Making Room

A sermon from the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs for Advent 2 Year C  

Isaiah 11:1-10;  Matthew 3: 1-12

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots…He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

St. Martin’s had an exciting couple of days this past week. The church was used as a location for a half-day film shoot for a TV show. It was quite an operation; massive amounts of bustling activity throughout the day, all for what will probably be a two-minute cameo by our church in an AMC TV supernatural thriller about a continual showdown between good and evil. 

We got to see how much effort goes into setting a scene—examining the context, understanding the audience, evaluating the resources and people available to tell the story well and effectively. A lot rides on doing it well. In the case of a TV show, it’s ratings and ad revenue. In the case of a Gospel, it’s the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Kingdom of God. No pressure.

Matthew’s chronological context was a few decades after the Resurrection. The sense of the immediacy of Jesus’ expected return had waned, and the nascent Christian community was unsure of what to do next. How were people to wait for the promised Second Coming if it wasn’t imminent? How would Matthew assuage any doubt about Jesus’ identity as Messiah and retain the urgency of the message of the coming Kingdom? Matthew’s project was to tell the story—to set the scene—in such a way that the followers of Jesus did not lose heart as they waited and as they struggled with growing division from the synagogues and persecution from the Empire. Matthew needed to offer them hope in the face of an uncertain future.

So he found his resource— the story of the enslaved Jews liberated by God through Moses and led to the Promised Land. In his Gospel he portrayed Jesus as the New Moses, sent to liberate the people of God from enslavement to sin and to lead them into the promised Kingdom of God. Matthew established his main character in the scene—John the Baptizer—dressed to evoke Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah predicted by the prophets. The focus would be offstage as John pointed toward Jesus, the greater One whose sandals he was not fit to carry. The setting; the Wilderness, at the turning of the Age, with the Day of Judgment on the near horizon. The plot: a showdown between good and evil.

It’s time now to dispense with the theatrical metaphor, because while it was useful for a moment it is important to understand that what we hear in today’s Gospel isn’t celluloid. It isn’t just a story. None of the Gospel is just a story—we wouldn’t be here Sunday after Sunday if that were the case, but today’s lesson for the Second Sunday in Advent is particularly jarring and confrontational, and we don’t have the luxury of leaving its message on the cutting room floor. As difficult as it may be we have to listen to what John has to say. We won’t be able to greet the Christ Child in Bethlehem until we have traveled through the Wilderness and learned what it has to reveal.

For some people, when they think of wilderness, the first thing they envision is literal and physical; a rugged place of wonder and challenge, often encountered alone. Others carry wilderness inside. It may be an arid desert of self-doubt or a tangled jungle of anger and resentment; it may sound like a cacophonous din or icy silence. It may be traveled during the daylight in a slog through unfamiliar existential and spiritual territory. Or it may be a lonely 3:30 a.m. sojourn haunted by fear and uncertainty.

The Biblical Wilderness is an icon for all of this. The Wilderness into which Matthew places John the Baptist is an allusion to the wilderness in which the Jews wandered for years–fractious, stiff-necked and occasionally grateful—lugging massive literal and figurative baggage and oh-so-gradually forming their identity as an imperfect community, ready to enter the Promised Land and establish themselves as the People of Israel. 

Also characteristic of the Wilderness into which Matthew sends John is that it is distinct from the center of power in Jerusalem. It is a marginalized and isolated place, set over and against establishment and empire. John comes to the Wilderness to find and be found by people from all around the surrounding country whose own baggage was the weight of sin, and who yearned for a word of hope; for a sign that God was leading them into a new land of promise—the Kingdom of God. John’s words to them, while jarring to us, were exciting and uplifting even as they were challenging. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. The world, he says, is about to turn on its head. This news was balm for the wounded soul and sustenance for the starving heart.

The Pharisees and Sadducees, interestingly, are silent in this episode. Also interestingly, the word that describes their presence is ambiguous; it can be translated to indicate that they were there either because they were against what John was doing (because baptism was the purview of the Temple), or, as stated in today’s version, that they were there for baptism by John.  Either way, their mere appearance provokes an outburst from John that takes us to the heart of the matter, which is Jesus, salvation and judgment. A showdown between good and evil.

Even now the ax is at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

What are we to make of this today? We dance around it the way I’ve danced around writing about it all week. We simply can’t tippy-toe past the fact that Advent isn’t about preparation for the Christmas Pageant or longing for the warm glow we get when gazing at the Christ Child in the manger, although that’s part of it. Advent is about acknowledging the wonder of Incarnation and (not ‘or’) yearning for the second coming of Christ and our ultimate facing of judgment before God.

Yes, we’re going there.

John’s apocalyptic language, like all apocalyptic language, is born of conflict between principalities and powers and those who were oppressed by them. The oppressed wait and yearn for divine deliverance, and violent fiery imagery helped bolster their hope that the defeat of evil was imminent and would be decisive. The people who heard the words of John were hopeful, not dreading what was to come. We can’t forget that.  They were ready to be cleansed by the water of baptism so that they would be ready to present themselves to God. They were ready for salvation–for the Messiah. They couldn’t wait for the time of world-turning that John so forcefully proclaimed.

Advent calls us to tap into this yearning. But getting there is a very, very uncomfortable journey. It requires that we come face to face with a very broken world, and with our very broken selves.

A showdown, if you will.

Biblical scholar and storyteller Richard Swanson wrote just a few days ago: “This Advent feels more like a charged season of waiting and expecting than any since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat… John and his preparation for conflict makes more sense this year. And that scares me. “

Bolster Swanson’s observation with the fact that there are those who use the language of final judgment and apocalypse to divide, to threaten and to oppress, under the guise of being oppressed themselves, and it is indeed a scary prospect.

How do we find hope? By declaring that we won’t speak of the judgment of God without speaking about the love of God as well.

God’s judgment is not what history, culture, and yes, parts of the church, have led us to dread. God’s judgment does not involve a set of arbitrary fear-based standards of conformity and morality based in homophobia, racism, sexism or any kind of ism that refuses to acknowledge the diversity of the family of God.  Yearning for Judgment is about the hard painful work of co-creating the Dream of God—doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly, and preparing to meet the loving gaze of the God who created us and called us good. It calls us to eagerly anticipate the day when we can finally know that God sees us as we truly are and then scrub and scrape away the baggage —every last thing that has come to separate us from God– that has come to cling to us like barnacles. The barnacles of fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, rejection, self-loathing and greed which, when projected on others, just become layer upon layer of pain and anguish in the world as we find more and more ways to hurt and reject each other; war, poverty, discrimination, cruelty, and the complicity that comes from willing blindness to it all.  Because the very real evil that bedevils us begins with the wildernesses that we carry.

So the winnowing of the chaff that John proclaims, the burning of the unfruitful branches—this happens within us, not between us. Not to destroy, but to cleanse us.  To make room for the Dream of God that Isaiah envisioned, where:

the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Isn’t that something to look forward to?

Advent and the Paradox of Time

Advent Sunday 2019 The commemoration of Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon 1637

On a bleak, grey, winter’s afternoon in 1936 the poet T.S. Eliot visited St John’s church in the hamlet of Little Gidding, lying in the heart of the Huntingdonshire countryside, about 30 miles northeast of Cambridge. This visit became the foundational inspiration for his poem of the same name, published in 1942 as the final quartet of his collection known as the Four Quartets.

The poem’s publication had been delayed by a year due to the disruption of the London Blitz – the Luftwaffe’s nightly blanket bombing of London between September 7th, 1940 and May 11th, 1941. There are two convergences of time and place as Eliot juxtaposes the fire of the Holy Spirit with the firary air-raids on London. He also connects the memory of Nicholas Ferrar and the 17th-century experiment in spiritual community at Little Gidding with the experience in the England of 1941.

In 1625, after the loss of much of their fortune with the collapse of the Virginia Company the Ferrar family retreated to their estate at Little Gidding. In 1626, Nicholas Ferrar was ordained deacon by Bishop Laud. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Laud led the suppression of the Puritans and it was by the skin of his teeth that one Roger Williams managed to embark for Massachusetts with Laud’s commissioners hot on his heels.

Under Nicholas’s leadership, the extended Ferrar – Woodnoth family formed a brave experiment in spiritual community. Although not in any formal sense a monastic community, the family led a disciplined life of prayer, work, and pastoral care modeled on High Church (ancient catholic) principles and the daily offices of the Book of Common Prayer. King Charles 1st visited the community three times and on his last visit sought refuge there after the defeat of the Royal Army at battle of Naseby in 1645.

Although Nicholas died in 1637 the community continued under the leadership of his brother, John, and their sister, Susana Collet, until their deaths in 1657.

It’s Eliot’s reflections on the multidirectional interplay of time that is of particular interest for us on this Advent Sunday, which falls by happy coincidence in 2019 on the same day the church commemorates Nicholas Ferrar and the Little Gidding experiment.

Eliot, himself a High Churchman and staunch member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr, strongly identified with Nicholas Ferrar and the Little Gidding experiment. A major theme running through the poem is that of humanity’s suffering, which can only be overcome by recognizing the lessons of the past and focusing on the unity of past, present, and future — a unity that Eliot asserts is necessary for salvation. 

While we cast our minds into futures yet to arrive we act in the present as if they are already here.

Eliot reminds us that the way we normally think of time as a chronological sequence in which time flows only in one direction – from the past towards the future through the present is not the only way we actually experience time. In memory and in imagination time flows back and forth. Present-time actions can mitigate the outcome of the past. While we cast our minds into futures yet to arrive we act in the present as if they are already here.

It’s this notion that the present can be reshaped by the echo of the past -something Eliot was very conscious of as he worked to find language that expressed his sense of the multidirectional flow of time between his English present – London during the saturation bombing in 1940-41  and a very present past -the brave spiritual community of Little Gidding between 1630 and 1660.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

T.S. Eliot in Little Gidding

In Advent the whole purpose and meaning of our Christian journey is encompassed in one sweeping overview bringing past and future together in the actions of the present.

Poignant is a wonderful word. It means deeply evocative of feeling. Advent is the most poignant of the Church’s seasons. It’s a panoramic season in the sense that the whole purpose and meaning of our Christian journey is encompassed in one sweeping overview bringing past and future together in the actions of the present.

Our minds and language are so conditioned by the notion of chronological time that it’s impossible to escape arranging things sequentially. Yet, Advent challenges this whole approach for at the same time as we recall the Incarnation through the birth of Jesus, we also simultaneously contemplate his ultimate return. As Eliot would put it, you can’t make a beginning without arriving simultaneously at the ending. Incarnation (first coming) and Parousia (second coming) – both pulsate continually shaping our experience of the present-time life of the resurrection.

Although we structure time as a single directional flow from past through the present into the future hope emerges from our actual experience of time’s multi directional flow.

Advent is synonymous with hope. But is this hope merely the faint echo of a once upon a time –an echo of and in those days? Or is it simply a wishful longing for something that has yet to arrive – an exercise in risking disappointment.

Can despair be preferable to disappointment. The truth is, many of us willingly choose despair over the risk of of facing the possibility of disappointment – which is the price of hope. Afterall, as my grandmother used to say: you can’t miss what you’ve never had. The root of this sentiment is – don’t hope for things you might not get.

Chronologically speaking, between the birth of Jesus and his final return lies in the present time the life of the resurrection. Advent invites us into something more than a mere chronological sequence – A precedes B which is followed by C. Advent invites us to risk the courage to hope as Paul Tillich titled his little book. Because:

If we wait in hope and patience, the power of that for which we wait is already effective within us. Those who wait in an ultimate sense are not that far from that for which they wait. .

