August 28th, 2016 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – The St. Mark’s Legacy

 

St Mark’s Church – August 28th, 2016 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

John N Wall

In the Name of God: Our Creator, Our Redeemer, and our Comforter. Amen.

Some folks have said to me over the past few weeks that my sermons are like a journey, that with me in the pulpit you cover a lot of ground, you sometimes run across some strange places to visit, and sometimes you feel totally lost. This week’s sermon is probably a good example.

But what should tie all the various bits of it together is a verse from our Epistle for today, from the Epistle to the Hebrews,

“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. For God has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is our helper; we need not be afraid.”

So, if you feel lost, or confused, or get bored, remember this verse.

“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. For God has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is our helper; we need not be afraid.”

Some of you may know that one of the things I do for the Diocese of North Carolina is to be a part of a team of priests who run a program in Anglican Studies for people preparing for ordination as clergy in the Episcopal Church.

The folks we work with are mostly people in mid-life who are ordained already as clergy in other religious traditions and who are seeking to become Episcopal clergy. So they have already had a basic theological education, so sending them off to seminary seems redundant and time consuming, and what they really need is to spend some time learning what makes our tradition distinctive– learning, in effect, how to be credible when they put on their backward turned collar and claim to be official Episcopalians.

So what we do is to spend a year with them to make sure they know who Thomas Cranmer, and John Jewel, and Richard Hooker are, and the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, and who George Herbert and John Donne are, and Lancelot Andrewes, and William Laud.

And we also teach then the difference between being the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York. And why our Presiding Bishop is called a Presiding Bishop and not an Archbishop.

And we teach them about the via media, and what the “three-legged stool” is and where to find it, and how to stand on it. And how to tell the difference between a Roman Catholic Bible, an Anglican Bible, and a Protestant Bible. And what the Lambeth Quadrilateral is, and how to sing the song “I am an Anglican” to the tune of “God Bless America.”

Oh, yes, in case any of these essential points of Episcopal identity were not part of your confirmation class, please talk to me at the door after the service.

And we always start with two basic principles of understanding our own particular form of Christianity. I’d like to summarize those two points for you.

The first of these is that in our tradition, what really matters most is our corporate relationship to God, more than our individual relationship to God. Our corporate relationship comes first, and our individual relationship with God, while important, is really secondary to, and at its best supportive of, our corporate relationship with God.

Mostly, people think about religion in very individualistic terms, about how, I, personally, get right with God. Protestantism, especially Southern Protestantism, defines religion in terms of an individual’s relationship with God. You must be born again, you, as an individual, must have your own unique conversion experience. People go to church to complement and support their own individual religious lives, which come first in their thinking and their experience.

We turn this around. To use language we will repeat later in this service we ask that God regard not our sins, but the faith of our Church. We emphasize our corporate life, the things we do together, and our guide book to our life as Christians is the Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer.

That’s the first basic principle, and the second is closely related to it — that we are a pragmatic church, that we know who we are as God’s people not so much by what we believe in our minds – not by a distinctive theological understanding of the Christian faith – or by some private experience that marks a transition between our lives outside the Church and inside the Church. We know who we are by the things we do, especially the things we do together.

The Roman Catholics have their magisterium, their rich and elaborate articulation of dogma and doctrine that has been built up over the centuries, and they have boards and committees that maintain that dogma, and you are a Catholic if you assent to that dogma. Assent to that body of belief marks the dividing line between being outside and inside the faith.

Evangelicals have that experience of being born again that we mentioned earlier — and if you’ve had it you are in, and if you haven’t had it you aren’t one. That experience is what marks the dividing line between being outside and inside the faith.

But we have what we do, together – remember, its about what we do together as a community, that is first and foremost, and our individual Christian lives are about learning how to be more deeply engaged in the actions of the community, not the other way around.

So we use the Book of Common Prayer as our guide, to enable us to do the things together. At the heart of what we do is of course what we do here each week, gathering as a community in this place, to hear the lessons read and interpreted, and to join in prayer and song, to hold up the world in all its brokenness to God whom we believe is acting in our world to heal its brokenness and to reconcile us and all creation to God, and of course to gather at this table to break the bread and share the cup, thus to remember whose people we are, and whose risen body we are in the world.

So it’s the corporate acts that we do together in community that tell us who we are. Oh, and in case Carl Bass our treasurer is now getting nervous, I need also to say that its your support for our corporate life together through your sharing of your time, talent, and treasure that makes you an Episcopalian.

As someone in my life once put it, if you want to call yourself an Episcopalian, it helps your case if the rector of your parish knows your name, but it helps your case even more if the Treasurer knows your name.

So in light of our understanding of community, let’s remember our verse from today’s reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews, words that are about Christian community:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

For, as God’s people, we say with confidence, “The Lord is our helper; we will not be afraid.”

I read this week a comment about community by Justin Welby, who is now the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Welby said that “Christian community is God’s sign that love is possible in a world where people so often either ignore, or are suspicious of, or fight each other.”

I want to think with you today a bit about community – about community in general, and about this community in particular.

And about the building in which we gather, for this building is a gift to us today of the community of St Mark’s of 30 years ago, and a gift specifically to do with community, and of the kind of community that we are as the community of St Mark’s.

Charles Fulton, the head of the Episcopal Church’s Building Fund said of this building 25 years ago that it was the finest example of contemporary church architecture that he had seen.

He said what made it exceptional was the way that it embodied and expressed the belief that the Christian community is the deepest and richest and most truthful symbol of our faith.

The building, this building, is the expression of, and was built to enable the life of a community that is intentional about putting our corporate life first, a community of people who value and practice mutual love, who show hospitality, who are not afraid.

I hope, if we think about that a bit, we can understand more fully why this building is a gift, and, I hope, get more deeply into what it means to put community first in our religious life. I hope this will be helpful in this time of parish transition.

Let’s try to get at that by recognizing that this building looks, inside, very different from most churches we find ourselves visiting.

Most churches are long rectangular boxes, with seating at one end, the west end, and very elaborate furniture at the other end, the east end. These buildings got designed when the theology of the day was that the world was divided, like these buildings, into two parts.

In the case of the world, there was the material, or the secular world, understood to be sinful, and the people who lived in that world sat in the western part of the building, the end of the building with the seats. That’s where all us fallen, sinful people sat.

Then there was the sacred, or the spiritual world, and the people who were in touch with that world worked in the east end of the building, the end with all the elaborate furniture. And in the course of worship, we sinful folks sat and watched the action, which was done by the sacred people up in the eastern end, the sacred end of the building.

The main action during worship in those buildings was of course the celebration of the Eucharist, or the Mass, which was done by the priest, who stood in the east, and faced to the east, with his back to the sinners in the west end.

In that religious world, if I may borrow some language from the world of theater, the congregation was the audience, the priest was the actor, and God was the prompter. When people thought theologically about what all this meant, they talked about what happened to the bread and wine during the Eucharist, whether and in what way it became the body and blood of Christ. And they argued for hundreds of years about that. And the focus of that argument was the sacredness of the bread and wine apart from us out in the congregation.

About a hundred years ago, some folks in the church in Europe decided there was something wrong about what was happening in those long rectangular buildings, and the first thing that occurred to them was that the congregation was passive, that all the action was happening up front, in the east end of the building, so they began to look for ways to restore to the congregation an active role in worship.

What they were doing was affirming the ancient doctrine of Incarnation, our claim that in Jesus, the divine became human, that Jesus was both human and divine all at once. The Gospels talk about how, in Jesus, God acted to join heaven and earth, to join the sacred and spiritual with the material and secular.

In the Easter Vigil, we sing the ancient hymn of the church, in which we proclaim that the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is that in this night heaven and earth are joined, and we are reconciled to God.

So, instead of the sacred being in the consecrated bread and wine, mediating between the sacred out there somewhere to the east and we mortal, sinful people here in the west, the doctrine of the Incarnation is that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God infolds the sacred and the spiritual into the material and the secular.

The sacred and spiritual are therefore not out there, apart from us, but in here, in our midst, in us and among us, and when we do what we do with the bread and wine, the Risen Christ is present to us not in the bread and wine apart from us but in and among us by means of what we do with bread and wine. And so we are made a new people by water and the Holy Spirit, worthy to stand at God’s table, where God is the host.

And so it is in what we do what we do with bread and wine, and with the recitation of the story of Jesus’ Last Supper, that we discover and proclaim that we are the Christian community, the Body of Christ on earth, and in this very pragmatic, Episcopal way, we know who we are, and proclaim who we are, and therefore become the most important symbol we have of our faith.

And so as those kinds of ideas began to take hold in the Church, suddenly change began to happen. And so it came to pass in the 1980’s, that in an effort to incarnate these kinds of ideas in brick and wood and glass and concrete, this church is not rectangular but box-like, and everyone is close to the altar, and the celebrant stands facing the congregation. And everyone has speaking parts, and in this kind of church building, the congregation is no longer passive, but in fact is the actor, and God is the audience, and the priest is the prompter.

That is the legacy of the St Mark’s of 30 years ago to us today. This is why Charles Fulton said of this building that it was the finest new church building he had found, because it embodies and expresses our belief that the Christian community is the deepest and richest and most truthful symbol of our faith.

Today, of course, we are going through lots of transitions in the life of the parish. Good grief, they’ve already changed the website – who knows what changes lie ahead of us? In these transitions, perhaps it is helpful to remember the centrality of the community to why we are here, and to the meaning of what we do when we are here.

The priest is the prompter, the one whose job it is to nurture, and comfort, and inspire, and instruct, and to lead in celebration. When I was in seminary, one of my professors said the central job of the rector of a parish is to convince every member of the congregation that old Father (or Mother) Jones loves them. Because if they believed that the rector loved them, then they might also come to believe that God loved them.

The Vestry is the group whose responsibility is to care for the health and well-being of the congregation. The job of the bishop is to care for the health and well-being of the group of congregations we call a diocese.

In this way of thinking, in every case the congregation, the Christian community, the central symbol of the Christian faith, that is of primary importance. All the rest is a support network to enable the community to do its work.

It is to that community – and therefore to us today – whom the writer of Hebrews was writing when he reminded them and us,

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. We are free to do this because God has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

So, as God’s people, we say with confidence, “The Lord is our helper; we will not be afraid.”

AMEN.