Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Birthday Prayer for FDR

Each January 30, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park and the National Park Service hold a celebration at the Presidential Library Rose Garden to honor his memory.  For the twelfth time in a row, I have offered the invocation at this event which typically includes politicians (last year, David Patterson was the featured speaker), local dignitaries and business people as well as an honor guard from West Point and at least one or two generals.  Sometimes Roosevelt family members come, though not this year.  Below is the invocation I prayed.

Ten days ago this nation inaugurated a new president, and we welcomed a new era.

Some have compared President Barack Obama to President Franklin D. Roosevelt because the times we live in remind us of those dark days when FDR entered office.  And so let us offer up a different prayer today:

As we thank You, God for 

The Wisdom Franklin Roosevelt showed in guiding this nation out of despair (despite the inevitable mistakes that come with leadership), let us pray that our new president may show like wisdom, and greater, for the stakes are high,

As we thank You, God for

The Hope President Roosevelt restored in our nation, let us pray that President Obama may restore hope in our day,

As we thank You, God for

The Foresight your child Franklin showed in leading our nation away from helplessness toward self-reliance, away from a defeatism toward a spirit of “We Can Do It,” let us pray that your child Barack will show similar foresight and lead us away from self-pity toward a spirit of “Yes We Can.”

As we thank You, God for

The Courage he showed not only in facing the depression with those immortal words, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” but also in leading this nation through a devistating world war, let us pray that our new president will know that same courage in our time of doubt and war.

As we thank You, God for

Franklin Roosevelt’s Insistence that ALL your children are equal in Your eyes, and that all deserve equal treatment, let us pray that Barack Obama will pick up that torch and lead this nation to a place of even greater equality among all your children everywhere.

As we thank You, God for

The Self sacrifice Franklin Roosevelt showed in Pouring out his life for his nation, let us pray that President Obama may display that same dedication in service, but also that such sacrifice may not be necessary, and that we may know a new day, a new era of hope, respect, and light.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Right People, The Right Time - A Sermon

You might not have noticed, but there’s been a lot in the news lately. Less than a week ago, we inaugurated a new president. Less than two weeks ago we had a dramatic airplane crash in our own Hudson River. Those are important real events that speak to today’s scripture.

Which is why I’m going to start by talking about a fake event -- a scene from a movie -- several years ago.

You might remember “The Lord of the Rings.” There’s a scene where Frodo sits in the belly of a mountain and says to the great wizard Gandalf: “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

Gandalf’s wise reply gives him strength: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is, what to do with the time that is given to us.”

I started thinking about that when I read an article in Time about the passengers of that flight that landed in the Hudson. You know, the “Miracle on the Hudson.” One point the article made, which seems to have been forgotten, is that not on the brilliant pilot and brave crew had a role in making sure everybody survived. Each and every one of the passengers played a role, too. We’re all able to take an active role in our salvation.

Then during President Obama’s sobering inaugural address, he reminded us that we are all responsible for the mess our country is in, but that we can all “pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off” and get back to work.

In other words, we will not wait for somebody to make things all better. We’re not going to wait for the right person to come around at the right time, because WE are the right people, and this is the right time.

So, how does that even remotely have anything to do with the scriptures we heard? Think of a single word in the Gospel. Immediately. “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

James and John even left their father right there in the boat. What could have convinced them to do such a crazy thing?

Jesus. They found something in him so compelling, so important that they stood up and said “We’re in. We’ll do what it takes.”

These fishermen did not ask Jesus to come and disrupt their mundane but secure lives. But he came, and they saw the moment that lay before them as life changing -- and life affirming.
In our reading from Jonah, the prophet was startled and upset by the reaction of the Ninevites to his prophecy. He told them that if they didn’t shape up -- and soon -- they would be destroyed by God. He HOPED they would ignore him because he hated them.

They didn’t. They all repented -- immediately. They were partners in their own salvation because they acted. They did not want Jonah’s message, but they saw it as a wake up call -- to rejoin life.

Now the time is ours. We live in stressful, austere times where money is tight, jobs are insecure, and nobody knows how things will turn out. We are Frodo inside a mountain. We are passengers inside a floating plane. We are James and John asked to leave their father. We are the Ninevites facing destruction.

We did not ask for these times -- nobody does. But praise God, we are the right people to deal with them, to stand up and say “I will help lead this congregation not only back to financial solvency, but to the promised land. I will be one who discards spiritual timidity and dig deeper into my soul because Jesus is saying to me -- right now -- “come follow me.”

We are -- you and I -- the people God has called to serve right now -- to bring St. James’ through tough (financial and spiritual) times, to bring the country through. There’s no one else, and no one else is the right person.

Nobody asks for such times. All we have to decide is, what to do with the time that is given to us.

Monday, January 19, 2009

When I’m Calling You - A Sermon

There’s humor in two of our passages -- the OT and the Gospel -- and we ought to look at it.  In the OT lesson from 1 Samuel, we have a story that ought to resonate with any parent who ever tried to get a night’s sleep.

There poor Eli is, an old man already, now in charge of a child.  The story behind that is that Samuel’s parents had prayed to God for a baby, and as payment for the bay, they promised to devote the child to God’s service.  That meant that as soon as he was able, Samuel was placed in Eli’s service.  Eli had already raised two good-for-nothing sons, so he might not have actually considered this new servant such a good idea.

Especially on the night when Samuel started hearing God’s voice.  There the old man is trying to sleep when this kid keeps barging into his room:  “Here I am!” he announces, and all Eli can say is, “Go back to bed!”  By the third time, I imagine him hiding his head under the pillow.

In the Gospel we have perhaps one of the funniest lines ever uttered by Jesus.  Phillip has gone to Nathanael and told him about Jesus.  Nathanael is unmoved, and very UNimpressed by Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth which he considers a hick town.  Sort of like one of us saying we met the Savior from Cairo, Illinois (if you’ve ever been there, you’d understand).  

But what gets Nathanael is that Jesus addresses him right away as one without deceit.  That alone is a backhanded compliment, almost like saying, “What a delight to meet someone who is so cruelly honest.”  Well, this undoes Nathanael who wants to know how Jesus knows him so well.  (This ought to give you an idea of how Nathanael sees himself).  We know Jesus’ response - I saw you under the tree.

But what is strange is Nathanael’s reply: “You are the Son of God!”  It is absurd to make such a leap, and Jesus jumps all over it.  “You believe because I said I saw you under a tree?”  You’re meant to laugh.  

But you’re also meant to hear.  Which means you’re meant to listen.

Humor aside, it’s not easy to hear the voice of God -- even harder to recognize it.  Often we think we might be hearing the promptings of God but are afraid we’ll sound crazy, or afraid we’ll sound puffed up (self aggrandizing).  Or, we’re afraid it IS God, with all that this implies.

So, how do you know if it’s God talking to you or just your own head?  The Church, you should know, does believe God speaks to us.  We simply approach it with caution.  That’s why Anglicans have always employed a three-pronged approach to knowing the will of God.  That’s right: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

Think about it, even Samuel had to get Eli’s acknowledgment that it was God speaking to him.  The apostle Paul sought the church’s approval to share what he felt certain God was saying to him.  We teach that God can be heard in scripture (but NOT that every word in the bible is direct from God).  We teach that God can be revealed in the church’s worship and teachings.  And we teach that God speaks to each of us individually in our hearts and minds.  

The trick is to match them up and see if scripture, tradition and reason are in alignment.  If so, then you can be pretty sure you’re hearing God right.  If not -- and believe me, it’s common for at least one of these to not agree with the others -- then there is some work to do, and maybe we’ll need to look at the scripture differently, or review our tradition -- or decide what we thought we heard wasn’t what we thought after all.

Of course, knowing what God is saying to you is only part of it.  The other part is acting.  Samuel did not want to tell Eli what God had told him -- he was afraid he’d get in trouble.  Sometimes we are afraid of what we think God’s calling us to do because it seems hard, uncomfortable - even impossible.  I can understand that.  

And still, if God is calling you, he will not let up.  God is patient - and persistent.  If you hear the voice of God -- listen, test, and then pray for courage to act.  One thing you can count on is that God will be with you.  Amen.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Annual Report delivered January 11, 2009

In a little over a week, we will inaugurate a new president.  His campaign slogan was “Change,” and especially in the hard financial times we’ve experienced for the past year or so, many have been clamoring for change.

I have little doubt that things will change, let’s hope for the better.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

Change is also a theme for St. James’ as we enter into 2009.  Again, we hope it will be change for the better.  

There’s no way to get around the fact that 2008 was a hard year for St. James’, and 2009 doesn’t look to be any easier.  Our finances have been in a prolonged state of crisis, with reduced giving and increased costs.  Our Vestry -- a superb group this year -- ran headlong into burnout and frustration with the neverending nature of simply keeping our buildings functioning and paying our bills.  Even Christmas was difficult with horrible weather, injuries, sick supply clergy -- and of course, my absence which at the least complicated matters.  More on that later.

It’s probably best to toss out the worst of things right now, then look for rays of sun -- for there are many.  But looking out our financial situation, we see what can only be described as a crisis.  Diana Magel has served the capacity of treasurer with such dedication and skill that we can’t begin to appreciate her significance.  She has updated our financial system, taken on much of the work we once paid others to do and ferreted out countless holes in our accounting.  She has done all this in an atmosphere of shrinking revenue and increasing liabilities.  I applaud her.

Even with the best at the helm, however, our picture is bleak.  Pledges came in at roughly $17,000 lower than last year -- and we did not have a balanced budget last year.  Our endowment has lost much of its value so that we can’t take out nearly as much from it as we have in the past.  To do so would be to spend down the endowment very quickly -- and then be completely dependent on pledges alone.  

If we were dependent only on pledging, we would have to shut our doors.  If our giving does not increase, we will have to spend down the endowment and then shut our doors.  That’s why this year, we are asking all parishioners to reconsider their giving.  Liz and I made a nearly 10% increase in our pledge this year, so perhaps it’s not impossible for you as well.  

Does it matter if we close?  Yes.  Will the world notice?  People will find other churches, I’ll find another job, but yes, the world will notice because our unique voice which has a bigger impact than our size might indicate -- a voice that touches so many aspects of the local community -- would be silenced.

Things are hard at a leadership level, too.  While our Vestry members have worked hard and ably, we have had a difficult time finding replacements for those who are rotating off.  I was gratified last Sunday that a couple of people did approach me to offer themselves.  Unfortunately, one hasn’t been at St. James’ long enough to be eligible -- though he will be next year!  

The point is that we as a congregation are not seeing the work of the Vestry as important enough to inconvenience ourselves for.  It means another night out each month.  It means dealing with budgets and main-tenance issues and employee issues.  But it also gives each and every one of us the chance to affect the work of the church.  It gives anyone who ever wanted to steer the direction of the church a chance to do just that.  If you’ve ever wanted a say in the decisions made here, you do so by joining the Vestry.

This year, as you may have noticed, we changed the ballot to allow you to personally address the issues I’ve just mentioned.  It is one of the changes we are committed to making so that St. James’ will continue to serve Christ in the community of Hyde Park for years to come.

Elizabath O’Connor wrote in her book, The New Community:  “The church that educates for a new society will live out in its structures what it proclaims. The very structures themselves educate. When our acts mirror our words, they give to our words a transforming power.”

We are seeking to live out in our structures what we proclaim: a community of hope and love that seeks out Christ in each person and serves each with joy and love.  A Community dedicated to knowing Christ in our own hearts and minds.

One change the executive committee of the Vestry has made -- the executive committee consists of the wardens, the treasurer, the clerk and the rector -- is to eliminate Vestry committee assignments.  We found one of the frustrations for Vestry members was to be assigned to a committee whether or not that committee was actively functioning.  Each month we asked for reports when in fact there was nothing to report. 

Furthermore, some members found themselves carrying the weight of work that was too much for one person.  Now, for functions that cannot be eliminated, the entire Vestry will act as a committee of the whole.  We believe this is living out our message in our structure -- eliminating that which exists simply because it was always there before, and seeking out that which enhances our community.

Now, if you are thoroughly depressed, DON’T BE!  On the other hand, if you feel a bit guilty because maybe you haven’t taken the work of Christ at St. James’ as seriously as you might, well, a little instructive guilt can be healthy as long as it doesn’t slip into shame.  Just think of it as your chance to take a more active part in the Kingdom of God.

More importantly, Be aware that even in these hard times, Christ is doing a good work here, and more change is coming that is cause for hope.

The pageant we will see later on is cause for hope.  It has children, teens and adults working together for the strengthening of the Body of Christ.

Sunday School, Communion Class, Vacation Bible School, Inquirers Classes were all and continue to be powerful ministries St. James’ executes with skill and dedication.  Each has touched the lives of many this year.  Rejoice in their work.

Towel Camp saw 13 of our members serve in a hands on way this summer.  They raised funds through dinners, car washes and selling the venerable Towels.  Nearly as many plan on attending this year, and already the youth have set up plans for fundraisers.  

Again, change is our theme, and the Towels we sell will take on an entirely new theme depending on the season.  Look for Valentie Towels before long.  The first fundraising event, by the way, is a Spaghetti Supper on Friday, February 6.  Mark your calendars.

Speaking of Fridays, another new thing this winter looks to blossom over the course of 2009.  “Fridays With God” is a chance to take part in occasional and -- hopefully -- fun classes about various aspects of Christian life.  Plans for 2009 include a series on the songs of the church seasons, a series on parables, another titled “Know Your Heresies” and my personal favorite, “The Church According to the Vicar of Dibly.”  These won’t take place every Friday, but often enough that you can count on them.

We did other new things in 2008.  For the first time in decades, we had a Progressive Dinner.  A lot of work for the organizers, it was also a delightfully fun evening.  If the organizers do it again this year, I hope everyone will buy their tickets and attend.  Thanks go to a lot of people but especially John Golden for spearheading the event.

We had our second Fall Festival as well this year.  Considering the state of the economy, I was very pleased with the traffic we received.  Thanks go to Deb Catalano and Doug Belding for making a tremendous undertaking flow.

Before we look ahead a bit, I wanted to say thank you to a few more people.  First, our wardens Cliff Wells and Doug Belding have put in more hours this year than I think anyone here knows.  I was beginning to think I should go to the post office and get them change of address labels because every time I walked in the parish house either one or both of them was here checking on the furnace or the pipes or the computer or the alarms or the budget.  Between them and Diana working on the finances, the building was rarely empty.

I also want to thank Dean Caswell for heading up food on so many occasions this year - including today’s meal.  It is often a thankless job that takes hours of preparation and clean up.  The same goes for the many parishioners who participate in the life of the church in endless ways:  Acolytes, Altar Guild, Choir, Churchyard Committee, Lay Readers and Lectors, Office volunteers, Outreach Committee, Reading Adventures, Sunday School teachers, Ushers -- You name it.  When I said there was a leadership shortage, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of you getting involved.  It’s just that there are holes in important areas.

One hole we have recently filled -- sort of -- is our secretary position.  Amy was gone for nearly three months on maternity leave and although she has now returned, it is for two days a week only.  She is here on Thursdays and Fridays.  Diane Webb has volunteered to be in the office on Wednesdays whenever possible, and a varied group of volunteers is answering the phones on Tuesdays.  It’s not a perfect system, but we are giving it a try.  In two months we will review how it is working and decide whether or not to continue that way or try something new.

One innovation we’ve developed to fill another hole has been the E-News.  We have had a difficult time finding an editor for the Epistle, so in its absence each week either on Tuesday or Wednesday, I send out a short summary of what’s happening in the coming week via e-mail.  It’s not perfect, but for the most part people have responded very enthusiastically to E-News.  Even if we get an Epistle editor, I think it’ll be good to continue the weekly e-mail.

This brings me to my personal activities over the past year.  We had a wonderful Easter that I was delighted to share with my birthday.  Thank you for making it a joyful day.  This summer I was elected Dean of our local clericus, which only means that I attend a monthly meeting with Bishop Sisk then report back to the clergy between Hyde Park and Red Hook. 

Finally, of course, our trip to Illinois to spend Christmas with my parents.  Thank you again for that -- I know the timing is never good.  Not only is Christmas a bad time to be away in the first place, but with the state of church finances, it was a bad Christmas  not to have the rector at Christmas Eve services (where a large amount of our budget is made up).

But it meant a lot to me, and it let me share my love of God with many of the people who raised me in my Christian faith.  The trip also reminded me of how much St. James’ means to me.  As good as it was to go home for a visit, this is my spiritual home now.  This is where I pray and worship and what happens here matters to me.  It is my prayer and my hope that what happens to St. James’ matters to you as much.  Thank you.

Monday, January 5, 2009

In the Beginning Again - A Sermon

First of all, I want to thank you all again for the wonderful gift of allowing me to go home to my family for Christmas this year.  It was fantastic, though I spent the entire Midnight Mass wondering what was going on at St. James’.

When I got back, I learned that Fr. Schmidt got sick and couldn’t take the service last Sunday, and that Fr. Schnitzer jumped in at the last second but didn’t have a chance to prepare a sermon.  You heard the gospel but no commentary on it, and that won’t do. 

So, you get “In the beginning” again.

We can deal with Epiphany next week.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.

You might not guess how important that passage is to Christianity, but it changed the way people saw Jesus.  Because what it says is that Jesus always was.  

You’ll notice that John doesn’t give a birth story like Matthew and Luke do.  Mark doesn’t either, but that’s because he doesn’t care -- all that’s important for him is what Jesus did.  But John cares.  He writes this remarkably beautiful, poetic preface that mirrors the opening lines of Genesis -- In the beginning.

Only, what he wants you to know is that in the beginning, Jesus was.  This was no mere man.  Through him all things were created.   John believes that Jesus was born, but that’s not the important thing.  What’s important is that Jesus was there before the beginning of time. Jesus always was and always will be.  

Jesus is God.

One big reason for John writing this Gospel was that there was dispute going on at the time about whether God created Jesus.  Sort of like a perfect robot that would follow God’s orders, do God’s will perfectly -- but is a creation of God.  If you saw that movie Get Smart, then you remember Hymie -- looked and acted like a person who happened to be bigger, stronger, and faster than everyone else.  But Hymie was a robot operated by two scientists with a remote control.

John says Jesus is no robot, no creation -- Jesus is God at work.  

What does that mean for us? 

It means that God is personally involved in us.  When God saw the need to become involved in his creation, he did not send a surrogate to do the job for him.  He came himself.  He invested himself in our lives by becoming one of us in every way.  

Which means that God is personally invested in you and me.  That’s what is so important.  It means that God does not see us as mere objects that can be dealt with from a distance.  No, he invests every bit of himself in us.

In these difficult financial times I hear people talking about the corporations they work for -- how there used to be loyalty to the employees, but now how all employees are expendable the moment they no longer serve a purpose.  

What John is saying to us is that God is no soulless corporation, jettisonning us when we become inconvenient.  God is fully invested in what happens to you and me because we aren’t employees, we are God’s children.  

We should note, however, that this investment does NOT mean that God is here to serve us.  No, we are the servants.  We are the children, while God is the parent.  But it is something different to serve a parent who loves us rather than one who sees us as expendible.  It is something different to serve one who desires us to be in joyful relationship with him -- rather than one who only needs us until we no longer can fulfill our function.

So you choose: serve that which sees you as a function or serve one who is totally there with you, totally committed to you.  The one who was always there right from the beginning.  Amen.