Sunday, October 25, 2020

Anniversary Sunday

 He’s the internet pioneer you’ve likely never heard of.

His name is Jacques Gaillot, and his route from rural south-eastern France, to the Algerian desert, and the early days of the World Wide Web begins with a sermon. But that’s the middle of the story.

The story begins as young Jacques completes compulsory military service, enters the seminary, becomes a professor and a priest, and later a bishop. At this point, his story reads like so many of the countless bishops within the Roman Catholic Church. But everything changes with his first Easter service as Bishop of Évreux, when he shares these words: “Christ died outside the walls as he was born outside the walls. If we are to see the light, the sun, of Easter, we ourselves must go outside the walls…Does a bishop remain in his cathedral or does he go into the street?”

His activism was boundless. From the “street” in Évreux he spoke out on disarmament, apartheid, gay rights, French nuclear testing, contraception, clerical celibacy—to name a few. A dozen years after Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop, he removed him, or rather, he relocated him to the Diocese of Parthenia—many times larger than Évreux, but almost completely covered in sand.

You see, Parthenia is a titular see, meaning it was once a thriving part of the church, but no longer exists (except on paper). Within the Catholic Church these former regions are retained as placeholders, or honorifics, or in the case of Jacques Gaillot, as punishment. Along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa there were nearly fifty dioceses with nearly fifty bishops, all of which were gone by the early middle ages.

Having been given a diocese buried under metres of sand, the good bishop moved online, creating the first “virtual” diocese and reaching a worldwide audience. What began as punishment became an opportunity and an early example of the power of the internet to inform and mobilize. 25 years later his work continues.

I share this unlikely story with you because I love stories of people who managed to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” but also because of the story of Parthenia. We celebrate 199 years of Central today, but we also celebrate all the history that led to this moment. We mark this place, but we also remember the parts of the church that led to the creation of this place: from the recent and well-loved places like Mount Dennis, Westminster, and Elverston-Trethewey—to the places that led to their creation. In the same way that each church was formed by people coming from other churches, each person was (and is) formed by others, all of them with a unique background in the faith. This web of believers, existing over time and space, makes us who we are today, as we mark this moment.

It also reminds us that we exist in the middle of the story—always the middle of the story—and what follows is always unknown. We recall the history of this place, and we celebrate the present of this place, and we anticipate with hope the future. Yet, it remains unwritten. We don’t get to see the promised land, the future church that is the fulfillment of all our hopes, because we belong to the middle of the story. And we’re in good company, of course, with no less a figure than Moses himself.

The remarkable passage from Deuteronomy 34 describes the end of Moses’ life, the middle of the story where God shows him the vastness of the promised land—a land he cannot enter. It is the culmination of the most important story in the Old Testament—along with creation itself. From the baby in the basket, to the Incident at Meribah, to this view of the promised land, the story of Moses is foundational to our understanding of the God Who Saves. And as I share this claim, and as you call to mind the arc of the Exodus, I hope you (like me) wonder at the Incident at Meribah.

It’s hinted at in our passage: God says to Moses “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” Walter Bruegemann argues that by the time God reminds Moses, it’s all ancient history—the Incident at Meribah—but our passage turns on this story nonetheless.

It happens like this: The people are complaining once more. Despite the water and the manna and the awkward quail, the people are complaining once more. And in their thirst and frustration they begin to complain to Moses and Aaron and it all sounds rather familiar: ‘Why did you bring us this evil place? At least in Egypt we had places to grow our grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and here, there isn’t even water to drink.’

So Moses and Aaron retreat to the tent of meeting and seek God’s help. God says (in essence) ‘do what you did before. Take the staff, tell the rock to bring forth water, give to the people.’ So they gather the people once more, and Moses speaks. He forgets his homily about the God Who Saves and the gifts God has given them to sustain them so far. And instead he says “Look you idiots, you want me to get some water from this rock?” (look it up—Numbers 20.10) He struck the rock (twice) and everyone drank.

But God was angry. ‘You didn’t speak to the rock, you struck the rock. You didn’t uphold me by saying ‘look at what God is giving you’—you said ‘look at what I’m giving you’ instead. For this reason, you will get to see the promised land, but you cannot enter it. Again, this may be ancient history for Moses, tired after leading these unruly people for forty years, but it defines his end. Stuck in the middle of the story, never entering the promised land, he must settle for hope.

It seems to me that the lesson of forever dwelling in the middle of the story has even wider application. Almost exactly four years ago I shared an article about St. Augustine, the North African saint that some were calling the “patron saint of the 2016 election.” It turns out it was a little too prescient. The author of the article argues that even as the barbarian hordes were overtaking the city, Augustine never lost hope. Even as the Western Roman empire was crumbling, and with it the certitude of the church in this period, Augustine was working for the well-being of the city, and the people he was trusted to lead. “Christians are not of the world, but we’re most definitely in it,” the Archbishop of Philadelphia said. “Augustine would say that our home is the City of God, but we get there by passing through the City of Man…and while we’re on the road, we have a duty to leave the world better than we found it.”*

Again, the middle of the story. And just because we need hope more than ever, I want to quote President Obama, who shared these words on Wednesday, more-or-less saying what all these others are saying:

And the fact that we don’t get 100% of what we want right away is not a good reason not to vote. It means we’ve got to vote and then get some change and then vote some more and then get some more change, and then keep on voting until we get it right.*

The past might be a mystery to us, or even covered in sand, and the present might look like one crisis after another, but we still have hope. The past might not feel like the past to us, and the present might seem like it never lives up to the past, but we still have hope. The past might seem like a trial in the desert, and the present merely a glimpse of the promised land, but we still have hope.

Our task is to keep wandering, keep moving, keep supporting one another, and keep the faith alive. Our task is to find Christ “outside the walls” of the church, and in the streets, the streets where God lives. And our task is to remember that God will save us from every kind of trial, and that God will always lead us home. Amen.




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