Sunday, May 30, 2021

A Simple Song





The Church St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 30, 2021

Year B: The First Sunday after Pentecost – Trinity Sunday
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

A Simple Song 

“Sing God a simple song.
Make it up as you go along.
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things.
For God is the simplest of all.”
“A Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is one of my favorite pieces of music. Some of you who have been around here for a while and pay close attention to such things may remember that Dennis Doran sang it for us at my service of institution as your rector nearly eight years ago.
The other day I was taking one of my famous morning walks in Lincoln Park when it occurred to me that I would like to include “A Simple Song” at this morning’s service, on my last Sunday as your rector.
Later that morning, I texted Gail that I was thinking of somehow working “A Simple Song” into my sermon and she immediately texted back, “I thought so.”
Which really tells you all you need to know about how we have worked together all these years.
“Sing God a simple song.
Make it up as you go along.
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things.
For God is the simplest of all.”
Now, saying that “God is the simplest of all” may seem to be an especially strange choice today, on the First Sunday after Pentecost – Trinity Sunday – the one day of the year when the church specifically invites us to reflect on the inner life of God.
We Christians hold the mind-blowing belief that God is one, but God is also three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.
The Trinity is a great mystery – and, as you may have noticed, we humans really like to solve mysteries, and so over the centuries lots of ink has been spilled, lots of hot air has been spread, all in an effort to somehow “explain” this great mystery.
But, explaining the mystery of the Trinity is a fool’s errand, because the Trinity is not a mystery to be solved.
No, the Trinity is a mystery to be celebrated.
So, that’s what we’re going to do today.
We’re celebrating the mind-blowing reality the Trinity – the great and wonderful truth that the very essence of God – God’s very Being – is a perfect community of love.
God – the heart of all creation – the ground of all that is – God is a perfect community of love.
God is the simplest of all.
And, presumably, the Trinity, the perfect community of love, could have spent all of eternity alone - fulfilled, and content, forever and ever. Amen.
But, that’s not what happened.
That’s not what happens.
In a twist maybe even more mind-blowing than the Trinity itself, God not only chooses to create all of this, God not only chooses to create all of us, but God actually invites us you and me –God invites all of us to be part of the community of love.
We’re all invited to be part of God’s community of love – all of us, including Isaiah who felt unworthy because he had unclean lips, just like everybody else, just like all of us.
We’re all invited to be part of God’s community of love – all of us, including Nicodemus who knew enough to recognize that Jesus was a teacher sent by God but, just like us, he just couldn’t quite grasp all of Jesus’ teaching, at least not yet.
Down through the ages, God has invited us to be part of God’s community of love – inviting us in all sorts of ways – by giving us the beauty of creation – by giving us consciences to know right from wrong – by giving us commandments that spell out how we are to live – by giving us the prophets who call us back to faithfulness – and, most of all, by giving us Jesus who commands us to love one another as he has loved us.
Simple, yes, but not so easy – and impossible if we try to do it alone, impossible without God’s help.
Sing God a simple song – a simple song of love.
It’s a song we sing together.
Now, as a glass half-empty kind of person, coming to the end of my time as your rector has meant, among other things, thinking of what I’m leaving undone.
One piece of unfinished business is the mission statement of our unified congregation.
A while back, the wardens, vestry, and I began to work on that, but lots of other tasks - including the stress of trying to keep the church going during a global pandemic - pushed our mission statement – and a lot of other items – to the back burner.
Some of you have heard me say before that I like to think of the church’s mission as one big feeding ministry. We are called to feed people in all sorts of ways. We feed people through what we do here – feeding people with the Word of God and our fellowship and, most of all through the Body and Blood of Christ.
We feed people by literally feeding them – by giving them good food to fill their bellies – and we feed people spiritually through music and art.
And we feed people by taking a stand for what is right, by speaking up for people who are being crushed by our often rotten system, by caring for everyone, especially the people who can never repay us, or even thank us.
Yes, we are a church that feeds people – and I know that this feeding, and more, will continue long after I’m gone.
So, I definitely like the image of a feeding church, but – and I know this is really last minute - I’m going to throw another idea into the mix – maybe our mission is to sing God a simple song.
When I think back over our eight years together, at our best, that’s what we’ve been doing.
We have been singing God a simple song, and, yes, very often making it up as we go along.
We sang God a simple song when we opened our doors during the week, welcoming just a few faithful people to do the church’s work of prayer, and for many months we’ve been singing a simple song when many more of us call in to Church By Phone, praying for all those people on our prayer list, listening out for each other, noticing when someone’s been missing.
We sing God a simple song when we reach out to the people we know are suffering – the sick and the lonely and the mournful - calling them, or sending cards and notes. 
We sing God a simple song when we give our best - to singing in the choir, reading the lessons and prayers, serving as an acolyte, polishing the silver and ironing the linens, attending seemingly endless meetings, by really sacrificing some of our time, talent, and treasure for the good of the community. 
Speaking of time – maybe our most precious commodity – we sing God a simple song just by showing up – by showing up at church even when we don’t feel like it, by showing up at parish events that maybe don’t interest us very much but we know that our presence and support will mean a lot to others.
And, most of all, we sing God a simple song when, like Isaiah, we say, “Here am I; Send me!” - when we go into the world and extend the invitation to God’s community of love – when we welcome people into God’s community of love, making room for anybody who shows up, the people we like the looks of and, yes, the people we’re really not so sure about.
Sing God a simple song – a simple song of love.
It’s a song we sing together.

