The Second Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2016
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
This past week, the vestry and I were discussing what the character of our church is, and trying to faithfully discern who God is calling us to be as a community of faith in the year ahead.
One of the vestry members made a comment that has stuck with me all week.
He said, “Have you ever heard the term “trust fund kid?” It’s when kids don’t have to work because their parents made so much money that they set up a trust account whose accumulated interest each year provides the kids a salary without the kids having to work for it.”
“Well,” the member continued, “I kind of think the Episcopal Church, in general, is kind of a “trust-fund church”…and St. Paul’s is a model example of that.
Previous generations left us great wealth and resources…a beautiful church building and valuable art works…and for many generations we have been content to live on those resources and the lingering status they have imparted to us.”
The truth behind that statement has haunted me all week as we prepared for today’s annual meeting.
I carried it with me to the ecumenical Lenten retreat in Orvieto this weekend, where our church representation was Charles our intern and myself, and I spent long periods of silence reflecting on it.
For me, the central question about who God is calling us to be is, at its core, about letting go of those trust fund dependencies and being willing to chart our own course, fearlessly and with God’s help, into a more faithful future.
This does not mean that imparted resources are inherently bad, nor that the previous generations’ foresight to care for a community and culture they believed in was misguided.
These gifts can be enormously helpful if received thankfully and used as a springboard into new life…much like talents that yield 10 fold when invested properly instead of being hidden in the ground.
But when a church’s worldly inheritance prevents it from pursuing its greater spiritual legacy, then a reevaluation of priorities is needed.
This will be the 5th annual meeting that we have held since I became Rector of St. Paul’s, and there are many wonderful developments that have happened during that time.
Later on at the meeting, we will celebrate some of these together, and give thanks to God for them.
But right now, I want to say to you all, that if I could convince you of just one thing today, that would stay with you each day throughout the year ahead and guide your actions, it would be just how important your investment in this community of faith is.
Not your neighbors’ engagement, not your forebears in the faith’s investment, but yours.
If we are going to be faithful to the call we have received in Jesus Christ, then every single member of this church has to be willing to move forward in faith with their own spiritual development and bring the fruits of that journey to the Lord’s table to exchange with other members of the Body and enhance our common life.
That focus….that attention…is what this church most needs if we want to move from being merely a beautiful building where people come once a week to worship and be fed, to truly becoming a dynamic and vibrant community of faith that is willing and able to change the world for the sake of the Gospel.
Actively welcoming all and rejecting none.
The question I am called to pose to you today is this: Do you really want such a community?
Are you passionate enough about it to let go of reliance on old inheritances and claim the promise of a different, more lasting inheritance?
The readings we have today illustrate the gap between two kinds of inheritance, temporal and spiritual, and also reveal just how important engagement is for acquiring either type.
In the Genesis reading, we hear the story of the über-patriarch Abram, whose primary concern is how being faithful to God will result in descendants.
Even though Abram’s wife is barren, God promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars.
Then Abram turns his focus from progeny to the particulars of what he will pass down to his descendants, which is primarily land, and he goes through an elaborate ritual in order to cut the covenant with God to assure this legacy.
Abram is willing to trust God that God will make good on God’s promises, but is also willing to do his part to make the covenant real.
And thus begins the patriarchal model of inheritance…economic, cultural and spiritual legacy passed down from one male heir to the next…from Abraham to Isaac, Isaac to Jacob (that trickster!), Jacob to his 12 sons that would form the 12 tribes of Israel….and so on and so on…..until in Matthew’s Gospel we get the full genealogy of Jesus that shows his lineage coming down from all the way from Abraham.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this male centered form of inheritance.
But when it becomes overly dominant…to the point that its systemic preservation causes prophets to be murdered, and the entire reason for the covenant to be lost…namely that God wants to be with us in a relationship of love freely offered and received…then a corrective is needed.
That is what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel when he employs an intentionally feminine model of God, of gathering Jerusalem to him as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.
There is another form of inheritance that needs to balance the kind that comes through patrimony, and that form is about community, communion, and courage.
At dinner this week, my mother talked about the difference between mothers and fathers, claiming that mothers have a unique ability to anticipate their children’s needs and sacrifice for them innately.
In terms of the Church and the world, this priority of care and concern does not neatly divide on gender lines, but it is a different model than the model of passing on simply tradition, orthodoxy, and goods that is more closely aligned with the patriarchal model.
Where a strictly patriarchal inheritance model will be concerned with proper bloodlines, fidelity to the family, and legitimacy of heirs, a matriarchal model is more concerned with passing on the substance of life itself…so that the children might live joyfully and abundantly.
A matriarchal model of inheritance widens the definition of family beyond the narrow confines of blood, and opens it to those who choose to gather under the wings of the Almighty.
I want you to hear that….Jesus is talking about creating a family not based on bloodlines, but based on choice.
Families that insist on maintaining strict bloodlines can grow weak and susceptible because of inbreeding, and fade out eventually.
But families of choice…families made strong by diversity of gifts and made one through gathering together under the umbrella of the truth, can go on and on and on.
In today’s Gospel, the legacy of Herod can be contrasted along these lines with Jesus’ legacy, and the difference between the patriarchal and matriarchal is on display in Jesus’ very words.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you.”
See your house is left to you!
Jesus makes the case in word and deed that if religion is about merely passing on traditions, rather than assuring that those traditions have life and substance, then faith is like salt that has lost its flavor.
If faith is about acquiring a physical inheritance and not about being driven into the wilderness, and trusting God to accompany you upon the way, then it is akin to a whitewashed tomb that looks wonderful on the surface, but is devoid of life inside.
Do not lose heart!
We have not lost our flavor just yet people of God, nor are we merely a whitewashed tomb here at St. Paul’s.
However, I feel called to proclaim that if we do not use this annual meeting and this new year to renew our faith, to re-engage with each other, and to invest in community, communion, and care, then we risk losing the only inheritance that matters.
Jesus may be warning us this Lent, and through this Gospel reading to not be content to have “this house left to us,” but rather to reclaim a matriarchal form of inheritance that begins with us gathering under the protective wings of the Almighty, and then investing boldly in the substance of our faith that leads to life and life in abundance.
It means bringing the best you have to the Body.
It means finding ways to engage as a disciple in community even with all of the varied challenges that face us in this city and in this generation.
It means embracing the divine spark that is in each of us and encouraging others to do so as well.
And on a very practical level, it means investing in this church in such a way that you are proud and empowered to ask others to join you here in this journey of transformation that we call church.
That is the only inheritance that really matters.
And it was one that Jesus was willing to live for, to die for, and to pass on to us all.
Are you ready to take your place as an heir of this kingdom?
Are you willing to pass on this legacy to a new generation thirsty for God’s love, and hungry for the satisfaction that only the Lord can give?
If so, then this year will be the best year in the history of this church.
And next year, when it is time for the annual meeting once more, we won’t be talking about whether St. Paul’s is a trust fund church or not.
For our legacy, a spiritual and world-changing heritage, will lie ever before us, rather than simply behind us.