Sunday, July 02, 2017

The Ongoing Redemption of the World

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
July 2, 2017

Year A, Proper 8: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

The Ongoing Redemption of the World
            It’s funny the things you remember, right?
            Years ago I happened to read an article written by an atheist. I don’t remember exactly what the piece was about but I remember that in it he declared that, of course, he didn’t believe in God, but that even if there were a God, this God would have long ago gotten bored by our predictability and disgusted by our bad behavior, and gone off somewhere and left us on our own.
            And you can kind of understand why he felt this way, right?
            I can almost imagine God getting fed up with us, particularly these days when our old and persistent sins of hatred and greed and cruelty and bigotry all seem to be very much on the loose.            
            Especially if you watch the news a lot, it can all seem quite depressing and hopeless.
            But, our faith and, I’d argue, our own experience, teach us that God has not given up on us, but that instead God continues to be at work in large ways and especially in seemingly small and easy to miss ways, doing what God always does, transforming hate into love, turning death into new life.
            In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus points to the infinite value of even small acts of generosity, even the simple act of offering a cup of cold water.
            And, so God invites us to be part of the great work of transforming hate into love and turning death into new life, one cup of cold water at a time.
            It’s funny, the things you remember.
            Back in the early to mid-1990’s I taught History at St. Vincent Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school right in the middle of the Central Ward of Newark.
            I remember very well when I went there for my interview.
            I remember riding the bus from Penn Station up Market Street, looking out the window at block after block of rubble-strewn lots, a city that had barely begun to recover from the 1967 riots and economic collapse.
            It all looked as hopeless as could be.
            What was I getting myself into, I wondered.
            Well, anyway, my interview that day was the longest and still the best of my life.
            I spent much of the day talking with Sister June who was - and still is - the head of the school.
            She told me the story of St. Vincent’s - the story of how back in the late ‘60s, when pretty much everyone who could get out of Newark was getting out of Newark, when schools and other institutions were closing or fleeing to the suburbs, the Sisters of Charity and their coworkers made the brave and faithful commitment to stay in the city and offer a quality education to the girls of Newark and the surrounding towns, girls, who, let’s just say it, the world dismissed as really not worth much effort at all.
            But, through the grim days of the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, the faculty and administration of St. Vincent’s offered love and respect and, maybe most important of all, high expectations, to hundreds and hundreds of girls.
            One cup of cold water, at a time.
            It was an honor to play a small part in that holy and noble effort and, now, thanks the miracle of Facebook, I’ve been able to catch up with quite a few of the girls I taught back then.            
            To be honest, it’s a little shocking that they’ve begun to enter their forties!
             But, it is deeply moving to see many of them doing so well, now raising their own beautiful families and, most of all, it is gratifying that so many of them are involved in work that makes the world a better place: teachers, doctors, nurses, scientists, lawyers committed to social justice, one after the other, so many of them, each in her own way, handing out cups of cold water to the so very thirsty people of their communities.
            And, look what’s happened to Newark!
            Today, if you take that same bus up Market Street that I took twenty-five plus years ago, the rubble-strewn lots have been replaced with rows of townhouses and new businesses and schools. It’s not perfect by any means but where there was hopelessness and death, there is now new life.
            Now, I’m not saying that this is because of St. Vincent’s, but I’m not saying it’s not because of St. Vincent’s, either.
            One more memory from my long-ago interview:
            Amid all the discussion of history and teaching, Sister June slipped in a little Theology, as well.
            She said that she saw her work and the mission of the school as part of “the ongoing redemption of the world.”
            “The ongoing redemption of the world.”
            As Christians, we believe that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus redeemed the world, freed the world from sin and death.
            This work is already done, but it is not yet completed, since, as the atheist writer pointed out, and as we can all see with our own eyes, things are still pretty bad, sin and death are still very much on the loose in the world.
            And, that “not yet completed” part is where we come in.
            We’re called to live like we really believe what we say we believe.
            We called to live like sin and death are really defeated and that, ultimately, thanks be to the God who doesn’t give up on us, love and life win.
            And, that’s the way of life that beautiful little Isabell is about to get signed up for in the water of Baptism, that’s the way of Jesus that we all signed up for, or got signed up for, in our Baptism.
            When we share the Good News, when we forgive and ask forgiveness, when we love and respect one another especially the hard to love and the hard to respect, when we give away our lives in service to others, then love and life really do win.
            Like those brave and faithful nuns and the other teachers at St. Vincent’s back in the seemingly God-forsaken Newark of the late ‘60s, with God’s help, Isabell and all of us can decide to play our own seemingly small but oh-so-important part in the ongoing redemption of the world, right here, offering one cup of cold water at a time.