Category Archives: Guest Preachers

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.

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As Far As It Depends On You

Sermon for Sunday, October 4th, 2015 || Special Readings – Isaiah 58: 1-12; Psalm 133; 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21; Luke 4: 14-21|| Mr. Dain Perry, Guest Preacher

Come, Holy Spirit and kindle in us the fire of your love. Take my lips and speak through them, take our minds and think through them, take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.

In the Book of Acts, while on the road to Damascus, Ananias said to Saul during Saul’s conversion, “The Lord Jesus…has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.

What a powerful image for the work the Episcopal Church is doing. After 150 years our church is sincerely trying to remove the scales from our eyes, so that we may see more clearly. For the church, in fact, most of white America, has had scales on our eyes and have not seen clearly the true history of slavery, the slave trade, Jim Crow, and segregation.

And more importantly, we have been almost totally blind to the ongoing impact that sad legacy has had on the descendants of slaves. It is my belief that slavery, and the attitudes and beliefs which it generated, is the foundation of the many forms of racism, which continue to plague our nation.

In fact, slavery in America set the stage for the many tragic events which we have witnessed over the last couple of years-Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, Charleston, to name but a few. Slavery created intergenerational wealth, while at the same time it created intergenerational poverty and intergenerational trauma.

What we are witnessing today, including the turmoil in our inner cities, is largely a legacy of slavery. Many have a hard time with that idea, but there is an invisible umbilical cord connecting the two. Those scales over our eyes can make it very difficult for many of us to see the connection.

Our Epistle  this morning called for us, all of us, to be reconcilers, to be Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation. Our church today is calling for us to engage in the difficult work of racial reconciliation.

I grew up in Charleston, SC. I hate to admit it, but I had scales on my eyes. No, I was wearing thick blinders. I did things then that I am not at all proud of. But over the last fourteen years I have slowly experienced many of the scales falling off. Are they all gone? No! Frankly, I doubt that they can all ever be fully gone.

I would like to share with you some of my experiences as a descendant of America’s foremost slave trading family, the DeWolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island. Share some of the experiences and learnings from a five-week journey taken with nine cousins, as we filmed the documentary movie Traces of the Trade, exploring the legacy of the slave trade for our family and for our country. During this remarkable journey, and the personal journey of learning that I continue to be on, I believe I have come to understand the relationship of slavery to the insidious cancer that continues to eat away at the very soul of America, racism.

I quote…“I want to tell you something of my grandfather, James DeWolf, of Bristol, Rhode Island, whose character, I feel, should be admired and reverenced by all his descendants…He deeply regretted ever having had anything to do with slavery, but as he has brought the hands on his plantations out of savagery, he felt it a kinder and more merciful thing to continue to give them good, comfortable homes, to treat them with leniency, rather than turn them loose (hundreds of poor, helpless, ignorant beings, to be cheated and misused).”

I quote this because it shows the atmosphere of racism, the depth of internalized white superiority, which we all must try to overcome. This was published in a small book in 1950 by three of my great aunts, published with pride, only a small handful of years before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his crusade to turn around those attitudes, to create a reality in this country where the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution would be accepted as applying to all Americans, not just to those who happened to look like the people who wrote those documents.

As my cousins and I traveled on our journey following the triangle trade, from Bristol, Rhode Island to Ghana in West Africa, to Cuba, and back to Bristol, we had to look into the face of the terrible, inhumane things which our ancestors did which today are beyond our comprehension, and as their descendants look back and say, “why, how, what were they thinking?”

To the surprise of most people we talk to or who see the film, Traces of the Trade, the center of the US slave trade was in New England, most particularly in Rhode Island. Most of us learned in school that slavery was a Southern phenomenon, that Northerners were abolitionists. But the North was deeply involved in not just the trade, but many families owned slaves, and most of the North was involved in all of the supporting services to the trade.

After the slave trade was abolished in 1808 the next great wave of wealth in the North was the textile industry. Where did the cotton come from for those clothes? From the cotton fields of the South, off the backs of slaves. So slavery was not simply a Southern phenomenon. It was the backbone of the economy of the entire United States.

But the North won the Civil War and they were able to write the history and thus tell the story the way they wanted it told. They engaged in intentional amnesia and portrayed the North as courageous abolitionists, conveniently omitting from the story the fact that thousands of enslaved people were owned as property in the North for over two hundred years.

Our culture began as a Christian culture. Our forbearers read the same lessons we read. They heard, and spoke, and believed, the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They were exposed to the words, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love,” and “love thy neighbor.”

Yet they missed the mark so terribly badly, by such a wide margin. White Europeans and their descendants lost touch with their humanity through slavery. Tom Shaw, Bishop of Massachusetts who tragically passed away last year, said, “Any kind of oppression ruins everyone’s lives…every thing that oppresses people comes from the lowest part of the human existence.”

I submit to you that we are missing the mark as much today, in terms of our understanding of, and correction of racism, as earlier Americans missed the mark with regard to slavery. What makes this particularly complex and confusing is that this is not of our own making.

We are caught in a twisted legacy handed down to us by those who came before us. It has festered, churned and destroyed lives for many generations, and become a tragic part of the fabric of our nation. Our job, our responsibility, in our time is to do our utmost to reverse it, to leave a legacy for our descendants that is one of understanding and appreciating, even celebrating our differences, rather than allowing them to divide us. We are invited by our faith into reconciliation. No, I would say that we are called to it, for God gave us the ministry of reconciliation. We are called not only to be reconciled to God, but we are called to be reconciled to one another.

For whites, racism is almost an intellectual exercise. For blacks, and in fact for any people of color, it is a reality, every second of every minute of every hour of every day.

Some say why bring up a hurtful past, that we should not rehash things that are so uncomfortable. Katherine Jefforts-Shori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, recently said, “Once we understand the past we can begin to understand the present, our political realities, our challenges and our relationships.”

I believe that racism is an unfortunate part of the human condition. It has existed in one bigoted form or another around the world, in practically every culture. But for some reason, here in our land it has been more insidious, more destructive, and more debilitating than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

The degree of racism that still exists here is appalling, and not even recognized by many of us, at least those of us who are white. Rather than blatant, overt discrimination, it is now often disguised, hidden, not noticed until it is pointed out, and even then still denied by many. That is the scales-over-the-eyes syndrome.

We must stop pretending that slavery has had no lasting consequences. Unless we speak out against racist jokes and cartoons and behaviors, actively speak out, we are part of the problem. Might it be that those scales keep us from speaking out?

I have come to believe that the worldview of the descendants of slaves, in fact of all people of color, is very different than the worldview of those of us who are white. This is because our day-to-day life experiences are so dramatically different. They know it, but most of us do not. People of color need to understand, as best they can, the white worldview, simply in order to survive. But whites don’t even need to give a nanosecond of thought about the worldview of people of color. The scales once again. So many of us who are white simply don’t know what we don’t know.

It is astonishing how fearful we are, I would say we all are, no matter what race we may be, how fearful we are to engage with someone different from ourselves, how there is an almost automatic distrust of “the other.” We simply don’t know how to communicate with each other, and we don’t trust each other. How can we learn to face those things that divide us?

It really is so simple, isn’t it? And yet so profoundly difficult. The words of our Lord, and of St. Paul, are the road map. “Do unto others…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live in peace with everyone.” AS FAR AS IT DEPENDS ON YOU…AS FAR AS IT DEPENDS ON YOU. How can it be any clearer? Love your neighbor as yourself!

Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing.” Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” AS FAR AS IT DEPENDS ON YOU. This is pretty much what the Epistle lesson this morning said when we were called to be ambassadors of reconciliation in this world.

I believe that the answer lies not in more laws, some of which may end up dividing us further; not in reparations, at least not as generally portrayed in the media; not in more blame or recrimination. I believe that the answer is the same as the answer to most of those difficult, seemingly impossible issues of our lives, individually and collectively. The answer lies in getting together and telling our stories, honestly telling our stories, and in listening to the stories of others, truly listening, sacredly listening. Getting to know one another-reconciling.

For we cannot heal alone, in a vacuum. We must heal together, through difficult and courageous conversations and interactions. And with a deep conviction and faith that every time we gather together Christ will keep his promise and be there with us, hoping, cheering us on, shedding tears with us, radiating his peace, that mysterious peace which passes all understanding, and God himself will be praying, praying that we get it right this time.

There is no other way. We must open our hearts to each other.

Lord, it can be so challenging to open our hearts to others who are different from us. But you have created this world, and have intentionally created these differences. We know you have not done that to create strife, distrust, hatred and misunderstanding. Please, God, help us to live into your dream for your creation, where we can walk and talk humbly together, and live in peace and harmony. Help us to remove the scales from our own eyes. We know getting there will not be easy. Please, give us the courage and patience to persist, to be your voices of reconciliation in this world.

 Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mother Emanuel – We Weep With You

Sermon for Sunday, June 21, 2015 || Fourth Sunday After Pentecost,  Proper 7B || Job 38:1-11, Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41 ||  Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Postulant for Holy Orders

I appreciate being here on this stormy Sunday morning, after what feels like a long absence, and to have the privilege of preaching on a day when our readings line up so beautifully with the national events we are being challenged to navigate. Each of these passages invites us to consider some version of what difference our faith makes in the face of struggles or adversity, or whether  we can trust God in the midst of bad stuff happening, particularly when we really don’t understand.

In fact, our readings line up so beautifully, that I’m going to confess I had outlined a pretty soft summer sermon with the thematic reassurance that even when unexpected and unwelcome things happen in our lives– like the death of a loved one, or a scary diagnosis–we are assured of God’s unfailing and perfect love and presence in our lives.

That was my plan before I read about this week’s horror in South Carolina, which has brought me low. Since Wednesday night, I have been pained and have struggled mightily to understand. So as a warning, this is not a tidy sermon, but one composed by a rattled and deeply saddened and heartsick preacher.

I have taken the murder of these nine church-going, God seeking people personally, partially because it challenges my theology, while seeming like an incredible — as in unfathomable – violation of those who are our faithful brothers and sisters, who gathered to do exactly what we do during bible study, to better understand God. I have taken this personally because it seems like such a supreme defilement of the sanctity and sanctuary that is promised at churches. I know that loved ones have been killed at schools and movie theaters, at carnivals and military bases and hospitals – each of which is horrific, but this one, this one at the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the south, hit me as horribly wrong and an outrage.

So I have been reading. I went to Emanuel’s website, which has not been changed to reflect Wednesday’s carnage. I read the church’s invitation to Wednesday Bible Study. This is what Emanuel in Charleston says about its bible study:

“Is something missing from your life? Are you doing all you can to have a closer relationship with God? If you have a desire to learn more about God, then join us on Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m. in the lower level of the church. We look forward to seeing you!”

And so our brothers and sisters, fellow Episcopalians, gathered to better understand God, and were joined by a stranger. Perhaps I feel connected to the bible students because I am spending so much more time in church, or because these shootings occurred just as, locally, we were grieving  the killing of 16-year-old Jonathan Dos Santos, who died exactly a week before in Dorchester. Jonathan, a teenager riding home on his bike, was allegedly killed by two other teenagers, one 16 and one 14, which has unsettled the neighborhood and shaken some of the young people in the B-Safe program based at St. Stephens Boston. Jonathan’s murder is also baffling and so wrong.

I can’t say with certainty why this has completely invaded my concerns and prayer life, but this morning I’d like to honor those who have died, consider what we know of God and our faith through this heart-breaking adversity, and pray and act fervently so that we change the status quo, and not let this shooting pass without making some sort of lasting change.

I am completely disinterested in politicians’ verbal faux pas, or what the NRA is saying or prescribing. I’m too sad to argue or affirm their points. I am curiously interested in the language used and the attention given to the 21-year-old perpetrator, and am touched by the tributes and information that has been shared about those killed. I have read wise and articulate scholars mulling over the significance of the Charleston shootings and their thoughts of what should be done. I have been most struck by those prophetic voices that have unapologetically called out this act as evil, and ask us to understand it as such. From Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today: “We do not take into sufficient account the depth of evil roaming this world, and in this particular case, the radical evil that lies at the heart of racism.”

I’m certainly guilty of discounting evil. The murders at Mother Emanuel may be a wake up call that racism is alive and terrifying, and that we won’t soon be free of it. What has been among the most difficult realizations for me is the notion that racial reconciliation won’t come through just talking. I have long felt that we must have a national conversation about race, but there is no amount of talking or reasoning– or perhaps even radically loving–someone like Dylann Roof that will melt prejudice or transform racism. Perhaps among the lessons for me are those echoed in today’s readings – awful things happen, storms and struggles– and we can not control them, nor do we have any idea what God’s plans are or why things like the Emanuel murders happen. Evil is irrational.

This week an image from my trip to Ferguson, Missouri last September has been swirling around in my head. I keep seeing the tired woman sitting in a lawn chair by the side of the road holding a homemade cardboard sign that said “Stop Killing Us.” Stop Killing! Black Lives Matter! What is my responsibility?  What can I do to make racially tinged murders cease? What can I do to advance this cause?

I can be impatient for progress. I can reaffirm my understanding and rock solid belief that racism, even endemic, systematic and centuries old racism, is not stronger than God’s love.

This week marked the anniversary of the end of our country’s most notable systemic, federally sanctioned racist constructs. On Friday we celebrated Juneteenth. If part of my family were not African American, I might know nothing about this holiday. June 19th marks the date on which the very last slaves – who had continued in slavery more than two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared people free – were told of the end of their enslavement.

June 19, 1865 – one hundred and fifty years ago last Friday–Union Major General Gordon Granger and his troops landed in Galveston, Texas with the news that the war had ended and the enslaved were now free. There are conflicting theories about why it took so long to get this declaration made and carried out in Texas, from a communications glitch of monumental proportions, to an urging that cotton farmers could have one final harvest using their slave labor, to a lack of union soldiers on the ground able to enforce President Lincoln’s executive order from 1863. Regardless of the reason, there were thousands of slaves in the US who did not go free until June 19, 1865.

This week, I have wondered about the residue from this injustice and elongated enslavement both on those who were finally emancipated, and on their relatives who had enjoyed two and a half years of freedom before them. I don’t know what impact it had, but this week, I appreciated delving more deeply into a holiday that has only marginally been celebrated, mostly by African Americans who mark the end of slavery as a cause for rejoicing and commemoration. Juneteenth is a big deal in DC where thousands of families converge on the National Mall to celebrate the end of slavery and to honor those who made freedom possible. It is a human independence day that took on additional significance for me this week, and I wondered whether anything was said about Juneteenth during Rev. Pinckney’s Wednesday bible study?

One of my most troubling and unsettling realizations this week is that these murders were modern day lynchings evoking grotesque and sickening images the historical purpose of which was to send a message of fear – of terror really, to black people that they were not only not equal, but that they should live in fear and not even attempt to exercise their equal rights, or push for inclusion, change or justice. The mere fact of the color of their skin put them in danger of public humiliation, beating and death. I worry that the debate about gun control which will undoubtedly swirl and rage around Charleston and the gun that was used at Mother Emanuel will distract attention from the fact that parishioners were executed, just as their ancestors and perhaps relatives had been.

I want us to pray for those who died at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday. I ask for your prayers for Cynthia Hurd, who was 54 years old, Tywanza Sanders who was 26, Sharonda Singleton who was 45, Myra Thompson, 59, Ethel Lance who was 70, Susie Jackson who was 87, Depayne Middleton Doctor who was 49 and their pastors, Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr, 75 and Rev. Clementa Pinckney who sounds like he was a force of nature yet was only 41 when he died. Each leaves behind loved ones and family members for us to lift up in prayer.

Today we are called on to better understand the circumstances and threats and dangers that our black and brown brothers and sisters find themselves subjected to. I am angry that this morning there are tens of thousands of churchgoers in this country who are wrestling with going to church today, or are subject to heightened security because of the terror and hatred that a 21 year old spewed and caused in Charleston. Parents preoccupied that there might be copy cat violence on this Sabbath Day. And my anger isn’t enough. God’s love has plenty of room for my anger, but what is required is that I be an ally to those who would worship in safety. I am to be an advocate for the eradication of racism and the firm eventual entrenchment of racial justice.

I don’t know what my alliance or advocacy will look like, but I know that there are a few things that we can do immediately. As we recite our shared beliefs of the Nicene Creed and we share communion, I invite us to be aware of parishioners in AME churches all over this country. I ask that we be particularly mindful of and connected to those worshipping in historic Black Churches. Let’s take today’s Prayers of the People and intentionally pray them throughout the week. We can pray as the Diocese of South Carolina has asked us to: for the families of those killed, the members of Mother Emanuel AME, the members of our law enforcement and first responders community, the members of the Charleston community. We pray that there would be no further acts of violence, there would be peace in Charleston and Boston, that unity may overcome estrangement and that joy might conquer despair.

Let us also affirm our connection and condolences in writing, reaching out to those parishioners who bravely gather even as their hearts are wounded. Offering prayers and notes of support can only help. (Mother Emanuel, 110 Calhoun Street, Charleston, SC 29401)

Finally, I am committed to learning from the people of Charleston, who seem to be demonstrating a level of grace and forgiveness as expressions of their deep faith and trust in God that I find astonishing and inspiring and frankly, reassuring. They are living into Paul’s call to the Corinthians to open their hearts, and are answering Jesus’ question in the boat “Don’t you believe in me” with a very loud and profound “Yes we do!”

May the grace of our worship together and our community this morning be strengthened by our prayers, communion and connections to one another as we echo and are challenged by the witness of those in Charleston. And may each of us live lives that demonstrate our answer to Jesus’ question – “Don’t you believe in me?” –is a resounding, “Yes we do!”  Amen.

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Solo Gratia

Sermon for Sunday, March 15, 2015
The Fourth Sunday of Lent
John 3:14-21
The Rev. Dee Woodard

Click here to access this sermon.

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Responding to God’s Invitation in Ferguson and Cohasset

Sermon for Sunday, October 12th, 2014 ||  Proper 23, Year A ||   Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14 ||  Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Candidate for Holy Orders to the Priesthood

Good morning, I am so pleased to be here this morning and to have a chance to stay local and reconnect. I feel a pull toward this parish each Sunday morning, as I am gratefully aware that my name is included in the prayers for my continued discernment and formation for the priesthood. While I keep current about the parish happenings through the weekly updates and a few parishioners, nothing replaces being here in person. So it is my pleasure to see you face to face.

This morning I want to spend a few minutes considering Matthew’s gospel of the very challenging parable of the wedding banquet, how it might challenge and inform our experience of the kingdom of heaven, offer greater insight into God’s expectations for us, and then wonder together about how we can be more aware of God’s invitation for each of us to delight in the constant presence of the divine.

Jesus tells the story of a king who has prepared an elaborate wedding banquet for his son, but none of the invited guests show up, so he dispatches his slaves in waves to retrieve the invitees. Still, they do not come. In fact some of the invited guests kill the slave messengers. The now enraged king sends his troops into the city to kill the murderers and to burn and destroy the city.

But the king is not finished with his response, he declares that the people who were invited to the wedding weren’t worthy anyway, and he sends his slaves once more out to the surrounding streets to round up anyone they can – good and bad, and finally there is a crowded wedding banquet hall. If the parable stopped there, it would be so much easier to talk about abundance or the unearned blessings of the kingdom of heaven, but as Margot just read, the parable ends with an unexpected twist.

The king sees one of the wedding guests is not wearing a wedding robe perhaps not surprising as he had just been out on the street before receiving the unexpected wedding invitation. But the story here continues with its violent trajectory because the king orders the underdressed wedding attendant to be bound, beaten and condemned to exile – or in Matthew’s parlance his frequently repeated — sent to the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In other words – beyond God’s reach.

The townsman was going to the king’s palace for a wedding banquet, it was an unexpected invitation, from a powerful person who was responsible for the safety and security of the people in his kingdom…of course, here the King is meant to be God, and we are the townspeople, perhaps turning down repeated party invitations.

I have a lot of trouble squaring the very vivid and violent description of what God did in the community and to his townspeople. It is discomfiting and does not comport with my experience of a loving and forgiving and inclusive God.

The ravaging and destruction of the city does evoke a familiar reference to many jurisdictions around the world where war and protest are underway, and where you have to look pretty hard to find any traces of an irrevocable banquet invitation.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a domestic area of unrest, when I agreed to speak about the Massachusetts health reform experience in St. Louis.   As I prepared for the trip, I very much had Ferguson Missouri on my mind. The violent protests, Michael Brown’s murder and the continuing clashes with police, as well as the relentless and seemingly hyperbolic media coverage made me wonder what was really going on, and made me want to see Ferguson face to face.

From the time I touched down at the St. Louis airport, through checking in to the hotel, I was asking people about Ferguson – and I was discouraged by a cab driver, a front desk clerk and a waitress not to go, each with their own reasons for counseling caution. I found out that there is an Episcopal Church in Ferguson – in fact it shares our own patron saint and is delightfully lead by Father Steve – of St. Stephens Ferguson. A quick search showed that Father Steve has been part of the Ferguson peace marches, so I thought his church would be a good destination, even as I was unsure, yet open hearted about what I would find.

My hotel room had no air-conditioning and was steaming hot, prompting the hotel to dispatch two climate engineers each a man in his early ‘40’s, one white, one African American — both born and raised in Ferguson.

I explained my interest in going to their hometown and for about 40 minutes of radiator fixing and race relations discussing, we made a list of several local attractions for me to check out. We also walked around the issues of the rapid racial transformation of Ferguson and the current troubles.

In 1970 99% of the population of Ferguson was white. Today, white residents make up only 29% of the population with nearly 70% of the townspeople being African American but the elected leadership of the city council and school board continue to reflect the population of the 1970s and are majority white. The police department has 53 officers, and only 3 are African American. These statistics alone do not guarantee strife, but they are an important part of the context for what we are seeing on the nightly news.

My trip to Ferguson began uneventfully enough as I plugged in the GPS coordinates for St. Stephens, was picked up by a young cab driver – a man who had immigrated from Ethiopia in the ‘90s and was now raising two daughters with his wife on the outskirts of St. Louis (for the record he and all but his older daughter do not have health insurance, just like nearly one fourth of the residents of the great state of Missouri), and we headed out to get a look at the town that has been so narrowly portrayed on television. Once off the highway we were on Florissant Avenue, a street that I recognized from the press reports. We saw a small group holding signs on a street corner, so I asked the cab driver to stop so that I might meet them. The sign that caught my attention was being held by a tired looking middle aged African American woman, and her hand written sign said simply “Stop Killing Us”.

There were only ten people on the street corner when I arrived – white and black, old and young and middle aged, and I asked what they wanted people in Boston to know about Ferguson. I heard a lot about how Ferguson isn’t safe, how the people need help and want our prayers. I was given some good links to social media outlets that were described as providing an unvarnished and more accurate look at what is going on. I was engaged in an interesting conversation with a young African American man who had left college to take care of an elderly relative in Ferguson. We had been talking for four or five minutes before he told me, calmly and without fanfare that he had been on the receiving end of tear gas a few nights before we met. As we were talking, a police cruiser pulled up behind my cab. When the cab driver noticed, he pulled into the parking lot next to where we were standing. What I didn’t notice and later surprised me, was that the police car followed the cab into the lot. My attention changed when I saw the officer get out of his cruiser and approach the cab driver’s door. The officer was a young white man, probably only in his mid twenties and I intercepted him to explain our presence and to assure him that we weren’t trying to cause any trouble.

The officer acknowledged what I said, but still required the cab driver to roll down his window in order to tell him what he had done wrong, telling the cab driver that he shouldn’t block traffic again. The officer continued by clarifying that the driver wasn’t in trouble, and that he – the officer – had talked with me and knew why he was there.

Nothing inappropriate was said, but it did feel odd if not simply patronizing to have the policeman purposefully giving driving tips to the cab driver. A second police cruiser came into the parking lot and a pedestrian who appeared to have been just walking by came up and began to yell at the officer about what she felt he should be doing with his time. Next, one of the people from the corner group came and began taping the encounter, sticking a cellphone camera in the police officer’s face and asking pointed questions. Shop-keepers came out of their stores to see what the growing commotion was, and slowly, with others joining in the shouting, the police officers returned to their cars. After asking some questions and watching how angry people were, I too got back in the cab and left.

The potential for violence was palpable. The chance for misunderstandings was guaranteed! Whether that police officer had honorable intentions or not, no good was going to come from his actions. And the protestors were so angry. Some were tired and others, the ones I found most upsetting were simply resigned. Before I hopped back into the cab one was saying that every day there is some provocation that results in raised voices, sometimes shoving or other physical contact. The police have removed the group’s shade tarp twice, and now there is apparently some legal restriction barring having tarps like the one they were using.

I left with the distinct impression that very few people I talked to in Ferguson were accepting divine banquet invitations or were aware of the constant presence of the kingdom of God. The police officer did not give the impression that he was honoring the divine in the cab driver, and the protestors were actively denying the diving in the officer.

My experience of Ferguson felt like a tinderbox, with any spark or provocation threatening an enormous eruption. The relationship between the members of the police force and the residents represented by the people on the corner are dangerous and potentially violent. My brief time in Ferguson was fraught and ugly. And since my visit on September 30th, two more black men have been shot by white police officers, one fatally. Because there are not improved relationships or community progress has not been made since the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was killed, there is no room for public discourse about the actual facts of these shootings.

We are assured that the kingdom of heaven is in Ferguson – it is in each of the people I met, available to all of the elected leaders and members of the police force. But I think of Ferguson as the kingdom of heaven as represented by the wedding banquet in the parable of today’s gospel reading. The banquet is there, the party is underway, but there is horrible distraction in the streets. People won’t come.

The harmony and joy that we know to be present at a wedding party, is available always through the divine in each of us. In Ferguson, there are awful earthly impediments – inequality, racism and prejudice and history that is standing in the way of people realizing and living into the promise of God’s divine feast.

Since returning from Ferguson I have been struggling to know what role or responsibility each of us has to embody the kingdom of heaven for Ferguson. In the parlance of community organizing or change agenting, what power does each of us have or leverage might we adopt to help make the kingdom of God tangible to the people who have may have lost their invitation to God’s party?

Perhaps a starting point is to be in touch with the presence of God and the kingdom of heaven right here and right now. (In the pews and surrounded by divine music, it is actually hard to miss) but outside of our corporate worship, in our daily lives, can we say that we are living in the kingdom as God’s people minute to minute, day and week and year by year? Perhaps our response to Ferguson, and our understanding of the wedding banquet parable comes down to the instructions we hear every time we fly and are told we must put our own oxygen mask on before we can assist a fellow traveler. We have to distinguish ourselves from the wedding guest in the parable who was cast out into the darkness, by being ready for the wedding and delighting in the invitation.

In the quiet and tranquility of Cohasset, there are fewer obvious impediments to our connection to the kingdom of heaven, but they still exist. Consider what keeps you from dancing with delight as though you are at a never-ending wedding reception. Is it a demanding or unreasonable boss? A mean friend? A distant or inattentive spouse? Family expectations or money troubles or poor health, sickness or grief? What is it in your life that blocks your access to the wedding banquet that God has set for us?

As part of my priestly formation, I’m attempting to intentionally and outloud accept God’s invitation to the kingdom of heaven, to take a break from my own challenges to find a moment of joy or appreciation for one of God’s many gifts. I invite you to join me, as I’m certain that this affirmation will enhance our connection to the kingdom of God if not deliver us directly to the wedding banquet. And then I’m listening and available to hear how we can leverage our own experience and joy to help our brothers and sisters in Ferguson.  Amen.

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God of Sufficiency and Abundance

Sermon for Sunday, August 3, 2014
Proper 13, Year A
Matthew 14:13-21
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

Note: Amy Whitcomb Slemmer is a postulant for ordination to the priesthood being sponsored by St. Stephen’s Church.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Mother and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This week’s reading, the unavoidable headline news stories, the uncertainty and unrest around us, and the joyful baptisms of Hazel and Charlie are rich invitations for hours of contemplation, even in this fleeting moment of summer. However, our conversation will touch on these topics, raise some questions and offer some observations that may tug at you occasionally as you traverse the terrain of the upcoming week.

Today’s gospel lesson continues the string of summer stories about Jesus’ acts and spreading the good news. He has spoken in parables, healed the sick, exhorted the disciples to go into the world and expand his ministry, and here we find him tired, and looking for rest and solitude. Given my own surprise at changing the calendar to August this week, I wondered whether Jesus, in modern terms, was actually in search of a vacation?

Instead, He is beset upon by a crowd that has come together at the news of John the Baptist’s death, and want guidance and insight from Jesus. The disciples are eager for time with Jesus as well. As dusk is approaching, the disciples offer to send the crowd away, but Jesus tells them not to. Rather than shunning them or ignoring the needs of this crowd, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people.

A description of the feeding of the five thousand appears in all four gospels, which is like a neon scriptural flair signaling readers, preachers and students to pay close attention because something significant has happened, even as some of the minor details differ. All four writers, or groups responsible for this gospel story, wanted to include it in the history of Jesus’s life and ministry.

In Matthew’s telling, we know that the crowd is hungry, having been together all day, listening to Jesus, and to each other. So Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people, but the disciples protest because they only have five loaves of bread and two fish – probably what they expected to eat themselves, that night and perhaps the next — certainly not an amount sufficient to satisfy the enormous crowd.

There are many theories about how five loaves and two fish became enough to feed five thousand hungry people. If, like me, you spent time in parochial school, parsing out the details of this miracle was like a sport with points scored by thinking of the most outlandish possibly plausible explanations for how so little food went so far — not only to meet the needs of the hungry assembly, but to leave twelve baskets of leftovers.

A favorite theory involved the helpful assistance of a baker from one of the neighboring towns bringing in a cart full of additional bread, and Jesus being so busy attending to the flock that he didn’t see the smuggled bread. Another theory is that everyone actually brought their own fish and bread — sort of a potluck gathering, which begs the question of why the crowd would have been hungry in the first place. A final theory hypothesized that Jesus had squirreled away dozens of loaves in a secret cave, and then hit up his stores, or dispatched his disciples to retrieve the concealed bread when the crowd wasn’t looking. I hope this isn’t true, as it makes the whole drama of the story seem like a parlor game or sleight of hand, rather than the example of sufficiency that I think we are being offered.

Jesus does not dwell on the insufficiency of the loaves and fishes. His priority is addressing the peoples’ hunger. He knew that the people would be increasingly unavailable to hear his word, or to understand the world-changing ramifications of his teachings about treating one another as he was and would treat them, if they were hungry. He seems attuned to the futility of teaching and preaching while people are experiencing the physical discomfort of hunger taking up a larger share of their thoughts and experience as the gathering grew longer.

I don’t know whether any of you have ever experienced hunger. Not just the stomach pains or gurgling of a missed meal or skipped dessert, but the sleepiness of your body conserving energy accompanied by the complete uncertainty of when or how your next meal will arrive. Social scientists refer to this condition as food insecurity, and understand that this affects all aspects of a person’s life. Food insecurity is not confined to foreign lands; it is with us in this country, in the Commonwealth and even in our own South Shore community.

Being hungry, or living with food insecurity, permeates all parts of a person’s life and short-circuits what can be achieved. When a significant portion of your day is spent seeking food and nourishment, you are preoccupied with your own needs. You do not have the bandwidth or generosity of spirit to be thinking about others, or the world around you and how you might make it just a bit more like the kingdom of God.

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of being with Governor Patrick when he unveiled the results of a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that named Massachusetts as being first among the fifty states with respect to childhood wellbeing. The authors considered housing, health, school readiness and hunger in the Commonwealth and found that with 99.8% of our children with health insurance, preschools available in most areas and with full enrollment, we are doing better than any other jurisdiction in this country, which is marvelous. What struck me about this event, however, was the Governor’s challenge to the assembled advocates and policy makers. He called our attention to the fact that the news was terrific, but that one in seven of our children go to bed each night in poverty – better than the national average of one in five children, but still thousands of young people in Massachusetts not sleeping in secure surroundings, or sure about their next meal.

The point the Governor was trying to make was that we are going to miss out on the full potential of the young people in the study who are in want. Children who go to bed hungry do not awaken ready to learn, or to bound into a new day mindful of the joy and new possibilities available. They wake to the experience of insufficiency, instability, fear and discomfort.

This week, I have been thinking about the experience of the Israeli and Palestinian children who live in and around Gaza. We have seen the unsettling pictures and videos of the violence and destruction in their world, and I have been wondering about their access to food, water and nutrition. Is hunger one of the deprivations that these children are experiencing? I imagine finding food and shelter now occupies increasingly large portions of each day, which must have a profound impact on their view of their future, on their community, and on their relationship with God and with one another.

How can the young people of Israel and Palestine be a part of any solution when their immediate needs are at risk? How can they maintain or enhance their connections to community when their survival is not assured? I know nothing more powerful for us to do, than what Jesus did with the loaves and fishes. We must pray. We must pray for the politicians to hear God weep. We must pray for the aid workers and humanitarians to safely fulfill their missions. We must pray that the child who sleeps alone in the dark will feel God’s loving presence and sense the power and connections we share.

Pray is exactly what we are doing for Hazel and Charlie whom we will baptize today. Today is a day of joy for them and for us as we prepare to welcome them into their new lives in Christ. Jesus’s message on the beach in this morning’s gospel story is that He will provide, and that in community – together – there is sustenance sufficient for all of us. This morning Hazel and Charlie are going to join our community. The grownups in their lives are affirming their children’s desire to be brought up in the Christian faith, to be counted among Christ’s followers, and we, as part of this sacrament, will covenant to support them and to help these children live into the fullness of new life as we embody God’s love. We will specifically promise to support them in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.

We will practice our promise for their very first time as baptized babies this morning when we share the Eucharist, a familiar and comforting act, reminiscent of the meal that was shared on a shore nearly two thousand years ago. Our prayers will echo what Jesus asked, that the meal be sufficient and a blessing to those who participate in it. Our modern prayers are the same. And this morning, I invite us to consider how the nourishment of the Eucharist will suffice to meet our physical needs so that we can turn outward and see where there is more need to be met.

Let us pray that Hazel and Charlie will not know hunger, so that they will be nourished and ready to learn about God and the significance of their baptisms. May they know that today they were surrounded by their parents, Godparents, loved ones and new community in a living demonstration of the sufficiency and abundance of God’s love and blessing. Amen.

 

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The Trinity Strikes a Chord

Sermon for Sunday, June  15, 2014 ||  First Sunday After Pentecost, Trinity Sunday; Year A ||  Matthew 28: 16-20|| by Amy Whitcomb Slemmer Note:  Amy Whitcomb Slemmer is a postulant for ordination to the priesthood being sponsored by St. Stephen’s Church. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. It is a great pleasure to be with you this morning and to celebrate both Father’s Day and Trinity Sunday. For those of you who may not know me, my name is Amy Whitcomb Slemmer and I am the grateful recipient of your weekly prayers as I continue my journey of formation toward taking Holy Orders for the Episcopal priesthood. I divide my time between St. Stephens in Boston and here, and it is a joy to be here on this gorgeous sparking Sunday morning. Here is a little known Episcopal Fact. It is a holy and semi-sacred tradition to make the most junior person at a parish preach about the Trinity — because it is perhaps confounding, definitely complicated and truly a holy mystery. This celebration is the only one in our churches’ calendar that is focused on a doctrine, rather than raising up an individual, or marking a specific event – and it is not a doctrine that lends itself to banner advertising. We believe in One God manifested as three distinct entities. This is such a challenging concept that our church calendar is constructed to help us better understand each of the entities separately– Father, Son and Holy Spirit or Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. At the end of April, as we celebrated the 40 days of Easter, our readings and worship focused on God as love incarnate that conquered death. Last week’s celebration of Pentecost marked our recognition of the power of the Holy Spirit that came among us, and gave birth to our church. Today’s Gospel, the last verses in the book of Matthew, is the great commissioning where the risen Christ gives the Disciples a brand new job. He sends them into the world to baptize people to do God’s work, and he sends them forth in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Spoiler alert, next week we will hear Jesus warn the disciples about the serious consequences this ministry will bring. Trinity Sunday marks the shift to Ordinary Time – the longest season in our liturgical calendar, with Gospel stories focusing on Jesus’s teaching and preaching and the expectations that we absorb those lessons here, and carry them out into the world. So we have the next twelve weeks to work out and learn more about how to better understand and serve God and to do God’s work. The invitation today – the one day, or singular day that we celebrate and focus on the Trinity – is to better understand our Triune God. The notion of one thing being both singular and plural at the very same time. Understanding pieces that are significant and sufficient in and of themselves, but are also integral parts of the whole. There are many clichés employed to explain the Trinity and I have tried to avoid the well worn. My prayers and study have focused on the encompassing love and presence of God as an individual note of music, like a G played on a piano. Resonant, beautiful and sufficient in its own right. Add additional notes like D and B and you have a chord. Each note distinct, but in combination, a completely different sound. You can continue with this concept to join chords with choirs or the piano with an orchestra and the orchestra with the symphony of music being played around the globe at any particular moment in time, and perhaps we have given ourselves a new handle on being Trinitarians. I was pretty satisfied with my symphony simile as I prayed and lived with it for the last few weeks, until I challenged myself to consider how it applies or informs my daily life and experience of God. Because the most important part of this doctrine, is to better understand God and our relationship with the Divine. I have extremely limited musical instrument talent, and would never be invited to join an orchestra, but I spend a whole lot of time in groups and in meetings, and decided to think of these gatherings as my own personal symphony. In fact a well run meeting, or an efficiently orchestrated brainstorming session offers some of the same sense of shared purpose and harmony that a symphony delivers. One of my meetings this week was with a large and not-always-efficient agenda-setting group that includes a woman who is perpetually late, always arrives talking and scattered, and while frustrating and, I would argue, not as efficient as beginning on time, it is important for this particular group that we not make decisions without her input, because frankly, often she has really good contributions to make. We were discussing some of the front-page headlines about the lack of behavioral health and substance abuse treatment beds available in the Commonwealth, when this woman finally arrived, and her entrance did not disappoint. Talking, distracted and seemingly oblivious to the conversation she was entering, she arrived, plunked down in her chair and began to rifle through her briefcase to get on the same page as those of us already convened. I was sitting there, trying to envision the meeting in musical terms, with each participant being a different instrument, when out of the blue – literally as our new arrival was pulling her meeting notes out of her giant bag, she disclosed, as a matter of fact, that her daughter committed suicide 25 years ago as the result of a prolonged battle with addiction. We were gob smacked. Struck silent. I felt God in the room, and said so. (It is one of the privileges of priestly formation that people will indulge your occasional religious interjections). Her disclosure certainly brought the conversation and agenda building exercise to a different place. It also gave members of the group an opportunity to deepen their understanding of this woman – her frenetic arrivals and relationship with the group. Her disclosure invited empathy, deepened our understanding, and somehow completely softened the frustration at her lateness and disruptiveness. I talked with her afterwards and learned that the anniversary of her daughter’s death is this weekend. She and her daughter are beloved children of God. And I knew that she was a child of God before that gathering, but her disclosure seemed spirit-infused and it changed the group. It also nudged me beyond trying to define a strict construction of the Trinity and moved me to embrace the notion of living into a more full understanding of God’s presence in our lives. Because God was certainly present and spoken for in that meeting. Not every disruption or group outburst is Holy. I spent the last two days in Worcester surrounded by 4,000 people who had their own agendas. And while God was definitely present, I am unaware of a God-centered moment that shifted or transformed the entire gathering. There were plenty of interactions, personal stories told, work accomplished and understanding enhanced, but these transformations took place one on one. Perhaps as an example offered by God incarnate. Jesus touched hearts and minds one at a time, and the individuals who left Worcester may be transformed in some way that will be manifest in smaller gatherings in which they participate this week. What about your plans for gatherings this week? What if at some point today you looked at your schedule for the upcoming week and considered whether you will find yourself in meetings or in a gathered group, and you prayed for some space and presence for the manifestation of God as Father, Son or Holy Spirit? For some insight or deeper understanding of God manifest in that group? I think that it is important to do this in advance, to offer the Holy Spirit an opening to be present before you gather. How would your awareness of God’s presence change your experience of the time you spend in the meeting and how might that inform your experience of God? If your group includes someone with whom you have a standing disagreement, or frequent frustration, pray for that person and your experience in advance. My board at Health Care For All meets this week, and we will be navigating profound disagreements and challenges when we gather. Doing the prayerful and God-centered work ahead of time feels nearly as important as getting our agenda out ahead of time so that participants know what to expect. Our gathering this morning will happen again next week, and our agenda is already set – and mailed out to us each week. What if we read and prayed about next Sunday throughout the week. How might that have an impact on our understanding of God manifest among us? Might you find or experience God manifest as grace, love and communion; or creator, redeemer and sustainer; or Father, Son and Holy Spirit among us? Our experience, and our gathering again next week, will definitely be enhanced. And if you find a change or new insight, please share it,  so that we too might be transformed by your witness and experience of our Triune God. Amen.

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Find Your Theophilus

Sermon for Sunday, June 8th, 2014 || The Day of Pentecost, Year A ||  Numbers 11: 24-30; Psalm 104: 24-35,37; 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13 ||  Ms. Elizabeth Whitehouse

Note:  Our guest preacher, Elizabeth Whitehouse, is a rising sophomore at Liberty University studying psychology. This was the Whitehouse family’s last Sunday at St. Stephen’s before relocating to Chesapeake, Virginia– where some totally unsuspecting church is about to be abundantly blessed by their faithfulness and generosity of spirit!  

Today is a very special Sunday. Today is Pentecost. Today is a day that is so special that we are celebrating something that happened in one of today’s lessons instead of solely focusing on the Gospel reading taken from John today. The focus of Pentecost comes from the events described in today’s reading from the book of Acts.  There are two important things to note about the book of Acts:

1. The passage we read from Acts today is “part two” of another story that is equally important to Pentecost.
2. The book of Acts isn’t actually a book at all; it’s a letter to a man named “Theophilus.”

Keep these two thoughts in mind as we continue, because we’ll come back to them. But before we talk about this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, we’re going to talk about last Sunday: Ascension Sunday.

Last week, our Gospel reading was taken from Luke’s account of the Ascension: the very last passage in the book of Luke. In this account, Jesus says, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”  This is what Jesus says at the end of the book of Luke.

If we look at the end of the book of Matthew, he leaves his disciples with some more in-depth instructions. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Isn’t that comforting? Isn’t it nice that despite such a daunting set of instructions, there is comfort found in the simple assurance that Christ will be with us through it all? And forever? These “more in-depth instructions” taken from the book of Matthew is known as “the Great Commission” and is part one of the incredible story we remember today; part two being Pentecost.

So now back to our two thoughts:

1. The passage we read from Acts today is the second part of another story that is equally important to Pentecost, and
2. The book of Acts is a letter written to a man named “Theophilus.”

We just addressed our first thought, that Pentecost is part two of a story which includes the Great Commission as part one, so lets talk about that. The Great Commission is Christ’s instruction not just for His disciples, but for us, to spread His teachings to the ends of the earth and to baptize others in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the dreaded “E-word”: Evangelism. This is sharing our faith with those around us and telling people about Jesus that have never heard His name before.

Part Two, Pentecost, is when the disciples, and in turn, each of us, were given exactly what we need to go out and complete the Great Commission: the Holy Spirit. In today’s reading from the book of Acts, we read “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” We find this again in today’s Gospel when Jesus breaths the Holy Spirit into His disciples and sends them out as His Father sent Him.

Now that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, there was nothing to stop them from sharing the good news. They could speak to anyone and anyone that listened could understand in their own language. Of course, we can’t speak every language at the drop of a hat, though that would be pretty cool, but through our Baptism and our faith in Jesus Christ, we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit is with us and can move within us, we have the ability to complete the Great Commission by sharing our faith with the people around us.

I’m not saying you have to walk up to a stranger and say, “Hey, you! Have you been saved?” I can tell you from my own personal experience as an Episcopalian at a Baptist school that being asked that question does not make someone want to listen to you talk about Jesus. And I’m not saying that you have to walk up to a stranger at all, but how difficult is it really for us to casually mention that we had a nice time at St. Stephen’s last Sunday? Or to mention that God has blessed us with a beautiful day or a wonderful family? Maybe the way we treat other people or the way we carry ourselves can show others that Christ is a part of our life and that we are lights for Christ through the movement of His Holy Spirit in our lives.

Completing the Great Commission doesn’t have to make us feel uncomfortable, and it doesn’t even have to be seen as impossible. In fact, for the first time in the history of the world, the Great Commission is completely possible through the technology we have today. The Bible has been translated to thousands of languages and is not far from being available in every language. The Bible is even a top free app in the Apple Store. With resources like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, Tumblr (and all those other things I don’t understand) and the access missionaries and even average people like us have to travel around the country and around the world, it is completely possible that by the day I die, everyone on the planet will have heard the name “Jesus.” It really is quite simple now compared to how it all began, which takes us back to our second thought.

The book of Acts wasn’t a book, but a letter written to a man named “Theophilus.” But this isn’t the only book of the Bible that was addressed to this man named “Theophilus.” So was the book of Luke, where we got last week’s Gospel reading. One of our Gospels was a letter written to one person. Luke wrote the entire story of Jesus Christ in a letter to a man just like you and me, and then he wrote the story of His disciples and the important work they continued and began after the Ascension of Jesus Christ.

So, if Luke could share his faith in the writing of two of the books of the Bible addressed to one man named “Theophilus,” why shouldn’t you and I be able to share our faith today with all of the technology we have and all of the people we interact with on a daily basis? What’s stopping us from talking about our church or our blessings or simply acting in a way that shows others that we are followers of Jesus Christ?

So now that we have been filled with the Holy Spirit and we have the ability to complete this incredible task called, “The Great Commission,” I encourage you to consciously invite the Holy Spirit move in your everyday life. Smile at the people that need a smile. Remind the people that have forgotten that Jesus loves them. Find your Theophilus. Find the person that needs to hear this incredible story and share with them the good news that is Jesus Christ. Together, we can spread His love to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all the nations. Amen.

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Daffodils and Lizards

Sermon for Sunday, July 14, 2013
Proper 10C
Luke 10:25-37
Mr. Philip Flaherty, Guest Preacher


Note: This audio did not record very well. You can hear it, but it’s not the best quality.

From Luke 10:25-37 “But he  wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”. The lawyer had an attitude, and already knew the answer he wanted to hear. A first impression is all he’ll need to decide who’s who, a box for “neighbor” and a box for “other”.  We are like that lawyer. We’ like to rely on first impressions to select the right box. In fact, first impressions are a hard wired reflex.

Experts tell us it takes just seven seconds to form first impression. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. First impressions start in that tiny part of the brain sometimes referred to as the primitive “reptilian brain”, the function we share with every other creature on earth, from lizards to elephants. It’s the “fight-flight”, “friend or foe” instinct. Yes, God formed us each with the reptilian brain instinct for protection. But God also gave us the higher brain capacity that allows for compassion. Perhaps both the Levite and the priest in the parable relied on that first impression instinct to avoid a potential danger or at least an inconvenience. Was the Samaritan’s fight or flight instinct also triggered? It probably was, but he was also able to tap into something else. When I was a kid in Sunday School, we had to learn the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. I can remember two of them, Wisdom and Understanding. Is that what made the Samaritan act differently? Was he acting on the gifts of Wisdom and Understanding?

I suspect we’ve all at some time made a critical judgment based on a first impression, where we didn’t wait for Wisdom and Understanding. If you have ever acted on a first impression, have you ever been completely wrong in your judgment based on that first impression?

I’d like to share with you a wrong first impression experience. Then, your assignment, should you decide to accept it, is to think about a time when you formed a wrong opinion based on a first impression, and share your story with someone.

So here’s my story. Back in the 1970’s, a cult religion whose followers were known as “Moonies” was making a big splash in the U.S., especially in urban areas.  The “Moonie” cult was imported from Korea. Well dressed “Moonie” disciples would sell flowers at train stations and airports and door to door as a method of recruiting members. They would approach a prospect and hand them a flower with greeting like “Hi, I’m your neighbor”.

That’s about the time when my wife Connie and I had just moved into an old farm house in rural  Pembroke, Massachusetts, far out of the sphere of  “Moonie” activity.

We had just moved into our new home when one evening, Connie and I noticed someone at the door holding a bunch of cut flowers. He appeared to be well dressed, and there was something else different about him I will get to.  A well dressed man with flowers. Hmm. OBVIOUSLY not from around HERE. The opinion I formed came fast and certain. “IT’S MOONIES!  HOW DID THEY FIND US WAY OUT HERE?”

When I opened the door, sure enough, with a big smile, the visitor spoke first. “Hi. I’m your neighbor”. Then he handed me a yellow daffodil.

Suspicions confirmed! My reply was something like “Yeah, right”. And I was prepared to politely say “Thanks but no-thanks” and close the door. But the visitor continued, “…and my name is Bill, and I live just down the road. I picked up some flowers on my way home from Boston and thought I’d share one with you as a welcome to the neighborhood”.

Have you ever felt yourself getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller?

Attempting a fast recovery, I invited Bill in, where he, Connie and I had a wonderful chat. Bill turned out to be a great neighbor. Aside from the nice suit and the flowers, something else caused my reptilian brain to initially react. Bill looked different. Bill was born in California to Japanese immigrant parents, and we learned that Bill was no stranger to racial profiling. As a youth, Bill spent four years behind barbed wire in a resettlement camp in the Arizona desert. That’s where our government authorities sent Japanese Americans right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And We The People let it happen. As a nation, we were letting the “reptilian brain” do the driving.

Are we any less prone to stereotyping today?  My niece’s husband Robbie’s parents are Armenian. Robbie looks Middle Eastern, and has a Middle Eastern sounding last name. Not long after 9/11, Robbie was taken out of at an airport check-in line by security agents for a pat down and questioning. Were these actions based on Wisdom and Understanding, or the agent’s reptilian brain urgency to get things into the right box?

Beyond that, how infectious can one individual’s rash judgment be? Can it lead to a mob mentality? It’s clear that wrong impressions can cause embarrassment, humiliation, and even violation of civil liberties. But current national news tells us that first impressions can ultimately lead to tragic loss of life, as in the Zimmerman case.

One thing I take away from today’s Gospel lesson is I need to beware of first impressions. The reptilian brain is not going to go away. It’s part of our biology. It’s hard wired to send us that fight-flight, friend or foe impulse. We can speculate the Levite and the priest in today’s parable acted on their fight-flight instinct, while the Samaritan overcame it. The Samaritan saw the man in the ditch through the Gifts given of Wisdom and Understanding, as a fellow traveler and child of God. So how do we tap into these God given gifts? There is another God given gift, prayer. We can pray. Lizards can’t.  Jesus told us “ask, and it will be given to you”. We can pray, as we heard today in Paul’s the letter to the Colossians, “asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”. We can ask for the Wisdom to discern beyond that first impression, to see the image of God in others. In my morning prayer, when I read that line from Psalm 51, “Open my lips O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise”, I need to stop and think about how I’m going to do that today, with the next human being I encounter. For me, a more appropriate translation might be “O Lord, please don’t let the lizard do the driving today”. Amen.

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Two Parades

Sermon for Sunday, March 24, 2013
Palm Sunday, Year C
Luke 19:28-40
The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade

There were two processions that day. There was the one we gather to remember—Jesus riding into Jerusalem from the East, from the Mount of Olives on a donkey colt symbolizing peace.  Jesus’ disciples waved palm branches signifying little more than that people were happy and branches were handy. Jesus was making a messianic claim but hardly anyone would have agreed about the meaning of it. In spite of all of our imaginings and piety about Holy Week, it is unlikely that even a small fraction of the Passover crowd knew anything about the Jesus’ parade.

The other procession came from the north, from Caesarea Philippi. The Roman Legions under the command of Pontius Pilate marched into town not to symbolize peace but to keep it. Their step was measured, their purpose unmistakable, their banner clear and uncomplicated.  SPQR: the Senate and People of Rome. Everything and everyone else was secondary. And everybody from High Priest to lowest servant knew about Pilate’s parade.

The two parades on Palm Sunday have a way of illuminating one another, revealing how the columns that converged on Jerusalem so many centuries ago are, in many ways, still moving among us today. Step back with me for a moment to watch the two parades and hear what they have to tell us.

Let’s begin with the procession we Christians know so well.  It was a faith parade and, like most things of faith, it was on a small scale, barely noticeable except to those watching for it or with an eye for such things. In the mosh pit of Middle Eastern crowds, like the ones we see so often on the news, Jesus’ entrance was no more eye-catching than a kindness at work or a generous check. The exercise of faith does not often stand out in a crowd. Jesus was not the focal point for the day; this kind of faith seldom is. The Jerusalem crowd was all caught up in the combination of triumphant religion and chest-thumping patriotism that character-ized Passover. Faith, the kind that quietly moves mountains and changes lives, is not like that at all. Jesus, at the center of this Palm Sunday ripple moving across the boisterous sea of Passover exuberance, sensed his task and the rightness of doing it even though the subsequent telling of the Holy Week story indicates that even he did not have it all worked out. Faith rarely knows the details of the landscape it approaches, which is why the faithful are called followers.  If we knew for sure where we were going, we would not have to follow. Children were there, raising a ruckus as they tend to do and offending the stuffy. Children know that truth is something we do, not just something we think and that tends to irritate grown up thinkers.

Jesus was on a donkey colt, not a very dignified animal for high drama. He was showing that God’s ways are not, as Isaiah once said, like our ways at all. Jesus was vulnerable on this ridiculous little animal, the kind of vulnerability that is true strength. Jesus was beaming generosity, the kind of generosity that is true power. And inside of this barely noticeable moment there was a springtime of meaning that for the next 200 centuries will bring people like us out to places like this to sing Hosanna. It was pregnant with meaning and power.

And there was the other parade, the one everybody in Jerusalem would have noticed because Pilate and his legions came to town to be noticed, to impress everyone with their raw power. There was no uncertainty at all about what they were doing or how they would do it. Triumphant religion and chest-thumping patriotism fell into sullen silence before them. Thick crowds parted like Red Sea waters, their noise muted by the beat of drums and the clank of weapons. Pilate was as grim as a founder’s portrait in a boardroom, his troops scowling like chaperones who come to see what is going on. As the legions neared, children were swept behind their mother’s skirts and gripped in their father’s hands. Rome was not a theory or an idea, it was the dominant reality of the day, a truth everyone had to acknowledge. The Romans knew that power is control and control is power; vulnerability is a weakness to be avoided in oneself and despised in others.

The compelling clarity of Pilate’s show of force was rooted in the worship of a small god. SPQR: the Senate and People of Rome. Like other small gods such as profit or security, popularity or youthful-ness, SPQR was marvelously simple to serve.  When only one thing is important there are no confusing conflicts.  Later in the week when Pilate was faced with an innocent man on the one hand and a threat to the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace – on the other, he worked through it in no time, washed his hands of the ambiguity and threw the innocent man under the bus, or onto the cross if you will.  Pilate, to his credit, did ask “What is truth?” but then because in his world such a question is always rhetorical, he did not stay to find the answer even though the one who is the way, the truth and life was standing in front of him. Small gods and simple truths allow that kind of dexterity and require that kind of blindness in ways that those struggling to follow Jesus never know.  Pilate’s parade was grand, malignant and dying.

Two parades, so very different from one another. One small, subtle and barely noticeable, clear about its joy but little else, vulnerable, generous and changing the world.  The other large, loud and unmistakable, clear about its purpose, strong, brutal when it must be, consistent and adverse to change.

In Jerusalem so long ago the two processions were far apart. You had to be part of either one or the other.  But today they are mixed and mingled. Here on a pious Palm Sunday we know we belong in Jesus’ parade where vulnerability and generosity are our hallmark, and joy is our reward; where we strive to follow our Lord through the jostling crowd toward Easter. But tomorrow morning Pilate’s parade will form again and the world we sometimes call ‘real’ will proclaim that power and control are what life is about, and vulnerability makes for road kill. The call of small gods like profitability, security, popularity and looking good will be heard and the simplicity of serving them will have its appeal. On Monday, if anyone asks “What is truth?” we will all know it is rhetorical and no answer is to be expected.

In our secular world, the two parades mingle together. Pilate’s parade is large, loud and unmistakable while Jesus’ is small, subtle and visible only to the practiced eye.  But the two parades, mingled as they are, actually go in different directions.  One is the world’s way, the other is about changing the world. One is what takes up most of life, the other is what all of life is really about. Jesus’ parade goes on.  Pilate’s ends in dust. Today we know where we belong. Tomorrow it won’t be so easy, which is why we need to remember today.  Amen.

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