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Follow Me Now

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – January 29, 2017 at – Epiphany 4, Year A: Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23

So at this point in the service, if you were here last week, you might be feeling a little de ja vu.  “Didn’t we hear about Simon Peter and his brother Andrew last week?” you’re wondering to yourself.  Did Jen forget to turn the page?  Maybe you’re even feeling a little awkward on my behalf.  Well, I can assure you that the page has been turned; I’m on it guys. But you are also correct in terms of the story itself. In a rare experience of blatant lectionary repetition – I don’t think this happens any other time of the year – we just heard the story of the calling of these two disciples two weeks in a row.  This difference is that we heard it from the gospel of John last week and Matthew this week, and so don’t worry, there’s still a lot to talk about. Last week we even noted that there is more than one way to tell a story – and the means by which the story is told tells us something too.

Last week remember (or to bring you up to speed) it was a totally Johannine experience.  There was a bit of poetry and some mystery woven in to it all.  There was no mention of fisherman or nets or a lakeshore. The guys just sort of “saw Jesus” walking through town.  They began to follow him, which was more like a lurking behind him as he wandered through the streets.  And then at one point Jesus turned around, and asked them a question and offered invitation that was then repeated throughout that gospel, “What are you looking for?” he asked and Jesus invited them to “Come and see.” In that version of the story, the newly called disciples spent the night in a home with Jesus presumably listening, praying, eating, discerning.  And they experienced a conversion of sorts which they then shared with their family and friends, some of whom then followed Jesus too.

And so last week we talked about that spiritual process of allowing the gentle yet direct question and invitation to sink into our own hearts and lives, to do the work of being honest about what it is we’re seeking and allowing the Body of Christ to become that through which we are fed and through whom we “See” the presence of our God. I even gave you homework last week to prayerfully sit with the question and invitation, to see what it is that God reveals to you.

Well this week, the story is the same but so very different. This is the calling of Andrew and Simon told by Matthew and it’s every bit as spiritual, but rather than creating silence for a sort of deep reflection and discernment to take place like we did last week, we’re off and running right from the start of the passage.

According to Matthew, Jesus got word that John the Baptist had been imprisoned which was a sign for him that it was time to get things moving. And so Jesus packed it up, left his hometown, and headed toward the lakeshore. (Now we can relate to the strategy there. It’s never a bad approach to hit the lakeshore.)

But instead of wandering and sort of responding to those who had been attracted to his revelatory presence, Jesus, was far more proactive. There’s an urgency and necessary action woven into this version of the story that were not there last week.

Jesus saw two fishermen, Simon Peter and Andrew and he went up to them.  And then Jesus told them to “Follow me.”  And Peter and Andrew did. According to Matthew they, “Immediately dropped their nets and followed.” Then Jesus kept going. There was no settling down in a home for supper and conversation. Jesus just kept going.  And he saw James and John and “called to them” and they too, “immediately got out of the boat and followed.”

And from there Jesus and the brand new didn’t-even-have-time-to-talk-to-their-friends-about-all-of-this-in-fact-we-left-our Dad-Zebedee- back-in the-boat disciples went throughout Galilee, “teachingin their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curingevery disease and every sickness among the people.”

So last week we sat here in this place.  We took some deep breaths and contemplated our needs, our callings, the revelations we’ve experienced or hope to experience. But THIS WEEK there’s barely time to catch our breath because we have just been told to get out there, heal, teach, proclaim, cure!

And so I am very, very aware that we need both versions of this story.

There is a budding awareness (how’s that for a gentle summary of our times?) – there is a budding awareness that we need to be engaged in the struggles and hurts and pains of this world.  Yesterday in our country and all over the world on all seven continents we experienced what is being called “the largest march” ever held, the largest and probably most peaceful march ever held.  We witnessed and some of us were people claiming power, claiming voice, standing together and offering themselves/ourselves to a larger vision of “good.”

There is a sense of urgency that hasn’t been present on this large of a scale in a very long time, an awareness that we all need to be engaged. Now truth is the world needed us, needed all of us six months ago too. People were hungry six months ago. People were un-equal then too.  There were millions needed shelter and care and home then too.

But maybe we’re waking up.  Maybe a light is dawning on those who sat in darkness  – at least I’m going with that interpretation for now.  Maybe we can even help the story being written now to swing in that direction.  Regardless of where you stand politically, (and my guess is that that in itself is an ongoing discernment for us all) the world, if it is ever to resemble the kingdom God needs each and every one of us now. It always has and until the kingdom comes in full, it always will.

And so Jesus is here down by the Lakeshore today.  And Jesus is calling out to fishermen, teachers, doctors, activists, law enforcement officers, lawyers, priests, students, musicians, truck drivers, nurses, therapists, librarians, accountants, homemakers, programmers, bankers, (who am I missing?  Add your vocation to this list!) And Jesus is saying “The time is now.” I will help you fish for people,” he says, “God’s people. I will help you play for them, teach and learn for them, drive for them, preach for them, deliver for them. I will help you, pray, lead, manage, march, serve, protect for God’s people.”

There is an urgency for us to consider.  The time is now.  The time is always now. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” we heard from the prophet Isiaiah. And so, we should act like it.

We are both of these versions of the story of the calling of disciples and we need to be both versions of this story.  I actually think it’s a particular charism of the Episcopal Church to be able to hold and integrate both – the deeply prayerful and discerning with the active and engaged.  We are to listen in ways that invite and actually demand a deep, reflective and spiritual awareness. “What are you looking for, what do you seek?” needs to be a question we ask ourselves on a very regular basis if for no other reason than it keeps us aware of the energies and desires we are acting out of. It also opens us up to have God respond.

And we need be active. The time is an urgent one as it always is.  The Kingdom of God is at hand and it will take everyone from fishermen to teachers to kids to lawyers and doctors and activists and law enforcement officers and even a priest or two to help it break through more and more.  We have all been called to offer our skills, our talents, ourselves in ways that proclaim to this hungry world the love and justice and mercy of our God.   Desmond Tutu said, “It’s those little pieces of good put together that overwhelm the world.” That’s what this is all about.

And so catch your breath when you are here.  Breath deeply here.  And feel empowered through our prayer to become and engaged response, a response that embodies the healing, mercy and hope of a God who loves us all.

Amen

 

The Sanctuary of the Season

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – November 27, 2016

Advent 1, Year A: Matthew 24:36-44

This morning is the start of a New Year in the Church, the First Sunday of Advent. So, this morning is a beginning for us.  You can see we are decked out in blue (thank you Altar Guild.) And thank you Grace for these still new vestments. The color of the season surrounds us reminding us of this new day. We’ve also shifted from the gospel of Luke into the Gospel of Matthew which will be read on most Sundays this year.  The Advent wreath has been hung and the first candle lit as we begin our movement toward the celebration of Christ’s birth and look forward to His coming again.

Now this approach to the breaking in of a New Year is a little different than how we do it out there on January 1st.  No confetti here. No dropping a big ball.  No popping champagne.  No parades.  No big, loud shouts of Happy New Year here.  In fact it’s almost the opposite.  In here, there’s an invitation into the darkness of this season.  We make space here together for quiet and a sort of holy reverence as our anticipation is invited to take the form of prayer.  We light candles and we do it one at a time as we pray for and allow for hope to ease its way back into our souls.

Which is different than out there.  Because out there there are lists to be made and presents to be bought (none of which is bad, by the way, just different than what we are about in here.)  Out there there are lines and parties, exam weeks (sorry guys,) travels and lots and lots of lights as things amp up on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.  But in here we adopt another approach as our anticipation and our preparation take the form of prayer.  We’re making room, creating space in ourselves and in our lives.  We’re lighting candles, and we’re doing it slowly, one at a time as we pray for and allow for hope to ease its way back into our souls.

As much as any other time of the year, during Advent we’re reminded that this space is sanctuary, a space set apart for a prayerful, hopeful, reverent approach to life and faith.  Maybe because we’re as counter-cultural as ever during this season it’s more obvious, maybe because we need it this season as much as any other time of the year – whatever the reason, during Advent something very obviously different happens in here and we should claim it with all that we’ve got!  During Advent we re-sanctuary ourselves.

In here we’re invited into the darkness of this season, and while there’s a sermon to be preached on darkness as evil to be avoided or fought against, that’s not my take this morning.  Darkness can mean rest; we need darkness to have real and deep, healing sleep.  We need genuine rest in order to be awake, to be the kind of alert that our gospel calls us to. Recent studies show that we actually need more darkness than we get these days. Given the expansion of artificial light, almost 70% of Europe and North America never experience true darkness at all.  Most seeds actually need darkness in order to grow; and so do people.  Darkness can mean quiet and while we talk about “the dark” as something to fear, there can be a safety, a peacefulness in darkness too.  Darkness itself can be a form of sanctuary.

Darkness invites us see differently – to adjust our eyes and our hearts to take in parts of this world and of life that we don’t normally notice.  It takes darkness to be able to see the stars, to see worlds beyond our own and to remind ourselves of our place in it.  And so we gather in here this season and allow a bit of gentle wonder to take hold of us.  We watch and we wait lighting just one candle at a time and allowing hope to ease its way back into our souls.

In here this season we have nothing to do but pray.  When we walk through those doors that’s what we ask of each other, that’s what we invite one another into – space in which our only work is prayer.  When you walk through these doors, let things go more than you usually do – everything else is on hold for now, for this now.  We can be as busy if not busier than as the next guy, almost as if business itself were a competition, but Advent invites us to something else as our anticipation, our preparation takes the form of prayer.  We slow down and we light candles in the darkness, one at a time.  We become sanctuary and we allow for wonder and hope to ease its way back into our souls.

In here we speak our prayers and we sing our prayers, sometimes we whisper our prayers in utterances that only God can hear. The Passing of the Peace and the offering itself are prayers of thanks as we gather around a table at which all is gift, all are gift, all is grace.  The silence that weaves its way into our service is prayer too.

And so, Happy New Year, everyone.  And welcome into a holy sort of intentional, grace-filled new beginning for us all.  I see you in the darkness and am grateful for you.  I will light candles with you one at a time, and with you I will help our space be prayerful and reverent.  I look forward to Christ’s coming again, and as my eyes adjust I see that He is here among us already, working through us even now.  Be sure to notice the stars this season.  Take time to wonder a bit these weeks.  Pray your prayers and allow for hope to find its way back into your soul.

May God shape us into the sanctuary we have been called to be as we walk through this season of darkness, aware of the gifts to be had, the many gifts to be shared as we go.

Amen.

 

Surprise Endings

 

Rev. Jennifer Adams – November 20, 2016

Christ the King Sunday: Luke 23:33-43

Well the passage this morning from the gospel of Luke comes from one of the most difficult scenes in the whole gospel.  We don’t really expect to hear it this time of the year and so it probably also comes as a bit of shock.  As we move through the days of Holy Week leading up to Easter, we expect to hear the story of the crucifixion because this is the gospel of Good Friday. But this is November 20th, for heavens sakes!  This is Christ the King Sunday and next week is actually the beginning of a new church year, the first Sunday of Advent.

And this doesn’t feel like the kind of story you tell on New Year’s Eve nor is it exactly the kind of image we’d typically ascribe to a King.  This just isn’t the image of a human being, let alone a deity who has power or control or authority over any realm, like we’d assume a King to have.

Because at the point at which we entered the gospel story today, Jesus had been arrested and he’d been presented to the religious authorities who questioned him and then handed him on to Pilate with accusations saying that he was a criminal who deserved to die.  The circumstances were obviously painful and incredibly unjust and the kinds of things being shouted weren’t about a new day coming. . . at least at first they weren’t.

The kinds of things being shouted were horribly mocking kinds of things:  “He saved others, let him save himself!” they said.  “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself!” they teased. “Are you not the Messiah, save yourself and us!”  They weren’t celebrating a King at all.  These weren’t the words of praise or even of prayer.

But who could blame them really?  If they’d had even an ounce of hope that Jesus was the One who could bring salvation to their lives, to their people, to the world, that ounce was being poured out that very day right in front of their eyes. They were shouting because this wasn’t an image of salvation as far as they could tell and they had come to believe it would be.  They were shouting because instead of their hopes being fulfilled in Christ, they were standing before one of the most unfulfilling, un-happiest endings of all.  They were hurt and they were confused.

And if we’re honest we’d have to say that we get just as confused about what salvation looks like as they did. We know how endings should go and what setting the stage for new beginnings looks like.  True confession – I carry a vision of how I think things should be – and that vision is shattered by reality on a regular basis.  No matter how hard I fight it, I pretend to know how plot lines should progress, how stories should end, how protagonists (especially Kings!) should be cast. (Including but not limited to the story of salvation and the timeframes involved with that that entire process.)  And while not always bad or at least, well intentioned, that tendency can get in my way as much as it got in the way of the people in the gospel story.

On Christ the King Sunday we’re reminded that salvation is up to God. Period. It’s in God’s hands as God’s work.  Heear the good news in that.  As we live through the confusion, division, frustrations of this world, salvation is up to God.  Let that be good news and also a bit of a check to keep us in the place that is ours.

Now God chose redemption as the method of salvation which makes for a messier plot line than most of us are comfortable with.  This means that often endings and beginnings get blurred rather than clarified and they often play out over longer periods of time rather than in any one instance; even the resurrection of God’s Son took three days by our clock.  In the ways of God, plot lines that seem to be playing to our visions, often move into plot twists reminding us that while we are integral and vital participants in this story, the author of our salvation is not we ourselves.

Now as we close this year with a gospel story that from all accounts appeared to be the worst ending of all, remember that Jesus spoke some words it too.  There were words of derision and mockery and frustration filling the air, but there was also a conversation happening from the cross.  There was a conversation happening on the cross which, as someone pointed out to me this week, is remarkable in itself.  While the criminals were arguing between themselves about salvation and innocence and guilt, while the people were shouting all around him, Jesus offered this: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And then into the mess of it all, he promised paradise.

And so as we close out one year and look to the next, we have one of the hardest stories of all to bridge us, but one in which forgiveness and paradise are offered, and I believe they’ve been offered to all. What a way to close out!  What a way to begin. This is the kind of forgiveness that allows us to be us and God to be God, because this forgiveness is on a scale that none of us alone, none of us even collectively could begin to muster. To a world I which nobody can claim innocence as a means forward, God offers forgiveness instead.  This is ending-and-new-beginning not as flashy, royal “grand finale”, but ending and beginning more like a powerfully offered, holy release.  A release that actually commits God to the opening of an eternal paradise which surpasses all that we can ask for or imagine.  This is forgiveness as grace, pure grace offered from a God mysterious enough to work out salvation in the most surprising and ultimately redeeming ways, being present as King through, of all things, a cross, offering himself in ways that mercifully shatters the plotlines of us all.

As we end this year and begin another, may our calls of confusion, our cries of frustration, our shouts of derision be transformed into the liberating song of a people forgiven, a people engaged in the hard yet blessed work of redemption. As we end this year and begin another may we be a people praying for, hoping for, working for a grace-filled paradise offered to all.

Amen.

 

 

Fear. Hope. Grief. Need.

The Rev. Jennifer Adams –Sunday, November 13, 2016 –Proper 28, Year C: Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 21:5-19

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” God spoke through the prophet Isaiah. “The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. I will rejoice,” God said, “and I will delight in my people;” all my people.  “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress! They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands…The wolf and the lamb shall feed together…They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.

Let that sink in.  Let that sink in deep…And we’ll come back to it in a few minutes.  There are a couple of other things I want to talk about too.

First, today I don’t want to hear who you voted for. This morning, while we breathe together and pray together, this morning while we very simply come together, I don’t want to hear any pronouns as you describe your vote or the vote you would have cast if you were old enough, or citizen enough. Instead I want us try something else.

What I want to know, what we need to know is not the who of your vote but the why of it.  Because votes are about hopes, and fears, vision, losses, needs. And while we shoot for the rational in this whole scene, a vote is often a bundle of all of those other things. Which means that our votes last week said as much about each of us as they did about either candidate, and probably more.

And so, I want this to be a place, Grace to be a place where we ask each other the kinds of questions that are behind the votes that we cast, the kinds of questions that tell us something important about each other and how we’re experiencing this world. Questions like: What are you afraid of?  What do you hope for?  What do you grieve? What do you need? Those are the kinds of questions that when shared in honest conversation might get us somewhere.  We are a people who are called to share and listen deeply and openly as we and our neighbors respond.

Now because I have a microphone, and because it might help us take these steps, I’ll go first and I’ll share a bit of my own responses with you this morning.

Here are some of my fears:  The rhetoric of this campaign cycle and some of the actions therein scared me – all around – still does. It became OK to say things and treat people in ways that are not OK, and that’s scary to me.  I’m afraid for those who don’t have enough – food, or shelter, legal protections, healthcare, citizenship. I am afraid that some of us could lose protections for which we have fought long and hard. I heard this week that there are over 700 undocumented children and youth in the Holland Public School system and that they are afraid.  And they shouldn’t have to be.

I’m afraid of us losing each other, or maybe more accurately, losing the understanding that we need each other.  I’m afraid that we’ve gotten too afraid.  This earth doesn’t work unless we are bound more than we are divided.  “I am building new heavens and a new earth,” God said.  It is our work to help that new earth come to be.

My hopes: I hope for reconciliation, because I’m stubborn that way.  I hope for genuine, systemic healing on the kind of scale that this world needs. I hope that the desire to love and to care for one another better than we do now takes better hold than it has now.

I hope for a greater and broader equality – which will mean learning and sacrifices on my part too.  I hope for forgiveness, for genuine strength, and for the hearts of those who lead and those to follow to turn toward mercy.

This hoping is hard, hard work and embodying through intent and action it is even harder, but given what we have seen these past months, it is undoubtedly the work we have been given to do.  For “I am building new heavens and a new earth,” says the Lord.  And it is our work to help that new earth come to be.

OK, my grief: I grieve that life is harder than it should be for so many.  While I can’t claim that what we just experienced was a healthy way for the people of a country to express angers, frustrations, incapacities – that’s what happened.  If we managed to before this election cycle, there is no denying now that we are a very broken people.  We are a hurting people.  We are embarrassingly siloed off not only from the world but from people who live just across the street, or on it.  And that reality is in itself worthy of our grief.  “I am building new heavens and a new earth,” says the Lord.  It is our work to help that new earth come to be.

Finally – in this list of questions are my needs:  I need you. I need this – this place that is grace, this time, this prayer, this table which is open to all. I need neighbors, food, shelter, and basic safety, rights and protections and so does everyone else.  I need those who are different from me close to me.

I need help prioritizing the many pieces of life in ways that open me up and make me a vessel of the kind of healing we need, a means by which a new earth comes to be through us all. I need support to stand up to what is wrong, to stand up for what is right, and help discerning what that is. I need support in helping us to be a people who are good.

No please, continue this conversation.  All of you can answer these questions too, all of you can ask them and listen as we and our neighbors respond: What are your fears, your hopes, your grief, your needs, people of Grace and beyond?

Oh and by the way, this week I did many things besides casting a vote. I’m sure you did too.

On Thursday morning I sat with the Chief of Police, a couple of Holland City leaders and a very diverse group of local clergy. We heard about neighborhood police programs, and very real efforts by law enforcement, clergy and other community leaders to be pieces of the fabric that holds us together in healthy and life-giving ways.  We talked about hate being expressed in frightening ways and relationships being built in helpful, productive ways.  We will gather monthly to share stories, name hard truths, offer ideas and work to discern ways forward together.  You’ll hear more about this as we go along.

Thursday evening I was here with many of you as we fed over 150 hungry families.  We served a meal to well over 250 people, distributed over 8500 lbs of food, and lots of laundry detergent and toilet paper too.  We cared for each other.  People served who came to receive.  People received who came to serve. Grace happened on a small scale but on a scale that mattered to every person who was there that night, all of us giving and all of receiving as tables and doors were opened to all.

Friday I stood with students, faculty, and staff in the Pine Grove at Hope College because Latino and black students have been harassed, verbally and physically this week.  Hope is (unfortunately) not unique in this experience. On Friday hundreds of members of that community came together and very simply held hands – for a half hour – in silence – surrounding the Pine Grove and spilling out over onto sidewalks, winding around trees, brushing up against the chapel, breaking open and expanding as the half hour went on.  I grieved and I hoped standing there as I realized that I had stood in almost exactly the same place about 20 years ago.  That night we had gathered in a circle in darkness holding candles because gay students who wanted to enter into Bible Study had been brutally excluded.  There were about fifteen of us there that night.

New earths take time.  New earths take hopes and tears and blood and sweat, forgiveness, mercy and a stubborn, determination that one might call faith.  Nobody said we would all agree on how to move, or that the “new earth” would break in in an entirely linear fashion.  In fact the gospel of Luke this morning said it would be a somewhat terrifying mess!  New earths take you and they take me and they take our neighbors and the power and love of a God bigger than us all.  “But not a hair of your head will perish,” we heard that this morning too. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  Not because we have something to prove but maybe because “gaining our souls” is more like an ongoing discovery of what we are made of, whose image we are made in.

So this week and every week, talk to each other from places we don’t normally talk, and listen with all that you have.  Engage your neighbors, especially those who are different from you. Claim a stubborn, determined strength that’s not afraid to grieve, not afraid to speak, not afraid of those who are “other.”  Be honest about the privilege and power you have in this world; apply it for good and surrender some. Reflect honestly in diverse and hurting community. Gather in peace.  We have gifts to share.

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” God spoke. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together…They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”

May it be so.

Amen

 

Visions, Dreams, and Electric Bills

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Sunday, October 23, 2016

Proper 26, Year C: Joel 2:23-32, 2Timothy: 4:6-18, Luke 18:9-14

This morning I want to begin with the reading from the prophet Joel, because it’s one of my favorite passages (and preachers have the privilege of running with their favorites when they show up.)  So come on along and hear what Joel had to say.

“O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the Lord your God, the for he has given the early rain for your vindication,” the prophet spoke.  “The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil. 25I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten…You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you…You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other. ..28I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old shall dream dreams, and your young shall see visions. 29Even on the male and female slaves, (meaning therefore, upon everyone) I will pour out my spirit.” 

I love this passage because it’s a beautiful articulation of how the Spirit comes to a community and works through us all – old and young, sons and daughters, free and not so free but soon to be – the Spirit has been poured upon all flesh for the sake of all flesh.  Which that’s a beautiful and profound grace to consider.  And it sort of makes me want to walk around the congregation, and ask everyone here today, “So, what are your dreams?… What are your visions?” Hey all, the Spirit will/has been poured upon us!  We are intergenerationally blessed!

But don’t worry, Episcopalians. We are by nature a little shy about group shares especially during worship, especially using the language of “dreams and visions of God,” so I’m not going to roam right now.  But trust me, trust Joel, and for that matter remember the language we use at Baptism: the Spirit is upon you and you and you and you and me. Everyone here has a dream, everyone who walks through these doors has a dream, and we need the old, the young and everyone in-between to share the visions they have been given in order to be the community we have been called to be.

So part of what we do for each other here at Grace is honor and help shape and nurture those dreams, weaving them into some sort of larger whole that becomes not just individual but a collective “grace for the world.”  Joel is telling us that God is doing something  through us, among us.  And it is our job, our work as people of faith to nurture the gifts that the Spirit sends.

Which is energizing and literally, inspiring.  “I will, with God’s help” is how we respond to the charge at Baptism and the assurance here is that God’s help has come and will continue to be poured out. As we enter into this time of year when we focus in on the gifts we have to share, the time, talent, treasure to use traditional language – remember that it’s all for the sake of engaging the Spirit’s gifts and God’s dreams for this church and this world.

Each and every one of us has something essential to bring to the table, this table and others too.  And so we set goals, we listen, we support, encourage and cheer each other on. And we remember that the Spirit is here and is always calling us to a time of literal abundance – of food, of shelter, of mercy, of peace and spiritual blessings.  Part of what we do together here is dream and work for a re-newed church and world.   And I could say Amen right now and sit down.

But in the spirit of full disclosure, I need to say more. Before we go all vision on ourselves and go way heavy on the dreams, we have to acknowledge that there are challenges to all of this vision stuff.   As coincidence would have it, The Second Letter to Timothy from which came our second passage this morning reminds us of some of those.

The author of this Epistle was Paul who had been up to his ears in visions and dreams for a VERY long time by the time he wrote this letter to his right hand man, Timothy.  Paul had walked miles and miles and miles.  He’d written lots of letters, preached lots of places, encouraged one community of faith after another, and Paul had also been imprisoned for his faith.

By this point in his story, some of Paul’s buddies had left.  We heard that one had gone on to Thessalonica, another to Galatia, and recently yet another had gone off to Ephesus to work on something else.  So the people of Paul’s day were very busy – and distracted – they struggled to live and worship as one Body.  There were theological, ideological conflicts and sometimes just simple human misunderstandings.  And not only that but the local coppersmith was apparently blatantly and publically opposing their message, Paul had left his jacket at his last stop, his books were all over the place (he had to ask Timothy to pick them up,) and his parchments weren’t terribly organized.

And so the challenge is that that’s what they had to work with when it came to a community of people sharing the dreams and visions of God!  Busyness.  Blatant opposition. Differences of opinions and priorities. Distractions!

And all that sounds familiar to me too. Here we are a people who have dreams and visions.  A creative, compassionate, faithful people who also have day jobs, and meals to cook, and baths to give, homework to do, schedules to juggle, struggles to wrestle, and parchments to organize.  So we are challenged to balance holding on to the larger vision of the grand and holy dreams of God with the reality of remembering to pay the electric bill and not bumping up too hard against the local coppersmith.

Our work is hold all of this in one very real place in which God is present: the dreams, the distractions, the visions, the day to day in one big incarnational bundle of being God’s people in this world.  And so we hold up where we are headed while we stubbornly, patiently, passionately, hunker in to a step at a time sort of approach.  (Sometimes we take three steps at a time. Sometimes two steps back, but, like Paul and probably even Joel, we keep walking.)

Remember the visions are for threshing floors full of grain where no one hungers and so the step we take is to we welcome all to this table every Sunday and everyone gets fed.  And we fling wide the doors for our mobile food pantry and we come together for Holy Chow shared meals – all signs that we are committed to that way of being in this world.  The vision is for dreams being poured upon all flesh and so the step we take is to welcome a refugee family and other outcasts too – one family or person at a time – one person or family whose dream it is to be safe, to be welcomed, to be home.  We do that.  The vision is for reconciliation and healing of all kinds and so the step we take is to visit, listen to and pray with someone who is hurting and we work to break down one very real barrier at a time today.  The vision is for prophets to sing among us and so we teach the kids, the language and hopes of God.

The day will come, God promises when the Kingdom is here in full – and God will make it so.  And the day is now Paul and others remind us when we are called to give what we have of ourselves, providing glimpses and experiences of mercy, of peace, of abundance, of shelter, of love, of home.  And we offer it all as a people whose gifts abound.

Amen

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The Shape of Our Hearts

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – October 16, 2016 – Proper 24, Year C: Jeremiah 31:27-34, Luke 18:1-18

I’m so very glad for the timing of this parable because it explains something unexpected and surprising that happened in the world this week. Confusing to some, absolutely fabulous to others and this parable helps me understand how it happened.  Someone must have been praying everyday for the last fifty years for Bob Dylan to win the Nobel Prize for Literature!  And after 18,250 days of praying without losing heart, it finally happened.  The judge granted the prayer.

My work here is done.

OK, not really. If for no other reason than odds are good that other things were prayed for the past 18,250 days and they didn’t happen. So sorry, to those of you fans who came looking for more; I won’t be able to determine in the course of the next few minutes whether or not that awarding involved divine intervention or not, because while we have this beautifully simple parable on the one hand, it gets complicated pretty quickly if you hang in there long enough to look at the other hand.

Let’s see what more we can do.

Here’s what we’ve got:  According to the gospel of Luke, “Jesus told them a parable about how to pray always and not to lose heart.”  So right away we’re given the context, even the whole point for Jesus telling the story.  He was offering some basic teaching about prayer to his disciples.

And this was how he put it: There was a widow and there was a judge.  And this judge, “neither feared God nor had respect for people,” Jesus said.  And the widow (which I learned a few years ago also means “voiceless one” in Hebrew) had been done an injustice.  We don’t know what the injustice was, but that didn’t seem to matter to this teaching. The point was that a wrong had been done her, “Grant me justice” she said – over and over and over again – she had gone to the judge to set things right.

And the judge kept brushing her off (because as you heard, “he neither feared God nor had respect for people”) and she by virtue of her status as a widow was in that day near the bottom of the societal heap.  He didn’t have to listen to her.  There was no gain for him in granting her any attention – so at first he didn’t.  But that didn’t stop her.  Because the widow was relentless.  She continued to ask for justice because she knew somewhere in her heart – which she refused to lose –  that she deserved it as much as anyone else and she trusted  again somewhere deep inside because there were very few outward signs to support it – that eventually justice would come her way.  And so she kept going to the judge and crying out.

And eventually, the judge granted her justice.  Not because he “saw the light” or because eventually his heart broke for this woman.  The judge granted justice simply because he wanted to get her off his back and get on with other things.  As Luke put it, the judge granted her justice so that the widow would not continue to “wear him out.”  End of parable.

Then Jesus added a bit of explanation for the sake of the disciples learning, “If even an unjust judge eventually acted this way, of course God will. And it really doesn’t get much more simple than that.  Our role then is to pray with everything we’ve got, without ceasing. To never lose heart, to help one another keep heart and to dedicate our hearts and our minds and our souls to continually offering our prayers to God whom the gospel promises is listening.  And while sometimes that persistence can itself be exhausting, like the widow, we’re invited to trust that God will answer, in God’s time, in God’s way, with God’s care.  God will respond.  If you leave with only one thing today, please make it that.

Now I do wonder if it might have mattered a little bit what the widow was asking for.  I think we need to consider that when applying this parable to our own prayer life.  She wasn’t praying for lots of new stuff, or to win the lottery, or to have lightning come down and strike her enemies. (Not than any of us would ever consider such a prayer. . .) The widow wasn’t praying for an overabundance of anything or for harm or loss to anyone else.  According to the parable, the widow wasn’t even praying for a miracle. She was praying very simply for justice.

And so part of the point of the parable might have to do with the fact that the substance of her prayers were in full alignment with the hopes and dreams of God.  A God through whom justice will roll down like a river, flow like a stream, and rain down like water say the prophets.

Now I often encourage people to just let it flow when it comes to prayer, to not censor or edit when talking to God because so often we block ourselves in that conversation. And being as open as possible with God unblocks us, frees us to be our honest, broken and hopeful selves with the holy One.

But on the other hand (of prayer) I believe that what we pray for also shapes us and I think this parable is about that too.  And the concept itself is actually very Anglican – the belief that we both individually and also as a community are shaped by what we pray for and how we pray it is woven into our identity as Episcopalians.  Notice that our practice of prayer isn’t focused primarily on proving an outcome – it’s grounded in the power of prayer itself, the power of prayer to form us and even unite us.   So, while we let it flow before God, it also serves us well to be intentional about what we are praying for.

Because praying for things like justice, love, forgiveness, compassion really does help those things rise up in us or at least makes us more aware of the possibility for those kinds of things to be so.  And we were never more in need of such things than we are now. And so prayer is part of the gift we have to give this world.

Maybe that’s what Jeremiah was getting at when he talked in the first reading today about the law being “written on the hearts of the people.”  To pray for something over and over and over again means to allow that something to play a role inside of us too, to allow that something that is of God to shape us in word and even action. Do not lose heart, people, instead allow your hearts to be shaped by the visions and hopes of our God. And trust that God is working to make it so.

This is exactly what the widow did.  Somewhere along the way, probably through her own communal faith experience and knowledge of the prophets, she had picked up that the “voiceless” weren’t voiceless after all and that part of God’s dream for the world, part of God’s ultimate promise to the world was for justice and mercy to reign even for people like her, maybe especially for people like her.  And so the widow didn’t give up.  And when she wanted to, maybe her community prayed her prayers for her.  And when the community needed a nudge she reminded them that the promise of justice was to be a part of the faith community’s focus in prayer and action too.  While the outcome is mercifully, in God’s hands, the widow allowed that vision of God to shape her heart, to shape her action, to shape her approach to her world and her faith.

And that, Jesus said, is how prayer works on us.  Turns out that “the answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind,” a wind that is among us in love, and is ultimately merciful and justice bearing for all.

 

 

Blessed are the Mothers and the Grandmothers

The Rev. Jennifer Adams – Grace Church, Holland on October 2, 2016 – Proper 22, Year C: 2Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

“Lord, increase our faith,” the disciples said to Jesus.

Now I know that request well because I’ve prayed it, and I’ve heard it prayed by others. Maybe you have been known to pray it once or twice along the way. And the thinking goes something like, “If only I had just a little more then …”  Then what?  This phase of life would be easier?  Or that part would be more bearable? Or what is it that you seek?  Increase my faith, Lord so that I can be stronger?  Wiser?  More hopeful?  Depending on the day it can be any or all of those things and more.

And so as people regularly long for more faith I hear them/us wonder aloud about how faith happens.  Just how do these increases take place?  Often the stories we hear about faith beginning or faith growing lean toward the lightening bolt types of experiences like Paul’s where he was blinded on the road to Damascus by a bright light.  And in one day’s time he turned from persecutor of Christians to disciple of Jesus – proclaiming Christ crucified and risen to the entire region of early Christendom.  There’s an increase for ya!  And so we almost expect that if faith is going to catch and really grow it must happen through the type of divine intervention that stops us on the road, opens our eyes, and puts us on the right path – dramatically, quickly, and preferably without any doubts, questions or contradictions woven in there too.  Paul became a person of deep and profound faith in the literal blink of an eye.  Faith happened for him and happens for a few others whose stories are apparently worth telling almost instantaneously.   And there’s something sort of attractive about that.

But then there were and are people like Timothy. Timothy was one of Paul’s closest companions.  They became like family and as they served together as evangelists and missionaries in the early church. Timothy was featured in several Epistles (letters) of the New Testament.  Paul wrote letters to Timothy as is the case with the passage we heard today. He also wrote some Epistles with Timothy by his side, letters like 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians.  He’s actually venerated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Episcopal churches and commemorated in other traditions such as ELCA and Missouri Synod Lutherans. Timothy was huge in the early church, supporting Paul but also traveling on his own throughout Macedonia, preaching, teaching, sharing the gospel doing faithful sorts of missionary, apostolic sorts of things.  So like Paul, Timothy was also a person of deep and profound faith.

And so how did faith happen for him?  For Timothy. Bright lights?  Major crisis? Road-stopping intervention? Voice of God breaking through the clouds?  Maybe a burning bush?

Nope.  None of that.  Are you ready for this?  Timothy “got faith” from his Mother, Eunice and his grandmother, Lois.  That’s it.  That’s Timothy’s story.  Nothing burning or flashing or even very dramatic about it.  The stars of the show were a mother and grandmother for heaven’s sakes.  Timothy wasn’t a persecutor turned apostle.  He was apparently your basic Sunday School kid, maybe an acolyte, perhaps as he got older he read on occasion. Maybe he sang in the choir. Or maybe Timothy sat in the back pews with his arms crossed because he didn’t want to be there but Eunice made him.  And Eunice probably wondered if it was worth it at the time.  (And just for the record you all need to know that Eunice and Lois made it into the Epistle too.  And I love that.  They were the seed planters who faithfully, stubbornly, lovingly made sure that Timothy was a part of the community of faith.  And it mattered.)

Over the years, Eunice and Lois and their community told Timothy stories from Scripture which for them included the Hebrew Scriptures, Torah and the prophets – and these for them these “new letters” and very early forms of the Christian gospels.  They told the stories and so Timothy knew about the goodness of Creation, the liberation and wandering of the Israelites.  He knew the promises of Ruth, the comfort of the Shepherd, and the vision of Isaiah.  He knew about healing.  And every Sunday Timothy heard about resurrection.

Timothy’s faith happened very simply because he was a part of the Church.  He knew about the hopes of his people, the prayers of his people, the hurts, the dreams, the losses and graces of his people and the presence of God among them.  Over time Timothy learned about breaking and sharing bread.  He learned that people break too and also that there is a larger wholeness to which we have been invited.  He learned about the needs of the orphans and the widows, about feeding the hungry and sheltering those without homes.  Timothy learned the faith, saw, touched, tasted, experienced the faith in ongoing, steady, at times boringly predictable, at times blessedly predictable week after week sorts of ways.  Essentially, Timothy got faith by being with others who shared the faith with him.

That’s how faith happened for Timothy and I’m guessing that’s how faith happens for most of us. If you have burning bush stories by all means we want to hear them.  And I know and believe they are out there.  But it wasn’t so much a light that blinded Timothy on his road.  It was simply that there were a whole lot of people on the road with him the whole way.  Faith happened because of that older guy who came to church every Sunday not matter what.  Timothy knew that that guy whose name he only learned after watching him for years, he knew that guy would be in the pews, or vested up front every Sunday, and there was something wonderfully predictable and comforting about that.  Timothy sort of loved the way the guy looked up and said, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people.”  Faith happened because those other kids who robed up with him or giggled with him in class, or sat in the pew next to him singing (and occasionally whispering, giggling more together.  Faith increased because of those adults who read Timothy stories even when his head was down or he was coloring and “not listening”, those adults who refused to stop offering their time, their faith even when they could tell that a part of Timothy was nearly desperate for his earphones.  Faith happened because of that day when Timothy got up to read, or he showed up to feed, or he walked lots and lots of miles with a pack on his back, a trip that revealed that there was a people and maybe even a God who had his back all the time, no matter what road he was on. It was all of those moments that made faith happen for Timothy.

And so perhaps this is what we need to hear:  Faith is something we can give to one another.  It’s that simple and I think it’s also that beautiful.  And not only that  but such faith is often something we give without our even knowing it. Faith is the result of those (rare here at Grace, I’m sure) but those very occasional Sunday morning battles to just everyone get in the car. Faith happens because we are simply here, praying, singing, passing the peace, breaking and sharing the bread because not matter our particular faith-quantity-level- we all need to see, to experience – to touch, to taste, to know that kind of here-ness.

Faith increases because we tell the stories and refuse to stop, making plenty of room for doubts and questions and contradictions that deepen us. We tell the stories about the goodness of Creation, the promise of Ruth, the vision of Isaiah – the setting free of captives, the giving of sight to the blind, the feeding the five thousand, stories about being set free even as we grow in love of our neighbors. Faith happens because we stubbornly, faithfully offer ourselves and proclaim resurrection week after week after week.  Because we work hard to receive and embody that for which we hope. We are those people on the road with the Timothys we are.  So, thank you Eunices of Grace. Thank you Loises of Grace.  Hang in there, Timothys – all it takes is a seed and the seeds have undoubtedly, lovingly been planted among us.  Seeds enough to move trees, and perhaps even mountains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Messy Mercy

The Rev. Jennifer Adams- September 18, 2016 – Proper 20, Year C: Luke 16:1-13

So the problem I have with this parable is that I don’t really like it.  And I believe that a congregation deserves to know when a preacher simply just doesn’t like a passage.  It’s bound to color my interpretation a bit, and so I offer full disclosure right up front – I am not a fan of this one.

Look at the guy for heaven’s sakes.  The main character in this parable is called “the dishonest manager” right up front and it’s not like he makes a whole lot of inner changes as the story goes on.  Give me that adorable little lost sheep we had last week or someone like the Good Samaritan whom we heard about earlier in this very gospel – there’s an example of faith!  Give me the people passionately seeking mercy or hoping for healing and at times risking everything for such grace!  Anything but this guy!  I mean, come on. You caught what was going on, right?

This manager had a job collecting rent for a landowner, a master the story says. And at some point, the master discovered that this manager was “squandering” his property and so he threatened to fire him. Given that not so pleasant scenario, the manager considered his options and came to the less than impressive insight that he was, “not strong enough to dig and ashamed to beg.”  In other words, he wasn’t cut out for hardship or manual labor.

And so he figured that his only way forward was to get in the good favor of the tenants, the ones from whom he had been collecting.  And so the manager went around and reduced all their debts, as if this were his to do.  To the one who owed 100 jugs of olive oil he said, “Take your bill, sit down quickly and make it fifty.”  To the one who owed 100 containers of wheat he said “Take your bill and make it 80.”  Now remember the debts weren’t owed to him.  They were owed to the landowner, the master.  And the manager only did all of this so that he could stay alive and well and be in the good graces of at least somebody.  And so it all still sounds kind of slimy to me.  The manager wasn’t merciful, he was shrewd.  And then he was praised for it!  And I want more!  Shouldn’t the bar be higher than that?

If I’m honest that’s why this story bothers me – When it comes to the things of God, the gifts of God – the properties the creation of “the master” – I want a complete change of heart of “the squanderers.” Apparently every time. I want the guy to care about more than his own neck and let the needs of the other be his motivation for cutting rent.  I want a complete 180, full repentance, confession, amendment of life, and commitment to the causes seeking justice for those people whose debts had gone through the roof because of his own greed.  That’s what I want.

But here’s the thing.  God is working with humanity and apparently Jesus knew that when he told this story.  God is working with us. And we as humanity don’t generally work the way that I would like for stories to play out. I don’t generally work that way so I don’t know why I think everyone else should.  Sure there is the occasional full turn around, that lightening induced, eye-opening, moment where someone experiences a complete overhaul in the course of one experience, but for the most part that’s not how it works.  It’s not how we work.

The problem with this parable is that Jesus said what was going on inside the manager too; that’s why it’s so messy.  If Jesus had left those parts out the parable the story would be lovely and frankly much more palatable to the discerning ear:  There was a manager who had been entrusted with much.  And while working for his master, this “wonderful, generous manager” cut the debts of all of the tenants in half and the tenants and manager praised him.  The end.  Nice, right?

But that’s not how Jesus told the story, nor is it how Jesus lived it.  It’s the inner workings of the manager that make this parable messy.  And it’s the inner workings of all of us that make life messy too. And so really, I don’t want God or the gospel to leave those parts out.  Those are the places I need God to be with me most.  I need to take some basic actions that at least accomplish something good for another, but I also need God in it with me for the long haul too – because my heart is messier than a verse or two cover.

So my guess is that the dishonest manager, we’ll call him the manager as our own act of mercy, had some seeds planted in him that day.  He opened doors differently and whether his heart was in it or not, his words and his actions were.  Through his basic actions, he forgave debts and lightened the loads of others.

And so maybe one of the tenants came back, knocked on his door and brought him some cookies because they were grateful for his actions. Sure the manager got cookies but he also realized those people were not only tenants but people who liked cookies too.  And maybe another tenant waved to him when they saw each other in town and the manager realized that that person wasn’t just a means by which to make some money, but a person who walked the same streets as he – someone with a face and a hand and a wave and a name.  Those kinds of moments matter in longer-term overhaul sorts of ways. Then maybe one day the manager encountered another tenant when their kids were playing together at the park and he saw the tenant not as a tenant but as Bill or Joe or Sam, the guy with the kids who played with his own.  And since the manager also knew that he hadn’t been a complete jerk to Bill or Joe or Sam the last time he saw (remember he’d cut his rent) and so talking to him was easier than it had been before. Neither of them had to hide from the other anymore. And so maybe the manager began to honestly give of himself.

But that’s the longer story.  Which is more than a few gospel verses can reveal, but that’s the story we’re called to live.  It’s still a littly rosy, but I lean that way, and I think ultimately the gospel does too – maybe not rosy but definitely “hopeful.”

We are called to be a people who give and receive forgiveness, cutting debts of others and letting our own be cut too, whether the intentions are pure or simply a means by which we hope to achieve something better or a different kind of “more” than we have.  Remember as we close this out today, that what the manager was seeking was complicated but bottom line the story said was that he was working to be welcomed into a home, a place in which he would be received, and welcomed and celebrated- he was looking to be in the good graces of others.  Which was not unlike the lost sheep really, or the prodigal Son, or probably just about anyone.

Sometimes our means of getting there are messy.  Because we are.  But that’s why God is here working with us.  Planting seeds when our doors open a little, so that ultimately we come to be faithful in much.

Amen.

Being Cross

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – September 18 -Proper 18, Year C:  Luke 14:25-33

This morning I want to try something out on you.  We’ll call this a “floater” sermon where I have an idea that I’m working out right here in front of all of you.  Now it’s a theological idea, appropriate for the context, and it could eventually become a teaching or a belief, but for now, I’m sorta testing it out, and I need a safe place to do that.  Could be that by the end of this sermon after I hear it, I have to say, “never mind” and take it back to the drawing board.  But, I value your input and I’d like you to be a part of this process. So are you game?   Looks like enough nodding heads (the Episcopal version of YES! WE’RE IN!)  Here we go.

I think you are my cross to bear.   That’s it.  That’s my floater idea.  I think that you, all of you her today and more, are my cross to bear.  Now before you worry too much about that, or perhaps even feel slightly offended, let me explain.

First let me clarify that I don’t mean this in the purely traditional sense where “cross to bear” is a put down of sorts, meaning extreme burden or trial that one has to put up with, the kind of description one would offer with a big, defeated sort of sigh.  That’s not where I’m headed here.  It’s not who you are for me.   Just so you know.  OK- we good?

Which isn’t to say that a cross is easy or light or without pain.  It’s to say that perhaps a cross is a relational sort of thing.  It was for Jesus, right?  The theological language of “he died for us,” implies that much.  While I am careful with the theologies of the cross that are out there, I will absolutely agree that the cross was a relational act on Jesus’ part. It was and is an offering of self through which comes struggle and pain and eventually death or a death of sorts.  However, it’s also a means of salvation.

And so maybe you are my cross to bear- meaning you are that through which I experience pain and struggle, you are those who demand various levels of sacrifice but you are also those who bring out more love than I could bring out myself, and I would go so far as to call it salvific at times. Through you I glimpse something of God and I am more aware of my presence with God, and God’s presence with me.  All of that because of you.

And crosses work like that. They aren’t easy, but they open us to new life.

So, what if our cross to bear is the love we share?

Let’s unpack it a little more. You lay things down when you walk through these doors, we all do.  Hopefully you find a place to rest here, if that’s what you need.  You have a place and a people among whom you can lay down your burdens, even some of your defenses, and offer your praise, your lament, your joys and your thanksgivings.  This is a place in which we are invited to experience prayer and to come to know deep peace.

But we also pick something up when we walk through these doors, especially if you keep walking through these doors, which I hope that all of you – week after week, year after year and I’ve heard many of you talk about this as one of the reasons why you call Grace “home.”

You pick something up, because when you look around the sanctuary you see very real people, and as you begin to connect, you share some of yourself with at least some of them.  You also begin to know the pains, the needs, the struggles of others. And so you pray for them and maybe you even care for them, you bring them food or just take time to listen and wrestle with their ways of approaching life or approaching faith.  Being here among – is a relational act – there is God and there is all of us.

One of you out words on this recently. In what I considered a beautiful, even holy conversation you shared that you had stayed awake one night shedding genuinely compassionate tears for the struggle you knew another person here was going through.  You separated (as the gospel says) from your own life, sacrificing if nothing else some sleep, but also some energy, some room in your brain and heart.

And in your tears there was struggle, there was burden, but there were also seeds of what I believe to be our greatest hope.  Because in those moments there is a discovery, a discovery and an acknowledgement that we are bound to each other with a love that passes our understanding.  And crosses work like that.

And so what if we are cross for one another?  What if take up your cross and love your neighbor are actually the same act of faith?

The good news is that we can practice it all here, not just for the sake of here but for the sake of every day of our lives.  We practice here when we walk through the doors into a community of faith.  We do it at the tables –  when we feed one another and when we feed our neighbors who happen to also be strangers.   We pick up our cross on pilgrimage when we discover how closely we are bound in love, and even when we open our hearts and our lives to those who are “in the news.”

Take up your cross, Jesus said, for the sake of nothing more and nothing less then the love we have to give, and the love we have to receive from one another and from God.

It’s an idea anyway. . .Thanks for letting me try it out.

Amen.

Interrupted by Grace

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – August 21, 2016 – Proper 16, Year C: Luke 13:10-17

 Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.  Luke 13:10-17

I’m betting that most of us hear this gospel and know that we stand rather firmly with Jesus on this one.  Frankly, we can even be a little smug about it so let’s take a minute or two and celebrate.  We have plenty of room for things like healing on the Sabbath. It’s just not very often that you hear an Episcopalian be too literal with their interpretation of Scripture or religious law! Unlike other gospel stories, this one is not a trap we tend to fall into very often. Given the choice between healing on the Sabbath or abiding by the strict keeping of the Sabbath as laid out in religious commandment – we’d go with healing on the Sabbath every time. Hands down.  And frankly, faithfully, good for us.

Now this approach to faith is a gift we have to give the larger Body because occasionally (maybe you’ve run in to this here and there,) the Body can get stuck on particular passages of Scripture that if taken literally actually conflict with the larger meaning or intent of what we believe God is trying to speak.  To use technical terms (and to apply my take to such situations) we help the Body avoid exegetical, hermeneutical disasters.  Which is exactly what Jesus was getting at in the synagogue that day.

To review: There was a woman present who had been crippled for eighteen years. She was, “bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight,” Luke tells us.  And so when Jesus saw her, he called out, “Woman you are set free from your ailment.”  He laid his hands on her and she “immediately stood up straight and began praising God.”

But not everybody was praising God!  The leader of the synagogue was “indignant” (“Boo!” we say.) Jesus had cured on the Sabbath and so the leader of the synagogue was telling the crowds to remember that there are six days on which to work, to do things, including healing and not on the Sabbath.  No work was to be done on the Sabbath and healing was actually an action that crossed that line. Jesus, on the other hand, was offering a different interpretation, was holding up a bigger picture of God’s hopes for God’s people – he proclaimed that such opportunities for healing needed to always be taken regardless of time or place.  Those opportunities trumped a literal reading of the law.

And we seem to get that by virtue of our approach to Scripture and tradition.  Episcopalians allow for experience, reason, and the presence of the Spirit to guide our interpretative efforts and we’ve offered this gift of ours (at least we see it as gift) through conversations on issues of social justice.  Women speaking in church is one example.  LGBT issues another.  Slavery another.  We know there are interpretations of Scripture and tradition that if taken literally can actually get in the way of healing rather than enable it.  And I can preach for hours on that. (In fact if you add it up, over time I have preached on hours of all of that. So see me after church if you want more.)  For now, suffice it to say that we’re pretty good at this one! And that’s something to celebrate, something to claim, something to share. We as Episcopalians can be very Christ-like when it comes to breaking the Body open to healing that comes in ways that literal interpretations of Scripture or religious law would block.  So good for us.

However, we have do have something to learn here.  You knew it was coming.  Here we go. . .

While we can prayerfully, mindfully, faithfully work our way through Scripture and tradition to make room for a larger wholeness to happen, there are things that we as a people are not so good at letting go of in order to allow for another or even ourselves to heal.  Truth is, we have our idols too.

One of the most common conversations I have with people (including myself) has to do with how hard it is to find time to take care of ourselves. We’re good with Jesus breaking Sabbath, or making Sabbath in order to heal “a broken person,” but we’re bad at breaking in to our own schedules to make time to allow ourselves to heal or rest or even pause.  I speak from experience here, people. We’re ok breaking with religious code in order to make room for “the other,” but we’re not very good at breaking in to our days in order to simply be with one another, or invest our whole selves in truly reconciling, genuinely relational sorts of efforts.  I think it’s true institutionally, communally too.  It’s not so hard for us when the healing needs of another knock on the doors of our church, but when the healing needs of another demand time, or the financial needs of another challenge our personal life plans, or the justice needs of a people poke at our own personal sense of security, or even (hypothetically or not) requests from neighbors put a pause on our plans for more parking – which will happen but in a matter of weeks not days . . .  Now that’s all some pretty hard stuff.

But all of that is related to today’s story.  Healing takes time.  And the need for our healing and the healing of this world interrupts the best laid plans.  The leader of the synagogue knew when and how healing should happen.  And he knew what Sabbath was for.  He had the timing down and the vision down and his tradition was very clear about the means by which they were going to get to that holy promised land. And we fall in to that trap often, individually and institutionally too.

But in the gospel story, Jesus came and in some ways what he said and says today is that the time is now, the time is always now. (How Sabbath is that when you get right down to it?) The time is now for healing, for rest, for reconciliation – so let it in.   The time is now for being good neighbors, for listening and responding to the actual, practical needs of “the other,” so let them in.  The time is now for letting go of whatever it is that gets in the way of the larger healing to which God is calling us all.  Jesus created the time and the space for the holy work of God to be done in that place, among those people, within their means, at a pace that interrupted their plans but saved their lives.

And the same is true for us.

A quick story before I close. It comes from the Olympics.  (You didn’t think we’d get through an Olympics without at least one sermon reference did you?)  This story comes from a qualifying race in the women’s 5000 meters.  Maybe you heard about or even watched it play out.  Here’s what happened.  American Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealander Nicki Hamblin were running with about 2000 meters left in the race. So they’d just gotten over half way when D’Agostino clipped Hamblin from behind, and they both went sprawling.  Hamblin fell hard on her shoulder and while D’Agostino got up pretty quickly, Hamblin did not.  And it looked like Hamblin was out.  But then an amazing thing happened. D’Agostino helped her up.  Now granted it was the right thing to do, but it sort of broke code with how athletic endeavors are supposed to go, right? Instead of moving on, D’Agostino stopped, helped Hamblin up, literally lifting her, and getting her back on her feet.  And they were both able to keep going.

Until D’Agostino couldn’t run because something was wrong with her knee and she stopped.  But instead of going on with her race, Hamblin then paused and helped D’Agostino. What?  “We can do this!  Stand up!” they told each other.  Again, breaking all unspoken, and some actually written rules of the track not to mention setting records for the slowest 5000 meter races ever run. And yet they both crossed the finish line.  And Hamblin, when she was interviewed about the whole experience, said that years from now when she talks about her Olympic days, this is the story she will tell:  someone stopped their race, paused, picked me up, and helped me carry on.

Now if you are just back from pilgrimage, this story probably makes perfect sense. ‘Get up and finish’ might as well be a motto of those who travel (especially by foot) to a holy destination.  And one of the themes of pilgrimage was essentially “the time is now.” Your intention was to walk, to search and to heal, together every day, every step of the way.  You had a destination in mind but the only way to get there was with the help of each other and others who were willing to stop and allow their own lives to be interrupted making room for yours. You had from what I can tell a very meaningful experience of this way of being in the world – the give and take of what intentional discovery and healing looks like.  We look forward to hearing more from you all.

It’s the interruption in this gospel story that has something to teach us.  May we open ourselves to the surprising ways in which God breaks in, letting go of all that stands in the way.  “You are set free,” Jesus tells us, “You are free.”

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

Blessed by a Sword

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams- August 14, 2016 – Proper 16, Year C: Luke 12: 49-56

Luke 12:49-56:  “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? 

And so I hear this gospel passage and while there is a large part of me that cringes at those rather harsh sounding words of Jesus, there is also a significant part of me that recognizes the scene.  Maybe you do too, perhaps all to well: “Five in one household will be divided,” Jesus said, “three against two and two against three, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”   Now there is there is a part of me that longs this very minute for the gentleness of the Good Shepherd, the shalom of the Prince of Peace, but I also have to acknowledge that I know well the situation being described in this passage. The image of families, of communities divided isn’t fun, but neither, if we’re honest, is it unfamiliar.

In fact, just the opposite is probably true.  If we were judging life by this passage alone, one might conclude that we are living in incredibly gospel-based times. Just watching the news will tell you that we’re practically mastering the skill of being “at odds” with each other, offering swords instead of peace on a very regular basis.  We’re getting division down pretty well, thank you.

Even within our usually predictable and harmonious means of grouping ourselves there are now divisions – households at odds, parties divided, congregations battling it out, neighborhoods trying to live together well, communities struggling often among themselves. Some of the surprises this season, and not only politically, are that it’s not those who have been traditionally on “the other side” of one issue or another who “stand against” us to use the words of this passage, but the person who has been sitting right next to us all along.  So one conclusion to draw is that perhaps, our work here is done, people!  We’re getting this division thing down!  Based on this passage alone, we’re doing the work of the gospel.

But, (and this is a big BUT and you knew it was coming) there is more to the gospel and there is more to us.  Part of the good news today is that Luke 12 is not the end of the story.  None of us want it to end here and neither does God.  The challenging news is that chapter 12 is a part of the gospel and we have to go through it in order to get to that more. Simply denying the tensions or ignoring the divisions won’t get us where we need to be.

And there is a different kind of thing that happens, and in some ways a different potential present when the one with whom we disagree happens to be someone who is already close.  And maybe that’s part of what this passage is getting at.  It’s easy to disagree with a stranger, easy in many ways to expect, even accept those divisions.  It’s not so easy with someone you already love.  And those kinds of divisions that run right down the center of the relationships we value most aren’t the kinds of divisions that we ourselves would ever initiate at least purposefully.  So, maybe we need Jesus to do it for us.  I don’t have it in me to divide my own household, my own people, there’s too much brokenness here already.  And so maybe when it happens there is a deeper, perhaps more profound grace hoping to be had.

When the person who surprises you by their difference is close to you, when a divide is exposed in that kind of context, we are invited into a deeper level of soul searching, listening and if possible, genuine reconciliation.  And in some ways that’s even harder work than when the divide has some safe distance built into it. I expect to have to read a book, or attend a conference, or watch a program, or reach out far in order to learn from those who are really distant from me, but among my own “kin”?  My own kin who know my own buttons?  My own kin whom I trust like no other, who know my strengths, my weaknesses, and all of my yesterdays?  My own kin among whom I have been my own version of real? Now that’s a different game.  And I need help with that. I don’t have it in me to divide my own household, my own people, there’s too much brokenness here already.

But oh, the places we can go if we have courage enough to allow the sword to occasionally hit.  Remember that sword wasn’t introduced by humans; this story isn’t a call to arms; it’s a call to awareness and honesty.  Oh the gospel we will embody if we allow a deeper peace to be born among us.

Which makes this phase we are walking through as a people, one that has incredible potential.  The gospel passage ended with this verse “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” … “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Jesus asked them, Jesus asks us.  What if this phase is God doing something among us, revealing what needs to be revealed, surfacing the divisions we need to see, exposing that which we ourselves don’t always have the courage to acknowledge?  What if besides a dose of human weakness, this is God doing something of redemption in our midst, trying so very hard to create a more holy unity among the family that is God’s which is us all?  What if we as a people invested in that interpretation of these present times and leaned heavily into redemptive means, things like mercy, forgiveness, even basic human kindness?

Just beneath the surface of the headlines our headlines too, very important things are being said, genuine hurts are being shared, divisions that don’t need to be the end of the story are being exposed. Having the courage to live for a while in Luke chapter 12, while trusting and working towards that gospel “more” might be just what God is asking of us.

The good and critical news is that even in chapter 12 there is love.  That’s why it’s so hard; it’s also why chapters like this one in the gospel and in life are so very hopeful. The tendency is to hole up, to defend, to pick up the sword rather than let it be Christ’s alone. The tendency is to defend, but the calling is to love, sometimes fiercely, sometimes tenderly, always with mercy.

There is love here, in here, out there, and everywhere we go. Love is infused among us as the very reason that Jesus was born into this world, the very essence of God’s purpose and vision for us. And so we reach out, and we listen, and we name where the sword has it, because it is in those places that redemption is working its way in, creating not a shallow peace, but the shalom that is of God, the peace that passes all understanding and comes as grace.

Amen

 

 

 

Pilgrims of Grace

Rev. Jennifer L. Adams- July 31, 2016 – Proper 13, Year C: Hosea 11:1-11

Today we will pray our blessings on Duncan Kelley, Griffin Veldheer-Carlson, Cate Krueger, Martha Rocker, Madeline Ruhl, Brock Smalldon, Renee Krueger, Phil Harrington, Mandy Comgagner and Derek Foster.  Can you all stand for a minute? These are the Grace Pilgrims 2016 who are leaving Friday for their adventure in the UK.  (Ok, now you can sit.  Rest your legs.  You’ll need them soon!)

This group is the seventh group of youth and leaders who have taken such a trip since we integrated pilgrimage into the youth formation program almost twenty years ago.  This was part of the Journey to Adult curriculum which emphasized setting apart this special time, traveling to a special place all with the very purposeful, structured intention of deepening one’s relationship with self and God.  The first group went on a Vision Quest on North Manitou Island, and couple of groups chose more of a mission focus and went to Jamaica and Guatemala; another hiked the Trail of Tears portion of the Appalachian Trail integrating the Stations of the Cross into their daily prayers. Then eight years and two pilgrimages ago, we began the tradition of hiking a portion of the Canterbury Trail. The first group actually received a blessing from the Archbishop of Canterbury upon arrival.

This year’s Pilgrimage includes Canterbury but for the first time it begins with the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.  This group will walk the tidal causeway out to that Island during low tide, stay overnight as the causeway disappears, and hike off the island the next day headed for Durham.  And if there isn’t a metaphor for our spiritual life in that, I don’t know where there is one.

Over fifty members of Grace, youth and their leaders, have gone on pilgrimage since we began this program.And often when I see some of the oldest grads of Grace now in their mid-thirties this is a dimension of their early formation that they remember and talk about with me.  If you have gone on pilgrimage or have had a family member who has gone on pilgrimage with Grace can you stand?  Wonderful.  Lots of Grace.

Now it’s all of you who make these trips possible.  Pilgrimage is never just about the ones who travel.  You make this trip possible financially and I want to be sure to say this piece because Grace works very hard and gives very generously to make these trips happen. Thank you! Youth and families cover just over half of the trip, but it’s your work at Marketplaatz for several years now and at silent auctions years ago that have made these trips viable.  Each group of pilgrims has also been charged with leaving the fund strong for the group that comes next.  So you who are in fifth grade through eight grade now, I hope you are watching!  Know that we’ll be ready for you and look forward to your being pilgrims of Grace.  Please all of you know that your gifts are just that – gifts to generations of Grace youth.

Now you also make these trips possible in other critical ways.  Pilgrims go somewhere – that’s the point, theirs is a spiritual and a physical journey “away.”  However, just as important is the fact that pilgrims leave from somewhere and they return to that somewhere after their travels.  And we are that place, that spiritual home that sends these pilgrims out into the world (“rejoicing in the power of the Spirit” as we say) and then receives them back again with open arms, eager to hear stories, allowing room for the ways in which they have grown, and hoping to learn something ourselves from this whole experience.  In this journey of the Grace Pilgrims, a majority of us in here this morning are the ones who stay.  And that role is an essential one, a predictable, always evolving, yet very steady and essential role.  Our role is to be here as a prayerful, loving community of faith.  Sort of what Grace has done for almost 150 years. (And you’ll be hearing more about that over the next few weeks.)

“When Israel was a child,” we heard God say through the prophet Hosea this morning, “I loved them, taught them to walk, and took them up in my arms.” “I healed them and they didn’t even know it!” sneaky God said. “I led them with cords of human kindness and with bonds of love.”  How absolutely beautiful is that?  “They strayed,” a tendency that is not age specific, but even then the Holy One says, “My compassion grows warm and tender and I return them home.”

What a wonderful reading for today. What a beautiful way to put words on this holy calling that is ours. We are that place from which pilgrims of all ages go forth and to which pilgrims of all ages return.  We are those people whose work is to embody this profound, dependable love of God, teaching one another to walk in faith, taking one another up in our collective arms, healing, forgiving, leading with “cords of human kindness,” welcoming home again, and growing in compassion every step of the way, even when we are the ones holding still.

Such is our call to Christian formation here at Grace Church. This is an intergenerational, holy community whose days are composed of travels and stillness, gifts and questions, teaching, learning, blessings, prayers, islands that form unexpectedly, and causeways that return with a new day.

And today, Duncan, Griffin, Cate, Martha, Madeline, Brock, Renee, Phil, Mandy and Derek you are the ones who remind us of this amazing calling!

Know that we and God are with you every step of the way.

We await your stories and pray for you to learn whatever it is that God would have you learn on this journey.

Be open to healing, be open to forgiveness, be open to laughter, struggles and surprises.

Pray without ceasing and know that we will be too.

Take care of each other and remember that you are being held in arms bigger than any of ours. Allow kindness to thrive among you and remember that with God, there is always love to be had.

 And know that with God, we look forward to welcoming you home and celebrating with you soon.

 Amen.