Sunday, September 25, 2016


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 25, 2016

Year C, Proper 20: The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

            If you were here last Sunday you may remember that we heard what’s often called the Parable of the Shrewd Manager.
            Jesus starts off that parable by telling us there was a rich man who had a manager – and this manager was squandering the rich man’s property. And, when the rich man got wind of this squandering, the rich man confronts the manager demanding an accounting of what he’s done.
            The rich man holds his manager accountable.
            Well, the parable we heard today follows just a little later in the Gospel of Luke (both of these are unique to Luke, by the way). Today’s parable follows just a little later, and is clearly related to last week’s parable.
            Both parables begin with, “There was a rich man.”
            Both parables are about the use – or misuse - of wealth.
            And, both parables are about accountability.
            So, we’re told, there was a rich man who lived a really good life, dressing in the most beautiful and expensive clothes and feasting on rich foods every day. He’s not just part of the “one percent” – he’s richer even than that.
            And then, there’s a stark contrast that will be familiar to us, since we live in a city where the rich and poor live side by side and pass each other on the street every day.
              We’re told right at the gate there’s Lazarus – a very poor man, covered in sores, hungering for a few crumbs from the rich man’s table.
            One of the things I love about the parable is that Jesus doesn’t make any judgments about the character of the rich man and Lazarus – we’re not told if either man is kind and loving or mean and hateful – we’re not told how the rich man amassed so much wealth and we’re not told how and why poor Lazarus ended up in such a pathetic state.
            But, when they both die, some things become a little clearer.
            Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man is in Hell – a fiery hell made even more hellish because he can see heaven – he can see poor Lazarus now in paradise with Abraham.
            And, it’s now that the rich man reveals his character to us.
            He calls on Abraham to send Lazarus down to quench his thirst. While burning in Hell, the rich man wants Lazarus to be his servant. The rich man in hell hasn’t quite realized or accepted that he’s no longer rich.
            Those days are over.
            Still, so far, this is really just a story of reversal – a story of the mighty falling and the lowly rising – the kind of story we all love, right?
            But, then we learn a little bit more about the rich man. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus (as a ghost, I guess) to the rich man’s brothers and warn them to change their ways before it’s too late.
            So, he knows. The rich man has realized that he’s in Hell because he really messed up; he did wrong by Lazarus and, probably, he did wrong by lots of others in need.
            The rich man is in Hell because he failed to follow God’s great commands that he knew very well, and that his brothers knew very well, and that we know very well: the great commands to love and show mercy, to do good and be generous.
            The rich man failed to love poor Lazarus, right there at his gate, starving and covered in sores.
            And now the rich man is held accountable.
            Lazarus reminded me of Mike.
            Some of you will remember Mike, the young, bedraggled homeless guy with the scraggly beard and piercingly blue eyes, who used to come to St. Paul’s all the time.
            Many of you probably saw him around the neighborhood, begging for money, often near Communipaw and the Boulevard, or down by the McDonald’s on Communipaw, or farther away, by NJCU, or at the Hub. Mike got around.
            I don’t remember when exactly he first showed up here, but for quite a while Mike was an almost daily presence. Sometimes he came by in the morning, asking if there was anything he could do to help out, wanting to mow the grass or sweep the sidewalk, in return for some money.
