This sermon has three time zones:
way, way back;
a few years ago;
Way, Way Back
So picture this scene – it is a follow up to last week
when I talked about Isaiah’s poetry of hope
to the returning exiles.
A very disparate remnant of exiles
returned to their homeland
after half a century living in captivity in Babylon.
They find their beloved cities in rubble.
Only the oldest people among them
have any actual memory of the place –
and even then, only from early childhood.
Most of what they know,
they know from stories passed from one impoverished
and poorly treated generation in Babylon to another.
What they know is that once upon a time,
they had a homeland and it was magnificent.
They had a capital city
with an enormous and ornate temple
where all the people came to worship.
They had a king,
and they had farms
and they had orchards
and they had rivers
and they had a pastoral life of goodness
that had been passed from one generation to the next
until…until the Babylonian empire crushed their army
and stole them away to another country
and enslaved them.
But now, two or more generations later,
that empire was ground into the dust of history.
Now, two or more generations later,
this straggly group of poorly educated, labor-hardened,
and fiercely independent people
returned to a land of rubble.
It was a scandal to the memory of
God’s covenant with Israel
that only a few came back.
The rest stayed where they had been in captivity
and were assimilated into the foreign culture.
But the few who came back returned
with hope-gilded hearts
and the imagination to rebuild.
When they arrived back in Judah
it was to a land occupied by other people,
with different languages and customs and gods.
The few who came back
did not even speak
the ancient language of their own religion.
By the time of Ezra and Nehemiah,
the first reading we heard today,
Hebrew was already a dying language.
Hebrew had become a religious language –
the language of ritual,
much as Latin to Roman Catholicism.
Few even understood Hebrew.
So the scene depicted in the first reading today,
is a cinematic image
of the first reading of Torah
to a community of strangers
amidst the rubble of Jerusalem.
Ezra, a priest,
and Nehemiah, a layperson,
took on the role of re-educating Israel
and bringing back to life
a nearly dead religion and culture.
It is a very strange and poignant moment.
They tell the people
that the occasion is a time of joy,
for feasting and celebration.
The people weep.
Ezra and Nehemiah
proclaim the joy of hopefulness
but it runs freely into the river of grief.
Ezra and Nehemiah
seek to reframe the moment at hand
so that the people see it as a time of pregnancy
rather than the box canyon of death.
It is an uphill climb.
That is our biblical context for today,
and though I am not going to talk about it,
it could also be the context of Luke’s story we heard.
A Few Years Ago
This is a story from a time in El Salvador
where I spent more than a decade
learning from the people about how to be
A couple of the trips I took to El Salvador
over those years
were medical missions.
The story I want to share with you now
took place during one of those weeks.
Allow me to acknowledge up front,
this is a story that could make anyone who is a
Mental Health professional cringe,
and if so, you are welcome to tell me
what I should have done differently.
I am not a medical professional, obviously,
so my job during the medical week was to teach
small-group classes on meditation and relaxation
to people with hypertension or stress
who the physicians and nurses directed to me.
Occasionally, between classes,
I would be given an individual or family consultation
that the medical providers felt was primarily
a mental health concern.
On the day in question,
in a particularly loud and particularly dusty place,
I am not sure “mental health” was the right diagnosis.
We were surrounded, I should tell you,
by a contingent of police, army soldiers,
and a couple guys from the mayor’s
personal security force.
I had never experienced that kind of security before
so I asked what was going on.
“Gangs,” was the terse reply.
Apparently our medical clinic that day
was situated in the midst of a pernicious and violent gang struggle.
Anyway, the referral that came to me
was a ten-year-old boy,
with his mother and younger brother and sister.
The diagnosis was “depression”
because the ten year old “cried a lot.”
Actually, it turned out that the mother
was tired of the boy crying all the time
and she wanted someone to fix him.
To make a long story short,
and cut through the many preliminary questions
I asked in order to ascertain the situation,
the little boy was crying, I was told,
because of the “Financial Crisis.”
(This was in January of 2010).
“The financial crisis?”
I was more than a little skeptical.
“Yes,” his mother insisted, “he is scared about the financial crisis, and sometimes,
we do not have enough to eat.”
Well what do you say to a ten-year-old boy
who is scared about the global financial crisis
that has already made his family’s tenuous hold
so much less secure?
Again, long story short.
What was there to say, especially
when I couldn’t discern other family issues
that must have been going on
underneath the stoic curtain?
Mind you, we were speaking to one another
through a translator
and there were other families and other children
playing and talking all around us.
Privacy is a rare commodity in that kind of poverty.
Finally, sitting there with all the information
I was going to get,
I evaluated the sum total of resources
in my possession to help this boy: zero.
It was, and it is, exactly
the kind of wide-open interpretive challenge
you and I live with every day of our own lives
but our affluence prevents us from seeing it.
Global crisis, personal struggle,
or community travail,
all of us – in good times and bad –
face the challenge
of interpretive choices.
Anyway, I asked the little ten-year-old boy in El Salvador
if he had ever heard of the Jewish religion.
He shook his head yes.
I told him there is a tradition,
a story among the great rabbis,
about the thirty-six “Just Men.”
(Actually, on the spot, I couldn’t remember
how many Just Men there were,
but it turns out there are many and various versions
about how many Just Men must be present
in each generation
in order to sustain our precarious balance.
I edited the story to include
thirty-six Just Men and Women,
but honestly, I was grabbing at straws
and reaching for meaning
regardless of what words the actual stories offer).
So I told the little boy that as the story goes,
God appoints thirty-six people in every generation
born with the task
of becoming supremely compassionate.
They are the ones who hold all the sorrow
of all the injustices
in the world.
I told him that as the story goes,
every time one of those thirty-six men or women dies,
a new one is born to take his or her place.
Those thirty-six Just men and women
hold the world’s sorrow for God
until the day that God brings about justice for everyone.
It allows all the other people, I told him,
to fight for justice,
and keep putting one foot in front of the other
when they are sad or angry or afraid.
I said it was unusual for a ten-year-old boy
to hold so much sadness in his heart
for so many other people.
I said that maybe he was holding some sadness for God.
Tears streamed down his face
he shook his head ever-so-slightly, that maybe he was.
I told him that most of the world is sad right now,
and that he is not alone.
I told him there was much to be sad about,
and that when his mom and dad struggled,
it was compassionate of him to be sad for them
instead of only sad for himself.
I told him that the thing about his sadness was,
that when it got to be too much,
God would hold it for him.
I told him that if he wanted to, or needed to,
every night he could ask God to hold his sadness
so he could get a good night’s sleep,
and that it would be there for him in the morning
if he wanted to hold it again.
I told him that God needed partners like him in the world.
Then I turned to his mom,
and I said to her that sadness was not the worst thing
in the world, and that her son was so sad
because he had a very big heart.
“Allow him to cry,” I told her.
When he is done with the sadness he will stop crying…
or eventually learn to manage his tears.
“You can not fix your son,” I told her;
so offer him affirmation and comfort
instead of embarrassment and challenge.
“God needs people who are sad for other people,”
is what I told her.
That was it.
That was all I had.
I doubt it had much impact.
It didn’t fix anything.
If there was something to fix, I didn’t have the tools or know-how to fix it.
But what that little boy did for me –
and why I went to El Salvador so many times
and took other people with me –
was to remind me
that we get to choose how we frame the world we live in.
We get to interpret our world,
and how we interpret our own place in it
makes all the difference
to us and to those who share the world with us.
Meaning is not delivered to us as a closed book.
Our choices are not limited to the ones we were told,
or even to the ones we first imagined –
there is a spectrum of choices
for how to interpret our situation,
and the meaning of our lives,
but we need to have a practiced imagination
to decipher them.
From the giant historical significance
in the story of return by our ancient ancestor in exile,
to the small story of a ten-year-old boy,
perhaps you can hear a theme developing here.
The ancient past, and the recent past,
bring us to now.
Once upon a time,
I was called to a congregation
by its search committee and vestry
to “innovate and diversify” the congregation
in hopes that it would then grow and thrive.
That is backwards, by the way:
the wish to grow in order to survive.
If we think about it,
we will see how self-centered that perspective is.
It is not unusual,
especially for congregations in distress.
When we struggle for survival,
according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,
self-preservation is about all we can conjure.
But what is “church” about?
It is not about oneself.
It is not about self-preservation on any level.
It is surely not about the preservation of a building,
or ethnically and class-bound
music and worship traditions.
None of that stuff matters to the gospel.
Church, if we take seriously the gospel,
is about sharing the gospel with other people
in thought, word, and deed.
Anything and everything else is gravy.
It is almost the opposite of Maslow’s hierarchy.
It begins with the preservation of something
as embodied in community.
So this search committee and vestry that called me
to “innovate and diversify” the congregation
neglected to tell the rest of the church,
especially the ‘old guard,’
that that was the call or
that the person they found was someone
to lead them in that direction.
Now in all fairness to that search committee and vestry,
they did not have a clue (as most of us rarely do)
as to what they were asking for.
They had their eyes on the prize
not what it would take to get there.
A friend of mine likes to say
that the biggest lie churches ever tell
is that they want to grow.
in order to grow
change is required –
and no one likes change.
If a congregation is in decline
or simply stuck on a plateau,
there are reasons that other people are not joining.
So the desire to grow
includes rigorous self-honesty
and the willingness to change what we do
as an act of hospitality
to those who are not here yet.
That is what I mean about the gospel
insisting that we live beyond ourselves –
at least as we create ‘church’.
Anyway, like I said,
the congregation had no idea
what the search committee and vestry had done,
nor did the search committee and vestry
have any idea what it had done, except in theory.
There ensued about three years of hand-to-hand combat.
with nastiness the likes of which
I had never seen or heard before;
mean things I had never personally weathered before.
It was ugly and I almost threw up my hands in despair
and told God we had both made a mistake.
(Just as an aside,
and I am guessing
you already know this from personal experience,
when we tell God a mistake has been made
it is likely ours, not God’s).
Well, two just barely tolerable years
followed those first three horrible ones, and then,
after almost leaving again,
things went really well
and it is a story with a happy ending.
I tell you that story
because I do not want that to happen again,
or if it has already happened here,
with this search committee and this vestry,
I don’t want to be caught flat-footed
when I find out.
So let me tell you why I think
I was called to Trinity Geneva.
And as I tell you,
remember that we have an interpretive task ahead of us – choices
about how we interpret the meaning
of this moment.
I was called to Trinity to be a midwife.
That is how I imagine it.
A midwife prepares the mother for birth,
provides a healthy and safe birthing milieu,
and prepares herself
with the best possible training
in the event everything goes right
and for as many things as she knows could go wrong.
But the midwife does not perform the labor.
The midwife does not give birth.
At all the most crucial stages
the midwife is powerless,
and she reckons with her own powerlessness
so as not to confuse her role with that of the mother.
I believe your search committee
and your vestry
called me here to be a midwife,
so that Trinity Church Geneva can give birth
to a new and renewed incarnation of itself
that has been stuck in gestation for a very long time.
But like a mother preparing for birth,
I also sense anxiety about a midwife in the room.
Congregations of every stripe
and particularly in The Episcopal Church
are shriveling and dying on the vine.
The nation is dotted with closed churches,
or even worse, congregations with small endowments
that can prolong the pain for years
before the mercy of death.
We see that all around us with our own eyes.
Given the size of this congregation
and the size of this building
and the dwindling of our resources,
I think we know, whether spoken out loud or not,
that a slow death or even a sudden one
could be in our future unless we choose differently.
Which is scarier: death or change?
Maybe they are equally scary.
It is like that former congregation
that didn’t realize ‘innovation and diversity’
required serious and significant change.
The continuation and rebirth of Trinity Church Geneva
requires us to enter into and contend
with serious question about the gospel
and why we exist at all –
and our place in the world should we be reborn.
We need to say that out loud
if we are serious
about getting on with labor and delivery.
What happens is not a forgone conclusion
one way or the other,
but there is no doubt
we need to talk about and consider all options.
So…that will be the primary topic of conversation
at the Annual Parish Meeting on February 7th.
It will only be the beginning of an open and public conversation
about birth and renewal
for Trinity Geneva – whatever forms it takes.
Now please, do not hear more than I am saying:
I have no idea what the future looks like –
really and truly, I do not.
I have personally witnessed God and human beings
do amazing and miraculous things together,
so we cannot begin the conversation by counting anything out –
including this building or our future.
At the same time,
we cannot be in denial or Pollyannaish
about what time it is.
We do not get to dither or close our eyes.
Those days are long gone.
We are on the lip of decision
and as your midwife,
I need to tell you
that labor and delivery is upon us…now.
Here is a warning.
Some of you, maybe all of us at one time or another,
will want to sit down with our arms crossed,
our eyes closed, and our lips pursed.
Some will do their version of a temper-tantrum
with loud and more vigorous drama.
If there is too much of that,
if there is a conspiracy to block, resist, or deny
that choices must be made now,
then instead of a midwife
I will have to become a hospice chaplain.
I know how to do that part too,
although I’ve never had to hold vigil
while a congregation died.
I really do not want to do that
because I see life here
and I see hope here
and I see a horizon with the community of Trinity on it.
I don’t now if that includes this building or not,
but I do see a future.
But we will not get there
unless we acknowledge what time it is
and we are imaginative
and brave and bold about the choices we make.
We have a small window of opportunity
before circumstances beyond our control
take away imaginative and hopeful choices
so that hospice care becomes the only future.
and death happens.
But I am a midwife by nature
so I am hoping you will stand up in this moment
and engage in the interpretive task
and declare meaning and choose life.
I feel the way I imagine
Ezra and Nehemiah must have,
declaring joy and hope at the opportunities ahead
even at a very precarious and scary moment.
And like the ten year old boy
whose tears I could not take away
and whose world I could not fix,
I hope that I am, and will continue to,
help us imagine a meaning and a purpose
for our struggle together –
a meaning and a purpose beyond ourselves
and worthy of the gospel.
Way, way back;
and a few years ago;
are all aligned like the planets will be
in the February sky.
Let’s go toward labor and delivery
and the new life we can become!