LOOKING FOR THE CHURCH

St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, Kansas

The Rev. Dawn M. Frankfurt

In the name of our Loving, Liberating, and Life-Giving God; Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today I am going to start by telling you the story of a dream to show how we are seeking God in our lives all of the time whether we know it or not. Dreams are one of the few ways our conscious selves have of looking at what our unconscious selves are concerned with.

The dream starts — as dreams often do — in a place which is recognizable from childhood. Even if the dreamer hasn’t actually been to this place in many, many decades, this place from long ago may feel as familiar as someplace we currently frequent in everyday life.

So it was in this dream. I was back in the church of my childhood. What I know in my waking life is that numerous changes and reconstructions have taken place, so the church of my memory doesn’t even exist anymore. As the dream began, I felt full of pleasant memories having to do with going up and down different staircases, in and out of many rooms, back and forth in hallways. I was happy, familiar with every inch of that place, and when there, I knew where I was going.

The ominous turn came when I, the dreamer, intentionally stopped those pleasant recollections of childhood and forced my adult self to look at the reality in front of me. I thought I was in that old church, but the place had changed. It had been painted, it was filled with an accumulation of years of clutter, and it was crowded to the gills with people who struggled to pass one another in the muddy hallway.

I was standing near a door which I remembered, so I opened it, and yes, on the other side was the out of doors, trees, and a sidewalk. Reassured that I really was still in the church I had known, I started to look carefully for its structure. I could hardly make out under a dark coat of paint, with lots of different furniture, and enlarged doorways, the old place under so much chaos. What was once the church office seemed to be used for something else now.

Remembering that the old church office wasn’t far from the chapel, I took some steps to see if I could find it. Where it should have been there was only vacant, empty space. I tried to make my way back to the familiar door which led outside. I was in the right hallway, I opened the door, but that wasn’t the door I wanted. I opened door, after door, after door, without finding my way out. I woke up feeling very sad and defeated.

Keep this awful, sad, and defeated feeling in mind as we turn to our scripture lessons this morning. Try to imagine feeling that way — and then — how good it would feel to hear the prophet Isaiah proclaim:  Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

This is a passage of Hebrew Scripture from an ancient community of people who wanted to preserve for generations the story of their experiences with God. The community was suffering in Babylonian exile. Descriptions of their enslavement, poverty, starvation, and subjectivity to war, nature, and injustice are recorded for us.

In Advent, our season of ritual preparedness, we choose to tell again a part of their story which comes after they have endured years — even generations — of hardship. They tell us that they received a word from the prophet Isaiah proclaiming that their suffering was going to come to an end. And when they were in such a terrible condition, even the promise of hope was enough to pick them up and keep them going. They believed that God was coming to save them. Truly they experienced this as a miracle — and one they would never forget. They returned to their homes in Jerusalem after exile in Babylon.

Thousands of years later, the Hebrew people of Jesus’ time suffered oppression, injustice and all of their ill effects at the hands of Roman authorities. They were weak, bullied, and unsafe. Like the community of long ago, they recorded for all time their experience of a miracle   and today we hear the beginning of the story. The people of the New Testament heard a proclamation that sounded familiar, but it was from a new source.

A man named John was out not far from the Sea of Galilee yelling so that everyone could hear. He was calling people to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John was a prophet telling the people who would listen that their suffering was about to come to an end.

Individuals and families experience their own times of individual pain and mourning. This is always in our midst — and for those who live with that extra burden at this time, we offer you our love and support.

But these are stories of times in history when an entire community of people was suffering. The Israelites once in exile. The Jews under Roman rule. These days we have a situation where the whole world is suffering all kinds of hardship for the same reason — the coronavirus. If there has been worldwide suffering like this before, there was no way for people on one side of the planet to know what was happening to people half a world away. Today we do.

Probably no one in the world will avoid being impacted by the coronavirus. This year, many people are telling us that we should be prepared for a dark winter. There are ominous warnings about the future. This immediate concern costs all of us something. We are fatigued, dismayed, tired, grieving, and unsure.

