Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sermon for Staff and Faculty – St Catherine’s School Monday, August 25, 2014 8:30 a.m. Matthew 28:16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Vernoy Johnson was a math teacher, an incredibly competent and gifted teacher. He taught for decades in one of the most wealthy school districts in the nation, New Trier, just outside of Chicago. Children of privilege, in a community where the tax base was sufficient to support schools that were in many ways comparable to this magnificent St. Catherine's. The best books, the best technology of the 1970's, the smallest student teacher ratio in just about any public school in America. The best teachers.

Vernoy Johnson took a leave to teach in a very different place...Africa. For a year he taught in the American School in Kinshasa, in the Congo. Not the equvalent educational environment to the New Trier schools. He did this because he wanted to bring the same sort of education to children in Africa that he had given to children in New Trier. And he began in Kinshasa because he had to learn to teach in French, the language of education and commerce in this former Belgian colony. But that first year was only preparation for the two years he would teach math about 800 miles to the north, at a remote mission station in the Ubangi province called Karawa. 
This was the area that Joseph Conrad called "the outer station," in The Heart of Darkness, the most remote and the poorest part of the Congo. He did not teach at the mission boarding school, where the children of American missionary doctors and crop specialists who worked in the bush and preachers attended. No, Vernoy taught at L'Institute Mbenga, a school for the local children, the few promising ones who were allowed to get a secondary education. There were no computers, no labs...in fact there were almost no walls, just a thatched roof on what we would think of as a pole barn. Perhaps one textbook, an out of date one, for each dozen students. You can probably imagine what was going through  Vernoy's head the first time he saw his classroom... How can I do this? There is nothing here. How am I supposed to teach when the students have no books, when we have no equipment to speak of, nothing? Talk about feeling unequal to the task! But he took a deep breath, and he taught. Taught without the resources he had back in America. Taught without the resources he even had down in Kinshasa. Taught so that several of his students eventually went to college. And several became the first native doctors in the Democratic  Republic of the Congo. 

But that is not the end of the story, nor is it the end of my little homily here...sorry...

Vernoy Johnson completed his missionary service as a teacher in the Congo. He went back to New Trier and returned to teaching in that privileged community. He went to a faculty meeting before the beginning of the school year, and he sat there as his colleagues tussled for their share of the abundant resources, arguing that they needed another five microscopes, the very latest edition of the most cutting edge textbook, another photocopier...

Vernoy sat there quietly for a while, and then he rose to his feet and said, "I have an idea. Why don't we sell the photocopiers, shut off the hot water, turn off the electricity and just reach deep inside ourselves and find something to give to these kids?"

I tell this story, because you are about to begin another school year, and I link it to this passage from the Gospel of Matthew because the scripture relates more to your situation than you might immediately recognize.

What is going on here? Jesus is about to leave his disciples forever. The disciples are gathered on a mountain, the mountain that Jesus had told them to go to. Jesus appears to them – not a surprise – mountaintops are often the scene for divine appearances – and he gives them his final instructions: Go and teach. Go and baptize. Go, knowing that I will always be with you.” These are words of commencement and commendation, and the disciples...what do you think they're thinking when they hear them?


Let's put ourselves in their place for a minute. Always good to start the school year by jumping into the deep end of the pool, by taking a risk, right?

How many of us consider ourselves competent in our task? Most of us, I’d expect. At the very least, we’d never deny it in front of Teri and Sue! How many of us sometimes feel less than competent when faced with a recalcitrant student, or a difficult parent, or the sheer volume of paperwork that is expected?

Dare I say most of us?

Here’s a secret: this is not a bad thing. We may wrestle with this on a regular basis, but this is good.

Because it is in our fears and our worries and our vulnerability that we will do our best work. It is when we teach from our scars, from our own woundedness, that we will do the most authentic and transformative work of teaching.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive, and certainly in Western pedagogy we emphasize the importance of mastery before we teach something. And I am not saying that mastery of subject matter is not of critical importance in our work. But it is in remembering what it feels like to be afraid of giving the wrong answer, that cold chill when we have turned in a paper that we are not sure addressed the topic, the rumble in the gut and in the heart when we are about to receive criticism, that our work will be shaped. It is in remembering that we will share the students’ experiences. Dare I say that our own failures might inform our teaching more powerfully than the kudos we’ve received?

