There are times as a priest when I wish I could bottle and let you taste, film and let you watch, hear and let you feel what sometimes goes on around here. There is a bit of isolation that goes on in the life of a parish priest. I understand it. I realize that the more people that are around, the less likely people are willing to pour out their lives. One on one with priest, though, and there can be amazing and bizarre and scary and sorrowful conversations. Unfortunately, many of you will go through your faith walk with God and never see or hear or feel these conversations. And make no mistake, they can be examples of good or examples of bad.
On the bad side of the equation, I wish I could share with you the struggles, the worries, the fears that come when someone chooses to distance themselves from God. Notice I said “choose to distance themselves from God.” God is immovable and unchangeable. When in your walk with God you feel distanced from Him, ask yourself if He has changed or you have changed. I wish I could somehow get people to tell other people who are considering that same distancing of their experience. I have no doubt, were I able to catch the raw emotion on the other side, those considering would think twice. They still might withdraw from God for work reasons or relationship reasons or because they don’t like the priest, but they would do so with the eyes of their faith opened and not be surprised at the resulting difficulties and emptiness.
The last couple weeks, though, have allowed me to live in what St. Paul is describing to the Corinthians this week and to see the good side of the faith equation. By that I mean that many of you will drop in, call, e-mail or whatever that you “are just . . . . “. There is a false self-image which convinces people of faith that they are not that important in God’s plan of salvation. Paul today is reminding us that we are part of the body, redeemed by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, and yet many of you sitting here today would tell me that you are not significant in God’s plan of salvation.
We experienced a great example of the body acting as St. Paul describes at Community Meal last Wednesday. Those of you who read of my encounter with “Jeff” know why I was not as engaged with those whom we normally serve at the feeding site. If you want to hear more about Jeff and his story, go to the Bulletin or my blog. That is not the focus today. What I want to focus on is how the gifts and talents of you led to that divine appointment. In a way, what happens a lot around here is that God works a tapestry. I thought of this over the holidays as I watched an episode of one of those shows about how things are made. They showed Iraqi ladies, I think it was, using all these nondescript threads. They were working using this color and that color and this color and that color to make a piece of art that tells a story much like a picture. To me, they were a jumble of threads. To those ladies, they were their imaginations come to life.
Jeff hitchhiked across the upper midwest that Wednesday. He had heard from his doctor and then later his Episcopal priest that Episcopalians in the Quad-Cities had been heavily involved in fighting human trafficking. Once he researched us, he knew he had to see for himself if the stories were true. He had discovered via the web that we served the homeless every second Wednesday. He arrived early so he could observe. Fortunately for us, he arrived so early he could go into the site and warm up. You may or may not know this, but on cold days and hot days the shelter opens to warm or cool the homeless.
Anyway, Jeff found himself warming himself and drinking some coffee next to some of those regulars whom you and I have served for years. The conversation, he said, turned when he asked what the people at the table thought of us. “It’s St. Alban’s night?” “ Are you sure?” “Let me check my calendar.” began to ripple around the room. Jeff said it was funny listening to the conversations from that moment on. “Wonder what they are making?” “Who are they?” Those who have been homeless longer were excited we would be serving. Some churches, they not, run out of steam in January. There is a natural fatigue that seeps in during the Christmas season. “Some churches kinda take a break. They still feed us and we are thankful, but these people at St. Alban’s care.” The old-timers answered the newbies by describing their favorite meal. Most talked about our Christmas roasts and English feasts. A bunch remarked how they could tell us they did not want turkey around Thanksgiving. A couple even mentioned lamb. Jeff said he was as shocked as some of the newbies at the descriptions of our meals. He commented that we must do fancy meals to leave such a mark in their minds. They said it was quite the opposite. Our meals were normal. It was, to them, like we made meals for our families and just brought it down there to share with them. We give them choices. Sometimes it’s between juices. Sometimes it’s chocolate milk. Sometimes it’s beef or fried chicken. “They just do us right, you know?”
Jeff was impressed. When he was explaining why he opened up to me despite being unable to open up to so many psychiatrists or therapist over the years, he said it was the way they described you guys. They love you guys. You could feel it in the room. People started teasing one another “Damn, I was hoping you wouldn’t show tonight so I could eat your share” was one comment that stuck in his mind. “When people who are hungry and cold and just generally miserable have hope, Christ is really there somehow.” I know. I been in both places. I have lived without Him, and now I live with Him in me. Then he got down to business and shared why he’d hitch-hiked so many miles in the winter to speak with us.
As I shared bits and pieces of this conversation with parishioners this week, I heard all kind of self-deprecating evaluations when I mentioned people’s roles in this conversation and thanked them for their faithful labor. “I just give money every once and a while.” “I just make fluff. It’s not really cooking.” “All I do is spoon out food.” I know that many of you lack that perspective that I get to see from my position as priest in this congregation. But if you have served in this ministry, if you have cooked, if you have purchased the food, if you have prayed for those who hunger and who freeze in the cold, if you have cheered others on who participate actively in Community Meal, you have had a hand in the keeping of this divine appointment. Your faithful service served as a testimony to those on the margins who, in turn, testified of your love of Christ. When Jeff started his trip, he’d hoped we would at least not blow him off. He left knowing that you and I and our friends in DC and Atlanta and Hartford and Cedar Rapids and LA and all over this country would hear his story. The testimony of the homeless and hungry in our midst assured him of that. Some of us would act on it. You helped make his burden light, and only those there saw the tears of joy and thankfulness overtake the rage and impotence at his experience. God took all of us, like individual threads in the hands of the ladies on that tapestry show I watched, with all our tangles, and made something beautiful, something redemptive occur. That is what St. Paul means when he talks of the body of Christ acting together; that’s what John means by manifesting the glory of God in the world.
Of course, that was not the only impact we had on those whom we try to reach in His name. A lady appeared at church this week. She was in desperate need of a gas card. She had heard that we actually try and help people. She had no ties to us. She was not an AA member, not a former AFM customer, not a Toddler Music mom, not a survivor of Winnie’s Place. She was quick to give me every reason not to help her and certain she was not the kind of person we help. When she finally shut up long enough to let me speak, I asked her what she needed. She told me she needed a gas card. Transporting her daughter, who’d been mostly dumped on her by the father because the new wife did not like the daughter. She was in no position to care for the daughter-she’d agreed with the judge’s decision about that a few years ago. But what could she do? She couldn’t let her daughter be turned out.
Now, as those of you who donate gas cards know, we do give them out. Nearly as fast as they come in, they go out. Naturally, I was out. I apologized. I explained my lack had nothing to do with her lack of affiliation, it was simply that the need out there was incredible. I know. You were kind of my hail Mary. Everyone said if you guys had it, you’d help. We talked a bit about her life. In particular, we talked about what had led to the breakup of her marriage and what had led to her current predicament. She seemed genuine, and I found myself wishing I had another gas card or that Vern was there--I could ask him to run down to the Depot sometimes and get one and pay him back with my next discretionary check. Her self-evaluation seemed accurate, but she had no forgiveness for herself in her voice. She excused her ex, she excused past employers, she gave everyone a break but herself.
As I commented on that simple fact, she noticed my office. Now, there are more than a few of you who hate my office. I know it is a mess by your standards, but the fact is that there’s a ton of stuff in there that needs a new home. I don’t keep everything offer, but I do keep those things I know to be in need. She saw the televisions. What are those for? How many do you need? When I asked why she wanted to know, she told me that hers had died just after Christmas. So I asked if she would like a new one. She laughed. What do you have, a television store in here? I explained I did have televisions in need of a new home. Are you serious? I was as serious as I was when I said I wished I had another gas card. Which one can I have? I told her she could pick.
Now, those of you who think my office is as bad as a teenagers room (btw--it’s been a long time since you were around a teenager’s room if you really believe that), will be happy to know a television is gone, but God was not done yet. Remember the daughter? She comes into the church looking for mom. Typical of her age, mom was taking way too long. Her mom called out from my office and she came in. Then her eyes fell on the bicycle. Who’s bicycle is that? I don’t know yet? What do you mean you don’t know? I got it last Thanksgiving. A couple guys fixed it up for me: new tires, new brakes, cleaned up the gears. I tried to find a home for it last Christmas and all this past year but no luck. It was at this point that I noticed she was not even listening to me. Mom, it’s teal. Mom, it has a fanny pack. Mom, it’s 21-speed. Mom, it has a water bottle holder. Mom, it’s teal! -- in case mom had not heard her the first time she named the color. I turned to mom.
Mom shrugged a bit. My mom and I tried to find her one for Christmas. She likes to ride a bike. We couldn’t afford it. She’s a silly thing to try and get when you can’t get gasoline, huh? I turned to the daughter and asked her if she liked it. I got the “are you so stupid you sometimes forget to breathe stare.” If your mom says it’s ok, it’s yours. She squealed like happy teenage girls only can. You know, they hit those pitches that make you certain windows are about to shatter. Can we? Can we? Can we, mom? Can we buy it from him? Now, not surprisingly, mom told her daughter no. I was here to ask for help for gasoline. If we could buy the bike, we could buy gasoline instead. Now, I should point out a bit of bartering went on at this point. The daughter clearly liked the teal and the fanny pack. The bartering was so intense, no one wanted to let me speak. When they reached a natural pause, I finally got their attention. I wasn’t selling the bike, I was giving the bike. Mom started arguing with me, at least her lips were moving like she was. It was really hard to hear over the squeals of the daughter.
After a bit of discussion, and squealing, mom finally consented to let her daughter have the bicycle. I did apologize for not meeting her real need. She laughed. She said she had given up on the television and the bicycle. Compared to gasoline and utility needs, they were not worth the effort of hoping or praying. We had a nice discussion of our Father’s love and care for all His children. She chuckled. Before today I would have argued with you. Thank you for everything, for the talk, for the television, and especially for the bicycle. She really needed a pick-me-up. It’s tough being a teenager in the situation she is in. It’s tough being an adult in the situation you are in. But remember He knows. He has big shoulders. And He only wants good things for you.
To you “I only’s”: if you gave to discretionary funds so I could get the bike fixed, if you give to keep me here and that office open, if you pray constantly “let my priest, Lord, clean up that office of his,” if you pray that His will be done on earth as it is in heaven, you had a hand in this divine appointment. For the mom, the answered prayer was obvious. For the girl, it was probably one of those seeds. She could not have cared less about the why or how, she only cared for the teal and the fanny pack. I tried. I did. I tried hard to get her to understand how the bicycle came to be. My hope and prayer is that her teal bike will be “that” bike of her youth and that some day, some where, someone will remind her who really gave her that bike. Mom knows. A grandma knows. Maybe someone will hear her story and remind her that, as her tough times with her mom began, her Father in heaven was already taking care of her, already willing to take her into the arms of His love.
Brothers and sisters, I know there are any number of overhangs in our life together and individually. As a parish, we have been speaking for a few weeks of visioning and discernment. A number of you have been afraid to offer your opinions, your hopes, your fears, your prayers. Why? Our Lord has equipped you to serve Him and glorify Him in this church where He has planted you. Why should you fear to share with the rest of us what you think He might be calling us to do? There are no inconsequential people in His kingdom; there are no red-headed step-children in His family; there are only first born sons and first born daughters; full inheritors of His love, of His grace, and of His gifts. And while there are worries and stresses on us as a community, there are more placed on us individually. Some of us need a hip, some of us worry for our jobs, some of us worry if we are raising our kids well, some of us are wondering if our kids are failing our grandchildren, some of us are worrying about our health, I could go on. But the same Lord who equips you and enliven your hearts to make it possible that a survivor of human trafficking might hear the words and testimony of those whom you serve with no thought of recompense for 47 years and the same Lord who causes things like televisions and bicycles to be here when someone needs them (even if it violates our sense of good order), is the same Lord who meets your needs. Like those weavers I spoke of in Iraq, our Lord takes the threads of our life and, if we allow Him, creates in us a masterpiece, a work worthy of redemption through His grace. As a community this week, we have lived that prayer “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” As a community, we have significantly manifested His glory to the world around us, just as we do when we minister to battered women, to trafficked adults and children, to runaways, to the homeless, to those whom we have served on mission trips, to those hungry in our midst, to those who need a good dousing at water wars, to those who listen to our music and eat ice cream, to those imprisoned in our jails, and engage in any other ministry in our life and work.
Our reading from John this week is, among other things, about abundance. Specifically, that abundance describes His grace in the lives of His people, even when His people “know Him not” as John would say. Jesus is only invited to this wedding in Cana; He is not the central figure. His answer to His mother is understandable. It is not yet His time. And yet, in obedience to His mother who sees the lack for the wedding and all that it signifies in that culture, He acts. Better still, though Boone’s Farm would have served the celebrants well, Jesus made some 150 gallons of the best possible wine and did so without so much as a “by your leave.” Such is His power and authority that He can overcome our shortfalls, our sins, and perceived inadequacies with abundant grace and manifest His glory through our restored bicycles, donated televisions, commitment to help, and our lacks.
All of us individually could have in no way made the impact we did for just two lives the last couple weeks. For the survivor of human trafficking, we have given hope that there are people of God beginning to talk about how to care for men like him when they escape their situations. The world might be better attuned to the needs of women in the same situation, but I daresay none of you who heard or read his story will ever forget his hurt, his impotence to fix himself, and his rage at the world around him for doing nothing and his own self-perceived unwillingness to do anything about it either. Some of you labored faithfully for 47 years to make that moment of hope, that overflowing of his vessels with grace, possible. Some of us labored for years and passed into glory without seeing that moment, but they knew in their hearts that He purposes nothing without meaning and that His grace trumps our condition.
The second encounter is a bit different. A few of you could have bought the girl a bicycle, bought the family a new television, and bought the mom a tank of gasoline. But think of how it was done. She saw “the junk” in my office and heard whom we serve and why. Then, when a need was expressed that could be met, she knew it was our Lord meeting her need. Had one of us bought her those things, she would have thought him or her a nice person. But now, every time she turns on that television or sees her daughter riding that teal bicycle, she will be reminded of her Father in heaven and His love and care for all her needs. Though she has made horrible choices, though she has made choices that impact her mother and her daughter that she can never undo, she has been reminded of our Lord who redeems all things, overcomes all things for His glory and our salvation. If she remembers our conversation, hopefully she will remember that all He requires is our repentence. As I said about this on Facebook this week, when God acts, He goes big, even when it is in seemingly little actions like giving away a donated television or bicycle.
There are, indeed, different kinds of working and different kinds of people, but He is in all of them and all of you working to show forth His glory in the world. As a new discipline for many of you, I want you to begin reordering the way you think about your service of Him. Instead of preparing to come into my office or into church and share your lacks, your “normalness”, your perceived “ho-humness,” take a moment and pray. Ask God to show you how He is using you to manifest His glory in the world around you and this church. Ask Him to give you eyes to see and ears to hear that you have become an effective herald of His Gospel in the world around you. You might be surprised at the answers He gives. And, brothers and sisters, in those moments when you find yourself worried that your sin makes you unlovable, that your mistakes are too big to overcome, that you are not worthy to call Him “Abba,” remember the wedding at Cana. No matter how big or how many the sins in your life, the power of His grace conquers and covers them all. And His love for you, evidenced by the path He walked to Calvary for your sake and mine, is greater than any bride or any groom had for one another in history. Think on that this week, as well, and take heart. All of this, all of it, has been conquered and redeemed! That is His promise.