Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Monday, December 12, 2022

Installation of Fr. Alex Barton

Installation of the Rev. Alex Barton
Church of the Redeemer, Lorain OH
Joshua 1:7-9
Psalm 146
Ephesians 4:7, 11-16
John 15:9-16

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

For those I haven’t met, my name is Fr. George Baum, I am the rector at St. Timothy’s Church in Massillon, where the football comes from, and I’m honored to be here with you on this festive night.  I grew up in Niagara Falls, where the carbon plants used to be, which is very close to Buffalo, where the steel mills used to be.  And now we live in Massillon, where the steel mills used to be, and we’re gathered tonight in Lorain, where the steel mills used to be.

The common thread there, of course, is the phrase, “used to be.”  So many cities in this part of the country hit their peak of success in manufacturing a particular thing that was once in high demand.  The people who owned those plants and mills got rich, and the workers got by.  When factories close down, the rich folks move on to the next thing, and the workers tend to be stranded, needing to find new ways to support their families, in a town that has lots of empty buildings.  And that cheerful opening obviously brings me to the sewers of London in the 19th century. 

Henry Scott Holland was an Anglican priest in the slums of London in the 1890s.  He campaigned for better sanitation in the city’s poor districts, and was told to stop interfering in secular affairs, because priests’ opinions don’t belong in such earthly matters.  You know, stay in your lane, as they say.  His response was, "I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation.”

When I first read this, I thought it was the most profound thing I’d ever heard.  As he later wrote, “The more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains.”  I find it’s such an important and moving idea.  And when I quote that line to people . . . well, I tend to get a blank stare in response.  You know, like I say to someone, “It’s like, the more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains, right?”  Nothing.

Okay.  The “Incarnation.” This is the fancy word for God becoming a human being.  To incarnate something is to bring it into the flesh, right?  So the Incarnation of God is just church speak for Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem—same name as the steel plant outside Buffalo.  Now we already make the connection between people’s physical wellbeing and the Incarnation, even if we don’t know it.

When you put your loose change in the Salvation Army kettle.  When you cook a bunch of turkeys for people on Thanksgiving.  When you offer community meals with produce from the church gardens.  When you gather up toiletries and fill an entire room with them to give away to your neighbors in need.  Whether we know it or not, we are proclaiming the link between the physical person of Jesus and caring for people’s physical needs.  We could say, the more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about children having enough food to eat.

Church of the Redeemer and Fr. Alex have already done so much together, and it looks as though you are just getting started!  You’re making the rest of us look bad.  And that’s why I’ve often thought, if I could serve at any church in the Diocese, I would choose to work alongside Fr. Alex and the people of this parish.  And if you tell anyone in Massillon I said that, I will deny it till my dying breath!  But together, you all seem to be doing the exact work that Jesus would have us do, rather than what Jesus himself would do.

And speaking of that, I’ve never found it helpful to ask ourselves the question, “What would Jesus do?”  Asking ourselves what Jesus would do sets up a whole list of things we cannot possibly do, including ushering in the Kingdom of God and redeeming all creation.  I feel like a more helpful question we might ask is, say, “What would Karl Marx do . . . if Karl Marx believed in the Incarnation of Jesus?”  Not what would Jesus do, but rather what would a Christian version of Karl Marx do?  That gives us a completely different list than what Jesus does.  A list that is directly connected to the Incarnation of God and caring about the drains.

Because that question leads us to fight against systemic injustice, to defend those who are oppressed, to help those who are out of work, to give food to the hungry, to make sure everyone has enough.  That question would lead us to buy up abandoned property to plant organic gardens, and use the produce to cook food to feed our neighbors delicious healthy meals.  Doing all the kinds of things that the church should be doing everywhere all the time.  In a very real sense, the Church of the Redeemer is redeeming the Church . . . from the inside out.  “The more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains.”  You folks believe in the Incarnation, and it shows.

But enough of me talking about you.  Let’s talk about marriage.  That gospel reading we just heard, from John, is often used at weddings and is also used at a celebration of new ministry, like this one.  As we heard, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.”  And I think our immediate takeaway is, “Oh no!  I have to keep a bunch of commandments in order to abide in the love of Jesus?”  I can hardly keep my calendar straight, how am I going to keep all these commandments?  If it’s up to me, I stand little chance of abiding in God’s love.  And that’s true.  However . . .

Jesus goes on to say, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  It turns out, it’s just one commandment.  It’s not a long list of behavior modification requirements that we can never fully achieve.  It’s just one thing:  Love one another.  But there’s a catch!  Love one another as I have loved you.

As I have loved you.  And that’s exactly why I love using this reading at weddings.  Because we can then ask ourselves, okay, so how does Jesus love us?  And the answer is, unconditionally.  Jesus loves us for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, and even beyond that veil when we pass into the arms of angels.  Jesus loves us unconditionally, and that is how we are to love one another.  Without regard to any of the things society tells us are important.  Without regard to status, or wealth, or social position, or anything else.

And when it comes down to it, this celebration of a new ministry is very much like a celebration of marriage.  The people of the Church of the Redeemer and Fr. Alex Barton are finally getting hitched tonight!  For better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.  You are all taking your relationship to the next level, where you will abide together in the love of Jesus, keeping his commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us.

And the love you have for one another is what will carry you into the future together.  A future of feeding those who are hungry.  Of reclaiming blighted plots of land and turning them into a source of food.  Of welcoming every person who walks through those doors and loving them unconditionally.  In short, of caring about the drains.

Fr. Alex, people of Redeemer, you are an inspiration to so many across our Diocese and beyond.  May you continue to walk in love, as God loves us.  May you abide in the love of Jesus, following his commandment to love one another unconditionally.  And may your ministry among the people of Lorain continue to be a beacon of hope, and a reminder to all who meet you that God has not given up on this world, and God still cares very much about the drains.


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