Rector’s Report to the Annual Meeting
This morning, I want to lay out the priorities which I think are essential for this coming year for the life of our Parish Family.
Over the last several years, one priority that has constantly been brought up by members of our parish is the need to bring in new members. I can honestly say that, in the past few years we have indeed been bringing new people into our parish family. A few Sundays ago, when the weather was, well, typical for this time of year (cold and snowy) I looked around and at the congregation, as small as it was that day, and realized that over 3/4 of those there that day were new members since I came to Holy Cross five years ago.
Growing a small parish in a small town that is not it self growing is a tough enterprise. Indeed growing any church in any town is tough. The first thing we need to remember is that it’s not us who make the parish grow, but God.
Now, I please don’t think I’m throwing all the responsibility of growing our parish on God. Actually, I am, but we need to be mindful of the things that God is calling on us to do to work with him. That’s what the whole Christian life is about: God doing what he does, and us responding in the way which God wants us to respond in order to be the hands and feet of God here on earth. That’s what you and I are called to be – the body of Christ, carrying on his mission in the world, by his grace. My sermon this morning was about Christ leading the Charge from death to life, and the mission of the Church, and therefore the mission of this parish as the Church in Warrensburg, is to carry out that work which God has called us to do. Indeed we end our Mass each week asking God to help us “do all such Good works which though has prepared for us do to.”
In order to be a place where people want to come. In order to be a family that people want to be a part of, we need to have our business in order. And to have that business in order, we need to be constantly asking ourselves, “Is this what God want us to do?” More than any priority which you may think our parish family may have, that must be priority number one. Are we doing what God wants us to do.
And I want to invite you today, to join with me in adding to your prayers “O Lord, what would you have us do?” That was the prayer which Paul offered up when he was confronted with the vision of Christ on the Road to Damascus. “Lord, what shall I do?”
I’ve been asking that very question myself over the last several months. What would God have us do as we move toward the future. I want to share with you a few thoughts which I have discerned.
One area which we need to pray about is how can we do more to reach out to our community. I’ve struggled myself with this very question. There are a lot of wonderful ministries which God has called other churches to in our town. North Country Ministry, the Gathering Place, the Food Pantries. What can we do?
Within our own parish, too, each of us needs to consider how we can offer service. There wonderful people in our parish who bear a lot of the work. We need volunteers to help out with things like serving on the Altar as Acolytes and Chalice bearers and members of the Altar Guild.
But we also need more people to step up and help out with those special events, like dinners, and monthly breakfasts, with those special events like the quiche luncheon and the annual Christmas Bazaar. The more people who are willing to help the better.
One of the first items the vestry will be discussing next month at our first meeting of the year will be bringing back a few committees comprised of both members of the vestry and parishioners in general. Please be willing to volunteer or serve when asked.
In the area of our worship, the vestry has discussed trying to have a contemporary service in addition to our traditional worship services. Personally, I think that there is value in having a broad range of worship offerings, but I am hesitant at the idea that we should use worship as a means of evangelism. Other churches and parishes have tried it and that’s not what worship is for.
In the area of Evangelism, we need to get ourselves out there in the public eye more often than we have in the past year. That’s one important thing. After five years, im recognized enough around town to be a visible part of our community. That’s been an important aspect of bringing new people into our family. But the biggest and most important and best way to get more people to church is to invite them. If everyone in the room today, worked this year to invite just person to church this year, we could double the size of our parish. Who will you try to bring into the church this year? Think of one person, just one and start working on them remembering that the best thing you can to start that process is to start praying for them on a daily basis. And then start inviting them.
In the area of Education, Holy Cross has a robust offering of Educational opportunities. We have the Rector’s forum on Several Sundays and Weekly Tuesday Evening meeting that goes back and forth between a book of the Bible and some other book. We also have a Men’s Bible study and a women’s bible study that meet once a month. I can share with you that I have felt personally heartbroken when I have made direct invitations to people to participate in the Rector’s forum and been told “no I’m not interested.” I can honestly say I’m hurt when I hear that. What I want to ask of each of you today is to commit to participating in some form of the educational study offerings that we have here. They are really one of my favorite parts of my job. You don’t have to talk in the groups, you don’t have to do answer questions, but just come and see, like Andrew told his brother Peter in today’s lesson.
Pastoral care is probably my second favorite part of my work here at Holy Cross. You actually pay me to go and visit people and I really do enjoy visiting our shut ins, and being there for people in their time of need.
At the same time, caring for our parishioners is a job for everyone. I’m always delighted to hear from our shut ins that so and so called them or stopped by and visited them. Our shut ins don’t make it here because they’re not able, so please, keep them part of the family this year by reaching out to them with a phone call, a card, or a visit.
I would also like to institute Lay Eucharistic Visitors in the parish. In some parishes, there are trained volunteers that take Communion from the Mass on Sunday to shut-ins each week after mass. I wonder if this might be something we can try here? Would any of you be willing to go visit a shut-in after mass on Sunday and bring them communion?
Another ministry, which exists in our parish, but you don’t hear much about is our Parish Nurse. While you don’t hear much about it, I want to just say two things. This is a wonderful ministry that has done a lot of wonderful things for our parish this past year, the results of which are private and confidential, and so done not so much in secret but in a way to keep people’s personal medical lives private. And secondly, if you have any questions regarding your health care, we have a Nurse in our parish who is available to you to help you get answers.
The final area I want to speak about today is Stewardship. Stewardship is perhaps the second most important dimension of parish life after Evangelism. Each of us is called to share the Gospel with others, in intentional ways in our lives, that’s evangelism. What follows on evangelism’s heels is Stewardship.
Stewardship involves a lot of dimensions. One of those dimensions is the maintenance of our day to day operations. You received today a report from our Treasurer. You’ll see that at the end of the year, we made ends meet and all our bills are paid. That’s wonderful. That is a blessing from God.
But one of the things that concerns me is that as you look at the report, only half of our income came from regular giving envelopes. Almost 10% came from our endowment, and almost 25% came from special projects, which are funded by things like the annual Raffle. As we look to the future, we need to have a better understanding of how God wants us to be good stewards of our annual expenses and income. A few years ago, a few parishioners went to the Parish Leadership Conference and heard about a program called “New Consecration Sunday.” This year, I’m going to be enlisting the help of some of you, and some fellow clergy to help us better understand how we might become better givers in the kingdom of God for our annual budget.
Lastly, as members of our Parish we are responsible for being good stewards of the things we have been given, our buildings being a key component. We have done a great job over the years of keeping up and maintaining the buildings we have, and being able not just to use them for our own needs, but to offer them up to the community for their needs. Our ability to be there for our surrounding community is a great blessing to us as well as to the people of Warrensburg. Our buildings are used on a regular and continuing basis by the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, North Country Ministry, Alcoholics Anonymous, and for private gatherings, such as baby showers, and receptions following funerals to name a few. I’m grateful we’ve got the beautiful and functional space to do that. And as part of our life as a family we’re charged with making sure its available for years to come.
To that end, our vestry has decided that we need to undertake another capital campaign this year. Over the last several years we’ve raised money to pay for big projects like the new roof over the kitchen, insulating the chapel roof, and the repaving of the driveway. This year, we don’t have any big ticket projects in the works. But we do have a number of smaller projects which need our attention. IN the next few weeks, you’ll be receiving a letter asking you to join in a capital campaign to raise $25,000 in order to get accomplish those little projects we need to get done. When you get that letter, please consider prayerfully how you will contribute.
I want to end this morning on a personal note. Its hard to believe that its been five years since I first stood up here and addressed you as your Priest-in-Charge. Remember that? I was 9 days into this thing called “being a priest.” I want to say how grateful I am to you all for all your love and support you’ve shown me. You’ve continued to teach me what it is to be a family in Christ. I know that I haven’t always been on top of my game, but I couldn’t do any of it without the love and help you’ve given me. I truly hope that someday I can somehow repay you all for what you have done for me. I can’t even begin to express what it means. But from the bottom of my heart, thank you. I really do love being here with you all, and serving you as a priest in God’s Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. And I truly hope that this year will bring great blessings on our church family.
May God bless you all as you have blessed me these last few years.
Key Points from the Report to the Annual Meeting
- In everything we do this year, ask with Saint Paul, “Lord what would you have us do?” (Lord, is this what you want us to do?)
- Find a community outreach program and build on one which we have already
- Increase service within our parish
- More people helping out with events within the parish. (Breakfasts (Vestry), parish dinners, quiche luncheon, Christmas Bazaar)
- Need a server for the 8 am service.
- Host a worship event that the wider community would participate in
- Get out in the public eye as a parish.
- Every member invites one person to become part of the Holy Cross Family this year.
- Start by praying for them
- Then, invite them to “Come and See!”
- Encourage more people to participate in some for of Christian Education
- Rector’s Forum
- Tuesday Evening Bible Study
- Men’s Bible Study
- Women’s Bible Study
- Encourage parishioners to reach out to shut ins
- Cards, visits, phone calls
- Lay Eucharistic Visitors – bring communion on Sunday to a shut in
- Keep people informed about the availability of the Parish Nurse
- Hold a New Consecration Sunday program this year.
- Conduct an Capital Campaign to raise $25,000 for “small” upkeep projects around the parish
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The word “epiphany” is a Greek word which we’ve taken into the English language. So technically, we might call it a loan-word because the meaning in Greek and the meaning in English are pretty similar. It means manifestation or appearance. And during this season of Epiphany, we’ll be looking at the several ways which the arrival, identity, and mission of Jesus were manifested, or made known to us and to the world.
Just to play catch up for a minute, this past Friday we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. We all know that day as the day when the three wise men came from the East offering their gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Just four quick things to note here:
First was these three wise men (not to be confused with three wise guys) were astrologers. The song calls them Kings, sometimes were call them Magi, but they were astrologers and we think very likely practitioners of a religion called Zoroastrianism. They traveled from the East, likely from Persia, or modern day Iran. And they came, following the star, to worship the newborn King of the Jews. Perhaps we should remember as we think about that idea, that God reaches out to people, whoever they are, where ever they are, however he can, to lead them to the Truth. Sometimes even those whom God reaches out to don’t full grasp the fullness of what they have found, as I doubt the three wise men really fully grasped who this little child they paid homage to really was. Nevertheless, God reaches out. He does it to you and to me, he does it to our family and friends, to Christians and non-Christians alike, calling them to come and worship the King. God is always calling, sometimes people just don’t realize who it is that is calling. We need to be mindful of that, I think, and at the right times, help them understand in ways they will hear and accept, who really is doing the calling and to what they are being called to.
Secondly, thirdly, and fourthly, are the Gifts. Each of the magi brought a gift to offer the Christ Child. These three gifts, Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, represent three significant roles of the Christ in his mission to the world. They gave him myrrh, a fragrant ointment, as a sacrificial victim; frankincense, as priest who offers up the sacrifice; Kings as the ruler of the universe, the one worthy to be the sacrifice. Gold, from which a crown is fashioned; Incense, which a priest offers up, and which burns with a sweet smelling fragrance, whose smoke rises up to heaven, symbolizing our prayers; myrrh, the ointment used to anoint the body in preparation for burial after death. Christ our Lord is all of these things, and because of that he is able to firmly establish the reign of God, the Kingdom of God in this world.
Today, we come to the baptism of our Lord. An event central to the establishment of that reign. We should first note, of course, that Jesus had no need to be baptized. Though he was fully human, sharing in all of our woes, all our sufferings, he had never sinned, nor was he born with original sin, which we might describe as the proclivity to sin.
Yet, for our sake he submitted himself to the outward act of John’s baptism in the Jordan river. One which John proclaimed to the people for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. In doing so, in submitting himself to this outward act, Jesus did two things for us:
First, he gave us, who are indeed sinful, who do screw things up all the time, an example which we can follow. Yes, he says, John has it right. The kingdom of heaven has come near, turn from your sins, repent and return to the Lord. In submitting to the baptism, Jesus is telling us that John had it right, and we need to listen to what he’s saying.
Secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, by submitting to the outward act of Baptism, Jesus firmly confirmed the nearness of the Kingdom of God. And in doing so, in submitting to the baptism of John, Jesus firmly plants a flag and declares that the Kingdom of God is now being established here on earth. And with the establishment of that Kingdom, Jesus leads the charge out of our captivity to Sin and out of the kingdom of death. He leads establishes the Kingdom, and leads the charge out of the Kingdom of this world, the flesh, and the devil, and into the kingdom of God’s new life for his chosen people.
That life that we have received in our baptism is a life which is no longer enslaved to sin. We are no longer hopelessly and helplessly caught up in the failures of our lives, our sins, our transgressions, our mistakes. But we are now established in the new life in Christ, eternal life with him.
This last week, I reflected on a statement that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Blessed Michael Ramsey once said to a woman who was a little tenuous about the idea of eternal and everlasting life. She thought, which in our worldly way of thinking makes a lot of sense, that idea of Forever seemed like a long time and she wondered if she had to go on forever. Bishop Ramsey’s reply to her was that the idea of eternal life was not so much about time, or foreverness, as it was about the kind and quality of life which God gives to us. I presume the woman was content with the answer as I can’t remember if the dialogue continued.
But getting back to that wonderful image – Jesus leading the charge out of death into eternal life – that quality of life which far surpasses our understanding. I think I like this image, because it is one full of energy and in a wonderful way it captures the struggle we all face as we make this journey to eternal life, this pilgrimage to God, if you will.
You see, Baptism, our baptism, which we undertook or our parents undertook for us, so many years ago, transferred us from the kingdom of death into the kingdom of life. But I’m reminded, by the events of my own life, by my own sin, my own struggles, that even now, having been baptized, and being a firm believer, one who has been given the grace of God to believe the Gospel, I struggle with sin. Indeed, it seems that I’m haunted by the ways of that old life, that I’m haunted by sin, temptation, indeed, the devil.
Although we are baptized, although we are regenerated into a new life by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, marked as Christ’s own forever, we still need to grow in our faith and love. We need to grow into the new life that we have been given through baptism. We need to become mature Christians.
But doing that is a struggle, and that’s why I really like the image that Jesus submitting to baptism in the Jordan river is him leading that charge out of death into life. We face and will face for the whole length of our lives on earth the need to struggle against temptation and sin. That fight, is a real one which we are called to. Sometimes that fight hurts terribly.
Why does it hurt so much? Because as much as we may not like the things we do wrong; as much as we may be uneasy about some of our habitual sins, we’ve learned to live with the life we had. We’ve learned to compensate. Like learning to compensate for that old football injury by putting more weight on the other foot when we walk, we learn to compensate for our sins. We learn to live with and around them. The problem of course is that as we do that we continue to live in them. And Jesus calls us out of them, into his new eternal, everlasting life. A life we couldn’t begin to image the glory and wonderfulness of.
Transistioning from this old world to the new life in Christ is a tough out. But in his baptism, by submitting to baptism, Jesus tells us that he is right there with us. He doesn’t need to be for his own sake, but he’s there for ours, so that we might, by his grace, by his strength, by his love, and his help, attain to the fullness of life which has been promised by our heavenly father.
Today, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. He identified with us in our baptism, he led the way, and leads the way still; he is there for us, in the trenches, fighting the Good fight of faith right along with us as we seek to enter the Kingdom of his Father and our Father, his God and our God, who is, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
+ IN the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. God’s plan of salvation came to us in the flesh and blood, and it had happened all as it was foretold by the prophets of old. And in the field, the angels told the great tidings of Joy to the shepherds, who on seeing the child glorified God. But Mary pondered these things in her heart.
And indeed, we come together this evening, in the midst of the darkness of the world, metaphorical and literal, to join the Blessed Virgin Mother and to ponder these things in our hearts.
My thoughts this year have been, throughout our season of Advent, focused on the future. And throughout that season of Advent, I repeated said that our time of preparation is not so much about what God has done in the past, but what God has in store for us in our future.
But, what I haven’t said much about, really, is that future. So what is it exactly that God has in store for us? Well, tonight on this night, we discover what it is.
And the way we discover it, is by going with the Shepherds, to that manger, peering in, and looking in to the face of Jesus. And if we, like the Blessed Mother, look with our hearts long enough into that face, we might just begin to realize, that there, in that manger, IS our future, God’s Future, God’s plan for you and for me.
Christmas is for me, a time when a little sentimental feeling should be allowed. Normally, religion based on emotions and sentiments will only get you so far. But on this night, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for the place where I grew up as we sing the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The words of that hymn nearly always bring tears to my eyes.
For me, the images of which that hymn speaks, that the greatest event which has ever happened in the history of the universe since its creation – namely that God has descended and taken our flesh up on himself in order to begin the mission of Saving us from ourselves – happened in such a way that, if it were happening even now, in this very town of Warrensburg, even next door, we might miss it. The birth of the Savior would go unnoticed. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!
In that little town of Bethlehem, so still, and quiet, the stars running their course as they do each and every night, something from beyond this world was breaking in. It was the light, a light shining in the streets, an everlasting light. One in which all our fears are ended, and in whom all our hopes are met. It is that line that got me thinking of what I wanted to say tonight. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
In the course of our lives, we pin our hopes, our futures, on many things which, on looking back, seem pretty trivial now, though at the time, they were the source of much anxiety, and fear. In school, perhaps it was passing that exam, and then making a good impression and getting that Job, and then keeping that boss happy, and getting that good review so we could get that promotion or that raise, so we could save a few extra dollars, so we could buy that shiny new thing or go to that new place we had never been before. It was that shiny new thing, or that new place, which we hoped would entertain us, distract us, placate us, so that we would be distracted from the worries that hounded us. And then the cycle would repeat itself all over again.
Sometimes, those things we pin our hopes on fail us, utterly and completely. The job we didn’t get. The relationship we couldn’t fix. The doctors who couldn’t figure it out. It hurt us terribly. We’re not yet completely recovered from it. We don’t understand it. We’ve perhaps only begun to realize that we put our hopes in the wrong place.
Tonight, we go to the manger, to Bethlehem, with the Shepherds, and we ponder in our hearts, along with the Blessed Mother, these things which have come to pass in our lives.
And if we look long enough into that face, we’ll begin to see the one in whom we can place our hope, in whom all our fears are vanquished in whom all darkness is cast out, whom no amount of darkness could ever overcome. And so, God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of his heaven.
More than all the activities of the world, that’s what Christmas is about. Its about pondering in our hearts the truth of what God has done for you and for me in the event we celebrate. And its about receiving the Word, fresh and anew. Its about setting aside our world focus, and pinning all our hopes on him, so that, knowing him to have never forsaken us, our fears shall find their end in him. It’s about knowing that where meek souls will receive him still, the Christ Child enters in.
On this holy night, we have come, to worship the one who saves us from death. And it all happened, or rather started, while the world slept, and the stars ran their courses.
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I woke up Wednesday morning after a late Tuesday night watching the election returns to discover in my Facebook News Feed half of my friends in a state of great anxiety that the end of the world was near and the other half in joyful jubilation as though the Parousia, that is Jesus’ return, had occurred.
I was grateful for two things. One, that my news feed was 50/50 on the matter. It tells me I have the right balance of people in my life. And secondly, something I was confident would be the case long before and regardless of the outcome of the election process: As my friend Father Griswold-Kuhn is wont to say, “God is still God, and Jesus and still on the throne.”
There’s an irony, of course, that today’s Gospel Lesson is taken from the passage which introduces what biblical scholars might call the section of apocalyptic teachings of Jesus. That’s a fancy way of saying that for the rest of the 21st chapter, Luke put together the things which Jesus had to say about the end of this world as we know it and the coming of the fullness of the Kingdom of God.
Our little section this morning focuses on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. And it is important that we note how very important the temple was to the life of the Jewish people.
Way back in the Book of Exodus, after God had brought his people out into the Desert, to the foot of Mount Sinai, he gave them directions on how to build the Tabernacle. The details of how it was to be built were very specific: the dimensions were given, the type of fabrics which were to be used. How its furnishings were to be built.
First, in this tabernacle, and then finally, during the reign of Solomon, when the first permanent Temple was built in Jerusalem, God and his People would meet. The temple was the place where God and his people were to meet. It was literally the place where heaven and earth met. And here, Jesus tells his audience, that some day, and someday soon, this temple, adorned with glimmering gold and built of massive stones would be reduced to a pile of rubble.
Can you imagine how you might have felt about that if you were hearing Jesus say that? How might you react?
First, you might laugh. The destruction of the Temple would take a huge cataclysmic event. The act of moving those stones would require so much force, so much energy, that the very thought of it would seem preposterous. Like many, you may think he was out of his mind to suggest something so ridiculous.
But what if you did believe that what he was saying was possible? What would that mean for your Jewish Faith? What would it mean that there would be no more temple at which to come and worship?
Spoiler alert. In the year 66 AD. About 33 years after our Lord’s death and Resurrection, there was a rebellion in Judea. The Emperor Nero sent an army to restore order. In the year 70, after seiging the city of Jerusalem, the Roman army captured the city and burned the Temple to the ground. All that remains of the structure is the retaining wall that held up the soil on which the temple was built. We call that the wailing wall or the western wall.
But that was 30 years down the road. What would it mean to the Jews of Jesus’ time? To put it in perspective, it wouldn’t be like tearing down this church. If this church were torn down tomorrow, we’d still be the Church of the Holy Cross. I’m not sure there’s a straight analogy. Perhaps it would be like taking away the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Those two rituals are so central to our life a Christians, that every Christian denomination has them. If we were to no longer have those in our religion, the very fabric and nature of Christianity would change, instantly.
For us, the tearing down of this beautiful building built by our ancestors in the faith, while tragic and while sad, would not change one tiny iota of the practice of our faith. We’d still gather and we’d still be the Church of the Holy Cross.
Why? Because the core fabric of our faith is not found in buildings made of stone and covered in gold. It’s not in beautiful ceremonies, or silver chalices. The very essence of our faith, as holy scripture tells us is the Word of God, with a capital W. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. That word, is our Lord Jesus Christ.
And so long as we cling to that truth, so long as we cling to that cross, nothing shall be able to shake us.
In short, God is still God, and Jesus is still on the throne, sometimes despite our best efforts to displace him. And the temple in which he wishes to dwell is not one made of stone and gold, but of flesh. The temple where he wishes now to come and tabernacle, to dwell, is in our hearts.
The rest of our Gospel this morning, frankly, its pretty scary, if you really pay attention to what our Lord said was coming. Wars and rumors of wars. Betrayals. Persecutions. Even for some, death. Things, he says are going to get worse before they get better, but in a real way isn’t that always the case?
Despite all that may happen. Despite all that we may face, we are called to embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which he has given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.
This is our hope, this is our calling. And for that we give thanks to our God, who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen
For Mickey Vassallo
November 10, 2016
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
They say that you’re supposed to be eminently relaxed in front of family, but for the first time in over two years, I decided to sit down and put down on paper the thoughts I hope to share with you this morning.
So let me start with my own experience of knowing Mickey. I can’t remember the first time I met Mickey, but I can say that it must have been at Bethesda. I can’t remember any one conversation with her that stands out. What I have are simply images imprinted on my memory.
And the image that stands out among them is set in the Kitchen on Washington Street, where all of us so often enjoyed each other’s presence and company and shared our lives with one another. Here I was, an early twenty something want to be priest, welcomed into the extended Rectory family. And there was Mickey, with what I think is a glass of white wine, talking to me, truly engulfed in our conversation as the hustle and bustle of the Rectory family swirled around us. Allison there making lunch, no doubt something organic with which she will later use to challenge my palate. The Crawfords doing whatever it is they do, which never was, nor is nor ever will be, below the level of 180 decibels. And Tracy, of course being her just come from church bubbly self. And Tom there, somehow holding us all together.
And there in the midst of the whirlwind, was Mickey, focused and centered, asking me about my latest adventure. What struck me the most, perhaps, about any memory of our conversations with her were two things. First, the softness of her demeanor, her gentle spirit. She, like me, had been no doubt been thrown headlong into that cacophony which we call the Rectory Family. But even as the scene raged on around us, she never lost that focused and gentle spirit. And secondly, the genuineness of her questions. She never made me feel like she was just asking questions for the sake of making conversation. It always felt, and I think was the truth that, she truly wanted to know, that she was truly interested in what I had to say.
In an email Allison wrote to me saying “It’s so hard to sum up 90 years of her life.” Perhaps no more greater tribute could be given to someone than to say just that. Here was a person who had such an experience of life, the good and the tough mixed up and tumbled together, that no words would be enough to say we’ve captured the essence of it. Obituaries tell us where a person has lived, the things they liked to do, the organizations of which they were a part. Mickey had no small list of accomplishments there. From Tennesee to England, to North Carolina, to Vermont, and Saratoga; she loved golf, and gardening clubs; collecting Wedgwood and antiques; UFOs and ghosts; and oh, let’s not forget the New York Yankees and Derek Jeter.
But an obituary can only tell us so much. “It’s so hard to sum up 90 years of her life” Allison wrote to me “And in the end it’s not about what someone has ‘done’ but what qualities they brought forth into the world and how they affected others.”
How can one really put into words what it truly means that Mickey will be remembered for her warmth, free spirit, humor, and sense of adventure? It’s hard to sum that up because those are the ways she affected the world. Those are the images she has left implanted in our hearts.
I want to share with you another little anecdote from my time in the Rectory in Saratoga. One which really has nothing to do with Mickey. It was sometime, between January and March, I found myself there in the bedroom with Jane and Tom. In the midst of the conversation, Jane said to Tom “even now, you have so much more to teach us about the Kingdom of God.” I’ve never forgotten those words, and in a real sense, they have over these last 5 years shaped how I understand the latter and end stages of life for those who I am privileged and honored to minister to, and it something I share with them and their families. We never stop teaching others, showing others, the Kingdom of God. CS Lewis of Chronicles of Narnia fame wrote in another book “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
One of the things which Allison said to me is that as Mickey’s dementia continued to run its course, it became more and more difficult for Mickey to interact with the world around her as she once did. But she said one of the blessings she saw was the worldly anxieties of an accumulated lifetime, which we all have, began to fall away. And the way that Mickey began to respond to the things around her was as a pure soul, simply with love. When all that other stuff had disappeared, what shone forth from her was love.
The response that came to mind was that’s God shining through. As she decreased, God increased. The Church teaches that the goal of our lives, above anything else, is union with God, to be one with him. We gather here today to offer our prayers and remembrances, and to make our communion with him. And in a beautiful way, the more and more we are united with God in his life, the more and more his qualities shine through us
I said to Allison, that in his letter, the Apostle John, when he was trying to find a way to talk about God could find no better word than Love. He said, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love come from God… God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.”
You see, even as the disease of dementia ran its course, Mickey, in a most wonderful way taught us about the Kingdom, showed us God. And as everything that we thought mattered, what she thought mattered, fell away, what really and truly mattered eternally, remained: Love.
And so today, as we gather here, we do so to remember and to give thanks for Mickey’s life. Not so much the things she did, where she lived, or the adventures she went on – those were for her.
Rather, we are here to give thanks for the qualities that she brought for into this world which affected us, which showed us God: that warm, gentle and free spirit, that sense of fun and adventure, that genuine friendship, the humor and most importantly, Love.
We offer her life back to God in thanksgiving for the opportunity to have known that life and to have been touched by it. For the gift of having seen God working through it for indeed, God is Love; whoever abides in love, abides in God, and God in him. Amen.
Sermon Proper 16 C 2016
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the ancient world, evil spirits or demons were often understood to be the root cause of physical ailments and diseases. In some cases, it was thought that disease and physical deformity were punishment from God for sin. In some cases, they even thought that if a child was born with a problem, this was a result or punishment for their parents’ sins.
In our gospel this morning, we encounter our Lord teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. A woman appeared, we don’t know where from, but we are told that for 18 years she had been suffering under a disabling or crippling spirit, that caused her to walk bent over. She was unable to fully straighten herself and walk upright.
Our Lord called her over to himself and simply said “Woman, you are freed from your disability” and laid his hands on her. Immediately she was healed – she could stand up straight and in response to her healing she began to praise God.
The reason that Luke includes this story of Jesus healing is not really to demonstrate his power to heal. If you’ve made it this far in the Gospel, 13 chapters, and you’re still reading, you already know the power of God in Jesus to heal the sick and cure the lame. Rather, Luke includes this story for other reasons.
Jesus heals this woman on the Sabbath. As we’ve talked about before, the Sabbath, Saturday, was the seventh day, the day of rest. The commandment to Keep the Sabbath Holy meant that one couldn’t work on the Sabbath – bakers couldn’t bake, seamstresses couldn’t sew, and according to this “Ruler of the Synagogue”, the healer couldn’t heal. Actually, and perhaps even more shamefully, he rebuked not our Lord who had done the work of healing, but the woman who came to be healed! “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath” he told the sick.
But Jesus rebuked them, he called them hypocrites, who allow people to lead their livestock to water, but refuse to permit the healing of a daughter of Abraham on the Sabbath. Rightfully so he adversaries were put to shame, and the crowd rejoiced at the glorious things done by our Lord.
Even though the healing itself is not itself the chief point of the gospel this morning, I want us to have a closer look at it, and see what we might glean from it.
The first thing we notice is that the woman just appears. Hobbled over, unable to stand upright. She didn’t come to Jesus to heal her. Maybe she had heard of him, of his works, and his powers, but nowhere does it indicate in our text that she sought out healing from Jesus. I wonder, did she think of herself as in need of healing. Perhaps she didn’t like to be thought of as someone having a disability. One of those folks who refuse to ask for help, sometimes doing things which other think she couldn’t as a source of pride for herself.
But Jesus did notice. Jesus knew her ailment, her problems, and he knew her need. So he called her over to himself, and so she came. She responded to that voice by coming before him. He laid his healing hands on her, and she stood upright.
I want to suggest that there is a pattern in the healing of this woman which we might meditate on. Many of us walk around with disabilities, ailments if you like, that we don’t even realize. Some of us walk around with physical problems which we won’t go to a doctor to get looked into. We need to be mindful that God gave us the medical sciences and the intelligence to have skilled doctors as a gift.
But not everything that cripples us and keeps us from walking upright is a physical problem. Our problems can also moral, spiritual, and emotional. Sometimes these are the most difficult of all our problems to face. They might come from deeply held anxieties, fears, habits or addictions.
Socrates, and if you’re a Greek philosophy student, you’ll forgive me for taking him a little out of context, once said “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Hindsight, they say, is twenty-twenty. How often have we said that? How often have we said to ourselves, “if only I had realized beforehand”? The things that keep us from walking upright, living health lives are not just physical. They are moral, spiritual, and emotional. How often have our own short comings led to problems for us?
Perhaps the hardest thing of all is realizing that the problems which cripple us effect not only ourselves but the lives of those around us, even the ones we love. Too often we don’t recognize how serious our own crippledness is until it begins to affect others.
The hardest truth of all, which we need to understand today, is this: We can’t solve the crippledness of ourselves. Nor can we solve the crippledness of others. We can only seek forgiveness from God and those whom we effect, and most importantly, walk by faith in the grace of God, so that like the woman in our Gospel we can be healed, restored, and made to stand upright by the power of his love.
So what is keeping us from walking upright? Do we even know that we’ve got a problem? Are we willing to respond to the voice that is calling us to himself? Are we willing to let him into us, that he might lay his hands upon our hearts, and make whole.
The voice of Jesus is calling us – in Word, in the Sacraments – Calling us to himself that he might lay his hands – those wounded, scarred hands, those hands full of blessings and grace and love, upon us, to heal us. So that we might walk upright in his Kingdom, to the honor and glory of his God, and our God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning, a brash young lawyer asked Jesus a fantastic question. It’s a question we’ve all probably have been concerned about at one time or another in our lives- “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”- “How is it that I get to be part of the life of God and his people into eternity?” Jesus in his typical fashion fires back a question of his own- “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”
The answer the lawyer gives is the familiar “Summary of the Law” which we hear at the beginning of every Mass. It’s also called the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.”
The lawyer goes on to ask another question – “Who is my neighbor that I am really supposed to love?” Jesus’ reply, and no doubt the focus of many sermons this morning, is the parable of the Good Samaritan and what it means to “love your neighbor” or “what it means to be a neighbor to someone in need.”
But I want to follow another line of thought this morning. It’s something that has been running through my head all this week. We’ve all heard that sermon time and time again about the Good Samaritan and being a good neighbor and loving our neighbor. But the commandment is that we love our neighbor “as our yourself.”
So I want to know, what does it mean that we are to love our self? And indeed, what is this “self” that we are called to love? I’ve preached before on the idea that we can’t love God unless we love our neighbor, and we can’t love our neighbor unless we love God. Now, as it turns out, it seems we can’t love neighbor, or God, unless we love our self. But in order to do that, in order to love our self, we have to know what “self” God wants us to love.
For a long time, I have thought that the commandment to love my neighbor as myself meant something like this: If I’m truly honest, I really care about myself more than anything else in the world – that is to say, I’m more concerned with my own wants, needs, and desires than I am with anyone elses and what Jesus wants me to do is to take that energy that I expend on myself and use it somehow to love my neighbor.
This way of thinking is, i now think, terribly flawed. It really misses some important things about God, about love, and really about myself. You see, this “self” that I was thinking about is really something more like the ego, the part of me that is really only concerned with me, myself, and I.
I think that the self that God wants me to love is something different. St. Paul in Second Corinthians, refers to an outer self, which is wasting away, and an inner self, which is being renewed by the Holy Spirit, Day by Day.
Christian mystics such as Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross, have called this inner, true self “The summit of the soul”, “the place where God dwells within us”, and the place where we can “be still and know God.” Psychologists talk about this inner self, as the core of our personality; an almost indefinable center from which our being radiates.
You see, the self is not about what you do, but the very heart of who you are. It’s not the things that you do – It’s not me as a priest, or an EMT, or an Historian, or a Son, or a Friend- rather the desire to do these things comes from that inner self, which defines who we are. Discovering that inner self, that core, is a life long journey, and that journey is one of the utmost importance. But that journey of discovering who we truly are is not found by achieving some status, (I didn’t discover who I was by becoming a priest), doing meaningful activities (I won’t discover who I am by being an EMT), or even relationships because in due time these things vanish and yet the core of who we are will go on. Rather, I am driven to do the thing by the central principles of my inner most self to do these sorts of things.
Knowing our self, that self on which we are called to base of neighborly love upon, requires space and opportunity for quiet reflection. It requires that intentional self-searching that comes only when we are completely and totally honest with ourselves.
The problem with finding that inner self, in which God seeks to dwell, renew and enliven, is our constant busyness. We fill our life with things that give us a superficial happiness or joy, while ignoring the unrest deep in our souls and minds. We use things like Drugs, alcohol, sex, and even relationships to provide us with temporal happiness in order to get us through day by day and week by week.
Over time, we can become addicted to the “good feelings” that these temporary “quick fixes” provide us, and become even more negligent of the true inner self to which God seeks to give new and eternal life.
I have had to stop and reflect and ask my self – “Is being a priest what I really am supposed to be doing? Does being a priest really match up with and flow from the inner most self that I have discovered I am? Or, am I doing it for some other reason?”
When Jesus tells us that we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him; when Paul tells us that we are to lay aside the old, corrupted self, so that we may be renewed; the self which cares only about me; which settles for cheap, selfish, superficial joy; that is the “outer self” of which they are speaking. It is in that dying, and laying aside of that false, pretentious self, that we begin to have that space and opportunity for quiet reflection that knowing the inner self requires.
Discovering the self where God seeks to dwell – spending time and giving our self-space – going into our room and shutting the door to be with our heavenly Father in secret – is just the first part the equation.
The second part is learning to love and accept that self. And that can be even harder – because that inner self can be hard to face because we don’t always like what is there. Sometimes we discover that our selfish actions come because we are, infact, a selfish person, and all this time we’ve been pretending to be something we’re not. And yet, God seeks to dwell in us, to transform us, to sanctify us, to renew our hearts within us so that our inner life might be made alive by his life, and begin to look more like his life.
The ability to be comfortable with and indeed love who we truly are is self-esteem. It is that ability to recognize and to say “I am” regardless of what others may think, or what others may say. It is the ability to love our self, even though we know we are imperfect, and flawed human beings at the deepest level.
The big question in all of this is “why should I love myself at all? I know I’m imperfect. I know I’m flawed. Why love?”
I think the answer comes to us from the Fourth Chapter of the First Letter of John. He says “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Each of us knows the flaws in our inner most self. And yet, God sent his son into the world for you and for me because he saw and sees in us something worthy to be loved. That’s redemption. And if God can see in you and me something worthy of his love, how much more should we love what he already loves.
God’s love for you and for me – that love that sent his son to the cross – that love that raised him from the dead – that love that drew him up on high when he ascended, bringing captivity captive – that’s why we can talk about loving our self at all. We are counted worthy of God’s love. Yes, there we are sinners, yes we need to grow in holiness and sanctification.
But until we know that we can love ourselves just as God loves us, then we cannot love him or our neighbor. Jesus said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind; and your neighbor as your self.” Let us seek to know our true self, the self which God knows and loves, and know ourselves in deed, as God’s beloved children so that we may indeed, obey his Great Commandment. Amen.
Sermon for Proper 6 C 2016
The Rev’d Thomas J. Pettigrew
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Gospel this morning is one of those passages which probably sounds familiar to us, but not quite familiar as say the Good Samaritan, or the beatitudes.
Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee for a dinner. Certainly, he was invited because of his growing renown as a teacher – someone who was making waves in society. Simon the Pharisee, the host of this formal dinner wanted Jesus there so he could see and hear what everyone was talking about.
As a bit of an aside, it turns out that Luke is the only of the Gospels that tells us that Jesus accepted formal dinner invitations to eat with Pharisees. And in each instance of these dinners, he turns out to be a scandal to his host.
This is true here, in this dinner party at Simon’s house. Jesus becomes a scandal to his host when he allows a woman, who was publically a sinner, which is an euphemistic way of saying she is a prostitute. She comes into the house and anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment, and wipes her tears off his feet with her hair.
First off, lets cover two things – How did she get into the dinner party, and second, how did she get access to Jesus’ feet. Believe it or not, her access into the house was not a problem at all. Apparently it was common that at these dinner parties, the public could freely come and go from the house. It doesn’t really make sense to us – I can’t think of any other equivalent in contemporary society where the public is allowed to come into a dinner and watch the invited guests eat, up close and personal.
As for this woman’s access to Jesus’ feet – Luke tells us that the guests reclined at table. Since Alexander the Great in the 300’s BC, Israel had become increasingly Hellenized – that is to say they were adopting many customs and courtesies of their Greco-Roman rulers. If you recall, this is one of the main themes in the Maccabean Period of the Early 1st Century BC. It was the custom, at formal dinner parties such as this one, for the guests to recline in the Greco-roman fashion in which a short table was in the middle with everyone laying with their heads towards it, while their feet were behind them, like the spokes of a wheel.
Visualizing that will show how easy it is for someone to have access to the feet of Jesus.
As this woman is there at our Lord’s feet, anointing them with oil, and wiping her tears off with her hair, Simon, the host of the dinner party notices, and says to himself “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And in a certain ironic twist, Jesus knows what Simon is thinking and so he tells them a parable about two debtors, who owed money to a lender but who’s loan debts were cancelled. “Which of the two will love the lender more?” asked Jesus. Simon replies, “the one who had the larger debt.”
He then goes on to point out that this woman has done all the things which Simon failed to do as the host of the party when Jesus arrived: “You gave me no water for my feet, but she was we my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.”
Now, to be clear, it’s not that Simon, in not doing all of these things was being a bad host. By failing to do these things he wasn’t being rude. Social convention did not require him to do any of these things. What it does show, though, is the relationship that Simon had with our Lord, his guest. Simon treated Jesus properly according to the polite demands that a respectable host would be expected to treat his guest. That he didn’t go beyond those demands shows us he true attitude toward Jesus. On the other hand, this woman had to break social convention, and no doubt, over come many mental and emotional barriers in order to show her love for Jesus.
Going back to that question of Jesus- “Which of the two debtors will love the lender more?” The word that Luke uses for Love is agape. It’s a word which I have drilled into your heads over the last 5 years as meaning something like “God’s perfect love.” And in this context, that word Agape means a love that expresses thanksgiving.
Think about it this way – the early Christians gathered for worship – and they were accused of some rather bizarre things – because they called their gathering a love feast – and agape meal – overtime that word agape was replaced by Eucharist – which means more directly, thanksgiving.
So Jesus’ question could perhaps better be translated as “Who will be more thankful to the lender for the forgiveness of their debts” – “the one who was forgiven more.”
Simon’s welcome of Jesus followed the prescribed social norms. But think about how we welcome a great guest into our homes. If the UPS guy knocks on our door to drop off a package, we follow a set of norms and courtesies – we say good morning, we might ask how the day is going, we say thank you, have a nice day. These are the social norms and courtesies which keep us above the “your being rude” line.
But if our long lost best friend were to knock on our door unexpectedly, the reaction to their appearing would be tremendously different. Our reaction would be more like the father of the prodigal son – we’d probably have a big smile, a hug, invite them in, offer them a drink, and just be full of joy at their presence.
Simon’s greeting and welcome of Jesus was perhaps the equivalent of our greeting of the UPS man – while the woman’s greeting of Jesus – well to say it was the greeting of a long lost friend might just be right.
This woman’s actions towards Jesus demonstrated a greater joy and a greater thankfulness and greater love for Jesus’ presence than Simon’s – because she had realized the great gift that Jesus’ had given to her – the forgiveness of her sins.
But in order to show that gratitude, in order to give that thanks, that woman, who was publically and probably notoriously, a sinner had to overcome much within her self in order to greet her Lord with such joy and thanksgiving. And I want to suggest to you that you and I must go through the same things which this woman did, so that today, as we kneel at communion, we too can give thanks and greet the Lord with love and joy.
She had first to acknowledge her sinfulness. Everyone probably made it know to her that she was a horrible sinful person – by the way they treated her in the streets; by the way the disrespectfully spoke to her; by what they used her for as a prostitute. But for you and for me to face our own sinfulness is not something which we like to do. We become comfortable with our faults and our flaws. And rather than charging at them head on to allow the grace of God to conquer them, we learn to live around them, to hide them, from ourselves and from others.
Secondly, she had to be willing to come to our Lord for that forgiveness. She had to be willing to believe that God has the power to forgive her. Like her, we need to realize that no matter how great our sin – how bad we may think it is, or how long we have been living in it, God is able, and indeed, ready and willing to forgive us for our sins.
Finally, she had to be willing to accept the forgiveness within herself. Forgiving others for what they have done is hard enough. But forgiving ourselves for our faults and imperfections is, I think, even harder. Once we acknowledge our sinfulness, we have to acknowledge that we are infact the person who did that sort of thing. And we don’t like to admit to ourselves that we’ve done wrong, let alone the type of person who would do that sort of wrong in the first place.
Why don’t we like to do that? I want to suggest that it’s because when we’ve discovered that we’re the kind of person who sins – indeed, does that one particular kind of thing – and you can name your own fault – we begin to feel that our value, our worth, our self-respect, and perhaps even our integrity as a human being has been utterly and completely destroyed. We might even say that we feel that something within us, or who we thought we were, was dying or had suddenly died.
What I want to say this morning is that it’s okay to feel that way. Indeed, there is a sense in which we must feel that way. And the reason is that because those feelings come because we have had the source of our value, worth, respectability, and dignity all wrong.
They don’t come from within us, though they do exist within us.
When we realize, like the woman weeping at our Lords feet that our value, our worth, and our dignity come to us from God, and from God alone… When we realize that – when we realize that our value and worth as people come from God, who sent his only Son to die for us on the cross, then greeting which we give to our Lord will be the same greeting that the Sinful woman gave Jesus, instead of the customary platitudes given by Simon.
When we realize that our sins can be forgiven, our value and dignity, not only restored but given from the true source they were supposed to come from all along, then how could we not with Joy and Love, and thanksgiving, greet our Lord as we would greet a friend who has returned to us.
Yet, in a certain twist, in greeting our Lord this way, we realize that it’s not we who have given the greeting, but indeed it is our Lord who greets us at his door with joy and love as one greeting a long lost friend who has returned.