Monday, November 19, 2007

Welcome to the Living Stone

Believe it or not, I want to start this sermon rejoicing over windows, newly installed this week in our sacristy and adjacent bathroom. They open and close! In all our recent building work, here is our first taste of what it’s like to see something new. With this, the exterior work of our Preservation Project has been completed! Yes, hooray! That represents 90% of the whole project—eventually, the caboose will be structural repairs in our lower room, a step we won’t take until we’re confident how we want to use that room—but we all agree that 90% is time to celebrate, and next Sunday that’s what we propose to do.

That will be a holiday weekend, and because it will find some of you away we’re warming up our celebration skills so as to include you today.

But does our Gospel help us? “One day people were… talking about the Temple, remarking how beautiful it was, the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts. Jesus said, ‘All this you’re admiring so much—the time is coming when every stone in that building will end up in a heap of rubble.’”

We’ve already lived with our heaps of rubble during the past year when most of the stones in this building have been touched by the skilled hands of master masons, some of those stones repointed, some of them realigned, some of them replaced. We don’t need to picture them reduced to a pile of rubble today, thanks anyway. We want to picture them standing tall and secure to give God a place of praise and to give countless people a place of encounter with God in Word and prayer, in sacrament and friendship, in the shared work and play of community, in the giving and receiving of support and care.

So I’ll tell you what we did at Worship Outside the Box this morning. Instead of reading today’s Gospel, we heard Stefanie read a passage from the First Letter of Peter. It goes like this: “Welcome to the living Stone, the source of life. The workmen took one look and threw it out; God set it in the place of honor. Present yourselves as building stones for the construction of a sanctuary vibrant with life, in which you’ll serve as holy priests… God’s instruments to do God’s work and speak out for God, to tell others of the night-and-day difference God makes for you.”

Welcome to the living Stone. Isn’t that something, that the apostle who wrote this letter found stones such a good image to represent the life and work of Jesus, and to represent the purpose of living in Christ?

So I thought it might be good to give ourselves two special images of stones that might be said to have some living nature. They’re printed on an insert to your leaflet today. Perhaps you’ve already wondered over them, “Why are they in my hands today?”

One is the famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Standing 130 feet tall (33 meters, one for each year of his life), weighing 700 tons, it’s located at the peak of Corcovado Mountain overlooking the city. Made of soapstone from Sweden, it took from 1926 to 1931 to build. This Christ of the open arms was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World this summer.

The other image I’ve chosen is our own little cornerstone. Do you know where it is? According to our parish history, at 4:00 p.m. on a September day in 1895, church members, townspeople, and “boys from the College” gathered at the southwest corner of the rising church foundation, and sang some hymns. I wonder which ones they sang? “How Firm a Foundation”? “A Mighty Fortress”? “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation”? “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”?

The pioneer of St. John’s, The Rev. Dr. William Tatlock, was the guest of honor. As a Williams student, he had started a student fellowhip in 1853. A Brit, he had been missing worship with the Book of Common Prayer, so he took matters into his own hands and, on Christmas Day 1853, led Morning Prayer in the front parlor of Mrs. Starkweather’s home on North Street, the first Episcopal service ever held in this town. In 1855, he helped found St. John’s Church in North Adams.

Now move ahead—or back—to 1895, and Tatlock was then Rector of St. John’s Church in Stamford, Connecticut. (Were all Episcopal churches in the waning years of the nineteenth century named for St. John?) Having taken the train to Williamstown for the laying of this cornerstone, he spread the cement, the stone was lowered into place, and I’ll bet prayers were said and more than a few words, as well.

What could be said to have made this a living stone is described by our founding Rector, The Rev. Dr. Theodore Sedgwick. “In that stone we placed many things, a Bible, a prayerbook and a hymnal; newspapers of the day, money coins of that date, a list of the contributors and officers of the church. The box, I remember, was very full when it was sealed with solder.”

Placing a time capsule in a cornerstone is still a custom meant to say: A certain group of people, we who chose those objects, placed them here, we whose names you’ll find here; we set this place in motion. We invested ourselves in the building of what you now renew for generations yet to come.

In this great chain of receiving and giving, receiving and giving, the pronoun “we” has as wide an embrace as the open arms of Cristo Redentor.

When Dr. Sedgwick left St. John’s in 1900, he went to become Rector of (you guessed it) St. John the Evangelist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, a large parish that also was building a church. Wasn’t he the lucky duck? In 1902, that cornerstone was laid. It had been purchased for $200 raised by the 400 children in that church’s Sunday School and other children’s programs with which Sedgwick had become involved in St. Paul. (Those were days when many families were too poor to send their children even to public schools, and churches took measures to provide basic education.) That was a large sum in what was then a poor community—and the children led the way.

A cornerstone represents sacrifice. Civilization has come far in some respects. In some ancient cultures, the foundation of a new temple could not be laid without the ceremonial sacrifice of a human life. It took blood to create a living stone, they thought.

Wait a minute. Don’t we believe that, too? That “living stone” in I Peter is the crucified Christ whose life-blood was poured out for us all. It’s those three little words “for us all” that set the blood of Cristo Redentor apart from all blood-thirsty religion, past and present. His self-offering of his own life ends all justification of violence; many Christians would say that includes attempts to justify war. Ended are all claims that God requires the spilling of blood.

As the Book of Common Prayer says it, elegantly and clearly, “All glory be to thee, Almighty God, our heavenly Father, for that thou, of thy tender mercy, didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption;” --Cristo Redentor—“who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…”

But this gift has to be received, has to be taken in to fill the hollow of our cornerstone.

The Christian doctrine of redemption may trouble us for what it says about God, that a parent’s love of a child could somehow include allowing, even willing, the death of that child in order to fulfil the expectations of the parent. Many a former Christian has walked away from doctrine as dense as this. Many an honest struggling Christian trips over doctrine as demanding as this.

No accident that in I Peter the apostle says that this living stone, rejected by some, while God chooses it to become the cornerstone, for many becomes a skandalon, the Greek word for a stumbling block.

But isn’t the unjust death of Cristo Redentor the event in which God says “Enough!” to the old ways, the old blood lusts and blood-lettings? Isn’t it there on the trash heap of Calvary that God begins what the prophet Isaiah heard promised, the creation of new heavens and a new earth? Even as Jesus’s blood drops into the dust of the old earth, a new age is opened just as wide as those arms above Rio.

“Come to me, all whose labors in this unjust world wear you down, and I will give you rest. I will build you up. Take up your ability to trust me, and you will find courage to end the cycle of hurting and destroying that has no place in a world being made new.”

This Good News, passionate for justice, compassionate towards all, committed to truth, determined for peace, this Good News of the open-armed Christ needs sanctuaries made with hands only to hold Christ’s people long enough, often enough, deeply enough to form in them living sanctuaries built of hope and love and faith.

Here, hallowed long by the spiritual encounters of so many, the stones themselves could sing, if we were to forget how. They’ve called us to invest ourselves, many of us sacrificially, to free this house of prayer to stand secure and open, wide open, for another century.

We have begun our thanksgiving for the grace by which we’ve accomplished an enormous task. We have learned to open our arms wide to welcome the challenge that was truly ours. We understand those hard words we heard our Lord say in Luke, that “As for these things that we see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” We do not need to be convinced about that. Stones fall. Temples decay. Even buildings we take for granted as “there forever” will not be.

And we know why we’ve done the work we’ve been given to do. As people of sacrament, we know that things we touch, when touched by faith and hope and love, become outward and visible signs, means by which inner and spiritual grace is given and received. The story of our restoring this building is just as truly the story of God restoring us, God building in us a sanctuary, building of us a people open to the world.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Big on Law, Low on Principle

This sermon refers to Job 19:23-27a and Luke 20:27-38

A society organized and built on the basis of law and justice may tell two kinds of powerful stories with unique fascination. One we might call the story of the impossible possibility, the search for the perfect catch in the law, a form of parody that causes astonishment and dark laughter because it’s so ridiculous-- while also cutting to the heart of what matters. Jesus tells this kind of story today. The other is the story of when justice miscarries and an innocent man suffers. Our first lesson today gives us a famous slice of that kind of story, the stymieing story of Job. Both kinds of story shake our ordinary sense of justice, take us right to the edge of our imagination, and require that a legal mind give way to larger truth. Both stories show how insistently ancient Israel was organized and built on the basis of law and justice. And both speak to the question raised by the Roman poet Horace not many years before the birth of Christ: Quid leges sine moribus? “Of what use are laws, if we lack principle?”

Some very bright men come to Jesus today and tell a made-up story. Made for television, we might say—what a series this would be, “My Seven Husbands”. But that would be a different take on the story than our first-century clever men would have had; they couldn’t have cared less about the experience and rights of the woman. More and more, we are principled about the equality of women and men. That was not a first-century concept, though it was a passion of Jesus of Nazareth.

What is happening here is that smart legal minds are trying to back Jesus into a corner of impossibility. They are religious men who believe in God, but God, they say, is bound to obey the same laws that God has in place for us. St. Luke our story-teller implies at the start that these religious lawyers are about to confront Jesus with a test case intended to put him in the wrong. This is one of several times in the Gospels when people high on law and low on principles try to trap Jesus into saying something they could use against him—turning their encounter into a trial where they can catch him on cross-examination, get him to express a view that violated the laws of Israel or, even more dangerously, the laws of the Roman Empire.

They have heard enough about Jesus to know that he preaches a dangerous message about a Kingdom of God laying claim on daily life. To them, that sounds as if God might want to do something unexpected, even revolutionary, and they believed God would never do business that way. They have heard that Jesus speaks about angels serving the purposes of God and the needs of mortals, and about new life beyond the reach of death—and they thought all this was nonsense, because they could not find it anywhere in the law that a spiritual world could break in upon the physical, or that a person’s soul could live beyond the death of the body.

So they set up the case we heard: one after another, seven brothers follow the pattern of marrying this woman, then dying, leaving no children. Finally, the woman also dies—is it any wonder? If there is a resurrection beyond death, they want to know (but notice they aren’t principled enough to truthfully say they mean “if”—they speak as if they do believe there will be a resurrection), whose wife will the woman be?

Deeply committed to the rule of law, these men base their impossible possibility on a law that Moses taught. It’s found in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:

“When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.”

These religious lawyers agree that this is the only way a person lives beyond death: through his or her descendants. The way they see it, the right and legal answer to their question is: After death, we have no being except through our children. So this woman is no man’s wife because this woman is no longer.

I hear Jesus replying, “You are partly right, and enormously wrong. She is no man’s wife because marriage is only for this age of our earth-bound life. But if this woman were to step into the new age I am here to open to all, she would be so beyond death and so beyond all the bondings and ownings and dyings of daily life that she would be known not as someone’s wife but as who she is as God knows her. She will be a child of the resurrection. I will agree with you that God is not God of the dead, but of the living—not, as you suppose, because death limits God but because to God all the dead are alive, and intimately known.”

So Jesus gives his examiners a lesson about principle. This is an echo of what may be his signature lesson: when asked which was the most important of the laws of Israel, you remember his answer: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Driving principles of his preaching: love’s primacy, love’s inseparability as it flows through its own holy trinity of God, self, and neighbor, love requiring radical equality, the love of God giving human love the courage and power to be all it can be.

We know that Jesus did not invent these principles. Christianity does not claim that he invented them, but that he embodied them, uniquely, and by his Spirit we who live in him are made able to embody love in his way. While our Christian faith roots us in Jesus’s embodying of divine principle, our faith does not limit us, does not restrict us from admiring and appreciating other embodyings of love when we see them for what they are.

We get just a glimpse of one today, as four and a half verses remind us of Job. To hear his whole story is to watch colliding principles that attempt to explain the ways of God in the case of an innocent man whose suffering presents a miscarriage of justice, not just in his misfortunes but in what his very religious friends make of his misfortunes, how they slip from helpless silence into ill-advised blaming of Job for winding up in the plight he’s in.

If justice hadn’t been so important in ancient Israel, we’d never have had a story like Job’s. It’s for a sermon another day to go into that story, but let’s notice one thing: this is a story about an accused man who will not confess guilt. To explain away the awful things that have happened to him (the deaths of his children, wiping out his name; the loss of his home and wealth, a terrible disease of his skin—truly a dreadful list of impossible possibilities), to explain how this could befall a good man, his friends accuse him of somehow deserving it. Another case of legalistic minds run amok, unprincipled by love.

It is just when their toxic words bring him to the edge of final despair that out of Job erupts this explosion of hope that we heard today. “I know that my defender lives, and that at the last he will arise upon the earth—after my skin finally falls off, as it’s doing even now—But I would see God from my flesh, whom I would see for myself; my eyes would see, and not a stranger.”

Those words have been claimed by the Church and help open the rite of Christian burial. By the zeal of our theologians in the first centuries, the full embodying of love and justice in Jesus Christ have brimmed over to flow back and fill the scriptures of ancient Israel with meaning they didn’t have then. To say that Job speaks of what we mean by resurrection is unlikely. But what’s clear is that he would not give up on God and by that determination dares to believe that God will not give up on him.

And it takes that gritty an interpretation of Job’s words to ensure that we appreciate how he embodies love. He represents a sharp legal mind no less than Jesus’s examiners in Luke. The big difference is that his physical and emotional sufferings have shaken loose his ordinary sense of justice, brought him to the very edge of his imagination, and required that he step into the realm of spirit and truth. While his whole story is being told as if it were a trial being heard in a courtroom, his confrontation with God as the likelihood of death draws near causes Job to want help, and he imagines various heavenly figures who might come to his aid: an arbitrator, a witness, a defender. But in the end, as we heard today, nothing will satisfy Job except direct access to God. He says, to himself and to his smart but unprincipled friends, the same thing Jesus says to his examiners: Only God’s intimate knowledge of me can adequately judge and define and value me.

Can you hear the long-held detainees at Guantánamo saying this? I can.

Can you hear hard-working illegal aliens in this country saying similar words after being wrenched from their families in one state and driven far away to another for deportation hearings? I can.

Does a prisoner interrogated by water-boarding reach beyond himself with words like, “I know that my defender lives.. my life falls away, even now I would see God who alone knows how to see me.”

We are at war with more than terrorism. We are in collision with our own principles. Like ancient Israel, our society is built upon law and justice. Like ancient Israel, we must pay attention to our own stories of justice miscarried. With Horace, we must ask how laws can guide us if we lack principle. And with Jesus find divine principle announcing God’s sovereign defense of the dignity and value of every person, divine principle asserting what it means to live a just life.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Stewardship the World Needs

This sermon refers to Isaiah 1:10-18 and Luke 18:1-8.

The afternoon before our first frost last week, I harvested the final armful of zinnias. Bright with the intensity of summer’s colors, they’re no longer sticking their tongues out in the garden, daring Jack Frost to shut them down—but they make quite the Last Hurrah, and it’s November, for heaven’s sake.

Two days after that first frost, I removed the screen and replaced the storm inset at our front door. No more slapping shut of a screen door—the summer percussion section at our house has been silenced. It’s a sound we rather like, and we hope it doesn’t bug the neighbors… but now that door closes with the whoosh we need to keep winter out. And with that, I know the season has changed.

So does the cat. His morning run is down to ten minutes now. “Enough of this,” he mutters, as he bounds in.

Cycles of death and rebirth surround us and sing to us, all year around. The Christian Year declares the calendar year dead and gone near the start of December, when Advent will blow the last fluff out of the milkweed, and we start hearing how a shoot will rise out of the stump of Jesse. On the heels of the winter solstice, Christmas will kindle the soul with Incarnation, even while it exhausts the flesh when we pursue the wrong spirits. Then, well before our northern gardens even think of awakening, the Church Year will aim us into the Passion of Jesus Christ for the world, and reach its climax in our yearly renewal by immersion into the mystery of his life and death and new life in Spirit and truth.

As if reminding us of two thousand years of experience at this gracious cycling, the liturgical year right about now opens the curtain on the full cast of characters who have gone before us in the Way of Christ. All the saints, all the souls, all the children and women and men so centered on God that Jesus knows them as his people, his friends, his apostles (not “fossils”, as one of our young members charmingly thought they were called, but apostles, people who worship God in how they live their lives)—many of them rather eccentric by the standards of their peers. Which explains why so many did not die peacefully in their beds, but harshly in collision with the very world they sought to serve.

Let us not be fossils! Though wars have been fought over possessing the bones of the saints, there’s nothing edifying about having the remains of even the very holiest of them. By contrast, saints and apostles and all God’s children who have left a mark on their world have done so by the intensity of their faith, the good cheer of their hope, and the bright colors of their love. They are the zinnias of God. Even in the last hurrah of their deaths, they make us ask “How’d they do that?” even while we know the answer is “God.”

The Church goes so far, in her creeds, to say that the children of God are so freed by God’s Spirit and truth that they’re always humming a tune that we can hear (if we listen), everywhere still touching hearts and minds and wills through their ever-told stories (if we listen), and still at work—or is it now, for them, at play?—in that great endless chain of receiving and giving, receiving and giving, which theologians call the Communion of Saints.

Though that chain is endless, it is that way because people of God like you and me choose, one by one, to extend its influence in their world. That is an important message to give on Stewardship Sunday, isn’t it? A call to purposely center ourselves on God yet more fully, however eccentric a choice that may seem by the standards of the very world we would serve.

And there’s Zaccheus in our Gospel, helping us hear the call. His story explodes any claim that the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t talk about money. Zaccheus puts forward an entire economic plan for social justice—50% of his income to the poor, fourfold restitution if he has defrauded anyone even without knowing it—and Jesus approves.

Yes, maybe it helps that Zaccheus is rich. Perhaps that’s part of what makes him bold to even have a plan. On the other hand, that hardly explains his enthusiasm, does it? You and I are privileged to live in a culture that values philanthropy. I mean voluntary giving. Would that we could point to federal foreign aid, a shamefully low percentage of our gross national product, or to federal domestic assistance, on the skids for years now—but while we won’t find inspiring evidence there, the voluntary giving I mean is the kind that you and I exercise in stewarding our own resources. Americans are creating a culture that affirms giving—but, even so, do Warren Buffett or the Gateses give 50% of their income?

It isn’t just because Zaccheus is rich that he’s on a roll. It’s that he has received through the love of God in Jesus Christ the very powers that his economic plan displays. He has received from Jesus the reality of inclusion, the experience of restoration, and the promise of salvation. Before Jesus shook his tree, Zaccheus was a chief tax collector, rich but shunned as a collaborator with Roman imperial rule, possessed of a good heart but unconvinced that he had a place in the heart of God. Sliding down that sycamore, Zaccheus stood on new ground.

What did Jesus do for him? On the surface, all he did was invite himself to lunch at Zaccheus’s house. But instantly, the action went deeper as the crowds watching all this mutter their verdict about Jesus (“Look, he’s no judge of character, is he?”) and their judgment on Zaccheus (“He is a sinner.”)

By going to the chief tax collector’s house, Jesus makes of it a judgment hall, a courtroom. He is not the judge. He is the attorney for the defense, Zaccheus’s advocate just by being there.

What sounds like self-defense is also Zaccheus responding to the muttered judgment of the crowds. “Yes, I am a sinner, Lord: but I will give half of what I own to the poor whom I know you champion, Jesus. I will join you there, even if the poor may be among those attacking me. If it is discovered that I defrauded anyone, I will repay fourfold.” That would be way beyond the most stringent demands of the law of Israel.

Zaccheus gives Jesus his resolve as response to the honor Jesus has shown him by his visit. This is not an attempt to bribe the judge. Jesus is not the judge. He is the advocate who champions not only the poor, but all who want a place at his table of radical equality, all who want to turn the tables on the cult of luxury and the culture of violence.

So Jesus announces to all within earshot, “Today salvation has come to this house… I have come not to judge, but to save the world… to seek out and save the lost, both poor and rich… to save households from the burden of unyielding poverty and to save households from the burden of unyielding wealth.”

Today, one of those has yielded. A chief tax collector in charge of certified public accountants trained to track every penny, every denarius, announces his plan to give half of what he owns, and from his own money restore fourfold any false claims he levied on behalf of imperial Rome. That is the arithmetic of grace.

In stark contrast, we hear today about the rulers of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah. And the subject isn’t sex. It’s the relationship among money, religion, and justice.

The words are an oracle of the prophet Isaiah, rumbling down to us from 800 years before Luke told his story about Zaccheus. Isaiah’s words are a perfect foil for setting-off Luke’s story. His words are important and challenging to hear on a parish’s stewardship Sunday.

In a nutshell, Isaiah reports God’s extreme displeasure at the religious practices of Sodom and Gomorrah. They’re doing what they were brought up to do: killing bulls, lambs, and goats by a hammerblow to the head to stun them, then slitting their throats so both their blood and their meat could be offered in sacrifice to God, an ancient form of worship which was to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah—as to all the people of Israel at that time—old-time religion. You’ll recall that it was still alive and kicking in the first century, when Jesus came on the scene.

Scholars of religion tell us that the purpose of this kind of sacrifice was for the nation to get God on their side, to get God the judge to rule in their favor, and to keep God on their side by maintaining sacrifice upon sacrifice.

Messy as it sounds, it all became a cult of luxury, religion aimed at protecting success. “It’s part of our standard of living to offer to God what is expected, a goat, a lamb, a bull.” A bribe. God, we’ll do this for you if you’ll do this for us, crown our society with success, keep us Number One.

According to Isaiah, God says, “No, thanks! Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings like these is futile.. I am weary of bearing the burden of your festivals and assemblies. If you keep this up, I will hide my eyes and block my ears. Yours hands are bloody. Wash them. Then go to your room. You’re grounded.”

No, in fact that’s not God’s way. Instead are these wonderful trusting empowering words, “Come now, let us argue it out.” This is a Jewish God, and it’s not just rabbis who debate. All God’s children get the opportunity to learn in volley back and forth with God whose gifts are patience, inclusion, restoration, and salvation.

The religion God values, the stewardship the world needs, centers on these imperatives: Cease to do evil… Learn to do good… Seek justice… Rescue the oppressed… Defend the orphan… Plead for the widow.

Religion that advocates for justice, that promotes radical equality. This prophetic standard shows us where Jesus comes from, puts Zaccheus in the long chain of prophetic stewardship, and links him to the communion of saints.

How will you extend the influence of that great chain of receiving and giving, receiving and giving, in your world?

How will we ensure that we aren’t worshipping at the altars of a cult of luxury and a culture of violence?

Will we let the saints—today especially Zaccheus and Isaiah—speak to us about justice?

Today, this week, how will you welcome the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ to shape within you a passion and practice of radical equality, at home around your dining table, here in your church, in your relationships at work and school, in the world of your influence?