Sunday, May 29, 2016

The God-Fearers

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 29, 2016

Year C: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 18:20-39
Psalm 96
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

The God-Fearers
            If you’ve heard me preach more than a few times, you’ve heard me talk about how we Christians – the Church – how we should live differently than the average person out in the world.
            It’s an issue that I think about a lot: does what we do in here – our praying, our singing, our hearing God’s Word, our asking forgiveness, our exchange of peace, our receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ – does any of it make one bit of difference in how we live out there?
            Are we noticeably more loving, more generous, more forgiving, than the average person in Jersey City?
            I ask myself that all the time.
            Would anybody even know that I’m a Christian except for the fact that I often wear a strange plastic white ring around my neck?
            These are important questions, right?
            But, at the same time, there’s a real danger that we paint the world with too broad a brush.
            Yes, there are certainly plenty of people out there who worship the Baals of today – who worship today’s false gods – the false gods of money, fame, sex, security, fear of the other, a sense of superiority over others, the list goes on.
            There are lots of false gods out there – and lots of people who worship them.
            But, there are lots of other people who are kind of like modern-day versions of the centurion in today’s Gospel lesson.
            You’ll remember that back in the first century the Romans ruled Israel and, naturally, the people of Israel didn’t like it very much. In fact, many hoped that the messiah would be a great military leader who would drive out the Romans and finally restore Israel’s independence.
            So, the Jews should have viewed the centurion – who was a commander in the Roman Army, usually with authority over 100 men – the Jews would have viewed the centurion not just as a foreigner, but as an enemy.
            But, that’s very much not the case here.
            We’re told that when the centurion’s highly valued slave became gravely ill he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus asking him to come and heal the slave.
            Now, we might imagine these Jewish elders following the centurion’s request – or maybe command – kind of grudgingly, unwillingly – I mean, could they really say no to this powerful Roman soldier?
            But, very surprisingly, it turns out the Jewish elders want to help the centurion. They urge Jesus to heal the slave.
            The Jewish elders tell Jesus, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”
            So, let’s get this straight: This centurion is a high-ranking Roman soldier who loves the Jewish people and, not only that, he built them a synagogue!
            Even Jesus is impressed by the centurion, saying, “I tell you not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
            So, in today’s gospel lesson we meet a high-ranking Roman soldier who loves the Jewish people – has, in fact, built them a synagogue.
            We meet a high-ranking Roman soldier who loves the Jewish people and, yes, they love him in return.
            What’s going on here?
            Well, it seems that the centurion was what is known as a “God-fearer.”
            Back in the first century, God-fearers were Gentiles, non-Jews, who were drawn to God, who at least sometimes worshiped alongside Jews, but were not quite willing to go all the way and convert to Judaism.
            And, I think there are a lot of people out there in the world today who we might call modern-day God-fearers.
            There are the people who grew up in the church but over time have drifted away yet who still hear the echo of their faith, who walk by churches and feel a little tug to go in but who usually just keep on going.
            There are the people who have been hurt by the church, maybe physically or spiritually abused, who feel great anger and betrayal at the institutional church, who struggle to separate their feelings toward God from their feelings toward those who say they love and serve God.
            There are the people who are on a spiritual quest, who are searching for the Source of all that is, the Heartbeat of all creation, the Love that is the root of all love.
            There are the people who, in our often individualistic and lonely society, are looking for community, are looking for the simple but profound feeling of holding another’s hand in friendship and offering peace, are looking for the oh so human experience of sharing a meal together.
            There are the people who come to church – come to our church even – but aren’t sure how much of all this they really believe – are not ready or willing to receive Communion no matter how many times I say all are welcome – are uncomfortable reciting the creed – and, yet, and, yet…
            There are modern-day God-fearers all around us here at St. Paul’s – they’re in our families – they live next door or across the street.
            I often encounter them when I’m standing outside before the services – or I run into them as I’m walking around the neighborhood wearing this strange white plastic ring around my neck.
            Sometimes they look away, wanting to avoid contact, while other times they’ll stop and want to talk.
            There are modern God-fearers all around us.
            Sometimes they come to Stone Soup looking for a good meal with neighbors.
            Sometimes they’ll come to our music and arts events, looking to be inspired and comforted by beauty.
            There are modern-day God-fearers all around us – don’t look around, but there may be some of them here in church with us right now.
            The God-fearers may never be ready to become pledging members of St. Paul’s, may never receive communion, may never stick around for coffee hour - or may only come for coffee hour!
            Who knows, right?
            What matters is our hospitality and love.
            Long ago the centurion loved his Jewish friends, loved them enough to worship alongside them, even loved them enough to build them a new synagogue!
            That love and generosity must have only been possible because the Jewish community first welcomed and loved the centurion – loved this man who they had every reason to consider not only a stranger, but an enemy.
            May we offer that same kind of welcome to today’s God-fearers – may we offer that same kind of love – love that reveals us, at last, so clearly, to be quite different from all the worshipers of false gods out there in the world.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Trinity: Our Inclusive God

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 22, 2016

Year C: The First Sunday after Pentecost – Trinity Sunday
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

The Trinity: Our Inclusive God
            One of the more surprising recent developments in my life is a renewed interest in baseball.
            When I was a kid, I had no skill at actually playing the game but I enjoyed watching the games, collecting baseball cards, and followed my father in becoming a fan of the Baltimore Orioles. I remember watching lots of games on TV and even listening on the radio sometimes. I remember getting up in the morning and turning on the radio eager to hear how the Orioles – and their archenemy the Yankees – had done the night before.
            But, for whatever reasons, over time I lost interest in the game and moved on to other things.
            Yet, this season, both Sue and I have been watching more games – it’s been fun and a nice distraction.
            But, watching games on TV, I’ve noticed something. Maybe you’ve seen it, too.
            Often, many of the seats behind home plate – some of the most desirable spots in the ballpark – are empty.
            Since that’s the image you see on TV every time a pitcher pitches to a batter, it looks terrible. Makes it seem like the ballpark is empty.
            But, that’s not it.
            Instead, it seems that many of those prime – and quite expensive - seats are held by wealthy season ticket holders, many of them businesses, who use them to impress clients or, I hope, sometimes reward employees.
            This means that those seats – some of the best seats in the house – are out of the range of ordinary people who might like to watch a ballgame.
            Recently Sue and I commented about this to someone who suggested that the teams might consider inviting other fans to come down and fill those empty seats, if for no other reason than it looks terrible o TV.
            But, Sue said, no, they probably wouldn’t want lower class people taking the seats reserved exclusively for the wealthy.
            We see lots of examples of it in our society, don’t we?
            If you’ve flown in the past few years, you know that the gap between first class and the poor slobs squeezed like sardines in a can back in coach has grown so wide that it almost feels like we’re not on the same plane.
            The airlines have created programs with names like “Elite Access Advantage” for frequent flyers with deep pockets.
            They get exclusive perks like getting to board first, real food and plentiful drink served on china and in actual glasses, lots of legroom, free checked baggage, and, yes their own bathroom – and God help those in coach who might try to use that first class bathroom – for some reason the TSA has a rule against that kind of mingling!
            And, sadly, sometimes we’ve seen or even still see that kind of exclusivity in the church.
            Yesterday we had a joyous celebration of the renewal of ministry over at our sister Church of the Incarnation.
            Some of you may wonder why Incarnation is only four or five blocks from St. Paul’s – and even less than that from the former St. John’s, which stands only about a block and a half away.
            Well, as I mentioned in yesterday’s sermon, sadly, shamefully, Incarnation was founded because a century ago people of color were unwelcome at the other Episcopal churches in the city, including, I’m sorry to say, this one.
            I suspect that this racial exclusivity wasn’t loudly declared, but instead was subtle and quiet – but, nevertheless, all too clear.
            Obviously, we’ve come a long way but I wonder if today there are certain types of people who we subtly and quietly – but all too clearly – make to feel unwelcome.
            Why do we behave this way?
            Well, we know that sports teams and airlines and other businesses cultivate exclusivity because it makes them money.
            But, why do we behave this way?
