Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Open Door

In the novel 11/22/63 by Stephen King, a time traveler finds a portal from 2011 to 1958 and uses it to prevent JFK’s assassination, thinking that would also set in motion a way to prevent the Vietnam War and the assassination of MLK. It’s such a natural thought in any of our lives—if I could prevent the one really bad thing from happening, wouldn’t that take away many of the other bad things? But as any Star Trek fan out there knows, that type of trying to control the future contradicts the Prime Directive, which is that you can’t try to alter the future or it screws everything up with unintended consequences. Stephen King evidently worked with the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to explore dystopian ideas of what might have happened if JFK was not killed: in his novel: the Civil Rights Act is not passed; Governor George Wallace ends up being elected President; by the time the main character returns to 2011, the world has suffered a nuclear holocaust and is in the process of ending. I guess it is a Stephen King novel, after all.

I was obviously reminded of that novel this week in the context of the 50th anniversary of the assassination, but there are moments in today’s gospel that remind me of the fundamental premise of wanting to control or redo the future in the cries from the crowd for Jesus to “save yourself” and from the criminal to “save yourself and us.” When reality is bad—and it often is—we want to be saved from it. We want to deny death and suffering the short term victory, and ask ourselves “what if” questions… what if JFK had not died? What if Jesus had not been crucified? What if he did “save himself?”

Could there be some kind of alternative reality where Jesus reigns not just in heaven but on earth? There exists some of that desire in the feast we are celebrating today, the feast of Christ the King. Maybe Jesus could become the Palm Sunday king, riding on a donkey and being hailed by the crowd… maybe the Roman Empire could have been overthrown and Israel liberated and… and… then what would have happened? But no. We can try to force the trappings of earthly power onto Jesus, but it is clear to me that his mission was not to be an earthly king.

We don’t need to rewrite history, because the reality—as bad as it is at the foot of the cross in Golgotha, and as bad as it is at the foot of our own crosses—is going to be redeemed in a way the people who stand at its foot cannot even imagine. There would be no end of death without Jesus’ death; no promise of life without his resurrection. When we expect Jesus to act in a concrete, earthly way—like an earthly king might intervene, with military power or self-interest or earthly might, we will be disappointed. When we expect Jesus to intervene as the King of Glory and King of Peace, in the phrase from the hymn we sang before the gospel—through forgiveness and mercy and eternal life the way he does today—then we will be satisfied.

Which is not to say that we cannot and should not attempt to intervene to prevent suffering and death; it is our very faith in Jesus the calls us to intervene—to act with compassion, with peace, with fortitude for justice. We on earth are the ones who are called to intervene in the earthly way—not God. Where humanity sins and causes suffering, we are the ones who fail. But even that is not impossible to redeem.

Look at the two things Jesus says in the gospel today: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” Both are statements of incredible power—who has the power to forgive sins? Who has the capacity to promise us a place in paradise? They are not statements of earthly power, but they are statements of profound power—far more than any earthly being can offer.

Consider especially that Jesus is offering forgiveness to the men who are crucifying him. I remember learning that in order to receive forgiveness, you had to repent, and promise amendment of life. Are these men repentant? Good heavens, no. No one says “I’m sorry.” None of them promise not to crucify anyone again. Jesus is pleading for forgiveness without those signs that we consider important today. Grace is offered before we even know enough to ask for it.

What Jesus’ kingship is about is the promise that we are forgiven for our sins even before we know they’re sinful. It’s about the promise that we will be with him in paradise whether we die on a cross or in a hospital bed; it is about the promise that he is, in the words of the wonderful George Herbert poem that was the text of the hymn we sang before the Gospel, a “King of glory, king of peace.” The second verse of that poem has always spoken powerfully to me in the context of this gospel:

Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
and the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.
Though my sins against me cried,
thou didst clear me;
and alone, when they replied,
thou didst hear me.

