I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that in this passage John is trying to say something about love. J Love’s what we’re known for, right? As the song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Ideally, anyway.
There are many ways to talk about living love as people of faith. We can parse it. We can analyze it. We can testify to it. We can confess when we don’t do it. We can sing it.
Having just returned from a Women Touched by Grace retreat, today I choose to testify to divine love as I have experienced it, not just in the last week, but for the last decade. And since singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer was our retreat leader, there might be a song, too. J
Women Touched by Grace is a program for Protestant clergywomen dreamed up by a spunky nun named Sr. Mary Luke Jones at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana. Seventeen years ago, the Lilly Endowment–which is headquartered in Indianapolis–ran a grant program focused on sustaining pastoral excellence. On a lark, Sr. Luke met with a couple of women pastors. Over an intense week they designed Women Touched by Grace.
Initially, 30 women pastors were invited to participate in 6 ten-day retreats at Our Lady of Grace. Each retreat focused on a different topic, from Benedictine spirituality, to systems theory, to spiritual practices. The program would end with a trip to Rome.
Happily, Lilly liked the proposal and WTBG was born with a $500,000 grant. The response of those first 30 women was so positive, Lilly invited WTBG to apply for a sustaining grant for a second group. The sustaining grant of $250,000 supported a program of 5 retreats for 20 clergywomen. No trip to Rome. Because of the persistent nagging of a friend of mine who was in group I, I applied for group II and was accepted. As our group finished our program in 2010, the response again was so positive, we applied for a third grant. Lilly gave another $250,000 for WTBG III with an additional $50,000 to pay someone to help us set up a foundation so that WTBG could become self-sustaining. Last week was the first time women from all three groups gathered at the same time.
Two years ago, Lilly started another grant program called Thriving in Ministry. WTBG wrote another grant and this time received $1 million. They’re currently taking applications for WTBG IV. After WTBG IV, there will be a WTBG V.
Because each WTBG group requires only $250,000, and because all the grant monies must be spent in 5 years, two other programs have been designed. One is called a Multitude of Mentors, the other Grace-filled Turnings. The first is designed to mentor mentors of young clergywomen. The second is a series of four retreats designed to help clergywomen with times of transition. Last week’s event also was paid for by this new grant.
That’s the what of Women Touched by Grace. Here’s the So what? of it. Women Touched by Grace changed my life…and it did so by means of profound love. I want to share a little of this experience with you not only to help you understand me a little more and to illustrate today’s epistle lesson, but also to help you understand where I’m coming from as your pastor.
In the last ten years since starting the WTBG program, I’ve incorporated everything I can into my work as pastor. From WTBG–and the Rule of Benedict–I have learned what it means to be part of a spiritual community. From this program I have learned what truly radical hospitality is and how important prayer and other spiritual practices are to living the life of faith. From this program I have learned that the love one experiences in community is meant to be shared outside the community, especially with those who are living on the margins. From this program I have learned that laughter is an integral part of Christian faith.
It’s impossible to explain everything about Women Touched by Grace and Benedictine spirituality in a 20 minute sermon. Today, I simply want to introduce you to them. We’ll have the opportunity this summer to immerse ourselves in the radical hospitality lived by the Benedictines. If you want to get a jump on those conversations, you might like to start reading the book Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love. I read this book with a small group in my last church, folks who said they wanted to live their faith in a more profound way. After reading the book, one person said, “This is too hard.” Living faith with authenticity isn’t easy. Living the love of radical hospitality is especially difficult. We’ll explore all that this summer.
Here’s what I want to say today. The world needs us to be living our faith, just as it needs people of other faiths to be living their faith. The world needs followers of Jesus to live our belief in the love of neighbor. The world needs followers of Jesus to act into wellbeing immigrants and refugees and women and children and the hungry and the oppressed and the abused and the fearful and the hopeless and people of all races, sexualities, belief systems, nationalities, and ethnicities… the world needs us to be and live as true followers of Jesus… which is to say, the world needs, desperately needs Christians to live the love of Christ, to act others into wellbeing in Jesus’ name every chance we get…
As we gathered for our banquet Thursday night, I looked around the room at 60 clergywomen talking, laughing, hugging….I saw the woman who’s just been diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer, the woman who lost her teenage daughter to suicide 8 years ago, the picture of Mary Jacobs from my group who died of breast cancer six years ago…I saw the women who have helped me through difficult times in my life…and I saw a conga line of women pastors and nuns dancing to the music of the Karaoke singer they’d hired. I also saw hope and health and joy and life and love…I saw a miracle. All it took was one nun’s quirky idea, nurtured by community, and now 70—soon to be 90—clergywomen’s lives, and through them, over 100 congregations, have been changed.
We are one of those congregations. It was my WTBG colleagues ultimately who convinced me to seek another call…and who rejoiced to see how happy I am in this new one. We owe them a lot. As we seek to act the world into wellbeing in Jesus’ name, as we seek to extend to our neighbor God’s radical hospitality, as we seek to follow Jesus in the way of love, we too will be changed. As will the world.
When I got the WTBG acceptance letter in August 2007, I didn’t know what to do with it. Allen, on the other hand, was bouncing off the walls. “Let’s go out and celebrate!” he said. On the way back from supper, I asked Allen why he was so excited. He said, “Because those people are going to love you for the rest of your life.” He was right. And that love has made all the difference to me both personally and professionally.
That is what we have the opportunity to do here at FCUCC…to love so well that everyone in the wider community knows that when people come here, we are going to love them “for the rest of their lives.” Isn’t that what John is saying in today’s Epistle Lesson? “Beloved, let us love one another because love is of God.”
During the retreat, Carrie led us in writing a song about our experiences as Women Touched by Grace. The process of writing the song was just that—a process. The goal wasn’t a finished product; it was to help us name our experiences in WTBG. Pouring all those experiences into a song, Carrie said, would help us experience them not just in our heads, but also in our hearts. Singing is one of the few human activities that engages all of who we are—mind, body, emotion. I’ve said before that Pete Seeger believed—really believed—that the world would change if we could just sing together. Our process this past week bore that out.
You’ve got the words. I’ll sing it the way we wrote it first….then you can join me in singing it for our community. May we always live grace. May we always live love. [Sing, “I Am. We Are.”]
I Am, We Are
The words poured out, We are wise.
The world pushed back, We are strong.
But I just kept on singing. We refuse to go along.
I claimed my voice, We are the future.
I sang my song, We are the past.
The truth, it kept on ringing. We are a blessing meant to last. Chorus
Chorus: Alternate Chorus:
I am. We are I am. We are
Sisters of spirit. People of spirit.
I am. We are I am. We are
Women touched by grace, People touched by grace,
Living grace… Living grace…..
You heard me,
I heard you,
A refuge for my soul.
We are loved,
We are welcomed
In a place where we are known. Chorus
(Written by Women Touched by Grace, Groups I – III, April 25, 2018, with Carrie Newcomer. Our Lady of Grace Monastery, Beech Grove, Indiana.)