Jersey Girls Don't Pump Gas

Sermon Preached on August 25th at
101st Street Pavillion, Stone Harbor, NJ and
on August 26th at
St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church
Proper 16C

About 2 or 3 weeks after I moved to Court House, I drove down to the Wa Wa in Rio Grande. It was pretty crowded and all the attendants were helping other customers, so I got out of my car and began pumping gas. An attendant came over to me and very kindly said, “Ma’am, it’s against the law.” He might as well have told me that I had two heads and a horn because I couldn’t even imagine what he was talking about. So, I said, “I’m sorry. What is against the law?” and he replied, “pumping gas.” I said, “You’re kidding, right?” I had never heard of such a thing. I’ve been putting gas into my car or my parents’ cars since I was 16 years old living in Wisconsin. But then he pointed to the sign on the gas pump that, sure enough, told me the attendant was right. I’ve since learned that the ban went into effect in the 1940s and all of the details can be found in the Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act. I also learned that if I had been stopped by a police officer instead of the gas station attendant, I could have been “liable for a penalty of not less than $50.00 and not more than $250.00 for a first offense.”[i] Yikes!

From the moment we leave our homes, we are confronted by all kinds of rules and regulations. Perhaps a speed limit sign is posted on your street, a yield sign or stop sign at the end of the block. We stop at the local store and a sign tells us that a shirt and shoes are required and that our pets needs to wait outside – more rules. With school about to begin, I checked out the Parent-Student handbook for the Lower Township Elementary School District and found a 60-page book of rules! And, I checked the shelves of the local library and found these titles: Handbook of the Nautical Rules of the Road,[ii] Robert's Rules of Order: The Classic Manual of Parliamentary Procedure,[iii] Hopscotch, Hangman, Hot-Potato, and Ha, Ha, Ha : A Rule Book of Children's Games,[iv] The New Rules of Golf[v] - a dazzling array of rules for nearly any occasion. Now the church is not to be left out because we also have our books of rules - Canons and Constitutions are rules that govern how our churches conduct business – at the diocesan level and at the national level. And, even our Book of Common Prayer is actually filled with a number of rules, called “rubrics” – they tell us things like when we should sit or stand, which Sundays of the liturgical year are particularly appropriate for the celebration of baptism, what words must be said and what words can be modified, and, believe it or not, there is even a rule about when announcements should take place: “Necessary announcements may be made before the service, after the Creed, before the Offertory, or at the end of the service, as convenient” (that’s on page 407 for those of you who want to check it out).

And so it would seem that whether we are driving down the street, fishing in the Bay, attending a business meeting, or playing a friendly game of hopscotch, we are asked to follow a set of rules appropriate to the activity. And, fortunately, most of the time, most of us follow these rules – whether they make sense to us or not. Is it our civic responsibility, a deep-seated moral duty, or does it just seem like the right thing to do? No matter, we tend to follow the rules.

However, in addition to all of these rules, we also have an often used adage in our culture that says “rules are meant to be broken.” A little bit of the rebel resides in each of us, I suspect. I’ve been known to jaywalk. Sometimes I don’t count a whiff in golf as a stroke. I know, call me a rebel! And, I confess, I didn’t even know there were rules in hangman!

But in today’s gospel reading, when Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath rule, I suspect it was not because he was feeling rebellious that day. Nor do I think he was simply unfamiliar with the rule. In fact, the rule that the leader of the synagogue sites comes from the book of Exodus which says, “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.”[vii] Why such harsh punishment for working on the Sabbath day? For the Jews, the day of Sabbath rest was understood as a sign of God’s covenant with the people and was closely linked with the story of creation which says God created heaven and earth in six days and rested and was refreshed on the seventh day.[viii]

If we go back to that creation story in Genesis, here is what we find in reference to that seventh day: “And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.[ix] The Sabbath was set apart by God as a day to celebrate and find refreshment in the beauty of the created order. But since creation, the created order is no longer the beauty it once was. Sin has entered the world and the world is no longer as God intended it to be. There is hatred and anger, illness and distress, oppression and divisions. And it is into this fallen world that Jesus comes. And on this Sabbath day, Jesus enters the synagogue and he sees a woman “bent over” and “quite unable to stand up straight;” a woman who has been living for eighteen years as a social outcast “with a spirit that had crippled her.”[x] And Jesus does what he believes the Sabbath calls us to do – he restores the fallen nature of this one person. He lays his hands on her and “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”[xi] And, through this simple, yet utterly transforming, action he celebrates her release from bondage to sickness – just as any of those present would have released from bondage their ox or donkey in order to give it water.[xii]

