Choosing vulnerability

15 November 2009
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8
St. John’s, Northampton, MA

Let us pray. Dear Jesus: do you really mean it when you say “not one stone will be left upon another”? Even at St. John’s? Amen.

Good morning and thank you, as always, for letting me into this pulpit once again. This time, I come back to this pulpit with the benefit of a little perspective. In the time since I returned from South Africa at the end of June, I’ve been to several other churches in this diocese of Western Massachusetts to speak about my time as a missionary. And before this school year ends, I’ll have been to many more churches in the diocese. There are many very nice congregations, with lots of friendly people and interesting clergy. One thing that has stood out to me in particular is the the differing church architecture in this diocese.

But it always puts a little spring in my step to come back here to St. John’s because – with benefit of this broad experience – I can say that St. John’s has one of the nicest-looking churches of any building in this diocese. Just take a minute to look around. The beautiful bell-tower. The bell in that tower. The rough rocks that make up the exterior of the building. The beautiful tile work on the floor up here. That lovely wood floor down there that I have scuffed up in countless places. This gorgeous pulpit that is at just the right height for someone my size. A great organ. These soaring arches that are painted an only-in-Northampton kind of pink. The great parish house and parlours and library. This is truly a beautiful place and I always feel so privileged to be a part of it.

How ironic then that I should return on this day to to hear this Gospel passage. Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” This comes in response to a disciple who sounds a lot like I just sounded. The disciple looks at the temple and says, “Wow, Jesus, look! Look at the size of those stones! Look at the size of those buildings!”

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

While I’ve been traveling this fall, I’ve been learning another story beyond the friendliness of the people in this diocese and beyond. About a month ago I was at a church where the congregation has to reduce the hours of their rector because they can’t afford to pay him full-time anymore.

Three weeks ago I was at diocesan convention where we heard about St. James in Great Barrington. About a year ago, a stone wall in the church just gave way and collapsed. The building was condemned and the church now meets in a banquet hall. At convention we also heard stories of declining attendance and declining revenue across the diocese and for the church around the country. The average Episcopal congregation in this country is seeing its attendance decline by 2-point-7 per cent per year. Many of you will remember when St. John’s had two full-time clergy and will know that there were once many churches in this diocese like that. Now – except for the cathedral and its Spanish-language ministry – there is not one church in this diocese that has two full-time clergy dedicated to ministry in that congregation.

Two weeks ago I went to a church in Hartford. It was the congregation’s last Sunday in that church. There aren’t enough people coming anymore to support the physical plant. So the congregation is merging with the cathedral congregation and the diocese plans to sell the church building.

Last week, I went to a play in a theatre that is in a converted church. Clearly, at one point that was a congregation that couldn’t support the building. I commented to a friend that architecture schools need to start offering courses on redesigning old church buildings because there are going to be a lot of them coming on the market in coming years.

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Jesus’ prediction to his followers is no longer a prediction in our day. Our churches are falling down, literally as in the case of Great Barrington, and figuratively, in the story of declining attendance and revenue.

Why would Jesus give us this vision of the destruction of the Temple? Why must this happen? What would happen if it did? To answer that, I want to turn to my time in South Africa.

For the past two years I was a missionary of the Episcopal Church in a town called Mthatha in South Africa. Specifically, I worked at a community center in a neighbourhood of Mthatha called Itipini. Actually, to call Itipini a neighbourhood might be going too far. It’s not like Florence or Leeds or Bay State or any of the other neighbourhoods in Northampton. It’s a shanytown. The people who live there live in shacks made out of old car parts, pieces of tin, rocks, tarps, old trees, milk cartons, even the occasional beer bottle. The word Itipini means “at the dump” and that’s exactly where Itipini is. The community started on the municipal garbage dump so residents could scavenge off the garbage. The dump has since been moved but the community persists. Since there has been no reclamation work done, the place is still a dump with garbage everywhere.

The community center I worked in was right in the middle of Itipini. In contrast to the rest of the community, we had concrete pads under our buildings and clear pathways between them. Our buildings were sturdy, made out of cinder blocks or lumber and had windows made of glass. We didn’t have electricity – no one in Itipini does – but we had nice big windows and a generator for when we really needed it. We didn’t have running water but the tap was right in the middle of our community center area so we didn’t have to haul it very far, unlike most people in the community. Our doors had locks on them. When we left at night we knew things would be pretty safe. Just to be sure, we hired locals to serve as watchmen both during the day when we were there and at night when we weren’t.

When I first arrived in Itipini a little over two years ago, I felt immediately overwhelmed. Almost no one speaks English. There are huge cultural and racial barriers to cross. Mthatha has a reputation for being an unsafe and crime-ridden city. White South Africans generally steer clear. They definitely steer clear of Itipini, Mthatha’s poorest section. I very much stood out when I first showed up in Itipini. It was more than a little bit nerve-wracking and even a little bit scary.

In that context the few hundred square feet of concrete and sturdy buildings over which the community center was spread was like a fort to me. I nestled myself firmly and cozily into that area and stayed put. I let the people come to me. Pre-school children showed up in the morning and I played guitar with them. They left at the end of the day and I had no idea where they went. High school students passed through our area on the way home from class and I tried to engage them in conversation but they were on the move and in a hurry. They didn’t stay long and I wasn’t about to follow after them. Sick people came to our primary care clinic and I helped them there. They had to come to me. As long as I could deal with people on my own terms from this place of safety, I was fine. At the end of the day, I got in the car, and drove through Itipini to get out but I never stopped. It was outside “our” community area and my place of safety. In those first few months, there were maybe a handful of occasions in which I actually descended into the mire that was Itipini but then it was always with one of our watchmen and then only to retrieve a sick patient when the watchmen needed a little extra manpower. I went with a purpose and came right back.

If you look at my pictures from this time, you can tell I didn’t range far. My pictures of the shacks are taken from a distance, perched atop the playground looking out over a whole swath of the community. The backgrounds to all my pictures of people are buildings in our area. There’s the clinic in one, the kitchen in another, the playground in another.

And then one day things changed. It was a hot early summer day in December after I’d been in Itipini for about four months. It was a quiet day in the clinic, the pre-school was humming along, it was still a while until lunch, and I didn’t have much to do. I don’t know how I got this idea but I thought I should go for a little walk. I started off up the hill behind the clinic with no destination in mind and just kept going. By this point, I knew enough of Xhosa – the local language – to be able to exchange greetings so that’s what I did when I walked past people’s shacks. There were people sitting around outside, cooking, washing clothes, washing dishes, drinking, smoking, gossiping. I just sort of greeted them and kept on going, a little stunned at what I was doing.

Eventually, I came to a dead end on one of the paths in front of a shack. There were some women I knew sitting outside and they invited me to sit down with them. I had just learned the Xhosa word for sleep so I decided to try it out on one of the children who was there. “Ulalaphi?” “Where do you sleep?” He happily took my hand and led me into the warren that was his shack, into a back room and proudly showed me his creaky, rusty frame with a thin mattress, and no blanket to speak of. This was his room, a place he shared no doubt with several siblings. I was crouched over in the shack and a little stunned at how I had found myself in this place. I felt vulnerable in a way I hadn’t before but I also felt at ease in a way that was new.

From that point forward, my approach to life in Itipini changed. No longer would I wait for people to come me. I was going to go to them. The fortress-like aspects of the community area that had given me so much comfort – my own big temple walls – were being thrown down. It turns out that not every child was coming to pre-school. Some didn’t even know they could. If I confined myself to only working with the children who were showing up, I was missing out on a big chunk of the population. Those high school students wanted help but they also needed to be back in their homes doing chores. I couldn’t have learned that from staying put. Some people were so sick they couldn’t make it to the clinic on their own. I made it my job to seek out those people and figure out how we could help them.

My pictures started changing as well. I have pictures of shacks close up. I have pictures of the insides of shacks. I have a whole series of photos I call “where do you sleep?” of children in front of their beds. Those all started that first day I ventured forth. The backgrounds of my pictures changes too. There are more pictures of people in or in front of their shacks or in front of their cooking fires or washing their laundry or drinking or resting in the shade of a bush.

