Category Archives: Guest Preachers

What about the Poor?

Sermon for Sunday, March 17, 2013
Lent 5C
John 12:1-8
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

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

We are nearing the end of the Lenten season – next Sunday is Palm Sunday with all of the pomp and pageantry and drama of that day.  If you are like me, you may have found yourself prompted by a couple of days in the 50’s pondering the return of Spring and a few things are finally budding – adding to the hopeful sense of the season to come.

This morning’s Gospel reading, which tells of the anointing of Jesus, is an invitation to glimpse what is to come, even in the midst of our Lenten discipline.  It is such an important story that it is retold, with some variation in each of the Gospels.  In John’s version the event takes place in Bethany, at the home of Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters.  The family, Jesus and Judas are gathered around sharing in the celebration of the restored life of Lazarus whom Jesus had raised.  The action of the story focuses on Mary pouring out a container of wildly expensive perfume – estimates place the value at about a year’s salary – she pours it on Jesus’ feet and then wipes it with her hair.

This extravagant act is called out by Judas who sharply criticizes Mary for wasting what he suggests could have been converted into a significant amount of cash for the poor.

Jesus’ response is loving, gentle and generous in its own right – he allows that she has planned in advance and is prepared (and perhaps practicing) for his burial.  In his kindness toward Mary, John’s gospel offers a much quoted and frequently misused response.  Jesus says, “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  He is foreshadowing his imminent death, crediting Mary with being aware of it, but what is he telling the rest of us about the poor?

I do not believe that Jesus is inviting us to simply accept the fact that there will always be poor people, or that we should disregard them.  The bulk of the biblical record is rife with all sorts of invitations to address the needs of the poor.  Yet this passage has been used as a rationale to do little to alleviate poverty, or as a subtext to accept significant economic and social disparities as inevitable.

This question – (W)ill we always have the poor? – has threaded its way through my Lenten observance this year, and I wonder if it has ever given you pause.

A small group of us, and groups in several other parishes across the Diocese of Massachusetts have taken Bishop Shaw up on his invitation to read a book called “The Rich and The Rest of Us” by Cornel West and Tavis Smiley.  This book captures stories that West and Smiley collected as they made their way across America by bus in 2011.  Their bus tour was aimed at doing solid reporting about what poverty looks like in our country.  Born of frustration at the fact that none of the Presidential candidates were saying anything about the poor, and the authors felt that we were becoming complacent about the way in which poverty was showing up in the press.  They compared it to the 1800s when it was a common practice to blame poor people and suggest that their circumstances were a reflection of their own moral failing, laziness, or lack of ambition.  There are some stark contextual quotes in the book that demonstrate the fear that people have with associating with the poor, as though it were a condition that could be caught.

One of the interesting results of the bus tour was that West and Smiley were picketed at many of the stops that they made.  Crowds gathered to denounce them for glorifying the poor.  These demonstrators felt that the bus tour drew attention that distorted the magnitude of the actual problem.  Others showed up to wave posters and picket the bus tour as being a propaganda tool of the right, and for making President Obama look bad.  There was a remarkable political balance to the opposition.  However, the personal stories that the tour organizers heard, and the people that they met enroute made it impossible to peg the problem of poverty as either a left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican issue.  The suffering that was bravely described by the people who participated in the bus tour was simply human and called out for something to be done.

Many of the stories that Professor West and talk show host Smiley share are stories of the new poor.  People who worked hard all their lives, were college educated, upwardly mobile, working their way up the corporate ladder, until at some point, they became part of a budget balancing equation and were laid off.  The families had never felt vulnerability before, but were now the human faces of our economic decline.  People who had never wondered or had to think about what their grocery bill was going to be, had to figure out where their next meal was going to come from.  People who had thrived and considered how to expand and modify their already ample houses, describe being faced with figuring out whether it would be possible to sell that same house for enough to cover their untenable mortgage.  The book and study materials offer us stories of people in real pain.  There are several stories of people who had accidents or got sick and had to choose between selling their house and receiving extensive medical treatment.  The authors suggest that this is the new face of the poor.

There are many common threads that connect each of the people who share the facts of their changed circumstances.  They are surprised, they are worried, they do not see a solution or an alleviation of their suffering any time soon, and they feel isolated.

As our Lenten study group made our way through “The Rich and The Rest of Us” I have wondered whether the people described as the new poor are members of a church community and if so, whether they are being supported by their community?  I know that within our own community we are challenged to be present and support our friends and parishioners who are in an unexpected transition, are newly unemployed, or vulnerable.  I’ve heard the explanations about our New England culture of going it alone, but I think that church – the intimate connections through Christ that we are invited to make, out rank the history and tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip.

We know that the down economy has directly impacted Cohasset, Dorchester, Scituate, Hingham and Hull, and I imagine that there are fellow parishioners who are feeling isolated or insecure, but are either not with us this morning, or are not comfortable letting anyone else know what is really going on at home or at work.

When I was a child my family and I lived in a lovely brick and board colonial house.  It was the Perin House and we lived in Perintown, Ohio.  From the outside looking in, ours appeared to be among the most fortunate families in town.  We had a huge house, a giant station wagon, we went to private school and for a time, it was true — we did have all and more than we needed.  But one day we found that we had nothing and were at risk of losing the house.

I remember that there were times when we had no heat in the dead of winter.  Other times we couldn’t afford water, the worst times for me were when we didn’t have food.  We weren’t an active part of a church community, and no one knew how we were struggling.  My mother was too proud to ask for help – a committed New Englander having grown up in Scituate.  But I wanted desperately to have someone know and to help my mother out.  As a kid, I just wanted heat, or water or food.  I didn’t care or attach any blame or shame to the cause of our discomfort, I just wanted it fixed.  And I wanted my mother to have help and to feel less isolated and vulnerable.

A couple of weeks ago when we had the huge storm that knocked out power for days and did such damage around town, all I kept wondering was which kids were freezing and worried and wondering who would help their parents fix it.  God calls us into wholeness and wants us to be aware of our belovedness, but if you are hungry, cold or afraid, being beloved ends up about furthest from your mind.

Jesus tells Judas, Mary, Martha and Lazarus that we will always have the poor with us, but it is likely that he was quoting from Deuteronomy: “Since you always have the poor with you, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy in your land.’ Which is a lovely passage and includes some specific charges for us as it goes on:

Deuteronomy 15:7-11 “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor…Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’’

I look forward to spending the end of Lent and much of Easter contemplating what we can do together to alleviate the suffering, overcome the pride, or invade the isolation of anyone in our community who would qualify within the West-Smiley definition of the new poor.  We aren’t supposed to just accept poverty as a perpetual fact of life.  As we affirm at the beginning of each Lenten service, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  In this case that might mean checking in to see how things are going, and what might be needed.

Are you missing a friend here today, or curious to know how things are going for a neighbor you haven’t seen or heard from in a while?  I know that it is terribly unNew England like, but why not give them a call and invite yourself over? Or invite them to come to the last Lenten soup night this Wednesday – anything, just reach in.  I was waiting for someone just like you to come and break down the barriers that my good New England mother had put in place.

Let’s find a way to answer the silent prayer of any kids or adults who are hungry, cold, proud and unemployed or uninsured.  This is the work that God has given us to do, and part of the gift of being in community is to know that suffering is not what God wants for us, and that together we can do something about it.  Amen


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The Grown-up Meaning of Christmas

Sermon for Sunday, December 30, 2012
The First Sunday after Christmas
John 1:1-18
Dr. John Seel

Below please find the audio of the sermon preached on December 30th by guest preacher, Dr. John Seel.

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The Promise of Vacation and Soul Revival in the 23rd Psalm

Sermon for Sunday, July 22, 2012
Proper 11 Year C
Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

Is anyone else surprised to find that it is July 22nd – the middle of the summer, actually — with only a few more summer days ahead of us than behind?  That realization brought me up short this week.  I have so many plans, and so much to do.  As the preferred season of rest, fun, a presumed slower pace and relaxation, and to my mind — when done well — a time of rejuvenation.  But here we are in the middle of it, and I have done far less than half of what I had planned.

I  hope that you are in the middle of a successful summer that includes keeping your goals for R & R, family time and a more moderate pace, and that it includes just the right amount of visitors, guests and activity.

Mark’s gospel, as a rule, is short and full of activity and in today’s reading, we are in the middle of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry.  Next week we will hear about the feeding the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water.  But this morning the disciples have returned after being sent out to teach and heal, and they are back to tell Jesus what they have done.  Imagine them eager to see one another and to catch up, share stories, food, and devotional time.

And Jesus says to them, “Come away to a deserted place, all by yourselves and rest for a while.”  A divinely sanctioned vacation!  Our Lord is inviting this group to step away from the hustle and bustle of their daily lives and find some Sabbath time, not unlike a summer break.

But we are told that their plan changes as a crowd gathers and in his compassion Jesus continues teaching and healing, even on what was to be his vacation.

In planning my summer schedule, I was very much looking forward to spending a week at our church’s General Convention – not that Indianapolis is analogous to the deserted place Jesus suggests, but I was excited to be away from work, to see friends and delegates from all over the country, to worship and break bread with thousands of fellow Episcopalians.

I will confess that I love general convention!  To me it is the embodiment of how we as Episcopalians make choices, pray together and set our policies and guidelines.  We get together once every three years (our Triennium)  in a bicameral structure, with lay and clergy representatives organized as a House of Deputies and all of our Bishops as members of the House of Bishops.

The resolution for incorporating a liturgy for blessing same gender couples was adopted by a roll call vote in each house, and at the reading of the tally, the results were met with studied silence.  For those who wanted to celebrate, there was respectful silence in deference to those for whom this was a difficult occasion.  In fact each house stopped legislative business and prayed before voting.  There were plenty of labyrinthine legislative maneuvers and highly charged statements made, but when votes were cast and decisions made, there was a level of civility that I wish we could translate to our national political stage.

It was a jammed packed week, thus Indianapolis did not provide the respite opportunity that I had hoped it would.  In fact, the break neck pace and limited time for sleep caught up with me and many of your fellow Episcopalians, who found that one of the souvenirs that we brought home was an impressive respiratory virus.

Whether I had wanted to or not, I was forced to take time from work and my schedule to be away from people to heal.  The idea in today’s Gospel of Jesus inviting the disciples away to rest is an incredibly attractive idea, but what happened next, when their respite was interrupted?  What happened to the disciples and Jesus when they had planned for vacation, but instead, continued a pace?  How did they find the reserves they needed to continue?  For Jesus, probably not a problem, since we assume that God has boundless energy.  But for the disciples, I wondered. And then I re-read the 23rd Psalm.

The 23rd Psalm, with its familiar and comforting words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters” sounds wonderfully restful; and later it is clear that “He revives my soul.”  And isn’t that what a vacation is supposed to do for us?  Perhaps the disciples found that just being in Jesus’ presence gave them the energy and respite that they needed to go on and continue in their ministry.

We read this Psalm at funerals and memorial services to offer comfort and assurance that God is with us, even in difficulty, and that the souls for whom we grieve are with the Lord and have all that they need as they dwell with those saints who have gone before them.  Last Saturday Bishop Shaw prayed this Psalm for us at Priscilla Houghton’s memorial service.  It is full of promise – no matter what befalls us or happens, “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.  Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

As we grapple with the tragedy in Colorado and pray for the victims, family members and all who have been affected by this unspeakable evil – people truly surrounded by the shadow of death — among my prayers is that the words of this Psalm, which will surely be read and offered dozens of times over the coming days for the departed souls in Colorado — I hope that these words will be heard and will bring both comfort and reassurance.

The madness experienced in Aurora does not make any sense.  Our friend and Acting Dean of the National Cathedral, the Rev. Dr. Frank Wade, has referred to this as  an act of “empty evil.”  It was an act of planned violence, in a familiar and seemingly safe setting.  One more community gathering place that will forever more be viewed as a potentially dangerous place.

We ache for those parents who may have shared in their children’s summer excitement at going to a midnight movie they had waited months to see.  We can’t imagine the horror of the family members of James Eagen Holmes, the accused gunman, and all who will grapple with the aftermath of this violence for the rest of their lives.  We mourn for the people of Colorado who have seen yet another tragedy take place within their borders… to another one of their communities, in a setting that before Friday was one of the preferred safe activities that we would recommend for our children.

Public officials and others will get started immediately trying to prevent anything like this from happening again.  But they will not be able to heal the breach of trust that allows us to gather together in community without the distraction of constant vigilance for our safety. There will be heated public debate about guns and weapons policies, mental illness and mental health services, parental responsibility and the responsibilities of academic institutions– and we’ll hear lots about the effects of violence in the media.  But I invite us to think about finding comfort right now.

As we wonder – what can we do?— I know one thing we can do right now is to pray.   As Christians we are called to pray for the victims, for the community, for the family members and for the accused  (which I find challenging to do, but ultimately better than harboring malice or judgment toward a person I do not know.)   I know prayer is powerful!

And I think that we must find time to connect with Jesus in quiet contemplation.  So I invite us to not just believe what we hear in the words of the 23rd Psalm, but to lean into them.  And in a very difficult time like this, I suggest that we lean hard, read them frequently, rely on them and seek newfound understanding and appreciation as we meditate and pray with these beautiful and familiar words.

Before Friday, I was going to remind us that we still have time to keep some of our planned goals as we have half of the summer before us.  And I was going to invite each of us to read the 23rd Psalm an extra time or two this week to see if, even in our busy and over-subscribed summer schedule, we could find a glimmer of rest, rejuvenation or even a sense of our soul’s revival as we made extra time to spend with God.  But now, I’d like to invite each of us  to read this psalm not just for ourselves, but for those shocked souls in Colorado who may not even be able to hear the words right now, but who we pray will one day  know that:  God’s goodness and mercy will follow each of us, all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  Amen

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Divine Math Class

The CIA middle school youth group performed the following skit as the sermon at the 10am service on Trinity Sunday, at which we also had a baptism. Special thanks to Cathy Forest, who wrote the following, and the seven middle schoolers, who did the skit.

Miss Keptic: Students, welcome to your first review class for the Math MCAS test.  I will be helping you review for this important state standardized exam.  You have learned all of these concepts before, so this should just be a review.  And I understand that you students from St. Stephen’s are particularly bright.

First, let’s discuss number properties.  Look at this flipchart.  What can you tell me about these numbers?

Nathan:  They are all multiples of 12!!

Miss Keptic:  Excellent!

Emma:  And there are 12 months in a year!

Keptic:  OK…

Sophie: There are 12 eggs in a dozen!

Keptic:  Ok…now…

Aidan: (interrupting)  There were 12 sons born of Jacob…

Liam:   (interrupting and excited) …making the 12 tribes of Israel…

Olivia:  (Interrupting and excited)…and the Wise Men showed up 12 days after Christmas…

Adam:  (Interrupting and excited)…and Jesus selected 12 disciples!

Keptic:  Well, OK!  Twelve is certainly an important number.  But we must really get back to math.

Why don’t we turn to number operations instead?  I’m sure you will be very familiar with the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division!

Nathan:  I’m sorry Miss Keptic.  But here at St. Stephen’s we learned Jesus’ math.  There is no subtraction or division here.

Keptic:  Www…what do you mean???

Emma:  Well, let’s say you have six blessings.  And you gave me all six of your blessings.  How many blessings would you have?  Well, you would still have the six blessings that you gave away to me.

Nathan:  And because you gave your blessings to another, the blessings would have multiplied.

Emma:   Yeah, when we share the blessings of our gifts and talents, the blessings spread, and grow, and multiply…but they never subtract or divide.  It’s divine math Miss Keptic!

Keptic:  (flustered) Well…I…I…I think we should move on to geometry!

Please take a look at this shape.  What can you tell me about it?

Aidan:  It’s a circle Miss K.  It is one of our favorite shapes here at St. Stephen’s because it has no beginning and no ending….

Sophie:  (interrupting and excited) Actually, it does have a beginning which is also an ending…

Aidan:  (interrupting and excited)  …and the church uses the circle to tell time during the year, so we always remember that for every ending there is a beginning and for every beginning there is an ending…

Sophie:  …or like the story of Jesus’ death and rising again.  It was an ending but also a beginning, so the story can go on forever!

Keptic:  Yes students.  I see now what a wonder  – filled shape the circle is.    Thank you.

Maybe you could teach me about this shape??

Liam:  Of course, Miss Keptic.  It is an equilateral triangle.  All the sides are the same length.

Olivia:  And all the angles are the same measure.

Adam:  It is also used as the symbol of the Holy Trinity.

Keptic:   The Holy Trinity?

Liam: Yes.  There is only one God who is revealed to us in three ways –  as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Olivia:  God is the creator.  Remember the water of creation?  And the dangerous water of the flood, and the water the people went through into freedom?  He created the water Jesus was baptized in, the water that we were baptized in, the water that Ryland will be baptized in, and so much more.

Adam:  God is also the Redeemer.    There was once someone who said such wonderful things and did such amazing things that people just had to ask him who he was.  One time when they asked him who he was, he said…”I am the Light!”

Liam:  God is the Sustainer.  The Holy Spirit goes where it will.  It rides the invisible wind like a dove, and comes to us when we need its comfort and power.  It is invisible like the scent of the oil at Baptism, but it is still there.

Olivia: We experience God in these three ways, but God is really one.  (Olivia gets up, goes to flip chart and writes:  1 + 1 + 1 = 1).

It’s just more divine math, Miss Keptic.

Keptic:  I think I understand.  Well, I don’t really understand.

(She looks sad, sits on the steps and the students stand around her).

Students, I am so sorry.  I thought that I could teach you.  But I was wrong.  You know so much more than I do.  There is just so much about this complex, awe inspiring world that God has created, that I don’t understand.  How will I ever understand it?

(Students put their hands on her bowed head and shoulders)

Emma:   With respect for the ways of God…

Aidan:  With an open heart…

Sophie:  With great faith…

Nathan:  and with a sense of wonder.

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Graduation Day

Sermon of Sunday, May 20, 2012
Easter 7B
John 17:6-19
The Rev. Geof Smith

Northeastern University’s big day was May 4; Simmons’ and BU shared May 18; Boston College’s is tomorrow; and Harvard’s will be Thursday.  It’s college graduation season here in Boston; that time of year when all those fresh faces come spilling out of the ivory towers.  They’ll stand in lines in auditoriums and football fields across the state, draped in ill-fitting polyester robes and oddly-shaped hats with tassels.  They’ll be subjected to graduation speeches, running from the memorable to the mind-numbing.

And then maybe next week, the lucky ones will start their new careers and put what they’ve learned to work.

Here at St. Stephen’s, we’re wrapping up an adult formation series on Christian advocacy.  We’ve learned all about advocacy: what it is and what it’s not and how advocacy is the flip side of the coin from what we do so well in outreach.  We’ve explored what advocacy means to those who need an advocate, and where and how the Episcopal Church engages in advocacy around the globe.  Today we get down to the exciting stuff: exploring what role St. Stephen’s has as advocates.  You’re all welcome to join this conversation after the 10:00 service in the Bartow Room.

And overlaying all of this is the fact that today is the last Sunday of Easter, the last Sunday of a season of focus on the resurrection and its hope.  Next Sunday will be Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit lands on the heads of the disciples like a firestorm.  The Spirit will stir them up and finally get them out of that upper room where they’ve been holed up since Easter.  Pentecost is about us getting out into the world.  Some call Pentecost the birthday of the church, it’s when we got our mission as a church; but as I thought about this Sunday in relation to Pentecost, another metaphor came to mind: Pentecost is like our first day on a new job; for from Pentecost on, we have work to do.  Which means that today, May 20th, I get to say to all of you, “Congratulations, St. Stephen’s class of 2012.”

For each of us are about to leave our Easter classroom and start the work the Spirit will have for us.  Metaphorically at least, we need to allow ourselves to think of today as graduation day!  OK, we can get by without John playing Pomp and Circumstance; and we’ll take a pass on the funky robes; but – and I’m prejudiced here – can you remember a better graduation prayer than our Gospel this morning?

Jesus says to God on behalf of his followers, “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.  They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  The words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them.”

In other words, in spite of all their misunderstandings, mistakes, puzzled and muddled looks, and in spite of all the mistakes still to come, Jesus is saying his chosen disciples are OK; they get it: they’ll keep God’s word.  They’re as ready as they’ll ever be.

And so too are we.  For as we close our Easter season, and with it, John’s Gospel, we find ourselves hearing the same prayer that Jesus’ disciples heard him praying the night before he died.  It is a powerful, moving prayer where Jesus asks that his crucifixion reveal God as the one true God, the lover of Israel and the world.  Jesus prays to God on behalf of all those whom God has given him.  He prays as their great high priest a prayer of “sanctification.”

Now in Hebrew, the word “sanctification” means that something has been given over to God, something is being made holy.  On the cross, Jesus will give himself up to God’s will.  He will bear in his own body the shame and failure of the world in order to bring us healing and seal us with God’s love.

It is out of this love that Jesus now prays aloud for those sitting around the table with him: for James and Peter and John, yes, and also for Mary and Martha and Lazarus and other whose names we do not know.  These are the people who have physically seen God in Jesus, and they are the first to trust him.  They are the first to begin living his way at Pentecost; his first graduating class.  Jesus’ prayer becomes their graduation address.

As Jesus goes to the cross, he prays for his faithful, that, as he has been sanctified, so too all those who believe in him will be sanctified.  His graduation prayer blesses the class and asks God to protect them.  Jesus celebrates the fact that God gives him these friends; that these friends are now a new chosen people.  And by extension, we are now that new, chosen Israel.

Which sounds almost preposterous, doesn’t it?  Maybe even a bit arrogant?  As 21st century Episcopalians, we blush at the notion of being “God’s chosen.”  And with good reason, after twenty centuries of shameful behavior, we should blush a bit.  For how many times have we considered ourselves “chosen” at the expense of those whom we’ve decided are not chosen?  How many times have we inflicted suffering on Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and peoples with indigenous faiths all around the world?

Being chosen does not mean they – whoever we label as “they”– are not chosen.  It doesn’t mean, “Mom loves me best.” Quite the contrary, Jesus prays for us because we are among Christians and non-Christians, among those in the world still angry with God, and those who do not follow Christ.  Being chosen means as God sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus now sends us into the world, to live out his love.  To bless the world, not divide it; to serve, not to be served.

This is Jesus’ high prayer for us, his high hope for us.

This is our commencement address.

Odd isn’t it; how graduation – the closing of a chapter in our lives – is also called “commencement,” as if we are supposed to be beginning something new in our lives.

And we are.

Today we will close the Easter season, the season most associated with hope.  But before we go, I want to close this sermon with a message of hope, with a poem Barbara Kingsolver wrote for a commencement address.  It’s called, “Hope; An Owner’s Manual,” and it goes something like this:

Look, you might as well know,

this thing is going to take endless repair: rubber bands, crazy glue,
tapioca, the square of the hypotenuse.
Nineteenth century novels, heartstrings, sunrise:
all of these are useful.

Also, feathers.

To keep it humming, sometimes you have to stand on an incline,
where everything looks possible; on the line you drew yourself.
Or in the grocery line, making faces at a toddler
secretly, over his mother’s shoulder.
You might have to pop the clutch and run past all the evidence.
Past everyone who is laughing or praying for you.
Definitely you don’t want to go directly to jail,
but still, here you go, passing time, passing strange.
Don’t pass this up.
In the worst of times, you will have to pass it off.
Park it and fly by the seat of your pants.
With nothing in the bank, you’ll still want to take the express.
Tiptoe past the dogs of the apocalypse
that are sleeping in the shade of your future.
Pay at the window.
Pass your hope like a bad check.
You might still have just enough time.
To make a deposit.

Congratulations, graduates.  Amen.

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Here. Now.

Sermon for Sunday, April 29,2012
Easter 4B
John 10:11-18
The Rev. Sam Rodman

This is a great gospel reading, and not just because it is Good Shepherd Sunday and not just because we get to hear Jesus say the reassuring words: “I am the Good Shepherd … I know my sheep and my sheep know me” This is a great gospel lesson because of what it says about the resurrection.

And by way of confession, since you all don’t know me very well, I am what you might call a resurrection groupie. I love the Easter season because of all the resurrection stories. I find them fascinating, mysterious, confounding and magnetic. I am drawn to them over and over. And even this Good Shepherd passage from John, I can’t help but see through the lens of the resurrection.

Listen to the last couple of lines again. “For this reason the father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” Jesus is anticipating his own resurrection. In literary terms it is a foreshadow. And did you notice what he says about it? Jesus says something new about resurrection. Jesus says the resurrection is a command. Only John would try something this bold and extraordinary. Resurrection not as a gift, a promise, a hope, not a metaphor. It is a command. Now that is radical. Resurrection as the 11th commandment.  Who could have possibly imagined this?

Well, John did. And if you don’t think he is serious, jump ahead to the next chapter. You know, the one where Lazarus is raised from the dead. The words Jesus speaks from the entrance of the tomb after he has wept for his friend are most often translated “Lazarus, Come Out!” OK that’s good, strong, forceful, but not nearly as bracing as the more literal translation: “Lazarus, Here! Now!”  … Now that’s a command. And the authority Jesus draws upon to perform this miracle is the same authority that will raise him from the tomb on Easter morning. It is the commandment of God. “Here! Now!” The words should send a chill up our spines, and ring in our ears. They should shake our very bones.

The first rector I served with at St. Thomas’ Whitemarsh, PA, was a man by the name of Dick Hawkins. Dick grew up in Walpole, MA and eventually attended Episcopal Divinity School, but he was an undergraduate at West Point. And one of things they taught at West Point was something called command voice. It was all about tone and volume and an officer used it to deliver an order that was to be obeyed directly, immediately, without thought and without hesitation. The idea was that command voice would proceed from sound to action in one continuous uninterrupted motion. Jesus says “Lazarus, Here! Now!” And the dead man begins to stir, and then to rise.

But, what does this have to do with the Good Shepherd, you might ask? All this talk about resurrection.  And why is it here, in the middle of Easter season, that we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday?

Jesus says “I know my own and my own know me.” As you probably already know, sheep don’t see very well. That is why they are often considered dull and slow. But sheep have very sharp ears, and this is how sheep know their shepherd, by the sound of the shepherd’s voice.

Command voice is not the only kind of voice that a good shepherd might use, but it is a good place to start, because it gets the sheep’s attention. It wakes us up to something vital, even essential. In John’s gospel the new commandment we most typically identify with Jesus is the one that is referenced in our epistle this morning: “And this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” This was undoubtedly spoken in a softer more gentle tone, the kind we usually associate with the good shepherd. What is brilliant about the way John weaves this gospel together is that these two commandments are related: love and resurrection. In fact, they are inseparable.

In John’s gospel Martha, Mary and Lazarus are like part of Jesus’ extended family and the bond they share is a special one. And for John, there is a deep connection between Jesus’ love for Lazarus and the words with which he raises him: “Here, now.” Just as there is a deep connection between love freely expressed or boldly offered, here and now, and the essence of resurrection power.

We actually know this already, because we experience it. In fact, we experience it often enough, that sometimes we even take it for granted. I am willing to bet that every single person in this church, at one time or another has had their spirit, their heart lifted by the love of another person. It might have been a parent, a friend, a child, a spouse. Sometimes it is simply the sound of their voice whispering, “It will be OK” or “You can do this,” or “I forgive you.” These are experiences, here and now, of resurrection power. It is a foreshadow of what is to come.

In John’s gospel, Jesus will be able to lay down his life and take it up again, because God’s love for him is so alive and present and real for him here and now that he trusts it will carry him right through his agonizing death on the cross and out the other side, to life. Life that is full of peace and joy and a power that can lift us up, again and again and again.

A prayer that I have been saying all week that celebrates this resurrection potential in our daily lives comes from Thich Nhat Hahn, a buddhist monk from Vietnam who is the author of Living Buddha, Living Christ;

Our true home is in the present moment.
To live in the present moment is a miracle
The miracle is not to walk on water
The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment
To appreciate the peace and the beauty that are available now
Peace is all around us –
In the world and in nature –
And within us –
Within our bodies and our spirits
Once we learn to touch this peace,
We will be healed and transformed
It is a matter of faith and
It is a matter of practice

Often when people talk like this, it can sound like a way of soft -peddling the resurrection. That is not what I mean here.  Quite the opposite. I believe that the event of Jesus’ resurrection is so powerful it literally permeates every aspect of our lives, here and now. And that our love for each other is infused with this power. And this is one of the ways Jesus continues to be our good shepherd, calling us by name, opening our eyes, helping us to experience this peace, inviting us to love more freely, more boldly, more abundantly.  It is all about recognizing his voice.

A friend of mine who lives in Milton had a serious staff infection in the shoulder of his right arm about 12 years ago. When the infection was at its worst, they thought they might have to amputate his arm. In the end they were able to preserve the arm, but they had to remove the shoulder, which means, in effect, he lost the use of his right arm. He has adapted to this major change with grace, with great courage, with very little fanfare or acknowledgement. In a quiet, dignified, and unassuming way he has simply gotten on with his life.

Then, about six months ago, he received a call from a friend of a friend to say that their 17 year old son, an avid ski racer, had had a horrible fall two years earlier and, as a result, and has not, since that time, recovered any movement or motor control of his left arm. The man had heard that my friend continued to ski and to race even after he lost the use of his arm. He was calling to ask if my friend would be willing to join the family in Colorado, for a few days, and ski with his son.

Without hesitation my friend agreed to meet them, and he made the arrangements for the trip. He spent two days with the young man talking about everything from technique and balance in skiing, to driving tips, to how to cope with people who pity and patronize you. As my friend spoke about the experience last week over dinner, his eyes lit up as he relived some of their conversations. And then he said something completely unexpected. He said: “For the first time, I felt like this horrible thing that happened to me was now somehow part of a larger purpose.” A bit later in the conversation, he added: “You know I went there to try and do what I could for this young man, but I ended up saying some things to him that I have never shared with anyone, before now. It was so good just to talk …”

Jesus still speaks in many voices. Sometimes it is the command voice of one who is trying to get our attention and urgently demanding a response: “Lazarus, Here, now!” Sometimes it is the gentle voice of one speaking words of support: “You’re doing great.” Sometimes he is speaking through an invitation to reach out to someone in need, someone who may be struggling. And sometimes the good shepherd is speaking to us in and through the sound of our own voice, giving expressions to feelings long unspoken, or hurts that have been hidden deeply away.

Jesus is still our good shepherd. And he is still commanding us to love one another, the way he has loved us: freely, boldly, abundantly. And he is still lifting us up, raising our spirits, here and now, giving us, often through one another, words of encouragement, and helping us to find our own voice, These all become opportunities for us to practice the command, the gift of resurrection, … Here, Now!

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I Want To Hold Your Hand

Sermon for Sunday, February 12, 2012
Epiphany 6B
2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

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

This is one of those wonderful weeks when our lectionary – our assigned readings for today’s service – align beautifully to tell a consistent story, offer some insights into God’s expectations for us, explains one of God’s many gifts for us, and taken as a group, begs some relevant questions about how we live our own lives with an implied invitation that God offers us to live a more fulfilled and spiritually connected and rich life if we are mindful of today’s lessons.

This morning’s Old Testament reading is the story of Naaman, a great general and mighty warrior who enjoyed a position of social prominence and lived a life wielding power and influence.  But here, in this morning’s story, he has leprosy, a bad attitude, and is seeking a cure.  The cure offered is much easier than he expects and he nearly misses his opportunity for healing because he initially rejects it in its simplicity.

Our Psalmist is bewailing an illness and praising God for restoring his health.  This Psalm has beautiful and poetic language and includes one of my very favorite verses – “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.”  I know that a God who can do THAT is worth following, and just the visual of moving from sobbing to dancing and being clothed in joy – what an exquisite picture of healing!

The letter from Paul to the Corinthians extols the virtues of exercise, games, and running a race, which is certainly the display of a form of health.  And even our Collect suggests that without God we can truly do no good on our own.

Each of these sentiments is echoed in Mark’s gospel which is the familiar story of Jesus healing the leper, who has sought him out and has asked to be made whole.

Even though we have heard of other instances of miraculous healing from Mark – last week Jesus healed Simon’s Mother in law and then cast out demons and healed those who were brought before him — this is an extraordinary moment in Jesus’ public ministry because he is directly associating himself with and healing a person with leprosy, which was not only a visually evident medical condition, but an infection that resulted in a complex social stigma that isolated and cut the infected person off from everyone.

Those with leprosy were not simply known to be “unclean”, which they were required to announce when they were within ear shot of anyone, they were both social pariahs and because the ailment was interpreted as a divine punishment, they were cut off from God as well.  They were refused entrance into the Temple and its rituals and were meant to be completely excluded from holiness.  So the infected were not simply living with a painful, visually apparent medical condition, their infection changed the circumstances and trajectory of their entire lives.

The truly revolutionary and remarkable part of this morning’s gospel is that Jesus physically reaches out a hand to the leper, touches him and heals him.

In ancient tradition, Jesus literally and figuratively took on the man’s leprosy, restored his health, and in one generous and loving act, restored the man’s social standing – as would be confirmed by the priests to whom Jesus sent the man for verification.

In the parlance of today, Jesus met the man where he was.  He didn’t require a sacrifice, a change of heart or behavior.  He simply met and healed the man where and as he was.

While leprosy may seem like an ancient ailment and the drama played out in this morning’s reading a distant concern, there are a host of modern day equivalents that challenge us today.

For those of us who loved and cared for people who were infected with HIV or had AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s there is a direct correlation, as we were dealing with people who, similar to the man in today’s gospel had to deal with far more than the physical manifestations of the virus.  Many of those who were infected at the beginning of the epidemic had Kaposi’s Sarcoma — dark red or purplish spots on their skin, which were hard to miss and were the tell tale signs of HIV infection.

All of us had to put up with religious leaders who opined about the causal sins committed and the virus as God’s punishment.   Social and religious stigma attached to those infected, and when people were hospitalized for treatment they were kept in near isolation or wards that had giant scary signs requiring universal precautions, or barring entrance altogether to patients’ rooms.

I joined the Episcopal Caring Response to AIDS thinking that I could try to meet someone where they were in their disease.  As a volunteer I spent a significant amount of time at Children’s National Medical Center where there was one whole corridor with rooms full of HIV infected youngsters.

I remember going in to see the child who would eventually become my son.  Following protocol as all caregivers were required to, I was gloved, gowned and had bug eyed goggles on.  But when Charles saw me – so small in his giant crib – he burst into tears.  I realized that I was scaring him, the outfit that must have looked like something from the movie Contagion was physically separating us and he couldn’t tell who I was.

I quickly shed the yellow paper garb, and glasses and took his hand.  He looked at me deeply in the eyes, and while still crying, took a deep breath and relaxed.  We were a pair from that moment on – and I never fully suited up again.  I took precautions when a situation or emergency required, but I never again appeared as a sterile stranger or foreigner to him.

My sisters Katie and Taylor who joined me for frequent visits and I, took it upon ourselves to make people welcome in that room.  From the Chinese food deliverymen to the orderlies who came for the nightly linen, we asked everyone to come in and we introduced them to Charles and tried to allay misplaced fear.  We knew that the contact with people made a difference in our baby’s outlook and helped his healing.

Sometimes it wasn’t a stranger who would shun us, but a member of the medical staff.  More than one doctor, resident or intern asked how Charles had become infected, and I became adept at delivering my answer that rejected the underlying subtext of the question which I interpreted as “tell me which moral failing infected this child?”  I consistently, and curtly responded “same as everybody else.  He was infected from the virus”.

God was in that hospital room every second of every day that Charles was there.  I prayed vigorously that he would be cured and I left bruised-hearted as he grew sicker.  But I knew that when I took his hand, something miraculous would happen.  I would be connected to this ailing baby, would know him in a different and more profound way, and could convey a deeper level of comfort than would have been possible without that physical connection.

Have you experienced that at someone’s sick or hospital bed?  You may not be able to offer a cure for what has placed them there, but the act of connecting, of taking their hand, or putting a cold washcloth on their forehead, or changing to a fresh pillow case, provides a profound and spirit filled connection.  You are doing what Jesus did.  You are meeting them where they are, loving them and offering respite and a form of healing.

Each of us can think of people who are not touched, are shunned or make us turn away leaving them in isolation.  I think of those struggling with mental illness or substance use issues.  Their diseases isolate them.

I pray that we have moved beyond considering their medical conditions as indications of moral weakness, but I think that we are challenged to meet them where they are, and can find it near impossible to reach out a hand to physically touch or help.  What of our brothers and sisters who are homeless and outcast?  Jesus’ example this morning shows that if we can surmount our discomfort, we will each be changed because of the encounter.

In this morning’s Gospel story, the man who seeks healing is profoundly changed, as is Jesus by the act of offering his hand to the leper.  The man’s health is restored, his place in society changes and he can once again enjoy following the tenets of his faith by participating in rituals at the Temple.  Jesus, we are told, is no longer able to practice his ministry openly in the towns, but must go into the country because his reputation as a healer spread and he was inundated with people seeking him out.

I associate the image of Jesus reaching out his hand to the leper with the most famous panel of Leonardo DaVinci’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — God giving life to Adam.  It is God stretching out his hand to Adam, whose hand is gracefully poised to accept God’s touch.  The hands are beautiful and tell a story of strength and healing and are depicted just before they are joined to one another and will change the course of the world.

I have been a member of a congregation who’s tradition was to hold hands during the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.  This could be incredibly uncomfortable, or to say the least surprising to visitors or newcomers, but the clergy and lay readers would model the behavior up around the altar.  So in the finest tradition of mimicking what the priest does, as the celebrant would grasp the hands of the others serving at the Eucharist, those of us in the pews would do the same.

When my daughter Cynthia was a tween and teenager, this simple act of connection might be the only physical contact with me she would permit all week.  And let me be clear — she did not grasp my hand enthusiastically.  She sort of grudgingly allowed me to hold hers, and then dropped it immediately as the final syllable of the “Amen” had been uttered.  I counted on this connection.  I counted on being able to pray the familiar prayer while connected to both my daughter and whoever happened to be standing next to me.

When we recited the Lord’s Prayer together as part of the celebration of the Eucharist, hand in hand, I felt that we, as a congregation, were all pulling in the same direction.  We were acting as a community, and as participants, rather than as audience members each watching a performance at the altar.  I experience saying grace at meals outside of church in the same way.  Holding hands makes it different and for me, more powerful than when praying silently or alone.

Joining hands during the Lord’s Prayer is not the tradition here at St. Stephens, (I learned that the hard way – and since telling the truth seems a really good policy while preaching, and actually at all times, I’ll share that it took me more than one or two weeks to fall into and embrace our traditions) and I’m not going to spend part of this sermon — my first as a Postulant — advocating such a radical and potentially uncomfortable step.

However, I am going to suggest that you try it out with a family member or close friend in the pews – especially parents of tweens, teens or young adults who may spend the bulk of their week acting as though they really want very little to do with you.  Being connected during the recitation of a familiar prayer offers a new experience for both participants.  Try it in church while we say the Lord’s prayer in preparation for the Eucharist, or try it at home in thanksgiving and appreciation for a meal or at bedtime.

While, as a community, we do not hold hands during the service, we do have a tradition of extending one another a hand.  In a little bit, we will be invited to offer each other a sign of peace – which is the promise of healing and as Margot or Adam will remind us at the end of the service, we are offering peace which passes all understanding.

I invite each of us to experience this part of the service a bit differently today.  What if we considered Jesus’ act in today’s Gospel, and our extending a handshake or hug as the manifestation of what Jesus was inviting each of us to do?  Know that for some the physical connection that we are offering – a kind, open hearted and loving handshake, will not be echoed again until we are here together again next Sunday.

And what if we carried this approach out into the world with us, so that as we traverse our week and encounter friends, co-workers or strangers who are not here with us today, we have the opportunity to greet each with a sign of peace, promised healing and a grace-filled connection?  Rather than the perfunctory or obligatory manner in which that exchange can happen, we consider it as an opportunity for connection and healing.

We are invited to learn from Naaman’s example and to understand that healing can be simpler than we expect.  And while we won’t expect to act like the healed leper in today’s Gospel who told everyone of his experience of Jesus, perhaps we can take a page from the Psalmist and not necessarily dance for joy as a result of a healing or heartfelt encounter, but perhaps we could share our experience with one other person.

Simple healing and connection.  Perhaps it begins with meeting people where they are and offering a meaningful, heartfelt handshake.  I pray that it does.  Amen

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Sermon for Sunday, December 18, 2011 || Advent 4A || 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
The Rev. Geoffrey Smith

You know, expectations can be a funny business, especially this time of year.

That’s why while doing some Christmas shopping on cyber-Monday I was thrilled to come across The Law of Expectation.  According to the website, the Law of Expectation is the secret cosmic force that gets us everything we asked for.  Without it, nothing comes through to the physical world.  And friends, for only $67 (normally a $247 value), you too can order the secrets of this missing link!

Yes, when you learn how to apply the Law of Expectation you will consciously get what you expect, you will be the Absolute driver of your results, certain of all outcomes.  Your self esteem will shoot through the roof and you will always feel deserving of what you want!  Click the link and order the Law of Expectation course today, and after we process your secure payment, you will be instantly redirected to your download page, where clear instructions guide you to collecting all of your products and free bonuses.

Sounds like a great Christmas gift, doesn’t it?  But not having actually having mastered the Law of Expectation yet, I kept reading, down into the fine print.  It was there I found a puzzler.  “If for some reason in the next 60-days you decide that this amazing course does not help you finally master the Law of Expectation once and for all, we will personally refund 100% of your purchase price – no questions asked! You may keep the free bonuses as our gift!”

Now excuse me for being Captain Obvious, but if it is a cosmic law that we get everything we expect, why do we need a money back guarantee?

Perhaps the real Laws of Expectations are a little more elusive than these web hucksters are letting on.

King David might give us a big amen to that.

This morning’s Gospel was the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, God’s biggest proposal yet to humankind.  In this announcement, Gabriel speaks of the connection between Jesus and the house of David.  It’s an allusion to what we heard this morning in 2 Samuel, so before we jump into Christmas, let’s spend a moment considering this Old Testament passage.

We’re tempted to think of David this time of year in romantic terms: as ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel,’ but in point of fact he’s not always so sweet.  Sure, up to now, the Book of Samuel has been chronicling the rise of David’s kingdom; good times.  But as winners are often want to do, David more and more sees these victories as his accomplishments, not anything God had anything to do with.  Nevertheless, ever the politician, David wants it to at least look like God is on his side, so he goes to Nathan the Prophet and says, “Look here, I am sitting in a house of cedar, while the Ark of God is sitting in a flimsy little tent.”

A house of cedar – that’s key – because we’re not just talking about New England cedar shake, we’re talking great chunks of cedar; huge timbers suitable for the house of a king, or a God.  That kind of lumber is no longer found in the hills surrounding Jerusalem; in a bit of ancient ecological recklessness they’ve been picked clean.  No, you have to go way up north, deep into the mountains of Lebanon.  David imports cedar the way we in our age import Middle Eastern oil, and for exactly the same reason: power.  In David’s world, cedar is a luxury material for king’s palaces and royal temples.  The aroma of cedar is the smell of power.  If you have cedar, you’re a player, and David is a player. That’s why David wants God to have a big cedar house: he wants God right next door, in a contained place where God can be a prestigious and useful neighbor, just slightly less powerful than himself.

These are David’s expectations.

But God’s Law of Expectation is a bit different.  God responds to David’s generous offer by asking, “Did I ask you to build me a house?  I’ve lived in a tent ever since I brought Israel out of Egypt.”  What God wants of David is faith; faithful leadership of Israel, not some architectural power trip.  Having already given David victory over his enemies, God says to David that his “kingdom shall be made sure forever.”  This is a covenant, a promise.  But God might as well save the breath, for David isn’t listening.  David soon will demand more and more promises of God, more military victories.  Sadly, he will become ever more compulsive in trying to secure what God has already granted to him.  And when he’s done, David, like Saul before him, will be terrorized even by the thought of God.

Perhaps David should have stayed in the tent.

Which all begs a question of us: in a season so much about our own expectations, how willing are we to allow God to be in a tent?

It’s a timely question, for over these past few months our tolerance of tent dwellers has all but evaporated.  In Dewey Squares around the country, the Occupy protest struck a chord.  Now admittedly, it has not always been easy to sort out the notes in this chord; the substance from the theatre.  The Occupy protest has intentionally not produced a list of demands, to the frustration of many.  To fill the gap, the media focus has been on the most colorful and fringe protests, instead of the real issues.  They highlight drug busts and lack of showers, while ignoring pleas like the one I saw that read, “99% + 1% = ONE” – a statement if ever there was one about our common interests and need for unity as a people.

Whatever happens next in the downtowns around this country, it is terribly important that that core message not be lost.  Margo was right: the Occupy movement has put an exclamation point on the fact that wealth in our country is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few.  It’s worth repeating: there are 46.2 million people in the United States that live below the poverty line. To put a face on this number, that’s more people than live in New York, New Jersey and every state in New England, combined.  And that number doesn’t include those “near poor,” an additional 51 million who live with incomes less than 50% above that poverty line.

Compounding this reality is another harsh reality: we live in a time and place of historic deficits.  As a nation, we must now make hard choices about how to balance needs and resources, burdens and sacrifice.  These choices will be economic and political, true, but they will also be moral choices, for whether we want to admit it or not, budgets are moral documents.

As Episcopalians, those called to a via media, or middle way, we have an incredible opportunity to lead these conversations, as Episcopalian Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, in framing the budget decisions in the context of how they impact the poorest and most vulnerable among us.  We can be the ones to protect those who do not have powerful lobbies to speak for them.  We need to talk sensibly about the policy choices that confront us.  We can start with asking, “What would Jesus cut?” and then work together to find the answer.  There are plenty of good ideas, but we need to raise the level of discussion beyond sound bites.

Margo’s sermon last week quoted a 19th century German theologian.  I want to go back to a fourteenth century, to a German mystic, who asked a question: “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my own time and culture?”  I love this question; to me it is the question of Advent.

I suspect by now most of us have our plans for Christmas.  We know where we’re to be and who supposed to be there with us, we know what’s for Christmas dinner, and what we’ve got or still need to get to put under the tree.  Expectations for Christmas, for our lives and for the direction of our lives, are very important.  There is nothing wrong with us doing some planning, but as we make our plans, let’s remember what happens with King David’s plans.  God’s plans for us can be very different from what we imagine; from a life in cedar homes.

So next Sunday, when the flap of the tent (or the door to the manger) opens to welcome us in, what do we expect to see in the face of our new-born Savior?  Will we see him caught in a web of poverty and deprivation?  Where will we find Jesus this week: in the safety of a cedar crèche, or camped in a barn on the edges of our comfort zone?

Truth is there can be no Law of Expectation found on the internet that will answer this question.  We all face incredibly complex choices.  But through Christ, we can be present to all of God’s possibilities, and find the grace to listen, the faith to persevere or change our minds, and compassion when we act.

Thanks be to God!

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Lesson from a Translation

The following is the sermon preached by Dr. John Seel on Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2011. On this day, St. Stephen’s held a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, in which the church “went back in time” to 1611 and had a service as it would have been done in that year.

Today is Christ the King Sunday and one in which we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. This is a slice of history unknown to most and irrelevant to the rest.

We are here today representing a great diversity of spiritual journeys. Some came to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church from Presbyterian backgrounds, others from the Roman Catholic Church, and others from a general life of diverse spiritual seeking. A few here are lifelong Episcopalians – but they are the minority. Most of us have little sense of what it means to be an Episcopalian a part from our experiences within this congregation. We’ve been socialized gently into the Prayer Book and the meaning of liturgy. Yet our ties to global Anglicanism – and Canterbury (the Vatican of Anglicanism) – is amorphous. Any ties to Henry VIII or James I are almost nonexistent. No doubt there are Anglophiles among us for whom discussions about the King James Bible over a spot of tea has great resonance. Most of us struggle to find the personal connection to the topic at hand.

Church politics is somewhat like the making of sausage. It is best not to know how it is made. And it usually does little to further one’s spiritual progress. Church politics tends to turn people off to organized religion. This is why the making of the King James Bible is such a miracle. It accomplished in a context of great tension and momentous consequence what few dreamed possible: it united a nation around a translation with enduring beauty and spiritual vitality.

The publication of the King James Bible in 1611 is one of the greatest contributions of the Anglican Church to Western civilization. It is to 17th century England what the baroque cathedrals were to an earlier age. As a literary achievement it ranks with Shakespeare’s plays. It’s spiritual achievement is far greater as it served as the most popular translation of Holy Scripture for over 250 years – for eight or nine generations.

One can also acknowledge that a celebration such as this would call us to reaffirm the need and practice of daily Bible reading. In an earlier era when Scripture memory was a regular practice, it was frequently the King James Bible that served as the translation of choice. Many great passages of Scripture have their resonance in the antiquated language of this Jacobean translation. Here is a medley of familiar passages in the KJB:

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me besides the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:1-3)

 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

The goal of this translation was to combine great scholarship, accessible clarity, and regal majesty. It achieves this wonderfully. It is important to realize that even when it was translated, no one talked this way. It has its own special tenor and tonality from its inception.

But there is a lesson from the history of this translation that applies directly to the charge Margot gave us in her sermon last week. She said, “What precious assets has Jesus entrusted to this particular community of St. Stephens, and how might we step out in faithful risk-taking as a church family?” A key to this question can be found in the story of this translation. But first a brief lesson in English history.

The 16th century was the age of the Reformation – Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517, Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1532, and Calvin’s Institutes in 1536. In contrast, the 17th century was the age of science. Our story takes place in the turning of the page from one century to the next – approximately 1600 to 1611. Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII, had stabilized England as a quasi-Protestant country, breaking from the Roman Church, but not fully embracing the radicalism of the Protestant reformers. It was an unstable halfway house. Elizabeth died in 1603, without an apparent heir. Her cousin’s grandson, James VI of Scotland was crowned King James 1 of England.

James I was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, a firebrand Catholic who later married a French Catholic king (though her married life is too complex and sordid to discuss here). In 1567, Mary was forced to abdicate her throne to her only surviving son, James, who was crowned King James VI of Scotland at age 13 months. Upon his coronation, the infant king never saw his mother again. She spent 19 years in various prisons and was finally beheaded for treason against the English throne.

James was raised by Presbyterian caretakers and taught by Puritan George Buchanan, one of the leading minds in Scotland. It was a lonely and tumultuous childhood. In 1600, he narrowly escaped kidnapping and murder from a Scottish earl. He was crowned King of England in 1603 upon Elizabeth I’s death. So at age 34, this child raised without parents, of a Catholic mother killed for treason, tutored by a Protestant scholar, facing political turmoil at home, is appointed King of England, where suppressed factions were emerging to jockey for the new King’s favor. The challenges facing the young King were enormous.

On top of this, London was during the summer of 1603 facing a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague. In 1600, London had a population of 75,000. In 1603 the plague killed 30,000 Londoners, more than the German Blitz in World War II. Not knowing the source of the plague, everyone was on edge and everyone was suspicious of everyone and everything. To get some context on timing, 1603 was also when Hamlet was first printed.

As James rode to London, he was met by a group of Puritan leaders who had a petition signed by 1,000 Puritan pastors urging his support for their reforms. He made no promises but did agree to schedule a formal conference to discuss the matter.

This supposed accommodation to the Puritan demands made the Bishops on edge. It was in this context that the idea of establishing a new translation emerged – one that would unify a deeply divided nation. Up until this time, each faction had its own preferred translation. The Anglicans preferred the Bishop’s Bible, the Puritans the Geneva Bible, and the Catholics the Douai-Rheims Bible. The Bishop’s Bible was viewed as based on poor scholarship and an awkward translation. For example, “Cast thy bread upon the waters,” was translated “Lay thy bread upon wet faces.” The Geneva Bible was a better translation but had anti-monarchial annotated marginal notes making it unacceptable to the King. A new translation was needed, the aim of which was to be an “irenicon” – an icon of peace and civility.

There was one additional hitch in the translation process – the 17th century equivalent of September 11 – the Gunpowder plot in 1606. This was an attempt by radical Catholics to kill all members of parliament and the king by placing 30 barrels of gunpowder under the parliament building. The plot was discovered just days before it was to be carried out. Whereas it could have inflamed anti-Catholic sentiment, it discredited extremism of any sort. Adam Nicholson writes that this terrorist plot “strengthened the vision on which the new Bible was already founded: it became more important than ever that England needed a version of scripture that would bind together its people, its church, and its king.”

In times like these civility and moderate voices rarely have a vocal advocate. In Washington, DC, it is said, “Moderates have no mailing lists.” Or “Walk the middle of the road and one will surely be run over.” The KJB became the shared effort that championed moderation – an irenicon.

Ours is a very different time. Religion is not so closely tied to the affairs of state – accept perhaps in Texas. Sectarian secularism aims to spare us from this kind of high-octane religious polarization. But partisanship persists – regional, political, and religious. Our enlightened sense of tolerance has made it no easier for our national leaders to move beyond a paralysis of action.

We jokingly say that a camel is a horse made by committee. We don’t really have great confidence that diverse people working in concert can create something of beauty and lasting significance. Such beauty and significance is what the 54 members of the translation committee achieved. Its enduring legacy is a direct product of the committee’s diversity. All sides were included in the committee except those with extreme views. The process of translation became the model of civility at a time when incivility had become the order of the day.

We have largely abandoned the frame of mind that created this translation. Notions of common good are supplanted by demands for individual rights. Special interests reign supreme. The fragmentation of cable news and the Internet blogging means that we tend to justify our own views by information from those who reinforce our views. The digital revolution is fragmenting our culture, economy, and values. Lobbyists have supplanted statesmen.

This church and this community stand with the King James Bible as a testament to a different way. An icon was viewed as a window to a deeper spiritual reality. So too is genuine Christian community. Few descriptions better reflect the nature of this church than “irenicon” – out of diversity and difference the reality of love that point to a transcendent source. Whether in Stop-n-Shop or on the ferry or on State’s Street, we may be the only translation of scripture, the only reality of Jesus that anyone will know in the course of their day. This brings us back to Margot’s charge: “What precious assets has Jesus entrusted to this particular community of St. Stephens, and how might we step out in faithful risk-taking as a church family?”

The King James Bible reminds us that out of social turmoil and polarizing diversity, God’s Word endures with power and beauty both on the page and in our lives. Let this anniversary be a reminder of whom we are called to in our day.

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Loving God As Kids Love Halloween

Sermon for Sunday, October 30, 2011 || Proper 26A || Matthew 23:1-12
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

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

Do we all know what tomorrow is?  Halloween is one of my very favorite holidays!  Partially because of the childhood associations that I have with it – dressing up in costumes, going to the school parade and seeing what your friends’ parents made them wear.  Partially because it provides a license to be silly and light hearted, but mostly because it is a total kid holiday.  Tomorrow night most children around here will put on a costume, perhaps makeup – some for the first time ever – and go door to door being given the best treats ever – free candy!

I know that some young people have been planning their costumes for weeks, and may request the extended wearing warrantee arrangements with their parents.  In our household, there was a particularly sparkly princess dress that doubled as pjs for more than a year after its debut Halloween.

It is the unmitigated and unfettered joy that children express at Halloween that I find infectious.  If you have been in stores recently, you have seen that retail outlets are not necessarily only focused on Halloween, but have put out Christmas merchandise already as well.  At first, these displays provoked real annoyance, but when I saw a five year old boy walking around Bed, Bath & Beyond in his Batman costume, I used it as an opportunity to envision him opening presents at Christmas with the same eagerness with which he will undoubtedly be collecting candy tomorrow night as the Caped Crusader.

It was also a reminder that, in the right frame of mind, and following the joyful example of children, these holidays – all of them between now and the end of the year – are built in mile markers to see how we are doing trying to live into the most important commandments and living into the requirements of our faith which were further detailed in today’s Gospel according to Matthew.

Last week, the Gospel found Jesus talking with some of the Pharisees, one of whom (and we are explicitly told that this gentleman was a lawyer) was trying to test Jesus by quizzing him on which was the most important commandment.

Jesus responded with words that I hope are familiar, challenging and comforting:  “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Watching and listening to children on Halloween is one of my favorite examples of what it looks like to love anything with all your heart, and all of your soul and all of your mind.

Today’s Gospel reading provides some additional clarification beyond His favorite commandment about what we are called to do in order to live the lives that Jesus would have us live.  He tells the gathered crowd and his disciples that we are to do what the scribes and Pharisees teach, but not to behave as they do, because their behavior does not track with the teaching.  In other words, do as they say, but not as they do.

This morning Jesus explains that the scribes and Pharisees practice their religious observances with great flourish so that their actions will be noticed, not out of the appropriate motivation of loving God or their neighbors, but so that they themselves will be exalted.  The scribes and Pharisees were the acknowledged religious leaders of their time.  Jesus even validates their importance by saying that they sit in Moses’s seat, meaning that they were the religious rock stars of their era.

The long fringes and the phylacteries that Jesus references are in fact items that were supposed to help connect people to worship, bring them closer to God, allow them to love God with all their hearts, minds and spirits.  But Jesus’ point this morning is that by supersizing them, these religious objects take on a life of their own.  Rather than directing the wearer into deeper relationship with God, they actually become barriers or impediments to God’s love.

Because the wearers were more focused on the attention and praise that these items would attract rather than the devotion or religious discipline that they were designed to encourage, they lost their meaning, and in fact drew the scribes and Pharisees further from God.  The wearers, we are told, enjoyed prominent seating, at banquets and synagogues.  These religious leaders enjoyed the social status that these public, prominent displays engendered, but Jesus points out the complete hypocrisy of their showing up to be seen, but not being present to love and worship God.

So how are we to live into the call of the great commandment, while not calling such attention to ourselves and our actions that we have overstepped the bounds of devotion and wandered into self-aggrandizement territory?  We know that we are called to take action, or to do SOMETHING, but what?  And how do we know that our chosen activities are those that will please God, or move us forward in this holy love affair that we are invited to discover?

I have a wonderful friend who asserts that God finds bodies in motion.  His point is that sitting around by ourselves, chewing our nails, wringing our hands or keeping our own counsel is probably not the best way to deepen our understanding of God’s desire for us, to feel God’s loving embrace, or to suss out what it is that we are called to be doing as faithful members of our community and our world.  His suggestion is that we get moving – do something – and then evaluate.  I have found this to nearly always be true.  I can get caught up in my own thinking, or rote prayers whose words have lost some of their power simply by being said in the same way, in the same setting, at the same time day after day with missing intention or a lack of enthusiasm.  But, say those same words while commuting, or while walking down the produce aisle of the grocery store, sitting with a friend, or running up a flight of stairs, and both experiences tend to be transformed for the better.

The inverse is true as well.  Too many activities, done without intention deliver little evidence of loving God with all our heart, mind and bodies.  We may be talented multi-taskers, efficient or incredibly productive at working through To Do lists, but without being mindful or spiritually intentional, those experiences are missing something, and are certainly not as rich or divinely connected as they might otherwise be.

Recently I finished up my work week having participated in, run or convened more than 36 meetings and it was a struggle to be present at each, and in fact, upon my Friday night reflection, the most that I could say was that I had kept to my schedule and been late only once, which was beyond my control.  Truly, this was the most significant accomplishment of the week that I could point to, given the 168 hours that we are given to live in each week, 36 meetings was all I could say for the last 5 days.  This made me wonder whether I had pleased God.  My conclusion was, probably not really.  I don’t think that I was in smiting danger, but what an anemic contribution that consumed an incredible amount of time and effort.

This sad commentary lead me to wonder what I had missed, as I watched the clock, chimed in when I could find a space, and moved efficiently to the next meeting or conversation.  And given my complete dissatisfaction at the end of the week, what might I be called to do differently?  What story did someone want to share with me?  What was another person trying to convey using a particular tone of voice or phrase that I missed the nuances of because I was there in body, perhaps mind, but not fully present in spirit, thus violating a part of the first commandment?

Had I been fully present for those moments who knows what meaning and value would have been added in to each of these encounters, or how I might have conveyed God’s love of the speaker in a way that would have been pleasing and in keeping with Jesus’ charge to us?  Surely, actively listening, being prayerfully present, and responding in respectful and measured ways would have been loving God while not making a particularly big show of it.

This week, I was on the receiving end of a not-mindful or spiritual professional encounter.  It was one of the final meetings of another marathon week, and this conversation had taken a couple of months to schedule.  I was incredibly prepared, and at this point, was ready to be prayerful and mindful and fully present as we navigated some dicey waters and areas of professional disagreement.  But the meeting convener just went through the motions.  It was clear that the expected response to “how’s it going?” was supposed to be, “great, how about with you,” which did little to deepen our relationship or our understanding of one another’s points of view.  It certainly did not provide any insights into the depth or breadth of God’s love.  Afterwards, it left me unsatisfied and hungry for a more meaningful spiritual connection.

What a remarkable contrast for me then, to be part of this community, where I can check what was definitely my professional autopilot, at the door.  Here I am blessed to work intentionally on my vocation.  Rote answers or rote prayers are discouraged.  We are driven to do many things together, and provided with boundless opportunities to hear, act out and understand God’s love for us in very different ways.

Whole groups of people in this church are organized to do things together based on our shared understanding of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and because this is New England, and we are who we are, we are singularly adept at not making too big a show of it.

Members of this congregation have been generously praying for me and my discernment process since the beginning of Spring, and it feels like both a privilege and an important responsibility to be joined with you in this intimate way.  When I hear your prayers echo in this sanctuary, I can not explain the effect that the sensation of hearing an individual voice at the lectern joined into the chorus of your responses has on me.

It is profound – and as I have been accepted into the next phase of the Diocesan process, your prayers will mean even more.  As your neighbor I am grateful.  As an aspiring Christian and perhaps priest, this shared prayerful activity is exactly what we are taught to do, and consistent with Jesus’ teachings about doing as He says.

Fortunately, there is great news for any of you who have shared a sense of disconnect between your personal, professional and parish life.  The good news is that we have the opportunity to do this differently and better when we gather as a community, or you have a meeting, or are interrupted by a child or loved one.  Each provides the opportunity to encounter the other person without pretense, defense or agenda.  We have the opportunity to see who God has sent our way, and to perhaps more fully understand why.

Coming to church – hearing the gospel – praying for one another — we have the opportunity to do it differently each time we arrive, because we can strive to be more fully present as we listen or greet one another.  This morning’s sung service provides us with new and beautiful ways of reflecting on and conveying familiar words and sentiments.

Think of the gift we have right here in this building to be seated next to a beloved child of God.  And in knowing that, what a remarkable, loving witness to understand that each of us is a beloved child of God deserving to be loved with whole hearts, minds and spirits.  Outside this building, as we meet new people, or cross paths with people who may not appear to be like us, we have the opportunity to show up unarmed, defenseless and without pretense, but rather with childlike wonder and availability.

For many of us, Halloween will provide a wonderful opportunity to meet lots of new people who will be happy to see us, show off their costumes and make out with some sweet treats.  Let’s learn from them and enjoy their exuberance.  As we are admiring their outfits, trying to guess their age, and helping them out with their candy, my prayer for us tomorrow night is that in keeping the first two commandments and not making too big a show of it, we connect with the children’s unfettered joy.  Because THAT is how we are supposed to love God and each other.   Amen

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