A long time priest who had served in several parishes told me that over his career in the different places he served, he identified three characteristics of a healthy parish: A healthy parish is a place where people make an inward journey to see God in themselves, an outward journey to see God in the world around them, and it’s a place where people take both of these journeys together.
This is the time of year when we remind ourselves what we’re doing here, what this whole church enterprise is all about. It’s about an inward journey, an outward journey, and a journey together.
For me, my thinking about God is an important part of my inward journey – the journey to understand how I’m connected to God. As Paul writes, we “live and move and have our being in God,” God isn’t somewhere else – there’s no spacial distance, there’s just an awareness gap – I say “just” an awareness gap, but let me tell you that for me this gap is pretty significant. Often I have no idea that I live and move and have my being in anything beyond my day to day life. The life that consists of job responsibilities, family responsibilities, emails to answer, tasks to complete.
We start this service and nearly all of our services praying that to God “all hearts are open”. It’s often an aspirational prayer for me. Maybe for you too. I want to open my heart to God, I’d like to have an awareness of the Holy.
A theologian that I respect writes that this is the meaning of the Genesis stories about how we live outside of the Garden, we live outside of an awareness of God’s presence. We live most of the time in a way that’s driven by our senses – in a world of objects that we can see and touch. He writes that often our main concern is what we produce – grades in school, work product and information, outcomes for the companies and organizations we run – often our main concern is what we produce and what we consume (2). We’re socialized into a life where there are lots of expectations, there’s a lot on the surface. These are all good things, but there’s more.
We’ve been reading Paul’s letter to the Romans in all of our formation groups and classes this fall, and Paul writes about this in Romans, he says that so often we “worship the created rather than the creator.” (3)
At our best, we operate in both places. We hear a call from a deeper place for justice or fairness, and we work in our lives to make it so. We hear a call to love each other, to build community, and we work in the lives we have, in the communities we know, to make it so. It’s always incomplete…one author describes heaven as “the impossible” for this very reason…there’s always a gap between the call of the absolute and the lives we live, but we hear the call anyway. (4)
And that brings me back to the first prayer of our liturgy, the aspirational prayer, “to you God, all hearts are open.” At our best, our hearts are open to this deeper level of living. It’s pervasive imagery in the Bible – the image of a heart that is closed off to a deeper call. It’s Pharoe’s heardened heart in the Exodus story; it’s a way to describe a lack of compassion, or love, or higher call at the core of our being. (5)
We open our hearts with practice, more specifically by doing…by doing something different. For me, prayer and practicing generosity are key to opening my heart. I’m here with you today in this role because some wise guides that I’ve had along the way helped me to find practices of prayer and giving and have called me to stick with these practices when I’ve slacked off.
When I was a college student, I felt a call to the priesthood. It was clear to me in that moment that I was supposed to be a priest, but I didn’t know how. I had planned to go to law school, was in the process of getting ready to do that, and I couldn’t imagine anything different for me. In particular, I couldn’t imagine a different economic future for me. It took a good numbers of years and it took someone teaching me that I should give money away before I could imagine a different path. In the language of our liturgy, through the practice of giving that for me was then and is now, difficult, my heart was opened to something new.
I say this today as a fellow traveler – not as someone who has figured it all out – but as a fellow traveler in a journey to find deeper meaning and purpose in life. Key to that journey for me is the practice of giving. And I don’t mean to suggest that you’re called to a career change like I was – but I know that you are called to live out of a deep purpose.
For me, unless it’s coupled with giving, money causes me to have a closed heart. A heart that does not hear a call beyond myself. And I bet that I’m not alone…I’m the new guy but I know that this congregation, the facilities you’ve built here come from enormous generosity. I know that many of you share my experience. Does money help you to live out your values, does it help you to live from your deepest self? Does it keep your heart closed or does it help you open your heart?
For many of us, the journey of finding God, of finding connection to the Holy, is connected to the practice of giving.
Paul reminds us today that opening our hearts is not easy. Our intentions don’t always line up with our actions. That’s one of the reasons that we need each other. I need you to call me back to the practices that bring out the best in me: common worship, a reminder to be generous, connection to our tradition – those things that open my heart, I fall off the wagon without you. And when our hearts are open, an outward journey comes naturally.
That outward journey is where we operationalize this call in a way that’s not just for us but that others can share. It’s what we build together here. We hold out to our neighbors an open, thoughtful way of engaging our tradition and the Scriptures. It takes history and context and discussion to make the Bible meaningful to us today. It’s hard work, work that together, we do here.
We’re committed to engaging folks all over our city – and The Hill reflects that commitment. It comes from a belief that everyone lives and moves and has their being in God, and that our lives and our journey are richer when we engage people like us and people different from us. And our lives are richer because of the people entering our doors and entering the Episcopal tradition at The Hill.
And our journey will be richer when Hillside Early Childhood Center opens its doors in 2018. We’ll be sharing the educational tradition for which this parish is known – and we’ll be sharing it with people who need access to high quality early childhood education. We will change the lives of some of the kids we encounter. Our shared financial commitments this fall will make that possible.
We operationalize our mission to see God in the world around us when we care for each other – its every meal that the St. Brigid’s guild cooks in our kitchen for families facing the loss of a loved one or a sickness, every hospital visit your clergy make, every volunteer or staff person that helps with a funeral. Your financial commitment makes that possible.
We’ll operationalize this call when we’re helping our neighbors to our east recover from Hurricane Harvey in 2018 and beyond. Long-term recovery will not be quick, and we’re committed for the long-haul. Your pledges make that possible.
Jesus reminds us today that life operates on two levels – the surface of what we can see and touch and a deeper dimension where are hearts are open to a deeper call – the call to justice and beauty, to truth and love. It’s a journey that is not instant, for me I take steps forward and then steps back, and I know that it’s not a path that I can travel alone. Because of your commitment, none of us has to. Because of your commitment, this parish is a place that helps us to hear that deeper voice and then moves us into the world following its call. Open your hearts.