Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon for Sunday July 31, 2016 St James, Richmond, Luke 12:13-21 “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”

Good morning! I am Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia. It is my privilege and pleasure to work with your leadership as you begin the journey toward your next rector. I have met with your vestry and your staff, and once the search committee is commissioned, I will work with them in this holy and joyful work. Consider me your tour guide on this pilgrimage to the future! It is our hope that this will not be a time of anxiety but rather a time of spiritual exploration and transformation.  The process of transition is done a little differently these days from when you called Randy Hollerith, and that is because the world is a little different than it was sixteen years ago. In fact, you know that the world is very different.  The ubiquity of internet, the loss of the assumption that everyone goes to church on Sunday mornings, the culture that seems to devalue our Christian beliefs – all of these are shifts that were not present when you called your last rector. Time, too – we are so much more impatient than we were before! Remember faxing things? Now that isn’t fast enough – they must be transmitted in nanoseconds. And so with a changing world, our work together in parish transitions has changed as well, more oriented to the unique qualities of each parish, more flexible, with more parish input in the design of the process. Our new approach has been used successfully in many parishes in this diocese, from Christ Church Alexandria to Christ Church Glen Allen, from St Paul’s Hanover Courthouse to St Paul’s King George, from St James the Less Ashland …now…to St James in Richmond. We look forward to sharing the work with you all.

But in the meantime, we are still the church in this community and in this beautiful building. We are still the church in the spiritual formation programs, in the music, in the worship, in the incredible outreach to help others. And the Gospel still speaks to us as it has across the centuries. So let’s turn toward that Gospel we just heard and spend a few minutes with it.

I’ll begin, though, with something that is not in the Gospel. It has been a surprising phenomenon over the past two years: a thin little book, written in whispery little girl prose by a Japanese woman named Marie Kondo, has been sitting on the New York Times best seller list for a year. Its name? The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

In it, Kondo lays out her organizing plan, decluttering your home by the removal of all things that do not spark joy. You’re supposed to gather all your clothes in one gigantic pile, and go through them one by one. Touch each one. If it doesn’t spark joy, toss it, either by donating it if it is still usable or by consigning it to the dump if it is too ratty.

The underlying thesis is one that we probably could all admit: we have way too much stuff. And every day, we are encouraged to acquire even more stuff. I will own that I like retail therapy as much as the next person, and if I’ve had a hard week, I’m tempted to go shopping, especially if there are sales in the stores I most enjoy.

I’d like to think that I keep my clothing, at least, at bay by sorting through them with each change of seasons. We live in an old house with small closets, so come spring, I put the winter clothes in storage and hang the spring and summer ones, and in the fall, I put away the lightweight garments in favor of the woolens. Anything I haven’t worn gets donated or tossed…mostly. I have a hard time disposing of shoes and scarves, and unfortunately my closet looks like it. So maybe I’m a little like the acolytes of Marie Kondo, imperfect at tossing my excess stuff, but working on it.

You’re also supposed to do that with books, which to me is like getting rid of children, and kitchen gear, which to me is like lopping off a limb, and so on, decluttering your house until it achieves an Orientally spare and spacious aesthetic. Good luck with that.

We do have a rule in our house that nothing comes in the door unless something else goes out, be it a new small appliance or a pair of boots, but the rule seems to be ignored on a regular basis, which is why my stash of yarn continues to grow and my husband’s collection of tools seems to be procreating in the basement.

Stuff. We do love our stuff. It’s comforting, having that stuff. For my mother and other children of the Depression, it could rise to near hoarding levels, because they suffered through the time when they had next to no stuff. They would no more throw out a rubber band as spend money on a book they could borrow from the library, because that would be wasteful! We of younger generations, though, want what we want when we want it, and  my goodness, we do accumulate it and want even more. We’re blessed with the abundance of being able to get even more stuff.

And that is not only a 21st century phenomenon: look at the Gospel. A man asks Jesus to tell his sibling to share the family inheritance with him. In that culture, the eldest inherits it all, so younger siblings must fend for themselves or rely on the generosity of the eldest son to help them. And apparently this man’s big brother is not inclined to share. We don’t know the backstory here: was the younger sibling a wastrel or a jerk? Was the elder brother always the greedy one?

We’d like to know the whole of the family story, but we don’t get that. We get a parable from Jesus instead: a rich landowner has an abundant crop, and rather than giving his abundance away, he builds bigger silos so he can hold onto his surpluses. He’s feeling very pleased with himself, isn’t he. But God comes to him in a dream and says “you think you’ve got it all figured out, but you die tonight and you can’t take that surplus of crops and goods with you. How did that whole plan work out for you?”

In other words, the follower of Christ can’t hang on to stuff, particularly the excess stuff. Whether it’s clothing, money, or privilege, God demands that we share, that we declutter our souls of that which distracts us from the one true thing: Almighty God. Stuff isn’t true comfort. Only God is what salves our souls.

Now, I imagine that this makes many of us a little uncomfortable, we people who live comfortable lives and who have retirement plans and a few too many pairs of shoes. What are we supposed to do? 

Well, if I’m more worried about the year over year growth of my 401K or whether I can afford a trip to Europe next year than I am worried about young people in Gilpin Court who think the only option for success for them is through illegal activities, I’ve got some soul decluttering to do. I’ve got excess baggage to get rid of. And that is never easy to do, just like jettisoning my extra scarves and shoes. I’ve got to force myself to let go of the things that distract me and focus on that which God requires of me. I’m still working on that.

There’s another kind of excess baggage that is even more difficult to release: the past. In many parishes in transition, the past is the golden memory of simpler times or the rector we all loved best. 

We rarely remember some of the challenges of the past. And I expect even here, in the marvelous parish where so much has been working so very well, the one or two memories of a time when you were unhappy with something Randy Hollerith did is rapidly fading into the most distant corner and he is rapidly achieving saintly status. Not the he’s not deserving of praise: St James, under his leadership, has become an iconic faith community which lives deeply and richly into its name, a place of Doers of the Word.

But Jesus calls us to live forward to bring God’s reign to earth, and the doing of the Word is not a one-time thing. So as St James prepares for the next chapter in its existence, part of our work is to name what of our possessions and traditions we carry forward, what we build upon into something fresh, what we honor and lay to rest as part of the past. There’s no room in the closet for that new pair of shoes if we’re not willing to give away or throw away the ones that have no more life left in them.

So the challenge is the same one that Our Lord made to the complaining sibling: your stuff is only stuff, after all. Your baggage weighs you down. What are you willing to discard? What are you willing to repurpose in fresh ways? What are you going to build upon, so that you can continue to be what Randy helped you become, and who will the person be who will bring different gifts so that you might do that? That’s not just hiring any person with a collar and a warm smile, it is the hard work of discernment and prayer. Your Search Committee will do that work, but they will not do it alone. Each and every one of you who loves St James will be called upon to share ideas, hopes, dreams, and worries. Each and every one of you who loves St James must soak this process in prayer. If it is simply an exercise in hiring it will fail. But if it is a spiritual journey to seek God’s will – and make no mistake, God already knows whom your next rector will be – you will discover what God has in mind, and all will be well.

Know that your Bishops pray with you and for you in this time of change, and your diocesan staff stands at the ready to assist you. We bring our expertise and experience of supporting more searches than you can imagine – forty, currently. You bring open minds, keen ideas, and discerning and prayerful hearts. God is waiting to show his rich love for you if you listen, tidy up,  and keep at being doers of the Word.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, July 10, 2016 Holy Comforter, Vienna, Luke 10:25-37 “Justice and Mercy in a World Turned Upside Down”

How many lawyers do I have here today? Raise your hands! No, I know who you are – you’re the ones who are cringing because the Gospel starts with what could seem like yet another lawyer joke…

Now, why might I say that? This lawyer is doing the very thing that lawyers are trained to do: to clarify the law by asking questions. But this lawyer is violating a cardinal rule for trial lawyers: Never ask a question unless you know what the response is going to be. In a trial, of course, you want to shape the jury’s perception of what has happened. So you pose questions that are narrowly drawn and designed to elicit precisely the response you desire. Thus, we have the infamous loaded question “have you stopped beating your wife?” There is no real desire to figure out a time line of when the beatings stopped – the intent is to make sure the guilt of the man as a wife-beater is established. And there’s no good way for the person to protest and say “but I didn’t!” That loaded question makes the image stick.

So maybe this lawyer thinks he already knows the answer: follow all the laws in Torah! Perhaps he’s looking for an “attaboy” from Jesus, since this lawyer is a good guy and he knows he’s already doing that. He knows his responsibility as a faithful Jew: to love and obey God, and to care for his neighbor.

But now the story turns a little, this familiar story, because the lawyer asks a follow-up question that is a doozy: “who is my neighbor?” At this point, my inclination is to think maybe his question is genuine, that he really wants to know. Maybe he’s tired of participating in petty arguments over land transactions and marriage contracts. Maybe those who are his neighbors expect him to side with him and use the weight of his learning to win the day, even if another neighbor has the same expectation in the same dispute. How far do we carry this whole “neighbor” business anyway?

And here’s where Jesus smacks us upside the head, by telling a parable, an illustration of who our neighbor is. It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, the stranger who cares for someone wounded by the side of the road, when the wounded man’s everyday neighbors passed him by. Yes, we know about it, or think we do. But here’s the deal: The Samaritan is not just a nice guy passing by who isn’t a Jew, it’s as if a Sunni gave a Shiite a great big kiss. The Samaritans and the Jews are two groups of people who don’t get along at all. In fact each thinks the other is heretical, hateful, worthless. I’m telling  you this just so you have a feel of how shocking this parable would have been to a lawyer, a man committed to following the proper order of things, which says that Samaritans are the enemy.

It’s sort of like a Trump adherent who’s also a Tea Party member running up to Hillary Clinton after she fell off a stage, giving her first aid and putting her in his own car to rush her to the ER.

Or like police officers under attack protecting those who were protesting excesses of other police officers in other places where African-American men were shot during routine traffic stops.

Or like a “Black Lives Matter” protester trying desperately to stem the bleeding of a downed Dallas police officer. We don’t see too much of that kind of crossing of socio-political boundaries in today’s culture.

So, too, in the ancient Near East, where there was a long tradition of “we keep to ourselves, away from those others, who aren’t like us.” Some of that was self-protective – Jews were regularly oppressed by other nations – Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans – and keeping together was a way to be safe. But it also morphed into something more, a pride in one’s identity that made others less than us.

And that’s where the story sets the stage for the even more important message: our identity is grounded not only in our blood, but in our religious identity, and the laws that are part and parcel of maintaining that identity. But if we get it backwards, where it’s all about the law and not about the reason for identity, we fail as people of faith.

So take a look at the last exchange between Jesus and the lawyer. Jesus, in good rabbinic fashion, asked the question “which of these three passers by was the true neighbor?”

The lawyer’s a smart guy. He gets it in one: “It was the one who showed the wounded man mercy.”

Mercy. We tend to slide past that word in this passage, but let’s sit with it a little bit.

Mercy. There can be no true dialogue between people of different backgrounds, different traditions, different laws, unless there is mercy. Unless we are willing to grant someone who is different the same mercy we would like given to us. Mercy: a disposition to show kindness or forbearance. Mercy: if one is in a position of power, to show clemency. Mercy: a virtue that is a spiritual practice.

I focus on mercy for a very particular reason, and it’s not the horrible stories in the news this week. Mercy is not something that is reserved for crisis: it is a manner of being, a way of looking at the world and at those round us. Even  in how you look at a Trump supporter if you like Hillary, even I how you look at a Hillary fan if you  believe Trump can make America great again. If you’re a Bernie fan…sorry, I got nothin’…

No, I’m talking about mercy because it’s a spiritual discipline that I pray you will all commit to in the days and months to come, as you move into life without Father Rick at the helm here at Holy Comforter. I know some of you are still hurting. I also know that some of you did your grieving over the months that you knew he would be leaving. But now the reality has set in.

Here’s what sometimes happens after a priest retires at the end of a long and fruitful season of ministry: someone who doesn’t like something that the priest did says “Finally we can change that one thing I didn’t like!” And then the person lobbies or pesters to IMMEDIATELY change it. The former priest’s chair is still warm, but it’s got to be changed now.

And then someone else, who really liked that one thing, decides that the person who wants change is THE ENEMY, and a whole bunch of pain and bad words and stress explodes. And your senior warden goes out to buy the industrial sized bottle of Advil…

But imagine how different it would be in times of stress and change if the guiding practice were one of mercy?

What if the person who didn’t like that one thing said “I really didn’t like that thing, and I hope that it will change. I know there’s a process where I can speak my mind and that we can, as a community, discern the direction in which God is moving Holy Comforter. And I will speak up when those opportunities occur. I can be patient and trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us all in this process, and I can also respect that mine may be one of many different points of view.”

And when the opportunity comes for that person to share his or her feelings, others who disagree will similarly practice mercy and say or think “well, that’s an opinion I didn’t realize was out there. I’d like to hear more before I immediately dismiss it, even though I feel differently.”

Nobody’s insisting they must have their way. Nobody’s calling people who feel differently colorful names. No parking lot conversations or FaceBook private messages, or rump caucuses. Mercy. Mercy, because God shows us mercy at all times, and we want to try to be a little bit more like the God who created us every day.

Mercy. Speaking up when appropriate and listening hard when appropriate: those are the two keys to the spiritual discipline of mercy. If someone is hurting because they haven’t been heard in the past, don’t ignore them – reach out. Bind their wounds of feeling ignored. Pour the healing oil of friendship and respect on their hearts.

I say this because you are embarked on the amazing pilgrimage to seek your next rector. There will be moments when showing mercy comes very naturally and times when it is a struggle. That’s why we call it a spiritual discipline, because we have to discipline ourselves to do it not only in the easy times, but in the hard times, too. This pilgrimage you’re on  will take some patience and a whole lot of discernment. Right now you are still adjusting to life without Father Rick. In a little while you will welcome an interim rector who will help you get in the best possible shape for this process and for welcoming the next priest who has the privilege to serve you. I will be helping your vestry and the search committee – sort of a Rick Steves for the trip – so it is more like the spiritually transformative Emmaus Road walk rather than a 40 year wandering in the desert. I’m glad there will be some time after the 10 a.m.service for me to chat with you all, answer any questions you might have about how different this process will be from other transitions you may have experienced in the past, and to assure you that you are not on this journey alone. Your bishops and your diocesan staff are praying for you and with you at this time, and we will help you every step of the way. So whenever you get tired, or overwhelmed, or anxious, think mercy. Mercy for others on the journey with you, mercy for yourself as you recognize that none of us is perfectly merciful (except God!) You may be surprised how you will feel God’s love as you share God’s mercy with each other.

So my prayer for you in the time to come is this: May you feel the blessing of mercy shown to you and that you show to others. May you practice mercy in the hardest of times and may you receive it when you most need it.  May God bless the Church of the Holy Comforter as the pilgrimage goes forward!