Rejoice in the Lord–In spite of it all: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year A, 2017

It’s all so overwhelming, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had to limit my exposure to the news and to social media. I started that practice last fall, but over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that my avoidance of the news has become even more pronounced. The hurricanes, the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the wildfires in Northern California, the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the blathering of politicians about these things. When I do turn to the news or my facebook or twitter feed, I feel my blood pressure, anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness mount second by second. And traditional distractions like NFL football no longer provide a respite. It’s not just the rancor over the anthem protests. I can’t watch human beings do things to each other that cause the brain damage we know will result.

As I said, it’s overwhelming. It’s easy to lose hope. And I know that on top of all of this, a number of you have shared with me personal situations that are overwhelming, of great concern. We wonder about our personal futures, the future of the nation, the future of the planet. We aren’t sure whether our faith in God can sustain us through these dark times, and we doubt whether my words, or our coming together in worship can drive away our doubts and fears, even for an hour on Sunday morning.

I’m with you in all of this. I share your fears, your doubts, the emotional roller coaster we all seem to be on these days, although on this ride, there seem to be no highs, only a series of breathtaking descents that never seem to end.

This week I had a couple of experiences that gave me new insight into where I’m at and reminded me that in spite of everything, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God is present with us and our faith in God can sustain us and give us hope.

The first was yesterday—diocesan convention. Now, I’ll make a confession to you. There is nowhere I would less likely choose to spend an October Saturday than in diocesan convention. This year’s promised to be particularly boring, little more than an exercise in going through the motions of taking counsel with lay people and clergy throughout the diocese. But something happened. It may have been the opening Eucharist—transformed by lovely and moving music. It may have been the stories that were shared of God at work in ministries and people across the diocese, and through us across the world, in the Diocese of Newala in Tanzania, and the Haiti Project. It may have been conversations I had with others around our table or across the convention hall. Whatever it was, and it was likely a combination of these things, I came away inspired and full of hope.

The other, even more dramatic experience came as I attended the ribbon cutting for the Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center on E. Wash. I had the opportunity to tour the facility a few weeks ago and was overwhelmed by the care that had been taken in design and buildout. It’s an amazing facility, attractive, inviting. It will provide basic services like laundry and showers but will also provide space for a whole range of services that will help homeless people improve their lives. I’m looking forward to spending Tuesday afternoon there, to see first hand, on the second day of its operation, how it’s going, and in my own small way to offer pastoral care to those who might be interested.

But as I listened to the speakers at the ribbon cutting, and looked around the room, I thought back to the long, difficult, and frustrating process that had concluded successfully. I had first mentioned the need for such a facility in a sermon almost exactly six years ago, and for several years, I was actively involved in efforts to make this dream a reality—only to give up in exhaustion and frustration several years ago when efforts to find a suitable location collapsed.

It’s been a lesson to me that God continues to work, even when I lose hope, strength, and give up. It’s also been a lesson that our wildest dreams can become reality, that in the midst of difficult and despairing situations, it’s ok to continue to hope.

Paul is writing the letter to the Philippians from a prison cell. He’s in a difficult situation, facing an uncertain future but even so he writes a letter that is full of hope. He expresses his deep affection for this congregation; he is full of encouragement. And the last words of our reading seem to elevate us to another level—away from the mundane concerns of our lives and world to the presence of God where we can be at peace.

But he doesn’t begin there. Even as he writes these words of encouragement, even as he appeals to his readers to stand firm, to rejoice, he takes time to mention a conflict in the midst of the community—Euodia and Syntoche seem to be at odds over something and he urges the whole community to work on resolving the conflict and making peace between the two.

Paul writes these words at a time of difficult in his own life, and in a time of difficulty for the congregation to whom he is writing. In that context, these words, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice.” We may think that Paul means this for us as individuals but he is writing to a community, not to individuals. The verbs here are in the plural, not the singular. Joy is incomplete unless it is shared. Perhaps joy only reaches its fullness when it is shared. But joy is not the point of it; it’s not the reason we gather to worship, joy is a sign of the presence of the risen Christ among us. Joy is comes from our experience of the risen Christ.

And it’s not just worship. We have so much for which we should rejoice, so many signs of the risen Christ among us—we will be blessing and commissioning to of our members as the depart on a mission trip to Haiti. Next week, we will dedicate a Little Free Library, the Creating More Just Community is moving forward with plans to engage our neighbors in the legislature. We are blessed with children running joyfully through Vilas Hall during coffee hour, and there’s so much more.

So I encourage you in these dark times, to look for signs of God at work, to look for signs of the presence of the risen Christ in the world around us and in your lives. Paul said it so much better than I ever could:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

 

 

 

 

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Breathing life into Diocesan Convention?

Yesterday, the 165th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Milwaukee met. Details of the gathering are here.

There were two resolutions: one a change to the canons to permit vestries of six members; the other the annual minimum compensation for clergy. Neither elicited any debate. There were only two contested elections (for a lay member of Executive Committee, and for a clergy slot on Standing Committee).

I wasn’t able to stay for the discussion of the budget but from my twitter feed, it seems that there was little debate on that. In fact, a newcomer to the diocese observed that the explanation of the rules for debate took up more time than the debate itself. It’s as if we were going through the motions–doing things that needed to be done without any energy or excitement.

The only time it seemed the room began to fill with ideas and energy was as we talked around our tables about three questions Bishop Miller gave us at the end of his address. Here they are:

How is your congregation experiencing new life?
How do we, continually ourselves and others to see the new life God is calling forth and deepen our relationship with God?
How can diocesan structures and ministries help you in these efforts?

The questions were oriented toward the diocese’s ongoing strategic planning process in which I participate as a member of the task force.

It got me thinking, though. We’ve been talking a great deal about restructuring the church, on the congregation, diocesan, and church-wide level. Diocesan conventions seem ripe for complete rethinking. Every year, several hundred of the most committed Episcopalian Christians gather in each diocese to elect members to various bodies, debate resolutions, and pass budgets. I’ve never met anyone who said they love the business session of a convention. We do it because we have to do it, because we can’t imagine another way of doing it. But here we are, several hundred of us, gathered to work and worship. We hang out together, rekindle relationships, make new friends. How might we use our time together more effectively: for teaching and learning, for asking big questions and hearing about new initiatives? For praying? Studying the Bible? Instead, we go through the motions of doing business. In our diocese, we hear the Bishop twice, preaching the sermon during the Eucharist and his pastoral address during the business session. Instead of listening, how might we foster more conversation, dialogue, and listen for the movement of the Holy Spirit?

Here’s Bishop Miller’s Pastoral Address to the convention.