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Fearfully And Wonderfully Made

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – January 14, 2018

Epiphany 2, Year B: 1 Samuel 3:1-20, Psalm 139:1-18, 1 Corinthians 6-, John 1:43-51

This morning I’m going to begin with the psalm which is not usually a place I begin.  I rarely even mention the psalm in the sermon, but today I want to let its words speak here.  I want us to embrace and be embraced by its message.

Know before I share some of its words that Psalm 139 is one of the scripture passages that made up the core of the youth curriculum we used for years here at Grace and we still weave it in.  It has felt essential to us that every young person who comes through this place understands themselves to be “fearfully and wonderfully made,” by God and in the image of God.  This psalm is an essential and I believe foundational way in which we as people of faith understand and relate to ourselves and one another.  Just listen to the psalmist’s prayer:

“O Lord you have searched me out and known me,” the psalmist prays. “For it was you, O Lord, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you! for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” the psalmist says. “Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”  Created by God, this psalm says, known and tenderly loved by God.  It’s what we want our children to believe about themselves and others too.  It’s what I hope for each of us.

And one of the beautiful and holy things about this psalm is that it can be prayed by anyone and still be true.

Because it’s not only Episcopalians who are fearfully and wonderfully made.  It’s not only Christians who are fearfully and wonderfully made. Created by God and in the image of God precedes anything else in all of scripture, other than the making of the land and the animals and the birds of the air, and the stars, and sky, and seas.  The language of this psalm, reflective theologically of the very first chapter in Genesis, is our starting place – literally – in terms of faith, anyway.  Wonderfully made.  Created by God, in the image of God one and all.

So, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael asks in today’s gospel after he’d heard about Jesus’ hometown.  And according to this psalm (not to mention the gospel) yes! Yes it can!  In fact, if we do indeed believe “fearfully and wonderfully made by and in the image of God one and all” then the answer is always yes, isn’t it.

Now Nazareth was a very small and not very wealthy town. It was overshadowed in many ways by the cities of that time. And of course there were significant, long-running tensions among the regions too, and all of that was loaded into Nathanael’s thinking, and so it shaped his initial response.

And given that load he almost missed this moment. Let that sink in for a minute.  The “Savior of the World” had come to them to be with them and he almost missed out.  Remember that Phillip had come to Nathanael with some amazing news: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” Phillip said to Nathanael, “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” And it was to that that Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And he probably almost walked away.  (From the presence of God.)

Now I love Phillips response, because I think it’s key to how this whole story unfolds and it’s a phrase we hear throughout the gospel of John.  “Come and see,” Phillip said.  “Come and see.” Perfect.  Sort of lovely, actually.  There was no attack.  There wasn’t even an argument.  Nor was there any shaming.  Phillip very simply offered a simple and direct invitation to the would-be-disciple who almost missed the invitation of a lifetime, a new-lifetime actually.

And to give Nathanael some credit – for all his cynicism, and despite his prejudice, he went.  Nathanael met Jesus and then the conversion didn’t take very long at all, in fact Jesus encouraged Nathanael not to be overly impressed too quickly, that over time he would “see greater things than these…The heavens will open up.”  Apparently, Nathanael was hungry for this.  Even that initial encounter was transformative.

Can anything good come out of Haiti?  Out of Africa?  According to this psalm, according to our faith, yes, yes it can!  In fact the answer is always yes.  Can anything good come out of the Republican Party?  The Democratic Party?  The south? The north? The Midwest? The coasts?  According to this psalm, according to our faith the answer is always yes, and if we are going to hold tightly to any of our beliefs right now, if we are going to allow any few pieces of our faith to shape our words and our actions in the world right now, maybe it should be this: Fearfully and wonderfully made. Created by God.  In the image of God one and all.

Tomorrow as a nation we will remember Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. whose dream of equality, acceptance, and love has had tremendous impact and fifty years later – post assassination- the dream has yet to be realized.  Truth is that on some level, (rarely articulated but finding voice in policies and public response or lack thereof,) we still wonder if anything good can come out of Ferguson, New York City, Flint, inner City Detroit?  Even we who listen to NPR, are engaged in social justice efforts on various fronts, recycle, and support ‘MeToo’ have a lot of work to do on this front. I think that short of a very few people, we all have this question lurking somewhere inside of us: Can anything good come out of _________.   And according to this psalm the answer is yes, the answer is always yes and that is a yes on which we must insist.  According to this gospel, we probably do that best by receiving and offering invitations to “come and see.”

Come and see a people, any people among whom there are gifts, there are flaws, there are needs and hopes and hurts.  Come and see a people who are trying very hard to not be afraid of “the other” whoever the other happens to be.  Come and see and be a people who are working to eliminate Nathanael’s question and other dehumanizing thoughts from our psyche.  Come and see and be a Body who believes that the answer to “Can anything good come out of? is yes it is always yes, because we have all been fearfully and wonderfully made by God, in the image of God one and all.  Come and see and be a people who have taken a vow to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

This work won’t be easy. It never has been.  But it will be holy. It always has been.  We will see greater things than this, Jesus says. The heavens will open up – we can count on that.  We will all see greater things than this if only we are open to such an encounter and willing to be transformed ourselves.

While we opened with the words of the psalm, we we’ll close with a few minutes from Martin Luther King Jr. in his voice: “I Have A Dream.”

http://okra.stanford.edu/media/audio/630828000.mp3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Torn Open For Good

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – January 7, 2018 , The Baptism of Our Lord, Year B: Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

This morning we’ve shifted gears a bit; we’ve changed seasons. This is the first Sunday after the Epiphany which was yesterday, and today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus.  And if you feel like this transition happened rather quickly, you’re not wrong.

The story did actually just take a dramatic turn.  So if you blinked, you might have missed it.  Over the past few hours we’ve moved beyond the stories of Jesus’ birth, away from Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, and wise men and been fast-forwarded by the gospel about thirty years.  Jesus is an adult in this story.  Which means that the shepherds who were there on Christmas Eve have likely all retired, the innkeeper long stepped aside, and the wise men who had come from afar, had by now, long returned to afar carrying with them the good news as it had been revealed to them.

Now it’s interesting to note that the gospel of Mark begins with the story we heard today. We’ll be hearing from Mark all year and so it’s good for us to get a sense of how he works and this is a good opportunity to glimpse that. This was chapter 1 verse 4-11 we just heard and so all we missed was a bit of John the Baptist. There is no birth narrative in Mark.  His gospel starts with John the Baptist, takes only seven verses to tell this story that in other gospels takes as many as fifteen, and throughout the entire gospel there is an urgency that isn’t present in nearly the same way in the other three.

Mark essentially begins with Epiphany.  This is the “open your eyes now!” gospel.  The “open your hearts NOW,” gospel. Nothing fluffy. Nothing even very gentle.  Mark is off and running, straight to the point, and he expects us to be too. According to Mark, this is the moment when the good news begins and so we are to begin now too.  Hold onto your hats. Or take your hats off.  Or don’t even worry about your hats, there is something much more important going on here!

“People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” were coming out to the River Jordan,” Mark tells us.  They were coming out to hear John, the voice that was crying out in the wilderness and to be baptized by him.  The people had come out to repent and to receive forgiveness through the waters of baptism.  And on this particular day, Jesus was there too.

So imagine the scene.  Crowds of people. Hundreds, thousands of them.  Many of them dripping wet.  John up to his knees in the River Jordan and the people being soaked through with a message and experience of forgiveness.

And on this day, there was even more that came.  Forgiveness is where this gospel begins but then there is more.  “The heavens were torn apart,” Mark says, “a dove descended and a voice from heaven said to Jesus, “You are my Son, my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.’”  And while there is conversation among various scholars about who saw what, for Mark, and I’d agree with him, that doesn’t much seem to matter.

Because the heavens were torn open, a dove descended, and a voice from heaven spoke, and frankly, that’s enough to go on.  From this moment forward Mark’s Jesus is on the move.  They might have come to the River for repentance and forgiveness, but open your eyes now, because there is more.

Through that tear in the heavens flows mercy.  There comes healing and there pours peace.  Through that tear in the heavens there comes the actual physical presence and touch of God, a welcome beyond reason, a grace that surpasses justice. There comes a way to be beloved and a call to be one.  Through that tear in the heavens there flows a love that passes all understanding, a love that stretches and risks embracing all.  “This is the good news of Christ!” Mark tells us. Open your eyes!  Open your hearts, people of God!  Here is more!

And the urgency matters because this is that for which we hope, it’s what we so deeply crave, what we need.  There is no need to wait – the grace has been given us.  From this tearing open comes that for which the world so desperately longs.  The time is now. For Mark, for us, it always is.

Now there is one more instance of tearing in this gospel. And I think it’s significant that Mark uses exactly the same word for it.  After Jesus breathes his last on the day of crucifixion, the curtain in the temple is torn in two.  The curtain that separated “the common” from “the holy” was torn in two and that’s how Mark frames his gospel: heaven flows into earth.  The common touches the holy and just when we come to believe that mercy and peace, healing and love are the “more” given us in Christ, there comes resurrection, there is new life that flows too.  This beloved-ness is about now and it’s about forever too.

But that’s moving more quickly than even Mark does.  We’ll hear about all of that soon and it already runs through all that we do in this place.  But today we stand at the River, dripping wet and soaked through with forgiveness and more.  Grace has broken through in ways that are meant to and should amaze us all.  This is the good news of Christ!  Stand at the River today and feel the flow of all that comes as heaven breaks through again. And again. And again.

Repent. Forgive.  Be beloved. And live.

 

 

 

 

Christmas Eve

The Rev. Jennifer Adams

Christmas Eve 2017

As I preach tonight, I want to open by letting you know that I’ve had several people come to me over the past few weeks and say things like, “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas,” or “I’m not sure I can muster my usual Christmas spirit this year.”  And on a purely, non-data or at all researched approach to working with the numbers I simply keep in my own head, I’d say that the number of those types of comments has at least tripled, perhaps quadrupled this year over previous years.  And maybe it’s more like five times, but there isn’t as common a word like ‘quadrupled’ for that comparison.  And so we’ll stick with this.  The point being that are a lot of people for whom what we call “the Christmas spirit” seems rather elusive right now.  Maybe you’re one of those of those people.  Maybe we all are.

Things are different, perhaps, than a year ago for all of us.  Some for the good, some for the bad, some for the yet-to-be-determined.  As a society, our divisions are glaring and I’d worry if we didn’t feel that.  Voices are speaking that need to be heard but we’re not always sure to how hear them.  What will we gain?  What will lose when we listen – really listen to each other?  Decisions are being made that we are deeply and painfully divided about what they mean and what impact they will have on us, on our neighbors, and our world.  And so maybe things are different or least more obviously complicated, more blatantly divided and divisive than they were a year ago.

And yet we gather in this place having ‘Come all ye faithful.’  We sing of a silent night, a holy night. We hear the angels harking and we proclaim joy to the world!  And so I wonder that if we are truly and collectively low in “Christmas spirit,” where are we?  And what does all of this mean?

Well, first I think it’s important to remember that this is in some ways not about us, in that Christmas is not ours to pull off.  As a people who culturally have bought into the myth of “controlling our outcomes,” this, being Christmas, isn’t something that we make happen.  And as much as Hallmark would like us to think it is, neither is Christmas a feeling that we generate so that the holiday can be all that it can be.

Christmas is something that God generates. Christmas is something that God gives us and it is in that sense pure gift, pure grace.  “Love came down at Christmas,” the hymn says.  Love came down and love comes down still.  We and our world can be in any sorts or conditions and Christmas will come!  This is God’s doing.  God with us.  God for us. And there is nothing we can do or not do to impede that grace.  And that’s good news; it’s humbling and holy good news.

And yet, we also have a role in this.  There is grace to receive, but I don’t think that reception is purely passive.  The Christmas spirit is paradoxically out of our hands, and something that we must insist on taking hold.  And how we go about that matters too.

And so I want to tell you an old story about what became known as the Christmas Armistice.  You probably know this story and it might even rank as the-story-most-shared-in-Christmas-sermons -ever, and so there is nothing original here people. But I do think we need to reclaim what’s at its heart.  And I want us to reclaim it with all that we have and so I’m going to remind you of the highlights of this particular event.

In 1914, in World War I, during the days around Christmas, French, German and British soldiers crossed over what were very deeply dug lines of trenches.  And they crossed those lines in order to exchange Christmas greetings and very simply, (yet not so simply,) to talk to each other. In some areas, I read this week, men “from enemy sides ventured into what they called “no man’s land” on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and small gifts.” They also held joint burial ceremonies and prisoner exchanges.  And many of the gatherings ended in carol singing… together… in several languages.

These are profoundly beautiful.  And tonight, imagine it all not from a sentimental place, but imagine it from that place that helps you believe such things are possible.  The soldiers also played games of football (i.e. soccer) with one another (and how long have I been telling you the potential there!?) in what one article called some of “the most memorable images of the truce.”

And maybe that’s it.  Maybe that is the elusive, genuine, holy spirit of Christmas.  And it comes in the most surprising unexpected, against all odds sorts of moments.  It isn’t pretty or glamorous or wrapped nicely.  In fact, it’s sort of gritty and terribly imperfect.  But this whole story started in a stable where the entire family was away from home and their unexpected guests were complete strangers, some shepherds, some kings, and a heavenly host or two.  And sheep.

Christmas happened, Christ happened in that least likely of places and moments, because God crossed the lines for us.  And in that grace, the power of the dividing trenches was overcome.  Of all the battles that God could have fought, that was the divine choice – to lay down all kinds of almighty-ness and in a different sort of fight to the death, to establish a way to be with, to be eternally, mercifully, and lovingly with.

And that’s it, isn’t it! That’s the elusive, genuine, holy spirit of Christmas. Salvation was revealed in the most vulnerable of ways and that’s how we will find it too, how it will find us too.  It will find us on the battle grounds.  In the living rooms.  In the churches. In the schools. In our streets and neighborhoods. In ourselves and with strangers too.

And so if it’s the Christmas spirit you seek, consider the trenches – those inside of yourself and those out there in this world that God so loves.  And then stubbornly, faithfully determine to bridge them. In the name of incarnation, cross over.  And take a song with you as you go, or take a soccer ball, or some cookies. Cookies are always good.

In the spirit of Christmas, establish a way to be with.  Let yourself grieve with those on “the other side” this season.  Learn one of their carols which is probably yours too, just sung a little differently.  And start by simply imagining that it is possible, believe that this kind of embrace is possible, and not only that, but it is of God. And so you will have some help as you go.

The good news tonight is that no man’s land has been crossed over, abolished even by a God for whom the trenches have no power. And through this holy grace, we, like the men of the Armistace, can talk. And we can play. We can embrace and we can sing, essentially sharing ourselves and in some ways giving each other back to each oter. Those are the gifts that we have to receive and the gifts which we have to give this season.

So come all ye faithful! This silent night, this holy night the angels hark, and there is joy for this world!  There is joy to be had in this world.  The Lord is come.

Amen.

Advent Too

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – December 10, 2017 – Advent 2, Year B: Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 2: 1-11

Part of what I love about this season is that in the midst of what are busy schedules, crazy days, upheavals of all sorts and kinds, in here we bring a gentle, holy focus, and some liturgical order to it all.  I’ve heard several people over the past few weeks (me included) go so far as to say, “we need Advent.”

We gather in here and we breath and we hope and we pray. We light candles. We sing familiar hymns.  We walk the labyrinth and center ourselves and focus our faith.  We bring gifts for the family who came to us as refugees. We welcome into the household of God – we won’t baptize every Sunday in Advent but again this morning we will; today it’s Rowan Eugene Lane.  And this season we hear the stories that no matter how long you’ve been a part of the tradition, they sound more and more familiar as the days pass.  We’ve got John the Baptist this week and next. Then it’s Mary and Joseph, then angels, shepherds, an innkeeper, a king, and of course the child who was King too.

And through this gentle intention and liturgical unfolding we are called to become newly awakened.  Advent in the church is sort of an alarm clock in the form of a series of chimes – clear but not too startling in its presentation.  Perhaps that’s our Episcopalian showing, but I think that approach to Advent is ecumenical.  This season, we’re called to be awakened to the promise, the promise that we are moving toward something.  And we proclaim that something to be profoundly beautiful.

We are moving first into the memory of a child come to us, a savior given this hurting world by a God who so loved this world.  And in this movement there is a need for repentance – witness the overwhelming response to John the Baptist: “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him,” the gospel says. In this movement there is a longing for God’s mercy – listen to the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort, o my people.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” And soon we’ll hear Mary’s song as she sings of God’s mercy in raising up “the lowly” and “filling the hungry with good things.”  And in this movement there is also vision from Isaiah and other prophets, vision that speaks to the deepest yearnings of our hearts and the deepest groanings of this world, a vision of a place and time where there is peace, where exiles return safely home, and the light of the world is able to shine through the darkness for all the world to see. In Advent we are awakened to those voices inside and outside of ourselves – those voices that speak of repentance, that cry for mercy, that proclaim peace.  And we pause here to let them resonate, one candle at a time.  And they do.

