Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas 1A

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

It was uncommonly like Nothing. There were no stars. It was so dark that they couldn’t see one another at all and it made no difference whether you kept your eyes shut or opened. Under their feet there was a cool, flat something which might have been earth…The air was cold and dry and there was no wind.

In the middle of a chapter, in the middle of a book, in the middle of his beloved series, C.S. Lewis tells the story of the beginning of the land of Narnia. Two children, Digory and Polly, have found themselves in the middle of the darkness at the beginning of a world being made.

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing…Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes [it seemed to come] out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise [Digory] had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.

When last the Church gathered as communities of faith, in the star-bright darkness of Christmas Eve, we raised our voices to sing with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven and earth, Joy to the world, the Lord is come! We rejoiced in the middle of the darkness at the beginning of a world being made new as a newborn baby on a silent and holy night.

Today we gather to continue our celebration of that blessed birth, to mark the midpoint of the season of Christmas, to keep singing the beautiful beyond comparison carols that let us adore him, to linger a little longer in the stable where good news of great joy awaits…

But there is no stable in the story we hear today. There are no shepherds, no swaddling clothes, no manger, no Mary. John’s gospel has no nativity. But it does have a beginning…

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It doesn’t sound like the story pictured on greeting cards from friends, or presented by children in glitter and bathrobes, or portrayed by the family heirloom figurines of Mary and Joseph and all the rest. In this story, Jesus doesn’t look like a baby. It doesn’t feel like Christmas.

Instead, John invites us to go back to the beginning of the story, before there even were a heaven and nature to sing. The Church, by placing this gospel reading on the Sunday following Christmas, invites us to go back to that beginning from right here where we stand at the manger, gazing down at the child in whom is mingled divinity and DNA. For every twinkle in his dark eyes, every crease in his tiny fingers, every soft hair on his sweet head contains not only his human life but the life that is the light of all people. This little one who has come into being is the one through whom all things came into being. In the glow of a stable lamp lies the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness did not overcome.

In the beginning was the Word…The Reverend Mary Morrison writes, “We are invited to let the words roll over us, like waves of music. We love to hear them, even though we may not be too sure about what they mean.” The beginning of John’s gospel is a song weaving together the ancient harmonies of creation with a new melody of incarnation. The words are not as simple as those we heard on Christmas Eve, To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. John’s words are not as simple, but as surely as Mary held her baby in her arms, so does John’s gospel hold the Word made flesh who lived among us, as one of us, so that we might learn to live with God.

And as the rest of John’s gospel, his telling of the story of the good news of Jesus Christ…as the rest of John’s gospel unfolds, it elaborates the theme and swells the sound of all that was said and done in the beginning. Frederick Buechner notes that the Hebrew word dabar means both “word” and “deed,” such that to say something really is to do something. When we speak, that which was contained, hidden, in our hearts and minds is given substance and released into the world, like stones thrown into a pool where the concentric circles lap out endlessly, he writes. Let there be light, God said, and there was light, rippling its way toward this very morning when the sun rose and our day began.

So it is with the Word who was with God, the Word who was God, the Word who became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth. In the vast and mysterious and wonderful and intimate stories of creation and of Christmas, the Word is not only God’s expression of light and life and love but also God’s active agent of light and life and love. No one has ever seen God, John wrote. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.

Making God known to all the world was what the baby sleeping in Mary’s arms would grow up to do. Making God known to all the world was what he would ask those who believed in him to do. Making God known to all the world is what we are called to do, we who are the Body of Christ, we who through Christ are close to the Father’s heart. The light of life is kindled in us, so that we might shine in a world that is so often dark and cold and dry. The song of love is stirred in us, so that we might sing in a world that is so often deaf to compassion and mercy.

Then two wonders happened at once, C.S. Lewis continues with his story. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices; more voices than you could possibly count. They were in harmony with it, but far higher up the scale: cold, tingling, silvery voices. The second wonder was that the blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. They didn’t come out gently, one by one, as they do on a summer evening. One moment there had been nothing but darkness; next moment a thousand, thousand points of light leaped out…If you had seen and heard it, as Digory did, you would have felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves who were singing, and that it was the First Voice, the deep one, which had made them appear and made them sing.

By the light that dawns in the newborn world of Narnia, Digory and Polly see such glory, as of a father’s only son. They see that the First Voice, the Singer of the song of creation, is none other than Aslan, the great lion whose presence at the beginning of all things brings light and life, whose sacrifice in the middle will demonstrate the depth to which love will go, and whose living again will make a new beginning of life and put an end to darkness.

This Christmas, for we are still gathered at the stable illumined by lamps and stars and the Light of the World, let us lend our voices to sing with those who tell the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us. May our song bring light where there is darkness, love where there is coldness, joy where there is silence. In the words of one of our beautiful beyond comparison Christmas carols:

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, he the source, the ending he,
Of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Advent 4A

Isaiah 7:10-17; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

“I can’t believe that,” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Six impossible things before breakfast… It’s not such a stretch at this time a year, is it? We have to believe at least six impossible things each day just to make it through to the next day. I will get all the gifts wrapped in time, I will bake a batch of cookies that doesn’t burn on the bottom, I will get the house cleaned for our guests, I will remember all the groceries so I don’t have to go to the store on Christmas Eve…

It hardly seems possible, but Christmas is just two days away. Can you believe it? In just two days we will hear the angel choirs and smell the sweet hay and see the Savior of the world lying in a manger. In just two days we will gaze with Mary at the baby and ponder the words of the shepherds in our hearts. In just two days we will stand with Joseph and…well, stand there.

In just two days we will read again from the gospel of Luke that most familiar of Christmas stories, in which heavenly light shines on angels and shepherds and mothers and babies but never on Joseph. He is present only as a shadow might be present at the edge of the glory of God. He is in every scene, but with no speaking roles, unless he’s the one who asks if there is room for himself and his weary wife at the inn. And yet, none of the story would have been possible without him.

This morning we read from the gospel of Matthew a far less familiar Christmas story. Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. In this story, heavenly light shines on Joseph alone, while Mary and an angel move in the shadows on the edge of his scenes. Suddenly, that figure from our nativity sets whom we usually mistake for another shepherd has a life and a spirit and a voice of his own – he still has no lines, but Joseph’s actions in this Christmas story speak volumes.

“I can’t believe that,” Joseph might have said to Mary, when she told him an impossible to believe tale about how she came to be pregnant. “Can’t you?” she might have responded, pleading. “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.” But then Joseph would only have sighed sadly and said, “There’s no use trying. One can’t believe impossible things.”

Joseph and Mary were betrothed to one another, a commitment that was far more legally significant than our engagements are today. Mary’s pregnancy, which Joseph only knew was not his doing, would have brought shame upon them both. Her family would not have accepted her back, forcing her to earn her living and raise her illegitimate child on the streets. And that was the best case scenario – according to the law, she might be stoned to death for her unfaithfulness.

What a mess. One day Joseph is happily going about his work as a carpenter, dreaming of the home he will build for his wife-to-be, dreaming of the life they will build together. When he wakes up the next day, she’s pregnant, his trust is betrayed, his name is ruined, his livelihood is threatened, his future is uncertain. Joseph has every right to cast Mary out into the street, but Matthew tells us he is a man of deep compassion, a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, and so he decides to divorce her quietly, to separate himself from the mess.

Joseph’s sleep must have been fitful that night, filled with dreams of shadows and stones. But as he tossed and turned, an angel appeared to him and whispered an earful of impossible things for him to practice believing before he ate breakfast. Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. The baby she carries is of the Holy Spirit. You will name him Jesus, which means “God saves”. Your son will save people from their sins.

At the heart of Matthew’s Christmas story is a good man who wakes up to a wrecked life. He looks at the mess he had nothing to do with creating, and he must decide whether to believe his dreams, to believe his wife, to believe God. The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor wonders, “Will he believe the impossible and give [the tiny, helpless, powerful, vulnerable Savior] a home, or will he stick with what makes sense and let the miracle go hungry?”

Things were a mess for King Ahaz in our reading from Isaiah. The kingdom of Judah was in imminent danger of being overtaken by the powerful Assyrian army. Other smaller nations were urging King Ahaz to join forces with them against the Assyrians, but Isaiah counseled him to have faith in God’s power to deliver Judah instead. In a rare move, God personally offers Ahaz a sign that all will be well – before a newborn baby grows old enough to eat solid foods, the kingdom of Judah will be safe.

It is true for all of us, isn’t it, that life can get terribly messy. Like Joseph and his wife Mary (who, remember, utters a bewildered “How can this be?” when an angel announces the role God hoped she would accept)…Like Joseph and Mary and King Ahaz, we are daily presented with circumstances beyond our control, lives we never would have chosen, messes we can’t possibly clean up alone. We need a helper. We need a cleaning service. We need a savior.

