The keynote address at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, College Park, Md., at their Homecoming Dinner, 10 September 2011.
A story from the 2nd century after Christ, of two monks in the Egyptian desert:
A disciple went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast and my little prayer. I strive to cleanse my mind of all evils thoughts and my heart of all evil intents. Now, what more should I do?”Abba Joseph rose up and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He answered, “Why not be transformed into fire?”
Why not be transformed … into fire?
• • •
My friends, how many times have we been like the disciple seeking guidance from the Abba? How many times have we said, “Now, what more should I do?”
The disciple kept all the rules of the monastic community, what he calls the “little” things – not meaning those things of minor importance but rather his private disciplines. He followed the rules set out for each monk: good works, hospitality, moderation of the mind and mouth, humility, obedience, communal living and communal property, stability … His “little fast” was eating two simple meals a day, less in Lent and Advent … His “little prayer” was the private prayer time each monk was enjoined to have daily … He did his best to cleanse his mind and heart of evil thoughts and intentions …
In other words, the disciple was as faithful as he could possibly be.
But he sensed … somehow … that there was something more. Or rather, that there was something missing.
So he went to the Abba, the abbot, of the monastery, to Joseph, a holy man, who led the monks, who directed them in the lives and prayers, a man, the disciple was certain, who would know what more the disciple could do.
The answer Abba Joseph gave was, most likely, not the one the disciple expected.
Because rather than focusing on yet another thing to do, Abba Joseph urged the disciple to focus on who he could be.
“Why not be transformed into fire?” the holy man asked.
And why not?
Why not be transformed into fire?
Why not become something entirely new, something possibly uncontrollable, something all-consuming, something passionate?
Abba Joseph didn’t tell the disciple he had to stop doing the “little” things, because Abba Joseph knew those little things were important. After all, who can argue with good works … hospitality … moderation of the mind and mouth … humility … obedience … communal living and communal property … stability (imagine what our world would be like if we practiced all those things every single day … intentionally)?
Who can argue with eating a little less … intentionally?
Who can argue with daily prayer … especially if it is intentional?
And who, pray tell, would ever argue with cleansing our minds of evil thoughts, or cleansing our lives of evil deeds?
So the abbot, you see, wasn’t saying: Stop doing these things.
Instead, he was urging the monk to let those practices take him to the next step, the next practice … to transformation.
Like the inhabitants of Jerusalem whom the prophet Jeremiah addressed, proclaiming, Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it …” the disciple was standing at a crossroad.
Focus on doing the little things?
Let those little things transform me?
Isn’t this the same place where we find ourselves this night, this night when you as the people of St. Andrew’s celebrate your Homecoming?
Isn’t this night a crossroads for you, as it was for the disciple, as it was for the inhabitants of Jerusalem?
You are gathered here this night to celebrate who you have been, and you are gathered there this night to consider who you might be.
Your parish has been here for 121 years. You began your life together in a small room over Calvert’s Hall, with a mission “directly related to serving the students of the Maryland Agricultural College, now the University of Maryland at College Park.”
You moved from Calvert’s Hall to a building that first was a tobacco barn, then a stable, then a Presbyterian church. You built this church in 1930, added a parish house in 1954, and built the parish hall in 1967.
But this is not a night in which to focus only on what you have done.
And it is not a night to focus only on what you might do.
No, my friends, this night is the night for you to focus on who you can be.
You have done, and are doing, many marvelous things. You have taken, and are taking, care of the little things that are so important. You follow the little disciplines, you pray, you feast when you can, fast when you must, you provide hospitality, you pay your bills and you practice, as best you can, humility.
But still …
Is there something more?
Not something more that you can do …
But something more that you can be …?
• • •
But first … some background.
For four years, I served as a missionary in Sudan, living in the town of Renk, in the northernmost portion of South Sudan, at that place where North met South, where Arabs met Blacks, where Muslims met Christians.
I arrived in Sudan three days before the peace agreement that ended Sudan’s third – and longest – and deadliest – civil war went into effect. I arrived at a time when Northerners and Southerners, Arabs and Blacks, Muslims and Christians still distrusted each other, still grew still in each other’s presence, still judged each other by the color of their skin, the language they spoke, the tribe to which they belonged.
The town of Renk, in the Diocese of Renk of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, was, throughout the 21-year civil war (the third, the longest, the deadliest civil war) a garrison town, meaning that at some point early in that war, the North took over the town, stationed thousands of Northern, Arab, Muslim soldiers (and their families) there, and made sure that the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the army of the South, had no ability to function – or to fight – there.
Being a garrison town means that Renk grew from a small village of Southerners belonging to the Dinka tribe to a small town peopled by members of more than a dozen tribes from North, South, East and West.
Because each tribe speaks a different language, and each tribal language has up to 100 dialects, the most common language in South Sudan is actually Arabic. Not because the Southerners want to speak that language, but because the North forced that language upon them.
Which means that disparate peoples from all over Africa’s largest nation had only one way to communicate: in the language of the oppressor.
So when I arrived, on July 6, 2005, it was obvious to me that the language I most needed to learn was Arabic. Or, to be more accurate, Araby souk, known by linguists as Sudanese Creole. (In other words, heaven forfend we should bother to conjugate a verb!)
Speaking Arabic meant I could communicate with everyone.
But speaking Arabic also meant that I faced tough questions and uncomfortable moments.
Because I deliberately did not identify with any one tribe.
That’s the background.
And now, the story:
About three years into my service, I was sitting on a log on a dusty street corner in downtown Khartoum, then the nation’s capital, drinking tea. (Tea and coffee shops in Sudan are not like tea shops in the United States. We’re not talking about Starbucks here. There are no nice seats, no air conditioning, no espresso machines or milk steamers, no wi-fi … just low-sitting stools and logs, a charcoal fire, water purchased from the latest donkey cart to go by, powdered milk …)
Several young men, all from the Dinka tribe, became upset when they heard me speaking Arabic.
Why, they demanded – in English, no less –Why was I speaking that language? Why wasn’t I speaking Dinka?
Because, I replied, Arabic is the language most people understood in Sudan.
Did I even know Dinka?
Yes, I said – in Dinka. I know some.
After they berated me for not knowing Dinka, the language of the people where I lived, they challenged me: “To which tribe do you belong?”
Now, this might not seem like an important question here in the United States, but in Sudan, this is a loaded question … very loaded. Declare the right tribe, and you had friend for life, who would stick by you and defend you, no matter what.
Declare the wrong tribe, and you could find yourself caught up in a long-standing tribal or ethnic or blood feud.
So I thought carefully about my answer:
I belong, I finally said, to the tribe of God, to the only tribe that matters.
• • •
Far too often in our lives, when we find ourselves standing at the crossroads, trying to decide whether to go right or left, forward or backward, we fall back on our tribal ways. We rely on the practice of TAWADDI – That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It (you know the old Episcopal joke, right? Change that light bulb? Change that light bulb? You can’t change that light bulb! My grandmother gave that light bulb!)
But in doing so, we forget …
We forget that the only tribe that matters is the tribe of God.
The color of our skin, the language we speak, our gender, our sexual orientation, our ethnicity … none of those things matter. Not to God. Those things are but accidents of history.
Because to God, each of us is … and all of us are … beloved children of God.
Which is what we need to remember … when we are standing at the crossroads of our lives.
Before we can decide what to do, we need to remember who we are, and we need to remember whose we are.
We are beloved children of God.
And we belong to God.
We know that we are beloved because God says so. God declared, in the very beginning, that we were to be created in God’s image. And what is God’s image, if it is not first and foremost that of love?
Our creation is not a matter of God’s need, for we are not necessary to God. We know that because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we simply cannot be necessary to God. Which means that God wantedus, that God desired us, that God loved us into being.
And isn’t that wonderful news?
To know that we are loved … from before time began, throughout our lives, and until the ages of ages?
Isn’t that what we all are seeking?
Let me be clear here: I tell this to every infant, every child, every adult I baptize. The most important thing about you, the most important thing you’ll ever need to know in your life is this:
God loves you.
God … loves … you. And you. And you. And you. And you.
As I’m walking each infant, each child, each adult up and down the aisle after the baptism, this is what I tell them.
God loves you.
And don’t you ever forget that!
The most important piece of your identity is this:
You are a beloved child of God.
Nothing else matters. Nothing.
So as we stand at the crossroads of our lives, before we decide to left or right, forward or back, we know who we are – we are the beloved – and we know whose we are: We belong to God.
But … (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?)
This identity does not exist in a vacuum.
Our identity comes with responsibility.
Because, you see, we are Christians.
Meaning that we believe, we profess, we confess that we believe in a Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We believe, we profess, we confess the community of God.
Which means that being created in the image of God means that we are created in the image of community.
We, my friends, are created in love and community to live in love and community.
And that, my friends, is our mission in life.
To live … in love … and community … every moment … of our lives.
• • •
When the prophet Jeremiah spoke of seeking the ancient paths, he wasn’t saying that it was time for us to go back to what so many call the “good old days” that weren’t really that “good.”
No, Jeremiah was telling the inhabitants of Jerusalem that it was time to go even farther back … to the days when the people knew they were God’s beloved, and lived as though they were God’s beloved.
Jeremiah was taking the people back to that time when the Lord proclaimed,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born, I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations. …”
Jeremiah is taking us back to the commands of the Lord:
“… for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,” says the Lord.
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth;
and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
Lest anyone misinterpret these powerful directions, take a moment to think about them.
The command is go into the world (a command that would be reiterated over and over again, culminating with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’s command to do the same, at the moment of his ascension), the command to tear down that which gets in the way of God’s desires, God’s dreams for us so that in its place, we can build and plant that which fulfills God’s desires and dreams for us.
The late lay theologian Verna Dozier explained God’s dream for us; it is, she wrote, a dream of “a good creation of a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.”
A “good creation of a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.”
Now, before anyone says (as one of my seminary classmates once did, with great disdain), “Friends? God wants us to be friends? That’s it?!” – he later was ordained), let me remind you: God’s definition of “friend” is not the same as that which most of us use for a definition.
Because when God talks about friendship, God is not talking about the casual acquaintance we may list among our friends. God is not talking about Facebook friends. No, in God’s mind, friendship, true friendship, comes when we abide with God and allow God to abide with us. True friendship is about living in God’s joy, which gives us joy.
On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ said to his disciples:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.
So for Jesus … for God … friendship is not some easy-going, casual, let’s- barbeque-on-the-back-deck-and-have-some-lemonade-to-drink kind of thing.
For God, “friendship” is about commitment to each other (“abide in me as I abide in you”). It is about accountability (“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”). It is about love (“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”) It is about obedience (“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”) And it is, truly, about joy – the joy we take in each other (“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”).
• • •
In World War II, a musician by the name of Larry LaPrise served in the European Theater. After the war, he and some friends moved moved to Sun Valley, Idaho – before it became Sun Valley, really – to ski and sing and work the after-ski crowd in that gorgeous mountain setting.
LaPrise and his friends formed a band called the Ram Trio that entertained the crowds coming off a day of skiing. One of the songs he wrote – or so the story goes – is one that all of us know: The Hokey-Pokey.
You know this song, right? Most of us have sung it and danced to it, usually as kids and then again, for some unknown reason, at weddings.
It goes like this:
You put your right hand in,
you put your right hand out,
you put your right hand in and you shake it all about.
Then you do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around.
That’s what it’s all about.
And you know how the rest of the song follows:
You put your left hand in, then your right leg, then your left leg, then your right side, then your left side (and then, if you want to draw this song out to its extremes), you put your nose in, your backside in, and then your head, and finally … finally! What do you do? … You put your whole self in.
The words “Hokey Pokey” come from the words “hocus pocus,” which most of us know are the words you speak when you’re doing magic. The words “hocus pocus” comes from the Latin phrase, Hoc est corpus meum – “This is my body,” the words the priest speaks when he or she elevates the bread during the Eucharist. In the old days, when the priests would celebrate in great stone cathedrals, they would turn their backs to the people (because that was how it was done in those days), and sign the Mass: Hoc est corpus meum. Their voices would reverberate throughout the cathedrals, and as the echo moved throughout the stone churches and cathedrals, what they would be signing – Hoc est corpus meum – would sound like Hocus pocus (drawn out).
From that term – hocus pocus – LaPrise came up with the Hokey Pokey (although there are some who claim that the song and dance existed in England during the war). In 1949, LaPrise and the Ram Trio recorded the song (now later, there was a lawsuit from people in England who claimed it was their song, but the suit was settled out of court, and that’s another story), and the song soon became nationally known.
• • •
How many of you have ever been to a wedding or a party where the Hokey-Pokey was played?
And how many of you have been called upon to participate in this dance? You may not have wanted to participate, but heck, everyone else was up there, so why not? So someone from the dancing group comes along, and grabs your hand, or waves at you extravagantly, and pretty soon, you’re up there putting your right hand in, and taking your right hand out … right there with the rest of the folks.
Pulled in, whether you wanted to dance or not.
Being a beloved child of God, created in love and community to live in love and community, means that you have been chosen.
Remember the words of Jesus:
“You did not choose me, but I chose you.”
God chose you … each of you … each of us … to participate in the dance, the perichoresis, of the Holy Trinity.
British theologian Alister McGrath defines perichoresis as that which “allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of” of others. Now, McGrath and other theologians use perichoresis to describe the interpersonal relationship of the Holy Trinity.
But since we are created in the image of the Holy Trinity, of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, we, too, are created to dance in the what McGrath calls the ‘community of being’ … .”
This dance, this perichoresis, is why we were created.
It is the very reason for our existence.
We who have been chosen are chosen, we are appointed “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last … I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
This is our mission: to go into the world, to love one another as Christ loved us.
As Christians, as members of the Body of Christ, as the living embodiment of Christ in this world, is about committing ourselves – every moment of our lives – to living out God’s desires for us.
Desires of friendship – true friendship.
Desires of love – true love.
Desires of community – true community.
Sister Joan Chittister, a well-known Benedictine nun, theologian, spiritual director, author, preacher and commentator, says it this way:
Thomas Merton spoke out against the Vietnam War. Catherine of Siena walked the streets of the city feeding the poor. Hildegard of Bingen preached the word of justice to emperors and to popes. Charles de Foucauld lived among the poor and accepted the enemy. Benedict of Nursia sheltered strangers and educated peasants. And so must we do whatever justice must be done in our time if we claim to be serious about really sinking into the heart of God. A spiritual path that does not lead to a living commitment to the coming of the will of God everywhere for everyone is not path at all. It is, at best, a pious morass, a dead end on the way to God.
When we are standing at the crossroads of lives, individually and as a community, trying to decide whether to go right or left, backward or forward, we are called, as beloved children of God, to always choose God’s path, the one that is for everyone.
We who are blessed, we who are chosen, we who have been consecrated since before we were born … we are standing at those crossroads right now.
We know that we are God’s beloved.
We know that we belong to God.
God is stretching God’s hand out to us … right now … right here … in this place, inviting us into the dance.
It’s decision time.
The question is,
Whatchya gonna do?
Are you going to get up and participate in the dance?
As you think about your decision, remember:
We are all on a mission from God, a “journey to the common good,” as theologian Walter Brueggemann labels it, a “a trek that all serious human beings must make, a growth out beyond private interest and sectarian passion” to all of humanity, not for our sake but for God’s sake.
