Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, October 30, 2011 Joshua 3:7-17 “All In It Together”

One of the things we notice when we are up here in ShrineMont together is that we interact a lot more than we normally do. We’re with each other for a few hours at a time back when we’re in Richmond. At most, four hours at a stretch. Up here, we are together from about 5 pm on Friday to 1 pm on Sunday. Forty-four hours, right? 11 times as long.

That means an adjustment in how we deal with each other. Back home, if we have an uncomfortable moment with someone at church – yes, I know it’s rare, but it can happen – we know by lunchtime we will be in our own houses, no longer having to face whatever or whoever it was that caused us that discomfort.

But here, we eat together, we talk together, we play together, we talk some more, we do some silly stuff, we worship together. Sometimes the conversations open us up to a new understanding of someone whom we didn’t really know. Sometimes we see Christ in a person who never seemed to really connect with us. Sometimes we feel a moment of peace and quiet even in the midst of the activity of the weekend, and we feel the worries of this past week slip off our shoulders and we suddenly laugh, for no good reason except that we feel good. We see our children running and playing, we see our grandfathers and grandmothers watching with joy, and we find our moments of being aware of God’s presence in our midst.

That’s why this time together is so important…we build community. Our relationships with each other deepen. We cannot simply rely on assumptions of who another person is. We live in close contact with a person for more than 24 hours, and it changes how we see them.

There’s a reason for this. God builds us to want community, even though it isn’t always easy. The story of God’s people repeats this message over and over again. The great challenges that God set for his people were designed to bring them closer to each other and closer to him. God challenged his people, and his people challenged each other. God builds us to desire community, to be with each other, because God knows how he wants to be with us. Neither he nor we are meant to be alone.

And these past forty hours, we have not been alone, have we? We have enjoyed the food, wandered up to the labyrinth, taken a hay ride, searched for things in the scavenger hunt. We’ve watched a movie, we have played games, we have told bad jokes and sung a few songs, and we have given thanks to God for the time and space and place to do all these things. It has transformed us, if for no other reason than our cell phones don’t work up here!

Now we may have found it transformative to have been together for forty-odd hours. Imagine how it was for the people of Israel, wandering together for forty years! Imagine how their relationship with each other and with their God, a God who loved them even when he was angry with their moments of pettiness and infidelity, had evolved over those forty years! Imagine how they felt now that the journey of forty years was over, and they were finally in that land that God had promised them…

But even then they weren’t done. They still were bound together in community, for the next steps of the journey. And they knew in their hearts that the journey would still not be easy. God told them so. There were people already living in the land God had promised them, and they would not relinquish their land without a fight. God would get them across the great river with dry feet, but then they had work to do.

That work would be aided by God, of course, but it would also be aided by the way they had learned to live and pray and worship and work together over forty hard years. They had built a scarred and imperfect and beautifully human community, hallowed and supported by their God, and they would continue to struggle. Not as solitary individuals, but as a group of travelers bound together.

There’s a lesson in that for us, we who have built community together. It's a lesson that we saw lived out these past few days when we saw the search and rescue of little Robert Wood, Jr, the autistic boy who had been lost up in Hanover. Members of the community gathered together to search or to pray or to support those who were outside searching. The rescue could not have been effected had it not been for the community, for its work and prayers, and for God's grace. The community worried and worked and did what it could...and the result was an extraordinary gift.

We, too, have built community together, as a parish and as a subset of the community that is our parish here at ShrineMont. It hasn’t always been easy, and it hasn’t always been perfect. We have struggled, we have shed tears, we have rejoiced together. By learning to do that together, a band of human children of a heavenly father, we have learned to be in relationship with God, because it is in each other that we find the glimmers of the divine.

We have spent our forty hours here at ShrineMont. A long time, and yet not so very long. Some of us, after all, have spent forty years or more as members of this family of faith. We have had deserts and bountiful harvest, icy winds and the warm glow of the summer sun. Most of all, we have had God supporting us, loving us as he loved those stiff-necked Israelites, sometimes in spite of what we have done, sometimes because of what we have done. And we have had each other.

