Monday, January 25, 2010

Sick Day

Friday night, our son had an overnight party. We went to bed, and aside from the thumping and laughing and general bedlam of adolescent boys, all was well.

The next morning, I woke up with a fever and a wicked cough. Then came chills and the signs of flu. My wife made me run to the doctor even before the boys' parents came to pick up their charges. It was a long wait at the doctor, and while I wheezed and hacked, and huddled in my winter coat to stave off the chills, I had to do so wearing a face mask. Coughing patients have to do that these days.

The cure for flu these days, if you catch it early, isn't exactly a cure. Unlike antibiotics which kill the bacteria outright, antivirals (you've heard of Tamiflu, perhaps), interrupt the reproduction process of the virus so that it can't regenerate. That shortens its duration and severity, but it takes a couple of days to really notice a difference.

Problem was, this was Saturday, and the next day was Sunday - my big gig of the week. I had my sermon half done already, but I just couldn't focus to finish it. Already I knew there was no way I'd be in church, not with all the precautions the church is taking about flu these days, but I figured my deacon (who was going to cover for me) could just read it.

Never happened. Most of the rest of Saturday, I just slept. And that evening when he called to ask where the sermon was, I could only say I'd try to get it to him. He said to forget it and sleep. Which I did.

That's okay. This sermon would have been a two-part thing anyway. The gospel for this Sunday and next Sunday should have been put together from the outset since they are one story. So, I'll just preach them as if they were one. It'll work.

But I have to say, sitting on the sofa watching Scrubs (actually, a whole Scrubs marathon on DVD) while all the parishioners are gathering next door for church is a little unnerving. You see them. You know they're wondering, "What's wrong with him?" And you think, "Maybe I can still get dressed and get there before the second service..."

That's when a coughing fit smacks you -- okay, me -- back to reality.

I don't know if this is the first Sunday I've called in sick, but there aren't many. Good thing. I belong up at the altar and in the aisle preaching. That's who I am. Maybe I needed this sick day, it's good to know I'll be back in the saddle next week.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Wedding Blues - A Sermon

We live in a strange world. Often small things seem monumental, and then a catastrophe on the order of Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti jars us into reality.

For example, a guy runs out of wine at his wedding 2,000 years ago, and it’s a disaster. Right. In contrast, in the news I see pictures of Haiti’s collapsed buildings, crumpled streets and masses of dead and injured.

The irony is that at the wedding, the Son of God intervenes while in Port au Prince, people wail in the streets, asking how God could let this happen, where God is now, why God isn’t helping them.

I wish I knew why natural disasters happened, and I wish I were able to point to specific actions, specific lives saved and buildings protected and say “This is what God is doing.” But I can’t.

I’m not sure if I can explain why God would intervene in one case and not another.

There is this, however.

Natural and manmade disasters have been happening since before people trod the earth. They have always and will always destroy lives. We live in a harsh world, and Jesus did not change that.

In all his earthly ministry, in fact, Jesus did not once stop a natural disaster. Small disasters yes, but nothing big. His miracles were never meant to change the course of nature or even to cause an end to pain.

We all suffer to some degree or other, and we all die.

Jesus intervened sometimes out of compassion but always with an eye to a lesson. He was teaching even when he turned water into wine.

So, what could be the lesson to today’s Gospel story of a host who ran out of wine at his wedding? First, Jesus is showing compassion for the people he is with.

Running out of wine may seem like a small thing for us, but in first century Cana, it was life-changing. The groom would be embarrassed if not shamed for years to come. The steward would probably lose his livelihood. There will be suffering if nothing is done.,

Jesus acts in part because he is there. The problem is right before him. He acts where he finds himself, and we are called to do the same.

Second, compassion is not always something you earn or deserve. You could easily argue that the suffering of the groom and steward would have been self-inflicted, just a matter of poor planning. They should have bought more. Or if it was too expensive, they should have saved more money till they could afford it. Or invited fewer people.

This is irrelevant to Jesus. He not only intervenes, but he makes better wine than the best. And lots of it. Six stone jars is a LOT of wine. Worthiness has nothing to do with it.

The third lesson is that God loves joy. Maybe it was because this was a wedding – a celebration of life – but Jesus did change the water into wine. He let the party go on and kicked it up a notch. You have to think he saw their joy and smiled.

God loves our joy as well. That’s not the same as pleasure or ease – joy is deeper. And when it’s there, as this story indicates, God celebrates.

Then there is the simple lesson that God does have power. Every intervention Jesus performs is relatively small and localized, but he has power. And as he is God’s son come to show us what life in God is like, we are to understand that God has power.

The problem for us is that we think of power and think it means we can have what we want when we want it. God’s power is love, and part of love is to simply be there.

The lessons Jesus seems to teach us in his miracles like at this wedding in Cana are that we are God’s hands on earth, that we can act in the situations laid before us. That we reach out to others even if they create their own problems. That we seek and rejoice in the joy of others. And that we have power to act.

You and I have power because we are guided by love. Yes, God can do things we cannot – and many of us think he should so that nobody suffers. Ever.

Of course, if that were the case, then none of us would ever learn how to love, how to have compassion, how to reach out beyond our own needs and touch the lives of others.

I don’t know why such horrendous suffering happens to people who have suffered so much for so long already. But I know that God has put their need before us just as the groom’s need was put before Jesus.

The question now isn’t, “What will God do?” but “What will we do?” Amen.

God, Life and Everything - Weeping for Haiti

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

On this mild winter day, I sit day in my comfortable office and ponder the pain and suffering out there. So much pain but always out there, far away from me.

Some people joke that my comfortable office looks like a bomb has gone off in it. I’m a bit of a slob. But I look around and know that it is cozy and warm and safe. The mess is nothing really – a bitter joke compared to the living hell that is Haiti today.

I sit at my solid desk, in this town where the closest we have to natural disasters is maybe a heavy snow, and wonder how is it that those who have suffered for so many years get hit even harder by such a disaster? How can it be? Why do some have it so much easier than others? It’s an age old question, and I don’t have an answer.

The only response I have – especially with such devastation – is to pray. And weep. They are, after all, our brothers and sisters. We weep with them, as I can only imagine God weeps with them.

It’s just a shame that most of the time a lot of us forget that they even exist, living in misery unknown in any other country of the Western Hemisphere. We can easily ignore them because Haiti is so far away. A world away from us.

You and I will undoubtedly reach out to the people of Haiti, will surely reach in to our wallets and make a donation to help them. That is right and good. Resources for donations are listed elsewhere in the paper today.

But let’s go deeper. Let’s pray. Really pray. Let’s pray for rescue of those trapped. For healing for the injured. And comfort for the grieving. Let us pray for rebuilding and recovery – and that we can all be part of it in some way. But for now, let us pray to remember that we are one with those who see no future and no hope. We will carry hope for them.

A friend of mine wrote a prayer for Haiti. It takes in the scope of the tragedy, without pretending to have easy answers about why this should happen. It is simply a prayer – written by a friend, the Rev. Chip Stokes – that asks God’s grace and mercy, always aware than in the midst of the suffering, God weeps too.

A Prayer for the Victims of the Earthquake in Haiti

Holy God, source of life, lover of souls, out of the depths we call to you; in the face of incomprehensible anguish and sorrow, we lift the cries of our distress and implore you to show mercy upon those who are suffering from the destruction of the earthquake in Haiti. We pray for those who have died and for their loved ones who grieve. asking you to hold them in the arms of your love; we pray for those who have been injured in body, mind or spirit and ask you to heal them; we pray for those who are homeless and wandering, for families torn asunder and ask you to shelter them. Strengthen the hands and hearts of those who assist in relief efforts and grant us all firm resolve to stand with our neighbors who are in need, to love them and to offer our generous support of them in this their time of trouble; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.

Rector’s Annual Report - January 10, 2010

This past year at St. James’ has been characterized by one word: recovery. Just as the nation was rocked by financial crisis over the past year-and-a-half to two years, so has St. James’. We have felt the pain of lost revenue through the stock market. We have felt the pain of reduced income from rent. We have felt the pain of parishioners who no longer can afford to pledge.

I will not deny there have been times when it has been hard to keep a positive outlook. Our inability to pay our diocesan assessment for three years in a row has been particularly difficult to stomach. We are part of a national church which in turn is part of a world-wide communion, and paying our share, taking part in the national and world-wide community of Anglicans is in our very blood.

But recovery is in the air. Our Wardens, Vestry and treasurer have worked very hard to not only keep this congregation afloat but to bring it up to date on the vast array of physical plant issues that never seem to end. They have not chosen the easy option of deferring necessary work but have moved us forward bravely and ably. I hope you can appreciate the innumerable hours they give this place, especially our wardens and treasurer. I invite you to join me in showing your appreciation to them with a round of applause.

I would not like to give you the false impression that we have emerged from our financial rough waters. The boat is still being tossed about, but it has shown itself to be strong and buoyant. We will weather this storm as we have weathered many others before it.

More importantly, St. James’ has shown itself to embrace its mission all the more in times of difficulty. We as a congregation have jumped into our work more fully, especially in the area of outreach. We give our time, our talents and yes, even our treasure in order to alleviate the suffering of others. I will let the Outreach Committee’s report speak for itself, but through creative and dedicated fundraising, they have not contracted their work but, if anything, expanded it.

I am pleased also that our Reading Adventures program thrives at Hyde Park Elementary. So also, our Youth made its sojourn to North Carolina this summer for Towel Camp. I assure you, they worked hard and, strangely enough, played hard, too. Thanks to Liz Handman for serving as the female chaperone.

We still are unsure who this year’s female chaperone will be, but the youth begin Towel Camp fundraising today. You will note the container for “Coins For Camp,” where you can deposit your loose change from now through June. Also, we have updated our paper Towels which you have bought through the years. To reflect the work that we do, this year we are selling houses. Given the state of real estate, this is the cheapest house you’ll ever buy but also one of the most helpful.

Regarding other Christian education issues, we are ever thankful to our Sunday School teachers, Rick Schroeder and Saira Shahani, Jackie Jennings, Wendy Urban-Mead and Mike Fenwick. They are a vital part of our life together. This year, we switched the order in which students would be in church. Previously, they started in church and left at the Peace for Sunday School. Now, the children start in Sunday School and join us at church during the Peace. This way they can receive communion with us.

Youth Group has also gotten going this year with renewed energy. We meet nearly every week to pray, study, eat and play together. We recently went on a trip to play laser tag but are also exploring ways to serve the local community.

One area where we have not recovered what we need is in Adult education. It is important for us as Christians to ever delve deeper into our faith. We have an ongoing bible study which serves a small group, and we recently completed the Advent study class on Parables – regrettably to an equally small group. Realizing that we live in hectic times, it is still a worthwhile goal to have every adult member involved in some form of study.

In fact, I would like to call upon members of this parish to commit themselves in two areas for the coming year. One is in education. I would like to have parishioners suggest, attend and even teach more adult education programming this year. We have the ability to do more, even if it is a brief little forum each Sunday between services. I am always willing to on this type of programming, but it requires everyone to step forward and take part.

The other area is in attendance. We had a wonderful Christmas Eve with large attendance. Some Sundays however, there are more than enough empty pews waiting for someone to use them. We are a religion all about sharing our faith, and if we renew our commitment to sharing it with our neighbors, we can not only spread the Gospel but increase the size of this congregation. I have said it before and will say it again: When there are more people here, the energy is palpable, the joy increased.

Therefore, I would like to invite each of you to invite friends to church. This may sound trite and small, but it is with small steps that journeys are completed. Our goal is to make Christ known through St. James’. By simply bringing friends or family to church, we open up to them the scriptures and the grace of God. If you want a New Year’s resolution, let it be to bring at least one non-member to church this year.

The timing is right. We are coming out of a long dark period and entering into recovery. We are entering into a period of celebration of our Bicentennial. What better way to ensure that St. James’ will have two hundred years than to increase the number of parishioners.

There are many other ways to celebrate this tremendous event, mind you. We are forming a Bicentennial Committee for which nearly twenty parishioners have already signed up. There is still room on the committee if you would like to be part of this.

And what an exciting time it will be! If you have not heard by now, the Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Katherine Jefferts-Schori will be with us for the formal Bicentennial Ceremony on October 30, 2011. There are many other events and activities in the works for the celebration which could take the entire year. If you want to be part of it, please look at the committee list and consider becoming part of it.

The final few bits and pieces of 2009 consist of transitions. In this past year, one of our co-winners of the 2009 St. James’ medal exchanged this life eternal life. Will Jones was former Senior Warden, choir member, usher, and lay reader. We miss him.

Less permanently but with equal thanks, we bid farewell to two Vestry members who are rotating off of Vestry today. Dean Caswell and Justin Bohlmann have provided much introspection and valuable insight in our deliberations, not to mention comic relief. We thank them for their contributions even as we look forward to the work with new members.

And on a final note, it is appropriate to mention new staff members as well. This September we welcomed a new secretary and new minister of music. Dyan Wapnick is our secretary and comes with years of experience at IBM. She has slipped seamlessly into our office and is making it hum with good natured efficiency.

Peggy Stern became our Minister of Music at about the same time, and already we can tell the difference in our worship. All we have to do is remember how glorious the music was at Christmas, and we can see her impact. To both of them, I say a heartfelt and warm, “Welcome, and thanks!”

With all this taking place in our parish, it’s hard to believe that we are in difficult financial circumstances. We have done much with little, and we have done so with faith and trust that God is guiding us in our mutual ministry. Recovery is our word this year. Let us recover not only financially, but in our zeal to bring others to faith in Christ and our desire to grow in our own faith. Thank you.

God, Life and Everything - Facebook Prayer Chain

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

About a year ago, I got on Facebook. I did it mostly to keep in touch with youth group kids, especially as they went off to college.

If you’ve ever been on Facebook, then you know that not only can you share information about your daily comings and goings but you can play games (I like Farkel and Mafia Wars), give friends virtual gifts and join groups with silly names like, “I’m in favor of a ‘dislike’ button.”

Still, the main thing is keeping in touch with friends, and for me things started to become interesting when an old buddy from high school “friended” me, which means he found my name and wanted to reestablish contact. Friending is the act of inviting someone to become your Facebook Friend. If they accept your offer, then the two of you can access each other’s personal information, chat, even share pictures and videos.

It was great to hook up with Paul. Then came Lucy, and Jim and Marcy. Before long more than forty friends from back home were my friends from Facebook. After awhile, we got to know the names of each other’s children and (yikes!) grandchildren. We even began planning our thirtieth class reunion – which we had last summer.

It really was much more interesting because now when I went up to someone I di

Soon other friends from the old days were sharing each other’s names, and before long, I had reestablished contact with more than forty former classmates. Just in time, too, since they were busy planning our thirtieth class reunion. The whole thing was organized on Facebook.

It’s all been fun.

Then, last week, one of my old classmates sent out word that she had a brain tumor. Now this social chitchat has changed. Prayer chains from California to Illinois to New York have been activated.

She gives updates on the visits to the surgeon. Her sister gives updates. Friends send out prayers for recovery. Everybody stays informed, aware, and concerned.

Why is this important? Whether you believe in God and prayer or not, it is so helpful to know that others care. There’s something powerful about knowing that you are not alone in the midst of your trials, that you are surrounded by love even if you can’t see the people doing the surrounding.

There is a lot of valid talk about how technology is alienating us. Many lament that people don’t write letters anymore and mock those who text each other while in the same room. We despair over those who spend countless hours in front of their computers “networking.”

But like so many other tools, it’s not the technology itself that causes the problem. It is merely a tool and can be used well or foolishly. For me, Facebook has been a way to revive relationships I thought were long forgotten. And in the case of one friend, it has opened up a much larger circle of caring and prayer. When used with concern and love, even Facebook can be good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some praying to do.

An Obedient Child? - A Sermon

I remember – well mostly through being told by my family – the one time when I got left behind at a store. I’m sure this sort of thing happens to people all the time, but in my case I was about five, and we were at a Ben Franklin dime store. I had started out in the toy aisle with my brother but at some point he slipped away without me noticing.

Now, there are six kids in my family, so the folks always did roll call in the station wagon before going anywhere but this time my brother apparently got it into his head to answer for me when my name got called, so they didn’t notice I was missing until they got home. As the story goes, by the time the rushed back into the store, they found me still in the toy aisle virtually unmoved. If you’ve ever been with me to a museum, you know what I’m talking about.

I bring this up because this Gospel passage struck a chord with me when I see Jesus left behind. The similarities are striking. I mean, there he was on a trip with his family – and a whole crowd of family and friends traveling together as they did. When it was time to go, it was easy to think twelve-year-old Jesus was off with one of his cousins or friends. So it’s only when they get a day’s journey out of Jerusalem that they notice he’s gone.

In a panic, they rush back and find him where? Where they left him? Possibly since they were there for the Passover, it would make sense that this was their last stop before heading home. He could have simply been caught up in conversation – for three days.

There are differences, of course, aside from the obvious fact that Jesus is the Son of God. He was twelve and while still a child also approaching manhood – which in Israel at the time officially started at thirteen. He was also missing for three days, not a matter of maybe a half hour. If I had noticed my family was gone, I would have freaked out. Jesus knew where he was and who was there.

But perhaps the biggest difference is in his response. I believe my response was something like, “Look at this toy car!” Jesus’ response to his parents was “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” That probably would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap, especially if I was twelve. I mean that’s attitude.

Which leaves us a question of why Luke would show us this story of adolescent Jesus in the first place. I mean, there were the wonderful birth stories which leave you feeling all warm and gooey. There are also some really fun stories about Jesus’ childhood that did not make it into scripture but were out there at the time: There was one when Jesus formed birds out of clay and then breathed life into them so they would fly away. There was another when a playmate died, and he raised him.

But Luke picks one where Jesus not only causes his parents anguish but doesn’t even say he’s sorry. And while it’s true that Luke says he went home and was obedient afterwards, have you ever looked at Jesus and Mary’s interactions after this?

Aside from when he’s on the cross in John’s gospel, they are not pleasant. At the wedding in Cana when Mary asks Jesus to do something about the wine, Jesus says, “Woman, what is that to you?” Calling her “woman” by the way, is intentionally sharp. Or when he is preaching near his home, and his family including Mary come to “collect” him because they think he is out of his mind – and he says, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters but those who do the will of my Father?”

He is starting to pull away from them. Luke – who is the only evangelist to tell this story – is showing how Jesus is already pulling away from his earthly family. He is on a mission, and in Luke’s gospel that mission always includes Jerusalem. Look at the arc of this story: Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover. He is gone for three days. He is recovered. Then there is obedience.

That’s the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. This little story is a prelude to the entire gospel. And remember that Luke’s gospel does not end with the resurrection but is continued uninterrupted with Acts and the stories of the apostles. That part about being “Obedient,” certainly applied to Jesus in that he was obedient to his father in heaven, but in Luke’s scheme, the obedience applies to us as well. We are the rest of that story – called to the same obedience to God that Jesus was.

I’m not sure this is really a comforting story. Not only does it show us yet again that Jesus’ family values essentially consisted of doing whatever God asked regardless of the earthly family’s feelings, but it points to us. If this is Jesus’ approach to life, then it is to be ours as well.

Can we do this? Can you or I get so completely wrapped up in God that we just let everyone else slip by? Can we become so focused on doing God’s will that the protests of those we love fall on deaf ears? Can you or I find our primary obedience in God’s will?

I don’t know. All we can do is sit and listen to him and see where it takes us. And trust that not only is God loving and forgiving, but that everyone around you is on the same journey – and we can support each other as we try to figure out what it means to be that obedient child of God. Amen.

God, Life and Everything - Happy Epiphany

I write a column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

Happy Epiphany. Or Tres Reyes or Drei K├Ânige or whatever it is called throughout the world. It’s a bigger holiday in many countries and cultures than it is here.

In fact, you may never have even heard of Epiphany. But you might want to.

In Western churches like Roman Catholics or Anglicans, Epiphany commemorates the visitation of the wise men from the east who brought the infant Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the Eastern churches – Russian and Greek Orthodox, for example, Epiphany refers to the baptism of Christ.

How, you may ask, can two different groups have a holiday by the same name that commemorates different events? Easy. The key is that the word means “appearance” or “manifestation,” and it means that in these events, Jesus’ divinity is made clear to the world.

The whole world. Not just the chosen people.

Our more familiar celebration of the visit of the wise men – or magi, as they are also called – is celebrated January 6 often with special cakes, parades and other fun stuff we miss out on here in America. It officially marks the end of Christmas (you know that song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? Well count back from January 6 and see where that takes you.)

But the important thing for Christians is that Epiphany says God’s love is open to everyone.

This may not seem very revolutionary, but in a day and age where gods were territorial and where each country – heck, each county sometimes – had its own god, it was pretty big. Even in Judaism, God was seen to be specific to that country, that group of people. Epiphany is meant to tell us that God is God of everyone, and that the benefits of loving God are open to all.

This may not mean a lot if you don’t believe in God or if you look around the world and rightly recognize that the Church (generically) has often brought pain and suffering rather than the love it was supposed to. Even so, there is power in this commemoration.

The power is not that people of faith have done nothing but good. Obviously, that is not true. It will never be true. I’m sorry to say that, regardless of a person’s or a nation’s stated beliefs – or lack of belief – they are people. People tend to throw the rules of Love out the window when it comes to their own interests. This has been true for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists to name a few.

But what Epiphany can remind us of – again, regardless of our beliefs – is that this is a small world, and we are all connected. What happens to a child in, say Zimbabwe, affects me. What happens to an old man in, say Hyde Park, affects a young woman in Vietnam. For people of faith we say that we are all God’s children. For others, perhaps, they might say that we are inhabitants of the same island.

Either way, what it says is that you and I are connected and that we matter to each other. We can choose to forget it if we want – we often do – but it’s still true. And that manifestation of God’s love to the whole world is a good place to start recognizing it.