Today, as my time of singing with you comes to an end, I’m reminded of an image that my friend and mentor Lauren Ackland gave me, an image I’ve thought about and talked about many times over the years.
The old walls of this building have been bathed in prayer and song, and, in some mysterious but very real way, those prayers and songs remain here – and the people who’ve prayed and sang them remain forever part of this place.
So, I trust that my prayers – my simple song – will remain, too.
And, I know that the people of St. Paul and Incarnation, with a new leader, will go on bathing these walls in prayer and song.
You’ll go on singing God a simple song, accepting and sharing God’s mind-blowing invitation to the community of love.
Amen.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Usually Quiet Guidance of the Holy Spirit



The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 23, 2021

Year B: The Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 164b-15

The Usually Quiet Guidance of the Holy Spirit

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
I love the Pentecost story from the Acts of the Apostles.
The poor disciples, right?
Truly, they have been through the wringer.
Over the course of just a few weeks, the disciples experienced the thrill of the palm parade into Jerusalem when all of those people shouted “Hosanna!” to welcome King Jesus as he rode on into his capital city.
The disciples endured the heartbreaking turn of events when Jesus was betrayed, rejected, tortured, and killed.
The disciples were shocked, confused, and finally overjoyed by the empty tomb and the glorious sight of the Risen Christ, who was mysteriously transformed while still also very much himself.
The disciples must have felt crushed by abandonment when Jesus was taken from them again – they must have been barely able to hold on to Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit, whatever that was going to be like.
So, it’s no surprise that on the first Pentecost the disciples are all together – probably sticking close for safety and support – hanging on to each other, waiting to see what, if anything, might happen next.
And then, and then, there was the noise and the light – the gust of wind and divided tongues like fire – this sudden noise and the light propel the disciples out of their room and into the city, no longer afraid, so filled with the Spirit that people conclude that they must be drunk!
But, as Peter insists, it’s not drink. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit, giving them the courage and ability to proclaim the Good News in words that everybody could understand:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
And, you know, sometimes the Holy Spirit is like that. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is loud and bright, filling us with joy and hope and the certainty of God’s love.
In my own life, I think of the story that many of you have heard, uh, once or twice – the story from more than twenty years ago, the first Sunday that Sue and I walked through those red doors, not knowing what to expect, not really sure if we even wanted to be there – to be here – and, no, it’s true that there wasn’t a sound like rushing wind and I didn’t notice any tongues of flame, but when I looked around and saw the beauty of this place, the love and diversity of its people, the warmth of the hospitality we received, and the extended hand of welcome from the priest, I suddenly knew the truth in a way that I’ve seldom known it, and somehow  I knew that my life was about to change in some big ways.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit is like that.
I think about Lorna’s ordination to the diaconate, just two weeks ago. Of course, we were all overjoyed for Lorna and Carrie and Katherine. And, there was also the excitement of being back in our cathedral, of hearing more than one or two voices say the responses, of being able to exchange the peace, yes, socially distant, but still.
And when the Bishop laid her hands on Lorna and the other two new deacons, I don’t know about anybody else, but I could feel and almost see the Holy Spirit dancing around that old room, propelling us out of our fear and grief and back out into the world, to once again proclaim the Good News in words that everybody can understand:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Sometimes the Holy Spirit is like that.
And now, here today, in just a few moments, we will turn our attention to the font, where we will have our first baptisms since the start of the pandemic. 
Right here – right there – God will make an indissoluble, unbreakable, bond with these two much-loved children, Eleanor and Harris.
Throughout their lives, God will give them the gift of the Holy Spirit, giving them the strength to keep their big baptismal promises, giving them the courage to pray and to repent, and most of all, to love one another just how Jesus has loved us.
And again, I’m not sure what you’ll be able to see or hear – especially since we won’t be able to crowd around the font like we usually do, and a lot of us are still watching at home on Facebook – so, I don’t know what you’ll be able to see and hear but I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit will be dancing around this old room, too – propelling us out into the world to proclaim the Good News in words that everybody can understand:
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Sometimes the Holy Spirit is like that.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit is loud and bright, making us seem almost drunk with joy, and hope, and the certainty of God’s love.
And, thank God for those moments, right?
But, more often than not, the Holy Spirit offers us not thunder and lightning. No, most of the time, the Holy Spirit gives quiet guidance.
As Paul writes to the church in Rome, the Spirit helps us to pray – to really pray – to pray with “sighs too deep for words.”
And, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson, the Spirit will guide us “into all truth.”
So, yes, I am grateful for the crash and flash of the first Pentecost, and for the similar experiences of the Spirit every now and then – and I’m so grateful that some of us can be together this morning – and I can’t tell you how thankful I am for today’s baptisms – but I’m most grateful for the quiet guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Like the disciples long ago, we have all been through the wringer for the past fourteen or so months.
So much that we took for granted, the way of life that we just assumed would go on forever, the people we could see pretty much whenever we wanted – so much of that was taken away from us.
And, like the first disciples back in Jerusalem, we were left feeling frightened, confused, disappointed, maybe abandoned and angry, and, yes, sometimes, hopeful.
And, when I look back over this extraordinary time, I don’t see much crash and flash from the Holy Spirit, but I do see – I have experienced – quiet guidance.
Quietly, maybe without us even noticing it, the Holy Spirit has been hard at work, strengthening our indissoluble, unbreakable bonds of love, keeping us close even when we’ve been apart, giving us hearts to pray on the phone, sometimes with sighs too deep for words, helping each of us encourage one another when the days seemed so very bleak.
This is what the Holy Spirit is like, all the time.
And this is what I really want to celebrate on this particular Pentecost.
I want to celebrate the quiet guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I want to remember the quiet guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And, today and in the days ahead, as Eleanor and Harris and all of us step out into an unknown future, I want to listen and watch for the quiet guidance of the Holy Spirit.  
Sweet, sweet Spirit, guide us.
Help us to remember that God will never let go of us, no matter what.
Holy Spirit, keep us close, even when we are apart.
Amen.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Our Essential Oddness




The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City
May 16, 2021

Year B: The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John: 5:9-13
John 17:6-9

Our Essential Oddness 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Well, once again we find ourselves living in an in-between time and an in-between place.
As you are well aware, on Thursday, the CDC surprised and also confused a lot of us by loosening many of the Covid restrictions that we have been living with for these many months.
For those of us who have been vaccinated, the CDC declared that we no longer need to wear masks outside and in many cases even inside, although Governor Murphy disagreed about that. And, we’ll be keeping our masks on in church at least for a while.
The CDC announcement came on Thursday, which was also my birthday, and it kind of felt like the whole city was celebrating with me – there were so many people out and about, reveling in the chance to see full faces, and even to hug people we love.
But, we’re not quite there, yet, either – wherever “there “ is. Many of us are understandably cautious, knowing only too well that Covid can come raging back, sending us back behind our masks and into lockdown.
An in-between time and place.
And, here at St. Paul and Incarnation, we’re in an in-between time and place, too.
Some of us are back in church this morning and I’m back in this old familiar pulpit, which means more to me than I can say.
At last, we’re back in our beautiful church able to see each other in person – able to pray together – able to extend a wave of peace to each other – able to receive Holy Communion, at last.
But, things are not as they were in the “before time” – lots of limitations are still in place, and many of our parishioners have chosen to stay home and still participate over Facebook.
An in-between time and place.
And, Sue and I and all of you are in an in-between time, and place too.
Our Sundays together have dwindled to a precious few.
I’m trying to tie up loose-ends here so I can leave the church in the best possible shape for my successor, and I’m also getting ready to move (well, maybe thinking about getting ready to move) and I’m looking ahead to St. Thomas’ and beginning to make some decisions about my next chapter.
Meanwhile, your wardens and vestry are hard at work on the transition, preparing for the first weeks after I’m done, looking ahead to the exciting and challenging next chapter in the story of St. Paul and Incarnation.
Finally, all of us Christians are in an in-between time and place, too.
On Thursday, we celebrated (on the phone, anyway) Ascension Day – the fortieth day after Easter when we recall the ascension of Jesus into heaven.
We’ve begun a ten-day stretch of in-between time – it must have been really strange and unsettling for the first disciples – a strange and unsettling stretch of in-between time after Jesus’ ascension and before the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
An in-between time and place.

For the past few Sundays our gospel lessons have been taken from a part of the Gospel of John that’s often called the “Farewell Discourse.”
The setting is the Last Supper, but really the Farewell Discourse is a long monologue by Jesus.
It includes teachings, like when Jesus describes himself as the vine and we are the branches.
It includes commands, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
And, it includes a prayer from Jesus to the Father, a prayer that the disciples and we get to overhear.
As you probably noticed, it’s a dense text, but if you pay attention you realize that Jesus is in an in-between time and place, too. In a way, he has already gone to the Father and left us behind, but at the same time he is also still here with us, giving us some final, most important instruction.
And, here’s what I really want to talk about: in today’s selection from the Farewell Discourse, Jesus points out that we his followers are in – you guessed it - an in-between time and place. 
Jesus prays about us, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”
That’s the thing about the Christian life: we are very much in the world with all of its beauty and all of its trouble, but we do not belong to the world.
We are in the world but we are not to be of the world.
Or, to put it another way, if we’re living pretty much like everybody else, then we are not faithfully following the way of Jesus.
Which reminds me of one of my favorite books. It’s called Resident Aliens. In it, the authors make the case that the Church has gone off the rails because it has forgotten this key point – we are in the world but we are not of the world – we’re not supposed to live like everybody else.
They argue that we need to recover our essential…oddness.
Here’s what they write, “We believe that many Christians do not fully appreciate the odd way in which the church, when it is most faithful, goes about its business. We want to claim the church’s ‘oddness’ as essential to its faithfulness.”
Our essential oddness.
But, let’s face it, it takes courage to be odd. It’s much easier, far safer, to go along and get along, to keep our heads down, and just live like everybody else.

During this in-between time, some of us have been looking into the history of the Episcopal Church in Jersey City – and you’ll see some of the first fruits of that work next Sunday.
As we’ve talked to longtime parishioners and dug into our records we’ve learned a lot – some of it beautiful and wonderful – the way people found a strong sense of community in our churches – the way the church really was the center of people’s lives – the way clergy and lay leaders offered wisdom and compassion to the congregation.
But, back in the “good old days” the church was very much part of the establishment – it was expected that pretty much everyone went to church – and often the church simply went along with the culture of the time, including racism. Because the church was such a normal part of life, it lost its essential oddness.
So, in the case of Grace Van Vorst, it bears the name of a family that enslaved people, and the church building sits on land donated by that family.
Here at St. Paul’s, Susan has dug into our old registers and seen that parishioners used to be identified by their race – just like they would have been out in the world.
And then, there’s the “original sin” of Jersey City Episcopalianism, the fact that people of color were generally not welcome in our churches, the sin that necessitated the founding of Incarnation, where Black people could worship in peace.
Back then I’m sure there were people who were not happy about this state of affairs, but my sense is most people liked the idea that people had their own churches, or simply accepted it as the way of the world – which, of course, it was.
But, we are meant to be different.
We are meant to be in the world but not of the world.
We are meant to be odd!
Our essential oddness.

And, during this in-between time, when I look back at what we have done together, with God’s help, at our best we’ve been odd.
It is odd to open our doors to anyone who wants to join us, all different kinds of people, some people we like, some we’re not so sure about, some maybe we don’t like at all.
It is odd to invest a lot of time and money into community suppers where we throw open the doors to anyone who is hungry for good food, anyone who longs for community – and it’s even odder that we ended up mostly feeding people who were not our parishioners.
It is odd to walk the streets of Jersey City on Good Friday, praying at places that the world sees as God-forsaken, sprinkling Holy Water to restore God’s good earth that has been stained by violence.
It is odd to put in a ton of work to transform our parish hall into a residence for families who have no other place to live, taking the time to get to know them, to play with the kids, and also to give them the space and privacy that we all crave.
It is odd to invest a ton of money into a community center in a neighborhood that the city has written off for decades as unsalvageable, as not worth the effort. It is odd to dream that a paved-over park occupied by drug dealers could ever be transformed into something beautiful for the neighborhood.
It is odd to open our doors to people from faraway lands, people the world teaches us to fear and despise. It is odd to offer them not a cage but a gorgeous Lighthouse, built by faith and love.
And, it is odd to look into our own past – the good and not so good – acknowledging the failures of our spiritual ancestors and also our own shortcomings, promising to be even more faithful in the future.
Our essential oddness.
So, here we are my fellow “resident aliens,” my odd brothers and sisters.
Here we are, once again in an in-between time, once again in an in-between place.
Like the first disciples we may be feeling uncomfortable, confused, frightened.
But, Jesus is praying for us just as fervently as Jesus prayed for us two thousand years ago – praying that we don’t forget that we are in the world but not of the world – praying that we remember – and even celebrate – our essential oddness.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Amen.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Meraki


The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 9, 2021

Year B: The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Meraki

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
So, the other day I came across a beautiful word:
Meraki
It’s a Greek word that means doing something with soul, with creativity, or with love. Meraki means putting something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be.
I immediately thought of some of the best cooks of our parish:
Catherine, who created our Stone Soup Community Suppers, feeding lovingly prepared, delicious, and healthy dinners to any and all who came through our doors – Sonia, feeding lovingly prepared, delicious, and just-as good-as-coffee hour homemade hot lunches, served to the guests at the homeless drop-in center – and Eric, feeding lovingly prepared, delicious, and over-the-top coffee hour feasts, and let’s not forget all those rich desserts.
I could name others, but all of these wonderfully talented and generous chefs prepare food that tastes so good because of good ingredients and the technical skill, yes, but there’s something more. Somehow we can also taste the love that goes into their food - the love that goes into offering something beautiful for other people, especially for people who may not have a whole lot of beauty in their lives.
But, even if you have not had the chance to enjoy the food prepared by our talented and loving chefs, I know that you all know what meraki is – or at least what it sounds like.
Each week you get to hear Gail – who is of course deeply knowledgeable about all kinds of music and is highly skilled in technique, but that’s not why people swoon when they hear her, not why people always ask what church she sings at and what time’s the service, not why she’s in demand at our diocesan services like yesterday’s ordination.
No, you all know that what makes Gail’s music so special is meraki – doing something with soul, creativity, and love – putting something – sometimes a lot – of yourself into what you do.
I couldn’t help but think of meraki last Saturday morning, when a few of us gathered for the blessing of the Lighthouse in its new home in Union City.
Many of you will remember that our own Deacon Jill Singleton started the Lighthouse a few years ago over in the Parish House at the Church of the Incarnation.
Her idea was simple and it was ambitious: to offer our underutilized space as a home for people who had received asylum in the United States.
Lots of people from Incarnation and St. Paul’s and Grace Van Vorst and All Saint’s Episcopal Day School and other friends and supporters all pitched in to make Jill’s bold vision a reality.
I’ll never forget those days when the Parish House was thoroughly cleaned and painted and furnished – so many people coming and going – working so hard to create a safe and comfortable home for people we had never met – in most cases, people we would never meet - people who had traveled through hell on perilous journeys to safety and hope and new life.
One thing I have often said about the leaders of the Church of the Incarnation is that they never said no to ministry – they have been always up for trying new things – and what a blessing it is that they – you – have brought that Incarnation boldness to our unified parish – for example, just look at our new and quite popular small groups, spearheaded by Carol Harrison-Arnold.
And, the people of Incarnation didn’t just provide space for the Lighthouse. With a real spirit of meraki, some parishioners took the time to get to know our guests, stopping by for conversation and to share meals.
And no one took greater interest in the Lighthouse than our dear brother Sidney King, who died one year ago tomorrow, and for whom we still grieve. 
To be honest, maybe because we couldn’t mourn him the way we normally would, sometimes I still have remind myself that Sidney is dead.
Sidney knew what it was like to travel far from home to a strange new land, and, of course, he was a deeply faithful Christian wholeheartedly committed to ministry, so he spent a lot of time with our Lighthouse guests. In fact, now that I think of it, Sidney was kind of like a lighthouse to the guests, helping them to navigate unfamiliar, and sometimes treacherous, waters.
To the guests, Deacon Jill was “Mama Jill” and Sidney was “Papa Sidney.”
Meraki: doing something with soul, creativity, and love.
Meraki: putting something of yourself into what you do.