Whereas the leader of the synagogue shows only his concern for the Sabbath law, Jesus shows his concern for the woman’s suffering. Whereas the leader of the synagogue is concerned about the proper observance of the Sabbath, Jesus as healer and the woman, once healed, demonstrate the only proper observance of the Sabbath – praising God through our actions and through our words. While the leader of the synagogue is undoubtedly able to speak about the future promises of God’s kingdom, the healed woman is able to celebrate God’s kingdom presence in her life right now.[xiii]

As we gather together now to worship God and as we continue our worship through our actions and words throughout the week, let us not be consumed and tied down by the nuances of the rules around us, but rather let us fill our time working with God and one another for the restoration of creation as we celebrate and share God’s kingdom presence in our own life and the lives of those around us.

[i] “Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act and Regulations,” State of New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development accessed online on August 24, 2007.
[ii] Authors: Christopher B. Llana and George P. Wisneskey
[iii] Author: Henry M. Robert ; with an introduction by Judith A. Roberts
[iv] Author: Jack Maguire; Foreward by Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan
[v] Authors: Tom Watson with Frank Hannigan
[vii] Exodus 31:15.
[viii] Exodus 31:17.
[ix] Genesis 2:2-3.
[x] Luke 13:11.
[xi] Luke 13:13.
[xii] R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, p. 274.
[xiii] Robert Karn, “The Gospel According to Luke,” The New Jerome Bible Commentary, p. 705.


Can't We Just Get Back to the Business of Being the Church?

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay
Villas, NJ on
August 19, 2007
Proper 15C

In light of the many controversies plaguing the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion and, indeed, the faithful of nearly every denomination, it can get exhausting fighting and debating and going round and round about what the Bible does or doesn’t say about the distinctions between priests and lay persons, about whether or not women should be allowed to preside at the Eucharist, and about what role gays and lesbians out to be allowed to have in the church or in society at large. Perhaps you’ve even wondered – as I have - “When can we get back to the business of just being the Church?” When I’m feeling this way, it is usually because I have Jesus’ words in my head. When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replies, the greatest and first commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and that the second commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself”?[1] Can’t we all just get along? Shouldn’t we just love one another in Christ and forget about all these controversies and divisions?

The answer is never a simple yes or a simple no. We should, of course, love one another in Christ, but we must also give heed to the words we heard from Luke’s gospel this morning:
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law”[2]
What can this mean? What kind of love, if it is truly love, can also bring about such division? Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, wrote, “Unfortunately, the true Christian concept of love has sometimes been discredited by those who have sentimentalized it.”[3] In our culture we talk about love in ways that would have been completely alien to Jesus. For example, the expression “falling in love” first appeared in the 15th century; “romantic love” didn’t appear until the 17th century; and, because I am a lover of dogs, I looked up the expression, “puppy love” and learned it didn’t appear until the 19th century.[4] Within the context of Scripture, love is more often coupled with notions of justice, righteousness, and mercy - each of which has implications far beyond our day-to-day nuancing of what it means to love.[5]

Thomas Merton goes on to say that Christian love does not free us “from energetic and sacrificial social action to restore violated rights to the oppressed, to create work for the workless, so that the hungry may eat and that everyone may have a chance to earn a decent wage.”[6] Is it possible that the love of which Jesus so often preached is, in fact, not so different from the division of which he speaks in today’s gospel reading? Jesus did not come to accept the status quo, to leave the world as it was, but rather he came, out of God’s merciful and passionate love for us, to begin restoring the social order as it was created, to turn the world on its head so that the hungry would no longer be hungry, the poor would no longer be poor, and the homeless would no longer be homeless. And this kind of love was, not surprisingly, often met with resistance and resulted in divisions – even among family members.

Today (at the 9:30 service) we will celebrate not one, but two baptisms, into new life in Christ. Luke and Dylan will be fully initiated by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church, a lasting bond established by God.[7] As part of the sacrament of baptism we all make certain promises. The first of these is a commitment to support these persons in their life in Christ.[8] And, if we have any question as to what that means, we immediately proceed to the renewal of our own baptismal covenant. Through the covenant, we reaffirm our promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.[9] This is a tall order and we cannot do it alone – but, with God’s help, as a gathered community of faith, we do not have to do it alone. It is out of our love of God and out of our promise to love one another as Christ loved us that we must continue to persevere.

So, when we are tempted to wonder, “Can’t we just get back to the business of being the Church?” we must remind ourselves that this is the business of the Church because, my friends, until there is justice and peace among all people, the loving work of the faithful is not finished. Luke and Dylan are just beginning their journeys in faith and they need each one of us – from the youngest to the oldest - to provide them, through our words and through our actions, an example of the Good News of God in Christ.

[1] Matthew 22:36-40.
[2] Luke 12:51-53.
[3] Thomas Merton, “Christian Humanism,” Love and Living, edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), p. 138.
[4] “Love”, “Puppy”, and “Romantic”, Online Etymology Dictionary accessed online on August 18, 2007.
[5] Cf. I Kings 3:6, Psalm 33:5, Jeremiah 9:24, Luke 11:42, Ephesians 2:4
[6] Merton, p. 138.
[7] BCP, p. 298.
[8] BCP, p. 303.
[9] BCP, p. 305.


On the Mountain Top. . . For a Time

Sermon Preached August 9, 2007
Saint Barnabas-by-the-Bay Episcopal Church

The Feast of the Transfiguration is one of three days that our prayer book says should take precedent over the “usual” readings when they happen to fall on a Sunday. The other two days are The Holy Name and The Presentation. This year, the Feast of the Transfiguration, always August 6th, fell on Monday and, because of its central place in the life of the church, I opted to transfer it to our Thursday Eucharist this morning.

In the Eastern Church – Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and so forth – the Feast of the Transfiguration is held in very high esteem because “the figure of the transfigured Christ is regarded as a foreshadowing of the Risen and Ascended Lord.”[i] In fact it is one of twelve great festivals in the East Orthodox calendar and has been celebrated since the 4th century. In the West, the festival was not recognized until much later – in the middle of the 15th century among Roman Catholics and by the Episcopal Church in 1892. Since that time, most modern Anglican calendars include this celebration.

The readings are not unfamiliar to us as they are the same stories we encounter on the last Sunday of Epiphany each year. In that context, we typically focus on the revelation of the true nature of Jesus as the Son of God just before we begin our journey through Lent toward the cross.[ii] The gospel reading is so vivid in its description – “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” A mountain top experience of the most extraordinary proportions!

Has there been a time in your life when you have experienced God’s presence in a way that was beyond the ordinary. Perhaps it was in viewing a beautiful sunset over the bay, maybe it was holding the hand of a loved one as they died, it may have been a conversation you had, or a dream. When I think back to times like these – I remember having climbed to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, I sat down on a rock and just looked around me and thought, “Wow, this is it” - when I think back to times like these, I often wish I could go back, to relive that experience, that moment of transformation when I realized something greater than I really was present in the world. And in those moments, I can remember wishing that I could just stay there and never leave.

I suspect that when Peter offers to “make three dwellings” on the mountain – one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – a similar notion crossed his mind. He recognized the sheer power of the moment, the glory of the experience, and he wanted to capture it forever with a monument to its significance. Imagine how the gospel would have changed had Jesus acquiesced. We might still have the stories of Jesus’ miraculous birth, his early teachings and stories about those whom he had healed and it all would have led up to this beautiful mountain top experience that three disciples were privileged to have witnessed – that moment when “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” and he spent the rest of his life dwelling on that mountain in the presence of Moses and Elijah. Compared with the magnificence of the resurrection and ascension, I’d say this alternative ending is pretty anti-climactic.

And that is just the point. While having a mountain top experience can frequently mark a transformative point in our lives – a transfiguring moment – we cannot live in that moment forever. We cannot even adequately capture it. Many of us have had the experience of taking a photo of some beautiful natural phenomenon only to find when the film is developed or when we view the image on the internet that the picture simply doesn’t do justice to the event. We cannot live in the moment forever. We cannot even capture it. Instead, we are called to continue on. New Testament scholar R. Alan Culpepper writes, “The dangers of such [mountaintop] experiences . . . are that we may either fail to learn from them as we ought, or we may want to make them the norm and withdraw from the day-to-day struggle that fills most of life.” Culpepper goes on to say that “Discipleship involves following, going on. . . Faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment but by following on in confidence that God is leading and that what lies ahead is greater than what we have already experienced.”[iii]

In the experience of God’s greatness we are refreshed, we are renewed, we are reassured but ultimately that refreshment, renewal, and reassurance are provided so that we can continue to move forward in the world as disciples of Christ feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, and healing the sick. And so this morning, it is fitting to have these readings followed by the litany of healing and the laying on of hands and anointing with Holy oil for this is one of the sacraments of refreshment, renewal, and reassurance given to us by God so that we might go forth into the world loving and serving Christ in all persons.

[i] Lesser Feasts and Fasts, p. 332.
[ii] James Kiefer, “Feast of the Transfiguration,” The Lectionary accessed online on August 8, 2007.
[iii] R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, p. 207.


Enough is More Than Enough with God

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay in Villas, NJ on
Sunday, August 5, 2007
Proper 13C

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”[1] These words were spoken by FDR in his 1933 inaugural address to our nation. In 1933, the United States was at the height of the Great Depression with unemployment at an all time high of 24.9%.[2] And Roosevelt, stepping into a role of leadership in these dark times did not, in his inaugural address, tell the public, “it’s all under control” nor did he tell the public they need only trust the politicians to get things turned around. Instead, he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

In this year – 2007 – we are far from the perils of 1933; although a look at the evening news may sometimes cause you to question that. Nonetheless, I assure you, unemployment rates in our nation fluctuate from between four and five percent and here in Lower Township that number falls to about 3.5% But I do not call your attention to these inaugural words of Roosevelt in order to talk this morning about statistics or about national politics – though I am enjoying the irony of using someone else’s inaugural words as part of my own inaugural words. Instead, I bring these words to our attention – “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” – as a way to help us delve into today’s Scripture readings which, at first blush, are not all that cheery and, in fact, may have some of you wondering – as I did earlier this week – where is the Good News?

Jesus says to the gathered crowd, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”[3] Really? Are we sure about that? I have to wonder if this statement of Jesus was as counter-cultural in his time as it is in ours. Because in our time – especially in the Western hemisphere – we are obsessed with possessions (or at least the advertisers think that we are). According to advertisements, we want to – no, need to have a gas grill that is bigger and more powerful than that of our neighbors, we need to have a yard with a gazebo and a pool, our cell phones need to have all the latest features (I’m not even sure what features those are any more). Small homes in relatively good condition are torn down so that mansions can be built in their place. Drinks and beverages that list their serving sizes are not even sold in packages that small. Everything around us is geared around our obsession with possessions, our obsession with more.

The flip side of this obsession can be a feeling of inadequacy when we do not have what everyone around us has. When we have less than those around us, we may begin to feel panicky. In the church, we can become panicky about what we don’t have – enough young families with children in the pews, enough opportunities for Christian formation or outreach – and we can become panicky about paying for what we do have – a new Vicar, the electric bill, repairs to the building. We see what others around us have and what others around us are doing and we think, “in order to be successful, we have to have those things and do those things too.” And in the midst of our panic and our fear, we lose sight of something very important.

In Jesus’ parable this morning, God tells the rich man who has torn down his barns to build bigger barns – large enough to hold his over abundance of crops – God tells this man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?"[4] The rich man in the parable has lost sight of what is important – he has lost sight of the promises of the reign of God. Like the rich man, you and I, when we focus on what we do not have, will find it is very difficult to see and be thankful for what we do have. And, perhaps even more importantly, our focus on our perceived shortcomings makes it difficult to see that in God’s presence, what we already have and what we already are is more than enough. For, in the presence of God, enough is always more than enough.

You and I are just beginning our journey in ministry together. My toes are barely wet and already the gears are turning in my mind as I ponder what “might be” in God’s future for us. What is God planning for St. Barnabas? I am looking forward to being out in the community with you working with God for justice in the world. I am excited about opportunities for ministry with St. Mary’s in Stone Harbor to which God may call us. I am thankful that you have called me here and I am looking forward. I am excited and I hope you are too. I hope that you have ideas for what “might be” in the future of St. Barnabas. And I hope you are setting time aside to ask God where St. Barnabas is being called. Looking ahead, daring to dream, listening for God’s voice in the midst of our community is healthy work. This looking forward is necessary work if we are to walk together and grow in faith together.

But here is the point I want you to take home with you today. As important as it is to be excited about our future together and as important it is to start dreaming dreams, it is even more important that you know this truth. The St. Barnabas of yesterday and of today – with all of your hopes and all of your fears, all of your disappointments and all of your accomplishments – this St. Barnabas, sitting in this sanctuary today, is already living in the presence of God. There is nothing magical about my being here and there is nothing magical about our future together. You are, as you are, enough. And, in the presence of God, enough is always more than enough.

[1] Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933, as published in Samuel Rosenman, ed., The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933 (New York: Random House, 1938), 11–16 accessed online on August 2, 2007.
[2] Steve Kangas, “The Great Depression: Its Causes and Cure,” Liberalism Resurgent (1997) accessed online on August 2, 2007.
[3] Luke 12:15.
[4] Luke 12:20.

Sermon preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay
Villas, New Jersey
on August 2, 2007
Transferred Feast of Joseph of Arimathea (August 1)

There are relatively few things on which all four gospel writers agree. So, it is, in my opinion, a very remarkable feat that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John each write of the Arimathean man named Joseph who goes to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea is only mentioned in Scripture in this one incident we read about today. He is mentioned in no other context in the gospels nor is he ever referred to be Paul or the other epistle writers. Despite the limited time he is allotted, however, Joseph of Arimathea has been given a Feast Day to be celebrated in the Episcopal Church on or near the first of August.

What is it exactly that makes Joseph of Arimathea so remarkable – so worthy of a day set apart – so worthy of our attention? To be sure, it is very generous of him to provide a tomb in which to lay the body of Jesus and this is, in fact, the detail that all four gospels agree on. But you and I both know that Jesus’ time spent in that tomb is relatively short and we might even conjecture that without such a tomb, the resurrection and ascension would well have happened anyhow. So, I don’t think the provision of a tomb for Jesus’ body is the point of this feast day.

We also know that Joseph knew something about who Jesus was. In the first place, we are told “he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.” The gospels of Matthew and John actually refer to Joseph of Arimathea as “a disciple of Jesus.” Joseph is, like the other followers of Jesus, a Jew and, according to Jewish custom, he wraps Jesus’ body in cloth made of linen – a fabric of honor reserved typically for those of a royal or priestly class. Throughout the Old Testament references are made to the linen garments worn by priests and kings and to the many linen curtains inside the temple, and other places that are set apart for the Holy. And while we are perhaps not surprised that it is a follower of Jesus who tends so carefully to the body of Jesus, again, I do not think this is the primary reason for this feast day.

In fact, I think the primary reason for our celebration of Joseph of Arimathea has to do with another aspect of his person. For, in addition to being a man who is “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God,” he is also “a member of the council.” Just who is this council? A portion of the gospel reading for Palm Sunday can provide us with some insight – this reading also comes from Luke’s gospel, just one chapter prior to the reading for today:

When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. They said, "If you are the Messiah, tell us." He replied, "If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God." All of them asked, "Are you, then, the Son of God?" He said to them, "You say that I am." Then they said, "What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!" Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate.[i]
Joseph of Arimathea is a member of this council – the council that brought Jesus before Pilate to be tried. But what we learn from today’s reading – and what I believe is the reason for which Joseph is remembered by all four gospel writers and continues to be honored with a feast day even today – is that Joseph, “though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action.” Joseph was there on the day when the council brought Jesus before Pilate, but Joseph did not agree with their actions. And so, Joseph dared now to go before Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus so that he might take it down, wrap it in a linen cloth, and lay it in a tomb where no one had ever been laid. This is a bold action – a bold action for the Gospel of Christ. And it is the very type of bold action to which you and I are invited to entertain as we live our lives as Christians.

Wherever we live – whether that is right here in the Villas, in Rio Grande, or Cape May, Court House, or Wildwood – wherever we are, we are called to take bold action in the face of injustice, to look for opportunities to live out our faith in action even if that means we will be “unpopular” in our circle of friends or colleagues. Certainly Joseph’s actions were not looked upon with favor by the other members of the council. Nonetheless, because he “was a good and righteous man,” there was only one action he could take and he dared to take it.

As you and I begin our journey in ministry together, what opportunities for ministry will we encounter in our congregation, in our community, in the world? How will we respond to those opportunities? As we celebrate the Feast of Joseph of Arimathea this morning, I pray that God will grant each of us the courage of Joseph “to love and serve Jesus” in all that we encounter.

[i] Luke 22:66-23:1.