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Six impossible things to believe before breakfast. It was going to get messier before it got any easier, if it would ever be easy at all to be the adopted father, the legal guardian of God. But Matthew tells us, When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife…and she bore a son; and he named him Jesus. Jesus, the Greek translation of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “God saves.”

In this season of expectation, of waiting for Emmanuel, God-with-us, of waiting for God to come into our messiness, we learn from prophets and angels and dreams, we learn from the stories of King Ahaz and Joseph, that God is already here. God is already here, strengthening, supporting, protecting, calling us to enter the mess faithfully, knowing that God is with us.

We also learn, though, that God comes to save us in, and not necessarily from, the messes that we make and that get made all around us. God saves us by calling us to believe the impossible – that God’s love is stronger than death, that God’s peace is more powerful than chaos, that God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

In the messy Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich dreamed of God, and she wrote, “The words ‘You will not be overcome’ were said very sharply and very powerfully as a security and a comfort to be used in any tribulation that may come. God did not say, ‘You will not be troubled’ or ‘You will not have bitter labor’ or ‘You will have no discomfort,’ but ‘You will not be overcome.’ God wills that we pay attention to this word and that we be ever strong in faithful trust, in well-being and woe. For God loves us and delights in us, and wills that, in the same way, we love and delight and strongly trust in God – and all shall be well.”

The season of Advent all along has been about God coming to be with us, not just once wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger but every day of our lives, calling us to believe that with God, all things are possible, as Jesus told John the Baptist in our gospel reading last Sunday: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised. With God all things are possible. Is it possible that we might say yes to God? That we might, like Joseph, have the courage to embrace the messiness of life, adopt it as our own, and rock it tenderly in our arms?

As we approach the little town of Bethlehem and make our way toward the stable, may we risk getting messy, may we believe the impossible, may we hold our dreams close, may we draw a long breath and shut our eyes and listen for the angels who whisper day and night in our ears, “Do not be afraid. God is here. It may not be the life you planned, but God may be born here, too, if you will permit it. And you will call his name Jesus, ‘God saves.’” Amen.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Advent 1A, Part 2

On the real first Sunday in Advent, I preached at Episcopal Church of the Advent in Sumner. Little Charlie and I stayed Saturday night in Greenwood, where he treated Mary Dent and me to his own version of the Nutcracker. Of course, it consisted entirely of the battle between the Nutcracker and the Rat King.

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 24:37-44

Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Really, Jesus? We know exactly when you’re coming. Turn on the TV, open the newspaper, tune in the radio and it’s right there: “Only 22 shopping days left until Christmas!” We know exactly when you’re coming. Or is it when Santa is coming…

The shelves have been stocked with Santas and snowflakes and Christmas stars since, when, Labor Day? We’ve been surrounded by sleigh bells for so long that surely we’d have arrived at the stable by now. But when Advent finally arrives, the readings seem to lead us toward the parousia, the second coming of Christ in power and great glory, rather than toward his first coming at Bethlehem, in humility and deep darkness.

The Latin word adventus means “coming”. And yet, despite the calendars that mark the season, Advent is not at all about counting the days until the baby is born or counting the days until he returns. This briefest of seasons looks back (even as we are looking forward!) to God’s coming into the world to make a home here, and it also looks forward to God’s coming into the world to take us home. But the Latin, adventus, means more nearly a coming that is imminent than a coming that is 22 days away, let alone generations away. And so this season is mostly about the gazillion advents that take place between the beginning of the story of Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the end. It is about God coming into the world, into our lives, each and every day, in expected and unexpected ways, in anticipated and unanticipated moments.

My aunt tells about an airplane flight she took from Alaska back to her home in the southwest. It was dark when the flight took off, and she closed her eyes but found she couldn’t sleep. So she settled herself as best she could to see out the window, where a brilliant full moon was casting its light across the clouds. After a while, she looked across the row of seats to the window on the other side of the plane and saw something she did not expect. The light over there was purple and pink and orange and gold. The sun was rising. My aunt says she was filled with wonder at the possibility of being in that exact place where night and day meet, and that she wanted to run up and down the aisle and shout at everyone, “Wake up! Everyone, wake up! If you don’t wake up, you’ll miss this moment!”

Both Matthew and Paul were just as eager to shout, “Everyone, wake up!” at the believers in their communities. When Matthew was writing his account of the good news, the earliest Christians believed Jesus would return within their lifetime, and so they urged one another to be prepared. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. By the time Paul was corresponding with church communities throughout the Mediterranean, the urgency had begun to shift from expecting Christ’s imminent return to expecting a much longer wait in a world that seemed hostile toward hope. If Jesus had already come in humility and deep darkness, and was not coming back any time soon in power and great glory, what were the faithful to do?

They weren’t to count down the days. In the verses just before our gospel passage begins, Jesus says that not even he knows when he will return. Instead of counting, writes Paul, in this in-between time when the night is far gone and the day is near, we are to love one another. The coming of God into the world through the law could be summed up in the single commandment to love one another. What are the faithful to do while they wait for Christ to come? Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep…Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, Love come down, Emmanuel, Love-with-us. Another preacher has said, “One does not have to wait for something out of the ordinary [like announcements from angels or airplane rides through daybreak]. The all-important thing is to keep your eyes on what comes from God [which is to say, Love] and to make way for it to come into being here on the earth.”

Light and darkness are familiar to us as images of Advent. We light candles in anticipation of the birth of a baby on a dark, silent night, the birth of light in a dark, noisy world. Darkness is something of an ambiguous image in this season – in it is danger and shelter, unease and stillness, anxiety and courage, death and newborn life. We are accustomed, exhausted, perhaps, from walking the Christmas aisles at Walmart, to settling gratefully under the mantle of Advent darkness to wait for the day of the Lord to come.

But today, on the first Sunday in Advent, Jesus calls us to wakefulness and action, to attentiveness and preparedness, to love. Not the sentiment of love that drops a few coins in the bell-ringer’s bucket, but, as my aunt says, a “steely, resolved love” that walks into the darkness with God, intent on illumination. Advent is the season in which we are called to live urgently as the church, practicing mercy and forgiveness and comfort and peace. To open our eyes in the darkness and see – and be – a great light. When we wait in this way, as the Body of Christ, walking the path of God’s vision for the world, we will find that God has already come. God has been here all along, coming into the world over and again in unexpected ways and at unexpected moments and through unexpected people, including us. And in all of those “advents”, those comings of Christ, from the day of Incarnation to this Sunday morning, from tomorrow straight through to the last day, the light steadily grows. There is still deep darkness, but Love like silver stars is enlightening, charting the way toward dawn.

Our readings today, then, are not about the first advent or the second advent of Christ, but rather they are about a God who comes. A God who loves. A God, our God, to whom darkness is not dark, to whom night is bright as day. When our consumer culture has us looking 22 days ahead, when our end of the year reports are looming, when exams are around the corner, when Christmas cards haven’t been sent, when travel plans haven’t been finalized, when bills are piling up, when calendars are overflowing with obligations, the season of Advent calls us to stop and be awake, to watch, to see how God comes into the world each day, as surely as the sun rises. The season of Advent calls us to love as God has loved us, enough to walk into the darkness bringing light.

Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on which day your Lord is coming. Really, Jesus? We know exactly when you are coming. We know that you are here now, for you promise to come whenever two or three are gathered in your name. We know that you are here whenever we love one another, not the sentimental kind of love but that steely, resolved love that sees you in all people, especially the most unexpected. Besides this, we know what time it is, how it is now the moment for us to wake from sleep. Now is the time for us to go up and down the aisle, up and down the sidewalks, up and down the hallways and highways shouting to everyone, “Don’t miss it! Don’t sleep through, or shop through, or sorrow through, or skip through the marvelous moment of love when night meets day, when the light of the world comes upon a midnight clear.” Now is the time to watch for the ways God loves us and comes to us each and every day, and for the ways God comes to others through our love. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

O come, thou Dayspring from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh. Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadow put to flight. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Advent 1A

We started Advent a little early at Saint Andrew's Upper and Middle Schools this year... The acolytes and readers helped with the sermon by blowing on noise makers when the sermon began...

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 24:37-44

Happy New Year!!

That reading from Romans did say Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep – so I’m just checking on you!!

Happy New Year!!

It’s actually a little hard to know how to mark a year in the life of our school. August to May, of course, is the way we do it for grades and grade levels and graduation. But then there is January, when the calendar announces that a new year has arrived and we’ll spend the next month trying to remember to put ’08 instead of ’07 on everything. And here at Saint Andrew’s, because we are by name an Episcopal school, we have yet another new year’s day to mark – today. Happy New Year!!

Today we are marking the beginning of the season of Advent, the four weeks during which Christians prepare for the coming of Emmanuel, which means God-with-us. Advent is the start of a new year for us, because we go back to the beginning of the story of our faith, long before there were shepherds abiding in the field, long before a stable was filled with light, long before an angel announced that Mary would have a baby boy. We go back to a time when the world was for very many people a dark place, and God’s people prayed that God would come and with great power make things right again. We recall the words of the prophets, like Isaiah, who spoke of a new day when there would be peace between nations and justice for all people. Finally, near the end of the season, we will tell the familiar story of angels and dreams and announcements and songs, such as the one Mary sang about the child she would bear, about the new thing God was doing: God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty. God has come to the help of the faithful, for God has always promised to show mercy.

The start of a new school year, the start of a new calendar year, and the season of Advent, the start of a new church year, are all filled with hope and expectation and preparation – we want it to be a good year, right? We want to be ready for what the new year will bring.

I spent several New Year’s Eves (the December 31st ones) at an Episcopal youth retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. We always started the night in the chapel, warm from the glow of candles and the excitement of the evening. We filled that place to the rafters with our worship and especially our music, singing and clapping and dancing, and then we danced our way through the icy cold air to the hall where the big party was waiting, and we danced some more and counted down the hours then the minutes then the seconds to the new year. The night was full of noise and celebration. Some time after midnight, we walked back toward our cabins, and I remember noticing how silent and dark and still it was underneath the trees. Through the bare branches, I could see the stars like silver lights in the blackest sky, making that darkness dazzle with joy and hope as the new year was just beginning.

Many years later, when I was in seminary, I spent several New Year’s Eves in New York City, surrounded by mountains not of trees but of concrete and steel. There, the stillness was inside our warm little apartment and the noise and celebration were outside in the cold, where just a few blocks away thousands of people were dancing and clapping in Times Square. But then, most nights were something like that in New York City. It didn’t have to be New Year’s Eve. There was always noise – the hum of traffic, the rumbling of the subway, the whine of car alarms, the wail of fire engines, the roar of airplanes flying low over the Hudson, the voices of people talking, arguing, laughing, singing, or yelling in the streets…

Advent, like any new year, like any day of our lives throughout the year, is full of contrasts – there is hope and fear, stillness and noise, light and dark, expectation and anxiety, preparation and feeling unprepared. And even as Christians are preparing especially for that silent night, that midnight clear, when Emmanuel, God-with-us, must have been anything but silent as he tested out his newborn lungs, we can all prepare for the unique ways in which God comes into our lives each and every day. Because this, too, is what Advent marks – God with us now, God with us here. How can we make ourselves ready for God to be God-with-us, on mountaintops and on city streets, in stables and on stage, in congregations and in classrooms and in community, in joy and in grief, in rare silences and constant sound?

In this place, at this school, through our studies and our teamwork, through our friendships and our service to others and through all that we do here, we are preparing ourselves to live as light in dark places, as peacefulness in noisy places, as hope in fearful places. God is with us. Happy new year!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Posting Pictures...

...of purling (well, knitting), not preaching! I've never added a picture to a post, and just wanted to know if I could do it!

So, while I'm at it, this is a prayer shawl I'm knitting for the St. Peter's-by-the-Lake prayer shawl ministry. At one end, which you can't see in the picture, I tried my first knitted ruffle. Took a long time, but MUCH more fun than fringe!

Now off to see what a posted picture looks like in the blog!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Saint Andrew

Sermon delivered at our Saint Andrew's Day chapel services at Saint Andrew's Episcopal School. We celebrated a few weeks early of the actual feast day. There were bagpipes and cake - heaven for Episcopalians!

Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Psalm 19:1-6; Matthew 4:18-22

I am Saint Andrew’s, many of you claim in the remarkable video that promotes this school on our website. I am Saint Andrew’s, where it is "cool to be smart," where what we learn in the classroom is never bound by four walls, where spiritual growth and moral responsibility and academic excellence are taught in observatories, art studios, science labs, courtyards and classrooms, on playing fields, at performances, in chapel, and among friends. I am Saint Andrew’s, you say.

I am Saint Andrew, a voice echoes back to us from a roadside in Galilee, somewhere near the shore where a boat was anchored and fishing nets drawn up to dry in the sun. I am Saint Andrew.

Today we celebrate the man whose life and ministry were so compelling that we would name our school after him and choose his symbols for our crest. Today we celebrate Saint Andrew’s Day, and how his story is part of ours, how our six decades of stars rising are part of a far more ancient constellation in which our own Andrew was the first to shine.

There are two different stories in scripture describing how Andrew met Jesus. Andrew and his brother made their living as fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. When he wasn’t fishing for fish, though, Andrew busied himself with fishing for the meaning of life, and he believed he had found it in the preaching of his teacher, John – John the Baptist.

John was one of those nutty professor types – you knew what he taught was true, but his methods seemed slightly mad. He wore camel-hair clothing, kept to a diet of locusts and honey, and imposed on anyone who came near him an unfettered extroversion. He went about in the wilderness preaching and prophesying about One who would soon come in God’s name and turn the whole world upside down and inside out with love.

One day, John and his disciples (his students), including Andrew, were sitting near the road when Jesus happened to walk by. John pointed to Jesus and said, “That’s him! He’s the One, God’s chosen One, the One I’ve been telling you about!” Andrew was immediately hooked and ran after Jesus, who played Andrew for the fisherman he was by dropping the bait, What are you looking for? Jesus reeled Andrew back to his house for the afternoon, where we can only imagine what the conversation must have been like before Andrew finally made his way back to where he had left his brother cleaning the fish and untangling the nets. "You’ve got to meet this guy!" Andrew told his brother, whose name was Simon Peter. In many traditions, then, Andrew is remembered as the very first disciple of Jesus.

They had the chance the next morning, when out at sea with his hands full of fish Andrew was still talking about his afternoon with God’s chosen One. Jesus was again walking by, and when he saw Andrew and Simon Peter he called to them, Follow me, and you will not need your fishing nets any longer. I will make you fish for people! Follow me! And immediately, the gospel tells us, immediately they dropped their nets and followed him.

Andrew appears only twice more in our scriptures. When Jesus finds himself in the midst of a crowd of more than five thousand hungry people with nothing to eat, it is Andrew who brings forward a young boy with five loaves and two fish that became more than enough to feed the multitude. When two Greek men come forward hoping to meet Jesus, it is Andrew who welcomes them and takes them to Jesus, thus teaching us that God’s good news is for all people and not just a chosen few.

Not much else is known about Andrew’s life. He preached the gospel far and wide, perhaps traveling as far as Greece, where he was eventually crucified on a cross resembling an “X” (called a “saltire”), which appears along with a fish hook in our school crest. Legend places him also in what would become Russia, preaching along the coast of the Black Sea.

Andrew is the patron saint of Russia, Romania, and Scotland. Most celebrations of Saint Andrew’s Day within the Episcopal Church owe much to the Scottish tradition, so that bagpipers are in high demand during November. Again according to legend, the Roman emperor Constantine, in the 4th century, moved Andrew’s bones to Constantinople. A monk was warned in a dream, however, that the bones would not be safe there, and that he should take the bones to “the ends of the earth”, which at the time seemed to be the coast of Scotland. The town, the cathedral, and eventually the university of St. Andrew’s were founded in the place where the bones were said to rest. In the 8th century King Ungus of Scotland saw a cloud shaped like a saltire, and declared that Andrew was watching over them in battle. The saltire later became a part of the Scottish flag, the Union flag, the flag of the Confederate states, and of course our own state flag.

We are, indeed, Saint Andrew’s, in more ways than one. Andrew’s first witness to the good news of God’s love, and his lifelong commitment to that witness, brought an extraordinary and, to be honest, unlikely mix of people together to help in the work of turning the world upside down and inside out. His brother, Simon Peter, stumbled over his own two feet time and again, and yet he would become a giant of the faith and the foundation of the church. A little child, invisible in the eyes of the ancient world, in the eyes of Andrew had more than enough in his lunchbox to offer to God.

Andrew brought people together, and he continues to bring people together today. We are brought together here in his name, and I believe he would rejoice to see a community as diverse as ours, as unlikely as ours in that we represent such a rich variety of backgrounds and traditions and stories and gifts and faiths. We are, indeed, Saint Andrew’s, sharing with him an eagerness to learn, an openness to that which is new, and a readiness to change the world for the better. In this hungry world, people are biting. Come on, y'all, let’s go fishing… Amen.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

For Hope

St. Andrew's Episcopal School - Upper School Chapel

Tyler Christopher Varnado, a member of the senior class, died two days earlier in a car accident. I did not have the opportunity to meet him, for which I am aware I am the poorer.

Isaiah 40:28-31; Romans 8:26-39

Our readings this morning, like our hearts, are full of questions. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Isaiah asks, wondering if we know that God does not grow exhausted by our need for help.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Paul asks, wondering if we know that God does not ever leave our side.

Why did this happen? Why Tyler? Can’t this all just be a joke? we ask, wondering if, wishing that we could wake up and find it all a very bad dream.

There are no easy answers – perhaps no answers at all – to the difficult questions we ask. There is nothing that can undo the terrible tragedy that has been done, nothing that can rationalize it, nothing that can excuse it, nothing that can justify it.

And so we are left with one question. How do we go on from here? we ask, wondering if there is any reason to hope. Friends, if we asked Tyler this question, how would he answer it? What would he say?

I did not have the privilege of meeting Tyler, but I have heard so many of your stories about a person who loved life, who loved his friends and family, who loved this school. I have heard stories about a person who laughed well, soared well, studied well, and slept well. I have heard some colorful “Tylerisms,” at least those that folks are willing to say in front of a priest. I have heard about passion, loyalty, genuineness, and courage. How do we go on from here? I believe Tyler’s life gives us a really good answer.

I also believe the answers we heard in our readings can help us. Have you not known? Have you not heard? God does not grow exhausted by our need of help and comfort and strength. In this is hope. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Nothing, Paul says. I am convinced, he says, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God. In this is hope.

How do we go on from here? Just as life has not ended but is changed for Tyler, so is life not ended but changed for us. Just as he goes on from glory to glory, in the words of his faith, so do we go on from here one step at a time, crying one moment, laughing the next, wondering, wishing, believing…in this is hope.

The first to hope so freely, so fully, were those who in the early morning light of Easter discovered that not even death would not hold God back from us, or us from God. And so we can with confidence give thanks for life that is not extinguished but that instead burns bright with Easter hope.

On our altar this morning are candles for our Saint Andrew’s seniors, one for each, including Tyler, whose light will always burn bright in their hearts. We would like to invite you, seniors, as you are comfortable and beginning with the front row, to come forward and light a votive from our Paschal candle, the light that is kindled on Easter morning, the light of life. Our tears, our laughter, and our lives will burn brighter for having known Tyler. Tyler has shown us, as does the light from a single candle, that light is never diminished when it is shared. Instead it grows and lights the way for us to go on from here. In this, friends, is hope.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Meditation #1

Meditation #1 - The first in a series of three meditations for the ECW Quiet Day at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez, MS.

Yesterday, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School where I serve as chaplain, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the school’s founding. “Six Decades of Stars Rising” was the theme of our campus-wide worship out by Lake Sherwood Wise, nestled behind the observatory, where stars were visible not in the sky above but rather in the procession of students and faculty that wound its way to the lakefront.

“It’s like we’re the stars, right?” a third grader asked me earlier in the week. “For six decades the students have been like lights rising up in the sky?” So much has changed in the 60 years since students first gathered in the fellowship hall at the parish of St. Andrew’s. They have twice outgrown their space. Headmistresses and headmasters have come and gone. Textbooks have been introduced and become worn and outdated. Laptop computers have taken the place of notebook paper.

So much has changed in 60 years, but my third grade friend is correct – the students have always been the stars, lighting the way for succeeding generations, so that yesterday morning the campus was positively radiant. Through six decades of stars rising, the light of learning has been overshadowed only by the yet more brilliant light of Christ shining through the school’s founding as a community of faith and service. The light continues to shine.

And things continue to change. This year there are some forty new women and men added to the constellation of faculty and staff, and a search is underway for a new head of school. A new schedule has been implemented, based on some unintelligible mathematical formula that concluded six days of the week would be better than five, and that classes should be rotated from day to day, so that if this Monday were an A-day, you’d start with 1st period and go through 7th period, and then next Monday would be an F-day, starting with 6th period and working its way around to 4th period… And there is a new chaplain this year, still a little blinded by the light, still a little confused by the schedule, still in the process of learning how to read the stars, how to read the students…

When I accepted the call to serve at St. Andrew’s, not long before the start of the new school year, the old but familiar anxieties started surfacing… What would I wear the first day of school? How would I find my way around? What if no one talked to me? Would I be cool enough? Funny enough? What if no one liked me?...

According to Webster, anxiety is “a state of being uneasy, apprehensive, or worried about what may happen.” It is almost a poetic definition, I think, imbued with the very uncertainty that makes us anxious, for what may happen, of course, may also not happen… When worry whispers what if, what if, we find we are not as sure of the way forward as we once were, and we become anxious about what may happen.

According to theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, anxiety is the state of being within 24 hours of delivering a sermon or, say, a series of quiet day meditations. According to the new chaplain at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, anxiety is the state of just having realized that she is required to prepare no less than three sermons every week. My anxiety rose as my star sank into a sea of what if’s. What if I’m boring? What if they laugh? What if they don’t laugh? What if I don’t have anything to say? What if I do, and they don’t listen?...

I know, of course, that our lectionary dictates the annual appearances of passages from scripture and prayers from our tradition, but I can’t help but wonder whether God was casting stars my way not long ago when I opened my prayerbook (anxiously!) to begin preparing a sermon and read this collect assigned for the Sunday on which I would be preaching.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to that which shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

We hear this collect every year on “the Sunday closest to September 21,” the Sunday closest to the beginning of fall, the Sunday closest to the beginning of that season when earthly things burn orange and red and yellow and gold and then fade and pass away. We hear this collect on a September Sunday when the air, still warm with summer winds, is beginning to stir both leaves and lives with a sense of uncertainty about what lies ahead.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, or in its more traditional form, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly. Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious, not to mind Another piece of poetry for me, when now in my work I ask children to mind in class, to give their attention, to be obedient. Not to mind earthly things, then, is not to give them our attention, not to be obedient to them, but instead to love things heavenly.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about, not to mind earthly things. What if, I wondered, what if I did not give the what if’s my attention? What if I did not mind them? What if I was not anxious about being cool or funny or profoundly inspirational? What if I didn’t worry about what may, or may not, happen?

Today, in community and in quiet, in word and in sacrament, I want to invite us deeper into this poem-prayer, this collect that accompanies us at the turn of a season and through the changes and chances and challenges of life that does not often stand still. I want us to rustle playfully, like children not minding, in the leaves and stars it casts at our feet.

I started first grade not at an Episcopal school but, rather, at a public school in the most Episcopal place on earth, in Sewanee, Tennessee, perched high up in the Appalachian Mountains as near to heaven as one can get. I remember walking to school past buildings that looked like ancient castles and cathedrals. I remember listening to the tower bells ringing out hymns I knew as well as my nursery rhymes. I remember the giant tree in our backyard that offered its roots as a playhouse and its leaves as a carpet. I remember hiking with my family on long afternoons when the air around us and the leaves underfoot were crisp and filled with the fragrance of fall. I remember not being anxious about anything.

So much had changed years later, when we returned to those mountains a little further north, and made our way one autumn day along a favorite path around a mountain. I was in junior high school, at an age when the changes in our bodies and hearts and minds reshape us daily, it seems. I was a teenager at a new school, with new friends, and a new desire to fit in. Childhood was ending, and I was anxious. As we crunched along the wooded path that afternoon, we began to notice and then to pick up and carry with us some of the leaves that had fallen. Orange, gold and brown surrounded us, lovely leaves we would press later on between the pages of our encyclopedia. But we were determined to find that one elusive perfect red leaf, with no blemishes or tears or any other imperfections. I do not remember if we found it. I do remember relishing our time searching together.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly;…even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away. We might see in autumn, with its falling leaves and lengthening shadows and long, slow drain of green warmth and life… we might see in autumn a reflection of those seasons in our lives when things that have fostered contentment and happiness and wholeness in us change, then fade and pass away and leave us in the cold. What may happen to us when these changes occur? What may not happen? Of course we are anxious.

At least we are in good company. Over and over in our scriptures, we read about women and men of faith who nonetheless struggled when life as they had always known it burst into flame and then faded away. In fact, it very literally happened that way to Moses. We know well the story we heard this morning, about the day when Moses stood before a burning bush and was never the same again. Everything had already changed from the comfortable life he had known as a child in Pharaoh’s household; when the truth of his Hebrew heritage came to light, he had fled, and was now content to live as shepherd in the hills of Midian.

