How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
A month or so ago, on a Sunday, I was walking through the labyrinth on a warm afternoon on my way to the 5PM service. Several of members of our extended family were relaxing on the labyrinth, sleeping pads and backpacks nearby. One of them—whose street name I later learned was “Radio Ron”—had a big boombox, music turned up high. I remembered that earlier that day, several people had gone outside during worship to ask him to turn the music down, so I did the same in anticipation of the 5PM with all its open windows. The others around were very supportive: “Yeah, it’s church!” they said. Radio Ron stood up, rather unsteady on his feet, grabbed his enormous stereo, and with his other hand pointed up to the sky. “Okay, Jesus,” he said, “I’m leaving.” I said: “You don’t have to leave! I just need you to turn the music off while we’re having our service.” He turned to me and said “YOU are NOT Jesus!”
This seems like a most fitting story for this morning when I am celebrating the beginning of my second year as your priest. Several of our readings begin with stories of divine encounters.
The story we call “Jacob’s ladder” has all the qualities of a dream, sort of blurry around the edges. Jacob has no doubt, upon awakening, that he had encountered God and God’s promises. “Your children and your children’s children will be found all over the world. Everyone will be blessed in knowing you and the generations that follow you. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
I wish I would have a dream like that!
How do we know what the journey is for us, as individuals and as community? Jacob knew because he dreamed it and awoke with clarity and direction, knowing he wasn’t alone. Sometimes, God speaks to us in dreams. But most of the time, most of us are not so lucky. So how do we know what God would have us know? Nathanael knew where he was headed because he felt seen, known, and recognized by Jesus. He knew he was in the presence of the Holy. How do we know?
Ignatian spirituality teaches about knowing, about discernment as a response of either consolation and desolation. I love the word “consolation,” which in the Ignatian context does not mean cheered up, but content, with the knowledge that we are moving toward God. Consolation is energizing; desolation is depleting. Consolation grounds us in community; desolation isolates. When we experience consolation either while contemplating a particular path or while traveling along that path, we are, according to St. Ignatius, on the right track.
Jacob experienced consolation through his dream. Nathanael experienced consolation in what anyone watching might see as a very ordinary encounter. Perhaps consolation is one way of talking about God’s dream.
We are having conversations this fall about dreaming: our dreams for St. Paul’s, and God’s dreams. Now, I know that talking about God’s dreams is kind of anthropomorphic. I’m not sure God dreams any more than I think there are things we do that make God glad or sad. And yet, we often use such language. It’s a way of surfacing our own hopes and our own vision, and checking those against our understanding of God’s mission for us in this place.
I have my own idea, based on my reading of the gospels, of what the Kingdom of God is like: most simply, it is that place and time where all are welcome, all are forgiven, and all are fed. There are many ways this happens in our context and many ways it could happen.
My dreams—my hopes and my longings—for St. Paul’s are not so different from Jacob’s or Nathanael’s. I hope we will always be a blessing to those who walk through these doors and to those whom we meet when we leave this place. I want this to be a place where our members and guests—guests on this block, not just in the sanctuary—encounter the holy just as Nathanael encounters the holy. Nathanael is welcomed into Jesus’ inner circle simply by being seen. And like Jacob, he is given a promise. “You will see great things.”
I feel like God is making that promise to me, to all of us, about our mission in and through this parish.
This has been a year of discovery for me. What I have learned about you all is that you are thoughtful, reflective, kind, generous, wise, visionary, strong, gracious, and patient. Not necessarily in that order. Together we inhabit a place—this place—where angels ascend and descend, where the boundaries between earthly and heavenly things are porous, at times indistinguishable.
Lest we get too pleased with ourselves—and I am pleased with all of you—remember that the war in heaven fell to earth and has not yet been won. This year’s T-shirt from the End AIDS walk bears the slogan “It’s not over yet.” The war in heaven, the conflict between good and evil which we heard about in the Book of Revelation is still happening on earth, in Charlotte, in Tulsa, in Burlington, and in unnamed trouble spots throughout the nation and the world every week. Our world suffers from violence, degradation, and despair.
The kingdom is being proclaimed among us—and hopefully by us—every day and it is not yet here.
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Last week at the House of Bishops meeting in Detroit, the Bishops crafted—as they do from time to time— “A Word to the Church for the World.” Our Bishop Rickel asked that we read this Word to the Church or publish it in some way this week or next. I am happy to share it here:
Our Bishops write:
We lament the stark joylessness that marks our present time. We decry angry political rhetoric which rages while fissures widen within society along racial, economic, educational, religious, cultural and generational lines. We refuse to look away as poverty, cruelty and war force families to become migrants enduring statelessness and demonization. We renounce the gun violence and drug addiction that steal lives and crush souls while others succumb to fear and cynicism, abandoning any sense of neighborliness.
Yet, in all this, "we do not despair" (2 Cor. 4:8.). We remember that God in Christ entered our earthly neighborhood during a time of political volatility and economic inequality. To this current crisis we bring our faith in Jesus. By God's grace, we choose to see in this moment an urgent opportunity to follow Jesus into our fractured neighborhoods, the nation and the world.
Every member of the church has been "called for a time such as this." [This comes from Esther, which we’ve been reading in the Daily Office this week. ] Let prophets tell the truth in love. Let reconcilers move boldly into places of division and disagreement. Let evangelists inspire us to tell the story of Jesus in new and compelling ways. Let leaders lead with courage and joy.
In the hope of the Resurrection let us all pray for God to work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish God's purposes on earth.
Here ends the Bishops’ word to the Church for the world.
I believe that God does work through our struggle and confusion, our limitation and frustration. My dream is that God will make us warriors in the battle against the devil, each in our own way, through acts of compassion, through beauty and the arts, through hospitality, through speaking truth in love, and through patient hope that those things we do to please God, in this awesome place and throughout our lives, do in fact bring God’s kingdom ever closer.