Saturday, March 15, 2008

My friends are my estate

The Rev. Linda Campbell
True Friendship
Lent VA

There are times when the scripture readings hit very close to home. If, like me, you’ve ever been through the gut wrenching trauma of divorce, or the death of a partner, or God forbid, the death of a child, if you’ve ever heard the doctor give no hope for recovery, then you know what it is like to wander aimlessly in the valley of death and bleached bones. You know what it means to be in the tomb with Lazarus, bound up in grave cloths and stinking of rot. For some of us, this is a place we know. And it isn’t a place we ever ever enter into willingly. People who are willing to accompany us into those places of death, are true companions in every sense of the word. It is in those death places, that one learns the utter truth of what Emily Dickenson said so simply – "My friends are my estate." Or what the Buddha said long ago – "the whole of a holy life is friendship." Or what Jesus said on the eve of his own sojourn in the valley of death, "You are no longer servants – I call you now, my friends."

Jesus and Lazarus were good friends – long time, comfortable companions. Jesus had spent many hours in Lazarus’ home, eating and drinking and resting with this brother and his two sisters. And then illness struck. Mortal illness. And death reached out it’s dry clawed hand and snatched Lazarus away.

I have been at several bedsides with people who are dying and as they drew their last breath. It is an awesome, undeniably spiritual experience – as the ruah of life leaves the body and returns to its source. You never see life the same way again. You know your own body as mortal – and all those you love as mortal. You and I will go down to the grave. We begin Lent at Ash Wednesday, with this reminder – we are dust and to dust we shall return. And that is the truth. When the breath departs, the body does not move any longer. It grows cold and begins to decay, to return to the earth. The spirit returns to God.

But friendship remains – our relatedness continues across that divide – that chasm between breath and no breath.

Mary and Martha chide their friend Jesus because he did not run to them in the hour of their need. He did not arrive urgently and with great haste and commotion to grasp Lazarus out of the clutches of this mortal illness and restore him to the full bloom of health. He tarried. He finished what he was doing. He prepared himself. Because going to Lazarus’ home, also meant going to Jerusalem, at a time in which he knew he would be arrested by the authorities and crucified. And so, he trusts his friend Lazarus to God. He trusts this friendship with confidence that all will be well, all manner of things will be well, and that, in friendship that is rooted and grounded in God’s timing and God’s presence, there is no need for panic.

Faith - Trust in God’s time - is the antidote to fretting and anxiety – and Jesus, ever the teacher, continued to his own dying day to teach this to his friends. When Mary and Martha complain at his absence, he turns them gently but firmly towards faith.

The Spirit turned Ezekiel towards faith. Ezekiel had walked into a valley filled with bones – a dry valley of death, in which not even a breath of fresh air stirred. You can almost feel the hot sun overheard, the departing cry of the buzzards as there was not even a shred of meat left on those long dried out bones, that valley of bleached possibility. Ezekiel thought it was a joke to be commanded to preach. But it was no joke. "Preach, mortal." The Spirit commanded. And so Ezekiel opened his mouth – stepped out into thin air with the word of life, trusting, without a shred of evidence, in God’s timing. And as he sputtered out the word, the Spirit moved, and lo and behold, sinews began forming. Breath returned. There was movement. Life began where there had been no life. There was air, Spirit, Ruah, where all had been desolate and ruined and dead.

This was a sign of course to the Hebrew exiles – having been taken far from their home by a conquering army, their hopes broken, their dreams of freedom and home, dead. This was sign, through Ezekiel, that all things are possible in God’s time – that it is possible for life to return to the dead, for dreams to resurrect and hopes to spring to life.

The resurrection of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, was a sign to the early Christian community – and to us – that there is no place of death and despair that is outside the reach of this primal, ancient friendship we have been offered with the Source of all Life.

"He will stink" – his sisters said. "Open the tomb," Jesus said. "Come out," Jesus commanded.

And he did. Though tightly bound, death released it’s grasp, and Lazarus breathed again.

