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If it looks like love… and if it smells like love…

If it looks like love… and if it smells like love…

REV. CHRISTIAN BARON – May 10, 2015 – Easter 6, Year B: John 15:9-17

If it looks like love… and if it smells like love…

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

I spent time this week downtown at Tulip Time. People came by the busload to try Ollie Bolen and pea soup. They were desperate for Dutch cuisine. Desperate enough that they were willing to pay $2.00 for a water. We dressed up in silly clothes and wore silly hats. I watched a mess of Klompen dancers on stage at the civic and was reminded about my heritage and how much Dutch people like to par-tay.

Though I am 100 percent Dutch, since moving back to Holland, I haven’t fully been able to recall, until this past week, the language of my people, “Passive aggressiveness”. And this week was like a language immersion course in passive aggression.  Teasing… It was a great week.

I saw many of you down at the Civic Center. We washed dishes and and worked in tents with several deep fryers. Some of you ran to the store for emergency supplies or to pick up pop or pastries from DeBoers. We laughed… we got into each others personal space. We worked in harmony with the United Methodists and I watched the veterans work circles around me. And, we made a lot of money. We made a lot of money. And that money will help pay for the group of us going to the United Kingdom next summer on Pilgrimage. And lives will be changed. Lives of the youth in this parish will be changed. Our youth will become more connected to the vine that nourishes them. They will be more connected to the Church and they will return with a fuller understanding of the world on which they must abide.

But what was most memorable for me this week, was watching the members of Grace show hospitality. We were hospitable to the guests, to the United Methodists, to the other Hollanders who came and looked for a taste of the Netherlands. I can’t count the times I saw Jen Wolfe advise a tourist about where they should eat dinner or find a bathroom. The times I saw Doug Zylstra read a nametag of a tourist and call them by name and surprise them.  The times I saw Prescott Slee smile and shake it off when he had to give direction to the new curate or repeat it to a new volunteer. This kindness, It is something I have grown accustomed to since my arrival 11 months ago, but spending a week in close quarters with you folks, reminded me of how special this place truly is.

[pullquoteright] And if it looks like love… and smells like love… it must be Jesus.[/pullquoteright]

Because when that is visible… When people see those things, they see resurrection. They see that Grace is a group of people abiding in the resurrection. They see a group of people connected to the vine. People at the Civic Center could tell… they could see the love…

I’ll be unable to go back to the Civic without seeing the faces of our Grace folks.  And it will not be easy to forget the smells that came from the kitchen and from the food we served. Made with love by our folks and the United Methodists. Made with our hands and our prayers.  And though I won’t need to eat anything fried for a while, I’ll miss those smells.  The smells of the pig in the blankets and the potatoes and kale. And the smells of the sweat and hard work of those working closest to me..  Those smells mixed and made a fervent offering up to God. People at the Civic could tell… they could smell the love.

And if it looks like love… and smells like love… it must be Jesus.

Anybody who has ever experienced authentic love knows that you can’t fake it. The kind of love that John is talking about in the gospel, is unmistakable.  That is why this story… the story of Jesus is so remarkable… that’s why it has lasted this long… That’s why the story is so compelling and why it changes life. It models for us a way to live for something other than for ourselves. Jesus models a way of being and living that is completely counter intuitive to the self centered human condition. But I saw a bunch of Hollanders (and some Hamiltonians) who were living a life of resurrection this week. Donating time and talent to feed hungry people. Just like we do on the 2nd Thursday of each month, and when we feed college students at Hope… and when we feed youth and families at Family Chow… and when we invite one another over for Holy Chow… and when we are fed at the altar… at God’s table…

So be on the lookout for love… Be on the lookout for those sacrificing their time and sacrificing their talents for others.  This is the sign of Christ.  This is the sign of the Church. This is the sign of Grace. And if it looks like love… and smells like love and tastes like love… it must be Jesus.

Place Your Hands

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – April 12, 2015 – Easter 2, Year B: John 20:19-31

Happy Easter! Still!

We get to say that for fifty days as we celebrate resurrection right up through the day of Pentecost. And actually every Sunday all year is a celebration of resurrection, that’s what we are about in this place all the time. But during the actual season of Easter that we hear the resurrection stories, we sing the “Alleluia” hymns, we decorate to proclaim that “He is Risen!” and we pray the prayers that remind us what it means to be a resurrection people.

Now on the second Sunday of Easter we always hear the story of Thomas, “The Twin.”  Note that he’s not referred to as “the doubter” in the gospel although that’s how tradition has come to speak of him. Thomas was the one who needed more than the disciples testimony in order to believe and so he’s gotten a bit of a tough rap through the ages. Even after all the other disciples had come to believe, Thomas was clear with them that he needed to see for himself: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” Thomas told them.

And so Jesus came back to the room where the disciples met again. And that in itself was a beautiful thing, a gift of sorts. Jesus came back again and without hesitation, gave Thomas what he needed.  The famous artwork by Caravaggio depicts that moment with Thomas actually placing his hand in the side of the wounded yet risen Christ. It’s a powerful piece that communicates both the humanity and the grace of the encounter as Jesus actually guides Thomas’ hand to the wound in his side.  There was touch and there was forgiveness; there was reconciliation and there was recognition of a miracle all wound up in Jesus’ granting Thomas and the others a profound, resurrection-like peace.

And so here we are today and one of the things I always do on this Sunday is remind us that there is room in this place for doubt, for questions, for the kind of wrestling that Episcopalians believe strengthens faith rather than threatens it.  I have told you before that I consider Thomas one of the patron saints of the Episcopal Church because I know that many of us found our way here, or stayed here in this denomination because there’s room for us to question and to continue searching even as we proclaim a budding or a changing, evolving faith.

Life brings new questions to us all.  And our needs change in terms of what sustains belief in us.  And so we make room for the kind of growth that comes from doubts and that springs from honest questions of faith.  As a general practice, we invite the Thomas’ in to be here among us; we even call out our inner Thomas’ and ask them to be at home here.  And it’s important that we make that known to all who come.

I want to take this one more step this morning, because making room for Thomas is an important piece this story but this isn’t only a story about an individual’s journey in faith.  This isn’t only about Jesus accommodating Thomas. I think that Thomas is also giving a gift to the Body.

Here’s what I mean:

Thomas actually calls the Body of Christ to a certain level of accountability in this story and in our story too.  He demands that there be some evidence behind what we say, and what we preach, and who it is that we say we are.  I think Thomas very faithfully raises the bar for how we come to express being the Body of Christ, for how we are church for one another and for this world.  He raises the bar because he wants resurrection to be more than testimony.  He wants it to be an experience.

Remember that Thomas came to Jesus having seen all that went before this moment.  He’s often quoted as the one who needed to see more, but sometimes I think Thomas’ challenge was that he’d seen too much.  For several years at this point in the story, Thomas had witnessed all the people who needed healing; they’d come to Jesus in droves.  He’d seen all the people who were hungry gathering in crowds around Jesus asking for bread.  He’d walked with Jesus throughout the entire region and so Thomas had seen the brokenness in this world. And in this gospel, Thomas was actually the only disciple who had said that he would follow Jesus all the way to the cross.  So he’d watched the arrest, the trial, and witnessed the crucifixion too.

And so when it came to resurrection Thomas’ bar was high because his experiences had been painful and they had been real. So words alone weren’t going to do it for Thomas.

And he makes me wonder if words alone ever should.

Part of what this story tells us is that as Body of Christ we have a responsibility to be more than our words.  We have a responsibility to be an experience of all those things that we say we are about, a visible, tangible experience of forgiveness, reconciliation, love, healing and peace. That’s what the Thomas’ of the world need.  That’s what the Thomas’ in us need.

The words matter a great deal, but only because they shape us. The words have genuine, transformative meaning when we embody them (which is in itself a theological, Christological statement).  “The Word became flesh” is how this gospel began and it’s how we are to live, as Body of Christ.  It’s the shape we take that matters most to the Thomas’ of this world.

Absolution takes hold when our sides are open enough to receive those who seek forgiveness. The passing of the peace means something even more when we reach out beyond our own walls and be that peace for others.  “The gifs of God for the people of God” transforms all of us when all of God’s children are welcome and encouraged to receive that for which we hunger.  And proclamations of “Alleluia!” truly change lives when lives that have been changed are willing to be that kind of new life for the world everyday.

There are so many people in this world who are hungry for an experience of resurrection.  People who are tired of just words. Or people who are exhausted by the words and the actions of faith actually contradicting each other.  Thomas set the bar high while demanding something of us that is gift to us all.  While he’s growing in faith, Thomas’ needs grow the Body in our ability to offer that faith, to proclaim it and live it with integrity. The opening collect put it as a prayer: “May we show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith.”

The good news of the gospel is that that as Body of Christ, with God’s help we’re up to the challenge. Not a perfect people by any means.  We are a wounded people who, like Thomas, have seen a lot; but we are on the rise, we are always on the rise.

So place your hands, those who hunger, those who search, those who hurt.  Place your hands, those who question, those who doubt, those who fear.  Place your hands those who have seen too much or have yet to see whatever it is you need to believe.

Place your hands, all you people of God. And help us rise with you.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Expectations on the Rise

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – Sermon preached on April 5, 2015 – Easter Day

So I think the scariest thing about resurrection is that we don’t expect it, we aren’t looking for it, really.  And so when resurrection comes, we don’t know what’s happening.

And yet it’s how the story plays out every time!  Every year this is where we stand.  At the empty tomb.  The bolder rolled away.  Angels present.  Jesus risen.

This is how the gospel story plays out every time, and the message is that this is how our story plays out too!  That’s the grace. So, if you hear nothing else this morning here this: This isn’t only about Jesus rising from the dead (which is news enough,) it’s also about us.  This is our story too! Resurrection comes.  Not every minute.  Not every hour.  Not every day.  But every time.

Resurrection comes.  Resurrection always comes.

It’s why we’re here this morning, among other reasons, I know:  your parents made you, or your spouse made you, or you felt like “it’s Easter so we have to get the kids to church.”  Or maybe you work here and your boss would have had some questions for you tomorrow if you weren’t here this morning.  There are always other reasons and frankly some of those reasons help us when we need them to, but really, we’re here with candles lit, lights on, flowers everywhere, and Alleluias all around because resurrection happens!  And if there’s anything we need to celebrate, if there is anything the world needs to hear, it’s this:  Resurrection comes.  And so there is hope.

There is always hope.

Now the women in the gospel didn’t expect resurrection that first Easter morning, either, nobody did.  Even tough Jesus had told he disciples in language as explicit as, “In three days I will rise again,” they still didn’t know what was happening.  Resurrection took even those who had been walking every day with Jesus completely by surprise.

Now granted a lot had happened since Jesus had laid out for them how the story was going to play out.  They’d watched him get arrested and put on trial.  They had seen him mocked and condemned and killed.  At least one of them had betrayed him at least one of them had denied him and most of them had fled for cover in the midst of it all.  And there had been witnesses to his body being laid in the tomb.  So they knew without a doubt that he had died.  And so it’s hard to blame them for resurrection being last thing they expected to find that morning.

And I think all of that is true of us too.  We wake to each morning having seen a lot, having lived a lot.  Sure, we’ve heard the promise of good news.  But we’ve also watched the nightly news and the numbers of tombs whose boulders seem unmovable are extremely high.  We’re putting one another on trial at every turn. Condemnation of all kinds runs rampant in this world.  The tendency toward mocking has hit an all time high.  Unfair, unjust deaths are everywhere.  And so it’s no wonder our expectations are off.  It’s no wonder resurrection is unexpected and even a little scary.  We’re getting far too good at all the other options.

But today is about adjusting those expectations!  It’s about reminding ourselves that resurrection comes.  Not every minute.  Not every hour.  Not every day. But every time.

Resurrection comes.  Resurrection always comes.  So are you looking for it?  Are you expecting it?  What would new life look like in your life?  In our church? In our community?  In this world?

Now it’s hard to answer those questions if you’re helping to hold the boulders in place.  Let’s just name that tendency here and now.  Come on, be honest . . .  we all do it and Easter is a good time to stop.   Either jump in and do some pushing – like in that story of Lazarus when it was the people who moved the boulder so that the miracle of new life could walk forward – or step back and allow the angels to do their work like we heard in the story today.

Easter calls for both – an engaged effort on all of our parts toward helping new life come to be in this world, along with a humble recognition that we can’t force resurrection.  That final, ultimate Grace comes from God.

The good news is that God is doing that work, always.  In fact that’s what God is fundamentally about:  moving boulders, opening tombs, bringing new life.   Resurrection!

So today permission has been officially, divinely granted us to change our expectations, as scary as that might be.  Resurrection will take us to new places.  Resurrection will challenge us.  Resurrection will change us.   And if we share a bit of all of this, we can begin to change the expectations of our world too.  And who knows what might happen then.

The story we heard today is our hope.  This is our future, all of ours.  Resurrection is how the story ultimately plays out, every time.

May we expect it to be so.

Amen.

Another Kind of Birthday

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sermon preached on April 3, 2015

Good Friday

I’m coming down here in the aisle to preach, because this is where I want to be today.  Not alone up there, although it never really feels like that.  You’re never very distant. But today I want to be right here, so that we can reach out to each other more easily.  So that we can huddle if we need to.  So that nobody is alone, because today, of all days, nobody should have to be.

I actually think that is the message that’s tucked in to the story of Good Friday. Nobody is alone in this.  Humanity’s not even alone in this. “This” meaning life, “this” meaning death, “this” meaning hurt or suffering or injustice.  I think that’s the message tucked in to this story of Good Friday.  And I think that ‘s the message that Good Friday wants to tuck inside of all of us.

“Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”  The beloved disciple was with them too and while none of them have gotten the fame that Judas or Peter or Pilate have gotten over the ages, they were right there at the foot of the cross, together.

And while they were standing there on what had to be the most painfully complicated day of their lives, they were given something.  Standing there by the cross, they were given one another.

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, Jesus said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother. And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home,” the gospel says.  So on this of all days, the people at the foot of the cross became family for each other.  And none of them had to be alone on this day or any day.

And so sometimes I’ve wondered if Good Friday is actually the birthday of the church. I know we have resurrection coming, so rebirth is on its way. And our numbers are higher on that day so in every way it’s more celebratory.  But on that day the women and the disciples all just ran in lots of different directions, frightened by the empty tomb.  I also know that traditionally we acknowledge the church’s birthday on Pentecost fifty-three days from now – because that’s when we celebrate that the Spirit came upon the disciples.  And so I promise that on Pentecost, we will celebrate birth.

But I wonder if today is a birthday too, or we should at least let it be.  This is that moment in the story when some of the people who loved Jesus sat together, close enough to reach out to each other, aware of the needs of the other and present to the suffering of this world. Together they watched the sky go black.  They experienced their leaders’ fears.  They knew the disciples’ struggles.  They shared their own pain and confusion and the unknowing of it all.  And in the midst of all of that something amazing happened.

Something holy happened.

As they sat there, God was not only present in Christ, but God was present to them too.  And this is a miracle not to lose today.  God was present to them – redefining their way of being together.  God was showing them how to love and giving them to each other.  They became household right there at the foot of the cross.  I would argue that in many ways, they were at least beginning to be church.

And so I want to say that as hard as this is, we’re OK here today. We’re beginning again here today.  We have been called to be church here in this place, maybe to help rebirth the church as a people who know our place among the suffering of this world.

Here at the cross God is showing us how to love. God is giving us one another.  So remember to stand close enough to reach out to one another and to others too. Behold our brothers, our sisters, our kids!  Behold one another as church! Because from this place, maybe most especially in this place, God is holding us.

From this place we can become the kind of household that redefines what it means to do love in this world.

Amen.

Holding Our Breath

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sermon preached on March 29, 2015 – Palm Sunday, Year B: Mark 14:1-15:47

A friend shared a quote with me this week that she heard on the radio. A famous author (whose name she couldn’t remember so I can’t attribute it directly) said something like this:  “The suspense we feel when hear a story isn’t the direct result of not knowing the ending.”  Even though that’s how we tend to think about it.  If we don’t know how the story ends then it will grip us, right?  But really, that’s not necessarily true.  Knowing the ending doesn’t spoil anything, this author said, because suspense isn’t about the ending at all – turns out that the element of surprise comes primarily from not knowing from how we’re going to get there.

And I think that captures this Holy Week exactly.  And I think that captures our lives exactly.

We know the ending of this gospel story.  Even non-regular church go-ers know the ending of this weeks’ gospel story.  We know next week’s ending too.  And the ending never changes. He dies.  He rises.  And yet it gets us every time.

Nobody came here this morning thinking that we were going to avoid the cross this year.  Nobody came here expecting that maybe this time Judas would decide not to betray Jesus or that Peter would decide not to deny him.  Nobody expected the trial to turn out differently or that the ending today would be anything other than the cross. And more than that we know that next week there will be angels and an empty tomb.  Jesus will have risen from the dead and our cries will have moved from “Hossanna!” through “Crucify Him!” to “Alleluia!”

And we don’t have to pretend that we won’t get there. Because we will.  Preachers are already working on what they’ll say next Sunday.  Flowers have been ordered.  Anthems are being learned.  We know where we’re headed.

Jesus rises from the dead and will make all things new.

But there is suspense, no matter how many times we hear this story we hold our breath whenever he breathes his last.  Every time.  One of the quietest moments in the life of our church is when we read that line.

We even know the conclusion to each chapter that gets us there!  That was the last supper with his friends. There was betrayal by one of them and denial by another.  He was arrested. He was put on trial and put on the cross. He died.  And then he rose from the dead.  But even knowing all of that and having heard it over and over again, we wonder somewhere in our hearts, how it is that we’re going to get there.

And I think there is suspense comes because this is our story too and every time we enter this week, it is we who are unfolding, not God.  I’m not in the same place that I was last year.  Neither is anybody here.  Neither is our world.  And I wonder every day what God is going to do with all of this. How is God going to get us there?  How is God going to get us to that place, that moment, that grace that is new life?

And so I’ve come to think that it’s our story that brings suspense to this day, not God’s.   God has given this gift once and for all – to all – suffering with – dying with – rising to new life – redeeming this world – granting salvation. Done, an ending that never changes!

But every time we enter this week we are unfolding still.  And so we hold our breath as he breathes his last and we wonder for ourselves, for those we love, for this world how God is going to pull this off.  Not two thousand years ago, but now. That’s the real question isn’t it?  In the midst of our own suffering, the hurts of this world, chapters whose endings we can already see or can’t possibly see .  .  . How are you going to get us there this time, God?

Well this week we are reminded that God will get us there, the same way God always has.  There are no secrets in this, just mysteries and those are two very different things.

We’ll be invited to eat together.  To care for one another.  To wash one another’s feet and the feet of those in this world for whom walking is painful or hard or long.  We’ll be invited to honestly acknowledge that betrayals happen and denials do too and sometimes we are the ones who do those kinds of things.  We’ll be invited to gather at the foot of the cross and to weep some when we are there, and to become some when we are there, and find that love and hope can find it to those kinds of places too.

And the grace of it all is that as we go through the very simple yet profound motions of the week, as we “do this in remembrance,” and wonder deep in our hearts HOW God is going to pull this off, we’ll come to trust that God already has.   And the rhythms of this week will become our own.  We will eat and care and serve and weep and wait and see new life come.

That’s how this “peace which passes all understanding” works.  It find us in every chapter of the gospel and every chapter of our lives and offers holiness in ways that sustain, forgive, surprise, heal and ultimately, make us new.

And so maybe this week as he breathes his last, we can hold our breath not because the ending isn’t known.  But because it is.  And it is ours.

The Strange Beauty in Death

Sermon by The Reverend Jodi L. Baron, Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-13 
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

 

Years ago, I had a group of high school students whom I met with on Sunday evenings to have conversations about virtues of God,  like truth, beauty, and story. Together we explored the ways in which these things are present, if we are attentive to them, all over our daily experiences.

Our theme for this particular year was “beauty.”

On this one particular evening we were exploring the beauty of death.

At first, many of the students were creeped out with the prospect of even talking about death.

But really, I explained, it’s not something we get to avoid talking about.

In fact, the pain and sorrow that come with physical-literal death are good stories to talk with someone about.

Telling those stories heal us, restore us to community, and reconcile our hearts to God.

Death, so it seems, is so much a part of the human experience that even the food we eat (yes even the plant-based ones) must go through a process of death in order to become something else.

*more on that in a moment.*

This particular fall evening, my partner and I drove our students to one of the city cemeteries for a walk in the moonlight.

We were on a quest, of sorts, to determine if there was, in fact, a strange sort of beauty in a place that often times is seen as the epitome of sadness and pain.

Darkness has a way of revealing a different perspective on things, if we allow our eyes to adjust and embrace the little bit light from the sky, and ponder what, if anything, it is trying to show us.

As we stood among the tombstones of all the faithful departed, I could sense that the students were beginning to imagine the stories of the lives represented here based solely upon the inscription on their tombstone.

Some stories must have been extra sad, they determined, as they calculated the ages of some.

Others left us with questions about who their community consisted of that this is what was there.

There, in the darkness of night, the moon cast shadows from the trees that by day shaded those very graves we were standing among.

I remember noticing the light shone brightest along the stone paths between the plots of land filled with graves.

We were attentive to the holiness of the space we occupied that night and how daily when we drive by places like this we hardly take notice of their existence at all.

Death is one of those strange paradoxes of the human experience, isn’t it?

It’s necessary and unavoidable and yet we strive to find ways to stave it off or deny its presence and the ways in which it can teach us about God, humanity, and why we’re here.

That’s just the human side of physical death.

Our food was once living as well. Our bread was once wheat, our apples were once seeds, our hamburgers and hotdogs were once walking  the earth.

The point is that all living things must go through death in order to bring forth life to something else.

In this morning’s gospel Jesus is explaining to us the meaning behind his whole program on earth and why he must undergo suffering upon the cross, and what is more, he links his pending death to the resurrection and finally ascension that will happen soon after.

He uses the metaphor of a grain of wheat and the death it must experience in order to bear “fruit” to talk to us about our faith.

That “fruit” that Jesus was referring to is the community of disciples who would come to follow him after he returned to heaven.

Jesus was speaking of the community of believers who would come to believe in him even though they had never “seen” him.

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus honed in on the unique beauty that comes from the seed going through the process of death.

Of breaking open so that new life could sprout forth and fruit come to bear.

He uses this seed to reveal the salvific power that abides within this community that assembles weekly to remember his death, proclaim his resurrection, and await his coming in glory.

When we do life in community, when we take the time to allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness, it’s never truly void of light, not all together.

That is what Lent is about, I think.

That is what Christian disciplines are meant to create.

By my committing to certain practices for 40 days, I am offering those practices cultivated to strengthen our christian community.

When I give alms for the poor I am proclaiming God’s kingdom by attending to the needs of those most vulnerable.

We cultivate patterns for holy living so that when darkness comes, as it does every lunar cycle, we won’t be overcome with fear but will trust that God is there, just as always, until our senses allow us to see.

This morning’s gospel ends with Christ declaring, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

A universal call to salvation. restoration. reconciliation.

And the salvation that will come, and does come, through the assembled body of believers.

The community of us; you and me.

When we take on the task of following this Jesus, we do so not in isolation or a vacuum. but in community.

To be a follower of Jesus was to be like him, speak like him, love like him, and die like him. To be a “little Christ” in the world and to each other.

These seasons our church observes, they aren’t for show.

They aren’t arbitrary ways to mark time.

They are meant to help us order our common life together and retell God’s salvific act in Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension.

The reason we retell the story of Jesus’ death is because without his death, there wouldn’t be the resurrection and ascension, and without the resurrection and ascension, there wouldn’t be this thing we call Christianity, our community of faith.

Ash Wednesday we were invited, as a church, to the observance of a holy Lent. We had the ashes from last year’s palms smudged onto our foreheads while the priest reminded us,

From dust you came and to dust you shall return.

We name the departed in our prayers of the people forever claiming them in the place among the cloud of witnesses.

We spread or bury their ashes or bodies as representatives of our community of faith and they point us to the promises of the nearer presence of Christ.

We sacrifice a little bit of comfort, a few of our desires, employ a bit more discipline and practice temperance to heighten our senses to the needs of others.

The gospel is emphasizing for us the ministry of reconciliation God set forth first in the incarnation and completed with his death, resurrection, and ascension we are about to walk through, together, with Christ, from Palm Sunday to Easter.

And so, beloved community of “little Christs,” be attentive this final week of Lent to what God is inviting you to be, do, or change.

Be mindful of the needs of others in your daily occupations and decisions you make with your time and talents.

And pray for eyes to see God in the dark hours of his Passion, for what it means for your faith and that of our community’s.

Amen.

That’s How the Light Gets In

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – March 15, 2015  – Lent 4, Year B: John 3:14-21

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There’s a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

— Leonard Cohen

These opening words are by artist Leonard Cohen and they’re words in which I find inspiration often.  I appreciate the acceptance of imperfect gifts – they are all that I have to offer.  I admire the acknowledgement of cracks, because I see them too; we all do.  I pray and hunger for the light.  I am on watch for the light and on good days, I do my best to help that light flow.  So the words fit me and they fit today’s gospel too, as Jesus calls us to be aware of light and darkness and to ask ourselves what it means that God so loved this world.

But before we dive in to that passage, I want to tell you about something that’s happening this morning in our community.  There’s a rally against hate happening outside of a Baptist church in Zeeland.  And the rally is happening because their pastor recently compared being gay to waking up and deciding to become an ax murderer.

Now first I want to tell you that it’s not like that at all.  Just to clarify.  Being an ax murderer is more complicated than that.

And being gay goes way beyond a decision made in a moment – as psychology, science, theological reflection, real life stories and frankly even common sense tells us at this point.  So the pastor essentially, got it wrong.  But that’s not the point, really.  Because sometimes pastors do.  All of us.

Nor is the point about free speech.  Free speech is part of what allows us to flourish as a society.  I don’t generally make a practice of responding to other preacher’s sermons; what I am working through here is the news story that this preacher’s sermon has become.  Here’s what happened. . .

A young man heard that morning’s sermon, a young man who had grown up in that church and now lives in the Detroit area. He has run a program, a shelter I think for homeless youth.  And his name is Daniel.  Now I don’t know much about Daniel but, because he’s included it in the information he’s sharing with the larger community, I know that he’s gay.  And so Daniel, was understandably bothered by the ax murderer comparison that morning, and decided it was wrong enough to stand up and make some noise about.  And so he and a few friends picketed the church.  And then he organized the rally that’s happening this morning.

What’s interesting is that many of us involved in local organizations working for LGBT rights in this area were torn about whether or not to support the rally idea, for fear of drawing too much attention to this pastor, too much attention to the hate. We were torn about whether or not to draw attention to the hate and potentially fuel it on.  “Of all the things we could spotlight in this community, why that?” we asked.

And that’s a hard question and sometimes it’s a fine line in efforts for justice: when should we call attention to hate and expose it, essentially shining a light on it. And when should we focus energies on other positive efforts with the hope that the hate, the darkness eventually dies out on its own?

Well, one of the only people in our conversation who thought we absolutely should rally was Wayne Coleman, one of the only African American head pastors in Holland.  Wayne joined the conversation a little bit after the first round of decisions had been made, but his contribution was profound.

Wayne and his family have experienced hatred and violence in this community first hand, probably more than all of us combined. And Wayne is constantly trying to draw this community’s attention to injustice here at home.  Wayne’s word to us all what that we have to stand up and let the larger community know what’s happening.  His point being of course, that as imperfect as the offering of protest might be, sometimes, that’s how the light gets in.

Now this sermon isn’t a call to arms.  It’s a call to light.  It’s a call to love.  And I’m working out what that means, with you, with God – for you, for us – for a very big, broad, wide us. And I want you to work it out with me.

In your own lives, here at Grace, and out in this community too I want you to be working it out because among other reasons, I think that this is what the season of Lent is all about.  These hard questions are the questions, maybe even the prayers of the season:

What do we do in the darknesses that we know?  We all know some.

How do we love through the brokenness and injustices we encounter in ourselves and this world?

When should we let ourselves shine?  Light plays in here too!

Should we shine if that ultimately exposes another’s darkness – meaning confrontation that takes us beyond how we normally live our faith?

And what do we do when another’s shining exposes the darkness that is in us?

These are the hard questions that this season, this gospel passage, and our own lives stir among us. They also sit at the heart of the compassion that God has woven into these forty days and forty nights, all the way to the cross and beyond it.

Because the good news, the gospel news is that God is here with us. There is nothing to fear. God is here with us in whatever darkness you know, in whatever darkness you face, whether that be hatred or other forms which darkness takes.  God is already present doing the work of redemption and promising an ultimate peace that passes all understanding.  And so we are called to do all that we can, to offer ourselves in service of this love.

And we might not get it exactly right, in fact we probably won’t  – but even imperfect offerings are received with the assurance that God does something with them all.

“God so loved the world!” we heard this morning. Not just the Baptists.  Not just the Episcopalians.  Not just the gays or the straights or the whites or the blacks.  Not “just” anyone.  “God so loved the world that he sent his only son,” the gospel says.

And the judgement, according to the gospel, has to do with darkness and it has to do with light.  And so I want to hope that what Daniel is doing this morning is cracking it open a bit this morning for us all.  As imperfect an offering as it might be, sometimes, with God’s help, that’s how the light gets in.

And so my prayers are with him today.  And my prayers are with that congregation and ours too, that we all may know the light that is of God.  My prayers are with Wayne Coleman, his family and the people of Imagine Fellowship as they invite us again with them, to stand up and ring the bells that still can ring.

May we offer ourselves this season and every season, imperfect as we are to the work that is loving this world.  And may God expose us all in ways that serve a larger and holy gospel good.

 

 

Swim On!

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – Epiphany 3, Year B: Mark 1:14-20

So the gospel passage we just heard is one of those passages that I both love and struggle with all at the same time.  It’s beautiful in so many ways and it’s certainly inspirational. The scene was lovely.  There they were down by the Lakeshore.  Jesus strolling.  Guys fishing. Waves lapping up on the sand. Nets were being mended . . . If you listen closely you can even hear the gentle music that was playing in the background.  And as Jesus was walking the shores, he invited those guys to follow him.  First Simon and Andrew and then James and John. With three simple words, Jesus broke their world wide open.  He tapped into their hopes, offered new opportunities and apparently in that one moment revealed to them something of salvation.  And so those guys literally dropped everything and followed right in that very moment.

And so part of me admires the spontaneity of that.  Not something, by the way that Episcopalians are particularly known for.  And I’m struck by the passion and the ease of it all because if there’s something that we as church folk can do, it’s complicate the faith.  We aren’t always known for our ease! But right here at almost the very beginning of the gospel of Mark there is this very simple story: There was Jesus.  He invited some people to walk with him.  And they followed.  The end – and also their beginning.  Nice.  Those are the parts that I love.

But then there are the pieces I struggle with. First, what about Zebedee?  Every time I hear this story my heart breaks a little for him.  There he was having begun to hand off the family business to his sons, mending one net a day instead of two, beginning to vision afternoons sitting on the dock with his buddies letting go of the (until now) sun-up to sun-down demanding labor of what it meant to be a professional fisherman.   And then Zebedee just got left holding the nets and others who happened to be around that day probably had to kick in a little extra and hold onto him.

The second thing I wrestle with, and this is where I’m going to focus this morning is the whole fishing metaphor as applied to the work of evangelism.  Because that’s how this story gets applied right?  We hear this lesson and then the sermon goes on to say that we should be out there fishing for people. Fill those nets! Everybody go out there now and do it!  Fish on!

Now some of my hesitancy here might be my Episcopal roots.  There’s a joke that the Episcopalians approach this whole topic of evangelism and fish like this: we build little aquariums and plant them about twenty yards back on the beach. The aquariums are of course, beautiful and not only that they’re tasteful. But after building them, we expect the fish to come find us and when they do, we expect them to navigate the walls and jump in.  And there’s some truth to that.  It’s not as if “gone fishing” is a phrase that tends to fit most of our denominational approaches to sharing the good news of Christ.  And so we, like everyone, have something learn here.

But I’m not sure the fishing metaphor is a great fit.  Truth of it is is that getting caught is never good news for the fish.  I have yet to hear the story of a fish who in the process of getting caught believes they are experiencing salvation or freedom or healing.  They are very simply trapped by something larger than themselves. Dragged out of their natural habitat purely for the sake of those who catch them. And very soon after the catch, the fish can’t breathe any more.

(Which is not an argument against actual fishing. I eat fish and I’m glad people are willing to go get them for me.  I’m just saying that if we’re talking evangelism – which we need to be – I think we can do better than this if for no other reason, than breathing matters.)

And so I want to be honest about our Episcopal shortcomings, allow for a little wrestle and also run with some of what’s going on here in the gospel. That’s not too much to ask is it?

So let’s back up and start with the basic assumption that we are supposed to be inviting others to experience Christ. Even Episcopalians are supposed to be inviting people into this experience we call God’s grace (small ‘g’ grace – and capital ‘G’ too.) And we’re supposed to do this not because God can’t find these people him or herself.  Not because we have a handle on the absolute truth and others should too. Not even because their or our salvation absolutely depends on this. God is bigger than all of that.

We should invite people in or over or out with us because we have gifts of God to share with them.  Period.  Good news, and things like love, forgiveness and food; things like grace and mercy and hope are what people need to be able to able to thrive; it’s what everyone needs to be fully alive and we have some of all of that to offer.  Now there’s more to say here, to get more specific in all of these areas, but one of my Episcopal limitations is that I’ve got about fifteen minutes max to get this all in – so let this piece stand for today as a simple, very basic assumption and starting point that is this: we need to be sharing and inviting and proclaiming because through us, Christ has something to offer this hurting world.

But I’m not into surprising people with nets or dragging them out of their natural habitats no matter what you all say you want me to do.  So let’s take another step and adapt all of this a little bit.

What if we simply moved our aquariums closer to the water?  And then what if we just sort of threw all caution to the wind and moved our aquariums out into the sea?  And then what if, in one big Episcopal moment of letting go, we broke down the walls of our aquariums and swam around for a while with the other fish?  Just a thought.

And what if we noticed the incredible diversity swimming around out there.  The beauty.  The possibility.  We might even notice out there that some of the other fish are hungry too, or lonely or just searching for a place to be.

Note that most of these fish I’m talking about are fish who don’t have anything to do with other little aquariums or even large mega-pools. These are just all those other fish who are still out there in the water. They’re resistant to getting caught many of them – but in all likelihood, they are hoping to get fed or companioned or maybe they just want us aquarium-prone types to notice how at certain times of the day the sun hits the water and puts on a show! A show that is for all intents and purposes a miracle that reveals something of God grace too.

These are the fish who have probably managed to avoid nets most of their lives but still hunger on some level to be gathered with others– as long as they can still breathe when that happens.  These are the fish who may have never let their fins touch sand, who swim as fast as they can away from approaching boats, but who know that their habitat is in danger too. They know that the sea is a tough place for a lot of fish who are just trying to make it. And they know as well as we do that it will take other fish, and a holiness greater then us all to bring about an ocean-wide process of redemption.

And so we have good news to share, Episcopalians! Episcopal fish that we are.  And not sharing is not an option, even for us.

Gone fishing?  Maybe that’s not quite it.  Gone swimming?  Absolutely. Willing take the dive?  Sure. Immersed in water.  Aware of creation. Looking for the sun to reach into the depths, sharing food that comes from above and below too, and following in ways that bring the gospel to places it has yet to reach.

Now, let’s get to it.  Swim on!

Amen.

Beginning Again

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams

Epiphany 2, Year B: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

This morning is about beginnings.  From the readings to the Baptism to the time of year.  And the timing is good because we could use a few beginnings.  The news has been hard.  The weather has been harsh.  The holidays are over, even snow days might be over for a while and as we get back to it – whatever it happens to be, this morning here at Grace, we’re about beginnings.

Couple of things about the beginnings we share as Church.  First in the very beginning God created it all and God saw that it was good – all of it.  It’s important that we remember that.  We got a little taste of that whole story this morning from the book of Genesis, but you know how it goes.  First there was light. Then waters and sky and land and vegetation, plants yielding seeds of every kind and then there were stars, and the sun and the moon too. Then God made creatures: sea monsters, birds, fish, cattle, creeping things, wild animals and every living thing including human beings who were made in God’s image.  And in that beginning, the very beginning that we share, God saw that it was good, all of it.

And it’s important that we remember that – the goodness that God saw, the goodness that God intended and created us to embrace, to enjoy, to foster – the language of Genesis says that we human beings are to be stewards of that good creation and of one another too.  So essentially in that beginning, we were created to care.   Created in God’s image to care for that which God saw was good.

Fast forward now to a world in which the beginning of each day brings hard news.  When the light and the darkness that separates the days from the nights is blurred with stories of violence and fear.  That’s not all that’s happening in this world by any means but every week now we hear of shootings or kidnappings or some sort of larger scale violence that runs absolutely counter to the goodness that we believe runs through us all.  God saw that it was good, but we see on a daily basis that goodness is not all that there is.  So what can we do?

Well, to put it very simply, we can begin again.  In fact it’s absolutely critical that we begin again, all the time.  And we begin again not in a way that ignores the past or that closes our eyes or hearts to the pain and suffering in this world.  In fact, just the opposite.  We begin in a way that opens our hearts and our lives to all of it and makes room for the grace-filled goodness that comes in the form of redemption. The thing about hearts is that they can be heavy and open all at the same time.

In the gospel today Jesus is out in the wilderness; and he was out in the wilderness beginning again. Jesus was out on the absolute margins with John the Baptist (dressed in camels hair, eating locusts and honey); he was with the outcasts, the sinners, those in whom society refused to see the image of God. Out there in the wilderness Jesus was surrounded by stories that ran counter to that which God intended.  Jesus was surrounded by criminals, sinners, those who had risked everything and lost too much, those who had challenged and fallen, those who cheated and stolen things and told lied and drank too much. He was surrounded by suspicious Religious authorities who had so warped the message of grace that they didn’t know it when they saw it. And then there were also those out there who were just plain lost and hungry, desperate even for something new.  And so Jesus looked around that mess of creation, that mess of humanity and here’s where the story turned:  he saw that it was good, or at least that it could be.  Which is when their story, where our story began again:

Jesus saw the water and knew that it could bless and cleanse and so he waded in.  He looked at the sky and just like it did in that first beginning, it opened up to the Spirit of God.  Jesus looked around and saw the people, all the weary, hungry people and knew that the image of God was still there in them all.  And that’s when their story, and our story too began again.

And that’s why what we do today matters.  This is why baptism matters.  Not because it’s magical, not because it defines who is in and who is out.  And very importantly not because being Christian is the only means by which goodness can be achieved.  We hear in Genesis that goodness was there in the beginning – woven into everyone’s beginning.

Baptism matters because it reminds us, we of this faith, of who we are, of whose we are and who we have been created and redeemed to be.  In baptism we begin again, all of us.

Now Everett you’re just beginning in just about every way.  Not a lot of regrets at this point, not a lot of heaviness or concern about this world yet, not a lot of that for which you need to be forgiven.  And so essentially what’s happening is that we are welcoming you into a household that has committed itself not just to certain belief but to a way of being in this world, a Christ-like way of being in this world.  And with God’s help we will help you grow in that way.   And you’re giving us the opportunity to remind ourselves what that way is all about.

I would guess that while as a people we need to consider and evaluate the violence that has permeates our society, the first step is for us to let go of our cynicism or hopelessness or helplessness, whatever it is that stifles our response to that which runs counter to that which we were created to be.  This way that baptism reveals to us is a way of hope, a way that demands we work for justice and peace, a way that invites us to gather together, to see Christ in all people, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  This way grounds us and re-grounds us in the goodness of our beginnings and reminds us that that goodness runs through the lives of all the people of this world.

And so today we come together in the wilderness of this world, and we look at this water and we remember that it heals, that it blesses all who thirst especially those who struggle or thirst.  We look at one another and in that other we are called to see the grace-filled goodness, the Christ, the image alive and well among us always.  And from here we look out and remind ourselves that this world is forever vulnerable, forever open to the Spirit’s presence. And the Spirit can do amazing and surprising things at any time in any place.

As we awaken every day to the hard news, we have been called to share and to be the good news.  The good news of our beginnings and the potential to begin again. Goodness runs deep.  It’s in our DNA and the very essence of this world.  Redemption is not only possible – it’s among us all the time.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Cross Talk

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams

Lent 2, Year B:Genesis 17:1-7,15-16;Psalm 22:23-31;Romans 4:13-25;Mark 8:31-38

Jesus told the crowds, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lost it, and those who love their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”

So I think it’s time we had a little talk about the cross. As hard as this is, the time seems right doesn’t it? We’re surrounded by crosses this season. We’re singing about them in almost every hymn. Crosses are in the gospel every time we turn around, and this whole 40 days and 40 nights is headed straight for Good Friday and Easter. Given the theological and liturgical trajectory we’ve got going on here, the cross can’t be avoided. And according to the gospel passage it shouldn’t be avoided. We should even be picking up our own crosses as we go! Starting now. And so this morning I want to ask what a cross is and try to identify what it isn’t.

I’m going to start with the “isn’t,” because if there is any symbol that is misunderstood, misused even it’s this one. And just as an opening disclaimer, I should let you know that I don’t fully understand it either. There is holiness, there is God here and whenever that happens, there’s an element of mystery and we need to leave room for that mystery’s presence. And so while I can’t speak to you from a place that involves absolute, conclusive proof, I can speak to you from a place of faith which is seeking understanding. And that understanding ebbs and flows and grows over time. And I hope that speaking from that place will at least give us room to talk and to pray about the cross together.

OK – what a cross is not. I don’t believe that a cross is something that is from God. Which might sound strange, or wrong or borderline heretical, so let me explain a little more.

I don’t believe God wants crosses, or wills crosses for us or for anyone. The cross is not what God is ultimately about which is why the gospel story, the story of Christian faith doesn’t end on a cross. And it’s why the story didn’t begin on one either. I don’t think that when God saw that Creation was good, God had already tucked a cross over in the corner of paradise in order to make the world complete.

I think that we put the crosses in this world. And that evil – however you explain that put crosses in this world. The cross is of our making, and occasionally it’s simply because of our limitations, but what I want to emphasize is that I don’t believe that crosses are of God’s intentions. And that distinction matters a lot.

And it leads us into what I think a cross is.

I actually think that the cross symbolizes everything God does not will for us – crosses are injustices on the backs of so many, illnesses that steal away wholeness, inner and outer demons. Crosses are poverty that demeans and kills, policies and practices and even pieties that bring about some sort of death – inner, outer, spiritual, or physical death – of a child of God. And so God mourns crosses. God doesn’t will them.

Remember that in the gospel the cross was a tool of torture used for public shame and punishment, and in the case of Jesus, it was a tool used by those who were afraid of losing their own power. And none of that is what God’s will played out looks like.  It is, however, what occasionally our wills, our frailties, our fears played out to extremes, or sometimes just plain evil look like. Crosses are where we suffer, where we hurt, where this world misuses or warps creation and hurts, we all hurt (and I believe God does too) because of it.

So I believe that the crosses in our lives and in this world are those places in which we we are missing out on what it is that God wills for us. Crosses are places where our neighbors are missing what it is that God wills for them.

And so here in this gospel and in this season that is Lent we are being asked to take up those places in ourselves and in this world and it’s some of the hardest work that we’ll ever do, because first we have to look at those places and acknowledge how wrong they really are.

Which means that we have to let something in us die before we can even take it all in. And that’s part of what we risk this season. We risk the death of a naive sort of hope. We risk the death of that part of us that rightly holds tight to a vision of a kingdom coming now, present now. We risk awareness of our pain and the pain of others in this world. All of which means that we lose some innocence, some distance, some privilege when we take up a cross. It means that we lose at least pieces of our lives.

But here’s the amazing thing, the amazing grace of it all, the holy paradox if you will: While God does not intend crosses, God is there with us on them, in them, helping us, even carrying the cross for us when we can’t bear it any longer.

God’s love is so great that God goes to those places that are not of God in order to do the work that is redemption. And I think that that in itself is the mouthful that is Lent. The cross is not a sign that God wills pain or death, but that God is present with us in those realities pulling us and re-birthing this world into something new, something beyond the cross. God’s love is so great that God goes to those places that are not of God in order to help make something else, something new happen there. God goes to those places that run contrary to God’s will, in order to redeem them, to redeem us, ultimately to save us.

And so we take up our crosses and the crosses of this world because they are neither the beginning nor the end of the story. From the cross there is more, there is always more. The cross is neither a beginning nor an end. Due to forces beyond what God has chosen to control, sometimes free will, sometimes just plain evil, sometimes physical weakness or limitation, sometimes sin – due to so many things that come together to make this world not the kingdom of God yet, there is suffering and there is pain. And due to a love that is greater than all of it, God is there too working what theologian Jon Sobrino called “the theology of love in our real world.” The theology of love in our real world. God is there on the cross willing something new in the midst of all that runs contrary to that grace.

“What is this rising from the dead all about?” we asked as we headed into the season of Lent. Well, pick up your crosses and together let’s awaken ourselves to the crosses of the world and stand with those who carry them. And in those places we will grieve. And in those places we will pray. And in those places we will sing! And in those places we will proclaim God’s vision and help birth a new hope, a deep and real hope, because in those places we will love.  And then, by grace, we’ll come to discover what rising from the dead is all about.

Amen.