As many of you know, I have been playing services at an Episcopal Summer Chapel up here in Maine this Summer. It has been a joyful and eye-opening experience, as these opportunities often are. Tonight I want to share with you an interesting experience I had there today, but first, welcome to Brothers and Sisters, and a word about who we are:
"Welcome to Brothers and Sisters, the weekly meetup for prayer* and community at Daily Kos. We put an asterisk on pray* to acknowledge that not everyone uses conventional religious language, but may want to share joys and concerns, or simply take solace in a meditative atmosphere. Anyone who comes in the spirit of mutual respect, warmth and healing is welcome."
The two-manual and pedal Estey reed organ at St. Cuthbert's Chapel. The organ is about 100 years old and has had an electric blower installed though it can still be hand pumped if need be.
One of the things about this summer community which is true is that a vast number of the residents are Episcopalians (in fact the community was started by retired Bishops and clergy and still has a great number of them or their descendents summering on the island). One other thing which is true about them is that many of them are very, very wealthy. For generations. Social Register wealthy.
Today, a good belly laugh was had by all during the announcements when a member of the congregation stood to inform us about donating the chapel's old 1928 Prayerbooks. "You won't be surprised to know that they will be going to Arkansas" she said, waiting a beat to finish "to then be sent out to places where they may be most needed". This got quite a laugh (what in heaven's name is anyone anywhere is doing with 1928 prayerbooks, well, that's another diary). The real laughter came when she said "but what we really need is boxes, but they can't be liquor boxes because you can't ship them through the US mail". There was a moment of dead silence followed by the kind of knowing laughter that follows a good in-joke. Even the Priest had something to say afterwards about the likely difficulty of finding anything that was not labeled with Cutty Sark or Gordon's in this vacation community of well-heeled, high WASPs.
To give you an idea of just what kind of place this is, a friend of some good friends here in Portland has a family place there, and happened to be at church this morning. He invited my partner and I over to the family cottage after Mass. He comes from a long line of Episcopal priests who held pretty major sinecures (including his father and his grandfather who was once the Rector of a very, very historic Boston church). These are people who can trace their presence here back to the Mayflower--though they certainly managed to shed their Puritanism many, many generations ago. They are also highly gracious and very fun.
The reason I bring this up is because of what we've been hearing at Mass this Summer from the Gospel of John. Quite a bit of it has stressed Jesus' divinity. For instance, today we heard this from the 6th chapter of John:
Jesus said, "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."This is certainly divinity stuff, not the human side of Jesus at all. In fact, it's one of those creepier passages to many people. When I hear people say the Christians practice a kind of ritual cannibalism, I think of this passage.
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever."
Father Steve wanted to try to bring in the human element of Jesus however, after several weeks of the heady, other-worldly stuff we tend to find in John. He told a wonderful story in his sermon about a fellow that he attended General Theological Seminary with who happened to be Native American. His friend--and he regrets that he forgets which tribe--told of the chiefs who can always be found easily because they live in the most obviously impoverished dwelling in the village. The reason for this, he explained, was because it was expected as part of the role of leadership that no one approaching the chief for anything should ever be embarrassed of their own circumstances (or by anything else) when asking for help or advice. He continued to point out that Jesus himself was intentionally homeless during his active ministry. He asked us to think of what that might mean for us in how we approach Him. He asked us to juxtapose that with the divine.
From my vantage point on the organ bench, looking out over this small but earnest congregation of very well-to-do people, I saw this sermon resonate. These people may be wealthy, but they are also intelligent, thinking Episcopalians. The previous week, we got to hear a sermon about all the things we all want, and strive for, that we do not need. Father Steve is definitely on a roll here.
All of this has me thinking about the various strains of emphasis in Christianity in our country today. We have lots of people of various means, both poor, rich, and in between who follow a Gospel of social justice, who reject Malthusian arguments which blame people for their poverty and are quick to assume that it is a reflection of their failure of character or devotion to God which makes them poor, makes it difficult for them to succeed in a financial sense. Very much an emphasis on the human Jesus. We also have lots of people in this country today who believe that people who are rich are rich because God favors them. Because somehow they are more pious, more devout, give more money to the church, or have better politics than those who are less successful. There seems to be in these circles an emphasis on the divinity of Christ and his final judgment to the near exclusion of the human side. I stand literally awestruck by the vast chasm, the vast divide between these two positions especially dumbfounded by the fact that one of these positions (and we know which one that is) which seems to have become the face of American Christianity today. Even more jarring is that whether focusing on justice or judgment, one can go so far as to miss the balance (if one so believes) that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. That balance seems off today in the Christianity of the nightly news.
I stood in that abyss today, between these two points of view. Father Steve never chided anyone for having wealth, for having those things "which we do not need and may not even want". He did, however, spell out what he sees the Gospels saying to the Church. How what you do to the least of them, you do to Christ. How I do wish more of my sisters and brothers in Christ would focus on that message.