May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The image of the desert in bloom in the passage from Isaiah, recalls a trip I took with some of my seminary friends a year and a half ago. We went to Phoenix, AZ, and it was my turn to line up the restaurants, the museums and other adventures we would have. One of them was a sunrise ride/sail in the gondola of a hot air balloon. Our gondola could carry 28, plus the pilot, and we learned that when they inflated that beautiful balloon, it held millions of cubic feet of air. I was sure this was on everyone’s bucket list, as it was on mine. Not so. Four of the nineteen of us went up in the air. It was spectacular, and we got to see coyote and deer near but unaware of each other, and rabbits scurrying out of the way. Most of all, it was the blooming time for some yellow flower and the view was superb and magnificent. So when Isaiah calls up this image, it speaks to me deeply.
Because you are searching for a rector, I want to speak today as someone who has served as a rector, and some of my closest colleagues who have done the same. Every year since 1989, some portion of the General Theological Seminary Class of 1970 has gotten together for the better part of a week. The first couple of days are social, dinner at the home of the host, a special restaurant and a museum or local sight during the daytime. Then we go off for three days of being together to tell our stories since the last time. One of our group is a gay guy with an outrageous sense of humor who told us that when a friend asked him with surprise and doubt, “What can you possibly find to talk about during that time?” Richard, never at a loss for words, answered, “Well, at our age, it always starts with an organ recital.”
What I want to share most is that we were all “formed” together over three years by the faculty who taught us, the rhythm of daily prayer and singing and Eucharist in the chapel, and in that environment we found disciplines of prayer and work that served us well over the years. I have a number of good and true friends from places where I have lived and served, but these guys, and since retirement, spouses too, have become a profound extended family. We have gone through all the joys and sorrows of life together, including someone being deposed from the priesthood for a while, a few divorces, alcoholism, the serious illnesses of many of us, loss of children, spouses, some of our group and numerous beloved pets. We met each other over fifty years ago, when others who knew me then were wondering how on earth Jim Jelinek could become a priest. My classmates’ friends felt that way about them, I learned, and at first I think we all felt that way about each other: him, a priest? No way.
But time and practice and good disciplines and people attentive to our prayer life shaped us all. We weren’t all best buddies, although some of us were closer friends than others. It was after we started coming together annually that we really got to know the essence of each other, so that we could see how we each, with very different talents and skills, a wide range of political views both within the church and publicly, came together with a tremendous similarity of values, about honor and integrity and what it means to be a pastor and priest, about what the prophets and the apostles and disciples stood for and gave their lives for. We have each learned for ourselves the cost of being God’s servant, why we continue to serve, and we know very well that our brothers have been on the same journey. We know, most of all, that we have to be as honest with each other as we have to be with ourselves when we look in the mirror each morning. That is always a test. One glance is about being presentable to go out in public with what I have. The longer look is about who I am, and am I being true. We the men of General from 1970, have called ourselves “the Chelsea boys,” since the seminary close or quadrangle is named Chelsea Square. We are truly brothers in faith and life and practice, and those we are or have been married to confirm that again and again.
Let’s go back to Isaiah for a moment: at first trying to reach out particularly to people “around my age”—that is when the body has started speaking more loudly and dramatically than we might like, Isaiah gives us images that seem impossible:
“The the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped”—OH do I have friends who hope and pray for that, especially my brother-in-law who never seems to find the right hearing aid, after spending thousands again and again.
“Then the lame shall leap like the deer” — Oh, my poor feet, if you hear that, remember that when you land, IT WILL NOT HURT!
“And the tongue of the speechless shall sing with joy!” — May anyone with stutters/halting speech/an inability to speak/and, shall we add, the fear of speaking listen: this is for you.
The rest of the passage is about safety and security which brings relief, thanksgiving and joy.
Central to all of this is the message from the Letter of James (5:7): “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.” The Greek word for patience is “patior”, which means “to suffer well/to bear up well.” None of us likes to choose to suffer, and most of us do not suffer well. We groan and moan and complain and whine, and if we are suffering in silence it is because we are moping and in a quietly sour mood, doing all of our complaining internally when not aloud. Really: doesn’t a good groan or moan or an oof! elicit some sympathy, which doesn’t change the pain but lets us know that someone cares for us.
To suffer well. I have known some who have suffered well. I put them up for sainthood.
That is the downside of illness. The gospel today seeks to remind us of the upside.
Let’s do a little Biblical theology first. In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist’s disciples go to Jesus with a very direct question from John himself: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus does not say “yes” or “no.” He does answer both profoundly and directly: “Tell John what you hear and see.”
He is saying: “Look! Listen! Experience this—what is happening now!”
Then Jesus gives an incredible litany of the blessings that come from his presence and ministry: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
There is no way Jesus could have answered that question from John with a yes or no. It was all about the results that would come if God’s gift to the world came among the people of Israel. Once he heard that report, John never doubted, and he paid with the price of his life. My friends, many of us have to pay with some agony or anguish at the anger or even loss of a friend or more, but very few of us ever have to pay with our lives. In thousands of years, there are very few martyrs, comparatively speaking. Yet it is real and painful to take a stand on behalf of the suffering of the world and suffer the disdain and disparagement and even the separation of others.
Years ago I read a book on the Huguenot resistance in Switzerland and parts of southeastern France during WWII. The title is, if I remember correctly, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, and the subtitle was what engaged me: “When goodness happened in the village of Le Chambeau” (sp?). Isn’t that intriguing? “When goodness happened.” I love that phrase, but the central story takes too long to tell, so I want to talk about “when hope happens.” That’s like all the crocuses blooming in the desert which seems so dead for so much of the year, and then, suddenly, whether anyone is there to notice or not, it bursts into more life than we can ever imagine for a desert.
I want to make this very much about us, because your pledging this fall has been so much about hope, about new possibilities, and I have seen heroic leaps of faith. I don’t want to quote numbers, although every number I would quote would make the Vestry as a body, the Stewardship Committee, and all of you, including people pledging for the first time as new members, those numbers would be a cause of celebration for all of us, for all of you.
Now can you imagine, that even with all this heroic effort, because we had big dreams, and because our buildings and grounds always have a way to grind us down with needs that we have put on the back burner for years, the people and matters we most wish to fund are being pushed back by those we seem to need to fund. As I hear and read the budget, we are close to a balance, but I know the Vestry does not want to present an unbalanced budget when all of you have shown so much faith and confidence in where God is calling us and where we are going.
My sense is that we are within a few thousand dollars of a balance, which, in a budget over $400k, is usually not serious. My sense is that you have been bold in your pledging, and you would like the Vestry to be similarly bold if the risk is not great.
Again, this is very much about us as a parish, and you have, as a parish, suffered and rejoiced and/or triumphed. We might interpret your pledge increases as a simple affirmation that the current path is a good/right one. We might interpret your pledge increase as a sign of hope and faith.
I serve here for the greater good of the parish, not as its protector [to protect is usually to preserve what is, not to improve or grow it.] I think you have spoken by your pledging out of hope and faith, and it is our responsibility to take some reasonable risks.
Of course, everyone can argue what “reasonable” is, and that’s why this is part of a sermon and not a debate.
May we all listen deeply to the Holy Spirit, when we all have our own sense of economics and what safety and security mean. Amen.
+James L. Jelinek, Trinity Church