Thursday, December 24, 2009

Building the Priesthood of All Believers

From the Collect for the 4th Sunday of Advent:
"Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself..."

Fifty years ago tomorrow, a then-young man named Nicholas Phelps was ordained a priest in Christ’s holy catholic Church.

That last phrase is Prayer Book language describing our belief that to ordain someone a priest is to take action in the name of Jesus, symbolized by the stole that yokes each priest to the Gospel of Christ, and to ordain someone a priest is to take action on behalf of the holy catholic Church. Not just in the name of the particular congregation that priest is to serve, not just in the name of his or her diocese, and not just in the name of the Episcopal Church (which we seldom call “the holy catholic Church”), but in the name of, well, the whole enchilada, the universal Church, the Body of Christ in the world, the Church beyond walls and beyond tribal claims and beyond definitions that exclude people. The Church whose unity we don’t yet see, except when we look at the cross. The Church whose one voice we do not yet hear, except when we recite our creeds and sing certain great hymns. The Church whose behavior and integrity we long for, but too seldom contribute to, though we think we know that integrity when we see it.

That was a long preamble, wasn’t it? It was almost a pre-ramble, but I needed you to catch how part of a priest’s calling is, well, imprecise, unmeasurable, even deeply unrealistic . Not confined to being pastor to a local community, or taking part in the councils of a diocese, or representing the one particular tradition of Anglican Christianity, but trying to serve the movement of the Spirit of Christ recognizable in the world, the Spirit that is bonded to the human race, bound to free and reconcile and heal the whole created order. The first three of those roles (in parish, diocese, tradition) are one thing, but that last one is so idealistic and imprecise that few priests find it expected in their letters of agreement. But there it is, in the Book of Common Prayer. Utterly unrealistic—unless, of course, you believe that the Holy Spirit is the Church’s only essential reality.

And, while I don’t know Nicholas Phelps well enough to say, I’m going to guess that he does believe that. To have reached his 50th anniversary of ordination, I’d judge that he must.

Yes, back to Fr. Phelps. A 1956 graduate of Williams, he returned to Williamstown after seminary, and from 1959 to 1962 he was Curate here and Vicar of St. Andrew’s, Blackinton. Which means that, in all likelihood, fifty years ago tomorrow it was here in this place that he was ordained a priest.

He and I have only corresponded, never met, and I’m thinking it was either in our centennial year (1995) or during our capital campaign in 2005 that our correspondence started. When the invitation to attend his 50th anniversary arrived, earlier this month, I knew we had to have a hand in it. (I also knew that wouldn’t be by me attending, since it’s happening right now, at this moment, in St. Mark’s Church in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. If the snowstorm hasn’t shut them down.

And we’re there, indirectly. The service leaflet somewhere will say,
“The flowers at the altar are from the people of St. John's Parish, Williamstown, MA, and the people of St. Andrew's Church in Blackinton, MA, at whose altars The Rev. Nicholas Phelps first celebrated the Holy Eucharist, in thanksgiving for his faithful ministry in many places throughout fifty years.”

And we’ll be there in another way. When I saw that the parish Fr. Phelps assists at in his retirement is in Philadelphia, I went fishing for an ambassador to represent us. My first choice was Lindi Von Mutius, a 2003 Williams grad who was very much part of us here throughout her college years. She married recently, and is an attorney in Philadelphia.

I emailed her, described the situation, inquired how out of the way might it be for her to give us a Sunday morning by attending St. Mark’s, Rittenhouse Square. I knew she was worshiping somewhere, but hoped she could free herself to be our ambassador today.

“St. Mark’s is the church I go to!” she wrote back. And it’s partly because of Fr. Phelps, I gather, that Lindi worships there. So Lindi took charge of arranging for those flowers, and the last I heard she was aiming for purple thistles, the purple, I’m sure, for Advent… or is it for Williams?

And what became of Fr. Phelps after he left here? He became Assistant Chaplain at UCLA for two or three years, then Chaplain until 1970. Counting his time here, that was eleven years working with the Episcopal Society for Ministry in Higher Education. Then he served as Rector of Trinity Church in Buckingham, PA, for ten years, and from 1981 until his retirement in 1998, Rector of St. James Church, Bristol, outside Philadelphia, where he continues to live.

St. John’s has been privileged to help God incubate many candidates for ordination. This fall, I heard from another member of the Class of 2003 at Williams, Grey Maggiano, who is seeking ordination in the Diocese of Virginia. He says of St. John’s that we taught him that the Church can be more than just a protector of traditions, that we showed him how a church can be welcoming to a wide variety of people while still retaining its Anglican roots.

Doesn’t that sound as if St. John’s is acting like a priest? That would be the priesthood of all believers, the community’s ministry that a priest is called to nurture and promote.

We’re every bit as privileged when we help God raise up bright and gifted lay leaders like Lindi. She and her new husband Chris are laying hands on a mission congregation of St. Mark’s. It’s named St. James’, and it’s located in an old neighborhood, ethnically and socially diverse, not wealthy or thriving. Lindi says that for her the real action is there, where members are learning to reach out into their community to serve it where and how it needs. Youth groups come from neighboring parishes to clean and maintain the place, and Lindi meets them with cupcakes, hundreds of cupcakes. She’s the Cupcake Lady.

That’s pretty realistic ministry, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why God apportions vocations sparingly: Priests account for some tiny percentage way below 1% of the Episcopal Church’s membership. The other 99+% of the Church, working in and moving about in the world, may be better positioned than the clergy for recognizing the movement of the Spirit beyond the walls of the local church.

But the truth is, clergy and laity, the whole 100%, need each other, together form the priesthood of believers, and together need beyond themselves the Spirit of God and all people who are open to being agents of that Spirit in the world. Then we may make headway on that mansion, that livable dwelling-place open to all, sustained by the Spirit, useful to the Spirit, prepared for the Son of God when he comes.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Then Should We Do at Christmas?

Luke 3:7-18 is the Gospel for the 3rd Sunday in Advent

Each Christmas, we get spellbound by Luke’s telling the story of our Lord’s birth. He’s the only one of the four Gospel writers to tell the story, I mean the full one, the one we like to hear, complete with shepherds, angels, and assorted barnyard creatures.

What would people think if, on Christmas Eve, we substituted for that second chapter of Luke today’s portion from the third chapter?

Can’t you picture our two churchfuls of people, many of them on annual visitation, hearing those immortal words, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Here we are, on the third Sunday in Advent, when the lighting of the pink candle seems to say, “Lighten up!”--and that’s what we get: “You brood of vipers!” But we’re tough. We can take it. I mean, John the Baptizer’s version of Christmas. But is it the one we want to hear?

Why am I calling this stirring passage John’s version of Christmas? Because he’s preparing the way of the Lord, the Messiah who comes in God’s name. For St. Luke to give us this chapter 3 right on top of his Christmas story in chapter 2, it must be that he’s showing us how John the Baptizer’s confrontational message teaches us why this baby Jesus is born, and what difference it should make in our lives that he has come to us.

As brash and bold as John’s words are, it was with such exhortations that “he proclaimed the good news to the people.” In chapter 2, Luke puts good news in the voice of the angel, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Can’t you hardly wait to hear those quintessentially Christmas words come from the sweet high voice of a child in our Christmas pageant?

Step across into chapter 3 and Luke puts good news in the voice of fearless John who raises everyone’s self-expectation, as well as stirring-up their expectation of God. In chapter 2, we see what God does in Bethlehem of Judea: sheer grace, gift. In chapter 3, the central question is “What then should we do?” What behavior, what ethical choices might be in keeping with such grace, such gift?

What, then, should we do?

General unrestrained merry-making? No, that would be what you do if you’re first-century Romans keeping the December feast of Saturnalia… inspiration for American office Christmas parties…

Run yourself into the ground, sacrificing your own health and happiness to meet the expectations of others? No, that too is based on pagan ideas about it being good to suffer in the flesh in order to meet the demands of the spirit.

Shop until we drop? Assume that more is better, that salvation is a matter of raising our own standard of living? For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone might make the month of December the most expensive, acquisitive, and wasteful extravaganza on the face of the earth?

What then should we do?

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Do we turn the Feast of the Nativity of Jesus into an Olympic competition in retail spending because, when we get right down to it, we are so afraid of the dark? And so afraid of death? Do we surround ourselves with things that have color and radiance and glitter because otherwise December drags us into a dark night of the soul? Do we turn Bethlehem into bedlam because we lack the patience and courage to go deeper with God into our own spiritual journey? Is it easier to change dark December than it is to undergo the change of heart that is invited by the word “repent”? Isn’t the only way to the new light through the darkness?

And that is where John’s Christmas message begins. Perhaps before we can deal with the question, “What then should we do?”, we must ask, “Of what do we have to repent?”

Susan K. Bock offers some answers in a confession litany she has written for Advent. She starts by saying to God, “Emmanuel, we want to believe you are with us dwelling in this and every moment,” then completes the story by the response she gives the people, “But we pine for the past and rush toward the future.”

“We want to be found wide awake, alert with love, as you appear in this and every moment,” she prays again, and has the people answer, “But we slumber through and laze away the miracle of ordinary days.”

“We want to wait for you alone, with desire and hope,”… “But our trust fails, our longing grows cold, and our hope dims.”

“We want to make room in our hearts, a safe and warm place, for you to be born,”… “But we close our hearts, and harden them to you and your people.”

She ends her confession—and it could be ours—by praying, “We confess our failures at love,”…and has the people respond, “We are sorry; we ask your forgiveness.”

In a similar way, John the Baptizer must have brought the people along to recognize their need to prune away some of their own darkness, and to recognize as fruitless some of their own branches (their values, their habits, their priorities): “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” says John rather mystically and confrontationally, as he makes his case for the incarnation of God in Jesus, the birthing of the Messiah in our midst, as being all about the fruitfulness of love.

“Then what must we do?”, we ask.

“Share what you have,” he answers. You have two coats? Do you need them both? Give one to someone who has none. That’s his answer to every one of us, everyman, everywoman, everychild.

Then some special cases step forward. Tax collectors, asking what they should do. “Don’t gouge the public,” he answers.

Soldiers ask the same question. “Don’t bully people into paying you bribes, learn to live within your means.”

They called him Teacher, suggesting how important John would be in preparing the way for Jesus our Teacher.

Put yourself at the feet of either teacher, John or Jesus, and put to him your question about your own special case. What do you hear him say, as…

Teachers and writers come to him, asking, “What should we do?”

Investment bankers come to him, asking the same question.

Medical doctors come to him…what about us?

Lawyers… clergy… artists come to him…and us? What should we do?

Parents, grandparents, children come to him… What about us?

In common among all John’s answers are certain ways of being: Be generous in your sharing. Be fair and just. Be respectful and thoughtful.

And those traits, which we see made flesh perfectly in Jesus our teacher, are among the traits we commit ourselves to when we make and renew our baptismal covenant. No wonder that they could be the right traits of a Christmas celebration that truly honors the Messiah who has come.

Some may be dreaming of a white Christmas. John the Baptizer calls us to a generous Christmas, a fair Christmas, a respectful Christmas. May such be ours, by our own choice, in response to the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent Now

This sermon refers to two of the readings for the First Sunday of Advent: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36.

Don’t ask me how it got to be Advent already. I’m still cutting-back our perennial beds for the winter, and shuffling-along the mortal coils of the 2009 gardening season so we can fit the car in the garage. I’m about ready for fall, not winter; but there’s no mistaking the season, once it gets to be about 4:30 in the afternoon, not a bad time to consider the words of our collect about casting away the works of darkness and putting upon us the armor of light “now in the time of this mortal life,” the very place and time of our being visited by Jesus in great humility.

Already, 4:30 arrives and I’m startled by the darkness… and there’s another three weeks before the solstice trims our shortest day of the year. Much of Advent will be spent feeling time running through our fingers like sand, facing the temptation to see our hourglass half empty, not half full.

“Now in the time of this mortal life…”

“Now when these things begin to take place…" There’s that Advent word again, Now. The way St. Luke records it, Jesus teaches his disciples to read the signs of the times so they’ll be alert to all they mean, on guard so as not to be caught unexpectedly, as in a trap, ignorant and unknowing.

Our Lord’s parable of the fig tree seems not to fit now, our winterizing season, for he asks the twelve to imagine leaves sprouting on that fig tree. Last weekend in balmy Cambridge, not far from Harvard Yard, I saw bearded iris in full bloom, encircling one of those signs that threaten the unmitigated wrath of God upon anyone who might consider parking there. “Park here by permit only; all others shall be sent into outer darkness.” I wondered by whose permit that iris was daring to bloom.

The righteous branch of David mentioned today by the prophet Jeremiah had to be caused to spring up. It wasn’t expected in the natural order of things that God would send a Messiah capable of bestowing righteousness on earth, that is, making-right all the horrific injustices of the human race and making-whole all the damaged integrity of planet earth.

Such is the mission of the Messiah who speaks to us out of Luke’s Gospel this morning. He catalogues all the dismal signs of a deterioriating creation, a shaken heaven, a crumbling earth, a rising sea—all signs of distress causing the human race to “faint from fear and foreboding”.

But he himself causes courage. The natural order of things is for people to duck, when threatened by danger. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” And within verses, again, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down,” don’t numb your senses with drugs and drink, don’t fill your mind with worries of this life. The only way to survive the inescapable with your souls still intact is to stand in the strength of prayer.

Politicians will govern badly and ineptly. Chronic tribal grudges will keep poisoning the well of human community. Our creaturely state will always be vulnerable to pandemics. Lack of compassion and imagination and courage will keep turning expendable people into casualties. Greed will consume the greatest of societies. Wisdom will inspire vision by morning light, but by 4:30 in the afternoon of the human race, fears will loom large and cowards win the night.

The evening news has always been sobering, troubling. No wonder the Church, in her bedtime prayers of Compline, prays, “Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night…” and “Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness…”

Our times are in the hands of God, every moment of now in the keeping of the Christ of God and in the shaping of the Spirit of God. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Advent is the Church’s short season of preparing for wonder, preparing for birth, recognizing God causing the birth of a Messiah who bestows righteousness on earth, the special agent of God whose mission is making-right the horrific injustices of the human race and making-whole the damaged integrity of the planet.

Advent is the Church’s short season of preparing to receive the greatest of gifts. Remember, this Messiah bestows righteousness. What gift could exceed or even hold a candle to the grace of God in Jesus Christ that puts us in right relationship with God and with one another, through the working of the Holy Spirit?

Wednesday, I sat with a young family preparing for a baptism. Always, the curriculum for conversation in that setting is the Book of Common Prayer’s definition of grace: “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” In Jesus our Messiah, God bestows righteousness.

Thursday, the two dozen of us gathered for eucharist here on Thanksgiving Day heard St. Matthew’s report of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, ending with his exhortation, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the worldly ones who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

How do you strive for a righteousness that is given?

There is the Advent question, and it presents the work of Advent: to prepare to receive this gift above all gifts.

As we recognized in our collect, this gift, Jesus, comes to us in great humility. We could miss this gift, looking for something more spectacular, more satisfying to our taste buds or our flair for fashion.

The desire which this gift, Jesus, corresponds to is a passion for justice and healing and peace, for his mission is making-right the ancient wrongs of earth and making-whole the fabric and firmament of this fractured world.

This too is the work of Advent, to strive for these things. And, alongside them, take the measure of all else that we could spend our all on in the twenty-five days ahead, and find it all wanting, missing the reason for the season.

I’ll remind you, and then I hope you’ll keep reminding me, that Advent’s fullness will not be measured by the number of days left. It will be found in every now that is not missed in the rush to then.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Listening to the Voice of Jesus

Scripture appointed for the Last Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 23:1-7, Revelation 1:4b-8, and John 18:33-37

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

On this Sunday, our readings invite us to consider Jesus Christ as King.

Is that a good idea?

I know that this Sunday has as its nickname, “Christ the King Sunday”… but is that a positive way to imagine your relationship with him?

Our Old Testament reading lets us listen in to the last words of another king, King David, Israel’s greatest king. He was so popular that Israel expected that when God would someday send a Messiah, God’s special agent, he would be much like David.

So these words are a long epitaph summing up David’s success as a king: “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”

Those are high approval ratings, aren’t they? That’s what a good king is like.

Then both our collect that we prayed together and our reading from the Book of Revelation speak of Jesus as not just a king, but as the King of kings.

But the more crowns we put on his head, the surer we need to be what kind of king he is.

And to learn that, we must listen to his voice.

“I’m not a king in the same way that you’re a governor,” he explains to Pontius Pilate. You have many hundreds of troops at your command. I have 12 disciples—well, make that 11—and they’re not a fighting force, believe me.

“But you insist you’re a king?” asks Pilate.

“You’re saying that,” replies Jesus, making me wonder how good an idea it is that we keep on calling him a king.

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to tell the world the truth about who God is and what God does and what God wants. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

That’s what I want to talk to you about today: listening to the voice of Jesus.

You have it on higher authority than mine that this is what Jesus wants us to do. Otherwise, we don’t understand what his kind of power is, or his kind of love, or his kind of justice.

There’s nothing more important for us to do here in this place than listen to the voice of Jesus. It’s why we prepare for worship when we first arrive in the pew. It’s why we stand for the Gospel, when his words and his story speak fresh things to us. It’s why we keep silence together after all the readings are finished. It’s why we have a sermon. And why we listen so carefully to what we and others sing. And it’s what’s going on in holy communion. These are all special moments when our intention is to listen to his voice.

We don’t do it just here. Here is where our listening skills are trained and encouraged. Every day, every person we meet and every place we go, we try to seek and serve Christ in all people. We promise that in our baptismal covenant.

And it’s not only in other people that Jesus Christ lives and moves. He lives and moves in you, in me, and our listening to his voice there—within—is like learning to use the global positioning system God has given us in our baptism. You must plug it in.

So I want to ask you today to consider the listening you do in church.

I can tell you that from my usual perch as preacher, you are really good listeners. And what a reward that is to a preacher, a choir, a reader, and anyone else who gets up to speak in church. You know how valuable it is to listen well. For example,

· To keep your eyes on the one you’re listening to, so you take it all in

· But sometimes to close your eyes for the very same reason, perhaps at moments when you especially don’t want to be distracted by anyone or anything

· And to not be afraid to show that you’re listening: heads nodding for that reason are a gift. Smiles—and frowns, and quizzical looks, whatever honest response you’re feeling—also become part of the chemistry in good listening. And while we’d probably have to go into training with Pentecostals and Evangelicals to get good at it, I’ve got to say it spikes my adrenalin when I occasionally hear an uninhibited soul break out with “Yes” or “uh-huh” or whatever personal exclamation might, in one of those other traditions, be “Amen!”

To really talk about listening, we’ve got to talk about distractions. But in a positive way.

I believe that good listening starts right at each doorway to this room.

Do you remember the signs that used to be placed at railroad crossings? Do you recall the three words on that sign?


It’s good manners, when entering a place like this that is set apart for listening to the voice of Jesus, it’s good manners to catch yourself at the doorway and Stop, Look, and Listen.

Are you hearing the still small voice of quiet? Then that’s how you should enter the room. Join that quiet. Contribute to it, don’t take away from it.

And if you know the worship service is underway, it’s even more important to Stop, Look, and Listen— so that you help the listening that other people are doing.

Again, from my perch in the pulpit, it’s quite amazing what happens when a person arrives late, or gets up to leave the room, or comes back from having left the room earlier. It’s like a Wave in a sports stadium: heads turn, eyes shift, it’s a message from the primitive brain stem, like when a dog sees a squirrel.

Does that help the community to listen? I don’t think so.

So I put it this way: Stop, Look, and Listen.

· As you’re about to enter this room, are you hearing a single voice speaking? Then maybe it’s a good idea to wait. Or at least to enter quietly and sit down in the nearest available spot—then wait to return to your own seat at a kinder moment. This example would hold true also if you hear the choir singing their anthem.

· On the other hand, when you’re standing in the doorway and you’re hearing the whole community speaking together, singing together, passing the peace together, come full steam ahead.

· And if you’re not sure what you’re hearing, use the third verb: step in far enough to look around, then you’ll know how to enter and join the listening community.

To expect all this of children is a lot, isn’t it? But from what I’m hearing from some parents, it’s the right thing to expect. It really needs to fall on adults to practice and model this thoughtfulness to Stop, Look, and Listen. Parents and other adults who love our kids are the best teachers of children to join them in developing this skill. Make it positive, keep it positive.

Never before have we been blessed with as many babies and toddlers as we have now. The wondrous range of sounds that babies make is music to my ears. It’s the sound of our future.

It isn’t easy keeping a little one happy in church. Especially if a parent is doing that single-handedly on a particular Sunday. Are we going to make that harder? Not on my watch.

But parents need to know that we’re committed with them to making sure they have their place in the community that listens to the voice of Jesus.

We offer a safe and appealing nursery for babies, toddlers, and pre-schoolers every Sunday, headed by a capable and popular early-childhood professional.

And the upper room, just through the porch, is available when a little respite is needed. The audio dimension of our service is piped-in there, there are sofas and carpets and, usually, something to eat and drink. It’s an oasis when a break is needed.

Each family has to judge how best to make church a positive experience for the child, for the parents, and for the community.

We are a community called to listen to the voice of Jesus. It’s the most basic and important thing we do together under this roof. It’s the call of God to all our generations.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Birth Pangs and Addictions

Scripture appointed for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost includes I Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25; and Mark 13:1-8

I’m noticing a theme of affliction weaving through two of our readings today. Hannah has long been afflicted by what is primitively called a closed womb, her inability to conceive and bear a child. And Jesus speaks of terrible things happening on the world stage, and in the nation, a forecast of global affliction.

Last weekend, I was afflicted. Have you had a case of the flu this season? What kind of flu it was doesn’t seem to matter, does it? However precise the warnings may be about a particular strain, when symptoms hit, you’ve simply got “it” And “it”, more accurately, has you. An alien force, microbially tiny in origin, moves in and takes over. The host body reacts, over-reacts, under-reacts. All systems are not go. Some systems are no-go. Others are go-go. Much that one takes for granted is, for a time, afflicted.

Humbled. That’s a word often on my lips, this past week. By Saturday morning, I could tell I would need a Plan B for Sunday. John Denaro was in town; he could celebrate, I would preach and then retreat to the back bench. By Saturday evening, that began to feel like a reach. Laurie Glover and Jeanne Blake were to make mission presentations: if they came also at 8:00, I could preach just at 10:00? By Sunday morning, I couldn’t have cared who did what, as long as it wasn’t me doing it.

Truly, it wasn’t for me to do. It was for me to be. Be sick. Be in my jammies on a Sunday morning for a full taste of Sabbath rest, thanking God for the freedom to do so, for the relative ease with which, by early morning light, I could recognize that I didn’t have to do anything. I just had to acknowledge that I was powerless, in the face of this affliction, to manage on my own. I had to know and show that I believe that a power greater than my own will carry the day. And I had to make a decision to turn my will over to the care of God as I understand God.

If you recognize those as the first three of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, you will catch my point that for me the humbling I’ve known during this bout of flu has required me to consider how addicted I am to my daily and weekly rounds. Humbling, indeed.

“Do you see these great things that claim our attention, these monuments to permanence, these institutions we take for granted as essential to our status quo? Not one will be left here; all will be thrown down.” With this, Jesus made that disciple wish he’d kept to himself his awestruck comments on architecture.

And with this crashing prediction of systemic change, Jesus does what he does so perfectly well: he pulls us off our addictions, one by one, freeing us to imagine what matters to God, to envision, in the face of changes we cannot control, what God is doing and how God is calling us to be in Christ and to do by Spirit.

As disciples of Jesus Christ we bring to him our impressions of what matters so much to us. We tell him all about the reality we see. And then we are humbled when the Word made flesh causes us to be still and listen, hear, mark, learn, and inwardly get a different take on the deeper reality of who God is and what God is doing.

This is Mark’s Gospel we’re hearing, these days, and for Mark that deeper reality of what God is doing is announced in the very first words Jesus speaks in chapter one. Right in the thick of the troubles, fears, and anxieties that spread through Galilee when King Herod arrested John the Baptist, right then Jesus began to proclaim good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

By the time Mark set those words to parchment, the great temple in Jerusalem had in fact been brought down by imperial forces, the capital city itself in clampdown to defeat the insurgents whose hope to free their homeland would not be realized. The emperor ruled with iron fist. That was reality. The people of God live their lives in the crossfire of clashing cultures and warring nations, not to mention earthquakes, famines, and let’s not forget pandemics.

“This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Catch what he does there. In the face of horrific forces of destruction, Jesus insists that God is giving birth to a new creation. Jesus will himself in his own body be the testing ground of that truth. He will make for all time and all people a single offering by which he perfects those who receive his gift, writing on our hearts the laws of his Spirit. He makes of us all who claim him petrie dishes growing the culture of his kingdom of justice and peace, mercy and love. He makes of us agents to infect the world with his way.

This continual birthing is the Church’s apostolic business. Openness to the transforming Spirit of God is the apostolic state of readiness for ministry anywhere we go. The Spirit we have received in baptism calls us to be open at all times, in all places, to all people. Nothing can close the door to that Spirit or break the reach of that ministry, not affliction, not death.

Which makes of the closed womb of Hannah a crucial place of encounter. How is the Church to understand her ancient story? Within the historical claims of Israel, hers is one more tale of one more brave woman giving birth to one more patriarchal hero—in this case Samuel, the last of Israel’s pioneer judges who ruled the young nation in its Wild West days, not as settled kings or queens with armies and treasuries, but as circuit-riding prophets armed with only the law of God. According to this patriarchal record, Hannah’s fame lay in her birthing of Samuel, whom she dedicated to God.

But the matriarchal record may give us more Spirit to go by. Consider her in her afflicted state. So early in Israel’s prehistory that a man might still take two women as wives, this story shows Hannah so loved by her husband that he gave her a double portion of everything. But nothing could take away the sting of her rival, Peninnah, who was able to stand in judgment of Hannah and, using a convenient theology of blame, provoke her by announcing loudly in the family compound, “The Lord has closed her womb.”

But Hannah’s story is of her own opening of her whole being to God. We might say she becomes her own champion, storming the gates of heaven and attempting to bargain with God, not hiding her anguish from public view, converting the priest Eli from scorn to empathy. She emerges from her wrestling with God a changed person. In due time she will conceive and bear Samuel, gotten, says her story, by asking him of the Lord. Not just asking: putting everything on the line, utter dedication, full investment—characteristics many of us have marveled at in the stories of women and men today doing what it takes to open the prospect of birth, when the customary way won’t get them there.

Hannah’s story is not just about what it takes on her part. Hers is a story of encountering grace, the free gift of God that opens the way to new life.

Hear her story, and recognize how the whole purpose of the Church, our essence and mission, is the opening of metaphorical wombs-- minds and hearts and imaginations, friendships and agendas and communities-- by the grace of God, for the will of God to be done on earth as in heaven.

Theology (how we believe), liturgy (how we worship), stewardship (how we live), and ministry (how we love) all are called to serve God’s birthing of a new creation. Ours is not the message that God closes wombs, blocks the way, closes borders, refuses the heart, or shuts the door on anyone.

Ours is the message that God speaks the freeing word to nation and culture and religion addicted to intolerance, violence, or greed. God meets us well on our side of half-way when we’re ready to lay down false security and take up freedom and responsibility.

It may be in our afflictions that we discover where that new creation shows itself. In our own experience as persons, when our own strength fails at one level, grace moves at a deeper place and invites us to recognize new ways to trust and hope and open ourselves to truth and love.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Taught by Two Widows

Scripture for this day includes Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

We hear about two widows in our Bible readings today. In a patriarchal society like that of ancient Israel women were considered, by and large, their husbands’ property, and with the death of her husband a widow’s primary security was gone. It’s worth remembering that one of the hallmarks of the early Christian Church, mentioned often in the New Testament, is the care provided to widows within the community of the followers of Jesus.

The significance of that care could be lost on us, living in a society which takes for granted the presence of certain security nets—though it would take a Rip Van Winkle to have lived through the past year still taking security nets for granted.

But it was revolutionary, that insistence by our 1st-century forebears that the at-risk members of their society should be honored with care, to the extent that a distinct order of ministry, deacons, was appointed to oversee that care. “See how these Christians love one another!” is an exclamation seldom heard these days; when it was said in that first-century world, it was often because citizens of a brutal world order looked with longing at what seemed to them a radical and lovely reordering of priorities.

That there was much to notice was because the message of Jesus had taken hold: To follow me, you must be willing to sacrifice your own desires, take up your own burdens and the burdens of others around you (who may or may not belong to you already by blood) and learn what it means to serve whoever needs you.

If we want an example of folks who had no use for that message, Jesus draws our attention to some very religious-looking men who enjoy living high on the hog, and don’t mind if that’s at the expense of the widows in town. Let the poor widows feel obligated to maintaining high standards here at the temple, they say to one another; it will do them good to feel as if they belong… but not to our club, of course. Our education entitles us to all the perks of membership here; we’re the guardians of culture and the interpreters of law…without us, who would these widows have to look up to?

And with that lofty attitude went a certain kind of stewardship: coughing up a respectable donation to help perpetuate a way of life with which these men were quite content. From their excess, their pocket money, the scribes place annual dues in the temple treasury—some of them, rather hefty donations that doubtless led to their being honored as Archangels, Angels, Patriarchs, or whatever names they used in their annual report to recognize the big hitters. History remembers them only as Scribes and Pharisees.

Against them, Jesus contrasts the giving of a poor widow who puts on the counter two small copper coins, “everything she had, all she had to live on,” says Jesus. No category for her level of giving, in the annual report. No… but her name is in the book of life.

What is it about her giving that Jesus find commendable? Is Jesus really pleased by her sacrificing her own wellbeing for the good of a religious establishment which has little interest in his kind of justice and mercy, little interest in the likes of her?

It doesn’t say that he held her up as an example of what all poor widows should do, does it? Given how he assails those scribes for devouring widows’ houses, he’s not likely to be urging poor widows to make the temple their top priority.

No… he contrasts her whole-hearted giving, her utter dedication, over-against the easy affording of the scribes. He teaches his disciples to appreciate her situation, to learn from her, to view her with that recognition that the scribes long for, respect.

But what is it about her giving that Jesus finds commendable? The commentary tells us that two kinds of transaction took place at the temple treasury. One was the paying of the temple tax expected each year from each Jew twenty years or older. That’s not what the widow is doing, for that tax was a good deal more than she could afford. She was making a freewill offering, the second kind of transaction, a sheer gift which in her eyes might have been for the good of the nation or for the honoring of God. However you imagine it, what moved her to give her two coppers mattered more to her than her daily bread.

This is a good moment to return to the other widow we meet today, Naomi, one of the central characters in the Book of Ruth. Her name means “my joy, my pleasant one, my lovely one.” We can imagine her having heard such sweet pillow-talk from Elimelech, her husband, a man from Bethlehem. During a famine, Elimelech and Naomi and their two sons found refuge in the country of Moab (one of Israel’s chronic enemies), and there the sons married. And there Elimelech died, and their two sons after him. Naomi’s sad story follows somewhat in the vein of Job’s sufferings.

Left alone in a strange land, Naomi wanted to return to Bethlehem in Judah, so she urged her two Moabite daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite families. One, Orpah, agreed and did. The other, Ruth, persisted in her loyalty to her late husband’s mother and refused to leave Naomi’s side. Her famous words, rather mis-applied when read at weddings, are these:

“Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.” (Ruth 1:16)

So today’s portion shows Naomi’s loyalty to Ruth taking the shape of clever strategic planning. She has noticed that when Ruth goes out to glean in the fields, Boaz, owner of those fields, admires her. The gleaning she’s doing is around the edges of the field, the portion decreed by Jewish law to be kept available for the poor. She does her best to be inconspicuous out there at the margins, but Boaz is impressed and Ruth notices. Ruth also knows that Boaz is related to her late husband, Elimelech, and she decides to play matchmaker.

What stands in the way is social standing, which Boaz has and Ruth has not. But, coaching her to stay near him, Naomi counts on Boaz’s compassion to be kindled. Perhaps it is also his passion that she hopes will be kindled. Whatever the mix, Boaz pays a price of redemption to free Ruth from whatever stigma has attached to her station in that ancient society, and he weds her. Their son, Obed, will become the grandfather of Israel’s greatest king, David.

And there, you might say, is one more patriarchal story, one more instance where a woman’s worth is based on her bearing a son. But on this Sunday when widows appear from scripture, let’s recognize Naomi and her action with respect similar to what our Lord asks for the widow in his Gospel.

Like that later widow, Naomi exhibits the dedication that will become the core message of Jesus: that, to be faithful, you must be willing to sacrifice your own desires, take up your own burdens and those of others around you (who may or may not belong to you already by blood) and learn what it means to serve whoever needs you.

Like the widow at the temple treasury, Naomi makes a freewill offering. It isn’t two copper coins that she sacrifices, but her freedom to follow her own instinct and return to familiar Bethlehem. Does her freewill offering to remain in Moab for the sake of her daughter-in-law save Naomi from a pointless return to her past? Does her sacrifice free her for a useful and creative future?

Without her willingness to sacrifice her own desire, there would have been no King David for Israel, no house and lineage of David from which, generations later, a certain baby could be born in Bethlehem of Judah.

His is the message our widows reveal: the love that makes the world go ‘round is a sacrificial love that learns to serve, even when it has barely anything to give but its presence.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Raising Lazarus: The Baptismal Call

Scripture appointed for All Saints Day include Wisdom 3:1-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, and John 11:32-44.

What a Gospel to hear on a day of baptism! Let’s not be hasty judging how good a fit it is; let’s suspend judgment, and consider.

It is said that there was no more dangerous man, in the eyes of Jesus’s adversaries, than Lazarus. He was a walking advertisement of the power of God that is in Jesus Christ. Legend has it that he was later assassinated by the same defenders of the status quo who arranged the death of Jesus. A happier outcome is claimed by the Eastern Orthodox, who say that Lazarus traveled to Cyprus and became a bishop there, where you can visit his tomb. His second tomb.

And in the Eastern church, Lazarus has a remarkable place of honor in that each year the day before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday. Scripture and hymns on that day focus on the resurrection of Lazarus as a foreshadowing of the resurrection of Christ and a promise of the general resurrection. It may be just hours away from the start of Holy Week’s solemnities, but on Lazarus Saturday the church sings hymns of resurrection.

The Church of England remembers the raising of Lazarus each year on July 29th. On that same day the American church observes the feast day of his sisters, Mary and Martha of Bethany, but not Lazarus. Go figure.

What is the value of his story? What do you make of it? Why the early Christians kept telling his story is clear, as the Eastern church tells us: his resurrection is one of the earliest signs of the breaking-in of the kingdom of God, the reordering of creation to better express the mind of the Creator, the making-new of all things, the turning of the status quo onto its head, the first installment of all that is to come.

But if your rational mind struggles with the bottom line of this story, let the other side of your brain appreciate two things that are going on here.

One is how, within a story of only a dozen verses, the full humanity of Jesus and the unfiltered power of God reside in the one person of Jesus like yin and yan, proclaiming the whole story of who Jesus is: in anguish over his friend Lazarus, Jesus weeps, and, the tears still dropping, he demonstrates pure faith, claims the Creator’s indwelling to fill the void, orders the stone to be moved, and calls Lazarus into new life. Consider how this story is graphic theology, declaring who Jesus Christ is, very God and very human, no resurrection without those tears.

And consider how this graveside story announces good news. No one stands by the grave of someone beloved without experiencing an upheaval within, a reversal of those controllings we practice to live our lives. Lazarus’s story is trying to tell us that if we stand in Christ, nothing, not even death, can silence the call of God, or stand in the way of our answering that call.

When exposed to the power of God that is in Jesus Christ, nothing in this life can long separate us from God or from becoming the people God gives us to be. Neither anxiety nor alienation, not a fear of death nor a fear of life, puts us beyond the reach of God’s call to us, or beyond the freedom to respond.

As Paul sings in one of his letters, nothing shall separate us from the love of God that we find, and that finds us, in Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s essential to remember that such words of faith did not come from times of armchair preaching and easy listening. They came out of the cauldron of wrenching change and the upheaval of the old order. Times of reversal, hard times, send us into premature tombs where we get all wrapped up in our burial shrouds, and right there on the thresholds of our tombs, the Christ calls us out, each by name.

The Shona people of Zimbabwe have many names for God. One is Chipindikure, “the One who turns things upside down.” It comes from the word kupinduka, “to be uprooted.” God is present in and above the unwanted and unplanned changes that happen to us throughout our lives, calls us to come out into new life, calls us to be open to what is truly happening in us, and to cooperate with the constant grace that God is giving us in Jesus Christ.

A good Gospel for a day of baptism. A day when the church celebrates all the saints, all the Lazaruses and Marys and Marthas who through their own struggles, in their own experience, have come to know and love and serve God in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit.

The greatest of our windows, the rose window, the background for every baptism here, attempts to show the communion of saints. In eight radiating petals, 24 of the innumerable just men and women made complete are shown. St. Elizabeth of Hungary is there, St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Joan of Arc…can you imagine serving on the committee that decided who’d be in that window? And we know who 23 of them are, but not who the 24th is.

Is it Saint Sebastian? Saint Julia? Saint Constance?

How can I not end with their stories?

Constance, Mother Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, Tennessee, led her sisters in organizing relief during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878. Thirty thousand residents fled the city in terror, leaving twenty thousand to face the illness. From Boston came Sister Clare of St. Margaret’s House, from Hoboken New Jersey came a parish priest, both volunteers to work with Constance and a second parish priest (this one from Grace and St. Lazarus Church, Memphis) and three physicians and several volunteer nurses from New York, turning the Episcopal cathedral into a makeshift hospital. Most of that team, including Constance, would be among the victims. The collect for her day, September 9, says that she and her companions “loved not their own lives, even unto death…”

Julia Chester Emery, missionary, remembered in the church’s calendar on January 9, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1852. At the age of 24, she took charge of the Episcopal Church’s national Woman’s Auxiliary of the Board of Missions, and served her entire 40-year career in that role, helping the church recognize its call to proclaim the Gospel both at home and overseas. Visiting every diocese and missionary district within the United States and traveling around the world, even to remote areas of China, Japan, and the Philippines, she developed networks of women sharing a vision and commitment to mission, education, and leadership. Creation of the United Thank Offering is among Julia’s legacy to the 20th and 21st centuries.

Sebastian, 3rd-century Roman soldier from what is now Provence, appointed as a captain of the Praetorian Guard under the emperor Diocletian, who had an infamous appetite for persecuting Christians. Discovering he had one in his own Praetorian Guard, Diocletian ordered Sebastian to be tied to a stake and shot with arrows. I guess it didn’t help his case that the imperial jailer, whom Sebastian had introduced to Jesus Christ, released all his prisoners when he accepted the Lordship of Christ. You can’t run an empire that way—but, given the likely injustices inside imperial jails, that was a perfect way for the Kingdom of God to break in.

And the legend says that though he was left for dead, the saint’s body was claimed by a Christian widow named Irene, whose husband had been brought to faith through Sebastian. She found that the arrows had not killed him. She is said to have nursed him back to life. Rather than go underground and keep a low profile, Sebastian, when he heard that Diocletian was to pass by in the street, went to the doorstep and, in a valedictory last hurrah, loudly berated the emperor when he passed by. That story has a rather tough ending, giving Sebastian the distinction of having been martyred twice.

All the saints followed one whom they and we call the Prince of Peace, but the peace they knew was the tensile strength and precious integrity of gold tried in the furnace of life. They were tested, and they shone forth, their courage and compassion running like sparks through stubble, creating a brilliant path.

While we want for our Constance and Julia and Sebastian the brilliance without the brutality, we go deeper and want for them the Christ who will always know just when and how to call them out into new life, who will save them from self-preoccupation and free them to answer the call of God to become precisely the people God gives them to be.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stewards of the Earth, Stewards of the Moon?

Scripture appointed for this 19th Sunday after Pentecost includes Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; and Mark 10:17-31. This sermon was given in the course of a baptism.

In our first reading, Job is perplexed. He wants to protest his innocence before God, but he cannot find God: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” It seems as if God gets to vanish from the scene of Job’s many sufferings, but Job cannot vanish; he must come to terms with his reality and with his God, who has terrified him with too much silence.

In our Gospel, Jesus’s disciples are perplexed. They want to protest the absurdity of their Lord’s teaching, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” That flies in the face of their street wisdom: “If the rich don’t have the favor of God, who does?”

So our biblical forbears are perplexed today. I’m perplexed today. What has me perplexed is NASA’s mucking-about with the moon. Does any one nation on planet earth have the right to send a spacecraft crashing into the crust of another heavenly body, to test what it’s made of? Who says we have that right? That’s what I’m perplexed about, the implicit arrogance that claims such freedom as this.

I know it’s been going on a long time, this race to outer space. I don’t know why I haven’t felt perplexed before now, but my attention got caught when I heard a reporter raise the question, “And why does it matter whether there’s water in the interior of the moon?” The answer I heard was that with the presence of hydrogen comes the potential of fuel, and with oxygen, of course, the ability to breathe. From another source, I hear that the moon is rich in Helium-3, which might be sought for nuclear fusion research and could become an alternative source of power on earth.

How, I wonder, does God look on this venture? Our New Testament letter tells us that the Word of God judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. God knows all that our human race has done to blast the resources out of planet earth, how we’re prone to simultaneously lament global warming and still keep draining the dregs of earth’s petrochemicals. Do we imagine God looking with approval on our assaying the minerals and chemicals of another heavenly body? Given our track record as stewards of the earth, do we picture God welcoming us to a stewardship of the moon?

What perplexes me most is who’s doing this: who is the “us”? Who is the “we”? This mission was an American one. I read that an ambitious British mission named MoonLite will fire a series of penetrator missiles into the moon’s surface to create a network of seismic monitoring stations, the start of an infrastructure for communications and guidance systems that may provide commercial opportunities. But for whom? Perhaps evolutionary theory will answer, “For those who keep trying, those who have the longest staying power, and those who adapt best to what they find.”

But as we leave earth’s atmosphere, will we be open to discovering God showing us that there is more to evolution than the forces of mutation and selection? That there is the third force, cooperation?

In 1975, the American spacecraft Apollo and the Soviet craft Soyuz made their historic rendezvous, opening the prospect of international cooperation in space. In 1998, the International Space Station was launched, enabling testing and research in preparation for new manned missions to the moon and on to Mars. Since 2000, there has been an uninterrupted and international human presence aboard the station, supported by the US, Russia, the seventeen nations of the European Space Agency, Japan, and Canada.

Notice that China has been excluded, and it’s China now vying for third place in space after the US and Russia. India aims to be next, preparing missions to the moon and to Mars. Iran has launched its first satellite. North Korea is said to be planning a space program. Nigeria and Venezuela are partnering with China. In whose orbit is the moon?
In our stewarding of the earth, have we yet built a constellation of nations ready and willing to trust one another to share equitably the resources and responsibilities of a universe?

Let’s look again at the perplexed in our scriptures today, and consider what they say to us.

Job can’t locate God, who has gone entirely silent. Soon, though, God will summon his servant Job to stand before him in a withering confrontation that will make Job’s professed innocence seem like a silly claim.

As we look to explore a universe, God is apt to remain quite still, watching, waiting. Which is to say that it’s time now to explore the ethics of the colonizing of space. Our more pressing question is not what is within the interior of the moon, but what is within us that will resonate with the justice of God. God, who will not remain silent, but will stir hearts and minds that dare to be open.

And those disciples have a hard time being open to the revolutionary teaching of Jesus, who looks with love on his would-be disciple who has lived a blameless life and on top of that is well-to-do, and says to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” And this young man went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

“Why disqualify him?” we can imagine one disciple asking another. “He’s a better man than I was when I was called, and, unlike us, he’s rich!”

But not free. Entering the kingdom of God does not require blamelessness. What’s required is letting go of our trying to be kings and queens of our own domains, letting God be God, and learning to cooperate with God. Then we are free to enter the realm of grace, follow Jesus, and let him shape our stewardship of life.

How easy to say those words, to string them together in the right order, such simple words—and how perplexing they are to each of us. But they describe the pathway to eternal life, and that is what the rich young man asked for.

We want for Aodhan Andrew that he be free to walk this pathway. He is set on it today in holy baptism, by the choice of his parents; and the responsibility of his family, Godparents, and parish is to support him on that pathway so that he will be able, some day—indeed, many days—to choose to follow Christ.

Consider Aodhan’s namesake, Saint Aidan. No such honor yet surrounded the name of this young monk on the Scottish island of Iona who, in about the year 635, accepted the responsibility thrust on him by King Oswald to come and shape Christians out of the people of Northumbria whose ways were the old ways of the Druids, whose religion revolved around the moon.

His method would be to promote Christian culture by showing them a life of spiritual simplicity. For the headquarters of his mission he chose the lonely island of Lindisfarne off the Northumberland coast. From there, Aidan and his companions traveled on foot from town to village, across northern England and in Scotland, preaching the message of Christ and encouraging young men and women to join them in their quiet life of study and prayer.

Self-denial and discipline were the hallmarks of these communities whose members, many of them, came from rich and powerful families; but they had renounced their possessions and accepted a daily round of long hours at prayer, little sleep, and a sparse diet. John Michell writes, in his "Traveler’s Key to Sacred England", that “their compensation was access to the best teachers and education of their time. At Lindisfarne and its dependent communities there was a renaissance of scholarship and the arts and crafts. The Celtic Church combined classical and native Druidic learning with Christian humanism, and the product was some of the most inspired works of art in England’s history. The finest example is the Lindisfarne Gospels, displayed in the British Museum, a wonderfully illuminated manuscript created in the scriptorium on Bishop Aidan’s holy isle about the year 700.

That Aidan brought light to the Dark Ages—or is it truer to say that through his story we see that they were not all dark?

This Aodhan also shares in the legacy of light, the inheritance of the disciples whose choices free them to receive a hundredfold now in this age. May our Aodhan find himself at home in our houses, find among us friends as close as brothers and sisters, and find his way with us into fields of creativity and service. Persecution is also promised, and while we hesitate to wish that for him, I suppose it is another name for perplexity, and none of us escapes that, not if we’re paying attention, and not if we’re open, and those traits are the very paving stones of the pathway he steps onto today.

