is that Jesus hasn’t stopped praying for us – and never will stop praying for us.
            Jesus knows the world is a dangerous place and it’s so easy for us to get seduced by its false and destructive values.
            Jesus hasn’t stopped praying for us – praying that we who are in the world will not belong to the world – praying that we will give generously – that we will finally remember to bring an item for the food pantry - praying that we will welcome the stranger – praying that we will be one as he and the Father are one – praying that we will sacrifice – praying that we’ll quit judging and forgive easily – praying that we will welcome those in need as if they were Jesus himself.
            Jesus has ascended into heaven.
            We are the Body of Christ in the world.
            And, with Jesus praying so hard for us, we Christians can, at last, be in the world but not belong to the world.
            And, then people – including at least some of those ex-Christians and the unaffiliated – just might look at us and say…
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Saturday, May 16, 2015


The Wedding of Patrick Collins and Hilary Yates
May 16, 2015

Tobit 8:5-7
1 John 4:7-12
Mark 10:6-9

            Wow! What a joyful day!
            What a great joy to gather together this afternoon and celebrate the love shared by Pat and Hilary.
            What a great joy to witness the lifelong commitment they are making to each other – and to promise that we will support them in their married life in good times and not so good.
            As you might guess, I go to a lot of weddings but this one is especially joyful because it’s a first for me.
            As some of you know, before I became a priest I was a high school history teacher and this is the first time that I have the honor of officiating at the wedding of one of my former students.
            A couple of months ago when I heard from Pat, first I thought maybe he wanted to dispute some long ago grade I had given him – or maybe he wanted some essay or test of his that I had never gotten around to returning.
            But no, of course he wanted to let me know about Hilary.
            He wanted to let me know about today.
            And, over the past couple of months I’ve had the privilege and joy to get to know this couple. And I’ve learned what you already know.
            These are two very fine young people – bright, level-headed, at ease with themselves and each other, sharing a quiet but oh so deep love.
            I also learned that they are both fortunate enough to earn a living doing what they love.
            At one point I asked them how much swimming stuff was going to be in their wedding, thinking maybe everyone would receive little souvenir goggles or life preservers or something like that.
            They both looked at me with that look – some of you know the look I mean – and said, no, they wouldn’t push the swimming metaphors at their wedding.
            But, it’s just so hard to resist, isn’t it?
            After all, today Patrick and Hilary are taking the plunge – they’re diving into married life, they’re swimming into uncharted waters…should I go on?
            Probably not. I’m going to get that look.
            Now, I admit that I don’t know anything about swimming, unless floating around a pool in a tube counts.
            But, as I’ve reflected about these two swimmers I’ve thought about the need for stamina in the pool.
            For swimmers that stamina comes from practice – from being physically fit – and sometimes maybe from being cheered on by the crowd.
            And, I suppose married life is not so different, really.
            Just like swimming, it takes stamina to make - and especially to keep - a lifelong commitment.
            Where does that stamina come from?
            In part it comes from practice – the day in, day out practice of loving each other, of being kind and considerate to each other.
            In part it comes from being cheered on by us – supported by the family and friends who care about these two so much – that’s why we’re here today promising to support Pat and Hilary’s married life.
            But, ultimately, the stamina comes from God – from the Source of all love, from the God who is love.
            God is love – and so the beautiful love shared by Patrick and Hilary is a bottomless gift from God.
            Their – your – love is a reflection of God - and is sustained by God.
            So, today is a joyful day for Pat and Hilary, for me, and for all of us – a joyful day when we celebrate the love shared by Patrick and Hilary.
            But, it’s also a joyful day because their love gives us all a glimpse – a reminder - of God’s sustaining love for all of us – God’s gift of stamina for us all –in the deep and often treacherous waters of life keeping us afloat.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 10, 2015

Year B: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Sometimes when people ask me how I’m doing, as a little joke I answer something like, “Well, I go to church a lot.”
            It usually gets a smile – and, yes, usually quickly changes the subject!
            But, it’s true – I do go to church a lot.
            There’s Sunday, of course, and there’s also the weekday services – the three services we have at St. Paul’s every week plus the occasional feast day.
            I’ve mentioned before how much I believe in the importance of weekday worship.
            Part of the reason I like it so much is we get to say and hear such great prayers from the Prayer Book – prayers that seldom or even never get said on Sunday.
            For example, one of my favorites is one that is often said at Morning Prayer:
            “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…”
            Isn’t that a powerful image?
            Jesus stretching out his arms of love – stretching out his arms on the cross, stretching out his arms to love and embrace the whole world.
            But, there’s more – and it’s about us.
            The prayer continues:
            “So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you…”
            In today’s gospel passage, Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
            And if we’re going to obey Jesus’ great love commandment then we’re going to have to let God stretch us.
            We heard some stretching in today’s first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles.
            This requires a little back-story.
            We know that all of Jesus’ first followers were Jews. They were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Jewish messiah.
            But, very early on, thanks to St. Paul and others, non-Jews (gentiles) begin to get attracted to Jesus, become drawn to very early Christianity.
            And, this caused the first really big crisis in the early Church: what to do about these gentiles? Were they welcome in the Christian community? Did they have to become Jews first, following the commands that men be circumcised and obeying the Jewish dietary and other rules?
            Those first Christians were being called to stretch.
            Anyway, in the Acts of the Apostles just before today’s passage, Peter has a vision of a giant sheet containing many different creatures, including those a good Jew wasn’t supposed to eat.
            Peter hears a voice say, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”
            But, Peter knows the rules and refuses.
            And then the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
            Then Peter gets summoned by a gentile, a Roman soldier named Cornelius, who wants to learn about Jesus.
            Peter lets God stretch him
            And so where we pick up today, Peter is still preaching to this Roman soldier and other gentiles when the Holy Spirit falls on everybody – falls on Cornelius and all the other non-Jews who were there – God’s love stretches over all of them.
            And, Peter, well, he keeps right on letting God stretch him.
            He says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit as we have?”
            And they were all baptized.
            If we’re going to obey Jesus’ great love commandment then we’re going to have to let God stretch us.
            Of course, mothers know all about how love requires stretching.
            Their – your – own bodies literally get stretched as new life – as new love – is brought into the world.
            And often the marks remain as a reminder that love requires stretching.
            Moms and Dads are called on to stretch – to stretch to love more than they ever thought they could love – to stretch and sacrifice their own needs and wants – to stretch and invest in the future so that their children can have a better life than they themselves have.
            But, it’s not just moms and dads who are called to stretch.
            If we’re going to obey Jesus’ great love commandment then we’re all going to have to let God stretch us.
            At St. Paul’s over the past couple of years we’ve been letting God stretch us more and more – taking on new ministries, opening our doors to the community, getting more involved in the life of our diocese.
            (At Incarnation there’s been a lot of stretching going on – developing a new vision for how to do church – moving to the afternoon - some people are still having trouble stretching that far! – taking the choir on the road – and now thinking about a future somewhere other than here on Storms Avenue.)
            But, the truth is we’re going to have to let God stretch us some more.
            We’re going to have to stretch and welcome people to our churches who may not look or sound like us – people we may not like or even trust – people we might, out in the world, look the other way or cross the street to avoid.
            If we’re going to obey Jesus’ great love commandment then we’re going to have to let God stretch us.
            We’re going to have stretch and, finally, take the Good News outside our doors and off our church grounds and into our neighborhoods where the modern day equivalent of Cornelius the Centurion and the Ethiopian eunuch we heard about last week are so very hungry for the Gospel.
            If we’re going to obey Jesus’ great love commandment then we’re going to have to let God stretch us.
            We’re going to have to stretch and bring the love of Jesus to our neighbors who so often are living lives of quiet or not so quiet desperation with no idea that anyone, let alone God, loves them.
            Like Peter, we’re going to have to let God stretch us.
            It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to hurt.
            And we may even be left with some spiritual stretch marks.
            But, as Peter knew and as mothers probably know best, the reward of stretching is bringing new life and new love into the world.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Thrown Away Branches

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 3, 2015

Year B: The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

Thrown Away Branches
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            If you were in church last week, you may remember that we heard Jesus use one of the most familiar Christian images: Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, lays down his life for us.
            And in last week’s gospel passage, Jesus also says that there are other sheep out there who need to be brought into the fold so that we may all be one as Jesus and God the Father are one.
            It’s a powerful and comforting image of Jesus and us.
            Today we hear Jesus using a different image to describe the relationship of God, Jesus, and us.
            Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.”
            And later, Jesus says to his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
            This is another powerful image, isn’t it?
            God is the vinegrower who has planted Jesus the true vine – has planted Jesus among us – and we are all branches.
            And, once again unity is important to Jesus.
            You and I – the branches – we need to stay connected to Jesus the vine – need to stay connected so that we receive the gift of life – need to stay connected so we receive the nutrition that we need to live abundant lives – need to stay connected so we can bear fruit.
            Jesus also says that God the vinegrower – like all gardeners – needs to do some pruning so the vine and the branches are healthy.
            So far, so good.
            We all know in our lives that pruning is required – the excess, the not so good, needs to be cut away – so that we can center ourselves on what’s most important.
            Finally, though, there’s a warning about the branches that don’t stay connected to Jesus – that don’t stay connected to the vine.
             They wither and die – they become good for nothing and are burned.
            So, the message is clear: we need to stay connected to Jesus the vine.
             We stay connected to Jesus the vine when we gather here to pray and to sing and to take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and souls.
            And, we stay connected to Jesus the vine when we follow the great teachings we heard today in the First Letter of John:
            “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another.”
            And then there’s this:
            “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
            Jesus is the vine. We are the branches.
            Like I’m sure most, if not all, of us, I have been deeply saddened – but, let’s be honest, not surprised - by the events in Baltimore last week.
            How could we be surprised after Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island and countless other places where people of color and others have risen up after perceiving disrespect and abuse from the police?
            How could we be surprised since we see our own city with block after block of deep poverty, crime, and despair in the shadow of our gleaming downtown built with tax breaks for people who can actually afford to pay taxes?
            How could we be surprised that the rage boiled over once again – that self-destructive rioters once again burned down their own communities?
            How could we be surprised?
            As I’ve thought about Baltimore and the condition of our cities and our country – our country in which one out of every four adults – about 65 million Americans! - has a criminal record – our country which has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners - our country in which if I get pulled over for a broken taillight maybe I get a ticket but if a person of color gets pulled over for the same offense who knows what might happen…
            As I’ve thought about our country I’ve realized that somehow we’ve misunderstood Jesus’ words in today’s gospel.
            God does the pruning.
            God throws the dead branches into the fire.
            Not us.
            But that’s exactly what we’ve done.
            We have cut off so many people in our country – denying our unity, denying them a decent education, denying them equal opportunity, treating them as less than human and certainly not worthy of respect – we’ve cut off these branches, leaving them good for nothing, and yet are somehow surprised when, from time to time, they burn as they did last week in Baltimore.
            As I read in an article this past week, there are “…bone dry logs, twigs, and kindling stacked high in every corner of impoverished neighborhoods.”
            Yes, over the years there have been all sorts of government and non-profit anti-poverty programs – and sometimes they’ve helped, though, of course, they’re always the first things to get cut when budgets need to be balanced.
            Someone I know who’s on food stamps recently had her benefit cut to $16 a month!
            And, yes, we spend a lot of money on public schools in places like Baltimore and, yes, Jersey City, often with very little to show for it.
            Money and other resources are surely needed but, it seems to me, what’s really lacking – what’s really needed in our country today is… love.
            The author of First John writes, “Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”
            And, that’s on all of us.
            Jesus is the vine and we are the branches.
            We need to stay connected with the vine by loving one another, especially those who are hard to love – by loving not just the nice people who come to church with us week after week – and not just our families and friends – but by loving the guy selling loose cigarettes on the corner or the mother who is a heroin addict or the guy who’s a little slow maybe because he grew up around lead paint or menacing teenagers hanging out in front of the bodega probably up to no good or those who take advantage of a situation to loot stores.
            It’s time – long past time actually – for us to stop trying to do God’s job.
            It’s time – long past time – for us to stop deciding which branches are dead.
            It’s time – long past time – for us to stop cutting off what we think are dead branches and leaving them to burn.
            And if we don’t stop deciding which branches are dead, if we don’t at least try to love those who are hard to love, we may find to our horror that God decides that we are the dead branches to be gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.
            Jesus is the vine and we are the branches.
            And, as the branches, we stay connected to Jesus the vine when we love one another.
            “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another.”
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Luthy's Easter

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

The Funeral of Luthmila Busby
Wisdom 3:1-5, 9
Psalm 23
Revelation 7:9-17
John 14:1-6a

Luthy’s Easter
            It feels very real right now, doesn’t it?
            For several weeks now most of us have known about Luthy’s sudden and shocking and so sad death but now as we gather in this sacred place and see the casket and sing our songs and say our prayers it feels very real.
            Our dear sister Luthy – our niece, cousin, friend – has died.
            In the Gospel passage I just read, the death of Jesus is starting to feel all too real for his disciples.
            Jesus isn’t dead yet but he’s been preparing his disciples for what’s to come – that he is leaving them, at least for a time.
            Jesus tries to comfort and reassure the disciples telling them that he is going to prepare a place for them – for us – in heaven.
            Jesus tries to comfort and reassure the disciples telling them that he will return and gather the disciples – gather all of us – together once again.
            Jesus tries to comfort and reassure the disciples telling them – telling us – “and you know the way to the place where I am going.”
            The Apostle Thomas – speaking for the others, speaking for us – says to Jesus, “Lord we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
            And Jesus says to him and to us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
            Throughout her all too brief life, in her own quiet and loving way, Luthy put her trust in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life.
            When I announced her death here at St. Paul’s, I wasn’t planning to say this but I said that she was just about the sweetest person I had ever met.
            I thought about the times she was here at St. Paul’s – even when she wasn’t feeling particularly well physically or emotionally – she always managed to be cheerful and even a little goofy - always spoke with joy about the antics of her cats – she always took an interest in how I was doing, how things were here at the church.
            I thought about how she often spoke about her beloved mother, Erica – how close the two of them were – the loving bond that they shared.
             We all know how devastating Erica’s death had been – a blow from which Luthy never really recovered.
            I wasn’t here at St. Paul’s when Erica died but I got a glimpse of Luthy’s deep love and compassion when her uncle Amreeth died back in November.
            She was deeply saddened but she also managed to make us smile with her kind of silly sense of humor – making a difficult time just a little more bearable.
            While she was alive, I didn’t know much about Luthy’s life outside of church – didn’t know much about her friends, beyond the occasional photo on facebook.
            But, since her death, I’ve been so moved by the outpouring of love for this special person.
            There have been many facebook posts expressing shock and grief and love.
            There have been calls to church asking about her funeral, asking what could be done to help.
            Just yesterday I received a message from one of Luthy’s friends.
            Here’s what she had to say about Luthy:
            “…she was such a beautiful, caring, and loving young lady. Her smile was as beautiful as her laughter. She was always praying for others and for us.”
            Throughout her all too brief life, in her own quiet and loving way, Luthy put her trust in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life.
            As many of you know, the past few months Luthy hadn’t really been feeling too well.
            Moving from one apartment to another had been an ordeal for her, straining her physically and, I’m sure, stirring up the lasting grief at her mother’s death.
            Every once in a while I’d reach out to her, trying to get her to come to church.
            The last time was right before Palm Sunday.
            She told me that she wouldn’t be here then but she would definitely be in church on Easter Sunday to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection with us.
            Of course, things didn’t work out the way we hoped.
            But, instead of celebrating Easter here with all of us, Luthy was at an even better party, celebrating Easter in the full presence of God.
            Instead of celebrating Easter here with all of us, Luthy celebrated Easter with her mom and her uncle and with those she loved and have gone to be with God forever.
            Instead of celebrating Easter with all of us, Luthy celebrated Easter in the place where grief is turned into joy, where what’s broken is made whole again.
            Now, for Luthy, the Easter celebration isn’t just one day, or even a season. For Luthy, Easter is everyday. Forever and ever.
            And for us, although Luthy’s death is feeling all too real right now and we miss her so much, we’re called to remember and follow the example of our sister who throughout her all too brief life, in her own quiet and loving way, put her trust in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life.
            So today, yes, we grieve and we cry but, most of all, we celebrate – we celebrate sweet Luthy’s life with us - and her new life in the place prepared lovingly for her by Jesus.