            A few times he came to church on Sunday or to one of the weekday services, but he told me that he felt funny coming to church because of how he was dressed, how he looked, because of who and what he was, so more often he’d show up near the end of coffee hour, or at Stone Soup, looking for something to eat and, yes, asking for a couple of bucks.
            He could sense that he made a lot of people uncomfortable and fearful. After all, whatever Mike’s true character, addicts are usually dishonest and untrustworthy.
            He would regularly show up here at night and ring the rectory doorbell (often startling me just as I was dozing off on the couch) telling me he wanted me to know that he was still alive, and asking for money for food, for laundry, for new socks, for…
            Over time, he confided more of his story to me – it was a story with a lot of sadness and loss, pain that anyone would want to numb and forget.
            St. Paul’s became Mike’s home base. His mail came here. His important documents were kept here. Sleeping behind abandoned houses or in the park, this was all the home he had.
            He always declined offers of help for his addiction – I think because of addiction’s power and, honestly, the embarrassment of even admitting he had a problem.
             As some of you will remember, it seemed like each day he looked worse and worse, as life on the streets of Jersey City took its toll. His clothes became more like rags barely hanging on his skinny frame. His face was red and his eyes were glassy and unfocused.
            And then, he vanished.
            It took me a few days to realize that we hadn’t seen him. I asked around if anyone had seen him in his usual hangouts. Nothing.
            Expecting the worst, I googled him. Nothing. Looked at the Jersey Journal for news. Nothing. I scanned the obituaries. Nothing.
            And then I remembered that he had a Facebook page. I had found it months earlier but it hadn’t been updated in a couple of years. It had been heartbreaking to see, because there were pictures of a happy and much healthier Mike, a nice-looking guy, smiling with family and friends, just a few years earlier.
            So, with some trepidation, I went on Mike’s Facebook page.
            And, there I found out what happened to him.
            A friend of his, also named Mike, knew that our Mike was in really bad shape, so he drove down from his home in Pennsylvania to Jersey City, found Mike on the street, got him into his car, drove back to Pennsylvania and got Mike into a facility where he could detox.
            Once Mike was clean, Mike the friend took him into his home to live with him, his wife and kids.
            Amazing, right?
            Now, although recovery is a lifelong journey, our Mike has been clean for more than fifty days and is working in a factory manufacturing cabinets.
            I talked with him on Thursday and he gave me permission to tell his story here today. He texted me a photo so I could see how good he looks now – and, sure enough, he looks more like that happy and healthier Mike from a couple of years ago.
            Mike the friend held himself accountable for our Mike and made and continues to make big sacrifices to fulfill God’s great commands to love and show mercy, to do good and be generous.
            It may not feel like it much of the time, but we are rich. We may struggle to pay the rent and to cover all of our bills, but we’re rich because we’re part of a loving community, a church where we feast every week, a church where we look out for each other, a place where we love one another.
            And, we don’t have to look far to find Lazarus and Mike. They are at our gate, at our door, hungry, sick, and alone.
            They may be kind and loving people or they may be mean and hateful or, more likely, like most of us, they’re somewhere in between.
            The point is, whether we like it or not, together, we are accountable, we will be held accountable, for how we welcome Lazarus, for how we take care of Mike.
            Like the rich man and his brothers we all know God’s great commands to love and show mercy, to do good and be generous.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

