Gifts of Love

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 6 – Year B – 14 June 2015

John Edward Miller, Rector 

 Bonum est confiteri 

It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD, * and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High;
To tell of your loving-kindness early in the morning *  and of your faithfulness in the night season;
On the psaltery, and on the lyre, *  and to the melody of the harp.
For you have made me glad by your acts, O LORD; * and I shout for joy because of the works of your hands.

 The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, * and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.
Those who are planted in the house of the LORD * shall flourish in the courts of our God;
They shall still bear fruit in old age; * they shall be green and succulent;
That they may show how upright the LORD is, * my Rock, in whom there is no fault.            – Psalm 92:1-4,11-14 Page 720, BCP


Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples                       – Mark 4:26-34


The Collect

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

At this time of the year, when plant life is flourishing and when green is Virginia’s dominant color, the texts assigned for this Sunday are particularly meaningful. All four of today’s lessons are linked organic images taken from gardening, the cultivation of plants and trees, and the formation of life. These metaphors engage our senses and relate to the lush productiveness of springtime. They deal with the sowing of seeds, the planting of trees, the harvesting of fruit from orchards and fields of grain, and the renewal of God’s creation. The context of the biblical messages is all around us. We experience the fertile richness of this green season in gardens, forests, lawns, and vineyards, or in fundamental feelings of newness and revival of energy in personal and social life. This is the season when all things seem possible; it provides us with reminders that the potential for growth is as near to us as the soil beneath our feet, or the desires of the heart and mind.

But the scriptures do not see that potential developing automatically, coaxed to grow by an impartial nature, or simply by the sweat of the human brow. They proclaim the belief that God is the prime mover in the process; that God’s initiative precedes our action, and God’s guidance – like a persuasive allure – draws all life forward as soon as creation heeds the divine call. The organic images that Ezekiel the prophet, the psalmist, the Apostle Paul, and Jesus offer us today speak of God’s power to develop life and to transform it. They testify to the work of the Redeemer and Sustainer of life, as well as to life’s Creator. Those who recognize and receive this power know that they are answering a call to be more than they were able to be. And they give thanks for God’s providence, saying, “Be ye sure that the LORD he is God; it is he that hath made us and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.”[1]

That is to say, nothing that we design, or make, or accomplish is done on our merit alone. Creativity is God’s influence; our works are collaborations with the Lord and giver of life. There is an old harvest festival hymn, originally composed by a German poet, that expresses this truth. In translation it’s called “We plough the fields and scatter,” and it has become one of the most popular in English hymnals, including ours. If you’re a fan of the musical Godspell, you’ll recognize it as the song, “All good gifts”:

We plow the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand; he sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all his love.

 He only is the Maker of all things near and far; he paints the wayside flower,  he lights the evening star; the winds and waves obey him, by him the birds are fed; much more to us, his children,  he gives our daily bread.


We thank thee, then, O Father, for all things bright and good, the seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, and food;no gifts have we to offer, for all thy love imparts, and, what thou most desirest, our humble, thankful hearts. Refrain[2]

 All of this is good news for us. It is a word of hope meant for our embrace. Doing so ensures the incarnation of good among us, and the renewal of the world around us.

God has that kind of power. This not a matter of wishful thinking. It is real, and it is continually happening. We have seen evidence of it; otherwise, we would not be here. We gather in recognition of the love that over and around us lies. And we give thanks for what God has wrought.

Today we celebrate a priest, pastor, mentor, and friend who has flourished where she was planted by God’s grace and her openness to it. Eleanor Lee Wellford came to St. Mary’s in 1998. She immediately got involved in our choir, and was soon received as a communicant of the Episcopal Church. Her talent as a chorister and enthusiasm for Anglican liturgy and music contributed to parish life. Her conversations with me concerning sermons and theological subjects were music to a parson’s ears. Her loyalty to this place and to us grew and grew. In short order, the vestry nominating committee sought her service as treasurer and as a key member of the finance committee.

Eleanor’s readiness to answer God’s call led to Union Seminary, where she completed a master of Divinity degree, and explored where God might be leading her. The process of discernment, education, and commitment to God’s guidance, beckoned her to make a major vocational change from a career in economics and finance to ordination in the Episcopal Church. Leaving behind a career marked with achievement and distinction, she became of postulant to holy orders. A year of Anglican studies at Virginia Seminary, Alexandria, meant commuting on the I-95 corridor (a test of faith, no doubt), and living away from home and family.

It was a very challenging experience, but it manifested her embrace of this new call to serve, and live her life to the fullest. After serving internships at two Richmond parishes, the time came for a call as deacon by a parish rector. By the grace of God I was the one who issued that call. And she became a clergywoman here, continuing to grow and change and learn alongside my professional colleagues and me, and in your midst.

Eleanor has been our associate rector for the past eight years. And we have been blessed by her gifts for ministry. In a few minutes representatives of the people who have had the benefit of Eleanor’s presence and leadership will speak about the impact she has had on them. But first, I will take this opportunity to say a few things about her.

Eleanor has always been eager to learn. She never once presumed that she could transfer authority from her former vocation to this one. Instead, she took me at my word when I told her to adopt Bishop Godwin’s[3] maxim, “Don’t try to exercise your influence until to have some.” Her ministry is marked with good listening, critical thinking, and intellectual vigor. She is organized, detail-oriented, and exceedingly efficient (e.g., her sermons were always written weeks ahead of delivery – and I’m not exaggerating). Eleanor is thorough in preparation and attains her own high standards; she never cut corners.

At the same time, she has maintained her openness to the new and the challenging. Her versatility and ability to innovate can be seen in her ease of transition through disparate roles as a priest. Beginning as a minister to children and parents, Eleanor also developed into an insightful preacher and graceful celebrant. She employed her administrative skills to serve as a coordinator of parish operations and associate rector. She built new programs and sought training to become an able mentor in Education for Ministry. Along the way, Eleanor was drawn to in-depth pastoral care, and served many of us as we struggled with loss and pain. She is the pastor and priest to whom I entrusted my own mother to the last, and who comforted my family and me as we grieved Mom’s death.

Eleanor’s approach to every ministry to which God has called her has been modest, humble, and unpretentious. She has been very generous with her time and her talents in support of our ministries. She is a traditionalist in the best sense of the word: one who preserves the best of the past, and hands it on to new generations with the hope of enhancing those good things for the future.

Eleanor is already embarked on a new form of ministry, a new incarnation of God’s love – shifting from parish ministry to the work of a certified pastoral counselor. Once again she has worked very hard to embrace the changing shape of her priestly calling – effectively doing two major jobs – balancing the work of parish ministry with the rigors of graduate study and counseling fieldwork. She has maintained her balance because she is committed to her vocation, and because she relies on God’s grace to see her through.

Eleanor’s journey has been sustained by worship in this beautiful space. The media of God’s abiding love are many here. But perhaps her eyes, like yours and mine, were drawn upward by the dance of colored light filtering through our stained glass windows. If you’ve been so attracted, you may have noticed that they are the only windows in New St. Mary’s that are not clear glass. The ones along the walls, like the great window in the sanctuary invite you to behold God’s creation as we worship, affirming in architecture the union of nature and grace. The arched shape of these windows points heavenward, indicating that God is the origin of this blessed union.

The transept windows, however, are round. Their shape reminds us of the sun, the light of God’s creation that enables growth and development of all life. The windows present us with two commentaries on the power of God’s grace. The eastern window picks up the rising sun, and in rays of brilliant light, speaks to us of the means of grace – God’s gifts of love radiating toward us in many forms. The western window, which catches the afternoon and evening light until sunset, shows us a central, receptive bloom, surrounded by growing vines connecting icons depicting the many effects of grace on us.

These are sermons in stained glass. They are central parts of the liturgical experience of praise, thanksgiving, and spiritual development at St. Mary’s Church.

Eleanor once worshipped alongside us in the pews, and then from the choir loft. In this very space she witnessed the grace of God affecting you and me, and she was drawn to God even more closely than before with us. We have seen God at work in her, and through her. Now we shed tears through smiles as we say, “Goodbye,” a contraction derived from the words, “God be with ye.” God has been and will be with you, dear Eleanor. It is marvelous to behold. Thank you for sharing your life with us. Godspeed and fare-well in this renewal of your ministry.

And may the Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; may the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon and give you his refreshing gifts of love from this time forth, and forever more. Amen.

[1] Verse two of the Jubilate, Rite I, page 45 of the Book of Common Prayer, 1979. The words of the canticle are from Psalm 100.

[2] “We plow the fields and scatter,” Hymn 291, The Hymnal 1982, Words: Matthias Claudius, 1782; trans. Jane Montgomery Campbell, 1861; Music: Wir pflügen. A shortened version of this hymn was used in the musical Godspell, which presented it as “All good gifts,” music by Stephen Schwartz, in 1971.

[3] The Right Reverend Frederick Deane Goodwin was the 9th Bishop of Virginia, serving in that ministry from 1944-1960.