Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ninth after Pentecost, 2009

Our Guest Preacher on August 2, the Rev. Lucia Lloyd, has generously shared the text of her sermon. It was very much a pleasure to have her (and her family) with us at St. Andrew's.

August 2, 2009
RCL Proper 13
John 6:24-35

I particularly love Biblical passages about wilderness.

The congregation I serve has been going through a wilderness experience for the past two and a half years. Two and a half years ago the previous rector and a majority of the congregation voted to leave the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Church of Nigeria, and to take the property of St. Stephen’s Church with them. The members of St. Stephen’s who remained Episcopalians continue to worship God without the buildings. We have our Sunday services outdoors, with the birds singing and the breeze blowing through the trees, which adds an element of the wildness of nature to our worship, and can feel like we are in a wilderness space. In addition to feeling we are in a wilderness spatially, it feels we are in a wilderness temporally, because we really have no idea how long it will take for the property case to go through the litigation process, and what the future might bring. It is in many ways an experience of great uncertainty, and at the same time it is a holy adventure for me to be with them, living our faith in this church without walls.

I sometimes think back to the words of a Canadian bishop who came to speak to our diocese. This bishop spoke of visiting one of the parishes in her diocese, and listening as the vestry explained, “We can’t really do any outreach to the poor. We are an aging congregation.” The bishop looked at them, and leaned forward, and said, “There isn’t any other kind.” And of course, she is right. Every person alive is aging every day. But why let that stop us? I gained a new vision of what church leadership might look like from this bishop: a church without the word “can’t”, a church without excuses, a church without limits.

My congregation is mostly over sixty, and we have a thriving outreach ministry providing clean drinking water to families in our area whose wells have run dry or become contaminated. From the beginning, while the 30 members of the continuing Episcopal congregation were still looking for a place to hold their worship services and a priest to lead their services, they made it a top priority to serve the poor in their part of rural Virginia. They did not want to just put a check in the mail: they wanted to deliver the water themselves, in person, so that they could develop relationships that crossed the boundaries of poverty, racism, and isolation. They were determined to pursue what God was calling them to do, and if anyone had tried to tell them, “you’re too old, you can’t do that” they would have swept those limitations aside and forged ahead and done it. And last September, when they called a woman to be their priest-in-charge, for the first time in the parish’s history, and a young woman at that, if anyone had said, “you can’t do that; she’s just a young woman” they would have swept those limitations aside and forged ahead and done it. In the wilderness, you simply forge ahead, do what needs to be done, and all the old excuses or limits or can’ts fall by the wayside.

There is also the emotional wilderness. When the relationships you have counted on to support and encourage your faith turn on you, and become condemning or even hostile, making accusations about your faith that you know are not true, how do you learn to trust again? After all the conflict, it seems easier to just stop going to church, to just step back from a deeply flawed institution filled with deeply flawed people. It might seem that you can’t form a thriving faith community out of that much pain, and yet, the deep faith, the steadfast hope, the expansive love, have not only enlivened their relationships with each other and with God, they have also attracted new people to this brave and joyful band, who travel through this wilderness singing and praying.

In many ways, it has seemed like this congregation in the wilderness has found, just in time, the manna it needed for each day: money to buy chairs, or the person with just the right skill for the task at hand, or the solution to the impasse at the vestry meeting. And we are deeply grateful for all the blessings we have received. It has often seemed to me that this is a loaves and fishes congregation, in which the gift of a couple fish and five barley loaves, when given to Jesus, is miraculously enough to satisfy a crowd, with extra left over.

At the same time, I feel the pointedness of Jesus’ remark to the crowd: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” I wonder how that sounded to the folks in the crowd, hardworking farmers and fishermen, doing the best they could to meet the most basic needs of their families. Would Jesus’ talk of spiritual food have sounded pitifully ethereal to them? It is no wonder they remind this strange new rabbi, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”

Students in Psychology 101 often read of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. It states that human beings’ primary concern is to meet their basic physical needs, such as the need for food, and then once those needs at the bottom of the hierarchy are met, most people move on to meeting their needs for emotional security, and once those needs are met eventually some people progress to meeting their spiritual needs and their need for self-actualization. There is some truth to this theory, of course. But it seems to me that the people who find the most meaning in life are the ones who turn the hierarchy of needs upside down. The people who pursue what matters most in life are often willing to do without a feeling of security, even to do without food and other physical comforts, because they have found something more fulfilling. These are the people who are heroes and saints, the people who capture our imaginations because they inspire us to connect with the part of our own soul that is heroic and saintly, the part that knows that truth and justice and love and faith are of more value than lunch. They are people like St. Francis, who faces the choice of staying in his home with all the comforts of life as the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, or setting off to explore an unknown future in the wilderness, with nothing more than a sense that this was the way God was calling him to live his faith. At the time, people thought he was totally bonkers. And yet today, we have long since forgotten the names of all the most wealthy and prominent cloth merchants in 12th century Italy. But 800 years later, one of the most beloved saints in Christian history is Francis.

We think of good food as something which satisfies us and gives us pleasure, and we are right. But the true reason we need food is that it is fuel. The true purpose of food is to be turned into energy. We can look at faith as something that is a comfort to us and a joy to us, and we are right. But when Jesus gives us the bread of life, it is not only to make us feel good. It is so that God will grant us strength and courage to love and serve God with gladness and singleness of heart, doing the work God has given us to do.

The writer E.L. Doctorow has said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I believe that the same can be said about our journey of faith: you can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I often hear people talking about the way the Church should be. One of my friends from seminary jokes that Church people are always “shoulding on themselves.” Things like: The Church is a place where people should be nicer. There shouldn’t be so much conflict in the Church. The Church should be a place of security. The Church shouldn’t change so much. There is one church like that, and when we die, I hope we become members of it. The one church where everything is as it should be is in Heaven. But it is important that we not confuse the journey with the destination.
We have heard, “be careful what you pray for, you might get it”. So if we pray, “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength, for pardon only, and not for renewal” God might grant us that prayer. As every athlete knows, the way we gain strength is exercise. The way we gain renewal is dealing with change. The way we get to our heavenly destination is by our journey through uncertainty.

I have been talking about my parish’s experience in the wilderness partly as a way of introducing myself as we get to know each other, and partly because I can’t resist bragging about my fabulous congregation. But I am talking about being a congregation on a journey through the wilderness mostly for another reason. Despite the fact that we all feel a natural resistance to adversity, uncertainty, conflict, and change, despite our fears that we can’t develop the virtues that are involved in being a wilderness congregation, I have the sense that there isn’t any other kind.
As we travel through the wilderness, may God continue to give us the bread of life.

The Rev. Lucia Lloyd

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