May 21 Sermon

Pulling Up Stakes
A Reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
May 21 2017, the Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Based on Acts 17:22-31: The Book of acts tells stories of the early church finding their way to share the good news of Christ’s resurrection. The second half of the book concentrates on Paul’s mission to take the gospel to non-Jews. In this passage, he is on the Greek city of Athens, preaching on an outcropping on the Acropolis dedicated to the Greek God Ares, known as Mars to the Romans, the god of warfare. Listen for how Paul’s message contrasts with the identity of this Greek deity.

And John 14:15-21: This passage from John is part of Jesus saying farewell to the disciples. Listen for three things. First, how Jesus is preparing the disciples for what is to come. Second, the many ways love is used: almost all of them are verbs. Third, listen to the many words related to family.

Over a month ago I chose this title because this evening just outside of New York City Ringling Brothers Circus – properly titled “Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows” – will give its last performance. (And if you are interested, you can watch the performance as it is live-streamed on youtube at 6 PM.) The closing of Ringling stirs many deep feelings for me. We’ll never see another circus like Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey combined shows. It is the end of a grand component of American culture. I never got to take my grandchildren to see Ringling. But I’m not necessarily sad as much as I am melancholy and reflective.

The phrase “Pulling Up Stakes” means packing up and moving on. It does not originate in circus lingo, but it is used in the circus to mean several different things. “Time to pull up stakes” can mean time to move on because this place is no longer profitable. That comes from the 19th Century when circuses didn’t plan their route much more than a week in advance.

When the circus began to move using trains, the schedule was planned out months in advance. Then “pulling up stakes” meant when personnel needed to be on the train because it would be leaving soon thereafter. You see, the stakes for the tents were the last thing to be loaded on the train – so when they arrived at the new site, the stakes could be first thing to be unloaded.[1] First off, last on – so you when you heard they were pulling up the stakes, you should move as fast as possible to get on the train before it pulled away. Even though large circuses like Ringling Brothers have moved from large circus tents to arenas, they still use the lingo from the 19th Century. So later today Ringling will be pulling up stakes for the last time.

We have two scriptures this morning where it seems the early church is reflecting on what it means to pull up stakes. The book of Acts gives a sense that Paul’s ministry was more like the early circus. He’s going where the spirit leads him. He’s in a city as long as he is effective or until they run him out of town. In the first 15 verses of Acts 17, Paul is in 4 different cities, having left the previous place with a seeming mob at his heels: it was obviously not profitable to stay! In our verses, now he is in Athens, describing to the Greeks who Christ is using Greek religion and philosophy. Spoiler alert: some people believe him, others do not, and Paul moves on to another city.

In contrast, the way the writer of John’s gospel portrays Jesus is as someone who knows things ahead of time, and so is usually a step ahead. We’re in this section set as part of the last supper. Jesus and the disciples have dined and Jesus begins this long soliloquy. And I do mean long: Jesus talks all the way through chapters 14, 15, and 16, some 2,100 words. For comparison, Hamlet’s soliloquy – you know:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,” –

that one only goes on for 275 words.

I really can’t imagine Jesus, the great teacher, trying to cram that much information into one session, especially after a large meal. But John is telling a story about Jesus whose character is to know ahead of time. In this scene, Jesus is saying farewell, preparing the disciples for when he will pull up stakes – or perhaps more literally for the time after Jesus himself hangs on a stake.

There’s been a lot of analysis on why Ringling is closing. I don’t think it is any one thing. Yes, animal rights activists have focused on the treatment of circus animals and laws have changed in some cities prohibiting the exhibition of animals. Yes, ticket sales and audience sizes have diminished in the past couple decades. Rather than updating their presentation for the 21st Century, Ringling remained dedicated to a traditional style from the 19th Century – and people stopped finding meaning in it. Along with that, in the past two decades all live performance has been changing to compete with you tube and live stream video. For all I can say about the merits of live performance, I cannot deny the influence digital video has had on all of us.

All that said, the closing of Ringling does not mean the end of circus as an entertainment form. There’s lots of small circuses still in existence, and if you have never been to a single-ring circus I highly recommend finding one. It is an entirely different experience than an arena show.

