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Shifting Ground Is Holy Ground

Sermon Preached May 10, 2015
Easter 6B (Acts 10:44-48)
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

When I was a junior or senior in high school, I sat in the pews of First Presbyterian Church in Wausau, Wisconsin on the day that the Session – the Presbyterian equivalent to our Vestry – announced that The Rev. Sheila Gustafson would be our new senior pastor.  I knew nothing about how this whole process worked in the Presbyterian Church.  Pastor Tom had been our minister for as long as I could remember and, our associate, Pastor Bob was in charge of our youth group – and had been in his position for quite a few years as well.  So, when our church announced the new pastor’s name and she stood up to be recognized, the first thought that went through my mind was, “Wow.  I can be a minister.”  Think about that for a moment.  My thought was not about the new pastor, it was instead about the recognition of a whole new possibility for my own journey. 
I had been assisting or teaching in the Sunday School since my freshman year in high school along with many other women in the church.  I participated in the youth group when my mother was one of the lay leaders.  Many of the women in the church served as deacons – a role similar to that in our churches in terms of ministry but different in the sense that it is a lay order, not an ordained order of ministry.  So women in the Presbyterian did a lot of really important things.  But, on that Sunday morning, the ground shifted when I became aware for the first time that women could be ordained.  And the ground shifted within me when I realized that I was called to that ministry and just never knew it was an option.
I know I am not unique in this experience. Many have told me how they felt a call to be an altar server but were told it was “only for boys.”  Many of those are now adult acolytes in Episcopal churches and, I understand, some are now altar servers in the Roman Catholic church as well.  The ground shifts, our minds open, our hearts expand and God’s embracing love is understood more and more.
Last Sunday evening a friend of mine shared a story with me on Facebook.  It is the story of Rich and Eric McAffrey [click here for more recent updates] and their adopted son Jack.  Eric and Rich have been members of St. Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral in Orlando, Florida for a while and are raising their son in that community of faith. Recently they felt called to have their son baptized and began conversations with the Cathedral’s Dean for the baptism to take place.  After taking part in pre-baptismal classes with several other couples whose children would be baptized, the sacrament was scheduled to take place on Sunday, April 19.  Family and friends from out of town bought plane tickets to be present for this beautiful sacrament of welcome and new life in Christ.  However, on Thursday, April 16, just three days before the baptism, they received a phone call from the Dean who told the couple that there were members of the congregation who opposed Jack’s baptism because his parents were both men.  He went on to tell them that this wouldn’t be such a big issue if they weren’t the Cathedral Church, but, because it is the Cathedral Church, there would be a lot of exposure.  And so the Dean of the Cathedral offered an apology and turned Jack away three days prior to his baptism.  Now, what caused Rich to McAffrey to share this story so publicly – in a Facebook post last Sunday – was the passage from the Acts of the Apostles which we heard read that day:  the Ethiopian eunuch, reading Scripture with Philip, sees a body of water and shouts out, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"[1]  The ground shifted and Jesus’ command to the disciples to proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth was being fulfilled.  For Rich and Eric, the ground shifted as they realized that they were most grievously wronged; as they felt that the Dean’s decision was not about the Good News of Christ but was instead about protecting the image of an institution.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells another store of earth-shifting faith formation.  To fully understand it, we need to back up a bit to get the context. The story begins in Caesarea with Cornelius, a centurion – that is, an officer in the Roman army – having a vision in which an angel of God says to him, “send. . . to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter.” And so, Cornelius sends two of his slaves and one of his soldiers to find Peter.[2]  In the meantime, Peter who has been traveling throughout the countryside with the other believers, is, in fact, in Joppa and, as he is praying, we are told, “He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” (in other words, a whole lot of unclean food! – yuck!). Then Peter hears “a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’”[3]
Now, while Peter is still trying to figure out what on earth this heavenly message from God could possibly mean – you have to remember this is the same Peter who was a little slow on the up take throughout Jesus’ life! So, while Peter is struggling with this bizarre vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrive and call for Peter to come to Caesarea to share his message with Cornelius. So Peter got up and he went. That’s it – he just got up and went. He was not stopped by his knowledge of the law – the law that taught it was unlawful for a Jew, like Peter, to associate with or to even visit with a Gentile, like Cornelius.  But, because of his vision – which now becomes clear – Peter just gets up and goes.  And while Peter is sharing the good news of Christ Jesus with Cornelius, his relatives, and his close friends,
“the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers [that is, the Jews] who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’”[4]
Through the waters of baptism, we understand that Cornelius and those with him who also receive baptism that day, are transformed.  But what I love about this story is that Peter and the Jewish believers with him are also transformed by their encounter with these Gentiles.  While on the surface it might seem that Peter is walking Cornelius across the line of faith, the reality is that both men are already on a journey and, at this time in their lives, their journeys cross and both men are transformed.
I believe that our lives are filled with opportunities to be transformed.  I also know that it is easier to see those moments in other peoples’ lives --- can’t that Dean in Orlando see that the ground has shifted, that God’s love is bigger than human judgement?  Can’t that parent see that clearly their approach to parenting needs to change?  The bigger challenge, of course, is to be open to those moments in our own lives - to be transformed as Philip was by the Ethiopian eunuch’s; to be transformed as Peter was in his vision of the unclean food; to be transformed by the love of Eric and Rich; to be transformed by the articulate vision of the young protestors in Baltimore.  The bigger challenge for you and for me, is to be open to the transforming love of God which is before us all the time if only we will open our eyes to see it, open our minds to explore it, open our hearts to feel it, and open our lives to be a part of it.
Wow, I can be a minister.  Wow, an Ethiopian eunuch can be part of God’s kingdom. Wow, the gentiles have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Wow, two men can be an image of God’s loving embrace. Wow, protestors in Baltimore can be God’s prophets.  The ground shifts beneath our feet.  May we be open to the possibility that the shifting ground is Holy ground and may we find in the shifting an invitation and a welcome from the Holy Spirit.  Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing in the name of Jesus Christ?

