Friday, October 25, 2013

Grateful for the Word

Scripture for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost includes Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; II Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

This will be a sermon about gratitude, because I have two fresh and rewarding experiences as a preacher that I’m still unpacking. And, yes, this should be a sermon about gratitude because that spiritual power pulses like the heartbeat of Luke’s little story.

I have never worked as hard on a sermon as one which required me to write and deliver just half of it. That may sound cryptic, though some of you know that I’m talking about a gig Diana and I shared, a week ago yesterday in Brooklyn, where The Rev. John Denaro was installed (“instituted”, in the language of the Prayer Book; we secretly called it John’s coronation) as Rector of St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Parish in Brooklyn Heights.

Etched in our memories is an evening at Spice Root where, at dinner with John and Joel, John invited both Diana and me to be the preachers at his service, in one sermon. In forty years of parish ministry, we’d never heard that request before. The invitation, he said, reflected the nature of his friendship with us both; of course, we were touched… and instantly challenged to imagine the outcome. How would we construct a shared sermon? Whose role would it be to do what?

Let me tell you what we did. In two long conversations with John, one by phone and one over another meal, we took notes on all that it meant to him to receive and accept this call to serve a congregation that in several real senses has risen from the ashes. The yoked names of the parish suggest a merger in the past, and a church merger requires passing through the refiner’s fire. The thumbnail version is that the St. Ann’s buildings had been sold and Holy Trinity’s massive facilities came to house both congregations—until disaster struck, not in the form of a fire (as you might expect from the story line) but a prolonged and nasty conflict around leadership, which shuttered the place for years. Until 9/11, when remaining parishioners threw open the doors of the church as a relief center. Out of the ashes of that devastation, the parish began to reform itself.

So here is what we did with our sermon. We opened with repartee that had fun with the question of what a rector is called to do, playing with the questionable assertion that a rector is the parish’s CEO. In John’s case, we wondered if that might mean Chief Entrepreneurial Officer, or Chief Entertainment Organizer (both fit him well, but that last one drew both laughter and applause).

Then I sketched some major themes of John’s vision for the parish’s outreach to its wider community: “Connect with need” is his mantra.

Diana then had a heart to heart with Joel, offering perspective on being the rector’s partner. You may recall that when a priest is instituted as Rector, parishioners present objects that symbolize their shared ministry. Diana selected a few choice objects for Joel, including a roll of duct tape for when he might want to let it rip but knows he shouldn’t, to be placed over mouth, then breathe through nose until calm.

A verse of Psalm 37, sung that afternoon, reminded us to trust God. “In doing so,” Diana said to Joel, “you will be a grounded and steady refuge for John. Your heart’s desire in safeguarding the happiness and security of your personal relationship will also safeguard the happiness and security of this parish,” she said. Watching her high in that pulpit, hearing these words, I felt such gratitude for her and for the truth she was describing.

Then we brought you into the sermon. John had suggested to us that we talk about some of the ways in which St. John’s reaches out to its wider community. He implied that he’d like to import some of those to Brooklyn. I sketched our valuing the presence and ministry of college students, our experimentation with worship, our longstanding commitment to invest 10% of our pledged income (over and above diocesan assessment) in outreach beyond St. John’s, and from there it was a natural segue into our annual medical mission trip to Latin America.

Diana then carried the ball of arts and music, focusing especially on ways we invite parishioners and guests to use these physical spaces to feed the spirit, including art shows and the creation of contemporary Lenten stations of the Cross. We know John’s keen on projects like these. She then described the stunning phoenixes of the Chinese artist Xu Bing, still (briefly) on display at MassMoCA, utilizing debris and broken bits and artefacts from the controversial demolition of hutong neighborhoods in Beijing, in her words, “each piece informing, supporting, and complementing all the other pieces into a whole that is overwhelmingly larger than life—just what a parish is called to do for itself and for the world.”

Finally, each of us issued a charge of Godly advice, I to John and Diana to his congregation, including his family and friends. Diana reminded them that installing a rector is not a spectator sport, but a team commitment to give him what he needs to do what they have charged him to do, learning to think from the perspective of abundance, not scarcity.

I urged John to recognize that each of his tasks, especially the pesky ones, is opportunity to honor the incarnation of God in human flesh; at the same time, that he must keep sharp his skill at discerning whether it is his hand needed on the plow, or someone else’s. I also urged him, as he institutes what is new, to get his people to clarify what already constitutes the genius of their parish, so that both old and new are treasured and fulfilled. That echoed a Gospel reading, earlier in the service, to the effect that training for heaven requires a stewardship that values and uses both the old and the new.

I said there are two recent experiences in preaching that prompt my gratitude, because each seems to have gone well. The second requires us to relocate to the activities room at Williamstown Commons, where I lead a monthly eucharist. In recent months, I’ve come away from such services feeling as if I were bombing, just not connecting with residents. My hunch: that I needed to prepare, whereas the fact is that it’s hard finding time to do that for the three monthly services I lead in area facilities.

So, last Wednesday morning, at morning prayer and on my way over to the nursing home, I found myself praying, “Help me find, help me give.” What I hadn’t noticed was that I was leaving the office a few minutes earlier than I usually give myself to drive there, which allowed me to set the table, sit down and stop moving about, and say hello to people as they entered. A bunch of little things seemed to be conspiring to help me see and hear, find and give.

For one, I chose to remain seated for the first half of the service. Each person in that circle was in a wheelchair, so remaining in my chair allowed eye contact in a fresh way—such a simple choice I’d either not noticed or forgotten. It also suggested conversing, rather than conducting, and that relaxed me to hold this Gospel we have heard today with a more open hand.

We decided, those residents and I, that the other nine people in the story made a beeline to Dunkin Donuts. After all those days, months, years of separation from the community—living outside the town, crying out “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever anyone approached them—they were ready for whatever constituted normalcy.

Jesus’s charge to show themselves to the priests probably could have gone unsaid—or gets said for our benefit—for they knew well that only the priests could issue them the equivalent of a green card, a certificate of healing that would allow them to work and to live in town.

What is clear is how important this story is as a sign of the power of God’s kingdom. And what is so significant is its message that God’s mercy, God’s grace, can be recognized for what it really is only by gratitude. Not that God is limited to heal only people who know what’s happening to them, who know what accounts for their healing. No, God works healing far more generously than we can explain: embedded in the wondrous organism that emerges from a mother’s womb are capacities to heal and repair, to resist and overcome infection—to the extent that we may take healing for granted. Nine out of ten do, it would seem.

All ten people are suffering from leprosy, perhaps especially its social isolation, its endless shaming and alienation. They seem to raise one united chorus of voices as they call across the vast gulf, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Later, just one solo voice is heard to praise God. And though all ten got what they wanted, only this one receives more than he had dreamed of asking for: the priests have certified the others healed and fit to return to work and to community, but this one receives Jesus’s declaration of salvation.

The story emphasizes its own surprise: This man is not a member of the established church of his day. Jesus calls him a foreigner, marveling at his faith, expressed through gratitude. Southern Baptist bible scholar R. Alan Culpepper puts it this way: “Ten were healed, but only one recognized the healing for what it was. Is healing simply the natural process of nature or a sign of God’s love? In retrospect, are the opportunities and experiences that prepare one for greater challenges simply chance or evidence of God’s providence? Who can fathom the ways in which God works in human experience?”

Today, we bring Cecilia and Francisco to the font. What will happen there? I mean, what beyond their receiving certificates of baptism. For what good, and to what end, is their baptism?

So that they will begin-- surrounded, aided, supported-- the spiritual tasks of recognition: recognizing in their own experience the love of God. Perceiving deeper meaning in what moves within and around them. Seeing the need of others, as Jesus sees, even at a great distance. Finding faith in its purest form, gratitude. Giving thanks, giving attention, giving awareness. Receiving Jesus’s declaration of salvation. Realizing opportunity to become the blessing of God.