A pearl of great value

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Lay Stewardship Witness

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

The pearl of great value – well, which one to pick! As I pondered this, I realized there were many pearls at SJTB but then I realized they all helped create the one pearl of great value for me. I’ll keep you in suspense a little longer as to what it is.

I have attended church all my life. Having been raised Catholic, it would come as no surprise to anyone that regular church attendance was a must; however, for virtually all that time, particularly in my younger years, attendance at church was a painful obligation done solely to avoid some dreaded punishment in the afterlife. I selected my church based on the one that had the fastest mass available. In fact, for a good period of time, I drove 20 minutes extra to a church farther away than my home church because the mass was 5 minutes shorter. And in all those years, God was nowhere to be found . . . nowhere.

I will spare you the long details of my church attendance prior to my arrival in New Hampshire. Suffice it to say that when we arrived here five years ago, my church experience left much to be desired. Nonetheless, we started the search for a new church. I frankly don’t know why except that I felt there had to be more to this God thing than I had discovered so far and I wanted to find out about it.

Before coming to SJTB, we tried several other churches in the area. They were pleasant. The people were nice. In some, the services were nice. But certainly there was nothing compared with God appearing in a burning bush as He did in today’s reading.

Then we decided to try SJTB. We had seen a poster in a laundromat of all places that caught our eye. Again, not quite a burning bush, but something called to us. Until that time, we had avoided SJTB primarily because of my reluctance to attend any church that vaguely resembled the Catholic Church. Some of you may have already heard this story but the first time we came was the First Sunday in Lent and Father Peter started the service with the Great Litany and I almost started for the door. My partner managed to restrain me and, amazingly, I found the rest of the service quite appealing. At the end, Marilyn Dodson turned to us, gave us a wonderful welcome and invited us to coffee hour. We went. And we came back the next week. Soon we were regulars. Mind you, not that being a regular meant much in itself. I had been a regular somewhere all my life, but this was different. I found that I enjoyed coming. I actually looked forward to the service and gradually found that some sort of communication with God was occurring. I wanted to be active in the church because it seemed that something special was going on here. I was pleased to be asked to be on the vestry. I actually WANTED to do this talk. I found I was praying in the car as I drove to work. I had found God. . . I HAD FOUND GOD. I have no doubt that he had been waiting for me all these years but in SJTB I could say that God and I had finally met. And that, my friends, is the pearl of great value for me.

So why here? Why this church? One trait of this church that is often mentioned but is perhaps not fully appreciated is the welcome we offer ALL people. This is something often said by churches but is frequently not practiced, at least not in the fullness that Christ modeled for us. It IS practiced here. My partner and I came here as a loving, committed couple. We have been together 22 years. Most of that time we have attended church together but under the guise of friendship. At the last church we were in Connecticut, we were welcomed as the couple we were and we realized we could not go back to hiding this so important facet of our lives. One of the reasons we kept trying various churches in this area was because we did not feel welcome in the ones we tried with the exception of one church that was too far away. In fact, in one church, when we asked the minister about our worshipping in that church, we were told flat out that the church would probably not be a good one for us. When we came to SJs, we were welcomed immediately just as we were. We hear the words each week at communion that ALL, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, are welcome at this table. We were able to list our anniversary in the church bulletin, have it prayed for in the prayers of the people and the church didn’t collapse and no one walked out. I do not think you can truly understand the importance and value of that welcome unless you have experienced its absence. To go to a church and then be unable to ask for prayers for your partner and yourself as one of you faces surgery does not bring the love of God readily to mind. When I was in high school, I told my parents I was gay. I was an only child and the apple of my father’s eye. His one sentence response was “If that is true, you can get out now.” The people of this church said “COME IN NOW”. I thank you more than you will ever know for that Christ like response and in that Christ like response, I encountered God – the pearl of great value.

The people here not only welcome newcomers but welcome and support each other. When the time comes to pass the peace, I sometimes think we need sheepdogs to round up the flock and herd them back to their seats. In that outpouring of love I see every week, I encounter God – the pearl of great value.

So I ask again, why here, why this church??? Because there are numerous opportunities for education and spiritual growth ranging from bible studies to book studies to retreats to spiritual nature walks. I have experienced some of the best group studies I have ever attended. There has been excellent leadership and open, honest and heartfelt participation in those times of sharing. There is also an almost infinite variety of worship and musical experiences. As Father Peter said last week the range of worship is vast - from the powerful, simplicity of the Maundy Thursday footwashing, to the joyous Christmas and Easter services and, of course, the list would not be complete without mention of the Blessing of the Animals. There is just as wide a variety of music. And interestingly enough, it is in the services and music that I thought I would like the least that I have sometimes come the closest to God. Not every service or music selection appeals to every person but I see people who are willing to put up with a crazed, would be Dixieland jazz piano player pounding out Halle, Halle even though they might rather hear the power and majesty of a traditional Episcopalian hymn. But we put up with each other and when I see that I encounter God.

Why this church – because the people here today and the people who have gone before us have cared for it, maintained it and loved it for all these years and that loving care is visible in all aspects of this church. It makes God present everywhere for those who are seeking. One of my favorite books is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. It is one of those children’s books that probably has more meaning for adults. For those who are not familiar with it, the story tells of a little prince who lives on a very small planet with 2 active volcanoes, an extinct volcano and a single rose that he tends to very carefully and which he thinks is unique in all the world. The prince begins traveling and eventually lands on earth where he comes upon a garden filled with roses just like his. He is most disappointed because he no longer feels his rose is special. Then a fox appears. The prince is lonely and immediately wants to be friends but the fox says that first the prince must tame him and over time, they bond. When it is time for the prince to leave, the fox tells him to go look at the roses in the garden again. The prince does and says “You are not at all like my rose. You’re nothing at all yet. No one has tamed you and you haven’t tamed anyone. You’re the way my fox was. He was just a fox like a hundred thousand others. But I’ve made him my friend and now he’s the only fox in all the world.

He continues, “An ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, because she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under the glass. Since she’s the one I sheltered behind a screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except for the two or three for butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted or even sometimes when she said nothing at all . . . Since she’s MY rose.

And he went back to the fox. “Good-bye” said the fox. “Here is my secret. It is quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” I want to say that again because it is one of all time favorite quotes and I think it summarizes much that Jesus taught: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.” The fox goes on “It is the time you spent on your rose that makes your rose so important . . . People have forgotten this truth. You become responsible for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose.”

We are responsible for this church. Many, many people have spent time on this church and continue to spend time caring for it and its people, some in large, visible ways and many more in ways that are not readily noticed. The people in this church do see with the heart and as a result, God is present and can be found here. This is a pearl of great value.

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