Unimaginable Words: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent Year C

This sermon, offered on November 29, 2015 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin by the Very Rev. Andy Jones,  is built on the readings assigned for the first Sunday in Advent Year C.  You can find those readings here.

 

What will it be like? What will it be like when God intervenes in the world? How will it come to pass that we all finally understand without a doubt that God loves us unconditionally? How will we discover that we really are bound to one another, brothers and sisters responsible for loving and caring for our neighbor?

What will cause the powers of this world, the people, the governments, the systems, that oppress God’s children, stealing their liberty and exploiting them for their own selfish needs to re examine themselves and to become life giving instead of life taking?

No one going hungry, no one suffering under the threat of war, no one struggling against injustice, prejudice or hatred…

We sit here to day in the season of Lent embracing our longing, our hope for that moment when all things will be made new, when we will all be restored to one another and God in Christ Jesus.

We’ve emptied the crèche, taking out the animals, shepherds, Maggi, even the Baby Jesus in an attempt to find ourselves in that same place of deep longing and desire that the people of Israel experienced under the oppression of Roman rule. We look around the world today and we long for God to do something, anything, to rescue us, to change the way the world moves, to bring God’s dream for creation to fruition. We sit in the dark in Advent waiting and we cry, “How long O Lord? How long?”

But just what is it that we are hoping for? What will it be like? What will life in the kingdom be like and what will finally bring it to fruition?

Hard to imagine isn’t it? We are so inured to the way that things are that we sometimes even fail to see the problems, the faults that lie at the root of the mess in the world around us. We are so used to life in the status quo that it is hard to imagine life in the kingdom. It is unimaginable.

And then, as if the kingdom itself weren’t hard enough to imagine, it’s even harder to imagine the kingdom actually coming! We look around us, we watch the news and we see how hard those with power work to keep their influence and control. We see people fighting and killing one another in the effort to further their own agenda, to spread their influence, and to gain more power and control. It is hard to imagine anything that would turn this mess around. What could possibly happen to change things so dramatically? It is unimaginable.

So what would we say if someone asked us for a description of that longed for kingdom, for an account of the hope that is in us? What would we say? What would we tell them?   After all… it is pretty unimaginable…

Maybe if we were to attempt to describe the unimaginable we would use unimaginable words. We might use the words from the sculpture of St Francis that hangs in our entryway, words that come from the Prophet Isaiah:

6 “The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea”(Isaiah 11:6-9).

Wolves and lambs, leopards and kids, lion and fatling, adders and asps… and a little child shall lead them? Those images are pretty unimaginable images aren’t they? But perhaps that is the best that we can do in our effort to describe something that is as unimaginable as the kingdom of God.

We use unimaginable words for unimaginable events.

If that’s what it will look like, no one hurting or destroying on God’s holy mountain, how do we think that will come about? How will it happen? What will cause the changes in the way that the world works that would allow the kingdom to come? It would have to be a pretty dramatic event or series of events for those who hold the reigns of power and authority to bend and give, to enough to make room for the kingdom. Maybe if we were to look for words to describe this unimaginable occurrence we might choose words that are equally unimaginable and say:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory” (Luke 21:25-27).

Jesus was one of a long line of Hebrew prophets who used unimaginable words to describe unimaginable events. Were these descriptions of things that we can just barely even begin to wrap our arms around ever meant to be taken literally, as blow by blow accounts of the way things would happen? No! They were poetry, they were hyperbole, they were designed to impress upon us incomprehensible magnitude of those events and the change that they would bring. The prophets use unimaginable words to describe unimaginable events that we have to work and struggle to get our minds around.

So this is pretty tough stuff! Unimaginable words for unimaginable things and events that we have to struggle to wrap our minds around… Let’s turn our attention to something a little easier for us to grasp, something that we know how to describe and talk about… Today is the first day of Advent! Look, the crèche is out, the frontal and the flowers are off the altar, the color is blue and we have the Advent wreath. That’s great! Let’s take a few minutes to talk about the incarnation, Jesus, Emmanuel, God among us. What would we say if we were asked to describe the events surrounding the coming of the Messiah?

How would we talk about the notion that God, the God who had sought us, even pursued us, who had made goodness and love known to us in the creation, in the calling of Israel to be God’s people, and in the word spoken through the prophets decided in these last days to send the word made flesh, Jesus, God’s Son, to be the savior and redeemer of the world (BCP p. 368)? We might describe it in this way:

The Christ,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8)

God, a slave, humbled, obedient even to the point of death on a cross? That would be pretty unimaginable wouldn’t it? God, holy and pure, creator of all that is coming into contact with us, the profane and sinful? That would be like matter and anti matter wouldn’t it? How can God become one of us and still be God? How would that happen?

Maybe if we were going to tell a story that unimaginable we would use words that were just as unimaginable:

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:26-33)

Unimaginable words to describe unimaginable events that we have to work and struggle to get our minds around. Unimaginable…

And yet we a people bound together and formed by these unimaginable words dare to imagine. We dare to believe. We dare to claim the truth of these stories.

We believe that God has intervened in the life of the world, that God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ and changed everything. And we dare to hope, to believe, that God will prevail, that the kingdom that was ushered in when Christ came among us will someday come to fruition and be completed.

And so we wait in the dark, not out of a sense of despair, but in hope, longing for, believing in, trusting in the unimaginable….

Amen

 

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Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church 2016 State of the Parish Report

Good morning.

This morning as we gather for our Annual Meeting and to hear the State of the Parish Report our hearts are heavy with news from around the world. We have been shocked by events in Paris France, and, although somehow our media has not given them equal coverage, by similar events in Beirut Lebanon and Baghdad Iraq.

We have business, mandated by our by laws, to which we must attend this morning but before we do that we need to take a moment to attend to our true vocation as the church.

The Lord be with you.

And also with you

Let us pray.

A prayer for Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad

November 13, 2015 by Presbyterian News Service Leave a Comment

God of mercy, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance,
in the midst of unfolding violence and the aftermath of terror and loss,
we seek the grounding power of your love and compassion.

In these days of fearful danger and division, we need to believe somehow that your kingdom of peace in which all nations and tribes and languages dwell together in peace is still a possibility.

Give us hope and courage that we may not yield our humanity to fear..,
even in these endless days of dwelling in the valley of the shadow of death.

We pray for neighbors in Paris, in Beirut, in Baghdad, who, in the midst of the grace of ordinary life–while at work, or at play, have been violently assaulted, their lives cut off without mercy.

We are hostages of fear, caught in an escalating cycle of violence whose end can not be seen.

We open our hearts in anger, sorrow and hope: that those who have been spared as well as those whose lives are changed forever may find solace, sustenance, and strength in the days of recovery and reflection that come. We give thanks for strangers who comfort the wounded and who welcome stranded strangers, for first responders who run toward the sound of gunfire and into the smoke and fire of bombing sites.

Once again, Holy One, we cry, how long, O Lord? We seek forgiveness for the ways in which we have tolerated enmity and endured cultures of violence with weary resignation. We grieve the continued erosion of the fabric of our common life, the reality of fear that warps the common good. We pray in grief, remembering the lives that have been lost and maimed, in body or spirit.

We ask for sustaining courage for those who are suffering; wisdom and diligence among global and national agencies and individuals assessing threat and directing relief efforts; and for our anger and sorrow to unite in service to the establishment of a reign of peace, where the lion and the lamb may dwell together, and terror will not hold sway over our common life.

In these days of shock and sorrow, open our eyes, our hearts, and our hands to the movements of your Spirit, who flows in us like the river whose streams makes glad the city of God, and the hearts of all who dwell in it, and in You.

In the name of Christ, our healer and our Light, we pray, Amen.

by Laurie Ann Kraus
Coordinator, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

This is the ninth time that I have had the great pleasure and privilege of standing before you to offer the State of the Parish Report, to call out our achievements and strengths, to name our challenges, and to articulate a vision and goals for our future. I really do love this moment because, if we look beyond the requisite numbers and statistics, the State of the Parish Report is an opportunity for me to tell our story, the story of “We.”

I am going to offer some numbers and statistics in the next few minutes, but standing here in the pulpit, as we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist, it is the story that I want to share. The numbers will have to wait for a just a bit.

It’s awfully tempting to be anxious. The Barna and Pew Research Groups, trusting polling firms, have told us that the mainline is on the decline. Fewer people declare affiliation with the church every year, attendance and membership are on the decline, churches are closing their doors and selling their property all across the country.   But I wonder… Numbers are useful but they can be deceiving. How you ask the questions, how you present the results can have a big impact on the story that those numbers tell.

I wonder if across the church people aren’t doing what we have done over the last several years, trying to make those numbers more useful we have tried to be more honest about who is here and who is not; removing from our active roster folks who haven’t been here for a long time, adult children of parishioners who are married and living out of state, people who have drifted away and haven’t been seen for the last three years. We still have those names in our books but we list them as inactive. Our membership numbers seem to have declined but the truth is that they are just more accurate. Our core membership numbers remain remarkably constant.

Average Sunday attendance is another number that gets a lot of attention but which needs some interpretation. Is ASA really a measure of vitality and membership? It used to be that regular church attendance meant showing up every Sunday. It was almost obligatory in our culture and society that you be in church on Sunday morning. What we know about ourselves is that “regular” attendance means something different today than it use to. Even our most committed and involved members find it hard to be here every Sunday. Kids sports take place on Sunday morning, families are spread across greater distance and we have to travel to be together. “Regular” Sunday attendance for many of us is now once or twice a month. So is Average Sunday Attendance really a measure of church vitality and strength.

The pollsters will tell us that fewer people are claiming affiliation with the church an that the number of people who do make that claim are at dangerously low levels. But we know that if all of the people who used to claim that they were affiliated with a church, if all of the people who told the pollsters that they were “regular” church attenders, actually showed up on a Sunday morning parishes across the country would need to set up overflow seating in their parish halls and parking lots.

Numbers can be useful but they can also be misleading. A better measure of congregational vitality, of the health of a church can be found in their story. Here is the story that we have to tell about ourselves.

For the last year we have gathered to celebrate. A parish in its one-hundredth year on the near west side of Madison we invited the community to celebrate with us: Special events, concerts, beautiful original settings of the mass, parties, and a picnic marked the joy and the love we share in this place.

In that year of celebration we came together to help secure our future. Dreaming if what we might be, of the ways that God might use us in our second century we raised close to 1.4 million dollars to renovate, repair, and restore our campus. Faced with some difficult choices, the need to prioritize our needs, interests and dreams we engaged in a process that was transparent, open, collaborative, and fair. That process led to a remarkable moment. The Vestry, after months of prayerful listening found came to consensus around the scope and cost of a project that will allow us, and those who come after us, to continue God’s work here at 1833 Regent Street for the next one hundred years.

This is a challenging time for the church. The context in which the church pursues its mission to share the good news of God in Jesus Christ is changing at a remarkable pace. There are those who believe that we cannot survive, but looking around me I have to say that the reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated!

This is my ninth state of the Parish Report, my ninth opportunity to tell the story of “We,” my ninth opportunity to call out our achievements and strengths, to name our challenges, and to articulate a vision and goals for our future.

So here is another story that needs to be told this morning.

Fifteen years ago, when Patrick Raymond was in his third year as Rector of Saint Andrew’s, he and the Vestry knew that one full time ordained person could not support all of the ministry, programming, worship, and community that this congregation needed and wanted. The Rev. Pat Size joined the staff in 2001 and helped to establish and manage a Pastoral Care Ministry, a Healing Prayer Ministry, and created an Adult Formation Program called Journey in Discipleship.

