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Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

REV. JENNIFER ADAMS – March 9, 2011

After I’m done preaching, I have the privilege of inviting you (in the words of the Book of Common Prayer) to “the observance of a Holy Lent.” Now every season has its own holiness about it – w of course make every attempt to have holy Advents and Christmases and to have holy Epiphanies, Easters and Pentecosts too. But there is something about these 40 days and 40 nights that asks of us a particular sort of awareness, a reawakening of attentiveness to holy sorts of things and so the invitation. Lent calls us to pay attention to our faith and our true selves, our relationships to one another, to the community that is Church and to God. And of course the goal is that during this time we re-align ourselves in ways that stick – well into the next season and beyond.

Now this Lent Grace has chosen the theme of “healing” as a way to help us into that sort of attentiveness. Healing is something we all need on some level and we all have some experience of having received it too. The need for healing is an equalizer of sorts – one of the conditions of being human, and faith is one of the means by which we approach healing and seek to be made whole. In an effort to crack open this topic for us, our Wednesday discussion will be on Sara Miles book, Jesus Freak, subtitled, Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead and our Sunday Forums will include people like Holland Hospital Chaplain, David Blauw and Professor and author Rhoda Janzen who will talk to us about their personal and professional experiences and understandings of healing. Along the way we’ll be invited to share pieces of our own stories, hear others’ and through it all we’ll see what holy sort of work God will do among us. So, as we begin the season tonight not surprise that I’m going to talk about healing, and I’ll do it using the passage we just heard read from the prophet Isaiah.

Because the prophet was speaking to a people who were longing to be healed and desired nothing less than the wholeness they believed they could have in God. These people cried out to God day and night according to the prophet, and not only that but they were pulling out all the other religious stops they could think of — trying their very best to get God’s attention and response. They would fast regularly and humble themselves endlessly but when they didn’t get the expected divine response to those actions, they let God have it which is what we heard going on in the passage, “Why aren’t you noticing all of this, O Lord?” they cried out to the heavens. “Why do we fast but you do not see? …Why do we humble ourselves but you don’t even notice that?” In other words, “Why aren’t you obviously acknowledging our efforts, God? …We’re doing everything we can so why aren’t you giving us what we need?”

Now I need to say first that I understand that cry and I know that on some level we’ve probably all lived that cry. And I think that in some ways it’s one of the most honest prayers we can pray and it often gets cried out in situations where healing or wholeness is being sought.

Because those are the moments when our understanding of how God works gets shaken to the core. In some ways it seems most natural to assume that if we are hurting or broken, God must not be paying very good attention to us. If we are not well, and doing everything we can possibly think of to make ourselves well it must be that God has lost sight of us. Right? Not bad reasoning at all. And so like the Israelites we do everything we think we can in order to help God remember us. We cry out. We get more religious than we might have been before. Or far less religious than we might have been before. Some will go so far as making sure that they do everything right in order to make sure that at the very least when God deigns to glance their our direction, they’ll be at the front of the line.

And while pastorally, we can’t knock the sentinment, this passage from Isaiah and frankly the entirety of Lent and Holy Week turns that whole approach on its head. Because here’s the thing. God is already paying attention. That’s actually a given, a starting point. God is already paying attention, and God had been paying so much attention that God decided to be among us in order to help us understand that. God is not only watching, God is with us. That was the holiness of Christmas and Epiphany and will be the holiness that is Good Friday too. The prophet Isaiah reminded his people in this passage that the problem wasn’t so much with God — God even at that point in the story hadn’t missed a beat. The problem was with the people and the fact that they were essentially, like a bad country song, looking for healing in all the wrong places. Their understanding of wholeness was off, or at least their thoughts on how they might achieve wholeness were off. And so God explained some things to them through the prophet’s words.

Healing as individuals and as people of God is more about alignment than it is about immediate fixes or cures. Which is why Isaiah told the people that taking on pieces like fasting made no sense if in other areas of their lives, they were oppressing their workers. Wearing sackcloth and ashes while striking out at their neighbors or simply refusing to share what they had was sort of missing the point.

According to this passage, if we really want to be healed into the wholeness that is of God, the Shalom that is of God (sooner rather than later that is,) we like the Israelites need to align our spiritual practices with God’s vision of holiness. Because religious practices aren’t needed for the sake of getting God’s attention, we already have that. They are instead the means by which we redirect ours, our attentions and our focus. Spiritual practices are there to align the pieces that are each of us with the vision of Shalom that is of God. And the practices recommended aren’t that hard. None if it’s rocket science. “Feed people,” God spoke through the prophet, “and in those actions you will learn something of holy things … Offer shelter, release some captives (even if it’s yourself), break a yoke or two, loose a bond of injustice and in that work you will come to know God. And your attentiveness to those holy things will make you well. “It is then,” Isaiah said, “that your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly … you will be called repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live on.”

So, as we move into this season we know that God is with us, we have the attention and the presence of the almighty and we also know that healing is not something we can accomplish alone. Because there is something vital to our own healing that can only from acts of kindness, works of justice and the offering of compassionate sorts of gifts to others. Which means that I am not a Lenten person; we are a Lenten people. And as we go through this season, we will still hurt, we will still die. But, God willing (and all signs say that God is) we will come more fully to know what it means to love. And in that love is the wholeness we seek.

Amen.

Lilies

Lilies

Rev. Jennifer Adams – February 27, 2011 – Epiphany 8A

This is one of those sneaky gospel passages that as first glance is simply quite beautiful and peaceful and almost relaxing to sink into. “Consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus said. Just hearing those words helps me relax a bit and breathe more deeply. And I need to. “OK, Jesus I’ll consider the lilies. Nice.” And then he tells us to “Notice the birds of the air.” Lovely again. Peaceful again. Lilies and birds. Good stuff. The point of course being that those pieces of Creation are well cared for and fed – the lilies neither toil nor spin and they are clothed in more glory than Solomon – and the birds neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns yet God feeds them – so we who worry about those kinds of things shouldn’t worry about those kinds of things. “We can’t add one hour to the span of our lives by being anxious,” Jesus tells us. So — we should stop worrying. And that message is an important one. It’s meant to give us perspective and help us relax and shift our focus to God’s provisions and God’s priorities, to shift our energies away from those material things that tend to have too much power over our lives. And we need to hear that.

But just when I got to filling out those thoughts into a beautiful sermon about releasing anxieties and rediscovering an inner sense of peace I began to wonder about those who don’t have enough food or shelter or clothing and worry almost every day about how to get enough of those things because they have to worry about how to get enough of those things. They aren’t concerned about how to store up those things. Not how to build barns or make more room in the cupboards or hit the sales at the end of the season in order to be well clothed next year. Many who hear this passage have far more basic concerns – like how to simply get enough – food, shelter, clothing – to stay alive. I read one essay this week written from the perspective of someone who has lived in Haiti for the last year, and she assured all who were reading that worry was a critical dimension of life there and until there was more support – more actual goods and services – they would remain anxious for themselves, for their kids, for their parents, for their neighbors. She said that until things changed, they would continue to stand in line for hours because they were worried about missing out on distributions. They would continue to beg relief workers for help because they were anxious about tomorrow, what was coming or what was not coming to them tomorrow. She wrote that they haven’t been particularly focused on the lilies these days — thank you very much — and noted that even the birds of the air could at times be more of an annoyance than a beauty. And it’s when you listen to those voices and read those words that you realize that often where we stand effects how we hear any one particular passage of Scripture.

And so here’s where the gospel gets sneaky. It’s not simply a case of “if you happen to be born into this circumstance you hear it this way and if you were born into this circumstance you hear it like this and that’s all there is to it.” The gospel is more than that. And here’s how Matthew pulls it off: Later in his gospel, towards the very end of Jesus ministry this same list appears. The list about food and water and clothing and it’s again tied into a message about how letting go of those things can lead us into a deeper relationship with God. In chapter 25 Matthew’s Jesus tells the parable about the sheep and the goats – the sheep being those who care for Christ, the goats being those who neglect him. (And just for the record – it’s not good news for the goats.) So someone asks Jesus what exactly he was talking about in terms of seeing the Christ and caring for him. “But when did we see you?” they asked him? And Jesus responded that whenever we run into someone who is hungry and we feed them, or someone who is thirsty and we give them drink, or someone is in need of clothing and we clothe them – in those moments we are caring for the Christ. And our sheep-hood is confirmed. So at that later point in the gospel, the releasing of material things is not only for the sake of calming our hearts, it’s so that we can care for others. And that caring for others is not only about our own sense of inner calm, it’s about another’s well being and our own salvation.

So – wow. Considering the lilies is an important step, but I think the way Matthew has set this up is as a first step. The kind of awareness that comes from noticing the birds of the air is intended to move us also into considering our neighbor. The lilies and the birds are provided for by God. Our neighbors can be too – and often those provisions don’t fall from the sky, they need to come from the hands of others. Here’s how I think it works: The less we worry about things, the less tightly we hold onto things. And the less tightly we hold onto things, the more easily we share things. And the more we share things, the fewer people there are who have to worry about having enough things simply to stay alive. I actually think that’s what this is all about.

So the challenge is for us to make time to consider the lilies and notice the birds, to let that peace settle us, and give us perspective. But the challenge is also to not stop there. To let the peace settle us but to also allow it to free us, open us up to release some of that which we of material privilege in this world hold too tightly. And then maybe when that happens we approach the day when those in Haiti and other places of poverty and neglect will be able to breathe and consider the lilies too. Perhaps the kingdom on which we are to set our sights.

Amen.

Love Your Enemies

Love Your Enemies

Rev. Jennifer Adams – Epiphany 7A – February 20, 2011

So when Jesus was talking to his disciples and offering the teaching that we heard this morning, I wish someone had asked a clarifying question. I wish that this story had played out like it did in that other gospel story when Jesus told them that they had to love their neighbor. In that story someone who was listening wanted a little more information, so he raised his hand and asked Jesus, “So, just who exactly is my neighbor?” And Jesus followed that question with a story about the Good Samaritan which shattered their previous assumptions and called forth a redefinition of what neighbor actually meant. Well today, in a similar teaching moment — but addressing the other end of the relationship spectrum Jesus went beyond “Love your neighbor” into the unchartered territory of “Love your enemy.” And apparently the response was dead silence. (At least nothing was recorded, noted or inserted at this point in the story.) So maybe they were quiet because they knew exactly to whom Jesus was referring; or maybe they were so taken aback by the magnitude of the command that they were left speechless. But regardless of the reasons, nobody raised a hand to ask Jesus the logical follow up questions, “Just who is my enemy? And why should I love them.” and I wish that somebody had.

Because first, the whole concept of enemy seems to be a little confusing these days. In a truly interesting interview with Terry Gross in October, John Stewart said that he thinks that’s because we’ve so overused the word “enemy” that it’s been stretched to the point of having very little meaning. Stewart explained that in our culture today we not only use “enemy” to mean “those who would do us harm” but also to refer to people with whom we disagree, people on the other side of this issue or that issue, people who think differently than we do, people who believe differently than we do. Almost suddenly our list of enemies has become practically endless and we’ve severely crippled our ability to talk to one another. So discussions as portrayed by the media have become “culture wars” rather than conversations. It’s “us versus them” rather than us just trying to figure out how to be us. And that’s a problem.

Now the good news is that what Jesus said in the gospel covers this situation. No matter how broadly we define “enemy”, no matter how long the list happens to be, we still have to love them. Period. And maybe that’s part of why Jesus said it the way he said it. He knew that this side of heaven, we would never be able to think of everyone as neighbor – so he had to throw in the other end too and include them in the love command. But I think that part of what we need to do given the climate today is to be aware of how we use this word “enemy”, and reign it in a bit. According to Webster – an enemy is more extreme. An enemy is “a hostile unit,” “one who is seeking to injure”, or “something or someone that is harmful or deadly.” And while various outlets would want me to think it is so, neither the person who cheers for the other football team nor the person who votes differently than I do fit those definitions. So we need to remember to keep perspective. That will help us do love.

