Monday, July 10, 2017

Jesus: Come and Walk With Me

Sermon from July 9, 2017
Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

Today we’re marking a transition even as we see another one just on the horizon.  As you know, Mtr. Ezgi Saribay Perkins is here with us for the first time.  As she makes her transition into St. Andrew’s, she will have a grand total of 10 days to work alongside Mtr. Anne before Mtr. Anne goes off for vacation and sabbatical, returning late in the fall.  Mtr. Anne’s last Sunday with us before that journey will be next week, and she’ll be preaching that day.  So this is my last homiletical shot for a while with Mtr. Ezgi and Mtr. Anne both in the room.
As you know, Mtr. Anne has focused on pastoral care in her 10 years among us.  It’s one of her greatest passions in ministry, and she has blessed us with it richly.  As she’s cared for so many of you over the past decade, she’s come to see a growing need in pastoral ministry, here and elsewhere – the need to help people manage the baffling maze of changes that come with major losses and life transitions.  Mtr. Anne’s sabbatical project will be looking for ways churches can do a better job providing resources to help people understand and cope with what’s next when they find themselves faced with illness, job loss, addiction, or the death of someone they love. 
When she returns late this fall, Mtr. Anne’s role will shift, as you’ve heard before.  She’ll work about 15 hours a week, doing some one-on-one pastoral care but also working on projects here at St. Andrew’s related to her sabbatical study.  So she will be back, but in a different role than what we’ve known.
And speaking of new roles … that’s what Mtr. Ezgi begins today.  I need to be clear that she is not taking Mtr. Anne’s place, no matter how much the timing may look that way.  What Mtr. Ezgi will be responsible for is ministry with younger adults, families, and the community.  In fact, that’s her title:  assistant rector for younger adults, families, and community.  All of us probably should repeat that as a mantra for a while because that specific work is what we need Mtr. Ezgi to focus on.  We’ll have to be intentional about avoiding “mission creep”:  When someone has many talents, it’s easy to let those talents wander in a variety of directions; and we found ourselves plagued by that a bit during Fr. Marcus’ time with us.  Mtr. Ezgi would be very good at overseeing liturgy, and being the clergy liaison with the Altar Guild, and taking the lead on pastoral care … many of the same tasks Mtr. Anne has overseen through the past few years.  But that’s not why we called Mtr. Ezgi here. 
In a nutshell, here is Mtr. Ezgi’s job description.  Roughly half of her work will be building relationships among younger adults and families who are part of the parish now – those we see week in and week out, and those we don’t see very often at all.  She’ll be their primary pastor, and lead opportunities for learning and service, and share in our ministries with children and youth.  The other roughly half of her job will be to build similar kinds of relationships and offer a similar pastoral presence with younger adults and families who aren’t yet part of this parish family – engaging people in the community around us.  As the new HJ’s begins to rise from the rubble of the old building across the street, it’s exciting to imagine new life there: speakers, service opportunities, discussion groups, art displays, community dinners, musical offerings, Scout meetings, and events for kids and parents – ministry rising from the hopes and dreams both of people here and of people not yet here.  Not all of that will be specifically targeted to younger adults and families, but much of it will be.
So, with Mtr. Anne about to leave for four months and Mtr. Ezgi not taking Mtr. Anne’s specific role, you may be wondering how we’ll manage pastoral care.  Well, Deacon Bruce will be coordinating it, with support from Mtr. Ezgi and me.  We’ll be in the hospitals and nursing centers, and we’ll certainly have enough breakfasts, lunches, and coffees to keep us perpetually caffeinated.  But there’s another important pastoral resource we’ll be building over the next few months – members of the first order of ministry, the baptized.  That’s you, by the way.  One of Deacon Bruce’s passions is broadening and deepening the ministry of pastoral care to take greater advantage of the gifts of people in this very room. 
Honestly, even if Mtr. Anne were remaining in her full-time role when she returned from sabbatical, we’d still need to be doing this.  For a long time, we’ve known that a few ordained people simply can’t attend to the needs of this congregation, especially as people age – which is why we have about 25 faithful souls now making pastoral visits or phone calls or writing notes to other members of this family.  We want to build on that foundation and raise up more of you to live into that baptismal vow we make about continuing “in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and the prayers” by taking that promise on the road, so to speak – reaching out to people we often don’t see on Sunday morning.
If you feel like you’ve never been invited to do this work before, I’m sorry.  Although we’ve tried to build up this ministry of pastoral calling and visiting several times over the past 12 years, you may not have heard us calling your name before.  Well, I’m calling your name now.  If you’ve ever felt a bit of a Holy Spirit nudge to find out more about caring for members of this parish family, consider this your Holy Spirit shove.  We need you.
So there’s our moment of transition, in a nutshell.  It’s an exciting time, especially for Mtr. Ezgi and for Mtr. Anne.  But you know, transitions are also a little scary.  As we watch the construction happen across the street, and welcome our new assistant rector, and bid adieu to Mtr. Anne for a few months, we don’t know exactly what the future will hold for us.  It’s an occupational hazard when you’re a follower of Jesus Christ.  Like the apostles of the early Church, we apostles are sent out by Jesus himself to live resurrected life and invite others into it.  New life is our birthright as baptized people.  When we enter that water of baptism, we die to the old life of sin and self-centeredness and stagnation; and we rise to a new life of love and liberation and leadership – bringing others to find the grace that we ourselves are finding.  That’s how we change the world – which, by the way, is our call as followers of Jesus Christ.  Changing the world is why the Church is here.
But the thing is, as we follow Jesus into love and as he sends us to love others, we don’t know exactly what it’s all going to look like.  And transitions bring that uncertainty into bold relief.  God longs for Mtr. Anne to go and rest, and re-create, and learn – and to come back here with new energy and insight to help us care for one another.  And God longs for Mtr. Ezgi to come and learn about St. Andrew’s, and create relationships with people within the parish and beyond our boundaries, and build community that will change people’s lives.  And God longs for you to step into a calling you might be hearing, maybe to love the people around you through cards or phone calls or visits.  But you know, I can’t stand here, in this moment of transition, and tell you exactly what any of that will look like. 
In a moment of holy uncertainty, it’s a good time to drink deeply from the well of wisdom, to return to our roots as God’s people and remind ourselves of some fundamentals.  After all, Jesus didn’t spend much of his time debating theology with the “wise and intelligent” (Matthew 11:25), the scribes and Pharisees and other experts in the Law.  When it came to knowing the mind of God, Jesus regarded human expertise with a healthy dose of skepticism.  So today as well, Jesus isn’t calling us to be experts and get everything right; he’s calling us to be servants – which I can attest is the common wiring that runs through Mtr. Anne, and Mtr. Ezgi, and Deacon Bruce, and our staff, and the people of this good place who lead ministries, and stage events, and clean up, and sing, and serve the chalice, and greet people, and reach out to one another.  We’re called to be a family of servants led by servants, all of us empowered by the Holy Spirit through our baptisms to change the world by inviting one person after another to experience the grace we’re coming to know ourselves. 
As we follow that call, not knowing just how it will look, we may be tempted into fear and maybe even into paralysis, uncertain about stepping forward into a new life whose shape we can’t quite make out.  But we need not fear.  We need not fear because we can let Jesus take that burden of the outcome off our shoulders.  Mtr. Anne, you don’t need to know yet exactly what you’ll bring back from your sabbatical.  Mtr. Ezgi, you don’t need to know yet exactly what a stronger community of younger adults and families here will look like.  Deacon Bruce, we don’t need to know yet exactly how we’ll deploy more people to call or write or visit or pray with each other.  And those of you who might step up to serve, you don’t need to know yet exactly how to do it.  We can give Jesus the burden of the outcome because – despite our folly and even our sin, as St. Paul says, the “law that when [we] want to do good, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21) – despite all our failings and the roadblocks we’ll meet along the way, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as Julian of Norwich heard Jesus whispering to her.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29) 
It’s a good antidote to anxiety.  Jesus doesn’t call us to success on the world’s terms; he calls us to faithfulness on the kingdom’s terms.  And that involves taking our place right next to Jesus and shouldering his yoke alongside him, like workhorses pulling the load together.  It’s the yoke of servant leadership, the yoke of inviting others into the joy of love freely given, the yoke of serving beyond our comfort zones and changing the world one small act at a time.  It is Jesus’ way that we’re called to learn and his burden that we’re called joyfully to bear alongside him. 
           You know, this life of letting the love of God take flesh and dwell in the world through us – it’s not always comfortable, and it’s certainly not predictable.  But that yoke is easy and that burden is light because Jesus is shouldering the load with us, every step of the way.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 5

I’m writing from within the gates of the Palm Inn Hotel in Port-au-Prince.  It’s lovely in here, with small, tended gardens complete with sculptures; an attentive inn-keeper; and a buffet awaiting us.  Just outside the gates, of course, it’s a different story.  Driving back into Port-au-Prince this afternoon (blessedly on a Sunday, with light traffic compared with Thursday’s insanity), we all noticed the trash.  There is some minimal attempt to deal with the trash that fills the gutters.  Earth-moving equipment was scooping up trash as we passed by, presumably to take it to some collecting point.  But there are countless plastic bottles and wrappers that the equipment misses.  Someone needs to make a lot of money figuring out how to collect the recyclable plastic and sell it to some processor.  It would be perhaps the greatest gift anyone could give Haiti – right up there with a system of clean drinking water, which would eliminate probably half the plastic bottles.

More positively, the day began with worship – wonderful worship.  We started at Pere Colbert’s church in Cayes, St. Sauveur, where they were celebrating the second anniversary of the parish children’s association as well as several children’s first Communions.  The kids sang like there was no tomorrow – and so did the adults, for that matter.  Singing in Haitian worship is one of the most heavenly things you’ll ever hear – not because of the musical quality but because of the full-throated praise.  When these people thank God for their blessings, they are thankful in a way I wonder whether I ever approach.  And the offertory procession – complete with tomatoes, okra, mangoes, sugar cane, pineapples, and bananas (no goats or chickens this time) – it literally danced “thank you” to God’s altar. 

Dancing “thank-you” – that’s not a bad way to look at how my perceptions and attitudes might change following this trip.  That was the question for our group in our discussion last night.  (We’ve had a reflection time each evening, followed by praying Compline.  It’s become christened “Culligan Ice With Spice.”  Some experiences don’t translate so well….) We talked about how we might come home differently than how we left.  I always come away from Haiti with deep respect for the people’s orientation of gratitude, and this trip was no exception.  When people in Haiti are grateful, it’s not lip service.  When they praise God, they do so as if their lives depended on it … because they do.  Of course, so does mine.  But in a world of convenience and privilege, gratitude easily becomes expectation, and expectation can easily slip into entitlement. 

The image of the offertory at St. Sauveur became complete for me in a little girl who wasn’t supposed to be part of the official procession.  She was moving about through the service, clearly at home there.  When the dancers brought forward the produce of the land, she came into the group, too, bearing what she had been carrying around throughout the service: a can of Pringles.  As it happens, I love Pringles.  So she is my patron saint today, bringing forward what she had been given and joining the company of saints in praising God, because their lives depend on it.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 4

I’m writing this sitting on the beach at Abaka Bay resort on Ile-a-Vache in the Bay of Cayes. It’s pretty stunning – CNN rated it among the top 100 beaches in the world. We came out to this island today for some down time in the midst of this mission trip, this experience of being sent to help accomplish God’s purposes. The group came in two wooden longboats, continuing the trip’s “adventure travel” theme. We had lunch and a wonderful swim in perfect water on a perfect beach. You could almost forget you’re in Haiti … but you shouldn’t. Because Haiti is beautiful, even in the midst of its ramshackle buildings, aching poverty, and intractable social problems. 

If you’ll permit a moment of theological reflection, perhaps Abaka Bay is Haiti before the fall. Our Christian story begins with God’s perfect creation, as well as God’s perfect love. God wanted to give us those blessings so we would care for both the good earth and each other. But it only takes two chapters of Genesis before we come to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the serpent, and our preference for listening to voices other than God’s voice of love.

All of Haiti used to be Abaka Bay, before sin entered in.  And believe me, there is plenty of sin to go around: Spanish people who killed indigenous people; French people who enslaved African people and then demanded billions in reparations from them because the Africans won the war; Haitian leaders who preferred self-aggrandizement to fostering their people’s well-being; light-skinned Haitians who have lorded it over dark-skinned Haitians from the nation’s beginnings to the present day; Americans who occupied the country in the 20th century and re-enslaved people through forced labor; current Haitian leaders who prefer personal power and empty promises to playing the long game of structural change. That’s a lot of sin, and Haiti bears it as best it can.

And in the midst of our sinfulness, God keeps inviting us to join in Jesus’ work of redemption. Earlier today, before arriving at the resort, we visited the “city” on Ile-a-Vache, Madame Bernard. There we witnessed three in-breakings of God’s reign of love.

The first was an orphanage, school, and hospital where 23 disabled children live and learn as best they can. It’s run by a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Flora, once a physician in Canada, who came to Ile-a-Vache in the 1970s and stayed to build this place of blessing.  Asked what brought her here, of all places – from Canada to a remote island off the Haitian coast – she said simply, “God,” as if the answer were patently obvious. For decades, her students and patients have been grateful.

The second act of redemption was the reaction of our young missionaries to the disabled people they met at the orphanage. I didn’t know Pere Colbert (our partner priest) was planning to take us there, so I hadn’t prepared them for what they might see. It can be jarring to encounter people with developmental, physical, and psychological disabilities in your own context. Haitian facilities function under different standards than their American counterparts.  But our young missionaries reached out to the kids with open hearts, overcoming their own shock and taking kids’ open hands in theirs.

The third act of redemption we witnessed is just in its early stages. Pere Colbert is planting a church near the town of Madame Bernard. Actually the location is a 25-minute walk out of town, up a steep hill, because Colbert’s passion is to bring church to what he calls “the countryside” – rural Haiti, which has virtually no advocates other than people like Colbert (and partners like St. Andrew’s, actually). Like the people of Maniche, the people up the hill from Madame Bernard need the community that a new parish will bring, and they need the education that the church’s school will provide. It’s redemption in the making.

So as I sit here at Abaka Bay, I give thanks for having seen both sides of this lovely island: God’s glory revealed in the gorgeous beach and God’s loving redemption happening at Madame Bernard. Sin still persists, of course, as “the creation waits with eager longing … [to be] set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19,21). But today, it’s good to be able both to visit the Garden and glimpse its healing.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 3

Today was a somewhat short day at the school in Maniche, and I think it might be a “less is more” situation. Just being here and getting where you’re going takes a lot out of you. It’s summer in Haiti, so there’s the heat. In addition, the drive up the mountain that I remembered being about 45 minutes is now about an hour and a half. The “road” is in as bad shape as I’ve ever seen it, no doubt a result of Hurricane Matthew and the heavy rains since then.
So, we were at St. Augustin’s School for about two and a half hours, but it was enough to finish the photography for the Advent cards, which allow people to sponsor a child’s education for a year.  And it was enough for some wonderful outdoor fun as we continued the “field day.”  The photography and brief interviews is something that needs to be completed, and those of us who are wired as doers find that rewarding.  But the time just being with the students is what forms you.  Our team offered stations for an obstacle course; parachutes and balls; bracelet making; ping-pong ball toss; and a combination of soccer dribbling, spinning for 10 seconds, and hopping on one foot back to base.  Imagine all that through translators and in the midst of hundreds of kids really excited to get out of class.  Jean Long is my current hero and did a great job managing the chaos.  I was grateful to be the guy taking photos of the kindergartners (though I did work the soccer/spinning/hopping station, too).
It’s great being with the younger folks on our mission team, getting a chance to know Caroline Rooney as well as Allison, Elizabeth, and Ian Banks (and the kids from St. Michael’s, who are also amazing). A mission trip to Haiti is an environment in which one could encounter some inflexibility or whining. Not a bit here. Instead, it’s gratitude, wonder, insight, and perseverance when times get tough. Kudos to them. They’re living into their calling, sent to see what God has in store for them here.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Haiti Journal, Day 2 (part 2)

So, in the process of changing the world, our mission group had an exhausting but deeply rewarding day. 

Our two groups went to visit our partner schools – for the St. Michael’s group, it was St. Paul’s School in Torbeck; for the St. Andrew’s group, it was St. Augustin’s in Maniche.  Points of interaction included art projects with students at St. Paul’s, taking photos of students and doing brief interviews for the Advent Haiti fundraiser for St. Augustin’s, playing soccer and volleyball, making necklaces and bracelets, and doing home visits with a couple of students.  I find the home visits especially moving and informative, as we get to see where students live, hear their parents’ perceptions of the school, and hear their parents’ hopes for their kids later in life. 

I’m posting some photos to capture the joy, as well as this collection of thoughts from various group members. 
·         “The kids were just so welcoming!  I felt like I belonged there.”
·         “For years, I’ve heard about this school in the prayers at church.  It’s just a school – until you go there, and this little girl latches onto your hand.”
·         “The people were so hospitable, especially the ones who came out of nowhere to get the van out of the river.  One guy even went home to get a rope.”
·         “These kids don't have anything, compared with what we have, and I’m sitting there wishing I had Chick-Fil-A for lunch.  This trip will definitely change my outlook.”
·         “We’ve had the chance to experience what the rest of the world experiences.”

And, of course, we can’t forget our day of fun with the Adventure Bus, as it’s now been christened.  First, you have to know that getting to St. Augustin’s requires us to drive literally through a river.  The loose-rock riverbed has been called “Haitian ice” on previous trips.  Today, it lived into the fullness of its glory.  I’ve been to the school several times and never gotten stuck like this.  But it was an amazing example of community as villagers came out to push the blans’ van out of the river … twice.

Haiti Journal, Day 2 (part 1)

I talked with our partner priest today, Pere Colbert.  We were discussing St. Augustin’s Church and School, as well as plans for the future there.  The bishop has sent a recent graduate from seminary to serve at Maniche, someone Colbert hopes and plans will soon be ordained and assigned to Maniche – just Maniche. 

The fact that this is happening is stunning and merits a little background.  Not so many years ago, St. Augustin’s was a sleepy country parish high in the mountains with a school of 150 or so students.  A lay leader officiated at most Sunday services, and Pere Colbert got there every couple of months to celebrate Eucharist.  Today, the school’s quality has increased its enrollment to about 380.  That growth has led to greater connection with the parents of children attending the school, and church attendance has blossomed, too.  The church is sponsoring celebrations and events for community members, not just its parishioners.  A few weeks ago, they marked the Haitian version of Mother’s Day by offering a celebration and small gifts for any and all mothers who came, parishioner or not – and many, many families came.  Between the school’s quality (highest test scores in the region) and an increasing community focus, the growth has been enough to convince the bishop to assign a seminarian (soon to be priest) there as his single assignment.  Priests in Haiti typically serve three, four, five, or more congregations.  St. Augustin’s at Maniche is growing to the extent the bishop wants to invest in it seriously and devote a priests’ resources to it alone.  The new priest will lead mid-week worship, visit people in his community, and teach religion in the elementary school, as well as all his other work.

About Pere Colbert: His leadership and commitment to rural communities has meant 10 years of focused development for Maniche, and he should receive most of the kudos for this amazing story.  But about the people of St. Andrew’s:  You have helped to make this happen, too.  Your increasing investment – in time, relationship, love, and financial support – has made the difference in St. Augustin’s School becoming an instrument for changing young people’s lives and for demonstrating the value of a church to the community.  Your consistent support for the school’s work (through the Advent fundraiser) has meant it can keep a staff of talented teachers and a devoted headmaster, Samuel, rather than plugging staffing holes with unknown quantities.  And your consistent support for the lunch program has meant we no longer see kids in our school with protein deficiency.  They can learn because they can think, and they can think because they aren’t starving. 

This is what it looks like when a church plays the long game in ministry – and through doing that, changes the world.

Haiti Journal, Day 1

Yesterday was a day for choices: either to rant about challenges or to remember blessings.

There were several “I’ve never seen this before” kinds of moments, and not in a good way.  I’ve never seen the kind of traffic we encountered in Port-au-Prince.  It was a perfect storm of leaving the airport late in the afternoon and construction on the main road leading south out of the city, which took the road to one lane at rush hour.  We crawled for an hour to make it perhaps a mile; so with delays in the airport and the traffic, we were probably 90 minutes later than we’d hoped to be.

That was before the flat tire.  Just as we were beginning to clear the traffic jam, one of our two vehicles succumbed to the world of potholes that is the Haitian road system.  As the other vehicle went on its merry way, mine didn’t.

And then came the blessing.  As it happened, the tire went flat just before we passed a guy on our side of the road who fixes flats.  He had set up his shop here that day, with his few tools, his air compressor, and his patches.  So we pulled over, and there was the “garage.”

Now, a more cynical person could look at this and imagine the young man having put sharp objects in the road and set himself up for a quick $20.  If you know Haitian roads, you know that’s not necessary.  But what I saw in this situation was the grace of God – or, as the tap-taps proclaim it, painted in bright letters over their windshields, “La Grace de Dieu.”

And that’s only the start.  Every time I come here, I’m struck by these proclamations of faith emblazoned on trucks and buses.  Here are several (translated) that I had time to collect in the creeping traffic:  God Alone Judges.  Eternal Power.  With God, We Will Do Great Things.  The Love of God.  God Above All.  Thank You, Lord.  Divine Grace.

Along with these are the businesses that witness with their signage:  Infinite Grace Body Shop.  The Eternal Is Great Food Shop.  Son of God Convenience Store.  Thank You Jesus Pharmacy.  Of course, it becomes manipulative, too, at some point:  Eternal Father Lottery. 

But as always, finding God’s grace is, first and foremost, a matter of looking for it, which our youth and parents did beautifully.  May our work today at our partner school in Maniche give us the chance to see such grace abound.