The Gift of Diversity

This article first appeared on the A Positively Poetic Priest blog on May 22, 2018.

I want you to take a look at your hand.
Right or left, it doesn’t matter.
Every day our hands do impressive amounts of work.
They influence our experience of the world.
Look at your fingers.
You probably don’t think about them often.
They are very similar in nature to each other,
yet each is different.
Each is unique from the others.
Even our fingers have diversity!
Each of our fingers have different purposes and gifts.
The fact that our thumbs are at an angle and move slightly
differently than the other fingers… opposable thumbs!
What a gift our thumbs are in our daily lives!
(Especially when you consider animals without opposable thumbs,
we have all seen those internet memes.)
We may look at our hands and think they are all the same.
In fact, we have diversity right in our hands.

The word diversity really means a range of different things.
Not that it has a range of different meanings,
it quite literally means, “a range of different things.”
Having a collection be diverse means that there are different things in the collection.
So speaking about diversity in the context of people
requires two things: community and different gifts.

This is where we go to the passage from acts,
the bedrock of Pentecost.
The passage starts with the community.
“The disciples were all together in one place.”
Here we have a collection of people, already diverse in nature.
Tax collectors, fishermen, carpenters,
all gathered together in a room because of the same glue.
It’s quite obvious that the only reason the disciples ever managed to stay together
was because of Jesus.
Together, this little community of men
has an amazing experience.
A rush of wind and tongues of fire,
a change of heart and feeling of presence,
and a sudden new knowledge filling each of them.

Diversity is one of the first gifts the Holy Spirit ever gives to the church,
simply by giving the disciples the ability to speak different languages.
When the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples that day of Pentecost,
it didn’t tell the disciples to go only
to the Aramaic speaking good Jews to spread the good news of Jesus.
No, the Holy Spirit gave the disciples new languages,
the gift of speaking to people wholly different from them.
With the gifts of the Holy Spirit there were going to be
Egyptian followers of Jesus
and Parthian followers of Jesus
and Mesopotamian followers of Jesus.
People from all over the known world
who didn’t all have the same background or the same ideas.
The Holy Spirit came and made the disciples more diverse, even than they had been before.

I love the fact that someone thinks this rush of speaking in languages from Jews
is because of wine.
As if having some wine could give us the ability to speak a new language.
The work of the Holy Spirit in this way
was so new,
so amazing,
so profound,
no good excuses could be made to justify the event away.
Someone in the crowd tried to blame it on wine,
but we all know that was simply out of fear.
You can see the bystanders trying to push the idea away,
out of fear, out of wanting to stay away from the unknown.

Unfortunately, for many the gift of diversity looks like a threat.
The unknown quality of people being different from one another leads to fear.
Thankfully, this fear can be overcome.
Recognizing and accepting diversity does put us outside our comfort zones.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit,
and God doesn’t call us to be comfortable.
In a world increasingly separating into groups of like minded people who do not play well with people or groups who
are differently minded,
the world asks the grace of living into our gifts as diverse people.

However, everyone is different in this world.
Everyone deserves the dignity and respect which we each crave for ourselves.
Everyone is different and has different gifts.
One of the greatest gifts we can give another person
is acknowledging them as uniquely themselves.
It is only by working together,
using all the gifts which we bring to the table,
can we really ever accomplish anything.
The world is worth working with other people who are extremely different than us.
Not everyone can speak Spanish or German or Hindi or Swahili,
but the Holy Spirit has given us the gifts that we need in order to work together.

Many people feel that the church is, and has always been,
a place for people who all think, feel, believe, and look the same.
You have to be and act and speak in a particular way in order to be a part of the church.
Unfortunately, there are many parts of the church in which this is true.
There are rules governing what you can wear, what you can eat or drink,
who you can talk to, and so forth.

By no means am I advocating a standard of lawlessness or anarchy,
there are standards for being a follower of Jesus
however none of them are based on what clothing you wear
or what you can eat or drink.
In fact, Jesus would probably have broken any and all rules
given to him by the religious authorities of his own church
in order to be involved and part of the lives of the people who needed him.

Diversity is a strength, not one of the church’s greatest strengths,
though thankfully one that we are more and more recognizing the need for.
Here in this community, we have a range of diversity
Episcopalians, Lutherans, a few Catholics,
we have people who speak languages other than English,
we have people who are differently abled,
we have people who can program electronic devices,
and people who stay as far away from such devices as they can,
and all these diversities make for a better community.

We come together today to join our diverse hands
to be together as a community with different gifts
experiencing the Holy Spirit in this time and in this place,
so that when we go out into the world
we can meet God at work through the Holy Spirit
in all the diverse places and people we experience.
God sends us out to find ourselves and Him
in all the beautiful diversities of His creation.

Amen.

The Rev. Elizabeth Yale is Priest in Charge at St. John’s, Franklin. 

Preaching for Congregational Vitality

This post originally appeared on the Diocese of Oklahoma’s News and Events page on April 30, 2018. 

By The Rev. Canon Susan Brown Snook, Canon for Church Growth and Development

What role does preaching play in leading a congregation toward vitality? Given that a priest’s best opportunity to communicate with parishioners each week is a 12-minute sermon, how can our preaching help a congregation grow, spiritually and numerically?

I posed this question to my good friend, the Rev. Dr. Adam Trambley, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Sharon, Pennsylvania. He offered some helpful ways to think about preaching.

First, he says, think of your preaching over a year or a multi-year period as one long sermon, “trying to create in effect a continuous sermon that weaves through an extended period of time. You’re not just thinking about what the readings say this morning. You’re thinking about where you want your congregation to go, and what to say about today’s lectionary, this congregation, and this community that will move you toward that place.”

Every congregation has its strengths and weaknesses, says Trambley. Following the Natural Church Development[1] approach, he points out that according to the theory, taking the next step in congregational vitality means shoring up a congregation’s weaknesses. Natural Church Development describes eight components of congregational vitality: empowering leadership, gift-based ministry, passionate spirituality, effective structures, inspiring worship, holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving relationships. The weakest component of this mix is the one a congregation needs to improve to grow, spiritually and numerically.

Based on this theory, Trambley says, “you have to know where you’re going and what needs to be addressed, and you have to weave those together over time. If you want a congregation to change, you can’t just give one sermon that gives the answer, because 30% of the people won’t be there to hear it, and people don’t change that quickly anyway. Even a 4-week sermon series can be helpful, but that can lead to a situation where everyone says, okay, evangelism is the thing for Advent, but in Epiphany we’re moving on to something else!”

So if we know that evangelism, for instance, is the thing we need to work on over the next 18 months, then Trambley says we need to think about that component every week. “How can I touch on that issue in this sermon? It’s about slowly changing their language and their thinking so they come to expect that’s what we’re talking about, but not so they’re hit over the head with it as if they’re wrong. Instead, they’re just slowly introduced to this idea over and over again. You describe the ways scripture talks about this issue until it sinks in. You choose stories and illustrations that speak about that issue. When you preach, you’re constantly looking at ways you can give examples of where this is done in the community or the congregation, things you can lift up as ways you saw God at work this week. You praise the people you saw doing those things, without ever saying negative things about the places where it’s not happening. You lift it up so that people want to join in. You admit your own struggles with that component and you highlight any nascent growth you see happening in that area. It can’t all happen in one or three sermons.”

I asked how Trambley incorporates this approach with the scriptures in each Sunday’s lectionary readings. Of course he uses the lectionary, he says. But with four lectionary readings each Sunday, he says, “you can almost always find a point that helps people move in the direction you believe God is calling them to go. The point is to preach strategically, with an end in mind for the congregation. Even if the main point of that week’s sermon is another topic, and the focus of most sermons will be on another theme, I still try to find a place to spend at least a sentence or two on my long-term goal.”

“What I want to do over time,” explains Trambley, “is give people a language they don’t have that is positive and compelling and relates this area they need to grow in to the Christian faith, allows that to seep into the whole congregation, so if there’s one group that wants to take positive steps in that area, there’s room for that to happen. You’ve lifted it up, helped them see how it fits. Others might start taking small steps in that direction too.”

If you are a regular preacher in a congregation, how have you used your preaching to support congregational vitality? How have you preached to develop disciples and move the congregation toward mission? I would like to hear your stories. Contact me at CanonSusan@epiok.org.

The Rev. Canon Susan Brown Snook
Canon for Church Growth and Development
Email: CanonSusan@epiok.org 

 

[1] This approach is described by Christian Schwarz, Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches (ChurchSmart Resources, 1996).

Aloha – A Good ‘good-bye’

This post is from a sermon by the Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016.  The readings were John 14: 8-17, 25-27, Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104: 25-35, 37 and Romans 8: 14-17.

mosaic-409427_1920Jesus knows his disciples are upset by the idea of him leaving. We can almost hear the anxiety and fear in Philip’s voice when he asks Jesus, again, about seeing the Father.

We know that kind of anxiety and fear – in our every day personal lives, in our uncertain and chaotic world, and in our life as a community of faith. There are so many things we cannot control. Like Philip, we might like to pin Jesus down and say, “Show us that God is REAL, and we will be satisfied.” Then we will know everything will be okay.

Jesus answers us, in the same way he answered his disciples 2000 years ago: The Father will send the Holy Spirit in my name, to teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. And it is not any peace like the world can give you. Finally, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. That’s the heart of Jesus’ farewell discourse.

Jesus’ final farewell covers three significant points: he expresses gratitude, forgiveness, and encouragement.  Gratitude for their life together. Gratitude for the ministry they have shared, the meals they have shared, for the friendships that have developed walking along the road from one place to the next. He expresses forgiveness. Forgiveness for all the hurts left unacknowledged, the ones inflicted and the ones received. And encouragement for the next movement of life. All three of these things happen in John’s telling of the Last Supper and the teaching that accompany it. Today we celebrate, in the feast of Pentecost, the ultimate symbol of gratitude, forgiveness and encouragement – the Holy Spirit.

Sent by Jesus from the Father, the Spirit is to teach us and remind us, to comfort and encourage us, to be a companion and an advocate. In John, Jesus breathes this Spirit of God, this spirit of peace and courage on his disciples when he appears in the upper room the day of his resurrection. He appears there and he breathes the Spirit of God on them, and he says, “Peace be with you.” In Acts today, we read about the Spirit dramatically descending, giving the disciples power to speak the gospel in all the languages of the earth. So that everyone on earth can know the saving love of God through Jesus Christ.

Pentecost has a rich history. It is one of three major feast mentioned in the Old Testament that were feast days significant enough to require pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The other two are Passover and Sukkoth. Pentecost, meaning 50th day, and it is the 50th day after Passover. It is a festival to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest. Those first fruits, berries, those first grains are ready to harvest. This is the festival when we bring those before God and offer them to God in thanksgiving for the fullness of harvest that has already begun and the fullness of the harvest that is to come. This is a feast day for celebrating all that we have received and all that is to come.

In Acts, the disciples and many people of the known world are gathered in Jerusalem for just this feast day. The Spirit of God arrives with a great noise, and the world is never the same again. God’s people are changed. They are empowered and marked by God for something new. We can never be the same after we have encountered the Holy Spirit.

What that new thing will be, only God really knows – but the Spirit teaches, reminds and encourages us to continue to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. The presence of the Spirit of God becomes a defining characteristic of God’s people, one that we celebrate in every baptism as we mark the newly baptized with oil, and we say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Every single one of us, in our baptism, received the mark of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit ties our relationship to God, to all people, and to one another, forever. It makes us inseparable. It is a bond that cannot be broken. It is also a bond that demands that we respect and honor one another, and God, and ourselves – and that we do so with courage and integrity. Not as a matter of duty, but as a matter of living fully and deeply into ourselves and into the love of God.

