Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Sheep and Goats

Scripture for the Last Sunday after Pentecost includes Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Where to begin?

Today is Christ the King Sunday, a nickname we’ve borrowed from Roman Catholic tradition to distinguish the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, last of those Sundays numbered like streets in a city. Call this Christ the King Sunday and you give notice that we worship and serve the one who promises to make all things new.

And that makes today just the right time to remind ourselves that next Sunday a new year begins in the Christian calendar. Advent we call it, that short season of personal preparation not just for the coming of Christmas but the coming of Christ, a taller order and a deeper calling than erecting the tree and schlepping through the mall. Set out for you today is an array of free Advent devotional booklets and for-sale Advent calendars, tools for your use at home or at work, for your own personal preparation.

My favorite step into Advent is to bundle up and walk out into the deep darkness of night when there’s no cloud cover and as little ambient light as possible, to look up and regain a sense of what a speck in the universe earth is, albeit a hallowed speck precious to the One who set in motion, one starry night, the Incarnation of the divine in the human, Jesus.

So today is just the right time to give you a heads-up that next Sunday we’ll celebrate Advent with more than a touch of incarnation as we welcome parishioners of All Saints and members of St. Andrew’s, our sister congregations in the North County. This fall, they’ve been worshiping together at St. Andrew’s, while All Saints installs new front steps and a ramp, and a new fire safety system. What prompted our inviting them here was hearing that they couldn’t find a priest available to them on the 30th, and our wardens didn’t miss a beat spotting an opportunity to let the word become flesh.

And today is when we will say farewell to Judy Buhner, who for the past dozen years has brought us her uniquely gracious mix of Quaker clarity and what she eventually discovered was her secret Anglican appetite for sermons and singing. Judy has served on Vestry, Stewardship Ministry Team, has been a lector, has preached, extended pastoral care in many ways, and has been a loyal member of our knitting group. She and Bob will soon close on selling their house (to a young family in our parish) then heading to Georgia for the winter before taking up residence in their new home in the Lathrop Community in Northampton.

So, as I said at the start, where to focus next on a Sunday with so much swirling around?

Let’s focus for a few moments on prayer. I have in mind the Prayers of the People. If you worship here frequently, you know we use a variety of prayer formats. The one we call the Iona Prayers expects no vocal participation. The silences built into that form are kept silent for the interior work of calling to mind the variety of needs summed-up in that bidding prayer.

But the one we’re using these days, adapted from the New Zealand Prayer Book, encourages voices to be heard. Four times, the leader pauses to invite you to name out loud the people and the concerns you bring with you today. If you’ll take your orange announcements sheet, you’ll see in a grid the four categories of intercession that can make this particular form sound like the Prayers of the People.

These categories include our concerns for the world; our hopes for the community we live in; the needs of individuals we’ve brought with us on our hearts and minds today; and those who have died or are grieving.

I hope that seeing what’s coming may help us choose what to do with those four opportunities when we get there. Perhaps (during this sermon) you may want to jot down in that little grid names and concerns that come to mind, and be readier to let your voice be heard.

Speaking of voices, how do you hear the voice of Jesus in that apocalyptic Gospel portion we heard? “Apocalypse” is a Greek word for “uncovering”, and here Jesus reveals a vision of the Last Judgment. Is he advocating a judgmental world view?

I doubt that his dramatic view of the end of time and the setting-right of the world’s ancient wrongs is much on the minds of 21st-century believers, and surely isn’t at the top of the charts for non-believers. But in the Middle Ages, this theme loomed large: over the main doorway of many a European cathedral is a panoramic sculpture that conveys the triumph of the good and the vanquishing of evil. This kind of scene is found painted on chancel walls in parish churches. In one half of the fresco is a glimpse of beatific glory; in the other half, it’s gruesome going. But the prominence given to these scenes presents a fascination with one line in the Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”

Not so, the kingdoms of this world. They will all have their day, then pass into oblivion; but on the last great day God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. But it’s not as if God’s kingdom hasn’t been here all along. According to Jesus’s vision (or is it Matthew’s vision?) two kingdoms have been interwoven in the roller coaster ride of history, the demonic kingdoms of this world represent one kind of kingdom that is all about self-serving, greed, violence, and oppression; and God’s reign, revealed wherever the polar opposites of those vices are to be found in virtues that are surprisingly down-to-earth. The apocalypse is the uncovering, the unwinding, the pulling apart of these two kingdoms.

This isn’t the first time in recent weeks that we’ve heard Matthew relay Jesus’s stories in ways that surprise us for what they do and don’t care about: Here in this vision of the end in today’s Gospel, the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ, and it is not doctrinal agreement with all the creedal beliefs in grace, justification, and the forgiveness of sins. The one criterion is whether we act with loving care and uncalculating generosity for people in need.

But something more is happening here than a lesson in ethics. The people who take care of others, sheltering, and feeding, visiting and encouraging, they aren’t aware of a deeper dimension to the various acts of compassion they’ve taken part in. They were content with the part they could see, that basic needs were met. But they were also part of something far greater than they knew, a global movement of compassion (at least as global as around the Mediterannean Sea and along the fault lines of the Roman Empire), namely the kingdom of God that entered our biosphere from the womb of an at-risk young mother and would forever be subversive likewise in its dealings with the powers and principalities of this world.

Wherever an act of lovingkindness moves across the synapse between the caregiver and the cared-for, one of the two kinds of kingdoms in Matthew’s apocalypse grows. Being below the radar, this growth is creatively subversive as time moves along towards what can only be called The Great Reversal at the end of time. And talk about subversive: those doom scenes from the Middle Ages show very well-fed, fashionable, powerful people, some even wearing church vestments, even mitres on their heads, being consigned to the nether reaches of eternal punishment. And the other half? They are “the least” in society, the poor, prisoners, the homeless; and, surprising even to the helpers and givers, these “least” are, says Jesus, “members of my family.”

So, while this vision of the end time reveals the primacy of ethics as essential to the kingdom of God, the vision itself reveals the nature and mission of Jesus Christ. He fulfills the great commandments of the ancient law, “Hear, you people: the Lord God is One, and you shall love the Lord with all your heart and mind and soul; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Fulfilling this law in himself, his Spirit is available to be poured out upon all who seek the equipping of all to love all.

Back, then, to my question a ways back: What do you hear in the voice of Jesus in this vision of the last judgment? On the surface of it all, he appears to see the world in terms of all or nothing, white or black, good or bad. That’s not the world we occupy—or if we believe it is, it’s at our own peril.

What Jesus does in his role as judge is to reveal the great lie that such dualism is built upon, the error that says that God and Satan are equally matched and locked in everlasting struggle. While the nightly news goes far to reinforce this error, Jesus’s apocalyptic vision reveals the truth that there is one God and only one God. Once that is known, should there be any longer a need to separate sheep from goats, a need to judge people for their differences?

What I hear in the voice of Jesus is his judging not of people but of their differences, a careful weighing of what does and what does not matter, and I hear him training us to practice that skill. Already, we’ve heard the message that differences of belief and differences of opinion are not what matter in the kingdom of God. Behavior does matter, is essential, is transformative, is what counts. Differences in behavior deserve to be judged.

By his behavior, Pope Francis shows himself an agent of change, subversive to a tipping point that will elevate compassion over compulsion, comprehension above conformity.

By their behavior, ISIS jihadis perpetuate the ancient wrongs and demean the very name of religion.

In this world, there are sheep and goats. A more blatant example of behavioral difference would be hard to find, than the one I just cited. But the insidious judgmentalism practiced by neighbors and cousins is just as likely to ignite barbarism. I mean the xenophobia that results in neighboring groups fearing and hating one another simply because they have been trained to, and because they belong to opposing parties or claim different customs and religious traditions.

Reflecting on his first eighteen months as Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Justin Welby recently addressed the Church of England’s General Synod (where, at very long last, the ordination of women as bishops was finally approved and made law).

The Anglican Communion, he says, is flourishing in 165 countries. He reported how incredibly diverse he finds Anglicanism to be. “Within the Communion are perhaps more than 2000 languages and perhaps more than 500 distinct cultures and ways of looking at the world… The vast majority are poor. Many are in countries where change is at a rate that we cannot even begin to imagine.

“At the same time, there is a profound unity… underpinning the Communion, a unity imposed by the Spirit of God on those who name Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour… The potential of the Communion under God is beyond anything we can imagine… The prize is visible unity in Christ despite functional diversity. It is a prize that is not only of infinite value, but also requires enormous sacrifice and struggle to achieve.

“Yet if we can get near it we can speak with authority to a world where over the last year we have seen more than ever an incapacity to deal with difference, and a desire to oversimplify the complex and diverse nature of human existence for no better reason than we cannot manage difference and dealing with The Other. Yet in Christ we are held together. In Christ the barriers are broken, peace is held out to us as a gift established, which needs living. In Christ there is hope of a life that provides hope of peace.

“The future of the Communion requires sacrifice. The biggest sacrifice is that we cannot only work with those we like, and hang out with those whose views are also ours. Groups of like-minded individuals meeting to support and encourage each other may be necessary… but they are never sufficient. Sufficiency is in loving those with whom we disagree…

“We must grasp the challenge… The prize is a world seeing Christ loved and obeyed in His church, a world hearing the news of his salvation.”

(Archbishop Welby’s comments appear in a press release from Episcopal News Service dated November 17, 2014, “Archbishop on the Communion’s challenges and the way forward.”
M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew in Vol. VIII of “The Interpreter’s Bible”, Abingdon Press, 1995, was helpful in preparing this sermon.)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Exploring Space, Outer and Inner

Scripture for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Judges 4:1-7; I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

What do you think of those Europeans, landing a scientific probe on a tiny comet, an exciting first in—here’s a new word for me—cometary exploration.

Who knew what those Europeans were up to? Well, we did—though it may not have been the kind of news that grabbed much attention, the United States and the European Union have been partnered in the international Rosetta Mission since 1993.

Rosetta, we’ve learned, is the name of the orbiter satellite launched from French Guiana in 2004, into a circuitous ten-year trek across the solar system, crossing the asteroid belt and traveling into deep space, 6.4 billion kilometers, more than five times earth’s distance from the sun, to its rendezvous with Comet 67P. Piggy-backed on Rosetta since 2004 was the landing device named Philae, about the size of a kitchen dishwasher. I wish my kitchen appliances remained intact that long.

The Rosetta Stone is a slab of volcanic basalt inscribed with hieroglyphics that eventually provided the key to understanding an ancient civilization. The Rosetta Mission opens a door to the origin of planet earth, explores the role that comets may have played in the evolution of life on earth, and fosters a better understanding of our future.

67P is a mysterious cosmic iceberg. It has lobes that make it look like an oversized ginger root. It surely qualifies for that outer darkness where the master exiles the fearful slave who fails to invest the talent he has been given.

That is truly an Uh-Oh moment in the parable. All has been affirmative so far, as those other two investment managers report on their successes. But with the third slave, the master lowers the boom and sweeps him away into outer orbit.

There were Uh-Oh moments in outer space, last week. Before the lander probe Philae was launched from Rosetta, operations control detected a failure in the thruster engine on top of the probe, meant to occasionally offset the lack of gravity that would otherwise cause the dishwasher-sized probe to float away from the comet’s surface. Then, upon landing, harpoon-like devices meant to anchor Philae also failed to fire. Uh-oh.

The result: The Little Probe That Could suddenly couldn’t prevent itself from touching down not once, but three times. News reports have told us that Philae may be perched on the edge of a steep cliff, one of its three tripod legs dangling over the edge. The lander is thought to be lying on its side, its battery power diminishing without much exposure to the sun’s renewing light. Uh-Oh.

That name Philae comes from an island, a temple, and a stone. The island of Philae is (or was) located in Lake Nasser in one of the cataracts of the Nile in Egypt, south of the vast Aswan Dam. On that island was the great temple to the Egyptian god Osiris. You may recall that before the Aswan flooding reached Philae, a famous internationally-supported rescue of the temple was achieved by UNESCO, relocating it above the flood waters.

But I suspect the name Philae was given to the probe because it is also the name of another puzzle-breaking inscribed stone, whose hieroglyphics, in tandem with the Rosetta Stone, helped open the history of ancient Egypt.

Why ever am I going on and on like this? For one thing, I’m wondering if there’s a parable hidden within this historic event in space exploration. What allegories might there be?

Philae cannot transmit or communicate with humans on earth except through the orbiter Rosetta. The knowledge and comprehension we long for requires more than scientific probing (Philae); the divine knowledge we yearn for requires also the ancient texts (Rosetta).

And consider Philae’s tripod legs. Those three supports are meant to balance and secure the probe for its probing. The Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, whom I brought into the pulpit with me last Sunday, is remembered for his Three-Legged-Stool model of Christian authority: Informing our decisions, shaping our religious faith and practice, are the three legs of holy scripture, received tradition, and Spirit-guided reason. All three are needed to comprehend what God gives us, what God asks of us, what truly matters. I can’t picture Philae’s Uh-Oh placement right now without thinking, “Oh, so that’s what may happen to me if I lose sight of even one of those three witnesses to truth that God provides: scripture, tradition, reason. I’ll be tipped over on one side or another, blocked from the light I need to recharge by. I’ll have fallen and can’t get up.

Enough allegorizing. Let me ask one question before we step across to that perplexing parable. Even with its misfirings, even with its fallen nature now, the Philae probe and the Rosetta Mission are considered a wild success. How come our parable ends up in such a nasty sense of failure around this third fellow? Why is that third manager so scorned as a failure and then brutally banished? (I understand his failure: he didn’t earn a penny of interest—but he does better than his counterpart in Luke’s version, who wraps his talent in a napkin and is darned lucky it’s still there when the master returns. At least Matthew’s third fellow hides his talent in the ground… What I don’t get is the excessive punishment.

I mean, who needs sacred texts like this one? Is it divine knowledge we experience passing to us through this scripture?

Give me instead my favorite verses. My very favorite is also from Matthew, and I can’t hear it often enough: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and by burden is light.” That’s my idea of a key sacred text conveying knowledge of God, and I could happily hear that as the Gospel every Sunday.

But the Christian faith does not let us rest content on the laurels of a few verses. Instead, we get stretched by parables that lead us first in one direction, then in another, creating (as today’s parable does) a dilemma. Rather than resolving the dilemma for us, we must choose which direction summons us in our own journey towards being good and faithful servants.

So let’s probe this parable. Jesus tells it to bring down to earth a clearer sense of what the kingdom of heaven will be. What Jesus needs first is a creative absence: a wealthy man goes on a journey, and to free him for that journey he entrusts his property to his slaves. A recipe for disaster? No, we’re told that in those days trusted slaves rose in the ranks as managers. It was a Do It Yourself society, no wealth managers, no stock exchanges; how a wealthy person grew wealthier required inventive opportunism. Come to think of it, that hasn’t changed much, has it?

But one thing has: banks are (or were, before 2008) mostly trusted institutions that most people utilize, including an expectation of earning some degree of interest, however little these days. By contrast, Hebrew law prohibited the exacting of interest in personal loans. Let’s wonder more about that.

Is this wealthy man not a Jew, but a Gentile whom the story sets up as a straw man who can be ruthless because that’s just the way Gentiles are? And if exacting interest is not allowed, how does this story square with the ancient law?

A talent was a big deal: equal to the wages of a day laborer for fifteen years. Given the short life expectancy then, we’re talking about a lifetime’s earnings, all the money a worker might see across the better part of an adult career.

But here’s the thing. If we want to unlock the mystery of this parable, we have to pay attention to the stage directions of the drama being played out. What these three slaves do with what is entrusted to them they do during their master’s absence. His being gone is the key to this Rosetta Stone.

For first-century Christians, the very nature of their lives was waiting, waiting for the second coming of Christ. They were taught to expect it in their lifetime, and they did. But how do you invest yourself when the central person in your life has gone? The master’s absence in this parable is no minor thing: it’s the setting and the key. The criteria for being counted good and faithful in this time of waiting are set out clearly. It is not theological correctness that matters. It is not passive retreat from the world. It is not strict obedience to a set of defined instructions, even if those come straight from the ancient law.

It is active responsibility that takes initiative and accepts risks. That’s the criterion that matters in the first-century Church. Methodist commentator M. Eugene Boring helps us here. “In the story, the master gives no instructions as to what is to be done with the money, so faithfulness is not merely obedience to directions. Each servant must decide how to use his or her time during the master’s absence.” It is all about discerning and deciding. It is up to each one of us what we make of the present.

Then notice the surprising twist: When the master returns, he reveals two things. First, he reveals to his servants that their mission has been primarily about trust, not money. Second, he reveals to us hearers what is as unexpected to us as it was to those servants: that the master invites them to enter into his joy is his way of saying that he has given them the vast wealth that was his. Only the third servant keeps regarding the wealth as not his own. His failure to generate interest is tied to his failing to recognize what the master was meaning to do: to call and empower slaves to become so much more than slaves.

Instead, this third servant has chosen to believe not the best, but the worst about the master. To use St. Paul’s language from his letter heard today, this fellow believed himself destined for wrath; and that, says Paul, just isn’t true. But such distrust will shape a person’s attitude, letting fear dominate discernment and decision, immobilizing the human capacity for taking responsibility and taking strategic risks. It is so up to us how we conceive of God.

Can we take the sting out of the master’s final action? It didn’t take long for some of the early Christians to try. In the apocryphal “Gospel of the Nazarenes”, a book later than Matthew and one that didn’t make it into the New Testament canon, this story is retold so that one servant multiplies the money, one hides it, and one squanders it with harlots and flute girls. The first is rewarded, the second rebuked, and the third cast into prison.

“This version is more satisfying to our aesthetic and moral sense,” writes the commentator, “therefore, it is furthest removed from the original story of Jesus, which was upsetting to our ideas of justice.”

The fact is, the very purpose of much of the New Testament is to frustrate the human desire to summarize the way God works into nice neat coherent packages. What else should we expect of the Christ who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable?

And where do we come into this parable?

Our coffee conversations members are reading about Emergence Christianity, a re-articulating of Christian faith and practice so as to speak effectively to 21st-century people who have emerged from outmoded ideas and require a nimble, fresh, truthful expression of Christianity—one that takes the Church outside the church and into the world.

We come into today’s parable as Emergence Christians responsible for stewarding the faith and the resources entrusted to us. Required of us is the willingness to risk the loss of familiar forms and ways and means of being the Church, to explore and experiment with a courage and trust and boundary-crossing collaboration comparable to those teams of scientists and engineers who keep extending our frontiers, deepening our comprehension, and expanding our reach.

The One who is in it all with us—Source, Guide, and Goal of all that is—will meet us on the way, guide our orbit, reward our probing, and embrace the world in grace.

(M. Eugene Boring’s commentary on Matthew is found in Volume 8 of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, Abingdon Press, 1995. His insights form the basis for this sermon’s approach to this parable.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Final Comprehension

Scripture for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Is it possible to imagine a more beautiful fall than the one we’re transitioning through on our way into winter? Still we see swaths of color on the eastern-facing slopes, and here and there a tree explodes in shimmering gold or burns blood-red, surprising us on an autumn walk in the woods. Jack Frost has dawdled with us, but hasn’t bitten us hard yet.

It’s a perfect transitional time to hear the poet Mary Oliver, her poem “In Blackwater Woods”:
Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

-- Mary Oliver, "New and Selected Poems"

A black river of loss cuts its way across our nation, dividing us into warring camps fighting culture wars, opposing parties that attack and blame each other, opponents and proponents who know how to talk the talk but seem clueless how to work together for the good of the whole.

Tuesday night, we witnessed a transition. It was a river of loss for one party, a welcome turning of the tide for the other. To borrow the poet’s thought, we don’t know what’s on the other side of this transition. Or, yes we do: we’re mature enough to know that this too shall pass, and two years hence we’ll be bracing for transition again. Meanwhile, gridlock, anxiety, and a radical lack of imagination have inoculated us against believing in quick fixes.

If I could nominate one saint to preside as our transition coach, it would be Richard Hooker, 16th-century Anglican parish priest and theologian. Schooled in the thinking of Thomas Aquinas, Hooker taught the severely divided church of his time how important it was to reframe all arguments, all positions (including his own) broad-mindedly. In a perilous time of transition, when Queen Elizabeth I was attempting to steer the Church of England to a healthy settlement of issues that bitterly divided catholic Christians from reformed Christians, and reformed Christians from the ultra-reformed Puritans, Hooker insisted that much of what divided them all—namely, how they organized themselves—were “things indifferent” to God.

Here is a Wikipedia snippet about Hooker’s contribution: “He wrote that minor doctrinal issues were not issues that damned or saved the soul, but rather frameworks surrounding the moral and religious life of the believer. He argued there were good monarchies and bad ones, good democracies and bad ones, and good church hierarchies and bad ones: what mattered was the piety of the people. At the same time, Hooker argued that authority was commanded by the Bible and by the traditions of the early church, but authority was something that had to be based on piety and reason rather than automatic investiture. This was because authority had to be obeyed even if it were wrong and needed to be remedied by right reason and the Holy Spirit.”

So what caught my eye, last Monday at Morning Prayer, it being November 3rd, the Feast of Blessed Richard Hooker, was the collect appointed for the day.

“O God of truth and peace, you raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

If you didn’t catch it, hear it again. The middle way has capacity for being more—and being other-- than compromise for the sake of peace; it can also achieve comprehension for the sake of truth. While we do not know exactly what salvation will mean, surely it stands for the final comprehension, the final truth, and can best be served by our practicing comprehension and truth-telling along the way.

The final comprehension at the end of time is a theme that runs through our propers today. The collect sets our sights on the day when Jesus Christ will come again with power and great glory for the world’s final and ultimate transition: from its longstanding embattled divisiveness, to a reconciled humanity… from the partly-realized rule of God, to God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven… from its chronic subjection to tyrannical emperors and greedy business moguls, to the reign of God’s peace and justice.

It is then that all who have been made his in baptism hope “to be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom.” You’ll recall from the last baptism you witnessed here that an astonishing goal is announced for each person: that he or she “grow into the full stature of Christ.” It’s meant to take our breath away, and to raise our sights. Our collect today extends the timeline for such barely imaginable fulfilment: it is on the last great day that this likening to Christ may be ours.

The final comprehension of the living and the dead is why the apostle Paul is able to comfort the Thessalonians who are struggling with a hard question. They expected, as did all in the first-century church, to see the second coming of Christ in their own time. Instead, more and more time passed, more and more exemplary believers—and ordinary beloved members—died. Would they be deprived of witnessing his return in glory?

Far from it, answers Paul. The dead in Christ will rise first, he announces, and we can hear the Thessalonian Christians breathing a great sigh of relief. Having this hope is the apostolic call not to grieve as if all there will be at the end is the black river of loss. That is the world’s belief, and explains the iron grip of fear that marks the world’s grieving. The message is not “Do not grieve.” It is “do not lose your hope.” The hope that in the final comprehension, “We who are alive… will be caught up in the clouds together with (those who have died) to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.”

These words of encouragement promise the resilience of the communion of all believers. I trust that by believers is meant those who do their best to love as Jesus loves, all who have done their best to let Jesus’s love love through them, not those who have studied for the final exam, answered all the questions correctly, written an approved essay, worshiped a certain way, and subscribed to all the articles of the Nicene Creed. For it to be the final comprehension, it will be the gathering-in of all, not just some, and it will be to serve the purposes of God, not the agendas of religions, governments, and businesses.

From Richard Hooker’s viewpoint, religion must advance and deepen and serve the piety of the people, their powers of trust and hope and generous caring. These are the tenacious powers that matter to God, matter to the world, matter to the final comprehension.

That is the oil it takes to light our lamps, to keep our lamps lit. It isn’t enough to carry a lamp that gets you to the doorway of the party: your lamp must be fueled enough to see you through to the completion of what you’ve been chosen to do. It isn’t enough to win an election with flashy campaign rhetoric—the talk must give way to the work, the honor be secondary to the responsibility to serve.

And Joshua’s warnings have a timely ring. In his time, the Hebrew people found many appealing false gods on both sides of the river, familiar old Egyptian gods from their slavery days before they crossed over, then enticing new fertility gods in the land of Canaan. Temptations galore!

Joshua drew a line in the sands of that desert exodus, insisting that the Hebrew people would make the transition from slavery to freedom only insofar as they decided what God they would serve: false gods old and new, or the one true God, the people’s source and goal and guide.

For Americans to work together for the good of the whole, we’re all going to have to put away our false gods. Principles and priorities enshrined by our political parties, inherited from the past, need to be set aside if they do not serve the American people now.

To break the gridlock in American governance, to end the captivity of elected leaders (and hence of us all), we all are called to put away our false gods. We all are called to hold to higher standards of service the leaders we have chosen. We all are called to keep awake, and to remain engaged.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Sing a Song of the Saints of God

Scripture for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost includes Joshua 3:7-17; I Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Aren’t we beyond delighted to welcome Bob Hansler to the organ bench? While he, our new Organist and Choir Director, is rightly the focal point of our gratitude today, it has truly taken a parish to fill that organ bench. First, a dedicated search team with five people at its core, and for them—Claudia, Margot, Celia, Alison, and me—this is a sweet day, isn’t it? Then more parishioners swelled the ranks as interviewers and auditioners and hosts. We raised some eyebrows as people familiar with the professional search process at other institutions around us heard how many people we were trusting to keep within the bounds of confidentiality, and how many participants we were trying to organize. Perhaps it can be said, Not as the world searches does the church search…

Then came a strong summer of homegrown musical leadership, as Ellen and Jimmy and Celia and Jane and Carl and Matt and several guest musicians wove their various styles into a coat of many colors.

And there’s the Choir, rallying this fall to practice the fine art of adjusting to one new style of leadership from Kevin Estes before another should arrive today. The generous devotion of this choir deserves our deep gratitude. And blessed are the flexible, for they shall inherit… the future!

To say that it takes a parish to fill an organ bench is to notice one example of the communion of saints, a theme many preachers will be exploring, this morning. What keeps a choir committed to practicing and offering their best, not just once a week but twice? It has to be more than obligation. This ministry resonates not just in their vocal cords, but in their souls, where fleeting experiences of harmony and beauty and comfort and challenge, and sometimes sacrifice, all play their part in spiritual experience. And perhaps it’s that all-playing-their-parts that takes them to a place of wonder, as sections enter on time and all cross the finish line together. Not every time, granted—but isn’t that also part of the analogy to the communion of saints, that there is mercy at the heart of it all, and laughter?

In this holy space, the communion of saints always hovers above us in the great rose window, where a slice of all the saints is shown in those eight petals of the rose, each bearing three saints doing homage to the risen Christ at the heart of it all. Who’s up there? It takes a pair of binoculars to tell. Here’s the celebrity list:

John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Elizabeth of Hungary
St. Joan of Arc, St. Martin of Tours, St. Catherine of Siena
St. Peter, St. Benedict of Nursia, the prophet Elijah
Isaiah the prophet, Daniel the prophet, King David
Jesse (father of King David), the patriarch Abraham, Moses
Joshua, Gideon, St. Augustine of Hippo
St. Paul, St. Jerome, St. Anthony
St. Francis of Assisi, Saint Cecilia…

And one more, but we don’t know who it is. The parish history names only 23. Who is that next saint? Is it someone you know? Is it you? “And there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too…”

Calling for the ingathering of financial pledges for the new year on All Saints Sunday is a good fit. Our Stewardship Ministry Team has been led in recent years by Alison Kolesar. At the end of this appeal, she will rotate off that team—we hope just for a while, as it’s hard to picture a future without Alison’s energy for stewardship. That team has a reputation for dreaming up visceral ways to enlist our imagination in the practice of stewardship. This year, we’ve created a path just as colorful as the rose window, each “stone” representing answers to a pair of questions asked in the 2015 appeal: What do you most need as you walk the path of a pilgrim, that is, as you walk the walk of a follower of Jesus, a disciple learning to recognize and trust and join the presence and the work of God all around us? And conversely, what do you most need to let go of, to walk this path? In the words of our collect today, this is a path for learning how to run without stumbling to obtain God’s heavenly promises.

We do this ingathering to raise the funds needed to continue making possible all that St. John’s does and all that this parish means, as a generous congregation prepares for a new year of internal growth and external outreach. And we issue this call to give generously because it is good for each one of us to practice singing the scales of gratitude and take part in building a common wealth that we will use in the wider world to practice what we preach. Commitment to this vital dynamic chain of giving that originates in the grace that pulses in the heart of God, the unearned grace that finds us, frees us, unites us, utilizes us—all this is the communion of saints.

Last weekend, I twice tasted the bread and wine of the communion of saints. One was in our annual gathering in Diocesan Convention. At six in the morning, Mary, Jane, Claudia, Sam and I met in the parking lot here to fill my Subaru, and off we trekked to Agawam. It was for me the 40th year in a row driving somewhere or other to the southeast, to be part of the action as 60-some Episcopal congregations in Western Massachusetts gather to literally be put in their place. That is, to be called out of our siloes, our geographic bubbles, our locavore ministries, and hear how the Spirit blows in other valleys.

We heard Bishop Fisher share his plans to walk the south-to-north length of each of the three geographic corridors of the Diocese, starting in the east (a 60-mile trek he completed on Friday). Listen to what he says in his blog:

“We have an ancient Jewish/Christian tradition of pilgrimage – walking and praying and talking with other pilgrims on the way to a sacred place. I think Western Massachusetts is a sacred place. So I have decided, with the enthusiastic support of my staff, to walk the diocese.

“We are calling this adventure “Walking Together on Sacred Ground.” The “together” is anyone who wants to walk with me for any part of the journey. I want to hear the stories of our church members and those who have no church at all. We will stop along the way and have prayer services in parking lots and street corners. I’ll visit prisons and colleges and farms. And I will pray as I walk, lifted up by the beauty of God’s creation in this blessed region and one with all our churches who are taking part in the Creation Season.

“The plan is to walk this one “corridor” at a time, each one 60-70 miles. The walk through the Pioneer Valley Corridor will be the week after Easter. The Berkshires leg will be sometime in late May or early June.

“I’ll walk with a shepherd’s staff that Bishop Wissemann gave me this summer – just a few weeks before his death. Bishops carry staffs (croziers) to symbolize the Good Shepherd of us all and there is another reason. In the early church the bishop used a walking stick because the bishop was supposed to be on the move as the living embodiment of the connection between churches. I’ll walk with the shepherd’s staff as a reminder that silo ministry (one church working on its own in isolation) is over and we live in a new/old age of collaboration between churches.

“And I walk because we are called to take the faith out of the churches and into the streets, where Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope is transforming the world.

“I’m excited for this great adventure. If you are near my pilgrimage come walk with me.

Last Sunday, Diana and I drove to Great Barrington to take part in Janet Zimmerman’s installation as Priest-in-charge of Grace Church, the new name of the merged congregations of St. James in Great Barrington and St. George’s, Lee. Merger wasn’t the only challenging chapter in their history. Not many years back, the rear wall of St. James’ historic stone building began collapsing. Long story short, the members concluded it was completely beyond their means—and even contradictory to their mission—to sink a lot of money into repairs. Hindsight only reinforces their wisdom, as the new owners are investing six or seven million dollars to restore the buildings and repurpose them as a performance space and offices.

Grace Church now owns no property. They rent a spacious banquet hall (hmm… Saturday’s convention took place in a banquet hall… what does this say about us?), this one right behind the Brewery. It’s an appealing, attractive, flexible space. They also rent a suite of rooms at the center of town, for a parish office, meeting space, and chapel. Their third strategic venue is Gideon’s Garden, two borrowed acres of highly productive farmland on which their volunteers grow tons of produce for local feeding programs.

I wondered with them whether their mission might some day include creating a 12-step program for clergy and vestries addicted to the ownership and maintenance of historic old churches. Lest I misrepresent myself, I went no further without adding, “Hi. My name is Peter, and I suffer from edifice addiction.” They could afford to laugh at that freely, while for us it’s apt to be a frightening thought, isn’t it, imagining St. John’s without this familiar holy space. Let’s pray—and work-- that we don’t come to that day. But if we do, the story, and the people, and the very name of Grace Church, Great Barrington, convey the lesson that the Church is not its buildings but its people, and the power, support, and guidance needed for faithful stewardship of our resources is the grace of God, the pulsing gift at the heart of the communion of saints.

At this Celebration of a New Ministry, the neighboring parishes of St. Paul’s in Stockbridge and the combined Christ Episcopal and Trinity Lutheran in Sheffield chose to forego their usual services and attend the celebration in Great Barrington, evidence of their intention to draw closer in the future. Attending also were representatives of the several South County human services agencies supported by the people of Grace Church. One of these organizations works with developmentally challenged adults, and several of them were present.

Our ties with the Zimmermans go back to 1999, when the first of three Zimmerman sons came to Williams. What followed was eleven years of seamless Zimmermans, as first Patrick (who would later be married here) and brother Thomas, and then brother Frank (who lived in the old rectory, senior year) passed through our doorways. Somewhere along the path, Janet recognized a long-simmering desire to prepare for ordination, and off she went to Virginia Seminary, her husband Sey moving his law practice to Alexandria; then back to their home state, Texas, for Janet’s first parish appointment, then back to D.C., where she became a school chaplain and parish associate before this call to the Berkshires.

We never know just where the path will take us, do we? But we know the One who walks it with us, and who knows the way, and is the way, and the truth, and the life.