January 27, 2019 – Annual Meeting Address from the Rector
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
I always begin my sermon with this last stanza of psalm 19. Every time. It frames my fundamental hope for every homily. It says that the message to be offered from both my lips and my heart is offered on behalf of God; God’s wordis the word that matters. At least that is my intention. And so regardless of the topic, this short prayer is the foundation upon which I build every sermon.
But the whole Psalm 19 is appointed in our lectionary a couple of time each year – when we get to hear its pithy little last stanza in its context. And for me, that context amplifies and expands its power exponentially.
C S Lewis called Psalm 19, “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” It is short. It covers roughly all of the bases generally addressed in the five books of the Pentateuch. And it is jam-packed with theology.
It is divided into two almost distinct parts. The first 6 verses address Creation. The glory of God in the created world. In this section, the word for the divine in the Hebrew is el, as in Elohim. God the Author of Creation.
But in the second half, beginning in verse 7, the word for the divine in the Hebrew changes to YHWH, God the Author of the Law. The NRSV translates the Hebrew as LORD. Either way, the subject changes from God’s Creation to God’s Law, from God’s Desire to God’s Wisdom.
This short 14 verse psalm is a microcosm of the five central books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the torah. This psalm begins with God’s creation, just like Genesis. The heavens as the firmament. The day and the night. The sun and all that is warmed by its rays, which is to say everything; for nothing is hidden from the warmth of God’s sun says the psalm. As does Genesis. And then the psalm turns to the glory of God’s Law and God’s power of redemption, as in the books of Exodus and Numbers and Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
And from my lips to your ears, and acceptable in God’s sight, this whole psalm is well worth keeping on speed dial!
The first six verses set the stage. They remind us in no uncertain terms, that God is bigger than we are. That God is capable of anything and everything, and the proof is in the pudding. Don’t trust my word, says the psalmist, just take a look at the world in which you exist. We need not prove that there is a God says the psalmist. God’s creation is proof enough; witness enough that only God could have created it.
But despite God’s big picture handiwork, God never loses track of the particulars. Not us as individuals. Not us as a community of faith. Nothing escapes the warmth of God’s sun.
And that is the Good News in this psalm. That in the dankest regions of our darkest nights; in the places where we are hard pressed to find our faith or maintain our hope; when we feel overwhelmed, underprepared, out of our depth, deep in the weeds, thoroughly discouraged, enveloped by despair, afraid, ashamed, a failure, a fraud, alone. When we have no idea how we will get through this night, the psalmist reminds us that both the day andthe night belong to God and once this night is over it will befollowed by a brand new day. And in that day, the warmth of the sun will find us. Where ever we are. However far we have strayed. However broken we have become. As individuals. And too I think, as communities.
These first six verses are a sort of pastoral panacea. They remind us that we are the miraculous work of God’shands; the same hands that created the heavens and the earth the night and the day, and the ever -rising sun.
I invite you to close your eyes now (if you like) and to unburden your heart; hear these first six verses in the context of whatever weight you are carrying this morning. And whatever weight we are carrying as a community together, let us offer it up to the psalm.
The heavens recount the glory of God, *
and the sky declares our Creator’shandiwork.
2 One day pours out the word to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
3 Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,
4 Their sound has flowed out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.
5 In the deep has the divineset a place for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
6 It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its warmth.
This is the context in which I hope we will enter into our conversation later this morning. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God.
This psalm may speak about the glory of God, but it also speaks about the responsibility of God’s Creation, it holds our feet to the fire to live according to the Law of the one who created us; the one who created everything. Creation proves God’s existence and expresses the character of God’s Word, and the Law tells us that we are born to live according to that Word. The second half of this psalm calls us to the integrity of our faith.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul…
8 The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart…..
9 …the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
This psalm suggests a powerful corrective force in this world; a force that yearns for, and arcs toward, and insists on integrity. Because a world that is made by God and belongs to God should act in ways that are acceptable in God’s sight. The heavens do. The day and the night do. The sun does. And so, then, must the rest of God’s creation, including God’s featherless bi-peds, and maybe especially including God’s church.
As my grandfather was fond of saying, wisdom is knowing the right path and integrity is taking it. Psalm 19 offers us the wisdom and then beckons us to the integrity. It says: look around you and then live as though you were part of the plan, the plan that includes the magnificence of the heavens and the rhythm of time and the eternal rising of the sun; live as though you were intended for such beauty and marvelousness…..because you are.
Each one of us is a piece of God’s outrageously creative Word and intended to act in ways that point to our Creator, ways that are acceptable in God’s sight. Full stop.
But alas, I think that not all of the words that are flowing through this community at this time are acceptable in God’s sight. And not because they are words of disagreement, but because we have taken to expressing those disagreements disrespectfully, unkindly, unhealthfully. And so our disagreements have begun to sow division.
As many of you know, there is a contingent in our community that is not at all happy with the path we are on. Not happy with our sanctuary, and/or the things that have come with sanctuary.
And I must admit, I did not see this coming. At least not as aggressively and abundantly as it is unfolding now. Because forgive me, but I thought that the parish was on board with this vision of our path that included sanctuary. There is no doubt that sanctuary was my vision from the start. But we met for community wide conversations six times before we voted! And then when it came to a vote, the result was almost unanimous.
I know now that if every member of this community had voted, that would not have been the case. We might have had more than a dozen “no” votes instead of only two. But I suspect that some folks who might have voted “no” surmised that their opposition would not have mattered because so many others seemed so in favor of the resolution. Or maybe they just did not want to oppose the set-in-stone vision of their rector.
And it is true that a few “nays” would not have outweighed the preponderance of “yeas.” Not by a long shot. Even with a dozen or so votes opposing the resolution, we would probably have proceeded anyway given the weight and enthusiasm of the proponents.
But the vote would not have been thought to be unanimous. And we would….I would have taken much more time to tend and mend what I now understand to be a palpable fracture in our community. Shame on me for not expecting more dissent. And for not touching base with those members of our community who did not participate in the process and/or the final vote. I could have reached out to folks individually.
But Holy Cow! For almost two years I have been bragging far and wide in every talk I have been invited to deliver, in every comment I have been asked to offer, in every forum where I have been questioned about how our small community has navigated the folks who must have been opposed to this radical work. I have said…..with a pride that I apparently had no right to boast: I know, it is amazing, but we voted almost unanimously to do this.
That was not a lie. But I now understand that it was not the truth.
The truth is, some of us are not in favor of the work that we are doing. Some of us value the things that we have lost more than the things that we have planted. And so we have a serious and seemingly growing divide in this community. And it has been my bad for not doing more to solicit feedback along the way. I am sorry for that. Please forgive me.
But here we are. And at this juncture the larger issue, as I see it, is not just that we disagree on our path and the content of our ministry and maybe even our visions for the community. The thing that is most surprising and most deeply distressing to me is not our level of disagreement, but the disrespectful and damaging way that a few of us are expressing that discontent. Some have chosen to make their dissatisfaction known in ways that are often clandestine, and almost always hurtful. And that cannot continue. I am feeling very beaten up. And that is unacceptable.
The first order of business is for us to mend our nets. And we can only do it together. As a whole community. To begin talking with and to each other rather than around and about each other. Every one of us has a responsibility for the health and well-being of the whole. This is not just the tale of a few vocally unhappy folks and the rector who has made them unhappy. This climate of disrespect belongs to the community as a whole…..especially now that we all know.
The second order of business is to determine what sort of vision this community wants for itself. The question is, is my vision still in line with the vision of this community? And I don’t know the answer to that question. It is possible that the vision that we shared when you called me to be your rector in 2010 is no longer a mutually held vision. And that is okay. But it needs to be discerned. And sooner rather than later.
Because as everyone here knows, I do have a very strong vision for this community. And we are only a good fit if that vision is still in line with your hopes and dreams for this parish. Because I will continue to push hard for the vision that I think best fits the values that I think we share….or the values that I want us to share.
It may come as a surprise to some of us that my vision is not sanctuary, per say. Sanctuary was (and still is as long as we have a family with us) an urgent need in the wider community that happened to knock on our door at just the right moment. A moment when our Average Sunday Attendance had been falling precipitously for a couple of years. And our Parish School space was all but empty on Sunday mornings, not to mention the rest of the week. And we had newly zoned heat in every section of our building which gave us a capacity to use our space in a modular way. And finally, but maybe most importantly, many of us, most of us were in deep despair over the 2016 presidential election. And we were looking for something “concrete” that we could do to help build the Kin-dom in the midst of the increasingly unholy empire; something that the church could contribute, particularly.
And so when the need for sanctuary presented itself, and our facility was able and available, and dozens of interfaith partners were pledging their full support, and I thought about the experiences of the beloved immigrants in our own community, I presented the possibility of our using our vacant sacred space to serve this urgent need; to stand firm with the dignity of some of God’s most marginalized children. Because for sanctuary seekers, only sacred space would do.
