A Sermon for the First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday

By: Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector

09-18-Sunday-Service-8Matthew 28:16-20

Nine years ago, I was in a village in the middle of Tanzania with Buck, our two sons, and four other families. The friendships among us had begun when the husbands and fathers were fraternity brothers in Boulder, Colorado. I can say with almost absolute certainty that they never imagined that their friendship would someday lead them to a remote African village…with their wives and children…as part of a collaboration between some Episcopal dioceses in the United States and a diocese in Tanzania. But there we all were. God works in mysterious ways.

Like just about everywhere, education is the first ticket to a better life in Tanzania. Primary school itself is free, but families must buy the required uniforms and shoes. Like much of Africa at the time, Tanzania had been hit hard by the HIV/AIDs epidemic. One of the hardest hit demographics was young parents, and many children whose parents would have scraped together whatever it took to send their children to school were orphaned, often left to be raised by grandmothers who could not afford to buy uniforms and shoes. Under the collaboration between the American and Tanzanian dioceses, a church or other organization would partner with a village to provide the necessary support for children who would not otherwise be able to go to school. People within the villages decided which of the village children most needed that support.

Our five families had agreed to provide the support for the children in one of those villages, and that day nine years ago, we were there for the announcement of which children would be able to go to school. You cannot imagine the anticipation and excitement. Everyone in the village gathered, and as the names were announced, there were whoops of delight and tears of joy, and great pride as the children received the uniforms, shoes, and big bar of orange soap that their families otherwise could not afford.

At the conclusion of the big announcement, we all moved into the church for a service of thanksgiving. The church itself reflected the circumstances of the people in the village: concrete, with no electricity, and well-worn wooden benches that served as pews. As we were ushered to places of honor at the front of the church – at least at one level – we couldn’t help but feel pleased at the part that we had played in making these people’s lives better and more hopeful.

And then the most amazing thing happened. Our five families were invited to stand at the front of the church as a procession of mostly grandmothers began walking toward us. Each of them was bearing a gift – a gourd, a sack of beans, a cloth, a little carving. Whatever it was, it would have required a sacrifice on their part, and as they began presenting their gifts to us, our first inclination was to say that we couldn’t possibly accept them.

But we were the guests, and accept them we did. And as we did, three things happened. First, we experienced the importance in any relationship of being able to receive as well as to give. We often hear that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but in any healthy relationship, giving and receiving are equally important…That led to the realization of the second thing that happened: once we were receiving as well as giving, the line between which was which blurred. We were giving children the opportunity to go to school…and receiving immense gratitude from the children and their families. They were giving us an appreciation of all the blessings of our lives…and receiving immeasurable respect for the dignity and tenacity and faith of their lives. We all shared an appreciation that the hopes and cares and dreams for our lives and our children’s lives have far more in common than not.

Which led to the third thing that happened…as we stood at the front of the church in the waning afternoon light in that exchange of giving and receiving, an incredible sense of joy and peace and love settled over all of us, an undeniable sense that whatever the differences in financial circumstances, language, and color, we were all one in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all one in the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.

Which brings us to today, which is Trinity Sunday, the day when we celebrate the mystery of God as one being manifested in three ways; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Like all great mysteries, it is impossible to fully explain. Thankfully for me, Matt gave it a good lick a few weeks ago. If you weren’t here to hear his sermon on the that day, I commend it to you, and you can listen to it on our website. I doubt that you’ve ever heard the Trinity explained before in terms of a misadventure involving a reservoir tower, an SUV, and a flooding creek.

Or that you’d immediately jump to a comparison between Matt and his college buddies at the reservoir and us and our friends at the village in Tanzania. But for all of us, the mystery of the Trinity is revealed in what we do rather than simply what we accept on faith. Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples merely to believe, and, in fact, some of them doubted. But without rebuking their doubts, he declares his authority and commands them to go and do, to baptize and to teach. And he promises that he will be with them always.

We are all heirs of that Great Commission to go and do…and to remember that God is with us always in ever changing ways. As baptized Christians, we are all called to a way of life, and wherever we are, each of us is called to go and do and remember, in relationship with God and one another, whatever our path may be. Next week, our path will lead Buck and me back to that village in Tanzania. Amid the countless ways that our lives and the lives of the people of that village are different over the past nine years, an awareness of God’s ongoing presence has transformed even the lesson of giving and receiving.

But we do not have to go to a village in Tanzania to realize God’s transforming presence. Whether you are a child, a spouse, a parent; a banker, a builder, a student; an artist, a fraternity brother, a community volunteer; or anything else that you are and in any combination, you are called to do that as a child of God in relationship with other children of God and with an awareness of God’s presence among you. Contemplate that, explore it, and celebrate it. We are all one.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

A Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

By: Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector


09-18-Sunday-Service-8Acts 1:6-14

Today is a pivot point on many of our calendars. It’s Memorial Day weekend, the gateway to summer. We’ve just celebrated baptisms and confirmations. Graduations and the end of school have either happened or soon will. Summer activities and vacations await us.

We’re at a pivot point in church seasons, too. After six weeks, the Easter season is drawing to a close. We’ve celebrated not only Jesus’s resurrection, but also his reappearances among the disciples: in the locked room where they hid in fear after his crucifixion; and on the road to Emmaus where he walked alongside them; and at supper as he took, blessed, and broke bread with them. In the wake of his resurrection and those reappearances, we’ve also reexamined his assertion to the disciples that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and his assurance to them that he will never leave them orphaned.

Which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t leave them. Forty days after the resurrection – on our calendar, this past Thursday, known as Ascension Day – Jesus gathers the disciples on the Mount of Olives and is lifted up before their very eyes and disappears in a cloud. Gone. Vanished. But before he goes, he gives them very precise directions: go back to Jerusalem, and wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When it comes, he tells them, they will receive its power. And then, his final instruction: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

It’s a pivot point in the lives of the disciples. Until that moment when Jesus ascends, he has been their guide, their leader, and their teacher. They have been his companions, his followers, his students. Now they are his apostles, sent forth to spread the message of Jesus, to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.”

It can be a pivot point in our lives as well. Today, the Easter stories draw to a close. Like the ascended Jesus, the symbols of resurrection – the Easter hangings and the Paschal candle and the Alleluias that adorn the sanctuary – will soon be out of sight. And, as it is for the apostles, it can be our opportunity for us to take what we have seen and heard past three months and be Jesus’s witnesses. It can be our opportunity to pivot from focusing on what we know about Jesus to who we are because of Jesus.

How do we do that? For us as Episcopalians, I can’t think of a better starting point than our baptismal covenant. It includes five promises that we make, as we did last Sunday, at every baptism and confirmation. Here they are:

First, that we will continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. This goes to the heart of the pivot that we can make today. We’ve heard the stories. Now it’s our turn to tell them and to live them. Fellowship means that we do that together, just as we break bread together in the service of holy communion. It feeds our spirits as well as our bodies, and it is central to remembering who we are called to be. Prayers, whether said alone or with others, guide us on the journey. So come to church, take communion, and say your prayers.

Second, that we will persevere in resisting evil, and whenever, you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord. This promise recognizes that we all sin. What’s important is what we do about it. The word “persevere” recognizes that it’s hard, but we keep trying. It’s not an excuse to say “everyone else is doing it” or “me first.” We keep trying. And when (not if) we do sin, we face up to it: we accept that we’ve done something wrong, we say we’re sorry, and we ask forgiveness from the person we’ve hurt and from God. There is nothing more powerful than a heartfelt “I’m sorry.” It soothes the person we’ve wronged, and it goes a long way to heal whatever is in us that caused us to mess up in the first place.

Third, that we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. The word “gospel” means “good news,” and the good news of the gospels basically boils down to this: no one who is beyond the love of God. There is not a single person who approached Jesus during his life on earth whom he turned away, whether they were regarded as outcasts, like lepers and demoniacs, or were of another religion, like Gentiles and Samaritans, or were notorious sinners like the woman accused of adultery or tax collectors or the bandits who hung on the crosses on either side of his. We get to tell that story. Even better – and infinitely harder – we get to live it. No one is beyond the love of God.

Fourth, that we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. All persons. It’s easy, or at least easier, to seek and serve Christ in the people we love and the people who are like us. But Jesus himself said “Love your enemies,” and “all persons” is all-encompassing and unequivocal. Perhaps a clue to how to do this lies in the work “seek.” To seek something requires some effort. We have to look for something, maybe even ask for help from someone. Prayers help. Start small, maybe with a family member or coworker who drives you crazy. Or someone you don’t know, like someone you read about in the newspaper. But remember the kicker: all persons means all persons.

Fifth, that we will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. The definition of strive is to “make great efforts to achieve or obtain something,” and there’s that word “all” again. Faithful Episcopalians have various ideas about how to achieve justice and peace. Just ponder our different opinions with respect to affirmative action, climate change, gun control, health care and immigration reform. But that doesn’t let us off the hook. It means that we have to work together, to listen to one another, and, yes, to respect the dignity of every human being.

There we have them: five ways in which each and every one of us – on more than one occasion – has promised, with God’s help, to be Jesus’s witnesses. So take this pivot point as the opportunity that we have already, in our baptismal covenant, declared we want to take. An opportunity to pivot from merely saying what we believe to grappling with what it means to live it. An opportunity to pivot from being spectators to Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection to being witnesses to what that life, death, and resurrection mean in our lives today. An opportunity to pivot from hearing the good news to being the good news.

Happy summer!

A Sermon for Easter Sunday


09-18-Sunday-Service-8By: Louise Browner Blanchard, Rector

Matthew 28:1-10

“Do not be afraid.” If we’re meant to live into one thing on this glorious Easter morning, it is this. “Do not be afraid.”

It’s not like we don’t have plenty of reasons to be. So did Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. They had been with Jesus since his first days of ministry in Galilee – Mary Magdalene was one of the many people that he healed there. The two Marys were among the community of followers who traveled with Jesus throughout the towns and villages to Jerusalem. They ministered to him and supported him financially along the way. They were with him at his triumphant arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and as the tide turned swiftly against him. They watched as he died an agonizingly slow death on the cross…as Joseph of Arimathea laid his dead body in the tomb and rolled the great stone to the door. Because of their close association with the crucified Jesus, the ruthlessness of those who killed him, and their own excruciating grief, they had plenty of reasons to be afraid.

We might wonder why they even risked going back to the tomb. Yet many of us do something similar when we are grief stricken. We simply cannot believe someone or something we love is gone. Even if what happened awakens fears in us that we never knew we had, we return to a place or a memory because what happened just doesn’t seem real, or even possible. Maybe the two Marys needed to go back just one more time to prove to themselves that the unthinkable had indeed happened.

Well, it had. But the two Mary could not have expected what came next. With the force of an earthquake, an angel rolls back the stone from the tomb. He frightens the soldiers who are guarding the tomb so much that they tremble and freeze. But to the two Marys he says, “Do not be afraid.” Once he has shown them that Jesus is no longer in the tomb, he urges them to go quickly and tell the disciples to gather in Galilee, where they will see Jesus. And then, in an instant, Jesus himself stands before them and tells them the same thing: gather in Galilee, and do not be afraid.

“Do not be afraid.” Our observance of Holy Week has just led us through a period of increasing sorrow. A joyful Palm Sunday procession shifted quickly to the Passion. We commemorated the Last Supper that Jesus shared with the disciples before they abandoned and betrayed him. We heard the unrelenting story of the torture that Jesus endured on the way to his crucifixion and the unimaginable horror of his death on the cross. When the world can so quickly turn upside down, why would we not be afraid?

Meanwhile, the world around us seems at least as unsettled as it was in Jesus’ day. Events in Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, North Korea, and elsewhere make us aware of how high the stakes can be in this interconnected world. Closer to home, so many people we know and love are in the hospital, receiving difficult diagnoses, or otherwise enduring broken hearts. How can we not be afraid?

Because. Because the resurrection of Jesus proclaims that nothing is beyond the hope of God’s redemption, even in the face of what seems improbable, overwhelming, and impossible. “Do not be afraid.” Yes, we’ve heard it a thousand times. It sounds really good…until we’re called upon to do it. Until we have to face illness or heartache or fear itself, and we realize how hard it is to not be afraid. If you’re anything like me, it’s overwhelming how alone it can make us feel.

But it’s not something that we’re meant to do alone, any more than we’re meant to follow Jesus alone. We need each other. The second part of “do not be afraid” from both the angel and Jesus is to share the good news: to tell the disciples and to have them gather with Jesus in Galilee. Would the disciples even have believed either Mary if only one of them had told what she had seen and heard? But together, both Marys spread the good news. Together, the disciples will gather in Galilee, where they will see Jesus. Together, they will continue the feeding, healing, and teaching that first bound them together as a community of followers. And from there, Jesus will send them to make disciples of all nations. Do not be afraid.

As heirs of that original community of faith, we gather to share communion together; both words – community and communion – are rooted in the fellowship that we share as the Body of Christ. It reminds us that, whatever is happening in our world and the wider world, God steps in in the most amazing and unexpected ways, and we conquer our fears by living into the promises of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection together.

So let’s live into the St. Mary’s community of faith together. That doesn’t mean that we do everything together, but it does mean that we support one another in strengthening our community – that we love one another as Jesus loves us. That we recognize that the stronger our community, the deeper our connections to God and each other. And the less we have to fear.

We don’t have to participate in everything together, but we do need to participate in something together, so:

  • Volunteer with one of our outreach partners, or in the office
  • Join a pastoral care team, or a Bible study
  • Be a greeter or an usher
  • Teach Sunday school
  • Go on a mission trip
  • Increase your pledge
  • Engage respectfully with one another on the very difficult issues of our time in the context of our faith
  • Attend the Adult Forum or the Inquirer’s class
  • Serve on a committee
  • Sing in the choir
  • Tell the story

The possibilities are endless, and our job is to say yes.

We’re stronger together. Do not be afraid.