Sermon, 6/6/21: Whereto From Here?

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2 Pentecost

Psalm 138; I Samuel 8:4–11 (12–15); II Corinthians 4:13–5:1; Mark 3:20–35

Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands
that holy things have taken;
Let ears that now have heard the songs
to clamor never waken.

Lord, may the tongues which “Holy” sang
keep free from all deceiving;
The eyes which saw thy love be bright,
with blessed hope perceiving.

The feet that tread thy hallowed courts
from light do thou not banish;
The bodies by thy Body fed
with thy new life replenish.
(Hymn 312)

The last time that I stood where I now stand was Sunday, 15 March 2020.  That was 449 days, 10,776 hours, 646,560 minutes, 38,793,600 seconds ago.  Well, truth in advertisement forces me to admit that my calculation is not quite true.  For you see, often when I would come during the week to our campus, I would come into our beautiful sanctuary and stand approximately midway in the center aisle to pray.  I would walk occasionally up into this pulpit and stand for a minute or so, and look out over the emptiness before me, a space empty of all physical human presence except my own, but a space filled with memories of the times, in which you and I had gathered prior to the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, in order to break bread to gather, in order to gain strength as a community of faith, before going back out into the broader community to preach the Good News, not so much with words, but in how we lived.  Remember, it is Francis of Assisi, who reputedly said: “preach the Gospel at all time; use words only if necessary.”

So, not like the prophet of old who claimed visions, nor as our modern-day prophets who claim direct connection with the Holy Spirit—it came to me, as I considered what I should share with you on this historic occasion of our regathering, how best to convey to you the joy that fills my heart,–it came to me  that perhaps, instead of the 2-hour long “hellfire and brimstone” sermon which I posted each week to you in email and ,thanks to Renni Boy, on FaceBook and our website,–it would be appropriate that I should share with you how I spent some of those months and days and hours and seconds, preparing for this moment in time.  But for that, I need your assistance. 

(And, by the way, I might also state upfront, that I know from speaking with some of you, how you spent some of your time during this pandemic which has not loosened entirely its hold on us, I want you to consider sharing with us all, not in a 2-hour sermon, but in a 5-minute vignette how you found the strength to carry on during these troubling, demanding days.   You see, I know that you called upon your inner strength because you exercised ministry to me, by admonishing me to take time away for restoration, by inquiring about my family both Inland and abroad.  And no one of you can be more timid about public speaking, than am I.  I will never coerce you, but I know that others would benefit from your words of wisdom and concern, just as did I.  However, back to today.)

If I am to tell you how I spent some of those long, but never lonely hours, sequestered from in-person interactions, I need your help.  The Episcopal Church, at least as experienced here at St. James, going forward, is more than a spectator’s sport or an exercise in calisthenics, standing to sing praise, kneeling to pray, and sitting to hear the Word!  Today is the beginning of a new way.  You will participate in my homily.  I want you to open the hymnal, which you received when you entered, to Hymn 312. 

This hymn is one that we sing normally at the time of, or immediately following, having received Communion.  With the evidence before you, your participation today is to evaluate my understanding of this poem that has been set to music.  I had occasion to think about this hymn, because our Bishop-diocesan, Bishop Gates, during one of his meditations during our many Zoom meetings for clergy, asked the questions:  “What good thing has happened to you during this pandemic?  What thing have you learned?  What has sustained you during these trying times?”  And then he called on me, on shy, timid me!  Given the size of our diocese and my tendency to maintain a low profile, I was not really aware that he even knew who I am.  And now, you and I shall put together my response.

As we emerge from this pandemic, hesitant, fearful perhaps, and thinking about what is before us, Whereto From Here, I raised for myself and raise now for you this question: Where do we or where will we find the strength to combat our anxieties.  I turn to music and the beautiful poetry often set to music. Spoiler alert!  There is a prayer encased in the hymn before you.  Let’s see what it says.

Strengthen for service, Lord, that holy things have taken:  This prayer acknowledges what we humans wish so often to ignore, namely that we are in community; yes, with the people of India, Australia, Iceland, Nigeria, Brazil.  The size and location of the community may vary, but in singing this prayer, we state that we cannot go it alone, and that others are there to lend us aid.  Moreover, we ask for aid not solely for self, but to be of aid, of service to others.  It is far too easy “under house arrest” (as I described my situation to friends) during these recent days, to forget our Christian duty to extend a hand, sometime physically, sometimes symbolically.  As people of faith, we turn to the Creator God for our support.

Let ears that now have heard the songs to clamor never waken:  During the time of our sheltering in place, words, often of anger, fear-mongering, of negativity reached me, and you too.  I had to decide which master I would serve, the naysayers or those who speak words of hope and exploration and excitement of life.  I found during those long months and all the more now, the aroma of the joy in creation always more appealing.  The clamor of fright and rejection of The Other, even in my seclusion, reached my ears, but did not find place in my mind and heart.  That clamor is not why, as a person of faith, I believe that we were placed on this orb.

Lord, may the tongues which “Holy” sang keep free from all deceiving:  One of the positive outcomes of being in seclusion these last 14, 15 months is that, being “under house arrest,” I was removed from many things in my busyness that distracted me.  Conversely, though, I had ample times to reflect on ways, in which I contributed to those distracting elements; never deliberately to deceive, but often undervaluing the intrinsic worth of my fellow travelers in The Way.  Being more aware of my shortcomings, how I would then go forward becomes the challenge.

The eyes which saw thy love be bright, thy blessed hope perceiving: One immediate step was to take a step back and to luxuriate in the wonders of Creation.  During one of the several snowfalls of winter 2020 – 2021, with no place to go, first because it was snowing and second because our governor had mandated, even months before winter, that everyone should be off public ways by 9:30 p.m., I experienced not a come to Jesus moment, but to an appreciation of nature around me.  And so it was that late one afternoon as the day, “dove like, was settling itself to rest,” I donned a coat and stood outside on the rear deck of my humble tent and saw and felt with wonderment the peace which just an ordinary snowfall cast upon my neighborhood, a peace which calmed anxieties which I had not recognized.  Of a truth, not because of the softness of the fading light, but there was a quietness of abundant bright love.

The feet that tread thy hallowed courts from light do thou not banish: Moses was instructed by Yahweh to remove his sandals, for the ground on which he stood was holy ground.  And as I stood on my veranda, I did not remove my shoes.  However, it occurred to me that too often have I been guilty of restricting God to the inside of our stunning cathedrals and historic parishes, all hallowed courts.  But then, as I watched the snow fall, I came again to the awakening that all ground is sacred, all ground is holy, all ground is hallowed, that in often the unlikeliest of places, the work of God, the God of Creation, could be found.  Prohibited by diocesan and civil authorities from stepping inside a building, erected by human hands, I could experience the Holy in the out of doors.  I thought: Preservation of our environment is indeed a holy thing to do. 

The bodies by thy Body fed with thy new life replenish:  There was no distribution of biblical manna during the pandemic, although food pantries were and still are sought out and in need.  I did not witness the feeding of five thousand men, in addition to the women and children.  Tangible food stuffs are, indeed, essential to our survival.  Yet, there is another essential, too often overlooked, way that we are fed.  That is the sustenance which you and I receive from a smile, a gesture of the hand, a nod.  Such intangible food reaffirms our humanness.  In my solitary confinement, I recall the conversations which I have had with individuals who have eaten at some of the best restaurant in town, but who feel empty, when they retire for the night.  Is that not what Jesus of Nazareth intended, when he declared that his friends were to partake of his body?  It was not his physical body that fed them.  That was clear to them, as well as to us.  Rather were they not to be so taken with, so fed by his presence and, later when he was not visibly presence, by his spirit of unlimited generosity of care and concern and love, that they would be moved to share with others?

And this, dear people of St. James, is how I wished that I had responded to our bishop’s question, but I did not have time.  However, so it is, dear people of St. James, that as we begin in this holy place to reaffirm anew our belief in the God of all Creation, that I put before us collectively, and before us individually the pertinent question: Whereto from here?  No, we do not have ca. 150 clergy waiting to hear and see how we respond.  Consider this: God never took a vacation during this pandemic.  Were there not women and men with scientific knowledge and training who actively searched for solutions to our dilemma?  Were there not checkers and stockers in our supermarkets who placed at risk their own health, so that we could remain healthy and be able to return to this hallowed place?  Did not countless others, unknown and, hence, unrecognized by folks like you and me, maintain the safety of our environment by removing our trash and plowing our streets, securing our water supply, and testing and maintaining our electrical and gas systems?  Did we, you and I, driven not by fear, but by love, don our masks, keep our distance of six feet when possible, because we were and are persuaded that so to do was and is a clear sign of obeying the second of the Great Commandments of loving neighbor as we love ourselves, as we would wish to be loved?

Admittedly, it is to me—and I hope for you, even as we are small in number—a great joy to be able to assemble again in this sacred space and perform the liturgy that we all know and love.  Still, I can no longer allow myself, and as long as you will have me, allow you all to settle back into things of yore.  I hold before us the challenge which God presented to the biblical Hebrews, and which demands of us, of you and of me, a commitment to see things differently, of wrestling with ways, by which we are not timid in our belief, but expressive and expansive in telling others of the Good News, that God wants our good, our happiness, our progress toward a community that reflects the intentions of Creation.  Yes, there are those who believe in fretting over hellfire and brimstone in some after world.  But that is not who we ascribe to be, here at St. James.  God has called us to live in this world.  If we believe in that God of hope, I suspect that, no, I believe that our doors will be open to all who come seeking respite, so that they may step back into the world with renewed vigor.  Let the poetry of song become your prayer, just as it sustained me during those too, too long months.  Amen