Sunday, November 6, 2016

Keeping the Cradle

“With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant.”  Ecclesiasticus 44:11

For the last two weeks, our life at the beautifully renovated Saint Francis rectory has been pretty well hemmed in by cardboard boxes, packing tape and picture hangers.  We’re delighted to be here, but not really settled yet.  Moving is a chore of many agonies, as most of you will know well. 

But it has the advantage of forcing us to take stock, to declutter, to start again with a little less baggage than we were carrying before.  We pulled out some clothes that are too small for Peter, our five-year-old.  We figured out which Tupperware pieces really didn’t have lids and which socks were never to be matched again.

But we kept the cradle.  Even though it gets underfoot in the guest bedroom. Even though we don’t necessarily expect a third. Even though I’m mildly nervous I might come home one day to find our poor dog bundled in blankets inside it.

It was a gift from a kind, shy old man, Bud Miner, a member of Saint Paul’s Church in Sharpsburg, Maryland, the country parish where I first served as a rector.  Bud made it out of walnut in the little shed behind his house, polished it until it shone brightly and carved an M on the outside of the footboard.  It was presented to us at the end of the shower given for us by the good ladies of the ECW a few weeks before Philip was born.  Bud died years ago, not long after we sent him a picture of Peter being rocked in it, as his brother had been before. 

The cradle is beautiful on its own, and it’s beautiful as a sign of the love extended to us by the people at Saint Paul’s.  It may not be practical, and I expect the organizing gurus would tell us to snap a picture on the smartphone and move on.  But we keep it as a reminder of the good things of the past and our hopes for the future.  

After all, there’s no better symbol of continuity than a cradle.  When Bud carved out the M he knew he was making an heirloom.  The cradle points to new life, the hope of generations yet to come who will bear our name and carry forward some of the blessings we have received.  If our family home couldn’t make room for a cradle, well, what kind of family home would it really be

Our Old Testament lesson from Ecclesiasticus is a meditation on the bond between generations, the beauty and blessing inherited for the future life of Israel.  It’s a psalm of praise for God’s good work in the life of our ancestors, those in whom “The Lord hath wrought great glory… through his great power.”  The author, Ben Sirach, recalls different kinds of heroes, those blessed by God with just what was needed by His people in the unfolding story of their relationship with Him. 

The psalm begins with “famous men,” and recounts the work of kings and prophets, artists and benefactors.  It serves as a poetic preface to the closing chapters of Ecclesiasticus, which tell the stories of Israel’s greatest heroes, from father Abraham down to Simon, a high priest of Ben Sirach’s own age who was famous as a teacher and liturgist, a man the author would probably have known well.  Those closing chapters are among the Bible’s finest examples of narrative poetry, and you might profitably read and meditate on them this week.  These heroes of the past, Ben Sirach says, “were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.” 

But others, too, revealed God’s glory in quiet lives of faithfulness and generosity.  They “have no memorial,” but their virtues have helped to shape God’s ongoing life with His people.  Because God knows all, their “righteousness hath not been forgotten,” and though we do not remember their names, we are blessed by the legacy of their deeds. 

Ben Sirach does not praise famous men as an exercise in self-indulgent nostalgia, and he is not proposing some form of ancestor-worship.  He’s not really a historian, either, with a simple curiosity about the way it once was.  Instead, Ben Sirach’s desire is that people of his own time might, as our Collect says “follow the saints in all virtuous and godly living,” remembering their deeds because they are relevant to current challenges.  He tells us in the preface to his book that he was for many decades a teacher of the law, a man responsible for training Israel’s youth, the future leaders, in the faith and the disciplines of a holy life.  His summaries of the lives of the ancient heroes focus in on the challenges Jews faced in his own time: resisting the temptation of idolatry, speaking the truth to powerful foreign leaders, meditating carefully on a law the surrounding culture was wont to ignore. 

His psalm also gestures toward a deeper bond between believers of today and their ancestors, what the hymn calls “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.[1]  “Their seed,” that is, their descendants “shall continually remain a good inheritance,” he says, “and their children are within the covenant.”  The heroes of the past are not just models for us, they are bound to us in a common life with God, who keeps His promises from age to age.  God’s covenant, His life-giving bond with His people, remains steadfast as generations come and go, as institutions and projects rise and fall.

 Because our Lord has conquered death by His glorious resurrection, our communion with the saints remains unbroken by death, not only through remembering mighty deeds of the past.  As the author of Hebrews says, they surround us now as “a great cloud of witnesses,[2]” urging us on by their constant prayer.  When we gather to praise God and share in the sacramental life, “all the company of heaven[3]” are here with us.  The saints, famous and forgotten, are our brothers and sisters, pilgrims of the same path, and partakers of the same grace.

Renewal in the life of God’s people comes through understanding and cherishing the gifts of the past, the witness of saints who have faced similar challenges and who teach us still.  This way of looking back to prepare for what lies ahead flies in the face of a good deal of thinking over the last few centuries.  We are subtly encouraged from many directions to see the past as a burden to be cast aside, and to look for new life only after the forest has been slashed and burnt.  Our devices are designed to become quickly obsolete, so we will covet the new model. If it’s not revised, updated or re-imagined, we wonder if it can still speak truly to us. 

It’s not that we Christians are opposed to change, and our understanding of human sin should make us suspicious of identifying any past golden age.  But we do believe that valuable change, change that reflects God’s plan should reveal something of His eternal consistency.  Holy, life-giving change should fit clearly into the pattern of faithfulness we have received, and help us to see afresh and value anew what we have always cherished. 

I expect that we will see change here at Saint Francis in the years ahead, as I begin to serve as your rector.  Your search committee and vestry were very honest with me about some of the challenges you face.  You need to grow, you fear getting grayer, you wonder about financial sustainability.  I’ve got some ideas about all those challenges.  We’ll need to try some new things together, seeking God’s help, listening more carefully to our neighbors, looking for new opportunities.

But I was most deeply drawn to serve God among you by what has remained consistent in your life as a parish, those gifts you have received from the saints before you and preserved steadfastly in obedience to God’s will.  This is a congregation where the faith handed down from the saints, the doctrine of the Scriptures and the Creeds is taught with robust confidence.  This is a congregation that delights to praise God with reverence and beauty, cherishing a deep heritage of classical Anglican liturgy and music.  This is a congregation that values the formation of young people, and helps them to love and serve the Lord in their generation through strong youth and children’s programs.

You could see some of these commitments as old-fashioned obstacles to be plowed under in the relentless way to the future.  It’s sad to say that there are plenty of parishes in our own church that have seen them as little more than this.  But I believe these gifts are like that handmade cradle over at the rectory, commitments of beauty and power, to be cherished and cultivated.  The change that will come for us, I hope, will help us understand and appreciate these things at the heart of our identity as Saint Francis Church more deeply.

Like the cradle also, they all point ahead.  Faithful teaching, reverent worship, forming the young, these are gifts intended to touch and transform the lives of others in our community who do not know and follow Christ in the communion of His Church.  These gifts are open to the future; they are means of rebirth.  May God use them to give life to many sons and daughters here for generations to come.

[1] Hymn 525, “The Church’s One Foundation,” Hymnal 1982.
[2] Heb. 12:1.
[3] The Holy Eucharist, Rite One.  Book of Common Prayer (1979), 334.

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