Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Sermon for Roger Thorpe’s Memorial Service, Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Good evening. I am Mary Thorpe, Roger’s daughter-in-law. It is my privilege to say a few words this evening. Please know that the whole family deeply appreciates your prayers, your love, and your presence here as we reflect on Roger and on our faith. This has been a difficult few days, and your care has helped the family weather this hard journey.
Eileen and the family asked for two wonderful texts to be read for this service, ones that resonate as we think of this particular Christian life, now come to its peaceful end. The first is a portion of Psalm 139, the second, one of the most powerful passages from the Gospel of Matthew.  

At first glance, it might seem that these passages are not what one would expect at a funeral. Where’s the “In my Father’s House there are many rooms?” Where’s the invocation of the Good Shepherd leading the weary lamb to a place of rest? Where’s the moment when our tears are dried?

No, none of the old favorites that have been preached on for centuries as we laid our beloveds to rest. Instead, something different. Something more appropriate to this man and this moment.

Think of Psalm 139. It is absolutely clear about the relationship between the speaker and the Lord. God knows this person inside out.  The Psalmist cannot escape from God’s intimate knowledge of him – that beautiful language of being formed in his mother’s womb, of not being separated even in the darkness, because darkness is as light to God. He lists possible ways that the speaker could be far from God, and in each case, he cannot escape God. God is always present.

In some secular story lines, this might seem a frightening proposition: I cannot escape from this all-powerful being! As the Old Testament scholar Robert Alter notes, we hear the same sort of language in the Book of Job, Chapter 10. There, Job is angry and frustrated and confused and would prefer that God not be so close. But in this psalm, immediately, IMMEDIATELY, there is no fear. This speaker is absolutely delighted that God knows him: it is a marvel to him. The speaker implies, as well, that this deep and close relationship gives him a peek into the mind of God. Not all of it, of course, but glimpses : “17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.” The passage closes with a request: search me and know me, and if you find anything vexing, lead me to the right path.

Ah, vexing things! My family will attest that there are more than a few vexing things about me. There are times when I mess up. I sin. And when I sin, I am ashamed. In my shame, I don’t want to be known by God, I want to hide. But the Psalmist does exactly the opposite: because he wants to be the person God created him to be, he not only accepts that God will know his flaws, but he invites God’s examination.

Why? Because he knows his heavenly Father loves him. He knows that God’s greatest desire is his striving for perfection. He also knows that it is probably impossible to be perfect, but that it is God’s good pleasure that he should want to be perfected.

Imagine a life that is based on trust that God’s knowledge of you is not something to fear, but to invite. Imagine a life that accepts that one can never completely know God, but only every now and again see glimpses of the divine, and fully believe that is enough. Imagine a life that is an ongoing intimate conversation between loving Creator and beloved Creation.

Imagine a life like that.

That was the angle of view between Roger and his God. That was Roger’s life.

So hold on to that thought. We’ll talk more on that in a minute…

Matthew’s Gospel. Chapter 25, a final teaching before Jesus’ arrest and death.  It’s an apocalyptic vision, the final judgment, the sorting. What are the things that the favored ones have done that get them put into the “sheep” column rather than tossed onto the “goat” pile? The short answer is that they paid attention, way back in Chapter 5 when Jesus taught the crowds the Beatitudes. They not only paid attention, they did something about it. They recognized that it was not enough to simply hear the Word, the Word needed – demanded -  to be acted upon. And in this apocalyptic vision, those actions were best accomplished not because followers of Jesus thought God was watching, or the world was watching.  They were best accomplished not because they were currying favor with their Creator. They were best accomplished in quiet and invisible ways, when you didn’t think you were doing it directly for Christ, but because every person in the world was beloved of Christ. Lepers, Samaritans, fallen women, tax collectors, Roman centurions, mothers-in-law, anyone…all were worthy of loving care and support, because all were loved by their Creator.

Imagine now a life where medical care was given without the eyes of the world seeing what was happening. Imagine ill people being carried for days to be cared for by the one doctor who served an area equivalent in size to Illinois and Indiana put together. Patients may have been too far gone for the doctor to do more than provide comfort, but he did that. They may not have looked like the Warner Sallman portrait of Jesus so prominently displayed in just about every Covenant Church I’ve visited, but they were cared for as if it was the Lord himself. Imagine a doctor who learned how to grind eyeglass lenses so that patients could see, and who else was going to do it? Imagine a surgeon who brought food from his own home on the mission station to patients who had no one to bring them sustenance. Imagine a life devoted to those whose need was invisible to most of the world, a life of welcoming new babies into the world and ushering dying souls to God.

Imagine such a life.

That was Roger’s life,  a life that now has come to a close.

When we come to the end of our life, there is an awareness that there will at some point be a sorting. There is a question that lingers in our hearts: will I be counted as a sheep or a goat? If God looks into my heart and at my life, will I be judged a faithful servant? We know our own weaknesses and failures, and we worry. But we need not do so. Because even if we Christians cannot fully know the mind of God, we do know two things. Our God loves us, and our Lord has saved us. We believe in Jesus’ resurrection; we believe, too, that we will be with him at the end. We need not worry about that sorting, because we have been saved. We don’t believe in works righteousness, where God ticks off all the awesome things we’ve done and weighs it against our failures, and we only get eternal reward if the good side outweighs the other, because we have been saved.

So what does this mean when we look at the life of this good and faithful Christian servant who humbly sought to use his gifts to do God’s will? We see what it looks like when we know God as God knows us. We see what it looks like when we’ve paid attention to the Beatitudes, and we realize that it’s not just the listening to them, but acting upon them. We see the joy of ever being known and ever being perfected by the one who has always known us and has always loved us. This is what it looks like to live a life of belief. Roger did what he did in his life because he could not NOT do it, because of what the Lord did for him. He is saved. So are we all. May he rest in peace; we fully trust he will rise in glory.


Sunday, October 09, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, October 9, 2016 Luke 17:11-19 “Identity”

Good morning! I am Mary Thorpe, Director of Transition Ministry for the Diocese of Virginia, and it is my privilege to be here with you as you adjust to a new reality without Rev. D at the helm of this wonderful parish. It is the work of my department to support you in this time of transition. Your bishops and your diocesan staff are your resource, the folks you can lean on, as you look toward the future.

The readings we have today seem to have very little to do with your situation…and yet they do. That’s the blessing of the lectionary – it seems that every time something happens in our lives that shakes us, there is a thread in the lectionary that speaks to our souls.

So in today’s readings, we hear two stories about people afflicted with leprosy, and how they are affected by it as well as how they deal with their affliction.

Well, what does leprosy have to do with St P's? On the face of it, not much. But let’s explore a little bit and see what we can find.

Leprosy was a feared disease in the ancient world. It was viewed as a sign of being unclean. Lepers had to survive by begging, living outside the gates of the city. There was fear, too, that this was a transmittable disease – we know now that Hansen’s disease, as leprosy is now called, is not infectious in that way. But in those days, people who suffered from this affliction were ostracized, kept out of the community, were known not as brothers or mothers or children but as outcasts who must announce themselves by ringing a bell and calling out “unclean, unclean!”

In other words, they lost their identity. They became known only as their affliction.

This is not only a phenomenon of the past. When I was in chaplaincy training at a hospital in Washington, there was a tendency to refer to patients by their ailment. “The gallbladder in 4West.” “The terminal pancreatic cancer in that room.” “The teen with end-stage AIDS.” Not Mrs. Jones. Not Fred Smith. Not Angela. Their identity was subsumed by their disease.

Nowadays, they train doctors not to refer to patients in this way, but the practice still lingers. And it’s not surprising. When we are focused on our own illness, we tend to be consumed with talk about it. When a loved one is ill, everything is about the symptoms or the treatment or the prognosis. Even in referring to ourselves, our illnesses become a primary identity, and we forget how we are so much more than that. There is a loss of identity, or at the very least a shift in identity, when there is illness.

So now we turn back to the Gospel. A group of lepers encounter Jesus on the road. 
They ask him for mercy. He heals them. No big surprise there – he usually heals those who ask for his help. He doesn’t ask questions, he simply cares for them. He doesn’t sort them into good people or bad people, or Jews or Gentiles, or men or women. He sees each of them as beloved of their Creator, and heals them.

Now what happens next is interesting: only one turns back to say thank you. And in the telling of the story, suddenly there is note paid to the fact that this grateful man is…a Samaritan. Not a Jew, but a member of a sect that most Jews would view as unclean simply by virtue of his religious identity.

This is a guy who was viewed as doubly broken, doubly unacceptable, because he was first, a Samaritan, and second, a leper. His healing solves the second problem but he is still a Samaritan. Yet he crosses the boundaries, not denying his identity, not turning from someone he shouldn’t have trusted, because he sees that Jesus’ love is bigger than that. Jesus doesn’t allow the peculiarities of one person’s identity to get in the way of loving the man and healing him.

Jesus puts identity in its proper place: a facet of a person, not the whole of the person’s story. Something that is infinitely more nuanced than we usually think. By doing that, it becomes perfectly sensible that Jesus should heal a Samaritan leper. He sees identity differently, not ignoring it but putting it into its proper context.

Identity matters. When our identity is taken away from us, when we stop being Mrs. Smith and become the gallbladder in room 4West, we feel we are no longer visible. Have you ever had the experience of being the patient lying in the bed, and having doctors talk over your prone form to your spouse or another doctor? Then you know what I mean! You feel somehow lessened. Your identity is shrunk into a small box.

But identity is not a one-dimensional thing. It is complex. It evolves, just as the transition from leper to healed person is an evolution.

What does this have to do with St P's? I know of the history of this parish, that there have been times of great conflict and tension, that you have welcomed parishioners from other conflicted parishes, that there are still a range of theological points of view in this place. That is a part of your identity, one that we can celebrate because despite the struggles you are united in your love for this place and you are looking forward in hope. But the other part of an evolving identity is to say “that is a part of our story but it is not the whole of our story.” You are writing your story as a parish family with love, with spirituality, and with service.

If you simply choose to identify yourselves as your past story, you inhibit your ability to write the next chapter, with the help of the Holy Spirit. If you say “we are fragile because of the struggles of the past,” you deny the hard work you have done…and the toughness of scar tissue exceeds that of untested flesh. You are stronger than you may think.

As you reflect on your identity in this time of change, Jesus suggests that you see yourselves as you truly are: strong, vibrant, with gifts and ministries that benefit each other and the larger community. See yourselves as more than past disputes. See yourselves as Jesus sees you: healed, strengthened, beloved. And see how that shapes your vision of God’s plan for St. P's.

Your identity is even now growing, because God’s grace keeps you moving and changing, and that’s a good thing. May God bless St P's, all of you who are here and those who could not be here, and all those who have not yet found you but who belong here, and God bless the next chapter of living into that evolving identity with God’s help.


Saturday, October 08, 2016

Sermon for Sunday, September 25, 2016 Holy Comforter, Richmond “A World Turned Upside Down”

For the past few weeks we’ve been hearing a series of teachings and parables. We’ve heard about healing on the Sabbath. We’ve heard about invited poor people to our table rather than worrying about how close to the host we get to sit. We’ve heard about how we need to turn our back on familial relationships. We’ve heard about lost coins and sheep. We’ve heard about the shrewd but dishonest manager. We’ve heard about a poor beggar at the rich man’s gate getting rewarded and the rich man having an unpleasant surprise at the other side of eternity.

A whole laundry list of teachings…what’s the common thread?

It’s a world turned upside down. That’s the thing about Jesus’ teachings. He seemingly never goes to the expected place in his teachings. He takes the conventional wisdom – even the conventional religious wisdom of the day – and upends it. Not surprisingly, that makes people uncomfortable, because we like to think we know how things work and what being a good and righteous person looks like.

I’ve had a week of uncomfortable-ness. My world was turned upside down. I was called to jury duty.

Now I know that it’s our civic duty to do it. I know that I’m not special and don’t get a bye on doing it. I know all that. But my schedule is horrific. There’s an endless stream of work in my in-box and voice mail, and I can barely keep up.

So I wore my collar to the courthouse in hopes that it would give me a pass. After all, wouldn’t the attorneys believe that I would be too bound by religious beliefs to be a good juror? Wouldn’t one side think that I would be an angel of mercy and the other think I would be an  avenging angel, so either of them might say I couldn’t serve?

You know the saying. You make a plan and God laughs.

The one trial that was starting on Monday was a civil trial. They needed nine jurors. There were almost 50 of us. “Piece of cake,” I thought. “I’m outta here.”

They called 17 people for initial screening. Not me. “Sweet,” I thought. “I’m off the hook.”

The lawyers quizzed folks. Several were relieved of duty. “Hmm,” I thought.

They called a couple of other people to be asked questions. Not me. “Thank goodness,” I thought. “That was close.”

We broke for lunch, with orders to come back at 1:30. When we reconvened, there was a problem. One of the jurors had not returned from lunch. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, they went to their list to call one more name.

Mine. Dang it!

Short story: I’m on the jury. I’ve been on the jury all week. I can’t talk about the case, but I can talk, I think, about worlds turned upside down. My world, where my schedule was blown to smithereens. The world of the defendant, who, it goes without saying, had to defend himself. The world of the plaintiff, who filed this case because the plaintiff’s world had been turned upside down and thought the defendant was responsible. The world of battalions of lawyers who have to do this for a living, and despite all their carefully constructed strategies, could not predict some of what was said from the stand. The world of my fellow jurors, some of whom were missing work, one of whom was 7 months pregnant, all of whom had other places to be. Even, perhaps, the world of the judge, whose docket of cases was interfered with by this long case – after a full week of testimony, we will finally begin deliberations on Monday – and the times when his administration of this case was interfered with by emergent needs on other cases on his docket.

But even in worlds turned upside down, there is grace. I’ve met some wonderful people, particularly my fellow jurors, who are a motley crew, but we laugh and share our stories freely in the stuffy little jury room. I’ve heard moments of tragedy but also moments of deep caring and love in that room and from the witness stand. I’ve seen experts turned to mush and ordinary folks be voices of wisdom.

You turn a rock upside down, you might not like what you see. But if you turn the world upside down, you may see things that surprise you more positively.

This is what Jesus has been talking about these past few weeks. If you are stuck in one view of the way things are supposed to be, whether it’s that the poor get a lousy deal because their parents sinned, or that the conniving manager gets a bye for his cleverness (remember that one line in last week’s gospel that says “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” – we’re supposed to be less shrewd, not more)…if you’re stuck in one view of the way things are supposed to be, you aren’t looking at the whole picture, you’re missing something.

Jesus turns the world upside down so that we can see the whole of God’s love for us, the whole of the dark and the light of the world. We are intended to look for the places where we can be bringers of light by seeing things differently. We are not intended to simply move through the right-side-up world like zombies following rules without thinking.

Here’s the thing: it’s easier to keep the world right-side-up where we think we know what we’re supposed to do. It’s easier to follow a recipe. But if the only recipe we receive that truly matters is “Add love,” it requires that we look in all aspects of the world to see where we’re supposed to add it. If we turn the world upside down, we may see all sorts of places where behaving differently from what our right side up world means that we are the love-bringers. And those who bring us love may be the ones we least expect. It is, after all, upside down world!

I don’t know what our jury will decide on this case we’ve been hearing all week. I don’t know what the impact of our decision will be on all who are involved. But I do know this: it turned my world upside down and I saw things I didn’t expect to see. I felt God’s love in our work and in my personal reflections. There was a moment here or there when I may have been a symbol of God’s love – I hope I did that as God would want. As disorienting and disturbing as being in upside down world this week has been, I’ve learned something of what Jesus asks of us: look and really see. Don’t simply follow rules blindly.  Questions are not bad things, they are critical. Look for the love. Look for the light. And trust that you will know, through God’s Holy Spirit, what you are to do. Both sides of the world need it. Both sides of the world need you.