2 Epiphany C, 2019: In Search of the Golden Number

As I sat down to write this sermon,
I wondered if there would be anyone to hear it
given the dire predictions of a winter storm.
But then I remembered there is a grand internet
congregation unimpeded by snow today.
The Trinity website, by the way,
averaged over five-hundred visitors a month last year
making it our best attended event each week.

I want to reach back thirty-eight years ago,
to March 21st, 1981.
I had been a deacon for nine months
and was ordained a priest that day
in St. John’s Episcopal Church,
in Lafayette, Indiana.
There was a great hubbub, as I recall,
about whose chicken salad would be the best –
someone with red grapes in theirs claimed pride of place.

There were a whole bunch of clergy present,
as I had grown up in that diocese
and been active in its camping program and youth ministry.

It is quite easy for me to remember all the faces
at our wedding, which was about a year later,
because we only had thirty-two people present.
Just family and an additional person each,
to stand up with us.
But that ordination day is a bit of a blur.

I do remember the sermon though.

I had asked a mentor and friend,
The Rev. Jonathan Sams, to preach.
He was the best preacher I knew –
eclectic, esoteric, and ridiculously funny.
He defied all the normal conventions of preaching,
which was part of what made him so effective.
There is an old tradition in ordination sermons
for the preacher to have the ordinand stand
at the climax of the sermon,
and give the candidate a “charge.”
Typically, it a sober commissioning
or eloquent pep-talk.
Preacher Sams said he was envisioning instead,
a drawn saber and a cavalry charge.

First he told everyone an embarrassing story
about me as a youth –
how I had written a get-well card to him
when he was hospitalized,
and in it, had misspelled the word “praying” –
as in, “I am praying for you.”
But I had written, instead, P R Ey i n g.
Yes, my spelling has only improved slightly.

He pondered aloud,
whether or not I recognized the difference
between cavalry and Calvary,
and thus the saber charge
was an exquisite play on words.

But the most memorable part of the “charge”
was an imaginative prophecy he shared about me.

His vision looked off into some distant future
after some apocalyptic catastrophe –
whether environmental or human-conceived,
it wasn’t clear.
In his vision,
I was leading a remnant of the faithful
hiding out in the hills of southern Indiana
trying to keep the worship and traditions alive.

Then he directed the congregation
present for the ordination,
to look up in the back of the prayer book,
how to find the date of Easter.
It is a complicated formula
based upon determining “the Golden Number.”

Seriously, it is among the small-print recipes
found in the back of the Book of Common Prayer,
under the title,  “Tables and Rules for Finding the Date of Easter Day.”
The first category under this heading is,
“The Golden Number.”

Rev. Sams invited the congregation
to imagine an older, wild-eyed Cam Miller
trying to figure out the date of Easter
based upon the convoluted formula in the prayer book.
That brought a round of uproarious laughter,
adding onto the steady stream of laughter that preceded it.

Then, if memory serves,
he acknowledged I probably wouldn’t be too concerned
about getting the date just right,
but more so, getting the community together
to celebrate.

I mention that story
because it came to me in a flash this week
when I attended the installation ceremony
for a new rector.
Admittedly, I do not go too many
by-the-book worship events any more –
and haven’t for a long time.
Honestly, I haven’t led a service ‘by the book’
on Sunday morning in my own church
since I left Lafayette, Indiana.
So, any time I participate in a full-blown
traditional prayer book worship,

I feel a little strange –
a bit like a stranger in a strange land.
So, the memory of Jon’s sermon
came to me because I was struck
by how his vision had actually come to pass.

Seriously, think about it.

It wasn’t after an apocalyptic event as he imagined it,
but there has been an apocalyptic change
in culture and historical circumstances
for organized religion – one
that has brought the average size
of an Episcopal congregation
down to sixty people.

The Episcopal Church itself
is now a remnant
of what it once was,
as are all of the Mainline Protestant Churches,
and the Roman Catholic Church is now on our heels.

Here we are, not just at Trinity but all over,
trying to figure out how to be ‘church’
in a time and place and culture
that has little use for organized religion.
We are a remnant,
and we are in a post-apocalyptic time
when it comes to ‘doing church.’

My old memory of the image in Jon’s sermon
came rushing back as I sat in that church
and listened to music and language
that was normative for those church-goers,
but that seems odd and anachronistic
amidst an urbanized-HBO-and-internet culture.
“Wow, we are that remnant,” I said to myself
as I looked around at the sparse white and bald heads
dotting the pews.

Jon’s prophecy had come to pass,
though we still have the prayer book
if not Hallmark, to tell us when Easter is this year.
These days, people look at a church with a hundred members
in attendance like St. Peter’s, as a big success
when only a few years ago
that would have seemed marginal.

If I were a prophet of hope, like the Isaiah
we heard this morning,
I would say that what is going on
with the incredible shrinking of organized religion
is water being changed into wine.

But in order to say that,
we would have to be able to recognize
that what most of us here grew up with
was water, not wine.
Or, if that is too painful,
to imagine that what is taking place now
is the good wine getting served after the ordinary stuff.

Is it possible that the establishment church
of the 1950s, which
became the prototype
for the church of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s –
and is still being nudged along
like a slowing moving wagon wheel wobbling to an end –
was not the wine we thought it was?

I grew up in that church,
and while I am grateful for the love I received there
and the many great experiences I was given there,
I suspect our vintage
is not nearly as great as we thought it was.
I have no trouble believing that whatever is happening now
to shrink the churches
is in fact, a metamorphosis
that will allow us to shed a dead skin
and a crusty shell.
That does not mean death does not hurt.
It does not mean the grief of loss is any less painful.
But it does mean,
that if we resist what is being offered too strenuously,
it will be only death
and not renewal.

Now that is just one man’s opinion,
just like Jon’s vision of me screwing up
the calculation for the date of Easter
was just his imagination.
But that is what thirty-eight years of doing this work
has etched into my vision.

This was supposed to be
our Annual Parish Meeting,
but a snow Armageddon got in the way.
And in that context,
it would have made sense for me
to be talking like this
about what we are doing here at Trinity Place.

But I am sticking with that theme
and will find some other peculiar thing
to talk about in two weeks when we finally
convene the Annual Parish Meeting.
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake
I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.” (Isaiah)

Isaiah could not shut up
about the hopeful vision given him;
he could not contain it within himself
even when it would have seemed to everyone around him
as if he were a drunken oracle
slurring his hallucinations in the public square.

I feel the same way
about what we are trying to do
here at Trinity Place.
To me, this is not a desperate act of survival
and second best to being at 520 S. Main Street.
This is the new wine, the better wine,
the wine we’ve been given to serve
at this time,
in this place, for this people.

Thirty-eight years ago
I would not have envisioned myself
as part of an exodus from grand gothic splendor
to a former wine bar
situated between a barber shop
and a really good burrito place.
For that matter, it is a really good barber shop too.
(I have enjoyed both).

But those thirty-eight years taught me
that the church I grew up in,
that vintage we thought was so special,
was more of a preservation society
than it was a gospel-driven society.

It was a church
more interested and focused on
preserving an ethnic culture
and musical tradition
and architectural splendor
and elevated language
than it was understanding
how to embody the gospel for a new millennium.

That does not mean we have to throw
the baby out with the bath water,
but it does mean we need to
engage in a fearless moral inventory
about our inordinate institutional
lust and desire
for social status,
material dominance,
and simple institutional privilege.

And I am not focused here
on Trinity Church Geneva only,
but the larger Christian enterprise as well.
Yet, what we need to recognize as Trinity Church Geneva,
is that very little will change in our present situation
when 520 S. Main Street
is transformed into a commercial enterprise
and we are welcomed to return there for worship
on Sunday morning.

I know that is what many of us
are hanging our hats on,
but it is fools gold.
What was once ours to walk around in
and enjoy from stern to bow
will be a small, narrow slice.

We will only be visitors to the sanctuary –
a beautiful sanctuary for sure, but visitors we will be.
The rest of our life together,
and I would envision,
the greater part of our worship
and community life,
will be right here at Trinity Place.

The new wine will be getting served here, and
I suspect mid-week worship and programs
we experiment with now and develop here,
will far outpace participation
on Sunday morning there.
Indeed, even after we can worship there
on Sunday mornings,
I suspect that “there”
will become more and more of a memory
of what used to be
than what is “here.”

Again, that is just one man’s vision,
but it is the one I have been given to preach
and it is the one I suspect will come to pass
and that our faithfulness
and our future as a community of faith, is rooted in.

But like all futures,
it is arrived at one step at a time.
And it is built upon one person’s gift
added to another person’s gift
until the accumulation of all such gifts
suddenly, without warning,
comes to life.

The old wine tasted just fine
while we were drinking it,
but then someone served the new wine –
stuff we imagined was just water.
Suddenly that old wine
wasn’t all we thought it was,
and we were stunned to be so fortunate
as to be guests at this feast of possibilities.

In one sense,
everything I am saying pertains to us,
here in downtown Geneva.
But it is true for Christian communities of faith
all over the United States and around the world.
Our religion got confused about what it was,
getting the spiritual practice and gospel-wisdom
confused with an Empire,
and kingdoms and principalities and powers,
and cathedrals and conductors and high tone music.
We got wrapped up, literally,
in fancy frou-frou liturgical gowns
and narrow historic creeds
and grand academic theologies.
We lost touch with the beating heart
of a spiritual wisdom
gathered around an ancient rabbi
and his even more ancient traditions.
We confused authentic community
with institutional hierarchy,
and we mistook Church for the kingdom of God.

So now,
we are being offered a better wine.
Just when we thought the old stuff had lost its taste,
we are about to discover
someone slipped in something new,
and if we can let go of our grief
and our expectations,
we may be amazed at the gift.