Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Hard Work of Following Demanding Jesus

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 26, 2016

Year C, Proper 8: The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

The Hard Work of Following Demanding Jesus
            I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going person.
            Don’t correct me if I’m wrong!
            But, like everybody I guess, I do have at least a few pet peeves, things that really get on my nerves, really get under my skin, really tick me off.
            One is when people refer to the Episcopal Church as “Catholic Lite.”
            Have you ever heard that?
            I have – too many times.
            When people say the Episcopal Church is “Catholic Lite” what they mean is that we Episcopalians have all the trappings of the Roman Catholic Church, the often beautiful buildings, priests who wear fancy vestments, services that are so close to be nearly identical, we have all that Catholic “stuff,” but we don’t burden people with too many rules and expectations.
            “Catholic Lite” implies that we’re the church for you if you’re looking for an easy church that puts on a good show but doesn’t demand much of you.
            I’ve had to bite my tongue many times when people have used the “Catholic Lite” line on me, usually said with a laugh and a smile, said sometimes by Roman Catholics or even by other Episcopalians.
            First of all, I hate “Catholic Lite” because it’s not true – or shouldn’t be true.
            More than once my father has quipped that it’s hard work being Episcopalian. I think he’s mostly talking about the length of our 10:00 service – much longer than a typical Catholic Mass.
            But, he’s right, whether he knows it or not! If we take it seriously, it IS hard work being an Episcopalian.
            Many of you know that I love baptizing people. It’s one of my most favorite things to do as a priest.
            I love baptisms for lots of reasons, but one is the chance we get to renew our Baptismal Covenant.
            In the Baptismal Covenant we’re asked several very difficult questions. I always tell people that they get increasingly difficult.
            “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”
            “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
            “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
            “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
            “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
            And, to each of these increasingly difficult, challenging, and demanding questions we all answer, “I will, with God’s help.”
            If we really take these questions and promises seriously, if we treat them as more than just words we say so we get on to the baptism, then there’s nothing “lite” about them.
            It’s hard work being an Episcopalian, hard work to make time for church every week, hard work proclaiming the Good news, hard work loving our neighbor as our self, hard work respecting the dignity of every human being.
            My father really is right: it IS hard work being an Episcopalian.
            The other big reason why I hate “Catholic Lite” is because an easy church falls so short of what Jesus demands of his followers.
            We heard demanding Jesus loud and clear in today’s gospel lesson.
            Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke marks the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Jerusalem where he will face betrayal and rejection and where he will endure suffering and death.
            Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he will give his all.
            Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to give his all but, it turns out that not everyone is able to follow.
            We’re told that a Samaritan village was not able to receive Jesus.
            We’re told that some bold person told Jesus, “I will follow wherever you go.” Big words, to which Jesus replies that unlike even a fox or a bird, he has no home. The text doesn’t tell us if the unnamed bold person still followed Jesus, but probably not, right?
            We can imagine him or her backing away and returning to everyday life, rather than following a homeless messiah.
            Jesus gives his all and demands the same of us.
            Someone else is willing to follow Jesus but adds a perfectly reasonable condition: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
            But, demanding Jesus won’t hear of it, demanding our all.
            Someone else is willing to follow Jesus but adds another perfectly reasonable condition: “…let me first say farewell to those at home.”
            Again, Jesus won’t hear of it, demanding our all.
            At this point, would be easy to say, well, Jesus is using exaggeration to make his point, but I don’t think so.
            Jesus demands our all, demands that we put following him above everything else including, it seems, even all the good stuff, like caring for those we love.           
            Jesus gives his all and demands that we give our all, too.
            So, “Catholic Lite” isn’t going to cut it.
            But, why? Why is Jesus so demanding?
            The answer is that Jesus knows what we’re up against – knows that the forces of evil are all so powerful.
            At confirmation this year, the bishop did something I’ve seen him do before.
            During the service he asked the candidates, “Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil?”
            The correct answer is “I do,” which the candidates, mostly teenagers, said with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
            “I do,” they mumbled.
            The bishop stopped the service and reminded everyone of evil’s power – and how more commitment and enthusiasm is required.
            He asked the question again, and this time everyone roared, “I do!”
            Now, that’s what I’m taking about!
            None of us is able to do this completely, and we can only even try with God’s help, but once we begin to do the hard work of following demanding Jesus then we become freer and stronger to take on the powerful forces of evil in the world.
            And, we don’t have to look far to find evil in our world where we are drawing ever-deeper divisions between and among people, breaking the bonds that unite us, seeking to build walls rather than bridges.
            We don’t have to look far to find evil in our country, where we are armed to the teeth, where a lone gunman, probably tormented by his own demons more than motivated by a distortion of his religion, who had no trouble buying a military-style weapon designed solely to kill large numbers of people, entered an Orlando club and mowed down people, mostly gay and lesbian people, who had gone there for a night of music, dancing, and fun – people who had gone there, ironically and tragically, because they saw it as a rare and precious safe place, a place of refuge.
            We don’t have to look far to find evil in our city, where nearly every week we’ve been praying for homicide victims, where the division between haves and have-nots has never been as stark, and where on Saturday evening I went into one of our local liquor stores to buy ice for the art fundraiser and, I swear, it felt like I was getting a glimpse of hell as one addict after another stumbled up to the counter to get the fix that they needed.
            So, the “Catholic Lite” thing isn’t going to cut it.
            So, together, let’s try, with God’s help, to follow demanding Jesus – to put Jesus first, to pray together even when we don’t feel like it, to confess our sins, to proclaim the Good News by word and example, to love those people on line in the liquor store as our self, to strive for justice and peace among everybody, Republicans and Democrats, Christians and Muslims, Downtown and Greenville, Black and White, …
            Yes, it’s hard work following demanding Jesus, but, together, with God’s help, we can do it.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Like the Garden

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 26, 2016

The Funeral of Eden Rahming
Proverbs 3:1-9
Matthew 26:6-13
Like the Garden
            I remember very well the second time I met her.
            It was a Sunday morning, early in my time as pastor here, back when I was struggling to remember lots of faces and learn lots of names.
            I knew we had met. I couldn’t forget her face and certainly couldn’t forget her voice, but I couldn’t come up with her name.
            It was right here, as I was greeting everyone after the service, and I said, “I’m sorry, could you tell me your name again.”
            And, patiently and softly, and with that big beautiful smile, she said what I think she said to at least some of you, too:
            “Eden. Like the garden.”
            And, I never forgot her name again.
            Like the garden.
            Pretty much everyone knows the story of the garden, right?
            It’s one of my favorite bible stories because it captures the human experience, the human predicament.
            God loves us so much that God gives us all this goodness – all of this beauty – to appreciate, to enjoy, to love, and to take care of.
            But…because we’re often selfish and disobedient and unfaithful, because we give into temptation, we mess it all up.
            We human beings mess it all up in big ways – poisoning the good creation with our toxins of fear and hatred and violence.
            For me, the most poignant part of the garden story is when the first man and woman eat the forbidden fruit and they are ashamed – ashamed of their nakedness and ashamed that they had disobeyed God.
            They’re so ashamed that they hide from God.
            And, God, who loves them, who loves us so much, comes through the garden, looking for his people, calling out, “Where are you?”
            “Where are you?”
            If you know the story, you know that at the end the first man and woman are cast out of the garden, sent out into the world where they need to work for their food and will know suffering and death.
            If you didn’t know better, you’d think that’s the end of the story of God and us.
            God made us. We messed up. And, God’s done with us.
            But, of course, that’s not the end of the story of God and us - but simply just the beginning.
            Throughout the centuries God has continued, through prophets and teachers, through the glory of nature and the beauty of art, God has continued to call out to us, asking, “Where are you?”
            God has continued to invite us to work with God to transform the world back to the way it was always meant to be, to make the world once again like the garden.
            For us Christians, God’s clearest invitation is Jesus.
            In and through Jesus, in and through his life of perfect love and sacrifice, we see life like the garden.
            In and through Jesus, in and through his resurrection (which, no accident, took place in a garden) we see life like the garden.
            Now, just a quick look at the news tells us that we have a long way to go until we transform the world back to the way it was always meant to be, until we get back to life like the garden.
            But, if we’re fortunate, in our lives we meet people who do answer God’s call, who do their part, maybe more than their part, to make life like the garden.
            Our most aptly-named sister did just that, didn’t she?
            “Eden like the garden” made life for us a liitle bit more like paradise, more like the way things were always meant to be, more like the garden.
            Like the woman in today’s gospel story, Eden gave away what she had in loving service to God and us, her sisters and brothers.
            Often when Eden arrived here in church she wouldn’t even say hi to me. Instead, she’d stretch out her arms wide and simply say, “Fr. Tom. Hug.”
            I used to think she asked because she needed a hug but now I’m not so sure. Maybe she sensed that I needed a hug – or that we both did.  I do know for sure that they were some of the best hugs I ever got in my life.
            Like the garden.
            Eden shared her gorgeous voice so generously here and at Incarnation and NJCU and so many other places, lifting our hearts, bringing tears to our eyes, with such incredible beauty.
            Like the garden.
            Eden was wonderful with children, she loved them and they loved her – and, you know, kids can tell who’s the real deal and who isn’t. I remember her working so wonderfully with our camp kids and remaining a calm center during the chaos of the Christmas pageant, helping to create something wonderful for everyone present.
            Like the garden.
            And, I’ve been so moved these past couple of so sad weeks by the outpouring of love, grief, and generosity from the family that she created here in Jersey City, so many classmates and sorority sisters and parishioners who love her so much, who know just how good it is to be her friend, to love her and be loved by her.
            Like the garden.
            Now, for Eden, it’s not “like the garden” anymore.
            No, right now, our sweet sister is experiencing the real thing. She’s in the garden with God where all her disappointments and fears and hurts are healed forever.
            God no longer calls out, “Where are you?” to Eden and Eden no longer needs to search for God.
            You and I, though, we aren’t there yet.
            No, we’re still feeling that same shock of loss like when the first man and woman seemed to have lost Eden forever.
            But, this isn’t the end.
            It’s just the beginning.
            God is still calling us, calling us right now, calling out to us, “Where are you?”
            Right here and now, God is calling us to follow Eden’s example, to continue her work, to pour out our ointment, to give away our lives lovingly and beautifully, to do our part, maybe even more than our part, to transform this broken world into what it was always meant to be.
            Eden. Like the garden.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sin and Forgiveness; Love and Hospitality

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 12, 2016

Year C, Proper 6: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 21:1-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Sin and Forgiveness; Love and Hospitality.
            In one of the first interviews he gave after his election, Pope Francis was asked a simple but profound question, “Who are you?”
            He answered, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
            That’s a pretty unexpected answer coming from the Pope and, I suppose, it would not be the answer that we would give if somebody asked us, “who are you?”
            Of course, we all sin – we all fall short, we all, at least some times, reject God’s great command – the command to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
            We’re probably not as sinful as Jezebel in today’s Old Testament lesson, who engineered the death of Naboth so her husband King Ahab could get his vineyard – we may not be as sinful as Jezebel, but we do our fair share of sinning.
            Because we’re good at compartmentalizing, good at putting the different parts of our life into little psychological boxes, many of us manage to ignore our sinfulness much of the time and would certainly never answer the question “who are you?” by saying, “I am a sinner.”
            But, sometimes our sins do weigh on our souls.
            Maybe we think of our sins and ask forgiveness here during the service, during that little pause before the confession, before we join with everybody else and ask forgiveness for what we’ve done and left undone.
            And then there are times where our sins become “intolerable” and we need to make a more private and personal confession.
            I’ve mentioned to you before that very few people have ever taken advantage of the opportunity to make a sacramental confession with me, though the door is always open.
            But, years ago a woman came to see me out at Grace Madison to make a confession – she wasn’t a parishioner but had found the church in the phone book or online.
            We sat in my office and she told me her story – it was a lot – she shared the heavy burdens of guilt that she needed to get off her back, out of her heart.
            And then we prayed and I said the words of absolution and forgiveness, made the sign of the cross, and I swear to you, as she felt forgiveness, I could see her face change.
            Then, a couple of weeks ago a woman called St. Paul’s asking if she could make a confession over the phone.
            No one’s ever asked me that before and I was reluctant but circumstances seemed to make it impossible for us to meet face to face so I went along with it.
            Often it’s pretty clear what the sin is – or the sins are – usually one of the big ones: lying, cheating, stealing.
            But, in this case, it took her a while to get around to the sin – a sin that was bothering her enough to call me.
            And, to my surprise, it turned out she was feeling very guilty because she hadn’t offered hospitality to someone she didn’t trust or like very much.
            I was reminded of that call when I began to reflect on today’s gospel lesson – where we hear quite a bit about the sin of inhospitality.
            To be fair, we’re told that Simon the Pharisee does indeed invite Jesus to eat with him in his home.
            But, Simon’s hospitality seems to be half-hearted at best. There’s no kiss of welcome, no water for Jesus’ feet, no oil for Jesus’ head. We don’t know why Simon neglects these niceties. Maybe he didn’t really like or trust Jesus but he felt that he was supposed to have him over, so he did. Or maybe he invited Jesus over simply to challenge him or try to trick him into saying or doing the wrong thing.
            We don’t know why, but Simon fails to be hospitable.
            Enter the sinful woman.
            We don’t know her exact sins but she arrives and I’m sure shocks everyone by crossing all kinds of boundaries. She bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Then she anoints his feet with oil.
            It’s a mysterious and powerful story – mysterious and powerful because we’re not sure exactly what’s going on here but we can see the key elements:
            Sin and forgiveness.
            Love and hospitality.
            Like the Pope, we’re all sinners. That’s not such good news, except that God is always ready to forgive us.
            And, when we acknowledge our sinfulness and truly receive and accept forgiveness, then we are transformed – transformed like that woman sitting across from me in my office whose face changed as her burdens were lifted.
            As forgiven sinners we are meant to be transformed into people of love and hospitality – people willing to cross all kinds of boundaries, pouring out love and tears on the Christ we meet in the stranger, the Christ we meet in the poor drunk on Bergen Avenue, the Christ we meet in the conservative and the liberal, the Christ we meet in the Muslim and the Mexican, the Christ we meet in the sinners we sit with in church every Sunday.
            We are meant to welcome them all, something, let’s be honest, that we personally and churches aren’t always good at.
            When I was in the ordination process, I was told to go around and visit other churches in our diocese to see what’s out there.
            I visited one church on Mother’s Day. There were only about a dozen people at the service. No one knew who I was and no one paid me any mind, even though I obviously knew my way around the prayer book and was about 20 years younger than the youngest person there – so you would’ve thought they might take an interest in a potential parishioner.
            No one said anything about coffee hour so I assumed they just didn’t have it until I saw everybody else filing into the parish hall after the service for, yes, coffee hour.
            The sin of inhospitality.
            And, then there was the large suburban church I visited one Sunday. I got there early so very few people were around. When I found an usher, I asked him where the bathroom was. I’ll never forget the look he gave me – he obviously didn’t know me so he looked me over skeptically, almost weighing in his mind whether he should tell me. Who knows, I might write on the walls or shove paper towels down the toilet!
            The sin of inhospitality.
            But, sometimes we do better – sometimes we are hospitable and we do welcome people into our church, into our home, and into our life.
            By now, some of you have heard about the death yesterday morning of our beautiful sister, Eden Rahming.
            Eden was just about the sweetest person I’ve ever met, loving and kind, and with a gorgeous voice. I was always so happy when she was able to come to church here not just because of the boost she gave the choir, though there was that, but because her gentle spirit somehow changed the feel of this room and our worship.    
            So many of us are devastated by her death so suddenly and at such a young age.                                                                                                       
            Some of you also know that Eden lived with Gail and her daughter Shari, who had welcomed her into their home, welcomed her as a daughter and a sister, helping her to feel loved and valued, caring for her not unlike the woman in today’s gospel story, anointing Eden with tears and love.
            That’s who we are meant to be.
            That’s who we really are.
            So, yes, Pope Francis is a sinner – a forgiven sinner who has reminded the church of the Love at the heart of our faith.
            The woman at the Pharisee’s house was a sinner – a forgiven sinner who poured out her tears, her ointment, her love, on Christ.
            And you and I are sinners, too – forgiven sinners meant to offer our tears, our welcome, and our love to Christ, to Christ who we meet in the people, especially the poorest and the loneliest, all around us.
            Because I’ve seen it, I know we can do it.
            Sin and forveness.
            Love and hospitality.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Devotion of Body, Soul, and Spirit: A Tribute to the Rev. Lauren Ackland

“Devotion of Body, Soul, and Spirit: A Tribute to the Rev. Lauren Ackland”
June 11, 2016

            Well, it’s certainly a great honor to have been invited to speak at this spectacular occasion, to honor Lauren and George who have been mentors and friends for Sue and me – and who mean so much to us all.
            For the record, I will say, that I’ve been given very little direction on what to say this evening.
            In fact, my friend, Grace Church Senior Warden John Garde gave me just one request: “Keep it light.”
            “Keep it light,” he said.
            But, it’s not so easy to keep it light since this is, for sure, a bittersweet event, right?
            So, like many of you, when I need uplift and inspiration, I look to
            And, what do you know? While we’re here honoring Lauren, over in Britain they’re having a big party to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday!
            And, I don’t need to tell you Anglophiles that this is her official birthday – her real birthday was back in April.
            But, I digress.
            I mention the Queen because, setting aside the very great age gap and the obvious lifestyle differences, Lauren has always reminded me a bit of the Queen.
            Don’t laugh. Stick with me. I don’t want to push this too hard, but I think I’m going to make the case.
            After all, they are both women who have served so well for so long that, honestly, it’s difficult for many of us to imagine someone else in their place.
            They have both been icons of stability during changing times.
            Back on her 21st birthday, then-Princess Elizabeth made a famous speech declaring that her whole life, whether long or short, would be devoted to service.
            And, Lauren has made that same promise several times in her life – both times when she was ordained – and, of course, twenty years ago when she became Rector of Grace Church.
            At that celebration of new ministry, reading the words in the Prayer Book, Lauren made the following pledge to God: “To you and your service I devote myself, body, soul, and spirit.”
            And, whatever you might think about the Queen, there can be no disagreement that Lauren has worked oh so very hard to keep her big promise to God. Day in and day out, year after year, Lauren has devoted herself – given her body, soul, and spirit, in service to God and God’s people.
            Just look around – look around at how many of us have been touched by her life and ministry!
            Now, I’m sure it would be easy to get kind of full of yourself if you’re the Queen – people bowing and curtseying all the time, “Your Majesty,” the fancy outfits, and all the rest of it.
            And, I can imagine, that it might be easy to get full of yourself as a priest  - and especially as Rector of one of the most prominent churches in this diocese, a wonderful church with more people and more ministry and, yes, more money, than most.
            Yet, despite all the royal splendor, I’ve always sensed a basic humility and simplicity in the Queen – and you and I both know that Lauren has led Grace Church and lives her life with humility, modesty and simplicity.
            It’s never been about her.
            Didn’t have to be that way. It could’ve all gone to her head!
            After all, at Grace, she has gotten to wear some pretty fancy outfits – the beautiful vestments made from Larry Taber’s curtains come especially to mind – lots of people call her “Mother,” and, unlike the Queen, as Rector she has real power, she’s no figurehead, but she has led the church very much as what the bishop often calls her, a “team player,” working closely with wardens, vestry, and staff.
             And, in her everyday life she lives simply (she’d say she’s just cheap) – so no flashy cars or fancy clothes or frequent and exotic vacations for her – or George.
            Actually, most of you know that it’s been a minor miracle whenever they’ve even taken a real vacation!
            And a sabbatical? What’s a sabbatical?
            Something else both the Queen and Lauren share in common: husbands with, yes, let’s say quirky senses of humor, but husbands who have loyally supported them and their work, sacrificing at least some of their own interests and ambitions, and certainly sacrificing much of their time, over all these years.
            It’s been often noted, including, it must be said, by George Hayman himself, that in many ways George is a traditional clergy spouse, devoting much of his life to Grace Church – the choir, the altar guild, worship leader, men’s group, helping with publications – plus lots of other work for the diocese – all the while serving as trusted confidante and sounding board for Lauren – and, maybe most important of all, making her laugh a lot.
            It’s hard to imagine that Lauren could have had such a rich and successful ministry at Grace without George at her side.
            And, while I’m sure that lots of people at Grace already realize that they’re going to really miss Lauren, they may not yet fully appreciate just how much they’ll miss George.
            So, what do you think, have I convinced you yet about the similarities between these two, the Queen and Lauren?
            All right, a little more.
            It’s hard to know the Queen’s personality but she strikes me as an essentially private and shy person who plays a very public role – a public role that requires her to interact with all different kinds of people. Not easy.
            And, I’d say that Lauren is also an essentially private and shy person (you’re really enjoying all the attention tonight, right, Lauren?) she’s a private and shy person who also plays a very public role, requiring her to interact with all different kinds of people.
            In fact, this is something about Lauren that is under-appreciated: she is able to talk with anybody.
            Maybe because of her time in the city, she is able to talk easily with the wealthy and famous. I remember one time Charles Scribner III came to visit Grace Church and while I was feeling tongue-tied and thinking about my new six degrees of separation with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, she talked with “Charlie” just as comfortably as she might with any parishioner.
            And, she is equally at ease talking with people in the midst of crisis, couples hoping to marry, teenagers, Sunday School kids, hungry people at her door looking for help, and residents of the Pine Acres nursing home. All of them. It’s really remarkable – and one of the secrets of her extraordinary success.
            OK, one last thing about the Queen and Lauren: they’re signed up for life.
            Yes, it’s true that next Sunday afternoon, Lauren will ceremonially hand back the keys of the church (you’re really gonna do it, right?) and her time, this amazing time, as Rector of Grace Church will come to an end.
            Someday soon she’ll head off to her “Balmoral” in South Orange and retire.
            Sort of.
            First of all, I know for a fact that there are several priests in this diocese – maybe even some here tonight – who are quite actively lobbying Lauren to come and assist at their churches.
            Who can blame them, right?
            After all, here you have an outstanding and experienced priest suddenly available to help with preaching, teaching, and pastoral care, you name it.
            Now, I really shouldn’t say this, and I don’t want to embarrass anybody or make any of my colleagues mad, so I’m not going to get into the specifics, but I’ve told Lauren that most of these churches just really aren’t the right fit for her and for her skills.
            But…there is one, a church right in the heart of one of our big cities, where I’m sure she’d fit right in since I – I mean, the rector of that church – has stolen just about every idea from Lauren and Grace Church and plugged it into his place!
            Lauren, you still want a Last Chance Mass? You’re in luck!
            How blessed I am to have learned from – and stolen from - the best.
            So, I’m hopeful!
            But, you know, in all seriousness, in a profound sense, it doesn’t matter so much what exactly Lauren decides to do or not do in retirement.
            One of my other mentors was a priest named Frank Carr who was rector of St. Paul’s Jersey City back in the 70s and 80s.
            I didn’t know him back then, only becoming friends long after he had retired.
            And, one thing I remember about him is he’d never fail to correct people when they referred to him or one of his buddies as a “retired priest.”
            He’d bellow, “Priest, retired!”
            It may seem like a minor point but it was important to him, and it is important.
            It’s important because he, like Lauren, like all of us in ordained ministry, made a sacred promise to God, to devote ourselves body, soul, and spirit to God and God’s people – and that promise is not limited to a particular job or place or time.
            It’s a promise for life.
            And, we all fall short, but I’ve never known anyone to keep that sacred promise more faithfully than Lauren Ackland, a priest, a priest forever.           

Sunday, June 05, 2016

God Doesn't Owe Us Anything, But Gives Us Miracles of New Life All the Time

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 5, 2016

Year C: The Third Sunday after Pentecost
1 Kings 17:8-24
Psalm 146
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

God Doesn’t Owe Us Anything, But Gives Us Miracles of New Life All the Time
            In today’s gospel lesson we pick up right where we left off last week.
            If you were here, you’ll remember that we heard the story of the centurion’s highly valued slave who had become gravely ill.
            The centurion sends a group of Jewish elders to ask Jesus to heal the slave, which he does – from a far – Jesus never comes into physical contact with the slave or the centurion.
            It’s a miracle.
            And then in today’s passage, we hear the story of a widow who has lost her only son. They’re carrying him out of the village, taking him to his burial place, when Jesus arrives.
            It’s a sad scene and we’re told that Jesus, like any of us would, has compassion for the widow, understanding of course the pain of losing a child but also the fact that the widow has most likely lost her main economic support.
            Without her only son, maybe some other relatives would take care of her – or maybe not.
            Compassionate Jesus says, “Young man I say to you, rise!”
            And the dead man rose and began to speak.
            Don’t you wonder what he had to say?
            It’s a miracle.
            To be honest, I find miracles to be a very difficult subject because they raise the tough question of why some people receive a miracle and others don’t.
            After all, back in the time of Jesus there must have been lots of widows who lost their only sons.
            There must have been lots of masters who lost their highly valued slaves.
            Just like today there must have been lots of good, honest, hard-working, and loving people who faced all kinds of misfortune – yet Jesus didn’t raise every dead person, didn’t heal every sick person, didn’t fix every problem, right?
            I find miracles difficult because in my job I’m often with people who are in extreme situations – the doctor has just given a grim diagnosis, a relationship is crumbling, there’s been an accident, the pile of bills is overwhelming – people in extreme situations who often pray really hard for a miracle, who sometimes even expect a miracle - if they only pray hard enough.
            And, as you’d guess, they often ask me to pray for a miracle, which I understand but try to resist, preferring to pray for strength, grace, patience, courage, and faith.
            And, then, if the miracle doesn’t come, people are sometimes bitterly disappointed and sometimes even angry at God who, it seems, has let them down so terribly.
            All perfectly understandable, right?
            As I’ve thought about this, though, I keep coming back to a fact that we often forget: God doesn’t owe us anything.
            God doesn’t owe us anything.
            Everything that has been, is, or will be, is all thanks to God.
            We didn’t do, can’t do, anything to deserve life.
            So, God doesn’t owe us anything.
            But, God still gives us miracles of new life – all the time.
            It seems to me that miracles aren’t really about physical healing, as wonderful as that is.
            After all, the centurion’s slave eventually died, as did the widow’s son, as did Lazarus.
            The people who ate all of that bread and fish that Jesus had multiplied got hungry again – got hungry the very next day.
             Miracles aren’t so much about physical healing but they are maybe the most extreme, most dramatic, signs of who God is and what God does all the time.
            God doesn’t owe us anything, but God still gives us miracles of new life all the time.
            During one of the beautiful afternoons this past week, Sue and I were sitting outside with a friend, enjoying the feel of the sun on our skin. This good feeling got our friend to think cosmic thoughts and he mentioned that it takes eight minutes for the light and the warmth of the sun to make it’s way through the cold death of space to earth, giving just the right amount of light and warmth for the flowers outside church to bloom and for all of life, all of us, to exist.
            It’s a miracle.
            God doesn’t owe us anything, but God still gives us miracles of new life all the time.
            For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been praying for our sister Jeanette who, as you know, had major surgery a couple of weeks ago.
            Although she’s doing very well now, her recovery hasn’t been a straight line and there were some tough days. Throughout that experience, I was struck by the genuine care that the Medical Center staff showed her. For these professionals who deal with sick and suffering people everyday, Jeanette wasn’t just a body – she wasn’t just a problem to be solved - but a person of great value.
            As it happens, I was visiting her in the ICU when the doctors and nurses came to perform a procedure that would determine how much longer she spent in the hospital.
            Jeanette’s son was there, too, and we were asked to step outside. As they closed the curtain I could see on their faces the hope and determination that they could use their skill and their technology to help her.
            A few minutes went by – a few tense minutes of waiting in the hallway when I could feel tears forming in my eyes – and then one of the nurses (who looked like she was about 11 years old, by the way) pulled back the curtain just a little and with a big smile gave us a thumbs up.
            It’s a miracle.
            God doesn’t owe us anything, but God still gives us miracles of new life all the time.
            On Monday I got a call from a funeral home asking if I was able to conduct a funeral here for a long ago parishioner named Linda Davis, who had died very suddenly. One minute she was the picture of health and the next she was gone.
            Very difficult.
            Of course I never say no to a funeral and over the next day and a half with the help of Linda’s daughter, Diane, we put together the service that was here on Wednesday afternoon.
            Now, I was expecting maybe a handful of people to attend – after all there had been very little notice. Being optimistic, we printed 50 bulletins.
            There were over 100 people here in church.
            And, I was so moved by the outpouring of love for Linda - Linda who obviously had meant so much to so many – meant so much that they dropped whatever they were doing and came to church, even though, as I discovered, there weren’t too many regular church-goers in the congregation.
            During the service and after, people told great stories, were even able to laugh, and tears of joy got mixed in with tears of sadness.
            Linda is with God now and will be very much missed, but healing has begun – and Linda’s love lives on.
            It’s a miracle.
            God doesn’t owe us anything, but God still gives us miracles of new life all the time.
            I’ve mentioned before how some of the clergy here in Jersey City gather for prayer at the sites of homicides, one week after they’ve occurred.
            One disturbing thing I’ve noticed lately is that the makeshift shrines with candles and bottles and t-shirts aren’t lasting for even a week. It’s like these murders never happened.
            Anyway, on Thursday morning I was the first to arrive at Audubon Park, where Tyrell Franklin had been shot and killed the week before.
            As I was sitting on a park bench wondering if anybody else would show up, a woman stopped, looked at me, and said with a lot of surprise:
            “Are you a priest?!?”
            “Yes, I am.”
            She said, “I’ve never seen a priest sit in this park before!”
            And then she told me her name and gave me her story, or part of her story, a sad and familiar story of addiction, addiction for more than twenty-five years, failed attempts at getting clean while people around her either kicked their addiction or ended up in an early grave.
            She asked me to pray over her and then some of her “friends” called to her and she was gone.
            Not five minutes later, there she was again, saying, “I’m back!”
            I’ll admit that I thought that, OK, now she was going to hit me up for money, but no, she just wanted to tell me more of her story and to ask why she couldn’t get clean despite trying so many times.
            Where was her miracle?
            I didn’t have an easy answer to that, but told her that I’d add her to our prayer list and lots of people would be praying for her.
            She liked that - and I think and hope that for a few minutes anyway she could see the possibility of new life and know that she’s not alone in her struggle.
            And, I’ve decided I need to spend more time sitting on park benches in my priest outfit and see what happens!
            It’s a miracle.
            Miracles aren’t so much about physical healing but they are signs, signs of who God is and what God does all the time.
            God doesn’t owe us anything, but God still gives us miracles of new life all the time.