The challenge I find, or one of them anyway, is that life doesn’t happen one candle at a time and as beautiful as all of this is, Advent itself – the coming of God – is often more jarring, more disruptive than we’ve become accustomed to it being.  This challenge of the season is that while we lean into this gentle liturgical unfolding and the lovely awakening-by-chime, the way in which it really happens, in which God really happens, often doesn’t resemble this approach as much we’d like it too.

There really was nothing very gentle or orderly about John the Baptist.  He was wearing camels hair and he ate bugs, and he wasn’t just suggesting repentance, he was out there shouting about it to the point of getting arrested for it.  This season has a clear beginning and end for us, but really John the Baptist was never certain that his timing was right. Was there one candle or two lit on the wreath when he proclaimed repentance?  Just how long until that one who was to come after, would come?  These were John the Baptist’s questions.  And Mary had them too. In the moment of song, Mary’s soul was certain but her awakening was anything but chime-like.  In the not so gentle unfolding of what we now call “glad tidings,” Mary’s traditional wedding plans were dashed and her vision for her future family completely overturned. And Mary’s fiancé Joseph had to completely revise his understanding of what it meant to love another human being.  Not to mention what it meant to love God. What did it mean to light candles when the familial support had backed out, there was no room in the inn, and Herod was going to be breathing down their necks before a new season could even begin to take hold?

So their Advent, that first Advent, wasn’t like this, really.  Rather than settling, it was one disruption after another. One holy disruption after another.  Because that’s how God came to them.

And so we need to leave room for that dimension of Advent too.  Because it would be sadly ironic if in our intentional and well-ordered approach to this season, we missed the ways in which Christ is actually coming among us now.  If in our intense focus on the gentle unfolding, we missed that some of the disruptions are the means by which God is birthing something holy, something of repentance and mercy and peace.

And so this season I invite you to light candles and to walk the labyrinth too.  Gather here and breathe deeply here. Welcome Rowan Eugene and others into this household. But don’t fear the uncertainty, the disruptions, the interruptions. Instead know that there is likely to be grace in them too, because often that’s how God breaks in.

Remember that “Don’t be afraid,” were the first words spoken to Mary by the angel, and “Don’t be afraid,” was the message of the dream given Joseph. Leave room for some uncertainty around God’s timing, prepare to be taken slightly aback by the ways in which God loves us, and expect that the redemption for which we long will come in shocking and unsettling ways.  There are after all, mountains to be made low, valleys to fill in and a new creation coming to be. And so the ground is bound to shake as the unfolding that is God’s takes place in the lives and midst of us all.

 

 

 

Un-Hunkering for the Season

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sunday, December 3, 2017 – Advent 1, Year B: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13: 24-27

Happy New Year, everyone!  This morning, the first Sunday of Advent is the beginning of a new year on the church calendar and so this morning we begin anew.  You’ll notice that the colors have changed.  (Thank you, Altar Guild.)  We’re a beautiful ‘blue’ this morning.  The Advent wreath has been hung and we lit the first candle today.  And to mark the new season, the tone is a bit different today too – during Advent we are called to be a people of anticipation and hope as we await the coming of Christ.  This is our work – we are to very intentionally be or at least commit to become a people of hope.  This season is often described as “a countdown to Christmas” but this is also a looking forward to the second coming when Christ will come among us as the gospel says, “in power and great glory.”

Now this morning we will baptize and welcome Luna, Fletcher, Merrick, Berend and Winona into this household of God.  Now we’re a household that is decked out beautifully, and is busy setting a hopeful tone, but in the spirit of full disclosure, we also need to acknowledge that we are a household that is aware that some very challenging weather, or more accurately, some significant meteorological events could be just around the corner.

“The sun will be darkened,” we just heard, “and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven; the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  And one of my instincts is to advise us all to take cover – especially the babies. It’s just not wise to mess with proclamations of darkening skies and falling stars.  And of course of all the days for this kind of forecast, it comes on a day that our pews are full of babies!

But actually, given the state of our world, taking cover is one of my pretty much daily temptations – hole up, hunker down, calculate, defend, take care of my own!  Checking any forecast these days, I can’t say that that approach to life in general isn’t somewhat enticing.

But really, I’m not sure that approach is in the best interest of the household.  Nor is it what this household, let alone this season is all about.  Think about the stories that define us here – just last week we heard about caring for, reaching out too, inviting in complete and total strangers – “the least of these my brothers and sisters”.  The week before that we heard about not burying our talents a message about “un-hunkering,” and before that we were advised to make sure that our lights are always able to shine out there, regardless of the weather! And soon we’ll hear about a man who made his home out in the wilderness calling everyone out and into the waters of repentance. Soon after that we’ll sing of a young woman whose soul sang of God’s mercy and whose body carried into this broken world, the savior of the world.  Because God so loved the world.  And because of that love, God came to offer redemption, mercy and peace right here and right now, in all of our here’s and all of our nows.

At the heart of this household is the story about how God in essence (literally in essence,) un-holed-up, un-hunkered, refused to take cover, and came to be here among us.

And so as tempting as it might sound taking cover is probably not what we’ve been called to this season.  Perhaps some weather gear is in order, and if you have extra be sure to share.  We should keep our lamps lit because the days are actually getting darker.  We need to dig out of all of our talents, offer them up and out, and no matter how cold or how warm, we all need to take some regular dips into the waters of repentance.  Because we all need to prepare our bodies, minds and souls to receive – to receive the Christ who is God un-hunkered and here.

And so rather than fear this season, a prayerful, humble, hope-filled kind of courage is what will allow us and our household, and in all likelihood this world that God so loves to thrive.  Our work is to foster that in one another, to offer it to Luna, Fletcher, Merrick, Berend, Winona and anyone who comes. Our prayer at baptism is one that fits us all:

Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of
grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.

Listen to the forecast this season but remember the stories and the prayers that define us, that remind us who and how we are.  This world will be shaken, over and over again.  Stars will rise and fall and rise and fall.  And so it is. But our work no matter the forecast, is to receive the gift of God – to love this world with all that we can muster and mustering more and more of that is a significant part of what growing in faith is all about.  Which is why we start young.  And why we restart at so many points along the way.

As we receive into the household of God this morning, know that Christ is here too and the entire household has been called into a prayerful, humble courageous way of being in God’s world. The prayers of the prophet Isaiah are being answered, “tear open the heavens and come down, O Lord.”

May the hope of the household be renewed this Advent season.

 

Amen

 

 

 

 

Nothing to Lose

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams- November 19, 2018 – Proper 28, Year A: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

You know how sometimes stories that are told in an effort to help us not be afraid, actually have the effect of making us more afraid?  Or at least they make us more confused than we were before we heard the story?  Well, I think that this parable might be an example of that phenomenon.   I hear it and I struggle with its message.  I wonder how is this at all in sinc with what I believe to be at the heart of the gospel?  And dang it, what about that poor guy who gets thrown into the outer darkness?

Which makes it two in a row from the gospel of Matthew (not that I’m counting.)  But remember that last week we heard the parable about the bridesmaids and their lamps and some had oil and some didn’t?  Well as you know if you were here last week, that whole thing left me with mixed feelings.  And here we are again!

Here’s what we’ve got:  Two of the people in this story did very, very well.  They took all that they had been given – one had been given five talents (which translates to approximately 2.5 million dollars in case you’re wondering), and the other was given two talents (1 million dollars) – and with all of those talents, they each made more, much more.  These two guys “traded” all they had, each invested wisely, and doubled what they had been given.

But the third guy, in an effort to not lose anything, hung on to the one talent he’d been given (half a million dollars to save you the math) and he did nothing with it, other than to protect it. Which to his credit (or not) he actually saw as doing something.  He didn’t want to suffer the consequences of having traded or invested and lost.  And so when the master came back, this third guy hadn’t doubled or earned anything, but neither had he lost anything.  He still had that one talent. And the first guy had ten.  And the second guy had four.

And the master praised the guys who doubled what they had been given.  “Well done, good and trustworthy slaves;” the master told them, “You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  But the poor guy who started the story and ended the story with one talent was thrown into the outer darkness.  And now maybe I’m still a little disappointed that the bridesmaids from a few verses back didn’t share their oil with each other, but again, I’m left thinking, “Matthew, what are you doing?”

But here’s the thing.  First of all, this isn’t really a parable about money. Or, better, it’s not only about money.  It’s a parable about all of us having been given gifts from the giver whom, for the sake of reminding us our context, we’ll call, “God.”

This isn’t really a parable about what we’ve “earned” or can “earn” but I don’t think parables ever are. Just notice that both the guys who doubled their talents– notice that all they did was “trade” or “invest” in something beyond themselves.  They didn’t necessarily work harder than the guy who had been given one talent. In fact the guy who protected his one talent might have been working very, very hard to do just that. I see him walking out to that pile of dirt everyday just to be sure the talent went untouched! And that in itself is work.  It’s just not productive, or creative or life giving work.  And really, one of the important truths about what the two “good and trustworthy” guys did was that as they invested, they let go of control of the outcome.   They had NO idea how this story was going to end.

And so I think there’s something at work here that has absolutely nothing to do with any of them.  And that’s part of the point of the parable too.  This isn’t about how money works in the world where there is risk and some do well and some don’t.  You know that this isn’t a story about how money works in the world when EVERYONE who invests doubles their investment.  Right?  This is a story about how gifts work in the grand scheme that is God’s.  And that grand scheme has been set up by the one who gives the gifts. When you read this parable about ten times (if you’re me and it takes you that many times) you see that the only real risk here is not investing the gifts at all.  In fact holding them tightly or burying them might actually be like living in outer darkness.  You alienate yourself when you do that.  You shut yourself off and end up spending your time and energy visiting the things you’ve buried.

Investing your gifts, on the other hand, sharing, trading your gifts (read: ‘yourself’) in something of meaning and potential is part of what it means to be alive.  And the key here is that you can’t lose. EVERYONE who invested, traded which is sort of how it goes – you need my gifts, I need yours – EVERYONE who traded doubled what they invested.  So hear this parable as a message of how when gifts are traded, invested, shared, in the scheme that is God’s, there is a guaranteed return. The gifts multiply.  For everyone.

In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, Brene Brown (who happens to be an Episcopalian and I like that) explains that the title ‘Daring Greatly’ comes from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt called “Citizenship in a Republic”, a speech he delivered in France in April of 1910.  Now I could have simply quoted the speech, but Brown’s book is a good one and her writing speaks to this challenge and so I want you to know it’s out there.  From Theodore Roosevelt, Brown quotes:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;

Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

At the heart of this parable there is a challenge and the challenge is simply to enter the arena with all that you have been given.  And to enter the arena with open hands – offering, investing, trading, sharing. We never know the outcome, but we always know the outcome.  As hard as I made it to get to this point (life hazard of mine) the grace in this parable is truly astounding. If your gifts of which each of us has so many, are invested, offered, traded, you can’t lose – in fact you, we are guaranteed to receive back 100% on top of what we gave.

Now it won’t feel like that every day, but this isn’t a parable about every day.  In fact the parable actually says that the master came back after “a long time.”  This is a parable about our whole lives, and probably even longer!  So don’t count by the minute, or the day or the week or the month.  This doesn’t work like the world – even in terms of scheduling.  This is a parable about something bigger to which we all contribute, something which we all build, and expand, and share simply by our participating in it, by our “daring greatly.”  This is a parable about the kingdom of God.  And it works differently than a lot of what we experience. The good news is that this does work differently than a lot of what we experience!

So what are you doing with the gifts that you’ve been given whatever they happen to be?  We all have them, lots of them!  And some of them are buried. And you know who you are and what they are – because odds are good, those buried gifts eat at you.  They long for the light because that’s where they’re meant to live.  So, if they’re buried, dig’m up!  Outer darkness is not the hope nor the desire of God for you, or anyone, or any part of anyone. “You are all children of light and children of the day,” Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “We are not of the night or of darkness.”

And if you don’t know what your gifts are, talk to people who can help you discern them. We are some of those people and often others can see your talents better than you can.  And if you feel like you’ve run out, because sometimes it feels that way, you haven’t; we can see them.  And so part of what we can do is name what we see, name what it is that we experience in each other.

We’ve all been given talents that together total in the gazillions; there is in the words of the master “an abundance” to be enjoyed.  So have no fear!  Or if you have it, keep going.  Don’t let it stop you.  Give with all that you have; give all that you have. And ultimately, allow yourself to trust.  To trust that the one who created all of this is still intimately, lovingly, creatively involved with the grand scheme.  And so you and everyone who offers themselves can prepare to receive more than you could possible ask for or even imagine.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shine On

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – November 12, 2017 – Proper 27, Year A: Matthew 25:1-13

This gospel passage has a special place in my heart because of the role it played in my own spiritual journey and ultimately growth.  Some of you have heard me talk about this before, and so I’m only going to just touch it as we begin this morning, but I am going to touch it because it still plays a role in how I hear this story.

When I was in college I was asked to leave a Bible study group and it was over this parable. More on that in a minute.  For now a quick recap:

There were ten bridesmaids who took their lamps to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish and five of them were wise.  The foolish brought no oil along to keep their lamps burning; but the wise did take flasks of oil along with their lamps so that the lamps would be able to continue to burn.  The bridegroom got delayed and so all of the bridesmaids fell asleep. Then at midnight when the bridegroom finally arrived there was a shout and the bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps and the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.”  But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you’d better go get some for yourselves.”  Now when when I heard that read in our Bible study group, I was immediately devastated by the gospel of Matthew and felt like there were some legitimate questions that needed to be asked at that very moment – and I still walk through those questions whenever this story is told.

Why didn’t they share the oil!? Right?  I’m not the only one that occurs to EVERY time I hear this parable.  It comes off pretty harsh there at the end if you’re listening for something else. It’s almost thirty years later and my heart still breaks a little when the maidens say to the other maidens, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” As if we need one more lesson in every man for himself.  What about community?  What about sacrifice?  Is that really what wisdom looks like? What about caring for the least of these my brothers and sisters?

And so in college I went on official record (my own inner official record, my own righteous inner official record that is) as passionately and outspokenly disagreeing with this parable – which brought an end to my college Christian Fellowship career. And to make that long story short, that’s how I ended up rather firmly re-planted in the Episcopal Church.

But here’s what’s sort of lovely about all of that.  I get it now. At least better than I did.  And “they” the leaders of that group were right, at least in part, which is generally how it works if we’re willing to listen that way.  We tend to be right “in part.”  There are plenty of gospel passages about there being plenty for everyone, stories where sharing what we have been given in order to care for all of God’s children is the point or at least a major part of the message.  We hear that Jesus offered abundant forgiveness, we see that he opened tables to all who would come; we hear that he fed all five thousand people one afternoon even though presumably only one of them had brought food enough for himself.  Those stories of abundance and sharing and multiplying on the spot are gospel too.

However, truth is, there are some things that we can’t give to someone else, things we can’t just borrow from another person, and I think that’s what the parable of the bridesmaids tells us.  There are some things that each of us has to discover for ourselves, cultivate or claim for ourselves.  There are things you can’t do for me and things I can’t do for you, no matter how much our hearts would like to.

And I think that you who are parents probably know this best of all, but anyone who loves deeply knows this too.  Parenting is full of moments when you’d like to take that lamp and fill it for your child forever, or keep refilling it whenever they spill it or waste it because they do, we all do on a regular basis.  You’d like to fill their lamps with faith, and insight, and self-confidence, and kindness; you’d like to fill it with good decision making skills, basic common sense – there are some years when that in itself would be enough; you’d like to fill their lamps with loads of hope, self-discipline, health, and good friends! And when it comes right down to it, you’d pour out your own lamp if it would help them fill theirs. You’ve probably tried that approach more than once.  But in the end, sometimes what happens is you just empty your own lamp.  It doesn’t work.  Because even our kids, youth and young adults need to know where to find that oil for themselves.  They need to know how to work the lamp, and take responsibility for keeping it filled.

And so maybe that’s what we give each other, we can’t give away our own oil but we can be a place that fosters the tending of the lamps.  We can be a people who teach ways of filling them, and a people that encourages each of us to care for our own light.  Maybe we aren’t waiting at the banquet door in this story with a clear division among us between foolish and wise.  Maybe as church we are that place where the all of the maidens come for more oil.  And so this isn’t the place where we find out if we have enough.  It’s the place where we refill because we need it, we all do.

Truth is I can’t fill you with hope; the other truth is I will probably never stop telling you stories about why I have it, and why I need it, and how I long for you to have hope too.  And maybe in that kind of sharing some oil comes to be. And here’s the grace: it comes not as a depletion of my own, in fact mine grows in the telling.  And you can’t give me common sense for example, Lord knows some of you have tried, but you can model it for me, you can share the risks of living without it, the benefits of using it.  And maybe in that kind of sharing some oil comes to be.  Again, not as a depletion of your own but a strengthening, an expanding of it.  In that Bible study group many years ago, I wanted to fill their lamps with questions because I knew they needed it for their own spiritual health and I was sure they needed it that very minute!  And they wanted to fill my lamp with certainty and maybe even a bit of self-preservation while I was sitting there in that room that very minute. But it just doesn’t work that way.

What can happen is that when we gather, I can see your lamp and I can notice what keeps it burning if you’re willing to share that with me.  And I can learn from you.  And you can see my light too, listen to what fuels it, learn about what keeps it shining and tell me when you see it running low.  And somehow in that kind of offering, more oil comes to be for us all. It’s not every man for himself but everyone does have a light that needs to shine. So do what you need to do to help that happen.  And practice, refuel yourself here.

Which makes us all just a bunch of foolish maidens seeking wisdom in all of its various shapes and forms.  Or a bunch of people with different kinds of wisdoms making light, tending light.  And maybe knowing who we are in this story, is in itself a step in the right direction.

We are a people who long to recognize Christ at his coming and that longing is the attentiveness to which we have been called. And in that very longing to see, we remember the source of the oil.  And the oil itself is in endless supply and it’s always close by.  And the beauty?  The One who is oil is also light, the light of the world. And that One wants nothing more than for our lamps to shine – to shine with joy, with mercy, with compassion and love for one another and with love for ourselves too.  May it be so.

Amen.

 

 

 Put On Your Party Clothes

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sermon preached on Sunday, October 15, 1017

Proper 23, Year A:  Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

So I just had one of those weeks. And I know that I’m not alone in this because I listen to a lot of people, and I know that this isn’t a terribly uncommon phenomenon.  It’s happening at least every now and then to at least a few other folks out there.  I just had one of those weeks, one of those weeks where it felt like almost too much.

“It” being all of it.

First there was the news – news filled with another extremely challenging mix.  A mix of astonishingly petty human interactions and overwhelmingly profound human need.  And that is such a hard combination to bare.  And so I found myself staring at it all wondering  how will we get through this at all well? (to over simplify for the sake of time)

Then besides world news, there were things here at Grace, some families grieving significant changes or losses, and some new grief for us as we said good-bye to 94-year old Eskill Cornelliesun.

And there were a few other things happening too, things that have filled the air in this place with questions and probably fueled any collective anxiety:

Will the parking lot base layer get poured in time for Feeding America?

Are all of the organists ready for Wednesday? Are we?

How are Dennis and Carol doing after their surgeries this week?

Where do I park, not because there is too little parking but now there are so many options!

Have we planned enough food for Oktoberfest?

What about my own grocery list?  Where did I put that? (Am I alone in this?)

Will the Grace families who are camping this weekend ever dry out?

And what about Puerto Rico? Because when you’re having one of those weeks, those things that really are crises get mixed in right alongside of everything else and perspective is hard to come by.

And so those kinds of weeks are hard and they can be disorienting and judging by conversations I’ve been having, they’re getting more and more common. Our world is not entirely different from our world a year ago, but we are more collectively aware –  in new and in constant ways. It weighs on all of us and frankly it should.  Because we know that we can do better.

We’re just not sure how.

The good news this morning is that we’ve been invited to a banquet, a party, a feast. And this isn’t just any banquet, it’s a wedding banquet, a party whose purpose is to acknowledge love, to celebrate love in the context of an ongoing and eternal Covenant.  Covenant of God to people, and people to God, and people to each other.  That’s the gospel this morning.  We have been invited to a party whose purpose is to signify to us all that we are bound together in love.   And according to this parable, the invitations have been spread far and wide, throughout all the streets and the party is open to all.

And so maybe the most important thing we can do is dress for that kind of party – every day. Because according to this parable, if we don’t, we could miss it, tossed out into the outer darkness (which is quickly losing its appeal.) And so maybe the most important thing we can do is to prepare for the banquet, prepare ourselves for that kind of gathering.  Because the banquet is always.  The banquet is now.  And I don’t want to miss it, I don’t want anyone to miss it.

Now just a heads up in terms of what preparation might look like.  I don’t think this is necessarily your traditional, somewhat-stereotypic-but-based-in-some-fact-and-since-we-can-laugh-at-ourselves-it’s-OK- Episcopalian banquet where you have to remember which fork to use with your salad, that the butter knife must remain with the butter, the napkin goes on your lap (as soon as you sit down!) and the coffee cup goes on your left?

This is a different kind of banquet.  This is the holy stuff of God and the Spirit blows in ways that inspire and surprise.  This feast, this manna comes from heaven and it comes where it will.  And so we need to be not only willing to attend, but to look for the banquet and find it in places that might surprise us.

With this in mind know that sometimes this holy party will be a protest- because loving our neighbors, all of them, demands it.

Sometimes the banquet will happen in silence so that we can remember, we can center, we can pray and quiet ourselves to better receive gifts given.

Sometimes the celebration will be spoken in languages we don’t fully understand.  Because God speaks in those ways too.

Sometimes the banquet will be sung or played – a holy blending of voices or notes that together proclaim grace.

Sometimes we will be asked to lead at these banquet tables – to bless, to break, to share.

Sometimes we will be asked to follow because faithfulness comes in shapes and sizes and in ways we have yet to be exposed to.  At the banquet the other guests will teach us, if we’re only willing to learn.

And so the good news today, and every day is that no matter what happens in this world, or even in here — the banquet is always.  The banquet is now. The feast of love and of faithfulness is an option at every turn.  We just can’t forget that we’ve been invited.  We’ve all been invited.

“Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul wrote, “and again I will say, rejoice.”  Let your gentleness,” (your holy banquet table manners and expectations my addition) be known to everyone. The Lord is near… [And so,] whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just…whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing these things and the God of peace will be with you.”  In other words, put on your party clothes, people. Which is Paul paraphrased. The banquet is now.

Now just to come full circle and to bring it home here, I want you to know that the base layer was poured in time for Feeding America and I love that our first packed house with our new lot filled was because Grace was sharing lots of food with lots of hungry people.  A banquet happened.  And even if the base layer hadn’t been finished, lots of food would have been shared with lots of hungry people.  The banquet can’t be stopped.

There is now plenty of room for all of us to park and having to re-learn where and how to park is a good problem in the grand scheme of things.  And while we’re at it, rumor has it that the organists are indeed prepared for Wednesday and Martin Pasi is already in the house. Welcome, Martin (and Jen too 🙂

Carol and Dennis are both thankful for healing begun.  I found my grocery list.  The camping families are headed home and have begun to dry out. There are many, many ways to contribute to the needs of Peurto Ricans and others in this world who have suffered disaster and we will continue to respond as individuals and as a community of faith.  And on Thursday morning, we’ll come together to remember Eskill, and to remind each other that he is now feasting eternally at the banquet provided for all.

And so my promise to you is that this week I will seek out the banquet at every turn.  And I invite you to do the same.  I will be the banquet with you and with others and with God’s help because we need it.  So help spread the invitations!  And put yours up on your fridge, or by your bedside, or on your dash, or write it on your hand.  Don’t forget about the love that has already been given us and that desires nothing less than to gather us all for the holy feasts that are yet to be had. May we all share our own blessings and breakings as we go, trusting that in so doing, we are giving this world a little more of what it hungers for.

Amen.

“Stirring It Up To Heal”

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sermon preached on Sunday, October 1, 1017

Proper 16, Year A:  Exodus 17:1-7, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

In some ways this morning, we’re getting more of the same.  “Another Sunday, another parable,” you might be thinking.  And not only that but another parable about a field or a vineyard.  And not only another parable about a vineyard but about working in that vineyard. Remember last week’s parable where people were hired at all different times to go work in the field and then in a surprise ending that made many outraged, Jesus said that the owner paid them all the same wage no matter how many hours they’d put in. Because that that was how the kingdom worked.  Well now today, the parables itself is a little more obvious in terms of the ending, but the impact was actually the same – outrage.  And so before we go into the story, I want us to explore the setting a bit.

First of all there was really kind of a funny beginning to this gospel passage. Did you catch that?  Before we got to the point of the parable, Jesus entered the Temple, and as he entered, he was teaching people, which all seemed sort of unremarkable at first.  But before Jesus could even settle in, the chief priests and elders came to him and immediately asked him a somewhat accusatory question. And then Jesus immediately asked them a question back.  And then while Jesus stood waiting, the chief priests and elders huddled together, debated how to answer Jesus and finally decided that “We don’t know” was the best they could do. To which Jesus said something like, “Well if you’re not going to answer me then I’m not going to answer you.” And then he told them the parable.

So what was that all about?  There’s so much that doesn’t seem quite right in that. Where were the greeters when Jesus entered the Temple?  Where was the handshake?  The “good morning” or “good afternoon,” or the “nice to see you?”  What a rude welcome to a place of worship.  Before Jesus could even get his foot in the door they were confronting him.  And then while we’re at it, why was Jesus so indirect and sort of evasive in his response to their questioning of him?  It doesn’t exactly seem like the respectful dialogue or even reflective listening that one would expect from the Savior of the world.  It just seemed to go downhill so quickly on everyone’s part which is not particularly impressive if you ask me, considering that the players involved were religious leaders and the Christ himself.

It just doesn’t make sense. So let’s take another step back and see how we got here.

If we back up a few verses in Matthew, it helps a bit.  Because it turns out that the setting was already a hard one, harder than we’d know from just pulling this passage out by itself and reading its few verses.  Just a day or so before this interaction in the temple Jesus had entered into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!”  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Followers of Jesus had shouted as they waved branches of palm in the air.  Jesus was being hailed as king and the tensions around him had risen just about to the breaking point in Jerusalem so this parable’s actually told during the peak of the whole gospel story, the point at which Jesus had a large and significant following and when tensions were at their absolute highest.  And so the questions from religious leaders that day reflected those tensions which is why they were coming at him with such intensity and even a bit of a threat.

It also helps to know that the first thing that Jesus had done when he entered Jerusalem, the day before the one we heard about in today’s gospel, the first thing he’d done was to visit the temple. So today’s story is actually his second visit there. And so on that first visit, he might have been greeted, offered a handshake but then Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers while shouting quotes from Jeremiah who prophesied about the temple’s destruction. So it’s no surprise really that the greeters had run for cover when Jesus came back this time.  And it’s no surprise that the temple authorities didn’t roll out the red carpet in welcome.

And then to top it off the tensions that is (as if they needed topping) all of this took place around the Passover – so the city and the temple were packed – the Roman authorities were on high alert and the religious leaders were looking to put their best face forward. The religious leaders were prepared to serve their people but they were also trying very, very hard to make all appearances of being a calm and peaceful people so that they wouldn’t suffer at the hands of the secular authorities that ruled over them.

And so one of the things at the heart of this story is that the Temple leaders believed that they could not afford the kind of unrest that accompanied Jesus. The last thing they needed was someone who was being heralded as King turning over tables and stirring up the passions of the people, because the secular king who ruled over them would only react to that with force.  And so, the Temple leaders in all likelihood believed that they were in their actions, actually protecting their people.

So this moment in the gospel wasn’t Jesus sitting on a peaceful hillside telling a story.  And this wasn’t just a random day of worship on which a guest walked through the doors of the sanctuary. The stakes and tensions were very high before this passage even opened and so, the question that the priests and elders asked came in that context, “Just who do you think you are?”  There was a lot of pressure on these leaders so they wanted to know who had given this guy the right to come in and completely disrupt the temple scene during what was in their minds anyway, and for the sake of their people, the worst possible time for something like that to happen.

And so they asked Jesus, “By whose authority are you doing all of this?” and then Jesus did what Jesus had been doing all along; and (just for the record) he had learned this method from the chief priests and elders themselves.  He responded to their question with more questions.

And when the leaders responded, “Well, we don’t know.” Jesus told them a story:

A man had two sons and he went to both of them and told them to go work in the fields.  And the first son said he wouldn’t go, but then later he changed his mind and did go and work.  The second son, however, told his father that he would go into the fields but he never did.  “So which of these two sons,” Jesus asked them, “did the will of their father?”

And unlike some parables, this one had an easy answer. “The first one,” they said. Which is obvious, right?  It wasn’t what each son said that had mattered it was each son eventually did that mattered. And thank goodness they answered that way, because maybe for a moment or two there was some relief on the scene.  And maybe this rebellious, so-called Messiah would key it down for a while and at least let them get through the week.

But Jesus wasn’t done yet, because his role wasn’t just to relieve tensions, it was to bring about a larger scale transformation and that’s a huge part of this story.   Jesus pressed on with the already uncomfortable conversation and he did it with a direct hit  –  he told the chief priests and elders that they were actually the second brother in the story.  They were the brother who “was not helping things,” the one whom nobody wanted to be.  Right to their faces, Jesus told the chief priests and elders that they were the ones who said the right things, but weren’t actually doing the work that God was asking them to do.

And then Jesus added one final piece – he said that the tax collectors and prostitutes – the most outcast of the outcast – the most despised and least religious among them –  would go into heaven ahead of them (not instead of them, catch that – but ahead of them which was bad enough.)  And it was enough to send the chief priests and elders completely over the edge. And this whole exchange was probably enough – given everything else that was happening – to send Jesus to the cross.

And so this story is about a lot of things but I think primarily this is a story about how sometimes the Body of Christ needs to be that presence that agitates, that looks into the heart of a system that means well and pushes it over the edge, because the edges aren’t in the right places or they being used for the right purposes and are actually doing more harm than good.  The painful irony here is that the leaders of the Temple were so intent on protecting their people by saying and doing the “right things,” that they themselves had essentially become barriers to God’s grace. And so my heart breaks for them in this story too.

And if you haven’t yet made connections to today’s world, I can help with that.  Here’s just one example because there are so very many right now. It’s a parable for our day for sure.

The NFL of all organizations, led by many of its players and as of last week, some of its owners too has in some ways been turning over some tables in the temples of our society.  Tensions are, as you might have noticed, high.  Accusations and questions are being flung back and forth – in articles, on ESPN, in coffee houses, on twitter. . .

And “By what authority?” seems to be the question that rises to the top of the current shouting pile. By whose authority? The authority of the First Amendment?  The authority of the flag? What does that even mean? The authority of individual conscience, of a professional league, of the President?  And so then we have to ask what happens when very genuine, and (to give at least a majority of people involved the benefit of the doubt here,) what happens when very genuine, well-meaning responses to those questions clash and take us into the even deeper divides that we’re creating for ourselves?

Well either we continue to dig into those divides, or perhaps, we simply change the questions.  Which is what Jesus did in this passage.  Maybe the most productive (productive that is if we keep our eyes on the endgame of loving our neighbor) perhaps the most productive questions aren’t along the lines of “What time did you arrive in the field?” or “Who here has done more work or earned more rights?” Maybe the best questions aren’t along the lines that lead us only into shouting that my authority is bigger, stronger, faster – more holy, more right than yours is.

And so we need to shift.  And the shift itself is a doozy but helping that happen is a part of the calling to which we have been called. Just for the sake of another approach, let’s try some of these:  Why are you hurting? Why am I?  What are you afraid of? What scares me?  What is so meaningful to you that you risk your job, your life, the well-being of your family and take a knee in this very public arena?  What is so meaningful to you that you risk your job, your life, the well-being of your family by taking on a call to serve this country?  Why are we pretending the flag is the issue here?

My guess is that the answers to those kinds of questions if we answer them honestly don’t clash at all, nor do they divide us, just the opposite in fact. They might silence us temporarily because the answers to those kinds of questions come from a different and deeper place.  And just like in this gospel story, we like Jesus, have to die a certain kind of death in order to be willing to ask them, let alone to engage one another in listening to ourselves and others respond.  The answers themselves will change us.

And so for now like in this gospel story, we are living through days in which tables are being turned over, and some of them need to be.  We are struggling to engage in a context in which tensions are high and accusatory questions flung at every turn.  The good news is that while this is all so very hard, it’s not the worst thing that could happen to our temples.  Sometimes our role as people of faith is to allow the agitations that need to surface, to surface.  To name the barriers that hurt us and to name the ways in which we ourselves contribute systems that hurt others.

May we go into the vineyard today and in all the days that follow to do this work we have been given to do.

Amen.

Kick Off 2017

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sermon preached on Sunday, August 27, 1017 – Proper 17, Year A

 

This sermon was preached as a ‘Kids’ Sermon’ in conversation with a bunch a kids who came up to the front of the church and had a seat with me.  They brought their backpacks for a blessing.

It’s so good to see you all this morning.  You’re back in school – yeah.  I see lots of ages up here

– Wow!  What grades are you guys in?  … Kindergarten, preschool [hear from all the grades] and some high schoolers, teachers, professors, great!

And as has become the tradition on Kick Off Sunday you’ve brought your backpacks to receive a blessing today.  Good stuff.  We’ll get to that in a few minutes.

Lots going on in the world these days, huh (understatement of the morning.) And actually this morning our friends in Florida, some of us have family in Florida are in the midst of a very big storm.  Irma.  And they’ve had to either hunker down or pack it up in extraordinary ways.  You’ve probably heard a little bit about it – and so our hearts are full this morning, praying for their safety.

So a couple of things about all of this.

I heard someone say yesterday on the news that as we watch some of the worst of what can happen in this world, we also see some of the best of what we humans can do in this world.  And I think that’s true.  Storms and other bad things can bring out some of our best – true.  Lots of prayers and support and aid is flowing from all kinds of people and places to Texas and Mexico and Louisiana and Islands and Florida. Have you guys been watching that – people helping other people all over the place.  It’s practically a miracle.

And I want to run with that.  I want us all to run with that.

Because actually that “best” is what we should be like all the time. It shouldn’t take a Harvey or an Irma really, because truth is that there is always somebody whose in the middle of a storm – sometimes it’s big like Irma, miles and miles around effecting millions.  Sometimes it’s a different kind of storm, that hits a family or even just one person.  Storms come.  And we should be ready, willing, prepared to help.  We are as this tag says, blessed not only for own sake, but to be a blessing in this world.  And storms are when that’s needed most.  In so many ways we are the first responders, the always responders.

And so in my pack just some ideas here – I have –

Water –  for me right?  Staying hydrated is important, and I brought an extra, for someone else because water isn’t always easy to come by.

Band-Aids

Snack – and one to share

Pillow- because when you’ve been through a storm, you’re exhausted.

Prayer Shawl- because at Grace this is a gift we give to warm people and remind them of this whole community that’s in it with them.  [wrap it around a kid]

Oil for healing – like at Baptism you were blessed this is a reminder that the Spirit is still with you.

I have a way to donate money – Episcopal Relief and Development is on the ground in all of these places, all of us can give something.

Prayer Book – whatever the storm is there are prayers in here to carry us through.

And here’s another cool thing – each of us has something in our packs that is very special to our gifts, something that you in particular bring.  Bread and wine for me. How about you guys?  [rubik’s cube, umbrella, soccer ball, crayons….]  I also brought a Kick Ball for our game later 🙂

Where two or there are gathered, amazing and holy things can happen we heard in the gospel today. Miracles can happen.  In any kind of storm. May we be that two or three who gather with prayers and gifts and lots of love.  “Look for the helpers,” Mr Rogers said.  “Always look for the helpers.”  May the storms of these days, all the storms of these days wake us up to all that we have to give, which is nothing short of blessings to all.

Loving God, bless the packs of the people of Grace Church.  May these packs help us carry the things that we need to learn, to grow, to respond, to share. Bless these kids and youth as they begin a new year. And as the people of your world suffer many storms, gather us as the two or three or hundreds or thousands prepared to offer the blessings that come from you.  Amen.

 

Who Do You Say That I Am? (Hint- The Answer Matters)

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sermon preached on Sunday, August 27, 1017 – Proper 16, Year A:  Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

Well it’s good to be back after almost three weeks away.  I am so very grateful to return to a place and a people whom I love and with whom I get to do the ministry that is my, that is our work.  So thank you – I come back refreshed, more focused and I’m excited about the beginning of a new program year here at Grace.  I’m also very much looking forward to the next steps in all of the various projects – from organ to parking to program to properties to people, we are sort of a project too – through which life and grace are unfolding here.

But before we move forward, I want to reflect a bit with you on the past few weeks, most of which I spent in Scotland and some of which I spent wrestling with what it means to be a person of Christian faith in this time and in this place that I call home.  And the first look back is a distant one.

As you approach the Abbey on the Isle of Iona you walk a path that has been walked by Christians since the 500’s.  That’s five-zero-zero meaning over 1500 years ago.  The Abbey was founded by St Columba who left Ireland during a time of immense religious struggles.  A time in which Christians were fighting among themselves (so note – this is not a new phenomenon.) Columba came to Iona because he was working out his role as learned and wise abbot and missionary, but he was also working out some personal stuff.  Columba was openly repentant and not proud that he himself had been a leader in a local battle over a book of psalms.  (You smile but it’s amazing what historically we have managed to fight over.)  This battle had actually left hundreds dead and that whole experience (to make a long story into an obvious understatement) left St Columba feeling as if faith had to be lived out different than that.

And so Columba left for Scotland with twelve other monks (a nice symbolic number there.)  And they settled on the island of Iona off Scotland’s west coast where they founded an Abbey and a community of faith.  And that Abbey has attracted pilgrims for centuries.  Since Columba’s day Iona has been a place that has birthed creative and at times mildly edgy expressions of faith – the Lindisfarne gospels were written/drawn on Iona and in their day were groundbreaking in their artistic expressions. The huge stone crosses that integrate Celtic design and animals (again pushing the edges) mark the landscape around the Abbey. Columba and his monks traveled throughout Scotland offering new expressions and new hope.  And through this whole experience, Columba himself became known not only as missionary but also as a diplomat.  Columba was absolutely committed to finding ways to remain rooted in Christian faith, and given his experience, to also being a voice and a presence for reconciliation in this world.

And so Iona has become known worldwide as a community through which people of faith are fed to work for justice and peace in this world.  The community there writes prayers and music and they offer daily services of morning and evening prayer.

Columba landed on Iona to step away and essentially to work out his place in an imperfect world, in an imperfect Church where the temptations toward violence were many, and the places where power met faith met politics met hope were tangled in sometimes truly grievous ways.  Columba landed on Iona having had an honest and first-hand experience of what it means to live in this world as a person of faith acknowledging that none of us can escape, nor are we necessarily meant to escape the tangle.  Christians from all different times and all different places have walked that path laid down by Columba and his friends.  From that Abbey and throughout the British Isles, and the world, Iona’s community has become known for their honest, prayerful, and compassionate approach to being faithful in the midst of very human struggles engaging the world in ways that have led and can lead to creative and compassionate expressions of what it means to be Christian in this time and in this place (whatever the time and place happen to be.)

“Who do you say that I am?” we heard Jesus ask today’s gospel passage.  And if we were to make a list of the top five Christian identity-shaping questions in all of Scripture this would be near the top, if not on the top of that short list.

And so while I was away, there were demonstrations by white supremacists and the covers of domestic, and I assure you, foreign newspapers pictured young men marching with torches in Virginia chanting horrendous threats of, “Jews will not replace us,” many of them claiming their Christian faith as their motivation and justification for their actions.  While I was away, the home of the Director of the LGBT Community Center in Jackson, Michigan was burned down in an act of arson.  That Director, named Nikki had recently led the passionate yet peaceful process of that City adopting a fair and humane non-discrimination ordinance. The arsonist is reported to have claimed his Christian faith as motivation and justification for his actions. And shortly after that, again bringing it closer to home, nooses were hung in a neighborhood in Muskegon making direct threats against the African Americans who call that place home. The group who was reported responsible, claim Christian faith as motivation and justification for such actions.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked in the gospel today. It is as imperative as it ever was that we answer that question because the world, far away and very near by needs voices of compassion to speak out.  The path to Grace, Holland has “only” been tread for about one hundred and fifty years, but we stand with a long and deep community of faithful Christians for whom reconciliation, justice, creativity and compassion serve as a means by which we can answer Jesus’ question with love, love of self, love of neighbor, love of stranger, and love of enemy too.

Who do you say that I am?  Here are some thoughts for a response to the Christ:

You are the one who named the poor, the meek, the persecuted and the peacemakers as those who are blessed. You, Jesus, are the one who raised light not as threat, but as a hope, as a way, a merciful means by which darkness would be overcome, not spread.

You, Jesus, are the one who ate with outcasts and sinners, Jews and gentiles.  You yourself were a faithful Jewish man.

You are the one who pushed the religious edges of your day, healing on the Sabbath when religious law was inhibiting wholeness rather than providing it; you were the one who welcomed those who were ritually “unclean” because experiencing the presence and gifts of “the other” were and are a critical dimension of experiencing the kingdom you bring.

