Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rooted in Jesus

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 25, 2017

Year A, Proper 7: The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:8-20
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Rooted in Jesus
            Some of you know that this past week my Dad and I took a trip to Baltimore.
            Because we were there primarily to see a couple of baseball games, we stayed in a hotel just a block away from Camden Yards, the beautiful ballpark home of the Orioles.
            Despite the fact that the Orioles aren’t playing very well, we still had a great time, though there was one scare.
            On our second evening there, we had just settled into our seats at the ballpark when suddenly a police helicopter began hovering over us, soon joined by a couple of TV news helicopters.
            You can imagine the noise as they circled around us.
            At first I didn’t know what was going on, but then I noticed over behind left field what looked like smoke coming from the area of our hotel.
            Being just a bit of a worrier, sure enough I began to worry.
            With everything going on in the world and in our country, my thoughts quickly turned to possible terrorism, since a big crowd of people heading to a ballpark might be a tempting target.
            Then I overheard a couple of people behind us say that, yeah, they had trouble getting to the ballpark because there was, “a big fire at the hotel over there.”
            I don’t think my dad heard that and I didn’t say anything to him, but I felt that dreadful drop in my stomach, as my imagination ran wild with visions of fire consuming our hotel and all of our stuff, including my car keys that I had left behind in the room!
            Trying with mixed success to keep calm, I used my phone to search for news on what was happening.
            After a few nervous minutes, I found it: there had been a steam explosion under the street outside our hotel.
            Almost immediately after I figured out what was going on, my sister texted me, frightened because she had received a notice at work about an explosion near Camden Yards in Baltimore.
            Later we’d see that the explosion had left a wide crater right in the middle of the street and spewed debris up onto our hotel and the surrounding buildings, with chunks of asphalt and concrete smashing several car windows.
            The steam was so hot that the fire department had to hose down our hotel to prevent its fa├žade from melting.
            Amazingly and fortunately, there were only five minor injuries.
            And, one other thing that I noticed: the trees along that street were all kind of small and ordinary, kind of scraggly, and yet they all did just fine, with just a layer of dust covering their leaves and branches.
            Apparently, their strong roots got them through the powerful blast.
            The next day, when we were both interviewed by the local media (I don’t want to say that we became minor celebrities, but…), we reflected on the randomness of the whole experience. We had walked by that very spot just an hour or so before the explosion.
            And, in the days since, I’ve thought back to those moments of fear, when I didn’t know what was going on, what was going to happen, when I feared the worst.
            And, you know, those few fearful moments gave me just a taste of the fear that so many people experience so much of the time.
            There’s a lot of fear going around, right?
            There’s certainly a lot of fear all around the world, fear of war and terrorism, fear of environmental catastrophe, of climate change tipping past the point of no return, dooming our children and their children to a much hotter and stormy world.
            There’s certainly a lot of fear here in our country, fear of losing a job or not being able to find a job, fear of being priced out of our home and our neighborhood, fear of sickness, fear especially these days of losing health insurance and not being able to get covered because we don’t have enough money or because we have a preexisting condition – and, let’s face it, if they look hard enough, they’ll find a preexisting condition in each and every one of us.
            There may even be fear here in church, fear of the changes that have already occurred – new people and new ways of doing things – and fear of the very big news that we first learned last weekend – that our brothers and sisters at Church of the Incarnation have voted to begin conversations about uniting with us.
            Now, things may not be quite so bad as the days of the Prophet Jeremiah when he heard people whispering, “Terror is all around!” but there’s no doubt there is a lot of fear going around.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew gives us kind of a mixed bag of Jesus sayings, and some of them are a little hard for us to hear or understand.
            But, the core of today’s lesson is the simple but oh-so-important and timely message from Jesus: “Do not be afraid.”
            Do not be afraid when the world around us seems to be going to hell.
            Do not be afraid when the street explodes and helicopters hover.
            Do not be afraid when we’re in danger of losing home or job.
            Do not be afraid when two churches start on the road to becoming one.
            Do not be afraid even when it looks like we might lose our very lives.
            Do not be afraid, because we are loved, so very loved, and of more value than many sparrows (with all due respect to the sparrows), and God will never, ever, let go of us, no matter what.
            That’s always a good message, right? But, let’s be honest. Being not afraid is easier said than done, right?
            I don’t know about you, but when someone says to me, “Don’t be afraid,” I get afraid.
            When someone says, “Don’t panic,” I panic!
            So, how? How can we be not afraid and face the future with confidence?
            Well, I think of those scraggly trees in Baltimore with roots strong enough to survive the powerful blast.
            We’re not trees, of course, but we can be rooted in Jesus, giving us the strength to stand tall together and get through the storms and explosions of life.
            And, that’s what we’re about here at St. Paul’s.
            Here in this safe and holy place, behind the protection of these four walls, we become rooted in Jesus.
            We’re rooted in Jesus through our Baptism.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we really read - really listen to - Scripture.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we pray for those in need, when we pray for at least some of the frightened people beside us and out in our broken world.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we extend a hand of peace not just to the people we know or like but especially to those we don’t know and maybe don’t like one bit.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we eat the Bread and drink the Wine, uniting with Jesus and with one another.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we take up our cross,  not waiting to be asked to help out but  offering ourselves and our skills and our work and out time in loving service to our community.
            We’re rooted in Jesus when we at least try to love the people who drive us up the wall.
            When we’re rooted in Jesus, although bad stuff will still happen, there is nothing to fear.
            Yes, there will be real challenges when we walk out through the church doors – sometimes even just into coffee hour.
            Yes, there will be real challenges when we go out into the world which is often not so holy or safe – out into the world with all of its uncertainties and dangers, when sometimes steam pipes blow up and health insurance is lost, the world where people get hurt and things get broken and not everything can be put back together the same as before.
            So, that’s why it’s so important to be here, not just once in a while, but as often as we can, because it’s especially here in this holy and safe place that we put down deep roots in Jesus.
            And then, like those scraggly trees in Baltimore, in the eyes of the world we may not look like much, but rooted in Jesus – loved by the God who will never, ever, let go of us - there is nothing, nothing, to fear.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Touching the Future

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 18, 2017

Year A, Proper 6: The Second Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

Touching the Future
            I know today is Father’s Day, but, if you don’t mind, I want to take a minute and talk about my mom.
            As some of you know, after more than a quarter century of teaching Special Education here in Jersey City, my mom is retiring.
            Last week, Sue and I and the rest of my family attended her retirement party with many of her colleagues, both present and past.
            It was a wonderful party, with her colleagues reminiscing about her with obvious affection and humor – and my mother herself trying to sum up all of those years in the classroom.
            For me, though, the high point was when my mom was presented with a binder containing letters written by her students, expressing how much her hard work and kindness had meant to them.
            Since that night, I’ve been thinking about all the lives that my mom touched over all those years of teaching, her colleagues, the parents of her students, and most especially the children themselves – children who in this case, all too often, the world sees as not worth very much at all, and yet, are so precious to God.
            Speaking as a former teacher myself, sometimes you know when you’ve made a difference, but, I think, much more often we have no idea how much our work touches lives.
            We definitely have no idea how our love and kindness, our hard work and generosity, will live on in the lives of those we touch – and how our love and kindness, our hard work and generosity, will continue to echo down through the generations, will live on long after we’re gone, long after we’re just a name on a list, and, long after we’re not even that.
            As the teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe famously said, “I touch the future. I teach.”
            And, it’s not just teachers, through our hard work and our love, all of us can touch the future.
            Touching the future.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus assigns some hard work to the twelve apostles: to cast out the evil spirits of the world, to heal what’s sick, to proclaim the Good News in word and deed.
            Jesus doesn’t give these assignments to the apostles so that they can somehow earn their salvation.
            No, this work is the opportunity for the apostles to respond to the love and salvation they had already found in and through Jesus, to respond to that love by spreading it around to as many people as they could, especially the broken and helpless.
            And, the Evangelist Matthew uses this opportunity to give us the roster of the twelve apostles.
            Funny thing about the apostles, though.
            I recently read a book called Apostle and in it the author visits the alleged resting places of the twelve.
            Over the course of his study and conversations and travels he discovers what I know because every year I have to come up with something to say on each feast day honoring the apostles:
            We know almost nothing about the apostles.
            Oh, sure, we know a bit about the big ones – Peter, James, and John – and Judas Iscariot, of course, and some of the others have little cameo appearances in the gospels, like when Thomas famously expresses his doubts.
             But, how about James son of Alphaeus or Thaddeus or Simon the Cananaean?
            We know just about nothing about them. They’re just names on a list.
            In fact, some of the different lists of the twelve found in the gospels don’t even contain exactly the same names.
            So, it seems that, within just a few decades, the Church’s memory had already gotten a little fuzzy, definitely remembering that there had been twelve apostles, but no longer remembering much at all about many of them.
            Of course, although the Church forgot the apostles’ biographical details almost immediately, God doesn’t forget.
            And, although the Church forgot them almost immediately, the work of the apostles continued to echo down through the generations – that’s why there was a Church that eventually wanted to write down the story of Jesus and his friends.            
            The work of the apostles continues to echo down through the centuries - that’s why we’re still here today.
            The apostles touched the future by doing the work God had given them to do.
            Now, the apostles didn’t do this work so that they could somehow earn their salvation.
            No, their work was the opportunity for the apostles to respond to the love and salvation they had already found in and through Jesus, to respond to his saving love by spreading it around to as many people as they could, especially the broken and the helpless.
            In a few minutes, I’ll have the privilege of baptizing Obi Okere, this little boy who might very well live into the 22nd Century – a chance for me and for all of us to, quite literally, touch the future.
            A lot goes on during a Baptism, but one of the most important things is we all get reminded of the work that God has given us to do – the work that God promises to help us do: to gather here for prayer and worship – to resist evil – to proclaim by word and example the Good News – to seek and serve Christ in absolutely everybody – to respect the dignity of every human being.
            We do this work not to earn God’s love or to save our souls, but to respond to the love and salvation we’ve already found in and through Jesus.
            And, each time we try to love those who are hard to love – each time we try to see Christ in the person the world dismisses as not worth very much at all – each time we try to respect the dignity of someone who maybe doesn’t even respect his own dignity – each time we just try, with God’s help, to do these very hard things, we do the work God has given us to do.
            And, each time we just try, with God’s help, to do these very hard things, our love and kindness, our hard work and generosity, will live on in the lives of those we touch and will continue to echo down through the generations, in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, into the 22nd Century and beyond, long after we’re gone and forgotten by the world.
            Each time we try, with God’s help, to do these very hard things, we do the work God has given us to do – and, we touch the future.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

God Doesn't Go It Alone

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 11, 2017

Year A: The First Sunday after Pentecost – Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

God Doesn’t Go It Alone
            If you’ve been coming to St. Paul’s for more than a few weeks, you’ve probably noticed that we recently made what I think is a pretty big change to our Sunday services.
            It’s a change that I’ve considered for a while and I’ve talked about it with the other members of the staff and with the vestry.
            For some time now, our parish prayer list has grown very long – by my count there are more than 75 people on it right now, plus the abducted Nigerian schoolgirls and our friends over at Majestic and the people suffering under war, violence, and terrorism, and the imprisoned – so many people who feel they need our prayers – so many people who have asked for our prayers.
            But, when thinking about our service there’s a lot to consider. I know that for those of you who come from a more Protestant background our service doesn’t feel long at all (at an hour and change Baptists are just getting warmed up!) but for others it does, and we need to keep their – your - wants and needs in mind, too.            
            So, with a good bit of regret, starting on Easter we stopped saying each name on the prayer list, but, for the record, we do continue praying each name at the weekday services.
            Since that long prayer list had become kind of a distinctive feature of St. Paul’s, I’m honestly a little surprised that only a couple of people have mentioned this change to me.
            And, in case you’re wondering, I’m sure that we’ll continue to tweak it, maybe praying by name for those who’ve been added in the past week or those whose needs are especially critical.
            Anyway, thinking about all of this gives us an opportunity to ask some important questions about prayers of petition, prayers when we ask God for something – something for us or, more often, I think, something for others.
            First, can we agree that God already knows what’s best for us, and it’s not like we can talk God out of one thing and into another, right?
            So, why do people ask us to pray for them and for those they love?
            Why do we feel compelled to pray for our needs and the needs of others?
            Why does Jesus teach us to pray to God for the coming of God’s kingdom, and for our daily bread, for forgiveness, and to deliver us from evil?
            Well, I’m not sure! But I think I have an idea.
            Today is the First Sunday after Pentecost – Trinity Sunday – the day when we’re invited to celebrate and reflect on the mysterious inner life of God – our understanding that God is one in three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
            Many minds far greater than mine have pondered and written about this deep and ultimately unknowable mystery and, truthfully, it feels like a fool’s errand to me, except to say that the Trinity teaches us that when we look as best as we can into God’s heart what we discover there is community.
            Even in God’s heart, God doesn’t go it alone.
            And so, it makes sense that when God decided to create, God made a real creation where our choices and our actions have real consequences – a real creation where the God who doesn’t go it alone invites us to be part of the action – invites us to be part of the healing – invites us to be part of the building of God’s kingdom.
            God doesn’t go it alone and so we are invited to be part of God’s community.
            God doesn’t go it alone and so we are commissioned by Jesus to invite others to be part of God’s community, too.
            What an honor, right?
            What an honor to be invited into God’s community, the community where everyone is valued and loved, no matter where we come from or what we look like, no matter how many mistakes we’ve made, no matter the worst thing we’ve ever done in our lives.
            What an honor to be commissioned to invite others into God’s community, to invite maybe like the street preacher I saw and heard yesterday outside Lincoln Park, but more likely and, I’d say, more effectively, to invite by living the kind of joyful and loving life that others want a taste of, to invite by personally extending a hand to a neighbor and say, come and see.
            And, finally, what an honor to pray for those many, many people on our parish prayer list and the many people on our own personal prayer list, to pray not to change God’s mind or to talk God into doing what we want but to open our own hearts so we really can be part of God’s action, part of God’s healing, and part of building of God’s kingdom.
            No, God doesn’t go it alone - and God doesn’t want us to go it alone, either.
            So, God is always pouring out grace on us - and God has given us one another to do this work together, the strong supporting the weak, the experienced showing the way for the newcomer, the rich sharing their abundance with the poor.
            God doesn’t go it alone - and God doesn’t want us to go it alone, either.
            Finally, one last thing about our prayer list.
            One of the things that Susan, Vanessa, Gail, and I do at our weekly staff meeting is review the prayer list, adding people who’ve asked to be added and, especially when we used to read all the names, looking to trim the list whenever possible, if there’s been healing, if in some way, prayers have been answered.
            But, recently, someone still very much in need of our prayers asked to be removed from the list, saying that it bothered him to hear his name read aloud, bothered him to see his name printed among those long columns of names on the bulletin insert.
            I honored his request, but reluctantly, and I know a few others who know about this continue to hold this person in prayer.
            But, I’ve thought a lot about it and, while on one level it might simply be a case of embarrassment – you know, feeling shame to be in need of prayer – I think there is something even deeper going on.
            When we stop and think about it, if we really take prayer seriously, it’s nearly overwhelming to consider that people would care enough to give up precious time to pray for us, even if, especially if, they don’t even know us.
            And, it’s overwhelming to consider that the God of the universe would have any interest in hearing prayers offered for us.
            It can be hard to accept that we’re worth the time, or the effort, or the love.
            But, we are.
            All of us.
            And, we know this because the God whose very heart is community – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – this God doesn’t go it alone but invites us, every single one of us, to be part of the action.


Sunday, June 04, 2017

Guided by the Holy Spirit in the Days of Decision

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
June 4, 2017

Year A: The Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Guided by the Holy Spirit in the Days of Decision
            Alleluia! Christ is risen!
            The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
            Today is the fiftieth and final day of the Easter Season – it’s the great feast of Pentecost when we remember the gift of the Holy Spirit on that memorable long-ago day in Jerusalem – Pentecost, the day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to us today here in Jersey City.
            But, first I want to back up to this past Monday, which, you’ll remember, was Memorial Day.
            On the day set aside to remember and honor the men and women who have sacrificed their lives in the service of our country, we had the usual civic rituals: parades and speeches – some took the time to reflect on this profound generosity and many more simply enjoyed a day off from work and school, maybe taking advantage of Memorial Day sales.
            On Memorial Day, I turned to our prayer book, to a prayer called the “Thanksgiving for Heroic Service.” It begins:
            “O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.”
            This year, for whatever reason, it was the phrase “the day of decision” that caught my eye and got me thinking and praying.
            The day of decision.
            Or, better, the days of decision.
            I love the story of the first Pentecost that we heard in today’s first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles - the mystery and the power of the whooshing sound from heaven and the divided tongues like flame resting upon the disciples – this divine energy sending the disciples out into the streets of Jerusalem announcing the Good News in many different languages so that all the people no matter where they were from could understand – it was all so mysterious and powerful and unusual that some thought that these Jesus people must be wasted, though, as we heard, it was just 9:00 in the morning!
            I love the story but I also think, you know, for the disciples that day and for the people in Jerusalem who saw and heard them, it would have been easy to believe, it would have been easy to be guided by a Holy Spirit that was making such a big scene.
            The real challenge must have begun later that first Pentecost day, and the next day, and the weeks and years ahead – when the Holy Spirit seemed to quiet down and there were so many days of decision.
            How challenging to be guided by the Holy Spirit when there is no big show, no pyrotechnics, when people just shrug their shoulders at the Good News, or roll their eyes in mockery, and go about their business – and we’re tempted to live just like them, to live just like everybody else.
            How challenging to be guided by the Holy Spirit when living in an empire ruled by people who only care about their power and wealth, who see compassion and love not as virtues but as signs of weakness, who dismiss the poor and the sick as losers, who view the world as a harsh place where if you win then that means I must lose.
            How challenging to be guided by the Holy Spirit when your faith – our faith - might actually cost something – our wealth, our reputation, our wellbeing, and, yes, maybe even our life.
            How challenging to be guided by the Holy Spirit in the days of decision.
            Funny thing about days of decision, though.
            Sometimes we know when they’re coming, you know, the date is circled on the calendar: the date when we’re enlisting in the military or leaving one job for another – the date when she says there’s either a proposal and a ring or she’s out of here – the date we get married or move or retire…
            But, much more often, we have no idea when a day will be a day of decision.
            So, we need to know who we are and whose we are. We need to know what we’re about. We need to be ready.
            For example, last Friday people were riding on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon – and we can imagine the scene, right?
            People listening to music streaming through their ear buds, staring intently at their phones, gazing out the windows, maybe dozing off a little, trying to avoid human contact in such close quarters, all of that and more going on when suddenly an enraged man began screaming anti-Muslim insults at two women, one of whom at least, wasn’t even a Muslim.
            The day of decision had arrived.
            Again, we can imagine the scene, right?
            I’m sure that some tried to ignore the ruckus, counting how many more stops until I can get out of here, while others looked on, concerned or frightened. Who knows, maybe one or two even approved of this harassment.
            But three men on the train made the decision to stand up, risk their safety and even their lives, and defend these two women, these complete strangers. And, as you know, two of the men sacrificed their lives in that day of decision and the third was seriously injured.
            One of the men killed, Rick Best, was a Roman Catholic who had served twenty-three years in the Army, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. After leaving the military, he had gotten involved in local politics saying, “I can’t stand by and do nothing.”
            The other man killed was Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, just 23 years old, a recent college graduate who, as he lay dying on the train, called out, “I want everyone on the train to know I love them.”
            No matter what these men believed or didn’t believe, they knew who they were and what they were about – they were ready – and it certainly looks to me that the Holy Spirit guided them to give away their lives in loving service to the most vulnerable – the Holy Sprit guided them on the day of decision.
            So, today is Pentecost.
            Now, we may not have whooshing wind from heaven or divided tongues like flame. We may not be able to preach the Gospel in all of the languages spoken on Bergen Avenue, but it’s still a pretty wonderful celebration here at St. Paul’s – and, I don’t know about you, but I feel the presence of the Holy Spirit – God’s Spirit of love, courage, and wisdom – right here and right now.
            So, right here and right now, together in this beautiful place, it’s kind of easy to believe. Here it doesn’t cost us much to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
            But, we know that later today, or maybe tomorrow, when we’re not here in church wearing red with our brothers and sisters, we’ll face the challenge of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us.
            We may not be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice like our brave military or like the men on the train in Portland.
            But, without a doubt, we’ll certainly face the challenge of allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us - at home or at school or at work or in the store or on the bus or on the PATH train.
            It won’t be easy, but we know who we are and whose we are – we know what we’re about.
             With God’s help, we really can love, we really can sacrifice - we really can be guided by the Holy Spirit in the days of decision.