A Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 16, 2022

By: John Miller, Rector Emeritus

 

On a hot, rainy August afternoon in 1984, shortly after I became the rector of St. Mary’s, I drove to Hollywood Cemetery after church. I went there because I was on a mission: I felt called to locate the burial site of Mary Mitchell Allen, the child whose short life set all of this [gesture to the worship space] in motion. I had first heard of her at Tuckahoe Plantation, the place where she was born on Christmas Eve, 1864. We had gathered there on the 100th anniversary of the dedication and consecration of our historic church, which we lovingly call “Little St. Mary’s.” Our Diocesan Bishop, Robert B. Hall, had come to celebrate the Eucharist as well as to confirm and receive new communicants on the grounds of the plantation. My late wife Margie, St. Mary’s organist, and I, the new youth minister, were among those received. We were brand new Episcopalians.

At the welcoming announcements, our Rector, Holt Souder, spoke of Mary Allen’s importance to our parish. He commended the newly-published centennial history by William T. Carrington. Naturally, I purchased a fresh copy of the book, and Bill Carrington signed it. In the succeeding years I had read the history, and was drawn to little Mary’s story. However, I hadn’t noticed the footnote that recorded her gravesite at Hollywood. I, like many others, mistakenly assumed that she was interred at Tuckahoe. As the new Rector, it dawned on me that I needed to find Mary’s resting place. So, on that steamy afternoon, Margie and I asked a security guard for directions. His help was vague enough to send us on a cross-country hunt as the rain (and my frustration) intensified. Then, from a distance, my fellow-missioner called out, “I think I’ve found her.”

I ran through the graveyard and entered a gated, iron-fenced section set aside for the Mitchell family. And there she was, buried in the same grave as her mother (Virginia Mitchell Allen) and her father (Richard S. Allen). All three names were on the marker, but there was a separate stone for her – a small granite block engraved with the name, “MARY.” As we gazed at the simple, holy site, I said a prayer of thanksgiving. Here lay our forbearer in this faith adventure.

Mary was the greatest gift that Richard and Virginia could have received that Christmas. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to suppose that they were elated by her birth. The name they chose for her bespoke their belief: “Mary” would be their living reminder of the faith of her namesake – the young Judean girl whose belief was sufficient to accept the angel’s word that she would bear the Son of God. That is one way that her name could have arisen; we cannot know for certain. But whether the name Mary was a family inheritance or one referring to Christmas is not finally important. “Mary” became for Virginia and Richard a saintly name, one that shone like a star, making their spirits soar.

She was a child sent from God at the darkest time of the bleak mid-winter of 1864. War had depleted everything but hope. This part of the world was on the verge of collapse.

Sad to say, by the next August 14, 1865 Mary was gone. She was 7 1⁄2 months old. Richmond was a charred ruin and everything had collapsed. Her tragic death from causes unknown must have been devastating. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the grieving family had plunged into depression and cursed the darkness.

But that is not what happened. Mary’s life shed enough light and love to inspire a mission of faith, of which we are a vital part. After burying their little girl at Hollywood, the Allens persevered in faith, expressing their gratitude to God for bringing Mary into their life in a bold, enduring way. With permission from the Diocese of Virginia, they built a mission church on River Road – a neat, pretty little Carpenter Gothic jewel, set on an embankment for travelers to see and neighboring farmers, and later coal miners, to cherish as their spiritual home.

Mary’s brief, but influential, life is memorialized in the naming of that historic mission church. But “St. Mary’s” is more than a memorial to the little girl that graced the Allen family for less than a year at the Civil War’s end. The name simultaneously links precious Mary Allen to Mary the Mother of our Lord.

The Allens’ faith and positive spirit raised the $1,500 to build St. Mary’s during Reconstruction, when the local economy was on life support. It was a stunning accomplishment. Their confidence attracted others who had the faith to take a risk. Among those others were the Wickhams of nearby Woodside, who donated the land, as well as oaks, hemlocks, and spruce trees to adorn the churchyard for St. Mary’s dedication and consecration on Holy Saturday, in April 1878. The Right Reverend Francis Whittle, 5th Bishop of Virginia, must have been excited by the prospect of a new congregation since he agreed to do the service on the day before Easter, one of the busiest, most hallowed of all days. Clearly, he recognized the faith that persevered through grief to build the little church; a feat all the more miraculous, given the area’s environment, which, in his journal, he called “destitute” country.

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On October 11, 1992, The Right Reverend Peter James Lee, 12th Bishop of Virginia, stood on the front stoop of this building and pounded the base of his pastoral staff on the door, saying, “Let the doors be opened.” The doors, once opened, revealed to the Bishop and to clergy of this parish a throng of believers who had squeezed into the new church. He continued, “Peace be to this house, and to all who enter here: [making the sign of the cross with his crozier] “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

And, here once again, faith abounded – resonant, joyful, exuberant faith in what God had wrought and sustained, and in the perseverance of the saints, on whose shoulders we were standing. In music, ritual, inspired preaching, and hearty congregational singing, we celebrated the grace of God and the responsive labor of love that is New St. Mary’s. The liturgy of dedication and consecration was so spirited that the massive wooden building absorbed the energy, and moved enough to cause the suspended sanctuary cross to pitch from side to side. It was a blessed event – one that remains vivid in the lives of those who participated in the project and the official opening of a new era of mission.

____________

In our lesson from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about perseverance based on faith. He paints a picture of an unjust judge who ignores the repeated pleas of a widow seeking justice. Eventually, that judge grudgingly acquiesced to her unyielding effort and heard her case. Jesus then contrasts that kind of stonewalling with the grace of God, who hears the cries of his chosen and responds to their needs. Still, Jesus challenges those hearing this story, asking: “… [but] when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This is an open-ended question; it has no expiration date. Jesus posed it not only to his contemporary followers, but also to all of us who are bold to call ourselves “Christian.” The question cuts to the heart of discipleship. I have heard it put another way: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

In the final analysis, discipleship is more about deeds than it is about words. Words of conviction are important, but our words, our professions of faith, need to find traction in what we do. A popular ecumenical hymn of the 1960s, “We are one in the Spirit,” had a powerful refrain: “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The reference to love here is to the Greek, agape. Agape-love refers neither to feeling, nor to attraction, nor to passion; it is an action word, rooted in an act of the will to give of oneself to others without expecting a return or reward. It is the defining characteristic of the gracious God revealed in Christ Jesus. Christian faith is evidenced by our acts of selfless love.

Virginia and Richard Allen believed in the mercies of God, and acted on their faith: they created Little St. Mary’s to serve the souls and bodies of the people of this destitute” area. The mission church was love-inaction. It was evidence of their Christian discipleship to the One whose love is stronger than death.

People have often said that the very sight of St. Mary’s Church perched on the knoll beside River Road, is inspiring. It has said, “this is church,” to passers-by since 1878. Little St. Mary’s beckons people to come and see. Indeed, many did just that, and we grew!

By 1989, the congregation had completely outgrown the capacity of the little country church. And, after a period of prayerful research and reflection, the Vestry launched a series of construction and renovation campaigns that lasted for more than a decade. Major investments of faith and financial commitment by the families and friends of the parish have enabled us to preserve and enhance what earlier generations of disciples provided. Our forbearers persevered in faith, entrusting the future to us, as we in turn will entrust it to future generations. Together we’ve added New St. Mary’s, whose bell tower sounds on the hour, announcing that the parish is thriving 145 years after its hopeful beginnings.

