Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Claiming the Blessing 2.0 -- A Sermon for August 1, 2010 (Proper 13C)

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Luke 12:13-21

Well, aren’t those a cheerful set of lessons for a summer Sunday? At this point I could just say, “Here’s what the Scripture tells us. Basically it’s all vanity, and no matter how much stuff you store up, you can’t take it with you.” Then I could sit down and we could go to brunch early.

But that’s not going to happen, because in some ways what we’ve just been reminded of is what we already know, and we all do it, don’t we? We collect stuff. Too much stuff. I’m going to pick on Sharalyn for a minute (pointing to her on the platform). Sharalyn is in the middle of moving, so she’s got all of her stuff in storage, waiting for one escrow to close and another escrow to close before moving her stuff. It can be kind of consuming – keeping track of all that stuff. And we’ve all been there – so let’s keep her in our prayers!

Meanwhile, even for those of us who aren’t in the middle of moving, the challenge is how we sort through it all, and I found myself rereading the work of the psychologist Timothy Miller in preparation for this sermon, and Dr. Miller wrote:

It’s just human nature to want a little more. People spend their lives honestly believing they have almost enough of whatever it is they want, and just a little more will put them over the top, and then they will be contented forever.

Now, that pursuit of “just a little more” is something Jesus talked about over and over again as he called us to live lives faithful to God, not in pursuit of possessions that ultimately end up owning us. In fact, in the stories of Jesus preserved for us in Scripture, Jesus talked about the role of possessions, about giving, about stuff, more than any other single theme. Way more. So check this out. It’s a tally of how many times Jesus talked about some things in the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Are you ready?

Believing – a really important thing, right? 272 times.
Prayer – even more important. 371 times.
But twice as often as both of those, Jesus talked about love. In the four Gospels, Jesus mentioned “love” 714 times. That’s pretty impressive.
Finally he talked about possessions, about "stuff," about giving things away – are you ready? – 2,172 times.

It’s not even close. And just for the record, the number of times Jesus talked about same-sex couples or women bishops: not at all. Instead, he talked about stuff 2,172 times, because Jesus knew how critical it was for us to be willing to give up the stuff that owns us.

Summer is a great time to do that. We’re cleaning out our garage; Louse would like to clean out our attic – we’re negotiating that one. And here at All Saints Church just a couple of weeks ago we cleaned out our stuff. We pulled boxes out of the attic; we went to the “print shop” on the corner of Euclid and Walnut, and it all got lined up in Sweetland Hall. We went in a through some stuff we didn’t even know we had. A lot of the stuff went where it needed to go – the recycle bin – and other stuff got labeled and put back where we could find it next time.

In the process, we found some interesting stuff – at least I did. Here is one of the things I found [holding up a red-jacketed book]: it is a book called Hearts on Fire ; it was written by Bill Lane Doulos back in the 1990s, and it is a chronicle of the history of All Saints Church up until 1994. I am going to share a little bit of it with you this morning because one of the things I believe, that I learned from one of my heroes and mentors, Frederica Harris Thompsett , a great writer and church historian, is that the reason we learn our history is in order to get a head start on our future.

So I want to share a few fun facts to know and tell about All Saints Church that I learned in my reading from the book we found in the attic.

Did you know that three rectors ago, Frank Scott had his sermons broadcast over the local airwaves, and summarized Monday mornings in the Pasadena Star-News? No, it wasn’t Oprah -- but it does give me a sense that we didn’t invent the idea of All Saints Church having a prophetic voice in the community or in the media.

Did you know that Dr. Scott not only protested the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II – which I knew – but was an outspoken supporter of the formation of the United Nations in the years after the war? And that he took a little grief for it?

And then there’s John Burt. John Burt succeeded Dr. Scott as rector, and he got into some hot water with a pretty radical suggestion. At the beginning of his tenure as rector he suggested we create a strategic plan! Let me read this part to you.
At an early Vestry meeting John suggested that the parish might create a 10-year plan, complete with goals and strategies. Such an approach was unheard of. A Vestry member asked how such a plan might be useful.
“We might find ways to enhance our ministry,” John replied.
“Like what ways?” responded the unimpressed Vestryman.
“Well, we might find, for example, that we need to provide specialized psychological counseling for troubled people,” said John, quickly searching his mind for what he thought would be a non-controversial illustration.
“Sounds like a pretty left-wing idea to me,” came the reply.
If he only knew.