Or an another of my 20th-century heroes – the great psychoanalyst Alice Miller, stated:

We are who we have been waiting for.

But for me T.S. Eliot must have the last word. In the second of his Four Quartets which Eliot titled East Coker after his ancestral village, which together with Little Gidding he also visited in the earlier part of 1937. In the third section of East Coker Eliot brings out the paradox at the heart of the Christian virtues of hope, love, and faith. He asserts a distinction between the action and the supposed object of the action. Listen:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope – For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love – For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith – But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

T.S.Eliot in East Coker

Advent reminds us that expectation depends on the patience born of waiting. But waiting is not idleness. That for which we wait compels us to turn away from our hard-hearted complicity with injustice, and forge new pathways for the kingdom’s coming, one step and one breath at a time.

Service, Reconciliation, and Resistance

Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year presents us with two images of Christ as leader. Christ the King robed in the trappings of political culture. The paramount operative in the zero-sum-game of dominion as domination sits in an uneasy tension with Christ reigning not from a throne but nailed to a tree.

One is an image of power, the other an image of vulnerability. We are more comfortable with displays of power, with images of strength, while we easily mistake displays of vulnerability with helplessness and weakness.

The age-old Jewish expectation of the messiah as the one who would come with power – God’s super shepherd – to set the world right-side up took a sharp left turn in the imaginations of the followers of Jesus. By bringing two familiar O.T. images together they forged a new vision for messianic leadership. The messiah was not only to be the great shepherd about whom Jeremiah speaks in the O.T. lesson for Christ the King. For his first followers Jesus was the one who will gather a scattered people and put the world to rights through following the path of suffering about which the prophet Isaiah had much to say.

Drawing on images of both shepherd and suffering servant the first Christians forged a revolutionary understanding of the messiah’s role inspiring in them a new vision that changed the world.

The crucifixion of Jesus is an example of leadership in right action. But is it a story of failure or success?

Throughout the centuries the Christian Church has worked hard to portray the crucifixion of Jesus as the ultimate exercise of kingly power.  But in order to flesh out such a vision, the Church borrowed the paraphernalia of earthly trappings of power. The dying man becomes the triumphant hero vanquishing the anti-God forces through the in-breaking of God’s reign of justice. Christ Pantocrator, sitting atop the world with scepter and orb in hand and crown on head – the superhero of the Byzantine age emerges in the middle of the 20th Century as the triumphal Christ the King, leading the Christian legions against the evils of Communism.

Luke is an amazing storyteller. Mark’s storytelling is spare and sparse – communicating an urgency of living in the moment in which there is no time to lose. Matthews storytelling elevates Jesus above the hubbub as he recasts the story of Jesus in the light of the age-old Jewish hope for a new Moses. But it’s Luke who offers us a Jesus storyline that connects with our intimate experience of the world as it is.

When they came; the they being the political and religious movers and shakers. When they came to a place whose name was synonymous with violence – the place of the skull – otherwise known as cranium hill – they scrabbled about like vultures for the poor man’s clothing, eventually casting lots among them. They mocked him, twisting his words and throwing them back at him – huh, he saved others why can’t he save himself if he is who he says he is?

The political and religious operatives unleashed their foot soldiers of political street violence – to further the false narrative of mockery – accusing him of pretensions of kingship by emphasizing the absurdity of such a claim. False and misleading stereotypes are always easy to demolish. And they place the man Jesus between two common criminals as if to drive home the inference of guilt by association.

And Luke tells us that all this time, in the background, the people stand by, watching while their leaders scoff. And Luke gives no indication that the people share their leaders’ attitudes.

Luke conveys a wealth of inference in a few words: and the people stood by.

Luke refers to the people as the laos; a term that refers specifically to the community of the faithful, the holy assembly – the laos -from which we derive the term- the laity. We can’t miss Luke’s inference here – these are not some rabble crowd of prurient onlookers but God’s people, standing-by to silently bear witness to the event unfolding before their very eyes that signals the crash and burn of their dream of a great shepherd who would free them and put the world to rights.

The powers of this world will have their way. Luke’s laos – the people of God -witness the destruction of their expectations of Jesus as the great shepherd – the messiah of Jeremiah’s prophecy. It will take time for them to discover Jesus as God’s suffering servant. And only some of them will do so.

At the heart of this scene Luke portrays the most important conversation taking place between the three figures standing at the center of this drama; Jesus and his criminal companions. Here we find the tussle between refusal and acceptance of responsibility for deeds done. One thief blames Jesus for his inability to miraculously rescue him. While his companion accepts his responsibility –for we indeed have been condemned justly. This admission of guilt is a first statement of repentance. The second thief is an archetype of the believer, he alone truly recognises who Jesus really is, and it draws from Jesus the promise of saving inclusion.

At the heart of the drama of the cross we find not the image of the great shepherd as triumphal worldly messiah. Instead we find the portrayal of love in action. Love demonstrated not from a position of power, but through the acceptance of suffering.

It’s no longer 1925 – the year when Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as the final Sunday of the Christian year. I have traced this history in a previous post and you can find this here. We now live in an age when the Church has lost its capacity to compete with rivaling political systems in the contest for authoritarian power. Consequently, two great temptations befall us.

The first is the temptation to hitch our wagon to the secular political train. We witness sections of the Evangelical world falling prey to the temptation to Christianize the politics of the right for self-serving advantage. The second temptation is to withdraw into silence, accepting the thesis of the secular left -that there is no place in the civic marketplace for a Christian voice.

When viewed in conventional terms is the cross a failure or success? It’s hard to see death on a cross as successful leadership. But what if it’s through apparent failure that the way to success opens up?  Confronted by the failure of Jeremiah’s vision of the messiah as king and super shepherd, the first followers of Jesus encountered the victory of the cross in the unexpected image of Isaiah’s suffering servant.

Viewed in purely worldly terms, the Jesus project ended in the failure. However, we must not be misled as to the nature of the real failure here. The cross is not a failure of Jesus or of God’s to deliver of the divine plan. What fails here is the death on the cross of our own earthly ambition – ambition projected onto God’s purposes.

The cross stood tall because it was wedged into the ground and held in place by three great stones bearing the inscriptions: service, reconciliation, and resistance. 

For the first followers of Jesus the vision that emerged from their initial experience of their failure of expectations at the cross – achieved more than any successful earthly demonstration of power could ever do. The vision that emerged was a vision that changed the world. 

An anonymous Franciscan blessing goes:

God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that we may live deep within our hearts …. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen

Mountain Climbing

Pentecost 23 Year C Proper 28    Isaiah 65: 17-25  Luke 21:5-19    

A sermon from Linda Mackie Griggs     

                                 

                                                                          

Often when I read a book I kind of temporarily obsess over it. I’ll see connections with it in news stories and in conversations, and this keeps up for awhile until I pick up the next book on my stack and find a new obsession. So it shouldn’t surprise those of you who I’ve been chatting with lately that David Brooks’ book, The Second Mountain has been part of my pre-sermon pondering.

In a nutshell Brooks suggests that many of us lead a two-phased life; the first phase is like a mountain, which we climb when we are younger and establishing our unique identities and accomplishments. We strive for the right career, the house, the family, the nest egg, the dog… Summiting that first mountain is a big accomplishment. Later, we may find ourselves questioning those ego-driven priorities of first mountain achievement, acquisition and individual self-fulfillment.

Whether brought on by life transition, financial or health crisis, loss of a loved one or relationship, the journey toward the second mountain involves existential questions like “Why am I here?” “Is this all there is?” “What now?” Confronting these questions, says Brooks, takes us downward into a valley of humility, vulnerability, and often pain that, if we let it, eventually leads us to the new heights of the second mountain, governed not by the ego, but by heart and soul—a new life of generosity, creativity, joy, and renewed relationships.

Spoiler alert: Brooks is telling us that our world is desperately in need of an army of Second Mountaineers. We can possibly intuit this. But lest we need persuading, the facts that he lays out are stunning and stark. 

I only heard the term “deaths of despair” recently, and didn’t know that it’s actually a medical phrase that includes three behavior-related medical conditions; drug overdose, suicide, and alcoholic liver disease, all of which are connected to social isolation. Loneliness. Brooks says that we’ve done too good a job of empowering our individuality—we’ve gotten so hyper-individualistic that we’ve come to think we don’t need anyone—and now, to borrow the title of Robert Putnam’s book, we literally and figuratively bowl alone—emblematic of a serious decline in community and civic engagement. And it’s taking a toll. Here are some numbers: Overall the suicide rate in this country has gone up 30 percent since 1999. Between 2006 and 2016 the suicide rates for those between ages 10 and 17 rose by 70 percent.

Please let that sink in. Ten-year-olds are included in suicide statistics.

Life expectancy in this country has declined for the third year in a row. The last time that happened was early in the last century, and it was influenced by a world war and a global flu pandemic.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…

These words of hope are offered to a people intimately acquainted with despair. The beautiful yearning passage that we’ve heard today was written for the  people of Israel, who had been traumatized by the destruction of their home and a generation spent in exile. The Temple—the center of their faith and icon of everything they trusted, had been thrown down; not one stone left upon another. And now Isaiah writes for a people returned from Babylon, and he is excited.

“…be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

Isaiah expresses a vision of complete renewal of Israel; the erasure of traumatic memories and the creation of a world that is safe and just. God will be ever present and responsive: “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” A world at peace. Beautiful. Achingly beautiful for anyone who has felt that their world was falling apart.

I learned a couple of interesting things when I consulted our wise neighbor Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman about this reading. First, and most important, he confirmed the sense of immediacy in the passage. While it is common to read through a Christian lens and assume that Isaiah is referring to some kind of a heavenly vision of what the world will look like after it ends, this would be wrong. As Rabbi Howard says, “We’re not about heaven.” The Christian idea of heaven is not the “new heavens” that Isaiah is writing about.

What he’s writing about is a world that is to be co-created by God and God’s people together. This passage is a joyful reminder that God’s people, inspired by their Creator, are the builders of the wondrous, just, fair and peaceful world that Isaiah envisions. And then, when that world is created, God will bestow the gift of long life: “for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be…”

The prophetic call is for now. Now, when the world seems to be crumbling around us. Now, when social isolation is killing us. Now, as society retreats into the echo chambers of our tribal fears. Now, as Luke says, among wars and insurrections, famines, plagues, and persecutions. Now, when we are sunk in the valley, is when we are called to look in hope toward the Second Mountain.

David Brooks writes of Second Mountain people as the ones who–neighbor by neighbor, conversation by conversation, potluck by potluck, community action meeting by community action meeting– the ones who are re-weaving the fabric of American society by establishing and re-establishing relationships.

Brooks writes of the importance of “thick” institutions, communities and societies, which are defined by people who are keenly aware of their interdependence and the importance of meaningful relationships. Thick organizations and institutions are centered around a physical location where people meet regularly. They have collective rituals, shared tasks, a creed of some kind, and watch over and care for one another. Brooks continues,

They often tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves. Many experienced a moment when they nearly failed, and they celebrate the heroes who pulled them from the brink…They point to an ideal that is far in the distance and can’t be achieved in a single lifetime.

Sound familiar? He’s talking about Church! Of course he’s not just talking about church, but if he’s going to posit the need of thick institutions to help reweave the fabric of society, who can possibly be better positioned to do that than the Body of Christ?

