Sunday, February 28, 2016

We Don't Have All the Time in the World

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
February 28, 2016

Year C: The Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

We Don’t Have All the Time in the World
            Many of you know that I went to school at St. Peter’s Prep, a Catholic high school in downtown Jersey City.
            My four years at Prep shaped me in lots of ways, going a long way to make me who and what I am today.
            And, it’s true that during those four years a bond formed among my classmates. There’s something powerful about going through that experience together, maybe not unlike what some of you experienced in your school or in the military or in some other way.
            Even when we don’t see each other for years there is a mysterious but strong bond among us.
            One of my classmates was a guy named Tim O’Donnell.
            Like a lot of my classmates he was from Bayonne.
            We weren’t close or anything, and I’m not sure we saw each other even once in all the years since we graduated, but I remember well as a really solid guy. As one of my friends remembered on Facebook, everybody liked him.
            It turns out that Tim was a teacher, a science teacher and a coach at County Prep.
            And, as many of you probably know, on Monday afternoon Tim, along with his five year-old daughter Bridget, was driving on the Turnpike Extension, approaching the toll plaza at Exit 14C, when they were suddenly rear-ended with such force that their car was hurled through the toll plaza, out the other side, and into oncoming traffic where they were hit by a van.
            Tim and his little daughter were killed, killed, I hope, before they even knew what was happening to them.
            What a disaster.
            What a disaster for Tim, who won’t grow old with his wife, won’t see his daughters grow up, won’t know his grandchildren, won’t teach and coach another generation of students.
            What a disaster obviously for little Bridget, her young life cut short, her promise and possibilities left unknown and unfulfilled.
            What a disaster for Tim’s wife and his other daughter who must somehow go on after what must seem an unbearable loss.
            What a disaster for Tim’s students and his athletes to have lost a mentor and role model.
            What a disaster for the man driving the van who had no time to react when Tim’s car came hurtling out of the toll plaza and into his path.
            And, yes, what a disaster for the man who rear-ended Tim’s car, the man who must now live the rest of his life knowing he caused such heartbreaking losses.
            What a disaster.
            The truth, of course, is that we live in a world scarred by disaster. That’s why each week here in church we pray for the victims of natural and man-made disasters.
            And, though lately our man-made disasters seem to be more large-scale than they used to be: shootings in schools and malls and movie theaters, entire Middle Eastern cities destroyed in civil war, the mass extinction of species and rising seas, millions of people misled by leaders or would-be leaders offering the easy and so very wrong answers of fear, hatred and division - although all of that and more is going on today, the truth is that the world has always been scarred by natural and man-made disasters.
            In today’s gospel lesson we heard about a man-made disaster.
            People tell Jesus about Galileans whose blood Pontius Pilate had used in sacrifices to Roman gods – a disaster surely especially horrifying to Jesus, a Galilean himself.
            And then Jesus reminds the crowd of what was, I guess, less of a man-made disaster than a random, unintentional disaster: eighteen people were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them.
            The world has always been scarred by disasters. And, I suspect people have always reacted in pretty much the same ways.
            As a priest, it’s been my privilege and burden to often be with people not long after disaster strikes – the doctor has given the prognosis, the accident has happened, the relationship has been broken.
            And, very often, the victims of disaster wonder why this has happened – why is this happening to me.
            Why is God punishing me?
            I wonder if Tim’s wife, who just survived a bout with cancer, is asking that aching question. Most of us would, right?
            Well, Jesus tries to put a stop to that kind of thinking when he asks, rhetorically, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?
            And, were those eighteen killed by the tower, “were they worse offenders than all those living in Jerusalem?”
            No, of course not.
            And, the death of Jesus on the cross – the death of the blameless victim in a horrifically public and bloody way – should’ve put a stop to that kind of thinking once and for all.
            Natural and man-made disasters occur, striking down saints and sinners and all of us in-between.
            Here’s the point, a point we need to relearn over and over, the point that every single disaster should teach us: you and I, we still have time to repent, to turn our lives around in a godly direction, to welcome God’s presence in our lives, to forgive those who’ve wronged us, to ask for forgiveness for the times we’ve messed up, to tell those we love that we love them, to love those we say we love, and yes, at least try to love those who are hard to love.
            You and I, we have time. But, we only have right now.
            We don’t have all the time in the world.
            In my life and in my ministry, I’ve encountered so many people who somehow fool themselves into thinking that there’s always tomorrow, that there’s always time so there’s no sense of urgency, no need to turn our lives around today – no need to forgive and ask forgiveness today – no need to love today – so often we fool ourselves – and I very much include myself – into thinking that there’s always time.
            And, you and I, we do have time. But, we only have right now.
            We don’t have all the time in the world.
            Lent begins with ashes – a good reminder that we don’t have all the time in the world.
            Lent is only 40 days – and we’re almost halfway through – a good reminder that we don’t have all the time in the world.
            As I was reminded so sadly this past week, we live in a world scarred by disaster.
            Horrible accidents occur. Tyrants mislead and kill. Towers fall.
            Through it all, God is with us.
            God was with Tim and Bridget last week on the Turnpike, with God’s heart the first to break at the senseless loss.
            God was with those slaughtered Galileans long ago and God was with the people of Jerusalem when the Tower of Siloam fell on them.
            God is surely with us in the disasters of our lives.
            But, we don’t have all the time in the world.
            So, let’s not wait.
            Let’s not wait to repent – let’s not wait to turn our lives around – let’s not wait to welcome God’s presence in our lives - let’s not wait to forgive and ask forgiveness – let’s not wait to love one another.
            May it be so.


Sunday, February 21, 2016

God Is Always Persistent

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
February 21, 2016

The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

God Is Always Persistent
            Well, now we’re about a week and a half into Lent so I have a question: how are we doing with our Lenten disciplines?
            Have we gone astray or have we persisted?
            Have we persisted in what we hoped to give up?
            Have we persisted in resisting chocolate or skipping snacks between meals?
            Have we persisted in not smoking or spending less time in front of our computers or on our phones?
            Have we persisted in what we hoped to take on?
            Have we persisted in spending a little more time in prayer or being more generous to those in need?
            Have we persisted in resisting the temptation of indifference? Have we resisted the temptation to not care, to not love, to not welcome the stranger?
            Only we can answer those questions, of course, so I won’t ask for a show of hands.
            But, I’ll say that I’ve had mixed success. My hope was to spend more quiet time in prayer and reflection, but, well, you know how it goes…
            I’ve had mixed success but give me a break because persistence is hard, right?
            Persistence is hard because we get discouraged and distracted, worn down by the burdens and pressures and obligations of life.
            Persistence is hard because sometimes we get lazy or we don’t pay attention and the next thing we know we’re biting into a delicious Three Musketeers bar, when we had hoped to give up chocolate during Lent.
            The next thing we know we’re not being as caring, loving, welcoming, or prayerful as we had hoped we’d be during this holy season.
            The next thing we know we haven’t prayed in weeks.
            Persistence is hard - but it’s so important.
            I was reminded of the importance of persistence on Monday night when, as my Facebook friends know, I went to a book signing by William Shatner, who played my childhood hero, Captain Kirk, on Star Trek.
            Shatner has written a new book about his longtime friend and co-star Leonard Nimoy, who as you’ll probably remember played Spock and who died last year.
            I got there early because I really wanted to get him to sign my copy – which he did - and so I had plenty of time to sit and start reading the book.
            In the early chapters he tells the story of the two of them starting out as young actors back in the 1950s. Persistence was required. They had to go to audition after audition. They got turned down. They took any acting job they could even when it was not such a great project. They had to take other jobs like driving a cab to pay the bills until the big break came along.
            I see so much of that kind of persistence among us here at St. Paul’s.
            So many of us have had  no choice but to persist – to keep working hard, often doing jobs that we don’t particularly like – persist to keep a roof over our own heads and food in our stomach – persist to raise our children and grandchildren, giving them a shot at a better life.
            So many of us have to persist – so many days getting up early and getting home late – sometimes working two jobs and yet still just a paycheck or two away from disaster.
            With so much necessary persistence in our day to day lives, it’s not so surprising that our spiritual persistence might be a little shaky – it’s not so surprising that days or even weeks may go by without prayer – that we don’t get to church as often as we should or want  – that we’re not as caring, loving, or welcoming to those who are the hardest to care for, to love, to welcome.
            Well, the good news is that while we may sometimes go astray, God is always persistent.
            In fact, God already knows we’ll astray, but God is always persistent anyway.
            In today’s Old Testament lesson we heard the story of the covenant – the agreement – the contract – between God and Abraham, or Abram, as he was then called.
            God promises the childless Abram that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.
            And, then there’s a weird little ritual.
            God requires Abram to gather animals, which he then butchers, cutting them in two and placing the parts side by side.
            We’re told Abram fell asleep only to wake up to see a “smoking fire pot and flaming torch” passing between these animal pieces.
            Strange, right? But it turns out that this is an ancient practice for making contracts, though normally both parties would pass between the shredded animals, symbolizing that they themselves would be cut in two should they go astray and break the contract.
            In this case, God (represented by the fire pot and torch) literally cuts a deal with Abram and his descendants - but since God knows that they – we – will not always be persistent – that we won’t always be able or willing to keep our end of the bargain, we won’t always be faithful, since God knows we’ll sometimes go astray, God, our persistent God, goes it alone.
            God is always persistent. No matter what.
            And, we Christians see God’s persistence most clearly in Jesus.
            We’re just a week and a half into Lent, but already the Church is beginning to turn its attention to Jesus completing the sacrifice of his life on the cross.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him.
            It’s kind of odd that the Pharisees, who are usually depicted as Jesus’ enemies, would warn him of danger.
            It’s possible, maybe even likely, that the Pharisees were hoping that Jesus would chicken out, would go astray, would give up.
            The Pharisees were hoping that Jesus would give up his mission – give into the temptation of indifference, to just care for himself and those closest to him – to give up and just head back to Galilee, back to the carpentry shop, back to a quiet, ordinary, anonymous life.
            But, no, Jesus is persistent.
            As we heard in today’s gospel lesson, persistent Jesus knows he has his work to do and he must be on his way – on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, and beyond.
            God is always persistent. No matter what.
            So, we’re about a week and a half into Lent.
            We’re persistent in lots of ways but by now, we may have gone astray in our Lenten disciplines and eaten that chocolate or not been as caring, loving, or welcoming as we hoped.
            The good news is that during Lent and always, God is persistent.
            God persistently keeps God’s end of the deal.
            God never gives up on us, persistently reaching out to us, loving us, forgiving us, challenging us, and giving us the grace we need to persist.
            God is always persistent. No matter what.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Temptation of Indifference

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
February 14, 2016

Year C: The First Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

The Temptation of Indifference
            I know we have some political junkies in the congregation who are following this, let’s say “unique,” presidential election very closely.
            And, there are lots of others of us who may not be following it so closely but are, let’s say “surprised,” by who is leading on the Republican side and who is giving the Democratic front-runner a run for her money.
            There has been a lot of speculation in the media about why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are doing so surprisingly well.
            They are both, obviously, very different men and very different candidates, but it seems they have both tapped into something that has been maybe just below the surface for a long time: a sense among people of losing power – a sense of powerlessness.
            Many of us feel powerless.
            We feel that we are not in control of our lives – that we are subject to vast global forces that move jobs and money all around the world – that we are governed by leaders who don’t really care what we think and want and need but only care what their big financial backers think and want and need.
            We feel powerless when we don’t get a raise for years but everything keeps getting more expensive.
            We feel powerless when we’re forced to send our kids to substandard schools.
            We feel powerless when we look for a job and don’t even get a call back.
            We feel powerless when we look at the pile of bills on our kitchen table.
            We feel powerless when we can’t afford to get the healthcare we need.
            We feel powerless when we wonder how can we ever have enough money to send our kids to college, to offer them a shot at a better life than our own.
            We feel powerless when the rich grow ever and richer and we keep falling ever farther behind.
            Yes, we feel powerless a lot.
            But, this presidential election, for better or worse, is showing that maybe we’re not so powerless after all.
            And what’s true in the political world, what’s true in our everyday lives, is also true in our spiritual lives.
            With God’s help, we’re more powerful than we think.
            Today is the First Sunday in Lent – Lent, this forty-day season when we are called not to enjoyment, as Rev. Gary reminded us in his very wise Ash Wednesday sermon, but we’re called to really look into our hearts, to really look at our lives.
            During Lent, we’re called to repentance, called to turn our lives around, with God’s help.
            We began with ashes on Wednesday, reminding us that we came from the earth and that’s where our bodies will return.
            And then today on the First Sunday in Lent, we hear the story of Satan’s forty-day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.
            Each time, Satan tempts Jesus to abuse his power.
            Each time, Jesus is tempted to abuse his power.
            He’s tempted to show off his power, to be like a magician, by turning a stone into a loaf of bread.
            Jesus is tempted to rule the earth not as God’s Son but as Satan’s deputy.
            And, finally, Jesus is tempted to abuse his relationship with the Father by throwing himself off the Temple, testing God to save him.
            Each time Jesus is tempted to abuse his power, but, as we know, he resists these three temptations and probably many others that we don’t know about.
            At first glance, because we think we’re powerless, we might assume that the temptations of Jesus have nothing to do with us. After all, Satan doesn’t tempt us to turn stone into bread, or to rule the earth, or to throw ourselves off the Temple.
            But, we’re wrong. We’re not powerless.
            With God’s help, we’re more powerful than we think.
            With God’s help, we all have the power to take an interest in other people.
            With God’s help, we all have the power to care for others, especially the people we don’t like very much or even fear.
            With God’s help, we all have the power to love one another, especially the people who are hardest to love.
            With God’s help, we’re more powerful than we think.
            So, how does Satan tempt us, us powerful people?
            I don’t think Satan wastes his time tempting us with little stuff – you know, eating the chocolate we supposedly gave up for Lent or telling a little lie or giving a second look to someone we find attractive.
            No, Satan tempts us with something really big.
            Satan tempts us to be indifferent – to not take an interest in the lives of other people.
            Satan tempts us to be indifferent – to not care for others, especially the people we don’t like or even fear.
            Satan tempts us to be indifferent – to not love one another, especially the people who are hardest to love.
            And, maybe most dangerous of all, Satan tempts us to deny that we have any power at all – tempts us to believe that there’s no point even trying, especially when we face big obstacles, especially when our good work is greeted by ingratitude, or when our beautiful church that offers welcome and love to so many is violated by someone breaking through our locks and stealing our hard-earned offerings.
            Oh, yes, Satan tempts us to abuse our power by being indifferent – tempts us to throw up our hands and give up, to circle the wagons, to be just like everybody else and take care of our own.
            Indifference. Pope Francis has actually said forget about the chocolate and instead give up indifference during Lent and beyond.
            Indifference. It’s a real temptation.
            I know I’m tempted and I bet most of you are, too.
            But, I also know that, with God’s help, we’re more powerful than we think.
            I don’t need Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders to show me how powerful we are because I see it all the time.
            I see the way so many people’s lives have been transformed by our interest, our care, and our love.
            I see the way people at the nursing home react joyfully when we visit each month with our simple service of prayer and song.
            I see the way people who haven’t had anything to do with church in years find a home here, maybe not buying the whole package, maybe not able to say the whole creed without crossing their fingers, but getting a real taste of God’s love right here and now.
            I see the way that we’re working with other congregations across our city to make a real difference providing decent shelter for the homeless, demanding better schools, and insisting on safe streets.
            I see it in the boys learning valuable kitchen skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives – skills that are about to provide us with a beautiful meal during coffee hour.
            And, I see it when people come here with nowhere else to turn, looking for food, looking for a couple of bucks, looking for someone to talk to, looking for someone to care.
            In the wilderness long ago, Jesus was tempted to abuse his power. But, despite his empty stomach and dry tongue, powerful Jesus resisted Satan’s very real temptations.
            Now, today, here at St. Paul’s, Satan tempts us powerful people.
            Satan tempts us to be indifferent – to not care, to not love, to not welcome, to not recognize our own power.
            But, despite our own exhaustion and despite our disappointments and despite our sense of violation, with God’s help we are still more powerful than we think.
            And so, with God’s help, we can resist the temptation of indifference.


Sunday, February 07, 2016

Unveiled Faces, Bright Shining as the Sun

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
February 7, 2016

Year C: The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-43a

Unveiled Faces, Bright Shining as the Sun
            Some of you know that over the last few decades it’s become popular to remove the pews from churches and replace them with chairs that can be moved around or put away as needed.
            Just look at our sister churches: Grace Van Vorst took out their pews a long time ago and Incarnation recently got rid of theirs.
            There are lots of good arguments for getting rid of the pews.
            It gives the church a lot more flexibility with how it uses the space.
            It provides the opportunity to have worship in the round, which can be a very powerful experience.
            But – and, I can see some of you starting to get anxious – don’t worry, it’s not something I’d want to do here at St. Paul’s.
            First of all, I’m a pretty traditional priest so I kind of like things the way they’ve been.
            And, taking out the pews would mess up the aesthetics of this beautiful old building.
            Plus, only a little more than a year ago we put in a beautiful new floor designed to accommodate the pews.
            So, don’t worry, we’re not doing it.
            But, I also have a selfish reason for leaving things as they are.
            Each week I get to stand here and look out and see all of your beautiful faces, all of your beautiful, shining faces.
            I see most of you when you arrive at church, either outside on the front steps or back in the narthex or, ahem, when you arrive after the service has already started.
            Some of your faces are already shining when you arrive, shining with the excitement of being here, of seeing friends, of praying and singing and hugging and enjoying a coffee hour feast.
            Yes, some of your faces are already shining - but not all.
            Some of you arrive and your faces are…veiled.
            There are faces veiled by worries about health and money. Veiled by regrets about mistakes made and opportunities missed.  Veiled by the anger and hurt caused by being let down by others. Veiled by the ways that we’ve let ourselves down.
            I can see your faces veiled by the burdens you carry into this place – and, of course, I’m sure some of you sometimes see my face veiled by the burdens that I carry into this beautiful old room.
            But, then.
            But, then… we’re here together and just like Moses on the mountain long ago we are most powerfully and clearly in the presence of God – the God who dreamed all of this up – the God who loves and sustains us all.
            Just like Moses on the mountain long ago, here we are in the presence of God.
            God is present in Scripture that we read and hear.
            God is present in the prayers that we offer, silently and aloud.
            God is present in the music that we sing.
            God is present in the handshakes and smiles and hugs.
            And, God is very much present in the thin little wafer and the drop of wine that we take into our bodies and souls.
            And, I’m not kidding, by the end of the service, your faces, our unveiled faces, are, to borrow from Amazing Grace, bright shining as the sun!
            You know, one of the distinctive things about St. Paul’s is that very few people are in a hurry to leave, especially after the 10:00 service, which is by far the longest.
            Almost everyone stays for the postlude and then after – and you know this – most people will just sit, kind of just soaking it all in.
            Jeanette is often the first to get up to start the little receiving line and she often says to me, “They don’t want to leave!”
            We don’t want to leave. Kind of like the Apostle Peter in today’s gospel lesson who, along the brother apostles James and John, had a most powerful mountaintop experience, witnessing the Transfiguration, experiencing the presence of God in Moses and Elijah and Jesus in dazzling white.
            Kind of like us, Peter didn’t want to leave. No, he wants to stay right there on the mountain where he had experienced God so clearly and powerfully.
            But, then the disciples hear the Voice from heaven declare – they hear the voice of God command, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
            And, what is that Jesus says to the disciples – says to us - over and over?
            Go out – go out there into the world and offer healing to the sick, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and, most of all, love to the brokenhearted.
            My beloved sisters and brothers, we are not so different from Moses, not so different from those first disciples on the mountain long ago.
            We come here to St. Paul’s and, if we’re open to it, we have powerful encounters with God.
            We leave this place with our unveiled faces bright shining as the sun!
            Now, like Peter, we can try to hold on to this most powerful experience, try to put it in a box, try to preserve it somehow until we can get ourselves back here the next time.
            We can try that, but it doesn’t really work.
            No, instead, Jesus sends usus with our beautiful unveiled faces bright shining as the sun – sends us down from this mountain and out into the world where people are hurting in ways we know about - and in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.
            As I hope you know, today we have our annual meeting – the 156th in the history of St. Paul’s.
            And, as I look back over this past year, actually the past almost three years, I’m happiest about the fact that more and more of us have followed Jesus command and gone down the mountain to love people out there, out there in Jersey City, to love – to love especially those who may be the hardest to love.
            And, we’ve also invited more people to come join us here on the mountain – to come worship with us, to come eat and drink with us, to be enriched by beautiful art and glorious music.
            And, look what’s happened! Can you see it?
            More and more people, their faces veiled by burdens, have encountered God in and through us – and they’ve been transformed.
            Now, their beautiful faces are unveiled and bright shining as the sun.
            But, of course, as we heard at the end of today’s gospel lesson, we won’t always be successful.
            The disciples had just had their powerful mountaintop experience but then couldn’t cast out even just one evil spirit.
            Jesus gets exasperated with the disciples and I’m sure he gets exasperated with us sometimes.
            But – and this is the best news ever - no matter how many times we fail, now matter how many times we mess up, we’re always welcome back here on the mountain.
            We’re always welcome to bring our burdens, bring our failures and disappointments, bring them all right here in the presence of God - the God who dreamed all of this up – the God who loves and sustains us all.
            God isn’t going anywhere – and neither is St. Paul’s.
            It’s here that our faces are unveiled, bright shining as the sun.
            I see it all the time.