Sermons

Running the race before us 

All Saints': 08-14-16, the Rev. Raymond Webster

 

I am delighted to be here this morning, to fill in for the Rev. Tanya Wallace. My wife Eve is a 1962 graduate of Mount Holyoke, and has many memories of Lawrence House then, and Father Kidder -- and the beginnings of the Odyssey Bookstore across the way when it was still a drugstore and Romeo Grenier -- who she introduced me to years ago -- still wore a white pharmacist’s coat. 

When I retired as rector of St. Chrysostom’s Church in Chicago -- after 19 years -- we moved to Amherst. And of course we have the Rev. Sarah Dunn at Grace Church. I know how deep her ties are here. I have been thoroughly enjoying Tanya’s and Sarah’s photos on Facebook! 

And this past year I have served on a Diocesan committee with Kathy West.

Good connections in the present and many memories from the past. Was it Henri Nouwen who said when we get to heaven God will say say, show me your slides! Well, no more slides nowadays -- photos of the trip anyway! Selfies! 

Photos of the trip -- memories of the journey -- surrounded by memories of people: teachers, loved ones, parents, friends.

Our second lesson this morning, from the Letter to the Hebrews, remembers some of the people in the Hebrew Bible -- David and Samuel and prophets. And then a long remembrance of those who suffered or were killed for their faith. 

When this Letter to the Hebrews was first written and read, such things were happening to the first Christians. That reality marks the passage as it does in every word of today’s Gospel, where Jesus looks to the coming persecution of the church and the human tragedy of division it would be bring -- as happened in our civil war and the Abolitionist movement.

The Greek word for witnesses in these last words of today’s passage from Hebrews gives us the English word martyr. 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, 

We are surrounded by all those who have gone before us and are with God. 

My wife Eve has often talked about her classes in Italian at Mount Holyoke with Valentine Giamatti. She’s shown me the small cottage-like room where the classes took place at the end of the greenhouse down the hill. How important that has been in her life, as a teacher, and indeed in our life together. 

Years ago when Eve’s parents were ill, I asked if there was something she’d like to do -- and we read through Dante’sDivine Comedy, with Eve reading the Italian and me looking up notes in Singleton. With gratitude to Professor Giamatti! 

We all have stories and memories surrounding us. 

... surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 

Rather startling to have this image of running a race -- a foot race, track and field. I can’t think of sports races in the Hebrew Bible. Our faith is rooted in the Hebrew Bible, but is woven through the language and history and customs of ancient Greece. 

 The New Testament was written in Greek -- and the translation of the Old Testament used by those first Christian writers was in Greek. From the Greek side of our family tree we get our love of sports. And also democracy. Freedom is by no means absent from the Bible (famously the opening of the Declaration of Independence grounds our rights in the story of Creation) and the Greek ideals were woven with, for instance, with the Biblical story of the Exodus -- Let my people go -- in the movement to end slavery. 

... run the race ... I have loved seeing even the briefest clips on TV of the swimming and gymnastics this past week at the Olympic games in Rio. 

Big news this week that swimmer Michael Phelps broke the record of victories made by Leonidas of Rhodes in 132 BC or BCE. (Is this the first time I have ever heard of an ancient record being broken?) 

And important for the future -- the race set before us -- swimmer Simone Manuel’s first Olympic gold medal won by an African American woman.

I gather the ancient Olympic victors didn’t get a gold medal, but the wreath of victory, the victor’s crown, woven from branches of laurel. Laurel -- from which we get our Nobel laureates, and poet laureates. And I’ve stood at Eve’s reunions here at Mount Holyoke to watch the laurel chain carried in. 

let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 

Remembering our history -- the races run in the past -- but running the race set before us in the here and now. 

looking to Jesus 

We stay close to Jesus in at least three ways, in the tradition of the church:  

reading his story in the Gospels, 

sharing here in his Eucharist he gives us, 

sharing in his ministry to those in need. 

So you will be bringing food to Springfield later today. Story, bread and wine, loving service. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta would say, over and over, when we serve someone in need we serve Jesus.

The someone in need may be the person in Springfield who could use a meal, the person in the pew next to us, or people whose lives will be changed by how our vote is cast.  

let us run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy 

God keep before us Jesus and his joy ... 

who for the sake of the joy hat was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Letter to the Hebrews 12:1-2) 

Passing on the Mantle

All Saints': 06-26-2016, Rev. Sarah Dunn

My friends, it feels so good to be home.  It feels so good to be back in this place, in this sanctuary, in this blessed community of All Saints’ Church.  When I entered the ordained ministry barely a year and a half ago, one thing I cherished is that this church would always be my church home.  Meaning that when someone is ordained his or her church membership never moves.  So I will forever and always, no matter where around the country or world I may be, I will remain a member of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, South Hadley, Massachusetts.  And to me, that is pretty darn cool.  For All Saints’ taught me what church should look like.  This community formed me, supported me, and mentored me as I discerned a calling to the priesthood, as I grew from a student into a professional, as I moved from adolescence into adulthood.  I would not be the woman and priest I am today without this amazing community.

Through your mentorship I learned what real hospitality looks like.  From murder mystery dinners to Lenten lunches to Midnight breakfast, there is always an open door and warm food in abundance.  Throughout your mentorship I learned what getting in touch with my roots looks like, after years of disconnection with the Mount Holyoke campus, you have revived this ministry and made it vibrant again.  From college interns and nursery workers, to student groups over soup and salad, to Easter eggs hung around campus after the resurrection, and again, of course, the delicious Midnight Breakfast, you all have reconnected with your original mission, your roots in this community.  Throughout your mentorship I also learned what it means to challenge myself.  Over the past three years, you all have stepped outside your comfort zone, stepped outside the traditional model of church, stepped outside the normal everyday of community life, and you began an Episcopal Service Corps program, Lawrence House.  Welcoming in strangers from across the country, young adults seeking social justice and discernment, and opening your hearts to the new faces of Christ before you.  This entire community, through its mission to live out the love of Christ, was and continues to be a mentor for me.

Yet when I left All Saints’, knowing I would not be able to visit whenever I wanted, knowing that I was called to be a part of another community, knowing that I would not continue my ministry in this congregation, I was devastated.  This liminal space, this transition was a frightening time for me.  I was scared of entering a new church, scared of missing y’all too much, scared of not living into what God had called me to be.  And in some ways, I am sure you all may be feeling some fear, some trepidation as you stare ahead towards the next three months as your own shepherdess is on sabbatical.  Perhaps fears that were not that unlike Elisha’s own fears in our Old Testament reading from 2 Kings.  Elisha is anxious in this story, worried about what life will look like without his mentor, Elijah there to guide him.  He is hesitant of the form his ministry will take, begging Elijah to give him a double portion of his spirit.  And Elisha is grief stricken, tearing his garments in two even though he is prepared for the departure of his friend and mentor.  He is devastated when Elijah is taken up in the whirlwind to meet God.

And I imagine this is where All Saints’ may be at the present moment.

Anxious, worried about what life in this community will look like without your pastor present. Hesitant to participate in an evolving ministry that requires each and every individual to live into their role in the Body of Christ.  Grief stricken, even though this congregation knew the departure would occur, but sad for the loss of a beloved mentor.  And thankfully this beloved mentor is returning in only three months’ time, refreshed, revitalized, and renewed for the ministry ahead.

Yet even though you all may be uneasy that Tanya is on sabbatical for the next three months, it is actually an invitation for this congregation to fully live into its calling.  It is an invitation for you each to take a leadership role in this community.  It is an invitation to put aside all the fears holding you back.  However, my friends, like the prophet Elisha, this journey may not always be so easy and straightforward.  There will be testing involved, as Elijah tested Elisha, encouraging him multiple times to leave him.

Twice Elijah says to Elisha, “Stay back.”  And although it would have been easier to stay back, to not participate in such an arduous trek, Elisha stays by his mentor’s side, accompanying him on the journey.  It is human nature for Elijah to test the limits of love, yet this is an opportunity for Elisha to live into such love, to be selfless, self-sacrificing, and self-assured that the pilgrimage to prophethood is indeed worth it.

The journey is also difficult for Elisha because there are moments of doubt, moments when Elisha doubts his own capabilities, his own talents, his own potential for ministry.  Instead of Elisha relying on God, he begs Elijah for a double portion of his spirit, referring to the ancient Israelite tradition of the eldest son receiving a double portion of the inheritance.  Elisha needs, desires, wants more from his mentor.  Even though Elijah has guided him and led him to this moment of transition, Elisha clings onto the past and shies away from the future unfolding before his eyes.

The journey is also full of suspense.  The story builds and builds, wondering whether or not Elisha will continue in Elijah’s footsteps, wondering whether or not he will overcome the testing, wondering whether or not he will overcome the doubt.  The audience not knowing until the very end whether or not Elisha will indeed receive the spirit and walk in the way of the prophets before him.

Yet the journey is also confirming for Elisha.  It is a time when even though he has been tested, even though his doubts have resurfaced, even though the suspense has risen, it is a time when he lives into his own ministry, when he deciphers his own calling, when he is empowered by God.  And this confirmation culminates in the moment when the suspense breaks, after the whirlwind, when Elisha takes up Elijah’s mantle.  Now this mantle that is passed on from Elijah to Elisha is not the source of the new prophet’s power, but the symbol of this power.  Just as an ordained minister takes on a mantle, a stole, wrapping it around her shoulders as a symbol of her vocation, so Elisha takes on the mantle of Elijah, as a symbol of his vocation as a prophet.

Now today, as part of the priesthood of all believers, that same mantle has been passed on to you.  This same symbolic garment is your opportunity to empower yourselves despite all the tests, doubts, and moments of suspense ahead.  It is your opportunity to claim your own authority as disciples of Christ, as people of faith, as members of this beloved community.  These three months are an opportunity, an invitation to live into your ministry as All Saints’ Episcopal Church, to deepen relationships with God and with one another, to work through your past trepidations and envision the future with enthusiasm, to hear the voice of the Spirit moving amongst this congregation, to recommit yourself to doing great things in Western Massachusetts, to listen to God’s ongoing dream for you.  Just as God had a larger dream for Elisha than he could have ever imagined, God has a bigger dream for All Saints’ than any one member of this community can imagine alone.

So as the whirlwind of such a communal transition subsides, as you make your way through the trials, the doubts, and the suspense, will you be ready to hear God’s voice, envision a grand future, and dream divinely inspired dreams?

Amen.

 

The U.S. A. Independence Day                                                                              

All Saints': 07-03-2016, Rev. Chisato Kitagawa

This is a weekend of celebrations. Tomorrow we celebrate the Independence Day of this nation. Two hundred and forty years ago, the United States of America was born, and with it and what followed, came a new citizenship for people of this land.

Personally speaking, this is my 49th year as an American citizen. I already talked about my naturalization experience here, perhaps some 15 years ago when I served as a supply priest one Sunday. But there are connections to today’s Old Testament lesson, so please bear with me in some repetition.

First, here’s a recap of today’s lesson, which comes from 2nd Kings (5:1-14). Naaman, a great army commander in an ancient kingdom in Syria was afflicted with leprosy. He goes with his horses and chariots to the house of Elisha, a prophet in Samaria. But the advice he gets makes him mad. All Elisha tells him is “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”  Naaman was enraged!  He didn’t have to come all this way just to be told to do such a simple thing. But his servants approached and said, “If the prophet had commanded you to do  something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  So Naaman went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God.

Now, back to my story. I became an American citizen on February 26, 1967 at a naturalization ceremony held in  a second floor courtroom of the Superior Court in Northampton. At that time, I was an assistant minister at Grace Church, Amherst. It was in the midst of the Vietnam War. The presidential election of 1968 was looming. In fact, the campaign season had already begun; it would prove to be highly tumultuous, involving President Johnson’s re-election bid and Eugene McCarthy’s open challenge against it at an early stage, and Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace as the final candidates. The future course for the country seemed to hang in the balance. And I desperately wanted to vote. It was that desire, more than anything else, that pushed me to apply for American citizenship.

The naturalization ceremony was indeed a great moment for me. What took me by real surprise was how religious the ceremony was!  I was well aware, of course, of the constitutional separation of church and state. But, the highly symbolic event reminded me of an 18c New England church service. The presiding judge’s speech sounded more like a sermon than most sermons do. When the judge concluded his speech with “Let us pray,” I was ready to drop to my knees.

Japanese law required that I forsake my Japanese citizenship if I should acquire American citizenship. At the time I really did not struggle with that fact of forsaking my native Japanese citizenship. And later on I sometimes wondered why I was not bothered by it. But now, I know. In Japan, I was a believer of Christ first, and a Japanese citizen second. In America, I am a Christian first, and an American citizen second. As Christians, we live in the “in-between” times, after the Resurrection/Ascension of Jesus the Christ and before His Second Coming. Therefore, I know what I need to do whether I live in Japan or in the United States; this identity I carry does not change when I begin to carry a different passport.

But, during the naturalization ceremony on that day, I was deeply aware of the fact that, by becoming an American citizen, I was transplanting myself into a highly religious community. And I would like to share with you some of the connections I have learned about what it means to be an American citizen as well as a Christian believer.

The first and the foremost of these connections is this: Deep in our American national tradition, there lies a conviction that God is actively involved in this country’s history. Thomas Jefferson, in his second inaugural address, said: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life.”  Embedded in that assumption is a sense of obligation too, both collective and individual, to carry out God’s will on earth.  It was in this spirit that John F. Kennedy stated in his inaugural address in 1961, “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”  “They came here,” President Johnson said in his inaugural address, “the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened -- to find a place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind: and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.”   “All men are created equal,” declares the Declaration of Independence signed 240 years ago tomorrow.   “One nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all” is the description of this country to whose flag we pledge allegiance.

This core spirit rooted in our nation’s birth is alive today indeed. As stormy as this 2016 campaign season is coming to be, it is heartening to see and hear nation-wide strong counter-reactions to statements rooted in discrimination and prejudice. It makes me proud to be a part of a society that rises up in anger over prejudice, discrimination, and inequality.

How does this equate with our Christian faith?  Are the core values of this nation the same as the core values of our Christian faith?  Well, we can probably have a spirited discussion about that.  But one thing we can say clearly as Christians. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit within us never to forsake the core values that our Lord Jesus has taught us. As Christians, we are placed in the time period between the Resurrection/Ascension of our Lord and His Second Coming. During this period, we live with the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit of Truth, who, as St. John’s Gospel (14:26) says, teaches us all things, reminds us of everything that Jesus has told us, and it dwells in us.

What it reminds us, first and foremost, is that the Gospel of our Lord is simple and direct -- as simple and direct as the advice Naaman got from Elisha. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” And the second is like unto it. “Love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”  This is the core value for us Christians. It is direct and uncomplicated. It’s like saying: Just do it!

The word “love” can be a noun or a verb, but in the key commandments of our faith, “love” is a verb. As Jim Clark, our former parishioner used to say, “God is a verb.” God is a direct and active verb. Active verbs like “love” in the commandments of our faith are simple and straightforward, especially if we do not overthink them. They may get complicated if we sit around contemplating these commandments and their eternal implications until we become paralyzed with inaction. But, we can also just do it -- with the grace of God -- in our life-contexts, however limited. We can just do it wherever in the world we find ourselves, in our everyday doings with our friends, with our family members, with people whose lives intersect with ours in one way or another. You see, Christianity does not teach us immortality, that is, the continuation of what was, forever; it teaches resurrection. Resurrection means that there can be a real death of our former self-image; resurrection can imply that there may be failures in our attempts; and yet the gift of new life can be fully received.

There is an old Gospel song that goes something like: “When the Spirit says ‘Sing’ I’ll sing; When the Spirit says ‘Pray’ I’ll pray.” I don’t remember the exact words, but the message is clear: When the Spirit says, “act,” we should act. When the Spirit says, “react,” we should react. That is in fact a message we get from our religious heritage in this nation, and a message we celebrate on our country’s birthday. In this country we have opportunities to act by participating in a large, fundamentally religious society. We can simply and straightforwardly act -- by making the most of the voices we have as citizens, using the voice of the Holy Spirit that dwells in us.    

Let us now pray together using the wordings of today’s Collect:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.