Monday, March 10, 2008

The Proper of Yesterday: The Fifth Sunday In Lent

As I've not yet moved into the vicarage at St. Thomas's, my new parish, I've been behind in posting entries for the PotD. Saturday and Sunday were really long! On Saturday we had a lot of rain and wind. I was staying overnight in the vicarage and noticed, just as I was getting ready for bed, that the temperature seemed to be dropping, although the thermostat was set for 70 F. I went down to the basement to check the furnace, and found nearly half a foot of water! The furnace wasn't working because the pilot light got drowned! It turns out the external pipe from the sump pump had backed up, and water was just filling the basement. So I called the wardens and we got someone over to look at it, and I stayed overnight with a parishioner. It was "spring forward day" too so I lot an hour of sleep to boot, and didn't end up getting to sleep until about 1:30, AM with a 5 AM wakeup. We had our two Sunday services at 8 and ten, followed by a rather long but entirely productive Executive Committee meeting - my first as vicar. We had a lot of housekeeping to do, and didn't get done until about 2:30 PM. I then had a visit with a parishioner in the hospital, and finally dinner with my good friend Jay. So it was a very long day!

Fortunately, I finished my sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent before all the drama started Saturday evening:

St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church

The Fifth Sunday in Lent 2008 (BCP)

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 6:16-23; John 11:1-44

The Rev. Robert F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and redeemer. Amen.

I want you all to know that it’s really great to be back among you here at St. Thomas’s. This time, of course, is not temporary! I want to thank the Search Committee and the Executive Committee for their confidence in me, for the Vicarage Committee for all of their exemplary work, and for everyone who offered me such gracious hospitality during my extended visit this past Epiphanytide. I’m humbled and honored to have been elected your Vicar. I’m confident that together we will deepen and extend the ministry of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Vernon Township and Sussex County as the Body of Christ in this place.

It’s wholly appropriate, it seems to me, that we have the story of Lazarus as our Gospel today. You may have noticed that in this Lenten season we are hearing various stories from John’s gospel that exhibit some aspect of Jesus’ saving power among us. Remember Jesus and Nicodemus? Jesus ands the Woman at the Well? Jesus and the Blind Man? In all of these episodes Jesus has conversations with someone about God, and directly or sometimes indirectly, about himself. Nicodemus asks about being born again, and that leads to an extended meditation on baptism. The Samaritan woman wants to know just who is in God’s plan of salvation, and she has an extended theological debate with Jesus on this very topic. There are multiple layers in that account, of course, but a very important one is that if Samaritans – who were thought of very poorly in those days, kind of like how immigrants are sometimes demonized today – can be saved, then everyone can. And the man who was born blind has an extended argument with the temple leaders about who Jesus is and what he has done. He, ironically, is the one who shows exactly who is blind and who is not by what he says and what he does. All of these people engage with Jesus in a very personal way, and go away changed – for the better - by their encounters with Jesus. If you interact with Jesus and do so with the same honesty and openness that he consistently shows to everyone around him, beware! You can’t help but be changed!

And none more so than Lazarus, right? His encounter is a bit different. He doesn’t have long conversations with the Lord. His sisters do, and it’s well worth taking time to meditate on those exchanges this week. But Lazarus just seems to be the rather silent recipient of the power of Jesus. He never speaks a word. He’s dead after all. But nonetheless he receives the full force of the sovereignty of the Lord, who is master not only of life but also of death. Lazarus was dead, and then he wasn’t. He was commanded to come forth, and he did. He was alive again, free to go about his daily existence, really as a complete gift from God.

But before he could take up his life again, notice what the Gospeller said about Lazarus: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” And what happens next? “Jesus said to them. ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

In Jesus, Lazarus was literally given another chance at life. By the grace of God, Lazarus was alive again. We know life to the most precious gift that God bestows, and we know that we are called to protect it and not only that, live our lives as God would have us live them, fully conformed to the mind of Christ. And to do that, to fully live again as God in Jesus wanted him to, Lazarus had to not only come out of the tomb, he also had to be unbound. Someone had to help him get rid of the burial clothes - the clothes of death – that were constricting him and squeezing him and stopping him from living the life God graciously gave him.

In a few short weeks we’re going to celebrate that we too, you and I, each of us, have been called forth from our tombs and brought to new life in the Risen Lord. And in the weeks and months ahead, we the community of St. Thomas’s Episcopal church are going to start to unfold a new chapter in our common life together.

I wonder what the new life is going to be like? Perhaps you’re wondering too. We can’t know that now, at least in detail, of course. But we do know, at least in broad strokes, what we hope for. Back when you created your parish profile as part of the search process for a new vicar, you collectively identified four goals for the next several years:

1. Inspire and energize our church community for growth

2. Continue to develop our inreach and outreach ministries

3. Enhance our existing Christian education programs

4. Achieve parish status

One of the reasons I accepted the call to serve as your vicar is because I believe - strongly - in those goals. I’m excited about working with all of you as we together plan to reach them, and as we celebrate that we are reaching them. We’ll have a lot of discussion, thinking, and activity as we all work on these, and I’m confident that St. Thomas’s will continue and thrive in the weeks and months to come. I’ll be sharing my own thoughts with you as we get to know each other, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts as well. There’s much to do, and I imagine we’re all anxious to get going. This is life, new life, or at least newer life. St. Thomas’ has certainly not been dead – not by any means at all! But I know it can’t have been easy sometimes to press on ahead, when it feels like not everyone who needs to be present, is. That can be hard going, and I commend all of you for all the things I’ve been hearing that you’ve been doing over the past two, nearly three years. I can’t wait to be part of that myself!

And yet, if we are the siblings of Lazarus, both as individuals and as this parish, I think it’s appropriate in this Fifth Sunday in Lent to pause and do the Lenten thing and reflect a bit. Before Lazarus could start his life again, remember that his hands and feet were bound with strips of cloth, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. He couldn’t walk very well, he couldn’t touch anyone, he couldn’t talk. He could do none of the very basic tasks of living his new or newer life while he was all bound up. And until he got rid of those bindings, his new or newer life couldn’t commence again.

So as we continue to move toward Easter we realize we’re not quite ready yet. Let me ask you: what are the bands of cloth around your feet and hands, and what is the cloth wound around your face? What’s constricting you in the old clothes of death even while you have new life coursing within you? What are the ideas, past actions, attitudes, assumptions that keep you from living fully in joy into the life God wants longingly for you? We can and should ask them about ourselves. And we can all ask the same things about our common life here as St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church. We know we have four worthy goals to work on together. What are the ideas, past actions, attitudes and assumptions that are holding us back, that are constricting us in the rotting clothes of death as life courses within this community?

I encourage you to think and pray over this during this upcoming week of Lent. We all want to move forward. We all want to be part of the mind of Christ. We all want the Episcopal Church here in Vernon to be fully what God is intending. And we know, we trust from the depths of our beings, that God in Jesus does and will give us the new life we so need. After all, Jesus told Martha, ever the skeptic, “Did I not tell you if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” We have that assurance, like the Psalmist who wrote, “Out of the depths have I called to you. Lord, here my voice” that God is indeed sharing himself with us.

But even with that incredibly Good News, each of us may still have clothes of death wrapped firmly around us. I’ve been trying to examine my own self as I enter into the newer life of St. Thomas’s. I can think of a few things, some trivial, some less so, that might be holding me back:

· I’m a little nervous about moving out to what for me is the country. I hope that I can be open to the different - not better or worse, just different - quality of life here in Sussex County from what I had in Hudson County or in Manhattan. I look forward to settling in and enjoying a lifestyle I haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience.

· I’m worried about attempting too much too fast. It’s a very natural tendency of a new priest entering into an existing community. We’ve got lots to do, no question about it. But the days of the vicar declaring what and how and when things will be done are long gone from the Episcopal Church. I look forward to collaborating with all of you on what we’ve set for ourselves to accomplish, how to do it, who, when, and all that.

· I’m aware I have assumptions about how parishes work, how things get discussed and decided, and who does what and when. Even though I had an extended visit with you back in January, I know I have much to learn about this community. I look forward to hearing your stories, both joyous and sad, and to getting to know you as individuals and families and as members here. I’m sometimes actually very shy, and so I look forward to you all drawing me out a bit as time goes by.

· I’m concerned about my own personal isolation and about my own wholeness. I need to get in better physical, mental, and spiritual shape. I know I need to continue to make connections in my own personal life. I have personal goals to strive for too, and sometimes, I let the stress of change and new or newer life distract me from taking care of myself. No one can help care for others if they aren’t taking care of themselves. I look forward to reaching some of my own personal goals as well.

· And I’m afraid about how I’ll react to the natural response, “Oh, we’ve never done it that way before,” or “Gosh, that’s not how Fr. Steve would have done it.” It’s impossible not to be aware of the deep legacy that Fr. Steve Steele leaves with this parish. Look around - the very place we’re worshipping in right here and now is a testimony to the work and care and love he poured into this community. I look forward to continuing to honor his memory and indeed all the history of this place. It will be a great joy to celebrate where we’ve come from as we envision where God is calling us to next.

Those are just a few of the clothes of death that are binding me and might be keeping me from new or newer life in Christ here at St. Thomas’s. You probably can already think of more! And perhaps you can think of some of your own. Sometimes we can feel them ourselves, slowly crushing the very life out of us. Sometimes our faces and eyes are wrapped in clothes and it takes others to tell us what they see. That should be done gently and only if asked by a community member to do so. No matter how we become aware of that which binds us, we can also observe that, as brothers and sisters of Lazarus, we can’t unbind our own selves. It takes others to help us. There are lots of ways to do that. One of the most effective, especially when that which is crushing us is something from our own past, is to talk to another person and tell them about it. As your vicar and pastor, I’m willing and available to do that work with you. You may wish to simply talk informally, or you may want to offer a more formal confession. It’s appropriate to do so in Lent, and it can be an efficacious way to be assured of God’s grace and to strip away those bindings of cloth on feet and hands and face. You can call the office or the vicarage to make an appointment if you wish, and I solemnly assure you that any conversations we have, formal or not, will never be repeated to anyone else by me.

My friends, we’ve been given new or newer life by the same Lord who called Lazarus from the grave. We, too, are continually emerging from the tomb, and we, like Lazarus, are bound up by our own bands of cloth on our hands and our feet and our faces. Together, we can unbind ourselves and each other from the constricting clothes of death, and move fully into the new and newer life that God promises us in Jesus. And as the Lord assured Martha, “Did I not tell you if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So he promises us too. I look forward to seeing the glory of God that is St. Thomas’s with my own eyes, uncovered and unbound by the clothes of the past. I invite you to do so too!

In the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Amen.



The Postulant said...

What a fine sermon! If I had been in that congregation I would have felt a good deal of confidence in my new vicar.

RFSJ said...

Thank you!

jen x said...

Here, here! I second The Postulant's comments. Clergy transitions are often rough for congregations -- how lovely to read your thoughtful comments. I, too, would feel the search committee had done excellent work.