One Beggar to Another

St. Saviour’s is Beautiful People
A Sermon by George Swanson
Second Sunday of Easter, 2007

Jesus said to Thomas, “Happy are those who have not seen me.”

In the name of Jesus, our dead and risen Saviour.

Chilton Knudsen, the Bishop of Maine, visited St. Saviour’s this winter. At a meeting before the service she was asked, “Why is the Episcopal Church declining in Maine? Our membership has really gone down.” The bishop answered the question then – and in the sermon at the Eucharist – encouraging us to take charge of our situation. That afternoon I found myself almost in tears. I thought of the expensive work that was going on in our building – repairing the Tiffany windows and repointing the Victorian stone walls. Huge buckets of money are being spent to preserve the building. I remembered an impressive brick church I saw in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana years ago. Totally empty. Not even a single house or building near it. It must have been thirty or forty feet high, with a beautiful tower, nicely proportioned, maybe capable of holding a thousand people. It had been built at great cost most likely when Victoria ruled. British people had probably given their money, maybe even imported good British bricks, to build NOT A CHURCH, but a home for the church. For a church is the people.

Here we are today in this building. What will this building (it’s not a church – we’re the church) what will this beautiful pile of expensive stones be like a hundred years from now? Most of us are old here. At 73 I am middle aged! None of us will be alive 50 years from now. Will God’s people gather here? Will it be converted to condominiums? A disco? Or turned into a municipal parking lot?

I almost wept.

I phoned Jonathan on Monday and told him I had some completely wild ideas of how we might welcome people into our beautiful church, which is US! WE ARE THE BEAUTIFUL CHURCH. The building isn’t bad either.

I offered to walk through the building and grounds with him and share my off-the-wall ideas. Jonathan said, “Why don’t we invite everyone to join us.” I said, “Sure.” And that is what we will do on Saturday, April 28. Morning Prayer is at 8:30 a.m. George’s “Pipe Dreams” will start at 9 a.m. in the parish hall with coffee.

Then Jonathan sent me a great booklet by Charles Fulton and James Lemler. It’s called Faith and Hope. I would have bought copies to give to you all, but it costs $3 for heaven’s sake. So I’ll tell you about it – later. I’ll end up with some of their ideas of what we can do to keep the disco out.

So far this has just been an introduction. Setting the scene. Why I am talking to you today.

I’m going to raise three questions and SUGGEST some answers. Your answers will be better because you know the parish and Bar Harbor better than I ever will. Here are the questions:

Who’s hurting?

What do they need?

How can we help?

ONE – Who’s hurting?

You’ll be able to answer this so much better than I can. I am FROM AWAY. I have very shallow roots here. I’m a transplant from San Francisco, Botswana, Kansas City, Jersey City and other blessed points on this revolving planet. Yet I love it here, I love you. Katrina and William and Hélène and I have received your love here. I know what it is to be welcomed and included by beautiful people. I like it.

Who is hurting in Bar Harbor? On Mt. Desert Island? Well let me suggest three groups of people I think are hurting. Check me out. You may think of more.

PARENTS AND KIDS – How hard it is to raise children! God, it is so hard. It was not easy for me and Katrina. I suspect it is harder now. Two families left St. Saviour’s because we do not have a Sunday school. One of my crazy ideas is that BECAUSE we do not have a Sunday school we can welcome many families with children into our beautiful Church – not the building! But into the circle of our love and relationship with God and with each other – helping them in their difficult and eternally important work of raising their children. They will become OUR children too.

I’ll offer my suggestions at the end.

GAYS AND LESBIANS – Yes, I have rejected gays and lesbians as REAL Christians. Not publicly. But in my mind. “They must not be QUITE RIGHT.” I should be kind to them. Etc Etc Etc. Racism all over again.

Katrina and I had – and I have now – gay and lesbian friends – dear friends – people who stood with us in our troubles and with whom we attempted to stand in theirs. But deep down I wasn’t sure. I mean, the BIBLE and all that!

Newspaper people can really be a pain right where we sit. They ask so many questions that they make a person THINK. That happened to me.

Seven year of trouble began in 1986 after a wooden gothic Victorian building in Jersey City burned almost to the ground. This was where the beautiful people who were Ascension Church had worshipped for generations in Jersey City. Newspapers, TV, and the radio described the conflict between the people of Ascension and our bishop over the fire insurance settlement. Big bucks.

Ari Goldman, the religion editor of the New York Times quizzed me on the telephone – asking why we would not just let the bishop and the diocese have the money. Were we against him because he welcomed and ordained gays? Goldman came to Jersey City and continued that line of questioning. “Would I marry gays?” “I don’t want to marry anyone. If they end up getting divorced and hating each other, they may hate me too.” “What about lesbians?” “I don’t know. Some young women asked me about that. I happened to have a priest staying in the rectory next door who had publicly identified herself as a lesbian – so I got them together.” On and on with the questions. Finally I lost my temper and shouted very very slowly and distinctly to make him understand. (I think God was really trying to make ME understand.) WE’RE IN THE BLESSING BUSINESS, WE’RE NOT IN THE CURSING BUSINESS!

The article in the New York Times accurately explained our reason for fighting the diocese’s attempt to take the money: “Father Swanson says, ‘The people of Ascension Church paid the insurance premiums and they expect to receive the settlement.’”

And as a gift from the dear God – I learned what business we are really in!

I have since read James Alison’s beautiful books. He is at once firmly rooted in the Bible, in Catholic theology, and with the gift of a seeing what God is doing today. I have had the pleasure of becoming a friend of his. His viewpoint is, I think, a gift from our dear God to a world that has persecuted and rejected and marginalized gay and lesbian people IN GOD’S NAME. Alison is a Roman Catholic priest, is he openly gay, he is able to show reasonably and theologically and biblically that the Bible verses about men-sleeping-with-men and women-sleeping-with-women are most likely talking about worshipping other gods with sexual intercourse. Idolatry and blasphemy is condemned – not gay and lesbian relationships.

So – are gays and lesbians hurting in Bar Harbor? I expect so – both them and their families and friends. I subscribe to a gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender email sharing. The suffering is real. So much rejection.

Probably 10% of the people in Bar Harbor and MDI are gay or lesbian. They are certain not welcome AS THEY ARE in some congregations.

PEOPLE WITH ADDICTIONS – What suffering here! I live in the Heroin capital of Hancock County, Southwest Harbor. How about that. Actually that was a few years ago. Today it may be oxycontin. Or meth.

Think of our beautiful, promising teenagers who die every year in alcohol driven automobile accidents! And the “drain board drunks” – women who nip all day to cope with unbearable inner pain. Some of our neighbors suffer from addiction to alcohol.

We can be addicted to food – harming our bodies, shortening our lives, and numbing our enjoyment of life itself. Some of our children are obese.

There is so much pain around us in town and on the island.

We, the wounded people of St. Saviour’s can welcome, embrace, and love many hurting people into our healing family.

TWO – What do they need?

They need HOPE.

And to get hope they need to know the TRUTH.

Here’s the truth about God and every human being. The Episcopal bishops wrote it on March 20th, this year. Hey, it ain’t perfect, maybe, but it’s pretty good. Here it is:

We proclaim the Gospel of what God has done and is doing in Christ, of the dignity of every human being, and of justice, compassion, and peace. We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no slave or free. We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God’s children, including women, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ’s Church. We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God’s children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ’s Church. We proclaim the Gospel that stands against any violence, including violence done to women and children as well as those who are persecuted because of their differences, often in the name of God.

Like good listeners our bishops have observed where WE were going. They have spoken and we can ratify what they said. We can say to the world, to MDI and to Bar Harbor, THIS IS THE GOOD NEWS FROM JESUS!

How do we share this TRUTH with Bar Harbor? With our island?

In their booklet, Truth and Hope, Fulton and Lemler imply “Don’t tell them that this building is a church!” Here’s an adaptation of what they say about us folks over 50.

When St. Saviour’s embraces evangelism fully, it will be different from TV evangelism. It will be respectful and graceful, inviting mutual sharing.

Americans see religion differently now – especially those under 50.

Over 50, we want to talk about where we go to church, about the sacred place which is reverenced, decorated, and “close to God.”

Those under 50 are interested in everything but where. They ask, How do you pray? What difference does it make in your life? How do you experience God?

So . . . if we want St. Saviour’s to grow (or even survive after we all die) us old dogs will have to learn new tricks. We will have to learn how to tell anyone in Bar Harbor how we pray, what use it is to us, and listen to their experience.

THREE – How can we help?

Finally! You thought I would never get here. These are just suggestions. These thoughts came to be on that afternoon in February when my eyes were moistening with tears.

PARENTS & KIDS – We can make our worship a REAL thanksgiving meal. Eucharist means Thanksgiving. None of us would send our kids away from the table on thanksgiving. But when we have little children and grandchildren we make some adjustments so they don’t suffer too much. We don’t force them to act like adults.

What changes would that be? I don’t know. Together we can find what works. It might be more repetitions in the music: possibly Taize responses sung to the Prayers of the People. Maybe a Bible story told in contemporary language rather than a lesson read in boring language. Maybe processions, marching around. That’s an old Christian tradition. Young or old, can march around (if they wish) at the opening hymn, and when we perhaps all go to the altar for the great thanksgiving, etc. Maybe less stuff from a book and more call and response as in the Black church. Less paper and more soul.

GAYS & LESBIANS – First of all we have to be sure what the good news is. Can’t fake it. I have had some beautiful conversations with exceedingly patient gay and lesbian friends – as they answer my blunt and basic questions.

We had these sorts of conversations after Katrina’s ordination. Good people were offended or at least really uncertain about what we had done on July 29, 1974. And with many people the conversations were special and sacred and sometimes painful.

St. Paul says we should be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us. It may take some discussion for us to understand that hope.

What can we do? As we come to KNOW that this is the Gospel of our dead and risen Saviour:

We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God’s children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ’s Church.

Then we will be led, I believe, to embrace and love and accept gays and lesbians as ordinary cussed parishioners like the rest of us. Just family.

PEOPLE WITH ADDICTIONS – This is so hard. So painful. There is a young man, perhaps even today, in a British jail. He is addicted to cutting himself. He is covered with scars. He says that he has so much pain inside himself that when he cuts himself he really hurts LESS. As someone with an addiction to food, I can understand that. Inner pain requires medication.

Now-a-days he is not cutting himself. He has found silent prayer. How about that? The pain within him is not gone but it is much less. We have had this available all our lives from the beautiful people who have told us about God. Some of these beautiful people are here around us today – like those who went before us. They built a building and invited God into their lives for US. Pretty good. We get medication here that is better than cutting ourselves or overeating.

A bishop in India said that inviting people into the Christian family is like one beggar telling another where to find food. We might say it is like one sick person telling another where to find a really good doctor. The treatment is free. One doesn’t have to sign anything. It is given without any cost to us. There are no requirements for joining the family. Jesus saved every human being. Already done.

Pope John Paul was not one of my heroes.  However, he has been quoted as saying something like this:

Is there a Hell?  Yes.  Hell is certainly here on earth.  And, yes, there is hell after death.  But I think the hell after death is probably empty.

Sure, it’s good to let AA and other Twelve Step groups meet free in our building. But what is so much more healing is our welcoming, embracing, and sharing the incredibly wonderful medication that God gives us here – sharing it with others who suffer as we do.

There are 75 places to sit at the 7:30 a.m. thanksgiving meal. There are 25 to 50 empty seats every Sunday. They belong to the people in Bar Harbor who desperately need what God has given us. Without a word from us they will never enter the door.

There are 325 places to sit at the 10 a.m. thanksgiving meal. More than one hundred seats are always empty. They do not belong to us. They belong to people on Mt. Desert Island who have not yet found what God has given to us. There is only one way they will find it. You or I will tell them what God has done for us.

Summing it all up:

We can share with others – listening & talking – beggar to beggar – wounded to wounded – the beautiful God who is within us ALL.

We can grow – for our own sake and for the sake of those around us who are still hurting so much – we can grow closer and closer, always closer to the dear God who is at the center of who we really are. And closer to each other.

Thanks to Bishop Knudsen, I am in touch with Maggie Ross, an Anglican teacher of prayer. Ross recommended a book to me, Into the Silent Land, by Martin Laird. It is helping me get close to God who has always been within me. There are slips in your bulletins about the book. The Archbishop of Canterbury likes it. Desmond Tutu likes it too.

Next Sunday I will have copies of the book to loan or sell after each service. I will meet with you at 9 a.m. in the Rectory Commons next Sunday and we can talk about silent prayer.

Aren’t we lucky to be St. Saviour’s Church!

Happy are we who have not seen.

Amen

Into the Silent Land
By
Martin Laird

“This book is different. There are plenty of books on contemplation that feel tired—either wordy and labored or unhelpfully smooth and idealistic. But this is sharp, deep, with no clichés, no psychobabble and no short cuts. Its honesty is bracing, its vision utterly clear; it is a rare treasure.”

— Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

“Often they say ‘you learn how to swim by swimming’ but a good coach or swimming manual is essential. Equally, we could say ‘you learn how to be contemplative by contemplating’ and a good guide or mentor is necessary. Into the Silent Land is just that. I tried it and it works. Try it.”

— Desmond Tutu, Nobel Prize Winner & Former Archbishop and Primate of South Africa

“We are built for contemplation. Communion with God in the silence of the heart is a God-given capacity, like the rhododendron’s capacity to flower, the fledgling’s for flight, and the child’s for self-forgetful abandon and joy. If the grace of God that suffuses and simplifies the vital generosity of our lives does not consummate this capacity while we live, then the very arms of God that embrace us as we enter the transforming mystery of death will surely do so. This self-giving God, the Being of our being, the Life of our life, has joined to Himself two givens of human life: we are built to commune with God and we will all meet death.” — Martin Laird in the Introduction

3 thoughts on “One Beggar to Another

  1. Thanks, George. I’m printing this out for “my” church people – we are down to a regular 5, including the worker priest.
    Common sense says close the doors. But until we the church open the doors of our hearts and offer HOPE by the greater LOVE, that wholly inclusive love, we close ourselves outside of the Reign of God .
    Blessings, Susan

  2. I am the worker priest mentioned in Susan’s response, above. Your words speak directly to our situation at Gloria Dei, and give me some hope and focus as a moderate attempting to live out my discipleship in the Diocese of Albany. Please pray for us.

    John +

  3. Wow! One heckuva sermon there, George. I’m sharing it with my fellow vestry members and search committee. Our parish, in the closing weeks of a search for a new rector, is asking exactly the kinds of questions you addrses here.

    Many thanks —
    Lisa

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