God's Middle Managers

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 18, 2016

Year C, Proper 19: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

God’s Middle Managers
            I’ve never really worked corporate but I know that any business of significant size has a group of employees - sometimes a pretty large group of employees - known as “middle management.”
            Obviously, the “middle managers” don’t run the company but they’re responsible for overseeing other employees or maybe even a whole department. The middle managers are responsible for making sure that the company’s resources are being used wisely and efficiently.
            And, of course, middle managers answer to a higher authority, what’s called “upper management.”
            And, it’s not just businesses and corporations that have middle management.
            Schools usually have lots of middle managers, vice-principals and deans and department chairs and committee coordinators and all the rest.
            And, actually, in a way, I’m kind of middle management in the church. The Bishop is responsible for the whole company, the diocese, and I’m responsible for this “department” we call St. Paul’s.
            (Personally, I’m glad to be middle management – being responsible for the hundred or so churches in our diocese seems like a total nightmare to me! One church is plenty, thank you very much.)
            So, yes, it can be comfortable to be a middle manager – we have some responsibility but not too much responsibility.
            But, there are dangers, too.
            First of all, in the business world middle managers are sometimes seen as expendable. They’re often the first to go when a company starts laying off employees, right?
            But, an even greater danger for middle managers is to forget that they are middle managers, to somehow start thinking that they’re upper management, that they’re the ones ultimately in charge.
            There’s the danger that middle managers start thinking that the company’s resources are for their own use and benefit – so sometimes they abuse the employees under them and sometimes they steal small and sometimes not so small amounts of company money.
            We’ve all seen it a ton of times.
            Well, in today’s parable Jesus introduces us to a middle manager who seems to have really messed up.
            The parable is a little tricky and we’re not told everything we’d like to know but there’s a rich man who has a manager and this manager has been “squandering” the rich man’s property.
            The rich man confronts the manager and demands an accounting of what he’s been responsible for. It sure looks like the manager is in big trouble and is about to lose his job.
            But, the manager acts quickly in a way that’s not really clear to us now and doesn’t really matter. The point is that, under pressure, the manager acts shrewdly and cleverly to save his job.
            Thanks to his quickness, shrewdness, and cleverness, he remains a middle manager.
            Well, you know, perhaps unwisely, God has made us all middle managers.
            We’re definitely not upper management – that would be God – but each of us is responsible for own little department, our own little corner of God’s good creation.
            And, like some middle managers in business and like the manager in today’s parable, we can mess up and start thinking that we’re the ones in charge and that all of these gifts and resources that we’ve been given are for our benefit and not for the glory of God and the good of God’s people.
            Like the rich man’s manager we can squander God’s good gifts.
            We can squander God’s good gifts by only taking an interest in ourselves and those close to us who we love and like.
            We can squander God’s gifts by piling up tons of stuff in our homes, stuff we don’t really need and probably don’t even want, while so many people right here in our own city go without.
            We can squander God’s gifts by filling our bellies until we’re ready to burst and then, maybe, giving some crumbs to those who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from.
            We can squander God’s gifts by despising and judging people who are different from us, people who have different ideas or views – there’s a whole lot of that going on during this tense election campaign, right?
            We can squander God’s gifts by treating our beautiful planet as an open sewer, as a giant dumpster, wasting precious oil and water, not even bothering to recycle, looking away as the Earth gets warmer each year, ruining the future of our children and all of God’s creatures.
            We can squander God’s gifts by not giving God our best efforts.
            And, like the rich man in today’s parable, occasionally God holds us accountable, asking us, “What’s that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management...."
            God does this by pricking our conscience every now and then.
            At last week’s 10:00 service we baptized two beautiful little boys. And, as you know, there’s not much I love more than baptizing people. And, I love baptism for lots of reasons but one is that it's a great way that God holds us accountable, demands an accounting of our middle management.
            Baptism is a way for God to remind us middle managers that our job is to pray together and pass on the Good News to others.
            As middle managers, our job is to resist evil and ask forgiveness when we mess up.
            As middle managers, our job is to see Christ in everybody and love our neighbors like we love us.
            As middle managers, our job is to strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of absolutely everybody.
            It’s a lot. This middle management is a big job. And, of course, as middle managers we can only do our job with the help of upper management, only with God’s help.
            One last thing: in the parable the manager is clever and shrewd – and Jesus calls us to be just as clever and shrewd at our job.
            So, you know how rich people use every trick in the book so they pay as little tax as possible?
            You know how so many of us study the supermarket circulars and take the time to clip coupons and use our PricePlus card to save as much money on our food bill as we can?
            Well, we’re called to be just as clever as we strive to do our job, just as shrewd as we love and serve and give, just as clever and shrewd as we do our best, with God’s help, to be God’s middle managers.
            May it be so.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Sheep and the Coins

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 11, 2016

Year C, Proper 19: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14
1 Timothy 1:2-17
Luke 15:1-10

The Sheep and the Coins
            On that beautiful bright blue morning fifteen years ago, I was teaching at St. Peter’s Prep.
            It was the second day of classes, the kind of day that’s mixed with both novelty and familiarity: the same halls and rooms, many of the same colleagues and students, but also a new schedule to memorize and lots of new names and faces to learn.
            I was free during first period and was hanging out in the faculty room, when another teacher came in telling us about an accident, a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
            There wasn’t too much concern at first. I think we all assumed it must have been a small private plane, but then we started looking at the photos on the internet – and that led some of us to go down and stand on the school’s front steps, looking east down Grand Street at the smoke pouring out of the North Tower.
            Suddenly there was a fiery explosion as the South Tower was hit – and we all knew this was no accident.
            Traffic was stopped in front of school and a woman was sitting in her car, with her face in her hands, sobbing about what she, what we all, had just seen.
            For a while, the school continued on its normal schedule with most teachers sticking with what they had planned for the day – strange to think about now, but, really, what else could we do?
            My classroom was on the top floor with a skyline view that I had always loved, until that morning.
            We had closed the window shades so the students couldn’t see what was going on but I kept the one shade in the front of the room opened for me to see.
            At one point I looked and saw what my brain had trouble processing, I saw the South Tower come crashing down, leaving behind a dust cloud and, from a mile and a half or so across the river, a strange whooshing sound.
            I remember looking at my students as they looked at me, looked to me, wide-eyed, desperate for explanation, hoping for reassurance that things were going to be OK while, honestly, I just wanted to hide from all of this pain, sorrow and fear – and I just wanted to hide from what I feared was yet to come.
            Later that day, after her own ordeal, Sue made it home from work in the city and that night we came to St. Paul’s for the simple, sad, shocked little service Fr. Hamilton offered right here in the chapel.
            That night as we walked up Highland Avenue on the way to church a cab was double-parked, waiting for a fare. Suddenly, a pick-up truck came roaring up behind the cab and the driver began honking furiously. When the cab didn’t immediately move, the man got out of the truck and approached the cabbie - who, yes, was a Middle Easterner. The pick-up truck guy began to shout and curse, so angry and out of control that I thought he’d kill the terrified driver before he had the chance to speed away.
            And so, fifteen years of terror, war, fear, and hatred began.
            On Friday night, some young men from St. Peter’s Prep sang so beautifully here at our choral festival, singing among other things, St. Francis’ great prayer for peace. Later, someone pointed out to me that these guys were just babies in 2001, that this is the only world they’ve known.
            Of course, there’s nothing new about human beings making evil choices, making a mess of God’s creation, turning God’s beautiful garden into a ruin.
            And, there’s nothing new about hiding, or wanting to hide, from the consequences of our own actions. There’s nothing new about hiding, or wanting to hide, from the sadness and pain that’s all around us, nothing new about trying to hide from God.
            We get lost.
            In the very first story of God and us, the story of the first man and woman, there’s wrongdoing and shame and hiding.
            In today’s first lesson, God, speaking through the Prophet Jeremiah, doesn’t have much good to say about God’s people:
            “They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
            And then there’s today’s psalm:
            “Every one has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.”
            All too often, we mess up, make evil choices and then hide, or want to hide, from our own actions, hide, or want to hide, from the sadness and pain that’s all around us, and, even try to hide from God.
            There’s nothing new about making evil choices, making a mess of God’s creation, turning God’s beautiful garden into a ruin.
            We get lost.
            Now, if we were God we’d probably give up on us – the way we so often give up on each other – but the good news, the best news ever, is that God, like a shepherd desperately seeking his lost sheep – God, like a woman looking absolutely everywhere for that lost coin - God never gives up on us, never stops searching for a way into our hearts and into our lives, never stops searching for us until we are found.
            In that first story, Adam and Eve hide, but then God comes through the garden, calling out to Adam and Eve, calling out, “Where are you?”
            Throughout the centuries, no matter how much God’s people messed up, no matter how many times people turned God’s beautiful garden into a ruin, God continued to seek them out, sending prophets and holy men and women, calling out to all the lost and hiding people and then, finally, God came among us and found us - and in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God showed us just how much God loves us.
            We get lost, but God never stops searching for us.
            Fifteen years ago, in the midst of pain, sorrow, and fear, so many people immediately began to band together, searching for the lost, and welcoming dust-covered office workers into their homes for showers and food.
            Democrats and Republicans set aside their petty squabbling for the common good.
            People began praying together like they had never prayed before - and like many haven’t prayed since.
            People immediately began the long, hard work of restoring this ruined corner of God’s garden, and giving us a glimpse of God at work in the world, a taste of the way things were always meant to be.
            We try to hide. We get lost. But, God never stops searching for us.
            In a few minutes, I’ll have the joy and privilege of baptizing two beautiful boys, Charlie and Liam.
            They’re beautiful but they’re human, so although they’re too young to have messed up in any big way – yet - they’ve definitely inherited our tendency to make evil choices, to make a mess of God’s creation, to turn God’s beautiful garden into a ruin.
            Although they look pretty innocent, Charlie and Liam have inherited our way of hiding from the consequences of our own actions, our way of hiding from the sadness and pain that’s all around us, of trying to even hide from God.
            From time to time, Charlie and Liam will lose their way.
            Like all of us, sometimes, they’ll get lost.
            But, in the water of Baptism, God is going to make a bond with these two little boys, a bond that can never be dissolved, a bond that can never be broken, no matter what.
            So, no matter how much they mess up and no matter how much they try to hide from their own actions and from the sadness of the world, no matter how lost they are or how lost they feel, God will never stop searching for them, never stop searching for any of us, God will never stop searching for a way into our hearts and into our lives until, like the sheep and the coins, we are all reunited – and then, then, there will be so much rejoicing, so much rejoicing in heaven and on earth.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

There's Always a Cost

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 4, 2016

Year C, Proper 18: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

There’s Always a Cost
            Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
            The other night I had dinner with a friend and as we talked over the course of the meal we covered a lot of topics, but eventually, inevitably, unfortunately, we turned to our depressing presidential election.
            My friend is a Republican who, though embarrassed and dismayed by his party’s nominee, is holding onto his political affiliation. Without me asking, he offered an interesting explanation why.
            He said he’s a Republican because of the sense of entitlement that he sees among many people in our country, the sense of entitlement that he sees encouraged by the other side of the aisle.
            He said that it’s like a lot of people refuse to face the fact that somebody has to pay for all of this stuff.
            We didn’t get into much more of a political conversation than that and I’m definitely not going to get into one now, but my friend is certainly right about at least one thing: someone does indeed have to pay  – someone has to pay for food, housing, health care, and all the rest.
            Someone has to pay because there’s always a cost.
            There’s always a cost.
            And, just like there’s always a cost for material goods there’s also always a cost for, let’s call them “spiritual goods.”
            Those of us who have really loved – and I hope that’s most of us – those of us who have really loved – loved a husband or a wife, loved a soul mate, loved a parent or a child, loved a friend, loved a community – those of us who have really loved know that there’s always a cost – there’s the cost of time, energy, commitment, patience, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, grief.
            There’s no such thing as cheap love. There’s always a high cost.
            There’s a cost for us – and, in fact, there’s a cost for God, too.
            And, we see that cost each time we look at the cross.
            You know, God could have just given up on us, could have smashed us and thrown us away like a potter disposes of a failed piece of pottery, but instead God chose to join us here on earth, to reveal God’s self to us, and to be killed by people not so different from us, to pay the cost of our sins – a cost that we ourselves could never pay, showing us that costly love is stronger than even death itself.
            So, yes, there’s always a cost, as Jesus reminds us when he says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
            In today’s second lesson we heard the entirety of Paul’s Letter to Philemon – a text that I love because it shows Paul as both a shrewd pastor and a keen student of human nature.
            Though, like all of the letters in the New Testament, the Letter to Philemon is a little frustrating because we only have one side of the conversation – so we have to try to put the pieces together.
            Paul writes this letter from prison, where a slave belonging to a Christian named Philemon has been serving him. The slave’s name is Onesimus – a name meaning “useful” or “beneficial” – so you can hear in the letter some of Paul’s wordplay when he writes to Philemon about the slave, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and me.”
            Now, we don’t know how and why Onesimus the slave ended up with Paul.
            There would seem to be two possibilities: Onesimus ran away from his master Philemon or Philemon loaned the slave to Paul, one Christian to another.
            Anyway, now Paul writes to Philemon requesting…well, because Paul is so indirect in his language, we don’t know what exactly.
            It could be that Paul is asking Philemon to welcome back his slave and forgive him for running away or whatever it is he’s done wrong.
            Or, it could be that Paul is asking Philemon to let him keep Onesimus since, as we know, he’s “useful” to the apostle.
            Or, Paul may want Philemon to welcome back his slave, to welcome his slave who is also his brother in Christ, and then free him.
