Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gathering the Fragments of Anaheim

The Gospel for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost is John 6:1-21

A Gospel reading with five thousand people convened on a hillside is a good starting point for considering our Church’s recent General Convention. That triennial gathering welcomes ten thousand people over its eleven days, meaning that there are few convention centers in the country large enough to accommodate us. Anaheim is one, and that’s where this 76th General Convention in our Church’s history took place.

If five thousand people eat a lot of food at one sitting, ten thousand people across a week and a half can leave a city picked clean, like a plague of locusts—though we can assume it’s good for business.

One facet I admire in the Gospel story of the feeding is how nothing is wasted. Jesus orders a gathering-up of the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost. Twelve baskets are filled in this way, and they appear to be a sign, proof that Jesus is the long-awaited messiah of the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s special agent to reveal to the world the abundant life that is in God.

Making sense of what happens at a General Convention is like picking up a multitude of bits and pieces of information. I served as a deputy helping to represent this diocese at five conventions, and I’ve got to admire how the Internet has made it easier to gather up the fragments, this summer. Mind you, I couldn’t navigate the media hub Website that offered instantaneous samplings, day to day—it kept dropping me off in alien blogs that just made me vow to wait until all was said and done. But now that Convention is over, the Internet provides important tools to help us understand what did and didn’t happen in Anaheim.

Swift letters arrived in clergy inboxes, from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and from our own diocesan Bishop, Gordon Scruton. They speak of frequent worship throughout the eleven days, “stunning visually, musically, and liturgically, with provocative preaching and lively singing.” Fifteen of the thirty-eight Anglican primates from around the world were present, including briefly the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Scruton reports his delight to have welcomed Bishop Sarfo and his wife Mary from the Diocese of Kumasi in Ghana, and Bishop Hart and his wife Frances, from the Diocese of Liberia, two African dioceses with which we’re building relationship.

On the international front, it’s worth remembering that the Episcopal Church itself includes dioceses in sixteen nations, most of them in Central America and the Caribbean. Here in the Northeast, our Church doesn’t display the rich ethnic diversity that is true of our national Church, itself an international body.

This Convention committed us to a domestic poverty initiative meant to find coherent and constructive response to some of the worst poverty statistics in the Americas, Native American reservations and indigenous communities.

The Church’s budget for these next three years maintains, on top of a commitment of 15% for international development work, a specific commitment of 0.7% to the Millennium Development Goals through the agency NetsforLife® (that’s nets as in mosquito nets), empowering communities to eliminate malaria by providing life-saving prevention training and long-lasting insecticide-treated nets in 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, reducing dramatically the incidence of malaria.

That said, the Church’s budget for the coming trienniuim was reduced by $23 million, compared to this past three-year period. This means a serious curtailment of Church-wide ministry efforts, and one out of six staff members at the Episcopal Church Center will likely be let go.

The four dioceses where bishops and congregations have left the Episcopal Church were represented at Anaheim. A provisional bishop has been assigned to each of these continuing dioceses, and around each have gathered the congregations and parishioners choosing not to depart from the Episcopal Church. Bishop Scruton comments, “There continues to be much pain in those dioceses, yet there was also much enthusiasm among the people who are continuing as members of our church.”

General Convention adopted a health plan to serve clergy and lay employees, expected to bring cost-savings across the country. This plan doesn’t yet address the needs of employees in those sixteen nations outside the U. S., but efforts continue to that end.

As you would expect, resolutions addressed timely issues of environmental responsibility, conflicts in various places on the globe, and defense of the civil rights of transgendered people.

Bishop Scruton writes that a commitment was made to starting new congregations around the country, including a specific plan for reaching Latinos. Full Communion was approved with the Moravian Church (though we haven’t many of them in the Northeast), and closer ties with the United Methodist Church and the African American Methodist Churches were furthered. Relations with the Presbyterian Church are also moving forward, but Bishop Scruton predicts we may never achive full communion with them because they have a certain attitude towards bishops.

Liturgical additions were approved—more saints to be celebrated, new prayers added (two examples: for women and couples suffering miscarriage, and for the blessing of a companion animal joining a household).

You will have noticed that I’ve saved for last what CNN, PBS, and the networks found exclusively interesting about this General Convention.

Three years ago, the last General Convention called upon the Church to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate for the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider Church and will lead to further strains on relations within the Anglican Communion. (What language we Anglicans find, when we’re trying to avoid plain speech…)

If that action carefully avoided the words “gay” and “lesbian”, a resolution this summer did not. In the midst of language reaffirming our commitment to the Anglican Communion, our Bishops and Deputies affirmed point-blank that God has called and may call gay and lesbian people to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.

In a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and to the other primates of the worldwide Communion, Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson explained carefully that no step was taken this summer that the Episcopal Church hadn’t already taken in years past. Quoting from the letter, “While ordination is not a ‘right’ guaranteed to any individual, access to our Church’s discernment and ordination process is open to all baptized members according to our Constitution and Canons.”

And in another resolution that also passed overwhelmingly in both houses, this Church made note of changing circumstances regarding same-sex marriage and domestic partnerships that call for a pastoral response from this Church. While not acting to approve the blessing of same-sex unions, this Church has called on its Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and the House of Bishops, to gather and develop theological and liturgical resources for such pastoral response, to be reported to the General Convention of 2012. In the meantime, bishops, in the particular context of where they live and serve, may provide “generous pastoral response” to the needs of members of this Church at a time of changing environment on this matter across the country.

How does the Episcopal Church change? Slowly, gradually, and through her Book of Common Prayer, which defines and expresses the belief and practice of the Church. (Ironically, in this digital age, we might wonder about the future of printed revisions of that book—but can be confident that there will always be a standard Book of Common Prayer, embracing what is kept, and what is changed, from age to age.)

Our own Bishop addresses this subject in his letter: “In this diocese we will continue our pastoral response to married same-gender couples by encouraging services of commitment and thanksgiving. Since our church’s Constitution and Prayer Book stipulate that marriage is between a man and a woman, and since the Anglican Communion has requested us to exercise restraint in moving forward with Blessings, we will continue our practice of not allowing Blessings in this diocese. Since a resolution of this Convention encouraged the development of theological and liturgical documents around same-gender relationships, I will appoint a committee to work on this topic in our diocese and send their reflections to the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music.”

So whatever a service of commitment and thanksgiving is, apparently it doesn’t bestow a blessing. I don’t understand that. I believe he means that the public blessing of same-sex couples will not be permitted; the quiet private at-home variety of blessing (I think) may not be within the purview of this edict. I think.

Confusion notwithstanding, I am confident that there will be dioceses in our Church—I won’t be surprised if Vermont and Maine are among them—that will provide more generous pastoral response, will show the rest of us how that’s done, and will keep inspiring courage and consistency and patience.

In ecclesiastical processions, a bishop always walks last. That’s not Presbyterian self-effacement. That’s Anglican custom. So I’m giving Bishop Scruton the last word, again from his letter:

“What was different at this Convention was the mutual respect and engagement of conservatives, moderates and progressives. People spoke with clarity about their convictions, listened with respect to those from different perspectives and all worked to express as honestly as possible the different convictions that make up our church. When bishops with conservative convictions expressed their minority position at the end of the Convention, they also expressed their appreciation for the respect with which they were received in all the deliberations. The broad center was strengthened in this Convention. We have moved to a place where The Episcopal Church is again intentionally valuing the conservative, moderate and progressive perspectives. We are recovering our vocation as a church of both/and instead of either/or.”

And to that let us all say, Amen.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Will Make of You a House

Readings for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost include II Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-29; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

As ancient as the temple in Jerusalem may be, a grand-daddy among human edifices, there was a time when it was just a spark in the imagination of King David. We hear about that time today.

David, establishing Jerusalem as his headquarters, builds himself a palace of cedar. The ark of the covenant stands in his front yard, the ultimate legitimation of his rule. It didn’t hurt that he could also dance, and that on the battlefield he had slain his tens of thousands (if we are to believe the hype). But without God’s approval registered through Nathan the prophet, David’s grip on Israel’s tribal federation would weaken.

Nathan approves. Go, King, go, he replies, when David proposes a proper shrine to house the ark.

But that very night, God upbraids Nathan: Cancel your enthusiasm, Nathan, and make sure that David cancels his. Who has asked for the opening of a real estate division in the house of Israel? Not I! Have you ever imagined me housed in a temple made by human hands? I go forth with my people: I lead them, they follow. Has it ever been otherwise? Did you ever overhear me asking tribal leaders to build me a house of cedar? No! A tent and a tabernacle suffice for me. It was in a pasture that I found David, tending his sheep. It has been always on the front lines of battle that I have steered Israel’s success. I am placing Israel among the nations. I will make YOU a house! Tell that to David: I will raise up your offspring, Solomon, and I will establish his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. If HE wants to build me a house, well, we’ll see…

I’m sorry if I sound a bit flip, but I have to chuckle at what I’m hearing. Isn’t this Israel trying to have it both ways? Solomon’s temple would come to symbolize the nationhood of Israel—but here’s at least a nod to the good old days, the pioneer spirit on the wild west frontier, when men were men and God rode in the saddle, and rules were few, and we didn’t need to pay architects’ fees.

The more advanced and sophisticated Israel became, the more citified and hierarchical a society, the sharper the edge on stories and divine monologues like this one, urging a kind of Protestant attitude within Judaism, sweeping aside the spiderwebs of institutional bureaucracy and theology in order to seek direct spiritual encounter with God (the way it SHOULD be), and a resulting renewal of ethics (the way it OUGHT to be).

“The Lord will make you a house.” That theme is heard again in a New Testament voice, from the Letter to the Ephesians: “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Wow!

“You also are built together spiritually…” What’s resonant in those few words is what the writer to the Ephesians labors over in those dense early verses. This existential temple not made with hands is revolutionary in that Jews and Gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised are built into it. Its timbers and beams—or, if you like, its stones and its steel—include the in-crowd and the aliens, those who carry the title People of God and the many who, until meeting God in Jesus Christ, were without God in this world. This holy temple is like nothing the earth had ever seen: a first-century forerunner of the United Nations, but more, for the dividing walls of hostility have been torn down. This temple is a place of transformation, a melting pot, a crucible, but more, one new humanity being created, all having access to God in one Spirit. Wow!

That is one transcendent vision of Church, brought to you by the New Testament. Alongside this dynamic transformative image, the most sublimely beautiful cathedral falls to dust. Which is, of course, what real estate is constantly doing.

Location, location, location: the primary asset in real estate, and in matters of religion some justification for the Church’s involvement with bricks and mortar: to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to bear upon our world, local missionary stations are useful for nurturing the community and pursuing the mission.

But the Church’s involvement with bricks and mortar becomes too easily an edifice complex. What was meant to localize mission and build community instead consumes the community, and insinuates itself into the place of mission, and may even tempt people to break the second commandment, not to worship graven images. Church buildings also contribute to ghettoizing denominations (Episcopalians here, Congregationalists there, Roman Catholics down the road).

In the short three years of his public ministry, our Lord seems not to have felt at home in temples made by human hands. Today he crosses the Sea of Galilee to take his disciples on retreat. They are exhausted from taking care of people, crowds of people. And even while they cross, they’re being watched by those crowds who figure out the disciples’ destination and take the land route to arrive before they do.

How does the saying go? Life is what happens while you’re making plans.

The little apostolic boat is beached, and instantly Jesus postpones the retreat in order to compassionately follow the demands of his heart. The setting for his mission is the open beach, the marketplaces, wherever he went in villages, cities, or farms.

These were the pioneer days of Christianity, when men were men (and women were apostles, too), and for a time nothing could separate Israel’s men and women and children from at least touching the fringe of Jesus’s prayer shawl.

In this post-Christian 21st century, we need to write the script of nurture and mission in the blood and sweat of Jesus’s engagement with the world, not in the ink of denominational compromises or in the red ink of church budgets.

He wants to make of us a house: one that will shelter the homeless, set a table for many and for all, raise its rafters in joy, and throw open its windows to God’s light, its doors off the hinges to leave room for dancing in and out of God’s world.

If I read the times rightly, the chapter of church history we’ve entered will require a pioneering spirit. Will we welcome that as blessing? Will we recognize how God has already gifted us with what will be needed?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Marriage Persists, Marriage Evolves

Readings for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost include II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29

Somewhere Jesus warns his disciples, “Beware of the yeast of Herod.”

While yeast served our Lord’s positive purpose in one of his littlest parables, where he says that the kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman added to turn several measures of flour into enough live nourishment to take care of a hundred people, Jesus also knew that yeast could mean infection, putrefaction, and death.

Those are words that sum up the reputation of Herod, Shakespearean in his tragic weaknesses. We’re told the gory story of John the Baptist’s execution as an example: Herod didn’t intend to execute his nemesis; it was expedient, an obligation of hospitality to not cause a scene after a lavish promise had been made. This makes my skin crawl, and I’m pretty sure Mark tells his story to have that effect.

Herod doesn’t know what he wants. He fears John the Baptizer, but is fascinated by him enough that he protects him. Protects him from Herod’s wife Herodias, who has no ambivalence towards John, and I’ll guess no ambivalence towards anyone. What Herodias wanted, Herodias got; and what was true of the mother was true of her daughter. What slick child abuse this is, to make her essentially the executioner of this heroic prophet.

The subplot, we know, is the Baptizer’s insistence that Herod has debased the institution of marriage by divorcing his first wife and marrying the wife of his own brother, Philip (who was still alive), and, to make matters dodgier, this new wife Herodias was Herod’s niece. Lest we think that it’s only governors and statesmen in our time who debase the institution of marriage… here is their prototype.

To call John the Baptist a heroic prophet is to understate his importance. It’s easy to get a cartoonish sense of the Baptizer as a sort of mountain man, an eccentric, one more 1st-century character straight from central casting.

But read the New Testament and find him paving the way for Jesus not just by his words and by that famous day at the Jordan River, but by being the leader of a major religious movement. Thousands went out from the cities to be baptized by him. When he is remembered to have said of Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease,” this was not a smooth easy blending of popular preachers and their respective following. Every now and again we’re given a snapshot of moments when John’s disciples left him and placed their hope in Jesus. It would be Jesus’s followers who would control the telling of this story of one movement outshining another. John’s movement was a grassroots ethical awakening inspired, we think, by the Essene community of Dead Sea Scrolls fame. In Jesus’s movement, John would forever be esteemed.

I wonder if any dog-owner has ever named a dog “Herod.”

A highly-regarded king steps out of the 2nd Book of Samuel today, David, whose action-packed story we’ve been following this summer. Do you remember “Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Here’s the ark, recovered from the Philistines, on its way to installation in Jerusalem, the city that would become David’s stronghold, Israel’s capital; and having the ark in his front yard was the ultimate legitimation of David as King.

This is no smooth moonwalk he’s doing. He’s gyrating, whirling, breakdancing, showing in his body ecstasy at standing so close to divine power, epitomizing in himself the dynamic rush of political power. And he’s not wearing much, just a linen loincloth. Judge for yourself from our window here how hot he was, that day.

David would go on to build for himself a palace of cedar in Jerusalem, and would make plans to build for the ark a grand shrine. But that never happened in his long reign, in part because God objected to going into real estate; and while David’s son Solomon would be credited with great wisdom and for building God a proper temple in Jerusalem, there’s enough evidence in religious circles today to conclude that it’s still a wise thing not to confuse God with the real estate of God’s many houses.

“The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it!” declares our psalm today. That’s what the ark of the covenant displayed, too, and its portability reinforced the message that God goes forth with God’s people. The processional hymn that day, while David danced his heart out, called on the gates of Jerusalem to lift up their heads “Lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in!” Here was evidence that would feed the faith of Israel forever: a powerful young king who can slay the Philistines and dance, too—and the sacred ark reminding everyone, “Who is this King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!”

But you and I know that words spoken by David over his predecessor Saul and over his beloved Jonathan—“How the mighty have fallen!”—would, not long from now, be said about the moral fall of David, falling in love with beautiful Bathsheba, someone else’s wife. Someone else, heroic Uriah the Hittite, whom David arranged to become a casualty of war, a war hero, so that David could have Bathsheba.

In the culture wars we are fighting within society and within the Church, much has been said about gay marriage threatening the institution of holy matrimony. Peculiarly religious wars are being fought over if and how the Bible speaks to this subject.

How do you hear the Bible speaking to this subject? Today we have two sharply etched stories that do not speak to this subject at all directly… but to my ear they clearly announce the danger that heterosexual marriage can threaten the institution of holy matrimony. And yet marriage persists, thank God. Yet it evolves—and we may not be sure whether to thank God.

Evolving also is the law regarding marriage. The first of six states to legalize gay marriage, Massachusetts is now also the first to file a complaint against the U. S. government, claiming that the federal Defense of Marriage Act is discriminatory and unconstitutional because it excludes 16,000 same-sex couples (already married in MA) from critically important rights and protections based on marital status. Those rights and protections are more than a thousand in number, and include federal income tax credits, employment benefits, retirement benefits, health insurance coverage, Social Security payments, and Medicaid benefits.

In the words of this lawsuit, the Defense of Marriage Act "codified an animus towards gay and lesbian people."

The states of Massachusetts, Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine offer clear evidence that this animus is dissipating, dramatically and rapidly. I am among those who rejoice at this. I will rejoice again if this lawsuit succeeds in ending the present separate-but-unequal marital status of gays and lesbians. And I will be ready to rejoice even more heartily when the Episcopal Church finds reason to bless same-sex marriages.

I recognize that any number of you may not share the enthusiasms I’m expressing, and I want to thank you for giving me a generous hearing today. What you are hearing is the substance of an e-mail message I sent to the Bishop of Alabama on Friday. He heads a theology committee of the House of Bishops that is considering the matter of same-sex relationships. I sent it also to our Bishop and our eight General Convention deputies, because I realize that this General Convention could decide to untie the hands of us who are clergy in those six states, so that we may extend some of those riches of Christ’s grace that our second lesson today celebrates as having been bestowed upon us in the Beloved.

I wrote to Bishop Parsley: “As your group reasons together theologically, I urge you to recognize that for many of this Church's members-- acutely so in these six states-- your consideration of social justice and the Church's calling to advance the civil rights of all people will be powerfully relevant to the communities we serve.

“As you consider how authority is exercised as the Church moves towards blessing same-sex marriages, will you recognize how rapidly our mission setting is opening in these several dioceses? Many of us yearn to be allowed to extend the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ to people who have long borne the animus of society and of the Church. In our settings now, it does not work to say that we can extend this unconditional love of God to gay people except through the sacramental act of holy matrimony.

“There will never be unanimity within our Church regarding how holy scripture is to be read on this subject. But our nation's history has taught us that however we read the Bible, we must not invoke that authority to impede or prevent the attaining of full civil rights by any minority of our people. I'm praying that the Bishops' theology group will be unafraid to see our Church respond to its mission as an American province, and that this General Convention will find a faithful way to allow the Church to help this nation achieve equality in marriage in those dioceses where gay marriage is legal.”

I imagine you never expected this sermon to wind up where it has. First there was Herod’s story, then there was David’s. And then there’s mine. What ties them together is Friday, a day when I spent much of the morning thinking and writing about gender and marriage, and much of the afternoon working with these readings.

I felt as if I’d been put in odd company with these men from thousands of years ago. Imagine how they might feel, hearing their marital histories mentioned in the same long breath as gay marriage.

I’m glad I live now. I’m glad I live in a democratic society, and in a church that does its evolving out in the open, as it is right now in General Convention in Anaheim. There we will see a church honoring the call of God as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: in Christ, God gathering up all things, to the praise of God’s glory.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Across Our Generations

The readings for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost are II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; II Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Our Collect of the Day reminds us that central to our relationship with God is how we treat our neighbors. To keep all the commandments of God is first to love God, and then to love our neighbors. When we offered this prayer, we acknowledged that this central work of our lives as human beings requires the grace of the Holy Spirit so that we may be devoted to God with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection.

And who is my neighbor? That question drives one of the most famous parables in the New Testament, the story of the Good Samaritan. We’re going to explore that parable in our 9:00 a.m. series, next Sunday. A well-known hymn from Ghana, faithful to the point of the parable, sings,

“Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve
the neighbors we have from you.
“Kneels at the feet of his friends, silently washes their feet,
Master who acts as a slave to them.
“Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white,
neighbors are nearby and far away.
“These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should
All are neighbors to us and you.
“Loving puts us on our knees, serving as though we were slaves;
this is the way we should live with you.”

“Look, we are your bone and flesh.” So spoke some of the tribes of Israel who gathered around David as the kingship of Israel passed into his hands. To my ear, that sounds as though they felt they had to convince him—or one another—that all the tribes of Israel were actually neighbors and ought to treat one another so. Indeed, David makes a covenant with them, harnessing their desire to be united; then they anointed him their king.

We know from our own bloody history as a nation that it is no easy matter to keep a federation of states united. That requires a vision of the common good that transcends regional interests, a high-enough mission that tribal rights—or states’ rights—are balanced and sometimes trumped by the requirements of national unity. America is being tested on that front as Congress struggles with major environmental legislation: the desire to become a better neighbor in the community of nations, cleaning our carbon emissions, runs up against the outcry from coal-producing states demanding that their economy be protected. This week, pray for our legislators, that they find courage.

Being neighbors isn’t easy. You might say that the history of the human race shows us trying to get better at this, and in general succeeding.

In a review of Robert Wright’s new book “The Evolution of God,” Paul Bloom notices that “Wright gives the example of the God of Leviticus, who said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ and he points out that this isn’t as enlightened as it may sound, since, at the time, ‘neighbors’ meant actual neighbors, fellow Israelites, not the idol-worshippers in the next town. But still, he argues, this demand encompassed all the tribes of Israel, and was a ‘moral watershed’ that ‘expanded the circle of brotherhood.’ And the disapproval that we now feel when we learn the limited scope of this rule is itself another reason to cheer, since it shows how our moral sensibilities have expanded.”

The tricky thing about neighbors is shown in our Gospel: familiarity can breed contempt. One family may disapprove of how another raises their children… disputed property lines send some neighbors to court… then there are wandering goats, chickens, dogs, cats… Good fences good neighbors may make, but all around them there’s room for misunderstanding and disapproval even when neighbors respect boundaries.

Today, Mark tells the story of when Jesus came to his hometown, Nazareth, and began teaching in the synagogue of his childhood. This is not the Jesus his neighbors knew of old. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?” they asked among themselves, as they puzzled over his parables that were so fresh and riveting, not like the sermons of their rector… I mean, their rabbi.

Well, it didn’t take but a few moments for that admiration to degenerate into what sounds like jealousy. “Is not this the carpenter, Mary’s boy? You remember his brothers, who doesn’t remember them, and aren’t his sisters still here in town?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus replies, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” So he could do no powerful deeds there, though he did lay his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

Not without honor, except in their own house. I remember that one day I read this Gospel to an older parishioner who was living with a chronic illness. She sat across from me, and when I read those words I heard her say, “Yes, that’s right.”

The Gospel got her talking. “My grandchildren don’t know what to make of me now. I was always active, and we did so many things together. Now I play cribbage and tell stories from the past, and they aren’t so interested. Some of them are, some of them aren’t ready for what I can give them this way.” More than a touch of sadness hung in the air, though she wasn’t the type to dwell on it and soon moved on.

But not without reminding me that within families, just as between families, we need familiarity to breed respect and appreciation. And these are dynamic powers, not passive submission but active, inquiring, considerate openness that allows us to be united to one another with pure affection. Those are the same powers it takes for neighbors to be neighbors, the powers of respect, appreciation, openness.

This dear woman got me thinking about choices we have when we are given the gift of someone who is, or has become, other than we are. We can dwell upon the differences and let them separate us, or we can discover common bonds and build shared experience. We can measure what appears to be missing, or dare to enjoy, learn to enjoy, what’s there between us.

This Gospel got her talking about how the young in her family seemed to be seeing her in her old age and reduced freedom. It’s within the power of the Gospel also to get the church talking about how adults see and treat children and teenagers and young adults. How our choices are to dwell upon differences and let them separate us, or discover common bonds and build shared experience; measure what seems to be missing, or dare enjoy all there is to enjoy.

To choose that is to build neighborhood among generations. That is at the heart of every congregation’s mission, and is the driving force that gives a congregation its future.

As we search for a new Youth Minister, our best preparation will be to welcome each opportunity each of us will have to build the neighborhood of pure affection across our generations.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

So Many Deaths, So Much Life

Readings for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost include II Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 30; II Corinthians 8:7-15; and Mark 5:21-43

I was away, last weekend. Maybe some of you were, too.

A week ago yesterday, I officiated at the wedding of Josh and Maggie, Williams alums whose 13-year steady relationship brought them at last to the altar. Josh was much a part of us during his college years, and his Dad, Jack, was Curate here in the long-ago, so St. John’s has had a strong trace of parental DNA, important to Josh in the aftermath of a deadly auto accident some twenty years ago that claimed the lives of his Mom, Nancy, and his Dad, and very nearly claimed Josh’s life as well.

It was here that Josh first sat down at an organ console. He’s now a graduate of Longy Conservatory, is a church organist and performs in the Boston area.

It wasn’t at this altar that he and Maggie exchanged their vows, but outdoors before a stone slab near the spillway at Bement Camp, summer home to Josh’s family for three generations. The decision was made earlier this year to close Bement—too few campers, too much deferred maintenance, no economic stimulus grants for church camps—so this final event on the shore of Jones Pond gave the Josh’s family a weekend double-header, eagerly celebrating his and Maggie’s union and tenderly celebrating their many memories and life-legacies from Bement.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…”

Since Easter, there have been many deaths in my world. Perhaps you can say the same. Losses in our parish community, including Earl Smith and Nan Alberti, require us to both celebrate their new life and miss their old ways of being with us. Losses in my family include Linda, Diana’s younger cousin, dying unexpectedly, and Jessie, my much older cousin, completing her long life much as expected. Deaths in our diocese recently have sent me to requiem celebrations in Holyoke for The Rev. Gollie Root, and in South Barre for Robin Smith, lay vicar. And in our community, Donny Westall’s sudden death came on the heels of a weekend that saw at least three memorial gatherings in Williamstown.

While my own tastes in music and entertainment suggest that I won’t feel as deeply as many the impact of the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, I know we all realize the shock that comes with the loss of an iconic figure. For us, fifty is young. Sixty is young. And it’s painful to witness the silencing of a bright talent like Michael’s, and the loss of such beauty and charm as Farrah’s Celebrity is no protection against cancer or heart disease, gives no exemption from the limitations of human life.

We’re approaching our scriptures today dented by deaths, and needing the Spirit of God to mend us in heart and will. “Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD…in your word is my hope.” The psalmist speaks to our condition.

Our first reading, from the Hebrew Bible, has young David standing in the wreckage of his costly defeat of Israel’s enemy. His own star has risen, but at the expense of two celebrities, King Saul and his son Jonathan. “How the mighty have fallen!” we hear David lament. And it’s over Jonathan that his heart is broken: “my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” There would be many women in David’s life, but only one Jonathan.

So what does David do, as the kingdom passes into his hands? He sings. He intones his own lamentation over Saul and Jonathan, celebrating what each accomplished in life, as if gathering up and treasuring every drop of their life’s blood. And he caused the people to sing, not a familiar song from the old hymnal, but he taught them a new song, the Song of the Bow (Jonathan’s preferred weapon of war was the bow), a song long lost but in its time it did its job, to keep Israel from forgetting her precious dead, to keep naming Saul and Jonathan and all they accomplished.

In this story, I hear the Spirit telling us not to be so busy that we forget to sing, to remember, to celebrate the fullness of life we see in our precious dead.

As I look at our portion from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, I believe I see a good stewardship sermon. Remember that what gave the first Christians their reputation was the compassionate care they gave to all who were within their reach. In that brutal first century, generosity like theirs showed what genuine love looks like, making sure the widows are fed and the orphans sheltered. In some places, Christians sold their private property and lived with all things shared in common. They answered the needs of their time by grassroots initiatives in the name of the risen Jesus, and so they advanced his message as eloquently by their deeds as by their preaching.

Here in today’s passage Paul encourages a churchwide collection of money to relieve the Christian community in Jerusalem, fallen on hard times. And where I hear the Spirit drawing my attention is where Paul teaches the principle of proportional giving: “For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what you have—not according to what you do not have.”

I hear the Spirit urging us in our grieving to do more than count our losses. Keep paying attention to what you have, coaches the Spirit of God. There is the glass half full, the balance that will turn us to the question that deaths keep pushing us to answer: How will you live your life now? As old familiar supports are taken away, how will you stand and move? What matters most to you now, and what step today keeps you moving forward?

As usual, the Gospel comes through in spades. Here is Jesus in his public ministry, traveling from one community to the next. Does he still have a schedule in mind, or has he discovered by now that any plan will be interrupted by reality?

Here, it is a synagogue official named Jairus whose heart is being torn open by his daughter’s slipping towards death. Jesus leaves his engagement with the crowd and goes with Jairus. Many of the crowd follow them.

Then even his interruption is interrupted. In the press of people, a woman has recognized her moment of opportunity to reach out and touch the clothes of Jesus so that her chronic bleeding might stop.

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last Tuesday, Diana and I went to the exhibit of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. There we saw a painting of this very moment. Jesus has turned to respond to her touch. She is stunned to have drawn his attention. A man from the crowd recoils from her impurity.

“This scene has recently been identified as the healing of the woman with an issue of blood,” said the legend on the wall. I wondered how they’d identified it for five centuries before. Could it have been misread as the woman caught in adultery? That fellow to her right couldn’t look more judgmental, ready to do away with her.

The painting was not of that moment, but of this: a freeze-frame moment not of what the Greeks called “chronos”, the ticking of the clock, but of what they called “kairos”, the timeless divine breaking into the ordinary, the Spirit revealing itself in mundane flesh.

The woman touches, Jesus turns and searches her out. She shrinks back but then comes to him in fear and trembling, falls down before him, and tells him the whole truth.
How long does this take? How much time does it take her to tell him her whole truth? This is an eternal moment, a miracle in “kairos” time, this interruption in the plans of Jesus and Jairus.

The woman settled for collateral blessing, a walk-by healing would do. As a woman, she wasn’t free to approach him openly. She wasn’t allowed to find her voice and present her need. In that world, no woman could touch a man to whom she’s not related. By ancient law, a woman with a flow of blood could not touch anyone without making them impure, unfit to appear in the temple.

But Jesus expects a full encounter with her. To him, it is not enough that she brush up against him. Once she openly approaches him, he assures her that her faith is powerful, that God has been in this encounter, and that she and God together will accomplish healing.

Instantly some of Jairus’s friends come with news that his daughter has died.

Can you hear the crowd muttering criticisms? “He waited too long!” “He gives all that time to a sick woman and makes a leader of the synagogue wait?” “He should never have stopped.”

“Do not fear, only believe.” These are his only words to Jairus and everyone else nearby.

They’re aimed also at me and you, who grieve. Do not fear these many deaths we must walk through, that come to us as interruptions of “chronos” life. It is there that he will meet us in “kairos” moments, even when all we know to do is reach for him. But he has in mind more than a casual pass-by. He has in mind encountering us fully. He has in mind our rebirth to life, the new life he midwifes for Jairus’s daughter. He intends to whet our appetites for more “kairos” moments, preparing us for life that exceeds this life. He wants to wake us up from the stupor of our losses to rise to our feet in faith.