In each class one teaches, in each student we encounter, there is fear and brokenness. The student may have the most expensive shoes, the most sophisticated laptop; she may be part of a family with vacation homes in Aspen and the Caymans; she may have perfect skin and hair…I guarantee that she also has at least a few of the same fears and pressures as the child in Kinshasa or Karawa. Money doesn't overcome all fear.

And she comes into the classroom and we think “How do I build this girl up? It looks like she already has everything.”

No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t have everything. She, in fact, has little of what she will truly need when she graduates. She needs what you will teach her. And you will not only teach her calculus or English literature or music or world religions. You will teach her how to survive in a complex and difficult world.

And you will have more credibility when you teach her those life lessons if you reach back into your own moments of hurt and fear and failure, and reflect on what got you through them. Because I guarantee you the girls will have to learn how to get through what is difficult in life, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Your scars and your vulnerability are what will prove that survival and thriving is possible. Your willingness to let the girls know that you are not perfectly competent, that you, too, sometimes do not succeed…that willingness isn’t saying that they shouldn’t respect you, it is saying that you learned how to dig deep to figure out what you needed to do next…that’s an incredible gift to your students.

That is where the disciples of Christ found themselves when they were preparing for him to leave them, when they realized that it was now their job to teach and to transform those who had not yet met Christ. They were afraid. They doubted that they were fully up to the task, and it was true. They were not. None of us are, really. We enter such a task with trepidation because we understand what is at stake. And yet we still do it, because it is the task to which we have been called. 

And so, as Vernoy Johnson suggested, it is time to trust in God who loves us in all our limitations as well as our competencies, and to dig deep, for the love of the students.

It is time to remember that we can do this in spite of fears, in spite of a sense of one's own limitations, in spite of the complexity of the world we live in. Perhaps we can do this BECAUSE of our fears and limitations. We have gotten this far already because of gifts that God has given us to survive and thrive. These students will be able to grow into the fullness of all they can be, not only because of us, but because they are beloved of God.

Reach deep inside of yourself. Reach into the places where you have been hurt and where you have been healed. Reach, and find the gifts God has given you, to teach, to immerse, to comfort, to guide. Your primary need to accomplish this is not laptops or SmartBoards, as useful as they may be.

No. All you need is God beside you, and the willingness to let God work through you. Go into this small world here on Grove Avenue and teach and let these girls know whom God wants them to be.


Monday, August 25, 2014

A Letter to My Parishioners

August 25, 2014 

Dear friends in Christ,

When I came to The Church of the Epiphany in May 2010, I felt like I had come home. This was a place where our love of Christ could grow and our desire to serve Him could be uplifted. I fully expected that it was also the place where I would continue in my ministry for many years.

God, it seems, has other plans. Bishop Shannon Johnston has asked me to serve as his Director for Transition Ministries at Mayo House, beginning on October 1st. The Diocese will issue a formal announcement later today, but I wanted to let you know prior to that announcement.

This call to Mayo House is an honor. To be responsible for parishes in search throughout this large and vibrant diocese is a big job, but the Bishop is confident in me, and it is certainly a topic of some passion for me. It is also a sign of his confidence in this parish that he would invite its rector to leave this place; he knows this is a healthy and vibrant church that can weather a transition with grace.

That said, I am leaving feeling like there is so much that I wish I could have gotten done, so much that we are still dreaming of and planning for, and I will miss not being a part of that. I know, though, that you are more than capable of continuing in God’s work in this place, and that whomever you call to be the fifteenth Rector of the Church of the Epiphany will find this a wonderful and Spirit-filled faith community. I am but one in a long line of priests who have loved and served you, and the next one will join the fortunate community of clergy who have been blessed by this place.

I know this is a bit of a shock – for me, too – and you will have many questions. I have spoken with the Vestry about all of this, and am happy to talk to any of you who have concerns. Our diocesan Canon to the Ordinary, The Rev. Patrick Wingo, will be handling Epiphany’s transition directly himself, since it would be odd for me to handle the search for my own successor. The Rev. Deacon Harrison Higgins will remain at Epiphany. Dorothy White’s placement for her transitional diaconate period is still being planned, but we will definitely be hosting her ordination with joy and much celebration on September 13th.

As for me, please keep me in your prayers. The new position is a daunting one, and I will need God’s grace to fulfill my new responsibilities well, as I have needed God’s grace to fulfill my responsibilities here at Epiphany.

I am grateful for all of you, especially my lay and ordained colleagues in ministry, the three Senior Wardens who have helped me during my tenure here (Anne H, Gray C, and Herb W), and the excellent Vestries with which I have been blessed. I want to offer a particular thank you to the incomparable Lucy W, our Parish Secretary, who is the glue that keeps this place together, and who has helped me avoid disaster more often than I care to admit. Doug, too, has felt loved and welcomed here, particularly in the Chancel Choir and in the Chapter 11 group. We will miss you all.

Please know that you are always in our hearts and prayers. I know there are great things to come here, and Doug and I will be cheering you on from the sidelines!

In the coming weeks, let’s share stories, laughter, hopes and memories, and let’s listen for God’s voice speaking to us in the midst of change.


Monday, August 18, 2014

On Vacay...

Back in a week or so. I may post from the road, or I may not...we'll see.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 17th, 2014 Gen 45:1:14, Matt 15: (10-20), 21-28 “Unexpected”

The older I get, the more I like predictability. Knowing what’s going to happen when. Being sure that if I drive down road A I will get to destination B. Expecting certain results when I do something and having those results occur. Can I hear an “amen?”

But time and time again, the results turn out different than I expect. The road is shut for repaving and I have to drive a different way, worrying the whole time if I will get to my destination on time. The alarm clock doesn’t go off because we lost power in the night and it reset, and now I’m late.

I hate it when that happens…don’t you?

Now put yourself in Joseph’s shoes – or sandals, or whatever they wore in ancient Egypt. He’s looking pretty impressive, with his golden chain of office, his jet black wig and golden headdress, his eye makeup – think KISS without Gene Simmons waving his tongue around. He’s survived being sold off by his brothers to traders headed for Egypt, serving as a slave, being jailed after a false accusation, interpreting Pharaoh’s dream successfully, becoming Pharaoh’s right hand man. Not bad for an annoying Israelite show-off  boy wonder.

Or if you cannot imagine yourself in that Egyptian headdress, pretend you’re one of Joseph’s brothers. You’ve been sent to Egypt because there is a famine back home, an you have to beg for food. You have to make your case to Pharaoh’s chief aide, who seems powerful and strange in the way all Egyptians seem strange to Israelites, but also oddly familiar. And the fellow excuses himself to go into another room, where he starts sobbing loudly enough for everyone to hear. And when he comes out, he reveals he is your long-lost brother, the one who got sold into slavery so many years before.

I think that counts as a not-so-pleasant surprise, right? Something unpredictable and unexpected happens, and you wonder how it will change your world, and you’re not a little bit scared.

Sometimes I like to imagine God in heaven looking at us and saying, “Hey, wait a minute. I set everything up so things would work out just so, and then you upset the apple cart. Why are you so surprised things didn’t turn out as you expected?”

Yup, even God occasionally gets surprised. We humans, given free will, sometimes react in unpredictable ways.

Think about the Gospel story.

Jesus is out in the borderlands, after another argument with the Pharisees. Not surprisingly, he wins the argument, but he hightails it out of town because he knows they will want revenge for him embarrassing them yet again.

Jesus and the disciples are hiding out in Gentile territory. They think no one knows them around here, that at least they are safe from the Pharisees here. They can regroup.

