Thursday, September 22, 2016

A celebration of the life and advocacy of Wilma . . .

     We are here to celebrate the life of Wilma Carney.  It is always appropriate for loved ones that we engage in such efforts, but Wilma’s passing is a bit unique.  She was what I generally call a first generation feminist.  She worked on the Manhattan Project.  She flew airplanes at a time when women, especially southern women, did not do such things.  She worked at both Vanderbilt and Baylor Medical, the former sending out letters of recommendation—really, letters of “you idiots better hire her quick”—unsolicited before she and John had even moved.  She spent thirty plus years as a legislative assistant.  She was a mom, a grandmother, and great grandmother.  And we owe her a debt of gratitude and our right to mourn her passing her at Advent.  She is among the last of her generation to pass from glory into glory.  If you are a woman, if you are a man who loves a woman, if you are a man who came from a woman, or if you are a man who loves your daughters, you owe Wilma a prayer of thanksgiving and a thank you.  Wilma crashed through barriers and glass ceilings that make it possible for the women in our lives to do whatever they want.  More amazingly, she did it at a time when a woman’s place was in the home.  I can only imagine the societal pressure placed on this southern belle; and I can only imagine the inner strength and peace that allowed her to do what she did.
     Before we begin the homily in earnest, though, I need to offer an apology.  The lady that earned my apology, unfortunately, is not here.  But she may speak to Pat or Sally in the days or weeks or months to come.  Ladies, you may get a “what the heck was wrong with that priest at your mom’s funeral?”  I need to explain.  As all the family knows, I attended the wake last night.  They thought I was just being a nice priest.  In reality, I was trying to get a sense of the life of Wilma.  I did not arrive at Advent until after Wilma had been moved into assisted living because of her dementia.  That means I did not get to meet the real Wilma.  The Wilma I met had been ravaged by that terrible disease and all that comes with it.
     In clerical circles, there is no greater honor than to be invited by a family to minister to them at the time of a death of a loved one.  Doing this, as you all might imagine, is far more effective and powerful when we know the deceased.  I needed to hear those stories to be a better pastor to y’all during this time.
     In any event, a friend of one of the daughters and I got to talking.  I asked if she knew what Wilma did for a living.  That’s when she said she did not and that she was friends with either Pat or Sally.  That was a good answer.  She was here for her friend.  Unfortunately for me, she found out later and came running up to me, and this is where she earned my apology.  “Father, Father, I found out.  She was a legislative in the State Senate for 30 years!”  As Adventers know, and some in the family, I am the Episcopal Church Fellow for Human Trafficking.  I serve on a committee assembled by the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  I just learned that our timing was bad.  If Wilma’s path and my path had crossed twenty years ago, assuming me in possession of the knowledge I have now, can you imagine the havoc we could wreck against evil?
     That was my face.  A face of “Ugh!  Why could this not have been different?”  A rail, if you will, against God.  As I lay in bed last night, though, replaying stories and events from the funeral home, searching for a homily, it was clear she did not understand my face.  In fact, she backed away and avoided me for the rest of the evening, at least in my mind’s eye.  Whether she thought I hated legislative assistants, politicians, or whatever, I clearly disturbed her.  Pat and Sally, I am sorry that I did not explain my face to her last night.  Hopefully, in the days ahead when she reaches out to see how you are doing and has something to tell you, in a concerned voice, you can laugh how my tennis shoes clashed with my mint green shirt and explain a bit when she chokes at that.  But I am sorry if I cause any difficulty for you or for her.  My only thoughts with respect to your mom was what could have been.
     I know in the Order of Worship it said now was the time for a homily.  As we were putting the service together, I must confess I had no idea how I would ever come up with a homily.  As you all now know, I did not know the real Wilma in life.  Pat and Sally are all grown up and moved away from Advent.  Prior to Monday, I was kind of worried about placing Wilma’s story in the great meta-narrative of His redemptive story.  Now, I really want to switch to a full blown sermon.  Last night gave me three wonderful sermon illustrations, and I am dying to share them all with you.  But, I recognize that brevity is also a cherished virtue.  So I will stick to a homily and mention the sermon.
     I learned last night that Wilma was a huge fan of ballroom dancing.  She had years and years invested in dancing.  Talk about a practical skill.  Many of you will not know this, but one of the ways in which the Eastern Orthodox tradition speaks of the Holy Trinity is that of a perichoresis, a holy dance.  In explaining how the Trinity works, such theologians point to a dance between the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son.   As we stand on the sidelines, we can only see the dance close to us.  As they weave and move around the room, we are able to see one better than the others.  More amazingly to such theologians, the entire work of Christ was to help carve out a place for you and for me and for all of God’s people to join in that holy dance.  Such theologians would stand before us reminding us that all of Wilma’s practices and all of Wilma’s competitions are now perfected in heaven.  As we celebrate her life here and mourn her passing, she is already reunited with John and all those who went before her in faith and is waltzing in that holy dance!
     I also learned last night that Wilma was big into feasts.  OK, technically, she was really into the desserts that followed the feasts, but she felt obliged to prepare or eat the main courses before settling in with her favorite desserts.  I guess it’s a southern lady thing?  We laugh, but I remind Adventers all the time, part of the reason I wear a clergy shirt that matches the season of the Church, we are called to THE FEAST, the Great Wedding Feast.  And if our Lord out of nothing can create nebulae, majestic mountains, sunset lit skies, starry nights, beaches, the vast expanse of interstellar space, Wilma, or you or me, can you imagine the quality of the food that He will be serving when He welcomes all His children home?  If the loving father in the parable of the Prodigal Son so lavishes food on his found child, how much better will our Father, who is infinitely more amazing than the loving father in that parable, fete us!  Yes, as we gather here to celebrate her life and to mourn her passing, her Father in heaven has welcomed her to that wonderful feast, probably told her she could head right to the dessert table, but mentioned that she might like to try some of the other foods first.
     Of course, after last night, there was really only one place I could go and tie it into the readings.  I tell Adventers, actually I tell nearly every Christian that I encounter, that the best sermons people will ever hear are how we live our lives.  Sure, preachers can sometimes inspire hearers, but we are limited to those within range of our voices and to the length of time we spend preaching.  Each of us, though, gives a sermon in our daily life and work.  Do we live our lives as if we believe Jesus is raised from the dead and will one day return?  Do we mouth the words on Sunday, but then testify that we are the biggest hypocrites?  Do we, recognizing our own hypocrisy, repent when we sin against God and others, thereby reminding others of the forgiveness available?  How we live our lives testifies to those inside and outside the Church whether we really believe.  Wilma, thankfully, lived a life that testified to her faith in God.
     Sally and Pat had a book of letters at the funeral home last night.  Really, it was an album of letters detailing some of the life of Wilma, and it really only represented a snapshot.  There are a couple boxes of these types of correspondences.  I was drawn to the thank you cards in the back of the album from the constituents of the various senators for whom she worked.  Dear Senator So-and-so, I wanted to take a moment and thank you for the wonderful work of your staffer Wilma Carney.  She cut through the red tape that had stifled me for weeks in just a few minutes.  Dear Senator So-and-so, I wanted to thank you for the work of your staff, especially Wilma Carney, for making sure my father got the Veterans benefits which he was supposed to get and which had proven nearly impossible for us access because of paperwork.  Dear Senator-So-and-so, I wanted to thank you for the wonderful response of your staffer, Wilma Carney, in getting the proclamation passed for my grandmother.  On and on and on go these cards.  And in these cards you see a picture of the life and struggles of people throughout the state of Tennessee.  Granddaughters struggling to get grandfathers to a Veterans’ hospital for care that they earned in service to our country, mayors thankful for a proclamation of their citizens’ work or service, marginalized people thankful for her shepherding of a particular legislative bill, the powerless stymied by the inertia of state government – those were the people she served!  I see the lightbulbs going off.  Yes, she was an advocate who modeled her life and witness after THE Advocate, her Lord Christ.
     Job’s story is well known to us.  He is sort of the poster child in Scripture for everything going wrong and still keeping his faith.  What we may forget in superficial readings is that Job was inspired by the Holy Spirit and included in Scripture by the Holy Spirit to counteract that human tendency to think that, when things are going well, God approves of what we are doing and, conversely, when things are going poorly, God must not really love us.  The circumstances of our life do not necessarily testify to our relationship with God.  Sometimes, evil people seem to go unpunished.  Sometimes, good people seem to be punished.  Think of Wilma’s life.
     I did not know her until dementia had ravaged her mind and forced her into assisted living.  The Wilma that I met was not the polite, but determined, Southern Belle that many of you knew and loved and respected.  I met the Wilma that was changed by that horrible disease.  She was angry, short, and quite simply not herself.  How do I know?  Those letters thanking her bosses for her advocacy testify to me about her life.  Who she was in her core was the lady and advocate described by those grateful people.  On this side of the grave we might think God cruel for allowing a disease like that to ravage her mind.  On this side of the grave, we might think God indifferent to her plight as that disease took her from us piece by piece, day by day.  Job, and by extension Wilma’s life, reminds us that this is not all there is.
     Though she might not have been able to articulate it late in life to me, I have no doubt that she longed for that Advocate so described by Job.  For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last He will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes behold, and not another.  Her testimony to us through her advocacy are a true incarnational ministry.  Looking in from the outside, we might think she suffered unjustly.  But, as Wilma’s life testimony reminds us, she understood God’s call on her life by virtue of her baptism in to His death and His Resurrection.  No doubt, were she here to speak to us now, she would share she bore more than the cross of dementia.  Perhaps God used her condition to reach some of you.  Maybe He used her suffering to reach a caregiver.  Perhaps He only used her suffering to remind us of the truth that our outward appearances do not speak to the relationship of our hearts to God.  Like the poor, like the widowed, like all the marginalized, God loves us all incredibly!  He loved us so much that, when we were separated from Him by virtue of our sin, He came down from heaven, tented among us, ministered among us, and reconciled and restored us to Him!  And though I did not know the Wilma that many of you knew; her life’s testimony, her life’s sermon, is one of belief in the truth that her Lord would one day have her stand before Him, The Advocate for her, who longs to be the Advocate for me and for you when we in our time pass from glory into glory.
     Pat, Sally, and the rest of the family: I do not mean to paint an unrealistic picture in our minds of Wilma.  I have no doubt that as her children you no doubt saw other sides of her life—children and families have a knack of drawing those sides out of us, as you each know by now, too.  I have heard how some bosses might have considered her a thorn in their side.  No doubt some constituents would speak to her failures, at least from their own perspective.  I have no doubt that Wilma made mistakes, that she sinned against you and others, and against our Lord.  But Wilma’s overarching sermon, her overarching testimony in your lives, is one of belief in that her Advocate would one day raise her up to see His face.  All her life was to prepare you for this moment.  As we come to the end our journey with her in this world, we mourn with you, we cry with you, we rail at the loss, we long for the “what could have been’s,” just as does her Advocate our Lord Christ.  But even here, as our liturgy reminds us, we make our alleluias. 
     That same God who raised Jesus from the dead offered the same hope to Wilma. And even now, as we prepare to return her body to the ashes and dust from whence it came, we are reminded that this advocate is with The Advocate, dancing, feasting, reunited with John and other loved ones who shared their faith with her, looking on in expectation that one day all of us who claim her Lord Christ as their own Savior, will spend eternity with her sneaking desserts from that magnificent table, whirling joyfully on our feet around the ballroom of the Heavenly kingdom, bathed in the light and glory of the one who fashioned us, in that place where there are no tears or sighing.
     I began this homily reminding us all that she was in that vanguard of first wave feminism, that she opened doors for women in this country that were, before she crashed them, closed to the women of generations who came before her.  My prayer for you her family, for all of us who called her friend, is that we would, one last time, let her serve in the vanguard and lead us to that heavenly kingdom where she is this day, beholding with her own eyes The Advocate after whom she patterned her life, and Whose life and death gave her purpose and hope!

In His Peace,


Thursday, September 15, 2016

The heart of the Seeker and those for whom He searches . . .

     Like you all, I am still settling into this new pattern of our worship. In some ways, it is kind of cool to only have to do half the sermon preparation that I have been doing for the last 10-12 years. By that, of course, I mean that Holly is doing half and I am doing half, not that I am being lazy in my duties! Maybe it’s that reduction in duties, but I have to confess I don’t really feel relaxed when I have a sermon by Monday or Tuesday in the week. I have grown far more accustomed to settling on a sermon later in the week. This week, though, I knew I would be preaching from Luke. Not that I necessarily wanted to. Really, the prideful and lazy me wanted to preach from Jeremiah. Prideful, in the sense that I could show off in the tohu vabohu of the passage; lazy, in the sense that our work in the Genesis Bible study class on Tuesday evenings meant I did not have to do a lot of reading for sermon preparation – it has already been done! The same is true, of course, of Psalm 14. We have studied that one at length on Tuesday mornings at the Psalm Bible study, so I was well prepared for that! But here I was, certain early in the week that we should look at Luke.
     By the way, since I have already given a commercial for two of our Bible studies, I might as well commercialize the whole thing. In your Order of Worship inserts you will see a card asking about a lectionary based Bible study to be offered by Holly. If you are a bit intrigued by my hints of Genesis and the Psalm, maybe you should be in a lectionary Bible study with Holly. That way, you get to skim the surface of all four readings assigned each week! Now, back to our regularly scheduled sermon . . .
     Turn in your orders of worship to Luke. Have you ever noticed how good we are in the Church at drawing boundaries? We have this innate ability to decide who belongs in and who belongs out of the presence of God. Some of us who have belonged to other denominations have had that instinct well-honed and developed in the course of our membership in those denominations, but we Episcopalians are pretty good at it, too. We are in good company. We are much like our brother and sister Jews.
     Luke sets the stage for today’s teaching by showing the blurring of the boundaries. Jesus is teaching, and tax collectors and sinners, as well as Pharisees and scribes, were coming near to listen to Jesus. Tax collectors, of course, were the Benedict Arnold’s of their day. They worked with the Roman occupiers and, more often than not, enriched themselves at the expense of their brother and sister Jews. Tax collectors were, at best, often distrusted and, at worst, often hated. As a nation remembering the fifteenth year since the destruction of the Towers, we probably relate to the Pharisees and Scribes better than we would like to think. How many of us would be happy if Muslims had joined us in our walk with God through Christ during the intervening years? My suspicion is that we feel about as lovingly toward our Muslim brothers and sisters as Jews did toward their tax collectors, but that is another sermon, and Julia is here to tell us about Rooftop Ministries today.
      Anyway, the holy folks are grumbling. “Doesn’t He know who she is?” “Doesn’t He know what that guy does?” “What kind of holy man associates with sinners?” We still do this today. As most of you all know, my work in the fight against human trafficking caused me to meet some . . . interesting people. My former parish was not too concerned that I hung out with prostitutes or foreigners, though other churches and other clergy sometimes fussed at me about the “optics.” They meant well, most of the time. And when they didn’t, I got really excited. It’s pretty cool confirmation when people tell you that you are acting too much like Jesus. But even those who supported me struggled when I started hanging out with the pimps/slavers. A few members of my last parish had some serious heart to hearts with me about whether I was doing the right thing drinking beers with pimps, not praying for the destruction of slavers, or wandering into some . . . not quite the Garden of Eden spots of our midst.
     Perhaps the best example of this parable in modern times happened a couple years ago over in Rome. The Holy Father, as you all know and now come to expect, reminds us that we are supposed to be an inviting people, that we are supposed to mirror the behavior of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That instruction, naturally, extends to the College of Cardinals and to the bishops. A couple years ago, Francis had reminded or chided, depending on who told the story, his brother bishops that they were supposed to give up their fancy cars and luxurious homes and to serve others as Christ had served them. One bishop, a cardinal actually, was heard to complain by the press that the Holy Father had lost his mind. Francis actually expected them to eat with homeless people! Had he never smelled them? Had he never seen their table manners? Just who did he think he was telling them to eat with “those” people.
     Francis handled the criticism well and used it as a teaching moment for the public while beginning to shape his successor. A reporter noticed construction around St. Peter’s Square. Eventually, it became clear that public showers were being installed in the Square. As God or Francis would have it, the reporter had occasion to be at a press conference with the Holy Father and have the opportunity to ask questions—this guy knows what he is doing, but so does God. The reporter asked why showers were being installed, reportedly at the instruction of the Holy Father. Francis stated that he had seen the interview with his brother bishop discussing the smell of the homeless. His brother bishop was right. Because the homeless had no access to showers, they often smelled badly. He thought it only fair that the homeless should be given places to shower so that when his brother bishops invited them to dinner, they could clean up. That way, the olfactory senses of my brother bishops will not be offended, and the homeless will have no reason to apologize to the host bishop for their condition. Talk about a Jesus-worthy lift up and smack down!
     Jesus, of course, responds to the indignity of the Pharisees and Scribes by telling a couple parables. In one way, these are common parable and we can well understand them, right? A shepherd loses a sheep and leaves the flock in search of the lost one. In economic terms, such an action is kind of crazy. The one sheep represents only 1% of his wealth, his work. Yet he leaves the 99% behind to search high and low for the one. We might like to think he left his flock with others, but Scripture does not tell us he did. Scripture says he left the 99 in the wilderness and went in search of the one. He sure does risk a lot for one sheep. Similarly, the woman loses a coin. In economic terms, the coin is 10% of her wealth. Symbolically, it is worth more. So maybe we can understand her focused searching a bit more. She tears the house apart looking for the lost coin, searching everywhere, in the cushions, under the refrigerator, digging through the trash until she locates it.
      We do this kind of stuff all the time, right? Jesus’ example is from everyday life. Those here on Tuesday can tell you how discombobulated I was without my Prayer Book. How many red ones are laying around here? They all have the same words on the same pages, but I needed mine! And heaven help me when I lose my cross. People give me crosses as presents all the time. There is no particular power in this cross compared to others—the only one of importance has been lost to history; yet, because I value the giver and the testimony it gives, I go nuts if I misplace it or one of my kids “uses” it. How crazy is that?
     My guess is that you have similar little things that you have to have. Keys do not count because, well, we need them to drive our cars and get around. But maybe there are things that, when you lose them, you go nuts searching for them. Anyone here ever walk way more searching for a lost remote than they ever would getting up immediately to change the channel? Ever miss a program while searching for a remote rather than manually changing the channel and watching your program? Caught you, did I?
     Jesus’ teaching, and our own modern illustrations, provides several important lessons. I want to focus on only two this day, as we try to be brief on Outreach Sunday. (1) Jesus’ parables, and our own, teach us much about the heart of God. God is every bit a determined seeker of the lost as we are for those items that make no sense. One of the meta-narratives of Scripture, one of the over-arching themes, is one of a love story. A heavenly Father is rejected by His children. Much of the rest of the book describes the lengths to which He will go to restore them to Himself. It’s true, right? We reject God, and He spends the rest of the time wooing us back into right relationship with Him. He sends people, prophets, kings – many of whom screw up everything, but He never gives up!
     Think of our own personal histories, those of us who remember a time when we rejected Him. There we were, going our own way and doing our own thing. What prompted that repentance in our life? What caused us to turn from our own desires and to seek His wisdom and salvation for our lives? Were you really responding to the cosmic threat of a principal or authority figure blasting you? Or were you wooed? Did people in your life exude a confidence, a hope, a joy in circumstances that made no sense to you? Did people point out how your Father in heaven was answering your needs? My guess is, for most of us with conversion experiences, they are closer to love stories than a response in fear. God seeks after us the way a shepherd seeks after a lost sheep, the way an ANE woman searches for a lost coin, or the way you and I search for a remote. He is enduring and His searching is unending.
     Jesus’ teaching is a wonderful snapshot of the heart of God, just as Jesus’ life is a wonderful family video. When we could not hear others, when we could not hear or outright rejected the message of the prophets, when we found our eyes scaled over and our ears plugged, He came down from heaven! He incarnated in these fleshy bodies. He dwelt with us, healing, curing, casting out demons, and teaching us about the heart of the Father who sent Him. And even then, even when we still did not understand His heart or His intent, He went willingly, obediently to the Cross, that you and I and countless other souls who were lost might be reconciled to His saving embrace. Beautiful, is it not? How deeply does He love us!
     But there is one other side to this little coin of Jesus’ teaching. I have read this passage hundreds of times, probably you have as well. Nowhere in the story does the sheep repent for wondering off; nowhere in the story does the coin apologize for losing its thread and falling. The seeker simply finds the sheep or coin worth searching for. The seeker places the value on the lost item; just as God places the value on us. Yes, the proper response to God’s seeking is eventually repentance, but this story does not go to that point. It simply reminds each one of us that we, and all whom we encounter in this world, are of incredible value to God! In fact, He values us so much that He is willing to die for us!
     A couple weeks ago, when I preached a sermon on the reminder that you and I are fed and strengthened in the sanctuary but then sent out into the camp to minister in His name, bearing crosses, some of you came to me with ideas. More, though, came to me with disqualifications. Father, I am not a good speaker. Father, I am not quick on my feet when it comes to talking about God. Father, I’m just me; God can’t possibly expect me to . . . What can I do in the midst of that work? Too many of us sold Him and ourselves short. God loved each and every one of us so much that He never gave up looking for us until He found us and we found Him. God loved each and every one of us so much that He was willing to pay the cost of our reconciliation to Him. He thought each and every one of us, and all whom we encounter in our daily life and work, worth dying for! In economic terms, it makes no sense. In use of time or energy, it makes no sense. Nevertheless, He sought and sought and sought us, even though it cost Him that horrible Passion and precious death. And our reconciliation to Him was so important that it caused a celebration in heaven! The angels and archangels and all the company of heaven partied when you and when I accepted Him as Lord!
     Brothers and sisters, that voice that tells you that you are not special, that you are a nobody, that you are just ordinary is not His voice! His voice is the one that has been whispering into your ear that you were gloriously made, that He has a purpose for you, that you are His well-beloved son or daughter! And so that we might not pine away listening to the voice of His enemy, He came and dwelt among us and showed us what His love for us was like. And that we might know, know that He has the power to redeem all things in our life, to accomplish His will for us in our lives, He raised His Son Jesus from the dead and promised each and every one of us who found Him finding us a share in that same power, that same glory, that same hope, and that same joy!
     In a few minutes, Julia will speak of incredible evil as the directrix of Rooftop Ministries. Homelessness, or the threat of homelessness, is far more pervasive in Nashville than many of us know. The darkness that she will describe may well seem overwhelming. Our efforts may well seem impotent when measured in economic or other terms. You may hear her words and wonder what difference little old you can make. And yet, our marching orders are, our joyful response to His redeeming work in our lives is to love Him with everything, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We serve a Lord who had, at times, nowhere to lay His head as He walked and taught among us, who reminds us that it is among the marginalized, the hopeless, the lost where is to be found. We need only to model obediently His command that we seek in His name. He will take care of the rest. He will find. He will provide. He will empower through the Holy Spirit. And in the end, He will be glorified not only in our lives, but in the world! And we, ordinary you and me who accepted Him as Lord of our lives, we will share in that glory for all eternity! If that's not the complete opposite of ordinary, well, . . . I don't know what is!