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Romans 12:1-8

A few weeks ago, I read Katheryn Stockett’s beautiful novel, The Help, which came out a couple of years ago and just this month debuted as a movie.

It’s a beautiful book, my friends, telling the story of women, white and black, in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963 and ’64, at the height of the civil rights movement. Despite the darkness of the story – and there was a lot of darkness at that time in the history of our country – it was so well told that when I finished, I simply … sighed … with satisfaction.

And then I heard that the movie was coming out and thought, “Hmmm. I think I want to see that.”

Until, of course, the movie actually came out, and the criticisms began to rain down as if from on high.

Yet another movie about white people telling black people’s stories, the critics said. Why do black people always need white people to speak for them? they asked. Don’t people realize that black people have voices too?

When I heard these critiques, I stopped for a moment and wondered: Have any of these people actually read this book?

Don’t they know that this book – I don’t know about the movie; I haven’t seen it yet – that this book is not just about a white woman telling the stories of black maids? That it is, in reality, a story about transformation?

Because that’s what the book really is, my friends. It’s the story of women – black and white – who in telling their stories realize that they are not bound by the story that formed them from before they were born.

It is a story about women – white and black – who realize they do not have to conform to the world in which they were born and raised.

In the telling of their stories, these women are transformed by the renewing of their minds – by the setting aside of prejudices and hatred and fear – so that they indeed can realize what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The Help is the story of transformation from evil to good, from mistrust to love, from silence to bold proclamation.

And isn’t that what it means to be a Christian? To be transformed? To have our whole lives turned upside down and inside out so that we can then go out into the world and by our very lives, transform it?

Of course, you all don’t have to read this book or see this movie to know about transformation, do you?

For the past two-plus years, you’ve had Cynthia Gilliatt here with you as your priest, and if ever there was a person who refused to conform to the world, it was Cynthia. Like the women in the book, Cynthia refused to conform to a world that wanted to shut her down and shut her out.

I know the news of her death this week came as a shock to all of you, as it did to all of her friends and acquaintances around the Church. We had not known she was ill. We were not prepared for her death.

At Cynthia’s funeral yesterday in Harrisonburg, The Rev. Grace Cangialosi, a good friend and colleague, talked about Cynthia’s refusal to conform to the world., about her desire instead to not only be transformed by the Gospel herself, but to transform the world around her through the love of God in Christ Jesus.

And Grace talked about how Cynthia had paid the price for not conforming: About how the Church that ordained her would not let her serve fully as a priest for a long time, because … well, because, sometimes, the Church is stupid. Sometimes, the Church gets so caught up in the politics of the moment that it misses the person right in front of it.

Which is why, Grace said, Good Shepherd was so important to Cynthia – this place became a place for Cynthia to call home, a place for her to fully be priest, a place where you all were blessed to baptize two children, the grandchildren of parishioners, in a strong show of support for a couple who were concerned they might not be accepted everywhere by everyone. Those baptisms were holy for Cynthia, transformative, and she reveled in them.

•  • •

For the past five days, I have seen nearly 100 messages from people all over our Church, from all over our nation, through that lovely piece of social media, Facebook. All of the people talked about how Cynthia had transformed them by her presence, her courage, her grace. Cynthia, they said, lived what Paul wrote in this morning’s Letter to the Romans:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Peter Gomes, the late preacher at Harvard, called this passage “perhaps the most dangerous verse in all the Bible.”[1]

Paul, Gomes said, “is telling his readers not to do that which comes naturally to them. An invitation to nonconformity is a dangerous thing, and thoughtful nonconformity … is all the more dangerous because nonconformity is an intention … [that is] likely to get one into trouble.”[2]

Cynthia didn’t conform – and it got her into some trouble. She knew that. She knew she could have gone along to get along, but that’s not who she was.

Instead, she chose to not only be transformed herself, but to devote her life to transforming others, so that the will of God would reign on this earth.

It wasn’t easy – and Cynthia knew that.

But faithfulness isn’t always about “easy” – it’s about doing what is right. And that is what Cynthia did – what is right, no matter how much resistance she met along the way. And she did meet resistance, when the Church was being stupid, and she paid a price for living her life with integrity. But she never quit, and she never conformed.

• • •

I have to tell you, there’s a new acronym in the Church these days: TAWWADI. It stands for: “That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It.” It’s a phrase some Church leaders are beginning to use whenever they run into resistance to change, resistance to new thinking, resistance to transformation.

TAWWADI’s cousin is But We’ve Never Done It That Way Before – which makes for an unpronounceable acronym but means the same thing. It doesn’t matter which approach the resisters take – we’ve always done it that way, or we’ve never done it this way – the fact is, that kind of resistance most often is rooted in conformity, in going along to get along, in refusing to take the chance that perhaps – perhaps – God has a better way.

Cynthia knew that God had a better way – for her, and for all the people around her. She knew she was called to priesthood, and that as a priest, she could live out a sacramental life, a Gospel life, and thus transform the world.

Theologian Paul Hiebert could have been talking about Cynthia when he wrote:

“The gospel is about transformed lives. When we bear witness to Christ, we invite people to a whole new life, not simply some modifications of their old lives. This transformation is radical and total. It involves changes at all levels of their culture, including their worldviews. It also changes them physically, biologically, psychologically, socially, and spiritually. This is the transformation that God works in them if they follow him.”[3]

Doesn’t that sound like Cynthia? Didn’t she invite people – didn’t she invite you – to a whole new, transformed life? She didn’t go along to get along – there was no TAWADDI in her life!

Because Cynthia was a Gospel person. She was transformed by it, and through it, she transformed others. And that’s quite a legacy to leave behind.

As you move forward, in these next weeks and months, with different clergy who will come to lead your services and care for you pastorally, I ask you to remember a few things:

First, I want to reassure you: Your bishop, your convocation dean and all of the leaders of this Diocese will be here for you. They will support you, they will care for you, they will love you, and they will help you move into the next stage of your transformed lives as children of God.

And second, please, I ask you – I beg you: Do not forget what it means to be transformed. For the last two-plus years, Cynthia Gilliatt has been with you, transforming you by word and deed. If you want to truly honor her, be as bold, as loving, as she was. Let the Gospel transform you, and then go out into the world, and transform it.

Tell the stories – tell your stories, tell Cynthia’s story, tell the story of you and Cynthia together.

Then tell the story – the story of God who loves you from before you were born, who loves you every moment of your life, and who will love you to the ages of ages.

Because in doing so, in telling these stories, you, like the women in The Help, and like Cynthia, will be transformed.

Amen.

Sermon preached at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Blue Grass, Va., on 21 August 2011, the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year A, in honor of The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Gilliatt, priest-in-charge who died on 16 August 2011.

 

[1] Peter J. Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus. (New York: HarperCollins e-books),  Kindle Edition, 45.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Paul G. Hiebert. Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Kindle Locations 4598-4600). Kindle Edition.

 

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Keynote address for the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia’s Millennial Development Goals Day 2011

One of the reasons I believe I was asked to be your presenter this morning is not just that I served as an Appointed Missionary in Haiti, nor that I served as an Appointed Missionary in Sudan … but because I have lived at the other end of the MDGs, the Millennial Development Goals, that I have seen the power and the hope that come from these goals, and that I can stand here, as a witness to tell you:

It is good.

It is good … that we gather here this morning to learn more about the MDGs, to spend time together discerning how we can help meet these goals, to network with each other so that our efforts are not overlapping or duplicated.

It is good … that we are listening to God’s call to us, through Moses and the Law and the Prophets, through God’s only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, whom we follow.

It is good … that we center ourselves in this call, and discern how we are to live our lives through that call, not just until 2015 (which the United Nations set as an initial deadline when it developed this program), but for all of our lives.

Yes, indeed, my friends, it is good that we are here this morning, listening to God’s call to us.

Before we go any farther, I want to show you a movie on the MDGs, an overview, if you will, with all the statistics you will ever need to know. Afterward, I want to take some of your questions and see if together we can answer them, so that all of us have a common understanding of the goals and of what we as a community of God’s beloved children are attempting to accomplish. If someone could turn off the lights, please?

(Show Achieving the Millennial Development Goals – movie on YouTube)

Now, let’s spend some time on this idea that the Millennial Development Goals are God’s call to us.

To understand this better, let’s go back to the beginning, back to before there was a need for these goals, back to when God first called us.

In the beginning, after God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them – the birds of the air and the fish of the sea and the cattles of the land – God created humanity. God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;” … So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”

Theologically, this means that being created in God’s image is the imperative behind our involvement in the MDGs, for to be created in God’s image is to be created first in the image of love, and what are the MDGs if not a visible sign of God’s love for all of us? We know that the first image of God is love because we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us but we are necessary to God, for God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we cannot possibly be necessary to God. Which means that God wanted us, that God desired us into being, that God loved us into being. So the first image in which we are created is one of love.

Because we are Christians, the second image of God in which we are created is one of community, for God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit never act independently of each other. In our reading of the Scriptures, all three persons of the Trinity are present from before the beginning, and they always work together. Which means that we are created in that image, the one of community, as well.

So what it all boils down to is this:

God created us in love and community to live in love and community.

And does that not sound exactly like the MDGs?

Isn’t living in love and community exactly what the MDGs hope to accomplish?

If you spend any time at all in the Scriptures, you will see that God indeed intends us to fulfill everything that the MDGs call for:

End poverty and hunger? How often does God call us to care for the needy, to not reap to the very edges of our fields, or gather the gleanings of our harvests, but instead shall leave them for the poor and for the alien? (Lev. 23:22)

Universal education? Does not God say that we are to put these words of God’s in our hearts and souls, that we are to teach them to our children, talking about them when we are at home and when we are away, when we lie down and when we rise? (Deuteronomy 11:18)

Gender equality? I know … there are many who would claim that the Bible says nothing about women being equal, but those who say that seem to ignore the fact that when God created humankind in the first chapter of Genesis, God created them, man and woman, in God’s image. I can’t give you a better example of all people being created equal than that.

Health care for both mothers and children, and combating HIV/AIDS? These are calls for basic health care for all people, especially for those who are considered the least of our brothers and sisters. God is clear that we are to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst – in essence, to care for those whom society has deemed lesser. And hard as it is for us to hear this, in much of the world, women, children and those infected with HIV/AIDS are considered to be either lesser creatures or outcasts. Isaiah told us, and Jesus repeated it to us, in case we weren’t quite clear on the concept, that we are to give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and voice to the mute, that we are to make the lame leap for joy and yes, we are to raise the dead. Clearly God wants us to perform miracles … health care for mothers and children and those infected with HIV/AIDS in many countries – including our own, by the way? – that’s a miracle in and of itself.

Sustaining the environment? Did not God tell us to fill the earth and subdue it, and to have dominion over it and over all of God’s creatures, and does not dominion really mean not that we are to lay waste to creation or harm God’s creatures, but rather that we are to be good stewards of creation?

And finally, global partnerships. Is this not what it means to live – truly live – into the image of God in which we are created? To live in love and community?

Author and theologian Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking, wrote:

We have it in us to be Christs to each other and maybe in some unimaginable way to God too—that’s what we have to tell finally. We have it in us to work miracles of love and healing as well as to have them worked upon us. We have it in us to bless with him and forgive with him and heal with him and once in a while maybe even to grieve with some measure of some grief at another’s pain and to rejoice with some measure of his rejoicing at another’s joy almost as if it were our own. And who knows but that in the end, by God’s mercy, the two stories will converge for good and all, and though we would never have had the courage or the faith or the wit to die for him any more than we have ever managed to live for him very well either, his story will come true in us at last. (p. 89)

We are called – and we are capable – of working miracles of love and healing in this world. We have it in us to bless each other, those whom we know and those whom we have never met and will never meet.

But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?

The fact that we don’t know the people we are asked to help?

The fact that we probably never will meet them?

Never mind the fact that this whole MDG thing is so darned huge – so overwhelming – that it’s hard to wrap our hearts and minds and arms around it. (Face it: We are talking about changing the entire world here … the MDGs are probably the boldest vision ever set forth by the United Nations, by the 181 nations taking part in the program, which means that basically, this program is humongous.)

Sometimes, it’s hard to keep the momentum going on a project like this because we don’t know the people. We don’t know their names. We don’t know their stories. And because we don’t know their names or stories, there is a tendency to let our brothers and sisters in Christ, who are related to us not by the blood of their birth but by the waters of their baptism, to let all of God’s beloved children, slip onto the back burner of our lives. Without names, without stories, it’s hard to connect.

And if we can’t connect, we certainly can’t live as fully as possible into the image of God, can we?

One of the main questions we have to answer, not just today but every day of our lives, is how we are going to help make God’s dream – which theologian Verna Dozier identified as “a good creation of a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky” – how are we going to make that come to fruition if we don’t know with whom we are walking under those friendly skies?

For many of us, these goals are, as I said, just too darned big. We want to take part … we want to make an impact … but … but … how? We’re just a few people (in the greater scheme of things) and there is so much need … what are we to do?

The best way to approach the needs of the world is to forget that these are the needs of the entire world, to stop thinking we need to save the world (that’s already been done, my friends, 2,000 years ago, outside the gates of Jerusalem) and to concentrate on what we can do, individually and corporately.

Remember, our mission is to live in love and community.

So let’s figure out how to do that … how to live in love in the community we have been given.

We are called to approach caring for all of God’s beloved children – no matter where they are, no matter their tribe or color or race or language or gender or faith – with the advice of Mother Teresa (a woman who knew something about taking on seemingly impossible tasks) ringing in our ears:

The good you do today (she said) may be forgotten tomorrow.

Do good anyway.

Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable.

Be honest and transparent anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.

Build anyway.

People who really want help may attack you if you help them.

Help them anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you may get hurt.

Give the world your best anyway.

In other words, do not worry about saving the world — that’s already been done, 2,000 years ago, on a Friday afternoon, about 3 o’clock, outside the gates of Jerusalem. Worry only about doing your part to live in love and in community, for that is how God created you.

A life well lived is not a life of complete and total success my friends. It is, rather, a life of trying. A life of falling down and getting back up. It is, most of all, a life of loving.

The MDGs? They’re not so much about success as they are about love. About loving others whom we do not know and might never meet, about building up community, about re-orienting the world away from power and dominion to love.

So how do we do this? How do we handle this monster task, with all its frustrations?

Listen to the late Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, who preached:

The question should not be, “What would Jesus do?” but rather, more dangerously, “What would Jesus have me to do?” The onus is not on Jesus but on us, for Jesus did not come to ask semidivine human beings to do impossible things. He came to ask human beings to live up to their full humanity; he wants us to live into the full implication of our human gifts, and that is far more demanding.

God is not asking us to do impossible things.

God is asking us to do the simple things: To live in love and in community – which is why we are created! This is our mission in life. The MDGs? Those are just one path among many that we can take as we strive to do that which Jesus asks us to do.

We cannot, in our short time together today, answer all the questions, raise all the money or solve all the problems that the MDGs face.

What we can do together this day, however, is meet some people. We can meet each other, and we can meet people who are on the receiving end of the MDG work we do.

In other words, let’s make the MDGs personal.

Instead of approaching them as this humongous set of ideas and instructions that no one, not even a government, can fully embrace, let’s approach this the way God does. Let’s look at the situation through God’s eyes.

Let’s look at the people.

(Show movie, Not Strangers, But Friends – link to the movie)

(Narration to accompany the movie:)

The people you are see here are my friends – and through me they are your friends … in Sudan, in Haiti, in Honduras. They are people who have benefited from your generosity.

I want you to know:

Every time you go a fund-raiser for the MDGs, however you do it and for whatever goal you have chosen, you are not raising money for a stranger. You are raising this money

for a friend.

The people you see in this movie? I have lived with them. I have broken bread with them. We have worshipped together. We have laughed together. We have cried together. They are my family. And because I know them, and you know me, you know them as well.

Some of these students? They receive their education through your generosity … through your support of various organizations and churches. Some of these children attend schools sponsored by UNICEF. Some of them receive food from the World Food Program. Many of them have received help directly from your parishes.

These women? Many of them received help from parishes in this diocese, including for a microfinance project. And your support of health clinics.

Every time you give in a way that is connected to the MDGs, you help these people and so many others just like them.

These are not strangers.

These are your friends.

(End narration.)

I want to be crystal clear about one thing:

God is calling us to live in love.

God is calling us to live in community.

God, who called us into being because God wanted us, desired us, calls us to live in “ a good creation of a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.” A

And the only way we are going to be able to do this is if we all decide that God is right, that God knows what God is doing, and that it is possible to make sure that the hungry are fed and the thirsty given water and the sick have medicine and that our children are educated and HIV/AIDS is finally, finally, finally at least controlled until it can be wiped out … that we remember that God made each and every one of us, that God called each of us into being, that we are all members of God’s beloved community, which means that we are all equal, and that we will thrive only when we all work together, and finally, that we show respect to God for the wondrous things that he has made, including this fragile earth, our island home.

In Washington, D.C., between the end of the Memorial Bridge and Arlington Cemetery, there is a memorial to the Seabees, the U.S. Naval Construction Battalions, who build things under fire and in horrific conditions because that is what they do: they build.

At the base of the memorial, you will find this motto:

With willing hearts and skillful hands, the difficult we do at once;

the impossible takes a bit longer.

My friends, God has given us the skills we need to do everything that God has ever asked of us. Nothing is impossible with God, and God makes sure that in the end, nothing will be impossible for us.

We have the gift of faith.

We have the gift of courage.

We have the gifts of foresight … and planning … and imagination.

The MDGs are difficult – no doubt about it.

Impossible? So what? That just takes a little longer.

Amen.

• • •

Millennial Development Goals Day Keynote Address, 19 March 2011, The Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Waynesboro, Va.

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