That pathway will assuredly introduce him and his generation to the universe more fully than we have seen. On that pathway may he and they walk closer to peace than we have come, go deeper into truth than we have known, and move more bravely towards justice than we have dared.

(John Michell's "The Traveler's Key to Sacred England" was published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

When Crisis is Opportunity

Our new table of readings brings to us portions of the Bible we have not heard on Sundays. Our first reading today is an example, from the Book of Proverbs, part of the wisdom literature of Judaism. As long as there has been a Christian Bible, the Book of Proverbs has been in it—but you wouldn’t necessarily know that, from Sunday-morning use.

It is a short book about Wisdom, capital W, the wisdom of God. Bringing this wisdom down to earth, the Jewish Bible puts upon wisdom the personhood of a woman. Not a compliant reserved woman keeping her place in a society ruled by men, but a bold, vocal, purposeful, confontative presence like that of a prophet.

She takes to the street and the public square to speak to her world. She tries to shake the simple-minded out of their love for what is easy and nice. She wants to shake the cynicism out of the cynics, and the complacency out of those who reject information and who resist insight that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions.

Hers is an awesome voice. I’m here to confess that I need her to shake me down. I resist change more than I realize. And she got hold of me, last week.

It was the week of changing all our old fluorescent and incandescent fixtures, to accept energy-saving bulbs. St. John’s was the last application to slip under the deadline for 70% funding by the National Grid. God bless our Vestry member Charles for his perseverance and attention to detail.

In a few places, the workers faced modest challenges getting at the old fixtures. No place was quite as resistant to their creative placement of ladders as my office.

You may or may not know my office. Many things have come to roost in my office, over the years. The paper trail of 23 years of pastoring here is extensive, and if it isn’t to be found in Madeline’s office, it’s to be found in mine. And there I have very careful places for crucial records like background checks and Five Wishes end-of-life documents. But when it comes to archiving, my filing system is, you might say, apocalyptic: I figure that on the last day, all that truly matters will rise, as the earth and the heavens shake.

Well, on Thursday they did. On Wednesday, the youngest of the work crew, a fellow named Andrew, drew the straw to confront me with the message that by mid-morning the next day, my desk needed to be cleared off because his crewmate would need to stand on it in order to reach the fixture overhead. And by the way, the piano needed clearing off, too. And the chest of drawers.

Wednesday was busy enough that I got away with sheer denial of what awaited me. Thursday, I read Morning Prayer and then I bit the bullet.

Because I knew approximately, if not exactly, where most things were, I felt as if my dikes were springing holes—or like a sand sculptor who’s watching the tide wipe away first this section, then that.

Wisdom was at work in the lighting upgrade project: we’re now a good piece greener than we were, a week ago, and in the first year we should recoup our co-payment.

Wisdom was at work in young Andrew, who broke the news; and in his more senior partner, who wanted to avoid one disaster or another (and was wise enough to delegate the truth-telling to young Andrew).

And I now have what I have so often admired in other colleagues’ offices: an amazingly tidy desktop.

And that’s what spoke to me. That’s when I heard Lady Wisdom inviting me to ride this opportunity and let what matters most start rising now.

So on the chest of drawers I’ve placed my two volumes of the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, side by side, with enough room to open them both.

And on my desk, a short shelf of the books that are basic to each day and week: Bible, Prayer Book, hymnals.

And on the piano, my Bible concordance, and nothing else, yet.

Lady Wisdom had been calling me to clear the decks of my workspace, but I didn’t heed until I had to. And while panic struck like a storm for a brief while on Thursday morning, and I can easily picture Ms. Wisdom laughing at the calamity that descended on my office like a whirlwind, I must tell you how pleased I am to be tasting the fruits of wisdom, to be seeing central before me the ageless resources of the Word that I am called to steward, and enough sweet open space to spread out one or two priorities at a time.

I’ve just told you a little story about grace, about how an unwelcome responsibility morphed into an inviting opportunity.

Interesting, isn’t it, that while the Hebrew Bible’s fascination with wisdom dresses her with the personhood of a woman, our Christian scriptures tell the story of the Word become flesh in a man who perfectly embodies the chief characteristic of God, and that is grace. Grace, a name for Godly power that also connotes a woman. Grace, the transformative love of God unmerited and undeserved by us, by which God confronts with harrowing mercy our waywardness, our weakness, our cynicism, our dread, our resistance, our sin.

The disorienting grace of God is at work among the disciples whom we hear struggling over Jesus’s identity (and their own), Jesus’s mission (and their own). “Who do people say that I am?” he asks the twelve.

First, they offer him all the answers of the wisdom of the day, how some think he’s a new and improved John the Baptist, while others swear that he must be a ramped-up prophet like Elijah.

Jesus doesn’t want the dime-a-dozen wisdom of the street, which is shaped by preconceived notions and geared to resist change. He wants to know how Lady Wisdom is speaking to them.

They swallow hard and say the barely-imaginable: You, who have taught us fishermen to fish for people, you are the anointed one of God. You the carpenter from Nazareth, who have hammered us together into an outpost of your kingdom, you are the Messiah.

But they still need the fear shaken out of them; the dread, the rejection of the utterly new, and the resistance to the unfamiliar. All this is still being confronted by the grace of God that shows the fire of Lady Wisdom as Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind on the human and familiar, while what is being offered him is a complete clearing of the decks for the primacy of the Word.

What is being offered by grace works simultaneously through choice that is invited by wisdom. “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help. Self-sacrifice is my way to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”

What God offers by grace reaches us in the same moment when we take the step that is invited by wisdom. I learned something of that this week in my office, where what came to roost was a necessity rising from wisdom.

Perhaps in your life right now, some necessity presents itself. Be open to Lady Wisdom as she stretches out her hand and calls you to make room for new knowledge. Be open to God’s grace, always able to transform what is asked of you into what you have been longing for.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Let's Know What We're Doing

Scripture readings for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost include I King 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Julien is about to be baptized.

He’s hoping that we know what we’re doing.

It’s too soon for him to be noticing the evidence pointing to him as being at the center of this first sacrament in his life; but at that moment when I approach him with the water of baptism and the oil of chrism, I believe then he’ll be hoping that we know what we’re doing.

That will be a moment when he may entrust himself into what’s happening. Or he may not. The sacrament will be no more or less effective, either way. He may look to the familiar faces of his Mom and his Dad to see what they’re expressing (are they pleased by what this fellow in a white robe is doing to him, or are they dismayed?), or he may depend on his own instincts, how it feels to be where he is at that moment, centering in on the turning wheel of this event whose hub is the font of new life in Jesus Christ.

And for sure it is Jesus who is the center of this first sacrament in Julien’s life. Not that the two of them have never met before (who knows what spiritual encounters purity of heart allows an infant to have, what play dates are possible with a redeemer whose promise is to be with us always?), but this is the sacrament whose inward and spiritual grace is the making of Julien a member of the Body of Christ, uniting him to Jesus’s life and death and resurrection, birthing him a second time into God’s family in Christ.

So it may be truer to say that God hopes we know what we’re doing today, as we baptize Julien.

I invite you to listen again as each of our readings guides and sharpens our purpose today.

Starting with the Collect we said together. There we learned the purpose of the universal Church into which Julien will be baptized. Here is what we prayed: “that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name…”

To know what we do today is to recognize our own calling to be Christians who manifest the power of God out and about in the world. By our example, we will show Julien what that power is, introduce him to the source of that power, encourage him to trust that power, and so help it become natural that he shows it in his life.

A gentle power. A thoughtful power. The power of grace which is God’s love for us, undeserved and unearned, freely moving, freely given. A power that results in respect, an open mind, a trusting heart, a reflective spirit, a bold and generous will. Listen closely, and you will hear all this language in the baptismal rite that we offer to God today.

How pure and personal and Godly this language is, by contrast to much that can be said about churchgoing, church meetings, church services, church personalities, church rules and obligations and controversies and hierarchies and church business as usual.

If that’s all we propose to introduce Julien to, then he has reason to worry. Instead, we want to approach him with the awareness of Solomon: that even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain God, much less any house or doctrine or denominational traditions of our own making. All the containers of our religious life, all that deserves to be called Church, must show forth the power and presence and purpose and passion of God, and must move us to constantly welcome, says wise King Solomon, “the foreigner” who stretches our horizons, the unfamiliar that will keep our boundaries flexible.

And, the writer of our psalm today adds, our religion must also free us to rejoice in God, must open our hearts to find the waters of baptism in the driest and most desolate valleys, must train us to recognize how our belonging to one another in community for one day is a more dynamic gift than a thousand days in the isolation of our own thoughts and habits.

We hear what the apostle says today to the Christians at Ephesus. The power of God is the power of Spirit:

Truth, to wear like a belt that keeps your pants up...

Righteousness (or right relationships) like a kevlar vest around all that is vital...

Zeal for peace, giving you traction in a slippery world, like new running shoes...

Faith, to shield your thin skin like sunblock, screening out the UV rays of cynicism and despair...

Salvation, like a helmet protecting your identity with the knowledge of who and whose you are...

The Spirit of God, closer to you than breath itself, forming your words by the Word of God...

These make up what the apostle calls “the whole armor of God,” and to know what we do today is to take up these supplies of God for ourselves, and for Julien.

And when all is said and done, to know what we do today is to understand and keep practicing the calling Christians hear daily from the One who is at the very center: Abide in me, as I abide in you.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Flesh and Blood

Bible readings for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost include I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

The life and times of King David have been a real page-turner, this summer. Today we hear how the kingship passed to Solomon, his second son by Bathsheba. But that is a much more intriguing story than we get in these few verses.

Many wives, many children. Last Sunday, one of Solomon’s half-brothers, Absalom, a man of war, ended his aspiration to the throne when he, riding his mule, passed beneath the branches of a great oak and Absalom got stuck in its branches, allowing his adversaries to strike him dead. A man of war who knows only how to fight is indeed stuck, with few good options.

With Absalom gone, his brother Adonijah prepared to replace their old and ailing father on the throne. But while the elders of Judah and Israel, the old guard, were preparing Adonijah’s victory party, Solomon’s mother Bathsheba and her ally, the prophet Nathan, persuaded David to swear an oath, on his deathbed, that Solomon would become king.

So while Adonijah’s victory celebration got underway, sounds traveled from another ceremony, where the priest Zadok was anointing Solomon king. Listen to this commentary:

“This was a new way of kingmaking. There was no charismatic experience on the part of Solomon, no popular approval, and no demonstration of the ability of the anointed one (on the battlefield). There was no specific divine act or precept, except possibly the oath sworn by David or the participation of the priest and the prophet of God. It was only the word of David which brought the final solution to the problem of succession. Solomon owed his position to the fact that he was the son of the favorite wife of David, not to any marked gifts or military prowess. He was a victim of palace diplomacy and had not the slightest conception of the tremendous price paid by his father for the kingdoms over which he bore rule, and this fact is apparent in almost every act recorded of his administration… He had other qualities, however, which he doubtless developed in… his youth and which he would not have acquired had he not had the advantages of a favorite boy in the royal court.”

One of these other qualities was a cast-iron stomach. He arranged for the elimination, one by one, of his opponents whom he could not trust. There was blood on the hands of even this wisest of kings, as there has been blood on the hands of most kings and queens across the long cavalcade of history.

A tribute to his wisdom is his famous prayer. In it he speaks of himself as only a child in such matters as running a kingdom. “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” God’s reply indicates that Solomon’s attitude is one that God can work with. Asking for understanding to discern what is right is a request God will honor.

We meet this theme of understanding in the Letter to the Ephesians. “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil… understand what the will of the Lord is.”

Understanding is also demanded by our Gospel portion today, if we aren’t to blow it off as crude and disgusting.

There is a high “eee-yew!” factor in these lines about how, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” To help us understand the message here, I’m going to draw on a classic, William Temple’s “Readings in St. John’s Gospel.” Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, a unique time to reckon with flesh and blood.

We may like what the Prologue to John’s Gospel teaches, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Archbishop Temple says, “The term flesh was chosen there to stand for fullness of humanity down to its lowest element. It is by his humanity that He offers us life: if we receive that humanity and it becomes our own, it is found to bring with it eternal life. ‘The bread which I will give is my flesh for the Life of the world.’”

We may like the image of Jesus as the living bread. That, too, brings the message down to a basic element of common life, bread. For his Jewish hearers, that image would call to mind their ancestors’ experience of God’s grace in the wilderness, when some sort of sweet sticky substance they called manna fed them. Jesus alludes to that in our portion today, and when he likens it to bread he captures the fact that some of their ancestors despised that manna because it was just too much of a good thing (like eating Wonder Bread three times a day): it was all there was to eat, and they got good and tired of it. And to others of the ancestors, it was an indelible sign of the lovingkindness of God, and their dependence on the manna taught them dependence on God, for man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

But soon we run out of images that we like, and have to deal with what could sound like cannibalism. We know that doesn’t fit the Jesus we know… though doesn’t it fit the Jesus who tells parables? The Jesus whose metaphors and similes are so vivid, even strange, that they leave us in some doubt about the message and what we are to do about it, teasing us to think and understand?

One thing we learned about King Solomon is that in addition to the blood he had on his hands from dispatching his enemies, he also used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on the altar at Gibeon. That’s a lot of bloody livestock. And such was the prevailing religion of old: the blood of calves and lambs and doves sacrificed to God was thought to be pleasing to God, required by God.

Our biblical ancestors didn’t have blood transfusions in their health care system, but they knew that the blood is the life. “Be sure thou shalt not eat the blood; for the blood is the life; and thou shalt not eat the life with the flesh,” command the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. (So much steak tartare!) But these same books commanded blood sacrifice, for the blood is the life released by death so that it may be offered to God, offered as the most priceless substance known to man.

In this context, Jesus’s words shock his Jewish hearers. It sounds like horrifying news, that this eternal life Jesus offers must be received as a drinking of his blood. But what he is offering is unimaginably good news: that a wholly new understanding must prevail, declaring unnecessary the flow of sacrificial blood of other creatures in the name of God. No more killing to the glory of God. Rather, a call to understand what the will of the Lord is.

The Archbishop explains: To eat the flesh of the Son of Man is to receive the uttermost power of self-giving, Jesus’s kind. To drink the blood of the Son of Man is to receive, in and through self-giving, the life that triumphs over death and unites us to God. Both elements are needed for communion with God. Says Temple: The life that gives itself even to death; the life that rises from death into union with God: these are the divine gifts without which ‘you have no life in you.’ But you who receive and make those gifts your own ‘have eternal life.’ For those gifts are true food and true drink for humanity; whoever receives them ‘abide in me, and I in them.’

Archbishop Temple sees Jesus’s words today expressing the substance and the goal of the Christian life. They are not about momentary eating, but about permanent abiding. They are not about transubstantiating bread into flesh, but about changing lives. The one thing that matters is that we should feed upon Christ in our hearts, and there understand what is right, what care our living requires, what care the living of our loved ones requires, how to make the most of the gift of time, how to give thanks at all times in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But why the need to shock his hearers? Because we’re told, just verses earlier than the ones we hear today, that the people were about to take Jesus by force and make him king. That was not his calling. If his public ministry was degenerating into kingmaking, then it was time to take the material-minded and the wishful thinkers and shake their firmament. Just a few verses later, John tells us that even some of Jesus’s own disciples were sifted-out by all this language of flesh and blood, and they left him.

Archbishop Temple wonders if perhaps it was worthwhile that a bunch of people should be momentarily puzzled or even alienated, in order to secure for all generations an understanding of spiritual dependence on Christ that makes clear the good news that we have in him not one more king with blood on his hands, but our one redeemer who gives us power to do what he does and be as he is.

And all that qualifies us for this is that we receive what is freely offered.

(Commentary on Solomon’s accession is from J. M. Myers’ article on Solomon in “The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible,” Abingdon Press, 1962. William Temple’s “Readings in St. John’s Gospel” was published by MacMillan & Co. Ltd., 1950.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Dazzling Light: Transfiguration and Nuclear Obliteration

Scripture appointed for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost includes II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51

The sixth day of August is marked in the Christian calendar as the Feast of the Transfiguration, that mountaintop moment when a tiny chosen band of disciples watched as their Lord appeared, in dazzling radiance, in conversation with Moses the law-giver on one side of him, and with Elijah the prophet on the other. Flummoxed, totally out of their depth, the disciples could only wonder aloud, “What can we build to enshrine this moment?” And from heaven came a voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

White is, appropriately enough, the liturgical color the church uses when celebrating the Transfiguration. When a tiny band of us gathered for the regular weekly eucharist last week, I wore a white stole that belongs to the parish and is displayed today in the cabinet at the back.

A photograph of this stole appears in your colored announcement sheet today (you might want to find it). The stole was given to us 58 years ago by Fr. Dick Merritt, who served as Curate here from 1944 to 1947, and was ordained a priest right here in 1945. For the rest of his long distinguished career he served the people of Japan as a priest and Christian educator in the Holy Catholic Church of Japan, what they call the Episcopal Church in that country, and lived in that country until his death in 2006.

The stole is made of white silk with red and gold embroidery. You’ll notice the dove with seven radiating beams, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, fear of the Lord.

The shield reminds me of the apostle’s words to the Ephesians today, how each Christian is marked by the Spirit of God like a seal bearing a sign of allegiance. Here it is a sign within a sign: within the shield is what looks like a capital P with a bar across it midway, but is in fact the Greek letters Chi and Rho, the monogram of Christ which tradition reads as if it were the Latin “pax”, peace. And superimposed is an orb topped by a cross, so all told this message is “Christ, the world’s hope for peace.”

I chose to wear this stole, and to bring it into my sermon today, because August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, is also, as you know, the date on which the United States deployed the first nuclear weapon in the history of warfare, obliterating everything and every form of life within a radius of one mile from the point of detonation, sending flashfires across 4.4 square miles, instantly killing between 70,000 and 80,000 people, more slowly killing another 70,000, in the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

And today, August 9, we dropped a second atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, achieving again total destruction within a mile of the strike, fires across two miles, in an explosion that generated heat estimated at 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit and winds reaching an estimated 624 miles per hour, instantly killing between 40,000 and 75,000 and ultimately claiming yet more.

Our stole was woven in Kyoto. That center of intellectual and cultural life was on the short list of possible targets instead of Hiroshima, but was saved, it is said, by American Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who had admired Kyoto ever since his honeymoon there several decades earlier. Tokyo, with the Emperor’s palace, was also on the short list. But Hiroshima was an important army depot and port of embarkation in an urban industrial area. It fitted what our government sought: a target obtaining both great psychological effect against Japan and a target that would make the initial use so spectacular that the importance of this new weapon would be recognized internationally and instantly.

These two bombings followed a six-month campaign of intense fire-bombing of 67 other Japanese cities, followed by an ultimatum which Japan ignored.

The United States had previously dropped leaflets warning civilians of air raids on twelve other Japanese cities. The residents of Hiroshima were given no notice of the atomic bomb.

Originally set for August 11, and with the city of Kokura targeted, the second nuclear raid was moved forward to avoid bad weather. Set as a secondary target was Nagasaki, a large seaport of great wartime importance. Unlike Hiroshima, Nagasaki had been hit by large-scale bombing at the very start of August, resulting in the evacuation of many residents, principally school children.

On this day, August 9th, the U.S. B-29 Superfortress “Bockscar” took to the air, carrying the nuclear bomb code-named “Fat Man”. Two other B-29s had flown ahead by an hour as weather scouts. Two additional B-29s were to join the mission for instrumentation and photographic support. One of them failed to make the rendezvous, leaving the Bockscar circling for forty minutes using up precious fuel and time. In that short period, a dense cloud cover had obscured the city of Kokura. Nagasaki now became the target.

On this morning, Japanese spotters sighted two B-29 Superfortresses and assumed they were on reconnaissance, so no final alarm was given. A few minutes later, at 11:00 a.m., one of the planes dropped instruments attached to three parachutes. Packed in with these instruments were copies of an unsigned letter to Professor Ryokichi Sagane, a nuclear physicist at the University of Tokyo who had studied with some of the scientists responsible for the atomic bomb, at the University of California, Berkeley, urging him to tell the public about the danger involved with these weapons of mass destruction. Found by Japanese military authorities, these messages were not turned over to Professor Sagane until a month later.

At 11:01, a last-minute break in the clouds allowed the bombardier to drop the bomb, and 43 seconds later it exploded, 1540 feet above the ground halfway between the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works in the south and the Mitsubishi-Urakami Ordnance Works (torpedo builders) in the north.

In time, many unintended victims were found to have been among the casualties, including Allied prisoners of war, many thousands of Korean forced laborers, students from Malaya, and some 3,200 Japanese American citizens. An unknown number of survivors from the Hiroshima bombing had made their way to Nagasaki, only to be bombed again.

The United States expected to have another atomic bomb ready for use in the third week of August, with three more in September and further three in October. Just two minutes after midnight, 64 years ago today, Soviet infantry, armor, and air forces launched its first offensive announcing its declaration of war on Japan. Senior leaders in the Japanese Army responded by imposing martial law on their country in order to stop their people from trying to make peace. Five days later Emperor Hirohito capitulated.

Scholars remain divided whether the atomic bomb was necessary to achieve victory in the Pacific. Some estimate that in the planned invasion of Japan, Allied forces would have suffered a million casualties, and Japanese losses would have been in the millions. Others argue that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unnecessary, inherently immoral, a form of state terrorism.

Our first reading today gave us the vivid image of Absalom, a man of war, riding his mule and, as they passed beneath a great oak, he got stuck in its branches, trapped and held for his adversaries. The end of a man of violence is to become the target of someone else’s violence. The man who knows only how to fight is truly stuck with no good options.

Here in this sanctuary on April 1, 1945, Dick Merritt was ordained a priest. It wasn’t long before he accepted a call to serve in the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, the small but resilient Episcopal Church in Japan, where he would spend the rest of his life.

I wonder if what drew him was that deep Gospel insight we heard expressed by the apostle today: “We are members of one another.”

I admit it’s speculation on my part, but in the wake of this country’s terrifying escalation of the terms of war and the human costs of war, what more important place in the world was there to go to pursue the Church’s mission to help God reconcile all people to one another and to God?

In the years following World War II, Japan’s suffering at Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the nation to firmly oppose any future location of nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. I do not know what contribution the Nippon Sei Ko Kai made to this anti-nuclear insistence. But I do see at the center of the symbols on Dick Merritt’s stole the emblem of the Prince of Peace.

May this Christ be at the center of our allegiance. May his Spirit’s gifts free and guide us:

Wisdom, to find good options to war and its escalation
Understanding to appreciate people and cultures who appear to differ from us
Counsel to discern what is in the best interest of all
Fortitude to keep peacemakers from discouragement
Knowledge to lead us to the truth that sets us free
Piety to prompt prayer and trust in God, active in this world
Fear of the Lord to harness science to the purposes of peace.

(Information on the two nuclear attacks comes from the Wikipedia article “Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Mercy and Pity for the Church

Readings for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost include II Samuel 11:26-12:13a; Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

I notice that our Collect of the Day calls upon God to cleanse and defend the people of God, the Church, and, to do this, invokes the continual mercy of God. Of all the divine powers and attributes that could cleanse and defend us, it’s God’s mercy that we need most.

That rings true to what I know of the Church, an assembly of me’s and you’s whom God keeps twirling on the potter’s wheel to fashion into an us and a we, a usable vessel to serve God’s purposes in the world. To hold water to be poured, food to be served, treasure to be found, needs to be gathered, the alchemy of grace to be ignited.

But the Church’s me’s and you’s don’t always mix well, sometimes don’t play well together. We may not take the shape God needs to fashion, or hold the glaze, or survive the heat.

In the terms of today’s Gospel, we look for Jesus not so much because we’re ready and willing to be embraced and reshaped by his truth, but more because we’d like more, please, of something good he can give us. We’d like him to fill our little pots, not so much cause us to question what we want, or why.

We come prepared with many objects for prayer, many ways God may be useful to the me’s and you’s. But that we should be the objects of God’s will, useful to God in reconciling the world to God? We me’s and you’s have many projects in mind for God to do. But that we should be a project of God? Or just a vessel to serve the project of God?

Next to my Bible is my dictionary. Mercy: “Forbearance and compassion shown to a powerless person, especially an offender, or to one with no claim to receive kindness; kind and compassionate treatment in a case where severity is merited or expected.”

“Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church…”

That’s Rite II. In Rite I, a different word appears at that point in the collect. At our 8:00 eucharist this morning, we prayed, “O LORD, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church…” So the ten o’clockers get mercy, the eight o’clockers receive pity.

Pity: “Tenderness and concern aroused by the suffering and misfortune of another; compassion, sympathy.”

“O Lord, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church…”

Mercy and pity are the powers of God we hear at work in our scriptures today. With the psalmist, we prayed, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your lovingkindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.”

And the apostle writes from prison a letter to the Ephesians, counting on their pity to open themselves all the more to his exhortation and use their freedom to practice mercy within their fellowship: “Bear with one another in love, make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

An infamous failure of pity gets its comeuppance through the judicious use of a parable, the prophet Nathan craftily putting the pieces in place for David to convict himself of pitilessness. Even the hardest heart caves in, reaching for a tissue when Nathan talks about that precious baby ewe lamb that meant so much to a poor man that she ate from his own half-empty plate, drank from his cup, and slept in his bosom.

The second main human character in the parable isn’t fully human. Rich, he was unprincipled, unyielding, unfeeling. A guest comes to his home and this rich fellow doesn’t hesitate to serve him up a dinner of roast lamb—not his own lamb, the poor man’s one little ewe lamb.

“As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

“You are the man!” exclaims Nathan, upbraiding David for arranging the death of valiant Uriah, a distinguished infantry officer loyal to David, subservient to David, perplexing to David because (as we heard in last Sunday’s installment of “As David’s World Turns”) he couldn’t get Uriah to break wartime discipline and return to the bosom of his beautiful wife Bathsheba and so cover the inconvenience of her having in her womb David’s lust-child.

Who said that going to church in the summer isn’t exciting?

Speaking for God, Nathan lets David have it. “I anointed you king.. I rescued you from that paranoid Saul… I established you, and if all this had been too little, I would have done as much more—but my mercies have not been enough for you, have they? You chose not to imitate my mercy; now your choice will cause you trouble from within your own house.”

To which David replied, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Do you think?

But do we think? Do we recognize our own pitiless choices? And do we understand them as failures to imitate the mercy of God?

I can make a pitiless choice when I pre-judge a person’s motives instead of carefully listening, suspending judgment until I have learned what I cannot know any other way than by merciful listening.

I may make a pitiless choice when I have lived unmercifully within myself for a few hours or a few days and now, while I’m weary or anxious or snarly someone needs from me a patience or a wisdom that I will later realize that I truly owed them, but I am not open to giving it.

This is intimate stuff. Intensely personal are these powers of God, mercy and pity. In case you don’t like either of these words, their definitions have in common a word we may prefer: compassion.

God, by mercy, by pity, wills to shape and reshape the me’s and you’s of God’s people, forming of us a vessel that will hold the powerful love we are given, the love that creates an us, a we, a vessel of integrity that God may use to pour upon the world what is needed to sustain or transform it, help God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on one more small turf on earth as it is in heaven.

And while it’s fine (and accurate) to speak of God doing these things, the scriptures make clear, and our own experience makes clear, that God counts on us to deliver compassion in God’s name and in God’s Spirit.

So on the heels of the feeding of five thousand people, some of Jesus’s hearers understandably ask him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” To this he answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one whom God has sent.” This is intimate stuff, intensely personal. Unless we have this source of mercy, we will not learn to imitate this mercy or practice this compassion.

Or, as the apostle says, “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together…as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Okay, Lord. It’s a new week, starting today. Open us, we pray, to every encounter in which mercy or pity may be asked of us. And in each, open us, we pray, to you.