Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sunday, August 18, 2013: Thirteenth after Pentecost

Our sermon this past Sunday was offered by Summer Intern Seminarian Shana Hutchings.  Shana is entering her third year of study at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and is in the discernment process for ordination in our Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The day was also notable as the first Sunday morning of our "return from exile," as the first phase of our "Opening Doors" capital projects initiative has been completed with the installation of new flooring and substructure support.  It was great to be back at St. Andrew's!

                                                                                          Bruce R.

August 18, 2013
Proper 15
St. Andrew’s Church, Highland Park
Jeremiah 23:23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56

            It is a great honor to be here to celebrate this day in the life of our church!  We have much to celebrate and I am thankful to have the honor of reflecting on today’s readings with you.  My name is Shana Hutchings and I am serving as the Summer Seminary Intern here at St. Andrew’s.  I am entering my final year at Pittsburgh Seminary and have lived with my husband, Robert, and our three children in Pittsburgh since 2008.  Our youngest, Helen, was baptized here in April, and I was confirmed by Bishop McConnell here on Mother’s Day.  Thank you for the opportunity to share with you.
            Every morning when I was a college student, I would wake up at 5 AM and sit at my desk overlooking my dorm’s courtyard, drink my coffee, watch the sunrise, and write.  Beginning in March of my freshman year, I would also read my Bible and pray.  And, no matter which Bible study I was working on, I would also read today’s Gospel passage.   This is a passage that provides great comfort to those in conflict who happen to be Christian.  For me, I had converted to Christianity over my Spring Break during a mission trip to Mexico, which I was invited to participate in by my second-cousin, who happened to attend the same university I did.  Since I didn’t really want to go home and the trip was free for freshman, I decided to go.  My parents were not thrilled with my decision to become a Christian.  Now, they aren’t really opposed to Christianity and were actually very disappointed when my sister told them she was an atheist when she was sixteen.  I think it was more the fervor with which I had embraced my newfound faith.  I was thrilled when the campus ministry I was involved in said they were taking students to India, but my parents told me I couldn’t go.  My father’s father was a disabled Korean War veteran with terrible stories about his experiences, which caused my father to talk at length with me about how he never wanted me to go abroad, especially with the number of hurting people in our own country.  I took this as a direct attack on my faith and was very angry about it.  The kicker, for my parents, though, was when I told them I had been invited to join the staff of the same campus ministry.  They were on board until I told them that the job entailed raising your own salary.  Meaning, no salary, just donations generated through fundraising.  I was the first person in my entire family to go to college.  My father actually didn’t even graduate from high school.  There was no way that I was going to take a job that didn’t directly pay a salary.  There was the threat of being disowned, although it was probably not a serious threat, looking back at the situation.  So, for my young self, this passage brought great comfort.  How could it not?  In my reading, JESUS was on my side!  Clearly, my parents didn’t get it.  And I think this passage is also comforting to persecuted Christians, as well as those who are suffering.  The reality, though, here at St. Andrew’s and in most corners of the Church; this passage leaves us scratching our heads.  In conversations I have had here, we are far more likely to be mourning the fact that our adult children do not come to church, hopeful that maybe when the child is married, they will return.  Or certainly when they have their first child, they will want the child to be baptized and then they will return.  We don’t want conflict.  We want reconciliation.  Wasn’t Jesus all about reconciliation?  In my self-righteous youth, I interpreted every conflict with my family in light of this passage and my Christian faith, so this passage was actually comforting to me.  But for most of us, we want unity with our children and this passage seems to attack the family unit to its core. 
And in many ways, this is what our capital campaign is all about, right?  We feel called to bring families together.  That by opening our doors, we can come together in the name of Christ to worship and grow together, not divided, and certainly not divided at our very core.
Today’s passages seem to emphasize the difficulties of life, particularly for those of faith.  The Psalmist’s plea for justice for God to stop showing partiality for the wicked, something I am sure all of us can recall praying about, to God in Jeremiah conceding that the wicked are indeed out to get God’s people, in Luke the claim by Jesus that he has come to bring fire to the earth, and finally in Hebrews the recalling of the many struggles of the Israelite faithful, including flogging and imprisonment.  Most of us probably read these passages and have some measure of understanding about what they are saying.  Yes, the world is broken and there are conflicts and God is bigger than those conflicts.  Maybe we could just read the newspaper or listen to the news to know that.
The message for today, though, in light of today’s wonderful celebration of the early stages of our capital campaign, comes in the beginning of the Hebrews passage.  This is something of a parade of Israelite heroes and includes some well-known figures, as well as more obscure ones, even some unnamed ones.  What they have in common, though, is that they acted in faith, where they were, becoming part of the story of the faith that ultimately was fulfilled for us in Christ.  Really, in light of the enormity of life, all we can do is act in faith, right where we are.  Which is what we are doing with this campaign, isn’t it?  This is our goal.  As Mother Teresa famously said, “We are not called to be successful, but to be faithful.”  Of course, most of us want to be both and think that we and the Church should be, but I want to encourage us otherwise.  Success is not always so easy to define anyway.
In seminary, one metaphor that is thrown around a lot is that the church is a bit like the coffee hour that most churches hold before or after worship.  When I first heard this, I was pretty angry.  I actually hate coffee hour.  The only reason I ever started going is that the first church I started going to was across the street from the best donut shop in town and their coffee hour consisted of dozens upon dozens of donuts from this shop, along with a coffee cart run by the Youth Group.  They ran the Jesus Java cart, so you could walk up and order any kind of coffee drink you wanted.  Their cart was painted by the youth and said, Jesus Java, It Saves…Your Morning.  I like coffee, and was charmed by this way of including the youth in the life of the church, but it was the donuts that brought me in.  I love donuts and would eat them every day for breakfast if given the chance.  But actual coffee hour feels a lot like the high school cafeteria to me, so I was angry about this metaphor.  The thinking is that the church occupies this messy space in society where things can get done; things that slip through the cracks or that are not covered by official social service agencies.  Things like hopelessness, loneliness, and the need for friendship and support.  What finally turned me around, though, was thinking about how coffee hour has played a role in my life and ministry and how it actually can provide us with a great window into how each of us can live in faith where we are, whether we are at home, working, playing, or sick in the hospital.  You see, coffee hour, is about being aware of those around us and listening for the Holy Spirit to guide us.  It is about people.  And it is hard to define exactly what we are doing there each week.  It is about believing, though, that something is happening and acting in faith, which is precisely what the heroes listed in the Hebrews passage did.
The first time I came to St. Andrew’s wasn’t actually for worship.  I had heard there was a coffee shop near us from our landlord (we lived at the very end of Morningside Avenue, overlooking the river), so I put my young daughter (now five years old) in the backpack carrier and started walking.  My husband and I haven’t exactly cozied up to technology, so I didn’t try to even figure out the name of this coffee shop by doing an Internet search, I just started walking.  On Negley, I saw a sign that said Bryant Street Business District and figured I had found the location.  After realizing I hadn’t, I turned right on Highland, only to discover that  coffee shop I assumed my landlord had been talking about, Tazza D’Oro.  I went in and ordered a drink, but as is common there, I found no place to sit, so I kept walking.  I turned right on Hampton and ended up sitting on the steps of St. Andrew’s.  I found it by accident, but was taken by this church that looked like something out of an English novel right in the middle of the city.  This place had found its way quickly into my heart, even though I had never been inside.
I came to worship for a few weeks, but always hurried home.  One day, though, I stayed for coffee hour.  A woman sat down by me and started talking with me.  I was alone, but I told her that I was fairly new to the city and had a young daughter and that my husband was a graduate student.  I was actually a bit standoffish to her, but I think she saw right through me.  Truth be told, I was having a very difficult time.  Life at home with a baby can be extremely lonely.  And for somebody who had been encouraged by all my friends in my former home to attend seminary, I thought that I had nothing to offer the church now that I was at home with my daughter.  She was a premature baby and was tremendously needy, even for a baby.  And I was very isolated.  And I think she saw right through my vague answers.  She gave me a slip of paper with her name, address, and phone number and told me that she was at home with her kids and that I should come by anytime, an invitation I knew to be sincere.  That she knew what it was like to be at home alone with children.  I never went.  But that encounter changed my life.  This was a person of faith I knew I wanted to be like.  Before that encounter, I had resigned myself to feeling like I had nothing to offer the church, that somehow I couldn’t contribute anything.  I knew that caring for children was valuable and I didn’t doubt that, but I doubted that I could be of service in the way I had envisioned by going to seminary and working as a minister.  I realized, through that brief encounter, that I could serve right where I was and that is what I started doing.  I, too, could open up my home; I could talk with people and listen so that they didn’t have to feel like they were going it alone.  I could witness to the ways in which Christ walks with us, no matter where we find ourselves in life.  And, rather than thinking of ministry as something I could do after going to seminary, I became fully aware of the ministry that happens right where we are every day.
This encounter reminds me of the passage in Hebrews because this woman acted in faith, and her hospitality, empathy, and compassion for a visitor to her church became part of the larger story of the church, reaching far beyond the walls of St. Andrew’s.  Because ministry is never simply an encounter between people, it connects us to the Church universal, empowering others to serve in the name of Christ.
So, as we celebrate this great day in the life of our church, I want to encourage you to keep the lives of the heroes of the Hebrew faith close to your heart.  Think about my professor’s coffee hour analogy, even if you hate coffee hour like I do.  Occupy that messy space in the world by living out your faith and witnessing to Christ right where you are.  Through acts of hospitality, compassion, and empathy become part of the story of the faith here at St. Andrew’s and beyond.  That is what opening doors is all about.

No comments: