Sunday, September 11, 2016

Prophetic Imagination

Today, on this fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, I was at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Auburn. They are preparing to welcome a new priest-in-charge into their midst in just three weeks, the Rev. Julia Dunbar. The readings for today can be found here, the same readings we heard fifteen years ago on this weekend. 

Congregations take on a personality of their own over time due to many different factors.

One of those factors, I think, has to do with when the parish was founded; related to that is the architecture of the building. We have lots of suburban church plants across the diocese founded under Bishop Hatch’s leadership, whose roots are in the 1950s and 1960s post-war suburbs; these include St. Francis, Holden, Nativity, Northborough, Epiphany, Wilbraham, St. Mark’s, East Longmeadow and St. Christopher’s, Fairview. In my travels around the diocese I walk into those buildings and feel like I know the place, like this one - although I know that this building is not your first one as a congregation and your roots go back further, to Cherry Valley. They were all founded at a time when people assumed that the Sunday School would always be filled with children, at a time when church-going was at historical records. So they built buildings with that vision in mind.

There is something different not only about the architecture of those places from a parish like Christ Church, Rochdale, founded in 1821, or All Saints, Worcester, founded about twenty or so years later, or Grace, Oxford which was built after the Civil War. It’s not better nor worse; just different – because church was different in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth. All of these places are trying to figure out, with all of you, what it means to do ministry in the twenty-first century and to find inspiration from the past without being bound by it.

Other things affect a church’s “personality” for good and for ill, including the rectors who have served there. Some congregations suffer from clergy misconduct, some from a father-knows-best mentality. Others benefit from wise pastors and visionary leaders. Sometimes people either speak out loud or sometimes in hushed voices about the days when so and so was here.

One of the things that I believe also helps to shape a congregation’s “personality” is its name. You could ask, with Shakespeare, “isn’t a rose still a rose by any other name?” But I think even in asking that question we know that it’s not quite the case. Names do matter. I served the only parish in the diocese named for Francis of Assisi from 1998-2013. We had two theme songs in that parish, both of which we’d sing every first weekend in October when we remembered St. Francis. One was “All Creatures of Our God and King.” It reminded us of Francis’ love for all creation and it challenged us to be stewards of God’s good earth. The second one is the prayer we just sang, a sung version of the prayer attributed to St. Francis. Even if he didn’t write it himself, it goes to the heart of his spirituality which was not only about the wonder of God’s creation, but about our call to be instruments of God’s peace. Where we see hate or doubt or gloom or tears we seek to be channels of God’s peace who sow seeds of love and faith and hope and joy. This work isn’t limited to congregations that bear St. Francis’ name. It is work we are all called to as part of the Jesus’ Movement.

But today I stand among you here at St. Thomas. You also are a one-of-a-kind parish in our diocese - the only one that takes its name from good old “doubting” Thomas. We also sang your theme song today as we began, whether or not you claim it as such: an Easter hymn for the Second Sunday of Easter.

          We walk by faith, and not by sight; no gracious words we hear
          from him who spoke as none e’er spoke, but we believe him near.
          We may not touch his hands and side, nor follow where he trod;
          but in his promise we rejoice, and cry “My Lord and God!”

I’m going to give you my Second Sunday of Easter Sermon in just a couple of sentences today and then I’ll move on to today’s readings. In Greek, the word used that we hear for faith is pistis. And doubt is apsistis. It’s not about intellectual doubt. Pistis is about trust; so apistis is about not trusting. It’s not doubt so much as fear.  Doubt can in fact can be a path toward deeper faith. But fear paralyzes us. So what we need to do is work on trust, because we can never move forward in faith without trust. An abiding trust in God, to be sure. But also trust in each other. People who feel their trust has been violated stay wounded and we only move on with scars rather than wounds when we restore trust. Now hold that thought because I’m going to come back to it….

The lectionary is a way to read the Bible in public worship, as we come together each week for common prayer. It’s a template organized on a three-year cycle. What that means is that the same readings that we heard today come up every three years. So we last heard them in September 2013 and before that in 2010 and 2007 and 2004 and yes, before that on the weekend of September 11, 2001.  

At St. Francis, Holden on that weekend there were people who came to church that I’d never seen before and never saw again. They came, I imagine, looking for a word of hope and comfort in the midst of events that were too frightening to comprehend. You could have heard a pin drop when the lay reader got up to read from the fourth chapter of the prophet Jeremiah, these same difficult words we heard today:

For my people are foolish, they do not know me;
they are stupid children, they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD,
before his fierce anger.

What struck me was that as brutally harsh as Jeremiah’s words sounded as they filled the room on that Sunday morning, they also seemed to capture where we were emotionally. We, too, had just beheld what can happen when people put their talents to work for doing evil rather than good. We too, were beholding a city in ruins. Jeremiah of course, did not have lower Manhattan in mind when he spoke nearly six hundred years before the birth of Christ. He was speaking about the city of Jerusalem being “waste and void” because of the devastation caused by the Babylonian army.  He was speaking of the temple, not the towers, being brought to the ground. Even so, on that September Sunday fifteen years ago it seemed as if the gap between Jeremiah and us had been closed and that we were all together in our confusion and grief and fear and anger. The biggest theological question of all was right up front as well: where was God?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the prophet is not only the one who hears God’s voice, but the one who can feel God’s heart. Heschel had no patience with the “god” of the philosophers, with Aristotle’s famous “Unmoved Mover.” As Heschel read the Bible (and especially as he read the prophets) he discovered what he called the pathos of God. The God of the Bible, he said, is a God who loves us even when we do behave like stupid children who have no understanding; a God who loves us even to the point of Her own broken heart. Jeremiah imagines God more like a frustrated Parent than an Unmoved Mover: “I’ve done everything I can,” the prophets hear God saying. “I created humanity in my own image. I gave them the gift of Torah, a gift “sweeter than honey.” How on earth could they have messed things up so badly?”

Prophets like Jeremiah push us way out of our comfort zones. But they do so for a reason: they are trying to push us hard enough and far enough out of our denial so that we will take another look at our lives and the world around us, so that we will see the parts of ourselves and the world that we would prefer to cover up. They do this not to depress us, but to wake us up. They sound the trumpet in Zion (and in Auburn too) so that we can wake up and truly live.
When tragedy strikes, we ask, “where is God?” The answer that the prophets give is one we don’t usually want to hear: that God has been holding up God’s end of the bargain, and the real question is this: where have God’s people been?

Most of us can’t bear too much reality, and we don’t really want to hear about the pain of the world. Denial is the easiest response. Getting numb is another, and we have any number of options in our time to help us get numb. Flannery O’Connor once said, “to the hard of hearing you need to shout.” I’ve always thought that is as good an image of what the prophets are up to as any. They seem like mad men at times, shouting away. But they have the difficult task of breaking through our defenses to get us to see what we prefer not to see. Walter Brueggemann has said that it is the task of prophetic ministry to “nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness” to the dominant culture around us.

There is a prayer found on page 815 of the Book of Common Prayer that to my mind fits for this occasion, this time in the life of this congregation as we remember the events of 9/11 and as you prepare to more officially welcome Julia here.  

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in       your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

So do you remember what I said earlier about St. Thomas, about how the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear?  I am praying that St. Thomas is working on trust right now as a congregation for a whole lot of reasons. Trusting your bishop and the diocesan staff, trusting me and the other canons to be partners in ministry. Trusting your new priest-in-charge who is about to begin. Trusting one another. Not keeping secrets. When we trust God we can tell the truth, truth that helps nurture and nourish and evoke an alternative consciousness that leads to abundant life. 

As my old friend, Francis would put it, we can become instruments of God’s peace. As your old friend, Thomas put it when he put his hand on Jesus’ side – my Lord, and my God! Perfect love really does cast out fear. I pray that as a new chapter begins here with Julia Dunbar as your priest-in-charge, that love will continue to cast out fear and that a new day will dawn, with God's help. 

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