Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Every Sunday after the sermon, we rise together and say the Nicene Creed. Why is this important?
This ancient statement of belief was created in the early days of the Christian Movement at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.
At that time, there were still wide variations in practices and distinctly different understandings of the nature of God held by bishops in different localities. Bishops across the Church gathered for this special council, and at future councils, to sort through and articulate their shared common beliefs. These leaders made decisions about what would be considered 'officially Christian' and what would not.
It was not a perfect system. And given they were responding to particular teachings popular at the time, we may notice things in the Creed today that seem strange or even objectionable. Yet the Creed does not need our belief in every precise word to stand up on its own. You may be annoyed with one clause, or confused by another. You might change the gender pronouns, calling Father- Mother, Creator, or Parent; or refer to the Holy Spirit as she instead of he.
When we rise together to reaffirm our faith, we are rising together with other Christians across denominations and across time; those who have gone before us and those who have yet to come. That is part of the beauty of the Creed--not the exact words but the common experience of rising together and reaffirming our faith across time and place.
The Creed is also beautiful because it is an attempt by God’s children to articulate the mysterious relationship of the Holy Trinity. It is a bit like a young child’s drawing of their family. It’s imprecise and imperfect, if we are measuring it by artistic standards. Yet when you look at the drawing through the eyes of a loving parent--the drawing is a masterpiece ready to be hung and framed. Because in the drawing, your child gave it their all as they sought to understand their place and relationships in their family.
I imagine that is how God feels about the Creed. The Creed is the way we attempt to understand our place and relationship with the Holy Trinity. It is our imprecise and imperfect way of articulating what we hope we understand about the nature of God and the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Somehow our God is three in one and one in three.
The Creed tells a story about God the Father, “...maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen” (BCP p.358). It says the universe is good and is the work of a single, loving God who creates, sustains, and redeems (BCP p.846).
It is a story about God the Son, Jesus; in whom God literally becomes flesh like ours to show us the nature of God is love, love, love.
It is a story about God the Holy Spirit, where God is at work in the world and in the Church, even now.
In truth, we will never fully know or understand the inner and outer workings of the Holy Trinity.
So, I cut eight pages from my sermon....
Because in the end it is a mystery.
Yet we have experiences throughout our spiritual journey, where for a moment, we gain an awareness, a deeper knowing of God. A sense of clarity, peace, and love.
As a child, I found comfort and strength in the unconditional love of God the Father. My dad didn’t know how to be a parent or how to stick around, but this heavenly parent would never go away, and there was nothing I could do about it.
As a teenager, I felt like I was on a rollercoaster ride yo-yoing between good and bad choices, sometimes by the hour.
Yet I always felt heard, seen, and understood by Christ. In every teaching of Jesus, I could see it didn’t matter how worthless I might feel, Jesus was telling every single person, that might only half be listening, that we are valuable, we are worthy, we are loved. And once that news has sunk in, go and do likewise. Help others.
As an adult, I have felt the Holy Spirit guide decisions, big and small, over and over again. First would come prayer, giving God all the uncertainties, and then, eventually, a peace that surpasses our understanding. And even when there was not peace, a trust, that the Holy Spirit was with me.
In the church year, today is Trinity Sunday. It's when we sing all the best hymns. Once a year, we join St. Patrick of Ireland in picking up that three leaf clover as we try to gain a deeper understanding of the Holy Trinity. The Celtic tradition believes that all of creation is sacramental because God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer are in every living thing. God is right here with us, our Companion in this life and the next.
As we prepare to make our way back into the world today, I invite us to go deeper in pondering our relationship with our Companion.
Some possible questions for reflection:
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
Confession: I get impatient with church buildings and campuses, which can so often become idols that distract us from following Christ. And yet, this past Monday, my heart leapt into my throat when I learned of the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France. At the time it was still unclear whether the church could be saved. News and social media outlets exploded as people shared their pictures and stories of Notre Dame, as they mourned the potential loss of such iconic art and history. One friend said when the church’s spire fell, they were immediately taken back to the moment they saw the towers fall on 9/11. A former CNN correspondent, Frida Ghitis, wrote: “The massive, majestic cathedral looked like it had been there forever, and would remain until the end of time. If only for a moment, Notre Dame ablaze reminded us that we all share this world; that human history means everyone’s past.”
It is easy to forget that we are all connected as one human family woven into God’s creation. It seems as though it takes tragedies, wars, plagues, and feelings of outer darkness to remind us that we are in this life together, that we share a common history, and that any suffering and pain in this life is a burden we are meant to carry together.
Good Friday is just such a day. Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, beaten in prison, tried, and executed.
I’m not convinced it had to be that way or that it was by God’s design.
How easy it is for us, both then and now, to play the blame game:
Well, it was Judas, his own disciple who betrayed him…
...or, it was the Pharisees’ fault for being so resistant to change…
...it was really the temple police’ inability to stand up to their bosses…
...it was Annas, after all he sent Jesus to the high priest for further interrogation…
...no, it was Caiaphas; he is the one that suggested giving the Romans a scapegoat…
...well, really it was Peter, how could he have ever denied Jesus not once, not twice, but three times…
...actually, at the end of the day, it was Pontius Pilate who gave the order…
...or it was the soldiers, after all, they are the ones that crucified Jesus…
...or it was the disciples who scattered in fear…
This list could go on, and on.
At the end of the day, there is no one person responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Nor, do I believe, that it was the plan of God to send his only beloved and precious child to the cross, as some final sacrifice that would allow the atonement practices of old to be fulfilled.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is known for saying, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” We also heard him say at the revival that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather selfishness. The opposite of love is not hate, but rather selfishness.
It makes much more sense to me, that the cross is not some perfect plan of restitution, but rather the result of our shared human selfishness. Every single person that I mentioned who played a role on the way to the cross, at some moment in that journey choose themselves over love. Love was just too great a risk to bear.
Yet those folks are not alone. Each of us at different times, has chosen ourselves over the greater well being of others. We have played it safe, we’ve taken the path of least resistance, we’ve done what we needed to do to survive. Yet those actions have also caused harm to those around us. Anytime we are selfish, there is a cost. Jesus of Nazareth’s execution was not any one person’s fault. It was the result of our shared human family choosing selfishness one too many times.
On this day, we remember the way of the cross. We remember an arrest, beating, trial, and execution of an innocent man who simply wanted us to choose love instead of selfishness. It is a tall ask, and it is our calling to wake up tomorrow morning and do everything in our power to choose to live a life of love day in and day out. So that we may share the light bearing, life changing, love and hope of God into our world and that we might draw upon that love as our human family faces tragedies, wars, plagues and feelings of outer darkness. Instead of letting those things overwhelm us, fear and shame us into complacency and inaction, we are being asked to choose the way of love.
As we prepare for tomorrow, about what it means to choose the way of love, let us remember what the great poet and priest, John O’Donohue wrote about resurrection:
“When the cross hits your life, a loneliness, a blindness and a darkness come all around you. Darkness and lostness are the worst parts of suffering. The wonder of the Resurrection is that this darkness was opened out and at the heart of the darkness a secret light was discovered. Each one of us who has come here hasn’t come to this place out of curiosity but we have come because we know the need that is in our lives and we know the frailty that is in our hearts and minds. We are strangers in the world. In our journey through life anything can befall us. It seems to be very difficult for us as humans to learn how to love, to learn how to let the fear and the resentment and the blindness fall away from us and to come into the special joy and peace and freedom of love. No matter how assured or competent we may feel, there is none of us who has not large territories of fear in our hearts, fear of sharing ourselves, of opening ourselves, of entering life. That is why we [will] come to an ancient holy place like this, before the dawn, to let the new tender light of the resurrection touch our helpless fear and transfigure it and open it into courage.”*
Let us come together tomorrow to find that secret light hidden in tonight's darkness. Amen.
*John O'Donohue from his Easter Homily at Corcomroe Abbey 1992. Included in "Walking on the Pastures of Wonder: John O'Donohue in Conversation with John Quinn".
By Rev. Heather J. Blais
It’s six days before the Passover, and you are on your way to Jerusalem. You stop a mile or so outside the city, in the village of Bethany, so you might have dinner at your friend Lazarus’ house. His sister Martha, known for her hospitality, has prepared a beautiful meal. One of Lazarus’ friends, Jesus of Nazareth and his inner circle of followers, are also at the table. As you break bread together, Lazarus’ other sister, Mary, retrieves a jar of what looks to be costly perfume and sits down at Jesus’ feet. She begins to anoint his feet with perfume, and then wiped them dry with her hair. It seems a profoundly intimate thing to do; it was almost as if she was anointing his body for burial. Then things grew even more uncomfortable when another guest, Judas Iscariot, challenged Jesus as to why he was allowing Mary to waste such an expensive jar of perfume on him, when they could have sold it for three hundred denarii and helped the poor. You consider stepping out for some fresh air while these folks sort out their business, when Jesus says something that stops you in your tracks. “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:7-8).
What ends a dinner party faster than discussions of religion and politics? Death. Just as none of the guests at Lazarus’ table wanted to keep talking after Jesus spoke of his nearing death, our culture avoids looking at our own mortality head on. Instead we are inundated with messages from social media, news, medical professionals, and friends that tells us the things we must do to maintain our youth. And since it feels good to feel young, we buy in, often hook, line, and sinker. Yet, that is not what our faith asks of us.
Have you noticed that starting with Ash Wednesday, the readings in Lent have been focused on our mortality?
This theme continues today and all the way through Holy Week. We are being asked to consider our own mortality, to grapple with what it means to live well and to die well.
I hope that every week we leave here with a renewed sense of how we are called to live as followers of Christ. There is a reason you hear us end so many worships with, “My friends, life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us...” There is no time to waste. God is inviting us to live well now, as there are no guarantees of tomorrows. We have this day. We have right now. How will we live a life of love? Yet as important as living well, is planning well for our death.
In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer on p.445 is a little known instruction that asks parish priests to talk to their community about planning well for death. It reads as follows: “The Minister of the Congregation is directed to instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.”
According to the Diocese of California, 50% of Americans die without a valid will, and allow the state courts to distribute their assets however the state thinks best. They also note that spring is a common time to write wills because of upcoming summer travels. I think it also makes sense that we would think about making wills, planning our burial services, our healthcare wishes, and any legacy gifts in the lead up to Holy Week. As we grapple with Jesus’ looming death, might we consider our own mortality.
A will or trust is a testament of our faith and values. Our will is one final chance to tell the people we leave behind what matters to us. It is a chance to ensure our children and loved ones are well cared for. It is a chance to give back to our faith community with a legacy gift. Alice Kells’ legacy gift allowed for the renovation of the lower level to include a three story lift, making our entire parish hall building accessible. Whitney Robbins’ legacy gift allowed for funds to sponsor our mission to the community, particularly Whitney’s Pantry. The John Whiteman and Richardson Trust made a legacy gift that subsidizes nearly 10% of our annual budget each year.
In my first year serving former St. James, we were celebrating our bicentennial. Our Stewardship Chair at the time, Dennis O’Rourke, asked that all of us become legacy givers, before we then ask the congregation to consider doing the same. On the church’s end, this meant we would fill out the legacy giving form. On Jason’s and my end, it meant we had to create a will. We met with Kate Downes, an estate planning attorney in Shelburne Falls. We made decisions about who would have guardianship of our children should something happen to us, we made decisions around our healthcare, we named our legacy gifts and our beneficiaries. It had been a task nagging at us since our eldest was born, and it was a relief to have this work done. In addition to estate planning, we made healthcare decisions, and used the church’s form to plan our burial services. Seven years later, Jason and I are now 39 and 35. We do not own a house, but we do have other small assets, and more importantly, we have children that need to be well cared for. My point is, you can neither be too old or too young to do this work. It is a gift for those you leave behind, and it is a testimony of your faith. It is a way for you to take seriously our call to live life well now, and plan for a holy death.
Admittedly, it can be overwhelming to do this planning.
My friends, remember that life is short, and we must live well now, and plan well for those we will leave behind. While this life may come to an end, eternal life in Christ will be the next chapter.
At the end of the burial service we say a prayer that holds the tension of living and dying well, together:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia (BCP 499).
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