Sunday, August 28, 2016

One More On Faith (Still Pondering the Epistle of Hebrews!)

Today I was with two congregations that chose to worship together this summer: St. Christopher's in Fairview and Grace Church, Chicopee. Today we were at Grace. The readings for the day can be found here.

It is really, really good to be with you all today and can I just say this – I hope in a way that does not sound patronizing: I am so proud of St. Christopher’s and Grace. You have taken this summer as an opportunity to get to know each other better. You are trying to discern the next steps in God’s call to your two congregations. I was privileged to be with you at the beginning of the summer at St. Christopher’s and now here at Grace. I suspect a lot has happened since then and I am looking forward to hearing about it from you at coffee hour today.
Here is the thing I want to say about that and then I want to turn with you to today’s epistle reading. There is an old saying about parenting that I used to have in my office in Holden – about how the two gifts you give to your children are roots and wings. My kids have now flown from the nest – and are amazing adults at 26 and 22. But I think about that often and I think it’s true for the Church and I think it’s true for congregations
We need roots that go deep, into the well of life. Roots that provide nourishment and bear fruit. You all know this just by paying attention to your gardens, especially in a summer like this one with so little rain. Tradition isn’t really the right word – we need traditions but more importantly we need roots. Traditions can calcify. The surest sign of death in a congregation are the words “we’ve always done it this way.” But knowing our history – our story – that to me is different.
But I think we Episcopalians do roots better than wings. The Holy Spirit has been sent to teach us new things. The Holy Spirit, often depicted as a dove, is about learning to fly. It’s about asking what’s going on in the neighborhood, about what has changed, about what we can do to respond to those changes.
So I return to where I began – after Scott and Donna’s retirements, your leadership has shown some courage. You’ve tried something new this summer and I hope in hearing one another’s stories you have been changed for good. That spirit of learning to fly will serve you well as we continue to move forward, guided by the Holy Spirit.
Now, back to our previously scheduled program. Have you noticed that our epistle readings all month have been from Hebrews? Just a few chapters – chapters 11 to 13. But they are all about faith, about what faith looks like. Back on August 7 we heard that
…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
For me, these are among the most important words in the Bible. Right up there with the Easter Gospels at the empty tomb, or John 3:16 about how God so loved the world, or the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Sermon on the Mount. These words remind us that faith is about where we put our trust. The opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s fear. Faith is about letting go and letting God. Faith, we might say, is not only about roots, but about wings.
Two chapters later we’re still talking about what faith looks like. Let’s recap: faith is about love. Loving God and loving neighbor. Let mutual love continue.
What does that look like? We heard it today. It means showing hospitality to strangers. Because when you welcome the stranger you might be welcoming an angel of God. It means visiting those in prison. As though you were in prison with them. It means that we remember those who are being water boarded. As if we were being water boarded. It means we honor marriage and support those who have committed themselves to one another in marriage. It means we resist making money into our god – that we learn to be content with what we have.
It means that we try to be a little less afraid.
It means that we pray for our leaders - for our Presiding Bishop, Michael and for our Bishop, Doug - and for clergy and wardens, and for political leaders, too - because they most definitely need our prayers!
Are you with me? I am NOT making this up! That is what Hebrews says today. There is a Word of the Lord for us here. It’s what faith looks like. Doing good, sharing what we have – this is what God asks of God’s people.
And it’s hard. It was hard when those words were written two thousand years ago and it’s hard today. It’s hard because we would rather be right than faithful. It’s hard because loving God and loving neighbor takes work.

But Jesus never said it would be easy.

Now let me say that I am only beginning to get to know you all, and you are still getting to know me. Preachers can push things further when there is a relationship – and this is a new one. But I get around the diocese, so let me make a more general statement and you all can figure out what is helpful to you and what is not.

As I said earlier, the opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s fear. And when congregations get afraid, they become less faithful. This is why angels show up all the time in the Bible to say to people, “do not be afraid.” Because when we face our fears – overcome our fears – then new life is possible.

Too many congregations, not just in the Episcopal Church but across denominational lines, get stuck in thinking that their mission is survival. Our mission is not survival. Our mission has something to do with roots and wings. Our mission has something to do with being faithful in this time and place. And further reflection on these middle chapters of Hebrews is a good place to start this kind of conversation. What does love of neighbor look like here in Chicopee, in the neighborhoods around Grace and St. Christopher’s? How will a new priest help you to look outward and behold your neighbor, so that mutual love can continue? How can you show hospitality to strangers and in so doing entertain angels even without knowing it? Are there ways to reach out to those in prison, to speak out against torture, to support married people, to help you all become more faithful stewards and be content with what you have?

Now here is why this matters as we look down the road a little ways. You don’t need a priest who is superman or superwoman to come in here! Every congregation tells me they want to grow. Most of them look to the clergy to make that happen. But let me tell you what I know. Growth is hard if we aren’t ready to change. No, I want to say it more strongly than that. Growth is impossible if we aren’t ready to change.

But more than this, it is not charismatic clergy that grow congregations. Dead clergy can kill congregations – that much is true. But at best charismatic clergy help congregations grow faster, and unfortunately that sometimes happens without deep roots, and things can shrink back again when they move along to their next gig.

What we need – not just here but across this diocese – are clergy who are faithful. Clergy who are partners in ministry. Clergy who will tell the truth. Clergy who are not afraid.

And here’s the thing – we need lay people who will roll up their sleeves and work with those clergy to be faithful partners in ministry, to speak the truth, to not be afraid.

We need to find ways, together, to embody what we read about today in Hebrews 13. So that they aren’t just words in a book but words written on our hearts. Words we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest – so that we become a word about the Word. So that people look at Grace and St. Christopher’s and they say, those are places where love is made manifest, with God’s help. Those are places where love is in the air. 

This is what I pray for, as you walk together into the next chapter of the story. Roots and wings. Peace and all good as it unfolds, and the journey continues. 

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