Come, You Are Part of the Kingdom

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Griggs for Epiphany 4


Go ahead and admit it: if you are of a certain age, when you hear the Beatitudes your mind automatically goes to one of two places. Perhaps you flash back to Sunday School; to memorizing the verses, or gazing at a picture of a blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus standing on a high hill above a huge crowd of people. Maybe, as your church school teacher read all the ‘blesseds’ to you and your classmates, you privately thought to yourself that being blessed might not be all it was cracked up to be.

Or. You remember the scene in Monty Python’s satire, Life of Brian, in which one of the crowd, straining to hear Jesus, says, “I think it was ‘blessed are the cheese makers.” To which his companion sagely responds, “Well, obviously it isn’t meant to be taken literally, it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” An argument ensues, degenerating into a knock-down/drag-out fight, and our hero decides he’d rather skip the rest of Jesus’ sermon and attend a stoning instead. And there you have it. A deft skewering of humans’ tendency to completely miss the point due to our sometimes comedic tendency to overthink and under-listen. Oh, the time we spend in the weeds while the forest towers above us.

It’s easy to lose our sense of perspective, to get lost in the weeds—and this applies to a lot of things besides Scripture. I confess that there have been days recently when a sense of existential fear for the future of this troubled world makes it difficult for me to read the paper or turn on the news. This is especially problematic when a guiding principle of preaching is to hold the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. It is important to be a good citizen in these times of uncertainty and division, and even more crucial to be a courageous person of faith living into the Gospel and our Baptismal Covenant. But I confess that the temptation to withdraw from the reality of bitter civic division and anxiety is real. And based on my conversations with a number of folks, clergy and lay alike, I suspect I’m not alone–here in the weeds. So today’s readings are well timed. Because they invite us out of the weeds and into the majestic forest of Christian hope.

The Beatitudes as we hear them today in Matthew are also seen in Luke’s Gospel. Each of the two evangelists probably made use of a common source to create a longer discourse by Jesus, of which the Beatitudes are only a part. In Luke the discourse is known as the Sermon on the Plain, and it is configured differently according to his Gospel vision of social justice. This is why he writes of literal poverty and hunger, not the poor in spirit or a hunger for righteousness. On the other hand Matthew’s perspective was to portray Jesus as the New Moses. Hence we see Jesus go up on the mountain just as Moses did at Sinai. Jesus speaks to the people, offering important guidance, just as Moses did in delivering the Ten Commandments. The Sermon on the Mount is a crucial moment in Matthew’s Gospel, offering a large chunk of his teachings, of which we only hear the beginning today.

And that’s what the Beatitudes are; a beginning. They are the first several verses of three entire chapters of teachings on everything from family and social relationships to correct religious behavior. So there is plenty of time in the Sermon on the Mount for Jesus to get into the details, but this initial passage is different. If you’re a Greek scholar (and I am not), and understand verb tense and mood, you will see from the Greek translation that these are statements of fact, not commands to be followed. And this is important because if we just read the English and don’t know this distinction it would be easy (and common—as it was in our childhood) to read the Beatitudes as The Nine Very Discouraging Commandments that require you to aspire to be poor in spirit, meek, pure and persecuted in order to get into heaven. As theologian Charles James Cook notes, if the Beatitudes are truly meant for everybody, then it doesn’t make sense that they are standards for behavior that can only be attained by the likes of Dorothy Day and Desmond Tutu. If the children of God (that’s us) are to live into the Beatitudes we need to see them, not as individual behavioral guidelines, but as a unit—as a preamble to the larger discourse. The body of the Sermon on the Mount will give us the detailed teachings, but first the groundwork must be laid.

The Beatitudes, then, are the foundation of Jesus’ teachings– a statement of facts. And what are those facts? First, God says, you need to know this one thing: You are part of the Dream of God. That is what it means to be Blessed. The Beatitudes are the definitive statement of God’s abiding presence in a world writhing in the birth pangs of the incoming Kingdom. This is a statement, not that our only way into heaven is to aspire to become poor in spirit, mourning, meek and persecuted, but that God knows that we ARE these things. These are all forms of woundedness, and whether we know it or not, we are all wounded. We are all vulnerable. And God knows it, sees it, and Is. Not- Going-Anywhere. We- Are- Blessed. Blessed by God’s abiding and unfailing presence.

Jesus’ words were spoken into a world in pain; a world of division, corruption, imperial occupation and political turmoil. It was a world desperately in need of hope; a world where the temptation may well have been to crawl under a rock and pray it would all just go away. It was a world hungering for peace, mercy, righteousness– for hearts of such pure courage and compassion that they would see God in every person. It was a world in need of new prophets willing to take the risk of speaking the truth, to the hopeless and the powerful alike, of God’s love and healing presence—the truth of the incoming Reign of God.

The temptation today, in the face of political anxiety, is to shut down; either to close our eyes to a tumultuous world or to cocoon ourselves in an echo chamber of like-minded outrage and fear. Or, somehow, both. Neither is constructive or healthy. It is a lack of perspective that has lost the vision of the Kingdom—a vision that is ultimately more powerful than any ideology humans can concoct. Instead, God says LOOK. Look within you to where your hunger, your grief, and your fear reside. Look to your neighbor in need of healing, wholeness, and compassion.

The Beatitudes call us to remember our foundation: Blessed. You are Part of the Kingdom. This isn’t just words. God’s unfailing ability to work with human frailty can be seen if we look around us. Each person will have his or her own example, but for me, it was in last weekend’s marches. The thing that most resonated with me is that to paraphrase one of the organizers, it was not seen as a protest as much as it was an affirmation of human dignity—and that is echoed in our Baptismal Covenant. I attended the one in Providence, a number of folks from St. Martin’s were in D.C., and many of us know people who marched elsewhere—New York, Boston, Nashville, Charlotte, and even tiny Chelan in the state of Washington (population 4000). These were people who felt, for themselves or on behalf of others, the hunger and thirst for righteousness, the weight of persecution, and the pain of being silenced into meek acceptance of injustice. I looked at the pictures of the crowds—city after city and town after town—even a ship off of Antarctica, for God’s sake– and was moved to tears. These people–all over the world—raised their eyes from the weeds. And when they did they found their voices and they found each other. That is kingdom light breaking in right there when you can look into the eye of a neighbor, connect his or her pain with your own, and know that neither of you is alone.

Some say a march isn’t enough to bring about change. Maybe that’s true if it remains just a march. But it’s enough to offer hope. And to say that that isn’t significant is like saying that a little round wafer and a sip of wine aren’t a sufficient meal. It’s a beginning, a preamble. An invitation to participate in the Dream of God and to let it equip us, as Micah says, to do as the Lord requires: Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the One who calls each of us, Blessed.






What is our Story; where do we find it? Reflections adapted from Walter Brueggemann


We human beings are storied creatures who construct and tell stories to identify who we are to ourselves and to the world around us. As citizens in a secular democracy, we have access to certain national stories that define us as a people. In contemporary culture secular humanism is the predominant story that defines us. This is a story rooted in the Enlightenment developments of autonomous individuals now not only in control of our own lives but free from superstition and the tyranny of religious controls. So freed we find ourselves now center stage, lonely and alone in an anonymous universe where God has departed leaving us to tinker and maintain the mechanisms of creation. The contemporary story that defines most of us is a story that focuses on material success and emotional fulfillment. This is a very limiting story.

But we are also people of religious faith and as such we have access to an ancient story that defines us as collaborators with and in relationship with God. The Biblical Epic defines us as those liberated by God’s engagement with the political, social, and economic structures of human history.

We gain access to our foundational religious stories through doing the text. Doing the text means to entertain, attend to, participate in, and to reenact the drama of the text. Our foundational Biblical texts are stories that contain three elements:

  • A promise made to our ancestors
  • Deliverance from enslavement
  • A gift of a place to settle-down in

Our task is to rediscover our connection to the definitional stories of faith, which authorize us to give up, abandon, and renounce other stories that continue to shape our lives in false and distorted ways.

But we come to an encounter with our faith stories already saturated with other stories to which we have given our allegiance and unwittingly placed our trust in. These are the stories of the prevailing ideology of our culture, which have become the stories we believe as a given. 

The secular humanist story defines us as good people doing what good people do. While this is an example an area of overlap between faith and secular humanism, on its own its not a large enough story to provide us with that for which we yearn because it lacks the life-giving power of the holy – the larger perspective beyond ourselves, which we need to access if we are to live fully human lives.

We may wonder if a more public faith, a faith which takes a larger, critical view of culture is possible, and if with a larger public view buoyancy for discipleship as citizens is a possibility. (Brueggemann Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism)

A view from 30,000 Feet

In St Martin’s, 2016 was a year of steady progress. Having completed RenewalWorks in 2015 we began 2016 guided by three key priorities distilled from the data gathered during our participation in the RenewalWorks program. Because we don’t talk so much about RenwalWorks now, some may feel that it has simply become one more in the long line of new initiatives to disappear from our community life. This could not be further from the truth and I want to take some time to outline how RenewalWorks continues to guide our movement into the future.

Our distillation of three key priorities begins with Embedding the Bible in parish life. Under its impetus, we completed a full community reading of The Story –The Bible as one continuous story of God and God’s people. Our monthly discussion in three chapter sections took place at the adult forum on the 3rd Sunday of the month. The purpose of this program was to allow many of us to gain an overview of the broad sweep of God’s presence in human history. This is an epic, i.e. a story that unfolds through history. Our lives are shaped by the stories we tell, both to ourselves and the wider world. Our formational story of faith comes to fruition in our lives when we know how our formational epic story begins and develops throughout history, shaping our encounter with Scripture in the present moment.

With reference to the Bible, encountering is the verb I use in contrast to understanding or believing.  We encounter Scripture as the key element in our spiritual deepening individually, and as a community through its power to shape us as we face into our lives in the here and now of the early decades of the 21st century. Our encounter with the ancient tradition of Scripture always has a quality of immediacy, for the Scriptures can only address us from within the contexts in which we actually live. In 2016 embedding the Bible as a spur to our spiritual deepening led to a number of developments:

  • As a community, we are growing in the practice of Lectio Divina, an ancient and yet amazingly novel way of letting a passage of Scripture speak into the intimacy of our everyday experience.
  • Over the summer to my invitation to form a virtual Daily Office prayer group. This continues as a practice for a number of parishioners who pray at least one of the daily options of Morning, Evening, or Night Prayer offices in the knowledge that others are similarly doing so each day. Praying the Daily Office links us to a global circuit of continuous prayer. Each month a prayer list is circulated for people to use to aid the sense of our local connection in the virtual reality of prayer.
  • On Thursday evenings we have started an essentially lay-led meditation practice. Four experienced meditators take turns to lead the weekly session. Our practice has an inclusive, interfaith approach to meditation as the cultivation of a deeper capacity for listening and mindful observation, anchoring us in an experience of ourselves that is more than our feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. Meditation becomes a new portal through which outsiders may enter into the experience of what is offered within our community.

In 2017 embedding the Bible will spur a renewal of the healing ministry with the development of a regular healing service. Completing The Story forms a foundation for embarking in 2017 on a more focused exploration of the Bible together as a community. Watch this space.

The second key priority Engaging our Passion – Getting People Going has resulted in the establishment of a more robust and effective greeting ministry on Sunday mornings with the creation of a welcome table, each week staffed by a member of the Vestry. Our welcome and new member incorporation now has a much higher profile in our community consciousness. Yet we still struggle to successfully impart that this is an every member responsibility. In 2017, the focus going forward needs to be on empowering people with the confidence and skills to know how to speak about the importance of their faith when the context makes this appropriate. We are not going to blanket convert our friends, neighbors, and colleagues. But we are going to learn how to be sensitive to those moments of inquiry when we sense another’s restlessness with life as it is. When we discover how our church membership helps us with our own longing for that mysterious more in life we are then able to share our experience with others who are similarly searching.

Our third priority – The Heart of the Leader has been amply demonstrated by a growing confidence and clarity of leadership purpose within the Vestry. This was amply demonstrated when all Vestry members stepped up to increase their pledge giving in preparation for our End of year Story at the end of July. Their example encouraged many others to also do likewise because when the leadership demonstrates confidence and resolve it encourages others to feel that St Martin’s is a community worth the investment of time, talent, and financial resources. Yet, strengthening the heart of leadership has also shown itself in all those instances when individual members have stepped up and taken initiative both within the congregation and in the wider world.

2016 has seen the following significant developments:

  1. Settling into the new Sunday morning schedule where the 8 and 9:30 services continue to offer the contrast between quiet early morning worship and the vibrant worship involving choir and sermon. Moving from 10–9:30 a.m. makes space for the adult forum running alongside children’s formation allowing parents a new opportunity to gather with other adults to attend to their own formation. When children see that life-long formation involves their parents they are less likely to grow up with the mistaken idea that church is what you do only when you are growing up. It’s possible to worship and then attend the forum, or worship only or simply arrive in time for the forum hour, esp. when the complexities of family life might mean limiting the time commitment on Sunday mornings. The forum offers an easier portal of entry for spiritual seekers unfamiliar with our complex style of worship.
  2. Retirement after 30 years of Jay MacCubbin as Music Director and the appointment of Nick Voemans as our new Minister of Music.
  3. The new Temple-Church Conversation revives in a contemporary form the earlier Abrahamic Accord between the churches and temples on the East Side. The first in this new series of conversations happened in September. Our focus is on the relationship between our shared Jewish-Christian tradition and the issues facing us in our civic life together, notably issues of empowered citizenship, and protection of our democratic and civic institutions. How do we as people of the Abrahamic faiths (which now must include our Muslim Communities) learn the confidence to speak with authority into an increasingly pluralist civic arena, where often our voice is not at first recognized? For instance, the Temple-Church Conversation gave new impetus to the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, which we hosted on the theme of refugee resettlement, bringing out the deep historical connections between migration, welcome, and gratitude. As we face into a revolution in our political life that will continue to create huge division and disruption in the civic space, we need our religious communities of Temple and Church to be places that empower and support us as we seek to go out to further the expectations of God’s Kingdom on earth.
  4. A third significant development in 2016 has been the design, building, and dedication of a new nave altar and altar rails financed from the generosity of memorial gifts. With this, I feel we have completed a 30-year process of finding a suitable alternative to the primary focus of the high altar. The high altar dominates the architecture of our building. We remain committed to keeping this architectural integrity. Yet exquisitely beautiful though it remains, it no longer functions as the focus for our Eucharistic worship. Eucharistic worship now focuses on a theology of community gathering around the table. Our new nave altar and communion rails intentionally reflect the architecture of window tracery and woodworking evidenced in the sanctuary, creating a seamless stylistic and aesthetic movement from the east window down through the choir to the nave where the focus of our worship now takes place. I want to express our gratitude to Peter Lofgren for the design, Jim Eddy for the construction, and Luis Sosa who built the platform. I also wish to acknowledge the leadership of John Bracken who facilitated the request for memorial gifts from a number of members in the congregation.

The dictionary definition of flourishing is: to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as a result of a particularly favorable environment. As we look forward, because the future often appears uncertain, we don’t always notice or feel that our environment is particularly favorable to us. For me, a favorable environment is not the same as an easy one. A favorable environment is one that challenges us to create new and innovative opportunities for responding to issues we face.

All the challenges facing us can be rolled into one which in last year’s report I identified as the need for greater spiritual depth in our lives. One year further on we are clearer that part of our spiritual deepening requires us to be more convinced and adventurous with our faith and to move from welcoming to an active invitation. Active invitation requires us to live our faith more openly in the different contexts of our daily lives and not keep it a secret for Sundays and the St Martin community only. The fruitfulness of our lives results directly from the nature of the stories that inform and empower us. This comment takes us back to the importance of embedding the Biblical epic as the guiding story in our lives. Reaching-out must now be our number one priority!

Our ministry groups evidence our health with an explosion of energy across all our community ministries. The outreach ministry continues strong with commitments to feeding and clothing those in need as well as ongoing support for Amos House, and St Mary’s Home for Children, the only agency offering therapeutic support for children and families experiencing the trauma of many kinds of abuse, and DCYF’s Christmas gift appeal. The Women’s Spirituality Group has blossomed and now operates not only as a wonderful support for our women members but as a portal through which new members are being continually invited and incorporated. The Knitting Ministry continues to be a place for fellowship and active prayer expressed through the creation of prayer shawls for those who are sick and suffering. The Hospitality Committee continues to facilitate our community celebrations with flair and style. Altar and Flower Guilds, Vergers, Ushers, Acolytes, and Choir continue to form the backbone of our worship life.

Matthew records the call of the first two disciples, mirroring the version we read from John last Sunday. In John, Jesus simply extends the invitation to: come and see. Matthew’s version has Jesus say: follow me. These simple commands communicate that Jesus is not asking any of us to go where he is not prepared to go. Yet, life in the church is not a spectator sport. We don’t watch from afar, we come close and take responsibility for acting. Everyone has both the freedom and the responsibility to pursue his or her own spiritual growth. Yet, the nature of pursuing our own spiritual growth means more than an individualistic response to follow Jesus. It also means that we must become visible to one another as signs for others, pointing towards the path to follow.

In 2017 may we take the courage to embody in new and more dynamic ways the change we long to see in the world (Ghandi).

Times of Challenge and Controversy


As a human being, King David was far from perfect. Yet, he embodied the principle that in Israel the king was to be a servant of the Lord and to rule in obedience to the Covenant that God made with Moses, which alone would bring peace and justice to the people. Beginning with his son Solomon, those who reigned after David’s death, more often than not came to embody the corrosive doctrine that the king was no longer under the rule of God, but above it. The age of the great Hebrew Prophets arose alongside the development of the institution of the Monarchy as a necessary antidote to the susceptibility of the monarch to rule as if he were above the Law and not subject to it. God anointed prophets as those called to speak truth to power;  a message sometimes received and heeded but most times refused and ignored with disastrous results for the people. The 15th of January is the national commemoration of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King occupies a status of a modern day prophet in the lineage of the great Hebrew prophets. Like them he was one called to speak truth to power, one called to lead those in bondage into freedom. Like them, a man not universally accepted in his own time.

Both Christian and Jewish theology recognize that the age of Prophecy with a capital P is over. For Jews, the return of the exiles from Babylon signaled a seismic shift from prophet to scribe as the central conduit for God’s communication. Before the Exile, the prophet was a direct conduit for God to address the people, and particularly those in authority. Post-exilic Judaism became increasingly a text-based religion and the role of the scribe, embodied in the great figure of Ezra, indicates that it is now through the study and interpretation of the Law that God continues to address God’s people. For Christians, John the Baptist is the last of the Hebrew Prophets and with the coming of Jesus prophecy ceases. Although more than a prophet in the strict sense, nevertheless through Jesus the priorities of the great Hebrew Prophetic tradition continues to flow.

Martin Luther King is undoubtedly a prophet of our own time. The hallmark of this lies in the fact that his message brings hope to some yet in its speaking of truth to power, is hotly contended by others for no prophet is universally accepted in his own time and place. The prophet standing outside the center of power and influence calls for a response that often will be a response of violence – for the prophet speaks the words that the powerful refuse to hear. The prophetic message is always unsettling. If it is not, then it is not prophesy.

Martin Luther King became the catalyst for the movement we now call Civil Rights. On Thursday of last week, I and others from St Martin’s attended an interfaith celebration of Dr. King’s life during which his Six Principles of Nonviolence were addressed by six young men and women. Each spoke about one of Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence with the personal authority wrought from painful life experience. Students from the Rhode Island Philharmonic School and musicians from Grace Episcopal Church interspersed these reflections with beautiful and poignant musical offerings.

I believe we are once again entering a period of history when these Principles of Nonviolence will be seen to offer a universal message of hope and courage. Although there is but a confused picture of what will emerge with the Trump Presidency, what is clear is that liberal and progressive democracy’s championing of the ideals of inclusion, truth telling, and the connection between personal integrity and public policy is now being treated with open contempt. Therefore, many of us must now emerge from a period of shock and grief into a new civil rights struggle. We will need to atone for our conceit in thinking that virtue is our automatic right, something that should come to us without cost. Ideals naively assumed, must now be tenaciously defended. The arc of the moral universe, whatever the inevitability of its long-term trajectory towards justice, at particular times in history has required from human beings the loud voice of protest and the courage to resist in the face of forces that seek to impede its progress.

In Isaiah 41:1-16, we hear the voice of the Second Isaiah proclaim that God has roused a victor from the east (Nebuchadnezzar) to trample kings under foot. This is a message intended for the ears of Zedekiah King of Judah, whose foreign policy meddling has caused the crisis that would lead to the destruction of the nation. Yet, into the face of impending crisis Isaiah’s prophecy is one of hope and trust in God’s continued faithfulness to the covenant with his people.

Amidst the prediction of travail the prophet offers words that keep the dream alive amidst the uncertainties and regressions of the present time. However, prophets do more than predict doom and gloom, even if the doom and gloom is a necessary prerequisite for the renewal of vision and hopeful purpose. Prophets also offer practical words of advice about how to survive in such times. In chapter 29, the prophet Jeremiah offers this advice to those going into exile:

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.

In Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence, we have the practical advice from a prophet about the nature of protest and resistance in a time of struggle. In the face of forces that seek to dominate through fear, to rule through the creation of competitive division, nonviolence becomes a way of life for courageous people. It cultivates friendship and understanding, seeks to defeat injustice not people, sees suffering as educative and transformational, chooses love instead of giving in to hate and believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

The first line uttered by Jesus in John’s Gospel – the portion of which we read on the second Sunday after the Epiphany being with the words: What are you looking for? Andrew and John answer Jesus with another question: Where are you staying? Jesus simply says: Come and see. 

Jesus asks us in this moment, this time, and in this place: what is it you seek- what is it you are looking for? What is our answer to be? Do we have the courage to ask: Lord show us where you are staying. For this will mean not only: Lord show us where we can endure and find stability in the face of uncertainty and disconcerting change, but: show us how we are to survive and pay the cost of keeping protest alive?  As with Andrew and John, the first two whose curiosity led them to heed Jesus’ call to discipleship, where will our response to Lord’s inevitable invitation to: Come and see,- lead us?

We know where it led Andrew and John and the others who joined them in the band of disciples. Wherever Jesus’ words of invitation lead us, we will need to travel with Dr. King’s Six Principles of Nonviolence as lanterns for our feet. We will need the Six Principles of Nonviolence as lights to guide our way, ensuring that our resistance must become more than answering evil with more evil, violence with more violence, contempt with a double dose of contempt in return. We will need to remember that despite trying times, justice is never served through unworthy means. Dr. King reminds us that:

The ultimate measure of a man (sic) is not where he (sic) stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. 

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