But what happens? Some weird woman shows up. A Samaritan, part of an enemy tribe. She’s alone, which gives Jesus two good reasons not to interact with her. And in a normal situation, she would avoid him as much as he wants to avoid her.

But it’s not a normal situation. Something unexpected is happening here. She is desperate. She is willing to risk anything to get help, and she believes this man may be able to help her. So she goes to him, against all the rules on both sides of the border, and begs him for help.

He also does something unexpected. He ignores her.

Wait…our wonderful loving Jesus who always hangs out with all sorts of people the rules say he should be with…he ignores this particular woman? That’s unexpected!

But she won’t take no for an answer, and keeps begging him for help, even though he’s already made a fool of her by ignoring her.

So now he’ll help, right?

No. He calls her a dog, undeserving of her help. He’s only supposed to help his own kind, not some crazy lady who ventures across the border looking for assistance for her child.

He calls her a dog. That’s unexpected. Jesus must be having a bad day or something, right?

So now she’ll go slinking back across the border… but she doesn’t. She gets up in his face and says “even dogs get a crumb every now and then.”

Women in that society didn’t argue. They didn’t talk back. They didn’t get up in a stranger’s face, particularly when the stranger was of another tribe. But this woman does, unexpectedly and forcefully.

Is she crazy or desperate or both? I mean, this is Jesus. The Son of God. All the power of divinity within him. She knows this, or she wouldn’t’ have asked for his help. She knows he could hurt her just by thinking the thought. And yet she still does the unexpected thing. She argues with him.

And he folds. He says “yes, I’ll heal your daughter. Your faith has saved her.”

The Son of God who has bested every rabbi, every scribe, every temple priest, folds like an old one dollar bill in the face of this woman’s righteous indignation on behalf of her daughter. Unexpected.

Maybe even God can be surprised sometimes.

Or perhaps God is surprised all too often. When we watch boys being gunned down for walking down the wrong street. When we see little children crossing a border – as if we own the land that is  God’s creation – trying to find safety, and we treat them as if they were dogs. When we watch the people whom we pay to amuse us fall victim to illness and curse them as sinners for taking their own lives, as if we understand what they having been going through, as if we are in God’s position and have the right to judge. When we say that one group of people halfway around the world are right and another are wrong, for our own political gain rather than for justice and peace.

Yes, God witnesses these things. God shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve done things like this before. And yet, as God’s own beloved creations, made in his image, he expects more of us than that.

Wouldn’t it be an unexpected pleasure for our maker if what surprised him was how we loved one another? Wouldn’t God be delighted if we gave comfort to those who are desperate? Wouldn’t God say “Aha! Now you’ve got it!” if we laid down our swords and beat them into plowshares to feed a hungry world?

We can still be surprised by people doing things that shock and amaze us.

I expect that God can still be surprised by God’s creatures as well. Let’s work on making it a good and unexpected pleasure, rather than a moment where God shakes his head and thinks, “who’s the dog now?”


Saturday, August 09, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, August 10, 2014 Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Matthew 14:22-33 “Walk This Way”

In our Old Testament reading today, we move from the story of Jacob to the story of his family, a large group of boys.

If you remember the story of Jacob, we recall that his father, Isaac, preferred his elder son Esau, and it was only by trickery that Jacob got his father’s blessing. What ensued was years of pain and anger and fear.

You’d think that Jacob would have learned from his own experience that favoring one child over the others causes problems. But family behavior tends to repeat itself, doesn’t it? And so Jacob loves his youngest child, Joseph, the best.

But Joseph seems like an annoying brat, braying over and over again that he can interpret dreams. And his father seems to ignore the obnoxious behavior, perhaps because he was once equally obnoxious, and even gives him a special coat to wear, an expensive coat, a beautiful coat of a hundred different colors.

And his brothers understandably resent all this. Sibling rivalry, as bad or worse than that between Jacob and his brother Esau.

But, unlike Esau, they act. When his father sends Joseph out to check on his brothers where they are herding sheep, they decide to get rid of him. Not kill him, at least not directly. At first some of them want to kill him, but Reuben says no. He doesn’t want Joseph’s blood on his hands. So he says, “Let’s throw him into that deep pit over there.” Reuben intends to rescue him later, after they’ve put a good scare into him. So they take his coat and toss him into the pit. They smear blood on the coat – they will tell their father that a wild animal got Joseph – and ready themselves to return to Jacob, but then something happens –

A caravan of Ishmaelites appears, passing through, on the way to Egypt. The brothers sell the boy as a slave to them for twenty pieces of silver, thinking it is not good for a brother to kill a brother. Perhaps this generation has learned something from the past. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, somehow they’ve learned that even in the greatest anger, killing is not a good solution.

We’ll hear more about Joseph in the weeks to come, but at least we hear something that has the possibility of redemption. Killing is forever, but this has the chance for making things right again.

It is not a coincidence that this story of Joseph and his brothers is linked to the story of Jesus walking on troubled waters.

Imagine the scene we hear of in the Gospel: Jesus wants some time alone to pray and to rest, after the feeding of the five thousand. He sends the disciples on ahead of him, in a boat, across the sea.

While they’re out in the boat, in the middle of the sea, a great storm comes up, and it looks like the boat will be swamped and they will drown. To say that they are afraid is an understatement. Jesus sees them, and knows their fear, so he goes to them.

He walks to them, across the water. He doesn’t swim. He walks. On top of the water.

They see him, but in the midst of the spray and the waves and their own seasickness, they don’t recognize him. He calls out to them, but they think their eyes are playing tricks on them. No man walks on water.

Perhaps it is a ghost. Perhaps not.

So Peter calls out, “Lord, if it is you, call me to come to you on the water.” Peter, like many fisherman, cannot swim, so he is asking for a lot. It’s not merely a test of Jesus’ voice, it’s a test of Jesus’ power.

And Jesus calls. And Peter gets out of the boat, and promptly goes under the heaving waves, crying to Jesus to save him. Jesus reaches down, hauls him into the boat and gets into the boat himself, and the storm immediately stops. Jesus chides Peter, saying that his lack of faith was what caused him to sink. All the disciples say “we believe, Lord!”

On the face of it, these stories from the Gospel and the Hebrew Bible don’t have much to do with each other.

But look below the surface, and you’ll note some interesting things.

In both stories, people are far away from home, in a state of disorientation. The brothers of Joseph? Distressed at their father’s favor toward their brother Joseph, away from their father and their home guarding the sheep. The disciples? Exhausted after the feeding of the five thousand, away from their rabbi and dry land and headed for the other side of the sea.

In both stories, emotions run high. Jealousy, fear, anger, doubt.

In both stories, surprising things happen that derail what we thought was the pattern: a caravan of Ishmaelites passing through, a sudden storm, a person walking on top of water.

In both stories, the recognition that what God wants is at variance with what human beings expect to do.

Joseph does not die. His story continues.

The disciples do not drown. Jesus reveals his power in a surprising way to save them. Their story continues.

It’s good to remember these two oddly linked stories when we are in the midst of our own storms, when our emotions overwhelm us, when we are angry, afraid, despairing, jealous.

Our stories continue, because God is a part of them. Our stories continue because God sends some Ishmaelites to interrupt a planned fratricide. Our stories continue because God walks out onto the water, in contravention of all we know about the science of water. Our stories continue because God wants us to continue God’s story. We are the bearers of the word. We carry God’s story forward in how we live our lives.

We walk, as the shepherding brothers of Joseph walked. We walk, as the Ishmaelites walked toward Egypt. We walk, as Jesus walked, to say that it is possible that water can be walked upon, that people who want to kill each other can learn a better way, that a slave in Egypt can become Pharaoh’s right hand man and reconcile with his family.

We walk by faith, because Jesus walked, to be the way, that the world might learn God’s will.

We walk, and we pray that others might walk with us, against the old way and toward the new.