Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Scripture for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Here begins the second of two sermons exploring one sermon, Jesus’s quintessential Sermon on the Mount, found in the early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. And what a package it is! In it, Jesus teaches us to pray the Our Father. The Beatitudes? They’re included. Famous metaphors for the Kingdom of God—the city built on a hill, disciples as salt and light—you’ll find them there. And our focus last Sunday and this: the greater righteousness to which Jesus calls his disciples in every generation. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Today we hit the mother-lode in Jesus’s sermon—or is it a better metaphor that we hit the live nerve in the tooth?—“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? And if you greet only your own family and friends, what more are you doing than others? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

To appreciate Jesus’s teaching and Matthew’s reporting of it requires remembering that they both announce life-changing news: the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, who calls us to an obedience that he calls perfection, wholeness: not getting it all right, but taking it all in, embracing all, loving all. Once, a lawyer asked Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest? He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Hence our collect today: Without love, whatever we do is worth nothing…without love, we aren’t really living.

But how? How to love? This same Jesus who calls us to the wholeness of the Kingdom of God also stands with us in our struggles with How. The kingdom of God has come, but the old age continues, we live in the tension between the pure standards of the kingdom that has come and the conflicting demands of obedient love here and now.

Last week, we heard Jesus do an astonishing thing. Way beyond announcing a new improved interpretation of the Law of Moses, Jesus relocates authority from the written text to himself—not arrogantly self-aggrandizing, but simply because of God’s presence in his life, his teaching, his death and resurrection. He is where God’s action is, and he is ready to be the ground we need to stand on, the ground of our being, the mount we climb.

Many centuries before, Moses had been the action-bearer of God, the location of meeting between humanity and God. Matthew tells his Gospel in ways that show Jesus to be the new Moses, yet far more than Moses.

So Jesus in Matthew (and only Matthew, among the four Gospels) uses this radical approach in teaching the ethics of the Kingdom of God. Jesus cites an old law, time-honored in Torah, introducing it by saying, “You have heard it said, of old…” Then he radicalizes that law, reveals its arterial connection to the human heart and the heart of God: “You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy…” “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain (we can think snow) on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Jesus goes—and calls us to go—beyond the law’s limit. Again, his teaching pattern is to reaffirm the old law… then radicalize it, revealing its roots… then offer an application of the unlimited law, here and now. In the current example (love your enemies) he asks us to raise our sights on what it means to love in a costly way. Love only those who love you? That serves to advance the evolution of the human race? That easy love extends the kingdom of God in this brutal world? Hardly. Reward, gain, progress come as we love beyond our comfort zone.

Rehearsing that stretching of our safety range lies at the heart of discipleship. In an entry-level sort of way, this ought to shape how—and to whom—we pay attention at coffee hour, in our passing the peace, in our discovery that each of us here is a host to one another (whether a visitor or a veteran, adult or child), and as we seek out opportunities to grow our faith and practice in what we volunteer to learn and try and grow into.

It’s not as if our very own families don’t give us cause to stretch beyond easy love into truly challenging love. Right? We describe families as nuclear to suggest how they hold together—but the word might also suggest their capacity to blow apart.

Yet the point Jesus makes is that our domestic family and our voluntary fellowship as disciples are on one side of an equation. They bring resources to bear, sturdy (even if sometimes shaky) experiences of loving and being loved that God can and will use to transform a brutal world—if we will take our part in the stretching of old limits, if, that is, we are willing to become more perfect.

Believe me, I know I have to build this case carefully. I thought by adding that little word “more” in front of “perfect”, I could buy some credits. But I notice Jesus does not call us to more perfection, but to be perfect.

So let’s be clear what this does not mean. “Perfect” does not mean to Jesus what it did to the ancient Greeks, being untarnished by concrete involvement in the material world. No, Jesus does not mean an abstract ideal of keeping one’s hands and nose clean.

And “perfect” was not understood by Jesus to mean what it did to ancient Israel, the keeping of all the laws of their religious community at the expense of caring about the wellbeing of their neighbors, local and national, who were not members of their religious community. No, Jesus does not have in mind a legalism that still leaves plenty of room for one’s own selfish will.

“Perfect” is translated from the Hebrew word “tamim”, meaning “wholeness”. “You shall be perfect before the LORD your God,” a phrase Jesus knew from the Book of Deutronomy, meant “to serve God wholeheartedly, to be single-minded in devotion.”

Ask Jesus or Matthew to consider the perfection that keeps psychotherapists busy, or the kind of thousandths-of-a-second perfection it takes to win Olympic gold in the bobsled run, and I’ll guess they’d both say, No, not that perfection—it isn’t about “getting it all right”, it’s about “taking it all in”, embracing all, loving all. The practice of wholeness, fulfilling the divine call to love.

We heard St. Paul put it in his own way, today: the corollary to the stunningly goodnews that we belong to Christ is the awesome opportunity to behave as though all belong to us, and we to them, in that shared universe described by Jesus as being lit by the sun that shines on all, and wet with that rain that falls on all.

In those sun-drenched rain-washed fields, the gleaning of your harvest is never to strip the vineyard bare: leave some, at least the fallen grapes, for the poor and the refugees. Whether or not the law permits you to wait til morning to pay your day laborers, pay them the very day they’ve earned it. Include the hearing-impaired and vision-impaired, for you and they belong to one community.

This reading from the lawbook Leviticus gives us much to admire about how the Torah expanded from ten commandments to a much larger body of law and custom. We may be more familiar with the Torah’s less admirable laws, the kind that get lampooned and rightly omitted from the church’s lectionary. It’s important that we appreciate how the Torah also stretches to raise the bar of social responsibility, and lower the bar to the flow of lovingkindness.

Our Torah reading today segues perfectly to the Sermon on the Mount. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people… You shall not hate anyone of your kin…you shall love (and, notice, reprove) your neighbor as yourself.”

There is the old law, straining forward to something finer than vengeance and grudge and hatred, but not yet a love that embraces the enemy. The old law is preaching to the choir, urging forbearance towards one’s own people (granted, hard enough on many days), reaching as far as the neighbor, but with no clear signal that this includes unrelated strangers who aren’t in the circle of kith and kin.

Then Jesus gets his hands on the scrolls. Retributive justice—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth—is not enough to change the world, he says.

PBS Evening News featured recently a piece on a Restorative Justice program at Hinkley High School in Aurora, Colorado. Rather than reacting to student fights by suspending students, the school decided to respond by creating circles of conversation that bring together the involved fighting students and their parents, facilitated by a social worker skilled at helping people speak truth to one another respectfully, leveraging mutual apologies . Since starting this program, physical altercations annually dropped from 263 in 2007-8 to 31 last year, with a 48% drop in suspensions.

Restorative justice is a good way to describe the African tribe whose way of dealing with an offender who violates the peace and order of the community is to call a village meeting with the offender present within the circle. Their task is to remember aloud whatever good the offender has done, whatever they have admired about him or been grateful for. They intervene to recall him to his better self.

Is restorative justice enough to change the world? Jesus urges a yet more radical justice based, as one commentator says, not on a doctrine of human rights, or a strategy to win over the enemy, but is based simply on the nature of God who loves all impartially, and on the belief that love has the power to change a brutal world.

Are you dissatisfied with that? I fully expect that it’s my sermon, not Jesus’s, that doesn’t do justice to this vision that love extends to the enemy. Put your dissatisfaction to work and keep wrestling with this vision Jesus has, because we have been baptized into it.

Keep wrestling with this vision. For the sake of the peoples of Ukraine, of Syria, of South Sudan, and so many more who are divided and locked in mortal resistance until a greater love is learned and embraced.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Choice, Growth, Obedience

Scripture for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Sirach 15:15-20; I Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

What a set of readings for us to bite into today! And I use that figure of speech remembering Eugene Peterson’s words that I read to you, last Sunday:

“Christians feed on scripture. Holy scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn to study or use scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love… healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of God, feet washed in company with the Son… Come to the Table and eat this book, for every word in the book is intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness to our souls and bodies.”

Every word? There’s a tall claim. Seems to me there was a bitter taste when I kissed the Gospel page today… Might we not get indigestion from some of these words? Every word intended for our good? What helps us make that claim is to affirm that some words—some teachings—draw us into holy argument and sharp reaction. And yes, this too qualifies as the “something in us” that scripture is intended to do in order to give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness. A holy argument qualifies, and while Jewish religious instruction has made that affirmation for millennia, Christians may still need to learn that an honest tussle with the Bible may glorify God (and serve humanity).

