Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Shifting Ground

Readings this Sunday: I Kings 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

“…for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your loving-kindness…”

Every Sunday, the Collect of the Day names some theme that we then hear borne on the air in readings from so long ago. It’s not unlike asking “Where’s Waldo?”, to catch the theme in the prayer and then listen for it to appear in the readings.

So today we should be asking “How does God help and govern?” And "What does it mean to be set on the sure foundation of God’s loving-kindness?"

The ground keeps moving beneath our feet. Those are the words of Debbie Monahan, our Junior Warden, who—bless her—will chair a committee of parishioners whose task will be to re-examine where we are, and to recommend to the vestry and parish what we may do, to be wise stewards of our buildings and property and resources, once our big preservation project has been completed. This is a miniature version of what God faced in creation: Once the waters in the firmament above are kept where they belong, and the waters in the firmament below are kept where they belong, what do we bring forth out of the dry ground of the middle where we live? What worthy plan will be animated by the Spirit breathing life into our base elements so that we rise and bring delight to God and lovingkindness to the world around us?

A big enough task without the ground constantly shifting under our feet. What she means by that is all too familiar to the vestry, perhaps not to everyone here. The micro version is that we thought we were on our way to creating new spaces for hospitality, outreach, mission—when a still small voice of dripping water called us to a different challenge, the extensive repair and restoration of the outer shell of this old building. Lest that sound like just one shifting of ground beneath us, it was more like several, as one discovery led to another and the number of resident demons in these walls became known as legion, many, and very expensive to send packing.

But did the ground then stand still for a while? No! Out of the blue, the College informed us this spring that their longterm lease of our old rectory, which they’ve been using since 1994 as a popular co-op house for eight seniors each year, will end in June 2008. 2005-2006 saw us revising plans for new building. 2006-2007 saw us shift our focus to this building. 2007-2008 will now require our prospecting new uses for our third building which we’d had good reason to believe was sown-up for years to come.

To quote Elijah under the broom tree in Beer-sheba, “It is enough…” Or, as the commentator says the Hebrew really says, “Too much, O Lord, too much.”

How does God help and govern? Elijah falls asleep, under the shelter of that tree. He is stirred awake as if to receive a message. There it is: “Get up and eat.” And there, by his head, next to him on the ground, is a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water.

Hot stones: the Hebrew says “hot coals”, and the other place in the Hebrew scriptures where we meet that term is the prophet Isaiah’s vision in the temple, where a seraph takes from the altar a hot coal with which he touches Isaiah’s lips in answer to the prophet’s lament that he is not up to the challenge of being a prophet. “Oh yes, you are,” needles the seraph, capturing his undivided attention, “because God is up to the challenge.”

“No, it is not too much, what you’re being asked to do,” is the message of the hot coals, and we prefer by far Elijah’s experience, how they warm for him the bread of angels. There are angels among us, strengthening our hands and hearts for the work we have to do here.

But there’s more alongside Elijah’s head as he awakens: a jug of water. The Hebrew word for that is so uncommon that we hear it in only two other places, one just last week when that widow at Zarephath offered Elijah her jug of oil, so little that she expected it to feed only her son and herself, but once shared the oil would not stop flowing.

Generosity among us does not stop flowing—and not just the “us” we already know. After Polly’s jug of water pitch last Sunday, a visiting family sent us not only a surprising and gracious gift, but also word that they have bought a home here and will in time be joining St. John’s.

How does God help and govern? Through signs and gifts and wonders, more numerous than the shiftings below our feet. But these signs of lovingkindness are not ends in themselves, only means by which our faith is encouraged, inspired, formed—and freed, to follow the sense of St. Paul’s letter heard this morning.

Without faith, he says, we’re in a prison whose bars are all the shoulds and oughts and musts inherited from the past. In a later chapter of that letter, Paul says it out loud: “For freedom Christ has set us free!” Trusting in Jesus Christ, staking our lives on his love for us, putting ourselves fully in his care, we discover that he has fired the jailer, set free all of us who were prisoners to one kind of fear or another, and exchanged our prison jumpsuits for a fine suit of clothes brought up from that basement of lovingkindness.

Notice that sign in each of our readings. The tormented man in the country of the Gerasenes wore no clothes until Jesus freed him: then his neighbors marveled to see him sitting at the feet of Jesus, in his right mind, clothed. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” says Paul. And that is not a suit of camouflage to hide in. Elijah, when he finally heard what he knew to be the voice of God, “wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of his cave.” By the shoulds and musts inherited from the past, Elijah knew that he must hide himself from God even as he presented himself to the summons of God. There is no room or need for fear in Christ; clothed in Christ, we are healed of our fears and find our right mind—and God’s help and governance—in the company of disciples willing to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Remember the hymn: “Reclothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence, praise.”

Are we finding Waldo? These readings are answering the question, “How does God help and govern?” On one level, we’re hearing, it’s through gifts that show us the lovingkindness that is actually the ground of our being. At a deeper level, it’s through faith that God helps and governs, because only through faith are we freed to be open and receptive, freed from our demons, from our fears, become willing to listen, to sit with Jesus and his people in the world, willing to learn even through the soles of our feet when the ground shakes and shifts beneath us. God is there, in all that movement, all that change.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” You may have noticed that God asks him that question twice, once right after Elijah has received those gifts that strengthened him for his journey to Mt. Sinai, and again after that sudden violent summer storm rumbled through and left just its calm silent aftermath to convey the presence of God.

It’s the inescapable question that God poses to us and will until the cows come home: What are you doing here, now, just as you are?

It’s one more way God helps and governs, by relentlessly asking, and getting us to ask, that question: What are we doing here? What purposes are we serving? What do we seek? Whom do we love? How will our plans bring delight to God and lovingkindness to the world?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Moving with Christ

Gosh, it’s hard being a woman in the Bible.

You’re Jezebel, and your blog gets hit by hate mail like “Love that part where the dogs lick up your blood.”

Or you’re Mary Magdalene, and you get great parts—but you’re always weeping, and the men doing the writing keep harping on those seven demons that used to make life one bad hair day after another. Even Luke, a pretty sensitive guy talking about Joanna and Susanna (with all their resources), has to make sure we know that Mary Magdalene “was a sinner”, as if all of the twelve could have passed their safe church background checks…

It’s not easy being a woman in the Bible, minefield of patriarchal values and virtues that it is. Which makes all the more impressive that range of windows across our south wall, women and children of the Bible, installed in the 1920’s, when the passage of women’s suffrage was still recent history.

Our own recent history suggests that the Church, despite our collect today, proclaims truth with something less than boldness. That a woman now serves as our Presiding Bishop still causes me to pinch myself, to make sure I haven’t dreamed that. That was 2006, mighty close to two thousand years after the script of redemption got written, but it has happened: a woman now stands among the primates of the Anglican Communion. Or, to put that just a little differently, for the first time in Christian history a woman serves as an archbishop.

So hold onto your sombreros. “Asi lo haremos—We will!” thundered a standing-room-only crowd in Havana’s Episcopal Cathedral of the Holy Trinity last weekend, when asked if they would accept as Cuba’s first bishops suffragan The Rev. Canon Nerva Cot Aguilera and Archdeacon Ulises Mario Aguero Prendes.

Now The Right Reverend Nerva Cot Aguilera, she is the first woman to be elected an Anglican bishop in Latin America. Present for the three-hour service last Sunday were bishops from Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Spain, and representatives from a number of Cuban faith traditions (including the Greek Orthodox), along with the head of the Religious Affairs Office for the Communist Party of Cuba, also a woman, Caridad Diego. This liturgy was a blend of Anglican dignity and Cuban spontaneity—I’ll bet the party afterwards would have made it worthwhile risking the ire of the State Department to attend. Yes, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori was there, you bet.

We celebrate today the ministry of a woman (and the ministry of her husband) who have brought us at least vicariously—some of us actually—to cross borders of culture and class, not to mention borders of denomination, borders between indoors and outdoors, and between old ways and new.

Brooke and Andrew are moving to Tucson—back to Tucson, for Brooke. Since hearing that news, we have been sad, moody, even, to think of this. Not to think of Brooke and Andrew happy in Tucson, but to anticipate our future without them, for we have come to love them.

Perhaps you know Barbara Kingsolver’s book High Tide in Tucson. In it she tells the story of a hermit crab that was a stowaway in a bunch of seashells that the author brought home to Tucson from the California coast. She named the crab Buster, and built him a habitat.

She began to notice that Buster somehow seemed out of sorts, even moody. Kingsolver was puzzled, and consulted a marine biologist who came to observe Buster. Whatever these behaviors were that worried them occurred at certain times of day. The biologist chewed on this long enough to recognize a pattern that looked like a tide chart. Buster got agitated every day in exact rhythm with what would have been high tide in Tucson, if Tucson were coastal. Buster was being a hermit crab, a Californian hermit crab, even in Tucson, where tide charts aren’t—yet— posted on kitchen bulletin boards.

This story suggests that you can all too easily take the crab out of California, but taking California out of the crab is not for us mere mortals to do. What we get to do is to watch the discovery of another creature’s truth, allow that discovery to free us from our own worries by freeing us to read reality, and along the way find out more about ourselves.

Today we celebrate how the movement of two dear people and one dog from San Francisco to Williamstown to spend nearly two years of life together with us has caused us all to learn more about belonging.

How powerful an experience it is to belong. The claim of the ocean on a little hermit crab came along with him. Today we celebrate how the claim of God asserts itself within and among us. …It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. So says St. Paul today, a good day to hear it, to celebrate the inner claim of God that we call “vocation”. That is how and why Brooke and Andrew came to us, what they have fulfilled with us, helping us hear and respond more clearly to our own calling.

And that is to keep ensuring that children and teenagers feel their belonging at this table and at all our tables. To keep ensuring that the Church’s apostolate to students is realized on this campus, and their vitality in our fellowship. And to keep ensuring that this community’s heart and mind and will open to the achievement of justice with compassion here in this valley and across all borders.
Brooke and Andrew, we join you in celebrating that what draws you to Tucson is Christ within you, calling, as always, to faithfulness, and calling, as always, to particular places and people and service. We know that you rejoice with us that we have been particular together—and that what we have shared together will always belong to us.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Global Positioning in Baptism

Jack is about to take a mighty step.

Will it take him anywhere new? No, and yes. He knows every square foot of this place already, especially his lair back there in the outfield, and his square foot or so of space on the chancel steps where he has helped many a children’s sermon happen, and all those nooks and crannies in our church school building. Most important of all, he already knows he has a place at our Lord’s table, another square foot of landing space at that altar rail where he has belonged for much of his young life.

So today in his baptism he’ll get up close and personal to the font, a piece of antique furniture he has walked by countless times and seen in use along the way. Those few square feet are like a launching pad, sending one person after another into an orbit that belongs to Jesus Christ, drawing each person into a parallel track with Jesus.

Given to every person in his or her baptism is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, implanted within the person, or, if you prefer, raised up within the person. To be given that Spirit is like being given a compass to guide you, or a telecommunication system to receive and send—I mean receive from Jesus and send to Jesus. To have the Spirit of God inside you, as we believe will be raised up in Jack through his baptism, is like connecting to a global positioning system that helps you locate God and lets God signal you.

Well, I said like… make sure you hear that like, because what baptism doesn’t do is make anything automatic. Or mechanical.

What baptism has done for each of us who has stood where Jack will soon stand, is the one thing we could not do for ourselves: in baptism God joins us to Jesus and makes us members of the living Body of Jesus, each of us an equally loved, equally valuable, equally crucial member, just like an organ or a limb in a human body. Each unique, all equally essential. And once we are joined to Jesus, it is his love, and his courage, and his peace that flow through our veins and animate our imagination and form our loving.

What does baptism not do? It does not take away our responsibility for our own journey. It unites us to the journeying of a whole community. It unites us to a long history of journeyers like those we hear about in our Bible readings today, Elijah and Paul and, very specially, Jesus—whose stories inspire (and sometimes puzzle) us. Best of all, Baptism unites us to Jesus himself and his Spirit, the very best navigational team there is in the universe—but it’s up to each baptized person to position herself/himself daily in order to see Jesus wherever he shows himself and hear God however God may speak to the heart, sing to the ear, or whisper to the mind.

We position ourselves by praying. Both the kind that asks and the kind that keeps quiet to listen.

We position ourselves by reading the Bible. Not just here in church, but alone at home, at the kitchen table together at home, and in groups of friends who help one another listen for Jesus the Word by saying how the Word becomes flesh and makes sense to them.

We position ourselves by worshiping and learning together, and by serving together—cooking and delivering meals to elderly people, running bingo nights for nursing home residents, going on a medical mission trip, setting aside time and money and other resources to share with people who need us to, and because we need to, and because we need them.

So, Jack: will the mighty step you’re going to take set you on a new journey? That’s up to you. But from what I know of you, I think your answer will be Yes, that you will be open to knowing Jesus and loving God and serving in the world in new ways. Our job is to show you what “open” looks like, how open minds and hearts behave.

Where will your journey in faith take you? How new will life become because of your faith in God and God’s faith in you? When Christians ask big questions like that, they need their positioning devices, and one of them is the Bible. The stories we’ve heard today tell us about the faith journeys of the prophet Elijah, the apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus Christ.

In his travels to do what God asked of him, Elijah met a very generous and very poor woman, a widow, and her son. They are important enough that they stand in one of our windows, the one nearest the font—while Elijah isn’t with them in the big part of the window, he’s there in the little roundel at the bottom. This mother and son had so little to live on that they were actually preparing to die—but they freely shared what they had, that jar of meal and jug of olive oil. What they thought might be enough to feed just the two of them in fact fed Elijah too and still did not run out. Jack, we pray that your life journey, like Elijah’s, will show you how abundant life is, and can be made, by the power of sharing.

St. Paul was launched into orbit when one day, on a dusty desert trade route, Jesus Christ appeared to him in a blinding light. Paul had been doing everything he could to make life miserable for Jesus’s disciples. He was certain that their new religion was phony and dangerous, and that Jesus’s death on Good Friday simply proved how right his judgment was. But now this same Jesus was speaking to him. He could feel his life turn around. From then on, he would become walking proof of the truth and power of Jesus’s love. Paul was so persuasive that he won the hearts of people who just didn’t matter to the other apostles—those leaders of the Church didn’t approve of the type of people who became Christians because of Paul’s message. But Paul’s mind was made up, that all are equal in God’s sight and in God’s love. Jack, may you have St. Paul’s courage and conviction, his open heart, and become walking proof of Jesus’s love.

And Jesus himself is shown on his journey, his great three-year pilgrimage of healing, on foot through the villages and fishing ports and on into the great city, Jerusalem. Today, he encounters a funeral procession. The only son of a widow had died, and Jesus will not let them pass to the cemetery. He touches the casket and, with the same voice that would one day reach Paul, he calls the young man to life. Jack, we pray that you will be strong with Jesus’s compassion to reach out and help even the person everyone would swear was beyond hope.

Enough talk about other people’s steps. Jack is about to take his. Remember your role. It isn’t just to say today “We will!” when I ask, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in his life in Christ?” Your role is to do that, to show Jack how faith works, to model openness, to share the journey, and to learn from him as well.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Wisdom to See and Hear

This is no ordinary Sunday. It is Trinity Sunday, yes, but in our gathering here to make our weekly sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving on the Lord’s Day, some are preparing to be part of the panoramic pageant of Williams College commencement, as the class of 2007 steps onto that dais and is ceremonially changed in status from undergraduates to members of the Alumni Association, with all the rights and tax-deductible responsibilities pertaining thereto.

We rejoice with you who are here for such additional high purpose today, and we’re honored to welcome family and friends of Williams seniors who have become very dear to us during their years in this purple valley. We’re honored, as well, to welcome this weekend’s baccalaureate speaker, Sri Lankan supreme court justice Shiranee Tilakawardane, a dedicated leader in the Anglican Church.

Madame Justice, in our own small way today we represent the Anglican Communion as we rejoice that you will be honored for your pioneering work on behalf of women and children, internationally.

It’s also not every Sunday when we get to hear a portion of the Book of Proverbs. It was not a frequent flyer in the Book of Common Prayer lectionary, but now that we’re using the Revised Common Lectionary we’ll be hearing it more often.

It’s a biblical book that feminists struggle with, because its voice is strongly patriarchal: in Proverbs, women are defined by their relationships with men. But what can we expect from literature that is so very old? It is in this vein that some of the proverbs set up a straw woman, the adulteress, who can bring ruin upon a man and his family (as if it could all be her fault). “Her house is the way to Sheol,” we are warned.

But there is another feminine presence in the book, a dominant presence, and we hear her voice today: this is the voice of wisdom. “Wisdom has built her house,” we hear in the chapter that follows ours today, “she has hewn her seven pillars.. she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town,
‘You that are simple, turn in here!’ To those without sense she says, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.’”

In our portion today we hear her say, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago… before the beginning of the earth… when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil. When he established the heavens, I was there… then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being… in him was life, and the life was the light of all people…" Are these cherished words that open John’s Gospel shaped by more ancient words that we have heard this morning, from the Book of Proverbs?

In John’s Gospel, it’s the Greek idea of Word that matters, the rational order that lies at the foundation of reality. In the Hebrew worldview of Proverbs, it is Wisdom that matters. As one commentator puts it, “Wisdom requires a humble, earnest effort to hear what the other person says and a willingness to see our world in the other person’s terms.”

Oh, let us pray for wisdom to matter more and more in this 21st-century world that we inhabit.

In relations among people of differing religious faiths, and in the dialogue that people of religious faith have with religionless culture, the earnest effort to hear, the willingness to see.

In the leadership exercised by those who order our reality, in government, in the media, in education, that earnest effort to hear and that willingness to see… and courage to act upon what is heard and seen.

In our self-understanding as human beings accountable to global belonging and stewardship, not just national citizenship, wisdom must matter more and more.

And in our friendships and constantly changing family structures, the humble grasp of terms that matter, and the letting go of those that do not.

All three of our Bible readings today cause us to understand that God is active strategically in this stunningly complex world that we inhabit. Our New Testament readings proclaim the animating, revealing, guiding power of the Spirit that God pours into human hearts, the Spirit of truth that causes faith, faith that reorders all human experience, faith that welcomes and takes part in the transforming of all things, even suffering, into peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.

And from the Hebrew scriptures the voice we hear is wisdom calling from “the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads… beside the gates… at the entrance of the portals…” at all times, in all places, wherever we may step across a line that could change our status, change our minds, change our outlook, change our fortunes, inviting us to walk in the way of insight first and so understand, by listening to what we do not yet know, how and when and where to place our feet and our hope and our faith, so that we will be instruments of peace and truth and justice.

Word and wisdom: let the Church cherish both and train us in both, so we may always have a community that calls and empowers us to let the Word be made flesh as we pour ourselves into the world, and a community in which we may understand what happens to us when we do.