What a road THIS has been! This is not only my last Sunday here on staff, but it is also the anniversary of the FIRST day I ever walked through those doors 12 years ago …having not attended church growing up I had found myself in my 30’s practicing law and starting to ask questions about meaning and purpose in my life – I guess I was something of a seeker.… And so there we were at the Pride Parade, minding my own business enjoying a margarita or 2…and coming down the parade is a small group – they didn’t have great signage then – I saw signs that said “Integrity” and had no idea what that was but I saw the banner and I could just make out the words: St Paul’s Cathedral….My first reaction was, well that SOUNDS like a legitimate church, and if they’re marching in a Pride Parade, maybe that might be a good place to start…
So I googled it when I got home, and the next Sunday we came in and we were IMMEDIATELY and warmly welcomed by Deedra Hardman – of course! So we sat down and I did my best to follow along in the liturgy and it was all going fine–I don’t think I was looking too out of place, I recall it feeling a bit stoic (it was the 8am service)… BUT then I heard the invitation to communion, Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith, you are welcome here…
Like so many of you, when I heard those words for the first time, and my heart melted. I hope you never stop making that invitation. It’s an invitation we ALL need to hear from time to time, and there will always be someone, needing to hear it for the FIRST time.
So never let it be said that Episcopalians don’t do evangelism…because you evangelized me!
Sure it didn’t happen overnight – it took time. I had my suspicions to overcome and hang-ups that held me back. Like the disciples in todays’ gospel lesson who NEVER IMAGINED they could feed 5,000 people I too had been conditioned by a world that operated on the basis of scarcity…I had trouble imagining the abundant God that was being described each Sunday in this pulpit. Like all of us I had been conditioned by a life time of television advertising and marketing messages telling us repeatedly that we are NOT good enough, we are not young enough …not thin enough…not beautiful enough… smart enough…fashionable enough… wealthy enough… all of it in an effort to sell us products that they promised would that whole we all have in our heart. A hole that can only be filled with God. I had even heard a similar message about God from Christians growing up, who seemed all too judgmental and proclaimed a Gospel that seemed too small and a love that was all too conditional ….
But in time you introduced me a God who knew my name before we were born, and who loved and accepted me just as I am…and by doing that you helped me to accept myself…
I think there is probably no greater gift because knowing that freed me to begin living more fully into the person God would have me become. It would in time lead me to leave my law practice to come to work here, and then in time to discern a call to the priesthood, then seminary and now to another church, where I hope to bring a little of the St Paul’s spirit with me…
It has indeed been a wild, unexpected ride!
But as today’s gospel makes clear, when we put our faith in God and God’s abundance, anything is possible. In fact for the past couple of months we have been hearing miracle stories in our readings and today’s is one of the most famous. It got me wondering, how do we hear those stories today? Were they displays of power that we might believe? Were they reserved for the ancient world, for the beginnings of a faith, or are we still in an age of miracles?
I will never forget when Dorcas House, a foster home in TJ for children whose parents were incarcerated, approached the Cathedral looking for a financial support. Their donor base had dried up and their Sylvia was looking at possibly closing the home, sending 45 kids back into the jails where they sometimes were kept in cages for their own protection. She was at the end of her ropes and was looking for a miracle. And while we were sympathetic to her mission and her plight, we were facing our own difficulties – over the past two years we had lost 20% of our income, and now the idea of taking on a foster home whose expense equated to another 20% – that was over $400 just to get back to where we had started! Well to the ears of a young dev office, it all seemed too much to imagine! And then others pointed out, “We’re talking about children, in Mexico! Can you imagine the liability we could face if something went wrong!” Together these fear got some heads nodding, they even started to sound convincing… scarcity and doubt was starting to take hold.
But amidst the fears was a persistent voice that said, “But if we don’t try, who will – so why not try?”
And so in the face of fears and doubts, we trusted in God and said yes! And over the years, there was no financial or liability catastrophes, we not only grew, but so did Dorcas house! So much that in time, people in the community would say to me, “Oh I know your church, you are the ones that have that foster home in Mexico…” And we didn’t just send them money, we built relationships with those kids, we got to know them and saw them grow and we were transformed in the process. We saw Gabriella who was once kept in a kennel meant for dogs, grow into a young women and become the first child of Dorcas House to go to college. And who would nevertheless always return to the Dorcas House to help tutor the next group of little girls and boys so they too might have the chance she did…
Our former Dean John Chane said in his last sermon, “As I leave here today, I pray that you will never make peace with any oppression, religious or political, or any other that demeans the human condition and denies equal access to the sacraments of the Church.” Well I think we’ve done a pretty good job living up to that so far haven’t we? My own story, and the stories of so many of you are a testimony that we have never forgotten Bishop Chane’s charge to be a community that not only welcomes all, but affirms and celebrates all!
As I leave hear today, may I humbly add my own a charge: I pray that you will never make peace with a Gospel that’s too small, with a mission that’s too safe, or with ministry that’s too comfortable, too easy or without risk. The story of Dorcas House reminds me of one of my favorite prayers, The Prayer of the explorer Sir Francis Drake which begins like this:
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
It is a prayer that challenges us to be audacious in our mission, to dream the impossible and push the envelope WAY out there! Because it’s out there, out beyond our comfort zones, outside our safety net, that we encounter the abundance of God. And as in or Gospel today, it’s out there that we become co-creators in God’s miracles.
Sister Karla Maria and I asked this question the other day in a conversation about homeless youth in San Diego who are currently being served at the Episcopal Church Center in Ocean Beach. It’s a wonderful ministry that the Cathedral supports, but we wondered…rather than be content to collect sleeping bags or other supplies to help make life on the streets more comfortable –what if we were to follow the lead of Sylvia and Dorcas House, and resolved to end homelessness amongst youth? What if we decided to shelter these kids ourselves? Why not built a network of parishioners who have an extra guest room, a home office, a pool house, or a couch and then partner with social workers who screen and place youth in our homes, and why not expand that network to other churches and other denominations, other faiths, and then why not go further to invite our social networks our friends our neighbors, our community groups – all untied in a mission to end homelessness amongst youth – and then why not put this out as a model for the rest of the country and beyond. And then…like the children of Dorcas House, what might happen if we got to know them, broke bread with them… heard their stories and shared ours…what if we began to see God in them and share with them the same abundant love you showed me and countless others?
Are ideas like that crazy? Does that sound impossible? Too risky? Yeah, they do. They would require a lot of trust, a lot of faith! But it’s that kind of crazy thinking is how we feed the 5,000 today! We live in a world that is fast forgetting the church. That is not hearing the Gospel because they aren’t experiencing it. We live in a world that is desperate for miracles! THAT is the church’s challenge today – we need to get back into the miracle business.
As George Bernard Shaw son wonderfully put it, “Some people see the world as it is and ask– why? I see a world that has never been and ask, why not?”
As I leave here today, I pray that we would never stop dreaming of God’s Kingdom as it might be, and that we will never stop asking….why not?
On behalf of Joe and myself. I want to thank you for loving and supporting us – for being a family to us. Thank you for showing me, and the countless other who have come through those doors, God’s abundant, unconditional love. Thank you for teaching me to dream…and to believe in miracles.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
and Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
Canon Chris Harris
View the sermon here: