Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Mistletoe-free Zone

My final sermon with God's beloved saints at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte. 

There are pastors who keep a running list of all the stuff they plan to say to their congregation on their last Sunday. You know, those kinds of things that you might have been holding in all along and then, when you know you won’t get fired for saying them, you just let it fly. It can be particularly unnerving for a congregation to wait for the final sermon from a pastor they’ve given a rough time.

You may have heard the old story about the pastor who had gotten nothing but grief from her congregation the whole time she was there. When it came time for her final sermon, they all held their breath because they knew it was coming. She was really gonna let ‘em have it.

But then, it didn’t happen. She was kind and gracious. She was so sweet sugar wouldn’t have melted in her mouth. She went through the entire worship service exuding words of love and support for this congregation that had made her life a living hell for years.

The closing hymn began and they all breathed a sigh of relief. But then, as their pastor recessed down the aisle, something was hanging from a string down the center of her robe in the back. And there it was, the pastor’s final word to her cantankerous congregation, dangling just above the place where she sat—a sprig of mistletoe.

You will see no mistletoe hanging from my robe today.

Before I came to serve Holy Trinity eleven years ago, I was finishing up seven years of pastoral ministry at Advent in University City. I dearly loved that congregation, but for a variety of reasons, I knew it was time for me to move on. I was pretty fragile then, and I didn’t think I had it in me to go to another congregation and become emotionally invested in a whole new community, so I made the decision to leave parish ministry.

And then, Holy Trinity came along. I had long admired you for standing boldly on the side of love in a way that no one else in our synod was. And I saw that it was all a flush away from going down the toilet. Other people were looking at you and saying, see there’s what happens when you let gay people in your church. That can’t happen, I thought. They have to succeed. They just have to. And it occurred to me that I could help you do that.

I was on my way out anyway, so what did I have to lose? So I came here, for the sheer love of it. And I wasn’t particularly afraid. My goal was to walk with you and hang in there with you until the day when people would no longer be pointing at us saying, “We don’t want to be like Holy Trinity” and would instead be pointing at us saying, “Why can’t we be more like Holy Trinity?” And, guess what? That day is here.

Our worship attendance has gone from somewhere in the thirties to well over a hundred on a typical Sunday. We’ve welcomed a couple hundred new members. We’ve made a difference for people who’ve come to us for healing in their lives.

And I’m convinced that those scary days when we didn’t know if we’d survive as a congregation have shaped us as a community of love and healing. We know what it means to be damaged and to hold on by faith when that’s all you can do. I’d been through some similar struggles in my personal life, and it seems that we were brought together as fellow survivors, both pastor and congregation, to do ministry in a world that is filled with people struggling to survive.

I had no idea what God had in store for you, or for me, when I first came here, but I just knew it was going to be good. And it has been. There’ve been all kinds of surprises for us along the way.
·        I remember the first time we broke 100 at worship. It was my first Christmas Eve. In the middle of worship we heard a loud boom coming from the narthex. Laura was our usher. She went up into the balcony to count heads and she was so excited that she fell coming down the stairs. (Fortunately, she was okay.)
·        I remember the gradual surprise that came from having children in our midst again after our nursery wasn’t used once during the first three years I was here.
·        I remember the sudden surprise of welcoming displaced brothers and sisters from St. Andrews Episcopal Church into our midst.
·        And the joyful surprise of celebrating the full inclusion of LGBT folks in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and then marriage equality for North Carolina.
None of us could have foreseen any of that on my first Sunday.

I want to thank you for giving me the adventure of a lifetime. Few pastors ever have the opportunity to experience what I’ve experienced with you here at Holy Trinity. This is an extraordinary congregation and I know that God’s going to send you an extraordinary pastor to serve you in the future. As congregations go, this is a sweet, juicy plum.

Do you know what the best thing about serving Holy Trinity has been for me? Our mission of Loving Not Judging. We’ve grown a lot in understanding what it means for us to be loving not judging as a demonstration of living the Jesus Way in the world and with one another. As your pastor, I’ve benefited from that because I’ve experienced your love toward me in a way that’s freeing.

So often, pastors are fearful of the judgment of their parishioners and it’s stifling. Particularly in preaching. They’re afraid to say what they’re feeling called to say because their congregation might not like it and they don’t want to cause trouble, end up having people leave the church, or maybe even lose their jobs. And so they do a lot of tap dancing in the pulpit, never saying what they really mean, for fear of judgment.

Let me tell you, tap dancing in the pulpit is exhausting. And I’m thankful that I’ve never had to put on my tap shoes at Holy Trinity. I know you don’t always buy into what I have to say, but I also know that no matter what I say, you will continue to love me. There’s a freeing power in that kind of grace. It’s allowed me to say exactly what I’ve felt called to preach, and I can’t thank you enough.

I also know that I’ve made mistakes while I’ve been with you. I’ve done some things that aren’t all that smart, and I’ve said some things that aren’t all that kind. But I know that you love me anyway, just as I love you. Within a loving not judging community, forgiveness and reconciliation are the way we roll.

That’s why the most important thing we do together happens around the altar. It’s where we gather weekly to open ourselves to receive the grace of God into our lives. As I place the bread in your hands, and I look into your eyes, it’s more than a mechanical act for me. We have history. I know your stories; for many of you I’ve been a part of your stories. I know what the presence of Christ in your lives means to you. And I know what it means for us to do this together, week after week, within our community. It defines who we have been. It strengthens who we are. It shapes who we will be. Together. The Body of Christ in this place.

When we planned my final day at Holy Trinity, I told the leadership of the congregation that I didn’t want to have a dinner after worship, which is what you might expect on an occasion like this. But I wanted us to have an opportunity on Saturday evening to gather and celebrate our time together. And then I wanted the last thing I did with my Holy Trinity family to be the celebration of Holy Communion together. That’s as it should be.

When I announced to you that I would be leaving five weeks ago, I talked to you about being open to the Spirit. One of you joked that we all know darn good and well that if the Spirit had called me to Georgia I wouldn’t have listened. And it may be true that in my case the Spirit has been calling me through a two-year-old grandson named Nick. But that’s how the Spirit works, too, isn’t it?

From as long as I can remember, I’ve been open to seeing where God is leading me next. A door opens and I feel compelled to walk through it because if I didn’t, I’d always wonder what might have been. That’s the way it was when I first felt called to be a pastor as a college student at Bowling Green State University, and it’s certainly the way it was when I came to serve you as your pastor here at Holy Trinity. I think it’s a good way to go through life. It means facing our fears, being ready for adventure, expecting to be surprised along the way, and holding on for a wild ride.

My prayer for Holy Trinity is that you’ll experience the same thing in this adventure of faith that God has called you to be a part of. Be open to where God is leading you next. Don’t be too quick to decide what you’d like to see happen, what might meet your greatest desires. Instead, be open to seeing what God has in store for you as you strive to walk the Jesus Way. Be on the lookout for doors that open. And, when you see them, have the courage to walk through those doors. Be ready for adventure, expect to be surprised along the way, and hold on for a wild ride.

Let me leave you with the words of W. H. Auden as we close this wonderful chapter we’ve shared and prepare to begin a new one, this time separated geographically, but always connected within the Body of Christ… and through the magic of Facebook.

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Who I became, who I will become

Monday night I had dinner with two close friends who have been through some amazingly glorious times with me at Holy Trinity as well as gut-wrenching challenges that seemed insurmountable. One of them observed that I have become an icon in Charlotte, and I’ll be moving to a place where no one knows me and I’m just another pastor. I’ve been thinking about that a lot since she said it.

Am I an icon? Yikes! It’s an overstatement, for sure, but that’s the way she perceives me and I know she’s not alone. Please understand that I’m not suffering from a grandiose complex. I realize that most of the people in Charlotte don’t know who the hell I am. But there are also many for whom I am something of a pseudo-celebrity—the lgbtq community, progressive people of faith, ELCA Lutherans. Some of that notoriety comes with longevity; I’ve been here a long time. But it’s more than a matter of racking up years. God planted me in just the right place during a historically significant time.

You may have heard the story of how I informed the call committee at Holy Trinity that I would not be a spokesperson for LGBT equality as their pastor. I would love them, I would be their pastor, and I would help them become a vibrant congregation again, but I would not be putting myself out there as a champion for the LGBT community. 

