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With a Little Hope and a Touch of Grace

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sermon preached at Hope Reformed Church on July 29, 2018

Proper 12, Year B: Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going. (John 6:1-21)

THANK YOU, Pastor Jill and thank you Hope Church! As I told the kids a few minutes ago, that’s our message today. We’re here with you this morning because just over 150 years ago, you gave us room to meet and to worship. And we as Grace Church are so very, very grateful. We began celebrating our sesquicentennial on June 10 and will continue through June 9, 2019. Part of the celebration is giving thanks for all that has helped us become and be Grace Church. And so we are here to say, “Thank you.”

Pastor Gordon has referred to Hope and Grace as “Best Friend churches.” And as it turns out, that relationship is part of our DNA. The people who were to become Grace Church began right here in your building. In 1866 those who were Hope Church (2nd Reformed at the time) provided space for some local yet relatively new to the area Episcopalians to worship and to meet to discern their way forward.

In fact the very first Episcopal worship service that ever happened in Holland, Michigan happened right here. Now the very second Episcopal worship service that ever happened was held at the Select School, so I’m not sure what went on at the first service… but through that entire phase of Grace Church’s beginning, Hope Church members and leaders provided friendship and support. Our congregation’s leaders worked together at the Select School which became the first of Grace Church’s four sites and we worked together in the larger community on various efforts we valued. We were apparently BFFs from the very beginning.

Hope Church, you gave us space and encouragement to become. And I’m not sure there’s a greater gift to be given. And so today, about seven thousand nine hundred and four Sunday services later, we’ve returned to say Thank You.

And to do that we’ve brought a preacher, a few Grace folks to share in worship, and we’re also providing coffee hour. And for that we’ve brought five loaves and two fish (just to see what you guys really have going on here.)

Now I’m personally excited to be here not only because of the shared history and the good colleagues and good friends that you are, but also because in the Episcopal Church, (unless it’s Michael Curry preaching,) we only give about 12-15 minutes for the sermon. And to be in a Reformed church where rumor has it the average is about 45, is an absolute thrill for me! Episcopalians would NEVER let me talk this long and so I’m truly grateful for this opportunity.

No worries, Jill has reigned me in earlier this week when I let it slip that I thought that was the timeframe. But given these time constraints, just so you know, I’m not going to touch David and Bathsheba about whom we heard in the first passage. I’ll leave that up to my fine colleagues as the David story continues to unfold through the lectionary texts this summer.

Now there are also many among us who have worked on the histories of our congregations, Judy Parr, Paul Trap and Charles Huttar to name a few, and so I’ll also leave the history detail to them. This morning, I simply want to touch on the gospel which provides a beautiful approach to gratitude and offers a glimpse into what can happen when good things are allowed to multiply.

Again there were crowds following Jesus, we just heard from the gospel passage. We’ve been hearing from the gospel of Mark over the last many weeks that Jesus had been traveling with his disciples back and forth and all around the Sea of Galilee and there were always crowds. The disciples had “crossed over” many times, traveled among villages, cities and farms, teaching, feeding, and healing. And in this dip into the gospel of John we hear those themes continued in a truly Johanine, but consistent way.

“A large crowd kept following him,” John said, “because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” And so these people had come with hope. It was hope that got them to the hillside that day or they wouldn’t have been there at all. Hope for healing. Hope for blessing. Hope for something new.

Now the feast of the Passover was near. John unlike the other gospel authors makes a point to tell us that. This is the Jewish festival which commemorates liberation and freedom and also the festival at which people offered the first fruits of grain.

And so when Jesus saw the crowd, you can bet that liberation and freedom were in his heart and on his mind and that his first thought was bread. And so, Jesus ran by Philip the challenge to feed the people. And Philip responded rather matter of factly that there was nowhere to buy bread, nor among them did they possibly have enough money to buy the quantity it would take to feed 5000 people. (As if Jesus didn’t know that already.)

But, and this is a big BUT – there was a kid with five barley loaves and two fish. “And what are they among so many people?” Andrew asked. What are those among so many people? A question we ask all too often. Because what the 5 loaves and 2 fish were was enough, enough to allow a miracle, or depending on how your ready it many miracles to happen.

Jesus received the bread and fish from the child. Then he had the people sit down, he gave thanks, and then they distributed the food to everyone who was there. And everyone ate “as much as they wanted,” the gospel says. And not only that, but there were twelve baskets left over. Enough for the tribes. Enough for those who hadn’t been able to make it to the hillside.

And then, the gospel continues there was a storm. We’ll get to that in a minute.

First, I think the very brave person in this story (besides Jesus, he usually wins on that count,) the very brave person in this story was the kid, right? He was the first person to take a miracle-unfolding cue from Christ. While the disciples were still worried about the mileage to the nearest store and the cost of the bread, the child let go of his own bread and his own fish. And that letting go was a big deal because at that point there were no guarantees about outcome. The child just offered what he had. And so perhaps even more than courage, this kid simply had hope, hope that something bigger than five loaves and two fish could happen. He had enough hope to let go and to trust.

Then there were those first people who sat down, those first people who rather than racing down the hill to be the first ones on the boat or the first people back to their village took the risk of settling in in grass on the hillside. And then they passed the baskets – sharing the food that had been made for them. Nobody hoarding. Nobody worried about with whom they were eating – which was a big deal in itself. And so perhaps these people believed that there could be grace, hospitality and food enough for all.

And in the end, the gospel tells us about 5000 people had eaten all that they wanted and there were 12 baskets left. There was enough for everyone to take home to their people, their people who were scattered as tribes, divided by historical circumstance and some long running family feuds, but a people now united by this shared and I’d go so far as to say “holy” meal.

A holy meal that started with a child’s five loaves and two fish. And with thanks offered, and with some hope and a little grace tossed in, there was food for all. There was a miracle!

Which is apparently how this works. For us too. Thank you, Hope Church for allowing a few Episcopalians to come forward in this community with what was in the eyes of many a rather measly offering. And thank you for receiving what was not only measly but threatening to some. Sacramental, liturgical worship with a Book of Common Prayer that had only recently let go of prayers to the Queen wasn’t exactly a welcome guest in most circles in these parts in 1866. And these Episcopalians not only wanted to speak English, but most of them did not know Dutch. Nevertheless, you allowed us to sit down here. You allowed us to sit in circles and share bread here.

And in Christ, with Christ, that was transformed from “measly” and “threatening,” into “enough.” Enough to gather around. Enough to pray with. Enough to feed people through. The presence of Hope with a touch of Grace allowed gifts to be multiplied in ways that are still feeding many. In ways that have fed way over 5000 in fact. And so I think we experienced something like a miracle.

Often in this world, people are too afraid to allow others space to become. Too often, we’re too afraid to allow gifts to multiply. We depend on scarcity for power rather than trusting goodness in abundance. And we see that dynamic play out all the time. What happens if we hold human rights in a place of gratitude and offer them, multiply and share them rather than allowing them to be held tightly by a fearful few? What happens if we hold healthcare with a spirit of gratitude and allow it to be multiplied and shared? What about shelter, affordable shelter. How about citizenship? How about forgiveness, creativity, mercy, good news? That’s the rhythm of this story: there is an offering. There is thanksgiving. There is hope and there is grace. Gifts are multiplied and a miracle comes to be. And sure, there’s often a storm that follows, but according to this gospel, we, with Christ can handle that too.

There is so much more to be given, so much more to be shared, and it’s all just a miracle away. Which means that it’s only one offering away. It’s only five loaves and two fish away. Which isn’t that far at all. With a little hope and a touch of grace, anything is possible.

In the words of the Epistle this morning: May Christ dwell in our hearts as we are being rooted and grounded in love. May we have the power to comprehend, the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (and calculations of mileage and cost,) so that we may be filled (not only with bread) but with all the fullness of God. And to him who by the power at work within us, (through our at times measly but hope and grace-filled offerings) is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.

Thank you, Hope Church. Amen.

 

The Power of the Fringe

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sermon preached at Grace, Holland on July 22, 2018 – Proper 11, Year B: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things…

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)

What if that were true? The healing part. What if everyone who touched even the fringe of the cloak of the Body of Christ experienced healing?

It’s a high bar, isn’t it? People were rushing around the whole region and they brought the sick on mats to wherever Jesus was. And there were crowds. “In villages and cities and farms,” the gospel says. “They laid the sick in the marketplaces and “all who touched even the fringe of his cloak were healed.” Everyone. “Even the fringe.” “All were healed,” the gospel says.

What if it’s true?

And what if we very 21st century, intelligent, reasonable, grounded, modernly-faithful people expected it to happen? Now. And what if we presented in such a way as to confidently communicate this expectation? What if we, as Body of Christ, made the very bold statement that everyone who touched even the fringes of this place would be healed?

It would mean that we believed in that kind of power. It would mean that we allowed ourselves to believe that healing happens. It would probably also mean that we’d experienced healing in some ways ourselves. And it would mean that we as Body would honor and respect even the power of the fringe.

All of which is a lot to ask, frankly. Because (realistically speaking) we already do just fine in this place. Our list of accomplishments in any given year is really quite incredible. We have committed clergy and lay people, a community that is changing and working to be attentive to our growing edges and our weaknesses too. We offer good care here at Grace. We strive to welcome all. We pray together well, and we manage projects relatively well too. We even give beyond ourselves!

But maybe as Body of Christ, we’re capable of more than we think we are. According to this gospel, we’re called to believe that everyone who touches even the fringes is not only welcomed but healed. And those are two very related but different things. This gospel says to expect that everyone who touches the fringes experiences not only welcome, but also a new form of wholeness.

I was thinking this week that that would make for quite an Annual Report wouldn’t it, as we looked back over the year and shared our experiences of it? Perhaps a new slot could be added to the Parochial Report that we send into the Diocese annually: Parking lot completed. One hundred twenty home Eucharists shared. Twenty-five new members incorporated. Youth mission trip a success! Roof raised. And EVERYONE who touched even the fringes of this place was healed!

According to this gospel that should be our vision, our goal. According to this gospel, we can carry people into this place on mats, or be carried in ourselves when we need it and healing will happen, if we let it. I think we focus in on so many other dimensions of church life that we sometimes forget the power that is already here. And I can own that, I can focus in on so many other dimensions of church life that I sometimes forget the power that is already here. Which is the power to heal.

In all of our faithful busyness which is not bad in itself, but it can get in the way. Because we can forget to tend to and foster the power that exists among us simply by virtue of our being the Body of Christ. Even if we are “the fringe” of that Body which sometimes we are, God’s power is here. And people who might not be able to reach or grab ahold of anywhere else, will reach out to us and healing will come to them! And probably to us too.

The Body of Christ is capable of more than we think we are.

And to keep that from feeling overwhelming, or perhaps a bit intimidating for we modest Episcopalians, it might help us to remember where and how these miracles begin in the gospel, because it’s a starting point that can be ours too. These miracles begin with compassion. I’ll point to that in the text in a minute but the good news is that compassion abounds in this place! Honestly, I think it’s one of our strongest ties to each other and this world. Grace doesn’t tend to be a people who agree one hundred percent on anything, really. But I do think that we are a people of compassion, one hundred percent. And so maybe that high bar for healing is one that is within even our fringy reach.

Note that the gospel didn’t say that “only those without doubts” were healed or could heal. Or that Jesus met with each person to discern whether or not they had faith enough to experience transformation or to offer it. It didn’t say that only those who were devoted members of the community of faith were healed or could share in the healing. In fact, Jesus and the disciples were constantly “crossing over” in this gospel, moving among Jews and Gentiles alike to the point that it didn’t even matter who the crowd was, or how it was made up. In the Letter to the Ephesians, Paul event went so far as to talk about one humanity, where the divisions that existed among the various “thems” were abolished. None of that mattered anymore.

What mattered was that people were hungry. And what mattered was that people were hurting. Jesus looked out over the crowds and at various points in this gospel “he had compassion for them.” Compassion was his very first reaction. It was his guiding instinct, leading principle, perhaps one of his greatest powers. And you can bet the crowds felt that.

Before anything else happened in these stories, Jesus communicated compassion for them. Whoever the “them” happened to be, Jesus showed concern for their suffering, he communicated empathy, and then God did something. Miracles happened. Teachings transformed people, bread multiplied, mass feedings filled deep and hungry places, storms were calmed, and bodies, minds and souls were healed.

In Greek, the word for compassion is splagnizomai and it means something felt deep in your gut. It’s work to say it, and often it’s work to allow that dimension of ourselves to surface, and let alone lead us. You know how sometimes compassion can actually feel like your stomach is turning? I think that’s what this is about. “Splagnizomai,” is a deep movement inside that turns us, opens us to the suffering of another. It is perhaps itself a miracle, a bit of grace, maybe part of what it means to be created in the image of God. Jesus had it. And we do too. It’s not as gentle sounding as compassion but it is what opens our hearts, and our doors, and our very selves to the power of God. It is perhaps God’ power working in us.

So let your splagnizomai flow, Grace Church! It’s where miracles begin. Share your stories of healing – how it’s come, where you need it in your life, how healing has surprised you. And listen as the stories come our way. God will do something with our compassion if we simply take the risk of letting it flow. Healing will come in ways that pass our expectations and our understandings too. According to this gospel passage, we can trust that healing will come.

The Body of Christ is capable of more than we often allow it to be. Among us lives the power to transform. The power to feed. The power to calm. The power to heal. And everyone who touches even the fringes of this place, will be healed. May we help it be so.

Amen.

 

 

With Grace and Power

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – July 15, 2018 – Proper 10, Year B: Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:14-29)

In my just over twenty four years of preaching in this place, I’ve managed to preach on this gospel passage only one other time. And I consider that avoidance to be one of my greatest scheduling victories. This story comes up in this form once every three years, and so I’ve only faced it about eight times. And I’ve managed to sneak out of the pulpit six out of those eight.

But, given the lack of a second clergy person at this time, and my making the non-lectionary based decision to take vacation in early August, here I am with John the Baptist’s head on a platter. And even reading it is horrendous. This is without argument a horrible story. We’d all avoid it if we could. But none of us (except those of you visiting this morning – thank you for being here, sorry for the text) are on vacation this morning! We have been called to church. And this is our gospel text. So, here we go.

First, since this is a horrible end to a prophet’s life, we need to acknowledge that often stories like John the Baptist’s end this way. Prophets’ stories rarely have a happy ending, because while prophets always have a hopeful message, it’s never a happy one. Prophets speak hard words. They share hard truths. That’s what makes a prophet a prophet. And often they communicate by shouting their message in the wilderness, or in the towns or throughout the streets of the cities.

In fact, we heard Jesus say in last week’s gospel reading that “prophets are not without honor except in their hometown.” And you’ll remember in that story that even Jesus could “do no act of power” in that moment. Prophets it seems are in the most danger when their message hits home. Because even if only in word, prophets are perceived as a threat of one kind or another to those who do have power.

And according to this story, John the Baptist had told Herod that he didn’t think it was a good idea for Herod to take his brother’s wife as his own. Which is about as close to home as you can get. John had said many other hard and “prophetic” things too – frankly things that ranked much higher on the “it takes a prophet to say them” scale but that’s the one shared in this passage. And so, like many prophets before him, and like so many prophets after him, John the Baptist was imprisoned. And then he was killed.

Now what happened in this gospel is terrible and pretty gruesome. We all get that. But how it happened is sort of fascinating. Because how it all happened makes this far more than a story about John the Baptist. I’m not sure this passage is even primarily about John the Baptist. It reveals to us the hazards of leading a prophetic life, but I actually think that even more than that, it’s a story about Herod and what it reveals about him and about us too.

This story exposes the inner wrestlings that those in power, which is all of us in at least some dimensions of our lives experience on an all too regular basis. When prophets can do no act of power, others still can. But it’s hard. Sometimes it’s very hard. In this morning’s collect, we prayed for God to “mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, that we may “know and understand” what things we “ought to do,” and that we also may have “grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.” In this morning’s gospel, Herod was caught right in the middle of that prayer. He knew what he ought to do; he even had the power to do it. What Herod couldn’t quite grasp or be grasped by was the grace he needed to accomplish it.

Herod couldn’t find an easy way out. Because sometimes there aren’t easy ways out even for Kings. And I think that those in power can forget how to trust and listen to the inner wrestle that happens in those moments. We all need grace at times, to help us.

Herod had made a public oath to his daughter to give her anything she wanted (mistake number one – sorry kids.) Herod figured she’d ask for money, or as he put it, “half of the kingdom,” because what else would the child of a King ask for? Had it played out that way, Herod would have gotten the chance to show what a gracious man he was in front of all of those people. Not a bad plan when you think about it. Until, when the request came in and it wasn’t for money or for half of the kingdom at all. It was for John the Baptist’s head!

And that’s when it got complicated, because we’d been told just a few verses before that what Herod thought of John. Herod “feared John,” the gospel said, “knowing that John was a righteous and holy man.” And Herod, “protected him,” which is interesting, isn’t it? When he heard John speak, “Herod was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” So, Herod knew that John was saying important things, he just didn’t know what to do with those things. Herod was “perplexed” by John, but he “protected” John and he “listened to him.” Which is sometimes the best we can ask of leaders. In fact, for a leader to say, “I’m perplexed, but I’m listening,” can be sort of a wonderful thing. Good for leaders to know. Good for all of us to know.

And then, given Herod’s curiosity about John, when the request came for John’s head, “Herod was deeply grieved.”

And that’s probably the most important moment in this story. Because at that moment like that, there are options. At a moment like that, there is potential. The message that John the Baptist had spoken had gotten in there. Even Herod knew there was something to it. Something he and others needed to hear. And there was something that he and others needed to do as a result of it.

“Help us O lord to know and understand the things we ought to do and give us the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”

The catch for Herod I think was that he’d made the oath to his daughter in public at a banquet in front of “his courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee.” And so, Herod couldn’t quite go with his gut, as they say. He couldn’t quite grasp or be grasped by the grace that would have saved the prophet’s life. The grace that would have made this a different kind of story. And “out of regard for his oath and for the guests,” (meaning due to the pressure of the crowds – read Pontius Pilate later on,) Herod did not refuse the request.

Now luckily our choices are not generally whether to behead a prophet or not, but sometimes our choices are just as hard. And we grieve when we’re faced with them. It’s why we need the prayer we heard this morning.

The prophet could “do no act of power” in that moment. But Herod could have, and there is something for us all to hear in that. The power to do hard but right is always present. And sometimes that power rests with prophets. Sometimes that power rests with Kings. Sometimes power rests with ordinary people. And often it rests among us all. And while it takes grace to accomplish what ought to be done, the good news is that there is enough grace available to do what ought to be done. Grace can as the hymn says, be amazing.

And sometimes this means changing course in front of courtiers, officers, leaders, or whomever it is whose opinions matter to us. I actually grieve for Herod in this story (which given other stories in the gospel one would think to be nearly impossible.) But I do. And I think I grieve for Heord because sometimes I grieve for myself and I grieve for this world. I think we know and understand more often than we give ourselves credit, “those things we ought to do.” But even when we have the power to do what ought to be done, it can be so very hard to receive the grace we need to accomplish it. The good news is that such grace is available to us all.

And so maybe the opening collect is our greatest gift this morning. We don’t have to avoid texts like this one. We don’t have to schedule our vacations around the lectionary! We don’t have to avoid these hard moments in our lives or in this world. And in sort of a beautiful way, I think this collect sort of captures the message that was John the Baptist’s: Power has been given us all. Power to repent. Power to turn. Power to change. Power to heal. Power to stand up. Power to speak up. Power to listen. “Prepare the way – in us and through us, O Lord!”

John knew that the grace we all need had come into this world. John knew he wasn’t that grace. John knew that he himself couldn’t contain it and that he himself would not be able to offer it in full. Grace had come in Christ and it was offered to everyone, even to people even like Herod. Even to people like us.

Mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, O God, that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.

Amen

 

Shake It Off

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – July 8, 2018 – Proper 9, Year B: Mark 6:1-13

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.               (Mark 6:1-13)

For the past few weeks we’ve been hearing from the gospel of Mark story after story of healing after healing. There was Peter’s Mother-in-Law, the leper, various “people with demons or diseases,” and last week there were two biggies: a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years was healed and the leader of the synagogue, whose name was Jairus, his daughter was not only healed but raised up after having died.

So, based on what we’ve heard up to this point, Jesus had gotten in trouble along the way – because of whom he healed (often those who had been classified as “unclean”) and when he healed them (because sometimes he healed on the Sabbath). But even though he was being challenged by the Pharisees, Jesus was batting a thousand in terms of his rate of success; Jesus had healed everyone whom he had tried to heal. He’d even raised that little girl from the dead.

And then we get this story from chapter 6 where Mark tells us that Jesus “could do no deed of power there.” “Except,” Mark sneaks in, that “he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” So, this wasn’t a total strike out, but there were absolutely no home runs. In this passage there was no healing that was nearly as significant or unanimous an experience as it had been up to now. The only thing worth noting, for Mark anyway, was the hard truth that sometimes it just doesn’t take. Sometimes the healing, or peace offered can’t be received, doesn’t take hold. Which also means because we have to flip this too, that sometimes we fail to receive the healing or peace or grace being offered us.

This is a hard one but welcome to gospel trying to make it in this world. Healings happen. Resurrection happens. And sometimes crowds experience something with the power to turn an entire community toward good news, profound hope and large scale transformation.

BUT – sometimes it’s just a slog. Or worse, those sharing the good news are deemed, “offensive.” And no deed of power can be done at that time. (Except for minor ones – so remember whatever’s going on that it’s always good to look for those.)

Now I struggle with this passage, but I also appreciate it quite deeply, because as hard as it is, it rings so very true. And I know that I live on both sides of this story. Sometimes the good news and grace we offer is refused. And sometimes we are the refusers. Sometimes “deeds of power” are just plain hard to come by.

And so what do we do with that?

Well, “there will be houses you enter,” Jesus says, “places you are where you will not be welcome, and they will refuse to hear you.” Period. Apparently, we shouldn’t spend a whole lot of time fighting that reality. There are places in which you will not be welcomed and in which you will not be heard.

But “stay there until you leave,” Jesus told them. Which is sort of an obvious statement but it’s more than that. Jesus was saying, “be present there too.” Note that he didn’t say, “Then beat them up.” Or “Invite your biggest friends into the house with you and let them have it.” No. Nor did he say, “When you aren’t welcome become silent, or hide, or change the good news you’ve been given to share.”

All he said was that those kinds of situations will happen, sometimes deeds of power won’t take place. But, “Stay present. Even then.” Which would imply keep listening. Keep talking. Keep sharing meals. “Stay there, until you leave,” Jesus told them. And when it’s time, if the good news you have to offer isn’t received, shake the dust off and move on. And go offer those gifts other places. End of passage.

Which means there are challenges to us:

First Challenge: Stay for a while even when you have not been welcomed or you believe that reconciliation will never bloom, or it looks to you like healing will forever be out of reach. Be present. Listen. Speak truth. Share meals. And see what happens. Because sometimes something does. Staying is challenge number one.

Then “shake the dust off and move on” when it’s time. Which is challenge number two- because I’m a bad dust shaker offer. Maybe a few of you are too. Leaving can be hard. Stepping out of a situation in which healing needs to catch hold can be hard.

But what this gospel is saying is that sometimes healing can’t happen in a place I’m in, because I’m not the one who’s going to bring it. I might even be getting in the way of it happening. Welcome to humility as the gospel tries to make it in this world.

You know those situations where as much as you, or we try to “make it happen” it just doesn’t? It doesn’t mean healing won’t come. It just means that such peace still passes our understanding, sometimes it passes our capacities to make it happen, and sometimes we don’t get to see it when healing when it finally does catch.

And then finally is challenge three: the challenge to receive peace and healing and resurrection when it’s offered, whether it comes from a hometown boy or a stranger who has crossed lines to reach out to us or for us. We never know when, or from what direction, or through whom the good news of Christ will come to us and take better hold on this world.

On the Sabbath? Maybe. From a leader of the synagogue? Sure. Through a little girl given the power to stand up? Yup. Today? Tomorrow? Three weeks from now? From someone who has been hemorrhaging for years risks being healed? Or maybe from that person that reaches us the just after we shake the dust off and make ourselves open to something new.

The gospel is trying to make it in this world. And more than that, the darkness cannot ultimately overcome it. But there are days in which deeds of power are hard to come by. Just remember, dust can be shaken off and eventually, healing comes. Resurrection comes. Today or tomorrow or three weeks from now. Through us? Sometimes. Through others? Of course.

So wherever you are in this story, do the work of being present. Listen. Speak the truth in love. Share meals. Shake it off when you need to, and in all things, proclaim God’s love for all.

Amen.

Little Girl, Get Up

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – July 1, 2018 – Proper 8, Year B: 2 Corinthians 8:7-14, Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

So, he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:21-43)

In some ways, what we just heard were a couple of very powerful yet simple stories from the gospel of Mark. This is a passage that’s often split into two so that you hear either the story of the long-hemorrhaging woman who was healed by Jesus. Or you hear the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Both are extremely powerful examples of the healing that Jesus performed. And we need to hear that.

These are miracle stories – a person who had suffered for years and years and had gotten to the end of her rope in terms of treatment options, she was healed. And a little girl who was pronounced not only gravely ill, but by mid-story had actually died? She was raised with the kind yet powerful words of Christ, “Little girl, get up.” In these stories we hear the power of Christ to heal against all expectations. The power of Christ to raise from the dead! And so, we’re invited to lean into this, to share stories of healing among us, and to proclaim and give thanks for the power of Christ to heal.

And… as is often the case with Mark, there’s also more going on here. There’s more healing than we might catch at first glance, and I want us to see that too. And to do that, we need to allow these stories to stay as one. The hemorrhaging woman and Jairus and his daughter are deeply related; they are in some ways even dependent on one another – and that’s something we need to hear too.

This whole passage is a story about courageous people reaching out, crossing lines, and taking risks for the sake of the healing which Christ gave to them all. Before there was healing, there was courage. Before there was healing, there was a desire for wholeness. And before there was healing, there was the willingness to risk on behalf of another.

Jairus was a leader of the synagogue. Don’t miss that. Jairus’ position as leader of the synagogue is something mentioned by Mark three times in this passage, and so it matters. It matters because as we’ve been hearing for the last several weeks, the Pharisees (religious leaders who worked very closely with the leaders of the synagogues) were out to trap Jesus by this point in the gospel. Jesus and the Pharisees were very publically and theologically duking it out.

And that’s because by chapter three (and here we are in chapter five) Jesus had broken with religious law several times; we’ve been hearing these stories for the past several weeks. Jesus did it by healing on the Sabbath, touching the untouchables (lepers, bleeding women,) and by eating with outcasts and sinners. And so Jairus was risking a lot by reaching out to him. Jairus was breaking with his own ranks in significant ways and he did it in a rather exceptional fashion.

Jairus didn’t just email Jesus, or send a note, or even go to Jesus by night. This was not “a private conversation among leaders.” When Jesus had gotten off the boat, Jairus was there in the crowd, surrounded by the crowd, many of whom were members of his own congregation, his own constituents and probably a Pharisee or two. And right out there in the light of day, Jairus “fell at Jesus’ feet,” the gospel says, and Jairus begged him repeatedly to come help his daughter.

And Jairus would very likely have suffered consequences for his actions. But that didn’t seem to matter as much as the healing did. And I think that’s an important point in this gospel. Here was a leader, who had a whole lot to lose and he very publically risked it all by placing the potential for healing over the priority of religious purity and personal position.

Note: it can be done.

Now odds are good, Jairus took those risks because it was his own daughter who was suffering. It’s what any parent would do, right? Of course and back to that in a few minutes.

On their way to Jairus’ house another incredibly courageous person entered the scene. This person had no name. But she, reached out too. The woman who had been “hemorrhaging for twelve years”Marks says, broke through the crowd, came up behind Jesus, and she touched him. Now it’s important to note that this woman was,, by virtue of her hemorrhaging, ritually unclean and therefore had likely been permanently banished to the very margins of the community. She was an untouchable. And so, for her to even be present in a crowd, let alone in voice and touch was a huge risk too. She was on the completely other end from Jairus of just about every societal spectrum you could name – in terms of power, privilege, probably economic status and certainly acceptance in their community. This woman didn’t even have a name.

But because they were both willing to take risks, healing came to more than each of them. And it took them both to pull this off. And I think that’s a part of the point here too. In her touch, this woman rendered Jesus unclean. But that didn’t matter to Jesus who celebrated this woman’s faith – by proclaiming it to the whole crowd! And it didn’t matter to Jairus who by religious law, should have stopped Jesus from entering his home because of the woman’s touch (and so many other things that Jesus had done to this point.) But none of that mattered. Because Jairus’ child was hurting. And so Jairus invited this religious-law-breaking, unclean healer into his home. And Jesus went there. And in these simple words, “Little girl, get up,” Jairus’ daughter rose. And then as Jesus often did he said, “Now get her something to eat.”

And so, what happened here was a miracle larger than two people being healed, although they were. What happened here was that an entire people watched a leader risk his position of power and break ranks to appeal passionately on behalf a child. And they watched a woman break through the crowd essentially risking her life because she believed that healing could happen. And they witnessed Jesus celebrate her courage and her faith.

And so, I want to say that this is what it takes. Healing writ large takes us all, those with power and privilege, those on the margins, and everyone in-between. The crowd (many of them the “in-betweens”) could have stopped all of this, or at least tried to, but they didn’t. Probably because on some level, their hearts wanted it too.

It takes all of us to desire a healing that is greater than any of us. It takes people of all kinds to reveal what healing can look like for humankind.

Like this gospel passage, we need to allow our stories to be one.

Yesterday hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and over a thousand here in Holland, came together to say, “There are children at our border who need healing. Desperately. And together, we can help that happen.” Like Jairus, we proclaim that there is nothing to protect that is worth more than the safety, wholeness, and well-being of a child, let alone thousands of them. Many of these children at the border (and I realize there are exceptions and that the entire immigration process needs reform) but many of these kids came with parents who are the ones breaking through the crowds reaching out to a Body with the potential to heal. They are also Jairus, but with no power or privilege who are very simply seeking new life for their children.

We need to let their stories be our story. Yesterday people crossed well established lines of political party, denominations, and faiths to say that it is so. “Who is my family?” Jesus asked a few chapters back in this gospel. And he responded to his own questions through actions that reached out to those who were hurting: “All of you are my family,” he said, “And all of them are too.” Sons and daughters, children of God, family of God one and all.

And so, we are Jairus. And we are the woman hemorrhaging. And in this story, we hear that healing is possible for us all. We also hear that it will in part be our desire, our faith, our hope that helps healing writ large come into being. May we have the courage of the people in this passage. May we continue together to seek a way in which we as a people can say to the children of this world, “Little girl, get up. Little boy, get up. Here is your family. Now let’s all get something to eat.”

Amen.

In The Midst Of A Storm

The Rev. Jennifer Adams- July 1, 2018

Proper 7B: 1 Samuel 17:1-49, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

What if all we heard in this gospel story was around the phrase, “Peace, be still.” I wonder if we can do that? “The wind ceased,” the gospel said. “And there was dead calm.” Peace. Still. Calm. What if those were the words we took from this story? I wonder if we can do that? I hope that we want to do that.

Because we know the storm, right? We all do. We’re familiar whether we want to be or not with the kind of storms that take a hold of our worlds and frighten even the most skilled among us. We know of the “gales” as one Biblical translation puts it, that scare us in the most familiar of settings when the boats we’ve come to know get, in Markian terms, “swamped.” We’ve been there. Some of us are there.

That’s what happened to these disciples. Remember that several of them were very skilled fishermen who had made their living on the water. They knew the sea well because they’d grown up on it and shaped their lives around it. The sea had also shaped them. These disciples could navigate their way through just about anything that could happen on the water and they very likely took some appropriate pride in those skills. “Weathering it” was not a new thing for these guys. They weren’t naïve to the challenges of crossing over. But in this story, the disciples honestly thought they were perishing. Those were the words they spoke out loud. “We are perishing,” they said. They were literally, in their own mind and hearts, life-threateningly swamped.

And we know the storm. We all know the storm, right? There’s a pattern in this gospel that goes something like this:

Healing. Storm.

Feeding. Crossing over.

Wholeness. Storm.

Healing. Storm.

Continued…

And it’s true for us too no matter how hard we fight it. As one of my favorite authors explains on any given day in this place and in this world, there are some among us who are feasting; we have things to celebrate. There are some who are crossing over; we’ve just gotten in the boat. There are some here and everywhere who are experiencing a healing; a form of new life has come! And there are others are watching the waves come over the edges; we’re not sure whether or not we’ll even make it to the other side.

But remember that no matter where you are in the gospel story, remember that Jesus was in the boat. He was healing those who needed healing, He was blessing and breaking the bread. And Christ was in the boat.

And in another of the “storm narratives” which we’ll hear soon, Jesus walked across the water and got into the boat. Because in that story too, the very same, very skilled and experienced disciples were watching the waters pour over the edges and they were again frightened to their core! And in both stories, Jesus offered peace (which he did on land too.) And Jesus spoke to them of stillness. And a calm that passes all understanding took hold again.

Christ in the healings. Christ in the feasts. Christ in the storms that scare us.

In this gospel the storms are a given. They are a part of the pattern, part of the lives in which and through which the good news was and is told. And in those stories, the peace comes as grace. And then, in this gospel, over time, the peace becomes a given too. Which means that woven into every moment, woven into every fabric of the story that is ours, the peace is a given too.

And I want us to hear that today.

This new favorite author whom I’ve mentioned here and there, his name is Padraig O’Touma. He’s a poet and theologian whose home is Belfast. He teaches and speaks on religion, storytelling, and conflict resolution and is leader of the Corrymeela Community in Ireland, a center whose work is reconciliation and that offers, “A Christian witness to peace in Northern Ireland.” O’Touma lives in the midst of a very long, generationally long storm. And the struggle is still real. And in the midst of it all, he and so many are seeking peace.

One of O’Touma’s books is titled “In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World.” In this book he talks about one of these gospel storm narratives. And after exploring some of the many experiences and stories that come from his and others’ own crossings over, O’Touma says that all of this is “as if to say, that only in the midst of a storm can we find a truth that will settle us.” Only in the midst of a storm can we find a truth that will settle us.

Which is not to belittle the fear. O’Touma feels that fear and engages it, every day. Nor is it to ignore the pain and effects of the storm. He listens to those and witnesses those too, every day. Nor does it mean the work of the crossing is over is complete. He and we are mid-journey, always.

It’s all simply to say that peace is a given too. And in the midst of storms, we are offered peace in ways that surpass our understanding. Maybe because we least expect it there, this is peace that often comes as a surprise.

Peace comes from the stern just when our own frustration peaks. Or it comes walking across the waters towards us against all odds when it seems as if the darkness might have indeed won.

In the second letter to the Corinthians we heard from Paul that peace sometimes comes through our own actions, our own faithfully, stubbornly beautiful intentions. To a people and as a people experiencing persecution Paul wrote, “we have commended ourselves in every way: through [the great storms of] afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; we offer, patience, kindness…genuine love,truthful speech,” And he reminded them that within those gifts we offer there “is the power of God.” Sometimes, peace comes through us.

This gospel story and others tell us that peace comes among us even as the waters begin to fill the boat – whatever that boat happens to be. Whatever the waters happen to be. “As if to say that only in the midst of a storm can we find a truth that will settle us.”

Christ in the healings. Christ in the feasts. Christ in the storms that scare us.

“Peace, be still,” offers the holy and much needed voice. “Peace be still,” invites the presence. As we cross over in so many ways, may we let it, may we help it be so.

Amen.

 

Sesquicentennial Sunday

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – June 10, 2018 – Proper 5, Year B: 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1,Mark 3:20-35

Then he went home, and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20-35)

Happy 150th Grace Church!

And there is so much to say about that!

So I’m very glad that we have a full year to say it all. You probably are too.  Someone suggested this week that I take a minute for every year of Grace in this morning’s sermon. You can be relieved that I’m not going to take them up on that idea. After today we have 364 days left to explore the history and future of Grace and so there’s plenty of time to do that. We’ll publish a history of our church probably in several forms. We’ll have presentations and pictures to share from every generation of Grace as we go. We’ll look back on buildings and people and ministries. And we’ll look forward too. All with deep and very genuine thanks.

Today we just need to get this party started. And so we’ll celebrate Eucharist and then we’ll unveil and dedicate the State of Michigan’s newest historical marker which is under that big tarp in the front yard. After the dedication, we’ll head downstairs for a barbeque feast and after that, come back up here at 1:00 for a recital led by jazz saxophonist, Jordan VanHemert, who happens among other things to be the grand-nephew of Vivian Cook. Viv died last year but has and perhaps will forever have the claim to fame of being the longest ever member of Grace Church. Viv lived her whole 94 years as a member of this parish. Many of the connections we’ll make today and throughout this year have special meaning, something to tell us about being Grace. As you walk through the Commons of Grace today you’ll see the beginning of a digital version of LEGO Grace. This will be built over the course of the summer by a team of Grace kids, led by big kid Graeme Richmond, helping us celebrate the shelter this place has provided for generations.

And so we’re beginning this year-long celebration in fine Grace form. My work here and now in terms of the sermon is to focus in on the gospel with you, a communal act which has happened here at Grace since 1868. For almost eight thousand Sundays, the people of Grace Episcopal Church, Holland have gathered to hear, to reflect on, and to proclaim the good news of Christ.

Which can be a little challenging to do when you get texts like this one from the gospel of Mark. I realized several weeks ago that this was going to be the gospel on our Sesquicentennial Sunday and I became immediately jealous of the priest who preached on Grace’s opening day. Given that those were pre-lectionary times, he probably made a slightly different choice than this passage from Mark chapter 3. Something nicer. Less challenging. Perhaps a little “happier” in tone.

But the more time I spent with this passage the more I came to believe that it was in some ways the perfect passage for the Grace we are celebrating, and for the Grace we are always discerning how to be.

The first thing I want to say is that this is not a passage about Jesus being mean to his Mom, which is how it’s often heard. And so together let’s move beyond that interpretation and try to listen to what this passage is all about.

The crowds had gathered around Jesus “again” the gospel says. Chapter one of Mark was filled with healings and teachings and lots of shared meals, but by the end of chapter two, the religious authorities had begun to take notice of all of that. The Pharisees began questioning Jesus because (side and important note – while Jesus was healing and teaching and feeding lots of people, he was also breaking with religious law.)

Last week we heard that Jesus was being challenged for healing on the Sabbath, touching the unclean, and eating with outcasts and sinners. He had three strikes on him by the end of chapter two. And so, by here in chapter three, the crowd was not only full of people seeking healing, there were also people shouting at Jesus, saying terrible things like, “He has gone out of his mind!” and even worse, “He’s full of Beelzebul, the devil – because he casts out demons!”

And we hear in this passage, that Jesus’ family went out “to restrain him,” probably very simply because they cared about him. They didn’t want him to get yelled at like that anymore.   While his family was coming for him, we Jesus said his first words to the crowd in response to their shouts. To “He has a demon because he’s casting out demons,” Jesus said, “Wait a minute! That doesn’t make any sense. Satan wouldn’t be casting out Satan, would he? If that were the case, our work here would be done. We’d simply let evil defeat itself. End of story.”

But apparently, it wasn’t going to work that way, not enough of the time for what Jesus was out to accomplish, anyway. And so, Jesus went on to talk about the need for forgiveness in this whole work of creating a new heaven and a new earth. And then he took some hits for that too. But Jesus remained insistent. He responded to them that forgiveness was the work of the Holy Spirit, and to get in the way of that could be an eternal mistake.

And that’s when Jesus family called out even louder to him because they knew he was stepping on some very righteous toes, and that ultimately, they would strike out at him even more. And here’s where the story got so good. While his family was reaching out to him, Jesus did an amazing thing: He reached out to others.

Jesus asked the disciples, “Who is my family?” And then, instead of listing Mary and the others, Jesus said to the crowd, “You are my family. You are my mother and my brothers and my sisters too. You all are family to me.”

Which was sort of a first century mic drop. What does one say to that? It wasn’t a slam on the ones to which he was known to be related. It was an expansion of what family means.

Don’t worry about Mary here. If there is someone who can be celebrated for her wisdom and strength in this gospel, it’s her. Mary knew better than anyone that this child of hers would do amazing and holy things. Remember the angel that came to her first. And there is nothing in this story that says Mary was hurt by Jesus words. She might have been nervous for him, but that’s a very different thing. Mary’s role wasn’t an easy one in the gospels, but she knew from the very beginning that loving Jesus meant letting him reach out and love beyond them all.

And it still means that today.

Here’s our connection to Grace Church. Since the very beginning of this parish, Grace has been led by lay people first and eventually clergy (sometimes we’re slower to catch on) Grace has been led by people who, embraced by Christ, insist on an ever-broadening understanding of what it means to be human and holy family. We use the language of “family” often in this place and I think it’s important that we do. It’s telling us something about ourselves and about how Christ is present among us here.

Grace Church came into being so that those who were on the margins of this Dutch speaking Reformed community could have a place to worship in their own language, English. A place to worship with sacraments and Episcopal liturgy to shape them, guide them, bring them into community with Christ and one another. Starting Grace Church was a gutsy move by a small group of people, many of whom probably had their own families trying to restrain them for safety’s sake.

But there was something of the Spirit happening then. And there is something of the Spirit happening here still, something breathed and breathes life into Grace as we become and re-become family of God, as we become and re-become church for the world.

One of the charisms of this congregation is that Grace is able to grow through phases like the one described in this gospel passage. I’d go so far as to say that Grace has allowed this passage to be part of what it means to be Church. This gospel passage speaks to moment in time where part of the Body reaches out, and insists on the brother and sisterhood expanding.

For Grace over the generations this has meant including English speakers and Episcopalians as members of the Body here in Holland. It meant including women who felt called to work outside of the home and so Grace birthed the Infant Care Center right here in this building. It meant embracing the ministries of women in the church through liturgical leadership and ordination – the first woman ordained priest in our Diocese came from Grace Holland. It has meant inviting hungry brothers and sisters here to receive food, refugee brothers and sisters here to live, and among other things it meant welcoming LGBT people into the church. And so, when no other possibility existed in this town, Grace opened these doors to PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Grace opened these doors to parents and friends of people who needed parents and friends.

Because Grace Church knows that that’s all of us. Who are my mothers and brothers and fathers and sisters? All of you and more. How many times have we felt that in this place? I think that is the essence of this this gospel passage.

Imagine being one of those people in the crowd that day who had been labeled unclean and therefore untouchable by anyone else in the human family. Imagine being one of those people who had sought healing day after day after day and had heard from religious authorities that it was neither the time nor the place for that – “just wait,” they’d heard over and over again. Imagine being one of the people in the crowd who were never allowed to share a ritual meal with anyone else. And were for the first time, invited to the table.

Imagine hearing for the first time from anyone, “You are my sister….you, Karen, Val, Lauren, Amber, you are my sister.” “You, are my brother….you, Paul, Clay, Steve, Orion, you are my brother. All of you. We are family.” “Now be whole,” Jesus says. And “Let’s eat!” That’s the voice and the kind of presence we are called to be.

Finally, in the Second Letter to Corinthians we heard today that “Grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So, we do not lose heart.” And today we say one great big “Amen to that.”  We say thank you to all of those who have risked Grace in years past and we look to be those people today. May our gratitude as Grace Church increase and the glory we offer to God continue for another 150 years at least. May our hearts and minds and souls stay strong as we become and re-become Body of Christ, Grace Church for the world.

Amen.

The Mercy Challenge

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – June 3, 2018 – Proper 4, Year B: Mark 2:23-3:6

One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 2:23 – 3:6)

Happy second Sunday after Pentecost, everyone! Which wouldn’t be terribly exciting except that this is also the 51st Sunday of Grace Church’s 149th year. Which makes this the Sunday before we celebrate our Sesquicentennial. The Sunday before we begin celebrating our Sesquicentennial – and there will be more on that later. But I thought I’d squeeze it in here too just to make sure you are all very aware of celebrations to come.

That being said, it’s the gospel that I want to spend time with this morning. We just heard from the end of the second chapter of Mark and the beginning of the third. And in this passage we heard that Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees who challenged him about his having healed on the Sabbath.

Now it’s only chapter two, right? In the other gospels, Jesus is still getting born (Luke) or the wise men are arriving (Matthew). In the gospel of John Jesus is getting ready for his first miracle (the wedding at Cana.) Now granted, we’ve noted before that Mark moves quickly, but by the end of this passage the religious leaders were already “conspiring against” Jesus, the gospel says, to direct quote, “destroy him.” Which makes what’s happening here something that Mark was trying to bring to the forefront of this gospel right from its early chapters.

And so, I looked back over the entirety of chapter one and the first part of chapter two and I found that by this very early point in the gospel of Mark, Jesus had already broken with religious law about 75 times (approximately. The story we heard today wasn’t even Jesus’ first healing on the Sabbath. It was just the first one that went public.

The first person Jesus healed, and for whom Jesus broke with religious law was Peter’s Mother-in-Law way back in Chapter 1. Jesus and the disciples had visited her on the Sabbath and she was in bed with a fever. At that time, Jesus took her hand and he touched her (law break 1) and he healed her right then (which made for two strikes against him, because it was still the Sabbath.) Now there were other healings too in this first section of this gospel – after sundown on the day Peter’s Mother-in-Law was healed, therefore waiting for the Sabbath to break, “the whole city was gathered at their door” the gospel says, “and Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases and he also cast out many demons.” Which was all within the law.

But then a few verses after that, Jesus touched a leper and healed him. And that touch in itself rendered Jesus unclean. He then forgave and healed a paralytic man, not on the Sabbath but the forgiveness of sins was labeled “blasphemy” by the scribes who were watching that day. And then just a few verses after that, still chapter one, Jesus was caught eating with sinners and tax collectors. Which made for strikes 5 – 75. Approximately.

And so enter the Pharisees before Mark even got through chapter two. By this point in the gospel, Jesus had broken religious law several times. He was on a very regular basis apparently healing on the Sabbath. Forgiving sins. Touching the unclean. And eating with sinners.

And in this particular passage, the one we heard this morning, we hear of the first conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees asked him, “Look, why are they doing this on the Sabbath?” “This” referring to plucking grain and feeding those among them who were hungry, but also referring undoubtedly to all that happened thus far. And it’s not a terrible question actually, depending on how you hear it.

And I sort of love Jesus’ initial response: “David did it, first!” he said. “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Which makes me smile. It’s like siblings who get caught in the act of something and are quick to point a finger in the other direction to show that someone else did it before they did. This is Jesus saying that even David broke with religious tradition and law to feed his companions.

It’s not a bad strategy, and it’s one that’s potentially eye opening, but then Jesus took it a step further and he began his very public ministry of challenging and rearranging the priorities of the faithful: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” he told them. And then (still Sabbath,) he healed the man with the withered hand right in front of their eyes. He invited the man forward, asked the Pharisees a question, and during their silence, healed the man.

Which meant, “Game on!” in a gospel sort of way. “Gospel on,” one might say. Mark’s Jesus was off and rolling from this point forward. What happened in this passage was huge because it was the beginning of the open controversy that would lead to Jesus’ death. It was Jesus responding to the Pharisee’s questions about what faithfulness looked like. And Jesus responded to those questions with very public healings, meals, and mercies all of which were pouring into this world through him and those who followed.

There is a reminder in here to we who are the faithful now, or some of the really-trying-hard-to-be-faithful, that this faith thing is in some ways a very living thing. We need to know and maintain our own religious laws and traditions. We have them. They guide us. They form us. In fact, it is religious laws and traditions that re-flock us every Sunday. They remind us who we are and can shape us up when we need shaping up.

But every now and then a person, or a moment, or a people, or a need will come our way and they will call us to heal, or feed, or offer mercy, or love in ways and directions we never have before. It, or he, or she, or they will challenge our law or our tradition. And in those moments we like Jesus and David before him just might be called to rearrange or to re-think in order to allow Christ’s healing, feeding, and mercy to flow through us. And for us to receive those things too. For this world to receive those things anew.

It always amazes me when I hear negative reactions to mercy being offered. As if mercy to one is a threat to another. Mercy doesn’t work that way. But sometimes I hear that kind of thinking come out of myself too. And I guess I’m surprised that I can still be surprised by that. But I hear this resistance to mercy all the time. And I hear it from those who identify as “faithful,” more than I hear it from others.

Now I appreciate when what we share with each other in such moments are questions like we heard in today’s gospel, “Why are you doing that?” or “Just how does that fit into the framework we call faith?” Those questions can lead us into mutual growth and understanding. But too often in our world today acts of mercy lead to plottings against in order as the gospel put it “to destroy.”

And I see that unfortunately human pattern as core to the message of this gospel or it wouldn’t have taken such a prominent place so early and so often for Mark. The gospel tells us that when there is a hard choice to be made, and there are always hard choices to be made, we need to lean hard in the direction of mercy. Always in the direction of mercy.

In this gospel, Jesus was challenging the faithful’s inability or reluctance to show mercy. They were using “the day,” or “the time,” or “the cleanliness/purity” of the other as an excuse, essentially a reason to not offer healing touch, or presence, or food, or community, or forgiveness, or even love. But in this passage and throughout this entire gospel, Jesus gave permission to offer those gifts broadly. His message was that mercy must ultimately be that which shapes and guides us. It is possibly the only thing which will ultimately re-flock us and shape us up in ways we need to be reshaped.

And so as we bring 150 years of Grace to a close and we begin another phase of life in this church, perhaps the most important work we can do is to look for where mercy is needed and respond. We need to look to those places in ourselves, our community, this world. And sometimes that work will be easy, no challenges offered; the meals shared, the forgivenesses granted, the healing revealed will all fall into categories or ways in which we and others expect it to. It will be done in ways in which we have seen it happen before. But sometimes, God will be doing something new in and through us.

And offering mercy will take some guts.

But Grace has guts.

Which is not what we’re putting on the Sesquicentennial t-shirts, I promise. But it could be. Episcopalians wouldn’t be here in Holland, Michigan if a feisty bit of faithful courage weren’t in the DNA of this place. We are also those to whom a tremendous amount of mercy has been shown and among whom and through whom a great deal of mercy has been shared. And maybe thanksgiving for that charism will find its way into various of our celebrations.

Today and every day, moving forward always as Grace, may we be healed, forgiven and fed in ways that open us up to share those gifts with our neighbor, to share those gifts with God’s world. And may we be receptive to the ways in which God is stretching us into new ways of being faithful today, trusting that even when those ways come as challenge to some, the Lord of the Sabbath is working to make all things new.

 

Amen.

Born Again Into Mystery

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – May 27, 2018 – Trinity Sunday: John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:1-17) 

Before I dive into the Trinity….and that’s sort of how I imagine the Trinity, as something into which we dive, in whose heart and arms we live. Trinity as Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Mother Child, Sophia; Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Before we go there, I want first to say that it’s good to be here. And I want us to catch up a little bit. I’ve been away for two weeks in South Africa, and in some ways it felt like a very long time.

A brief run through what we did those weeks, because you’ve been asking, and because I want you to know. I was on a tour with the Hope College Chapel Choir. Beth taught a senior seminar that was a part of the trip, David Cunningham taught a class in theology, Jen Wolfe accompanied as she does in remarkable ways and Brad Richmond directed and led the group. And they all let me and Marlies tag along.

On this tour, we visited Johannesburg, Durbin, Port Elizabeth, the western coast, and the outskirts of Cape Town. We were in Anglican churches, a Catholic church, and an African Methodist Episcopal Church in the heart of Soweto which alone preached many sermons and gave us many gifts. We visited two schools, a national park, a wild life refuge, an amazing community outreach and social justice Center. We spent time at the the Apartheid museum and in townships of Johannesburg. We listened to real people talk about the history, the struggle, the dreams, the discrepancies and divisions, and the still profoundly beautiful vision that exists among the peoples of that country.

And in these settings we shared music, and stories, and the amazing beauty of God’s creation –coast, and sky, mountains, sea, elephants, giraffes, hippos. There were co-existing diversities of many kinds. I will forever have the soundtrack of this tour in my heart. The music of the Chapel Choir and the music and dance of the many congregations and groups with whom these students sang are with me, in me. The trip was very, very good. It was also very hard in important ways.

This trip took us completely away. And it was also revelatory of things we need to see more clearly here. Because that’s how these kinds of experiences work. You’ll hear more, don’t worry. Or do worry. You can decide which.

In other news these past couple of weeks, to touch on things that we all felt, there was another mass shooting in our country. Our hearts broke again as we witnessed young people fearing for their lives in a setting in which they should at the very least be physically safe. Through them we again felt the pain of a very broken humanity.

And on a completely other note, our hearts were opened as Prince Harry and Meghan Markel were married in a ceremony that bridged worlds that need bridging, and that offered an image of a diverse and royally-lively people at prayer. Apparently “royally lively” can happen! Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry took to the pulpit in that service and he proclaimed a rousing message of the power of Love, the power of God. It was and is a much needed message. And it was heard and is still being heard around the world.

And here among the people of Grace, in not exactly world-changing but definitely celebration-worthy news, our parking lot was finally completed! This years-long project is finished. There will of course be some fine-tuning with landscaping and lighting, but the final layer was poured and we are good to go! Thank you to everyone who has helped that project happen.

Also, Marketplaatz 2018 is now history. The friers, Dutch costumes, olliebolen buckets have been put into storage for another year. Thank you to leaders and to all of Grace for pulling off that youth ministry fundraiser once again.

Over the past two weeks, the planning continued for Grace’s Sesquicentennial celebration which begins on June 10th. Several of you participated in the local Summit on Race and Inclusion, helping us tend to the gaps and inequalities that exist among us here in this community. Over the past two weeks a few of you graduated, and others are a mere few days away from graduating.

And pastorally, among other things a few of you lost a friend, a student in Zeeland, and Brian Paff’s mother died suddenly just two days ago. And so we continue to keep these families in our prayers as we reach out with our own love and support to this little corner of God’s world.

Over the past two weeks vergers have been studying, Altar Guild has been setting, Stephen Ministers have been companioning, buildings and grounds people have been buildings and groundings. And in the midst of all of that, summer came. After a Spring of about three days. And so we welcome warm. Which is very soon to be hot.

Over the past two weeks many various phases of life and new life have continued, some ended and others begun.

And here’s how God has been these past two weeks: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Mother, Child, Sophia. Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. For more than two weeks, actually. And tomorrow too.

And no matter which two weeks we chose to review, God would have the very same answer to “So, what’s been going on with you?” “Well, I’ve been creating, redeeming, and sanctifying, thank you very much,” replies God. “So listen to me prophets. Speak out! Listen to me leaders, proclaim! Work with me people. I’m with you and beyond you too.”

Now I can’t explain the Trinity to you given the mystery at its heart. But I will say (as if it’s mine to say,) that the Council of Nicea did a pretty good job in the year 325, considering the challenge they faced. They had to find words that their people could hear, words that would lead to deeper understanding, words that could help unite Christians in some very basic and fundamental proclamation of the holy One. A holy One who was, due to the breadth and depth of almighty beauty, hard to proclaim.

And so the bishops at that Council looked to Scripture and they looked to their own contemporary philosophy and theology, they looked to their traditions and their own experiences, beliefs, and hopes in order to put words on the divine.

And that work that was not without division, there were bitter battles fought of this language. But in all of that, they managed to come up with the Nicene Creed which Christians around the world proclaim to this day. Now I don’t think they perfected this description, this proclamation of God, because such a proclamation, is by it’s very nature, unperfectable. There’s too much God for our words. Too much God for any one group of people’s experiences to capture.   This God goes beyond human understanding no matter how much creativity, or brains, or ecclesial authority any one group of humans has been given. And so I don’t think that Council captured God, nor do I believe they gave this world the only faithful description that exists of the divine.

But over the past two weeks I heard this Creed sung and I heard it prayed in several languages. I heard it sung and I heard it prayed by people of many colors, and ages, and backgrounds, all of whom are still dreaming and who as they do that are being embraced by this God. And so I’m profoundly grateful and respectful that this concept and presence of Trinity is here for us to explore and to be held by.

And it is this Trinitarian proclamation that we celebrate today as we hold the joys and pains of our own lives, the joys and pains of this world in our hearts and minds and souls. Today we proclaim together that in the midst of it all, God is creating, redeeming and sanctifying before us, among us, beyond us. As we experience heart breaks and hearts opening, as we work toward visions as practical as more parking, as redemptive as racial and other forms of reconciliation, and as spirit-filled as 150 years and more of Grace, we offer our thanks and our praise to something, to some holy One greater than ourselves.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Mother, Child, Sophia. Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. In whom with Nicodemus, about whom we just heard from the gospel of John, we are born and reborn over and over again. It is with the Bishops of Nicea, the people of Texas, and Soweto…it is with our at-home-neighbors-right here in Holland, Michigan that we celebrate the power of God’s mysterious, wide embrace.

Amen

From “The Distance”

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – May 6, 2018 – Easter 6, Year B: Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. (Acts 10:44-48)

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:9-17)

This morning we’re heading toward the end of the Easter season which will culminate two Sundays from now on the Day of Pentecost, when we celebrate the coming of the Spirit. And between now and then on the liturgical calendar will be the Ascension when Christians commemorate Jesus’ ascending to be with God. This means that thus far this year, just to bring everyone up to speed, we’ve celebrated Jesus’ birth, his baptism, and his calling of the disciples. We’ve heard about his ministry, his final days and his death. We’ve proclaimed Jesus’ rising and heard about his many resurrection appearances.

And so now the church is preparing for Jesus ascent – he will be “carried up on a cloud” according to the book of Acts, and then the Holy Spirit will come down upon the disciples and as tradition puts it, the Spirit will serve as advocate and it will “birth the church.” And this is the Sunday just before all of that begins to take place. So what we hear today are some of the passages that the church uses to describe Jesus’ most important “final” words to his disciples. This was Jesus teaching them how to carry on without him present in the same ways in which he’d been thus far.

It’s sort of like a moment when you’re preparing to leave your kids at school for the first time or whatever those moments happen to be when you’re about to have a little more distance than either of you is used to. And you want to communicate to them the essence of what you’ve been trying to teach them their whole lives, because they need to be reminded of how to carry on in this world. And maybe you need to be reminded too.

And so you tell them that you love them, a more profound love than you even thought yourself capable and you pray in that moment that they have been shaped by that love to the point of being able to receive it and offer it too. Even without you there. And then you say a little something about staying safe, because you both know that this world can be a scary place. And then in some way, you wish them joy, because of all things, it’s what you want for them. More than happiness, and beyond “having fun,” you wish them joy.

And all of those things are what Jesus spoke of here as he prepared to leave his disciples. To carry on, they needed and we need above all things to have and to know love. Jesus at this point was hoping and praying that his having fed them, cared for them, taught them, died and risen for them…that all of that had shown the disciples a way of being in this world that would allow them to abide in God’s love, to live and dwell and grow in it.

And to really get that point across, Jesus spoke to them of being friends. He didn’t speak about being king or as a ruler of any kind. In fact he specifically spoke against it: “I do not call you servants any longer,” he told them, “because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends,” Jesus said.   Remember that last week he introduced the concept of “abiding in” by using the image of the vine and the branches. This week he takes it one step further and defines the relationships we share with him and one another using the very holy and human language of “friend.”

Which is quite beautiful, really. In friendship there is comfort, there is strength, there is safety, there is very genuine knowledge of one another, and there is healing when needed. Friendship embodies the invitation to abide “in” and “with”.

There is a Celtic term which the spiritual writier and priest, John O’Donahue, resurfaced several years ago called “anam kara” which means “soul friend.” It’s a term that’s traceable back through monastic traditions all the way to the early desert fathers and mothers of our faith. One described anam kara like this: “This capacity for friendship and ability to read other people’s hearts became the basis of the desert elders’ effectiveness as spiritual guides.”

And so very early in our faith tradition, the capacity for friendship was identified as one of the most important qualities of maintaining a healthy and strong spirit, a healthy and strong faith. And it was named by Jesus as the relationship that bound him to his disciples and his disciples to one another. Friendship was the way he taught them how to “carry on” in this world in love.

O’Donahue describes friendship this way: “Your beloved and your friends were once strangers. Somehow at a particular time, they came from the distance toward your life.” I love that. They came “from the distance toward your life.” “Their arrival seemed so accidental and contingent. Now your life is unimaginable without them…Your noble friend,” he says, “will not accept pretension but will gently and very firmly confront you with your own blindness. Such friendship is creative and critical; it is willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness…In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. [There are friends.] “The more love you give away,” he says, “the more love you will have.”

And so our carrying on as disciples was been given quite a beautiful and holy framework as Jesus prepared to ascend. We are now called friends of Christ and one another. And so we have a descriptor that’s a little more complimentary than “sheep who follow,” a little more demanding of us too. I said last week that I’m not sure that sheep work very hard at defining how to be community. In order to be friends, however, we have work to do. The language is also slightly more embracing than “branches on the vine” although it is certainly related to the fruit we’re called to produce in this world. People are hungry for relationships fueled by love. We have been told by Jesus (that message he whispers in our ear before he ascends) that we will survive and thrive in this world through holy and gracious friendship.

Which means that “friendship” is among the most important things we “do” as church.

We need to develop the capacity “to read each other’s hearts,” which begins with listening, deep and honest listening. And we need to receive strangers who come “at a distance toward our lives.” In the book of Acts notice that the Spirit fell on the people “over there” and completely “astounded” Peter and the others. Because they didn’t expect to be friends with “them.” They didn’t expect to be called into relationship with them. But they were. That’s how the Spirit works in all of this, stretching the ways in which we define “us,” calling us to make friends with those we could not imagine was even possible. And holding us together when we try.

In all of these relationships through which we anam kara each other Jesus said, there will be joy. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

And I actually think that might be all there is to it. We make “carrying on in this world” so very difficult. Granted this world is a messy and complicated place, but maybe our role in it, our way in it doesn’t need to be.

Today we hear Jesus who had just a very few moments left with his disciples speak to them not of doctrine, or even right belief. With just a few moments left he spoke to them of one commandment, and it was the one that called them and calls us to love. And he spoke of friendship.

As we hear of the life and death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. As we watch him ascend and prepare for the coming of the Spirit, may our love for one another grow as we learn even more fully how to friend each other, as we learn the workings of our hearts and receive those who come to us “from a distance”. “The more love you give away, the more love you have,” O’Donahue wrote. May it be so.

Amen.

Life In The Vine

 

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – April 29, 2018 – Easter 5, Year B: John 15:1-8, 1 John 4:17-21

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing… My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:1-8)

 

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love… if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit…The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (I John)

Well the gospel today gives us a very beautiful and also very challenging image for us to consider as Jesus speaks to his disciples about the vine and the branches. Last week if you’ll remember we heard about Jesus as the Good Shepherd who gathers and protects the sheep. It was a comforting image, one of the most comforting in all of Scripture, in fact. Jesus as the Good Shepherd speaks to us of the care given us by the One who came to love. It’s often chosen for funerals and it’s a favorite in children’s Sunday School classes, all for good reason.

In that parable we see sheep (us) watching the shepherd, on good days, anyway. And we also see Him watching over us. The sheep look for the Shepherd; they listen for his voice, the parable says, and the sheep are slung over the shoulder and brought home when needed, as another parable tells it. In that image of Christ, the Shepherd leads and guides, gathers and feeds. Our role as sheep is to follow – to watch, to listen, in order to follow well.

And that role is consistent with how we’ve heard Jesus talk in this gospel of John and in the other gospels too. “Come, follow me,” was the language he used in three of the gospels early in the game to call the disciples and others. And there was the phrase woven throughout the journey, “If you want to follow me, do ______.” And so the disciples did just that, they followed. And following was exactly what they were doing when Jesus told them this parable about the vine and the branches.

But in this parable, Jesus took the whole discipleship thing up a notch. He used different words and a much more challenging image for how they were and we are to be with Christ and one another too. To follow wasn’t and isn’t enough. There is more to give and more to receive than “following” can accomplish. And so, in this parable, Jesus offered them a means to more.

“I am the vine and you are the branches,” he said. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Notice, it’s not follow but abide. In other words: Dwell in me. Live in me. Heal in me. Grow in me. And not only that, Jesus also added, “I will abide and live in you too.”

Which is huge! Think about the difference, because this difference matters. More is given and more is expected of us in this parable than the other. “Following” one can do blindly, as the saying goes. To abide in, to dwell in means that you see it all, you feel it all. There is a holy and sacred interconnectedness that runs deep and is vital to this image of branches and vine.

Following, you can do from a distance. But you can’t abide in with any distance at all. And so this is an entirely different way to speak of life in Christ. It’s a different way to talk about the relationships that are Christian faith and community too. This is more intimate and differently life-giving. “Abide in me,” Jesus said. “Dwell in me. Live in me. Grow in me. And I will in you too,” He told them.

Which is absolutely beautiful. But there is a different kind of caretaking and nurturing here than what came with the Good Shepherd. This is more challenging to be sure. Because I’m just not sure that life as a sheep is all that hard, really. The sheep were called out to, they were fed, carried, led. Period. The Shepherd never spoke of pruning or producing anything.

And the branches in this image are fed through the vine, but there are expectations because via that food, there are abilities, gifts given to each branch. Each branch, we heard, is to produce good fruit, and in order for that to happen, pruning is done by the vine grower. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower,” Jesus said. “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  Every branch over time gets trimmed.

And in case you want or need a little more detail on that, I read this week from a vine growing expert that: “Light pruning doesn’t promote adequate fruiting, whereas heavy pruning provides the greatest quality of grapes.” And I’m sorry to be the bearer of that news.

But I do want to say something here about that. Because some of the best and most loving work I see in this place is when someone among us is getting pruned. And we help discern if that’s actually what’s happening. I don’t want to say that every loss is the will of the vine grower by any means, but at least some of it is. Some of what happens to us is that over time we are cut back in order to grow.

Now the good news is that it doesn’t happen to us all at the same time, unless it’s a communal prune. And some of the most Christ-like presence I see among you, is when branch to branch, you say, ‘It’s OK, friend, buddy, sister, brother branch… you will live, and you will grow.” And then together you wait. And together you come to trust the vine grower.

And over time you start to feel the sun hit the newly opened place in yourself and you see the buds and the sprouts that you might not have believed would ever come. And sometimes it’s another branch that tells you the growth is there, because it can be hard to see yourself.

“Knowing how to prune grapes can make the difference between a good crop and a bad one,” this vine expert wrote. Which is why (as a gentle reminder) we should never prune each other. We can’t prune each other. The pruning is in good and holy hands. And as branches we’re in this vine together, and we have hope and presence and vision to offer each other as we learn how to live.

And so this image of faith tells us that we have been given this intimate, life-giving connection to the One who came to love, and who asks us to do the same. And through these relationships we share, we will be fed, we will grow, and we will be pruned in order to grow more. And sometimes the pruning is something we welcome, but often it’s not. It’s the dwelling we do, that we’re invited to trust and to witness that new growth comes.

One of my favorite authors who writes about leadership and community is Margaret Wheatley. She’s written several books about organizational development, and she wrote a book several years ago that focused on connection called, Turning To One Another. In it she talks about the dangers of isolation (not solitude, but isolation) and the vital role connection plays in health, life, and vital ways of being in this world. I think that’s what this parable is trying to tell us:

“As I write this,” Wheatley says, “though my window I’ve noticed a mother bird flying back and forth, worms dangling from her beak…Watching her I’m reminded of my own work [of working and growing] and suddenly, I feel connected to all other beings who are trying to keep life going. A brief moment of noticing one hard-working bird, and I feel different, more connected…I describe sacred as the feeling that I belong here.” [we might say “dwell here” or “abide here.”]

“We are suffering from living in a fragmented state,” she goes on. “Separated from each other, cut off from nature, we can’t experience sacred. And I think we know what we’re missing… We know we’re missing the richest experience of being human…We can’t experience sacred in isolation. It is always an experience of connecting. It doesn’t have to be another person. (Remember I just connected with a bird)…

“The connection moves us outside ourselves,” says Wheatley, “into something greater. Because we move out beyond ourselves, the experience of sacred is often described as liberating. Sacred experiences always offer gentle reassurance that everything is all right, just as it is. People describe this awareness as surrender, or acceptance, or grace. If only for a moment, we let down our guard and experience life undefended. Defenseless, we feel peace.. the peace that is found in experiencing ourselves as part of something bigger and wiser than our little, crazed self [our little crazed branch.] The community we belong to,” she concludes, “is all of life.

“I am the vine, and you are the branches, Jesus said. Abide in me. Dwell in me. Live in me, Grow in me. “And I will abide in you too.” Know that you will be pruned, for good. Remember that the branch next to you might be getting pruned right now and so that sister or brother branch could use your kind words, your presence, your hope. Know also that birds will visit your branches, like they did for Margaret Wheatley. We aren’t meant to be alone. Finally, know that through the vine you will be fed, nourished. Always. And that through you that love will come as good fruit. It will be grace for the world.

Amen

This Fragile Earth

 

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – April 22, 2018 – Easter 4, Year B: John 10:11-18, 1 John 3:16-24  (Earth Day)

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (I John 3:16-18)

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:11-16)

It’s always a wonderful thing to land on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, (actually every Sunday in Easter is a wonderful thing) but on the Fourth Sunday we always hear in some form about the Good Shepherd. And this is one of our more comforting images of God and of Christ. The Shepherd cares for the sheep, lays down his life for the sheep, and ultimately through His intentions and actions, gathers us all together as one.

It’s also nice that this year, Fourth Easter is also Earth Day which we’re acknowledging with educational opportunities and a special blessing of the Grace grounds in procession at the end of this service. And the connection to the readings and the presence of the Good Shepherd to this other celebration is not a hard one. So many of the images in Scripture that bring us comfort, that speak to us of God’s care and love, use images of Creation to get that message across.

In today’s psalm, we heard of green pastures and still waters and Creation was referred to as the “house of the Lord”. Other psalms speak about the moon and the stars, the birds of the air, the sheep, oxen, and wild beasts of the field. They proclaim that the heavens “declare the glory of God and that “the firmament shows his handiwork.” Psalm 139, in its celebrating “how wonderfully” human beings are made, puts us in deep relationship, with the earth: “I was woven in the depths of the earth,” the psalmist wrote, who then also uses images of Creation to give human beings perspective on the holy: “How deep I find your thoughts O God…if I were to count them they would be more in number than the sand.” In the Book of Job, the longest speech given by God in all of Scripture is one soaked through with Creation, “Where were you?” God asks Job, “When I made the foundation of the earth?” And then God spoke to Job of rain, and deer, and mountains, of lotus trees, willows, cedars, ostriches, horses, mighty rivers and hawks. And when that holy whirlwind that God filled with the wonders of Creation quieted down, Job knew his place, his role. Even given his personal hardships of which there were many, Job was made aware again of the grace of it all.

Which is I think part of the point of Earth Day in our context of being church. From the very beginning the story that is Scripture, our story is woven together with the story of Creation. There is no separating it and us.

And in that relationship there is beauty, there is mystery, and there is grace. God “saw that it was good.” All of it. On every day (or every gazillion years depending on which math you use,) God saw that it was good. From the waters, to the land, to the animals, fish, birds and people. God saw that it was good. And in that whole big picture, in this holy, salvific story which we share with streams, and mountains, and trees – we were named as stewards. Not masters, but caretakers. And we were given power to use for good. The earth itself is home, gift, and responsibility.

“The earth is what we all have in common,” poet and theologian Wendell Barry wrote. If we are looking for that which unites us (and we are always looking for that which unites us)…If we are looking for that which sustains us all and cries out to us to sustain back, it is “this fragile earth, our island home,” as one of our Eucharistic prayers says so beautifully. And so, when we pray not only our thanksgivings, but also when we pray our confession, our relationship with the earth is present among “those things we have done and those things we have left undone.”

And then it is our work to be the stewards we have been called to be. The Good Shepherd would never leave the sheep in the hands of the wolf, we heard today. Good stewards too are called to protect that which has been given into our care, to shield from that which causes destruction and destroys. Which means that we, the large collective we, and the individual we’s, need to fight and work for change. And we need to change ourselves; it is our ways, or many of them causing much of the damage being done to this fragile Earth our island home. “Little children,” we heard in 1st John this morning, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action.” It’s time.

And there is so very much that we can do. Warning bells have sounded, flags have been raised for decades now with regard to environmental concern and care. But there is still much that we can do. And this like other ministries of the church is work of reconciliation and it is work of repair. We are not in right relationship with this Creation of which we are part. And so we make it part of “the work we have been given to do” to change that.

Parishioners will speak to us as we process today about actions they have taken and they’ll invite us to take them too. Brian Bodenbender, Professor of Geology and Environmental Care at Hope College, spoke at Forum Hour this morning. The team of Creation Care is hard at work here at Grace, but this work is for all of us in our church, in our homes, in our lives. You’ll hear more and more moving forward through the voice of Grace about local and church wide initiatives that have to do with Christians claiming our place and our role, among the trees, under the stars, and for the earth. Loving in speech and in truth and in action too.

“There will be one flock, one shepherd,” we heard today. That unity is our vision. It is our hope and it is the promise given us by the One who cares for us all. “The earth is what we all have in common,” Barry said. It’s a good place to start and according to the psalm, not a bad place to end either. May we tend the green pastures, care for the still waters, and lay down our own lives for this earth. May our actions proclaim the love the Creator intends for all.