Sunday, November 3, 2013

For All The Saints, Westport, CT

From August 1993 to January 1998, I served as Associate Rector at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, Connecticut. They have been in a time of transition since the recent retirement of the rector I worked for and will soon welcome their new rector. In this "in between" time they asked me if I might come down to preach and to see old friends, an invitation I was happy to accept. What a privilege to be there today.

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Five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Heraclitus pointed out that “you cannot step into the same river twice.”  More than two thousand years after Heraclitus, that great poet of the church, Isaac Watts, put it this way: 

Time, like an ever rolling stream bears all our years away / they fly, forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.

My name is Rich Simpson. During the years I served as Associate Rector of this parish, I knew the people here and the joys and concerns of this parish and in turn I was known. The river has rolled along and some are gone, and those of us here are a little older and there are many faces I don't know. But it is nevertheless great to be back.  

A brief reintroduction and update on the past fifteen years: Hathy and I arrived here with a three-year old, Graham. During our four and a half years here, our second son, James was born at Norwalk Hospital and then baptized in that very font that we'll be using today. Hathy was working on a Masters in Public Health degree at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington...

This past spring, Graham graduated from Harvard College with a degree in economics. James is in his second year at Northeastern University studying civil engineering. Hathy put to good use that MPH degree and has, for the past fifteen years, been working for the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. And until this past Pentecost I continued to serve as the rector of St. Francis Church in Holden.

Before continuing I just want to add this: the Simpsons have been very good luck for the Red Sox. My sons have been raised, not in the shadow of any "curse of the Bambino" but expecting parades like the one we had yesterday in Boston for the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox--third time in less than a decade. 

In any case, this past summer I left a beloved congregation to join the staff of our new Bishop, Doug Fisher, as Canon to the Ordinary. Hathy and I, as empty nesters, have embarked on a new chapter in our life-together. In the same year that we both have turned fifty, we purchased our very first home, having spent our entire married life living in church-owned housing.

I know that lots has changed here, too. I imagine that a very small percentage of you here today remember when John arrived as your new rector from Chatham, New Jersey. But when I was here, John Branson was still the relatively new guy following the long tenure of the Rev. Dana Forrest Kennedy. And now you are in the midst of a big transition and about to welcome Whitney Edwards into your midst. Hopefully this time of transition under the leadership of Ben and your wardens has been a time of getting ready and yet knowing that there will be a learning curve for Whitney and for all of you in the months and even years ahead. Part of what I do remember about Westport is that things tend to move quickly around here and that energy and pace is part of what I loved. But transitions require us to draw on a different skill set: to be patient and kind and gentle and to wait on the Lord. You will be in my prayers as that all unfolds. So for what has been, thanks be to God. And for what is, thanks be to God. And for what will be, thanks be to God.

When I left here in 1998 and was interviewing at St. Francis in Holden, the Search Committee asked me a whole lot of questions including this one: Rich, how long to you preach? I told them, as long as it takes! Now I just want to be clear: we’ve been catching up so far and I’ve not started preaching yet. But now it's time to get down to business...

We gather here today, the living and the dead. All Saints Day give us a chance to look, if I have not pushed that metaphor too hard already, both upstream and downstream. We look back to that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and been lights in their generations and we give thanks for their witness - those figures that loom large for the whole catholic and apostolic faith, people like Julian of Norwich and Francis of Assisi. But also that cloud of witnesses that we bring with us, those who helped for form the people we have become, the ones you can meet at church or in shops or at tea. 

So we pause to look back and give thanks. We also look to the future: in a cosmic sense to that day when people from many tribes and nations will be gathered around the heavenly throne to sing, blessed is the Lamb. That vision of our future reminds us that the unhappy divisions of our time are temporary, and of the work God has given us to do to be agents of reconciliation and healing as we move toward that day.

But on this day (as every Sunday) we most fully worship the living God when we are attentive to this present moment, here and now as we listen for a Word of the Lord in these ancient texts of Holy Scripture and pour the water for baptism and break the bread, and share the cup.

The Book of Daniel is a kind of patchwork quilt comprised of older oral and written traditions that have been sewn together to make the final draft of what is the newest document in the Old Testament. The Bible emerged over time and Daniel is a kind of bridge stitched together probably only about two hundred years before the birth of Jesus. It’s a very strange book that wrestles with one very serious question: how can God’s people faithfully survive as a religious minority living under foreign rule? The narrator knows that there will be trials and tribulations when living in dangerous times, that there will be “costs of discipleship.”

So the final product includes a series of folktales set in a much earlier time period with the strange language of apocalyptic literature. The folktale narrative includes that great story about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who, for their obedience to the one true God were thrown into a fiery furnace to be burned alive. The king was so furious he turned the furnace up to seven times the normal temperature. But they survived. They were protected. The point is as obvious as it is in any fairy tale: how do God’s people survive as a religious minority under foreign rule? By being clear about who it is they worship. By being faithful to God no matter what. As the prophet Dylan once put it, "you're gonna have to serve somebody." Daniel would respond: it may as well be the Lord, then. 

Today we heard some of the apocalyptic stuff from the seventh chapter of Daniel.. He has these dreams and visions in his head during the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon. It’s important to realize, however, that we aren’t getting a contemporaneous report. The narrator is asking new questions by using old stories. It’s a bit like Arthur Miller’s play, “The Crucible”—do you remember it? Miller sets his play in the time of the Salem Witch Trials, but he wrote it in the 1950s as a commentary on the House of Un-American Activities Committee. Miller’s play means to suggest that Joe McCarthy was on a witch-hunt. The Book of Daniel functions in a very similar way and it is just as political: the writer sees hints and clues taken from a more distant past of the Babylonian exile as a way to reflect upon and interpret the challenges that God’s people were facing in a new time and place. But again the message is clear: God is a jealous God. Worship God alone. Serve the Lord. 

Like anyone who lives in fearful times, Daniel is trying to sift through both his dreams and his nightmares. On the one hand, always there is the lure of God’s lasting vision of shalom: peace on earth, swords beaten into plowshares, the fatted calf killed, the wine poured and the table set, a table where all are welcome. On the other hand are the recurring nightmares of what he calls “the beasts” of imperial power that haunt us at night—the kind of powers of this world that can disappear people in the middle of the night. The insight that Daniel gets is that those “four beasts shall arise out of the earth” –that is to say their power is for real. But…but the holy ones of the Most High shall receive and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

In other words, “all shall be well”—eventually. The point is not to make some distant future prediction. Nor is it very helpful to try to match up these “beasts” with the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union or North Korea. The point here is about hope. The point is that Daniel is learning to trust God’s dream and not to let his nightmares undo him. The point is that he (and sometimes we) can vacillate between despair and hope, and the message of Daniel to the Jewish people and through them to us who are here today is to hang in there and keep on keeping on with our eyes on the prize. It is to take the long-view and stay faithful to the end and not to be afraid. The holy ones of the Most High shall inherit the kingdom forever—forever and ever.” (Daniel 7:18)

This is a cosmic message but it gets lived out, I think, in congregations like this one and in our own lives again and again, especially in times of transition and change. It is easy in such times to lose heart, and to be undone by our fears. But to us as well the good news is to take the long view, and to stay faithful, and to not be afraid. 

So in the meantime, we gather. On this All Saints weekend we welcome the newly baptized into the household of God: William and Grayson and Brady join us in this work that God has given us to do. I know that it doesn’t seem like they can do a lot yet but trust me, parents—you will blink and they’ll be headed off to college. Between now and then the work is ours as parents and family and parish: to live the Baptismal Covenant as faithfully as we can so that they grow into the full stature of Christ. Too many of us have old tapes that play whenever Baptism is celebrated: tapes would suggest that Holy Baptism is some sort of fire insurance. But we need to let those old tapes go the same way that 8-tracks and cassette tapes have gone.

Holy Baptism is about God naming us, claiming us, sealing us—marking us as Christ’s own so that together we can confess the faith of Christ crucified and proclaim his resurrection and share in his eternal priesthood. In a world not unlike the days of Daniel, the Church must once more ask: whom do we serve? Where is our true allegiance? And do we really trust God to help us to write a new script so that we,too, might live against the grain as a witnesses to God in this world?

So those are the questions I leave you with, which I think is one of the gifts of being a guest preacher who flies in and then out again: canons to the ordinary get to ask really hard questions and then leave! The real work of ministry will be done by all of you baptized gathered here, and as a new chapter begins with your new rector, Whitney, as you embrace that core vision of shalom given to Jesus by his parents, Mary and Joseph—a vision of peace on earth and good will to all. It will be to do the work that God has given you as a congregation to do, day by day, week after week, month after month, year after year.

We pray on this All Saints Day for wisdom, for transformed minds, for renewed imagination, for courage, and for the ministry of hospitality as your new rector and her family join you in doing this holy work. In the name of Lamb at the center of the throne, the One who calls us each by name—the One who has vanquished death and in so doing given us the courage to live. 

For lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. Alleluia. Alleluia. 

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