Celebrate!

My Prayerful Thoughts for Those Gathered at the Cathedral for the Feast of the Conversation of St. Paul 2012

Today is about Celebration. But before we celebrate I want you to introduce you to someone. Her name is Victoria.

If you could meet Victoria, it would take you all of about two minutes to conclude that this person is more full of life, more full of love, more full of practical wisdom (the kind maybe you can only get growing up in Corning, where-in-the-world-is-that, Arkansas) than maybe anyone you’ve ever met. Was she always that way? Who knows, but I’ve known her over twenty years, and she has always been that way to me.

Victoria was sitting by the street curb in her yard. It was Holy Saturday 1989. Tomorrow would be Easter. Alvin, her husband was there too, and their daughter was riding around on a giant yellow “big wheel.” It was a beautiful, I mean really beautiful, day for March 25 in the upper Midwest. Did I mention that tomorrow would be Easter Day? Because on Easter it would also be one week and one day since Victoria and Alvin’s first born son, Nicholas, died. He was seven. It was leukemia.

Alvin turned to Victoria and asked, “How do you think Nick is?”

Victoria answered, “I choose to believe he’s in a perfect place. He’s perfect, and he’s in a perfect place.”

When Al, tells this story, he is very clear: “On that day God spoke to me through Vickie.” On that day God made it clear that there are times you have to choose. You can choose to let the shadows of death, or losses, or challenges of any kind, swallow you up. Or you can choose life. And any time the shadows find their way back in, you have to choose.”

Choice is nothing new to God’s people. Moses had to make a choice. He made all kinds of arguments about why someone else would be better, but in the end he chose to leave Midian, confront Pharaoh, and lead his people out of captivity, through the wilderness, to a new land. He never got to go into that new land, but I don’t think for an instant that looking back he would have chosen differently.

Jeremiah, the prophet, argued that he was far too young to be called by God, but he chose to take up the prophet’s mantle – never an easy road. Again, I don’t think he’d choose differently even in hindsight. Samuel chose to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” instead of rolling over and going back to sleep. Abraham had a choice: he could laugh off God’s silly promise of children to an old couple, or he could pack-up all his belongings and set off on a journey to a destination unknown. Jonah said “no” a bunch of times before he ever got around to saying “yes.” Mary, too, had to choose. To the angel Gabriel she could have said “yes” or “no.” “Let be unto me according to God’s word” is from my point of view an elegant “yes.”

The point of this is three-fold: (1) There are times when we each have choices to make. We cannot delegate them, pass them off or ignore them, because no choice is a choice (for shadows). (2) Choosing the life God offers does not mean that the journey will easy, but we will always have a companion in Christ who knows how hard it is and where we need to go. (3) There is always more than one chance to say, “Yes.”

In December 2007 and January 2008 I was preparing for my first Annual Meeting with you as your Dean. Looking at everything on paper it was clear that the cathedral had been living way beyond its means. There was going to be a budget shortfall of over $400K dollars – which could never be because we didn’t have $400K anywhere to back it up. I came and sat on the cathedral steps. What had I gotten myself and my family into? A freakin’ four hundred thousand dollar deficit! At that moment, there were lots of other jobs in the Church that were looking pretty good – really about any other job in the Church looked pretty good. And little did I know, at that time, that Great Recession, which started in October 2008, was still to come. “Party on,” as they say!

Long about now you are saying to yourselves, he said this was about celebration. I promise I’m getting to that.

On that day, sitting on these steps I had to choose. Had God really called me here? Yes, I believe God had. Had God called me here to be the Dean that presided over the closing of this Cathedral? No, God had not called me here to do hospice. It might happen, but that was not what God had called me to do.

But, what was I, as your Dean, to do? God made three things clear: 1) Jesus had to be at the heart of everything, and it all starting with worship. 2) Speak the truth in love, simply and clearly, and always without malice or blame. 3) And know that you are not alone – Now you are thinking that means God would be with me, and of course you are right, but there is more.

It also meant this: At one point Moses stood in the wilderness before God and said in so many words, “If I have to do this all by myself, kill me now.” I never had to do that, because while there were some extremely lonely times, I always knew I was not in this alone. On one hand was my wife and daughter, and on the other have been an unfailing line of faithful wardens, vestry members, long-time members of the cathedral community, OUR STAFF, our volunteers, strangers sent into our midst by the Holy Spirit who are no longer strangers (like Fr. Nestrock), people in the greater community who are not members but look upon us and see a power for God’s good in this place – people like Valerie Parisi, Dean of the WSU School of Medicine; Sue Mosey, president of UCCA now Midtown Detroit, Inc.; Bill Marsh of several midtown enterprises; and Advantage Healthcare (the parent organization of the Waller clinic).

That is something to celebrate! And here are some more:

In 2011 we did, in fact, celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the Cathedral’s dedication with fanfare, and a great party (thanks to the three unstoppable forces, Beth, Carmen, and Paula, who led the Centennial Celebration Committee), and the Centennial Voices preaching series, and with the taking up of a challenge to give the people and generations yet to come a more comfortable and hospitable worship space. Cooling the Cathedral is almost at its goal, only $1500 to go, and I believe that before the meeting today is over we will be there because you will get us there.

In 2011 we celebrated the rededication of Williams Pavilion, our excellent 150 unit apartment building for seniors who have limited financial resources. The Pavilion has been the personal love and mission of our own Canon Logan, and this year the 14th Floor Conference and Community rooms were named in his honor. Celebrate the faithful witness of Bill Logan, 61 years a priest this year, and also the commitment of Cathedral Foundation Trustees

Celebrate the first youth mission pilgrimage in recent memory – led by Kit Ilardi – taking in the great churches of New York City, and helping St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, New Providence, NJ.

Under the leadership for Cn. Tarrant and Mr. Newman the choirs, particularly the boys and girls of the choir and the Cathedral Choir School have grown and flourished. They will tell you the support of many has made this possible. Let’s celebrate the leadership of Jane Thomas and the Choir School advisory board, and let us especially celebrate the current group of choir parents who are coming together in new and exciting ways.

Celebrate the renewed ministry of our Eucharistic Visitors whom we will commission in just a few minutes; and the faithfulness of our Healing Ministers, Lectors, Acolytes, Ushers, Greeters and Flower Guild members. Celebrate with me the extraordinary skill and commitment of our Clerk of the Works.

Celebrate the construction of the Garden of St. Andrew the Fisherman, a place for quiet and respite in the midst of a busy midtown, and a gentle final resting place for those whose earthly journey is done.

Celebrate the outreach of this Cathedral through many avenues, but in particular that Breakfast Fellowship – between 8K and 10K served each year. Celebrate with me the dedication and the diaconal and pastoral witness of Deacon Watton!

Celebrate with me a year when we were blessed to experience the profession of vows and clothing of a religious; share the life of a seminarian in her field education; and send out a new college graduate to work in an Episcopal Urban Outreach ministry in L.A.; and celebrate the laughter and learning of little ones in halls who are part of the Detroit Montessori School.

Celebrate with me a year that saw us realize financial goals that change the course of our ministry in profoundly positive ways: the selling a property that we long needed to sell at a price, even in this market that allowed us to retire all its associated debts and obligations; celebrate the refinancing of the former school debt in a way that lets us retire it completely in eleven years, and at the same time pay interest, not to a bank, but to the Cathedral Foundation, hereby continuing to benefit our community ministry. Celebrate with me the budget our Treasurer will present to you, which while still in just a bit of deficit, increases our support of the mission and ministry of the Diocese of Michigan, and for the first time is of a size that, if necessary, we can cover with reserve funds held by the Cathedral. Guy Thomas and the Stewardship team would also want me to celebrate the opportunity to tell you that if you have not yet made your pledge for 2012, cards are available and the deficit will be further reduced! Let us celebrate the gift of generous hearts.

Now we begin our Second Century of Cathedral ministry – where it will be 100 years from now, I do not know. But let us celebrate the emergence form difficult financial times, but let us make a choice, let us choose to celebrate the ministry that has been accomplished in God’s name even in the midst of past, present and future challenges.

Let me also acknowledged this truth: If our celebration is only about what we have accomplished in the past, we have died to past. If it is only about exalting in the successes of the present moment, then all we celebrate is a narcissistic desire to pat ourselves on the back. But, if choose to celebrate legacy of the past, affirm joyfully the accomplishments God has made possible in this moment, and LOOK WITH VISION, HOPE AND EXPECTATION TOWARD WHAT GOD IS CALLING US TO BE AND BECOME – then dear sisters and brothers, we not only celebrate well, but our celebration becomes, in words of our patron, St. Paul, prayer without ceasing.

Our Vision is to be an extraordinary spiritual gathering place where people of all backgrounds and ages are welcome to question and learn, pray, worship and serve; being loved by God in ways that change and improve their lives and the lives of others. Celebrate that!

And, really, when it comes down to it, may we choose with each rising sun to celebrate that we have this day to praise God. Amen.