Archives for August 2016
artwork from the collection of the British Museum
WHAT SORT OF BIRTHDAY GREETING IS THS!?
Sermon preached by Bill Countryman for the 138th Anniversary of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley
13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016
Proper 15c: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Today, we at Good Shepherd are celebrating the 138th anniversary of this congregation. Here in California, it seems like a quite an advanced age for a church, though some of our fellow Christians in Asia, Africa, and Europe—or even on the East Coast—might still place us in the category of youngsters.
Of course, as is the way with living communities, we are both old and young. Some of us go back four decades and more and many of us have been a part of this congregation for less than ten years. So it’s worthwhile to retell a bit of the story,
138 years ago, the city of Berkeley was just coming into being. The older settlement of Ocean View (now known as West Berkeley) was being combined with a newer one, near the College of California (now the university) plus a lot of empty land between the two. People over here wanted an Episcopal Church, perhaps partly to help consolidate their local identity. The women of the congregation had spent several years raising money for this building with bake sales and ice cream socials (back in a day when there were few commercial entertainments available), and they persuaded a San Francisco architect to donate the plans for this beautiful space.
Since then, an ever-changing array of faithful people persevered here through thick and thin (some of it very thin) and major demographic changes, often pioneering new ways of serving the local community. More recently, this building, as you know, was badly damaged by fire and the congregation rallied to rebuild it. We crowded our life together into our already busy and somewhat decrepit parish hall, and still found the energy to expand our ministries in the neighborhood, feeding the hungry and opposing gun violence.
It’s a story worth celebrating—a story of faithful people who have given much, over almost fourteen decades, to sustain our life together here. It’s also a story about the love of God, who has supplied people here with trust and hope and love when we didn’t have much left in our own reserves. This is a time for thanksgiving and for taking stock, a time for renewing our hopes for the future and our commitment to God and to one another.
Now, I don’t want to take anything away from all this celebratory spirit. But I do sort of have to ask, “Those readings from scripture today—what sort of birthday greeting was that?” Now, of course, they weren’t chosen for this occasion. They’re just the readings assigned for this Sunday in the lectionary. But, at first hearing anyway, they all sounded like real downers.
We have Jesus saying, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Now, we can’t take that to mean that Jesus wanted division. He said too much about love and forgiveness for us to read the passage as a command to pick quarrels with one another.
But as prophecy, these words have been right on target. Jesus was saying that his teaching—the teaching about God’s love—would touch an unwelcome nerve in our humanity, would wind up provoking people to division and even violence. He was proven right in the early years of Christianity when outsiders came to hate Christians enough to kill them. In fact, some of that has come back to the world in our own day. But we have to admit, too, that the same effect shows up even among us, even in churches. Christianity, in our day, is full of division—we seem at times to delight in divisiveness. There is even a history, still alive today, of Christians persecuting one another as well as outsiders we dislike.
And I can’t think of all this on this occasion without being reminded, of how, some years ago, an interim vicar took a serious look at our history at Good Shepherd—right back to the beginnings—and said to us, “You know, you have a history of internal conflict in this congregation.” It’s only one part of our history. But, as with pretty much every human community, it’s there and we do well to remember that and watch out for it.
But, you know, leave it to Jesus to tell the truth. He would do that. I think it’s partly because he didn’t want it to take us by surprise. He wanted to let us know, right off the bat, that we aren’t delivered from human weakness and sinfulness—our own or anybody else’s—just by being faithful church-goers. He wants us to know that we are a community of love in the making, not yet in complete fulfillment. We have further to go, more to understand, more growing to do.
What’s more, we need one another, even in our disagreements, if we want to learn and grow in love. We had two readings this morning that centered on the image of The Vine, of Israel as God’s vine or vineyard. Christians have always applied that image to the church, too. I don’t know how obvious it was, as they zipped past, but they’re basically saying opposite things about that image. Isaiah says, “God planted you and is sick and tired of your producing nothing but sour grapes. He’s out of here. You’re toast.” The Psalm takes the other side, saying to God, “Hey, wait a minute. We’ve done nothing all that bad, but you’ve left us wide open to the deer and the wild boar and every passerby. If you expect a harvest, we need some help here!” It’s the age-old argument between the gardener and the garden, each blaming the other for the current mess. Is the gardener right or the garden? The only possible answer is “Yes.” Both need each other in order for the garden to bear fruit.
We sometimes forget that the Bible contains such fierce internal arguments. But that’s what it’s for. It contains our internal tensions, the ones that will keep coming back to us again and again. It doesn’t paper them over. It supplies all the different voices and invites us into the conversation—the only way to begin understanding what God is doing in and with and for us.
All of this gives us some hint of our future at Good Shepherd, for us and for our successors who may one day celebrate its 237th birthday. It tells us there will be divisions. It tells us that our life together will make sense only as we are challenging and being challenged by God and by one another. The conversation will be life-giving if we let it.
And the passage we heard from Hebrews adds another part of the picture—the power that sustains faithful people through difficult times. There is a long celebration of faith in Hebrews; we read the first half last week and this week we concluded it, hearing the message that God’s people have always faced challenges and difficulties and even disasters. But they have come through it all by virtue of faith.
Or, to choose a better term, trust. “Faith” can be a problematic word in English: it too easily evokes connotations of creeds and confessions or maybe “faith”-healing. Sometimes it sounds like denial: “Everything will be fine!” Sometimes it sounds like abdication: “Well, God will have to take care of it.” We think of faith in terms of “faith that“: faith that God will do things the way we want.
But, as Susan Mills pointed out in her sermon last week, Abram didn’t have any very clear notion of what, exactly, he was expecting from God. Rather, he trusted God, trusted God’s ongoing commitment to him and to their friendship. It was trust that sustained these other saints listed in Hebrews through all their troubles. What will sustain us, too, through all our times, through division and peace alike, is trust in God’s , whose good purpose toward us never fails.
We come here week after week for a variety of reasons. Of course. That’s how human beings work. We come perhaps to spend time with friends, perhaps for the chance to sing, perhaps sometimes out of habit, perhaps looking for a way to minister to the world around us, perhaps hoping to find some solace and strength in distress. All this is good, all of it is welcome. But the central reason we come—what pulls all the rest of it together—is the opportunity to be in the presence of God, to worship, to give thanks, to share with God our sense of need, to receive whatever grace from God we are capable of handling at this moment in our lives.
We come, in other words, for the chance to renew our trust in God. We know that life isn’t going to become instantly easy. We know we won’t always agree with one another. But together, we are learning trust in God’s good purpose.
And we are aided in all this by this beautiful church, created 178 years ago and recreated by the efforts of the faithful here today. We are aided by the liturgy with its beautiful order and words. By the word of scripture, even perhaps when it is a bit off-putting as this morning. By the music. By the sacrament we are about to celebrate, this tangible and yet utterly mysterious sign of God’s love.
And for all this we give thanks: to God, to our forebears in this place, to one another.
Happy Birthday to us!