Epiphany, Sunday January 6, 2019

I speak to you in the name of the living God, the father the son and the holy spirit. Amen. Welcome to Epiphany! The time in the church year where we recognize the light of God born among us… and celebrate the first gentiles, people outside of Judaism, to recognize Christ as the messiah which the prophets of old foretold…and took great risk to visit and proclaim. Epiphany is always 12 days after Christmas, and the old Greek word, epiphania, literally means, “God visits earth.” However, the take that we are perhaps most familiar with is when someone says “they’ve had an epiphany!” You know the moments. Those times when a pathway to somewhere seems possible maybe for the first time. Those times when God seems to break through a wall in our heart and it changes the course of our life. Those moments when we have a break-through on how we can love ourselves or someone else better; those times when there is no way to explain a change of heart, mind, or spirit. These are powerful moments—and they often come after times of prayer, searching, study, or meditation; and the magi in today’s lesson are no exception.

History tells us that these magi were likely not Kings as we know it—but priests in a religion called Zoroastrianism. At the time, Zoroastrianism was a very popular religion—and it is perhaps one of the oldest religions of the world. It is a monotheistic religion common throughout the middle east and parts of Asia, whose God is called Ahura Mazda, or Wise Lord.[1] The God for whom the car company is named.

In her commentary on this matter, Lutheran pastor, Niveen Sarras, talks about these priests. In her work, she has found that these scholar priests, or magi, were known for their ability to make horoscopes, to interpret dreams, and for their ability to use astrology in everyday life. Zoraster, the religion’s prophet, was, like Jesus, said to have been miraculously conceived as well. Zoroaster believed that other virgins would also conceive and that prophets throughout the ages would declare them. “Zoroastrian priests [also] believe[d] that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars.[2] And so, when the stars lined up with the religious texts they were reading; and when the stars lined up with the world as they knew it under the fury of Herod, they believed that something miraculous, and worthy of exploration, was about to happen; something that could change the world; and at all costs they made a pilgrimage to the holy child.

In fact, in Bethlehem, stands The Church of the Nativity. This church was built around 330 by Rome’s first Christian Emperor, Constantine, and while much of it was destroyed in 529—parts of the original mosaic tile floor remain. However, in 614, the Persians who were largely Zoroastrian, spared the church in another war because they recognized the magi in the art as looking like them! They recognized the beards and wardrobes in the artwork depicting the magi visiting the Christ, and so it was preserved.[3] Perhaps they had such an epiphany at seeing images of themselves at the nativity of our Lord.

There is a world-renown band leader of Persian descent, who died in 1991, and was a follower of Zoroastrianism. Right now, there is a new film out about his life and music.  Any guesses who this might be?

This is the lead singer of the band, Queen, Freddie Mercury. And in their song, entitled Jesus, he sings these lines.

 And then I saw Him in the crowd; A lot of people had gathered 'round Him;

The beggars shouted, the lepers called Him; The old man said nothing, he just stared about Him.

[Chorus] All going down to see the Lord Jesus; All going down to see the Lord Jesus; All going down

Then came a man before his feet he fell; Unclean, said the leper and rang his bell
Felt the palm of a hand touch his head; Go now, go now, you’re a new man instead. [Chorus]

It all began with the three wise men; Followed a star, took them to Bethlehem
And made it heard throughout the land; Born was a leader of man[4]

These Zoroastrian priests recognized the passages from the prophets and from the psalms that we heard today. They sensed that a light had come—that nations would soon rise to this light—and that this child would grow to defend the needy; that he would have pity on the lowly; that he would redeem our lives from oppression and violence. These magi knew the power that this messiah was to be born with, and the ways in which his birth would change this world forever. And so when they arrived, they knelt and adored him—amidst the Epiphany of their own hearts—they worshiped him. They knew, as Mercury sang, there was Born a Leader of Man.

The epiphany of their hearts—with what they found at the end of their journey—was God.  And the hope that this inspired in them stood in stark contrast to the political world that they were living in with Herod as their king. Herod ruled with a power that destroyed. He ruled with a power that was so harsh and divisive, that the idea of another King—particularly a King of the Jews—threatened him and it threatened all he stood for and the vision he had for a kingdom made unto himself. It was no wonder that he ordered all male babies to be killed. A king who was set up to rule with justice and righteousness; a King who was set up to rule with kindness and mercy—stood in the way of Herod. The magi are the first to convert to a belief in Christ as the foretold savior of the world. They understood the history and prophetic words of ages past, and they saw the hope of the world as his crown. They embodied the idea that all people regardless of their background, could turn to Christ and see him as the hope of the world—the messiah spoken of by the prophets. They were hungry for a world where Herod, or Herod like leaders, would not be in charge.

 Some weeks, when I listen to radio or read headlines on my newsfeeds, I too become full of despair and I wonder what kind of world we live in. I am angry about the ways in which children are victimized by civil and religious people and authorities. I am angry at the economic disparities that force poor and often minority communities, into illegal drug and sex trades because there are no suitable opportunities in the food deserts that have borne them. I am saddened by the ways in which civil discourse in this country has turned from our being able to break bread together—to drawing wide lines in the sand and harming one another. I am sad that we live in a world where a government can be shut down all for the sake of power and short-sighted action.

This week has been especially hard; and I have to believe that many of us experience this slump, the post-Christmas back-to-normal-blues. The magic of the Christmas season has worn off; we go back to our normal routines, many of us on sugar and carbohydrate restrictions and moody as ever; and the despair of loneliness begins to set in. We look for signs in the sky that everything is going to be okay. We remember those seeds of hope, those songs of our faith that we have picked up along this journey, and we walk the path that is laid bare before us, illumined by the star in the night sky—and we walk as best we can. Sometimes we stumble, and the words and hopes of those who love us serve to guide us to the next stop. Sometimes we stumble, and the arms of another lift us up and they remain to walk with us for a stretch of the path and they help us unpack what we have seen, what we know to be true, and what we hope for on this way to God.

Theologian Caroline Lewis says that “If the magi teach us anything about this journey to God in the midst of a chaotic world, they teach us that our witness to living a life that seeks to unite, heal, and redeem, is an act of resistance in itself.[5] These magi “insist that their witness testifies to a truth that will challenge power [and] defy authority because they believe their own experience, their own encounter, their own epiphany.”[6] The magi believe that an honest walking out of these signs of God, brings us to God, and this kind of journey is at the very center of our faith.[7] The magi inspire us to walk with God, to stand in resistance to the Herod’s around us, even the Herod-like side of ourselves—and walk toward the star whose light is our guide.

You are the beloved, dear ones. May the light of epiphany surround you, captivate you, and draw you in through body, mind and spirit as we resist, and walk this pathway to our God, together, stronger than we were before. And may we recognize the holy moments—the epiphanies—that are waiting on the path. Amen.

[1] Niveen Sarras, Commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931, referencing the work of: Courtney Roberts, The Star of the Magi: the Mystery That Heralded the Coming of Christ (Franklin Lakes: New Page Books, 2007), 19.

[2] Niveen Sarras, Commentary, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931, referencing the work of: Paul Fink, Comparing and Evaluating the Scriptures (Lompoc: Summerland Publishing, 2011), 30.

[3] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/endangered-site-church-of-the-nativity-bethlehem-51647344/#CjQc4S4OXdW27k01.99

[4] https://genius.com/Queen-jesus-lyrics

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5271

[6] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5271, Caroline Lewis.

[7] Ibid, Lewis

Christmas Eve, 2018

Merry Christmas, everyone! It is a joy to welcome you all to the Inn—a safe place of joy and hope—a place that is yours no matter the journey you are coming off of to be here in this moment tonight. Whether you are here because this is your church home, whether you are here because someone said what a gift it would be if you would come with them; whether you are here because you are home with family and friends and this is the place where you grew up; whether you are new and looking for a church; or whether you are here because this community is your family—welcome, welcome, welcome, and it is a joy to celebrate the birth of our savior with you.

Coming to church today is a choice—just as it is a choice to be with family and friends on Christmas. And like so many things in life, we chose them. However—there are a great many things we do not chose in this life—things that chose us—that just happen. Things that can attempt to divide us, things that can take people away from us, things we must face head on.

In our biblical narrative today, we see a family who ready or not, had no real choice in the matter of their story. The government of the time had a policy of registration and Joseph had no choice but to gather his pregnant fiancé, load up their belongings, and the baby bag in case Mary delivered on their trip, and go.

Can you see it—This vulnerable family of 2.5 making the journey to Joseph’s homeland to be counted in a tax survey. Mary is tired, she is on top of this donkey and the walking pattern is enough to make her both nauseous and uncomfortable. And then there is Joseph. Joseph trusts his fiancé, he trusts the messengers of God who have come to say—be not afraid—and he is contemplating what it will be to raise a baby that is not his own—to marry after having children—to register a family that is not exactly as he had planned even months before. It is hard for them both to not be afraid and they’re doing the best they can.

If their journey together was not already difficult enough and did not already place them in a pretty vulnerable position, I am sure that when Mary’s contractions began, the anxiety became even more pronounced. No one would give them a room—and neither could they quell these labor pains—and so they made do as parents have done for millennia—and they took refuge in a barn, among the animals, and prepared to have this baby. They had no choice.

In this life, we experience many things that we do not have much control over—the diagnoses of a loved one, a lost job, a sudden death—and like a blow to the gut these situations take over and they can paralyze us. And yet—life continues to forge ahead—the world doesn’t stop—we continue to show up and we do the best that we can.

Can you think of something like this in your life?

Christmas offers us a choice—and that choice is to welcome this little baby into the areas of this world—of our life—that feel like a mess. Those places where we feel we have no control, those places where an outcome is grim, those places that have the power to bring us to our knees.

This my beloveds, is the magic of Christmas. It is God coming into our flesh, into our life and into all our situations—the good ones but particularly the messes—and it is our choice to let Him in to be our joy, to be our hope.

When we allow this baby to be born into our darkness, into our vulnerability, we find hope. We find hope in that our hearts become larger, and this light of the world is born into our darkest night.

Choosing to let God be born into our own world, invites us to open our hearts. It invites us to be vulnerable even but for a moment to the light that could pierce our darkness, and it invites us to experience hope. It invites us to embrace the tenderness of a baby—of a God who has joined us in our suffering and in our joys—as one of us.

To live into joy and hope is to step further into our vulnerability—to lay aside the power we have, or do not have, and be in the moment—even in the midst of the pain—even in the midst of Mary’s labor of love—and wait for God’s light to break the darkness. God comes to us at Christmas in the most humble and vulnerable of positions—a baby—susceptible to the problems of this world, to illumine a pathway that invites us to hope.

When we set aside our need to control every bit of this world we share, and we can be present to the Holy One in our midst, we are choosing to open our hearts. We are choosing to put down the world of our making even but for a moment and breath in the holy that surrounds us. To center ourselves in the God who joins us as an infant—even into the chaos of this world. This is our light and our salvation—that we might find him swaddled and laying in a manger—

This new hope is the foundation of a life that rebuilds our hearts. This new hope, this baby, is the enduring strength to our world that when all else seems lost, there God remains, wrapped most humbly and cooing in the manger.

Silent night! holy night! Son of God love's pure light. Radiant beams from thy holy face. With the dawn of redeeming grace, the well-loved song goes. It is our choice to let God in, to let down our guard and be at ease, to pick up this baby and be changed by its love—by its radiant beams of his holy face, in the dawn of redeeming grace.

And it is okay to do this, any of it, with some resistance--the faithful can be bored and irritated; the faithful can be grieved and worried. But it is taking these small steps toward this radiant light, toward this baby, that helps us build hope and to see a way out of no way.

This drew in the shepherds, and the wisemen; it certainly drew in Joseph, it drew in pregnant cousin Elizabeth—to behold the radiant child—and it changed all of them—and it can change us, too.

The prophets of old have declared that the one to come will reign with love, that justice will prevail, that rights will be made wrong, that the lowly will be raised high, that oppression will cease, and that abusive power will be toppled—all through the life and death of a baby born in a barn and contained in a feeding trough.

A most humble beginning for the salvation of the world. A most humble beginning for us to grapple with and to behold.

God becoming human invites us to reconsider what we work for in this life. It invites us to consider those things that give us life and sustain us—and lead us on the path of hope. God becoming human and beginning his life in the lowliest and most vulnerable of ways, stands against any idea that the systems of our own making can save us. Jesus being born into a feeding troth reimagines a faith in the God of love who calls us, each of us, to the margins of this world where nativities of hope are coming to fruition all the time, and it is in these nativities we will see our Lord. The steps we take toward this manger, toward this babe wrapped in rags, is the incarnation of hope. It is the journey back to us, back to the beginning of our faith, to the place where God awaits us.

Planting seeds of hope inspire us on this path to God, as much as they enable us to show the love of God to those in our lives. Hope is moot if it isn’t experienced in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds in this world. Hope is our confession, it is our prayer, it is our need, and it is the very feeling our souls long for when the dark nights of this world seem too much for our minds and our hearts to bear.

All these things, the scriptures tell us, Mary pondered in her heart. In this season, love is offered to us through a tender baby laying in a trough, and we are invited to pick it up. We are invited to hold it, to meditate upon it, and pass this hope along knowing that it will never end. Behold the Christ in the manger—and love those who surround your life and carry you in your darkest hour. This mystery changes us, my beloveds, and Christmas invites us to behold this hope, and to ponder it in our hearts.

Merry Christmas, one and all, even in our grief.
Merry Christmas, one and all, even in our doubt.
Merry Christmas, one and all, even as hope begins to take form.

Joy has come, and our hope is refreshed through the act God joining our world—struggles and all—and inviting us to behold him in the manger this and every day. Yes, my beloveds, it is indeed a Merry Christmas.

Sunday December 23: Advent 4C

Sermon for the 4. Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018, Deacon Sue Nebel

Here we are, the last Sunday of Advent. All four candles on the Advent wreath are lighted.    We are standing at the threshold of the event we have been preparing for: the birth of Jesus. Christmas.  In the Church we are intentional about making Advent a time to slow down, reflect, anticipate.  A time to be quiet. To prepare ourselves to experience once again the gift of God coming into the world to live among God’s people.  Advent, a quiet season.  Interestingly, the readings that we have heard so far in this season, especially the Gospel lessons. have been anything but quiet.  Descriptions of the end of the age. Roaring seas. The powers of heaven shaken. People trembling in fear.  Then along comes John the Baptist. I cannot imagine him speaking in anything but the highest volume possible. A voice crying out in the wilderness, urging people to repent their sins and begin anew with baptism.  Proclaiming that one greater than he is coming to change the world.  One who will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. Not exactly calm, quiet words.

            Today, the tone shifts.  We hear a Gospel lesson that is quiet, simple: the story of The Visitation.  No loud voices, no noisy crowds here.  Just two women, Mary and Elizabeth.   We have gone back to the beginning.  Back to the first chapter of Luke. Back to the beginning of the story of Jesus.  Today’s story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth comes right after the account of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary.  Gabriel comes to Mary with the message that God has chosen her to be the God-Bearer.  She will conceive and give birth to a son who will be called Jesus. He is destined for greatness. When Mary questions how this can happen because she is a virgin, Gabriel responds by pointing to her relative Elizabeth.  Elizabeth, who had been unable to have children and is getting on in years, is now in her six month of pregnancy. “Nothing is impossible with God,“ Gabriel tells Mary. We do not know how much time lapses between Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her departure to visit Elizabeth.  Luke only tells us, “In those days Mary set out with great haste. . .” There certainly has been enough time that Elizabeth has heard the news about Mary’s pregnancy.  We also do not know why Mary makes this journey, but the phrase “with great haste” indicates a sense of urgency.  Perhaps she needs to get away from Nazareth before her pregnancy becomes apparent and the shaking of heads and whispered conversations start. She may need some quiet time to grasp what is happening to her.  She may believe that Elizabeth is a person who can understand her situation and provide support.  Mary knows the story of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.  It is story that parallels her own.  The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, and told him that his wife would bear a son whom they should name John.  Gabriel said, “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” Another promise of greatness.

            When Mary arrives at her destination and enters the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she calls out a greeting. Elizabeth, her spirits rising at the sight of her young relative, greets her warmly.  She tells Mary that the child in her womb has responded as well, leaping in joy.   “Blessed are you among women,” she tells Mary, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Former Roman Catholics among us will recognize those words.  They are part of the Hail Mary.  Elizabeth also affirms Mary’s willingness to accept the role that God has given to her: to give birth to Jesus. Two women, looking ahead to the birth of their sons. Wondering what the future will hold for them. A quiet scene, filled with hope. For the hearers of Luke’s story, and for us as well, this moment is tinged with a sense of sadness.  We know what that future for these unborn children will be.  Yes, they will become great. Elizabeth’s son will be known as John the Baptist, attracting crowds with his message of a new kind of life.  He will awaken hope in the people.  Jesus will come into the picture, to be baptized by John.  Jesus will continue to give people hope.  Through his teachings and actions, people will learn about a God of love. A God that loves all God’s children.  Jesus will describe a new kind of world, a woard as God wants it to be. Where everyone is valued, where everyone thrives.  The sadness is that both John and Jesus will suffer. They will be arrested at the hands of those in power and die brutal deaths.

            Those stories come later.  Let’s go back to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Two pregnant women, anticipating an event that will change their lives. Two figures who are the embodiment of hope.     Hope, that feeling and orientation to life that is rooted deep in our being.  Hope is strong, urgent, persistent.  In dark times and facing great challengers, hope refuses to be defeated. I learned a lot about hope in my years of working as a hospice chaplain.  I journeyed with people as they navigated their way in the darkness of serious illness and moved toward the end of their lives.  Hope was important to them. It kept them going.  Hope, I learned, as I talked and prayed with people, is incredibly strong—and flexible.  Often, patients and their loved ones had to accept the fact that their hope of a cure or long life was not going to be realized.  They had to let go of that hope and find something new.  I experienced it time and time again: the strong determination to find hope.  The new hope was often for more time. Time to see people whom they loved or time to take care of some unfinished business in their lives.  And finally, the hope for a peaceful end to their life.   Hope is strong. It doesn’t quit.  It changes and becomes something new.

            In the season of Advent, some churches have responded to people for whom the approach of Christmas is difficult.  The pain of loss or loneliness make it hard for them to join in the brightness and joy around them.   Churches offer Blue Christmas services in the season of Advent. An opportunity for these people to find acknowledgement and acceptance of their sadness.  A place where they can find, for a short time, a community of shared experience. I am convinced that hope brings people to these liturgies.  The deep longing for a ray of new hope in the midst of their personal darkness.  Their host churches hope they may experience the loving presence of God.

            What about now, today?  What you hope for?  Our world is marked by unrest and violence. Our own nation struggles with the chaos and dysfunction of our government and political system.  We may be experiencing challenges in our personal lives.  It can seem hard, if not impossible, to have hope. But I believe hope is there. It is persistent, determined. But we need to search for it.  I invite you, as we leave Advent behind and move into Christmas, to find some time to sit quietly and search for that hope.  It might be later today or this evening. Perhaps in the wakefulness of night, or in the early light of tomorrow morning. Look into the deepest part of yourself.  What is the hope that resides there?  What hope sustains you?  Name it. Embrace it. Give thanks for it. May you cross the threshold to Christmas in hope.

Sunday November 18, 2018, Proper 28, XXVI Sunday After Pentecost B

We’re at the end of the church year and approaching the beginning of Advent. It’s a time in liturgical churches when we focus on last things: Christ’s coming again as king and judge, the consummation of history and the world as we know it, the hope of new heaven and earth. Some of our lectionary readings, hymns, and prayers have an apocalyptic tone.

This should resonated with us because Americans are apocalyptic people.  We’re always looking for signs of the end of the world as we know it. When we experience one mass shooting after another and constantly raging fires and floods, it’s easy to think apocalyptic thoughts.

“Apocalypse” is the Greek word for “revelation”. Usually it refers to a special revelation, such as The Revelation to St. John the Seer, the last book in our Bible. Governor John Winthrop must have had an apocalyptic vision when he said at the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, “we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us…” President Ronald Reagan referred to that vision all the time when he called America “a shining city upon a hill”. The idea of the image is that we are to be an example to other nations. Our sense of American specialness is even engraved on our money: Novus ordo seclorum, “The new order of the ages”. But when the light of the city on the hill is darkened by storm clouds of bigotry and xenophobia or the new order isn’t going the way we think it should, some folks get that apocalyptic fear that it’s all going to come crashing down.

Politically, we seem to live in perpetual fear that our society is going to come crashing down. When I was growing up in the 1950s it was the “red scare,” which didn’t refer to Republicans but Communists and the fear that Soviet agents were infiltrating our institutions. How interesting that we’re again concerned about Russia undermining confidence in our democracy by tampering with our elections.

In the 2016 election many voters supported Donald Trump out of fear that they were losing their way of life. To be fair this was not just a resurgence of white supremacy, although Trump stoked those fires, but many of Trump’s voters had voted for Obama in the previous presidential elections. But opponents of Trump saw his election as a danger to our democratic institutions. We have become so divided as a nation with clashing views of social life that some critics have even said it has spelled the end of comedy as comedians go for applause lines rather than laughter, making caustic political comments rather than telling jokes.

Today we hear Jesus speaking in apocalyptic terms of the temple being demolished and prophesying that “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs, for the end is still to come.”  

Jesus had been teaching in the temple and as he left the precincts his disciples marveled at the immense stones that supported the Jewish Temple that had been erected by King Herod the Great. Jesus responded  that “not one stone will be left on another”. It was an apocalyptic prediction that came true. Forty years later in the Roman-Jewish War Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans after a lengthy siege and in 70 AD they did destroy the Temple. All that’s left of it today is the Western wall, the Wailing Wall – the giant stones that extended the platform on the temple mount so that the great Temple with all its courtyards could be built on top of it.

Jesus had an apocalyptic vision that the great Temple would be destroyed. But there’s nothing in his prophecy that predicts the end of the world – although to the Jews of his day the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world sounded like one and the same thing. But that’s not what Jesus says. In fact, anticipating the false prophets who would look for signs that would be a map to the future, Jesus said that these signs of destruction, whether of the Temple being destroyed or wars between nations or the calamities of nature, are not the end. In fact, Jewish life as we have known it for the last two thousand years was born in a new system replaced the Temple and its sacrificial cult. That new system was the study of Torah in the synagogue and common prayers offered as a spiritual sacrifice, a practice that was already developing at the time of Jesus in the Jewish diaspora.

I’d like to focus on Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple. On one level, it is no more than what the late French-born philosopher René Girard called the imitative origin of violence. Imitative means that we imitate what we experience. It results in retaliation. If you hit me, I’ll hit you back. In fact, I’ll hit you back even harder than you hit me. You see it in the behavior of children. One child is playing with a toy. Another child sees the toy and wants to play with it too. So he takes it away from the child who had it and she fights to get it back. Soon there’s a war going on in the nursery.  Much violence in the world is caused by retaliation for real or perceived injustices or transgressions, whether it is an individual or a group afflicting terror on others or whole nations going to war against each other.  

So what Jesus could have been talking about is this: “If you keep retaliating against Roman oppression with more violence, Rome will keep upping the ante. And Rome will win because Rome is bigger than you and Jerusalem will be destroyed.” Forty years later that is exactly what happened.

But on another level, what Jesus is saying here is similar to what he was saying by his actions when he purged the temple, driving out the money changers and animal sellers and closing down the sacrificial system for the day: the old answers, the official sacred violence of the sacrificial system, is never going to set people free from this cycle of fear and violence.

Jesus unmasks our “officially sanctioned” violence – whether religious sacrifice, war, capital punishment, etc. – as just another crude imitation of the violence of those whom we fear. In Jesus’ actions in the Temple, which actually occurred in the gospel narrative just before his apocalyptic prophecy about not one stone left on another, the whole system was crashing down.

Why would he perform such a prophetic action? If we turn to the reading from the letter to the Hebrews, we hear a reminder that the heart of the sacrificial system in the temple is the need to offer something to God in order to procure God’s forgiveness. That’s what the atoning sacrifice is all about. And Jesus was saying that this is entirely unnecessary because it is based on an entirely wrong understanding of God – a view that misrepresents God as angry and judgmental and is only reluctantly willing to let anybody off the hook without punishment.

That’s not what God intended by instituting the sacrificial cult. The sacrifices prescribed in the Torah were a way for God’s people to relate to God in acts of praise and thanksgiving, in supplication and repentance. But people who are afraid that they will be eternally punished for their past deeds will go to great extremes to prove their repentance to a god whose mercy, in their view, is only begrudgingly given because that’s the way they forgive. They haven’t believed that they were entirely forgiven and therefore are not able to entirely forgive.

Often when I hear some right wing Christian family-values zealot criticizing the morals of other people, I often think of Shakespeare’s line, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks". This is spoken by Queen Gertrude in response to the insincere overacting of a character in the play within a play created by Prince Hamlet to prove his uncle’s guilt in the murder of his father. So, too, it has transpired that some family-values zealots have had affairs on the side, or had committed some transgression in the past that drives them to be the most zealous, most vehement opponent of “sins” they still fear being judged for.

The letter to the Hebrews promises us that we can have confidence to enter the presence of God in full assurance of faith with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with the pure water, because God gladly forgives all our sins. God forgave us in Baptism and promises forgiveness by returning to our baptism. So there is no longer any need for a further offering for sin. Jesus’ once-for-all atonement on the cross is an all-sufficient atonement; no further atonement is needed. No further scapegoat is needed.

All this was revealed when God came among us in the person of Jesus, calling us to follow him, to imitate him and his way of non-retaliation, and modeled for us the way of gratuitous mercy that overcomes hatred and violence with self-sacrificial love and forgiveness even of his enemies.

René Girard saw Jesus’ atoning sacrifice as the resolution of the imitative character of violence. We will imitate what we see and experience. But with Girard’s help in understanding more clearly the workings of the cycles of violence, the nature of Jesus’s way of salvation from this cycle becomes more apparent.

Although, as Jesus says, he had the authority to call down twelve armies of angels to violently repress his enemies, he knows that that would be to perpetuate the cycle of violence, not to break it. Self-sacrificial love and forgiveness are the only answers that will work. It is only when we know ourselves utterly forgiven that we are healed of our fear of judgment and are set free to offer ourselves for the life of the world. As forgiven people, we are not called to prove our zealousness in fierce crusades, imitating and outdoing our enemies. We are called instead to imitate Jesus by loving and forgiving our enemies. We are called to accompany the oppressed, put away our swords, and replacing our bullets with tubes of finger paint.

Jesus doesn’t just leave us with teaching. He communicates his life and forgiveness to us directly. Here at this meal of thanksgiving, we actually taste the self-giving love that can conquer the cycles of violence. Here we feed on the mercy that can sustain us for the journey through uncertain and terrifying times. Here you receive in your bodies and feed your souls with “the body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”. Here are holy things for a holy people and you are utterly forgiven. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Stewardship Sunday, October 21, 2018, Proper 24, XXII Sunday After Pentecost B

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Christ, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Good morning, St. Augustine’s! It is good to be together today after the week we have had between pipe bombs, the final laying to rest of Matthew Shepard, and now the aftermath of the terrorist attack on our Jewish siblings in Pittsburgh. These events, they hit close to home, all of them, and so I thank you for holding the space of silence this morning and reciting together the prayer of St. Francis, as we remember and wait, and help in all the ways we can in the weeks ahead.

Our work together remains important now as ever, and so this morning, I wanted to talk about our Annual Giving Campaign as we are now at the halfway mark. As you might have read in the Parish Newsletter this week, we have to date 43 pledges, out of 119 from last year, and of these 43 pledges, 53% have grown from last year! This is good news! And, we are hoping to find at least 66 more so that we can plan for our year ahead and all the many things that we do together for the life of our church, and our world. And so for today, it is my hope that we find in our biblical narrative another way to see how vision and giving go hand in hand, and that we find what piece of this vision we can fulfill as our portion.

The gospel today highlights a person called, Bartimaeus, who is willing to bring everything he has to live into a vision for a future. He is a person who has lived faithfully, in so many ways, but comes looking for actual vision—and the scripture says that he comes—“again”—so we know that at one point he did have vision. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” he yells to Jesus—who he believed was the Messiah, the one who has provided the vision for his faith, and the one who can lead him again into a new vision for his life.

Like many things in our life—unfortunate circumstances, struggles, or even shame—they keep us from throwing ourselves into relationship with others—they even can become things we don’t want to share with God. Bartimaeus was no different. Everyone around Bartimaeus encouraged him to keep a healthy distance, to remain quiet focusing only on what was at hand and to leave Jesus alone. But Bartimaeus was really hungry—hungry for a vision that would not only change his life—but bring change to the world.

Bartimaeus identified his own need for mercy, and he believed that Jesus could actually help him and that this Jesus had something that could change all of us, too. He understood that his own experiences in life were not because of anything God did to harm him, but that despite his circumstances God used him. His experience was the only currency he had to share with God’s kingdom. 

When we look at Bartimaeus’ story, we see that there are clearly many things he could have asked Jesus for. He was a beggar—he could have asked for food—for shelter—for any other number of things—but he asked for new vision—he asked to see the way again. He asked for a vision that stems from his faith and the grace to live out such vision.

Bartimaeus understood that our God is one who cares for the poor and the brokenhearted, the destitute, and frustrated. This is the God our Psalmist sings about today—that there is a vision to live into and a promise of blessing from the God who holds us and leads us. We see a God working through all of our brokenness, so that we might live into our faith and into one another more richly. We see a God who casts vision for our shared life, putting before us the needs of this world and putting in us the resources and vision to make a way out of no way, and to find our work in this the holiest of mysteries.

Bartimaeus found hope in the vision of his Lord. He found hope in the work of the body, coming together to right the wrongs of this world, to change dyer circumstances into livable ones, and to live into a grace that makes room for everybody, everybody, everybody.

And do you see what happens at the end of the passage? Bartimaeus follows Jesus. He asks for vision, again, he receives it, and it changes how he lives in the world. We too, ask for God’s vision; and living into it, and participating in it requires us to give sacrificially so that our work together can continue.

Well, my beloveds, taking the lead from Bartimaeus, I too have asked God for vision—for us—and this is what I’ve received:

My vision is that we continue to be a community where everybody, everybody, everybody is welcomed; and that the work of loving and healing the world remains central to the work we do together. Beloveds, it is quite simple: we love God, we love one another, and whatever work it is that we are doing together, we continue together, and we do it conviction and grace.

Do you know all the ways this happens in our community? I have seen this vision lived out and I have seen this vision take root, and transform not only the people we serve—but I have seen it change us!

We see this in our work with Family Promise—and the satisfaction that we have knowing at least one less family is on the streets and that we can have a hand in meeting their basic needs. We hear stories of when past participants give updates, or return for trick-or-treating—because let’s face it—we give away really good candy!

We see this in the work we share with A Just Harvest Soup Kitchen—and the satisfaction that we have knowing that people will go to bed with full stomachs, feeling cared for and tended to. We show up, even when it is a stretch in our long days, and we give because our money really makes a difference!

We see this in the too numerous ministries we support through the Mission Grant Outreach program, where we know that all over Chicagoland, our dollars are providing basic needs and services to marginalized groups of people.

We see this in the ways we participate in diocesan ministries with world wide outreach and mission, and by supplementing the work of smaller parishes in rural areas doing really beautiful work.

We see this in the support you offer to your clergy enabling us to reach out to those traumatized by violence and then gather around those acts of injustice and work for change.

You all came together for support when our sister parish lost a student in the Stoneman Douglass shootings in Florida—and you sent some of us to March on Washington. This summer, at Pride, was one of the many times I was so honored to be your priest. Walking along the sides of the parade and greeting as many people as I could, many pulled me in for hugs. One person pulled me in and with tears in their eyes, said, “Rev., I can’t believe you showed up for us. My priest would never ever come here.” I told the young man that it was an honor to be here, that my church, all of you send me with joy, and that the Episcopal Church in Wilmette welcomes them anytime.”

In that moment, and in many others, too, ALL of you were with me hugging this teary-eyed man and welcoming him after years of unwelcome in his own church. All of our work together is missional, all of it is evangelism, and all of it matter.

And let’s not forget all the many ways that the time we spend together, whether in fellowship or formation, forms us to become the people of faith that seek to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

Beloveds, I’ve seen this vision, and I know it to be true of this place. It is not only our many ways of outreach, but it is also the ways that we care for and tend to one another. It is the beautiful funerals we prepare together; it includes the meals and help we offer one another; and its in all the many ways we surround one another when life requires it.

That vision is compelling to me, and it is why I am at St Augustine’s, and why I give of my own financial resources. This year, I have decided to increase my pledge from last year. I have decided to give in a way that is noticeable in my budget, and is a sacrifice—but a sacrifice I know is worth making for the vision I believe in.

As your pastor, I care about all our relationships to money both as individuals and as a church. Money has so much power over how we think of ourselves, that it can become something we only deal with in private. If you are worried about your finances or are financially insecure, I am happy to have a private conversation with you about it. If pledging seems too difficult to imagine in this current financial season—pledging even $10—is still a pledge and it is still a step in participating in the vision of this community and it helps us all walk further into that call with confidence.

While money may be an uncomfortable subject to talk about, it is a necessary part of our living and our being both as individuals and as the body of Christ. It is a tool that we have to build the kingdom of God, to live into the vision we have for this church and our world.

Our money is how we make our vision of this church a reality. Once God has given us a vision, we are invited into carrying that vision forward - following Jesus and giving of our selves—and our money. Our financial gifts enable us to have a place to gather, liturgy to share, and mission to live into with our whole being. As your priest, I see a vision for how all of our gifts are used to change the world we share, and I see all the many ways that our gifts can change the future of this community that we love. Surely, we have to pay our utilities, we have unplanned expenditures like boilers and furnaces, and we also have salaries of those who help to lead us—but living into our mission and outreach requires all of us to give sacrificially.

This week, has been a heavy week. For those of you who listened or watched the service of burial for Matthew Shepard, you too heard the welcoming words of Bishop Gene Robinson, when he said, “Many of you have been hurt by your own religious communities, and I want to welcome you back.” The Bishop’s words reminded me of the importance the three words “everybody everybody everybody” has in our identity, and how those words cast a vision for how we, St. Augustine’s, wants to be in this world together and as servants. And living into these words requires sacrifice and heart—two things we can share.

Yesterday’s news of the shooting at Tree of Life in Pittsburg, is yet another reminder of the work we have to share. It is work that stems from our baptismal covenant, it is work that calls us to shine the light we have and quell the darkness. Bishop Sean Rowe of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania released a statement where he said: “In circumstances such as these the church has one mission: to comfort the afflicted, to sow seeds of peace, and to advocate for justice. In prayerful humility, let us be about it.”[1] I couldn’t agree with him more.   

Let us be about it. The work we have begun together, has not finished. The work of our church both nationally and locally, requires our bodies and it also requires our giving so that the work can continue.

I ask you, to please consider what sacrifice you can make in your budget, whatever the dollar amount, so that you too can pledge to make a difference in the work we do together as agents of justice and advocacy, speakers of truth and peace, and witnesses to the love of our God. The world needs the church, and the church needs you.


[1] https://dionwpanews.org/author/jgoulet2014/

Saturday November 3, 2018: Funeral for Bill Doughty

Leading Us All on a Path to God

Beloveds, it was not long ago that many of us gathered in this space here today, were here to celebrate the life and ministry of Dee Doughty, the love of Bill’s life. In the days leading up to Dee’s death, I had the chance to sit with Bill and listen. I listened as he shared about the life he had lived and adored, and I listened as he shared about the family that he was so proud of, and I listened as he spoke about the bride who despite the effects of dementia, still captured his heart each and every day.

I listened to Bill speak in the same way that he read the mighty Old Testament lessons that he loved to read as a lector in this church. In his voice, one could feel his conviction and belief, and his ability to pull a listener in was captivating. This is perhaps why last year, I received a note from him that said, “Please only schedule me to read the Old Testament lessons.” Of course, it was an easy request to grant. Sitting in Dee’s room, I listened to Bill as he recalled the joys of his life. He spoke about the accomplishments of his three sons and their beautiful families. His pride for each member of the family came through in the broken voice that choked back tears when he spoke your names. Not only was he proud of his children and grandchildren’s lives, he was proud of the human beings they’ve become and the causes for which they stand. Bill went on about how all three of their sons adored their mother, and in return how much they both loved them. The joy all three sons and their families brought Bill and Dee life, vitality, and joy, and gave them incredible happiness.

Bill went on with stories of yesteryear about his own family of origin, as well as he shared more stories of when his own boys were growing up. Bill went on about all the many things both he and Dee were involved with that they hoped made a long lasting impression on their own children and grandchildren, alike. Bill went on at length about the love of his life that lay there, beside him, the one for whom he tenderly cared for right up until the end. At Dee’s service, just before we placed her ashes into the ground, I heard Bill say to her, “Honey, I’ll see you soon.” Little did we know just how soon.

On my way to the hospital after I heard that Bill had died, it occurred to me that the last time Bill had communion was at the funeral for his beloved Dee. That this meal—this spiritual food—that we shared with Bill and Dee for years around this altar—became the last meal Bill shared with all of us, too. For a couple so dedicated to food outreach and ministry, I couldn’t help but wonder about all the many simple meals they provided for hungry souls all throughout Chicagoland these last several decades, and the trail of crumbs that lay so beautifully in their wake.

In today’s gospel, we are seeing an exchange play out between Jesus and his disciples about the place where Jesus is going to next; a place that the disciples are also able to go—but not for some time to come. Jesus is taken back by the disciples’ confusion about where they think this place is—and their concern is that they wouldn’t know how to get there if Jesus were to leave them now after already having done so much together. They are anxious, uncomfortable, and sad that their leader might leave them and not take them with him. What Jesus tries to help them see is that where he is going, is a place clearly marked by their hearts and the work they have been doing. Jesus tries to help them see that they already know this place, that they already know the way to God, because they do the work of Jesus.

Jesus reiterates that preparing for the life that is to come, involves our living into this current one with all of our heart, and that the natural effect of our doing this work, is that we make a pathway to God. This gospel is a call to mission—it is a call to do the work of our God among all of God’s people. It is doing the work of loving people well, of feeding them when they are hungry, and it is capturing the image of God stamped throughout creation, the cosmos, and in one another, and celebrating it.

Beloveds, Bill Doughty lived a life that helped us all to better know our God. Through the ways in which he advocated for and sought out food and economic justice, Bill left us with a trail of breadcrumbs that lead us directly to the Holy. Through all the ways he captured beautiful moments of humanity and creation through watercolor, he painted for us another image of the Divine in every piece, giving us understanding about this God we know and love, who resides in each of us, and calls us beloved.

Bill scattered bread crumbs everywhere he went. With every person fed through his efforts, he left more crumbs in the trail he made toward God. He made for us a path that we recognize, a path that leads to our God, to that place where every injustice is made right—where humanity and creation are at peace—to that place where there is no sorrow, and where death cannot destroy.

Beloveds, Bill Doughty loved the Lord, and his life was proof that living in a way that made a difference was of the upmost importance to him.

When I first came to St. Augustine’s, one of the questions that many people asked me was: “Have you met with Bill and Dee?” People spoke to what kind and generous people they were, and how they have been the matriarch and patriarch of this church for such a long time. I soon learned that all the beautiful tings said about them, were entirely true. By the time that I met Bill and Dee, Bill was a fulltime caretaker for his bride; and mixed in with updates about how Dee was feeling, were stories about the many years they had as active ministry participants in our beloved church and throughout the North Shore.

One of the first things I was shown when I came to this church was the artwork that is on the front of your bulletin today. This particular piece entitled, Holy Sep-ul-kr, was inspired by Bill and Dee’s 1999 trip to the Holy Land and a larger version of it hangs in our chapel. Of the piece, Bill said, “The feelings of ancientness and holiness, and the crying needs for reconciliation, all inspired me to seek deeper levels of meaning in my art.” His words and his art, they so captivated me, and I began to ask around about other paintings of Bill’s that I could take in.

One of those paintings, was one that Bill did in the summer of 2016 following the PULSE Nightclub shootings in Orlando, FL. This piece moved me in a way I was not anticipating. The intricate details of expression on all the faces represented in the scape, the way in which the colors bleed, and the inspiration it invites, is striking. Of the piece, Bill said: “I knew I needed to respond to the Orlando tragedy in some way. It was deep inside me. So on Tuesday June 14, two days afterward, I did this painting. I named it "Darkness Shall Not Overcome". It means that, not just LGBT people, but all of us together will assure that the promises of the Rainbow will prevail.”

What brings me nearly to tears upon hearing Bill’s words time and time again, is that Bill believed that it was up to all of us doing everything in our power, to make our world a place where everyone is safe, a place where everyone is fed, and a place everyone knows they are beloved of God. That’s certainly the world Bill worked towards, and it’s the church he prayed for.

Within these walls, Bill worked tirelessly for outreach missions, and helping find resources for local agencies doing amazing work. He sought tangible ways that the people of this church could engage the world in ways that produced outcomes for them, improved life, and optimism. Bill cared about everything he put his hand to, and he has left mighty dreams to fulfill.

Crumb by crumb, Bill, your life, and your actions in this world, have led us to God.

Meal after meal, painting after painting, the pathways you’ve made to the God who holds us all, leaves us a changed people.

Where you have gone, we know one day that we shall see you again, and so until then, we thank you. We thank you for coloring our lives with the love of God, and for allowing the holy to work through you in this community, and in our hearts.


Sunday, September 30, 2018, the XIX Sunday Afer Pentecost

Deacon Sue Nebel

This has been a hard week.  Hard for us as a nation.  Hard for many of us on a personal level.  The sight of world leaders laughing in response to statements by our President about his accomplishments and this great country.  Scorn and anger I have seen before, but never laughter. Then the anticipation and media buildup to the Senate Judiciary Committee session on Thursday.  Headlines about new allegations of sexual misconduct.  Speculation about who would say what.  Predictions about the fate of the Supreme Court nomination itself.  I would guess that many of you, like me, watched the hearings on Thursday. 

I listened as Christine Blasey Ford described in painful detail her experience of sexual assault as a teenager. I listened as she responded to questions, again and again, reliving her deeply emotional experience.  Its lasting effects that have shaped and affected her life.  Her emphatic statement that the person who attacked her was Brett Kavanaugh, and her affirmation that she was 100% sure of that identification.  As I heard and saw her pain, I could not help but think of all the women, and some men as well, who have experienced sexual assault or harassment.  The social movement known as #MeToo that has emboldened women to come forward and share their experiences.  We know there are many of them. I thought too of women who, for reasons of their own, have remained silent.  So many stories.  So much pain.  I could feel my body tensing up, an ache forming around my heart.  A feeling that would stay with me through the rest of the day. 

Then, in the afternoon session, it was Brett Kavanaugh’s turn to speak.  I listened to his anger at the damage caused to his family and to himself by the accusation leveled against him.  His indignation at the possible denial of a position to which he felt entitled because of his background and his accomplishments. I heard his insistence that he was not present at the gathering described by Dr. Ford.  The actions that she described were not his. His denials of statements from others about his drinking habits and their effect on his behavior.  His declaration that he was 100% sure that he was not guilty of sexual assault. 

And then, there was the whole political scene.  We witnessed senators criticizing actions and lack of actions that had led up to the hearing.  Democrats and Republicans alike made self-serving speeches about their own role in that process. They pointed fingers and leveled barbs at each other.  At times they seemed more interested in going after each other than focusing on the two people testifying before them.  It was partisanship on full display.  Deeply disappointed and angry, I wondered when we would ever hear the term “bi-partisan cooperation” again.  A glimmer of hope came when it was announced that the two sides had agreed to request further investigation and the confirmation vote would be delayed.

So where are we?  What are we to do in the midst of these events in our national life?  As citizens, we can vote. We can send letters to our Senators and Representatives.  We can demonstrate?  But what else can we do?  What can we do as people of faith? We have come here this morning to gather as the faith community of St. Augustine’s.   Committed to living out our recurring theme: Everybody. Everybody. Everybody.  This parish is part of the wider Episcopal Church whose Presiding Bishop Michael Curry insistently and persistently reminds us to keep our focus on Jesus.  Jesus.  Jesus who commands us to love our neighbor.  With “Everybody, Everybody, Everybody” at our core, we pride ourselves on our hospitality. We welcome familiar faces and newcomers as they walk into this place on Sunday morning.  We invite all who are here to share the Eucharistic meal of bread and wine.  We strive to understand “neighbor” in the broadest sense: people we know and people we don’t know.  People with whom we have a relationship and those we encounter for the first time.  People who look like us and people whose skin color or ethnic background is different than ours. 

What if we stretch ourselves, to think of neighbor in another way? What if we begin to look at people we meet differently?  As I watched the events and heard the stories on Thursday, I remembered something I learned from a friend not long ago. He told me the story of being in the car with his mother.  He was sixteen years old and had just gotten his license.  He was driving.  In front of them was an elderly woman going slowly, well below the speed limit.  Frustrated and impatient, he shouted, “Come on, lady, get a move on!  I don’t have all day.”  His mother snapped at him, “Hold on there! You have no idea what is going on with that woman.  She might be on the way home from the hospital where her husband has just died.  She could be struggling to hold herself together so she can make it.”  He said he never forgot what she said to him.  Since then, he has tried to be aware that anyone he meets—at any time, in any situation—may be carrying heavy burdens that he knows nothing about.

What if each one of us, with intentionality and self-awareness, began to look at people with that kind of lens?  What might be going on with them that we cannot see or know?  What if we carry in our own hearts an openness and a deep care for the whole person of everyone we encounter?  What if our facial expression, our tone of voice, our words of greeting express what is deep in our hearts?  I see you as a person of value. I care about you.  I am ready to welcome you. To listen to you. To walk with you.  Sadly, we know from Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in Washington the kind of pain someone who has experienced sexual assault carries within them.  We know it from her story.  We know it from the voices of demonstrations and marches, from stories we have heard and, perhaps ones we have lived, that such experiences are widespread.  People carry all kinds of pain. We need to always be aware of that and care for them, however we can.

We know so well from the stories of Jesus’ ministry that it started small.  His mission was carried forward by the actions of a group of disciples, starting with just twelve and probably increasing to larger numbers.  In time, Jesus drew big crowds, but the core of the work that produced  growth was small, individual actions.  Those small actions add up.  They begin to change things.  Eventually they build something big that has significant impact.  That is what our own commitment to openness of heart and the actions that express it could do.  Who knows what we might build? Who knows where it might lead us?

Focus. Keep focused on Jesus, Bishop Curry tells us.  Jesus often had to remind his disciples of the same thing. To keep focused.  In last week’s Gospel lesson, the disciples were talking among themselves about who was the greatest.  Jesus reminded them that if they wanted to be first, then they had to be last.  They were to be servants and serve everyone.  In today’s lesson, the disciples are fretting because they have seen someone they do not know casting out demons in Jesus’ name.  They want him to put a stop to it.  Don’t worry, Jesus tells them. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  A person performing acts of healing and love is helping the ministry he started.  They are helping it grow and move forward.  That is just fine with Jesus. Using the everyday image of salt, Jesus works to get the disciples focused.  Salt is good. It makes things better.  In Jesus’ time of no refrigeration, salt preserved food. It was essential to life.  Have salt in yourselves, Jesus tells them.  Be salt and be at peace with each other.  What Jesus doesn’t say here, or at least it isn’t recorded, but I can imagine him saying is: “Be strong. Now there’s work to be done. Get going! 

That is the pattern of discipleship.  The pattern of those early disciples and of us, as disciples in our time.  We start out strong. We venture into new territory.  We stretch ourselves. Then our resolve weakens or we get distracted. We need to refocus and gather strength before we set out once again.  To love and care for one another.  To help us gather strength for that work, I offer this prayer, shared with me by a ministry colleague.  Let us pray.

Holy One, in love you created us and called it good. Grant us the deep wisdom of your love that, wherever this day leads, our lives may remain rooted in your goodness, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Proper 21; Year B

Esther 7:1-6,9-10;9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Sunday, September 16, 2018, The Rector's Farewell

Kristin White

John 1:1-14, 16

“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 were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. From God’s fullness have we all received, and grace upon grace.”

 I believe that these words from John’s gospel are the poetry of creation. Jesus was there from the beginning of the beginning as the Word, before anything was made that was made.  The Word is the co-creating author of life, which was the light that has not, is not, and will not be overcome.

And then the Word became flesh. In the person of Jesus, God had a body. God became like us, in order to be with us. God came to dwell with us, in order that we might know God. In the person of Jesus, God shared the truth of love. In the person of Jesus, God gave us grace upon grace.

How have you seen the truth of love? Where have you encountered grace upon grace? 

I found it right here, six years ago, when I became your new rector. On the day we moved in, Carolyn Eby stocked our refrigerator with cheese and fruit, Christine Sammel and Bill Braun dropped by with gluten-free lemon bars, and Martha Jacobson took us out to dinner.

In the days and weeks that followed, when I asked you to meet for coffee or lunch, you said yes. So I found grace over coffee, or sometimes French fries (okay, more than sometimes), or on a walk. We shared something of ourselves over those meals and conversations. We began to weave ourselves together.

When we found ourselves in a season of loss, burying ten of our beloved members in less than six short months, the truth of love was made manifest in the willingness you had to grieve together as a community. We talked about hard and frightening things, like illness and death and what we hold dear. We prayed, offering ourselves, our souls and bodies, to the God who has known us since we were knit together in our mothers’ wombs.

When people have been sick or in need, I have watched you surround and enfold them with grace. You have mowed lawns. You have delivered groceries. You have done laundry. You have held babies. When my brother-in-law died, I will never forget standing in Puhlman Hall as Margaret Duval said, in your gracious and matter-of-fact way, “Okay, so I’ll bring you dinner when you get back from the funeral in Oregon. Would that be better on Sunday night or Monday night?” And when I, who know how to give but am less practiced at knowing how to receive, tried to politely decline, Margaret -- you said again: “Okay, so I’ll bring you dinner when you get back from Oregon. Would that be better on Sunday night or Monday night?” Grace upon grace upon grace.

The truth of love in this parish has meant that everybody, everybody, everybody has the chance to take part. The question of what that meant for children to participate as full members in worship – that question was a real and important one. And now we have more and more children who know this church to be their home. They pray the Lord’s Prayer by heart. They know the best places for hide and seek (I am confident of this, because they made me a map, and I’m taking it with me). They have friends here, and a circle of trustworthy adults who cherish them. 

We have found grace in service, and in telling the story of our faith as we share the gifts God has given us. Last summer I walked over to church on a Sunday afternoon, and heard a little girl calling to me as she rode her bicycle on the street. “Excuse me! Excuse me!” she called. “Do you work at that church?” I said that I did. “I used to live at Family Promise,” she said. “That window was where my room was, where our family lived, and I was a cat for Halloween.” She and her family have their own place to live in Evanston now, thanks, in part, to you. I invited her to come back to St. A’s and go trick-or-treating for Halloween this year.

We have talked about the things we needed to talk about, over these past six years, even when those discussions have been difficult. There is love in truth, and grace amidst the vulnerability of offering yourself with curiosity and trust. We have found our way through such occasions together, toward a greater wholeness. We have ventured into conversations about racism. We have talked about gun violence and how to best prepare for the emergencies we pray will never happen, but could. We have sought to put our faith into action in the world. We’ve asked questions about who has not been included here, and why, and what we can do to remedy that. We have tried to listen, and tried again. We have learned and grown.

And we have found the grace to let ministries end, when the time has come, or helped them to change, or begun something new. Grace upon grace upon grace.

So now it is time for us to step into different spaces in the poetry of creation, as our paths diverge. Jesus is still in our midst, still the co-creator, without whom there will not be anything made that is made. While this transition is new and maybe unsettling and strange for both of us, I pray that we all will trust in the provision of God’s fullness.

As I have said before: you have everything you need. You know how to pray, and to welcome people, and give thanks. You know how to ask good questions and how to listen, and you have the courage to offer honest answers. You know the value of relationships. You know how to lead, and to serve. You have tremendous capacity for change – I know that, because I tested it, and you responded with the willingness to try…and with occasional honest feedback. You know how to take care of each other. And you know the importance of good food shared, and a healthy sense of humor.

You are the Church which is the Body of Christ which is the Word made flesh. And I love you, and have given this ministry all I know how to give. Where I have served well, I give thanks to you and to God. Where I have fallen short, I ask God’s forgiveness, and yours.

Your next leaders will be necessarily different than I am…because of course they will. But also, because the needs of this church have changed over the past six years. We are not who we were, and there’s grace in that. So I bid you to trust this process of discernment that lies ahead of you. Do all those things that you know how to do as the church that you are: pray and sing and give thanks and live generously and welcome people and take care of each other and lead and follow and be curious and tell the truth and give yourselves the chance to laugh. Hold each other dear, because you are. And give your interim minister and then your next rector the grace to find their way with you, just as you did with me.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. Beloved of God, you are the Church, which is the Body of Christ, which is the Word made flesh. So be who you are, in this poetry of new creation, full of grace; full of truth.

Because from God’s fullness have we all received. And grace upon grace.