“A Sabbatical Manifesto”-A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

May be an image of one or more people and text that says 'Grace Episcopal Church'

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2021

I John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

April 25, 2021

A Sabbatical Manifesto

Today is the last Sunday before I begin my sabbatical this coming Thursday.  I am very aware that sabbaticals are incredible privileges, and I am very aware that I really need one.  I am aware that the entire team will hold things graciously and ably while I am away, and I am aware that this parish community existed long before I came to serve among you–and will exist long after I die.  I am also aware that I need this period of rest so that I can return to you and do all I can to follow the Spirit’s guidance in helping make this community a stronger and more faithful embodiment of Christ’s love in this world.  To do my part, because I love being a priest, and I love being a priest with and for you.

The Epistle text today from I John is totally focused on love: “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  So, we continue to listen together for how the Spirit is instructing us on what it means to live together as a Christian community.  What a privilege that we have the chance to echo the love of God in one another’s lives.

While this past year has been difficult in many ways, it has also given us an incredible opportunity to reflect on the deeper meaning of both “what we do” and “who we are” as a Christian community.   These past fourteen months or so have intensified our existence, challenging us to reexamine long-held patterns, assumptions, and beliefs.  It has been an exhilarating time to be a parish priest even as it has been an excruciating time in many areas of our lives.  

Looking at this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd from today’s Gospel challenges me to consider what it means to be a faithful priest in a community at this point.  First, notice that Jesus is the Shepherd.  We take our guidance from Jesus.   To keep the metaphor going, at best, a parish priest is a faithful sheepdog, as a wise bishop once told me.  It’s important to get one’s metaphors straight, to “know your right size,” as Cynthia says.

I have spent time these past few weeks actually gathering thoughts and putting them into a sort of sabbatical manifesto if you will:  an intentional list of wonderings that my soul is holding, about the challenges of parish ministry given our particular context.  

When I take my walks in the forest, I often wonder what the church will be like in twenty years time.  I read what lands on my desk about the decline in participation and membership.  I know the statistics, and the trajectory resembles me throwing a heavy stone: (hint, it doesn’t go very far and it falls very fast).  I feel the same anxiety that every other rector feels at the end of each year when we look at the annual parochial report.  I wonder what the next year will be like, and a certain fear robs me of my ability to be present–and faithful–in the moment. 

In my best moments, I want to “be a good priest,” just as every priest desires in his or her time of ministry.  In my worst moments, this desire slides into the shadow of success and accomplishment.  It is very easy to begin to equate statistics on the page with hearts that are transformed, and we should be very cautious about this.  I remember the wisdom of plants: that growth is not only upward but also downward, with a healthy root system.

I try not to give into reading tea leaves when it comes to the future of the Church, but a few key areas have my attention these days.  For one, I am paying particular attention to younger families and children, since that is my actual life as both a parent and a priest.   There is a particular stress, if you will, with young parents with children that needs attention.

I wonder how we can more faithfully support the spiritual health of our children and young people in the world we all share.  As the father of a fourteen year-old, I am keenly aware of the pressures of modern life.  I am also aware that parents are primarily responsible for the spiritual development of our children.  The church, as a community–or institution, if you will–is given the awesome privilege of offering spaces that nurture spiritual life, but the church is not the parent.  We are the parents, and we are challenged to make the Christian discipleship of our children and youth a priority.  

No church “program” is going to be perfect, because we forget that we are the ones planning these things and, if perfect is the standard, we are in trouble from the start.  Actually, we should stop relying on any magic “program” to do the actual soul work we are called to do.  The work of spiritual growth and maturity is not easy, and it asks us to look closely at our hearts, ask ourselves what we truly desire most, and then pray to participate with the Spirit in nurturing this longing.  Being a Christian means making choices–saying no to some things so we can say yes to others.  What are we being called to say no to, so that we can yes to a more grounded life?  

Related to this pressure of young families, I am calling on the elders in the parish to step up even more and help younger parents who are struggling to know what to do in this crazy world.  We need our elders to be even more present and tell us how you made the mistakes that actually helped you become better parents.  We need to know how you failed and thrived, how you struggled to instill a practice of faith in your own children.  We need to hear what you wish you had known when you were our age.  And (although probably no one will tell you this), it would actually be meaningful if we could hear a wise elder–not our own parents–caution us when you see us doing something that you know led you straight into a brick wall.  We have more than enough information these days; we need the wisdom of a wider and experienced perspective.

I know everyone loves retirement and looks forward to it, and I celebrate the potential for this in my own life at some point, but given what we are facing now in this world, I say this to you from my heart: it is all hands on deck.  We need our elders, each one of you.  We need your presence and your gifts as wisdom bearers and fellow pilgrims, to help us as a community.  There are six other days in a week to play golf or ride on the lake, and I say this with all love and seriousness.  This community needs you to help us navigate the rapids we are facing, because we are in treacherous waters.

When it comes to the pressures of the world, perhaps a biological image would be helpful.  Our children (and I mean any minor who is dependent on us for their primary well-being), our children, are like cells.  And the thing about cells is that they need healthy boundaries to function and thrive.  If there is no effective boundary, everything will flow into them and they will swell up and explode.  If the boundaries are too rigid, nothing will get in and they will shrivel and die.  Both need to be avoided.  

We need semi-permeable membranes that allow nutrients to get in and waste to get out.  To do this, we need channels in the cell membranes and walls, protein structures that help the cell discern and regulate the flow in and out.  Friends, I think this is a wonderful metaphor for what the practice of prayer actually does: it is a framework or structure that helps us discern what gets in from the external environment and what needs to leave or remain from the internal environment–how we metabolize life.  It’s a metaphor worth considering.  

I know you hear me talk about the importance of prayer a lot, but I will keep saying that prayer is vital.  Cultivating an intentional practice of prayer is not something to be left sitting there until we see what time is left after we have filled our own and our children’s lives with sports, activities, hobbies, or whatever.  It is up to parents to decide that Christian discipleship is the essential grounding of our children’s lives, and we ignore this at our own peril.  Who else is going to teach our children how to be virtuous adults who contribute to the world with a moral and spiritual compass?  The people posting videos online?  The social influencers and celebrities? Not likely.  It is our responsibility as parents.

This past year has shown us the importance of making choices in our lives.  What do we deem a priority?  What truly gives life?  What do we need to say no to? How do we support each other’s growth? 

Howard Thurman, that great Christian mystic and teacher, once said that religion or spiritual life is better caught than taught.  But to actually catch it, we have to show up and be present in close proximity to someone who is carrying it.  Proximity matters, as we have learned this past year, and while we recognize the importance of physical distancing, we also need to be aware of the importance of spiritual proximity.  What does it mean to dedicate ourselves to the growth of the community?

But this doesn’t just go for children, of course.  It is imperative that we all focus our attention on our practice of faith.  And by our practice of faith I am not talking about just coming to church on Sunday mornings and then living during the week as though what we say we believe on Sunday morning has no bearing on actually changing our life patterns.  If we are not pinched by what we see in the world around us after hearing what the Gospel calls us to do, we simply aren’t paying attention.  How much are we conscious, and how much are we going through the motions?  

When it comes to what we do, we remember that the Gospel is inherently political, because it actually deals with people’s lives.  I don’t have any interest in dressing up any party platform in religious clothing, but we cannot deny that Jesus focused his attention on challenging the political and economic systems that were exploiting and reeking havoc in souls.  He spoke about the dangers of grasping and greed, about falling prey to worshipping wealth, about seeing our fellow human beings as a means to gaining a profit for ourselves.  Jesus called his disciples to make choices that were grounded in faith, hope, and love.  

To be a disciple of Jesus does not mean that we turn our backs on the world; rather, it means that we turn our face towards the world and seek to embody Christ’s love in how we live.  Look again at the text from I John from this morning: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”  Let us embody our faith so that our children and others in the community notice a spectacular strangeness about us.  

What we share together should change us.  At this point in my own vocation, I am tired of any religious practices that just focus on the quaint and precious.  I am far less concerned about the quality of the silver chalice than about how the Blood of Christ that we share in that chalice changes my life.  If the beauty of the flower arrangements doesn’t inspire me to recognize God’s presence within creation and instill a desire to care for that creation, I have missed the mark.  If I pass the peace to someone on Sunday morning at 11:00 and then continually act like a jerk on Monday morning, what exactly am I doing?  If I come to enjoy the beautiful music during the service and don’t pray that the beauty I experience opens my heart, I am missing the point.  It is not a concert for entertainment; it is a catalyst for conversion.  

I am far less concerned if you kneel or cross yourself in the right place in the liturgy than I am that you see how the practice of prayer inspires you to care for your neighbor and help lessen the level of outright meanness and pettiness in the world today.  You can kneel for the entire service, or wave your hands in the air, or lie face down on the floor for that matter.  Our liturgy should be focused on opening our hearts to the Spirit’s call, and the movement of our bodies should nurture the awareness of our union with all creation.

At this point in my vocation, and in my life, I agree with the Dalai Lama (and so many other wisdom teachers, of course) when they remind us to see how our practice of faith should actually change the way we live in the world.  If it doesn’t actually inform how we live, then what exactly are we doing?  

To be clear friends, given the context we are in, this does not mean that we all agree on the same political party platform.  No political party has the monopoly on the Gospel, and every political platform is subject to the Gospel’s call.  We need to be reminded of that often I think, and we need to ask ourselves just where our loyalties really lie.  I don’t care if you identify as a democrat or republican–or a monarchist for that matter; rather, I care that you ask how whatever political orientation you have is challenged by the Gospel’s call on your life.  If we can’t smell the Gospel in our party platform,  to speak, then I challenge us to ask ourselves why we are so focused on our party “winning.”  These are the hard questions we face today, but we must ask them. 

This deeper dimension of faith is calling to us at this time.  We never arrive at a point where we have it all figured out, and if we think we have arrived at this point, God, please send someone to shake us out of our egoic arrogance.  

So, I am challenged to ask: what does faithfulness look like for me?  For you?  I cannot answer what it looks like for you, although my vocation is to help you discern that and live into it for yourself within this community.  That is what it looks like to be fellow disciples: we support one another to grow into the full stature of Christ, as our baptismal liturgy reminds us.  

When I look around at the world, when I read the news, or when I listen to what is happening, I get so tense sometimes.  I get angry.  Sometimes I get scared, because, even at almost 42 I feel left behind with so many social trends.  I cannot imagine what it feels like for someone who is 82.  Or for someone who is 110 for that matter!  There always seems to be a new thing.

We are facing many challenges today, aren’t we?  I have to remind myself–or be reminded–that I cannot solve world hunger, or poverty.  I cannot solve the problem of racial injustice, or social inequality or greed or environmental destruction.  I cannot fix the economic struggles of those around me.  Like St. Paul and others remind us, we have no power within ourselves to fix ourselves; rather, we rely on the Spirit as we discern how we can faithfully embody Christ’s call in this world.  My own heart is calling me to focus intently on caring for the planet we all share, to recognize that we are a part of creation–and that such climate care is actually an embodied prayer.

I cannot fix the problems of our world; however, I can be faithful.  And, to be clear, there is not one passive about being faithful.  Being faithful is, to return back to where we started, about the active, engaged, practice of faith in our lives.  It is about cultivating conscious discipleship, dedicating time, and making it a priority to pay attention to the Spirit’s presence in our lives.  I can be faithful, and for me that means that I can honestly share the truth as I know it, recognizing my own limitations.  I can share the truth as I know it, and I can listen for those around me who may know the truth better than I do.  That is a hallmark of Christian community, I think, because when we are faithful together, then the energy of that intentionality can inspire and uplift.  It can be caught, as Howard Thurman would say.

So, when it comes to the challenges the church faces, I will leave you with this: an enormous lesson we are being invited to learn is that we must move beyond this consumer-driven model that sees church members as a customer base.  We must reject this expectation that the staff and vestry’s job is to produce enticing programs that folks can participate in.  We must reject the assumption that our focus is on mere program development, as though we are competing with other producers in town for a limited customer pool.  We must stop comparing ourselves to other churches and instead measure ourselves solely against the Gospel’s call.

To those who may have been frustrated with “the church” and those who are wondering what “the church” will and can do, I would say this: the church will be able to do what we all are actually willing to do, because we are the church and our faithfulness is directly linked to our willingness to dedicate our lives to answer the Spirit’s call.  There is no separate “church” that is some mythological entity that will provide something that will fix anyone’s problems.  We are the church, the Body of Christ, and the Spirit is calling us, at this moment in time, to look around us at the enormous opportunity we have to claim again the call of discipleship.  So, what are we willing to do, together?

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