The Rev. Laurel Mathewson, Co-Vicar at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in North Park, joined us on Sunday, February 12 at the 9am Forum to talk about "the North Park Project" and how it relates to our community at St. Bart's. Rev. Laurel gave the sermon on Sunday also.
Fields of Transformation
There are many advantages to growing up and becoming an adult, but one obvious disadvantage is that “being good” and “following the rules” gets much, much more complicated. As a small child, decisions leading to a gold star for behavior are simple, if not easy: Follow directions. Don’t talk back. Be helpful rather than destructive. Do these things, and all the adults present will praise you. As we grow, “being good” and “doing good” change in strange and paradoxical ways: on the one hand, everything gets more complicated, and on the other hand, the fundamentals of ethical behavior remain much the same. This tension greets us through the readings today. From Deuteronomy, we have the beautiful climax of Moses’ farewell address to the people of Israel: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses,” he says. “Choose life!” And who wouldn’t jump on that train, especially when it’s presented so cleanly, soclearly? Yes, Lord, we think. I choose to live in your life-giving…law; I choose life! And then: Hold up. Jesus greets us with an advanced ethics lesson, indicating that this whole endeavor might not be as clean or simple as we hoped.
This week, I dove back into my seminary ethics notes, and I have to admit that it wasn’t just this challenging passage that compelled me: I was brushing up because I was going to be representing Christianity on an interfaith ethics panel at a high school in San Diego, and teenagers still intimidate me. And just like in high school, I thought studying harder and providing smarter answers might win their affection. All joking aside, it was a gift to return to this topic in this week, because it turns out one of the central claims of Christian moral theology is illustrated quite well by today’s demanding set of teachings from Jesus: Namely, it’s not just about whether or not we live by the rules, follow the law with outward compliance; Christ eternally moves us, invites us, toward a deeper development of character, toward transformation. To simply obey the rules doesn’t constitute the fullness of “choosing life” that God hopes for each of us, and our communities. Rules are guidelines to aid in formation, but they are not the essence of ethics itself. Even the graphic metaphors of cutting off a hand or removing an eye reveal this underlying framework: practicing ethics is a matter of shaping our very selves, over time, into persons more and more capable of making good, right, life-giving choices; more and more attuned to the image of God within us.
But is this all up to us? Is it a matter of sheer will-power, making extreme changes, choosing life all the time against all the odds?
We know that’s not the fullness of Christian wisdom and tradition: our faith has long held that transformation toward what is good, right, and holy is a mysterious dance involving both our choices and God’s grace. So where does that leave us? What does it mean to “choose life” when we acknowledge God’s movement at the heart of all meaningful growth and transformation, too?
The scholar and ethicist Kenneth Melchin offers an idea, a summary, that I think really helps here:
Our responsibility, according to Melchin, is to be God’s co-creators in heightening the probabilities of redemptive moments of transformation. We are called to help create the conditions of possibility for transformation.
“What then is Apollos?” We hear from the apostle Paul this morning. “What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to …each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. for we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field.”
This framework can be both liberating and empowering as we face the complex problems in our individual lives, families, churches, nation, and world. There is still much for us to do; we are co-creators, laborers, but the entire burden is not on our shoulders! We work, like Paul and Apollos, to help create the conditions of possibility for transformation. God, the giver of life, provides the growth.
I love the metaphor Paul provides: you, the community of Christ, the church, are God’s field. To choose life is to choose to help cultivate life in the field; to plant or to nurture fields where the conditions of possibility are intentionally designed with gospel-centered transformation in mind: justice; healing; dignity as children of God for all.
Okay, I know this is getting a bit abstract, so let’s bring it back to God’s good earth. What particular fields of transformation do we see? After all, God specializes in diverse forms of growth.
Today I’d like to share with you some of the fields of transformation I see at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in the neighborhood of North Park, when God’s grace helps open my eyes. My husband Colin and I have been sent to St. Luke’s to serve as pastors and priests to the existing congregation, which is primarily Sudanese-American, and also to explore 21st century ways of being church and proclaiming the gospel. While God’s fields for transformation are no more obvious in North Park than in Poway, here is where I see the risen Christ at work, God’s Holy Spirit moving to transform lives and reconcile us to one another and to God:
I see the existing congregation as one such field, where the most beloved and cherished crop is transforming refugees into residents with a sense of belonging, a sense of home. In the past few weeks, our choir has begun to sing songs in Swahili with beautiful harmonies, led by two men who have been in community for just a couple months with their wives and children.
