Sunday, July 24, 2011

Growing with the Kingdom

A Mustard Tree

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 24, 2011. The lectionary readings are 1 Kings 3:5-12, Psalm 119:129-136, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52.

Royalty have been in the news a lot recently. There was the wedding of Will and Kate, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. There was the wedding of Albert, the Prince of Monaco and Charlene the Olympic swimmer from South Africa. More sadly, today in Oslo, the King and Queen of Norway are attending a memorial service for those who died in this week’s tragedies.

In this country, we tend to have conflicted feelings about royals. They are interesting from afar, but often, if we think too much about them, they do not fare so well “up close and personal.” Much of our country’s founding and a large strain in our the Episcopal Church’s history in the United States had to do with creating distance from royalty and royal things. How, then, do we hear royal language in scripture? How do we respond to royal language when we sing it in hymns, or when we pray it in our prayers?

I’ve pointed out in other sermons some of the issues many Christians have with the male pronouns having to do with God, but another word that has often been stricken from liturgical use is the word “kingdom.” “Kingdom” is that it is too patriarchal, too hierarchical. It smacks of hereditary monarchies and musty old Prayer Books. And so in some churches, one can hear other terms substituted. Instead of speaking of the kingdom of God, they will speak of the “Reign of God,” or “God’s Commonwealth” (which makes me want to sing, “O Canada”), or “God’s Holy Realm,” which sounds nice, but I’m not sure what it means.

The obvious problem is that whatever word one chooses, there will be confusion. Another problem has to do with clergy sometimes underestimating the intelligence of people who sit in pews, read scripture, and listen to sermons. People understand that words are symbols and they always point to something beyond what they describe.

The word, “kingdom” comes up in today’s scriptures. Rather than ignore the word or try to substitute a more politically correct word, I wonder if we might do better by exploring exactly what is meant by the word, and then asking God to improve our understanding. Especially given the many different images for the kingdom given in scripture, especially given Jesus’ own frequent use of the word, and given the state of the church in our day—I want more kingdom talk, not less. I want more kingdom thinking and I want more kingdom living.

Scripture offers us various images for a “Kingdom.” The Old Testament is of several minds about kings and kingdoms. Especially in 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Samuel, one can tease out a voice that is very suspicious about Israel even having a king, while at the same time hearing another voice that consistently cheers for the king.

In today’s first lesson, King Solomon re-defines kingship. God appears to Solomon in a dream and promises to give him whatever he asks for. Anything he wants. A traditional king—a patriarchal king, a hierarchical king, a king interested only in perpetuating power and the status quo—might ask for a huge army, or vast wealth, or a new weapon to obliterate the enemy.

But King Solomon prays for Wisdom, for Sophia—the wisdom unique to God that the scripture pictures in female terms, as running through the city like a woman in search of a lover. This is the sort of king Solomon is. His is a kingship that is based on wisdom. And wisdom has a tendency to undermine a conventional, traditional understanding of kingship.

In the line of King David, in the line of King Solomon, Jesus personifies this kind of wisdom. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, in the event we commemorate with Palm Sunday, he re-defines kingship. He is praised, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he talks in terms that complete re-define, completely re-orient, completely re-picture any earthly idea of Kingdom. And so, the kingdom of God is pictured as a place where children are welcome. It is a kingdom where the poor have a place of honor. It is a kingdom where the persecuted are blessed. And this new kingdom, Jesus says, is already at hand.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus gives us five images for the kingdom.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. A tiny, tiny mustard seed that can grow into a large bush or tree. Everything it needs to grow is contained in that little seed, invisible to the eye, but thorough known to God. And it is the seed’s nature to grow. It can’t help but grow because that is what it does.

The kingdom of God is like leaven that a woman works into the dough. It is worked in quietly, mysteriously, almost without noticing anything special. Until the dough is covered and left a lone for a while. Before you know it, it has doubled in size.

The kingdom of God is like hidden treasure in a field. One stumbles upon it. Others might be looking elsewhere for treasure, or perhaps they’re too busy doing other things. But you—you find the treasure. And so you take special care to cover it up, while doing everything you need to do to make sure that you purchase the field and make it your own.

The kingdom of God is like a pearl of extraordinary value. Like the treasure in the field, the pearl is of such value that it re-orients everything else. Finding the pearl, priorities change and shift and allow for this one, very best, most precious thing. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, Jesus says. Augustine talked about the ordering of our loves—putting what’s most important on the very top, which then puts into proper place everything else.

