Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What's a Parish For?

Scripture appointed for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 40:21-31; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

On this Sunday when, for the 118th time, the people of St. John’s gather in Annual Meeting, let’s consider how our scripture readings help us answer a question that fits this day: What is this parish for? As we enter our 119th year, what are our purposes?

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth… (who) does not faint or grow weary; (whose) understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless… Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Isaiah’s rhapsody gives us our first answer. A congregation may be useful to God in channeling to people the spiritual power they need to renew their strength for running the race and walking the walk.

In elegant language, Isaiah sings of God transcendent “above the circle of the earth”, “at the still point of the turning world,” wrote T. S. Eliot, though the astronomers expand our vision: at the still point of the myriad receding galaxies, God is the center, the breath, the energy, the unsearchable understanding, the dynamism that calls and numbers all created forms, from the stars of heaven to the creatures of earth. God is over and above all, yet God is intimately close enough to give power to the faint and renewal to the weary.

A congregation, teaching people how to wait for the LORD, channels renewal as it flows from the still point of being to the being, to the creature needing renewal.

The hymn sung by the psalmist gives us a second answer to the question what a church is for. “The LORD… gathers the exiles… heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.”

I imagine that in all cultures alienation is experienced, individuals losing their sense of belonging, the fabric of society not holding. As if symbolically addressing alienation, many cultures have dances that start with one person setting the pace, joined by another and then by another, clasped hand in hand, or arm around the waist, as an undulating chain of procession navigates the room, gathering-in everyone in the dance. “Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance,” wrote Eliot. A congregation must learn to dance out into the world with moves that draw people to step out of isolation into community, out of anxiety into trust, out of scarcity into abundance.

St. Paul, always ready with an answer, gives us our third today. He says that he is (and he means that we are) “entrusted with a commission” to proclaim the Gospel, the uniquely good news that opens us to our sharing in the blessings of the servant ministry of Jesus Christ. “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win
(many); I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

A church congregates a ragtag army of people whose strong suits and weak links, whose questions and whose answers, whose day jobs and volunteer time, whose extroverted energy and whose introverted intuition all provide ways into the world to deliver the good news of God’s commitment to us in Jesus Christ, and to invite personal commitment to God in Jesus Christ.

Our Gospel today confirms what we already know, that the delivery system for that good news is one to one, one by one, one person at a time. A congregation’s usefulness to an intimate God will be in direct proportion to how passionately its many leaders believe that absolutely every person is to be fully welcomed into complete participation in the life of the Body of Christ. I can’t say those words without needing to confess that I and we fall short of that standard set by Jesus, but we know it is the standard to which we are held.

At the heart of this standard is the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ. And so nothing that could separate people from this parish community, nothing that could prevent their being fully welcomed, should be allowed to. No litmus tests, no dress codes, no behavioral expectations other than loving God and loving my neighbor as myself. I can’t say those words without needing to admit that I and we fall short of the standards set by Jesus, but that does not change the fact that our life together as a church is for the practicing of these standards and for growth in openness to the grace that will get us there and keep us there in the light. “Not here, Not here the darkness, in this twittering world,” insists Eliot. No, here the light.

That each and every person is of incalculable worth and value to God is shown in how Jesus’s public ministry is fully directed to the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, who, immediately upon the lifting of her fever, rises to serve. The whole city watching, person after person, sick or troubled in mind, body, spirit, a nightlong procession one after another, from sundown until sunrise, appears before Jesus to be validated into new life, confirmed in freedom, restored to community.

In the thick of all that caregiving, it was surely a meal that Simon’s mother-in-law rose to serve. Always sustaining costly service is the meal offered at Jesus’s table, and the feeding we do upon the Word, and the lifting out of fever that sacred music brings. Eliot says,

“Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.”

I don’t understand all that, nor do I understand sacrament; but it nourishes me, by its form and pattern carries me, reminds me who and whose I am, who and whose you are to my right and my left at that table of his, of ours. Ensuring that every person find her place or his at this table, this is another Gospel answer to what a church is for.

And what that meal equips us for lies outside these walls. Where all is always now is right where God is perpetually at work in the world, calling us to that same work, one by one, and all together.

(T. S. Eliot’s words are all from “Burnt Norton”, the first of his “Four Quartets”.)