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
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,
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.
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.
It is a dangerous world.
Justice is suspended slightly beyond our reach
over a precipice we cannot span.
The Earth we call fragile
will fume and crack and shake,
and likely grow and thrive and produce
eons after our species
has made it uninhabitable for our kind.
It is a dangerous world.
The dark is not darkness to God
but it is still an absence of light to us –
the activity of human evil
foment greater threats to our safety
and greater chaos at the shores of our hope.
It is a dangerous world.
The Season of Advent
is all about the dangers of the world we live in.
I know that all over of the town and city,
and throughout the country
preparations for Christmas
begin right after Halloween,
and intensify until red ribbons and white lights are everywhere.
But in the eye of that commercial storm
that has been brewing now for over a month,
in liturgical Churches like ours,
the four weeks before Christmas
are held as an important “Season” all its own.
For 14 centuries in fact,
Advent has stubbornly struggled
to hold back the tide of Christmas until,
on December 24th,
it can no longer withstand the procession of time.
Why have a season like that,
when everyone loves Christmas?
Why hold back Christmas or try to diminish its splendor.
Because, quite frankly,
it is a dangerous world.
You see, the Christmas spotlight is focused on an infant.
It is difficult for us to see past that sweet baby.
In the story of a small family
nestled around a newborn child,
need to be prepared to see and hear
what lies at the dark edges of that manger.
We receive newborns with “Ah!” and “Oooh.”
And that is as it should be.
An infant is more marvelous than we can possibly say.
But the season of Advent gazes into the gap
between the promise of what is to come –
that blessed baby –
and the chaos that is here and now.
We peer into this gap at Advent,
knowing that Christmas is just beyond us
but averting our gaze
even though we would rather stare at the promise
than at the chaos.
Even so, Advent is not a punishment;
rather, it is a method
of building spiritual muscle.
To look into the gap
between what has been Promised
and the Chaos that is here,
is to become wiser
and more savvy
in a world that requires us to be clever not innocent.
It is a dangerous world.
Today, in Isaiah and Matthew,
we hear the promise of a different kind of Creation:
A NEW Creation.
In the NEW Creation
weak hands will be strong,
lame legs will dance,
thirsty deserts will gush,
dry sand will well up,
the exiled will come home,
and the captives will be ransomed.
The NEW Creation
will be under the reign of God instead of Chaos.
The NEW Creation
is not yet born,
but it is alive.
The NEW Creation
is a tender green shoot
still gathering shape in the dark, wet soil of winter.
But it is ALIVE.
Notice, please, that you and I are not promised
we will be alive
to see the world free of chaos,
only that the reign of God is coming.
The promise is simply
that the Creation is moving toward
an order that sustains life
in all of its mysterious complexities,
while at the same time slowly moving away from Chaos
with all of its attending threats.
Now the voices of cynicism and disbelief,
the thinking limited to pure reason,
and the dogmatism of science or economics
as the only possible lenses
through which we should interpret the world,
all have dismissed
the possibility of God’s reign.
There is no sense in arguing with them
any more than it makes sense to argue
with dogmatic religious thinking.
But for those of us in between –
who look for light and life
upon the entire spectrum of possibilities,
and have fewer limitations about what is possible,
there is something else.
There is an ancient wisdom.
That wisdom whispers to us
that we have a promise
and the promise is coming.
At the same time
it warns us about the Chaos within which we live.
But what this ancient wisdom asks of us
is to live AS IF,
as if we were already under the reign of God.
It asks us,
with the full sobriety of knowing the potential cost,
to live as if the promise has arrived.
All the prophets,
from Moses to Jesus to Dorothy Day,
tell us that by living AS IF
God’s reign is already here,
we become midwives to holy.
Let’s stop right there.
I want us to think about that:
Midwives to God.
As God painfully labors
to bring forth the New Creation she has promised,
we can be her midwives.
Midwives to God!
If you think this is just a metaphor I am playing with…
you’d be right.
But it is a metaphor that is cast in the mud of reality.
There are more ways to assist
in birthing the New Creation
than the number of stars we can see with the naked eye.
Conversely, there are countless ways
we can contribute to the Chaos as well.
But today I want to leave us thinking about just one way
we can act as midwives to the holy.
It hovers around that punch line we heard in the Gospel:
The least in the kingdom of God
is greater than…(you fill in the blank).
Or we can come at it from the negative.
The only way human beings are able to rape and murder –
or eve to hold, voice, and act with bigotry –
is if God has been turned into a mirror.
Let us make no mistake about evil –
and by evil, I mean the plain old human kind
with not supernatural about it.
We are all capable of tremendous evil.
You and me, and everyone we know,
is capable of deadly and awful behavior.
Let’s just be very honest and clear about it.
The German soldiers
who assisted in the genocide of 12 million people,
or the German middle class
who watched silently as Jews, homosexuals,
and then gradually reduced to the status of vermin,
were ordinary people like you and me.
Turks…pick a country
where repression and genocide
has been practiced openly within memory.
In every single one of them
we can see ordinary people like you and me
slipping into silence
and passively accepting evil
until it becomes a full-blown participation in that evil.
The point is: no one here is immune,
and each one of us
is capable of practicing and participating in evil.
Think back to the war of your generation
and your youth:
the Gulf Battle,
How easily did the words, “God and Country”
slip off our tongues?
How seamless a garment
was the establishment of war
with the establishment of religion?
How snuggly did the Gospel of Jesus Christ
fit into the flag of the Constitution,
and how quickly did Jesus’ face and manner
come to reflect our own as we opposed our enemies?
When God becomes the mirror
in which is reflected
all that we want to see and believe about ourselves,
then any horror is possible and justified.
It is then the world is made
an even more dangerous place.
Our greatest threat
is not from Atheists or Agnostics
who relegate God to irrelevance;
it is from our own capacity
to project our desires,
and our prejudices,
and own fears
as if they were coming down from heaven
instead of wafting up from our own darkness.
The Gospel has an antidote for this threat –
something that can shatter the shiny reflection
of any mirror.
“The least in the kingdom of God is greater than…”
When we swell with pride at our own power,
we need only look around to see God
in someone who is powerless.
Truly see them.
When we feel satiated and relaxed
in the comfort and safety of our own homes,
we need only listen for God
in the fear and anxiety
of those whose homes have been taken away.
Truly hear them.
When suspicion or animosity wells up within us
toward people we presume are not like us,
we need only touch them
because God lives within their body –
their gay, lesbian or heterosexual body;
their Asian, African, European, or hybrid body;
their well-educated, marginalize, or mainstreamed body;
their Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or Buddhist body.
Truly touch them.
When the flag of our country –
and remember, in this congregation
we do not all have the same country and flag –
when the flag of our country
is pointed like a missile in flight
to attack the evil in some other country,
then we need to awaken to the sounds of our enemy – because somewhere
in that stereotyped mob of bad-guys,
God is calling out for us to listen.
We need to listen
and awaken to the God within “them.”
“The least in the kingdom of God is greater than…”
Just when we think we are being so good –
we see the least is gooder than us.
Just when we think we know the truth –
we understand that the least is wiser than us.
Just when we think we are right –
the least is proven more perceptive than us.
The Gospel has this built-in correction
to our nationalism,
and our ethnocentrism.
Just when we have identified the borders,
corrected the membership list,
codified the rules,
painted God in the image and hues of a self portrait,
the Gospel says,
“The least is greater than you…”
or risk becoming
and doing awful things.
So if we wish to be midwives to holy,
and assist God in the birth of the New Creation,
we need to become good at recognizing God
in the least…
at the end….
or with the servant.
It is a dangerous world.
It is made all the more dangerous
by religious people who turn God into a mirror.
It is made all the more dangerous by us,
when we ignore the least
and the last,
and the servants.
All of them,
God has embraced
as greater than you and me.
When the Gospel is heard and taken seriously,
mirrors will be shattered.
When that happens,
God is assisted in her struggle
to bear forth the New Creation.
We have one more week of Advent.
The pressure is intense.
The cervix between God and us is thinning,
the veil nearly transparent.
We have one week left
to savor our role as midwives to God.
It should rightly make us speechless
even though we must speak;
and we must work furiously
to keep the chaos away
while God is in so vulnerable a state.
The way we practice our spiritual midwifery,
is to prepare a place in the midst of Chaos
for the New Creation to be delivered safely.
The way we practice our spiritual midwifery,
is to look in the places
and among the people
where we least expect to find God’s presence.
It is dangerous
but it is the birth of a New Creation
that gives meaning to the risks we must take
and even the life we must one day loose.
Let us hold back Christmas just a little longer,
and savor the incredible privilege
of being God’s midwife
in the birth of the New Creation.
Our vision…to be known in the community as a welcoming home to everyone, responding effectively to the needs of our community, in collaboration with fellow Episcopalians and other faith communities
Our mission…to strive in our daily life and parish life to respect the dignity of every human being, and to treat each person entering our doors as if that person is Christ.
We are striving to be as open as the table Jesus hosted, in solidarity with the people of Geneva, and an accessible partner to others who share our sense of the gospel.
It also means we have opened ourselves to the future, and not only moved but adopted a new way of being church from the more traditional model. Join us at Trinity Place, 78 Castle Street in downtown Geneva, NY.
Trinity Place, An Open Space for Growth, Wellness, Healing, & the Arts
“Open Space” means open and inclusive, welcoming the Geneva and FLX community to use our space, and to partner with us in building an inclusive community for spiritual inquiry and wellness.
“Growth, Wellness, Healing, & the Arts” means we are pointed toward a particular dimension of life, specifically that which strengthens the relationship of body, mind, and spirit.
Trinity is a Christian community of worship and spiritual practice welcoming all, and an Episcopal Church in particular. However, we welcome all spiritual traditions and those who have no particular spiritual background but are engaged in a mission consistent with ours. We are looking for partners in mission not members (although we love to welcome new members too).
Trinity’s historic building and our adaptive reuse plan has been named and embraced by The Landmark Society of Western New York. Among thousands of worthy historic sites and projects, Trinity’s was selected. Follow this link to read more: https://landmarksociety.org/2019-five-to-revive-announced/
The Rev. R. Cameron Miller is our rector, which means the resident clergy leader. In addition … Read more