The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Epiphany V, Year A
February 9, 2020
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Upon deep reflection and with the benefit of hindsight, it was not a really good decision for me. At the ripe old age of eight, I wanted to head way up North, to the mountains of North Georgia, and spend a whole month at Y camp. My older brother had gone and reported it to be alright; better than staying home, cutting the grass, weeding the tomato garden, and sweating out the summer heat in a home where my father did not really believe in air conditioning. Nobody made me go. I asked to go, and my best friend, Cole Barks, wanted to go with me. So, with all of my belongings neatly packed in an old army trunk, and my name sewn into the back of every stitch of clothing, I joined the pioneers of Cabin 2 for great summer camp adventure.
Soon after arrival, I learned that the brochure was not completely accurate. Yes, we did sleep in cabins with mountain breezes wafting about, but really, they were just screen porches stacked floor to ceiling with triple decker bunk beds. 18 little smelly boys were stacked into Cabin 2 like cord wood. Yes, we did have campfires and sing songs. Some were about Jesus. Most were about the size of the mosquitoes and other camp miseries. Yes, we did eat family style in a big dining hall, but we had to try and eat everything, including cream chipped beef on toast and piles of mealy and tasteless black-eyed peas.
As it turned out, Y Camp was not one of those tony resort kind of camps. It was more like boot camp as we woke to a clanging bell at sunrise, reported for calisthenics, cleaned the cabins for inspection, and engaged in athletic competition all afternoon with other cabins for the privilege of having a scoop of ice cream for desert. Losers got nothing. What was purported to be a community rooted in the Lord of Life was more like Lord of the Flies, at least for me. We were there to get tough and become men. What I became was more spiritual. I prayed often and earnestly – for deliverance.
In the family archives, my letters home have been preserved. There is one in particular that stands out, not doubt because of my tidy eight-year-old handwriting and my eloquent prose. It reads: Dear Mom and Dad. They made me write this postcard before they would let me eat supper. Love, John. P.S. I hate camp.
I had a few good times and made some friends at Y camp, but mostly, I remember the scourge of homesickness. Perhaps I learned some resilience, and clearly, I did not starve to death. But when I did come home, I never ever not once ever complained about cutting the grass, weeding the tomato garden, or the anything about the sweltering heat. I learned that home was good and boredom could be cured more easily than homesickness.
Fast forward five years and I was becoming a dorky teenager. I had joined the boy scouts and gone on some campouts, and I was part of the church youth group, where the fellowship was loving and helpful in navigating the vicissitudes my adolescent quest for identity. I did go to camp again in North Georgia, only this one was kinder, gentler, and coed. The camp I attended was my diocesan church camp, Camp Mikell. It changed my life. It was grounded in a life of Grace where the worth and dignity of each child was celebrated. We called the place one step closer to heaven. Even the food was good. I went on to work there as a volunteer counselor for several sessions. I spent two summers working at another diocesan camp in West Virginia. The summer before I went to seminary, I worked for Shrine Mont here in Virginia and found other members of the same loving family. To this day, many of my best and most enduring friendships trace back to camp friends. Upon deep reflection and the benefit of hindsight, it was a really good decision for me to give camp another chance.
We celebrate Shrine Mont Sunday here and all over our diocese today to support and encourage its critical ministry. While some see it as a retreat to a place apart, I believe time spent there is a journey into being exactly who we are, and a space to delight being together. With a mix of praising God, playing for the joy of it, and reveling in creation, camp gives balance to being, and helps us learn to see God at work in the world.
As soon as Jesus had gathered his disciples, mostly fishermen and other earthy folks, he sat them down and told them how God sees them. “You are salt,” he says, given for the world to bring life flavor and zest. “You are light,” he says, to reflect the light of God even in the dark places. Jesus’ followers are not to be sniveling and groveling sycophants, they are empowered immediately to be bold and belonging in God outright.
Notice that Jesus does not say “You could be salt if you were just a little better person.” Or, “you might be light if you get your act together be more missional.” The lesson is a declaration. The disciples are already beloved, chosen, and sent, just because they are children of God. Imagine, knowing all of our preexisting conditions in being human, God choses to love us and calls us to be our deepest and most authentic selves for the sake of the world. What Jesus says is that God uses you you and will use you as you are, for the sake of the kingdom You are more than enough.
In a world that holds up all kinds of false idols of beauty, status, and power, it is essential that we claim and own Jesus’ counter cultural voice, seeing every human as beloved, worthy, and precious. And because there persist voices of shame, fear, blame, and because messages of our inadequacy and not enoughness are so prevalent, we need spaces and places where we and our children can be and become where all of those worldly lies are pushed to the side in favor of grace. If we are serious about formation in faith, we need to provide home base, a touchstone for what is really real, and promote community that walks the way of love intentionally.
I love that the Church holds up camp as it does. It is one of the most authentic things we do and for sure, it has lasting and powerful impact in shaping lives. It is salt. It is light. It is God’s grace packed into powerful experience. And in a twist of really great timing, today, we do one of the other things we do that have lasting impact. Today, we baptize Florence Margaret Oborne, holding her up as beloved. Claiming the Church as her home base as well as ours, and we remind ourselves of the basics of seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving her, loving ourselves, and loving one another, just as God does.
So, to get us ready, we pray the Shrine Mont camp prayer. They shout it in call and response. I invite us to give it a go.
God loves the world! (God loves the world!)
God loves us! (God loves us!)
God loves you! (God loves you!)
I love you! (I love you!)
God loves me! (God loves me!)
I love me! (I love me!)
Thanks be to God! (Thanks be to God!)
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood