Sunday, September 20, 2020

Is Your Eye Evil?

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, New York on September 20, 2020, Proper 21A;  Matthew 20:1-16.

          I have three small books on my shelf at home that I often reach for when I’m look for inspiration concerning one of the parables.  They’re all written by an Episcopal priest named Robert Capon:  the Parables of the Kingdom, the Parables of Grace, and the Parables of Judgment.

          This week, having this parable about the Laborers in the Vineyard to ponder, I reached for the Parables of Grace.  It seemed like the obvious place to look.  Curiously, it was not there.

          Next, I reached for the Parables of the Kingdom, saying to myself, “OK, Jesus does say ‘The Kingdom of God is like . . .’  Nope, not there either.

          I picked back up the Parables of Grace.  I must have missed it.  I searched until my eyes hurt.  Definitely not there.

          Now I was puzzled.  Saying to myself, “It couldn’t be,” I reached for the Parables of Judgment.  Much to my surprise, there it was in the Table of Contents:  “the Laborers in the Vineyard.”

          So there goes my stock sermon about the amazing, all-inclusive grace of God, I said to myself.

          But, of course, this parable is about the amazing, all-inclusive grace of God.  But it is more than that; it is about our objection to it, how much our human heart recoils at it, how simply downright unfair it seems to us.

          And the note of judgment comes at its end, strong and clear, in the form of a question:  “Are you envious because I am generous?”  “Envious” or “jealous” is a fair translation, but it misses the image that is in the Greek.  The landowner asks if the complaining workers have an ophthalmós ponērós.  “Do you have an evil eye?”

          It’s a great image and most of us have a sense of what it means.  It’s that look, of course, famous to mommas, schoolteachers, and preachers.  Sometimes we call it just “the look.”

          When we get “the look” we know we are in trouble.  Judgment has been passed and there ain’t no turnin’ back.  Guilty until proven innocent, and don’t be plannin’ on that anytime soon.

          In this case, “the evil eye” is that feeling of unfairness we can get when we ponder the radical grace, the unconditional love, of God.

          I don’t think I have ever taught a class or preached a sermon about God’s complete and total grace when somebody has not said to me afterwards something like, “So that means we can just get away with anything?  God will always take us back?”  There’s that evil eye.

          Now do not feel bad if you have said something like that before because you are not alone, plenty of us have said it, and I suspect those of us who have said it out loud are only the tip of the iceberg of those who have thought it and felt it.

          So our answer to the question—“Is your eye evil because I am generous?”—is, let us be perfectly honest, “Yes,” or perhaps an even more emphatic, “You bet I am.”

          Let us rehearse just what this good news is and why it is so offensive to us ala the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  The employer in the parable makes no distinction when it comes time to pay the laborers between those who have worked all day and those who have worked only an hour.  It is as if he forgot to write down who was who.  He is, in short, a bad bookkeeper, but he is also so fair-minded that, since he has not been keeping track of who was who on the time scale, he pays everybody alike.

          Jesus is saying to us, “That is God my friends.”  God is a lousy bookkeeper, but nothing if not fair-minded.  And heaven does not have executive suites for those who have been about the goodness routine for a long time.  Or if it does and we get one, we might be surprised to find that irritating jerk of a neighbor of ours back on earth whom we neither ever remember going to church nor doing a decent thing in his life has the next suite over. We are neighbors still.  He seems to have gotten off scot-free.

          It reminds of my friend Verna Dozier’s answer to the question I heard someone ask her one day, “Do you believe in a literal hell and that some people are going there?”

          “Actually not,” she said, “I think everybody goes to whatever we mean by heaven.  But some people are not going to like it there.”

          “So who is that,” I later asked, “who will not like it there?”  I thought I knew the answer, but I wanted to hear her say it.  “People like me,” she said. “People like me who have an investment in some people not being there.  And there they will be.  God will have gotten his way in the end and I wonder sometimes if I am going to be able to tolerate it.”

          A lot of people’s questioning or even negative, reaction to a God of radical grace comes from the fact that this is not the God we have been brought up to believe in.

          The God we were sold, often as children, definitely did keep track.  He was in fact “the Great Bookkeeper in the Sky.”  He knows if we’ve been bad or good, and forms his opinion about us based on that knowledge.  And ultimately he has the greatest reward/punishment system of all—an eternal life of bliss in heaven or an eternal life of pain in hell.

          I dare say that is what a majority of people believe is Christian teaching about salvation.

          The trouble is, if you actually read the whole of the New Testament, that image is rejected.  God as the great, judgmental bookkeeper in the sky ends up having far more to do with our need to control other people’s behavior than God’s actual plan of salvation.

          If God ever was the Great Bookkeeper in the Sky the Jesus story is all about how God changed his line of work, threw out the books altogether, except one, the Book of Life, in which she is pleased, nay, delighted to write the name of anyone who asks her to, who hears her say, “I love you,” and says, “Yes,” in return.

          That’s it.

          Our job is not to get ourselves accepted by God, but simply to accept our acceptance.

          It ought to be easy, but it is not, of course, because there is something about us that wants there to be a Great Bookkeeper in the Sky.  We are slaves to this world of success, of reward and punishment, of you get what you deserve, of the myth that all you have to do is work hard and fly right to get ahead in this life and the losers are those unwilling to work hard and fly right enough.  That is how the world works.

          But then comes God.  Sits down at this Table with us and eats.  Says pull up a chair and have a bite with me.  No examination, no credentials required except that we do pull up a chair and hold out a hand.

          The good news this morning is that God does not have an evil eye and is a lousy bookkeeper.  The hard part about faith in God is not working hard and flying right.  The hard part about faith in God is accepting his acceptance, not only of us, but of those who do not deserve it, who may have caught our evil eye.  The trick is not letting our evil eye distort how we see the world and our neighbor.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Measure You Give; the Measure You Get: Remembering Alexander Crummel

 Homily preached on the feast of The Rev. Alexander Crummell, Thursday, September 10, 2020 at St.

Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

Jesus said to them, "Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.  Let anyone with ears to hear listen!" And he said to them, "Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.  For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away."

            It is good to have on our calendar today the remembrance of the Rev’d Alexander Crummell.  Crummell was born free in New York City in 1819.  He was ordained a priest in 1844 in the Diocese of Massachusetts, but decided to study further in England because, among other things, he was excluded from participating in any diocesan functions.

            Crummell was an intellectual at heart and he thrived at Cambridge. Once he earned his degree he went to teach at Liberia College in the relatively new settlement of former American slaves.  After the Civil War, he returned to the United States.  He was the founder and first rector of St. Luke’s Church in Washington, DC for many years and was one of the founders of the organization that eventually became the Union of Black Episcopalians.  He founded it to fight against the creation of a separate missionary diocese for Black parishes across the country.  He won that fight.

            He is most well known outside church circles as the organizer of an intellectual society called the American Negro Academy. one of his protégés in that society was W.E.B. Dubois.

            DuBois devoted one of the chapters of his famous work, The Souls of Black Folk, to Alexander Crummell.  It is largely the story of his difficult road to ordination and then the even more difficult road to practice his ministry.  DuBois begins the chapter,

 This is the history of a human heart—the tale of a black boy who many long years ago began to struggle with life that he might know the world and know himself.

            I find Dubois’ description of Crummell’s seeking ordination to be especially moving. Here’s part of it:

 A voice and a vision called him to be a priest—a seer to lead the uncalled out of the house of bondage [but] there swept across the vision the temptation to despair.

 They were not wicked men—the problem is not the problem of the wicked—they were calm, good men, Bishops of the Apostolic Church of God, and strove toward righteousness. They said slowly, “It is all very natural—it is even commendable; but the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church cannot admit a Negro.”  And when [he] still haunted their doors, they put their hands kindly, half sorrowfully, on his shoulders, and said, “ Now—of course, we—we know how you feel about it; but you see it is impossible—that is—well—it is premature. Sometime, we trust—sincerely trust—all such distinctions will fade away; but now the world is as it is.

            More than a hundred years later, religious leaders—including two Episcopal bishops—would say essentially the same thing to Martin Luther King.  The world is as it is; you must slow down.  His response was the well-known Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

            And in all that time the Church was not listening to its Lord, who said now is the time.  There is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret except to come to light.

