The Good Old Days (Proper 20, Year A)

The good old days.

When I was in high school I worked in a deli with an old school butcher. The sort that stored a couple huge carcasses in the freezer, where behind the counter the owner made his own sausages and ground his own beef. He cooked and spiced his own roast beef, which was always a perfectly cooked medium rare. The radio tuned to a golden oldie’s station that played a lot of Frank Sinatra.

“Those were the days,” he’d say. “When singers could sing and songwriters wrote.” Billy Strayhorn and Cole Porter, they wrote, and Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald sang. The Beatles? They lacked depth. Even Bob Dylan was a disaster.

“He can’t sing. What is this? Who wants to listen to that voice?” He’d say this in his thick German accent. The good old days, when songwriters wrote and singers could sing. Way before Autotune made Katy Perry a star.

There’s the story of Pete Seeger getting so upset at Bob Dylan’s use of the electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival that he just went up with an axe and cut through it. It actually never happened; and the reason was probably more because of poor sound overall than a hostility to the electric sound. But when people tell the story, it’s to reflect the feeling of some time being more pure and unadulterated. A previous time, and a fear about the future.

And so the Israelites are busy thinking about the good old days. Yes, they’d been enslaved; yes, they were busy nursing other people’s children; and perhaps life was hard and difficult, but they were fed. While they are now free, they are also starving, and deeply insecure because they’re entering foreign territory. Security usually trumps freedom when you don’t know where you’re next meal’s coming from.

Sometimes hope requires a full belly.

We construct narratives, stories of our past in part to survive. Who wants to remember the bad times, the times we were hurt and abused and bullied? And those who always remember, who wants to hang with those guys? Get some therapy, keep your chin up, and endure! Ideally we learn to talk ourselves out of the resentment, fear or the simple feeling that we’re damaged because of what we’ve inherited. But our faith says we cannot avoid the truth, no matter how hard it was, is and will be.

Those narratives can be misleading. Was life great in the 1950’s? Well, for some, yes; for some, no. It’s great that families may have eaten together; but then, who was doing all the cooking? Some people wish we could return to some of those glory days, but do you remember how high taxes were during Nixon? We trusted government, but then, what of the Gulf of Tonkin? Not a lot of African-Americans want to go back to the 1950’s, but on the other hand, some would argue there was a stronger black middle class. So let’s talk about the good old days without idealizing them. We can admit they made us who we are, but who we can and will be, that’s another story.

So the Israelites create this story – life was better in the old days. But they don’t see how, even in the wilderness, there are resources that God provides. One woman in recovery once said to me, when I gave up the drink, I then had to find an inner strength I didn’t know I had; but I also had to look around me and learn about what I really wanted in my life. I wanted good friendships, so I started calling people; I wanted to read more and I learned to value a cup of tea instead. They were all there beforehand, but I just overlooked them.

Around us we have what we need. We just don’t see it.

And so in our own wilderness, part of what we do is to find what has been placed there all around us that can feed us. If we seek transformation, the work will be difficult; because we are like novices, or children, at being free. Nobody just grows up learning to be free in any society; that’s work that requires formation, in an environment where it’s also alright to get things wrong and make mistakes. It’s easier to live a liberated life when you have some security around you.

But the gospel today does not say, “it’s tough to be free, so, if you make a mistake, then go back to Egypt.” It says, you can keep going. It doesn’t matter when you begin the journey. Some have been around a long time. They had their spiritual vision and insight when they were 20 and still organize their lives around it, and God Bless Them. Others won’t get there until they’re 85, when they suddenly realize, “wow, I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, and I’m only now realizing how wonderful the daily office is!” When the landowner rewards the worker who came late, it may seem like the eldest child who suddenly finds the youngest getting more attention; or even like a newcomer who the rector spends most of their time cultivating. Te youngest will not know what the good old days were like, except through fantasy and legend; the newcomer only intuits what has gone before, and has no desire for the fleshpots of Egypt.

So some people have come late to the party. It may have been a tough road for them to get through the door. That just as some of us have been here a long time, in this church, on this planet, our work in the wilderness also requires the ones just arriving. Perhaps also, we’re the newcomer, we’re the ones who got to the vineyard at 5pm, and we’re benefitting from all that has been given to us from before.

Whoever has come late, the truth is that we need as many hands as possible, because there remains plenty of manna around, for us to discover, for us to gather and for us to eat.

Who will pay the bills?

Sometimes you can hear the desperation of the church crying out into the wilderness.

Where are all the people?

How will we pay the bills?

Why is our roof leaking?

It’s not a pretty sight. I’ve seen churches where parishioners trounce upon new members like vampires, sucking out life from these unsuspecting innocents.

“Will you serve on this committee? Will you do the work? Will you give us money? Blood or your first child is also OK.”

It is discouraging for vampires. I mean, discouraging for us in the church who truly want to serve, and require resources to do this.

We are caught pleading and begging. It’s the season for us not-for-profits to beg and plead. Blah blah blah. I need your hard earned cash. Now.

Many visitors know that they will be seen as prey and have the sense that they will be valued mainly for their financial contribution. I know because sometimes I, myself, have felt like a predator, wanting desperately to be liked, begging for people to come again. And then making newcomers do the work other congregants burnt themselves out on.

It’s the way many churches work.

I want us to do something different. I’ve noticed that the energy of new members has reinvigorated long term members. We’re at an important time in our history.

But before getting on this treadwheel, let me offer a new way of thinking about what we are about to do.

I believe that if the only thing the church cares about is its own institutional survival, then just let it die. In fact, let’s kill it. People don’t need clergy as personal chaplains. They should develop better friendships (although I’ll always be a friendly sounding board). They don’t need to fund a building that’s falling apart, when they’ve got more pressing needs of their own. People are not here to serve the church. Visitors don’t exist for the sake of the church’s survival.

As long as the institutional church thinks of the outside community as potential recruits into their cult, it will either become a cult that revolves around a charismatic personality, or die.

What we need is a completely different model. We’re beginning to try out here.

A few people, of course, are skeptical. In the old days, the priest was the caregiver. The congregation got served. The priest becomes the one who is responsible for explaining the faith, making the rules, and calling the shots. I do long for those days, but people don’t buy it much anymore. Nor should they.

In a new model, the role of the priest is to communicate the gospel, help people collaborate to live out their ministry, and create entrepreneurial programs that build the community.

In the new model, the church exists for the sake of building up other people – that is what Jesus Christ did. Not just Episcopalians. Not just Christians or Catholics. But everyone who needs support. Skeptics and Jews and Muslims.

Just not Methodists. And Red Sox fans. I draw the line there.

Just kidding aobut that, actually. Of course Methodists. Shintoists must go to the outer darkness. Although I have nothing but respect for those who practice the cult of Amaterasu Omakami.

I digress.

The shift means that we live into the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Instead of being priest centered – or even church centered – each one of us has the responsibility of encouraging, challenging and participating in our communities. In this time of chaos and distress, we are called to discern our community’s needs. Every individual in the parish has a calling, a purpose, a potentiality that they can live out and share.

We may have to think hard about how we connect with people. Do we even know our neighbors? Can we discover their passions, their needs, their hopes and fears, their motivations? Then, when we gather, we can share these hopes and find ways to advocate and enact them.

These friends and connections may never darken our door. But we would be there.

This requires a long term view. It’s hard to change our perspective because we’re here looking at the roof, wondering how its going to be fixed, frustrated that our kids don’t value the faith that we have. Perhaps we should ask them about what they need.

I think we’ve been telling people what we need so often we’ve simply forgotten how to listen. In many churches we’ve told them who they should be, what they should do, and what they should do better. Some people want those churches and need them badly.

Our call, however, may simply be – at this time – to listen carefully to what the culture is saying, and where it is hearing the gospel. For the gospel isn’t just holed up in church.

Maybe once we have heard, we’ll become the gathering that was intended for us all along.

And yes, pledge cards will be in the mail. Yes, we’re desperate. We want to suck your blood.

Metaphorically.

Please note that last sentence “we want to suck your blood” was meant as humor.

Complaints please forward straight to God.