Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On What Do We Stake Our Lives?

Bible portions read on the 25th Sunday after Pentecost include Isaiah 65:17-25; II Thessalonians 3:6-13; and Luke 21:5-19

As Christians, we stake our lives on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit.

But something about that claim seems limited if it’s put in a past tense, and if we claim it’s only for and about us. Isn’t it truer, worthier, and more exciting to stake our lives on what God is doing for the world in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit?

Next Sunday will be Christ the King Sunday, when the Church contemplates and celebrates the reign of Jesus Christ on earth. A King? What sort of king is he? A King? Such an antique title. But there it is, throughout the New Testament: the Kingdom of God is proclaimed, announced, preached as a new ordering of life that is near, but not yet here.

Today the prophet Isaiah helps us anticipate this question, What is God doing for the world? “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” The promised king, the promised kingdom, and what it means to be citizens of that kingdom are all about joy.

Isaiah shows us why. Justice. Mercy. Lovingkindness. Peace. Of all these powers is God’s kingdom built. In that kingdom fully realized, these powers will show themselves tangibly in the incidence of infant mortality (zero), the extension of life expectancy (to one hundred), affordable and sustainable housing and agriculture safe from foreclosure and the depredation of enemies. Enjoyable work with meaningful purpose, children’s futures secure from the ravages of war, peace so pervasive that nature is no longer red in tooth and claw. And the relationship between God and people so open that nothing gets in the way of calling and answering, speaking and hearing.

Oh, sign us up!

No, no, don’t analyze it, don’t critique it—imagine it! Can you sketch a finer version of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? Sure, it sounds unmanageable on a limited planet—but listen to the mind of the Maker, at least according to the prophet Isaiah.

The experiment in democracy that we call the United States of America seemed barely imaginable or manageable, just more than two centuries ago. Now we know it’s only unmanageable.

All the more reason, then, to listen to the mind of the Maker. If we’re going to experience unmanageability, let’s do it for the highest good. If we’re going to take any passage in the Bible literally, why not this one from Isaiah?

And as the report from a bipartisan committee on abolishing our national debt dramatizes our unmanageability, let it also remind us that creating a new order is God’s work. At least to the extent that our vision for national and international life is to serve God’s passionate purposes of justice, mercy, and peace; at least to the extent that we want our national and international life to implement God’s agenda published by the prophet Isaiah, we can be working hand in hand with God.

So I’d better bridge the two testaments, and make clear my case that what God is doing for the world in Jesus Christ is that reordering of life into a new creation that Isaiah sketches. You will recall that it is often Isaiah whom Jesus quotes, as in his very first sermon (“for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives… to let the oppressed go free…”) Such is the kingdom Jesus proclaimed and preached, the kingdom he could best describe and recruit for by means of parables that got people wondering and imagining what it meant to them, what it required of them. Such is the kingdom Jesus realized by healing sick people’s bodies and minds; consorting with and promoting poor people, uneducated people, children; confronting the arrogant and the narrow-minded; provoking the backward-looking; stimulating hope among the neglected and the nearly-disappeared. Such is the kingdom he died for, to root it for all time in the ground of our being and to free it for all times and places by putting its seed into the hands of ordinary women and men and children, calling them to sow that seed by humble potent acts of faith and hope and love, always multiplied by the divine Spirit that dwells within and hovers over the whole creation.

As Christians, we stake our lives on what God is doing for the world in Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. We accept and honor and try to meet God’s call to sow the seeds of the kingdom by humble potent acts of faith and hope and love. God’s new creation must be the Church’s first and constant passion. The Church must not mistake itself for that new creation, or that kingdom, but must be its servant in the world. The Church must not assume it is the only theater in which God is acting, for the world belongs to God, and all that is within it. And the Church must not rely on money, or professionals, or real estate, or committees, or canon law, or tribal customs, or magic, or the same people all the time to meet God’s call to serve, and to sow the seeds of the kingdom in the world.

“Unless the LORD builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.” Those are lyrics to a song sung in ancient Israel several hundred years before Christ, and they mark the truth of the Church.

Meanwhile, the Church is going through a whole lot of deconstruction. Even familiar houses of prayer are closing, right and left.

The Methodist congregations in North Adams and Williamstown have voted to merge, and have put both church buildings on the market, intending some day to build on the border between towns a flexible, sustainable church center.

St. Mark’s in Adams and St. John’s in North Adams have begun two weekends of voting on a proposal to merge. Their approach will be to retain one of their two buildings, and let go of the other.

St. James’ in Great Barrington has left its historic buildings, after the collapse of a wall behind the altar. A non-profit corporation headed by a parishioner has purchased the property with the goal of creating a multi-use center, with the repaired sanctuary someday available again to the congregation on a leased basis, the congregation (it may be) a tenant with the landlord among its own.

And all across the land Roman Catholic churches that were for generations fix- tures in their communities have gone through mergings and closings.

Imagine how Christians who are experiencing such deconstruction may hear today’s Gospel: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

I expect that none of us would rush to join their numbers, and that each of us would find it painful to lose a house of prayer and friendship that has come to mean so much over the years. Such letting-go would put us on a sharp learning curve.

Put differently, the fact that so many of our neighbors are rising on that curve tells us that we must learn what they are learning.

And the lesson most worth learning is that as Christians, we stake our lives not on having a church building, or a professional staff, or a beautiful liturgy, or fabulous stained glass windows. We stake our lives on what God has done for us—and is doing for the world-- in Jesus Christ, by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. And we open ourselves to God’s call to serve the new creation in the world, where God is at work, and where we are needed to sow seeds of the kingdom by humble potent acts of faith, hope, and love.

That call does not require a building, but that call must be heard in this place, and often. That call to serve in the world, in our own neighborhoods and workplaces, must be heard in our liturgy here so that a greater worshiping of God may be offered beyond this place, including such sweet harmony as must please God when marriages and families and friendships and relationships in workplace and campus life are recognized as sanctuaries where what is holy and what is human are treasured, strengthened, and renewed.