You are the one who invited all who were weary and heavy laden to come for rest.  The one who gave sight to the blind, helped the lame to walk, and set the prisoners free.

The one whose supremacy was inherently bound to the action of giving one’s life for a friend, giving one’s life for a stranger, and an enemy too.  The one who stood in the midst of the hatred and violence, abuses, inequalities, divisions of this world and by offering love, created holy ground for all.

Like Columba and so many others in our tradition, we can answer the question in today’s gospel in ways that breath hope and compassion and mercy into a world so very desperately in need of such grace.   Because of the way God set this whole thing up the coming of the kingdom is a participatory experience, meaning that we have a role to play in laying the path of faith in our time and in our place. And how we answer today’s question will determine the kinds of stones we lay. As we move forward, grace unfolding around and through us may our paths be strewn with compassion, mercy, justice, peace and among all things, love.

A prayer attributed to Columba:

O Lord, grant us that love which can never die… May we receive unquenchable light from you so that our darkness will be illuminated and the darkness of the world will be made less. Amen.
 

The Moment We’ve All Been Waiting For

The Rev. Jennifer Adams- August 23, 2017

Proper 11A: Psalm 139: 1-12, 23-24,  Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

For a couple of weeks now, we’ve been hearing from this section in the Gospel of Matthew that has Jesus speaking parables about the kingdom of God.  And in several of these parables, he talks about seeds.  Last week we heard that seed has been sown on all kinds of ground – on paths, rocky on ground, on thorn filled ground, and in good soil too.  So even if you missed last week, you can probably figure out in that whole scenario which seeds have the best odds of making it.

Now this week we hear that not only has good seed been sown but that “while they were sleeping the enemy came in and sowed weeds among the wheat.” Next week (spoiler alert) we’ll hear about the mighty mustard seed that contains within its tiny self the power to change the world. All have something to do with growth and taking hold, being rained on and receiving sunshine; they are about tending and nurturing and producing in ways that are a reflection of or even a manifestation of the kingdom of God.

And I could preach in that direction forever.  In fact I really like to preach in that direction. And last week I did – I talked about making good soil and growing good seeds. I shared the music of John Denver and the wise humor of the Muppets and talked about how “inch by inch and row by row, we’re gonna make this garden grow!” We focused on gentle harmonies and fertile ground and the blessing of seeds.  And we need time here and in our own lives to focus in on such things.

But there is another dimension to these parables too, and I don’t just want to skip over it as Episcopalians can be known to do. We’re hearing about growth in these passages, but we’re also hearing about judgement and I think we need to sit with those pieces too.

Matthew works a vision of “udgement day or at least a “judgement process” into many of these parables and when he does that, it’s in pretty dramatic ways – not wanting us to miss it apparently.  Today we heard that the wheat and the weeds will be separated from each other, the weeds collected, and then the weeds will be thrown into “the furnace of fire.”  “Let those who have ears listen,” Jesus said.

Now I was reminded as I studied up this week that Matthew is the only one who, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “waxes eloquent on the end of the world.”  Granted, Mark can weave a bit of an apocalyptic in and out of his message, but Matthew is “the only one who mentions a furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  His is the only Gospel that contains the wise and foolish virgins, the division of the sheep from the goats, and today’s parable about the wheat and the weeds.”  It is Matthew who, more than any of the other gospel writers, goes right at the very human tendency to want clarity.  Even we who in very sophisticated form tend to lean away from the whole concept of strict and certain divisions want to know (or we at least wonder on rare occasion while driving in our cars by ourselves) about where and how lines get drawn between “between good and bad, faithful or wicked, blessed or cursed.”   And we want that for good reason; we want to know, because bad hurts.  We experience or witness unfairness or worse, violence or any other version of what one would consider “the bad” on an all too regular basis in this world. We see what seems like unnecessary pain and hurt, and we want it to end.

And so in some ways his message is a very kind and reassuring one meant to bring some relief to anyone who suffers and or witnesses suffering, and that’s all of us and some in much more extreme ways than any of is will ever know: “Don’t worry,” is what Matthew is essentially telling the followers of Jesus through the words of Jesus.  In another passage he actually uses that very phrase.  That which is bad in this world will not be a part of the kingdom of God when it comes into its fullness.  The weeds will be gone.  Evil will be defeated.  That which chokes out wholeness or health or life or love will be eradicated once and for all this gospel tells us.  And that is good news!  For everyone.

God will ultimately usher in an entirely new day which is what these moments of “waxing on end times” tell us.  God will usher in a kingdom in which “the righteous will shine like the sun,” Jesus said at the end of this parable. There will be a time a place in which the righteous can finally, completely, entirely shine like the sun and not be afraid, or inhibited, or limited in their blessedness.  The righteous will one day be free, the gospel tells us.

And that is good news.  There will be a day, there will be a time when as Julian of Norwich put it, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

The catch of course, the critical piece of this and the reason why it can remain good news is that all of these parables are also very clear about whose role it is to be judge and whose it’s not. This is absolutely key.  It’s one of the differences between “gospel” and “not gospel.” Jesus is providing comfort in these parables, but he’s also communicating unequivocally that it’s not our job to do the sorting.

Notice that none of these parables say “now go back to your congregations, go out into your communities and decide who is a sheep and who is a goat. Put the sheep over there and the goats over there and don’t ever mingle.”  These parables don’t say, “Go weed your gardens and the gardens of the church and those of the world now! Hack’m right up!”  In fact, they say just the opposite: “Let the weeds grow,” Jesus says, “because one of the worst things you can do, is try to sort it all out yourselves.”

We know all too well where sorting gets us.  It gets us to the Holocaust and genocides at our worst and most extreme.  It gets us to denominational battles, to segregation, to apartheid. It gets us into who deserves care and who doesn’t, who should have rights and who shouldn’t, who is worthy of sacrament and who is not.  Sorting leads to the question of who is most deserving rather than into the work of sharing abundant, grace-filled gifts. Separating into “righteous and unrighteous” leads us in small insidious ways and in larger, horrific ways into doing the identifying, gathering, and building of fires none none of which is ours do.

That work if it is to be done at all, (and according to Matthew it is, according to others not) that work if it is to be done at all is God’s. And so tucked inside of these lovely parables about gardens and growth, there’s a very important warning to us all.  Stay away from the sorting, this Gospel tells us because we aren’t wise enough, and I would add, we aren’t merciful enough to pull it off in any semblance of what it means to “be well.”

So this week while we were praying through the Eucharist on Wednesday morning, I heard the confession and absolution with different meaning than I have before.  I heard it as one version of a mini judgement day:

There we are before God, having fully lived our lives and with God in that moment, we’re sharing our joys, confessing our sins, perhaps being reminded of those joys and sins we’ve forgotten or buried.  There we are on judgement day, (whatever that means) in all of our goatness and all of our sheepness, in all of our our wheatiness and all of our weediness – all of it fully exposed, and there is God. God with us.  Us with God.  There we are with the one whom the psalmist said so beautifully, “has searched me out and known me, you know my lying down and my rising up.”  The one who is “acquainted with all of my ways.”

And it’s that moment we’ve been waiting for, right? Even if you’ve been raised a relatively even-keeled, no-fire-and-brimstone Episcopal type you’ve at least wondered about it, haven’t you. And so it’s that moment that maybe we’ve also been deep-down, secretly been dreading.  Are we sheep or are we goat?  Are we wheat or are we weed?  Foolish or wise? And in that moment we are hoping against hope that at the very least percentages matter!  Because when it comes right down to it, for heaven’s sake we at least lean good and it will weigh in our favor!  And so in that moment maybe it’s a little hard to breath, if breathing is still necessary that is.

And into that quiet, at that moment when our greatest hopes meet our greatest fears, God looks at us and says, “Yes. You are all of it. And, you are blessed, and forgiven, and loved.”

Our sins are stripped away, gathered and tossed into a fire that consumes them once and for all. Whatever it is that has inhibited our own growth and whatever it is that has choked out the growth of others, is removed for eternity. Our “dones” and our “un-dones” released forever. They’re tossed into the fire that perhaps we gather around to share stories or have reunions.  Or maybe as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, the fire provides the heat that bakes the bread that is part of the eternal feast shared.

In that moment, we are, in the words of our prayer of absolution, “strengthened in all goodness.”  Through an amazing grace offered us and offered all, we are welcomed in to eternal life.

May it be so.

Amen.

 

* Barbara Brown Taylor quotes are from The Seeds of Heaven, and her sermon “Learning to Live with Weeds,” Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.