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The Mess of Us

Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – July 9, 2017 – Proper 9, Year A: Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Well, my goodness, Paul, (Apostle Paul that is) who in that letter to the Romans, the second lesson today, was working so very hard, which was not atypical for Paul.  It’s just that it’s so easy, reading his letter over two thousand years later to get lost in his circles.  So the first thing I want to say is, Great job with that, Logan Schmidt, who on your first Sunday as a Lay Eucharistic Minister got this very complicated passage to read with us. And you did it, like a pro. In fact, nobody out there would have known this was your first Sunday if I hadn’t just announced it, but now they know.  When I train LEMs I often joke about how one of the benefits of ordination is that I don’t usually have to read the Old Testament Lesson or the Epistle out loud during the service, meaning that I avoid almost all of the hard to pronounce names and places (Cherie) and all of the letters of Paul, Logan.  So as an important aside today thank you, all of you who read here at Grace and among many other things, make my job that much easier.

That being said let’s see what we can do here with Paul, because as tempting as it is to let it roll by us this morning, I do want to dive into Romans and unpack it a bit. Let’s see what these Pauline circles might be saying to us today. In case you missed any of it, here it is again in part, because I’m not as brave as Logan:

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it…. if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me…For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Now first I resonate with Paul on a very deep level, and my guess is that as resistant as we can be to Paul (I know that resistance is out there) most of us resonate with his struggles to some extent, anyway.  Paul is among other things very upfront with his personal struggles: “I do not understand my own actions,” he tells the people of Rome.  Well, I do not understand my own actions sometimes, either, people of Grace.  And so there it is: me and Paul.  Maybe you and me and Paul.  I don’t always do what I want myself to do or what I think I should do.  Like Paul, as hard as a try, and like Paul, I try very hard, I can not claim that my actions are in alignment with my beliefs, my vision for myself and this world, or even my own intentions, 100% of the time.  I occasionally hit 90%-ish perhaps or that rare, fleeting glimpse of 95%.  But then it slips, something slips.

And so just like Paul, I find myself out of sinc with myself on an all too regular basis.

Now what I think Paul is trying to do in this passage is explain how and why that very thing happens.  “How can I be out of alignment with me,” is the question he’s working out in this passage. It’s hard enough to wrestle with how I can be out of sinc with someone else, and usually that’s what we talk about here – the distance and tensions between and among people and neighbors.  But this is different.  Paul is taking just Paul. I am taking just me.  And you are looking at just you.  How can we be divided even with ourselves?

So at this point, Paul and I take different tacks.  We have the same struggle.  But (not a big surprise to you) I’m sure, we have different explanations for why and how the struggle happens.  Paul’s approach is to say that his mind is good, and his body is bad.  (That’s a slight oversimplification, but I’ve only got a total of about 12 minutes here so I encourage you to read more about this from some good Biblical scholars.) For the sake of this sermon, however, I want us to see that Paul, given the frameworks that existed in the time and place in which he lived, maintained strict boundaries and distinctions between the mind and spirit, and the body.  And Paul used those frameworks for explaining himself and to help him communicate his new faith to the people of Rome and other cities and regions.  And we do that too and we should –  we use the tools that exist in our own day to seek understanding of the world, ourselves and our faith, to communicate, to explain, to explore.

And so Paul as circular as he sounded, and as very painfully hard as he worked at it, actually used a rather simple explanation for his out of sinc-ness.  His mind was good and the physical reality that was his body was bad, actually in his words, his body was “wretched.”

And unfortunately, that particular explanation made it into Scripture, or maybe not unfortunate that it made it into Scripture but that it became the dominant explanation rather than one among many.

Unfortunate because I think that while the struggle for personal alignment is itself so very human, the explanation of mind is good and body is bad at times anyway hurt rather than helped us align as well as we might.  We’ve set minds and souls against bodies, seeing the physical dimensions of our very God-created selves as “the enemy” and I just don’t see how that approach can possibly get us to the wholeness we seek and that I and Paul believe God wishes for us.

That being said, I don’t have an explanation that offers any more clarity than Paul’s does.  In fact my approach is much messier than what he offered.  The sin that Paul talks about residing in one dimension of himself is everywhere, in my theological opinion.  It’s in me, all of me and my mind has as much to do with it as my body, probably more given what we now know now about the connections between mind and body, brain and body, given the frameworks we have at our disposal now.

The bad that I do or the lack of good that I do isn’t because my mind is saying all sorts of righteous things 100% of the time and my body disobeys it.  Sometimes it’s my mind that says, “you don’t have to recycle that,” or “someone else will stand up for that person,” or “eat all of that now” or “you don’t need that much sleep” or “that bit of forgiveness can wait, you’ve got other things on your to-do list that need to get done today.”

Dang that mind. Sometimes as much as my body would like to be doing good, my mind lets it off the hook!

Which is why I lean toward the explanation of personal, holistic mess, or the “all of me is responsible for both the good and bad that I do,” rather than the body-mind divide.  Bodies do good, bodies do bad.  Minds do good, minds do bad.  And most of the time, they’re in it together.

Perhaps I shouldn’t knock Paul for his circles, given that in the end he has some clean lines and my approach leaves us with one heap of messy person.  (But I do promise Logan, not to ask you to read any of this out loud.)

So where I lean is into the acknowledgement that given that mess, the many challenges that are “me,” 100% is not achievable by me, Jen Adams, or any of us for that matter, in this life.  It will take more than me to iron me out eternally.

Now I play a crucial role in helping that happen on a daily basis, but I need help.  I need room to confess when and how I am out of sinc.  This means that I need time to still my body and my mind so that I can listen to myself and reflect on my actions and re-align as best I can on a very regular basis.  I also need people who will be honest with me, when they see my words and my actions, my intentions and my behaviors, my calling and my doing out of sinc with other. I need all of you and relationships of mutuality, honesty, and trust.

And I, like Paul, simply need to keep working at this alignment, internal reconciliation we could call it, which I believe comes through a combination of my participation in that process and pure grace.  It will take more than me to iron me out, I’m sure of it.  Alignment, individually, communally, globally ultimately is in part, perhaps in large part gift.

And so people of Grace, be both gentle to yourself and challenge yourself and help us be a community that practices both of those things with each other.  Know that we aren’t seeking perfection, but we have been offered goodness and we have been granted abundant and unconditional divine love. The flute is playing” the gospel says, and the dance of faith, the holy life is open to all.  We can all do better than we do, with our bodies and our minds, with ourselves And through grace, that growth, that healing, that forgiveness, those glimpses of wholeness are being offered to us every day.

May we make room to receive such gifts.

 

Amen.

Revealing Silence

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – April 30, 2017 – Easter 3, Year A: Luke 24:13-25

I knew at some point last week that it was going to be silly for me to try to preach from up front this morning.  I didn’t want to spend the whole time saying “Hey, you hoo…up here?” while you all tried to sneak in looks at this astoundingly beautiful organ that we’re beginning to welcome into our sanctuary.  And so rather than ask you to turn away from it, I’m going to ask you to turn toward it, and I’ll make it easy on you and talk from back here this morning.

I also realized that this is probably the last Sunday for what could in all reality be hundreds of years that this organ is silent.  There are a few pipes that have been installed as you can see, but there are hundreds, maybe still over a thousand that are yet to go in.  Hence the wooden crates out in the commons.  They’re full of the pieces of this organ that will make each note and each tone that each of the about 1200 pipes was created to make. By next Sunday, the organ will be able to make a few sounds and over about five weeks, it will grow into its fullness before our very own eyes and ears.

And so this is the last Sunday that this organ is a beautiful but silent presence among us.  More on that in a couple minutes.

Now there have been many wonderful dimensions of this past week.  And one of the big ones has been welcoming Martin Pasi and his team, Marcus and Grant to Grace Church.  And Martin is here with us this morning. I’ll have questions for you later this morning, Martin, but I want to say first that you are an incredibly skilled and gracious team.  And so, we’re learning not only about organs as this plays out, but about how genuine artisans go about their work.

You’re bringing this organ to life in a way that very genuinely invites us into the process, and I’m sure that’s not always the case.  We actually helped carry the pieces of this organ into our church.  It was hands on for any of us who wanted to and could be a part of that day. And we didn’t drop anything.  Although there few of us who didn’t breathe much as we carried pipes and beautiful wooden pieces from the massive moving truck into our sanctuary. Thank you, Martin, for the trust communication in that. It was meaningful to us.

I’ve also seen you, while very focused in on and hopefully enjoying the process of building this organ, take moments here and there to interact with varieties of people as they come to observe this installation.  And so we are grateful not only for what you have brought to us in this instrument, but also for the way in which you are present with us these days.

Now another significant piece that happened this week is that the donor of this gift became comfortable sharing who she is probably to some extent out of the pure celebration and relief of it all.  We, it made it to this moment!  And so this morning and at various points along the way, I will share with you that this organ was given by Melinda Heiberg in memory of her husband Eric.  And actually, Melinda has said that “Eric gave us this gift,” but I’m going to give you both credit as we go along here.

Some of you knew Eric. He died several years ago now but was a gracious and wise presence among us.  Melinda describes Eric as a “not highly musical person” certainly not a trained musician.  But Eric loved music and he sang for years and years in the Grace Church choir alongside of professionals and lay musicians alike.  Eric appreciated the nature of Grace’s music – the fine musical tradition of the Episcopal Church held closely with the practice of including and actually encouraging anyone who wanted to sing.  Now I’ll tell more of Eric’s story here and there over the next many weeks, but today I want to say that one of the most beautiful things about Eric Heiberg was his ability to listen.  Eric was kind and wise in a way that allowed whoever was in front of him to be present too.

And so I’d like to circle back to the silence of this instrument, because soon when the outward build is complete later this week, the organ will begin to be brought into voice. It will as I understand it be “listened into voice.”  Martin, you talk about your role as “facilitating that process,” which is probably on the humble side of explanations, but we’ll take it.

This whole process started with its creation in Roy, Washington but this organ’s music will come into being here via the facilitation, the invitation to sing.  Each pipe has a sound to make, and so the voicing process involves attention to each pipe on its own, but also to the music that it will make with other pipes. You can see why this instrument will be a fit for us here at Grace!  (And why I’m basically set with sermons for weeks to come.)  The voicing process itself will take about four weeks.

And so something is being slowly but surely revealed to us these weeks.  Grace is on a road of sorts, to tie in with this morning’s gospel story.  And we begin in the silence of what becomes revelation. Like Jesus did with the disciples, we begin by listening.  Like Eric Heiberg did too and like Martin does in his work we begin by listening.  We begin in the kind of silence that carries the stories we bring to this day – including Eric’s and Melinda’s.  Including Martin’s, and Marcus’, and Grant’s, including the disciples’, and the story that is Grace Church.

And over this walk we’ll be given glimpses of something of God’s grace.  Now I don’t expect you to “open up all of the Scriptures” for us, Martin, like happened in the gospel today.  But I do expect (because it’s already happening!) that Christ will be present through this process reminding us in surprising moments that new life comes, that redemption happens – through gift, through silence, through art, through song, through memories, through, vision, through welcome, through grace.

And so I do have to move back up front this morning, but please take time after the service to see what’s happening back here. This organ is meant to be ours, shared gift, and it will teach us things even as we welcome it into being among us.

In the meantime, we’ll pray and we’ll bless and we’ll break some bread and we’ll share it. And given the gospel passage we just heard, something is bound to happen in the midst of all of that too.

Amen.

Healing Beyond Answers

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – April 23, 2017 – Easter 2, Year C: John 20:19-31

Usually when I hear this gospel story, I allow it to connect with my inner Thomas, or my at times, not so inner Thomas.  In this story there is permission granted for doubts and questions and being “that one” who just isn’t sure about various proclamations of faith that surround them.  And I need that.  Maybe you do too.

I’ve told you before that I consider Thomas one of the patron saints of the Episcopal Church, because I know that many of us found our way here, or stayed here in this church because there’s room for us to question and to continue searching even as we adopt a budding and a changing, evolving faith.  We make room in this place for doubt, for questions and we actually believe that such things strengthen faith rather than threaten it. And so today, and any time here at Grace I invite you to let your inner Thomas flow. Share your doubts, your fears, your wonderings, your questions – and know that you’re not alone.

Now I also have to add that even given my love of a good search, I do think that that last bit might be the heart of this gospel story. Thomas wasn’t just “the one who had his doubts put to ease.”  He was the one who was alone and then he wasn’t.  That’s the good news here.  Like the prodigal Son, or lost sheep, or like Nicodemus, or the Samaritan woman whom we met in this gospel of John a few weeks ago, Thomas had experienced something that had separated him from his people. Remember that when this story opened, Thomas was the one who had been “away.”

Now the story doesn’t say where Thomas had been when Jesus appeared to them the first time. In all likelihood Thomas was just off doing something else.  Maybe he was working, or running errands, or maybe Thomas was off by himself grieving the loss of the one whom we had come to hope was the Messiah. The one who had become his friend and his hope.  Regardless, it’s safe to say that Thomas probably wasn’t off trying to conjure up a good heavy dose of doubt in order to exclude himself from the faith of the community.  Thomas’ questions hadn’t separated him, life had.

And so Jesus came back again.  That’s what’s so amazing about this story.  No judgement, No punishment. No questions asked of Thomas, initially anyway.  Jesus simply appeared again and invited Thomas to place his hands in his side.  It was a simple moment, really.  “Be here,” Thomas the invitation said.  “Connect with us, Thomas. Place your hand. Touch and heal and rise, with us Thomas.”

And so the healing offered in this story wasn’t really about “questions answered.”  This was person received, person forgiven, person embraced, person loved.

And that all starts to sound a little mushy for us sophisticated types.  It’s easier, safer in many ways to talk about the cool edginess of questions and doubt, to be pushing and learning and growing all the time.  In fact I think it can ironically be safer to immerse ourselves in the doubts we carry than it can be to risk being forgiven, embraced, and loved through them.  It can be safer to immerse ourselves in our doubts and our questions than it can be to belong to a people.  There’s a vulnerability to Thomas’ story – that moment when he lets go and places his hand in Jesus side changes his life forever.  Not because his doubts were eased, but because he was received and he was among.  Peace was offered Thomas too.

And so the gospel has a bit of holy mush to it, it has a lot of love to it, and as a people who honor our doubts we should let the love sink in too. Deep down, I think that’s the real reason why many of us are here.  We come here to think, and to wrestle, and to push the envelope at times.  We come here to stretch ourselves and our faith, to give it the work out that is a healthy, ongoing and lifelong exploration around the edges.  But that’s not all that it’s about for us, for any of us.

Remember that Jesus opened this gospel with a question.  I find that so very wonderful as today’s story at the end of the same gospel offers a beautiful, grace-filled echo.  The first time Jesus met those who would be disciples he opened the encounter with a question of them, “What are you looking for?” he asked.  And he and they spent the entire gospel allowing that question to shape them and the ways in which they interacted with Christ and all who came their way.

One of our core human answers to “What is it you’re looking for?” is “to be received, to be forgiven, to be embraced, to be loved.”  And I think receiving those gifts is how conversion happens, over and over again.  And I think that’s what the gospel is all about.  A little mushier perhaps than a traditionally catechetical approach to faith (not that I’m against it) but I do think that a simple, loving reception is the most important gift we have to give one another, our neighbors, and the people of this world.

Because odds are good (that is if Thomas really is a good Patron Saint for Episcopalians) that he had some more questions a few days after that moment with Jesus, perhaps a few hours after.  What exactly did you mean by Body and Blood?  Will I be risen?  When?  You told me to love my neighbor and my enemy, are you really sure about that?  How come we fight so much? What should I think and believe about other faiths?  Why don’t dogs live longer than they do? How about people?  Will there ever be a cure for cancer?  How did God think to make birds sing?  What should I do with my life?  How can I protect my kids?  How can I help this world heal, Jesus?  And what exactly is transubstantiation?  And so on… for Thomas and for us.

But maybe Thomas’ questions weren’t the point.  Neither was his doubt.  Place your hands here, Thomas.  Connect here, Thomas. Touch and heal and rise with us, Thomas.  Jesus received Thomas just like Jesus had received everyone who had come to him – by night, by day, at the well, at the cross, in the garden, by the sea. And in through those embraces came the healing Thomas and others needed, a healing that went far beyond what answers could ever provide.

And so maybe our calling is this  –  to be those who aren’t afraid to doubt, who are energized by questions and even more importantly, to be those who aren’t afraid to receive, who aren’t afraid to belong.

Amen.

Surprised by Grace

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – April 16, 2017 – Easter Day

So one of the amazing things about that first Easter morning as told by Matthew was how suddenly and how joyfully it all happened.  The women had come to the tomb after a long many days, a painful many days of confusion, suffering, and loss.  These women were likely very, very weary, exhausted even, as grief has a way of making you so.  They were probably full of questions having witnessed denials, betrayals, and injustices to the point of devastation.  And it was all even harder because Jesus, the One at the center of it all, was the one whom they had hoped to be the Messiah. And so over the past many days, their hopes had been shattered too.

And so, as was their custom in grief, the women came to the tomb that first Easter morning. And they came fully expecting and prepared to mourn.

But before they could shed another tear it happened!  Hear that! Before they could shed another tear, it happened: The earth shook and an angel descended from heaven. The angel then rolled the stone away from the tomb, sat on the stone (wonderful image there), told the women not to be afraid (given that this was all a bit shocking) and the angel then proclaimed to them that Christ was risen!

Just like that.  These women had come fully prepared and expecting to mourn but instead there was an angel. And the angel was announcing new life.

And then the angel told the women to go and share the news and on their way to do that, Christ himself appeared to the women, fully, newly alive and indeed risen from the dead.  That first Easter morning the women came fully expecting and prepared to grieve and instead there was resurrection. Right in front of their eyes – undeniable.  And life and faith were renewed.

And that’s how it happens.  Resurrection is always a surprise because no matter how many Easters we celebrate, no matter how many times we sing these hymns, or proclaim this Creed, or renew our baptismal vows… no matter how many times we ourselves experience some form of life coming from death, resurrection still comes as a surprise. Because like it was with the women that first Easter morning, resurrection runs counter to what we are prepared for and expecting to encounter. Even the most faithful among us gets sucked in to believing this isn’t so, because resurrection is not how the world works.

Resurrection, unlike almost anything else, always comes by grace.

Notice that in this gospel story, new life wasn’t earned by anyone. In fact over the past few days in these gospel stories we’ve heard about the horrendous and nearly unanimous failure of the human beings involved in the story – from the main characters like Peter who denied the Christ and Judas who betrayed the Christ and his friends too. We heard about the systems that failed all around them; an innocent man was put on trial as one who proclaimed to “not be from here” was arrested and sentenced to death.  In this gospel story, religious and government leaders acted out of fear rather than courage or wisdom and even the very, very good people in this story could not stop the wreck that they had become.

And yet, resurrection still happened to and for and among them and counter to the ways of this world, the grace and forgiveness and mercy at the heart of new life was offered them all.  It was and is pure gift which runs counter to how we are taught things happen.  “Go tell people,” Jesus told the women and a few verses later he told his disciples, “Go tell the world that new life has come!”

And so the promise and grace of new life came through Christ not to a select few who had gotten it right, not to the ones who had won the battle.  Resurrection came not just to those who had proven themselves worthy or most faithful or right, presumably because there wasn’t anyone like that. They were all to various degrees a part of the wreck.  And yet (the yet that is grace,) new life was offered them all.  And that moment of new life came as a surprise. Which is how resurrection works.

Resurrection is God’s doing, not our own.  And really we should expect it or at least trust that it will be.  We can’t time it, or force it, or will it.  Resurrection is bigger than that. Thank God. (Literally.)  But it comes.  Resurrection always comes.  It shakes the earth and appears like an angel who descends out of nowhere when you’ve come expecting to and are prepared to mourn.  That’s how resurrection happens.  Very simply, by grace.

So, don’t be afraid, people of Grace, people of this world, new life is always on its way.  New life is always being offered us all.

Amen.

 

 

 

Heartbroken for Good

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – April 14, 2017 – Good Friday

One of the things I love about Grace Church is that the members of this congregation very genuinely want to help make the world a better place.  Now we don’t always agree on how that should happen, but I believe that that intent to “do good,” to do “faithful good” in and for this world is practically (if not absolutely) unanimous in this place.

We want healing to come to individuals, to nations, to humanity writ large. We want reconciliation where there is division and forgiveness where grudges hold. We want freedom, liberation for others and for ourselves seeing all people as “created in the image of God.” Here at Grace, we call pull each other out from different “sides” and meet in places of compassion and generosity.  And that is a gift we should do everything we can to maintain.  The world needs us!

This is a congregation that does not by any means agree on everything, yet the people of Grace very genuinely want to believe that in the end as the saying goes, love wins.  And not only that, but we make efforts from varieties of directions, including outreach and prayer, toward helping that happen in our own lives and as a community of faith.

And so I would safely bet that today breaks whatever heart you have brought with you into this space. This story contains all the “stuff” we hope not to promote, yet alone embody. This part of the gospel in many ways contains all that we fight against and so it is so very hard to hear.  This is betrayal, injustice, abandonment, and fear all taking hold on a level that was nothing short of devastating.  This is human failure and blatant sin.  “Created in the image of God” seems to have been the furthest thing from just about everyone’s mind in this gospel story. Jesus was utterly alone.  There was mocking and lying and struggles for power and more grief and confusion than even the strongest among them could manage to behold for long.

And so this is not who we want to be.  This is not who we have been called to be.

And yet this is also who we are.  And maybe that’s what’s breaking our hearts today.  We are a good people here who together make each other better people, and I remain absolutely committed to that project and I hope you are too.  But today calls us into a different kind of space, not the kind of space in which we usually come together at Grace.

Today makes room not for who we hope to be or are called to be, but for the parts of each of us and this world that are more broken than they are whole, more fearful than they are strong, more untrue than they are honest, more unjust than they are just.  And as hard and painful as it is today, this is our story today.  And to deny it would be to miss part of the point.

Today we are given space to weep for the Christ and to weep for this world, because “image of God” just isn’t always in the front of our minds all the time either.  This is the day of failing to love our neighbors as ourselves.  This is the day of “things done and left undone.”  We aren’t here today as the people with the white hats shocked at that of which others are capable; we’re here as a people who when taken in our entirety, run grey.  Just like pretty much everyone else.

Jesus was alone on Good Friday and maybe we need to let him be.  While just yesterday we became Body of Christ through service and feast, today we are Judas and Peter and Pilate and the crowds. Today we are Nicodemus and the women and Joseph of Arimethea.  We are a complicated people and we are part of the mess.  And it’s OK to be in that space, not for the purpose of instilling guilt, but for the sake of acknowledging our own truths.  And ultimately to receive our own healing, our own redeeming.

What’s so amazing about this story is that Jesus stayed present through it all.  Even though alone, he stayed present to them and to us all.  Jesus didn’t leave the garden when the disciples fell asleep or forever abandon the ones in the courtyard when they denied him.  He didn’t leave the courtroom when truth was denied this world.  Jesus didn’t even leave the cross when he was, at the hands of some very horrible versions of what it means to be human, sentenced to death.

