Sunday, September 27, 2015

Imperfect Disciples

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 27, 2015

Year B, Proper 21: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Imperfect Disciples

            By now most of you have heard me talk about how much I love weekday worship – and how proud and thankful I am that, thanks to a small but faithful band of worship leaders, we’ve managed to maintain our schedule of weekday services for more than two years now.
            I can’t prove this, but I really believe that all of that worship, all of those prayers echoing off of these old walls, bathing this room in prayer, have had a powerful spiritual effect on all of us here at St. Paul’s, even if we’ve never once come to church during the week.
            One of the reasons I love weekday worship is it gives me – gives us – a chance to learn about some of the great Christians of the past. Our church calendar is filled with what are called “Lesser Feasts,” days set aside to honor people, both famous and obscure, who used their talents and energy to share the Good News.
            And then there are the Major Feasts. On most of those days we honor people from the New Testament – members of Jesus’ own original band of disciples. For example, last week we celebrated the Feast of St. Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist.
            I love learning about – and preaching about – these remarkable people.
            To be honest, sometimes I think there’s no way that you and I can really be like them, really give away our lives for Christ.
            But, then, other times, I’m reminded that just like us, these holy women and men were all too human.
            Like us, they were imperfect disciples.
            And, in our gospel lessons these past few weeks, we’ve been reminded just how imperfect Jesus’ closest disciples could be.
            Two weeks ago we heard the story of Jesus predicting his arrest, death and resurrection. You may remember that, out of love for his Lord and maybe some anxiety about his own fate and the fate of the other disciples, Peter “rebuked” Jesus, trying to convince Jesus to turn away from his mission, to avoid his terrible and holy fate.
            Imperfect disciples.
            And then last Sunday, we heard Jesus predict his arrest, death, and resurrection a second time.
            This time, disciples didn’t rebuke Jesus.
            No, instead, we’re told that they didn’t “understand” what Jesus was talking about – that sounds a little too convenient to me - so they quickly changed the subject, arguing among themselves about a very earthly, all too human subject: who among them was the greatest.
            Later, the disciples are understandably embarrassed when Jesus asks them what it was they were arguing about.
            Imperfect disciples.
            And now the imperfect disciples continue their streak in today’s gospel passage.
            The disciples report to Jesus that they saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and they tried to stop him because he was not one of the twelve.
            Somehow, the imperfect disciples have gotten the idea that they have some kind of a monopoly on Jesus – that only they should be licensed to teach and heal in the name of Jesus.
            Jesus, of course, isn’t having any of it, telling the disciples that they should let others do deeds of power in his name.
            He goes even further, opens the door even wider, saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”
            We’re not told how the imperfect disciples respond to that. If they were smart, they just kept silent.
            The first disciples – the men and women who knew Jesus in the flesh, who walked with him, who heard his teaching, who witnessed his miracles – the holy women and men who we remember on our church calendar were imperfect disciples.
            And, of course, we’re imperfect disciples, too.
            We make mistakes. We fall short. We’re imperfect – more imperfect than we’d probably like to let on.
            And, obviously, that includes me, too.
            These last few days I’ve been even more aware of my imperfections than usual.
            As most of you know, about a month ago I accepted a position teaching Religion at St. Peter’s Prep, my alma mater.
            My reasoning was that I could both continue to serve as your rector and also teach full-time, that, in fact, teaching full-time would save the church enough money that I could, in fact, continue to serve here.
            I have to tell you that my new classes and colleagues have been great. I’ve really enjoyed being back in the classroom.
            There’s just one problem. In these first couple of weeks of classes I quickly realized that I can’t do both jobs. I just don’t have enough time or energy to teach and be parish priest. Or, at least, there’s not enough of me to do both of these jobs as well as they must be done.
            In my imperfection, I over-estimated my own abilities.
            So, I realized I had to make a quick, difficult, decision or I was going to do real damage either here or at school, or, most likely, both.
            On Monday, I met with the principal and told him that I had made a mistake and that I couldn’t continue teaching at Prep. He was disappointed (and in a flash I had created a headache for him and the school) but he understood and was very gracious.
            Friday was my last day at school.
            I have to tell you that this was one of the most difficult decisions of my life – and I’m really pretty sad about it – and I feel embarrassed that I made such a major miscalculation.
            Imperfect disciple.
            But, of course, I’m in good company – we’re in good company. Christian history and our church calendar are full of imperfect disciples.
            The good news is that God specializes in imperfect disciples, always reaching out to us, calling us back, strengthening us, nudging us in the direction of forgiveness and love.
            And, sure enough, this morning, yet again, God calls us back, reaches out to us, nudges us, strengthens us, in and through the baptism of Andrew.
            In just a few minutes, right here, right back there at the font, in and through the water of baptism, God will make an unbreakable bond with Andrew, this eight year-old boy who told me - and in a moment will tell all of us - that he wants to baptized.
            In and through the water of baptism, God will make an unbreakable, indissoluble, bond with Andrew.
            And, this is the best news ever because we know that Andrew, like all of us, will be an imperfect disciple.
            Like all of us he’ll do things he shouldn’t do – and won’t do things he should do.
            Like all of us, he won’t be as loving and forgiving as God calls to be.
            He’ll make mistakes that will create problems for others.
            But, no matter what, despite (or, maybe because of) all of his – and our – imperfections, God never, ever, lets go of us.
            So, today we imperfect disciples get to welcome yet another imperfect disciple – we get to welcome our young brother, Andrew – we get to welcome him to our imperfect band.
            Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"Grant Us, Lord, Not to be Anxious About Earthly Things"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 20, 2015

Year B, Proper 19: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

“Grant Us, Lord, Not to be Anxious About Earthly Things”
            For a couple of reasons, I found the words of today’s opening prayer, today’s collect, especially meaningful:
            “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure…”
            “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things…”
            I’m sure this prayer was particularly meaningful to me – and maybe to you, too – because there sure is a lot of anxiety in the air these days, isn’t there?
            There’s a lot of anxiety in the world, particularly in Europe, as it faces wave after wave of refugees fleeing war and chaos especially in Syria, but also other parts of the Middle East and Africa.
            Life has gotten so horrible in those places that people are willing to leave behind everything and everyone they know and set off on a long and dangerous trek to countries where they know they will not exactly be welcomed with open arms.
            There’s anxiety in European countries, especially the smaller and poorer ones, about how they are supposed absorb thousands of new people – people unable to care for themselves – people with a very different culture, speaking different languages and practicing a different religion.
            The anxiety has gotten so great that, sure enough, fences are being built, borders are closing and shots are being fired.
            And, of course, there’s anxiety in our own country, too.
            There’s anxiety about our supposedly recovering economy – a recovery that many of us have yet to feel.
            There’s anxiety about our rapidly changing country – a country where white people are quickly becoming a minority. And, we hear that anxiety expressed these days in some of what passes as political discussion in our country – in the calls by some to build impossibly long walls, in the calls to deport impossibly large numbers of people, in the calls to “take back our country” – from whom is usually left unsaid, at least in public.
            This week we saw the anxiety flare up in Irvine, Texas when a 14 year-old boy, Ahmed Mohamed, created science project – a clock - to impress his new classmates, but because he’s a Muslim some of his school’s teachers and administrators were afraid it might be a bomb – and so they called the police and he was arrested.
            Maybe some of you saw the picture of him, handcuffed, and looking so frightened.
            And, then there’s the anxiety closer to home.
            I’ll admit to feeling a good bit of anxiety these days as I try to fit together serving as your rector and also full-time high school teaching. I’ve had some bad nights of sleep, tossing and turning, thinking anxiously if I’ve made a big mistake.
            And, I know that many of you have anxiety in your lives – anxieties about health, and employment, about children and grandchildren, and anxieties about whether you’ll be able to pay the rent, to pay the bills -or not.
            “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things…”
            And, actually, there’s a lot of anxiety in both last week’s and today’s gospel lessons.
            If you were here last week, you may remember that we heard Jesus predict what was going to happen to him – what’s called the first passion prediction in the Gospel of Mark.
            Remember, Jesus teaches the disciples that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
            Peter doesn’t like the sound of that one bit – we can imagine the anxiety he felt thinking about all of that terrible stuff happening to Jesus – his Messiah and his friend – and the anxiety he felt about what all of that meant for him and the other disciples.
            So, what does Peter do?
            He acts out and “rebukes” Jesus – a strong word – only to be rebuked by Jesus himself.
            “Get behind me, Satan!”
            And then in today’s gospel lesson, we heard Jesus once again predict what was going to happen to him – what’s called, you guessed it, the second Passion prediction in the Gospel of Mark.
            Jesus says that he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
            This time, though, the reaction of the disciples is different.
            Nobody rebukes him – or, really, pays him any mind.
            Instead, the disciples ignore him and change the subject, talking about a very earthly thing, arguing about who is the greatest among the disciples.
            As I’ve thought about these two incidents, I think they reflect the two main ways that many, or most, of us deal with anxiety.
            Sometimes, like Peter, we act out – maybe we rebuke somebody, or we try to build walls to separate us from the source of our anxiety, or, faced with a nerdy Muslim boy and a homemade clock, we arrest him first and ask questions later.
            Or, like the disciples, the other way we deal with anxiety is we ignore it – we quickly change the subject – we bury our anxieties deep in our gut where they boil and churn, waiting impatiently for an opportune moment to boil up again.
            The disciples used two methods to deal with the anxiety caused by Jesus’ predictions of his own suffering and death: acting out and trying to ignore it. And, of course, neither works very well at all.
            And, those two methods of dealing with anxiety don’t work very well for us, either.
            But, you know, if you read carefully last week’s gospel and this week’s gospel, you may notice that the disciples – and maybe we – missed something important, something central.
            Both times, Jesus predicts his suffering – and that’s something that nobody wants to face – something that would make anyone anxious.
            But, both times Jesus also predicts – or, even, promises - that on the third day he will rise again.
            Both times Jesus reassures his disciples, reassures his friends, that, yes, there will be suffering – and some of that suffering will be terrible indeed.
            But, both times, Jesus also predicts and promises that Easter Day will dawn, that light will cast away the darkness, that in the end God’s love will win.
            Ultimately, the problem with anxiety is that it blinds us to the good news that’s all around us, especially right here. Yes, bad things happen and suffering is real, but in the end, it’s Easter and love wins forever.
            And that’s why I tell people to come to church every Sunday.
            Week after week we come here with all of our anxieties – have I made a terrible mistake – what will the doctor tell me when I see her this week – will I find a job – will my kids be able to build a good life for themselves – will I find someone to love – we bring all of those anxieties and more.
            But rather than lashing out, we bring our anxieties here where every Sunday it’s Easter.
            Rather than trying to bury our anxieties deep in our gut, we bring them here where every Sunday we’re reminded that, yes, terrible things happen, but, in the end, love wins and endures forever.
            “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure…”

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Jesus Our Brother

Grace Church Van Vorst, Jersey City NJ
Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 13, 2015

Year B, Proper 19: The 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

Jesus Our Brother
            I admit that when I first looked at today’s lessons I laughed out loud when I got to the opening verse from the Letter of James:
            “Not many of you should become teachers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes”
            Well, that’s for sure!
            Many of you know that in addition to serving as rector at St. Paul’s I am now also teaching Religion at St. Peter’s Prep, my alma mater and where I taught (History) for seven years before heading off to seminary.
            I actually haven’t taught yet – the first day of classes is tomorrow. Instead, we’ve had two weeks of orientation and meetings during which sometimes I’ve felt excited and other times overwhelmed. And, sometimes I’ve wondered if James would put me in the category of the few who should teach or the much larger group of those who shouldn’t.
            No surprise, it’s kind of weird to be back at Prep now as an Episcopal priest though it has its advantages.
            For example, on Thursday the school had its Mass of the Holy Spirit, an annual ritual in all Jesuit schools.
            I have to tell you that it was great to just sit and pray and listen and say the responses but not have to think about choreography or what I’m supposed to say next.
            Near the end of the Mass, the celebrant referred to “Jesus our brother.”
            And that expression really struck me.
            Of course, I’ve heard it before and even said it myself sometimes, but not that often.
            I tend to go with “Jesus Christ our Lord and your Son,” which, of course, emphasizes Jesus’ divinity.
            But, Jesus our brother was a good reminder for me of Jesus the human being – a human being just like us but without sin.
            And, actually, we’ve encountered Jesus our brother in our gospel lessons both last Sunday and today.
            Last week, you may remember we heard the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman – this Gentile who comes to Jesus asking him to cast out an unclean spirit from her daughter.
            And, how does Jesus react?
            Well, maybe he was having a bad day or maybe he was uncomfortable being in a gentile land, or maybe he was unhappy that his privacy had been interrupted but, for whatever reason, at this moment Jesus comes as close to sin as he ever does in the gospels.
             Jesus spurns her, apparently referring to the woman and her daughter as “dogs.”
            The brave – or maybe just desperate – woman goes back at Jesus, who has a change of heart and chooses to heal the daughter.
            And then today we have a lot going on in today’s gospel lesson.
            Jesus asks his famous question, “Who do people say that I am?”
            And then the follow-up to the discuiples, “But, who do you say that I am?”
            And, of all people, it’s Peter who gets the right answer!
            “You are the Messiah.”
            I can almost imagine Peter glowing like a freshman on the first day of school who gets an answer right in class.
            But, Peter doesn’t get to enjoy that glow of satisfaction for long because, as we heard, he gets understandably gets upset when Jesus predicts the suffering that awaits him.
            We’re told that Peter “rebukes” Jesus – a strong word, indeed!
            And then in another of the most striking moments in the gospel, Jesus does some pretty harsh rebuking of his own - Jesus really lets Peter have it:
            “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things.”
            At first glance, this does seem very harsh, doesn’t it?
            After all, Peter is understandably shocked at what Jesus has said. He loves Jesus and he’s determined that he’ll do whatever he can to prevent his friend – his Lord – the Messiah from suffering.
            Though, of course, we know that there’s irony here since we know that when the moment of testing comes, Peter will deny even knowing Jesus – deny him three times.
            But, still, why the harshness from our brother Jesus?
            It seems to me that Jesus is angry at Peter because in this moment Peter really is Satan – really is the tempter – tempting Jesus to turn away from the bloody fate that awaits him.
            Jesus is sorely tempted.
            Which may sound strange to us since I think many of us often think that Jesus had his forty days and nights of temptation in the wilderness, and that was that – that somehow for the rest of his life and ministry Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Lord, was free of temptation, walking in a straight line to the cross.
            Not so, of course.
            Jesus our brother was tempted right to the end.
            One of my favorite books is of The Last Temptation Christ. Have any of you read it?
            Anyway, in the novel Jesus is tempted even as he hangs on the cross – tempted to turn away from this painful and shameful death – tempted to live like an ordinary person – to have a wife, to have children, to have a little carpentry business - to live a nice, quiet life.
            That’s not in the gospels, of course, but I’d be willing to bet that Jesus our brother experienced that kind of temptation.
            I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t read it.
            So, what does all of this mean for us?
            Well, as the author of the Letter of James reminded us, we all make many mistakes.
             I’m going to guess that pretty much everybody here has one time or another been impatient with somebody asking us for help.
            Maybe it’s someone we don’t really like – maybe because of his personality, or her nationality or religion, or maybe just the tone of his voice. Or, maybe it’s someone who is constantly asking for help and we’re just plain tired of it – compassion fatigue.
            Well, thanks to Jesus our brother, we know that God really knows what that’s like.
            And, I’m going to guess that all of us know the power of temptation – probably only too well.
            Well, thanks to Jesus our brother, we know that God really knows what it’s like to be sorely tempted.
            So, when we make our many mistakes – when we turn away the person asking for help – when we slip and give into temptation – we know that God gets it – and God is quick to show mercy – and, if we’re open to it, God is quick to give us the grace we need so that the next time we’re more likely to say yes to the person who needs our help and more likely to resist at least some of the temptations we face every day.
            We know all of this – and so much more - thanks to Jesus our brother.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Out of Our Comfort Zones

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 6, 2015

Year B, Proper 18: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

Out of Our Comfort Zones
            For the past few days I’ve been seeing parents post pictures on Facebook of their kids heading off on the first day of school.
            Sometimes parents will also post pictures from the first day of school last year or sometimes years ago, like the first day of kindergarten or first grade, giving everybody a look at before and after.
            Some parents express dismay that their kids are growing up so fast and some will admit to being relieved that the long summer vacation is over and the kids are back in school and out of their hair.
            For years, I’ve enjoyed seeing these pictures but this year it’s a little bit more meaningful for me as I return to school, too.
            Thank God, Sue didn’t take my picture on the first day of new teacher orientation and, thank God again, my parents didn’t dig up a picture from my first day of kindergarten or first grade, heading off into the unknown, heading out of my comfort zone.
            A lot of people have been asking me how the first days went. It was fine, though I’ll admit to you that I’m amazed and kind of intimidated at how much technology is in school now. When I left Prep 11 years ago, I was still mostly using chalk, paper, and ink in my classes. Now, all the boys have computers in class and teachers are expected to do much of their – our work – through these devices.
            No more chalk.
            So, to be honest, I feel a little bit like an antique.
            Like a lot of the kids in those first day of school pictures, I am definitely heading out of my comfort zone – which is both unsettling and exciting.
            You probably know the feeling.
            It may sound strange to say this but the fully human Jesus of Nazareth had a comfort zone, too.
            He grew up in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee, which was the countryside. Although even as boy Jesus probably had contact with foreigners passing through on their way to Jerusalem or one of the other cities, like us he must have been most comfortable with his own people - his fellow Galileans - who would have shared similar life experiences, would have eaten the same food, would have shared the same outlook on life, would have spoken with the same distinctive Galilean accent.
            But, many of the Jewish prophets had a vision that the Messiah would unite all peoples, that eventually the whole world would come to Jerusalem and worship God on Mount Zion.
            So, it was necessary for Jesus the Messiah to head off into the unknown. It was necessary for Jesus the Son of God to leave his comfort zone.
            And, we hear Jesus doing just that in today’s gospel lesson from Mark, when Jesus leaves Israel and travels into a gentile, non-Jewish, land.
            And, what we discover is that Jesus had kind of a rocky start to leaving his comfort zone.
            Jesus tries, unsuccessfully, to keep a low profile. We’re told that a Gentile woman, a non-Jew, came and bowed before Jesus, begging him to cast a demon out of her daughter.
            In one of the most striking and shocking moments in the gospels, Jesus of Nazareth, maybe because he was uncomfortable with – or even prejudiced against – this non-Jewish woman, insults her and her daughter, equating them with dogs - definitely not a compliment.
            Then, in one of the greatest moments in Scripture, the woman, rather than crawling away dog-like, like perhaps you and I might have done, challenges Jesus, pushing him – drawing him - out of his comfort zone.
            And, Jesus the Messiah of the whole world cast the unclean spirit out of the woman’s daughter.
            Jesus left his comfort zone - and that changed everything.
            Well, here at St. Paul’s, over the last two years or so, we’ve been leaving our comfort zone, too.
            It can be both unsettling and exciting.
            As we heard, leaving his comfort zone wasn’t easy for Jesus and it wasn’t easy for the early church, either.
            In today’s second lesson, the author of the Epistle of James calls out the early church for some pretty crummy behavior: showing favoritism to certain people. In their case, apparently some in the church were favoring the wealthy, inviting them to sit while the poor had to stand in the back.
            We don’t do that!  But, like everybody, we have our comfort zones. Of course, we have certain people that we feel most comfortable with. Maybe they’re people who are like us – sharing a common background and similar experiences – maybe they’re people we’ve known for years and years, maybe we’ve known them our whole lives.
            But, one of the things that I’m proudest of during our time together so far is how, together, we’ve headed out into the unknown, how we’ve moved beyond our comfort zones.
            This hasn’t happened without some bumps along the way but, for the most part, we’ve moved beyond our comfort zones by welcoming all kinds of new people into our community – people who like all of us bring their mix of gifts and challenges.
            We’ve moved beyond our comfort zones by taking on new ministries here at St. Paul’s. Think of how many of us have started serving as lectors, and chalice-bearers, ushers, hosts, singers, and more in just the last few years! And, a bunch of others are about to take on new ministries!
            We’ve moved beyond our comfort zones by working much more closely with our Jersey City sister churches, by welcoming the neighborhood into our house for healthy food and concerts and poetry readings and yoga and crafts and even a comedy show.
            We’ve moved beyond our comfort zones by taking our church out to the streets, by offering Ashes to Go at McGinley Square on Ash Wednesday, by walking the Way of the Cross with a hundred other pilgrims on the streets of Jersey City, by community organizing with people from more than 30 other congregations, and by working with others to begin offering shelter to homeless families.
            We’ve moved beyond our comfort zones.
            But. You know how God is.
            God is out there – just ahead of us – just beyond our comfort zones, calling us to love more deeply, to give more generously, to work together with ever-greater unity – to keep moving beyond our comfort zones – to help God build the kingdom where there are no walls separating us – the kingdom without racism – the kingdom where refugees are welcomed rather than left to die.
            God is calling us to build the kingdom of unity that the prophets dreamed of long ago.
            Jesus began to change everything when he left his comfort zone and healed that gentile woman’s daughter.
            And, you and I here at St. Paul’s are building our little corner of the Kingdom of God each time we head out of our comfort zones.