But reigning in our use of the word “enemy” only takes us to the next step of having to acknowledge that there are people who are doing harm in this world, maybe to us directly, maybe not to us directly, but perhaps doing harm to the least of us — and what do we do with them? And my next question, “Why is “love them” what Jesus wanted us to do?” Why not “limit your enemies” or “trap your enemies and lock them up forever?” Why not even “kill them and rid the world of their presence so that the world can be a better place?” Or at the very least why not “Run as fast as you possibly can away from your enemies and don’t ever, ever look back?”

Well, maybe none of those things could be what Jesus told us to do because he knew that the only hope of enemies becoming something besides enemies, the only hope of enemies becoming not harmful nor hostile is love. And so “love them” was the only answer he could give, no matter how the question back at him was asked. You’ve seen the bumper sticker that says “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind?” Maybe love really is the only hope we have of helping everyone to see.

Martin Luther King Jr talked about this gospel passage like this: First he told a story: Sometime ago my brother and I were driving … to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over [to me] and in a tone of anger said: “I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.” And I looked at him … and said: “Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for [everyone]. [They’d be blind, right?] Then King said, “Somebody’s got to have some sense on this highway.”

“Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it?” King asked the congregation. “…if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss … Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral … Somebody must have … morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”

And that story hits us where we are. It feels sometimes in the day to day like someone’s got to dim the lights, or at least change their source and turn on the beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world. Now according to Jesus, that’s our work. Why? Of all the work we could be doing why love? King had an answer to that too: There is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” he preached. “It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform them. [And the hate eventually transforms you and not for the better.] But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them … Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep … loving them … and they can’t stand it too long … Oh they may react in the beginning … with bitterness because they’re mad because you [engage them] like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus [tells us to do it.] There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.

And then King closed his sermon with this and so will I, ‘This morning,” he said, “as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers [and sisters] in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.

Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve every problem that we confront in all areas [of life ]… Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray.

Amen.

Absalom Jones

Absalom Jones

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – February 6, 2010 – Epiphany 5A

This morning I want to introduce you to someone whom we all should know. His name is Absalom Jones and on the Episcopal calendar of saints known as Holy Women, Holy Men today is his day. Absalom is an Episcopal Saint because he was the first African American ordained priest and today is his day because he this week in the year 1818.

Absalom Jones was born into slavery in Sussex county Deleware in 1746 and he was owned by the Wynkoop family. Absalom’s jobs were primarily inside the Wynkoop home and using their children’s books, he taught himself to read; as the story goes he had read most of the Bible by the time he was about twelve. When Absalom was sixteen the Wynkoops moved him to Philadelphia to work at their family retail store as a handyman and clerk which Absalom did for several years. In Philadelphia, he met Mary King, also a slave; they married in 1770 and eight years later, Absalom purchased Mary’s freedom. Since children’s status was based on their Mother’s all of their children were born free and seven years after Absalom purchased Mary’s freedom, he had enough saved to purchase his own. He was thirty eight years old when he was freed.

Absalom and his family attended St George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia which was an integrated congregation. Absalom and his friend Richard Allen, also a freed slave served as lay preachers lay and when Absalom and Richard began to preach somewhat regularly, the numbers of black members grew significantly which made the white leaders of the congregation uncomfortable. So, they added a balcony to the church, with the intention of moving the black people in the congregation to the very back. One Sunday after the addition had been completed, Absalom and Richard were kneeling side by side in a pew and an usher came and asked them to move to the balcony. They refused so the man began to physically force them to. Well Absalom and Richard stood up and moved. But instead of moving to the balcony, they walked out the doors of the church and never came back to that congregation. And most of the black members of the congregation left too.

