“Be prepared,” the Boy Scouts told us, and they were right. And yet, as people, as Christians, we know that we must never be so prepared that we’re kept from being devastated, unsettled, cut to the quick, and – where it is called for – moved off the script. Maybe it’s not that we’re too prepared, but not prepared enough.
Today is Parish Meeting Sunday; it is also the day after a gunman shot eighteen people, killing six, and wounding twelve others, including a congresswoman. Prepared as we are for today at St. Christopher’s, we wonder if we are prepared to grieve this kind of madness, murder. Before saying what ought to be said on this Parish Meeting Sunday, I want to first offer a reflection of what must be said about yesterday and about the Gospel. These reflections are the work of Christian columnist and author Diana Butler Bass:
The Sunday after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, my husband’s family attended their Presbyterian church. They went with heavy hearts, expecting the pastor to help make sense of the tragedy. The minister rose to preach. The congregation held its breath. But he said nothing of the events in Memphis. He preached as if nothing had happened. My husband’s family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church altogether.
This Sunday, many Americans will go to church. A sizeable number of those people may be hoping to hear something that helps them make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the others who had gathered at her sidewalk townhall in Tucson. Some pastors may note the event in prayer and some may say something during announcements or add a sentence to their sermons. But others might say nothing, sticking instead to prepared texts and liturgies. Many will eschew speaking of politics.
That would be a mistake.
Much of American public commentary takes place on television, via the Internet, and through social networks. We already know what form the analysis of the assassination attempt will be. Everyone will say what a tragedy it is. Then commentators will take sides. Those on the left will blame the Tea Party’s violent rhetoric and “Second Amendment solutions.” Those on the right will blame irresponsible individuals and socialism. Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits their party, their platform, and their policies.
But who will speak of the soul?
Since President Obama has taken office, many ministers have told me that they have feared addressing public issues from the pulpit lest “someone get hurt.” Well, someone is hurt — and people have died — most likely because bitterly partisan lies have filled the air and most certainly because some unhinged individual killed people.
At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming. Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons this Sunday will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans — how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.
Sunday January 9 was the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17) Jesus’ baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of cleansing. But there is a darker symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In 1862, Episcopal Bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, “All nations which come into existence . . . must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood.” Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?
American Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need today? Which baptism truly heals? Do we need the water of God, or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply obvious. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God’s love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks.
If we don’t speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.
It’s the day after gunfire in Tuscon, and it's also Parish Meeting Sunday at St. Christopher's. And the particular gospel lesson before us this morning - the baptism of Jesus - speaks appropriately to the tragedy of yesterday, and it is also at the heart of who we are and all that we do as Christians at St. Christopher's. For here at St. Christopher's are people who have been gathered into and gathered by the baptism of Jesus. As the old hymn tells it, we are people who dared one day to "wade in the waters." Baptism names the action by which each of us is sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own, forever.
Whenever a Christian or a church asks what God has in mind for her life, it's always a version of the question: what does it mean to be baptized? What does it mean to share in the death and resurrection life of Jesus?
So it is that we enter the church and pass by the baptismal font each time we gather, as we make our way into the nave, each time remembering the waters that make us the church. Remembering the waters that give us our sense of mission and purpose - our identity. Before anything else - before we preach, or suit up, or acolyte; before we sing with the choir, read the lessons, set the table, or put our offering in the plate - the font catches us at the outset, and it seems to cry out, "Hey you! Don’t forget. Hey you! Listen to me! Remember your baptism!" Remember the Holy Spirit that seals you, and is with you, and remember what it means to be baptized in Christ; for the words that the Father first meant for Jesus are now also true for all who share his baptism, and these are the words: This is my beloved, my child, in whom I am well pleased.
So before any business or mission we have, the first task is this: remember that you are beloved of God. Remember that God Himself loves you with every inch of what it means to be God.
Can I get an "amen"?
With the love of God as our foundation - as our starting place - I want to offer the Rector's report for the year 2010.
Annie, Rebekah, and I have been a part of the St. Christopher's family now for just over one year. The year has both blessed us and been difficult for us, as we have navigated the transitions and learning curves of new place, new baby, new position as if learning to juggle for the very first time. We have been grateful for the support of friends, for those of you have reached out to us, for your prayers, for your patience, and for your presence. The people of St. Christopher's are more gifted than perhaps you realize, and you have blessed me and your church family best by your exercising your gifts in the ministries that God has called you to. My stated goal for this first year has been to get to know you, put down my own roots, and learn who you are, learn with you and learn to be with you. To begin the foundations of holy friendship. I am grateful to God for this beginning.
Of course, as the sappy song says it, we’ve only just begun. I hope we continue to build on these good foundations - I plan to; I pray to engage more of you one on one, over coffee and lunches, alongside one another – as we’ve done – preparing meals for the homeless, in ministry, and, of course, most centrally around the bread and the cup that we share, the Body of Christ. I hope you'll continue to seek me out, too. As a congregation, I pray to continue to explore with you the many habits and aspects of parish life by which we seek to serve God here.
Many of you have discovered what priests already know: that calling a priest doesn't end a transition, and I hope this reminds us that transition is a constant state - and that remembering that we are always in transition affords us the flexibility of a people whose first task is to remember that they are loved. Don’t dare forget you are loved.
When Rebekah and I interviewed and later arrived at St. Christopher's, the common chord and vision struck between Vestry and Rector was a desire summarized by these words: roots down, walls down. Roots down, the opportunity for each one who came through these walls to grow in the life of faith as deeply as she had courage. Walls down, Christ's commandment to this church to do everything in our power to reach out beyond ourselves: to our neighbors, the community, and beyond.
Roots down, walls down.
On both of these fronts, we have much to celebrate this past year – we’ll hear about some of them throughout this morning, but I'd be remiss not to highlight a few here: the more than one thousand meals provided to the homeless through St. Christopher's and the Survive the Night ministry; or the development of a monthly fellowship luncheon at the Carriage Inn Retirement Center, and a new worship service, also at Carriage Inn, beginning this year; our team of adult youth leaders continue to pave a solid foundation for our youth and their friends - I can't begin to tell you, for example, the gratitude of the homebound as the youth sang carols door-to-door three weeks ago; and children's Sunday School is positively revitalized from where it stood one year ago; the Ladies of the Light continue to set a communal bar for hospitality and study; and our first year-round Stewardship campaign led eight families to make new or first-time financial commitments to the ministry of St. Christopher’s – the work you and I do together inside and outside of this place. And I haven't even mentioned the Evening of Christmas music and the many, many of you who gave of yourselves to invite folks from beyond our walls in.
Roots down, walls down. It's happening all over our parish. And yet, from my perch as your priest, and after a little more than a year living with and among the St. Christopher's family, I am increasingly aware that as we seek to reach out to the community beyond the walls of this church, we are experiencing difficulty because of walls inside the church. In order to grow our witness, both sets of walls must come down. It does no good to welcome the stranger if you aren't on speaking terms with your neighbor. By not on speaking terms, I don't necessarily mean an outright hostility - though that might also exist - I mean any impediment to open, truthful, and abundant conversation. Conversation like, “Can we talk?” “How can I help you?” Can we work together?” “Will you help me?” Without this kind of speech with each other, we're left making assumptions about one another, and our parents warned us about what that does.
An example that I've asked Marge Davis's permission to share: this past year, faithful leaders of the St. Christopher's Food Pantry ministry have asked me privately about the commitment of the congregation to this ministry. Some have even speculated that the city of Portland is simply not a city with a sustainable care for the poor. The facts appear to bear this out: volunteers for the ministry have been hard to find; food has sometimes run low.
And yet, in the parish-wide ministry survey put forth by the Stewardship team this past October, the St. Christopher's Food Pantry received as much interest as any other ministry of the parish. People able and ready to support by their money, their time, and their food.
In this case, and others like it, interior walls have proven to be formidable obstacles to the heart and passion of our parish and the very real desire to respond to God's call. In some cases, these walls have resulted in frustration, resentment, or burnout. Other times, exciting visions for ministry have simply been left by the wayside. Because no one else cares, the thinking goes. But they do. You do. I've talked and prayed with too many of you - you really do care.
How then shall we act?
As beloved of God - remember that you are beloved of God, before anything else - we receive Jesus' words to us: "Love one another, as I have loved you."
Beginning in February, I want to offer us a concrete practice designed to take Jesus's admonition seriously and better enable us to share with those outside our walls the love we receive and develop within these walls. The idea is a once-a-month gathering of all leaders in the church. The twist is this: you get to decide if you're a leader. So these meetings are open to everyone who wants to come. We'll meet for prayer, we’ll read Scripture together - in particular prayer for our church family and our ministry outside of ourselves. And then we'll break up to discuss the things that are important to our ministry at St. Christopher's. So, for example, one month we might have three things on the agenda: say, follow-up with visitors, short-term mission trips, and who’s taking down the Christmas decorations. If you’re interested in any of these things on any level, you come. After prayer time together, you would go to the table with the ministry that you most feel called to engage, be an active part of, and you would discover at your table the other people God is also calling to that ministry. You discover a team.
We'll see how it goes, but I hope you'll take advantage of the opportunity - the opportunity to be heard, grow in relationship with one another, and reach out as Christ invites us. We have no lack of good ideas and initiative here; but coordination, communication and follow-through constitute the difference between good intentions and growing the Kingdom of God in this place. It’s an exciting practice, the meetings, because they stand to grow us as leaders in order to grow us as church.
Of course, there's a danger in this. Number one, it only works if you come to the table, to the meeting. Number two, at one time or another, we'll each be surprised by who else comes to our table. The willingness to sit down with people we aren't ready to choose is forgiveness - the very essence of love. And because our first task is to know we are loved, we know we will find the grace we need to share love with each other.
Our reach to the outside has everything to do with the walls on the inside. This is not just true for our mission to Portland; it’s the whole Gospel for every life. It’s why healing and forgiveness are so connected in Scripture; it’s why Jesus forgives as he heals; the reach out is profoundly connected to the healing within. And the willingness to sit down with people we aren't ready to choose is forgiveness - the very essence of love.
And isn't that the terrifying and wonderful mystery of the waters of baptism? Who will meet us at the table? Who else is coming? This is where our ministry beyond these walls meets with, intersects, the ministry within these walls, we're always called and coming to the table, where the only certainty - the only thing we're promised - is that God will meet us there. The challenge of the waters and the table and our particular challenge for 2011, I think, is to learn to believe with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, that this is enough. So much more than enough.
Because you didn't choose this God or the other folks at the table. But God in Christ chose you, His beloved - and me, His beloved.
In 2011, let's so share God's love with one another that we believe it meant for us - and for everyone else, too.
With gratitude, and joy, to be your priest, and with love, expectation, and prayers for the coming year together in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Jonathan R. Melton, Rector