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.