St. Mark's Church > Worship > Sermons

Beyond Our Comfort Zone

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 02, 2007

Louise Walsh

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of OUR hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord. Amen

In our own lives, we get asked or pushed to go beyond our comfort zone. A friend once told me she recovered from a big loss by saying 'yes' to offers she usually declined. She was urging me to answer that knock at the door'and to invite the stranger' or the strange idea inside'.

My husband and I said 'yes' this summer to the Shelter Project at St. Mark's. We didn't know what to expect with two families we had never met'but our worries soon evaporated in the smile of an 11-year-old boy named Zach.

And yet, inviting in the stranger can be terrifying. Just look at the dream Anais Nin had the night before she published her diaries, those intimate details of her life: Someone was knocking at the door. She ran to open it' and received mortal radiation. Answering that door can prompt our most primitive fears'exposure, ridicule, shame or even just not being noticed.

But the stranger and the strange idea can also bring new life, new connections' and wings to find new ground. Like the boy in the fairy tale who flies on the back of a goose, we can see the world.

Becoming your Senior Warden in April pushed me beyond my comfort zone'and in these short months, pain has come from where I least expected it' and delight has met me in a working partnership with a great and caring priest'in a bold and sweet parish eager to try new wings'We saw this courage in June at our Annual parish retreat at Shrine Mont.

During his sermon last Sunday, Bill Flanders reminded us of our creative past and challenged us to try new things. What brought him back to St. Mark's 20 years ago was our sermon seminar, he said'It was the idea that right after the sermon, you can respond to the message you heard. You can speak up if you choose. This was revolutionary. He was hooked.

As Senior Warden, I see the promise of newness all across this parish. We are the Church of the Open Communion'and that speaks volumes about how we engage life and each other. It is our identity card.

I feel energy at St. Mark's'It began during Paul's sabbatical and picked up speed. In Christian Education, we are trying new formats in our adult program 'Untapped opportunities await us in the Arts and Music'We are expanding a new meditation class to a wider community'.In Outreach I see a banquet of possibilities spread along the table'.

Starting a dialogue with the secular world'other faiths and emerging mainline churches' Using our nearness to the Capitol to make a difference'Exploring ways to better education for the region's children'Working with other churches on a 'green' initiative and becoming closer to them in the process'

Expanding our racial diversity by lifting barriers that people of color find here in THIS church'Exploring religious links with S. Africa that our rector, Paul Abernathy and his wife, Pontheola, opened up to us on their sabbatical journey' And remaking our physical space to fit a growing membership' and to make others truly welcome'These ideas and others emerged during our Annual Parish retreat in June at Shrine Mont and were triggered, in part, by Paul's Sabbatical writings. Together, they push us beyond our Comfort Zone'in giving and receiving Radical Hospitality.

We CAN'T do everything but we CAN do something. What do we choose? Where are the clues? Some lie in our past.

St. Mark's is 140 years old. We began as a mission of Christ Church' meeting in a wood frame chapel down the block'and favoring liturgical innovations that the rector opposed.

100 years later, we removed all the pews and put the Altar where it is today. We held Chancel Drama and performed a musical with 11 Hill churches--many historically black ones'it was called Lost in the Stars. The play probed race problems in S. Africa. It was 1964. Our bold Christian Education program blossomed, based on the profound teachings of Charles Penniman, an Episcopal priest in St. Louis. We created the Winged Lion Pub in 1973' and today we have our own brewmeister!

In the 80s, it took another kind of courage for one parishioner to fly across this 120 foot space'as Peter Pan----attached, of course, to lines, this was no miracle! Our theater group, the St. Mark's Players, staged shows from the Crucible to Equus, nude scene includedl. In the 90s, we dug under our Nave to build classrooms, bought our Holtkamp organ' and burnt our mortgage. For decades we have featured a robust dance studio that draws children and adults from the wider DC community'and our yoga classes are a steady draw. Our Christian Education contributes to our community in ways too many to name.

Our creativity reached more places than Christian Education, Worship, Music and the Arts. Social justice and outreach are part of this history.

Our ninth rector, Bill Baxter, marched in Selma, and preached about it right here to President Johnson who attended services by Lady Bird's side. She was an active parishioner.

Bill led the St. Mark's delegation in the March on Washington in 1963, a decision made after a sermon series and lengthy debate in the parish and the Vestry. I know Mary Cooper remembers because she marched and wrote about it!

Bill Baxter made St. Mark's available for lobbyist training sessions when the National Council of Churches brought clergy and lay people to town for major lobby events around civil rights legislation. Bill's ministry here was directly fed by Charles Penniman who was a consultant to St. Mark's Christian Education program.

It was our 10th rector, Jim Adams, who made St. Mark's available for Vietnam War demonstrators and that ended the parish's relationship with the Johnson White House.

Our St. Mark's newsletter carried this description by Jean Eisener that I think still applies:

'In this place, if you want to, you can find a history and a home. In this place if you want to, you can be heard. In this place, if you want to, you can be changed.'

In the past two decades, St. Mark's became active in Honduras, worked with low income housing residents, tutored students, began a Shelter Project and continues to feed homeless people' All these projects happened because some bold and visionary parishioners cared enough to start them and build wide support in this church.

When our rector Paul Abernathy took his recent sabbatical, we invited guest preachers from different faiths to speak with us and answer our questions. We found common ground and felt connected to Paul during his conversations with people across the world.

At Shrine Mont this June, parishioners were excited by the myriad ways we could move as a community beyond our comfort zone'new ways to show and receive radical hospitality. Ten groups wrestled with what St Mark's had to offer, what kinds of initiatives might have wide parish appeal, and what resources did we need to bring them about. I've already given you examples.

Paul Abernathy is our 11th rector. In 2008 he celebrates 10 years of ministry with us. In his writings and spoken words, I see him stretching and moving to social activism' and I hear him calling, calling us to move beyond our comfort zone. Many are willing; others uncertain, some are reluctant. None are wrong. Paul doesn't say which path to take. He suggests and reflects. As I hear you, Paul, we might engage with the wider world in non-traditional dialogues about difficult issues. Non-traditional means we listen first to other ideas. Not just to gain insights on different viewpoints, but to gain insights into ourselves' and a NEW understanding of what we truly believe. Because it is through listening, that we come to know who we truly are.

And so in November, the Vestry will identify priorities for 2008. Will there be one big thing, like Corley says in the movie City Slickers? One big communal initiative or will there be more? Can we go out in the world in a big way'and still be caring stewards of our church and its members. Yes, I think we can. Si, se pueda! C'est possible.

The work we did at Shrine Mont and the work we do on September 30 will guide this Vestry. So will your response to the 2008 membership Canvass.

Your voice is vital. We need your creativity, your passion, your ideas'and the sweat of your brow.

But, wait, wait'

This is absolutely NOT about being busy'It's not about choosing activities, or holding fairs. We MUST answer the questions: 'Where will what we do serve the people spiritually? Us and them'Where do these choices fit into the Gospel and into our liturgy?' Remember, as Woody Obsborne likes to tell us, we are NOT the Rotary Club!! We ARE a faith community'whatever that means for YOU today'in this Nave.

From where I stand'I can see that all the wheels are on the St. Mark's bus. It's moving at a steady clip'It needs new paint, and an extension or top deck because not everyone can fit in who wants to ride' I'm not sure the driver knows exactly where he or she is going, BUT it doesn't bother the passengers too much'

Some have suggested a map. And we just happen to have one. On it are important landmarks. There's a meeting for parents on Sunday, September 16'it's real early, SORRY, but just this once'and it's all about deciding youth programs for the coming year. The Search for new clergy is underway; Information on our 2008 canvass is coming to your mailbox. On September 30, please be in the Nave for a churchwide discussion on what's next for STM. This will follow thoughts from Paul during the two services about next steps for St. Mark's.

Mark your FUN calendar for October 26'a big celebration midway through the Canvass.

In today's Gospel passage, Jesus asks us to move beyond our comfort zone. Don't invite your friends, your relatives or your rich neighbors to your banquet, he tells us. Invite the strangers because they cannot repay you. Maybe the farm workers'or immigrants who work hard every day. On THIS Labor Day weekend, think about who to invite to your banquet, think about how WE can extend hospitality in the coming year. Think about the knock at the door'and inviting the stranger inside!


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