Skipping church

Means you miss sermons like this one. Happy reading.

Sermon 2 Advent Year C

December 10, 2006

St. John’s Episcopal Church

The Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde

"In Honor of a Rabbi"
       

In the
fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of
Judea, and Herod was the governor of Galilee, and his brother Philip as ruler of
the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the
high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of
Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is
written in the book of Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be
filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be
made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the
salvation of God.’”            
Luke 3:1-6


 

Two weeks ago
I attended a reunion and prayer service held in honor of the 10th
anniversary of the death of Rabbi Edwin Friedman, a man who had a profound
influence on an entire generation of clergy and other leaders. As soon as I
heard of the gathering, I knew that I needed to be there, in part to honor him,
but also for my own sake, to revisit for myself the cornerstones of truth that
he taught.

All in
attendance were asked to reflect upon what we had learned from Rabbi Friedman.
This is what I wrote: 

In my first
years as a parish priest, which coincided with the birth of our children, the
question of personal integrity began to take on real urgency for me. I was
busier than I had ever been, living on little sleep, torn in my loyalties and
assuming unfamiliar roles, and often overwhelmed by the complexity of
relationships in every realm.

In a
lifesaving moment, a friend mentioned her studies with a certain rabbi who had
written a book about congregational leadership. I bought Friedman’s book and
started to read it, understanding less than half but knowing, nonetheless, that
I had found something important. Gathering my courage, I called Friedman and
asked to join his seminars for clergy.

He wasn’t
particularly receptive. The seminars had already started. Maybe I could try
again next year. In desperation, I persevered. “Have you read my book?” he
asked, sounding irritated. “I’m reading it now,” I said.  “Do you
understand it?” “Yes,” I lied. He reluctantly allowed me to join that year’s
seminar, and a month later I found myself traveling to Bethesda, Maryland
. It was a
journey I would take twice a year for the next decade.

Rabbi
Friedman taught me, alongside many others, that it was possible to live integrated
life, not a balanced life, mind you—that’s always alluded me—but a life lived
with integrity. It wasn’t easy, but it was possible. Such a life, he said,
required continual work at self-definition and self-regulation in three
distinct arenas of relationship: your family of origin, your immediate family,
and the relationship dynamics of your congregation or any other work system.
For the issues and struggles in all three, he said, are the same. And whatever
issues you ignore in one arena will invariable surface in another. You are who
you are wherever are, and you have a unique role to play in each relationship
system of your life.

Leadership,
he said, for anyone from parents to presidents has more to do with presence
than activity. It has to do with the kind of person you are, not the techniques
you master. If you base your sense of self worth on what you know, what others
think of you, or even what you accomplish, you are doomed to feel inadequate
for the rest of your life.  So learn who you are and what you believe, and
learn to live according to those beliefs.  But remember that the work of
self definition cannot be done in isolation, as tempting as that may be. Your
capacity to make a difference in this world depends upon staying connected to
the important relationships in your life, especially to those people who drive
you crazy, who can trigger a predictable response in you with a word or tone of
voice. Don’t cut yourself off from them. Give up the notion you can change
anyone except yourself, but stay in touch. Cut-off people never heal. Cut-off
leaders cannot lead.

And if you
want to make a difference in any relationship or area in your life, the first
thing to do is work at managing your own anxiety. Free-floating anxiety is
everywhere, and it creates distortion, like looking at an object through water
or listening to a radio through static. Anxiety hinders communication. When
we’re anxious, we’re less creative and imaginative, less capable of speaking
for ourselves or seeing more than one option, and more likely to blame others
for our unhappiness.

And this
isn’t just about you, he would say. Our entire society is caught in a cycle of
escalating anxiety. Such anxiety helps explain the attraction of fundamentalism
in religion and politics. He defined a fundamentalist, by the way, in the words
of Winston Churchill, as one who never changes his mind and never changes the
subject (a category we can all fall into from time to time). He also defined a
liberal as one who can have a meaningful relationship with a conservative. But
anxiety works against such relationships across differences. (Great example in
recent weeks: furor caused in conservative religious circles when Rick Warren
of Saddleback Church and The Purpose Driven Live fame invited the
liberal Senator from Illinois, Barak Obama, to speak at Saddleback’s World AIDS
day conference). Anxiety encourages us to remain polarized, split up into
fierce tribes that have as little connection as possible with those who differ
from them. And periodically, he said, an issue emerges that serves as a focus
for all our anxiety, allowing us to ignore pressing realities elsewhere and
causing us to make foolish choices based on false urgencies. We can all fill in
the blanks here. 

“So what are
we supposed to do?” we’d ask Friedman, in a million different ways. The trick,
he would say, is to lighten up. Try not to get too anxious about the anxiety
you feel. You can’t eliminate it, but you can learn to deal with anxiety, and
to the extent you do, you bring a certain measure of clarity wherever you go.
You don’t have to be completely calm, he’d say, with a twinkle in his eye, just
a little calmer than those around you.  Most important, be present:
present to yourself, present to your God, present to those around you, even
present to your anxiety, without fixing anything. Of course this is impossible
stance to sustain over time; even the most mature can manage it about 50% of
the time. So give yourself from room to make mistakes.

Edwin
Friedman died unexpectedly ten years ago, and his presence has been sorely
missed. Mind you, he wasn’t a warm person, and he was intimidating to be
around. But what he gave us was a place to learn; he helped us understand what
it means to be a responsible, mature human being, and how to navigate the task
of becoming oneself in the context of relationships. You can always locate the
most self differentiated person in any family or system, he said, by finding
the one who functions with the least amount of blaming.

We rarely
talked about explicitly spiritual things with Friedman, but it was all
spiritual. He identified those things within that prevent us from hearing God
and the living according to the teachings of our faith. When we deal with the
things that get in the way, he said, spirituality follows easily. So pay
attention: Whose stress are you carrying? Burn out, he would say, isn’t the
result of working too hard, but rather carrying the anxiety and stress that
doesn’t belong to you, or at least not to you alone. For whom do you feel
responsible, and why?

Think of your
horizons, he would say. Where is your life headed? What are your  goals,
your core values and beliefs? If you don’t know, that’s okay, but work at
finding out. Remember that core beliefs are like muscles; they develop with
exercise. This is a life-long task. You don’t need to have complete clarity
about these things; he’d say. No one does. But a little bit of clarity will
take you far.

Friedman
taught me the importance of vision. If you don’t know where you’re going, he’s
say, any road will get you there. But he also stressed that vision meant
looking beyond your horizon, beyond what you can see. So there’s always some
uncertainty and cause for doubt. But our horizons, he said, are what enable to
see past the limitations of our current circumstances, no matter how difficult.
He said that one of the most important characteristics of leadership is having
a spirit of adventure. The safest place for ships is the harbor, he’d say, but
that’s not what ships are for. Another important quality: persistence. When
you’re dancing with a gorilla, he’d say, you don’t stop when you get tired.
Still another, resilience: Your wounds were not sent to make you small, he’d
say, but to take you to a greater place. If you’re going to bring light into
the word, you must be willing to endure the heat.   

You may be
wondering if there I am ever going to speak on the Scripture texts this
morning. I am, right now. Every year in Advent, John the Baptist takes center
stage, not for one week, but two. And because he is our patron saint, he
appears again for us every June. So we spend a lot of time in the company of
John the Bapist. I’ve have often thought how fortunate we are to have his
mantle cast over us in this way. For it would be hard to find a more self
defined, adventuresome, persistent, resilient person than John. He wasn’t easy
to be around—not a warm and friendly guy, John. But he knew who he was and what
was he was on this earth to do. He wasn’t a political leader like Tiberius, or
Pontious Pilate or Herod; he wasn’t a member of the spiritual elite, like Annas
and Caiphas. He was John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the word of God
came to him in the wilderness, and he knew that it was his calling to speak and
live that word: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John
was so compelling that many thought him to be the Messiah. He knew better:
“There is one who is coming,” he said. “I baptize you with water. He will
baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

He is given
to us as an example—not that we should wear camel shirts and eat wild locusts
and call others to repent. That was John’s life and he lived it well. Our task
is to live our own lives equally well. The greatest gift we have to give
anyone, which is something to consider in this season of giving, is
ourselves—our presence, our integrity, our passion. Learning who we are, what
we believe, what we are here on this earth to do. What better way to prepare
for the coming of Jesus?  Who knows what might happen when we dare to show
up and simply be present, be ourselves, relating as best we can to those who
differ from us, and invite Jesus.

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