Proper 23A: Charging the Gap

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TEXTS for Today

Link to Matthew:

From “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard

Thomas Merton wrote, “There is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.” There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

Ezekiel excoriates false prophets as those who have “not gone up into the gaps.” The gaps are the thing. The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once-blind man unbound. The gaps are the cliffs in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery. Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than a maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.


Stalking the gaps.

That spectacular excerpt from Annie Dillard
is escorted by two horrendous biblical readings –
both Isaiah and Matthew could make us gag
were we to take them at face value.

“The enemy’s big city
reduced to a non-city,
never to be a city again.”
That bit from Isaiah sounds like the apocalyptic threats
batted back and forth between
Kim-Jong Un and Donald Trump.

And in Matthew, some poor slob, an innocent bystander,
is dragged off the street
and placed at the table of a wedding banquet
at which he doesn’t even know anyone in the bridal party,
and then gets sent to Hell because he isn’t dressed properly.

What is that about?

There is only time for me to deal with one
of these awful readings,
if we are also going to visit those gaps
that Annie Dillard so vividly evokes.

Good old Matthew, sucking on a sour pickle again.

As we have noticed before,
each of the gospel authors can take the same story
or parable or saying,
and treat it differently –
as is the case today with Matthew
and the parable of the wedding banquet.
If Matthew were the only gospel writer to use this story
we would be stuck with his awful rendition,
but the Gospels of Luke and Thomas
also include the banquet parable –
and Luke and Thomas have similar versions to one another
while quite different from Matthew.

So let’s just take it to the mat, down and dirty.

Matthew, as he often does,
has allegorized a parable attributed to Jesus,
and in doing so, radically changed the message.

Point blank, the message of Matthew’s parable is this:
“You Jews,
those of you who are not with us Jesus-followers,
have rejected God.
Because you rejected Jesus,
you rejected God,
and God has rejected you.

Therefore, you are no longer in the Covenant;
and the Covenant first given to Abraham
and then to Moses,
has now been given to us Jesus-followers.
You’re out, we’re in, and God doesn’t love you either.”

It is a remnant of the nasty first century vitriolic food fight
between Matthew and others within his Jewish community.
He has taken a truly wonderful parable
and turned into a theological weapon.

If we turn to Luke’s and Thomas’ versions,
we hear a lovely and expansively inclusive parable instead.

The Gospel of Thomas
was probably the earliest of these three,
and instead of the raging God who angrily punishes
anyone who has turned down an invitation,
Thomas’ story ends like this:
“The slave returned and said to his master,
‘Those whom you invited to dinner have asked to be excused.’
The master said to his slave,
‘Go out on the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.’”
That’s it!

In the Luke and Thomas gospels,
all that the parable implies is that God has invited
a great many people to the table,
and when there is still room at the banquet,
God invites everyone that can be found.
There is no shortage of seats at the table of God:
it is a story of inclusion not exclusion.


The warped, demented version of Christianity
that assumes exclusion,
and acts as if God has nothing better to do
than torture people in an eternal inferno,
is not only silly and ridiculous,
it ignores and corrupts
the biblical voices that offer a different vision –
the one in which God’s table has a chair for anyone.

Okay, Gospel addresses; sharp turn, we’re driving straight for the gap.

The Episcopal Church,
and almost every congregation of organized religion
in the United States,
fears the gap we are facing,
and is running in place from it as if there is an escape.

I do not know how large a congregation Trinity Church Geneva was at its zenith, but in order to support a building like this,
with a commensurate staff and program, it would have to have at least 300 pledges equaling the average pledge for the Episcopal Church.
The average pledge in the national Episcopal Church is $2200 a year.

The fact is,
church buildings like this were usually built
with the money of a few wealthy families.
Stewardship in the old days,
amounted to the wealthy families in a congregation
getting together and deciding how much was needed
and then the funds appeared.

It is no secret that the long-time rector of Trinity,
Samuel Edsall, did not get paid a salary
during the course of his long tenure,
because his wife was an heiress.
That was not terribly unusual in those days,
when The Episcopal Church was class-bound
with the most privileged members of the society.

Funding Episcopal Churches was the inverse
of many Roman Catholic congregations,
from which were built grand sanctuaries
with the multiplication of thousands of small donations
from poor and working-class people.
Instead, in our tradition,
a cadre of wealthy scions built temples
that harkened back to their British roots.

But the economies of scale have changed,
and what was once enough money to support
two full-time priests and support staff,
along with an historic stone building,
now is not even enough to support one full-time priest
and some part-time staff.

Think Lowes or Home Depot.

Those big box stores exist because it is cheaper for them
to deal in huge quantities, and the poor little
neighborhood hardware store simply can’t make it.
Mega-churches are the Home-depoting
of American Christianity.
They build huge, relatively inexpensive buildings
where the demographics show the market is –
the same demographics that Lowes and Home Depot use
to locate their stores.

When they out grow their building
or the demographics change, they move.
The mega-churches, mostly evangelical but not all,
were ahead of the curve.

What they realized
was that the way we in The Episcopal Church do worship,
has very little appeal to most of the population.
So they invented worship
that looks and sounds like the culture.

They use pop music, and even some rock or country,
as the prototype for their love songs to Jesus.
They do not ask people to sing much,
because public singing is not practiced much anymore,
except in old-style churches.
Instead, they have some easy to sing refrains
repeated in a way that mimics
what might happen in a rock concert.

They preach like motivational speakers
instead of bible-thumpers.
Some dress in blue jeans and a white shirt
while others sport elegant suits.
But they are casual, folksy teachers
that are selling their product
with the same language and cadence
as an infomercial.

Anyone who walks in into such a church
will immediately feel the safety of the familiar.
Instead of a narrow musky, dark entryway,
mega-churches are like a movie-theater
with glass doors opening into a food court,
complete with coffee dispensers –
some even have a Tim Horton’s or Dunk’n Donuts.
The worship space is an auditorium with comfortable seating,
adjustable lighting,
and sophisticated sound.
But even though they were ahead of the curve 20 years ago,
they are running from the gap now too –
just like Trinity Church Geneva,
and all the other congregations, almost everywhere.

Mega-churches, like Home Depot,
have depended upon numbers –
just as all mass marketing does.
You send out a mailing to 100,000 people
and hope for a half-a percent response:
that’s five hundred people.
But mass marketing also depends upon
constant additions because
there is also a huge drop off.
Those big old mega-churches have big back doors too,
and just as lots of people come in the front doors
an awful lot of people are exiting at the same time.

Lowes and Home Depot are now competing with Wal-Mart,
and all three of them with Amazon.
Big box stores have begun to struggle
as more and more of the market goes to the internet.
Same with big churches,
because more and more people
are going offline
when it comes to organized religion.

Big church, little church, or in between medium church:
all are running from the gaps
and very few are stalking them.

Trinity Church Geneva, you and me,
have an opportunity to stalk the gap
instead of timidly scurrying away as fast as we can.
We have been driven to the gap
because we have run out of rich people
to pay for a building rich people built.
But we have not only run out of rich people, people period.
Just like most other congregations all over the country,
we are staring into the gap between past and future,
between fear and hope.

We can go on playing music on the deck
while the Titanic sinks, or we can stalk the gap.

If we can get through the hoops
and avoid the mines
some of our neighbors have set for us,
the building will no longer be on our backs alone.
Instead of some rich families paying the way,
we found someone who will commercialize the property
and make the building pay for itself.

That is the plan,
and it looks as if that plan is going to happen
in spite of the trials and tribulations of the past months.
So now we will decide whether to stalk the gap
between what was and what is to be,
or just go on as we have
until there is no one left to go on.

If you thought figuring out
how to fund the preservation of the building
was the only problem we faced,
you were very wrong.

St. Peter’s, Geneva Presbyterian, the Methodist Church,
and Mt. Olive, along with Trinity,
are all games of attrition.
Doing the same things over and over and over again
is to simply gnaw away what is left.

I would rather stalk the gap
between what used to be church
and what will to be church.

If I knew what would carry forward
the wisdom of the gospel
and the love of community,
in a way that is compelling to the 60% of Geneva
that now shows little or no interest in organized religion,
it wouldn’t be a gap.
If I knew, I could point to it and say, “Let’s go there!”

What I can see
is that the way The Episcopal Church, and many others,
have been doing church –
mostly on a 19th century model –
is not the future.

What that inspires in me, is curiosity.
I want to know what will have legs in the future.
I feel driven to explore and experiment,
through trial and error,
what will and won’t work.

But I can’t do that alone,
and I can’t do that if you are not also willing.
You see, I have chosen to be your priest,
and that means (to me anyway),
that we get in the life boat together and
row our way to safety,
or we pull up the deck chairs
and huddle together against the wind
as the ship goes down.

Even so, I won’t go easily into the night.
I will agitate for the life boat,
and I will advocate for life so long as there is a hope of breath.

So here it is as plainly as I can say it.

We are the beloved of God – not the only ones, but beloved no less.
We have been entrusted with an ancient wisdom
as well as the experience of God’s gracious presence.
This is our gift to share.
It is not a gift to consume
and gluttonously enjoy for ourselves.
It is a gift to share,
and when it is not shared,
it dissipates and disappears from our midst.

We are the beloved of God, that is our gift.
My generation and those behind it
are not well-acquainted with this gift.
It is upon us to learn the language
that will convey what we know,
and embody what we have.

We must stop asking them to come to where we are
and do what we do, and instead,
go to where they are
and share the gift we have been given
in the language that they will find compelling.
That is the gap:
A place between where we stand now
and the future we can only vaguely imagine.
We have no idea what is in between.

I invite you to come with me,
and charge that gap.
Let’s not run from it,
or stare into it with fear,
let’s stalk it and then charge it.
Let’s not “make hay when we should be making whoopee;
or raise tomatoes when we should be raising Cain or Lazarus.”

Let us pray.

Gracious God, you are a lover of souls:
embolden and empower us,
the remnant of Trinity Church,
to charge the gap before us.