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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

These People are Serious!

A Sermon preached at Brent House, the Episcopal Ministry at the University of Chicago. All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2008


When I was a graduate student at Yale in the late 1970’s, the Episcopal Church at Yale was a community that understood ourselves as grounded in liturgy. We were especially into processions: we had processions around the Old Campus at Yale, with its neo-gothic buildings, on Palm Sunday, at the Easter Vigil and – my very favorite – All Saints Day, always observed on Halloween night when the whole campus was showing up in Halloween costumes. On that night – in a tradition that started during “the revolution”- as Yale calls the student protests of the late 60’s—the ECY would process around campus, pausing to bless key places: the administration building, the library, gathering places. (During the revolution, I understand, they were exorcising these places, in a blend of liturgy and political protest, but by the time I was there we understood ourselves as bringing blessing – complete with vested priests and servers, a processional cross, incense and candles). Bagpipes accompanied our procession, and we chanted parts of the litany of the saints – with names we had contributed --as we paused for prayers). Following in our train were probably100 Yale students in Halloween costume, – in the fall night, with the neo-gothic buildings, this parade created a decidedly medieval, carnivalesque feeling for all involved. I particularly remember one time, when we stopped to offer our prayers of blessing, and I overheard one of the costumed Yale students turn to his friend, point toward us, and whisper – “You know, I think these people are serious!

In that moment I realized that we were functioning as the visible church of Christ on the campus: We were serious about what we were doing -- offering blessing, prayer, a presence oriented toward God, and having serious fun as we did so. I remember this incident when I reflect on my own calling, which seems to be to be a reasoned, creative Christian voice in the world – and to be a presence that somehow brings blessing. It tells me something about what it means to remember the saints and to “be a saint” in the settings where we find ourselves in our daily lives and communities.

The epistle to the Ephesians that we just heard read tells us something about our identity as “saints,” that is, as people who have been made holy by God’s love and grace, and by the fact that God has called us into the life of Christian discipleship.. Listen especially, to these words f
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints. . . .

What he’s talking about here is the gift we call “discernment” : the ability to recognize the shape of the new life we have been called into as Christians: And the way he puts it I love: “that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints”

What is the hope to which he has called us? (And no, I’m not giving a campaign speech for Barack Obama: the language of hope and transformation are at the heart of the gospel). The Beatitudes and woes, offered by Jesus in the sermon on the plain in Luke, are not merely new laws: “Do this, don’t do that, in order to be blessed.” Rather, they are descriptions of what it’s like to live in a world where we know our dependence on the love and care of God. The poor, the persecuted, the mourners, know this dependence far better than those who are able to rely on themselves for all their sense of security. The hope that Jesus brings is also promised in that other classic Lucan text, the Magnificat, when Mary sings:” He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty, he has put down the mighty from their seats and has exalted the humble and meek.”] The hope to which he has called us opens the eyes of our heart, enables us to see that the world looks different when we see it through God’s eyes. This may make us uncomfortable, call us to conversion – but what we “with the eyes of our heart” may give us clues about the growth and transformation each of us is called to, for the sake of the world we live in now.

The primary call of Christians is to be in the world as the loving, healing, reconciling presence of Christ. The prayer book says the ministry of the laity is “to represent Christ and his church, to bear witness to him wherever we may be and according to the gifts given us, to carry on Christ’s ministry of reconciliation in the world. We are called to represent Christ, and the hope that the gospel brings. -to be a blessing wherever we find ourselves. (In this way, the calling of Christians as the church carries on God’s original call to Abraham in Genesis: “you shall be a blessing. . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). )

This is why I am so interested in listening to and helping people tell their stories about vocation. Each person’s experience of call teaches the rest of us something about the work of transformation and reconciliation that God calls us to, as church, and as members of the Body of Christ. The central vocational question, I think, is not so much “What is God calling me to do with my life,” though that is a part of it, – but rather – What is the work that God is doing in the world as I see it, and what is my piece of that work? These are not questions about the future but questions about where we are right now. Where is the need for blessing, reconciliation, healing, in your circle of friends, in the systems and structures that affect your life; in what way might even the work of studying and writing papers be offered as part of God’s work in the world? What makes you, each day, aware that there is something more to life than just getting through the day, that there is a greater hope that we are called to live?

What does it mean to be a saint? I think it is partly to know that the way the world is is not the way it is supposed to be, and to pay attention to the ways large and small that we are called to participate in the new thing that God is doing. This, I take it is, why we read the Beatitudes on All Saints Day, and why we pause to recall the lives of those who have gone before us and who still mysteriously surround us, a cloud of witnesses that “the hope to which God has called us” can be embodied in our lives, right here, where we find ourselves now. To be a saint is to be blessed and to be a blessing, to inherit a promise and to live in hope. It is not to be a perfect person; rather, it is about being a part of something – part of a human community that persists, from generation to generation, oriented toward God’s desire for healing, transformation and reconciliation.

As the Yalie in the procession observed, we are serious about this. All Saints is a seriously joyful celebration of who God has called us to be, and of the hope that is in us, because of what God has done in Jesus. Each of us will find that God calls us to do this in our own unique way, and that is why the prayer in Ephesians is so compelling, and so appropriate on this day: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give [us] a spirit of wisdom and revelation as [we] come to know him, so that, with the eyes of [our ]heart enlightened, [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called [us], what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints. . . .

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