Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Inspired by Malala and Kailash

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

I hear that last Sunday it was revealed that standing beneath the Advent wreath can be risky. So far, so good today: we’ve lit the pink candle for what tradition calls Laudate Sunday, from the Latin for the scripture’s call to rejoice. “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God, who has clothed me with the garments of salvation, has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

“Rejoice always,” echoes Paul writing to the church at Thessalonika. Texts like these have long been heard on the 3rd Sunday in Advent, when in this little season of penitence the curtain is raised just for a few moments to allow a flash of skirts, a burst of joy-in-the-making, a streak of warm and fleshy pink against the earnest dark of purple. And we hear the call to look up and catch the purpose of the season, training us so to count our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom, to count our thanks and our blessings even more insistently than we count our losses and disappointments, to recognize what truly does count in life and what does not.

The pink is meant to warm us up. It’s the appetizer Jesus our host serves up to draw us to our place at his table. The pink is a hint of the joy to come, a reminder of where joy comes from. This burst of color is to open us up to the true light that St. John the Gospel writer tells us comes into the world to enlighten everyone.

Nothing does a better job revealing and celebrating those themes of enlightenment and universality than the annual awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. We at St. John’s have learned to stop in our tracks, each Advent, to notice who the year’s recipients are.

Seventeen-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, a Muslim, and sixty-year-old Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian, share this year’s award in recognition of their struggle against the suppression of children and young people, and their passionate advocacy for universal education. Announcing the award recipients, the Nobel Committee stressed the importance that a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, have joined in a common struggle for education and against extremism. In addition to focusing on children’s rights, this joint award is made in the hope that it may bring India and Pakistan closer together.

Quoting from the Committee’s announcement, “Both recipients had much at stake as they battled for what they believed in. In Satyarthi’s case, it was to end the exploitation of children for financial gain. In the case of Yousafzai—the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, at seventeen—it was for girls’ right to an education, a quest that nearly cost her her life when Taliban fighters called her out and shot her in the head two years ago.

“While it is in the nature of extremism to create enemies and frightening images, and to divide the world into us and them, the laureates show us something else… Both (represent what) the world needs—namely… unity.”

Of the two laureates, it is Malala whose name has become a global symbol of what one human being can do to break the bondage that would oppress countless others. This is the passion shown by both recipients. For Satyarthi, it has been forced labor and child slavery that he has attacked—literally, mounting raids on factories where children were forced to work. He is credited for having rescued and helped rehabilitate 80,000 children from slavery.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Satyarthi condemned the blind eye that gets turned to child bondage in some countries. “I refuse to accept,” he said, “that the world is so poor when just one week of military expenditures can bring all children to classrooms. I refuse to accept that all the laws and constitutions and police and judges are unable to protect our children. I refuse to accept that shackles of slavery can ever be stronger than the quest for freedom.”

In the year 2000, it was estimated that there were 246 million child laborers around the world. Today, the estimate is 78 million fewer. The world is responding.

There has been uniquely universal response to Malala’s courageous fight, both for education and for her own life after that dreadful day when Taliban fighters tried to silence this young heretic. She realizes that she may face the barrel of a gun again, any day. Her response?

"I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are doing is wrong, that education is our basic right," Yousafzai said on her Website.

"They can only shoot a body, they cannot shoot my dreams," she said. "They shot me because they wanted to tell me that, 'we want to kill you and to stop you campaigning', but they did the biggest mistake: they injured me, and they told me through that attack, that even death is supporting me, even death does not want to kill me."

Speaking on Wednesday, she said the Nobel Peace Prize “is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education. It is for those frightened children who want peace. It is for those voiceless children who want change.

“I’m here to stand up for their rights, to raise their voice,” she said. “It is not time to pity them… It is time to take action, so it becomes the last time… that we see a child deprived of education.”

“So the LORD God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations,” declared the prophet Isaiah.

What is righteousness? We explored that question at last Tuesday morning’s eucharist, where we often have conversation about the scriptures. The closest we got to a workable answer is that we know what righteousness is NOT when the prefix “self-“ is added to it. So righteousness is pretty much the opposite of that, we figured. Right relationship is one way to think of it, and perhaps a set of Matryoshka dolls comes in handy to imagine a threefold love. The threefold love Jesus calls forth from us is to love God with the whole heart, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Play with that image of the dolls that are held within one another, consider how they might tell us something of the threefold love Jesus summons us to practice: these loves co-operate, they co-inhere with one another, the whole-hearted love of God starts and frees and shapes and inspires, fills and guides and repairs, a healthy love of self that reaches out to give and opens to receive the love of the other person, and that love evokes, frees, encourages, in turn.

Don’t you find it easy to see and sense the threefold love in Malala Yousafzai and in Kailash Satyarthi? The love that Jesus says counts in life shines brightly in this Muslim and this Hindu. Hearing their stories, feeling their passions, imagining what their choices and commitments have cost them and yet may, for me these two world citizens raise my sights this Advent to realize what we await, what we long for, what our world needs.

A hymn sums it up. I’ll bet you’ll find these words familiar.

"One Lord, in one great Name unite us all who own thee;
cast out our pride and shame that hinder to enthrone thee;
the world has waited long, has travailed long in pain;
to heal its ancient wrong, come, Prince of Peace, and reign." The Hymnal 1982, No. 542

How does this vision of universal peace and justice, exemplified in remarkable lives, and awaiting fulfilment, sit with our preparations for Christmas 2014?

A passionate care for the rights and needs of children shines from our Giving Tree. Our Christmas Offering will go to the parish’s Outreach to Kids Fund that helps equip us to respond year-‘round to urgent needs of children and families in the North County, and Heifer Project International will receive the other half of the Offering.

A parish family brings a trunkload of food to the Friendship Center Food Pantry, having asked that their Christmas party guests bring food for those who need it. Last weekend’s Lessons and Carols at the College collected food in the same way. The CIAO concert will collect donations to support a village school in Uganda.

Our Advent season of waiting and longing is full of generous sharing. Many more examples are known to you and not to me, done, as the carol puts it, “how silently, how silently…”

By comparison to what Malala and Kailash do in their lives, we are so carrying the light end of the load. They would say to us: Turn a seeing eye to the oppressed children, the most vulnerable children, those with fewest resources, those who some will say have no right to be here, but are here; those who some will say have no further claim on our nation’s resources, while in fact they are among our nation’s resources. Turn a seeing eye and learn what part of the load we are called to carry.

Articles posted on three sites proved helpful in preparing this sermon:

“Nobel Peace Prize 2014: Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, Indian Kailash Satyarthi Honored For Fighting For Children's Rights”, The Huffington Post, 10/10/14, by Jade Walker

“Malala, Satyarthi accept Nobel Peace Prize, press children's rights fight”, by Greg Botelho, CNN, December 10, 2014

"The Nobel Peace Prize 2014 - Press Release". Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 17 Dec 2014.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Wilder Church

Scripture for the 1st Sunday in Advent includes Isaiah 64:1-9; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Here we are, on the other side of the season’s first big snow storm. We’ve survived the first rush of winter adrenalin, as snow projections inched upwards and colors changed on those high-tech maps behind the weather people.

Given our penchant for traveling at Thanksgiving—which meets the need and desire we have to gather with family and friends on that day—this storm put probably most households through a round of fretting over travelers’ safety and navigating changes in travelers’ plans.

But there we were, Thanksgiving Day, having made the best of it and found our way to the tables where we belonged. And here we are today, observing the first Sunday of Advent. And the “we” of this family gathering are the members of three sister congregations, as St. John’s is delighted to welcome the people of All Saints and St. Andrew’s.

I have looked forward to this Sunday as an opportunity to taste and to feel what is sometimes called “the wider Church”, the Church beyond what Bishop Fisher calls the silo of our own home congregation.

We experience the wider Church when we gather in Diocesan Convention. Not only are 60-some congregations represented by several delegates each, filling the ballroom, but the agenda is also filled with snapshots and video clips and story-telling about our many mission partners in the wider Church within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in other parts of the country, and in other parts of the world.

Someone here at St. John’s, who shall remain nameless, calls it not the wider Church, but the wilder Church. So I’ve been looking forward to today as an experience of the wilder Church.

Let’s get back to Bishop Fisher’s image of the silo church. That, by the way, is church with a small c. Talk about the wider Church, and that deserves a capital C, because where we’re headed with that wideness is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of the creeds. And where we’re headed is the universal Body of Christ expressed in the sacrament of baptism. This capital-C Church is wider than, and certainly wilder than, the Episcopal Church. It’s more than the sum of all its denominational parts: it includes all whose faith is known to God alone, all whose spirituality may not carry the labels of organized religion, but whose compassion is nonetheless the love of God flowing into the world.

By contrast, the silo church keeps itself closeted from the world, preferring—or feeling obligated—to take care of that silo, patching the holes to keep what’s inside dry and ready to feed those cows that come with the silo.

We get the point. The church that lives unto itself will die by itself. That rule is universal; it applies to all congregations, not one is exempt.

Hence the remedy, the prescription that our Bishop offers to all sixty-some congregations in Western MA: take the Church out into the streets. I think he would capitalize that C, because for sure he doesn’t mean take out into the world the churchy preoccupations with itself. He means take into the world the all-embracing compassion of God, the fearless reverence for life of Jesus Christ, and intimate imaginative trust in the Holy Spirit—the very powers given to us in baptism, renewed in us by worship and community, sharpened in us by servant ministry. The very powers the world and its people need.

These are the powers and attitudes Bishop Fisher takes with him in his walking each of the three geographic corridors of our Diocese. Each 60-70 mile trek is meant to get him and us out of our churches, into the world for which God entered our human flesh.

What does it mean, to take the Church out into the streets? It’s a darned good thing that all sixty-some congregations (not to mention the hundreds and thousands of others across the land) are scratching their heads on this question together. Because it will require togetherness to find our answers. Not that those answers will fit equally all congregations, not even in as small a territory as the North Berkshires, but that each congregation has its own genius, its own lessons to teach, and its own gifts to bring to the table.

As I look around this room this morning, I wonder how God may be calling our three congregations to think and act and worship outside our siloes in this new year that opens to us, this Advent Sunday.

How might we find ways to listen together for God’s answers to that question? Does our coming together today suggest that we have already begun to do this kind of listening?

One Sunday afternoon this fall, a golden day when the foliage was at its peak, Diana and I drove to Cricket Creek Farm in South Williamstown and then walked north on Oblong Road.
It was a right time to remember poet Mary Oliver’s words:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

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

Suddenly, a fellow passed us, running along the shoulder of the road, then darting into the open pasture of Field Farm. We could see he was a young farmhand. What was his hurry?

Well, it was 4:00 p.m. and the cows were due to be milked at 5:00. How long does it take to move a herd of cows? How many Episcopalians would it take to move a herd of cows?

It took one farm hand. The closer we got to him, the clearer his singing became. Was it singing, or more like a chant? I won’t try to reproduce it—I expect it’s an acquired skill. It was a mix of his calling some cows by name—the outliers, the ones that mooed back at him in what sounded for all the world like sheer defiance. But mostly he just sang to the herd a song of his own making, telling them it was time to move, time to head back to the barn.

And what amazed us was how those cows knew just what to do. The farmhand went to the northernmost back edge of the herd, and the cows at the front edge did their slow pirouette and headed along the pasture, the avant-garde leading their sisters as they paralleled the road, then crossed the road without the benefit of a crossing guard, into the barnyard.

Those cows out front were motivated. A full udder is a perfect homing device. To them, that farmhand’s song was pure good news, for a cow has to do what a cow has to do.

Is our little herd of North Berkshire Episcopalians finding fresh motivation to work together? Rather than assuming that it will be necessity that motivates us, what if we welcomed a new togetherness based on our fullnesses? What if Christ the farm-hand is singing us into working together to share our various kinds of abundance? I’m not so much thinking of sharing with one another (though today should show us that’s enjoyable). I’m thinking that Jesus is calling us to share him with this corner of his world.

Words to a song he’s singing on this Advent Sunday are heard in the Gospel. He wants to gather his people from the four winds. He is near, and like the simple prodding presence of the farm-hand, his closeness to us calls us to move, to act, to share that closeness with people who long for it without yet recognizing it.

He calls us to be doorkeepers on the watch, keeping awake, alert to our opportunities to throw open our churches’ doors and windows, and our opportunities to take our churches out for a walk in this wider and wilder world.

(Mary Oliver’s full poem “In Blackwater Woods” is found in her “New and Selected Poems”, Beacon Press.)