The church has a lot of similarities to a circus. That is not a commentary on Lyonsville – I mean the broader church. Like the circus, the church uses a lot of jargon from bygone eras. Much of our liturgical terms and architectural designations come from the 19th century – or from Medieval Europe, or even from the Byzantine era And while that jargon is familiar to those of us in the church, it seems strange to those who are not with the church.

Some of those words we could translate in to more modern terms.

“Pews” could become “seats”

“Hymnals” could become “song books.”

“Benediction” could be “Sending Forth.”

Why do we keep those old terms? What would we lose by updating them to something more familiar? Are we wed to these antique practices so much that, like the circus, people in the broader culture have difficulty finding meaning in them? If so, will we be able to adapt or will we too find the wider church pulling up stakes until all that are left are some small independent churches? How do we combine both ancient practices and contemporary relevance?

But pulling up stakes has a couple of other meanings. When aerialists – wire walkers, trapeze acts, Spanish web, hoop – are trying out a new set of tricks, it requires that they adjust their rigging. Traditionally, those apparatus relied on tension from wires connected to stakes in the ground. Moving the stakes literally changed the way a performer could use the apparatus, and this changing the kinds of tricks they can do. “Pulling up stakes” meant trying to find the right kind of tension to put on the rigging so the performer could do the new tricks.

What sort of stake-pulling does Lyonsville need to experiment with so new tricks can be done? I’m not suggesting all of you become tight wire walkers or that we learn the flying trapeze. It might be fun to see what Kaila Baker could do on a flying trapeze, but it could be very dangerous for Marion Randolph or Wilma Mrazek to try walking a tight wire.

What I mean is:  what needs to be moved around so that you can use the organization of Lyonsville for more effective ministry? A lot of the stakes you have in the ground come from 10, 20, maybe even 30 years ago when you were a larger congregation with members who were mostly younger. I readily admit that several stunts I used to perform 20 years ago I can no longer do – because my body has changed in those 20 years. Just as your bodies have changed, the ways you work together have changed – but you have not changed the apparatus for doing the work. What would pulling up a few stakes do for your ability to perform feats of ministry?

The circus uses “Pull up the stakes” in one more very important way. It’s a call in time of emergency – specifically, when a windstorm is approaching. High winds can rip a circus tent; the yards and yards of hanging canvas is very heavy and can injure when the canvas is ripped, when the poles and guy lines are in danger of collapsing. It seems counterintuitive, but pulling up the stakes allows the canvas to move with strong winds and prevents it from ripping.

Throughout the bible, blowing wind has been a symbol of God’s spirit. We want it to be like a gentle summer breeze, restorative and comforting. More often it is described like this past week’s winds, disruptive and potentially dangerous. At the Red Sea it is a fierce gust; for Elijah and Job it was a tornado; for the disciples at Pentecost is was a mighty gale.

We pray – I include myself here – for God’s spirit to blow through this congregation. But if God’s spirit as fierce as a tornado, then perhaps we need to pull up some stakes so the spiritual canvas holding this circus – I mean church – together. And let’s turn that metaphor a bit: What has Lyonsville so tightly staked down that it resists God’s blowing? In an effort to protect the church, what have we tied down so securely that even God’s blowing spirit is unable to free it up? Is it possible that in our pursuit of security we have set the stakes so deeply, so securely that God is unable to help us move?

Please don’t hear me saying that it is time for Lyonsville to pull up stakes and close. Please also do not hear me saying I am pulling up stakes to leave Lyonsville. What I am hoping this circus image provokes is examination of what changes can occur before the possibility of closing this congregation – or for that matter our denomination – needs to be considered.

I find circus images to be full of resilience and hope – images that may help the church be more resilient in this time of cultural change. And like the circus, I think the church is intended to move from neighborhood to neighborhood, from city to city, county to county, state to state.

It’s a good time to be the church.

[1] When arriving at a site, the roustabouts (in a circus they are the people who set up things; today we call them roadies) the roustabouts pounded stakes into the ground identifying the perimeter of the big top and other large tents.

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