January 28th, 2018
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
A brilliant setting sun’s rays, streaming through purple and white flecked clouds, illumined the evening sky as we approached Beta Giorgis.
Our pilgrimage group arrived that morning in the 11th century bastion of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity called Lalibela, and after lunch, we made our way through the complex of rock-hewn churches for which Lalibela is known.
Rather than being constructed above ground, these marvels of architecture were carved directly out of the ancient, existing rock.
As such, they have no moving pieces… no building blocks…nothing to give way under the strain of wind or rain.
I have never experienced such a feeling as I had when I leaned my entire body weight against one of the pillars of the church, knowing that no amount of me pushing against it would move it, and also sensing that touching any part of that church was to be in tune with the entire bedrock from which it was cut.
Because they are below the surface of the natural landscape, the Lalibela churches cannot be seen from a distance.
This subterranean location serves both a protective function as well as giving one a sense of returning to the very roots of humanity…the caves that were our first homes during the dawn of time.
As such, it is most visited by tourists and pilgrims, and was subsequently surrounded by the most locals seeking to profit from the foot traffic.
Most of those seeking gifts of money or to sell us something were young…teenagers or younger.
After spending an hour or so taking in the church and being blessed by the Orthodox priest within Beta Giorgis, our group decided to celebrate communion outside the complex, at a place where a large rock on the surface served as an altar.
Beta Giorgis was below us to the right, as I read Luke’s account of the Road to Emmaus encounter following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
Suddenly, I became aware of a strange energy.
It seemed that some of the young teenagers were offended that we were celebrating Eucharist there, and their complaint grew steadily louder.
Out of respect for them, once we had received the bread and wine, we started moving back to our bus, which was waiting above on the hill.
As I was making the journey uphill, solid rock still under my feet, one teenage boy insisted, “Mister…Mister…You orthodox?”
He went on, “Why you no pray at your hotel, this is place for Orthodox only.”
I responded, “I am a Christian.”
He said, “Christian no matter, you not Orthodox.”
Rather than engage further, I continued up the hill, feeling echoes of Jesus’ walk to Golgotha, coming to terms with the rejection and trying my best to send back energy of blessing in return.
I thought long and hard about that experience as I wrestled with the readings we have before us today.
I thought about how Mark’s Jesus came to confront the demons of the world…all the things that hold us hostage and enslaved to lesser reigns than the full kingdom of God.
I thought about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians…how the freedom we have received in God is not to be used to make others stumble, regardless of their spiritual understanding, but rather to build them up and strengthen them.
I thought about whether that Eucharist was a moment of cultural insensitivity on our group’s part, or whether it was faith’s requirement.
Biblical passages swirled within me, from “Free to worship God without fear” to “you will be rejected by the chief priests, scribes and elders on account of me” to “There is one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
In the midst of those questions stood Beta Giorgis, a sacred space indistinguishable from the sacred rock from which it was carved…a reminder that our God is everywhere, infusing all and in all.
There are places, thin places the ancient Celts would have called them, in which the seeming separation between the sacred and the profane dissolves, revealing the numinous nature of creation and situating us squarely within it.
Beta Giorgis is such a place, and I think St. Paul’s is too.
We gather here as a community of faith to be strengthened to witness in a world of competing loyalties, in a world possessed by lesser pursuits than the gospel, and to grow together into the fullness of the kingdom of God that Jesus revealed to us.
But along the way, we must continually ask the question, “Are we open to being converted and convicted by the Holy Spirit to change?”
According to my teenage Ethiopian accuser, I must have been possessed by a demon to make Eucharist in view of Beta Giorgis.
Though I saw it as a Spirit filled moment, being part of the Body of Christ, which is larger than the Episcopal Church, larger than the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and larger than any single manifestation of church, means modifying our freedoms in Christ for the benefit of others.
There are times when we surely must take a stand against the principalities and powers which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, no doubt about it.
But building up the body should be our primary focus, and we should look for every opportunity we can to forge bonds of affection and appreciation, rather than encourage fissures of division.
That’s the motivation behind Paul’s whole passage to the Corinthians, about whether or not they can eat meat sacrificed to idols.
The questions we ask, and the answers we give have more to do with the relationships we are called to in Christ than with the things themselves.
As we head into this year’s annual meeting after the service, celebrating the good things God has done among us in the year past while looking forward in faith to a new year, we would do well to keep investing in the questions and answers of deeper, and more faithful relationships through Christ.
How can we better welcome the many visitors and pilgrims God sends to us at St. Paul’s, and how can we strengthen our community life to better “bear witness in Rome to a dynamic and living Christian faith, open to all and rejecting none?”
Each of you are necessary to make this witness into what Christ has called it to be…each of you have been given special gifts and talents which you are called to exercise as part of this Body so that Christ’s kingdom may be more powerfully proclaimed.
How will you do it today, this week, and in the months and year to come?
There are always going to be questions confronting us dear people of God…questions that have no easy answers, and which have multiple facets for interpretation.
But beneath it all, like the very bedrock of nature and the best of human efforts represented in Beta Giorgis, is God…our foundation and salvation.
Let us go into the deep places together this year brothers and sisters…let us search for that which unites us and binds us…let God free us from the demons that seek to divert us from the fullness of the reign of God becoming manifest on earth as it is in heaven.
Let us use our freedom in the redeemer to grow in faith, in love, and in connection with each other and with all those whom God places in our path.
So that the thin places of our lives may be spaces of healing for a broken world, and so that God may use us to bless those who need blessing, love those who need loving, and lift up those who have fallen into despair, distrust, and division.