Monday, August 5, 2013

Raise a Barn, Raise a Child, Raise the Dead

Scripture for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost includes Hosea 11:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21

From the late 1920’s to the late 1960’s, Al Banx was the staff cartoonist for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette and for Yankee Magazine. Though his parents had named him James Albert Banks (spelled like you’d expect Banks to be spelled), Al spelled its Banx. That seems to have fitted the fellow who for those four decades helped Central Massachusetts residents laugh at themselves.

He comes into this sermon today because for eight years he hovered over every sermon I gave at St. Luke’s in Worcester. Literally, hovered. Because among the civic tributes to this man’s ministry with pen and ink was the decision made by his parish, St. Luke’s, to remember him with a stained glass window that captured nine or ten of his cartoons illustrating the parables of Luke the Evangelist. He had sketched them for his Sunday School class at St. Luke’s, which must have been a rare treat to attend.

That window rises just to the left of the pulpit. St. Luke’s is a small building, perhaps a third the size of this one. Most of the congregation could see most of the cartoons from where they sat. And you bet, when eyes went elsewhere than front and center, they drifted left to Al Banx’s wonderful cartoons.

My favorite is the one that presents our rich man in today’s Gospel. He is enormous in girth, and something about his facial expression conveys the point that this man is all about himself. Behind him, a work crew is erecting the new barn. I recall his thumbs stuck behind his suspenders in sheer self-satisfaction as he supervises this barn-raising. Not the Amish kind when neighbors pitch in and build the barn, no—I doubt this man’s neighbors were on such cordial terms with him—but the kind of commercial expansion that further concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, at the expense of the many. The kind that raises a rich man a few notches higher in the 1% while ensuring that a few more of the 99% will go away empty-handed.

Ironic reversal is what makes for a great parable, one that reinforces the message that things are not always as they seem. Here, this entrepreneur coos to himself, “Soul, you are fixed for life! Relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Which suggests a low view of soul, doesn’t it? As if the route to the soul is through the mouth and stomach. “Fool!,” counters God, “tonight your soul is required of you. And those goods you’ve accumulated, whose will they be?”

Luke then gets to editorialize, “So it goes with those who grasp their treasures for themselves, but do not grasp the deeper question, ‘Whose are you?’ and haven’t a clue what it means to be rich toward God.”

Today, Maximus James— Max to his friends—will be baptized. At every baptism, there are four powerful answers to the question, “Whose is this child whom we baptize today?” His parents and Godparents and extended family bring him to the font today clearly saying, “He is ours!”

Catch the message clearly presented in the words of the baptismal rite, and you’ll hear God declaring, “He is mine.”

By reason of that divine claim, and by the promise we make to do all in our power to support this person in his life in Christ, we can say, “He is ours!”

And sure, we won’t be surprised if Max demonstrates a fourth answer: He is his own person.

We want all four of these truths to work together for his good. They are like strands braided together to create a cord, an image we hear in God’s ruminating over the patient faithful devoted love it takes to raise a child—the prophet Hosea captures this moment when God reminds Israel, “I taught you to walk… I led you with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to you like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to you and fed you.” How interwoven are these strands of Max’s belonging to his family, to God, to us, and to himself! How beautiful, the insight that we’re all working together to raise this child—we’re the village, and in the midst of it all, at the core and center, to borrow St. Paul’s burst of insight, “Christ is all and in all!”

According to Hosea, the powerful icon of divine love is the patient devoted raising of a child. According to Paul, the perfect icon of God’s love is to be raised with Christ.

Of these two raisings, we know much about the first, and in baptism we are brought to discover much about the second. They are, of course, intimately related. The Christ who meets Max at the font today is the child whom God has raised by infinitely patient devotion, leading him by bands of love to be the very love of God enfleshed in human form. According to the Church’s tradition, what will happen to Max in his baptism is his union with Christ in the fullness of his entire passion for all living beings.

No language expresses this better than the post-communion thanksgiving that all Episcopalians used to say together, now seldom do-- but let’s hear it today. This prayer thanks God for feeding us with holy mysteries and spiritual food, assuring us thereby (and here let me change pronouns) “that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom.”

That may be grander language than we’re accustomed to these days, but hearing it is good for the soul. Soul is what’s required of us in the Christian life. Spiritual capacity lets us seek those things that are above, lets us recognize when Christ who is our life is revealed, and it is spirit that frees us from greed and moves us to be rich toward God.