Hands to the Plow – Br. Mark Brown

1 Cor. 10:31—11:1/Psalm 34:1-8/Luke 9:51-62

Today we salute St. Ignatius of Loyola, who in 1534 founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.  The Jesuits are, of course, a religious order of tremendously wide scope and influence in the Church and the world. And Ignatian spirituality has been a great source of inspiration for us in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, which is why Ignatius appears in one of our stained glass windows.  So, we pause to recognize his tremendous contribution to our life and give thanks to God for his life and witness.

For my reflections this evening I’d like to return to something I said a few weeks ago in another sermon.  I noted, in passing, that the church is essentially a progressive institution.  The church, the Body of Christ, a living organism, is, in its essence, progressive. I didn’t elaborate at the time, but this evening’s gospel prompts me to take up the theme again.

“…his face was set toward Jerusalem.” Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem; he bids others follow him, forward into the unknown, without looking back. We know how the story unfolds: last supper, the garden, the trial, the suffering, the crucifixion—and glorious resurrection.  Jesus and his followers have set their faces toward Jerusalem—toward Golgotha and the Empty Tomb.  They have set their faces toward the Paschal Mystery: suffering, death, resurrection, glory. We who follow Jesus 2000 years later set our faces toward Jerusalem and the mystery of redemption as well.

It can equally be said that Jesus sets his face toward the New Jerusalem.  Jerusalem seems always to have been a place of tremendous conflict and suffering that continues down to this day.  But even in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures we begin to see a vision of something new emerging.  Psalm 87 comes to mind: “Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of our God.”  The Psalm goes on to envision Jerusalem as the mother city of all people.  A city of radical inclusion.  Three of the bitterest enemies of Israel are mentioned specifically: Egypt, Babylon, Philistia.  In this visionary Psalm, even these bitter enemies of Israel will belong to the Holy City of Jerusalem—Zion.

The Psalm goes even further: “Of Zion it shall be said: everyone was born in her.”  And “The Lord will record as he enrolls the peoples, ‘these also were born there.’”   All the peoples, the nations, the gentiles: “these also were born there.”   This is an ancient vision of radical inclusion—predating Christ by some hundreds of years. An ancient vision of a New Jerusalem; an ancient vision for a new human society.

Jesus has set his face towards this New Jerusalem.  He bids us follow.  And not look back.  We are to set our faces forward and not look back.  The Church, the Body of Christ, is to set its face forward and not look back.  We have a vision before us of radical inclusion.  Even the bitterest enemies are reconciled in this new city.  With Christ in the vanguard, we make our way—drawing in the Egyptians, the Babylonians and Philistines and their modern equivalents. Drawing in the lepers, the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, and the poor.  And everybody else: it says “everyone was born there”.  Everyone means every single one. That’s the vision.

The Church, the Body of Christ, is essentially progressive: we are making our way forward into God’s vision for the New Jerusalem.  The Church is not essentially about preservation.  We are not about the business of preserving antiques in some kind of museum.  We are grounded in the past, to be sure; we owe a great debt to those who have gone before us, to be sure, but we don’t live in their world.

We have deep roots in the past.  But the function of roots is to provide nourishment for this season’s new growth, this season’s fruit.  We sink roots in the past precisely to nourish the growing edge. Church is not essentially about being “old-timey”.  Church is about living into a new vision: God’s vision of radical inclusion, God’s very expansive catholicity.

Which is why I’m glad to be Episcopalian these days.  I hope God will forgive me even some pride in being Episcopalian these days.  I’m not proud to be Anglican, whatever that still means, but I’m proud to be Episcopalian.  I’m proud of our bishops who have said, “We’ve got our hands to the plow and we’re not looking back”.  I’m proud of everyone in this church that has set their face toward the New Jerusalem and has refused to look back. I’m proud that this church is grasping the idea that we’re not antiquarians preserving some glorious past, but that we’re on the move, moving forward into the new city.

The glorious past may very well keep company with us.  We love our music, our architecture, our ceremonial, our sacred texts, our great tradition. What a rich inheritance we have!  These lovely things may very well keep company with us for a long time to come. And why not? The glories of the past may very well be glories of the future—if they continue to nourish us, they need not bind us to the past. Past glories may be future glories.

But it is the future that calls.  There is a city waiting—it waits in the heart and mind of God.  This ancient vision awaits fulfillment in the real lives of real flesh and blood people.  It’s there, a long way off, but we can see it.  Even now we see it coming down out of heaven…

87 Fundamenta ejus

1          On the holy mountain stands the city he has founded; *
the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

2          Glorious things are spoken of you, *
O city of our God.

3          I count Egypt and Babylon among those who know me; *
behold Philistia, Tyre, and Ethiopia:
in Zion were they born.

4          Of Zion it shall be said, “Everyone was born in her, *
and the Most High himself shall sustain her.”

5          The Lord will record as he enrolls the peoples, *
“These also were born there.”

6          The singers and the dancers will say, *
“All my fresh springs are in you.”

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  1. Jennifer on July 8, 2015 at 12:07

    How timely this message is now, after last week’s vote at the general convention, the election of Bishop Curry, not to mention the Supreme Court decision.

  2. Christopher Rivers on July 8, 2015 at 09:52

    So straightforward, so encouraging, so apposite and so important. Thank you.

  3. Marta e. on July 8, 2015 at 08:03

    So, I struggle, and wonder. “All”. Does that include our enemies, those who have hurt us, have hurt the children, have committed unspeakable crimes? Sometimes, it is hard to get to “forgiveness” and “reconciliation”. . .

  4. Fred Adams on September 21, 2013 at 13:23

    Br. Mark,
    This latest sermon so resonates with me. I’m a member, congregant, choir director, etc. of an Episcopal mission church, but whenever I’m not conducting I attend a Metropolitan Community Church–a church who espouses radical inclusion, and it this radical nature of which we speak so often. MCC ministers to all, but especially to the LGBTQ community. It is so wonderful to hear “radical inclusion” mentioned (or being reminded of) outside MCC in the mainstream church. Thank you and blessings for reminding me of that “tie.”
    Fred Adams

  5. Polly Chatfield on September 16, 2013 at 15:54

    Thank you, Mark. Yes, yes, yes.

  6. Dana on September 16, 2013 at 14:57

    I am looking for a quote I read in one of your daily meditations. It was on serving or being a servant and the writer said something like ” no Christian life can be lived without the element of service.” Do you have a way to look that up? I save most of my daily meditations because they are so rich, I can’t bear to delete them, but I cannot find that one and I wanted to quote it in a sermon on Sept. 29th.
    Deacon Dana

  7. Joe Stroud on September 16, 2013 at 13:40

    Brother Mark, though you spoke these words several years ago, they are EXACTLY what I need to hear today. For several years I have attended a church of another denomination with my wonderful wife (with frequent participation in Episcopal services). And, my heart remains at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in my city as her congregation is considering whether to leave its denomination over a NON-BINDING (their denomination has, essentially, a congregational polity) resolution recently passed by its national body welcoming all regardless of “. . . . . sexual orientation or theological perspective.” “Proud” to be an Episcopalian? Yes, I hope God will forgive me a bit of pride in being an Episcopalian, a denomination where I hope no seeker feels marginalized.

  8. Bob Johnston on September 16, 2013 at 13:10

    You can be as progressive as you want to be, but you will achieve nothing. The church can look to the future and love the past, but will not achieve Zion. All is Gift, Your last sentence saved your sermon, “Even now we see it coming down out of heaven.”

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