Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 9/16/18: “The Power of Words”

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Of all the human abilities, perhaps the most powerful, and the most dangerous, is language.  I think we’ve become really aware of this recently, with the advent of infinitely reproduceable speech through social media, and with the increasingly hostile tone of our civic and political discourse. It can be extremely fraught, these days, just trying to have a conversation. And yet, without conversation, we can’t connect with each other. How do we speak in a way that connects us, rather than divides?

In our reading from the Old Testament, the character of Wisdom gives us an interesting example of speech as condemnation. So it didn’t start with Facebook. The prophets specialized in calling people out, for bad conduct, in the midst of disagreements over religious practice and theology, issuing dire warnings about God’s wrath. Their words are hard to hear for us, now, and must have been agonizing, for those who heard the messages delivered in person, who felt the furious spittle landing on their foreheads. Often the images the prophets used were in themselves damaging, especially since their favorite metaphor for going astray from God’s plan was talking about Israel as an unfaithful wife or a promiscuous woman. Not to criticize biblical figures, but, How well did it work, what the prophets were doing? How well does confrontation work, as a technique for changing people’s hearts, and their actions? When should we go to that nuclear option, how bad do things have to be, before we have to take a stand against society’s wrongs, or risk being hypocrites? Surely some part of the battle is already lost, by the time you feel you have to go to battle, verbally or otherwise? Is there anything we could do, before we get to that point, that might work better?

 

As always, when we are trying to conform our lives to God’s will, we might take a look at how we are taught to pray. Today’s beautiful psalm guides us to say, “May the words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight.” How can I make my words acceptable to God? Acceptable seems like a good goal, not over-reaching. Pleasing to God seems ambitious, but I might try acceptable. The letter of James, which we’ve been reading for the past few weeks, has moved from telling us about the importance of our actions, to focusing on our words. We often think of the Epistle of James as being about doing, not talking: faith without works is dead, he famously says; don’t pay lip-service to people’s well-being without really helping to meet their needs. And yet, in the passage we’ve come to today, he returns to words, for speech is an action, too, and a crucial one. He reminds us to consider how much what we say (internally or out loud) directs what we do.  “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.”

You are most likely more self-disciplined than I am, but do you ever catch yourself , as I do, having conversations, not to say arguments with the people in your life, but when they aren’t there, so just in your own head, and then going forward in your relationship as if those had been real conversations? Then I wonder, why don’t they know how I feel? I’ve been over it so many times! I’ve talked it through! How we frame things for ourselves, how we tell our stories to ourselves, has huge impact on how we live, and the decisions we make. And when we manage to get out of our own heads, and talk to those around us, that is how we create, and destroy, the relationships that can sustain our lives, or hurt them. When we think about how God wants us to live, we have to think about how God wants us to speak. What kinds of words is God looking for?

God has given us this great gift, the creative power of language. From the beginning, made in God’s image, we spoke, we named the animals, we began to know each other and to share our wonder in Creation. We can be a blessing, with our words. A 17 year-old that I love and respect very much told me that it had occurred to her recently, “What if we let ourselves say every good thing we thought?” Now, with the caveat, let’s say appropriate good things. I’m sure we can all think of good things that we think about other people but cannot say, we need to be respectful and polite. But there are so many good things that we don’t have the courage to say out loud, or don’t think are important enough. Taking the time to tell someone that you notice them, you see and are grateful for what they’re doing, the style and grace with which they pass through the world, that can be an enormous thing. We never know how much a kindness will mean to someone on a given day. How much does it mean to us, who often walk through our days counting over the mistakes and failures, to hear from even one person that we were helpful, perhaps even an answer to prayer?

Of course, if we can bless others with our words, we can also curse them. Every power, every good gift, comes with the potential to be twisted and abused. The Old Testament prophets did it, with the best of intentions, and Peter dared to rebuke Jesus himself., as we also heard today We don’t know exactly what Peter said, but the version of this story in the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Peter did not want Jesus to talk about his coming death, did not want him to suffer and die. Essentially, he’s asking, Why can’t you be the Messiah I had in mind? Why can’t you stick to things I’d feel comfortable talking about? Why can’t it be my script?

Our words can be good and helpful, or ill-considered and harmful. But, in the end, it is not ourwords that matter most. Our words are not going to save us. We betray ourselves too easily. Jesus shows us the way. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.” To use that power of language against the self, to reject our own claims. He asks, “What can they give, in exchange for their life?” We don’t have anything to bargain with, no fancy speeches, and no threats—they’re all empty, before God. We can give one thing, and that is words. Not our own, that we might make up in our own defense, but God’s, spoken into the world, born into the world, so that we could hear them in a human voice. So that we could follow that voice when it calls our names. So that we could hear the words that matter, the words that give life, cried out from the Cross we put him on to die, “Father, forgive them.”

 

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 9/9/2018: “The Hidden God”

Why does Jesus want to keep Himself a secret? In today’s Gospel, we find Him doing some amazing things, things we often wish someone would do or could do for us today—he heals people who’ve been terribly, catastrophically ill, people no one could figure out how to help, lost causes. He has come to this area, wanting no one to know he is there, and he works these miracles, but he asks those he helps to tell no one about how they were healed, who brought about their miraculous cure. Why? He doesn’t even, at first, want to share his power with the Gentile woman who comes to him, in one of the hardest passages to read about Jesus, I think, how could he want to withhold his healing power from anyone who needed it? what’s going on, here? If God has decided to come to earth, to be here among us, why doesn’t he just come, all in?

There are a few possible explanations: perhaps he is showing us an example of humility, that God doesn’t want to be all, get me, I’m the Messiah; God wants to offer us a face of gentle modesty. Certainly, Jesus does show us that, in many places. He doesn’t claim any status, he hangs out with outcasts, with the poor. Not boasting about what he can do is consistent with his self-effacing approach to humanity. Perhaps, as we see during his forty days in the wilderness, or in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ sometimes had a profound need for solitude, especially as a counterweight to the constant demands of people pressing in on him from every side, wanting and needing, hoping and asking. Or maybe this secrecy was part of a calculated plan, indicating that the right time for Christ’s identity to be fully revealed had not yet arrived, just as when he says to his mother, when she asks him to do something about the wine situation at the wedding in Cana, “My time has not yet come.”

There could have been many reasons for Jesus to want to keep himself secret, to keep his true nature and destiny hidden—we don’t know what the reason was, but we know that he did desire it, at this point in his story, and that he often still does. God is still hidden from us, so much of the time. His motives, his presence, are kept from us, we feel it. And God seems hidden from some of us, more than from others—how is that fair? We all know people, people close to us, who just don’t seem to feel the need for God, or any sense of connection to faith, even though we wish so much that we could share that with them. And we all know times and ways in which God just seems to be absent from us, from our lives or from the whole, desolate world, usually when we need him most.

We can be in crisis, like the woman with her sick daughter, desperate and finding no help, nothing in our experience or resources providing a solution. Or we can have a chronic need, like the man who cannot walk, and we’re daily brought up again the atrocious injustice of God’s apparent favour on some, who are so readily given abilities and normalcy. When will God smile on our lives, as he seems to do with such unthinking ease on so many others?

The sense of God’s withdrawing from the world, from our reach, is so palpable and so universal that the church has developed a vocabulary for it. Deus absconditus, they called it in the Latin of medieval theology—the God who has absconded, run away, concealed himself from us. That is the God we meet in today’s Gospel, a Jesus who doesn’t want to be there for us, who is unavailable.

But there was a parallel term, the other side of the theological coin: Deus revelatus, the God who is revealed to us. When we look, we find him here, even in this enigmatic text. For just as much as Christ wants time to himself, wants to keep his miracles a secret, just as much do the people desire to make him known. This irrepressible desire bubbles up and must find its expression. They get the word out, that he’s here, and more and more show up. He’s close by, they say, he can be approached and petitioned for help—beg him, for whatever you want, he can’t refuse, he never does. Those who are healed, even though they are warned to keep silent, immediately go and tell everyone they know about the relief that has come unexpectedly, joyfully, into their lives.

God is revealed, even when God is hidden. In moments when we feel most abandoned and alone, we can be surprise by the kindness we are shown, by the presence and understanding of someone who is close by and approachable. God is revealed, in the midst of our darkness, by words that manage to move us out of places where we were trapped or stuck, and free us to discover some grace, wherever we are.

Who has revealed God to you? Who have made love real and visible, perhaps in a new way, or perhaps just reminding you of something you’d forgotten or become afraid to hope for? Who has shown up for you, friend or stranger, in your time of need? What if God hides his glorious face so that we, in our weakness, can see him in smaller places, in the sordid rooms and dim twilights or our existence, in these latter days. Could he be daring us to hear his distant, growing triumph, in the voices of our neighbours, and our not-so-neighbours, speaking familiar words in new ways?

How are we revealing God to our world? What is the part of the story that is bubbling up in you, that you cannot help but tell? Even if the world will think it’s weird, even if it seems more cool or more acceptable to keep quiet about it? Let’s notice, after all, that Jesus doesn’t punish or send away those who cry out for his help, or make him known—he praises and rewards them for their audacity. To the Gentile woman who dared to address him, much less ask him for something, Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go, your daughter has been made well.”

God is the one who is going to remain, in some way, hidden, until the end of time, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away. But we’re not supposed to—not supposed to hide our light under a bushel, not supposed to bury our treasure, not supposed to keep the Good News quiet. Our job is to speak, to tell his story, in every language and with every means we can think of, and some we haven’t thought of yet. Say it with words. Say it with acts of service and compassion. Say it to our children, to each other, to anyone who will listen, and even to those you think aren’t listening or can’t hear.

If Jesus were here, if he had come close by, and walked among us, would he say now, as he never did then, I love your silence about me, as you go about your business? What can we say, with all our lives and every moment we’ve got left, so that he will turn to us and answer, as he did to that woman, “For saying that,” I will heal.

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 9/2/2018: “Fake vs. real”

I remember that, growing up, when I came to the end of childhood, right around the transition to middle school, I became overwhelmed with a sense of the fakeness of the adult world. As we grow up, we get to that point, that pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz moment, when we see that the earnest and supportive environment our parents presented to us (if we’ve been lucky) isn’t the whole thing. There are a lot of ugly truths that we begin to wake up to. There’s so much competition, concern about appearances, and daily, grinding unhappiness that we soldier on with. Within a year, I went from being a fairy-believing, neighbourhood ballet choreographing little elf, to being sunk in depression and disillusionment about the whole project of human society.

Perhaps the suddenness and completeness of the realization happened because I experienced two suicides, early on—there was a colleague of my father’s, at his law firm, a man who was heavily involved in national politics; he took the fall for a campaign fundraising scandal, and consumed with shame, took his own life in a motel room. And there was a friend my age, a boy whose household always seemed strange and chaotic; one day he leapt, inexplicably, from the ninth floor of an apartment building. These tragedies seemed to underscore the fact that no one was admitting, that everything was a sham.

Then I started Confirmation classes, because that was the age I was, not because I was particularly interested, or had ever gotten very much out of Sunday School. The teacher was Father Fred, the young assistant at the church we went to. There were only a few kids, maybe half a dozen. All we did was sit in parlors much like the ones here, in ancient chintz armchairs in sunny rooms on long afternoons, and we read through the Gospel of Mark together. There were no bells and whistles, no particularly ambitious program. Just respecting us enough, and trusting the Gospel enough, to let us encounter the Word for ourselves, not explained or illustrated, just Jesus. And there He was, right in front of us, pointing to everything I had seen and been so devastated by. Calling out hypocrisy, the fake life, and saying, “That’s not all there is; there’s something else, something much bigger.” There is something real, something true, that you can pour all your love into and never see the end.

The Jesus we meet in Mark is not about appearances. Everything that’s ever made you think, that’s wrong, doesn’t anybody see that’s fake and worthless, doesn’t anyone care? Jesus just makes it plain, and doesn’t let us off the hook for an instant, doesn’t soft pedal it or clean it up. Yes, all these things people do are real and terrible, and you can’t put human scaffolding around them to hide it. You can’t make up little rules and rituals to make the bad go away like magic (if I wash my hands three times before eating, it won’t matter that I hate the job that pays for the meal, or if I recite the words of a prayer all the way through, it won’t matter that I berated my spouse). All that stuff that we try to fool others and even ourselves with, God is not fooled.

This revelation could have been even more depressing, but I have found it to be just the opposite, to be the most hopeful thing ever. We are seen by God, understood and known, with everything stripped bare, all that we do and even all we think, all the secrets we guard so closely. The darkness is not dark to you, O Lord, the night is as bright as the day. We are, in fact, judged, and judged with perfect justice, with perfect insight and accuracy. Growing up and coming to awareness of the world’s horrors, great and petty, I craved the sense that someone was watching, that someone was a witness. That sense was instantly satisfying. But, even that whole reality that I had come to, and found myself joined in by Jesus, isn’t the end. It’s just the next step, after we leave the safety and ignorance that we know, again, if we’re lucky, in childhood. We graduate to harder things, often with a shocking suddenness. It’s what happens next that has taken a lifetime to fall down before, a lifetime to serve. Because we learn that the God who sees, who gets it and admits it and pulls back the curtain, God doesn’t stand back at an infinite distance with cold condemnation, “Look what you did, look who you are,” but is the same Jesus who comes and stands in our place. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. Only God can bear it, and God does. That is not the moment’s dawning awareness of youthful anger. That is the rest of our lives. As Saint Paul tells us, this morning, “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” We have horror and anger, at what we have done. God has chosen to make something even more; God has not chosen to destroy, but to give His own life. The answer to hypocrisy, it turns out, is not a righteous, purifying anger, but humility.

At the Beach Service this morning, we baptized Louisa Greco, in the ocean. At every Baptism, Jesus stands beside us (He was there today, in the water, at Sandy Beach), saying yes, for you, I’ll do it all again, take up the life of being misunderstanding, mistrust, betrayal, torture, abandonment, and death. That fake life is our Creation, our whole reality, that we weave around each other until there’s no way out. No way out but through, so God will go through death itself, and take our hand, dive beneath the waves with us, and bring us up again into new life, into the sunshine of a beautiful day, surrounded by love.

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 8/26/2018: “The Whole Armor of God”

I love the passage we read from Paul’s Letter to the people of Ephesus, with its imagery of the whole armor of God, not because I love going into battle, but because I love a system. A plan. If life were a James Bond movie, then I would be the Q character, the nerdy, awkward, scientist with the neat little gadgets for every emergency. This text from St. Paul is basically that scene, for the early Christians. This is what you’re going to need, he tells them, this is your gear. I love how it’s all mapped out.

God doesn’t want us to be without a plan, doesn’t intend to leave us defenseless, for whatever life throws at us, the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Really, the whole of the Bible is a map of that plan, taking us from the place we found ourselves—lost, there be dragons—all the way through our lives to home, you are here, right where you need to be. God’s plan of salvation takes shape through the Creator’s guidance, in Christ’s Incarnation, death, and resurrection, and with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the follow-up. The implementation strategy.

Paul wants the strategy to be clear. This isn’t rocket science, actually, even though I might want there to be a souped-up Aston Martin involved. The plan isn’t supposed to be some esoteric mystery, available only to the spiritual elite. It’s meant to be accessible to all. So what does Paul describe, what is God offering us, so that we can face what’s coming and stand firm? It starts with the Truth. “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist.” Honesty is the plan. I really love this plan. It’s grounded on something so basic, so fundamental, we begin with living in Christ, who told us, “I am the Truth.” We have to start there. Whatever else we do, the truth will be the right guide, the truth will set us free.

 

But there’s more, because honesty isn’t enough. It’s the place we’ve got to start, but the truth can put you in danger, as Jesus’ own life shows us. So, next, we put on the breastplate of righteousness. Now righteousness is a tricky thing for us, because it’s so perilously close to self-righteousness, which we can see all around us in our world—in fact, as Christians, we are known for it, and that reputation can be a huge obstacle, when we’re trying to tell people about the Jesus who loves and forgives. We don’t want to use righteousness as a weapon to wound or dominate others. But, if we pay attention to what the text actually says, righteousness is not being proposed as a weapon at all, here. It’s not the sword of righteousness, or even the club of righteousness, definitely not the machete of righteousness. It’s the breastplate, the protection, for the most vulnerable place, the heart. Without that righteousness, we expose ourselves to all kinds of damage. We hurt our own hearts, when we do wrong, when we become the kind of person who is used to hurting others. Being just and living with integrity, is the best way to make ourselves and those around us safe from the spiritual erosion of callousness and cruelty. Bad actions endanger us, and those we love; eventually, inevitably, they lead to death. Living in God’s way is the only way out of that dead end.

The working out of God’s way, God’s desire for our lives, will be a little different for each person. Paul says, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” The instruction here is graciously flexible; there is no one right answer. What helps you get ready, to proclaim the Gospel of peace? What gives you energy, feeds your passions, makes you more understanding and patient, more generous? Or, conversely, what do you know you need, to fill up your bucket of good will, or else you get cranky and mean? Running? Time by yourself or in nature? Enough sleep? Serious study and reading? Talking with a friend? Meditation? Experiences of the world and other people? Do what fuels you, make sure you’re equipped with what you need, to do the work and to be there for others.

So we’ve come this far, we’ve been cautioned not to get ourselves into trouble with dishonesty or bad actions, and to provide ourselves with those particular things that nourish us. What else do we need, to confront the forces of evil? Paul reminds us to take shelter, under the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. That’s one way evil works, especially in our world today, it makes everything seem so urgent, I must do this right now! I’ve got to respond to this horrible post on Facebook, or correct my neighbor who’s in the wrong, or make a judgment on this question of national importance, quick, now, before my own position is at risk, or I look foolish, or am judged, myself. I’ve got to handle everything, take every opportunity, or I’ll lose my chance, I, or my family, might be disadvantaged. It’s all got to happen now. Faith meets this temptation by taking the long view, faith trusts, faith waits, it abides, in the old language, resting secure in the knowledge of who God is, and therefore of who I am—God’s child.

We are under the shield of faith and we are under the helmet of salvation. For all of those temptations of urgency are really fears of our own mortality, disguised as the possibility of achievement. What wounds our minds? Fears. What wakes us up at 2 in the morning, racing round our heads? Fears. What keeps us from being in each moment, and cherishing what is, the gift of those around us? It is fear, that eats away at our life, our joy. God has promised, God has spent a lifetime, telling us that we are saved. That every hair on our heads has been counted. That each tear we shed is collected in a bottle. That we are not to worry, not to be afraid, for God loves us, and will gather us all in and make us new. Know that you are loved. Know that God has done everything, has given everything, for you. It’s not on you, saving yourself is not your job. You can’t get any more beautiful in God’s eyes than you are right now, because you are Christ’s, brothers and sisters of Jesus and one another. That is all the protection we need, that is the whole armour of God.

Paul only mentions one weapon, in this passage. It comes at the end, and it’s not a weapon in the conventional sense: the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. The Word that we are forgiven, sought out, loved as Christ by God, that is how we stand up and fight the forces of evil. Just those words. That they are true for me, true for you, true for everyone—no one is beneath God’s notice, no one is uninvited to the feast of the bread of life.

And always, there is prayer. Pray in the Spirit at all times. That is how we live in the awareness of God’s mercy and love. Prayer for everyone. Pray also for me. We rely on each other’s prayers. Feel them all at your back, when you need them, because they are there. Feel the protection of the truth, of righteousness, of the gifts you are given, of faith and salvation. Walk around in the strength of God’s power. Now we are strong enough to go and serve.

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Sermon from 8/19/18

The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon from 8/12/18

The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VBS prayer for Sunday:

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

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Bread of Life

The Rev. Maggie Arnold // August 5, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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