Thanksgiving sermon, St. Peter’s by the Sea

Well friends…  Tis the season.

BRACE YOURSELVES.

I know, I know.   The holidays are supposed to be a wonderful time.  A joyful time.  A time to connect with family, friends and loved ones.  This is when we gather together in the kitchen to laugh with one another while we cook big meals, and hold hands with one another at the table as we bow our heads in humble gratitude for all of the blessings that have been bestowed upon us.  This is when children laugh and play and men watch football then we all fall asleep, tired and full and happy.  I know all that.

Except, here’s the problem:

That has NEVER been my experience of the holidays.  Ever.

A couple of weeks ago my mother and I were invited to be part of a one hour Thanksgiving radio show that is being broadcast in Connecticut somewhere.  I think it aired today.  The host was so enthusiastic about having us there and giving us the chance to talk about our fond memories of the holiday.  When I sat in the chair with that big microphone right in front of my face and she asked me to share a memory of Thanksgiving I totally blanked.  All I could think was “Well, I get in a big old messy fight with my mother just about every single year.  Even now that I’m a 33 year old priest.”

I didn’t think that’s what she was looking for, so I just stared at her blankly.

In order to help me out, she prompted me further.  “Well, what’s your favorite food on Thanksgiving?”

She didn’t realize this question was worse than the first.  I’m the world’s worst cook, and I hate doing dishes, and I really only ever want to eat cheese.  I have never cared for the elaborate meals prepared on holidays, and have lamented every year that I just want to order pizza and call it a day.

“Uh…” I stuttered back to her, “I like the mashed potatoes.  With lots of butter.”

I mumbled through the rest of the interview, making up some stuff as I went along and feeling grateful that she could edit the thing to death, and I left feeling like THE BIGGSET GRUMP that had ever seen a holiday.  Just call me Mrs. Scrooge.  The only thing that helped me feel a little better about the whole thing was the fact that my mother was there with me, also shaking her head and saying “We just never got the Norman Rockwell thing down.”

I’m sorry if I’m ruining the mood for you here, and I’m going to bring it around – I promise.  But before I do, I just have to acknowledge that for some people – if not for most people, whether or not they admit it – when those first jingle bells start ringing in the hours following Halloween, there’s some feelings that come up that might not look like joyful expectation.  Some of us might start feeling a little bit of anxiety.  Some of us might be deeply sad.  Some of us tense, some of us antsy.  Because the fact is that any time society expects us to be with the ones we love the most experiencing “quality family time” we all have to go through the process of trying to adjust, explain, or accept what that looks like for us.  And it very well might not look like Norman Rockwell.

It is for this reason that I think this service should be one of the most highly attended services of the year.  Because today more than ever we need to be with God.  And we desperately, desperately need the messages that we hear from our Scripture passages tonight.  Do not fear.  Do not worry.  Rejoice and be glad.

Fear.   Worry.  I think even those of us who have pretty darn good holidays still catch a glimpse of fear and worry in one capacity or another.  Maybe we’re worried about the choices our college-aged children will make when they come home.  Maybe we’re afraid Uncle Charlie will drink too much again.  Maybe we’re worried that our mother’s will criticize the food we’ve made, or that we’ll lose our cool.  Maybe we’re afraid we won’t be able to afford Christmas gifts this year, or that our grief from the absence of a loved one will overwhelm us.   On any day, at any time, we can likely tap into some kind of fear or worry we’re carrying around, but this condensed period of “celebration” can bring it out faster and with a fury that threatens to undo us sometimes.

But do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things! (Joel 2:21)

In the end, this is what I ended up saying to that radio host.  I mean, I didn’t tell the soil not to be afraid, but I told her what I tell myself year after year when this season approaches.  And that is that I believe, with my whole heart, that gratitude is an antidote to fear.

Gratitude is an antidote to fear.

If I were to stand here and say the first part of this line from the book of Joel – “Do not fear” – if I were to say only that it might discredit you and all that you might be holding in your heart this season.  That advice could come off as patronizing and oversimplified.  Do not fear.  As if my quick reassurance would be enough to calm our raging fears.

No, just our being told not to fear is not enough.  What we need, what we must have, is that reminder that comes after it.  “Be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things.”

Friends, the Lord has done great things.  And we might be standing on the brink of this holiday season uncertain about what lies ahead.  But we know, in our heart of hearts we know, or else we wouldn’t be here – that the Lord has done great things.  And the beauty of this particular holiday tomorrow is that in midst of the madness that surrounds it – we are reminded to pause and give thanks to God.  And I remain convinced that if we can do that – if we can offer our gratitude with honesty and humility and grace, than it will transform us.  Our gratitude will transform our fear.

So what that means is that when something pops up for you tomorrow or in the coming weeks that causes you to brace yourself, pay attention to the position of your shoulders.  First, just notice it.  Give yourself some credit for noticing the tension and acknowledge where it’s coming from.  Being grateful doesn’t mean that we ignore what’s going on inside of us.  So notice your fear or worry or anxiety or dread.  Care for yourself if you need to.  And then, take a moment to think about some way that you have been blessed.  It might be that you are able to wake up in the morning and breathe in the air that surrounds you.  Whatever it is though I think that it has to be honest and true.  Rattling off something you are grateful for as if the gratitude itself is an obligation will not help you.  Obligation does not lead to transformation.  No, you have to really believe it.  So maybe you think about someone in your life who doesn’t have what you are giving thanks for.  I have friends this year who don’t know if the cancer will take them or if they will live.  And that helps me to be grateful for my health in a very real way.  And it helps me to surround those friends with prayer and light.  And it helps me to remember that maybe arguing my own way in my fight with my mom this year really isn’t worth it in the long run.    I’m willing to bet that if you allow yourselves that process of gratitude you’ll notice that your shoulders will start to slide back down to where they are supposed to be.

And here’s the best part.  If we can be grateful, and transform our own experience of the holidays – just a little! – progress, not perfection remember,  but if we can make just the slightest difference in our own interactions, make the smallest dent in our own fears and worries, then perhaps we can help the people around us have a better holiday too.  Perhaps we can offer our loved ones a greater glimpse of God.

So let’s call a spade a spade here.  The holidays are wonderful.  And the holidays can also be very, very difficult.  Acknowledging that challenge does not take away from the wonder of it, it just offers us a few cracks for God’s grace to stream in.  Fear and worry is a real part of our lives, and gratitude and prayer can helps us to overcome it.  Do not fear, O soil… for the Lord has done great things.”

I want to end with one of my favorite prayers.  And it’s not really a gratitude prayer except that it must have come from a truly grateful heart.  But it’s just what I want to offer you as you move into this season, acknowledging your fears and giving thanks to God:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.  Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  Amen.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

now is the right time

Well friends, Saturday was a pretty big day for us.   It was a big day for the Diocese of Rhode Island, and it was a big day for the Episcopal Conference Center.  On Saturday we ordained W. Nicholas Knisely as the 13th Bishop of this Diocese.  And on Saturday, our brand new Bishop – just after having been ordained and vested in his cope, mitre, and ring – stood in front of the congregation gathered and offered his first words to the Diocese of Rhode Island, asking that they give generously to the offertory because he had designated  the money to go to ECC.  He continued, saying that youth ministry is important and will be a priority in this Diocese moving forward, and that one of the best ways to support youth ministry here in RI is by supporting the ministry of ECC.

I was sitting in the very front row of the RI clergy gathered up on the stage when he said it, and I admit to a range of feelings: gratitude, elation, awe, excitement, and just the slightest bit of panic.  The fact is that when I took this job I was trying to step off the beaten path that most priests travel.  I was tired from parish ministry, and I liked the idea of taking a little part-time job up at the summer camp I loved so dearly.  I knew there was plenty of work to do and I was happy to do it, but I was also looking forward to being in a job that was kind of off the radar.  I could be with teenagers and other members of the ECC family, enjoy the summers of fullness and vitality, add a few programs to the winter, and generally keep my head down.  But here we are now, with a new Bishop who believes that youth ministry must be a priority for the church, and who feels comfortable putting his full support behind our ministry.  And suddenly our little summer camp is being highlighted as a vital and important ministry in our Diocese (which it is – of course!).  This turn of events is SO wonderful…  and it makes me kind of want to crawl into bed with the covers over my head and never come out.

Bishop Knisely’s confidence in ECC overwhelms me.  I am at once hopeful and petrified.  There is still much to be done to bring ECC to where it needs to be physically, financially, and administratively.  And as passionate as I am about this ministry and the good that we do, it’s also easy to think only of the work that lies ahead.  So the temptation to hide from it all certainly exists.

However, I’m finding that more than I’m tempted to hide, I’m tempted to dance.  I’m tempted to throw my hands up and celebrate that at the Episcopal Conference Center we change lives.  We bring people – young and old – closer to God.  And we have an enthusiastic new Bishop who wants to help us continue to make that happen.  So I don’t want to hide – I want to rise to the occasion.  I want to give my very best to this ministry, and to this Diocese, and to the ECC community and see what God’s dream is for all of us in this mighty little state.  Bishop Knisely’s confidence in us gives me more confidence, and that’s a reason to start dancing.

That said, the Bishop and me being excited to support ECC isn’t enough.  We absolutely need all of you to help.  Over the past few years we have been lucky enough to have a core group of volunteers and staff who have given of their time, talent and treasure.  We have seen that core group grow over the last few months.   But I know there are hundreds, if not thousands of you out there who have been impacted by your time at ECC and who have a tremendous amount of love and care for the place.  I am so grateful for that care.  Today I’m going to ask you – boldly – to do more than just care about ECC.  I’m going to ask you to support ECC and the Diocese in some very tangible ways.

First – always first – I’m going to ask for your prayers: for ECC and for the Diocese and especially for Nick.  The job of bishop is a difficult one, and while we are in the midst of an exciting new beginning right now there will be days when sharing our love for one another may not come as easily.  Your constant prayer for him will help, and backing up that prayer with your words and actions will make a huge difference.  He needs your support so that he can continue to support the many ministries, churches, and people of this diocese.

Second, I ask for your presence.  We had a decent showing of the ECC community at the ordination, but at future events I would like to see our community show up for our Bishop  the way he is showing up for us.  I want the rest of the Diocese to see that we are strong in spirit and in number and that we are willing to be present as witnesses to the good work of our camp and of our wider church.  Being part of the camp community is about more than just showing up in the barn to remember our own experiences there – it’s about being part of the larger Body of Christ as it is moving and changing in Rhode Island.  Being part of the camp community means that we have been completely transformed, and Christ’s message to us is clear – once transformed, it is our work in the world to share that Good News with others.  But in order to do that, we need to show up.

Third, I’m going to ask you to give.  The Diocese has been supporting ECC financially since its inception, and it has kept its commitment to do so even in recent years when they faced financial difficulty of their own.  Bishop Knisely has already promised to continue to support us financially and then some.  Episcopal Charities has also been exceedingly generous to us over the years, providing funding that made it possible for us to remain open and serving the young people in this state and beyond.   But we cannot rely on the Diocese and Episcopal Charities alone.  They need to be free to help and support other ministries that may not have the benefit of a strong and supportive community like we have.  And while they do not plan to yank our funding in any way, now more than ever, we must continue to do our part to help keep this ministry thriving for generations to come.  In the coming weeks we will have a new website and database for ECC, and those resources will allow ECC supporters to easily donate money.  You will (I promise!) hear more about that, but in the days following this exceedingly generous gift from our Bishop and Diocese, I want you to consider how you might help sustain this financial abundance.  If you already give to your church or to Episcopal Charities, that is also a gift to camp, and we ask you to continue or even increase that giving.  Shortly, you will be receiving information on ways to give directly to ECC through our website.  We must continue to change and transform lives at ECC.  We must.

When I first started this job I met with Sara Clarke, our part-time marketing and development person for camp (and the person who has put in countless hours to get our data base in place).  While we sat together at Whole Foods she pushed a sticker across the table at me.  “Here,” she said, “I got this for you.”  I found myself looking at the sticker you see at the top of this post.  NOW IS THE RIGHT TIME.  “It seemed appropriate,” she continued, “because I really feel like this is going to be a wonderful chapter for camp.”

At the time I hoped she was right.  But after this weekend, I’m sure that she’s right.  Friends, now is the right time.  Wonderful ministry has been happening at ECC for years and years, and for a time now there has been some uncertainty as to whether or not that ministry could continue.  But you have already showed up to help, and I expect that you will continue to do so.  And our new Bishop is going to show up.  And I am going to show up.  And most importantlyGod (as always!) is going to show up.  And I have every confidence that good, good things are in store for our little summer camp in Pascoag.   So please – help us make this happen.

Now is the right time.

Photo by Ruth Meeter

rake and roll

We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…  and that there will always, ALWAYS, be raking of leaves at Fall Work Camp at the Episcopal Conference Center.  Always.

I’m sure you’ve seen the above scene before, or some version of it (well, maybe not the reverse part – I just couldn’t resist watching him fly backwards out of the pile!).   I mean, what’s the point of raking leaves if you don’t take time to jump in them?

I’ll admit that I thought my days of raking leaves at ECC were over.  There were  a few moments over the course of Fall Work Camp that I had to shake my head and laugh thinking, “How did I GET here??”  There are so many wonderful parts about being back at camp, and I feel grateful every single day to be a part of that experience again.  But the leaves?  Oh boy.

If I’m being honest though, I never really escaped the experience of raking leaves that I had  from all those years I was at Fall Work as a camper or counselor.  I remember all too well a few years back when Jonathan and I were in North Carolina.  Christmas Day was really mild that year, and for reasons that will never be clear to me we decided to spend the afternoon raking the back yard.  Even though we lived in an area where there were mostly just pine trees our back yard had a high population of deciduous trees, which we loved because it made us think of home.  But the end result, as you can imagine, is that there were piles and piles of leaves.  As we raked the leaves onto a tarp to relocate them to another pile somewhere I felt like it had been only days since I had last raked leaves at camp, even though by that point it had been many years.

I think that’s the thing about raking leaves, or about doing any of the various work projects we do at ECC.  The experience of the work stays with you.  A work ethic stays with you.  And suddenly – because of all those years you spent working at camp – you find yourself outside on a holiday raking leaves because somewhere in your delusional brain you think it’s fun.  Because, after all, those years you were raking and painting and roofing and gardening at ECC you were with your friends.  So it was fun – really, really fun.  And that’s how the work becomes…well… not so much like work.  And if you’re lucky you grow up and go off and become an adult and realize that as long as you are working side by side with someone you love and finding something to laugh about or a pile of leaves to jump in, then your work really can be fun – Christmas Day kind of fun.

I didn’t have to do anything in the way of convincing our Fall Work participants this year that work is fun.  They clearly already knew that.  So I just walked around snapping pictures and watching them enjoy one another and the work they were doing for ECC.  It was a wonderful weekend – wonderful enough that I can’t even complain about my return to raking.  I’ll rake with these folks anytime!