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.

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.

Read more

A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 11, 2022

By: David May, Rector


I think we could be forgiven for getting a little lost in the swirl of events – both near and far – that are going on all at once right now. Though it seemed like she could possibly live forever, Queen Elizabeth II has died and with her death the world has lost a visible, living connection to a much older and different world is gone, and probably more than that has been lost with her passing. Today is also the 21st anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a tragic and traumatic day that changed the world. When I watch the documentaries of that day (which has become almost an annual ritual for me) I still find myself saying, ‘what is happening?!’ in the present tense as if its still happening. Trauma operates like that, leading you back to the feelings you had when it first happened. Psychologists tell us that is because we are trying to get back to that original time and place, like retracing your steps, to find something that you know you’ve lost.

Nearer to home, today is the first nearly normal Kickoff Sunday for us in three years. There are children who the last time we saw them were being carried around in their parents’ arms and who today are walking around just fine on their own. And talking. For the past several months here at church, I’ve seen us try to pick up where we left off before the pandemic with limited success. For starters, that’s because we just lost contact with all of those regular routines and habits that shaped our life before and kept things rolling. So, we’re finding new ones, or trying to.

And nearer still to home, to right here, right now, we’re going to take time to dedicate and bless these new green hangings that are a gift from Georga Williams to the church in loving memory of her mother. We received these hangings from England just before the pandemic and with church closures and all the rest haven’t had the chance to thank God for Agnus Dyson Smith represented by this gift. But this is one dropped stitch that we can go back and pick up.

Read more