When Pat left Saint Andrew’s at the end of 2003 to become the Missioner to the Hispanic Congregation at Grace Church Saint Andrew’s turned to the Rev. Deacon Susan Mueller for help. Susan had come to Saint Andrew’s as a Deacon in 2001 and in 2003 she joined the staff as a part time Pastoral Associate.

Susan retired from her position at Saint Andrew’s in 2010 after nine years of ministry among us, seven of them as a member of the staff. We were very concerned about our ability to lure a candidate with those qualities and skills to Madison for a part time position. Fortunately we didn’t have to look very far to find the right person.

Leigh Vicens graduated from Virginia Seminary in 2009 and returned to Madison to finish her PhD in Philosophy. Ordained a Deacon that spring Leigh came to Saint Andrew’s as a part time intern, paid a nominal stipend by the Diocese of Milwaukee in July of 2009. When Susan Mueller retired Leigh joined the Saint Andrew’s Staff as part time Pastoral Associate.

Leigh finished her doctoral degree and accepted a  teaching position at Augustana College in Sioux Falls S.D. in 2012. We bade her farewell in June of that year. We were once again faced with the prospect of looking for someone with very special personal circumstances that would allow them to come to Madison and join us for a position that was only half time.

Our concern was compounded by the fact that we were losing two members of our staff that June. Kate McKey, who had served as our part time Youth Minister for the past three years, was also leaving.

After prayerful consideration and deliberation we decided to roll both the half time associate position and the Youth Minister position into a single, full time, clergy position. We wanted to be able to draw gifted and qualified candidates to Madison to join our staff. We understood that a full time clergy person would be in a position to fully invest in the people in, and the life of, our community. And we wanted to create a position that would allow the right candidate to become a long term member of our community allowing them to form and nurture deep and effective relationships with the community and people of Saint Andrew’s. We knew that this change would be a financial stretch for the parish but we were convinced that this was the right strategy for our future together.

I had met Dorota Pruski as a member of the Diocesan Commission on Ministry in 2009 when she came before us for her final interviews in the discernment process. I remember remarking to my colleagues on the commission that, in four years when she finished her seminary training, some parish was going to be very lucky to have her serving among them. When I ran into her in Indianapolis at the 2012 General Convention I was again impressed by her poise, her thoughtfulness and now by her understanding and articulation of the complex issues facing the Episcopal Church and the broader Anglican Communion. Dorota was just finishing her second year at Virginia Theological Seminary and I jokingly asked her if there was any way that she could graduate a year early. She laughed, said no, and then asked why I was asking. I told her that I was looking for full time help “now.” She laughingly replied by asking if I could wait a year and I said, “I could but I would be dead!” The Rev. Shannon Kelly, a mutual friend and former Chaplain at Saint Francis House was part of the conversation and she laughed and asked, “Why don’t you just get some interim help for a year?” Later that day I forwarded the job description to Dorota saying that if she was interested I would love to have a conversation.

A conversation over lunch led to a conversation with the Bishop and with our Diocesan Deployment Officer. Those conversations led to conversations with the Vestry. Dorota came to visit Saint Andrew’s that August, worshiping with us, meeting with the Vestry, having lunch, dinner and breakfast with leaders of the parish, members of the Youth Group and their parents and finally on Monday afternoon another lunch with me. That fall Dorota was the only member of her seminary class to begin their senior year with a signed letter of agreement, a parish having called and anxiously awaiting her arrival!

Three years later we see the wisdom and the fruits of the decisions that we made in 2012. I told Dorota when we first talked at that General Convention in in Indianapolis that I wasn’t looking for an employee. I was looking for a partner in ministry, someone who would share fully in the exercise of priestly ministry and in the life of the community. The unique partnership that we share is a powerful manifestation of character and ethos of this place. We are a collegial and collaborative community, working together to support one another as we discover our individual and corporate gifts, callings, and vocations. People who experience Saint Andrew’s for the first time often marvel to me at the genuine care and affection that we have for one another, that this is a congregation of people that truly like one another. They feel the depth of our connection and they want to be a part of the communion that they feel here. None of that happens by accident!

Having Mother Dorota with us, a second full time priest, allows us to do and be more than we could be if I was the only full time member of the staff.  We have more hours to devote to the many and varied programs and ministries that bring us together in fellowship as we work to live out our vocation.  We have more hours available for pastoral care, to visit people in the hospital, to take communion to people in their homes, to sit together listening and caring deeply for one another as we journey together.  Having two full time priests on staff means that we have double the hours to meet with parishioners, forming and nurturing relationships, and to recognize and facilitate potential relationships between members of the community who may not realize that they have dreams, concerns or vocations in common. Having two full time Priests means that we have double the hours to meet with ecumenical partners and leaders in the larger Madison Community, with the Diocese of Milwaukee and with the Episcopal Church at large.

Having two full time Priests, one from column A (look deferentially at Dorota) and one from column B (gesture towards self), means that we have a priestly presence at the altar and in the pulpit that reflects and represents the diversity of our life, our parish, and of creation. That diversity at the altar and in the pulpit, the affirmation that it offers to the people who walk through our doors is an important symbol of who we are, what we believe, and how we care for one another in this place. That diversity of voices at the altar and pulpit also makes each of our voices stronger – Dorota and I learn from one another and make each other better. So the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is clear that the decisions that we made in 2012, to call a second full time priest to join us, to wait a year while Dorota finished her seminary training, to invest in someone who could then invest in us were the right decisions.  We are today more than we could have been without her.  There is an important lesson in all of this.  When faced with difficult questions we consistently make good decisions for the life, vitality and future of this community.  We have another decision to make and we need to make it now.

We knew when we called Dorota that adding a second full time priest to our staff was a financial stretch.  Combining our half time Pastoral Associate and our part time Youth Minister positions left us $36,000 short of funding a full time Priest.  The Diocese of Milwaukee’s program for underwriting the salary of newly ordained clergy softened that blow to the budget by $12,000 a year for the first two years, but we knew when we adopted this strategy that we needed to grow our revenues in order to support this new position on the staff.  Since deciding to add a second full time priest in 2012 our pledges have increased by about $15,000. We are growing our revenues but we are, as the cost of maintaining our programs, our building and our staff increases, falling further behind.  We are projecting that we will end 2015 with a deficit for the third year in a row.  The Vestry has worked very hard to be responsible stewards of the gifts that we receive.  We have cut programming and maintenance budgets each of the last three years, trimming costs to the point that there is nowhere left to cut but the human resource line.  So now, waiting for the final pledges for 2016 to come in, working to develop a budget for next year, we are once again, faced with some very difficult decisions.

The draft budget being presented today projects yet another year-end deficit. It allows us to fund our Associate Priest position for all of 2016. The Executive Committee of the Vestry: the clergy, Junior and Senior Wardens, and Treasurer, will be urging the Vestry to adopt this budget, buying us another year to grow into the strategy we adopted in 2012, to stabilize our current staffing model, and to keep our current clergy team here at Saint Andrew’s.

The Stewardship Committee asked us all to prayerfully consider increasing our giving to Saint Andrew’s this year by at least 5%. A 5% increase would allow us to fund next year’s budget at this year’s funding level. That will help but we all know that everything will cost more tomorrow than it does today. That is why the Stewardship Committee asked those of us who can to prayerfully consider increasing our giving by 20%. That level of increase will help us to restore some of the cuts we have made to our program budget and to begin to restore the financial reserves that we have used to cover our expenses for the last several years.

We made the right decision in 2012, committing to a second full time Priest in our community and to waiting for Mother Dorota to finish her seminary training. Today we can do and be more than we could have without her. Today we are faced with another decision. Increasing our giving will represent a decision to continue with the strategy for growth that we adopted in 2012, to do and be more than we could be with a single full time priest on staff. Not increasing our giving will represent a different decision.

Given our history, I am confident that in the year ahead we will make the right decision for the life, vitality, and future of this community.

Amen.