March 6, 2009

A week ago I was in

Boston, visiting an Episcopal school called Epiphany. It’s run by a group of visionaries who believe that all children deserve a fair shake and the best possible preparation for life. They serve 85 kids, in 5th through 8th grades, and they fill their entering class by lottery. The director told me that those entering 5th graders score in the bottom fifth of the public school population, at a 2nd or 3rd grade level. When they leave 8th grade, they are functioning at an average academic level of 10th or 11th grade. These are poor, inner-city children of color. The current student body is Latino, Asian, African immigrant, African-American, and yes, one white kid. They go to school 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, 11 months of the year. They eat three meals a day at school. Their families are expected to contribute two hours a week to the school, but they pay no tuition. The school depends on dedicated teachers, a host of volunteers, and a first-rate fund-raising team. They employ a group of professional teachers as well as a cadre of young teacher interns, who live together in community as well as receiving a stipend.

Epiphany is transforming the whole community, including the train stop outside the front door. They got the drug-infested alley behind the school building closed – it’s now dedicated to a playground and ball field. The collision repair shop across the parking lot is in their sights as well – they want to buy it and turn it into housing, for some kids to board during the week, and for families in crisis. I suggested to the director that they shouldn’t change the name – because they are all about collision repair. They provide massive social support for the students and their families, dealing with health, housing, and employment issues. A sizeable percentage of their students are referred from the state children’s services, as abused or foster children.

This is reconciliation in action. It is the kind of reconciling ministry into which every Christian is baptized. If you look in the back of the prayer book, at the Catechism, it will tell you that the mission of the Church is to reconcile the world to God and each other in Christ. That’s what we promised to do when we were baptized. It is the vocation of each and every one of us, not just those of us who wear funny clothes or stand up front.

How and why is this reconciliation? The children at Epiphany school have to look the director in the eye and shake his hand every day before they can go in the door. It is a way of reminding each one that she or he is beloved, that all are God’s treasured possession, as Exodus puts it, and like the Hebrew people, they too are being delivered from the slavery of wretched and hopeless poverty. It’s a sacramental reminder that somebody cares – that God’s love has flesh in that place, and will reach out a hand and look you in the eye to remind you of it.

Reconciling work goes on throughout the day – feeding hungry stomachs and hungry brains and hungry hearts, connecting gifts and interests with the resources to let them grow and mature into the full stature of Christ. Reconciliation connects families with the resources needed for a life of dignity – with home and heat, health and meaningful work. And a reconciled community is built in the process – the place looks a great deal like a middle school version of the reign of God. An 8th grade African-American girl gave the sermon the day I was there, and it was a fine example of connecting the pain she sees in kids in her city with the good news of the gospel.

God calls you and me “treasured possession” as well. We’ve been brought out of Egypt to hear God’s voice (and “hearing” is what obey means) and keep his reconciling covenant, to be his priestly people. A priestly people makes whole that which is broken, repairs the breach in relationships, restores the alienated, and delivers prisoners. How are you going to steward the gifts you’ve been given for this priestly work of reconciliation?

Reconciliation, at its root, means to take counsel together. It means spending time in conversation to begin to see the image of God in one who has been at a distance. One of the most powerful images of reconciling community is Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. It’s the kind of conversation I spoke about yesterday – spending time in the presence of another, living together, with or without words. Prayer as listening (obey, again) is an example of conversation with God. Building community grows out of that kind of abiding with others and with God. Our vocation is building community that looks more like the reign of God.

You have gathered in this place to make decisions about how you will live in this community called the Diocese of West Tennessee. Your reconciling work is about how your common life can bless the larger community – it is about how you reconcile among yourselves, but it can’t stop there. Your internal work must have consequences for the larger world. That is the cross-shaped and self-denying work, for it means turning the focus away from our private wants toward the healing of the world. It is a source of abundant life and grace, of the sort of which Jesus’ passion and resurrection is our central icon.

The work of this Convention and this Diocese is in part to discern your gifts, and in part to mobilize those gifts. Peter’s letter is pretty clear about what that looks like: love each other, and serve with whatever gift you’ve got. But don’t just love each other, he says, maintain constant love for each other – work at it! – and you will discover that it will get you past the errings and wanderings that divide you (that multitude of sins). The act of loving service will itself produce reconciliation. I hear it every time I go to New Orleans, where the locals tell me, “you know, people come down here from really conservative churches and really progressive ones, and you know, they get along just fine!” When our focus is others, rather than ourselves, we discover that God is already at work. We find our life in giving up some lesser focus that we thought was our life.

A group from the Diocese of New York came to see me on Tuesday to talk about All Our Children, an initiative they hope will encourage every congregation in this country to partner with a public school, so that every student has an experience of God’s love in human flesh. Richmond, Virginia has already accomplished that.

How and where are your gifts meant to be put to work? How can your conversation with the larger community produce reconciliation? I’ve heard lots of examples here – work with school children; mission partnerships with Haiti; a deepened conversation about racism; and conversations that get beyond the surface to the hard stuff, like the one your clergy had yesterday.

How are you going to be reconcilers in this world? How will you be priestly people? What will you give in return for your life?