[Sermon preached on Sunday, December 17, 2017 (Advent III, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN].

They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’

Gospel of John 1:25 (NRSV)

I knew a woman once. Let’s call her Flora.

Flora was a feisty, 90-year old, lifelong Christian had spent 60 years of her life attending the same church. She is what we call down South, a “steel magnolia.” She grew up Baptist in the Midwest, but when she married her college sweetheart and moved south to Atlanta, she began attending what was then a small, Episcopal congregation.

Like many Episcopal churches, her’s had endured it’s fair share of highs and lows. It grew and shrank. There were lean times and times of plenty. They had good priests and bad priests. There were times when they had so many young families that they couldn’t fit them in the building and they had times where former Sunday School classrooms stood empty, the laughter of children a mere faint memory.

Through it all, Flora was a constant member. She served in nearly every role she could – altar guild, Sunday School teacher, choir, and hospitality committee. She even served as the first female senior warden of her parish. She once showed me an amazing black and white photo where she is standing with her two children in the excavated hole that would soon serve as the undercroft of her parish’s new church building. She was proud and I couldn’t quite tell whether it was pride of her children, or of her parish, or both.

I met Flora right before she died. As she recalled her life, she gave thanks for her family and friends and for the wonderful community of her parish. She admitted that they had some hard times, times when it was tempting to simply leave, to go to the new church down the street, or to walk away from faith altogether.

When I asked her what made her stay, she said, “because that is what you do when you love someone and you feel that love in return. The Good Lord calls us to bloom where we are planted and I was determined to bloom with all my might.”

There are times when I envy people like Flora, people who have the amazing gift of being in one faith community for decades on end. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to watch the world around you change so much and to find comfort in the stability offered by consistent Christian community.

Stability is one of the calls of the Christian life. By stability, I am not referring to a nostalgic pining for the past merely for the past’s sake. I am not suggesting that things never need to change or that we never need to adapt to meet the present challenges of the world with the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ. By stability I mean a rootedness, a connection, a commitment to stick with it, to grow with it, even, and perhaps especially, when times get tough.

Last week I talked about the need to rediscover the wonders of conversion in the Christian life. Each of us is called to grow more and more into the full stature of the Lord Jesus Christ.[1] The beauty of our worship is meant to glorify God and to point us in a Godward direction – it is a “foretaste of glory divine.” If glory is the destination, then conversion – the process of slowly laying aside the parts of ourselves that do not exemplify Christ – is the path. One of my favorite writers, Howard Thurman, suggests that in receiving the glimpses of the glory of God, “A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear.” Conversion, beloved in Christ, is the “trying to grow” and that growth happens best when we stand still long enough to, in the words of Flora, bloom with all our might.

Community is the ground where that growth happens. Whenever God calls people, God calls them in the context of community. It is in the rub of relationships that our hard and jagged edges are softened and are dull places are buffed to a glorious shine. Community is where God happens.

Archbishop Rowan William suggests that community is actually a tool of salvation. We need the contact and the conflict to produce holiness within us. We need “the actual material fact of the meeting of believers where bread and wine are shared; the actual wonderful, disagreeable, impossible, unpredictable human beings we encounter daily, in and out of church. Only in this setting do we become holy, and holy in a way that is unique to each one of us.”[2]

The Church is where this sanctifying community happens on purpose. It is where people who gather from different experiences and perspective are drawn together around the mystery of the Risen Christ. It is where we are discipled in the way of the cross.

Unfortunately for many, wearied by life or seduced by a culture with little room for discipline, we want church to be a place for “solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”[3] In the words of Sister Joan Chittister’s commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, “it’s not uncommon for people… to use religion to make themselves comfortable. It is a sense of personal goodness that they want, not a sense of Gospel challenge. They are tired of being challenged. They want some proof that they’ve arrived at a spiritual height that gives consolation in this life and the promise of security in the next.”[4]

The spiritual life is hard. To look at ourselves and to accept the reality that we are simultaneously “fearfully and wonderfully made”[5] as the Psalmist suggests and “the vessel made of clay that is marred in the hands of the potter”[6] in the words of the Prophet is to accept a life lived in uncertainty. We are called to a journey with Christ, not because we are so good, and perfect, and wonderful, but precisely because we stand in need of a Savior. And we are called into Christian community because it is within the body of Christ that that salvation happens. We are made holy through our proximity with God among us.

John the Baptist baptized folks in the desert to unite them into the baptized community awaiting Christ’s arrival. John was gathering the community necessary to serve as the ground for the movement that Jesus would bring. John prepared the way by preparing the hearts of people to be in community with one another – a community that grows into a movement that would change the world for the Kingdom of God.

Our call, dear friends, is one of stability. Not only are we called to follow Christ, we are called to do so in community with others. We are called to work with one another, to build relationships with one another, to love and trust one another, and to support one another.

Together we are to build up the ancient ruins, to raise up the former devastations; to repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Oftentimes the ruined places lie within and we need one another’s help to make them whole again.

At it’s best, Christian community is the place where that happens. It is where we grow more and more into the image of Christ by our proximity to our neighbors who are on similar journeys. The journey is not easy because nothing worth doing is easy. The question is not – is it easy? The question is – is it necessary?

When I look at the world around us, at all the devastation right in front of our eyes, I see a world in desperate need of a transformed people, rooted in Christ, and overflowing in love. I see a world turning to ash in every direction.

We need flowers. We need people determined to bloom with they are planted, and to bloom with all their might.


[1] Ephesians 4:13

[2] Rowan Williams. Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another (Boston: New Seeds, 2005), p. 115-116.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 372.

[4] Joan Chittister. Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroad, 2010),p. 30.

[5] Psalm 139:14

[6] Jeremiah 18:4

REOPENING of Saint Paul's Church 27 June at 10:00am - click for details

Dear Saint Paul’s faith community members and friends,

God’s peace be with you! Rejoice! Rejoice! Given the decrease in COVID-19 cases in Minnesota and the increase in the number of people who have been vaccinated, we are excited to announce the re- opening of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church building on Lake of the Isles on Sunday, 27 June at 10:00AM. We will have a beautiful and joyful worship with Eucharist, and coffee hour to follow. For those of you who are unable to come to the church building, a live Zoom stream will be available. Look for the Zoom link in the E-pistle.

Saint Paul’s COVID-19 Response Team Members (Mark Anderson, Steve Riendl, Angie Paulson, Jacob Manier, Rev. Janet MacNally, and Rev. Ramona Scarpace) have put together guidelines for worshiping together in-person. These guidelines are based on information from the Centers for Disease Control, the Minnesota Department of Health, and the Episcopal Church in Minnesota. The team asks that, in the spirit of loving God and neighbor, everyone follow the guidelines as listed below. If you have any questions or concerns about these guidelines, please contact Junior Warden and COVID Response Team Chair Steve Riendl at sriendl@stpaulsmpls.org.

IN-PERSON WORSHIP GUIDELINES: Attendance

  • No pre-registration for worship is required

Your Health

  • If you aren’t feeling well for any reason, please take care of yourself at home. You may join the service via Zoom.
  • If you have any personal health questions or concerns about attending in-person worship services, please speak with your medical provider.

Creating a Welcoming and Safer Environment

  • Greeters and ushers will be on-hand to assist you with seating, service bulletins, questions
  • The church and restrooms will be cleaned before and after each Sunday worship service
  • Hand sanitizer and masks will be available
  • All books will be removed from the pews. Worship bulletins will be available in paper and electronic format.

Masks and Social Distancing

  • If you are fully vaccinated, you do not need to wear a mask or socially distance. You may wear a mask and socially distance for your own comfort level.
  • If you are not vaccinated, please wear a mask and socially distance.
  • If someone is wearing a mask, please keep socially distant from them.

Seating

  • Saint Paul’s Church seats approximately 250 people. Given our regular Sunday attendance numbers, there is plenty of room to spread out.
  • We recommend that family groups sit together.
  • Fully vaccinated people may sit with other fully vaccinated people.
  • If someone is wearing a mask, please socially distance from them when selecting a seat

Singing

  • Congregational singing is permitted.

The Peace

  • Please remain in your seats for the Peace. Use a wave, a nod, a smile, etc.

The Eucharist

  • Clergy and those assisting at the altar will sanitize their hands in view of the congregation.
  • Communion will be of bread only. We will use gluten-free wafers for all. Receive the bread in your hands.
  • The common cup of wine will not be used at this time.
  • You may receive at the altar rail kneeling or standing. If you are unable to or do not wish to come up to the altar rail, please notify an usher, and the bread will be brought to you.
  • Note: Rev. Ramona, and Rev. Janet are fully vaccinated.

Coffee Hour

  • To be held at the back of the church
  • Coffee and lemonade only, served in disposable cups
  • A limited number of people will set up refreshments and pour
  • No foods at this time

Nursery

  • The nursery will be available and staffed.
  • The nursery will be cleaned before and after each Sunday.
  • Parents must give contact information (name and phone number)

COVID-19 Tracing

  • If Saint Paul’s becomes aware of a situation where someone who attended the service receives information that they have contacted COVID, Saint Paul’s will notify people of the occurrence via the E-pistle.

We give thanks for the gift of coming together in-person to worship God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of life. We give thanks for all who worked so diligently to create and distribute vaccines. We give thanks for those who put themselves at risk to keep others safe. We remember those who have died and hold their families in our prayers.

We look forward to seeing everyone on Sunday, 27 June!

Blessings,
Mark Anderson, Senior Warden
Steve Riendl, Junior Warden
Rev. Ramona Scarpace, Priest-in-Charge

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