Monday, April 15, 2013

The Power of Sacrament

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday of Easter includes Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

There’s a whole lot of sacramental stuff going on in that Gospel. Not in a sanctuary, but out on the shore by the Sea of Tiberias.

Twice, the crucified and risen Jesus has appeared to the disciples in that famous upper room (a kind of sanctuary, in its own way), leaving them to figure out what he expects of them. Do they make their lives revolve around that holy space where he had washed their feet and fed them bread and wine? Do they hunker-down and wait for a master plan to be revealed, or do they go about their lives and their livelihood as best they can?

“I am going fishing,” announces Simon Peter, who appears to think that such questions aren’t meant to be decided by a committee. Like a case study in the benefits of self-differentiated leadership, Peter’s decision is met by a chorus of “Me, too… Right… Only sensible thing to do… Got to keep body and soul together…”

While you and I know that this story has a brighter ending, their first night back at the fishing nets did not go well. That night, they caught nothing. This was a dark night of the soul. Try to imagine it. As they bobbed-about on the waves only a rhythmic lapping at the bow could be heard as each man thought his thoughts and had his feelings reliving the losses of the past two or three weeks. These men were ready for daybreak. Exhausted, but relieved to see the sun’s first rays crown the horizon.

Our readings today give us another story featuring a dark night—three such nights, in fact—in the experience of Saul the zealous persecutor of Jews who dared hope in Jesus. We know him better as St. Paul, upbuilder and theologian of the Jesus movement—a conversion so total as to earn him a new name.

But today’s slice of his story catches the stuff of sacrament as those three dark nights end with the laying-on of hands for healing. This happened not in a temple or sanctuary, but in the rooms of a home belonging to someone named Judas, a common name, on Straight Street in Damascus, where a Christian believer named Ananias heard the call of God to lay down his terror at meeting dreaded Saul the hit man, the summons from God to open Saul’s eyes, to restore to him his sight. And to baptize him, perhaps in the nearest river, the Euphrates.

The dark night on the Sea of Tiberias gave those disciples time to revisit their grief, remember their Lord’s post-resurrection appearances, and imagine what he might be expecting of them in the future.

Saul’s dark nights must have had some of the same traits: these were the very first nights and days after his blinding vision on the road. He had never met Jesus before this, had only the reputation (and likely distorted impressions) of the mystic-healer-teacher-firebrand-mover-shaker-itinerant preacher whose death had not stopped the groundswell movement attracting so many who were ready to call him Messiah. Saul’s collision with the risen Christ flooded him with light, and this searing vision—intense and blinding him to all else—was all Saul had to go on, those three days and perpetual nights, the same stretch of time Jesus died and rose within. Time enough, time enough for Saul to dare imagine and then know how mistaken he had been, time enough to grieve, to grieve his lost sight, to grieve the lives he had damaged. Time enough to begin imagining what God might expect of him in the future.

Back on the shore of Lake Tiberias, sacrament lies cooking in a charcoal fire. Confirming who he is, Jesus does his trademark actions: he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, gives it… and he did the same with the fish.

With the fish? Imagine the development of Christian worship if it revolved around not bread and wine, but bread and fish! Picture the work of altar guilds over the centuries! Imagine what sacristies would smell like!

But no, this wasn’t a sunrise service with symbols of a meal: this was breakfast hosted by the Christ for whom (as for his people) all of life is sacrament, outward and visible form of inward and spiritual grace, love, care. Those are the powers that insist on showing themselves, the priorities that believers insist matter most: grace, love, care.

So the talk around this campfire was not an ordering of words about the past. The Word himself pierced the present moment and yoked it to the future: though singling-out Simon Peter because this disciple was such a case study in getting things frightfully wrong and backwards, our Lord’s message is to them all, to us all, the message at the heart of all sacrament: Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.

“Take care of one another, for heaven’s sake,” he’s saying. Every moment has capacity for sacrament, from when we swing our feet out of bed in the morning until we drag them back to bed that night—and all the night long.

Notice that he names these expectations in an intimate circle of friends who hear him asking them to love their neighbors. But this is also a vocational circle of workers, fishermen, who hear him asking them to help God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven by how they do business, price their fish, share with the poor, treat their competitors, respect the common good of their village.

We may think of apostles as people who know what to say, but it appears that Jesus wants apostles who know what to do, offering their relationships and their careers for the exercise of those sacramental powers of grace, love, care.

Both of today’s stories teach us to expect Jesus to be at home and at work (both, simultaneously) outside sanctuaries made with hands. Which is not to say that he absents himself from churchly sanctuaries, but it is to say that he can set his camp stool, his workshop, his charcoal fire, anywhere he wishes. He does fine work on busy roads like the one to Damascus, and on seashores; anywhere where his people are, anywhere where his creatures are, for it is they, not just we, whom he claims as his own.

In fact, as Earth Day approaches, the reading we heard from Revelation today ought to get us thinking about where Jesus is to be found, and what he is up to. The Seer in Revelation reports that every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, knows how to sing the love song of Jesus.

These great fifty days from Easter to Pentecost, the queen of seasons, train us to understand our Lord’s resurrection and ascension as a filling of all things, all life, with his presence.

How are you called—today, tomorrow—to sing his love song and carry his presence with you into your relationships, your vocations, the campfires you sit at?

Or is it a truer question to ask how you will let him carry you—today, tomorrow—into the heart of those same frontiers where he is already well at work?

For unlimited is his sanctuary, his workplace, his throne room, his home front, the tables and resting places at which the powers of sacrament are found and served and delighted-in.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Our Capacity for Resurrection

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday of Easter includes Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

Today’s Gospel makes four clear statements that ring true to human experience:

First, fear shuts doors, locks them tight.

Second, what fears may lock out includes opportunity, deeper community, and peace.

Third, seeing is believing.

Fourth, persuasion gained from other people’s experience and perspective also leads us to believe.

That could be the outline of a sermon. And of a sermon at a time when the Williamstown community is feeling challenged by important decisions to be made in the weeks ahead.

Let’s start with seeing is believing. Indelible was the women’s experience at the empty tomb, where their dread was turned to comprehending joy. Indelible was the men’s experience in their first encounter with the power of the Christ whom locked doors could not keep out. These indelibilities vied with and surpassed the horror of their Lord’s crucifixion. An Easter faith trumps the worst of the hands we may get dealt in life.

Think back to the images we gained firsthand after Hurricane Irene swept through. Water up to the goal posts at Cole Field. Spruces residents being evacuated as the Hoosic River rose toward the hubcaps of the school bus that gathered them up. Even now, scattered around the Park are empty husks of mobile homes that once were their occupants’ castles, gutted of moldy insulation, stripped of all that had made them cozy homes. Can anyone have seen, and not believed, the urgent need these neighbors of ours have?

We are ready for resurrection images to prove more indelible than the devastation we have observed at The Spruces. What will those images be? We stretch our imagination to picture the outcome, the housing, the location—but we’re sure that what we want indelible is the justice of a generous outcome and the joy of a gracious homecoming for all Spruces residents displaced from their homes.

Seeing is believing also for town residents who can’t imagine relinquishing greenspace for affordable housing. The view from many places in town is spectacular, and the desire to make it indelible in any one spot isn’t hard to understand.

Might this be where fear starts locking doors? With respect to the proposal for the Stratton Hill site, what looks to some of us like an inspired win-win solution giving conservation and affordable housing their shares on that hillside may look to others of us as an unjustifiable loss of recreational and agricultural acreage. On April 24, residents will decide whether to open this door to meet human need, or lock this door to protect that site from change.

This Gospel urges us to pay attention to what locked doors may lock out. I heard a parish leader observe, the other day, “We’re losing our middle class in this town.” Adding affordable housing is a necessity to developing a more inclusive community. I think we should be afraid of whatever locks out new affordable housing, because what we will lose is deeper, broader human community.

A more immediate threat to our community, I suspect, are forms of persuasion that fail to respect the integrity, the dignity, or the sincerity of people on the other side of the issues. On the other side of April 24’s special town meeting, and on the far side of May 21’s annual town meeting, stand we the people, and we will need to stand arm in arm and hand in hand in order to make the very best of whatever choices we will have made.

Efforts to persuade have been many, and there will be many more. I imagine it’s unavoidable that offense will be taken and given, which points to the necessity of mercy and patience in our public discourse. And the necessity of courage, because much needs to be said, openly and honestly, and it would be a shame if our fear of offending silenced us at a crucial moment.

Our Gospel today ends with a fourth simple truth, that persuasion gained from other people’s experience and perspective also leads us to believe. John the Gospel writer suggests the kind of persuasion that God uses to cultivate believing, and that is to tell the signs that Jesus does in this world. That’s the purpose of his Gospel, and he insists that there will be countless more signs of Jesus than any book can contain.

I hope that among them will be this Town’s choice to accomplish the justice of a generous outcome and the joy of a gracious homecoming for all Spruces residents, giving us all images of resurrection more indelible than the memories of how so many homes were destroyed, lives damaged, and plans forever changed.

In the decision before this Town on April 24th comes a unique opportunity to place affordable housing and conservation hand in hand, a way to affirm the communal importance of both, a partnering that will send no one home as losers.

To me, that looks like grace, an invitation to welcome new life, to prove that we have a capacity for resurrection. Let’s find out!

Shopping in Holy Week

Scripture for Easter Day includes Acts 10:34-43; I Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

Last Sunday afternoon, I went shopping. That’s not my usual Sunday-afternoon pastime. Nor is it my forte, especially when the category is Housewares; so I was glad to have Diana with me as mission advisor. Our purpose: finding glass pitchers to hold water to pour on people’s feet on Maundy Thursday.

“Are you having a party?” asked the cheerful gracious young woman at check-out. As I reached for a reply, I sensed how unscripted a moment this was.

“We’re having a foot-washing,” I said, low on the thermometer of imagination.

“A what?” she asked.

My peripheral radar caught the movement of another customer’s head in our direction, from across the way. “Short answer or long answer?” I heard myself ask myself. Or was that prayer?

It could have been prayer. Perhaps it should have been prayer, because I still struck low on the inspiration scale when I answered, “It’s a ceremony at church before Easter.” Definitely short answer.

After a suitable pause, in which I imagine she might have been asking herself (or was that prayer?) how much more she really wanted to hear, she politely replied, “Have a good time!”

These short answers tell the story of collusion, from both sides of the counter, to keep it simple. But it isn’t simple, this longer story that brings so many of us together today.

How natural it is to expect that glass pitchers should be a sign of a celebration coming. And they are, but not until they help tell the story of the one with the pierced hands and feet, the one who poured himself out for us, emptied himself so as to fill all life with his presence.

Without this longer story, today’s story comes up short on imagination, low on inspiration. Before the Church’s pitchers get filled with the water of baptism to float new life in Christ, before they get filled with the fruit of the vine to unite us in joyful communion, first they are used to teach the Church her purpose, her mission in the world.

First, they get emptied onto our feet, and the one doing the pouring is Jesus.

Martin Smith in his brilliant Lenten book A Season for the Spirit says, “It is one thing to look up to Jesus in prayer as Master and Lord. It is altogether another thing to look down at him, to see him looking up at me and to allow him to wash my feet.” But until I get beyond my resistance to being served by him, until I am receptive to unqualified love, until I let him cross the distance and touch me, we aren’t walking the same path.

So down to earth is the Church’s calling that Jesus knows no better way than the washing of feet to reveal what renewal and refreshment mean, how sacrament operates, how hospitality expresses itself in care, how leadership lies cradled in humility, how community is served. And within and beyond all these revealings, his washing the feet of his followers shows them God, God’s intimate tender love; shows them God, shows them prayer in action, shows them the foundation of trust—and shows all this not to their thinking minds, but to their bunions, their plantar warts, their split heels, their tired feet, their side-stepping feet, their best feet forward, their running feet, their dancing feet.

The long story that brings us here today is not about talking the talk. It is about walking the walk. In Luke’s Easter story, the women walk to the tomb, mastering the fear that keeps the men in hiding, the fear that they too will be arrested. Suddenly, these women are face to face with two angels who redirect their journey.

“You won’t find Jesus in this cemetery,” they tell the women. “You’ll find him on the road, walking where you walk, renewing the fellowship of foot-washers right where you live, right where you work.”

Walking the walk of Christian faith is the longer story of what draws us together. In our growth as people who practice faith, in our getting good at foot-washing, we need each other to keep guiding our feet, holding them to the fire of Christ’s love. It takes a community to keep raising a Christian from within each of us. And it takes a plan.

A green insert in your leaflet today offers the makings of a plan. We call it A Confirmation Covenant because it describes what we ask of people—from teenaged young adults on up—who believe it’s time for them to make their own affirmation of faith and their intention to act on it. Several teenagers and older adults are preparing to take that step on Sunday, June 9th, when our Bishop, Doug Fisher, makes his first visitation here.

Last Sunday, in this place and about this hour, I promised those candidates that St. John’s will tangibly support them as they prepare. The central way we do that is to commit ourselves to the same action plan that they’re being asked to follow. Between today and June 9th are ten weeks. I invite you to consider signing on to these same commitments for these ten weeks. Discover by experience how these six influences may shape your faith as it continues to be formed in the crucible of your life now.

For some of you, these commitments are already yours (though I’ll bet you’ll find at least one or two that deserve a spring tune-up). For some of you, this invitation may not feel like a next step you want to take (or perhaps it will seem like too many steps all at once). I have high hopes, though, that many of you will find a way to make something of this request, this opportunity to give God on Easter Day not a short answer, but a long one; and, in the giving, find that you will receive.