Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Looking for Answers: A Sewanee Sermon

Good morning!  Thank you for inviting me to be with you today.  My name is Colin Mathewson, and my wife and  I graduated from The School of Theology some 18 months ago.  We’ve been priests just 13 months now.  We’re serving at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, where one of my roles is to pastor our small Latino congregation.  I appreciate the opportunity to be with you for this Spanish language Eucharist, because I believe deeply in the importance and possibilities of Latino ministry, and I am grateful that The School of Theology continues investing in and growing its Spanish language and Latino ministry program.  I know my time at Sewanee did much to inspire and prepare me for this current work of mine.  I hope many of you are having a similar experience here, too.  Know this -- for those called to serve among Latinos, the harvest is plentiful!  Keep working on your Spanish, venture out of your comfort zone, laugh at yourself when you sound silly, but keep at it.  The Church needs you.  And Latinos, as do all of us, need the Church.

Except when we don’t need the Church -- or we think we don’t.  One of the favorite parts of my job is having coffee with folks in their 20s and 30s who declare to me that they are spiritual but not religious.  (That phrase makes me smile.)  I listen to their stories, which often involve baggage with some form of the institutional -- and often nondenominational -- church.  They’re not quite sure why they’re sitting down with a priest in a public place (I think the collar is unnerving to some of them).  Yet they yearn for greater purpose and meaning in their lives.   They wear quizzical expressions on their faces while holding a thread in their hands and trailing behind them a pile of unraveled fabric — the fabric of a culture that promised their bodies alluring and comforting answers to life’s biggest questions but left their souls cold.  I loved these conversations as a lay person before seminary, and I love them even more now -- seminary pointed me to a rich wardrobe of Scripture and tradition to share.  Indeed, there is much good news to tell, and so I wonder where to begin.  Evangelism can be dicey with millennials -- their B.S. monitors are sensitive -- pat answers make them suspicious.

The stories of the saints are often a good place to start.  Take Elizabeth, princess of Hungary, whom we celebrate today.  A member of the royalty, she married at the age of 14, was widowed at 20, and at age 24 died an entirely preventable premature death.  She died from an illness contracted from those for whom she cared for in a hospital she didn’t have to build and certainly didn’t have to enter into day after day.  I wonder what could have possibly turned blessed Elizabeth’s gaze slowly, slowly around until all she could see was the poor, and Christ among them?  She had plenty to live for: three kids, an income from her family, many chances to remarry.  But she chose to give her life away for a very real purpose instead.  She gave her life to God.    “Why would someone do that?,” I ask my coffee shop companion.  Why would someone do that?, I ask you.  Why would someone do that?, I ask myself.

One coffee shop companion of mine, a woman in her 30s named Selina, recently renewed her participation in our Latino congregation’s communal life.  She is the single mother of elementary school-aged daughters, and she struggles to find a job while she and her family live on welfare.  On a Saturday night a few months ago, Selina received a call that her father in Mexico City had died suddenly from a heart attack.  Undone and unsure what to do, she came with her daughters to church the next day.  As she wept before and during worship, members of our family-sized congregation comforted her and cried beside her, for Selina’s grief had reminded them of their beloved family members and friends living on the other side of a border that many were not authorized to recross again.

During coffee hour, prompted by a leader in the congregation, I invited those present to offer what they could to help cover the costs of the almost $700 plane ticket that would allow Selina to bury her father.  I issued this invitation obediently, but not hopefully: this Latino congregation was comprised of the working poor: carpenters, carpet layers, truck drivers, house cleaners, landscapers, nannies.

But, thanks be to God, I’m here to tell you that my parishioners gave twenty, forty, fifty dollars each -- and among a couple dozen folks we’d raised enough to fly Selina home.  The church’s pastoral needs fund covered the rest.

Why did my parishioners, these saints of the Church, do that?  Some sense of purpose most certainly lay behind it.  Was it their own devotion to family that compelled them to give so sacrificially?  Was it their devotion to a God of love and abundance that prompted them to take the risk of sharing the few loaves and fishes they had with one another?  There was a hidden richness from which they drew on this extraordinary collective wealth.

I expect our parishioners’ generosity did affect those family members who depended on them in the days to follow.  But as I reflect on this miracle I can’t help but think that their giving preserved and strengthened their devotion to family and to God more than if they had kept their wallets in their pockets.  The invitation to give, issued not by their priest but by the tears of a suffering fellow church member and friend, transformed any sense of scarcity they might have felt in that moment into a sense of abundance.  From this present abundance they gave to meet a real need, and it was the Church, it was Christ, that bound together and made possible this moment.  

I share this not to romanticize poverty or to overgeneralize the generosity (or poverty!) of a particular cultural group.  I share this because I watched Christ sweep away fear and the Spirit usher in Love before my eyes.  I witnessed a grieving daughter who needed the Church and saw the Church come through for her.

A month after her trip, I invited Selina to serve as the Latino congregation’s representative for the Cathedral’s newly minted Evangelism Committee, organized to proclaim joyfully the good news of Christ in our community’s life.  Committee members plan to do this at street fairs, in parks, and yes, even in coffee shops.  I’m certain this single mother of two struggling to find a job is the right person for this ministry, for she has tasted and seen this good news in the spontaneous offering of monetized love from her friends at church.  She can point to it.  It is fresh in her gaze.  She had crossed path with saints who had themselves discovered a deeper purpose and joy in Christ.  

Look, most of us are not called to almsgiving heroics.  Most of us have real financial constraints in our lives, real responsibilities to our families and our dependents (older and younger).  And few of us have access to the precious gems and royal granaries that Elizabeth had at her disposal to care for the needy.  That said, each of us is included in Christ’s call to submit ourselves and our lives fully at the feet of our Lord and Savior — not merely represented by giving ten percent of our income, or twenty percent of our talent, or thirty percent of our time to the church, or any other calculation that constricts our response to Christ’s invitation to present ourselves in our entirety to God, one hundred percent.  (Thank you, Mother Julia, for helping me to see this.)

Giving all of ourselves to God: this is a challenge, this is a purpose, that is at once intimidating and liberating — and compelling.  Sure, it’s easiest to feel how giving ourselves entirely to God is intimidating, for who in this life can boast such a feat?  Our confessions remind us of the ways we withhold our love from God and others.

Yet it is liberating because this call to giving 100% of ourselves means that our financial resources are but one offering God invites us to place on the altar.  Providing for our families in such eminently practical ways as buying school supplies for our kids or helping with cost of elder care for our parents take on a sacredness revealed in all we do that affirms life and life’s intimate relationship to our Creator.

And truly, this call to give our all is compelling.  It is compelling because we humans from an early age have suspected that there is more to living than what our mainstream culture entices us to buy and sell.  There is more to who we are than our net worth, our assets, the number of our Facebook friends, our image.  Indeed, it is Christ who offers us our deepest purpose, answering our dearest held questions: Who am I?  Toward what end shall I labor?  What will my time alive be like?  Christ calls to each of us, inviting us to turn our gaze toward the poor, toward the lonely, toward the sick, toward God -- so that we might fashion answers to the existential questions that hound us.  And Christ gives us the means to do so: the strength, the courage, the joy.

Why did my parishioners do what they did?  Why did blessed Elizabeth do what she did?  

Unsurprisingly, Christ continues to attract the younger generations — that coffee shop-going crowd.  As I sip my tea I reveal to them, and in so doing remind myself, of a precious gift within our church tradition: the saints, who have grappled with great questions of purpose and found Christ in that struggle, and he became their all, and they gave their all to Him.  My conversation partner looks away, holding her latte in her hands, silent.  I wonder if she is thinking what I am: Could I do the same some day too?