May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the 1970s, the great historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a book she gave the title: A Distant Mirror. It is about the 14th century in Europe, particularly the 100 Years’ War, when a great number of the countries of that continent were led by their kings, dukes, popes and others to fight for conquest and power, perhaps occasionally in self-defense, but certainly for dominance.
I cannot remember if Professor Tuchman declared clear winners, but she concluded that all of them lost no matter how much land, how many people, how much bounty they gained. Her point was that each of these rulers, having invested so many of their country’s resources in war over an extended period of time, succeeded in bankrupting his country, so much so that the recovery was hard and slow.
This was a “distant mirror” to the period of the Viet Nam war and its consequences for us as a nation.
When we think of resources, it is not just the things that money can buy: weapons and the means to deploy them. The biggest resource was brave young men who went off to fight in the wars. Just imagine if those whose lives were taken or destroyed had not been conscripted— how many more teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists and inventors would have populated those countries and contributed to their well-being. Another sacrifice was the hearts of those women who loved them and who were left to raise their children alone. Think further, for in many places hope died for a long time. The loss of so many, the crippling poverty because fields and crops and forests had been destroyed, the lack of safe and secure homes, the lack of a source of inspiration for children caused depression in every way and every kind.
So, even in that overwhelmingly masculine-dominated society, the women and children paid a dear price, some as collateral damage and almost all of the others in the lack of opportunity to gain knowledge and skill.
Tuchman’s book illustrates that these leaders were willing to spend whatever it took to win—including human lives, without seriously considering the greater consequences.
I begin with this because I think this is what Jesus is addressing in today’s gospel passage, and because so many world leaders are speaking loosely and glibly about going to war, the most deadly brinkmanship there is.
Jesus says, “What king, going out to wage war against another king will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with 10,000 to oppose the one who comes against him with 20,000? Today we might add tallies of things like ships, planes, bombs, missiles, atomic weapons. Jesus’ statement puts the spotlight on leaders in a way that we may assess and measure the cost of the drive to win, to dominate, because we weigh it in terms of the harm they cause. This is not a statement of pacifism; it is rather a statement about wisdom and good judgment and being faithful to the people one serves as their leader, to do one’s best for them.
Continuing on this larger, societal scale, Jesus also says, “Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down to estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him….”
Let’s bring this home. What if Jesus had said, “Which king, intending to build a WALL, does not first sit down and estimate the cost to see whether he has enough to complete it?”
That question is a current existential and political dilemma for us, not even bringing in the further question of whether a wall is the best way to accomplish an objective, whether a wall will even work. All of us have views on this and I think we are in the midst of something with no easy solutions. And there is little courage or statesmanship on the national level. Whatever may come of this, the danger is a massive depletion of resources and the sowing of ever greater division in this country and between us and other countries.
This gospel may hit home even deeper if we substitute a few more words for those of Jesus: “What priest and congregation, wanting to build a parish hall, does not first sit down and estimate the cost to see whether they have enough to complete it? Otherwise, when they have laid a foundation and are not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule them….”
This seems to be the major source of frustration, some friction and some division in our congregation. In the 75 or so days since I first interviewed with the Wardens and the Vestry, this seems to be the issue around which we have real disagreement, and I have heard several sides. It sometimes seems difficult to imagine how to proceed from here. To abandon the original vision and the effort already given, and call it a failure would be a difficult and costly decision to make, surely causing the loss of members who are vital to this community. To go ahead with the original vision and plan has seemed unworkable enough that there are revisions being prepared for us to consider. Unfortunately, much of that work of revision has been limited to the building itself, while over these past few years some of the needs are changing, and I think this calls for a revisioning that we, Trinity’s current members and some others, can do together.
What many of you do not yet see are the new opportunities that are emerging—opportunities to have a bigger dream with new partners. These are so new that the Vestry discussed them just this week.
I think many of these opportunities will be visible in jointly sponsored programs by the end of the year, programs that benefit both us and the Newport community. They will be consistent with the mission of Trinity to serve as a faith community where we have served for 321 years.
It is my hope that we shall not plunge ahead and deal with the building first. If we do we are not likely to build something that will suit any expansion. The Vestry is looking to see whether partnering with Seamen’s Church Institute and Newport Community School might work for us and them. We shall decide in late September whether to go ahead or not, and if we do this would mean using both the Church and Honyman Hall much more fully than we do at present. We think if that is successful then we shall consider what might be needed for all of us on the site of the Carr-Rice building. All this has been developing since the beginning of August when each of these bodies approached us.
Personally, I am very excited. This feels like the Holy Spirit is dangling the possibility of a larger vision in front of us, one that will stretch our imagination and stretch our hearts. If this continues, that will be a powerful reason to go ahead with our capital campaign because of expanded purpose and opportunity.
While standing here on the mountaintop (our pulpit), ten feet above criticism, I have found a new set of Ten Commandments which I want to commend to you:
I. Thou shalt ask lots of questions, because the Vestry really wants to be transparent.
II. Thou shalt volunteer to be part of the thinking and planning groups as they emerge, for the Vestry is looking for internal partnerships as well.
III. Thou shalt read the eTower each week for more news and updates.
IV. Thou shalt come to whatever meetings are held to discuss possibilities and what is being tried.
V. Thou shalt keep an open mind.
VI. Thou shalt speak thy peace as clearly as thou canst, for we cannot move forward without having clarity and yet we cannot hold back the Holy Spirit just out of fear or disagreement.
VII. Thou shalt NOT label people thou disagreedst with.
VIII. Thou shalt Not give ultimatums either internally or aloud, like saying, “If that happens, I am out of here.” When we think that way we make it come true by boxing ourselves in.
IX. Thou shalt speak to thy friends when they are ready to make an ultimatum, telling them you love them and asking them to hold it in and let go a bit.
X. Thou shalt open thy heart to this as well as thy mind.
From my vantage point, as I have been trying to communicate in person and in writing is that healing is happening, and with that ideas are starting to emerge. We do not need to rehearse the problems of the earlier part of this venture endlessly, and it is time to stop trying to find others to blame. That is done and what is done cannot be changed. But what comes tomorrow is change itself, in our attitudes, our relationships and in the hope God gives us. It is my conviction that God is with us in this and my expectation God will continue with us every step of the way if we are faithful.
One of the Bible verses with which we conclude Morning Prayer is this one from Ephesians which I find particularly appropriate today:
Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. [3:20,21]
+James L. Jelinek