A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

By: David H. May, Rector


Some years ago, I read a piece of research on the make-up of the Episcopal Church that indicated that probably only about one if five people in the pew on a Sunday morning in an Episcopal Church is what is called a ‘cradle Episcopalian’. A ‘cradle Episcopalian’ is someone who was born and raised in the Episcopal Church. I was surprised by that but over the years I’ve seen that that’s probably true. So, if you are here this morning, and you were raised in a Baptist household, or Roman Catholic, or Methodist, or even no church at all, and you think everyone here but you knows what’s going on with the Prayer Book and when to sit and when to stand or kneel, or wonder why some people cross themselves and others don’t, well, you are probably in the majority. Take heart, you are not alone!

I’m a ‘cradle Episcopalian’, for what it’s worth. I was baptized in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Tacoma, Washington when I was about three weeks old. My mother was raised a Methodist and my father an Episcopalian, and they raised us four children going to the local Episcopal Church pretty much every Sunday. Being a ‘cradle Episcopalian’ doesn’t give me a leg up on anyone. It only means that I have a sense of what can be beautiful about our tradition and what can be a ‘stumbling block’ to faith.

If you were not raised in the Episcopal Church, one of the things you should know about our peculiar expression of the Christian faith is that we are great lovers of tradition, even if we may not know exactly what we mean by that. You can hear this when older Episcopalians talk about how much better the 1940 Hymnal was than the current one – although there were just as many unsingable hymns in that collection as there are in the current edition as far as I can tell. Or we talk about the 1928 Prayer Book and how it was much superior to the current Prayer Book. What we often mean by that is that we love the language of the old Prayer Book, so you’ll hear us talk about things like Rite I and Rite II.

The traditions of expressing Christian faith that are handed from one generation to the next can be a life-giving means to show us a path to follow and unite us with the living faith of those who have gone before us. Of course, it can also be an empty vessel. There have been great battles in our tradition over what clergy should wear on Sunday morning or whether lighted candles should be on the altar. I’m sure there was something important at the time about such arguments, but they belong to a different day and a different people. I couldn’t be less interested at this point frankly.

At its best, it has been said, tradition is the living faith of the dead, not the dead faith of the living. And that is what is at stake in the reading from the Second Letter to Timothy. By the time this epistle was written, the first generation of followers of Jesus have gone to glory, or mostly, and we are now onto the second and even third generation. So what people were worried about was the question of whether the newer generations were losing touch with the living tradition that they had inherited. What’s important to remember about those early generations of Christians is that even though there were songs that people sang and rough worship forms that people followed, there was nothing like the Prayer Book and there was nothing close to a summary of the Christian faith like we have it in the Creeds. What they mostly had was each other and their stories about Jesus and what they had learned from those few generations that had gone before. The faith that Timothy had was what had been given to him by his mother Eunice and that she had been given by her mother Lois.

That we know their names, seems very precious and important. Living faith came to Timothy through the grace he saw shine through his own mother’s life and she from her mother’s life. Timothy had made the forgiveness of Jesus and his compassion his own because his mother had made it her own and had shown him what it looks like and how to live it. It is fine to talk about such things as forgiveness and compassion and justice and mercy. But better to be like Jesus or our own mothers and grandmothers and live it.

My own grandmother was a Methodist of the old tradition. The words of the Bible were poured into her from cradle to grave. That tradition seemed to me to be more interested in things you shouldn’t do than things you should do. So, you stayed away from alcohol, dancing, gambling, swearing and playing cards, among other things. Though there was a kind of strictness to her faith, somehow the way it worked in her spirit was to make her sweet and kind and compassionate and forgiving. Even in 1930’s and ‘40’s rural North Carolina, my grandmother would not allow vulgar, common words to be used about black people or poor white people. She said it was unchristian to speak that way about God’s children.

There were plenty of hardships in her life – just like all the rest of us – but there was one thing that stood out above the rest.

My grandmother had seven children: four boys and three girls. I knew and loved them all except for one, who died before I was born. His name was Neal and he was the youngest of the boys. My mother said that among the seven children, he was the most like their mother: quiet, kind, gentle, sweet.

When Neal was ten, he was playing up in a tree near the barn behind the house where they lived. The story is that somehow Neal fell from that tree and suffered a compound fracture in his arm. He was taken to the hospital but rapidly developed gas gangrene and within 48 hours he had died. I learned not too many years ago that after Neal died, my grandmother had put together all of Neal’s clothes and things – everything that had been his – and taken them to her church to be given to the poor. But I learned that she had kept one thing. She kept one of Neal’s windbreakers. She laundered it and folded it and wrapped it in tissue paper and put it into a chest in the living room.

I don’t know for sure, but I guess she just had to hold onto him with that one thing – his coat. Apparently, it stayed there in that dresser for decades, til one cold winter day. My grandmother was looking out the window of her home and saw a young boy walking down the street. He was only in shirt sleeves on that freezing afternoon. So, she hurried into the living room, took out Neal’s windbreaker and hurried outside. She called to the boy and put the coat on him, saw that it fit, and then went back inside. Knowing my grandmother, I wonder if somewhere in her soul she hadn’t heard her Savior’s word, saying, “give to anyone who asks…from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your coat as well”. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if his words and what she did with them didn’t bring a kind of healing that nothing else could.

The gift of where we come from – our tradition – matters. And it matters most in the living faith of Jesus – him for us and we for him – that has been handed on and entrusted to us by the gracious witness of those who have gone before. Our tradition has given us songs to sing and words to pray, and stories about Jesus to tell. Most of it is reliably written down for us – and when to stand and when to sit and when to kneel. But better still is the living faith that has been given us to write the story of the love of Jesus with our own lives. Amen.