From the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | Second Sunday in Advent, Year C, December 6, 2015
In the first century of the common era, a few decades after Jesus, Paul wrote to the Christian community in Philippi saying, “This is my prayer: That your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
“May your love overflow more and more.” Paul prays for a rich, overflowing abundance of love for his friends in Philippi, that they might be pure and blameless. It is the love of Christ that purifies us. It is the love of Christ that forgives us. The love of Christ that produces in us what Paul calls a “harvest of righteousness.” Just as Paul prayed this for the Philippians, so I pray for us St. Georgians: May our love overflow more and more.
We live in a world where there are continued arguments about purity and religion. These arguments go back to Paul, Jesus, and Old Testament times. I think since there has been religion there have been arguments about who is pure and who is not, who is doing it right, who is pleasing to God, and who has some work to do. We live in a world where there are those who think in terms of white and black, right and wrong, either/or, and you’re either on one side or the other and there’s no room in the middle. Then there are others, I think like many of us in this room, who are more willing to live in the grey areas, the areas of ambiguity, paradox, and mystery, but we have to contend with those who have that either/or thinking and would even take the place of judgment and would sit in the place of executioner and say they would commit violence in the name of purity and in the name of what they think is right. I don’t have an easy answer about how we who are more in the middle respond to those who are so extreme. I can only go back to Paul and Jesus and that sense of love overflowing more and more, praying for that wisdom, for that discernment and insight, so that we might know what is best.
This is a congregation that is, I think, willing to live in the grey area. That means that some people are going to say that we’re crazy, that we’re not pure enough, that we do not understand. At issue here is also our concept of God, for there are those who have a concept of a God who is vengeful and angry and those with a concept of God that is merciful. There are those that would say, “We might be wrong. We’ll admit it, we might be wrong in erring on the side of love; erring on the side of welcoming those whom others will not welcome and if we get it wrong, we hope God will be merciful.” But others have a view of God that is different: “If you get it wrong, you’re done.” I don’t know how to bridge that chasm, but what I celebrate in this place is that we are erring on the side of love, love that abounds, love that flows. So today being the day of our annual meeting, the day we reflect a little on our ministry. As your new rector (I’m going to keep playing that new rector card. I have been here just shy of 11 months) I appreciate the many ways we as a congregation are willing to walk into that ambiguous territory, even though it’s not always easy. We don’t always know whether we’re wrong or right, but we seek to embody the abounding love of God anyway. I want to lift up a few of these places in our life together where we are embodying this love of God, but where we may not be getting it right.
This past year we fed thousands of people through The Table and through community dinners. This is a wonderful community that gathers together in Sydnor Hall, and yet at the same time we wonder if feeding people week after week is changing the system of poverty that keeps people hungry.
We share the Eucharist with all who seek God week after week, but at the same time we know there are arguments on both sides about open communion, whether all should be welcome at this table or only the baptized. We know that we are the exception rather than the rule in the Episcopal Church.
We have a variety of liturgical styles appealing to the variety of people that resulted in great growth in our congregation. We have Rite I, Rite II, Rite III, Celtic, Compline, and Noonday prayers, and at the same time we have a Book of Common Prayer and the traditions of the Episcopal Church by which we are bound, and sometimes we wonder how far we can push the boundaries of what the rules allow.
We have a variety of music here, and I just have to say again how incredible the music is here. We have several choirs of adults, children, and youth, we have a bell ensemble, jazz ensemble, and chamber ensembles. We have an incredible, rich variety; yet at the same time, how do we share what has been handed down to us by those who have sat in these pews for centuries, while at the same time stretch in new and different ways. That is a discernment we’re always having to make and we’re never quite sure if we are there.
We’ve moved into an age of electronic information at St. George’s. We’ve got a new website, a blog, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and at the same time we have folks who have difficulty finding their way onto the Internet, who may feel left behind or left out.
We baptize those who feel ready to make their commitment to God and follow Jesus as Lord, but at the same time we feel that challenge of how we support those persons and families who are baptized yet struggle to stay involved in church.
We’re growing in our numbers, but at the same time we wonder how long our historic and sometimes limiting space will be able to accommodate all these saints.
We welcome children in this congregation in ways that would make other congregations wonder how we do it, yet at the same time there are those Sundays where it can be hard to be together.
We have welcomed lots of newcomers through these open doors, and at the same time we know there is a back door and sometimes newcomers quietly slip away and it is a challenge to find ways to connect with them.
We have a bold statement of welcome that we’re proud of, yet at the same time we know we have work to do to address the barriers of race, class, gender, and sexuality.
We’ve reached out to our Christian, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors; those of other faiths; and those of no faith with a message of loving welcome, and at the same time we wrestle with how we can be honest about who we are and how we’re different and at the same time move forward to actually do something together. For those of us who gathered here on Friday night to pray in the aftermath of the shootings in California, and just to pray with all of the turmoil in our world, we prayed with a lot of our Muslim neighbors. We had a palpable and powerful sense that God’s love is abounding here, that God’s love is flowing more and more, even sometimes especially when we’re not sure where we are in that grey area but are willing to cross the boundaries that divide us. There was a sense of hope in this room and a sense of hope downstairs afterward in the fellowship in the midst of all of the confusion and uncertainty in our world.
As we look forward to the coming year, I pray that we may grow in that hope and that love of God. When we talk about growth, it’s easy to think in terms of numbers and pledges, but as Paul said in another letter to the Corinthians: If I sing in the tongues of angels and have not love, I am a noisy cymbal or a clanging gong (or maybe it was a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal). We can have this place filled to capacity with people, but if we have not love, we have nothing. So I hope that in the coming year we continue to grow in our bonds of love, the connections between members. Our Giving as One stewardship campaign, when we passed the packets around, showed us that some of us have neighbors just down the street who we didn’t even know go to this church. In February of next year, just before Lent, we’re going to welcome a young woman, Natalie Finstad, who is a missionary in the Episcopal Church. She’s a woman with a vision for how churches can grow as beloved communities where everyone’s gifts are honored and where we try to see each other more and more as God’s beloved children. She’s going to be here for a week and I hope all of us have an opportunity to engage with her in that conversation.
We’re looking ahead to 2020, our 300th anniversary. That’s on my calendar, by the way! As we prepare for that special anniversary to share our story, I want us to ask ourselves three questions that come from this letter to the Philippians:
- How is God’s love flowing freely in this parish? How can we name that, celebrate, and lift it up?
- How can we participate in God’s love more fully? Where are we sometimes cutting off the flow of love?
- What gifts do each of us bring that will help us respond to God’s love? Every one of us has gifts to offer. Each person gathered here is essential to the outflowing of God’s love, each of our members, those who are official and those who are unofficial. I told a story at the annual meeting about going to the hospital this past week to visit someone who listed themselves as a member of St. George’s. I didn’t recognize the name, but I went into his room and he greeted me as his minister and said he goes to the community dinner. We are his church, and he has gifts to offer us.
Each of us is essential to realizing the vision of a world where God’s love claims, purifies, and frees our hearts. We may not always know what to say or do in response to those who claim to be pure or want to purify us, but with God’s help, love will abound. With God’s help, we might even love those who would call us Episcopalians crazy. With God’s help we will produce that harvest, those fruits of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ. That righteousness is not going to be self righteousness, it’s not going to be religious righteousness because we did it better than somebody else, because our way is superior somehow. That righteousness will be a right relationship with God and with one another. A God who loves us, a God who calls us to share our faith, our hope, and our love so that love might overflow from this place into the world and back again, more and more — and more — and more.
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