The Red Box

When you come to church or watch the next celebration of the eucharist on the internet, you will see (for the first time perhaps) a red box under the altar. I hope the original owner of the box will identify themselves when they read this. A bright red oriental chest, smelling of cedar and camphor, was generously given (by a yet unknown member of friend of St Paul’s) to the 2019 rummage sale. I am not sure what it was used for, but its owner decided to give it away and that gesture of release would maybe help others. The rummage sale generates about $35-40k a year to support local organizations dealing with the impact of our economic and racial divide -addiction, hunger, unemployment and homelessness. I bought the chest, knowing my dollars would be well used in the coming months, and left it in the rectory, holding up a lamp that also came from rummage. The chest witnessed many meetings in the living room, like the first confirmation group when we could meet face to face and the first outdoor eucharists on the rectory garden when many of you came to receive the eucharist for the first time in months. It witnessed our meet and greet for newcomers when the Vestry began welcoming newcomers in March, before COVID stopped all of that.

The chest was supposed to come home with me to be placed somewhere on a brightly windowed patio, but there was simply not enough time in the day to begin the patio renovations. It was still a mess and looked like a cross between a mud room and storage shed. Our normal plans and timelines were simply disrupted. Rummage and the renovations, so carefully planned and hoped for, were disrupted. What continued however was the quiet usefulness of the red chest. It had been lovingly released by its owner, snapped up by another, generated part of the treasure given away by St Paul’s this year to our partner organizations. Thankfully, and despite no rummage, Outreach was able to give away more money and food in 2020 than previously. God, the Holy Spirit continued to bless contagious and hopeful generosity. No room here for holding onto possessions or wealth from a false sense of scarcity. The chest continued to move and circulate hope and generosity in its own moth-bally kinda way. The Holy Spirit works through humans in the same way -fire red and cunningly unobtrusive -yet holding up the only light in the darkened living room -did anyone notice?

When Ruth Desiderio and Barbara Abbott, our rector search consultant, asked me to design a commissioning ceremony where the congregation would pray over them, I was completely stumped. Some of the committee felt unsafe to return to church in person, so we had to ask Marisa to create a Zoom service so the Search Committee and congregation could be in communication with each other. We decided to use the labyrinth area and invited members of the committee to bring an object, a book, a symbol of their aspirations for a new rector. After reading the profile (designed from the parish survey so many of you answered), the search committee members went beyond their own personal preferences to reflect on the qualities and skills of the next rector of St Paul’s. The red chest sat in the middle of the labyrinth, itself a symbol of St Paul’s church’s journey over the decades. The members introduced themselves to the congregation and the objects and the placed them in the chest. I referred to it as our own “ark” and was inspired by Marie’s telling of the story about the Children of Israel carry an ark through the desert to the promised land. It contained many sacred reminders of their encounter with God and God’s promise never to abandon them. It would be most useful when they wanted to give up and simply curse God for abandoning them in the wilderness. The ark was finally given a home in the Temple in Jerusalem in the most sacred place -a constant reminder of God’s love and generosity, in good and bad times. Thank you Godly Play for that inspiration and I hope the children and confirmation class will help to decorate this latest ark containing these hopeful relics. We had hymn and prayer books placed in it. A pledge card and baptismal candle. A choir surplice that was worn by the member since he was a boy in our choir placed in the box. Traditional and aspirational symbols created an alchemy that was blest by Barbara and carried by Colin Brown and Mike Latini from the labyrinth to the high altar area -our most sacred spot in the whole community. The little handles were difficult to manage and it swayed from right to left as if something alive was already inside -struggling to be born. Eventually it was placed right under the altar we use every Sunday.

This is the same altar St. Paul’s previous clergy have stood by -blessing them and feeding them to keep on going. As I stood there later for the 11 am service, I sensed someone was nudging me from shin-level. “Get out of the way Ogle! I am coming! “. A familiar chuckle – “we are all passing through” wafts around me. This hopeful aspirational holy covenant between God and the people of St Paul’s was already at work. One day, that person we are hoping for, would be standing RIGHT HERE!  I had to explain to the 11 am congregation why we had this bright red box under the altar. The work of the search committee is diligent and intense, but it is also extremely secretive and everyone has to create a watertight confidentiality that is fragile and is needs to build trust to speak the truth in love. Clergy candidates many be unwilling or unsure if they want to leave their current congregation and most people the search committee will interview will remain in their current jobs.

So, the red box reminds us that the Holy Spirit is in secret and holy activity, and this dedicated group of our representatives, cannot talk to us very much about what they ae now doing on our behalf. Louise Thompson, the chair may give us a general report from time to time, but don’t expect much to surface from now to Valentine’s Day! The Vestry will also respect this confidentiality, so speculation, gossip and anxiety may be the flavor of the month, but we trust and need all these good people to be left alone to get on with their work. The red box is a daily prayer for them. They occupy the center of our spiritual heart. We have created a sacramental symbol of hope and expectation, just as our Jewish forebears did long ago. They know we are praying for them and there will be days and weeks where it may all seem too difficult and pointless to go on, but God is ultimately in charge of it all and God promises to be with us in the desert as well as in the celebration of joy.

This coming Sunday is a celebration of Joyful Generosity at St Paul’s. We have been given so much. Like the recycled red box, many of us feel invisible, some useless, some rejected, but the truth is..God is not finished with us yet! In the midst of a terrifying pandemic, we have each other. The work of generosity spills into our outreach and concern for others. I see that every day as we move the groceries for local food pantries into Dixon House and witness the enthusiasm for helping others as Jesus would do. At each service, you will have an opportunity to add to the sacred gifts of hope for the future, embodied in a new rector. Pledge cards and online donations will be placed into the ark, and if you are not one of the 75 families already signed up for 2021, you can place your pledge in the collection plate and we will bless all these gifts and place them in the ark. The next rector will only succeed if every member of St Paul’s blesses that red box with prayer, time, talent and treasure. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey once said “The church often gets the clergy it deserves.”

What will she be like? What will he say, if I really need someone to talk to? Somewhere in that spirit-red ark, the answers are bubbling quietly away. In joyful generosity, we give away as we receive and treasure in our deepest core. The tangible and symbolic express our inarticulate longings. God does not expect us to do it all alone – so he has given us each other – transient and recycled, as we beautifully are.