It is not always easy – there will always be nay-sayers, even among us. Choosing the ancient path, the one that will give our souls rest, is hard in a society, a world, that is all about getting ahead, all about making sure that you have more than the Joneses, all about getting-mine-and-I-don’t-care-if-you-get-yours.
Nobel Peace Laureate and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking from his own experience about making the hard decisions and choosing the right paths, affirms for us that “the demonstration of love in action can take us to dangerous places. [But] our love and our own goodness compel us to make choices that self-preservation would eschew.”
Or, if you like, listen to American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who says:
Whatever course you decide upon,
there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong.
There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe
that your critics are right.
To map out a course of action and follow it requires courage.
But, Tutu points out, “the onerous duty of ‘doing good’ disappears once we recognize that we have no need to impress God with our success. When we really grasp our own goodness, we realize that we have no need to ‘buy’ God’s approval. We are already loved. We are already accepted. When we can accept our acceptance, the texture of life changes. The fear that has held us hostage will release its stranglehold on us.”
So the question we face, as we stand at the crossroads, once again is this:
Whatchya gonna do?
• • •
Tutu ends his book with a love poem, from God, to us. I want us to listen to this poem, written by one of the holiest men of our time, speaking on God’s behalf:
You are my child,
With you I am well pleased.
Stand beside me and see yourself,
Borrow my eyes so you can see perfectly.
When you look with my eyes then you will see
That the wrong you have done and the good left undone,
The words you have said that should not have been spoken,
The words you should have spoken but left unsaid,
The hurts you have caused,
The help you’ve not given
Are not the whole of the story of you.
You are not defined by what you did not achieve.
Your worth is not determined by success.
You were priceless before you drew your first breath,
Beautiful before dress or artifice,
Good at the core.
And now is time for unveiling
The goodness that is hidden behind the fear of failing.
You shout down your impulse to kindness in case it is shunned,
You suck in your smile,
You smother your laughter,
You hold back the hand that would help.
You crush your indignation
When you see people wronged or in pain
In case all you can do is not enough,
In case you cannot fix the fault,
In case you cannot soothe the searing,
In case you cannot make it right.
What does it matter if you do not make it right?
What does it matter if your efforts move no mountains?
It matters not at all.
It only matters that you live the truth of you.
It only matters that you push back the veil to let your goodness shine through.
It only matters that you live as I have made you.
It only matters that you are made for me,
Made like me,
Made for goodness.
• • •
So … let’s go back to the Hokey-Pokey. Think again about the last part of the song:
You put your whole self in,
you put your whole self out,
you put your whole self in and you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Pokey and you turn yourself around.
That’s what it’s all about!
Participating in the dance … putting your whole self in … is a commitment not to silliness but to God.
It is a decision to walk in God’s ways and delight in God’s will to the glory of God’s name.
Whatchya gonna do?
Are you going to accept the invitation?
Is anybody willing to dance?
(Stand up … everyone dance … first verse and last verse of the song.)
It’s up to you, folks.
You’ve been invited into the holy dance, the dance of love and community.
Whatchya gonna do?
 From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Translated by Benedicta Ward. Cistercian Studies Series, number 59. This is saying 7 of Abba Joseph of Panephysis and appears on page 103.
 Jer. 1:4-10, NRSV.
 Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1991), 125.
John 15:12-15, NRSV.
 John 15:4, NRSV.
 Micah 6:8, NRSV.
 John 15:9, NRSV.
 John 15:10, NRSV.
 John 15:11, NRSV.
 John 15:16, NRSV.
 Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, 325, emphasis added.
 John 15:16-17, NRSV.
 John 13:34, Ephesians 5:2, NRSV.
 Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pa., from Good for the Soul, http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/chittister_4910.htm, sermon preached on 4 December 2005, accessed 9 September 2011, emphasis added.
 Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, 2.
 Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, Kindle locations 432-433.
 This quote is thought to have come from Emerson, although no source can be found.
 Tutu, locations 2266-2269.
 Ibid, Kindle locations 2359-2385.