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    Nov 12, 2017

    Nov. 12, Proper 27A

    Nov. 12, Proper 27A

    Speaker: The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan

    Series: Sermons

    To be the church we must live into the tension of this in-between time. This means facing some tough choices and making some sacrifices in order to live up to our Baptismal vows. So, we must ponder the possibility of facing a closed door if we choose to be frivolous and not be prepared. But at the same time we remember our story, constantly celebrating the risen, incarnate God in our Lord Jesus Christ.“Being Church” means living in the Holy Spirit right now at all moments. And we can do that because we have thought about lessons learned from parables that remind us to always be prepared but also because we know the beginnings of our story as well as the end. God is love and Jesus is the embodiment of that love, Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End. And so we follow Him even until the end of time.

    Good morning. The Holiday season is upon us and all of those holiday specials are on TV already. Do you usually watch those? For the past 50 years America has tuned in - in some form or another - to the usual TV specials like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Grinch and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. And of course, the Peanuts cartoon strip turned tv special. A Charlie Brown Christmas and Thankgiving and there’s even one reminiscing Summer Camp.
    Did you watch the Peanuts Halloween special this year? Maybe with your children or grandchildren you had the chance to watch on TV or read that funny story where Linus alone holds out his faith in The Great Pumpkin whom he believes will rise out of the pumpkin patch on Halloween night. Remember that one? It’s a funny story of a little kid who sacrifices his chance to join in the Halloween festivities of trick-or-treating, getting candy on a door to door trip around the neighborhood. He also misses the party at Violet’s house after trick-or-treating where his friends bob for apples and eat lots of sweets and play games. Linus misses all of this.

    Because he was in the pumpkin patch all night freezing and fretting as he waited for his hero to show up with - better options. His sister, Lucy finally went out at 4:00 a.m. to retrieve him, take him home and put him to bed. The story ends the next morning with Charlie Brown and Linus leaning on their familiar brick wall bemoaning the night before. The Great Pumpkin didn’t come and Charlie Brown only got three rocks for Halloween. But Linus is still adamant that the Great Pumpkin will come - maybe next year. Definitely next year!

    The year before the first airing of The Great Pumpkin, A Charlie Brown Christmas special was produced for television and it was clearly about the religious Christmas. Charlie Brown and his friends were talking about the Christian Christmas in that special, which still airs, with rarely quoted, actual scripture quoted on prime time television. This was quite controversial at the time. I guess the little prophet Linus got away with it because, well, he’s not real. He’s a cartoon. But now there are several scholarly books and articles examining what Schulz may have meant by these religious themes in these now iconic stories.

     You see, Schulz was a religious man and yet not really. Some say he was deeply religious and carried a mission to get a Christian message out through his secular cartooning. Others, particularly those closest to him, say, no. They say he was just a simple man who was a Christian but that his work was just stuff for the funny papers.

    For the next 4 Sundays we will have readings on the return of our Lord, the Second Coming the apocalypse, the end times. We don’t like to talk about that much. Not in church anyway. I’m fascinated by the fact that there are tons of movies these days with apocalyptic themes.

    I’m not sure why we don’t like to talk about the Second Coming in the Episcopal Church. I think one reason is that some of our brothers and sisters in other branches of the faith talk about the second coming - a lot. It’s like they are so caught up in the joy and excitement of what the future will bring, so caught up in how much better heaven will be or life itself will be if Jesus comes back before we die or of how powerful we Christians will be when we are finally proven not crazy about this particular doctrine.

    Or maybe, like the Thessalonians, we don’t like to talk about it because we get caught up in worrying too much about these difficult-to-fathom things Jesus said about the resurrection of the dead. In this fretfulness we end up, like the Thessalonians, thinking we’ll all become Zombies! Or maybe we don’t like to talk about the end times much in the Episcopal Church because we’d rather talk about the past. One of my seminary professors said that Evangelicals are all about the Second Coming, they spend most of their time thinking, talking, singing and praying about a future of joy because of our salvation. Pentecostals, he said are all about the Holy Spirit, always looking for ways to get excited about what’s happening now and jumping up and down about it, dancing, singing, in joyful expression. As for Episcopalians, he said what we’re all about is Christmas. We love Christmas so much that we start decorating before Linus’ pumpkin patch even starts growing. We struggle every year to not put up the tree too early, but, if you’re like my mother, we can’t wait.

    Mom would pull out the Christmas tree lights every year on Thanksgiving afternoon when we all wanted to nap, she would make us pull out all those stringed lights and check each bulb and then put them all back up again because it was too early! This was just awful for us kids. I guess she wanted to see how many bulbs to buy for replacement when we finally did get around to decorating, but this was such a tease for us. We just couldn’t wait for Christmas.

    My professor said this is because in the Episcopal Church we emphasize the Incarnation, and rightly so. We are so amazed and enthralled with the very idea that God became one of us and came to earth and walked around and became human and taught us all this stuff about love - fully human. We love our story so much that we do Christmas big. And that’s all right.

    But in light of our readings for the next four Sundays, the Pentecostals have it right. Because the message of eschatology, that doctrine about the end time, is all about not living in the past nor living in the future but living now, where the Holy Spirit is alive within us, this very moment, every moment. And the only way to do that is to do some thinking about the second coming and to do some thinking about the first coming and then to live into the tension between them. This means we must learn to value the tension between things like beginnings and endings, and grace and justice.

    Jesus invites us to live into the tension of the in-between time in many ways but mostly He teaches us this through parables. There are two kinds of parables: those that offer a surprise of grace at the end like a party for a prodigal, a full day’s pay for one-hour workers, a tax collector justified, and others, and then there are those that follow the direct course from cause to effect as surely as the harvest comes from what is sown. There are no gifts and parties in the later. Together the two types present justice and grace, either of which becomes distorted without the other. Today’s parable moves straight from cause to predictably painful effect; the door is shut and will not be opened.

    We don’t like these cause and effect parables. We don’t like to sit with the tough love of being warned of possible expulsion from the party, or from what it represents, heaven or even the Kingdom of God on earth. We want to re-write the parable. We want the bridesmaids to work out a solution together, to share the oil they have, to share the light of their lamps, to beg the groom for mercy, to somehow change the outcome of a closed door.

    But that would be missing the point. Jesus gave us this and parables like it for good reason - so that we could live into the tension between following him or not. It is not about equity or fairness. This parable is about choices and preparedness. It is an imperative to think about the future, about the full meaning of our lives as disciples of Christ.

    But you can’t do that without also thinking about the past and recognizing Grace. That’s why Jesus told parables with both lessons. He invites us to live in the in-between place. Not just considering the end of the story nor only the beginning, but to live in the now of the story.

    Several years ago, I was assigned to a struggling parish and spent about a year among them. The assignment was to experience a parish other than my own as part of my formation for the priesthood, so I mostly observed. They were very caught up in some conflict that apparently had gone on for many years, so many years that I don’t think they knew anymore why they squabbled like the Hatfields and McCoys, they just operated that way in that church.
    One Sunday morning a newcomer came and sat down on the back row next to the widow Sue Hill. Now, newcomers came and went. They might stay a few Sundays but usually they did not return once they witnessed the way these folks treated each other. But this older man, this stranger, he stayed. He didn’t say much, he didn’t come to any other activities, he just sat quietly beside Mrs. Hill on Sunday mornings and Mrs. Hill talked with him during the passing of the peace and they made their way to the altar for communion together.

    A couple of months went by. The chaos of those strugglers continued. I moved on. One day, Mrs. Hill called me. She said that she was looking for a priest to perform last rights for the stranger who had been sitting next to her. She explained that she had been visiting him in and out of the hospital since the first Sunday he showed up. She told me what she had learned about him, his name, his story. She said that others were helping and that together they had taken care of most of this stranger’s needs. He came to church that first Sunday because he had just been given a terminal diagnosis. He had no living family, not much money and very few friends. She did not explain why. She probably didn’t ask him why. She just reached out and helped him in the ways that he needed with the resources that she had. Together, this small band of Christians ministered to this man and brought him love and peace in his final days. In spite of the church, they were “doing church.”

    Ever since that encounter, Joe and I remember Mrs. Sue Hill and talk about what it means to “do church.” Coming to Epiphany, I have noticed that you are very good at “doing church.” Your outreach ministries are very impressive. You clearly care about the poor and needy and any number of you would clearly swoop in and take care of a stranger in such need as Sue Hill’s friend.
    But how can we better our practice of “being church?” We talk a lot about “being church” and I think by that we mean building a community of believers who then act in response to God’s love.

    Linus struggled to be the single follower in his community of a fictional God. He did this actually outside of his community. While his faith and dedication to The Great Pumpkin are admirable and we might do well to emulate this sort of dedication, he is laughable because he is too caught up in the possibility of a miracle that might happen next year. And his next year never comes. Not to mention he’s following the wrong story. A made up story.

    To be the church we must live into the tension of this in-between time. This means facing some tough choices and making some sacrifices in order to live up to our Baptismal vows. So, we must ponder the possibility of facing a closed door if we choose to be frivolous and not be prepared. But at the same time we remember our story, constantly celebrating the risen, incarnate God in our Lord Jesus Christ.

    “Being Church” means living in the Holy Spirit right now at all moments. And we can do that because we have thought about lessons learned from parables that remind us to always be prepared but also because we know the beginnings of our story as well as the end. God is love and Jesus is the embodiment of that love, Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End. And so we follow Him even until the end of time. Amen.