Sunday, August 9, 2009

Tenth after Pentecost, 2009

Tenth after Pentecost (RCL Proper 14B)
2 Samuel 18: 5-33; John 6: 35-51

It’s been a month since I’ve stepped into the pulpit, which feels like an exceptionally long time for me. And that’s probably dangerous for you—so get comfortable! As they say at the warehouse, we have to work through a backlog of orders, and that might take some time. This turned out to be kind of a long sermon, so I’m glad we’re on our summer schedule and got an early start. As I sometimes say, if I’d had more time I could have done less.

It has been a full summer, with a great deal of rich reflection and experience for me personally, and I would even say some soul-searching and wrestling, on two old Benedictine themes: obedience and stability. Two of the three great vows of monastic life—and the third, conversatio mori, the conversion of a manner of life, I may get to later this summer. But these three themes I think about a lot.

(For those of you who don’t know, the character of Benedictine life was the theme of my sabbatical five years ago, and the subject for the last ten years or so of much of my reading, writing, and thinking about Christian life and ministry.)

For Benedict obedience and stability, deeply related, are two of the critical foundation stones for the life of the monastic community. But foundational for the monastery not in some distinctive way. Foundational for the monastery because these two themes are foundational for Christian life and ministry in any context, in any place or community. Vitally important for monks. But vitally important for monks because they are themes of character and of a manner of life that are vitally important for Christian people as Christian people always and everywhere. For all of us. So again, and not really typical American virtues, and counter-cultural, and always challenging: stability and obedience.

Staying put, and doing things the way they’re supposed to be done.

Anyway, hold that thought. I’ve been all over the place the last few weeks. Away the first part of July at the General Convention. The fourth time I’ve been to General Convention, but my first time as a deputy. And of course we’ll have more to say about that—Steve Stagnitta, Mary Roehrich, and I—a little later this month at the Adult Education program we’ve scheduled for August 30th. But I would just say in a very general way that for me it was of course an honor, a privilege to be a part of this, to be sent by our diocese at this important time of our life. And personally I had a great time in so many ways.

And yet at the same time, I have to say that for me personally also the Convention itself was really very much a mixed bag. Accomplishing some things that I thought were important and good, and moving in other ways in ways that I think were steps in probably the wrong direction, and that may I fear have negative consequences in all kinds of ways in years and perhaps even generations to come. So really mixed feelings. I haven’t digested it all yet, of course, and there are many unknowns in the calculation. And I know many of you have been following these things and will have insights and opinions that I’ll continue to be able to learn from as our conversations continue. But that’s just where I was as I packed my bags and left Anaheim on July 17. Uneasy.

But, just to go back to where we began. Obedience, and stability.

The next weekend I was still in California, and on Sunday the 19th of July I took my mom to her church, St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, which is in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles. Because of her disabilities it had been quite a while since she had been able to attend mass. There’s a Minister of Communion who visits her nursing home every couple of weeks, but I know she enjoyed seeing some old friends and hearing a sermon and listening to the music and being able to worship with the community. Though for me also there was that painful point, at the time for communion, when I helped my mom up to the communion station, and then stepped back, not to receive with her and in that worshiping family. Simply to experience this piece of brokenness of the life of the Christian community in a personal way, and which I do experience every time I go to church either with my mother or my sister and her family.

(As somehow this old family that used to be a bunch of Lutherans and Episcopalians and Presbyterians, now all my surviving close relatives are Roman Catholics. I almost tremble to imagine what my Norwegian Lutheran Grandfather Pederson would have said.)

In any case, if it is our teaching that all baptized Christians are welcome, if they desire it, to receive communion in the Episcopal Church, that isn’t the teaching and practice of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. And so here again, just to say, a gift to be able to spend this time with my mom and family, and I loved being able to take her to church. But mixed feelings also. And all this in the further context, as you’ll have noticed in our prayers this morning, as we have added my mom to our prayer list, that her medical condition has taken a turn for the worse in just the past couple of weeks, so that works into some of my emotional perspective as well.

And bringing me back to—well, obedience and stability.

And anyway: after all this time in California at Convention and with my family, I then got on a plane and flew up to Boston, where I met Susy—and we drove down to the little town of Scituate, her old family home, and where we were able to spend a few days at the shore. A kind of mini-vacation, which was really wonderful. And just to keep the theme going, I’d mention that on Sunday the 26th of July Susy and her brother Mike and I went up the street from the old family house, as we do every summer, to worship at St. Luke’s in Scituate. My friend Grant Barber is the rector there, and he had a great sermon on miracle of the loaves and fishes, and a simple but beautiful summer Sunday morning service.

Afterwards over coffee we chatted about things. Partly about General Convention, but more about the challenges of life in the church in the present economy. Rector to rector. They’ve been struggling there with a stalled capital campaign trying to raise a quarter of a million dollars for some really important but also unfortunately really unglamorous projects. A new septic system for the church and rectory, major roof repairs, new electrical service and wiring. Especially in the midst of this recession, some challenges. I said, “it’s hard to figure out where you put a brass memorial plaque on a new septic system.” And as I think you know, I had some stories to share as well. Roofers and plumbers and electricians. Both of us rolling our eyes and with a little bit of a sense of humor, but also with some deeper truth, saying, “I didn’t take this class in seminary.”

It’s true in every vocational way of life, of course, but simply to say that sometimes the things you end up spending most of your time and energy on are not the things that sang to your heart when you began the journey. One of the things that has made working around this old place not just a chore but actually something creative and positive and fun, over these many years, has been my friendship and our sharing so much with our long-time Property guy and Junior Warden Mike Eversmeyer, and of course his death this past week and his illness through the last year has been a part of this all as well. I can’t really look at the roof here or switch on a light or turn on a faucet without thinking of him. Just so sad, and I know a loss we all feel.

But--obedience and stability.

And to bring this to a conclusion. Or at least the beginning of the end, also the end of the beginning. It was great last Sunday to be back here at St. Andrew’s, and to have as our guest preacher Lucia Lloyd, the priest in charge of St. Stephen’s in Heathsville, Virginia. With so many of her family here in our neighborhood I know it was really a gift for her and for them also that she could be our preacher while in town on her vacation. Of course it was something of a gift for me to have a guest preacher in the pulpit on my first Sunday back from vacation. Made vacation more of a vacation! And I also appreciated the energy and creativity and affection Lucia expressed in her comments about the renewal of ministry at St. Stephen’s following the division of their congregation two years ago. But she and I also did talk about the heartbreak in all of that, as we’ve experienced here in Pittsburgh. The sense of loss, of broken relationships between colleagues, even divided families. All this: another class we didn’t take in seminary, I guess.

Obedience and stability.

In ancient days in classic Benedictine monasteries when a novice made his first solemn vows, formally leaving the time of inquiry and entering the community, the ceremony of profession was followed by the superior taking the newly enlisted monk into the refectory, and assigning him now his place at the dining table. From now on. And then into the dormitory, and assigning him his cell, his bedroom. From now on. And then into the oratory, and assigning him his stall in the choir. From now on. And then out into the churchyard, where he was assigned his burial plot.

You have many spiritual adventures and life stories ahead of you, many journeys. And they all will take place within these walls, and with these people. Some of whom you’ll like and love and respect. And some, not so much. And you’ll be living according to this rule of life, which has been since long before you were born, and which will be the same long after you’re gone. Some of which you’ll agree with, and maybe some not. Getting up when the bell rings. Praying these psalms at these hours. And many spiritual adventures, many journeys. Here. With these people.

Obedience and stability.

And then here we go to the lessons this morning. To talk about the wildness and tragic instability and disobedience underneath the story of Absalom’s rebellion against his father David. This the tragedy flowing from David’s disobedience long ago in the story of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah the Hittite. The Prophet Nathan had told David then, “Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife; Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold I will raise up evil against you out of your own house.’” Disobedience, instability. And now a dead son. A ruined life. What goes around comes around.

In Chapter 3 of the Rule St. Benedict says, “In all things, therefore, let all follow the Rule as guide . . . Let no one in the monastery follow his own heart’s fancy.”

A long journey to a short conclusion. As my late mother-in-law Fran Johnson used to say, “If you ever find a perfect church, don’t go there. You’ll only spoil it.” Which I think she meant as a general principle, not a word for me personally. I think. Which is I think the inevitable story for our friends around us who have left this part of the church for what they hope will be greener pastures. Thought about them a lot this summer at General Convention, where their absence was very "present." God bless them, of course.

But to think that we can somehow avoid mixed feelings and disappointments and brokenness and division by picking up and moving somewhere else, where we imagine we can have things more the way we want them to be. Just not the way things are on planet earth. Which is again about obedience and stability.

But to say the world we are called to live in, is simply this world. Imperfect, broken, mixed-up, frustrating. This world. This Church. This neighborhood. This family. Remember I think it was Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof who says, “Marriage, family: the whole catastrophe.” Or the bumper sticker, “My family put the “fun” in the word “dysfunctional.” It’s here we are to work, to serve, not complaining all the time about how we deserve a place or a people more to our own liking. Not about having our way all the time, or even necessarily any of the time. But about how in this particular place, in this time—the place, the time, the people given to us by God—how are we to serve him here? How are we to give him glory here?

In any case, friends, just to say: it’s good to be home. Here with you.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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