Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Essence of Church

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Ezekiel 17:22-24; II Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4: 26-34

“With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”

What do you think it’s like, being a teacher who has to explain everything to the supposedly star pupils in the class?

What’s it like, being identified as high achievers in the class, but nonetheless needing everything to be explained?

And what’s the dynamic at work among all the rest of the students who aren’t invited to those private sessions?

The four Gospels can’t tell the Gospel story, the Good News, without commenting on certain facts of life. Like, that some who encounter Jesus are quick studies, while some require coaching, and yet others will walk away from the encounter clueless as to what it was all about.

Put that another way: There is more than one kind of intelligence, more than one form of aptitude, and (as the apostle Paul was fond of saying) a variety of spiritual gifts. Intelligence comes in a rainbow of styles: cognitive, social, emotional, intuitive, organizational. Aptitude embraces artistic ability, language fluency, mechanical skill, leadership. And St. Paul’s several lists of spiritual gifts and spiritual fruits could keep us going all morning.

Put in yet another way, the Jesus movement is forever remembered by its fruits, its results in fulfilling its mission to (says our collect of the day) “proclaim God’s truth with boldness and minister God’s justice with compassion.” The Jesus movement shapes an apostolic community, in which those who get it give it. Those who get the message know they are entrusted with proclaiming it. Those who are loved by Jesus into new knowledge of who and whose they are give away that love to others as generously as they’ve gotten it. Those who are forgiven forgive. We know we are called to reconcile—to set right—all people to one another and to God. We come to know ourselves as people sent to embody the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world.

All this knowing engages the whole human being. We know not through one hemisphere of a brain dominated by either logical and analytical and objective processing of information or by the other hemisphere’s intuitive, conceptual, and subjective kinds of knowing; our knowing occurs through both hemispheres of the brain communicating to one another and working together.

The whole of our knowing requires a reconciling within us that may start within the brain’s hemispheres talking to one another; but surely our customary inventory includes the heart’s ways of knowing, and the instincts of the gut, the ethics of the backbone, and the reflexes of our muscles. All told, and all functioning, our knowings process our encounters and make relational sense of our world. In doing that wondrous work, imagination and belief play their roles as we encounter not just the immanence of flesh but also the transcendence of spirit.

Imagination and belief played a big part in our Vestry’s recent Day Away at Sheep Hill Farm, home of Williamstown’s Rural Lands Foundation. Our Wardens, Claudia Ellet and Margot Sanger, with the help of Canon Pam Mott from the Bishop’s staff, organized a decidedly different sort of Day Away.

It was a come-alive gorgeous day on May 30, and we had the run of the place. What had been arranged for us goes by the nickname Visual Explorer. Taking over the old main barn, Pam had spread out on tables and across wide swaths of the floor, 250 pictures, some photographs, some paintings, some archival drawings, just the most eclectic batch of images you’d ever expect to see. Our task was to consider and explore every image, silently, until each person had found one that best illustrates the essence of Church. The essence of Church. We then found out way into threesomes to share what it was each of us had found in the image that had spoken so clearly.

I could never have expected to choose what I did: a 19th-century painting of an Italian village of that same period, the town’s residents gathered on the plaza outside the parish church and adjacent school. I couldn’t tell exactly what was happening on that plaza, except that the town’s young men were being sent off—perhaps to war (though no one had alarm in their faces), perhaps on a more peaceable mission (a football tournament, who knows?)—wives kissing their husbands, children offering their fathers bouquets, and the young men shouldering great backpacks, evidence of an important mission ahead. Better than 249 other images, this one (quirky as it was) conveyed to me the essence of Church: A responsive community of people who know they are called, and are acting on it.

Verbalizing what each image represented was part of our task. How often the word “community” was heard. One Vestry member had chosen—I’m not making this up-- a photo of a cluster of meerkats. Meerkats! Those sleek creatures with four legs but famously vertical, each of the cats looking off at a different angle suggesting that the essence of Church is a community whose individual members support the whole by looking in different directions as they search, anticipating opportunity or danger. Another member’s image conveyed a similar insight: that community is a working-together of groups that become aware that each individual brings value to the whole, and it is often the outliers who signal what we need to know.

Other takes on the essence of Church: God’s workshop where each one of us is essential. Helping others connects the Church to the wider world. Being bathed in the light of God’s love for all. A community of save haven to face life’s challenges. And a photo of an open air market inspired this: The Church is God’s produce brought to be useful and available by the hands of his people. (That’s a timely image, since last week the first twelve bags of lettuce and spinach were harvested from the Garden of Eatin’ out back, and brought to the Friendship Center food pantry.)

This was the morning task, imagining, reflecting, sharing. In the afternoon, the same pattern, to find the image that best shows the outward and visible sign of the Church’s essence. Actually, I believe the instruction was to free ourselves from the constraints of church budgets and the press of maintaining church buildings, then ask ourselves what this essence would look like.

Again, what I chose surprised me, but seeing all 249 images again, I knew it was this: A close-up photo of five African children, early elementary ages, their faces full of promise, their posture an eager waiting, perhaps for a school door to open. Putting this to words, for me the outward and visible sign of our essence is our community’s caring not just for itself here at home, but equally for the emergent communities of the world rising from poverty, and those that need help doing so.

Around the circle of Vestry, other answers came, one after another. One said that for her the sign is our heading out into deeper waters away from the safety of the shore. Another, moving forward on the road to do God’s work and ours, confidently, competently, cheerfully. The verbs “share” and “support” were frequent, the sign of our essence being the sharing of our gifts and the bounties of creation to support others to accomplish their goals. And for another, the sign is our offering a place and a community to explore transcendence.

I said that this was a distinctly different sort of Day Away. We didn’t learn a body of information. We didn’t build a plan. We didn’t analyze a problem. We purposely catered to both hemispheres of our brains, took into account the varied ways of knowing we use. We enjoyed a day together that also gave us time and space apart as individuals. I guess you could say we spent the day being bathed in images, playing with parables: puzzling metaphors that tease the mind to think and imagine and recognize and believe.

And throughout this day a drama was unfolding in the tall grasses just off the edge of the pond, right near where several small groups were meeting. A young fawn (turns out just a week old) was nestled in those grasses. Every so often, when human voices rose, so did the fawn, looking around, toddling onto its legs but staying tight to its spot. A doe had been seen climbing Sheep Hill earlier that morning, and we dared hope—no, we truly needed it to be—that she had gone foraging and would be back.

The hours passed. Two hours, three, four, five. The fawn kept rustling, rising, looking about, no doe. Then, at the last, someone called out, “She’s back!” And as we gathered in the doorway to watch, there was the doe, standing over her fawn who was nursing. We don’t get to see that every day.

On the other hand, perhaps we could. Perhaps we would see more evidence of grace, more birthing of new life, more drama of redemption, if we sought more communion between our human hemispheres of explanation and awareness, more communion between daily life and the kingdom of God.