Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
28 July 2019
Church of the Advent
Proper 12C (RCL)
Twenty six, nearly twenty seven years ago, I stood for the first time in this pulpit, and I was scared. I was scared because it was my first Sunday, and because of what I had to say. Today, I’m scared, because I’ve never done this before, so I’m going to stand in the pulpit and hold on for dear life.
Twenty seven years ago, Advent had been through a period of turmoil. The previous rector had been dismissed for sexual misconduct. With my arrival, people were hoping things would quiet down. There were people who wanted to make it all smooth – not sweep it under the rug exactly, but not make a big deal out of it.
The Gospel reading for that day was the passage in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus and his disciples are walking through the Temple. The disciples are admiring the beautiful stones. Jesus says, “The day is coming when not one stone will be left on another; and many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he.’ Do not be deceived.”
I stood in the pulpit and said, “I know that your previous rector was dismissed for sexual misconduct, and now you know I know. The stones of the Temple are strewn around us, and many of you are looking at me, hoping I’m the one to save you.” The say adrenaline burns things into your memory. That sermon is permanently seared in my brain.
I went on to say that we would have to test all the stones and decide which ones were worth keeping and which we needed to get rid of as we rebuilt this Temple. There were a number of people who were angry with me for bringing the whole sordid mess right into the pulpit. Within a week or two, several people told me they were leaving the parish because of that sermon.
Another thing happened that first Sunday. I had told the search committee that I would not change the liturgy without good explanation and teaching. After that first Sunday, several people came to me and said, “But, you promised!” Ummm, I said, what did I change? It turned out Advent did not exchange the Peace, and I had just blithely invited people to stand for the Peace. I had wondered why the response was so tepid. I walked down the aisle exchanging peace with people at the ends of the pews, but very few others turned to their neighbors to shake hands. It took about This was 13 years after the introduction of the New Book.
The next Sunday, before the confession, I had people open their prayer books to page 333. On that page, the confession of the old book is on the top of the page, and the new confession on the bottom. The old confession imagines sin as a willful act against God’s divine majesty.
In the new confession, we sin by thought, word and deed, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved God with our whole heart, nor our neighbors as ourselves. I asked them to notice that there was no ‘s’ on heart. All together we have a single heart, with which we have not loved God.
I said that the absolution takes care of the vertical dimension of reconciliation, but the peace takes care of the horizontal dimension. The person in the pew stands in for the people you need to be reconciled with.
I compared the peace to the passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus says, “If you are making your offering at the altar, and remember that your brother has something against you, leave gift and first go be reconciled to your brother, and then come make your offering.” The peace is our opportunity to get straight with one another before we come to this table.
Thus began a long, slow, patient process of us learning together what it is we are doing when we celebrate the eucharist. Two things happened that first two weeks. First, we learned that nothing is off-limits in our prayer to God. If we could talk about scandal, we could talk about anything. We could look for God’s self-revelation in everything. And secondly, we learned that what we offer is in fact our common life. It matters to God how we are with one another.
From that tepid beginning, I have watched from the top step how the peace has morphed into a major portion of the service. And that’s how it should be. We’re not just swapping recipes at the peace, but checking in with each other. How is the kid at college? How are you doing after the death of your mom? We’re tending to our common life.
I’ve watched newcomers stand at their places with a look of mild puzzlement on their faces, as everyone in the room tries to come by and give them the peace. They might as well learn on their first Sunday that at Advent, we’re going to be in your business. All that patient instruction and learning about what we are doing when we celebrate eucharist has led to our Rule of Life. But the short version is, We’re going to be in your business.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray. He gives a stripped down version of the Lord’s Prayer, shorn of all the fancy phrases. And then he tells a parable. Suppose a friend comes to you on a journey, late at night, and you go to a friend’s house and knock on the door to ask for three loaves of bread to set before your friend. He answers from inside that he can’t get up to give you anything because he is in bed and the door is locked.
Jesus says, “Even though he won’t get up to give him what he needs because he is his friend, yet because of his shamelessness, he will get up and give him what he needs.”
The man standing at the door knocking is already shamed. His friend has come and he has nothing to give him. He’s not going to let his friend’s reluctance shame him any further. He’s got nothing to lose. He can knock all night.
And, it goes deeper. If he is shamed because he can’t offer his friend hospitality, the whole village is shamed. Just read any of those stories in the Old Testament about the rude treatment of visitors. Sodom and Gomorrah get burnt to the ground for their inhospitality.
We’re going to be in your business. We’re going to be shameless. We’re going to visit you in the hospital, even if you wish we didn’t know you were sick. We’re going to be in your business, so get over it. We’re going to be in your business, because it is our common business that we offer to God at this altar, and we don’t know your business, we can’t offer it.
I stand on that top step and watch the peace. Sometimes, I have to say, “You may be seated,” three or four times. What a difference from that first Sunday! I also use that time for updates on people in the hospital, prayer requests, and anything it seems like we need to offer to God as part of our common life.
As I watch the peace wind down, I know you’re going to be ok. I wept as I wrote that line. I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss the joy, the fun, the laughter, the sincerity, the concern, the common life on display in this crazy peace. I watch this wonderful hubbub, knowing that we are about to offer the whole business to God. A vestry member once said to me, after we had struggled to reach a decision in a meeting (which rarely happens), he said, “You know what I love about this place? No matter what we disagree on in this room, we pray together in that room.”
I know you’re going to be ok. This is God’s church, not yours or mine, but God’s. And, I know I’m going to be ok, because I have seen what Church can be. Through all the joys and sorrows, the missteps and the successes, we have offered the whole thing to God, and God has blessed it and returned it to us.
I was a young, green priest when I showed up here, and you all have helped me grow into a deep understanding of what a pastor is, and what a parish is. That is debt I can never repay.
And, so finally, I can think of no better way to say goodbye than to quote my favorite letter in the New Testament. Paul is saying goodbye to his favorite community, the Philippians.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness is known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace that passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what we have learned and received and heard and seen together. Then the God peace will be with you.