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Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Realm of God is like . . .

Note: I had the rare privilege of preaching at St. Andrew's, Rugby, UK today. (Yes, this is the 'original home' of the great game of Rugby.) I had the enormous privilege of preaching in - and dancing out of - the great pulpit there. You'll see what I mean when you read the sermon. I think I gave them a decidedly American image of the church which, I pray, gave them yet another image to consider of a place, not unlike their own, which is striving to bring about the Realm of God.

“The Realm of God is like . . . “ Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Proper 12 A – XI Pentecost – St. Andrew’s, Rugby, UK
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

First let me say how delighted I am to be able to be here with you this morning. It’s been about 10 years since I’ve seen Mark and Annabelle, when they were in my home Diocese of Newark, as part of a pulpit exchange.

I thought I’d never see them again on this side of Paradise, much less this side of the Pond. It’s been wonderful to reconnect as if no time at all has past, as baptized sisters and brothers in Christ who share a common faith and a common passion for proclaiming and living into and out of the Good News of Jesus.

Of such is the Realm of God.

I am here for the Lambeth Conference, that once-upon-a-decade meeting of bishops and primates from around the entire WWAC. They gather to think Very Big Thoughts about Very Important Issues, and perhaps, make a pronouncement or two concerning the state of the world and the state of the church about which a majority of them agree.

They do this after following a process which is decidedly not, we have been repeatedly assured, legislative, authoritative or binding in any way. Except, of course, for something called The Anglican Covenant of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is very keen for us to have but to my ears sounds like an oxymoron.

Anglican. Covenant. To my American Episcopal ears, that sounds as thoroughly un-Anglican as I could ever imagine! As near as I can figure, we already have a covenant – the one God gave to Abraham and Sarah – and if it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

Thus far, the bishops have been kept busy enough to stay out of harm’s way. They’ve been on three-day retreat to reflect on ‘Anglican episcopal identity’ (read: what it means to be a bishop), had a March on the streets of London to demonstrate their support for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (although to see it from the TV, it looked a bit more like a ‘Stroll for the MDGs’, didn’t it?), following which they all had proper tea with her Majesty.

We are informed that the bishops begin their day with Eucharist, study the Gospel of John in small Indaba Groups, listen to a plenary session on Very Important Issues which they have self-selected and then discuss (or, more likely, opine) together before having lunch and running off for the day to a veritable feast of ‘fringe’ events provided by various groups with Very Important Causes.

Please let me rush to assure you: Of such is decidedly not the Realm of God.

I can ‘t imagine Jesus saying, “The Kingdom of God is like more than 650 Princes (and, if there is to be sauce for the goose and the gander I suppose it’s fair enough to say 17 Princesses) of the WWAC meeting together, while one quarter of them stayed home in protest.

Likewise, I’m quite sure Jesus would never say, “The Realm of God is like a the WWAC, deeply torn and broken over the self-inflicted wounds of sexism, heterosexism and homophobia.”

Scriptural images of the Realm of God have little to do with institutional religion. In this morning’s gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus gives us the following images of the Realm of God:

* a tiny mustard seed
* yeast in the midst of flour; hidden treasure
* a pearl of such great price that it is worth sacrificing everything you own in order to attain it
* a net cast randomly into the sea which brings in a great catch of fish of every sort and variety.

The Realm of God, says Jesus, has to do not with the obvious, but with the hidden and discrete. It has more to do with possibility and surprise than that which is certain and predictable. The Realm of God also is about risk and sacrifice, Jesus tells us, and surprisingly great diversity and variety.

Allow me to tell you a story about a time when I got close enough to be surprised by an image, a glimpse of the Realm of God. When Mark and Annabelle and I first met, I was just home from the 1998 Lambeth Conference, having attended as the Canon Missioner to The Oasis. It was a pretty difficult time, and I came home feeling spiritually battered and bruised and my soul was dry and arid.

If you don’t know, The Oasis is a mission, started by Bishop Jack Spong in the Diocese of Newark, with LGBT people, our families and friends, which seeks to provide an avenue of hope and healing for all those who have been broken and deeply wounded by the heterosexism and homophobia of the world – and, sadly enough, the sin and brokenness of the institutional church.

My office was in the diocesan center, located in the heart of Newark, NJ, in a section of that once great city which is just now emerging from the devastation of the Race Riots of 1967.

One dismal, rainy day in the fourth week of Lent, 1999, I was sitting in my office when the phone rang. It was Bishop Spong, asking me to run an errand for him which involved carrying important papers to the Dean at the Cathedral, a pleasant five minute walk up Broad Street, past the new plaza in front of NJPAC.

My mood, however, was as foul as the weather. I was not pleased to have to interrupt my very important work to run an errand for the bishop. Didn’t he know that I had important work as well? Couldn’t this have been handled by one of the secretaries? For that matter, couldn’t he have done this himself later in the day or week? I sighed deeply and resigned myself to the assigned task at hand.

I bundled myself up against the cold drizzle and made my way up Broad St. when, much to my distress, I saw Frank coming in the opposite direction. Even more distressing, Frank saw me, and I knew there was to be no escape. I was going to have to engage in conversation, such as it was, with this madman.

Frank was, at the time, a man in his late forties who had been broken by the horrors of what he saw and what he did as a soldier in Viet Nam. Homeless, Frank wanders the streets of Newark, but his favorite haunt is NJPAC.

He loves to lurk about the pristine plaza of gentrification in Newark, I suspect as a haunting reminder to all the finely dressed women and men who come for an enjoyable afternoon or evening of performing arts; that not all things are being renewed or revitalized in this gritty urban reality.

“Hello, Frank,” I called to him. He stopped just a few menacing feet in front of me. I had never been in such close physical proximity to Frank and my body was instantly repelled by the odor of his clothing, the wiry mess of his hair which served to compliment, in it’s own strange way, the wild look in his eyes.

Frank came even closer and shouted into my face, “I CAN CHANGE THE WEATHER.” Perhaps because I was in such a foul mood, I decided to engage him, and in not too kindly a manner, I’m now ashamed to admit.

“What ever do you mean, Frank?” I asked, almost demanded, clearly annoyed. And, that’s when Frank knew he had me in the palm of his hand. Frank took a few steps backward and then proceeded to do this amazing dance – sort of half marshal art, half ballet. (Note: Yes, this is where I danced.)

In wide, graceful movements, right there on the plaza, in front of me and God and a few startled and alarmed passers-by, Frank said, “You see, when I was in the hospital, after the Nam,” he said, “I was abducted by aliens and taken into their ship.”

His whole body now seemed to follow his finger, pointed somewhere into the gray, drizzle. “And they inserted antenna and radar into my body, here (pointing to an elbow), and here (not to the tip of his earlobe, and here (to a place behind his knee.”

“So,” he continued his soliloquy-as-dance, “when I turn just so, (now carefully aligning his elbow, ear and knee with an invisible beam which made its way to him through the drizzle), I. CAN. CHANGE. THE. WEATHER.”

And then, Frank did something that pleasantly surprised more than startled or frightened me. Something I had never seen Frank do before. Frank looked me directly in the eye and he saw confirmed there something that he might have only guessed.

Frank saw past my foul mood and deep into the frustration I had been feeling about my work. He saw the anger that had begun to creep into my heart because I was beginning to suspect that the institutional church hierarchy was not taking either me or my ministry as important or necessary. Even worse, Frank saw the aridness that was the state of my spirituality at that time, the brokenness of my soul and the confusion over my own vocation after Lambeth 1998.

And that’s when Frank did a most amazing thing. He smiled the biggest, brightest smile I have ever seen on anyone. It melted the wildness in his eyes so that I could see his kindness and compassion. It opened his soul so that I could see his humanity. I tell you, it was nothing less than a little miracle.

That silly, goofy, bright smile contorted his face with such a sense of The Absurd that it caused a second miracle to occur. I laughed. Right out loud. About absolutely nothing. And, absolutely everything. About the absurdity of life. About my own delusions of what and who was Very Important. About my way-too-serious understanding about myself and my work which led to the illusion that everything is Very Serious.

I laughed about my own spiritual blindness and resistance to head the words St. Francis reportedly advised his monks: “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words. St. Francis is also attributed with this thought: “You may be the only gospel anyone gets to read today.”

That’s when I realized that Frank was right. He had, in fact, changed the weather. The dark clouds of my foul mood had miraculously lifted and the sun was now shinning in my soul. Oh, it was still drizzling rain and bitterly cold, but in that moment, on the plaza of NJPAC, in the gentrified section of the City of Newark, the Realm of God had come very near.

Yeah, verily, I say unto you that the Realm of God is like a homeless veteran who offered a mustard seed of faith. It is like a woman who found a block of leaven to mix into the dry flour of her soul.

Behold! The Realm of God is like the WWAC finding the treasure of Anglicanism in the midst of the rocky fields of theological division and ecclesiological strife. It is like the great pearl of the Way, the Truth and the Life of Christ, which is worth sacrificing our sense of orthodoxy to achieve the radical idea of peace with justice and mercy.

The Realm of God is like the bishops at the Lambeth Conference who find themselves precariously perched on the rim of The Abyss, peering into the Great Void of Schism, who choose to trust Jesus instead of their own diverse human interpretations of Holy Scripture and cast the net of Evangelism wide enough to catch all – all – all the vast diversity of humanity – old and young, rich and poor, free and oppressed, male and female, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – and bring them to the Body of Christ.

The Realm of God is as close to us as our next breath and there is nothing – absolutely nothing – which can keep us from it. Neither height nor depth, nor life or death, nor angels or the powers of the world or the princes of the Church can keep us from the love of God made Incarnate in Christ Jesus.

Yes, there will always be an England, and I believe with all my heart that there will always be the mystery and miracle that is the Anglican Communion, despite the brokenness and unhappiness which presently exists.

St. Paul reminds us, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Together in Christ we can alter the environment in our church, and change the weather from the gloom of schism to the bright day of unity. We simply have to look past that which is external and into each other’s eyes to see what lies deep and hidden in each other’s hearts.

May it be so, now in the hour of our need and forever more.. Because your life and my life and our lives together in Christ may be the only Scripture anyone gets to read. Because our world is too dark and too broken a place for us to play polite church games with one another



Fr Craig said...

Elisabeth - well done indeed. brought tears to my eyes here between services this AM. Thanks for all that you do and for who you are.
God bless

Lisa Fox said...

Amen indeed. I'm taking a little weekend vacation "down at the lake" (as we say in these parts), sitting on friends' deck, listening to the water lapping, and watching the sunrise while reading your sermon -- the only one I'll "hear" today.

Thank you for it.

kc bob said...

Dancing with you.. your encounter with Frank brought joy to my heart today.

JimB said...

And let the bishops say AMEN!


June Butler said...

Beautiful, my dear Elizabeth. I'm sure they loved you "over there" as much as we love you over here.

johnieb said...

I love you, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you all for your very kind words. Several people have asked me how my sermon was received. Well, that's hard for me to know. The British are fairly contained as well as incredibly polite.

The rector and his wife offered kind words of praise at our lunch following the service. I trust them both to be 'the real deal' so I think I can say with confidence that, at the very least, it went well.

I love you too, Johnieb!

Muthah+ said...

yea, verily! I am in Ft. Worth as you are doing the good work over there. We need to help these folks here to be Episcopalians.

I will look forward to your return