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Grace Episcopal Church Christmas Letter

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Grace Episcopal Church

                                                                                                                                       Christmas 2014

O, friends and family of Grace,

It is Advent, and we are waiting. Three Sundays ago, The Rev. Katheryn King encouraged us to be impatient, to long for the coming of Christ. As I prepare for the coming services and sermons, I am reminded of the promises of God in the prophets and Gospels.  I long for the Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace, the God Emmanuel – God with us, who comes at Christmas. I long to see the Day of the Lord when all things are reconciled to him, so I lean into the prophets and face a choice.

We have had a darker Advent in 2014.  We are facing news of racial tension, wars, violence, victimization, and disease. Like the first chapters of Luke, we see people tossed around by capricious and controlling acts of governments around the world. We face our own sins as a nation, seeing again our reaction to violence with more violence and wonder how we can justify or atone.  Our family and maybe yours has faced losses and death. Many of us carry into this season of bright lights and shiny wrappings buried griefs and barely hidden sufferings.  Where is God in all this darkness?

Of course, there is also other news. Our economy is starting to recover, oil prices are providing relief for all of us, and at least we are admitting our past sins and seeking atonement, maybe. With our deaths and struggles, we have also had births and baptisms, weddings and celebrations, growth and wonder.  Our families may be struggling, but we are struggling together. We are taking up our faith in worship, study, and service. We have been waiting and welcoming Christ among us.

Yet here in our waiting we all face the choice of Isaiah 61: do we proclaim the day of the Lord’s favor or the Lord’s vengeance? As we read these texts, we certainly believe that the Lord loves justice hates robbery and wrong . Like Jesus’ day, the violence and injustice of our day demand a response. God would surely be justified in vengeance.  But then we follow Jesus into Galilee in Luke’s Gospel and see something amazing. Jesus lifts up this text in Isaiah 61 in the synagogue and names himself as the one who fulfills it. But, he leaves out vengeance.

How can God’s justice be sought without vengeance? How can we turn the other cheek in such a day as this? How can we love our enemies and bless those who curse us?  This is our Christmas work, to follow the God-incarnate Christ-child into the quiet night and bear witness like the shepherds of the work of God to under throw the world, to love us into holiness rather than beat us into submission, to bless instead of curse, to bring forgiveness instead of vengeance.

If Jesus is the prince of peace, then God’s Rule is the reign of peace brought about by our being transformed into love, justice, and peace embodied rather than enforced, and we all have work to do. Thank God for the Holy Spirit.

This is our season, people of Grace. We are to incarnate Christ’s peace, love, and justice in our everyday lives, in our words and actions. We are to bear witness in our choices to the God who is with us, within us, and in our darkest days by bearing his light through us by Grace. We begin here, gathered on Christmas eve again, seeing the light of Christ come in and lifting our voices in hope together, in proclamation of the good news, breaking bread together, and welcoming our Lord again, God Emmanuel.
In Christ,

The Very Rev. Daniel P. Richards, Rector & Dean
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Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Intimacy and Incarnation: Christmas and Love

Okay, so I am not a great husband.  My personal history and my lovely wife bear this out.  I am constantly in reform, always reading and realizing what a dope I am maritally.  So it is with relish that I approach premarital counseling as a priest.  Don’t worry, I always send couples with big obvious issues away to someone who knows what they are doing, but the rest I figure I can at least save from my stupidest mistakes.

Actually, my general plan is to present some models and guide couples into a series of conversations with a little well-seasoned wisdom from someone who has been there.  I really do read a lot because I really do feel inadequate to be married.  But then we all are according to David Schnarch, PhD.  He is the therapist I use the most.  His book Passionate Marriage should be on your reading list if you are a person.  There is no qualifier for that because the book presents deep wisdom about life through the lens of marriage and sex.

I will not go into the whole thing here, but I have preached about it before.  (See Sounds Like Grace at gracetc.blogspot.com.) So as I said in the sermon, this year I was asked to do a wedding the weekend before Christmas, and I said yes.  It was a great wedding, wonderful couple, great church, and I was only mildly stressed by it all.

But it weirded my preparation for Christmas.  We have seven services between Christmas Eve and Day, beginning with one for our Jubilee Ministries Community, and going through a whole gamut of styles and shapes.  I preach along an arc, so I don’t bore myself or the people who come to multiple services.  So I have been thinking and writing about Incarnation for a while in preparation, like normal.

Incarnation is the theological notion that God is made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.  The enfleshed reality of God is a hard one to swallow these days, and I think more people doubt Jesus’ divinity than his teachings, though to be honest the teachings aren’t all that popular at the implementation level.  Jesus is God and fully human.  This idea is at the heart of our faith.  I think it is beautiful, and while it is unique in Christ, it is also made true in all of us in Christ.  But what does this have to do with sex?

Intimacy is this loaded topic for most of us.  We want more, we want to be closer to our spouses and other people, yet being close to people freaks us out.  It brings up some pretty basic insecurities and even existential terror.  We are scared of intimacy because it asks us to be open, honest, present, vulnerable.  It asks us to have integrity and stay close as we become scared.  Scharch points out that self-validated intimacy is the only real kind we can have, really, because we can do it no matter what the other person does.  I can show you who I really am.

It doesn’t really matter what you do in response.  I cannot control you.  I want to, but I can’t.  What I can do is soothe my fears and anxiety and stay present with you.  You have to choose your response.  In marriage it would seem that this is what we want from our spouse.  Show me who you are and I will love you, we seem to say.  But we don’t really either, because their self revelation, while not demanding anything in itself, changes our relationship and challenges us and our ways of insecurity and fear.  It asks us without asking us to show up and reveal ourselves and love them by giving like the little drummer boy, the only gift we really have.

And so we get back to incarnation.  In Jesus, God reveals God’s own self.  And it does not seem to demand anything really.  I think that is why we prefer Christmas to Easter sometimes.  God shows up.  God Emmanuel.  We long for that, and yet when God does show up, even mediated as angels, what do they have to say every time?  Peace.  Be still.  Chill out.  Calm down.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds all are told.  Do not be afraid.

This Christmas, what if we entered into this divine offering of God’s self, this earthy and heavenly intimacy without fear?  Can we be present to God’s self and unhook our fears and expectations, our self-doubts and self-concern and trust that God loves us and just wants us to show up?

To be able to be present to another while being intimate requires self-differentiation.  We have to recognize that we are not our partner and see them as they are.  This is harder and more demanding that it sounds as I write it.  My wife and I laugh about her leaving town a couple of years ago, when I bought Velveeta shells and cheese.  She was startled to realize that I would choose something she would never choose.  It was like a revelation to her that I would eat it.  It was also a massive disappointment, and it challenged my secret love of fake horrible cheese-like products.

Now I am no master of intimacy.  I have often hidden, like others, behind all sorts of defenses, from anger and distance to knowledge and judgement.  I am amazed this Christmas at how the Gospels and Jesus’ teachings point right through all of these issues and call us to live courageously open, intimate lives.

I don’t think this is possible without strong morals and integrity and boundaries.  If we are to able to stand so close to others and hold ourselves open and loving, we have to be able to do so without victimizing the other or abusing them or losing ourselves in sloppy sentimentalism.  We need the whole teachings of Christ.  Love and courage and holiness together.

So it is Christmas, and I am trying to figure out how to talk about all of this.  Are you more open this year?  Are you more courageous and loving?  Are you more holy?  I want that intimacy with Amy that we both long for, and I fear that I am going to have to keep growing up to get there.  I want that intimacy with God that I hear promised in the prophets and in Christ.  And I fear that I come to the manger as a place of hope of course, but also a place of challenge to my deepest, most human self to be with the God who loves me enough to show up, vulnerable, honest, and holy.

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Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

A Mini-Sermon: Fields of Wheat

In my office at the church it is such a common occurrence that I get thanked profusely and sometimes with tears for the work that I get to put a face on.  I rarely have done much other than served as a vehicle for others.

The blessing is that I get to be there when the realization comes that a grace too big to be repaid has just entered into your life.  I get to be there for the usually quiet “thank you.” Sometimes all it took was an envelope or a piece of paper or a pile of boxes or a card or a key.  Sometimes I have had to cajole and coerce people to open their hands and hearts to something that is too big, too gracious to be acceptable.  Again, it is important to know that I am rarely responsible for the gift, I am a delivery guy, a butler in this house of God we call Grace.

And I have one little sermon for this moment that many people have heard over the last decade or so.  It may be my best sermon.  It goes like this.

Look, we are all just heads of wheat in a ripe field of harvest.  The Wind blows, and we bow.  Today I am bowing to you, and you are overwhelmed, but there are a million heads of wheat bowing behind me.  I can bow to you because they are bowing to me.  Tomorrow the Wind will change, and we will change directions.  Then you will bow to someone else, and so will I.  This moment, right now, let me bow to you.  You will bow too, and this is the way of God in the world.  The Wind blows, and we bow, and Grace is passed from one to another like a harvest in the wind.

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Be generous this Christmas, for we all bow and are bowed to again.  I love you because I am loved.  May the Wind blow through us all.

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Sermons I Don't Get to Preach

Living a Prophetic Advent

Living a Prophetic Advent in Times Hungry for Prophets
Advent has come again: the season of prophets and promises, longing and hope. Living after Pentecost, we people of Jesus are always in a season of Advent, in a way. On the other hand, the promises and hope that we remember in the prophets and the story of Advent are fulfilled already. The Rule of God has come in the person of Jesus and is the lived reality of his church. (Or it is supposed to be.)

This year we in the United States have been starkly reminded of the “not yet” of our hope. In many ways the reminders around the world have been pretty stark: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, ISIL, Hong Kong, Ferguson, New York, Berkeley. We live in a moment that is hungry for a word from God. We live in a time hungry for God’s salvation and justice.

It is easy as a Christian to want to wrap a blanket of nostalgic theology and pageantry around our faith and settle in to watch the snow outside the window and maybe a little Charlie Brown or Jimmy Stewart. But this is a season of prophets: of holy wilderness rather than comfortable living rooms, of robes of righteousness rather than snuggies.

But I am not in Ferguson or New York. I am not in Syria or Bethlehem. How do I live into this season of prophets in my comfortable living room and the gentle snows of my northern Michigan home?

The Christian life, every Christian life, is a witness to reality, either God’s or the world’s reality. We bear witness with the choices we make wherever we are. I have to choose to bear witness to God’s Rule. It may not be great because my situation does not demand greatness, but it is essential nonetheless if the people here are to hear God’s Word spoken and have their world transformed.

I have a choice at the grocery store and in the library, in my practices of Advent and my driving as to what I bear witness to. In the Bible Jesus never demands that we believe in the virgin birth, rather he tells us how to live. We are to be humble and just, merciful and forgiving, loving and endlessly reaching out to others in grace.

This must be the essence of our Advent; to live this way must be at the heart of our worship and our practices. I am to tell the truth and love others. I am to speak wholesome words and build up those who are torn down. I am to be just and merciful in my business.

Imagine an Advent when black and Hispanic people were treated fairly and justly by white people in the United States, not just because of laws but out of real love and faith. Imagine being a police officer who tried to do his job and had people forgive them when they overreacted or failed, who was loved even as they administered justice. Imagine being forgiven at work and encouraged at home. Imagine being treated as a human being.

We have come such a long way in the last four hundred years as a nation, but it is very clear this year that we have a long way to go. What role can the church play in helping the United States move toward justice and mercy? I am not sure that the answer is going to be offered by our political parties or our political binaries? We may have to dream again, but I know that it will begin where Jesus did, in the hearts, souls, and minds of those of us who follow him being changed.

We have to bear witness to a God of grace and mercy and justice and provision in our everyday decisions and actions. This witness may be costly. We will probably get taken advantage of and ridiculed and challenged, but not much. Keep it in perspective. I bear witness in a really safe place. I have angered people and been called names, but I do not fear for my life or even my job.

One of our witness points for the church in my town, made up of all our different denominations and congregations, is in housing the homeless during the harsh winter months in our buildings. It costs us convenience and building maintenance, odors and space. Sometimes it costs us comfort and safety. It has cost us very rarely in theft and harassment. But every time we face some change in costs, we get anxious. Someone will question whether it is worth the costs, but it always comes back to a simple expectation. “I was hungry and you fed me.”

We house and serve the homeless and poor, the drunks and the hungry, the rich and the well off, Republicans and Democrats, the calm and the angry, the yogi and the banker, the believer and the wanderer. We are all of those things in our little church, and in our church we are none of them. We are the witnesses of a different world where God is calling us all to the table, to serve and love each other in worship to him who comes to us again in Bethlehem and Ferguson, and even in Traverse City. In our faithfulness we bear witness by living humbly and justly, mercifully and forgiving, loving, and endlessly reaching out to others in grace whether they can pay us back or not, whether they join us in this new world or not.

We are prophets of promises already fulfilled and still not yet.

None of this seems like enough when our neighbors are being shot or choked in the streets, when our incarceration rates and arms productions surpass every other nation, when extremists are taking over nations and our media, when we face wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes and signs throughout the world. But this is the way of Jesus, to live a new reality as we hope for it, to risk the small costs and the large ones, to love our neighbor and bear witness as we pursue justice and mercy.

In our love we become bearers of the Word of God, like Mary on her donkey following Joseph to Bethlehem without a room waiting for them, displaced by an unjust act of government, and yet singing the song of God in the wilderness between dangers, pregnant with hope and a new reality.

We begin where we are, living bold lives of love and service, like candles against the night.  It may be your place to take to the streets and protest, but it is surely all of our time to reach out to our neighbors and have dinner with them, to stop and thank a police officer for their service in these hard days and offer mercy to those who don’t seem to get it just right, knowing how much forgiveness we have required of others and of God.  We all have to choose a prophetic Advent.

May our parties and our dinners and our worship services and our letters and presents and ministries this Advent be prophetic, declaring God’s wild and unmerited love in a world that is suffering again.

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Along the Way: Advent, Attention, and Elegance or Krista Tippett does theology and I complain

from wvtf.org website

from wvtf.org website

Elegance, Attention, and Advent

I have been annoyed recently at the NPR-shaped faith of the Episcopal Church. I am not innocent of the charge since I listen to National Public Radio all the time at home. (Diane Rehm’s Weekly News Roundup on Friday (my sabbath) is my chance to catch up the with the nuances of the week’s missed stories.) But I was appalled this year when Krista Tippett’s “On Being” episodes were being offered as material for classes through our denominational press’s catalogue. Our faith is Christian; and though Ms. Tippett is one of my favorite interviewers on the radio, she is under no obligation to present our faith or teach it. I am deeply concerned by the scarcity of resources we are actually putting into the primary activity of making disciples as a church, and this seemed like one more reason to cry out for conversion and a return to our raison d’être as a denomination.

Don’t worry, I rant about this stuff all the time to everyone who will listen. Pray for my children. They have to hear me muttering about this kind of thing all the time.

Despite all this, I like “On Being,” especially the unedited interviews that you can get online or through the podcasts of the show. I prefer the unedited version because I read many of the people she interviews and get their processed and canned thoughts all the time. My longing is for the conversation that we rarely get to hear from those who are producing the mental and spiritual diets so many of us eat. I commend the interviews with Jaroslav Pelikan and John O’donahue to you especially; oh and Seth Godin and . . . well you get the idea.

This last week I found Paulo Coelho. Like many others, I have read and been moved deeply by his novels and drank his interview with Ms. Tippett like afternoon wine. But I was pulled up short by his answer to her request for a definition of his use of the word “elegance.”  (This transcript is from the show’s website.  I have only edited out Ms. Tippett’s unimportant utterances for flow.)

MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you about elegance. Something you talk about as a virtue, you know, we talked about the virtue of love, and friendship, and boldness, but [I am] very drawn to your use of the word, elegance. Talk to me about the place of elegance in life’s pilgrimage.

MR. COELHO: Elegance is simplicity. I believe that we need to be elegant, because people confound elegance with fashion. And that has nothing to do. I learned about elegance not because I was reading about fashion, blah, blah, blah. Because one day I was in Japan and I saw a just totally empty house. And then they have a small detail like, a flower arrangement, or a painting. And the rest is empty. And I said, oh, my God. What is this? This guy, it was my publisher.

And he said — I will never forget — he said, “This is elegance.” I said, “Elegance?” He said, “Yes, because here, there’s only one detail that you can pay attention. And, because of this elegance is to get rid of all the superfluous things and focus on the most beautiful one.” In this case it was this flower arrangement. So, for me, when I looked at the mountains to the Alps here …that was the line. And I see this white snow and I said, oh, my God, God could have created snow as a rainbow, you know, full of colors. But then this would be a disaster.

You know? Because the beauty of the snow is because it has only one color. The beautiful desert that I — I love deserts, by the way.

MR. COELHO: I spent forty days in the Mojave Desert back in 1989, and it was so magical, so magical, so magical. So every time that I travel, I visit the desert. But then back to elegance, elegance is that. Is to go to the core of beauty, and the core of beauty is simplicity.

There is a lot of material for life in the whole episode, but this one idea resonated with me as we look at the season of Advent and the prophets.  In some way Advent is about preparing to have your world changed again, and we think of that in big ways like birth, but the call this year is something closer to Coelho’s insight.

When my wife was pregnant with my son this was obvious in an Adventish kind of way, and when we were preparing for our marriage or getting ready to move the same preparation themes of life came up.  When we know that our world is going to change and that we are going to have to change with it, we prepare ourselves.  This is Advent, right? The prophets in our lives warn us ahead of time that we will have to change.  When we are at our best we listen to them.

On the other hand, what Coelho is talking about is actually closer to the spiritual insight that most of us prepare for and have at Advent and Christmas.  We focus on this singular elegance for a moment, and it changes, or can change, our world.

Elegance and Christmas.

The problem of course is that we come to Christmas through Advent by adding things to the room rather than taking them away.  We add in events, extra projects and trips to the mall, relatives, obligations, church services, and wrapping and decorations.  We don’t remove distractions, we multiply them.

The prophets often went to the desert places to strip away the distractions and listen for the word of God.  Mountains, wilderness, and especially the long horizons of the actual desert have often served to put would-be prophets today in the clearings of life to hear and see what God is doing.

I start longing in December every year for the desert, and not particularly for the weather.  (That comes in March when winter is not relenting this far north.)  I long for the midday escapes along Trail 100 from my condo in northeast Phoenix or the far end of the road that used to take me to the Seven Springs trailhead out east of Tucson: the places where with a few quick steps and fewer provisions I could be out of reach of the demands of the season and regain my sense of clarity.

John the Baptist seemed to see clearly what God was doing in Jesus.  He was not pulled away by the Zealots’ cries for justice and liberation, nor was he falling under the spell of the religious powers of his day, nor was he far away in his hopes from what Jesus would do (despite my favorite author’s depiction of their conflict in the Last Temptation of Christ.)  No, John’s simple cry set up Jesus’ later one: “Change your mind; the Rule of God is in reach.”

I have to change my mind again this year.  Repentance is not a one time thing.  I have to clear away the clutter that I let build up, and honestly that I decorate this time of year with.  I have to give up my Zealotry and my religious ideals, even as I practice my faith and strive for justice; I have to give up my bitterness and self-righteousness.  I have to clear space and go into the wilderness of silence, the landscape of God.

Theology is not really in statements about God anymore than coffee is in the grounds in a coffee filter.  Good theology is in conversation and prayer.  It is the moment of actual thought and creativity.  The statements we pass around are like mementos of those other moments when we were together and thinking and speaking and creating with God.  I think that is why I like the longer unedited interviews of Krista Tippett and her guests.  They capture moments of theology.

I hate that they would be turned into curricula frankly because I want a church that is capable of the conversations, rather than a congregation that listens to my statements.  I want a people who can speak and think and create those moments, loaded with Scripture and poetry and wilderness experiences, a people who can speak for God like a community of prophets wandering in and out of the wild places of life renewed with a divine love that is elegant and clear.

Instead we so often just listen on our way to another cluttered room, busy and scattered.  As a shepherd in a world of busy, educated, and beautiful sheep, I want to call out and lead my Master’s flock away from the city streets and stores to wilderness at the feet of Mount Horeb where the bushes are alight like Advent candles and God speaks from the flames.

Clear your mind, the Rule of God is here.

Spring 2013

Spring 2013

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