If he’s going to talk about the importance of relationship and interdependence as an antidote to fear-based tribalism, who better than those whose life of faith centers on a Trinitarian God who defines the very concept of relationality and interdependence? Who better? We’re already here; we don’t need to be invented. We only need, with the grace of God and the guidance of the Spirit, to be renewed and transformed to meet the challenges that confront us.

We just need to believe it of ourselves. The task is bigger than a single lifetime, but that simply means there’s no time to waste.

Luke’s vision of a world in its last days is not the only thing that confronts us in today’s Gospel. The world is ending for someone, somewhere, every day; the numbers don’t lie. One more number: sixteen. The perpetrator of the latest school shooting in California on Thursday—it was his sixteenth birthday.

We can’t keep losing our children.

We are called—today, now—to testify to the hope that is in us—the hope that is our foundation as the Body of Christ. We are called to testify in word and action to the love of God who sustains us; to hold on to hope; to proclaim it, and most important, to become it.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Church and Church: what’s in a name?

Tonight

Tonight, we gather to honor Martin, our patron. Martin was a man whose life expressed his deep concern for others. Martin believed that violence was against Christ’s call but also understood faithfulness to duty. After a period of military conscription, he devoted the rest of his life to the pursuit of holiness, at first in pursuit of his own spiritual quest but eventually in a wider service of the community. Let us pray for his spirit to infuse us- so that like Martin we may not be found wanting in witnessing to Christ in our own day through lives of holiness in action.

Tonight, we have an opportunity to celebrate the completion of a major restoration of our beautiful church. As we move into the first years of a new century in our parish life, the lot has fallen to us to meet some serious restoration challenges in order to secure the integrity of our church building for the next 100 years. Some might say it’s a piece of bad luck that the need to meet this challenge fell to us on our watch. But God raises up the right people for the task at the right time through the quality of leadership from John Bracken and David Brookhart as Church Wardens, and the professional expertise of Peter Lofgren as supervising architect.

There is a growing realization in the community that without the impetus of a big challenge, would we be able to move beyond our comfortable expectations to forge the foundations of a renewed vision for our future?

What’s in a word?

I have been thinking about church as a word. Is it not odd that we use the same word to speak about the building as well as the community? It’s important to remember that the church (ecclesia) first described the community and only later came to refer to the building in which the church met.

Over the last year we have come to speak of the restoration of the church when referring to the renovation of the physical structure. The greater challenge, however, is to remember that when we speak about the restoration of the church we are also speaking about the renewal of the community. For we have a church, yes. Yet more importantly, we are the church.

Is restoration an expression of our love for God or is it a significant distraction from our primary purpose?

The expenditure of considerable financial resources on the building begs important questions about our priorities. Is it an expression of our love for God or is it a significant distraction from our primary purpose? There is room for disagreement here. However, none of us believe that God’s primary concern is for our building. Nevertheless, we do intuit that our building articulates an ages-old human aspiration to be associated with something greater than ourselves and the utilitarian priorities of our age.

Having a church is only important when it is one of the ways we identify ourselves as being the church.

As history shows, a church as a building can easily overshadow our awareness of the church as a community. While the two go hand-in-hand, they also sit in an uneasy and often confusing tension. The only insight I have to offer here is that we must hold this tension between having a church and being the church. Because, having a church is only important when it is one of the ways we identify ourselves as being the church.

A lesson from history

In 587, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, taking those who lived within the Jerusalem Beltway of Jewish society into captivity in Babylon. In 539, the Persians invaded Babylon and Cyrus I decreed that the Jews could return home and rebuild their city and temple. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of this return and the struggles and successes encountered in the great national restoration project.

In the OT lesson for tonight we heard about the laying of the foundation stone for the new temple. We heard that the older Priests and Levites wept when they saw this while the rest of the people shouted for joy. The fact that priestly weeping seems juxtaposed with popular joy suggests that the priest wept not for joy but because they remembered the glory of Solomon’s temple and perhaps were dismayed by the reduced scale of the envisaged new project.

We are coming to the end of a discernment process that is attempting to map the community priorities emerging from our restoration project as it moves to the next phase in capital campaign preparation. An initial perusal of the notes taken by dedicated scribes at the cottage gatherings reveals a range of both complementary and clashing priorities.

Tonight’s lesson from the book of Ezra is a salutary reminder that restoration projects trigger an inevitable clash between nostalgia for the past and the framing of a vision fit to meet the changing circumstance demanded by the future. The easy part is to restore the building. Much harder is the task of renewing the community with a vision to carry us forward into a future that will bear very little resemblance to our past.

Through a monumental material and human expenditure by the returning exiles a new temple arose from the ruins of the old. Nehemiah the governor had a dual focus. On the one hand he was responsible for ensuring enough supplies of both materials and labor while protecting the building works from the constant attacks from the neighboring peoples. But what interest me more is his request that Ezra, the Scribe of the Lord, read from the Book of the Law before all the people gathered before the Water Gate.

Nehemiah 8 records the moving depiction of Ezra standing on a wooden podium built for the purpose – a kind of pulpit I suppose, reading from the Book of the Law before all the people. As Ezra read the unfamiliar words of the Law, for it had mostly been forgotten by the people at this point, 12 Levites engaged in a kind of simultaneous interpretation of his words so that the people would understand what was being read to them. In this moving scene we hear all too clearly the echo of our own tension between having a church and being the church; the movement from the restoration of stones to the renewal of spirits, hearts, and minds?

It seems it’s never one or the other – church as building or church as community. Both exist in an oscillating tension – a balancing movement, back and forth between the two.

