Friday, November 13, 2009

"All In"

You know, it takes awhile to feel as if you have moved in. It can take many years, actually.

But along the way, there are occasions that you know you’ve turned a corner – and that you are more at home.

Friday night’s Attitude of Gratitude Parish Dinner was another corner turned for me. What a fantastic night. Talk about an attitude of service – of servant ministry – our Stewardship Ministry Team is awesome, standing on the shoulders of the previous Stewardship Ministry Team. At some point during the evening, I looked around at the full room, tables filled with smiles and conversation and a thick joy filled me. Here we are. We’re in this together. There was a whole room full of people who have discovered the joy of living wholeheartedly – of leaping in with all they’ve got – whether it’s smiling in welcome, handing out plates, pouring coffee, cleaning up – it’s all offered. The two copper coins of self deposited into God’s treasury – available for whatever God decides to do with the gift. I sat at the table with Ida and Florence – neither of whom could hear much of anything – given the acoustics in the parish hall. But there they were, continuing to offer themselves to their fellow Christians, their fellow parishioners.

I want to talk about this sense of being “all in.” I don’t really play poker – I have tried, but I need to keep looking at the “cheat sheet.” And I would never be able to master a poker face – but I like that poker term, “all in.” As in, here’s all my chips, all I’ve got to play with, and I’m going to put it all down – win or lose.

The widow, of course, was all in. Her last two chips, all she had – pushed to the center of the table. All in.

The same with Jesus. He had steadily made his way towards Jerusalem, knowing what awaited him there. In the next few weeks after the incident we read about this morning, he was arrested and crucified. He spent these last few weeks the same way he spent all the rest of his weeks – teaching and healing. Now having come to Jerusalem, he taught in the temple. At the pinnacle place of interlocking state and religious power. And just because he was in mortal danger, he didn’t back away from his challenge to a structure that lived on the backs of the poor. No – Jesus was all in. No halfway measures. No wiffle waffling. No backing out. Steady – confident – and 100% - his whole life given completely for those people at that time in that place. He didn’t hold anything back so as to wait for a more opportune time to get his message across, or for a more teachable moment, or for a more insightful group who might understand what he was teaching – what the point of his sacrifice was. He wagered the whole of his life, on this bet that the goodness of God would have the final say, and that this God could be trusted absolutely.

The same with God. In the person of Jesus, God entered into creation – not only as Creator, but as Savior. As the Eucharistic Prayer puts it, "He became one with us, sharing our human nature, living and dying as one of us". Or as one of the most ancient hymns of the church, found in the letter to the Philippians puts it: “Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God; but emptied Himself, taking upon Him the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross.”

Through Jesus, God did not depend upon the abundance of his power, his knowledge, his omnipotence and omniscience. God threw his lot in with creation, with humanity, with this bent and broken world – and through the Holy Spirit, He continues to throws his lot in with the poverty of our condition, with the worthless coins of our condition, and not only befriends us here, but works with us to salvages the mess we have made of things, and to redeem us.

The truly miraculous thing is – the widow, Jesus, God – put all their chips in – not into a perfect system, on behalf of perfect people – but into a broken system on behalf of broken people! To a system that was, and is, corrupt. Jesus pointed to the corrupt system of the powerful and privileged Temple/State system that sustained itself by taking advantage of the poor, by “devouring widow’s homes.” He pointed to the deadly combination of power and hypocrisy that displayed itself as false piety. And yet.... he taught there and he pointed to the faithfulness of the widow who gave all she had.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul pointed to the agape love that God showed towards us through Jesus – “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” This love and faithfulness is a priori – it is grace – and it does not depend upon our goodness, or worthiness, or responsiveness.

God does notice however when we respond – He notices the small quick motions of the faithful ones, the little ones, the ones who make their offerings in faithful trust and gratitude. Who jump in to this "With God" life – not knowing exactly where it will lead them, but sensing that it they are getting themselves in with some really great company!

So – here we are – right in the middle of Stewardship Season. Actually – here at Good Shepherd, we are clear that all seasons are stewardship seasons. I love that our wall decoration at the dinner were the signs that Linda Kodet made out of recyclable materials – Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. We are jumping in more and more into our identity as Stewards, believing more and more that it is the primary identity given to us human beings. That from Genesis on, we are to be stewards of creation - the animal kingdoms, the trees and water and air and earth. Good stewards of family relationships – of being all in with the ones to whom we’ve promised ourselves to. Good stewards of our time and our bodies and our resources.

At the heart of good stewardship of course is the knowing that none of it is “ours.” It is all Gift. Pure Gift. We are responsible and accountable for the short time that we are here on this earth. And the Good News is that there is One to whom all that we enjoy belongs – and He is here, with us, watching, helping, guiding. He is both the source of all that we have, and the end to whom all will return - and in between, he asks that we take good care of each other, of his world, and of his church.

In the fall season – we talk about the aspect of stewardship that has to do with money. It’s the season when we acknowledge the basic truth that the mission of the church depends upon each of us throwing out lot in with each other and with God– that when God gives us the desire to expand our ministries with teens and children, to have a gardener for three hours every other week, to expand our ministries of outreach, and to adequately maintain this sacred trust of property, and to use the land for the benefit of the community and to pay our clergy and our bookkeeper and our sexton and our secretary – it requires offering back through the church a portion of what God has given us.

What proportion? That is between you and God. The Episcopal Church standard is 10%. Some of us aren’t there yet, but by raising our offerings by an additional 1% each year, we’re on our way. Some of us know the joy of tithing and go beyond. The truth is that God takes whatever we offer and is able to ignite from our sparks of faith, a blaze that will ultimately consume our hearts and fill us with love and joy, peace and contentment.

Let us pray.

"O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us,
And keep us in all grace, and guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all harm in this world and the next."

(2nd verse Now Thank We All Our God)

"I Sing a Song"

All Saints, 2009

As some of you know, I grew up in the Methodist church, traveled with Quakers during college and my young adult years, and finally, came home to the Episcopal Church. Before the Episcopal Church though, there were no saint stories. No Virgin Mary, apart from Christmas. No Feast Days or Fast Days. No liturgical calendar. All of this came with my conversion into the Episcopal Church – and I found it utterly delightful – but not quite sure what to do with it. I had suddenly inherited this whole family that seemed strange and unfamiliar and truth be told – in whom I was not really interested.

When I became the lay Associate for Youth and Family at the first Episcopal church I served – Church of the Incarnation, in Santa Rosa - my office was located in a room called “Venerable Bede.” All the other rooms and offices were called by saints names as well. The Nursery was St. Lucia, the choir room was St. Cecilia, the 4th/5th grade classroom was St. Agnes. You get the picture. I remember thinking, with my still overly Protestant brain, why not just name the rooms by what they are: Choir Room. Nursery. Classroom. Associate’s Office.

On All Saints Day, we sang “I sing a song of the saints of God” and the children paraded down the church aisle in costumes of various saints. October Sundays were spent constructing the costumes – presumably learning about whichever saint they were costuming as.

I found it odd, if not slightly heretical.

Still, I was attracted to what all these saints seemed to point to - a life that went on under the surface / a deeper sort of Christianity than I had been exposed to, and had only dreamed existed.

I began to read about the saints – and it was clear that most of them were somewhat odd people, misfits even in their time, but utterly converted, body, mind and soul, with a love of God so significant that they embodied the kind of hunger and thirst that Jesus talked about – but hunger and thirst for what? It differed. Some thirsted for justice. Some for divine union. Some for peace. Some for education and relief of suffering. Some for the conversion and salvation of souls. Whatever form it took for each of them, the underlying reality was the same – a passionate love for God that had united with God’s passionate love for them.

In other words, saints drink from the wellspring of Life and know that we are made from God and for God. We are created by God from our Genesis, and we return to God at our End. And here – in the middle – we adopt an attitude of gratitude, and surrender ourselves in as much trust as possible – to the Divine Spirit that enlivens each one of us.

Gratitude, surrender and trust. At it’s simplest – that’s what it means to be a saint. To give thanks for everything – and to surrender everything, trusting God. The Saints usually have no idea where this gratitude, surrender and trust is going to take them – all they know is that as they surrender their entire being – their possessions, their will, their understanding, their memory, their future, their time, their resources – as they do this, miracles unfold and Life in all it’s abundance begins to take root and grow and to bear fruit.

So, what form did this take for the Venerable Bede – whose office I occupied? It turns out that he was an English monk and scholar in the early 700’s. He lived in the monastery from the age of 7, and was quite clearly brilliant. His best-known work is his History of the English Church and People, a classic that has frequently been translated and is available in Penguin Paperbacks. It gives a history of Britain up to 729, speaking of the Celtic peoples who were converted to Christianity during the first three centuries of the Christian era, and the invasion of the Anglo-Saxon pagans in the fifth and sixth centuries, and their subsequent conversion by Celtic missionaries from the north and west, and Roman missionaries from the south and east. His work is our chief source for the history of the British Isles during this period. Long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he was aware that the earth is a sphere, and he wrote that the solar year is not exactly 365 and a quarter days long, so that the Julian calendar (one leap year every four years) requires some adjusting if the months are not to get out of step with the seasons. For Venerable Bede, gratitude, surrender and trust meant using the gift of his brilliance to spend copious quantities of time and thought and ink separating fact from fiction and hearsay as he wrote history and advanced the cause of what would later become known as science.

For Agnes, for whom the 4th and 5th grade classroom was named, it took the form of martyrdom. Agnes died at Rome around 304 in the persecution of Diocletian: the last and fiercest of the persecutions of Christianity by the Roman emperors. She is said to have been only twelve or thirteen years old – and her young age shocked many Romans into demanding that the persecutions stop. Her fearless attitude caused others to say that “If this religion can enable a twelve-year-old girl to meet death without fear, it is worth checking out.” I think making her the sponsor of a classroom of ten and eleven year olds has the potential to give children courage in standing up for what they believe and resist peer pressure to participate in bullying or sexual activity or drugs….which yes, do affect kids at a very young age. For Agnes, gratitude, surrender and trust, meant calm conviction in the reality of the resurrection – a calmness and conviction that is possible for even the young folk among us.

I want to tell you a third story about saints. This one is not from the 300’s or the 700’s. It’s from 1970’s to now. I heard this story first in 2002 when I met a Ugandan Bishop who wore a large pectoral cross and spoke English with a heavy African accent. The cross he wore was given to him by the Ugandan Archbishop Janani Luwum, before he was martyred by Idi Amin’s government in 1977. There had been many persecutions by Amin towards Christians, and Luwum had personally gone time and again to secure the release of prisoners. In the end, he secured the release of many Anglican bishops and took their place with his own person. Before he was put into the Land Rover which took him away, he handed the cross to the Bishop that I met. I’m sorry that I cannot remember his name – but I will never forget the cross he wore. Janani Luwum’s feast day is February 16th.

At Convention, I met a priest of this Diocese, Jerry Drino, who works with the Sudanese, and has been instrumental in the process of putting the Martyrs of Sudan onto the most recent Episcopal calendar of saints. Here is what the next publication of our Lesser Feasts and Fasts will say about the saints of Sudan.

"The Christian bishops, chiefs, commanders, clergy and people of Sudan declared, on May 16, 1983, that they would not abandon God as God had revealed himself to them under threat of Shariah Law imposed by the fundamentalist Islamic government in Khartoum. Until a peace treaty was signed on January 9, 2005, the Episcopal Church of the Province of the Sudan suffered from persecution and devastation through twenty-two years of civil war. Two and a half million people were killed, half of whom were members of this church. Many clergy and lay leaders were singled out because of their religious leadership in their communities. No buildings, including churches and schools, are left standing in an area the size of Alaska. Four million people are internally displaced, and a million are scattered around Africa and beyond in the Sudanese Diaspora. Twenty-two of the twenty-four dioceses exist in exile in Uganda or Kenya, and the majority of the clergy are unpaid. Only 5% of the population of Southern Sudan was Christian in 1983. Today over 85% of that region of six million is now mostly Episcopalian or Roman Catholic. A faith rooted deeply in the mercy of God has renewed their spirits through out the years of strife and sorrow."

I am stilled by this kind of witness. And I look around at my own life, and wonder how it is that I continue to have trouble surrendering and trusting God. Why it is that I continue under the illusion that my life and my possessions are actually my own - when it is obvious that everything I have, every breath I take, every dollar in my account, every child that sits around my table – is mine on loan and in reality, belongs to God. The truth is, we begin and end in God. And in the middle here? We are called to trust.

Let us join with all the company of heaven, the saints, martyrs and apostles, the witnesses in ages past in and in our age right now – in relaxing our grip, in opening our hands, in surrender and trust – so that the miracles that are always associated with Abundant Life can happen now in our own lives, in our own church, in our own hearts.