The end of Lent

PaschaFIreRicardo77WikiIt’s almost here, the final darkness before the coming of the light, the brightness of the morning when the empty tomb was discovered. This evening, the new fire will be kindled, and bells will ring out in gladness.

That means that it’s almost two months since we decided on our Lenten disciplines, what to take on and what to give up. It’s time to consider how well I’ve done with mine.

There have been some successes in the first category. You’re reading the most public one. The Grace Prayer Network has been successfully revived, and in the originally intended form: Three former contributors besides me have returned, and a new one has been added. (If you’re interested, I invite you to contribute GPN meditations as well. Now that we’re going again, we want to continue, and having a variety of voices keeps things interesting.)

Giving up is harder for me; fighting ingrained habits takes more effort. It’s a small thing, and just one of several, but I’ve tried, for instance, to stop getting annoyed with other drivers, those who cut in front of me or poke along in the left lane. Getting angry over such small things hurts only me; let it go. That’s been a partial success, at least. Patience.

Now comes the greater challenge, keeping those small flames going and growing, and continuing all the disciplines I’ve begun. This isn’t like temporarily giving up chocolate or wine, and then plunging back into old habits (cheers!) on Easter Day. This involves a change in the way I live. It requires the discipline to continue to sit down and find thoughts and words worth sharing, even when the numberless distractions of modern life attack. It requires the calm to put aside annoyances and focus on what’s important.

Keeping the fires fed can be difficult at times, but the light and warmth will be worth it. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller






Sermon notes: The other certainty

ascension_Mantegna_wikiSERMON NOTES, EASTER 7, YEAR C (Preached at Grace Church/Kirkwood, May 12, 2013, the week before the parish merges with St. Matthew’s/Warson Woods)

There are those who say that there are only two things certain in this world: Death and taxes. I’d add a third to the list: There will be change.

A lot has changed in my life since I preached my very first sermon from this pulpit, more than a decade ago. My mother died, and my father moved into independent living. My daughters are now young adults. I’m divorced. I’ve had breast cancer, twice.

A lot has changed at Grace, too. Since I was a member here, you’ve said goodbye to one rector and welcomed a new one. Some of the friends I knew here have moved away, or died. And an even bigger change will take place next week, on Pentecost, when Grace merges with St. Matthew’s.

When I was a teenager, I watched breathlessly with the rest of the world as the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. I talked about it with my great-aunts, born in the 19th century, and about all of the change they’d seen.

They went from horse-drawn carriages to the first automobiles to the age of the Interstate. They lived in a house converted from gas lighting to electric, and they weren’t children when they got their first telephone. They saw major changes come about in attitudes about women and racial relations.

For the longest time, I thought that their generation must surely have seen more change arrive more rapidly than any other in human history.

Now I’m not so sure. Now I think that distinction might actually belong to our own time, as changes, in technology – consumer, medical, military, and more – and in attitudes seem to arrive at the speed of light.

In recent weeks we’ve heard about how the disciples experienced a quantity and quality of change that would set even our adaptive heads spinning.

Some of them joined Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry, and have followed for the three years since. Some of them joined later, called to follow this teacher, this miracle-worker, this friend.

Jesus has warned them along the way that it’s a harder path than it might have seemed early on. In the days and weeks leading up to the entry into Jerusalem, he’s become more and more open about who he is, and about what’s coming. In the gospel reading we just heard, he concludes the long passage known as the Farewell Discourse. The next chapter records his arrest.

We have lived those changes along with the disciples in the last eight weeks: the grief and fear of Jesus’s trial and crucifixion, the joy of the Resurrection, the understanding that gradually came about as the risen Lord appeared to his companions.

Thursday was Ascension Day, the most-ignored mandatory feast day in the Church calendar, when Jesus led his followers out of the city, gave them instructions, blessed them, and, says the Book of Acts, “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

They will not see him again in this life. They are preparing for new roles. Those roles will become dramatically clear to them and to everyone within earshot next Sunday, on the Feast of Pentecost. From there, they will experience change which they could not have imagined, world-altering change in every sense.

Next Sunday Grace Church will also experience major change, when you merge with St. Matthew’s.

Both parishes have done all the right things: months of careful, Spirit-led discernment and discussions of what will change and what will remain the same: the name of the chapel will change; the name of the parish will not; and, at long last, Grace will have a patronal feast day as you adopt St. Matthew as your own. Congratulations! the Sunday closest to September 21 promises great weather for a parish picnic.

Both parishes have had tremendous leadership throughout the process, but there will still be areas of difference and disagreement. There will still be times when some will say, “But we’ve always done it this way,” and others will respond, “But we’ve never done it that way.”

Just remember that change is not only inevitable, it is necessary. We must adapt to it: If a shark doesn’t keep swimming, it dies. The trick is to guide the change where we can, so that it becomes a blessing to us and to all we meet.

Given the circumstances, I think the readings for today are highly appropriate. That’s especially true of the gospel reading, John’s recounting of Jesus’s farewell prayer.

He prays not only for the disciples listening to him there, but for all of us who will come to believe through their witness.

“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. … Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

In the weeks and months to come, the people of the new Grace will become truly one. The change won’t always be easy. There will be challenges – another certainty! – and some of them will come as a surprise.

But the opportunity is here to be a blessing, to one another and to the wider community. The opportunity is here, with the many gifts that you have been given, to make God’s love known to each other, and to the world. The opportunity is here to live Jesus’s prayer.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Change

SERMON NOTES: EASTER VI, YEAR A (Preached at 8 and 10:30 a.m. at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, May 29, 2011)

It’s a cliché that nothing is certain in this life but death and taxes. I would add a third certainty to that list: There will be change.

Some change will be for the better. Some will not. Some of it will be natural and organic in the way in which it unfolds. Some change will come as a surprise, even as a shock.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is preparing his followers for change. Jesus is going away, but he promises to send another to comfort, guide, and and serve as advocate.

The disciples had already experienced major transformation in the three years of Jesus’s public ministry. They were drawn into something far greater than themselves. They saw and took part in miracles. They sat at Jesus’s feet and absorbed his teachings. They witnessed the power of God first hand.

As a result, by the time we see them here, the disciples themselves have changed and grown spiritually. But it will not be until after Jesus’s ascension that they emerge as preachers, teachers, and spiritual leaders in their own right. In order to continue in their relationship with their master, they must accept major, life-altering change – and there’s plenty more to come. In time, the faith nourished in that upper room will alter the world.

Change has been speeding up in the last few centuries. My great-aunt Eleanor was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1894, and died in 1990. I have long marveled at the change that she and others of her generation saw, surely unrivaled in human history: from horse-drawn conveyances and rutted roads to automobiles zooming along on superhighways, from the clumsy biplanes that her eldest brother flew to jets, from a world in which families made their own entertainment to one in which you can hardly get away from the sounds and images that others have made.

She went from a world with a strict, rigid social order to one which strove for equality. She lived to see men walk on the Moon.

I used to think that no generation had ever seen so much change as hers. Lately, I think that our own may rival hers when all is said and done.

The changes now come so fast that it’s hard to keep up with them. In Aunt Eleanor’s time, change most often came in the form of mechanical progress; in ours, it comes in the instantaneous and widespread dispersal of information.

When I started writing professionally, the primary tools of the journalist were words and facts, carefully assembled and edited.

Today, my colleagues and I are expected to tweet, blog and make professional-quality videos; mere writing skills won’t cut it anymore. Most people spend a large portion of the day glued to various glowing screens that Aunt Eleanor could not have imagined. There has been immense, sweeping change in just 20 years.

The Internet has spread both valuable knowledge and conspiracy theories. It has made it easier both to share the gospel of Christ, and to pervert it. We can praise others or defame them anonymously. We can share our innermost thoughts with the world; we have lost most of our privacy.

Not all change is so sweeping. Most of it is on a smaller scale, more incremental, but still of enormous import in our own lives. The seasons bring new rhythms. A child goes away to school, or launches herself into the adult world. A job is lost, or gained. Families are built, or broken. We move up to a larger house, or scale down to something more manageable.

Change is, however, inevitable in this world. A shark must keep swimming or die. We must react to new challenges.

The Church feels change as much as any other institution. Our own parish is now undergoing a new trial with the retirement of a beloved rector, and the long, just-beginning prayer-filled task of finding a worthy replacement.

In one sense, it’s an old task, something that the people of St. Peter’s have tackled many times before. In another, it’s always a new one. The congregation, the community, and the world never stand still.

But for all the changes that we have experienced and will continue to experience, there are things that never alter.

First among these is God. Our perceptions and understandings change, but never God, unchanged and unchanging, the same today and tomorrow.

The disciples learned that. The nature of their relationship with Jesus changed, but not the love they shared with him. After the crucifixion and resurrection, their understanding of him changed. And they could not receive the Holy Spirit until Jesus’s ascension.

Their experience shows us the importance of being open to changes and challenges, and, especially, of listening to the Spirit and following where God leads. To ignore them means stagnation; to rise to them will fulfill us as God’s people.

Lord, you have promised that we will live in you and in your love. Lead us in your paths and guide us, even when the way seems strange, to the glory of your name. Amen.

Changes under the surface

I’m sitting at my small computer in my room at Walsingham, looking across the gardens at the shrine church. It’s a raw late winter day, with dark clouds hanging over the leafless trees behind the church; the shrine gardens, so exuberantly filled with flowers in the summer and autumn, are immaculate but bare, with only a few spikes and tufts of leaves pushing up in the well-raked borders.

It’s a little odd being here out of the pilgrimage season; the normal weekly cycle of services hasn’t started yet. There’s just the daily cycle that goes on throughout the year: eucharists first thing in the morning and early evening, and the daily shrine prayers where people who’ve sent requests for intercession from all over the world are prayed for.

And still the sense of holiness and peace is as potent as ever, even without the crowds of people and the constant activity in the shrine. There are a couple of parish groups here and some students from a theological college, and then a few stray people like us, just here for a few days of tranquillity.

Under the surface, though, things are changing. Three of the sisters from the convent next door have left to be received into the Ordinariate, the enclave within the Roman Catholic Church where disaffected Anglicans are promised they can retain their “Anglican patrimony”.  One of them spent a lot of her time in the shrine working as a sacristan, and it’s strange not to see her there any more. Who will replace her when the pilgrimage season begins and the church is busy again? Wherever she is now, does she miss Walsingham and her former tasks? It’s easy to be slightly melancholy, especially on a damp grey day when spring seems to be dragging its feet.

But there are other signs of change too. The shrine is one of the bastions of the traditional wing of the Church of England, unwilling to accept the ministry of ordained women, or in some cases even to accept that they can be ordained at all. I wondered whether I detected a first small crack when I read that membership of Walsingham’s society of priest supporters is “currently limited to male priests in communion with the Church of England”, which seems to accept that such beings as female priests exist too, even if right now they‘re still beyond the pale.

Perhaps I’m being too optimistic – but some changes are for the better, and spring is coming, and Christians are people of hope. God sends his word, Psalm 147 reminds us, and it melts ice and snow; he stirs up his breezes, and the waters flow again.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins