Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Living a Life of Promise

Sermon Sept 20

James: "Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom."

Last Sunday we were talking about promises: what are the promises that define your life – what are the promises that you have made to yourself, or your spouse, your children, your parents, your community, your God?

In the wisdom of the Church, we say that it is a good and life-giving thing to periodically review the promises that we have made. The promises of our lives are like the tires on our cars: it’s a good idea to inspect them once in a while, before they blow out while we’re driving down the highway at 70 mph.

Sometimes we outgrow the promises we’ve made and we need to recognize that. When my son was born I held him in my arms and looked into those miraculous eyes and made a sacred promise to him: that I would never let anything or anyone hurt him. Then one day he learned to walk, and the next day he learned to run - full tilt into the corner of our dining room table. I realized how impossible that promise was; but I still tried. By the time he was old enough to make his own decisions I was still trying – still trying to protect him from anything that would hurt him – until I realized that no one grows up who has never been hurt.

I needed to re-evaluate that sacred promise I made to him.

So what about our promises to God?

65 years ago, on a cold winter night in France during the Battle of the Bulge, my dad was huddled in a foxhole, shivering with cold and terror while artillery shells rained down around him. Death was as close as his breath; he could taste it on his teeth. He began to pray as he never had before; desperately, deeply, as if his life depended on it; and he found himself promising God that if he ever got through this war alive, he would become a doctor and dedicate his life to saving others.

This became a sacred promise that was to shape the rest of his life.

Once when I was a little boy I asked my mom, "What does daddy do all day?" She didn’t say, “He’s a doctor.” Instead, this very fierce look came over her, and she said, “He saves lives. Every day, he saves lives.” This made quite an impression on me.

That sacred promise that my dad made defined the rest of his life. It set the bar for the level of excellence that he would strive toward. It called him out of himself, from being a cocky, self-centered and smart-alecky kid into a deeply disciplined and caring man. Every day for the rest of his working life he rose before dawn, and got home long after sunset, and was often called back to the hospital in the middle of the night; and he never once complained - because he knew he was one of the lucky ones. He had survived the war - and he had found a purpose for his life. He had found a way to give back to God just a little bit of what God had given him.

But he didn’t accomplish this on his own. By making that promise to God, he enlisted God’s support; God met him half-way; God helped him keep his promise – because it was a sacred promise. That's the nature of a sacred promise - God meets you half-way.

In the letter of James this morning, we hear these words of advice: "Submit yourselves therefore to God… Draw near to God; and he will draw near to you."
When we make a sacred promise to God, we take a step toward God; and God takes a step toward us. We never make it alone; God is making it with us; as we draw near to God, God draws near to us.

What are the sacred promises of your life?

I have to confess I have never been able to understand people who have never made a sacred promise; whose lives are not guided by a sacred promise. To me they are like a tent without tent poles – what holds them up? What sustains them? What gives their life structure? Without tent poles, a tent is just a formless mass of nylon lying on the ground. But with the right tent poles, our lives take shape; our lives become the lives that God intended.

Now, I suppose you could make a tent without tent poles - with just the stuff you might find lying around – sticks or branches or what not – but they won’t fit us; they won’t stretch us. Truly sacred promises, like tent poles, are made exactly to fit the tent. When we make the right sacred promise to God, our lives expand to their maximum capacity. And our lives become a shelter for others.

Some of us raise ordinary promises to the level of the sacred - we promise to be good according to some Sunday School notion of the good: we promise not to stand out, not to ask too many questions; not to ask too much of anyone: we promise to make money: we promise to obey someone else’s promise that we never fully believed in.

When we do that our lives become tents with tent poles that are too short - our tent sags, blows in the wind, falls down often, never reaches its full height: leaks in the rain. Our promises are too small; we have been living too much for ourselves; we are not stretched to our true proportions.

Instead we lie awake at night listening to the water dripping through our walls, haunted by the question: is this it? Is this all there is? We get up in the morning and we notice in the clear light of day the tent sagging even more, despite our best efforts, and we feel gravity pulling us down into a resigned accommodation. Because we have not made a promise worthy of our life in God.

Even when things seem perfect we are haunted by the knowledge that perfect isn't good enough. We remember the old TV commercial: old friends gathered around a dinner table somewhere in Maine; lobsters steaming on a plate; beer glasses cold and full to the brim, laughter and love flowing; and someone says, "Here's to good friends - it doesn't get any better than this," and they clink their glasses and you think, "Really? Is that it?" Because as good as it is, it feels like there's still something missing. It isn't enough.

And the next day our tent just sags a little more.

And life goes on; our sacred promises become like stars dimmed by the lights of the city; our life as it was meant to be becomes a fragile memory: something impossible and theoretical, like a faded sketch that has been lost.

What is to be done?

And now at this point in the sermon I have to beg your indulgence because it might feel like I've stretched this tent pole analogy just about as far as possible but I'm going to take it just a little further:

What is to be done? Easy - we just write away to the manufacturer - we place an order for new tent poles - new sacred promises to give our lives structure. We pray to the Creator that the sustaining purpose of our lives will be revealed to use before we die; and that we will have the courage to let that promise define the remainder of our days.

But as we write that letter to the manufacturer, we realize we will have to enclose a check. We will have to decide, How much are these tent poles worth to us?

And we hear the voice of Jesus: “How about your whole life?”

“For what does it profit us if we gain our life, and lose our soul? For those who would save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, shall gain it.”

We write away to the manufacturer for those new tent poles; but if we put in a check for a dollar, or five, or any amount that looks like we have not considered what these tent poles are worth to us, our check will be returned uncashed.

Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.

When we're at church around stewardship season and someone suggests that we give to the church proportionally; that the visible and real extension of our promise - our pledge - to God might begin to bear some relationship to the value of our life: if, instead, we respond to that invitation by becoming smaller, or cynical, or worse, by saying to ourselves, "Well what's in it for me?" – then I suggest we are pitching our tent with sticks.

Your tent is better than that – your tent is bigger than that.

On the bottom of page 304 and the top of page 305 of our prayer books [and listed below], we find five tent poles, if you will; five sacred promises that, when made seriously and prayerfully, give our lives structure and purpose. These are promises that are God’s way of drawing closer to us, as we draw closer to God. I’d like us to take a moment to look at them. And as we go through them, I’d like you to ask yourself two questions: Which of these five promises seem like the easiest for me to keep, and which would be the most difficult?

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”

“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in 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?”

[Discussion follows - congregation breaks into pairs - what some people identify as the most difficult, others identify as the easiest; we realize that as we live together in community, we can honor all of these promises collectively, and with joy.]

Pray that we may find the sacred purpose that God has for us; pray that God will provide us with the strength and courage to hold up our end of our promises to God and to one another; pray that in all things, we will find our completion in Christ.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Returning, refreshed and ready to go

Sermon: September 6, 2009

Good morning!

The last time I stood in this pulpit was way back on April 12 - Easter Sunday, 4.5 months ago. Since then I have been away on an amazing sabbatical. And the first thing I have to say to you upon my return is this: thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for this incredible gift that you have made possible.

I feel a little bit like the man who went on a journey in search of treasure, and he found it, but it was too heavy for him to carry home, so that when he got home he could only talk about it; and the more he tried to convince his audience of the fabulous treasure he found, the more unbelievable he began to sound.

Nonetheless I am going to try.

Some aspects of my sabbatical are quantifiable: I traveled about 30,000 miles – 5,000 miles more than the circumference of the Earth. I spent at least one week in 9 different cities or towns. I finished 12 books – six for pleasure, including three Jane Austen novels, and six books related to my studies in congregational development. I wrote five academic papers and endured 200 weary hours inside a classroom.

But I also spent countless hours walking through the desert canyons in Utah, the woods near Tahoe, the forests in Minnesota, and the absolutely stunning mountains and valleys of New Zealand. And best of all, I spent a whole lot of time just sitting, alone, quietly, for hours at a time, in the presence of trees, and rivers, and lakes, and mountains, and oceans. I can’t tell you how precious that time was.

A lot of my sabbatical time felt like waiting – waiting for the big moment, the stunning revelation, the bolt of lightening. So I’m a little bit disappointed, and also quite relieved, to report that I did not see any angels descending on beams of sunlight; no unicorn emerged from a forest; I did not slay any dragons or rescue any maidens. I’m pretty much the same person I was when I left, except for one very important difference:

I think God has finally answered for me the question of what I’m supposed to be doing here in Santa Rosa, California.

Next week I’ll go into more detail about what exactly I mean by this – it’s too long of a story for just one sermon. (At the coffee hour this morning, someone said she was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I said, `Oh, it’s not a shoe. It’s more like a mukluk.’)

This morning I just want you to get a sense that something important has happened to me.

And part of it has to do with the simple magic that happens when you can finally get some perspective on your life. For me, this sabbatical has reminded of what it is that is ultimately important to me; what I most deeply care about; what it is I’m willing to live for and fight for and maybe even die for.

All I’ll say about that right now is that this is what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian means that you have clarity about the divine purpose of your life. To be a Christian means to know that you have work to do in this world; and that deep down inside you, where God lives, you know exactly what that is.

But it’s so easy to lose sight of that. You know how it is – in the busy, day-to-day dimension of our lives, running from work to family to bed to work again, unless you’re retired, in which case you’re even busier – you know how easy it is for one day to blend into the next and a week turns into a year turns into five and before you know it you have grandchildren and great grandchildren and you’re wondering what it was all about. And maybe like me you remember back to the days when you had dreams and passions and ideals; and while you know you’re wiser now, you can’t remember when the last time was that you had a passionate certainty about the purpose of your life.

I have to confess that before I went on sabbatical I was more confused about this than I knew. I was so close to my work here for five and half years that on any given day I could show you my calendar full of meetings and conferences and appointments, but I couldn’t say with any conviction that any of it expressed the divine purpose of my life.

I had let all the busy-ness of my life crowd out the divine purpose of my life. So getting away from the office and the streets and the cars and the emails has helped me remember why I am a priest and why it is that in the course of God’s strange and mysterious plan he created Matthew Lawrence.

And by now some of you are probably wondering, “Oh God, what’s he going to ask us to do now?” I think maybe a lot of rectors come back from their sabbaticals full of new ideas that they can’t wait to inflict on their unsuspecting congregations. But don’t worry, my particular epiphany doesn’t necessarily involve lots of new programs and new enthusiasms. It’s more about who I am as a child of God, and what God would have me do with the time I have left on this planet.

I spent quite a lot of time reflecting on the difference between what I say is important to me, and how I spend my time. For example, it’s not unusual to hear me complain that I don’t have enough time to visit members of the congregation, when I seem to have all the time it takes to sit at my desk answering hundreds of emails and attending dozens of meetings. Having gotten away from the office for four and a half months has proven to me that the church can actually do quite well without me running around chasing my tail; so I’m going to find a way to spend less time in the office and more time in face-to-face visits with you.

In a similar vein, I frequently complain that I don’t have time for getting exercise – but I seem to have time for television. I have plenty of time to complain about politicians, but not enough time to write a letter to my congresswoman. I have lots of time to spend worrying about climate change – but I’ve never bothered to invest my money in carbon offset projects. I have time to complain about the criminality of our criminal justice system and the insanity of our mental health system - and yet I've done precious little to translate those concerns into meaningful action.

What's going on with all of that?

How is it that we can spend so little amount of time and money on the things we say are most important to us?

This is exactly what James is asking us in our reading this morning. How is it, he asks, that we can claim to love our neighbors as ourselves, and yet do so little for our neighbors who are poor? “What good is it,” he says, “if you say you have faith but you do not have works?”

This, of course, is the great issue of the religious life – the distance that we can see in our lives between the values and commitments that we claim to have, and the ways in which we do our day-to-day business. This is the classic tension between faith and works. How is it that we can claim to love the poor, but we never seem to have time to help out at The Living Room or the Mission’s feeding program? What is it within us that prevents us from living our lives according to the values we claim to hold?

Of course, both Paul and James struggled mightily with this problem between faith and works; Paul being as honest about this as anyone ever has when he said, in Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.... Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7: 14-25)

This is the eternal problem. And of course it isn’t solved overnight by some self-righteous preacher fresh from sabbatical sermonizing about how we need to be doing more. If I had heard this sermon before I went off on sabbatical, my first instinct would have been to say, “Hey, no thank you, you’re about to ask me to do more and I’ve got too much on my plate already!” But the thing is, it would have been untrue! Because I hadn't been doing enough. I'd been living a life in which the priorities and values that I proclaimed as sacred to me were taking second place to that which was convenient and comfortable and immediately demanding of my time and attention.

So on that level – and just speaking for myself – things are going to change. I claim to be worried about global climate change, but never gave a thought to how much CO2 my 30,000 miles of travel was releasing into the atmosphere. It turns out to have been 23 metric tons. And it turns out that for $240, I could invest in a carbon offset project that recaptured that amount of CO2. So yesterday I went ahead and purchased that carbon offset.

I claim to care about the mentally ill in the prison system, so this Thursday I’m driving down to Monterey again to visit our friend who is in prison there for the crime of being mentally ill. Normally we have a staff meeting on Thursdays but something tells me they will get along fine without me.

I claim to have a keen interest in the vitality and growth of this Episcopal Church; the health of this institution is a sacred cause for me – and so, despite the fact that the Governor has decreased our household income by over 10%, we will once again be increasing our pledge this year. Because this congregation is more important to us than just about anything.

I could go on – but we’ve run out of time. Let me close by simply asking you to pray with me.

Holy and gracious God, we call upon your Holy Spirit to bring your blessing upon us as we seek to do those things that you have called us to do. Give us the courage to follow the path you have laid out for us; give us clarity of mind and heart to discern that path; and in all things empower us to bring your love into this world. All this we pray through your Son our Lord, Jesus Christ, Amen.