And that’s where we come to what makes a good-bye good. As with many moments in life, we can choose how deeply to engage in a good-bye. A ‘good’ good-bye takes courage and integrity, because it requires a celebration of the breadth of a relationship – both the celebrations and the disappointments. And our hopes for a future that is not together. As Christians, we believe that we will see one another again, someday, in this life or in the next. And, yet, that doesn’t release us from the responsibility to say good-bye well.

In thinking about ‘good’ good-byes this week, I had some conversations with the Brewing Faith group, with my family and friends and colleagues. I even paid attention to the radio and tv, to see how we do good-byes in our culture. You might know that I am an English major originally, and I love the origins of words. Good-bye is a contraction of the phrase “God be with ye.” The original phrase “God be with ye” was a response to someone saying, “Fare well” when parting ways. Literally, take care of yourself, with the response God be with you.

Since this is a day of many languages, we can look at adios in Spanish and adieu in French. Both have similar meanings to good-bye. Adios comes from “a Dios vias,” meaning ‘you are going to God’ or you are going to the Kingdom of Heaven. Adieu, literally ‘to God,’ comes from “I commend you to God.”

aloha-305853_1920The word of parting I like best is the native Hawaiian aloha, which is used when arriving and when departing. Aloha means love. Love when I first see you, whether it has been minutes or years, and love when we leave, to carry with you until we meet again. Isn’t that the essence of gratitude, forgiveness, and encouragement? That 3-part movement of saying, God be with you?

We start with gratitude, a deep love and appreciation for one another and for all that we have done, shared, celebrated, and lost, together. We need to share our gratitude, our love, for one another. To say it and to hear it. A shorthand to remember to say those things in gratitude: “I love you. Do you love me?” “I love you, too.” And there’s so much more to it.

The next part is forgiveness. Because in every relationship we experience disappointment. We have expectations that go unmet, and we fail to meet other people’s expectations. We hurt one another, intentionally or not. It’s part of human life. In love for one another, to part ways well, we need to acknowledge those disappointments, to mutually ask for and to give forgiveness. The shorthand for this step: “I forgive you. Do you forgive me?”

Phew. Love and forgive. If we can say those things before we part ways, we have loved with courage and integrity. If those two steps are the “fare well,” there is still the “God be with you.”

In sharing our hopes and encouragement for one another before we part, we share our faith and our desire that God go with the other person until we meet again. “God be with you” is a hopeful and forward-looking statement.

Which brings us back to Pentecost, a feast day that celebrates all that we have received, and all that is to come. As Jesus prepares to leave his disciples, he celebrates who they are, he recalls their time together, he forgives their betrayals and disbelief, and he leaves them an eternal encouragement in the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Pentecost, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit all those many years ago, we celebrate the gifts we have been given here and now to continue Jesus’ ministry of sharing God’s radically inclusive love with the world, and we celebrate with hope the unknowns of the future because we know that the Spirit of God will be with us.

And so,

Fare well.

God be with you.

Aloha.

The Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons

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Imitation Is The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Sermon by The Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons from October 18, 2015 reprinted from the blog Pulpit Ponderings

408475371f2248ee_castIt has been said that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  We can all probably think of examples in our own lives and culture where this is true.  When we see a fashionable outfit or a hairstyle we think is particularly attractive or that communicates a message we want, we work to re-create it for ourselves.  Thinking back a decade or two, remember the ‘power tie’ for men or the ‘red power suit’ for women?  We saw those fashions on people we perceived as having power and influence, and we thought to ourselves, ‘If I just wear that, I can garner that kind of respect and power, too.”

We see this dynamic happening in the gospel today with James and John as they ask Jesus for coveted seats of power in glory, the seats at his immediate right and left hands.  If we can’t sit in the seat of power, we should sit right next to it.  Those sons of Zebedee know there is something special about Jesus, and they want to get some of it for themselves.  Even though they’ve been following Jesus around – they have been listening to his teaching, watching him heal people and cast out demons – and they do believe that he is the promised Messiah, they still think he’s going to be a military ruler. The kind of king who wields armies and fear.  And that power looks mighty appealing to these humble men, who have been fishermen and disciples of an itinerant teacher.  ‘Come on, Jesus, you’re going to kick this dusty road and sit in glory.  Just let us sit right next to you and share that glory.’

