Sunday, June 28, 2015

Trusting the God of New Life

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 28, 2015

Year B, Proper 8: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Trusting the God of New Life

            A while back I mentioned to you that when I was a teenager I participated in my high school’s retreat program – retreats that had and continue to have a deep effect on my life.
            The retreats took place over a long weekend down the Shore in a rambling old Victorian house, bringing together classmates, some of whom knew each other very well and others who might not have even known each other’s names.
            Since over the course of the retreat it was common for us kids to share some personal stuff, it was important for us to build trust right from the start so we could share without fearing it would be the talk of the cafeteria after we got back to school.
            So, early on we were asked to do a trust exercise that began with all of us pairing off.
            Then, we took turns turning our backs on our partner, stretching out our arms and falling backwards, hoping – trusting – that our partner would catch us before we fell onto the hardwood floor.
            Some of us had no trouble taking the plunge while others had great difficulty believing, trusting, that the other kid would actually care enough and/or be strong enough to save us.
            But it was only through trust – through trusting each other and trusting God -that we could be open to – could receive - the experience of the retreat.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we heard the stories of two miracles performed by Jesus – miracles that seem to require people to trust Jesus.
            In one, a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, comes to Jesus because his twelve year-old daughter is gravely ill. This distraught father somehow trusts that Jesus can heal her. He says to Jesus,
            “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.”
            But, first there’s an interruption.
            The second story is sandwiched in the middle of today’s passage. A woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, spending all of her money only to be tortured and disappointed by doctors – this woman trusts in Jesus enough that she boldly touches his cloak. She said, maybe to herself or maybe out loud,
            “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”
            The woman trusts Jesus, reaches out her hand, and the hemorrhage stops immediately. Her twelve long years of suffering are over.
            And then we’re back to Jairus’ daughter.
            It seems that Jesus may be too late when people arrive with the news that the girl is dead.
            But, Jesus tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”
            The bleeding woman trusted that Jesus would give her new life.
            Jairus trusted that Jesus would offer his daughter new life.
            So, here’s the point: Faith isn’t so much a matter of believing certain religious statements to be true.
            That’s what people often think but it’s just not the case.
            No, instead, faith is much more a matter of trust – for us, faith means placing our trust in God and in Jesus the Son of God.
            Faith is trusting the God of new life.
            Unfortunately, and for lots of good reasons, trust is hard.
            On my high school retreat it was hard for some of us to trust and let ourselves fall back into a stranger’s arms.
            I’m sure it was hard for Jairus to trust there was new life for his daughter when everybody was saying that she was dead.
            It was hard for that poor suffering woman – bleeding for twelve long years – to trust that Jesus might actually offer her new life.
            And, trust is hard for us, too.
            Many of us have faced betrayal.
             And, maybe some of us ourselves haven’t always been trustworthy, haven’t always lived up to the trust that others placed in us.
            So, yes, trust is hard for us.
            But, it’s necessary.
            All God really asks of us is to trust – to trust God who never betrays a trust – to trust God who is always standing by, ready to catch us, to heal us, to offer us new life.
            It has been a very emotional, roller-coaster week, hasn’t it?
            The Supreme Court has been busy saving the Affordable Care Act and declaring same-sex marriage legal in all 50 States.
            And then there’s Charleston.
            Like many of you, I’m sure, this past week I’ve continued to follow the story, reading many different articles about Emanuel AME Church, its amazing pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the eight others who were killed in the attack, about the alleged perpetrator and especially about how the people of this church – the relatives and friends of those who were killed - how the people of this community have responded to horror.
            Over and over they have shown themselves to be people of faith. They are people of faith not because of the different religious ideas they have in their heads but because they have a radical trust in the God of new life.
            This trust must have been built over the years through practice – through practice so that when the time of testing came they trusted God completely.
            The sister of one of those killed said, “Emanuel does not harbor hate in her heart. That’s not the God we serve. It’s important for us to know that the young man (the alleged killer) is a mother’s son, a father’s son. If he can earnestly repent, God will hear him.”
            Trusting the God of new life.
            One family who lost a loved one has started the “Hate Won’t Win Challenge” that invites people to “commit an act of love” and post it on social media.
            Trusting the God of new life.
            Another said, “We are here to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions. And is what we want to get out into the world.”
            Trusting the God of new life.
            The sister of another victim said, “Forgiveness is the only way. Others may not agree with me but that’s the way it has to be.” And, she added, “I believe that our God is a god of purpose.”
            Trusting the God of new life.
            Over and over the families and friends of those killed at Emanuel Church have, despite the evil hatred and deadly violence they have endured – despite the racism they have faced their whole lives – despite the perfectly human desire for revenge – over and over these beautiful Christian brothers and sisters have radically and wholeheartedly put their trust in Jesus Christ the Son of God.
            Faith is trusting the God of new life.
            And, look at what’s happened in our country in the days since the massacre!
            New life. New life all around us.
            For decades many, many people have been deeply unhappy about the display of old Confederate symbols on public property – at state capitols, as part of state flags, on license plates, and so on.
            And yet there just hasn’t been the political will to do much about it.
            Until now.
            New life.
            And, I sense a new spirit in our land – a new spirit that President Obama expressed in his amazing eulogy of Rev. Pinckney on Friday – a new spirit, a new grace, a new willingness to finally, finally face our old problems and prejudices.
            I sense a new spirit in the land to set aside our own misgivings and misunderstandings, our own prejudices and to accept – and, yes, even celebrate – when, yet again, love wins, as it surely did at the Supreme Court last week.
            New life.
            Faithful Jairus trusted Jesus with the life of his daughter.
            The faithful woman bleeding trusted Jesus with her very life.
            Their trust led them to new life.
            And, what was true for them long ago is true for the people of Emanuel Church - and for us - today.
            All God asks us is to trust – to trust the God who is always standing by, ready to catch us, to heal us, to offer us new life.
            Faith is trusting the God of new life.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Our Boat

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 21, 2015

Year B, Proper 7: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Psalm 9:9-20
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Our Boat
            Sometimes when I’m downtown at the waterfront I like to take a few minutes and look at the boats docked in the marina next to Liberty Park.
            Have you ever done that?
            Now, I don’t know the first thing about boats but the beauty and the size of many of the boats always impresses me.
            I bet like a lot of other people, I always think to myself that these boats must cost a fortune – a fortune just to buy one and a fortune to maintain it just sitting there in the dock.
            Now, I don’t know this for sure but I suspect that some of these boat owners don’t actually take their boats out of dock and into the open waters all that often.
            Instead, for them the fun of owning the boat is tinkering with the engine and the other mechanisms, making improvements and refinements, painting and polishing and so on.
            They enjoy just hanging out on the boat while it’s docked.
            Well, in today’s gospel passage Jesus and his disciples take their boat out of the dock and out into the open sea.
            Mark tells us that Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.”
            Which means across the Sea of Galilee away from the Jewish territory where Jesus has been teaching and healing – across the Sea of Galilee to Gentile lands on the other side – across the Sea of Galilee and into unknown territory.
            And, as we just heard, sure enough Jesus and the disciples get caught up in a great windstorm, terrifying the disciples, but not Jesus who seems to be snoozing through the whole thing.
            But, Jesus is there in the boat with the disciples and he calms the storm.
            And then, Jesus asks the disciples the haunting questions, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”
            For more than one reason, I’ll never own a boat.
            And I’m going to guess that’s true for pretty much everybody here today.
            But, actually, you and I, we do have boat.
            One of the earliest Christian images for the church – maybe as early as the Gospel of Mark – is a boat.
            We see that image in lots of early Christian art.
            And we see it in church architecture where this center part of the church is called the nave, from the Latin word for ship, and the ceilings of many churches are designed to look like the bottom of a boat.
            Here at St. Paul’s, we have a boat.
            The church is a boat – not the building but the people - us.
            The church is a boat.
            I have no doubt that the people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston have always understood that their church is a boat.
            Their boat was tossed to and fro by the terrifying storms of slavery and relentless racism, when by law black people had to worship only during daylight hours, when by law in South Carolina all churches had to have majority white congregations, when it was illegal for black people to be taught how to read and write, when their church was burned to the ground after an alleged slave revolt.
            In the 1960s, they took their boat into the heart of the civil rights movement, invited the major leaders to speak right there in the heart of racist white Charleston, the so-called “holy city.”
            And, of course, now they have faced yet another storm – the storm of a young, angry, violent racist with a gun joining an evening bible study for an hour before opening fire killing nine beautiful people, including the church’s pastor.
            During all these storms, I’m sure what sustained the people of Mother Emanuel was the sure knowledge that Jesus was right there on the boat with them, maybe seeming to be asleep but never really asleep.
            Jesus was right there - is right there - and we can hear him speaking in and through the family members when they spoke to the alleged perpetrator the other day in court.
            Tywanza Sanders’ mother said, “You have killed some of the most beautifulest people I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But, as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But, may God have mercy on you.”
            In the midst of the terrible storm, Jesus says, “Peace! Be Still!”
            So, the question for us is, are we going to be like the boat owner spending most of our time tinkering and repairing and polishing and painting our boat – are we just going to hang out on our boat here at the dock?           
            Or, are we going to take her out across to the other side – out into the open sea – out to unknown and sometimes dangerous territory?
            I see signs that we’re willing to go further out from shore.
            We’ve taken our boat out on some short cruises like our Good Friday Stations of the Cross procession which took us to some dangerous places, to some corners of sadness and tragedy.
            We’ve taken her out through our monthly community suppers, opening our doors to anyone who shows up looking for a meal.
            We’ve taken her out by getting involved in the new community organizing effort with other people from all across Jersey City.
            And, just yesterday morning a couple of our kids took her out by volunteering at Garden State Episcopal CDC’s emergency food pantry over at Church of the Incarnation where we saw about 150 of our neighbors come forward to receive bags of food.
            I believe we are going to take our boat out across to the other side – out to our neighborhoods, out to the streets of Bergen-Lafayette and Greenville where young men continue to maim and kill one another, with two murders within hours of each other last Sunday.
            We are going to take our boat out into a society still infected by racism, still divided into a few haves and so many have-nots, still armed to the teeth - out into a world that through our waste and carelessness we are quickly to reducing to a pile of filth, as Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical released on Thursday.
            Together we are going to take our boat – the church – this church – across to the other side.
            But, as the disciples learned long ago and as the people of Emanuel Church learned yet again on Wednesday night, this can be a dangerous journey. Terrifying storms can pop up at any minute and it can feel like we are about to perish. And, sometimes, it can look to the world like we have in fact perished.
            But, Jesus was right there at that Bible Study on Wednesday night.
            And, Jesus is still with the people of Emanuel Church.
            And, Jesus is right here with us on our boat.
            Jesus is right here on our boat asking us, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Greatest of All Shrubs

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
June 14, 2015

Year B, Proper 6: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

The Greatest of All Shrubs

            Like most, if not all, of us, I’ve been trying to save a couple of bucks where I can.
            A couple of weeks ago I realized that I had fallen into the expensive and waist-expanding habit of going out for lunch pretty much every day. One day it was a couple of slices from Prince of Pizza. Another day I’d walk to the VIP or drive down to the Brownstone.
            You know how it goes.
            I got into this habit because, to be honest, sometimes it feels good to get off the St. Paul’s campus, where I both live and work, after all.
            And, also to be honest, I got into this habit out of laziness. It’s nice to have someone else prepare and serve me lunch!
            But, I realized that this doing a number on my wallet – and was probably not a healthy choice.
            So, I decided to buy bread and cold cuts and make lunch for myself at home as much as possible.
            You’re impressed, I know.
            The other day I prepared a roast beef sandwich on good bread and to top it off I slathered some spicy brown mustard on my creation.
            I bit into that sandwich made by my own hands in the comfort of the dining room table of the rectory – my own home – and it tasted so good.
            Hungry, yet?
            Well, I remembered that delicious mustard-slathered sandwich when I began to reflect on today’s gospel passage from Mark.
            One thing we know for sure about Jesus is that he taught using parables, which are short – sometimes very short – stories that contain multiple meanings.
            Jesus probably told the same parables over and over in different places, with different people, probably changing some of the details to suit particular audiences.
            And, he used images that the people around him would have experienced or at least known about, though almost always with at least one twist, and some exaggeration, and even some humor.
            Today we heard two parables, both about seeds.
            And, in both cases, Jesus teaches that God is responsible for the growth.
            God has given us the job to plant seeds - our job is to plant seeds – even very small seeds – and God takes those small seeds and provides growth.
            Two thousand years later, even here in gritty Jersey City, we can all still appreciate the image. We see it happening right here in our church garden.
            Today I’d like to focus on the second parable, the Parable of the Mustard Seed.
            In this parable, we hear Jesus using some exaggeration and humor.
            His listeners in the First Century would have known very well that mustard seeds, though small, are not the smallest.
            And, the “greatest of all shrubs” – well, that’s kind of funny, isn’t it?
            When I think “great” I imagine the majestic redwoods of California, or the towering trees of the Amazon rainforest, not a shrub standing just a few feet off the ground.
            I bet the first hearers of the parable would have chuckled at that “greatest of all shrubs” business.
            Who knew, this rabbi, this Jesus of Nazareth, he’s funny!
            But the first hearers of this parable would have known a few other things, too.
            They knew about mustard plants.
            They knew that birds did sometimes take shelter in these shrubs.
            They knew that mustard could be used as a medicine to heal.
            And, they knew that mustard was delicious, adding spice to bland food.
            The kingdom of God is like a little mustard seed that grows into a shrub, providing shelter, healing, and spice.
            And, that’s who we’re supposed to be.
            The Church – our church – is meant to offer people a taste of the kingdom of God right here on Duncan Avenue, right here on Storms Avenue.
            We plant little seeds and God grows us into a shrub providing shelter, healing, and spice.
            Each time we truly welcome the stranger – especially when it’s somebody different than us, someone we might be inclined to distrust or dislike  - each time we truly welcome a stranger with a smile, a handshake, with genuine care and interest, we plant a seed.
            Each time we reach out to someone who’s struggling – to the person who is facing illness or even death, the person who is reeling from a broken relationship, who’s lost the love of their lives, the person who can’t pay the bills, the person who’s homeless or addicted – each time we reach out to a person who’s struggling, we plant a seed.
            Each time we live the faith that is within us – when we live joyfully knowing that there is a God who knows each one of us intimately and loves us no matter what we do or don’t do – each time we live joyfully knowing that God loves us enough to come among us in and through Jesus of Nazareth – each time we live joyfully knowing the Easter truth that love conquers death, that love wins - each time we sing out our faith even if we can’t carry a tune – each time we live our Christian life with zest – each time we live the faith that is in us - we plant a seed.
            Now, the truth is we are never going to be a mega-church with thousands and thousands of members – a grand cathedral that people will pay money to tour and take pictures of our windows and statues - we’re never going to be a magnificent redwood.
            No, that’s not us.
            You and I, we’re called to just plant our little seeds – and let God grow us into the greatest of all shrubs – just big enough for the birds to take shelter in our branches.
            We just have to let God grow us into delicious mustard – so we can provide shelter, healing, and spice for all the people out there looking for home, looking for health, and looking for joy.
            With God’s help, together, we can be the greatest of all shrubs.
            And that’s no joke.