Proper 16 A, 2017: Ecclesia

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Link to Lectionary Readings for this Sunday:

So may we, in this life
to those elements
we have yet to see
or imagine,
and look for the true
shape of our own self…
excerpt from “Working Together” by David Whyte

The name Moses is the Latin derivation of the Hebrew name,
Moshe, which comes from the word, masha, and means, “to draw out.”

In the Quran, Moses is named Musa,
and is the single most cited prophet in the entire Holy Book of Islam.
The name there, means “he who is saved by water.”

Jesus is the Latinized version of the Hebrew name, Yeshua, and means simply, “salvation.”

For millennia, and even now,
Israel struggles with, and debates,
its own meaning,
and Moses is there in the thick of it.
That long reading we heard this morning
is the beginning of their story
and our story,
and the Exodus is the primary lens
through which subsequent history and theology
is read and told.

Moses and Exodus
are right there in the birth stories of Jesus,
forming the mold from which Jesus is told and understood.
You and I have become disconnected from the name, Moses,
and the Exodus story
because Christianity became disconnected from it.

The effect has been to weaken
and distort our understanding of Jesus
and our ability to read the Gospel
as it was meant to be heard.

But that is almost always what happens over time.
We grow distant from our beginnings.
We lose track of the deep imprint of people and places
on who we are
and how we were formed.

Sometimes, if there is violence or abuse,
that trauma obscures the beautiful moments and people
who formed us early on and along the way.
Their presence and impact,
and the power of those people,
can get diluted and lost to us
under the throbbing pain of our wounds.

Sometimes, if later on, we achieve
great success and notoriety,
our beginnings fade
and we begin to imagine that we were self-made.
The multitude of things done for us
great and small,
become obscured by our present good fortune.

Then one day,
one of those people dies
and we remember.
Or we come upon an old photograph
and feel the pangs of lost connection.
For a moment, the depth
and richness of soil
below the surface of our lives
is recognized for the deep, fertile loam that it is.

One of the values of doing therapy
is giving us the opportunity to put our fingers
down into the thick, moist soil of our personhood,
and feel for who is there
forming us almost from the womb itself.

We find there
the tender love of people who cared for us
and even gave their lives for us.
Sometimes they are people
we later came to be angry with,
or alienated from.
With a little moving of the soil,
we may discover the other side of the relationship –
their loving intent and earnest desires
that were also there along with their clumsy,
awkward, or misguided actions.

We know that Jesus
is at the center of Christian theology, but also,
forming the loam of our spiritual tradition,
are Moses and Peter.

Looking back
can remind and inform us,
in ways that are powerfully insightful,
that we have forgotten
who we are,
and whose we are,
and what we are here for now and tomorrow.

Forgive me, please,
for offering a personal example.

My mother’s health had been in crisis
for a decade when she died,
a stair step illness downward.
Each step was a deeper investment in the healthcare industry,
and even the plateaus were expensive.
My dad was eighty-three when she finally died
and by age eighty-seven,
he was running out of money.
In relatively good health himself at that point,
he anxiously tried to decipher the years ahead.

He was also troubled with another burden.

My mother, an only child,
had inherited a small lake cottage in Northern Michigan.

It held seventy-five feet of lakefront
on a crystal-clear, sandy-bottomed lake
surrounded by forested hills and wildly pastoral beauty.

My dad had transformed it with his own hands
from a raw hunting and fishing cabin
into a very modest cottage that could sleep his five children
with bunkbeds and doubling up.

Our cottage was bathed and soaked
in the memories that formed our childhood
and cohered family at a molecular level –
whatever molecules create happiness and joy.
For me, the cottage defined the very essence
of “sacred place.”

By the early years of this century, some of my siblings
had moved to other parts of the country
and found new sacred places for their own families,
and rarely if ever, did they visit our cottage any more.

But for me, and now for Katy and our four children,
the cottage was more imbued than ever
with those sacred years of watching our kids
discover and appropriate the specialness of that place.
“Toad Tree,”
“duck reeds,” and
wherever they had seen that snake last season,
became fixed places within our hearts and imaginations.

My siblings and I,
the ones that still had no other sacred place,
could not afford to buy the cottage from my dad;
and we struggled to keep it in good repair
as it truly needed significant improvements.

The burden of it, for my dad,
came from his experience as a small town, solo attorney
writing and executing wills and estates for his clients.

He had seen many a family ensnared and fractured
by disagreements over money and property
as their parents’ estates were sorted out.
He dreaded the idea
that our cottage could become a source of alienation
among his five children when he was gone.

His urgent need for income
and the unresolved burden of his worry,
intersected in his resolve to sell the cottage.
I was sent on a mission to determine its value
and explore the possibility.
I was devastated.

All the logical reasons for it to be done
had been whispering their ugly message to me for years,
but I did not want to hear it.

Finding a different solution
had long been a jigsaw puzzle
haunting my daydreams
and sleep.
Every solution I could imagine
had at least one critical piece missing
and never came together.
Unable to fix it, I ignored it.
I hoped that if it happened,
I would be someplace else by then,
and my kids would be grown up
and it wouldn’t hurt so much.

That was not to be.
I was actually there with my children
when, by phone, my dad asked me to do it.

An hour after my first visit to a realtor,
before it was actually listed,
we had an offer for three times anything we had imagined.
I was stunned, so was my dad.
“Let’s counter for more,” I urged,
hoping it would scare the buyer away
and we could do some more research
and put the whole thing off at least another year.

We asked for twenty-five thousand more
and the offer was accepted.
The cottage was sold.
I had been the agent of sale.

One reason I tell you that story
because I am new to Trinity –
a baby Trinityite among many of you
who are lifers, or almost so.
I have no credibility here –
and some people, especially out in the community,
see me as the agent of sale.

But please trust that I know viscerally,
the anticipatory ache
that sits in the bottom of your stomach,
or as a lump in your throat,
whenever we talk about what is next for Trinity.
My grief for our cottage
remains an unfilled hole in my heart.

For Katy and me, and for our children,
because my vocation has taken us
from one community to another,
that half acre bordered by poplars and cedar,
and swathed in glistening scales on the waves of morning sun,
was our home – even in ways we did not know
until it was gone –
it was home and it was sacred.

Still today,
a dozen years down the road,
part of me is still lost and grieving,
still looking for that place that feels like home.

In fact, this past year,
I was startled by a video someone posted on my Facebook,
of the house I grew up in and never moved from,
until I graduated from college.
It showed that house being bulldozed to the ground.
In that awful moment of speechless grief,
as I stared at 710 N. Martin Street being leveled,
all I could think of, even now at age sixty-three,
was our cottage in Northern Michigan.

I know the ache and grief for a sacred space now gone.

All of which brings me, finally, to today’s gospel reading.
The word “church”
only appears twice in all four Gospels,
each time in Matthew.
Isn’t it so strange
that something we are so accustomed to saying – “Church” –
was not a familiar paradigm to Jesus or his followers?

Ecclesia is the Greek word we translate as “Church.”
But all that ecclesia meant to Jesus and his pals
was an assembly of persons who had been called together
for a particular purpose
(The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible)

So, for example,
a bunch of Roman soldiers
called together to crucify Jesus
was an ecclesia, a church of executioners.

When Matthew has Jesus say,
You are Peter, the rock on whom my church is built,”
we hear that, and assume
we know exactly what he meant.

In our mind, church is a big stone building or
whatever image we carry of it.

Yet we need to know,
the image we carry of Church
is not the one Matthew had in mind
when he wrote that little story.

We do not know what Matthew or Jesus or Peter
meant by the word, “Church.”
The paradigm for Church has changed so many times
and so radically since this story was first told,
we have no idea what the word meant way back then.

Most often when we say “Church” to someone who is not a church-goer,
the image that comes to mind for them is a building.
Unfortunately, also,
to many people outside such a building,
church is associated with the image of a bunch of rigid people
who all look alike, act alike, and think alike.

Oh, and according to that stereotype,
we are also a bunch of hypocrites too,
preaching one thing and doing another.

That image is a big reason
it is so tough to get people to come to church these days.
We know such images of church and Christianity
are caricatures, comic book in their simplicity.
But unless we have given it a lot of thought,
we may not be clear about what church actually is,
or is supposed to be – at least today.

Here at Trinity,
we have a unique if painful task.
To decide what the task is that we have gathered for.

If we are honest,
if almost any church anywhere, is honest,
we recognize that the “what” of our existence
is over-identified with the building or programs or organizational structures we have built.
But buildings and programs and organization
are only tools
for creating and delivering and embodying
the “what” of our existence.

We know, deep in our bones and where our heart runs slow,
that sacred place
is created over time
with the repetition of gathering
as sacred community.
What we are
and why we are
and doing the things that make us who we are,
is precisely what forms sacred community.

if we are to give any credence to the spiritual practice
of our modern-day baptismal ministry,
is only glimpsed in the moment that we gather –
whether for worship or book club.

Church becomes the sacred community,
according to the promises of our Baptismal Covenant,
when we are dispersed and acting as agents of God’s love.

Church, as it has begun to dawn on us in The Episcopal Church,
is the yeast of an alternative reality
rising up from the ground
because of the way we live and work and pray.
We come together to strengthen and nurture one another,
so that when we disperse and go out to live our lives,
we can be yet more powerful agents of God’s love.

What I know is that even though I continue to grieve
for the loss of our cottage,
the sacred space I crave
thrives elsewhere.
It is transported and multiplied
on the wings of sacred community.
When the sacred is imbued in community
and is not confined to a place,
nor devastated by the loss of place,
then the sacred moves and reemerges and morphs
in unplanned and unexpected ways.

Ecclesia: a gathering of people
for a specific purpose.
We are those people.
What is our purpose?