            Anyway, Paul shrewdly tells Philemon he could just issue a command – just tell him what to do – but instead he leaves it up to Philemon to do the right thing, to pay the high cost of forgiveness and love.
            There’s always a cost.
            We don’t know if Philemon paid the cost but the fact that this letter was preserved art all may give us some idea – and, by the way, there’s also an old tradition that Onesimus the slave ended up as a bishop, so maybe...
            Slavery in the ancient world was bad enough but many centuries later the way Europeans enslaved Africans was far worse. To justify their horrific behavior, the Europeans tried every terrible tactic they could think of to strip their slaves of dignity, identity, and personhood – and, don’t forget, in the process these white people did a good job of dehumanizing themselves, too.
            It’s ugly history and today lots of people would like to forget how much of our country was built by slaves.
            Just look at the reaction Michelle Obama received when at the Democratic Convention she reminded us that her family lives in a house constructed by slaves.
            But, wait, those slaves were well taken care of, some replied!
            Anyway, back in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Society of Jesus, the Roman Catholic religious order better known as the Jesuits, owned plantations in Maryland. The hundreds of slaves who worked those plantations produced the wealth that supported the Jesuits and their ministries, including the first Catholic college in America, Georgetown.
            Priests owning slaves was bad enough, of course. But, these Jesuits were all extremely smart and theologically highly educated guys who on some level must have known it was wrong, sinful, to enslave fellow human beings, though one hopes that their slaves received at least marginally better treatment – but the Jesuits were not willing to pay the high cost of doing the right thing and freeing these brothers and sisters, not willing to pay the high cost of freeing these oh-so-useful slaves, not willing to pay the high cost of love.
            The story gets even worse.
            In 1838, Georgetown was in financial trouble so the Jesuits made the decision to sell 272 of their slaves for $115,000 - literally selling them down the river, to the notorious plantations in the Deep South where life was far worse than the already-hard life they had known in Maryland.
            This tragic history was never completely forgotten, but it wasn’t talked about much until recently when student protests caused Georgetown to face this ugly and painful chapter in its history.
            There’s always a cost.
            As you may have heard in the news, this past week Georgetown announced, among other things, it was going to offer preferential treatment to descendants of those slaves – the same advantage children and grandchildren of alumni get.
            This gesture may not be enough but is more than what any other American institution has done to beg forgiveness and to begin to atone for the sins of the past.
            There’s always a cost – always a cost for love and forgiveness – there was a cost for Philemon the slave owner and a cost for Georgetown – there’s a cost for God – and there’s a cost for us.
            Jesus says to us, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
            So, are we willing to carry our cross and pay the cost of love?                       
            Are we willing to pay the cost of putting God first in our lives, above even family and friends?
            Are we willing to pay the cost of loving even the people who are hard to love?
            Are we willing to pay the cost of forgiving those who wrong us - and asking forgiveness when we’ve done wrong?
            Are we willing to pay the cost of supporting our community, so we can continue to show God’s love for the people of Jersey City and beyond?
            Jesus says to us, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
            There’s no such thing as cheap love.
            There’s always a cost.