Night Watch

When I worked for NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, I was sent to, among several places, Seattle, to look at some of the most effective programming being done to address the homeless mentally ill.

Much of this work centered around re-purposed churches and congregations that had become alert to a new calling.  While some still held their traditional Sunday morning services, during midweek these places were alive with a buzz of activity.

One program held at a Lutheran Church was “Night Watch.”  About six o’clock in the evening, the doors opened and a vast assortment of folks begin to stream in.  Volunteers of all sorts as well as neighborhood folks from the surrounding houses and high rises. 

Soon this normally empty church was ringing with laughter and conversation.  Off in the corner one fellow strummed a guitar singing old songs out of the sixties.  In a back room nurse volunteers checked feet for diabetic sores and took blood pressure.  If any medical help was needed they passed out flyers for the nearby free clinic.

Piles of fresh fruit were available along with sack lunches for people to take.  Numerous students from the nearby social work program at the university volunteered as student interns – to get to know the folks who came in the door and to just to be companions for the evening.  Small groups were gathered around various board games.  I sat in on a chess match.

I asked one older fellow — alright, he was about my age – what brought him out at nights for this event — my generation would have called it a “happening.”  He said that he lived alone in one of the high rises, and this was his one chance to be with people.  He came most every night the doors were open.  Some of the younger participants who lived on the street found a meal here and met with friends.

For the elderly congregation that hosted “Night Watch,” this was RESURRECTION.  Their Lutheran faith tradition had discovered vibrant, new life.  You could see it in the faces of these people.

Rummaging around through Christian Century’s “Preaching the Word,” I came across a most marvelous Episcopal priest, Heidi Haverkamp.  This woman is my sort of priest.  I knew it when I read of her award-winning article, “How I learned to love the doctrine of total depravity.”  Total depravity is always a draw for the imagination.  Heidi comes from Chicago, where she received her Masters of Divinity, and has served parishes in the surrounding Illinois area.

Here’s her take on where we are as communities of faith at the beginning of this new century in America. 

We all know the church is in decline across the country.  And not just the mainline expressions of the faith.  Evangelicals, even Mormons, have experienced a falling away of attendance.  At St. Francis the Sunday School has been darkened for years, hardly anyone remembers an infant – or any – baptism.

Without such an acknowledgement of this decline any Easter message of New Life would sound a bit hollow.  As our society becomes increasingly secular, communities of faith are facing the problem of finding new wineskins for new wine.  Where might we be of service to a world that perceives no need for what we offer?  Or at least for the packaging?

Mary’s lingering by the tomb clues us to the potential of an Easter morn.  Don’t cling to the past.  This is where we pick up John’s telling of the Easter events — as the night watch gloom lifts to a brilliant dawn of an early morning watch.

Heidi suggests that the key words of the Risen Christ here are, “do not cling to me.”  He is yet to ascend to God.  She suggests that, in these moments of demise, perhaps the church clings to old forms and ways of being, and is not open to what may be ascending to the Glory of God.

Yes, we dearly love and adore our venerable traditions.  Some would say we cling.  You know the joke:  how many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? There are two answers.  First: “We don’t believe in change.”  Second: “It takes eight. One to climb the ladder and unscrew the bulb and put in its replacement, and seven to form a society to commemorate how wonderful the old bulb was.”

Mary Magdalene, faithfully remains at the empty tomb, agonized at the loss of her Lord.  The others, Peter and another disciple, have left.  Martha has left.  Mary alone remains in her sorrow – a sacred pause – an opening to God.

“Mary’s lingering and grieving over the loss of her teacher and friend—and surely also her uncertainty about her future—is met by the presence of Christ. However, she doesn’t recognize him at first. Christ’s presence among us might not always be obvious. Christ’s invitation to new life is almost always unfamiliar and surprising, even disconcerting. We may overlook or miss Christ among us altogether.” [1]

“But then Jesus calls her by name: “Mary!” And she knows him right away.”[2]

This Easter morn, we so long to hold on to memories of grandeur past – large vested choirs, full Sunday school classrooms, magnificent music (in some venues with full orchestra joining in the hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”) splendidly attired clergy and acolytes, and all the Episcopal hoo-ha we know so well how to put on.  Oh, don’t forget the incense!

But that tomb is mostly empty, only a discarded chasuble and a tattered Book of Common Prayer or two laying on the ground.  Empty, like too many of our congregations.  Let us linger, keep the lights on and the doors open, trusting that the world will at some point rediscover its need of Resurrection Communities.

This early morning, if we are to listen very carefully, if we are to be attentive to nuance and whisper, we just might hear our Lord call out our name.  And like that foretelling of this glorious morning — Lazarus’s call back to life — we might blink our eyes in astonishment to perceive our Lord beckoning us to Resurrection in forms we barely recognize.

He calls out our names – in times of quiet and in times of chaos; in times of stress and in moments of prayer.  Listen for yours in this Easter season of Resurrection.

The overall purpose of John’s gospel is to invite its readers into a Love relationship – with God in Christ, with one another, and, most importantly, with the world.  It’s all about a “for-God-so-Loved-the-World” story.

He beckons to new possibility, new life, new growth.

What paths of holy service is God opening up for you and your community of faith this Eastertide?  Remember that great nineteenth century preacher Philips Brooks’ dictum?

“We never become truly spiritual by sitting down and wishing to become so.  You must undertake something so great that you cannot accomplish it unaided.”

And…this is not a “eat your spinach” (or whatever it is you detest) project.  Here’s the Rev. Brooks’ other piece of advice on attitude: “Distrust your religion unless it is cheerful, unless it turns every act and deed to music and exults in attempts to catch the harmony of the new life.”

You’ve seen that iconic picture of John Lewis, and the ranks of civil rights marchers at the Edmund Pettis Bridge facing fire hoses and snarling police dogs on Bloody Sunday in 1965.  Though John Lewis was beaten half to death, barely surviving, he held no hate.  If any march ever looked like a journey into the Gates of Hell, this did.  Death and destruction.  The racism of that day was putrefying as any tomb of decay.

Mary Magdalene may not have been there to witness the new birth of democracy in that moment.  She may not have been present to witness to the stone-cold tomb of racial hatred.  She might not have been there lingering, BUT the TV cameras were.  And through them America got a whiff of the sulphureous odor of Hell.  Through them we saw the death of the old order.

And within days, an entire Resurrection army of the Righteous was headed down South, and headed North as well, to say to the perpetrators of violence, to those Night Riders of Skokie and Tulsa and San Bernardino – this is not the America we want for ourselves and our children.  Unacceptable!

We can be, must be, better than this.  Bus after bus of Resurrection followers of the Way of nonviolence headed south.  Along with others — not of Jesus’ flock:  Jews, Buddhists, atheists, none-of-the-above.  All Spirit-inspired; all Spirit-powered.  God’s own.

And in jail cell after jail cell, no mourning.  Freedom songs, gospel songs break out — the infectious melodies and words of purpose and solidarity.

Many, many years later, some of the notables present at that first march, and present-day civil rights advocates commemorate that day in solemnity.  This time, a police escort instead of batons and snarling dogs.  Freedom songs to lift a spirit of solidarity.  Joy in the morning!

Resurrection is always coming – every Sunday, we celebrate it.  Joy in the morning!  You can’t hold it back.

Yes, much remains to be done.  When votes are denied through gerrymandering and voter suppression laws, we need to be out there in force – joyfully peaceful.  It’s to be a family event.  Black and white together as the song says.

When workers are denied the right to workplace representation, when wage slaves are ground to dust, we rise to sing another chorus of “Solidarity Forever.”  Another round of “Which Side Are You On?”  Resurrection in the union hall.

When recovering addicts join hands around a circle, we join in prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Resurrection at the 12-step meeting.

When our election workers are threatened with death and the civic forums are trashed by MAGA mobs, give me another chorus of “My Country Tis of Thee.”  And for those of us out of the sixties — “This Land is Your Land.” – “From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters,” let it ring.  Resurrection at the polling booth.

When women are assaulted and discriminated against in the workplace, let’s have another round of “Bread and Roses,” to commemorate the loss of so many women at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in flames and smoke over112 years ago when 146 women lost their lives.  All due to the greed of the owners who had locked all the exits on the upper floors.  Yes, “give us bread, but give us roses too.”  And the vote!  Resurrection for our sisters!

You can’t hold them down – whether in the halls of Congress or in the city council – or at the women’s health care clinic!  Resurrection!

Since my time, there’s been a definite restoration of our democracy.  And miles still to go.  Face it: it’s like housework – never done.

All these, they are moments of national Resurrection.  Death, destruction, privation banished by a Resurrection People with Easter visions in their eyes.  Don’t hold on too tight, “the Spirit blows where it will” – making space.  Look at what happened in Wisconsin this week!  — the death knell of their gerrymandered voting maps.  Democracy restored!  Next stop – Tennessee!

During Covid a quiet has shrouded our night watch in sorrow – but with the dawn, has come a Holy Wind that freshens the morning watch with Possibility.  Calling out your name.

This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our sight.  This Easter we give testimony to what we have seen and what we know. 

Yes, listen very, very carefully; you might just hear your name called out, your summons by the Risen Christ.

As he came to Mary Magdalene in the garden on that Resurrection Morning, he comes to us.  Albert Schweitzer gets the last word on this promise.

“He Comes to Us.”

“He comes to us as one unknown without a name/Without a name, without a name as of old by the lakeside He came to those who knew Him not.  He speaks to us, He speaks to us the same word: Follow me, Follow me! And sets us to the task which He has to fulfill for our time.  He commands and to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts and the sufferings.  They shall pass through in His fellowship, As an ineffable mystery they shall learn in their own experience who He is.”[3]

Happy Easter.  Amen.

[1] Heidi Haverkamp, “Don’t Hold On,” Christian Century, for April 9, 2023.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jim Strathdee, Albert Schweitzer, “He Comes to Us,” There’s Still Time, Desert Flower Music, 1977.  Altered.

April 9, 2023, Easter Day

“Night Watch”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney, St. Francis Episcopal Mission

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;
Colossians 3:1-4; Gospel: John 20:1-18

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