By Rev. Heather J. Blais
Have you ever wondered how many sacraments we have in the Episcopal Church? If so, this is your lucky day.
Our tradition affirms there are two sacraments and five sacramental rites. They have two key distinctions. First, sacraments were given by Christ to the Church, whereas sacramental rites were instituted by the Church through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (1/ 2) Second, sacraments are understood as essential for all Christians, while sacramental rites are not. (1) In other words, some people will be called to partake in one or more of these rites, but it’s not imperative for all Christians.
Having covered the two sacraments in previous sermons, we’ll spend the next few teaching sermons getting better acquainted with the five sacramental rites. These are: confirmation; marriage; ordination; reconciliation of a penitent - a form of personal confession; and unction - better known as anointing. (1) Today our focus will be on confirmation and marriage. (2)
Our tradition affirms there are two important things happening in the sacramental rite of confirmation. First and foremost, “Confirmation is the rite in which we express a mature commitment to Christ…” (1) The rite of confirmation exists in several mainline denominations, primarily because these traditions practice infant baptism. Meaning, parents have chosen to proclaim to the child, themselves, and the universal Church that we want to raise our child to walk in love in the Christian tradition. However, this means the child does not get to choose that for themselves, making the ritual of confirmation an important rite of passage.
It is the opportunity for youth and adults to choose for themselves: I want to walk in love with Christ, and I affirm the values and beliefs of this particular tradition. All of this means, it is vitally important that confirmation be a choice, a calling, and not something young people are pressured into doing by parents or other adults.
In Lauren Winner’s book, Still, she describes how a minister responded to a young person who felt unsure whether they could go through with confirmation. (3)They said, “What you promise when you are confirmed…is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever.” (3)
The second significance of confirmation is that in it we, “...receive strength from the Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop.” (1). Confirmation is one of the two sacramental rites that require a bishop.
Our friends Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe, describe why in their book, Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs & Practices: “Bishops can trace their consecration back to the apostles of Jesus - something called ‘apostolic succession’. In this way, confirmation connects us to the worldwide church through the bishop, the symbol of our unity, and to the communion of saints, past, present and future. This reminds us of the way in which we are connected to the wider sphere of the church…” (2)
You may recall Bishop Doug made his annual visitation earlier this year, where three important things happened:
You may also recall that the liturgy of confirmation is pretty similar to that of baptism. (1). It begins the same way, and after the sermon the bishops asks the candidates:
Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil? (1)
Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ? (1)
The bishop then asks the congregation if they will support the confirmands, and after affirming they will, the community reaffirms our baptismal promises together. (1) Then there are prayers for the candidates, emphasizing their renewed commitment, followed by the bishop laying hands on the confirmands. (1) The bishop will lay hands on top of the candidates’ head or maybe lay a hand on each shoulder, praying for the Holy Spirit to strengthen, empower, and sustain them. (1) There is a concluding prayer, and the liturgy transitions into the Peace. (1)
Under the umbrella of confirmation is reception and reaffirmation. One is received when they have already been confirmed in another tradition, but their spiritual journey brings them into the Episcopal Church. One is reaffirmed when they feel called to reaffirm their faith - maybe after a long time away from the Church or a season of spiritual growth. To be confirmed, received, or reaffirm one's commitment, candidates participate in a preparation period, usually by partaking in our Episcopal 101 course.
While most ministries in the church do not require confirmation, a few do. Confirmation is required to serve as a Lay Eucharistic Minister distributing the common cup, to run for Vestry, to be ordained, or to hold certain church wide offices.
All right, shifting gears. Let’s talk about marriage. I want to start with two beautiful, and historic days that were decades in the making. First, on June 26, 2015 a Supreme Court ruling legalized same sex marriage for all Americans, or rather, finally made marriage available to all couples. Then, five days later on July 1, 2015 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church followed suit, by making canonical and liturgical changes to provide marriage equality within the Church.
In the years leading up to these two events, there began a series of important conversations within the Church about marriage, including:
When we look back to the 1549 Prayer Book, there was an exhortation listing three reasons for the institution of marriage:
When couples want to be married, they are required to sign a Declaration of Intention, which outlines the Church’s current thinking about marriage.
Here is how it reads:
“We understand the teaching of the church that God’s purpose for our marriage is for our mutual joy; for the help and comfort we will give to each other in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the gift and heritage of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of God. We also understand that our marriage is to be unconditional, mutual, exclusive, faithful, and lifelong; and we engage to make the utmost effort to accept these gifts and fulfill these duties, with the help of God and the support of our community.” (2)
This means that marriage is a covenant. Scott and Melody describe it as, “...a sacred promise that involves not only the two people being married but also God and the gathered community…” (2)
The new marriage liturgies from the 2015 General Convention affirm:
Here at Saints James and Andrew, we have a marriage customary to help couples navigate planning their ceremony. (6). Here are a few of the things we point out to couples:
When I meet with a couple, I let them know a few things:
Each clergy person has their own way of doing this. I spend:
This means we spend one session planning the wedding ceremony, and four preparing them for the commitment of marriage. We do that because the ceremony is one moment of one day, and the marriage will hopefully be a lifetime. Sometimes couples need more help sorting through difficult things; in which case, I’ll refer them to a trained professional.
The Episcopal Church has approved three different liturgies we can use for the marriage ceremony. As such, we do not permit folks to write their own vows. That said, we do find creative ways to include people’s intentions in the ceremony when asked.
The liturgy begins by the celebrant greeting the couple and the congregation, stating the intended reason for the gathering, and our desire to ask God’s blessing on this couple. (1) Then the couple declares they have consented to be here, and the congregation affirms they will do all they can to support this couple in their journey. (1)
Then there are readings from scripture, followed by the marriage, where the couple will make a vow that sounds something like this: “In the Name of God, I, take you to be my spouse, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.” (1)
If there are rings, they will be blessed and then exchanged.(1) The couple is pronounced as married, and then the priest proclaims: Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder. (1) The priest then asks God’s blessing on this couple’s union, and I was formed with the tradition of wrapping my stole around the couples held hands as a sign and symbol of that prayer. (1) Then follows the Peace. (1) Believe it or not - there is no ‘kiss the bride’ business. But we do tend to work it in at the Peace if the couple would like. The service then continues with the eucharist or to the dismissal. (1)
While we are here to talk about the sacramental rite of marriage, I think I wouldn’t be doing my job if we didn't talk about divorce. Something that touches nearly everyone in one way or another.
Here’s a brief history of the marriage canons in the Church:
While that is the history of what has been allowed, what the Church is still not very good at is supporting couples through this painful transition. Rev. Jennifer Philips reflects on this for the Episcopal Church.
“When a marriage comes apart, there is undoubtedly an aspect of sin involved. In some way, everyone has fallen short of the mark, including the supporting community. There is often more than sin involved, though. There may be lack of insight, unforeseeable changes in the people and circumstances, trauma or psychological disturbance, insurmountable incompatibility, mistaken understanding and more. There may be a shared sense of disappointment, grief, anger and brokenness in the congregation that once gathered so joyfully to launch the new marriage. These things are fitting subjects for common prayer and reconciliation, without which[,] one — and most often both — divorcing persons leave their church.” (8)
She goes on to say:
“...it is important to offer a divorcing couple (or even an individual, if the partner is unwilling) an opportunity to communicate the new status to the congregation, acknowledge the brokenness, ask for prayers, share sorrow or joy and begin life afresh. It is equally important for the congregation to be able to communicate its collective love, grief, sympathy, surprise or relief, ongoing support and prayer with its fellow members in the body of Christ. It’s not the divorce we thank God for in such rituals for the ending of a marriage, but the reality of forgiveness, mercy, kindness, communion and new life in Christ. For too long, despite the congregational pledge of support, we in the church have treated marriage as a private matter and its failure as a private shame.” (8)
When a marriage ends, it is our job not to perpetuate cultural shame on the couple, but instead, to stand by their side, and ask how we can support you?
I realize this has been a lot of information, and if you’d like to explore either of these topics in more detail, please see the resources posted with the sermon on our website or speak to Molly or myself. Amen!
By Rev. Heather Blais - Luke 24:1-12
Our story begins in the early morning, a couple of days after Jesus' death. A few women were walking to his grave. I always assumed they wanted to check and make sure nothing had been disturbed. Much like we might stop by a cemetery to visit the grave of a recently buried friend. Saying one last goodbye, and tidying the flowers by the headstone.
Except this year, I noticed something. At the end of the passion gospel, Luke writes: “It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was dawning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath day they rested according to the commandment.”
For the first time, I noticed that Jesus' burial was interrupted by the sabbath. Immediately following Jesus’ death, Joseph of Arimathea got Pilate’s permission to take Jesus’ body down from the cross. He then “...wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid.”
This was not unlike when a funeral home director retrieves a body. They go about their work with integrity and care for the one who has died. Preparing the body for transport, storing it in the appropriate place at the funeral home, and eventually preparing the body for burial.
I’ll never forget when my grandmother died unexpectedly in an automobile accident. The following day at the funeral home, I asked to see her body. Like the women, looking into the tomb to see how Jesus’ body was laid, I just needed to see that she was gone, and that her earthly body had found peace.
My request flustered the funeral home director. He had not prepared her body for burial, and he was concerned that it would not be good for me to see her. But I knew myself, and her, enough to know that I needed to see her, and so I pushed back, and he acquiesced.
When I stood before her, I was able to see that the grandmother I had loved was no longer in this place and time - she was now at peace with God. So I said my final goodbye, touched her hands, and commended her to God in prayer. We don’t always get this privilege, and I was grateful for this final touchstone.
For most of human history, the last way humans have expressed our care for our loved one was by preparing their body for burial. Washing, anointing, dressing, laying them gently in their final resting place. During our lifetime, this art has been largely forgotten, left for the professionals.
Yet for these women who had traveled with Jesus from Galilee, it would be their last act of love for their teacher and friend. These women looked into the tomb, saw how his body was laid, and then returned to their lodgings to prepare the spices and ointments. As the sabbath dawned, they stopped and rested according to the commandment. This means, they ceased their work. In doing so, they were living into their communal promise to walk with God six days of the week, and stop to rest with God on the seventh day. It was a holy interruption.
Immediately following the sabbath, our story begins. Luke writes, “...at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.”
They were ready to complete the ritual of burying Jesus with tender love and care. Except, what they found was, “...the stone rolled away from the tomb.” When they went into the tomb, “...they did not find the body.”
These women were perplexed - what could possibly have happened?Suddenly the women noticed two figures in dazzling clothes. They became terrified, bowing their faces to the ground. The figures asked them,“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
These two figures remind the women - this is what Jesus said would happen. “Then they remembered…”
These women, like us, needed to be reminded. To be reminded that on the other side of holy interruption is new life. When the sabbath began to dawn following his death, it was too much to remember. All they knew was they had to prepare the spices and ointments, but they were interrupted from finishing their work of tending Jesus’ body for burial. An interruption that probably felt frustrating beyond measure at the time.
We know something about that. Remember in March of 2020, when we were in the middle of our season of Lent, and a global pandemic interrupted everything? Remember how we thought we were stopping in-person worship for two weeks? How we assured one another we would most certainly be together, singing our favorite hymns that Easter?Remember that interruption? For the last two years, that interruption has felt anything but holy.
But today, that two year interruption without in-person worship during Holy Week and Easter has brought us new life. We are here, together, in person - shouting and singing, Christ is Risen! Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!
For two years, our lives were interrupted in every conceivable and inconceivable way. And all we could do was prepare the spices and ointments, waiting. Being in the moment, trusting that eventually, new life would come. We rested with God.
And finally, at long last, this holy interruption has brought us new life. I’m not sure an Easter morning has ever felt as sweet and ripe as this one. To stand here gathered together as the body of Christ - singing, breaking bread, and sharing the common cup together. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Like the women, as we leave the empty tomb today, we need to remember. Remember that as the body of Christ, we can be the Church in ways we never dared imagine before the holy interruption of covid-19. Remember the promise that Christ is always with us. Remember the promise that with death, there always comes new life. Remember that love is stronger than death.
This two year long, holy Saturday has been a time of spiritual growth and maturity. It has expanded our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ in a world full of aching and loneliness. It has taught us the importance of living in community; something I know so many of us, myself included, had simply taken for granted.
I always thought the reason I came to church was for communion - to receive the bread and wine. Then we spent the first year of the pandemic fasting from communion. And that begged the question - why come to church?
What I learned was that the reason I came to church was for communion. Not the kind we eat and drink, but the communion we create when we come together in our common life and worship as the body of Christ. It is in these communal gatherings of the living, breathing Church that the nourishment of the bread and wine becomes most clearly understood. The bread and the wine are really and truly the sign and symbol of our connection to Christ and one another. Jesus gave us this ritual to remember that in coming together to worship God we receive all that we need to be healthy, grow, and develop as followers of the Way of Love. It is our shared common life and worship which creates and magnifies the experience of nourishment when we receive the bread and wine. Communion is what sustains and empowers us to live into our mutual calling to spread God’s love and transform this world into God’s dream for creation.
May this holy interruption we’ve just lived through remind us that God is always with us, offering us endless second chances, and a new way of life in Christ. Amen.
By Rev. Heather Blais
Good Friday leaves me with more questions than answers:
We might be tempted to seek out concrete answers. Instead, I would invite us to sit with the questions, and not get too caught up in finding ‘the right answers’. Living with ambiguity often makes us uncomfortable, and challenges our need to be in control. Yet somehow it is in the strange, amorphous places that we can sometimes see God most clearly. So let’s spend a few minutes sitting with these questions…
Why did Jesus die?
It would seem Jesus pushed too many people’s boundaries. He represented change; preaching a message of God’s love that was accessible to both the most undesirable people of Jesus’ time and the most powerful. As a result, he was perceived as a threat - and the question was, to whom and to what?
Who should be held responsible?
Luke makes some suggestions:
This passage has been problematic, contributing to anti-Judaic attitudes within the Church. As modern day readers, it is important that we notice these attitudes whenever we hear ‘the Jews’ in the New Testament.
Liturgical scholar Louis Weil observes that,
“...by the time of the writing of Luke’s Gospel, the hostility between the Christian disciples (most of whom were themselves Jewish) and the Jewish leaders had become acrimonious. It is likely that this hostility affected the way in which the recounting of the events of the Passion were presented. It is not special pleading to suggest that the account in Luke may exaggerate the culpability of the Jewish leaders for its own polemic purpose.”
As someone writing beyond the Jewish community, it would have been all too easy for Luke to make costly generalizations and assumptions.
Was it necessary?
Well, is it ever necessary to put someone to death for their beliefs and ideas? The Church’s theology of the cross has certainly tried to make Jesus' death a necessary part of God’s plan.
Theologian David Lose reflected on how the Church may have come to view the cross as a necessary “...instrument of divine justice and punishment…” because “...we would expect a holy, just and powerful God to demand punishment for sin…”
He goes on to say that “...perhaps our imagination has been so shaped by the systems of power of this world that we can only imagine God as a mighty king offended by the sin of his subjects. Yet if we take the countless stories Luke shares about Jesus and, more importantly, Jesus' words about God and God’s kingdom seriously, then we might grow more accustomed to God doing the unexpected. God just forgiving us out of love rather than demanding satisfaction first. God acting more [like a] desperate parent than an angry monarch. God reaching out again and again in love and mercy rather than expecting retribution.”
What does this story tell us about God? About us?
I think it might be time for the Church to reconsider how we have historically understood the cross. Because somehow, it has never made sense that the same God who would run to their child in the story of the prodigal son, would require the sacrifice of their own child in an ultimate act of atonement for humanity.
Maybe we could stop using God as an explanation for real people succumbing to the powers of evil in this world. Our egos, our selfish desires, our need for control and order, our love of power and position. Excusing human decisions that led to putting a young man in his thirties, with a mother and friends who loved him, to death on the cross. We may think such a choice was one time in history kind of event, but as citizens of the United States, we witness men and women who are brown like Jesus die everyday due to those same powers of evil. How could such death ever be part of God’s dream for this world?
Where do we go from here?
We learn to live with our corporate brokenness. The death of Jesus, or anyone else, never lay with just one person or institution. We live together in a society, in community. We share mutual care and responsibility for one another. This means the weight of the world is never just ours to bear - it is our collective, communal responsibility.
We learn that all we can control is our own selves, how we will greet each moment, how we will relate to God, and how we will partake in our common life.
We await the Good News that we know is coming. Because our God is a God of endless second chances. There will be joy, love, grace, and forgiveness. Right now, all we can do is sit in this moment, together, living with our questions. Amen.
On Sunday Steve spoke with us about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: it had powerful symbolic associations for Jesus’ Jewish community. The supper we remember tonight is equally laden with powerful associations for the early Christian community who remembered and re-told the story of Jesus’ passion, and who struggled to understand its meaning in the light of his death and resurrection, and in the context of their relationship with God.
It was not just a meal that Jesus shared with his disciples: it may well have been the Passover Seder, or if not, was a sabbath meal shared in close proximity to the Passover celebration. The Seder meal, which is still practiced by Jews throughout the world, recalled the liberation of the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt, some twelve hundred years before the Last Supper.
We can assume that Jesus and his disciples included at least some of the traditional rituals of the Seder –
As we heard in our first reading tonight, the Exodus story tells us that the Hebrew slaves were able to leave Egypt because of the final plague with which God afflicted their Egyptian overseers, in which the firstborn of every household was struck down by the Angel of Death passing over the land. According to scripture, God called for a lamb to be sacrificed by each household, and the blood of the lamb was to be put on the doorposts of the houses: when death then passed through the land, the homes of the Hebrew slaves would be spared, and while the Egyptians were in disarray because of the plague of death, the slaves would be able to escape.
It seems clear that as Jesus’ followers recalled the events of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, after his death, resurrection, and ascension, and as they struggled to understand his perplexing choice to submit to crucifixion, the imagery of the Passover story that figured so prominently in his final gathering with his community provided them with a means of understanding. They came to see Jesus’ death in the light of the sacrifice of the Passover lambs, whose blood saved their ancestors from death: just as the Paschal or Passover lambs’ death saved the people of Israel and brought them freedom from bondage, just so Jesus’ death saved and brought the new Israel freedom from the bondage of sin and death.
John tells us that “Jesus knew his hour had come to depart from this world,” and that “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John tells us that Jesus was making a choice. Jesus knew that his friends still did not really understand his life or his actions or the truths he taught, but he had given them enough that, in time, through faith and the presence of the Spirit, they would come to understand. His final gifts came in the form of the two commandments conveyed to the disciples at that supper in the upper room.
The first is the gift of the eucharist (from the Greek eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving”). Jesus commanded his followers to remember him in the sharing of the bread and the wine. The breaking of the bread in that context, and with the words with which Jesus described his action, must have been very powerful for his friends. You’ll recall that after his death and resurrection, two of his disciples met a traveler on the road to Emmaeus. The traveler walked with them, reflecting to them on the meaning of scripture, and although they marveled at his insights, they did not recognize him. The traveler agreed to join the disciples for supper afterward, and it was only at the moment when he broke the bread for the meal that their eyes were opened and they recognized him as the risen Christ.
The sharing of the bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus self-giving love has been practiced by Christians since the first days of the church, and it remains the means by which we touch and are touched by that love every time we come to God’s table: it is a profound gift indeed.
Jesus second gift/commandment came in an action that shocked his disciples. During the supper he garbed himself in a towel and began to wash their feet. Foot washing in that culture was considered to be an act of such humility that servants were not even required to carry it out if they didn’t wish to do so. That the one whom the disciples knew as the master and teacher should take on this role was incomprehensible to them, and Peter initially voiced his refusal to have any part of it.
Jesus response was clear and explicit: his action was an example of how they should love one another.
Jesus’ act in washing the disciples’ feet clearly called them “out of their comfort zone,” as the popular phrase goes. Jesus was once again turning their expectations upside down. The disciples were still fixed on their hopes for glory. They had not objected, it appears, to being sent forth as preachers and healers. They must have felt gratified by being in the inner circle with the one who was being hailed as the Anointed One. But this was something unexpected, something uncomfortable, even unacceptable, that the Master should actually take on the role of personal servant.
Just as Jesus chose to exercise his love and spiritual wholeness in an act of humble service to the disciples, they, and we, are called serve the needs of one another.
Jesus actions back up his words – that caring for others is not a matter of having the right sentiment, and not just for when it is comfortable, or convenient, or easy. Jesus reminds us that love is not about pats on the back in which we help one another to feel good – it is about getting down where it is personal, and intimate, and sometimes even messy and unpleasant.
Tonight we recall Jesus’ Last Supper in actions as well as words. In a few minutes we will have the opportunity to take Jesus’ commandment literally, and to wash one another’s feet. We will also take part in the ritual of anointing that Bishop Doug has introduced. In the Eucharist we will once again re-enact Jesus’ Passover meal, remembering his love and his courage.
We are set free and we are healed by Christ’s love.
Nurtured by the sacrament and by the grace we receive in the community of Christ’s followers, may we be strengthened and inspired to become the lovers, the liberators, the healers of the world.
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