Sunday, August 28, 2016

Invited to the Banquet

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

Year C, Proper 17: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Invited to the Banquet
            During the summer things slow down just enough around here that I can do a little more reading for pleasure than I normally get to do.
            This year I was able to read a few books I enjoyed, including one that’s been on my shelf for years but I hadn’t gotten around to until now: The Devil in the White City, a bestselling history (that reads like a novel) of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the world’s fair that gave us such enduring things as Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer (that’s where it won its ribbon) and the Ferris Wheel.
            It’s fascinating story and along the way the author, Erik Larson, delights in reproducing menus – menus from the luxurious, sumptuous, over-the-top banquets that were held by and for the great men of Chicago – and, yes, they were all men back then - the politicians, architects, engineers, and artists who dreamed up and built the grand exposition.
            The author has a lot of fun listing all of the rich French foods, all the many courses, and he seriously wonders how these men were able to pull away from the table stand up after eating so much!
            Customs have changed over the past century or so and I don’t think it’s that usual for the wealthy and powerful men (and, now, at least some women) to gather for banquets, to eat heavy foods for hours and hours.
            And, customs have changed for the rest of us, too.
            I don’t think it’s so common these days for people of more modest means to have dinner parties or even to have family and friends over for dinner.
            For many of us, our meals have become solitary affairs – lots of us eat on the run, often while watching TV or with our noses in our smartphones.
            Much has been made of the fact that families don’t eat dinner together anymore – and, based on what I see in restaurants, if they do eat together they barely speak to each other.
            These are big and probably not so good changes.
            Throughout most of our history and in most places even today, it was and is important to gather together for meals – to invite family, friends, and neighbors into our homes – to break bread together – to eat and drink and tell stories, together.
            And, that was certainly true in first century Palestine where hospitality was a highly valued virtue – and people with the means would host banquets on special occasions, like a wedding, parties that would last for days.
            In today’s gospel lesson we find that Jesus has apparently been invited to the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the Sabbath for a meal.
            I say “apparently” because we know that Jesus is fully capable of just inviting himself over!
            Anyway, some red flags should go up right away because we know Jesus has had conflicts with the Pharisees – and, as we saw last week when Jesus healed the woman bent over for 18 years, the Sabbath has been a sore spot between Jesus and the religious authorities.
            Luke sets the tone by telling us that the other guests are watching Jesus closely – and not in a good way.
            And, it seems that Jesus has been closely watching them because he notices how guests first take the places of honor.
            Then and now people want the good seats, right?
            And at first Jesus sounds like Emily Post or Miss Manners offering etiquette advice, telling people not to take the best seats because you may get bumped if somebody more important comes along. Better to wait for the host to invite you to the place of honor.
            OK, fair enough. Good advice.
            But, then Jesus digs a little deeper, getting to the heart of the matter.
            We’re told that he addressed his host, telling him to not invite his family and friends or rich neighbors – who can all return the favor – but instead to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind – to invite the people who can’t return the favor.           
            We’re not told how the Pharisee host received this instruction, but I think we can guess.
            Jesus tells his host that his party, his banquet, should be like the heavenly banquet where the poor and the weak get invited first and get to sit in the best seats.
            Jesus tells us that our parties, our banquets, should be like the heavenly banquet, too.
            Very tough – but now and then here on earth we get glimpses of that heavenly banquet – and it’s so very beautiful.
            As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
            Some of you know that for a year I was the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Florida. Since Sunday morning and college students don’t always mix very well, the chapel service was on Sunday evening.
             One of the really wonderful things about that year was that different Episcopal churches would take turns preparing and serving dinner to the chapel members – the “EpiscoGators” – really beautifully prepared home cooking that the kids loved.
            Good food and plenty of it.
            But, it wasn’t just students. There were others, poor and a few even homeless people who sometimes came to the service and then stayed for dinner - and some who just came for the dinner.
            And, the kids and the hosts were just great – treating everybody exactly the same – and sometimes I’d be present enough to look around the big table, piled with food, with everybody eating and talking and I’d think, this is what the Kingdom of God is like.
            Sometimes, we get a glimpse of that around here at coffee hour when a stranger – sometimes a clearly bedraggled stranger - is welcomed as warmly as an old friend, or as an angel, or as Christ himself.
            And then there’s Stone Soup. Back when Catherine Marcial came up with the idea we were thinking that we’d be feeding people who might not otherwise eat that night.
            There have been some guests like that of that but mostly it’s just been all kinds of different people enjoying good food and conversation, eating, drinking, and talking, together – all very rare in today’s society.
            And, soon enough it will be Thanksgiving and once again Trish Szymanski will host her community Thanksgiving feast right over there in Carr Hall, beautiful food lovingly prepared for anybody and everybody who shows up, including maybe an angel or two, and maybe Christ himself.
            On Thanksgiving, I’ll try to remember to look around and think: this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
            Speaking of the Kingdom of God, here we are today – invited to yet another banquet – all of us, no matter who or what we are, no matter what we’ve done or haven’t done – all of us invited to the banquet with Jesus, the banquet that gives us a taste of heaven, a banquet with the richest food and drink, infinitely better than even that rich food enjoyed by the great men of Chicago long ago.
            Thanks be to God.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

People of Hope

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

Year C, Proper 16: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

People of Hope
            From today’s psalm:
            “For you are my hope, O Lord God, my confidence since I was young.”
            Yesterday marked the fifty-first anniversary of the death of one of my heroes, Jonathan Myrick Daniels. You may not know him, but you should.
            Jonathan Daniels, a white man born in New Hampshire in 1939, was an Episcopal seminarian - he was studying to be a priest back in the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement in our country was reaching its peak.
            Daniels, along with a few of his seminary classmates, heard and answered the call of Martin Luther King, Jr. to journey to the South and support the efforts to march and protest, to do the nonviolent but quite dangerous work of dismantling Jim Crow, of undoing the laws and practices that so sorely oppressed people of color.
            Lots of northern whites answered Dr. King’s call. But, you know how it is, lots of people get enthused about causes like this but then they march and protest for a while and then they get tired or homesick or lose interest and they feel like they’ve done their bit so they head home, beginning a lifetime of telling the story of their role in the movement.
            Not Jonathan Daniels.
            Although he did return to school briefly to deal with academic matters, he essentially moved to the South, living with a black family in Selma, Alabama, the heart of what was the racist South.
            On August 14, 1965, Daniels and 28 other protesters were arrested for picketing in front of whites-only stores. They were jailed in the nearby town of Hayneville.
            Six days later they were released and, while waiting for rides home, Daniels and a white Roman Catholic priest and two black female activists went to buy cold drinks at one of the few stores that served both black and white customers.
            When they got there, a white man who was an unpaid sheriff’s deputy stood at the door holding a shotgun with a pistol in a holster.
            He threatened the four activists and aimed his gun at one of them, Ruby Sales, a seventeen year-old young black woman. In a flash, Jonathan Daniels pushed Ruby down, saving her life, but he was shot and killed on the spot – an Episcopal martyr for civil rights.
            “For you are my hope, O Lord God, my confidence since I was young.”
            In an essay he wrote a few months before he was killed, Jonathan Daniels drew a distinction between optimism and hope.
            Listen to this. He wrote:
            “Christian hope, grounded in the reality of Easter, must never degenerate into optimism.”
            Now, I bet that we often think that optimism and hope are basically the same thing – we often use the words interchangeably, right?
            But, as British rabbi Jonathan Sacks has noted, “Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage, only a certain naivete, to be an optimist. It takes a great deal of courage to have hope.”
            Until recently, we Americans have been known for our optimism. We’ve believed in the power of positive thinking. We’ve always believed that our lives will be better than our parents’ lives and our kids will do even better than us.
            We’ve believed that we can continue to consume like crazy, gobbling up as many resources as we can, and that we can ignore the deep-rooted problems in our society, and there will be no price to pay. Somehow, it’ll all work out just fine for us.
            But, recently our optimism has begun to crack as we’ve realized that there are limits to our growth, that some of us aren’t living as well as our parents and who knows what our kids will have to face in a country that has replaced good-paying manufacturing jobs with working the line at Wendy’s - or nothing at all.
            Recently, that optimism has begun to crack into the fear, anger, and resentment we’ve heard so much of in this election season.
            Recently, that optimism has begun to crack as we swelter through the record-breaking heat of another summer, as parts of Miami regularly flood at high tide, and as much of Louisiana has been washed away.
            Recently, that optimism has begun to crack as we see the frustration of people of color in our cities reach a breaking point, as gunshots ring out in our city nearly every night, kids shooting kids, as seventeen year-old Leander Williams, carrying a gun at a party in a church hall on Communipaw Avenue, is shot and killed, joining a long line of young lives lost and wasted.
            It’s pretty easy, at least when things are going our way, to be an optimist but it takes courage to have hope – it takes courage to actually go out there, to make a difference, trusting in God.
            We Christians are meant to be people of hope.
            “For you are my hope, O Lord God, my confidence since I was young.”
            Living and working in places like Selma, Alabama, I’m sure that Jonathan Daniels wasn’t overly optimistic that racism was going to be dismantled anytime soon – and half a century after his death we’ve recently been reminded how far we still have to go – but he was inspired by the rock-solid hope of Dr. King that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
            “For you are my hope, O Lord God, my confidence since I was young.”
            We Christians are meant to be people of hope.
            And, then there’s the poor, suffering woman in today’s gospel lesson, bent over, we’re told, for 18 long years! Luke tells this story to show yet another conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment, but I’m interested in her.
            Who knows, maybe at the start of her illness she was optimistic that she’d get better, but after 18 years of suffering, I’m sure any optimism had long since cracked and disintegrated. Yet, there she is, still dragging herself to the synagogue where I’m going to guess that maybe some people still felt compassion for her, but by now most had long since stopped caring, or even noticing her.
            But, despite 18 years of suffering, there she was, a courageous woman of hope, still presenting herself to God, still trusting that God hadn’t forgotten her, that God would never let her go.
            And then, one day, Jesus was at the synagogue, too.
            “For you are my hope, O Lord God, my confidence since I was young.”
            As Jonathan Daniels understood very well. Jesus himself is not particularly optimistic. Throughout his ministry, he’s perfectly clear-eyed about what’s going to happen to him and he warns his disciples that if they’re looking for an easy, comfortable, safe life, well, they’ve got the wrong messiah.
            Jesus isn’t optimistic but he is the supreme person of hope, courageously abandoning a simple and anonymous life back in the Nazareth carpentry shop, abandoning that to walk the road that leads to the hard wood of the cross, sacrificing his life, giving it all away, in the hope that his Father and our Father would never let go of him.
            And then, the tomb was empty on Easter Day.
            “For you are my hope, O Lord God, my confidence since I was young.”
            And now, it’s our turn.
            It’s pretty easy, at least when things are going our way, to be an optimist, but it takes courage to have hope – it takes courage to actually go out there into our broken and sinful world, to make a difference, trusting in God all the way.
            We Christians are meant to be people of hope.
            Each in our own way, we’re called to join Jesus and the woman bent over for 18 years and Jonathan Daniels and Martin Luther King and all the prophets and saints, all the people of hope, the people of hope who knew that the road would be stony indeed, the courageous people who placed their hope in God – loved and strengthened by the God who never lets go of us.
            “For you are my hope, O Lord God, my confidence since I was young.”

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Living the Christian Life, Running the Christian Race

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

Year C, Proper 15: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

Living the Christian Life, Running the Christian Race
            A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that this has been a really good summer here at St. Paul’s – especially with the success of our summer camp but also with new people continuing to find us most Sundays, and our faithful weekday worship, the beauty of our garden (thanks to the hard work of a few devoted parishioners), our reading and discussion of The New Jim Crow, and much more.
            It’s also been a good summer for me personally.
            I’ve taken a little more time off than I have in years, getting away just this past week with Sue and a month ago visiting some friends in Florida, and, at the start of the summer, heading down to Baltimore with my father to take in a couple of Orioles games – something we hadn’t done in about 30 years! (Time goes by so quickly!)
            We had a great time in Baltimore.
            If you’ve been down there, you know that Camden Yards is a great place to see a game – an old-time ballpark right on the waterfront, surrounded by all the attractions of what’s called the Inner Harbor.
            My Dad and I enjoyed two games and also had the chance to walk around and take in the sites and smells of the Inner Harbor: antique ships, paddleboats, tourist traps, the refreshing sea breeze…
            But, of course, there’s more to Baltimore than the Orioles and the Inner Harbor.
            Unfortunately, like in many American cities, nearly all the industrial jobs have vanished leaving most Baltimore residents without economic opportunity and poor – and in Baltimore most of those residents are African-American.
            And, in Baltimore, like many American cities, these black residents have had a difficult relationship with the police.
            In fact, the US Justice Department has been investigating the Baltimore Police Department and this week is releasing its report. No surprise, the Justice Department found that, while there are many fine and decent officers, overall the Baltimore PD has been hounding black residents for years, stopping, searching, and arresting with little cause.
            The report includes the example of a black man in his mid-50s who was stopped by the police 30 times in less than four years – and not one of those stops resulted in a ticket or an arrest!
            The investigation of the Baltimore PD began after the death last April of Freddie Gray, 25 years old, who, you may remember, died after suffering a spinal injury while being transported in a police van.
            The Medical Examiner ruled Gray’s death a homicide but none of the officers involved have been convicted of any crime.
            You may also remember that when Freddie Gray died, lots of people in Baltimore reached the breaking point and riots broke out across the city. As usual, most of the riots were in poorer areas but the Inner Harbor was also threatened. Things got so bad that one Orioles game was canceled and then the next day, things were still so risky that, on a beautiful spring afternoon, a perfect day for baseball, the ballpark gates remained closed. The Orioles played the White Sox without any fans in the stands.
            That must have been eerie and strange, right?
            Hard to imagine a ballgame, any kind of game but especially a major league game, without fans in the stands, shouting and cheering, and yes, occasionally booing and heckling.
            Seems not right, unnatural, somehow.

            This morning I have the honor of baptizing Gabriella Faith Duncan, a little girl with deep roots here at St. Paul’s – and we all have the joy of welcoming the newest Christian into our community.
            The way we baptize here is very peaceful, and, I hope, beautiful.
            But, in today’s gospel lesson, when Jesus talks about baptism, he’s not talking about a peaceful baptism of water but, instead, he speaks of a baptism of fire – it’s the baptism of Jesus’ suffering and death – it’s the baptism that will bring division and conflict as people are forced to choose which way to follow – as people have to choose whether to follow the way of Jesus, the way of love and sacrifice and forgiveness or to follow the way of the world, which is something quite different.
            Although Gabriella’s baptism will be peaceful and beautiful, the truth is she’s getting signed up for the Christian life - getting registered to run a race - that isn’t always so peaceful or easy.
            Gabriella’s getting signed up for a life that will challenge her - registered for a race that challenges all of us - to come together to pray and exchange peace and to break bread together, even when it’s a hassle, even when its really hot or very cold, even when, especially when, we really don’t feel like it at all.
            Gabriella ‘s getting signed up for a life that will challenge her - registered for a race that challenges all of us - to ask forgiveness when we mess up and to be quick to forgive when we’re wronged.
            Gabriella’s getting signed up for a life that will challenge her - registered for a race that challenges all of us - to love one another, even, especially, those who are so hard to love, to love the kid nobody likes eating lunch all by herself in the school cafeteria, to love Donald and Hillary, to love Freddie Gray in the police van and the cops who arrested him, to love immigrants and those who fear and resent them.
            Gabriella’s getting signed up for a life that will challenge her - registered for a race that challenges all of us - to strive for justice and peace among all people, to ask why so few have so much and so many have so little, to ask why professional athletes are our multimillionaire heroes while our teachers are so often disrespected and woefully underpaid, to ask why in our country and our world some lives seem to matter a whole lot more than others.
            Yes, Gabriela’s baptism will be peaceful and beautiful, but it will also be fiery, it will fire her up, fire us all up, to live the Christian life, to run the Christian race that challenges so much of us.
            Now, at this point, Angela and Daryl might be asking themselves if they really want to sign Gabriella up for all of this. We might be asking ourselves if this Christian life, this race that is so hard, is really too much for us.
            Well, before anyone chickens out, let’s remember that all of this would be impossible if we had to do it on our own.
            But, of course, we don’t. We always have God’s help, and we have the support of each other here at St. Paul’s.
            And, then, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, understood, there’s also a “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on.
            That strange and sad afternoon in April last year, the stands at Camden Yards in Baltimore were eerily and unnaturally empty, but in heaven the stands are never empty.
            Instead, our fans are constantly cheering us on as we run the Christian race that is set before us.
            The Christian life, the Christian race, is hard but we’ve got Jesus and, we’ve also got Bill and Bertha, and we’ve got Eden, Luthy, Amreeth, Ken, Arthur, Cortez, Frank and Lee, and all the rest of our many fans, never booing or heckling, but always praying for Gabriella and for all of us as we live the Christian life, always cheering us on as, together, we run the Christian race.