The Lighthouse closed after we put the former home of the Church of the Incarnation up for sale.
During the many months since, Deacon Jill has persistently worked to reopen at a new location in Union City.
I’ll spare you the unpleasant details except to say that it has been an ordeal  - an ordeal involving lots of bureaucracy, mold, a termite infestation, oh, and, yes, a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Although there were a few times when even the unstoppable Jill Singleton considered throwing in the towel, in the end, with God’s help, the Lighthouse is now ready to reopen.
So, last Saturday, a few of us gathered to bless the new Lighthouse. Now, Jill had kept me informed of all the trials and tribulations, and she told me how beautiful the house now looks, but I was not prepared for what I saw when I walked through the door.
Just like any of us would be glad to eat one of Sonia’s as-good-as-coffee hour lunches for the homeless, the truth is that any of us would be delighted to call the Lighthouse our home.
Not only are the mold and termites gone, but the house is spacious and inviting, carefully decorated, with a nice little backyard, and in the basement there’s even a brand-new washer and dryer donated by our friends at All Saints’ Hoboken.
As I looked around, I thought, this is the gospel in action – this is the gospel in brick and wood and plaster – this is love – this is love of stranger – put into action.
Soon, just like at the old Lighthouse, the guests and hopefully some of you, too, will be breaking bread at the dining room table, under a sign that reads:
“The Sidney W. King, Jr. Room of Hospitality.”
Meraki: doing something with soul, creativity, and love.
Meraki: putting something of yourself into what you do.

Of course, Jesus is the supreme example of meraki.
It’s what drew people to Jesus and it’s what continues to draw us to him. 
Jesus lived a life of perfect love, pouring that love into his teaching and healing, and reaching out to the lost and the outcast.
Jesus lived a life of perfect love, and calls us to do the same, to follow his example and love one another as he has loved us – promising that he will always be with us, giving us the strength to follow him.
Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Jesus says, “And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”
And as I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ command to love one another and his wish that we bear good fruit, I keep going back to my new favorite word – meraki –the idea of doing what we do with love, of putting ourselves into what we do – which is really the call – the command - of Jesus, right?
And, with God’s help, when we do what we do with love, when we put something of ourselves into what we do, we produce good fruit – good fruit for people we may never meet, good fruit for people who may never thank us, good fruit for people who can never repay us.
With God’s help, when we put something of ourselves into what we do, we produce good fruit like food for the hungry – good fruit like music that touches our souls – and, good fruit like a Lighthouse that provides safety and shelter to sisters and brothers who have journeyed far and at great risk, in search of what God always offers: new life.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Amen.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

God's Inconvenient Call


Trinity and St. Philip’s Cathedral, Newark NJ
May 8, 2021

The Ordinations of Carrie Cabush, Katherine Rollo, and Lorna Woodham
Jeremiah 1:4-9
Psalm 84
Acts 6:2-7
Luke 12:35-38

God’s Inconvenient Call

It’s always a good idea to begin with gratitude, so I want to say thank you to Bishop Hughes for inviting me to preach at this wonderful and sacred occasion, here in our cathedral where, like many of the clergy gathered today, I was ordained a deacon.
I had not expected that I would ever again have the chance to offer a sermon in this place, but we all know that God is always full of surprises.
And, we give thanks for all of the people who have supported Carrie, Katherine, and Lorna on their long and winding journeys – giving thanks for family and friends and mentors, and, let’s not forget the members of the Commission on Ministry!
And, we surely give thanks to God for our three soon-to-be-deacons, who have listened carefully, worked hard, prayed even harder – who have already been a blessing to so many throughout this time of preparation.
Today we make official what has been quite obvious to many of us for a long time: you have been called by God to ordained ministry.
Of course, during this time of preparation you have been engaged in the hard work of discernment.
Like a lot of us, when I first started to consider pursuing ordained ministry, I got very interested in the practice of discernment – listening for God’s call. 
And, I think like a lot of us, I struggled with it. I wondered, how do I know that the call I’m hearing is from God and not just from my own will or my imagination? 
I remember early on in my time at seminary I took a class on Discernment, hoping that this would help me figure it out, so I could cross discernment off my to-do list, settle matters once and for all.
Well, it was an excellent class, but discernment is never really settled – it’s always a lifelong process.
But, I have become sure about two principles of discernment.
First, we know from the Bible, and from history, and from our own experience that God seems to delight in calling some of the seemingly least likely people to some very big jobs.
We heard that dynamic loud and clear in today’s first lesson.  After hearing God’s call, the soon-to-be-prophet Jeremiah protests that, I’m sorry but there must be some mistake, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But, God knows what God is doing, just like God knew what God was doing when God chose a poor public speaker to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom, just like when God chose a shepherd boy to become Israel’s greatest king, and just like when God chose a poor young peasant woman to carry the Son of God into the world. 
So, Carrie, Katherine, and Lorna, if right about now you’re feeling a little unlikely – or if this whole event feels a little unlikely – well, I’d say that’s a good sign, and you’re in very good company.

But, there’s something else about God’s call: it tends to be inconvenient.
God’s inconvenient call.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if God’s call seems to be really convenient – really matches up with what you feel like doing – then it’s probably not a genuine call.
No, the God of surprises is always calling us out of comfort, always calling us to step out into the uncertain and the unknown, inviting us to trust that God will be with us, just as God was with Jeremiah during his many troubles.
God’s inconvenient call.
We see God’s inconvenient call throughout the gospels, as Jesus gathers his disciples.
The fisherman brothers James and John are called away from their boats and nets, called away from their livelihood, from probably the only work they had ever known, called away from their father who watched his sons, his future, walk off in a wildly unexpected direction.
God’s inconvenient call.
And, although inconvenience doesn't quite capture it, think of Mary Magdalene in the garden on the first Easter morning, exhausted from horror and grief, and now stunned by the unexpected best news of all time. Probably all she wanted to do was to sit for a bit, to cry, to hear more words from the Risen Lord, to try to make sense of what made no sense, but instead she is immediately called to be the apostle to the apostles, which sure sounds great to us, but she must have known that nobody would take her word for it.
God’s inconvenient call.
And, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus promises even more inconvenient calls, warning that the master isn’t going to return at a civilized hour that fits our schedule, not going to return during regular business hours, but in the middle of the night or just before daybreak, when we’re bone tired and just want a few more minutes of sleep.
God’s inconvenient call.
From my own experience, I can tell you that it’s when I’ve been inconvenienced – when I’ve finally managed to block out some time to write my sermon and then I open my laptop, ready to begin – and then the phone rings – it’s then, in that moment of inconvenience, that I’ve often encountered God at work in my ministry.
God’s inconvenient call.
Since Lorna has done her field education in my parish, I’ve had the privilege and joy of getting to know her. But, I’ve had to ask some of my colleagues about you, Carrie and Katherine.
And, what I’ve learned is no surprise: all three of you are deeply faithful, compassionate, creative, hardworking, and persistent.
You really have already been gifts to the Church.
And, I have been totally unsurprised to learn that your calls have often been inconvenient – that this was not necessarily the way your foresaw your life unfolding – that your journeys have taken unexpected, sometimes unwelcome, twists and turns that have required you to be patient, that have called for some real faith and sacrifices on your part.
I don’t know how you feel about all of that, but I think this is all very good news, for you and for us.

