St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • Service… so that we may know joy – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    January 23, 2022

    Celebration and service are bound together. This is what scripture tells us. And it’s what our Christian tradition tells us in our sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism. Eucharist is a celebration that feeds us for ministry and Baptism is a commitment to a life of ministry. The joy that comes from celebration is something that we want to share with others and, as Christians, this comes in the form of ministry, sharing God’s love with one another. Because when we are of service, offering ourselves to one another, we are inherently celebrating God’s presence among us.

    Each aspect – the celebration and the ministry – come from the same source: gratitude. An experience of gratitude as the foundational response to God’s abundant, wild, unbounded, and extravagant love for us.

    In today’s passage from Nehemiah, we are given this image of a great gathering – all the people of Israel gathered before the Water Gate where Ezra read the law of Moses to them. At this time, the law of Moses was like reading the Gospel because the law of Moses was a way, a path for people to walk more intentionally with God. And when Ezra was finished reading to everyone, he offered a blessing and the people said “Amen. Amen.” And they worshipped God.

    But it doesn’t stop there. They spent time discussing and interpreting and taking it into their hearts. And then they were dismissed so they would celebrate and share that celebration with those “for whom nothing is prepared.”

    Star of Bethlehem by Waldemar Flaig

    It’s the model for Eucharist, you see. We gather. We read. We interpret. We feast. And everyone is invited to the Table. For, when we hear how much God loves us, when we take that in for ourselves and gain a real understanding of exactly what this means for us, it is our gratitude that brings us to the Table with everyone. And it is our gratitude that sustains us in ministry.

    The theme we are exploring this season is “Recommitment” as we take stock of our abilities and time, our desires and intentions for the coming year. What is important to understand as we do this, is that our plans for ministry, our commitments, are really investments in experiences of joy.

    Perhaps, especially during these waves and surges of the pandemic we are still going through, when it’s so hard to make plans, especially now, it’s central to our own mental health to make commitments. Because in our more difficult moments, as we all know, it is so hard to trust that experiences of joy are available to us. That there is more for us available in lives of service.

    From time to time, we may allow ourselves to be taken hostage by our lesser angels, the ones who complain and criticize and look for fault. The ones who forget that everyone is just doing the best that they can. Or perhaps they gossip or get a little lazy or want things to be different than they actually are. This is human. This is all human. And I know we’ve all been here. Including me.

    It’s so easy to hang out in these places, especially right now. And 24-hour news programs and social media don’t help because they are just echo chambers for our own self-righteous thoughts that enable us to stay addicted to our emotions of disappointment and dissatisfaction.

    One of my favorite lines from the movie Contact, where they are interviewing people who want to travel to meet beings from another planet and represent the human race. The main character played by Jodi Foster, is asked, if you only had one question to ask these creatures… what would it be? And she replies, “How did you do it? How did you survive this technological adolescence?”

    That’s how I feel so much of the time… how will we survive this technological adolescence when we are so steeped in programming and allow ourselves to become permanent residents of the echo chambers of social media?

    But I digress… perhaps because it is easy to do so, so easy to focus on the problem, so easy to focus on the thing that we believe is in the way of experiencing joy.

    But then, sometimes social media can offer a bright light, an epiphany. For me, this week, it came from Dr. Bernice King – a lawyer, minister, and youngest child of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And she’s the CEO of the King Center. She was being interviewed by Trevor Noah of the Daily Show, which is sometimes an echo chamber too, and they put a post on Instagram that stopped me in my tracks.

    While she was being interviewed, she said that in her father’s famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he says, “I have a dream…” She said that one of the central points of that speech that so many people overlook is actually this: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”

    And she says, what he was talking about is the stance of non-violence, which, of course, is about doing no physical harm but it’s about so much more than that. It’s our way of interacting with one another – to listen without being defensive and speak without being offensive. It’s about how we talk to one another. How we talk about one another.

    The Rev. Dr. King and the Buddhist teacher, who died this past week, Thich Nhat Hanh, supported each other and worked together to support non-violence as a way of moving in the world, as a way of advancing their causes.

    The younger Dr. King said this about non-violence:
    “In my Christian tradition, we say, “Death and life in the power of the tongue.” You can murder someone with your tongue. So when people say “I’m not violent because I don’t do anything physically…” it’s not confined to that. For some reason people think love is some namby pamby weak kind of thing… It’s not. What love does is it makes sure that you are also trying to elevate the situation, and even the person.”

    Let me say that again: What love does, is it makes sure that you are also trying to elevate the situation, and even the person.

    This kind of love is a discipline. To look for the good. To seek and serve Christ in all persons. To anticipate joy. To assume that people are always doing the best that they can and wait for the moment when their heart is open and elevate that, encourage that, shine Christ’s light on that.

    This is love in action – to offer oneself to these kinds of experiences, to elevate the situation in whatever way we can… this is an act of gratitude. This is what ministry is about.

    Ministry is how we live into our baptismal vows. It’s how we take the love of Christ, this star of heaven that comes down to us at Christmas, this light of Christ offered to us as the epiphany… the understanding, the realization… ministry is how we carry love and light forth into the world.

    Because love is not some namby pamby weak kind of thing… Love is about elevating the situation by listening to the voices of our better angels – to anticipate joy.

    Because joy comes in service, not in what we get. Trust me… I have walked the path of self-indulgence and comfort so many times that I cannot even begin to count. And it never brings me joy. Never ever. I only feel more self-righteous. I only feel more entitled. I only feel depressed and disappointed.

    What brings me joy is when I move away from my comfort zone and offer myself in ways that I could never have imagined beforehand. Sitting with someone as they are dying. Offering a space to someone who is homeless. Feeding someone who is hungry. Working with others to create some beauty in the world. This all brings me great joy.

    Elevating the situation to the best of my abilities.

    And we do this together. We all have a part to play, as St. Paul tells us. We were all made to drink of one Spirit. Because we are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.

    God has given us all gifts – teaching, speaking, healing, leadership, pastoral care and assistance. We don’t all have all the gifts. We weren’t meant to. And this is why we need each other.

    It’s really not about what we can be bothered to do, but about what we have the ability to do and, when we need assistance with our ministry, we ask. Because it’s not all on our shoulders. We work together for the common good so that St. John’s continues to be of service to the people of Kingston.

    Without all of us, there is no us. Because your gift of ministry, makes everyone else’s load just a little lighter. And then, we’re able to spend our time together, not just in the tasks of churchwork, but in the real ministry of elevating the situation. Elevating one another.

    Because the best part of this letter to the Corinthians is the very next verse, which comes next week, but I just want to give you a preview: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

    You see, we have all these gifts to offer but, it is in the Love we are given that we learn to offer them as the gifts that they are. It is in love that we learn to elevate the situation, to elevate other people around us. It is in love that we come to our true joy.

    This is the light we are longing for, as Ana sang about earlier. The light we are longing for, the truth we are longing for to be Christ’s light for the world to see is the joy we are longing for. Our world is longing for peace. People are longing for food and shelter and warmth and water… and here we are celebrating Eucharist and called to be servants in gratitude.

    Give us grace, our prayer for today says… give us grace to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim the Good News to all people so that we may know joy.

    So that we may know joy.