Sunday, July 31, 2016

Rich Toward God

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 31, 2016

Year C, Proper13: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9,43
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Rich Toward God
            Now, I don’t want to depress you students and, especially, you teachers here today, but tomorrow is August 1.
            That means, as usual, summer is flying by.
            And, here at St. Paul’s, it’s been a really good summer so far – a summer that has been largely shaped by our camp.
            It’s been wonderful to see so many happy children, kids who come bounding up the walk and the stairs each morning, excited about the day ahead – a day filled with activities and learning and fun.
            In fact, as I wrote this sermon, some of the camp kids were out on the lawn making a racket, I mean, running around, tossing a Frisbee, laughing and yelling in the hot sunshine.
            And for kids as fortunate as these kids, that’s what childhood is like.
            Each day is filled with so many possibilities – the horizon seems endless – life is a book that has yet to be written – and, usually, there’s very little sense that things can go horribly wrong – that we humans are oh so vulnerable – that people make big mistakes, people do the wrong thing, we hurt and get hurt, that sometimes things get broken and can’t quite be put back together again.
            Although we know that this sense of immortality and invincibility can get kids – especially teenagers – into a lot of trouble, who among us wouldn’t want to feel so innocent and carefree?
            Because the truth is that, especially these days, many of us, maybe all of us, feel very vulnerable.
            We feel vulnerable because we know only too well that everything can be going along fine one minute and then there’s a sudden pain or a shocking diagnosis or someone’s careless with a cigarette or a driver looks down for “just a second” to check his phone and everything is changed forever.
            We feel vulnerable.
            We feel vulnerable because of the violence in our community. On Thursday morning, a few of us clergy gathered on Clinton Avenue where Javon Murray, 28 years old, was shot and killed last week. Once again we prayed at a makeshift shrine, t-shirts covered with Magic Marker messages hanging on a fence, extinguished votive candles and empty liquor bottles arranged on the sidewalk, marking the end of possibility, the end another life, the 13th homicide in our city this year.
            We feel vulnerable.
            The hard truth is that here in our city and in so many other communities across the country, people of color are so often victims of crime but also feel vulnerable to the police, a vulnerability reinforced each time a “routine” traffic stop ends in the death of a black person, each time there never seems to be a consequence for police officers when a black man or woman dies in custody.
            We feel vulnerable.
            Even right here at St. Paul’s, we’ve been reminded of our vulnerability.
            The memory of the robbery that took place about six months ago is still fresh in our memories, the sense of violation, the very real loss of the money that many of us gave sacrificially, the sadness that someone – probably someone who knows us and who we know – would be desperate enough to hurt us, despite the good work that we do in our community.
            For longtime members, as the church has grown, there’s a sense of vulnerability because we don’t know everybody anymore. We can’t just leave our belongings in the kitchen during coffee hour confident that our purses and wallets will still be there later.
            I’m reminded of our vulnerability each time I set and turn off the burglar alarm. How I wish we didn’t need that!
            And, I’m also reminded of my own personal vulnerability each time I walk along Bergen Avenue.
            Back in January, on a weekday morning around 8:00, wearing my collar, I was walking around the block to grab a quick breakfast at Wonder Bagels, as I had done probably a hundred times before.
            Suddenly a man – a usually agitated man I had seen on the street many times before and have seen many times since – this man began walking alongside me, asking me questions. “Do you smoke?” “Do you drink?” Frankly, I was expecting him to ask me for money – that happens a lot – when, suddenly, he pushed me with great force into a gate and began punching me in the side.
            I’ve lived in Jersey City nearly my whole life and nothing like that had ever happened to me, and I had kind of fooled myself into thinking nothing like that ever would – other people get mugged, not me. So, in those few seconds, all I could think was, I can’t believe this is happening. Maybe because it all happened so fast, the parents walking their kids to school and people hurrying to work didn’t seem to notice, or maybe just looked the other way. Then, just as suddenly he let go of me, talked some craziness and walked away, muttering.
            I guess I was in shock, because I actually continued walking to Wonder Bagels, where I sat and ate and then went home and called the police and filed a report though I declined to press charges against someone who was clearly not in his right mind.
            We feel vulnerable.
            And then there’s terrorism.
            It seems like each week here, we pray for specific victims of terror, people killed while doing ordinary things, people killed while having a good time in an Orlando nightclub, people doing their duty as police officers protecting peaceful protesters, people enjoying fireworks, people riding on a train, and just this past week, an beloved elderly priest saying Mass in a nearly empty church in a French town.
            So, yes, we feel vulnerable.
            And, we see people responding to our vulnerability in all different kinds of ways.
            Some respond to our vulnerability by arming ourselves to the teeth, convincing ourselves, despite evidence to the contrary, that if enough “good guys” are armed we’ll be able to stop if not all of the “bad guys” than at least a lot of them.
            We respond to our vulnerability by, yes, installing security systems, by being suspicious of strangers, by seeking to build walls to keep some people out and planning to expel some people already here.
            We respond to our vulnerability by turning to leaders or would-be leaders with simple, or simplistic, solutions to our problems.
            There’s nothing new about any of this. We’ve seen all of this before. It’s an old, old story.
            And, sometimes we respond to our vulnerability like the rich man in today’s parable, kidding ourselves into thinking that if we just look out for “number one,” if we just have more, if we have bigger barns, bigger storage units, bigger closets and rooms to store our piles of stuff, bigger bank accounts, if we just have more, then we won’t be so vulnerable.
            To all of that, Jesus says, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you prepared, whose will they be?”
            And Jesus closes today’s parable with words that are maybe hard for us to hear: He says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
            The man in the parable is only focused on his own well-being - there’s not any indication that he’s planning to share his abundance with family and friends, with those in need.
            No, he’s focused solely, and misguidedly, on his own security, but, of course, he turns out to be just as vulnerable as the rest of us.
            Jesus, who knows all about vulnerability, offers a different way, calling us to be rich toward God.
            And, we know what that means.
            We’re rich toward God when we love our neighbor, when we’re quick to ask for forgiveness and even quicker to forgive, when we give even when, especially when, it hurts, when we set aside time for prayer, when we share the Good News with kids who don’t yet know that things get broken, that we’re all vulnerable.
            When we’re rich toward God, we’re still vulnerable and we still know that we’re vulnerable, but, since we know God, we also know that God isn’t going to let go of us, no matter what.
            And, so I think about the scene in that little French church.
            The priest, Fr. Jacques Hamel, 85 years old and celebrating a weekday Mass for just a handful of parishioners – a priest, described as humble, who could have retired long before but wanted to continue to serve, to be of service, to share God’s love in that place far from the spotlight.
            I imagine him prayerfully saying this Mass, words he had said and gestures he had made so many times before, when suddenly two men intent on terror came into the church wielding knives.
            Fr. Hamel, apparently no pushover, probably trying to protect his little congregation, resisted the two men, one of whom slit his throat, killing him right there in the church.
            The newest martyr was vulnerable, yes, but after a lifetime of being rich toward God, of giving away so much, of allowing God to draw close to him, there wasn’t much of a gap left between earth and heaven, there wasn’t much of a gap left between this life and eternal life with the God who never let go of Fr. Jacques, the God who never lets go of us.
            We’re vulnerable, so let’s love one another.
            We’re vulnerable, so let’s be rich toward God.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

"Lord, Teach Us to Pray"

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 24, 2016

Year C, Proper 12: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Hosea 1:2-10
Psalm 85
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

“Lord, Teach Us to Pray”
            At the start of today’s second lesson the author of the Letter to the Colossians writes, “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
            Who can argue with that, right?
            Unfortunately, the author of Colossians doesn’t quite tell us how to do all of that – how to live our lives in Christ, how to be rooted and built up in Christ.”
            If you’ve been here more than once or twice you know that I think we continue to live our lives in Christ by living lives of service to one another and especially to the people out there in the world who are suffering in ways that are obvious and those suffering in ways that we can’t even imagine.
            This past week I visited a friend and former parishioner in Florida who heard me preach a lot and who still reads my sermons online and who told me that I’m always “exhorting” people, always challenging you – and I suppose that’s true.
            It’s true that I’m always pushing us beyond our comfort zones, out of our beautiful, cozy, little church and out there into the often beautiful, often messy and sometimes even dangerous, world.
            So, yes, I’m always challenging us to really pay attention to what’s going on around us, to really see the people we walk by on the sidewalk, the people who live across the street or across the hall, to really see God alive and at work in them all.
            I’m always challenging us to get involved in our community organizing effort, Jersey City Together, working with people from all across our city to address public safety, education, and housing.
            I’m always challenging us to remember the hungriest by bringing an item for the food pantry.
            I’m always challenging us to welcome absolutely everybody, especially the people we may not like or trust very much, especially the people who drive us right up the wall.
            That’s not going to change, but there is a danger – there is a danger that with all of this exhorting and challenging and doing, we forget that none of it is really possible unless we live our lives in Christ, rooted and built up in him.
            But, how?  How do we do that?
            We find our answer in today’s gospel lesson.
            We’re told that after Jesus finished praying in “a certain place,” one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
            Jesus’ response, of course, is what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father,” words familiar to us all, words that we say each time we gather here, words that are so ingrained in us that often at our nursing home service people who seem pretty much out of it are still able to say the words of Jesus’ great prayer, “Our Father…”
            We live our lives in Christ, rooted and built up in him, by living lives of prayer.
            Which is one of the big reasons we come here each week, here where we do a lot of praying, saying the words of the Prayer Book, singing the prayers of our hymns, praying for forgiveness, and praying for the many names on our prayer list.
            In fact, I think the prayer list has become one of the defining characteristics of our church. So many people have asked us to pray for them: fellow parishioners, relatives, neighbors, friends, and co-workers – and, a few are on there who haven’t asked. As we’ll see again in a few minutes, the list has gotten very long, so long that, because I worry about the length of the service, I’ve been tempted to shorten it on Sunday, to pray for only the very sick and the new additions to the list.
            I’ve been tempted, but, you know, it’s interesting, some people tend to complain about stuff, but not one person has ever complained to me about the length of the prayer list and the time it takes to read through all of those names.
            And, I think no one’s complained because in our hearts we know that prayer is what we’re supposed to be doing.
            Of course, God doesn’t need our prayers. God already knows the needs of everyone on that list – knows their needs better than they know them themselves.
            The amazing thing is that God could just go it alone – that’s what we’d probably do if we were God - but that’s not how God operates.
            God isn’t a loner.
            Instead, God wants us in on the healing. Not just through our work, but through our prayers, God invites us, calls us to play a role in the healing in mind, body, and spirit of all those people on the prayer list.
            God hopes that we, through our work but especially through our prayers, will be involved in the healing of Jersey City and our broken world.
            We live our lives in Christ, rooted and built up in him, by living lives of prayer.
            Now, hopefully it’s not too hard to pray here when we’re all together, not too hard to pray in this beautiful old place, built long ago as a house of prayer.
            But, praying at home, praying out in the world, during the other six days of the week, when we can get so easily wrapped up in our busyness and business, consumed by our responsibilities and our tasks and our worries, can be a challenge.
            Like the first disciples, we ask, Lord, teach us to pray.
            There are two thousand years’ worth of Christian tips out there on how to pray, how to make time for God, how to pray in a way that helps us to feel God’s closeness, how to pray in a way that’s pleasing to God, but the opening words of Jesus’ prayer point us in the right direction.
            Jesus teaches us to pray, “Father…”
            God is Jesus’ Father – and God is our Father, too.
            A great truth is that even when we’re alone, driving or riding to work, sitting at the kitchen table, lying in bed at night struggling to sleep with a thousand thoughts and worries swirling around in our heads, Jesus is ready to pray with us, eager to pray alongside of us.
            So, I’ve found it helpful to use my imagination when I pray, to imagine Jesus praying alongside me, us praying together to our Father, giving me the words when I’ve got nothing, nudging me in the right direction to ask for the good things that only God can give, to ask for eggs and not scorpions, to ask for the strength to meet the challenges in my life, to ask forgiveness for the times I mess up, to bring my life more in line with what God wants for me, wants for all of us.
            Whether we can imagine it or not, Jesus is right there, right here, alongside us, praying with us that we’ll all have enough bread, praying for our forgiveness, praying that we’ll find it in our hearts to forgive those who’ve wronged us, praying that we’ll know God is with us even, especially, during the most trying times of our lives.
            So, yes, I’m going to keep “exhorting” us - challenging us – and I hope we’ll continue to challenge each other – to break out of our comfort zones, out of our beautiful, cozy, little church and out there into the often beautiful, often messy and sometimes even dangerous, world.
            As we get reminded each week, we have a lot of work to do, but none of it is really possible unless we live our lives in Christ, rooted and built up in him.
            So, we come here each week to pray together, hopefully strengthened to live lives of prayer, hopefully moved to do our part in the healing of the world, hopefully inspired to pray alongside Jesus, to pray together to “our Father.”
            Lord, teach us to pray.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Martha, Mary, and Mindfulness

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 17, 2016

Year C, Proper 11: The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Martha, Mary, and Mindfulness
            Many of you know that each morning, Monday through Saturday, I try to post on Facebook a Scripture verse or a quote from some holy woman or man as a little bit of inspiration to help people get through the day.
            Not on Sunday! You’re supposed to come to church on Sunday for your inspiration!
            The other day I posted a quote from a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who I respect and admire very much, Thich Nhat Hanh. Maybe some of you have heard of him.
            The quote was his Buddhist reflection on our Christian Eucharist.
            Here’s what he had to say:
            "The practice of the Eucharist is a practice of awareness. When Jesus broke the bread and shared it with his disciples, he said, 'Eat this. This is my flesh.' He knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread with mindfulness, they would have real life. In their daily lives, they may have eaten their bread in forgetfulness, so the bread was not bread at all; it was a ghost. In our daily lives, we may see the people around us, but if we lack mindfulness, they are just phantoms, not real people, and we ourselves are also ghosts. Practicing mindfulness enables us to become a real person. When we are a real person, we see real people around us, and life is present in all its richness.”
            Beautiful, right?
            Now, he’s a Buddhist and so what he has to say isn’t quite orthodox Christian teaching, but I like his point that eating the Body of Christ is a call to mindfulness, to eat and live with more awareness than we usually do, to really pay attention.
            And that’s more important than ever because the truth is that most of the time most of us don’t pay much attention at all.
            A couple of weeks ago I told you about my walks around the neighborhood.
            One of the things I’ve observed is that as people walk or drive around so many of them are cocooned in our own worlds, listening to whatever is pumping into their heads from their earbuds, looking intently at their cellphone screens, and now trying to catch a Pokemon, including right here outside church.
            People are texting as they’re walking, sometimes stepping out into the street front of cars driven by people who, yes, are also texting.
            Not paying attention, not very mindful, and very dangerous.
            And then there’s the reality, much older than earbuds, texting, and Pokemon:  many of us don’t pay much attention to what’s going on around us, aren’t very mindful, because we have a lot on our plate.
            Most of the year kids have plenty of schoolwork to do plus have to deal with all the challenges of growing up, especially growing up in the city with so many dangers and temptations all around.
            Parents have the responsibility of raising their children, working so hard to pay the rent, keep food in the fridge, figure out childcare, get kids to practices and rehearsals, worry, worry, worry, trying so hard to provide a better life to the next generation.
            Those of us who are older may regret choices we’ve made, wonder if we should’ve gone left instead of right, fear for our health and well-being, or the wellness of those we love.
            And, all of us, I think, even those of us who turn the channel when the news comes on, are preoccupied with the mess of our world and the mess of our country.
            We were all horrified but, sadly, not shocked by the latest terror attack – this time, once again, in France - as another apparently angry and hateful, and, yes, Muslim, man intent on killing as many people as possible plowed a truck into a large crowd in Nice simply enjoying fireworks on Bastille Day.
            And, our country. Our country.
            We’re still staggering from the massacre in the Orlando nightclub, the recent alleged police brutality, the executions of the five officers in Dallas, and the everyday bloodshed that has become part of the backdrop of American life.
            We’re in the midst of a dreadful presidential election, somehow saddled with two candidates that most people don’t trust or like very much, two candidates who most people recognize won’t be able to tackle the enormous challenges we face, aren’t able to bridge our ever-deepening divisions.
            How did we end up like this? How has this happened?
            Many of you know that this summer some of us have been reading The New Jim Crow, which is about the mass incarceration of black men in our country, dating back to the War on Drugs that really got underway back in the ‘80s.
            Last week I was reading this sad, terrible, infuriating story of people of color rounded up, usually for minor drug offenses, lives permanently ruined by a criminal record while drugs remain readily available on the street, I was reading this just as the stories of roadside stops gone bad and the massacre in Dallas played out in the news, I kept asking myself, I was pretty much grown up in the 80s and certainly since then, so how come I was only vaguely aware of all of this? How come I didn’t really notice the magnitude of the “new Jim Crow”? How did this happen? How did we let this happen?
            The answer of course is that, first I’m a white man and second, along with lots of other people of all different races, I was wrapped up in my own stuff, wasn’t paying attention, wasn’t mindful – didn’t really see the people around me right here in Jersey City as real people but instead, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, as phantoms, as ghosts.
            And, finally, worst of all, I think it’s safe to say, with all of this going on, many of us haven’t been mindful, haven’t been paying attention, to God’s presence, God’s work in our lives.
            Which brings us at last to today’s gospel lesson.
            Jesus and his disciples are still on their way to Jerusalem when we’re told they enter a village where a woman named Martha welcomed them into her home.
            In our own culture we’ve lost some of this, but in most times and places hospitality was and is very highly valued.
            So, we can easily imagine – and sympathize with – Martha who’s quite frazzled as she prepared for, welcomed, and served her honored guest and his disciples. We’re not told how many are there, but probably at least the twelve, right? A big deal. A lot of work.
            Notice that Martha is doing all the right things, she’s not on her cellphone checking Facebook, she’s not out hunting for Pokemon while the bread burns in the oven. No, she’s hard at work, offering hospitality, doing her best to be a gracious and welcoming host.
            Meanwhile, her sister Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to what he was saying.
            Martha gets fed up, as we would, and asks Jesus – and, if you notice, actually commands Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself. Tell her then to help me.”
            Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
            We’re not told Martha’s reaction to this - which is probably for the best, right?
            So, here’s the thing: Martha is doing everything right but since she’s absorbed in her many tasks and focused on her very real troubles and grievances, she’s not really mindful of what’s happening right there in her own home: Jesus is under her roof – Jesus, in the words of our second lesson, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” Jesus is right there!
            Mary gets that the “one thing,” “the better part,” is to be mindful and pay attention to Jesus.
            So, for Martha, and definitely for us, it’s time to start paying attention, time to be mindful.
            And, maybe we can follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s insight and begin our mindfulness right here at the Lord’s Table as we take that little sliver of bread, bread that is so much more than bread, into our bodies and into our souls.
            And, with God’s help, as we head out onto the streets of Jersey City, let’s walk, ride, and drive mindfully, really seeing the people around us not as ghosts but as beloved children of God, carrying around burdens that we probably can’t even begin to imagine, sorely in need of love and peace.
            And, as we live our lives with all of our tasks and challenges, let’s carve out even just a little bit of space to be mindful of God, to sit at the feet of Jesus, Jesus who’s right here in our home.  

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Our Neighbors

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 10, 2016

Year C, Proper10: The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Our Neighbors
            A few weeks ago some members of the Jersey City Together clergy, including me, were invited to speak to some of the men and women who had just graduated from the academy and were about to go out onto the streets as the newest members of the Jersey City Police Department.
            I speak in public all the time, but I’ll admit that as we waited to begin I was nervous.
            I imagined these brand-new officers sitting in front of us, pretending to pay attention, enduring these boring ministers who had no idea what it was really like out there, just getting through it until they could move on to the next part of their training.
            But, I was wrong. It wasn’t like that at all.
            First, I want to give Mayor Fulop his due. He promised a more diverse police force and he has delivered.
            Looking around at the 25 or so new, and shockingly young-looking, officers who were there, I saw what Jersey City looks like today, with lots of blacks and Hispanics and some Asians and Middle Easterners, almost all of whom grew up and still live in Jersey City.
            To my surprise, these young cops were extremely attentive, friendly, and curious as the clergy members spoke about the history -the often not so good history - between the JCPD and people of color, as they spoke about the issues in the south and west of the city where all of the new officers are being stationed – again, kudos to the mayor.
            When it was my turn, I acknowledged that they would, probably every day, encounter people behaving pretty badly.
            After all, obviously, nobody calls the cops when everything’s fine. Nobody calls the cops when they come home and the door is locked just as they left it. Nobody calls the cops when they’re having a peaceful supper at home. Nobody calls the cops when a father reads his daughter a bedtime story. Nobody calls the cops when their kids walk safely past the drug dealers on their way home from school. Nobody calls the cops when their kids sit at the kitchen table and do their homework, when their husband doesn’t stop off at the bar on his way home, when a woman says no and the man accepts that answer, when it’s a quiet night on the street with people just shooting the breeze as they sit on their porches.     
            Nobody calls the cops when everything’s fine.
            No, instead, every day the police encounter people behaving pretty badly.                                                                                
            So, I asked –challenged - the young officers, to not grow hardened, to not judge people based on the worst things they do, to still see the people, all the people they encounter as fellow human beings.
            I still stand by that, of course, but after everything that’s happened this past terrible week, if I had another chance to talk to those new cops, I’d challenge them to love all the people they drive by, stop, pull over, question, and arrest, to love them all as neighbors.
            As we hear in today’s gospel lesson, this is Jesus’ great and oh-so-difficult challenge for us all: to see and treat everyone, especially the people we’re taught to hate and fear, especially the people we may have good reason to hate and fear, as neighbors.
            Our neighbors.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we hear an exchange between a lawyer and Jesus.
            You may have noticed that Luke, who tells us this story, doesn’t much like the lawyer. Luke writes that the lawyer “tests” Jesus by asking, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            Sounds like a good question to me, but, Jesus, typically, throws the question right back at the lawyer, asking, ”What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
            Of course, the lawyer knows the law and so he answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
            Jesus approves of this answer – this answer, which is one long commandment – there can be no love of God without love of neighbor.
            But, the lawyer isn’t done yet and asks Jesus a follow-up question, “And, who is my neighbor?”
            Now, this seems like another perfectly reasonable question, right?
            As Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar of the New Testament, notes, the lawyer’s question is a perfectly fine legal question, but, she writes, “in the context of love, his question is not relevant.”
            She writes, “To ask ‘Who is my neighbor’ is a polite way of asking, ‘Who is not my neighbor?’ or ‘Who does not deserve my love?’ or ‘Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?’ or ‘Whom can I hate?’”
            Well, to answer the lawyer’s question, Jesus tells what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan.
            Even people who don’t know much about the Bible know the Good Samaritan because it’s entered our language – the Good Samaritan offers to help to someone in need.
            Often we’ve been told that the lesson of the parable is that we should help those in need. And, that’s true enough.
            But, as Levine points out, the parable is much more radical, much more challenging, than that.
            Jesus’ first hearers might have expected better of the priest and the Levite in the story since Jewish Law demands help for those in need – but they would have also known that the road was dangerous. Who knows? It might be a trap. Or, the bandits might still be nearby. Better to just go.
            But, since Jews and Samaritans had pretty much hated each other for centuries, Jesus’ first hearers would have been shocked that a Samaritan could be “good” – that a Samaritan would risk his own safety, spend his own money, to help the Jew in the road.
            Jesus’ first hearers would have been shocked that a Samaritan would see the injured Jew as a neighbor  - that he would love the injured man as a neighbor – and they would have pondered what it would mean to accept help from a person they had been taught to hate and fear.
            The lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
            And, through the parable, Jesus answered, “Your neighbor is absolutely everyone, especially the people we’re taught to hate and fear, especially the people we may even have good reason to hate and fear.”
            They are all our neighbors and we are commanded to not just tolerate them and not hurt them, but we are commanded to love them.
            If we really take that in, really take it seriously, it’s probably at least as shocking to us as it was to the people who first heard the parable, people who had such a hard time imagining a “good Samaritan.”
            Who is our neighbor?  OK, here we go: Cops, the mostly good and the racist few; the Black Lives Matter Protesters; whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans; ISIS; Hillary Clinton; Donald Trump; the NRA; the ACLU; Republicans; Democrats; independents; gay people; the people from Westboro Baptist who protest at funerals carrying horrible signs; immigrants, documented or not; fundamentalists; atheists; Jews; Muslims; soldiers; pacifists; the drug dealers on the corner and their customers; the person who makes fun of us or hurts us or hates us or breaks our heart…and that’s just for starters.
            All neighbors, every last one of them, and we are called, commanded, to love them.
            Very, very hard – it’s only with God’s help that we can even begin to love all of those neighbors as ourselves.
            Very, very hard – but it’s the way of life.
            And the choice is clear because we see the other way – the way of death – all around us. We see the way of death as we arm ourselves to the teeth, as we see people as simply their skin color, or their religion or their language, or the uniform they wear, as we see people as the worst thing they’ve ever done, rather than as beloved neighbors.
            We see the way of death all around us.
            But, if we look we can also sometimes see the way of life.
            You may know that one of the tragic aspects of what happened in Dallas is that the march had been very peaceful. In fact, members of the Dallas Police Department helped plan and lead the march and posted on social media photos of smiling officers standing beside smiling marchers. The police seemed very much focused on protecting the protestors, intent on treating them as beloved neighbors…and then the shots rang out.
            But, for a time, there it was: love of neighbor.
            You know, I don’t want to make this even harder for us, but I really believe that, because we are so diverse and yet get along pretty well, the three Episcopal churches, and especially St. Paul’s, we have a special vocation to model love of neighbor – the love of absolutely everybody – right here in our community.
            Not easy, and as Jesus knew and we were reminded this week, it’s actually quite dangerous, but we have God’s help and Jesus walks beside us every step of the way – Jesus who always calls us not to death but to life – Jesus who calls us to love God and to love absolutely everybody - Jesus who calls us to love our neighbors.
            May it be so.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

A Plentiful Harvest

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 3, 2016

Year C, Proper 9: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

A Plentiful Harvest
            If you were here last week, you may remember that I mentioned that I love baptizing people. It’s one of my most favorite things to do as a priest.
            One of my other favorite things to do is welcoming people who have never been to St. Paul’s before.
            It’s hard to believe but, one way or another, Sue and I have been associated with this church for 16 or 17 years now. And, when you’ve been someplace for a long time, or if you’re here a lot, it’s easy to not see things any more, it’s easy to take things for granted, it’s easy to not appreciate the amazing gifts – the amazing Gift  - that you and I receive here.
            So, I love to see St. Paul’s through the eyes of people who’ve never been here before.
            They almost always “ooh” and “ah” and comment that the church is much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside.
            They almost always marvel at the beautiful woodwork, almost disbelieving that such a beautiful structure could be here in the middle of Jersey City, could have been so well maintained, could have survived all this time.
            If they’re here for a service, newcomers often remark on how diverse the congregation is – how with all our different colors and cultures, we look so much like Jersey City.
            They often comment on the friendliness of our welcome and the reverence of our worship.
            And, yes, if they’re at the 10:00 service and work up the courage to go into Carr Hall for coffee hour, they also marvel at the good food and drink that’s offered to all.
            It’s good to see St. Paul’s through the eyes of a newcomer, right?
            Though we’re not perfect, the truth is that this is a pretty special place, one of the most beautiful places I know, one the few places I know where all different kinds of people come together, loving God and loving one another.
            I think the communion rail, where we all gather at the Lord’s Table, with outstretched hands and open hearts, is about as close as we ever get to heaven on earth, so close to the kingdom of God.
            Gathering together here gives us a little taste of what it must have been like for the first disciples who followed Jesus around, the men and women who heard the teachings and parables from Jesus’ lips, who saw with their own eyes demons expelled and the dead raised, who walked with Jesus as he hung around with the wrong kinds of people, who broke bread with Jesus along with tax collectors and prostitutes, fishermen and even the occasional Pharisee.
            Being with Jesus must have been as close as you could get to heaven on earth, so close to the kingdom of God.
            So, I imagine that the disciples wanted to stick as close to Jesus as possible, to not leave his side, if they could help it.
            But, as we heard in today’s gospel lesson, that’s not Jesus’ way.
            Jesus sends us out, not alone but in pairs, carrying very little.
            Jesus sends us out to proclaim through our words and actions that the kingdom of God has come near.
            As much as Jesus invites us to be with him, to walk beside him, he also sends us out into the world, out into the harvest, the plentiful harvest where, he says, the laborers are few.
            And, though you might not think so, we definitely have a plentiful harvest around us here in Jersey City.
            Some of you know that a couple of months ago I was given a FitBit, a device that tracks how many steps you take, how much and what kind of sleep you get, how many calories you burn, etc.
            You can compete with your friends to see who gets the most steps in a week or weekend.
            Since, I have a competitive streak and would like to take care of myself I’ve set a goal of 10,000 steps a day, which, for me, is about five miles.
            I have a route that I follow most days that takes me along Bergen Avenue to the Square then along the Boulevard to Communipaw and then down Monticello and then I make my way home.
            Sometimes I wear my collar and other times, especially lately since it’s been warmer, I dress down, often wearing a Mets cap that seems to also serve as a pretty good disguise.
            More than once, I’ve said hi to some parishioners and it takes them a few seconds to figure out that it’s me.
            Anyway, there’s a lot to be said for following the same route every day with nothing much to do but pray and think, watch and listen. It’s a chance to really see.
            And, over these months, I’ve learned that Jesus is right: the harvest is plentiful.
            There are the people who spend the night sleeping in cardboard boxes, and occasionally in sleeping bags, on the porch of Old Bergen Church.
            There’s the red-faced man sitting on the sidewalk near the Square day and night asking passers-by for change.
            There are all the people heading off to work and not looking too happy about it, with their earbuds in, retreating into their own worlds, preparing to endure whatever they have to endure to pay the bills.
            There are the kids going to school, many of them looking a lot happier about it than I remember feeling, along with their parents, who look pretty happy and excited, too.
            There are the people lined up outside the methadone clinic at Harrison and Monticello, doing what they can to stay clean.
             And there are the kids in their Lincoln High School polo shirts hanging outside the store at the corner of Brinkerhoff and Monticello, smoking pot before school starts, pretty much guaranteeing they’ll learn nothing that day.
            There are the muscular and unfriendly-seeming guys who every morning set up a makeshift gym at Fairmount and Monticello, lay out their weights on the sidewalk, use the scaffolding to do chin-ups, with music thumping from their cars.
            Meanwhile, just a few feet away under that same scaffolding the drinking starts early as people sit at kitchen chairs and even the occasional La-Z-Boy, downing tall cans of beer barely hidden in paper or plastic bags.
            And, there’s always one guy, looking to be maybe Indian or Pakistani, who sits a little off from everyone else sipping what I’d guess to be vodka out of a plastic cup, always talking softly in his own language on his cell phone.
            There are the customers line up early at Royal Liquors on Bergen, beginning a long day of drinking and hanging out, some are there first thing in the morning and are still stumbling around there at closing time.
            There’s the woman in the hoodie who spends all day every day sitting at the same table in Dunkin’ Donuts.
            There are the people even on the toughest blocks who take the trouble to keep up their homes, sweeping the sidewalks of litter for it to only reappear minutes later, planting flowers in the most inhospitable soil, keeping an eye on their block and their neighborhood.
            There are the people who have long since given up, the houses with piles of trash out front, and faded and forlorn Christmas decorations still hanging in the windows.
            There are the churches, so many churches, with their impressive schedules of worship and prayer and Bible Study posted outside, but looking closed and quiet whenever I walk by.
            There are the signs of new life sprouting up along Bergen and Monticello, restaurants, an interior designer, a bike shop, coffee shops, a boutique selling designer clothes.
            I could go on, but one final image: for months I’ve been walking by the community garden on Harrison Ave. Behind the chain-link fence, it’s looked neglected and overrun and I’ve wondered if it was abandoned. I still don’t know, but Somebody’s been at work because in the last few days beautiful blue flowers have bloomed, nearly covering the whole lot.
            A plentiful harvest.
            There’s a plentiful harvest of people out there, frightened and brave, addicted and in recovery, disappointed and hopeful, given up and still trying.
            There is a plentiful harvest of people just as hungry as ever to learn through our words and actions the Good News, the best news ever, that the Kingdom of God has come near.
            Yes, it’s great to be here at St. Paul’s, to be in this beautiful place with our sisters and brothers, as close to heaven on earth as we’re likely to get.
            It’s so great that it’s tempting to just keep our Christian faith and life here.
            But, that’s not the way of Jesus.
            Jesus sends us out.
            So, I’m going to challenge every one of us to grab a fellow parishioner or a friend or a neighbor and get out there, go out and really see what you usually just look at, to really see your neighborhood, your block, or even just your building, pay attention, and report back what you’ve seen and heard, no detail too small.
            I’m going to ask you to write down what you’ve seen and heard, like I’ve done today, and give it to me by Sunday, September 11, and I’ll put it together so we can really know and plan for the harvest that God has prepared for us, out there – so we can really share the Good News that the kingdom of God has come near.
            The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers? Well, we’ll see won’t we?