Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, September 21, 2014 Exodus 16:2-15, Matthew 20:1-16 “You Get What You Need”

This week a nice young man rang my doorbell, advertising a food delivery service called Relay Foods. You go online and list what you want, and they deliver it. Saves you a trip to the supermarket, offers foods from local farms and such. A nice service, with a reasonable fee for those who want to use it. It’s not a new business model – if you’re in northern Virginia, there’s a similar service called Peapod, through the Giant supermarket chain. And it’s not just in the USA - there’s a supermarket chain in England called Tesco, sort of like Krogers. 

They’ve also got this kind of service – you can order online what you want, and they will deliver it. And if they don’t have something you have asked for on your order, they’ll substitute the closest possible item available. So instead of Edy’s Cookie Dough Ice Cream, you might get Breyer’s. Tolerable, right?

Well, a story broke recently about a Tesco delivery gone wrong. A man placed his order, including a loaf of walnut bread, just the perfect thing for afternoon tea. Well, Tesco was out of walnut bread. What did they substitute? A whole octopus.

Now, I can’t come up with a reasonable explanation of why they thought the octopus was a good substitute, and when the company took a second look, they were embarrassed and gave the customer a refund and a gift card.

He wanted a loaf of walnut bread. He didn’t get what he wanted. Somehow, somebody thought that although he wanted walnut bread, he really needed an octopus – who knew?

Thank goodness God does a better job than Tesco, in sorting out our wants and giving us what we really need!

But the thing we need to wrestle with is this: we don’t always get what we want. We get what we need…sounds like an old Rolling Stones song, doesn’t it?

You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.

What do we want? Love, family, stability, meaningful work, health, you can add whatever comes to mind to the list.

But we don’t always get that. Sometimes the ones that we love don’t love us back, or even are hurtful – witness the roundhouse punch that Ray Rice gave his fiancĂ©e in that elevator. Sometimes we want family, but are estranged from them because of past hurts. Sometimes we can’t get the work that we would like to do, and have to work in something that feels like hard, slow, boring torture to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. Sometimes our bodies or our minds fail us – we become ill. And sometimes these illnesses cannot be cured.

We don’t always get what we want.

But somehow, we get what we need. A wise friend might help a woman who is being mistreated to leave, or might help the abuser to see how wrong this behavior is. We might create a new family of friends who love and support us, if our own biological family must be kept at a distance. A job that keeps us solvent might be a way-station to something better, or we might learn something about the work that surprises us and gives us pleasure. Our bodies might be imperfect or broken, but we can find comfort in the care of family, the ministrations of good doctors and nurses, the safety of residing in a community designed to support us in our infirmity.

There might be moments of joy even when we think we have not gotten what we wanted.

For me almost twenty years ago, as a divorced mom, I thought my life was in a deep hole from which I could never resurface. Love had betrayed me. I was in financial distress. I had to find another job, and there were none to be found. My children were worried, I was terrified, and there seemed to be no answer to my prayers.

Until there was.

A friend helped me find a job. Not a local job, to be sure, but a job that would pay me well enough to take care of my children. Another friend let me stay with his family until I could get a place of my own. I slowly started to trust that things would get better. And after a while, after swearing that I would never trust another man again, I found the most loving and trustworthy and smart and cute guy in the world and fell in love again.

What I had wanted was for my former husband to realize the error of his ways and work to stay married and stable. What I had wanted was not to get divorced. What I had wanted was to continue working with him in the company we had started.

I didn’t get what I wanted. I got what God knew I needed.

God does that.

Think of the story of Moses. Moses has led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and now they are headed to the new place that God has prepared for them. It is a long journey. They are walking in the desert and cannot find enough food and water. They are complaining about it, understandably.

And what do the Israelites tell Moses they want? “We wish were back in Egypt where there was lots of food.” But God has another idea: the food will be delivered to them on the spot. Sort of like RelayFoods in the desert. First bread, and then when it becomes clear that they need something more than bread, then quails. God delivers, not necessarily what they want, but what they need, bread and meat to strengthen them for the continued journey.

They got what they needed.

So too the parable we’ve heard in the Gospel today. There’s a vineyard owner, and he wants to hire day laborers to work in the vineyard. He hires some of them first thing in the morning, after agreeing to the usual daily wage. Those workers are happy – they’ve got a day’s work and a fair wage for the day. At midday, the owner realizes that he will need more helpers, so he hires on some more workers. He tells them he will pay them the normal daily wage. These noontime workers are happy – they’ll work the whole afternoon and early evening and be paid as if they were working all day. In the late afternoon, the work is almost done, but the all-day workers are tired and slowing down, and he didn’t hire a whole bunch of the noontime guys, so he goes and hires a few more workers to finish up the job. He says “I’ll pay you the daily wage if you come now and help us finish up.”

It’s a sweet deal for those last hired, right? A full day’s pay for a few hours work. And the ones who were hired in the morning get a little ticked off, and say “that’s not fair!” You could wonder if they wanted more money themselves, or less for the ones who were hired later, because that makes economic sense to them. But they had agreed to a fair wage for their day’s labor. Do they want more money? Yes. Do they need more money? Not really – they were originally happy with the agreed upon wage.

They didn’t get what they wanted. They got what they needed.

But wants and needs are not just stories from ancient times.

What do you want? You may want me to stay as your rector. I love you for loving me and thinking I do an okay job as your rector, but God wants me to go to my new position at Mayo House.

So if you can’t get what you want, what do you need?

Someone to help you get through the first few weeks of my departure, as you remember that you are capable of doing much of the work of this parish as laypersons.

Someone to help you discern and dream about where God is leading you next, because this is an ever-changing community, and who and where you are now is different than it was just five years ago.

Someone to be your next rector, who will take you the next steps in your journey…places that I could not be able to take you.

It’s alright to be worried about whether your needs are going to be met – know that God will meet those needs.

Your wants? Not so much. Some may happen, some may not. But no matter what, trust that the Lord will always, always supply your needs. 


Saturday, September 06, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, September 7, 2014 Romans 13:8-14 “Pay Attention”

The brilliant composer Deb Bly wrote a song that I love called “Pay Attention.” The words go something like this:

Are we almost there?
How much longer till I'm safe in bed at home?
How much money do I owe for what I own?
How much left to pay?

Pay attention
Pay attention
This is it, more or less
Who would ever guess
This is the best of times
This is the worst of times
And it's passing
Pay attention.[1]

We are not in the business of paying attention these days. We are looking ahead, with a long to-do list, things to check off, wondering about next summer’s vacation rental, next week’s shopping list, next month’s birthday presents to buy. We don’t really live in the present.

And if we’re not looking forward, we’re looking backward. Things aren’t as wonderful as they were when I was a kid. The world is going to hell in a handbasket. They used to teach Parker penmanship. They don’t anymore. We used to gather around the radio to listen to programs as a family. I always spent my summers working for my grandfather. Things were better then.

We don’t really live in the present. But the present is where we are, living, breathing, doing stuff. What would happen if we really paid attention to what was happening in this moment? Maybe we’d put down the IPhones, worried about who was wearing what to school tomorrow, or whether we were prepared for the big meeting on Wednesday.

Maybe we should pay attention. And maybe it’s not just a matter of whether we’re too focused on the wrong timeframe.

There’s a famous experiment that was conducted a number of years ago. Folks were asked to watch a video of a team passing a basketball back and forth. They were instructed to count the number of times the ball was passed by people wearing white. Simple enough, right? Well, in the middle of the video, a guy with a Gorilla suit walked into the frame, thumped his chest, and walked off again. He didn’t sneak in the back or anything, he walked smack dab in the middle of the picture.

And half the people who viewed the video didn’t notice the gorilla at all. As a matter of fact, they didn’t believe it happened and had to be re-shown the video to prove it.[2]

We could say that the folks who missed the gorilla were distracted – they were focused on the counting task, so it was no surprise they missed the gorilla. That’s true, but I wonder if it has applicability to our own distractedness.

Do we fully pay attention? Does our urge to multitask mean we pay scant attention to any one of the multiple tasks we are trying to accomplish? Most likely yes. Scientists say that  when we multitask, we usually do a poorer job on any of the tasks than we would have done had we paid attention to one thing, and one thing only. All of this goes to show that attention isn’t one of our strengths.

So what does any of this talk about paying attention have to do with what we’re hearing from the Scriptures today? Actually, a whole lot.

For our purposes this morning, let’s take a look at the passage from St Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul is a pastor, and he is highly attentive to what he hears from his parishioners. He pays attention. Whether he is responding to a letter from the Roman community or word of mouth, when he hears something that needs his attention, he drops everything and deals with it.

And what’s his message? Pay attention. Pay attention to the here and now. Attend to those around you. Now. Love those around you. Now. It is the fulfillment of the law.

Pay attention, because you don’t really know what is coming next. Paul says something interesting: “You know what time it is. It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.” For Paul, this may mean he thinks that Jesus’ return is immanent. Whether or not we think Jesus is showing up this afternoon or even in our lifetimes is really not the question here. What does matter is that we need to pay attention.

And in paying attention, we need to think about how we live our lives in the present. Not the future, when we’ll somehow be better people or the world will be easier. Right now.

As Deb Bly writes: “Pay attention / This is it, more or less / Who would ever guess /
This is the best of times / This is the worst of times / And it's passing / Pay attention.”

This is precisely why Jesus goes into step-by-step instructions about how to deal with each other in the midst of conflict. He’s no fool. He knows that human beings get into arguments. Somebody’s feelings are hurt. Somebody feels disrespected. Somebody feels like they got the short end of the stick. And so there’s conflict.

Pay attention. Attend to the hurt while it is still something manageable, before it evolves into a festering sore that cannot be healed. Pay attention, because time passes and things don’t get better by leaving them alone.

We Christians like to think we’ve got it all together, but the fact is that we do not. The church in Rome in Paul’s time didn’t. Jesus’ own disciples didn’t. We most certainly don’t – why would there be hundreds, maybe thousands of different Christian denominations if we did have it all together?

Someone somewhere said, “that teaching is wrong, and if I don’t fix it, who knows where it will lead off in the future?” and then an argument started, and then another, and then…schism. And meanwhile, as the song says, time is passing.

Now is what we have. The present. Our Heavenly Father knew that – that’s why the name Moses got from him was “I am who I am.” The present. Pay attention. Don’t miss the gorilla in the frame. Fix the petty conflicts. Love each other. Attend to the present. Pay attention.


[1] Words/Music copyright 1994 D. G. Bly
[2] You can see the experiment on YouTube:

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2014 Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-28 “Change of Plans”

How do we live with a changing world? You and I, we’re facing that question in a very immediate way.

You should have received communication from me – either via email or by letter - this week that I am leaving Epiphany to go to work as Director of Transition Ministries for the Diocese as of October 1st.

Your response to this may have been one of three different types:
1)    How could Mary possibly leave us? We love her and need her here!
2)    Well, the heck with her. We are glad to see her go! She always made us chant and stuff.
3)    That darned Bishop, taking our priest! How dare he!

I could address each of these reactions separately in a theologically sound but pastoral way, but instead I’d like to pose another way of looking at this change.

How about this: God is doing something here. It isn’t what we planned. It isn’t comfortable. We may not like it. But it is God doing something, and we won’t know the rest of the story of what God is doing except, perhaps, in the rear view mirror.

God often works that way, I’ve discovered. I make plans and checklists, and then something happens that upsets the applecart and I am back to square one. And my reaction is usually either “Oh, no! That’s messed everything up” or “well, it was probably not a good plan anyway” or “who can I blame for this?”

Oftentimes, though, my plan turns out to be just what I didn’t need, and God’s movement in my life takes me to someplace marvelous.

Okay, at this point, I can hear you thinking “all well and good for her! She’s going to a cool new job at the diocese, and we’re left here figuring out which end is up.” And that is a fair thing to say.

But God is not only moving in my life, God is moving in yours as well.

If you think this is something new, revisit the story of Moses that we just heard.

He’s minding his own business – actually, he’s minding his father-in-law’s business, herding his sheep – and suddenly in the middle of nowhere, there’s this burning bush. It’s on fire, but it doesn’t burn up. It just keeps on burning. And then God speaks to Moses out of the bush. A talking burning bush…that wasn’t part of Moses’ plan for the day. And God tells him this is holy ground, and lays out God’s plan for rescuing the Israelites from the oppression of Pharaoh. Moses is a little surprised by this, and says, “When I go back to tell the people this, they’re going to think I’m nuts. Who should I say told me this plan?” And God doesn’t make it easy – what’s his answer? “I am who I am.”

Interesting name. All present tense – no “I am who I will be,” or “I am who I was back in the beginning.”

“I am who I am.” Right now. Always in the present. Always in the midst of everything.

We know the story of Moses, so we might be tempted to say, “Yeah. Sure. This is God. Okay, eventually, everything will work out.”

But Moses’ story ends before the Israelites reach the promised land, doesn’t it? Even the plan that God gave Moses got changed on the fly. “I am who I am” does that sometimes.

Then we have the Gospel for today. Things are going well for Jesus and his disciples, despite the annoying Pharisees. Lots of people listening to Jesus, lots of people healed of disease and demons, huge crowds coming to hear Jesus. And you can picture Peter, big energetic Peter, thinking “Well, the boss said we were going to change the world but not like an earthly king conquering people and nations. But maybe he’s wrong. Look at all Jesus has accomplished, how many followers he has now. Surely they will make him a King.” And in the midst of this reverie where Peter imagines how they would all live in a luxurious palace and the Romans would wait on them rather than the other way around, Jesus starts reminding him of things. Unpleasant things. That he will go to Jerusalem and be tortured and die and then rise from the dead after three days.

And Peter snaps his head around, brought back from his daydreams, and says “God forbid! Don’t say those things!” The last thing Peter wants to hear is bad news.

And Jesus gets angry with him. “You don’t want me to fulfill God’s plan? The heck with you – you’re just like the tempter Satan, trying to distract me from what I am supposed to do.” And Jesus turned to the rest of the disciples and said, “Here’s the deal. You want to be a part of what I am intended to accomplish here, you’ve got to be ready for the hard things that are to come. This won’t be easy, but there will be a reward. Not an earthly one, but a reward in heaven.” I can picture him looking at them after he says this, with an expression that says “are you in or out?”

We construct plans in our heads, but sometimes God has another plan in mind, one that we are not fully aware of. And it makes us a little bit crazy when it happens, and then we have to figure out how to deal with it.

That was the situation for me when the position of transition ministry director came up. In some ways, it was a great match for my skill set. But it would also mean leaving this place that I love relatively soon after I came, and leaving work unfinished, which I don’t like to do. I love parish ministry, and this position would be something very different.

So I thought long and hard before I decided to see what God’s plan was for me, for you, and for the diocese. I prayed. I talked to my spiritual director and two other mentors whom I respected. I prayed some more. I talked to Doug. I prayed some more. Then I took a deep breath, and sent in my resume. I figured God would let me know what the plan was. If I was meant to be in the new position, God would place me there. If I was meant to stay at Epiphany – which was just as wonderful an option, believe me – God would not place me in the diocese.

God’s plan, not mine.  It may seem like I’m punting and letting God take the heat for this change in the life of this parish. But in the end, that’s the way it works. It is God who moves in our lives in ways we don’t always understand.

Here’s my hope for Epiphany: that the next rector takes you to levels I could never bring you to. That you are continually surprised in the ways that God is helping each of you grow. That the good work we did together is built upon and expanded and that it will evolve into what God has in mind for Epiphany next.

This is not a crisis. There were 13 rectors at Epiphany before me and God willing there will be 13 times 13 after me. Each and every one of us has brought their gifts and their flaws and their love and their baggage to Epiphany, and then each one of us has gone…and another rector came along to do the same. 

You are not alone. This is a strong healthy vibrant place. The diocese will be working with you, supporting your discernment, and I assure you the next rector will not take 2 and a half years to find. In the meantime, face the burning bush and say “okay, God, what do you have in mind.” Face our Lord and say “I get that it’s not going to be a walk in the park. Where do I sign up for hauling that cross up the road?”

Know that God will be with you each step of the way, and that my prayers and Doug’s prayers will always be with you. God’s plan may not seem obvious right now, but it will reveal itself, as strange and wonderful as a burning bush, as challenging as a wooden cross, but always with the one who loves us best waiting as we take on our next journey.