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.
He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
Mark 1:31 (NRSV)
There is a story told of a man who lived in a house in a flood plain. One day, as thick, black storm clouds loomed on the horizon, a flood warning flashed along the bottom of his television screen. The warning advised all residents whose homes were in the flood plain to evacuate as soon as possible. “No need to hurry off,” he said. “If worse comes to worse, God will save me.”
The thick clouds soon blanketed the sky, horizon to horizon. Then the rain began to fall. After a morning of constant rain, the flood waters spilled over the banks of the river and quickly surrounded the man’s house. A police officer in a canoe came down the flooded street to evacuate residents who had stayed behind. “Thanks for stopping by, but I don’t need your help,” the man said. “God will save me.”
The rain kept falling until it had covered the man’s house. Just before the waters covered the second floor, he managed to scurry through an opened window and climb on his roof. After a long while, a National Guard helicopter flew overhead. When the pilot spotted the man on his roof, he circled back, dropped a rope ladder, and urged the man to get in. The man refused, but the piloted insisted, stating that the storm was forecasted to intensify and there would be no more rescue operations that evening. “No thank you,” said the man. “I appreciate you coming by, but God will save me.”
A few hours later, the flood waters covered the man’s house and he, unable to swim, drowned. When he got to the Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, the man said, “I would like to file a complaint.” Saint Peter, unaccustomed to such audacious language, was taken aback.
“To which divine department might I direct your complaint?”
“To God,” the man said.
“What is your complaint?” asked Saint Peter.
“Why didn’t God save me?!” the man asked indignantly. “I had faith that God would save me and God did not. What’s up with that?”
Peter looked at the man curiously. “Let me find your file.” Saint Peter pulled a stack of papers from under his golden desk. His eyes squinted as the poured over the parchment. “Ah. I see here that you died from drowning. My condolences. I also see that you received a news bulletin, and both the police officer and National Guard reservist tried to save you. The question is not ‘why didn’t God save you.’ God tried! There times! What exactly were you waiting for?”
Dear friends in Christ, I have a question for you: what are you waiting for? What holds you back from the work to which God has called you? What prevents you for taking the next steps to deepen your faith and your relationship to God? God tries to reach us over and over again. What are you waiting for?
Our Gospel this morning recalls the story of a Jesus on-the-move. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is in perpetual motion, moving from scene to scene, place to place, town to town, encounter to encounter on his way toward his ultimate destiny in Jerusalem. When we find him today, he is leaving the synagogue and entering the home of two of his disciples – Simon Peter and Andrew. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is ill, so when Jesus comes into the house, he heals her. Her response to her recovery was διακόνει, related to same word from which we derive the word “deacon,” a word that literally means “service.” Curiously, right after this exchange, Jesus goes away to pray and then convinces his disciples to leave Capernaum, even with so much ministry left undone, because they have work to do elsewhere. And thus he goes, on his mission, to his destiny, leaving the people of Capernaum behind.
When I initially read this story, I was troubled by it. I had a challenging time coming to grips with a Jesus who looks human need in the face and turns the other way. Compassion is not a zero-sum game, there is enough to go around, enough to meet every human need, and Jesus turns away, leaving the sick and hurting people of Capernaum with no help.
Or so I thought.
As I wrestled with this story, I kept coming back to Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, a woman who stepped out of sickness and into a ministry of service. She never comes back into the text and we aren’t told what happens to her. For the writer of Mark’s Gospel, her purpose in the story is complete; however, for our purposes this morning, I want to draw out her story.
Hadassah had come to live with her daughter Miriam, son-in-law Simon Peter, and his brother Andrew after the death of her own husband. Ancient Roman and Jewish societies mandated the women’s lives be mediated through those of men. With the death of her husband and no living brothers or sons, Simon Peter was the closest male relative she had.
A few days prior, Simon Peter and Andrew had come home from fishing all abuzz about some teacher and “messiah” they had met on the shore who asked them to follow him. Hadassah had heard that there was a new teacher in town the last time she visited the well. She had never met him, but heard he was a student of John the Baptist and something had special happened when he was baptized. Could this be him? Could it really be him?
Following this new teacher, this messiah, this Christ, is as simple as this – being reached by Christ to reach out our hands in loving service to those around us.
Whatever the answer, Hadassah didn’t have time for such fantasies. She had to maintain the household for her family.
One morning, as she and her daughter rose to prepare lunch for Simon Peter and Andrew to eat when the went out fishing, she noticed herself feeling ill. By midmorning her fever left her bedridden. By the time Simon Peter and Andrew returned that evening, she was gravely ill.
The next morning, during the Sabbath, Hadassah was awakened by commotion across the street in the Synagogue. There was a lot of yelling, and she faintly heard the words “Holy One of God” before falling back into a fevered sleep. The next time she awoke, she was greeted by a man standing at the foot of her bed. His eyes were beautifully deep, brown pools that seemed to hold eternity in them. She couldn’t turn away. Something about this man called to her. When he extended his hand to her, she reached back, almost without a second thought. As he pulled her up, she could feel her fever breaking and by the time she was fully upright, she felt well, except that everything had changed. In that brief moment she learned a simple truth: following this new teacher, this messiah, this Christ, is as simple as this – being reached by Christ to reach out our hands in loving service to those around us.
When Jesus and his disciples left that next morning, Hadassah went to the town square. She saw all the men and women who had come from all over the region hoping to be healed. Her heart broke for them because she knew that Jesus wasn’t there anymore. But instead of allowing herself to be overwhelmed by the need, she knelt to the first woman she saw. Her name was Leah and she had a debilitating pain in her leg. Hadassah, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the woman whose life was changed when Jesus reach out to her, didn’t wait for someone else. She reached out to those in need.
What are you waiting for?
Your invitation to follow Christ is here when we gather around this sacred table. When we reach forth our hands to receive the bread and wine, it is Christ himself who invites us to do so. We reach back because Christ has first reached out to us. Each one of us is called to follow the blessed example of Hadassah, to reach out in compassion to those in need around us. Each of us is called to this servant ministry. Each of us is called to follow in the footsteps of the one who said, “the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve.”
A hallmark of the Reign of God is that the Risen Lord leaves willing servants in his compassionate wake. The world is changed when Jesus passes by, not simply because of what he does, but because of what of what he leaves us to do. We are his hands, his eyes, his feet, his heart. Through us, Christ’s loving and saving presence is born anew into a world of darkness and anxiety.
Dear friends in Christ, there is really only one question: Jesus is reaching out to us today. What are you waiting for?
 Mark 10:35 (NRSV)
I want to begin this address by recalling a story that some of you may have heard before. The details differ on time and location, but the over message remains the same.
William Ashley “Billy” Sunday was a baseball player turned evangelist in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At one point in his ministry, he walked into an Episcopal congregation in New York shortly before the worship service was to begin. Unfamiliar with the style of worship that characterizes Episcopalianism, Sunday picked up the 1898 Book of Common Prayer in front of him and began to leaf through its pages. What started as a casual romp through its pages quickly turned into much more. He was struck, enraptured even, by its language, its poetry, and its tradition. After losing himself in the words that frame the worship of the Episcopal Church, Billy Sunday is said to have said, “the Episcopal Church is a sleeping giant. God help the rest of Protestantism if it should ever wake up.”
What I get from this story is that there is something powerful at our fingertips, that there is still a place for the deeply spiritual life in an increasingly secular world. There is still a place for a people made new in Baptism, nourished in the Eucharist, formed in the spirituality of the Prayer Book, and inspired by the Spirit. Yes, Saint Paul’s, there is still a place in our neighborhood, our city, and our world for us to be exactly who God has called us to be, with our unique gifts and experiences.
I have now been with you all are your Rector for a little over 10 months. During these past 10 months, I have sought to be intentional about a few things:
- Relationships: our connection to one another is the currency that keeps this place going. A Church is nothing without lively, active, mutually-respectful, honest, and compassionate relationships.
- Listening: I have listened to many of you one-on-one, in small groups, in meetings, after worship. or on Facebook or text messaging. The goal of this listening was simply to be present with you. It was also helpful to better understand who Saint Paul’s is, who Saint Paul’s wants to be, and where Saint Paul’s wants to go. If the Rector Search Process was the online dating profile and the first date, then the last several months have been the additional dates to discern how we are going to walk together.
The goal of the last year was to set the stage for the next several years of our time together. It is clear that we have challenges, like many other churches do. We also have lots of opportunities for innovation and Gospel-thinking to serve the mission of God in our context. This is both a very anxious and very exciting time to be the Church.
At a glance, our parish is faring OK, particularly if you measure us against the typical congregation in a mainline denomination. Whereas, most Episcopal Churches in Minnesota experienced a 3.3% decline in Average Sunday Attendance as late as 2016 (our most recent numbers), our attendance has actually gone up by 8% over last year alone. This news of increase in tempered by a slight decline in actual membership from 242 to 236 (this includes the loss of three families, two who moved out of state, and one who has transferred their membership to another local Episcopal parish). Overall, membership here has been largely stagnant over the past several years, hovering between 236 currently and 255 two years ago at the beginning of the Rector transition process. It is not uncommon for transition in leadership to coincide with a decline in membership.
Average Sunday Attendance and Membership are only to metrics by which we measure a congregation’s vitality (and in my opinion, probably two of the worst). What makes a church is more than the number of people who have their names officially on the rolls or the number of people who attend worship. A more helpful metric would measure impact. The closest we come to this with our current system is measuring our sacramental activity – baptisms, eucharists, confirmations & receptions, etc. This year we baptized two infants: Rowan Antonius Fanous and Henry Michael Amundson. We also had one wedding: Errik and Whitney-Lehr Koening. We haven’t had any confirmations or receptions for two reasons. First, Confirmation and Reception is a function of the bishop and must be coordinated with his office. Second, we are in the process of revamping our newcomer engagement process (something you will hear about later) as well as our ministry with youth. One thing I’d also like to measure this year is our outreach impact – how many people are we serving? Who are they and what are their stories? How might we deepen those relationships?
What all this data and growing edges point to is twofold. First, our growth has largely been passive. We have waited for people to find us. We have great curb appeal, both online and in person; however, this model assumes that people are going to drive by looking for us or that they will do a sufficient Google search to find us. While this model might have worked in years past, what we are seeing is that these models for church growth no longer work, which brings me to my second point. Not only has our growth been passive, but it has relied too heavily on outdated models that place the onus on others to join us, rather than compelling us to go outside to build something new with those around us. In her 2006 book entitled Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers, the current Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism, Reconciliation and Stewardship of Creation, asks a question that I think reflects the wishes of our congregation. “Is it even possible to transform mainline churches into the multicultural, multigenerational, inclusive body of Christ so many of us yearn to become? That’s where radical welcomes comes in. Radical welcome is the spiritual practice of embracing and being changed by the gifts, presence, voices, and power of the The Other: the people systemically cast out of or marginalized within the church, a denomination or society… Regardless of your demographic profile, you still have a margin, a disempowered Other who is in your midst or just outside your door.” The question that Stephanie brings to our attention is: who is our margin? Asked differently: where is our opportunity for growth? Who is the Gospel calling us to reach? What gifts do we have to aid in that Apostolic work?
As grace would have it, God has blessed Saint Paul’s with a wealth of gifts if we chose to see them as gifts, that is, blessings that are meant to be stewarded and shared, not mothballed and hoarded. First, we have a graciously welcoming community. As your new rector, I can attest to this firsthand. I have also had several conversations with some of our newest members who share a similar sentiment. Saint Paul’s has a way of welcoming those who come into our doors, whether they are potential new members trying us out on a Sunday morning, or people experiencing homelessness or food insecurity looking for a bit of assistance, or runners stopping in mid-run to refill their water bottles. This gift can be tweaked further so that we aren’t passively waiting for people to come to us, but we are going out eagerly seeking to build a new world with those around us. We can also learn more of what it means to be hospitable and welcoming to one another.
Second, we have inspiring liturgy. With the help of our choir, other ministers in the liturgy, our altar guild, and others, we have a wonderful experience in our collective worship of God. This is important to a church, because it is our worship that makes us a church. The point of our coming together is to adore our Creator. Everything else is a side-effect of our close-encounter of the God-kind. The question is: if our worship is a gift and if our story and experience of God matter, how do we draw others into that experience? Also, how do we deepen our own experience and commitment of Christ?
Third, we have a motivated congregation. Over the past year, I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen members of this congregation step up to meet challenges presented to us. Whether it was welcoming our neighbors during the 7th Ward City Council Candidates Forum, setting up for the Pentecost Party in May, working to resolve problems with our heating and cooling system, passing out flyers to invite people to our Books for Africa Drive or Advent offerings, or showing up on a Saturday to pull weeds and lay sod, Saint Paul’s people show up. The question is: how do we focus that energy so that none of it is wasted and how do we draw others into our shared work?
Fourth, we have a connection to tradition. In addition to our liturgical tradition, we have a wonderful parish tradition that we see in our archives curated by Rose Nightingale as well as all over our physical building stewarded by the Buildings and Grounds Commission and our Vestry. This tradition matters both to us and to those around us only inasmuch as it serves as a vehicle to convey a story of sacred meaning.
There is a story told of a priest who was teaching a new acolyte about the liturgy. She pulls out the dazzling silver chalice covered with jewels and engravings of Jesus, Saint Mary, and Saint Paul. She then pulls out a simple, glass cruet filled with consecrated wine. She asked the young acolyte, “which of these is more valuable?”
The young acolyte picked up the chalice. It glinted in the soft sunlight streaming through the sacristy window. He was enamored by it. “The chalice, of course,” he replied.
“Okay. You are correct. But which one is more important?” she asked.
The young acolyte looked confused.
“The chalice’s only purpose is to hold the wine,” the priest said. “It might be more valuable, but the wine is far more important.”
Our tradition is the chalice, it is beautiful and lovely. Our collective story of Jesus Christ is the wine, it is more imporant. The question becomes: how do we ensure that what is most valuable doesn’t obscure what is most important. Moreover, how do we invite others not only to share in that story, but inviting them to continue writing that story with us.
