Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Birthing a Community of Encouragement

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

How do these readings lend themselves to what we’re about today, holy baptism?

You may have caught the baptismal images in our second reading: “hearts sprinkled clean… bodies washed with pure water… the confession of our hope… “ and, central to what baptism is about, the faithfulness of the one who promises.

It’s no casual thing that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reaches into his toolkit of baptismal language. He is making his appeal for the new way by which all people , not just a favored few, have access to God. This new way replaces an old system of prohibitive laws with the new creation that God has initiated in Jesus Christ whose love fulfills God’s vision and desire for humanity. This new way replaces the old system of blood sacrifice that made the great temple of Jerusalem a factory manufacturing divine approval in exchange for fees. The writer replaces this old system with his vision of open access to God through a true heart that seeks the full assurance of faith, an open conscience that keeps moving towards love and good deeds, and the encouraging community that meets together to inspire (he says provoke) one another to readiness. This new way, the writer says, is opened to us in baptism. Today, we will claim it for Alexandria Rockwell.

Our first lesson is a real corker for a baptismal Sunday, isn’t it? It comes from a time when polygamy was still thought to be the ticket to the good life. Hannah was well loved and cared for, but her husband Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, irritates Hannah by constantly showing new photos of her most recent baby… while Hannah is said to be unable to bear children.

She dares believe otherwise. She presents herself in the temple and promises God to dedicate the child that comes from her womb—somewhat like promising to send him to seminary. She is passionate about this, and the old priest Eli, watching from a distance, mistakes her emotional expression for drunkenness. Here’s a case study in terrible pastoral care. As if to make up for this, Eli does what he can by saying the Amen to her prayer. So does God, reports the writer; God says “So be it!” and Samuel is born, Samuel among the first great prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Which is itself a case of terrible theology—bargaining with God—but this story is what it is.

It is a story of a miraculous birth. The Christian Church has long retold the story as a forerunner to the Incarnation, God’s Word becoming flesh through the womb of Mary. However you process stories of miraculous births, understand that in this baptism we’re witnessing the result of a miracle today. Let me quickly add, that’s not meant to be a comment about Alexandria’s conception, but about her delivery.

Two months early, in fullblown medical-surgical crisis, late one night in Burlington, Vermont, just before the changing shifts at Fletcher Allen Hospital would have dispersed the top-flight emergency obstetric team whose members were still on duty when the ambulance arrived. It would be days before baby Alexandria was out of crisis, and more days before Rockwell was. The slenderest of threads brought this baby to life, and this mother to recovery. Their double-header miracle is forever woven into the warp and weft of their family tapestry, and the success stories of that remarkable hospital. It took these communities of encouragement to help create a miracle, and by their presence this family helps God deepen the encouragement of this community… for look at them now!

“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” the disciples exclaim to Jesus, as they admire the architecture and edifice of the great temple in Jerusalem. For these Galilean peasants and fishermen, this was the pinnacle of the big city tour. Our Lord is not impressed. He is not looking on the outward form, the way people tend to attach their admiration. He has looked behind the curtains of the Emerald City, and found fraud and deception, greed and dishonesty. He is also given by Mark the Gospel writer foresight to see the imperial Roman army’s devastation of the temple, burning it, demolishing it, about forty years off in the future. Nothing material lasts forever. All mortal institutions in time will lose their packaging, and this will be hastened if they have lost their vision, their mission, their call.

Jesus leaves us in no doubt about this. The church that has no other use for the word “building” than to mean the shell within which its people huddle against the world, will not be building broad bridges of outreach to the world, will not be helping build the new creation, and will not keep its architecture for long. A finer design is needed.

God calls the church to build and keep building a community of encouragement and inspiration, not just for its own good but to benefit human society and all our environment locally, nationally, globally. I notice a strong verb in the closing words of our Gospel: rather than building, birthing of a new order is said to be the context in which we will find God, whose will is to be done on earth as in heaven.

That’s the verb for a baptismal Sunday: birthing. If we are to help midwife God’s new creation, we need the baptismal toolkit: hearts sprinkled clean… bodies washed with pure water… the confession of our hope… “ and, central to what baptism is about, the faithfulness of God, who promises open access, constant presence, foresightful grace, the compassion of Jesus Christ, the guidance of Lady Wisdom, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

These powers we seek and claim today for Alexandria and for ourselves:
a true heart that seeks the full assurance of faith, an open conscience that keeps moving towards love and good deeds, and the encouraging community that meets together to inspire, provoke, one another to readiness.

Once for All

Scripture for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost includes I Kings 17:8-16; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Within the hour, the Veterans Day National Ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery will start, precisely at 11:00 a.m., with a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Then, inside the Memorial Amphitheater, a parade of colors by veterans' organizations will follow, and remarks from dignitaries. The ceremony is intended to honor and thank all who served in the United States Armed Forces.

There is a short phrase in our second lesson today which cuts to the chase of the Christian Gospel. It is the phrase, “once for all.” Those three words could be the title of all the collected theological writings of the ages. They sum up the heart of the good news. They are the pulsing of God’s love and the foundation for the Christian hope.

Before we try to unpack what these words mean to us, I can’t help wondering if they weren’t on the lips of most of the men and women who entered military service, whether voluntarily or drafted. What helped them wrench themselves away from their daily lives at home and work and farm and factory was the hope that their sacrifices would rid the world of tyrants and treachery, once and for all.

History tells us that war, however heroically fought, cannot fulfill the hope of “once for all.” It is the Prince of Peace, the humble servant anointed by God, the holy one who has no army, no flag, no currency, and no boundaries, he is the one who fulfills the promise of these words of hope for which humanity has always yearned.

Once, in the fullness of time, the relentless abundant love which created the universe crossed the membrane of heaven and earth, broke the barrier between the “kairos” of eternity and the “chronos” of clock time, set the loom for a new weaving of spirit and flesh—and did all this hidden under cover of what could have disqualified the whole mission.

There was no more unsettled a place than Palestine, then as now. There was no tighter a vise grip on human freedoms than the Roman imperial presence in occupied lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Trade was causing exchange of cultures, but it was a time of sharp aversion to foreigners and things foreign. It was a time when a woman wasn’t counted to be even three-fifths of a man, yet a womb (and the womb of a very young woman not yet defined by marriage) would be the chosen doorway to an entirely new creation.

Once, there and then, at what the Letter to the Hebrews calls the end of the age, God’s relentless long-hidden gracious purpose was revealed. Not in the violent mode of eliminating the old, but in an organic peaceable evolutionary way of birthing the new, a power of transformation was released into this world, available not just to some, but to all… a tiny word we are still struggling to comprehend and practice.

Once. Surgically certain, clearly confident is this short word that means: what has happened in Jesus Christ meets and exceeds all the requirements of God and of humanity to be the foundation for reconciling all alienation. Given, not earned or negotiated, is the power to build on that foundation. No more is needed to fix the foundation or to obtain the power, than what is given in abundant love and received by honest trust. The building, that’s for us to do. The building of unity, the reconciling of opposing sides, that is what we are given to do—and the greatest giving is the power God has already released to do it.

How to do that building? There is a saying by an ancient Christian sage—I did a quick Google search but couldn’t find the source, which won’t prevent me from using it—“The desire to please God pleases God.” The desire to build with God is the beginning to building with God. The desire to reconcile is how reconciliation is built.

What a critical need this is, in post-election America! And if I may put a Veterans’ Day spin on this urgency: the men and women who have generously given military service to this nation did not make the sacrifices they made so that two political parties can refuse reconciliation and paralyze this nation.

Our desire for reconciliation and cooperation is how these outcomes will be built. We may doubt we have much sway over these things—the widow in today’s Gospel is here to tell us otherwise: do what you can with what you have, she tells us. Using our voices to put our own elected representatives on notice that we want unity of purpose is the might we have.

That phrase “once for all” is meant to bring relief to anyone who longs for a fresh start. We don’t have to know how to make things right, how to invent the right approach, how to turn the past around to a better future. We need to allow our longing to open us to welcome the relentless abundant love which is given and is for us to receive and build upon. It is as dependable as that jug of oil in the hands of Elijah. And, as we were taught last Sunday, loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves is all of a piece, wound like the strands of a rope, woven as warp and weft. So the building that is ours to do in our own fresh starts is not done in isolation, but in community.

And communities, congregations, nations need, now and again, fresh starts. As Christians, we believe there is grace in the gift given, once for all, to keep building on foundations that God provides, broad and roomy enough for all.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Signs of Change

Scripture for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Hebrews 9:11-14, and Mark 12:28-34

The ancient words of Deuteronomy tell us that Jesus’s reply to the scribe was not his own invention. The primacy of loving God wholly is expressed in the Shema Israel, the Jewish call to worship, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Notice that Jesus adds “and with all your mind.”

The words we heard from Deuteronomy today constitute the opening of every worshiping assembly of Jews on the Sabbath day. The closing words of the lesson call for every Jewish home to have, nailed to the door post, a fragment of God’s word, a phrase from the holy Torah, mounted in a mezuzah, a small decorated holder of metal or clay or wood, present to remind residents and guests alike that in this household the Lord God is to be loved wholly, first, foremost, in all things and above all things. The ground on which that house sits is holy ground. The table fellowship of that home, the cycling of generations through its rooms, the joys and sorrows shared there, all constitute a holy heritage.

Nailed to the doors of oceanfront houses along the New York and New Jersey coastline today are notices in two colors. One designates that the house is condemned and to be torn down. The other says that the house can be repaired and, in time, reoccupied. We know what these notices look like, from just over a year ago when another storm did not skirt, but sliced right through here, and 225 mobile homes in The Spruces were tagged on their doors.

One use of the doorpost bears witness to an ancient faith and a timeless truth: that God is with God’s people. The other posting drives a final nail in the coffin for many people whose households are gone, whose holy ground is torn open, and whose trust in the providence of God faces a sore trial. They too are God’s people, these residents who no longer reside, who are no longer surrounded by what is familiar, but stand with the clothes on their back and, if they are fortunate, their loved ones hand in hand. The promise is made no less to them, that God is with God’s people. But to claim that promise, the homeless cannot look to what is seen; they must look to what is unseen. They will find God present, not in secure surroundings and abundance (which are the subjects of the table graces we pray and the prayers we usually raise on Thanksgiving Day); they will find God present in people who validate the second great commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” God is present to battered residents along the mid-Atlantic seaboard in the firm confidence of first responders, the quiet labor of shelter volunteers, the steady progress of linesmen and tree removal crews, through whose efforts relief is felt, shock subsides, and victims dare recall who and whose they are.

For the victims of this superstorm, nothing will ever be the same again. And those are the words that came to mind when I first realized how threatened mighty New York City would be. I watched the film clips of the Hudson and East Rivers overflowing the Battery and I thought that for this great city, nothing could ever be the same again. Urban planning for coastal cities; zoning, development, and rebuilding along beachfronts; and, for us here, building on flood plains and along riverways, all need rethinking. Not motivated by scientific theory and the politics that have sprouted in armed camps around global warming, but motivated by actual storms, experienced events that cannot be argued away from the planning tables. Explain it as we will, we are stepping across into a new sense of normal.

That’s a phrase used in relief and recovery circles. FEMA officials taught us that on average it takes eighteen months for disaster survivors to reach a new sense of normal, a redefined set of standards, hopes and goals that takes everything into account, including sudden recent change. What is true of the individual in recovery may have its parallel in society: When traumatic change deals us a blow, first we need rescue to safety; then healing of heart, soul, mind, and body so we rightly see our choices; then good counsel so we make the best choices we can, taking into account a changed and changing world.

That theme of a changing world is heard in our readings today. The Torah, sampled in our Deuteronomy reading, an ancient system of commandments, statutes, and ordinances, conveys timeless truth such as the primacy of love, love for God first to nurture and inspire love for neighbor. But the Torah bred also an elaborate system of burnt offerings and blood sacrifice, and aren’t we glad we’ve evolved beyond that? As our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, it was the coming of Christ that made that sacrificial system redundant. Language of purification and images of blood sacrifice have shaped this first-century description of Jesus Christ’s mission, and the good news that his generous self-giving, his servant love, has nailed on the doorpost of the old religious factory of burnt offerings a sign that says, “Closed by the Owner: Unsafe for Human Nature.”

Martin Luther would have to reach for hammer and nails fifteen hundred years later in the Protestant Reformation, for similar house-cleaning. The theses he posted on that famous door in Wittenberg didn’t amount to a Condemned sign, definitely more a “needs repair” verdict. But he presents the truth that a friend recently told me, “Jesus Christ periodically needs rescuing from the hands of the Church.”

Because the Church is not the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God is what matters most to Jesus, as we hear in Mark’s Gospel. That kingdom is a reordering of life to be in harmony with a whole-hearted love for God and a whole-hearted love for neighbor, caring for others as well as we care for ourselves. While the Church is called to facilitate these great loves, the Church is at best their midwife, helping them be born into a world that deeply needs them.

Which is why I am so grateful to be part of a congregation that gives generously to the world, around the corner and around the globe. St. John’s is, as well, a community that understands how the great whole-hearted loves for God and for neighbors nurture each other, give birth to new life, interact, intertwine. And I thank God that in this remarkable parish, we practice the sharing of what we have, what we do, and who we are not primarily as obligation, but as opportunity to grow spiritually. We take to heart the call to make our welcome warm to people we don’t yet know, as warm as the welcome we have received from God who knows us perfectly.

We understand that the church works for the good of the world. And, given what has happened across the eastern third or more of the United States in the past week, the church across the nation has fresh opportunity to participate in relief, recovery, and preparedness for the future. We open Raile’s Bowl today for gifts that will go in equal proportion to the American Red Cross and Episcopal Relief and Development. We’ll also be watching for what the Dioceses of Long Island and New Jersey are doing in terms of relief work, and may direct some of our giving to these frontline networks whose bishops (Larry Provenzano in Long Island, George Councell in New Jersey) were priests in this Diocese before their election, and are well-known to many of us.

Your gift will be matched from the mission funds of this parish, until we reach $1,000 in gifts. That we can do this multiplication is its own evidence that here we understand that the church works for the world.

I want to close with words from Bishop Councell in New Jersey, posted this week on the doorpost of that diocese’s Website: “Sometimes people look at a natural disaster and ask the question, ‘Where was God?’ I believe that a better question to raise is, ‘Where was the Church?’ The Church is us. In this most difficult moment for so many in our Diocese, state and region, may all see the Church of Jesus Christ at work through us, giving loving service and living hope to all.”