Becoming the change – we long to see

Observations on community

Jesus tells the people he grew up amongst that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. An odd thing to say because, until then, things seemed to have been going quite well. In the hearing of those who know his history he has proclaimed the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of the inbreaking of God’s reign of justice. But then, things rapidly deteriorate and Jesus’ very life becomes endangered by the sudden eruption of rage among those who had known him all his life. It’s not clear from Luke’s text, but it seems that Jesus has disappointed them.

I am reminded that communities are – at times – ambivalent places . On the one hand community, is what we all long for. As I was reminded this week by a parishioner of whom I asked a personal favor- she chided me ‘you talk a lot about human beings as relational, but you don’t ask much for yourself. None of us can manage it all by ourselves’. Well, touché! Community is where we get to share the burdens we can’t manage alone. Community is where we find those points of intimate intersection with one another that gives life richer meaning. I am continually impressed by the variety of forms and contexts in which a moment of intimacy makes itself known.

So what about ambivalence? I mention communities as ambivalent places because as Jesus experienced during his visit home community can be a dangerous place when you disappoint people. They say familiarity breed’s contempt. Intimacy when disappointed, provokes anger. It’s those closest to us that seem to feel a dangerous freedom to abuse us. I am reminded of the aphorism people usually hurt by the Church facetiously chide- see how these Christians love one another. It’s a salutary reminder that in communities where love is the stated goal while we lift our heads in pursuit of lofty love, contempt and hatred seep up unseen from between the floorboards, so to speak.

On the Sunday of the annual parochial meeting, a once a year event, it’s customary for the rector to remind everyone about the achievements and challenges of the past year. The intention is to affirm. Yet, because not everyone agrees on what constitutes an achievement and what presents as a challenge, it can also be a risky business for the preacher. So, given that my stated aim is to affirm, let me make a disclaimer. Although as rector my oversight privileges me with a particular overview of community life, nevertheless my view is like everyone else’s, a subjective one.

Our Achievements 

  1. The restoration of the St Martin window is an achievement beyond the structural and artistic restoration elements, which are in themselves, noteworthy. The achievement lies in the community once again finding the confidence to take on such a major and costly piece of preservation. In a moment in time, we decided we could do this. This decision needs to be seen against the backdrop of watching the window’s gradual deterioration over years, with the community somehow feeling the task too much to undertake. Finding the confidence to decide to act, followed up by the confidence expressed in the mini pledge drive to fund the restoration is a real sign of a return of courage and vitality to this community.
  2. Lent 2015 surprised us all with the excitement that the Wednesday evening Lent program generated. The achievement here is to discover the deep desire of our community to grow more deeply into a way of spiritual living and to hear the ancient Benedictine wisdom speaking at the heart of the stress of our modern lives.
  3. For me, a particular if quieter success was the summer program. Moving to one service on Sunday morning, though not new for July and August, this year seemed to remind us of the wonderful experience of all worshipping in one place and one time. This summer we did something new with the introduction of the 5.30pm evening instructional Eucharist. The instructional commentary became a blueprint for our new Sunday service booklets. The early evening also attracted seven new visitors of whom, five have transitioned to regular membership.
  4. Another big achievement has been completing the RenewalWorks spiritual inventory program during our Annual Renewal Campaign this last autumn. Our 102% questionnaire submission rate was astonishing and speaks volumes about the kind of community we want to become; a community in which spiritual growth and nurturance is our number one priority. We learned important information about ourselves. The data having been digested by the program’s leadership team will now form the basis for mapping our way forward, guiding our community development for some considerable time to come.
  5. A particular achievement has been the way people have reconnected with their passion leading to the reenergizing of our community life. My challenge has been for us to become a more magnetic community. Going into my second full year as rector, I am really noticing the surge in energy and excitement. I no longer feel alone in pumping energy into the parish system. I now feel I have many, many partners in this task.

Our Challenges 

Shifting furniture about, and meddling with the established pattern of Sunday morning, have been two manifestations of our attempt to respond to the key challenge facing us. Before the Annual Meeting in 2015, I presented five challenges:

  1. Embedding a strong and cohesive staff team.
  2. Developing a new website as a vehicle for projecting ourselves into the wider world.
  3. Revitalizing our ministries with emphasis on newcomer welcome.
  4. Addressing the decline in operating income.
  5. Establishing a model of spiritual direction for the whole community through Biblically-based preaching, teaching, and spiritual-pastoral care.

I can report that building a strong and cohesive Staff Team, presenting an updated image of St Martin’s to the wider community through the development of a new website, and establishing a model of spiritual direction for the community through clear Biblically- based preaching, teaching and pastoral care have become firmly embedded. Addressing the steady decline in operating income continue to be a work in progress. Enthusing others in the revitalizing of the Church’s ministries with a focus on newcomer welcome and incorporation is well underway. A number of reports appear in this year’s pack evidencing the health of some of our key ministry groups. In addition to the explosion of energy across all our community ministries, I note two new developments of the Women’s and Men’s Spirituality groups. As our community magnetism increases, we are already seeing the definite signs of new growth.

Five challenges become one. We need to deepen our spiritual lives, which in itself will lead to a reevaluation of our priorities.

The overview from 30,000 ft

The key challenge facing us continues to be the working through of the larger shifts in Church affiliation and patterns of attendance. In short, the Church no longer sits at the heart of social life. We no longer live in the 1950’s. I welcome this because it means that those of us who continue with Church, along with those of us who are newly discovering Church for the first time, or rediscovering Church again, are increasingly aware of our spiritual hunger. We are impatient to be molded into a spiritual community fit for the purpose of witnessing to the Kingdom values. These are the values  Jesus proclaimed when in the synagogue in Nazareth, he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

But one challenge

We at St Martin’s have but one challenge, and that is to be fit for God’s purpose. Disruption to our comfortable pattern of worship is emblematic of an attempt to make ourselves a more magnetic community; a community whose magnetism draws others. We continue to explore how to reshape ourselves because being fit for purpose means ensuring that we are ready for those who have yet to arrive. Such a community contrasts sharply with one that continues to be a comfortable place for those already here.

Spiritual deepening is the key to this reshaping because the deeper we go spiritually, the more we become reliant, not on our own efforts and imaginative gimmicks, but on the Holy Spirit’s power to transform us to be fit for God’s purpose.

Jesus came to his own hometown, he stood up in the synagogue, opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah who five centuries earlier had proclaimed a message of transformation that brings: good news to the poor, release of those in captivity, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor, which means the cancellation of all debt.

imagesAs it was in Jesus’ day, so it remains today- a seemingly impossible vision. Yet the division of time into past, present, and future plays tricks on us. Because, that which is already fulfilled in a cosmic sense is still in our temporal experience, in the process of unfolding. Consequently, Jesus proclaims that today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. 

The worshipers in the synagogue in Nazareth heard the God News and yet, they pulled back. In the words of Gandhi, they refused to become the change they longed to see.  Let us not be guilty of the same lack of courage.In a very real sense to proclaim the Good News is to come closer to its fulfillment. Jesus reminds us that today this vision is fulfilled in our hearing.








They have no Wine

Sermon for Epiphany II by the Rev Linda Mackie Griggs, Director of Christian Formation, St Martin’s, Providence.


They have no wine.

This is a declaration of a crisis. For the groom’s family to run out of wine during a multi-day wedding reception was no small matter. Hospitality was a crucial aspect of first-century Palestinian culture, and an oversight of this nature was no mere faux pas to be resolved by a quick run to the liquor store. The groom’s family’s reputation was on the line. The urgent whispers of people aware of the impending crisis were dangerously close to becoming voluble accusations–in short, a disaster loomed.

And the mother of Jesus knew it. They have no wine. 

Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?

This account of the wedding at Cana is one of the most well-known theophanies—or God-showings, as the Bishop described them last week, revealing Jesus’ glory as God’s Beloved, and it appears only in John’s Gospel. We hear this exchange between Mary and Jesus, and immediately our own voices, or those of our children or parents, are projected upon the narrative. It is an introductory dialogue that reaches out and grabs us well before the main event; the actual transformation of over 120 gallons of water into a more-than-passable quality wine. We find ourselves caught in a web of wondering about the nature of the family dynamic: Was Mary too pushy? Why did Jesus rebuke her? What did he mean when he said his hour had not come? What made Mary choose to ignore his wishes? This conversation draws us in because it sounds so much like our own families arguing around the kitchen table.

But there is more to this than a snippy exchange between the Virgin Mary and the Son of God, and to see it we need to extricate ourselves from the web that John seems to have caught us in. Maybe, just maybe, all is not as it seems. Maybe it is MORE than it seems. But to see this we need to look more broadly at the context of this story.

John’s Gospel is unique from those of Mark, Matthew and Luke, which are known as the synoptic Gospels—they have a common content and historical structure. John’s Gospel differs in order, content and overall tone—You can hear it from the first verse. It doesn’t begin with Jesus’ birth; it begins with the Creation, and with Jesus’ place in it as the Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” This is crucial—John wants us to understand not just that Jesus is the Word but that the Word became human. So the entire Gospel is a dance between the elevated imagery of Jesus’ closeness to his Father (“…God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart…” 1:18) and his Incarnation as one of us: Woman, what concern is that to you and me?

The structure of the narrative around today’s story is not about chronology—it is all about establishing Jesus’ identity as the Word made flesh. In the first chapter we have moved from “In the beginning was the Word”, through the testimony of John the baptizer who tells the Pharisees that the one whom he proclaims is one whom they do not know, whose sandals he is not worthy to untie, and upon whom the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. John the baptizer not once, but twice declares Jesus to be The Lamb of God.

The narrative of the Wedding comes just after the calling of the disciples, and just before the cleansing of the Temple, which in the other Gospels happens much later in Jesus’ ministry. John wants us to see early on that Jesus’ ministry is going to turn everything upside-down—and that following him will not be ‘business as usual.’

John’s Gospel is all about Jesus’ identity as the beloved of God who shared our humanity.

And it is from this context that this story calls us. It is not just a story of family dynamics and miracles meant simply to astound witnesses. What does it tell us about Jesus’ identity, and our identity as well?

“They have no wine.” A statement of crisis.

“What is that to you or me? My hour has not yet come.” Reluctance? Rebellion? Uncertainty? This has the marks of being a pivotal decisive moment in the life of God’s Beloved.

Theologian Carol Lakey Hess describes this as the Scandal of Divine Hesitation—the idea that God would delay acting in the world until being nudged by humanity to do something—humanity in this case being personified by Jesus’ allegedly pushy mother. Seen in a broader sense this Scandal of Divine Hesitation might help to explain issues of theodicy—why bad things happen in the presence of a loving God. Hess postulates that God is waiting for us. My concern here is that it puts the onus on humanity to be a prime mover in any kind of transformative action in the world. It takes God out of the equation, relegating God to a position of divine flunky awaiting instructions from us. You could say that the Scandal of Divine Hesitation is best exemplified in the words of St. Teresa of Avila who wrote, “Christ has…no hands, no feet on earth but yours…Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” ”** But it is not as simple as that—as simply that our action alone makes the difference. A God who created the world doesn’t need humanity to point out what needs to be done. There is something more here; something richer and deeper to this relationship than simply giving God instructions. Rather it is our identity as the Body of Christ—Created by God, living in Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, which can accomplish transformation in the world.

So if Jesus wasn’t waiting for Mary to spur him to action, what was happening in that breath of a millisecond of God’s Time?

John offers us a portrait of God’s Beloved who was one of us. God was present in him, yet he was completely human. What if Jesus was doing what any of us might do when presented with an opportunity? Listen to the exchange again:

“They have no wine”

“What is that to you? And to me?” Hear, instead of grumbling and rebellion, a genuine question of discernment. A willingness to listen, ponder and evaluate; to be alert for the moving of the Spirit.

“What is that to us?” What is needed? How can we serve? What gifts can we offer?”

When we hear Jesus and his mother’s dialogue this way, the Scandal of Divine Hesitation is transformed into the Blessing of Divine/Human Partnership. It becomes a way for us to look at our own moments of hesitation when confronted by questions that have the potential to plumb the depths of our identity as Beloved Children of God; They have no food. They have no shelter. They have no peace. They have no comfort…no safety…no beauty…no justice.

What are these things to us?

Let us pray.

Transform us, loving God, by your Spirit, that we may hear your call to partner in the healing of the world. Help us to discern where our greatest joy meets the world’s deepest need*, to see that we have been filled to the brim with your gifts and to expend them abundantly and joyfully in your service. In the name of the Beloved One, your Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, Amen.




**“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” St. Teresa of Avila

*paraphrased from Frederick Buechner: Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

The Defining Power of Story

This audio track is not a sequential presentation of the written text. Listen to the track first and then read the text.

The metaphor of a cocktail

For many of us the Christmas narrative blurs into a cocktail of images. The many images become mentally remixed into a generalized, yet heady potion of angels, a virginal young woman, a baby, shepherds and animals; a star, wise men, a genocidal monarch; and a huge cosmological vision of the Word – the communicative element of God- coming into the world as the light of all people, shedding light in the darkest of places.

This last reference to light triggers off another set of images flowing out of the great transgenerational vision of the prophets of Israel concerning the coming to a people who walked in darkness of a savior – the Messiah who will usher in a truly global vision of reconciliation and fulfillment.

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-18-_-_Adoration_of_the_MagiAs a cocktail of images we miss the importance of each ingredient in the cocktail. Staying with the cocktail metaphor for a further moment, each ingredient offers a different flavor to the event of the Incarnation. Incarnation is the word used to mark the event of enormous significance for Christians – that of the creator becoming part of the creation. Although all the major world faiths witness to the truth, only Christianity has this truth.

Each Gospel writer has his own particular take on this event – a take that emerges from the Evangelist’s cultural-historical location, which includes the needs of his intended audience. Both Luke and Matthew begin their Gospels with a Jesus birth narrative. Luke gives us the angel, virgin, shepherds and farmyard ingredients. Matthew gives us the star, wise men, and genocidal monarch ingredients. The focus in Luke’s story is the obedience of a young woman, whereas, Matthew’s focus is on Joseph and through him, Jesus’s messianic lineage. Luke’s is a cosmopolitan story designed to appeal to the 1st-century multinational world of the Roman Empire. Matthew’s is a story constructed for predominantly Jewish ears, a story firmly located within the prophecies of the Old Testament.

Matthew adds to the theme of Incarnation that of Epiphany recalling the arrival of the Wise Men. The readings the Episcopal Church chooses for the Second Sunday of Christmas more properly belong to the feast of the Epiphany, which always being the 6th of January, this year occurs on this coming Wednesday. Wednesday being a weekday, everyone accepts that most Episcopalians will not be in church, and hence the readings for the Second Sunday. We don’t want you to miss out on this installment of the Christmas story.

Epiphany – one of those infernal Greek words means showing. What is it that is being revealed? The Epiphany is like a spotlight being trained on the manger scene. In the illumination we see Jesus’ birth taking place against the deep backdrop of the Jewish religious tradition that Matthew speaks to. At the same time, in the arrival of the Wise Men, a contemporary English rendering of the Persian word Magi – magician, Matthew connects the birth of Jesus to both a wider ancient Middle Eastern Wisdom religious tradition, while at the same time, identifying Jesus as the New Moses.

Deep background

The Magi are figures from Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia. For instance, it’s from Zoroastrianism that angels and the idea of a cosmic battle between good and evil, light and dark enter into Jewish religious thinking. The Magi journey from the East, literally the image for the dawning of each day’s new light, guided by the light of a star, a clear astrological-astronomical reference. In the ancient world astrology was the serious scientific study of the heavens in order to come to better understand the larger patterns within which human experience of the natural world unfolded and as such astrology is more than modern day horoscoping. It is the forerunner of modern astronomy. The implication here is that the birth of Jesus is more than a Jewish event, it’s also a Wisdom event and as such is appropriately recognized by the Gentile representatives of Wisdom inquiry.

Matthew weaves into the Magi narrative strand the signifiers of divine kingship – Gold, Frankincense, and Mir and a connection between the Magi and Herod the Great. Herod the Great was the ruler of Palestine, which at the time of Jesus’ birth is still a semi-autonomous vassal state of Rome; a client state not yet fully incorporated into the Empire. This narrative strand connecting Magi and Herod enables Matthew to set up the events of the Holy family’s flight into Egypt; a flight necessitated by Herod’s genocidal jealousy of another ‘king of the Jews’ born within his territory.

It’s easy to miss Matthew’s intent here. He is setting up the connection between Jesus and Moses. Moses too, was delivered from a king’s infanticidal rage as Pharaoh sought to kill all the young Israelite, male children. Jesus’ escape into Egypt also connects him to Israel’s story of deliverance, and through this to the Moses story.

A community’s story

The community I serve is going through some significant changes. Change is usually disruptive and unsettling though there are some who relish the novelty of something different. Although some may feel the changes taking place to be unnecessary, the result of a relatively new rector doing what new rectors do, I deeply appreciate that as a whole, my community is one that is ready for the next installment in its eventful and fruitful history.

How do I know this? I know my community is ready for change because it has said so. In our recent participation in a program called RenewalWorks we had a 120% participation rate in the online spiritual inventory survey. The results of the inventory revealed a startling fact. While my community is below even the Episcopal Church benchmarks for levels of belief and spiritual practice, we greatly exceeded the survey’s expected response rate, hence the odd 120%. I read this as an indication of the members of this community expressing their hunger to deepen and to grow in their faith journey.

An Episcopal parish attracts people who don’t want simple answers to complex questions. The Episcopal Church is increasingly a community of refugees. 40% of the members of my community are Protestant refugees. Some are escaping fundamentalist church experience, being attracted to theological tolerance. Others, from more mainline Protestant churches, are attracted to the rich and deep catholic liturgical worship of the Anglican Tradition. 30% are Roman Catholic refugees. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to discern the attraction of the Episcopal Church for Roman Catholics increasingly disaffected by the conservative shift and maintenance of attitudes of intolerance in their church that have typified the direction under two Popes preceding Francis. That leaves around 30% of my community as either cradle Episcopalian or spiritual seekers arriving from non-church backgrounds.

In our community, we have two main tasks. Firstly, to facilitate the diverse nature of our membership into an experience of belief and spiritual practice that meets complex needs. The one thing that unites us is the need for a belief structure and pattern of spiritual practice that supports us in meeting the challenges of living 21st-century lives. Connected to this is our second task, which is to become a more magnetic community, a magnet strange attractor for many who find themselves increasingly spiritually seeking. Our resource for both tasks are the accumulated wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition, permeated through Anglicanism’s aesthetic richness and theological tolerance.

Folk who are overly educated and formed by a predominant culture of secular inquiry bring complex needs to their search for faith. We bring a deep desire for the numinous, something we are barely able to articulate our need for, but which we are in search of in an attempt to escape from the existential restlessness and disillusionment of materialist culture. Yet, we need our faith to be credible to us. We have poor tolerance for the seeming miraculous enchantment of the Christmas story of angels, virgins, and extra-biological procreation.

For most of the members of my community the importance of the Christmas story lies not in any desire that it meet the needs of literal historicity, i.e. did it happen, and did it happen as described? In teasing-out the Christmas cocktail ingredients and in particular, those that Matthew’s narrative of the Incarnation provides, my aim is to highlight the formative nature of narrative for human awareness and the formation of Christian identity in particular.

Story is all we have

The branch of secular inquiry that I have been most schooled in is that of depth and transpersonal psychologies. There is considerable divergence between the two schools but on one thing they agree. We only ever have the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about one another, and about the nature of the world around us. Whatever objective reality we have access to, it is always permeated through the construction of a narrative that interprets experience in order to build meaning. Human beings, it might be said are story telling creatures. Far from being exercises in make-believe, stories give voice to experiential reality and the articulation of our meaningful experience of the world.

Individuals, groups, and societies develop identity through the stories they tell, or put more technically, the narratives they construct. Story or narrative builds a sense of meaning and purpose. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John tell different stories about the Incarnation, and each story arises out of their respective cultural and historical locations. Each story further defines the nature of their community’s experience. We have a great advantage in having their variations on the theme of Incarnation as part of our repertoire to draw from. While they differ they are nevertheless variations on the core story, which is that the creator has come at a point in time and space to become subject to the laws of time and space. Living within the limitations of human experience, Jesus reveals God’s fuller dream for human development. The central truth of the stories of the Incarnation is that to be human is to be most like God. This seems to be God truth, proclaimed in the first chapters of Genesis, now repeated more clearly in the life of Jesus.

Mark, Matthew, Luke and John tell different stories about the Incarnation. Each story arises out of their particular cultural and historical location. Each story continues to shape the nature of their community’s experience. We have a great advantage in having their variations on the theme of Incarnation as part of our repertoire to draw from. While they differ they are nevertheless variations on the core story, which is that the creator has come at a point in time and space to become subject to the laws of time and space. Living within the limitations of human experience, Jesus reveals God’s fuller dream for human development. The central truth of the stories of the Incarnation is that to be human is to be most like God. This seems to be God-truth, proclaimed in the first chapters of Genesis, now repeated more clearly in the life of Jesus.

We now live in the second decade of the 21st-century. Whether overtly religious or avowedly secular, the stories we tell ourselves have to a very great degree been shaped by the religious and cultural narrative of the Western religious tradition. The narratives of Incarnation lie at the heart of our religious tradition and tells us that whatever the world is or isn’t, however our picture of it is coloured or shaped, the world is not an illusion but a day-to-day reality to be engaged with. The spiritual-religious-theological truth we tell ourselves through the Incarnation narrative is that no matter how distorted and contorted our experience of being human might be, to be human is to be a reflection of what is most and essentially true about God.

The great story

I can’t finish without the obligatory reference to T.S. Elliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi. In it he muses on the close relationship between birth and death:

Birth or death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different…

The Epiphany spotlight on the Incarnation reveals the first chapter in a story of a birth that leads to death, one death in particular. Through that death God does something new – death henceforth leads us back to birth, new birth.

Story is all we have. The question is how we tell the story? What do we include and what do we leave out?  All our stories are cocktails created by what is added and what is left out of any particular telling. Through the way we tell our story, connections are forged between the wisdom of the past and future hopes constructing necessary meaning and purpose in the present. Our very lives are a narration, not just in words, but in actions. Through story in action we live out the spiritual insights of Incarnation. This is a story that renews our engagement with the world and leads us towards individual and communal transformation. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us full, full of grace and truth. This informs us of the truth that the creator is now one with the creation. I invite us all to meditate on this and let it change us and through personal change transform our world.

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