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.”