Ha! In no time at all, I learned that by loving them and serving as their pastor, I simply had to stand up for them. I couldn’t keep silent when the people I loved were being treated as less than fully human by my denomination and by the world around us. So I began to speak up. At first with trembling voice and racing heart, and then in time, with passion and a fire in my belly. It wasn’t that I was particularly brave. It was that love won out.  

Before my Holy Trinity days, I was never the kind of person who enjoyed putting myself out there for people to take pot-shots at me. At times I might have been bold in the pulpit, where I was protected from opposition, but I seldom strayed from that comfort zone. I was an inactive activist, at best. I had a lot to say about justice, but never really did a lick about it.

This extraordinary congregation on The Plaza has changed me. All the stuff I always said about following Jesus became real to me in a way I’d never experienced it before. Then opportunities to do more than just talk the talk, but walk the walk, presented themselves to me. And I couldn’t refuse. Not if I wanted to look at myself in the mirror again. I knew that if I was going to talk about following Jesus, I actually had to follow Jesus. That’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve stumbled and made some wrong turns from time to time along the way, but I’m confident about the way--the Way of Jesus.

I haven’t been alone. Most of the time I’ve just jumped on board the train as it was pulling out of the station. The support of organizations like Reconciling Works (Lutherans Concerned) and North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, as well as the courageous compassion of Charlotte’s progressive faith community, have pulled me along the way. I’ve been particularly blessed to serve in Charlotte alongside colleagues like Robin Tanner, Nancy Allison and Judy Schindler. If I have done some good for the community while I’ve been here, it’s because others have opened doors for me and I’ve simply walked through them.

So, all the kind accolades coming my way these days make me a bit uncomfortable. I don’t know who I will become in my new call. God seems to recreate me in every congregation I serve. It’s true that, in this environment. the conditions were just right for me to grow a pair. But in my new environment it’s possible they may return to their prior state of dormancy. 

It unnerves me a bit to think about plopping myself down in Towson, Maryland, a place I know nothing about. In a different place, in a different time, I have no idea what to expect or who I will become. It seems that people who know me are expecting me to be the same person I’ve been in Charlotte, and I don’t know that I will be. Time will tell. 

No doubt, I’ll do what I’ve always done. I’ll be watching for doors to open before me, and when they do, I’ll walk through them. But God only knows what those doors will be and where they will lead. I trust that they will move me forward on this journey I’m on, doing the best I can to walk the Jesus Way in the world.

May God guide me along the way, catch me when I fall, and give me all the faith I need to trust that God’s grace is sufficient. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The parable on my patio

An array of colors frames the brick pavers: Yellow, orange, purple, blue, pink, red.
Each day they greet me, as the sun and I rise together,
and I emerge from my dark cocoon.
They remind me that I have the ability to bring beauty into the world.  
For although Jesus may teach that the splendor of lilies comes through no toil of their own, 
through the years, I have fiercely fought with my own hands
to bring a rainbow of color to a jungle of weeds.

This morning I walked to the flower bed and did what I always do.
I searched for weeds and pulled them out.
“Why am I doing this?” I wondered.
And I repeated the mantra I’m using these final days to convince myself
that I am relieved to relinquish the work I have invested with my whole being:
“It’s not my problem.”

Soon I’ll be leaving behind this place brimming with beauty,
entrusting it to the care of a stranger with no awareness
of all that transpired to bring life out of desolation,
who may not value my legacy,
yank the perennial colors up by their roots
and replace them with something new.

This garden is not my problem anymore. 
So why do I continue to tend it?

And then it happened.
Right there on my patio.
I was popped between the eyes with a parable.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Good-byes and Boxes

My days are filled with good-byes and boxes right now.
And gratitude and guilt.
Grateful for relationships that make good-byes difficult.
Guiltful for boxes that remind me I have too much stuff;
no matter how much I purge, it weighs me down.

There is incongruity in this moving on of mine.
I pack up the stuff that doesn’t really matter all that much,
taking it with me to a new place
where it won’t really matter all that much.
And I leave behind what matters the most.  

How I wish I could abandon the insignificant 
And pack up the people I love,
transporting them into my new life.  
Instead I continue to say good-bye to people who matter
And pack boxes with stuff that doesn’t.