In light of today’s Supreme Court decision to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, I’ve been thinking a lot about Lisa and Fiona. In the days before gay marriage was a viable option for same-sex couples, clergy were occasionally asked to perform “blessings.” Sometime these were even done in the context of a house blessing since many weren’t ready to bless these couples inside the four walls of a church.
These issues sound almost quaint in light of the recent progress toward marriage equality but these were high stakes, emotionally-charged times. I officiated at a same-sex blessing while a priest in New York and, with the couple’s “blessing,” I wrote an article about the experience that appeared in the Episcopal New Yorker. I share it with you here as I rejoice with the many gays and lesbians who simply want respect, dignity, equality, and perhaps an over-the-top wedding cake.
A More Perfect Union
One priest’s encounter with a same-sex blessing
“You two are nothing if not liturgically challenging,” I commented to Lisa and Fiona as we met to plan the blessing of their union. An interfaith same-sex blessing is not in the Book of Common Prayer. I looked.
Fiona, South African by birth, is a lifelong Anglican and a member of the All Saints’ vestry. Lisa is a self-described “Jewish Episcopalian.” Though she has not converted to Christianity, she and Fiona attend church together each week, pledge, and take their turn hosting coffee hour. Fiona’s daughter enthusiastically participates in our Sunday School program.
When they first approached me about performing a blessing, I admit I was slightly taken aback. Theological considerations in the abstract often have little relationship to concrete situations. I presumed such a request was inevitable and had formulated various responses, but the hypothetical never included faces. Suddenly this was more about two faithful parishioners than any General Convention debate. And it is why, after much prayer, consultation with the bishop, and conversation with my wardens, I agreed to conduct the service. Knowing Fiona and Lisa, praying with them, serving God with them, I became increasingly convinced that no other pastoral response was possible.
The service itself was not a political statement. It wasn’t about two women who had a tangential relationship with the parish. It wasn’t a publicity stunt. I didn’t call the press for “look-at-how-progressive-we-are” coverage. Lisa and Fiona didn’t send an announcement to the Style Section of the Sunday New York Times. Rather, it was a bold statement of love and commitment. A statement of Fiona and Lisa’s love for one another and a statement of Christ’s love for us all.
Fiona and Lisa could have made this statement in a variety of locales: a garden, a gazebo, a beach, or a courthouse. But they wanted to make this statement of love in their spiritual home. They wanted to share the moment with their friends and family, with their community of faith, in the place that has played such an integral role in their individual and collective spiritual journeys. And I couldn’t imagine denying them this simple yet profound request.
The liturgy evolved over time. And I was pleased at how much care and attention Lisa and Fiona paid to the ceremony. It was a carefully planned liturgy. Several resources for same-sex blessings exist; some are helpful, some are miserable. But none of them include the breaking of the glass. With input from the rabbi who assisted at the service, we put together a unique liturgy. One with dignity and joy, but above all one that sought to capture the abiding love of God for two faithful people seeking God’s blessing upon their union.
I’m not sure how the issue of same-sex blessings and even gay marriage will be resolved within the wider Church. All will be revealed in time. But I do know that I stared blankly at the parish register for quite some time following the service. It was not a “marriage.” Civil law and Church canons make this clear. But this liturgy was much too meaningful for Lisa and Fiona and all who witnessed this celebration to be classified under “Other Services.” There was nothing “other” about it.
Later that evening at the reception, as my wife and I danced the night away at Lyndhurst’s carriage house, I had the overwhelming conviction that God’s presence had hovered over the entire evening. There was a transcendent holiness that seemed to stop time and rest, if ever fleetingly, over those who had gathered in the presence of God to witness and bless this union. This was a celebration of love, commitment, and faith. And as a priest, it was a privilege to participate in a seminal moment in the lives of two wonderful and faithful people.
I hate baptismal shells. You know, those tiny little silver shell-shaped scoops used to carefully drip water on a baby’s head at baptism. I’ve never wanted to admit this before since, not only was I likely baptized with one (along with water and the Holy Spirit, of course) at St. Mark’s in Milwaukee in 1968, but many of my friends and colleagues swear by them. Plus, what self-respecting Episcopal sacristy doesn’t have a beautiful antique baptismal shell that’s been used at the baptismal font for generations?
But, please, let me explain. My problem with baptismal shells is that, in my opinion, they domesticate the rite. The thing is, baptism isn’t merely a quaint rite of passage; something to precede the real event: catered brunch back at the house. When getting the baby “done” takes precedence over the power of God’s Spirit working within us, baptism loses its entire raison d’être. We might as well just take an ordinary bath or a dip in a hotel pool.
Baptism is a rite of commitment; it’s a rite of indissoluble relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s also a rite of total immersion into the Christian faith and the ministry of all the baptized and of being marked as Christ’s own forever. In whatever manner we were baptized, we can’t live our lives as if we’ve been sprinkled with a few drops from a cute silver shell. We must live our lives of faith with the reckless abandon of total immersion.
Let’s face it, our relationship with God is not always a neat, tidy, orderly affair. It can get messy. And baptism, as both an initiation rite and as a continuing symbol of relationship with Christ, should reflect this messiness. There should be water splashing around! And the shell, to me, is just too precious. A symbol of trying to contain the Holy Spirit rather than unleashing it.
So if you come to a baptism at my church, you might get wet. I like to warn people that the area immediately surrounding the baptismal font is the “splash zone” — you sit there at your own risk. No, I won’t go far as baptism by full immersion — trying to jam an adult into our smallish font just isn’t happening. But I’m all for full spiritual immersion, something the shell just doesn’t seem to convey.
And anyway, as we mark the Baptism of Our Lord, it’s hard to imagine John the Baptist, after screaming “You brood of vipers!” at the Pharisees and yelling at all to “Repent!” sprinkling just a few drops of water from a tiny shell onto Jesus’ head in the Jordan River.
Ahhhh. Trinity Sunday. That day in the church year when we celebrate the mystery of the “one in three and three in one” that embodies the fullness of God. And the day when every rector in all of Christendom scrambles to find a seminarian to preach. Or a curate. Or anyone who is closer to the theological gymnastics of the seminary experience.
This year, I realized I was the only rector with a curate and/or seminarian scheduled to preach on Trinity Sunday. It’s a lonely club but at least you can admire my pluck, determination, and theological grit (ie. I forgot to look closely at the liturgical calendar when making up the preaching schedule). But it reminded me that a couple years ago I asked my Facebook friends to send me key phrases of Trinitarian minutia that often wind up in sermons preached on Trinity Sunday. I then prayerfully combined them into a Trinity Sunday Homilette.
Before I share the text, I should note that the key to good preaching on Trinity Sunday is linguistic sleight of hand. If you distract the congregation enough with props they won’t pay attention to the heresy you’re undoubtedly spewing. This lowers the potential of being reported to the bishop.
Trinity Sunday Sermon
“The New Paradigm of Homoousious”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (And I really mean it this time).
The Trinity [three intertwined circles appear on a giant projection screen]. It’s a confusing topic; one that I am not qualified to speak about because I failed the systematic theology portion of the General Ordination Exam. [Three circles morph into a green three-leaf clover] St. Patrick converted the King of Ireland to the Christian faith by using the clover [use awkward hand gesture to point to the screen]. As he held up the clover he enumerated (or is that renumerated?) about the Trinity telling the king that…[choir sings St. Patrick’s Breastplate to drown out the next few phrases. Twelve minutes later when the hymn ends and everyone has processed around the church nine times, the preacher continues].
The interplay between the Persons of the Trinity is like a dance. But not just any dance — a perichoretic dance of love. I once danced this way at a wedding of a good friend. My date left with a groomsman while I was doing my interpretive dance of the Trinity. It was at that moment that I decided to go to seminary.
But I digress. Where was I? Oh, the interpenetration of modality. Which sounds vaguely obscene until you remember that God loves you. Like a fox. But in a co-eternal, co-equal, co-habitating kind of way.
Did I mention I used to be a horrible acolyte back in the day? [After laughing at his own joke, preacher picks up three tapers and attempts to bring them together and then pull them apart. Unfortunately he lights the pulpit hanging on fire and puts them out with the three glasses of water he brought up to supplement the fire illustration in case it fell flat. He recovers by singing an a capella version of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” dramatically miming the line “Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.”]
In sum, we are all called to a hermeneutic of being immortal and invisible while still being led by faith and not by sight. Let me end by quoting from the well-loved Athanasian Creed; so beloved in church lore that it’s relegated to page 846 of the Book of Common Prayer. In the “Historical Documents” section that you may have covertly perused earlier in the sermon. “Blah, blah, blah Unity, blah, blah, blah Godhead, blah, blah, blah Essence.”
Nothing puts a bee in an Episcopalian’s bonnet quite like liturgical change. It brings out passion, anger, grief, and indignation (some righteous, some not so much). Those who lived through the transition from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to the current 1979 BCP have the battle scars to prove it.
I’ve been thinking about that transition this week as I learned that the Rev. Canon Leonel Mitchell died. Mitchell taught liturgy at my alma mater Seabury-Western Theological Seminary for many years and was the driving force behind the current Prayer Book. I keep several of his books including the classic “Praying Shapes Believing” within arm’s reach of my desk.
I was fortunate enough to be at Seabury when he returned for a couple of semesters to cover a sabbatical (he had long since retired by the time I showed up in Evanston). Hearing first-hand the stories of that era’s liturgical revision was a privilege. Of course, peeking behind the ecclesiastical curtain is not for the faint of heart. But you’d never meet a more gracious and friendly living legend than Lee Mitchell (though it’s true I’ve never met Ringo Starr).
Our parish Verger, Tom Daley, recently forwarded the accompanying letter written by W.H. Auden to the rector at his parish St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery in New York City. The missive was clearly written in the midst of this liturgical transition that Mitchell helped bring to fruition. The eloquence is classic Auden but the passion behind it is every disgruntled parishioner who has ever rued changes to the divine liturgy. The text of the letter is pasted in below. Enjoy. Then say a prayer for the repose of the soul of the Lee Mitchell.
77 St Mark’s Place
New York City 3
Nov. 26th [year not given]
Dear Father Allen:
Have you gone stark raving mad? Aside from its introduction of a lesson and psalm from the O.T., which seems to me admirable since few people go any more to Mattins or Evensong, the new ‘liturgy’ is appalling.
Our Church has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what ‘the quick and the dead’ means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.
This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with ‘the undemocratic’ is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?
I implore you by the bowels of Christ to stick to Cranmer and King James. Preaching, of course, is another matter: there the language must be contemporary. But one of the great functions of the liturgy is to keep us in touch with the past and the dead.
And what, by the way, has happened to the altar cloths? If they have been sold to give money to the poor, I will gladly accept their disappearance: I will not accept it on any liturgical or doctrinal grounds.
With best wishes
In my travels throughout the church (and by that I mean attending other parishes a few times a year when I’m on vacation), I’ve noticed that people are still of two minds when it comes to The Peace. In other other words they either (quite literally) embrace it or it’s their least favorite part of the liturgy.
You know how it goes: just before what I like to call Liturgical Halftime, the priest says “The Peace of the Lord be always with you” and the people respond “And also with you.”
I’ve worshiped in parishes where The Peace has taken so long, I could have gone out for a cup of coffee, drank it, returned, and not missed a thing. But turning it into a parish-wide love-in is surely not the point. It’s not a liturgical cocktail party where everyone mingles and greets everyone else in the entire church. On the other hand, I attended a service at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue in New York City about 15 years ago where the priest offered The Peace, the people responded, and the liturgy just went right on without anyone moving a muscle or even glancing around at those around them. That can’t be the intention either. There must, in true Anglican fashion, be a middle way.
When the Episcopal Church transitioned from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to the current iteration dating to 1979 one of the biggest controversies surrounded The Peace. The ’28 book didn’t have it; the ’79 book did. Some loved it; some hated it; and many misunderstood it.
But contrary to popular belief, The Peace was not a new liturgical innovation. Many of the epistles conclude with a call to greet the faithful with a “kiss of peace.” And out of this history, The Peace became part of the earliest Christian liturgies. So the re-introduction of the Peace with the “new” Prayer Book was a return to one of the Church’s most ancient liturgical practices.
