This is our story, this is our song

a sermon by Susan Robinson
executive assistant to the Rt. Rev. John P. Croneberger, Bishop of Newark

Noon, April 11, 2000 Lay Professionals Liturgy

Trinity & St. Philip's Cathedral, Newark

This is our story, this is our song

When I was asked if I'd preach at the service today -- of course without hesitation, I said yes and I knew immediately what song I wanted to use as the sequence hymn, although we hadn't chosen the texts. I love the refrain of Blessed Assurance and knew that it would be a wonderful way to underscore why we are here today. This is our day to tell our story, to sing our song, and to reaffirm how our stories and our songs give praise to Jesus all of our days.

Let's begin with story -- as Jeremiah labels it as God's plans and as Elizabeth O'Connor in the contemporary reading labels it the will of God. Neither of course is talking about scores of angels keeping track of our lives in large three-ring notebooks. What they are addressing is the Story of who each of us is and why it is that we do this work we do: it is about our call to ministry. What all of us here know is that, for the most part, we haven't know how to recognize and affirm those who are called to lay ministry...Bishop Croneberger has said, "We ordain people (to be priests and deacons) because we know how to do that" Today for the first time on a diocesan level, we begin to name and celebrate those whose vocations are also to work in the church - not as clergy but as administrators, accountants, musicians, teachers, day school directors. There are others here too who are called, those who've come to celebrate with us: clergy friends and colleagues and some of our very committed lay volunteers- men and women who have also recognized a call to serve God with their time and talent. Each one of us here has a call to ministry.

As lay professionals, we ourselves have trouble articulating and acknowledging our call, perhaps because it is so often unacknowledged by others. In the Parish Administrators' meetings and at the Bishops' Executive Secretaries annual meeting (and I suspect the same is true at associations for other lay professionals) I notice that we spend a lot of time complaining or telling stories about parishes, missions, the altar guild, the impossible vestry members, assorted church members, the rectors and vicars and assistants. We complain about the hours or the demands that can't possibly be met in the hours we have or the lack of pay or the lack of benefits. All these are part of the story, but what I don't hear often enough is who we are in these jobs --why do we put up with all the stuff we complain about -- how did we came to be in these jobs, what do we want from them, what do they mean to us, how are they forming us.

One of the things the organizers of today's liturgy hope is that we will each go away today with a desire to deepen our sense of our call -- a sense of how our history has brought us to the places where we are today. It is important that each one of us identify and understand and claim our story. Just as aspirants for postulancy are asked to write their statement of call, each of us should be able to do the same -- we should be able to talk or write or paint or dance our call and how it is that we come to be sitting here today. Part of the story will be history, some of it may seem like coincidences about hearing about a job at the right moment, about being in the wrong job -- a time perhaps that felt like exile -- of not being at home, of not knowing what we should be doing. Elizabeth O'Connor says it so clearly that "God's will is written into our very beings" and we must surrender to it. But we have to hear it if we are to surrender to it.

I didn't fully know my call until a year and a half ago when I came to Newark to work as Bishop Croneberger's assistant. I didn't know that all my previous work in banking and government and small business, all those talents I'd been honing over my lifetime, were, in fact, leading me to this place. I didn't know that my parish work in stewardship and editing newsletters, and leading discussions, and organizing dinners was all part of discerning my gifts. I did start to know that something bigger than me was happening when I left Citibank to start my own business, I knew pieces of it when I began a ministry focused on simplicity, I knew pieces of it when I went to work as parish administrator at Atonement, Tenafly. But the whole of it never became clear to me until December 1998, soon after I started working full-time for the Bishop. I described my job to two friends, who said independently of the other, "it's as if you've been preparing all your life for this job." I suddenly realized the wonderful truth of their statements -- that I had been indeed been lead from a place of exploration, a place sometimes of exile, to a place where God is at home, where I am at home... and that this is my ministry. This is my call.

Each of you has a story that in some way parallels mine. We each need to reclaim and celebrate and affirm in each other, these calls, not just today, but every day.

That's the first step -- knowing and living into the call. Once we know it how do we support it and celebrate it? I think there are two elements of Luke's Gospel about Mary and Martha that help us. First, I think we often forget about who Mary and Martha are. They are not just Jesus' friends, they are part of the community that supports and sustains him . In Jesus' itinerant ministry, he was dependent on several people like Mary and Martha to give him a place to stay, to bake bread for him and those who traveled with him, to mend sandals, repair robes, to listen in the evening to the events of the day. The community without which he could not do his ministry. Jesus' story is very much the story of Mary and Martha and their community and we each have similar stories.

We're not part of an itinerant ministry, we are part of an institutionalized church. We speak of that broad church community and our place in it, and we can find support there, but we forget that we also need to be supported by our own personal communities- we need our own Marys and Marthas to support our ministry. The details, the people, may be different from Jesus' community, but they are no less important. Example, the Marys and Marthas in my life include two other professional people - a spiritual director with whom I visit with every 6 weeks, a therapist with whom I talk over situational problems every 4 to 6 weeks and friends I can reveal anything to because I know they won't repeat it, at least two colleagues with whom I have a pact that we each can just 'vent to each other when necessary, and several pets, and of course, loving friends. Who are your supporters -- husband, wife, partner, colleagues, friends, neighbors? Who are your Marys and Marthas?

I hope we also recognize that one of the places we find kindred spirits is in the professionals associations I spoke of earlier -- the American Guild of Organists, Financial officers associations, other nonprofit officials groups. We need to be sure we recognize the importance of these groups in supporting our ministries -- clergy have colleague and preaching groups -- we also need our colleague groups. Just as Jesus sat down in the evening to talk with Mary and Martha and Peter and John about how things were shaping up on the shores of Galilee, we need people who understand and share our sense of call, to sit down with on a regular basis and share what's shaping up on the shores of Newark and Ridgewood and Dover and Hoboken. We need to share the details of our stories even as we are writing them.

And, finally we come to song. I guess its not surprising that song is last at least on my list and may be on yours. Bishop Croneberger noted in his Convention Address how so many of us have a certain arrogance in feeling we don't need to take time off. It's thinking that we're just about story and not about song. What does this Gospel tell us about song? we know Martha is TO-DO lists and schedules and paperwork. What we hear Jesus saying about Mary is that she is soul -- she is song. Mary is about time off, about quiet and rest and about play One of my colleagues at Episcopal House is very good at reminding the rest of us that we need to play, and if you go into his office on the third floor, you will find a wonderful assortment of toys. He's inspired me and now when you come up to the 4th floor, you'll find a coloring book and crayons, a reminder of the song in us that is essential to praising God and that being joyful is part of our call to ministry. Mary sitting at Jesus'  feet is also showing us how to find balance in our lives -- how we we must be about rest and study and play (St. Benedict figured it out). Unless we get an occasional unseasonal snowstorm, its hard for most of us to stop working and driving around on errands. I got snowed in Sunday in Albany (13 ½ inches of snow), but it gave me a wonderful day in front of a roaring fire with two friends, we read and napped and made soup and in the friendship and warmth and light our souls sang When we do stop, switch gears, that's when we begin to let our souls speak - by gardening, or writing poetry, or painting, or napping. That's when we can become Mary. And when we can listen that's when we begin to find God, to discern God's will - written into our beings. I might remind you of something else that the Bishop said in his Convention address, he charged the laity to make two retreats this year - one connected to our congregation, one just for ourselves or our families. Anyone done that? It's probably too late for a Lenten retreat, but why not a spring retreat - time to feel the music of fresh air and gardens and hear laughter and chirping birds. Time to be Mary - to allow our souls and our songs to be heard. Our lives are not is not just about our stories, it is about our songs. Today is not just about our stories, today is also about our songs.

And when all of this comes together, when if echoes from our very being, then we are, as Jeremiah says, at home, we are as Elizabeth O'Connor writes - in touch with the God in our being, and our lives become praise to our Saviour all the day long. Amen. 


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