Holy Ground, Holy Spaces, Proper 28(B) – 2015

[RCL] 1 Samuel 2:1-10; 1 Samuel 1:4-20 (as canticle); Hebrews 10:11-14; Mark 13:1-8

Today’s lessons are a mixture of life struggles, miracles and prophecies.

The story of Hannah may resonate with numerous women in our own age. Infertility is a widespread challenge that women face, at times, silently.

Hannah’s cultural context differs significantly from ours. In ancient Israel, motherhood was the epitome of accomplishments for women. Not being able to conceive was seen as a sign of punishment or God’s displeasure. Nowadays, women of childbearing age in this country enjoy innumerable lifestyle choices and accomplishments are measured in a myriad of areas. However, the stigma, misunderstanding or lack of tact women of today may experience could be as insensitive and cruel as Hannah’s was.

There is much we could learn from Hannah’s strength of character, her persistence, resilience and ability to manage her emotional roller coaster, even in the midst of peer pressure. Not all stories have a happy ending. In this case, the Lord had compassion on Hannah and granted her the blessing of bearing a child, Samuel, who became a prominent figure in the history of the people of Israel.

Paradoxically, Hannah promised to return to God the exact thing for which she prayed. That selfless act may serve as a reminder to us that all things on earth and in heaven are God’s gift to us. It is a reminder of the truth behind the phrase many congregations recite during the offertory “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thy own we have given thee.”

Hannah is blessed with the gift of life. She proclaims her gratitude in a song to her Lord. “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” It is this song that Mary embraces when visited by the angel with the good news about the coming of Emmanuel.

This story may serve as a model for us of what it means to live faithfully in days and situations that may seem godforsaken. Hannah’s faithfulness to God, resilience and perseverance serve as great inspiration for the Christian community in the world when we face challenges or tasks that, at first glance, seem overwhelming, such as the signs of the times, the decline in membership, the call to end hunger, violence, and to be fully present in a world in need of peace and reconciliation.

Jesus’s conversation with the disciples points us to this very reality of a crumbling world, which we dare say, is an opportunity for rebuilding and hope. It is an opportunity for the faithful to embrace our commitment to fully participate in God’s mission in a renewed and creative way.

The interaction narrated in today’s gospel takes place towards the end of Jesus’s ministry. The scenes preceding the text describe Jesus’s teaching and cite particularly his warning about the destruction of the temple.

Impressed with the settings, the disciples expressed their sense of awe for the infrastructure in front of them. The masonry work in Jerusalem was indeed impressive and not comparable to that of Galilee. Jesus’s response to the impressed disciple may seem dismissive at first glance. However, this is one of those Jesus-Teaching-Moments that would not only reveal to the disciples a powerful truth about God’s power and grace but also give us, believers of this century, an opportunity to revisit our perceptions, understanding and relationship with the physical spaces that host our gatherings as we continue with the apostles’ teaching and the breaking of the bread.

Although the Gospel focuses on the end of times, the central point on buildings and signs may give us a perfect analogy to meditate on our current reality as we struggle with failing, demanding and impressive infrastructures that house our collective worship.

For decades, our buildings have been symbols of wealth and power. The Episcopal Church’s red doors have been a sign of welcome and visibility in our communities. Yet, the signs of the times show us that the decline in church attendance or church life as we knew it is an evolving reality.

We run the risk of remaining in a state of awe, like the disciples, admiring our stain glass windows, wood, paintings, carvings, and stones or we could run the risk of remaining in denial and exclusively focused inward just like the man in Anthony de Melo’s story:

A father knocks on his son’s door “Jamie”, he says, “wake up!” Jamie answers, “I do not want to get up, Papa.” The father shouts, “Get up, you have to go to school!” Jamie says, “I do not want to go to school.” “Why not?” asks his father. “Three reasons,” says Jamie. “First, because it is so dull; second, the kids tease me; and third, I hate school.” The father responds, “Well, I am going to give you three reasons you must go to school. First, because it is your duty. Second, because you are forty-five years old; and third, because you are the headmaster.”

We may rather stay under the covers of denial about the state of our communities. The signs are visible. The world needs our commitment as disciples and apostles to engage in the mission of God in the communities where our buildings are located. Yes! The buildings are a means to an end, a receptacle of God’s grace to facilitate God’s mission. Our buildings are vessels to facilitate community and service.

