“I continue grateful you are part of my people at St. Paul’s,” wrote a member of this parish in a Christmas card to Debra and me some years ago. The word “people” had a star next to it and this explanation. “My people* at St. Paul’s” – “*a better word than family, I’ve decided, and maybe even better than community.” Without pretending to know all the sender of the card meant, her words still entice me.
Families sit face-to-face – lovers, parents, children, and siblings preoccupied with each other in more or less exclusive relationships. A people stands side-by-side, facing something or someone else, occupied by a common task. A people can be more inclusive than any family. It’s hard to seat but two, three, or four humans face-to-face. There is no limit to how many can stand sideby-side. A people could number five or fifty or five hundred.
If we are a people at St. Paul’s, it is because Christ Jesus gathers us and persists with us and in us. We don’t just exchange facts about Jesus during worship, but encounter him alive in our reading of Scripture. Not just feeding or sheltering the vulnerable because Jesus tells us to, but seeking and serving Christ in all human beings. Jesus really present in the sacraments of baptism and eucharistic meal – we are “marked as Christ’s own forever”; “Take, eat: THIS IS my body,…THIS IS my blood,” of course, but also, in the words of a prayer used at our 5pm Sunday mass, “grant that we who share these gifts may…live as Christ’s body in the world.”
But what does St. Paul’s look like as a people, side-by-side, gathered by Jesus Christ, his living body? Especially on this day of our annual meeting with the senior warden as your preacher? Let’s revisit our gospel reading and see.
This morning’s portion of the first chapter of Mark’s gospel stitches together half a dozen little stories in quick succession. Notice the locations and movements in these stories, and the juxtapositions. Public and private. Crowds and solitude. Active engagement and prayerful withdrawal. City and wilderness. Back and forth, home and away – like breathing out and breathing in.
Jesus and his disciples leave the synagogue in Capernaum – where he had just expelled an unclean spirit from a man during his community’s public assembly on a Sabbath. They withdraw to Simon and Andrew’s house for private respite and refuge.
Except that Simon’s mother-in-law is confined to bed with a fever. Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up. She is restored to family and its service one to the other.
Except that their evening of privacy is interrupted when the whole city gathers around the door of the house, bringing to Jesus all who were sick or possessed. He actively engages this wider community once more, curing many and casting out many demons.
Next morning, while it is still very dark, Jesus again looks to withdraw from public activity. This time, he gets up, leaves Capernaum, and goes out into the wilderness to a deserted place. And there he prays.
Except that Simon and his companions hunt for Jesus to tell him that everyone – the whole city again – is searching for him. Finding Jesus to deliver this information, the disciples intrude upon his privacy and interrupt his prayer.
Except that Jesus’ prayerful withdrawal, however brief, seems to have fortified him for more active, public engagement. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns…” (Mark 1:38). And so, our gospel reading concludes: Jesus went throughout Galilee, to those other communities, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. Which is exactly what he had been doing all along in his home city of Capernaum.
Here’s what I see on our annual meeting Sunday when I look through this gospel reading at us as a people. Following Jesus, we too will move in and out of public and private locations, crowds and solitude; back and forth between active engagement and prayerful withdrawal, city and wilderness, as if exhaling and inhaling.
I know that here at St. Paul’s Jesus has taken me by the hand and lifted me up to restored service. Especially by listening and speaking across the generations. One Sunday morning in December, I had a conversation with 11 year old Helena about the book of speculative fiction by Marissa Meyer she was reading. I was so impressed I ended up buying The Renegades for my grandson 4 Tristan, except his mom, my daughter Rebekah, said she wanted to read it first. One Sunday evening, I listened to our high schoolers Cooper and Izzy talk about their dreams for the 5pm mass: get closer to the floor, to the ground, maybe by worshipping occasionally on cushions; greater breadth and fewer gender binaries in our prayers. I wonder if you, here, have been taken by the hand and lifted up? Or taken another part of this people at St. Paul’s by the hand and lifted them up?
I have seen the whole city gathered around the door of this our St. Paul’s house. The city’s booming economy and increasingly unaffordable housing. The encampments of unhoused folk. The traffic. The exodus of immigrant and minority communities to the suburbs. Like Jesus in the house of Simon and Andrew, we the people of St. Paul’s have opened the door – feeding many through the Fatted Calf Café, offering shelter to the women who now sleep in the worship space of the 5pm liturgy night after night and opportunities for artistic expression and creativity through the Karen Korn Project. In what other ways might we open the door to help heal many diseases and cast out many demons in our city?
And during their Saturday workshop last month, I heard the lay altar servers speak movingly about our worship life at St. Paul’s, a blessedly deserted place of prayer beyond the vast, noisy city of consumption and entertainment that is our nation’s dominant culture. They spoke of our worship’s elemental character, of the pervasive smell of incense, of elegance and simplicity, reverence and beauty, being carried in worship, alive, embodied, enchantment, egalitarian, and healthy humility. Yes, yes indeed, and I wonder how our prayer in the wilderness that this house provides fortifies us as a people to go on to neighboring communities – near and far – to places of public assembly in active engagement, only once more to withdraw prayerfully to the refuge of this deserted place, like breathing out and breathing in.
References I’m adapting C.S. Lewis’ notion of face-to-face and side-by-side as discussed by Sallie McFague in her book, Models of God, pp. 162-163.
The baptismal and eucharistic phrases come from The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 305, 308, 362-363 and Enriching Our Worship 1, p. 59.