60th anniversary: St. John’s, Tulsa
October 9, 2011
My husband and I went backpacking in northern Nevada in August. We hiked up a trail that started at 8500 feet, and then left the trail and climbed over a ridge well above 10,000 feet. We sat out a hail and thunderstorm on top of the ridge, and then climbed down the other side to make a camp by a creek, still above 10,000 feet. We had rocks under our inflatable sleeping pads, and jackets for pillows instead of stones, but the dreams and midnight reflections were vivid. You simply can’t see stars like that except at altitude out in the middle of nowhere. It does seem like the doorway to heaven – and the wonder of stars, flowers, and the lakes and remnants of glacial scouring give abundant evidence of their creator.
I have a sense of what Jacob saw that night. And while he was afraid at the near presence of God, my own discomfort had to do with a strange breathing syndrome that happens to lots of healthy people at high altitude.1
You wake up with the realization that you’ve stopped breathing, and then have this desperate urge to take a bunch of really deep breaths. It alternates and it’s very hard to go back to sleep, but other than low CO2 levels in your bloodstream, there’s nothing wrong with you. You just keep feeling like you’re going to die!
Experiences like that are often a gateway, an opening to an encounter with what is most real. Jacob’s night in the wilderness gave him a taste of his connection to the source of all blessing, and he got a promise of land and descendants, and God’s abiding presence with him, whatever road he took.
Where has this community slept on a rock, or met God in the wild darkness? Your origins in the distant mists of 1950 seem to have been charmed. The rector of Trinity decided to plant four evangelist communities at the cardinal points of this city – like those offspring Jacob was promised, spreading abroad to the West, East, North, and South. Have the families of the earth been blessed in you? Your early history would seem to say so, as this community of St. John’s grew ten-fold in just a few short years.
Yet blessing is not only about numbers. There is also blessing in those moments when we feel short of breath and aren’t quite sure we can get enough oxygen to make it 30 more seconds. You’re going to have to tell me if St. John’s has experienced that kind of desperation, but I am sure that some of your leaders have had wakeful nights over the years.
If you are going to continue being a blessing, what will the blessing of offspring look like? This Episcopal Church can’t depend on evangelism by reproduction any more – the post-war baby boom is long behind us. The growing parts of this church are overseas and in immigrant congregations, and they are also in those well-established congregations who examine the land and peoples around them, and reach out in blessing. You are clearly working at that, at least through funding worthy projects that offer food, shelter, and basic needs. You are building Habitat homes, and feeding people. How are you yourselves moving out into the community and wider world, seeking to bless those outside these beautiful walls?
Jacob went on the road, and Jesus went on the road. The psalmist says both that blessed are those who dwell in the Lord’s house, and blessed are those who take the pilgrim’s way. We come into this sanctuary to be fed and equipped to go out there and do God’s work. We are people of the journey, even when it takes us into the wilderness. We cannot stay here.
Jesus’ violent demonstration in the temple was reserved for folks who thought they never had to go, who simply set up shop and stayed in the comfortable place – and then squeezed and exploited those who came in looking to meet God. I’d liken the experience of those temple visitors to having somebody sit on your chest when you’re struggling with Cheyne-Stokes syndrome! Today’s equivalent of those temple vendors might be the acquisitive preachers of a prosperity Ponzi scheme gospel, who say, “give me your money and I will call down God’s blessing on you.” No, the real gospel of blessing is about prosperity for all people, it’s about making sure that nobody goes hungry or lives in want.
Our churches generally do a pretty good job of feeding the hungry people who show up on our doorsteps. We don’t always do a very good job of going out to look for the hungry people in our communities, or asking why they’re hungry. How many school kids in Tulsa show up for class without breakfast? How many elders are shut in their homes without enough to eat or the ability keep themselves warm? Some of the worst hunger in this country is in the food deserts of inner cities and on Native American reservations. Are we seeing and meeting those hungry children of God? Will they be blessed through us? Will we be blessed through them?
There’s a fellow right now who’s sitting in the temple of Wall Street, criticizing the buyers and sellers and trying to turn the tables. He’s got lots of companions, in a protest originally called Occupy Wall Street that has now expanded to another ten cities. It is fundamentally a protest against the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and the ability of that wealth to control the political and economic realities of this nation. The basic critique is much like what Jesus was railing against in the Jerusalem Temple – some are getting rich by exploiting others. Making that comparison is making some people feel very short of breath. Yet what sort of blessing will we be? Jesus is present in the streets of New York City and Seattle and here, and he’s asking why some are comfortable and others are hurting.
What kind of house is this one if we aren’t in the business of setting all God’s people free? Jesus’ pilgrim way leads us out of here into a world in desperate need of more oxygen, and more of the basic stuff of life. Yes, we need to feed people when they’re hungry, and we also need to ask why some are hungry when there is great abundance next door. And sometimes the tables need to be turned over. When Jesus did it, the coins sitting on those tables would have rolled out into the crowds. We can probably do better job of seeing that the poor and hungry are fed. Can we do it without making them beg for the coins on the table? The ultimate goal is a table of abundance for all – God’s table is set for all God’s people, and the invitation has been sent out. Turn in here, and feast at the banquet prepared for you from the beginning of the world. We’re the table waiters of that feast – and the cooks, finders of chairs, collectors of vegetables and cakes, rich wines and stew pots.
Who’s hungry? Why? What will we do about it, and where and how will we set the feast? That’s St. John’s work. May the world be blessed in you, for many years to come.