Then there’s Margaret Sedenquist. Margaret was a virtual force of nature unleashed on the Diocese of Los Angeles in pursuit of gender equity back in the 1970s. Well, here’s the story:
Margaret Sedenquist was a lay delegate to our Diocesan Convention, and it came to her attention that the Canons of the time were loaded with hierarchical male language. Margaret took the microphone to move that the Canons be rewritten to give equal consideration to women.

The logistics of the undertaking would be massive, but Bill Rodiger, then Chair of the Commission on Canons, promised that his committee would work over the next year to have a recommended version ready for adoption at the next convention.

“Does that satisfy you, Mrs. Sedenquist?” Bill Rodiger asked from the podium.

“I’m not seeking satisfaction,” said Margaret, “I’m seeking justice.”
And finally, what is arguably my favorite exchange in the book, was between John Burt and Bob Morton. You can see in it the roots of our “Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself” mantra.

In response to an invitation to join the Vestry, Bob asked, “Do I have to believe in God?”

“Well, do you wish there were a God?” the Rector asked.


“Then pretend it is so and hope it is so and act as if it’s true. And welcome to the Vestry!”

It’s amazing what you can find, cleaning out the attic. I love finding out the stories behind the facts I already knew, and I’m happy to find out some facts I didn’t know, and it makes me all-the-more honored to be part of a congregation that continues to live out that vision of an inclusive church in the future.

I grew up in the shadow of All Saints Church, just over the hill in Eagle Rock, and I was beamed aboard the mother ship exactly 8 years ago today.

August 1, 2002, I came on board as the Executive Director of Claiming the Blessing (I also found a big old case of our theology statements in the attic in case anybody hasn’t seen it), which was a collaborative established in 2002 – All Saints Church was one of the partners – “committed to promoting wholeness in human relationships, abolishing prejudice and oppression, and healing the rift between sexuality and spirituality in the Church.”

Now, 8 years is a long time, I was thinking this morning; that’s 2 Presidential administrations. That’s twice as long as you were in high school! But even though 8 years is a long time, we are not quite done abolishing prejudice and healing the rift between sexuality and spirituality, but we’re further ahead than we would have been if we hadn’t started. Part of the reason I believe that we’re closer is that all of the work that we’ve done has been grounded in the Scripture text we shoes to frame our Claiming the Blessing work.

From the second chapter of Genesis: I will bless you … so that you will be a blessing.

That’s the promise that began the great Covenant between God and Abraham. “Bless you so that you will be a blessing.” Not, “So that you will be a gatekeeper.” Not, “So that you will be an attack dog.” And not, “So that you can use the Bible as a weapon with those with whom you disagree.” “Bless … so that you will be a blessing.”

Sometimes I wonder if that early text from Genesis isn’t one that got lost up in the attic or got stuck out in the garage somewhere, of those who presume to speak for Christian values. For example, this week in the news was the placard, the sign, at one of the “defending marriage” rallies that was going on around the country. It was a picture of a guy named Larry Adams, and he made a sign which said, “The solution to gay marriage” and had a text from Leviticus, and a picture of two hangman’s nooses!

Then there was the story yesterday on CNN about the Florida church that announced plans for the fall. They’re going to burn a copy of the Koran! On September 11! I find myself wondering, is there some kind of contest out there I don’t know about? Is there a prize for making Jesus look bad this week? Here’s a comment from my Facebook page just yesterday:

You’re smart to wear your sunglasses in your profile picture. What’s going on in the news right now doesn’t make Christians look very good. I’d be hiding, too.
Ouch! The sad truth is that we are surrounded by people yearning for a spiritual community, longing for the Good News that Jesus has to offer them, and thinking that they know enough about being a Christian not to want to be one. And what they’re reading in the news about Christians isn’t helping.

But we can. And that brings me back to where we started this morning, to the very human tendency to accumulate stuff, and the periodic need to go through it and get rid of some of it. I’m not just talking about the junk that we cram into our attics and garages, or the stuff Sharalyn has at Public Storage. I’m talking about the dogmas and doctrines and biases and baggage that we’ve crammed into Christianity over the years.

In the opening collect this morning, we prayed for the Church, for God to “cleanse and defend it.” Well, guess who God has called to be on the clean up committee? That’s us. And that’s why knowing our history helps us get a head start on our future – because there is hope, and because knowing we’ve done it before can empower us to figure out how to do it again.

Here’s how author and publisher Phyllis Tickle explains it:

To understand what’s happening to us as 21st century Christians, we need first to understand that just about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. She reminds us that dealing in 500-year cycles, give or take a few decades, means that the last garage sale occurred in about the 16th century with the Great Reformation. And 500 years before that was the Great Schism that split the Eastern Orthodox and Western Churches. 500 years before that takes us to the fall of Rome, and 500 years before that… Well, I think you get the point.

At those 500-year cycles, says Phyllis, everything about the Church that we thought we knew gets reexamined. It gets put out on tables in the parking lot, sorted through, turned over and examined. Some of it is still good; some of it can be recycled and some of it… Well, frankly, some of it needs to go out to the curb.

It all sounds kind of exhausting, doesn’t it? Can’t we learn it once and for all and be done with it? Some people seem to think that’s how it works the “God said; I believe it; that settles it” folks. But the blessing we claim is being a part of a family of faith that questions, that challenges – that is blessed to be a blessing not only to those who are already here, but to those still standing at the gate thinking they are strangers to the God who yearns to draw them into her loving embrace.

So here comes the story some of you have heard before. It’s the one about my son Brian and his struggle to master long division in grade school. I remember the night that he announced at the dinner table that he had finally figured it out: First you guess, then you multiply, then you subtract, until you run out of numbers. Yes! And then he said, “So now I understand math.” I also remember his older brother quickly disabusing him of that misapprehension with the sobering news of algebra, geometry and calculus to come. “Oh no!” exclaimed Brian in disbelief and horror. “You mean there’s more?”

Well, yes there was more, for Brian and for us. We don’t just figure it out once; we figure it out over and over and over again. And every 500 years, it seems, just in case we think we’ve figured out math – or God – it’s garage sale time again! And it turns out there are things we have to get rid of in order to make room for the more that God would have us learn. That’s what our history teaches us as we claim our place in that arc of history that bends toward justice with all those who’ve journeyed before us, so that we might continue that journey into the future.

So Claiming the Blessing 2.0 is about so much more than claiming the blessing of the church on the love and relationships of the already-blessed-by-God same-sex couples – although we’re not done with that, and we’re not giving up until we are done.

Claiming the Blessing is about claiming the blessing of our history, our heritage, our spiritual DNA – the DNA that inspired John and Barb and Margaret and Phil and Abraham and all the faithful throughout the ages to speak out and to step out, to speak up and to act up when necessary, in order to be a blessing.

I want to close with these words from “Hearts on Fire:”

“Wherever you are on your journey of faith” is language that includes people of any religion and no religion, children and adults, people from many different ethnic and racial backgrounds, stalwart members of the parish and newcomers.

People who come to All Saints are not presumed to have lost their way any more than we have all lost our way. Each life is precious, and the place on the journey where we find ourselves can be a sacred place….

The journey has no predictable destination other than God. There is no minimum entry requirement of orthodoxy or respectability for participants. Some don’t care for this kind of ambivalence, but many others are energized by the authenticity. The only clear understanding is that this is a transforming journey of the people of God, and if you have even the vaguest sense of wanting to be with this people, and with this God, then come.

That is the blessing, my brothers and sisters, that we claim here at All Saints Church: the invitation to come.

Come to the table and claim for yourself the blessing that generations have claimed here at All Saints Church and wherever our father Abraham’s covenant to be blessed in order to be a blessing has been claimed. For we claim not just the blessing of the God who loved us beyond our wildest imagining, we claim the history of a people who have been willing to put that love into action an inch at a time, a blessing at a time, and – when it is necessary – even a rummage sale at a time.

Thanks be to God! Alleluia! Amen.

[With thanks to Bob Shull for his gift of transcription!]


IT said...

8 years is only 2 presidential administrations, though with some presidents it feels like more.

I particularly appreciated the story about Bob on the vestry. ;-)

MarkBrunson said...

My time on vestry made me question the exsitence of God, so, perhaps Bob was starting out with an asset.