            Racism lurks throughout our history both as a nation and as a Church. It is something we white folk would rather stay hidden and secret because we are afraid of what a public accounting might mean for us.  But Jesus said be brave, have courage. Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given. Do the hard work and reap the reward. If you choose not to, of you choose to do nothing, nothing is what you will get.


            I also heard those words—”some day…premature…the world is as it is—in my own ordination process as an openly gay man.  I took comfort and strength from Jesus words:  nothing is hidden that will not become known.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

For Lucy: A Complete Acquisition

August 8, 2020


It is not so much that I acquire dogs, it’s that dogs acquire me.

E. B. White


              On a warmish January day in 2011, I met a dachshund at the Verona Street Animal Shelter in Rochester, New York, where I was a two or three times a week dog walker.  I had never been drawn to small dogs, but I dutifully walked them at the Shelter.  The dachshund immediately caught my eye when I entered the small dogs room because she was not yapping like all the others, demanding my quick attention.  She was curled up in the corner of her little “room” trembling.

               After I walked a couple of the other dogs, I decided to approach her. I stepped over the barrier into her room and sat down beside her.  Her trembling only increased.  I went out to the front desk for information about her.  She had come in after an eviction. Her family had to leave her behind, although they would have two weeks during which to claim her.  No, they didn’t think that she had been abused.

               She’d lost her people, her pack, and she was petrified.  They’d be thrilled if I could get her outside for a walk because no one else had been able to.  I determined I was just going to sit beside her and see if she would calm down.  Ever so often, I would hold my hand palm up toward her nose.  It only increased the trembling.  Then after about forty minutes she finally stretched her neck forward a bit and sniffed my hand.  Another half hour and she let me slip the lead over her head, and a few minutes later we took that walk.

               I was smitten.  In about three weeks we brought her home. Her name was given as Lacey, which we promptly changed to Lucy.  She made herself at home very quickly, and anointed herself head of the pack.  Our couch-potato of a greyhound, Festus, went along with it easily.  They were a sight walking down the street together: Eighty pounds of tall-legged greyhound, and fifteen pounds of “weiner dog.”  To make the picture perfectly absurd, they were exactly the same color, fawn.

               John had indulged my desire for this addition to the household, but from experience growing up, he warned me about the stubbornness of dachsunds, and the racket they could make.  She’d been home with us twenty-four hours or so when I first heard her bark.  The sheer volume was something.  If anyone came any where near her space, she would sound off and no amount of insisting would calm her down until she wanted to calm down.

               E. B. White (1899—1985), best known as the author of Charlotte’s Web, but also a long-time essayist for The New Yorker, was an avid companion of dogs, several of which in his life were dachsunds.  “You have to watch out about dachshunds,” he once wrote, “some of which are as delicately balanced as a watch.”  Of his dachshund Fred, he said that “he saw in every bird, every squirrel, every housefly . . . a security risk and a present danger to the republic.”  Lucy was certainly made in that mold.  And stubborn?  White captured this perfectly also.

 Being the owner of dachshunds, to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot. Some day, if I ever get the chance, I shall write a book, or warning, on the character and temperament of the Dachshund and why he can’t be trained and shouldn’t be. . . . Of all the dogs whom I have served I’ve never known one who understood so much of what I say or held it in such contempt.  When I address Fred I never have to raise my voice or my hopes. He even disobeys me when I instruct him in something that he wants to do.

               Yes. Precisely.

              Yet Lucy also lived up to her name—which means “light.”  She was a light in my life, third only to Jesus and my husband, a ranking of which she did not approve.  She was my companion through some extraordinarily difficult times in my life.  All the things White has to say about his Fred were true of our Lucy, but she also never wanted to leave my side. The cliché in her case was true—she would have followed me to the gates of hell, and, truth be told, we were almost there a couple of times in our nine years together.

               I have loved all our animals fiercely, but my bond with Lucy was complete. Or perhaps I should say her acquisition of me was complete.  Her death has been shattering.  We first knew all was not well when she stopped the guard dog barking.  Over a period of six months she had several seizures and became cognitively impaired. I resisted euthanizing her until she woke me up in the middle of the night, looking like she did not know me and trembling in fear.

               My favorite remembrance of Lucy was an afternoon she and I spent on the grounds of the Cobbs Hill Reservoir in Rochester, probably four or five years ago.  It was fall, and the leaves were deep, eye-level or more for her.  She delighted in them and ran and ran and ran, plowing through them as her eyes sparkled with happiness.  I vividly remember that joy, which is even now keeping me from falling apart at her death.  What an extraordinary gift she was.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Why I Need to See

The 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 19, 2020

It is the Second Sunday of Easter: Thomas Sunday, some call it, because on this day every year we read the story of the disciple Thomas.  Thomas was not present when Jesus first appeared to his disciples after the resurrection.  When he heard of the appearance, he said, “Unless I see the marks on his hands and put my finger into the wound in his side, I will not believe.”

              I must say that I am a Thomas fan.  First of all, he was obviously a gutsy guy.  He was not behind locked doors as were the other disciples.  Apparently, he was getting on with his life, or, perhaps, his grief was such that he needed to be alone with it.  I get that.  Second of all, his relationship with Jesus was so strong, such a personal experience, that he had to have that experience for himself truly to join the others in rejoicing that “the Lord is risen indeed.”  It’s important to note that he simply wanted what the other disciples already had.

              I don’t see Thomas as a “doubter.”  I see him as an insistently faithful person who simply needed to experience, “see,” for himself.  That is simply human.  On St. Thomas’ Day (December 21) The Book of Common Prayer has us pray that “we might perfectly and without doubt believe.”  What hogwash.  If there is to be revision of the Prayer Book, that prayer is on my list as the first to go.  Doubt—the need to see—is an important part of faith, not its opposite.  How about:  “Help us see through our doubts and fears the risen Christ present with us always.”

              What Thomas is saying to me in this time of COVID quarantine is that it is all right for me to long to see.  In particular, it is all right for me to long to see Christ’s presence in the sacrament of his presence.  For me Communion is not only about physically receiving, although I will gladly take that any day.  It is about presence.

              I am reminded of a quote from James De Koven (1831-1879), who was one of the leaders of the liturgical revival in The Episcopal Church in the 19th century.  De Koven was elected bishop of Illinois in 1875, but was refused consent by the larger church because of his “extreme” views on liturgical practice, or, what in his day was called “ritualism.”  His theological and experiential standard was the objective Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated elements of Holy Communion.[1]

              De Koven said, in a speech to the General Convention of 1874, that the various ritual practices which were so controversial at the time (all of which are now commonplace in The Episcopal Church) were of utter indifference to him.  What was essential was this:  To adore Christ’s person in His Sacrament is the inalienable privilege of every Christian and Catholic heart.”

              What De Koven was pleading for was the right to see the presence of Christ, and to respond with praise and thanksgiving.

              This was the tradition in which I was raised in the church and it is the experience of my faith, which in that presence, as St. Paul says, I find “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” (2 Cor. 13:13)

              Some will say—and I do not argue that they must understand this as I do—that this objective presence cannot be transferred via electronic means, over distance.  I might have argued the same at one time.  But now in this present-day circumstance in which we are cut off from physical reception of the Sacrament, I find the watching of a full service of The Eucharist to be life-giving.

              Succinctly put, I need to see.

              My bishop has called our diocese to a “holy fast” from Communion during this time of “stay-at-home” orders.  I am obeying him.  I am worshiping with my parish without communion (we do a prayer for “spiritual communion”).  I am a priest, but I am deliberately not celebrating the Eucharist at home because of my bishop’s call.  But I am also participating in an on-line Eucharist from Washington Cathedral.  For those who cannot physically receive there is also a prayer for spiritual communion.  I find the spiritual communion with my parish to be just so many words.  That of the Cathedral fills my heart because I have celebrated in that Presence and can see it.

              This is not meant as criticism of anyone, just as De Koven’s speech was not critical of liturgical practices other than his own.  He was stating what he experienced, and I am doing the same.

              Again, I need to see.

[1] De Koven’s speech was during consideration of a change to the canons which would have had the effect of banning the use of incense, the display of any crucifix, the elevation of the consecrated elements of Holy Communion in such a way as might encourage adoration of them, and bowing, genuflecting, or any other gesture of adoration to those elements.  All are now commonplace in Episcopal churches.  De Koven is now on The Episcopal Church’s calendar of lesser feasts, on March 22.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday Emmanuel

Sermon preached on Good Friday, April 10, 2020 for St. Thomas', Bath on-line worship:  Isaiah 52:13--53:12. Hebrews 4:14-15, 5:7-9; John 18:1--19:42

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity . . . he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. (Isaiah)

          Today we meet Isaiah’s “Man of Suffering,” or, in other translations, “the Man of Sorrows.”  This Man suffers and sorrows not of his own account but on behalf of suffering and sorrowing humanity.  He has borne, Isaiah proclaims, our suffering, our infirmities, our diseases, our sorrows, and, yes, our sin.
          It is obvious that we need this Man of suffering and sorrow on this particular Good Friday, when the world is caught in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We are not all of us suffering or sorrowful.  Most of us are just disrupted, if not also anxious, about what could be for us, for loved ones with whom we cannot share physical presence.  But we know of the suffering and sorrows of so many around the world, and if we think on them, pray for them, as we must, it is almost too much to bear.
          Some might say, “No, this is not the Man we need.”  We need the Man who can get us out of this with healing and strength and victory over this virus.  The last thing we need is submission and weakness.

          But Christianity is not that kind of religion.  You might think it is if you only experience Easter.  You might think so even if you remember Good Friday and celebrate Easter as the undoing of all this horror, the healing of the Man of suffering, the resurrection of the Man of sorrow.
          But that is not how it works.  We live in a perpetual cycle of suffering and healing, of sorrow and joy, of death and resurrection.  That is why the risen Jesus carries the wounds on his hands and feet and side.  He does not put Good Friday behind him; he carries Good Friday with him.
          And thank God for that, because we live so often in a Good Friday world and we need the Man, the God, who can meet us in our suffering, who can meet us in our sorrow, who can meet us in our sin, because only in this meeting can we know the One we call Emmanuel, “God with us.”
          We can trust Emmanuel, God with us, to be, in the language of the Hebrews reading, our great and eternal high priest, who has triumphed with grace and mercy over the need for sacrifice, the kind of sacrifice that must be performed over and over and over again, ad infinitum, because we can never be sure if this God will stay on our side.  But Jesus, Emmanuel, is this God, whose word of mercy is not conditional but eternal.
          It is Emmanuel, God with us, the Man of suffering, the Man of sorrows, who is there on the cross for us, drawing the whole world into the embrace of his outstretched arms, as he promised he would.  This drawing in, gathering in, to the crucified arms is not something we need hope for, because it just is.
          But Jesus from the cross does not stop there, being Emmanuel. God with us, God for us.  He also calls us to be there for one another.  He sees his mother, who in John’s Gospel is never named, on the ground below, no doubt in her own suffering and sorrow, and near her that mysterious, unnamed disciple whom we are told “Jesus loved.”  That these two figures are unnamed was a very deliberate act on the Gospel writer’s part.  They are unnamed so that we can understand that they are us.  And what does Jesus do for them and for us?
“Woman, behold your son.”  And to the disciple whom he loved, “Here is your mother.”
          In this act, the followers of Jesus become the family of Jesus, related not by blood, but by grace, so that all of us are called into community as mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of each other.  In essence, in establishing this new relationship between his mother and the disciple whom he loved, Jesus, from the cross, is founding the church.
          Today we gaze in awe at the mystery that the Man of suffering, the Man of sorrow, our great high priest, is Emmanuel, God with us, God for us.  This great truth is behind the ancient belief that Jesus was conceived and died on the same day.
          And we receive our calling to be that—the loving and graceful presence of God—for one another, in a community that knows suffering and healing, sorrow and joy, death and life in the mystery of these three days, and in the mystery of all life.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Bishop Barbara Harris (1930-2020)

In that great getting’ up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well

Those of us blessed to be at the ordination and consecration of Barbara Harris as a bishop in 1989 were lifted out of our seats as this gospel hymn began and the procession leading Barbara entered the room where 8,000 of us had gathered to participate in history.  That I was able to be there remains one of the great moments of my life.

On February 11, 1989 I was yet to be ordained and I had no notion whatsoever what a personal part of my life Barbara Harris would come to be.  I knew her from her writing in The Witness, of which she was the editor for many years, writing a column every issue called A luta continua, “the struggle continues.”  As a young Episcopalian and then as a seminarian, the columns had helped form my own commitment to social justice as an integral part of the Gospel.

It was 1997 before I met Bishop Harris face to face when I began to represent Integrity on The Consultation, the “collective” of peace and justice ministries working with The Episcopal Church. At that time the meetings of The Consultation were held in Boston, and Bishop Harris was in attendance for at least some of each meeting.

I met there the woman who so many came to meet: the passionate advocate for those oppressed by racism, poverty, sexism, and homophobia; the lover of the Gospel who was clear about her own relationship with Jesus and the clarity of his teachings; the pragmatic politician who understood how things got done in the church even as she was committed to pushing it to an ever new place.
Bishop Barbara came to be a mentor, as she was to so many, at once deeply encouraging and clear in her challenging us to take up the cross and follow the Lord she loved.  Sometimes her challenges had real bite!  But they always also had love.

One moment I remember so well was in 2003 at the General Convention in Minneapolis when the Convention had just given its consent to the consecration of Gene Robinson.  I was President of Integrity at the time, and was planning a service of thanksgiving.  I asked Bishop Harris to preach and she turned me down.  I asked then for her advice in asking another bishop who she thought would rise to the occasion.  “No,” she said, “you do it.”  I confessed that I wasn’t sure I had it in me.  “It’s in there,” she said, “let it out.”  I asked her advice on content.  “The Gospel,” was her only reply.
I did preach at that service and, uncharacteristically, used neither a manuscript nor notes.  I preached in a style and tone I had never done before.

After her retirement in 2002, Bishop Barbara came to the Diocese of Washington where I was serving to assist Bishop John Chane, who was the new Bishop of Washington.  In the couple years she was there my parish—St. George’s, Glenn Dale—never received her for a visitation, but she did come to John and my relationship blessing service in 2004.  Later in 2004, after our move to St. Luke & St. Simon’s in Rochester, New York, she preached at my installation.

When I heard of her death, immediately thought, A luta continua, and thought back to the day of her consecration and the words of that great hymn.  There are many versions of that hymn, but the unique lines from the version sung by Mahalia Jackson read like a sermon from Barbara Harris.

In that great getting’ up morning, fare thee well, fare thee well
Let me tell you ‘bout the coming of the judgment,
There’s a better day a-coming,
God’s goin’ up and speak to Gabriel,
Pick up your silver trumpet,
Blow your trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud should I blow it?
Oh, to wake the children sleepin’.

Fare thee well, Barbara Harris, fare thee well.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Proclamation of Joy

Sermon preached at St. Thomas', Bath on the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 26, 2020:  Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23

You can listen to the sermon here.

There will be no gloom for those who were in anguish… The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy.

           The first dog John and I had together was a rescue from the Washington, DC animal shelter.  His name was Cuthbert.  Cuthbert was a good size black and white mutt—probably a mix of black lab and border collie.  In our 12 years together, Cuthbert taught me many things.

           One warm, sunny day in Maryland, I had taken Cuthbert to work with me as I did almost every day.  I let him loose to run in the chapel cemetery, which was, I think, his favorite place in the whole world.  There were plenty of squirrels and rabbits to chase.  Thank God he never caught any of them. Of course, I never thought there was any danger that he would.

           I went in the parish hall to check my messages and make a couple phone calls.  Then I went back out to get him. I stood near the edge of the cemetery and called his name.  No response.  I figured he must have wandered across the street to the post office.  The chapel was on a short dead-end street on one side of the road, and the post office was the only thing on the other side.  Cuthbert was welcome there and known by most of the patrons.  But he wasn’t there.

           I called again. Nothing.  I called again with my “Dad is annoyed” voice.  Ah, there he was on the far end of the cemetery bounding towards me.  He’s got something in his mouth.  It looks like a rock.  Why is the fool running around with a rock in his mouth?

           He reached me and dumped the rock at my feet and looked up at me with great anticipation.  Only it wasn’t a rock. Cuthbert had caught himself a turtle.  I picked it up and the turtle looked way more annoyed than I had been.

           And then I looked back at Cuthbert and he was shaking with pure joy.  It was alive and he had caught it and Dad was pleased.  It was like the moment when his whole dog life had been fulfilled.

           So Cuthbert taught me that what is important in life is taking joy in whatever it is you can accomplish.

           The great Orthodox theologian of the 20th century, Alexander Schmemann once wrote, “From its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy.”  He went on to say

Without the proclamation of this joy Christianity is incomprehensible.  It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world, and it lost the world when it lost that joy, and ceased to be a credible witness to it. Of all the accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.[1]

           I’ve enjoyed having four weeks in a row to preach.  We began with the journey of the magi to the Christ child, and I spoke of how their journey is our journey, trying to find some star to follow, having it take us to a place we were not expecting, finding there a strange scene, but one in which we could see ourselves in a new way and know to go home by a different road.

           The next Sunday we told the story of Jesus’ baptism and we discovered just what it was the magi saw in that strange place, the thing that changed them.  The thing was love, a love that was God’s gift.  That they hadn’t earned and that we haven’t earned, yet it is the great truth:  we are Gods’ beloved daughters and sons.

           Last week Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us see that it is not enough that we are God’s beloved. There is more. We are called to build the beloved community, not wait for it to come in some heaven, but build it here on earth, where we live and where our neighbors live, including those who are so different from us we can barely understand them, and probably have been taught not to.

           And all along this way, the prophet Isaiah has been singing a song in the background, a song about our calling.  “I have given you as a light to the nations.”  “I will give you as a light to the nations.”  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

           We are called to be God’s beloved . . . to build God’s beloved community . . . to follow Jesus . . . and in the words of this morning’s gospel, to fish for people.  And the bait on our hook?  The light we bring in the darkness, the joy we bring in the brokenness.

           What is this joy?                        Joy is the confidence that we are God’s beloved, that, in the words of St. Paul, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,”[2] or in the words of our baptismal rite, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”[3]

           Schmemann calls the Eucharist, “the sacrament of joy.” What we do here week by week is returning to our true joy again and again.  We have to do it so often because life over and over shakes our confidence in God’s unconditional love.  Our joy is constantly tested, constantly under fire.  But here, together, we can find it again.  And the important word is together.

           Sometimes as an individual, when I’m having a bad time of it, I can’t get that confidence back. Joy is not easily found. It’s going to take longer than a single Sunday to get it back.  But I have the next best thing, I have the comfort and hope that your return to joy gives away.

           The one thing above all others that we cannot let go of is our joy, our delight in God, our delight in the gift of life, our delight in the gift of one another, our delight in God’s call to do justice in the world.

           The Annual Meeting is next week, and it will no doubt bring up worries about the future, worries that are entirely justified.  As the rector of two parishes over twenty-five years, I always wanted to be able to stand up at the Annual Meeting and announce, “No worries.  We do not have to worry about our future anymore.”

           I never got to make that pronouncement.  But despite the challenges we faced in those parishes, and despite the challenges we face at St. Thomas’, I believe that if we keep returning to our joy, we will still be around to meet those challenges.  If we ever are infected with despair as a community, it will mean our end.

           We have been given a vision of God’s beloved people living in beloved community.  People of hope. People of faith. People of love. People of joy. 

           Amidst our worries, let us pray to become more and more light and more and more joy.  Let people experience in us a community that knows it is beloved and wants other to know that as well, that wants to build a beloved community not just inside the safety of these walls, but out there in the world, a community that lives by the light and joy of the good news of Jesus that can never be taken away from us.

           Let it not be said of us that those people know no joy.

[1] “The Proclamation of Joy: An Orthodox View,” in The Living Pulpit, October-December 1996, p. 8. The article is an excerpt from Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World.
[2] Romans 8:39.
[3] BCP, p. 308.