April 22, 2012 The Third Sunday of Easter, Year B The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
Many years ago, when I was in the Marines, I spent three years in 29 Palms, California. It is in the middle of the Mohave desert; which is a beautiful place, and is absolutely the frontier of human civilization. From the edge of town looking east, it was 100 miles to the next building. It was weird out there sometimes. Once, I was driving with some friends across a particularly desolate stretch of desert highway, and we passed a house out there that was completely enclosed in a giant white cage. It looked like someone had fitted a huge cast iron birdcage exactly to the profile of the house. It was creepy to say the least. One of my friends commented, “I wonder who they are trying to keep out?” My other friend asked, “I wonder who they are trying to keep in?”
What did we talk about last week?_____ Radical hospitality. What led us to thinking about that?______ Locked doors; exactly. The thing about locked doors is that they work both ways. Not only do they keep people out, they also keep people in.
This is a generous church much like this is a hospitable church. It is generous and hospitable and on both counts, we have more to do. A lot more to do. We need to make sure that locked doors do not keep others out nor do they keep us in.
Look around us. Seriously, look around. There are amazing people around this place. Such generosity, such energy, such skills and caring concentrated in this place, inside these doors. We have so much to offer, so the first question is, “What does the world need?” Well, we need a new atmosphere. Besides that, what does our community need? _____
As far as I see it, there are two major foci of effort calling to us. We need to alleviate individual human suffering and we need change the system that creates the conditions for suffering. Direct service and structural change. Neither is privileged over the other; both are absolutely essential. There is the cautionary allegory of a river with babies floating downstream in baskets. The caution is we must not simply save the babies, but must address how they got into the river in the first place. We absolutely need to do both, because no matter what is going on upstream, those babies need saving, and now. If you are destitute, we need to help you get food, and shelter, and clothing to you ASAP. And, and we need to address with the force of the gospels the conditions that make poverty possible, if not increasingly probable for far too many of our neighbors and ourselves.
Direct service and structural change. These are our parallel courses. So now we have to ask ourselves the question, “what do we have to offer?”
Of primary importance to this whole endeavor, our whole mission to the world, is the fact that we are a church. We are a community of people, religious people, who primarily form a community in order to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and love our neighbors as ourselves. We are not a social service agency. Parishes are very inefficient providers of social services. That we operate the home starter kit program, or that we participate in shelter week, the only emergency shelter for homeless families to stay together in Eugene is simply a sign that our government has failed to protect the most vulnerable, and in that it has failed all of us; well, all of us but the very wealthy. In a perfect world, direct social service should not be part of local parish life except for the occasional assistance offered to someone who slips through the social safety net. Truly, our direct service should be that of being a good and generous neighbor, always ready to offer a hand, a cup of sugar, a few dollars. Tragically, though, our government has failed us and it is only going to get worse. Sinfully misplaced priorities have left millions clinging to survival by a thread. We must help. The babies need to be pulled from the river. We will do the best that we can to help those in dire straights because honestly, there are not many others willing or able to that in our society.
While churches are not great social service providers, churches, are exceptionally good at two other forms of mission. What might those be? Here is a hint: one is really exciting and one is really scary, for Episcopalians at least. As for exciting, how is abolition for excitement? Or the civil rights movement? How about Oscar Romero challenging American imperial hegemony and Dietrich Bonheoffer challenging National Socialism? What about Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Brazil in the 90s when he wrote, “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a communist.” Religious people organized in churches are exceptionally good at the big picture, structural change kinds of movements. Collectively we can bring to bear a divinely guided moral voice that can break empires, that can bring justice, that can free people from oppression. If you doubt that, think about the Anglican Church in South Africa. The ANC brought the people to the streets and to the halls of government; the church kept them from becoming the evil they were resisting and to make reconciliation a reality. We are powerful medicine.
The church, us, we, we have a moral voice. We get the benefit of the doubt from our society when it comes to proclaiming what is just, defining right from wrong, forgiving trespasses and confronting evil without hatred or malice. That is what Jesus did among us. That is what Jesus commands us to do. Loving our neighbor as our self is not a passive activity. It is not only an internal process we go through. And it is thoroughly exciting.
Scary, though, is the second form of mission outside these doors that Churches are perfectly suited for: evangelism. Do you think that what we do here is good, worthwhile? Does the community here shore you up in the storm? Do you feel more able to help others? Are you closer to God here, or because of being part of this community? If so, then we have a moral obligation to share it, and not wait passively to welcome or even radically welcome those who find their way to these unlocked doors. This is not about growth in numbers. I am not concerned about that. I am talking about growth in mission, in particular the mission of propgating the gospel in the hearts and minds of our neighbors who need it. We have something good here, something necessary. Something life giving. We need to share it.
But it is bigger than that, the imperative to evangelism, much bigger. It is Earth Day. And there are some scary things on the horizon, a more near horizon than we probably know. The climate is in flux and biological systems, such as human civilization, are hypersensitive to change, and a changing climate changes everything. One of the most profound lessons I learned in my years of farming was the idea of resiliency. Resiliency: in biological systems resiliency is one part flexability, one part healthy constitution, one part balance and a whole mess of fungal and microbiological activity. That is a description of good soil. It is a community, soil, and is sometimes called the soil food web. Minerals, bacteria, fungus, humus, air, water, worms, insects, moles… that is the soil community. And the more flexible, healthy, balanced and alive a soil system is, the more resilient it becomes. Good soil can handle more water in floods, can store more water in droughts and will not erode or compact easily. Good soil will not harbor disease and pests, nor will it support pernicious weed infestations. It can metabolize poisons better, can heal itself faster and can sequester vast amounts of carbon. Oh, and it produces more nutrient dense food with far less inputs than poor soil. Like the fields in China and India that have been cultivated continuously for 3000 years with no loss of fertility.
Churches can be that kind of community; soil-like. Resilient. We internally can weather storms. We would not have made it 2000 years if we couldn’t. And in the coming storms, not only will we be better off, but we can serve our neighbors and neighborhood better. And the more people in the fold, in the rich, resilient community we are building here, the more servants of a needful world will there be; the more our local community will resemble the ecclesia, the beloved community we are striving for. We have the means to be a beacon in this community, a center of mercy and health, vibrancy and love, stability and justice. We need to let our light shine, and brightly, because there is darkness abroad in the world. We have something good going on here, something good for the world. Let’s get out there.
What to do from here? That is always the kicker. Here’s what. Keep up what we are doing now. It is great. Let’s get involved with the Sunday breakfasts down at first Christian. If you are interested, let’s meet outside right after church before the end of life class. This building is empty most of the time. Let’s get it in the swing of things, hosting groups, let’s become a lively hub of this community. Go to an event or read something that will challenge you. Work on your prayer practice, or get one. Ask me about it if you want. Invite someone to church; someone who needs it, someone whom we need, generally those become one in the same. Let’ unlock these doors and let the light shine in, and let our light shine out. AMEN