Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Restorer of Streets to Live in: Toward the Renewal of Church & City in Rochester

A Sermon preached on May 5, 2007 at the Celebration of 190 Years of the Episcopal Church in Rochester, New York, with Isaiah 58:6-12 as the primary text.

You shall be called…the restorer of streets to live in.

Now that I have you here, let me be honest: I have an agenda. It seems to have been the prophet Isaiah’s agenda, and, therefore, I trust it was and is God’s agenda.

I want us, the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Rochester to be called, “the restorer of streets to live in.”

I suspect you are all with me, more or less. I am assuming it is not my job this morning to convince you that the streets need restoration. That means my job is to suggest how we might get there.

Let me tell you the short answer first, one word, “Together.” I am convinced that we will either fulfill this calling together or we will not fulfill it at all, which is to say, we will either be the Episcopal Church working together in this city, or we will be a footnote in future history books, and, I might add, rightfully so.

This is a story, really. A story about a city and a story about a church. They are, it is no surprise, roughly parallel.

This city and this church were born together, founded, in part, by the vision of the same man, Nathaniel Rochester. He dreamed of a city and he dreamed of a church, his church, as the spiritual conscience of that city. And so we are here in a city named for him, and in a church he himself helped to build and in which he worshipped.

The city prospered and the church prospered. It was relatively easy for both to do so side by side in those days, days that lasted a good long while, well into the memories of some of our folks who are still around. The city prospered and the church prospered.

Those days are gone. We all know that. They are gone in this city and they are gone in this church. The days of easy prosperity are gone. “The urban world we treasured is no more.”[1]

That last statement is a quote from Old Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann. He tells us that the admission that this is the truth is the beginning of a new path. God can do a new thing if the people can honestly name and grieve their loss.

There is much to grieve. Since this Diocese was formed in 1931, half of our churches are gone, and more are on the brink. If trends continue, there will only be one of us left in this city by the year 2050.

In the city things are much worse. By my count, at least 130 people have been murdered in this city since my arrival two and a half years ago, easily 75% of them young black men, two of whom I have helped bury. Our schools graduate either 39% or 53%, depending on whose statistics you believe, but it is a sign of the times that we spend more energy arguing over which abysmal number is correct than we do actually fixing the problem.

And our problems, whether church or city, are much deeper than even these dreadful statistics. Something has died. Brueggemann believes it is the death of “communal relations” and “consensus meaning.”[2] Shorthand: what used to hold us together is gone. The way we ordered our world is dead, even though we are still hanging on to it as if it were alive.

But I’m here to tell you that our children are not buying it. The children of our streets are not buying the illusion that our old order is still alive. That order no longer has any moral credibility. It hasn’t for a long time. They may not have graduated from high school, but they know that is the truth.

What is this old order to which we still cling? It is, among other things, the whole notion that you can be whatever you want to be. If you work hard and play by the rules, you will get ahead. Anybody can be President of the United States if they put their mind to it.

Now that world was always, I believe, an illusion, but it used to carry a certain credibility, enough to carry our sense of community. It doesn’t anymore. We cannot keep telling our children they can be anything they want to be in a world—in a country—in a city—where the gap between the rich and the poor grows ever wider, beyond even our imaginations.

Our children act out in violence on our streets, the same game that the powerful and the rich play out where those games are played every day. My life is more important than yours, which, ultimately does not matter to me at all. We keep being amazed that our children don’t seem to have any respect for life—even their own much less anyone else’s. They learned that from the lifestyles of powerful among us, lifestyles that most of spend a great deal of time worshipping. And we cannot tell them to just “stop it,” because we have no credibility to do so.

Let us tell the truth, the prophets of ancient Israel said. Let us stop lying about ourselves and let us grieve what we have lost, not what has been done to us but what we have done to ourselves.

This is really depressing, but it is the truth. Brueggemann is devastatingly right when he says,

Nobody believes that poverty or homelessness or crime or any of the other maladies can be answered. And, indeed, they never will be, given the categories of imagination now operative. There are simply no categories of imagination [from the old order] that can mobilize public will.[3]

The answer to what ails us (and this is especially difficult for us “liberals” to hear), both in the city and in the church, is not refined policies or recommendations for what appear to be new programs that are just recycles of the same damn thing we have been trying to restore the old order for more than a generation now. The answer is hope. And the answer is us.

And real hope comes, as Brueggemann says, in poetry from prophets that shatters the old categories that are preventing any newness from being born, daring speech, followed by daring acts that re-imagine the city and the church.

What are the components of this daring and shattering re-imagination of ourselves? They are, ironically, old things, things we thought we knew, but they were not really a part of the old order, although we spent a lot of time and energy convincing ourselves that they were.

The speech that will shatter our illusions and give us tools to re-build and restore are these:

· Mercy. Forgiveness as a way of life, which means giving up all our need to be more powerful than others.

· Neighborliness that seeks the flourishing of those around us regardless of who they are or what they have done or what they have not done or what they look like or where they came from or how they make families.

· Resolve and resilience, passion and discipline, which means (and this may be the hardest part for us) throwing off the feeling of scarcity that actually drives so much of what ails us.

What would this look like in the church, among us, in this church, in this city? It would mean an end to the game of “Episcopal Survivor” that we are currently playing whether we want to believe it or not. We are not hostile or nasty to one another, in fact, being good Episcopalians, we can be downright polite to one another. But the truth is we do not care about each other much at all. We are too busy playing our Survivor game for that.

It means too, that we have lost our nerve to act on behalf of those for whom society cares little if at all. That is harsh, and I know that many of us do care as individuals and each of our congregations is trying to do what it can, but that is part of the problem. If all we do is try to do what we can alone, we will not really do very much at all. If we do not risk our lives, nothing will change. Jesus taught us that, if he taught us nothing else. But we will never have enough courage to risk our lives alone. We need each other if we are to take the kinds of risks that will really make a systemic difference, and, yes, we will need partners far beyond the bounds of our own denomination.

It is a time when we could feel just really awful—about both the church and the city. And we should feel awful. But in this awful moment of failure and loss, new life can be born. The moment of failure and loss, Brueggemann says, is the moment we are also pregnant with hope and new possibility.

And we will be led, I am increasingly convinced by two things. First, our willingness to stop trying to create the old world. This is especially hard for us in the church, because we loved the old world. It was good to us. We built monuments to ourselves—oops, I mean to God. People believed us when we told them things. We called our chief clergy “rectors,” a word that comes from the Latin rex, “king,” because we really thought they had control of life and people looked up to them.

I am increasingly convinced that our structures inherited from the old order are a large part of what is killing us. They are keeping us in the game of Survivor and keeping us from daring, old world shattering and new world creating mission.

And I am also increasingly convinced that the poetry we need that will shatter what continues to bind us will come from, is coming from, the most unlikely of places, the very streets so desperately in need of restoration. Yes, much of the speech that comes from the streets is harsh and degrading and death-dealing, but there is, if you truly listen to it, at its heart, a conviction that the world is not working as we keep trying to make it work, and a new world needs to dawn. And I believe that when that desire and that poetry meet the gospel that is not the old order but the ever new one, the revolution has a chance to come.

I have an agenda, as I said, which I trust and pray has at least a large part to do with God’s agenda—a new heaven and a new earth, a home for God among us, and us unshackled from the old ways of division and scarcity and fear. Together we can restore streets to live in, and together we can rebuild this church of ours. Let us be the ones who say, “No more acceptance of decline and scarcity as a way of life. No more playing the Survivor game. It stops, with the grace of God, with us, if we are willing to stop it together.”

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “The City in Biblical Perspective: Failed and Possible,” in The Word that Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship (Fortress, 2006), p. 83.
[2] Ibid, p. 82.
[3] Ibid., p. 87.

Tell Us Plainly

Sermon peached on the 4th Sundy of Easter, 2007, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York, with the text John 10:22-30

Tell us plainly.

Was it an unreasonable request? I, for one, do not think so. It was a very human request, wasn’t it? Who among us does not appreciate plain-spoken people, at least most of the time. And even though we Episcopalians pride ourselves on practicing a fairly muddy and messy version of Christianity, I still hear a lot of us saying a lot of the time, to God and to the Church, “tell us plainly.”

One of things with which we have to grapple if we are going to be followers of Jesus is that he was often not a very plain-spoken person. He delighted in answering people’s questions with a somewhat open-ended story and with some other non-answer to the question. Reading the gospels you get the impression that people were always walking away from him muttering to themselves, “What was he talking about?”

This was as true of his disciples as everyone else, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it is true for us. A few chapters after our reading this morning from John’s Gospel, Jesus will be trying to prepare his disciples for his departure.

And you know the way to the place where I am going, he says to them.

It is Thomas, perhaps the most plain-spoken of the disciples, who says, Master, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?

Jesus was frequently an exasperating guy. He still is, to any of us who would like a little more direction than we seem to get from God, or a little more clarity about God’s existence, or goodness, or even our own.

Even this whole notion of our gifts, that the Stewardship Committee is asking us to contemplate this morning, can be a foggy trip down an uncertain pathway. What are your gifts? Some of them may be clear, others may not be. How many of you want to answer that question with, “I’m not really sure?”

So, yes, Jesus, tell us plainly. Who are you? Who are we?

Tell us plainly. There’s nothing really wrong with the request, and I think it is perfectly fine for us to keep making it. But we may need to pay a little attention to just what kind of answer we are expecting.

I think those who were making this request of Jesus in the Gospel this morning had in mind a fairly utilitarian answer. Are you the Messiah or not, was really a way of asking, what are you going to do (for us)? And what should we do in response to what you are going to do?

And this may be just why Jesus makes the people around him, including us, so crazy sometimes. He doesn’t always seem very concerned with “doing.” This is particularly true in John’s Gospel.

He frequently answers a utilitarian question with a relational answer, a “doing” question with a “being” answer.

A perfect example of this is his response to this question this morning. Are you the Messiah or not, tell us plainly.

I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me;

It’s a masterful non-answer because he teases them with the word “works” as if they should have already figured out the utilitarian answer to their utilitarian question, but it’s not the important bit at all. He goes on

But you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.

It’s all about relationship: belonging and knowing and being, or, in another important word in John’s Gospel, abiding. He’s turned their question inside out. I know, he is saying, that you want to know what I am going to do, given your expectations of the Messiah. In fact, you’re so busy expecting that you can’t see that I’m already doing it, only what I’m doing is being, and those who can be with me can see that.

And then he goes on actually to speak very plainly, but, again, not the kind of plainly they wanted.

What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one.

The Father and I are one. Again, it is all about relationship. They want to know what this man thinks God wants him to do, and he’s saying, God and I just are together. “The Father and I are one.” You will never understand what I am doing, if you cannot grasp my being.

And there’s the rub.

In Jesus’ way of doing life, what we do flows from who we are, not the other way around. And we live in a world (and Jesus did too) that wants to work exactly the opposite. Who we are depends on what we do. Being flows from doing in our world. What is the first thing we tend to ask someone when we meet them?

This really is a fundamental part of the good news, the gospel. Who we are is fundamental, of first importance, and is not determined by what we have done, are doing, or will do. Why else do we say at baptism that “you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever”? What we are saying is, who you are in the eyes of God and of this community of faith will never depend on what you have done. It will always simply, but deeply, be. You are a child of God.

Being a child of God is not our reward in heaven after having lived a good life. It is simply who we are, a given, and any goodness we do flows out of that in gratitude.

This also has everything to do with this whole conversation about gifts and ministry and stewardship. This conversation can be a trap for us, because naming our gifts and how we exercise them can easily become all about our “doing.” And, like in Jesus’ conversation this morning, it is about our doing but in an entirely different way than we expect. We cannot know our gifts, and exercise them properly if we do not first know who we are.

I truly believe this is the biggest stumbling block most of us have in this conversation about our gifts. There are two stumbling blocks, really. The first is that, in the Church, we often use an adjective with the word gifts, “spiritual gifts.” “What are your spiritual gifts?” we ask. As if there were “unspiritual gifts”! There are not some gifts that are spiritual and some gifts that are not, just like there is not part of you that God created and part of you that God did not create. It’s all creation, and it’s all gift. You may have the gift of compassion or you may have the gift of carpentry, it’s all the same, no gift is greater or lesser and certainly more spiritual or not.

The second stumbling block has to do with needing to know who we are before we can talk about what we do. People who are not clear about God’s love for them are usually also unclear about what gifts God has given them for ministry. It’s partly the “worthiness” thing. Someone asks you what your gifts for ministry are and you immediately go to that, “Oh, I am not worthy, I am just a lowly worm trying to be good enough so that on judgment day God won’t be too mad at me and I’ll get into heaven.”

Well, as they say in my world, “Get over yourself, Mary!” God made you and, as they say, God don’t make junk, and God loves you even though he can see right straight through you. Of course you are unworthy; we all are. But God has made us worthy just because he wanted to, and because of that to call yourself unworthy for more than five seconds, to get stuck in your unworthiness, is blasphemy. It is also, ironically, the height of arrogance. Who do you think you are that God cannot love you and give you gifts?

Who you are is God’s child, period. Get a hold of that truth, the most important truth in your life, and your gifts will flow from that. That’s as plain as I can speak.