In the tonight’s NT lesson from his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul weaves a wordplay between the material and the spiritual by using an analogy to a physical building to speak about the life of the Spirit within and between us.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? …. for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

1 Cor 3:10

I would propose the litmus test for us is when church as building ceases to be an inspiration for and expression of church as community – only then will it be the time to abandon our buildings to decay.

Church as a building – is for Paul really the metaphor for Church as the community. Remember the word first applied to the community and only later to the building where the community met. I would propose the litmus test for us is when church as building ceases to be an inspiration for and expression of church as community – only then will it be the time to abandon our buildings to decay.

There are three key resources that sustain our community life. The commitment and vision of our members, the dedication and skill of our staff, and the quality and serviceability of our buildings. These three key resources are infused by the Holy Spirit – who is always present among us. The Holy Spirit makes her presence known to us when we gather for worship, when in small ministry groups we embed the Bible to continually reshape our vision, and when we reach out to others in acts of solidarity.

Tonight, we gather to honor Martin, our patron. Martin was a man whose natural bent was to care for others. Only reluctantly did he take on the burdens of community leadership. But he fulfilled the responsibilities of pastor and bishop as dual aspects of his response to God’s call. Let us pray for his spirit to infuse us- so that like Martin we may not be found wanting in witnessing to Christ in our own day through lives of holiness in action.

Do You Know Your Need of God?

The image is by James Tissot courtesy of Pinterest

Any attempt to speak about money in the church runs the risk of provoking a cynical and defensive response. However, this is a response that misses the point – money is only a metaphor for values. When we commit to financially supporting an organization, in doing so our hope is to contribute value as well as derive a sense of value -both essential elements for lives of purpose and meaning.

One of the many paradoxes at the heart of Christian life is that spiritual renewal is so much more than money yet, financial generosity is a key outcome of coming to know our need of God.

I continue to experience an anxiety about money which I can trace back to my early experience of how conversations about money were negotiated in my family.  Hence the question I posed in this week’s E-News: What is your first memory of money – is it a positive or an anxious one?

This early experience has left me with a default expectation of scarcity that is in direct conflict with my actual experience of a life of abundance. So which do I beleive? This discrepancy between expectation and experience is a paradox. One I am sure I am not alone in sharing.

In the Old Testament reading for today, through the prophet Joel, writing after a long and devastating drought that had brought enormous hardship to the Israel, God promises an experience of overwhelming abundance.

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.

Joel 2

God’s promise of abundance is a presumption we must trust. That’s the difficult part. Like the anxiety of scarcity, the experience of abundance is a presumption we have to trust and then act upon accordingly. Otherwise the promise of abundance remains hidden by our default expectations of scarcity.

My fear of scarcity masks my actual experience of abundance. It makes me tight and fearful of being generous. I fear that being generous, I will be giving away the very things I might need. But then I remember that my experience is different from my fears; that despite them I have to recognize that God has been indisputably generous to me in life. Connecting up the dots in my life I come to recognise fears of scarcity, at least in my case, are simply a default state of mind – stemming from early memories in my life.

Until recognised for what they are, early memories continue to distort our present day experience and perception.

America is the most prosperous country on the globe, maybe the most prosperous society in human history and yet it experiences the highest scarcity anxiety. As the land of plenty to overflowing, we condone an unforgivable level of poverty.

We must translate our presumption of abundance into the practice of generosity and a determination to protest in the face of societal inequality and injustice.

If my scarcity fears belie my actual experience of abundance in life? If there has always been, and continues to be enough of what I need, I am frequently left wondering why I keep wanting to tell myself otherwise?

Henri Nouwen, one of the great Catholic pastoral theologians of the 20th-century reminds us that a truly spiritual life is life in which we won’t rest until we have found rest in the embrace of the one who is the Father and Mother of all desires.

The desire of which Nouwen speaks – is to come to rest in knowing our need of God.

What does it mean to come to know our need of God?

To come to know our need of God is in my experience the best way of managing the scarcity-abundance tension that lies at the root of our quest for security. We long for the affluence and prosperity that will ensure our security. Yet, our very affluence and prosperity seriously inhibit our coming to know our need of God, which is Jesus’ point in telling the story about the pharisee and the publican.

This is a story that presents us with two images of human response to God. Most of us intuit that we should identify with the publican, and yet we design our lives to model that of the pharisee – and feel pretty good about doing so. He not only believes he is the author of his own salvation, but loudly proclaims this before the Lord of heaven and earth.

The publican on the other hand, has no basis for making any claims of being in control of his life. He lives a morally dubious and compromised life. But it’s the very nature of his inability to do much about this that brings him to his knees in acknowledgement of his need of God.

Like the pharisee we expend a lot of energy ensuring that we will not find ourselves in a position of needing anything from anyone – so self-assured are we of our ability to make our own way in life we easily confuse our success for something of our own making; that the good things in life are ours to enjoy and not share. The pharisee is very much alive and kicking in all of us.

The source of all our loves in life flow from God’s love for us.

The source of all our loves in life flow from God’s love for us. Only when we acknowledge this can we come to know our need of God. In the coming weeks of the Annual Renewal Campaign, this is the simple truth I invite us all to consider as we are asked to recommit our support for the life and work of this parish community. Through the annual renewal of our commitment to our life together in community, God is reminding us that none of us is an island and that all our lives are dependant on one another’s toil.

Between now and November 24th, I would ask us all to consider the necessity of cultivating our practices of generosity for our spiritual, emotional, and societal health. I would also ask you to remember that the practice of generosity fundamentally involves a commitment to also protest against inequality and injustice. As individuals, our support of our parish community enables us to do more in furtherance of these aims than any one of us can do alone.

Then …. I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
our sons and our daughters shall prophesy,
our old men shall dream dreams,
and our young men shall see visions.

Joel

A truly spiritual life is life in which we won’t rest until we have found rest in the embrace of the one who is the Father and Mother of all desires.

