Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What's the Plan?

Sermon preached at the Church of the Ascension, Rochester on August 4, 2013, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost:  Proper 13C-II:  Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

          What's the plan?  A question I have been asked a few times here at Ascension.  A question that some of you probably have in your heads to ask me in our conversation after Service.

          What's the plan?  In the Church over the past 30 years, our anxiety about survival in the future has grown and grown. It is amusing to me that as our anxiety grows we get more and more enamored of plans.  It has gotten near to idolatry. 

An example of what I mean:  Like Ascension, St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene has been the recent recipient of diocesan aid and, also like Ascension, we made a presentation to a committee of Diocesan Council earlier this year as part of a new process to receive that aid.

          We were blessed to be able to report that things are going well at Two Saints in most areas of our life. We are doing the work we are called to do, taking risks, thinking outside the box, all those things we are supposed to be doing, and we were able to ask for less money for next year than we received this year.

          We were approved and got glowing comments about our progress, and gratitude that we are almost off aid from the diocese.  Then came the last paragraph.  It said, “It concerns us that you do not have a plan.”

          Now it is not that we do not have a plan or a vision. We do.  But we believe it is actually Gospel to believe the old saying, “Life is what happens when you are making plans.”  What we are best at is living through and making the best of both the opportunities and the bumps in the road, neither of which can be planned.

          But we are told we must have plans, so let’s check in with the Scriptures this morning about making them.

          The Teacher of Ecclesiastes would no doubt tell us that plans are vane things, futile things.  And he is right.  If “plan” means to us a way to control the future, the Teacher has a bridge in Bethlehem to sell us.  The Teacher is the great cynic of the Bible and let’s give him his due, and not be afraid of the cynics around us or within us.  Now, of course, sometimes our cynicism turns into just plain grumpiness and contrariness and we are not much fun to have around.  But, we need a certain amount of cynicism lest we start worshiping our plans, overestimating our control of the future (or even the present, for that matter).

          The author of psalm 49 is the “you can’t take it with you” psalmist, reminding us that living as if we will live forever and ever is delusional.  We all end up in the grave.  And with that cheery sentiment, St. Paul takes over and delivers what he says is good news but smells rather strongly of bad:

If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

          You are dead.  Dead. Dead. Dead.  That’s the good news this morning.  Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh.

          What is Paul getting at?  He’s using the language of Baptism:  being dead and being raised.  It has carried through the centuries to our current liturgy.  In the Thanksgiving over the water at a Baptism, we say

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection… (p. 306)

          To be dead is to be raised with Christ, “hidden in Christ,” Paul says.  Let me suggest that to be dead is also, paradoxically, to be free.  Free from everything in this world that can bind us, and, if you haven’t noticed, that is a lot of things, more things than not.  It is primarily about identity, who we are and whose we are.  If we are bound to Christ than we have no need to be bound to anything else on this earth.  Instead, we can live Christ’s life, dependent only on him for our sense of self and the day by day taking of our rightful place on the earth.

          And that means that we can concentrate our energy—our spiritual energy and our physical energy and our psychic energy, even our relational energy—into loving our neighbors as ourselves, respecting the dignity of every human being and doing justice and peace in the world.  We can do those things because we don’t have to spend our energy trying to define ourselves, take control of our lives, and build barns to store riches we will never need or walls that will protect us but also rob us of our chance to live a compassionate life with people who differ from us.

          So the question here is, in a sense, “Do we want to be dead in Christ or alive in ourselves?  How do we want to spend our energy?  Can we trust Jesus enough that if we let go of everything, the energy that comes from living ‘hidden’ in him will make us more alive than we ever thought we could be?

          Let me apply this to this parish, or any parish for that matter.  I know you are afraid that Ascension may be on a long, slow road to death.  And if you are paying attention, you may be also afraid that the same is happening to our entire beloved Episcopal Church.  I hear predictions from very smart and sane people that the Episcopal Church has 20-30 years left and there will only be a handful of parishes in each diocese. Most of us are going to die.

          It is very sad what is happening to our church.  Very, very sad, and, it just might be what will save us.  If Paul is right, we are dead already.  And when he says, “You are dead,” the “you” is plural, so he is speaking to the church.

          So what does it mean for a church to be dead in the sense of St. Paul?  I think it means this, the complete and absolute conviction that

This church does not belong to us.

          Now if you think about it, that statement is not all that radical since when we talk about stewardship we often say that nothing belongs to us.  But nevertheless we frequently act as if the church does.  But it does not, and I’m going to leave you with three radical implications of this truth.

          First of all, that this church does not belong to you means that it is not your primary job to protect and preserve it.  It is your job to find every way you can to share it and even give it away.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.”[1] 

          Which brings me to number two:  That means every stranger who walks into this building has just as much right to be here as any of you whose families have been here for generations.  They may have built this church, but if they built it rightly they built it not for themselves but for the glory of God and the benefit of anyone who would seek Christ here.

          Third of all, the principal work of the church is hospitality.  I have brought some signs with me.  This little slogan has changed the life of Two Saints over the last eight years:  “Hospitality is Job One.”  Everything you do. Every aspect of your building, your grounds, how you present yourself to the world, who you are as the body of Christ has to do with hospitality for the stranger.  Every church in the world thinks it is a friendly church.  My question is, is it hospitable?

          So do you want to know my advice for a plan to go forward?  Die.  This church does not belong to you.  Hide your life, your hopes and dreams and fears and cynicism about the future of this place in Christ.  The issue before you is not survival.  It is hospitality.

[1] From Letters and Papers from Prison.

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