Homily for Choral Evensong & Installation of Honorary Canons Virginia C. Mars and John H. Shenefield and New Members of Cathedral Chapter

by | Sep 25, 2021

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. Jeremiah 17:7-8

Jesus said, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Matthew 6:19-24

Good afternoon. I am honored to be in your company today. 

Services like this one are an important reminder that the leadership roles we assume in the organizations we care about are part of our vocation, our life’s work. Though they are often voluntary, when we take on the tasks of leadership, we give something precious of ourselves. We share our talent and skill. We give financially from the wealth entrusted to us. We give our time, perhaps the most precious gift of all. In giving, we also receive, from others engaged in the work alongside us; from the work itself; and from the grace of God that finds expression in human creativity. In the work of our varied vocations, we are co-creators with God.

A religious leader that I admire, Andy Stanley, once took it upon himself to identify the means through which God seeks relationship with us. Think of that for a moment–God seeking a deeper relationship with us, using whatever means possible to draw us in. “Faith catalysts” are what Stanley called these means God uses to help us grow in faith. After interviewing hundreds of people over several years, he identified five such catalysts. One of the five he called “personal ministry,” when we choose to personally engage in acts of service, and in particular, the acts that stretch us beyond what we think we can do or offer. An example of this is when we say yes to something not fully understanding what’s being asked of us, only to discover later on how big a commitment is required. Or perhaps we sense from the beginning that whatever we said yes to is far more than we can possibly accomplish on our own. In either case, we are particularly open to God, precisely because of the vulnerability we feel. 

For it is in that gap between what’s being asked of us and who we are and what we have to give that we can experience God in a powerful way. God shows up in our times of doubt or even despair, when we know that we’re in over our heads. God shows up in the collective striving of the group when we cross a threshold. God shows up in those graced moments when we feel–actually feel–the Holy Spirit working in and through us, as St. Paul writes, accomplishing far more than we can ask for or imagine. 

These are “loaves and fishes” moments, when what we have to offer pales in relationship to what’s needed, but like the disciples giving Jesus a few loaves of bread and some fish with which to feed a multitude of hungry people, we make our gift anyway, and through the grace of God our insufficient offering is part of a miracle through which others are blessed. Our faith in God can’t help but grow as a result, for we know, even if others want to give us all the credit, that it was God who filled the gap between our offering and what was needed, and accomplished what only God can do. 

When we give of ourselves in service, what we give becomes an expression of sacrificial love–the love God offers all of us, revealed most dramatically and completely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When we participate in that kind of love, no matter the cost to us, something in us shifts. In a mysterious process of spiritual alchemy, we become more of who we are at our best, more of the person God created us to be; indeed, a bit more like ones created in the image of God. 

Preparing for today, thinking of the Cathedral Chapter, and the new leaders we are here to install, and the two soon-to-be named honorary canons of this Cathedral, my mind went in two distinct directions. A good rule of preaching, by the way, is to pick one stream of thought and keep things simple. I’m breaking that rule, trusting that you are all smart people and can all stay with me for both. 

The first stream of thought has to do with the act of giving itself. 

Virginia and John are seasoned givers. They have been giving all their lives, sacrificially giving of their time, talent, and wealth. More than that, they are quick to invite others to join them in this over-the-top giving for the good of something big–like the mission and vision of this Cathedral–something worthy of the best we can give, and not just what we have left over.

It can be uncomfortable to be in the presence of ones so adept at giving that it looks easy for them, as if they had all the energy, creativity, wealth and time in the world to give, unlike the rest of us who much more rarely feel as if we have enough. But John and Ginny know, from experience, that when we give beyond what feels comfortable, we become like those trees planted that Jeremiah wrote of long ago–stronger inside, less anxious. As hard as it is at first, when we give beyond ourselves in a big way, we feel freer, for we are both grounded in our values and inspired by our highest aspirations. 

I can’t explain how it works; I just know that it’s true. Yes, there is a cost, a real, sacrificial cost. Ginny and John know that; returning chapter members know that, as do those joining you in the important ministry. But that’s precisely the point. Some things are so important in life that they deserve the gifts that cost us something, because where our treasure is, as Jesus said so well, our hearts are there also. What he doesn’t say, that we learn on our own, is that our hearts grow bigger with each gift. 

The poet David Whyte tells of time when he mentioned to his good friend, the late John O’Donohue (one of the finest poets and priests of contemporary Ireland) that he was thinking about giving his father some money. David rarely speaks or writes about his father, unlike his late mother, about whom he speaks and writes all the time. We can surmise, then, that it wasn’t the easiest of relationships. But he was clearly worried about his father, living alone in England after his mother’s death. David himself had long since relocated to the Pacific Northwest.

“How much are you thinking of giving him?” John asked. David told him. “Very good!”  John replied, “Now go beyond yourself. Double it.” “Okay,” David said after a pause. “All right, I will.” “Very good!” said John. “Now go beyond yourself again, and double that.”  Taken aback, David said, “Well, with friends like you a man could go broke.” To which John replied, “You won’t regret it.”

Sometime after that conversation John died a sudden and early death. It’s been years now, but David Whyte still talks about John as if he were still here. This particular conversation stayed with him. He did what John suggested. He went beyond what he thought he could do, and gave enough money to change his father’s life forever and for the better. And John was right. He never regretted it. 

Ginny and John know something about that kind of “go beyond yourself” giving. When they invite us to join them, it may well feel impossible to us. “Good!” they would tell us. “That’s how it’s supposed to feel. Go beyond yourself anyway. You won’t regret it.”  

The second  thought I offer this afternoon in honor of John and Virginia and the new Chapter members, and as a reminder to all of us, is the spiritual courage required to go first, to be the one to take the first step in response to a call, a vision, or a dream. When we go first, we don’t know if others will join us. Nor do we know, in taking the first step, exactly where we’re going. We walk in the beginning more by faith than by sight. The poet Antonio Machado reminds us that often in life there is no road. “Pilgrim,” he says, “You make the road by walking.” 

How many times in the life of this cathedral has John Shenefield or Virginia Mars gone first–making the first gift, being the first to chair an important initiative, to go on the road, to be the first to say out loud, “We need to consider this, or do that.” Then after taking the first step, they went ahead and took another, and another after that, and so they forged a road for all of us by walking it first. 

The combination of courage and tenacity is a wonder to behold, especially in the beginning stages of anything important, because there is absolutely no guarantee that things will turn as they hope. Failure is always a possibility, but John and Virginia know that it is better to fail at something important than to succeed in mediocrity. Today we honor their willingness to go first, and then to persevere, making it possible for others to join in and bask in the glory of reaching the destination and accomplishing the task, when at first, and for a very long time, Virginia, John, and a few other stalwart leaders forged the path on their own. 

Looking back from the perspective of the destination or accomplishment, there is an air of inevitability about it all, as if the outcome was assured from the beginning. Those who went first will tell us otherwise, that nothing we celebrate now was inevitable when they started. What brings a dream or vision of what could be to its fulfillment are the steps taken toward it–the first, courageous step and all the other steps that follow. For a long time, it’s a lonely walk. For a long time, it doesn’t seem as if anything has or will ever change. But when it does change, when momentum kicks in and more people join the effort, all can bask in the collective joy of accomplishment. In retrospect, we all speak about the thing that we accomplished as if it were our idea in the first place, as if we had all gone first. People like John and Virginia are kind to smile and allow us all to share in the dream they held on our behalf for so long.

This is such an important moment in the life of our nation, in the world, and in the life of this Cathedral. We are all here for a reason. It matters that we show up. It matters that we say yes to causes of great importance. Thus far, I’ve been speaking of John and Virginia in the past tense, but they are very much here, still giving, still willing to go first if needed. The best way to honor them is, as Jesus often said, to go and do likewise, giving of ourselves in ways that both cost us and give back far more than we could ever hope to receive, and in forging our way toward the dreams God has placed in our hearts.