Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Enjoy your time

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Proper 20C.  22 September 2013.

The Very Revd Alexander D. MacPhail

 

 

            Some time ago I preached a sermon in which I mentioned that there are many aspects of living where the Bible does not offer guidance.  It's not that one couldn't extrapolate teachings from Jesus or the prophets about compassion or other virtues and with adequate discernment piece together a reasonable response to a given situation.  But I've been wondering about something else, lately, and maybe it's something you have thought about. 

 

            This is a little difficult to describe, so to get into it, let me tell you that I have recently been in several conversations about the speed of life.  It's a theme that has dropped in on me over the last several weeks in the form of little chats with some of you, and through the art and music I've been enjoying.  Perhaps the trigger of it all is the passage of yet another summer, and the recognition that we are, once again, heading into autumn.

 

            "Spring and summer, pleasure you

            Autumn, aye, and winter, too.

            Every season has its cheer.

            Life is lovely all the year."[*]

 

            Several of you have told me that this is your favorite time of the year, when the leaves change, and the weather becomes cool.  School is back in session.  The steady rhythms of the year drawing to close beat their solemn cadence from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas.  In fact, it's only 94 days till Christmas—that's only 2256 hours—or 135,360 minutes.  8.1 million seconds.  But who's counting?

 

            And in these conversations and thoughts, poems, and scripture that have been dropping in on me, it's the speed of life that has seemed so poignant.  One of you said that time seems to go by on roller skates. 

 

            Maggie just got on the bus for kindergarten.  Five years of "what is this and what is that?"[†] And why? 

 

Why is the sky blue? 

Because if it were green we wouldn't know where to stop mowing.

Is Daddy being funny.

Yes, Maggie, daddy's just being funny.

Well, why is it blue?

 

She will just go on requesting till you tell her, never doubt it, everything is interesting, tell her, tell her all about it![‡]  And Karin draws her breath in pain to speak earnestly and scientifically of the sun's refraction, but mid-sentence Maggie interrupts with another question. 

 

            Five years.  And now she's on the bus.  The days were long, but the years were short.  And my father says, "Peter has already been with you for a third of the time he will live with you." 

 

            I sit down at my desk at church for what seems like five minutes.  I check email, make some calls, and it's lunchtime.  Lunch is a blur and so is the afternoon.  Dinner, prayers and put the children to bed, and before long our covers are pulled up and another day is laid to rest. 

 

            Over it all, we hope and pray for the benediction of God.  A blessing on what we've been able to do, forgiveness for our mistakes, grace for what we hoped to achieve but couldn't through lack of effort or time.

 

            And it's the time that seems to be the enemy.  Such a foolish thing.  Time is a creation of God, just like we are.  We shouldn't be enemies.  What is eternity other than the absence of time?  It happens now; it happened then; it will happen in the future.  

 

In church we throw around words like eternal, everlasting.  In the liturgical language of our Anglican heritage, we might say "world without end."  Our prayers often end, "for ever and ever."  Ever is enough grammatically, but we add on "and ever" for emphasis.

           

            But the reason I bring all of this up is because a question arose out of all of these reflections, (a question that seemed much more interesting to me than the lessons for today, obviously!)  And the question is, "How does God wish us to relate to time, until he inaugurates eternity?"  Do you see what I mean? 

 

And please notice how I choose to ask that question.  Not that we relate to time until we die, as if we are people without resurrection hope who merely see this existence as being alive or dead, as many people do.  But rather, how to do we relate to time until God inaugurates a living existence that is utterly timeless and eternal? 

 

And as I thought about it, I realized that that's not really even my primary question.  What I really want to know is "How does God want us to think and feel about our lives?"

 

Going back to Genesis, when the author writes, "So God created humankind..God blessed them and said, `Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.'" (1.27,28)  And then to Micah—that wonderful verse—"What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (6.8)

 

 

It is spiritually seductive, when asking these questions, to remain in those verses in the Old Testament—before the teachings of Jesus and his instructions to go into all the world and preach the Gospel.  But putting that aside for just a moment—not that it's not important—but I want to get right down into the very heart of my question, which is how does God wish us to regard the passage of time?  How are we to relate to the speed of change, the frailty of our bodies, the loss of family and friends.

 

In cynical moments, we might regard life as a kind of joke.  Years of childhood innocence and vitality are spent in happy ignorance that we will not always be able bend and lift, or run with the same power and purpose.  An injury occurs from which it takes more than an aspirin and a day of rest to heal.  Oscar Wilde famously said, "Youth is wasted on the young."

 

And then there is the grit and grace of decisions about what we will do and where we will go.  When you are sixteen or seventeen, life seems like a corridor of endless possibilities, but once you walk through one of those doors, the others are silently locked.  You chose this school, that person, this town, at this time with these people around you.  Changes could and were made, but not every option was placed back on the table when you began to feel a twinge of regret.   

 

You can divorce and remarry, but it won't be the same.  You can leave that job and take another, but the experience is there.  The field is different; the world is different.

 

And through all of life the desire is ever present for fulfillment.  A desire for peace, happiness, maybe a bit of wonder, joy.  Freedom to be yourself and to be surrounded by people who love and appreciate you for who you are.

 

I have heard people say, "I wonder if my friends knew what I really thought and felt, if they'd still be my friends."  Hasn't everyone wondered that?  Hasn't everyone wondered what level of acceptance we'd have if we were to empty our pockets?  I know I have. 

 

How does God want us to think and feel about our lives? 

 

I think God wants us to treasure them.  I think God wants us to be grateful for our lives, and to enjoy them.  And I think he wants us to find the fulfillment we desire through a balance of serving and being served.  Sometimes we give, and other times we receive. 

 

We are given power in youth, and wisdom with age; both are beautiful and both give happiness. 

 

I think God wants us to be deeply happy in the knowledge that our lives are knit together with each other and with God.  And I think Christ's message to the poor is—by extension, for all people—that God loves us and wishes to be ultimate fulfillment for our ultimate desire.

 

For some of you, this may be a season of grief and loss, which are real and meaningful.  There may be anxiety, and Lord knows, there are good reasons why, but I don't think God wants us to be anxious, or sad as some kind of default setting.  I think we are meant to bear those feelings lightly, and give them as much as possible to God.

 

Through the Psalms and prophets, and through Christ himself, there is a message that trends upward.  Do not be afraid.  Christ is risen. We are risen.  Time is not the enemy.  Enjoy your time.  Take heart, take delight.  God is always with us. 

 

 

-o0o-

 

 

Please support the mission of Christ with your time, talent, and treasure.

 

Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel



[*] W.S. Gilbert. Ruddigore, Act One finale

[†] W.S. Gilbert The Pirates of Penzance Act Two finale

[‡] W.S. Gilbert The Gondoliers Act Two entrance of the ladies, adapted.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Proper 19C. 15 September 2013.

To listen, click here.

Proper 19C.  15 September 2013.[*]

 

            I read a book some time ago about the culture of another country.  I am fascinated with books of this sort.  Much of my interest comes from a fascination with behavior in general, but I'm especially interested in the unique differences between cultures.

 

            There are patterns of behavior that I would never find polite or amusing that in some cultures would be considered "the only way" one should behave.  You could spend a lifetime delving into the many subcultures of any society and find a dizzying array of unique patterns of dress, speech, and behavior.  And of course, knowing these differences, and being conversant in them, is what distinguishes the people who know and the people who do not.

 

            The church does this all the time.  I remember attending a workshop on church growth, years ago, and the presenters were talking about "the secrets of the church."  Well, the Episcopal Church is actually—organizationally speaking—one of the least secretive churches in the world.  All our financial matters are public.  We hold no secret meetings or services.  But the workshop presenter wasn't talking about real secrets.  She was making the point that some of our ordinary, "churchy" language, can seem like a secret language to people who weren't raised in church. 

 

            We use words like hymnal, ambo, chalice, paten, pulpit, parish hall.  And then there are the orders of ordained ministry—Bishop, Priest, and Deacon—and what each one does is a little different.  A Deacon or an Elder in most other churches is a long-standing member who does certain things here and there.  In the Episcopal Church or in the Roman Catholic Church, a Deacon is ordained by the bishop after background checks, theological education in a seminary, ordination exams, chaplaincies, internships, and all kinds of hassle.  A newcomer might not know any of this.

 

            So the book I was reading was about England, and the many subtle ways that the old class structure is still very much a part of their culture.  You know from the little clues of dress, words, patterns of speech, accent, what car one drives, how long you visit friends, where you live…you name it…all of these behaviors fit into a calculus of society. 

 

            I read all of this with a kind of amused detachment.  After all—I reasoned—in America we don't have any of these nuanced ways of communicating class and position.  And then I looked down at my clerical shirt and khaki pants, my college ring, my shoes.  And I realized that all my decisions about what I wear, how I speak, how I behave…they all come from a particular frame of mind that was consciously or unconsciously instilled as how one dresses and talks and behaves.  Or perhaps, to put a slightly darker tinge on it, how I should behave, which by my obedience to it, indicates how anyone should behave.  You see?

 

 

            And I began to notice all of these unconscious patterns of speech and dress that I use—that we all use—to communicate what we believe is okay.  What says, "I am me," and what, by extension communicates our vision for what "a man should do and say," or "a woman should do and say."  Do you see what I mean?

 

            With our patterns of civility we avoid a lot of conflict around these differences.  Only a very close personal friend would be critical of something we are wearing—unless, in our particular culture, it is appropriate to be critical.

 

            But the darker side of this is that we often find ourselves meeting people who are so very different—not just a little different—but verrry different, to the point where we don't really think of them as living in the same world.  They are invisible to us, to some extent. 

 

We "see" them, in the sense that our eyes are working, but our brain registers the difference between what we like, and what we don't like, and we give ourselves the freedom to ignore. 

 

            It's a very sly form of prejudice.  And what makes it—I think—so easy to do, and so easy to dismiss, is that we might not ever form a conscious opinion of "that group of people."  We would never talk about it.  We would never mistreat the people in these categories.  But because of their overt differences, we simply don't choose to go over and talk with them.

 

            Now, it is unpleasant to own up to this, but perhaps it can shed some light on the way the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling against Jesus for eating with tax collectors and sinners.  The tax collectors were pawns of the Roman occupation, and routinely extracted more than was asked.  They kept the poor, poor.  Pharisees looked down on the tax collectors because they were complicit in Rome's corruption, and because they were not part of the religious establishment. 

 

            "Sinners" is a pretty broad category.  We are left to imagine people who indulged in all sorts of behaviors.  Again, Pharisees being the standard-bearers for the Jewish faith, they did not approve of the ways people were actively straying from the Torah. 

 

            So I think it's safe to assume that—for the Pharisees and scribes—the tax collectors and sinners were mostly invisible.  I doubt that they greeted each other in the street.  I doubt that they considered each other possible friends.  I cannot confirm that with any sort of historical research, except for the disdain we hear in the text.

 

            When Jesus willingly consorts with the tax collectors and sinners, he steps beyond the commonly held prejudices of the good, solid, religious people.  He does not see people as part of a class system; and he does not place himself inside that system.  Instead, Jesus sees people—people who are created in the image of God.  Jesus sees value in all people—and the potential for good in all people.

 

            It is the value of the tax collectors and sinners—the potential they have to be followers—that makes him want to sit down and eat with them. 

           

Eating and drinking with people then—and still to this day—implies a level of unity.  You see it in the school lunch room. The cool kids have their table; the football players have their table; the people like me who sang in choirs, and did theatre—we sort of huddled together in an alcove.  When you eat together you form a kind of bond, and that bond implies unity and acceptance. 

 

            But Jesus does not condone their sins by eating and drinking with them.  He is there because he sees people who are of intrinsic value.  People who happen to be lost—like a lost coin or a lost sheep. 

 

            Coins and sheep do not know that they are lost.  When they are found by their owners it is the owner who rejoices.  So Jesus rejoices in "finding" these people who are so often "lost" to good, solid religious people.

 

             Jesus concludes his parable of the coin and the lost sheep by saying that there is joy in heaven when a sinner repents.  We are left with the understanding that Jesus is bringing lost sheep home by eating and drinking with them.  (Pause.)

 

            I find this lesson very comforting on the one hand, and somewhat frustrating on the other.  It is comforting to know that God cares about the lost—especially if you yourself feel lost.  It is nice to know that God would leave the flock for one lost sheep. 

 

            But the frustration is that I'm not sure I have been so "found" that I can seek the lost.  In other words, Jesus seeks the lost as someone who is so very righteous, and so quintessentially "found" that it seems like this sort of ministry is uniquely God's—like answering prayer.  I don't think God is ever going to share that responsibility—at least, I hope not! 

 

            I mean, it is one thing to say, "I believe in Jesus as the Son of God; I am a Christian; I feel myself to be found and loved by God."  But it is quite another thing to say, "And now I am so found that I can find others."  I'm not so sure.  

 

But then again, maybe the problem is that I am equating the finding of others with saving them, which is uniquely the ministry of God.   I don't know.  This is how the parable teases my mind. 

 

            I do know that we continue to assume that we can evaluate people on the basis of their dress and speech, and that we often miss the true value of others because we get hung up on what they look like. 

 

            There is a woman who really learned this lesson.  Mary Magdalene.  She went out walking a couple days after Jesus had been crucified.  John's gospel does not describe her mental state, but we know that she was distraught.  She had probably watched Jesus be whipped and tortured, and finally hung by his hands and feet.  She had probably watched him as the spear pierced his side and the water and blood flowed out—and saw Joseph of Arimathea anoint the body with myrrh and aloes.  One hundred pounds of it. 

 

            Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been moved.  At first some angels, all in white, asked her, "Why are you weeping?"  And then, turning around, someone else asked her, "Why are you weeping?" 

 

The man was not all in white.  He must have looked like any ordinary fellow.  We know now that it was Jesus, risen from the grave.  Risen from the nails and the thorns and the whipping.  The most extraordinary man in the entire universe was standing right there in front of her.  And do you know what she said?

 

            She said, "You won't believe this, but at first, I thought he was just the gardener."

 

 

 

-o0o-

           

The Lord bless you and keep you.



[*] Adapted from Proper 19C. 12 September 2010.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

To whom shall we go?


Proper 18C.  8 September 2013.


Luke 14.25-33

 

            A few weeks ago, on August 18th, we were given a rather stark Gospel lesson.  Jesus was recorded as saying,

"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! …Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

            Clergy sometimes ironically refer to this as the "family values lesson."  Elizabeth Cottrell was the preacher, and she told me that she mentioned something to the effect that I wimped out by taking vacation on that Sunday!  I don't blame her for thinking that, but even if I had, today would have certainly brought my comeuppance.

 

            That lesson was from Luke 12, and today, just two chapters later, we meet with Jesus facing the large crowds with these words: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."

 

            This is one of the "hard sayings" of Jesus, and it may interest you to know that they are words that have been taken quite literally in some parts of the Christian tradition.  For instance in the Roman Catholic Church, these words along with others have formed the ethos into which clergy and monastic orders have given up family to pursue the consecrated life.  It is understood in that culture that God has given them the grace to renounce a life that would be more conventional; and with that renunciation comes a certain spiritual authority or charism.  I would say that that is also true for monastics in our Episcopal monasteries.

 

            From my own religious background in the Anabaptist tradition, specifically the Church of the Brethren, there was and is a value of renunciation of worldly goods and comforts, seeking simplicity of life.  It is understood that through this discipline God can be more of an influence than the world around us. 

 

One of the most devout branches of that tradition are the Amish, who truly believe that this life is not to be prized.  Heaven is waiting for the soul who clings relentlessly to Christ and does not hold on to the passing, temporal things of the world.  Life is to be endured as if merely "on the way" to something much better.

 

            If I can, just for a moment, clarify where the Anglican tradition is on this matter, I would say that we don't really have anything doctrinal to say, because we are not a dogmatic or confessing church.  We are not known as people who take positions, but rather people who pray and attempt to discern through Scripture, Tradition, and Reason where the Holy Spirit may be leading.

 

            That said, Anglican piety tends to take the words of Genesis very seriously, when it is recorded that God looked at the creation he had made and called it good.  Anglican piety tends to believe that God is interested in the sweet here-and-now, just as much as the sweet by-and-by.  The heartbeat of Anglicanism is found in the daily disciplines of Morning and Evening Prayer, Matins and Evensong, or however you are able authentically to live your devotion to God in a daily manner. 

 

            The implicit message of that devotion is a belief that "This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it."  Anglicans/Episcopalians tend to view each day as a renewal of life, and opportunity to do better, to discover God and the blessings of living in a committed, earnest relationship with him.

 

            So how do we, Episcopalians, relate to this lesson, and other lessons from our Lord in which Jesus seems to be pushing us toward a very strict ascetical discipline?  After all, God has created us with the need for family.  Beyond mere procreation—keeping the species alive—there is also a deep desire among most of us for a life-long commitment—and intimacy within that commitment. 

 

            We there are several aspects of this text in play.  I think when we trip over the word "hate" in this lesson—as in "hate father and mother, wife and children, etc.—we are really tripping over Middle Eastern hyperbole for detachment.  That we would not simply give up on the faith of Christ because our family didn't like it. 

 

Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God must be primary, such that our desire to be in relationship with God was paramount in our lives, and more deeply a part of us than even our families. 

 

            I think we need to remember that we are hearing this text echo down through 2000 years of the Church's existence, but when Jesus was saying these things, there was no Church.  Prophets in first century Palestine were many, and Jesus was likely perceived in much the same way that the latest diet fad or pop celebrity is now. 

 

            He was getting all these crowds of people around him.  In fact, that is the common denominator of all of these "hard sayings" of Jesus.  They were invariably given when Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people who not only thought he walked on water—but actually saw him walk on water! 

 

            So these sobering teachings differentiate Jesus from the many prophets of the time who were just trying to get a following.  If you're just trying to get up a bunch of followers and get some fame for yourself, you don't want to talk about sacrifice and discipline.  You talk about quick and easy results.  But Jesus isn't a self-help guru. 

 

            And it's amazing how many people continue to believe that he is, and I can understand why.  A relationship grounded in God does, indeed, lead to a happier more fulfilling life.  I can attest to that, and I'm sure you can, too.  In fact, you probably wouldn't be here at all if you didn't receive some tangible and intangible benefits.  But part of what makes the Christian life meaningful and even noble is that costs you.  It takes discipline.

 

            It means putting the ethical and spiritual dimensions of your life in God's hands and following where God may lead you.  That takes guts, friends.  And it takes a lot more than that.  It takes being willing to detach from friends and even family if they try to hold you back from an authentically devout life. 

 

And I'm not talking about some sort of radical lifestyle—as if following the Lord meant becoming pinched off from everyone and wearing drab clothes, or trying to get ordained.

 

            Again, I think Jesus wants us to be happy and in good relationships with our families, but if a family member tries to pull us away from God, or from the teachings of Christ, then I think Jesus is saying here that we don't just give in because they are family. 

 

            And I believe I know quite a lot of people who follow this teaching.  They come to church even if their spouse or children don't believe.  They continue to pray and give and support and live the life they feel God has called them to live.  If you think about it, you are likely in that category somehow. 

 

            There are likely people in your family, certainly in your circle of friends, who may think that your devotion—at whatever level it is—is mildly loopy.  But what Christ says is that that's okay.  In fact, it's laudable.  Matthew's gospel records him as saying, "Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil things about you because of me." (5.7)

 

            It is likely that you and I will never face genuine persecution for what we believe in the same way that many have and continue to face in parts of the world.  So this lesson may sound somewhat muted by our culture, but not entirely.  It is still a somewhat counter-cultural lifestyle to be a person of prayer and worship and discipline, but it is the life to which Christ has lovingly called us.

 

            At a certain point in John's Gospel there was another hard saying from Jesus.  In the sixth chapter, Jesus turns to the disciples and again says words that cut to the heart.  He explains that he is the living bread that came down from heaven.  He speaks of himself as the Son of God, and the crowd heard it and were offended.  Asking them to believe in him meant letting go, not just of their family and friends, but of many of the religious tenants they had been raised to believe and never forsake. 

 

            John's Gospel says that many of them turned away, and after they did, Jesus turned to those disciples who remained, and said, "Do you also wish to go away?"  The sense you get from reading that story is of Jesus not really being needy, but perhaps wondering if this mission he has been given is just too difficult, too extreme to be followed. 

Or perhaps he sees people going away, perhaps more than he believed would, and momentarily wonders if he has said too much. 

 

            Of course, it's impossible to get into anyone's head, let alone get into the mind of Jesus; but in John's Gospel, it seems to me to be a rather suspenseful moment.  What are they going to say?  And the disciples who have remained respond, "Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

 

            To whom shall we go?

 

            And there is answer that responds to the temptations to turn aside.  "We have come to believe."  The road is narrow and the path is long, but we have come to believe.  There are disciplines involved, virtues to be practiced, at times a seemingly impossible standard of love, but we have come to believe.

 

            And through believing we have found eternal life—not just for the sweet by-and-by, but also for the sweet here-and-now. 

                                    

-o0o-

 

 

Please support the mission of Christ with your time, talent, and treasure.

 

Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Missing church

Proper 17C.  1 September 2013.

In memory of Johnny Scott

 

          As many of you know, I spent much of my vacation time painting some of the rooms in our house.  I can't say that I enjoyed every second of it, but most days I was very happy.  Much of my vocation has to do with what is unseen.  A sermon can be written down and said to be finished, but the real sermon is in the hearing—which is unseen.  Prayers are unseen.  Phone calls.  Meetings.  Visits.  So as you might expect, I enjoyed doing something from which I could stand back and see the results.

 

          My brain was able to shift mostly into neutral, and I could enjoy listening to music, or overhear the children in their conversations.  It was refreshing.  We decided not to go to church at all.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Or maybe it's just that we could stay home that made that option more appealing.  I was very pleased that just before the last Sunday the children mentioned that they missed church. 

 

          And ever since I have been thinking about missing church.  Not missing it as in forgetting to come or being out of town, but yearning for it. 

 

          I know a cleric who said that when he was a little boy, he and his parents came every Sunday, and when people didn't come, he felt a sadness about that.  And he wondered if the people who weren't there were also sad that they couldn't come.  He said it was many years after he was ordained that he realized that people sometimes can't bear to come all the time. 

          Maybe it's too emotional.  Maybe they don't like the clergy, or were offended by something someone said.  Maybe it reminds them of some of the themes of our faith that have to do with grief. 

 

          When you think about it, it takes a lot of courage to come church every Sunday.  You will encounter verses and hymns of hope and love, but you will also be confronted with verses of crucifixion and death.  For some folks, a church can represent too many and conflicting ideas that staying home seems like a safer alternative. 

 

          I have a friend who said that it's much easier to stay home than it is to belong to the simplest of organizations.  If you come too often you'll get asked to do something, and if you do it well, you'll get asked to help out.  And then you're done for.  Does any of this sound familiar?

 

          I hated coming to church when I was a boy.  Hated it.  Do you know what I hated the most?  The sermon.  And look at me now.  I used to write little notes to my mother on the bulletin.  "When will this be over?"  "How much longer?"  And my mother would patiently write back, "Not much longer.  10 minutes."  The sermon took at least three exchanges of notes.

 

          But missing church.  Missing it and wanting to come back.  Why?  God is everywhere.  You see the people you see in church in other places.  You can and should have time for prayer at home.  You can sip a cup of coffee in the morning and make your way through your list, and be done in much less time than it takes to get ready and go to church. 

 

          What are you coming to get?  Community?  Friends? Of course.  It's good to sing the hymns.  It's good to listen to the wisdom of Holy Scripture, and most Sundays its timeless themes can be revealed and we can find our place in the story.  It can add a depth of context to whatever our current struggles or happiness might be.

 

          It's good to hear the organ, an ancient and venerable instrument that roots us deeply in the devotion of our ancestors, and represents the beauty of God's unfolding kingdom.  Triumphant strains of the organ at Easter can inspire the Christian far more than any prayer or sermon.  I have been in liturgies, and so have you, in which the sopranos soar into a descant that seems to bring the whole community into a state of quivering expectancy—as if Christ might descend at that very moment. 

 

          And Communion…Holy Communion.  Hands and hearts outstretched at the Altar to receive…God.  Where else does one kneel before the sacrifice of Christ?  It is food for the journey. 

 

          There is an old custom in the Roman Catholic Church of the Viaticum.  When a person is lying in great weakness and is about to die, there is given to that person a tiny fraction of the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ.  Viaticum.  Food for the journey.  The journey that began at the baptismal font that will lead into the paradise of angels, even to what the 1662 Book of Common Prayer referred to as "the Throne of the Heavenly Grace."

 

          All receptions of the Holy Communion are viaticum—food for the journey.  The tomb is empty, the cross is empty, the bread and wine are broken and outpoured, and we are sent back into the world in witness.  It's a beautiful thing, really.  If you get too wrapped up in meetings and bulletins and announcements, or whatever, you might not see the beauty of what we're on about.  And instead of feasting on the banquet of God, it's just an odd little cracker and a sip of diluted port.

 

          They say the hearing is the first thing to go.  I don't know.  I think maybe it's the vision: the vision of the church as a the gate of heaven, a foretaste of the broad and generous welcome of God. And the vision of one's self within the church as a person who has been loved and redeemed—a person treasured by the Almighty. 

 

          People can lose the belief that they are treasured by God.  Through tragedy, sickness, aging, all sorts of other reasons.  Life can bend you backwards sometimes.  And I have known what it is to worship God and still wonder where God was when I was going through..that.  There are experiences that grind off the luster of Sunday morning, and no amount of grinning people or cookies or warm handshakes and erase the memory of them. 

 

          Of the people I have known who have wrestled with this, no one expressed more difficulty with it than combat veterans.  And I hasten to add my thanks and respect for those of you survived the fog of war. 

 

 

          Men have come back from World War II, Korea, Vietnam.  Some of them have sit in the pews with eyes glassed over wondering how any of this can be true, when I have seen what I have seen.  How can God be here when I didn't see a flicker of him out there

 

          There was a man in my last church who was a veteran of World War II.  He was in the hospital so much with various ailments that he didn't even bother to let me know.  One day I was visiting a parishioner in the hospital and I was walking out, and I just happened to glance into one of the rooms, and Johnny was there.  Across from him sat John, his life-partner of over 50 years. 

 

          We got to talking and I sat down, and Johnny asked if I had seen the Ken Burns documentary called simply "The War."  I hadn't, and he said, "You really need to see it."  He said that watching the documentary was like being taken back in time, and he was remembering things that he had long forgotten.  I asked if he had wished to remember.  He looked out the window and thought about my question for awhile, and he didn't have an answer. 

 

          I can't get into his head, but I would imagine that fragments of stories had come together and that it wasn't all bad, but it remained complicated.  He said again, "You really need to see it."  He said, "There is one part where a man said that he prayed, "O God, you have to come down here and make this stop.  Don't send Jesus.  This is no place for children."  When I close my eyes I can still see Johnny saying that, and as he did his whole face was shaking. 

 

          John and Johnny used to come to the 8 o'clock Eucharist—not every Sunday, but perhaps once every six weeks.  He stood and knelt and received, shook my hand, and was elegant in bearing, peaceful, loving.  I think of him with great admiration, but during the service his face was ashen and pensive.  It could have just been his age and the fact no one was speaking directly to him, but I always wondered—especially after that visit—if he was missing church.  Missing the innocence of life before he was swept away as a young man.

 

          A year or two after I came here I received word that Johnny had died, and when I did, I found myself missing church.  Missing not so much the place, but the holiness of that moment when he let me see just a fraction of what had been on his mind.  For to me, to kneel at the Altar of God is much the same as entering the sacred space of a man's life which has been pulled and pushed and even tortured, yet remains gentle and loving.  The Resurrection of Christ is found men and women like Johnny.

 

          It can be found in you. 

 

          And when you miss church…  When you hunger for it, it can mean all sorts of things.   Maybe it's the place, or the feeling.  A hymn, a hope, a prayer.  Maybe it's not much different that a child crawling up into the lap of a parent for just a moment or two.

 

 

 

          Don't lose your vision.  Don't forget that you are loved and treasured, no matter what life throws at you.  The Gospel of Christ is not that God doesn't give us more than we can handle.  The Gospel is that Christ was crucified and has risen.  And through a life centered on him, we too will be raised.  I don't know how it works, but it does. 

 

          Sometimes when you find yourself missing the church, it's because you yourself are in need of being found.

 

 

-o0o-

 

 

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