In projects conceived by necessity, remembrance, aesthetic sensibility, and service-oriented mission, we’ve continued to grow and improve our mission and ministries. We’ve developed our capacity for forming disciples young and old, for ensuring the structural soundness of our buildings, both historic and contemporary, to worship in person and online, to offer spiritual reflection, Bible study, and opportunities for serving this world that God so loves. We’ve offered delicious occasions of fellowship, tended the churchyard’s lovely landscaping, pioneered a nature trail and site for outdoor worship, creatively taught and mentored our children and youth, focused on exciting programs for older members, and (thanks to David and his excellent staff) we have coped creatively with a pandemic.

All of these works of preservation and enhancement have extended the mission of a larger parish that knows from whence we came, and to whom we belong. Every act of love is in the Name of Christ Jesus; every step forward is in thanksgiving for the grace that enables us to persevere in faith.

You and I are living members of this community of St. Mary. We are the mission begun in 1877, improved in 1930 (Old Parish Hall), amended in 1970 (office annex); further extended in 1992 (New St. Mary’s); restored and preserved in 1998 (Little St. Mary’s); and expanded once again in 2002 (with the bell tower, music suite, refurbished kitchen, new classrooms, and educational building). Without sounding a trumpet, we are the mission that imagined and launched St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Goochland Cares, Elk Hill Farm, as well as further missions to South Africa, Ecuador, and Appalachia. We’ve sponsored and supported CARITAS, Richmond Hill, the Bishop’s Chapel at Roslyn, Peter Paul Development Center, St. Andrew’s School, the Anna Julia Cooper School, education of international college and graduate students, and the resettlement of families from Cuba, The Czech Republic, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Our members are involved in a host of charitable, educational and service organizations; engagement in mission is in our spiritual DNA. It is who we are.

On this 30th anniversary of the dedication and consecration of New St. Mary’s, we can, in God’s mercy, celebrate and enjoy the fruits of committed belief and action. We can cherish the history of our parish life with awe and gratitude, we can admire the beauty and the holiness of this place, and we can give thanks for the men, women, and children who have worked long and hard to make this event possible. We can partake of the Holy Eucharist celebrated in this spectacular setting. And we can pray for the blessing of God’s gracious forgiveness and belief in us despite our shortcomings.

But in no way are we to rest on our laurels, satisfied with our achievements, as though they were ours, and ours alone. Today, and always, there remains a pressing question for us: What comes next? Where will the evidence of our faith be further revealed? This is our challenge and our opportunity to grow in mission and in faith. So, let us dream the dream, and then commence the work we are called to do: of offering God’s love to others, for love’s sake. Then it may be said that St. Mary’s Church is a place and a people where faith has been, and will be, found on earth.

In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, let it be so. Amen.

A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 9, 2022

By: David May, Rector

This Gospel story about Jesus, this story of Good News for us, is a story about what it’s like to live life from a distance, at arm’s length from one another, from God, and even from your own truest self.  And it is a story about what God is doing about that.  And it raises questions about how many different ways there may be to live life at a distance and to how that happens.  I want to tell you a story about a woman named Nell I once knew and who has since died and gone to glory.  But let me ask you to hear her story for what it is til the end.  For every one of our stories is sacred which means, in part, that however much we might think the stories of who we are are written in stone, they’re not.  Not really.  At least not as far as God is concerned.

So, with that initial disclaimer, let me tell you about Mrs. Nell Weinstein.  She was a member of the parish I served at the time and she was probably in her early 80’s when I first met her twenty-five years ago.  Nell lived her life, it seems, ‘at a distance’ or at least that’s what people told me.  When I first got to the parish, other parishioners who knew Nell went to great lengths to say that if I got an angry phone call from her, or if she threatened to withhold her pledge, or chased off newcomers with an angry outburst in the pew or with a withering glare at a burbling baby, or wrote a letter to the Bishop about my ineffective leadership, that she was just being Nell and that I should never take it personally.  Her older sister early on told me, ‘that’s just Nell.  Been that way since birth.  Don’t pay any attention to her.”

Don’t pay any attention to her.  Got it. So that was the story we all inherited about Nell, written in stone.  A set of rules already in place.  It was like I had been handed a script, already written out to the end that we were to live by.

Living life ‘at a distance’ happens in many ways it seems.  For the ten lepers in this story of Jesus, the script about how to do that was definitely already written.  Living life ‘at a distance’ was the script these ten people received with no turning back once those first blemishes and discolorations began to appear on their bodies.  I can imagine they tried to hide them at first holding off as long as possible the inevitable.  A day was coming when they would be forced to walk away from everything and everyone and be given a new script to live by.  This new script is a briefer story with no surprises, no adventures to look forward to, no crossroads to ponder, no new chapter to write someday with the birth of a child, or some new aspect of life opening up before them.  This new script was really only a set of rules for how to live life at a distance from all of that, how to become invisible, how to build a wall around your heart, how to give up on ever being moved to joy from the warmth of an embrace or by wonder and delight at the mystery of a gorgeous clear night-sky filled with shimmering stars.

Now you may be thinking, ‘are you comparing this woman Nell with the lepers in this story of Jesus?  Isn’t that’s cruel!’  And if that is what I was up to I’d agree with you.  But I am only wondering how we sometimes end of living life at a distance from our true source of life in God and how that can end up happening in so many different ways.

Now, Nell again.  I had been serving the parish for probably five or six years when Nell fell very ill and required surgery.  I went to see Nell four times in the hospital following her surgery over the course of a couple of weeks.  On the fourth visit, I was saying how well she seemed to be doing and how the color was returning to her skin.  She would have none of that.  She wasn’t feeling well, she was in pain, it made sense that she wasn’t able to see small improvements.  I got that.  So, I tried to simply ‘validate’ (as they say) her angry feelings:  ‘of course you’re angry, I would be too, that makes sense’.  Finally she looked me square in the eye which I realized with a start she had never done before in the years I had known her and she said, “why do you keep coming to see me?!”  She didn’t break her gaze but just bore into me.  I finally said sort of lamely, “well, I want to see how you’re doing, that’s all.”  She said, “I’m fine!”  I said, “ok.  OK.  I’ll just go on then.  You probably just want to rest some anyway.”  I thought it was probably best to go without asking if she would like for me to pray for her.

Nell died a few years later.  And there was a large service for this matriarch of the parish and stories told about her and we commended her to God and for years her older sister took flowers to Nell’s grave on Nell’s birthday and on the anniversary of the day Nell died.

Living life ‘at a distance’ and what that means to God is part of the mystery opened up before our own hearts by this joyful, powerful story of Jesus.

When these ten lepers cry out to Jesus, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ was that simply a euphemism for asking for money?  Or was it something more.  Maybe it is a sign of Jesus holy life and work that he always hears that ‘something more’ in us.

‘Go show yourselves to the priest’ Jesus says, covering the distance and treating them as if they already have been healed.  It is to their credit that they do as they have been told and as they go are healed indeed.

But one of them disobeys Jesus instructions and goes ‘off script’ and decides to bridge the distance between himself and Jesus first.  He has to come to the one who has seen that ‘something more’ in him.  Something more than obedience moved him.  Something closer to love.  And he turns back and comes to Jesus to say, ‘thank you’.  Which at the end of the day may be what our good and gracious God most longs to hear from each of us.  Thank you that I and my life in all its failures and joys are is not lived at a distance from you.  Thank you.

Which is what we gather each Sunday to learn to do: to become this tenth man and decide to come close to God, not just from obedience by from our own ‘something more’, something closer to love.  We have this formal liturgical word, Eucharist (which only really means ‘thank you’), Jesus life given and broken for us, food from the source of our life given that covers the distance between heaven and earth into our hands and into our bodies with the hope that it will call from us a holy ‘thank you’ on our lips.  Sunday by Sunday, God shows us that ‘something more’ about each of us and our heart’s desire is to say ‘thank you’.

One final and brief postscript on Nell’s life.  She ended her days in a very modest house that had been refitted to be a kind of nursing home where saints of God cared for some seven or eight residents like Nell.  After seeing Nell one day, I ran into one of the care-givers who worked there.  She stopped me and said, ‘were you visiting Nell?’  I said, ‘yes, ma’am’.  She said, ‘well then I know you’re day is blessed.  She is just the sweetest thing, isn’t she?’  I said, ‘Nell?’  ‘Yes,’ woman said, ‘I love taking care of her’.  I said, ‘Nell?  Mrs. Weinstein?  Nell?”  ‘Oh yes, she makes it so easy.  She is so grateful for every little thing, always thanking me and asking for a hug’.

When had the story of Nell I had carved in stone been broken by grace?  When had the Lord shown her that ‘something more’ in her own soul til she turned back to say, ‘thank you’?

Each of our stories is sacred which means that they are not over til they are not over in God.  We are not meant to live life at a distance from God or from one another.  And God himself draws close to us in Jesus, covers the distance for us, showing us the face of God longing to hear from us, not from obedience but love, thank you.  Amen.

A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 2, 2022

By: Kilpy Singer, Associate Rector

 

Have you ever had that experience of walking into the middle of a conversation and trying to act like you know what’s being talked about, but really having no idea what’s going on? You try to pick up on context clues but you’ve obviously missed something fundamental in order to keep up. Today’s passage from Luke sort of feels like that to me. We begin with “the apostles said to the Lord, let our faith increase” and we can try and push some meaning out of that , but really, we’ve only got the second half of the conversation here. It’s as if I opened the parish hall door in the middle of the adult forum and heard you all say to David “Increase our faith” or “help us believe” and then he gave this funny parable type response. Instead of explaining what I think may have happened to the person next to me, I think I’d initially ask, “wait, what did I miss? What did David just say first to make you all then ask for more faith?”

So, what did we miss here, in Luke, what did Jesus say to then get that response from the apostles, because this doesn’t make a whole of sense otherwise… Well, in the verses just prior, the part of the conversation that we missed, he challenged them to forgive, not just once, but over and over again. He essentially said, “If someone sins against you, even if it’s seven times in a day, but is repentant, if they’re sorry and see the wrong they’ve done, you must forgive them.”

Knowing what Jesus has just charged them with, I actually find their response so hilarious and relatable. “Did he just ask us to repeatedly forgive the very person who keeps pushing our buttons and driving us to the edge of insanity. Whew, Lord help us! Increase our faith! Cause there is nothing left inside me that can forgive them even one more time.” The apostles are probably thinking that Jesus’ expectations are impossibly high and are acutely aware that, on their own, they just can’t. So they beg that Jesus to give them the faith they need to believe that what he’s asking can be done.

Now it may not be the task of forgiveness, but I bet that most of us have been faced with challenges from scripture and the sayings of Jesus, or from our prayers with God, or even from our church life, that seem impossibly high to meet. Maybe the idea of praying for your enemies seems literally impossible because of the amount of pain that they’ve caused you, or maybe it’s the idea of giving of your own time, and energy, and resources in this season of stewardship and thanksgiving, because you’d really rather preserve what you have left after the last 2 and a half years. Or maybe, like me, it’s trying to follow the practice of sabbath, of rest, that I know Jesus so desperately wants me to cultivate. The idea of having to regularly find a day to slow down and release control to God is enough to make me cry out “Lord, increase my faith”. Jesus, help me out. How am I supposed to measure up because what you’re asking of me seems impossible.

When the apostles responded to Jesus, he of course gave them a strange answer in return. Jesus said that if they had faith the size of a tiny seed, that would be enough to make a tree uproot itself and be planted in the ocean. Now at first, it might sound like he’s rebuking them, like “If only you had an ounce of faith, you’d be able to do what I asked of you”. But I’d like to suggest that he’s really saying “friends, you have all the faith you need”.  They ask for more because they are worried they can’t do what Jesus has asked them to do, but  I think Jesus wants them to understand that he isn’t asking for some mountainous sized faith, they have all the faith they need.

Faith actually is not something quantifiable, anyway. You can’t chart it on a graph or understand it in terms of net gain or net loss. Instead, faith looks like offering up whatever energy or effort or trust that they can muster and believing that God is able and willing to take that and do what once seemed impossible. Are they actually capable of forgiving someone who has hurt them over and over and over? Well, yes, but not because of something that they found deep within themselves, but because God can take the seed of belief within them, the part of them that is willing to even try, and is able to do something powerful and good, what would have been impossible on their own.

It might sound cliché, but it was true for them and it’s true for you and me today, that God takes what hope and trust we can muster, our tiny act of faith, and helps it become something more powerful that we could even imagine. And this should challenge how we think of faith because so often we want to quantify it in some unhelpful and untrue way, and this should relieve us of the shame that we’ve been carrying for too long because we have told ourselves some lie like we don’t have enough faith, or we aren’t good enough Christians.

Instead, Jesus reminds us that we have all the faith that we need to get going, because faith looks a lot like just showing up and being open to God and to God’s faithfulness to us. And when I think of how that plays out in the lives of this church community, I think of the mornings that some of our parents find that extra twenty minutes to tune into the Sunday morning livestream, even though the kids have to be at 27 different places that day, and the dog threw up on the carpet, and they honestly haven’t felt God’s nearness in quite some time. But they still show up and find a renewed sense of strength in their lives.

Or I think about those of us reaching out for the help we need, barely making it to that support group or appointment or making that phone call to a friend, even when we’re pretty sure we are the only ones to have ever dealt with this and there’s no way God loves us anymore anyway. And little by little, God breaks through in God’s faithfulness, helping us see the grace to get to tomorrow.

If I’m being honest, faith for me today looked like getting in this pulpit and offering up these words to you, even when I’ve had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week like Alexander in the most relatable children’s book to come out of the 1970s, and I trust that God will use something here to do some kind of good work in somebody’s life.

And faith that looks like all of that that I just described, friends, is faith enough, most days. Because yes, Jesus asks some pretty big things of us, like forgiveness and rest and prayer and trust, but Jesus never meant for us to get there on our own. Instead, he shows us that our single seed of belief, our one step towards God, is always returned by God’s abundant faithfulness to us, and together, that is how the impossible gets done. Amen.

 

A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 25, 2022

By: David May, Rector

There is a phrase I remember hearing a lot when I was growing up. I heard it from parents in the neighborhood. And I heard it a lot from my mother. Maybe you’ve heard it too. Maybe you’ve even used it yourself. It goes like this: “If you don’t stop [fill in the blank], you’ll put your eye out!” That fill in the blank could be almost anything, sword fighting with sticks, bombing each other with acorns, flinging Matchbox cars over homemade ramps. My mother was a thoroughly reasonable person and was rarely stampeded by emotion, but the number of things that she thought might result in dire consequences to one’s eye was immeasurable.

I think I understand her perspective a little better now after having raised kids of my own. And I’ve also learned that my mother’s use of exaggeration is actually grounded in a very old method of teaching. Hyperbole or exaggeration to make a point, is a perfectly acceptable method of instruction with a long and proud history. The rabbis of Jesus’ own day used it. In this style of teaching – often using stories or examples – one draws clear distinctions between good and evil, righteousness and injustice, darkness and light. These rabbis, and subsequent teachers through the ages, were smart, sophisticated thinkers. They knew as well as anyone that there is infinite complexity and nuances of gray that we deal with in this world. But we can get swamped by all that gray sometimes. Exaggerated storytelling can clarify what’s at stake and get us back on track.

So with my mother, her “put that stick down or it’ll put out your eye” was in a proud tradition. Even though I still might want to counter with an appeal to my general past record of trustworthiness in not having put my eye out to date or my growing desire for more freedom. She knew that I needed to be disarmed first. Complexities could be dealt with later.

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