[1] Acts 8:37
[2] Acts 10:1-8
[3] Acts 10:9-16
[4] Acts 10:44b-47


Lent: Breaking free from the Wilderness

Sermon Preached at St. Mark’s
Lent 1B – Mark 1:9-15

“Show us your ways, O LORD and teach us your paths. Lead us in your truth and teach us, for you are the God of our salvation.”[1] Amen.

After Jesus was baptized the Spirit drove him out to the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. Both Matthew and Luke share some detail about the nature of the temptations Jesus faced but not Mark.  Mark’s account of that wilderness experience is very sparse: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”[2]  That’s it.  And, as I’ve said before, I really like the gospel of Mark for its lack of detail because it allows us to enter the story with our own details - in this case, details drawn from our own wilderness experiences.  Because while the specifics of the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness are important to the story of salvation and our understanding of the nature of messiah-ship, I don’t think that they preclude us from  also seeing the point that as we experience the wilderness, so too has God experienced the wilderness.  God has been and is with us in that wilderness.
Now recently I heard a colleague say that those of us living in the Great Lakes Region of the United States – and perhaps this year, we might add those living in New England – that we don’t need a season of Lent – after all, we have Winter.  For many, a wilderness period in its own right one that can begin in early November and last until late March!  Isn’t that Lent enough?  You all know how much I love winter, so that comment made very little sense to me; but, I take the point.  In our lives, we experience a LOT of wilderness – relationships that end, careers that leave us feeling empty, violence in the world, and battles with mental and physical illnesses.  Our wilderness lists could go on and on.  We know what the wilderness looks like.  So, why would we want to spend 40 days of Lent focused on the wilderness, entering more deeply into the pain and suffering of that wilderness?  If our lives – our world – is already reminiscent of that wilderness, do we really need to be even more intentional about entering the wilderness during the season of Lent?  My answer:  No!
Jesus entered the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism before he began his ministry.  But the gospel reading for this first Sunday of Lent does not end there.  It ends with Jesus arriving in Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”[3]  Perhaps there is in this final verse of today’s gospel reading a different direction for our Lenten observance.  Perhaps our invitation to observe a Holy Lent doesn’t need to be about going deeper into the wilderness but could instead be about becoming more intentional about participating with God in breaking free from that wilderness, in joining God’s redemptive work, of proclaiming God’s good news in our church, in our neighborhoods, in our homes, our schools, and our workplaces.  Perhaps this Lent could be a time when we, like Jesus, emerge from the wilderness, intentionally focusing on our ministries. Could Lent be a time when we arrive in our own Galilee and proclaim the good news of God?  What would that look like?  What might it look like to intentionally break-free from the wilderness with God?  Within the community of St. Mark’s I think there are several fabulous options (and you will no doubt think of others):
Perhaps you are a parent who has lost your compass amidst the joys, challenges and responsibilities that parenting brings.  When is the last time you focused on self-care as a way to keep yourself – and, as a result – your family headed in a positive direction?  Beginning next Sunday morning and for four weeks, Beth Johnson and I will be facilitating a group for parents because taking care of ourselves is a way to participate in God’s redemptive work, to break free of the wilderness of exhaustion, imbalance, and built-up resentments. 
Or perhaps you could use some time constructing or reconstructing your relationships with others – friends, co-workers, a spouse or partner, a neighbor.  Beginning Tuesday, March 3 and continuing  for four weeks, Lisa Montgomery and Andrea Nowack will be facilitating a group foranyone who wants to learn or re-learn what it means to support, love, and communicate with others in healthy ways because being in relationship is another way to participate in God’s redemptive work and to break free of the wilderness of social isolation.
Or is God calling you to participate in proclaiming the good news by joining a Tuesday evening team in making sack lunches for our homeless neighbors or joining a Wednesday mid-day team in serving those lunches? There is a sign-up sheet in the parlor to get involved or you can speak with Jacqui Zeng or myself for more information.  God’s redemptive work involves feeding the hungry, breaking free from the wilderness that divides the haves from the have nots.
Might God be calling you to add your voice to the choir for the season of Lent – or, perhaps even longer?  Michael Hawn, Director of the Master of Sacred Music program at Perkins School of Theology, rightly reminds us that “music is more than a vehicle for personal expression. . .[m]usic making becomes a way of shaping prayer.”[4] Singing in the choir is a way to support and enliven St. Mark’s worship as we remember that whenever we gather for worship we are present with worshippers across “the church of all places and all times.” Music in worship today, for example, connects us peoples from the 4th century to the present day and spans the globe from China to Italy ,England, Scotland; from Libya to the United States. Singing as part of the choir then is a way to break-free of the wilderness that puts up boundaries between peoples and nations and to participate in God’s redemptive work through praying with and for the church and the world.
Volunteering in the Sunday School, participating with the outreach and social justice ministry team, spending time each day praying intentionally for members of the St. Mark’s community, praying for the wardens and vestry leaders of St. Mark’s, praying for your clergy leaders . . . all of these are ways to break free from the wilderness and proclaim the good news of God.  Beyond the walls of the church, what might it look like to intentionally break free from the wilderness, to intentionally focus on our neighborhoods, our homes, our schools, our workplaces as areas in the world in need of the good news of God?  What might God be calling you to do? What might God be calling us to do? When we pray the words of this morning’s psalm:

“Show us your ways, O LORD and teach us your paths. Lead us in your truth and teach us, for you are the God of our salvation.”

When we pray these words, can we leave room for God’s response, for God’s invitation to us to break free and participate in God’s redeeming work? When we make room for God’s response, what might we hear and what might we be moved to do?

[1] Psalm 25:3-4a.
[2] Mark 1:13.
[3] Mark 1:14-15.
[4] C. Michael Hawn, Gather Into One: Praying and Singing Globally,  (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 254.


Invited to Take Risks

State of the Parish Address

Rather than looking back at the year behind us, I would like to use this year’s State of the Parish Address to look to the year ahead.  When, during the Annual Meeting, you receive copies of the Annual Report, you’ll have a chance to read from your wardens, from staff members, and from other leaders of St. Mark’s about things that have taken place – fabulous things that have taken place – at St. Mark’s in 2014.  There is much to celebrate and remember in our past year.  In fact, there is much to celebrate in our past 150 years.  But today, I would like to take an opportunity to look forward; to explore with you what lies ahead.
Earlier this month, I was listening to a podcast of NPR’s Ted Radio Hour.  Host Guy Raz was interviewing Edith Widder who, in 2005, founded the Ocean Research & Conservation Association and a year later was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant”.  Dr. Widder is a marine biologist who specializes in bioluminescence and was describing her experience of being the first person to photograph the elusive giant squid. When the host asked Dr. Widder why she chooses to explore - what keeps her motivated - Dr. Widder replied:
“Exploring is an innate part of being human. We're all explorers when we're born. Unfortunately, it seems to get drummed out of many of us as we get older, but it's there, I think, in all of us. And for me that moment of discovery is just so thrilling, on any level, that I think anybody that's experienced it is pretty quickly addicted to it.”[1]
I gave that some thought – “exploring is an innate part of being human”; we are born that way – created as explorers. That seems right.  We learn by exploring, by taking risks. Some of our earliest explorations don’t turn out so well – the toddler who sticks a slightly damp finger into an electrical outlet.  Not a great experience – but, a learning opportunity to be sure!  But, on the other hand, our earliest efforts at exploration lead to our first scooting, then crawling and then walking.  Without such exploration our development stops.  Each venture, each risk taken, an opportunity to explore, to learn and to grow.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus calls out to Simon and Andrew, “Follow Me.”  He calls out to James and John, “Follow Me.”  And, he calls out to each of us – and to the Church – “Follow me.” This is a calling, an invitation to explore, to take a risk with life; to do something completely new and potentially dangerous.  It is no mistake that today’s reading begins with the announcement that John the Baptist has been imprisoned for his preaching about Jesus; indeed, following Jesus can be very risky.  Elsewhere in Scripture – in Matthew’s Gospel – Jesus says, “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3).  What if part of that invitation is daring to reclaim that innate part of us – the child-like explorer within? 
Jesus calls out, “Follow me” – take a risk with your life.  He doesn’t promise there will be no pain. Again, remember John the Baptist.  But he does promise a life of fulfillment as we come and take part in the work that God is graciously doing in the world around us.
In 2015, St. Mark’s wardens, vestry and clergy have decided to embrace a period of intentional exploration and risk-taking.  We have done this by expanding our budget so that the Community Engagement Coordinator position, currently held by Jacqui Zeng, can be extended for another year.   We feel confident that the work that is being done through this role is faithful work - work that is resulting in a greater presence for St. Mark’s in our community as more and more outside organizations utilize our facilities during the week.  On Tuesdays, InterPlay classes are offered in Cunningham Hall. On any given Wednesday night, you will find not only Music Night taking place in the choir room but Evanston English Country Dancers in Cunningham Hall, and a Creative Writing Group sharing our space in the library.  Adding to this important weekday building use in 2015, will be a Wednesday sack lunch program to feed some of our homeless neighbors.  Being done in partnership with St. Matthew’s, this program will be overseen by our Community Engagement Coordinator. And this will be possible because we are willing to take a risk with our budget, because we are able to step out in faith.
In 2015, we have dared to expand our budget to include funds for a seminarian from  Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary here in Evanston.  St. Mark’s has been a seminary field site in the past and it is exciting to become one again.  Welcoming a seminarian, appreciating their individual gifts for ministry and celebrating their growth as partners with us in ministry are rich opportunities for St. Mark’s.  This will be possible because we are willing to take a risk with our budget, able to step out in faith.
In 2015, St. Mark’s has dared to expand our budget to enrich our music ministries. In 2014, we already expanded the Associate for Music Ministries position from 15 hours to 20 hours per week.  But, at that time, we provided no additional funds for program expansion.  Despite the lack of additional funds, David Plank has launched a weekly music night that provides opportunity for children and adults to learn more about music, to practice singing together, and to gather as community.  In order for this to continue and grow, the budget needed to grow.  And so we took a risk with our budget and stepped out in faith.
In 2015, your leadership – wardens, vestry, and clergy – have dared to take a risk with the budget; but, in response, we are also taking a bold step with our giving because we believe the risks we are taking – these explorations – are good and faithful responses to Jesus’ call to “follow me.”  Despite our increased giving, you will see a gap between income and expenses in the budget that the vestry has passed. Yes, we dared to pass a budget that is not balanced.  You might look at this gap as a deficit with no concrete plan for closing the gap.  But I choose to see it as our opportunity for faithful response – a faith line in the budget.  And, in faith, I and the rest of St. Mark’s leadership have increased our pledges by an average of 20% in 2015 and we invite you to increase your pledge as well or, if you’ve never pledged before, to take a step out in faith and complete a pledge card for the first time.  Why?  Because we have faith in God’s call to us to be a people who take risks. We have faith in God’s call to us to be like Simon and Andrew who immediately left their nets and followed Jesus, to be like James and John who left their father and their boat to follow Jesus.  We have faith in God’s invitation to us to set aside security, self-interest and approval as our primary values and instead to enter a life that places our value in faithful living with its inherent call to risk, insecurity, and self-denial; to place value on God’s promise rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ.
We have faith that this is what it means to be followers of the way of Jesus, a people who not only talk the talk but walk the walk.  Might there be setbacks? Absolutely.  What child has ever learned to walk who hasn’t fallen down once or twice along the way? But what child has ever learned to walk who didn’t first muster up the courage to try – to take that first step of faith.
 “Follow me” – two of the most challenging and life affirming words that Jesus speaks in the Gospels.  And with these words Jesus began calling the first disciples into community and continues with those same two words to call us into that beloved community today.   A community that is invited to boldly explore what it means to be a part of God’s work in the world, a community that is invited to take risks, to explore, to discover the power of God working in and among us.   That is what we will be about in 2015 at St. Mark’s.  That is what I invite you to be about in 2015 at St. Mark’s.

[1] Edith Widder, interview by Guy Raz, “In Search Of,” NPR TED Radio Hour, January 9, 2015. Transcript available online.

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