What does God’s call to us look and sound like now?

Our church calendar and Sunday readings are full of stories of “call” these days, between Andrew, Peter, Nathanael and Samuel last week and with James and John this Sunday right next to the feast of Paul’s conversion, we’re hearing lots of stories of how folks first heard and listened to God, particularly God in Jesus. It can look and sound like many different things. A boy hearing voices in the night. Adults leaving their work behind to follow something else. Doubt turned to awe. A message from someone persecuted. What does that call look like in your own life? What does it sound like for St. David’s? As a fun way to get a sense for our collective response, try answering one or both of these questions in 100 words or less and paste it as a comment under “Leave a Reply” below.

“For nothing will be impossible with God”

—By Linda Goertz

Last year at Advent time, I went to an evening service at St. Paul’s in Oregon City, where they had laid out a labyrinth pattern on their parish hall floor, and we walked that path in silence.  Beforehand, each of us had received a little piece of paper with a message.  Mine, which I still have tacked up on the wall at home, said, “I want to be born in you this Christmas.”

Those words went straight to my heart that night.  It’s been decades since LeRoy and I had to face my inability to have children, but that loss is still part of who I am.  So that loving reminder that Christ longs to be carried in and birthed through each one of us was, for me, a miracle that is both old and new.

I’m astonished at Mary herself.  I don’t think she, as a young, not-yet-married woman, was saying to herself, Oh, I sure hope I get pregnant soon! – let alone, I hope a messenger from the Most High God suddenly appears before me!  The Scripture translation we have says she was “much perplexed,” but I think that must have included an element of terror; because right away the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

Throughout the story of Jesus’s arrival in this world, angels are always telling people, “Don’t be afraid.”  They tell Mary, they tell Joseph, they tell the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.”  Because, really, a Word from God, a message, a call from God is scary; it can sound impossible.  “How can this be?” we say along with Mary, “since I’m” . . . since I’m just ordinary me, not smart, not powerful, not someone important in the world.  Since I don’t know what to even say when hatred and violence are screaming; since I feel powerless in the face of systemic oppression; since the bad guys sometimes seem to be winning.

So the angel, the messenger from God, tells us that the Holy Spirit will come upon us, will overshadow our inadequacies and the world’s failings, with a power that’s not our own.  That nothing is impossible with God.  Nothing.

God’s desire, God’s intent for us is always healing, always a wholeness beyond our imaginings.  Not just, “We’re going to get some encouraging information from God to improve our lives,” but we will be transformed.  Mary was never the same after this – she lived out exponentially more joy and more great sorrow than the little just-betrothed Mary of Nazareth ever dreamt of.  Because God intended her to be fully herself, and she had the boldness to say YES, to say, Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.  Not according to her best imaginings and plans, but according to God.

In our Old Testament reading, King David had a plan ready, too.  He was grateful for his victories, he loved God, and he proposed creating a sign of that love and gratitude: he decided to build a temple for God.  And his trusted advisor Nathan — the prophetic Nathan who doesn’t hesitate to tell David when he’s sinning – agrees.  What a great idea, a dwelling for God; it’s so totally what good people of faith all over the world have been doing, in honor of the God who saves and guides and loves us deeply.  Build a beautiful sanctuary for God.  Right?

Not according to this story.  God tells Nathan – who then has to go tell the king, remember – God says, I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about . . . did I ever speak a word . . . saying. ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’

What we think God wants of us may not always be what God wants most for us.

Creating a place of beauty where we can come and worship God is good; I believe that God loves it when sisters and brothers come together and celebrate our joy at who God is.  I think the delight and awe we express when we prepare for a feast like Christmas, when we decorate the church and make it lovely – like some folks are going to do after church today – I think that’s a good and delightful thing to do.  But we can’t be only in this building – not while God’s own Self is moving in the world.

In the passage from Samuel, God is so emphatic: I took you from the pasture…I have been with you wherever you went…I will make for you a great name…I will appoint a place for my people…I will give you rest.  And then the biggest declaration: the Lord will make you a house.

God receives our love and our homage and our worship – but not our trying to place the Holy in a box with a roof.  God makes the dwelling place by being God.

At St. David’s, we’re going through a transition in leadership and many of us have that wild mix of feelings that comes with change.  We have new ideas and plans and hopefulness but sometimes we feel anxious enough that we really, really just want to nail things down.  Maybe we want certain things in our worship or our outreach work to change, or certain other things to stay exactly the same, or that one person on the committee to do what we want . . . we can get pretty busy building God’s house according to our own ideas.

But meanwhile, God is moving around, here, there, outside, in unexpected places.  God is sitting on the curb beside a man who smells bad, God is at a used car lot with the woman who doesn’t have enough money for even an old clunker.  God is in Syria and North Korea and Sierra Leone and Jerusalem, in downtown Portland marching and in the solitary confinement cell of a prison, and out on the mortgaged family farm and with the student whose loans are due and the teen who feels life isn’t worth living.

God is moving, and our privilege is to step outside and join God as we hear the call.  There will always be time to gather here, and we need to do that regularly, but that messenger of God – the one who tells us not to be afraid – is calling us now, calling us outside, telling us that nothing is impossible when the Holy Spirit empowers us.  So if you’re feeling a nudge, listen to it, for it may be God’s call to come outside.

And you know what we say in reply to that call, don’t you?  We say, Here am I; here we are, servants of the Lord. Let it be with us according to your word.  Amen.

What Shall I Cry?

-Sermon by Lindsay Ross-Hunt

“Grant us stillness of heart, oh God, that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear the moving of your spirit among us.  Amen.”

I want to talk this morning about waiting.  After all, Advent is supposed to be about waiting, right?  But waiting for what?  The chance to officially have permission to sing Christmas carols instead of Advent hymns?  To open that one package under the tree that has captured your attention? To gather with family and friends whom you may not always get to see?

These are all lovely things to look forward to, but they are not what we are waiting for during this season of Advent.  The waiting of Advent, as we see in this morning’s readings are not a passive “can’t wait” sort of attitude, but rather an active preparation for what is to come.  Because what is to come is beautiful.  And hard.

I was a little worried about what to preach this week.  After the ruling (or lack thereof, really) in the Eric Garner case, I saw a friend on post on Twitter, “preachers, if you didn’t preach last week on how #blacklivesmatter, you now have another chance.”  The weight of yet another situation where an unarmed black man was killed by a police officer–an agent of the state–and this time entirely on video, left me at a loss for words.  And not just a loss for words, but almost a kind of inability to even understand what I was feeling.  I felt full of emotion and yet empty at the same time.  And so I found myself asking, along with the individual in Isaiah, “What shall I cry?”  Everything I could come up with felt inadequate in the face of such injustice and pain.

To the individual in Isaiah, God says, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breathe of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  The grass withers the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”  This may seem strange comfort to us, who live in a culture where we’re told we can be and do anything–and we believe it!–and that we as individuals matter and have an impact on the world.  Being told we are like grass doesn’t seem like much comfort.

But imagine you are in exile.  Imagine your conquerers have told you your God has been defeated and is dead.  Imagine you are a stranger in a country where you are different from everyone else and where those who destroyed your home continue to endeavor to destroy your culture and identity by trying to make you more and more like them.  Where you are subject to the rules crafted by those in positions of power, not those who understand what life is like “down here.”  Perhaps, in a place like this–in a place like the Israelites in exile in Babylon, in even here in Black or Native America, these words may sound different.  Equalizing.  Because if we are all grass, then that person in power is not so powerful after all.  In fact, the only true power is the word and promise of God to bring salvation and shalom.

This is what we hope for.  This is what we wait for.

In our readings this morning, we are drawn a spectacular vision of just what this salvation of God looks like, and especially in the Psalm.  We chanted this morning, “Truly his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.  Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.  Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”  Wow.  Did you catch that this morning?  I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture.  “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”  And God is in the midst of it all.  God’s presence dwells in the land among God’s people.

But while this picture is beautiful poetry, it is also a profound statement on human society.  God’s shalom involves not just mercy, but truth.  And not just peace, but righteousness–or right relationships.  This is super important.  Because the absence of conflict without right relationships is empty–in fact, it may describe any number of oppressive societies throughout our history.  And mercy without truth is incomplete.  In the New Testament reading this morning, Peter says that on the day of the Lord, “the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” Again, another reference to how the salvation of God involves transparency.

Why is that transparency so important?  Why does mercy also need truth?  We don’t like to talk much about sin anymore, it’s loaded with all sorts of theological and emotional baggage for many of us.  But in our efforts to distance ourselves from those seemingly judgmental religious systems we throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.  We can’t escape the reality of sin in our world, and the way in which we are tangled up in it, the way we are involved and perpetrate it, the way it impacts and harms us and those we love.  This is a part of the active waiting of Advent: looking with fresh eyes at the truth that needs to be identified so that right relationships, mercy and peace can move forward.
I heard Cherokee theologian Randy Woodley, a professor just down the road at George Fox say once that, “Shalom is always tested on the margins [of society]–if it’s not working on the margins, it’s not working. Repentance is choosing to use your power for the benefit of others.”

Ten minutes on any news broadcast can tell you that it’s not working.  People are afraid.  People are dying.  People are taking to the streets all over this county desperately asking to be heard in whatever way possible, crying out all over the land for truth telling and right relationship.  For shalom.  When I heard the text in Isaiah say, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep,” I couldn’t help but think of the countless images of these heartbroken and outraged mothers calling for change.  Of the letters going around Facebook from one mother to another pleading for white folks to have eyes to see and ears to hear . . .

Isaiah’s words this morning are both words of comfort in the midst of this pain and words of challenge.  Let’s remember that to be comforted is dramatically different than being comfortable.  We are not called to be comfortable. On the contrary, as Advent people we are called to step into all the broken and messy places of this world and work towards the salvation and shalom of God.  Theologian Debra Dean Murphy says, “hope is not wishful thinking; it is risk and action and the courage to undertake both.”

So how will you wait this Advent season?  How will you, in your own way, “prepare the way of the Lord through the wilderness” and work towards the mercy, truth, righteousness and peace that is God’s promise of salvation? There is no shortage of opportunity around us.  Saint Augustine once said, “it is solved by walking.”  Let us walk together.

Awake & Listening

Preached by James for the First Sunday of Advent:

“And what I say to you I say to all: keep awake.”

This week, some of us have been trying to do a better job of listening to the voices of black people. This has less to do with how racist we may or may not consider ourselves, or how many black friends we have, and everything to do with how white people publicly engage the conversation on race. Last Monday, when a Grand Jury declined to pursue charges against the white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson Missouri, the volume on a conversation about race in America which has been going on for some time was once again amplified by demonstrations of prophetic witness. We remember that the biblical prophets proclaimed their message by acts of public theatre and spectacle, taking to the streets with strange, symbolic gestures meant to disturb the routines of photobusiness-as-usual into seeing something true. This week, the prophetic witness and theatre has included box cut placards, multi-racial assemblies of attentive listeners, chanting, fire, the stoppage of traffic, a 150 mile march to the state capital of Missouri, an attempt to derail the Macy’s parade and interrupt Black Friday shopping. The voice of prophetic protest has been amplified by tweets, posts, blogs, hashtags, shares and likes, by awkward conversations over Thanksgiving dinner, on public transit with strangers en route to rallies, and in the Facebook comment threads of friends of friends.

The voices of this conversation are not only being amplified for their own sake. They are amplified, in part, as an address, at least one of the objects of which is us. They are amplified, in part, for the sake of witnessing to white people about black experience in America. Now, when we are addressed, in any kind of situation, we have a variety of responses at our disposal. Imagine two people sitting face to face in conversation. One of them is sharing a story about something that has been very painful. How do we know that the other one listening? There are certain signals we might pick up on to know that the listener is engaged. She might lean in, she might nod her head, at certain points she might repeat certain key phrases, or ask clarifying questions. All of these cues send the message of being heard and supported. Similarly, we’d know if the listener was disengaged. Her eyes might be cast down to the floor, her arms crossed, her comments disconnected or dismissive. She might simply be silent. From her cues we might think that the listener feels defensive, uncomfortable, attacked, or ill-equipped to respond.

If we magnify these dynamics to the public sphere, we’ll note that we’ve seen signs of both engaged listening and willful disengagement in the past week. We’ve seen police embracing protesters and we’ve seen police lined up in a barricade to prevent peaceful assembly in public arenas. We’ve seen folks complaining about having their shopping interrupted by peaceful protest and we’ve seen mall employees leaving their work behind to join in. We’ve seen white folk wade into conversations that make them uncomfortable, we’ve seen white folk get defensive, and we’ve seen white folk silent out of fear or dis-ease or a sense of this not being a conversation they’re a part of. We’ve seen white folk with their eyes down to the floor while their black brothers and sisters speak about their pain.

When faced with the voice of witness, and complaint, and pain, the way we choose to engage matters to our life in God. Isaiah does not cry to God this morning for immediate peace or silent presence. Isaiah calls on a God who can turn the world upside down. Isaiah calls on God to rend the heavens, topple mountains, and rouse fire strong enough to boil the sea. Similarly, we spend lifetimes of worship singing to a God whom we wish would draw nearer to us, whom we wish would speak more clearly in our midst. Yet what do we do when God does speak? How do we respond when God’s word unsettles us, strips us of our comforts, or shows us a truth about our lives that we’d rather not see? When God speaks of pain in the world, of systems that stifle some lives while rewarding others, do our bodies lean in to hear more, or do our eyes drop to the floor? Is our posture towards God defensive or engaged?

For a long time we’ve been used to hearing the story of black lives in America as one of Exodus. We’ve heard of black history as one of breaking free from systems of slavery and legally sanctioned segregation in the same way the Hebrew people were delivered out of Egypt. I wonder if this is the narrative some white people have in mind when I hear questions about what more black people could want having already come through the victories of abolition and desegregation. While I can imagine a great many other things that black people may want to be delivered of, it also seems to me that the conversation at hand is not only about Exodus, but also about apocalypse and eschatology. Apocalypse is a word of Greek roots which speak of uncovering that which has been hidden, eschatology is speech about the end of the world as we know it. The current conversation about race in America is apocalyptic in the way it uncovers a reality which can too easily remain hidden: incarceration rates for black men which are triple the national average and disproportionate to the rates of black crime, prosecution of drug-related charges which are disproportionate to the rates of black drug traffic, and story after personal story of experience of racial profiling by those in authority. In apocalyptic speech, veils are lifted revealing greater, clearer realities beneath the business-as-usual we’ve been conducting. In the unveiling, God’s power is disclosed, and God’s preference for the disadvantaged is made clear. In eschatology, we hear of the end of our world and the beginning of God’s. In black voices, we hear a hope of ending one world in which empowered black bodies inspire dismissive suspicion, and the beginning of a new one where they inspire solidarity and respect.

Jesus has one word of advice for apocalyptic end times: keep watch. It makes a certain kind of sense. When the familiar world we’ve known changes, when the curtain is pulled aside to reveal ugly truths and patterns of privilege which can only pass away in the light of God, when the things that have made us strong in the past are shown to be weaknesses, vigilance is key. Keeping watch as if the lives around us depended on it is key for learning the new patterns of power and leadership in the kingdom of God now dawning among us. The opposite of keeping watch is sleepy satisfaction. When we get accustomed to a world that keeps us comfortable we risk blindness to a new way which is being revealed. I want to leave you with one practice for keeping watch this week: talk with someone different from you about race in America. Maybe the difference is between white and black. Maybe it’s the difference of thinking race is an issue worth protesting and thinking that it’s not our argument to enter. Maybe it’s a difference of opinion about how to best proceed. Whatever the difference, engage the conversation fully, and in person. It may be that you find yourself up against something uncomfortable, something difficult to articulate, something painful. It may be that you have the opportunity to uncross your arms, lift your eyes up from the floor, and lean in closer to listen for more. If you do, you will find yourself nearer to the God who comes to dwell among all of us, the advent of justice and true peace.

Feed us with justice

Sara preached this sermon on the Feast of Christ the King, her farewell Sunday at St. David’s. 

Now we have come to the end. As I was working on this sermon I thought: this is, among other things, the end of the illusion that I can find adequate words to convey what I want to say. So be it.

We are at the end of the church year, the end of the yearly cycle through Jesus’ life. The cycle begins again next week with the first Sunday of Advent, the anticipation of Jesus’ coming among us in human form, a baby.

We are at the end of our reading of the Gospel of Matthew. Next week, you’ll all gather in this place and begin the Gospel of Mark. Know that the first Sunday of Advent is almost always the darkest, rainiest day of the year. Don’t blame me. You’ve been warned.

It’s the end of the year and the end of years. When I came to St. David’s I thought of myself as a transitional leader. I thought I’d stay three to five years. And yet, here I am, five years, six months, and 13 days later.

There is so much I will miss about this place. So much. We don’t have time for me to tell you. Here are a few random bits from the past few days. First, I got an email from LeRoy Goertz, our artist-in-residence. LeRoy wrote to tell me how much he enjoys setting up the table for kids to exercise their creativity back there after Sunday school. He added: “If you get bored up there like during your sermon, please consider coming to the back and grabbing a pencil and drawing.” Thanks, LeRoy, but I think I should be up here.

Also this week, someone stopped by the office and shared with me that every single week—and this has been going on for several years—when I begin the Eucharistic prayer and hold out my arms, her son leans over and says: “Sara looks like a bat.” Every single week. I didn’t know.

I came here to be part of what I affectionately called the Saint David’s Adventure. I left a good-sized, stable, comfortable parish to come to this place, which was kind of dark and empty despite the outstanding efforts of a determined, faithful bunch. I was not supposed to leave my former parish, I was supposed to stay there for 20 or 30 years. That farewell sermon was on what we often call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the fourth Sunday of Easter. I’d had several parishioners tell me that a good priest stays with their flock forever, and they didn’t understand how I could leave. The gospel for my last Sunday was about the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep and the bad shepherd who is only just passing through.

This parting is a different kind of adventure for me into uncharted territory. It is strange to leave when I am feeling so full of love and gratitude, and when I don’t know what God has in store for me next. It would be easier if I were responding to a call to some other parish that desperately needs me. But that’s not the case; I simply have the conviction that it is time for the St. David’s adventure to proceed without me, and that the end of the Church year is the time to end my ministry among you. The fact that this is my choice does not mean that I am not sad and anticipating a huge sense of loss myself over the next few Sundays. If you feel that loss, too, know each week that I’m out there somewhere, thinking of all of you, praying for you, and missing you.

I know that many of you are concerned—maybe even anxious—about what will happen next. Long ago a I met with a professional coach who taught me to replace words like “anxious” or “worried” with curious. Not “I’m worried about this or that,” but “I’m curious….” Aren’t you all curious about what will happen next at St. David’s? I know I am!

I wanted to have a time of feasting and celebration last night—and you surpassed all of my expectations—because I knew this day would be hard. And sad. And good. It’s an adventure. Later, we’ll say some prayers together to mark this final goodbye.

