Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Sunday Sermon: Cornerstones

It is the final, great Day – the Day of the Stewardship In-gathering, not the end of time exactly but the finale to the annual pledge campaign. Maybe, for some of you view, like the early Christians and the parousia, it is the day for which you have been waiting and longing. The theme of this year’s campaign has been “cornerstones.” Maybe you caught some notice of it, for example, in the series of broadcast emails, or in the service bulletins over the past several weeks, or on the website, or posted on the bulletin boards, or during the annual round of receptions just completed, or maybe in your dreams by now. In fact, I think I saw Chris out front just the other day chipping in the word “cornerstones” on the cornerstone. You have got to admire the thoroughness.

Of course, in speaking of cornerstones, we haven’t really focused so much on actual, physical stones, placed into the foundations of buildings. The archivist’s exhibit of the ceremonial trowel 2 used her in 1951 was the only real exception. Rather, we have used the term metaphorically to talk about this community of faith, about our faith in general, and about how that faith lays a foundation for how we live our lives.

When you stop to think about it along those lines, this liturgy we repeat week by week has a verbal cornerstone of sorts – the Memorial Acclamation. Everything we believe as Christians, we sum up in a succinct three part phrase that we sing or say in some form every single time we gather for the Eucharist: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Three simple, short sentences sum up what all of this is about at its most basic level.

Now today, as they tend to do at this time of year, the scriptures we hear focus on the last of those three phrases, that is, on the “coming again.” There are admonitions about not predicting when the last days and second coming will occur – like we hear in Mark. And there are the warnings about the final judgment – like we hear in Daniel…how the end of days is going to be a time of vindication and good times for some of us and others, not so much. Of course, this begs the question: As a community and as individuals, what do we do to prepare? (I might suggest prepaying your pledge but I suppose that would sound insensitive somehow.) What do we do between now and then – whenever “then” might be? It’s the question of all life, really. What do we make of it while we have it?

Well, that is where the lesson from the letter to the Hebrews helps us. It brings us to another cornerstone of Christian life, namely what are formally called “the theological virtues,” what are more commonly known as that holy triad of faith, hope, and love. If our declarations about Christ dying and rising and coming again represent the heart of what we believe, certainly these three simple words represent the heart of what we are called to do in expressing that belief.3 The author of Hebrews does not just mention the words, actually; he offers some rather specific advice. First, about faith, he urges us to take our baptism seriously. In that font back there (or wherever it was for each of us), our hearts and minds have been washed clean. So, the fact is, we don’t have to fret and stress and obsess about where we will stand with God at the end of days. We stand with God already. We are one with God now.

Second, about hope: Continuing the theme, the author urges us to hold fast to the confession of faith we made at baptism (or, which our parents and godparents made on our behalf if we were young). And the essence of that faith, as we say practically every time we gather, is that God in Christ did not just come – and then go – but will come again. We are not abandoned; we are not left solely to our own devices. To whatever extent, minimally or horribly, we are subjected to what is not right in this world, there will come a day when, as one commentator puts it, “God is the victor in the struggle of history.”

Third, about love: We are asked to consider how “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” Isn’t that a wonderful phrase?! I don’t know about you but whenever I sense a feeling of having been provoked, generally it is not toward good deeds or gestures of…affection. (Don’t let your mind wander too far. You’re in church.) The point is that, as Christians, we are asked to rise above our instincts and not just be good to ourselves. The spiritual life is not all about us and our self-improvement. To say it bluntly, the spiritual life is not just about saving ourselves. It is about participating, by provocation when necessary, in the work of saving the whole world. And that brings us to one thing more that the author of Hebrews counsels us to consider, i.e. “not neglecting to meet together” so as “to encourage one another.” In other words, he brings us to this very moment in this very place. How do we – how does anyone – grow in the knowledge and love of God? How does one lay a firm foundation of faith, and hope, and love?4 One way is through the contemplation of the beauty of holiness and the mystery of transcendence. We talked about that often last year, during the campaign to restore the Memorial Organ. The other way is and always has been in the recognition of our interdependence, in the intimacy of community. Sometimes we do need the silence or the grandeur or the awesomeness or the sublime beauty to provoke us to new insight or new action. But most of us, anyway, also need the encouraging word of a neighbor or the consoling touch of a friend or the inspiring example of a fellow parishioner. That is how we mature spiritually. That is how we see God more clearly, love Him more dearly, follow Him more nearly – when we are together.

Some sincerely do want to know “when” the last day is going to be, presumably so that they can plan accordingly…but the fact is, my friends, we already have the plan: Meet together. Encourage one another. Provoke one another to love and good deeds. That’s it, a third trinity. What is in the hands of God will be and the more we try to know, the more susceptible we are to thinking we can manipulate what will be, that such things are in our hands. What is in our hands is now – and what we will do not just for ourselves but to and for others, what we will do not just by ourselves but together.

“Count me as a cornerstone,” the pledge card says at the top. Filling it out and bringing it forward will signal the end of this year’s pledge campaign. But let us be clear…Let us be perfectly clear: Our stewardship of each other continues. Our meeting together to provoke one another – to faith and hope and love – must continue, for that is how we grow in the knowledge and love of God, encouraging and helping those right next to us to do the very same. Amen.

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-The Rev. Canon David Norgard 

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