Long Live Gratitude!
September 29, 2013
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Welcome to a new program year! It is not a new liturgical year, that won’t begin for another couple of months until the advent of…Advent. And it’s not the start of a new calendar year, that won’t begin until we are in hunkered down in the bowel of winter. But this is the start of a new year of……learning. It is the start of the school year, and as such is the start of a whole new horizon of opportunity for growth and exploration. I have always loved this time of year! And not just for the shiny new school shoes. Mostly, I think, for the extraordinary promise of new things to learn. Things that before the start of school, I could not even imagine existed. Before sophomore chemistry, who knew that carbon was the foundation of all life? Before junior history, who knew that St. Petersburg is really Leningrad and that Alexander the great had epilepsy? Before senior study hall who knew that John Lennon’s first girlfriend was named Thelma Pickles? Right? Important stuff to know. This is the start of a season of fresh horizons. So welcome to the new program year!
This is also the start of a season of stewardship, stewardship for all things. It is the season of Creation Care, as Bishop Bud has thusly ordained the months of October and November….stewardship of creation. And it is the season of stewardship for our own beloved community. And as I said last week, I have been preparing for the integration of both of these threads of intentional stewardship (for creation and for St. Paul’s) for the last few weeks. And my first thought has been how expensive in every respect, is truly faithful stewardship – how much our care and tending of both church and creation costs….in time and money and energy and commitment. And as I have been thinking about the expense of this parish, the cost of this endeavor of beloved community, I cannot help but wonder what it is about church that makes such a commitment worth it? What about church is worth pulling ourselves out of bed on a drizzly Sunday morning such as this? What about church is worth offering a slice of our precious resources of time and money on an ongoing basis? What about church is worth all of the expense of church?
And the conclusion to which I came last week is that….that is a good question. Because, many of the traditional reasons for going to church, are no longer available exclusively in church. That is, church may still provide a grounding for our moral compass, but it is not the only place where we can find that ground; it may provide an opportunity for our outreach, but it is not our only opportunity to do good work in God’s good world; it may be an excellent a source of religious learning, but it is not the only source; and, of course it may be where we encounter God, but God is no less on the beach in P-Town or the mountains of Rangeley Maine. Church may offer all of those things, but church is not the only place where they are available. No more is the church the only, or even the primary, institution or source of our ethical or spiritual or even our missional grounding. There are plenty of other places in our society and in our world where we can encounter the living God and also do God’s work. Plenty of places where we can do these things without committing to the costly investment that comes with…..coming to church.
So what is it that church alone provides in this complex and busy world that we navigate together? Not just a good question, an existential one, at least for the church. And I can only answer for myself, but for my money, church is the one place where I think we are not only permitted, not only encouraged, but summarily required to ask the big questions of this life……and to ask them together….with others who share our values and our worldview, as it is grounded in the promise of a God who has come to dwell among us. It is the one place where we can freely and honestly talk about who we are, and whose we are. About how we suffer together, and how we rejoice together, and how we are a people of hope because we are sisters and brothers of a living God who came to show us the way in that God’s own flesh, in the flesh of our brother Jesus of Nazareth. Church is the one place where we can openly and fearlessly talk about our Creator, and our own creation. It’s the one place where we can talk about the mysteries of the Spirit and the ways in which God works with unimaginable grace, through us, to promote peace and justice and healing on earth. And it is the one place that can help us form our children in such a way, so that they too will be invited and encouraged and, dare I say required to ask these questions of their lives, and their world as they grow into the marvelously and wondrously made beings that they are absolutely designed and born to be. Where will their collective spirits grow, but in church?
And so we bother with our stewardship of this beloved community because it provides for us and for our children a place where we can engage with each other, and with God, without apology, on the big issues that matter in this life. And that, I think, is very simply the why of church.
And once we can get our arms around the why, we can move on to the what for? Once we understand why church is worth it, we can move on to the question, how worth it? How much are we willing to give? What is out goal? What is our hope? If church were a soccer game, we may know why we are on the field, but what is the point count of our effort? What is the ecclesiastical equivalent of scoring the winning goal? What are we shooting for with our stewardship? How much do we need?
Well, the seemingly ubiquitous goal of all efforts of stewardship in our world, ecclesiastical and creational alike, seems to be: sustainability. That’s the word. Whether we are talking about creation or the church, more often than not, what we ultimately say we want is sustainability. Likewise, the problem to be overcome, in our relationship with creation as in our shepherding of our church is unsustainability. The main problem with our environmental situation is…. A chorus of voices will agree: it is not sustainable. And too, the single biggest problem with the small parish paradigm is….. Again, a chorus of voices will agree: it does not seem to be sustainable. And so the answer to the question: How much do we need? Seems to be: enough to be sustainable. Sustainability seems to be our primary goal. And as our goal it serves as both our guide and our brass ring, the thing we want more than anything else…..one could even go so far as to say that we sometimes, maybe, occasionally to see sustainability as our……Savior.
Now, I myself have been talking in terms of sustainability for quite some time. In fact, I have been among the prime promoters of sustainability in our midst. It has been among my number one reasons for our collaboration with other Newton parishes. Our sustainability. I have been a prime proponent of sustainability as the theme of our collective endeavors…. that is until I sat down to write this sermon, this sermon in the context of today’s readings, in the context of Jeremiah and the fragility of Judah, and Lazarus in this morning’s Gospel. And in this context I have had what amounts to a mild epiphany, I think. Somehow I think I had lulled myself into thinking that if we could only make ourselves sustainable, then we would be hunky dory. We would be what we are meant to be….everlasting. NO worries. Then we would be saved from….unsustainability, otherwise known as death. As in this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. Lazarus and the rich man, though, they are equally unsustainable.
And I realized that nowhere in our scripture are we called to…….sustainability. And here is where the sustainability of creation and the church part ways in my mind. The sustainability of creation is about reversing our tendencies toward destructive behavior for personal gain. The sustainability of the world is in jeopardy because of our bad behavior, not because there are not enough resources to keep it in good health. Creation needs to be sustained, because it was built for sustainability.
The sustainability of the church, on the other hand, is rather a matter of….how we see the church.
Does the church need to be sustained? Because I think the church is the one organization, the one organism, maybe on the face of the whole earth, whose goal should not be its own….sustainability, its own survival. Every other organism on earth is geared to protect its own life. But the church, the church that follows the way of Christ, the one who offered up his own sustainability for love, the church of Jesus Christ is not meant to protect its own life, it is meant to promote the life of the world. And so, while I am not intending to make a case against our sustainability, I do think that it is not, or must not be, our goal. It would be a lovely perk, but I do not think that sustainability should be our objective. The church was not built for the purpose sustainability.
Tomorrow is my third anniversary as your rector. An honor and a privilege for which I could never repay the Spirit. I could not have been “luckier” to land here in your supportive and life-giving arms. Which is why I have committed myself – whole hog, as they say, to the life of this community. I love this community. I love you. Every single one of you….without exception. And I have committed my life over the last few years to our life together in this beloved community. Time, talent and treasure….as much as I have, it is yours.
And with that commitment comes the occasional wave of utter exhaustion. Those times when I am simply out of gas. When I think I have no more to offer. No more time, no more energy, no more money. No mas! But when that happens, I inevitably, invariably begin to think about how lucky I am to be here. How fortunate I am to be your priest. To be anyone’s priest, but especially yours. And in my state of sheer depletion, almost always, a sense of unadulterated gratitude creeps in and utterly obliterates my exhaustion. And at that moment I find myself, body, mind and spirit, so overwhelmed by this sense of deep and divine gratitude for the simple blessing of this life and this life with you, that my only option is to dig a bit deeper into my reserves and come up with the necessary resources to reciprocate this gift. And I can tell you without reservation, that the giving that comes from that well of gratitude is gift that fills the well in the first place, and every time. The amount that I am willing to give, is always inspired by the amount that I have received.
But I can tell you that I do not give out of my desire for sustainability. With all due respect, I do not give my heart and soul to this parish because I am hoping that it will be sustained. I give not out of a hope for sustainability, but out of a realization of gratitude. How fortunate am I? And the answer is the measure of the fortune that I am willing to return. And so for me, spiritual companionship is the why of church; gratitude is the what for. These are things that we cannot quantify. Things that we cannot even often explain. But I am quite sure that they are the building blocks of the Kingdom of God.
And so I would like to leave us with a prayer that was written by Bishop Ken Utener, of Saginaw Michigan, in celebration of the life and ministry of Oscar Romero. It is often misquoted as a prayer written by Romero, but it is in his honor, not from his hand. And I think it casts our work in the church in a unique and helpful light. And so as we embark on this new year, I hope that we can do it from this perspective:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
We are prophets of a future not our own. Sustainability in the context of the church, I think, is our attempt to make the future our own. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that we should not plan or provide for the future. I am not saying that we should not honor the legacy that has been left to us, and leave an equally well-endowed legacy to our own children. What I am saying, however, is that if we are true to our tradition, if we are willing to accept that as Isaiah says, we are but grass that withers, if we are willing to subscribe to the myriad passages in our holy scripture that tell us to trust not in things not…….sustainable….which covers just about everything except the Spirit, then we must look beyond sustainability for our purpose.
Nowhere in our scripture does Jesus tell us to be sustainable. What he tells us is to be true. To invest everything we have in God and God’s work. And the place where we can wrestle with what is true, where we can wrangle with the big questions about who and whose we are, that place, I think, is church. And so when we ask the question, how much do we need to give? The answer, I think, is: as much as our hearts can bear.
And so on this third anniversary of my installation, on this start of our stewardship season together, I can only say:
Long live gratitude!
© September, 2013 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw
*This prayer was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, drafted for a homily by Card. John Dearden in Nov. 1979 for a celebration of departed priests. As a reflection on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Bishop Romero, Bishop Untener included in a reflection book a passage titled “The mystery of the Romero Prayer.” The mystery is that the words of the prayer are attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him.