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.