Simple Things Transform Us
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
13 March, 2016 Rev. Deborah Meister
Isaiah 43:16-21; Ps. 126
Phil 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our heart may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Where is your heart fixed? What is the source of your joy? And are your joys true joys, joys that endure, or are they ephemeral, the joys of a moment that will soon pass away? These are the questions: the life-giving heart of our life in Christ. On what is our attention fixed? Is it of God? How do we know?
The truth is that it’s often hard to know. Even the disciples had trouble. Six days before Jesus’ arrest, three years into his earthly ministry, Jesus and the twelve came to Bethany, and while they were eating, Mary of Bethany poured a pound of ointment at Jesus’ feet. What do we make of that? Was it a gesture of love? Was it crazy? Did Jesus just have stinky feet that day? Judas, one of the twelve, was appalled, asking why she did not sell the ointment, which was worth, in today’s terms, more than $17,000 dollars, and give the money to the poor. It’s a good question, even if Judas was the one who asked it: Where do we allocate our resources? Upon whom do we pour our love? And, most crucially, with what spirit do we do these things?
Over the last few months, a task force has been working under the direction of Sandy Kolb to help us, the St. Alban’s community, explore those questions. What forms of ministry is God calling us to engage now and in the next few years? How should we serve God together in this place and beyond its walls? How do we know? And so, today, I’d like to think with you a bit about what it means to serve Jesus.
Let’s think together about something that happened in the first church I served, back in Alabama. There was a young woman named Emily who had grown up in the parish. A couple years before I arrived there, she headed off to college and was involved in a bad accident. The doctors tried everything they could, but she went home quadriplegic: unable to move her arms or her legs.
The doctors kept trying to solve the paralysis, but nothing worked. Finally, they went to her parents and said, “We’re out of options. There’s only one thing left to try that we think might work, and it’s a bit of a Hail Mary pass.” Then they described a process of re-patterning her limbs, in which Emily would lie on a table while four volunteers moved her arms and legs for her, over and over again. The hope was that, since they couldn’t get the neurons in her brain to recognize the ones in her limbs, perhaps they could reverse the process instead.
The family took it to the church and the church put out a call for volunteers. Forty or fifty agreed to try, and so they went to her house in teams of four and moved Emily’s arms and legs, two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, every day. If you’re thinking it would be hard to come up with something more humiliating for a nineteen-year-old than that, you’re right. Emily knew they were trying to help her and that she ought to be grateful, but there were days it was a strain not to beg them to leave her alone. And so the teams did the best they could, talking to her, sharing their lives, their hopes, their dreams.
After a year, the doctors admitted that it had not worked. They told Emily’s parents they could stop now. But there was one problem: those forty or fifty volunteers did not know how to stop. Stopping meant looking at this young woman who’d grown up in their midst, at this friend with whom they had spent hours and days in the last year, and saying, “Sorry, kid. I know you’re only twenty and you’re still paralyzed, but that’s your problem now. Have a nice life!” And they did not know how to do that. And so they kept coming, day after day, putting her on the table and moving her limbs, two hours in the morning, two hours in the evening. It was awkward, and it went on for months.
But deep within Emily’s body, something was beginning to take shape. There was the day she was able to wiggle her fingers, and the day she managed to move her toe. The changes were small and the volunteers were quiet about them, not sure what they were seeing was real. But that Christmas Eve, I stood in front of the congregation giving out bread, and I looked up and there was Emily, coming toward me down the aisle, walking on her own feet. Oh, she wasn’t walking well. She lurched and swayed. Her parents stood on either side of her for balance. But I stood there and the tears poured down my face, right there in front of everyone, and Emily saw and smiled the most beautiful smile I have ever seen on a human face, and then she took a step (which she had not been able to do for three years) and she raised her hands to me (which she had not been able to do for three years) and I put the bread in her hand and said “The Body of Christ, given for you,” and she ate it and embraced me and moved on.
It was the closest I’ve come to seeing a miracle. The miracle wasn’t that she could walk again. It was those forty or fifty volunteers who kept coming to her home because they would not fail her. Those people who would not let her fail. Who did simple things over and over because they could not think what else to do.
That’s the thing about Christian living: it’s the simple things that transform us. Most of what Jesus asked isn’t all that hard to do; it’s a matter of setting our own preoccupations aside and doing it. When the Syrian general Naaman went to Elijah and asked to be cleansed of his leprosy, Elijah commanded him to wash in the River Jordan. And Naaman was offended, asking, “Doesn’t Syria have better rivers that that?” And his aides said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?” (2 Kings 5:13) And the man was chastened and he steeled himself to do the simple thing, and he went into the water and there he met God.
You’d think that if eight St. Albanites met twice a month for half a year and surveyed the neighborhood and interviewed dozens of community leaders, we could at least come up with something complicated. But over and over, we found ourselves brought back to a few simple tasks. Simple, but not easy, because each of them takes something that’s been in our parish’s DNA from the beginning and asks us to open it in radical hospitality. Many of you know that when Phoebe Nourse left her hoard of coins to plant this parish, she stipulated that this had to be a free church: the first church in Washington where anyone could come because they did not have to pay to be here. That gift set in motion the central questions that have guided our community: How do we open our doors more and more to the whole people of God? How do we show in word and in deed that everyone is welcome here and in God’s kingdom? How do we do that in ways that will reach the people around us today?
Our worship and music are foundational; they are what grounds us in Christ each week. The bread we break, the songs we sing, the words we pray, the people we name — these are our common offering, and it shapes us. It reminds us that we belong to God and to one another. It reminds us that we are people who come to God broken; that we need to confess to God and to one another; and that honest self-offering brings us grace, feeds our spirit, sends us out renewed each Sunday. On that foundation stands our common work (and, indeed the rest of our lives).
The task force has identified five major focus areas for our work together over the next few years. These have emerged from the conversations we’ve had together as a community and from conversations with leaders beyond our walls. If we’ve done our work well, they should not come to you as surprises, but as distillations of things you’ve been hearing all along. Are you ready?
1) Integration of our Spanish-speaking and English speaking members through shared engagement in service, education, pastoral care, and worship. We’ve started this work already, most strikingly in the successful integration of our Sunday school and youth offerings, but we need to keep going. Incidentally, this is cutting-edge work. Most of the congregations in the country do not try to bring together worshipers who speak diverse languages. If we succeed in this, we could be a model for our churches and for our polarized national discourse, which talks a lot more about walls than about community.
2) Diversity. St. Alban’s lives a bit of a paradox: we are a welcoming community, but there are plenty of people beyond our walls who do not know they are welcome here. The draft plan calls for us to intentionally engage young adults (many of whom are utterly unchurched), people of color, and the gay and lesbian community, as well as to reach out with more focus to the elderly in our neighborhood and within our walls.
3) Children and youth. Over the last few years, we have achieved a remarkable convergence of priorities in this area, with our outstanding programs for our own children and youth finding a mirror in the TLC initiatives through which we reach out to transform the lives of children beyond our walls. The plan calls us to create more intergenerational activities and to cultivate connections with the children and families in our greater community.
4) Mission and Outreach. St. Alban’s does a lot to help those in the world around us, both in direct service together and through the work of the WSA and Opportunity Shop, and also in the commitments that our members make as individuals, serving on boards or donating their time and skills to hundreds of causes each week. The plan calls us to continue our focus on hunger, homelessness, and children, and to extend the TLC initiative beyond our original three-year commitment to make it a hallmark of our congregation’s life.
5) Visibility without, transparency within. How do we help our neighbors know who St. Alban’s is (or that St. Alban’s is)? How do we communicate with one another within our community? The plan calls for us to become more visible so that we can connect with our neighbors, to strengthen our parish communications so that we can connect with each other, and to find synergies between our ministries so that we can focus our efforts and deepen our relationships.
In all these things, we seek to nourish an inclusive, diverse Christian community transforming lives by doing God’s work inside and outside our walls.
This spring, we will engage these focus areas together, both in conversation and in a series of five sermons, beginning April 10th, that will explore each one in turn. We will learn which of these goals give you hope and energy and joy when you think of our future, and each ministry will be asked to consider how it can live into them with concrete actions over the next few years. Once we, as a community, have entered into these discussions, the Task Force will use our commitments to craft a plan that we can implement together, gathering up our prayers and our service and our learning and our love and pouring them out upon the feet of Christ.
There’s a story I’ve told you before: it’s about St. Francis and a leper. You see, when Francis was young, Francis he had a deep and abiding horror of lepers. When he saw one, he would refuse even to look, turning away his face and holding his nose. But one day, while he was still a soldier, he was riding along a road and saw a leper in his path. He drew out a coin to throw to the man, but the leper did not step aside as was customary. Instead, he stayed where he was, blocking the road. And Francis became angry and opened his mouth to demand that he let Francis pass, but he looked down into the man’s eyes and suddenly his heart was moved and he came down from his horse and reached out and embraced the leper and they stood there in middle of the road, holding one another, just holding one another, in spite of all that divided them, and the love of God was there.
The earliest sources all agree that when Francis stepped back, there was no leper. What do you make of that? Was the leper Christ? Or had Francis learned to see, not an outcast, but a brother? We do not know.
That’s the promise God gives us; that’s the new thing. That when we pour ourselves out at the feet of one another, when we give not our things but our selves, when we open ourselves and our communities to God in the most unlikely of persons, we are healed. We are healed, changed, converted in ways we cannot begin to anticipate. But God knows: the God who made us, who has carried us all our lives, who blesses us on our way — God knows where God is taking us. We at St. Alban’s have a rich tradition of ministry and great reasons for confidence in our community. And so, beloved, let us press on towards Christ’s future, to make it our own as Christ has made us his own. “Straining forward to what lies ahead, [let us] press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13-14)
 A denarius was the hire for one day of labor. If you start with minimum wage ($7.25/hour) and calculate three hundred days’ of labor, it comes to $17,400.
 Transforming the Lives of Children.