A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Penetecost

So, today is a great day in the life of this parish. At St. Mary’s Church we call today Kick-off Sunday. It is not an official feast day in the liturgical calendar, but it might as well be. It’s a day that sort of reminds me of old cowboy movies where some old hand rings the dinner bell to call everyone in for dinner from wherever in the world they all are. So from wherever in the world we all are, we’re here now to resume the regular round of our worshiping life after a summer lull. A lull that I should say never really quite happened. All through the summer, I kept expecting the numbers of us who came on Sundays to fall off. But that never really happened. Still, today our parish as a whole is sharing a little ‘come home to Jesus’ moment of getting it together to get here for a fresh start to the fall, a fresh start to life. There are children to get up and dressed. There are older bones and joints to coax into cooperating and getting us here on time. And there’s just the simple practice of getting back into the habit of being in church on Sunday. Our world has changed so much in such a short time and there’s a whole multitude of us trying to make sense of it all.

I’ve stood at the back of this church on Sunday morning as everyone is getting their selves in here just before the organ sounds the processional hymn and thought, ‘look at all these people, Lord. Your people. All these lives going on out there. What has brought them here. What’s happening in their lives that has landed them here. I wonder, what are they looking for? Hoping for?’

I suppose there are lots of reasons why you’re here. And I also think there’s only one reason. Because the One who made you, who knew you before the foundations of the earth, has been seeking you. And somehow, some way, your soul caught wind of that. And you’re here, maybe on a wing and a prayer. Maybe you’re here with a renewed longing for God. But whatever it is, it’s enough, thanks be to God!

Though after hearing the Gospel reading just now, you might be having second thoughts about showing up here this morning. Or at least that’s what occurred to me as I read through this passage a couple of weeks ago. Reading the commentators didn’t help much. One of them headed what they wrote ‘Church Discipline’. Well, oh joy! Aren’t you glad you got here for that?! Still, to put it frankly, we human beings are just a mess. Maybe a little direction wouldn’t hurt.

One of my mentors, Michael Rowell, a very wise, hilarious, super healthy Episcopal priest told me about a vestry meeting he once led. It was a wonderful group of faithful folks who on that night had gotten into the weeds about something that didn’t matter even one little bit. But that didn’t stop some of them from getting a little crosswise with each other. Michael finally had enough and shouted out, ‘Oh the joy of living in community.’

Which are sentiments that I’m sure Jesus was familiar with in our life together with him. We are a mess. His disciples have lately been wondering aloud: I wonder which one of us is the greatest. And so he says, if someone sins against you, you go to that person and tell them. Don’t go tell some other person in the parking lot. Tell the person who hurt you. Anyone knows that just doing that, 95 times out of 100, goes a long way to fixing whatever needs fixing. But, if it doesn’t, bring two or three others to talk with the person who hurt you. Not so they can gang up on that person but so that they can affirm what each of you have said and maybe help the two parties hear each other. And if that doesn’t lead to reconciliation, then the whole community should take up the matter. And if that doesn’t work, then turn away from the offending party, which just makes formal what was probably already true.

What Jesus says tracks pretty closely with something in the Prayer Book called ‘The Disciplinary Rubrics.’ It’s on page 409. If you want, you can read there the pastoral approach a priest should take that might ultimately result in refusing to offer someone Communion. It also says that if a priest takes this step that priest had better call the bishop and let her or him know what is going on because in the church community, we are all accountable. I do want to jump in here and say that in more than 30 years, I’ve never taken such a drastic step and no one I know has either. And that’s not because there hasn’t been conflict. But mostly people talk to each other. Because there’s just too much to lose by not. Namely each other. And God’s dream for us to be a whole community.

Which is the whole point. In a community gathered in Jesus’s Name, there is just too much to lose. A community like this, gathered by the Spirit to be Christ’s Body in the world is a gift of God, something to be treated with great care.

I was reminded of this so vividly two Sundays ago when Amelia met with parents to talk about our children’s ministry. She did an exercise where the group created a little timeline of the past several years. We started the timeline back when Amelia first came and tried to name how the children’s ministry happened then and the changes that have happened. And then came 2020 and a worldwide pandemic where none of us knew our right hand from our left. And one on top of the other, people started remembering what had happened. Someone would mention something, and others would say, ‘oh, I loved that!’ or ‘I’d forgotten that. That was so great!’ One parent started talking about how much it meant when a package came in the mail from church with a project for the Church season or a note or a birthday card. All of them an outward and visible sign, a sacrament of belonging to this community in Christ. And oh, yeah, remember church outdoors and moms getting together on the terrace to talk and share ‘a beverage’? And remember the drive-thru pageant and then the pageant switched to the parking lot at the last minute and the drive-thru meals and time to connect at an open car window which was just as good as the delicious food? And remember the altar guild made scores and scores of little flower arrangements and packed up their cars with them and drove off to give a bunch to someone who was isolated and might be lonely, or to someone who just needed something beautiful, or to someone who just needed a sign that someone loves them, or because it’s what we do for each other. They talked about how much all these different things meant and how all of these things showed us how much we need to be a part of a community that’s built on the life and death and resurrection of Jesus: a life and story spacious enough and gracious enough to hold the mess we are in God’s loving hands; to be his people in the world with a sacred story to tell.

The mission of the Church, of this church, is to reconcile all things to God in Christ, and nothing less. That is happening in communities just like this one, who by grace have been given the gift to bear Christ into this world. God has given us a story to tell. Sometimes it sounds like that group of young parents reflecting on how the Spirit kept us whole when we didn’t know how to stay whole. To be a part of this community makes us accountable to one another by telling the great story of Jesus, one that is spacious enough and gracious enough for the mess we all are, and to live for his high calling to heal this world and nothing less. Amen.

The Rev. David H. May

A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

August 20th, 2023

Like it or not, I guess, when we were born into this world, we inherited ‘lines in the sand’ that had already been drawn. Those lines in the sand were already there as soon as we began to learn how to walk on our own two feet and began learn how to speak for ourselves. In fact, some of those ‘lines in the sand’ influence where we think our feet can take us and what words we can say or not. As we grow up we find out about those lines sometimes when we accidentally cross one of them. And sometimes we’re told about those lines pretty explicitly. I remember hearing: ‘you’ll be known by the company you keep’, or, ‘if you lie down with dogs you are going to get fleas’.

I was hanging out with some boys in my neighborhood when I was a kid who were a little rougher than my mother was comfortable with and she told me so. I thought she just didn’t understand them. But one summer, some of these boys got in trouble with the police for breaking into a neighbor’s house when they were away on vacation and vandalizing the house. I didn’t have anything to do with it but that didn’t stop a Chesterfield County police officer from coming by our house and questioning me. To my mother’s credit, I don’t remember her saying, ‘I told you so’. I guess she didn’t have to.

But then there are lines drawn in the sand that don’t seem to have anything to do with getting fleas. I wish it was as simple as that. One afternoon, at least twenty years ago, I was driving downtown to visit a parishioner who lived in the Mosby Court. She’d been at my parish for two or three years and she was living proof that God’s mission for the church is about opening doors not closing them. I was stopped at a light near the housing complex where my parishioner lived and a young man came up to my car and motioned for me to roll down my window. I did and he said, ‘hey, what’s going on?’ and I said, ‘I’m heading to see a parishioner’. He said, ‘Yeh, that’s good. Look,’ he said, ‘you don’t really want to be around here, ok?’ I said, ‘what?’ He said, ‘yeh, you probably just want to go on now’. And then he walked off. It wasn’t a warning. And it wasn’t concern for me. It was just a simple statement.

The truth is that a line in the sand had gotten crossed that neither I or that young man had put there. But that didn’t matter. There was no right or wrong about it. It just was. It was just one more example of Martin Luther’s famous words that our lives are cut out of crooked wood. I remember sitting there at the light feeling like everything was starting to swim around on me, like I’d just caught ‘situational vertigo’. Everything had gotten sort of weird and unsettling. But I think that’s what it’s like when we come upon those ‘lines in the sand’ and cross over into this borderline ‘no-man’s zone’, where people find it hard to be people with each other.

The Gospel reading this morning plunks us down in one of those places. Jesus, fresh from bickering and arguing with a group of Pharisees, leaders of his own people, people on his side of the line, goes for a long walk with his friends. Maybe he needed to clear his head. Maybe he just wanted to walk it off. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention, but he walked and walked til he went past all the familiar signs of home and crossed over the line in the sand between his own people, the Jews, and ‘those other people’, in this case the Canaanites. The Canaanites were the people who were already living in the Promised Land when Moses led the children of Israel in to possess that land as their new home. The Canaanites were an old and ancient enemy and they lived over there, not here. And they were the kind of people you told stories about – the way they lived, what they thought about things – but had never actually met. They were the kind of people you didn’t need to concern yourself with much, at least not as real people. We are us and they are them. Line in the sand drawn. Case closed. End of story. It has been that way, it will stay that way. Nothing else to tell.

Most people if they find themselves in one of those borderline places observe the niceties with their eyes down, mouths closed, and just keep moving til you can get back to your side of the line where you can be yourself again. And that’s what looks like is happening with Jesus and his followers. They are just passing through.

And then the most amazing, strange, confusing, disturbing, glorious thing happens. A Canaanite woman – the kind of person you hear about but never meet, – decides not to keep her eyes down and her mouth closed, but raises her face and looks Jesus in the eye and opens her mouth. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

Well. Her baby girl is in agony. She can be forgiven for breaking form, for stepping over the line. Your own heart tells you that.

But when lines get crossed, things start swimming around, ‘situational vertigo’ sets in and what you thought was up is down. What comes next for us is like a compass needle spinning unable to find true north. Our own hearts tell us that we could easily find words to say to her in response like how sorry we are or even to ask for her name so we could pray for her. But Jesus doesn’t say a word to her. And even when the woman meets his silence with more words, pleading for her daughter, those words are met with harsh words from the disciples: be quiet, get away, you probably just want to go on now, they say.

Jesus finally speaks to say that he must be obedient to his call to feed the lost sheep of Israel. He must remain himself – feeding the children and not throwing what little there is to the dogs.

Which are words that send the compass spinning even more wildly. What in the world are we to make of his words? Is he testing her? Is he testing himself and his own call as Messiah?

And what comes next is the assurance that however obvious and clear a line in the sand seems, however certain it appears that the story about us and them has been told to the end with no more words to come; we see that the story that we were sure was finished, isn’t. The Canaanite woman says to Jesus that the mercy with which he is feeding the lost sheep of Israel is enough to feed her too. Even just word that there’s a man like him in the world doing what he’s doing, even just word of that, gives her enough faith to hope he might care about her life too.

And the spinning compass lands square and solid on true north with Jesus words, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly. Mercy, and not lines in the sand, are the final word.

We may not on any given day be called to be as brave as that Canaanite woman. Especially those times when it seems like God is silent to us too. We know that there are lines in the sand drawn that were laid down long before we came onto the scene. Sometimes those lines seem to be an immoveable ending. But we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, free to let our feet follow where he leads, and where those ‘lines in the sand’, become the place where the newest words of the story that God is telling that heals the world, begin. Amen.

The Rev. David May

A Sermon for the Last Sunday After Pentecost: Christ the King

Sunday, November 20, 2022

By: David May, Rector

I ran across a book in my library at home the other day that may have one of my favorite book titles of all time.  The book is called, ‘Where Do You Go To Give Up?’.  It’s author is Baptist preacher and scholar Welton Gaddy, a generous and good soul.  I like the title so much because it makes me laugh at myself for all those times where I feel like I’ve finally just had it with the ‘rat race’ that life too often feels like. So that, you know, frankly, if some other rats really wants to win so badly, well fine, count me out, I give up.   Because as they say, even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

But as true as that feeling of just wanting to give up sometimes is, it runs crosswise with something we also know is true:  you can’t just give up.  You can’t.  You have to ‘keeping going’ no matter what; we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep going.  You can’t just ‘give up’ when life is hard or heartbreaking or perplexing or exhausting, can you?

Well, no….  But that’s not quite the kind of ‘giving up’ that Gaddy wants us to think about.  Remember, he’s a Baptist preacher and this is a book for church folks.  So Gaddy is talking about giving up in a different way.  Here’s a searing quote from Episcopal priest and New Testament scholar Robert Farrar Capon that gets at the kind of ‘giving up’ that Gaddy wants us to think about.  Capon writes:  “The gospel of grace is the end of religion, the final posting of the CLOSED sign on the sweatshop of the human race’s perpetual struggle to think well of itself.”

In other words, giving up means giving up on the endless effort to get yourself spruced up enough in the eyes of, well whomever, with the hope that that will be enough, some day, to be ok, acceptable, loved for who you are by others and by God.

The Apostle Paul’s great teaching that we are justified by grace through faith shows us that there is no arithmetic involved in tallying our deeds done or left undone that leads to earning God’s favor and blessing.  We know that.  We say that.  Except that, sometimes, I wonder do we really buy it in our heart of hearts where a voice sometimes says, “yes, but if you really knew me….”

So just in case, you find yourself keeping score on yourself, and running a tally of the good and bad of who you, and the virtues and vices, and successes and failures, and kindnesess and cruelties, and winning and losing, and what’s loveable and what’s not, what’s praiseworthy and what’s not.  If you’re anything like me, it can become a pretty long list.  It’s a lot to keep up with: all those different ways that the human race struggles to think well of itself.  All those ways, to use Capon’s words, that the human race tries to save itself, to save ourselves.

Which is a familiar refrain in this gospel reading where the dying King of Heaven speaks his last words to another human being.  And with these words shows us the answer to the question “where do you go to give up?”.

First the religious leaders taunt Jesus to save himself if he is the high and mighty Messiah of God.  Then the soldiers detailed to carry out the day’s execution mock him by saying if you are the King of the Jews, well then save yourself.  That’s the only way they understand the power of a ruler and a leader, a King – someone who saves himself.

That’s what Kings do, they save themselves.  Everybody knows that – the religious leaders know that, the soldiers know that.  Even one of the thieves dying beside Jesus knows that.  He cries out, “Save yourself,” and then adds in desperation:  “and us!”

We come to the conclusion of the Church Year today, the 24th Sunday after the Day of Pentecost and where things end up is important.  For about a hundred year, this Sunday has been known as Christ the King Sunday for many Christians.  And this picture of the King of Kings dying between two criminals is heartbreaking and shocking.  Because what are we to say about a King like this whose life ends like this?  King’s exercise power, command others to fight and die for them.  Kings save themselves, as those taunting Jesus know.  Before anyone else, they think, surely the King’s life will be preserved.  But this is a serious flaw in their understanding of what it means to lead as Jesus leads us.

The Queen Mum (Queen Elizabeth II’s mother) during the Battle of Britain understood it better.  “I’m glad we’ve been bombed”, she said bluntly after Buckingham Palace was hit during the London blitz.  “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”  The East End of London at that time was a misery of poverty and violence and sickness, and the home of desperate people and criminals.  The little lady in the big hats trudged with her royal husband through the rubble of bombed-out apartment buildings, clasping the hands and looking into the eyes of the people who had called them home.

Her own bombed out home earned her the right to look criminals and skinny children in the eye.  She could’ve been spirited away from the horror to the safety of some idyllic palace, far from human suffering.  But she wouldn’t go.  She wouldn’t leave her place beside those in misery and suffering.  And she lived to tell a story that inspires us.  “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face,” she said.

And as moving as that story is, it doesn’t do for us / what the story Jesus couldn’t live to tell for himself / does for us.  The picture of Jesus between two dying criminals, side by side, face to face, dying himself, is the picture of the whole Gospel in miniature.  As he has always done, he will not let us – any of us the loved and the hated, the privileged and the forgotten – be anywhere where he is not also.  No good deed of our own doing can make this possible.  No upright behavior, no inspiring character, no virtue.

Because this is the place beside dying criminals where Jesus goes ‘to give up’, to give up his life for the sake of love for you that overcomes through his forgiveness the sin of the world and saves it.

Where is the place you go to give up?  Well, first, consider for yourself, what do you want to give up?  Whatever it is, the place to go to give up is the Lord’s Table, side by side by one another, by the side of the King of Glory with the words of a dying criminal upon the lips of your heart, saying: ‘Lord, remember me, when you come into your kingdom?’  And be fed by his words, “Today you will be with me….”  Amen.

A Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, November 6, 2022

By: David May, Rector


Maybe a week and a half ago and I was standing in the parking lot where we had outdoor church during the pandemic reading the gospel passage for this morning.  There was a wonderful breeze blowing and the pin oak out there was releasing its leaves into the wind in swirls and waves.  And the funniest thing happened.  This passage from Matthew is one of the best-known and best-loved passages in the Bible: the Beatitudes, Blessings for God’s happy ones by Jesus.  But as I stood there reading the words, it was like I had somehow forgotten about these words, like I was finding something that I hadn’t realized I’d lost.

It reminded me of a day when I was up in the attic in our home in White Stone.  I was packing to move up here.  And I found a box that I discovered had several letters and notes from years ago that I had forgotten had been saved.  There was a breathless love-letter from middle school.  How could I have forgotten that?  How could I have forgotten her?! And a letter of encouragement from my grandmother she wrote when I was going through a rough patch written in her perfect school teacher cursive handwriting.

It was like that as I read this passage from Matthew.  Like a letter that has been saved, that I had forgotten about – is that possible?!  Like a love-letter from God you find, a word of encouragement to hear and remember that God knows there is hardship in this world—we grieve, we feel left out, we feel empty.  We feel powerless in our righteous indignation over a world that seems hell bent on being, well, hell bent.  But, not forever.  God’s best hopes for us will come to be.  Our trust in him will not be in vain.  We will know mercy, we will know his peace, and we will see him.  Hold onto that.  Keep the faith.  And as you do, you are already the happy ones, upon whom God’s blessings rest.

On the Feast of All Saints that we celebrate today, we remember all those happy ones, all those blessed ones who held onto their faith in God’s faithfulness to his promises.  We remember all those who have gone before us who remained dissatisfied with a world that is less than God will have it, and who reached for the virtues of the kingdom:  mercy, righteousness, and a whole-hearted love for God.  Maybe they didn’t reach those virtues in this world, but they didn’t stop reaching out to make them their own.

And we do more than just remember on this day.  Because all those happy ones who have gone before are alive to God, and so are surely alive to us too.  We are a communion, a family, a holy fellowship.  And every time we break the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, we are surrounded at that feast by all the saints gathered by the Great Shepherd of his flock.  It is not only the presence of Christ that is real at the Holy Eucharist, but all the faithful gathered are a real presence.  They are ours and we are theirs in him, a great cloud of witnesses gathered around the Table of Jesus.

This holy fellowship of the Spirit, this blessed Communion of Saints is like a miracle of nature we see this time of the year.  All over North America these days: the geese are heading south.  They’re traveling from as far away as the Arctic Circle to places like Florida and Louisiana, and even further south to Mexico.

Last week, I heard them coming before I saw them.  I heard them honking.  And then the honking was overlaid with the sound of rushing wind.  Finally, when they passed low overhead, you could even hear the sound of their powerful wings beating.  I always imagine their honking is goose-talk urging each other on:  keep it up, you can do it!

They are surprisingly large birds, upwards of 18 pounds.  And though the normal cruising speed is about 40 miles per hour, if alarmed, they can top out at about 60 miles an hour.  This group was low-flying, but they’ve been spotted at altitudes approaching 9,000 feet.

One of the most beautiful things about geese in flight is the way they form up into a distinctive flying-V.  Any NACAR fan knows why they do it.  The same reason cars race bumper to bumper at Talladega or Daytona.  They are drafting off each other.

The lead bird breaks up the air ahead, and the following bird tucks into a kind of vacuum and doesn’t have to battle so much air resistance and can move ahead with less effort.  But unlike racing at Talladega, geese don’t line up, they fly slightly to the side, so they all can still see forward.

The lead bird is usually a large experienced old bird.  Pretty regularly, though, the lead bird lets out a distinctive honk, and switches places with a goose further back for a rest.  The new lead bird takes a turn breaking through the air.  They are able to do this without losing speed or time. In this way, geese journey safely together, sometimes for distances as great as 4,000 miles.

It’s probably much further than that between this hell-bent world and the coming of Christ’s peaceable Kingdom.  But we travel, surrounded by a flock of saints who go before us.  The living experience of their faithfulness going before, breaking up the heavy air, and giving us lift.  The witness of their lives lifts us to see from a great height, to see the big picture.  We are not merely one small church or one shrinking denomination or even one worldwide ecumenical body.  We are surrounded by a great cloud—a mighty flock of witnesses which includes Mary and Martha and Peter and Andrew and Dietrich and Rosa and Martin and every unknown, unsung saint who ever gathered around the Table of Jesus clinging to hope.  And every one yet to come…

We are a part of such a great holy family.  One quick story like the honking of a goose in flight to encourage us on.

In November of 2021, one of the saints of this parish, Jan Betts, was in Scotland visiting her sister Elizabeth.  Jan was working on knitting a baby blanket for a new life in this parish who was soon to be baptized.  One of Elizabeth’s neighbor’s heard about this and decided she’d join in and crocheted a baptismal baby blanket for Jan to take home.  At Easter time the next year, Elizabeth was at a luncheon where she talked about these baptismal blankets knitted here at St. Mary’s.  A Presbyterian minister was at that luncheon who passed word about this to their church’s knitting group (called the Knitters and Knatters) who took up their knitting needles with a special purpose.  So that, in September, eight baptismal baby blankets arrived here, the work of a group of saints in Scotland for us to have for this morning.  The card that goes with these blankets reads:  We welcome you, precious child, as the newest member of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.  Knitted by hand and threaded with prayers of love and hope, this shawl is a gift for you.  May it bring blessings of comfort, gifts of warmth, and the knowledge that you are loved.

In just a few minutes, (at 9AM: Lucie and Jack; at 11AM: Miles and Brian   and Jimmy) will be baptized and will take their place in the flock, tucking neatly beneath the wings of the Lord Jesus whose mighty life goes before them and whose great wings of grace will pull them forward.  They will become heirs of God’s promised Kingdom.

On this day, the great Feast of All the Saints, it is not honking we hear, perhaps, but it is the cry of all the saints urging us on, whether it is ladies in Scotland or the saints in glory, reminding us that they were never alone and neither shall we be, it is the cry of their voices and the rush of the wind of the Holy Spirit that we hear crying out to us:  Keep the faith, we are with you.  Hold onto your hope in God’s promises.  Dear People, you are the blessed ones.  You are the happy ones of God.  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.