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.)