Friday, May 27, 2016

I Can't Even!

The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 7th Chapter

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” 

And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Because I said so!  If you were a kid, you’ve probably heard those words.  Because I said so!  If you’re a parent, you’ve very likely SAID those words, even if you promised yourself as a kid you never, never, NEVER would!  Because I said so!  Whether you’ve heard those words or said those words or both, “Because I said so” is at the core of this Gospel lesson.  

Look carefully at what happens in this lesson.  There’s going to be a quiz.  Seriously, there’s a quiz coming.  OK, First, a centurion (that’s like an army major in charge of a Company) sends a group of Jewish elders to talk with Jesus about healing his slave.  

The Jewish elders say to Jesus… This is the first part of the REALLY important part… “This centurion is WORTHY of having Jesus do this because he’s nice and built us a synagogue.”  The KEY here is the Jewish Elders… the religious folks, the folks who have been members of the synagogue for 30, 50, 70 years, the folks who should, by all rights, know how God works… those sort of people… clearly thought that the centurion being WORTHY was what was important.  Being WORTHY was what mattered.  Being WORTHY was necessary to crank Jesus up to do a miracle.

Second thing to look at carefully…  The centurion hears that Jesus is on his way and sends out another message to Jesus, but this time by way of some of his friends, so the message got through unembellished.  The centurion says, “I am NOT worthy.”  NOT, as in the negative of being worthy, as in having NO worth, as in deserving of absolutely NOTHING.   

So, on one hand you have the religious, pious, leaders who you would think would know God well and how God works the best over here saying, “Jesus, do this because he is WORTHY.”  THEN on the other hand you’ve got a non-religious, pagan, leader of a big, intimidating chunk of the oppressive occupying army who we would think does NOT know God or how God works best saying, “I am NOT worthy,” as in having NO worth as in deserving absolutely NOTHING.

So, now is the time for the quiz.  I told you a quiz was coming so don’t look surprised.  On one hand you have religious leaders who want Jesus to act because the centurion DESERVES it and on the other hand you have the centurion who wants Jesus to act but says he does NOT deserve it.  Which one does Jesus declare as more faithful?  It’s not a trick question.  When Jesus turns to the crowd he says of the centurion, “Not even in Israel” not even among all of God’s chosen people… the people who have been hearing about God their entire lives, who SHOULD, better than anyone else on the planet, KNOW how God works “Not EVEN in Israel have I found such faith.” 

How often are we those religious elders?  How often are we the people who have been members of the church for twenty, thirty, fifty, seventy years… How often are we the people who SHOULD, better than anyone else on the planet, KNOW how God works… How often have we heard from St. Paul that we are saved by GRACE through faith, apart from WORKS?  APART from what we DESERVE?  How often have we heard those words echoed by Thomas Cranmer, the original theological thinker of the Episcopal church in the 39 Articles?  How often have we heard from Martin Luther, the original theological thinker of the Lutheran church, that “I CAN NOT, by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him?”

But how often, in spite of all of that, do we treat God like nothing more than a vending machine, plugging in our being nice to people, our moral high ground, our avoiding of mistakes and our years of membership, like coins until we have enough credit built up and can hit the button and MAKE God send what we DESERVE out the bottom of the machine?  

The religious elders were WRONG.  That centurion, in spite of doing some very nice things, did not DESERVE anything.  The centurion was RIGHT.  He knew, in spite of doing some very nice things, he did not DESERVE anything.  The religious elders had reduced God to an unfeeling vending machine to be manipulated into action by people doing good things or avoiding bad things.  But while the religious elders blew it, the Holy Spirit blew as well, and that centurion understood.  God was no vending machine to be fed until what we “deserve” falls out the bottom.  God was and is, filled with Grace... our Heavenly parent, who loves us so much that God came to be with us in person so that we could hear first hand from Jesus… so that we could all hear the words of Jesus spoken right to each and every one of our faces in our Baptisms, at the Table and in the Word read and preached each week, that “You… YOU… YES YOU are loved beyond all measure.  NOT ever because you deserve it, but you are loved and cherished and worthy and wonderful simply and only God says, “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” Amen.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trinity Sunday? Make the Deacon Preach!

This sermon was written and preached by the Rev. Rebecca Grant, the Episcopal Deacon at The Church at 209 for Trinity Sunday, 2016.  

Today is Trinity Sunday – the Sunday after Pentecost when we celebrate the unity of God the Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit – our advocate. 

Down through the centuries, theologians have argued how best to explain the Trinity. If you Google “what is the Trinity?” you’ll get just under 12 million hits ranging from
  • ·      The Biblical explanation of the Trinity
  • ·      The Trinity is not Biblical
  • ·      The Biblical proof of the Trinity
  • ·      The origin of Trinity doctrine from Pagans
  • ·      The explanation of the Trinity in Christianity

·      And my personal favorite = Understanding the Trinity for Dummies

In the Episcopal Church there is a long standing tradition for dealing with Trinity Sunday and explaining the mystical nature of three in one – MAKE THE DEACON PREACH!

Fear not, this deacon is not about to undertake what brilliant minds struggle to address. Rather than torture you with any effort I might make in that realm, let’s embrace and accept the existence of the Trinity in God’s love for us that led to the gift of Jesus’ walking among us, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – our guide.

Now, what’s up with the chairs? Remember this configuration? In January of 2015, this is how the churches of Prince of Peace and St. Mark’s began their shared journey:
·      Chairs turned toward the center of the church – some people loved the change and others wanted to know how soon we could turn those chairs to face the altar once again.
·      There were strangers among us or we found ourselves among strangers
·      A large and very old baptismal font sat in the center of the room
·      A priest-in-charge/Lutheran Pastor wondered just what he’d gotten himself into.
·      And amid all this strangeness is the Trinity – the three in one and us – joined together by the waters of our baptism and the symbolism of that font.

Our emotions ranged from excitement for the new thing that God was doing among us to anxiety because what was familiar and comfortable was no more. Our journey began and hope was running high. The hospitality offered by the people of Prince of Peace created a safe and welcoming place for the people of St. Mark’s. Over time and with a great deal of effort on the part of everyone, two distinct bodies of people – two separate churches began the evolution of becoming one – just as Jesus is one with the Father and through them the Holy Spirit is one in us. The excitement about the great experiment that was happening at Church at 209 spread far beyond these walls and the outreach ministries we share. Wherever I travel in the Diocese, people ask me what it is like and whether we are happy. Pastor Erik continues to be contacted by other clergy asking about what is happening here and how it is working. Last year at this time hope for the future was running high.

In the fall of last year, St. Matthew’s decided to join us in September followed by St. Barnabas in October. Suddenly, we found ourselves planning for welcoming and integrating two other churches into our midst. Good people looking at a new home with other good people. The people of Church at 209 wanted to provide the same hospitality offered and experienced in January and worked hard to create a plan for throwing open the doors and embracing the new life that awaited us. Surely, the Holy Spirit was doing new and wonderful things among us. Four churches becoming one. We considered ourselves blessed by wonderful music, teaching, and certainly there was energy. Again, people were excited by the future, yet behind the scenes all was not well. People tried to find common ground, to be nice, to be fair and respectful. Yet just like when we set out to bake our favorite recipe and find we don’t have all the ingredients, something was missing in our four church recipe.

We could spend weeks, even months, trying to dissect what happened, who to believe, and what to do, but the bottom line is that the EXPERIMENT FAILED. Does this mean that we’re failures? That the people of St. Matthew’s and St. Barnabas are failures? NO! Experiments can and do fail.
When asked about failure, scientist and inventor Charles Kettering said:
Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.

Failures hurt but that’s where we are called to lean into our faith and rely on the gift of the Trinity in our lives. St. Mark’s has experienced what some would call failure in a very public way. On November 14th of 2012, St. Mark’s Church was thrown into the headlines because of the actions of its then priest-in-charge. He made a bad decision, got caught, and we found ourselves as one of the lead stories on the evening news. As we gathered the following Sunday, the prevailing question was what does this mean for us? The answer rested not in the actions of one misguided priest but rather recognizing that we are not defined by another person but rather by our own words and actions. We took time to reflect on who we were then and knew that we were far more than a media story on the evening news. We looked at how we made a difference in each other’s lives and the lives of those we encounter along the way. Our relationship with a priest had failed but not because of anything we’d done but rather poor decision-making on his part. Out of that failure, we had the courage to move forward knowing that the Holy Spirit was guiding our path and that our ministries that reached so many people needed to survive. The path that we followed led us to this time and this place with the people of Prince of Peace.

Last week, Pastor Erik described what we’ve been going through as the doldrums. He reminded us that just as God had more in mind for the disciples when the Holy Spirit came upon them, God has more in mind for us as well. Our very nature is not suited to living in the doldrums – we are a people blessed by the gift of the Trinity – the three in one – the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us, lift us up, and sometimes nudge us when it’s time to move.

Here at 209, one experiment failed, yet never forget that we had the courage to try, to reach out, to love, and when the time came, we let go of the experiment while holding all the churches in prayer. Just like St. Mark’s assessed its life in 2012, now it is our time to move – we have much to tend to and many who are watching us to see how we’ll move forward. We are making a difference in our church and in the world around us. Think about all the places the Holy Spirit leads us:
·      Christmas Day we open our doors and welcome people to dinner
·      We fill baskets for Thanksgiving dinners
·      A plea to help a young person go to camp last summer resulted in so many donations that he went to camp twice.
·      We host Vacation Bible School
·      We respond to the needs that we see around us within 209 and outside of 209.
·      We gather to pray on Tuesday mornings
·      We visit prisoners in jail – we remind them that they are beloved children of God.
·      We seek to understand the Old Testament teachings through the lens of Judaism with shared study with the local Synagogue 
·      The people of Prince of Peace had the courage to found a ministry that became Bread of Life Ministries which feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, and seeks to help people change their lives.
·      Recently, Bread of Life turned to us for help in celebrating the life of one of its volunteers when she died unexpectedly. The service held in the stone church on Pleasant Street recognized the gift of generosity that was the essence of this woman’s life. The people of St. Mark’s founded a free clothing bank, naming it Addie’s Attic after a beloved parishioner – Adelaide Tschamler.
·      Free public suppers began as a shared ministry between the people of St. Barnabas and St. Mark’s. Over time this ministry has evolved to include the Unitarian community, members of 209, and this collaborative approach made it possible for the Synagogue and the Catholic Parish of St. Michaels to join in providing meals.
·      Seven years ago, St. Mark’s opened an essentials pantry to provide essential items that food stamps don’t cover. Today, we the Church at 209, serve close to 300 people whenever we open our doors.
·      We help children begin the school year with new backpacks and school supplies recognizing that education is vital and all children need a helping hand from time-to-time.
·      Earlier this year, we, the Church at 209, received a grant from the Diocese of Maine to work toward Bridging the Gap for the Iraqi community settling in the city. Our relationship with the Iraqis is one of mutual respect and friendship.
·      In partnership with the United Way, we became home to the Warming Center during the winter months.
·      Guests at the Warming Center gave back to us by sorting, folding, and hanging clothes in Addie’s Attic.
·      The Warming Center’s end of season cookout saw people from 209, the Iraqi community, and warming center guests gathered together to share a meal.
·      We are the home for Mustard Seeds – a non-traditional approach to Christian education for children and their families.
·      Today, we, the Church at 209, are a vital center for both inreach and outreach ministries – even in the doldrums, we make a difference in the lives of the people around us.
All these things are a manifestation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our relationship with them flows directly from our baptismal covenant.
We may have failed in melding four churches into one – yet, even that is not without blessing - we had the courage to recognize that the situation was becoming unhealthy and sought to suspend the experiment. Never underestimate the importance of wellness. A failed experiment only defines us if we allow it to do so.

We have the courage to look at what happened and realize that even in the middle of strife, the Trinity is intimately involved in our lives – individually and collectively. Will the separate paths of the four churches become one in the future? Only God knows the answer to that question.

It is time to bid the doldrums farewell – embrace the potential for success and the discovery of what God is calling us to become.

God has not brought us this far to see us die but rather has taken us through the refining fires of conflict and failure so that we might learn more about who we are and how we respond to all that we are being called to as children of God. Each one of us is an important part of the Church at 209 and the world, and community in which we live.
The chairs were turned for this worship to remind us and center us back on our shared beginning – surrounding the font – immersed in the waters of our baptisms. We are blessed and are called to live our lives in that knowledge.

Whatever the future holds, I challenge you to remember the words of Henri Frederic Amiel:
My friends, life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us, so be quick to love and make haste to be kind. And rest assured that God is infinitely more concerned with the promise of our future than the mistakes of our past…”

We are blessed.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Driven Out of the Doldrums

A Reading from Acts, the 2nd Chapter

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

The Holy Spirit came like the sound of a rushing wind and appeared like tongues of fire on the disciples’ heads.  To the other people in town for the festival, the disciples didn’t exactly appear like stoic, logical, systematic Lutherans and they didn’t look like reasonable, responsible, prudent and practical Episcopalians either!  NO!!  What they looked like… was DRUNK… and drunk on “new” wine… the cheap stuff!

Now the story doesn’t outline exactly what sort of “DRUNK” the disciples seemed to be that day, and one of the many dangers of the internet is that you can get distracted by a Google search that insists there are 4, no 7, no 10, no 12 or even 15 different types of drunk, and you can get deeply into the third article about the kinds of “drunk” there are before you realize that the KIND of drunk the disciples were doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that the presence of the Holy Spirit CHANGED THEM… and changed them in ways that people from literally ALL OVER THE OUTSIDE WORLD could see more clearly than even the disciples could see themselves! 

They didn’t change themselves.  The Holy Spirit changed them.  Remember where the disciples had been up until now.  There had been Good Friday and the crucifixion, which was no kind of SMALL, insignificant setback for the disciples.  They hid in fear after Jesus’ death, worried that they would be next.  Then Jesus came!  Hard to believe at first.  (It’s not something you see everyday after all)  But after a few visits by their resurrected Lord, things were looking up!  And then with the disciples looking up… Jesus left… again, this time ascending into heaven… but dead or ascended the disciples were left alone… again… waiting in a lonely, less than joy-filled time yet again.  Jesus had promised the Advocate… the Holy Spirit… but between the Ascension and Pentecost it was the doldrums… again.  That place in between what was and what will be, where even the smallest things seem to be oppressive and irritating.  That place where even the air feels heavy and impossible to breathe.  A place without even the lightest, faintest, most fleeting breeze. 

We know a little something about that place.  We know a little something about living in that heavy, impossible to breathe place, in between what was and what will be.  We know a little something about things going not the way we had wanted, expected or hoped and feeling caught in the doldrums. 

This past fall we were so energetic.  As we planned for St. Matthew’s and St. Barnabas to join us, it felt like we were planning a holiday at the beach!!  Packing, planning, making reservations, buying stylish sun glasses and Hawaiian shirts!  And it really was WONDERFUL planning.  Such AMAZING work put into welcoming them.  But even with the very best planning, somehow sand got in the lunch.  Flies flew in the drinks.  The bottle of sunscreen we packed turned out to just be lotion and the beach was closed with sharks in the water.  And the air got heavy… impossible to breathe, and now here we are, in between what was and what will be, seemingly stuck in the doldrums.   

It’s good to acknowledge it.  It’s good to talk about the disappointment.  It’s even alright to rail against our best of plans flying out of our control (and they REALLY were the BEST OF PLANS… the most amazingly compassionate, well thought out and executed plans I’ve seen a church plan and carry out in my whole career!)  It’s alright to rail against those best of plans and all that hard and passionate work flying off the tracks in ways we never saw coming. 

But just like the disciples on that first Pentecost LOOKED DIFFERENT to the people outside their room even though the disciples in their doldrums didn’t feel so different… Just like the disciples didn’t realize that what they were SAYING was being HEARD by other people in words the disciples themselves didn’t understand… I’m here to tell you, Disciples of 209…. The Holy Spirit is HERE on this Pentecost as well!  The Advocate has rushed in and even though it feels like the doldrums, in between what was and what will be, YOU… ALL of you… look and sound very different than the Episcopalians and Lutherans the people outside these walls have ever seen or heard here in Augusta before. 

The disciples didn’t think they were speaking in Phrygian, Pamphylian or Meedish!  They didn’t THINK they were making the impact on the people they were making, but the truth is that through the work of the Holy Spirit… they WERE!  And the truth is that through the work of the Holy Spirit YOU ARE making a HUGE difference here in Augusta as well! 

You see, just like God had more in mind for the disciples than just sitting in the doldrums in some lonely upper room, God has more in mind for YOU as well!  God knows that YOU are not a doldrum people.  And Jesus has sent you the Holy Spirit to fill you again full of energy, plans, hopes and dreams.  The Holy Spirit is continuing to make YOU look different to the people of Augusta and even though YOU may not feel very different… even though it feels more like the doldrums than a holiday for the moment, the Holy Spirit continues to work in, with and under YOU in ways I don’t think you realize or see.  Just like the disciples, no matter how it feels to you, you really do look and sound more amazing to the people in Augusta, than you think you look or sound to yourselves! 

Prince of Peace and St. Mark’s coming together has inspired our city!  This collaboration we are doing, the Holy Spirit has made infectious!  The Holy Spirit is working, so that seeing our collaboration at work, now the Jews and the Catholics have been inspired to come together and do a public supper on the fifth Saturdays.  The Holy Spirit working and the United Way wants to partner with even more of the faith community, first through the warming center, then with Addie’s Attic and Everyday Basics and now with a project to reach out to our new neighbors who have moved here from Iraq.  The Holy Spirit is working and now the Red Barn wants to partner with us to match our diaper drive and the list goes on and on and on!  Unitarians, Muslims, Jews, Methodists, Catholics, Baptists, Congregationalists and Quakers all are doing more together in our community, because the Holy Spirit is working!  And because of that we look different to the people of Augusta!  We look so different it might look to some like we are drunk on new wine and here's the most amazing thing... the Holy Spirit is CHANGING US, at work in us, both when we feel it AND when we don’t.

THAT is the Good News of Pentecost!  The Advocate is at work in us and HAS BEEN at work in us since our Baptisms, both in the times we feel it, BUT ALSO through the times when it doesn’t.  The Advocate is continuing to light fires and fan the flames of the Gospel through each and every one of us at the Church at 209!  My prayer for us is that like Saint Peter, we too might quickly come again to that joyful, energetic place where we again realize what the Holy Spirit is doing through us… That soon, we too would be blown out of the doldrums and into the unknown future God is calling us toward, filled with joyful anticipation for our Lord’s great and glorious day!  Amen.