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?