On as ordinary a day as this one, upon ground that Moses walked every day, the angel of the Lord appeared in a flame of fire out of a bush…Moses, Moses! God called to him…The place on which you are standing is holy ground. In a flash, Moses understood that his life was passing away, changing beyond his ability to measure, and for two chapters he pleads with God to let things remain as they have been. Pharoah won’t listen, Moses insisted. The Israelites won’t believe me. I’m not as powerful as the Egyptians. And I can never think of the right things to say. Who am I that I should go to Pharoah, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?...What if…

Moses, Moses, God said, I will be with you. And in the end, that’s what Moses would cling to, and not for the first time and not for the last, God changed everything, and life passed away, and a new life began.

On another ordinary day, upon ground that she walked every day, Martha saw Jesus and his disciples going by. Something in him compelled her to invite them in, a bold and reckless move for an unmarried woman to make. But the flame she had kindled in her kitchen sparked a fire in her when she realized her sister, Mary, was sitting at Jesus’ feet rather than helping her prepare a meal for their guests. Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.

Martha, Martha, Jesus said, You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. And in the end, that’s what Martha would cling to, and not for the first time, and not for the last, Jesus changed everything, and life passed away, and a new life began.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly;…even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away. Life on this earth is constantly passing away, isn’t it? We know of course, because both scripture and experience teach us, that such earthly things as wealth and success and status, and even beauty and health and skill, are only temporary. But far less measurable things also fade – things like life and love and hope and dreams and traditions and relationships and security. We don’t usually call these things earthly, but I submit to you that even they take on an earthly quality when we make them the center of our world.

In the same way, things that are of the earth can take on a heavenly quality, even though they, too, may pass away with time. Writer Molly Wolf explains, “A Maserati is one sort of thing; beef stew with Merlot is another, especially when the purpose of the stew is to express one’s delight in God’s creation and one’s love for those to be fed…Earthly says, ‘Make these things your God’; earthy says, ‘God is here in God’s extraordinary creation, give thanks.’ Earthly says, ‘We can make and control, and suffer for and make others suffer for, things we declare to be beautiful and valuable.’ Earthy invites you to pick up one single fallen leaf from a scarlet maple and be clonked cross-eyed by its sheer glory.”

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly;…even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away. So much has changed since first grade, since our first encounter with God, since Jesus first came into our lives. There is so much to be anxious about. There are so many what if’s. As we move, in our own lives, through seasons of transition and uncertainty, how is God calling us? How do we respond? Like Moses, perhaps, making the case that we just can’t change? Like Martha, maybe, complaining that the change isn’t fair? As we move, in our own lives, through seasons of transition and uncertainty, how is God calling us? How do we respond?

We are now going to enter a time of quiet reflection (for many of us, this is itself a big change!). I invite you use this space, if you wish, for prayer or meditation, for journaling or drawing, or simply for sitting in silence. There are pens, pencils, paper and other art supplies in the front pews. You are also welcome to find another space on these lovely and holy grounds, to walk, or to rest. When you hear the bell ring, about thirty minutes from now, please return to the church.

Meditation #2

Meditation #2 - The second in a series of three meditations for the ECW Quiet Day at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez, MS.

Fall in New York City is not much like fall in the Appalachain Mountains. Oh, the trees in Central Park change color, along with the occasional tree or two growing in planters along the sidewalks. But no sooner do the leaves fall, than they are caught up in the whoosh of the street sweepers or raked into bags and thrown out with the trash.

Still, early in my first autumn spent in the city, only a few weeks into my first year of seminary, I set out on a walk through the paved pathways and towering buildings. The air was crisp, but no leaves rustled underfoot; even if they had been there, the noise of Westside Highway traffic would have covered up their crunching.

Everything about the city was new to me, a tremendous change from the relatively rural southern towns I had lived in my whole life. The constant pace, the rich diversity of skin colors and languages, the sheer numbers of people, the daily trips to the grocery store, because you can only buy as much as you can walk home with, the ever-present hum of traffic and subways and airplanes and millions of conversations happening all at once, the smell of ethnic dishes mingling with the smell of sewers and steam, the trapeze school on the Lower West Side…

It’s right there on the side of the highway where I was “hiking” that fall day. I was caught completely off guard when I saw for the first time the swinging bars and swaying nets perched so close to the Hudson River it seemed the trapeze artists could sail right across to New Jersey. For quite a while I stood and watched them, learning only later that these brave souls were not professionals but students, just ordinary people like me, swinging high above the ground so many people walked on every day. That part looked like fun, I thought, as I watched a student leap from one platform and swing in a wide arc toward an empty trapeze that had been released from the opposite platform. That swinging part looked like fun. It was that letting go part, though…that letting go…

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast…hold fast…don’t let go… As we move, in our own lives, through seasons of transition and uncertainty, as we swing through the air in a wide arc toward the unknown, our survival instincts kick in and we tighten our grip, we hold fast for all we’re worth to what is familiar, to what we know. Even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, we hold fast…

Walking back to the seminary through the streets of Manhattan that crisp fall afternoon, I remembered bits and pieces of a poem, aptly titled “Fear of Transformation,” in which the author begins, “Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings…” What if that were true, I wondered, looking around me at all the people on the sidewalks, in taxis, running up or down the stairs to the subway. I think I smiled, imagining all of us swinging through the streets toward our different somewhere’s.

“Most of the time,” the poem continues, “I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment. It carries me along a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while, as I’m merrily (or not so merrily) swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance and what do I see? I see another trapeze bar swinging toward me. It’s empty, and I know in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it.”

Seasons of transition can move so slowly, as when the leaves turn gradually from green to gold and brown and red and the shadows lengthen a little earlier each afternoon. We can see and feel the changes happening around us and we are able to anticipate what changes may yet come. Other times, we are clonked cross-eyed by a trapeze bar that appears out of the blue and we have only a moment to decide whether to reach for it or to let our trapeze bar swing us back to safety. And still other times, we are so content upon our walk through life, or perhaps so discontent, that the world changes around us and we don’t notice it at all.

Peter, James and John were clonked cross-eyed, I think, when on an ordinary day they went up with on the mountain to pray with Jesus. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white…and they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. The disciples were desperate to preserve the moment, to hold fast, to not let go, and so they rushed around the mountaintop looking for sticks and vines to build a dwelling place. When the blazing glory faded and the moment passed away, Jesus marched them right back down the mountain and went back to work along the roads that he walked every day.

The world seemed a much different, much darker place when Mary Magdalene stood weeping in the garden, desperate to preserve the crucified body of Jesus, to hold fast, to not let go. And while she was weeping, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying…turning, she saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus, supposing him to be the gardener. Mary held so tightly to her grief and anxiety that she could not see how everything had changed until Jesus spoke her name. When the blazing glory of recognition faded and the moment passed away, Jesus marched her right back out of the garden and back to work along the roads she had walked with him every day.

What happens in that space in between? In the distance between mountaintops? In the space between death and new life? The trapeze-swinging poet writes, “I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on the unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between bars.” In our seasons of transition, we find ourselves staring into the space between how life has been and how life will be (or might be).

In the autumn of my last year of seminary, my class went on retreat in the mountains of Connecticut. Surrounded once again by fall’s fiery foliage, we were aware of how much our lives had changed in the three years we had been together. We were different people. The world was a different place. The church was a different place. For a little while longer, we would still be soaring through the streets of the city, but a new trapeze bar was approaching and we would have to make the leap into the ministries we had been preparing for.

Our chaplain gave us the assignment of writing a prayer to use daily during our time of transition. After a weekend of reflection, conversation, hiking through the woods, and more than a little rustling like children through the fallen leaves, we came up with this prayer: O God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places…

Just as in the season of fall the leaves have no choice but to let go if there are to be new leaves the following spring, so in our seasons of transition do we have no choice but to let go if there is to be new life in us. We have to let go of our what-if’s, our anxieties, the things that glue our fingers to those bars. Otherwise we live today dreading tomorrow, and live tomorrow dreading the next day, and so we miss altogether the experience of swinging and soaring and hurtling. We miss today and every day. We miss the space between places. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…can any of you by worrying add a single hour to the span of life?...Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

In the city of Amsterdam during World War II, a young Jewish woman named Etty Hillesum kept a journal in which she wrote about the terrible changes happening all around her. But she also wrote about remarkable changes happening within her, about a deepening faith that God was with her and a rising conviction that there was an enduring goodness in the world worth preserving. Etty wrote, “I think what weakens people most is fear of wasting their strength.” In the pages of her journal, we are allowed to witness that breathtaking moment of letting go and soaring into a space between places.

What happens in that space? I believe it is in that space – perhaps sometimes into that space, but always in that space – that God calls us. In that space, down from the mountain, Jesus called his disciples to serve. In that space, outside the tomb, Jesus called Mary to preach the good news. In that space, God called Etty to comfort those whose lives would never be the same again.

In that space is where we now live, as Paul loves to tell, Even though our outer nature is passing away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. In that space is where we are called to serve and preach the good news and give comfort.

Of course, some caution in life is prudent. At the trapeze school in New York City, you do wear a harness, and there’s a safety net underneath. And some holding on in life is life-giving. That’s why we celebrate things like the 60th anniversary of a school. And yet, in our seasons of transition, the only way forward is through the space in between. “Incredibly rich places,” the poet realizes. Scary, perhaps; disorienting, usually, but rich. “Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out of control that can (but not necessarily) accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.”

It is time once again for us to entertain quiet, a space for reflection or prayer, stillness or, perhaps, swinging. What in-between spaces loom before us? What if we let go our grip? What might God be calling us to? When you hear the bell ring about 30 minutes from now, it will be time for our noon meal in the parish hall.

Meditation #3

Meditation #3 - The third in a series of three meditations for the ECW Quiet Day at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez, MS.

Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee; all things pass; God never changes. How faithful are these words of St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century mystic. Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee; all things pass; God never changes.

What if…what if…what if in our seasons of transition, in our spaces between places, we held fast to Teresa's words?

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to that which shall endure.

My life has changed quite a lot since those autumns of my childhood, playing knee-deep in the colorful crunch of fallen leaves, clinging to my parents as we hiked all over Sewanee mountain, walking to school through the crisp fall air. I’m a spouse and a parent now, and although I’m back at school I’m a staff member rather than a student. I’ve lived in New York City. I’m a priest in the Episcopal Church, and I actually listen (well, usually!) to sermons instead of using that time to draw on the service bulletin. I learned to like Brussels sprouts and asparagus and knitting. In these and so many other ways, my life has really changed.

A constellation of things, though, have held fast, through all the changes, all the transitions, and all the what-if’s. I have always liked the sound of bells chiming, and I have always liked singing in a choir. I have always liked cats. I have always been an Episcopalian. I have always been afraid of spiders, but not afraid of thunderstorms. And I have always loved the mountains and the fall. These things, and a few more besides, are so familiar to me, like little guiding lights that point me back to myself when I’m on ground I haven’t walked before.

And yet, as I was reminded by another 3rd grader this week, there is only one thing that truly endures. There is only one thing that holds me when I have let go of everything else. How are we like stars rising in the sky? “God is light,” this student said, “and God is in us, and so we become like the stars.”

While we are placed among things that are passing away, may we hold fast to that which shall endure. The spaces between places are not empty, they are not void – they are filled with the presence and promise of God. All things pass – including choirs and cats and churches and mountains and even the seasons themselves. All things pass; God never changes.

Letting go of our what-if’s and our anxieties, releasing our urge to control the rate and direction of our swinging through life, we open our hands to receive the enduring promise of God’s presence that transcends the times and spaces of our individual lives and links us to one another through the open hands of Jesus Christ who called us to be lights in the world. Before we were six decades of stars rising, we were two millennia of saints following, and before that we were counted among the countless stars of God’s promise to Abraham, and before that we were made and called good by the One who moved over the waters of chaos and created the lights and the seasons.

We are not the first to hold fast to our trapeze bars, fearing the leap into the in-between places of life. Moses and Martha, Peter, James, John and Mary and countless other women and men would have kept swinging merrily (or not so merrily) along forever if they could. After all, in real life, there are no harnesses, no safety nets, no guarantees, no insurance policies that can cover our leaps of faith. All we have is God’s promise, I will be with you. All we have is this promise, you are sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. And so, with God’s help, we make our leap.

As the last leaves leap from the trees and fall gives way to winter, it looks for all the world like life is lost and death has taken hold. And it is true that we may leave significant pieces of life behind as we move through our seasons of transition. But winter, like grief, is a season in which life has merely gone deep to prepare for a new season of growth. And though we are buried beneath the layers of leaves that were once our playground, we bear that mark of and are held fast by the one who would not be held by death.

While we are placed among things that are passing away, may we hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. We are called in this and every season of transition to fasten ourselves and all that we love to the One who endured death so that we might have life. Holding fast to him, rather than to the trapeze-bar-of-the-moment or to the trapeze bar swinging toward us, is the only life that truly soars, the only life that truly shines.

The poem about transitions concludes, “And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to ‘hand out’ in the transition between trapeze bars. Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens. It can be terrifying. It can also be enlightening, in the true sense of the word. Hurtling through the void, we just may learn how to fly.”

Like Moses before the burning bush, like Martha on her doorstep, like the disciples on their way down the mountain, like Mary on her way to share resurrection news, something compels us to let go our anxiety, our earthly worries, our trapeze bars, and to cling instead to God’s promise of care, God’s faith in us that we can fly, that we can serve, that we can love, that we can care. Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee; all things pass; God never changes. Teresa’s words echo the earlier 14th century prayer of her sister in faith, Julian of Norwich, who wrote, God, of your goodness, give me yourself, for you are enough for me…And if I ask for anything less, I shall be in want, for only in you do I have all.

I invite you now into our final time of quiet reflection. When the bell rings and we gather again in this space, we will join in a celebration of Holy Eucharist. Our sacraments – those we name officially and those smaller but no less significant outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace that we share whenever we stretch out our hands toward another – our sacraments are in between places where we stand with one foot on earth and the other in heaven, experiencing in bread and wine and water the nourishment of our souls.

Let us enter this time of quiet by first saying together our prayer, which may be found at the top of page 234 in the Book of Common Prayer. Let us pray.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Saint Michael and All Angels

St. Andrew's Episcopal School - Upper and Middle School Chapel

Genesis 28:10-17; Psalm 103:1, 19-22; John 1:47-51

Night night. Sleep tight. I’ll see you in the daylight.

So goes our nightly bedtime tuck-in with our six-year-old son.

Good night, Little Charlie. Sweet dreams and happy turnovers.

And then he pulls his covers up close over his shoulders, wraps his arms around his stuffed bear, and shuts his eyes…

I wonder what bedtime was like for Jacob that night, alone in the wilderness, a stone for a pillow and nothing but desert air and a starry sky for covers. Did he lie there awake, wishing for his childhood when his parents tucked him into a warm bed at night? Night night. Sleep tight… Did he lie awake, remembering old stories, all the times he and his brother Esau had, by the skin of their teeth, gotten away with all sorts of tricks and schemes? Most of them had been his idea… Or did he lie awake on the hard ground, his heart pounding, his every breath choked with conscience as his mind raced through the life-altering scheme he had just pulled off?

Just a few days earlier – or was it a lifetime ago? – Jacob had tricked his father into giving him the blessing and birthright that should have been Esau’s. Now Esau hated Jacob, says the storyteller in Genesis, and he vowed to take revenge by taking Jacob’s life. Jacob weaseled one final blessing out of his father and then took off through the desert, covering his deceptions with his dust.

He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. And did he lie awake, staring into the wilderness night, seeing nothing but his guilt and grief? Nope. He dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth… and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it…And God said to him, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…”

Well, good night, Little Jacob! Sweet dreams and happy turnovers! How is it that this scheming, manipulative, honor-code violating man gets to dream about angels while I – not a perfect saint, I know, but not a Jacob, either – I dream about fighting giant blobs of sticky goo with nothing but a yellow comb and Scooby-Doo at my side?

This remarkable story of this sweetest of dreams is always read on September 29, the Feast Day of St. Michael and All Angels. On that day, the ministry and mystery of angels is marked and celebrated. Our scriptures, as well as stories from other faith traditions, are filled with angels bringing messages, singing anthems, rescuing prisoners, warning of danger, guiding to safety, making promises, announcing wonders. They come by way of wings and dreams, but also sometimes by foot through the front door. And always, always, it seems, the first words out of their mouths are, Do not be afraid!

There’s not much to fear from the angels we see these days, drawn in soft pastels on greeting cards, glittering gold on a keychain, smiling, chubby little cherubs gracing coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets and even the packaging for bathroom tissue. These angels bear little resemblance to the divine beings who bring the glory of God so near the air itself trembles.

What do angels look like? The lower school students have been coloring pictures of angels in chapel class, and now the walls of the room where we meet are covered in hundreds and hundreds of them. Many of their faces reflect the different colors of our skin. Their robes reflect every color of the rainbow, some in combinations perhaps even heaven has not imagined. Some are holding crosses, or hearts, or birds, or swords. Some say things like Praise God or I love you. One actually says Boo! Do not be afraid…!

The truth is, most of us probably won’t dream sweet dreams of angel-laden ladders, and we won’t hear a heavenly choir sing (although ours perhaps comes close?) and we won’t ever see white feathers or gleaming halos. The Reverend Herbert O’Driscoll suggests that for most of us, “Angels’ wings and their glory are hidden, their voices are familiar and they speak of everyday things.” Just as Jacob dreamed of a way between heaven and earth filled with those through whom the presence of God is made known, so are we surrounded by that presence at all times and in all places. Every moment, every choice, every encounter we have with one another in this wide, wild world contains the possibility of encountering the presence of God in one another, of others encountering that presence in us. The air trembles around us. As Jacob said, How awesome is this place!

So how is it that Jacob dreamed his sweet dream? It turns out there’s not a single one of us, saint or sinner, to whom God is not willing to make the promise, Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go… And so our way through the wilderness is covered in hundreds of thousands of angels appearing in the faces of strangers, the smiles of friends, the comfort of cool breezes, the sudden and deep knowing that we are not alone and that we have what strength it takes… Surely God is in this place and we did not know it! How awesome is this place!

In the night and in the daylight, my friends, sweet dreams… Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Proper 20C

Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Crystal Springs; St. Matthew's, Forest

Amos 8:4-12; Psalm 138; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

I must confess I often have a hard time remembering sermons – even the really good ones. But there is one sermon I will never forget, a sermon I heard now almost 20 years ago at a tiny little church in Charleston, South Carolina. I don’t remember the name of the church, or the name of the preacher, or the text he was preaching on. But I remember the sermon.

The preacher, apparently, was not originally from the south. On the last night of his long drive from somewhere far away to Charleston, he stayed at a Howard Johnson just off the interstate. The next morning, he grabbed his roadmap and notebook out of the car, and made his way to the hotel restaurant for breakfast.

He was seated in a booth, and the waitress told him about the specials as she poured him a cup of coffee. The preacher had a favorite breakfast, though, and so he placed his order: two scrambled eggs, bacon, toast with jelly.

When the waitress left, he spread his map across the table, and with a yellow pen traced the last leg of his journey to the South Carolina low country. In his notebook he checked the list of things he would need to do when he arrived in Charleston later that afternoon.

It didn’t take long for the waitress to return with his plate, and so he moved aside his maps and books to make room for his breakfast. When she asked if there was anything else he needed, the preacher glanced at his plate and saw the scrambled eggs still steaming, the strips of bacon glistening, the perfectly golden toast with little packets of mixed fruit jelly…and a pile of white stuff topped with a square of melted butter that had begun to drip down the sides.

“Um, I didn’t order this,” he told the waitress. “This white stuff. I didn’t order this. What is it?”

“Honey,” she told him, “that’s grits. It just comes.”

That’s grits. It just comes. The preacher learned that morning what we already know – when you order breakfast in the south, you don’t have to request grits. You have to request no grits. Otherwise, it just comes.

A lot of things in life just come with no warning, no explanation, no placing an order. Beautiful sunsets, happy birthdays, phone calls from distant friends – wonderful things that we weren’t expecting. But also car accidents, debilitating illnesses, devastating natural disasters – terrible things that we never expected.

That’s life. It just comes.

Even when we know it’s coming, even when we have a long time to prepare, to plan, to buckle up, to board up…even when we know it’s coming, life can turn our worlds upside down and inside out, and we are suddenly in a new place with no map to help us find our way.

This parable is listed among what many scholars call the “hard sayings” of Jesus, and several suggest this one is the hardest. Jesus seems to lead us onto new ground where dishonesty and deceitfulness are commended, hard work is dismissed, and wealth is lifted up as a means for ensuring one’s own future.

Surely the dishonest manager knew that his boss might catch him cooking the books one day, and that if he was caught he would be fired. He must have known what was coming. But no matter how we interpret what the manager did next, he was still acting dishonestly, at least to some degree. Some scholars try to redeem him a little by suggesting that the amount he deducted from the debtors’ bills may have been the amount of illegal interest charged by his boss. Or that the reduction may have been the amount of the manager’s own commission. Perhaps he simply calculated how much each debtor could afford to pay, and then cleared the balance. In any case, the debtors did not know that the manager no longer had the authority to make these decisions. The boss did not know that the manager was still being dishonest. The manager deceived everyone.

But in the standard twist-at-the-end-of-a-parable, the manager, too, was deceived. He did not get the mercy he was scheming for – he got more. Whether he deserved it or not, the manager would be in the good graces of the debtors, because he had reduced their bills. What was unexpected was that he landed, at least for the moment, in the good graces of the master as well, because he had acted shrewdly. The manager, whatever his motives, had wrangled accounts, had managed available financial resources, in such a way as to produce a win-win situation for everyone involved. The debtors would repay what they owed (or least some portion of it), and out of gratitude to the manager, would be sure to help him out in his unemployment. The boss would collect his outstanding debts, and would finally be free of the manager who had been dishonest in his dealings.

What on earth does this hardest parable mean? What did Jesus intend to teach us? Scholars are all over the map on this one – there are enough explanations to provide for a lifetime of sermons. This morning, though, let us reduce it to one.

I believe this hard saying from Jesus can remind us that grace comes at unexpected times and from unexpected places. From dishonest managers whose self-centered scheming ends up benefiting others as well. From Oscar Schindler, and others like him, whose carefully orchestrated deceptions saved the lives of thousands during the Holocaust. From a man who routinely broke the law, who ate with tax collectors and sinners, who healed on the Sabbath, who deceived the greatest deceiver of them all by returning new life for death on a cross.

It is, I believe, the message that Charleston pastor preached 20 years ago: grace is like grits. It just comes.

Grace, like life – because of life, perhaps; in spite of life, sometimes – grace just comes. Grace, the overabundance of God’s love revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who ministered to outcasts, who died for sinners, who forgave debtors, who rose for us all. Grace, the overabundance of God’s love poured into us by the Holy Spirit, whether or not we have asked for it, whether or not we want it, whether or not we deserve it. Grace is like grits. It just comes.

It comes at unexpected times and in unexpected places. In fact, God gives us grace at all times and in all places, an overabundance of love piled high on our plates, and so we are able to give grace, able to love more than we think we are. If left to our own devices, we might be inclined to look after ourselves as the dishonest manager did. But the real significance of grace is that it can make honest people of us – it makes us able, despite our shortcomings, to reveal God’s love to others.

The choice, then, is not whether or not we will ask for God’s grace, but rather, whether or not we will allow it to fill us when it is offered, when it comes. Will we be transformed? Whom will we serve? Will we store up wealth for ourselves, in the form of money or possessions or power or pride, or will we serve our true master whose immeasurable riches consist in love and generosity and forgiveness and grace?

The dishonest manager had something like the right idea – he needed to be in relationship with others to survive. And he was right that there are times when the shrewd – meaning the careful, thoughtful – use of financial resources helps to establish and maintain those relationships. But for what purpose? Jesus urges us this morning to establish and maintain relationships by grace, by that same overabundance of love that he has shown us through his forgiveness of our self-serving sins. He urges us to serve God, putting all of who we are – our lives, our hopes, our work, our resources, our wealth – in God’s service. We will be amazed at what becomes possible, amazed at the unexpected riches of love and generosity and forgiveness and abundant grace we receive at this table, that we might take it into a hungry world, to those who have never tried grace before.

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Amen.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

International Day of Peace

St. Andrew's Episcopal School - Middle and Upper School Chapel

Micah 4:1-5; Psalm 37:7-12; Mark 4:35-40

I have never been out on a boat in the middle of a raging storm. But that hasn’t kept me from turning a few boats over anyway…All it takes a very special lack of aquatic skill and the discovery of a very large spider on board for me to flip a canoe on a lake smaller than the one just down the hill.

The disciples were out on a boat in the middle of a raging storm. But that shouldn’t have worried them – several of them, including our own Andrew, were seasoned fishermen who had surely been out in worse weather. The wind and waves were really beating the boat, though, rocking it violently, swamping it and threatening to turn it over.

I think it must have been one of those times when, in the midst of a crisis, we begin to forget everything we know, like, don’t stand up in the canoe, don’t whack mercilessly with your paddle at a spider in your canoe… The disciples knew how to handle their boat, but the fierceness of the storm tipped their worry over into fear that sank deep into their bones, and they forgot everything they knew about boats. Tempers and panic rose to the surface, and they shook Jesus awake, crying, Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

Whatever currents there were in the wind and water that had worked themselves up into a storm, they were something like the currents swirling around Jesus each and every day. As he went about the towns and villages of Galilee preaching and teaching and practicing compassion for those pushed to the margins of society – compassion for the sick, the poor, the outcast, the foreigner, the sinner – those who were in positions of power began to fear he was going to capsize the system they had so carefully constructed. In that system, the sick, the poor, the outcast, the foreigner, and the sinner were considered threats to the safety of the community and the nation. They didn’t belong in the boat and were excluded at all costs.

The storm brewing over the Sea of Galilee that day was very much like the storm brewing around Love in a world governed by Fear. And just as the disciples forgot everything they knew about navigating rough waters, so do we often forget what we know about navigating conflict in our lives, our communities, and our world. Fear takes over, terror sets in, and we lash out at one another, whacking mercilessly at what we perceive to be the threat to our safety. The descent into violent seas, or into all-out war, is swift, and we cry out to God, Don’t you care that we are perishing?

Peace, be still! Jesus said, and the wind and waves were calm, but only, I think, as a courtesy, because Jesus was not speaking to the water but to the disciples whose fear had made them forget what they were made of. Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? he asked them, and he asks us. Have you still no faith that there is and always has been peace in the boat with you, that you are capable of navigating rough seas, that you are capable of navigating conflict, that you do not sail these waters alone?

It is a small but terribly significant detail in this story that there were other boats out with Jesus and the disciples that day. Mark tells us nothing more about them, how they fared in the storm, whether they were afraid, whether they had faith, but he tells us they were there together on the water as the great storm arose. It is a significant detail for us in this week when people all over the world will be observing the International Day of Peace. More than twenty years ago, the United Nations passed a resolution calling for this annual event, a day upon which the world would mark its progress toward global peace. This Friday, September 21, people of all nations, races, and faiths will join together in remembering what we are made of, what we already know, that there is peace in all our little boats, that we do not have to be afraid, that we do not sail alone. We will mark the International Day of Peace today in our prayers.

“There have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world,” writes scholar Clarissa Pinkola Estes in a piece entitled, Letter to a Young Activist, encouraging us not to make things worse in the middle of the storm by fearfully whacking away at spiders or whatever it is that we think threatens our safety. This morning I leave you with a portion of that letter. “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts, or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing…

“One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times… To display the lantern of the soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others, both, are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity. Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it.” Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Proper 19C

St. Christopher's Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Jackson

Exodus 32:1, 7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Well, which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine alone and defenseless in the wilderness where coyotes and wolves and thieves can attack the flock while you go after the one little sheep that is lost who knows where among the steep and rocky and treacherous hillsides for who knows how long until you find it?

I haven’t done much sheep herding in my life, but from what I have read it seems the honest, real life answer to Jesus’ question in this parable would have been: no one. No shepherd who truly made a living from his flock of a hundred sheep upon losing one of them would leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after that one. It’s not worth it. He’d cut his losses, and return with his flock to the fold.

Which one of you, like a woman having ten silver coins, if you lost one of them, would not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until you found it?

Now this one I have done. Or something like it. The honest, real life answer to this question would have been: most people. Most of the people, anyway, among whom Jesus ministered – a single silver coin, worth barely a day’s wages, could have meant the difference between eating and starving to death for the poor and outcast who flocked to him like lost sheep to a shepherd.

We’ve all searched high and low for something that was lost, something of real or sentimental or at least practical value. For me it’s my car keys nearly every morning. For my six year old son it’s a little blue matchbox car missing for weeks now. Every now and then I wish God the Homemaker Woman would come to my house and light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds…under all my clutter who knows what she’d find that I’ve forgotten I ever lost…

The Pharisees and the scribes, scrupulously obedient to God the Rulemaker, had no patience for anyone who couldn’t find their way out of sinfulness and into righteousness. Luke tells us they grumbled when they saw Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, because surely he knew God’s law warned against it like a mother warning her children not to run with the wrong crowd. At their best, the Pharisees and scribes lived and breathed Torah, setting for all others the example of living according to God’s covenant rather than the world.

But their high standards over time had become rigid, more concerned with measuring righteousness than with maintaining the relationship between God and God’s people. Jesus’ warm welcome of those who just didn’t measure up was radical and disturbing to those who topped the charts of righteous living. And so they grumbled, unable to accept the wideness of God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea when the law clearly defined a more narrow way. So, Luke writes, Jesus told them these two parables. The shepherd who does leave the ninety-nine to find the one. The woman who searches diligently until she finds her coin. The parties that follow on earth and in heaven as friends and neighbors and angels rejoice over what has been found, for I tell you there will be more joy…over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

Jesus, in his life and in his teaching, in these parables he told the grumbling religious leaders, was messing up the boundaries that had long stood between sinners and righteous people. He was cluttering the covenant with what seemed like exceptions to the rules. If the shepherd will risk everything to find the one lost sheep, if the woman will search until she finds the coin, doesn’t that give us permission to wander away from the flock whenever we feel like it? To fall away on a whim? God will come looking for us, and just when we need it, will lift us up on strong shoulders or tuck us away in an apron pocket and all will be well until the next time we lose ourselves…

But the Pharisees and scribes were making the same mistake we often still make when we hear the parables of Jesus. It was and is, perhaps, a natural mistake for those who measure worth by personal merit rather than by divine mercy to hear the parables as stories about people rather than God. We have named these parables “The Lost Sheep” and “The Lost Coin,” but if Jesus had given his sermons titles, he might have called them instead “The Kind Shepherd” and “The Diligent Woman”. The pair of parables are not really about lost-ness or found-ness but rather about God the shepherd, God the homemaker, valuing infinitely what has been lost, searching for it tirelessly, seeking not just until frustration or discouragement set in or the until the search becomes dangerous but, rather, seeking until it is found and the party can begin. These parables are about the wideness of God’s mercy, the enormity of God’s love, the immeasurable value God attaches to us whether we think we are valuable or not, whether we think we are lost or not.

One theologian has asked, if the one sheep is with the shepherd, and the ninety-nine are not, who in the story is really lost? Another suggests that the ninety-nine and the one are not really two separate groups of sheep – they both represent us. The ninety-nine are humanity as we think we are, while the one lost sheep is humanity as we really are.

Listen, then, to who we really are. We really are easily separated from the flock. We wander. We stray. Perhaps we become self-absorbed, so busy nibbling away on our little circle of grass we don’t notice when the others have moved on. Perhaps we see a better patch of grass a little ways off, and then another, and then another, and before we know it we are all alone with our lunch. Perhaps we consider ourselves better than some of the other sheep and so we distance ourselves from them. Perhaps we consider ourselves strong enough to make it on our own and so we wander off deliberately. Perhaps we just want to be alone. Perhaps we think we have something to prove. Like the one sheep, we really are easily separated from the flock.

But like the one sheep, like every one sheep who wanders off, like every coin that rolls away into a dark corner or deep crevice, we are also worth the search. In spite of – perhaps in part because of – our proclivity to roam, we are of inestimable worth to God. Paul knew this, and rejoiced in it greatly, proclaiming, The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to round up lost sheep, to collect coins. When we have, as the old confession of sin states, erred and strayed like lost sheep, we have become separated from our understanding of how we are valued by God. Our worth, and the worth of every other sheep in this life is not measured by merit, by what we have or by what we have accomplished, but rather our worth is measured by God’s infinite and unfailing love. God will find us, broom in hand, and will sweep away the clutter from our lives and restore us to our God-given image.

The parables of Jesus are not about us, but we are invited through them to consider how we are both lost and found, both Pharisee and sinner. And we are invited especially to accept with joy our worthiness and our God-given image and to join in the search for all who are lost, broken, bleating, and alone. Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Like Paul before us, we are invited to rejoice both in finding and in being found, and to bring others with us to the party that begins at this table and lasts for eternity.

This, Jesus teaches through his parables, is the repentance over which the angels themselves rejoice. Not to come crawling back begging forgiveness but to recognize with gratitude that we are forgiven before we ask and found sometimes before we realize we were lost. Repentance is accepting with joy and gladness the work of the shepherd who washes us through and through once he gets us home, the work of the woman who wipes away the dust and grime. Repentance is our response to being found, so that, with a clean heart and a renewed right spirit within us, we take out a flashlight and broom and join in the search for all who, like us, so easily wander off.

Although it is not the context in which the words were first delivered, these reflections of Martin Luther King resonate with the good news Jesus shares with us this morning: “Number one in your life’s blueprint should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth and your own somebodiness… Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance… If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper [and here I would submit that it is the lot of the whole flock to sweep the house, the streets, the world if we can], sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

We follow Jesus here as his faithful flock so that we can follow him right back out that door into the wilderness, flashlights and brooms in hand, tirelessly sweeping the world not to separate the righteous from the sinners but in order that the world might rejoice in the worthiness of all its lost sheep (which is to say, everyone). There’s an amazing grace party going on, and all are invited. Amen.