Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
These lines from Keats’ Ode to Autumn capture the sense of burgeoning promise in the season that follows close on the heels of the Labor Day Weekend. In my garden, I have a lot of trees which provide wonderful shade but make growing fruits and vegetables a non-starter. However, our daughter returned from a few days away this last week to a continued harvest of heirloom tomatoes, antique (yellow and round) cucumbers and her first crop of apples, admittedly, only a few apples on her two-year-old trees, but the occasion for celebration and a sense of major achievement, nonetheless. Fruitfulness is the catchword of the season ahead of us. This is not a season that lasts only until the chilly winds of November come creeping. And as we peer into the mists of maturing autumn, what might we catch a glimpse of?
The first Sunday after Labor Day is by tradition Homecoming Sunday at St Martin’s. Homecoming offers a first glimpse of the number and variety of our ministries. Ministries are the lifeblood of parish community and the channels through which our time, talent, and energy flows to advances the coming of the kingdom in real-time. This is a work of nurturing and sustaining hope that echoes in our daily cry – thy kingdom come, thy will be done, so that heaven becomes in real time, earth.
As the Biblical record witnesses, when viewed solely from a human perspective the making real of the kingdom has always appeared unrealistic. Yet, despite seemingly hopeless odds, it progresses anew in each generation because as followers of Jesus we are continually confronted by a reality which challenges us to throw off the limits of our too small imaginations.
The truth is, where we go, Jesus has gone before. In chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel, we see Jesus, so used to being the one who does the confronting being confronted – with startling results.
In the second part of chapter 7, Mark reports Jesus, fatigued by his recent confrontation with the Pharisees over the petty ritual issue of his disciples not washing before eating, slipping away for a few days of R&R in the non-Jewish region of Tyre and Sidon, today part of Lebanon. Mark doesn’t explain why Jesus has left Jewish territory other than to hint at his wanting to go somewhere where he won’t be recognized. So, Jesus seems more than irritated when his cover is blown by a woman of the town who seems to recognize him. Worried about a sick daughter at home, she can’t believe her luck that this healer, renowned south of the border, should show up in the house next door. So, she makes her request: Sir, will you heal my daughter?
Jesus perhaps wearied by finding that even here he can’t escape the constant demands of people tells her it’s not permitted to feed the dogs with the children’s food. We know that dog and children are 1st-century Jewish code words for Gentile and Jew, and it’s more than a little shocking to hear this kind of xenophobic insult coming from Jesus’ mouth. The woman is however not to be put off by insults. In a rare example of someone turning the tables on Jesus, she replies: Yes Sir, but don’t even the dogs get to lick the crumbs that fall from the children’s table?
Gosh, who is this woman we might be tempted to ask? She’s effectively countered the Master so that it’s reasonable to speculate a pause in the conversation at this point as Jesus takes in her comment. Evidenced by his response, the woman’s words seem to have confronted Jesus to consider new possibilities. His irritation evaporates. For saying that, he tells her, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.
One of the most important qualities we human beings possess is the capacity to learn from experience and open our minds to new possibilities. For some, it would be blasphemous to suggest, as I do here, that Jesus ever needed to learn from experience and open his mind to new possibilities. But to view Jesus as omniscient is to seriously contradict his being fully human. Confronted by this encounter, Jesus appears to learn in real time in a manner typical of the way human beings learn. The result is that the boundaries of his mission open in the direction of greater inclusion; no longer limited by the assumption of children first and dogs second.
To emphasize the point, Mark tells us that Jesus leaves Tyre, and traveling via Sidon returns southwards, not back into Jewish Galilee, but through the region a little to east known as the Decapolis or ten cities; a regional center of Greek and Roman culture where dogs and children, Gentiles and Jews, lived side by side. It is in this ethnically mixed region that Jesus performs the healing of a man ( Mark does not mention his ethnicity) whose deafness is compounded by an impediment of speech.
Chapter 7 opens with Jesus in the Jewish heartland, embroiled in petty Jewish arguments. Seemingly fed up, he slips away into foreign parts, seeking an all too brief experience of anonymity. Instead, he runs into a different kind of confrontation – one that challenges him into a more inclusive vision. Having Jesus return via the Decapolis region, Mark shows Jesus throwing off the hitherto accepted limits around his mission. After Tyre, those who were before excluded are now included as Jesus continues the work of reconciliation entrusted to him by God.
The truth is, where we go, Jesus has gone before.
Homecoming Sunday in 2018 finds us in remarkably good shape as a community. Compared with four years ago, more and more activity in the parish thrives without direct input from me. When the clergy are no longer at the center of all activity, lay initiatives blossom, driving the community’s development through mission enthused ministry.
I want to strongly affirm this shift as a sign of our growing health. The challenge we face is to move not only into a new way of thinking but to attract the critical numbers to secure and sustain the shift from priest centered to ministry centered practice. Without a growth in numbers, there is an ever-present danger of burnout resulting from operating at maximum capacity, one hundred percent of the time, as increased burden falls on fewer shoulders.
Peering into autumn’s mists what is the mellow fruitfulness we a glimpse? It is not greater enthusiasm. It’s not even more money, though with the pledge drive coming up, I say this advisedly. The mellow fruitfulness we seek is a growing discipleship base.
The need to grow directly challenges the comfortable limits we impose on the practice of our Christian faith. Our privatized, middle-class – let’s not upset the applecart – approach to living our faith renders us next to useless in God’s work of advancing the kingdom. The growth we seek fruits when we are less cautious and less respectable and more gospel-inspired in living our faith. That’s not likely to happen unless we allow ourselves to be confronted. Mark shows us how Jesus when so confronted opens his mind to new possibilities. So it must be for our relationship with God.
It is primarily the community of faith that sustains our individual spiritual lives. There is a loose hierarchy of other worthy nonprofit initiatives that constantly claim our attention. Yet, as disciples – it’s the living faith clearly outlined in the promises of the baptismal covenant, promises we all reconfirmed as recently as last Sunday, that claims our highest priority.
This is a hard message for comfortable, secular-humanist-minded Episcopalian ears. For most of us, our religion dovetails so neatly into our middle-class worldview that it is next to useless in preparing us for God’s work of advancing the kingdom. There are too many self and culture imposed limits on the practice of our faith, i.e. lukewarm faith practiced privately.
For instance, we live in a time of rising tensions caused by the vacuum left by the collapse of shared communitarian values loosely based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. This past week, a 15-year-old boy lost his life to gun violence on our Providence streets. Americans view gun violence through either a conservative or liberal political lens and not a gospel-inspired one. Gospel-inspired values show us that the death of the innocent from gun violence is just plain wrong, and any attempt at justification flies in the face of the kingdom’s rebuttal of fear with love, selfishness with concern for one another.
To grow our numbers we must become more magnetic because people are attracted to magnetic communities. But magnetism is not a gimmick, a clever promotional strategy. It results when we become more convincing about our faith. Others are convinced by our conviction – expressed in a faith lived joyfully and – here’s the rub – publicly.
The signs of the times require us to be bolder in the way we share with friends and neighbors the value-added quality of a faith lived together in community. Belonging in Christian community should not be our best-kept secret.
So many of us came to St Martin’s by the word of mouth of neighbors and friends who invited us here – a form of show and tell. We practice a form of Christianity that emphasizes that belonging comes before believing, worshiping together takes precedence over agreeing with each other.
So go spread the word without shame or embarrassment. Let’s boldly practice the kind of show and tell that brought some of us here in the first place for the work entrusted to us it the nurturing and sustaining of hope: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, so that heaven is recreated in real time on earth.
 A line from Gordon Lightfoot’s the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald