Imagining the people of God

This is more or less the sermon I preached on November 25th (I preach from the aisle without notes), my first Sunday with the faithful people of St. Stephen’s, Millburn NJ. The lectionary can be found here.  We use Track 1.

Before I get to the actual preaching, let me take a minute or two to tell you how happy my family and I are to finally be here with all of you.  My husband, Ron, and two of our three children, Sean and Kathleen, are here this morning. Sean lives in Princeton and Kathleen is a first-year at Smith College, so they will be around more than our middle child, Kevin. Kevin has recently completed two years of Peace Corps service in Peru and is traveling a bit in South America.  He’ll be back in the States in December and will spend some time here with us before settling in New Mexico.  I hope you take time to introduce yourself to them, as well as to me.  I also hope you are patient with us as we try to learn all your names.  Please don’t take it personally if we ask you to remind us of your name a time or two.

We will have lots of time to get to know each other so, for now, I will touch on just a few of the details of who I am.  I am a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  My discernment to the priesthood is a long story, quite literally, as I first felt called before women were ordained.  Before beginning formal discernment and through most of seminary, I worked as a social worker, doing both direct clinical work and management and administration. Prior to coming to St. Stephen’s, I served parishes in the Dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts.  During those years I was bi-vocational, serving part-time in the parishes and part-time as a chaplain in hospice and a women and infants hospital.  I loved both aspects of my ministry, though over time I learned that I loved parish ministry in a more complete way and wanted to devote myself to it full-time.  With Kathleen, our youngest, in college, the time was finally right to make that change, and now we are in ministry together.

Although it’s only been a few months since I first met Maryalice, Roger, and the other members of the Vestry/Search Committee, it has seemed much longer than that because I have known since early in our conversations, that this is the place God is calling me to be.  I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to getting to know you and to being in ministry together.  I know that together we will learn much about how God’s Holy Spirit is at work in and through each of us and all of us together.

Although we can’t know for sure exactly where she will lead us, our faith assures us that the Holy Spirit will help us to move deeper into the heart of God and inspire us to do the work God has given us to do.  Together we will discern what that work is and how we will get it done.  Although there is no way to know exactly what it will look like, it’s a safe assumption that we will worship and pray together, will learn and grow together, will do good work in God’s world together, will laugh and cry together, and, if we are doing it right, will even fail and forgive together.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, which seems like a great day to begin our shared ministry because it reminds us of why we are together as a Christian community.  Today is the day we state what should be obvious to us all the time: that Jesus the Christ is the essential reason for our gathering together.  If we believe the truth that we are beloved of God and that Jesus is the Messiah, then we listen to Jesus’ voice.  And, if we listen to Jesus’ voice and believe it to be the voice of truth, then we can’t help but be motivated to live our lives differently than if we did not know or believe that truth.  This, my friends, will ground us in our shared faith as we begin the work of discerning how the Holy Spirit, who is “wild and free” (Bp. Douglas Fisher), is working in and through us here at St. Stephen’s.

Next week is the first Sunday in Advent, which means we will journey together from the beginning, if you will.  Knowing what we know and celebrate today, that the infant Jesus was the Living God’s inbreaking into the world, we will prepare to meet the incarnate God and then walk with him through his public ministry and to the cross, before celebrating anew the miracle and promise of the Resurrection.  As we do that, I want us to remember that all of it – from the birth of the baby right through to the empty tomb– is about one thing, and one thing only: that God created the world and all of us out of perfect love, love that is unimaginable, unconditional, indescribable, and never-ending.  It is grace, freely given and undeserved. It cannot be earned. It cannot be lost. It is the love that sustains and nourishes us.  It is the love that comforts and consoles us.  It is the love that strengthens us to live our lives and to partner in mission and ministry.

As we enter into our shared ministry, our task is to grow in that love, to move deeper into the heart of God.  The theologian Henri Nouwen talked about belovedness as both a state of being and becoming. We are beloved, that is a given, and we get to choose to live our lives acknowledging that truth for ourselves and with others.  If we can do that most of the time, with faithfulness and trust in God, with honesty and compassion, with patience and good humor, with creativity and imagination, loving our neighbors as ourselves, we will become the church God is calling us to be.

In a little while the choir will sing a Communion anthem and, if Kim and I had planned the music to coincide with the preaching, we could not have done any better.  The lyrics to that song capture well our call to live our belovedness as a state of being and becoming:

Imagine, imagine the people of God,
Imagine the people of God.
Believing, receiving,
becoming God’s love.
Imagine the people of God.

Seeking the way of Jesus Christ,
Trusting the courage to change.
Being God’s love with our neighbors and friends,
Imagine the people of God.

Trusting in God’s abundant grace,
Speaking the truth in love,
Nourished by the Spirit’s power,
We are your people, O God.

St. Stephen’s, you are the people of God, loved beyond your wildest imaginations. Believe that. Receive God’s love and endless grace as you become more and more who God created you to be. Live as Jesus would have you live. Trust that you have the courage to change, to be transformed. Be a beacon of God’s love to all you meet and all those you serve. Trust grace. Speak truth in love. And let’s imagine together where the power of the Holy Spirit will lead us. Amen.