I will praise Jesus; I will offer Jesus my best; and Jesus will clear me of my sins—even when they return again and again. We’re not so different from the thief. At our best we know that we need saving. At our worst we’re more like those who are crucifying Jesus—we don’t even know we need forgiveness. But to Jesus, they’re all the same. They’re all forgiven.

The Episcopal priest and author Barbara Crafton wrote a series of seven poems on the last words of Christ; here’s an excerpt from “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” speaking about that thief who stands in for us and our salvation:

“It has long been clear to him that
Most would not reach out and take the gift.
Most would stand outside and knock.
On a door already open.
But for this one on the right, status is not on the table.
At the end of life, this one is free to ask,
Because there is no harm in asking,
And you never know.
At the end of a life that knows it needs saving,
When there is no longer any chance for amends
The one on the right just asks for the gift
And, as always, the answer is yes.”

With Jesus our King, when it comes to grace, forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation, the answer is always yes, and the door is always open. We don’t even have to knock. We need only take a first step and walk through.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

God of the living, church of the living

“Mommy, who owns the church?” asked Nathan about two weeks ago. These are the questions you get with a precocious 4 year old. But I’ve played this parenting game before, and I know you’re supposed to answer a question with another question: “Well, who do you think owns the church?” “You?” Out loud, I said, “No, definitely not me.” Inside I thought, “Yeah, sometimes it feels like I own this building…” But I continued out loud, “I guess you could say that all of us own the church. Or that God does.” “All of us own the church, like, me??” Big grin. Nathan sees himself as part-owner of the church. Not bad for a conversation before 9am.

And the perfect introduction to a sermon on a day when we are celebrating our role as stewards of all that has been entrusted to us, including the Church of the Epiphany. 

All of us—and God—own the church. And not the building—or at least not just the building—but the ministry here, the worship here, the pastoral care people get when they are ill or someone they love dies.   

You can see a little of the same sense of that in the reading from Haggai this morning. Most of the Hebrew prophets preach doom and gloom—shape up, or God is going to destroy us. Haggai—all 3 pages of it—is a celebration of how wonderful it will be to complete building the temple after the exile. He prophesies that there is just a little more work to be done, and that then it will be like a huge gravitational pull for the nations that surround Israel, bringing joy and prosperity and honor. The temple isn’t just a building—it’s the place where God lives. And it’s the place where the people will finally be able to gather to pray in a way that they hadn’t been able for a full generation. Haggai is basically saying, “don’t give up!” to his community—that the effort and cost will be worth it, and to never lose sight of the big picture of what it will mean to have a functioning temple again.  

I know I need to spend a little time explaining Levirate marriage—the practice the Sadducees bring up in the Gospel today where a woman who is widowed without children would be “married” by her brother in law to bring up children for her dead husband. Despite how odd it sounds to our ears in our own cultural context, it was in its own way a very good form of stewardship. I got some laughs on Facebook this week for suggesting that perhaps the stewardship lesson was “If you have a spare wife in the family, it’s good stewardship to have someone marry her” but at a larger level that was true for its time and place. We live in a different context today. But it was in the interests of the family to have each of their sons have children—they needed to tend the land, to have another generation to pass it down to—and once a woman was widowed, the only alternative to a second marriage was poverty. Better to be married by your husband’s brother and remain with his family than to be turned out on the streets. Better to have vicarious children for your husband who will care for you as you age than to die alone and childless. 

But the Sadducees’ question isn’t really about Levirate marriage practices—it’s really about resurrection. And it is at some level about how who we are as earthly living creatures has to do with who we will be as resurrected, heavenly creatures. How does who we are now relate to who we will be? And how do those who have died before us relate to who we are now? And finally how is it that “God is the God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.” 

And that starts to get into a really interesting question of stewardship for me. Because one of the most concrete ways we are linked to our forebears in the faith is through the institution of the church. Through these walls. Who owns the church of the Epiphany? We all do… but “all” includes not just Nathan and me and you but everyone who was here before and left their mark on it. It’s Hugh McCandless whose “word burned like a lamp” as we learn from the inscription over there, and the woman who gave the money to pay Lot Jones’ salary the first year of our existence in 1833, and the Russells who as a father and son team were wardens and vestrymen for something like 70 years straight. The church belongs to all of us, living and dead. And that is both a blessing and a curse. We have a goodly inheritance—were it not for the generosity of those church members in the past, we would not be here. They paid to build this building. They raise the funds in our endowment which are currently allowing us to spend some years intentionally moving our school and parish towards financial independence and sustainability.  

But relying too much on the past can make it seem at times like God is the God of the living in a church paid for by the dead. The flip side of that is that at times it feels like we are shackled by the choices and decisions of our forebears. While made, I am sure with the best of intentions, the Episcopal church as a whole is struggling with the cost of maintaining aging buildings that in many cases no longer suit our missional needs. The 75th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of our present building was 3 weeks ago, which is a lovely anniversary, but hardly a day goes by that I don’t ask myself “Why didn’t they put in a bathroom on the main floor???”. This building has beauty, and it has served us well, but even after the renovations we did this summer, there is so much more to be done to match our facility with our mission, because our mission is so different now than it was 75 years ago.  

The Church of the Epiphany is a church of the living, and we serve the God of the living. I believe that it matters what we do here. Our ministry matters to the lives of so many people we touch—whether it is the hungry person who is served a good dinner on Wednesday night, or someone seeking God who encounters a safe place to explore their faith at the Arts and Spiritual Direction group on a Tuesday night; or the community that forms when our choir rehearses and sings together; or the child who learns unequivocally here by the welcome they receive that they are an “owner” of this church. 

And we do all of this—feeding the hungry, growing in faith, worshiping and building a welcoming community not because we’re nice people or a social service organization but because we love and follow Jesus. The Jesus who loved us first, the Jesus who loves us as we are, not just as we present ourselves to the world. The Jesus who challenges us today—and every day—into ever growing in our generosity, ever growing in our spiritual life, ever growing in faith.  

Our stewardship theme this year was “Real people, real faith, real friends,” and I think it’s the best one we’ve ever had. Epiphany is a place where you will find real people—honest, authentic flawed, but basically good people who aren’t trying to be somebody else. Epiphany is a place where you will find real faith—where “we’ve always done it that way” is not a mantra, where we are always looking for new ways to invite people into our midst, and where we worship the living God in awe and beauty and prayer. And finally, Epiphany is a place where you will find real friends. Relationships that will deepen your life. Look around you. These are the people who will love you when you’re down, who will celebrate with you when you’re up, and who will work side by side with you for the sake of the Gospel through it all. 

In the last year, with the changes in my life, I have been very conscious about that gift of support and love from all of you. And I have worried about money in a way I haven’t for years and years. Facing questions of “will I have enough?” and “Can I still be so generous?”. And I’ve wrestled with my personal budget, and my time, and actually think I am being a much, much better steward of myself and my life now than I have been in some time. And out of that comes my gratitude. Thank you, Jesus, for putting me in a place where my son knows that the church belongs to him. How could I not be grateful for that? And how could I not respond with generosity in my giving? So that line item in my budget stays. And even grows. 

Generosity is not a characteristic just of the dead. It was not easier to give 100 years ago. There was no more certainty about life and jobs and investments and businesses. I want to be like the prophet Haggai, saying over and over again, “Take courage.” “Take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear.” So take courage, and work. Something that our bishop, Andy Dietsche, said yesterday in his wonderful convention address stuck with me on that topic: “Jesus expects us to be hardworking grown ups.” We do have hard work ahead of us. But we’re grown ups. We can do it with God’s help. And with Jesus’ love. For the sake of the living and those yet to be living—because we are the stewards of their time as well as our own.