Henri Nouwen

Persistence and Protest

Luke 18:1-8

Image. Parable of the Unjust Judge by Nikola Saric

At the start of each Vestry meeting one person leads a process we call Embedding the Bible. This practice originated as one of the initiatives from the Renewal Works program, which you will remember we participated in, in 2015. This was the first initiative after my arrival to try to understand the spiritual needs and desires of the congregation. From it, we developed three key priorities of which embedding the Bible throughout all aspects of our community life was the first. Embedding the Bible is a practice I commend to all our ministry teams. It has enormously enriched our Vestry experience by helping us to a deeper place of reflection and listening for God’s purposes as we approach the business of the evening.

Last Wednesday evening David Whitman embedded a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 16, in which the writer speaks of taking hold of the hope that is set before us. Our following discussion centered on the question – is the hope that is set before us the hope of eternal life? At first sight this may strike most of us as a somewhat esoteric question – especially for a Vestry meeting. But actually, given that we all experience the continued death of loved ones and friends, it’s a somewhat relevant question.

Popular Christianity, particularly of an Evangelical or conservative Catholic flavor answers the question this way. Life is a process to be got through as cleanly as possible, which means not blotting your copybook any more than is necessary and following all the rules you are told to follow, chief of which is all is well if you must confess Jesus Christ as your savior, or if you go regularly to mass. If you do these things you can, at the end of your biological life, approach the heavenly gates without fear because you’ve bought yourself a ticket to ride the heavenly express – destination, the life eternal in heaven with God and all one’s loved ones, family and friends.

However, the New Testament offers a different answer. The hope that is set before us is hardly ever mentioned as destination heaven. The hope that is set before us, as the Letter to the Hebrews phrases it, draws on Israel’s transgenerational hope that God will eventually complete the process of creation not with us all shuttling up to heaven – that is if we haven’t got there already -but with the heavenly Jerusalem descending to become a reality on earth.

The Christianity the flows directly from the New Testament writings understands eternal life not as the life of heavenly bliss, but the renewed life that will come about when Christ returns to usher in new heaven here on a new earth.

With the resurrection of Jesus, God has fired the opening salvo in a process that will come to a final completion with the resurrection of the world. 

As this is not likely to occur in our own lifetime or even that of our children, their children, or their children, down to the 10th generation – a phrase used as metaphor rather than as prediction, why should this matter to any of us?

It matters because it goes directly to the nature of the Christian life we are called to live. Are we called to live a life in which our concern is for our individual salvation, regardless of the state of the world around us? This is the Christianity of feeding the hungry on an individual case by case basis as an act of personal charity or piety but never asking why the hungry have no food?

Or, are we called to live out the promise of eternal life in the here and now time? Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of the world are the two bookends between which we live the new life that is eternal in that we live out the hope that is set before us as something if it is already fulfilled, is in the process of fulfilment anticipated in our actions.

Although we await God’s renewal of creation we do not wait passively. We live as God’s horticulturalists, planting the seeds and nurturing the growth of kingdom values and expectations found in Jesus’ Gospel teaching. We feed the hungry, motivated not by personal charity or piety, but by protesting the social dynamics that perpetuate hunger and inequality.

What will happen to us at biological death is God’s business not ours. Our attention must be focused on this world and our role for good in it, a role I would sum up as the call to a life of protest.

On Thursday evening at the end of the weekly meditation hour which runs every week from 5:30-6:30pm, I spoke of meditating as a political action of protest. Again, there is a tension in our motivation towards meditation similar to the tensions in the understanding of the meaning of taking hold of the hope that is set before us. Is meditation a personal action we undertake only for the benefit of our own spiritual, emotional, and physical health?

Of course, it has an effect on all three, otherwise psychologists would have little interest in what they refer to as the science of mindfulness. However, what I was getting at with my suggestion to the group of ten meditators gathered in the tranquil setting of the fireplace room on the 3rd floor of the Parish House was that meditation as a political action is a motivation to change the world for the better.

To live mindfully in the here and now is not a pursuit of a Western travesty of Buddhist detachment, but is for Christians an act of political protest.

Luke’s parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow is another of Luke’s perplexing Jesus parables. It’s about a man who cares nothing for God’s justice or for the plight of the widow who persists in demanding justice from him. Luke employs the image of the widow as a metaphor for the vulnerability of powerlessness. What this widow shows the judge is that while he thinks he can ignore her because of her low social status, he has not reckoned with the ferocity of her persistence as she continues to protest over and over again against his callous indifference to her demand for justice to be done.

Modern English translations like the NRSV like to smooth-out the rawness and roughness conveyed by these stories in their original Greek.

There is a funny translation twist in this story. Modern English translations like the NRSV like to smooth-out the rawness and roughness conveyed by these stories in their original Greek. The judge, foreseeing he will have no peace from this woman says to himself: I had better give her what she wants so she will wear me out with her coming.

Whereas in the Greek he says to himself: I had better give her what she wants otherwise she will beat me black and blue with her pounding. It’s as if modern translator want the parables to behave themselves and fit into our neat world views. But the parables of Jesus will not behave themselves. So much for little old ladies! This widow is certainly is not one of them.

We all know first-hand the experience of powerlessness in the face fears that ill health will bankrupt us; that we won’t be able to afford the college tuition fees to educate our kids; that we have no power in the face of an economy that measures the very things that make us poorer and calls it prosperity and economic growth; that the environment is degrading around us through malign government action that allows our water to become undrinkable and our air unbreathable – all in the service of greed; that in the face of the earth’s rising temperatures government and intergovernmental inaction is tantamount to criminal neglect.

Returning to my original question: what does it mean to lay hold of the hope that is set before us? It means to live a life in which the focus of our endeavors is not to go to heaven, but to live a life where the focus shifts back from the future to the quality our persistence and the ferocity of our protest in real time between the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of the resurrection of the world. 

Are we living lives of quiet complicity with the values of the world and it’s privileging of power and denial of justice for all? Or are we living lives of persistent protest in the face of the world’s denial of kingdom values and expectations?

Are we laying a firm hold on the hope that has been set before us? Now that’s the hardest question!

Columbus Day Musings

Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Have you noticed an odd thing about prophets? Their message seems often out of sync with the outer appearance of things. For instance, when life appears to be going well as far as superficial measurements are concerned – as in the job rate is up, GDP is growing, the stock and housing markets are buoyant, the prophet is likely to sound a message of warning and foreboding. When it appears that the weave of the society around us is unravelling, it’s then that the prophet offers a message of hope and consolation.

As far as I can discern, the distinction between prophecy and other kinds of social analysis or commentary lies in the way prophecy connects the past and the future in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of present time events. Present-time action uninformed by memory and careless of future consequences spells trouble for any individual, group, or society.

A prophet’s commentary on events weaves the lessons learned from the past together with a prediction of future consequences from present time actions.

Remembrance of things past is the most accurate guide to predicting the shape of the future. This does not mean that the future is an inevitable repetition of the past. What it means is that if we want a future different from our past, then we need to understand how to act differently in the present.

We often note a wise individual as someone who clearly learns well from their experience. Yet many of us learning from experience – something so obvious, is the last thing we are likely to do. You remember the definition of madness -repeating the same mistakes expecting different results.

The prophet Jeremiah around the year 587 is writing a letter to the exiles who had recently been taken into captivity in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar following his destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah had been prophesying doom and gloom – a thorn in the side of the Court and Temple authorities since around the first signs of international crisis in 798. But all he got for pains was an accusation of treason.

Yet, Jeremiah, true to his calling, had persisted in the face of attempts to silence him. There is that memorable scene in Chapter 36 where his prophecy is being read out to King Jehoiakim, who is so incensed by what he is hearing he grabs the scroll and cuts off the offending lines, throwing them into the fire – believing evidently that out of sight, is out of mind. Well we all know how that normally turns out. Doesn’t this kind of leadership response feel uncannily familiar to us in 2019?

Eventually, the king has Jeremiah imprisoned, which is where we find him as he composes his letter to the exiles.

Having accurately foreseen the destruction which had now arrived, Jeremiah might have reminded the exiles that they had nobody to blame but themselves. Instead, the Lord instructs him to write words of encouragement, urging them to build new lives in the place where they have been taken:

Build houses, take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there and not decrease – seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

This is a piece of really good advice and the exiles heeded it. It’s the advice that waves of immigrants to America have followed to find success. It continues to be the dream of those who seek to build more secure and prosperous lives for themselves and their families despite currently being the target of unprecedented official persecution.

Over the next 70 years the exiled Jewish Community not only prospered in Babylon, but they undertook a root and branch religious reform that led to a complete reshaping of Judaism into a new kind of religion. In this new kind of Judaism, God communicated not through temple sacrifices or even prophetic utterance, but through the interpretation of a sacred text. For the first time the Jews become truly the people of the book.

By revisiting the past and relearning forgotten lessons, the Jews in Babylon began to chart a new trajectory into the future that would be different from their past.

It was during the Babylonian captivity Judaism developed structures that would equip them for a new kind of future. A future marked out from their past by a renewal of hearts and minds, and a purification of their covenant relationship with God.

As is usually the case however, this was a process of two steps forward and one step back. For when the 70 years were up, and Cyrus freed them to return home many, though not all of those taken into exile would return and try to pick up where they had left off with the rebuilding of a new Temple and a futile attempt to restore the Kingdom of David. Yet, when their rebuilt Temple was finally destroyed once and for all during the cataclysmic rebellion against Rome from 65 -70 A.D., the Jewish people found that the reformation begun in Babylon after 587 had equipped them to at times prosper, but always to survive during the next 2000 years of permanent exile.

Contemporary America seems to have lost the art of learning from the experience of its, albeit short history. To learn from our history would be to remember the countless times when the false narratives of otherness have stoked fear and justified violence. Narratives that for a short time thrive on drawing sharp distinctions between us and them repeatedly rise from the depths of our fear of the other as if we have never trod this road and learned this lesson before.

Yet these periods when the false narratives of fear and division have erupted must be viewed within the overarching trajectory of the building of a different and new kind of nation; one nation forged from the confluence of many nations; a nation in which we are all at the same time both us and them, familiar and other.

Like the Jews of the Babylonian captivity our Founders chartered a new trajectory into the future forged from, and protected by, a foundational text.

The Constitution, like the Bible is a foundational text that invites each generation into an often tense encounter with it. This act of encounter is, by its nature, an act of interpretation arising out of the dynamic tension between text and the specificity of context (time and place). This is a dynamic tension that breathes new life into the dead letters on the page.  

In his letter to Timothy, known to us as the 2nd Timothy (refer back to last week) Paul echoes the central discovery learned from experience:

If we are faithless, God remains faithful – for God cannot deny God’s own nature.

Mounting evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors in the highest echelons of our government; the draconian separation of families at the Southern Border; the capricious lurches in foreign policy that lead to the abandonment of faithful allies and the greenlighting of strongman governments around the world reveal the depths of our need for a renewed soul searching. Unlike God, it seems it’s all too easy for us to deny our own (better) nature.

Columbus Day is a celebration that highlights the complexity of the past. Just which lesson from our history are we celebrating? The lessons of our history should remind us we have been in bad and even more shameful places before. Yet this cannot be used as a justification for finding ourselves in a bad place yet again. Like the Jews exiled to Babylon, we need to ask how have we come to this state? However, more importantly, like them it’s time to act in the present-time to ensure that the trajectory of our future is something greater than an endless repetition of our past sins.

Can we do it? I know we can!

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