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Date Posted: May 31, 2020

Some masks are going on; Other masks are coming off: The struggle of living in community

Last week, I made my first pastoral visit in two months.  Two months.  I had to get special permission from the bishop to go and visit Ann Beadling in the nursing home wing of Lanier Village.  Yes, I had to get permission to go visit both because of the risk I pose to Ann as well as the risk posed to the parish if I get ill.  In these days, we clergy are called to a heightened level of accountability to each other and our communities.    

I arrived and met her son, both of us with our masks on, and we went in to see his mom.  At almost 95, she was feisty as ever, Italian to the core.  When we arrived wearing our masks, she immediately reached to her face and asked if she needed to put on a mask too.  We smiled and told her that she was fine, that we were wearing our masks to protect her. 

And there it was.  At that moment, my heart swirled at this encounter, laying it alongside the powerful images from today’s Feast of Pentecost readings about life in community.  These days of heightened stress and anger, with frustration with political leaders and understandable anger in marginalized communities, with rising unemployment and concerns about a resurgence of the virus in the Fall, we are holding a lot.  I should say we are struggling to hold a lot.  We are struggling.  

What does it look like to live together in a community?  Not just a church community, but as a wider community?  What does it look like to realize our connection with each other, our interdependence with one another, given that our Western culture’s “values” emphasize this hyper-individualism that nurtures a sense of “rights” over “responsibilities” to one another?  

How many times have you heard someone say, “I have a right to do what I want” versus saying “I have a responsibility to see what you need?”   Do we even understand what we mean by “freedom?”  Christian theology emphasizes that any freedom we have is properly understood as a freedom for.  If we have been redeemed by Christ, if we are freed from our sins, then we are freed for worship of God and love of neighbor.  True freedom is never about ourselves, never about merely satisfying our own greed.

My heart goes back to seeing Ann there in her bed, weak but able to visit for thirty minutes, asking me if she needed to put on her mask for us.  Her sincere care for those caring for her.  These days, some masks are going on while others are coming off.  I see such care in some people, even while I see blind ambition and greed and manipulation laid bare in others.  I’m trying to stay grounded in my practice of prayer and pay attention to the lessons I believe the Spirit wants me to learn.  

Today’s Gospel finds the disciples gathered in a locked room out of fear.  The story takes us back to right after the Resurrection to anchor us in Easter hope.  The disciples are not sure how to move forward, given that their world has been knocked out beneath their feet.  All they had imagined would come to pass had shattered at the foot of the cross, and they struggled to know what this meant for their future.  

In that moment of bleakness, Jesus appears among them.  He shows them his wounds to remind them of the reality of suffering–that self-emptying and sacrifice for others leaves a mark.  He breathes on them and tells them to “receive the Holy Spirit,” and he leaves them with words about forgiveness and living together in community.  

Jesus knew that they would need the Spirit, because the spiritual work of living in community is impossible to do on our own.  We humans are plagued by our tendency for ego grasping, for our pursuit of power and control, our rampant obsession with self-indulgence and distraction, our numbness to the reality of our interdependence–Lord knows we’re going to need help.  

These past several weeks have shown me just how torn we are, just how pulled we are between these two poles in our lives.  On one hand, I have seen such compassion, such outpouring of care and concern with people paying attention to one another in our families, in our particular parish, the wider community, and indeed with friends around the world.  I have experienced the living Presence of Love and it has reminded me of God’s Spirit that flows in our lives.  

On the other hand I have seen such selfishness, such disregard for others’ well-being out of a claim of so-called “rights.”  The face mask to me, has actually become a powerful symbol of this tension.  I have heard some say that they have a “right” not to have to wear a mask, because they have “freedoms.”  This claim highlights this warped sense of self-focus, because I don’t wear a mask for myself.  I wear the mask out of concern for you, for your care.  The mask is not about me, it is about you and your well-being.  So, to say “I have a right not to wear a mask is actually saying ‘I have a right to disregard your well-being.’” To refuse to wear a mask is literally saying, “I do not have to concern myself with your dignity and care.”  Think about that. 

Which, of course, brings us to the true sense of Christian morality, doesn’t it?  How do we understand our life together in community, with how Christ calls us to care for our neighbor, the poor, the weak, the widow, the orphan, those struggling among us?  The Gospel’s call is relentless, and this entire tension around masks is just a modern-day example of what Jesus is always trying to teach us about loving our neighbor as ourselves.  

So much in our culture stresses a consumer-driven posture which sounds like this: I want what I want.  Jesus always brings us back to the Gospel’s call, which sounds like this: I want what you need.  Understanding the difference in these two postures is essential in our practice of faith.  

St. Paul comes at it this way in today’s Epistle, the First Letter to the Church at Corinth.  He uses the image of the Body to remind us of our interconnection–of the reality of our mutual indwelling.  

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body– Jews or Greeks, slaves or free– and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (I Cor. 12:4-13).

St. Paul lays it out in a powerful image, “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The Spirit gives us each gifts, and we are called to share them to build up the community around us.  We are gifted for, if you will.  There is no ‘hiding it under a bushel’ on one hand, and there is no ‘my gift is more important than yours’ on the other hand.  We are called to discern our gifts and strengths and then offer them to the community so that everyone is nurtured and led toward wholeness.  There lies the foundation of a true Christian ethic that orients us away from ourselves and toward our brothers and sisters.  

I wonder these days just what it will take for us to realize this truth about our existence.  How long, O Lord, will we harm our own body?

I think back to that conversation with Ann, and the way she immediately reached toward her face and asked if she needed to put on a mask.  She didn’t hesitate to think about us,  while she lay there in her bed on hospice care, at 95 years old, recovering from both COVID and a heart attack.  That’s right.  Let that sink in the next time someone around you–or we ourselves–even thinks “I don’t want to wear a mask because I have a right to express myself or do what I want.”  Remember Ann.  

Friends, I don’t know about you, but I am tired.  I am tired of the physical distancing, of not being able to be present with you.  I am tired of feeling inadequate about so many things in my role as your rector.  I struggle to understand the technological details we will need to go forward, and I struggle to hold competing opinions.  To be honest, I struggle with a persistent fear that some will leave this parish because they will become so frustrated or disappointed in what we are doing–or not doing–too fast–or not fast enough.  

I struggle with a fear of this Fall and what our financial health will look like–not only on the level of the parish and school but also for each and every one of you.  The known unknowns keep me up at night, and the unknown unknowns love to hang out in the dark corners of our bedroom when I wake up early in the morning.  Some days, I really understand the disciples: I want to lock myself in my house out of fear.  

That being said, I can’t.  I can’t lock myself away in my room out of fear, because you show me hope–and because Chester and Wanda Lou would find me and start scratching on the door.  

Yes, we struggle.  We struggle with systems that are oppressive, and we need to find a way to name out loud our disgust with oppression, manipulation, sensationalism, and ignorance.  We must find a way to listen to those who continue to experience racism and oppression, our brothers and sisters who are living with fear and who are angry.  We must name what we need to name in ourselves that resists having these needed conversations. 

To do this, those of us with more privilege must be willing to hold a level of discomfort so that voices can be heard that, yes, to say it aloud, have been choked off.  We must listen more closely to the Gospel’s call to care for those who are struggling, the poor, the marginalized, the alien and stranger.  And we must be honest and listen to those parts of ourselves that want to stop listening.  We must remind ourselves–always–that any sense of freedom we enjoy is a freedom for building up the community.  And there lies our spiritual work, my friends, that we are called to do as a Body, honoring our distinctive gifts and strengths–and the one Spirit that unites us all.  

So, on this day, with the struggles and fears I feel and the frustrations I have with what I see, I remember Ann and the lesson she taught me that day.  I will know it is possible, even in moments of weakness, to look across at someone else and ask, “Do I need to put on a mask?”  What can I do to care for you, today? 

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Feast of Pentecost
May 31, 2020

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