Monday, August 06, 2012

Survival Guide for Congregations - St. Stephen's, Espanola

First, a Bible Quiz for you:
What is the first mention of baseball in the Bible?
“In the big-inning.”

Who is the shortest person in the Bible?
“Nehemiah . . . Bildad the Shuhite . . . Peter, he was so short he slept on his watch.”

Why was there only bread and wine at the Last Supper?
“It was a pot luck and only guys were invited.”

Next question is not really from the Bible . . but it is an important one:
Who is the absolute hardest person for God to work with?
Someone who is perfect – or thinks he or she is perfect – or never wrong.

We’ll come back to that, but first: while I was reading our passage from Ephesians over and over again in preparation for this morning, my first thought was “This is a wonderful, moving description of what a Christian congregation should be. I mean, it is really very inspiring.” Then I thought: why would St. Paul write that? He didn’t have a word processor – or even a decent typewriter. He, himself, acknowledged that writing was very difficult for him.

“I entreat you. . that you live up to your calling. Be humble always and gentle, and patient, too. Be forbearing with one another and charitable. Spare no effort to make fast with bonds of peace the unity which the Spirit gives. There is one body and one Spirit, as there is also one hope held out in God’s call to you; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (4:1-6)

I believe Paul wrote that because that congregation was struggling – most likely coming apart at the seams. You find the same thing in I Corinthians – only there it is worse. Almost the whole of that Epistle is “Hey, come on guys!”

On the other side, I think most people who come to the Episcopal Church have the same response: “What a great church.” “I really feel accepted here.” “Everything here is what I’ve always wanted in a church.” And do you know something?  That’s true. And you want to know something else? That’s not the whole story, the entire reality. And given that, what I want to do this morning is to give you a Congregational Survival Guide – through several images.

When I was an undergraduate, I got to take three different courses with the great theologian, Paul Tillich. From that experience, the one thing which continues to rattle around in my brain was his constant reference to a single verse in Paul’s letter to the Romans, always spoken by Tillich with such anguish: “The good that I would, I do not  - and that which I would not . . . is what I do, what I end up doing.” Every parent knows the truth of that. I know that despite trying to avoid what my parents got wrong I could hear my father’s voice in my own. That which I would not. . . is what I did.

            That is who we are: it is not all that we are, but it is part of who we are: “Everyone must have two pockets into which he or she can reach from time to time,” said the Rabbi of Kobryn.
“In the one pocket it shall be written: ‘For my sake were the heavens and earth created.’ And in the other, ‘I am but dust and ashes.”’ Both pockets.  The whole story of each of us . .and of this and every other congregation.

            The second image has to do with a friend of mine in Santa Fe – you may know her or have heard of her. Her name is Sallie Bingham – one of the wealthiest people in Santa Fe if not NM. She is also one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve known. About a year ago in the middle of our Sunday service at St. Bede’s, a really disheveled homeless guy wandered into the church and to the shock of everyone started checking out the altar and then knelt in front of it babbling nonsense.

I went up from my pew and knelt beside him and then quietly asked if he would join me in the front pew. Something quite magical happened then. As I put my arm around his shoulder, he rested his head on mine. And so it was through the service.

            It was then that the second and more important miracle happened. When the fellow had left, Sallie Bingham came up to me and said, “Tom, I am so glad there is a place for that man here at St. Bede’s, because that means there is a place for me.” I was. . and I remain . . stunned. What was it that Sallie understood? But she understood – as few people understand.

            The third image is from the beginning of Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5). Jesus, looking out over this large crowd which has gathered to hear him speak, says “You are the light of the world. . .” Just a week ago a know it all theologian quoted that verse and wrote, Jesus is telling us who we have to be – we need to be the light the world.”

BEEP     “Wrong answer, try again.”

When Jesus says to those in the crowd: “You are the light of the world,” there is no “ought,” no “should,” no “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better be good and I’m telling you why. Jesus Christ has come to town.”

            It is simply (and this is Jesus talking directly to each one of us) “You are the light of the world.” I think that is the hardest verse in the whole Bible. “I am the light of the world? Come on, get serious.” And then, once I begin to “get” that, comes the second step. All these other people here -- they, too, are the light of the world. Despite all those efforts by well meaning people through history to transform the Kingdom of God into someone’s notion of morality or being good, the kingdom is not a matter of having all the right moral merit badges.

            How can we stay in touch with that? Let me try with a Puppet Show: in two parts. The first is the World’s Shortest Hand Puppet Show - which probably should have been in the joke section: [two bare hands facing one another]  “Oh, look, Adam, we are naked.” “Oh, Eve, I am so ashamed.”

            Then, the second part: The World’s Most Important Hand Puppet Show! It could be two kids on the playground – or a married/unmarried couple. James and John, Peter and Paul, or Adam and Eve. [Again, hiding behind the pulpit, with sock covered hands serving as two puppets] “I heard what you said to them. You told a lie about me.” Did not. . . did too. . did not . .did too. You are the worst . . . no worse than you . . . I’ve had it with you. . . No, I’ve had it with you!” And then the puppeteer appears and, seeing that they have been given life by the same puppeteer, they each realize that their, that our lives are tied together –  and in a way that is different from any other place in world.

            Those stupid puppets and their connection with one another are so important to understanding the reality of Holy Communion. It is not the point that we become Jesus. Jesus gets to be Jesus – and he’s got plenty to do. The consecrated bread and wine. . they take on our DNA. Our Lord blessing and informing who we are. . . both pockets . . the homeless guy and Sallie Bingham . . the diversity of this congregation. Maybe it is only those who regard themselves as perfect or as always right who miss the blessing.

            With all that in mind, where is the survival guide? It is the same thing that happens in pre-marriage instruction. You know, marriages based primarily on romance nearly always go bad. I’ve seen it over and over again: “We are so much in love with one another and we know this will go on forever. I will feel loved. . . and I will be able to love him/ her forever.” Romantic love is good – but it comes and goes. And there are long stretches when it seems absent and there are times when we hurt one another and it is hard to forgive. . .

            But there are two kinds of love – Romantic and Necessary Love. While romantic love is sweet nothings, candlelight dinners, and sleeping in on Saturday mornings (notice that I did not say “Sunday mornings”).  Necessary love is taking out the trash, holding one’s flu-ridden partner’s head over the toilet during the worst of the flu and asking forgiveness, sometimes even when it wasn’t your fault. Christ is in the Romance – in every aspect of it. Christ is also in the Necessary Love – in all the day to day loving, forgiving and healing.

You know, we don’t get to have the opportunity to experience God face to face. Mostly we experience God sacramentally, through the gifts God give us – husband, wife, partner, St. Stephen’s. It is primarily through their love, their healing, their forgiveness that we will experience the love, the healing power and the forgiveness of God.

            In your life here, there will always be glitches – some through my fault, sometimes by those on this side of the aisle, sometimes by those on that side of the aisle. But there will also be miracles – miracles of love and acceptance, grace and goodness, forgiveness and healing.

The walls of this church have heard it all – heartbreaks, losses and deep sadness / baptisms, weddings and growing closeness with God and with one another. Do not let anyone fool you. . . please, don’t let anyone fool you:  this is the pearl of great price.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Question for Governor Romney

Would you be willing to accept an election won on the basis of voter suppression brought about by your party?