Happy Good Shepherd Sunday! By my reckoning this is my 30th Good Shepherd Sunday, which means I’m rapidly becoming an elder of the church.
I’m an English teacher; I love words. One of my favorite words is “audacity.” It’s so bold and brazen – Things that I’m generally not. It’s not that I’m a shrinking violent. I speak my mind. I’m standing here in front of you talking, but I try not to impose my views on others.
But I did volunteer for this gig today. The reason is that I’ve been wrestling with something for a couple years now. It started when Jim and Anne Donna’s son died from complications of a heart transplant at the age of 27. To my wife Eva and I, he was family. He got me thinking about that feeling of someone being “family” – Where does that come from?
I want to tell you some family stories – stories that inform my life, stories of the saints of this place that came before us, not only to unearth the particulars about us but also to name the glories of God.
As many of you know, I got to Good Shepherd was by working on Sunday mornings at a group home. The folks who lived there wanted to go to church. After several disappointing experiences, we came upon Good Shepherd. I remember the first time we stepped foot in this building. At the end of the service, the priest asked, “Do we have any announcements?” Diane (one of the group home residents) stood up and said, “I have an announcement. I have cramps, and I really don’t like it!” And the priest said he’d say a little blessing. A little later, at coffee hour, I found Diane surrounded by several of the older women in the parish all giving her advice, tea, comfort, and making a list for me to give the staff of things they should know about helping Diane with her cramps.
When I went back to the group home, I told the staff, “I think we’ve found a home.” I had no idea how prophetic a statement that would be. The reason we’d even found this parish was because of Mary Faith Sutton. She was a wiry and fiery daughter of an Episcopal priest from Connecticut who was a very visible presence here for years. She said to me very causally one day, “Why don’t you try my church.” She didn’t force it on us, but quietly invited us.
Mary Faith introduced me to a concept that’s very important in the Episcopal Church: personal ministry. To tell you the truth, when I first heard about personal ministry, I got scared. I started looking for the door; I thought it meant I’d have to take vows and wear funny clothes. But that’s not what she meant. What she meant is that God gives you gifts, and if you use those gifts to help others, then everything you do, you do for the glory of God. I can’t tell you how many times in my life when I was confronted with something difficult, something I didn’t want to do, that I would remember those words and it would get me through. Ministry would “kick in,” and I’d make it happen.
Mary Faith’s favorite place in the whole world was Stone Harbor Beach in New Jersey. It was a place she’d gone since she was a child, and she continued as an adult with her family. On the last night of the last week of her summer vacation at that beach, after having dinner with her family, Mary Faith had a massive heart attack. And I got the call, and I was stunned. That Sunday morning, I went to the group home, and I gathered everyone and told them the news, and I didn’t know what to do next. And Diane said, “We gotta go to church!” We did that. And we came back for about ten straight days; we came every evening, had coffee, cookies, prayed, and were together. It was Diane who knew to do that!
Mary Faith did pass away, and we held the memorial here. In my eulogy for her, I told people that one of Mary Faith’s sayings was that she was an “unfinished Christian.” And I ended the eulogy by saying, “She may not have been a finished Christian, but she was a complete one.”
I also met here Rosamund Rosenmeier. She was one of the great loves of my life (spiritually!). She was an incredible poet, teacher, spirit. When things were good here, Rosamund made things better, and when things were bad here, she just managed to smooth things over. She would do poetry readings here; she could transform this sanctuary in December in to a summer’s day on Prince Edward Island with her verse. She would often do it with Richard Hunter playing his harp behind her.
One day she started telling me about all the times in her life when she had disappointed people. This was hard for me to believe, because she seemed to me to be a perfect person. But it was Rosamund who said to me, “Jesus showed us his wounds for a reason. The man who cured lepers and gave sight to the blind, raised the dead, clearly could have cleaned up his own act if he wanted to. There was a reason he wanted us to see his wounds. That’s what it is to be human.” Rosamund was all about resurrection. So when I see his son and grandsons here, I can feel the pride that Rosamund has in him in my heart.
Carl Queander, many of you know. For a lot of the males at the church, we didn’t’ have a lot of male role models in the faith. My dad was a Catholic; he went to church because he was supposed to. But that’s about all. Carl was a person who really showed us what it meant to be a regular person – raise a family, have a cocktail or two, but was always here for us. His ministry was one of watching. He didn’t “keep an eye on us,” but rather “kept an eye out for us.” He was always looking for where he could be helpful and how he could make the situation better. Carl had been a warden for years before I took on the role. When I started as warden, I didn’t know a lot about what I was supposed to do, but I knew I was supposed to “keep an eye out” for people.
So back in September 2014, we suffered another tragedy here at the church. Kelly’s husband Dan passed away at the age of 50. It was hard. The day after he passed away, I woke up with this vision of what I had to do, which was to welcome people to this church at the memorial service. I felt called to tell people who we are and why we love Kelly and why this is so important to us. So I sent a long rambling email to Amy saying, “I have to do this!” Kelly thought it was a good idea, and so I got to do it.
The next Sunday, during the peace, Wallace took my hand and said, “Thank you for what you did for us on Friday at the memorial service.” That’s what crystalized for me my desire to preach today, on this Good Shepherd Sunday. What this Sunday means to me is all of you, and all your personal ministries, and all the talents all coming together, and somehow, everything gets filled in. I know nothing about building maintenance, by Steve Steadman sure does. I know very little about finances, but our Treasurers do. Somehow, we all manage to fill in the gaps and hold it together. And the thing about being part of a family is that the opportunity for joy grows exponentially, as does the certainty of sorrow. But when you have each other, we lift each other up and keep one another safe.
I thought my sermon was going to end there, until Holy Week, when for Olivia and Molly, Good Friday and Easter came early when Olivia’s father died unexpectedly And suddenly, as Amy said, “Holy Week is a rehearsal for our real lives, with their real losses and rebirths.” What struck me is that that whole week, while we were going through out services, I kept thinking about her family. I was feeling for Olivia but I was feeling with Fred. I, too, know what it’s like to have a young adult daughter far away (My 26 year old daughter is on her way from Vietnam to Cambodia right now).
The final story I want to tell is about Eucharist. The eucharist never meant a lot to me until I met Elly Andujar, who was a member here for many years. Elly was Puerto Rican. Whenever I would take communion with her, I would hear her say, “Presente” when she was given the bread. I thought maybe that meant that she was acknowledging the presence of Christ in the elements. But one day she explained to me that it meant something else. It meant, “I am present for those who cannot be here to receive because of political oppression or occupation. They are longing to be here but they can’t be.” I realized then that our sense of family extends way beyond the corner of Russell and Mt. Auburn. To be part of this family is to be part of the entire church: those who came before us, those here now, those who cannot be here now, and those yet to come. All this work, together, for the family of the Good Shepherd.
How audacious is that?!