Guest preacher: The Rev Robert Stuhlmann, Calvary Episcopal, Underhill, VT
Jesus’ teaching method was storytelling: A farmer scatters seed, it grows on its own and becomes a great harvest for which the farmer has done nothing. And the mustard seed so tiny it grows into a mighty bush where the birds make their nests.
Of course, you get the typical Vermont rebuttal to Jesus from the farmer who is approached by a Tourist as he tends his field. “This is a beautiful farm you and God have here”, the tourist gushed. The farmer replied, “Should of seen it when God had it all to his self.”
The point of these teachings is to invite the listener into an inner exploration. To change the mind and momentarily to defy rational consciousness.
To invite the listener to see with a new heart and eye. That’s why we’re here. To listen with new ears and to see with new hearts.
Here’s an almost timeless story of two Churches.
The Lutheran church was going through some growing pains, internal and external conflicts. A group from Seminex, a break-away seminary in the Missouri Synod, began an alternative group whose aim was to unite all the four other branches of the Lutheran Church in the USA.
The Episcopal church around this time had just ended its squabbling whether to ordain women and to have a new prayer book and hymnal. And the local Episcopal Church had dwindled in numbers and its big stone church in the middle of the town was closed.
The small congregation reached out to the Lutherans and agreed to a special relationship where they’d rent space and share as much as they could in the worship and the work in the neighborhood. The Episcopal congregation agreed to help pay for an amazing tracker organ that made the heart sing when it was played.
Many of the people from both congregations knew each other. One of the leaders of the Episcopal Church was the matriarch of a family of plumbers. The Tretheweys are perpetually remembered by clips from This Old House, where one of the sons does all the plumbing work in these old and beautiful relics throughout the Boston area.
So what were the two little congregations to do, Battered and Bloody from conflicts within and without?
We began to interview people in the congregations and the neighborhood.
In our visits we encountered a young Black family.
The father was a law student at BU and the mother a nurse. Their beautiful baby girl had suddenly and mysteriously died. The Social Worker accused the father of battery against the child. We got together and did some research and the mother remembered that an uncle had also died suddenly in his youth in much the same way. And with further evaluation it uncovered the cause of death was a genetic anomaly that ran through the wife’s family. Together we held a memorial service and listened as the young law student fumed in rage over the false accusation. And we all wept and fumed together.
Paul Tillich, the Lutheran theologian, said: The first duty of Love is to listen. It is a brilliant way to make love active and not a passive feeling. So…
We encountered many single moms. We contacted a local social worker to have a support group at the church. We held summer camps and found church camps to send some of the families for weeks at a time to get them out of the city into nature.
We found that the Boy’s Club had moved their programs out of the City Municipal Building in the neighborhood to its more plush neighbor. And the City was planning to move the Department of Motor Vehicles, that had long been housed in the Municipal building, to the suburbs. And the swimming pool that had been closed ever since a neighborhood kid drove a VW bug through the fence into it…. The neighbors almost unanimously wanted it re-opened. One local city councilor, who could sing in his tenor a flawless Danny Boy, was also as racist as you could imagine a white Boston Pol could be, thought the re-opening of the pool for poor, Black and White kids was a waste of money.
The two seeds, these two mighty little seeds, envisioned a new possibility simply by listening to their neighbors and their congregations.
The Boy’s Club moved back. The City totally refurbished the run-down city hall repaired and replaced the warped floor or the gym and stabilized the track. The Boy’s Club added Girls to their name.
The DMV was saved, and on the reopening, the people from the two parishes and other congregations that we helped involve, assembled in the new and beautiful space. Governor Dukakis stood in front, protected by two enormous and armed State Troopers, while the neatly dressed and coiffed women and men from the churches and neighborhood smiled benignly.
Also, there were some huge divides between our churches. We had to address orders for ministry, Baptism, the Eucharist. All those things that divided us before and after the Reformation. There we were – two little churches at the epicenter of the great coming together that manifested in the uniting of most of the Lutherans and the alliance between our National Synods.
I was there when the provision for joining with you was approved at our convention that year. There were cheers and tears of Joy in the room. And my seminary professor, Bob Wright, was practically lifted on shoulders, if you can imagine Episcopalians doing such a thing, for all the hard and tactful work with which he had engaged our church and yours.
I know what little seeds can do, I have witnessed it and walked the streets and listened. I know it can happen and I also know we were at a particular moment in time that was ready for this new turning toward each other. A certain maturity that comes when real inner growth takes place and our former strident positions mellow and we can see each other as if for the first time as neighbors and brothers, sisters, and brethren.
Probably both the Vermont farmer and the tourist were both right. God and nature create the template. And the farmer tends the fields, weeds, and plants and harvests. We start with the sense that we are doing this all by ourselves, and we grow to an awareness that has always been there waiting to be discovered, that it’s all sacred ground, all the spirit of God breathing over the creation and through our own beings. And we are all one with the ongoing process of an evolution into the divine.