We of Little Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

 

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Funeral and Celebration of Penelope Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

 

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Does the Holy Spirit Have Hands?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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Does the Holy Spirit Have Hands?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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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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The Divine Imperative to Love

Sermon for Sunday, February 19th, 2017 ||  The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A || Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119: 33 -40; 1 Corinthians 3: 10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Last week the apostle Paul described the church in Corinth as  mere infants in Christ—spiritual infants too immature to handle the kind of deep wisdom he metaphorically referred to as “solid food.” Paul couldn’t speak to these baby Christians as spiritual people, he said, because they were still “people of the flesh”—meaning people defined more by their lives in the world than by their lives in Christ.

“I fed you with milk, not solid food,” Paul said, “for you were not ready for solid food…Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the [world].”

These must have been hard words for those early Jesus followers to swallow. They are challenging words for us even two thousand years later as we, too, struggle to walk the walk and to integrate our spiritual lives with our secular lives as spiritually mature Christians.

But ready or not, the readings on the lectionary menu this week make for a feast of decidedly solid food. No baby’s milk here. This is very rich, very heavy, spiritual food indeed. And while we may have heard the imperative to love our neighbor as ourselves so often that it sounds like pious pablum, if we are attentive to this morning’s readings—if we really listen to these words—there’s no escaping the realization that from our opening Collect of the Day through both the Old and New Testament readings, we are being spoon-fed one highly seasoned serving after another of God’s uncompromising command that above all else we be people of love.

Without love, our opening prayer tells us, we are accounted as dead in God’s eyes. We’re forbidden to hate, we hear in from Leviticus, or to take vengeance, or even to bear a grudge. We’re required to respond with love and only love, our Gospel reading says, even when others hurt us, take advantage of us, or force their will on us. Turn the other cheek, Jesus says. Go the extra mile. Give them the shirt off your back. Because even the lowliest of the low can love those who are lovable. That’s easy. But ours is a higher calling: We are to love even the unlovable. We are to love the righteous and the unrighteous.

Now I know it is tempting to be dismissive of this divine imperative to love—tempting to soften its blow by judging it a lofty, but let’s face it, unrealistic ideal. After all, are we really supposed to love the friend who betrays us, the spouse who abandons us, or the boss who fires us? Are we really expected to love the tyrants, the terrorists,  the torturers, and the trolls, really?

But the hard truth of this morning’s scripture is that yes, yes we are. It’s totally outrageous. It’s scandalous. And God knows it’s offensive. But yes, we are called as Christians to love even the most unlovable of God’s creatures.

This doesn’t mean we’re called to be doormats, or to stay in abusive relationships. It doesn’t mean we’re suppose to allow those who do evil to continue their hateful behavior without suffering the social, political, or legal consequences of their actions.

But Jesus is unequivocal when he says that we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. This isn’t idle chatter. This isn’t a pious platitude. This is a Divine Dictum that we must take seriously. Not because harboring hatred is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. And not because love is the only force powerful enough to heal a hate-infected world—which of course it is. But we must take seriously the command to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us for one very compelling, very convicting reason: Because Jesus tells us to.

The question then, is “How?” How do we find room in our hearts for love, when our hearts are angry or aching or bitter or broken or frightened or fearful? “To be unloving is to be out of touch with God,” wrote mystic Evelyn Underhill. “Love is what you were made for, and love is who you are,” writes Franciscan priest Richard Rohr.

“Love is what you were made for, and love is who you are.” Think about that for a minute and let it sink in. Love is who you are. Love is your essential nature, your core, your authentic self. We were created by Love, with Love, for Love. Hundreds if not thousands of wise men and women throughout the ages have said as much in as many different ways. Love is who you are.

There is a wonderful, albeit apocryphal, story  about Michelangelo’s “David.” The story goes that when Pope Julius II saw this magnificent marble masterpiece for the first time, in utter amazement he asked Michelangelo how he had created a work of such exquisite beauty. To which Michelangelo is said to have replied, “I started with a big ugly rock and simply chipped away everything that wasn’t David.”

You see, the exquisite beauty of David was there all along, waiting to be revealed. So it is with the exquisite Love that is the center of who we are. All of the hurt and anger and fear and brokenness are just waiting to be chipped away at and healed. And that, my friends, is what the spiritual journey is all about: Allowing God’s love to chip away everything that isn’t love. That’s what transforms us from spiritual infants to spiritually mature Christians.

Remember back in the gospel reading, where Jesus told us to “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect”? What the Greek word used there really means is to be whole, to be complete, to be mature. Jesus isn’t telling us to be flawless, he’s imploring us to grow up—to become spiritually mature—so we can live into the fullness of who God created us to be and who we really are. And who we really are is Love.

This is precisely why spiritual formation, psychotherapy, and disciplines like prayer and meditation are so critically important to those of us who call ourselves Jesus followers. Life, whether we acknowledge it or not, is a spiritual journey. God means for life to chip away at the big ugly rocks we mistake for ourselves. God means for life to smooth out our hard edges and polish our rough surfaces and reveal the exquisitely beautiful and loving creatures that each of us is…our authentic selves…the selves we really are.

The spiritual journey we call life is going to keep chipping away at our big ugly rocks whether we cooperate or not. But our readings today would have us cooperate. Our readings today would have us go to any lengths necessary to facilitate this deeply healing process of transformation– from spiritual infants to spiritually mature Christians. Our readings today would have us commit to practicing disciplines like prayer and meditation because they invite God to chip away everything in us that isn’t love. Because love is who we are; love is what we were created to do; and love is what this beautiful world of ours so desperately needs.

It has been an amazing privilege for me to be a part of your spiritual journeys these past nine years. And now, as you continue on your journeys, may God bless each of you with an ever-deepening appreciation for the precious and beloved creatures that you truly are. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Way Station Not A Destination

Sermon for Sunday, February 5th, 2017 ||  Annual Meeting ||  Ephesians 1: 15-23; Psalm 100; Matthew 25: 31-46 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Good morning! It feels good to be here this morning, doesn’t it? It feels good to be in this holy space, this place of safety and warmth, this place of sanctuary.

It’s like we can all exhale a collective sigh of relief. We made it. We made it through another week of chaotic schedules, competing demands, and all the noise and negativity out there. We can settle into our pews, breathe deeply, and let the familiar words of our worship heal our aching hearts and soothe our weary souls.

We’re safe.

This, I suspect, is what draws so many of us to church. Some of us find our way here bruised and broken. Most of us come starved for spiritual sustenance. Surely all of us are indeed weary and heavy burdened. And we find comfort in the connectedness and community we find here, in the breaking of the bread, and in affirming our place in something larger, and far more grand, than ourselves.

And yet the refuge we find in church has never been intended as a destination, but rather as a way station on the Christian journey. The comfort and healing with which we are graced in this place has never been intended as an end unto itself, but as a means to a far more demanding and challenging– but life-giving, cross-bearing end. The peace we find in this sacred space has never been intended as an escape from the world, but rather as the wellspring of power through which we are to serve Christ’s interests in the world.

In Eucharistic Prayer C we pray: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with coming here for solace or for pardon. That is indeed what brings most people to church, most of the time. But the Christian life is a journey, and it doesn’t end there. So we pray, too, for strength and for renewal– that in thanksgiving for all that we receive here, we may worthily –and gratefully –serve the world in Christ’s name.  We pray for the courage and the conviction to live out our baptismal vows of seeking and serving Christ in all persons, of striving for justice and peace among all people, and of respecting the dignity of every human being.

Yes, we come here to be spiritually fed and nourished. But when we leave here, we “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

And this morning’s gospel gives us very concrete evidence of what that looks like.

In the last bit of teaching he does before embracing an excruciatingly painful and humiliating death for us, Jesus foretells the day of final judgment, when we will each be held accountable not just for what we have believed, but for how we have, or have not,  lived our lives:

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.’”

But then there’s this:

‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me… Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Now, I just don’t see a lot of wiggle room there for interpretation.

Last week’s gospel reading of the Sermon on the Mount, the very first of Jesus’ teachings, named as those especially blessed by God as the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who suffer for righteousness’ sake. In short, the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and the vulnerable.

This week’s gospel reading on the final judgment, the very last of Jesus’ teachings, says those assured entry into God’s kingdom will be those who serve the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. In short, those who serve the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and the vulnerable.

“Even as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me,” Jesus says.

Think about that. I’ve told you before about the mentor I had who used to counsel people that if they really wanted to know Jesus, they should frequent the places he’s known to hang out. Well, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus could not be more explicit about where he hangs out. He is with the weak and the poor, with the marginalized and the vulnerable, with the outcast and the sinner, with the immigrant and the refugee, with the widow and the orphan, with the addicted and the imprisoned, with the homeless and the hungry. He is with all those who suffer everywhere.

If we want to see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly, at some point we have to leave the safety of this sanctuary to stand with, and to serve, those he calls us to serve. Because that is where we will meet him face to face.

Some of you will have read by now the pastoral letter sent out by Bishop Alan last week in response to the Executive Orders on immigration. In it he writes that:  “Our positions as Christians are determined not by party affiliation, nor by self-interest–neither personal self-interest nor national self-interest.  Rather, our Christian positions must be determined by the core values of our faith.”

In the Sermon on the Mount we read last week, and in the Parable of the Goats and the Sheep we read this morning, those core values of our faith are made abundantly clear.

And so as I prepare to leave you I pray, my beloved St. Stephen’s, that in your future together you will unite as the body of Christ that you are as his church, and fight for those core values of our faith. That you will stand with those in need regardless of political affiliation, nationality, religion, race, gender identity, physical ability, immigration status, or sexual preference. That you will continue to come together week after week for solace and for strength, for pardon and for renewal, and that then you will get out there and serve Christ’s interests in the world!

Now won’t you join me in renewing our Baptismal Vows…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Let the One Who Boasts, Boast in the Lord”

Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017 || Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A || Micah 6: 1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31; Matthew 5: 1-12 ||  The Rev. Margot Critchfield

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

How do we—-a congregation in which I dare say most of us are pretty well-educated—if not wise; many of us are influential—if not powerful; and at least some of us come from well-healed, if not “noble” families–how are we to hear today’s lessons? How do we hear these lessons in which Paul proclaims that the weak, the foolish and the despised are saved, and Jesus teaches that the meek, the poor in spirit and the persecuted are blessed?

If these readings make you a little uncomfortable, they should. It is natural to wonder if there is room for relatively successful, relatively well-to-do Americans in the Kingdom of God.

Paul is a very black and white thinker. Everything’s either foolish or wise, weak or powerful, saved or doomed to perish. Paul loves to point out the paradoxes of the Christian life and attack them head-on, beginning with the greatest paradox of them all, the paradox of a crucified Savior. To the Jewish scribes—the interpreters of the law—it was an unthinkable stumbling block, a scandal, that the powerful and mighty God they worshipped would send a weak and powerless Savior to be mercilessly humiliated on a cross. And to the great Greek minds of the day, the Sophists–or “debaters” as Paul refers to them–it’s just plain nonsense that defies all logic.

So Paul wants to be very clear with the Jesus followers in Corinth that while the idea of a crucified Messiah may seem like foolishness to the culture around them, the so-called foolishness of the cross is, in fact, the ultimate revelation of God’s profound wisdom and unsurpassed power.

Paul explains that God deliberately chose what is foolish in the eyes of the world to shame the so-called wise, and chose what is weak in the eyes of the world to shame the so-called strong, so that no one would be tempted to boast of themselves before God. No one could make the mistake of thinking they had an inside track with God because they were powerful scribes, brilliant philosophers, successful money managers, influential attorneys, or successful CEOs. No one could make the mistake of thinking that God placed any special value on the wise, the well-educated, the powerful, or the affluent.

No, God wanted to make sure everyone understood that those are not the things that matter. So God, in all God’s wisdom, chose to reveal God’s self in the mighty strength of utter powerlessness, and in the awesome power of weakness and vulnerability. God chose to reveal God’s self in as the child of an oppressed people, who would spend his early years a refugee in a foreign land. Then God called as his own the “low and despised” of the world: Those of humble origins, low social standing, and no political power. “Consider your own calls,” Paul writes, “…not many of you were wise by human standards, not many of you were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth.”

So what about us? Is there room for us, even if, when we consider our own calls in relation to the Corinthians, we have to admit that we like to think we have at least some modicum of wisdom by human standards, that we are at least moderately powerful, or that we come from relatively “good” families? Is there room for us here?

The answer to that depends on where we position ourselves in relation to what Paul calls “the foolishness” of his proclamation: Christ crucified. Because the real question for us today is whether or not we’re willing to live into the so-called “foolishness” of Paul’s proclamation by living into the demanding realities of the cross.

Do we stand with the foolish faithful who proclaim Christ crucified, or do we– like the wise Greek philosophers– think a crucified Savior lacks intellectual credibility? Do we proclaim Christ crucified, or do we, like the powerful Jewish scribes, find the idea that God would be revealed in weakness and powerlessness beyond credulity?

Funny how such questions survive the test of time, how two thousand years later our human intellects still insist on dogging our God-given faith. Maybe the problem is that like Paul, we think too much in black and white. After all, does the reality of a crucified Messiah have to be paradoxical?   Why is it so difficult to recognize the divine strength in Christ’s utter powerlessness, and the awesome power in his submission to weakness and vulnerability? Must it seem like a contradiction in terms that God’s power was revealed in Christ’s powerlessness? I don’t think so.

Because in Christ, God chose to be powerless.

In Christ, God chose to be vulnerable.

In Christ, God chose what was foolish in the eyes of the world to reveal his love and wisdom.

And frankly, that’s very good news for us. It means that while we may be powerful, we can choose to be powerless in Christ; while we may be strong, we can choose to be vulnerable by loving as Christ loved; while we may be intellectual giants, we can still be “fools for Christ.”

When we position ourselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, and accept the demanding realities of the cross, we open ourselves to a world where opposites do not necessarily conflict, a world where contradictions are not mutually exclusive, a world of “yes, and…” instead of “either/or.”

It’s a world where powerful politicians are meek and poor in spirit: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they know who’s got the real power and who doesn’t, so they’re humble enough to admit their powerlessness before God, listen to His word, and seek His will.

It’s a world where influential lobbyists mourn: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they see the heartbreaking difference between the world as it is and the way God created it to be, so they work to represent God’s interests, not just their client’s.

It’s a world where successful businessmen and women are righteous and pure in heart: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they have moral and ethical integrity and are true to their ideals, even when it means a reduction in profit.

It’s a world where high-powered attorneys are peacemakers: Positioning themselves with those who proclaim Christ crucified, they know that justice and reconciliation is more important than winning a case.

God revealed God’s power in weakness and His wisdom in folly, and we are called to do the same. It’s not meant to be easy. But it’s not impossible. History is peppered with powerful, wise and successful leaders who were also deeply faithful, humble, and compassionate.

So where do you choose to position yourself: with the wise and the powerful, or with the foolish faithful? Because,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.  Amen.

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What Are You Looking For?

Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2017 ||  Second Sunday After Epiphany, Year A || Isaiah 49: 1-7; Psalm 40: 1-12; 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9; John 1: 29-42 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks the two disciples who follow him in this morning’s gospel.  What are you looking for? It’s a question Jesus asks each of us repeatedly in the course of our lives, despite our natural proclivity to evade answering it.  We evade answering it, I think, because answering it in the spirit in which it’s asked—which is to say, on a much more profound level than one might ask about a misplaced cellphone or set of keys—requires deep reflection, honest prayer, and the terrifying adventure of opening one’s heart—the home of one’s deepest dreams and longings—to God’s own self. And that’s scary.

But God is– in addition to faithful and compassionate–persistent, and God has all kinds of sneaky ways of getting our attention and causing us, finally, to relent and consider this question—a question which he asks us, after all, not for his sake but for our own. What are you looking for? What are you seeking?

Ten years ago God caught me in what must’ve been a weak moment, because I could no longer avoid the question. Our then-17 year old daughter was a junior in high school and while I didn’t think I was looking for anything just yet, I knew that once she graduated I probably would be. Don and I had started to imagine what the future might hold, to ask ourselves what we were looking for.

“A little church in New England,” I would say, “where I can fall in love with the people and stay till I die.”

“It needs to be near an airport,” Don would say (ever the pragmatist), “so I can keep freelancing.”

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if it were near the ocean?” I’d ask, giddy at the very thought.

And next thing we knew God sent two angelic messengers in the persons of Jerry and Susan Murphy to tell us about St. Stephen’s Church, a fabulous little church, they said, in a seaside town we’d never even heard of. The problem was, the timing was all wrong. You all wanted a new rector in place long before I would be ready to leave Washington—Grace still had a year of High School ahead of her, so we weren’t going anywhere. Yet as I explained in the cover letter I wrote to the search committee, I couldn’t not respond to what was a very compelling sense of call.

“Come and see,” Jesus kept urging me. Come and see.

Well, God worked out the timing and the rest is history. Until now. This time around it took a series of events in my personal life and in our national life to gradually cause me, once again, to be attentive when Jesus asked “What are you looking for?”

It began, as best as I can figure with 20/20 hindsight, with the riots in Ferguson more than two years ago. What I started looking for then (innocently enough) was a faithful response to things about which I realized I knew virtually nothing, yet about which, as a woman of faith, I cared very much.

The invitation from Jesus to “come and see” meant starting to educate myself about racism, white privilege, and implicit bias. It meant reading minority writers and listening to minority voices. It meant waking up in a new way to all sorts of issues Jesus taught and preached about like economic injustice and oppression, hospitality to immigrants and refugees, caring for the poor and the vulnerable, and proclaiming the good news of God’s love to all of God’s people.

And I have to tell you that unlike the invitation to “come and see” St. Stephen’s Church, this “come and see” invitation was not one to which I responded enthusiastically. It scared me. I think on some level I knew where it might lead, and I didn’t want to go there. After all, my plan was to leave this church toes up, right?

Then there was the breast cancer, and embracing the preciousness and fragility of life with which I was already so intimately familiar. Cancer does, as Samuel Johnson so aptly noted about death, have a way of focusing the mind.

But I knew there was no turning back when last August, while preparing a sermon on Luke’s gospel and the 53rd anniversary of the March on Washington, I learned that right here in our backyard, in Suffolk County, thirty-seven thousand children under the age of 18 were living in poverty. Thirty-seven thousand children, within 30 miles of us, living on what Dr. King would’ve called “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

That flattened me. That hit way too close to home, was way too close for comfort. Jesus was no longer whispering, “Come and see,” he was shouting it in my ear. I knew then that I had to “do” something—and that’s when I started organizing our team of tutors to serve the kids at St. Stephen’s, Boston. I still hoped that would be enough—that this burgeoning call to serve the most vulnerable and marginalized among us would go away. But it didn’t. And yes, of course the election had an impact on my decision.

So, what am I looking for? What am I seeking? I’m seeking to respond faithfully to this new thing God is doing in my life, to this new passion he has planted in my heart. I’m answering, rather reluctantly but entirely willingly, Jesus’ invitation to “come and see” because I can no longer not. It’s that simple and that hard!

Your invitation is a very different one right now. You will be thinking and feeling all kinds of different things about my leaving. Typically, the most common response when a priest leaves a parish is for people to have feelings of abandonment stirred up, and those feelings can come out sideways if they’re not addressed directly. Some of you have already said you are feeling desolate. Many of you, I know, are sad. Others, let’s be honest, are pretty relieved. All of those feelings are okay, they’re all appropriate, and they all need space to be expressed. So please be kind to each other in the coming weeks and be respectful of each other’s feelings.

Remember  that what you all share—beyond your concerns about what will happen next…and who will be called to be your priest…and whether he or she will be a good pastor or preacher…what you all share is that as a community of faith bound in Christ, you are –as Paul says to the Corinthians this morning—“not lacking in any spiritual gifts.” You are not lacking in any spiritual gifts and you are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So when the time comes, know with confidence that you have everything you need as a community of Jesus followers to answer the question, “What are you looking for?” Then trust him to lead you there, and go and see.

But not just yet. For now, take time to process and to breathe. Take time to feel whatever you feel. And as you do, know that I am praying, “Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Following the Star

Sermon for Sunday, January 8th, 2017 ||  The Feast of the Epiphany || Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12 ||  The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

“In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…” So starts one of the most poignant hymns of the Church, based on Christina Rosetti’s incredible love song to God.

And into this bleak mid-winter, bursts one very bright, one very shiny star, illuminating the cold night sky and the lives of all those who follow it.

I love that star. I love its promise of hope. I love the way it touches some ineffable, unidentifiable warm spot within me and makes my heart say, “Yes, I’d follow you anywhere.” And I like to think I would. It’s never misled me yet: after all, it led me here.

I believe that star led each of you here, too. And I wonder what shape or form it took in your life, how it got your attention, and why you decided to follow it. Did the Light that led you to this place disguise itself—perhaps in a friend or a family member, a “holy coincidence,” a sense of obligation, or perhaps a gnawing hunger for some sort of spiritual food you couldn’t quite name?

No matter, it was the star. It was that breathtaking Light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome. It was God’s in-breaking presence in our world, in your world, saying, “Look, here I am. Follow me…” And you did. Maybe tentatively, maybe begrudgingly, or maybe even wholeheartedly, full speed ahead. But you followed, and here you are, still seeking, still following that star….still responding to it’s irresistible call…in the warmth of this place, in the presence of its Light, moving ever closer to the One toward whom it is leading you.

This, my friends, is the Epiphany. Not some grand revelatory, “Aha!” –but the sometimes steady and often faltering commitment we make to the spiritual journey: It’s our decision to say “yes” to following that star. It’s our response to God’s invitation in our lives.

You know, scholars say the wise men weren’t especially bright or well-educated—and that they most certainly weren’t kings. They were likely itinerant pseudo-astrologers, more akin to new-age gypsies than learned sages. They were seekers, committed to the journey—and though they were indeed wise to follow the star, even they got fooled by preconceived ideas about where it would lead them: Did you notice they took a very logical, but misguided, detour to Jerusalem before letting the clear and consistent Light of that star lead them to Bethlehem?

Yet they got there. They got there just as each of us got here, and filled with joy they fell to their knees and worshipped the newborn Jesus in awe. And when they left that place they were different than when they came. When they left that place they had a Light in their hearts that the darkness could not overcome, they had a hope for the future that couldn’t be extinguished, and they had an astonishing story to tell about a very bright, very shiny star that illuminated the cold night sky one bleak mid-winter night, and how it touched some ineffable, unidentifiable warm spot in their hearts that made them say, “Yes, I’ll follow you anywhere.”

We each have our own stories to tell about the star that led us here, and the detours we’ve made along the way. We each have our own stories to tell about how different we are now than when we first came to this place…about how we leave here each week different than when we came…with light and hope and our commitment to the journey renewed.

And I wonder how we might share those stories with the itinerant seekers out there who have lost their way to Bethlehem…or who are so tired they’ve given up searching… or who simply haven’t noticed the brilliance of the star right here in Cohasset at St. Stephen’s Church. Because “In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone…” And into this bleak mid-winter, burst one very bright, one very shiny star, illuminating the cold night sky and the lives of all those who follow it. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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