Friday, July 30, 2010

Summer Sundays

At a recent deanery meeting one of my colleagues mentioned that in the Diocese of Western North Carolina, Sunday attendance in the summers is usually about one-third its usual numbers. I find that to be true here at Redeemer, and to be honest, this astounds me. I understand the increased numbers of vacations in summer, but I don’t think that really explains this phenomenon. I don’t know what does. Here’s what I do know…

In our Sunday Eucharist we stop and make time and space to pray, to invite the presence of God in - individually and collectively. We participate, asking God for what we need for ourselves and for those in our lives and in our world. We breathe in the Word of God in the Scriptures, nourish our souls with the holy food of Communion, then breathe out the effects of all of this in our lives - being dismissed to “love and serve the Lord.”

For Episcopalians, the liturgy is not a performance by the priest of a magic event or a memorial of a past event. It is a bringing down the curtain of earthly time and entering into eternal time. It is an anamnetic event (as we’ve discussed before). A foretaste of the heavenly banquet, our Eucharistic meal links our bodies, our hearts, and our minds to the reality of our salvation in Jesus Christ. We hear the history of our exodus and the truth of our salvation in the Eucharistic Prayers. We hear the narrative of our identity as children of Abraham and people of the New Covenant in the Scripture readings. In our liturgical music, we sing, hear and understand what we believe on another level – one that connects to our creative, holistic understanding.

We remember the example of the disciples who, upon seeing the resurrected Jesus, didn’t recognize him until he made Eucharist with them. Then their eyes were opened and they described a burning in their hearts in the presence of their Savior. Our Sunday Eucharist is the time we set aside to experience that.

We also engender authentic Christian community by creating space for the worship of God. That is why it’s so important be together as family in the most literal and broadest sense: a family of God that worships together, plays and studies together, disagrees yet loves one another, and has a way and a means to accomplish our common mission – the building up of the kingdom of God on earth.

Sunday worship is not a duty (social or otherwise), and we don’t affect our eternal outcome by going or not going. But we do affect our present – knowing who we are, whose we are, and what our purpose is. Our eyes are opened in the Eucharist, our hearts are set on fire, and we are strengthened as individuals and as a community to be witnesses of the Good News we know.

See you Sunday – oh, next Sunday… I’m on vacation August 1!!!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pentecost 9-C Sermon: How much is enough?

Preacher: The Rev.Dr.Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector, Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Shelby, NC
Lectionary: Genesis 18:20-32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15,(16-19), Luke 11:1-13

When Steve and I were young parents we were truly blessed with three wonderful, healthy children, good jobs, a house of our own, new cars, membership at the country club, a great church home, family and friends we loved all around us. It was an amazing time in our lives, so full of joy. But underneath it all was this constant current of dissatisfaction.

Our house wasn’t as big or as well done as some of our friends so we were constantly planning how to improve it. We even bought land in an exclusive new neighborhood where we planned to build our dream home – the one that we were sure would truly satisfy us.

But Steve hardly ever had time to play golf and we rarely enjoyed the benefits of our club membership. We were in a constant frenzy shuttling the kids to music and dance lessons, sports of one kid or another, the doctor, art camp, every VBS in town, overnights at friends’ houses or our house. It was exhilarating and exhausting!

In the midst of this we learned that Steve’s father was going to die, so we pulled up stakes and moved to Alabama to help Steve’s mother care for him through the process of his dying. We rented a nice big house on the country club golf course, got good jobs again, joined a church, taught Sunday School, coached softball, and started the frenzied pace all over again.

But that current of dissatisfaction remained underneath it all.

Sixteen months later, Steve’s father died. Shortly after that his mother told us she was fine and we should return to the life we left in Valdosta. And that’s when it hit us. We didn’t want to go back to that life. We wanted something different.

So one night we sat down at our kitchen table, laid out a map of the US on it and opened up to ourselves total freedom of choice. We could go anywhere… do anything … there were no boundaries on our choices. It was an amazing, liberating experience.

As we considered what we really needed we asked ourselves this simple, but important question: how much is enough? How much salary do we really need? How much time do we want to spend earning that salary? How many cars do we really need (we had two extras at the time)? How many activities do our kids really need to be involved in?

In the end, we chose to go back to Valdosta but with a different approach to our life there. We found satisfying work, eventually sold the extra cars, bought a bigger house that was already built in the neighborhood we wanted, and limited our kids to one extra-curricular activity each.

We didn’t rejoin the country club – and amazingly, our friends didn’t desert us. We lived a simpler but more satisfying life.

‘How much is enough?’ became our guiding principle and it still is. Living from this principle has taught us not only that we could be more satisfied with less, but also that what we thought we needed, what the TV commercials and magazines told us we needed, was a lie - “empty deceit” as the writer of Colossians calls it.

We don’t need the whitest smile, or the biggest house, or the newest clothes to be satisfied. In fact, those desires were the source of the undercurrent of dissatisfaction we used to know and they distracted us from truly appreciating the blessings we already had.

They also distracted us from the work God was calling us to do. Living in Selma and caring for Steve’s parents taught us that previously, we had been devoting too much time and attention to ourselves – working to get what we thought we needed and didn’t have - instead of looking out and noticing where God might be calling us to give from the bounty of the gifts and blessings God had already given us.

What seemed at first to be a nightmare - the impending death of Steve’s father - ended up providing us with one of the most significant, transforming experiences of our life together.

This is the lesson offered to us in today’s Gospel from Luke.

In this part of the gospel story, Jesus has completed his earthly ministry and is heading toward Jerusalem where he will be arrested, tried, and crucified. (he’s going to die). On his way there, he has been instructing his followers on what it means to be his disciple – hearers and doers of his Word. He has welcomed back the seventy he sent out on a test mission and opened the door for women to sit at the feet of the Master and be disciples in his name. Then he goes off alone to pray.

When he returns, his disciples ask him to teach them to pray and he responds with what we now know as The Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father. This prayer is found only in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. The form most Christians use in Sunday services is the longer form found in Matthew. The doxology at the end of the prayer (for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours) wasn’t part of the original prayer. It was added later.

We don’t know what language Jesus used to teach this prayer. It might have been Hebrew, which was the formal language of prayer for Jews. More likely, it was Aramaic, Jesus’ hometown language. It was recorded for us in Scripture in Greek.

I’ve given you a version of The Lord’s Prayer found in the New Zealand Prayer Book. It is a faithful version of this prayer that uses different words than we’re used to hearing and I hope we will use it today to help us hear the substance of this prayer anew.

Let’s read it together: "Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven: The hallowing of your name echo through the universe! The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world! Your heavenly will be done by all created beings! Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth. With the bread we need for today, feed us. In the hurts that we absorb from another, forgive us. In times of temptation and test, strengthen us. From trials too great to endure, spare us. From the grip of all that is evil, free us. For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever. Amen."

One thing I like about this version of the prayer is that it makes clear to us that God is the one acting: feed us, forgive us, strengthen us, spare us, free us… The one place we act is in choosing whether or not we will let the hurts from sin be absorbed into us, into our lives.

Sin separates us from God and from one another, and whenever we absorb the hurt from sin into our lives we give our energy and attention to it instead of to the purpose God has in mind for us. Living in this absorbed sin becomes a habit over time, and even though we know it’s presence is destructive, we work to preserve it because it has become familiar – until it finally becomes ‘what we’ve always done.’

But it steals our life from us nonetheless, and distracts us from our true purpose.

Another thing I like about the Lord’s Prayer, in any version, is that Jesus taught us to ask for what we need this day - right now - not what we think we might need or what the world tells us we should need. Then we are to trust that God will provide it and it will be enough. Bread, as it is used here, isn’t just food, it’s whatever is needed to sustain life. It could be knowledge, or patience, or hope, or friendship.

When we pray this prayer Jesus taught us, we are being invited to step out of our habitual ways of seeing and understanding, remembering that many times blessings don’t look like or feel like blessings - at least not at first. But God is always faithful and God always keeps God’s promises – and God has promised us forgiveness of our sins and everlasting life in Jesus Christ.

It’s pretty simple really, good news, transforming news - and it is enough.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pentecost 8-C: July 18, 2010

Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

Today's sermon was exptemporaneous, so there is no text to share. I may (if I can find the time) write something from the notes I used. We talked about Mary and Martha as the icons of discipleship, each representing one of the two parts of discipleship - both necessary, neither more/less important: Mary, who sat at the feet of the Master, as the breating in of God's grace, Martha, who lived out her ministry of hospitality, as the breathing out of God's grace into the world in mission and ministry. Lots more, but maybe I can write more on it later.

Last week, our Deacon Pam gave the homily. I'll see if I can get her text to post here too.

Meantime: See our announcements on our website: - especially the one about VBS!!!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pentecost 6-C: Chosen to participate

Let’s begin by reading from the diary of John Wesley, Anglican priest and founder of Methodism. This is taken from the time of his short-lived mission work in Georgia in the 18th century:

•Sunday, A.M., May 5: Preached in St. Anne's. Was asked not to come
back anymore.
•Sunday, P.M., May 5: Preached in St. John's. Deacons said "Get out
and stay out."
•Sunday, A.M., May 12: Preached in St. Jude's. Can't go back there
•Sunday, A.M., May 19: Preached in St. Somebody Else's. Deacons called
a special meeting and said I couldn't return.
•Sunday, P.M., May 19: Preached on street. Kicked off street.
•Sunday, A.M., May 26: Preached in meadow. Chased out of meadow as
bull was turned loose during service.
•Sunday, A.M., June 2: Preached out at the edge of town. Kicked off
the highway.
•Sunday, P.M., June 2: Afternoon, preached in a pasture. Ten thousand
people came out to hear me.

It seems Wesley took to heart the advice we heard St Paul give to the church in Galatia: …let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.

In the Gospel from Luke Jesus is giving instructions to seventy people he has appointed to be missioners. The number 70 here is not a literal number, but was commonly understood in Jewish culture to mean ‘all the nations of the world.’ Breaking down traditional barriers (something he did often) Jesus chooses missioners ‘from all the nations.’ In other words, they probably included non-Jews and women.

And the first thing Jesus tells them to do is pray: Ask the Lord of the harvest (God) to send out laborers into his harvest. This is where mission always begins – in prayer; as a response to God’s call to serve.

I’m sending you like lambs into the midst of wolves, Jesus says. In other words, trust God completely, no matter what the risk seems to be, even if it seems like you are being sent defenseless into the hands of your enemies (rather like Jesus was).

Then Jesus tells the missioners to go – immediately, and with singleness of purpose. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. There is a sense of urgency here. Don’t even stop to get money or supplies. Get going and trust God to provide what you need.

And keep your focus. Don’t go and visit relatives who might live nearby. Don’t leave one house to go to another for better accommodations or food. Go where God leads you and commit your time and energy to whomever welcomes you, staying only as long as your work requires. That’s a hard thing about mission, which we’ll talk about later.

Declare shalom in whatever homes welcome you, and eat whatever food you are served. This would have been a scandalous instruction for pious Jews whose dietary laws were very strict. But Jesus is bringing down yet another barrier, telling his missioners to look beyond the Law and their tradition towards the relationships God is seeking to build through them now.

Once they have been welcomed and fed, they are to get about their work. Cure the sick who are there, Jesus says. Imagine how these missioners must have felt being told to go work miracles for God when some of them were probably not even allowed to pray to God in the synagogues before this. How affirming and empowering Jesus’ commissioning must have been for them! The excluded were now being told go and do those things that manifest the power and graciousness of God!

And finally, Jesus says, proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God has come near. Knowing from his own experience, however, that some will refuse to believe even in the presence of miracles, Jesus says, if they won’t listen to you - then leave. Shake the dust from your feet and say one more time: the kingdom of God has come near - and go.

Being rejected is part of mission work. Don’t take it personally.

When the seventy missioners return, they are rejoicing, excited to give their report. And Jesus responds by affirming their success. Then he cautions them to remember that what they should really be rejoicing about is being counted as one of God’s own ...rejoice [Jesus says] that your names are written in heaven. In other words, God will do amazing things to bring about the plan of salvation. Isn’t it wonderful that you have been chosen to participate?

Our Prayer Book tells us that the Church pursues its mission by prayer and worship, by proclaiming the Gospel, and by promoting justice, peace, and love. The hard part, as you remember from our purple sheets experience, is getting started. There are too many problems out there, too many choices, and we have so many excuses… most of them having to do with money or time, or the lack of those.

But mission isn’t something we do once we can afford it. And it isn’t something we do once we have the time for it. Mission is something we do in response to God’s calls us. And God will provide all that we need to be successful – including the money, time, and energy we need. Anyone who has witnessed the birth and growth of our Shepherd’s Table mission knows that we are living the truth of this. We are a new creation and, as St. Paul said, that is everything!

Once in the mission field, however, we must be willing to get our hands dirty, to touch the unclean and the sick, that they might know the power of God’s healing love. I remember the day Princess Diana visited a person with HIV/AIDS in the hospital and held his hand. Her simple, loving action helped calm a storm of fear and fiction about the transmission of that disease. The impact of her loving touch that day was felt around the world.

As missioners, we must also be willing to proclaim the good news of the salvation of the whole world in Jesus Christ, so that all to whom we are sent – especially those society shuns and excludes - might know and see by our example, that they are beloved of God, included in God’s plan of salvation, and welcome to feast at the table of the Lord.

A couple of weeks ago, as I walked into our parish hall to bless our meal at the Shepherd’s Table, I saw a person who regularly eats with us there and we greeted one another with a hug. Another guest whom I have also come to know well came up to me a little bit later and told me she was amazed to see me hug that person. Surprised, I said, “Really? We’re old friends by now. We always hug.” She smiled, and said, “We don’t get many hugs from people like you.” “People like me?” I asked, knowing full well what she meant. “You mean... Christians?” I reminded her of St. Paul’s advice to Christians to “greet one another with a holy kiss” something only family members did in that culture. “We’re family, aren’t we?” I asked. “I guess we are” she said still smiling.

Mission doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a choice. As Jesus said, The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few... We have been called to be counted among those few and our Shepherd’s Table mission has been truly blessed with laborers from among our members, from Westside Praise and Worship, and from the community.

But if you ask any of those laborers who gets the most benefit from their service, most will tell you that they do. Serving God and serving God’s people in mission is exciting, enlivening! It fills us with joy and convinces us of the truth of the Good News which then overflows in us – just like Jesus said it would – the wellspring of life-giving water from God flowing like a river in us and nourishing all in its path.

Now back to that hard thing about mission: we stay only as long as our work requires. God is calling us right now to feed through The Shepherd’s Table. But just because this is what we are called to do now, doesn’t mean we will always do it. We will do this for as long as God desires it from us. If, sometime in the future, God calls us to do something else, we will respond, trusting in God and going wherever God sends us.

So this is our mission: to be the hands of love that manifest the power and graciousness of God in our community and in our world. Therefore, ...let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up.

And so we will continue to go wherever God leads us – with joyful expectation, knowing that God will do amazing things to bring about the plan of salvation. Isn’t it wonderful that we have been chosen to participate?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Simple Surrender

As we continue in the season after Pentecost, a season during which we work to grow in Christian discipline and our Anglican tradition, I offer the following prayer for our common contemplation. Taken from the 1514 book of hours used at Clare College in Cambridge, this prayer has been set to music and whenever I read it, it is the sung version which prays in me:

"God be in my head and in my understanding; God be in my eyes and in my looking; God be in my mouth and in my speaking; God be in my heart and in my thinking; God be at my end and at my departing."

One of the things that moves me about this prayer is that it is a prayer of simple surrender. By this prayer, we invite God to come into an unguarded soul. Such an invitation requires real faith: faith in the tender mercy of God who loves us, delights in us, and desires communion with us. We have precious few opportunities in the world to safely learn or practice this kind of surrender. In prayer, however, in the presence of God, we can trust enough to let go of all fear, control, and goals - and just rest in God.

This prayer also takes us beyond our present experience and, by the words it uses, connects us to our Judeo-Christian tradition. Notice that in this prayer the head is associated with understanding and heart with thinking. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, the head is understood to be the place where compassion is found and the heart is where our will, our ability to choose, abides.

In addition, remembering that God spoke creation into being in Genesis, and that Jesus is the Word of God Incarnate, this prayer invites God to be present in our ‘mouths.’ Hearing this from our Judeo-Christian tradition, we ask God to be in all that we speak into being, that is, all that we do in our world. God speaks (acts) now in and through us. As Christians, what we are called to speak into our world is the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. We speak this Good News by living it, by proclaiming it, by being it.

That’s the other thing I love about this prayer. It asks God to BE… not to DO. So often when we pray, we have a list of things we’d like God to do – for us, for our loved ones, for the world. While intentional prayer is important and transformative, it is also important for us to make room for God to just BE in us, and us in God. It’s often harder to sit and listen, and prayerfully BE in God’s presence than it is to ‘talk at’ God; but when we do, we inevitably witness how God “does” even more than we could ever have asked or imagined.

Finally, this prayer proclaims the promise of the risen Christ: eternal life…life lived in the eternal presence of God, the lover of our souls. It is because of this promise that we can surrender, that we can trust completely and let go totally, knowing that God loves us, delights in us, and desires to BE in us.