Saturday, March 24, 2012

Laborers to the Harvest

 A couple of weeks ago I was meeting with Mack to plan today’s service and I complained to him in a joking kind of way about our Bishop’s timing.   Less than three months ago, he had scheduled his biennial visitation to St. John’s for two weeks after Christmas, and now we’re having this ordination two weeks before Easter.  Mack laughed and said it was an indication of the confidence our Bishop has in St. John’s, Petaluma.  Which is no doubt true, so on behalf of all the people of the parish I want to thank Bishop Beisner for the compliment.   
And because Mack doesn’t have the opportunity do so in this liturgy, I want to say a word of thanks on his behalf, as well as my own, to all the people of St. John’s who helped to prepare for this occasion—I never cease to be amazed at the way this group of people works together to accomplish beautiful things for the love of God and neighbor.  I also want to thank everyone who traveled to be here, Mack’s family and friends, clergy of the Diocese of Northern California and elsewhere in the Episcopal Church—it is powerful testimony to our unity in Christ and his grace to reconcile and make new that we are all here together in this place today. 
And as much as the scheduling of this service may have been inconvenient, (which, in truth, was not very much), it is also most fitting.  Because, although there are brass candlesticks and flowers adorning the altar, and the church is decked in red, and not purple, we are still in the season of Lent.  We are still in that season of the church year when we learn again to walk humbly with our God.  We are still in that time when we learn that to be born anew into the freedom of limitless love, we have to cross the threshold of powerlessness and surrender.  And as much as today is a moment of resurrection in Mack’s life, in the life of St. John’s, Petaluma and the Episcopal Church, it is also a Lenten moment. 
Today is a feast of victory over prejudice and exclusion.  It is a day to celebrate the triumph of determination and patience, hope and courage and faith.  And it is also a day to remember the price that was paid to get us to this moment.  Today we celebrate and affirm a vocation to the priesthood that almost didn’t happen.  We do so in a congregation that almost died.  It sounds stark when you put it like that, but sometimes when we experience things that we would rather avoid, gifts of power come to us.  There’s something about such experiences that can strip away our illusions and leave us with a clearer vision of what’s going on and what we’re supposed to be doing.   The Lenten stories about what led Mack to give up on his call to the priesthood, and about what happened at St. John’s, Petaluma in 2006 and the years that followed, are integral to the Easter story of how they both got back on their feet.
And what makes this such a powerful story, what is going to make Mack such a transformative priest in the church, is the way these things happened together.  The vision that brought Mack to St. John’s is the same vision that reawakened his vocation to the priesthood.  It the same vision that is rebuilding this congregation from a half-dozen people meeting in Betty and Joe Petrillo’s living room.  It is a vision of God. 
The God of this vision is not content to sit on a throne in heaven and be fanned by the wings of the seraphim.  This God is seeking a people.  To have a vision of this God is to face a problem more daunting than homophobia, more challenging than schism.  To see this God is to be thrust into a difficulty harder to overcome than the loss of a church building.  It is enough to make you cry out, “Woe is me!  I am a person of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”  Because the vision of God that called St. John’s, Petaluma back to life, the same vision that called Mack back to the priesthood, is a vision that demands a response.  To see this God is to be sent, to be sent to renew God’s people. 
As that handful of Episcopalians became too big for a living room and celebrated its first public service on Easter Sunday five years ago, a new people began to gather.  They came seeking the vision, and soon enough, they received it.   And before they knew it, they were sent.  Some were sent to be Senior and Junior Wardens, others, like Jeremy, to be Treasurer.  They were sent as Choir Leaders and Organists and Altar Guild Directors.  They were sent to start a Food Pantry and TaizĂ© services and Labyrinth Walks.  They were sent to a Godly Play Sunday School, and an Estate and Stuff Sale.  And it was really inevitable, when you think about it, that one of them would be sent to be a priest.  Because that is how true vocations to the priesthood happen.  A priest is sent because a people are gathering in response to a vision of God.
There is an old commercial dish sanitizer in the kitchen here at St. John’s, and when I first came here, Mack and Jeremy were the only people in the parish who knew how to operate it.  Whenever we had a fellowship event we had to be sure Mack and Jeremy were coming before we got out the ceramic plates and metal flatware.  They knew that the machine really is not that difficult to operate and anyone could do it if they could just overcome their fear of it, but they were always good-humored about it.  They were always happy to serve.  Well, last fall I received a sign that the Spirit was leading Mack deeper into the mystery of his vocation, when I heard he was teaching some other folks how to operate the dish-sanitizer.  If you hang around to the end of the luncheon that follows this service, you may even see them in action.  And here’s the thing—Mack would have been happy to teach them all along.  But it finally happened when some people were ready to learn.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has a vision of God.  He’s going around Galilee in all the towns and villages, preaching about it.  And who wants to hear what Jesus has to say?  Who starts gathering around him?  The sick, the blind, the mute, lepers, the demon-possessed, the tax-collectors and prostitutes, all the people who are so beaten-down and burned-out by injustice and false promises that they’re not even trying to be good anymore.  And Jesus looks around at all this misery and what does he see?  An abundant harvest.   Fields full of fat, white, ears of perfect ripe grain.  A rich spiritual harvest of people without illusions, without a vested interest in the idols of status quo.  People who are done waiting for some future deliverance, people who are ready for God.
In the villages of Galilee in Jesus’ time, bringing in the harvest is everyone’s work.  All other concerns are put aside and everyone pitches in to bring in the ripened crops before rain or hail or locusts, blight or crows or wildfire can destroy them.  You help me on my farm and when my crop is in, we go over to yours.  Anyone who isn’t actually out in the fields reaping or binding sheaves or carrying them to the threshing floor is making food for the harvesters or doing their chories, or tending the children, helping out in some way.  So when Jesus instructs his disciples to pray the Lord to send laborers into his harvest, it’s not about God lighting a fire under the butts of the lazy.  It’s about the vision of the harvest.  Pray that God will help you see the abundant harvest of spiritual opportunity that is all around you in the suffering of your community.  Pray that more people will see that now is the time.  
Mack, somewhere out there is another congregation that needs you now more than we do.  Somewhere God is giving that people a vision of the harvest.  They are praying that the Lord will send laborers into his harvest, and as they pray it is dawning on them that the laborers are them.  And where such a people are, God will send a priest, and though nobody but She knows it yet, that priest will be you.  We are not in a hurry for that day, but we know that it will come.  And because we know how you were called, we know you will be sent, not as an answer to their prayer, but as one who sustains them in praying it.  You will feed them with the bread of the harvest that they long for, the harvest that is already ripe in Christ’s vision of the Kingdom.  And they will feed you, in ways that you can’t even begin to imagine here today.  It is a good road that has brought you here, my brother.  It is a good road you are walking.  It is a good road that lies ahead.  May God bless you and keep you on that road.  AMEN.    

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Only God is God

On Friday I decided to go surfing.  I hadn’t had a day off in a couple of weeks and I needed some play time, to cleanse my mind and renew my sense of well-being.  I got up before 6:00 to work a little on this sermon, and I wrote a couple of emails.  Then I made breakfast for the family, did some stretches, and put the board on the car, before dropping my daughter off at school, and heading out to Dillon Beach.  I was out in the water before I remembered that I’d meant to call the church office and leave a message for the volunteer receptionist saying I wasn’t coming in.
So, a couple of hours later, the first thing I did once I’d changed out of my wetsuit was to telephone the office to check in.  It turned out that Frances Frazier, who was on duty, was having quite a morning.  Someone had jammed the handle on one of the women’s toilets on Thursday night so it never stopped flushing.  The constant flow proved to be more than the sewer drain could handle and the water had started running out onto the floor.  The floor drain backed up too, so Frances arrived that morning to find water pooling in the little entryway outside the bathroom and soaking the carpet.

So she’d called Clif Hill, the Junior Warden, and he was on the scene, as were the Dolcini family, father and sons, plumbers.  But I felt badly that I’d been out of touch.  I had an extra half hour or so before I was due to pick Risa up from school, so I said I’d stop by on my way back into town.   But I really needn’t have.  Clif gave me a full report, and it was clear that he was giving the plumbers all the direction they needed.  He’d also contacted a water cleanup and restoration service they were on their way to try to salvage the carpet.  I helped Frances find the number for our insurance agent, so I guess that was helpful, but she made the call and filed the claim.  And after that there was really no reason for me to be there.   Still it was hard for me to leave.

One of the occupational hazards of being a minister is to think that you’re indispensible.  You care about everything that happens to everyone, and you want to be there when you’re needed.  If something bad happens, it’s your responsibility to do something, even if it is only to be there to listen and say some encouraging words or maybe pray.  And in a small church like this one, when you’re the only paid person on the staff, it’s hard not to feel like that responsibility applies even to the plumbing. 

And the truth is, most of the time, I don’t mind.  It feels good to be helpful.  I like to feel like I’m someone people can count on when the chips are down.  I like feeling like the work I do matters.  I like to feel like a good person, and if I’m going to be completely honest, I have to say I like it when other people think I’m a good person too.

But sometimes I can’t be there.  Sometimes I’m not needed.  Sometimes I’m going to disappoint people.  I don’t know that Frances and Clif were disappointed with me on Friday, so the fact that I was worried that they were is a pretty good indication that I’d fallen into a trap.  It is a common enough trap to fall into.  I think most of us do it from time to time in one way or another, but those of us who are drawn to work in what is sometimes called the “helping professions” may be more prone to it than most.  It is the trap of being overly identified with our image of ourselves as the helper, the good person, the one you can count on.  I’m not saying isn’t rewarding to serve others.  I’m not saying “don’t call me if you need something.”  What I’m saying is that we all have our limitations, and when we start to forget that, we’re in trouble.

Will that in mind, I’m finding the reading from the gospel of John this morning kind of comforting.  Because Jesus in this story is not being helpful, at least not in the usual sense of the word.  He is a rebel, a trouble-maker, a public nuisance.  He walks into the holiest place in the world, at one of the holiest times of the year, when it’s full of thousands of pious pilgrims, and starts wreaking havoc.  He starts a stampede of cows and sheep.  He turns over tables and dumps out jars of money.   He tells the helpful people, the ones who furnishes the pilgrims with the things they need to please God, to get their things out of there, to stop what they’re doing.  This is behavior that is more than disappointing.  It’s shocking.  It’s outrageous.  This is not how a religious leader is supposed to behave.

But for just this reason Jesus’ action is supremely helpful.  Because its purpose is to remind us that only God is God.  The temple is not God.  The sacrifices are not God.  The church is not God, not the liturgy, not the priest, not even the bible.  Our good deeds, and good reputations, our selfless service, and noble intentions, none of this is God either.  It is not that any of these things are bad, but that we need to hold them lightly, and keep them in their right place.

The first of the Ten Commandments says  “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt…you shall have no other Gods before me.” And the second says not to make an idol in the image of any created thing and worship that.  Now we might be tempted to skip over these to get on to the more practical items, but there’s a reason why the list starts there.

We might think that those commandments apply to other people, people who are not of our religion, for instance.  But if we are really sincere about a relationship with the living God, those commandments are for us.  What they are saying is that God is passionately committed to having a relationship with us.  And the kind of relationship that God wants to have is one that sets us free.  Which sounds kind of nice, but the truth is that that kind of freedom is not always easy to accept.  Walking purely in faith, not clinging to surrogates and substitutes, depending on nothing but the living God, the real God, the only God who is actually God, is a very vulnerable place to be.
It is no coincidence that Jesus’ demonstration in the temple involves setting the sacrificial animals free.  The basic idea of sacrifice is that a debt of life must be paid in order to receive life-giving blessings.  But I think Jesus in the temple is saying that the God who must be bargained with in this way is not really God.  The real God is not for sale.  Neither is he collecting on his debts.  The real God only has one purpose, which is of his very nature—to give life.  For us to receive that gift in its fullness, we have to give up trying to buy what is being offered for free.
Which is another way of thinking about Lent.  The real purpose of Lenten discipline is not to give up certain things so we will get other things in return.  The real purpose is to relax our grip on the things that stand in for God in our lives.  These might not be things we usually think of as vices.  In human hands anything can become a bargaining-chip, even our virtues.  There is a lot about us that is good.  There is a lot we can do on this earth to help each other.  But anything you or I can do by ourselves is paltry compared to what we can do together.  And only God, the real God, the only god who is God, is completely dependable.  Only God is the source of life.

About Me

My photo
Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.