Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, April 28, 2013 (EasterV) Exit Strategy

Exit strategies. We hear those words, and we think of executives planning to leave with fat golden parachutes. Or perhaps we think of spies, trying to leave a foreign country without being detected. Or even burglars escaping the darkened home where they’ve just snatched the jewelry and silver.

But there are lots of other ways that exit strategies are a part of life. Let’s explore them with a story or two about exit strategies.

Perhaps we can call this a tale of two exits.

The first one? It''s the saga of Marco. He was a senior manager at a company that made high-tech widgets. After he had worked there several years, he got an idea for a new widget. It didn't compete with his company's widget -- that would have been a clear violation of his agreement with his employer - but it was in the same general area of widget. Marco wanted to start a company to make and sell this nifty new widget. So Marco started working on the new product. He worked on it day and night, which meant he did some of the work during the time he was supposed to be doing his work at his job.

Now it was a small company, so it will be no surprise to you that after a while, a couple of the employees caught on to what Marco was doing and said, "Marco, are you running another business on the side?" One was his secretary, and he said "If you say anything about this to the big boss, I'll get you fired." She was a single mother and really needed the job, so she kept her mouth shut, but the whole situation made her a nervous wreck, and her work began to suffer in ways that were obvious to everyone around her.

The other employee who noticed was a manager on Marco's level. Let's call him Polo. Polo was a really bright guy, and when Polo confronted him, Marco said, "Yup, it's true. I'm working on this new widget and I think there's a great market for it. Want to be my partner in this new venture?"

Polo had signed the same sort of contract with his employer that Marco had, and realized that this product was not a violation of the non-compete clause, but he had an odd feeling about it all. Marco was, after all, not being honest with his employer, and was in effect stealing, by using his work time and his work computer and copier and such as he tried to jumpstart the new venture. But there was money to be made, and maybe he could do his piece of the work in his spare time. Maybe that would make it alright. So they proceeded with the work on this new company, and one day the big boss called them both in and said, "Marco, Polo, something's up with you guys. You're not putting your best efforts into your work, and you're not making your numbers. And Marco, what's wrong with your secretary? She's as skittish as a wet cat."

After hemming and hawing a bit, Marco said, "Boss, I don't know what's going on with the secretary, she's just a nervous person, I guess, but as to your other question, I’ve been meaning to tell you -  we want to go out on our own. Start our own company. We've got an idea for a product - no, it doesn’t compete with your widget - and we want to see if we can make it go."

"Okay, boys, that's the way the high-tech world is these days. Just turn in your keys and you're free to go and start your new adventure."

You might think that Marco and Polo would be glad to hear this, but in fact, Marco was in a panic. All the new company files were on his company computer. Polo knew this, too, and got squirmy. "Well, boss, we've got some personal files on the computers. Okay if we copy them to disks before we go?"

"No, guys. You need to make a fresh start. We'll just reformat the hard drives on those computers right now, and they'll be ready for your replacements. After all, the computers aren't your property - they're the company's, so you know you shouldn't have put personal stuff on them, right?" Perhaps the big boss had a clue about what was going on after all. Perhaps Marco and Polo were not so clever as they thought.

Visibly pale, the two men went into their offices to pick up their framed pictures of their families and a couple of other personal mementoes, and left, wondering how they were going to survive without those computer files, those damning computer files, but there was nothing to be done. They were escorted out of the office after turning in their keys. The secretary breathed a sigh of relief and silently prayed that Marco's replacement would be a more honest person.

Not what you'd call a good exit strategy, eh? Hiding their imminent departure, lying to the boss, to other employees, trying to start something new while still on their employer's payroll and not meeting the obligations of their might think that this was something of a made-for-TV drama. It's way too melodramatic for real life, right? Actually, it's true story. I was the boss that showed Marco and Polo the door.

Okay, let's contrast it with Fred, a financial manager for a small nonprofit. Fred was approaching retirement age. He had a plan in mind of when he wanted to retire, but he wanted to make sure that his departure was not an undue burden on the nonprofit. He went to his boss and said, "I'm thinking about retiring next year, but I want to make the transition a good one for you, the organization, and me I'd like to lay out a plan for bringing everything up to snuff with the financial systems, documenting everything I have been doing, and getting the employees under me working in systematic structures that will run smoothly until my replacement is up to speed. My hope is that this kind of a plan will keep our donors comfortable that things are running well so they don't stop giving, and that it will keep the other employees in my department from jumping ship because they are worried about the future."

The boss, being a wise person, said, "That sounds like a good plan. We'll miss you, but we've been expecting you would be retiring soon. This helps us transition without having to rush to hire a new person who most likely won't be up to speed immediately. Let me know what I can do to support the plan and communicate it with the staff."  It was a good exit strategy, one that honored the employer, Fred's fellow workers, and all who were a part of the organization and who benefited from it.

This second example must surely be a romanticized picture of the good goodbye, right? In fact, it is was precisely what a man very similar to Fred did, and his employer reacted precisely as Fred's boss did. The foundations that funded the nonprofit were pleased that the transition of a key employee like Fred could be handled so gracefully, and the employees were comfortable that things would continue well after their beloved Fred retired. It was a good exit strategy.

Exit strategies are important, because we're all going to exit someplace sometime, whether it be a job, or a relationship, or even this human life...

...and we've got a marvelous example to follow. No, not Fred, although his is a great story.

Actually, I'm talking about Jesus. If you think about it, Jesus started his ministry with his exit strategy already in place. He gathered the disciples around him so they could do the work when he was gone. He trained them, both by having them watch what he did, and by his direct words of instruction. He sent them out to give it a try. And when they came back, he debriefed them, and corrected their errors, encouraging them to try again. He knew that he would not be on the earth in human form forever, so they needed to be prepared when it was time for his exit. And unlike Marco and Polo, he was clear that at some point he would leave and they would need to take over the work.

I expect at Fred's retirement dinner, where they gave him the set of golf clubs he'd always wanted, he got up and gave a brief and emotional speech at the end of all the accolades. It might have gone something like this: "It's been an honor and privilege to work with you all. I hope you will continue to be faithful to the mission of this organization, which has helped so many folks. Know that I leave with many happy memories, and keep up the good work!"

Is Fred's farewell speech all that different from Jesus' in today's gospel? "It is almost time for me to go. Keep at the good work we began together. Love one another and know that I will never forget what we did together. It's the way you do the work that will mark you as one of mine, one of this great venture."

Jesus was able to say this with grace, with no anxiety, because he knew better than any of us, the truth about exit strategies. When you exit, it is simply a pathway to a new beginning. Even the worst exits lead to something new. Marco and Polo, as clumsy as they were, tripped across one threshold and into a new busness. Fred, more graceful and grace-filled by far, shut the door of his professional life behind him and looked ahead to what rich experiences he might enjoy in retirement.

Jesus visited with his disciples for a brief period of time after his death, just giving them a final pep talk that was the culmination of all his work of preparing them for his departure, and then ascended into Heaven, where he took his place at the right hand of his heavenly father and continues to await what is to come.

The disciples felt the door closing, knew that they would no longer see him in his human form, grieved that, but then went about the work they were trained to do. The exit was the beginning.

I thought about that this week as I spent time with clergy colleagues in Texas, and how all  the exits I made in my life, particularly the professional ones, meant that I had learned something that I could bring to you as your priest. Without the exits, there could have been no beginning.

It's my expectation that I will be with you for quite some time and I rejoice about that. But in fact, I will one day leave, as Rufus Womble left, as Tom Clemons left, as Bruce Campbell left, as Marty McCarthy and Gale Cooper left, as Keith Emerson left, as Charles Poindexter left, as Donnie Dunn left. With each of their leavings, they had prepared you for a new beginning.

My prayer is that however long God plans for me to be here, my exit strategy will always be on my mind: bring souls to a deeper knowledge of Jesus Christ, prepare the structures and systems that help the church run sustainably for the future, teach you all how gifted you are as leaders and as followers of Christ, and let you know that the presence of God is always at your right hand, and remind you that you always face a new beginning.

As we read in Revelation, an echo of a phrase from Isaiah, God says "I am making a new thing." Exits are a fact of life, but as Jesus showed us, they are not only an ending. They mark a new thing, a new beginning, and there is rejoicing in that!


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, April 21, 2013 (Easter IV) Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-43 “The Beginning is Near”

Last week, when we walked the Monument Avenue 10K, one of the great joys of the walk was the signs we saw along the way. Some were encouraging, like the one that said “Run, random stranger, run.” Others were depressingly realistic, like the one about a mile and a half in that read “No, you’re not there yet.” About 5 miles in, there was one that made Doug excited: “Free beer for quitters.” He kept going, though, despite the generous offer.

Signs kept us going on the walk, but they also have other uses. When I first got here, there was no signage saying which door to enter, or which way to the restrooms, or where the parish hall was in relation to the sanctuary. And I mentioned this to the vestry and they said, logically enough, “Why do we need signs? We know where everything is!” Yes, but…what about newcomers? What about guests who come to memorial services or weddings? So we got signs, and I cannot tell you the number of times people said, “thanks for the signs! It makes it easy to figure out where to go.”

Signs often are markers of political preferences, or items for sale, or sometimes, religious belief. Who can deny the impact of the signs – horrific though they may be – of the Westboro Baptist Church’s picketers at the funerals of American soldiers? And, if you want to have a completely different angle on religion, how about the signs so many churches put up with a clever phrase that’s a hint of the sermon to come, or a gentle chastisement? Some of the best I have seen included one that said “Don’t make me come down there  - signed God” and “You have one new friend request from Jesus – Confirm- Ignore.”

And I cannot begin to count the number of cartoons that feature a bearded barefoot man bearing a sandwich board saying “The end is near.”

“The end is near.” It is shorthand for much of the story that we hear in the Book of Revelation. The variant on the theme is “Jesus is coming!” It’s all about the second coming, and how we should always be prepared.

But on Facebook the other day, I saw a different cut on that cartoon image. It’s a picture of a young man carrying the requisite sign, but instead of saying “The end is near” his sign says “the beginning is near.”

Well, that one sort of makes you sit back on your heels. The beginning is near…what could that mean?

Bear with me a minute while I talk a bit about the reading from Revelation that you just heard. I promise I’ll get back to the “beginning is near” sign very soon.

That reading may sound familiar to you if you’ve attended memorial services here or at just about any church. It  tells of those who have passed over to a different time and place, and the wonders that they see. It is a source of great comfort, those final words: “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

We hear it at memorial services and we think about God’s comfort to us, the living, who mourn our loss. But if you listen carefully to the words in the reading, you will discover that those words of comfort are directed toward the ones who “have come out of the great ordeal.” Those who are now with God – they have passed over.

So what does that mean to us, who are here? Don’t we get any comfort? Of course we do. But we are not there. We are not done with what God has in mind for us. We still have work to do.

The beginning is near…but the beginning of what?

When we hear the story of Peter’s first healing in the reading from Acts of the Apostles, we hear the beginning of active ministry of this nascent church, of the first works of this man who struggled so much with embracing his mission, of the first stone placed by the rock upon whom Jesus was building his church. A beginning of what Jesus knew Peter could do, and perhaps Peter was as surprised as the onlookers when he said “Tabitha” and the woman sat up. A beginning, perhaps a little bit tentative, but Peter got it done. He did the work, and in doing that work, he was the beginning of something new. He was the church.

The beginning is near…but what is our beginning?

I’m not sure that I’m the person to answer that question for you. Because, you see, it is your beginning, and our beginning, and the beginning for people who aren’t even attending this church yet.

That’s the heart of the Easter message. Jesus is resurrected from the dead, and he has given us his charge: go and make disciples. Go and take care of those who need help. Go and be the Body of Christ within these four walls and outside to the four corners of the earth.

And that’s the work we enter into at these breakfast gatherings we have had last week and this one. The question that Deacon Harrison has posed is “what kind of church do you want us to be?” And however you answer it, as the Holy Spirit guides you, you are committing to a beginning.

I don’t care if you’ve been a member of this parish since the moment of your birth, and your mother and grandmother before you. I don’t care if you just walked through the doors this morning for the first time. We are ALL part of the Body of Christ in this place, and we are all beginning together to figure out what God is gently guiding us toward…and I don’t think the endpoint is still waters, to use the language of Psalm 23.

No, the shepherd is nudging us toward new beginnings, not endings. We should not expect rest yet. There will be time enough for that, when we join the great cloud of witnesses at the end so poetically described in Revelation.

But in the meantime, strap on your walking shoes.

The beginning is near. Your beginning. My beginning. Our beginning. Run, random Christian, run!


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sermon for Sunday, April 14, 2013 (Easter III)Acts 9:1-20/ John 21:1-19 ”What Do You See?”

When you look at a teenaged boy wearing droopy pants, what do you see? When you see a child acting out in WalMart, what do you see? When someone you know posts something political on FaceBook that you think is absolutely awful, what do you see?

If you’re like me, often you see someone you don’t think very highly of. You see a suburban teen who needs to stop pretending he’s a gangsta, or a spoiled child whose parents need to give her a time out, or someone who believes something absolutely ridiculous and is too oblivious to even know how off-base their post is. 

You may be right. All your judgments may be spot on…or not. We’re all pretty adept at seeing what we want to see, at judging what we see, and then turning away. We’ve decided they’re failures in some way…

Today we hear two powerful stories of people whom we might judge very accurately as failures when it comes to following Jesus. At first glance, what we see isn’t pretty.

The first one is the obvious one: Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, who was aggressive in pursuing and punishing those who followed Christ. He was present at the stoning of St Stephen, the first martyr. He thought Jesus and those who followed him were heretics. He was very clear that he opposed Jesus, and would do whatever was necessary to destroy a heretical sect.

We hear that story and we think “how awful! How could he do that? He’s clearly an enemy of all Christianity…” and we keep on thinking that until we hear the rest of the story. He is knocked off his horse and hears the voice of Jesus saying “why do you persecute me?” He is blinded, shocked, desperately confused, and he sits in silence in a room in Damascus, trying to figure out what it all means.  Then a stranger comes in and says, “I’m not really sure why I’m here, but it seems God has a plan for you. I’m supposed to bring God’s healing to you, in the name of Jesus whom you persecuted. May the Spirit fill you and heal you – you are one of us now.” I suspect no one was more surprised than Ananias that this awful person, this persecutor of Christ-followers, would be converted into a Christ-follower himself, and would even be a proclaimer of Christ. Ananias probably looked at Saul, soon to be renamed Paul, and only saw someone evil. But somehow there was more to him, something that God saw even if Ananias did not.

Okay – conversion of Paul. We get that story, and it’s a dramatic story of the early church, and how even the most unlikely people could serve God.

So what’s the other story?

It’s a little more subtle, and a little stranger. It’s the gospel. Let’s put aside the first half, where Jesus miraculously shows up on the beach where the disciples are trying to catch some fish. Instead, let’s focus on the dialogue between Jesus and Peter. Peter is the rock upon whom Jesus built the church…the top guy, in charge of everything…but then when the soldiers come and take Jesus away to his death, where’s Peter? Hiding, denying Jesus, not once but three times. And it isn’t like he’s being tortured and denies Jesus…it’s just some strangers hanging out in the courtyard who say, “aren’t you one of his followers?” A servant girl asks him. And how does he respond? “I do not know the man.” A coward, just as Jesus predicted at the Last Supper. Some rock, eh?

You’d think that this cowardly blowhard is not deserving of any respect. Any reasonable person would make that judgment.

But something different happens. Jesus reveals himself to the disciples on that beach as they share some fish and bread, and then he turns to Peter and asks him a question. “Do you love me?”

I wonder what goes through Peter’s head when Jesus asks the question. “Is this his weird way of reminding me of how I failed him? What is he getting at?”

But Peter answers him in a straightforward way. “You know I love you.”

Now I wonder if Jesus is thinking: “Yeah, you loved me a lot when that servant girl was asked if you were one of my followers.” But no. Jesus isn’t going there. He simply says “Tend my lambs.”

So now we are back to Peter being given an assignment, just as he was given an assignment when Jesus said “Peter. You’re the rock upon whom I build my church.” Redemption after failing in the most dramatic way…it’s a sweet thing.

But Jesus isn’t done yet. He has another question for Peter. “Do you love me?” And Peter thinks, “well, maybe he’s asking again because he really didn’t hear me the first time.” And so he says “Yes, I love you.” And Jesus says, “Tend my sheep.” Peter nods…he gets the message. He’s supposed to be a leader by taking care of everyone. That’s the way it is…but Jesus says one more time – one more time! – “Do you love me?”

Peter may be thinking that Jesus has utterly lost his mind, or worse, that Jesus doesn’t trust him at all anymore. Why else would he ask three times? And he says “Oh, for goodness sake, you know that I love you.”

And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep….follow me.”

Three times, Jesus asks him. Might it have something to do with the fact that Peter failed three times, denying Jesus in his time of crisis? Might it be a way to make completely sure that Peter is now ready for the task at hand?

Or is it something different? Is it three times of forgiveness? Is it a reminder to Peter that Jesus really does trust him to lead, even after what had happened? Is it a way of telling Peter and telling us that despite our flaws and failings, the Lord sees something in us that others might not? The Lord recognizes the possibilities within us and encourages us to fulfill those possibilities.

That has a bearing on how we look at ourselves, of course, because we are remarkably good at criticizing ourselves, seeing our limitations. But it also has a bearing on how we look at others.

I’ve been thinking of a YouTube video I saw a few days ago. It was the story of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. As is often the case with children with this syndrome, it didn’t take much stimulation to cause the youngster to melt down. I suspect when that happened, he looked an awful lot like kids I’ve seen melting down in the supermarket, kids who’ve caused me to think “why doesn’t that parent take the kid outside?,” not realizing that this is autism, not bad behavior.
After a lot of exploration, the youngster’s parents decided they would get him a service dog, much like the service dogs that guide blind folks. Such dogs are trained to calm children who cannot cope with excess stimulation. The child got the dog. But the school system balked…they couldn’t see how the dog would work out with other children, particularly other children with pet allergies. Finally, they let the dog come to school with the youngster, and he thrived. His relationships with classmates improved too, since he now had a four-legged ambassador to help him make friends. But there were still challenges with the school system, until the legislature passed a special bill specifically to allow children like Nathan (that name which means “gift from God”) to bring dogs like Sylvia into the classroom. Someone saw what Nathan was capable of, if the system was willing to reconsider him not in terms of his limitations, but in terms of his possibilities. 

If Jesus had seen in Saul only a persecutor rather than a potential champion, the Gentiles, like us, would never have been converted. Bu he saw possibilities in Saul-turned-into-Paul, and we know what happened.

If Jesus had only seen Peter as the one who failed to support him, the one who denied him, the one who hid, there would not have been a church. The disciples would have gone back to their fishing boats – the boats they were in when Jesus came back for a visit in today’s Gospel – and would have shared their stories, but they might not have spread the word of Jesus. But Jesus saw that Peter was not a failure…he had failed at one point, but Peter had learned from his failures and there were still possibilities. Peter could be the rock upon which the church was built.  Jesus did not see the limitations. Jesus saw the possibilities.

Nathan, the young man with Asperger’s, was not merely a kid with a disability. He had possibilities…all it took was a dog and some advocates who helped make it happen.

So maybe the lesson to us is that it is quite easy for us to see what’s wrong with others. They dress the wrong way, they act the wrong way, they believe the wrong way. They rub us the wrong way. But what if we saw beyond the limitations and recognized the possibilities? Might we see an artist rather than an annoying teen with tattoos? Might we see a beautiful child with lots of energy instead of a screaming brat? Might we see a person who cares deeply about contemporary issues rather than somebody who is uninformed because they think differently than we do?

Might we see the possibilities that Christ sees in others who are different, regardless of dress, social status, political affiliation, sexual orientation, education, musical tastes, abilities and disabilities?

Wouldn’t we want others to see us the same way too?