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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Treasure in Barrington (A17O, Ss. Joachim and Anne)

Sunday we celebrate as a parish our patronal feast day, which actually falls on Saturday. Our pastor (rightly) asked me whether the focus is usually on the saints or on the parish in the preaching, to which I helpfully answered, "yes." Then he asked me to write a few ideas down for the priests in case it might help them compile their homilies. So what you're about to see is some of that, and a little more.

For the last several years, instead of using the readings of the feast day, we've continued with the
readings of Ordinary Time in order to keep the flow of the gospel. This week, for instance, we have the end of the parables discourse that began two weeks ago. The three parables in Sunday's pericope are the treasure, the pearl, and the net. For a number of reasons, not the least of which is the overload of imagery when the longer reading is used, I have once again asked that the deacons and priests read and preach on the shorter version, which only includes the treasure and pearl parables. The ministers wear white, we use the orations from the feast day, use a sprinkling rite at the beginning of the liturgy, and call it a solemnity. So we're working from Solomon's prayer, a section of Psalm 119, and those two parables, along with the continuation of Romans 8 as the second reading.

The Solomon connection is a good one for us, because, according to the Hebrew bible, he built the temple that God would not allow David to build. In fact, Solomon is the temple the God builds, in a sense, the "house of David" that was built from the detritus of David's sin. In one of the readings that is part of the complex of choices for the dedication of a church, God teaches David a lesson about the architecture of creation, and just who is doing the building for whom. As the story goes, in Second Samuel:
"Go, tell my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD: Should you build me a house to dwell in?'
"It was I who took you from the pasture and from the care of the flock to be commander of my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you went, and I have destroyed all your enemies before you. And I will make you famous like the great ones of the earth.
I will fix a place for my people Israel; I will plant them so that they may dwell in their place without further disturbance. Neither shall the wicked continue to afflict them as they did of old, since the time I first appointed judges over my people Israel. I will give you rest from all your enemies.
The LORD also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you. And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever."
When we built St. Anne's new structure for worship that opened in 2000, our pastor (now emeritus) Jack Dewes chose for a "theme" the phrase, "This people is the house of God." You can hear the echoes of the promise to David in that phrase that became our parish motto for the next fifteen years. Sunday's first reading has that story in the background as soon after the passage we hear, when Solomon asks the Lord for the gift of wisdom, he begins construction on the temple that would stand until destroyed by Babylon after about four centuries (with a couple of intervening sackings by Egypt and Assyria.) The lesson here is that humanity can't build a house for the God of the universe, and that if they could, it wouldn't be so adorned that it gave the appearance of a palace. "This people is the house of God," as Paul says in Second Corinthians (6:16), "For we are the temple of the living God; as God said: 'I will live with them and move among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people.'" Paul is citing Jeremiah 31:33 there, the prophetic tradition after the destruction of the temple emphasizing that it is in the heart of people where God makes a dwelling. So Sunday at communion time, we will be singing, "You Have Built Your House of Living Stones."

The parable of the treasure, in Bernard Scott's interpretation, takes into account the fact that (starting only from what is given in the parable, and some knowledge of property rights in Judea at the time) the person who buys the field is committing an immoral act, buying what he has no right to buy. Scott says that the reign of God can be like that: we can be so thrilled about the possibilities of it that we do things we shouldn't do, like judging other people as unworthy, or forming cliques in the community that shut out the poor (think of the communities of Christianity’s first century that required Paul’s intervention.) Starting from Crossan's insight that the treasure parable is unique in that it begins with the treasure as a random discovery and not as a reward for good behavior, Scott says it’s important to remember that the treasure-finder hid the treasure in the field. If he had a right to it, or if it were really his, there would be no reason to hide it. He's plowing somebody else's field; he's a hired hand. Unlike other “blessing of treasure” stories, we don’t know the moral character of the actor, just what he did. Of course, Matthew clustered the treasure and pearl together because he probably wanted to make a different point than Jesus did!

What David Buttrick says, in Speaking Parables: A Homiletic Guide, is that whatever else is in those stories, it’s not possible to possess the kingdom by some act of treachery, barter, or purchase. It’s God’s reign, not ours - we can only live in it. It’s another argument against the “selling everything” story: if the guy starts spending the treasure, everyone will know he’s a thief. If he sells everything to buy the pearl, he won’t have any money for food and necessities: all he’ll have is the pearl. He’ll be a laughingstock.

“The kingdom of God is a like a treasure…"
“The kingdom of God is like a pearl…”

No matter how wonderful they might seem, we can’t get there from here on our own. They’re God’s gift.

Which brings us to St. Anne Parish and our feast day. The other readings save us from having to try to make sense of these two parables in too short a time.

It’s is God’s gift of wisdom that made Solomon the national memory that he was, the giftedness of wisdom being the point of the story. As in the gospel, we don’t have control over God’s gifts - they’re given to us (usually) unawares, and all we do is surrender to them.

The psalm says, "Lord, I love your commands. For I love your command more than gold, however fine.” In the new covenant of Jesus, the “compassion” and “kind” command of God is that we “love one another as I have loved you.” This is the characteristic virtue of the dominion of God, the treasure and the pearl we so long for.

The second reading continuation of Romans says that "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called … to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” To be formed by love, and to form by love. This is the Christian life - Jesus reveals what God is like, and by the gift of his spirit invites us into the very life of God. Saints Anne and Joachim, about whom we have literally no historical information including their names, we honor nevertheless as the parents of the one who said, “Let it be done to me according to your word,” and to whom was entrusted the formation of the Messiah. Like us, they are the "living stones" of whom the temple of God is built. Their anonymity is transformed into eternal memory because they surrendered to the ordinariness of their vocation as parents, and taught their daughter the way of God.

Anna and Joachim may be a corrective to our sense of entitlement: without so much as an actual historical record of their names, they hold a place in God’s reign and in human history as the grandparents of Jesus. Everyday people who taught their daughter to be open to God’s voice and to follow the Torah, they opened the doors of history to the Jesus Christ. If Christianity makes us proud or exclusive or seduces us into building up our own kingdom, it has led us the wrong way. But if it teaches us to surrender to love, to be formed by the desire to rely on God and, like God, put the good of others ahead of ourselves, we have been found by God. If we find one another, then, and become a parish, we can start to be a light shared in the neighborhood, the “many brothers and sisters” of Jesus, formed in his likeness. That is how our worship, our very existence, as a parish might be judged: not by the organizations, or the music or liturgy, but by how Barrington was changed. Who was fed, clothed, comforted, taken in, who might otherwise have been forgotten? To the extent that we are servants of the poor, that we "do not cling to godliness" as Jesus did, that we bend down and kneel to wash feet, we are the temple, the house of the living God.

Music for this weekend:
Entrance song: Walk in the Reign, with the summer verses again, this time just verse two.
"O one day we'll know them, the treasure, the pearl,
That brighten our spirits, and stir up our world.
We ache to possess them, the burden that frees:
The treasure of justice, the pearl of God's peace."
Psalm 119: Lord, I Love Your Commands. I set this psalm back in college to its more often-used refrain, "Happy are those who follow in the law of the Lord," but added this alternate refrain at a later date. We recorded it on "Psalms for the Church Year, Volume 4" back in 1991. Because of the tenor tessitura of the whole thing, I lowered the key a minor third, and I think it sings better for our female cantors now. I still can't play it with the jazzy authority of Beth Lederman, but who can?
Gifts: I Found the Treasure, by Dan Schutte. One of the last recordings the St. Louis Jesuits made was a double album The Steadfast Love, which also contained my oft-cited favorite of John Foley's, "The Christ of God." I saw Dan in St. Louis last week, and told him how often we use this song, particularly at weddings, and he said that he couldn't even remember the last time he sang it! It just shows how you never know, once the song is out there, what will happen next, who will like it and use it, and how it will be used. Again, when I arranged his song for strings and flute, I lowered the key from F to Eb, and I'm always happy to unleash its simple beauty on an assembly. Easy to sing, it's inviting melody and flow capture Matthew's fascination with the treasure story (perhaps different from the Master's, but...) and combines it with the confession at the end of John 6: "Lord, to whom can I go? You alone have the words of eternal life."
Communion: You Have Built Your House of Living Stones (see above)
Missioning: either All Are Welcome or Donna Peña's On Holy Ground at the masses with choir or teen group. When the musical forces are available, I love to pull out Donna's salsa anthem, which we used at the dedication of the church back in 2000. It not only recalls that day, and Easter time, and rings with creation and resurrection imagery, but it reminds us of our diversity, that we're richer because of it, and that the whole of us is always greater than the sum of the parts, mostly because when we surrender together to the gospel, God is building the house out of us living stones, and living right here among us.

In addition to the above, two special songs for St. Anne are included in this weekend's song list: Greg Brown's "Canned Goods" about a visit to his grandma's and the memories the food brings, and John Denver's "Grandma's Feather Bed." Happy feast day, church!