Jesus on the other hand, has no illusion about what the road to his ‘glory’ will be.  And he asks them, quite pointedly, if they really understand what they are asking for, “Do you really think you can drink from my cup, that you can be baptized with my baptism?” In their ignorance and arrogance, they say, “We are able.”  ‘I’ll take a sip of that cup of power.’

And their friends find out!  And those other ten guys, they are mad.  Mark doesn’t say why the other disciples are angry.  I wonder if it’s because they didn’t think to make this overt move to imitate Jesus’ perceived power themselves.  Nonetheless, Jesus calms the angry disciples.  The explanation Jesus gives completely debunks James’ and John’s assumptions about what his power really is.  Instead he talks about what power in the kingdom of God really looks like.

James and John, they think greatness comes from status, the kind of power over wielded by tyrants and oppressors.  In response, Jesus does what Jesus does all the time.  He turns power completely on its head and he says that power comes from serving other people.  Not from oppressing them with fear, but from serving them.  We will either willingly and joyfully serve others, or we will become enslaved to our illusions that we can be free and secure through status and power. In our culture, we might say through having a respectable job and the right friends.

Jesus asks, who will we serve?  Will we serve the voices of the culture that say that we can (and must) be free on our own and at any cost?  Or will we hear and heed the voice of Jesus?  Will we find our freedom and our true selves through serving our neighbor?

Why do we have a God who is always asking us to serve our neighbor?  Always pushing us to consider the needs of someone else before ourselves?  It goes very much against our culture, and even went against the culture of Jesus’ time, to put the needs of someone else before our own.

God delights in our relationships.  God delights in God’s relationship with us, and God delights in our relationships with other people.  Whether they are at home, at school or work, or with people, strangers in our community.  It is through our relationships with other people that we discover ourselves inextricably linked – “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” – linked with those around us.  We cannot deny that when we open ourselves to know someone else, we are they and they are we.  There is some bit of us, some bit of God, reflected back in the face of the other.

Jesus’ description of his life as giving himself “as a ransom for many” reflects that same priority on loving the other before self.  Jesus does not buy us back from God or the devil, but instead pays himself out in order to rescue us from ourselves.  To rescue us from our delusion that we are somehow self-sufficient and independent, self-made men and women.  Perhaps in this world we can make that claim, but not in God’s.  From this point in Jesus’ story to the end, his whole life and death challenge our assumptions about power.  As we watch the story unfold, we learn that even as we give ourselves in service to others we find ourselves living more fully than ever before.

Our power derives from our imitation of Jesus’ service to us.  That power which is rooted in our status as beloved children of a merciful and gracious God. Being loved unconditionally by God, regardless of our power or position in this world, helps us all to realize that we are blessed.  We know that blessing first in our baptism, when we emerge from the water as Jesus did and we hear God say, This is my child, my beloved. We return that blessing to God, by returning our lives to God.  Our stewardship flows from this same font of blessing, blessing all others through serving them in God’s love.

Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?  Maybe in this world.  When it comes to God, I don’t think so.  God doesn’t ask for or need our flattery or kind intentions.  God asks for even more: God asks for our whole selves.  Our whole selves, given to God in imitation of what God gives to us:  his whole self.  God gives to us generously, completely, with no strings, no time limits, no expectations.  Whether we realize or reciprocate God’s love or not, God’s love is still there, as big and bold and available as ever. God gives to us with love, so that we can grow in that love.

In our imitation of our great God, we are asked to give of ourselves, of our time and our passions and our money, with love and generosity, without condition, without expectation of return, so that God’s love can continue to grow in us and in the world around us.  So that the kingdom of God can come near – to us and to everyone else who needs to hear that word of hope.  Thanks be to God.

The Rev. Sabeth Fitzgibbons, St. Stephan’s, Fairview

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