Jesus’s response today is to us an inspiration to focus on God’s mission outwardly. The buildings we once treasured may be limiting us from engaging the world in meaningful and powerful ways.

This past summer a resolution presented to the General Convention of our church addressed the challenges we face with our physical spaces. The resolution highlighted the fact that our buildings are underutilized and constricted by habits, customs and mindsets that preclude us from using them as sacred spaces for the greater good. It emphasized that our worship services are one of many expressions of the holy use of buildings.

The resolution invited us to tap into our Anglican understanding of incarnation, so that it’s not just formally religious things that are sacred, but other activities too can become sacred and sanctified, themselves benefitting from being present in church buildings. It is an invitation to be creative and to redefine our perceptions and relationship with the assets we have been blessed with.

A new outlook to our church’s infrastructure can be life-giving and generative beyond our wildest imagination. It may require us to deconstruct our worship of building behaviors and build new practices and understanding of mission. Many Episcopal churches and of other denominations have discerned the signs of the time and have stepped out in audacious faith to bring Christ and Church to the world, from celebrating Eucharist in a corner store, in a park, or opening our sanctuaries to community gatherings.

Our buildings are holy ground, spaces where we find a sense of community, where we are fed and nourished. It is not only a space in which to dwell, but also a space to be formed, prepared and sent out into the world to bear witness of God’s faithfulness and greatness.

May we develop a theology of sacredly inclusive use-of-space that is adaptive and generative both financially and spiritually. May we collaborate to re-envision the purpose of our buildings and be aware of the need of walking in faith outside of our walls to bring about reconciliation into the world. Amen.

 

Download the sermon for Proper 28B.

Written by the Rev. Miguelina Howell

The Rev. Miguelina Howell is Dean-Elect of Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford.  She currently serves as Vicar of the Cathedral.  Miguelina serves as CREDO faculty and member of the Council of Advice for the Latino/Hispanic Missioner of the Episcopal Church.  She is originally from the Dominican Republic and has served God’s mission overseas, as member of the Episcopal Church Staff and as the 7th Rector of Church of the Epiphany in the Diocese of Newark.

Transcending all that is ‘thrown down’, 25 Pentecost, Proper 28 (B) – Nov. 18, 2012

1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (or Daniel 12:1-3 and Psalm 16); Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

On August 23, 2011, Louisa County, Virginia, was rocked by a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. We expect such seismic activity along the Pacific coast but rarely think about it happening elsewhere. Earthquakes in Virginia are rare; however, due to the geological nature of the Eastern Seaboard, the quake’s shocks were felt as far away as Florida and Ontario, Canada. It was particularly sad, not just for Episcopalians, but for many Christians, to see the damage this quake did to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, better known as the National Cathedral. Who could have envisioned the pinnacles of the towers crashing into the pavement below or great towers completely twisted? The earthquake only lasted 10 to 15 seconds, but in that time a tremendous amount of damage was done. Who could have imagined it?

“Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” Jesus was referring, of course, to the greatest building project of his day and time – Herod’s temple in Jerusalem. This massive renovation began around 20 BCE and expanded the temple mount complex far beyond what King Solomon had envisioned. While the temple itself was completed in less than two years, the outer structures and courtyards took about 80 years to complete – only to be utterly destroyed in 70 A.D. by Roman legions under the command of Titus, the son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. It would have been hard, if not impossible, for the disciples to imagine the complete destruction of such a massive building – the most holy place of the Jewish faith.

We, too, can scarcely imagine a time when the important places and structures we know and love will be “thrown down;” however, we have witnessed a glimpse of such destruction in our own day with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11. Catastrophic destruction leads to collective trauma and lingering anxiety. But even if the structures are not literally “thrown down,” it is still difficult to ponder that even the place where we worship today will one day be in ruin. It is the folly of humanity to seek permanence in the things of this world, and yet it seems to be our nature. Perhaps it is our deep angst in knowing our own mortality that leads us to build structures of many kinds: buildings, ships, corporate businesses, political empires, families. God has placed a deep-seated need to create something that will transcend the finitude of our earthly lives.

Jesus’ teaching today reminds us of the impermanence of all the structures of this world: “All will be thrown down.” Jesus cuts straight to our desire for immortality with these disquieting words – words that echo the great prophetic tradition of the Jewish people. No doubt this raised the anxiety of the disciples who press him for answers of “when will this be?” They press him for signs of the end. In Jesus’ day, and even to this day, there are plenty of people who look for signs, as if knowing when the end will come will somehow change its coming. Our faith and science tell us there will be a time when all things will come to an end; does knowing exactly when it will happen really give us any mastery over it?

Jesus does not give specifics as to when the end will come, nor does he tell them exactly what will happen. He tells them there will be upheavals of many kinds, but he clearly says these are the beginnings of the birth pangs – not the signs of the end of all things. The things that Jesus describes – war and rumors of war, famine, earthquakes – were all occurring in his day and still occur today. We might wonder when the birth pangs will be done.

Certainly, as Mark wrote this gospel in the shadow of the temple’s destruction and amidst severe persecution of the Christian community, this disquieting apocalyptic narrative seems to fit the unrest of his time; but what about us, living in the relative comfort of the United States in the 21st century? While we have relative comfort compared to Mark’s community, we do live in a highly anxious society where the messages we hear all around us center on being afraid: Be afraid of terrorism; be afraid of the economy collapsing; be afraid of losing our jobs; be afraid of losing our health; be afraid of losing our economic security; be afraid for our children’s future; be afraid of rejection. The list is endless. We are afraid that our neatly constructed lives will “all be thrown down” so we live in captivity to that fear, and when we live in captivity to fear, we never really live!

In the larger context of Mark’s gospel, these words from Jesus come just before he enters Jerusalem to be crucified. These words about the destruction of the temple and upheavals to come are a prefiguring of his own death – the very destruction of his own body. “All will be thrown down” is a promise that all things of this world will fall apart, disintegrate and die. However, within the broader context of this chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus reminds us that our job isn’t to know exactly what will happen, how it will happen, or when it will happen; rather our job is to be faithful, patient and keep awake, because God is working out the plan of salvation and has not abandoned us. It will be all right because God is in charge.

This isn’t to say things will be easy and that hardships and suffering won’t befall us. It isn’t an empty optimism promising things will get better for our lives; they may or may not. It is a promise that God is in charge regardless.

Christ promises us that things will be all right because God has the last word. When death on the cross appeared to be the end, God had the last word at an empty tomb. Throughout our lives, we will experience death and resurrection many times over as the neatly arranged structures of our lives are thrown down. These apocalyptic words of Jesus remind us to hang on and to place our trust in something more than ourselves, our possessions, our relationships, our health, our capacities or our intellect. It is to place our ultimate trust in the One from whom all of these things come. It is to accept our finitude and mortality in a radical trust of God’s unchangeable grace and goodness so that we might be freed from the captivity of anxious fear and finally live fully and freely as God’s beloved children.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

To join in the prayers, Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 28 (B) – November 15, 2009

(RCL)1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (Track 2: Daniel 12:1-3 and Psalm 16); Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

In T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Four Quartets,” he talks about going to a church at Little Gidding, the site of a small Anglican religious community founded in the seventeenth century. Eliot writes, “You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.”

Many of us have felt this desire to kneel where prayer has been valid. For those of us who pray regularly, we may long to join our prayers to those who have gone before us. For those of us who have a hard time with prayer, we still somehow desire to kneel in that place where prayer has been valid. In either case, when we come into a place where truthful prayer has been made, many of us feel like falling to our knees.

People attend church services for a variety of reasons. The preaching. The music. The fellowship. The coffee hour. The stained glass windows. One extremely important reason people come to church is to kneel in a place where prayer has been valid. Somehow, we want to put ourselves in that place where truthful prayer has been offered. Even when we feel like we don’t have the words ourselves, perhaps especially when we don’t have the words ourselves, we want to go to that place and receive the sustenance that comes from being in a place where prayer has been valid. Our churches are many things, but one thing that seems essential is that it has been and continues to be a place where truthful prayer is made.

Our Old Testament lesson for today from the First Book of Samuel begins with the simple statement “Hannah prayed.” Such a simple statement, and yet encompassing such depths that we will never fully fathom in this mortal flesh. Archbishop Michael Ramsey was once asked how long he prayed each day, and he responded by saying, “Oh, I suppose only two or three minutes.” Then he added that he had usually been at his prayers in chapel for an hour in order to get to that two or three minutes of prayer.

The Catechism in our Book of Common Prayer gives us a nice introduction to the principal kinds of prayer. This is helpful because often times we think of prayer as simply asking God for things. And, indeed, these are valid prayers, prayers of petition and intercession in which we bring before God our needs and the needs of others. However, our Prayer Book deals with intercession and petition only after explaining prayers of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, and oblation – and the order may be telling us something important. Perhaps there is a reason that adoration and praise and thanksgiving are at the top of the list.

The Westminster Catechism says that the chief end of human beings is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Notice it does not say the chief end of human beings is “to ask God for things and to keep asking for things forever.” It does not say “to confess our sins to God and to keep confessing our sins forever.” Rather, it says “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” When all those other types of prayer pass away, adoration and praise of God will continue forever. As valid as all other types of prayer are, someday they will end. Someday all prayers will be encompassed by adoration and praise.

As the German theologian Gotthold Mueller wrote:

“Praise of God … according to the witness of both Old and New Testaments is the only form of prayer enduring ‘from ages to ages.’ As with faith and hope, all other forms of prayer (petition, intercession) come to their eschatological fulfillment and so to an end. What ultimately endures is the doxa (praise) of God which is, at the same time, the only true salvation of humankind and of the whole creation.”

What is the chief end of human beings? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.

What is amazing about prayers of adoration and praise is not only that they will endure from age to age, but also that we can participate in these prayers right now. And Hannah, in our Old Testament lesson for today, shows us how. Hannah’s prayer is a prayer of adoration and praise and thanksgiving. She prays, “My heart exults in the Lord.” Adoration. “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one beside you; there is no Rock like our God.” Adoration and praise. “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s and on them he has set the world.” Adoration and praise and thanksgiving. Hannah’s prayer then, now, and from age to age. Our prayers joined with Hannah’s, then, now, and forever.

Richard Foster, in his book Prayer, says that adoration is:

“not a special form of prayer, for all true prayer is saturated with it. It is the air in which prayer breaths, the sea in which prayer swims. In another sense, though, it is distinct from other kinds of prayer, for in adoration we enter the rarefied air of self-less devotion. We ask for nothing but to cherish him. We seek nothing but his exaltation. We focus on nothing but his goodness.”

All true prayer is saturated with adoration.

We long to kneel in that place where prayer has been valid because in some way we know that when we do so we are joining in something that will endure from age to age. All true prayer that is saturated with adoration and praise and thanksgiving will endure forever. Perhaps that is why people still come to church services today.

To join in the prayers of our forbears whose hearts exulted in the Lord, who praised God, and who gave thanks to God for his mighty acts of redemption.

To join in the prayers of all those ordinary and extraordinary saints who have gone before us who have lifted their hearts giving God their thanks and praise.

To join with the present company of the faithful, to add what God has done in our lives to the record of his mighty deeds in our own prayers of adoration and praise.

And to join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven who forever sing hymns and proclaim the glory of God’s Name.

“You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity, or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.”
— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He received a Ph.D. in theology from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

How do you spend time?, Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 28 (B) – November 19, 2006

(RCL) Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8 

How do you spend time? How will you live this day? Each of our lessons appointed for this Sunday has something to do with the end of time, with a glimpse into the question of when.When will time as we know it end? What will that time look like? And however we think of it, whether as the culmination, the fulfillment, the end – we can’t think about the time when things will come to pass without thinking about what we are to do in the meantime. Readings about the future call us to look at how we spend our time now while we are engulfed in a world that keeps reminding us how short our time us, how fast time goes; a world where time management is an issue, where we look around and see problems so great that even if we had all the time in the world, we might never solve them. Scientists say the universe is both expanding and speeding up. It sounds as if even the cosmos works against us: there’s more and more to explore, and less and less time to do it in!

How do you spend time? How will you live this day? As fall deepens into winter and days grow shorter, our lectionary texts ask us to look at time.