They are from the Congo, and so they speak French and Swahili, not English and Arabic, like most of our congregants from the Sudan. And yet when someone in the congregation caught wind that they were looking for an Anglican church back in late October, they arranged for our van to pick them up each week, because they don’t have a car. I hear my church leaders, most who have been in the U.S. for 15 years or more, say that they want more than anything for St. Luke’s to be a place where refugees find a sense of home, as the church did for them. I watch them make the calls and drive the vans and extend invitations to baby showers in our fellowship hall to make that a vision a reality.
I see the recovery communities that meet on our campus as some of the most active and productive fields of transformation I’ve been privileged to visit: the stream of men and women who have found healing in 12-step programs who gather in rooms below my office and fill our fellowship hall, singing together lines like Joni Mitchell’s “I’ve looked at life from both sides now.” In the absence of other church programs, they have been the weekday blooms in the desert of our campus: about 30 meetings take place in our facility each week.
I see our diverse diocesan youth programs as rare fields of transformation: On recent Sundays, I see a blond boy, a middle schooler I had known at St. Paul’s Cathedral, who now requests his mom drop him off at St. Luke’s, because there are a group of boys his age, and they have made friends at diocesan youth events. He goes to the fanciest private school in San Diego, and his friends at St. Luke’s go to some of the toughest city schools. But they know one another through church, just as my own kids already knew many of their new Sunday school classmates because they attended vacation bible school together last summer. I watch them run with the pack while I visit with congregants over tea and fry-bread.
I see a small but incredibly productive field of potential transformation that was recently transplanted to our church campus: Uptown Community Services now makes its home at St. Luke’s, with steadfast volunteers planting and watering from 9am-3pm each weekday. Uptown is a faith-based non-profit for the homeless, offering mail services, basic toiletries, and computer workstations. I hear word from the Uptown board and staff about what good news our space brings to their guests, especially access to two bathrooms and a courtyard to rest outside for a bit in the shade.
And then there are the fields of transformation that are in the making, just now being tilled and prepared: a St. Luke’s partnership with the International Rescue Committee to develop our vacant lot into a small urban farm for recently resettled refugees, with integrated job training in a certified kitchen and pop-up cafe right in the heart of our bustling neighborhood.
There is more I could share, but let’s pause there.
Colin and I are edging out of young adult status, but we still count as millennials, and we have a working theory about how evangelism, transformation, and conversion works most often with young adults. It does not belong to us, nor is it unique to us, but it finds a very welcome home with today’s epistle from Paul, and is central to our strategy at St. Luke’s: “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose but it is God who gives the growth.
For young adults on the lookout for truth and goodness, searching for truth with a capital T, beginning with an invitation to worship Jesus may not be the best place to start. Inviting them to work alongside Christ followers in the field as we do the sort of reconciling kingdom work Jesus taught us to do seems like a better place to start: praying and sharing experiences of God in our lives as we try to walk in the way of Jesus, with the Spirit’s help, together. We will be recruiting folks in the neighborhood into small groups, each group organized a common project or mission that embodies in some way God’s healing and justice. As we work together, our meetings will still be oriented around prayer and a common meal. We will still talk about God, a lot. We will still rely on God’s grace. But we hope these might be communities where people see Christ at work, through transformation: The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose but it is God who gives the growth.
This is an initiative of the Diocese of San Diego, so in very important ways, you are already a part of this; you have joined us. What we learn will be shared with the diocese, and we hope other churches might learn from our successes and failures. We are grateful for your support of these faithful experiments.
But we do and will learn from you, too: So what fields of transformation do you see in your own life? At St. Bart’s? I hope you’ll share what you see with me or your own community’s leaders in the days and weeks ahead.
I will close with this note of hope, as a fellow laborer in the fields who often, admittedly, feels like a failing farmer, unsure of how to best tend the plants, wanting to choose life and partner with God’s good work but wondering how. Here is the good news that greets me again and again in my prayers of angst and uncertainty, the good news that the Holy Spirit, our co-creator, is not far off, but labors right alongside us in the field and within us. In the words of Moses, given just before the choice of life or death, I invite you to remember and rejoice in this truth:
“For this commandment, which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deut. 30:11-14)
The Word is very near to you. Do not despair. Choose life! Continue to work on cultivating fields of life-giving transformation, no matter the role and gifts God has given you for this complex task. The Word, the wisdom, the Spirit of Jesus is in your heart, so that you can do it.