Monday, January 2, 2012

Last Pentecost Sermon -First at St. Mark's Dalton

“That we might know what is the hope to which God calls us”
The Reverend Patricia M. Grace
Ephesians 1:15-23
November 21, 2011                  St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

From today’s Epistle:
I pray, that ….with the eyes of your hearts enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you…and what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe….

Along about July of this past year,
I began to pray for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Dalton, Ga
and for her people –
just as I know, you began to pray for me.

Our prayers, back then, were pretty simple –
that we might figure out,
if I was for you and you were for me…
and that we might figure it out at the same time!

The first words of today’s Epistle, most assuredly,
 capture what I felt in my prayers:
“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus
and your love toward all the saints,
and I do not cease to give thanks for you
as I remember you in my prayers.”

From all the information I was able to gather back then, 
I learned that St. Mark’s was a place
filled with people of great faith,
who actively sought to demonstrate that faith
in acts of love toward others –
both inside and outside the congregation.
From the start, St. Mark’s seemed like a good place for me,
a place I could really get into serving –
and so far, in the past seven days – good news!
Nothing has dissuaded me from that first impression.

So then, you all called me and I accepted your call –
and my prayers for you began to change –
to get more specific and personal,
as I’m sure, did your prayers for me. 
 I got excited about coming here  -
started to imagine what it would be like,
and, of course, began to think about this first sermon,
this first time in the pulpit with you.
So I looked ahead to the lectionary readings for the day –
And groaned, oh, no, I thought,
not Christ the King Sunday –
with that sheep and goats passage from Matthew 25
looming so large on the eschatological horizon –
a passage that’s so hard to deal with,  
for people like me,
who believe in universal salvation.

So, I did what every good preacher does
when confronted with a difficult Gospel passage….
I checked out the Old Testament and Epistle readings for the day….

And then, something wonderful and awesome happened.
As I read our passage
from the Epistle from the letter to the Ephesians,
            I stopped dead in my tracks.
There, it seemed to me,
was a perfect theme for a first Sunday in a new congregation…
that is,
“that with the eyes of our hearts enlightened,
we might come to know
what is the hope to which God has called us….
and that we might come to know together  
the immeasurable greatness of God’s power
for us who believe.”

Those words firmly expressed
what I’d been hoping and praying for…
            that we might, together,
as this body of Christ
                                    come to understand, to really know,
                                                through talking and praying
and listening to the Spirit together,
just what it is that God wants us to be and to do right now.
And just what God wants us to do and be in the future. ,

Those words articulated my prayers:
that we would be empowered to act on our unique calling,
as the people of God of St. Mark’s, Dalton
            in 2011 and beyond.
And, more than that,
those words reminded me of
what I always need to remember:
and what we all need to know, deep in our hearts,
as deep as we can know it,
            that God will provide us with God’s own immeasurable power
to do and to be what it is that God desires.
Now, don’t get me wrong...
            I’m not one of those people who believe
that the world began with my appearance here last Sunday.
St. Mark’s already has a glorious history and a well-earned reputation
for being a people who put their money
and their time and their innumerable talents
where their mouths are.
This congregation has already created a durable legacy of Christian witness
            through its many gifts to this community -         
over many generations –
especially in the creation of programs and organizations
that have made life better for all kinds of people
in North Georgia and well beyond.

But the time after a long pastorate has ended,
            followed by what seemed like a long interim –
            from what you’ve told me…
that time can have the inadvertent effect of undermining a congregation’s
            positive sense of itself.
That time, well, it can feel like an era of being rudderless,
                        without direction,
a time that can feel quite trying and tiring,
maybe even a bit disheartening.
In addition,
this has certainly been a time that many of us,
in Dalton and the country at large,
feel anything but powerful.
Our economic challenges, both locally and around the world
            seem baffling and frightening….
Problems around issues like addiction, the safety of our children,
the health and welfare of families and our elderly,
in our hometown and around the country
                                    appear to be growing out of control.

But, with the entrance of someone new,
            And the start of a new time together,
we have an opportunity –
to stop, to take stock,
and to open ourselves to consider in hope
what God might be asking of us, next…
to pray, like the author of this loving letter to the Ephesians,
that we might be given a spirit of
wisdom and revelation
                                                and joy
            that will lead us to the next chapter
of the wonderful story which is
St. Mark’s, Dalton, GA.

And it will be in considering our story,
that we’ll find, at least, in part,
the pathway to discernment about what needs to come next,
 that is, to an understanding
of the hope to which God is calling us.

James Hopewell, who wrote a book called Congregations,
claims that churches, just like people,
have a unique and specific vocation –
a distinctive way they’re called
to share in the God’s dream of
transforming the world.
Hopewell says that the clues to that calling,
can be found in the telling and re-telling
of that congregation’s favorite narratives…
it’s often told stories  
and in connecting that particular story
to what I call the “capital S” Story –
the one we proclaim each time we meet like this.
And what is that capital S story:
It’s all about God, the creator,
who sent Jesus Christ to us,
to live and die as one of us,
to show us the way to God…
and through the power of his resurrection,
demonstrated God’s immeasurable power
and invited us into the carrying out of God’s purposes –
with that power …
to transform the face of the earth
into the very kingdom of God.
I know that I have only a novice’s understanding
            of the story of St. Mark’s –
and I look forward to going deeper,
            to hearing more about that story,
                        as you all share with me,
                                    your individual tales
of being a part of this remarkable congregation.

But already, there’s something in that story
            that inspires me….
There’s already something that gives a clue
about our unique and specific vocation in the world…
something I noticed in studying your history during the search process.  
That’s the fact that, often, when times were toughest,
                        St. Mark’s response was to get busy
and get busy about doing something for someone else…
During times, when a lot of groups would pull back,
            hunker down and lick their wounds,        
                        there’s been a different tendency in this body of the faithful,
                                    a different inclination that has led you
to reach out to help someone else.
DEO is just the latest of these incarnations…
even as the economy began slowing down
you all recognized the growing
 and desperate need for basic medical care
                                    for the indigent and uninsured.
You discerned a tremendous need
            and worked successfully to meet it…
and this was not the first time. 

Although the people of St. Mark’s are and have been traditionally
among the most economically advantaged in this community,
you have always had a heart for the poor
and especially for those that the broader community
            might prefer to remain invisible.
For nearly 25 years,
St. Mark’s preschool has not just been
a wonderful program
for two, three, and four year olds,
but a place that sought, by intention,
to create a space where every child would be welcome…
When I learned during the search process
that at one time,
St. Mark’s was the only preschool in the area
that would enroll a child with a disability …
I knew that the community of St. Mark’s
would be one I would be proud to be a part of.

Perhaps that’s why the Holy Spirit
directed me to the Epistle for today,
rather than the Gospel,
because you all already know its message:

That the only criteria for being chosen to sit at the right hand of God,
And to share in God’s eternal life,
is that we recognize Jesus
 in those who appear to be the very least…
The people of St. Mark’s already know and live into
that message…
For you have always been able to see the image of Christ, 
the Son of God in all his glory,
in the faces of people who are hungry, thirsty,
 naked, imprisoned,
or who’ve been estranged or alienated from the world. 

I’m humbled and honored to be chosen to be a part of that kind of story…
            and I look forward with a sense of privilege
to entwining my individual story with each one of yours.
I’m excited to have been given the opportunity
to co-author the next chapter
            of this congregation’s narrative together with you…

So, today, as we start out,  
I encourage you to ponder the words of our Epistle for today…
to ponder deeply what is the hope to which God is calling us next…
and to remember, in that pondering,
that God has always provided the power
and will continue to provide immeasurable power
to us who believe,
to do what we are being called to do.

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus
and your love for all the saints”
and I’ve been touched, inspired and energized by it.
So, my prayers will not cease to be ones of thanksgiving for you.

And I already know a few hopes to which God is calling me.
At least one of my hopes,
is that you will come to know of my faith in the Lord Jesus
and my love for you and all the saints,
however imperfect at times, it will most certainly be.
I hope that you will come to know me as a faithful pastor,
            A loving and cheerful friend,
And a fellow pilgrim along the road to salvation
by that same Lord, Jesus Christ.

And I hope that you will always be moved
to remember me in your prayers,
with thanksgiving. 

Most of all, I hope that together,
            we may deepen and broaden the durable legacy of Christian witness
                        that has always distinguished this place,
                                    and that through us,
Jesus Christ, in all his fullness, may continue to be made known.

Today we begin! Thanks be to God!


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