And why not? Isn’t dealing with time one of our greatest struggles? We begin this life as children do, with their delightful incomprehension of time. Maybe you remember yourself, or some child you know, waking up long before dawn on Christmas day. “Is it time to open presents yet? When will it be time?” Or the countdown to a birthday: “Is today my birthday? Is it today? How many more todays?” We will grow old, some of us, and our days may stretch out before us, as we wonder how to fill our time: the time between visitors, the time between meals, the time between the great effort of getting up and the relief of another bedtime.

For many of us, time is a problem because for us, it is a limited commodity. We have to make choices about what we do and when. Surely one of our great human questions is a question about time. The questions is “When?” We want to know how much time we have, how long we’ve got, what the deadlines are: when.

Thankfully, we are not alone in asking questions that begin with “When.”

“When?” was the disciples’ question on the day captured in today’s Gospel lesson. They were in the holy city Jerusalem, looking at one of the most beautiful sights they could ever hope to see – the Temple, adorned with beautiful stones and precious metals, brilliant, dazzling in the sunlight. And Jesus, their tour guide, says, “All this will be rubble, ruins, not a stone left on stone.”

“When, teacher, when will this be? Give us some warning, some sign so we can know when.”

But Jesus responds, not with a countdown or a calendar – not even with some good clues for calculation. He doesn’t say when. And as for the clues, the signs, we may be surprised by how un-clue-like they really are. They are so general: wars, and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines. Certainly these are not specific enough to set a watch by. In fact, they are unfortunately as predictable and familiar as if Jesus had said, the sun will rise and set, spring will follow winter and winter will follow fall. Yes, there will be wars, and earthquakes, and famines, and plagues. There were then. One of the wars brought down that beautiful temple. But, as we know all too well, there still are wars, earthquakes, famines, and plagues today. No age has been without these calamities; and sadly, the time does not seem to be near when they will cease. The enemies, and strategies, and weapons, and targets change; but the constancy of war does not. No, Jesus is not predicting the end here. He is no doomsday forecaster.

But Jesus does not call his disciples to forecasting. He call us to faithfulness. He doesn’t tell us when. But he tells us how to live, how to use our time.

It is significant that rather than signs of an immanent end, Jesus tells about things around us in the world, things that demand a Christian response. Not forecasting, but faithfulness. Jesus confronts our fears of living in dangerous times. He does not promise us rescue from the world’s distress. Rather, disciples are called to serve in a suffering world, bearing witness to the God who will not let suffering have the last word. Jesus gives us signs, things to watch out for, not because they help us predict how long we have, but to tell us there is no more important day than the day we now live. The wars, rumors, earthquakes, famines, and persecutions remind us that there is a need for a witness to God’s love, and that we are ones who can bring God’s love to people who hurt, people whose lives have been torn apart when nation rises up against nation, or tribe against tribe, or people against people, when family member rises up against family member, when hurricanes strike and terrorists strike out, when people are hungry and sick and their lives are slipping away.

Jesus gives us signs, but they are not useful for predicting the end. They are useful for showing us where God needs us to be, where God is: among the poor, the lost, the least, the lonely, the weak.

Jesus tells his followers in the midst of these things not to be alarmed. Do not be terrified. Don’t fill up your time with anxiety and fear. Our readings from Daniel and Hebrews point to the reason we need not be afraid. Both point to a confidence in the ultimate triumph of God. Knowing who holds the future, we can be aware, but not alarmed; faithful, not forecasting.

What does the future hold? Besides war and earthquakes and famine? Are these endless? Will every age know pain? Will time march on and on and on, bringing only so much sorrow? No. God holds the future, and for now we get glimpses. For us, the author of the Book of Daniel wrote: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

It is a generous and gracious God who holds all life, all time, all our days.

So we are freed to be faithful – to live every day as if it matters. Not because it might be our last, but because God holds the last, and every one until then. We can live as if this is the most important day of our lives, because it is a precious gift of God, an opportunity to show love, not fear; to be aware, not alarmed.

How do you spend time? How will you live this day?

Live this day, and every day knowing that God holds them all. And God holds you too.

 

— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is also a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Marquette University in Milwaukee.