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"Thoughts and Prayers" -- A Meditation for Episcopal Schools' Celebration 2018
In place of the traditional sermon, on our annual Episcopal Schools' Sunday each October, I have an opportunity at the 8:30 and 10:30 St. Timothy's worship services to share a meditation for our parish and school. I'm happy to share with you my 2018 message, "Thoughts and Prayers."
A story came to my mind as I read the selections from the Epistle of St. James and the forty-second chapter of Isaiah that were recommended for Episcopal Schools’ Sunday today. You might have heard some variation of it before:
A man who lives all alone is watching TV and the weatherman comes on and says, “A terrible flood is coming. Everyone needs to evacuate immediately.”
The man, however, remains on his couch, and says, “No, sir. I’m a religious man. My faith is all I need to protect me.”
But the flood does come, and so the man eventually climbs up on the roof of his house as the waters rise. His neighbor comes by in a rowboat, and invites him to flee.
The man smiles and says, “No, thank you. I’m a religious man, and my faith is all I need to protect me.”
So the neighbor rows away.
The waters get even higher than the roof, and the man is forced to tread water when a National Guard helicopter flying overhead spots him and drops down a ladder. The pilot shouts down to the man that they’ll lift him to safety.
But the man shouts back up, “No, thank you. My faith is all I need to protect me.”
Shortly after the helicopter flies away, the man becomes exhausted and drowns.
When he arrives in heaven, he is confused, and he says to God: “God, I’ve always had the deepest of faith, and I’ve never doubted you. Why didn’t you protect me?”
And God replies: “What do you think the weatherman, the rowboat, and the helicopter were?”
Faith… faith can be tricky. Faith is important. Faith is powerful. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. How many sermons have you heard in church about faith? It’s probably a better question to ask how many sermons have you heard that weren’t about faith?
I don’t have the qualifications to offer a sermon. I haven’t read the Bible enough. I’ve never taken a theology class, let alone know much about the nuances of Greek or Hebrew translation--particularly when it comes to some of today’s readings and what seems to me to be one of those really big, complicated topics in Christianity--the interconnection of faith and works.
But I do know that there is an interconnection between the two. Yes, St. Paul was very clear that we are saved by grace through faith alone, not by our works; we can’t “earn” salvation based on our good deeds and actions.
However, let’s ask ourselves: How much shorter would our Bible be if it didn’t have any parts in it about how we ought to act and behave? A Bible without works in it would be more like a pamphlet. It would appear St. James recognizes the interconnection, too:
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Last year at Episcopal Schools Sunday, I shared with you about how strongly I believe we all have a calling towards an agape, action-oriented, sacrificial love towards everyone, even our enemies… even if we’re “not feeling it,” we are still called to selfless, loving action.
I’m starting to wonder if faith is similar in that regard, too. Faith, as I understand it, is not some simple feeling. Faith is complex, and it requires action, or else faith is dead. Greg Morse, a Christian Blogger put it this way: “‘Not feeling it’ is the problem to overcome, not an excuse to disobey.”
If I asked you who you thought to be the most deeply faithful Christians of the last century, I suspect Mother Teresa would probably come to mind pretty quickly. She exemplified Christian devotion in ways few others ever have.
But even she often struggled with feeling God’s presence--and not just for a few moments here or there, but rather for whole stretches of years. For example, in 1959, she wrote in a private journal:
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? [...]
I call, I cling, I want -- and there is no One to answer -- no One on Whom I cling -- no, No One -- Alone. The darkness is so dark -- and I am alone. -- Unwanted, forsaken. [...]
Where is my faith? -- Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. … I have no faith.
Saying Mother Teresa “wasn’t feeling it” puts it lightly. And yet, without ceasing, without pause or break, the very days she privately penned words like these, Mother Teresa never stopped personally caring for and ministering to the hungry, the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lepers--the ultimate unwanted, unloved, “least of these” among all of humanity.
“‘Not feeling it’ is the problem to overcome, not an excuse to disobey.”
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
As I’ve said, I don’t know Greek, but I wonder if one other modern interpretation of St. James’s message here might be a criticism of “thoughts and prayers” when someone is in need. Don’t get me wrong… “thoughts and prayers” can be a good and appropriate thing. But if no action accompanies our “thoughts and prayers,” it’s important to honestly ask ourselves if we’re using them as a cop out. Is it obliviousness masquerading as faith? Or worse yet, is it laziness?
During those “thoughts and prayers,” might we be praying something like: “Lord, I have such deep faith in you that you would never let this man drown in this flood. Yes, I know I have a boat, but Lord please send him someone else with a nicer boat...a bigger boat… a more conveniently located boat. I have such great faith in you, Lord, I know you will deliver him. Please send someone to deliver him.”
What would our world look like if every faithful person prayed that someone else be called to help those in crisis? When we’re paralyzed by fear, do we risk becoming paralyzed by our own faith?
In writing about today’s selected reading from Isaiah, the Reverend Dan Heischman, the Executive Director for the National Association of Episcopal Schools, made an interesting observation. He wrote:
The prophet Isaiah clearly has a threat in mind as he speaks to the people of Judah in the opening of his book--the imminent, impending threat of an Assyrian invasion, a potentially cataclysmic event...
But, Heischman notes, Isaiah had a very telling directive in response to this existential threat:
… Instead of hunkering down … Rather than retreat into performing sacrifices or praying for deliverance … undertake a reorientation away from evil toward good, to seek justice, and defend those who are oppressed … threatening times call for God’s people to broaden their reach to those on the margins.
Not thoughts and prayers. Action. Isaiah tells us: Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.
Bishop Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, also wrote about this particular passage in preparation for today’s Episcopal Schools’ Celebration. He suggested we notice that very first word in the phrase… learn.
“Doing right” is often not our natural tendency. We are woefully imperfect people. We can be selfish. We can be lazy. We can be oblivious. To overcome this, we must learn to do right.
I’m mindful of Proverbs 22:6: Train children in the right way, and when old they will not stray.
So much of who we adults are today--our sense of what “doing right” is all about, our inherent sense of obligation to genuinely help those in need--it was shaped in our earliest years. It began in preschool, continued through childhood--ages 5, 7, 10, 12--crucial formative years where our communities, the examples, the experiences and the lessons we learned ...not just big ones, but the little day-to-day ones, too...were all so consequential for the people we have become, the values we now hold, and the lives we now lead.
This is why I’m so grateful on this Episcopal Schools’ Sunday for our parish day school. My own three sons’ lives are being forever, positively shaped every day by our St. Timothy’s community.
We are an imperfect place, and we have a mightily imperfect headmaster. But one thing for sure, we always have been… and always will be… a place of action-oriented faith. We model it, and we practice it, we surround our children with it every chance we get.
As we all watched the tragedy that unfolded for our friends and neighbors down east after Hurricane Florence, we extended our thoughts and prayers. But we also took action. Our students and parents led one of the largest food and toiletry drives I’ve ever seen--with carload after carload of supplies delivered to the Food Bank. Our Student Council donated all sales from their Fall Festival dunk tank, and our parents’ association donated all proceeds from Cupcake Days, to Episcopal Relief and Development.
But you know what really moved me was a single email I got from one of our students. She wanted to find a church or school to help, and also children to whom her classmates might send notes and drawings of encouragement--anything they could do to lift the hearts of strangers in need. Two of her teachers began brainstorming with her. It’s now turned into not just a note-writing initiative, but also a plan for this student, her teacher, and her classmates to head out to a farm in Johnston County on an upcoming Saturday morning and harvest and deliver sweet potatoes to those in need out east.
That’s what learning to do right is all about. This student was inspired to do this in the first place because her class last year at St. Timothy’s connected with a small Episcopal School in Texas that had been devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Students exchanged letters and drawings, and the Texas school turned our students’ notes of encouragement into a large prayer chain they put up to inspire them, and no doubt to remind them of their own obligation to seek out others in need.
It’s this kind of action-oriented faith (…and hope …and love) that we hope to model and inspire in our students every day.
It’s what inspires our tooth fairy tree for our youngest students, where children, when they lose teeth, may bring in dental supplies to donate to those in need.
It’s what inspires our fourth graders to do extra chores to earn money and then go to the store to buy extra groceries that they can pack for “Backpack Buddies” that help local children in need.
It’s what inspired our sixth graders in their Service Learning class last year--who, with one single food drive, immediately placed St. Timothy’s School in the top 10% of all-time donations to Urban Ministries.
It’s what inspires our eighth graders every year when we do our September 11 day of service--working at the Interfaith Food Shuttle farm last year, or at the Goodwill Farm and donation sorting center this year.
It’s what inspires our partnership with another St. Timothee’s Church and School in the mountains of Boucan-Carre, Haiti. Our friends in Haiti are never far from our thoughts and prayers; we pray for them weekly in chapel services. But we do so much more than thoughts and prayers. We have visited St. Timothee’s, worked with their children, served them food, delivered school supplies. When our middle school girls learned that a lack of hygiene supplies for their students was keeping many girls from attending school, they got to work making their own homemade hygiene supplies and sent them on to Haiti. We’ve raised money that has provided the children there with regular school lunches--often the only full meal they get--and huge strides have already been made against malnutrition.
We’re equipping our friends in Haiti with computers and wireless internet so we might do classroom-to-classroom, student-to-student communication soon. And later this month, we’re bringing Eudras, our liaison with the school in Haiti, here to St. Timothy’s to meet our community and visit with our children. We’re doing this because as our children learn to do right, it’s also important that they learn to do right for the right reasons--not building up good karma, not earning salvation from God, and not some sense of noblesse oblige… but rather because part of our faith is a belief that we are all equally created in God’s image, equal in dignity, equal in humanity, equally deserving of--and called to offer--love and respect.
On this Episcopal Schools Sunday, I thank everyone in our parish and school community for the role you play in helping us help our children learn to do right and offer them a place of action-oriented faith. Thank you for your ongoing thoughts and prayers, certainly, but also for your actions, big and small. Thank you for our work together on our Haiti partnership, transforming lives both here and in Boucan-Carre. Thank you for the work of so many from the church this August in our Back-to-School BBQ. Thank you for joining us in campus clean up each spring. Thank you for helping to bring Deacon Kopp into our community--what an incredible blessing he has been to our children, to our teachers, and to me, personally.
As I think about our parish school and reflect on all that has been, and all that is, I’m inspired and hopeful to think about all that can be, and will be, if we continue to pursue action-oriented faith, hope, and love in our community together. Please continue to hold St. Timothy’s School, our administrators, our teachers, and especially our students and families in your prayers. And let us all please seek ever more ways to join together in faithful action for the betterment of our community here, and especially for so many others who we together might positively impact for years to come… in Raleigh, or in Haiti, and well beyond.
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