Today’s reading from Ezekiel and today’s gospel both call us back, away from our own sadness and curiosity about the future to the work at hand. It may seem to some of you that the work at hand is all about developing a parish profile, getting on with the business of creating a 2015 budget, calling a new rector, and managing the parish in the meantime. This may be true but the real work at hand is the work of welcoming God’s reign—r e i g n—in our midst. The kingdom is in our midst because God is in our midst, all the time. The kingdom is in our midst whenever we seek Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, and the naked. The God of Ezekiel promises to seek out the lost, to bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. Jesus reminds us that our job is to partner with God in that seeking out, healing, and strengthening.

About the fat and the strong, God says “I will feed them with justice.” I love that image: I will feed them with justice.

givinghandsThe traditional interpretation of this verse is that the fat sheep—those who have been complacent in their comfort while neglecting the suffering of others, probably similar to the goats in Jesus’ final parable—are the ones who need to be fed with God’s justice. But what if all are to be fed with justice? To the weak, God’s justice comes in the form of rich mountain pastures. To the fat, strong sheep, God’s justice comes as destruction, and death of behaviors that oppose God’s shalom.

Our calling as Christians—your calling as Christians in this place—is to feed one another with justice, to nurture one another with the shalom of God, God’s righteousness, God’s justice.

A few months ago I was talking with a prospective new building partner. She said she had always had a dream of opening up her own kindergarten. I said: “Here at St. David’s we want to be a place where dreams come true.” (Remember that, Profile Committee!) Each of you has made my dreams for this church come true. I like to think that God’s dream is of a rich feast of justice, with everyone at the table.

One of the things we do best in this place is feasting and celebration. Remember that. Feast often. Every week, we do it at this table. I hope that week after week you will experience every Eucharist as a feast of justice that sends you forth into the world proclaiming Good News of healing and transformation. Welcome to the kingdom. Welcome to the adventure.

Stand Here Beside Us!

Sara preached this sermon on All Saints Sunday. Our worship opened with the community praying and singing the Litany of All the Saints.

Almighty God…give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living.

slide-5-communion-of-saintsI love this feast day. (Yawn. She says that every year, about so many feast days.) But it’s true. I was officially welcomed into the first church I joined in Portland on this day in 1986. I love the saints, the great cloud of witnesses. Questions about saints are among the most common I get from people new to the Episcopal Church, and I love to answer those questions. And I’ve done many baptisms on All Saints Day, all of which come with special memories.

All Saints is one of four baptismal feasts in the Church year. Now, I always ask this and I’m going to ask One   Last   Time: who can name the other three baptismal feasts in the Church year?

As I said to a group of parents and godparents two weeks ago, baptism is a sacrament of vocation, it is a sacrament of identity, and it is a sacrament of belonging. It is a sacrament of vocation in that it is like ordination for all Christians. When our previous bishop, Bishop Itty, was ordained in 2003, the preacher (former presiding bishop Edmond Browning) talked about what a grand event it was, the Episcopal Church at its ceremonial best, and how it was going to be in all the papers the next day, and he was right. Then he reminded us that really, we should make an equally huge deal with every baptism. Baptism is the sacrament of our vocation, our calling to be followers of Jesus.

But…enough about baptism! I know you’re all waiting to learn who the Saint of the Year is. Lindsay, may I have the envelope please…..? [Drumroll]

This year’s Saint of the Year is….every single one of you!

  • The 2009 Vestry who took a huge risk and said sure, we’ll spend all our savings and we’ll let you try any crazy stuff you want. You’re the saints who stand here beside me, beside us.
  • Those of you who came last week or this week for the very first time, when walking through the doors of an unfamiliar church can be a daunting task. We hope you’ll stand here beside us.
  • The children being baptized on this day: Marion, Lucia, Matilda, Theo, Clara, Jane, and Eleanor. Stand here beside us.
  • Their parents and godparents who stand with them and behind them. Stand here beside us.
  • All the people who have shown up week after week for a whole month or a year or a decade or half a century to pray and share blessed and broken bread, stand here beside us.
  • All of you who make all of this possible by offering your time and your treasure, you who have filled out pledge cards already and you who will fill out pledge cards this morning, stand here beside us.
  • The altar guild, ushers, readers, Eucharistic ministers, prayer-sayers, Coffee-makers, bread bakers, clay shapers, tambourine shakers, and all those whose presence and work is part of our worship each Sunday, stand here beside us.
  • The choir and musicians and our astoundingly talented leader, Ben, stand here beside us.
  • The piano students, artists, music teachers, therapists, dancers, stilt-walkers, preschoolers, fiddlers, pickers, yoga practitioners, saxophonists and cellists who grace our building with their presence, stand here beside us.
  • Those who teach Sunday school and those who learn, those who help out and those who hang out, nursery moms, dads, kids, and staff, stand here beside us.
  • Jumble-sale planners, pricers, writers, drivers, sorters, buyers, sellers, bakers, takers, sign-makers, and miracle-makers, stand here beside us.
  • Money-counters, check-writers, bill-payers, room-schedulers, building cleaners, leaf-rakers, weed-pullers, kitchen towel-washers, and fridge-cleaners, stand here beside us.

These—including all the ones I’ve forgotten—are the saints-with-a-small-s who may or may not ever be remembered for what they’ve done but they will always stand here beside us. Every community is built—continually building—upon the great cloud of witnesses, the royal priesthood of which each one of us is a part.

Baptism, as I said earlier, is a sacrament of belonging. Think about “Stand here beside us” as both a prayer of belonging and an invitation to belonging. Standing beside one another is how we belong. On this holy day, we promise to stand beside Eleanor, Jane, Clara, Theo, Matilda, and Marion as they grow into their Christian identity and vocation.

When Amy and I first talked about Jane’s baptism I asked whom she and Sarah had chosen as godparents. Amy said: “we don’t want godparents because we think of the whole community of St. David’s as Jane’s godparents.” I invite all of you to think of yourselves as godparents, to these children and to one another. Stand here beside us.

Baptism is a sacrament of identity. Baptism is how we become Christian. Christians have had a bad name for the last forty years or so. Some might argue we’ve had a bad name since the Crusades. I’ve always refused to cede the C-word to Christians who don’t speak for me in the press or in the public square. I am a follower of Jesus as much as anyone else. And so are you. Here’s an exercise. It’s going to make some of you squirm, I promise. Turn to the person sitting next to you, or in front of you, or behind you, and practice saying “I am a Christian.” And then turn to the person on the other side of you and say it. When someone says it to you, say “Hey, so am I!” or “me, too!” Just do it. We won’t tell. (I do know that a handful of you are Jewish or Buddhist, and that’s okay, too. Here’s your chance to claim that out loud.) Okay…now go.

So how do you live out your identity as a person of faith and a follower of Jesus? When we celebrate baptism, we celebrate a sacrament of vocation. As I hope my local All Saints Litany shows, our vocations as followers of Jesus differ from person to person. The bones of this calling are spelled out in our baptismal covenant, the covenant we will affirm together in a moment. As we renew our baptismal covenant, think about what flesh you will put on those bones. How will you stand beside us as one of the saints of God?

With or Without You: Moses and the highs and lows of belonging in community

Preached by James for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.

Moses can stand as an archetype for many things, one of which is the individual’s relationship to community. As we’ve listened to his story unfold in increments during our Sunday Hebrew Bible reading for the past ten weeks, we’ve seen Moses with others and we’ve seen Moses alone. Often times, when he is alone, it’s on top of a mountain with God. Eight times, in fact, he climbs up and down Mt. Sinai to be alone with God and then return to his people with news of who God is and what God wants. Sometimes the people he comes back to are eager to hear from him. Sometimes they have forgotten him. Once, they helped realize his visions for an intricately woven bejeweled tent for God to live in. Once, they made him so mad he smashed the only evidence he had of God’s self-revelation to pieces on the ground. Each time he fights, admonishes, instructs, proclaims, and heads back up the mountain to see more. Today we read the final verses of the Torah, where Moses climbs to God for the last time. This time its up Mount Nebo, where he can see entire swaths of land that his people are about to conquer and occupy. God has promised to bring his people to a land of milk and honey through Moses, yet he himself will not enter it. “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes,” God says, as Moses gazes out from yet another mountain peak to a land about to be occupied through force and bloodshed by the youth of his own nation, “but you shall not cross over there.”

are you there

I wonder if Moses is disappointed. I wonder if Moses regrets choosing to link himself so closely with a people whose faults and failings have ultimately cost him entrance into the land they were destined for. Moses belongs to a whole generation who gets shut out of the promised land, the generation which first crossed the Reed Sea from bondage into liberation. Because that liberation was immediately followed by ungrateful complaining, because they put God to the test, God swore in his wrath that they would not enter into his rest. At least, that’s how Psalm 95 tells it. Israel had been this close to the finish line before but had been forced to go back into the wilderness for another forty years until the first generation had died off and the next was ready to rise up pure from their parents’ complaint. Moses takes his fate with the elders. It isn’t clear how complicit in their sin he may be. Some midrashim say that Moses was guilty of taking credit for God’s miraculous actions through him as if they were his own. But scripture itself is silent. In the text, the only sin Moses seems to be guilty of is association with a people he had hoped to lead, a people who fell short of the standard they were given. Moses’ struggle as an individual in community comes to this: with his people, he has risked being misunderstood, disappointed, and left behind; but without them, his vision of God would have been an isolated fantasy.

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I wonder if you’ve ever found life in community as perplexing as Moses has. When I returned to the Episcopal Church in 2003 after an adolescence and early adulthood of isolated spiritual seeking, one of the major reasons for coming back was because I heard that the Episcopal church had made advances in its inclusion of gay and lesbian people. If the denomination of my childhood was a place where an openly gay partnered man could be made a Bishop, as was in the person of Gene Robinson that year, it was a denomination I wanted to return to. I was delighted in those years that I had found a broader spiritual community which I felt I could belong to with integrity, one in which I had a full and equal claim as a gay man. By 2006, however, the denomination had faced significant pushback for our decisions from our global partners. When the Church met as a whole body that year, we decided to place a moratorium on ordaining any more gay bishops, and rites that had been planned to bless same-sex unions were shelved. The losses were devastating, and I thought about leaving the church to return to my private, personal spirituality. If the Church wasn’t going to treat people like me equally, why would I bother participating? Wouldn’t my participation in such a disappointing, unjust institution be a kind of complicity? Wouldn’t it perpetuate abuse against myself and others? I honestly don’t remember why I stayed. Looking back, I can imagine it had something to do with the empty hunger I feel when I miss communion one week, or something to do with the real people who continued to show up for that communion despite their own broken expectations and hurt feelings.

What I do know is what I would have missed if I had left: I would have missed a promised land where sexual orientation seems to be less and less of a deciding factor in whom we promote for leadership in the church, I would have missed a journey in which I finally got to meet other gay, lesbian and trans* clergy face to face, I would have missed the opportunity to join advocates at the denominational level of our church for producing rites of blessing for all couples, and perhaps worst of all, I would have missed being able to preside over the blessing of marriages myself, ones that have included many different genders and orientations. All this in ten years time. I sometimes dizzy myself imagining my elders who came before, the ones who did not get to enter this new territory of full inclusion. I imagine those faithful Christians who made the life I live possible for sticking with their tribe even when the losses seemed insurmountable.

When we say our highest calling is to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, we are not merely summarizing the law of Moses, we are summarizing his way of life: one that rose and fell with the victories and failures of his people. The friendship Moses enjoys with God, face-to-face, is not for his benefit alone. At each step of the way he struggles to bring his whole people into that encounter as well. When we show up here, when we show up with one another, when we pledge a portion of our livelihood to the livelihood of our life together as the church, we do the same. Not because our money can purchase some desired outcome, but because we depend on our relationship with one another to give God a body among us, to risk vulnerability for the sake of making God’s vision for us real.