Monday, June 25, 2007

Aflame with the Love of God

Proclaiming the Good News: You are Loved by God
A sermon preached by the Rev’d Peter De Franco, Interim Rector of St. Peter’s Church, Clifton, New Jersey on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2007

On May 17, a tornado touched down in Allendale, New Jersey and nothing was the same. Trees were torn from the earth and their roots exposed while the wind knocked down other trees and sent them smashing into homes and on top of cars. The town was a tragedy. Such is the power of the wind.
In the tornado belt, there are people who are captivated by Tornadoes. When tornado season comes, they closely follow the weather and when conditions are ripe for a tornado they get into their cars and search it out for the thrill of seeing a funnel cloud touch down with its unspeakable power and twist and destroy everything in its path. These people are thrilled to be in the presence of such power and strength. Their cousins on the east coast hurry to the beach when a hurricane is lashing the coast to witness the power of the wind and water as it churns the ocean, devastates the coast and even sends houses crashing into the water at the onslaught of such power.
I am not sure if the wind that blew on that Pentecost morning in Jerusalem morning registered as a tornado. I doubt it. I do not think that God is in the business of terrifying people into belief. But the transformation in the hearts and souls of those first Christian women and men on that Pentecost morning more than matched the transformation of the land and sea with any wind storm.
Just imagine who the disciples were before Pentecost. They were the ones who denied Jesus. They were the ones who left him to die alone. They were the ones who were slaves to fear, afraid of what the Jewish and Roman leaders might do to them, afraid to follow Jesus, afraid to share the story of what happened to them.
But then came Pentecost. That group who left Jesus alone to die would go out into the world and all of them would suffer death for the Gospel they proclaimed> That group who were slaves to fear were filled with faith. That group who, before the crucifixion, were afraid of their own shadow covered the known world with the message that Jesus was raised from the dead and that God’s love for them would sustain them even in the midst of the harshest tests that came their way.
Let’s take a look at the patron of our church – Peter from Galilee. Something changed in that man. After Pentecost Peter acted as he never acted before. Something shifted in his heart. The Spirit did something in Peter’s heart. For you see, Peter was a fearful man. Yes, he would brag a lot. Yes, he would say that he would follow Jesus no matter what. Yes, he would be the leader of the disciples. But when it came to the cross, Peter tucked his tail between his legs like a frightened dog and ran off for the house and hid himself under the porch.
After the resurrection, Jesus restored Peter to a new friendship with him. But that was only the start. When that flame of Pentecost burned over his head, it first burned in his heart. That flame of love burned in his heart, burning away the fear and replacing it with faith. Peter, who cowered before a slave girl, who denied Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest, who ran and hid when Jesus walked the walk to the cross, was a changed man on Pentecost. He was a changed man because the Holy Spirit displaced fear with faith. Peter stepped out in faith and laid aside his fear. He shared with others the unspeakable story that we are loved, loved by our God and cherished, cherished and cared for even in the midst of any cross that comes our way.
We for our part are called this day to be like Peter. We can do nothing less. Today many of us are wearing red and four of us will win prizes for the most red clothing. That contest is supposed to make you stand out, it is supposed to make people look at you. And when they look at you, I invite you to tell at least one other person this day that the flame of Pentecost has touched your heart. That you are a person who is loved by God. That you want to share with others the good news that God is pouring down from heaven a fire storm of love burning in our hearts and changing us into disciples who carry the good news into the world.
On this day, Christina and Carmine will be born again in the water of Baptism and will be anointed with the Holy Spirit. They will profess their faith in the love of God who draws them this day into the circle of God’s family. With them, we shall affirm our own baptismal covenant when we promise that we shall proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
On this day, you shall all receive a lapel pin with the flame of the Spirit and the cross. I invite you this day to wear that pin in a place that others can see it and share with someone the good news that you received this day. News of faith. News of release from fear. News of Love. News of faith giving you strength to proclaim the good news of God’s compassion for you this day.

Where is the Spanish Mass

Taking Down the Walls
A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Peter De Franco at St. Peter’s Episocpal Church, Clifton,New Jersey on May 6, 2007.

