Monday, December 25, 2017

Cosmic Christmas

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation
December 25, 2017

Christmas Day
Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-12
John 1:1-14

Cosmic Christmas
            Merry Christmas, everyone!
            Last night this was the place to be as we gathered to re-tell, to hear, once again the old, old story that never grows tired no matter how many times we hear it – the story of God coming among us in a new and unexpected, unprecedented way – born to a couple of nobodies in an out of the way place – born into a cold and shadowy and mostly unwelcoming world – a world that, fortunately, God loves no matter how much we mess it up, now matter how many times we mess up.
            Merry Christmas!
            As we do every Christmas Day, this morning we heard the nativity according to the Gospel of John.
            In John’s version there are no angels and no shepherds, no manger, no Mary and Joseph, and not even a baby Jesus.
            Instead, John pulls way back and gives us a universal view of Christ’s birth:
            A Cosmic Christmas.
            John understood that the Word who has been from the beginning, the Word who was with God, the Word who is God - the Word, this greatest and inextinguishable Light, has come among us in and through Jesus Christ.
            After reading and hearing John’s take on the Natvity, saying “Merry Christmas” doesn’t seem to quite cut it, right?
            Here in church Christmas is just getting started – twelve whole days – but meanwhile out in the world Christmas is just about over – the “after Christmas” sales are about to begin.
            And, the truth is that what the world calls the “Christmas Season” is pretty exhausting, especially for parents and for those who work retail – pretty exhausting for us church professionals, too!
            But, unless you are a complete news addict like me, one of the good things about the so-called Christmas Season (at least, usually) is the opportunity for distraction from current events. With any luck, the week between Christmas and New Year’s might actually be a slow news time, though these are not normal times.
            It’s been pretty grim out there lately, so I wouldn’t blame you if you’re no longer following the news very closely - though, you know, occasionally there are some stories that are a little off-beat and get you thinking.
            For example, a couple of weeks ago astronomers announced that for the first time they have observed an object from beyond our solar system in our solar system, an asteroid from elsewhere in the galaxy, spinning its way through our neighborhood.
            Have you seen pictures of this?
            It’s about a quarter-mile long and looks like a rock that is shaped like a cigar.
            Astronomers in Hawaii named the mysterious asteroid “Oumuamua,” a Hawaiian word for “scout” or “messenger.”
            And, sure enough at least few scientists raised the possibility that Oumuamua was actually not a natural object, not a rock, but in fact a probe created by an alien civilization, just as we have sent probes out to explore space.
            Probably not, but just to check, telescopes have been pointed at Oumuamua scanning for any unnatural sounds or signals.
            So far, as far as I know, nothing – which is probably for the best.
            Meanwhile, it was announced that for a number of years the Pentagon has been looking into “unidentified flying objects” and the possibility that we’ve been visited by – and even had encounters with aliens.
Depending on your temperament this will all strike you as either exciting or scary – will seem like possibilities worth exploring, or just another example of our government wasting our hard-earned money on ridiculous projects.
In any event, it seems there are several possibilities:
First, it’s possible that we are interesting and unusual enough that we’re being checked out by alien civilizations.
But, it’s also possible that any other civilization is so far away that they could never get here, just as we can’t get there.
And it’s also possible that maybe we’re it – that in the entire universe maybe we are the only ones who can appreciate the cosmos, maybe we are the only ones who can celebrate the vastness of it all, maybe we are the only ones who can marvel at the grandeur and the complexity of creation, and maybe we are the only ones who can know and praise the God who dreamed up all of it – the God who sustains every molecule, every breath, every orbit, and every galaxy.
Whatever the truth of life out there, all of these possibilities point to a great and essential truth here, maybe the most important meaning of Christmas - something that, unfortunately, we often forget:
We matter.
Every living thing on this precious and perhaps one-of-a-kind earth matters.
The people camped in cardboard boxes out on the porch of Old Bergen Church and Donald Trump – they all matter.
The people who received a pile of Christmas gifts this year and the people who’ve never ever received a gift – they all matter.
We – you and I – all those who have lived and those not yet born - we all matter.
We all matter so much that God came and lived among us – and lives among us still.
When we remember, when we recognize, this great and essential truth, then we can really celebrate John’s “Cosmic Christmas” – celebrate today with our songs and prayers and, even more important, celebrate every day by treating one another, treating every living thing, treating this earth “our island home” as if it all matters infinitely.
Because it does.
And, we know that for sure because “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
Merry Christmas to you all.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

This Demented Inn

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen & Church of the Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve
Isaiah 62:6-12
Psalm 97
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:1-20

This Demented Inn
            Merry Christmas everyone!
            Well, tonight this is certainly the place to be, isn’t it?
            This is the place to be because so many people have worked so hard to make this old building look its best – there’s been a whole lot of cleaning, and decorating, and polishing, and rehearsing, and setting up, going on these past few days.
            This is the place to be because we get to hear all of this gorgeous music and we get to just soak it in beside people we’ve known for years and also people we may never have seen before – people who go to church all the time and people who never do - all gathered here tonight for a glimpse of beauty – all gathered here tonight for a word of hope.
            And, tonight this is the place to be because of the story – this old, old story that never seems to grow tired – this old, old story of the world caught up, as usual, in its business – in its business of counting heads and making money and gaining power - business that seems oh so very important – while off to the side, hidden in the corner, noticed by almost nobody – God enters the world in a new and unprecedented and unexpected way.
Through a couple of “nobodies” named Mary and Joseph, God’s Light shines into a very shadowy world.
            Merry Christmas!
            As I’ve thought about the Christmas story, I’ve realized that different parts of the story speak to me more clearly, more powerfully, depending on what’s going on in my life – and depending on what’s going on in the world.
            This year my mind and my heart keep circling back to the still shocking and heartbreaking truth of “no place for them in the inn.”
            The God who dreamed up all that is – the God who sustains every galaxy, every orbit, every breath, every molecule - that God enters our world – enters our humanity – and right from the start this God is pretty much turned away – the best we are willing to do is offer a stable or a cave – and a feeding trough meant for animals has to double as a crib.
            No place in the inn – no room for Christ in our world.
            The other day I came across a quote from the great 20th Century monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton that I’d like to share with you tonight.
            Merton writes, “Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world."
            “With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world.”
            I have no doubt that Christ is present with us here tonight – present in the beauty of our worship, present in the people beside us, present in the Word and the music and especially present in the Bread and Wine that we will soon receive.
            Yes, Christ is present here, but I wonder if Christ is not completely comfortable here – kind of like a man not used to wearing a suit and tie, tugging at his collar – or a woman not used to wearing a dress feeling self-conscious – or a baby wearing a frilly baptismal gown and howling her head off.
            Yes, Christ is present here in this sacred space, but Christ is most at home, most comfortable with, his best friends - with the other people for whom there is no room, the other people who do not belong, the other people who are turned away from the demented inn that is our world.
            On Thursday over at Old Bergen Church, as we do each year, we held our interfaith homeless memorial service, reading the names of the dead and offering care packages (including the 558 pairs of socks we donated) and a hot lunch to those who are still living on the streets.
            And, as I looked out at that crowd, I thought, Christ is right at home here, here with the smelly and the addicted, with the hungry and the thirsty, and, yes, even with those who are always asking for money to fill a make-believe prescription or for carfare to go visit an imaginary cousin down in the South Jersey.
            And, tonight, by now the Christmas Eve service over at Old Bergen Church is done, and Christ and his friends have climbed back up on to the porch, ready to spend another night in their cardboard camp.
            And, Christ is at home with those who have traveled a far, those desperately trying to escape poverty and oppression and violence, leaving behind Syria and other seemingly god-forsaken places, leaving behind all that they know and love to come to places like America, places like Jersey City, hoping for the best, but not always receiving it.
            And, Christ is at home with those who couldn’t quite work up the energy or the enthusiasm to get dressed and come to church tonight – the people who don’t feel the joy of the season, not at all - the people overwhelmed by the pile of bills and endless doctor’s appointments – the people worried that they will soon join those camped out on the church steps – the people so disappointed by the way their lives have turned out.
            As Merton says, it is into this world, into our “demented inn,” that Christ has come uninvited, unwelcomed, and barely noticed.
            And, it is in this “demented inn” that Christ hangs out with all of the others who don’t belong, all of the others who are rejected.
            So, yes, tonight and tomorrow morning, this is the place to be – as we gather to tell our stories and sing and pray and receive the Bread and Wine, as we celebrate that the God who dreamed all of this up and sustains every moment – this God has come among us in Jesus Christ.
            But, especially now, in a time and place so cold and frightened and mean and, yes, shadowy, my hope is that in the days and months ahead we will head out and be where, yes, we will be uncomfortable, but where Christ is most at home.
My prayer is that by hanging out with and serving Christ’s best friends, we will really be like those couple of “nobodies” named Mary and Joseph, who welcomed God in a humble and out of the way place.
            And, if, with God’s help, we even just try to do that, then I believe this time next year – next Christmas - our world will be even just a little bit less like a demented inn and even just a little bit more like the beautiful garden it was always meant to be.
            Merry Christmas to you all.

Sunday, December 17, 2017


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 17, 2017

Year B: The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Canticle 15
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

            “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, often called “Gaudete Sunday,” from a Latin word meaning, “rejoice.”
            The change in color from blue to rose is meant to signal that, ready or not, our Advent time of waiting and preparation is almost over.
            Today we begin to shift our attention from John the Baptist, that fiery prophet of repentance and baptism, and focus on Mary, the young woman from the countryside who said yes to God and changed everything.
            God is about to come among us in a new way!
            I started today’s sermon with words from today’s second lesson, from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Rejoice always.
            Easier said than done, right?
            Especially these days with our many personal troubles and fears, with our incessant 24-hour news cycle, for many of us it’s hard enough to rejoice sometimes, hard enough to rejoice once in a while, let alone rejoice always.
            We certainly hear a lot of rejoicing going on in Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, which we said today in place of the psalm and we hear a lot of rejoicing in the hymn, Tell Out My Soul, which is a poetic paraphrase of the Magnificat.
            In the Gospel of Luke, pregnant Mary sings her song while she is visiting her kinswoman Elizabeth, who, it turns out, is also miraculously pregnant - pregnant with the future John the Baptist.
            Thinking about that scene, I’m struck by the contrast between this intimate but not so unusual encounter – two pregnant women sharing the excitement of new life – and the big words of Mary’s Song:
            “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”
            “Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord!”
            And, I think it’s that contrast between the small intimate encounter between two pregnant women and the big words of Mary’s Song – it’s that contrast that shows us the way to rejoicing sometimes and, maybe, even rejoicing always.
            Because the truth is that God’s greatness is found most easily, most clearly, in smallness – as small as a baby being knitted together in the womb – as small as a feeding trough meant for animals but doubling as a crib.
            God’s greatness is found most easily, most clearly, in smallness – as small as holding the hand of one we love, as small as half a room in a nursing home – as small as a last breath.
            Rejoice – because God’s greatness is found in smallness.
            I haven’t mentioned it lately, but we continue to offer our monthly healing service over at the nursing home on Montgomery Street – and continue to pray at all of our services for its residents and employees.
            To be honest, after four years or so of going over there, it’s become kind of routine for us. Gail, Vanessa, and I know what works and what doesn’t. We know who’s likely to interrupt the service by yelling or wisecracking and we know who’s going to sleep through the whole service.
            Occasionally one of the employees at the nursing home will call me, asking me to come over and offer “Last Rites” for a resident who’s life is drawing to a close.
            This never becomes easy, exactly, but by now I’ve done it so many times that it also has become routine.
            Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, I got one of those calls. As I made my way over there, I imagined the scene I was about to walk into: probably a very old and sick person lying in bed, unconscious, approaching the end of life, with no one else in the room.
            But, when I got to the room, I was startled to find a young woman – certainly younger than me - lying in the bed – her eyelids heavy, drifting in and out of consciousness, but still pretty alert.
The dying woman’s mother and sister were there, clearly exhausted by grief, but, and this is a little hard to explain, but they were so still, so seemingly grace-filled and peaceful, even in the face of such sadness, such loss.
They didn’t really need the prayers, the ritual.
            To be honest, I had walked into that room pretty much on autopilot, but I was awakened to see the greatness of God in the smallness of shallow breaths and the determination to face - really face - something so tragic, so heartbreaking.          
After I left them, still a little dazed, I stopped at the nurses’ station and asked if it would be OK to drop in and say hi to a resident who I visited from time to time. I’ll call her Maria, though that wasn’t her name.
Maria, who was in her early 70’s, had attended our monthly services from the start and I could tell that, unlike many in our congregation, she was still alert and was particularly interested in what we were doing and saying.
For most of the residents, the music is their favorite part – but Maria enjoyed my little homilies the most – so I liked her right away!
Anyway, after a while I began making trips over to the nursing home to visit Maria in her room – actually her half of a room, the size of a modest closet, really – and learning her remarkable story.
She had grown up an only child, kind of solitary, and, she entered the convent when she was really still just a girl, as was the custom in the Catholic Church as recently as the 1960s.
Like many nuns of her generation, she eventually left the convent, though she remained a deeply faithful Catholic. She went on to pursue higher education in Biology, eventually earning a PhD (with honors) from Cornell.
She went on to a distinguished scientific career, running labs, traveling to conferences and delivering papers, and so on.
(I know this because she told me – and because she gave me her resume, maybe because she thought I might not believe her!)
Then, her health began to fail and one disaster after another befell her. Finally, more than pretty much anybody I’ve ever met, she ended up losing everything – her home, her career, her books (a loss she mourned especially deeply), and all of her money.
She ended up a ward of the State (with a state-appointed guardian who had the power to approve or disapprove every single expense, including even something as small as a pair of shoes) and she ended up living in a half a room over at the nursing home.
She usually only left the nursing home for doctor’s appointments.
Her life was one of the most tragic I’ve ever encountered – and, one level, her life in the nursing home was the pretty much the smallest life I’ve ever experienced.
And, yet, she remained a deeply faithful person, someone who, despite all of her misfortune, still loved God – was, in fact, in love with God.
She was a deep pray-er and she was also a profound spiritual poet.
Here’s a sample:
I can only trust / that you will continue to lead me / through that unquestioning trust / which is faith / it is only you, my Beloved / who matter / all my gifts are given/ it is for you to decide / how and when / they are to be used /for your glory / not mine.
During our times together in her little half-room, sharing our stories, praying and having communion together, I experienced God’s greatness.
Rejoice – because God’s greatness is found in smallness.
That day a few weeks ago, after I had given Last Rites to the dying young woman and when I went to the nurses station to ask about visiting Maria, the women behind the counter looked stricken and whispered, “Oh, she died, just a couple of days ago. She had been sick, in the hospital.”
I felt my stomach drop and tears come to my eyes. In the hours and days that followed, I felt angry that no one had called me and I felt guilty that too much time had passed since I had last checked in on her.
Most of all, I felt profoundly sad that she died alone in the hospital and there was to be no service, no memorial, to commemorate the end of this remarkable life.
But, the more I’ve thought about it, I’ve concluded that, although I would have liked to pray with her at least one more time, there was something fitting about her death, something appropriate about the smallness of it.
She died alone, alone with the God who loved her – the God she loved so deeply. And, that’s more than enough.
Because the truth is that God’s greatness is found most easily, most clearly, in smallness – as small as a baby being knitted together in the womb – as small as a feeding trough meant for animals but doubling as a crib.
            God’s greatness is found most easily, most clearly, in smallness – as small as holding the hand of one we love, as small as half a room in a nursing home – as small as a last breath.
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Voices Found

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
December 10, 2017

Year B: The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Voices Found
            From today’s psalm, (Psalm 85):
            Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m serving on the Search and Nominating Committee for our next bishop.
            It’s certainly been an interesting and challenging – and time-consuming – experience, but, most of all, it’s been a real privilege to serve with a lot of good and dedicated people as we seek the next leader of our diocese.
            Last week the sub-committee that I’m on had a meeting out at the Church of the Holy Innocents in West Orange.
            I tend to be early for meetings, anyway, but this time I got there early on purpose because I wanted to spend a little time in the church’s graveyard, where my friend and predecessor, the tenth Rector of St. Paul’s, the Rev. Frank Carr and his wife Lee are buried.
            Standing at the grave, I said a little prayer of thanksgiving for Fr. Carr, who was such an important influence in my life, kind of my “spiritual grandfather,” always so supportive of Sue and me, and especially supportive of my call to the priesthood.
            I’m still so thankful that he lived just long enough to attend both of my ordinations – ten years ago now – and, in fact, he had the red stole I wore at my diaconal ordination specially made for me – one of my most prized possessions.
The other day, after I said my short prayer, I took a photo of the Carr’s gravestone and posted it on Facebook, along with a few words of thanksgiving.
            A couple of people commented on it, including one woman who grew up here on Duncan Avenue and remembered how kind Frank and Lee were to children.
            She shared a charming memory of Fr. Carr gathering the children around the church’s flag pole to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and at the end he would shout out in his booming voice, “Hip! Hip!” and the kids would respond, “Hooray!”
            “Hip! Hip!” “Hooray!”
            Some parishioners here still remember that booming voice, and although I only knew Fr. Carr as an old man, I remember it too because, despite all his ailments, that big voice never left him.
            We all have things about ourselves that we’d change if we could, right? In my case, I’d like to be just a little bit taller – just two inches taller so I could be as tall as my dad – and I wish I had a more powerful voice, a booming voice like Fr. Carr.
            Because, you know, with my voice, I’m not sure I could quite pull off, “Hip! Hip! Hooray!”
            Today, on the Second Sunday of Advent, we are reintroduced to one of the central figures of this holy season: John the Baptist.
            Of course we don’t know what John’s voice sounded like – maybe it was booming like Fr. Carr’s or maybe it wasn’t so impressive, but, you know, it really doesn’t matter because we know how John used his voice. He used his voice to challenge people to change their ways – John used his voice to call people to repentance – John used his voice to prepare the way for the Messiah.
            John used his voice to name – to call out – wickedness – the wickedness of ordinary people who fell far short of God’s commands, I’m sure in pretty much the same ways that you and I fall short today.
John used his voice to name – to call out - wickedness - especially, the wickedness of the leaders of the day.
            And, although John’s message must have been hard for a lot of people to hear or accept, people did respond to his voice, a lot of people. We’re told that large numbers of people – both country people and city people – went down to the Jordan to confess their sins, to be baptized, to have their lives transformed.
            Whatever it sounded like, John the Baptist found and used his voice for good, used his voice for God.
            Today we live in a time when more and more people are finding and using their voices, too.
            It seems like every day more women are stepping forward, risking a great deal to speak about the harassment and abuse they have endured, calling out the often hair-raising misbehavior of movie and TV stars and producers and directors, newscasters, and politicians and candidates for office, not to mention the many, many more men who are not famous, but who have been harassers and abusers, too.
            It hasn’t exactly been a surprise – we all knew this kind of stuff goes on - but it’s been heartbreaking and disgusting to realize how vast this problem is, to discover the rot eating away at our society – and, it’s been so sad and disappointing when men we like and respect have fallen and, let’s be honest, it’s also been pleasing when men we don’t like and respect have been accused and fallen, too – and there may be others who we hope will tumble soon.
            I’ll never know how hard it’s been for these women to speak up, but we seem to finally be hearing and responding to their voices.
            As you probably heard, Time magazine named these brave women the “Person of the Year,” calling them “The Silence Breakers.”
            Voices found.
            And, you know, in this time of trouble, I see signs that the Church is beginning to find its voice again, too. For so long, we’ve been focused on our own little internal issues, worried about institutional survival, keeping the doors open, and yes, keeping the clergy employed.
 But, now we’re finding our voice again, and like John the Baptist and like Jesus himself, we’re calling out the wickedness in our time and place.
            A powerful North Carolina preacher named Rev. William Barber II has restarted the “Poor People’s Campaign,” a campaign started back in the ‘60’s by Martin Luther King, Jr., a movement that was cut short by his assassination in 1968.
            Rev. Barber and the others are calling for a moral revival in our country, calling on our leaders and our people to turn away from racism, turn away from blaming the poor for their plight, and turn toward fixing a system that seems purposely designed to keep so many people – to keep certain people – down.
            My hope and prayer is that our next bishop – and more and more of us – will find and use our voices to call out the wickedness in our time and place.
            Because, it is wicked to harass or abuse another human being, to reduce a beloved child of God to a thing, an object to be used for our own pleasure or gratification.
            It is wicked to be a reverse Robin Hood, taking from the poor who have so little and giving even more to the rich who have so much.
            It is wicked to be a Nazi or a white supremacist - or any kind of supremacist, for that matter.
            It is wicked to close our doors to refugees fleeing oppression and violence.
            It is wicked to mock and discriminate against other people because of what they look like, or sound like, or where they come from, or whom they love, or what they believe in.
            It is wicked to poison the earth due to our own greed and convenience, sentencing future generations to hunger and destruction.
            It is wicked for landlords to make miserable the lives of their tenants, hoping to drive them out and increase their profits.
            It is wicked that, in a country as rich as ours, the homeless still roam our streets and even more are squeezed into apartments with family and friends, hidden away from view.
            It is wicked to talk casually about war, to be seemingly even eager for war, war that would result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in just the first few minutes – and it’s especially wicked if we’ve never offered our service, never put our lives on the line.
            And, it is wicked for the Church to stick its head in the sand, to hide behind our doors, to just worry about our own survival, to not find and use our voices to call out the wickedness that’s all around us.
            All of us – those with booming voices and those with nasally voices – all of us - those who are eloquent and those who mumble and stutter – all of us - need to find and use our voices.
            And, like John the Baptist, we can do it - because it’s not really about our voice, but allowing God’s voice to speak through us.
            Just like for the women who’ve spoken up, it’s scary - but if we really find and use our voices, if we allow God to speak through us, then I have no doubt that at least some people will respond and repent just as they did when they heard John the Baptist and Jesus, bringing the long-ago vision of the Psalmist to life:
            Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.