            The answer is obvious, right? We like exclusivity because it feels good to build a wall and be on the inside, to be a winner, to look down at others who are different, who are, in the eyes of the world, “losers.”
            Fortunately, for us, God is not like that at all.
            Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday when we’re invited to reflect on God’s inner life, the great mystery of one God in three eternal Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
            Over the Christian centuries, much greater minds than mine have meditated on the Trinity, pondered how it is that God can be both one and three at the same time, puzzled over the relationship among and between the three divine Persons.
            All I can say is that the Trinity reveals to us that God’s very nature is community.
            And, since God is perfect and doesn’t need anything or anyone, the divine community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could have spent all of eternity, for ever and ever, all alone, the most exclusive community of all.
            But, it turns out that instead of being exclusive, God is inclusive, inviting all of creation, all of us, to be part of the divine community of love.
            We see this way back in the Old Testament, in God’s Law, which takes a special interest in the lives and well-being of the poor and the foreigners and even the domesticated animals who were supposed to also share in Sabbath rest.
            And, we Christians, see God’s inclusivity in Jesus, who hung out with the “wrong kinds of people,” who invited everyone to the table, and who still invites everyone – those in the best seats and those in the nosebleed section – those enjoying the legroom of first class and those squeezed into coach – everyone – no matter what we look like or sound like – everyone is invited, everyone can be included in the divine community of love.
            And, we know that inclusivity is God’s way, we know that this is the way to go, because while exclusivity might feel good, at least for a while, nothing beats when we’re all together.
            On Wednesday night I had the pleasure of attending Hudson County Community College’s commencement out at NJPAC.
            I was honored that our parishioner Missy had invited me and was excited to celebrate her achievement.
            But, I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it all was.
            Waiting to get into the hall I was surrounded by excited family members and friends, all different kinds of people, speaking many different languages, but bound together by love and pride and gratitude.
            When I got into the hall, I counted about 100 different flags on the stage, representing the homelands of the graduates.
            And, when the grads, who, I’m guessing, were in many cases the first in their family to earn a degree, entered the hall and took their seats they did something I’ve never seen at other graduations: they turned around and looked up at their people in the balconies and cheered and yelled and clapped and waved - it was just an amazing outpouring of joy that brought tears to my eyes.
            And, yesterday, we – the people of all three churches - had a beautiful celebration over at Incarnation – welcoming a new priest, yes – but more than that taking a big step toward healing some of the sins of our spiritual ancestors and finally, truly, becoming the Episcopal Church of Jersey City – finally, truly becoming what we – all of us - were always meant to be – what we – all of us - really are – the Body of Christ in this place.
            As human beings, we like exclusivity, we like building walls, because we like to feel like winners.
            It fees good, at least for a while.
            But, it’s not God’s way.
            God’s way is inclusivity – inviting everyone to be part of the divine community of love – where we’re all winners.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Renewing Our True Identity

Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 21, 2016

Renewal of Ministry
Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25a
Psalm 146
Romans 12:1-8
John 15:9-16

Renewing Our True Identity
            Well, this is a great day!
            Today is a milestone for Church of the Incarnation and for your new Priest-in-Charge.
            Today is also a milestone for your sister and brother Episcopalians in Jersey City and it’s also a milestone for our diocese, symbolized by the presence of our bishop and canon this afternoon.
            Now, Gary has been very clear that this isn’t an installation or an institution or even a Celebration of New Ministry.
            No, instead today we are celebrating the renewal of ministry – the renewal of ministry for the Church of the Incarnation, as you formally welcome your new spiritual leader.
            You know, whenever we reach a milestone – whenever we prepare for renewal – it’s a good idea to glance backwards – to look back at the journey we have made – to take stock of the road – in this case, the often stony road – that we have trod.
            Whenever I walk over from St. Paul’s to Incarnation – all of about four blocks – and when I see the top of the former St. John’s just about two blocks away from here – I’m reminded of why there is a Church of the Incarnation – and I’m more than a little ashamed.
            As most, if not all, of you know, this church was founded because a hundred years ago Episcopalians of color were not welcomed in the other Episcopal churches.
            I suspect this unwelcome was made subtly – since Episcopalians are nothing if not polite – but, nevertheless, the message was given - and received.
            This shame has lingered and has coursed through our history, maybe sometimes nearly imperceptibly, like an underground stream, and other times as obvious as roaring waves.
            At long last, we need to finally grapple with this history – face this shame – repent of these sins - and our hope is that in the months ahead we will be able to do just that, together.
            But…against all the odds, while facing racism and decaying neighborhoods and a dramatically changing culture, this church has held firm, continuing to praise God, to proclaim the Good News, to give away its abundance to those in need, to share giants like Eugenia Suthern with the wider church, to partner with others to build much-needed affordable housing, and, yes, to make sweet, sweet music.
            And, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge and thank and celebrate the leaders of Incarnation who, with God’s help, have kept this place going, especially in these challenging recent years without a priest.
            There are people in this room who know just how hard it is to run a church, particularly these days, but it’s so much harder when you’re holding down your own full-time job and have a different priest coming through here every week.
            Yet, here you are.
            Here we are.
            So, we need to thank the lay leaders of Incarnation – we really need to thank them - and most especially your wardens, Sidney King and Carol Harrison-Arnold, and give them heartfelt thanks for a job very well done.
            As we reach this milestone together, we can also look back to the last three years when we have gone a long way to leave behind the resentments and suspicion and competition of the past and truly become sisters and brothers – the last three years when we have begun to truly be the Episcopal Church in Jersey City.
            All three of our churches have been enriched – renewed – by worshiping together, playing together, and, most especially, by going into the community and bringing signs of God’s love and grace to places of sin and despair.
            It’s been great, but, you know, our three-legged stool has always felt a little wobbly without a priest at Incarnation.
            But, here we are.
            God’s grace - with an assist from the bishop and the planners of General Convention – has brought Gary Commins all the way from California to Jersey City.
            Now, I’ll admit, I was a little skeptical at first.
            I mean, in more ways than one, California is a long way from here.
            But, over these past few months, Laurie and I have realized that we’ve hit the jackpot! We’ve won a great colleague – the new guy – the third Musketeer – our new friend - who brings so many gifts: rich experience, spiritual depth, humility and a dry sense of humor.
            From day one, he has plunged into our work together, praying with us at places of murder, getting into our community organizing work, becoming friends with other clergy in the city, participating in the Liturgical Churches Union Lenten series – even preaching at its Easter sunrise service, planning with us to build an even stronger Episcopal witness in this place.
            Thanks to the new guy, our three-legged stool is now balanced and sturdy.
            So, here we are.
            Today, we’ve reached this milestone together, this renewal of ministry, this embarking on an exciting future for the Episcopal Church in Jersey City.
            As we move forward together, my hope and prayer is that we will keep the words of St. Paul that we heard in today’s lesson from Romans close to our hearts and, with God’s help, renew not just our ministry but renew our true identity.
            Paul writes:
            “For as in one body we have many members, and not all members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ.”           
            Though we’ve often fallen short and will, no doubt, fall short again, that’s who we’ve always been meant to be – this is our true identity.
            We, the people of Incarnation - we, the Episcopalians of Jersey City - we are one body in Christ.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Spirit Abides With Us

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City
May 15, 2016

Year C: The Day of Pentecost
Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17, 25-27

