Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Lift Up Your Eyes and See

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 40: 21-31; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Isn’t it both humbling and thrilling to come across words from 25 centuries or more ago that remind us so eloquently why we put our boots on and trudged into this place today?

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” Hear the prophet Isaiah urging us to treasure the Spirit of God that dwells in every heart, however veiled, however hidden or buried.

“It is God who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; God who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”

In some of our moments, we believe we are rulers of the earth. Much of our lives gets spent acting as if we were governors of our own little provinces where we are in charge and do things our own way. But we know better. Isaiah insists that we do: “Have you not known? Has it not been told you from the beginning?...

Yes, we are grasshoppers: easily crushed in the survival of the fittest. We busy ourselves with daily tasks so familiar that we imagine we are rulers of our little patch of earth. Well, we are; and we are not. Whatever strength we have runs out, and even princes are brought to nothing.

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created the stars of heaven, so fully knowing the mystery of their making as to be able to call each one by name, each essential to the whole?” Stand in awe, and let the everlasting One give you power not to dominate and control but to serve and love. Bring to be hallowed and renewed both your strength and your weakness. Lift up your eyes on high and see.”

Yes, we grasshoppers can go transcendent by lifting up our eyes to the majestic hills that surround us, recognizing nature as the grandest cathedral; and we seek transcendence in sanctuaries like this one, where we experience what religion writer Phyllis Tickle calls a location in physical space, but also a location in emotional and psychic space anchoring the individual, recalling memories, respecting stories, moving body and soul into a constructed womb made holy by the devotion and faith and prayers of hundreds and thousands of other believers, both those around us now and those who have gone before us. Holy space sometimes affirms when nothing else will.

This lifting-up-on-high-to-see reveals the nature of God. Isaiah’s rhapsody resembles a creed: “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, who does not faint or grow weary, whose understanding is unsearchable, who gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”

And, as that essential little creed is meant to do, there is revealed what God wants of us: that we too should empower the faint, and strengthen the powerless.

And that takes us to the Gospel. God sits above the circle of the earth, but in Jesus Christ God’s sleeves get rolled up for some serious renewal of the exhausted and empowerment of the marginalized.

The stage was set for this last Sunday, when Jesus’s sermon in the synagogue at Capernaum was transformed into the act of his healing a man in acute distress. This is how Mark the Gospel writer opens his book: Jesus is baptized, Jesus is driven by God’s Spirit to forty days of solitude and fasting in the desert, then Jesus comes to Galilee announcing, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

And from there on, Jesus and his team are on-call, delivering comprehensive health care. Because recovery begins at home, they go to the bedside of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and relieve her of her fever. Outside, word travels and before long they’re handing out numbers at the door, bringing to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. “And the whole city was gathered around that door.”

There is never a time in the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth that he isn’t out on the front line meeting the most basic of human needs. He is in the street, in the market, at the village well, wherever the people are who need him most. We speak of his Passion and refer to the events of Holy Week when he is betrayed, condemned to death, humiliated, and executed. But his Passion begins so much earlier, certainly with that first healing in the synagogue at Capernaum.

Our ancient creeds speak of his passion in the final days. What I like about the Iona creed we’re using today is how it speaks of his entire Passion, how it calls us to commit ourselves, in the service of others, to seek justice and live in peace, to care for the earth and to share the wealth, the commonwealth of God’s goodness… and so be the church.

To draw on St. Paul’s letter that we heard earlier, we are entrusted with a commission. Christian commitment to God in Jesus Christ calls us to entrust ourselves to the One we have come to believe has power for the faint, strength for the powerless, renewal for the exhausted. And the other dimension of this great transformation of faith is that we are entrusted by God with the mission of Jesus’s Passion, his entire Passion, and entrusted to us is the power to do it.

So it’s no wonder, is it, that St. John’s is being asked to do more and more in the wider community? And it’s not just us: all congregations are finding themselves needed in fresh—and in very old—ways.

From here on, if this sermon sounds like a recruiting session, that’s because it is.

Advocating to meet the needs of Berkshire County residents for food and transportation, Berkshire Interfaith Organizing had its formal birthing two Sundays ago, when two hundred congregants from more than a dozen sponsoring churches and synagogues (we are among them), and representatives of several religious communities such as our Diocese, and Catholic Charities, and Sisters of St. Joseph, and regional bodies of Congregationalists, Unitarians, and Presbyterians, assembled for a public launching. Most of our state legislators were present, and said that they look forward to a creative (and sometimes challenging) relationship with Berkshire Interfaith Organizing.

We are seeking a parishioner to represent St. John’s on the governing board.

Let’s stay with the subject of food. Two quite different needs have recently come our way. One is to occasionally provide food for Cathedral in the Night. That’s a weekly open-air (even in winter) weekly worship event Sundays at 2:00 p.m. on the front lawn of St. Joseph’s Parish on North Street. Homeless people, people on the margins, skateboarders, and members of downtown Pittsfield’s congregations that are taking the lead (St. Stephen’s, prominently) in taking church outside their walls, on average 25-30 people participate in what is still in its first season. Churches prepare sandwiches to be eaten on the spot, and food to take home. We’re being asked to take our part preparing and serving food.

Here in this place, inside these walls, a new weekly service of Compline, the church’s ancient custom of bedtime prayers, will be offered at 9:15 p.m., starting this Thursday, February 12th. Our hope is to offer students an attractive form of alternative worship, an alternative to Sunday morning, an alternative to a long service (this one will be twenty minutes), and an alternative to sacramental worship. Let me quickly add: this service is for everyone still awake and functioning at that hour, not just students. You know we don’t gather students without feeding them, so we need to know who feels drawn to help us offer simple snacks on Thursday evenings, snacks that will be enjoyed by some who linger and, for those who can’t, snacks-to-go. This may not be feeding the hungry in the same urgent way as Cathedral in the Night or the Berkshire Food Project or our monthly meals to seniors, but it will be feeding the hungry. And, we hope, a fresh kind of outreach.

It’s food security and transportation that we’re addressing, and again two very different needs for transportation are at our door. One is more exactly at the door of the Friendship Center Food Pantry in North Adams, where each Wednesday some fifteen food recipients need rides home and help with their bags. Most of these rides will be within a mile or two of North Adams center. Food pantry hours are 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. That translates into three two hour shifts when volunteer drivers and companions will be needed. St. John’s is rising to the challenge of taking one Wednesday a month to provide six volunteers, three drivers and with each a companion to help with bags and conversation.

It’s not transporting people that brings about our second need. It’s transporting to the landfill every other week or so the recyclables that St. John’s generates, the paper, the containers, and the various bits and bobs that we gather at our several recycling stations throughout our buildings. Such a simple way to care for the earth.

Let’s get practical in closing. For more information about Berkshire Interfaith Organizing, or about Cathedral in the Night, speak to Margot Sanger. To learn more about food at Compline, see Bob Hansler. See me or Claudia Ellet about Friendship Center Food Pantry rides. And go to Madeline Burdick about helping with recycling.

There’s a sweet moment in the Gospel today when Jesus approaches Peter’s mother-in-law. “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up,” says Mark. Two thousand years later, he is yet proclaiming the good news of God’s Kingdom coming near, by approaching us, lifting our sights to consider what we can do, trusting us to take in hand fresh opportunities to bring his church outside its walls into his world.