Speaking of words, each of our first and second readings highlights a key word. In that little portion from the Book of Sirach, it’s “choose”: he’s saying that our choice to obey God’s commandments is as dramatically clear-cut as choosing to stretch out your hand to grasp fire… or water. By the time we are done looking at Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount today, we may disagree as to how clear-cut a choice obedience is… but we may also like these metaphors of fire and water precisely because they are not easily grasped—nor is either best gotten by a grasping hand.

In the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear another key word: growth. He finds a pastoral way to urge them to grow up. At the moment, they’re acting like infants—but he treats them as “infants in Christ.” He cannot serve them the Word of God to eat, not the full message of the Kingdom of God, not the complete Gospel of grace—and yet that’s exactly his responsibility as an apostle, so he urges them to leave aside their immature jealousies and quarrels and grow up. Paul says they’re fighting among themselves because they are “people of the flesh”, whereas he knows they are also spiritual people.

But the Spirit unites, and they are divided. Divided into camps, cliques, you might even say (in a premature sort of way) denominations. Paul dismisses this partisanship, calling it “merely human”—and pointless, since all the pathways leading them to the table of new life ultimately are transcended by the fulfilling Christ in whom they are one. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians create a classroom in which he, the teacher, guides the growth of the church he had planted. We all get to sit in his classroom, and among the rich lessons we take away from his Corinthian letters is that peerless 13th chapter in the first letter, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Growing up into that vision is also the purpose of the Gospel writer Matthew, who presents Jesus’s stunning Sermon on the Mount. We’re going to look at a portion of that today, and next Sunday. And we’re going to keep handy those key words we’ve heard already this morning, choice and growth. We’re going to need them, because the overarching theme running through all these readings is obedience, the divine call to obey the commands of God; and in the absence of choice and growth, obedience would be a cold and loveless affair.

What are the commands of God? Well, isn’t that the Final Jeopardy question? In the Hebrew Bible, they are those ten commandments that Moses conveys from God to Israel—and as worthy a set of laws as they are, they were a hard sell from the start. Infidelity set in early, as our primal ancestors chose not to listen. Their hearts turned away and they did not hear God. Somewhere way back in the origins of language, the word “obey” is built on the same root as “hear”. The voices you choose to hear will influence how, who, and what you obey. The messages you choose to accept as true and worthy will have their impact on your growth.

The long shelf life of the ten commandments is a witness to their being found to have true and worthy influence. And then there’s what happened next: how the Torah, the divine teachings of Israel, came to assert not just ten key demands, but some six hundred detailed requirements, as more and more aspects of Israel’s life came under regulation. These hundreds of rules, still enshrined in the Torah, include many that have had their say, had their day, but are increasingly over time not found to have true and worthy influence. How do our themes of choice and growth apply to them?

By contrast to systems with cumbersome legal baggage, Paul’s sweet hymn to love makes you feel what a gift it is to be simple, a gift to be free, a gift to come down where we ought to be—and when we’ve come down in the place just right, it will be in the valley of love and delight: not fearing that we might be breaking some law that would put us on the wrong side of divine judgment, not needing a set of laws and rules to protect us from fault (or protect us from God), but choosing to grow towards God, to hear, to obey out of trust and love, not fear.

Last Sunday, we heard Jesus say he has come not to abolish the Torah, but to fulfill it. How? Look at what he does in today’s portion of his sermon on the mount. “You have heard it said in the time-honored Torah which has been read to you each sabbath… but I say to you, now, in the present moment…”

The rabbis, steeped in reasoned argument and debate, would readily call to task a colleague with a sharply different point of view. That rabbinic style shapes Matthew’s recounting of our Lord’s sermon. And the astonishing thing to catch is that Jesus is doing so much more than announcing a new improved interpretation of the Law of Moses: no, he is relocating authority from the written text to himself, or more exactly to God present in his life, his teaching, his death, his resurrection. How does Jesus fulfill the Law? Completing it, he transcends it; he stands upon it, as if upon the shoulders of Moses and the prophets—think of the story of the Transfiguration, which we’ll hear in just another couple of Sundays, when he stands on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah.

Following this pattern-- You have heard it said… but I tell you-- Jesus deepens, broadens, heightens the law. (O love, how deep, how broad, how high, how passing thought and fantasy, that God the Son of God should take our mortal form for mortals’ sake…) He chooses six examples of What Was, but Now…

And with each, he follows this path: He reaffirms the law, then he radicalizes the law by going to its very root (radix is the Latin word for root), then he offers an application, a situational use, for that law. He fulfills by going to the root, radicalizing—just the opposite of the religious hypocrites he chastises, later in Matthew.

“You have heard it said… You shall not murder. But I say to you that if you let anger rule your heart, if you let that anger rule your choices and you insult a person, then you will be subject to judgment and deserve punishment by the council. If you wipe your feet on the dignity of a person and call him Fool, you have chosen to step into the hell of fire.”

Has he caught their attention? Has he caught ours? Now, what if what he’s trying to catch is the legalistic mind that makes its way by threat and intimidation and fear? That’s what one respected commentator says: in these six examples, Jesus is engaging in such overkill that he means to parody the legalist who commands obedience out of fear of punishment. Being thrown into prison, having to pay the full fine, plucking out your offending eye, cutting off your straying hand, all these disproportionate penalties… What if things are not as they seem, because for sure they already don’t sound one little bit like the grace and pardon and compassion and generosity that we want to grow into in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not based on our getting what we deserve! What if in this sermon Jesus means to wake us up to the futility of snap judgment, the damage of harsh human judgmentalism, the influence of old inherited values now needing a paradigm shift-- making us eternally grateful that God is our judge, because what Jesus has shown us in himself shows us God, shows us the true and worthy goals of God that we are free to choose to hear and obey, shows us the undeserved grace that is the signature trait of God.

Don’t expect the Sermon on the Mount to behave itself nicely. It won’t. As right as Eugene Peterson is in saying that “every word in the book is intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness to our souls and bodies,” the fact is that the making of any one of the four Gospels is a little like making a sausage: there are chunks that defy careful definition, though the end product is wonderful and so worth the steps it takes to appreciate the whole.

Appreciating Matthew’s Gospel requires remembering that the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ, who calls us to an obedience that he calls perfection, wholeness: not getting it all right, but taking it all in, embracing all, loving all. Obeying his commands requires an accurate vision of what matters most. Matthew gives us that in chapter 22, when a lawyer asks Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest? He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

But how? How to love? This same Jesus who calls us to the wholeness of the Kingdom of God also stands with us in our struggle with How, for the old age continues, we live in the tension between the pure standards of his kingdom that has come and the conflicting demands of obedient love here and now. We are people of the flesh as well as the spirit, sometimes infants still, choosing sometimes poorly, growing sometimes slowly.

So to us he declares in this sermon six most important thing about love. We have heard five of them today:

Love shows no hostility.
Love is not predatory.
The stability and sacred purposes of marriage are essential.
Love is unconditionally truthful.
Love does not retaliate.

And, as we shall see next week:

Love extends to the enemy.

Stay tuned.

(The Eugene Peterson quotations are from his “Eat This Book: A Conversation with the Art of Spiritual Reading.”)

You Are Salt, You Are Light

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 58:1-12; I Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20

A fascinating part of the Super Bowl for me is the commercials. I want to know what’s worth spending a million dollars a second, or however astronomically much that airtime costs. But certainly they have become part of the performance! In the opening seconds of one of these frothy concoctions, I expect to experience something very familiar but very surprising, a quick roller coaster ride that cleverly engages my imagination and gets a reaction, whether that’s a laugh, a groan, a smile—or maybe an action, like reaching for a Bud (which for me would be a raging success, since I don’t drink beer), or upgrading to an Audi (which isn’t going to happen) or putting yogurt on the shopping list (the likeliest action for me).

I caught just part of the Super Bowl, last Sunday night. Two commercials held my attention. One was for Radio Shack, the one where the characters and cultural icons of the 80’s sweep through the store, stripping the place of old products no longer serving the future, and announcing a new inventory, a clean sweep. Since I seldom go to Radio Shack and haven’t an electronic bone in my body, I didn’t feel like I had a horse in that race—though I can imagine using a similar concept in a commercial for the Church, aiming it at people who are pretty sure there’s nothing here for them.

The other I really liked, even if I don’t eat Cheerios. Sweet-faced Gracie is hearing her Dad explain that the three of them are about to become four, because a baby is coming. With each reference to a family member, Dad slides a cheerio to the center of the table; then Gracie slides one more, and announces that a puppy is coming, too. The surprise kind of skips a generation: it’s Dad’s and Mom’s eyebrows that get raised, not Gracie’s—she’s a step ahead. She knows the story, and she’s writing the script. She knows something is being asked of her, and she drives her bargain.

Commercials tell us various things. Starting with the message, You are a consumer. Now consume this. Take in this message and let it work on you, either in the next 30 seconds (grab a Bud) or in the next 30 months (buy an Audi). You are somehow part of the little world of this commercial, stay tuned and discover how our message relates to you and your desires, your appetites, your self-image, your priorities.

Well, here is a commercial on behalf of our sponsor today: “Christians feed on scripture. Holy scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn to study or use scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of God, feet washed in company with the Son… Come to the Table and eat this book, for every word in the book is intended to do something in us, give health and wholeness, vitality and holiness to our souls and bodies.”

That’s from Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book: A Conversation with the Art of Spiritual Reading.

So, let’s return to that Gospel. It’s only fair that Jesus, having asked his disciples who they think he is, should tell them what he thinks they are.

Salt and light. He could have said to them, “You are self-actualized self-differentiated agents of generativity evolved to a high enough degree of awareness and insight that I may be able to use you…” But he doesn’t. He says, You are salt. You are light.”

He could, as a not far-fetched alternative, have said to them, “You are smelly fishermen, oily tax collectors, and generally low life Galilean peasants who haven’t a clue what God is up to and if you ever intend to rise from your sorry state you’d better catch every pithy saying I toss your way, figure out what I mean, and shape up.”

But he doesn’t. He says, You are salt. You are light. And by the terms of the Gospel, he’s saying that to you and me, to us.

I wonder what we can hear in these two mighty metaphors. For one thing, they tell us what Jesus requires of us: not that we try harder and harder to be salt and light, but that we trust him at his word that we are salt and light. His disciple Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, our second reading today, speaks of what God has revealed to us through the Spirit, the Spirit that searches everything and is deeply at home in what is truly human. What is revealed to us is how God has set in motion a new reality, a new creation in Jesus whose word we accept and whose power we trust.

That power is already at work in us—salt and light—and he calls us not to more and more self-exertion but to learn how to demonstrate his Spirit and his power. Which is not a matter of lofty words in theology or of mad-man cleverness in advertising, not a matter of successful organizational planning, and not a matter of filling our calendars with more and more commitments that prevent us from ever committing our hearts to anyone (or discovering what the truest desires of our hearts are).

He called Paul to have no more elaborate mission plan than knowing among the Corinthian Christians nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, recognizing him in every person, hearing his wisdom in and above the many philosophies and value systems competing with one another for airtime in that world that was the context of the early Church. Read commentaries on Paul’s letters to Corinth and see how easily the Church divides in a welter of conflicting views and opinions, how essential it is that disciples base their faith not on human wisdom but on the power of God. And this required of Paul that he approach the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling,” performing the mission entrusted to all disciples by being salt and light.

Of these two metaphors, light needs little explanation two thousand years later. Even with electricity and headlights penetrating the night, we readily get it, that a sleepless sufferer longs for sunrise, that a profound choice presents itself, between cursing the darkness and lighting that one small lamp that will drive the darkness from a room.

But salt? In Hebrew culture, eating together was called “sharing salt”. The food on that table may have been preserved with salt. Salt was precious enough that it was an object for ritual sacrifice, and a symbol representing loyalty and covenant faithfulness and ritual purity.

I think of a recent New Yorker cover: a pudgey French chef standing in the doorway of his cafĂ©, earmuffs in place and a wooly scarf around the neck of his white uniform, in his left hand a little bowl of salt, while with his right he pinches and sprinkles just a little salt on that icy sidewalk… it’s not all about money these days: salt still carries its own preciousness.

Neither salt nor light is inert. By their nature, the one is salty and the other shines: Jesus picks images of how faith by its nature expresses itself in works, discipleship in mission, learning by doing, glorifying God by allowing God to ignite us, putting our salt on the table to be used, our lit lamps on the table to help us all see each other clearly.

Matthew places this little teaching portion of chapter five in his Gospel right after the beatitudes in our Lord’s sermon on the mount. There’s something clearly chosen about his pairing salt and light, the one representing chemical reaction permeating matter, the other presenting electromagnetic radiation—both express a fully embracing presence, full engagement, the comprehensive indwelling of the Word made flesh, the pattern of all mission in the world.

Both express how Jesus will fulfill the law and the prophets: through the salt and light of his disciples, his friends, his allies. “I have come not to abolish but to fufill.”

Nonetheless, Matthew records the risk inherent in our discipleship: that our salt may become so mixed with other elements that it loses its chemical grip and has nothing more to give. Are these words of judgment directed at believers who lost their missionary zeal and sat on their laurels? Could be, but I’d hope for something better from Jesus: words of understanding that we all will need, when our salt must mingle with grief and loss, when we face periods in life when depression claims the energy we once had and yearn to have again, or illness sidelines us, family dynamics become draining, disillusionment hits in our workplace—or loss of a workplace— and flattens our peaks and fills our valleys.

Lighting a lamp and then hiding it under a basket: another image of the risk of discipleship, not to mention a fire hazard to all in the house. But the bucketed flame works as an image both of too private a discipleship that lacks the oxygen of community, and too institutional a discipleship that can squelch the Spirit who plunges into what is truly human.

It may seem as if these altogether human circumstances threaten to abolish salt and light in us. But remember that his promise is to fulfill. His powerful good news is not, “You have potential to be salt and light, if you will just keep trying harder and harder,” but, “You are salt and light.”

So, in seasons when our salt gets mingled and our light bucketed, it’s time to practice a more sheer trust, time to do that walking in weakness that Paul speaks about, time to do whatever connects us to the Spirit and power of God, to share salt with others, and share light.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What I Love About St. John's

At a recent training session for the Berkshire Organizing Project, we participants were asked, “What do you love about your congregation?”

I found that easy to answer. I love—and am grateful for—this parish’s appetite for experimentation, flexibility, and personal challenge.

In worship, we try to balance the preciousness of old hymns by adding varieties of style and message encountered in learning new songs. We treasure The Book of Common Prayer as a strong and dependable compass, and we also welcome fresh worship texts from additional sources. Worship Outside the Box (our “alternative” service aimed at families and children) teaches skills and develops talents important to the whole congregation. And when the Christmas Pageant hasn’t quite enough children to carry off the customary version, swiftly a homegrown, witty, intergenerational alternative pageant is crafted.

From time to time, we gather for a worship forum, a chance to hear how certain experiments do—and don’t—work for us. And always in that order: first, what we appreciate about a change (or a stability), then what we may struggle with in that change (or stability). What this approach teaches is the twofold importance of truthful self-expression and of hearing what matters to others. So each person may grow clearer in balancing what-matters-to-me with what-matters-to-my-neighbor.

Open to personal challenge, St. John’s supports its candidates for confirmation and reception by asking members to adopt the same Confirmation Covenant that the candidates are asked to embrace—last spring, seventy parishioners signed on. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is held high not only in ceremony but in opportunities for adults, teens, and children to discover, celebrate, and strengthen what matters most in their faith and practice, and be nudged beyond old comfort zones into a more centered, grounded, grateful, and generous love for God and world and neighbor and self.

I love and celebrate this parish’s generous openness to sharing these sheltering buildings of ours with the wider community. We’re a congregation committed also to sharing our financial resources beyond the agenda of self-preservation, and this passion we have for making a difference locally and globally feels like the breath of God bringing oxygen to our cells.

I love seeing and hearing parish leaders’ openness to guidance, gained sometimes from debate around the table, sometimes in the silence we’re smart enough to keep together, and often by insight gained through steady attentive gatherings of God’s people.

I would be diminished in all these lovings, if it weren’t for the love I rise to, and go home to at the end of each day, the love I am so fortunate to have in Diana.

I love our parish staff: each of them practices a beautiful openness to people, and a real flair for his or her portions of the one ministry of Jesus Christ. Together, we enjoy an openness that lets us complement one another’s work for the good of the whole community.

With our 120th Annual Meeting today, I’m reminded that such a meeting ought to feel like a love fest. One way we make this true is by devoting a good portion of the meeting to consider two of our mission frontiers, and learn what’s happening there. Another is to thank God for the lives of members and friends who have stepped from this life to larger life in the past year.

And another is to celebrate the leadership of parishioners retiring from office. This year, that will include two of our Wardens, Steve King and Polly Macpherson; our Treasurer, Jim Kolesar; Vestry members Charles Bonenti and Celia Twomey, Parish Librarian Judy Buhner, Diocesan Convention Delegate Laurie Glover, and Sweet Brook Ministry Coordinator Roberta Patten. They all have loved us through their service to this congregation, through the exercise of their unique constellations of talents and abilities, and through their openness to the responsibilities of leadership, and the grace of God.