St. Matthew's Cathedral, Laramie, WY where "All are Welcome at Christ's Table"Below is the sermon I preached on Sunday, May 6 announcing my intention to retire in late July:
Ten years ago yesterday was the first Sunday I climbed into this pulpit as the dean-elect of St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Last week I re-read the sermon I preached that day. In it I told a story about a teacher who asked the class to bring things which represented their different faiths. One boy said, “I’m Jewish and I brought a Star of David. A girl proudly said, “I’m Roman Catholic. I brought my rosary.” A Muslim child said, “Here’s my Koran.” Another one declared, “Well, I am Episcopalian. I brought a casserole dish.”
Now after 47 weddings, 76 baptisms and 120 burials later and 1000 sermons, an international youth event, the search-election-seating of a bishop and hosting a diocesan convention, I am keenly aware of the great honor and privilege I have enjoyed working with you and for you in this corner of God’s vineyard. Wrapping a stole to “tie the knot” around the entwined hands of a couple who has just exchanged vows is a particularly joyful moment in ministry. It proclaims to the world that despite the statistics, despite the history of other failed relationships, we believe that love is bigger and that there is hope for a bright future.
Cradling a wet-headed sleeping infant, carrying an energetic toddler, glistening with chrism oil or escorting a tear-streaked young adult down the aisle to present the newest Christian in the whole wide world, is a great joy this gives for an aging spinster to welcome another child of God into the family!
Praying the Litany Anticipating Heaven with someone about to die, softly reminding them of the wonderful places they will soon see for themselves and praying with a family in the chapel before the burial office is a walk on holy ground with folks in their most vulnerable moments.
Perhaps one of the greatest and unexpected joys has been getting to know your hands –calloused, cracked, beautifully manicured and nail bitten as you extend them to receive the Body of Christ, the bread of heaven. Some really muscular hands, some stiff arthritic fingers, some tiny fat cherub hands and some long, slender musical, expressive hands. Sometimes thrust out boldly—feed me, feed me, feed me now; sometimes tentative and shaking—there is even some for me?
An acquaintance, Sam Potaro, in an elegant essay recently wrote about how the technology of phones, email, blogs, text messages and tweets enables us to more easily be “in touch” with one another than at any other time in history. We shoot messages off into cyber space to friends on Facebook in other parts of the world who in turn respond in mere moments. We have never before been so much in touch without touching.
Sam goes on to point out that because of this ability to be in touch without touching, “we in the Church continue to provide and promote the antiquated and inconvenient practice of gathering. We continually persuade and prod each other to come away from our solitude to share a meal, whether it is a pot luck supper or the Holy Eucharist. We hold fast to this old-fashioned means of communication because there is no substitute for it. We know there is no substitute because even God, in the end, had to resort to Incarnation to touch us in our deepest, most sacred and precious places. God used voices from the heavens, voices from animals, from a blazing bush, from prophets, kings and angels—making even the Internet look pedestrian, but ultimately God resorted to good old flesh to reach us, to touch us.
Even in an age where there is much fear of touch, we continue to advocate touch. We offer the common cup, break bread from a single loaf despite the threat of communicable diseases. We encourage the exchange of the sign of peace, the oldest expression of which is the kiss.
We touch because we so much want and need to know that we are connected; that we are not alone in this dark and sometimes scary world alone. In today’s Gospel, Jesus instructs his disciples about this connection, using a metaphor of a vine and the branches. The branches cannot bear fruit unless they stay connected or abide in the vine. Abide is a highly nuanced word—it means to live, dwell, remain, lodge, endure. When branches abide in the vine, then the heavenly father is glorified because the branches bear much fruit.
In another place in that first sermon I said, “The striking part of this passage is the sense of corporateness in the Christian community. There are no individual branches. No Lone Rangers. All the members live together, connected to one another by the same source, the true vine who is Jesus Christ. In that way there is not strict hierarchy—where only tall, handsome men get elected to the Vestry; only jocks with straight A’s can be acolytes; only mature women can serve on the Altar Guild; only priests know the answers. As Christians connected to Christ, we don’t have to fret and scurry around trying to be somebody. We are as distinct and as special as we need to be. Simply loving one another, we bear good fruit.”
I need to tell you that not every Lent for me is bells and whistles of extreme spiritual growth, but I can honestly say the nearly every significant event in my life as a Christian came during Lent. During Lent I made an adult acknowledgement that Jesus loved me and accepted him as my Lord and Savior. In Lent I received my first serious nudges to consider a call to holy orders. In Lent I interviewed and accepted the invitation to serve as your Dean.
During the dry, dusty days of this last Lent, I urged you to consider what you really thirst for. I am not sure how you engaged this suggestion, but it had an amazing centering effect for me. Several large health issues came literally crashing my way. Changes in family responsibilities were calling for greater attention. And the ability to buck up, power through it all seemed to wither before my eyes.
In the darkness of very early Good Friday morning, I began my hour of vigil. Reading aloud from the passion narrative from Mark’s gospel I only made it a few verses before coming to the story of Jesus having supper in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper. A woman crashes the party and pours costly ointment pure nard on Jesus’ head. When some of the disciples scold her, Jesus commends her action by saying, “She has done what she could.”
As those words “She has done what she could” rolled off my tongue, a floodgate broke and torrential tears began to soak the stones of the chancel steps. I realized in my heart of hearts that I had done what I could. It was both humbling and cathartic to realize I did not have the time, talents or energy to complete all the things that needed to be done or that I had wanted to do. I was bone-tired and I knew that you need and deserve more. During the next week I asked Bishop Smylie to accept my request to retire. I want to be very clear with you that this resignation is entirely at my initiative.
From my first days at UW I dreamed of coming to Laramie when I retired. After I left UW, I didn’t expect to live in Laramie again. Getting to return to Laramie and working here was a very unexpected and welcome bonus.
In retiring at this time I intend to continue living in Laramie. I look forward to exploring how God will use the gifts God has given me. Despite having five recliners in my home, I don’t intend to retire there and I haven’t put in an application to be a greeter at Wal-Mart.
For the near future I plan to serve as the Dean until the end of July. In the even nearer future, actually this coming Tuesday, Bishop Smylie will meet with the Vestry to begin working with them on a way forward and the calling of the next Dean. In May Bishop Strickland, Canon to the Ordinary and director of deployment and clergy placement, will be here to preach, preside and help with the process.
More than anything else I want you to hear how much I have loved serving here as your priest and pastor. You have challenged me, encouraged me, taught me. You have supported me and willingly tried some of my ideas and only occasionally frustrated me and balked in the direction I hoped to lead you. I know that I have grown emotionally, spiritually (and unfortunately physically)—becoming more the woman and priest God desired. I hope that you have grown, too. When you interviewed my I told you that if there were a general theme in my preaching and I answered, “Yes, I preach that God loves you.” I hope you have grown as I consistently preached that you are absolutely cherished by God and that you have been created by love for love.
I will never be able to adequately express to you my gratitude for calling me to serve here with you; I cannot say thanks enough for the grace you extended in sharing your hearts, lives, ups and downs, joys and sorrows, births and deaths –the holy ground of life with you.
Today is not good-bye. We have 3 months for that. Three months to tie up loose ends. Three months to express our thanks and work through the things done and left undone, said and left unsaid. We have 3 months to live into a greater clarity of being connected as branches—branches connected to the true vine who is Jesus; connected, cared for and loved by the vinedresser, his Father and our God.