A Sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday

By: Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector

09-18-Sunday-Service-8Matthew 28:16-20

Nine years ago, I was in a village in the middle of Tanzania with Buck, our two sons, and four other families. The friendships among us had begun when the husbands and fathers were fraternity brothers in Boulder, Colorado. I can say with almost absolute certainty that they never imagined that their friendship would someday lead them to a remote African village…with their wives and children…as part of a collaboration between some Episcopal dioceses in the United States and a diocese in Tanzania. But there we all were. God works in mysterious ways.

Like just about everywhere, education is the first ticket to a better life in Tanzania. Primary school itself is free, but families must buy the required uniforms and shoes. Like much of Africa at the time, Tanzania had been hit hard by the HIV/AIDs epidemic. One of the hardest hit demographics was young parents, and many children whose parents would have scraped together whatever it took to send their children to school were orphaned, often left to be raised by grandmothers who could not afford to buy uniforms and shoes. Under the collaboration between the American and Tanzanian dioceses, a church or other organization would partner with a village to provide the necessary support for children who would not otherwise be able to go to school. People within the villages decided which of the village children most needed that support.

Our five families had agreed to provide the support for the children in one of those villages, and that day nine years ago, we were there for the announcement of which children would be able to go to school. You cannot imagine the anticipation and excitement. Everyone in the village gathered, and as the names were announced, there were whoops of delight and tears of joy, and great pride as the children received the uniforms, shoes, and big bar of orange soap that their families otherwise could not afford.

At the conclusion of the big announcement, we all moved into the church for a service of thanksgiving. The church itself reflected the circumstances of the people in the village: concrete, with no electricity, and well-worn wooden benches that served as pews. As we were ushered to places of honor at the front of the church – at least at one level – we couldn’t help but feel pleased at the part that we had played in making these people’s lives better and more hopeful.

And then the most amazing thing happened. Our five families were invited to stand at the front of the church as a procession of mostly grandmothers began walking toward us. Each of them was bearing a gift – a gourd, a sack of beans, a cloth, a little carving. Whatever it was, it would have required a sacrifice on their part, and as they began presenting their gifts to us, our first inclination was to say that we couldn’t possibly accept them.

But we were the guests, and accept them we did. And as we did, three things happened. First, we experienced the importance in any relationship of being able to receive as well as to give. We often hear that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but in any healthy relationship, giving and receiving are equally important…That led to the realization of the second thing that happened: once we were receiving as well as giving, the line between which was which blurred. We were giving children the opportunity to go to school…and receiving immense gratitude from the children and their families. They were giving us an appreciation of all the blessings of our lives…and receiving immeasurable respect for the dignity and tenacity and faith of their lives. We all shared an appreciation that the hopes and cares and dreams for our lives and our children’s lives have far more in common than not.

Which led to the third thing that happened…as we stood at the front of the church in the waning afternoon light in that exchange of giving and receiving, an incredible sense of joy and peace and love settled over all of us, an undeniable sense that whatever the differences in financial circumstances, language, and color, we were all one in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all one in the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.

Which brings us to today, which is Trinity Sunday, the day when we celebrate the mystery of God as one being manifested in three ways; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Like all great mysteries, it is impossible to fully explain. Thankfully for me, Matt gave it a good lick a few weeks ago. If you weren’t here to hear his sermon on the that day, I commend it to you, and you can listen to it on our website. I doubt that you’ve ever heard the Trinity explained before in terms of a misadventure involving a reservoir tower, an SUV, and a flooding creek.

Or that you’d immediately jump to a comparison between Matt and his college buddies at the reservoir and us and our friends at the village in Tanzania. But for all of us, the mystery of the Trinity is revealed in what we do rather than simply what we accept on faith. Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples merely to believe, and, in fact, some of them doubted. But without rebuking their doubts, he declares his authority and commands them to go and do, to baptize and to teach. And he promises that he will be with them always.

We are all heirs of that Great Commission to go and do…and to remember that God is with us always in ever changing ways. As baptized Christians, we are all called to a way of life, and wherever we are, each of us is called to go and do and remember, in relationship with God and one another, whatever our path may be. Next week, our path will lead Buck and me back to that village in Tanzania. Amid the countless ways that our lives and the lives of the people of that village are different over the past nine years, an awareness of God’s ongoing presence has transformed even the lesson of giving and receiving.

But we do not have to go to a village in Tanzania to realize God’s transforming presence. Whether you are a child, a spouse, a parent; a banker, a builder, a student; an artist, a fraternity brother, a community volunteer; or anything else that you are and in any combination, you are called to do that as a child of God in relationship with other children of God and with an awareness of God’s presence among you. Contemplate that, explore it, and celebrate it. We are all one.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

By: Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Matthew 5:38-48

The night of September 11, 2001, our church – like so many others throughout the country and the world – had a special service. There was a lot that we still didn’t know that night, including just who had attacked us and if they might do so again. In the face of so much shock and uncertainty, it was amazing how many people’s instinct was to go to church. People came in droves. Together, we sang hymns, and heard familiar scripture, and said prayers…including for our enemies.

For one particular man, it was simply too much. He jumped up and walked out, his head shaking in disgust and his heels clicking loudly down the long aisle. Who could blame him?

I think of that night and that man whenever I hear today’s gospel. It’s what I call a “Yes, but…” gospel. We all know the ones…the ones that, even before we finish hearing or reading the words out of Jesus‘ mouth, we start making excuses for why it doesn’t apply to specific situations in our lives. For example, if someone says to me, “Do not resist an evildoer,” I immediately think “Yes, but not someone who is trying to harm me or my husband or one of our children,” or on a larger scale, “Yes, but not someone is attacking our country.” Similarly, when I hear, “Love your enemies,” I think “Yes, but not someone who has deeply hurt me or someone I love.” “Yes, but not someone who has caused real grief, pain, or suffering.”

The hard part is that Jesus doesn’t give us that out. His “yes, but…” has the opposite effect. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ Yes, “but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Jesus makes it harder, not easier.

But when we can hold off on the “Yes, but…” long enough to think of the possibilities if we do it Jesus‘ way, we’re challenged, yes…but also opened up to possibilities that are much greater than where we wind up if we simply go right to the place of “Yes, but…” Wrestling with the import of what Jesus is saying forces us to look at ourselves and our motivations, the people who are affected by what we do or don’t do, and the fruits of what a different way of doing things might be. It pulls us out of ourselves and asks us to discern where God is calling us and those around us, what creative alternatives Jesus‘ example might provide, and where what has thus far been a problem can become the seeds of a solution.

I think this was sometimes hard even for Jesus. Matthew and Mark both recount the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman who begs him to heal her daughter who is possessed by a demon. At first, he simply ignores her, but she keeps begging him. His disciples urge him to send her away, so he tells her that he is only sent to care for fellow Jews and that it would not be fair to take what is theirs and give it to her. He actually refers to the Jews as children and the Gentiles as dogs. But she persists, and he is compelled to see her in another way, to extend his ministry of healing to her and her daughter, and as a result to expand the notion of who is part of God’s kingdom.

It’s easy to love those who love us and feel at home with those who are like us. It’s often satisfying to fight back against those who hurt us. Living that way may well result in lives that are successful and even admirable in many ways. For some of us, that’s enough, and we’ll find plenty of company saying, “Yes, but…” Yet most of us are here because we yearn for something deeper, something different, something more. However difficult the message, we know in our hearts and souls that it propels us to a truth that is greater than anything we can come up with on our own.

Remember, that to most of the world who were witnesses to his life, Jesus was a failure. His message was ridiculed, and he died a petty criminal’s cruel death. His disciples clung to his message and the promise inherent in his resurrection by the skin of their teeth. Within 40 years, many of them had been martyred as painfully as Jesus, and the whole lot of them was kicked out of the faith in which they had been raised. Yet, here we are today. Not because Jesus’ followers prevailed by fighting back, but because they persisted in seeking the way of Jesus.

So resolve to follow where the commands of today’s gospel can lead you. Several weeks ago, at the Diocesan convention, one of the most captivating features was a panel discussion among a Muslim member of the faculty at Virginia Theological Seminary and one liberal and two conservative Episcopalians. As you would expect, there was plenty that the four people did not agree about. But they listened respectfully to one another and found a surprising amount of common ground. What we all witnessed were the possibilities that opened because they were willing to listen to one another. In this fractured time, what could be more healing than simply acknowledging and listening to someone who has a different viewpoint?

So engage in a discussion with someone whose political views are different than yours, and discover how much your concerns are the same even if you have different solutions. As many of you did when our CARITAS guests were here, share a meal with someone who is homeless and discover how much you have in common, particularly the hopes and dreams that you have for your children. Learn about the wide range of medical services that our outreach partner Goochland Free Clinic and Family Services provides and appreciate the challenges of health care for those who are uninsured. Join in the conversations that we’re having with our fellow Episcopalians in the East End, and see how our common heritage strengthens our ministries to ourselves and each other.

And pray, really pray, for someone who has threatened you or distressed you or simply confounded you. As you pray, imagine where they live, what their house looks like, who their families are, and what circumstances led them to be or do whatever has brought you to the place where you are with them today.

This is, after all, what distinguishes us as Christians. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth has been a principle of civilized societies – no matter what their religion – for thousands of years. Jesus proposed something so radically different that we still struggle with it today, but so radically compelling that it’s why we’re here today.

Will our answer be yes? Or yes, but…?