Monday, April 21, 2008

The Proper of Yesterday: The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Yesterday the Church began the fifth week of the Great Fifty Days of Easter. As always, we gathered on the first day of the week to experience Word and Sacrament. We continued to hear about the Acts of the Apostles, this time to hear about Paul and Silas on their journey in Thesalonica, whose first letter from Paul we are also reading in the the Daily Office. (the picture at left is of "Midnight Song" of Paul and Silas in prison, singling praises to God. It's from Tom White studios.) And we continued to hear from the First Letter of Peter, as he writes to console and lift up his hearers of the first century and us in the twenty-first. And in the Gospel he heard again from John, as both Thomas and Phillip inquire about Jesus and his relationship to the Father and to us.

At the 10 AM service, we were really glad to welcome Christopher Patrick Tuitt into the household of God in the sacrament of baptism. We did a sermon for the children at that service. We talked a little bit about sports teams and how sometimes when we weren't playing too well or there were lots of people there we had to sit out sometimes. And we also noticed that we usually have to take a bath after practice of after games. We spoke about how baby Christopher is going to get a bath in our very own tub too - the Font, but that his bath was special because it only had to be done once, and that he will never have to sit out on God's team. At the 8 AM service, I reflected on the First Letter of Peter in the following:

St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, Vernon
The Fifth Sunday of Easter at 8 AM (BCP) 2008
Acts 17:1-15; Ps 66:1-11; 1 Peter 2:1-10; John 14:1-14
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

May these words be in the Name of the Cornerstone of our faith and our life. Amen.

I might have mentioned at one point or another that I attended a boys Roman Catholic high school, St. Francis de Sales in Toledo. My father went there and there was never much doubt that I would go there as well. I remember that summer before, when I was a “rising freshman,” that I started to get anxious about going to school. Not the academics – I was pretty sure I’d be able to handle that part. But I was really worried about everything else. Fitting in, finding where everything was, learning the traditions. And there were a lot of traditions. It used to be that freshmen wore beanies, those little caps like what the Pope wears, except they were St. Francis blue rather than Holy Father white. And woe betide any frosh who lost his beanie or worse, allowed it to be taken from him. Frosh had to wear them at games and any public school event, so I’m told, for the entire school year. I was soo thankful that particular tradition had been discontinued some time before I was accepted. But there were a lot of other things I was worried about. Some stuff we learned at freshman orientation and registration, like how to sing the alma mater, the school song, which I can still sing from memory. It was good that the faculty and administrators took some pity on us and helped us out a little bit.

But other things you just had to learn on your own, like where all the classrooms were, and that Room 102 didn’t exist. It was a sort of running joke about getting called to Room 102 – apparently some poor frosh would actually wander the halls during homeroom period, looking for that room, while his homeroom proctor went along with the joke by gladly writing him a pass to Room 102. Pretty funny, in retrospect, but worth a lot of razzing for anyone who didn’t catch on. And there was some hazing, too, mostly from the upperclassmen making fun of anything and everything that we frosh said or did. We all desperately wanted to fit in, all 202 of us in our class. It was palpable, and many of us did a lot of regrettable things that we thought would help at the time.

One time that stands out in my mind was our first football rally. It was held in the gym and each class had its own section in the stands. However, that first rally, they had the freshmen assemble behind the curtain of the stage on another set of risers. We needed to make more noise than any of the other classes so that we could join the rest of the school in our own stands. There was a palpable sense of excitement as we whipped ourselves to a near frenzy, shouting the cheers we had been taught until the curtain finally opened and we literally jumped off the stage, ran across the gym floor, and pounded into our rightful section as the incoming class of 1985. It was a fantastic moment. I had a lot of good and a lot of painful memories in high school, but that was one of the better ones. Maybe you can recall other moments in your own high school, college, or work life.

And we all want to fit in, right? It isn’t just at high school. Go to any public sporting event and the same thing happens. We’re asked to rise and sing the National Anthem before the game begins. If it’s a baseball game, there’s the 7th Inning Stretch and everyone sings “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” If you’ve never been to a game before, you have no idea what’s going on, how to fit in. Other sports have their own traditions. And when we start a new job, we know there’s much to learn and we hate being the newbie. We can’t wait until someone else is hired and we aren’t the newbie anymore. It seems like it’s a part of human nature to initiate people into the group, to somehow prove one’s worth. Sometimes it’s by relatively innocuous things like learning the school fight song. Sometimes the initiation is harder, as perhaps when one is admitted to the bar to be a lawyer. But there is often this tension of starting off outside and wanting to be in, to be accepted. Depending on what it is, we’ll do practically anything to get in.
And then, glory of glories! We’re in! No longer an outsider, now one of the insiders. We learn the secret handshake. We’re told there is no Room 102. We get the swiper card that lets us into the managers’ lounge. Whatever it is, we’re no longer out, no longer with our faces to the window, looking in. We’re where we so wanted to be! Part of the few. No longer just one of the crowd. Special. Set apart. Chosen.

That’s what the first Letter of Peter has been getting at during this Easter Season. We’ve been hearing excerpts from it throughout the Great Fifty Days of Easter. It was probably written from Rome in the latter decades of the first century, probably by followers of Peter who used his name to lend credibility to the letter. That was pretty common in those days, kind of like using “Webster’s” in the title of a dictionary is today. The purpose of the letter is to assure its hearers, both then and now, that we’re different. Special. Set apart. Chosen. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” says the author. That’s pretty special. There’s not much more “in” than that! “Once you were not a people, but not you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Cool, huh? No more harassment, no more initiations, no more having to proof ourselves to God. We’re in!

But the First Letter of Peter simply doesn’t congratulate us on making it in. It’s nothing any of us did anyway. We’re saved by the grace of God, a present to each of us, because God loves each of us and doesn’t want anybody to be out. That’s the Good News, that anyone who realizes God loves her becomes a part of that same chosen race and royal priesthood. But part of what Peter was saying is that then, as now, the wider culture doesn’t get it and often sees us as the outsiders, not the insiders. We Christians are treated as quaint, as wimpy, as out of touch with the world as it is. Then, Christians were harassed because they didn’t participate in the public ceremonies in honor of the Emperor. Now, we’re made fun of because we actually come together on Sunday mornings to participate in Word and Sacrament. And we could be sleeping in! Don’t we know better? We should just get with the program. Go play golf. Or read the Sunday Times and then go to brunch. Or whatever.

But see, here’s the rub. We are different, we Christians in the 21st Century. It used to be that pretty much everyone was a Christian in this country, at least nominally. You got baptized, you went to church, you got married in that church or your fiancée’s church. It was expected. When you did all that, you fit in. Everyone did it, and, like not knowing the national anthem at a ball game, you were seen as odd if you didn’t.

Boy, times have changed! We who gladly claim the name Christian now have a steep row to hoe. We still baptize our children, we still come to Communion, we still participate in the life of our worshipping communities. But now, ironically, we’re seen as the odd ones. It’s the rest of society that sees us as unusual, as different, as outside and not in. Nationally, less than twenty per cent of Americans have ever even been in a church.

Peter assures his readers in the first century, and us in the twenty-first, that we are indeed special, beloved in God’s eyes. He wants us to continue to do those things that show our specialness, too, to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We come together to worship, to serve, and to socialize, not to earn God’s mercy, but to display it. We try, as Peter asks us, to “rid ourselves of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander” because those are the values of the world. Here, in this space, we can practice being that chosen race, that royal people that holy nation, to and among us here at St. Thomas’s first. We know it’s darned difficult, and becoming more so, to act in the world as those who have Good News. But here, among those of us who are brothers and sisters in Jesus, we can and we must. The values of the world, Peter tells us, are not our values. We rejected off when we were baptized, and every time we renew the covenant of our baptism. The Risen Lord who gives us a newer life in his own new life also gives us the power to act with newer life toward those around us right here in this community.

Being on the outside is hard. Being on the inside, when everyone else thinks you are on the outside, is even harder. In this season of Easter, of newer life in Christ, my prayer is that each of us will let that newer life infuse our hearts and our souls and our minds, so that each of us may contribute to building this spiritual house of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church into a physical house of joy, worship, service, and community.


Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



mindyK said...

I'd like to tell you I enjoyed reading your sermon from the 8 a.m. service. I specifically identified with the wanting to be accepted concept. I had that acceptance from the word go at the last job I had. I usually have anxiety issues before I start a new adventure also. And I am also getting better about it each time I have put myself out there.
Thank you.

RFSJ said...

Thank for your kind feedback, Mindy! Any new situation can be hard, even when we know we're perfectly qualified for the job or that we fit right in otherwse. I'm glad to know this last experience for you has gone well.



Grandmère Mimi said...

Maybe, just maybe, we're in a better place now, being thought of as outsiders, than when we were as part of the in group. Perhaps now we're closer to the image of Jesus and his followers and to that of the early church.

Butch said...

Boy have I been through it at The King's College at Briarcliff Manor, NY. We had to wear beanies freshman year and kiss a moosehead which hung on chimney off the main lounge. There were also tales of freshman being boated out to an island in the "lake" in their underwear and left there. The "lake" was only about two feet deep, but many a freshman slept on that island throughout the night. The year after I entered (1983) these practices were banned from the campus. I did enjoy slave day, as I was able to scrub my R.A.'s bathroom sparkling with a toothbrush - I don't remember what I was sold for, but oh how harrowing the experience! One to grow on. :)

RFSJ said...

Grandmere Mimi -

You're right, I think. One of the great debates in church History at GTS was alway the question,was it good for the Church or not, on balance, for Constantine to have been Christianity the state religion? I honestly always have mixed opinions on that. In my idealism of seminary, I believe I answered that it was better for us not to have been made the state religion of Rome, but I can see that is isn't so cut-and-dried. But now, I believe you're correct - we're closer to our first century forebears in faith than any prior generation since Constantine!

Butch - glad to hear you didn't have to go through all that stuff! I wonder about the mental health sometimes, of those who enjoyed those "games" too much. There were several initiations I went through in Scouting, too, none too terribly unpleasant, but all designed to some degree make fun of or even humiliate. I never saw the point much.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Bob, I almost mentioned Constantine. I go back and forth about that period, too. At best, I see him as a mixed blessing.

Doorman-Priest said...

Thanks for commenting on my sermon.

Yes indeed it is great that two guys can take the same text and go in different directions. I enjoyed yours as much because it was so personal as for anything else. I feel I know you better. It made me think back to my own school days.

RFSJ said...

DP -

Thanks. I hope you didn't have a lot of hazing to go through at school. I'm more and more unconvinced it's unhealthy in the long run for all concerned.