Bishop Laurie's Sermon Script from Laity Session:
Grace and peace to each one of you. I am honored to be able to share a few words of encouragement at the beginning of your annual Laity Session at the Annual Conference. Let’s pray. Dear God, we are at the start of another annual conference, and we thank you for the privilege of being able to participate virtually. We are grateful for those who have taught us how to connect with one another electronically, and we rejoice in the new and innovative ways in which we can be in mission and ministry despite the restrictions of COVID-19. Send the power of the Holy Spirit upon us as we gather together to worship and be inspired to share your love and hope to the farthest corners of the earth. Amen.
It’s a Friday in late April, and I run some errands, including stopping at the Conference Center to get a few books from my office. I then head off to Gray’s Lake, which I suspect many of you are familiar with. Gray’s Lake is just south of downtown Des Moines and is less than ten minutes from the Conference Center.
It’s been a long week, with two full days of the Dakotas Cabinet via Zoom, followed by two full days of the Iowa cabinet in person. By Thursday evening, I’m totally whipped and Zoomed out, which is normal for me. Friday has always been my day off, when I get it, and by Thursday night I’m a zombie. Thursday night meetings have always been pretty hopeless because I’m barely functional by that point.
I park my car and begin to walk the 2.1-mile paved Krudenier Trail around the lake. The trail offers gorgeous views of downtown Des Moines, including the gold-domed Capitol building. It’s also just a few miles north of the Des Moines airport. Gray’s Lake Park offers many activities, including a beach, playground, boat launch, paddle boats, and a beautiful bridge out over the lake.
Because it’s late Friday morning, the trail is not crowded and the weather is pleasant. It doesn’t take too long for me to totally let go of all the burdens, the to-do lists, and the worries. I remind myself to release everything and be totally connected with God and with nature: the trail, the trees, the lake, the flowers, the geese, and the Raccoon River.
As soon as I start walking, I begin to calm down. It’s been at least sixteen months since I’ve walked the trail because of two winters and COVID-19. I hear the voice of my father, “Pay attention to everything you see, Laurie. Let go of it all. Leave it in the car for now. Be totally in the moment.”
One of my favorite things to do in the Des Moines area is to steal away to Gray’s Lake when I have an extra hour or two. In fact, because of Iowa’s wonderful trail network, I can ride my bike on several different trails from the Episcopal residence in the northwestern Des Moines suburb of Clive all the way to Gray’s Lake. It’s 22 miles one way. I vow to walk in a relaxed manner, look for Christ in everyone I meet, and keep my eyes and ears attuned to everything I see and hear.
There is no judging of others or myself. There is no running today, just walking. And no one knows where I am, which is quite refreshing. My husband Gary is in Michigan for the week, so I can stay as long as I want and do whatever I want. I am choosing to waste time with Jesus.
I do two loops around the lake and walk for about an hour and fifteen minutes. I stop to read the plaques on the bridge, listing the names of people who contributed to its construction. As I notice geese cavorting in the water, the spirit of Gray’s Lake gently chides me, “Where’ve you been all these months, Laurie? Have you been caring for your spirit?”
I admit that there’s been little opportunity to meditate and ponder during this past year of COVID, let alone take time away. There is always one more task to do, one more deadline to meet, one more regret that I can’t fix. What happened to the little girl who used to climb trees, splash in the creek, ride her bike, shoot hoops, and play outside until it was dark?
Jesus touches me lightly on the shoulder as I walk. “Do you see those daffodils, Laurie? There is one white daffodil among dozens of yellow daffodils.” “I see it, Jesus. What are you trying to tell me?” There is only silence. But I think I know. There is a place at the table for everyone, even for the daffodil that is different.
There is a deep sense of freedom to acknowledge that no one knows where I am right now - except Jesus, who seems to follow me everywhere. In the midst of your own harried lives as clergy, where do you go to be still, to be free, to be yourself, to be authentic, to be vulnerable, to listen to the birds sing, to be at peace? God, can you be in charge for a while so we can rest a bit? How can we let go and become who You created us to be?
As I walk, I notice the Methodist hospital in downtown Des Moines across the Racoon River, and I pray for the patients who are struggling to recover from COVID and other serious illnesses. I see the golden dome of the State Capitol off in the distance and pray for our governor and our legislators. I pass the beach where I waded out into the water to participate in a triathlon a few years ago. I’m not a very fast swimmer, but I’m persistent. I remember some of the scripture passages that I have repeated over the years during races in order to center myself.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities. (Psalm 130)
I walk by the Racoon River for a while as I head back toward the parking lot, repeating again and again the phrase, “O Israel, hope in the Lord. For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him there is great power to redeem.”
My prayers are directed to you, the laity of the Iowa Annual Conference, and my heart is filled with gratitude for your faithfulness. I see Christ in each one of you. The call of the geese overhead is insistent, (sing)
“Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know, and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known? Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?”
I finish my first lap around the lake and reverse course. Going in the opposite direction, I see things I didn’t notice the first time around. Eventually, my mind drifts, and I can’t help but think about you again – thousands of laity in Iowa who serve in their congregations faithfully day in and day out and have become adept at improvisation, experimentation, and adaption, and adjustment.
You serve when things are going well and when things fall apart; when you are praised and when you are criticized; when you have shown extraordinary creativity and perseverance; and when you admit that you are burned out and need to stop and rest for a time.
COVID-19, the persistence of racial injustice, financial challenges facing our local churches, and the necessity of reinventing how we do ministry. It all combines to zap the spirit right out of us. Yet still we persist and keep on keeping on, following Jesus, building bridges, and watching over one another in love. At the same time, we care for each other. When you stumble, we’ll be there to pick you up. When you have had enough, we’ll say, “Take a break.” And when you’ve lost your hope, we can walk together and just be. You and I and each other. All connected in Christ and watching over one another in love.
There is a place I call my own
Where I can stand by the sea
And look beyond the things I’ve known
And dream that I might be free
Like a bird above the trees
Gliding gently on the breeze
I wish that all my life I’d be
without a care and flying free
But life is not a distant sky
Without a cloud without rain
And I can never hope
that I can travel on without pain.
Time goes swiftly on its way
All too soon we’ve lost today
I cannot wait for skies of blue
Or dream so long that life is through
So life’s a song that I must sing
A gift of love I must share
And when I see the joy it brings
My spirit soar to the air
Like the bird up in the sky
Life has taught me how to fly
And now I know what I can be
And now my heart is flying free