The Gift Opens the Way

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This is the sermon preached by First Church’s Young Adult Service Community (YASC) Congregational Coordinator, Jennifer Sanborn on Stewardship Sunday, November 19, 2017. In addition to her expert leadership of the First Church internship program, Ms. Sanborn is an Admissions Recruiter at Hartford Seminary and, until recently, served as Pastor of Enfield American Baptist Church.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Matthew 25:14-30

First, let me offer a word of thanks to Pastor George and Rev. Kev for their invitation to bring my gifts to First Church as we together create the Young Adult Service Community–and especially for the invitation to bring part of my story to you this morning. Let’s pray together:

God, your Spirit opens the way to understanding–help us to hear your message for us in this moment, in this place, in this season in our lives and our world. Amen.

Proverbs 18:16, A gift opens the way… and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.

Do you remember the gift that opened the way for you? If a giver or a gift come to mind during this time together, bring them along with us in your memory.

I first received the gift of music from my family. In my immediate family of origin, we all played numerous instruments and had an insatiable appetite for singing together–in church, at home, and, especially in those years before smartphones, in the car.

Musical doors opened for me with a very particular gift, though, when I was 13 going on 14, and in my first year of high school. We lived on Martha’s Vineyard then–my father was a pastor and my mother, a music teacher at my school. When she discovered that a community branch of the New England Conservatory offered lessons for talented young musicians, she started a list of students who might audition, including her daughters. My sister Heather was an aspiring flute player and I was a pianist and singer who sat at the piano nightly and fantasized that I was the next Amy Grant or a future Broadway star. Let me pause for a word of gratitude to my parents who listened to me play and sing “On My Own” from Les Mis over and over and over. Every. Single Night. If you’re that parent now, then this word of thanks is for you too!

On the day of my audition at the Conservatory, I sat in the musty hallway with sweating palms, biting my nails and praying not to mess up. Whereas on Martha’s Vineyard I was comfortable and confident in my talents, the halls of the New England Conservatory were filled with children half my age who could play circles around me….I was intimidated. Despite this, I found a way through my piece that day, and I was invited to attend. For all four years of high school, I woke willingly each Saturday morning at 5am to catch the first ferry.

I was the younger sibling, and funds in our family were short, but I don’t recall questioning how it was I was able to go for lessons. It was some time later–whether months or years, I’m not sure–that I learned a woman loosely connected with one of my father’s congregations had paid for me and my musical adventures in Boston. Let’s call her “Mrs. H.” She had a granddaughter who studied at the Conservatory too, and she would have known that attempting to provide lessons for not just one child, but two, would have forced difficult choices for my parents. Quietly, with little fanfare, she paid for me to go and spend my half hour each week with Fredericka King.

Miss King was tall and elegant–she had true pianist hands, and her fingers extended far past the octave I could manage. Her playing was fluid and graceful in a way that made me realize I had *a lot* to learn. Fredericka King was also a woman of color….African-American, and I was to discover over my years of study with her that it was rare for her as a young black girl to have trained as a classical musician. I learned some of the obstacles she had encountered along the way, and the music I studied took on greater meaning because it was she who taught me. I had the fortune of studying with another person of color there, too, when a dynamic African-American composer, conductor, and future Baptist pastor, Geoff Hicks, was hired to launch an all-New England youth chorale.

It very well might have been another gift from Mrs. H. that opened the way to me auditioning for the Chorale. I have no idea where my parents would have found the money otherwise, but without questioning the how, I happily celebrated being accepted again into a musical community that rapidly expanded my circle of friends. I met Molly and Josh and James, and we were inseparable at breaks and lunchtime. James was a giant baritone who was black and gay–openly so….my first friend who was publicly known to me as LGBTQ. When I invited summer camp friends to come to my first concert, one of my camp friends, Kelvin, who is white, said, “You never told us that James is black.” In truth, it hadn’t ever occurred to me to say so–James was simply my friend. Kelvin noted how “cool” he found this to be–that I was just friends with someone black and didn’t need to make a big deal out of it. I began to understand that this wasn’t true in every place or for every person.

I went weekly from the relatively homogenous town of Vineyard Haven to one of the East Coast’s greatest cities. The students who sang or waited nervously beside me in the hall before lessons were from many nations, and in their homes they worshipped differently, ate foods I had never heard of, and lived in family contexts that I had only previously read about in books.

While in Boston, I learned about my friends from home as well. Week after week we spent hours together traveling by boat and bus or car. One week I noticed that one of my friends, a junior, was quiet and sitting alone, tended to by a senior who returned to tell the rest of us that our mutual friend had become ill during the day. A few days later, this friend who had been sick called to say that she had attended her lesson that Saturday morning, then departed to have an abortion. I learned then–and have persisted in believing since–that no woman has an abortion casually, and I have understood from that day forward that the political views we each hold have been shaped by personal stories that are deeply held and remembered, yet rarely revealed.

My years at the Conservatory included dozens of such discoveries about the world–I have only scratched the surface.

As is so often the case with the writings of the Bible, the story of Mrs. H and her gift to me feel connected to the story Jesus told his followers in today’s Gospel lesson. To refresh–a master gives a significant sum of money to three men enslaved to him. They each invest it differently, and are then held accountable for their returns. There are lots of questions about the character of the Master, and the end of the story includes judgement–the slave who buried his treasure and delivered no additional funds is thrown into the outer darkness. I have to admit, when stories in the Bible end with wailing and gnashing of teeth, I want to move on to a less challenging passage, but instead of being distracted by the close, let’s look with curiosity at the beginning.

A master gives his resources to people he had enslaved to invest. The words in the Gospel translation I used today are that he “entrusted his property to them.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine handing a year’s salary to the contractor who replaced my gutters and asking her to put it to good use, or inviting the man who cared for our children to oversee the bank account for a year or two. What if one lesson to claim today in this parable is the viability of giving to someone who is a bit of a risk….perhaps someone we would call “undeserving” if we were being completely honest. Surely, at 13 years old, I was a risk for Mrs. H. I had done nothing to deserve her gift beyond once or twice singing “Oh Holy Night” at church on Christmas Eve. There would have been a hundred other ways she could have given her resources for a more certain outcome.

We’re told in the Gospel that the people who were enslaved received resources according to their ability–some more, some less. The one with the most and the one in the middle doubled their treasures–and both offerings were seen as acceptable. The one who received the least and admitted being afraid, perhaps in a scarcity mindset, buried it, is the one who received punishment–banishment. This resonates with the Corinthians passage about those who sow sparingly reaping sparingly, and those who sow bountifully reaping bountifully. I’d like to believe I had a lot of talent at the age of 13, so perhaps this explains the generosity of the gift–but what was the return on the investment?

To my memory, I never spoke with Mrs. H about her gift–and because my parents have died, I have no idea if they shared with her musical programs or updates, appearing on her porch each year as though submitting an annual report. So, thirty years later, let me finally account for her gift:

Mrs. H, I still recall the fingerings for every major scale, but if you invested in me in hopes of seeing my young promise develop into a musical profession, I might as well have buried your gift in the ground. My high school years were my most musically promising and fulfilling. I went on to study for one year in college, but soon thereafter my mother died. I stopped singing and playing for others, and music became a more and more private affair for me. I took the talents God gave me and the investment you made in me, yet I have nothing more than what you gave me to show–perhaps I have far, far less.

Would she banish me to the outer darkness and declare the end of story? I surely hope not!

Hear instead this more full and complete accounting: Mrs. H, your gift might have saved my life. On Friday evenings when friends discovered alcohol and other drugs, I was home in bed, anticipating that 5am alarm clock. Your gift took me off-island to a world I might never have encountered otherwise. You gave me confidence in the city, confidence driving on the highway (no small thing for a girl living on Martha’s Vineyard in a one stoplight town), and a sense that my life and future stretched far beyond the four walls of my house and high school and the shores of our island home. I had one of my first kisses on the steps outside Jordan Hall, and, most importantly, the friends I made and the teachers I studied with inspired and directed my life’s commitments. To this day, I dedicate myself to the work of realizing racial justice, to ensuring full inclusion for LGBTQ people in the church and in the world, and to proclaiming the beauty of our diversity as the essence of God.

In truth, Mrs. H, I haven’t told you the whole musical story either. My mother died to the sound of my singing voice. My old conductor, Geoff Hicks, sang at her service in the holiest moment I have lived to witness, and I have called Miss King at the profound moments of change and transition in my life, including this one. You gave me the gift of music, yes, and ever since I have used it in the most sacred of ways–to connect with people, to bring earth closer to heaven, to be with God.

If I look at your gift, Mrs. H, and the ripple effects that continue out from it, you might say you are one the reasons I became an educator, a pastor, an activist, and, yes, even the Young Adult Service Community Coordinator at First Church of Christ in Simsbury. Because when Mrs. H’s gift from way back when met the power of an anonymous gift here in this congregation, the YASC was born and I was called to your midst. And though there was no criteria whatsoever that young adults in this new service community be musical, what is the trait that Bekah, Anastasia, and Sarah all share? They all have extraordinary voices and a desire to sing their questions, their faith, their doubts, and their love. Who could orchestrate such an outcome? Only the Spirit of God, moving across time and space and working through our generosity.

The connections between the Gospel, my story, and the story we are composing together here and now are many. You have chosen as a congregation to invest in young people….in the case of YASC, young people who have not come from you and are unlikely to remain physically with you, making them a bit of a risk. The outcomes of your generosity are an unknown, though I see already, from the brief time we’ve shared with Anastasia, Sarah, and Bekah, that they have grown and changed. They’re asking new questions about themselves and the world–they’ve met people they wouldn’t otherwise have known–they’ve shown up with their lives and their talents in a sacrificial way to say in Hartford and in Simsbury, “We, too, are part of the movement for a just world for all.” I don’t know about you, but I absolutely LOVE the idea that each of these young women will be telling a story ten, twenty, or thirty years from now about the gift that opened the way–and then the many gifts that are shaping and creating this time in their lives. Think of the lifelong effects of your gift to them as compounding interest, with the returns reinvested over and over in a better world.

Who gets to decide what way is opened by a gift? The giver? Sometimes, perhaps, we give in directed ways. Maybe we’ve even given in controlling ways, clutching potential outcomes in our fist like our life depends on it. More powerful to me, though, is the gift we entrust to the Spirit–a gift with some risk attached to it–a gift we give joyfully, even with our uncertainty and questions–a gift with outcomes that will reverberate far beyond our involvement as the giver. The invitation I hear in these stories, friends, is to release our resources and trust the Spirit of God. This is good news. We do not give because we have all the answers, but because we can ask and live with wise questions. We do not have to control the gift after we’ve given. We simply must give, then trust.

It’s countercultural, yes, but isn’t this always the way of God? To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, let us give today with abandon–with thanksgiving for all those, like Mrs. H, who have given to us. Let us give with honor and glory to God who is the giver of all good and risky gifts. And let us give with delight that the Spirit uses our gift to open the way and do infinitely more than we would ever imagine. Amen.

 

 

 

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Easter in August!

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Here is the column I wrote for the September issues of the First Church Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

Forget Christmas in July, it’s Time for Easter in August!

Though I have never participated, I know Christmas in July is “a thing.” People who can’t get enough of Christmas or are just looking for an excuse to throw a party host events with a Christmas theme in July (though I expect the baby Jesus can nary be found). When I left the house this morning, burdened by the news of the day, and saw that my rose bushes are in bloom it occurred to me that, more than a Christmas party in July, we need more Easter in August!

In May, my Aunt Dot, sent me six bare-root rose “bushes” in the mail as thanks for performing a grave-side service for her husband, my Uncle Sunny. I opened the box to find what looked like a bunch of brown sticks. You know from other stories I have told that I have the brownest of thumbs, so this box of dead wood was unrecognizable to me until I read the enclosed card. The instructions promised that by following some simple steps, these bare roots and stems would soon produce beautiful roses. I had my doubts, and if it wasn’t for some sense of duty to my Aunt Dot I might have just left them where they lay. But obligation can be a powerful motivator, so before a couple days passed I followed the steps and planted the sticks along my driveway. Sure enough, the stems quickly began to sprout leaves and have continued to grow throughout the summer.

There has been the occasional challenge. I sought advice on Facebook on how to prune them; pretty simple it turns out but even the most basic tasks can seem intimidating if you have never done them. A number of you offered helpful advice, and church members even invited me and my family over to dinner, followed by a hands-on demonstration of rose pruning in their garden! There have been bugs, brown leaves, and other worries, but now the bushes are putting forth beautiful blossoms.

The story of Jesus’ Passion is one of persecution, suffering and death. Likewise, today’s headlines are filled with stories of persecution, suffering and death, whether it be nuclear sabre rattling or Nazi marches. At the same time, members of our church are carrying their own crosses, whether terminal illness, depression, or a broken marriage.

As we anticipate the beginning of the church year, let’s prepare for Easter in August (and September… and October…).

We are planning a number of initiatives to promote resurrection and new life in our church and community. Read the column by our new Young Adult Service Community (YASC) Congregational Coordinator, Jennifer Sanborn, about ways the Spirit of resurrection is moving in this exciting new ministry. Also read about the coming church-wide book group for Rob Bell’s book, What is the Bible? Whether you are a biblical novice or experienced veteran of Bible studies, I guarantee that Bell’s perspective will make the Bible newly interesting and relevant to you! And stay tuned to information about a Greater Hartford Faith-Based Community Organizing Initiative. These, along with our continuing commitment to Spirit-filled, creative, engaging and relevant, Sunday worship remind us that Easter isn’t a once-a-year invitation to a resurrection celebration, but an everyday commitment we make to bring new life to a hurting world.

And just as my rose bushes required community participation (and a dinner invitation!) to bring forth beautiful blossoms from that which appeared to be dead, so we must all pitch in to make resurrection real in the church, the community, and our lives. I’ll see you in church!

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