But my overall vision for us was never (and is not now) that we become a sanctuary for undocumented families…forever. In fact, my vision for this community has not really changed much over the decade that I have been your rector. It has always been a vision that we lift and celebrate the dignity of every part of God’s creation with everything we have, even when it costs us more than we can comfortably afford. Even when it costs us $300k for a new heating system to back up our claim of being a Creation-Loving community. Even when it costs us the precious bandwidth of some of our most faithful and competent parishioners who put their time and attention to serving on the Board and as the Executive Director of the Centre Street Food Pantry rather than shepherding ministries within our own community program, because we say we believe that we are called to feed God’s sheep. And so when sacred space was seriously needed, and we have always claimed to follow the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger, the shoe seemed to fit.
That does not mean that our service as a physical sanctuary is a long-term reality. Although I do not know how long our family will need our sacred space.
And I do not know where the road ahead will lead us. But I think, I hope, that sanctuary is more of a metaphor for our deepest values than it is a physical reality for the long-term use of our space. From my vantage point, we are no more committed to being a physical sanctuary forever than Jesus was committed to being a winemaker forever, even though his first miracle happened to be turning water into wine at the Wedding in Cana, as we heard in last week’s Gospel. Turning water into wine was the way in which Jesus addressed the urgent need before him, it was not his life’s work, specifically.
It was simply the first work that took him outside of himself to live into his destiny as the healer, miracle-maker, teacher, rabbi, redeemer of the world that he was born to be. I believe that his life’s work was to gather the children of God, all of God’s children, into the arms of God; into the love of God. But first, he needed to turn the water into wine. First he needed to begin; to devote all of his powers to serving the need in front of him – and at his mother’s request I might add. Winemaking was his first contribution to the cause, it was not the fullness of his identity.
According to my vision, sanctuary is to us as winemaking was to Jesus. It is not necessarily the work that we have been called to do forever, but it is the first fruit of a new harvest; a new sort of work that calls us into a new form of community, maybe a more intentional community. Maybe a more expanded and interfaith community. Maybe a community that is more grounded in its commitments to each other and to changing the way we live in this world.
But hopefully a community that speaks to the upcoming generations more than Sunday School or Confirmation Class or even Sunday worship seem to speak at this juncture. A new sort of community that actively invites participation by the generations who will be the next leaders and visionaries in the church, the ones who are becoming the current visionaries in the church, the ones who are interested in a different model of church than the one most of us grew up with.
The ones whom I think are much more interested in a wholly intentional community that is committed to changing the world rather than a well programmed community that is committed to growing its ranks – the church I grew up in. And if you don’t believe me, just ask them. We have solid contingent of millennials and Gen Xers in our midst. They are almost all involved in sanctuary. And I encourage those of us who are not supportive of sanctuary and who mourn the loss of some of our previous programming to talk to the next generations about what they value and envision. Our future will be built on the wisdom and integrity of all of our generations working in concert with each other to craft our future. But it will also depend upon our willingness to change.
That is not to say that we are ditching our programming. But it will need to be reimagined. And that is going to take some time. Appearances to the contrary, our programming has not been neglected over the last year, but it has been changed.
In addition to tending our sanctuary and flourishing collaborative, my priorities in the coming year will be focused on our youth, on Christian and spiritual formation for all generations, on music and liturgy, and on the ways in which we might become a more intentional community…a term that I think we will define as we go.
Pastoral care, hospitality, and outreach will continue to be valued at the heart of our community. But all of these ministries will need to be reconstituted to serve the community that we are becoming, rather than the community that we once were.
And that is an exciting proposition! The sky is the limit if we can see our way to keeping our eyes and heart open to where ever God calls us.
On the bottom line, my vision for us is that we continue to grow into a very intentional community of beloved and holy friends who are willing to risk more than most to live into our Gospel values with utter integrity. Committed disciples who love and respect each other…..and act accordingly.
Please know how grateful I am to be your rector. I am overjoyed with the example that we are setting for our kids and the Kin-dom that we are building here in this sacred and beloved space. I am hugely hopeful for our future. I value every voice and every heart in this room. I humbly ask your forgiveness for places where I have stumbled. And I will lovingly and endlessly offer the same to you.
And most of all:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
Be ever acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our redeemer.
© January 2019, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw