Lent IV March 15, 2015
An Untamed Gospel
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
The people were disgruntled. They had been delivered from slavery in Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness tired, hungry and thirsty. They complained even about the manna, the food that was given to them daily, food that was keeping them alive. In the desert poisonous snakes appeared. People were bitten and many died. Was this God’s doing? …or was it part of the reality of being out in nature where poisonous creatures… and where death… may seem closer at hand than in the comfort of a cozy home where in which the rhythm of domestic life was familiar and known. Indeed, death was in their midst and in this story from Numbers, the people are not left to their whining and fear. Moses lifts up a poisonous snake, an object of death. The people look up, and those who faced the object of death, though they had been stricken… lived. Then Moses made a bronze snake… that this symbol of healing, through the encounter with death, would remain with the people. The bronze symbol became an institution. The people became comfortable with depiction of a snake. The symbol lost its power to convey the message of life and healing. It became and object in the temple. The image of a serpent-on-a pole appears again in the second book of Kings (18:4) where Hezekiah “removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it.” Essentially the people, in Hezekiah’s time, had lost the experience and encounter with a life threatening, poisonous snake. The symbol of death that had given life to the people in the desert, had become a familiar object drained of its original meaning. The people had forgotten the experience of the God they knew in the wilderness… a God fiercely, wild… fiercely present… The experience, the concept, the devotion to the wild God of the wilderness, who was and is forever unpredictable… but always faithful… had been tamed by the symbols, rituals and traditions of the people.
In our Gospel lesson we have, contained within it, “John 3:16”… A short hand notation which is found on bumper stickers, and bill boards… The reformer Martin Luther called this passage of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son to that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” …Luther called it: “the Gospel in miniature.” He suggested that the whole message of life and salvation is contained in this verse. I wonder, though, if there has been a tendency to tame this “Gospel in miniature”… to reduce the big story to a relative sound bite… drawing us from the visceral and raw experience of Good Friday and the cross… the greater power of life through the resurrection, beyond death… the experience of new life in our midst…. I wonder if the bumper sticker version dilutes the message that, for some, may be perceived as the “correct” and full answer to the test question what is the core and center of our Christian faith. Question: “Give a synopsis of the Christian faith.” Quick answer: “John 3:16.” Our rich faith, however, is larger than any one Bible verse. Our faith asks us to live it out in our place, in the experiences of our mortal walk towards our own death, in our walk through pain and illness, our walk with spiritual hunger and even literal hunter. Our faith asks us to dig deeper in understanding and in the expression of the love of God that death… could not, cannot, and will not hold.
Yesterday your vestry and staff and I met for a day long retreat to build our leadership team and to work on discerning God’s call to mission and ministry here at St. Paul’s, in our context and in this moment in time. We were blessed to have Canon Britt Olson as our facilitator. She has spent the last decade doing the work of equipping congregations to better understand and live out their calling. She did this work as Canon to the Ordinary for the dioceses of and El Camino. There was much good work accomplished on Saturday that will be soon shared with you in greater detail. In our sessions there was also much good work in building relationships with one another and in envisioning how we can better be agents of growing this good work of community building and faithfulness with all of you.
Of course, the work of the vestry includes tending to the financial and administrative health of St. Paul’s that support our mission and ministry. The three areas of focus that were identified were 1) budget and finance, 2) vision development and direction, and 3) enhancement congregational self-understanding for the “building up of the body” that we can all deepen our engagement with our faith here within this beloved community. The work in all of these areas will help us as we strive to share the Good News of Gods love, life, healing, beauty, and called to service in an ever more unchurched world in which faith vocabulary and sacred stories are falling away. As Port Townsend draws many residents as a place of beautiful retirement we considered the call to share this good message and story of faith with all ages. During our time together we considered the fact that, though we do not have a lot of children right in our midst, there are oodles of children, just outside of Port Townsend, who are in need of opportunities to be exposed to the knowledge of a rich life of faith that we may take for granted. Because we do know our demographics, we can share this knowledge beyond our walls in opportunities such as our summer programs for children that have drawn kids from Port Hadlock and Chimacum as well as Port Townsend. This call also invites us to deepen our bonds of community and sharing with one another.
Our facilitator took us through a series of team building exercises that showed that the range and diversity of our interests and gifts. This wealth of difference is actually a great asset. At one point we were asked to choose one of four areas of focus/interest/passion for congregational life. The challenge was to choose only one and I ask you to think about which one you would choose. Would you choose worship as the focus of your interest in this parish? Would you choose fellowship? How about mission and service? How about leadership and administration? Which one of those areas of focus would you choose as your primary passion? Four corners of the room were designated, one for each area of focus. We were instructed physically to go to the designated area of our primary interest. What was most delightful to me was that there was a nearly even split amongst the four areas. This makes for a powerful team! What this says to me, also, is that there are a variety of gifts, a variety of interests, and that as a whole we are equipped to deepen the work we are already doing. This does not mean that we are going to create and build programs for the sake of building programs. It means that we are going to work on developing what is already here and I trust that what was reflected in our work in the retreat, in the identification of differences in styles, backgrounds and interests… I trust that we also, as a larger body, reflect this blessed diversity. Such a mosaic is evidence of the abundance in our midst. Yes we are called to be good stewards of our facilities, to keep the lights on, repair the leaks, and seek greater financial sustainability. We are also called to add yeast to the rich mix of assets that are already here, among us and within us, to grow the health and vitality of our life together… and to share the knowledge of God’s call to share our passion for the love of God we know in Christ… with the community world around us.
May we not keep our gaze focused solely on the troubles that nip at us and seek to drain us of life. May we look up to the cross…and know the greater meaning of the God given intersection where death is transformed into life… a meaning that no words… or string of words… can contain… that no single ritual can hold, no deed can fulfill…. but the deep symbol that carries us in our weakness, in our pain an suffering, in our feelings of inadequacy, and in the knowledge of our gifts and strengths… a meaning that is more than we can know and live out… We are not called to complete this work. We are called to sow seeds for future generations and to see the harvest that is ripe and here in our midst.
How do we begin to respond to the love, the passion that is coming our way? …a fierce love…. nearly blinding in its brilliance.. and beautiful in its call for us look up, wake up, to know that there is more than the seeming plague of our every day worries and concerns… for the love that is calling us is large and more than we can possibly comprehend. We don’t need to understand how this all works, for to seek that understanding is to try to know the mind of God. We are called to look up and live in the light of that love, to say “yes!” here and now, and to live into unending depths of God’s fiery passion for us.
May we love back and serve…
with passion and delight…
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22