Tincture of Time
Scripture appointed for Lent 3C can be found here
I’ve been working on the Easter Vigil this week. A funny thing in the midst of Lent, to be constantly a season ahead and working on resurrection glory from the midst of the wilderness journey. But, as I’ve considered the arc of the vigil—where narrative upon narrative is meant to help us see ourselves within the story of God’s salvation. I’ve found myself deeply considering those places of God’s presence in the wilderness. The burning bush, the cloud by day, the red sea’s parting—and the joy of the Lenten season is that God’s salvation happens in wilderness times and places. Where would we be without the desert? Where would we be without the betrayal and the denial on the way to Golgotha? So, wilderness is our story and salvation is our story. The past is our story and the future is our story—Moses, our ancestors, and the hope for future fruit.
And, I use the plural purposely. Our story. Our future. For, while we each have a path of faith, we also have a fellowship. And, it is into the midst of this fellowship at St. Clement’s that the scripture is proclaimed. And, so I speak of St. Clement’s…
It is no secret, that parishes close. That there are churches, that because of dwindling attendance and decreased financial commitments, find themselves in a place where the community can no longer afford to exist in the fashion to which they’ve been accustomed. There are places, where the remaining congregant’s final hope for their community is that the church building and its clergy will be around long enough to bury the last of its members.
As a member of the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, I get to hear about these congregations. One of the tasks given to the standing committee is that of giving approval for the dissolution of communities and the sale of church properties. And, as many of us are well aware, more churches, not less will close in the years to come.
As the standing committee met this past week, we spoke of this reality. And, into the midst of this conversation, St. Clement’s was held up as a sign of hope for churches facing closure.
“St. Clement’s almost closed thirty years ago, and yet, there they are!”
That “time where we almost closed”, is part of our story here at St. Clement’s. That time when there was only enough money left to pay a priest for three more years. That time when there were no children. That time when there were more people in the choir than in the congregation. That time when the budget was short by 35,000 dollars (mind you, 35,000 dollars not adjusted for inflation!).
For those of us who are newer to this place, this description of a dying church seems almost fantastical—surely we’ve exaggerated! But, no, that was the truth of the then. But what was also a truth of the then was the commitment made by this community to transformation.
Some must have thought they were throwing good money after bad…some must surely have given up and figured it best to cut their losses. Some must have thought it senseless to fertilize a dead tree.
But, fertilize they did, and over the course of the next 30+ years, this place has continued as a place of life and death of hope and laughter and tears. From the center of our gathering we’ve baptized and proclaimed—we’ve welcomed new life and shouted good news. We’ve tried new things and celebrated our traditions. And, just this past week, we celebrated the call that God has made to those who’ve chosen to follow God in the midst of this fellowship. With a baptism, 8 confirmations, 7 receptions and 3 reaffirmations—we’ve been gifted the opportunity to see some of the good fruit that can flourish when the tree has been tended
This is a place where children fuss and folk are married; where life is celebrated while tears are shed. In this place, and at this altar, we continue to share the bread and the cup with those who ministered here in those days of decline. These are folks who nourished what could be in the face of the anxiety of what was. And, oh the fruit that was born!
I find myself wondering if Senior Warden Dick Arnold, who served in the midst of this decline ever imagined that here we’d be 35 years later. And, you can be sure that I’ll be asking him, since Dick and his wife Paula are still active members at St. Clement’s!
Give it time. A year, two, three even.
Give it time because what is, is not all that will be.
Today’s Gospel parable is about hope. But it is also about the work of investing in transformation. Our own and that of the world about us.
This community has invested. That is clear. The time and energy, the gifts and skills—given abundantly have prepared the soil to grow good things. And, today we continue to prepare the soil for good things! As many of you know, today marks the beginning of what is our seventh year of investment in the soil of Haiti. How remarkable that a place that has at times wondered how it can afford to be a church continues to afford to BE the church! The generosity of this community into the once barren and now fertile soil in Haiti over the past seven years is a testimony to what can be. The tree bears fruit, if you give it time, and nourish it along the way.
It can be hard to do, when we don’t know if we’ll ever see the harvest. But, that is our hope. It is the hope of a burning bush in a desert, the wind across the sea and a fig, ready to be plucked.
What grace that this place that at one time seemed so barren, has born such good fruit for the world. This grace, our hope, and trust that time will bring to completion all of God’s purposes.
Roman Catholic Bishop Ken Untener, in a prayer dedicated to Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote
“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”
So, good people of St. Clement’s let us proclaim a future that is not our own. Let us prepare the soil so that others might thrive.