Saturday, August 2, 2014

God is Always Running Toward Us

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on Saturday, August 2, 2014, the Celebration of Ten Years of Ministry Together and the Ending of Our Pastoral Relationship:  Philippians 4:1, 4-9 and Luke 15:1, 11b-32

          Grief, Grace and Gratitude.  I chose those words to describe this Service for selfish reasons:  They describe how I feel as we have come to this moment.  But I have the strong suspicion that the words capture much of what you are feeling also.

          I said from the beginning that I wanted this to be a celebration and in the last newsletter I compared it to the joyful dance our Jewish sisters and brothers make on their feast of Simchat Torah.  I want that celebratory spirit here this evening.

          So why trouble the waters with the word grief?  Because it is real.  Because it is like unto the valley of the shadow of death of which the psalmist speaks, what we must walk through before we can grasp the other reality that our “cup runneth over.”

          We grieve especially when we lose something and the loss is outside of our control.  We feel like something unfair or even wrong is happening to us and we are not being given the chance to make it better.  It is outside our control.

          That feeling, noticed and accepted, prepares us for grace, the unmerited favor of God toward us that is also, like grief, outside of our control.  We notice it when, again like the psalmist, we notice that our walk through the valley of the shadow of death is not alone.  We are never alone.  That is the promise of grace.  God is with us, for us.

          Then if we notice that presence and accept it, our response is gratitude, thanks.  And that is all God really wants from us.  But it is a very large thing.  God wants gratitude to be our primary response to the world, day by day.  It is so much at the center of our true spirituality that week by week we enact it, practice it, if you will, in what we call Eucharist.

          Grief, grace, and gratitude.  Unfortunately it is not a linear process.  The truth is that we hold these things in tension all our days.  It is what we call “the paschal mystery.”  Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.  Paul instructs us to “rejoice always.”  He does not mean never to mourn or experience sadness or anger or despair.  But he does mean that we not allow ourselves to get stuck there.  He says elsewhere, “Grieve, but do not grieve as if you have no hope.”

          There we are.  Grief, grace and gratitude.  It is a package deal.  On an occasion such as this we can both grieve and be grateful.  We are not fooled that it is an either/or proposition, it is, as it almost always is, both/and.

          Now, take a deep breath, and let me out of my own grief, grace and gratitude, tell you the Gospel, the good news, one more time.

          It is why I chose the parable of the prodigal son, my favorite of all the parables, because I believe it is the Gospel in miniature.

          It is a story we think we know.  We call it “the prodigal son” because we believe the prodigal son is the main character and the parable’s primary purpose is to warn us not to make the choices the prodigal son made.  But that would be a mistake, because the parable is not about us.  Jesus’ parables are not the morality tales that we often think they are.  They are primarily stories about God.

          This story is not primarily about the son.  It is primarily about the father.  The son’s choices are important.  They are the set-up.  Here we have a son who exhibits many of our worst tendencies:  impatience, self-centeredness, and an addiction to “loose living,” which is any attempt on our part to do life solely as we want it to be done, attempting to be in control of our own destiny.

          But sooner or later we discover that it is all an illusion.  It gets us somewhere for a while, but sooner or later the bottom drops out and we find ourselves in some equivalent of feeding the pigs.  Perhaps that causes us, as it did the younger son, to “come to our senses.”  That is good, but we have a tendency, like the son, to think that what we must do when we have bottomed out is to do something to haul ourselves out of the hole we have dug, to earn our way back into the good life.

          But if that is what we think God wants from us, then we are quite wrong.  Yes, God demands repentance, but all that word really means is to turn ourselves in a new direction with at least a little humility.

          So the son returns home with a speech in his pocket.  I want to come home, but I know I do not deserve to, so I offer to earn my way back into your good graces.

          And what does the father do?  He sees the son coming in his direction from “far off.”  That says to me that he has been waiting.  All the father knows is that the son has turned to walk toward home.  And what does the father do?  Well, perhaps it is important to see clearly what the father does not do.

          He does not wait until the son comes crawling to him, so that he can point the finger of judgment and say, “Your sin against me was great.  There is so much you have to make up for.  Yes, be my slave and perhaps you can prove to me that you deserve to be my son again.”  But the father does not do that.

          Neither does the father turn his back on the boy, and with resentment that has built up during his absence, declare, “I do not recognize you.  You treated me as if you wished I was dead.  Well, you are dead to me.”  Go.  You are on your own.  You are only getting what you asked for.  But the father does not do that.

          The father neither turns away in disgust nor points the finger in judgment.  He does not even wait for the son to come to him, preserving his dignity as the wronged party.  No, completely out of character for a middle eastern head of household, he hikes up his skirts and runs to meet the son.  Dignity be damned, my son is home.

          The son begins his speech, but the father is not even listening and the son never gets it all out.  Welcome him back as if he has returned from some adventure in triumph, a son to be proud of, whose life deserves celebration.  And that is what the father does.

          My beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, I want to leave you with that image.  God is always running toward us.  God is always running toward us, and not so that he can announce his disgust or point the finger of judgment.  God is always running toward us to welcome us home.


          Most of the world believes that we worship the God of disgust and judgment.  Tell them differently.  Tell them this story, tell them of the God we know who is our companion on the journey, and, whenever we find ourselves feeding the pigs is eager to welcome us home.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Education…Formation…Ministry

Several Education for Ministry groups in the diocese of Rochester are currently accepting new students for the Fall 2014 term. EfM is a four-year, seminary course for lay people that explores the Bible, church history, and theology. Participants also learn how to share their spiritual autobiographies, engage in theological reflection, deepen their spiritual lives, examine their theological frameworks, and discern their ministries in the church and in the world. Tuition is $350 per year; scholarships are available for those who need financial assistance. Contact the administrative mentor directly to register for a group.

Meeting Location
Meeting Date and Time
Administrative Mentor
Online
Sundays
5:00 pm
John Clinton Bradley
johnclint@icloud.com
(585) 313-1059
St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Rochester
Mondays
9:30 am
Donna D'Angio
dangios@aol.com
(585) 381-0363
St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Rochester
Mondays
7:00 pm
Nancy Grear
nancy.grear@gmail.com
(585) 389-2805
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Webster
Thursdays
6:45 pm
Lance Robbins
lrobbins3714@aol.com
(585) 872-2281

Online EfM is a convenient option those who live in an area where there isn’t a traditional group, travel frequently, have limited mobility, or like the flexibility of learning online. You'll find an online EfM group just as rewarding as a traditional group. Visit http://www.johnclintonbradley.name/efm/online to learn more about the online group and download the registration packet.

Visit http://efm.episcopalrochester.org for more information about EfM in the Diocese of Rochester. While you’re there, please join our Google or Facebook groups.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Photos From Faith In Action Dinner

Thanks to Toni Burr for this these photos from the Faith in Action Dinner. Our parish honored the late Jack Cummings.
Post by The Episcopal Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Maya Angelou: "Church"

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

It's Sacred; Church
Everything in God's world is sacred.  Trees and
toads and little girl's eyes. Grandfather's hands
and the murmuring voices of lovers.  Sacred.

A poet's dream, almanac compilers and rocks that
look up at the moon.  Sacred.  Everything can be
church and anything can be church.

Church was the first place where I came
child to spirit to Christ.  "Suffer little children
to come unto me, for such is the Kingdom of
Heaven."


Literally, church introduced me to my very first
friend.  Louise and I both thought the preacher
talked too long, Mrs. Sneed sang too loudly and
Brother Williams got too wild when he prayed.
We both giggled at the same time and cried just
as piteously when we were chastised.

Every time I feel the spirit, I know I am
immersed in the essence of church.  That know-
ledge changes my voice.  I speak more softly and
choose my words more carefully.  There are more
"yes, ma'ams" and "no ma'ams" and "yes, sirs" and
"no sirs" in my conversation.

Out of my heart, out of my brain, more "thank
yous" slide across my tongue.  I am blessed.
I am in church.

Church is not the luggage I bear, nor the cloak I
wear.  It is neither the hat I sport, nor the shoes,
which carry me around my world.  It is not my
destination, nor my place of departure.

I cannot define the breadth and depth and width
and height of church, but church can define me
always.  It slides the skin over my muscles and
allows my lungs to inspirate and fill so that
"Hallelujahs" like rain come from my mouth,
"Hallelujahs" fall like rain from my lips.

Church is where I go when I want a certain ful-
fillment, and church is where I don't have to go
because it is always with me,
holding me up,
propelling me forward,
sustaining me.

When I think about church and remember that
church and I are one, I am reminded that  every-
thing in God's world is sacred.

2003, Dr. Maya Angelou

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Annual Meeting Slide Show 2014

Thanks to Michael Laver and Toni Burr for these parish photos from 2013!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Two Saints on Google+

Google+ is a social networking platform similar to Facebook. Our parish now has a Google+ page.  Click here to take a look.

Two Saints' Google+ page

While you're visiting, if you use Google+, please click the red Follow button. Also consider writing a review of the parish and sharing the page on your own Google+ page.

Don't forget that our parish has also a Facebook page and a Twitter feed

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A People to Become

Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 26, 2014, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York, the Sunday of the Annual Meeting of the parish:  Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23.

          For thirty years or so “mission statements” have been all the rage, not
only in the church and other non-profits, but also in the business community.  They are sometimes helpful and sometimes not, and usually some of both.

          Turns out the inventor of mission statements may have been God, who on several occasions makes clear his purpose for the people he has called together.  We have the seeds of one this morning, when Isaiah talks about the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light.

          As Israel returns from exile in Babylon, Isaiah uses this image to deliver God’s mission (from Isaiah 49:6):

The Lord says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

          When Matthew is writing his Gospel and is telling how Jesus chose to make his home base in Capernauum in Galilee, he recalls this mission and suggests that it is Jesus’ mission:  to be a light not only to his own Jewish people, but to all people.  There were plenty of Jews in Galilee, but there were plenty of all kinds of people in Galilee.

          To fulfill his purpose, after his personal preparation at the Jordan and in the wilderness, Jesus first gathers a group of followers.  It may have been his first act of genius, but it could also be seen as his first big mistake.  Whenever people band together for a cause they will start to organize, and when they start to organize they may indeed accomplish many things, but they will also inevitably start to disagree with one another, some will want to be in charge and others will resent anyone who is in charge and we are off to the races.

A friend of mine said to me the other day about her parish, “I mostly pray that once and awhile the light will shine through the dysfunction and we do some good in spite of ourselves.”  Perhaps that is describing a worst-case scenario, but, if so, it has been around from the beginning.  The Apostle Paul was very familiar with it.

The Christian community in Corinth was a mess.  The two letters to them are almost a manual for how not to do Christian community, although, in Paul answering them, and speaking to some of their dysfunctions, it is also a manual for how to do it right.

This morning we heard Paul responding to a dynamic in their community which was sort of like the “sorting hat” scene from Harry Potter.  I belong to Cephas’ people.  I belong to Apollos’ people. I belong to Paul’s people.

Paul says, “Look.  Cephas, Apollos, Paul, we all did important things in your community, but none of us more important than the other.  You do not belong to any one of us.  You belong to one another. You are all part of the body, the body of Christ.”

I talked about belonging a couple weeks ago when we baptized Avery Kane.  I think it is one of the great gifts of this place that it is a place to belong, to be accepted for who you are at any given time.

But there is more, isn’t there?  “Belonging” implies something outside of ourselves of which we are a part, and the God of the Bible is always forming a people.  Along with “a place to belong,” communities like this one are also “a people to become.”

In our tradition when we talk of this “people to become,” we are not only talking about the people in this parish.  We are talking about sisters and brothers in all places and in all times, the reality we mean when we use the word “catholic” to describe the church.  The bigger it gets the messier it gets and any attempt to over control it is doomed to failure, which I think is one of the points Pope Francis is trying to make.

Paul longed for the disagreements to end in Corinth.  He wanted a church “united in the same mind and the same purpose.”  And I think it is vital that we are always working toward that goal.  Unity is clearly part of the purpose of God in bringing people like us together.  And yet the messiness seems part of the plan also.  Uniformity is not healthy for the body.  It can, in fact, stifle the body’s imagination and creativity.  We need difference of opinion, difference of giftedness, difference of intellect and imaginative capacity, difference in just about anything you can imagine to keep up with what God is doing in the world around us.

The problem is not difference itself.  The problem is when our difference becomes an idol, something which must be defended.  The problem is when I no longer believe you have anything to contribute to my well-being.  We all fall into this trap from time to time when someone else annoys us because of their difference.  I do it also. I speak as a fellow sinner.

My friend Verna Dozier was a complex person, which annoyed me for a long time, but I gradually came to understand that her struggle was my struggle, and, in fact, was universal.  She was a woman of strong opinions, someone who, as they say, did not suffer fools gladly.  Yet she steadfastly held out this truth to all with whom she came into contact.  “If I am a person of faith than the only thing I know for sure is that I could be wrong about anything.”

My sense, my friends, is that the reconfiguration of this worship space is only the beginning of significant change this community must undertake if we are to thrive in a third century of ministry on this site.  More than anything—more than ideas, more than money, more than vision, more than will—more than anything we will need the capacity to honor and celebrate our differences so that out of them can come the energy to move forward.  If we don’t keep developing that capacity, our differences will tie us up in knots and we will go nowhere.

The beating heart of this community must be Jesus’ constant invitation for us to belong and the Holy Spirit’s constant taking that belonging and forging an ever new people with it.


May this describe our life:  A Place to Belong and a People to Become.