The kingdom of God is like great net that is cast into the ocean and gathers all kinds of fish. Some good, some bad, some a few in-between. But the time of the kingdom is to be all together in the net. At the end of time, God will sort out which is of value. For now, we live together.

And so we have various images for what a kingdom looks like and how a kingdom begins and grows and continues. I wonder how we are called to participate in God’s kingdom. What is the pearl of great price for us? Are we the leaven, or do we participate in the leaven in some way? Or is the kingdom of God to be updated in some new way—like a hypertext of love, perhaps? Is the kingdom of God like a tweet that causes a flashmob, or a revolution? Or maybe the kingdom of God begins with one person’s asking for a summer Bible study and then after three weeks, nineteen people are gathered in the All Souls undercroft at 10 am studying the Gospel of the Day. (And yes, that is a shameless promotion for our summer study.)

The kingdom of God can be found in every direction, but some of its characteristics can be found in the mustard seed, and the leaven and the pearl of great price. One aspect of the kingdom is that it unfolds on its own time table. It cannot be fully planned, strategized or outlined. We have some good mustard seeds. We have some good, sneaky, faithful leaven in our midst. And we have those who have stumbled upon All Souls and have recognized it not as the one and only place to hear God’s love, but as a treasure, a real treasure in the field. And so priorities shift. Loves are ordered anew.

We’ve got some good seeds, but they need to be watered. And so I want to challenge us all to do three things that might help us live into the kingdom of God.

We need more kingdom thinking. Prayer is our lifeblood. The first thing is to ask for your prayers. One of you mentioned some time ago, “we talk about growth and wanting to grow” but are we praying for it? I am, I told her. But I want all of us to be praying for the growth of God’s kingdom everywhere, but especially at All Souls.

We need more kingdom talking. The second thing is this. Fall is coming and we are celebrating 100 years of worshipping in Woodley Park. Especially for our Centennial Week, October 9 and October 16, invite someone to come to All Souls with you. Father Van Dooren will be preaching on the 9th and Bishop Chane will be preaching on the 16th. If you’re away, that means you need to invite two people, because you need to have someone here in your place. There is no reason why we don’t have 400 people both Sundays.

And finally, we need more kingdom living. What is your role at All Souls? What is your place? Do you simply keep a spot on the pews from being dusty, or do you do more? Do you pray for the church? Do you volunteer for the church? Do you teach Sunday school, or will you? Do you get your workplace or company to help in some way? Do you fold flyers? Do you simply straighten up the pews or pick up trash? What do you do to contribute to the growth of the kingdom of God from All Souls?

During this summer of deep growth and blooming outside, may God bless us with deep growth on the inside as well, as we grow more faithfully into the Kingdom of God on earth and in heaven.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Wheat and Weeds

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 44:6-8, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25, and Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

Did you know that we have Lagerstroemia in our church? Did you know that we have Hydrangea quercifolia and Magnolia grandiflora as well? If you were to walk through our church garden, you’d see these strange-sounding things and you’d recognize them as crepe myrtle, oak leaf hydrangea, and Southern magnolia.

But also in our garden, and in our church, we have “corpus permixtum,” growing. Right here. In and among us.

Corpus permixtum is the Latin phrase that St. Augustine used to describe God’s garden—not some special, exotic garden, but the garden of God’s green thumb known as the church.

Augustine said the church is a “corpus permixtum,” a great phrase that points to a mixed body, the good and the bad, the saved and the unsaved, the wicked and the holy.

In a commentary on a psalm, Augustine observed that in his day (and still, sometimes in our own), Christians have a good reputation. ‘They all love each other; each and every one of them does all they can for one another. They pray, fast, sing hymns; they do this around the whole world. God is praised in peace, in unanimity.’ A person may hear this, [Augustine writes] and nothing gets said about the wicked who are mixed in.” And so, this person hears about the church and visits. “He comes, drawn by this high praise. He then runs into these scoundrels mixed up with the others, ones he hadn’t been told about before he came. He gets offended by all these false Christians and flees true Christians.” Augustine points out that on one side there are those who are “hate-filled people, slanderers—they rush in to condemn: ‘What sort of people are Christians? Who are Christians? Money-grubbers, loan-sharks. Aren’t the very people who pack the theaters or the amphitheaters for the games or for the other big-time entertainments the same people who pack the churches on festival days? They’re drunks, gluttons, they’re jealous of each others, they tear each other down.’” But, as Augustine points out, not all Christians are like that. He notes that “The slanderer in his blindness says nothing about the good [Christians, but]; the praiser in his exaggeration says nothing of the bad. (Commentary on Psalm 99:12, Augustine in His Own Words, William Harmless, p. 90)

A mixed body then, and a mixed body now.

Jesus tells a parable and explains that the kingdom of God is like a man who sows seed in his garden. After a little while wheat begins to grow, but weeds also begin to grow, weeds sown by the devil. The servants are upset about the weeds. They want to know where the weeds came from and they’re ready to go out and gather them up. But the landowner says, “No.” If you try to get rid of the weeds now, you’ll also do damage to the wheat. Just wait until the harvest and then things can be sorted out.

The disciples who hear Jesus tell this story, ask him to explain. Jesus explains that this parable is really about the kingdom of God. God has sown good seed. The devil has also thrown in the seed that will become weeds. But both are allowed to grow, good people with bad people, until the day when God calls home his own children. “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.”

It’s a simple message from Jesus, really. It has implications for the sowing of seeds. It has implications for the mixed body that is the church, and it has implications for the mixed body that is within each one of us.

Whether it’s God who sows seeds, Jesus who sows, the church, or each one of us, acting as an everyday Christian, notice that the cultivation of the soil is not the first thing that happens. Contrary to those who do mission studies and look closely at demographics in order to target the Church’s mission, this parable suggests that the seeds of faith are best sown in every direction. God will take care of where they take root and where they grow.

We never know when the seed of faith may sprout. Sometimes a member of All Souls who has moved away will visit. Almost every time, the person will see someone else at church and remark to me, “I can’t believe so-and-so is back at church. I thought they drifted away years ago. It’s good to seem them back.” We do our part in encouraging faith, in building up the body that is this church family, but sometimes people’s lives get complicated. Their schedules become unmanageable. Their commute is too hard, their kids too busy. Or maybe they get mad—at the priest, the choir director, the volunteers in the kitchen… you name it. But one day, something shifts, and they feel ready to return. As people charged with taking care of the garden that is All Souls, we welcome them. No questions. No judgments. We’re just glad they’re here. We have no control over who will hear and respond to the Good News of Jesus Christ, nor what the timing of their response might be. “The righteous will shine like the sun,” in God’s own good time.

This parable speaks to the mixed body that is the congregation of the faithful who are in the church (whether we think of this globally or locally). Our Anglican cousins around the world would sometimes rather treat the Episcopal Church as a weed, a week to be trained, pruned, or perhaps even cut off altogether. I would simply point out today’s parable. Let’s grow together. Let’s do our best to produce faithful and holy results and let God do the sorting out in the end. It’s the same in this congregation. We are educated and less educated. We are gently and cranky. We are sweet-speaking, and we are sarcastic. Old and young, pious and worldly, sophisticated and rough around the edges—we are diverse. But God gives us holy patience with each other.

Though St. Augustine defended this idea of the church as a mixed body, he also knew that it was sometimes necessary to discipline church officials, leaders in the church, and other members of the community. Sometimes behavior crossed a boundary, and people were called to account for themselves and sometimes even excommunicated. In our community, there are some behaviors that are unacceptable, and we will call people on it. This is the gift of community. We don’t act alone in policing, but we come together in prayer, in discernment, guided by the Holy Spirit. We seek to speak the truth in love. But wherever and whenever possible, we pray for patience, tolerance, and forbearance.

Finally, the truth of this parable has implications for us as individuals. Augustine’s idea of a mixed body, or perhaps even a mixed-up body is evident in each one of us, as we wrestle with the fact that we are each part-wheat and part-weed. No one is all good or all bad. As faithful as we may be, as much as we may try to follow the way of Jesus Christ, as holy as some may become, this side of heaven, there will always be a few weeds. Some can be plucked out. Some can be contained. But others sometimes need to simply be ignored, not fertilized, not encouraged. Eventually, they’ll die, but to pay too much attention to them might be to neglect the good that’s trying to grow within us. And so the tending of our own soul takes care.

This is another reason why we are best off going slow before we judge others, because if we sit still with ourselves long enough, we are likely to find within ourselves that very trait or characteristic that is making us so angry at our neighbor.

This parable of the wheat and the weeds speaks of a day when judgment comes. The Church has often pictured God as an angry judge who decides which of us makes the cut and which doesn’t. But if we think about it, if we perhaps even look into the mirror, we’ll realize that most of the decision about God is ours. We decide whether to turn to God, whether to have the light and love God would give us. We decide whether to try to be loving toward others. We decide whether God’s vision for the world is worth our trouble. And so, at the end of our days, there are no surprises, because we will have lived our lives either deciding for God, or not.

Do I appoint myself God’s special weed-killer and try to create a spiritually perfect garden, or do I accept that there will always be a few weeds? Do I allow for the fact that sometimes maybe the weeds are not even weeds after all? Do I worry about clearing out the less-than-perfect around me, or do I try to encourage a little growth when I see it? And what about my own garden of a soul-- Do I encourage the wheat within me, or do I let the weeds take over?

St. Paul says “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us….Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” We wait with hope. We wait with patience. We wait with love for God who loves us more than we can ask or imagine.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Promoting Growth

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2011. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14, Romans 8:1-11, and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

Deep underground, in an island in Norway, about 800 miles from the North Pole, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. You may have read about it or heard about it in the news. To insure biodiversity and to protect against any kind of widespread disaster or global crisis, the vault serves as a seed bank where duplicate copies of seeds from all around the world can be kept safely. More than 10,000 seeds are kept there, stored in four-ply sealed envelopes, then placed into plastic tote containers on metal shelving racks. The storage rooms are kept at 0 °F, which delays the seeds from aging. It must be quiet there in that cold, underground space-aged cavern.

While I understand the reasoning behind keeping the duplicate seeds safe, and I get the importance of the whole venture, it does seem a little strange that such extravagant lengths are gone to in order to keep seeds from doing what they’re created to do: to grow.

The Gospel today is about seeds and the various things that can stifle growth.

The Parable of the Sower is a straightforward story. Jesus tells the parable and goes on to explain it. The seed is the Word of God that comes our way. It comes through the hearing of Scripture. It comes through our individual reading, or through Sunday school, or confirmation classes or other times of Christian Formation and Education. The Word of God is thrown at us sometimes through non-biblical literature, sometimes through the words or actions of people who influence us, sometimes through a movie or a game. Some of us grew up in families in which the seeds (the word and teachings of God) were sown in our lives carefully, with prayer and attention and care. Others of us grew up catching an occasional seed here or there, or perhaps nurturing the Word of God in our lives through independent or self-study. But however it’s come to us, the important thing, says Jesus, is whether that seed is able to take root in us. The important thing is whether the seed eventually grows, flowers, and produces.

In some, the seed barely takes hold and then there’s some kind of trial or challenge. Through church history and in other parts of the world today there is still religious persecution, and this can stifle the seed. Sometimes in our culture the challenge comes through almost overwhelming pressures, through loneliness or depression or addiction. And so, the seed withers, and dies— or almost dies.

Jesus says there are others who hear the Word of God, they receive the seed, but then they get distracted, they get caught up in what Jesus calls the “cares of the world,” or the “lure of wealth.” That seed, too, dwindles or dies.

But then, there are those for whom the seed takes off and grows. It is like, as Isaiah puts it, “the earth brings forth and sprouts seed for the sower and bread for the eater”…We “go out in joy, and [are] led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before [us] … burst into song, and all the trees of the field … clap their hands.”

But I wonder if we don’t sometimes do the equivalent of building a seed vault like they’ve done in Norway. God has planted within us seeds—yes, the Word of God, but often that Word is not full-grown, and it exists deep within us as idea, a gift, a skill, or a desire. Maybe we didn’t really recognize it when we first received it. Maybe it has been in the dark too long and hasn’t been allowed to flourish and grow. Maybe it’s too cold where this seed is. Maybe we have been too scared to let it grow, or it was unsafe for it to flourish, and so we decided that it needed protection and safeguarding.

How might Jesus be inviting us into a larger garden? How might God be, even now, promoting new growth within us and around us?

Yesterday we celebrated the life of Nancye Suggs, and a part of yesterday’s sermon continues today. Nancye was incredible at seeing things in each of us (seeds of possibility) that with the right encouragement, some care, some watering, could blossom into new abilities, and gifts, and achievements. We would honor her best by allowing those things she touched to grow, and by continuing that practice with each other.

When we look at each other, what lies dormant or hidden away? When I meet a new person, or perhaps look closely at someone I’ve known for years, what might I see that God is asking me to encourage, promote, water? Are there ways that we can work as good trellises, propping up each other to that the storms of life don’t topple us over?

In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Saints Paul talks about something our garden guild knows very well—it takes a crowd to help a garden grow. It takes a handful to grow a church. Paul taught and encouraged the church at Corinth. Another disciple known as Apollos also taught and encouraged. Other teachers and leaders came and went. But the Corinthians began to get bogged down in following only their favorite teacher. They divided into factions, with some wanting only one kind of encouragement, and others wanting only another. But Paul reminds them that no matter who helps tend the garden, (Paul planted and Apollos watered) “God gives the growth.” Paul says, “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose … For we are God’s servants, working together” (1 Corinthians 3:7-9).

Yesterday, I quoted a short line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” but today there are words from that same poem that speak of all those who have planted, watered, and tended, who have gone before us. Whitman writes,

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
In other words, we give thanks for those who have planted whatever good there is in us. Others will come, even as we are sent, to water, to weed and support, but God gives the growth, and God will continue giving the growth.

Thanks be to Jesus Christ who sows love in us, who sows mercy and forgiveness, and who sows seeds of eternal life, that we may grow for ever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Celebrating the Life of Nancye Jane Turner Suggs (1943-2011)

Nancye and Larry Suggs with Bishop John B. Chane on May 2, 2011

A sermon for the Mass celebrating the life of Nancye Suggs, former senior warden of All Souls Church. The scripture readings are Isaiah 61:1-3, Psalm 23 (sung), 1 John 3:1-2, and Luke 14:16-23.

Raconteur is a great word. A raconteur is defined as “a person who tells stories, a person who relates anecdotes in an interesting manner.” It comes from an old French word, meaning “to account” for something, or “to give one’s account” of something. The theologian Harvey Cox, has said famously, “There has never been a better raconteur than Jesus of Nazareth.” But I don’t think Professor Cox met Nancye Suggs. Nancye could tell the Devil a story and make him smile. Nancye told lots of stories—some of them historical, some about people she knew or had heard about, and many of these stories were true. (Truth, after all, is often conveyed more by the spirit of a thing than in the details.) Right now, I imagine Nancye and Jesus out-story-telling each other, while countless disciples, saints, martyrs, angels, and archangels, wonder when they’ll even stop talking and dessert can be had!

Nancye gave me a little book for Christmas, knowing (in the way that she always did) that I would delight in it. The book is by Russell Lynes (whose father was an Episcopal priest) and the book is called Guests: or, How to Survive Hospitality: The Classic Guidebook). In the chapter on boring people, he says that in his family there were always five forbidden topics: domiciles, domestics, dress, diseases, and descendants.” He goes on to agree that “It is a good rule-of-thumb list, though I believe that there is no topic of conversation that is boring per se. It takes a bore to make it boring, and being a bore is usually the mere calamity of miscalculating one’s audience, a thing for which some people have a more marked talent than others.” (p. 32).

I take great comfort in knowing that Nancye gave me that book, but the section I just read, at least, was not highlighted. I read that section out loud to her one day, and we laughed, and agreed, that God must have put boring people in the world to teach us patience. One thing is for sure: While perhaps entertaining a few boring people over the years, and while she certainly put up with her share of boring priests—as for Nancye, there was not a boring bone in her body.

A relatively new member of All Souls emailed me to say that she did not really know Nancye very well, but that she had been at a dinner in which half the gathering ended up in the living room, surrounding Nancye, as she held forth about the history of All Souls, the history of Washington, D.C., her opinion on city government, the school system, and last, but certainly not least, her opinion on desserts. It was only in the last year or so that she would come close to approving of fruit as a dessert. A well remember her looking at me one day in complete bafflement: “Father, those people tried to serve fruit for dessert! Can you imagine? I’m sorry, but that is simply NOT dessert!”

Nancye was opinionated about her funeral, which was only complicated in that she left instructions written in 1994 and some from last year, and they don’t always agree. Nancye personified the Walt Whitman line, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” (Song of Myself).

She left us a list of hymns to sing and specified that we read from the King James Version of the Bible. But she left me some room with the Gospel. I could have used one of the classic Gospels for an occasion such as this: the Good Shepherd passage, or the one about many mansions. And while I know that Nancye has been called by name by the Good Shepherd and that she is surely holding forth right now in a magnificent mansion, the reading we heard, the parable of the Great Banquet, seems to fit her just about right.

Jesus tells a story about a man who gives a great feast, tries to get his guest list together, but people are busy, or distracted, or have other plans. Thanks much, they say, maybe another time? Maybe we could meet for coffee instead? (You know, the kids are at summer camp, and then we’re at the beach for a week, and then school starts, you know, and Christmas is here before you know it….. we’ve all heard this.)

Jesus names a situation we’ve all known. We’ve got this big, good thing to celebrate. We invite people, but either people are busy, or no one responds, or people forget. And so the person giving the feast tells the servants—“ok, then, if all of these people are too busy, open the doors wide, let everybody in, compel (that is, convince, cajole, kidnap) people to come in.

Jesus is talking about inviting people to a larger feast, the feast of life itself, the feast of life lived in God’s company, the feast we celebrate and enjoy in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

I love the context for this story Jesus tells. He’s sitting at a fancy dinner party! There he in, in the middle of this rich man’s home, enjoying his food and drink, and Jesus tells this story that ends up hitting his host between the eyes with truth and choice.

Either Jesus is very Nancye-like here, or Nancye was very Jesus-like in this respect, I’m not sure which, and I’m not sure it matters. But what I’m talking about is the way that Jesus (and Nancye) could look at a person with love—look through the person with love and then speak Truth, with a capital “T.” This is a rare thing. It is an exceptional thing. I know that I will keep hearing her say to me, “Father, you know. Maybe I’m out of line in saying this, because you know, I take seriously that I’m the ‘rector’s warden,’ but have you thought of…” and then she would gently, smartly, judge me in a direction in which (five minutes before) I had no intention of going.

When Nancye and Laurence showed up at All Souls in the mid-70s, a few All Souls eyebrows were lifted. A very few even said some nasty things about them. But not only did Nancye know she was living out the welcome of Jesus, she also had a sense that she was simply carrying forward the vision of Dr. Sterrett, who founded this church. He said, famously, that it be “neither a broad church nor a narrow church, neither a high church nor a low church, but a church of All Souls.” Nancye welcomed and reminded. She encouraged and uplifted. She entertained and she offered criticism that always enlarged one’s own vision of oneself. She talked, and talked, and talked.
She remembered (just about everything she had ever heard about a person, a place, a building), she remembered and conveyed her memories so that others would be captivated by a love of history and story, as well.

We miss her at the table. When someone with such a powerful presence dies, sometimes we respond to their death in strange ways. We might rush into the space that is opened up. We might quickly try to do a thing “our way.” But I think our way of honoring her place is to give thanks, to pray about all that she did and all that she was for us, and to ask God, “What part of her life might I be called to embody, or enact? Might I encourage? Remind? Cajole or nag? Might I check on people? Might I offer healing? Might I cook, laugh, or simply be the face of God’s forgiveness and joy? If there’s something Nancye taught us that we can continue with, then that would really be a nice chapter to her story that keeps on being told.

Thanks be to God for Nancye Suggs, raconteur extraordinaire and for us a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, a sister. Thanks be to God for Nancye’s resurrection to eternal feasting. Thanks be to God for Nancye: storyteller and saint.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Getting Rest

A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2011. The lectionary readings are Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 145: 8 - 15, Romans 7:15-25a, and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.

Wendell Berry has a poem that fits this day.

Six days of work are spent
To make a Sunday quiet
That Sabbath may return.
It comes in unconcern;
We cannot earn or buy it.
(“Six days of work are spent," Sabbaths, San Francisco: North Point, 1987).

He goes on to imagine a Sabbath, a day of rest, which perhaps does not come gently or predictably. Maybe it’s cloudy. Maybe there are storms. Maybe one wakes up angry, or angry at one’s self. And yet, with the power of Sabbath-time, with the power of God’s Sabbath, all noise and wonder, all worry and planning, all expectation, all regret—stop. They are given a chance to breath. They find their voice again. They pause for God’s re-creation.

I grew up in North Carolina when the Sabbath was still culturally acknowledged. Only a few restaurants were open on Sunday. Very few stores were open, and one prominent department store had special curtains it would close in front of its windows so that no would could even window-shop. Sunday was a day for church (or presumably, if you were Jewish, you were expected to extend the Sabbath to coincide with the majority culture). It was a day for spending time with one’s family. It was a day for slowing down, recharging, eating big midday meals, and napping. Such Sundays could sometimes seem endless, and so I couldn’t wait for the next day of work, or school, or whatever the normal routine would bring. But even in the boredom, there was a certain giftedness to Sabbath.

In Genesis we find God resting on the seventh day. In Exodus, God commands the people of Israel to take a break, “remember the Sabbath day,” “observe the Sabbath.” This is echoed in the Ten Commandments, and this is the tradition Jesus would have grown up in. Jesus keeps the Sabbath, though, like in some other cases, Jesus gets into trouble with the religious authorities for his interpretation of the Sabbath. The Resurrection takes place on the Sabbath, or, depending on the way you count the day and keep time according to the sun, it takes place on what poets and theologians have called, “the 8th day”—a sort of Sabbath of Sabbaths, so special, so individual, that it happens totally outside the normal configuration of time.

For something to be “Sabbath,” it becomes holy, set apart. Different. Not like everything else. And rest, for most of us would be that—it would be set apart. It would be unusual. It could even be holy.

In the Gospel today we have some famous words,

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Jesus offers rest, but I don’t think it’s simply the kind “plopping in a sofa” rest at the end of a long day. Instead, I think he’s talking about the kind of rest that comes at the end of a struggle. It’s a kind of rest that happens when we realize that the world does not really depend upon me after all. It’s the kind of rest that comes by putting our trust, our faith, our hope, our decision, our joys our pains, our very life, in the hands of Jesus.

Teresa of Avila, was a 16th century Spanish saint and mystic who was a very busy lady. What I most like about Teresa is her common sense. She struggled with the force of her own personality, her own abilities and talents, the voices of the world that tried to tell her what to do. And yet she put absolute faith in Jesus and followed him. It was this faith that empowered her to found or reform 17 convents all over Spain. She traveled in a donkey-pulled wagon with a dislocated shoulder, with arthritis, with all kinds of physical maladies, and yet she did what she perceived to be God’s will. At one point, Teresa reflected on “obedience.” She says

Obedience is like when there’s some difficult matter to be sorted out. The two sides cannot agree on a solution, and so they take their problem to a trusted third party, to have it resolved. Teresa says that in obedience, we take to God the things within ourselves that are at war with each other. We lift them up to God as though these things are our sacrifice upon the altar, and we trust God to decide for us. This is obedience. This is surrender. This is joyful rest.

Teresa wrote,
Let nothing trouble you, let nothing scare you,
All is fleeting, God alone is unchanging,
Everything obtains.
The one who possesses God lacks nothing at all.
God alone suffices. (Teresa’s “Book mark” poem, 1582)
This is Sabbath. It is time out, time put aside, down-time, quiet-time, whatever you might want to call it. Sabbath time is hallowed time, time made holy, and it doesn’t matter much how we spend it, as long as there is some bit of time where we stop striving to be perfect, when we stop caring whether we pray correctly or not, when we try less to please God than simply to get to know him.

Jesus offers us rest. He offers us rest in prayer and meditation. Eastern religious traditions have often been better at teaching meditation, and many a Christian has found Sabbath in yoga, in meditation, in simply sitting. If you meet the risen Christ coming down the road, receive his rest.

Jesus offers us rest through our worship. In worship we rest in the prayers of those who have gone before us. They have battled over which words to use, which images to explore, which days to hallow, and so we can rest in some of their decisions and simply let the tradition wash over us. Not every word will speak to me. Some will offend. Some will startle. Some will soothe. But taken together, worship is a time when we don’t have to work so hard, but can be at rest with God.

Finally, but perhaps even more frequently, Jesus offers us rest in one another. This involves allowing others close. It involves allowing others to be a part of our lives. It might mean asking others to pray for us, asking other to run an errand, allowing others to help us in some way. In this parish, sometimes it means telling someone else what’s going on in your life, and understanding that few of us are very good at reading minds. The rest of Christ sometimes comes to us in the form of resting in the arms of another person or community.

Our Prayer Book captures this Rest of Christ in the Collect for Quiet Confidence, when it leads us to pray,
O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit, lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 832)
This is a holiday weekend. In what remains of it, and throughout the summer, I pray that we might come to know the rest that Christ offers us—rest in the one who calls us to put all our faith, all our life in him.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.


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