August 25, 2019

03 Sep

August 25, 2019

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

August 25, 2019

Br. Juan Charles Valles, CG

Lessons: Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17


Jesus yet again does what we expect him to do. And, yet again, we see his detractors first shocked at this behavior and then we see them realize their own hypocrisy. We hear of a woman who’d been crippled with a demon for 18 years, a long, long time in Jesus’ day. She’s hunched over, burdened by the weight of this demon. Imagine the scene: Jesus is followed by the usual crowds of disciples, looky loos, critics, and the curious. Somewhere in the mix are the outcasts of society, most of whom don’t even expect a passing glance from someone as important or revered or feared as Jesus. Yet, amidst all the hubbub, Jesus spots this woman in the crowd. He calls her over, lays hands on her, and cures her. 

So, why does the leader of the synagogue get so bent out of shape? Did you catch it? It’s the sabbath. Among the hundreds of rules laid down for proper Jewish living was a clear admonition against working from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. No business. No busyness.. The seventh day was dedicated to rest and to God. Among our more orthodox Jewish brethren, this adherence to the sabbath continues, and technology has even kept up: appliances that operate without closing an electrical circuit, pneumatic doorbells, and so on. But, Jesus gets in there and turns much of these rules on their heads. 

At the time, spiritual healing on the sabbath was considered work contrary to halakha, Jewish customary law. But, Jesus, not bound to any manmade rule, sees the poor, possessed woman, and heals her. Jesus clearly knows it’s the sabbath, and he clearly knows the rules. But, Jesus thrusts his critics into the age-old problematic of form versus substance. 

By way of history, the earliest books of the Bible, along with writings expounding on those books, are full of rules that were initially intended to create a spiritual posture that made space for God. One was to be intentional and mindful at all times, and the Jewish law was meant to support grace-filled living. But, over time, adherence to the law (or at least the appearance of adherence) became more important. 

Jesus asks those who criticize him to look at this very dichotomy: heal on the sabbath or allow another human to continue suffering when you have the ability to heal her. Jesus shouts. Jesus gets angry. The leader of the synagogue is drowned out by the cheers of the crowd when Jesus get mad and reminds the leader and his posse that there’s no God in rules and laws and customs that exclude helping another. 

Many of you are probably wondering why I’ve called this congregational meeting. And, many of you have asked me why I’ve been up here so much the last few weeks. And, a whole lot of have predicted some bombshell or announcements of impending doom. 

Before I delve into any of this, I want to do something that’s normally done only during school chapel: a bit of Q and A. I’m not going to cold call on anyone, but I invite you to share as you feel called to do. 

First, what or who is the real demon in this story? […] 

For me, it’s blind adherence to what’s always been done without knowing or asking why. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a ton of comfort in knowing what to expect and expecting what to know. Sometimes, we don’t want to think: falling into old, often-unanalyzed patterns and traditions and customs just feels nice. We can plop ourselves into them and shut out the chaos of the bigger world. Slavishly following along can exclude opportunities to do God’s will, especially when it’s uncomfortable.

My next question: how does the passage relate to all of us here at St. Mark’s? Before answering, it may help to think about: what is our purpose for being here, and what things hold us back? […] 

As you all will see in a moment, our physical and financial situation at St. Mark’s is dire. I don’t use that word lightly. If I were looking at our current situation from a purely economic perspective, we would be winding down, preparing to cease operations. But, this business perspective does not account the big-s and little-s Spirit that exists in this place. Is there a way to tease all this apart? I don’t know, but I do know that the effort and stress and anxiety of running this place can hide away the beauty that exists in this community. If you listen closely, I often talk about false dichotomies: the way we have of categorizing things as opposites when, in reality, they’re not that far apart. But, I think there’s a real tension here: being shackled to what we think of as church (buildings, grounds, and so on) and Church (Jesus, God, Spirit, you, and me). 

Whenever I run our financials, look at the deferred maintenance on this plant, and so on, I let despair in. It’s so easy to get caught up in a few diseased trees that I lose sight of the forest. Without seeming like a Pollyanna, I am aware that a few bad trees can infect the whole lot. Before I beat a metaphor to death, I want us to think about the riches that the forest holds. I can give you a few pieces of information that I consider to be blessings: neither the school nor the church, neither this property or the rectory is encumbered by secured debt. We are over halfway through paying off a loan we took out to repair the church roof. Given our current financial situation, without much changing, we have enough cash on hand to continue operating at a deficit for about two more years. 

So, with all that in mind, what resources do we have? […] 

Finally, I want to ask you probably the most difficult question of all. Is St. Mark’s worth saving? Before you answer, let me be clear that for me the answer is yes. I don’t know what the future St. Mark’s will look like, but I do know that this community of believers and doubters is what I value most in this place. I come here to be fed through the Word, Sacrament, and you. I want to hear from you: what is it that St. Mark’s has to offer? What sorts of sacrifices are we willing to make to see ourselves moving forward? […]

Finally, where does that leave us? First, I think it’s necessary to remind ourselves of a few truths. Missions and ministries have a shelf life. The world swirls around us, changing and evolving all the time. Institutions that don’t adapt and respond don’t last. You don’t have to look too far for examples from the “real” world: Montgomery Ward or Circuit City, anyone? When Downey’s churches and private schools were built in the middle of the last century, they were built for a certain place and time. Large sanctuaries, outbuildings, classrooms, and so on. But, they were also built as symbols of belonging to a particular segment of society. Downey, Los Angeles County, California, the United States…They’ve all changed: have we? Has our original purpose run its course? Can we even remember that original purpose? And, if our purpose has become irrelevant, what are we to do moving forward? And, if we have no future mission, can you imagine your life without this place?

I want us to take this list of riches and think about them. How can we leverage them? I want us to take about ten minutes to chat with our tablemates to think about ways we can use what we have to strengthen and preserve the most important parts of this community. No idea is bad. Spend some time, reflect, talk. […]

Now that you’ve had some time to talk, let’s have some of your ideas. […]

Before we drill down on our financial reports, I want to close with a few comments. I don’t know what’s going to happen here. But, your being here, your willingness to be vulnerable and perhaps controversial is absolutely vital to this community’s survival. We may become Episcopal and Moravian refugees in an increasingly secular world, but I know that that little spark, our hidden seed, will again flourish and thrive. How? I don’t know. When? I have no clue. The beauty of our faith is that it can flex and bend and adapt: so can we. Amen.