Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Photos from the University chapel at Saint Joseph's University depiciting the candles representing the 406 murder victims in Philadelphia in 2006. The mother of one murder victim, the unforgettable Richard Johnson stands with her son's friends, Sherman and Sal, both sophomores at SJU.
A Remembrance of Philadelphia’s Victims of Violence


We are here, brothers and sisters, to grieve but to grieve creatively focused on the future of our city and our young people.

Being a pastor in a Philadelphia urban church in recent years, I had all that I needed of grieving. There is Marcus, promising student, reduced for life to a childlike state in a wheelchair because of a boy and a gun. There is Paul, who had been a steady member of our church youth club. He now sits in jail because he did not learn how to deal with anger except with a gun. There is Lena who sang in the church choir like a nightingale. A recent college grad, a victim of domestic abuse, Lena was surrounded at her burial by her sorority sisters who sang through their grief. There is Brian with the split personality: a loving father on the one hand, a crazed addict on the other. He pulled a gun on police and they had no choice. There is Troy, so well-liked and handsome, a stupid innocent hanging out on streets where he did not belong. At his funeral his teenage friends, boys and girls, wailed uncontrollably. Then Latrelle whose addicted body could not survive her attempt to stay clean. And Jeffrey, whom I visited in the intensive care unit the first time he was shot. He returned to the streets and did not make it the second time. And our very own Richard who should be sitting here with his Saint Joseph’s University classmates as a college sophomore. Like the 406 murdered after them: Lena, Troy, Jeffrey, and Richard, like the other victims of the street: Paul and Brian, Latrelle and Marcus, they all came into our world surrounded by love. God destined them, too, to be people of love and service in their families and communities. The two of them still living, one in jail and one in a wheelchair have some purpose in life. May the other six, too, have their purpose among us.

Back in the slavery times of Egypt under old Pharoah, the slaves grieved their lot and their suffering. There was self-pity in their grief. There was complaint in their grief. But their grief was not a grief of resignation. They did not resign themselves to their fate. They knew that God did not create them and love them just for the slavery of making bricks for old Pharoah.
God made them for some higher purpose. Their grieving, their self-pity, their complaint to their God was the beginning of their liberation. They named as clearly as they could the source of their grief and God reached out and helped them. After their suffering and their journey God showed them a new reality that amazed them. They were free.

Brothers and sisters, the politicians and police can only help us so much; whoever wants to be Moses among us can do only so much leading. We need to step up in our churches and schools; we who are able must reach back to our younger brothers and sisters and give them a hand so that they can join us on this journey, a journey to free ourselves from the scourge of death that plagues our land.

Others have made this journey. In their grief, so many loving people have created new ways of reaching out to our community. I mention only one that I know well, the Russell Byers Charter School, a great new school under the leadership of Principal Salome Thomas-El, a school born out of the grief of the Byers family in the wake of their husband and father’s murder on the streets of Philadelphia.

May God continue to lead us who grieve to such amazing places where we find balm for our grief and peace and healing for our community.

We asked the mother of a victim of the streets to come forward and be with us this evening. Catherine Young gave birth to the irreplaceable Richard Johnson some twenty years ago. He was a lively person from birth, unforgettable. After his murder on the streets in the summer of 2005, hundreds of Saint Joseph’s Prep boys, his schoolmates, and young people from Richard’s South Philly neighborhood crowded the Church of Gesu for his funeral service. We thank his mother for sharing her grief with us then and in the many months that have passed. And we thank her for joining us this evening and sharing a few words about her hopes in the wake of such tragedy.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Merion Park waterfall in winter:
Sunday Homily: February 18, 2007 Luke 6, Love your enemies
A recent obituary caught my interest. It told the story of the life of Walter Sondheim, a civic leader in Baltimore Maryland who died this past week at the age of 98. His friends and associates lauded his wonderful skills in working with people and getting them to dream together about doing big civic projects in education and urban renewal. He said himself that it was more important to understand people than it was to like them. People said that, because of his great skills at understanding, he had no enemies.

An unfortunate man, perhaps. Without enemies a person cannot go that extra mile that the Lord talks about when he instructs us to love our enemies.

But Mr Sondheim in his old age at least did not love his enemies like the aged woman who gave her own testimony on the topic: “It is easy for me to love my enemies at this stage of my life. I’ve outlived them all.”

…..The love of enemies is at the heart of the gospel teaching. It is well-known that it is this teaching that attracted Gandhi to Jesus…..

You are familiar with one of the most moving episodes in the famous movie about Gandhi’s life. It bears retelling. In 1947 when independence finally came to India, Gandhi was distressed that the country was split in two, into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. In the violence that followed independence, he fasted almost to the point of death in order to bring it to an end. One scene during the fast depicts an encounter that Gandhi has with a Hindu man. The Hindu came to him and said “I am going to hell.” Gandhi asked him why. He said he had killed a Muslim boy and he describes the boy’s death as a particularly brutal murder. Gandhi in a calm and measured voice replied, “I know a way out of hell. Find a child with no parents and raise it.” The man’s face lightens immediately with these promising words of direction. And then Gandhi adds: “Only make sure it is a Muslim child and raise it as a Muslim.” It is then that the man realizes how hard it is to get out of hell and to love one’s enemies.

……But finally and really the only thing worth remembering from these words: The foundation and the wonder about this teaching regarding the love of enemies is this: God loves the enemies of God. God forgives the enemies that want to tear down the image of God. If we are to become holy as the heavenly Father of Jesus, then we, too, must love our enemies. There is no higher calling and no greater grace for which to pray.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

I hope the young couple don't imitate the weather; but two months can make a big difference!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Sunday, February 4, 2007 Luke 5

“When they brought their nets to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”

As a little boy, I remember standing on the beach in the early morning at Beach Haven, NJ and watching the weathered fishermen dragging their boat onto the beach and emptying their nets, sorting through the fish and showing off their skill to the summer visitors from the city who did not know a fluke from a float. Their image comes to my mind when I hear the gospel about the sorting of good fish from bad found in the dragnets of Matthew’s parable or the gospel about Jesus cooking a fish breakfast for the disciples on the shore of Lake Galilee, this among John’s stories of the resurrection, or Luke’s gospel read today about the miraculous catch of fish.

The fishermen I would see at Beach Haven launched their boats into the surf in the early morning light each day and harvested the fish from the off-shore nets they had carefully tethered there. The rest of the day some spent as carpenters or policemen or lifeguards or garbage men. There was always day work for those who did not want to spend the rest of the day in Hudson’s, the bar two blocks from the ocean. But in the men of the fishing profession in Galilee, in Peter, James, John and Andrew, Jesus saw some extraordinary passion, a passion that one generally does not associate with fishermen. If the men in Galilee were anything like the ones at Beach Haven, Jesus picked smelly, hard-scrapple, rough-tongued men to be his followers. It is astounding that they sacrificed everything for him and that their actions transformed the Western world.

This story today of the miraculous catch of fish is one of my favorites. It is a formative story for those of us who love the image of the nets overloaded with fish. In every culture that flourished along the sea or along big lakes this image is an image of plenty and success. Amid the suffering of Jesus and the pain that often accompanies repentance, it is so comforting to have this image of distended nets, an image of success and plenty. It is a formative story, too, for those of us who understand full well what the astounded Peter means when he says to the Lord: “Depart from me for I am a sinful man”; a formative story even for those who have said milder words of reluctance in the face of something astounding: “Why me?”; a formative story, too, for those of us who have ever felt supported by some inexplicable courage beyond ourselves and who thus can resonate to Jesus’ words to Peter: “Do not be afraid.”

“When they brought their nets to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”