The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Annual Address & Sermon

The Rector’s Annual Address
January 27, 2013

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In the Gospel today, we hear something not entirely unlike Jesus’ Address on the State of the Church.  And the State of the Church was pretty straightforward at that time.  There was no staff, no budget, no buildings, and very few members.  There certainly wasn’t an Altar Guild, or a Sunday School, or a Property Committee.  There were no wardens.  No elections.
But even in the absence of all of that, the state of the church was strong.  There was one measure by which Jesus determined the state of the church - whether or not the Holy Spirit was a part of it.  And it was.  He read the passage from Isaiah and boldly proclaimed, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The Holy Spirit was present.  In the face of that reality, everything else would be okay.  Not easy, necessarily, but strong.  The church may not have had everything that it wanted, but it most certainly had everything that it needed.
At the end of this service, as we move into our Annual Meeting, you’ll have the opportunity to choose new leadership for the parish, to hear brief reports from everyone in its current leadership, to ask questions, if you desire, and to read even more detailed reports of the many ministry areas that are currently active in our parish.
I promise we’ll try not to take up too much of your time.  But I hope the one thing you’ll look for, and find, is the truth that I know: that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in this place, and that with that fact, we can be assured of our strength.
Though I’ve only been with you for a short time, I have seen the Holy Spirit moving in our midst.
I first began to see evidence of that fact through the discernment process with you.  The members of the discernment committee were very clear about their mission - they didn’t see themselves as a hiring team.  They didn’t even seem to see their primary goal as simply finding a priest.  They were clear that the core of their work was discernment: to discern who we are as a parish, to discern who we would like to be, and through that, to discern who God might be calling to share in that unfolding.  These dedicated servants worked relentlessly, in the context of prayer and self-examination, for months on end.  We all owe them a debt of gratitude.
But the Holy Spirit’s stirrings were not simply limited to the discernment process here.  Their work was representative of the commitment that I’ve found time and time again in these few months.  Upon arriving and beginning my work, I quickly learned how blessed we are by the work of dedicated lay professionals in Roland and Barbara.  In case you weren’t aware, these people do not merely work at the church, they work for the church.  They give of themselves for the benefit of the church in ways that far exceed any normal call of duty.  Their talents are immeasurable, as is their love of this parish.  Working with them is a joy for me, as I know it is for all of you.  Please take this Annual Meeting day as a reminder and an opportunity to express your thanks to them.  Most of what we do here would not be possible without them.
And our ministry would also not be possible without all of you.  Everywhere you turn in this parish, you will find people working tirelessly for the benefit of the whole.  I doubt a day goes by when there isn’t some one among you working to keep this place running smoothly - whether it’s VJ fixing a washer, or Martha arranging contractors, or Nancy tending to the gardens, or Larry painting, or Vestry members meeting, or Altar Guild members preparing for Sundays, or Ushers arriving early to greet our guests, or Sunday School leaders preparing lessons that educate and nurture our children…  The list could go on and on.  There are so many people who work so hard to keep this ministry alive.  There are so many people within these walls that clearly love this place and the God we were all called here to worship and to serve.
I am grateful to each of you beyond my ability to express it.  I am grateful not only for the love you show, or for the work you do, but most of all I am grateful for the evidence of the Holy Spirit that you embody.  I could begin to see evidence of the Holy Spirit in our midst when I first learned about you nearly a year ago, and I keep seeing it every day.  Despite whatever challenges we may face, we have the Holy Spirit on our side, and that’s always a strong place to begin.
And there are challenges.
The gospel lesson we read today is not exactly the end of the story.  In what we hear today, we imagine the people wide-eyed and eager, but in the continuing story next week, we’ll hear that the people of Jesus’ hometown quickly become enraged.  It seems the Holy Spirit isn’t enough to keep us supplied in puppies and kittens and mom’s apple pie.  Our confidence in the Holy Spirit doesn’t mean everything will be easy.
Though we have been blessed in many ways, we still have a lot of work ahead of us.
Our biggest challenge in at least the year ahead - and probably more - is church growth.  Like a lot of churches over the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve watched our numbers steadily decline.  It used to be that for a church to prosper, all you had to do was open its doors.  The dominant cultural reality was church attendance.  But those days are gone.
I think you’ll all agree with me that we have a lot going for us here.  We have beautiful buildings that are in very good condition.  We offer worship that is challenging and inspiring, and with a quality of music that far exceeds what anyone would expect from a parish of our size.  We have generous and loving parishioners who genuinely enjoy being with each other.  We are not divided by petty internal conflicts.  We are diverse in age, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and socio-economic status - a reflection of both our neighborhood and our wider culture.  We are a microcosm of the Body of Christ.
And just as Paul says to the church in Corinth, we are many members, but of the one Body, and in the one Spirit.
We need to grow, not just for ourselves, but because we have something of value to offer to the world around us.  We have the Holy Spirit.  We have the Holy Spirit in a world that is aching for it.  We have the Holy Spirit and our neighbors are lonely and in pain - and with the Holy Spirit we can help.  Our neighbors are aching for community and a sense of purpose - and with the Holy Spirit we can help to show them the way.  Our neighbors feel broken by war, violence, political divisions, and personal tragedies - and with the Holy Spirit we can give them healing.  We have the Holy Spirit and we can’t keep it to ourselves any more.
We need to grow, not just because our resources are scarce, but also because we are overflowing with abundant blessings to share.  There is a world outside these walls that needs the Church of the Good Shepherd.  They need you.  The world needs you to share the good news of this place that is filled with hope, with healing, and with love.
We won’t solve all the problems of the world, but we can make an impact.  We can show another child that they are valued.  We can give hope to the family that has grown cynical from watching the nightly news.  We can show those who feel excluded and attacked and victimized by this harsh world that there is a place where they can belong.  In short, we can show them that the Holy Spirit is here: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to the let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
We have all the tools in place.  We have the people, and the love, and the worship, and most of all, we have the Holy Spirit.  Together, we can do it.  Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Miracles, justice, and time

Epiphany 2C

In the name of God: our Spirit, our source, and our sustenance.  Amen.

The truth is, I’ve always been a little bit troubled by the story of the Wedding Miracle at Cana.  When I was visiting the site where the miracle supposedly occurred last March, it was a deeply moving place for many of the people with whom I was traveling, but of all the sites we visited, it was the least significant to me.

Many of the people on the pilgrimage, at least, had the point of reference of having been married.  The Book of Common Prayer points to this miracle as a sign of Jesus’ blessing on the institution of marriage.  But as a single person, I didn’t share that connection.

In almost all of the miracles that we hear about throughout Jesus’ life, there always seems to be some larger purpose attached.  Hungry people are fed, sick people are healed, and dead people are raised.  Serious needs are seen, and Jesus, moved with compassion, eases the people’s suffering.

But in this miracle, that aching human need seems to be missing.  Certainly the hosts of the wedding banquet would be upset if the wine were to run out.  It might be embarrassing for them.  It might even make for a lackluster end to the party.  But it hardly counts as suffering.  It hardly seems to meet the standard for miracles that seem to exist elsewhere in the Gospels.

Perhaps the most convincing argument I’ve read about the significance of the miracle at the wedding feast was one that said that the point of the story is one of God’s commitment to revealing abundance - that it brings God joy for us to share in joy, and that God couldn’t allow the wine to run out, because God so wanted to party to keep going.

That’s certainly a nice thought.  But it doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny.

If the threshold for God’s direct intervention in the form of miracles were the avoidance of annoyance, it seems like there would be quite a few more miracles around.  If that were the threshold, I think I’d find myself stuck in far fewer traffic jams, at least.

But the other stories of the Bible don’t stand this test, either.  Throughout the Bible, we hear of great suffering - before, during, and after the life of Jesus - not to mention the unimaginable suffering of Jesus and his closest friends at the end of his life.

Of course we always know that suffering is never the end of the story.  We always know that in the midst of the Good Fridays in our lives, God is stirring in the background tilling up a new Easter.  That is the underpinning of our faith.

But even so, the wedding miracle at Cana somehow doesn’t fit.

In our wider culture, this weekend we are celebrating and remembering the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Of course, that’s a secular observance, and these lessons weren’t chosen to attempt to bring Dr. King to mind.  But as I’ve been thinking about Dr. King this week in the context of today, a quote of his keeps running through my mind: he said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It’s kind of like that old cliché: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”  Dr. King was reminding us that great things take time.  Sometimes there are setbacks and delays.  Sometimes we grow impatient.  But, even so, history is on our side.

In the life of Dr. King, there were a great many setbacks and delays.  He was arrested during his working for justice.  He was reviled as often as he was celebrated.  He was even assassinated for his efforts.

But through all of that, the arc of history continued to bend toward justice.

Now, nearly 45 years since his death, we mark this day in his honor with a National Day of Service.  People all across the country come together to do little things to ease the suffering of others.  Each little thing on its own might now be enough to really change the world, but together, they amount to a lot.  And more than even the work that is done, the National Day of Service helps to remind people that there is more work to be done.  It pulls us out of our bubbles of security and comfort and gives us new mindfulness.

Each little thing may seem insignificant, but together, they change the world.

That’s the lesson I hear in the miracle at the wedding feast in Cana.  It’s not about the wine.  It’s not about the party or the wedding.   It’s not about Jesus’ obedience to his mother, or even about the miracle itself.

It’s just a step: a first step down a long road.

It may seem insignificant when seen by itself, but when seen as a part of the bigger picture - as a part of the arc of history - it adds up.

And the same is true for us.  Most of us aren’t the Messiah, the anointed one of God.  Most of us aren’t even Martin Luther King, Jr.  But as Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthians, we do have something to offer.  We are imbued with gifts of the Spirit, each in our own way.  Though our gifts are varied, the Spirit is the same.  And together, when we use our gifts in complement to one another’s, great things can come of it.

The miracle of the wedding feast at Cana may seem sort of strange on its own - even out of place.  Or, perhaps, it has some deeper meaning for you that I’ve not yet found.  That’s okay.  We all have our own gifts of the Spirit.

But either way, we don’t have to take it on its own.

It comes as a single step on a longer journey.

Turning water into wine is not, in itself, salvation.  And it doesn’t have to be - because the arc of history is long.  There is time.  We just need to work together.  Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

With God's help... Because we are loved

The First Sunday after Epiphany,
The Baptism of Our Lord, Year C

In the name of God.  Amen.

In our staff meeting last week, we began our work, like we always do, with a short Bible study of the Gospel lesson for today, followed by a short time of prayer.  I said in the Bible study portion, only half jokingly, that I found myself almost salivating over the prospect of preaching today.  Most Sundays, it’s almost all I can do to keep from preaching about baptism.  So much of who we claim to be and who we try to be as Christians in the Episcopal Church can be summarized in the words of that liturgy.  If a preacher were of a mind, it would be very easy to relate almost every Sunday’s sermon to the Baptismal Covenant.

That would probably become a bit stale for everyone, so for the sake of all of us, I usually try to hold back.  It’ll slip through now and then, but usually…

But today, on the other hand…  Today I can let lose!

But in all seriousness, we often get lost in our thinking about baptism.  With the sweet innocence of little babies, and with glowing parents and grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and with the excitement of the crowds that tend to accompany it all - with all of that we can sometimes miss the point.

Baptism is one of the two, so-called “great sacraments” - along with the Holy Eucharist.  They are the two sacraments that bookend the formal ministry during the life of Jesus.  His ministry began by joining the crowds of people and participating in their ritual of cleansing, but then making it his own - a baptism less about washing away impurity and more about taking on the blessings of God.

And his ministry ended with the Eucharist - the Great Thanksgiving.  In it, he and his friends joined in the solemn ritual of the people, celebrating and giving thanks for their freedom, but even in that, he made it his own - a meal less about remembering God’s deeds of the past, but more about celebrating God’s deeds among us even now.

In both of these great sacraments, Jesus met the people where they were, but then pushed them farther.

This is the real heritage of our faith: that we keep pushing the limits of all that we find, until it leads to something more - something deeper and truer.

Frankly, it can be pretty tough.  Have you ever been in that position?  When you’ve passed the goal, but still have to keep pushing?

Parents talk about that sort of thing all the time.  Like, when you’re just trying to get through the “terrible twos”, only to realize there’s more work in the years to come…  Or, when you’ve been pushing through for so long to get them off to college, but you remember that even then they still need a parent, just in new ways.

And it’s true in most of our relationships with each other.  It’s been said that real love is defined less by passion or affection, or even proximity, and more by determination - the decision to keep loving, every day - even when it seems most foreign to try.

It’s that same way in our relationship with God and with our experiences of faith.  The call is intense.  It’s hard.  At times it may even seem impossible.  But even so, it is our calling to push through the challenges until we find something more - something deeper and truer.

While Christianity takes a great deal of tenacity, tenacity alone will never be enough.  As was true for Jesus, community and prayer must undergird us.  We hear in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism that he falls in line with the people to receive the baptism of John.  Luke doesn’t tell us anything about the act of baptism, other than it happened.  The real power of the moment, however, came afterwards - when Jesus was praying.  It was then that the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended, and the voice from heaven came proclaiming, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It’s the same way with us.  Most of us, if we were baptized as infants, wouldn’t remember the actual event.  The ritual and the liturgy are significant, because they put us on this road.  They bring us into this community where we covenant to live our lives in such a way that the community and the prayer will undergird us.  But the ritual and the liturgy, alone, are not the whole story.

The real focus of baptism isn’t the water, or the celebration, or the sweet babies - it’s about everything that follows.  It’s about being God’s people.

For Jesus, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and a voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

For us, we hear the words of Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.  When you pass through the waters I will be with you…  When you walk through fire you will not be burned…  Because you are precious in my sight…  And I love you.”

That’s what it means to be God’s people.  It’s not about the moment, no matter how powerful the moment may be.  It’s about the sustenance.

God promises to sustain us.  When we feel vulnerable, we will never be alone.  When we feel in danger, we are protected; because we are precious in the sight of God, and we are loved.

There are certainly times in all of our lives when we feel a little removed from that promise of sustenance.  There are times when God’s love and protection feels out of reach.  Those are the times when we most need to return to the fruits of our baptism - to this community and to nurturing our relationships with God through prayer.

When Jesus opened himself through prayer, God’s presence was made known.  And when we open ourselves with prayer, God’s presence is made known again.  God is always there beside us, and always giving us that sustenance, but we have to listen.

In the season of epiphanies, take some time to listen.  Listen for those epiphanies of Christ.  Listen for God’s ongoing sustenance.  Listen for the fruits of baptism.

We can do anything with God’s help.  And that help is as close as your next breath.  Amen.