So this time of being together in this special place, these forty hours, reminds us that we do not walk in this world alone, because we do not walk on our faith journey alone. We do it together, by God’s grace. We bring back home with us this afternoon the reminder that, forty hours or forty years, we are all in it together, and God is in it with us. That is the reminder and the gift of this weekend and this community. Thanks be to God!


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2011 I Thess 2:1-8 “Awesome”

It’s not an easy thing to be a child of God.

Just ask Moses. He led God’s people, at God’s command, for forty years, through famine and thirst, heat and dust storms, temptations from followers of lesser gods, and then what happened? He died before he got to bring his people across the river into the Promised Land.

Just ask Paul. He wrote to the church in Thessaloniki, and shared his pain at how he was “treated shamefully at Philippi” while trying to preach and teach.

Just ask Jesus’s disciples. In the gospel today, they’re watching their teacher Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees are asking leading questions that might cause him problems. It’s a high-risk time for Jesus, but also for the disciples – not a good thing to have the powers that be think that you are a bunch of troublemakers.

Our God has high expectations of us. He also makes no guarantee that it will be easy to meet those expectations, or that other people will support us in this work. And at times, it feels like God has left us dangling in the breeze trying to do the right thing all by ourselves.

As Jesus says, there are two commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Easy, we think, until we try to do it. Then we discover how challenging it sometimes is to fulfill these two great commandments.

This past week, at the Bishop’s Clergy Retreat and Conference, I was in conversation with some friends who are colleagues. They talked about the problems they encountered in their work, and I was dismayed at their difficulties. People who were bullying and disrespectful, rump caucuses who were working behind the scenes to stir up trouble, staff who were not doing their jobs or undermining their boss.

And once again I breathed a sigh of thanksgiving for being your priest, in this place where we aren’t perfect but we do treat each other with consideration and love. We follow our baptismal covenant, which calls us to respect the dignity of every human being, and I am grateful for that.

The conflicts and struggles which my colleagues described are not unique to the church. They are around us every day, whether it is the mom at the PTA meeting who highjacks every meeting for her pet peeve, or the boss who teases a coworker until she cries, or the neighbor who posts offensive signs on his property.

It’s not always easy to love your neighbor, is it?

And yet I think of the neighbors I had in Arlington when I was sick, who brought food over for us. I think of folks who gathered together to raise funds for children with special needs by rappelling down the side of the SunTrust Building downtown a few days ago. I think of someone who housed a young homeless couple as they awaited the birth of their first child, and an immigrant boy who was trying to save up enough to get a place of his own.

For every example of people in Philippi who mistreat Paul, there are the ones in Thessaloniki who treat him well. For every example of Pharisees who test Jesus with stupid question, there are people who hear him and follow him and celebrate what he teaches.

But we are not asked to love only the nice neighbors, we’re asked to love all our neighbors, including the ones who don’t keep up their yard or who allow their children to run wild or bully others.

And we don’t always get rewarded for that nobility…Moses surely didn’t, and he really did a whole lot more than I ever did to serve God. We do the right thing at work, and we still don’t get the promotion. We talk to our child about how to handle that bullying child with grace instead of just popping him in the mouth, and the child comes home the next day with a black eye saying, “That turn the other cheek business didn’t work so well, mom.”

But what of the work of following those two great commandments in the church?

You might think it comes automatically – it IS church, after all – but it doesn’t. It takes work here just like in other places.

For starters, we don’t always agree about everything. Your vestry, for example, discusses different ideas, different options to help us serve God better and to reach folks who might become a part of our parish family. We brainstorm, we talk pros and cons, we sometimes decide to let things sit for a month or two while we pray and digest what we discuss. We pray. We study Scripture. All of this informs how we try to faithfully carry out this parish’s unique mission. And it isn’t always easy. The same is true with other committees. It is joyful, but it isn’t always smooth, and we don’t always succeed. Sometimes we don’t get to lead a project across that final river into the Promised Land. Sometimes we find our work isn’t received as we had expected.

We get frustrated or disappointed. We think there is every reason in the world that we might say, “Enough of this! I want to just stay home and read the paper and drink my coffee on Sunday morning.” It is not easy to be a child of God.

And yet…and yet…

There is something that carries us in this work as a parish family. Two things, actually. Love God, love your neighbor. We see that in action in this place that we all love so much, in our worship, in our work, in our music, in our children, in our elders. It creeps out beyond these walls into the larger world. Love God by helping another. Love God by sharing our values with our coworkers. Love God by partnering with others with different beliefs. Love our neighbor by speaking up for a classmate who is a target of cruelty. Love our neighbor by bringing food for Lamb’s Basket, or for the ISH Thanksgiving baskets. Love our neighbor by calling them, or taking them for a ride to run an errand, or sharing a book or DVD.

And suddenly, being a child of God makes perfect sense. It is the only way to live.

And suddenly, we feel some fresh energy in our souls and bodies, much as I did after my time up at the Clergy Conference. We find ourselves asking what we should do next for the God who loves us and for our neighbors who need us.

We say “Yes” when God says “Will you?”

That’s what it means to be a child of God. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, or always successful, or without effort. It does mean it will make a difference in our relationship with God and with each other.

We are children of God. We take on the challenge, whatever God puts on our path. It’s the acceptance of that challenge that makes us beloved of the one who created us.

Scary, that. Scary to be a child of God, but not Hallowe’en scary. Awesome. Can you be awesome? God thinks so, and so do I.


Friday, October 21, 2011

For all of us who minister to God's people

I was away at our diocesan clergy conference and retreat for most of this week. One of the many gifts we received was a reading and charge from our retreat master, the Bishop of Liverpool. It comes from "Liturgy of Life."

"We are not ordaining you to ministry; that happened at your baptism.

We are not ordaining you to be a caring person; you are already called to do that.

We are not ordaining you to serve the church in committees, activities, organisation; that is already implied in your membership.

We are not ordaining you to become involved in social issues, race, politics, revolution, for that is laid upon every Christian.

We are ordaining you to something smaller and less spectacular:

  • to read and interpret those sacred stories of our community so that they speak a word to people today;
  • to remember and practise those rituals and rites of meaning that in their poetry address humanity at the level where change operates;
  • to foster in community through word and sacrament that encounter with truth which will set men and women free to minister as the body of Christ.

We are ordaining you to the ministry of the word and sacraments and pastoral care.

God grant you the grace not to betray it but uphold it.

Not to deny it, but affirm it through Jesus Christ our Lord."

----Liturgy of Life

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Breathing Cool, Fresh Air

I'm up at ShrineMont, the diocesan camp and retreat center in the mountains hard by West Virginia. Our diocesan bishop has invited all the clergy to have a retreat...I came up on Sunday afternoon for a meeting of the Commission on Ministry, Committees on the Priesthood and on the Diaconate, and several other related groups. So 24 hours of useful workf ro the larger church now transforms into a few days of reflection, prayer, and spiritual recharging. We start with Morning Prayer and end with worship - today a day that stretched from 8 am to 9:30 pm. And yet, despite the long hours, it is restful and calm and soul-feeding.

The challenge and the blessing of this clergy conference is the huge number of people here whom I know and who want to engage in conversation. I'm an introvert and dealing with so much interaction is a tad overwhelming. I'm grateful for a single room into which I can retreat when necessary, and roads to walk on unencumbered by the need to talk to anyone. I love 'em all (mostly) but it's not where I get my energy.

And yet I'm challenged by what our retreat master, the Bishop of Liverpool, said this morning: God does not work in solitude, but in community, in partnership with others. How to find that delicate balance point between necessary quiet space and community? Always a question for me...

...which reminded us of that old saw that God does not answer questions, but questions our answers, which made me laugh out loud and shake my head at the beautiful absurdity of our work sometimes.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2011 Matt 22: 15-22 “At the Intersection of Caesar and God.”

Our gospel story has those sneaky Pharisees trying to trick Jesus once again by posing a question that could get him in trouble with the religious leadership or the Roman government, depending how he answers. As I hear the story, I think of a boxer trying to best an opponent who is in a higher weight class. The odds that the heavier boxer will overcome the lighter one are strong. The wisdom in the sweet science is that you don’t do that. You don’t box in a higher weight class. You’re going to lose.

The Pharisees are lightweights going after a heavyweight, like Oscar de la Hoya against Mike Tyson. The Pharisees have done it before and have failed, and yet here they are once again, trying the same tactic.

So when they ask their question: should good Jews pay their taxes, it’s no surprise that Jesus deftly sidesteps their right hook altogether and takes them down not with a left cross but with just a brief question: whose picture is on the coin?

Caesar’s, they say. “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which is God’s.” And down they go, at least for the moment. They will return, of course, but for the moment they are silenced.

Of course, their attempt is a bit of a sucker punch. Let’s take a closer look at the story. Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, after his triumphal ride into the city on a donkey. He has been harsh on the religious leadership already, which didn’t win him any friends in that quarter. So they think they’ll get him in trouble. No one likes to pay taxes to the hated Roman emperor, but it is the law. They ask their question. But Jesus doesn’t seem to have any coins on him and asks who has one. Sure enough, one of the Pharisees produces one, despite the fact that there should be no Roman coinage in God’s holy temple – that’s what the moneychangers who angered Jesus actually did, trading Roman for temple currency. Why would the Pharisees, who are supposed to be so holy, carry one of these coins into the temple? Did they know they’d need to answer this trick question? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but it certainly begs the question of why they were even carrying such currency.

Now if Jesus says that they shouldn’t pay taxes, the Roman imperial powers will come down on Him like Evander Holyfield. If Jesus says they should pay taxes, all the ordinary poor people will dislike him. What should he say?

It’s pretty simple. You live here, as part of this community. You also are a part of this religious body. Pay the taxes with the Roman coinage to the Roman government, and donate temple coinage for the support of this religious institution. Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which is God’s.

TKO for the Christ.

We read this story today, and we think, “well, that was Rome and this is Henrico. It’s a different world.” But is it, really?

We are, after all, also citizens of two worlds: what St Augustine would call the City of Man, in our case Henrico in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States of America, and the City of God. And it is clear in what Jesus teaches that we have responsibilities in both worlds.

Some would say that government is too much involved in things that shouldn’t be government’s purview. Taxes, TSA screenings at airports, speed limits. Others would echo Abraham Lincoln’s opinion: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves -- in their separate, and individual capacities.”

Helping others who cannot care for themselves. Hmmm. And that raises an interesting question: can our work in the City of Man also serve the City of God? Can we pay Caesar what is due him and still do what our Lord requires of us?

Lincoln spoke of government having a role to provide that which an individual could not do, or could not do so well, as one person. Perhaps taxes that we pay do help people in such a way – we could argue about government’s efficiency in doing so, but that’s not my point today. Perhaps government, in carrying out laws, can serve God’s requirements, without explicitly endorsing a particular view of who God is.

However, if the government does some of this work – caring for those in need – that does not absolve us of our individual responsibilities. We are still expected to care for the sick, help the poor, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit those in prison. Both the City of God and the City of Man can do things to help.

One way is through our generous giving to ministries that help those in need. And the other way is in recognizing that there is a role for government in helping those in need. For all the grousing about FEMA, it provides a useful service for those who suffer after a natural disaster. For all the questions about property taxes and fairness, public education is what helps people better themselves, especially those people who have the least, and taxes pay for public education. No private militia could protect our nation the way that our military does. There would be no way for goods to come to market, or for our children to go away to college, without federally funded highways. And those things are all paid for by what we render to Caesar.

We do this not only for our own good, so we have roads and schools and firefighters and such, but also for the next generation, so they can have roads and schools and a safe nation in which to live. It is a kind of “paying it forward.”

This is the challenge of giving to the government and giving to God: sometimes, if we are very careful, we can actually help the government carry out a part of what is our responsibility as Christians, by supporting things that help others. Even when we give to Caesar, it will occasionally also give to God by helping others.

Sounds pretty Christian, doesn’t it? But I am not advocating for the government to turn into the City of God.

I love my Lord Jesus and want us all to behave like good Christians. But this is not the same as saying our policies should be driven by people who tout their Christian credentials and say that they are better than other candidates because of their self-proclaimed religious fervor. They sound a bit Pharisaic to me, especially when what they propose isn’t particularly like what Jesus asked us to do for the least of those among us.

It is also not the same as saying that only Christian values should define our policies: there are many values that we share with others who do not profess to Christianity. All our moral strength, from whatever source it comes, must be brought to bear. The Holy Spirit has the power to move the hearts of those who do not profess Christianity to do acts that we would describe as Christian – let’s not deny that goodness.

And it is good to remember that the Founding Fathers specifically did not want to define an official religion when they helped to create this nation – they recalled only too well how an official church working in partnership with the government no longer belonged to God or the people…it belonged to the government.

To whom do we belong? We belong to God. We have no doubt of that. We are created in God’s image, much like that denarius was created with Caesar’s image imprinted upon it. Can we be good citizens and still be good followers of Jesus Christ? We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, in the hope that whatever Caesar does is also congruent with what Jesus taught. We give to God what is God’s, that God who doesn’t try to get reelected every few years, that God is who always there, because there are always some of God’s children in need.

And we remember that our job in the City of Man and the City of God is not to be like Pharisees, who demand a litmus test that keeps them comfortable and in power, but to be like Jesus, who never forgot to whom He belonged and who belonged to Him. Being a good American and being a good Christian – you can do both. Just remember what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Amen.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Busy, Busy, Busy

Another memorial service coming up this of the patriarchs of the parish. This is the second memorial service in eight days. Both of those who passed were quite ill, and their passing is a blessing, an end to their suffering, but it is still exhausting. And we are back in the pattern of at least one memorial service per month since I've gotten there. Sigh.

Good things are happening in other areas of the work. Some new folks, a great group attending our Episcopal 101 class, a new women's Bible Study started up with lay leadership this past week. I'd like more new members, but that will happen as it will.

PH and I got away last Sunday afternoon to Monday night for a mini-vacation - we went to Williamsburg to celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary. I am blessed...he has been the best of husbands and the best of friends.

I'm fighting some sort of infectious thing that is making all my joints feel stiff and painful. Powering through it, but it isn't fun.

On Sunday, I'll be visiting a parishioner who is in a rehab program and then heading out to ShrineMont, 2 1/2 hours away, for the Bishop's clergy conference. Back again on Wednesday.

I'm slowly getting better at delegating tasks, and my folks are getting better at trusting their own gifts. Otherwise, I'd be a puddle of melted and exhausted goo.

Today is supposed to be my day off, so I spent the morning at the car place getting the Saab inspected. Unfortunately, there is something amiss electrically that is causing the high-beam headlight on the right to fail, so it will have to be attended to next week and then be reinspected. Sigh. That errand took 2.5 hours...suffice to say that I wasn't in good humor after that expedition. Tonight I've got the visitation for the gentleman whose service and interment will be tomorrow, so it's sort of a half of a day off. I think I'll go and take a quick nap...

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, October 9, 2011 10:30 am Blessing of the Animals

Over the years, our family has had an over-anxious beagle, two cats, one of whom is here today, a guinea pig, assorted goldfish, and a leopard gecko that my daughter smuggled through airport security to accompany her to college.

Ben the beagle was so crazy that he was expelled (along with his human companions) from obedience school. The cats, Mia and Spooky, always held to the dictum that cats don’t have owners, they have staff. Caramel the guinea pig was gracious when my daughter held her; she was not so gracious to me, usually either nipping my finger or exercising a bodily function on my clothes. The gecko, Moses – he was named Moses because his terrarium really did look like the desert through which the Israelites wandered – had the misfortune of dying of some lizard ailment in the wee hours of the morning, when Allie called me, hysterical. It was not one of my favorite phone calls from her, it being 2 am.

Pets. I think of that list of pets Doug and I have cared for – and every parent knows that no matter what our children promise when we acquire pets, it is we who attend to them – and I wonder why we do this. Pets are expensive, they mess up our homes, they require our attendance upon their needs for feeding and walking, they get sick, and when they die, it is emotionally wrenching.

Why do we have pets? I suspect God has given us the blessing of our animal companions because they teach us something about God’s providence, his great love and care for us.

Most dog owners will tell you about how their dog will come to greet them with ecstatic joy when they come home from work, and it’s not just about finally being taken out for a walk. They wriggle and leap and want pets and deliver face licks. They love their owners and they are so glad to see them again.

Most cat owners will tell you about their cat coming to sit on their lap when they are quietly reading or watching TV – cats usually come when they choose, not when you call them – and snuggling next to them when they are in bed with the flu. The rest of the family might stay away, but the cat knows where it is needed.

Even birds and lizards and guinea pigs and rabbits and ferrets have their way of connecting in an expressive way with their humans. Fish I’m not so sure of, although when we had a bunch of fish in our little pond in Arlington and Doug would go out to feed them each day, they’d come swimming to the edge of the pond at the sound of his footstep. It might have been a pure Pavlovian response, but I’d like to think that in their little tiny fishy brains they were thinking “Here he comes! It’s God, delivering us our daily manna!” Or maybe not…

But there is a common ground here. We learn from our pets, don’t we? We learn patience, especially when housebreaking a puppy. We learn fidelity, because our pets seem to be thinking much more about us all the time than we do about them. But most of all, we learn love, that unconditional love that is an insight into the love of God.

Our animal companions, canine, feline, reptilian, avian, whatever, connect to us in a purer way, a way that isn’t confused by words and expectations. They simply love us, in their own way, and do not judge us. Well, cats may sometimes judge us, but they love us in spite of our limitations.

Our pets don’t overthink the relationship.

They don’t interpret our bad moods as being about them, even when it is about them.

They don’t decide one day that we are tiresome, and go somewhere else to find another human to love.

No. They simply love us, to the best of their ability, and express that love in their own unique way.

The animal behaviorist Dr Irene Pepperberg spent years working with an African Grey Parrot, Alex. She studied his cognitive abilities. Alex learned a remarkable number of words, and communicated appropriately with those words. Alex could distinguish shapes and colors and when directed to find a red square or a purple circle, he could do so correctly. If you want to be amazed, check out some of the videos of Alex on YouTube.

But what was special about Alex, and what reminds us of the blessing of animals in our lives, was not what Alex did in picking objects and learning words.

Alex died at the age of 31 a few years ago. That’s young for an African Grey. It was a heartbreak for all who worked with him, including Dr Pepperberg.

She remembered what Alex said the night before he died, as she left the research facility at the completion of the work day. She said, as she always did, “Good night, Alex.” And he replied, “You be good. I love you.”

“I love you.”

Was this simply a reflex, an imitation of what animals can be trained to do? Did Alex mimic the words he heard others say upon parting in the lab?

I am not a scientist, but I have no doubt that Alex, what some would call a mere bird, did love Dr Pepperberg, who had herself loved him as she worked with him.

The science writer Verlyn Klinkenborg observed,” A truly dispassionate observer might argue that most Grey parrots could probably learn what Alex had learned, but only a microscopic minority of humans could have learned what Alex had to teach.”[1]

Alex taught what all of our pets teach us – God’s love, translated into barks and meows, cheeps and wriggles, twitching noses and switching tails. We humans think we are higher than the animals, but in fact we are their students when it comes to the purest of loves, the love of our Creator. They give us insight into that love in their relationship with us that we could find no other way.

So we give thanks for our pets, and for all of God’s creation, and we remember the wise words of St Francis, who knew a thing or two about animals: “If you have men who will exclude any of God's creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

To be fully human, and to truly imitate our beloved Creator, learn about God’s love. Learn it from the animals who love you. Then you will be blessed by them, and by God.