As we approach the first one-year anniversary of heightened disquiet and worry, we also know there is still a way to go. We do not live in fear. We are people of hope. Yet, like the dreamer I described earlier, we must make ourselves stop to look at the reality in front of us. In the midst of this chaos, where is our foundation? What are the things that matter the most to us — can we still find them? Does “life” get in the way of being able to be with God? Is “the world” overwhelming your sense Emmanuel — God is with us?

Listen. I am going to speak very practically to you. We are all tired. Few, if any, of us want to be called upon to go further and to do more. The leaders of this parish have looked at the community with whom they worship. They have prayed about this situation and what is best for our spiritual development as a congregation.

Our idea of church is a welcoming, healthy place where whole people can worship, engage and learn about God, tend to each other’s needs, and spread the gospel message. All of this is about love.

Therefore, it is with faith in the depth of our spiritual journey that we have agreed the year 2021 will be a sabbath year for St. James. Our need for sabbath has been brought to our awareness by the crisis of the coronavirus, but it is long, scriptural tradition for communities to observe sabbath years for their own health and well-being. You may have heard of the jubilee year. A jubilee year and a sabbath year are two names for the same thing.

In ancient communities, every seventh year would be a sabbath year, and in those years debts would be forgiven, slaves would be freed, fields would lie fallow, and the community’s faith would be refreshed as they turned to God and trusted that they would be seen through the year. It was a time of healing, strengthening, renewing, and refreshing.

In response to what we are living through, we need a similar sabbath year at St. James. Our modern sabbath year will begin with congregational consent at the annual meeting to a one-year suspension of parish bylaws that require us to elect people into service for the coming year (or term). The vestry, endowment funds board, delegates and alternates, will take care of church business with leaner teams. The wardens and the nominating committee have agreed to continue serving through 2021.

The efforts of the parish will be intentionally contained. We will go back to basics, recalling our foundation. We will focus our efforts on worship — in whatever shape that takes. We will enjoy and then conclude the 100th anniversary celebration, conducting its capital campaign, and maintaining our stewardship. We will give ourselves the gift of a quiet year to re-collect, in our most spiritual selves, that God is with us in this place.

The pandemic puts us in the position of being able to announce well in advance that we will not hold the big events we love in 2021: The Oyster Dinner and The Olde English Tea. This is the perfect marriage of a spiritual and practical decision. We will be on sabbath time.

This is meant to encourage us to nurture — even protect — our well-being. Yet, this is not done with selfish motivation. It is with full knowledge that if we are people released from burden and allowed to refresh, people whose fields are not be forced to yield more, we make ourselves better suited to love God and to love each other. Permission is given to set yourself free from extra obligation. We will still need your giving to survive (please don’t doubt that), but those who have been working like slaves can rest. Unrecognized callouses on our hearts and souls will be allowed to soften. All for the purpose of rest and recovery — to become better Christians.

I believe that it was the fatigue of the pandemic that made us able to recognize and confess our need for a sabbath year.

With that in mind, let us return to the stories saved for us by worn-out, ancient communities of scripture. I remind you that when they were at rock bottom, they had amazing experiences of God that they never wanted anyone to forget about.

Here is what they tell us: We were miserable, living in the dark, and God has changed our lives — and we are grateful beyond words! Today we remember the stories of God making promises to decimated people and being there for them, never letting them down. When times were at their worst, they waited and watched much like we do today (ritually and realistically) for a light to shine.

In a sabbath year, when fields lie fallow; in a dormant season, when all is quiet; in dreams, when the unconscious is at work; unbeknownst to us, things happen underground in winter to prepare for new life in the spring.

This Advent, while we are acquainted with suffering, we remind ourselves that we have a God who has promised to come again, bringing salvation to people and restoring the church, The Body of Christ, again.

It is time to prepare, to remove the clutter. We want to be ready when God comes to renew us again.

AMEN.

The Lessons Appointed for the second Sunday of Advent
Year B, Revised Common Lectionary — Episcopal
Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Collect of the Day

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

ISAIAH 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  A voice says, “Cry out!”  And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

MARK 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,  “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Scripture is from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, 1989 by the National Council of the Church of Christ in the USA.

The Collects, Psalms and Canticles are from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979.