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Practicing Letting God . . .

An Easter Sermon
March 27, 2016

A stirring tale, a familiar tale, an epic tale, even a fairy tale.  Any of these adjectives would seem more fitting a response to the news that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women come running back to share with the apostles --- Jesus is risen!!!!  But instead we get this --- “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (Luke 24:11).  Wow! Talk about taking the wind out of somebody’s sails. 
And yet, can you blame the disciples?  After all that has happened, even if what the women had to say were true, what difference could it possibly make now?  After all, they had their chance to take over Jerusalem – isn’t that what the triumphant procession was all about – the palm branches, the cloaks strewn about the ground, the loud shouts of Hosanna!  That was supposed to be the take-over of the Roman Empire!  Or so at least some of the disciples had thought.  The opportunity came and went.  At the Mount of Olives, when the chief priests, the officers of the temple police and the elders come for Jesus, Peter takes out his sword and strikes and instead of seizing the opportunity to wage war, Jesus shouts out “No more of this!” and even heals the man Peter has wounded.  So, when the women return from the empty tomb with their news, can you really blame the apostles?  It’s not necessarily that they don’t believe the women – though, Peter does go running back to see for himself (Luke 24:12).  It’s that the message the women is pointless, it’s too late.  We had our chance. It’s over now.  Even if Jesus is risen, it is but an idle tale. 
Earlier this week, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry shared his Easter message and in it he talked about fairy tales. He said, “I actually love fairy tales . . . there [is] something good about them, a way of confronting what [is] tough in life with genuine hope.”[1] And sometimes I wonder if you and I, when we hear the Easter story – when we hear the women come back from the tomb and tell us what they’ve seen and what they’ve heard – I wonder if we hear it as some sort of fairy tale - a nice message of hope for a challenging time?  But what I really fear is that not only do we hear it as a fairy tale but that we, like the apostles in Luke’s gospel, consider it to be an idle tale – a story that has no real point in the here and the now.  A story that can make no difference in our lives. 
So this morning, I want to invite you to suspend any disbelief, to let go of any lingering doubts and just imagine what it might mean for your life if the story were true.  What would it mean for your life if the tomb were empty and Jesus was raised from the dead?  What fears could you let go of?  What false idols could you release?  What could you dare to share with others? 
Many of us meditated throughout the days of Lent and Holy Week using reflections in Scott Stoner’s book, Living Well through Lent: Letting Go with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind.  As its title suggests, the reflections were all about unburdening, letting go – of our comfort zones,[2] letting go – of all the shoulds that weigh us down[3] and deprive us of living out of grace and love,[4] letting go – of control,[5] letting go – of the “tyranny of perfectionism,”[6] letting go – of worries that “strangle our emotional, spiritual, relational, and physical wellness.”[7] 
This practice of letting go was all about today!  Because Jesus is Risen!  And because of that Truth, we can let go of our fears, our brokenness, our anxieties, our whatever-it-is-that-holds-us-back – we can let it all go.  Because, my brothers and sisters in Christ, this is not an idle tale.  Today is when “we celebrate and affirm that resurrection is real” and that death and hurt and brokenness do not now and never will have the final word.[8] 
Today is when we declare that God’s Love triumphs!  And here’s something to consider.  Letting go – takes practice – lots of practice, every day.  That may come as no surprise – after all, I bet each of us can think of something we’ve spent time worrying about or trying to control in just the past 24 hours! But here’s the bit that may come as a surprise – letting resurrection love into our lives – letting the Truth of God’s triumphant love into our lives - takes practice too.  That is why throughout the Season of Easter we being our worship by giving thanks to God for the water of baptism “that sustains life” and gives us “the gift of new life in Jesus Christ.” And we pray that God will “Shower us with God’s Spirit, and renew our lives with God’s forgiveness, grace, and love.”[9] 
The Truth of the Resurrection takes practice – a daily practice of renouncing and letting go of all that weighs us down and a daily practice of letting God enter our lives to renew us through the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to renew us as we persevere in resisting evil; to renew us as we proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to renew us as we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; to renew us as we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.
The Truth of the Resurrection is that God’s love wins!  Let go as you let the waters of your baptism refresh you once again, renew you yet again.  Accept the Good News. Practice the Good News!  And proclaim the Good News - - - Love wins! God's love wins! Alleluia!

[1] Michael Curry, “Easter 2016 Message,” March 23, 2016 available online
[2] Scott Stoner, “Letting Go of Our Comfort Zones,” Living Well through Lent 2016 – Letting Go with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind, (Milwaukee, WI: Living Compass, 2016), February 12, 2016, 15.
[3] Stoner, “Letting Go of Shoulds,” February 22, 2016, 29.
[4] Stoner, “Letting Go with All Your Strength,” February 25, 2016, 32.
[5] Stoner, “Letting Go of Control,” February 29, 2016, 39.
[6] Stoner, “Letting Go of Perfectionism,” March 7, 2016, 49.
[7] Stoner, “Letting Go of Worry,” March 14, 2016, 59.
[8] Stoner, “Letting Come,” March 27, 2016, 77.
[9] “Thanksgiving for Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 97.


St. Mark's Is Joining God in the Neighborhood: Building the World We Want to See

State of the Church Address
January 24, 2016
St. Mark's Episcopal Church - Evanston, IL

It seems like just yesterday that I could respond to most questions with, “I don’t know, I’m new here!” and get away with it.  Now, nearly five years later (can you believe it?!), that go-to response doesn’t work anymore.  Nonetheless, I still don’t always have the answer but I can say that I continue to delight in walking alongside you as we seek answers together – and, perhaps more importantly, as we frame questions together.  Framing the questions seems to be the work of the Church these days – in a time when survey after survey shows only doom and gloom in mainline denominations we have to ask ourselves some tough questions: What is the role of a 21st century church community? What does it mean to be a vibrant church community?  How are we as community and as individuals being invited to walk alongside God in our daily lives as we strive to live out our baptismal covenant – or, as this year’s stewardship team has framed the question, as we strive to build the world we want to see?

Over the past 5 years – and probably longer – St. Mark’s has been about the business of becoming a missional church.  In church circles this is often called being “externally focused” or being a “neighborhood church.”  This is in contrast to another way of being church – the attractional model – in which the focus is primarily on the internal dynamics and inner workings of the church as reflected in our anxiety over average Sunday attendance, number of pledging units and number of children in Christian formation classes.  Don’t get me wrong, these things do still matter – and they are measurements that are still required by our annual parochial report. But, when these things become the focal point of our assessment of effectiveness we have lost sight of our reason for being.  After all, Jesus came to bring about God’s kingdom in the world, not to build a church!

So just what is a “missional” or “externally focused” church? Missional churches ask not “how can we be the best church in the community” but “how can we be the best church for the community?”  Missional churches dare to ask the tough question - “if we were to close our doors tomorrow, would anyone in the community notice?” Would we be missed?  Missional churches measure not how many come to worship on Sunday mornings but how many people live differently as a result of having been here.  Church life is about a journey – following Jesus, not a destination – going to church.

St. Mark’s is becoming a missional church. Yes, we still carry the baggage of the attractional model (nearly all churches do).  What this means is that I still worry when I see attendance down on a Sunday morning or on Christmas Eve, I still think about what “perfect program” we might offer to get more people into our pews.  This time of year as we focus on the annual campaign, I get excited about number of pledging units and dollars pledged.  But then I read something like this morning’s Gospel reading and it brings me right back to what really matters:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." – Luke 4:18-19

Bringing good news to the poor --- yes, and elsewhere in Scripture, we are reminded that Jesus was about healing the sick, comforting the afflicted, clothing the naked --- Yes! I can imagine this new way of being church – a new old way of being followers of Jesus – and I can celebrate with you that St. Mark’s is indeed about this work!   We are working with God to build the world we want to see – partnering with God to bring about the kingdom in this place at this time.  We’ve become a church that we can be certain the neighborhood would miss if we closed our doors, the community would notice.  Our homeless neighbors would notice as they would need to find a new place to go for warmth, for breakfast, for job coaching and computer training each weekday morning; our hungry neighbors would notice because there would be no lunch program on Wednesday mornings; Interfaith Action of Evanston would notice because 20% of their monthly Producemobile volunteers would no longer come from St. Mark’s; Albany Care residents would notice because we would not be there to sing Christmas carols with residents; Revive Center for Housing and Healing would notice because a dozen households would not have received Christmas gifts this year; and Y.O.U., Brownie Troup #45446, Cathedral Counseling, Evanston English Country Dancers and 22 other organizations and individuals who utilize our space during the year would notice because they’d all need another place to engage in their work and ministry.  St. Mark’s is becoming a missional church by Being in Place in and for our community. 

Every Sunday morning when we gather, we are steeped in the stories of our faith through readings from Scripture.  But what is the story that we are telling through our lives? What is the story St. Mark’s is telling through its ministries?  According to The Externally Focused Quest: Becoming the Best Church FOR the Community, authors Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw point out that “the word church is mentioned just three times in the Gospels” versus the “word kingdom [which] is mentioned . . . 116 times in the Gospels (NIV),” the authors suggest that perhaps we need to take a closer look at whether the story we are telling in our churches – in our prayers, from the pulpit, in our publications – is the story of a church or the story of God’s kingdom (75).  Because again, Jesus didn’t come to build a church, Jesus came to bring about God’s kingdom in the world!

Why does this distinction between church and kingdom matter?  Because the church’s mission is not the church.  The church’s mission is outside our doors - it is in the relationships you already have with colleagues, classmates and neighbors and it is in the new relationships we build when we seek out others who share a commitment to common causes.  In 2015, this took a variety of forms including being advocates for the amendments to the inclusionary housing ordinance in Evanston and standing alongside our Muslim brothers and sisters in Fountain Square or lining Ridge Avenue with dozens of neighbors to take a Stand Against Racism.  It also looked like individual members of St. Mark’s volunteering their time and talent to countless organizations in the community from the Foster Reading Center to the YWCA, from the hospital to area schools.  St. Mark’s is becoming a missional church by Living from the Center – rooted in God’s love, God’s justice and God’s mercy – and allowing that center to transform the way we live our lives.
So if missional churches are all about what goes on outside our doors, why do we gather at all?  Many of us decided with the start of the New Year to resolve (again!) to return to the gym, to get stronger and more physically fit.  For most of us our goal is not to become a bodybuilder but rather to be a healthier person.  Our worship is a bit like that.  For missional churches, we come together to get stronger and healthier in our relationship with God so that we will be better able to minister in the world.  The purpose of our worship, the purpose of our prayer, the purpose of our ongoing spiritual formation is to be more prepared and more able to serve the community outside the church’s walls.  We come together to worship because we are continually Growing in Faith – remember it’s a journey, not a destination – becoming more spiritually fit so that we can return to the world and continue partnering with God.

How will we know if St. Mark’s is successful? How will we know if St. Mark’s is an effective community of faith?  We will know by our answer to these questions:  “How is God using St. Mark’s to build a better world?”  “How is God using each of us, in ways great or small, to change the world?”  Now that’s a story I’d love to tell. And that’s a story St. Mark’s is beginning to tell.  You’ll see it in some of the enclosed reports.  You’ll see articles about it posted on the bulletin board in the hallway.  And, I hope that you’ll hear about it in conversations you have with one another over coffee.  I want everyone at St. Mark’s to have at least one story by the end of the year about how you changed your neighborhood, your office, your school, your home, our world because of St. Mark’s.


I Will Not Keep Silent

Sermon Preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Epiphany 2C
Isaiah 62:1-5

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”[1]  These words were written for a people who had just returned from exile and who were trying to reclaim an identity for themselves.  Those who had been in exile in Babylon were returning to their homeland where they would renew relationships with those who had not been deported and with those who had been born in exile or in the homeland during the time of the exile.  Much had changed in their time of separation.  But perhaps the biggest change of all was their own morale and sense of self-identity.  After decades of broken dreams and a crumbling faith, these were a people who had begun to believe what others said about them – that they were Forsaken, that their homeland was Desolate.[2]  And they needed God’s help.  And so the prophet begins this passage, not with words to the Israelites, but with words to God – DO SOMETHING, GOD![3] I will not keep silent.  This prophetic cry to God is a reminder that there is nothing out of bound in our prayer – no conversation of the heart that cannot be shared with God.[4] 
This is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. knew well.  He knew what it was to be called Forsaken and Desolate and on behalf of a people Dr. King would not keep silent.  He proclaimed, “We will have to repent in this generation, not only for the evil words and deeds of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”[5]
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,” proclaims the prophet Isaiah.
In 1977 African-American poet and feminist Audre Lorde delivered a speech at the Lesbian and Literature panel of the Modern Language Association.  The speech, called “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” was made just two months after she learned she had a tumor which for a period of three weeks left her anxiously waiting to learn whether or not it was malignant or benign.  In her speech Lorde proclaimed,
“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my own mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for in my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light and what I most regretted were my silences. . . I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”[6] 
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,” proclaims the prophet Isaiah.
In September Archbishop of Canterbury Just Welby invited the 37 Primates of the Anglican Communion to meet in Canterbury. That meeting was held this past week.  In his letter of invitation Archbishop Welby wrote:
“The difference between our societies and cultures, as well as the speed of cultural change in much of the global north, tempts us to divide as Christians: when the command of scripture, the prayer of Jesus, the tradition of the church and our theological understanding urges unity. A 21st-century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement, and even mutual criticism, so long as we are faithful to the revelation of Jesus Christ, together.”[7]
And so the Primates gathered.
What happened next is perhaps known to many of you; but, in case not, I’ll provide a brief recap as provided by the Episcopal News Service:
“A majority of Anglican primates . . . asked that the Episcopal Church, for a period of three years, ‘no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.’”[8]
This sanction of the Episcopal Church came as a response to our Church’s “General Convention last June to change canonical language that defines marriages as being between a man and woman. . . and authorize two new marriage rites with language allowing them to be used by same-sex or opposite-sex couples.”[9]  At the end of the three year period, some have suggested that if The Episcopal Church repents of its actions, then the sanctions will be lifted. Time will tell us how that plays out. 
So preparing for this morning – particularly in light of the focus of this weekend on Martin Luther King, Jr. – I thought about ignoring this news. I considered that I might come back to it in a week or so.  Maybe write a little something about it on Facebook and let it go.  And then I reread Isaiah’s words - “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent.”  Then I remembered King’s words – “We will have to repent in this generation . . . for the appalling silence of the good people.” And then I rediscovered Audre Lorde’s words – “Your silence will not protect you.”
And so today I proclaim to my lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer friends and strangers, “For our sake, I will not keep silent” and thanks be to God, for our sake, The Episcopal Church will not keep silent either. Already our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has made this clear in his powerful and clear response in which he said:
“Many of us have committed ourselves and our church to being ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ as the Bible says, when all are truly welcome . . . Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ.
“For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain,” he said. “For fellow disciples of Jesus in our church who are gay or lesbian, this will bring more pain. For many who have felt and been rejected by the church because of who they are, for many who have felt and been rejected by families and communities, our church opening itself in love was a sign of hope. And this will add pain on top of pain.”[10]
My friends, the Episcopal Church is not turning back.  The Diocese of Chicago who has been at the forefront of this movement for justice is not turning back.  And so long as I am standing here before you and with you, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church is not turning back.  The vision statement of St. Mark’s which has been on our website since before my arrival here and which is reprinted each week on the front cover of our bulletins reads: 
“We believe that the spirit of God lives in every human being, and that we are called to glorify that which unites us while at the same time celebrating the awesome diversity of God’s creations.  All of us at St. Mark’s share a commitment to our faith and to our community, and we welcome one another regardless of religious background, race, or sexual orientation. Everyone is welcome here.”
There are some who may call us Forsaken and Desolate but let us not take on that identity. For in God’s eyes we all “shall be called ‘My Delight Is in Her’” for the LORD delights in us and our God rejoices over us.[11] 
Echoing the words of 19th century abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “ “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”[12] Keep the faith. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 62:1
[2] Isaiah 62:4a.
[3] W. Carter Lester, “Pastoral Perspective: Isaiah 62:1-5” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year C, Vol. 4), eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Tayler (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), location 8054-6 (Kindle Edition).
[4] Ibid.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted in Rich Stearns, “The Appalling Silence of Good People,” Advocacy (January 18, 2011) accessed online, January 16, 2016. 
Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action (excerpt),” reprinted at Ubuntu! June 26, 2007 (originally delivered at the Modern Language Association’s “Lesbian and Literature Panel,” Chicago, Illinois, December 28, 1977; first published in Sinister Wisdom 6 (1978) and The Cancer Journals (Spinsters, Ink, San Francisco, 1980) accessed online, January 16, 2016.

[7] accessed January 16, 2016.

[8] Matthew Davies, “Majority of primates call for temporary Episcopal Church sanctions,” Episcopal News Service (January 14, 2016) accessed online, January 16, 2016.

[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Isaiah 62:4, 5b
[12] Melissa Block, “Theodore Parker and the ‘Moral Universe,’” (NPR, September 2, 2010) accessed online, January 16, 2016.