Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Sanctuary's People

With just a couple of breaks I'm been writing recently about sanctuary.  I want to expand our appreciation for it as something more than a space on church property.  Part of how I've understood it is to look at those things we do and say that create a sense of togetherness or holiness or safety.  Even my mom's struggle with "fun-damn-mentalists" was a struggle for sanctuary at 1612 College Ave., for her family, for her church and for her own sense of holiness.

All this consideration has me realizing that without people involved only fauna and flora get sanctuaries.  When we name such provisions we are talking almost entirely about a place of safety for something that would be more endangered otherwise.  That is the basic version of sanctuary and one that we each can understand easily.

Fences, markers, ridges and rivers are those boundary makers we have in common with snail darters, owls, wolves, etc.  But there is another set of boundary-making that informs our religious lives.

The first boundary story with God in it is the one that has Adam and Eve and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  God said "Don't eat of it!"  Along comes the serpent and subtlety into the mix.  You can see the human struggle when they exaggerate God's command saying "if we touch it we die!"  After they eat the forbidden fruit they are expelled and made to work for holiness/ sanctuary outside that garden. Our lives still have boundary issues when it comes to God's presence.

Fast forward to Pentecost and the markers for sanctuary were ethnic and geographical.  It starts, "When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place."  And when the Holy Spirit enters, those comforting markers of nationality and language are breached and a message of God's presence becomes a sanctuary for "Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs.

Seems like whenever God needs, God will redefine holiness through us.  Yes there are physical and geographical boundaries, think Red Sea or the River Jordan. But whenever God moves those markers it always has something to do with us and our relationship with God.

Fast forward one more time to the present and you can see another way that place and people and holiness and sanctuary are at play.  For us it shows up in history with things like plaques and memorials.  It shows up with our precious and aging church that feels like no other place in town and whose doors unlocked say "whoever needs may enter into God's presence."

After that our markers are smaller and more actuarial.  We list baptized members and those confirmed -- through reception, reaffirmation or transfer -- communicants. We list those who have made a pledge in previous years and those are givers of record.  We email newsletters and announcements to all these folks and just about anybody who wants.  We have a hard time removing people from our lists.

Every year at this time we have to find those folks whose listing includes them as confirmed, communicants, in good standing, having made and kept a pledge in the previous year just to serve on our vestry.  Rest assured there is a sense among each member of "being called" to service but none would dare assume a greater holiness than any one of us.

Thanks be to God our holiness is marked first and foremost FOR us and we are invited into God's company no matter the boundaries our denominations use to account for us.  As well we needn't confuse our markers with God's.  If you want to check on or change how your membership is registered or listed just call the office.  But let's stay mindful of the difference between our markers and God's.  It'll work for us to honor God's calling and to hope to be worthy of the holiness that is God's gift to us.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

All Saints' - tide

Our calendar is running out of days.  The liturgical year with its emphasis in Luke's gospel will give way to Matthew in the days between November 24 and December 1.  From Year C to Year A on Sundays and from Year 1 to Year 2 in our Daily Office readings.

Since 1979 and the "new" BCP we have been living together with Sunday celebrations of Holy Eucharist as our anchoring worship.  More recently we've joined with several other denominations and have relied on the Revised Common Lectionary to inform our preaching in the context of regular Sunday table fellowship.

The RCL nearly matches the schedule in the back of our prayer books.  Differing most remarkably by providing two options for the set of readings that accompany the gospel: Track 1 and Track 2.
Our General Convention 2006 started our transition to its use through periods of experimental, to provisional and now authorized practices.  Our bulletin inserts have almost seamlessly led us into this current usage of Track 1 of the RCL.  Raise your hand if you haven't noticed.

These schedules are not frivolous inventions of some ivory tower elite or some obscure saint.  For Sundays, both our BCP lectionary and the RCL are the results of a prayerfully shared labor of hundreds of scholars working over several decades.

Two overarching concerns have informed their work:  effectively staging the drama and message focused in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth AND equipping worshippers to live in the world from a commitment begun in Holy Baptism and renewed in regular celebrations of Holy Eucharist.

The curtain on Luke's account is about to close but not until we recognize an ironic triumph.  Christ the King, as the last Sunday of the liturgical year is known, has as it's informing text the moment just before Jesus dies on Calvary's cross between the two thieves.  The sign over his cross says King of the Jews and from that cross he grants passage into paradise for one of the thieves.

That's how this life, death, resurrection drama works.  We tell the story from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from glorified manger to empty tomb, beloved Son to Lord sitting at God's right hand.  We tell it regularly in the context of a meal shared through broken bread and common cup.  It's what it means when he said -- and we recall his saying every week -- "do this in remembrance of me."

These next few Sundays take us into a glory like no other.  I call these few weeks "All Saints'-tide."  It's not official in any way.  Instead it is a mnemonic device to help me look as these last days of the year as rising and fulfilling, as completing and proclaiming, as a crescendo just before the curtain drops and reopens right next to where we started last year and the the year before that and the year before that and . . .

Thanks to Luke for telling this year's story like only a Luke could.  Matthew?  We'll see you in a month.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Church's Halloween

Several of my friends have made mention of how the movement from holiday to holiday is now subject to a accelerating commercial influence.  So much so that sales figures have given Halloween a larger and larger share of retail space and time.  I laughed when one of my friends complained that a big box retailer was allowing Christmas to encroach on the ghosts and goblins.  My question is how to find a way to make a costume out of a "sales figure." Just kidding.

It has always been that way that popular culture and church calendars have danced back and forth with when and how to make their observances.  Until the puritans took their turn pruning the faith in dear old England it was common for whole villages depending on the observance or celebration to join in parading statues of the Virgin Mary or replicas of the Holy Cross with thuribles and choirs making the way.

We see those sorts of customs still in our neighbors to the south: The Day of the Dead or as it is known to us anglophiles Día de los Muertos. I have a mask in my office made for the occasion that was gifted to me by a UGA student who was fortunate enough to be in Mexico on the holiday.  It's creepy.

Our own American appropriations are not very informative of much of the theological or spiritual potential.  Instead we have cared for how our children have fun and are safe "trick or treating."  And the adult observances are beholding to baby-sitters aplenty watching those same children so the parents can go on their "Wild Rumpuses." Like I said, lots of fun but not a lot of theology there.

So this coming Thursday we will gather our youth and greet the trick-or-reaters that come by our parish house, decorate a pumpkin or two and then make our way through the nearby Madison Cemetery after sharing a liturgy proper to All Hallow's Eve from the Book of Occasional Services.
Our prayers will include naming those for whom we give God thanks because they showed us how to be faithful in their being holy through their living AND their dying.

Our observance is not a celebration but a solemn and prayerful way to acknowledge that God is God of the living AND the dead. We expect there to be a reverence and awe invited and nurtured by our  liturgy that over time may replace or at least contrast the silliness and "wild rumpusing" that we have substituted through our popular customs.  If not reverence perhaps a curiosity or two about the night and how it might be more spiritual, might actually help us be more faithful ourselves.

Halloween may deserve its own space away from culture's and commerce's other nearby holidays but it also needs to stay connected to those greater observances of All Saints' Day and All Faithful Departed.  Popular culture gave us what became the Church's All Saints' Day.  Christians found a way to give God the glory through their version.  We can still do that too!

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Sanctuary's Sharing

I missed church this past Sunday. Thanks to The Rev. Beth Long for the supply.  Instead, I drove with some alumnae friends to Furman and remembered and commended to God's eternal care one Betty Alverson in a worship service led by Furman classmate, Bishop Stacy Sauls

"Miss A" directed operations and programs of the Student Center, Furman's "Third Person/Building of the campus Trinity" along with our Library and the Dining Hall.  Betty's work from that building changed lives that in most instances didn't know they needed changing.

Most of us were attending her memorial because of her CESC, Collegiate Educational Service Corps and how our turns at volunteering through it to the larger Greenville and Upstate community awakened something within us.  Alumni from the 60's to the 90's shared memories about Miss A and time after time named the changes we recognized in ourselves because of her influence and leadership.

Miss A had a way of taking our privilege -- there's that word again -- and leveraging it for all those "others" around Furman. Most of us didn't know it was happening until it did.  And it did in some unforgettable ways.  Unforgettable because it moved us from our smaller private lives of being good individuals into a much larger collective effort for a more open and fair community that found and celebrated opportunity, self-confidence and a second chance at life for others.

We were volunteers.  That was how it worked.  No judge ordered us there, no registrar listed extra credit hours for us, no society bestowed ribbons or honors at graduation.

Student volunteers staffed the Boys and Girls Clubs, city parks and playgrounds, reading and mentoring programs, suicide hotlines, crisis centers, nursing homes, residential care facilities for the mentally and physically disabled, small church youth groups and more and more!

And it changed us.  Lord knows some of us needed it. But the better part of that transformation was less a personal gain and more an awakening to a collective potential.  Theologically you would call it the Kingdom of God coming near.  As we lived out from under from our over-privileged cocoons and worked and breathed and sweated and cried with Greenville's under-privileged and under-served others we were joined into God's shalom -- a commonwealth of shared resources and mutual interest.

How could it not change us? 17 year-old -- back then we called them -- coeds answering phones hoping to help someone avoid suicide.  Brainy pre-law students holding hands with adults whose own brains could not form words.  Small town valedictorians thrust into making urgent, one-on-one appeals to mayors and governors!  Again, how could it not change us?

As we shared memories and remarks at the luncheon, almost to a person you could see a larger world had been brought into focus.  Our interests had become less personal and now remained more communal, were less about our individual salvation and more about realizing heaven on earth, less about "Jesus loves me, this I know," and more about "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world!"

Thanks to Miss A's sometimes edgy, sometimes flat, clearly not-Southern, always honest and sternly prophetic confidence in and expectation of us, the world around Furman was changed with us and became a little closer to the Kingdom of God. Thank you, Miss A! And thanks be to God!

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Sanctuary's Privilege

The word privilege is a hot button these days.  It has always had an edge to it. Or perhaps better said, a boundary.  It comes from Latin through French and was first a legal term that expressed the difference between those to whom the general laws and customs pertained and those who benefited from "private laws."

Add to that history our own "American" story of revolution against the Lords and a King, of economic struggles both agrarian and industrial, of doughboys and GI's (read citizen soldiers) and grandparents with Depression memories saving string and wrapping paper and what you get is permission for every one of us to bristle against the label "privileged."

But it is a sneaky, in some cases poisonous trick that has us recoiling against that truth about ourselves.  Since 2012 it has only taken $34,000 per person per year to qualify an individual as within the global 1%.  For a household of 4 that amount would be $136,000.*  So it is important to understand that income plays the role it plays but there are other factors.

For instance, most of us have a way of recognizing a group of people with wealth greater than our own. We can imagine a middle income space to put ourselves below "them" and above others.  The global measures cited above should trigger some caution in our estimations.  When roughly 30% of those gaining $34k/year worldwide are citizens of U.S. it's easy to notice how quickly skewed our scale becomes.

As I said there are other factors we must take into account because that thing we call privilege is not simply a function of wealth.  The button gets hotter when you add race to the formula.  Besides, the word race is it's own hot button.  But we can learn something here that should help us understand an effect of those privileges created by income.

Most of us reject labels like racist or privileged because of an internal measure.  We don't intend prejudice and from within our own thoughts and feelings read what feels like fairness or at least a polite restraint.  I can feel my mother's firm but silent grip guiding me to the "white only" water fountain in 1960 Anderson, SC.

And there it is. Privilege and prejudice are not just private laws that can be practiced by personal pieties or polite mindsets.  They are systemic.  Every limit or boundary from which nearly all of us benefit puts someone else away.  That's what the other side of private means.  And because they are systemic, they demand of us -- call us the 30% -- more than a bite of the tongue or a donation to a cause.

There is a world that needs us to do more than that.  We are the system just as much as we are its beneficiaries.  Our thinking must reach towards justice and stop measuring from within our own private laws/lives those individual "repairs" of privilege and prejudice.

There will be times, there have already been too many of them when we expect our church to provide us a place away from the world.  Only if we return with a renewed resolve to sacrifice more of our own lives can the church be our sanctuary.  That's our privilege: to find nourishment and rest so that we can turn the arc of our moral universe toward justice.**

**MLK, Jr. paraphrase of Theodore Parker d.1860 -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Parker

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Holiness' Location

I remember having a conversation with a Baptist pastor friend, years ago.  It was about an argument in his church about where the flags should be displayed.  Those being the U.S. flag and the Christian flag. He wanted them out of the building entirely! Some Baptists are "big" on separation of church and state.

He was interested that we allow our flags, U.S. and Episcopal, to stand in the back.  I told him my story about the Sunday we processed our flags behind the cross and I preached from the pulpit so that my words could be directed to the U.S. flag standing just to the side.

As we talked we recognized a difference in how our denominations understood and used the word sanctuary.  For him it described the worship space and included the entirety of its interior.

Our language was different and reserved sanctuary to name that much smaller space behind the altar where the reserved sacraments are kept.  Specifically in our practice: in a box, also called an aumbry (ambry to some). The word sanctuary itself can be applied to a kind of ornate container, often brass or plated with silver or gold.

What that difference exposes is interesting.  Using last week's "place of holiness" as our definition, what does it say about our churches that sanctuary can differ so much in its identifying a place of holiness? And how is holiness held such that a sanctuary can be a whole building or just a small box in a building?

Part of an answer is to acknowledge the places our denominations hold on the spectrum of sacramental theology.  Episcopalians are a sacramental people, along with Orthodox, Catholic and to a lesser degree Lutherans.  That's our end of the spectrum.

On the Baptist end and beyond are Quakers, Christian Scientists, Mormons, Congregationalists, and most "non-denominational" groups.  In between you'll find Presbyterians, Methodist, Church of Christ and most reformed theology groups.  Pardon my imprecision but the point is to say that our differences may find their expression in how we decide to display flags but they originate in a deeply foundational beginning.

They are also expressed in how these different denominations practice communion.  On our end you'll find wine used exclusively and as you move through Baptist practice you'll see more grape juice and eventually no communion at all!

For us holiness is found in a practiced sense of Christ's presence in the bread broken and wine shared as body and blood. Beyond Eucharist how would you locate holiness, except in the people gathered?  Heck, most of a Quaker meeting is just that, a gathering.  And so it makes some sense for my friend that sanctuary means the entirety of his church's worship interior.

So . . . sanctuary means different things to different denominations but one thing that it means to all denominations is that holiness should have a place in our lives.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Sanctuary's Interruption

It has not happened that often but on several occasions during our "welcome and announcements" a member of the congregation has addressed the assembly with more than a date for an event, invitation to join a group, or news on the health of a parishioner.

Some of you will remember the Sunday following the shootings in El Paso and Dayton how two of our men shared their concerns and fears with us.  We prayed for God to help us respond as servants and prayed that prayer attributed to St. Francis.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen. (BCP, page 833)
Just one or two were challenged by that interruption to our routine and remarked later that they weren't ready for that sort of discomfort in church.  Maybe it felt too "political" for them or was too much like the "news."

Praying helped restore some of that feeling we want "church" to have: safe, clear, happy, still.  The big word is sanctuary, It means place of holiness.  We've learned to include safe in that sense because we understand that the strength of God's presence is from where the holiness comes.

Sharing an understanding of sanctuary as not only holy but safe means different things to different people.  For all of us there is that sense of safe as AWAY from outside trouble.  But for a few of us safe means that we can risk even more vulnerability inside with each other.

This past Sunday was another one of those "interruptions." A long-time member shared his epiphany and joy that came from all the words of concern and encouragement he had received since he had shared the news of his cancer.  It was uplifting for all of us.

Again we prayed but this time to thank God for the ministry we had received in Alex's witness to us.  Yes we all want his cancer gone but we also prayed to thank God for how we saw Him in the light and spirit of a beloved member.

So it is sort of a chicken or egg question.  Which comes first holiness or safety?  Every answer is correct by the way. The other thought to consider is the role of interruption in our lives with God.  Johan Metz's "shortest definition" of religion was just that, interruption. (J. B. Metz, Faith in History and Society. Towards a practical fundamental theology, Mainz, 1977, p. 150)

For sure there is more to it, including the work we do between such interruptions.  But work we must and making a way for those interruptions is our calling as a church.