Sunday, January 29, 2017

God's Ways are Not Our Ways; God Sees Things Differently

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 27, 2017

Year A: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

God’s Ways are Not Our Ways; God Sees Things Differently
            In her powerful sermon at our recent Martin Luther King service, the Rev. Sandye Wilson said a number of memorable things, but there’s one particular image that I keep returning to.
            Talking about the famous Bible story of David and Goliath, when the young David was seemingly outmatched and about to be crushed by the giant Goliath, Sandye said, “Everybody’s eyes were on Goliath, but God was watching David.”
            “Everybody’s eyes were on Goliath but, God was watching David.”
            Truth, right?
            Sandye’s insight on this familiar story is a reminder of something important – something important that we really should have learned by now but it seems we need to be reminded of, over and over:           
            God’s ways are not our ways.
            God sees things differently.
            One of the great themes of Scripture is that, over and over, God seems to delight in seeing things in people that others can’t - or choose not - to see.
            In fact, God seems to take pleasure in choosing the unlikeliest people for the most important jobs.
            Speaking of David, God chose him, the youngest son, to be king of Israel. David was such an unlikely choice that his own father, Jesse, didn’t even consider him as a possibility, instead leaving him out in the field tending the sheep.
            God’s ways are not our ways. God sees things differently.
            For that matter, God chose the people of Israel, never very powerful politically or militarily, nearly always being threatened or overrun by some more powerful country, God chose Israel as God’s people, beginning a revelation and a spiritual revolution that would spread throughout the world.
            God’s ways are not our ways. God sees things differently.
            And, God chose to come among us not as a mighty warrior, not as a king bent on building a great empire, but in and through Jesus of Nazareth, a small-town teacher and healer, born to a couple of nobodies, who managed to attract just a few not very impressive followers and died the shameful death of a criminal on a cross.
            You know, in the ancient world, they had no trouble believing in a god-man. It was the idea that this seemingly unimportant person, this failure, could be divine that they thought was ridiculous.
            God’s ways are not our ways. God sees things differently.
            Maybe St. Paul understood this truth better than anybody because his story, his experience, was so incredibly unlikely. Paul had been transformed from being a big-time persecutor of the followers of Jesus into an bold and tireless apostle who gave away his life, traveling far and wide to the gentiles, the non-Jews, telling everybody he met the Good News of Christ.
            And so Paul can write with confidence about God’s ways to the divided and troublesome church in Corinth, “…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are…”
            God’s ways are not our ways. God sees things differently.
            Jesus expresses God’s different way of seeing things in his vision of the kingdom, what we call the Beatitudes, his downside-up vision of a world where you know who’s truly blessed?
            It’s the poor in spirit, and the mourners, and the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
            It’s the merciful, and the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, and the persecuted.
            In Jesus’ downside-up vision of the kingdom, somehow, amazingly, it’s the “losers” of the world who will be – who already are - truly blessed.
            God’s ways are not our ways. God sees things differently.
            Jesus’ vision must have seemed outlandish to the first people who heard it. After all, they lived in a blood-soaked, angry, and frightened land, ruled by the brutal Romans who cared only about power and wealth, led by an indifferent emperor in a faraway city.
            And, I suppose, Jesus’ downside-up vision of the kingdom sounds pretty outlandish to a lot of people today. After all, we live in a land that seems to have become so angry, so mean, so divided, and so very frightened.
            I suppose Jesus’ downside-up vision of the kingdom sounds pretty outlandish to a lot of people today as we celebrate force and fame, as we plan to build walls instead of bridges, as we mock and reject the “losers” of the world.
            But, God’s ways are not our ways. God sees things differently.
            And, you and I, we’re called to see things God’s way.
            In the beautiful words of the Prophet Micah, we’re called - actually we’re required - to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”
            So, now more than ever, with God’s help, let’s try to see things God’s way.
            Let’s stop worshiping fame and power. Let’s stop being tossed to and fro by the latest news out of Washington. Let’s stop giving in to anger. Let’s stop being so frightened.
            Instead, let’s do justice – let’s do justice for the tenants throughout our city who are cruelly being driven out of their apartments by greedy landlords so that they can illegally jack up the rent.
            Let’s do justice for our children who go to schools where often there isn’t enough paper for the copier or for the toilet.
            Let’s do justice for our neighbors who live on blocks where it’s not safe to go out at night, who are forced to live behind bars in their own homes.
            With God’s help, let’s try to see things God’s way.
            So, let’s love kindness – let’s love kindness by not judging people who look different or think or pray differently than we do.
            Let’s love kindness by respecting everyone’s dignity, no matter where they come from or who they love or even, yes, who they voted for.
            Let’s love kindness by being kind to ourselves, by taking care of our souls, by at least sometimes turning off the ugliness and deceit that spews nonstop out of our TVs and computers and phones.
            With God’s help, let’s try to see things God’s way.
            Let’s walk humbly with our God, remembering that only God is God and that we are only dust, here for a short time, a short time when we are meant to love, serve, and forgive.
            I’m sure that God is keeping an eye on the Goliaths of our world, but I also have no doubt that God is watching us intently, - little, seemingly insignificant, us.
            God’s eyes are on us because God knows that, just like David, we’re more powerful than we think.
            God is giving us the strength to make Jesus’ downside-up vision a reality, the strength to make our ways God’s ways, the strength to see things the way God sees them.
            The rest is up to us.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Whom Then Shall We Fear?

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 22, 2017

Year A: The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Whom Then Shall We Fear?
            Well, that was quite a week, huh?
            And now, here we are.
            The dramatic transition from one administration to another got me thinking about how every once in a while some historians will rank US presidents. Who have been our best presidents? Who’s been the worst? And, who’s somewhere in the middle?
            It’s a fun and interesting exercise, though also usually pretty predictable.
            Most historians rank Lincoln as our greatest president, with Franklin Roosevelt and George Washington usually with him in the top tier.
            The bottom is usually predictable, too, but I won’t go into that - since I don’t want to upset… all of the James Buchanan fans out there.
            It’s fun and interesting to rank the presidents, but, the truth is that even our greatest presidents have been flawed human beings, right?
            George Washington, the “Father of Our Country,” was one of the biggest slave-owners of his day.
            Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” was bigoted like just about every white person of his time, and frequently told racist jokes.
            And Franklin Roosevelt, who led the battle against the great evil of Fascism, chose to do little or nothing to rescue or welcome the Jews who were being annihilated by Hitler.
            Yes, all of our presidents have been flawed human beings, though, it has to be said, some have been more flawed than others!
            Well, in today’s Old Testament lesson, the Prophet Isaiah offers a beautiful and profound message of hope, declaring,
            “There will be no gloom for those in anguish.”
            And, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
            It seems that Isaiah is writing about either the birth or the rise to power of a new king of Judah, and most scholars think he’s writing about King Hezekiah who ruled back around the year 700 B.C.
            And, it’s true that Hezekiah is remembered as an exceptionally righteous and faithful king, but, no surprise, he also was a flawed human being who made mistakes, who got Judah into a disastrous war with the much more powerful Assyrian Empire.
            Later, some will remember him up as a great leader, while others will blame him for setting the stage for more war, defeat, and exile.
            But, many centuries later the early Christians will read Isaiah’s words, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined,” - the early Christians read those words and they won’t think about Hezekiah or some other human king.
            No, when they hear Isaiah’s words, when they reflect on light in the darkness, they think: Jesus.
            We followers of Jesus have seen a great light – it’s the Great Light we can see each time we come here and listen to God’s Word, each time we extend a hand in peace or forgiveness – each time we wash a brother or sister in the Baptism water, and each time take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our souls.
            We’ve seen a great light – it’s the Great Light we can see each time we give to somebody who can never pay us back, the Great Light we can see each time we love someone who the world considers unlovable, the Great Light we see each time we unite to resist and fight cruelty and injustice, sometimes while wearing pink hats.
            Yes, we have seen a great light.
            So, together with the psalmist, we can say:
            “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
            Whom then shall we fear?
            One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how most of the people of the Bible lived during terrible times, times of bloody warfare, brutal occupation, relentless persecution, terrifying exile.
            That gloom is often in the background, but in today’s Gospel lesson, we’re reminded that Jesus entered a world where a holy man like John the Baptist could be arrested and later brutally executed – which reminds us that Jesus and most of his first followers will also die violently.
            Yes, most of the people of the Old and New Testaments lived during terrible times, times when fear and death were all around, and yet, even in the midst of all that pain and sorrow, they were so often still able to see the light – able to put their trust in God.
            Now, being human, of course, our ancestors in faith didn’t see and trust perfectly.
            The Bible is full of stories of Israel straying from God, right?
            Jesus’ first disciples were an often faithless and unreliable lot, right?
            And, as we heard in today’s second lesson, in places like the diverse Greek port city of Corinth, there were already divisions in the early church, with the followers of Jesus split into factions, identifying with various apostles and teachers, some following Paul, some following Apollos, some following Cephas, who was Peter.
            And yet, despite all of those flaws and all of those mistakes, through the centuries the people of faith held on, the people of God saw the Great Light shining.
            “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
            Whom then shall we fear?
            So, here we are.
            In our lives, and maybe even just this past week, we’ve experienced fear, anguish and gloom, haven’t we?
            We’ve walked in darkness, haven’t we?
            We’ve lived in – and maybe are living in - a land of shadows, right?
            Yet, even in, especially in, a time of anxiety and outright fear, that same Great Light is shining, right here, right now.
            You know, Paul’s description of the divided churches in Corinth reminds me of Jersey City, another diverse port city, another city where the church is divided into so many different factions, following so many different teachers and leaders.
            Whenever I walk around the city, I’m struck by just how many churches there are, so much competition! There are so many churches, everything from grand old monuments that look like they were built in medieval Europe to modest storefronts with shuttered gates.
            These divisions are truly sad and wasteful, but, have you noticed what’s been happening for the past couple of years?
            Have you noticed what’s been happening here in Jersey City, especially lately?
            First of all, even before the election, throughout our city, clergy and lay people, Jews, Christians, and Muslims and others, have been setting aside our differences and have begun to see more clearly our common humanity, our truest identity as beloved children of God, and through Jersey City Together and in other ways, we’ve begun to work as one for the common good.
            And, secondly, throughout our city, we Christians, so long divided into our little competing and mistrustful factions and churches, have finally remembered that we’re not saved by our church or by our denomination. 
            We’ve finally remembered that our truest identity isn’t Episcopal or Catholic or Lutheran or Baptist or whatever, but we are first of all Christians, disciples of Jesus, followers of the One who shines God’s light most brightly.
            One example: you may not have noticed it, but at our rockin’ Martin Luther King service on Sunday night, there were a lot of clergy and lay people from other churches and denominations here – some were maybe a little unfamiliar with - and puzzled by - our way of doing things, but nevertheless they were here, praying and singing with us, and many even receiving communion with us.
            That night, we were, as St. Paul writes, “united in the same mind and the same purpose.”
            It was beautiful. It was the way things are meant to be.
            We were – and, more and more often, are - one.
            So, here we are.
            Just like our ancestors in faith, just like John the Baptist and just like Jesus himself, we may find ourselves walking in the shadows, living during gloomy, dangerous, frightening, and difficult times.
            But, you and I, we’ve seen the light – and the light wasn’t flawed Hezekiah or flawed Lincoln and the light wasn’t flawed Obama and it isn’t flawed Trump.
            No, you and I, we’ve seen the light, we’ve seen the Great Light of Christ shining, right here and now.
            And, so, together, we Christians are called to put our trust in God, to hold on, to unite, to pray, to serve, to work, to fight for justice, and, most of all, to love – to let God’s Great Light shine through us.
            “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?”
            Whom then shall we fear?

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Come and See" - The Amazing Power of Invitation

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 15, 2017

Year A: The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-12
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

“Come and See” – the Amazing Power of Invitation
            Many of you know that long before I became your Rector, my wife Sue and I were parishioners here at St. Paul’s.
            And, whenever I think about the unexpected turn of events that have brought us to this point, I’m reminded of the amazing power of invitation.
            It was about seventeen years ago, and Sue and I had been married for a few years and were living in our little house over on Highland Avenue, just a few blocks from here.
            She was working corporate and I was teaching history at St. Peter’s Prep.
            At Prep, I got plenty of religion and church baked right into my job, but after a while I recognized that this was something important that was missing from Sue’s and my life together. So, I pitched the idea that we should go to church, and, I thought, the beginning of the church year, the First Sunday of Advent, would be a perfect day to start.
            Not really into it, but being a good sport, Sue agreed, and that Saturday night we went to Mass at one of our local Catholic churches, which will remain nameless.
            It was a pretty dismal experience for both of us.
            Knowing what I know now, 2017 me would tell 1999 me that it was just one service and everybody has an off day and I shouldn’t judge a whole church by one seemingly lifeless and irrelevant experience.
            But, that’s what we did. We decided this was a mistake, not for us, and we would never return.
            The following week, I told this story in the faculty room, probably making it sound worse than it really was to get some laughs from my colleagues.
            One of my colleagues laughing along with everyone else was a math teacher named Patty Nickerson, and once things calmed down a bit she said very quietly, “You should come to my church someday.”
            And that church was a little Episcopal church on Duncan Avenue.
            Somehow, I convinced Sue to give church another shot. I remember saying that, if nothing else, we’d get to see the inside of this interesting-looking church.
            So, on the Second Sunday of Advent, Sue and I walked over from our house and walked through those doors. And, our lives were transformed in ways we certainly could not have possibly imagined.
            As I’ve told you before – and like many of you the first time you came here – we were stunned by the diversity of the congregation, bowled over by the peace, overwhelmed by all of these different kinds of people who seemed genuinely happy to see each other, overjoyed to just be together.
            It felt like a dream come true, not my dream, but Martin’s dream of us living as beloved brothers and sisters, which, of course, is really Jesus’ dream of the kingdom of God.
            You old-timers who remember Patty Nickerson remember that she’s a quiet person, no street corner evangelist waving a Bible and shouting at people to repent and be saved, yet that day in the faculty room, I believe she allowed Jesus to speak through her to me.
            “You should come to my church some day.”
            As Jesus says to Andrew and the other disciple in today’s gospel lesson, “Come and see.”
            Come and see: the amazing power of invitation.
            That first Sunday at St. Paul’s we met someone who would transform our lives and become not just our priest, but a very close friend.
            He approached us during the peace, stretched out his hand, and said, “I’m Dave. Welcome to St. Paul’s.”
            Now, just like a lot of you, we didn’t dive into life at St. Paul’s right away.
            In fact, in those early weeks we skipped coffee hour. It seemed too scary and awkward to socialize with people we didn’t know.
