Sunday, October 30, 2016

Trying to See Jesus

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 30, 2016

Year C, Proper 26: The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Trying to See Jesus
            So, have I mentioned to you that we have a bunch of baptisms coming up?
            It’s true! We have a couple of baptisms next Sunday, when we’ll celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, and a couple more the following Sunday.
            One of the many good lessons I learned from my friend and mentor Lauren Ackland, the recently-retired rector for Grace Church in Madison, is the practice of inviting children to come close when we have a baptism, giving these little people a chance to see, to see the water, to see the candles, to see God at work, to see God bonding with the newest member of the Body of Christ.
            I was reminded of the little kids eagerly straining to see the action at the baptismal font, when I first started reflecting on today’s gospel lesson.
            It’s the second Sunday in a row that we hear a story involving a tax collector.
            If you were here last week you may remember we heard the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, both praying, though not quite together, in the Jerusalem Temple.
            If you were here you may remember that in first century Israel tax collectors weren’t just disliked the way today many Americans aren’t crazy about the IRS.
            No, the tax collectors were Jews who collaborated with the hated Roman occupiers. The tax collectors were traitors who lined their pockets by fleecing their own people.
            So, last week we heard the Pharisee interrupt his prayer of thanksgiving in order to judge the tax collector standing off by himself praying, the sinful tax collector who betrayed his own people by working for the oppressive Romans, the tax collector who must have needed a lot of courage to even just enter the Temple, the tax collector who must have needed a lot of faith to beg the God of Israel for mercy.
            Well, today we meet another tax collector and this one has a name, Zacchaeus, which, ironically enough, comes from the Hebrew word that means “righteous” or “upright” or “justice.”
            But, Zacchaeus is not just a tax collector, which would be bad enough. No, we’re told that he’s a “chief tax collector” and that he’s “rich.”
            And, we know and all the people around him knew that he’s a rich man because he worked for the Romans and took advantage of his own people.
            So, it’s safe to assume that Zacchaeus wasn’t going to win any popularity contests in Jericho.
            But, this traitorous and unlikable and despised man is very eager, maybe even desperate, to get to see who Jesus was.
            We’re not told why he wants to see who Jesus was. Maybe he just heard all the commotion. Or, maybe he had heard from others, maybe even some of the other tax collectors, about this unusual and powerful rabbi from Nazareth who proclaimed a downside-up kingdom in which it’s not the rich but the poor who are truly blessed.
            Maybe he had heard about Jesus, this mysterious teacher and healer who hung out with the wrong kinds of people and who declared in a parable that the sinful tax collector who prayed, who begged for mercy, even the despised tax collector, was not beyond God’s love.
            So, we don’t know why exactly, but for whatever reason or reasons, not very tall and pretty unpopular Zacchaeus climbs up the sycamore tree to see who Jesus was.
            And, Zacchaeus the chief tax collector gets a whole lot more than he bargained for.
            Jesus spots the tax collector in the tree and, in his very Jesus-like way, invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ house, invites himself over to the home of probably the least popular person in the city, knowing that this will drive all of the “righteous” and “upright” people right up the wall.
