Debra Recommends

This Shared DreamAfter the BeginningTo Say Nothing of the DogThe Girl With the Dragon TattooA New Beginning for Pastors and Congregations: Building an Excellent Match Upon Your Shared StrengthsThree Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission To Promote Peace...One School At A Time

More of Debra's books »
Book recommendations, book reviews, quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists


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.


From These Shall Come Forth For Me One Who Is to Rule in Israel

The City of Evanston’s public libraries, fire stations, police department and community centers have ended their collection for the Mayor’s Annual Holiday Food and Toy Drive for local families.  Local Starbucks have had collection boxes available for toy donations. The Salvation Army’s Red Kettles can be seen outside countless businesses.  The Spirit of Christmas takes hold of our hearts and the best of human generosity is brought forth.  Last Sunday, we heard John the Baptist preaching to those who would be baptized, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”[i]  And in the parlor at St. Mark’s, our tree is filled with hats and gloves, mittens and scarves which will be shared this afternoon with the residents at Albany Care and later with students from District 65 through the Evanston School Children’s Clothing Association. 
But the texts for this Sunday – the last Sunday in Advent – while they continue their focus on the poor among us, shift directions markedly – not focusing on what we might do for the poor and the downtrodden but instead proclaiming what miraculous and mighty things God will bring forth from the poor and the downtrodden among us. 
First, we have the prophet Micah who proclaims, “But you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel.”[ii]  These words spoken by the prophet are spoken to a people who have watched the Northern Kingdom fall to the Assyrians and have themselves only survived by paying a high price – “huge tributes, loss of . . . independence, and corruption of its traditions by the incorporation of religious practices of the dominant foreign power.”[iii]   It’s hard for me to imagine how Micah’s listeners would have heard these words:  a people who have nothing, a people who have been pushed down for so long that perhaps they are even beginning to believe that they are nothing – from this people shall come forth one who is “to rule in Israel. . . [to] stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.”[iv]
Then, we have the song of Mary – the Magnificat – and her pronouncement of God’s intention to turn everything and everyone upside down – the proud will be scattered, the mighty cast down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled, the rich sent away empty.[v]  All of this because the Lord “has looked with favor on his lowly servant,” Mary.[vi]  Women in the first century were subject to the authority of men – first their father and then, after marriage, their husband.   Some texts suggest that women were merely considered property; but others have said that by the first century this was beginning to change.  In either case, however, here is a young woman who has nothing and from this young woman shall come the Savior of a people.
I read this week that J. R. R. Tolkien “was grading papers from his students, when he came across a blank page. Apparently Tolkien was a bit of a doodler, and this blank space was all the inspiration he needed to write the sentence, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ That sentence went on to begin one of the most famous novels of 20th century English literature, The Hobbit.”[vii]  From a people oppressed by a foreign government to a young unwed woman without power to a blank piece of paper.  From these have come great things.  Where you and I see emptiness, poverty, brokenness, need or despair, God sees a future.   And God finds a space to write that future into being.  And all it took was willingness on the part of those who had little to be the instruments of God’s work.  
My colleague Heidi Haverkamp who is the rector at The Episcopal Church of St. Benedict in Bolingbrook has just published a book of advent reflections called Advent in Narnia.  In it she writes:
“The first Christmas came because of the power of God but also because of the willingness of ordinary people to prepare the way. Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, some shepherds, and an innkeeper were watching, waiting, and willing to be part of God’s plan. Advent means the same for us: watching, waiting, and finding ways to enter into God’s plan. Jesus is coming. . . He will melt the power of sin, evil, and death. However, the work of God’s vulnerable but powerful love is also in our hands, now and until the day that Jesus will return.”[viii]
And, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I would suggest that “the work of God’s vulnerable but powerful love” is especially in the hands of the most vulnerable among us – those who believe they will never be enough, those who struggle on our streets, those whose parents tell them they love wrongly, those among us who are pressed down by the heavy burden of depression or anxiety, addiction or chronic fear, those whom society sets aside because they are too sick or too frail, too young or too old.  These are the very ordinary ones who can show us the way.  From these “shall come forth . . . one who is to rule in Israel . . . and he [or she] shall be the one of peace.”

[i] Luke 3:11.
[ii] Micah 5:2a (NIV).
[iii] Daniel J. Simundson, “The Book of Micah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. VII, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 534.
[iv] Micah 5:2b, 4a.
[v] Luke 1:51-53.
[vi] Luke 1:48a.
[vii] Mark Winters, “God Doesn’t Need Much to Make Miracles Happen. . .” Season of Inclusion, (Chicago: Equality Illinois, 2015).
[viii] Heidi Haverkamp, Advent in Narnia: Reflections for the Season, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 61.

In the News . . .