Take a breath now. A deep breath. A deep full breath of good air into your lungs. Breathe in the fullness of God’s life. Let God breathe you. Sit, for a minute, in the graceful silence of this Sunday morning and let God breathe you. Sit in your own tomb, in your own valley of broken dreams and let God’s Spirit move ever so gently. Know that in God’s time, life returns. It’s a different kind of life, a resurrected life, a life that is no longer fearful of death.

How this happens, I don’t know. But I know that it does. How Lazarus knew it was possible to get up again, I don’t know. Mary and Martha didn’t know. Even Lazarus didn’t know. But when it was possible to move, he did. And so might you.

But to move freely, even after life returns, for this we need friends. Lazarus, even resurrected from the grave, was not able to unbind himself from his grave clothes, from the cloths wound around him, masking him from the dank earth for as long as possible.

For this, he needed his friends. "Unbind him," Jesus said. And his sisters and friends and companions went to work. Unwinding the cloth that masked their brother, not knowing what they might find, what work death may have already worked on his features, what decay may have already found it’s way into his flesh – they unbound him, in faith and in love – ready to accept whatever they found, whether he was beautiful or not, whether he stank of rot or not.

This is the church being the church. This is friendship that is rooted in God’s presence, in God’s time. It is easy to show one another our strengths, those places we feel best about. It is an entirely different matter to show our wounds – our weaknesses – those places where death and decay have entered in and done their destructive work. To be with one another in those places takes courage – courage comes from the word – cour – of the heart. True courage is based in the heart – and it is rarely “rational”. Without a heart of courage, Ezekiel would never have ventured into this god-forsaken valley of death. Without hearts of courage, no one would have rolled away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, or reached out to roll away the cloth that bound him. Without hearts of courage, we are unable to bear our own wounds and weaknesses, much less be with one another in those places of utter vulnerability.

Where does that kind of courage come from? It comes from God’s spirit – God’s ruah, breathed into you. So, I invite you again to breathe. Breathe in God’s life, God’s heart. Hear God’s word to you- "Come out of your tomb." "Be a friend to those whom God puts into your path."


Title from Emily Dickenson

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hands to Work. Hearts to God.

Lent 4A
The Rev. Linda Campbell
Hands to Work. Hearts to God

The first parish I served was Church of the Incarnation. I have always been glad that it was Incarnation that raised me up, affirmed my call to the particular ministry of the priesthood, hired me to companion the children and youth and families of that parish, and then sent me on my way to incarnate God’s work in my life and to help do that in the lives of other parishes in California.

A common thread through all the parishes in which I have since served – has been the desire to be what I call a “hands to work, hearts to God” kind of community. And this desire to be a “hands to work, hearts to God” kind of parish, is rooted, whether we know it or not, in a fundamental Anglican tenet. Words and visions have their place. But our starting point as Anglicans is not words – it is communion. And communion is a sign of incarnation - embodied presence.

So, what is incarnation? If it’s our theological starting place, what does it mean? The word itself means “enfleshment”. Putting on flesh. For instance, when we talk about “fleshing out an idea” what we mean is - give the idea reality by putting it into action. When the Vestry has an idea about the building – our junior warden, Susan Matteson, almost immediately sets about putting that idea into action. When George Coons saw that some of our doors were not working correctly, he partnered up with Ric Jesch, and they have spent several Saturdays down here, putting the doors in order.

So incarnation has to do with connecting what we think with what we do. It has to do with fully being in your body, living and being fully alive. The Gospel of John puts it this way: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1: 14 The divine incarnation is God taking the ultimate risk of becoming one with us by becoming one of us.

Our commitment to incarnation invites us always towards being personally engaged. Putting ourselves out there. At the heart of mission and outreach is the incarnational event of real people being with real people. It’s you and me allowing ourselves to be deeply touched and changed by those we meet. During the Vestry retreat, we brainstormed about what the various areas of outreach in this parish are. The two things that initially came up were the Souper Center and the Ina Lawrence fund. One is hands on and the other is making grants. The Souper Center is located in the Iron Triangle of Richmond. It is an interfaith homeless center and a feeding center. St. Alban’s is one of it’s founding members. Our commitment is to make lunch for about two hundred people about eight times a year and then to take the lunch to the Souper Center and staff the cafeteria. If you have not been on this adventure, I urge you to take part. The next time it will be St. Alban’s turn to do this is the last Saturday of March.

The Ina Lawrence fund gives away about $10,000 every year for all kinds of projects. This past year, the fund paid for a water pipe to be built in a remote desert village of Northern Mexico. It contributed to the Night Ministry, a chaplaincy service that sends a priest out onto the streets at night to offer counseling and prayer to the homeless. Ina Lawrence fund helped youth of this parish go to New Orleans and staff a summer camp for children in the 9th Ward, still traumatized by the hurricane. Through the Ina Lawrence fund, St. Alban’s was able to send several thousand dollars to purchase blankets and other needed supplies in Bangladesh after the hurricane flooding there. In a few weeks, St. Alban’s will be sending two of our parishioners, Benny and Violy Galas, to the Philippines with money to help the Northern Central Diocese offer ministries to the homeless and hungry. All of this is able to be done because one woman, Ina Lawrence, incarnated the love of Christ in her estate plans – and entrusted this community with funds to carry out Christ’s command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick. In other words, to incarnate God’s love.

Incarnation is about being practical. One of the things I love about our Anglican heritage is that we are a practical people. We aren’t averse to theories, but we are more interested in putting ideas into practice. I think this is because, at some fundamental level, we understand that Jesus had a vision of God on the move in the world – and his preaching and teaching and healing were always pointed towards that vision. In essence, Jesus said to the people around him - “God is up to something! Open your eyes to see God at work. Open your ears to hear God calling. Discern what God is doing, then join God in that mission.”” (Presler, page 40) In other words, the prayer is not for God to be on our side helping us to accomplish what we’ve set out to accomplish. The prayer is to be on God’s side, discerning the hints and hunches about what God is inviting us into, and asking for the grace to respond by doing our small part.

So, what is God up to now? Well, babies! We have three newborns in the parish – Carina and Zachary, and Maxine. Unless you’re sleep deprived! :) babies bring out the best in you – have you noticed? It’s hard to be grouchy around an infant. That’s because we instinctively both want to protect them, to shield them from all harm and to partake of the hope that they inherently signify. Here, incarnated in beautiful baby flesh, is Hope. Hope that love triumphs. Hope that life wins. Hope that the future is open and inviting. And hope is directly of God.

So, what else is God up to? Leadership! Having just come from a Vestry retreat - your leaders are committed to the care and growth of the parish. They are committed to you - as well as preparing for those who have yet to come.

Your Vestry is committed to providing opportunities for you to become a minister of Christ’ love to others. Your leaders want to create the desire and motivation to actively take God’s love out into whatever part of the world you live in – to be Bread for a hungry world.

And the Vestry is committed to working with the larger community. One way they are working at doing that is to partner with the Red Cross in preparing this building to be a shelter for our neighbors in case of a huge disaster, such as an earthquake or some other major catastrophe.

God is at work, in the hope of new life – and in the passion of leadership - calling us out of ourselves and into creatively engaging for good with others.

AND - we face enormous challenges – repairs to the organ, replacement of essential office equipment, replacement of windows damaged by dry rot …. It might be tempting to say, who are we? We are just a small and relatively unknown parish.

The truth is, we don’t know all of what God has in mind for this parish. But we do know that where God calls, God accompanies. We do know that where God sends, God goes with.

And the truth is, incarnation is risky. It is risky for God, as God entrusts creation and the gospel to our faulty and fallible stewardship. It is risky for you and me – as we learn a new way of living the good news - whether we are at home with newborn babies; scanning the classifieds looking for work; commuting to offices in San Francisco; retired and living on a fixed income; or trying to balance the demands of work, marriage, child rearing, church going. And it is risky for the church as it discerns how best to maintain the assets entrusted to this generation by previous generations, as well as how to respond to the call to move out into the world with renewed mission and purpose.

In all of these the challenge is to open our minds and our hearts in wonder at what God is up to now. And to put flesh on, to act on the new things God invites you to participate in.

Resource: Horizons of Mission by Titus Presler, The New Church’s Teaching Series, published by Cowley Publications, 2001