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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"Welcome Home, My Beloved"

image created at Wordle

Proper 10B ~ July 12, 2009
Ephesians 1.3-14

Sooo...that was a weird Gospel selection. When I sat down to take a look at the readings appointed for this morning I was confronted with David dancing with all his might before the ark of God (which gave me an idea for a sermon that best remains theoretical) and with the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod (a Gospel lection that only indirectly mentions Jesus). I was, of course, instantly struck by the irony of having to preach about the death of John the Baptist on this my last Sunday here with you at Saint Mark's, but then thought better of that no small part because I'm leaving here with my head set firmly on my shoulders and, unlike Herod, you all have played a crucial role in helping make sure that both my head and heart are rather more intact, rather more well formed and well placed than they were when I got, right off the bat, I must say thank you to you all...thank you...okay, alright we'll come back to that in a bit.

Thanks to the technological miracle that is Facebook, I can assure you that quite a few Episcopal clergy were scratching their heads as it came to the readings appointed for this morning. I can also assure you, and this is a good thing, that over the last week quite a bit of creative theological reflection has occurred in the digital ether and that shared enterprise has produced a truly wonderful variety of sermons being preached from Altadena to Alabama, Boston to Austin. One popular solution to this mornings peculiar readings (and it is good every once in a while to remember how peculiar the Word of God can seem to us, lest we think we have it all figured out) is to preach the epistle!

Paul writes: How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He's the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth's foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son. (Peterson, The Message)

Now, as a jumping off point for reflecting on the message Paul presents in the letter to the Ephesians, it might seem strange to note that the consensus view of New Testament scholars is that Paul probably did not write the letter to the Ephesians...and the letter may not have even been originally addressed to the good folks of Ephesus. The traditional view holds that Paul wrote this letter from his prison cell in Rome close to the time of his execution by the Roman authorities, but for a whole host of reasons, most of which are technical and exceedingly tedious, it is probably much more likely that this letter was composed shortly after Paul's death by his followers, representing a school of Pauline theological reflection and discourse. The students of Paul write in his name, borrowing his authority, in order to share and expand his witness to the apostolic faith for which he labored generously and, ultimately, sacrificially.

In fact, the most important feature of Paul's epistles is not their authorship (though incidentally, at least seven of the thirteen Pauline letters are iron-clad, authentically Paul's) but that they point beyond their author to a greater, and more important truth. Though it sometimes seems to the contrary, it is the case, by design, that we find out very little about Paul himself from the letters. They are not autobiographical, they are, rather, theo-biographical (I think I may have invented that word just now), that is they are about the God-life. Paul is always pointing away from himself, even when he sets himself up as an example for his correspondents, to the bigger picture, the bigger purpose. Paul is always working to ground his ministry, his theology, his missionary endeavors, his whole life in the life of Christ to which he witnesses.

Indeed, the selection we have from Ephesians this morning, is nothing other than a blessing pronounced upon the audience of the letter. The author greets us and prepares us to hear a trustworthy message about what it is to live the Christian life by offering as words of blessing a dramatic statement of God's purpose to redeem and reconcile the created order. In eleven rich, joyful verses we hear the whole sweeping arc of God's plan; we have the whole story of the Bible: creation, covenant, Christ, church, and consummation. It's all there, and you know what? It is a supreme gift, given by God, in delight, to you and me for no other reason than God's overflowing, really rather unreasonable, and always, eternally available love. It's kind of frightening, actually, when you think about it...

Paul and his followers lived in a world that was no less complicated than our own, and one a great deal more savage. What they clearly saw, and what we so often struggle with, is that despite the sheer obvious brokenness of our world there is a reason to rejoice, to sing praises, to live fully and freely beyond the grasp of sin and suffering, beyond the reach of the grave, and to even be so bold as to reach out to others with an open hand and heart. It does not always make sense to us how the victory of God is being realized, but Paul's conviction, his communities' conviction and thus our conviction is that in the life, death and rising to life again of Jesus Christ there is an event, an activity which is the climax of history, the very center of gravity of the entire universe. That event, that activity is nothing other than reconciliation, re-creation: nothing other than God meeting us face to face and uttering the words 'Welcome home, my beloved'.

Paul writes: It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

God has had his eye on us, there is no other explanation. That statement is surely cosmological, it describes the big picture. But also it describes, I think, the particular. How else could it be that Saint Mark's would not simply survive but thrive following the retirement of a seasoned rector and the advent of a nearly hopelessly green priest-in-charge?

Of course, God's having his eye on us is realized not in God moving us all around like pieces on a cosmic chess board, but in our living faithfully as a community called together in Christ's name, gathering to hear God's word and to share God's grace in the sacraments, so that we might live in the world as God's own Welcome. Of this I am certain, my time here with you has been, and will always be, a gift unmerited, but deeply and profoundly appreciated. And so, we bring this sermon full circle (and with head still attached):

Thank you for showing me what it is to take your faith seriously, yet with unreserved joy and good humor. Thank you for sharing your lives with me these last two years, thank you for that singular privilege of walking alongside you in the highs and lows. Thank you for giving me the space to grow into a new role, to learn the ropes of parish leadership, and for being gentle. Thank you for all the love and concern that you have shared with me in the last several weeks. Thank you for your prayers. Thank you for reminding me why I love being a priest, thank you for shaping me and forming me and sending me out.

Paul is undoubtedly correct, It is in Christ that we find out who we are and for what we are living. But that statement has to be more than abstract, it has to be real, incarnated, lived out in our own flesh and blood...and so thank you, Saint Mark's Parish, for being the face, hands and heart of Christ to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


~The Rev'd Andrew T. O'Connor

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Shelby Knox Redux" - Altadena Community Church – July 19, 7 PM

Join with other people of faith for a respectful dialogue about the film Shelby Knox Redux, by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt. The movie profiles a high school student who, despite her deeply conservative Southern Baptist upbringing, advocates comprehensive sex education and gay rights. Five years after her controversial activities, she returns to Lubbock, Texas to check in with her friends, her parents and a local church that "welcomes" everyone. An epilogue to the 2005 film The Education of Shelby Knox, Shelby Knox Redux takes viewers on a journey of personal awareness, family, faith, and transformation. The conversation that follows the film will respect all points of view with the goal of promoting discussion and understanding among people of various traditions and theologies.

Altadena Community Church is across the street from Saint Mark's, at 943 E. Altadena Drive. For more information about the film, click here.

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

What goes on at General Convention?

Update: The Episcopal Church has launched the General Convention 2009 Media Hub with a number of features for following the proceedings of Convention. Live streaming and on-demand video of Convention worship, keynote speakers, legislative sessions, and media briefings are available. A daily picture gallery, blogging bishops, deputies' Twitter feeds, all this and more can be found at the Media Hub!

There will be several ways to find out what's happening at the Episcopal Church's triennial General Convention, taking place July 8 - 17 at the Anaheim Convention Center. A team of journalists from Episcopal News Service, a ministry of the wider Church, will report on the Convention by way of Episcopal Life Online. In addition, stories about Diocese of Los Angeles-related matters will appear daily on the website of The Episcopal News. You can find out more about General Convention by going to directly to the Convention website.

Perhaps best of all, you are welcome to visit; you may attend General Convention by purchasing a $15 day pass at the Convention Center (a pass good for the entire meeting is $50). On Sunday, July 12, all are welcome to attend the General Convention Eucharist and UTO Ingathering at 10:00 a.m. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will preside. No pass or fee is required for that day, and the Exhibit Hall, with its many vendors and informational booths, will be open to all after the Eucharist.

A Prayer for General Convention
God our Wisdom, who eternally makes all things new: encourage by your Holy Spirit those who prepare for General Convention to labor together for the building up of your world and your Church; counsel them when to act and when to wait; turn their hearts always toward those in greatest need, and away from their own preoccupations and fears; help them never forget that love and mercy are your greatest gifts given us all to offer one another as we see in them Jesus Christ who alone is our joy, our way, our truth, and our life. Amen.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Simply Put, Thank You

A few weeks ago, during staff meeting, I momentarily thought I was off the hook for July. Joanne Morse, parish administrator extraordinaire, was reminding us of the deadline for the July issue of On Your Mark, and for a confused moment I thought that that deadline was after my last day at Saint Mark's and therefore my June article would have been my last as Priest-in-Charge. Freedom!
My freedom and my confusion were short-lived though, as everyone around the table simultaneously clarified the deadline for me...and indeed I would need to write one last PIC article. Thankfully, given that my last Sunday at Saint Mark's will be July 12th, the theme for my July article has readily presented itself: Farewell and Thank You. If only the article itself would be so easily composed (I'll let you all know how it turns out shortly).
I write to you, my beloved parish family of the last 23 months, with mixed emotions of celebration and sadness, a bit of disappointment but a heart full of joy. Most of all, though, I write to you with an deep sense of gratitude. Simply put, I want to thank each and every one of you for working so faithfully as a parish throughout the transition and for sharing your amazing and plentiful gifts with me.
When Bishop Bruno appointed me to serve as your Priest-in-Charge, I came to Saint Mark's excited to jump in and help with the work of preparing the parish for the process of calling a new rector. I was also more than a little nervous about the 'in charge' part of my title. Fortunately (but not accidentally) there was a deep and gracious well of support for your newly minted leader and only the barest minimum of 'dirty work' to accomplish. Together we celebrated the conclusion of our Centennial Year and began the process of sharing and crafting the story of Saint Mark's, evaluating our past and dreaming of our future. You did an amazing job and the Parish Profile that resulted from that work lays a strong foundation for Saint Mark's future mission and ministry. Though I had hoped my transitional ministry with you would evolve into a long term call to serve this unique community, I nevertheless celebrate with you and rejoice in the call of the Reverend Carri Patterson Grindon to serve as Saint Mark's Rector. If I may say, Pastor Carri is as blessed to be gaining you all as her parish family as you all are to be gaining her as the rector.
Despite a tinge of sadness to be leaving this wonderful parish, I want to make it clear that I do so with an abundance of joy and thankfulness in no small part because of the ministry each and every one of you have had with me. Perhaps you did not know you were ministering to me, or you did and you were singularly polite about it, but I leave Saint Mark's a much better priest and pastor, preacher and teacher than when I arrived. Thank you for taking a young and still green priest and helping to continue my growth and formation as a servant-leader. Though Heather and I do not yet know where God is calling us to next, we do know that we are taking you all with us. I will take all I have learned and experienced, the successes (yours) and the failures (mine), and in so doing you will be a blessing to the next community we serve.
I could fill this entire issue of On Your Mark with personal thanks to, well, everyone. Due to space limitations, postage rates, availability of paper, and the importance of sharing the news about all the other wonderful activities happening here this summer, I must limit my personal thanks to a select few. Regardless, everyone at Saint Mark's has my gratitude and I hope to thank as many of you individually as I may in the next few weeks.
I want to thank the faithful members of the Saint Mark's Vestry who have been diligent in matters great and small, and with whom it has been a real pleasure to share the 'light yoke' of parish leadership...well into the evening on vestry nights! I commend your dedication to the parish and the work we have done to renew and enrich Stewardship.
I want to thank Saint Mark's Head of School, Dr. Doreen Oleson, and Chair of the School Board, Alan Bates, for being valued colleagues in refreshing the relationship between Church and School while visioning a mutually beneficial future.
I must thank the members of Saint Mark's Parish staff for their dedication to making this such and amazing parish. Thank you for your diligence on Tuesday mornings as we planned and prepped for mission and ministry. Thank you for the laughs, the stories, the prayers, and the delicious food we have shared. I must especially thank Joanne Morse and Lisa Auyong, parish administrator and secretary, for their, ministry...on all our behalf. Thank you both for putting up with my unique style of 'organization'...the next administrator/secretary thanks you in advance for training me so well.
I must thank Mo. Betsy for her valued counsel throughout the transition, her strong pastoral leadership, and for her wise judgement regarding all things Saint Mark's. Thank you for helping me in a thousand little ways. Thank you for your mentoring.
A profund word of thanks to Diane and Bob Killgore and also to Jackie Dwight. What an amazing experience to go from being your chorister just a few years ago to now being your priest and colleague. I thank God for the chance and the blessing of 'working together' again.
Finally, I hope you all will join me in thanking Marianne Wright, our phenomenal Senior Warden, with whom and from whom I learned that I could, indeed, lead a parish and be the priest 'in charge'. I cannot express sufficiently my gratitude to you for all you have done for Saint Mark's and for me over the last two years except to say you have set the standard for future Senior Wardens with whom I will work almost unattainable high.
I carry forward many happy memories of Saint Mark's, not the least of which is the baptism of our twins last spring. I will always cherish the blessings God has bestowed upon me through you. Please keep Heather, Liam, Lucian, Hannah, Holly, and I in your prayers as you will most assuredly remain in ours. Each and every week since I arrived here, I have thanked God for the gift of Saint Mark's...for the gift of you. Thank you, Lord, and thank you all.

in Christ's peace, Fr. Andrew O'Connor