            We were still just testing the waters.
            So, for those first Sundays we would leave through the front door, sometimes catching Fr. Hamilton’s eye, who stood where I stand today after the service. He looked sort of disappointed but in fact he was waiting for the right moment.
            When that right moment came, Fr. Hamilton did something unexpected, at least to us: he invited himself over to our house!
            We both probably looked stunned, so, in his very casual way, he said something like, “I’ll come over, we’ll talk about the church, get to know each other, but don’t go to any trouble.”
            Well, we were in a panic! The priest is coming over! So, we spent hours cleaning the house from top to bottom. Sue baked a cake.
            And, then the big night came and he came over and we told our stories and talked and laughed just like the good friends that we were fast becoming.
            After that, we started going to coffee hour, became pledging members, and one thing led to another and here we are together today.
            Jesus is always extending an invitation to us – and sometimes Jesus just invites himself over.
            As Jesus says to Andrew and the other disciple in today’s gospel lesson, “Come and see.”
            Come and see: the amazing power of invitation.
            Many of you could tell stories not so different from ours. I’ve heard you tell them, how a neighbor or a friend invited you to come check out St. Paul’s, to come to church or to a musical event or the community supper, whatever.
            Thanks to the amazing power of invitation, many of you have been enriched by discovering Jesus here.
            Your lives have been transformed by the power of God working in and through us, in and through this beautiful old place.
            As Dave Hamilton used to say, “I don’t have to believe it. I’ve seen it.”
            But, you know, I’ve learned a lot standing outside St. Paul’s for coming up on almost four years now.
            I’ve learned that people don’t believe in, or even know about, Martin’s dream, Jesus’s dream, of a beloved community.
            I’ve learned that, despite all our signs and our open door and all of our social media, despite all of that, people don’t know that they’re invited.
            I’ve learned that a surprisingly large number of people think they’re not invited because of who or what they are.
            I’ve learned that more people than you’d think worry that they’re not dressed the right way, or they don’t know the right words to say or the right way to behave in church.
            I’ve learned that a lot of people think they’ve been away for so long that they’re no longer welcome, that it’s just been too long and they’re no longer invited.
            I’ve learned that a lot of people have been hurt by the church, in some cases it’s been physical hurt but in even more cases it’s been emotional and even theological hurt, the threat that if you don’t believe the right things all the time that somehow you’re beyond God’s love and care.
            Well, we are all called to be like Patty Nickerson and allow Christ to speak through us, each in our own way, quietly invite people over:
            “You should come to my church some day.”
            We are called to be like Dave Hamilton and allow Christ to speak through us, by extending our hand in welcome:
            “I’m Dave. Welcome to St. Paul’s.”
            “I’m Tom. Welcome to St. Paul’s.”
            And, yes, in some cases, we may be called to just invite ourselves over, to let people know that we care about them and want to get to know them, that they are welcome to be part of the dream come true.
            You know, life is hard, and, unfortunately, there’s a good chance that for many of us life is about to get even harder.
            So, maybe more than ever, we are called to say, we need to let Christ say through us,
            “Come and see.”
            The amazing power of invitation.

Sunday, January 08, 2017


St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 8, 2017

Year A: The First Sunday after the Epiphany – the Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

            Well, Happy New Year, everybody!
            I know that a lot of us were happy to see the end of the old year, a year that for our country and the world was stained by what felt like more than the usual amount of anger, hatred, cruelty, and violence – a year that for many of us personally was marred by worries about finances and health – a year that was shadowed by deep misgivings about the future.
            But, last week, with a mix of relief, fear, and hope, we turned the calendar page, over a million (obviously crazy) people gathered in Times Square for the ball-drop, and at least some of us came up with some New Year’s resolutions.
            It’s been fun seeing some people posting their resolutions on social media, listing their determination to be kinder, to quit smoking or to cut back on drinking, to take better care of their mental and physical well-being.
            With a mix of annoyance and amusement, some regular gym-goers have reported bigger crowds than usual, as people try to fulfill their resolutions, or just try to shed those extra holiday pounds.
            And, some of those regular gym-goers have cynically said they can’t wait until next month when the crowds will inevitably thin, as people settle back into their usual patterns, our usual lifestyle.
            Since most of us don’t really follow through on them, it is easy to be cynical about New Year’s resolutions, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking an inventory of what we need to work on physically, mentally, and even spiritually.
            There is, however, a big spiritual danger with these resolutions, and it’s a danger that was pointed out last week by a prominent Lutheran pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber, who wrote:
            “Gentle reminder: nothing you resolve to change about yourself will make you more worthy of being loved.”
            This is so important: “…nothing you resolve to change about yourself will make you more worthy of being loved.”
            You know, it’s risky to say anything is impossible for God, but, we’re all friends here so I’ll say it, it is impossible for God to love us any more than God already loves us.
            God’s love for us is perfect and complete.
            God’s love for us is perfect and complete whether we’re mean or kind, cheap or generous, hateful or loving, whether we smoke or if drink too much, whether we flunk out of school or have a perfect report card, whether we go to church every Sunday or choose to sleep in more often than not, whether we’re dead broke or doing just fine, whether we carry around some extra pounds or go to the gym religiously, pardon the expression.
            Nothing we do or don’t do can make us more worthy of being loved because God’s love for us is already perfect and complete.
            We are beloved.
            It’s the start of a new year and it’s also the start of a new church season.
            On Friday we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, epiphany, a word meaning “manifestation.”
            We remembered the story in the Gospel of Matthew of the wise men from the East traveling to pay homage to the newborn king of Israel by presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh – not such great gifts for a baby, I guess, but appropriate for a king.
            It’s an epiphany – by telling this story Matthew makes the point that Jesus is a gift not just for the people of Israel, but a gift for non-Jews, for the gentiles, for the whole world, for us.
            If you remember the story, after presenting their gifts, the Magi head back home to avoid Herod. And then, Joseph is told in a dream that the furious, frightened and rampaging Herod is looking to kill the newborn king, so he should take his wife and the child to safety in Egypt  - which he did and where the family stayed for a time until the coast was clear and they could return to Israel, and live in Galilee, in the town of Nazareth.
            And, that’s it. That’s all Matthew tells us about the childhood of Jesus. And, he’s completely silent on the young adulthood of Jesus, those many years of becoming a person, the years of Jesus figuring out who and what he was, years that are lost to us.
            Instead, Matthew jumps ahead and picks up the story with what we heard today, with Jesus coming from Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan.
            And, we’re told that, just as Jesus came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and then there were words from heaven:
            “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
            It’s another epiphany, a manifestation maybe for the other people at the Jordan that day but almost certainly an epiphany for Jesus who now knows for sure that he is the Beloved.
            Jesus is beloved.
            But, here’s the thing, and it’s easy to miss because we are, after all talking about Jesus: notice that Jesus hasn’t begun his public ministry, yet.
            Since we’re talking about Jesus, I assume that, during those long lost years of childhood and young adulthood in Nazareth, Jesus was loving and was faithful, maybe so loving and faithful that he stood out from the other boys and men in town, but maybe not. We don’t know.
            But, before Jesus begins his real work, before he takes up his ministry, before he has done any of the amazing things that we remember, before he gives away his life, before all of that, God tells him that he is beloved.
            Jesus is the Beloved. Jesus is beloved.
            And now, learning in the water of baptism that he is beloved, Jesus has the strength and courage to get started, to begin his work of resisting temptation, of teaching and healing, of loving the hard to love, of challenging those in authority, of giving away his life in service to others.
            And, the same is true for us.
            As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written, “God loves me as I am to help me become all that I have it in me to become, and when I realize the deep love God has for me, I will strive for love’s sake to do what pleases my Lover.”
            It’s a new year and a new season and some of us have made resolutions – and maybe some of us are still keeping those resolutions!
            But, no matter if we never step foot in a gym or if we start smoking again, no matter what we do or don’t do, in the water of Baptism we know, just like Jesus, we know that God’s love for us is perfect and complete.
            We are beloved.
            And, if we’re open to that love, then we really can become all that we have it in us to become.
            If we’re open to God’s love, then we really can continue the work of Jesus, really can please God by resisting temptation, by teaching and healing, by loving the hard to love, by challenging those in authority, by giving away our lives in service to others.
            Yes, it’s a new year – and, just like last year, and just like always, we are beloved.