Author Archives: mmckitrick714

Sermon from 8/19/18

The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 19, 2018

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen. 

As I get to know more people, and talk to you about what you love in the worship here at St. Stephen’s, I hear about many different things: the beautiful music, this sacred and inspiring space, the time with friends and family, the peace and solace in a busy week. All of these are important elements of what we do here. These things are hung around a structure, as ancient as the earliest centuries of the church, and even before that, drawing on the worship of the temple in Jerusalem. The structure has two parallel parts: in the first half of the service, we share the Word, reading from the Bible and reflecting on it; and in the second half we share in the Eucharist, coming together for Holy Communion. The Word is pretty clear, but what is going on when we have Communion? This practice is so central to our faith lives. And it is something we have in common with other Christians, over time and all around the world—we can think about it as a continuous, movable feast, that lasts for a whole day, as the earth spins on its axis: from Australia to Istanbul to Rome to Cohasset to California, the meal goes on each Sunday. This ritual binds us together so fundamentally that we call the whole body of the faithful, the Communion of Saints. We are part of a subset of Christianity, based on our particular history, and we call it the Anglican Communion, the churches that grew out of the English tradition. When we forge bonds with other churches, like the Lutherans of the ELCA, with call that being in Communion. So what is it, then, this Communion that we’re doing all the time, and why do we do it?

First, we do it because it’s commanded in scripture: the Story of the Last Supper, which we read in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, there is the account of the words Christ used, instructing them to “do this in remembrance of me.” A celebration of this meal has been part of the worship of Jesus’ followers from the very beginning, right down through two thousand years of the history of the church. So everyone agrees that we should be doing this, because Jesus said so, and because this is what the church He created does. The practice is nearly universal, among the Christian traditions. But what do we believe is happening, when we do this? That’s where we begin to differ.

One of the most influential thinkers who shaped our theology was St. Augustine, a bishop in North Africa right around the year 400—he wrote about sacraments, which is another way we describe Communion. What makes this meal a sacrament, rather than just dinner? Augustine said that a sacrament happens when the Words of God and physical elements, stuff from this world, are joined. God has promised to be here with us, when we put these words and these things together. In Baptism, that’s the Words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” together with the water that we wash or sprinkle, or dunk the person in. In the Eucharist, that’s the Words from the Last Supper, together with the bread and wine that we eat.

In those Words from the Last Supper, as well as in our Gospel passage today, Jesus connects this eating to himself, and that has always kind of freaked people out. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” The early Christians were accused of being cannibals by those who heard about this ritual, and the discomfort and questions surrounding it have persisted, and caused Christians to think about it in different ways. Medieval Christians weren’t so bothered by the cannibalism idea, but they wondered, as any child does, why the bread and wine don’t look and feel and taste like flesh and blood. Using the science of their time, they came up with transubstantiation, saying that the bread and wine keep their appearance and form but change in their essence, so that the elements physically are flesh and blood, they just look and feel and taste like bread and wine. As scientific theories have evolved, we’ve lost that idea of an essence of things, that goes beyond what our senses can perceive. Christians who’ve focused on the cannibalism problem, have denied that the bread and wine ever become Jesus’ flesh, except symbolically. In this way of thinking about it, there is not a physical eating, just a spiritual remembering. How do we understand what Jesus told us to do, how do we explain it to ourselves, and to other people? Is it a symbol, or is it “real” in some way, and what does that mean? Eating His flesh and drinking His blood—that’s pretty gross. Well, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we can be pretty gross. The way our bodies are, the things that happen to us, can be downright undignified, to say the least. Do we want a God who’s above it all, purely spiritual, or One who lovingly comes right down into the mess with us, and says, there’s nowhere I won’t follow you? There’s nothing I’m afraid of, nothing I despise—decay, disease, death, you don’t go there alone, I go through it with you.

That is the gift of the Incarnation, the coming together of physical and spiritual, human and divine, for us. God’s Word of mercy and love comes to our hearts and minds. And God’s Word comes to our bodies, as well. Our bodies are made by God, and God desires to redeem them, too. Some people have believed that flesh is less than spirit, is evil or dirty, that we have to transcend it to become pure or even recognizable, to God, but the sacramental traditions say that God embraces all of Creation: Words and stuff are joined. God wants to feed and heal us, and live within us, in every way. Not just as an idea, but as every part of us. This is how we begin to live our eternal lives, at the same time as we are still here on earth. That is how we become, as the Rite I prayer after Communion says, “The blessed company of all faithful people.” I always think it is especially poignant to share Communion with someone who is grieving—for we say, as we distribute the elements: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” In that sacred moment, we are breaking bread again with our beloved ones, sharing the feast, across the great divide. Tasting the same food. I don’t know how that works. But I know, with gratitude, that this is the gift of Christ’s coming, to bring us all back together, so that nothing, no one, is lost. The one who eats this bread will live forever. Amen.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons by Maggie, Sermons by Staff

Sermon from 8/12/18

The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 12, 2018

The Bible presents us with a lot of contrasts, at the level of individual lines and at the level of stories. Think of “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” Or the story of Mary and Martha, two sisters, one devoted to getting all the work of the household done, the other sitting quietly, listening to the Word of God, and annoying the heck out of her sister. Contrasts are a helpful teaching tool, especially for a book about the encounter between God and humanity.

There are poignant contrasts in the readings for this morning. First we find the conflict between King David’s men and David himself, in how they treat Absalom, the son who has rebelled and started an uprising against his father. The soldiers are seeking revenge, the complete destruction of the rebellion, in order to secure the power of their leader. They glory in the humiliation and defeat of Absalom, in his killing. But David mourns over Absalom as his beloved son, and cries out in grief, that he wishes he could have died instead. The soldiers thought they were defending their king, and promoting his cause, and they were, but what happened was, tragically, also the opposite of anything he could ever have wanted. Rather than triumph, at this moment when his reign is re-established, when the future of his regime is secured, instead he effaces himself, sets aside his own claims, his royal identity, and asks only for death. The cost of human victory is often like that—when what we achieve is held up against what we have lost, we are shown to be so helpless, so frustrated by circumstances beyond our control.

In the Gospel, again we see a dramatic, and frustrating contrast, this time between Jesus’ true identity and the way He is recognized by those around Him. He is the Messiah, God’s own Word, the bread from heaven, but His neighbours know Him as Mary and Joseph’s son. He was that boy they watched growing up, getting into mischief, breaking out in pimples, being human. They think they know Him, of course they do, they know everything they need to know about Him. They’ve got Him all figured out. But He tells them that He is the one who will lead them to know God, the mystery at the back of all Creation. How is that possible?

It can be so hard for us, to know someone in a different way, once we have gotten to know them as one thing. When I was fresh out of art school, I taught art and computer science, if you can believe that, for a couple of years in an elementary school. Sometimes small schools are very desperate. Anyway, there was a little boy I soon came to know as a troublemaker. He was disruptive, eager to attract attention, and, it seemed that he was obsessed with violence, in his drawings, in his play with other children. Before long, I began to write him off—that’s Matt, there he goes again, doing what he always does, and that’s who he was, for me. Our interactions got more and more difficult and stressful. I really dreaded the class sessions he was in—I didn’t know what to do. Until, one day, I was thinking about the things I loved (which was church, mostly) and the things I was having such a hard time with every day at work, and how far apart they were. I wanted to see if I could bring those two very distant, very contrasting things closer together. Could a little of the peace I found in church come with me, into the classroom? So I decided to pretend that secretly, unknown to anyone but me, Matt was Jesus, right there in the class. It changed my whole attitude to him. I listened to him, I tried to enjoy his presence, to learn about him and value him, for what he was, to stop dismissing him, for what he had been in my limited experience, as his teacher trying to get him to do something, to be a certain way, to make my life easier.

When we make other people into means to our own ends, pawns in our game, we are denying the image of God, the immortal soul, in them. For David’s men, Absalom was an obstacle to be gotten rid of; but, for David, even though Absalom had risen up against his father, causing strife in the kingdom and dividing their family, he was still a beloved son. When we look at other people with our very human, very limited knowledge, we can miss so much of the truth they carry, as children of God. The people of Nazareth knew Jesus only as the beloved son of Mary and Joseph; they did not see how he could be the one to lead the rebellion against the powers of this world, against death itself. The greatest contrast is always between our finite understanding and God’s own self, so infinitely creative and so truly free that God can best be described, as Jesus so often did, in paradoxes, riddles and jokes, proverbial smacks upside the head that remind us, over and over again: you think you know, you think you’ve got this put tidily in some box? Think again. It’s something else entirely, something you could never have expected.

Thanks be to God. That we can grow, in our understanding of others, when we approach them in humility. When we open ourselves to listen and learn from them, we can come to know the unique bit of God that is revealed in them. When we let God teach us and feed us in them. Paul sums up what that looks like, the possibility of a healed relationship to those we may have written off: we can speak the truth, expressing anger but not seeking vengeance, doing honest work, treating others with tenderness and mercy, connecting to them and giving of ourselves. It is a vision of life abundant, contrasted to the death we were so ready to deal out, in our ignorance, our quickness to judge and condemn.

Thanks be to God, that we ourselves have not been condemned, written off, as we surely could have and probably should have been. We can be disruptive, eager for attention, negative attention if that’s all we can get. Obsessed with violence, in one form or another, whether it’s violence against our enemies, or the violence of self-hatred and self-destruction. We can all be at our worst. God has chosen, and it’s a crazy, crazy idea, but this is what we’ve been told, and I’m going with it, God has chosen to know us in a different way, to care for rebels as beloved sons and daughters. To come and be with us, listen to us, rejoice in us, to learn us by heart. To see each of us, so helplessly ordinary and stuck in ourselves, and to discover a miracle, to look on us with the infinite love of a parent for a child. To grieve for us and what we do, but even more than that, to die in our place, that we might live. David couldn’t do it, but God could. “No one can come to me unless drawn by my Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.” Thanks be to God.

VBS prayer for Sunday:

Loving God, we give thanks for the gathering of children, young people, and volunteers for our Vacation Bible School this week. Bless their time learning together, help them to have fun, to make good messes and great music. Give our VBS leaders energy and patience. Help us all to know how thankful you are whenever we welcome a child in your name. May it be joyful, may it be safe, may it be a light of your love to the world. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons by Maggie, Sermons by Staff

Bread of Life

The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 5, 2018

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen.

It’s a great joy to get to join you in worship today. Thank you, to all of you, for the work and prayer you have offered for the future of St. Stephen’s. I am so looking forward to getting to know you and learn from you. You might want to know something about me, so this is a kind of introduction. For a long time, I’ve had this feeling of wanting to be involved with the meat and potatoes of life. I’ve always been hoping to arrive at the classic, honest, unpretentious, distillation of whatever it is I’m doing. Not the fancy dessert, not the teasing, showy appetizer, but the main course, the thing that nourishes you. In college, I went to art school, a place where you can be immersed in every trend and movement, you can fall in love with what’s cool and provocative in the moment. Perhaps that experience solidified my commitment to what is timeless and true, to serving something greater than myself, something my grandparents would recognize. The meat and potatoes is how it gets expressed in my head, but you might think of it in another way, especially if you are vegetarian—what I mean is something basic, fundamental, like bread. If you’re gluten-free, maybe bread doesn’t work for you either, but let’s stick with bread—it has a good heritage, this image.

How do we sort out what the bread is, for each of us, in our own lives? How do we decide on what is worthwhile and necessary, as opposed to what might be fun or distracting for a while? It’s a lifelong process—it can be called finding your vocation, or discerning a set of values that you’ll hold to, that can bind you to others who share them, creating a family, a community. In graduate school, I studied the history of the church, focusing on the work of the sixteenth-century reformer, Martin Luther. He was a theology professor, at the end of the Middle Ages. For the past thousand years, monasteries and universities had echoed with endless debates over the meaning of the Bible and God’s will, everything from who Jesus is to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The amazing thing about Luther was his ability to see through this dense atmosphere of constant conversation and identify the few, simple questions that were relevant for real people’s lives. What is worthwhile, and necessary? It’s as vital, and as complex, a question today as it was then. That process of evaluating is different for each of us, and it evolves throughout our lives, as we bring a new sense of ourselves to a changing world. There isn’t one right way to think about it. One person’s bread might be a chocolate chip cookie, and that’s ok. God shapes, and desires, all our various abilities. What’s important is to engage in it thoughtfully, to honour the gift of our lives by offering what we are and have to God and each other, as St. Paul says, “to live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” To do that, we have to take our choices seriously, about how we spend our time and do our work. If you are truly a chocolate chip cookie person, whose transcendent baking could possibly bring about world peace, or even just make a hard day better for your child or a friend, how much time do you want to give to gorging on Skittles? Is that really going to satisfy you? There are so many bids for our time and attention—developments in technology have certainly brought us a crazy salad bar of options for every instant of every day, and yet they haven’t brought us even one more second of time in the day, or one more hour in the week. So the question of value, of worth, is crucial. What’s the junk, and what’s the bread?

In our own lives we will find different answers. In the common life of the church, there is a bread that we share. Jesus tells us, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me, will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We have been given God’s Word, to nourish and satisfy us, in the scriptures and in the Sacraments. Christ has promised that, amid all the confusion of life, the demands pulling us in every direction, He will be here, for us. Each of us will be able to find Him in different places, in painting or running or solving problems or education or healing or whatever fulfills our God-granted talents, for “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” But all of us will be able to find God here, in the bread of life. This is where we come together, in the Word, in the flesh. Not that it’s easy, or uncomplicated, because life’s not like that. But this is the place where we wrestle with it, together, keeping faith with one another in this endeavour. There will be parts of the Word that we don’t understand, that we have to help each other with. Some of the Bible doesn’t feel like nourishing bread to us—some of these words are cruel, or contradictory. Some of our experiences of how these words have been used have been damaging and hurtful to us or to others, and we need to admit that.

It is my prayer and hope that we will engage together in this process of sorting out what’s important, what’s worthwhile and honest and true, for our life as a community of the Body of Christ and for God’s call on all our own lives. Doing that, together, takes trust. The journalist David Brooks wrote this past week that “Trust is won by persistence through failure.” As we explore and try things in this process of following Jesus, some things will fail, and those will be the most important things. Sometimes, we won’t get it right. Sometimes, we won’t understand. But what matters is being there again, for the next time. In fact, that’s the whole story of the Gospel, in a nutshell. Trust is won by persistence through failure. So that we might trust, completely, God even learns to fail, as we do. What is the crucifixion but the ultimate failure, of Jesus’ ministry, of God’s outreach to the world, of the unity and perfection within God’s self, a failure of everything, for all time. Just so that there could be, through that failure, persistence, a return, to those very same friends who had betrayed and abandoned Him. They were questioning, and searching, weighing their options, just as we do. “What must we do to perform the works of God?” They had been looking for some cataclysmic sign, a massive miracle like food raining down from heaven in the desert. Instead what they got, what we get, happens quietly, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”

That’s the meat and potatoes, the bread, that I have found, that I am grateful to be able to share in here, with you as we begin to walk in Jesus’ way together: Seek the truth where the Truth is found. When it all falls apart, come back again, in love, in trust. It’s not showy or trendy or even new at all. It’s the old, old story, of forgiveness and faith, the only one worth telling.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons by Staff

We of Little Faith

Sermon for Sunday 7 am Beach Service, 9 am at Walton Rodgers Hall, August 13, 2017 || Proper14, Year A || Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33|| The Rev. Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.

This morning I want to capitalize on the fact that by mid-August I can be hopeful that many of us have enjoyed a summer vacation or may have vacations underway, so that it will not be jolting when I invite you to engage your imaginations on this warm lovely Sunday morning. I want us to place ourselves in this morning’s gospel story, in the midst of the action of a story that is so familiar, and so full of mystery that we might otherwise miss the opportunity to consider it and discover something new or deeply resonant or relevant for our lives today.

Chronologically, this morning’s gospel, a version of which appears in Matthew, Mark and John’s texts, takes place the same day as the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Jesus and the apostles taught and fed 5,000 hungry people, after which Jesus sent the disciples back to the sea and to a modest boat to head to the opposite shore. Jesus, then took himself up a mountain to pray.

He and the disciples must have been exhausted from a long, full and surprising day. Perhaps they began to discuss what they had seen and experienced, comparing notes about the different parts of the crowds they each found themselves in. The disciples had a lot to discuss as they loaded into the boat and began to row across the sea. As they are rowing, Jesus is on a mountainside relishing the first peace and solitude that he has had for days. He too may be reviewing the events of the day, perhaps praying for some of the individuals he met and fed. He is recharging his spiritual batteries by prayerfully connecting to God.

I love the notion that Jesus prayed. We hear it several times in this part of the gospel. As God, Jesus’ thoughts and actions were well grounded as divine, but after large public displays of ministry and miracles, we are told that he needed solitude and sought the opportunity for respite and recharging.

While he is praying overnight, a storm is brewing and making boat travel for the disciples treacherous. Why would Jesus either put his followers in danger, or create an atmosphere of fear? I wonder whether the purpose of the treacherous waves was to cut down on the conversation or small talk in the boat and the speculation about what they had seen and heard all day. Perhaps, God wanted the disciples to keep to themselves and keep their own thoughts, even as they were trying to figure out what they had seen and done. In a noisy, windblown boat, there would be very little opportunity for conversation and conjecture. They would need to be focused on their destination.

Then sometime around 3 or 4 in the morning the gospels say that Jesus saw the boat a few miles from shore being tossed and turned and he walked out, on the water toward the boat. Can you imagine what that looked like either from shore or from the boat? We know that the vision of Jesus walking on water frightened the disciples. They speculated that he was a ghost.

I will confess that as a parochial high school student, prior to the invention of the internet which would have offered thousands of YouTube videos and animated illustrations about this miracle, I spent hours thinking through how Jesus might have walked on water. Since it appears in three of four gospels, and echoes ancient myths circulating at the time, I was always taught that there was something tangible and real in this story. I will admit to having spent hours trying to turn Jesus’ walking on water into the equivalent of a David Copperfield parlor trick — this was only a couple of years before he disappeared the Statue of Liberty on prime time, network TV. Were there giant boulders just below the surface that Jesus knew about? Was the sea actually shallow, with sandbars checkering a walkable path? The disciples were experienced sailors and knew this body of water well, so it seems unlikely that Jesus took advantage of a subacquataneous walking map of the sea to create the appearance of a miracle.

As a Priest-in-training, I have moved on from the folly of deciphering the mechanics of an illusion, to wonder why Jesus did this. Why would he choose to approach the boat on water? What was he teaching the disciples and what is he teaching us? Feeding the 5,000 was a miracle that resulted in alleviating discomfort and enhancing the gathered crowd’s ability to learn and inwardly digest the teachings that Jesus was offering.

Walking across the water did not result in healing, or curing or alleviating suffering. Why would he walk a distance of a few miles on water? His miraculous water-walk demonstrated two specific and critically important aspects of his divinity for the disciples. He reaffirmed what they had just seen on shore, that Jesus is God. This miracle of walking on water also demonstrated that Jesus is everywhere. He could even be with the disciples on a storm tossed sea. Bad weather and difficult sailing conditions could not separate them from Jesus.

Put yourself inside that boat. You aren’t talking to anyone but are riding or perhaps rowing, frustrated at not making much progress because of wind and waves. You have been at this for hours. And in the midst of this turmoil, you see a figure walking toward the boat, on top of the water. The image doesn’t compute. It is unlike anything you have ever seen from a boat, and when you realize the form coming toward you is a person, you think it must be a ghost, apparition, harbinger of death or something definitely otherworldly.

Then you hear Jesus’ words, comforting you and your fellow travelers by telling you not to be afraid. At the sound of his voice, which you simultaneously hear and feel in the inner recesses of your heart, you know that all will be well. You’ve seen him feed thousands of people using a few loaves of bread and a few fish. So, he can walk on water too.

In the astonishment and profound gratitude that follows, your companion Peter, asks Jesus to let him walk on water. Imagine hearing that request and watching as Peter puts one leg and then the other over the side of the vigorously rocking and pitching boat. Peter begins to walk toward Jesus on that wind swept sea.

Perhaps you can imagine yourself as Peter. You love Jesus so much and are so relieved and grateful to see him, that you are the one who asks to be made to walk on water, and you clamber out of the boat and begin to walk toward our Lord.

The next part of the narrative frequently becomes the focus of this miracle story. Peter walks on the water until he is distracted and frightened by the strong wind and waves and he begins to sink and cries out for Jesus to save him. Jesus responds by reaching out his hand and scooping him up and says “you of little faith, why do you doubt”?

This morning, I’d like us to consider Jesus’ response as not criticizing Peter’s devotion, but as affirming his remarkable faith. Jesus calls Peter a person of faith and we know that this is true, as he has just demonstrated it by stepping out of a rocking boat, onto a choppy sea to get closer to Jesus. “You of remarkable faith, doubted not”.

What would it have taken you to push yourself over the side of a boat to experience a miracle, demonstrate faith and move closer to Jesus? Can you imagine being so focused on the love and light of Jesus that you suspend your fears, your understanding and experience of physics and respond as Peter did? Jesus is always beckoning us to “come”, and he is always waiting. Like Peter, we can do anything if we focus on God and remove distractions and vanquish our fears.

Consider the week just ending. What might have distracted you or made you fearful and farther from the direct experience of God? Perhaps you were overwhelmed at some point this week, inundated with the waves of news coverage, terrorism threats and acts both domestic and international.

Visiting DC this past week, it was impossible not to be distracted and sometimes distressed by the global military shifts being threatened and the political maneuvering and sabre rattling echoed and amplified via every known media platform. Clergy gathering in Charlottesville to counter-demonstrate a white pride march, death, injury and destruction that followed. Political leaders using threats and scary syntax to position their countries against one another. What kept you from hearing Jesus beckoning you to himself? It was hard to imagine any of the high profile leaders in the news acting with the complete love of God as their motivators.

And what of the upcoming week? What is on your agenda that may be intended for productivity, crossing off listed “to dos”, and preparing for a return to work, school or family and guest-free living? Is it possible, as we sit here together on Sunday, to decide to find time for quiet contemplation, rest and divine connection? Jesus had to pray in order to restore himself. A perfect example to follow, even if this morning it may seem impractical given your calendar, expectations and the responsibilities on your plate.

We could take the lead from one of my mentors who is very much about balancing the requirements of a faith-filled ordained life with the practical realities of an oversubscribed schedule. He advocates for at least praying through your calendar, even if that means simply looking at your iPhone and asking to be made aware of God’s presence during the upcoming meetings and phone calls. It is a prayerful exercise that doesn’t take long, and the mere expectation of having God’s presence at each stop of your day enhances the likelihood that you will be aware of it.

The example of Peter this morning is that if we can ignore or set aside distractions and focus wholly and intently on God, our fears and some familiar experiences will be quelled. The second message from Peter’s experience is equally important. If we get distracted by waves or scary things like hate marches or bickering countries, competing responsibilities and massive to do lists, if we lose our focus on God, Jesus is there with a hand to catch us, to calm the rough seas and to affirm our faith and devotion.

Amen

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons by Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Sermons by Staff

Funeral and Celebration of Penelope Place

Funeral and Celebration of Penelope Griswold Place || Saturday, 11 o’clock in the morning || June 10, 2017 || The Right Reverend Bud Cederholm, Officiant || The Reverend Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq. Deacon

Penelope Griswold Place is one of the people whose image and words traveled with me after my very first visit to St. Stephen’s in 2008. I was here to check the parish out in advance of your official installation of The Reverend Margot Critchfield as your rector. As I recall, Pen stood up at announcements and invited others into her gardening plans, not just offering details about when and where to gather but some horticultural details about what her work crew’s labors would eventually yield.

Pen’s inclusive enthusiasm for parish gardening and love of the earth and flowers offered a wonderful testament and local embodiment of what we now familiarly refer to as Creation Care (made popular and mandatory in this Diocese by our own Green Bishop). Pen and her fellow gardeners were in the vanguard of a now central tenet of the Episcopal Church. And her frequent and engaging announcements gave the marvelous impression of St. Stephen’s as a cool parish that welcomed a wide range of ministries available to a notable variety of people.

Pen’s announcements have been missing from church for a while, but her colorful requests for prayers for whatever Boston based team still reverberate in this sanctuary and throughout this church.  There are children, now teenagers or adults, who remember Pen dressed in a variety of team regalia, marching up the center aisle, hockey stick, basketball, or baseball glove in hand, having donned the appropriate jersey for the game ahead, and these formerly young people knew because of Pen, that this is an interesting and accessible church – also that you can pray for sports teams and game outcomes.

Those of us who were delighted by these announcements, learned to listen to the nuances of Pen’s requests. We learned that if she said that we had a good game ahead, and we were going to pray for a particular player, we understood that Boston’s chances of victory were pretty good. If on the other hand, Pen said, we are really going to have to pray hard for the Boston team, who she would add, definitely deserved to win – filling in some reason that it merited victory – we knew that the odds for success were long and that Boston was not favored in the pending match up.

And on Sundays when your mother wasn’t here, or in the summer when she had relocated to Maine, more than one child could be heard to ask where the sports lady was.

Pen was, of course, not just a large presence at our morning services, she was a very active and engaged lay person, demonstrating her faith and narrating her divine doubts in a variety of settings. She was a staple in some of the small group gatherings like our Advent Book group or small Lenten study groups, where we focused on a particular gospel each year. At each, if I was fortunate enough to be in Pen’s group, I would eagerly anticipate her insights and perspective on a wide range of social and theological issues.

During these small groups, Pen learned that I was in the discernment and formation process for the Priesthood, and she was generous in sharing her own story of going to seminary, and being confounded by the big deal being made about women seminarians in pursuit of ordination. She explained that she loved her studies, but was frustrated by the patriarchal standards that persisted when she was a student.

She once wisely and presciently declared that it was not sufficient to admit equal numbers of men and women to seminary, but that the church would have to make room for women doing ministry in new, and perhaps feminine ways. She was thoughtful about the fact that women’s approaches and scriptural insights would be different (and if we are being completely honest, she would also assert that those approaches would be superior – which always made us laugh!)

Her theological views were connected to the humanness and divinity of Mary the mother of Jesus, who Pen thought had a tougher more human road to navigate throughout Jesus’ life, and after the passion. Pen was moved by the fact that Mary had outlived her son and would have had to mourn while ministering to and caring for Jesus’ friends after his death.

I am the grateful recipient of one of Pen’s sermons that she wrote meticulously and preached in this pulpit on July 23, 1978. Her focus was on a parable in Matthew’s gospel of the weeds being sown in with the wheat. Her words were wise, her approach intellectual and academic and she covered the waterfront from the historical context of the assigned Matthew text to the theological (ecclesiastical) differences challenging the church.

Her preaching laid out doctrine, included current practical applications of theology and along the way she offered quotes and references from Matthew to Solzenitsyn – with an open invitation to the assembled congregation to consider scripture in new ways. She also wove in a particularly meaningful youth activity of the time (parishioners were to wear a paper heart at coffee hour that said, “I am loveable and able to love”.)

Hers was a sermon to be enjoyed on the hearing of it, and again appreciated with additional prayerful study.

And I love that you can hear her voice throughout her sermon text.   Her opening sentence from this pulpit was;

“ Let me begin by stating the obvious. The parable of the wheat and the darnel is NOT a lesson in horticulture for would-be gardeners and famers.”

Later she offers wise insights about conflict and confrontation as catalysts for new understanding and purpose, and she asserts:

“Glorious moments of wholeness and holiness can and do occur when the Spirit moves us to give of ourselves to others, or to receive another’s gift. When we have the courage to speak out or confront each other, at the risk of being wrong or injured, God’s cause is our cause.”

I am so grateful that we, and this community were witness to many of Pen’s glorious moments when she took up God’s cause, and gave of herself. She believed fervently in God’s kingdom, and our earthly charge to make it a reality while we walk this planet. And she believed keenly in the promise of (her words) “a full, abundant and everlasting life”.

Today we celebrate Pen’s full life as a work complete. We join with her family grieving her death, while comforted by the blessed assurance that she now rests with everlasting life in God. She enriched our lives, offered color commentary that sparked debate, left St. Stephen’s a more beautiful place, and has entrusted us with her legacy of plain speaking, joyous appreciation and quiet confidence in God’s love for each of us.

We give thanks to Pen’s family for sharing your mother, grandmother, aunt and cousin with us, and to God for having her so wonderfully, made.

Amen

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons by Staff

Does the Holy Spirit Have Hands?

Sermon for 8 and 10 am Sunday, April 4th, 2017 || The Feast of Pentecost, Year A || Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23||  The Rev. Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.

Happy Pentecost! Happy first Sunday of June, with a joyful entrance into the summer.

I am so excited to be in this pulpit for my first foray into preaching as an ordained person, wearing a beautiful cross made for me by our Ojibwe friends at the White Earth Reservation, a red stole for Pentecost, and collar on as the outward symbols of yesterday’s ordination and a lifetime of discernment. I am also delighted to have this Sunday coincide with the feast and celebration of the Holy Spirit coming among us.

Pentecost is marked and celebrated by a wide variety of traditions, and is not just a Christian holiday. According to Jewish tradition, Pentecost commemorates God’s giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, 49 days after the Exodus. It also marked a Jewish feast of the early harvest.

We celebrate this day as the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the people – finishing Jesus’ work on earth, completing his earthly life and empowering people to go forth and do God’s work in the world.

We understand that the Holy Spirit – fully God, but a distinct manifestation — different from God the Father and from Jesus (I’m pretty excited to hear Father John make the Trinity make sense to us next week when we celebrate Trinity Sunday), yet with God’s same vision, love and expectations for the world.

The Holy Spirit is a holy mystery – which doesn’t mean that it is forever unknowable. Rather, it is a Holy Mystery that we can study, chew over, decipher, unpack and examine while being forever nourished by insights and new understanding about the Holy Spirit throughout our entire lifetimes.

Thank you to those who participated in our reading of the passage from Acts in a variety of languages. I get excited by the scene outlined in that passage, with the notion of a group of unconnected strangers having a shared and barely explainable mystical experience.

Imagine yourself being in a large gathering, in the middle of an enormous, bustling foreign capital. You hear dozens of languages being spoken around you, by people who don’t look or dress like you, and all of a sudden, you hear what is being said in English.

The truth and power of the words cuts through the crowd, and fills your ears and your head with wisdom, insight and your heart with an overwhelming sense of love.

When I think and pray about what that miraculous moment looked like, I think of the hearts and minds and lives that were transformed in an instant. I wonder whether the rapid steps of transformation for the unrelated listeners went something like:

First, an awareness of their own discomfort at the foreign-ness of the surroundings, perhaps a bit of irritation at trying to understand what is being said right next to them by people with unfamiliar manners and dress, perhaps standing too close, or wearing nothing, or something peculiar looking on their feet. As they try to tune out this gibberish sounding noise, they begin to realize that they can actually understand what is being said. This realization is quickly followed by an intense desire and hunger to hear every word – to be bathed in the wisdom and love being espoused by the multitude of speakers. And when the speaking ended, a sense of comfort and gratitude for being in the midst of a miraculous expression of God through the Holy Spirit.

I would love to think that every hearer referred to in our readings for Pentecost was changed for life. That no one who experienced the Holy Spirit on that day decided to go back to his or her shopping list, or to continue along with the marital spat that was interrupted mid-accusation. I WISH that God was as obvious and life altering as described.  I am so grateful that I have had some pretty remarkable brushes with the Divine, but can not claim to have anything quite this obvious or dramatic.

Yesterday was pretty close. An ordination service is perhaps the liturgical equivalent of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was definitely present and is called upon to transform lives.

Yesterday I and Daniel Bell, Emily Garcia, Patrick LaFortune, Duncan Hilton and Amanda March entered St. Paul’s Cathedral as very active and engaged Ordinands (which is the funny Episcopal word that makes us sound like ordinary comedians or something, but we are in fact individuals who worked, studied, prayed and discerned in community, a call to the priesthood). Yesterday we entered the Cathedral as the people we have been all of our lives. People who love God, who want to emulate Christ and serve his beloved children, people who want to work toward God’s vision of heaven on earth, and people who know with certainty that God loves us. And yesterday, we left the Cathedral as ordained people who have newly conveyed authority to serve God’s church in new ways than was possible as lay people.

Our transformation occurred as we sang hymns, were officially presented and vouched for, signed a book, were examined and said prayers. The true moment of transformation within the two hour joy-filled service was when Bishop Gayle Harris laid her hands upon our heads and said a prayer, calling forth the power of the Holy Spirit to fill each of us with Grace and power, to be modest, humble, strong and constant.

And we believe that Bishop Gayle’s prayer worked and she conveyed diaconal authority to Emily, Duncan, Patrick, Amanda, Dan and me because she had this special power and authority invested in her by Bishops who laid their hands upon her when she became a bishop, and they have the power and authority because they had hands laid upon them, all the way back. This is what we know as apostolic succession. We have continuity of authority and doctrinal teaching going back to the time of the apostles.

There are some treasured stories about the beginning of the Episcopal Church in this country and the lengths to which a few courageous priests went to be consecrated as Bishops. Just imagine the vitriolic political schism that accompanied our country’s break with England at the time of the Revolutionary War, and the distinct lack of interest and well-founded worry that the Church of England had in consecrating new Bishops in a rebelling country. It is worth a bit of study to look up the life story of Bishop Samuel Seabury, who was the very first Priest ordained to be a Bishop in this country. He had to go all the way to Scotland to have a Bishop lay hands upon him to continue the line of apostolic succession.

Hands conveying the authority that Jesus bestowed upon his disciples from their age to ours. Hands doing God’s work in the world, translating the Holy Spirit into action. Hands as critically important instruments to do God’s work. Each Sunday, just as we heard in today’s gospel as Jesus offered peace to the disciples, so we extend our hands to one another offering each other a sign of God’s peace, and we use our hands to cross ourselves, a beautiful body prayer, that connects us to God in a silent but meaningful way as we worship, and we extend our hands to accept the sacrament of Christ’s body when we come for Communion at the altar rail.

At the communion rail, our hands accept Christ’s body, and we are fed in the holy mysteries of our faith. We are then called upon to take the blessing of this sacred and sufficient food, and use it and ourselves to feed and nourish others. To use our hands to do God’s work in the world.

Yesterday during my ordination, there was the briefest moment, as I was kneeling before Bishop Gayle, when I could feel her hands on my head, and knew the prayer she was about to say, that I had a quick Formation Review (you know how some people who have walked close to death but have survived say they had a life review? This was similar but so loving and positive) my formation review included the people, prayers and milestones that were reached throughout these years of preparation – my loved ones in the cathedral, my family, priests and friends who have walked and sometimes carried me along this road toward taking Holy Orders. The people who were doing God’s work, being parts of the Body of Christ, being God’s hands by guiding me to be the Priest I am meant to be. It was a moment that felt like a slight shift, perhaps the opening of a very thin place with God and for a moment all things seemed possible. It was the perfect prelude to Bishop Gayle’s prayer.

My prayer for St. Stephen’s is that as a worshiping community, with the faithful leadership of our search committee, we too find that thin place, connected to God and to the joyful possibility of our next rector. My prayer is that like the people in the biblical story of Pentecost whose needs were met by God who spoke in ways they could understand, we too are amazed and deeply satisfied with the person who is called to be our rector.

I am confident that between now and when our permanent priest arrives, there are people hungry for God’s good news, and thirsty for the blessed assurance of God’s love. They may never come and sit among us at St. Stephen’s. But carrying the Eucharistic nourishment we receive each week into the world, we are invited to go and find them and serve them where they are, in nursing homes and hospitals, on park benches or at the beach, in prison or detox or sitting lonely behind a front door in Cohasset. There are people who need our hands and the Holy Spirit which needs to be translated into loving action.

As I live beyond these first few days and weeks of being an ordained person, I pray to grow into clearer understanding of the ways in which God will call and challenge me to do the work of divine purpose in the world. To put my hands to God’s use. And I give thanks to be in this parish at such a pregnant moment, full of the possibility of new joys, new discoveries and new insights, surrounded by faithful guides and inquiring companions, who have brought me thus far on the way.

Amen

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Does the Holy Spirit Have Hands?

Sermon for 8 and 10 am Sunday, April 4th, 2017 || The Feast of Pentecost, Year A || Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23||  The Rev. Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Esq.

Happy Pentecost! Happy first Sunday of June, with a joyful entrance into the summer.

I am so excited to be in this pulpit for my first foray into preaching as an ordained person, wearing a beautiful cross made for me by our Ojibwe friends at the White Earth Reservation, a red stole for Pentecost, and collar on as the outward symbols of yesterday’s ordination and a lifetime of discernment. I am also delighted to have this Sunday coincide with the feast and celebration of the Holy Spirit coming among us.

Pentecost is marked and celebrated by a wide variety of traditions, and is not just a Christian holiday. According to Jewish tradition, Pentecost commemorates God’s giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, 49 days after the Exodus. It also marked a Jewish feast of the early harvest.

We celebrate this day as the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the people – finishing Jesus’ work on earth, completing his earthly life and empowering people to go forth and do God’s work in the world.

We understand that the Holy Spirit – fully God, but a distinct manifestation — different from God the Father and from Jesus (I’m pretty excited to hear Father John make the Trinity make sense to us next week when we celebrate Trinity Sunday), yet with God’s same vision, love and expectations for the world.

The Holy Spirit is a holy mystery – which doesn’t mean that it is forever unknowable. Rather, it is a Holy Mystery that we can study, chew over, decipher, unpack and examine while being forever nourished by insights and new understanding about the Holy Spirit throughout our entire lifetimes.

Thank you to those who participated in our reading of the passage from Acts in a variety of languages. I get excited by the scene outlined in that passage, with the notion of a group of unconnected strangers having a shared and barely explainable mystical experience.

Imagine yourself being in a large gathering, in the middle of an enormous, bustling foreign capital. You hear dozens of languages being spoken around you, by people who don’t look or dress like you, and all of a sudden, you hear what is being said in English.

The truth and power of the words cuts through the crowd, and fills your ears and your head with wisdom, insight and your heart with an overwhelming sense of love.

When I think and pray about what that miraculous moment looked like, I think of the hearts and minds and lives that were transformed in an instant. I wonder whether the rapid steps of transformation for the unrelated listeners went something like:

First, an awareness of their own discomfort at the foreign-ness of the surroundings, perhaps a bit of irritation at trying to understand what is being said right next to them by people with unfamiliar manners and dress, perhaps standing too close, or wearing nothing, or something peculiar looking on their feet. As they try to tune out this gibberish sounding noise, they begin to realize that they can actually understand what is being said. This realization is quickly followed by an intense desire and hunger to hear every word – to be bathed in the wisdom and love being espoused by the multitude of speakers. And when the speaking ended, a sense of comfort and gratitude for being in the midst of a miraculous expression of God through the Holy Spirit.

I would love to think that every hearer referred to in our readings for Pentecost was changed for life. That no one who experienced the Holy Spirit on that day decided to go back to his or her shopping list, or to continue along with the marital spat that was interrupted mid-accusation. I WISH that God was as obvious and life altering as described.  I am so grateful that I have had some pretty remarkable brushes with the Divine, but can not claim to have anything quite this obvious or dramatic.

Yesterday was pretty close. An ordination service is perhaps the liturgical equivalent of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was definitely present and is called upon to transform lives.

Yesterday I and Daniel Bell, Emily Garcia, Patrick LaFortune, Duncan Hilton and Amanda March entered St. Paul’s Cathedral as very active and engaged Ordinands (which is the funny Episcopal word that makes us sound like ordinary comedians or something, but we are in fact individuals who worked, studied, prayed and discerned in community, a call to the priesthood). Yesterday we entered the Cathedral as the people we have been all of our lives. People who love God, who want to emulate Christ and serve his beloved children, people who want to work toward God’s vision of heaven on earth, and people who know with certainty that God loves us. And yesterday, we left the Cathedral as ordained people who have newly conveyed authority to serve God’s church in new ways than was possible as lay people.

Our transformation occurred as we sang hymns, were officially presented and vouched for, signed a book, were examined and said prayers. The true moment of transformation within the two hour joy-filled service was when Bishop Gayle Harris laid her hands upon our heads and said a prayer, calling forth the power of the Holy Spirit to fill each of us with Grace and power, to be modest, humble, strong and constant.

And we believe that Bishop Gayle’s prayer worked and she conveyed diaconal authority to Emily, Duncan, Patrick, Amanda, Dan and me because she had this special power and authority invested in her by Bishops who laid their hands upon her when she became a bishop, and they have the power and authority because they had hands laid upon them, all the way back. This is what we know as apostolic succession. We have continuity of authority and doctrinal teaching going back to the time of the apostles.

There are some treasured stories about the beginning of the Episcopal Church in this country and the lengths to which a few courageous priests went to be consecrated as Bishops. Just imagine the vitriolic political schism that accompanied our country’s break with England at the time of the Revolutionary War, and the distinct lack of interest and well-founded worry that the Church of England had in consecrating new Bishops in a rebelling country. It is worth a bit of study to look up the life story of Bishop Samuel Seabury, who was the very first Priest ordained to be a Bishop in this country. He had to go all the way to Scotland to have a Bishop lay hands upon him to continue the line of apostolic succession.

Hands conveying the authority that Jesus bestowed upon his disciples from their age to ours. Hands doing God’s work in the world, translating the Holy Spirit into action. Hands as critically important instruments to do God’s work. Each Sunday, just as we heard in today’s gospel as Jesus offered peace to the disciples, so we extend our hands to one another offering each other a sign of God’s peace, and we use our hands to cross ourselves, a beautiful body prayer, that connects us to God in a silent but meaningful way as we worship, and we extend our hands to accept the sacrament of Christ’s body when we come for Communion at the altar rail.

At the communion rail, our hands accept Christ’s body, and we are fed in the holy mysteries of our faith. We are then called upon to take the blessing of this sacred and sufficient food, and use it and ourselves to feed and nourish others. To use our hands to do God’s work in the world.

Yesterday during my ordination, there was the briefest moment, as I was kneeling before Bishop Gayle, when I could feel her hands on my head, and knew the prayer she was about to say, that I had a quick Formation Review (you know how some people who have walked close to death but have survived say they had a life review? This was similar but so loving and positive) my formation review included the people, prayers and milestones that were reached throughout these years of preparation – my loved ones in the cathedral, my family, priests and friends who have walked and sometimes carried me along this road toward taking Holy Orders. The people who were doing God’s work, being parts of the Body of Christ, being God’s hands by guiding me to be the Priest I am meant to be. It was a moment that felt like a slight shift, perhaps the opening of a very thin place with God and for a moment all things seemed possible. It was the perfect prelude to Bishop Gayle’s prayer.

My prayer for St. Stephen’s is that as a worshiping community, with the faithful leadership of our search committee, we too find that thin place, connected to God and to the joyful possibility of our next rector. My prayer is that like the people in the biblical story of Pentecost whose needs were met by God who spoke in ways they could understand, we too are amazed and deeply satisfied with the person who is called to be our rector.

I am confident that between now and when our permanent priest arrives, there are people hungry for God’s good news, and thirsty for the blessed assurance of God’s love. They may never come and sit among us at St. Stephen’s. But carrying the Eucharistic nourishment we receive each week into the world, we are invited to go and find them and serve them where they are, in nursing homes and hospitals, on park benches or at the beach, in prison or detox or sitting lonely behind a front door in Cohasset. There are people who need our hands and the Holy Spirit which needs to be translated into loving action.

As I live beyond these first few days and weeks of being an ordained person, I pray to grow into clearer understanding of the ways in which God will call and challenge me to do the work of divine purpose in the world. To put my hands to God’s use. And I give thanks to be in this parish at such a pregnant moment, full of the possibility of new joys, new discoveries and new insights, surrounded by faithful guides and inquiring companions, who have brought me thus far on the way.

Amen

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons by Staff

A Mountain Bottom Experience

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Cohasset MA
February 26, 2017

Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9

On the occasion of the Rev. Margot Critchfield’s final service as Rector of St. Stephen’s

I have had the privilege of this pulpit before, once at the beginning of your relationship with Margot, a couple of times in between, and now this rich and holy day. I am greatly honored to be a friend, if not an actual member, of the St. Stephen’s family. Thank you.

One part of today’s richness is the inevitable look back over the years that you and Margot have shared. I do not have the whole history but I know there have been many mountaintop experiences—moments of clarity and power, times of learning and discovery, healing and forgiveness, holy surprises and instructive disappointments, griefs borne and joys shared. I hope you will take the time to look back, recall, and be thankful for those times. I also hope you won’t do it until after the sermon.

You can recall those times in the past and you can confidently anticipate many mountaintop experiences in the future. God is not through with you yet. But this moment is a mountain bottom experience, as the lessons for today imply. Look with me at what the first lesson and Gospel have to tell us about mountain bottom experiences like the one we are having right now.

The stories are familiar. Moses took Joshua up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. And Jesus took Peter, James and John up another mountain where he was transfigured, literally seen in a new way. Here we are thousands of years later remembering those literally mountaintop experiences. They are so important and meaningful that we tend to overlook the fact that each story began at the bottom of a mountain where people decided the mountain was worth climbing. The bottom of a mountain is a place of expectation. It is where Moses and Jesus decided there was something up there and it had something to say, something that people needed to know. People at the mountain bottom can feel the draw of revelation—the need to see, to hear, to feel, and to know the mind of God that awaits them at the mountaintop.

Revelation is what is up ahead. Revelation is the hint God gives us when we cannot figure things out for ourselves. By definition it is about things just beyond our reach, just a bit murky for the eye to make it out, too faint for the ear to hear, a side road off the path of reason. Revelation is the sort of thing that can only be received by experience. Right now that is what the future is for us: a bit murky, faint, something reason cannot reach from here.

Margot is right now at the bottom of one mountain. The vestry and people of St. Stephen’s are at another. You are going in different directions but the daunting aspect of each mountain is quite apparent. How will we proceed? Which path? What obstacles await? We will not know until we begin to climb. Revelation comes from experience not speculation. And revelation is waiting at the mountaintop. God is ready to hint and more so about what lies in store, ready to make clear the mind of God for you. You cannot guess it from where you are today. As in the lessons, all anyone can do is prepare to climb—expectantly.