Jones and Allen then organized the Free African Society which helped widows and orphans, and helped newly freed people assimilate into urban life. Absalom and others also founded “The African Church and in 1793, one year after founding the church, the two men organized the Black community to serve as caretakers during Philadelphia’s epidemic of Yellow Fever. That year, Jones was also part of the first group of African Americans to petition the U.S. Congress. Their petition related to the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act which they believed encouraged brutality and put free blacks at risk of being kidnapped and sold back into slavery.

In 1794, the Plague having receded and the petition ultimately denied by Congress, “The African Church” was looking for a larger denominational home and Absalom Jones led the congregation in applying to Bishop William White for membership in the Episcopal Church. That year they were received into the fellowship and communion of the diocese of Pennsylvania although (in the all-to-human tradition of slowly doling out one “right at a time” they weren’t actually allowed to vote at Diocesan Convention for several decades.) “The African Church” became The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and Absalom Jones was ordained Deacon. Nine years later he was ordained Episcopal Priest, becoming the first priest in America of African descent. St Thomas is still a vital congregation and contributes not only in significant ways to the city of Philadelphia but to the national Episcopal Church too.

There is so much in this one story. Even when you tell it in a way that only takes up one page there’s a lot in this story. Absalom was born a slave and earned his freedom. He was a man who purchased freedom for others before he had it for himself. He was a prayerful, compassionate soul who when others fled the plague stayed, because staying was the loving thing to do. He was a passionate soul who when others stayed in the balconied church, walked out, because stepping away was the faithful thing to do. Absalom petitioned. He prayed. He led. He read. He followed. He fathered. He preached and presided and married and buried. And he helped his people of the ‘African Church of Philadelphia’ find a larger church home. And because of Absalom Jones the larger church became more of the church it was called to be. And today, we thank him for it.

You are the light of the world, Jesus said. All you have to do is put your lamp on the lampstand and can “give light to all in the house.” Isn’t that sort of wonderful and kind of amazing. All it takes is one person to hold their light up a bit, and suddenly the whole house can see. That particular light might not immediately change the house, but if everyone allowed to see, eventually the house will change. When Absalom taught himself to read there was light there. When he fell in love, fell into enough love to want freedom for Mary he was shining. When his kids were born as free boys and girls, there was a light raised up that helped his whole family see the world differently, and potentially helped the world see them differently too. When Absalom and Richard walked away from the balcony, they turned the lights on when they left that house and when they petitioned Congress, they lit on a cruelty that our country intentionally worked to keep in the dark. And then finally, in Absalom’s finding the Episcopal Church a whole denominational light was given the opportunity to shine more brightly than ever before.

And you know, rumors have it that he was a relatively humble man so if we talked to him today, he would probably say something like he was just being Absalom Jones the whole time. He didn’t set out to be a saint. He just did the loving thing even when it put him at risk. He did the faithful thing even though sometimes that meant letting go. He did gospel even when that meant challenging other people of faith. Sure Absalom had a particular call at a particular time but so does each of us. When we challenge unjust systems, feed hungry people, care for the dying, offer our gifts with the intention of earning freedom for those who have yet to fully experience it, when we respect and defend the dignity of any child of God, like Absalom Jones, we are being light for the world.

And it’s not always easy, but Absalom Jones would never have said it was either. Sometimes just holding up your light requires all the strength you can possibly find. But according to the gospel that action in itself matters. Those kinds of moments not only spread light in the house, they give strength to others who might be letting the bushels of the world win out.

So, these little lights of ours? We’ve gotta let’m shine. Let’m shine. Let’m shine. Let’m shine.
Amen.

Fishing

Fishing

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – January 23, 2011 – Epiphany 3A (Grace Annual Meeting)

One of the funniest youth group moments I’ve experienced happened on a canoe trip about eight years ago. We were on the Little Manistee River just and it was a bunch of teenagers from Grace, a couple of their parents, the youth leaders and I sometime in early Fall. Now about mid-way down the section of river we were traveling, there is a fish weir that is used to harvest eggs from Trout and Salmon and it’s placement requires that canoers get out of the water and portage their boats up and around it and then get back into the water about 20 yards down stream.

Now the portaging was no big deal, but the point at which we were to re-enter the river was the place where the fish were jumping … all over. And there were more fish than there were us and while that’s probably always true, it’s not always as apparent as it was at that moment. And so it was a little intimidating to we who are not fish enthusiasts. They were in the water and out of the water because at any given moment there were several of them up in the air. And so there was a little hesitation on some of our parts to get back in the boats. Suddenly the challenge wasn’t only balancing a canoe or avoiding the occasional downed tree; suddenly there were fish everywhere and we had to deal with them too!

But Grace youth as you know, are brave souls, their parents and leaders too and so after tossing about a few “don’t worries” and “you’ll be fines” we all got back in our boats. But then just as the last canoe entered the River and we were ready to move on — I heard yelling and actually there was some screaming too. A huge fish had jumped into one of the canoes. And given the scene those who weren’t screaming were laughing at the two very startled youth and one extremely frightened fish. And what was supposed to be a quiet interaction with nature became a story to be told later in a sermon. Which brings us to today. (But just in case there are any lingering doubts, before I move on, I should clarify that there were no youth nor any fish harmed in this event. The fish ended up back in the River and none of the youth, or leaders, or parents, or clergy did – at that point anyway.)

So that’s the image I want us to consider as we think about “fishing” this morning. And I want to hold up that image for us of an active, lively river teaming with life because when we think about discipleship using the fishing metaphor we tend to lean in the direction of the catch. What sort of bait should we use, where should we drop the lines, that sort of thing. And those sorts of topics tend to make Episcopalians nervous. We lose sight of the fish and slip into asking questions such as “shouldn’t we just leave the fish alone?” and pretty soon we’re debating the ethical and faithful value of the nets themselves. And those conversations are important, but what I want to emphasize this morning is that the River we are currently journeying down is full of fish. And the fish are hungry. And they are jumping. And while it doesn’t always work this way, but we are in the wonderful position of having them land in our canoe on a regular basis. It’s why we all are here, isn’t it; at some point the boat that is Grace caught us.

And so while there are sermons to be preached on retention, and incorporating new fish into family, perhaps even teaching them to breathe in a new environment (although that might be taking the metaphor a little too far,) today is Annual Meeting Sunday and we need to focus in on the boat itself and its motion. What good is a journey down the River if you’re leaking, or you’re paddling in circles, or if you’re so busy screaming about the presence of other fish that you miss the miracle that the River itself is carrying us the whole way; while we are putting forth a wonderful effort on so very man fronts, it is actually the River that’s doing the work of moving us; the River itself wants us to discover just what’s around the next bend and the bend after that.

Our work is to make sure the boat itself remains in relatively good shape. Like the youth that day we step back occasionally to assess but then we need to work through the fears of the occasional tip, or the unpredictability of the fish, or the fear that comes from not being in total control – it really is the River that moves us.

We also need to paddle some. To steer some. To avoid those nagging branches off on the side and the nearly invisible rocks lurking just beneath the surface – those places that cause us to go either a little right or a little left in order to avoid getting stuck for what can seem like forever. Our job is to make sure the is worthy of the beautiful and challenging trip we’re on and to do whatever we can to help the fish-people come to love and care for all of those who are making the journey too.

As a parish we have some very obvious challenges in front of us, challenges that are outlined in the Annual Report and will be talked about at the meeting today; but overall we are in an incredibly wonderful place as a congregation. The River we’re on is an amazing thing – its power can humble us; its grace can surprise us; its life gives us life. And the fish who call it home are active and hungry and there are a whole lot of’m out there who are looking for a place to land. We simply have to help them find our boat. May we be faithful fishers of people, caretakers of the boat we’ve been given, and mindful always that around the next bend and the next bend and all the bends after that, there is grace.

Amen.

What Does It Mean To Follow

What does it mean to follow

Rev. Jennifer Adams – January 16, 2011 – Christmas 1A

Before I left to be with my Mother for a week, I looked over the readings for this Sunday and the next, figuring I could get ahead a bit while I was away. You probably already know this but it’s every preacher’s dream to have sermons drafted well into the future — we aspire to that place of perfectly prepared proclamations and so in pursuit of that dream, ten days or so ago, I put together some thoughts on recognition and discipleship which is what the gospel passages these couple weeks are all about. They show us a pattern: people see something in Jesus, he calls them, and many of them follow. (Now sometimes the order gets rearranged a bit – sometimes Jesus calls them first, then they see something, then they follow. Or sometimes they follow first, then they see something in him, then they are called into actual discipleship) but the order doesn’t seem to matter much, the pieces of call stories are relatively consistent. This week we heard from the gospel of John that John the Baptist saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus at Baptism and the next day, proclaimed him to be “The Lamb of God” and the “Son of God.” And when Andrew met Jesus, he first spoke about him as ‘Rabbi’, ‘Teacher’ and then slightly later he told others that he believed him to be the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. There was recognition on the part of many of those who encountered Jesus, something about this Man that spoke to them of the presence of God. And some of them at Jesus’ invitation to ‘Come and See,’ became
his actual disciples and followed him into his ministry.

Now I in this desire to “get ahead” I figured that there are some things that we can say about discipleship no matter what week it is. The basic meaning of disciple is “one who learns from another,” following in the footsteps of (in this case) Jesus Christ. We can also say that being a disciple of Jesus is something that we don’t do alone; from the very beginning disciples were gathered and even when they were sent out it was two by two. We can add to the list of “always true” that at the heart of this discipleship there is healing and forgiveness and challenge, and that Christ is with us as we go — to guide us or nudge us or catch us, depending on the need. We can acknowledge that following Jesus involves a cross and leads us into resurrection. We can speak of discipleship as a way of life, or an adventure, or we can call it a journey. And while discipleship is always the result of some sort of invitation, discipleship can also be the outcome of a particular moment of conversion.

And I knew all of those things ten days ago and I probably will know them ten days from now and they are vital to our understanding of what discipleship means. But after I had collected those core bits and had begun to flesh them out a little, then there was a devastating shooting in Arizona. Then floods swept through some of the poorest areas of Brazil, Sri Lanka and other parts of the world too. We passed the one year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. And then I realized upon my return that tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr day, the day on which our country honors a modern day preacher, teacher and prophet. And so in considering what to say this morning, suddenly I had to not only consider how to “talk about discipleship”; I also had to wonder what it means to follow in the midst of what happened in the world over these last ten days. What does it mean to follow in the midst of senseless killings, the seemingly random destruction of lives, the un-necessarily slow rebuilding of a country, and in the midst of the call to remember a man who gave his life to change our world.

And that’s the kicker isn’t it. And it’s not only a challenge for preachers. We can talk about discipleship, read about discipleship, come to some basic agreements about what we have to say about discipleship, but the challenge is that we have to be disciples today and tomorrow and none of us can be 100% sure of what that will mean ten days from now. The challenge is that we have to be disciples in the today – given all the givens that are our givens, some of which are simple, and others not so much.
And so this week I decided that one of the dimensions of discipleship that allows me to be present now, whatever the now happens to be, is a deep and abiding sense of hope. And that hope is there because the original teaching comes not from a distant, above it all sort of teacher, but from an incarnate, present-in-the-guts-of-it-all sort of teacher. We can be present to all of what this world brings, because as disciples we know first of all that God is here too. The teacher didn’t escape the world. He came into the world to love it. Period. Recognizing that is the first step. And doing that love today is what it means to follow in His footsteps now.

While he was here, the teacher invited us to “come and see,” not to “ignore and escape” the realities of the world or to memorize a strict outline of what discipleship looked like. Instead Jesus invited us to “come and see” another way of being in the world – a way in which the poor aren’t relegated to substandard, fragile and vulnerable living conditions but instead the poor are the ones who are blessed. He invited us to “come and see” a way of life where the mentally ill aren’t driven to violence but are empowered to seek help, to be embraced and cared for and maybe even healed. He invited us to come and see a place, a way of life where dreams come true; a time when those places “sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, are transformed into oasis of freedom and justice.” A place where children of all colors are children of God with opportunities grounded in equality and peace.
And so today and every day the invitation to discipleship is an invitation to presence — remembering that the one we follow was incarnate hope, incarnate forgiveness, incarnate love, incarnate in the world. We have been invited to come and see, but just as importantly to come and be a people who embody those teachings in our world today, no matter what today brings.

Amen.

Telling the Good News

Telling the Good News

Rev. Jennifer Adams – December 27, 2009 – Christmas 1C

Every year through the season of Advent and right up through Christmas Eve we hear narratives filled with interesting characters from some combination of Matthew, Mark and Luke. For the last five weeks we’ve been hearing stories about John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the angels, shepherds, innkeepers and emperors. And those stories have contained a lot of details like the times and places that these things
surrounding Jesus’ birth took place, “When Augustus was Emperor and Quirinius was governor” we heard Luke tell us on Christmas Eve. We heard that Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem to be registered. Throughout Advent up to Christmas Eve we get real people and a plot to follow and a basic narrative structure to help hold it all together. Right up through Christmas Eve, we get a story.

And those stories have definite startings and endings to them: Matthew begins with Jesus’ lineage, laying out the generations before Him. Luke moves it up a bit and jumps in a mere few months before Jesus’ birth and the gospel of Mark, begins even later than that, at the point at which Jesus is already an adult who is being baptized at the river Jordan. Matthew, Mark and Luke carry us from a certain time and place to another certain time and place through the course of Jesus birth and life right through his death and resurrection.

But this morning we get a whole different sort of proclamation. We get the gospel of John. And all of a sudden here we are with beautiful poetry and hymnody but with very little story with which to work. There are hardly any characters involved and the time frame is completely different: having just gathered a few days ago at the manger, now suddenly, John takes us all the way back to the beginning, the very beginning in the very opening line of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Simply by shifting gospels we move from first century Bethlehem to before time with the setting being the entire cosmos.

So it’s safe to say that this gospel is a little different. And part of what that shows us is that putting words on the presence and meaning and reality of the Christ takes many different shapes and comes in many different forms. There’s no one definitive way to do this. By writing in a different style with a slightly different perspective John reminds us of the challenge of communicating the good news of Jesus and the impossibility of one approach capturing it all. How do you begin to introduce the idea let alone the reality of the Son of God? How can you possibly explain incarnation? In a mere 30 pages or so how can you convincingly talk about – his birth, his childhood and adolescence, baptism, his calling of disciples, the miracles he performed, the people he invited to the table, the authorities he faced, the meals, his trial and death and resurrection?

John decided that in order to share what he knew of Christ he needed to use narrative but also poetry and theology and a touch of hymnody too. He added personal interpretation, put it all in the language of his particular community of faith and topped it off with a big prayer at the end of his gospel that it would in it’s own unique way offer the good news of Christ to the world.

And so while we celebrate Christmas and the miracle and gift of incarnation we need to ask ourselves how it is that we tell the story that is the good news of Christ’s presence in our lives, in the world, beyond the world. And while there is a collective answer to that question – we offer our proclamation every Sunday as community gather – there is also an individual response: each of us carries our own combination approach – we use a little narrative, throw in a bit of history, probably add a little poetry and song and toss it all together with theological interpretation using the language of our own community of faith and the other areas that touch our life. And that’s how it’s been all along. The church is communities of people searching out ways to tell the good news of Christ in order that they and others might believe, or be healed or welcomed or fed.

John reminds us that this gift we celebrate in Christ is the Word who is ultimately beyond words. Unable to be captured by any one style of telling. Beyond narrative and poetry and theological articulation. Beyond any one denomination or belief system. He’s God’s Word not ours. Part of our story, but at the same time beyond our stories too. And it’s still our job, it is our privilege to keep telling the story and singing the hymns and writing new hymns and telling new stories and telling our stories and offering up some of our experience or poems or the challenges we face or the healings we’ve known. And part of the miracle of incarnation is that God will be in some of those words too. The words we find in order to offer the world the good news that is the Christ, Immanuel, God with us.