Updated: May 16, 2020
The Rev. Tyler Montgomery
Our liturgy here at the Church of the Ascension starts days before we ring the bells at quarter to ten on Sunday morning. For me, it started on Friday, when I opened my winter cloths bin for the first time in months to pull out some sweaters for the Adirondack chill at dawn and dusk. Then, after a long and sometimes congested journey, what I like to think of as our “high church liturgy” begins with balsam and pine incense when I crack the window after exiting the I-87 Northway, and it continues with a litany of acolytes in the form of the Noonmark Diner in Keene Valley, the Cascade lakes, and the ski jumps in Lake Placid. This “high church” procession through the mountains concludes with a turn past Donnelly’s ice cream, the undisputed Gospel bearer of these parts. There is a “low church liturgy” too, which approaches up the eastern side of the lake up route 30. It lacks the “smells and bells” of the western approach, but has a certain spartan dignity akin to our protestant heritage, with a small, wooden sign that marks the entrance to the Adirondack park. This “low church” approach offers fewer views and landmarks, but doesn’t fail to deliver the same sense of sacred procession. Either way, the proper liturgy begins – for me – with an opening acclamation, when I jump into the cool waters of the lake for the first time, and feel all the tension and anticipation of the journey wash away.
The ability of this place, and particularly the lake, to make those of us who love it feel the transcendent pulse that courses through the universe can be profound. In this way, the entire lake functions like a baptismal fount, whose theological function is to wash away the stain of the world in order to reveal the beauty of God’s creation. Baptisma, which means washing, is what many of us undergo as we journey to the Church of the Ascension on Sunday mornings in the summer – a sense that we can scrub away the anxiety and rush and fears of the world, if only just for a little while. I would imagine that this might be the case for those of us whose processions are not as long as my own. Perhaps a short drive around spring pond and back bay – or simply a walk down the road – is enough for baptism.
Paired with the sensation of being washed clean of our anxiety and fear is often a sense of renewal. Some time away – a weekend, a week, or maybe just a day – can help us to see more clearly what matters most in our lives. And for many of us, we come to this place to renew our connection to a community that has made love known to us. The memorial glade outside the Church of the Ascension is filled with loved ones, who I know many of us like to imagine are enjoying some version of a cocktail party in God’s heavenly kingdom. In this place, we can renew our connection to a community – past, present, and future – which makes God’s love incarnate for us.
Baptism and renewal. That is why we gather here in this log cabin Chapel each summer, and that is precisely what our two lessons from Colossians and the Gospel of Luke this morning address. Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians to, “put to death whatever in [us] is earthly: […] anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language,” because, “[we] have stripped off the old self with its practices and clothed [our]selves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” Do you hear Paul describing the exact same dynamic in the life of Christ that many of us experience when we journey to this place? Put away all of our to-do lists. Put away our sense of insecurity. Put away those small grievances that distract us from beauty and joy. Put to death the wrath and malice that boil up in us because we are afraid that we are unworthy or unloved. Wash our fears off through baptism. And then…then we can clothe ourselves with a new sense of identity. Then we will be able to hear the beauty in the loon calls that echo over the lake at night. Then we might be able to appreciate the hermit thrush as it greets us in the morning. Then we will be renewed according to the image of God, the image which we know in Christ to be one of peace, hope, joy, and faith.
Paul describes this process of renewal, exclaiming, “In that renewal there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” This may not sound as radical to us as Paul would have intended because barbarians and Scythians are not familiar to us, so let me offer a contemporary interpretation: In this renewal there is no longer rich and poor, black or white, Latino or Anglo, republican or democrat, Ivy League or community college, athlete or intellectual, immigrant or citizen. Whatever it is that we think defines our identity no longer constrains us, no longer reduces us to a metric that can be consumed, used, abused, devalued. All that is left is the abiding, eternal, infinitely worthy image of God. In other words, whatever it is that we think makes us unworthy is made irrelevant (Are we not attractive enough? Not wealthy enough? Not popular or successful enough? Not smart enough?). These insecurities are washed away in baptism so that we might renew our understanding that Christ is all and in all. And that means every single one of us here today is a God bearer – infinitely worthy and dignified to bear the image of God, to take God into our own flesh and show God to the world.
As beautiful as this may sound, it is a revelation that is easy to proclaim and difficult to believe, which is why Jesus gives us a parable in Luke’s gospel about a rich man who builds large barns to protect all of his material possessions. The rich man in this parable is hedging his bets. All this talk about being a child of God is fine and dandy, but what if famine comes? What if global warming causes the seas to rise? What if the stock market collapses? What if one of my children is in a car accident? What if the wrong person wins the next presidential election? We need to build walls (big walls) to protect what we’ve got, and then we can relax. Surely some of us can relate to this type of fear. In response, God tells the rich man, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
I have heard this parable interpreted as an economic manifesto, which reduces its meaning to “do good works and give to the poor,” but I think that is silly. Jesus offers us no such guidelines, but one thing does seem clear in this parable: when we allow our lives to de dictated by our fears of scarcity and death like the rich man, we will remain spiritually impoverished. The barns that we build from fear do nothing to feed our souls. No matter how big our barns are, how strong our walls are – fear begets fear – and we will never come to know the peace of God. This is because fear – in all of its forms – cause us to close ourselves off from the world. As we build larger barns, we tighten up and batten down the hatches; we curl up to protect ourselves from the threat of pain, and we lose our ability to enter into a life giving relationship with God and our neighbor.
The posture of fear is a fist, ready to strike and hold tight to what it’s got. And this is why it is significant that we receive communion with an open palm. The posture of faith is an outstretched hand, waiting and ready to receive the grace of God. We do not “take” communion, as though it is something to acquire; we receive communion, as a free gift from God, a sign that we are worthy. Each one of us comes to the Church of the Ascension this morning with a fist curled up someplace in our soul. That fist is a fear that the darkness of the world will hurt us or those we love; it is a desire, like the rich man’s, to build bigger barns and bigger walls in order to be safe and relax. Our invitation this morning is to approach the altar, kneel before God, and open our hands in a posture of faith rather than with a fist. We celebrate communion in this place only a few times each year, but I can think of no better way to celebrate the gift that God gives us here on Upper Saranac Lake. No matter who you are, you are invited to come and see. God may just feed us in ways that we cannot imagine, through baptism and a renewed knowledge that Christ lives in each one of us. Amen.