The Present Sufferings, The Glory to Come
What a blessing it is to me to be with the people of Grace Church today, a congregation that has been so good to my family.
I feel grateful to be with you at this particular moment in your journey as well.
You are in a season of transition, and so am I. Everything seems unfamiliar and strange.
For me, it’s a new job; for you, it’s looking for a new priest.
These transitions would be difficult enough during normal times, but we are tackling them in the midst of a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and God’s clarion call to grapple with racial injustice.
If you’re feeling a bit at sea, you’re not alone!
So how can we navigate this time of change together?
Where do we turn when it’s so difficult to see the next steps on the path ahead of us?
I think the first step is to really live into the mingled gratitude and grief we feel.
You all know what a remarkable priest you had in Ian Lasch. He was a blessing to our entire diocese, and I know the work he did with you was meaningful and life-giving to this congregation.
Add in the talent, joy, and love that his wife Loren spread everywhere she went and two beautiful little boys, and Grace Church is grappling with a serious loss in their leaving.
Name that. Embrace it.
Cherish the memories you have with the Lasches.
Last week you said your goodbyes to them in person.
It will take time to let them go in your hearts, and that’s okay.
As A.A. Milne said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
As Paul says in our text from Romans today, “Brothers and sisters, we are debtors.” We have so much to be grateful for.
And taking out that mingled grief and gratitude, turning it over, looking at it, and when you’re ready, letting it go to rest, is part of how you will prepare for your next season in ministry.
It would be easy for any congregation facing a clergy transition in the midst of what may be the most extreme global upheaval of our entire lifetimes to feel a bit pessimistic. To feel a bit worried. To feel at a disadvantage, as though things can’t or won’t be as good as they would be in “normal times.”
In a season where sheltering in place has become a monotonous duty but somehow the pace of change still seems dizzyingly fast, it’s hilarious how we start to look back on a time as short as two weeks ago as “the good old days.”
But consider for a moment the great heroes of the faith.
People from Bible through the early church, through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, down to the 20th century.
Moses, Esther, Mary, Peter, and Paul.
Justin Martyr, Benedict and Francis, Teresa and Clare, Thomas Cranmer.
Frederick Douglass, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rosa Parks.
None of them became great because their lives were easy.
None of them mined the true depths of their faith because they lived in tranquil times.
They were driven to greatness by the very intensity of the turmoil they faced.
They learned how to rely fully on God because their circumstances overwhelmed them so thoroughly that they had no other choice.
They all knew their poverty of strength, but it was matched by their richness of faith, and that is the combination that allows God to work miracles.
This is the context that Paul is writing out of in our Romans text today.
And you, by virtue of what is happening right now, are closer to understanding and living that out now than you ever have before.
This is faith on the edge, which is the heartbeat of the gospel.
We predominantly white 21st century middle class Americans are about as far from Paul and his church’s experience as you could imagine—or at least we were.
Feel the thread of fear running through the life of your church right now, but follow it into something new—a radical faith.
“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,” Paul says, “but you have received a spirit of adoption.”
God is ready to reconstitute this congregation into a new family with a new priest, and the work you do here and now will be key to the health and flourishing of that new family.
What I want to say to you right now is that what is happening at Grace Church Jefferson City matters.
And it matters for far more than just the people of this congregation or of this city.
Paul tells us, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”
“Futility” is a word that resonates deeply right now.
Our faltering efforts to deal with the pandemic, the inevitability of a recession that may tip over into a true depression, and the endless uphill battle of uprooting entrenched racism—it can make our small, human efforts in one congregation seem futile.
And how can we deal with all of that when we’re trying to just survive and figure things out with a new priest?
But remember Paul’s exhortation not to fall back into a spirit of fear, and hear that your witness is needed—even longed for, Paul says, by all of creation.
Because who does God work through in the scriptures over and over again?
Is it the great people? The important and wealthy ones? The folks at the top of government and power?
God chooses the small, the humble, the weak, and pours love into and through them until the world itself is changed forever.
How does that happen? How does God come into a shambles of upheaval and tragedy and fear and bring forth grace and truth?
It’s blindingly simple and deceptively hard: God works through people who say yes.
People who say yes to suffering and endurance because they are saying yes to change and growth.
People who say yes to God because they are saying yes to hope.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” Paul says. “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
So if all of this is true—if what’s happening at Grace Church now is part of how God is changing the world—what does that mean for you?
Well, we find ourselves left with two questions.
First: will you say yes?
Will you say yes to God’s leading through this season of change? Will you participate in the salvation of the world through this crucible we find ourselves in? Will you plunge into the refiner’s fire together and come out a new creation?
If you do say yes, we ask the second question: how?
How will you participate in God’s work in this hour? What are the concrete actions you are taking right now to love God and love your neighbor?
In this pandemic, are you wearing a mask? Are you being safe?
In this economic downturn, are you asking for help when you need it? Are you giving of your resources to those in need if you have the ability?
In the fight against racism, are you being diligent and proactive about your own anti-racist education?
And in the transition at Grace Church: are you honing your ability to be flexible and innovative? Are you ready to let old things die so that new things can be born? Are you welcoming change instead of resisting it? Are you living in a spirit of potential and possibility or scarcity and fear?
Are you saying yes to God?
And as you ask and answer those questions, return to and deepen your daily practices of faith.
Prayer, reading scripture, participating in worship and other activities at Grace Church however they’re possible with social distancing, giving of your time, talent, and treasure, and receiving and sharing the love God every day in every way you can.
These are the practices that made Grace Church the wonderful congregation that it is, and these are the practices that will see you through this season of change.
These are the time-proven rhythms of faith that our ancestors relied on in their own day of trouble, and they strengthened our forebears to live out the stories that inspire us today.
You are someone’s ancestor.
People a hundred years from now, a thousand years from now, will look back at the era of the pandemic and think about us and how we lived through it.
Some future archivist at Grace Church Jefferson City will one day open a dusty volume and turn to the page that says 2020.
What will it say?
What will your witness be?
How will your life and faith inspire our descendants as they struggle through their own challenges and upheavals?
That archivist will turn the page and will read, “In 2020, as a global pandemic raged and led to a severe economic downturn, America heard God’s call anew to participate in racial justice and Grace Church said goodbye to a beloved rector and his family. In their time of transition, the congregation at Grace took to heart the words of Romans, ‘all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.’ As they prayed together, they heard and followed the Spirit and…”
What does it say next?