At the opening Eucharist of the 143rd Annual Diocesan Convention, two lay people – Angie Ratkowitz of St. Peter's, Livingston and Ron Garner of St. George's, Maplewood – gave sermons in which they talked about what they've experienced in the Joining God journey.
The text of each of their sermons is below. A video of their sermons follows at the bottom of this page.
Good morning! I’m Angie Ratkowitz. Let me just say that I am as surprised as you are that I am speaking this morning. But I am also excited for Ron Garner and I to share our experiences with you finding God in scripture and finding how God is working in our communities.
My earliest memories of religion involve my Aunt and Uncle’s church. My father was a helicopter pilot in the army and at one point in my childhood we were stationed near his brother. Every Sunday my Aunt and Uncle picked us up for Sunday services. I never felt comfortable in their church. I left church on Sundays feeling bad. It wasn’t the place for me.
Despite this I did continue to be curious. I attended my friend's church in middle school for a while and in college took a religion course. I even visited temple frequently with my sister and her boyfriend. The good thing is I was having some positive experiences. I always knew there was a God. Nature was always a place I found God easily. My go to places for comfort were the woods near my house and my special tree in an orchard nearby.
When my son was born it became important to my husband and I that he be brought up knowing God. Through invite a friend Sunday, I was introduced to St. Peter’s Church in Livingston. I felt an instant connection to the people there. So with the gentle encouragement from the Rev. Jane Tomaine I started attending church on Sundays. I had lots of questions and she answered some of them but mostly just encouraged me to come. Just come next Sunday she would say, just keep coming. I had no clue what was ahead but I suspect she did.
Rev. Jane had that trusting heart like Lydia did in the reading today. All the folks at St. Peters did. They gave me the confidence to be a guest in their church. So I began to listen and and then hear scripture in a new way. I heard how God showed up in our lives and how we can be comforted and encouraged by scripture. I found God had always been there waiting patiently.
I began to feel God’s presence in the readings at church the same way I had always felt God in nature. So I guess you could say I was hooked. I continued to get involved at church and decided to be confirmed as an Episcopalian.
Over a year ago now, a group of us at St. Peter’s started the Going Local journey, a diocese initiative to reimagine the Episcopal Church. We had been searching for a ministry to focus on for quite some time, this sounded interesting. Upon signing up, we were asked to commit to Dwelling in the Word, and to come up with an experiment that put us out into the community.
Dwelling in the word is a way to engage in scripture with others. We read the same piece of scripture over an extended period of time, whenever members of the church are gathered. Preferably before you begin a meeting or event. You read the scripture piece twice, listen to each other and from that listening – discern what God is up to. It sounds kind of boring and not everyone including myself, were into it at first. Everyone is worried about how long it will take and there was a lot of “We’re reading the same verse again?” That’s part of the reason it works. It takes some time, you have to practice listening and then reflect. Dwelling in the word has become a whole new way to be in relationship with scripture for me and if I dare say all folks who I have been doing it with. We weren’t being asked to seek the scholarly answers or even the right answers. We were being asked – how does this piece of scripture make you feel? What does that feeling make you think of right now? And how is God asking you to make use of it?
Some days a word in the reading would encourage me, other days fear would be brought out by a sentence in the passage we were reading. Over time, I began to realize how this dwelling in the word was leading our Going Local group. In the beginning, reading about the journey of Paul and his friends brought up fear about our new journey with Going Local. But over time we became excited as a group, became focused, and were ready for what was ahead. By listening to each other we could discern how the group was feeling during the different phases of our experiment and encouraged each other as needed. The words of encouragement we needed were given to us in this piece of scripture. Dwelling in the word became a lens through which we could see where we were in the Going Local process and became a light we could use to show us the way we needed to go.
Our Going Local experiment became another way to hear God through scripture. We began to listen to others in the same way we listened to scripture. There were certain criteria we were asked to follow in our experiment. First, we were expected to chose an experiment that took us outside our normal comfort zone. Second, we were asked to engage in an activity that fostered relationship building with people in our community. Last, we were asked to undertake an activity that avoided doing for others or lecturing to others about what we do. We were asked to engage in an activity that allowed us to be receptive to what others had to say and to listen.
The experiment our team decided on was based on a listening campaign by Storycorp. We started our project, with our list of questions in hand, interviewing each other. We were feeling the power of these conversations, right away. We found we knew so little about the people we have been sitting in church with every Sunday.
These conversations brought up all kinds of emotions. Emotions from the listeners and the people being listened to.
We continued to listen, simplified our experiment a bit and broadened our community that we were listening to. We have now moved on to having these conversations and listening with anyone at anytime. Now, we fondly refer to it as ‘Going Local’ on someone.
Going Local has started many conversations that would have otherwise never happened. Ruth, who has an interest in family ancestry, found out in a conversation with a man she volunteers with, that her father was in the same war camp as his father. Ginger is having conversations with strangers on planes and trains that without going local she would have been afraid to start. Tara was able to start a conversation at a dinner party, about religious choices later in life when dealing with second marriages. These are important stories being shared. This is God at work in our community.
Another part of our going local experiment is reflection. What are we learning from these conversations? What is God up to? We are learning that people care deeply about one another, that people are hurting, that people can change. We have learned how interconnected we are. We have learned that people like to be listened to. People need to be heard. We have learned that being fully present as a listener is transformative.
We agree as a group, that this new way we are listening has changed all of us. Listening has changed how we move through our days. We kind of seek out people to ‘go local’ on because we know that we could forever be changed by someone’s story.
Sometimes people seek us out to listen, because they need to be heard. These stories are God’s peoples stories, God’s stories, a kind of scripture.
Listening is not something we are always good at. I feel all of us are being called to do this in our communities. Among other things, I think technology has contributed to a disconnect between people in our communities and society as a whole. We are staying in touch but real listening is different. There are so many groups in our society who feel they are not being heard and continue to do drastic things just to force people to listen.
I believe that God has given me this new gift of stories as scripture at an interesting time. The nation is certainly stirred up with this past election and new President. Our going local experiment has given me tools to start uncomfortable conversations in hopes of understanding. Dwelling in the word with my church groups continues to provide comfort and encouragement to continue this work to see what will come next. The stories that I am blessed to hear from Gods people I know will always inspire me and remind me that God is here among us and in each of us.
Good morning. My name is Ron Garner and I am a member of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Maplewood. I was invited to speak with you about my experiences in participating with a group of diocesan parishioners on what was called a Leadership Challenge to define, find and promote the presence of God in our communities. I wasn’t sure then how it was that I was called for this task, but like Paul in Acts 16, I had faith that this was a path that I was meant to follow.
Like Angie, I was involved with church from an early age. However, my experiences growing up in Chicago attending Methodist and later Baptist churches, were initially more positive and engaging. I participated in the service as an ‘altar boy’ and as a youth leader in Sunday school. As I grew older, I broke from the church after a disagreement with a church elder over his interpretation of scripture and what he saw as the ‘vengeful’ nature of God. (He told a young child who was terrified of water that he absolutely had to be baptized – via full immersion in the water – or else he would go to Hell. The child was traumatized; I was horrified!)
Later, that break was somewhat mended by a Jesuit-led education which provided a more liberal and less fundamentalist view of scripture. Still, I was not motivated to return to church.
After a long period of spiritual wandering, I met the love of my life who introduced me to St. George’s, where I found that all are welcome; where I found shared values, openness, community and a love of God & Christ. It was a spiritual connection that motivated me to become an Episcopalian.
In our Leadership Challenge, we too, like Angie’s group, used “Dwelling in the Word’ as a jumping off point for our discussions. Before long, we began to experience Acts 16 as a metaphor for defining our own path and progress. Through the ritual our ears always heard new and different things, offering fresh perspectives and spiritual enrichment, yet at the same time leaving us confused and uncomfortable with our lack of direction and unmeasured progress. We wandered. We could not agree on the right questions, much less where we should focus our efforts. Should our focus be on enhancing the leadership skills and qualities of the clergy? Should it be on the Vestry? On the parishioners?
Yes! All of that and more!
Eventually, we began to understand that through the ritual and metaphor of ‘Dwelling in the Word’ that the process was the point.
Through the process we came to a deeper understanding of the difficulty and confusion the Disciples must have experienced when Jesus appeared from out of nowhere and commanded, “Follow me.” We understood the faith that Paul must have had to accept the call to Macedonia. That by giving themselves over to God’s call and prayer, they all began to accept a shared mission.
We began to see as our own shared mission, the goal of extending, in tangible ways, the presence of The Episcopal Church beyond our pews directly into our communities.
We discussed ideas which would help shift our church communities beyond passive acceptance of the gospel message to more active participation. This implies a shifting of the leadership responsibilities from the Clergy to the Congregation. Creating a balance between receiving theological interpretation and engaging an openness to personal experience of Christian meanings – this can lead to new inspiration for finding Jesus in our lives.
Examples of this can include greater promotion of the community outreach that many of our members are already doing, like helping the homeless; working with refugee detainees; supporting indigent mothers; and driving food collection for local pantries.
Other examples include mechanisms for sharing parishioners’ own interpretation of scripture and its impact on their lives. St. George’s, for example, has used this approach via Social Media during Advent observances. Rev. Poppe frequently receives good feedback on the impact these personal expressions have on others’ lives.
Both Bishop Mark Beckwith and Presiding Bishop Curry often speak of the need to make our Church a platform for a “Jesus movement.” For such a movement to have resonance and take root, our Clergy cannot do it alone. You, as the spiritual descendants of The Apostles, must innovate, motivate, inspire and guide us there.
Let the group say 'Amen.'