Sunday, August 15, 2010

Love is a Verb

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
August 15, 2010

Love is a Verb: A Farewell to Grace Church

First, I’d like to thank everyone who worked so hard to make this a special day for Sue and me, and really for all of us, as we celebrate these three years together. So, thank you to the amazing and tireless Midge Cassidy for her very hard work putting this reception together under less than ideal circumstances. Thanks also to Mary Lea for organizing all of those pictures out in the lobby – it’s kind of overwhelming, actually. I can’t really take it all in at once. Thanks to Stacy Wilde for the decorations here today. And thanks to Dr. Anne and Eric Stroud and all the members of the choir who in the dog days of summer rehearsed this past week and as always gave us the gift of beautiful music. Sue and I are very grateful.

Looking back over the past three years, I’d like to thank the wardens (Geoff Brooks, Judy Jurgensen, Dave Gates and Chris Wilde) and vestry members past and present for their leadership and support. I’d also like to thank again Chris Wilde and all the J2A leaders past and present for their commitment to our youth. Thanks to Kit Cone for the many ways he has helped us over the past three years and now for volunteering to drive one of our cars to Florida next week. Thanks to the head acolytes, Will Brooks and Siobhan McCulloch – the acolytes are in very good hands with these two young leaders. And thanks to George Hayman for his friendship and in a quiet way for helping Sue in the strange role of clergy spouse.

On one of our first Sundays here the J2A group was having a fundraiser making and selling tie-dye t-shirts. And on the back of the shirts was printed the phrase, “Love is a Verb.”

I’ve liked that expression ever since and have worked it into a couple of sermons these past three years. It’s a phrase that captures what this church is all about. Grace Church is a church that expresses its faith and love through action. Love is a verb. Sometimes the verb is quietly opening a checkbook and offering remarkable generosity to the souper bowl fundraiser, the J2A pilgrimage, the Recycling Ministry, or simply in a pledge.

Sometimes the verb is standing for a couple of hours at the Community Soup Kitchen serving food or washing hundreds of trays and pots and pans. Sometimes the verb is day after day delivering furniture to the least among us. Sometimes the verb is personally visiting all of the places that receive outreach money from Grace. The verb is reaching out to a parishioner or a family in trouble. The verb is picking up the phone or sending a note to someone who is lonely or sad or frightened. Sometimes the verb is working on the church budget or managing the endowment or crafting new window sills, or upgrading our technology. Sometimes the verb is giving up a week of summer vacation time to go on a mission trip or pilgrimage with our youth.

Sometimes the verb is organizing the clothing sale and the auction, or volunteering at the clothing sale or auction. Sometimes the verb is spending hours polishing brass or ironing linens. Sometimes the verb is helping a fellow choir member who’s lost his or her place. Other times the verb is attending long vestry meetings. The verb is staying to clean up after an event. Sometimes the verb is sacrificing the time to teach Sunday School or lead a youth group. Sometimes the verb is coming by church near dusk or early in the morning to make sure the plants are getting enough water.

And sometimes the verb is simply being here, worshiping together, praying for ourselves, our families and friends, the community and the world.

Because I had used the phrase in a couple of sermons, a while back Jabez Van Cleef gave me the screen used to make “Love is a Verb” shirts. I will bring the phrase in my heart but this really belongs here as a reminder of who you really are. It’s been a while, so maybe it’s time to make some more shirts – and, if you do, don’t forget to send us a couple.

Believe me, this past month I’ve been thinking a lot of all I will miss about Grace Church. And as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized how Grace Church is made up of little communities. So I give special thanks for Tuesday evening craft guild, the Wednesday and Thursday morning congregations, the Friday men’s breakfast, choir moms (and an occasional dad) on Friday afternoon, the Saturday breakfast group and the gang at the Last Chance Mass, and the list goes on. And if you’re not connected to one or more of the little communities here, I hope you’ll give it a try.

The little community I will miss the most is the group of colleagues I’ve worked with here these past three years. Working with them – you - has been not only an excellent professional experience, but also a great gift to me personally. We have been partners in ministry. Everyone in this little community of colleagues and friends has understood that love is a verb.

So, thank you to the three parish administrators, Nina Nicholson, Jabez VanCleef, and Kirk Petersen. Especially these days, it’s not so hard to find skilled people, but Nina, Jabez and Kirk brought not only fine skills but also a deep love for the Church and its mission. All three were also great fun to work with – and never once seemed to lose their patience when I would say something like, “I hate to ask you to do one more thing, but…”

It’s hard to find superlatives that are superlative enough to describe what it’s been like to work with Mary Lea Crawley and Anne Matlack. Both are geniuses with huge hearts and willing and able to work, keep working and work some more. One important and rare thing they both share is that they both care about the life of the whole church – not just the areas in their job description. The kind of pastoral care they both give to so many is a precious gift – and one of the most important reasons this is as strong a church as it is. They both have been great friends and although the team is breaking up I hope our friendship will stay strong.

A little more than three years ago I told a priest in this diocese that there was a possibility I would be going to Grace Madison to be Lauren Ackland’s curate. I told him that I had seen Lauren at different diocesan events and a couple of times over at General Seminary, but didn’t really know her at all. I told him I wasn’t sure about moving to the suburbs and what it would be like to work with her at Grace Madison.

He looked at me and said, “Jump at it.”

This priest went on to tell me how wonderful Lauren was, how smart and talented, how well-respected and how envious he would be if I had this opportunity. Frankly, I thought it was a little over the top. He did say that she would expect me to work hard, and, get this, she would want to read my sermons before she’d let me get into the pulpit.

All true, but what I’ve discovered is that he wasn’t over the top enough. When we first met and talked about the job, we seemed to hit it off and be on the same page about things church. But, one thing I remember from that day is she took me to lunch at Charlie Brown’s and when she said grace she thanked God for new friends.

At the time I was surprised, but she was right – we did become great friends. I was so honored to have her preach at my ordination and it has been the most amazing experience to learn from and to work side by side with a priest who is so deeply dedicated to the Church and its people; a priest who exemplifies the ordination vow to be a faithful pastor; a priest who is also a great friend.

When I interviewed here, I asked Lauren why she thought this church was doing so well while so many others seem to be struggling. There are many reasons, of course, many of whom are in this room, but Lauren said she believed that the fact that Grace has at lest one service of public worship every day of the year was an important reason.

Over my three years here I have come to believe that’s true. So much prayer in that beautiful building has a powerful spiritual effect. I also compare our daily services to the Sunday New York Times. I’m probably not going to read it all or maybe not even most of it, but it’s nice to know it’s there. So, even when I’ve missed a weekday service, it was comforting to know that at least one person was there praying for all of us.

When I began thinking about a gift for the parish, I thought about how much the weekday services have meant to me. Now, Lauren and I and the worship leaders know that the books containing the weekday lessons are falling apart. So, it may not be very dramatic, but it’s very meaningful to me to give to you a new set of lesson books; it’s very meaningful that these books will help with daily prayer in a place that has been a place of prayer for me and where I learned that love is a verb.