Finally, we have ample facility space. Kelly Belanger, our sexton, can correct me if I am wrong, but we have 53,000 square feet of facility space here. At present, we use precious little of it for ourselves and haven’t offered it to our neighbors to the extent I believe possible. For me, the question is: how do we orient our space outward and see our care for this space as a curation of the gift that is primarily in service of others?
Those are some of the gifts I believe we have as a parish. As I said earlier, those gifts are not ours to mothball and hoard like precious china only to be taken out and used for special occasions. The church is meant to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, to share our gifts lavishly with others around us as a witness to the limitless graciousness of God.
While that is true, we also have some challenges that can prevent us from sharing with others to the extent that we might want do. First, we need to address financial and missional sustainability. As you have seen in our budget, we have work to do not only to balance the budget, but to diversify our sources of revenue to support the mission of God in our context. How do we ensure that there is an Episcopal presence here for future generations to find? Second, we have challenges reaching out to children and youth. Some of this has to do with factors beyond our control – Sunday sports leagues and other competing interests. Some of this also has to do with overreliance on disintegrating models of Christian faith formation. How do we reach out to our younger members to ensure that they are being actively formed in the faith that we say matters? Third, our building. One side of this building is over 100 years old. The other is 60 years old. How do we ensure that we are both faithfully stewarding our facility resources while also leveraging them to support our contemporary ministry context? Fourth, our neighborhood context presents us with a great opportunity for innovation. The hundreds of people who run and bike past us in the warmer months, the families who visit the park, the children at Kenwood School, these are all our neighbors. How do we serve them? Finally, we need to address efficiency. One of the things that can go wrong in a growing church is that the growth is stifled by well-intentioned but cumbersome structures. How do we build a model of leadership that anticipates growth, increases transparency and visibility, and supports collaboration?
As I said towards the beginning, last year was a year of surveying the lay of the land. I wanted to get a good sense of who Saint Paul’s actually is before helping us discern a way to address all of these opportunities for innovation. 2018 will be a year of building. I am several assumptions:
- We will grow both numerically, spiritually, and missionally. You will hear more about this through this year.
- We will change. The Church all around us is experiencing a time of great change. Some are calling this a new Great Awakening. We are being asked to do church differently, to share ministry, empower new ministers, and to hear different voices – and this is something I believe we can
As such, 2018 will be a year of building the infrastructure to support that growth. Churches don’t grow by accident. The churches that are growing in our contemporary context are churches that have decided to grow and have created a culture that supports that growth. Let me tell you how I want to create that culture here.
In the next 100 days, I want our Vestry to work on three major initiatives to address some of our opportunities for innovation. First, I will be submitting a Building Use Policy and Fee-Schedule for the consideration of our Finance and Buildings and Grounds Commissions for ultimate ratification by our Vestry. This document will both outline how we are going to steward our property, reframe its use to support others as well as ourselves, and provide the legal and fiscal framework to support community partnerships. At present, we have nothing to give to people when people come to us asking to use space. I want to get in front of that. I also want this information shared online so that people looking for space to support community functions and initiatives can find this information readily available. I also want to rebrand the house from the “Beim Memorial Parish House” to the “Beim Neighborhood House.” This slight change in wording can have major impact with our neighbors. It signals that the doors of our church are wide open.
Second, we are shifting some of our Vestry resources to make room for a newly constituted Evangelism Commission. The task of the Evangelism Commission will be to provide some support to our current communications team headed up by Angie Paulson, but also to draw us deeper into our own story and deeper into relationship with our neighbors. The Evangelism Commission will help us see ourselves – each one of us – as evangelists in our own contexts and to provide each of us with the resources necessary to share our parish story with others. Churches grow most through the organic network of our real relationships. Each of us knows people in search of community and belonging. The Evangelism Commission will help give us the tools to share our faith with others. If this work sounds interesting to you, speak to me after the meeting and we can talk about connecting you to this ministry.
Thirdly, we are shifting our Commission structure to quarterly meetings that we are calling Commission Saturdays. Before I get into the details of Commission Saturdays, I want to frame the “why.” The whole point of this is to make sure that we are respecting people’s time and gifts. We aren’t asking for more time; rather, we are asking to be more efficient with the time people offer in service to God’s mission. The goal of the “Commission Saturdays” structure is to increase collaboration across commissions, across commissions with the Vestry, and with the clergy; increase involvement by emphasizing efficiency; increase transparency by inviting more people into news-sharing and decision-making; and increase focus.
Commission Saturdays will be held on 3rd Saturdays of May (19), August (18), November (17), February 2019 (16), and ongoing. The morning begins with morning prayer or some other type of group devotion. After that, at 9:00 am, we will go into round one of commission meetings (Finance, Outreach, Faith Formation). At 10:30 am, we will move into second round of commission meetings (Evangelism, Buildings and Grounds, Parish Life). At noon, we will move to lunch, group reporting, Rector’s Report, and group formation. At 1:00 pm, the Vestry will meet and take up any proposals or recommendations that come out of commission meetings. This is all a proposal, and I am clear that it will be challenging to move to this structure, but my hope is that we will give this a try this year, make necessary changes, and continue to support the mission of God in our context.
Other plans that I have for our parish in 2018 are a new visual brand to freshen our engagement with our surrounding community, more opportunities for intergenerational faith formation to respond to shifting nature of Christian faith formation, collaboration with Downtown Congregations Ending Homelessness to support collaboration and partnership between ourselves and our surrounding faith communities as well as deeper engagement and advocacy with our neighbors experiencing homelessness, refining our web/online presence via electronic means of communication, investing in our worship of God by initiating some painting and other aesthetic projects in our nave, and the establishment of an intentional newcomer incorporation process.
This is an ambitious set of goals and priorities. It can seem daunting and you might be asking “how” we are going to do all of this. The short answer is: with God’s help. As I mentioned in the sermon earlier today, the church is being asked to give an account of the faith that has been given to us. Engaging in God’s mission is doing just that. The magnitude of the mission should scare us because ultimately, we must rely more on God than ourselves. We can do this with God’s help. We can lay the foundation for growth. We can boldly pursue the mission in front of us and solidify the future of this parish for the next generation of people searching for community and connection to God.
 https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/19539 (accessed: January 24, 2018)
 Stephanie Spellers. Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation (New York: Church Publishing, 2006), p. 6.
Sermon preached on Sunday, January 28, 2018 (Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul [trans.]) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN]
Jesus said, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Matthew 10:16 (NRSV)
God’s church does not have a mission. God’s mission has a church.
If we look at the arc of scripture – pick it up and examine its cut, its color, and its clarity – we will discover that God’s mission is clear: to gather the lost, guide the wandering, comfort the afflicted, repair the broken, reconcile the divided, heal the hurting, and restore life to the dead.
God’s church does not have a mission. God’s mission has a church.
This mission has been threatened by invasion, questioned by modernity, subverted by power, undermined by schism, co-opted by the conniving, and ignored by the unbelieving or apathetic; yet, it has never been deterred from its ultimate objective. Like the relentless flow of the seasons, God’s mission doesn’t wait until we are ready, until it is convenient, until it is easy. God’s mission waits only for the fullness of the time, the right time, and that time is always right now.
God’s church does not have a mission. God’s mission has a church. To serve that mission, God calls ordinary, fallible, frail, and fumbling human beings, people like you and I, into divine service.
In the latter part of the 5th century, a man was born in Nursia in central Italy and educated in the city of Rome. His name was Benedict. Benedict came of age in a very uncertain time. Just four years before his birth, in the year 476, the city of Rome fell to Germanic tribes signaling the end of a political regime that had brought peace and stability to Western Europe for over 1,000 years (even if they brought devastation and oppression to everyone else). Social mores, political norms, and economic expectations were faltering. Nothing seemed to hold. This was the wrong time to build a movement.
But somewhere around 525 and 530 CE, Benedict, who had retreated into monastic seclusion some years earlier to avoid what he saw as moral depravity in Rome, took a few of his disciples and moved south to establish a community. In 540 he wrote his now famous Rule of Saint Benedict. In a time where the social fabric of society was disintegrating, Saint Benedict pioneered a new way of spirituality. Through the rhythms of prayer and work and sustained by values of hospitality and the search for wisdom, Benedict invited people into a countercultural way of living in an unforgiving and harsh world.
It was created at the wrong time and had no reason to grow. But it did. He was called forth in mission, and so are we.
In the early to mid 1800s, a woman by the name of Harriet Starr Cannon founded a monastic order called the Communion of Saint Mary. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1823, but after a yellow fever epidemic left her orphaned, she moved Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 1851, she entered the Sisters of the Holy Communion, a religious order that operated out of Church of the Holy Communion in New York City. During her years of service with the Sisters, Cannon served as a nurse.
Something inside Harriet Starr Cannon wanted more, so she and a few others moved to form a new order, the Community of Saint Mary. While their original scope of ministry was centered around women’s healthcare, Mother Cannon and her sisters eventually adapted their ministry to providing schools for the poor and education for young women. This small movement, built on the desire of one woman to go deeper into her spiritual life, gave birth to a movement – a collection of hospitals, clinics, orphanages in New York, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
She was a woman in the 1800s and raised as an orphan. There is no reason her movement should have worked. It should not have even been begun. But it did and it was. She was called forth in mission, and so are we.
In 1906, a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Germany. By 1930, when he was 24, he had published his doctoral thesis called Sanctorum Communio. Three years later, the Nazi regime came to power in Germany. Bonhoeffer protested the rise of the Nazis in Germany while pastoring two churches in London. In 1935, he was appointed to organize a community, a seminary of the Confessing Church (the chief protestant resistors of the Nazi regime) in Finkenwald.
Bonhoeffer was concerned about a Church that had sufficiently made Germany both “Christian” and “Lutheran,” but had not taught enough about the cost of discipleship – the walk with Jesus Christ that, over a lifetime, molds us more and more into his compassionate image. He taught his students about a Church that stood opposed to abusive political power, a church that defended the defenseless, a church that taught about compassion, and justice, and fellowship.
In 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in Berlin. Two years later, on April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was killed for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
He was part of a tiny resistance movement against the powerful Nazi regime. In the end, his work cost him his life. And yet, as he told another prisoner when he was being arrested, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.” His work in creating a community of Christian resistors to the Nazi regime shouldn’t have worked. It would’ve been easier to say and do nothing and look the other way. But he didn’t. He was called forth in mission, and so are we.
Hope says that “yes, I may have much to be afraid of, but I have so much more to believe in.”
Somewhere in Tarsus, a man named Paul, or Saul, was born. He received the best Jewish training he could receive at the time, studying under Gamaliel, the most famous rabbi of his day. His zeal for his native faith grew so fierce, that he turned it outward on the faith of others, namely a fledgling movement called “The Way.”
One day, while on the road to Damascus, Paul was struck by a beam of light that caused him to fall from his horse. As he groped around in the darkness, he heard a voice that summoned him to the higher way of love. Immediately, as a result of this conversion experience, the zeal that he had to destroying the faith of others, he turned to draw others into relationship with Christ.
This upstart movement of Christ-followers, Christians, had no reason to grow. Up to this point, it only had a small following of Jews scattered around the Mediterranean. But when Paul began to preach this message of love to the Gentiles, the movement exploded. Whole families, whole villages even, were baptized and brought into the new life in Christ.
This movement had every reason to fail. There were so many other new faiths popping up left and right, and this whole business of a resurrected Messiah was just crazy talk. But Paul kept preaching it anyway. He was called forth in mission, and so are we.
What all these stories have in common is this – people, in love with the Lord Jesus Christ, saw a world in need of compassion and healing and, rather than waiting on someone more qualified, or someone with more money, or someone with better ideas, they rolled their sleeves up and set about pursuing the mission of God. Oftentimes, they went forward armed with nothing by a conviction about Jesus and an utter reliance on hope. This hope was not a pie-in-the-sky, head-in-the-sand, finger-in-the-ear refusal to face the facts of life. No. This hope was something infinitely more profound. In the words of Rowan Williams, “hope is not just a confidence that there is a future for us; it’s also a confidence that there’s a continuity such that the future is related to the same truth and living reality as the past and the present.” Hope is the belief there is something in the unknown beyond that will feel familiar and true and because that is present, I can grope my way through the darkness until I get there. Hope says that “yes, I may have much to be afraid of, but I have so much more to believe in.”
Shifting geopolitics, uncertain future, the perception of decline and scarcity, and the discomfort of trying something new do not absolve us of the responsibility to join the previously scheduled mission of God already in progress.
When we encounter doubt, we are to pray. Trial? We are to press on. Obstacle? We are overcomers. Uncertainty? We are innovators.
We are ambassadors of God; apostles of the heavenly commonwealth; fragile, fumbling, flawed human beings called to carry a Gospel too big and wonderful for us to carry and share, but entrusted to us anyway by a God who believes in us when we can’t even believe in ourselves.
Saint Benedict. Saint Harriet. Saint Dietrich. Saint Paul. They were called forth in mission, and so are we.
 Rowan Williams. Being Disciples (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2016), p. 28-29.
For the present form of this world is passing away.
1 Corinthians 7:31b (NRSV)
When was the last time you were confronted by the truth of the Gospel in a way that challenged you?
When was the last time you heard the Word of God and you went away thinking, “hmm, I might have had it wrong this whole time”?
When was the last time Love called you by name, summoned you at the fundamental level of your very being, spoke so profoundly that it resonated with poetry inscribed upon your, and you dropped everything to follow?
Summoning humanity – indeed all of creation – to the higher, more excellent way of love has been the work of God from the very beginning. Starting with the first human beings – adam or “earthlings” – in the Garden of Eden, continuing with the wandering people of God at the foot of Mount Sinai or the returning exiles in Jerusalem, including the twelve disciples gathered by our Lord to inaugurate his movement of love, God has always been in the business of gathering a transformed people into a transforming community. Beloved in Christ, the goal of our being together – of our worship, our fellowship, our formation – is to become transformed members gathered into this transforming community called the Church, the Body of Christ.
First, we are transformed because in the Incarnation, God chooses to be known to us, to come to close to us that we might be drawn closer to God, to give us a close encounter of the God-kind. This mysterium tremendum et fascinans (the terrible and fascinating mystery), the presence of God leaves nothing unchanged. Idols crumble, empires fall, hearts change, eyes open, ears are unstopped, walls collapse, the dead are raised to new life whenever God draws near.
Second, we are transforming because, if we are indeed the Body of Christ, we are called to go where he goes and do what he does – enter the world’s deepest pain and transform it in the light of the Kingdom of God. Speaking in the face of Jim Crow segregation, hyper-militarism, and exploitative capitalism of his day, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King suggested that the “salvation of humanity lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” The “creatively maladjusted” are those who see the brokenness of our world and employ their God-given creativity, their moral imagination, to see this world through the eyes of God.
Idols crumble, empires fall, hearts change, eyes open, ears are unstopped, walls collapse, the dead are raised to new life whenever God draws near.
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass, Episcopal priest, Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, and author of Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, defines moral imagination as being “grounded in the absolute belief that the world can be better. A moral imagination,” she says, “envisions Isaiah’s ‘new heaven and new earth,’ where the ‘wolf and the lamb shall feed together,’ and trusts that it will be made real… With a moral imagination one is able to live proleptically, that is, as if the new heaven and new earth were already here.” If we are to be heavenly yeast to leaven the world’s brokenness with the power of God’s love, we must first believe that, in the words of our Savior, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” We must believe that the downtrodden are lifted up, the poor and hungry are filled, and broken communities are reconciled. A moral imagination changes us by changing how we see the world.
When I consider those whose lives reflected the transformative power of a moral imagination, I think of people like Dorothy Day. Raised in a family of nominal Christians, she came of age in a time of great transformation and social movement. While her conversion from a nominal an active, transforming Christian faith was the process of a lifetime, it is very clear that, in the face of growing poverty and social inequality, her faith compelled her to action. “The Gospel takes away our right forever,” she says, “to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” The Gospel provoked a change in her that propelled her to change the world around her. A moral imagination begins with changing how we see ourselves in relation to those around us.
In the face of the all the brokenness we see around us, it can be tempting to see the Church of the living God as an escape from the real world. Faith can become nothing more than an excuse to put our heads into the sand and to ignore the world spinning apart around us. But this would be an inappropriate misuse of the gift of faith. Rather than inviting us to hide, faith ought to send us out to serve. The community of faith is where we hear of visions glorious – angels ascending and descending, humility and love triumphing over pride and hatred, the eventual death of death itself – in order to fire up our moral imaginations. Faith isn’t about hermetically sealing the faithful away from the sickness of the world. Faith is about sending us into the sickness to heal it.
In his recent book called Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life, Archbishop Rowan Williams writes against the idea of holiness as withdrawal, choosing instead to frame holiness as “going into the heart of where it is most difficult for human beings to be human.” That means entering the darkest, most depressing, most dehumanizing spaces to change them. No, being the Church isn’t an escape. It’s the opposite. Faith in God thrusts us into the thick of it. It is an excuse to make good trouble for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
God has come to make all things new, to raise up things that were once cast down, to restore things that are now broken, to raise to new life things that are now dead. Those are the hallmarks of the Kingdom of God. That is what is unfolding in front of our eyes as we watch the convulsions of a dying world give way to the endless life of God. The “creatively maladjusted” people of God, you and I, are called to employ our moral imaginations to reconstruct this world using the original blueprints of goodness written by the finger of God.
But the first people we must allow to change is ourselves.
We cannot hope to change the world when we haven’t allowed ourselves to be changed.
Being the Church isn’t an escape. It’s the opposite. Faith in God thrusts us into the thick of it. It is an excuse to make good trouble for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
In a famous quote attributed to Lao Tzu, Taoist philosopher, we find that the change we seek in others must begin within.
If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbors.
If there is to be peace between neighbors,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
Dear friends in Christ, the world isn’t make of abstract concepts, theories, and systems. The world we live in is comprised of an endlessly complex network of living, breathing, creatures of a loving Creator. Therefore, to change the world is to be changed.
God is calling us to walk this transformative journey, to stick with it when times are tough, to press and pray through it even when it doesn’t feel like it is worth it. Not only do we make this road by walking, but the road makes us. Every step we take towards God transforms us into who God already knows us to be.
And as we make that journey, the black and white world around us gives way to reveal the technicolor truth of the compassionate community of God.
 Kelly Brown Douglas. Stand Your Grand: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2015), p. 225-226
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
These verses are what the Gospel writer used in place of the nativity stories of other Gospels. Instead of starting the story of the Son at his incarnation, the writer begins with… the beginning. (You know, “Start in the very beginning, the very best place to start”.) We tend to think of the Son as beginning with the birth of Jesus to Mary in a manger in Bethlehem. The point the writer is making is that the second person of the Trinity has always been present and active in the world.
Through the Son, all things came into being. And what was the Son called? The Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word is powerful. The Word creates life and light. But what does that have to do with us? Well, we may not be the Word, but according to a 2007 article in Scientific American, we, on average, use more than 15,000 words per day, that is, almost 5.5 million words spoken per year, per person. It does not matter if you think your total is far less. Chances are, you are still speaking hundreds of thousands of words per year. The question is, what do we create with our words? We have a choice to either create fear, hatred, resentment, shame, and isolation; or we can choose to create joy, community, hope, empowerment, encouragement, and love. I do not think that anyone speaks purely positive or negative words, but I want you to consider where you put your energy with your words. When you talk to your kids. Your partner. Your coworkers. Your neighbors. Strangers. Those who have power over you. Those over whom you have power. In the song, Speak Life (Eye On It, 2012), Christian recording artist TobyMac says:
we can turn our heart through the words we say.
Mountains crumble with every syllable.
Hope can live or die
So speak life, speak life
to the deadest darkest night
speak life, speak life
when the sun won’t shine and you don’t know why
look into the eyes of the broken hearted
watch them come alive as soon as you
speak love, you speak
you speak life…
Well, it’s crazy to imagine
words from my lips as the arms of compassion…
Lift your head a little higher
Spread the love like fire
Hope will fall like rain
When you speak life with the words you say
raise your thoughts a little higher
use your words to inspire
Joy will fall like rain when you speak life with the things you say.
Another way of looking at our own power in the world is to consider the words of theologian and writer Thomas Merton [A Prayer to God the Father on the Vigil of Pentecost, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 177-178]:
I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it.
the word of your peace
and the word of your mercy
and the word of your gentleness to the world:
and that through me perhaps your word of peace may make itself heard
where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time…
Here I am.
In me the world is present, and you are present.
I am a link in the chain of light and of presence.
When you choose your words, remember that you are a link in the chain of light and of presence; without you, the chain is broken.
“What has come into being through him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
Plato is questionably quoted as saying “we can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light.” Whether Plato said it or not, this statement does give us something to ponder. According to our Gospel reading, life goes hand in hand with light. If we fear the light, we probably are not living our lives to our fullest potential. We probably are not using the gifts we are given. Fearing the light is tantamount to fearing life itself. Embrace the light, which is given through the Son, by embracing life, which is also given through the Son.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The darkness did not disappear when light came into the world; it still exists. But it does not overcome the light.
Some people are taught that with enough faith, we won’t question the will of God. With enough light, there will be no darkness. This teaching leaves people who see darkness in themselves, or who are in a dark place in life, wondering if they have too little faith or do not trust God enough. These people may feel unworthy of love and light because they are not good enough to banish the darkness, worry, and fear. Worry, fear, and darkness are not signs of weakness of faith. Our Gospel today does not say that light banished the darkness, it said that darkness did not overcome the light. Hence, darkness still exists and it is okay to acknowledge that. I think J.K. Rowling got it right in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Harry, a 15 year old wizard, is confiding in his convicted-but-innocent “mass murderer” Godfather, Sirius. He says that he feels angry all the time and is seeing similarities between himself and the foe of all that is good, Lord Voldemort. Harry is afraid he is becoming evil. Sirius gives Harry a nugget of wisdom that we would all be better for embracing; “We’ve all got both light and darkness inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” “We’ve all got both light and darkness inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
But what is light?
The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines light as,
a: something that makes vision possible
b: the sensation aroused by stimulation of the visual receptors
c: electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength that travels in a vacuum with a speed of 299,792,458 meters (about 186,000 miles) per second; specifically: such radiation that is visible to the human eye
Some of you science-minded people might get something out of definitions b and c, but I think I will stick with definition a: something that makes vision possible. Sounds simple enough, when there is light, we can see things. When there is not light, we cannot see things. The light that was created in the beginning, through the Word, gives us the ability to see what is around us. In the incarnation of the Word, we are able to truly see God. This had never happened in history. There were symbols of the presence of God. There was the voice of God, but to actually see God in a form that makes sense to us, that was new.
As our Gospel reading told us, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
So this new year, choose to speak life, embrace the light, and as you gaze on the infant Jesus in the manger, see God incarnate in the world.
Good evening. Welcome, and thank you so much for responding to our casting call. We are so excited to have so many talented applicants wanting to fill the roles of our new Broadway production – Jesus Christ Superstar, the Prequel. For those who aren’t too familiar with this production, think Hamilton only with a lot more farm animals, a good deal more singing (if that is even possible), some pretty fancy robes, oh, and maybe some gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Many of you know the basic plot of play. Mary has conceived the Son of God and is traveling with her husband-to-be, Joseph, to his ancestral home, Bethlehem. While visiting Bethlehem she gives birth Jesus Christ, and in so doing, gives birth to new life to all of Creation.
This story matters a great deal to us, and this production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Prequel seeks to faithfully convey the gravity. I cannot underscore enough how excited I am for this production. It will be nothing short of epic.
But beneath the familiar story of Christmas, Jesus Christ Superstar, the Prequel seeks to raise up the deeper meaning of the story. Through the birth of the Son of God, “God has touched human life, has assumed human life, has planted the seed of a new and glorious spiritual development.” Everything is different now. “This day revolutionizes creation. This day creation is flooded by a great light and gladdened by a new life coursing through its veins: divine life, that grace by which God effects his indwelling.” Whatever remoteness existed between God and Creation is all gone. “We are no longer lone creatures, struggling in a lonely fashion after a goal perceived only dimly. We, too, because of the Son of God, are now [children] of God, assured of an everlasting inheritance. The awful distance between Creator and creature is now abridged, the gap is closed.” In Christ we are brought back home. Peace and reconciliation are possible across even the widest of chasms.
We’ve contacted Renita Weems, a Womanist theologian and writer, to help us write the play. She recently wrote an article entitled “Birthing Hope in a Time of Anxiety” where she says, “Childbirth is a common trope in scripture for political crisis and uncertainty. Childbirth (and pregnancy) spotlight a mother’s sacrifice, discomfort, suffering, and the unknown outcome of her labor. Divine deliverance will come, but not without near unbearable periods of turmoil, disaster, uproar, and darkness.” The birth of Christ is the birth of our deliverance. The things that once held us captive need no longer do so because of Mary’s courage and Christ’s birth. All things are made new. Laboring to build a new world is a part of this production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Prequel – and we need your help to make it a success.
There are lots of roles in the play and I want you to consider closely which role you desire to fill. I am confident that, with your best effort and dedication, this will be an amazing production.
First, we have “Emperor Augustus” and “Governor Quirinius.” Augustus represents the utter brokenness of the world – power that shows itself primarily in abuse and domination. Augustus doesn’t care much about those around him, particularly those who are different from him. He wants to control them, not love them or be loved by them. He only cares only for power for power’s sake.
Quirinius is the type of person who helps Augustus by not challenging him. He is uncritically loyal to the Roman Empire because he benefits from the world that Roman peace has created even if there are many who are not as fortunate. Quirinius values an uneasy peace over constructive dialogue that creates a new, better world. Quirinius gets angry when his ordered life is disturbed by the cries of the hungry, the poor, and the oppressed. Both Augustus and Quirinius are our antagonists. They attempt to stand in opposition to the coming Kingdom of God.
On the other hand, we have “Joseph.” Joseph is a prime example of what it looks like to have the plan of God interrupt your life, but to embrace the surprise with grace. Even when Joseph was perfectly within his cultural rights to put Mary away in shame for conceiving a child before their marriage, he didn’t.
He believes her.
He supports her.
He loves her.
Our Joseph much of speaking role in Jesus Christ Superstar, the Prequel, but his personality looms large. Whoever fills this role will need to be a strong but not overwhelming presence. The ideal candidate for Joseph would be someone who feels called to a supportive role, someone who doesn’t need to full limelight to shine.
In Christ we are brought back home. Peace and reconciliation are possible across even the widest of chasms.
The next role we have for you consider is the “Virgin Mary.” Now, the way our writers have chosen to interpret her role, Mary has recovered her original, biblical bravery. She is not the quiet, docile, domesticated woman we might like her to be. She’s strong. She’s resilient. She’s faithful. She is powerful. She is bold. And she has to be. She carries hope even when all seems lost. Our consultant, Dr. Weems, suggests that “when the laboring mother gives up hope, the baby has almost no chance. The mother must keep going. Keep hoping.” Maintaining hope in the face of so many reasons to give it away takes strength and fortitude. If you want to fill the role of “Mary,” you must keep hope alive.
We will not be filling the role of “Baby Jesus” because, let’s be honest, those are some big shoes to fill.
But we are, however, filling the role of “The Shepherds.” “The Shepherds” are basically innocent bystanders in this whole thing. They aren’t told anything is happening until it has already happened. But, when confronted with the full force of the glory of heaven, they believe! They are busy tending the sheep, but they aren’t so busy that they miss the glad tidings. We are casting several shepherds and I think there many who might want to consider this role. The ideal actor would be someone who is busy with life, family, work or other social obligations, but who desire to be open to experiencing holy surprises.
On the other hand, we are casting for the role of Innkeeper – a person too busy to stop, too full to welcome. I don’t know that the innkeeper intended to be inhospitable. The Innkeeper did, after all, offer a stable to the road-weary Mary and Joseph. They should be grateful they were offered anything at all, right? But in their attempt to be efficient, the innkeeper might have missed a great opportunity to be hospitable and welcoming. he was just too full to receive the Son of God in his most vulnerable moment. He is aloof, removed, and rushed.
Finally, we are auditioning for the Angelic Choir. Now, try to contain yourself, but we have some pretty heavy hitters lined up to sing with the choir. Last check, I think we had commitments from Patti LaBelle, Adele, Cher, Mick Jagger, and (wait for it) the one and only Queen herself – Beyoncé. This is pretty amazing. You don’t necessarily need to sing well to be in the choir, but you do need to exude excitement. After all, you are bearing the Good News of the birth of Christ to the world. You crash through curtain of eternity to bring the greatest news ever shared – that God’s love for us is so great that it overflowed the limitlessness of eternity to saturate all of Creation with newness and to raise us to new relationship with God.
You also must have a good set of jazz hands.
These are the roles we are casting. As you can see, there are lots of roles and lots of opportunities to share in this production. You don’t want to miss this opportunity. Some critics have promised that this is going to be an “earth-shattering” and “life-changing” production.
“This is no myth, no fairy story, no yarn woven by an enchantress in evening firelight. This is the breathtaking reality of God’s love bursting all confines, all limits and boundaries, all the ‘foundational decencies’ of a proud and self-sufficient natural order, and seizing our human nature in a permanent embrace.”
Which one are you? Prideful Augustus? Supportive Joseph? Brave Mary? Disinterested Innkeeper? Curious Shepherds? The Dazzling Angelic Chorus?
This story matters.
It is of cosmic and eternal significance.
Because of this night, everything is different.
We have been raised to God, kissed with divinity, showered in grace, embraced by love.
How we behave in this new world determines what roles we occupy in the inbreaking of the Reign of God.
I don’t know about you, but I am ready to give the performance of my life.
 Robert Hovda. No Land of Shadows (St. Paul: North Central Publishing Company), p. 4-5.
 Renita Weems. “Birthing Hope in a Time of Anxiety: Advent in a Time of Trial,”
Hovda. No Land in Shadows, p. 17-18.
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. 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.”
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.” 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.”
The spiritual life is hard. To look at ourselves and to accept the reality that we are simultaneously “fearfully and wonderfully made” as the Psalmist suggests and “the vessel made of clay that is marred in the hands of the potter” 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.
 Ephesians 4:13
 Rowan Williams. Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another (Boston: New Seeds, 2005), p. 115-116.
 The Book of Common Prayer, p. 372.
 Psalm 139:14
 Jeremiah 18:4
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Isaiah 40:3 (NRSV)
Beneath the themes of hope, joy, peace, and love lies the fundamental theme for the Season of Advent – preparation. These weeks that precede the celebration of the birth of Christ are meant to serve as a time to prepare to receive again the mystery of the Incarnation – that radical moment in which God entered the human condition so that we might be renewed from the inside out.
Our wider culture seems to suggest an altogether different idea. It can be so easy to ignore or miss the spirituality of Advent and to be given over to the full fury of the season. It is intoxicating. It is electrifying. But I wonder what we might be missing in doing so.
While the Incarnation was a historical event, it is also true that God is continually coming to us. With God, grace is never in short supply. Over and over, God meets our poverty with abundance and our deepest need with the greatest gift.
Advent, dear friends in Christ, is a time to prepare to receive that gift: grace-born-anew.
How are you preparing to receive this gift?
Where are you smoothing out the rough edges and leveling the elevations in your own heart?
Grace is a gift. Grace is THE gift. Grace is always God-initiated. There are many who would have us to believe that we must be perfect in order to receive God’s grace. They would have us to believe that we have to work to earn the love of God. I grew up in a church that preached this. Grace and salvation were reserved for those deemed worthy. It wasn’t until I matured that I came to understand that nothing could be further from the truth. God’s grace is a free gift given to all. Paul tells that church in Rome that “God shows [God’s] love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”Over and over again, God takes steps towards us to bring us back home.
God’s grace is not transactional. We can do nothing to earn it, but there is work we must do to prepare to receive it. We often hear words like “spiritual journey,” but we don’t often hear words like conversion – the lifelong process of letting go of our false selves in order to reclaim the original image of God that is within each of us. The Christian life is one of serial conversions and the path forward is often one fraught with challenge. Hearing a message of sin and grace taps into a very real need to engage with a faith that makes a difference in our lives.
In truth, any conversation about grace that does not also engage the subject of sin is a one-sided conversation. It is to go on a journey and to be told of the glorious ultimate destination, but to be left with no way of getting there. To only speak of grace is to engage a sugary faith that might be pleasing, but fails to truly nourish. To never speak of the areas in our lives where we stand in need of a savior is to forfeit the depth of grace promised to us in the Gospels.
Too often though, we find churches unsafe or unfamiliar places to speak of the magnitude of grace that we all stand in need of. If we speak of sin at all, it is always in the third person and often in hushed tones. In the words of Martin Smith and Julia Gatta, sin “seems to be the sort of infuriating fault of which other people are guilty.” It is strangely convenient that is always the people most different from us who stand the most in need of a savior. Meanwhile, while we outsource sin to others, we also outsource grace. It is only by locating the sin that stubbornly abides in each of our own hearts that we can hope to feel the magnitude of God’s grace.
While there is nothing we can do to earn the grace of God, there is work that we must do to prepare to receive it. Like a farmer, we must break up the hard soil, till the ground, and remove the weeds if we expect to bear the nourishing fruit of grace – a compassionate and generous heart and a life overflowing with love. This is the hard work of preparing to receive grace-born-anew. It is that hard work of truth. It is the hard work of honesty. It is the hard work of vulnerability. It is the hard work of laying our wounds bare in order that the healing balm of the love of God might make them whole.
Years ago, after I had begun attending a new church, I found myself still carrying around the scars from the old one. I struggled with self-worth. I wouldn’t go anywhere near language like “sin” and “repentance” without feeling triggered. That is until my priest and I had a conversation that changed me. “Marcus,” he said, “at some point in your life you are going to have to let go of that wounded self and allow yourself to be loved by others, including God. At some point you are going to have to trust that what God desires for you is better than what you are clinging onto for yourself.”
When John the Baptist set up his revivals in the Judean countryside, he was calling everyone to repentance (μετανοια, lit. “a change of mind”). To prepare to receive grace-born-anew, John calls his disciples to the searching work of understanding why it was that they needed a savior in the first place. Sure, the world around them had its faults – colonialism, poverty, militarism – many of the things we see around us today. Yes, it is true that Christ came into the world in order to bring the Kingdom of God to bear in a global sense. But Christ also came into the world to “call sinners to repentance.” In fact, this might be the genius behind the mystery of the Incarnation – it might help us to understand how it is the God comes to save us for the inside out.
Because while the power of Rome was exhibited chiefly in a top-down, hierarchical, dictatorial, dominating, abusive form power, Jesus, born of Mary, born in humility, inverts the systems of power we see all around. Jesus emphasizes quiet truth over loud falsehoods, compassion over domination, and community of division. In addition to being the Son of God, Jesus was a genius, grassroots community organizer, focusing on the importance of individual relationships and mobilizing those relationships – transformed be the grace of God – to change the world.
Beloved in Christ, the change we seek in the world must begin in our hearts. If we desire peace around us, we must cultivate peace within. If we desire love in others, we must nurture love in ourselves. The new world we seek is comprised of the new worlds that a born within each of us and the path to those new worlds leads through the gates of repentance – of changing our minds, our hearts, and our lives.
We all struggle with sin, even if we’d rather rush through the Confession than sit in the tension of the silence contemplating our sins.
Maybe because we believe that God only loves us generally. “But bland generalized assurances of divine love are not good news… The deliverance proclaimed in the gospel is deliverance from something – and that something is summarized… as the twin evils of sin and death.” In short: because we all struggle with sin, we can all become recipients of grace that brings the love of God to bear in our lives specifically.
The good news for each of us is this – tailormade grace is God’s specialty. It is found in God’s willingness to give us new eyes, to see a new vision, that gives us a new mind, that produces a new heart, that creates a new world.
But we must hand over our broken hearts and allow ourselves to be loved by others, especially God.
 Romans 5:8 (CEB)
 Julia Gatta, Martin Smith. Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2012), p. 8.
 Luke 5:32, 1 Timothy 1:15
 Gatta, Smith. Go in Peace, p. 11
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.
Mark 13:33 (NRSV)
If you are anything like me, the past several weeks have felt incredibly exhausting. The world around us seems to be fraying at the edges and coming unglued at the seams and, if you pay too much attention to news or social media, it can feel as though the very sky above our heads is falling.
The recent spate of accusations of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of cultural heroes and political leaders, people that we thought we could trust, but now it doesn’t seem so sure…
continued geopolitical turmoil and upheaval where nations are pointing increasingly deadly weapons at one another in a show of force that threatens to annihilate us all…
political divisiveness that leaves many in our country feeling as though they have no say in government…
There is so much going on around us and, in the words of William Yeats, if feels as though “the center cannot hold.”
This feeling of an incredibly unsteady and fragile world is nothing new. The ancients believed that the world we live in is essentially a bubble of peace in a sea of chaos created and sustained by the word of God. We find evidence of this fragility throughout human history, but we can also find traces of it in popular children’s literature.
The popular children’s book Henny Penny is a story about a hen named “Henny Penny” who interprets the feeling of an acorn falling on her has as a sign that the sky is falling. “They sky is falling,” she exclaims. “I must go tell the King.”
On her way to see the King, Henny Penny encounters other interestingly named avians – Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Cocky Locky, and Ducky Lucky – and she convinces them that the sky is falling. Their shared sense of anxiety further persuades each of them that they must also go and tell the King. As luck would have it, on the way to the King’s Palace, they run into Foxy Loxy, a sly fox who, upon hearing of their fear and anxiety, offers to show them a shortcut to the King’s Palace. Consumed by anxiety, Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Cocky Locky, and Ducky Lucky “went along, and they went along, and they went along” until Foxy Loxy led them right into his den. “And don’t you know that Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Cocky Locky, and Ducky Lucky were never heard from again, and the King has never been told that the sky is falling.”
It is no secret that we are living in a time of dramatic transformation and uncertainty. Things, people, ideas, ways of being in the world that were once as certain as death and taxes are now no longer as sure. It can be tempting to look around at all that is quickly shifting in front of us and to believe that the world as we know it is coming to an end – to believe that the sky is falling.
I often wonder if what we are witnessing in front of us is not the destruction of our world, but the further work of God’s creation. I wonder when we feel the pain of cultural heroes who appear to fall from grace, or when our assumptions about the way the world works no longer hold true, or when the norms and mores that once governed the society and named our place within it begin to crumble, or when all around feels like shifting sand, if this is not what it means to live in a world that is constantly being renewed by God. This might not mitigate the anxiety we feel in the moment, but I wonder if reframing how we experience the changes going on around us will help us bravely engage the new world unfolding in front of our eyes.
The Gospel of Mark (which we will be reading through throughout the coming 12 months) warns us about taking on too much anxiety during times of distress and great change. The Evangelist makes clear that for the followers of Jesus Christ, it is the voice of God that we must listen to and obey, not the sensationalizing voices that seek to exploit times of distress and anxiety for their own gain. Like Foxy Loxy, there are many around us who seize upon our anxieties and fears – real or imagined – and use them to lure us away from our true home in compassion, mercy, justice, grace, and love. These other voices are seductive. They promise assurance and stability, but they produce the opposite. “What I say to you, I say to all,” says Jesus. “Keep awake!”
It can seem counterintuitive, but the plethora of these other voices can lull us to sleep. We can be so caught up in paying attention to the sensationalizing voices around us that we miss the voice of God. In exploiting our fears and raising the volume of our anxieties, these voices deaden our senses and muddy our ability to hear of compassion and grace when we need to hear it most. In the face of such challenge, we need to cultivate the inner voice – the voice of God that beckons each of us to wholeness and grace.
Now, contrary to what my vocation as priest my invite you to assume, I struggle with cultivating the inner voice as much as any other person. There is so much that can get in the way of the silence and space that we need to hear the voice of God – busyness, anxiety, apathy, and pride. But if we want to avoid being pulled away from the wholeness that is our birthright, we must do all we can to hear the voice of God. We must pray.
Prayer isn’t only something we do when we come here – once a week (once a month) – but it is something we are commanded to always go. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his followers that they are to “pray always and not to lose heart.” The life of prayer isn’t a suggestion or a recommendation – it is part and parcel to what it means to follow the way of Jesus.
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests that prayer is ultimately about letting Jesus pray in us. That’s the power of praying “Our Father” – in these words we join Jesus in his relationship to the Father. Williams says that prayer “is not us trying to persuade God to be nice to us or get God interested in us. It is opening our minds and hearts and saying to the Father, ‘Here is your Son, praying in me through the Holy Spirit. Please listen to him, because I want him to be working, acting, and loving in me.”
Perhaps the prayer we need is the kind of prayer that opens us up to Jesus in ways that invite his assurance, his faith, his hope, his joy, his love for our neighbor, and his peace deeper into our lives when we find our supply sorely lacking. Perhaps the antidote to our own individual and wider societal anxiety is the “peace of Christ which passes all understanding.” Perhaps the way to avoid the seductive voices of sensationalism is to saturate ourselves with the songs and prayers of scripture, which root us in the assurance of the solid rock that is Jesus Christ.
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
all other ground is sinking sand.
If we are to truly steel ourselves for the work ahead of fashioning this world more and more after the image of the compassionate, grace-filled, and justice-oriented reign of God, we must first be a people whose lives revolve around the solid foundation of Jesus.
Because if we are not careful we may find ourselves like Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Cocky Locky, and Ducky Lucky, seduced away from safety and compassion and towards danger. If don’t pray (P-R-A-Y), we may find ourselves prey (P-R-E-Y) to voices who would exploit us to their gain and our misfortune.
Keep awake, beloved in Christ.
And while you’re at it, and for the love of God, keep praying.
 Luke 18:1
 Rowan Williams. Being Christian, p. 80.