So when we return to the question of why Jesus would predict the destruction of the Temple I think it has to do with the idea of vulnerability. This is an idea we in this western society don’t like to hear. In this culture, we seek control over everything – no vulnerability! I wanted people to come to me in the community area in Itipini so I could control the interaction on my terms. The temple in ancient Israel was the dwelling place of God. It was the way the priests centralized worship so they could control God.
Standing opposite this is Jesus. This is the Jesus who makes himself vulnerable in his life and ministry. “Let the little children come to me,” he says, when the disciples shoo them away. You can just imagine what those disciples would say today. “The children, Jesus? They probably have swine flu!” Jesus hears his name called out by the beggars when he walks through town. Everyone traveling with him wants to control Jesus and his schedule. “C’mon, Jesus we have to get to Jericho on time,” you can hear them saying. But Jesus is the one who stops, lets go of control, and finds out what the beggars want. And of course there’s the greatest act of vulnerability ever, willingly taking up a cross and dying, voluntarily subjecting himself to a painful and dehumanizing death.

For Jesus this vulnerability is a choice. It is a choice he can make only because he comes from a position of great power. He is, of course, God Incarnate. God had this great power and could have stayed in heaven. But God didn’t. God choose to “empty himself” as Paul later writes and take the form of a human. God sacrifices God’s immense power to become human, that is to say, powerless.

This church gives us a lot of power. Just the fact that this building is standing here means someone at some point had the economic power to build it. The fact that people have been worshipping in this place in this community for so long is a source of power. The education and wealth of the members of this congregation is a source of tremendous power. And that leaves us with a choice. Do we lock all that power up behind these beautiful walls and make people come to us on our terms or do we choose vulnerability and venture forth?

And if we do venture forth, how do we do it? Which direction do we go? I think there’s a clear direction we head and it was embodied in a word I used earlier to describe myself when I said I was a missionary of the Episcopal church. That word “missionary” can be so difficult to hear in our day and age. It has – to say the least – a mixed history. Missionaries have too often in history been associated with events that tear down the kingdom of God rather than build it up. But I want to hang onto it.
A missionary, to state the obvious, has a mission. And to whom does that mission belong? Does it belong to the missionary? The missionary’s congregation? The missionary’s diocese? The national church? The “church” as an abstract entity? It is none of these. Mission belongs to God. And God’s mission has been the same throughout the history of the Bible. God yearns for people to exist in right relationship with each other and with God. To put God’s mission into one word, God yearns for reconciliation.
If we think of mission this way then mission is not about sending people across the world to baptize the masses and found churches. It’s not even just about sending people across the world. The need for reconciliation is as strong in Northampton and Western Massachusetts as it is in a place like Itipini. The need takes a different shape and our responses will be different but there is a yearning for reconciliation here nonetheless.

We must respond to the mission of God by asking this question: where is God’s mission around us and what role are we privileged to play in that mission? To ask it another way, where is reconciliation needed and how can we help bring it about? The variety of answers to this question will be as varied as the people in this congregation. Some people are called to make music because music is a way that people connect to God and to one another. Some people are called to make this a welcoming place so that when people enter they know that God is here with them. For some people, these callings may be a new challenge, a stepping beyond what we are used to, a call to go from a position of power to vulnerability.

Now let me say there is a lot of vulnerability in this world and not all of it is holy. The wife in an abusive relationship is vulnerable to the violence of her husband and there is nothing holy about that. The workers being exploited by their boss are vulnerable in that situation and that is also not holy. The wife and workers are not operating from positions of power and not choosing vulnerability. That is not the kind of vulnerability I’m encouraging us to embrace here.

This Gospel passage is calling us to deliberately embrace a sense of vulnerability in this way: look around you, think about yourself – how are you powerful right now? What skills and talents and resources do you have that give you power and the ability to control a situation? Now, ask yourself how can I sacrifice this control? How can I venture beyond these great big walls that are around me? How can I journey in a new way, a way that is guided by God’s mission of reconciliation?

The truth of mainline Protestant churches in these early years of this new century is that the church is falling down around us, stone upon stone, literally and metaphorically. It does us no good to deny this reality. But what if we were to embrace this new reality and the vulnerability it creates and take it as an opportunity to venture beyond what we have so long known, beyond what have been our traditional sources of power and control? What if we gave up trying to control every last thing? What if we moved forward in the spirit of the mission of God?

Jesus tells us this morning that these signs and portents are the “beginnings of the birth pangs” of a new world. If we moved forth in this way, I’ll think we’ll find ourselves at the beginning of something new and joyous and wonderful.

Amen.

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