Perhaps we have all met some who has a case of Know It All syndrome. The major symptom of Know it all syndrome is that no mater what you say, they already know the answer. Now Know it all syndrome comes in a various decrees of severity.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we regularly meet people who have a milder case of the Know It All Syndrome. Last week, we met a mild case of the know it all syndrome in the person of Ananias. You will recall that after Saul is blinded by a vision of the Risen Christ, that same Christ visits Ananias in a vision and tells him to go and baptize Saul.
Thinking that the Lord did not read the latest news in the Jerusalem Journal, Ananias reminds the Lord that Saul have been persecuting the church and so asks the Lord to reconsider his plans for such an unworthy candidate for baptism. God lets Ananias know of God’s bigger plan for Saul. Ananias finally gives in to God’s vision.
In today’s reading, Peter is the one who shows signs of Know it all syndrome. In today’s reading, Peter has been called on the carpet by the church in Jerusalem for baptizing and eating with Gentiles.
For us who are gentiles, we make the assumption that the church always included us. Do we consider ourselves outsiders whom God has brought in? Yet that is exactly how the Jewish Christians would have thought of us. For Peter and the other leaders of the church in Jerusalem, we were the ones who were on the outside, who did not belong to the Church. We seldom think of ourselves as outsiders for we have been a part of the church for most of our lives. Yet until that first meal that Peter ate with Cornelius, all of us who are Gentiles were outside the family of God, excluded from the promises, and strangers to God’s Family.
When God tells Peter that it is OK to eat the Jimmy Dean Sausage, Peter gets an attack of Know it all syndrome. Peter tells God that never has he eaten unkosher food.
God has a bigger plan. Peter does not yet understand that plan. Only after Peter goes to the house of Cornelius and witnesses the Holy Spirit descend on Cornelius and his family does Peter get a glimpse into God’s broader vision. Peter puts it this way: The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
I want to tell you another story. Many of you have seen the large sing put up by St. Peter’s Haven advertising the ESL classes. Many of you know that those classes have grown from one class in September to 5 classes this April. We shall begin a Citizenship class in the summer. We are making efforts to help those in our community to become a part of our broader community.
A Spanish speaking volunteer at the Haven is among those studying English. She attends class two days each week. We speak with each other, she in broken English and I in broken Spanish, and she told me that some of the students coming to the class asked her: When is the Spanish Mass? When is the Spanish Mass?
When I first heard that question, I asked myself who is asking the question. It was not the student who was asking the question. In that student’s voice, I heard God asking us, in the voice of that student, when is the Spanish Mass? The people who have been coming to the haven for shelter and food and now education are asking when they can come here to worship.
Today, I am asking us to begin to listen to that question. I am asking us to begin looking at moving out in ministry to the people who are around us but are not a part of this community because we are separated from us by a different language.
I know that many of us might feel as if people who live in the United States should adopt the culture of the country to which they have moved and language is a critical part of that cultural scene. But let’s think for a while about language and prayer.
For most of us here, English is our first language. We speak in English, think in English and naturally speak to God in English. Some of us here have parents and grandparents whose first language was not English. My Grandmother came to the United States from Hungary and she spoke 8 languages. Her first language was German and whenever she prayed she would pray in German. For her, German was her first language and a person’s first language is the language of their heart.
Our conversations with God come from our hearts and flow from our hearts in our first language. So while people can become part of the community in speaking English, the language in which we speak to God is in our first language. By opening our church to those who are different than we are, we can start with a Spanish Mass and eventually move to occasional bilingual services and even to sharing food with one another in fellowship meals.
That would mark a very big change for us. It is not unlike the change to which God invited St. Peter. Peter put it this way: The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.
Today I am asking questions, opening a dialogue, inviting you to consider. In the future, as we look at the future shape of our ministry, we can engage in a dialogue on this issue. This is a complex dialogue, with many dimensions, and we all need to talk about this, to express our concerns, to figure out how we can go from here to there, to figure out if we even want to go there.
I know that you had begun to talk about this form of ministry while Hank was rector. I am making that same invitation. Today’s reading is about God breaking down walls that kept people apart. To take down this wall will gradually change our lives together. We were once on the other side of that wall. By God’s gracious gift we have become insiders. Part of God’s family. Can we find it in our hearts to extend to those who are currently outsiders to our community an invitation to make them insiders? Can we begin to tear down the wall of language that separates us from them?
The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. Just as Peter was changed by his vision to include the Gentiles, is God calling us at St. Peter’s Church to move into a new vision?

Clothed With The Sun

The Mystery of the Assumption
A Sermon by the Reverend Peter De Franco, Jr.
Interim Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Clifton, New Jersey

When was the last time you saw a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars? Not even in Times Square would you see such a sight, unless it might be on Halloween or if you were high on something, but she is not the person whom you would gingerly meet on the way. Yet she is the person whom we encounter with the opening antiphon of today’s liturgy: A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
With this language, strange and unworldly, we enter into the world of the apocalyptic. No, this is not the world of those misguided souls who would hasten the coming of the end of the world that they might catch the greatest 4th of July fireworks display. No, this is not the world of those who would more quickly pray for atomic war so as it have the world’s international scene fit their misconstrued notions of the end of times.
No, this is the world of those who are tired of the politics of this world and know that only God can usher in a new world order, and that world order does not need an atomic bomb blast but the gentle wind of the Holy Spirit to cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly. An apocalyptic world view pushes us to edge of the symbolic world, a world where image defines a deeper reality and where flights of fantasy take us into a world of hopes, deeper than the power of the human imagination but not craftier then the might of the divine heart. An apocalyptic world view takes us into the season of Easter, with promises of new life being formed from the ashes of death and the reality of God’s new order formed in the potter’s hand from the clay of the old creation.
In an apocalyptic world view, we behold a world on the brink of disaster rescued by the divine EMT who hastens into the fire and snatches us from the foe. In an apocalyptic world view, we experience a God in the birth pangs of a new creation, crying aloud as a new child enters into the world, a new child with all the hopes that child brings. In an apocalyptic world view, we encounter the breaking down of one world as God creates a new world, the sunset that changes to dawn, the rain gives way to the sun, and the mourning veil is lifted.
This apocalyptic world view is enacted in signs this day: a statue is carried around a church in procession as a sign of the glorification of a woman with the garments like the sun, stars forming her crown and the moon as her foot stool. We process this day, though in the role of the accompanying angels. The angels come as sure signs that we are dealing with an apocalyptic stage for wherever angels appear the wonders of God’s new world soon dawn.
While an apocalyptic vision places us in the world of the symbolic, we stand at the place where the symbol is giving way to reality. At the point where the symbolic gives way to the real stands the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That resurrection is the moment of breakthrough when the birth pangs of God give way to the new creation of the Christ, the head of that mystical person emerging from the birth channel even as through baptism and the Eucharist the body continues to take form and emerges through the font, the womb of the church, to the breast of the church where the faithful are fed with the milk of the Eucharist. We receive these gifts of new life in hope and so we receive them symbolically, yet with symbols so rich in grace that we call them sacraments since they effect in reality what they proclaim symbolically.
With the assumption, we stand on the other side of that symbolic world, where the language of a new world order gives way to a bodily entrance into the reign of God. The icons of the Assumption describe this reality: the dead body of the virgin lies on a bier as her new body that of an infant lies in the arms of her son -- A divine reversal of roles as the child gives birth to the mother and the mother suckles at the child’s breast. With this mystery of the assumption, we are ushered into the realm of the spirit where the new creation begins, where new life shapes our souls, and the promises of God for the redemption of our bodies begins takes its place even in our very flesh.
The assumption is that moment when the promises become real for one member of the mystical body of Christ and so assure us all that the symbolic world indeed is giving way to reality. That reality is the resurrection of the mystical body of Christ and its formation in the world across the boundaries of time and space. It is a reality that we form even this day, but we form in faith and in hope, heirs of the promise that we hold this day in clay vessels as we await the redemption of our bodies.
Mary has passed from the symbolic into the real. That is the first meaning of this day’s feast. We, in the heat of the summer, oppressed by the heat of our lives and the weight of its deep humidity, find renewed hope for the redemption of our own bodies.
We stand this day in hope, even as we look to heaven to behold a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars.

With Open Arms and Open Hearts

With open arms, with open hearts.
A Sermon preached by the Rev’d Peter De Franco on June 24, 2007,
the Patronal Feast of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Clifton, NJ

On this day, we gather in St. Peter’s church and celebrate the memory of our community’s patron. I have always felt blessed to serve in a church with which I share a name. Whenever I go to Sikora’s, the religious goods store in Passaic, they all know me as Father Peter from St. Peter’s. It’s a fun thing.
Now St. Peter and I go back a long way so I want to tell you a story about me and St. Peter that happened when I was in the second grade. When I was a child I attended St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic School in Paterson, New Jersey. It was October and Halloween was approaching and the nun who taught our class had the bright idea that we all should dress up as our patron saints. Concetta, the girl who lived down the street from me, dressed as the Virgin Mary; my best friend was named Joey and he dressed up as St. Joseph and of course I dressed up as St. Peter.
It was a family project to put the costume together. My mother was a seamstress so she designed a white robe and a cord belt for me. My father, who loved to work with wood, made a three foot key for me. The key was almost as big as I was! And the crowning piece of the costume was a white wig and white beard. I looked like Santa Claus in a nightgown!
On Halloween day, we all came into school in our saint’s costumes and then paraded around the street with all the other children in our school for the Halloween parade. I really felt proud of my key. For years, that key hung up in our living room on a pillar that supported the ceiling near a bay of windows.
We all know that all the saints have symbols. If you look at the stained glass window of St. Peter here in church, you will see two symbols of St. Peter: a set of Keys and an inverted cross. The keys recall those words of Jesus to Peter: I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. The roman church uses that gospel story about St. Peter to remind them of the connection between Peter and the Bishop of Rome. I think they want to remind their people who has the power. Thank God we don’t have that story.
You see, we use a different gospel and it refers to the second symbol of St. Peter: The inverted cross. You will recall after Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him and three times Jesus invites Peter to feed his lambs and his sheep. Jesus then says something rather strange: Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)
Jesus is telling Peter something that must have totally frightened Peter. Jesus is telling Peter that when he is old, he will stretch out his hands and another will lead him where he would not go. Peter knew full well what Jesus was talking about. For but a few days before Jesus had stretched out his hands when a soldier fastened Jesus’ hands to the beam of the cross. Peter would follow Jesus to that same crucifixion. A venerable Christian story says that during the persecution of the Christian Community in Rome under the Emperor Nero, Peter was captured and condemned to death by crucifixion.
He asked that he be crucified head downward since he felt himself unworthy to die the same death as did Jesus. The upside down cross is a reminder of that final following by Peter of his Jesus.
You will all recall that when Jesus was going to the cross, Peter was so frightened that when a little servant girl asked Peter if he knew Jesus, Peter denied it as fast as he could. Somehow, Peter’s fearful heart was transformed into a courageous heart.
I think it had to do with that day on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus forgave Peter for his betrayals and restored Peter to friendship with Jesus. In healing his heart, Peter’s heart was opened. Somehow his heart was opened and he learned the important lesson of embracing all people.
For in the days after Pentecost, Peter is the one who brings the Gentiles into the church. Peter is the one who breaks down the barrier that divided Jewish Christians from Gentiles.
Deep in the heart of this community lays a similar commitment to open our arms in welcome. On this day, we bring together both the celebration of our patron as well as pride day, a day when we open our hearts to our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered sisters and brothers. The seed for this pride celebration comes from Father Hank Dwyer who saw the civil rights movement of the 1960’s embracing the struggle of the LGBT community to achieve full equality. I believe that Hank saw the Spirit of God opening up hearts and minds of Christians to embrace those whom God already loved. God is putting into our hearts a desire to love others with the same love God has for them. The beginning of such love lies in opening our hearts and minds.
For us Christians, we, like Peter, learn how to do that from Jesus who stretched out his arms on the cross. Jesus learned that lesson when his own arms were stretched out on the cross – that God opens our arms that we might open our hearts to include all in the embrace of our love. To open our hearts like Peter comes as an invitation to overcome the fear that keeps our hearts closed. A first step in overcoming that fear is to see the other as a person like us, a person loved and cherished by God, a person. I believe the deeper we go in opening our hearts to the love of God, the easier it is to release fear from our hearts.
We are in a time in our parish life when we are asking ourselves where is God calling us as a community. We are a community who have done so much with so little.
In part, we have done so much because we are a people who love much. We do not only receive God’s love into our hearts, but we ask how can we share that love?
What is God asking us to do in the next five years? Shall our response be one that flows from closed arms or from open arms? I invite us this day to look to the example of our patron, to look in the way we have opened our hearts and minds to embrace our Lesbian, gay and bisexual sisters and brothers. We have the courage to continue to open our arms in welcome for God has opened our hearts in love.
So if you see a little boy with a white wig and robe carrying a key in his hand, ask him for the key. It will open your heart.