And that is the good news today.  It’s not the kind of good news that says “Here’s who you can be!” or Here’s who we can be.”  It’s the kind of good news that says, “Here’s who God is.”

And it is so very hard, but it is also grace. It is profoundly and utterly grace for us and for this world.

Today we need God because we are blatantly, humanly, and at times terribly disappointingly, not God. We fail to honor that image in one another and in ourselves” on an all too regular basis.  No matter how genuine our intentions or how passionate our desires for goodness, we can’t redeem ourselves or this world by ourselves.  Even together, we can’t fill a cross with glory; we can’t make this human mess into a glorious battle, nor should we ever try to.

But what we learn these three days is that God can and God will.  In some ways God already has because God is here through it all, being God. In ways that we can’t. And so part of the very real goodness of this day is that we are invited to jump into the gospel story whole, heartbreakingly, yet gracefully, whole.

Healing comes, people of Grace.  Reconciliation happens people of this world! Liberation breaks through, children of God one and all.

And love wins.  Not ours alone, but God’s.

Amen.

 

 

Bless. Break. Eat. Share. Repeat.

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – April 13, 2017 –Maundy Thursday

We began this season about forty days and forty nights ago right down here in the church undercroft on the evening of Ash Wednesday.  We had supper together over there and then moved over there and entered into a time of Eucharistic readings and prayers to begin this season of Lent.  And so in many ways this is sort of a full circle for us – as unusual as tonight has been there is a very familiar pattern at its heart.  We bless. We break. We eat.  We share.

Now on Ash Wednesday, I talked to you about that sort of sappy yet meaningful song I’d learned growing up in youth group called, “They’ll know we are Christians.”  Remember that? Either the sermon or the song itself or both?  “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they’ll know-ow we are Christians by our love.”

And here we are seven weeks later and the call to love is not only a song, not even just a “theme” for the season, it’s a mandate given by the Christ. This isn’t love as an idea being tossed out, or a suggestion being made, it’s an actual, non-optional command from the Messiah: “I give you a new commandment,” he told the disciples, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And then (as if he’d learned the song in youth group too) he added, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And as a sign of this love, he washed the disciples’ feet, caring for the ones who had followed and had walked with him.  And then Jesus blessed and broke and shared bread as he offered his very own body and blood to his friends.

Grace Church, you have just spent the past three hours blessing, breaking, sharing. You gave food to over one hundred fifty families and shared a warm meal with over two hundred fifty people.  You helped tired feet get back to their cars with loads of food. You carried empty boxes and rolled empty carts back to the church.  And you do this sort of thing, through this ministry and others, a lot.

And one of the things that happens when such ministry is done with love is that usual and expected lines of division become blurred:  Messiah is suddenly servant. The last is unexpectedly first.  The foolish, surprisingly wise.  The servant is also served. Ordinary becomes sacramental. “Needy” and “gifted” become terms that apply to us all.  And I think that’s how love works; by blurring or upending common divisions, love offers an often surprising and all too uncommon unity that there is no other way to achieve.

Sara Miles who wrote the book, Take This Bread, which was a Grace read years ago that helped inspire us to begin Feeding America and also helped us open our Communion table to all (notice how those two things are related in this place,) Sara miles put it like this:

“At the heart of Christianity is a power that continues to speak to and transform us…It proclaims against reason that the hungry will be fed, that those cast down will be raised up, and that all things, including my own failures, are being made new. It offers food without exception to the worthy and unworthy, the screwed up and pious, and then commands everyone to do the same.  It doesn’t promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life.  And it insists that by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy, since, without exception, all people are one body: God’s.”

It’s simple really. We bless.  We break.  We eat.  We share.  And we do it all in remembrance of a God who blesses and breaks and shares himself with us all.  And so now this night, allow your tired feet to be cared for, receive the bread broken for us, share it with one another, and know that as we head into the greatest mystery of all, the transformation that is resurrection comes.

Amen.

 

 

 

Palm Sunday 2017

The Rev. Jennifer Adams -April 9, 2017 – Palm Sunday, Year A

This week is different than others, which is some case goes without saying.  The story is more dramatic – there are no light parables being told this week.  And the services happen almost every day – I expect to see you all again before Sunday!  And the extremes happen more quickly than they usually do – we just moved from “Hosanna in the highest!” to “Crucify Him” in a matter of minutes.  The drama is high, the schedule full, the pace fast.

And actually that’s sort of how we tend to approach life in general these days and so it would be easy to see this week as any other, allowing the drama to simply land on the massive pile of other dramas, to basically see the services of Holy Week as just being “one more thing” on the calendars of our busy lives, to race through the week like we do other weeks so that by the end we are exhausted rather than resurrected.  But that “same as any other week” is really not the effect we’re hoping for here.  We want and need this week to be different for us.

It is set apart to be very intentionally something else.

Notice that we began this service outside, aware of Creation, surrounded by that which God made, in the world which God so loves.” There were trees and grass and sunshine and birds which is different than our gathering on most Sundays. And then we walked together, we processed all of us not just a symbolic few.  And we didn’t run or ride or drive or fly.  We walked.  Slowly. Making sure that the youngest and oldest among us were a part of us.  Nobody was left behind in his procession and while we walked we sang a single chant over and over again. (Thank you choir and musicians for helping that happen.)

Our pace was slow, our music gently repetitive and by the time we reached the doors, our bodies, minds and souls had been invited to be present, and to actually be participants in this sacred story.

And then we read the gospel – and it wasn’t just me reading and you listening – not that that’s bad  – but this week is not like other weeks. We are very intentionally doing something else.  There were voices from all over the sanctuary who brought this story to life, one character at a time, a whole congregation at a time.  It took a little longer than usual but every voice was heard – the one who followed, the one who denied, the one who betrayed, the ones who exposed, the one who discovered, the one who sacrificed, the ones who wept.

You sat during part of the narrative and then the bodies that walked into this place stood up when we reached the place of crucifixion – bodies, minds and souls invited to be present through the telling and living of this sacred story.

Thursday this will happen too. It won’t be an hour-long experience where you sit in the pews and a bulletin guides you through “the normal” experience of prayer because this week we are about helping something else happen.  Thursday will be all hands on and eventually socks off.

There will be hundreds of people who come here hungry on Thursday for Feeding America and it will be our bodies that empty the truck and our hands that distribute over eight-thousand pounds of food to all who come –It will be our hands that cook and share a meal and lots of mouths, ours included that enjoy the feast because it will be Maundy Thursday too.  After some guests have left, and maybe some have stayed and the food outside has all been distributed and the truck has left, we will wash another’s feet, celebrate Communion in remembrance of Jesus’ Last Supper and process upstairs to strip the altar in preparation for Good Friday.  It will take time. And it will take all of us.  But this week we are helping something else happen.  Bodies and minds and souls participating in this sacred story which on Maundy Thursday commands us to “love one another.”

On Friday we’ll pray the Stations which the kids will hang today in the windows during the Offertory. On Friday all through the day Grace members and guests will walk again, around this sanctuary in silence, still hearing the voices and perhaps the shouts and the tears that this story speaks.  All day the sanctuary will be open for anyone who wishes to come and pray, again walking, moving through the story bodies, minds and souls.  And at night we will stand and sit and kneel and listen and sing and pray as the light of this morning, the joy of Hosanna! turns to darkness.

Which will last until we light a fire late Saturday night.  And we will light a fire late Saturday night in the side yard.  And we will process again, together, slowly following the same route we did this morning but this time each of us holding a candle.  We won’t see the trees or the sun or even one another very easily that night.  But as we process we will proclaim Christ’s light and that light will carry us not only to the next day but into the bell-ringing, darkness ending proclamation of Alleluia, He is Risen! It will take time. And it will take all of us.  Bodies, minds and souls invited into the hope and promise of this sacred story.

And so today we begin a week that is not like any other, a week in which we are very intentionally doing something else.  And yet by its very difference Holy Week offers to teach us what any other week in this world that God so loves can be.  A time of walking with.  A time of loving one another.  A time of sharing food.  A time of weeping together.  And a time of rising together with the light of this world, the world that God so loves.

Welcome everyone to a Holy Week that begs to be different.  May it be so in order that we too can be  transformed bodies, minds and souls into the story, and by a God that loves every step of the way.

Amen.

 

 

In Common Water

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – March 19, 2017 – Lent 3, Year A:  John 4:5-42

During my sermon prep this week, I came to the conclusion that there are no fewer than seventy-three sermons that could be preached on this gospel passage.  Now there are Sundays when we’re going through the readings and I wonder (usually to myself,) “What the heck are we going to do with that?”  This isn’t one of those.

The good news in that for me is that I’m set for my entire preaching career on this one.  The passage comes up twice in every three-year lectionary cycle and so I’m good to go. The good news for you is that, as far as this morning goes, I’ve narrowed it down from seventy-three to two and I kept these two because they’re often set up as an either-or approach, and I think they belong together.

The story is this.  A Samaritan woman went to the well for water. And at first glance there is nothing very uncommon about any of it at all.  The well was where people went for water, where many people still go for water and often in this particular culture it was woman’s work to do it. But then we hear that the woman went at noon which was strange. This means that she went at the hottest time of the day, highest sun rather than in the morning when others went.  Which highlights the fact that this woman went to the well alone.  So this was a woman who couldn’t go when the other women were there, either because of her life-circumstances or history, or some other sort of societal estrangement.  So for whatever reason, this woman was completely by herself.

Now Jesus met her there at the well and again, not such a big deal, right?  Even Messiahs wanted a drink now and then.  Except that culturally what happened there that day was unheard of.  First, for a respectable, unaccompanied male to approach an unaccompanied female and enter into conversation was strictly against the rules.  Remember that when the disciples came back they couldn’t believe that Jesus was speaking to a woman? That was because it was an extreme breach of both societal and religious etiquette to do so.

Now just to make things even more extreme, on top of the woman being a woman, she was also a Samaritan and Jesus was a Jew. And as the gospel said so very clearly, “Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans.” And that was putting it mildly.  The two groups absolutely hated each other.  And the hatred was deep, and it was fierce, and at times it was violent. The rift had to do with differences in religious-ethnic heritage and each group’s interpretation of “true religion” including what constituted for each of them the “true Holy Sites of God,” the places where God could be found.

So, by all accounts this was a conversation that should never have happened. “Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans.”  And at the same time, it was a conversation that desperately needed to happen.  If there was ever to be reconciliation or anything remotely resembling peace among these peoples the conversation needed to happen.  Which brings me to sermon number one.  (That was all just background for both:-)

For our Lenten study this year, we’re reading a book and learning a practice called “Fierce Conversations.”  The approach is incredibly simple and is built on the premise that our conversations are our relationships.  Period.  Our conversations are our relationships.  Author Susan Scott teaches business people, teachers, civic and religious leaders, that relationships don’t exist without the deeper connections that come with, very simply, yet counter-culturally being present to each other in genuine and truthful conversation. It’s not rocket science really, but we as a people are losing the skill.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book The Dignity of Difference, a book which I’m re-reading because it ties into all of this so well goes so far as to say “The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation.”  Conversations not only bind us to each other they keep us from tearing each other down or more literally killing each other.

And so here we have what is actually the longest conversation between two people in all of the gospels.  And it’s a conversation that by all accounts should never have happened and yet by another account absolutely needed to.

It’s a man and a woman.  A Messiah and a marginal human being.  A Jew and a Samaritan.  And they talk first about the very human need for water. Easy opening line, right? (Sermon on Flint fits in here.) Then they talk about the ground on which they stand and what it means to each of them and their people. (Sermon about each of us and the places we’ve lived, the walks we we’ve walked, the sacred places and times we’ve known.)  “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” the woman says to Jesus. In other words, “This place matters to me,” she tells him.

Then they talk about personal history  – “I have no husband,” the woman said to which Jesus responded, “That’s right, you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.”  And then rather than judgement, he simply commended her for telling the truth.  He commended her for telling her truth. (Six sermons fit in here.)

She then shared some theological thoughts, “I know that the Messiah is coming,” she said.  And maybe that was as much a prayer as anything.  To which Jesus then responded, “I am He, the one to which you are speaking.”  And so there she was at noon, as outcast as they come, probably as thirsty as they come, certainly as articulate as anyone we have yet to meet in this gospel, (right in there with Nicodemus last week and perhaps slightly ahead of the disciples who entered at this point without too much to add but at least knowing what questions not to ask.)  There she was in the presence of God in ways that neither she nor anyone else would have ever expected possible.

The conversation itself was transformational on many levels and its effects far reaching in ways she could have never predicted when she got up that morning.  So it goes. When the woman left the well she went back to her people and she talked to them, which given her status, took some courage. And they listened which, given her status, was a miracle in itself. And then they, ‘Believed in him because of her testimony.”

The Samaritans then in a move that shattered the limits of what any of them would have believed possible, invited Jesus to stay with them (remember Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans! Except apparently stories, meals, hopes, homes, and presumably prayers.)  And he did. And by the end of the gospel passage the people said with gratitude to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard and talked for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

Witness the power and hope and ripples of  conversations at the well.

What Jesus offered the woman was first, basic acceptance as a human being, a child of God.  It didn’t matter that she was alone or a Samaritan or feisty enough to question him a bit when he first asked for water any of which could have brought this whole occasion to an abrubt end.  Jesus simply met her. They received each other and their differences were acknowledged but didn’t matter until they became the basis, the means for a deep and rich conversation and eventually what I think was likely a mutual transformation.  Together these two broke down barriers that had been established for generations.  “The test of faith,” Rabbi Sacks writes, “is whether or not I can make space for difference.  Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different than mine?” which is what happened at the well that day.  And which can happen in our world every day.

Which brings me to sermon number two (and don’t worry it’s not as long as sermon number one.)  Those conversations aren’t easy and they can at times be confusing, even exhausting.  Those encounters take effort.  Sometimes they even fail, or fall flat and most of the time the turnaround from initial encounter to warmly sharing meals together in one another’s homes isn’t as quick as this story’s 42 verses.

These conversations (and according to Susan Scott, these relationships) take time and intentionality, and they also take something greater than ourselves to sustain and make happen.  And so, “I offer you living water,” Jesus said, “the kind of water that flows through you and others and this world because God made it… I offer you living water,” Jesus said, “the kind that runs like a living stream, a spring of water gushing up to eternity”.

And then he said a sort of amazing thing given the context, “It doesn’t really matter where you worship.  What matters is worshiping in spirit and in truth.”  Now that could easily lead me in to sermons three through seventy-three and I promised to hold back a bit, but what I want us to hear is that while we enter into the hard and vulnerable work, the ministry and desperately needed ministry of deep and genuine engagement and compassionate conversation, there is a well that will sustain us, guide us, heal us.  There is a holy and eternal well whose water will flow through us and flow through others too coming at times from surprising places.  This is the well whose hopeful stream and balm of reconciliation is woven into our and this world’s very being. “The fields are ripe for harvesting,” Jesus said which says that seeds of things like mercy and peace, compassion and forgiveness have already been planted.  So go into God’s world, into your lives, into our common life – let’s help that harvest happen.

I encourage you to gather at the well on a regular basis. We need it, we all do. There is living water to be had and to be shared.  In the morning, at noon, in the evening gather at the well. Be the Samaritan woman and the Body of Christ that we have been created and called to be. Receive the other as they are and be received as yourself.  Stay for a couple of hours or days or weeks or years or decades. Through it all may we learn to speak and listen in ways that bring truth, healing and hope, remembering that there is something of salvation woven in, a stream of life flowing to eternity – through you, through me, through this world that God so loves.

Amen

 

 

 

 

Meet Me in the Dark

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Lent 2, Year A:  John 3:1-17

I came to love Nicodemus because of a song by Melissa Etheridge.  Seriously.  The odds of that might not seem very high, given who these two people are, Nicodemus and Melissa that is.  They come from entirely different worlds, different times, different perspectives and backgrounds, not to mention entirely different belief systems. They would be considered about as far apart as two people can be on whatever spectrum you put in front of them.  But I love them both.  I probably even love myself and this world better because of them.  So, let me tell you a little more about each.

First, Nicodemus who was just introduced to us in the reading from the gospel of John. He appears three times in this gospel and this was the first.  Nicodemus was “a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews,” the gospel tells us. Which means that Nicodemus’ job was to know and uphold the religious law.  It was his job to live it, to teach it, and to pass it on to his community of faith and the generations that would follow him.

Now given his position, Nicodemus was one of the most powerful people in his community.  He likely had considerable wealth, and status and power.  His wardrobe consisted of nice, expensive liturgical robes (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Nicodemus stood in a solid position of leadership and respect. He was visible, central and highly regarded.  One would have said that Nicodemus had it all, and that that “all” was held together very well.  Given his position and his status, one would of thought that Nicodemus had nothing to fear.

Yet apparently he did, because Nicodemus of all people came to Jesus by night.  That’s how this passage opened and it’s where they stayed throughout.  The entire conversation that Nicodemus had with Jesus happened in the dark.

And honestly, this used to frustrate me to no end. I thought that Nicodemus was sort of sneaky in his approach.  I wanted him to stand out in the daylight with the other searchers and seekers and shout out his questions just like all the rest of them. Nicodemus was one of the most powerful people in this gospel. And yet he came to Jesus by night.

And because there is grace, the light of the world met him there.

OK, hold that image, because now I want you to meet Melissa, in case you haven’t already.  Born in 1961, Melissa is a jean jacket wearing, electric guitar playing, initially underground singer song-writer, and gay rights activist who came on the music scene in the late-1980’s. She’s won Grammies and an Academy Award, and Melissa comes from of all places, the deeply Mid-Western state of Kansas.  Melissa’s edgy, pretty sure she owns no liturgical garments, and at the beginning of her career she was, and at various points throughout remained quite marginal.  Melissa was Janis Joplin meets 80’s pop and while she started out with virtually no authority in this world, she played with passion from the margins, and she gave words and strength and hope to many who needed those kinds of mercy-filled things.

And so mid-career, Melissa wrote a song called “Meet me in the Dark.” Here are some of her words:

 

“Meet me in the dark,” she wrote, presumably to someone she loved.

“Meet me in the shadows,

past the old graveyard, down Eisenhower Road.

Meet me where the storms blow out on their own, dear,

meet me in the dark and never let me go.”

 

And Nicodemus could have sung this song too. And I think that matters. These two share a song.

 

“I know everyone has their unspoken fear,” she sang,

“It eats away their senses and their humanity.

They carry all their secrets every night down to the river,

and they try so hard to drown them, but they won’t do that to me.”

Because I’m working hard, saving all my money” Melissa sings,

the tips in this jar, buy brand new set of wings for my mercury until then please,

Meet me in the dark, meet me in the shadows

past the old grave yard, down Eisenhower Road.”

Meet me where the storms blow out on their own, dear,

meet me in the dark and never let me go.

“And then finally in her last stanza. “I could never hide, this little light of mine, but for now,

meet me in the dark and never let me go.”

Nicodemus and Melissa share a song and there is something profoundly beautiful about that. They were essentially praying the same prayers – asking for paths forward, for safety, for courage, for light.  Now odds are good that Nicodemus and Melissa would never have hung out together. An absolutely stereotypic, vested and invested religious leader and an absolutely stereotypic liberation fighting, pop- rocking, gay American whose paths may never have crossed.

Except there’s this thing about darkness and light that they share and that so many in our world share too.  On some level we all do.  Nicodemus needed the darkness for cover because he had questions, questions about faith and growth and he was a Pharisee for heavens sakes and so really, he wasn’t supposed to be uncertain at all. But he was. Nicodemus had a lot to lose.  Even one meeting with Jesus put his entire career as a Pharisee at risk.  And so Nicodemus used the cover of darkness and because there is grace, the light of the world met him there.

Melissa had a lot to lose too – in some ways less in some ways more but I think comparisons at that level don’t really mean much at all.  Melissa’s love put her at risk and so, for a while, she used the cover of darkness too.

But there is grace and something happened to both of them – from the darkness Melissa sang about light and wind and wings – and eventually they came to her.  And in the darkness, Nicodemus was offered them too.

“The wind blows where it chooses,” Jesus told Nicodemus. “You hear the sound of it. But you don’t always know where it comes from or where it goes. “So it is,” Jesus said with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

And maybe being born again feels like all of that.  It starts in a dark place, because this world is full of those kinds of places, our lives are full of them too and then something of light is discovered, or finds us and something like wind fills us and guides us. And those who lean toward the Nicodemus end of things and those who lean toward the Melissa end of things discover (in her words but not far from the gospel) “their own humanity” and something of God and others too.

“God so loved the world,” the gospel says.  “That he sent his only Son, not to condemn the world but so that it could be saved”…over and over again.

We’ll hear from Nicodemus again, so stay tuned.  A few chapters on in this very gospel it will be Nicodemus who raises his voice among his brother Pharisees when they shout to crucify Jesus.  It will be Nicodemus who in broad daylight uses his voice in an act of love, sacrificial love and tells them to stop.  (Hear – I could never hide this little light of mine.)  And then at the end of the gospel it is Nicodemus who carries Jesus body to the tomb, meeting his friend in the darkness, Nicodemus carries him forward into a rebirth that becomes eternal life and light for us all.

And maybe this is what being born again, and again and again looks like.  There is darkness in this world so many kinds of darkness – the darkness that is uncertainty, the darkness that is poverty, the darkness that is having so much you really believe that you have everything to lose at every turn, the darkness of being “other,” undocumented or “refugee.”

But we as Body of Christ can meet in the dark, in the shadows of this world.  Because the light of the world is there too.  There is wind. There is Spirit.  There is song.  And maybe that’s what being reborn is all about.

God so loved the world, the story says.  God so loved Nicodemus and Melissa and you and me. All of it – and never letting go. God came not to condemn but in order that the world might be saved.  And so we are.  Over and over again.

Amen.

 

 

 

How Will They Know?

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – Ash Wednesday 2017: Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-2

Many of you know that I was raised in the Episcopal Church. I grew up outside of Detroit, my family attended church just about every week and a significant part of my high school church experience involved participating in our parish youth group.  Now before we go too far I don’t want to paint a false picture, which can happen when you get used to seeing someone vested in white robes and know them to be constantly immersed in all things church.  To clarify, I didn’t necessarily hop in the car willingly every Sunday, all dressed up, having read through the lectionary texts on Saturday night so as to be prepared for worship and youth group the next morning.  My attendance was forced on many occasions.  It often took parental threats to simply get me in the car. But threaten they did, and in retrospect I am only grateful.  (So side note for those of you parents out there who wonder if it matters, if the struggles are worth it? – they are. I’m not going to travel down that road in this sermon, but am happy to at another time. Attendance wasn’t a practice I willingly adopted but being present in that Episcopal church community was integral to the faith and the at least semblance of spiritual grounding I have today.)

So part of what we did in youth group was sing.  Some good tunes.  Some pretty bad tunes with good intent behind them. Those of you who grew up in youth group circles know the scene. Now given that my context at the time was 1980’s high church Episcopalian, these songs were different than what we were experiencing on Sunday mornings. And one of the songs that found its way into our youth circles was the song “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” It’s probably familiar perhaps even still haunting to some of you.

The hymn was written by a man named Peter Scholtes while he was serving as a parish priest on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960’s.  “At the time, he was leading a youth choir which met in the parish basement. He was looking for an appropriately simple song for a series of ecumenical and interracial events and when he couldn’t find such a song, Scholtes wrote this now-famous hymn in a single day.  His experiences with that congregation and in the Chicago Civil Rights movement influenced him and his work for the rest of his life.”

Now I found the song itself a little sappy and even today I realize it’s not the most sophisticated of hymns, but it’s stuck with me.  And it speaks to what this season is all about.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord

(in case you didn’t catch that the first time.)
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love;
They will know we are Christians by our love.

We will work with each other, we will work side by side.
We will work with each other, we will work side by side.

And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
They will know we are Christians by our love.

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love.

By our love, by our love

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
They will know we are Christians by our love.

So could it really be that simple?  I think it hits at the question of the season. As we work to be Lentenly attentive to our faith, as we are called to be very intentionally faithful this season, how will we and they know when we are the Christians we have been called to be?

In the gospel passage today, Jesus goes through a list of what people of faith typically hold up as signs of “what it means to be faithful” and he sort of tears them down. “Don’t sound a trumpet before you when you give,” he said. “Don’t look dismal when you fast so that others know you’re doing it. Don’t even pray in public just to be seen,” Jesus told them.  Because that’s not what being faithful looks like.  Not to mention that it’s not how witness works.  Pray and fast and give, but not as proof or show.  Do those things to strengthen, and renew, and relieve. God will see you and God will help you which is what matters.

Isaiah was on it too going right at similar patterns and traps.  “Why you we fast but you do not see?” the people were asking of God.  “Why humble ourselves but you, do not notice?” they wondered aloud.  In other words, “We’re doing everything we’re supposed to be doing as good religious folks, and God, you don’t seem to be responding to us.”

To which Isaiah responded: “The fast that God chooses is to loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share bread, clothe the naked, and bring the homeless poor into our homes.”

And so, it is the love and care you offer your neighbor and the most hurting in this world that reveals faith – to others and to yourself too.  They’ll know we are Christians by acts of mercy and compassion and basic human care.

Now the good news is that this Lent, we aren’t lacking for opportunities to do those kinds of things. The world is as blatantly and obviously broken as it ever has been and the needs abound.  There is ample opportunity every day for us to grow in faith, and in so doing, to show the world something of Christ.

And so we gather in this room to pray – where as the gospel says, “God sees and listens and knows.”  We give and we fast in order to cleanse and in order to have more to share. We come together in order to set ourselves and others free.

“If you remove the yoke from among you,” Isaiah said, “then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. Your ruins [of which there are many] shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

The promise of this season as we walk with Christ through death and into resurrection is that unity will one day be restored. The kind of unity that is genuine reconciliation, wholeness, the peace that is Shalom. And we have a vital role to play in helping that happen.

And so for Lent let’s work with each other, let’s work side by side.

May we guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride.

Let’s walk with each other, walk hand in hand.

And together we’ll spread the news that God is in all lands?

And they’ll know – we’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.  They will know we are Christians by our love.

 

 

 

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sunday, February 19, 2017 – Epiphany 7, Year A: Leviticus 9:1-2, 9-18, Matthew 5:38-48

Well, they say that desperate times call for desperate measures. You’ve heard that expression, right?  Does anyone know where it comes from?

The expression is believed to have originated with a saying from the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates. In his work Amorphisms, he wrote: “For extreme diseases, extreme methods of cure…are most suitable.”  Good trivia answer for you to tuck away.

Now without getting into a medical conversation about when that is actually an appropriate approach, I think it’s interesting that the phrase itself had to do with attempts to heal, to cure, to make whole again.  Desperate times of brokenness, desperate times of unwellness call for desperate or extreme sorts of responses, or as the phrase has become translated, “measures.”  And all of that makes sense.  And I’m not sure about all of you, but I can actually relate a bit to that.

But before we talk about our time which feels sort of desperate these days, I want to talk about Jesus’ time, because things have been ramping up in the gospel now for a few weeks.  Here’s what’s been happening: for every commandment given the people through Moses, Jesus began asking not less, but more of his followers.

In case you missed a Sunday or two (like I have) here’s a quick example from last week to bring us all up to speed. The people had been taught, as one of the ten major commandments of the law, “Do not commit murder.”  We’re all familiar with that one, right?  Then Jesus said, “Not only that, but I’m telling you to not even stay angry with someone.”  Whoa- that’s up a notch!  “And if you’re angry,” Jesus said, (presumably because he understood that that was going to happen,) “then you have to make a genuine and wholehearted effort to work it out with that other person.”

So “Don’t murder,” was an important line to draw and to maintain, but it was too low a bar for what Jesus was calling for. So he made it very clear that in his presence, the bar was being raised.  “Not only don’t murder, be reconciled to your brother or sister,” he said.  And Jesus took that approach with other commandments too.  For every teaching given the people in that first round of ten basics and some other laws too, Jesus took them to another level.

And so this week we heard the doozy in this whole series:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. ..

And then to top it off, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

And that’s when I think, “OH NO. This is going to be very hard.”

But apparently, in gospel terms, desperate times call for desperate measures.  When things are very broken, extreme actions are called for.  And in Jesus’ book, “desperate measures” include things like prayer, the giving of self, going that extra mile, and above all, desperate times call for the extreme action of love – even of the enemy.

Now I’m challenged by that for many reasons.  And I’m guessing I’m not alone on this one.  I can understand the call to pray and the command to give of self in the face of being challenged personally.  I get the bit about going the extra mile because I know it often takes LOTS of miles to get anywhere.  But I’m not sure what “love your enemies” really means.  I’ve had a couple of weeks to think about this one and I still don’t know what it means.

In all honesty, I’m not even sure who my enemy is.  And what would loving them look like, exactly?

In Greek the word for enemy is “exthros” (which sounds a little tougher than “enemy”) and it refers to those who harbor a “personal hatred and are bent on inflicting harm.” So an enemy is one who hates me either passively or actively. And I’m supposed to love them?

And so what would that look like exactly? “Excuse, me, while you threaten to take away my rights, how about a big hug?”  OK.  It’s probably not that.  Besides, it borders on a sarcasm that is not helpful here. My apologies.

So, how about this: Hey you over there hurting my brothers and sisters, you who are making life harder for those who already have fewer rights, fewer resources, fewer opportunities, or safeties or privileges than I, can we hang out for awhile?  Because if I’m honest [and here’s the kicker] I’m guilty too.  There are miles I haven’t gone, cloaks I haven’t offered, cries for help I have not heeded, love I have not given. I don’t even know you, but I find myself yelling at you all the time – at least inside. Maybe we should try something else.

Desperate times call for desperate measures from us all.  Maybe that’s part of how enemies become something else to us.  In our best moments we see ourselves in them and so we commit to the kind of change this world so desperately needs.

The Indigo Girls have a song called, Become You.  One of my cardinal rules is: when confused, go to the Indigos.  And so here I am with them, seeking counsel.  This particular song is sort of haunting in its lyrics and it doesn’t resolve itself even by the end of the song, but it speaks clearly to the challenge in today’s gospel.  It’s written by Amy Ray and in this song she’s wrestling with some of the hardest part of her southern heritage and those who are enemy/neighbor to her.

“I heard you sing a rebel song.” she sings.

“Sung it loud and all alone…

I see you walking in the glare.

Down the county road we share.

Our southern blood, my heresy.

Damn that ol’ confederacy.

“It took a, long time to become the thing, I am to you,” Ray sings.

“And you won’t tear it apart.

Without a fight, without a heart,” she says.

“It took a, long time to become you, become you.

It took a long time to become you, to become you.”

And there it is. It took a long time to become the things we are to each other, and the tearing apart of that approach to the other as “thing” involves struggle and it involves heart. Healing in what feels like desperate times involves calling out the brokenness of our hearts and also the love that we have to offer through those cracks.  It took a long time for us “to become” to this place we are today. But there is redemption to be had.  The good news is that there is always redemption to be had!  Desperate times call for desperate measures but we know what those measures are.

I see you walking in the glare, down the county road we share.

To the voting booth we share.

Through this lakeshore town we share.

 

I see you walking in the glare on the sandy beach we share,

toward the holy feast we share,

into the new day we share.

The only way forward according (not only to the Indigo Girls but ) to Jesus, is to begin to move not as “the things we have become” to each other, not as enemies but as children of God with gifts, and needs, and hurts, and hopes each and every one of us.

The only way forward is to love.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon he preached on this very gospel passage – a sermon which he revised while in prison by the way –  said the following.  (I’m going to share more than I usually would because his words seem so very much needed today.)

“Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world…

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence … in a descending spiral of destruction. So when Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies—or else? …By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.

“My friends,” King wrote, “we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos…For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of [hu]mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts [keep writing, keep calling, keep marching.] With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. ..Love is the most durable power in the world.” said King.

Love is the most durable power in the world.  OK, so one more try on my part, “Hey, you who have threaten to take away my rights, can I give you my coat,” Sort of an awkward opening line.  So, how about this: “Can I give you some water?” a little weird too, even if it’s gospel.

How about this, “I’ll buy you a coffee or how about a beer?” And then, “Can I share with you my prayers (even though I am an Episcopalian, I can share my prayers!) …How about my story? …  By the way, what’s your name?  …Where are you from?  …Tell me about your kids… Do you have dogs?  I do. Here’s some pictures. .. OK, I have to ask you, what are you worried about, really? …And I want you to know, here’s what I’m afraid of, really… As we stretch out these miles can we walk a few of them together, or maybe a few yards? Or how about we start with a few steps?  And by the way, don’t worry about that hug offer.  We aren’t there yet. But maybe someday we will be.”

Maybe that’s what loving your enemy looks like or what reconciliation looks like, or at least how those things might stand a chance of coming to be in this broken world. Desperate times call for desperate measures they say, at least when it comes to healing.  And we know what those measures need to be:  Sharing. Praying. Listening. Loving. Forgiving. And loving some more.

May we be given the strength to do them.

Amen.

Surrendering Distance

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – January 29, 2017 – Epiphany 4, Year A: Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12

So one of the somewhat seductive options available to those of us who have privilege in this world (and while there is a range of privilege among us for sure, in the global sense we all have it…) one of the options for those of us who have privilege in this world is distance. On any given day, I can step back and I can step out. I can turn off my television, my radio, step away from my newsfeed.  I can close my front door, or go for a walk in the woods, or go look at the lake, or immerse in a good book that carries me far away.

Now I do want to encourage all of us to do all of those things, or some semblance of them on a very regular basis.  Woods are good for us. Large bodies of water that can quiet our minds and still our souls are good too and being faithfully discerning about input is an increasingly critical skill these days. Creating time that is “separation from it all” is healthy and serves us well, and ultimately allows us to serve better than we otherwise would.  So I urge all of us to do those kinds of things on a very regular basis.  And I promise to focus in a little more on that dimension of faith in another sermon.

But today I hear the prophet Micah, I hear Jesus teach the Beatitudes and I hear the cries of this world and the option for distance is one that I need to faithfully surrender.  And I invite you to surrender a bit also. “What does the Lord require of us?” the prophet asks, “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”

For over three months now we have been waiting for the Garang family to come and live in our Parish House.  The announcement of this refugee family’s pending arrival has run in our bulletins for all these weeks. We are set to be hosts through Bethany Christian Services and in partnership with St Francis Catholic parish who has taken the lead on this important ministry.

The Parish House was made ready – it’s beds have been made, furniture donated from St Francis and Grace folks.  The kitchen is set up with dishes and utensils; there are spoons and forks and cups and plates and teams are waiting to help in areas such as education, language support, transportation, health care needs, employment, food.  Our youth group put together a very thoughtful and educational power point that we’ve run in the Commons and shared with various Grace groups. Even the neighborhood has a group of folks prepared to welcome and serve this family as they arrive and begin to settle in.

The Garang family is a family of five.  Grandmother, Tabitha, Mother, Awak. They are an 18-year old boy, Deng, 16-year old girl, Abuk and 7-year old boy Ajang.  They also have numbers on the printouts we’ve received.  In the system they are known as “Aliens Numbers 212-895-605 through 609”. They have numbers.  They are people. They are Sudanese refugees. They have lived in a camp in Kenya for years and years and years and they have been participating in a very thorough and unsettling resettlement process for a very long time. And they have names.

When the Garangs were asked the question that we’ve been asking ourselves these last couple of weeks, “What are you looking for? What is it you seek?” They responded.  They are looking for safety and they seek a place to call home.  And so they took the risk of entering the refugee process.  They took the risk of hoping for and looking forward to a new place to be.

And this week we got word not only that they still await one visa, but that they will very possibly not be allowed into our country.  I am grateful for the calls and emails I got from many of you this week indicating your awareness and your concern. They were among the most frequently asked questions as you arrived at Grace this morning.  And I’m grateful for that.

Now I realize that this is a very complicated issue, with many layers and levels. I know that there is much that I do not know sitting in my distant place here in Holland, Michigan.  But I also believe, we can do so much better than this.  I and thousands of other Christian leaders and bodies around our country spanning a wide breadth of denominations and non-denominational organizations signed on to letters to Congress in support of refugee resettlement. Bethany Christian (which for the record is not exactly a bastion of extreme liberal politics) issued a similar statement too.

We believe that rather than enhanced separation at this time, we need to faithfully surrender our distance. We need to be sanctuary in the sense of “safe place,” because of our faith.  We need to offer home-away-from-home for those who have been unsettled for long enough.  These people have names. And we can offer them what they seek.

I would add that a Grace member and I are directly in touch with our congressman’s office and with their immigration specialist. They’ve been responsive, indicated a willingness to listen and to help if they can, at least with this family. And so, we’ll see.

“Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. “Blessed are those who mourn and the meek too for theirs is the kingdom of God. They will be comforted and they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers,” Jesus said.  “For they will be fed, and receive mercy; they will see God and they will be called not by number but by the name given us all – ‘children of God’. Blessed are those who are persecuted and those who are reviled for they are like the prophets who came before. Their reward will be great.”

In the midst of very disorienting times, (no more or less disorienting by the way than the time of Micah or the time of Jesus…) in the midst of our disorienting time, Jesus orients us in the direction of the hurting of this world.  So a good basic principle to guide us is that we can’t go wrong if were looking in that direction.  We can’t go wrong if that’s where we’re looking, where we’re listening, where we’re working. We can’t go wrong if that’s where we are settling ourselves.  If we orient toward the hurting, ourselves included – along with those who are “them” to us – there are blessings to be had.

Now our local community is not lacking with regard to need.  It’s true. But as a very talented and resourced Body of Christ, we can multitask. I’m sure of it.  I’ve seen it happen. We have the ability to respond to ourselves, those next to us in the pew, to those in our local community AND to those who are camping out differently than we, but every bit as human as we in the camp in Kenya.  Contrary to what is becoming far too popular thought, there is enough mercy to go around. And when it’s lacking we can muster even more.

Distance in this instance will not heal. It will not heal them nor will it heal us.  Mercy and kindness and justice will.  And it is our responsibility as people of faith, with other people of faith to stand up and say so.

There are blessings to be had, blessings to be shared and according to Jesus those blessings abound!  They abound in surprising ways and among those whom the world would tell us are the least likely to bear them.

And so I invite you to learn names of some “others” these days.  Together we will continue to pray for and to work for the Garang family.  Do take time in the woods and don’t forget the beauty of the Lake that is our neighbor too.  Through it all may we find the strength to surrender some of the distance that comes with the lives we lead.  May we hold our doors open, our hearts and our minds too. May we gather utensils, make beds, pull of a chair and set tables for those who seek home as we seek to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

Amen.