A reflection on the readings for Proper 26C: Luke 19:1-10; St. John's, Chicago, IL.
It was a cold morning, a Saturday. I think it was 1995. A small group of us gathered here, in this space, for a Quiet Day, led by Bishop Wiedrich, then Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Chicago. Victor Von Schlagel was our priest. Bishop Wiedrich, known for his gift of story telling, opened up two stories from scripture, as I recall, taking a skeleton of a character in the life of Jesus and adding muscle and flesh, enabling the character to come to life. One character was Zacchaeus, from our Gospel reading this morning, and the other was Simon of Cyrene.
I no longer remember all the details of the stories Bp Wiedrich told, the specifics of what he said. But what I do remember is the gift of learning power of scripture to inform and form our faith stories, how they mirror our lives and offer us opportunities to understand how we, as individuals and communities, gain muscle and flesh and walk with Jesus through life’s deepest challenges, through pain and suffering and struggle, into hope, joy, and new life.
In 1989, six years before that Quiet Day with the Bishop, on a Saturday in October, I made a phone call to the office of this church. My husband D and I had decided to return to church. Our daughter was 15 months old at the time. Except for the day we were married, I hadn’t gone to church in 16 years. D had grown up in the Roman Catholic Church. The minister who married us four years earlier suggested that we consider the Episcopal Church, even though she, at the time, was a UCC pastor. So, finally ready to give church a try, I called the office to let the priest know that we were coming. I left a voicemail for the priest, B, who called me back a little later and assured me he’d look for us. Sure enough that Sunday morning we were welcomed by B and Masey and Elaine, Jaunita and Angela, and Julie and Scott who were married at the time, the Bolton’s, Mark and Lourdes, Cheryl, Mary, and KJ, Hugh –and others who soon became our church family. From that day on we came most every Sunday for ten years, and if we missed a Sunday or two Masey would call us, just to make sure we were ok.
D and I came back to church looking for community. We came looking for a place where we could grow in our faith as a family, and have people to grow with. We came looking for a place that would help us flesh out what it means to be Christians in the world today.
Our first annual meeting was an eye-opening experience. We worshipped and then had breakfast downstairs. KJ was the senior warden and she led the meeting – which as I recall was filled with quite a bit of anger and tears – people who felt neglected, who were not being tended too in pastoral concerns. Dan and I were a bit stunned. But as I’ve learned over time faith communities often have strong feelings and while it was my first, it is by no means, my only experience with conflict and strong feelings being expressed in the church. It didn’t scare us away, but taught us about the underbelly of love in a parish family.
In those early days of our time here, as we learned about the Episcopal Church through the Inquirer’s class, were confirmed and received in the fall of 1990 by Bp Griswald, I had no idea just how formational this congregation and this church would be for me and my family. I didn’t know then that I’d have great friendships with Angie and Nancy, and that our kids would spend so much time together. I didn’t know we’d have fall picnics with a jumping room and fire trucks, haunted houses and Halloween parties, Christmas pageants and pizza parties. I didn’t know that I would be formed by rummage sales and doing the dishes with other folks after an Ash Wednesday Fish Fry or the Thanksgiving dinner, or learning how to set the altar under the gentle training of Angela. And I had no idea that through this sharing of lives that my faith story would include discerning a call to the priesthood. A call which led to my ordaination on these steps on Dec. 28, 1999. But all of the things we did and the relationships we had with one another shaped and formed into the priest I am. I carry these stories with me and share them as examples of the power of faith communities.
In the years since my family and I have been gone, you have continued to grow in faith. From time to time I’d hear pieces of your story. Of how you have journeyed from that sad annual meeting, through the days of Bill, Victor, Tom, from a parish that had a tough time considering calling a woman as rector to a church that has subsequently sponsored three women in to the priesthood, me, Mary, and KJ, and now is finding new life and energy with Kara. I love to tell the story of your growth from a parish that wondered if it could ever grow again to one that is thriving and bursting with creative energy.
The story of St. John’s is a story of Zacchaeus, of responding with joy to the radical grace of God. It’s a story about the transformation that comes when people embrace the grace of God in their lives, and their faith community, in such a way that it to transforms lives – mine, yours, and enables us to walk with Christ into new life. I'm grateful for this church and for all of you, grateful to call this my home church. I suspect you all are too.