Friday, March 19, 2010

Paying Our Rent

St. Vincent Academy, Newark NJ
Students in Community Sending Forth Ceremony
March 19, 2010

Paying Our Rent

It is a great gift to be back here at St. Vincent’s. You and I have something in common – just like you I did a lot of my growing up here at SVA. I didn’t know what I was in for when I interviewed with Sister June in January, 1992. I had one thing on my mind – I need this job. I hadn’t worked since September and I was just about out of money to pay for rent and life’s other necessities. I was looking at having to give up my little studio apartment and move back with my parents. I love my parents very much, but rightly or wrongly it felt like failure to move back home.

So I arrived here that day with that one thought: I need this job. During the interview Sister June shared with me the mission of SVA – which has really been the mission of the Sisters of Charity for these past 150 years – and is really the mission of the whole Church: the mission to proclaim the Good News of Jesus by living lives of service to our sisters and brothers. To quote from the SVA mission statement:

Saint Vincent Academy inspires students to develop lifelong commitments to Christian service and a capacity for hope, compassionate leadership and the desire to transform the world into a more just and peaceful society.

During my interview as Sister June was telling me all this I was asking myself two questions. You already know the first one: would I get this job? Second, all this stuff about living lives of service sounds very nice, but is SVA really different from other good schools?

And then she began to tell me about Students in Community. I remember being amazed as she described this carefully thought-out program that began in freshman year and then culminated in what you are about to do next week – going out into the world and give yourself in service to others. It was then that I realized that if I got this job – which have I mentioned I really needed? – I was in for a lot more than just teaching history.

In the same way, I’m sure it didn’t take you long to realize that being an SVA student means learning a lot more than math or English or science.

So, this is why I say that like you I grew up at SVA. It was here that I finally really learned that life is about discovering our gifts and giving away our lives in service to others. Our two readings today from St. Paul could not be more appropriate. Paul understood that God has given us all different gifts. Big deal - everyone knows that, right? But Paul also understood that while we have different gifts, we are all united by the job of using our gifts, of giving away our lives, for the “common good.”

It was here at SVA that I finally really learned that this is what life is all about. It’s here that I grew up. Now, don’t get me wrong, I also went to a great high school and I have wonderful parents who tried to get this message across to me. But, it was here, working with Sisters June and Margaret, Ms. Nolan, the Freshman Team and all the rest, that I really learned that the Christian life is discovering the gifts we have been given by God and then giving them all away in lives of service to others. Life is about service. It was here that I first heard the quote from Marian Wright Edelman, “Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”

I love that. I learned all of these lessons about service working with these remarkable people and I also learned about service from the amazing girls I taught here in the 1990s. I learned from my students in the classroom and I especially learned from them when I visited them in their SIC placements.

I have vivid memories of getting lost riding around the unfamiliar streets of Newark, trying to find the schools and hospitals where the girls were working. This was long before GPS or even mapquest. But my most vivid memories are finding and seeing these young women in a whole different light. It was during SIC that I found out who they really were – talented and generous young people, eager to serve others.

They may not have been too happy about doing social studies homework (I know, hard to believe, right?) but I found them working so hard in a hospital or in a classroom. I found them gently rocking a baby to sleep or sitting patiently listening to a sick and frightened patient tell his or her sad story. I found them comforting an upset little boy or girl in the classroom and I found them competently assisting a teacher.

Thinking about what those girls did in SIC back then, I’m reminded of something we do in the Episcopal Church. Whenever someone is baptized – whenever they decide to formally become a follower of Jesus, they publicly sign on for what we call the Baptismal Covenant. The idea is that baptism is really the beginning of our life of Christian service.

Listen to some of the questions we ask of the newly baptized (or, if it’s a baby being baptized, questions we ask of their parents and godparents): Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God and Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Big questions! For each of those very challenging questions we are asked to respond, “I will, with God’s help.”

Well, back when I was teaching here those SVA juniors and seniors, probably without knowing it, said “I will, with God’s help” and were sent out on SIC and proclaimed the Good News by their example, tried their best to love their neighbor as themselves and tried their best to respect the dignity of every human being.
It’s hard to believe that was nearly twenty years ago – nearly a generation. But, although much time has passed, the impact of SIC and SVA continues to be felt in the lives of those young women and in my own life.

In my own case, I know that my years at SVA helped to set me on a direction that led to ordination in the Episcopal Church. And I continue to apply those lessons in my life as a priest. Just last summer, the youth at my church made a mission trip to Camden, one of the poorest cities in the country, where we spent a very SIC-like week volunteering at food pantries, homeless shelters, adult day care centers and more. At the end of each day we would reflect on our experience, looking for how we had seen God at work in the people and places we had met and learning about how and why our rich country allows some people to live in such desperate poverty.

And I know for a fact that SIC continues to affect the girls I taught back in the 1990s. For years every once in a while I’d run to one of my former SVA students. It was always great to be remembered and to catch up. But, now thanks to the miracle of facebook I’ve managed to reconnect with dozens of those girls and get a sense of the kinds of lives they are leading. Making me feel old, many are now married and many have children. And making me feel very happy, many of them are involved in serving other people. Some serve others by being in a helping profession, working as teachers, or doctors or nurses and more. Others serve by volunteering.

So many of that generation have remembered that “Service is the rent we pay to be living. It is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time.”

Now it’s your turn. Now it’s time for this generation to build on the 150 year long service of the Sisters of Charity and it’s time for this generation to build on the service of your SVA sisters who have gone before you during the 35 years or so of Students in Community.

Now it’s your turn. But actually, I’m told, it’s been your turn for a while now. Sister Noreen told me that back when you were freshmen, the seniors worked at the Community Food Bank in Hillside and that two years ago both the current juniors and seniors hosted second graders at an Easter party. And I’m sure the juniors remember the cold day last year they spent cleaning the beach at Sandy Hook. And this year your younger sisters are taking their turn, hosting a luncheon for all of the Sisters of Charity during this anniversary year.

So, now it’s your turn and I’m really happy and excited for you. I’m also a little jealous of your teachers who will get to go out and see you and support you as you do such important service in our communities.

Before I finish I want to mention one other aspect of this service business. Let’s hear again that excerpt from the SVA mission statement:

Saint Vincent Academy inspires students to develop lifelong commitments to Christian service and a capacity for hope, compassionate leadership and the desire to transform the world into a more just and peaceful society.

Another thing I learned during my time at SVA is that leadership is the flip side of service. In fact all of us are called to be servant leaders. Someone once wrote, “Servant leadership defines success as giving, and measures achievement by devotion to serving.” I don’t need to tell you this is not how the world defines leadership. The world defines leadership as getting people to do what the leader wants them to do.

You might think that servant leadership is impossible. But, stop and think about the leaders you know right here at SVA – leaders who are not interested in gaining power or wealth or making people do things that aren’t good for them. Instead, here at SVA you see servant leadership in action – leaders who have given away their lives in service to you and to the generations who have gone before you.

And stop and think of the greatest of all servant leaders, Jesus of Nazareth. In church on Holy Thursday we’ll tell the story of the Last Supper when Jesus got on his knees and like a servant washed the feet of his friends. And he told them that this is how they – how we – are supposed to treat one another. We are supposed to be servant leaders.

And if you go into SIC with an open heart, then not only will you be serving. You will also be a servant leader.

So, that’s it. Now it’s your turn to pay your rent. Now it’s your turn to say “I will, with God’s help.” Now it’s your turn to be sent forth from this remarkable school to serve your sisters and brothers out in a world that desperately needs your service. But more than that, now it’s your turn to begin – or to continue - your lives of servant leadership. I’ll be praying for you. May God continue to bless this generation and to bless St. Vincent Academy.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Surprised by Joy

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
March 14, 2010

Year C: The Fourth Sunday in Lent
(Joshua 5:9-12)
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Surprised by Joy

We’ve already reached the fourth Sunday in Lent and if you’ve been coming to church regularly over the past few weeks, by now you may have gotten used to our somewhat toned-down atmosphere here. George Hayman has a running joke that his wife the rector has forbidden the use of Joy dish detergent during the season of Lent. While that’s not true - I think - Lent, of course, is a season for penance and sacrifice and reflection and so our surroundings here at church are designed to reflect that. In an effort to create the appropriate atmosphere all the shiny items are either put away or covered up with purple cloth.

Rather than our usual sparkling silver chalices and patens, we use duller ceramics. Just the other day a parishioner was bemoaning that there aren’t any great Lenten tunes. I’ll defer to Anne’s judgment about that, but certainly the music is more somber than usual. At our Rite I service we say the Prayer of Humble Access before communion, calling us to humility before we receive the Body and Blood of Christ:

“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table…”

On one level the Prayer of Humble Access offers a powerful reminder of our sinfulness and unworthiness and calls us to repentance before we approach the Lord’s Table.

Lent, like all of the church’s seasons, is an artificial creation designed to make a theological point. Lent reminds us of our sinfulness and challenges us to make sacrifices, to change our ways, to remind ourselves of our total dependence on God. Lent is especially important for you and me – people living in this rich and comfortable society.

Some people, though, don’t need this artificial creation to remind them of sacrifices and dependence on God. When our Presiding Bishop recently visited Haiti, she rightly told the suffering people there that they could skip Lent this year – they had already experienced a real world Lent. They could and should skip ahead to Easter – skip ahead to the joy of the Resurrection, to the joy that comes from knowing that for Jesus and for us death is not the end.

Of course, it’s not just people in Haiti or Chile who have already experienced a real world Lent. There are people right here in our community, right here in our congregation who are experiencing a real world Lent. There are people facing serious illness or are caring for someone who is ill. There are people who have lost their jobs and there are people afraid of when they will get the dreaded visit or call from a supervisor telling them to clear out their desks. There are people who are depressed and anxious. There are people filled with regret and remorse.
Many of us right here have already experienced a real world Lent.

Yet, even in the midst of artificial Lent and even in the midst of real world Lent, it’s always the mission and purpose of the Church to proclaim the Good News. In fact the Prayer of Humble Access proclaims joyful Good News too: We say to God, “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”

During Lent we cover up the crosses and put away the silver, but the Church can never ban joy. And to remind us of the joy that is at the heart of the Christian message, today we put away the purple and bring out the rose vestments and hangings. We set aside this fourth Sunday in Lent is as Laetare Sunday, as rejoice Sunday.
And if we pay attention, if we keep our eyes open, even in the midst of artificial and real world Lents, we may find ourselves, to borrow the title of a book by C.S. Lewis, surprised by joy. Even in the midst of our own struggles and pain, we may find ourselves surprised by joy.

Take a moment and think about just last weekend here at Grace Church and see if we’re not surprised by joy. Twenty of the men had a retreat that was filled with honest and prayerful discussion about the big issues of life and faith. Meanwhile at church, I hear Jacki Connell led a fine First Friday and the next morning Dorothy Hayes and Sue Mangina coordinated the successful second annual craft day. Mary Lea Crawley put together a wonderful Help Haiti Sunday encouraging the children to come up with creative ways to raise money for the people of that devastated country. And to add to the joy, an anonymous parishioner generously offered to match the money raised by the children. Together they raised about $1000 for Haiti. Communion was brought to faithful people over at Pine Acres and Harmonium had one of its most successful concerts ever. And at the end of the day one tired priest and a Confirmation class of 13 lively kids talked about how God makes an unbreakable bond with us in baptism.

If we pay attention even in the midst of Lent we may find that we are surprised by joy.

And if we paid attention to today’s lessons we may very well have been surprised by joy. Today’s gospel lesson is one of the all-time greats, what’s usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s found only in the Gospel of Luke and captures our imagination because Jesus gives us a parable that stretches us to imagine how we would act if we were the prodigal son, the older brother or the father. Or maybe we don’t have to imagine. I remember hearing someone say the longer he lived, eventually he had played all of the parts.

Since we call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son it’s natural for us to think that the parable is really about this wayward young man who squanders his inheritance, and ends up begging to be taken back in, not as a son but as a hired hand.
When we stop and think about it, though, this great parable is not mostly about the prodigal son. His is an all-too-common, everyday story. Jesus’ great parable is about someone much more unusual. Jesus’ parable is about the loving father.

When we look at this loving and forgiving father, just as when we look at Jesus, we see what God is really like. “But thou art the same Lord whose property is to always have mercy.” No matter how we’ve gone astray, God is ready to welcome us back with forgiveness and open arms. And we might very well find ourselves surprised by joy.

Whenever I think of this parable I’m reminded of a priest friend of mine. He had been rector of a big suburban parish and lost everything – his church and some of his family, his sense of self – to the ravages of alcoholism. After going through rehab and beginning the road to recovery he finally worked up the courage to make an appointment with the bishop to see if he might have a future in the Church. Many times he told the story of waiting nervously outside the bishop’s office. Suddenly the bishop came out of his office and without saying a word, walked over, embraced him and welcomed him back to the church.

And my friend was surprised by joy.

St. Paul is someone else who was surprised by joy. Today we heard a passage from what we call the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Most scholars, however, think that this letter is actually a collection of letters from Paul to Corinth that were stitched together by a later editor.

Paul’s story is amazing – he never knew Jesus during his earthly lifetime. In fact, he had persecuted early followers of Jesus. Later he had a powerful encounter with the resurrected Christ that dramatically changes his direction. He spent the rest of his life traveling around the Mediterranean telling people the Good News about Jesus and setting up Christian congregations.

One of those congregations was in the rich Greek port city of Corinth. The Corinthian congregation gave Paul a lot of trouble. After he was gone they were tempted by other, probably Jewish-Christian, missionaries who offered a different kind of gospel and were perhaps more eloquent and better-looking than Paul. If you read all of Second Corinthians you find that Paul gets very angry at and hurt by the church in Corinth.

We don’t know if Paul was familiar with the parable of the prodigal son and his loving father, but Paul definitely understood that in Jesus we see that God is merciful and loving. And Paul definitely understood that we are called to also be loving and merciful.

He writes to his troublesome congregation in Corinth, “…In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the ministry of reconciliation to us.”

So, just like the loving father in the parable. Just like the bishop in my story, Paul set aside his hurts and disappointments, and opened his arms in forgiveness and welcome for the people of Corinth.

And today, if we keep our eyes and hearts open, even in the midst of our artificial and real world Lents, as we receive forgiveness of our sins, as we offer peace to our fellow Christians, as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, as we donate pajamas or drop food into the bin, today we also may find ourselves surprised by joy.


Monday, March 01, 2010

Patrick of Ireland

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
March 2010
Curate’s Corner

Patrick of Ireland

One of the great gifts and distinctive features of Grace Church is that we have at least one public worship service every day of the year. As I have heard Lauren mention many times, these daily services “bathe” our church in prayer. Day after day we give thanks to God for the many blessings of our lives. We pray for people throughout the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church and Grace Church. Each day we pray for all of those on our parish prayer list – lifting up to God some people we may know well and the many more who are unknown, yet all are in some kind of spiritual or physical need.

Another major benefit of the daily services is that we honor the holy men and women of Christian history who are commemorated on our church calendar. The guidelines for inclusion on our church calendar adopted by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church call for people who demonstrate heroic faith, love, goodness of life, joyousness, service to others for Christ’s sake, and devotion. I remember in seminary a professor once said that we should “become friends” with these faithful people who can serve as inspiring examples for us as we try to live Christian lives in our own time and place.

Our calendar includes both relatively obscure figures from the Episcopal and Anglican past and those who are well-known throughout the Christian world. In the month of March, for example, we honor the obscure Cuthbert (7th Century bishop of Lindisfarne) and also Patrick, the famed 5th Century bishop and missionary of Ireland. There’s just one problem – during Lent we refrain from celebrating the lesser feasts. That means that this year Cuthbert, Patrick and the other holy people commemorated in March will not get their due. Inspired by some Irish pride, I thought I would use part of my space here to write a little about Patrick, a holy and brave man whose name, unfortunately, has become closely associated with the over-consumption of alcohol on and around March 17, the day the Church sets aside in his honor.

Although Patrick wrote an autobiography, Confessions, considered fairly reliable by most scholars, the details of his life remain sketchy and blanketed by charming mythology. Patrick was born in Britain (not Ireland!) around the year 390. His father was both a deacon and a member of the local town council. When Patrick was 16 he was captured by pirates and held in captivity for six years in Ireland where he worked as a shepherd. When he was about 21, Patrick made his escape back home to Britain – a daring and risky adventure that he claimed was inspired and sustained by God.

Patrick was unsurprisingly changed by such difficult and profound experiences. He now took his Christian faith very seriously and was ordained a priest and also apparently a bishop. After his time as a slave in Ireland, it is remarkable that Patrick chose to return to Ireland as a free man, determined to convert the Irish to Christianity. He spent the rest of his life spreading the Good News to all, from chieftains to peasants. Like many missionaries before and since, he built on the local pagan religions, converting their sacred sites to Christian shrines. He ordained men to the priesthood and established convents and monasteries. Patrick died probably in 461.

The Gospel appointed for the Feast of St. Patrick is Matthew 28:16-20, known as “the great commission.” At the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel the Risen Jesus appears to the eleven disciples and presents them with what came to be seen as the mission of the Church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

A millennium and a half ago Patrick heard that call and devoted his life to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus in the land that had once held him captive. We live in a very different time and place, yet we are also challenged to find ways to spread the word about Jesus. For a few of us maybe that means imitating Patrick and going off to a strange land. Most of us, however, have the perhaps more difficult job of spreading the Gospel through our deeds and words right here in Morris County.

Wherever we live our Christian lives we can have that same confidence of Patrick that Christ is with us always. This confidence is captured beautifully in St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a hymn attributed to the great missionary of Ireland:

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.