When I was ordained a deacon – right over there - fourteen years ago, wise and well-meaning leaders of the Church had already been talking for years about how we could no longer do business as usual and that we needed to take the Church back out into the world.
But, while sometimes we did do business a little differently and every now and then we took the Church out into the world, for the most part not too much changed.
Let’s face it, with our beautiful buildings and lovely traditions, it is especially easy for us Episcopalians to get very comfortable.
I mean, if you’ve been around the church for any time, you’ve no doubt heard some of the many jokes that end with the punch line, “Because we’ve always done it this way.”
And then the pandemic struck. 
Like Julian of Norwich, who we honor today, we have been living with plague, trying to remain faithful when so much that we counted on and took for granted seems so insecure.
Of course, it’s been a time of deep fear and heartbreaking sorrow.
And, for us in the Church it has also been really inconvenient.
But, the God of surprises never misses an opportunity.
So, suddenly, business as usual was no longer an option.
Suddenly, we really did have to take the Church out into the world, or at least onto Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube
Suddenly, much of the injustice and suffering that many of us usually dismissed and ignored has been made plain for all with eyes to see and ears to hear.
My sisters, this is the Church and the world that God has inconveniently called you to serve in a new way.
And as we begin to come out of this terrible plague, no one knows what the future will bring. We don’t know what the Church will look like, though I’m sure – as Bishop Hughes has repeatedly warned us - there will be a push to somehow try to go back to the way things were before.
So, here’s my hope and my challenge for you:
Answer God’s inconvenient call by continuing to inconvenience us.
Let God use you to inconvenience us.
Yes, as deacons part of your job will be “waiting tables,” but don’t forget your call to “serve all people, particularly the poor, the weak, the sick and the lonely.”
As deacons, inconvenience us by pointing to the suffering all around us, challenging us to love and to help, rousing us from our comfort and complacency.
As deacons, inconvenience us by calling us out when we shrug and say, “But we’ve always done it this way.”
And, God willing and the people consenting, when you are priests, keep that diaconal spirit of inconvenience alive in your priesthood, alive in your heart, always.

So, today we give thanks to the God of surprises for so much – especially for Carrie, Katherine, and Lorna.
And, we give thanks for God’s inconvenient call – the call that always invites us out of comfort, inviting us to step out into the uncertain and the unknown, inviting us to trust that God will be with us, no matter what.
Thanks be to God for the inconvenient call to new life.
Amen.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

On a Wilderness Road


The Church of St. Paul & Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
May 2, 2021

Year B: The Fifth Sunday of Easter 
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 15:1-8
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

On a Wilderness Road

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Now, I’m not sure, but I think I may have mentioned to you once or twice before that baptizing people is one of my most favorite things to do is a priest. 
No, it’s true.
And, Baptism is definitely near the top of the list of things I have missed during our long stretch of separation.
It is such a joy and privilege to initiate newcomers into the Christian community – to remind people that, in and through the water of Baptism, God makes an unbreakable – an indissoluble bond – with all of us.
No matter what we do or don’t do – no matter how many times we mess up – God will never give up on us.
Which is very good news, indeed.
And, since I love baptizing people so much, it’s no surprise that today’s first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles, is a favorite.
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip is vivid, and mysterious, and moving – and I think it speaks to the hard times that we’ve been living through.
The story begins with an angel telling Philip to get up and go to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza – a road that is described as “a wilderness road.” That little aside tips us off that we’re in for an encounter with the Holy.
Throughout the Bible – and I’d suggest throughout our lives - encounters with the Holy seem to happen more frequently in wilderness places and times, maybe because it’s there and then, away from the familiarity of our usual routines, that we pay a little closer attention to what’s going on around us.
Anyway, it’s there on a wilderness road that Philip encounters the intriguing figure of the Ethiopian eunuch.
This important government official – the treasurer of a kingdom – has been far from home.  He’s been up in Jerusalem to worship, but now he’s in his chariot making the long journey home to Africa.
The Ethiopian eunuch was almost certainly a non-Jew, a Gentile, but one who was drawn to the God of Israel – worshiping in the Temple and, as we see in this story, studying the Scripture. 
There’s something endearing about the Ethiopian eunuch sitting in his chariot, reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, trying to make sense of the words – it reminded me a little of some of our Church By Phone services when we’ve heard some difficult and puzzling Scripture passages – I can almost hear some of us scratching our heads, trying to figure out what these old words might mean, what they might say to us today.
Anyway, Philip arrives and the Spirit directs him, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”
Philip does what he’s told, and, as we heard, Philip interprets Isaiah in light of Jesus – Philip proclaims the good news to this African, this outsider, this foreigner from a land that in the ancient world was almost the definition of faraway: Ethiopia.
And, then, in my favorite part of the story: the Ethiopian spots some water and asks Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
What indeed!
So, Philip baptized the Ethiopian – perhaps the first African Christian – who continued on his way home, rejoicing.
And, it all happened on a wilderness road.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Looking back on the past year of the pandemic and economic troubles and political instability - and looking ahead to an uncertain future for us all - doesn’t it feel like we’re on a wilderness road, too? 
And, yet, here in this unfamiliar place, we’re having encounters with the Holy, too.
Philip squeezed into the chariot to sit beside the eunuch, studying the Scriptures together, taking a journey to the water of Baptism.
In the same way, one of the paradoxes of this long time apart is that many of us have somehow managed to grow closer to each other – and we’ve allowed God to grow closer to us.
And, that’s been God’s great desire all along.
As we heard in today’s lessons from the First Letter of John and the Gospel of John, God desires to be so close to us – close to all of us no matter how far from home we may be – no matter how far apart we may be – God desires to be so close to us.
God invites us to “abide” in God – God invites to dwell in God – to be held close by love.
God desires that we be as close as a branch to the vine, a branch that depends on the vine for life itself.

I confess that over the past few days it’s been really hitting me that our time with all of you here at St. Paul and Incarnation is drawing to a close.
I’m feeling the pressure of all the many things that need to get done over the next couple of weeks to make sure I leave the church in as good shape as I can.
And, of course, even under the best of circumstances, moving is a stressful experience – figuring out what we’ll give away or throw away and what we will pack and take with us – lining up movers – wondering what our new life will be like – as we relocate from a place we know so very well to a place where I’m going to need to use the GPS just about every day.
And, there are all the good-byes and the ending of relationships, or, at least, facing the hard fact of a new and unsettling distance between us.
But, while it’s been a hard week on the wilderness road, I’ve also had some beautiful reminders of our closeness – the kind of closeness that God desires for us – the closeness that Jesus offers us – the closeness of the branches to the vine – the closeness that is the very essence of love – the closeness of the water of baptism.
In a sermon a few months ago, I mentioned how, about eleven years ago now, Sue and I moved to Gainesville, Florida, where I was the chaplain at the University of Florida and rector of a small church called St. Michael’s.
We ended up staying there for only a year. We met lots of lovely people but it was a hard time for us. And, when I announced that I was leaving I felt like I had failed, letting down a whole lot of people.
Looking back on it, our Florida year was for us a wilderness road where we encountered the Holy. It was a journey that has continued to bless us.
First of all, cats joined our family that year. For a time we were minor celebrities at the Gainesville PetsMart: the couple who adopted three cats in one day!
But, we’ve also kept in touch with several of our Florida folks – especially Tina and Jean – who, over all these years and despite the distance that separates us, have gifted us with their friendship and support.
And, as I’ve mentioned, during the pandemic, some other Florida people have been calling into Church By Phone and joining us here on Facebook.
All quite amazing.
And then just the other day, I looked at my phone and saw that I had missed a call from a Gainesville number. I listened to the message and heard the voice of someone I hadn’t heard from, hadn’t talked to, in a decade: Annetta.
Annetta was a parishioner at St. Michael’s. Each Sunday, she and her husband and a friend would ride in a minivan from their retirement community to church. They were all kind and faithful people and I was very fond of them. But when I left, I figured that was it.
Well, anyway, I called Annetta back and she asked if I remembered her, and I said, “Of course, I remember you!” It turned out that she had called me because someone had told her that we were broadcasting our services and – after all this time and distance - she wanted to know how to find us. We talked for a time, picking up right where we left off, filling in each other on the big events of the past decade of our lives.
By the way, Annetta will be 100 years old this December!
And, as we talked, I felt myself getting choked up, amazed by the closeness I still felt even after all this time and distance. 
And, it all happened on a wilderness road.

So, now wait a minute. I can’t remember, have I mentioned to you how much I love baptizing people?
Well, as we approach the end of this little stretch of wilderness road that we’ve been walking along together, I’m so pleased and excited that on my last Sunday here – May 30 – we will have a Baptism.
Our much-loved parishioners Luis and Sima have asked that their beautiful daughter Lina Sofia be baptized. The hope is that, just like the Ethiopian and Philip, it will be an outdoor baptism during our afternoon service.
In any event, just like for the Ethiopian, there is surely nothing to prevent Lina from being baptized.
And, honestly, I can’t think of a better way to conclude my time here – celebrating the unbreakable – indissoluble – bond that God will make with Lina – one last chance for us to celebrate together the unbreakable, indissoluble, bond that God has made with us all.
Because the truth is that whether we’re in Ethiopia or Florida or Jersey City or, yes, Maryland, God desires to be so close to us.
God invites us to “abide” in God – God invites to dwell in God – a bond held together by love.
God desires that we be as close as a branch to the vine, a branch that depends on the vine for life itself.
And we know this is possible – we know this is true - because, just like the Ethiopian and Philip, we have encountered the Holy - on a wilderness road.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Amen.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

A Sheepfold on the Move


The Church of St. Paul and Incarnation, Jersey City NJ
April 25, 2021

Year B: The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18 

A Sheepfold On the Move

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
I know that it’s almost impossible to believe, but about 160 years ago when a few Episcopalians first began to gather on this spot for worship and fellowship, they were surrounded by countryside.
In fact, back then this area was so rural that there was a herd of sheep that grazed just down the hill from here.
It’s true.
So, I guess that the first rector of St. Paul’s, the Rev. Fernando Putnam, didn’t have to work too hard in his Good Shepherd Sunday sermons for people to grasp the shepherd and sheep imagery that we heard today.
Just like people back in the first century, our Episcopalian ancestors would have had no trouble picturing a shepherd hard at work, no problem imagining the sight, the sound, and, yes, the smell, of sheep.
And, probably just like people two thousand years ago, the first people to worship in this church would have been struck by the image of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” – or, actually, Jesus as a shepherd far better than good - a shepherd who sacrificed his life for the sheep – a sacrifice that was not expected of shepherds in Palestine, or the village of Bergen, I’m sure.
Of course, the land down the hill from here where those sheep grazed was paved over and built up long ago.
And, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a shepherd in person, and the only sheep I’ve ever met were at a petting zoo.
So, I don’t know – maybe the shepherd and sheep imagery doesn’t work quite as easily and as well for us in the built up and noisy Jersey City of today.
And yet, because even the loudest racket is no match for Jesus, we can still hear the call of the Good Shepherd, inviting us to be part of his flock, welcoming us into his sheepfold.
After all, here we are this morning.
The other day I was driving up Montgomery Street and I noticed that it looks like workers are beginning to finally demolish the nursing home that has sat vacant and forlorn, covered in graffiti, for the past couple of years.
Some of you may remember that for the first five or so years of my rectorship a few of us – Gail, Vanessa, Dee Dee, occasionally a few others, and I - offered a monthly healing service at that nursing home – first known as Liberty House and later Majestic.
The attendance at our service would vary from month to month, depending on the health and awareness of the residents, and the availability of staff, and also what kind of competition we faced from the other programming that was scheduled during our time slot.
On our way upstairs, I always looked at the calendar posted in the elevator to see what we were up against, knowing that the ice cream social would give us some stiff competition, but the not so popular “Let’s Clean the Closet” meant we would have a full house.
But we always had our regulars. And, I think I can speak for the rest of the team when I say that the residents and the employees became very dear to us – we came to think of them all as a kind of satellite congregation, part of our community.
The highlight of the service was Gail’s music, of course, which could cut through the doldrums of nursing home life and snapped people out of the fog of dementia.
And, no matter what shape they were in physically and mentally, almost everyone would join in saying the Lord’s Prayer – and they would also say the familiar King James Version of the Twenty-Third Psalm:
And, in that place of much suffering and sadness, it was hard not to get choked up as together we said:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Yes, Jesus the far-better-than-Good Shepherd continues to call us, inviting us to be part of his flock, welcoming us into his sheepfold.
And then, what?

Well, I think today’s epistle lesson from the First Letter of John gives us our answer.
The author of First John first reminds us of the far-better-than-Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us, and then insists that we ought to lay down our lives for one another – that we must care for people in need.
The author of First John asks the haunting question, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
And then he adds, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech but in truth and action.”
Truth and action.
Now, I admit that I don’t know much about sheepfolds but I’m pretty sure that the sheepfolds in first century Palestine and in nineteenth century Bergen stayed put – the sheep mostly just standing around, safe behind gates or walls, grazing in the same spot day after day.
But, Jesus the Good Shepherd’s sheepfold is different – it’s not tied down to some specific place.
No, Jesus’ sheepfold is on the move.
Jesus the Good Shepherd calls us to follow him, to follow his example, to give away our lives in service to others – to love not in word or speech but in truth and action.
A sheepfold on the move.

So, you know, for as long as I’ve been associated with the church I’ve heard talk about how we need to get out of our buildings and take the church out onto the streets and into the world.
I’d like to think that over our past eight years together we’ve done that – at least sometimes.
On Good Friday we’ve carried the cross through the bloodstained streets of Jersey City.
In Jersey City Together, we have worked with others to demand safe streets, affordable housing, and decent schools.
We took a chance and opened our community center down at Triangle Park.
Over on Storms Avenue, Deacon Jill opened the doors to the world, creating the Lighthouse as a safe place for asylees and refugees – people who are the very definition of brothers and sisters in need.
Yes, we have taken the church out into the world - well, sometimes, at least.
But, this year has been something else.
As you are well aware, the pandemic has shut most of us out of our church building – and if we didn’t know it before we know it now – this building, as much as we love it and cherish it, as much as I love it and cherish it and will miss it so much – this beautiful building with foundations laid by faithful Episcopalians 160 years ago – this building is just a small part of the sheepfold.
Jesus’ sheepfold is not like other sheepfolds.
Jesus’ sheepfold is a sheepfold on the move. 

A few months ago when I signed on the dotted line and accepted the call from St. Thomas’ Owings Mills, I was sure that by now the pandemic would have eased enough that many of us could gather together here in our sanctuary – not quite what it was like before, but together, at least.
To be honest, I try not to think too much about how that has turned out to not be possible, though we hope to have some afternoons together outside over the next few Sundays
But, the day will come when our red doors will be open again.
And, when that day finally arrives, my hope is that we won’t forget the lessons of this hard time – that we won’t forget that we really can be the church out there.
My hope is that we won’t forget that we can pray over the phone or share our burdens and hopes in our small groups.
My hope is that many more of us will support Triangle Park and the Lighthouse and Jersey City Together.
My hope is that we will once again bring song and prayer and healing to the residents of nursing homes, people who despite much suffering are able to hear – are desperate to hear – the voice of Jesus the far-better-than-Good Shepherd.
My hope is that, whether we’re here in New Jersey or in Maryland or wherever, we will love one another not in word or speech but in truth and action.
Jesus continues to call us, inviting us to be part of his flock, welcoming us into his sheepfold.
But, Jesus’ sheepfold is not like other sheepfolds.
Jesus’ sheepfold is a sheepfold on the move. 
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Amen.