Wednesday, August 29, 2007

My Sermon from first Staff/Faculty Chapel Service

Opening Faculty - Staff Chapel Service

Genesis 1:24 - 2:3; Psalm 46; Reading from T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”

28 August 2007

On the way from East Middlebury Vermont on Route 125 to Hancock Vermont, there are two hills that literally take your breath away. The first is just after the bridge that carries traffic about 50 feet over the Middlebury River – over “the gorge.” That first hill is affectionately called “Sand Hill.” The reason for the name, “Sand Hill” in fact is that there is always a healthy coating of sand on the hill, even in summer there is a healthy layer left over from the icy winter. It is steep, but in a car for 9 months of the year it really won’t give you any problems. However, for those three (or 5!) winter months, it is important to be moving with some velocity before the bridge so that your momentum (and engine) can take you up “Sand Hill.” Now, on a bike, it is a seriously different matter than in a car … on a bike “Sand Hill” offers a challenge to your legs, heart, lungs and spirit no matter the month, the season, the weather or the quality of the cyclist. Even if you are strong, there is a good likelihood that you can slip and fall while trying to climb uphill.

The second major hill on the route from East Middlebury to Hancock is a much bigger deal; this is the hill that hits you not so long after you pass the pristine summer campus of Bread Loaf, where notable writers such as Robert Frost lived, and where many notable writers, such as Ann Sexton, John Updike still teach writing. The road rolls along in a civilized way for a mile or two before you re-enter the woods, and the road hits a wall. That hill has no name, but it is also covered by sand, but unlike Sand Hill, it doesn’t last a hundred yards, but lasts about 2 miles. When you hit that hill, it can make you feel like you might just turn around and go home, it takes your breath away, and in mid – July, even in Vermont, it can be a roasting experience on the hot road. It is so steep you don’t want to take your hands off the handlebars to take a drink, and it is one of those places where you just have to dig deep.

Sometimes, all we can do is put one foot in front of another, be conscious of our breathing and just hope that the steep stretch will, indeed, be over soon. At other times, even in the steepest part of our lives, we can find a rhythm, perhaps we are reminded of a happy moment, perhaps our faith gives us strength in our legs and heart and soul, and often there are others who minister to us and give us a sense of rest, even in our most trying times. Sometimes another will just pedal along with us for a stretch of time, share their time with us, share their own experience, and we realize that we will make it after all!

Even in these moments of stress and challenge, (and perhaps especially in these moments), God is there. Even, and especially, in these moments of stress, God is there. “Be still, then, and know I am God.” The psalmist knows that life is full of motion, of busy-ness, of action. The psalmist does not live in a fantasy-land. No, the psalmist calls out the words of God, “Be still, then, and know that I am God.”

We all know how the schedule starts spinning and all we can do is jump on and try to enjoy the ride. However, the physicist and the dancer among us might remind us that there is also a place where we can go where the spinning is not so treacherous. “At the still point of the turning world….there the dance is.” Or, as Augustine would remind us, “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

Today the church remembers Augustine of Hippo, ... can we learn from Augustine? Augustine knew that we are in some major way restless, anxious, stressed with all the changes and chances of our lives, and can know true rest only in God’s embrace. The hope is that God is with us, that God loves us, and does not wait to care for us, to offer us rest, but is immanent and holding us in the palms of God’s hands! “Be still, then, and know that I am God.”

What might we learn from God as God created (and still creates through us, and among us and beside us)? In Genesis, we hear the story of God creating, but we also hear that God rested. Each day after work, God reflected, and rested. This practice of work, reflection, and rest may be one that is healthy for our students, even for us (and especially for me!). [And who better to model our day upon than God, anyway!]

God also ordained the day of rest, the Sabbath. We Christians have much to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters in terms of honoring the Sabbath. Imagine really taking a day away from work to turn to family, to spend time with friends, to eat food already prepared, to worship, to enjoy God’s creation, and to remember that IT is not about us, and IT does not depend on US after all. Taking an entire day away may look impossible, but the concept of Sabbath-keeping may be one in which we can carve Sabbath-time out of our busy days. As a wise person in our midst reminded me yesterday when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed, “it doesn’t all have to be perfect.” I know how I can get caught up in the chase for perfection. Lord knows our girls need reminders that in seeking excellence, they also must take a break, and they need to give themselves a break – to work with diligence, but then take themselves lightly. In taking time to reflect and relax and play, we cultivate gratitude, and cultivate thanksgiving for all we have and for all we are. Even the medieval Benedictine monks included “Play” as one of their key values..

Embracing playfulness, and cultivating a practice of work, reflection, and rest will be especially important as we as a school enter into this time of change, of restlessness, and of stress. There are many beginnings here this year, and endings as well, the community seems to possess a wealth of hope, but probably at least a bit of fear as well. As Cathy wrote in her letter to the upper school faculty, “The theme of change remains, paradoxically, a constant for the next several years at St. Catherine’s.” If change = stress, we probably need to help each other weather some of the changes going on here!

New Head of School, End of Boarding, Building Renovation, New Business Office Configuration, New Business Manager, Newe Online Program-Whipple Hill, VAIS Re-Accreditation, New Faculty, New Students, Growth in Middle School, New Chaplain...

...New classes, new teams, new musical groups, new friends, new names to learn, new curriculum to teach, new classrooms in which to teach, new clothes to wear, new city to negotiate, …..and any other newness and challenges and changes and chances that are present in your lives, the lives of your loved ones, and the lives also of our students!

And we know how change goes, change is really ok, as long as you don’t ask me to change, go ahead and change whatever you like. We may feel at times like we are climbing up Sand Hill, that our wheels can’t get much traction, and that the flat, easy ground is far far away. I know that I have trouble sometimes as I summon the energy to get through the steep and slick roads. However, the great hope is that God offers us a model of work, reflection, and rest. When we can “Be still” and know that we are NOT God…when we can find the “still point,”…we might remember to “give ourselves a break,” both literally and figuratively. Taking time and taking ourselves lightly. When we can do our work, then reflect upon it, and rest, we might see that it ain’t so bad, we can make it up the hill, and there are many others around to help. The changes we are experiencing are probably nothing like the changes that our girls are experiencing, as our summer reading reminded us again. Just as we have experienced the hills and valleys of life, our students are experiencing many of those challenges for the first time. Our own modeling of work, reflection, and rest will also help our students to find that “still point,” where they can “know God” and know themselves as created, loved and cared for by God.

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night/day, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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