Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sheep Without a Shepherd (or a GPS) - A Sermon

It’s summer, and like a lot of people in this high-traveling season, I’ve made a new friend. This friend helps me a lot but never shouts. Whenever I bring him along on a trip, he keeps me on my toes and generally makes sure I get where I’m going.

I’d like you to meet “Tim,” Yes, my GPS.

It’s not that I ever got LOST or anything before I met Tim. It’s just that finding my way home from work is so much easier now. Besides, now I don’t have to worry about missing exits or even gas stations, since Tim knows there those are, too.

He’s not perfect. Once he told me to turn off onto an exit that was closed. But all in all, I like never having to pull into a gas station and asking, “Where am I?”

Wouldn’t it be great if we had a GPS for our lives? You know, “Apply for job at this factory. Then, tell old boss to take a hike.” Or you’re walking along when someone you want to avoid approaches. You don’t see them, but Tim saves the day: “Turn around as soon as possible.” Listen to Tim. He’ll guide your life.

But for now, we still often feel lost and confused in this life. Some of us feel that way MOST of the time. And when you’re LOST you’re also often SCARED.

This is nothing new. Even before the days of GPS and Mapquest, people were getting lost on the roads of their lives. Confused and frightened, that’s our natural state it seems. And it’s usually in those states that we do silly things that get us in trouble.

Look at King David in the Old Testament. He’s going along in his new kingdom rather nicely, when he gets this idea of building a temple for God. God comes back to him and says, “Why are you doing this? Who asked you to do that? Just keep to the path you were on.” Of course, David keeps getting off the path, but fortunately for him, God keeps bringing him back.

Or look at Jesus in today’s Gospel. He saw that very thing in the people. He said they were like sheep without a shepherd. Let me tell you, sheep without a shepherd can very quickly equal lost, confused and frightened because sheep aren’t that bright (as we all know). And because they were so lost, he had compassion on them and gave them what they needed.

What he gave them was guidance. He taught them. Not so much in the “Do the right thing” sense as in the “come closer to your Father” sense. That is, showing what really matters in life. Because often we get lost by forgetting what is most important in life, forgetting what our goal is -- and the path.

Yes, he healed them and fed them because Jesus is God incarnate, and that means Jesus is love. But then, LOVE is our goal and love is our path. Unfortunately, Love is a goal and a path that’s easy to lose, because it’s a narrow and winding path with many obstacles.

So, the closest thing we have to a GPS for life is Jesus because he will always show a life that is pointed toward God and one that will always act toward others in a loving manner. When his disciples were tired, he asked them to rest -- sure wish more of US would do that with our employees and families. When the sheep were confused, even though he himself was exhausted, he taught. And when they were frightened because they thought he was a ghost, he calmed them.

Best yet, when they went wrong -- or when WE go wrong -- he forgives. And shows us the way back to him. Tim can’t forgive. The best he can do is say, “Turn around as soon as possible.”

By the way, did you know the word for “repent” is “turn around”?

I bring this up because today we have two baptisms, and in the baptismal covenant, one of the questions we ask is, “when you fall into sin, will you repent and turn to the Lord?” Will you return to the path? Will you listen to the voice that guides you? Will you follow Jesus?

Being baptized is a funny thing where we essentially ask people to join our group of travelers who are all following the same path, listening to the same voice. It is a group that understands just how lost we are without our shepherd, without God incarnate.

When we are baptized, we become part of the Body of Christ. We become sheep WITH a shepherd, we bind ourselves to God’s love and mercy. We’re not naive about what that means. God doesn’t say, “Turn right at next exit to find that dream house.” God stays with us and reminds us, “You’re getting off the path of Love, turn around as soon as possible.”

It might seem that most of the time God remains silent, that Jesus’ words in scripture are pretty much all we have. But then, God has given us more than a mere voice in a box. God has given us each other, too, and we are here to help along that road. I pray that you will be active parts in helping guide our newest members.

And that you, like sheep WITH a shepherd, will always turn to the Lord of life, who is our goal and our path, which, of course, is LOVE.

God, Life and Everything - "The Fulcrum"

I write a biweekly column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take. Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

I am sitting on the fulcrum of summer programming. Harry Goodpeople told me so.

He came to visit the other day and sat on my porch drinking a soda as he watched the rain. “Lucky for you that you were in North Carolina all last week,” he said. “Nothing but sun.”

“True,” I replied. “Ninety degrees in the shade and digging postholes all day. My son had it worse: he was on a tin roof all day.”

Harry would have none of it. He laughed at my complaint and said, “The rest of us have been enduring northern rain and work even when it was supposed to be warm and sunny. So what if you got hot? You had sun! And I bet you got to play some, didn’t you?”

Again, it was true. The group of eleven that I went with to North Carolina -- remember I wrote about going to Towel Camp -- worked each morning then cut out around 2:00 pm to take showers and rest. Most of the teenagers played football or threw a frisbee. The work team I was in charge of opted for ice cream after showers. I ate a lot of ice cream.

But we worked hard, too. Building, repairing, cleaning. I’ve bored so many people with reports of our mission trip that I’m afraid to say anything more. Except that now our trip is over, and we are rushing headlong into our next event.

That’s where Harry Goodpeople came in. While he wanted to talk about fishing (even though he knows I don’t fish), all I could talk about was Vacation Bible School. It’s next week, and even while we’re still cleaning out the Towel Camp van, I’ve been diving headfirst into VBS. Harry sipped soda while I paced the porch and talked of tents, registrations, games and songs for the kids.

I paced the porch and went on endlessly: “The recreation person doesn’t know what he’s doing yet, the CITs aren’t trained, the bible stories are still ragged…”

He held up his hand.

“You, my friend, are on the sitting on the fulcrum of summer programming.” I stopped short and cocked my head in confusion. “You’ve filled your summer with nothing but activity, and now you don’t know whether you’re coming or going.”

“But VBS is so important,” I protested. “It’s our opportunity to share the gospel with the community.” He snorted.

“Sure, but take it easy,” he said. “Sometimes what you need to do is take a deep breath and slow down. You just finished a big project. You’ve got one more real soon. But today you can breathe. You can look back at a job well done on one side, and look forward to a job you’re going to enjoy and through which you’ll touch young lives. Enjoy the moment, because it’s fleeting.”

“But we’re not ready! What if it falls apart! What if my volunteers fall through. What if I mess up!”

The hand went up again.

“It’ll be what it needs to be.”

I don’t know when Harry got so smart. Usually, I’m the one giving him advice. But as I quit pacing and sat down in an Adirondack chair, I could feel my racing nerves slow down and the stress ease up. Weight lifted from my shoulders.

“It’ll be what it needs to be,” I repeated.

“Sure,” said Harry, taking another relaxed sip. “Just take a moment to admire your work, the work of others, and God’s quirky sense of efficiency that never seems in a hurry to get much done.”

“It’ll be what it needs to be,” I said one last time, as if to brand it on my brain. And that’s right. VBS is stressful, and even while my mind is still buzzing about our mission camp last week, it looms ahead. We sit on the fulcrum of activity. But to know that it will be what it needs to be, no matter what that might be, is sheer freedom.

“There, isn’t that better?” Harry asked. And it was. He went inside and returned with an iced tea.

Our VBS is from Tuesday, July 21 - Friday July 24 (5:30 - 8:00 pm) and Saturday, July 25 (10:00 am - 12:30 pm). Cost is $15/child. Call 229-2820 for registration.

Dangerous Dancing - a Sermon

It is my grandmother’s fault that I can’t dance. Her, and the Methodists.

Inside, I’m Fred Asataire, but outwardly, I look like a Walrus trying to get back to the sea or a chicken trying to take flight.

I blame my grandmother, of course, because she was … a Methodist. Not just any Methodist, of course, but a country Methodist. Of course, they did not allow alcohol, but they didn’t believe in movies or dancing. Especially dancing was dangerous because it led to, well, all sorts of things.

Since Granny never danced, my Dad never danced, and since he never danced, I was deprived of rhythm in my life. Dancing. Do it at your peril.

Now, you would have thought that my grandmother got this idea about dancing from the bible, and if you read the Old Testament and Gospel today, you might think she had a point. The dancing in each of these had a pretty bad outcome.

But, of course, the dancing back then was just as innocent as it is today despite all those terrible things Granny imagined it was guilty of. The dancing was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Take a look at the Gospel for a moment.

King Herod has imprisoned John the Baptist because John criticized Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who just happened to still be married to Herod’s brother Phillip. Got that? But at a birthday party, Herodias’ daughter dances beautifully for him -- the way I do inside, I’m sure -- and is rewarded with a promise of anything she wants, up to half his kingdom.

The girl may have been a great dancer, but she wasn’t very bright. She had to go to her mother and ask what she wanted! Of course, Herodias knew: John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Personally, if I were the girl, I’d have taken a chalet on the Mediterranean. Either way, dancing gets a bad wrap. It was all that darn Herodias’ fault.

Things are even more of a soap opera in the Old Testament. There, King David finally brings home the ark of the covenant and dances in ecstasy as it’s brought into his city. Any king would probably have done the same thing. But his wife Michal sees him from her window and despises him. Why is she such a party pooper?

Don’t be too hard on poor Michal. She and David actually loved each other at one point. But that was when Saul was king, and he only allowed her to marry David because he thought he could use David’s love for Michal to get David killed. As a bride-price, he required David to go get 100 Phillistine foreskins. Saul assumed David would die in the attempt, but David succeeded, and Sau was forced to give her to David in marriage.

But soon David had to flee for his life from Saul. While on the run, David married two other women who are kind to him, and Saul gave Michal to another man to be his wife.

Upon returning and gaining the throne (after battle with Saul in which Saul is killed), David reclaimed Michal. There’s no description of how she felt about it, but just think: when he fled, she was his only wife, and her father was still alive. Now he comes back with other wives - and his army is responsible for her father’s and brother’s deaths. That’s got to put a crimp in the relationship.

So is it any wonder she might find an excuse to publicly despise him? When David brings the ark home with ecstatic dancing -- in which he is barely clad -- she confronts him -- just after the section we read in church -- and argues that he danced nearly naked in front of the servant girls. It was unseemly for a king, she said. She blamed the dancing -- but it’s clear there was a whole lot more to it.

Now you might be thinking, so what? David and Michal lived a loveless life after that, big deal. But for the writer, it was because he ends Michal’s story by saying she died without having children. She was Saul’s last child. No children meant Saul’s line came to an end. It was over for Saul just as it was over for John the Baptist.

These two dancing stories result in tragic ends. But the dancing is innocent! Itjust allows us to see into the soap operas that so often populate the bible. It helps us realize that these were real people, real stories that were complex and conflicted. Even if the stories were tweaked by their authors, it’s real human drama. And that means that they are more like us than we want to imagine. Of course, that also means that we, like they, are dependent on God’s love far more than our own righteousness. Or our ability to dance. Amen.

Monday, July 6, 2009

We're Back - A Sermon

Well, we’re back.

Like the disciples returning from their mission, the campers are back from Towel Camp. However, and I don’t mean to disappoint, we brought more than a staff on the trip. We took money (that you helped us raise) and boots and extra clothes. In fact, we took as much as we could cram into the Scooby Doo van.

I’m not sure how many demons we cast out, but I know we anointed the sick and the troubled. That’s what we do on mission trips like this. We go out to comfort the afflicted. We go out to heal those in pain -- maybe not physical healing, but healing in the soul. That and we eat a lot. If you were a member of my work group, you ate ice cream, too. Every day.

Rest assured, the young people you sent out to North Carolina last week did you proud. They worked hard and looked for more work when they were done. They sat with people who had nobody to care about them, and they cared. One group talked an older -- and quite stubborn -- woman into going to the hospital when they noticed something wrong with her. Although it took awhile to convince her, she went and eventually discovered she had to have surgery.

While we were away, our young people -- like those disciples -- led worship, read the scriptures, reminded me more than once at meals that “We have to pray,” actually sang hymns, and even stood along the street one evening holding up “Honk if you love Jesus” signs. Apparently, in the south, this is perfectly acceptable even for Episcopalians.

At this point, some parents might say, “That’s not my child you’re talking about.” It’s like school when a teacher says, “Your child is such a delight in class,” and you look at the name on the address to make sure they’re talking about your kid.

They go out and do great things, but it’s hard for us to see it. These are kids who run in the parish hall when we say “walk.” These are kids who can’t keep their rooms clean. These are kids whom we’ve known since they were knee high to a grasshopper, so they can’t be going out doing great things.

But they are. They grow up. They spread their wings.

It happens to everyone. I remember one of the few times I ever preached at my home church. Bob, who’s about my dad’s age, came up shaking his head in disbelief and said, “Huh. That wasn’t bad. Who’d have figured?” And walked away shaking his head.

Young people go away, they change -- whether at college or at camp. One of the reasons young people go away when they reach a certain age is because back home people still see them as children when what they want is to grow and change. On our way home yesterday, we ran into a church youth group from Ottawa, Canada and started talking. They were also coming from a mission trip in North Carolina! (And you thought WE went a long way away). Like us, they left home to help others but also to change. Like us, I’m sure they did. And like all young people who go away and come back different, I bet it’ll be hard for those at home to accept the changes.

It sure was with Jesus. He went away -- who knows exactly how long -- and what people in his town expected to see returning was young Jesus, the carpenter’s kid. They expected to get back what they had sent out.

Instead, they got back a prophet. More than a prophet. They got back someone they barely recognized because he spoke with authority, wisdom and power. They got a teacher who brought them healing and words of life. They expected young Jesus, and they got Christ.

Why did they take offense? Because he had changed. They never even heard the words -- words they would have been happy with had they come from the mouths of someone else. They simply could not look past the surface of someone they had always known.

I pray we don’t make that mistake, understandable as it is. You’ll have chances in the coming weeks to talk with some of those kids. Please look beyond the surface of a teenager listening to loud music on an iPod or texting on their cell phone. Listen to their words even if they are halting -- they have wisdom to share with us. And healing. It’s called Christ’s love.

I pray we don’t make that mistake when it comes to any of us. Because we are all bearers of the light. We are all members of the body of Christ and therefore prophets of God’s love to those nearby and those far off.

Not all of us have to go away to change inside -- it only needs growing in Christ’s love which is a journey that requires no miles, only a willingness to look within. This is the sort of change that has no age limit, either, just a desire to keep growing. That, and an awareness that as we grow closer to Christ, some will not understand it - they will want us the way we always were. But if we never grew, how could we go out and serve, heal and preach the good news? And how could we come back with rejoicing, which like the disciples, is what your own fellow parishioners have done. Ame

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Towel Camp Journal - Days 5 and 6

Twelve members of our congregation are on a trip to North Carolina to work on the homes of those in need. It's called Towel Camp. I thought you might like a brief run-down of each day as it happens. You’ll be able to follow along - and I might even be able to send a photo each day. Hope you enjoy it.

Days 5 and 6:

I didn’t get this out yesterday morning because I overslept. That happens with late nights.

On Thursday, our last work day, we finished our jobs. Well, we got as far as we could. Some work crews finished within an hour or two because their jobs were specific and limited. Others finished early because there was so much to do that it would take another camp to even scratch the surface.

Our work site is in the second category. But even the limited job we were supposed to finish, we couldn’t. Our task for the day, now that we had removed the playground, moved a shed and dug a dozen postholes into which we had planted the posts, was to finish a retaining wall and to pressure wash a wheelchair ramp, then paint it with no-skid paint.

While half the crew worked on the wall, I took three others to pressure wash. We traded off after three or four boards, and it was tougher than it looked. Early in the process, our group realized that the highest pressure nozzle was not necessary -- it cut patterns into the wood. The camp leader reminded us that the water pressure was enough to cut off fingers if we weren’t careful so we were careful and put on a lower pressure nozzle. Still the going was slow. But the end of the work day, we had a wall and a clean ramp, but had not painted. That will have to wait for the next camp.

The next morning, -- Friday -- we let everyone sleep in. It was our visiting day where we got to look at each others’ sites and meet the people we were helping. The first visit was to a 98-year-old woman for whom the campers had fixed her bathroom to make it more accessible. Her 81-year-old son met us as we arrived, and when we met her, she reminded us that she could still “whoop” her son if he needed it.

Then we went to a house we had visited the year before, where two older women lived. One of them had been taken to the hospital the previous day, and was in the middle of surgery while we visited, so it was a more sober time than they had anticipated, but the other woman was hopeful and in good spirits. The work there had been more general but included repairing a roof.

Our third visit was to the women’s shelter, the only place where we did not get to meet any of the residents. I’ve described that job already. Finally, we went to the home of another woman who lived in a tin-roof house that rested on cinder blocks. She was delighted in the way the roof was fixed and a new back stairway was built.

After the visits, we went to Steele Creek Park for swimming and a picnic. When we pulled in, it became apparent that the 4th of July weekend is not the best time to go swimming -- it was packed! Pulling in with three large vans was tight parking. To make matters more complicated, every three feet little children pointed at us and shouted, “Look Mom, the Scooby Doo van!” If you have not seen the van we bring down each year, it’s painted to look like the “Mystery Machine” on the cartoon, “Scooby Doo.”

We amazingly found a group of tables to sit at, but after lunch nobody wanted to face the crowds at the diving board, so one group settled for mini-golf while another went up creek and found a set of large rocks to lie down on while they waded. In the end, we were all ready to go back by 3:00 pm.

After showers and the mandatory visit to the ice cream shop, the campers simply spent their time together realizing that it was their last night. They clung to each other like long lost twins who were being separated again. At dinner, the eyes started tearing up. At the closing eucharist, there were tears. I am pround of one of my team members, however, for helping me with the sermon. She had to let me yell at her for getting it all wrong -- turns out she was a great actress!

After the eucharist in which we all received actual towels as a reminder of the servanthood Christ calls us to, it was packing time. As I write this, it is nearly 5:30 am on Saturday, and I am minutes away from waking the campers up to get them on their ways. It is bitter sweet because the camp was very good, the kids fell in love with each other -- and now they will part, hoping to see each other again some day. Probably at camp. Either way, they go with a renewed sense of the joy of service.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Towel Camp Journal - Day 4

Twelve members of our congregation are on a trip to North Carolina to work on the homes of those in need. It's called Towel Camp. I thought you might like a brief run-down of each day as it happens. You’ll be able to follow along - and I might even be able to send a photo each day. Hope you enjoy it.

Day 4:

Hump Day. The room at breakfast was filled with more moaning and groaning from the aches and pains of the previous day. However, what most of the youth groaned about was the lack of sleep. I’m afraid that is a recurring theme: they stay up as late as they can get away with and stay in bed (sleeping bags) as long as they are allowed. Even 7:00 a.m. is too early for them. Go figure.

On the other hand, they were anxious to get to their work sites for two reasons. First, because they now only had one more day of work to finish their projects -- Thursday is the last day of work. On Friday, all groups visit each other’s sites and meet the people they have been working for. It’s is a chance for us all to appreciate what our new friends have been doing and to make yet newer friends.

Second, they knew that this Wednesday had a special treat in store. We were going to work only half a day and then go to the lake for swimming and canoing.

Our group thought we were going to finish building a retaining wall. Instead, we dug more postholes -- with the manual digger of course because I managed to break the gas powered auger the day before when I hit a doozie of a rock on the last hole. By the way, that earned me a nickname on my team: TAB, The Auger Breaker. Sigh.

The digging was easier this day because there had been a couple of hours of rain in the early morning. Of course, that meant that we were working in mud -- red slippery clay -- but you can’t have everything. We had to fill in or redig a couple of other holes that had been measured wrong, and by the time we finally set the posts in place, we only had time enough for some arm wrestling.

When we arrived at the pavillion we had reserved by the lake (it’s Lake James, by the way), we found it occupied by that camp of 6-year-olds from the YMCA. I mean, it was the exact same kids who had driven us from the showers. I think they are following us. We found a way to share the space, had our lunch and went for fun in the sun. Sadly, I did not get pictures of the lake. About a dozen of us rented all the available canoes while the others swam. Our flotilla explored as much of the lake as we dared until one canoe capsized. (NOTE: All canoers wore life jackest!). They were older and were able to tow their canoe to a nearby sandbar. On the way back, another canoe capsized, so it was back to the sandbar to empty them out. That was when we decided we had had enough fun.

In the evening, we received our Towel Camp 2009 t-shirts and had eucharist. I was able to celebrate while another priest, Mary, who is also on my work team, preached. It was great fun.

Finally, after church, the kids from Hyde Park made a special phone call to sing Happy Birthday to Tara Cotton. Happy Birthday, Tara!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Towel Camp Journal - Day 3

Twelve members of our congregation are on a trip to North Carolina to work on the homes of those in need. It's called Towel Camp. I thought you might like a brief run-down of each day as it happens. You’ll be able to follow along - and I might even be able to send a photo each day. Hope you enjoy it.

Day 3:

Breakfast the second work day was a little quieter than on the first. People made their lunch sandwiches a little more slowly, and some of the older chaperones (okay, that would be me) made the occasional grunt when sitting down or standing up. Part of this is from the hard work of the previous day, part of it from the late night games of touch football or frisbee or -- a Towel Camp favorite -- the card game I know that qualifies as a contact sport, Spoons. Lights out was at 11:00 pm, but since when did lights out ever stop teenagers from giggling or chatting. Still, we only had to make the mandatory “be quiet” visit once.

One thing I’ll say for the team members as they made their lunches: they looked out for each other. The day before an adult team leader had forgotten to pack drinks, which is dangerous in this heat. Team members shared their drinks, but on Day 3 (Work Day 2), a couple of team members packed several drinks for him!

Workship was led by a different team this day, and after that, we were ready to get to work. Amazingly, as the teens got to their work vans, all tiredness seemed to vanish. At one worksite, they painted a special substance onto a tin roof (popular down here) to keep it cool. This included getting on a roof, and while they were not required to go up there, a couple of kids with fear of heights challenged themselves to get up there and paint. Another team did some bushwhacking and interior work)

Our team dug post holes. For the most part, we used an old fashioned posthole digger which is a lot of work. Unfortunately, most of those holes were filled with rocks, some the size of footballs - each of them had to be pulled out by hand. We also built a ramp.

After work, showers at the YMCA felt very good -- except that we were inundated by 6-year-olds ending their day at their own camps, so it took another half hour before we could actually get in them! Then some relaxation, more spoons, more frisbee, more football, and after dinner a powerful scripture presentation by our own Mike Fenwick, and worship that included a beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace on violin by our own Liz Handman who played in duet with Deacon Mike Jenkins.

I am sorry that I can’t give more detailed accounts of work on the other teams -- they all include members of our church, but I did not experience their work and only got thumbnail sketches. However, you’ll have plenty opportunity to hear about some rather exciting work they did.

One last thing. Please remember the vehicle we road down in -- the Scooby Van. While our kids are a little tired of its lack of air conditioning (we helped get it fixed last year, but it’s broken again), the kids down here love to ride in it. There certainly is plenty of head turning around town whenever we pass by, and I’ve heard more than a couple small children point and yell, “Scooby!” Yesterday, somebody even offered to buy it. Sadly, I don’t think our friends at Grace Church, Millbrook would go along with it.