            Yes, Zacchaeus gets a whole lot more than just a glimpse of Jesus. He’s transformed by Jesus, giving away half of his possessions to the poor and paying back four times worth of what he’s defrauded – and, he doesn’t say that he’ll do this someday (We’ve heard that before, right? Yeah, soon, Jesus, I promise, but first I just have to…).
            No, Zacchaeus says he’s doing these things now – the Greek is in the present tense - Zacchaeus is giving away his wealth, is making amends, right here, right now.
            Zacchaeus got to see who Jesus was – and this corrupt and probably hated man was transformed by the encounter.
            Trying to see Jesus.
            It was hard for short and sinful Zacchaeus to see Jesus and, unfortunately, today it’s hard for a lot of people to see Jesus, too.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because sometimes we think that we’ve done things that are too bad, that somehow we are unworthy, that we’re convinced that we’ll be rejected by the church, rejected by Jesus.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because in our country so often the loudest, most prominent Christians offer a watered-down false gospel while enriching themselves, living large flying around in private jets and living in mansions.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because in our country so often the loudest, most prominent Christians are quick to condemn and so slow to forgive.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because so many Christians, both leaders and followers, have gotten sucked into our broken and destructive political system, endorsing candidates and parties, demonizing opponents, twisting words and shading the truth, assuming the worst and never extending the benefit of the doubt to the “other side.”
            It’s hard to see Jesus because so many of us Christians have retreated behind our church walls, content to be with our own people and care for one another, but really not so interested in welcoming the stranger and not willing to love those of our time who are despised like a first century tax collector.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because we, the Body of Christ in the world, live pretty much like everyone else in the world, no better and sometimes far worse.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because so many of us haven’t taken seriously our baptismal promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
            It’s hard to see Jesus because we, the Body of Christ in the world, have so often hidden him from view.
            We don’t always know why, but the truth is that people are still trying to see Jesus – and are still being transformed by the encounter.
            You all know that I love baptizing people, but I love just as much when we welcome people to our church for the first time, people who are climbing the tree, trying to see who Jesus is.
            In many cases these newcomers are people who had never really been part of the church, who maybe thought because of who or what they are, for whatever reasons, that they wouldn’t be welcome.
            Some are people who had never really been able to see Jesus.
            In some cases these newcomers had been away from the church for years or even decades, people who maybe had been disappointed or even hurt by the church and who weren’t at all sure if they really wanted to be part of this.           
            Walking into a church for the first time is probably harder than climbing a tree.
            But, the amazing thing is, like those of us who’ve been at this a long time, right here at St. Paul’s they have gotten to see Jesus, not perfectly of course, but they have gotten to see Jesus in God’s Word, in the Bread and the Wine, in the loving welcome they’ve often received from our diverse community, and in the work we do out there, feeding and serving and praying for more and more people each week.
            They – we – have seen Jesus.
            And, Jesus, in is very Jesus-like way, has invited himself into their homes, has invited himself into our lives, transforming all of us into more loving and more generous people, truly becoming the Body of Christ, right here and right now.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

