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.