Sermon: September 6, 2009
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.