[Sermon preached on Sunday, February 11, 2018 (Last Epiphany, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

Mark 9:5,6 (NRSV)

Years ago, before deciding to pursue Holy Orders, go to seminary, and become a priest, I was a member of my parish choir in Atlanta, Georgia. I am not sure if this is still true, but the choir of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta was one of the largest volunteer choirs in the entirety of the Episcopal Church. It wasn’t uncommon for the choir to feature fifty voices on a typical Sunday morning and anything from eighty to one hundred for major liturgies. Excellent choral music was a big deal for that parish and nowhere was this more evident than Holy Week. By the time I had come along, the choir had developed the tradition of offering John Rutter’s Requiem on Good Friday with the third movement, “Pie Jesu,” being sung as the offertory anthem.

If you have ever heard this piece you’ll know that it seems Rutter intended for this piece to leave the listener transfixed and in the heights of “wonder, love, and praise.” As the soloist, a fabulous soprano named Ann Marie McPhail, effortlessly progressed up the final note progression singing “sempeternam dona eis requiem” it literally felt like being borne on angelic wings and by the time she landed on her final high A, it felt as though eternity itself had stopped to take a breathless pause.

The silence that followed that moment was supposed to further accentuate the high drama to which everything about that liturgy was pointing. But instead, just as the room fell into a deep, vivid, rhythmic silence, a man sitting about halfway from the front of the chancel, stood up and, clapping loudly, began shouting, “BRAVO! BRAVO! ENCORE! ENCORE!”

Thoughtful, reflective, prayerful silence is hard for us, particularly in a broader cultural context that privileges constant activity as an outward and visible sign of our production-based value. This lack of spaciousness in our world, and in our own hearts, is made worse if you are someone like me – a fixer – someone hardwired to react and do, often without taking the proper time to think and plan. I often find myself reacting from fear, or discomfort, or, like that man all those years ago, from a place of being emotionally overwhelmed. It takes so much intentionally and purpose to simply hold silence and to allow it to do the speaking. But it strikes me that in a culture such as ours, a culture wherein we are regularly accosted by so much noise and half-baked responses to very real problems, we might do well to recover prayerful silence, inner stillness, what the Benedictines call “stability,” and what my grandmother was referring to when she would tell us “hush, child. God is speaking.”

Once, while facilitating an antiracism training in the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri, a black woman stood up to share her story of experiencing racism in her own church, a church that took the basketball goals down from their outdoor basketball court because they had begun receiving complaints from the neighbors that basketball attracted “those people” (“those people” being that black children who lived a few blocks over) despite the fact that one of “those people” was the woman’s own son. As these stories often do, they lead from one thing to another, weaving a narrative of very real pain and hurt felt in very real people’s lives. What I instruct the group to do is to listen with space and to listen for moments of connection, because it is from those spaces of overlapping experience, those moments of “joining,” that change can occur.

Eventually another woman, a white woman, stood up to share her story of growing up in poverty, but attending high school in a wealthy school district. She talked about all the ways in which she was ostracized because of her hand-me-down clothes, or because she couldn’t afford to go on all the school trips, or because her parents were too busy working to take her to and from all the extracurricular activities. At one point in her story, she began to weep. The first woman stood up and shouted, “that has nothing to do with what I said! You have no idea what it is like to be black! You’re distracting from the conversation!”

Now, I don’t often directly intervene in conversations in this setting. I trust people to be able to find their way through difficulty towards a constructive conclusion. But this time I felt compelled.

“Can you try something on?” I asked.

“Yes,” she huffed.

“Okay. Try this on,” I said. “She may not know what it is like to be a black woman, but what if she does know what it is like to be ostracized and outcast for something beyond her control? What if she wasn’t trying to distract but instead was trying to join you?

She didn’t say anything. She only stared silently with that look that suggested she was thinking very deeply.

“This is what I want you to try on,” I continued. “When you share, share with openness, and trust that others are graciously listening for points of connection. When you are listening, it is your turn to graciously listen, not for how your stories are different, but first, for how they are the same.”

When Peter interrupts the Transfiguration of our Lord with his request borne of anxiety, he was responding from a place of narrowness. All through the Gospels, Peter is portrayed as one who is hasty and brash, and that personality is on full display here. In a moment when the full glory of Christ is revealed to Peter, James, and John; in a moment when the only proper response was awestruck silence, Peter responds with “Wow! This is a amazing! We must do something about this! We have to do something with this!”

Except that grace can neither be constructed nor contained.

Except that grace can neither be constructed nor contained. We can till the ground around it, water it, ensure it has plenty of sunshine and fertilizer, but ultimately grace is a gift. Grace is God’s job not ours. We are simply to receive its gifts with openness, with stillness, with spaciousness. Like gracious hosts, we are to keep space in our hearts ready, knowing that at any time, grace could visit us and change our lives forever.

This week we transition from the Season after the Epiphany into the Season of Lent – the 40 days of prayer and discipleship that lead us to the tragedy of the crucifixion and the mystery of the resurrection. It can be incredibly easy to do one of two things during lent. First, it is easy to treat Lent as if it, and the spiritual life it invites us into don’t matter. We do this by keeping a normal routine leaving little or no time for prayer and study. Second, it is easy to treat Lent like a fad diet, a forty-day spiritual bootcamp, or a spiritual cleanse. Rather than relaxing into the alternate rhythm of Lent, we construct a framework of anxiety and worry.

This year, I want to offer you a third way – one of thoughtful, reflective, prayerful silence. My prayer for each of us is that we would allow Lent to be for us a moment of spiritual spaciousness, a moment of prayerful reflection, a time to reconnect to the things that truly sustain and nourish our souls. I hope we will allow Lent to be the moment when we decide to take our lives back from endless lists of things to do, from voices that cause us to be afraid, from things that distract us from our goals. I pray that Lent will be a time when we hear of God’s profound love for us again and again and again.

I pray that Lent will teach us something about the stillness and space required to behold God’s grace and glory.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side;
bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to thy God to order and provide;
in ev’ry change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
thro’ thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Letters from our Wardens and Rector (click to view)

August 29, 2019
Dear Saint Paul’s Parish Family,

We are sorry to share so early in our journey with Father Marcus that he has submitted his resignation and will be leaving us October 6, 2019. He has accepted a position at the Diocese of Connecticut. In his new position, he will be the Dean of Formation and will also be working as a Missional Priest-in-Charge of a faith community. This is a wonderful opportunity for him allowing him to continue to strengthen his gifts. The Diocese of Connecticut will benefit as we have from Father Marcus’s passion. Although it is hard to see him go, we have learned and done wonderful things as a parish with his leadership and guidance over the past 2-1/2 years. It will be exciting to watch his continued growth from afar knowing we were blessed to have been part of his early career. Father Marcus’s letter to the parish is included in this email.

So now we begin to look forward. Beth and I will be in contact with ECMN and Bishop Prior to plan for an interim priest and to look at putting together a search committee. We will gather together and consider what we have learned about ourselves during our time with Father Marcus. This is a chance for us to evaluate where we are and to make plans for moving forward: what we want to be sure to carry forward, what things we might want back that have changed, and yes, what might not have been tackled yet that we want to explore? We ask that each of you give prayerful consideration to these questions. They will be foundational to our Rector search.

We know the amazing strength of this parish and are confident we will become even stronger from the challenge that has been put in front of us. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns.

Blessings,
Meredith Johnson, Senior Warden (meredithvj@gmail.com) Beth Carlson, Junior Warden (pbcarlson@comcast.net)


Dear Saint Paul’s,

It is with a mix of sadness and joy that I inform you that I offered my resignation to the Vestry on Monday, August 19. My last day as your priest will be Sunday, October 6, 2019. I have accepted a call to serve as the Dean of Formation for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, a position that will also include serving as a Missional Priest-in- Charge of a faith community there.

Throughout my time as your Rector, I’ve tried to preach, teach, and exemplify a consistent message: each of us is called to grow in Christian maturity to meet the challenges and opportunities of being the Church in this new missional age. Our patron, Saint Paul the Apostle, calls this the “full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). This means taking seriously our individual and collective calls to be leaders, not only within the walls of our parish but also in the wider community. Leading, especially in times of great change, means taking risks, being open to failure that leads to learning, collaborating with others, and standing firmly in our identity and purpose.

People across Saint Paul’s Church have heard this message, stepped up, and stepped forward. Together, we have faced down a major challenge head-on –tackling our budget deficit– and as a result are experiencing a renewal of energy and spirit. We have new ministries popping up all around, a greater capacity for innovation, and deeper commitment to Christ and the mission of God he invites us into. There are others who are still afraid to step forward or unsure where they fit, and that’s okay. Saint Paul’s moves forward together.

My new role will give me the opportunity to help form other ordained leaders in what we’ve done together: translating an age-old faith to a contemporary context. I am excited and honored to be asked by Bishop Ian Douglas to serve the Church in this role.

None of this takes away the anxiety, sadness, or grief that many will feel at this time. Transitions are always hard, especially when it comes when things are going well. I have not served as your Rector for long, but we’ve done a lot together. I will pray for you as you discern what leadership model God might be inviting you to try and who might best step into that role to walk alongside you as you continue engaging God’s mission. Your wardens are two of the most capable people I’ve ever met and together with your vestry and the entire community, as it has for the last 139 years, your journey continues.

There will be time to say goodbye, and I will continue to serve faithfully until my final day. In the meantime, the mission of God calls us onward. There are individuals and communities in need of the Gospel – and it is our job as followers of Jesus Christ to proclaim it, in word and example.

Faithfully, Marcus+

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