From the mountain bottom we cannot know what waits at the top, but the lessons make one thing abundantly clear about this kind of mountain climbing. Do not go alone. The mountain bottom is where the climbing community is formed. When Moses started up his mountain, he took Joshua with him. Jesus took Peter, James and John. Revelation rarely works with individuals alone. It works best in community. Let me tell you why. One of the things I bet we have in common is that neither you nor I have ever lost an argument that takes place in our own heads—the “I am going to say, then you are going to say” little one act plays we put on in our imagination. You will know that I am not bragging when I tell you that I am consistently brilliant in those encounters, and my foes are regularly vanquished. I am undefeated when the dialogue takes place inside my head. Outside of my head, in community, I have been far less successful. In my head there is the world I created, and it favors me excessively. But I am required to live in the world that God created, the one called reality that I have to share with you. Revelation needs the reality of community. Do not climb this mountain by yourself.

One further caveat about revelation and community. In recent times those who observe our nation have been telling us that we tend to prefer echo chambers to real community. People only read or listen or share with those with whom they agree. We can all understand the comfort that gives us but it denies the benefit of being in true community. The value of a community is that it confronts the world inside of our head, scraps the one-act plays of our imagination, and broadens our perceptions. It is the people who differ from us that we need in community. It is wisely said that if two people agree on everything, one of them is not necessary. The support of like- minded people is valuable but it does not make community. What we have in common is the mortar that holds the bricks of our difference together. Mortar without bricks or bricks without mortar are not worth much. A community of difference is the best place for revelation to be known.

There have been mountaintop experiences in your time together, not every moment or even every day but often. It is good to be thankful for them and for every way that God’s hand has touched this place and its people over these years. There will be more of those moments for Margot as her life and ministry continue to unfold and for St. Stephen’s because some unsuspecting priest, at this moment undoubtedly preaching to an unsuspecting congregation, is about to join you on new mountaintops. Wondrous things! But the time with Margot is in the past, and time with that unsuspecting priest is in the future. This is now. Not a mountaintop but a mountain bottom where the expectation and the community that are necessary to receive God’s revelation are being formed.

This mountain bottom is as holy as the mountaintop for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Amen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Guest Preachers

Joseph’s Leap of Faith

Sermon for Sunday 10 am, December 18, 2016 || Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A || Isaiah 7:10-16 ; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25|| Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

What a gift it is to be here, out of the weather, in the warmth of this sanctuary, gathered as members of a Christian community, yearning to grow in depth and understanding of God as we await our celebration of the anniversary of His birth at Christmas. In this busy season of preparation, it feels like a holy gift to set time apart to gather, listen, pray and learn.

This morning we will extend this blessing, practicing the ancient teachings of our faith as we baptize Annabelle Gillian Redding and Thomas William Gayowski, the timing of which is marvelous, as we are focused on the wonder of babies and children at this time of year.

As we think about the nativity and the pending joy and miracle of Jesus’ birth, my guess is that we spend the least amount of time considering Christmas wonder from Joseph’s point of view. Think about how we set up the crèche, with careful placement of the manger, the animals, the wise men, Mary and the baby Jesus, or famous paintings depicting the Holy Family with Mary and Jesus at the center and God’s favor shining on the two of them, or even nativity plays — Joseph is the coveted role if you are hoping to have no lines at all.

This morning I want to connect some of the Advent dots before us, and wonder together about Joseph’s leap of faith in response to what must have been the biggest surprise and unexpected twist of his life.

In this morning’s story, Mary and Joseph are engaged, but not yet married – in biblical times, engagement was the equivalent of having signed a marriage contract, but not yet cohabitating. This betrothal or engagement could have been entered into by the parents of the intended couple when each were children. The contract was binding and any violation of it, particularly, any deviation for the woman, was considered adultery, punishable by death.

This morning, Matthew treats us to Joseph’s version of events, a bit less familiar than the oft-retold Lukean version made memorable by Charles Shultz and the Peanuts gang, with the angel Gabriel announcing the pregnancy and its holy and miraculous origin to Mary.

Today we begin mid-story. Mary, who scholars believe to have been about 13 years old, has already told Joseph that she is pregnant. He knows that the baby is not his – and we are told that, rather than exposing Mary to shame and humiliation or death by stoning which would have been the custom, he has decided to walk away quietly and not make a big deal Mary’s affair or betrayal.

I used to think that Joseph’s initial inclination, while honorable, was his way of saving his own face as well. Once Mary’s pregnancy became obvious, or after the baby’s birth, people were going to be able to do the math and assume that both Joseph and Mary had violated the engagement. However, God had other plans –

And here is where we, the modern day hearers of God’s word need to lean in closely to see if we can suss out the holy sign Joseph is offered.

We can be forgiven at this time of year, a week before Christmas if we are distracted or tired and require more pointers and holy indicators of a true sign from God. The lectionary writers literally repeat the same exact – neon, university band playing, sky writing version of a holy sign three times in our readings this morning.

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and as angels often do – and as we have heard echoed throughout our Advent scriptures – the angel tells Joseph to not be afraid – which is like the super secret angel password – do not fear – be not afraid – that the baby is the work of God, that Mary has known no other man, and that Joseph is to marry her and raise this holy begotten child as his own.

A pretty clear and specific sign, if ever there were one.

Yet, we do not know what Joseph thought upon waking. The gospel writer throws in a bit of relevant Isaiah text to remind us of the ancient biblical prophesy of God coming among us in the form of a baby born to an unwed mother. This would have been familiar scripture to Joseph. However, we can’t discern his thoughts or inclinations the morning after that dream.

Did Joseph wrestle with whether the dream was divine or imagined? Did he debate whether he could faithfully raise a son who would not look like him, or be biologically connected to him? We skip to the good part, where he marries Mary and some months later, they head off on a treacherous journey and non-romantic honeymoon with Mary nine months pregnant, traveling nearly ninety miles to Bethlehem, which was Joseph’s home town, to register for the census.

This morning’s gospel invites us to appreciate the pause between verses 22 and 24, and give thanks for Joseph and the example that he set for us. Not just being aware of the sign, but taking definitive and probably very difficult action, to believe Mary, to believe the angel and to very deliberately become Jesus’ earthly father.

We can’t know whether Joseph was immediately comfortable with his difficult decision. Did he know the minute he married Mary that he had done the right thing, as God asked and honored the ancient prophesy? Or did he continue to struggle with his decision and his family’s origins throughout his life?

When Jesus gave his parents trouble did Joseph righteously point out it didn’t’ come from his side of the family? Or when Jesus acted as an improbable saint demonstrating early signs of his divinity, did Joseph and Mary look at each other over the dinner table, sharing the secret knowledge of his actual lineage, and the familiar insight that he didn’t take after his earthly Father?

We know that Joseph was most likely a very careful man. He was older, and he was a carpenter, eventually teaching his sons that trade. Carpenters are not known as wild risk-takers. To be a good carpenter takes a significant amount of precision, some deliberation and action once you are sure of measurement, dimensions and scope.

Marrying young Mary had to be the biggest leap of faith in Joseph’s life. Yet the ramifications for faithfully following God’s call has brought us to this morning, thousands of years and a week before we celebrate the birth of his divine son Jesus.

While we struggle to live in daily expectation of a second miraculous birth of Emmanuel, or God among us, together we affirm our belief that God will come again. And, in this season of Advent, as we await his coming, we are challenged to be continually on the look out for signs.

Joseph’s leap of faith – following the sign in the form of an angel’s direction — provides some instruction for our own search for signs. First of all, in practical terms, Joseph had to sleep so that he could dream, which meant that he had to be free from distraction, able to rest and be aware of God’s presence and available for the appearance of a comforting angel.

That may be an awful lot to ask of any one of us, particularly if you have your own infant or children at home, or are a caregiver for someone else, but as we approach this final week before Christmas, I urge each of us to intentionally set aside some period of time – even if we have to set our iPhone alarm or timer to mark this time – to quietly sit and contemplate God’s presence in the world – or to ask for or seek signs of God’s presence.

We could put this off until Saturday’s Christmas Eve service, but our experience of this final week of Advent would be poorer for it. So I hope that each of us can find time between now and then. Whether sitting in a quiet room, gazing at a decorated tree, or at a loved one’s card that has arrived, with child in lap, or loved one’s hand in your own, or with bible open on the coffee table, or a hot cup of coffee in your grasp. Get as quiet as you can and ask for an awareness of God’s presence.

You may give thanks for Joseph’s extraordinary act of faith. For taking on Jesus as his son, for being what must have been an extraordinary adopted Dad, who loved and raised his son equal to his earthly siblings.

Consider that we worship the birth of a baby, a human in its most vulnerable and dependent form, as the embodiment of God on earth, and we take our cues for how to live and love one another from this child who could have been abandoned or been raised as an outcast, but was loved and protected by his earthly parents in advance of his universe changing ministry.

This morning and throughout this week, I want to give thanks for Joseph, for seeing him with new eyes and for appreciating his enormous faith-filled act that has brought us here this morning. And I want to give thanks for Annabelle Gillian’s father Jordan and Thomas William’s father Keith and the Dads and father figures in each of our own lives whose leaps of faith of all sorts have impacted who we are and how we navigate this world.

In your own prayerful contemplations this week, you may not get an angel urging you to be not afraid, or some another neon impossible to miss- God-inspired sign, but I hope that you do encounter some signs or guides. Once you recognize a sign, the divine question becomes – what are you going to do about it?  Amen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons by Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

Christ is Our King, the Baptismal Covenant is Our Guide

Sermon for Sunday, November 20th, 2016 || Proper 29, Year C || Christ the King Sunday || Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43|| by Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

This is our last Sunday of our liturgical Year C– and marvelously, it is also Christ the King Sunday, a newcomer’s welcoming Sunday, another opportunity for ingathering of our annual financial pledges and donations AND we have the joy of baptizing Oliver and Murphy’s brother, three month old Quinn Buchanan this morning.

We are also welcoming our pilgrims Margot, David Bigley and Tim Reynolds back from the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. Since we met a week ago our teens and tweens and their leaders have learned more about themselves scrambling on a high and low ropes course at Tree Top Adventures in Canton, and they and others have been grappling with the highs and the lows of our national election and its on-going aftermath.

So there is a great deal going on in the life of this church this morning and it has been a complicated, emotional and challenging week for many. Let’s begin this part of our time together with an appreciative and shared deep breath. We are grateful to be in God’s house with one another out of the rain and bluster. We cherish this time to be with God’s people surrounded by friends, family, loved ones and newcomers warming up for the wonder of the coming season.

This morning we focus on the Kingship of Christ, his sovereignty and the nature of his power. It always feels odd to wrap up our liturgical year with this stark Gospel reminder of Jesus’ crucifixion and with it, one of the most uncomfortable aspects of God – Christ’s Kingship. We are a nation whose system of government was established as a direct response to eschewing a monarchy and royal rein and subjugation, but as Christians we are ruled by a sovereign unique in all the world and human history. In this morning’s gospel our King, Jesus Christ is on the cross, suffering the human trauma of approaching death, yet fully divine and powerfully able to save himself if he were to so chose. To respond to the taunts and jeers of those at his feet by wielding his great power….and as we heard, he did respond.

He demonstrated his revolutionary, world and soul- saving power by saving another. Jesus had done nothing wrong. He was wrongly convicted. Those who taunted him, condemned him to death and nailed him to the cross knew that he had done nothing wrong, but he was persecuted for shaking the status quo, for upending the power structure and threatening the control of the state. To be crucified in Roman times was to be visibly killed as an enemy of the state and made an example for passers by.

We, today’s listeners know the good news that is to follow. Three days after the story in today’s gospel Jesus rose and rejoined his friends. But this morning we contemplate how the fully divine and fully human Jesus demonstrated his Kingship by dying on the cross, without retribution, without a show of force and without saving himself.

Jesus heard the man hanging next to him affirm that Jesus had not sinned, and while this condemned man could have been understandably consumed by his own discomfort and pain, this criminal acknowledged Jesus’ divinity and asked to be remembered in Christ’s Kingdom. And Jesus saved him.

This is the King that we worship and celebrate this morning, whose sovereignty we acknowledge and by whose power we are ruled, Christ the King who demonstrates his authority wielding the revolutionary tools of compassion, humility and love. Christ the King who is focused on saving others. This is the King that we are promising to help Quinn understand and love.

We have so many opportunities to practice this radical power. Listen to your fellow parishioners about their work in the world. We will all hear about the trip to White Earth Reservation that our advance team of pilgrims concluded this week, and several of us are strengthening our relationship with our sister parish, with whom we share our namesake’s saint, St. Stephens Boston, with two teams of tutors working with young people a couple of times a month. Each encounter is an opportunity to build bridges, which are aimed at lifting us up, helping us to see Christ in others and expanding our appreciation of the diversity and needs of God’s kingdom on earth.

St. Stephens’ rector Rev. Tim Crellin will visit us sometime early next year to talk about the ministries underway in the South End and how we may continue to draw closer together in our life in Christ, to more closely connect our children to one another and to listen to how their church community feeds their spiritual and social needs as we do here. Let us be curious about how to share the witness and the pain and angst of community members who experience life very differently from ours in Cohasset.

Among the faith filled mysteries and connections that we share with one another is baptism and our baptismal covenant. This morning we are blessed to be baptizing Quinn and welcoming his Godparents and loved ones to our parish community and into a life of fullness in the body of Christ. This is not something that we will be doing to Quinn and his family. Baptism is something that we will be doing with the Buchanan family. Each of us renewing our baptismal covenant, promising the Buchanans, God and each other that we believe in God, renounce evil and promise to persevere in resisting its effects. We are going to promise to continue in the apostles teaching and to love and serve god and one another.

If you’ve been in the Episcopal Church for a long time, you may be tempted to say these words by rote. They are familiar, they echo the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, and we read them each time we baptize and welcome someone into the full life of Christ. This morning I want to set them apart and ask you to simultaneously listen to someone close to you, while you are reciting and affirming your own renewal of your Baptismal Vows. Listen and speak generously as you think God hears and welcomes your words and those in this sanctuary. If the Baptismal Covenant is less familiar to you, it offers us both a statement of our shared faith and guidance for how to live into its promise. It also provides a wonderful road map to consider as we grapple with how to love one another demonstrating the skills of compassion, humility and love.

The five questions we are asked in our vow renewal are big thorny questions “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you strive for justice an peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?” Fortunately, as we signal with our answers, we are not left to do this tough work alone – we affirm that we will do these critically important, Christian things, with God’s help.

I want to challenge us to spend some extra time with our baptismal covenant as we approach the new church year. Let us think about some concrete tangible ways that we will live into the challenging promises we will affirm during the coming year. The cliff’s notes version of our Baptismal Covenant is – how are we going to demonstrate Christ’s love in the world, at home or school or at work and here in our church community? How are we going to reach beyond ourselves, understanding that our job is not to save ourselves, but to save another, and how might we demonstrate compassion, humility and love to one another and to strangers.

This morning it is easy to imagine ourselves modeling and demonstrating God’s love to Quinn as we baptize and welcome him into our community – and into the fullness of Christ. Jesus in today’s gospel reminds us that we are to love, serve and save all, which can be much more difficult. Our friend and colleague, Dr. Frank Wade whom many of you know and who has been a mentor and guide for both me and for Margot, wrote a prayer of petition to help remind us and ask for God’s help as we work toward realizing the challenging promises we make in our Baptismal covenant.

Let us pray—

Lord God, who has made all manner of people wonderfully and disturbingly different, hurl us into the differences that beset us. Grant us the cross bearing patience to listen when we would rather speak, to understand when we would rather proclaim and to draw near when we would rather push back that we might make harmony out of discord, trust out of skepticism and community out of conflict.

If we can spend the coming year – Year A– finding the patience to listen, experiencing comfort in understanding rather than satisfaction in our urgency to be understood, if we can find pleasure in harmony and nurture trust and community, then we too will be with Christ the King in Paradise.  Amen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sermons by Amy Whitcomb Slemmer