Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What Does He See in Them/Us?

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 9:1-4; I Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

What was it about those four fellows that drew Jesus to them?

I’m guessing that the simple fact that they are named so prominently in three of the Gospels and the Book of Acts tells us that Peter and Andrew, James and John, were still forces to be reckoned with in the early Church. Remember that their primacy is also shown in their being with Jesus at certain crucial pivotal times, including the Transfiguration. These guys were not bench warmers. They were starters.

And it’s remembered that they were two pairs of brothers. Why do you suppose that detail was remembered? It’s not as if filial loyalty is the top priority in the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed: Remember how he dismissed his own nuclear family when they tried to persuade him to take better care of himself, give up his itinerant preaching, and come home to work in the family carpentry business? He asked them sharply, “Who is my mother, my brothers, my sisters? Those who do the will of my Father are my brothers, my sisters, my mother.” It’s not self-evident that coming packaged as a pair of siblings would give these fellows a tip in the admissions process.

Though maybe these two pairs were known in their younger days, in their first career, as duos. Like, “Don’t mess with Peter or Andrew: cross one and you’ve got both on your case…” or, “James and John, they’re the umbilical brothers; you never see one without the other, they’re tight…”

But this family thing is tricky, isn’t it? I brought communion to Steve and Mary King on Friday, and Mary asked, “Does anyone care how Zebedee feels about this head-hunting?” Good question! So much for Social Security—without his boys, how will Zebedee ever manage? As I said, filial loyalty does not appear to top the charts in the Kingdom of God. The reign of justice, mercy, and grace is not necessarily built on traditional family values.

What is it built on? It is built on courage. The back-story to the calling of the first disciples is the arrest of John the Baptizer. This watershed moment sounds pivotal to the public ministry of Jesus. The Gospel writers remember John the Baptist’s departing words, “I must decrease so that he (Jesus) may increase.” John has confronted the corrosive amorality of King Herod’s household, and all its ripple effects upon wider society, characterized by the greed of tax collectors, the unwarranted violence of soldiers, and the hoarding instincts of the citizenry (all were evils John tried to wash clean from the fabric of society, ensuring that painted on his backside was an unmistakable set of concentric circles).

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Those are the exact words that in Matthew’s Gospel capture the essence of John the Baptist’s preaching. Now they are the opening words of the public ministry of Jesus, and he may well be referring to the lasting importance of John, indelibly linking his own ministry with that of his fore-runner. It fits the high regard we hear our Lord holding for John that he should be taken to mean, “In that man John, a prophet and I tell you more than a prophet, God’s kingdom has come as near to you as the wind on your face.”

To become one of the disciples of Jesus will require the same courage, the same readiness for confrontation, rejection of the status quo, appetite for changing this world into a new creation. It will require willingness to stand vulnerable to the elements—not so much the engulfing sea and threatening storm as vulnerability to the elements of social disapproval and the requirements of obedience and the central struggle of faith, which is to trust all throughout the hard and bumpy ride of change.

But we aren’t done wringing out answers to that opening question, What does Jesus see in these guys?

Fishermen. Workers holding the tools of their labor, nets and oars and sails. Workers standing in the vehicles of their labor, those creaky rough-hewn perhaps leaky boats. He sees workers who know intimately how the prosperity or the poverty of their households and their hometowns depends on their hard work, their smart work, their serving the most basic needs for security in the people around them.

He sees workers who know how to read and interpret the signs, the seasons, the sea, the sky: people who truly occupy God’s creation with care and awe, recognizing and treasuring the interdependence they have with the natural order and so are positioned to midwife a new creation.

Do you suppose first-century fishermen had the reputation for blarney that we expect of them today? If so, Jesus saw in them people who could tell a good story, people others would listen to and draw an audience.

Meanwhile, back at the Kings’, Steve commented that we don’t find the fishermen turning Jesus down, but there are stories of some who refused to be nominated, like the rich young man who seemed all set to sign on until Jesus required him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. To the fishermen, he had promised to make them fishers of people. Evidently, the young investor didn’t recognize that Jesus was promising to make him an investor in people. I’m guessing this poor fellow never heard the promise or imagined what the transformation might mean. In the verbs of that exchange, he heard “sell” and “give”, but never got to “come” and “follow”, even though he was sure he wanted those very changes in his life. He will visit us in another Gospel on another Sunday, so we’ll let him wait until that sermon, and let’s return to these fishermen.

Does the story of their calling speak to you? Is it that recruiting fishermen is a persuasive way of declaring that Christian discipleship is not rocket science, not vocation reserved for a few or confined to the gifted? Isn’t it the fisherman thing that causes us to lose our excuses for resisting discipleship—like, we don’t know what we have to offer Jesus, don’t yet have the training, the experience, or the understanding we think is required?

So, deal with it. And if you’d like some company dealing with it, consider signing up for the Foundations experience, to be offered at a parish church near you in about two or three weeks’ time. You may find that it offers some of that grace we prayed for earlier today, grace to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ. Grace each of us needs to recognize God in the world, and to live more fully into the vows of our baptism and the values, the puzzling values, of the Kingdom of God.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Archangels Approaching

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 49:1-7; I Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

One of my favorite authors is local writer Andrea Barrett. She uses a snippet from Ralph Waldo Emerson as an epigraph, whetting our appetite for her newest collection of fiction, “Archangel”:

“We cannot part with our friends. We cannot let our angels go. We do not see that they only go out that archangels may come in. We are idolators of the old.”

“We cannot let our angels go. We do not see that they only go out that archangels may come in.” What an optimistic view of loss paving the way for renewal—but I guess that’s Ralph Waldo Emerson for you.

His words give me a way to visit a timely subject today. For how many years, no, decades, have churchgoers been accustomed to marking the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, starting always on January 18th (the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter) and ending on January 25th (the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul)?

And have you noticed that there hasn’t been an ecumenical observance of that week, these past several years? With the demise of the Williamstown Ecumenical Association, and the on-again/off-again nature of the North Berkshire Clergy Association, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity seems to have fallen off the map in North Berkshire.

“We cannot part with our friends…” The ecumenical movement that caught hold in the late 19th century, giving rise to the World Council of Churches, encouraged by the 2nd Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s and the various parallel conversations between churches (like those between Episcopalians and Lutherans) all taught us that we can be church in all our splendid isolations—but to be the Church requires what is truly splendid: that we celebrate the unity we have in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and commit ourselves to discovering and displaying and demonstrating new dimensions of unity that will reveal our Lord Jesus Christ to the world. That’s the language of the apostle Paul heard earlier this morning, and his promise, “He will strengthen you to the end… you (who) were called into the fellowship of… Jesus Christ our Lord,” was most certainly addressed to the united Body of Christ that transcends denominational divisions.

Parallelling the ecumenical movement since some point in the 20th century has been the interfaith movement, less an organized affair, more a growing appetite for dialogue over difficult questions, life and death questions. I think it’s no accident that the human race should recognize the need for such dialogue in the century of world wars, cold wars, regional wars, guerrilla wars, congressional wars.

My purpose in this sermon requires us to move from considering the past to noticing what’s happening in the present. What’s happening now?

Even before the Williamstown Ecumenical Association dissolved, “Take and Eat”, a program birthed by the Roman Catholic community to augment Meals on Wheels by providing home-delivered meals on weekends, drew us into an ecumenical orbit of practical ministry as St. John’s joined the ranks of churches tackling this need. Compounding the ecumenical engagement for us has been our lack of a functional church kitchen, requiring our cooks to borrow the kitchens of neighboring churches.

It didn’t take long after the demise of the Williamstown Ecumenical Association for the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Action Initiative to be formed. Their flagship project is the Friendship Center on Eagle Street, where each week hundreds of people benefit from that food pantry; in fact, hundreds of families are keeping food on their tables because of that program.

The Interfaith Action Initiative also adopted a project started nearly 30 years ago by the Williamstown Ecumenical group, a voucher system for transient people and residents facing basic needs for food, shelter, and transportation, expanding the program to cover the North County.

2013 saw the birthing of a movement called the Berkshire Organizing Project. In the fall, St. John’s Vestry approved our becoming a sponsoring parish, one of nine congregations and denominational organizations to do so. Month by month, training is being offered to introduce community organizing to more and more people, then developing skills that will help volunteers listen creatively to the needs of our communities, and develop the voices needed to advocate for and with the growing numbers of our neighbors having a hard time making ends meet. The Berkshire Organizing Project welcomes congregations of all faiths, and we’ll hear more about this project at our Annual Meeting on February 2nd.

Higher Ground, our local organization providing relief and advocacy for Spruces residents whose homes were lost or damaged in Tropical Storm Irene, has the markings of ecumenism and interfaith identity. Like these other initiatives, Higher Ground demonstrates the effective power of compassion and commitment at the grass roots in our communities.

Something else is happening locally. We’ve welcomed new pastors of two neighboring congregations, Dan Randall at New Hope United Methodist, and Mark Longhurst at First Congregational. Soon after their arrivals, each made his way here to worship with us—Mark with his wife Faith and their son Ian one Sunday at 10:00, and Dan has attended several 8:00 services. This is basic bridge-building of a kind that Williams College Chaplain Rick Spalding excels at, and that our retired Methodist clergy friends have shown us how to do.

So on that Sunday in early December when I laid claim to a final vacation day, I decided it was time to reciprocate, so I worshiped with the Methodists. What a pleasure it was to sit in that congregation and worship! That was just days after welcoming Mark Longhurst back, this time to officiate with me at the blessing of the marriage of Anne Short (his parishioner) and Leigh (ours). It seemed fitting to ask Mark to help me administer communion at that service, which allowed the denominational mix behind the altar rail to match the mix at the rail.

Another experience of ecumenical teamwork at the altar rail occurred at the 4:00 service on Christmas Eve, when our attendance is always at high tide and darned if I could find an Episcopal priest who was free to assist. The Rev. Gary Dickson, retired Methodist pastor, agreed to don his stole and help us out.

These instances of sacramental sharing are definitely not ecclesiastical rocket science, but I’ve got to say that they’re still rare and therefore special. My past training prompted me to think I should inform the Bishop that we were about to take these steps—until I realized that with this Bishop of ours, he would simply have said, “Good move!”

This sermon has sketched a number of good moves by a lot of people, a growing number of people, many of whom are in this room today. I’ve got to say it’s a much more exciting ecumenical and interfaith scene now than in the past. Perhaps we were idolaters, enshrining the ecumenical experience in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, focusing efforts not so much where they were most needed as where they were easiest.

We’ve let some angels go, and, sure enough, archangels are coming in.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Who Do You Say I Am?

Scripture for the first week after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

The crèche has been packed away, having done its job reminding us that in the redeemed order of the new creation accomplished in Jesus Christ, shepherds and farmhands proclaim the good news with eloquence and authority equal to kings and angels. The crèche, unlike most religious art in the western tradition, insists that this new creation is not just for human beings: cows and donkeys, sheep and camels, not to mention a rat and a zebra, have as honored a place at the manger as “homo sapiens”—perhaps a gentle suggestion that “sapientia”, wisdom, requires the human race to learn reverence for all creation. That message would surely fit Francis of Assisi, who gets the credit for making the crèche a popular fixture of Christmas.

And the Giving Tree is put away, having done its job of channeling great generosity, ensuring that for twenty North County children, Christmas was brighter than it would have been. And the wreaths are down, having reminded us to draw circles that embrace all.

Only the poinsettias remain, to remind us how we deck our halls at Christmas. If evergreens proclaim the importance of what’s locally grown, poinsettias are all about imports and immigration. We’ve welcomed them because they’re so colorful, a perfect antidote to the dour color scheme of a New England winter. Their Latin name locates them among the two thousand species of euphorbias, plants producing milky latex used over the ages to produce healing potions. Most euphorbias originated in Africa but the poinsettias made their way here from Mexico, where the Aztec nation valued them for their dye. It’s good that we keep our poinsettias well into the Epiphany season, which is all about universal proclamation of the new creation.

If there’s a central question for the Church during Epiphany, it’s the one Jesus asked his disciples to answer: Who do you say I am? As if jumping to the bottom line, our collect answers this question: at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, God proclaimed him beloved Son and Anointed One. To anyone whose religious thought has been shaped by the Hebrew Bible, the words of our collect mean that Jesus is the Messiah, the long-awaited helper come from God, very God of very God, to fulfill the promises reported by prophets like Isaiah.

But what kind of Messiah is he? By nature, man at war with man will want a messiah who can marshal the troops and whomp the enemy into submission. It is to save mankind from its own violent streak that prophets like Isaiah proclaimed a servant Messiah. Emmanuel, God-with-us, will not lead like a demagogue at the microphone or a military strategist in the situation room.

Rather, the divine helper is shaped by delight and upheld by spirit: delight because the helper fulfills what human beings are meant to be: image-bearers of the divine, demonstrators of the likeness of God. The Messiah truly gets it, and so has unique capacity and desire to give. Shaped by the delight of the Creator, the Messiah is upheld by the Spirit that moved over the waters of creation, and moves over the waters of the Jordan to release the movement of the new creation.

If this Messiah is not popular demagogue or military strategist, what he is is forecast by the Hebrew prophets and reported by apostles and evangelists of the New Testament: a light to the nations, a direct connection with the heart of God, opener of blind eyes, guide to freedom for the captive, doer of good, healer of the oppressed, host setting a table for all, achiever of forgiveness, the one who turns the tables on death.

The Creator God summons servant Jesus to this messiahship—but to do justice to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, we need to find a way to say this that avoids the impression that this is two unrelated parties agreeing on a brand new agenda. This Jesus, shaped by divine delight and upheld by divine spirit, is true God from true God, of one being with the Father, and the vision that impels both the anointing God and the anointed Jesus is the ancient timeless vision of the world set right, the competing components of creation reconciled, the unity of purpose between Creator and creatures restored, the ancient wrong made right. “To fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus tells his cousin John the Baptizer.

The library of memoirs, sermons, and letters that we call the New Testament presents the early Church’s answer to the questions, Who is Jesus Christ? What is God up to in Jesus? And, What is asked of us who have been attracted to God in Jesus Christ?

En route to answering these questions, the New Testament asks how and when does the fully human Jesus become the divine being, Jesus the Christ?

We could say that this was the theological handiwork of the Church in later ages, like those infamous ecumenical councils of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries—about which one great Church father, Gregory Nazianzus, wrote, “My inclination is to avoid all assemblies of bishops, because I have never seen any council come to a good end, nor turn out to be a solution of evils. On the contrary, it usually increases them.”

While we later Christians have gone on reciting the creeds hammered out at such councils, many of us prefer to examine the evidence ourselves, the evidence of the New Testament.

When we do, we see three moments in the Christian gospels when the story line declares that Jesus the Christ became God—“was Godded”, to use a word coined by Church historian Philip Jenkins.

One is the resurrection on Easter Day. This is St. Paul’s answer, found in the opening words of his Letter to the Romans: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship…”

Paul’s letters are the earliest, the oldest of the New Testament writings, so his answer—that Jesus Christ is Godded at Easter, stands as the Church’s first answer.

Then read the Gospels of Mark and John (which have no Christmas stories), and it makes sense to see the baptism of Jesus as the moment when he acquires divinity. This became the Church’s second answer, which gained popularity in the late first and second centuries.

And, as we know, being fresh off Christmas, if you turn to the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, you get the Church’s third (and, in terms of New Testament development, its newest) answer: Jesus comes into this world fully Godded at his birth. This became the orthodox answer, over time.

I say, let’s be grateful for a religion of diverse answers. Let’s take encouragement from the New Testament’s examples of how the Church wrestles with questions. And let’s recognize that while the Church’s answers are meant to guide us, it is for each of us to answer who we believe he is, what difference this makes in our lives, and what this belief asks of us.

Notice how John needs persuading to contribute his part. “I need you to wash the grit from my eyes, the dust from my lips, the mud from my feet. I, who cannot see as you see, or speak as you speak, or know with confidence how to put one foot before the other, I need you to anoint me for your service.”

“Trust me,” replies Jesus. “ What you see, what you say, what you stand for—I need all this to embrace fully what the world needs, what the new creation requires. The fullness of God will make of our offerings together what is called for.

I wonder if the Church invites us to revisit annually this exchange between John and Jesus so as to find ourselves in the conversation between them. We protest that we of little faith (or of real faith but not much self-confidence, and perhaps with limited attention spans), we haven’t much to offer Jesus.

Jesus begs to differ. But rather than argue with us, he’s apt to ask us the foundational questions: Who do you say I am? How will you represent me in your daily life? Will you trust me, and yourself, and those others whom I also need, to work together for the sake of the world, to advance the new creation?

These Epiphany questions will occupy us for several weeks now, in a season marked by proclamation and mission. Getting clear what the Christmas Gospel is, and how to carry it, proclaim it, embody it as people who know the Word made flesh and intend to allow that incarnation to keep happening in us, and through us in this world.

Philip Jenkins’s book is “Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years” (Harper Collins, 2010) was helpful in the preparation of this sermon, and is the source of the two quotations.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Getting It, Giving It

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas includes Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:1-12

Those three Wise Ones are meant to capture our imaginations. Just as our soloists this morning come to us from the little band of talented parishioners who gather on first and third Sundays for Worship Outside the Box, so the three Wise Ones came from outside the box of first-century Israel. They were meant—and are forever meant—to cause fresh thinking and creative wondering… like, what is God up to? and where is God up to it?

In fact, the whole Christmas story asks these curious questions. The holiest of moments isn’t inside a church or a temple, but in a barn, where everyone’s attention is fixed not on an altar or a pulpit, but on a crude wooden manger where the cattle come to feed—and oops, there’s a baby there (try explaining that to the cows, though we like to think they already get it).

And the voices heard commenting on the meaning of all this don’t belong to priests and bishops, but to shepherds and farmhands. Aren’t they a surprising choice to be the preachers of the Christmas Good News? Not in the least, because their sermon starts with the breaking news that God has a passionate thing going for the poor, prefers building a team of leaders from among the poor because the rich just don’t seem to get it. Or give it.

And getting and giving is right at the heart of the Christmas story and its next chapter, the Epiphany story. With the arrival of the Wise Ones on January 6 (so we’re just one day ahead of ourselves, but how can we not celebrate the Epiphany today?), the twelve days of Christmas end, and the several weeks of Epiphany season, between now and Lent, train us to take the Christmas Gospel with us wherever we go.

The name Epiphany sounds like it’s from another time, another place, and yes: it’s a Greek word that means manifesting, showing, realizing. In cartoon language, the light bulb goes on in the little thought cloud above our heads. Aha!, you could say in a moment of epiphany. “I get it now!”. But by the nature of what God is up to, “I get it now” needs to be shown by “I’ll give it now.” Let me say what I mean.

If there’s any Epiphany symbol that outshines the Wise Ones, it’s that star, the one that guides them on their journey. Midway through the twelve days of Christmas, we hear the elegant mystical Prologue of John’s Gospel, reminding us how John speaks of the coming of Jesus, not as Luke and Matthew do, with their stories of Bethlehem, but as a cosmic event, the Word becoming flesh, the light that illuminates every person piercing the world’s darkness. This way of describing Christmas makes the same point as the stories told by Luke and Matthew: what God is up to is worldwide, global, universal: God’s kingdom of justice and peace coming on earth as it is in heaven.

What does that take? You and me and countless millions and billions of people getting it, and giving it. Getting what God gives in Jesus, the gift described so well in the Letter to the Ephesians today: God’s gift to each and all of us is “a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for all who believe.”

Get that spirit, and you will give that spirit. Face into that light and you will reflect that light. Where? Wherever we take the Christmas Gospel—but more than that, wherever we admit we don’t know how to take the Christmas Gospel, where the darkness is gathered, the suffering deep, the hostility high, the grief piercing. Places like that may terrify us, and put us hand in hand with those shepherds (and Joseph, and Mary, and the Wise Ones) who heard the coaching of the angels, “Do not be afraid, even here, especially here, God is up to his old work in new ways, redeeming people from hands too strong for them (to quote the prophet Jeremiah), with consolations to lead them.”

I feel a twinge of loss as I picture Tim packing up this crèche, come Tuesday morning. I’ll miss the message it sends, that just as that barnyard in Bethlehem is a gateway into what God is doing in the workaday world of farmers and shepherds, so our altar is a gate that swings open to the world, offering everyone a place to get it, preparing us to go out there and give it.

And just as the crèche draws us into a cosmos bright not just with constellations but with ranks of angels reminding us that we are never alone, that the grace of God is always at work around us and for us, so this altar readies us for epiphanies, showings, shinings of gratitude that will come to us in the seven days before we gather here again. Old Jeremiah the prophet says that wherever God’s people recognize what God is up to, “they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord… as when young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.”

Nailed to the doorframe of each Jewish home is an ornament (it may be made of metal or wood or fired clay, earthy stuff) called a mezuzah. It is a little case containing a piece of parchment on which has been inscribed the verses of Torah that include the prayer “Shema Yisrael,” “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One, and you shall love the LORD your
God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The mezuzah is mounted at an angle, pointing towards the room about to be entered, as if to say that God and the Torah are about to enter that room with you.

We need something like the mezuzah, tilted toward the world, mounted on our church doorframe and at our front door at home, to remind us, as we go out, that God’s sanctuary is found not just in places like this, but also wherever the Word is made flesh in attempts at justice, mercy, lovingkindness, and peace-making; wherever God sets up a work bench to build out of human society a truer community, a worthier commonwealth. God may need a hand doing this, and can use whatever radiant hope and consoling love we can offer to the holy encounters that God is up to in this precious world, this challenged earth, this shimmering cosmos.