Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, September 28, 2014 Philippians 2:1-13 “God at Work”

My beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

I could not have asked for a better text on which to preach this Sunday, my final Sunday with you all.

Now the fact of the matter is that I didn’t ask you to obey me, which is probably a good thing, since you are an independent bunch of folks and that would have been a high-risk proposition on my part.

But what you have done is to listen to what words of wisdom I’ve had to share with you, you have taken more of it in than I often realized, and you have taken on the responsibility of working out your own salvation.

That’s the scary part of being a parish priest – our task is to encourage you to take on the responsibility of working out your own salvation. If I say the wrong thing, it is possible you might take a wrong path to that end. If my words make it seem too hard, you might not even try. If I make it seem to easy, you might think you don’t actually have to do anything at all, that it will just fall into your lap.

But the work of salvation, the recognition that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that he died for us, that is something each and every one of us must take on. And some days it is harder than other days. Yes, Jesus died for us. Yes, we are saved by his actions, not our own. So what does working on our own salvation look like?

It means striving to be like Christ. Not just working on our own failings, but working on correcting the failings of the community and the world, to bring the reign of God closer to this troubled world. Working out our salvation is a corporate task – our communal task – as much as it is a personal one.

I know that sounds daunting. Jesus Christ is God. We are not. But at its simplest, it means that we put the needs of others ahead of our own. At its most complex and challenging, we embrace everyone else around us, even the ones who are different or scary or strange, as Christ embraces us and cares for us. It means, as Paul says in this passage, that we live in unity as we work out our salvation in community.

It would be challenging enough if the expectation of which Paul speaks was only that everybody at Epiphany would live in unity. We are a diverse group of people by age, gender, sexual orientation, race, theological understanding, political belief. Living in unity means stretching beyond the differences to the one thing that binds us – the love of Jesus Christ.

But the obligation to live in unity truly extends beyond these four walls, because Jesus Christ didn’t limit his love to his fellow Jews in Nazareth – he extended that love to everybody. Everybody. No exceptions. We can only live in unity if we act as community.

We already do that at Epiphany in many ways – mission trips, Lamb’s Basket, outreach lunches, CARITAS, among others – but it is not just an occasional thing. It has to be the manner of our entire lives together.

Seems impossible, right? Well, it would be were it not for what we get from God to help us. 

The line in the Epistle you just heard was “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” But a more helpful translation of the Greek might be “God is giving you the desire and the energy to do God’s work in the world.” All we have to do is pay attention to that desire and energy planted in us and act upon it.

Paul writes this letter to the Philippians from prison. He is far from them, yet he remembers them with great affection. His pastoral guidance shows his love for them, and his trust that they will understand that guidance is evident.

That is the thing about leaving a place that you have pastored and loved. It requires those of us who leave to trust those who have been left. Trust that the work will continue. Trust that the working out of salvation will still be central. Trust that the leaders, both lay and ordained, will continue to rejoice in the Good News of Jesus Christ. Trust that God will work out in this place, as in Philippi and in so many other places, the communal and personal salvation that is our joy and promise.

And I do trust that this will be true.

Why? Because I’ve seen it in action already.

This parish overcame the tensions of a conflict that preceded me, and due to Charles Poindexter’s brilliant and loving work, was on its way to full healing when I arrived. This parish suffered losses of some of our most faithful and senior members during my time here, and other individuals stepped up to leadership positions after those losses. This parish welcomed new members who now are active and beloved, some of whom now have leadership roles.

This parish adjusted with grace to changes I proposed, helped form three new priests and a deacon, gained a well-deserved reputation in the diocese as a healthy and strong community of faith, worked in concert with other faith traditions in shared service and worship, and changed lives within these walls and outside of them.

And it will continue to do so.

My time with you is drawing to a close, and I am grateful that I have had the privilege of serving you. You have formed me as a priest as I hope I have helped form you as Christians. But know that this time of change is not just about my departure, it is about being present to God giving you the desire and energy to continue to become what God intends. It is not just about loss, although we should be honest that parting is hard, but about what the future holds.

And so I end with a paraphrase of Paul’s words to the church in Philippi: dear friends, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more in the days to come in my absence, keep on working out your own salvation. God is at work in you and in this lovely place, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 


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: