Saturday, April 25, 2015

Sermon for Sunday, April 26, 2015 Celebration of New Ministry of the Rev. Sara-Scott Wingo, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Brook Hill John 10:11-18 “A Different Shepherd”

This is Good Shepherd Sunday, when we focus on how lovingly and faithfully Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He cares for us, guides us, leads us to places of refreshment, rest, and restoration. We are forever grateful for how Jesus does this, aren’t we?

In many ways, the calling to the priesthood is one that instructs priests to serve in the same manner as the Good Shepherd. We are to care for our parishioners, teach them, preach to them, offer comfort when they are afflicted, encourage them to see their mission as extending beyond the four walls of the church, speak out for those in need…well, the list of things we’re supposed to do is lengthy and daunting. And here’s the challenge for any priest: Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is a hard act to follow.

And it goes without saying that if we priests think that we can be the clone of that Good Shepherd, it is inevitable that we will fail. There is only one, the one who died on the cross for us as the ultimate gift in shepherding the flock. We cannot be THE Good Shepherd, but we can aspire to be A good shepherd.

Sara-Scott, that’s good news – nobody around here expects you to give up your life literally, although on some days, you may feel like you’re giving up your life metaphorically.

The nature of the work of shepherding the flock hasn’t really changed much since the time of Christ, at least in a metaphorical sense. A priest knows that, like a shepherd, she is often on a hillside or hospital in the middle of the night. A priest knows that, like a shepherd, she occasionally has to herd the sheep with a little more force than that sheep might like. A priest knows that, like a shepherd, she may need to go round up lambs that have gone astray. And in today’s culture, a priest knows that, like a shepherd, she may not always be respected, despite the sophistication of her education, the intensity and necessity of her work, and the personal cost it exacts.

So why would anyone want to be a priest, to shepherd a flock of souls?

Simply put, when God calls, no matter how much one may resist, eventually, one answers that call.

And similarly, when a parish calls a priest to shepherd a particular flock, one cannot help but answer that call.

And so we come to the reason why I am here today. Sara-Scott Wingo accepted your call three years ago to be your Priest-in-Charge. That title is an odd one – you’re a shepherd on a timetable, you’ve got a letter of agreement that is time-limited. Hard to think of a shepherd who signs on knowing that the time of tending the sheep will end on x date. But in our tradition, there is a possibility that the relationship may morph from one where there is a defined end-date – the Priest in Charge model – to one where you enter into a covenantal relationship which does not have a defined end-date – the Rector model.

When the relationship morphs in this way, it’s like a long engagement that results in marriage. Today is the wedding feast! Sara-Scott is now your rector. Thanks be to God!

Now I’m going to stick with the marriage metaphor here rather than the one about shepherds because marriage is familiar to many of us and I doubt we have many real-life shepherds in the crowd.  So on to marriage.

Those of you who have been married a long time know that after the wedding feast ends, the hard work of sustaining the relationship begins.

Therefore my challenge to you sitting in the pews today is this: the work of relationship with your rector is just like the work of relationship with a spouse. Sara-Scott has a particular role, defined by her ordination vows. She is to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel, to fashion her life in accordance with its precepts, to love and serve the people among whom she works, caring alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor. She is to preach, to declare God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, to pronounce God’s blessing, to preside at the sacraments and other ministrations.

But as in a marital relationship, both parties have a role and responsibilities. So let’s reflect on your particular role. Here’s your part of the relationship:

1.     Listen. She has much to teach you. She has much wisdom and learning.

2.     Respect her, even if and when you disagree with her. No mumbling out in the parking lot or grumbling on facebook. Just as such actions are harmful in a marital relationship, they are poisonous in church, and will cause pain to the whole Body of Christ. If you’ve got an issue with your rector, go to her and talk to her about it. She is a great and generous listener, and it is a sign of your respect for her that you bring concerns directly to her.

3.     Show her grace. She will have some rough days every now and again – everyone does. Be as willing to forgive her when she fails – and we all of us priests fail on occasion – as you want her to forgive you when you fail.

4.     Don’t expect your rector to have ESP. It’s like when your husband forgets your anniversary and you give him the cold shoulder, and he says “what’s wrong honey?” and you say “Well, if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.” The number of times I’ve talked to parishioners who say almost exactly the same thing about their rector is uncountable. And when I say, “Your rector can’t read your mind,” disgruntled parishioners tell me that of course the rector should know. Here’s the truth: rectors are not mind-readers. Tell your rector when you’ve got an issue with her, and give her the space and the grace to work with you. Tell her when you’re sick and in the hospital. Tell her if you’re having problems. Tell her your joys as well. She will not know unless you open your mouth and your heart.

5.     It’s not your church. It’s not Sara-Scott’s church. It’s God’s church. Everything she does with you is to serve God. Her gifts are at your service, not only for your edification, but for God’s greater glory. So if she challenges you to stretch out of your comfort zone, consider it the work of the Holy Spirit, and take a risk. We are called to take risks – Bishop Michael Curry says we are challenged by God to be “crazy Christians” who actually believe we can make a real difference in the world. If Sara-Scott speaks of this challenge from God, don’t immediately dismiss it because you may not have done this sort of thing before. She is teaching you as well as challenging you. Take the risk.

Five things. That’s your job description. Now back to Sara-Scott.

Shepherds have all sorts of jobs in their care of a flock of sheep. Priests, too, are required to be generalists – who else has the job description of preacher, teacher, prophet, counselor, liturgist, administrator, occasional maker of coffee, and rarely (we hope) plunger of toilets?

Jesus was able to do it all because he was, well, Jesus. Being divine is a helpful attribute. Sorry, Sara-Scott, you’re not quite divine, although we will admit that you’re fabulous.

But know that the one thing we all can do in this complicated, beautiful, difficult, joyful work of being the Body of Christ, whether we are priest or parishioner, Senior Warden or junior acolyte, soloist in the choir or hummer of hymns in the pews…the one thing that we can do that honors this covenantal relationship between Sara-Scott and Emmanuel Brook Hill is to love and care for each other, as the Good Shepherd always loves and cares for each of us and desires our love.

We can do no less, in thanksgiving for the Good Shepherd and in thanksgiving for Sara-Scott’s ministry in this wonderful place.

Let all of God’s people say “Amen.”

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Sermon for the Easter Vigil April 4, 2015 Ezekiel 34-1-17

Crypt of Santa Maria Della Concezione, a Capuchin Franciscan church in Rome. All decorations are constructed from the disinterred bones of Capuchin monks. By these three skeletal monks is a sign that says "As you are, we once were. As we are, you will be."
You sense something, something you haven’t felt in a long time. You’re awake. You haven’t been awake in a long time. There is still an emptiness within you. You are as hollow as an abandoned anthill. Feelings are alien. You haven’t felt anything in a long time.

You are alone. You know there are others here…their bones rattle in the indolent hot breeze as yours do.

That’s all that’s left of you. Bones. Dry. No marrow anymore. It’s all been sucked clean by beasts. Dry bones, rattling in uneven rhythms in that scorching breeze. You are nothing anymore but hollow emptiness. Dead bones, not even good for the desert creatures to gnaw upon. Dry, empty.

Once you were God’s beloved, rich with marrow and color and muscle and sinew. Blood coursed through you, beating powerfully, rhythmically – thump, bathump, bathump…you were loved by someone, you loved someone, you held an wriggling warm infant in your arms, you hugged a friend. You ate a good meal, gnawing on a lamb bone as now something has  gnawed upon you. The feelings are distant memories now, faded in the same eroded sepia tints of this landscape. But still the palimpsest of feelings, their faint shadows remain.

And in the well of hollowness that you have become, there is a longing that swells up like a dust storm. It is hot and intense – where does this strength come from? How can anything come up like this out of hollow, empty, dry bones? This demanding, urgent longing, this desire…can dry bones desire?

And still the feeling comes. Emotion, rising huge and unstoppable, a tornado now…

…a longing to once again be alive, to feel the breadth and depth of love, to be cradled again in the love of One who has always loved…

…and then there is a whisper, a susurration, the gentlest shift in the breeze. It grows, and it seems to answer the wordless longing…

I am here. I am with you. I will restore you.

You think, can these dry bones live? I am barely more than dust. I am defeated, broken, dead, irreparably destroyed.
But something within says again, “I am here. I am with you. I will restore you.”

And the emptiness within you lessens a bit as the susurration becomes a wind, a breath, the breath that has been gone for so long you have forgotten what breath feels like. The breath comes, and now you are breathing too, you are connected to the source of the breath, and strange and wonderful restoration is happening…your bones are knitting together, not a mere jumble of calcified rocks, but bone connected to bone, sinew, then muscle, then flesh. The breath is rebuilding you, piece by piece.

In what little thought you had before now, you had accepted that you were nothing. Dead. Of no use. Not even a memory anymore. But now you feel the power of the breath filling you, and you are feeling those lungs like bellows, and the warm, life-giving breath  is like the way wine used to make you feel – you’re drunk on it, ecstatic with the feel, and now you feel your heart beating thump bathump bathump and you are alive. You are alive. And not only you, but all the others around you. Not a zombie apocalypse, not some weird apocalyptic horror show, but real life. Restored. Raised up from a desert of brokenness to life once again.
Full of the breath, the spirit, the wind that comes from the source.

You know that this is nothing that you could have accomplished yourself. Were it so, would you not have done it eons ago, before the marrow was gnawed from your bones? No, only the source of all life could have accomplished this. You were raised from that which was nothingness, you were restored from death, you were brought  back to life with nothing more than love and breath.

Would that you could do more than simply praise the One who restored you…but God is simply fulfilling a promise: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord."
But it does not end with that life-giving breath. There is more from the promise-fulfilling God. Full of divine joy, God weeps. Tears of gladness that what was sere and lifeless has been brought back to life. The tears wash over you, cleansing the last of the dust that had clung to you. Tears like raindrops, refreshing you, to be sure, but also refreshing the parched ground. You are washed. The land is washed. Not only have you been reborn, bones reknit, flesh and sinew on bone, but now the land is reborn as well. Those tears have watered your heart and soul and have freshened the parched earth…the first shoots of new life are pushing up through the crust of dirt.

Flower buds, vegetation, all signs of new life.
New spirit, rebirth. Resurrected. Breath and tears have revivified the earth, and all who are in it and on it.

We hear this strange story from the Book of Ezekiel and we wonder what it has to do with us. We are not dead. We are alive. We’re sitting here on this Easter Vigil night, thinking about what this means in the context of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we think we know the story. But we only are thinking about the half that is Jesus’ story – his death. His resurrection. It’s a great story, the greatest one of all. We know that.

But if we do not reflect upon how we live that story, we diminish its power. We – each of us in this room – have been in that valley of dry bones. We have been as dry and as broken and as forgotten as those in Ezekiel’s vision. We have lost the power to think, to feel, to breath. In our own brokenness, we have lost our connection with the story of God’s breath, of God’s love, of God’s eternal promise… 

And so when we feel most in need of that connection, of remembrance, of healing and reconstruction of our souls, we ask God to help us to remember the promise. “I the Lord have spoken and I will act.” 

In a few minutes Justin will ask God to help him to remember that promise, in the sacrament of baptism. His soul will be brought up out of a place of disconnection to a place of new breath, of new life. We each of us have felt the deep, deep longing for connection with the Divine – it’s a thirst that can only be quenched by the waters of baptism, and when Justin lifts up his head from above the font he will be filled with the breath of God. He will be connected as we all are connected, with the life-giving, restoring, completing spirit that will help him to always remember what connection to the One who is the source of life feels like. God’s promise is clear: “I will put my breath within you and you shall live.” 

It is will be a dramatic moment, that pouring of water, that spirit entering into Justin, and it is, in its own way, a little resurrection. He is not dead, of course, but his old way of life is dead, and he is reborn as an adopted child of the God who loves him. 

It is good to be present to this little resurrection, because it reminds us that we too have little resurrections in our own lives. The obvious physical one of our birth. The spiritual ones, such as the moment we were baptized.  

But how about the moment when we realize that we don’t have to live in fear of an abusive spouse, that we can walk away? I call that resurrection.

How about the moment when we realize that we are capable to being fully who we are, without hiding ourselves in a closet of shame? I call that resurrection. 

How about the moment when we realize we are not just the sum of our sins and offense, but of our gifts and graces? I call that resurrection. 

What we all need to remember is that little resurrections occur in our lives every day because of the greater moment of resurrection when those dry bones were knit together by means of breath and love. The even greater moment of resurrection when a rabbi who was cruelly put to death rose from the dead. Because of those moments, little resurrections occur in our lives every day. 

We are no longer dry bones, meaningless remnants of forgotten lives. We are eternal because the One who breathes divine spirit into us promises us eternity. We are joined with God, as Justin will be joined as God’s adopted child, not just on this mystical and beautiful night, but forever. Justin will become part of that divine breath forever, washed and refreshed by God’s tears of joy. 

This is the message of Easter: nothing that was destroyed cannot be brought to life again, by God’s love, God’s breath, God’s tears of joy. You are alive. The earth is alive. Our own little resurrections happen because of the big resurrection: Jesus is alive, who conquered death. Sing songs of praise and revel in all the resurrections that you have been given! AMEN.