God's Unlimited Grace

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 23, 2016

Year C, Proper 25: The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

God’s Unlimited Grace
            A couple of weeks ago I got a message from someone who’s been having a really hard time lately.
            As sometimes happens, his misfortunes seem to have come quickly and have kind of piled up, one on top of the other.
            No surprise, he was feeling overwhelmed. (Actually, to be honest, reading his list of troubles, I was feeling a little overwhelmed, too!).
            But, after listing all of these woes, at the end of his message he wrote something that I bet we’ve all heard, and I’m sure that many of us have said to people in similar trouble. He wrote that he was really struggling and then added “…but, I know that people say that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
            God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.
            I wrote back to him and told him that, actually, I never say that. I never say that because it presupposes that it’s God who dishes out the bad stuff in our lives, that it’s God who takes away our employment, that it’s God who gives us disease, that it’s God who breaks up our relationships.
            That doesn’t sound to me like the God revealed to us by Jesus, the God who gives us only good gifts, the God who is good, all the time.
            And, I don’t say this phrase because, well, what about the people who have had more than they could handle?
            What about them? Did God overburden them?
            Or, is it that we failed to share God’s grace, God’s love, with them?
            There are a number of other religious-sounding catchphrases that many well-meaning people throw around that, maybe, sort of sound right, but when you start thinking about them, really aren’t OK at all.
            For example, there’s that popular Bible verse that’s most definitely not in the Bible: “God helps those who help themselves.”
            I’ve heard that my whole life and I bet you have, too, but when you stop and think about it, you realize that one of the key themes of the Bible is that we can’t help ourselves, that we depend on God for everything, that we need to help each other, that, in fact, it’s when we think we can help ourselves that we get ourselves into big trouble.
            That’s why at Baptism we say, “I will, with God’s help.”
            Or, maybe it would be even better to say, “With God’s help, I will.”
            And then how about this: when we see or hear about someone less fortunate, what do we often say?
              “There but for the grace of God go I.”
            Again, people say this, we say this, with all good intentions and with sincere gratitude, but what’s the implication of these words?
            Do we really believe that God has withheld grace from people less fortunate than us, withheld grace from the child killed in the car accident or the woman with terminal cancer or the man who can’t stop drinking?
            Do we really believe that God has withheld grace from all of these unfortunate people, while showering grace upon us?
            Are we so special or so deserving?
            And, is God’s grace so limited?
            In today’s gospel lesson, we pick up right where we left off last week.
            Last Sunday we heard the parable about the widow and the judge and today we hear another parable, about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying, praying not quite together, in the Jerusalem Temple.
            In the New Testament, the Pharisees are usually depicted negatively. They are usually seen as hypocrites who were hostile to Jesus and his message, but other sources indicate that they were generally respected by the people for their holiness, admired for their desire to make everyday life holy by carefully following God’s Law.
            At first, the Pharisee’s prayer seems just fine. He thanks God that he has been able to lead an upright life, that he’s not a thief, or a rogue, or an adulterer. He thanks God that he is able to even   fast twice a week and giving up a tenth of all he had.
            All of that is fine, except that while he is praying his thanksgiving to God, he’s also got at least one eye on the tax collector, standing far off.
            In his prayer, the Pharisee seems to assume that the tax collector is beyond the grace of God.
            There but for the grace of God go I.
            But, is the Pharisee so special?
            And, is God’s grace so limited?
            Now, when we hear about a tax collector, we probably think about the IRS and how nobody likes to pay taxes and many use every law and loophole they can to pay the absolute bare minimum of tax.
            It’s true, I guess, that nobody loves the IRS, but tax collectors in first century Israel were something quite different. They were Jews who worked for the Roman occupiers and who made their money by overcharging their own people.
            They were traitors.
            Tax collectors were despised, the lowest of the low.
            So, it must have taken quite a bit of courage for this tax collector to even just enter the Temple, knowing that there would likely be people who knew who he was, who knew what he was. No wonder he stood far off. It must have taken courage for the tax collector to enter the Temple and pray with downcast eyes to the God of Israel, to beg, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
            Everyone else may have despised this sinful tax collector, but not God.
            God’s grace is unlimited.
            God’s grace is unlimited for the Pharisee, God’s grace is unlimited for the tax collector – and God’s grace is unlimited for us.
            You know, the Pharisee would have known God’s Law inside and out so he would have known the great command of Leviticus 19:18: Love your neighbor as yourself.
            And, I’d bet the Pharisee sincerely tried to do that, but it’s always easier to love your neighbor in the abstract. It’s easier to at least try to love those sinful “tax collectors” but a lot harder when one particular tax collector is praying not too far from you.
            Instead of love, the Pharisee interrupted his prayer of thanksgiving and judged the despised but praying tax collector.
            And, I wonder if we don’t make the same terrible mistake.
            It’s easy to feel compassion, to feel sorrow, to even feel love for people in the abstract.
            “I care about the poor.”
            “I feel so sorry for homeless people.”
            But, it’s a whole lot harder to be loving when a poor homeless person is asleep in front of your home, or blocking your way begging as you’re trying to get to work, or, yes, attending the same church that we do and making us feel uncomfortable, frightened, or even angry.
            Then, just like for the Pharisee, things get messy and real.
            Do we, like the Pharisee in today’s parable, even right here in church, interrupt our prayers to God and judge him or her?
            Do we even try to love those individuals who are hard to love – do we even try to share God’s grace with that particular man or that particular woman who is so hard to love?
            Do we, who have received so many blessings despite our many sins, do we remember that God’s grace is unlimited – unlimited for us, and unlimited for the person who steals, unlimited for the person who gets drunk or high every day, unlimited for the person who talks nonsense.
            Not easy, but with God’s help, we can do it.
            So, instead using catchphrases, instead of thinking or saying “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” or “God helps those who help themselves” or “There but for the grace of God go I,” instead of judging, let’s love, let’s love, and let’s share God’s unlimited grace.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Complicated Us

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 16, 2016

Year C, Proper 23: The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Complicated Us
            Did any of you watch the “town hall” presidential “debate” last Sunday night?
            It began with the candidates declining to shake hands and went downhill from there. It wasn’t much of a town hall or much of a debate. Instead, it was a new low in a seemingly endless presidential election season that has been filled with so many lows.
            It was a bad night for our democracy, a bad night for our country.
            And, I guess not so surprisingly, things have gotten even worse in the week since, with ugly accusations and frightening threats, disturbing and disgusting stories of sexual abuse and assault both long ago and recent, and ominous warnings about Russian meddling and a stolen election.
            In the United States, we’ve had rough elections before, of course, but nothing at all like this. We are in uncharted territory.
            And, what is yet to come?
            We got to this depressing and frightening place in our history for all sorts of reasons: an economic recovery that has been uneven at best, the unnerving threat of terrorism originating in the Middle East, along with eight years of the first black president and rapidly changing demographics and culture that have left some people, especially white men, feeling like they’re losing their country, losing their place, losing hope that they and their children will get to experience the “American Dream.”
            Plus, for better or for worse, these are two very well known candidates. Most, if not all, of us made up our minds about their character and abilities long ago, helped along by cable news channels that echo the same opinions and accusations over and over and over again.
            Finally, in this election we see the very American tendency to divide people into the simple categories of “good” and “bad.” Throughout our history, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, we’ve believed that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, either one or the other, with not much in between.
            And, usually, we think that we know who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.
            And, of course, we’re the good guys!
            We need to grow out of this good guy / bad guy stuff, and fast, because it’s simply not true – and it’s increasingly dangerous.
            The truth is that people, all people, are complicated, very complicated, filled with mixed up emotions and motivations – sometimes so confused that even we don’t know why we do the things we do, or don’t do the things that we don’t do,
            The truth is that people are complicated, both as a species and as individuals.
            We are capable of horrific selfishness and cruelty, using other people for our own pleasure and purposes, gobbling up way more than our fair share of resources, and looking away with disdain and disgust when our brother or sister begs for the crumbs that fall from our table.
            At the same time, we are capable of such unbelievable creativity, achievement, and generosity, painting beautiful pictures, composing music and singing songs that touch our hearts, curing diseases, learning how life and the universe work, and sacrificing our lives for others, sometimes even for people we don’t know.
            We’re complicated and, while God doesn’t love our sins, God does love us all.
            If you were here last week, you may remember that, throughout Scripture, God has the habit of choosing people, very complicated people, for the most important jobs – people we would most definitely reject.
            So, Jacob, who stole his older brother’s birthright, becomes the father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
            Moses, who had a speech impediment, is put in charge of the leading the people of Israel on their forty-year journey out of Egypt into freedom.
            And, David, the youngest son becomes Israel’s greatest king, never losing God’s favor despite being a spectacularly terrible sinner.
            We’re complicated and, while God doesn’t love our sins, God does love us all.
            In today’s parable, we meet two rather complicated people, the widow and the judge.
            At the start, Luke tells us that this parable is about the “need to pray always and to not lose heart.”
            Now, that’s a perfectly fine interpretation and certainly an important lesson to learn and remember, right? Plus, who am I to argue with St. Luke!
            But, part of the power of Jesus’ parables comes from the fact that they contain a bottomless well of meaning.
            We could spend the rest of our lives pondering the parables and always gain new insights, learning more about God and ourselves.
            The judge, who is described as someone who “neither feared God nor had respect for people” is certainly not a very appealing character, though don’t you wonder what happened? What happened to him, what made him no longer fear God or respect people?
            Sounds like he’s living a pretty miserable life, so maybe we should have some sympathy for him.
            And, that miserable life is made that much more difficult by the widow. We’re inclined to have sympathy for her because, well, she’s a widow – and we know from the Bible that God has a special concern for widows and orphans.
            But, as Amy-Jill Levine points out in the book we’re reading this fall, we’re not told much about her. We don’t know if she’s rich or poor. And, we don’t know whether her cause is just.
            We do know that she’s persistent, but that’s not necessarily positive. In fact, you could argue that the widow harasses the judge. Levine points out that we’re not told that she keeps coming to court. Instead, she might be haranguing him on the street, or in the market, or outside his home.
            Finally, the English translation is very mild. The judge gives in, saying to himself, “I will grant her justice, so that she might not wear me out…”
            But, the word translated as “wear out” is actually a boxing term, so it could be, and maybe should be, translated that the widow is threatening to punch the judge in the face.
            So, has justice really been done? Or, by giving in to her, did the judge do the wrong thing because he was tired, or even frightened, of the widow?
            Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy?
            We’re complicated and, while God doesn’t love our sins, God does love us all.
            Last week’s “debate” was brutal and depressing, but there was a tiny glimmer of light and hope at the end.
            A person in the audience asked each candidate to name one thing they respect about the other – not so easy after everything that’s been said and done during the campaign, and even just that night.
            Hillary Clinton said she respected Donald Trump’s children, saying that they’re “incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald.”
            For his part, Trump complimented his opponent, saying, “She doesn’t quit, she doesn’t give up, and I respect that.”
            And then, finally, they shook hands.
            Now, please understand I am not saying that these two candidates are equal in terms of character, experience, or skill, but I am saying that, as hard as it may be for us to accept or believe, it is possible to be terribly sexist and maybe even abusive towards women and also be a loving, supportive father.
            I am saying that, as hard as it may be for us to accept or believe, it is possible to trash women who make accusations against your husband and to shade the truth about emails and other stuff, while also being a tenacious fighter for worthy causes.
            People are complicated – we are complicated – and, while God doesn’t love our sins, as hard as it often is for us to accept or believe, God does love the judge and the widow, God loves Hillary and Donald, and, yes, God loves us, complicated us.


Sunday, October 09, 2016

God Rejects Rejection

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 9, 2016

Year C, Proper 22: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66:1-11
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

God Rejects Rejection
            Believe it or not, we still have a bunch of baptisms coming up on the first two Sundays in November.
            By now, you may be getting sick of hearing me say how much I love Baptisms, but I do love them, and for lots of reasons.
            One reason is that Baptism reminds us of the great truth that, no matter what we do or don’t do, God has made a bond with us that can never be broken, a bond that can never be dissolved, a bond that is indissoluble.                                                           
            Or, to put it another way, God rejects rejection.
            God rejects rejection.
            That’s good, right?
            I borrowed that line from a British rabbi named Jonathan Sacks. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading a book he wrote about the tragic history of hatred and violence among the children of Abraham. The book is about how so often Jews, Christians, and Muslims have hated each other, competed with each other, and, yes, killed each other.
            The point that Rabbi Sacks makes in the book is that, of course, all of this hatred, competition, and violence, is not God’s way
            God rejects rejection.
            In fact, the rabbi points out that God never rejects God’s people, no matter how many times they mess up, now matter how many times they’re unfaithful, now matter how many times they disobey God.
            And, just as God doesn’t reject the people of Israel, throughout the Old Testament God calls on God’s people not to reject but to welcome the stranger and alien.
            And, on top of that, throughout the Scriptures, God chooses for the most special jobs the people we would surely reject.
            So, Jacob, the sneaky guy who stole his older brother’s birthright, becomes the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
            Moses, with his speech impediment, is given the huge task of leading God’s people on a forty-year journey out of slavery.
            David, the youngest son, is chosen to be the greatest king, never losing God’s favor, even when he commits some really terrible sins.
            God rejects rejection.
            And, since God rejects rejection, of course, Jesus the Son of God rejects rejection, too.
            Over and over, Jesus doesn’t reject people but, instead, shares God’s love with all the “rejects,” shares God’s love with the sinners, the tax collectors, with the woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned, with the Samaritan woman at the well, and with his own unimpressive disciples of little faith, though they mess up and fail over and over again, and even abandon and deny him at the end.           
            So, of course, Jesus doesn’t reject lepers, either.
            In ancient Israel, “leprosy” referred to a variety of skin ailments, some of them contagious, some repulsive, diseases that made people ritually unclean and sometimes quite frightening.
            The lepers were rejected by society, forced to live together on the outskirts of towns, begging, depending on the kindness and mercy of others.
            It seems that lepers were rejected by just about everybody.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we’re told that ten lepers approach, calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
            Jesus rejects rejection and mysteriously sends them to the priests (who would probably be not too excited about having ten lepers come over to their place) but along the way the lepers are miraculously made clean. Their leprosy is healed, so they were on their way to the priests to have their healing verified.
            But, we’re told that only one of the lepers, realizing the amazing gift he had received, turned back, rejoicing, and worshiped and gave thanks at the feet of Jesus.
            Then Luke gives us one last important detail: the thankful leper was a Samaritan – and we know the Samaritans and Jews pretty much hated each other.
            So, this poor man had been a double-reject: a leper and a foreigner. He had probably known the terrible pain of rejection for years and yet that day he learned that God rejects rejection - and he gave thanks.
            God rejects rejection.
            I’m sure that we’ve all known the pain of rejection.
            I’m sure we’ve all felt, or even been told, things like that we’re not good enough, or smart enough, or good looking enough, or fast enough, or hard working enough, or talented enough, or loving enough, or courageous enough, or generous enough, or whatever.
            Or, we’ve all felt or been told that we’re too short or too tall, too fat or too skinny, that we have too much of an accent, or that our skin is the wrong color.
            We’ve all known the pain of rejection.
            And, I’m sure there are times that we feel like we deserve to be rejected, that maybe we’ve failed so badly or done something so wrong that we have it coming, that we’re going to be rejected and cast out.
            I’m sure there are times that we’ve messed up so badly that we think we even deserve to be rejected by God.
            Yet, the message of Scripture and the message of Baptism tells us something quite different and oh so wonderful:
            Everyone else may reject us, but God rejects rejection.
            Now, don’t you wonder what happened to our friend the Samaritan leper, that double-reject who was healed by Jesus?
            We know that he gave thanks to Jesus for not rejecting him, for healing him, for giving him new life.
            But then, what?
            Well, we don’t know, but I imagine, I hope, I expect, that for the rest of his life he held on to that gratitude and that he tried as best he could to be like God.
            I imagine that this man, who had been a double-reject, tried his best to reject rejection.
            So, there we were, a week ago Friday, at Garden State Episcopal’s homeless drop-in center, a small group who had prepared food and shown up to serve.
            There we were, a few people who have known God’s love, God’s healing, God’s unbreakable bond, here at St. Paul’s for many years, ready to offer a lovingly prepared delicious lunch to people who are homeless, people who are, let’s face it, often the lepers of our society.
            I had wondered how these “lepers” would receive what we had to offer, since when you’re really poor and suffering, when you have no place safe to sleep at night, sometimes you’re rightfully angry or depressed, sometimes you get tired of always being grateful, of always being expected to smile and say thanks.
            And, yet, that afternoon, just about everybody who took a plate of food offered thanks, sometimes repeated thanks, to us.
            And, I think we felt grateful, too - grateful that God had given us the opportunity and the ability to serve, the chance to give generously to people who can never pay us back.
            For a few minutes anyway, right there on Newark Avenue, for all of us “rejects,” it felt like the kingdom of God, it felt like the way things were always meant to be.
            God rejects rejection.

Sunday, October 02, 2016


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
October 2, 2016

Year C, Proper 21: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Lamentations 1:1-6
Lamentations 3:19-26
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

            I’ve mentioned to you before that for the past couple of years some of us local clergy have been gathering to pray at the site of each homicide in Jersey City.
            We go one week after the tragedy, when, maybe, attention has turned elsewhere, but the loss is still very fresh.
            It’s become my job to send out an email to the clergy each time there is a murder, so, unfortunately, quite a few of my colleagues know me only as a bearer of very bad news.
            I’ll admit, all of this takes a toll: sharing bad news over and over – eighteen times already this year – and gathering at these places of senseless death a couple of times a month – all of this tragic suffering and loss can easily lead to despair, or even numbness and indifference.
            In fact, earlier this year I started to notice some disturbing changes.
            Before, almost always, we’d go to pray and, even a week later, there would be elaborate shrines marking the place of death: balloons, posters, t-shirts covered in messages of love, votive candles, and empty liquor bottles.
            But, for months this year, we’d go to these places and there was nothing – nothing – no sign that a beloved child of God had lost his (they’re almost always men) had lost his life on this very spot just seven days earlier.
            It was as if the homicide had never happened.
            Meanwhile, fewer and fewer clergy were showing up for these services, for these vigils at places of death.
            Gary, Laurie, and I are almost always there, along with a couple of others, but most everybody else has fallen away.
            All of this has been bothering me – and has gotten me thinking and praying.
            I wonder, have we, not just the clergy, but most of us, have just gotten used to it all?
            I wonder, have we really have become numb and indifferent?
            For the past fifteen years, our country has in some ways been on a war footing, shocked at first by a bold terror attack on a beautiful September morning, but, have we gradually gotten used to the idea that a random bomb may go off as we’re crossing 23rd Street and 6th Avenue, or running a marathon, or taking the train to work?
            Have we gotten used to the fact that, from time to time, an armed-to-the-teeth lunatic will open fire in a school, or a movie theater, a nightclub, or some other public place?
            Have we gotten used to the idea that little wars will continue to smolder in faraway places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia – wars that we don’t hear about even if we pay close attention to the news.
            Have we gotten used to the millions of refugees risking their lives and the lives of their children, desperately seeking a way out of their shattered and starving homelands?
            Have we gotten used to the mutual hostility and mistrust between the police and people of color?
            Have we gotten used to stepping over homeless people as we make our way to work or school or to the store?
            Have we gotten used to an election campaign marked by accusations and insults but precious few answers to our many problems, and so very little poetry or hope?
            Have we gotten used to the bloodshed on our streets, gotten used to hearing in church the names of the slaughtered, gotten used to all of the bloodstained corners throughout Bergen-Lafayette and Greenville?
            Have we really become numb and indifferent, retreating into our own little worlds, putting in our earbuds, staring at our phones and TVs?
            And, sometimes as people of faith, we think that we really shouldn’t despair about all of this suffering – that somehow being sad about all of this shows a lack of faith. Instead, in the face of fear, loss, and grief, we fall back on easy answers and catchphrases, saying to the bereaved “He’s in a better place,” all the while looking away from, desperately trying to ignore or escape from, the pain that surrounds us.
            But, you know, there is a long history in our faith tradition of facing the sadness head-on, grieving for all that has been lost.
            Today we heard two passages from the Book of Lamentations, an Old Testament book that consists almost entirely of sad poems lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians back in 586 BC.
            The author of Lamentations writes, “How lonely sits the city that was once full of people…”
            A whole book of the Bible devoted to lamenting!
            Lamenting loss is important because numbness and indifference are dangerous.
            As we’ve so often seen, it’s a short and tragic road from numbness and indifference to easy answers, mockery, cruelty, hatred, and even more suffering and death.
            And, on top of all that, numbness and indifference make God’s job much more difficult. Even for God, it’s hard to touch someone who no longer feels, it’s hard to break through to someone who no longer cares.
            But, when we face it, when really keep looking at the sadness, when we really grieve, when we allow ourselves to feel, when we really lament, then we give God maybe just a mustard seed-size opening, and God is more able to touch our hearts and break into our lives.
            And, sure enough, we hear God’s touch, God’s breaking through, in today’s second passage from Lamentations, the one we said together:
            “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But, this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.”
            A couple of weeks ago I was the first to arrive for our prayer service at the spot on MLK Drive where Jensen Purnell, 28 years old, was fatally shot.
            And, to my surprise, for the first time in a long time, there was a shrine there, a big one, with blue balloons, autographed t-shirts, candles, and lots of empty liquor bottles.
            There were also a couple of guys hanging out on the corner. I could see that they were eyeing me – and, I guess, I was eyeing them, too.
            So, I worked up a little courage, walked over and asked if they had known Jensen. They said, yes, but laughed because they had never known that was his real name, had only known him by his nickname.
            One of the guys asked if I was a minister and what I was doing there.
            After I explained how we pray each time there’s a murder, one of the guys looked at me with great seriousness and asked, “Then why do people keep dying?”
            I wasn’t sure what he meant so he asked again, “If you’ve been praying, how come this keeps happening?”
            It was a really good, honest, thoughtful question, right?
            I said something about it taking time to change people’s hearts, which I think is true, but really isn’t the truest answer.
            By then, Gary had arrived and we invited these guys to join us for the prayer service. They all took a bulletin but pretty quickly all but one drifted away to get back to whatever they were doing on the corner.
            But, one of those young men stayed with us the whole time, saying the prayers with us even though he had sheepishly admitted that he hadn’t been in church since he was a little kid.
            But, that question haunts me: “If you’ve been praying, how come this keeps happening?”
            Maybe the most honest answer is we haven’t really been praying all that hard. Maybe we really have grown numb and indifferent to the suffering around us.
            So, at least sometimes, let’s take out our earbuds, put down our phones, turn off our TVs.
            And, let’s feel again. Let’s feel together, let’s grieve together, let’s lament together, let’s pray together.
            Let’s give God even just a mustard seed-sized opening, allowing God to touch our hearts and break into our lives, transforming us, transforming our city and transforming our world.
            After all, as the author of Lamentations writes, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.”