The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
February 5, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the Earth?”
I asked the following question of your new vestry at our meeting on Thursday: What is your favorite place in the world? It doesn’t have to be a certain place, a specific outcropping of rocks just south of Yachats, it doesn’t have to be a place at all, it could be imagined or more a state of mind, like being snuggled up by the fire with a little one reading a book. Let’s pause for a moment. What is your perfect place in the world?
My perfect place is walking with Willow through the fields at our old farm in the late afternoon sun, right before the mosquitoes come out. I walk up and down the rows, seeing what is ready, deciding what to make my family for dinner and harvesting it. I always pause in front of the chicken tractors just to keep them sharp. Otherwise I would weed here and there, take stock of things, tie up a tomato plant or two dozen, think about tomorrow’s tasks or maybe try to think about nothing at all. My perfect place is beautiful. It is a productive place; there is plenty to share. It keeps my attention. Gives opportunities for meaningful, creative work. It is quiet. I am alone but others, my family and community, the people who eat the food, they are on my mind and in my work. That is my vision of perfection, of the perfect place.
Everyone at our meeting shared a bit about our perfect places and there was amazing continuity. Common elements included being beautiful, quiet, being with companions, a place of welcome, of good food, being warm and dry though not necessarily in a warm and dry place, a place without clocks, and most, somehow, were set in the out-of-doors, in non-human engineered settings, except the idea of a café in Paris, but that is understandable; God loves cafés in Paris.
Then I was a little sneaky. Well, not sneaky, but religious.
Religion is at its best when it forces us to look at something from a different perspective. Jesus is constantly doing that. I asked everyone what that perfect place had to do with the Kingdom of God. And it worked. Everyone guffawed a bit. None of us had spoken of notions of justice, or inclusion, or Eucharist, or angels and archangels or any of the company of heaven, or really anything to do with church at all, now that I think of it; well, nothing about what we generally consider to be churchy. Hmmm? We describe our perfect place as one thing, and it is genuine, but then putting our thoughts, desires and imaginations in the context of something like the Kingdom of God, perfection takes on a different character. It is funny that our visions of the perfect place did not look like church as we know it. In reality, though, and my take home from the exercise is that for most of us, our vision of the perfect place did not look like the church as it is right now…
“Have you not known? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the Earth?”
I led this exercise to begin what will be a long process of discernment here in this community. What we are discerning is no less than the Will of God Almighty. What does God want of us? Who does God want us to be? How does God want us to serve? What is the best use of the resources we have concentrated through grace and hard work? What is our mission? What is our vocation? This began with the leadership core of the parish, the vestry, we started on Saturday at our retreat. Listening here, right now, your participation in the revelation of our vocation commences. We need prayer for our work as leaders, we need prayer for your own vision, and once you get the shadowy first revelations of a vision, we need meditation and reflection on them. We need deep thinking and study and conversation. We need each other. And God in Christ with the Holy Spirit.
“Have you not known? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the Earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the Earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.” I am not concerned or worried that none of us had overtly churchy visions of the perfect place. Jesus surely spent time in “religious” places, he wore the title Rabbi. Like last week, our Gospel reveals Jesus teaching and casting out demons in the synagogue. But the whole of Capernaum gathered outside of Simon and Andrew’s house for healing. And when he prayed, he went off to a quiet, deserted place as he was want to do. God is everywhere. Church, religion is useful in that it helps us on our journey to union with God. The prayers, the rituals, the words, even our Holy and Blessed Sacraments are useful only in that they help us grow more deep in our relationship with God and neighbor. And we are all so broken that we have a long, long time before things church, things religious are obsolete. That our vision of the perfect place did not match church is OK, it is like imagining an ordained ministry, we usually hope it is not like seminary; or a vocation in the law hopefully will not resemble law school. Our eyes were, I believe, set on perfection, were set on the kingdom of God, it is just that the pedagogical tool that the church is was transparent. The church, even this Church, is a means, not an end. The Kingdom of God is the end.
Really, I am pretty confident that the Kingdom of God looks, or, at least feels more like a quiet walk on a misty Oregon beach with the love of our life than a Sunday morning at Mass. And don’t get me wrong, I love Mass. And I am also confident that a sizeable proportion of us, of humankind, we need to go to Mass or its equivalent a whole bunch of times before we are able to really see, to really even begin to feel let alone have revealed to us that the Kingdom that is sitting right in front of us.
What filled me with hope in our exercise was that all of our notions of perfection had something to do with the way things are in their natural state. Our visions did not require changes in the world. The world seemed perfect when we were the changed ones. It was the same landscape we always see, it was the same path we always walk, but in the absence of chatter, in the absence of distraction, of clocks; the world became different, it became perfect in our mind’s eye. The perfection of the world is obvious when that stagnating cloud of sin is blown out to sea, when our distance from God is closed, when we live authentically in righteous, generous community. When we live the words we are saying together right now in this Mass.
This is our God: “God counts the numbers of the stars and calls them by their names…covers the heavens with clouds and prepares rain for the Earth; God makes grass to grow upon the mountains and green plants to serve humankind. God provides food for flocks and herds and for the young ravens when they cry.” God is good.
Isaiah reminds us that God is in fact good. Look around, what is lasting, what endures? The princes? The rulers of the earth? No. Scarcely are they planted “when God blows upon them, and they wither.” The psalmist reminds us that God is not “Impressed with the strength of a horse, has no pleasure in the strength of a man…”
What is God impressed with, whom does God favor? “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless,” God stands with “those who wait.” “The LORD has pleasure in those who fear him, in those who await his gracious favor.”
I asked the questions about a perfect place because we as Christians have the mission to help realize, to help reveal the Kingdom of God. So we need to imagine what the Kingdom looks like, feels like, tastes like, so that we can begin our work together. If your perfect place involved silence and peace, being free from fear and want, full of beauty and not a single clock anywhere, how can the Church, how can THIS church work make that happen? For your sake, for our sake, for the sake of the world, may our prayer and our work ever please Thee, O LORD. AMEN