The Spirit Abides With Us
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Ten days ago, early in the morning, a handful of us gathered in the chapel to celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, when we remember and celebrate the Risen Christ being taken into heaven.
            I love the way Luke tells the story in the Acts of the Apostles.
            He tells us that the Risen Christ and his disciples had gathered together one last time. The disciples - who, true to form, still don’t quite get it - think that this might be it – this might be the moment when Christ is going to restore the Kingdom of Israel.
            But, Jesus tells them, “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses…”
            And then Luke tells us that Jesus was taken up out of their sight.
            I always imagine them staring up at the sky with their mouths hanging open, in awe and wonder.
            Finally, we’re told that two men in white robes appear and tell the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.”
            And then the two men in white robes are gone.
            After yet another amazing experience, I imagine the disciples confused and frightened and, maybe most of all, with their Lord gone yet again, I imagine the disciples felt abandoned - and very lonely.
            Many of you know that when I was first ordained, I served as the assistant at Grace Church in Madison, a big church (by Episcopal standards, anyway!) in a an affluent suburb.
            Soon after I arrived there, I began to explore how I might minister to the many men in the parish.
            To learn about their needs and issues, I invited a local priest who was also a therapist to have breakfast with me.
            I asked him, “What are the big issues for men around here?”
            I expected him to say that these often high-powered and driven suburban men faced a lot of demands at work or they had marital issues or they feared losing their jobs and not being able to provide for their families.
            But, no. Without hesitation, the priest-therapist said, “loneliness.”
            He explained that these guys would leave home early in the morning often to take the train into the city, work hard all day and then come home in the evening to be a husband and a father, go to bed and then get up the next morning and do it all over again.
            These guys were left with very little time for friendships or their own interests.
            I was surprised by the answer but it resonated with me as I was dealing with my own bout of loneliness.
            As most of you know, I had been a teacher before becoming a priest. So, I had been used to being surrounded by lots of people all day – students and colleagues.
            But now, as a priest, even in a big suburban church, I found myself spending a lot of time by myself, working in my office (never had had one of those before!) all by myself.
            Even my day off, then as now Monday, was as lonely day – since Sue and most of my friends were at work.
            Of course, you don’t have to be a suburban dad or a priest to know loneliness.
            Over my years as a priest, I’ve become aware of just how lonely so many people are – those who have lost husbands and wives and jobs and careers - and those who haven’t managed to find who or what they’ve been looking for.
            So many of us are lonely – the loneliness when we feel like nobody cares what we think or how we feel – the loneliness when we feel like we can’t make ourselves understood to others no matter how we try, sort of like those babbling people in Babel long ago.
            Like the first disciples staring up at the sky, we feel lonely.
            Here at St. Paul’s, here in the church, as Christians, we may feel lonely, but we’re not alone.
            Once we stop looking up at the sky and look around and really pay attention we realize that we have each other – which is amazing - and even more amazing than that, we have the Holy Spirit.
            In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that God the Father will send the Holy Spirit who will be with us forever.
            And, today, fifty days after Easter, that’s what we celebrate today: God did send the Holy Spirit to the first disciples in Jerusalem, giving them amazing gifts.
            And today we also celebrate that the Holy Spirit abides with us – dwells with us – lives with us – and the Holy Spirit gives us amazing gifts, too.
            Out in Madison, I saw the Holy Spirit abiding many times and in many places, including in the Men’s Group that we started. We would meet every once in a while with no real agenda – just to have some food and drinks, to enjoy each other’s company, to lay down our burdens even for just a few hours.
            And, I see the Holy Spirit dwelling all over the place here at St. Paul’s – among our men as they gather together not unlike the guys in the suburbs, and as they teach the boys valuable life skills and lessons, as together they prepared and served a fantastic meal last week for our mothers and for us all.
            I see the Holy Spirit living with us here – at our Stone Soup supper the other night, bringing together parishioners, neighbors, and friends - chasing away our loneliness with love, laughter, some pretty amazing chow and even a birthday cake.
            I see the Holy Spirit abiding with us here, right here this morning, as we welcome four new brothers and one new sister to our Christian community in the water of baptism – where the Holy Spirit is going to do some amazing work in just a couple of minutes – you won’t want to miss it!
            And, I see the Holy Spirit dwelling with us here, giving us the courage and strength to together live out our baptismal promises – our sacred vows to break bread together, to resist evil, to proclaim the Good news, to love our neighbor as our self, and to respect the dignity of absolutely everybody.
            So, yes, many people – many of us know – or have known – great loneliness.
            But, the more we come together to pray and to sing and to embrace each other with forgiveness and friendship, we are reminded – we experience – that the Holy Spirit abides with us.
            The more we come together to eat our amazing food and to eat the most amazing bread and drink the most miraculous wine – the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation – we are reminded, we experience, we know, that the Holy Spirit abides with us.
            Men and women of St. Paul’s, why do we look toward heaven?
            Look around: the Holy Spirit abides with us, right here and now!

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Our Mission Statement: To Make God Known

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 8, 2016

Year C: The Seventh Sunday of Easter – The Sunday after the Ascension
Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

Our Mission Statement: To Make God Known
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            The other day, in the midst of lots of Mother’s Day posts, Facebook reminded me that I have reached my third anniversary as rector of St. Paul’s.
            That milestone has gotten me thinking about all that we have achieved here at St. Paul’s, with God’s help.
            With God’s help, we’ve stabilized and begun to rebuild the church, growing in members and ministries and we’ve improved our financial situation.
            With God’s help, we’ve become known in the community as a place where absolutely everybody is welcome, a place that cares for the whole community, not just our own parishioners.
            As I’ve mentioned to you before, I’m kind of a glass half empty person, but even I have to admit that this is all pretty wonderful – and I’m grateful to God and to all of you for this amazing privilege, for this exciting faith journey that we are on together.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            But…since I am a glass half-empty person, I can’t help but think about what hasn’t been accomplished, at least not yet.
            And, I’ve been especially thinking about a challenge that Bishop Beckwith gave us when he visited St. Paul’s last year.
            He challenged us to define our mission.
            What is our mission here at St. Paul’s?
            I’ve thought a lot about that – and I certainly see missions – missions that have been in place long before I arrived here – and missions that have developed over these past few years.
            One of our missions is to offer beautiful worship. Our niche among the Episcopal churches in Jersey City is to offer traditional Anglican worship – not stuffy or precious but beautiful, prayerful, and lively.
            One of our missions is to offer hospitality – to welcome absolutely everybody to our already amazingly diverse community – a community that, for me and I bet for you, is a powerful sign of the Kingdom of God.
            One of our missions is feeding – to feed people’s stomachs at our sometimes over-the-top coffee hours, at our increasingly popular Stone Soup Community Suppers, the Thanksgiving community feast, through our donations to the food pantry, next week at our Pentecost Picnic, and more.
            One of our missions is becoming a community arts center, a place where God’s great gifts of imagination and creativity are nurtured, celebrated, performed, and displayed – and nobody has to present his or her baptismal certificate to come and be part of it.
            One of our missions is to get out into the community and advocate for the poor and the oppressed, to challenge the powers that be to do a better job of serving all of God’s people.
            So, yes, we see many missions here – and you can probably come up with others.
            But, still I’ve wondered about the bishop’s question: what is our mission?
            What should be our mission statement?
            And then I started thinking about today’s gospel lesson.
            We’re still in John’s rather lengthy telling of the Last Supper, specifically Jesus’ great and powerful prayer for his disciples and for us.
            Here’s what caught my attention: Jesus prays,
            “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
            There it is.
            You don’t need me to tell you that the world still doesn’t really know God. Just open any newspaper or turn on the TV and see all the ways that we treat each other as less than human, far less than beloved children of God.
            And, of course, although it has plenty of houses of worship, our city still doesn’t know God, either. Just look at the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, the injustice baked into so many of our systems, look at the unemployment and under-education, look at the bloody violence that erupts on our streets all too regularly.
            The world and our city still don’t really know God at least in part because so often the Church has failed - and is failing - in its mission, turning off people by being at least as judgmental and unloving as the world, beating certain people over the head with carefully selected Bible verses while ignoring and even frustrating God’s great dream of a kingdom of love.
            The world still doesn’t know God.
            Our city still doesn’t know God.
            But, we do – not perfectly, of course, but we know God through God’s Word, through the love that our diverse little church shares, and most of all through Jesus who we welcome into our bodies and souls every time we come here.
            So, you know, actually, long ago Jesus gave us our mission statement: To Make God Known.
            Our mission statement: To Make God Known.
            Just imagine if we looked at everything we do here at St. Paul’s through the lens of making God known!
            We keep our church building and grounds beautiful not because we want everyone in the neighborhood to ooh and ah, though that’s nice, but because we want to make God known through God’s good creation of beautiful flowers and plants and through this unusual and special building that was dreamed up, built, and maintained by creative, talented and faithful people.
            Our mission statement: To Make God Known.
            We come here week after week not out of obligation or even because we like hanging out together so much – though there’s that.
            Each week choir members sacrifice a precious weeknight and drag themselves in early on Sunday morning not because they’re looking for applause – though that always feels good.
            Each Sunday we try to offer a warm welcome to absolutely everybody and an often over-the-top coffee hour not just because we’re nice, friendly, hospitable, generous, and hungry people – though of course we are.
            We do all of this and more…to make God known.
            Our mission statement: To Make God Known.
            We feed people’s stomachs through our community suppers and we feed people through the arts and music not because we want to be a restaurant or an art gallery or a concert hall, but because through hospitality and creativity and beauty we strive to make God known.
            And, we go out into the community, praying at sites of violence and death, challenging our leaders to serve all the people not because we want our name and photo in the paper or because we’re just another community organization but because through our witness, and faithfulness, and courage, we strive to make God known.
            Our mission statement: To Make God Known.
            Long ago, Jesus came among us and made God known by teaching us, by serving us, by loving us, and sacrificing himself for us.
            And now, he has given us that same mission: to make God known in our world and in our city by teaching, by serving, by loving, and by sacrificing ourselves.
            It’s a tough, even audacious, mission, but, as we’ll celebrate next week, we can do it because we have the Holy Spirit - and we have each other.
            Our glass is way more than half-full
            As I begin my fourth year as your rector, I hope and pray that, with God’s help, we will continue to make God known.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!


Sunday, May 01, 2016

Mindful of the Holy Spirit

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 1, 2016

Year C: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22:1-22:5
John 14:23-29

Mindful of the Holy Spirit
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            A few weeks ago I read a newspaper article about how “mindfulness” has become a big business.
            The writer noted how major companies like Google are encouraging their employees to practice mindfulness, in an effort to make them happier, more focused and more productive.
            There are hundreds of books out there about mindfulness, along with tons of websites, apps, and programs all designed to make us more mindful – and also designed to take our money, too.
            The writer mentioned a recent trip to a Whole Foods store where he found “Mindful Mayo” (a dairy-free mayonnaise substitute) on the shelf!
            I don’t know about mayonnaise being mindful, but obviously a lot of people these days are interested in mindfulness, in using practices like meditation to really pay attention to what’s going on inside ourselves and in the world around us, to pay attention to right here and right now.
            I’ve been interested in mindfulness for a few years now, ever since I had a major realization about my life.
            I realized that for a long time – since I was a kid, really – I had never really lived in the present moment.
            Instead, I was always so impatient.
            I was always impatient for the next stage of my life – waiting impatiently for the next development, the next step, which would, I thought, somehow, finally mark the start of my “real life.”
            I was so impatient with living in the “in-between time.”
            So, when I was a little kid, I thought my “real life” would start in high school. And, then when I was in high school, I thought my “real life” would finally begin in college. And then, when I was in college, I thought my “real life” would begin when I figured out what I wanted to do for a living.
            When I was a teacher, I always believed it would be the next year when I’d finally get it right and then, finally, my “real life” would start.
            And, then I discerned a call to ordination and I thought – a-ha! – when I’m ordained then my “real life” will really get started!
            And then I was ordained and I thought, well…no, not yet. I thought, no, I’m still in the in-between time. I thought, even as a priest, my “real life” hasn’t started yet.
            But, then, you know how it goes, time passes, and one day a few years ago I woke up and it dawned on me that there were probably more days behind me than ahead of me.           
           And I realized with a shock what I’ve just told you: that I had spent most of my life, most of my oh so valuable in-between time not focused on the present moment but always anticipating what’s next, waiting for the next big step when I thought my “real life” would finally begin.
            Somehow, I had dismissed the in-between time as unimportant.
            Maybe you can relate to my big mistake.
            But, the truth is, we live our lives in the in-between time. Life is the in-between time from our birth to our death, the in-between time from Jesus’ resurrection to his return in glory.
            Today’s Gospel lesson got me thinking about all of this.
            Of course, the gospels tell us about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus..
            But, they also give us insights into the earliest Christian communities in the decades after Jesus’ earthly life, how they made sense of who Jesus was and what he means for the world, how they figured out what it means to be a Christian.
            For the past few weeks we’ve been reading from the Gospel of John, the last of the four gospels to be completed, probably around the year 100, 70 or so years after Jesus’ earthly lifetime.
            By that time, Christians had begun to realize that Jesus wasn’t going to return as soon as everybody had thought and hoped.
            By that time, Christians had begun to realize that the in-between time between Jesus’ Resurrection and his return was going to be a lot longer than expected.
            It would have been easy to get bummed out about that – and, I suppose some Christians did get discouraged – but, despite lots of missteps and wrong turns along the way, during this long in-between time, the Church has continued to do its work, continued to spread the Good News, continued to grow, all thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit.
            Thanks to the Holy Spirit, Jesus never really left us.
            Thanks to the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to offer us his peace.
            Thanks to the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives us courage.
            And, if we’re mindful, if we pay attention, we discover that our “real life” during this long in-between time is filled with the Holy Spirit.
            That’s probably the worst part of living the way I used to live (and still do, more often than I want to admit). The worst part of not living in the moment is that I’m sure I missed out on so many ways that the Holy Spirit has been and is at work in my life and in the lives around me.
            But, when I’m mindful and really paying attention to right here and right now, I see the Holy Spirit all over the place.
            At one point during the 10:00 service last week, I looked out at all of you and I marveled at how any wonderful new people have made their way to St. Paul’s, how many are making a spiritual home with us, bringing so many gifts: faithfulness in worship, generosity, financial wisdom, singing, acting, painting walls, cooking, and much more.
            Mindful of the Holy Spirit.
            I wrote this sermon at my desk on Saturday morning as I watched the stream of men and women arrive for the AA meeting – all different kinds of people, some I recognize some I don’t, all scarred by addiction but week after week supporting each other, introducing themselves, telling their stories, laughing, applauding, crying – right here in Carr Hall, right here at St. Paul’s, which one of the AA guys once told me is “an icon” for him – the place where he got sober more than 20 years ago.
            Mindful of the Holy Spirit.
            I’m mindful of the bond that has formed among the three Episcopal churches in Jersey City these past few years, churches that in the past have ignored each other, or competed with each other, or resented each other, but now today we’ve become friends, become brothers and sisters, truly the Episcopal Church of Jersey City.
            Mindful of the Holy Spirit.
            I’m mindful of Jersey City Together and our public launch a few weeks ago, when we spoke truth to power and, as usual, power didn’t like it very much! But, I still can’t get over that in this city where we are so used to corruption and injustice, where, frankly, we don’t really expect our leaders to be good, we managed to draw 900 people, all different kinds of people.
            The other day we had a clergy meeting and acknowledged that there may very well be consequences for our actions: broken friendships, frayed relationships, applications delayed, grants denied, but we were firm in our commitment to stick together.
            It was beautiful, moving, and a little scary.
            Mindful of the Holy Spirit.
            And I’m mindful of all the little things that are not so little that go on all the time around here: parents working so hard to give their kids a better life, grandparents babysitting and walking to school in the morning and back in the afternoon, the phone calls and visits with people we know are suffering, making a plate at coffee hour for someone who’s disabled, making a plate for the rector so I can get something to eat, praying every day for all of those names on our prayer list, forgiving those who wrong us, listening for God’s call and stepping out in faith to follow where that call may lead.
            Mindful of the Holy Spirit.
            So, here we are, you and I, right here and right now, living in the in-between time between our birth and our death, living in the in-between time between Jesus’ resurrection and return, living in the in-between time - guided, strengthened, and loved by the Holy Spirit.
            Just look around.
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!