Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost - Church of the Good Shepherd, Clinton

This morning I had the good fortune to be with the people of Good Shepherd, Clinton. Their rector is a dear friend, the Rev. Dr. William Bergmann. Yesterday at our cathedral, the Rev. Beatrice Kayigwa was ordained to the diaconate. While Good Shepherd is her home parish, I have known Bea for many years through an EfM group at St. Francis, Holden that I used to mentor. So I got to be on the altar with her today too, as well as Deacon Donna Kingman. What a great day! Today's readings can be found here. I chose to focus on the gospel, from the 21st chapter of Luke. 

Once upon a time, in a not-so far-away land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree.  Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, fully westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy; and since they were midlife, baby-boomer acorns, they engaged in a lot of self-help courses.  There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell.”  There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree.  There were spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped “out of the blue” by a passing bird.  He was capless and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns.  And crouched beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale.  Pointing upward at the tree, he said. “We … are … that!”

Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded, but one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?” 

“Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground … and cracking open the shell.”

“Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid!  Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”

I love this modern-day parable from Jacob Needleman, who teaches philosophy at San Francisco State University. It has taken on new meaning for me since moving this past summer to a home in Worcester that is surrounded by huge oak trees.

That move came about after Bishop Fisher invited me to join his staff, which meant saying goodbye to a parish I loved in Holden, St. Francis, where I served for over fifteen years as rector. Leaving was, in its own way, a kind of personal story of death and resurrection—as every transition is. But that story will have to wait for another time. During the time served at St. Francis, this extraordinary woman from Uganda, by way of Clinton, joined our Education for Ministry group. She brought with her a deep and abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. What a privilege, yesterday morning, to be at Christ Church Cathedral for Beatrice’s ordination to the diaconate. It is an honor for me to be here today among you all as she begins this new ministry and this time of transition.

Needleman’s parable about the acorns and the oak tree takes us, I think, deep into the very heart of what it means to follow Jesus by way of the Cross, whether our particular vocation is as bishop or priest or deacon or layperson. It speaks to the mystery of faith that we proclaim each week when we gather, but that we need to discover and rediscover again and again for ourselves in the world, in our living: we are an Easter people. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. In a nutshell (do I dare say it that way?) this is what we are about. It’s who we are.

In these last weeks of November, as the days are getting shorter and darker in the northern hemisphere, our attention in the appointed readings this week and next week when we celebrate Christ the King Sunday and then into the first week of Advent—again and again we hear about the signs of endings that are all around us. Yet for an Easter people, signs of endings potentially awaken hope, not fear—because even at the grave we make our song—alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. It is from endings that we discover new beginnings. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s also true: you don’t get to be a mighty oak unless you are willing to die to life as an acorn.

In today’s gospel reading we hear Jesus talking about the end of the Temple. It was an impressive site to be sure, adorned with all kinds of beautiful stones. But it’s more than beautiful architecturally: it is where God’s people encounter the sacred. Of course they know God is everywhere: in the rising and setting of the sun and in the mountains and at the seashore. Like us, they worshipped God the creator of the heavens and earth. Even so, places matter and the Temple mattered a great deal to first-century Palestinian Jews.

It’s a tricky business, isn’t it? Here we are, next to the icon museum. That word icon—the Greek word for “image” is an invitation to see through something into what is holy. Icons are like windows: and so we try to see through bread and wine to the Body and Blood and through the words printed in a Bible to the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Same thing is true for temples made with human hands: to glimpse through them to eternity. But that’s hard to do sometimes, isn’t it? We can get stuck on the things themselves. We get attached to them, quite literally. So I don’t think Jesus is making a prediction about the future in today’s gospel—not about when the temple will in fact come down or about the end of the world as we know it. Rather, I think he means to remind those with ears to hear that nothing lasts forever. The definition of any created thing is that it has a beginning and an end; no exceptions, save for God alone.

Six centuries before Jesus’ birth, the people of Jerusalem had felt invincible. And then the Babylonian army had marched into town and reduced their big buildings to rubble. That event, of course, marked the beginning of the exile. What they discovered in Babylon was that God was still God—even there, even after they laid up their harps and wept. Eventually they did learn to sing the Lord’s song in a strange and alien land. And eventually they came back home and under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah they rebuilt that temple. The old-timers insisted that it was not as grand as the original but, well, people are like that sometimes. It was still pretty special. All this happened 5 centuries or so before the birth of Jesus. So this second temple had been there for a while now. It seemed pretty permanent. And since it feels like it has been there forever, it also feels like it will be there forever.  And I imagine that must have felt pretty reassuring: in the midst of a changing world to trust in those things that will remain rock solid.

And yet Jesus says that such trust is misplaced; he is the rock, not that temple. And in fact, only about fifty years or so after this conversation took place, the Roman army will in fact march into Jerusalem and destroy this second Temple just as the Babylonians had destroyed the first one. That second Temple will never be rebuilt, and all that remains to this day, two thousand years later, is the west wall—the one also known as the Wailing Wall. Judaism didn’t die though: it reinvented itself as rabbinic Judaism. Or maybe we should say that God kept working through it all to bring good, and the story wasn’t over and the people weren’t over even when the Temple was reduced to a wall.

I think that Jesus is inviting his followers in every generation to consider the fact that nothing lasts forever. Big buildings make us think we are secure and maybe even invincible. But we know better, don’t we? The biggest of buildings, whether in first-century Jerusalem or twenty-first century lower Manhattan, can come down before our very eyes. And when that happens, when things we thought were “permanent” are exposed as transient, they can leave fear and terror in their wake. And certainly grief. What do we do with such emotions? What do we do when the very foundations of our faith are shaken?

What Jesus does in today’s gospel reading, as I hear him, is to re-frame that question. Endings, he insists, always hold within them the possibilities for new beginnings. By your endurance you will gain your souls.That is not an act of denial; it’s a leap of faith. The loss that Israel will experience with the destruction of the temple is real. Yet Jesus says that we can choose to see that loss as “birth pangs” of a new creation. Instead of a Temple made with human hands, he points toward a community that will be his resurrected Body. But to get there will mean going through Good Friday. Acorns need to die if they are to become mighty oaks.

I don’t know about you, but left to my own devices, I tend to prefer security to faith. We think we can be kept safe. But that is an illusion. It is a lie. And it is also a form of idolatry that keeps us from putting our whole trust in God’s love. In the absence of absolute security there is a clear but difficult choice: we can live in fear or we can live in hope.  I think that in today’s gospel reading Jesus is inviting us to embrace our vulnerabilities, and then to live by faith.  

It seems to me that all of this is immensely important wisdom for the Church in our day. Over the past few decades, the institutional church has experienced quite a few hits. It sometimes feels as if the foundations are shaking and the buildings may yet come crashing down. At least one congregation in our diocese, in Great Barrington, has literally had that happen to them. But guess what? It wasn’t the end of them. In fact it led to new life and ultimately to a merger with another congregation and on this day they continue to meet in a bar on Sunday mornings. They discovered new ways of being church, together—and always with God’s help.

All of this is pretty scary stuff: scary for bishops and priests and deacons and lay people. It’s hard to let go of the old and embrace the new. But that is how we discover and rediscover our true faith in the living God: when we put our trust in the One who has come into the world to make all things new: the one who says that even when it seems as if the world is coming unglued, it is possible to view that as a transition. What is true on a macrocosmic scale is just as true in our life stories. Someone we love dies and our faith is shaken. Or we go through a painful divorce that we think will never end. It is hard in the midst of such life experiences to see them as birth pangs that are leading to something new when we feel weary and disillusioned and in pain. Yet we are an Easter people, and to be an Easter people means that we are a people who believe in the resurrection not just of Jesus 2000 years ago, but in the ways that old things are being made new even today—even now, before our very eyes. From death comes new life. From the dying acorn comes the mighty oak tree.

As God’s people it is our mission and great privilege to tend to that new creation:  to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ not only with our lips, but with our lives. Before we can do that we have to begin to believe it ourselves. We have to learn what it means again and again to be a people of hope rather than of fear and anxiety. We have to be a little bit delusional, like that acorn. And like Jesus, who talks of the destruction of the temple and much worse—wars and natural disasters and famines and plagues and then says: do not be terrified. Stand tall. By your endurance, you will gain your souls.   

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