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.”