Rev.Dr. Molly Scherm
Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday, as we do annually on the first Sunday after Pentecost, to reflect on and give thanks for the Trinity, our conviction that ONE God – the source, the creator, the power that infuses all life and redeems all life - is experienced in three forms, and yet is ONE God.
But this Trinity Sunday 2020 comes in the midst of what has to have been one of the hardest weeks we collectively have lived through in terms of the state of our world and our nation. A deadly virus continues raging, forcing us to isolate from one another and causing economic impact that will undoubtedly affect us for years to come. Those of us who are white have seen the veil ripped off of the broad and deep and ugly racial hatred that that is woven into the very fabric of our country, and we are, perhaps, beginning to truly acknowledge it: our black and brown siblings have never had the luxury of ignoring it. We’ve watched horrifying videos of violence by those we have trusted to protect us, and listened to rhetoric from our President that holds up domination and force as the appropriate way to peace and justice.
So in this context, what do we do with Trinity Sunday? Is it even relevant? Come along and let’s look for what wisdom we might find in our sacred texts.
Our first reading from Genesis - the very first words of Jewish and Christian scripture, making the claim that the whole world is the intentional work of our Creator God, and that it is orderly, and that it is good.
In this first creation story, which we believe to have been the creation of what’s called the “Priestly” author - which means it was written for use in worship - God’s creation of humankind is basically the crowning glory of creation.
The astounding claim is that
God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Today’s psalm likewise praises God for the unutterable majesty of the created world and echoes Genesis in marveling at the place of humankind within creation:
What are humans that you should be mindful of us? *
the children of humans that you should seek us out?
You have made us but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn us with glory and honor;
You give us mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under our feet.
The priests and the psalmist understand and share an understanding of God’s design, God’s intent, what Michael Curry calls “God’s dream” for the world – a reality in which the beloved children WHO ARE MADE IN THE VERY IMAGE OF THE CREATOR bear responsibility for God’s beloved world, and for one another. Taking it just a step further, in God’s design, God’s intent, the beloved children recognize and honor the image of God in one another.
When we acknowledge this and commit to it in our baptismal vows, we speak of seeking and serving Christ in all persons, of striving for justice, and of respecting the dignity of every human being. And, of course, this is where we have fallen short.
We, the Church, we the nation have not even caught a glimpse of what it might mean to live in the image of God. We have passively accepted a world in which some lives have not mattered as much as others, in which basic human rights have been denied to those who do not belong to the dominant majority.
We who live in this beautiful and peaceful corner of Western Massachusetts, we who are educated and housed and fed, who have good health care and access to the all of the things that allow us to thrive, but mostly, WE WHO ARE WHITE have the option of not worrying about those who are not, and who do not have the same advantages and protections. We can say “not my problem”, or “I didn’t choose this”, or at best, “there’s nothing I can do about it”.
I’ve spent some time this week thinking about my own culpability in not being more active in challenging the injustices that don’t touch me personally, and I think this is an important step in moving toward changing things, but I’ve also recognized that dwelling in my own white guilt is yet another way of making it about me, rather than listening to and caring about those who are suffering and figuring out what to do about it.
What I mean to say is that I believe the scripture we have heard this morning calls us to a very high calling. It says that in being made in the image of God, we have the capability of seeing the world as God does, and of caring for all of God’s beloved as God does, and of shaping our shared world for the benefit of ALL.
Injustice against any of God’s beloved IS OUR PROBLEM, and yes, WE CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. We are NOT powerless.
An important first step is educating ourselves. Heather wrote an incredibly important piece in our newsletter this week that I hope you have read and that I encourage you to save and read again at least a few more times. In it, she provides links to books, to discussion groups, and to anti-racism resources. Remarkably, my cable TV service, this week, is featuring films that explore the Black experience in America. This very morning Heather has posted a link on Facebook to sermons by Black preachers from the last week. These are good places to start, to move ourselves beyond complacency and complicity, toward living up to having been created in God’s image.
But there’s another scripture we heard this morning that I haven’t mentioned yet. And it’s important. It is a promise that Matthew tells us Jesus made in his last moments with his friends:
Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
This life we live, these huge challenges we face, these fears and confusion that disrupt and disturb us – we’re not alone in them.
(And here’s where I’m sneaking us back to the joy and the gift of the Holy Trinity.) The God who creates us in her own image, who entered our life to draw us to himself to then be lynched at the hands of those who sought to protect their own supremacy, who surrounds and sustains us, remains with us.
Our opening and closing hymn – one of my favorites, of course - offers us that image of God the three-in-one and one-in-three WITH US, protecting us and helping us.
The words of “St Patrick’s Breastplate” are a translation of Gaelic poem attributed to St. Patrick in the 3rd century, but probably, really, composed by an anonymous author in 8th. It’s also known as “St Patick’s Lorica”, a Lorica being a mystical garment that protects the wearer from danger.
The style of the hymn’s text is that of incantation, a spell cast using words, for protection on the journey.
It calls for “binding” ourselves through invocation of the “strong name of Trinity”, referencing St. Paul in Ephesians, who speaks of “putting on the armor of God.”
It promises us and invokes the presence of the Holy One:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
It is not easy stuff, these times we’re living through. We have hard work to do, and we must no longer settle for our own easy excuses. It is time to REALLY start building a world in which ALL of God’s children can live without fear, in which all can thrive.
Jesus has shown us a life lived as God intends for us to live. The Christ within and beside and before us can help us to live that life.
Let us pray.
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed
us through Jesus your Son:
look with compassion on the whole human family;
take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our
break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love;
and work through our struggle and confusion to
accomplish your purposes on earth;
that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve
you in harmony around your heavenly throne;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This week Heather and I went through another round of reflecting on and adapting the way in which we at Saints James and Andrew are worshipping God. The corona virus pandemic has changed our lives in so many ways, and among these is the way in which we function as the Church, the Body of Christ.
These last couple of months, figuring out how to move forward in a new set of circumstances, has stretched us is good ways, even as they have been painful and often exhausting. I think this is true for other aspects of our lives, and it has certainly been true for us as the Church.
Much of our concern as clergy has been around the outward and practical aspects of adapting worship:
Which media platform gives the best audio-visual results?
What do we have the technological capacity to use?
What’s going to be most accessible and comfortable for our members?
One thing we didn’t anticipate, as we embarked on this crazy and unsolicited corona virus adventure, was the degree to which managing worship in a pandemic was going to raise deep and complicated questions of theology – for us, and for the larger Church.
Beyond thinking about the outward and practical aspects of offering worship in a pandemic, clergy in the Episcopal Church, at least, have also been forced to think about how we understand the very nature of our worship:
How critical, really, is the centrality of the Eucharist in our worship?
What elements in the way we worship are necessary to make Eucharist happen?
Whose prayer matters in the Great Thanksgiving?
Does separation in space matter?
A few days ago we sent a message to you over email and social media to let you know about changes to our worship that we are beginning this morning, as a result of a Directive we received this week from Bishop Doug. I hope you’ve had a chance to read it. In it we wanted to offer explanation of why we are making changes in our worship yet again. During this service this morning, we also wanted to take the opportunity to dig a bit into the theological challenges that underlie these changes. So, please, consider this to be “Instructed Eucharist, Chapter two”. It is also an interesting case study in the way the Episcopal Church functions.
When the pandemic took hold and social distancing and stay-at-home directives were first issued, it was up to individual parishes to figure out how to worship; our first considerations, as I mentioned, were practical. Bishop Doug encouraged us to be pastoral in considering the needs of the community.
We adopted the practice of “virtual communion” for this parish, inviting members to receive the eucharistic bread and wine at home with the conviction that God would bless and be fully present in that bread and wine even though we were separated in space. Honestly, we knew that this practice was a bit “out there”, and was not something that had ever been given official sanction by the Church. We were not alone in taking this direction, either in the Diocese or in the national Church.
Concern and controversy about Virtual Communion quickly surfaced, as not all of the clergy of the church shared the view that Virtual Communion was an approach that ought to be accepted in the Episcopal Church at this time. (Virtual Communion was not the only practice drawing attention, by the way: other creative liturgical approaches were likewise up for debate.) Columns, blogs, podcasts and commentaries blossomed. Heather and I followed the conversation closely.
This week Bishop Doug informed us that, after considerable prayer and reflection, he was offering the Pastoral Directive that while we are unable to gather for worship as we would wish, we can practice any of four liturgical options. Virtual Communion is not among those four.
Receiving the Directive and figuring out what different approach to take actually provided a wonderful opportunity for the clergy and wardens of the parish to talk with one another about what we feel – as individuals, and on behalf of members of the parish – is most important and most meaningful for our worship. It wasn’t even remotely difficult to reach consensus on how we wanted to go forward, and so, as our letter explained, for the forseeable future under the quarantine, we will worship through a combination of Morning Prayer and Eucharist with Spiritual Communion.
So why is Virtual Communion not authorized? What’s wrong with it?
Basically, theologians have put forth the reasoning that physical gathering of the community of faith is critical to the celebration of the Eucharist. Embedded in this reasoning is the theological reasoning that it is the combined prayer of the people and the priest praying “in one voice”, that constitutes the Eucharist.
You’ll recall that in an earlier instructed Eucharist we spoke about the fact that it is through “the Great Amen” that comes at the end of the eucharistic prayer - which offers praise and thanksgiving, which invokes the presence of the Holy Spirit to bless the bread and the wine so that we might receive the presence of Christ – completes the prayer and confirms the unity of the Church in praying it.
Bishop Doyle of Texas points out that “The Episcopal Church has always held that the Eucharist is not an act done by the priest and received by the people; it is an act in which the Body of Christ, otherwise divided and separate from one another, are reunited with one another and with God.”
The theology of the Church, according to this reasoning, is that this kind of union and unified prayer simply cannot take place from a dozen – or a hundred – separate living rooms.
A second concern raised in relation to a Virtual Communion liturgy is the fact that the way we pray affects what we believe. Those who have taken Episcopal 101 will remind us of the maxim lex orandi, lex credendi: the words we say and the things we do in worship shape the way we think and understand our relationship with one another and with God.
A potential implication of embracing Virtual Communion is that, in the words of Bishop Mark Eddington, “We’re saying that people don’t need to gather, and that community is second to individual preference.”
Again, from Bishop Doyle:
When we hold to our Eucharistic theology, we are reminded that we are not meant for individual flourishing alone. We are meant for communal flourishing. We are not a group of individuals gathered to get our own needs met. Instead, we understand the corporate grace of salvation and the reuniting of God's created kin and family. We come to understand that without us, others may not receive what is needed. It is an awakening to the idea that when we are not present with each other, we are not whole.
To be truthful with you, while I respect the reasoning in all of these arguments and am moved by the sentiments, I don’t think we were wrong in adopting Virtual Communion. Equally compelling arguments in support of the practice have been offered by theologians for whom I have profound respect.
What I AM fully persuaded by is that we are part of a bigger whole – playing on a team, and not just doing what makes sense to us as a particular parish. It is a hallmark and, I think, the genius of the Anglican way that we discuss, and compromise, and work things through together. We’ve lived through this before - in relation to the ordination of women and the ordination and blessing of marriages of gay/lesbian/bi/transgender and queer persons. Frustrating as it sometimes is, we in the Episcopal Church don’t make quick or facile decisions. We believe that the Spirit speaks through the Church (and not into my own individual ear) and so we pray and discern and listen. And this frequently requires patience.
As it does now as we at James and Andrew transition to another liturgical practice. I absolutely believe that engaging in Spiritual Communion and Morning Prayer will provide us new insights and new spiritual growth. We need to open our hearts to the mysterious ways in which God continues to speak, among us.
Heather and I so much appreciate the support and patience that all of you have shown as we slog through this together. It will not be forever: we will be breaking bread together again in one place, praising God together, singing the music we love together, in God’s good time.
In the name of the living God.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
The gospel story from John’s gospel that we’ve just listened to is one we hear every year on this second Sunday of Easter. There are very few gospel texts that we hear every year, but this is one: the organizers of the lectionary cycle obviously consider this second part of John’s resurrection account to be very important.
We tend to think about this Second Easter gospel as being the story of Thomas – poor Thomas who gets such a bad rap and seems to be forever known as “Doubting Thomas”. This is what most of us usually preach on this Sunday, and in fact during the past week both Bishop Doug and Canon Rich Simpson have published reflections of Thomas and his concerns.
And the questions raised are good ones –
Why wasn’t Thomas with the others as they huddled together, locked in?
Was his questioning of his friends’ testimony of Jesus’ resurrection a sign of weakness, or of strength?
But as I dwelled on this story this week, my attention was more drawn to Jesus’ first appearance in the story, rather than on Thomas’ part in it.
Recall that it takes place on what we’d still call “Easter Day”, the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion. In our story, we find the disciples – except for Thomas, of course – gathered together: john tells us they were afraid. They had watched Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion, and then, as if that was not enough, that morning they had heard a fantastical story from Mary, John, and Peter that must have added to their shock and confusion.
And then, suddenly, Jesus stood among them. He offered them the greeting “Shalom”, a blessing that means not just tranquility, but a deep and holistic sense of well-being -- the kind of peace the world cannot give.
And Jesus then goes on to offer his last teaching, reminding them of the work to which he has called them: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
And here’s the part that feels so powerful to me this week: When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit”.
It’s the breath imagery. With thousands in the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world, literally struggling for breath to sustain their lives, the image of Jesus breathing on the disciples, breathing INTO the disciples the grace and presence, the strength and consolation of the Holy Spirit seems like exactly what they must have needed, exactly what WE all need.
And the breathing of sacred breath bringing new life is a reminder of another ancient story we know well, from the second creation account in Genesis:
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens,… the Lord God formed a human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.
New life animating a creature of the dust, of the earth – life that comes from the breath of the Creator itself.
The breath of Spirit that brings peace, that casts our fear, that gives direction to the frightened disciples.
And that breath of life of the Creator, of Jesus, of the Spirit – is in us as well.
We know how it impacted the disciples, how they went on to spread the word and change the world.
As we sit with those questions, I want to recall another story – one that is not so ancient, but which happened in our own lives. And it’s one that fits right in with our consideration of how the breath of the Spirit enables us to do more than we thought possible.
Three years ago, on the Second Sunday of Easter, the people of The Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew allowed the breath of God’s Spirit to enter and enliven us, to guide us forward into becoming a new parish family, to “cultivate a [new] community of love, joy, hope, and healing.”
Two smaller churches that were each, in their own way, struggling to maintain vision and to maintain energy opened themselves to new possibility and stepped forward in trust, becoming a new church. And the Spirit breathed into us. And I suspect that many of you recall, as I do, the indescribable joy of “Emerging Sunday”, a joy that has remained with us.
Today we struggle, again, with fear and anxiety in a world transformed by the corona virus pandemic. The questions we have been living with of “how bad will it get?” and “How long will it last?” are still with us, but new questions are being added as glimmers of hope emerge both in terms of slowing infection rates from Covid 19 and in promising new treatments.
We’re now wondering not only when and how we can safely enter a post-pandemic world, but we have to ask what that world will look like. Just as the disciples, changed after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension had to find the way forward, so too will we find ourselves changed and need to find new ways.
The disciples had to give up what had become a familiar life of traveling and ministering under the direction of their teacher Jesus. They had to let go of a messianic vision based on the triumph of power and glory, to embrace Jesus’ example of service and sacrifice. They had to trust the breath of Spirit to guide and sustain them as they faced new challenges and new hardships.
So as we look forward to a new world that we’ll be stepping into in the months ahead, we, also, need to be ready to let go of the familiar. We will have to learn new ways that we can’t even imagine right now.
I don’t think we’ll ever return to the same “normal” that we were accustomed to before Covid 19. Some of the sacrifices we’ve had to accept in recent weeks will end, but some will not. Hopefully, the losses we’ve endured during this terrible time will show us ways to be a better humanity, a more compassionate and just society. Hopefully we will have gained new perspective and be ready to set new priorities. Let us pray that we will allow the Spirit’s guiding and sustaining breath to give US wisdom and courage. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
This has been the strangest and hardest Holy Week we’ve ever seen: I’m sure we’ll remember it forever. The familiar rhythms of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, Maundy Thursday and today, Good Friday, have been disrupted and altered, as has everything else in our lives.
What I think, though, is that there’s a great blessing this Holy Week – a way in which it’s perhaps even holier than usual. In the normal Holy Week that we’ve been accustomed to, and that we miss, the events of Jesus’ last days, his last meal with his community, his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, as well as the confusion and fear of the disciples are stories we’ve watched from a distance – they’ve been a rich and powerful drama that moves us, but from a safe distance.
This year we’re living it – the fear and uncertainty, the powerlessness, the grief. This is why it’s been extraordinarily hard for me to prepare this Good Friday homily. I came in for last night’s service and told Heather that I’d been working for hours on my Good Friday homily and deleted, over and over, everything I wrote. I eventually realized that I couldn’t figure out what to say to help us think about Jesus’ death on the cross when we are surrounded by death in the here and now, and trying desperately NOT to think about it. Further, I wasn’t sure that asking us to think about Jesus’ death and what it means was what we most need right now.
So let me tell you a quick story of what’s on MY mind, and I know that all of you have similar stories. This is not a happy story either, but it’s what’s real. My daughter Wyatt’s a nurse, working for Pioneer Valley Hospice and Palliative Care. She got her training in the nursing program right here at GCC. She provides care for patients in the last stages of life and for their families – in both homes and nursing facilities.
Wyatt has a nursing school classmate whom she has stayed in touch with on social media, though they’re not close friends. They’re about the same age, have young children, and do similar in-home nursing care. Wyatt learned on Monday night that her friend’s husband died that day from Covid 19, pretty likely brought home by his wife, who now will be raising their two children on her own. Wyatt couldn’t bring herself to go into work on Tuesday, but she has done so since. She is, understandably, finding it very difficult.
So I said that I wasn’t going to ask you to think about Jesus’ death, but I do want to suggest some connections between that first Holy Week, that terrible-and-beautiful Good Friday, and what we’re living through.
I believe Jesus accepted and submitted to death on the cross to affirm that powerlessness and pain are part and parcel of this life we’re given, and that God does not protect or rescue us from it. But Jesus faced the ugliness and violence of Good Friday out of the deep love that is the nature of God, to show us that God’s love is stronger and more powerful than the worst ugliness and the violence that the world can dish out.
And the world is dishing out some pretty awful stuff right now, and I’m not just thinking of the virus itself, but of the selfishness and self-protection-at-the-expense-of-others that we’re seeing in some quarters.
But God’s love is powerfully present all around us, just as it was on the cross. It is God’s love that we see in the courage of medical personnel and first responders and grocery store workers who continue to do their jobs despite the risk. It is God’s love that fuels creative new ways of reaching out to those in need – making sandwiches and sewing masks – as well as tried-and-true ordinary ways that we can support one another with phone calls and notes. It is God’s love – not something outside of ourselves but something that lives in us – that is helping us to do the right thing - to stay home, to do without, to exercise patience and persist in prayer.
There will be resurrection. There will be renewal and new life. There will be Easter.
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