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.