Saturday, July 21, 2012

195 Years & Still Breaking Down the Wall


Sermon preached on Sunday, July 15, 2012, celebrating the 195th Anniversary of the founding of St. Luke's:  Isaiah 2:2-4, Ephesians 2:13-22, Luke 10:1-11

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God…

Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' 

            These were not the regular Sunday readings.  Somehow the beheading of John the Baptist did not see quite appropriate for this Sunday as we celebrate our anniversary.  So I choose a set of readings provided by the Prayer Book called “For the Mission of the Church.”  I looked first for some readings for the Anniversary of the Founding of a Church, but no such set of readings exist.  In fact I searched high and low for resources for church anniversaries and I found a lot of them, but they all had one thing in common:  they focused on the building.

            That says something about our priorities.  And our liabilities.

            So it makes perfect sense to use readings about the church’s mission this morning, because this anniversary is not about this building, but about the people inspired to form a parish for the purpose of mission, and about the people who, over the generations, have done ministry out of their life together in this place.

            Which means that this celebration is as much about us as it is about our ancestors, and it is as much about those who will come after us as it is about ourselves.

            So what is this mission?  The readings have a common, word, one we might not expect:  peace.  Peace is the church’s mission.

            Isaiah gives it to us in an image of swords beaten into plowshares and the forgetting of how to do war.  Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians talks about peace as the overcoming of estrangement and alienation.  And Jesus says that our interaction with others in his name should begin with the declaration of peace.

            The Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer asks the questions, “What is the mission of the church?”  The answer is: “The mission of the church is to restore all people to unity with God and one another in Christ.”  The mission of the church is, in one word, reconciliation, or, peace.

            That has always been the truth, and it has always been hard. It has never been something that has come easily to those of us in the majority, in power.

Parish Register of Funerals from 1824.
            As a part of my preparation for this celebration, I looked closely at the original parish register.  I’ll confess I went looking for famous Rochester names, and I found a few:  Rochester, Culver, Andrews, Child.  But I stopped short when, in the burial records, I saw on August 15, 1892, “Nancy, colored woman belonging to Col. N. Rochester;” and later “Peter, a black child aged 9 yrs belonging to Gen Matthews.” In the marriage records there were entries like this for January 13, 1824, “Morris Alexander Butler to Jane Adams (Blacks).”  Same identifications in the register of Baptisms.

            It should not surprise any of us that this pre-Civil War church was caught up in the institution of slavery and racism.  Rather than breaking down the dividing wall between races, this parish participated in strengthening them.  It is to our ancestor’s credit that they had enough conscience to marry and bury people of color.  It seems they had some sense of the half of the church’s mission that is restoring all people to unity with God.  But as to restoring all people to unity with one another, they were not ready for that mission.

            How wonderfully ironic that more than a hundred and fifty years later, the same parish would act, with St. Simon’s Church, to break down the wall, and embrace the full mission of the church: restoring all people to unity with God and one another in Christ.

            Surely as the hand of God was in the founding of this parish, the hand of God was in the merger, and I am sure of that because of the irony, which is one of God’s more frequent fingerprints.

            So what does this mean for us and those who will come after us?  Our mission remains the same, and the dividing wall between different kinds of people must constantly be broken down, because it is, unfortunately, constantly being built and re-built: the walls between black and white and Hispanic, the walls between the poor and those both in the middle and upper classes, the divide between sexualities and gender expressions, the walls between political or theological ideologies, the wall that still exists between male and female and on and on.

            How do we break down these walls?  We break them down by mission.  Here are what are called “The Anglican Mark’s of Mission.” They were important markers at General Convention last week. The budget of the Episcopal Church over the next three years was actually structured around them.

·         To proclaim the good news of the kingdom.
·         To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers.
·         To respond to human need by loving service.
·         To transform unjust structures of society.
·         To safeguard the integrity of creation.

            This is the work of evangelism, formation, service, justice and stewardship.  They all have as their basis the fundamental stance of hospitality and gratitude. And they all result in the same thing: peace.

            So we proclaim the Good News:  “For Jesus himself is our peace.”  And we do the Good News:  With Jesus we do not depend on the law with its divisions between people, but we create with him “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.” 

            This passage from Ephesians could easily be something like our mission statement, and it is real to us because of our history, even the evil side of it.  So I’ll close with it, in my own paraphrase.

Through his life, death and resurrection Jesus has reduced the distances between us and between us and God to nothing.  Jesus creates peace; Jesus is peace.  In his own body he draws every group into one, breaking down every dividing wall and all the hostility that exists among us.  He even broke down the dividing wall of the law, which sought to divide people into moral and immoral, clean and unclean.  All humanity is new in Jesus and in that newness peace is made.

Jesus proclaimed peace to everyone: however near or far away they seemed, and gave them all access to God through the Spirit.  None of us are strangers; none of us aliens; we are all citizens with the saints and equal members of God’s household.

We build together a new Temple, with the prophets and apostles our foundation and Jesus himself the cornerstone, and the whole structure joined together as the dwelling place of God.


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