Giving Thanks at Episcopal High School in Houston, TX

November 21, 2008

I am grateful to God when I remember you in my prayers (2Tim 1:3). Whoever wrote this letter to Timothy, it echoes the sentiments of many in this room. The grandparents and other interested adults here pray for you students continually. You are well-loved, and God is thanked for you, not just at Thanksgiving, but continually. That’s a remarkable thought – that not just your parents, but your grandparents and your teachers and your chaplain and your bishops and some who may know you only slightly, give thanks for you.

That is one of the great assets that all of us need – the love and interest of others, not just those who are related to us – the ones who are supposed to love us. It’s often said that the gift of grandparents is that they get to try again, having learned from the mistakes they made with our parents. My husband and I are still waiting for grandchildren, but we’d both say that we’ve learned from how our parents did. And we, too, have some young people in our lives for whom we give thanks.

When I think about those adults in my own younger life, I give thanks as well. One of my grandparents died before I was 6, and two more before I was 11, but they planted seeds that helped me to know I was loved. The grandfather who lived longest shared his passion for languages with me, his interest in coins and the Southwest, and his love for the Navajo people. Those seeds took root and flourished over many years.

Another was my father’s best friend, a fisheries biologist, who one year for Christmas gave each of us kids a book about fish. My little brother got “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” I was all of 7 or 8, but I got a technical book about the fish of Pacific coast. I was in graduate school before I understood most of what was in it, but that book started me on the journey to being an oceanographer.

I think about the teachers who had significant influences on me – the 9th grade algebra teacher who taught me a lot about how to keep working at something until I solved it, and the 8th grade English teacher who opened my eyes to the evils of racism and the Ku Klux Klan.

Canon Shreve was the vicar of the first Episcopal Church my parents took me to. He showed me that a priest could be a pretty normal human being – as well as a good friend of the family. One summer he asked me and my siblings to build an altar on the beach, and make a cross from driftwood, so we could have a communion service. He had worked in Europe in earlier years, and he brought a friend of his over from Italy to paint some frescoes in the church. Over many weeks, the twelve apostles slowly appeared on the walls of our church. St. Peter was the last one, and when he was finished, we discovered that Peter had the face of our vicar. Canon Shreve also told stories about being a student at Stanford in the 1930s; and those stories intrigued me enough to think about going there. Years and years later, after I was a bishop in Nevada, I tracked him down in retirement. I was able to return the thanks for his life and ministry – to his face as well as to God – before he died a year later.

Who are those adults who spend (or spent) their time and themselves on you? Like Timothy’s grandmother, Lois, we learn something very important from their care and their prayer. We discover something of God’s love for us, and what that looks like in human flesh. Those adults give us living evidence of God’s love in Jesus, and they show us something about the power of an unexpected gift. When we get a taste of being loved simply because we are, not because of what we do, we have a hint of God’s love. And we get a taste of what unconditional love looks like – love that continues in spite of what we do or don’t do.

The letter that went to Timothy speaks about what happens when somebody loves him like that. The writer reminds Timothy about the human touch that has taught him about that gift of love, and that it often results in a particular response: learning to live less fearfully. When we’ve learned that love continues in spite of our occasional screw ups, we have received the gift of risk. We can’t live a full and abundant life without the ability to try new things, meet strangers and turn them into friends, or make peace with enemies. Timothy is reminded that he’s been given a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline – tools and habits with which to serve others and work to heal the world. The gift comes from that taste of divine love, received through human hands and hearts. When we’re filled with love, we begin to discover that we can live in a way that will bless the world around us, and we can return that love to others.

I’ve just come back from visiting the Diocese of Haiti. It’s the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church, with about 125,000 members. They have fewer than 40 clergy, about 160 congregations, and over 250 schools. Their schools serve some 80,000 students. We got to see several: elementary schools that begin with 3 year olds, a music school that teaches children from that early age all the way through high school. For many decades that school’s students have been the backbone of the only orchestra in Haiti – the Holy Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra. There is an Episcopal university, a seminary, the only school for handicapped children in Haiti, several trade schools, and a nursing school, which will graduate the first bachelor-level nurses in Haiti this January. All of those schools, just like this one, depend on the interested love of adults, who remind their students every day that their gifts are meant to be developed and shaped to serve their fellow human beings, nearby and far away. Many, many people love and pray us into shape to serve the world.

Haiti has the blessing of a number of interested adults. Haiti could also do with the interested love of more people, both young and old, who will stand with her people, many of whom lost everything in this summer’s hurricanes. They are a resilient people, but their hope can go dim without reminders that they, too, have others who are interested in, and concerned about, them. We visited a student canteen at one rural elementary school, where each day, students are fed a large midday meal through the work of the diocesan development office and Episcopal Relief and Development. Regular meals for those students are making a major difference – their ability to learn is improving, and so are their test scores. Hungry children don’t learn well, nor do hungry adults. As we were leaving Haiti, we heard that the seminary would no longer be able to feed its students three meals a day – they were cutting back to two. I hope you will remember Haiti as you celebrate your Thanksgiving feast.

You and I are immensely blessed by the love of others. We have many who remember us day and night in their prayers. We give thanks for that gift. How are we going to return that gift, and live without fear, in a way that will bless the whole world? Will we become that love for others, that human touch that can change the world?