Thursday, April 24, 2014

Frequent Flyers and Occasional Flyers

Scripture for Easter Day includes Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10

Sitting in this room at this moment are people who assemble here pretty much every Sunday. If our pews were lined with memory foam, the pews themselves would have the imprint of these folks. (Oh, my… I hope I haven’t unwittingly inspired the vestry to explore church growth through better upholstery...)

We who come here often do so to have the moving parts of our lives reassembled, parts that seize-up and rub against the grain of best intentions and deepest hopes, and need freeing. I think all of us in this category see ourselves as seekers who come here as one way, one important way but not the only way, to allow God to do that healing, that correcting course, that restoring of perspective, that forgiving, that we acknowledge we need and want.

There’s another chief reason people become frequent flyers in a place like this, and that is that we make it a chief priority to retune our gratitude for life, ordinary life and all that is gracious and wondrous about it, and extraordinary life in which we see God’s hand and God’s likeness in remarkable experiences of the human spirit, new awareness of the whole shimmering mantle of interdependence on this planet, and fresh instances of ethical courage. We sing the scales of appreciation and gratefulness, Sunday by Sunday, such basic training for daily practice, moment by moment practice, that the heart of our communion liturgy is called The Great Thanksgiving.

And sitting here this morning are visitors and guests and perhaps a few who required a bit of persuasion to attend. This second category of who we are together today includes frequent flyers from other churches in other places, and you’re here perhaps because you’re visiting local family and friends. And some are occasional flyers, occasions like Christmas and Easter and the match-hatch-and-despatch occasions of weddings, baptisms, and funerals… and whenever the spirit moves.

If it weren’t for all of you, we regulars would be mightily disoriented today. We would be looking around us wondering, “Where ARE they? All those people who remind us that this place is not ours but God’s? All the Easter peeps who represent a wonderful challenge to our complacency and remind us of our mission to all people, not just some.

So it’s to you, our visitors and guests, especially you who aren’t necessarily conscious of being spiritual seekers; and even more especially you who are quite certain you’re not in any rush to take on yourself the responsibilities and contradictions, the trappings and potpourri of pew mates of organized religion)-- to you I dedicate this sermon.

I invite you to notice that in our first reading, from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter sets the bar for inclusion in the Kingdom of God at a pretty accessible level: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

No partiality. Radical equality. Frequent flyers in this room, the church’s regulars, are on equal footing with the Christmas and Easter folks, in God’s eyes. But more radical yet, neither gender nor class nor race nor religion works against you in the new creation God set in motion, that first Easter Day . The wealthiest in the 1% and the poorest in the 99% have adjacent seats at the heavenly banquet (assuming that the 1%ers are able to fit through the door, through the famous eye of the needle, heaven’s own homeland security).

One of the two basic requirements set by St. Peter is, “Anyone who does what is right is acceptable to God.” I for one believe it does fuller justice to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to say that anyone who does what is right is approved by God, even treasured by God.

But here’s the thing: What is right? Who gets to determine that? On the one hand (we might call it the upper hand) God does. And by the time the great vision and wisdom of the Hebrew prophets, their passion for justice and mercy, had passed into the obedience of Jesus Christ, God’s definition of what is right is compressed like a diamond in the brief and brilliant summary: You shall love the LORD your God with your whole heart, your whole mind, your whole strength; and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.

And on the other hand, translating that into right action towards our neighbors is what we might call the lower hand that reaches out to open or close doors, embrace or distance, keep or share, brandish a sword or wield a pen, an olive branch, a green card. .

And on the third hand—oh my, someone lend me a hand!—ah, that’s what the community of faith does: Because what is right must fit not just God’s upper hand to guide and my lower hand to accomplish, but also a healthy love of self; because of the necessity of this foundation of faithful self-care, the community of faith engages people in augmenting their own self-care with spiritual practice, ministries of outreach, fearless exploration, and personal opportunity to recover from exhaustion and abuse within a sheltering-but-challenging environment of support and safety, prayer and sacrament, faith and hope and love. And because we know doing what is right is costly, we make it our aim to engage people in renewal and repair, rather than rules and obligations.

Even before “doing what is right,” St. Peter names “fearing God” as the attitude essential to this new creation into which Easter invites us. If any word in the Bible could use an extreme makeover, isn’t it fear (at least fear of God)? Ancient religions were built on fear. The Old Testament brims over with fearsome encounters with God, though our best take-aways from the Hebrew scriptures are their insistent assurancs of God’s lovingkindness and covenant loyalty. Building on that foundation, the New Testament keeps sending angels into the script—both at Christmas and at Easter, and all along the way—urging all the players to fear not!

So today in Matthew’s account of the resurrection, the two Marys leave the empty tomb “quickly with fear and great joy” and run to tell the other disciples the astonishing things they have seen and heard.

Easter is about joy commingling with fear to create reverence, the attitude of awe and gratitude for the gift of all that is sweet and spectacular in ordinary life and all the grace of extraordinary life that is beyond our earning, better than our designing.

Fear is always in the mix of how we experience mystery, always part of how we handle uncertainty and the not-yet-known. The faith we build and practice must be brave and broad enough to welcome fear to come in out of the cold, in under our own roof—God’s own roof-- where we can examine and reassemble the moving parts of our lives, find the freeing we need, and the guiding and the forgiving and the encouraging.

For the new creation opened on Easter Day takes the reverence that joy makes of fear and calls us to use it, to offer it in renewed commitment to do what is right: for God, for neighbor, and for self.