Sermon/Keynote for the Diocese of Olympia Faith Formation Day February 25, 2017
I am so happy and thankful to be here with you today. I was invited here because I recently wrote a book called Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents. That’s a very deliberate subtitle, and even though I was brought up in the Episcopal Church and have worked for the Episcopal Church in some form or fashion nearly all of my adult life, I place myself firmly in that category of “cautiously Christian.” I still have a lot of questions. There are days and moments within days when I struggle to believe, but I try to live, I choose to act as though I do.
I’ve just heard two great stories about Bishop Rickel, and one of them is from the national news, that you and the Diocese of Olympia are standing on the side of refugees against the current administration, joining in a lawsuit with the ACLU, for which I am so grateful. The other story is from a clergy friend who tells me that you ask each candidate for Confirmation to write you a letter telling you why they want to be confirmed. Not only do you read those letters, but you have met with parents whose child actually didn’t want to be confirmed to explain that you were not, in fact, going to confirm them. Bishop, as a parent and a Christian educator, I salute you. Both of these stories tell us that following Jesus is serious business, friends! My son Peter is trying to get out of going to theological debate camp for a week this summer by telling my husband and me that he has trouble with the Nicene Creed. I am flabbergasted by this. Seriously, Peter? That’s your excuse? Have I taught you nothing? Join the club! A seminarian friend told me she thinks Peter’s trolling me on that one. Anyone else have trouble with the Nicene Creed? Thank you, yes, Peter is going to camp.
“Learn to love the questions,” as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to the young poet, which is good advice for the cautiously Christian. There is a question implicit in the scriptures we have heard today, a common thread running through them:
Where do we find God? Where does God dwell? Listen:
“But the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’”
You might, like Elijah, think that God’s usually a bit of a show-off, and then, also like Elijah, discover God in the unexpected—in the silence, not the storm.
Our psalm this afternoon is one I know best in this hymn:
How lovely is thy dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts, to me!
My thirsty soul desires and longs
within thy courts to be;
my very heart and flesh cry out,
O living God for thee.
Beside thine altars, gracious Lord,
the swallows find a nest;
how happy they who dwell with thee
and praise thee without rest,
and happy they whose hearts are set
upon the pilgrim’s quest.
I learned that hymn as a child, in my parish church of St. Mary’s in Laguna Beach, California. Children expect to find God in church. I have a vivid memory of sitting beneath the altar, very quietly, as if I were Samuel in the tabernacle, listening for God. Teachers, clergy, do you ever do that? Let the kids explore the sanctuary? We just had a middle school sleepover in St. Paul’s Chapel, the oldest building in continuous use in Manhattan, where George Washington worshipped on his inauguration day and where scores of recovery workers slept in the months after 9/11. Before bed, we told ghost stories (it’s a 250 year old chapel—of course there are ghosts!) and then we dragged our sleeping bags up around the high altar for the best ghost stories from the Hebrew scriptures: Saul and the Witch of Endor and Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones during Compline by candlelight. Holy ground made for a surprisingly good night’s sleep.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of God as our Father in heaven, and also very clearly says that we do not need to go to the synagogue to pray. Instead, Jesus tells us to go into our room and shut the door. God is there, too. “Bidden or unbidden, God is present,” says Erasmus of Rotterdam, classical scholar and Catholic priest of the Middle Ages.
It’s possible that you regularly or occasionally run into God at church on Sundays. It’s possible, too, that you are most aware of God while running or hiking or at the beach. You might find God in your children’s faces or in the touch of your spouse. It’s equally possible that you have long since stopped looking for God. That’s okay—you showed up here today in spite of that. It’s possible some part of you still longs for that connection to the holy. What if I told you that YOU are that connection?
We do this all the time–I do this all the time–I make divisions between heaven and earth, the holy and the ordinary, the miraculous and the rational. That’s not how it works, I have come to understand. The realm of God and our world meet each time we remember that we are made in the image of God, we carry the divine spark of our maker, we are holy people, all of us.
Pastor and author Rob Bell’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, takes on these false dichotomies in a powerful way. Bell writes, “This is why the Jesus story is so massive, progressive, and forward-looking in human history. Jesus comes among us as God in a body, the divine and the human existing in the same place, in his death bringing an end to the idea that God is confined to a temple because the whole world is a temple, the whole earth is holy, holy, holy, as the prophet Isaiah said. Or, as one of the first Christians put it, we are the temple. There’s a new place where God dwells, and it’s us.”
We recognize this in our baptisms as we make the promise: “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.” We teach being Christian to our children by modeling this. We do this not because we are good people. We do this because it’s how we follow Jesus.
Notice that when Jesus invites us to pray, he calls God “our” father. We are part of a new family now, everyone who follows Jesus, and when we pray, even when we pray in secret, we are united with everyone else who calls God “father.” We are not Christians alone. Despite what some well-meaning people will tell you, Christianity is not about a personal relationship with Jesus. Christian life by necessity, almost by definition, is one lived in community. We need each other. The first Christians even called themselves “followers of the Way,” understanding that it was how they lived and not what they thought or believed about God or Jesus that identified them as Christians.
Much later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable in which the righteous sheep are rewarded by their shepherd, the king, who tells them:
“Come … Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
The sheep are stunned by this revelation:
“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’”
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas points out, “It is significant that the righteous have not known that when they ministered, provided hospitality and visited that they did all of this for Jesus.” They have simply done what we are supposed to do; they have been God for each other. We belong to a new family, together we are building a new kingdom, and it won’t be finished until everyone, everyone is in.
That’s why we are here, isn’t it? This is what we want for our children and for ourselves: a deep sense of connection, belonging and purpose, a strong moral foundation rooted in God through Jesus, who showed us what God is like. Now more than ever we need to teach our children that it’s our compassion, not our commonalities, that make us neighbors, and a Christian’s neighbors are everyone, everywhere.
Expanding our children’s circles of concern from family and close friends to others whose lives and experiences may be very different from their own is a key factor in developing empathy. A recent study –part of the “Making Caring Common” project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education—involving 10,000 youth ages twelve to eighteen across a wide spectrum of race, culture and class, found that 80% of the respondents valued personal happiness and success over caring for others. The same number of kids—80%—reported that their parents were more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. Empathy is defined as the ability “to walk in someone else’s shoes,” but it is more than that: it is valuing and responding with compassion to other people and perspectives. Giving our children the opportunity to know, listen to, and actively help others is vital, not only to our Christian identity and formation, but to changing the society in which we live, or as my friend and former boss Ed Bacon likes to say, “turning the human race into the human family.”
Parents, we are our children’s primary pastors. Decades of research show that the faith and values our children carry with them into adulthood are largely taught at home. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. made a point of serious conversation around the dinner table every night, telling his young children about the injustices he encountered as a black man in the South in the 1930s and 40s, and how he confronted them. Years later, his daughter wrote, “These stories were as nourishing as the food that was set before us.” We can imagine how these stories inspired his son. The stories we tell from the day’s news, the office, the classroom or the playground give us the opportunity to reflect on where God is in them, and where God is calling us to be. Everything that’s worth talking about with our kids is worth talking about in the context of our faith.
The stories we heard in today’s scriptures have fed our spirits and soon we’ll be fed holy food and drink at God’s table. All this is strength for the journey of following Jesus, the adventure of a lifetime. May we be faithful and bold as we “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” As St. Francis of Assisi advises us, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Amen.