I always think it’s helpful to reflect on what it actually means to offer “peace” to someone. Jesus offers us peace at the very core of our souls. So when we offer one another peace in his name it’s a reminder that whatever burdens we’re carrying around, whatever pain we’re holding onto, whatever hurts we bear in our hearts; that Jesus’ presence abides. And that he will never forsake us even in our darkest moments.
But the question remains, why do we still do this? At its worst it can feel awkward and a bit forced to look a stranger in the eye and wish them the peace of the Lord. Especially for the introverts among us. But The Peace is not merely a foretaste of the coffee hour that is to come or a holy “Hey, how’re you doing?” Rather it’s a tangible reminder that we’re not in this alone. When we gather to worship God we don’t come as isolated individuals in some sort of liturgical cocoon. That might feel safe or comfortable but it’s not how we understand and experience God.
We worship using the Book of Common Prayer, so named not because it’s ordinary but because it’s a communal expression of our life and worship together. We don’t hear God’s Word in isolation and we don’t receive Communion in isolation. By exchanging The Peace with one another we are forced to confront the reality that we worship in community, not because it happens to be convenient or always easy, but because Christ gathered disciples around himself and calls us into community as well.
So the next time you offer someone The Peace remember that it’s not just any peace but the peace of the Lord. That’s the peace that abides, that’s the peace that passes all understanding, that’s the peace that unburdens the soul and allows you to rest in God’s abounding love.
But by all means, just greet the people in the surrounding pews. Don’t worry, you’ll see everyone else while stuffing your face with deviled eggs in the parish hall after the liturgy.
I almost never, ever post sermons on my blog because 1) if people cared that much they’d show up at church and 2) there’s nothing worse than reading someone else’s sermon on a blog. The church website is one thing; for me, at least, the blog is something else entirely. So, unless I ever change the name to something exciting like “Father Tim’s Sermon Blog” don’t expect to see sermons here (as compelling, engaging, humorous, spiritually-uplifting, and life-transforming as they may be).
Enough people have requested copies of this one, however, that I’m making an exception. This was preached last week at the funeral of parishioner Chris Henderson. Chris was a young man who died of cancer at 37 leaving behind his wife Heather and three-year-old son Colin. They’re an amazing family and it was a privilege to get to know them throughout this process. Please keep Heather, Colin, his sister Emily, and parents Linda and Richard in your prayers in the days, weeks, and months ahead. And may Chris’ soul and the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace and rise in glory.
A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evanangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 16, 2011.
After the cancer had moved into his bones and caused Chris’ right arm to fracture, I spent a couple of hours with him and Heather and her parents in the Emergency Room at South Shore Hospital. As we were waiting for his transfer to Mass General in the midst of a snow storm, and Chris was in excruciating pain, I asked him if he had ever broken anything before. And without missing a beat he looked up at me and said “Just a lot of hearts.”
Throughout his valiant battle with the disease that would take his life, Chris never lost his sense of humor. And while many of us come together this day with hearts that are indeed breaking over a situation that seems so unjust, we can also give thanks for having known a man of profound courage, faith, and love. A man whose devotion to family and friends was the trajectory upon which his life was defined.
If there is one thing that the Christian faith teaches us about death, it is that it is not the end. Through his resurrection, Jesus destroyed the bonds of death by bridging for us the giant chasm between this life and the next. And so, while Chris’ mortal body has passed away, his soul has not. His very essence has not died but has rather entered into a larger, more abundant life. A place without suffering and without reproach; a place of hope and joy and peace and comfort. Now I realize this can feel like cold comfort in the midst of such raw and bitter grief. Just because Jesus took away the sting of death does not mean that death stings any less. Especially when a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend is prematurely taken from us.
But the good news for us is that in the life of faith there are no permanent goodbyes; there are merely temporary farewells. Though our mortal bodies pass away, we live on eternally. And on the last day we, too, will rise with Jesus Christ and join with Chris and all the faithful departed from every generation who have come before us. That is both the hope and the power of the resurrection.
And so while we’re left with many questions about why this happened; about why such a beautiful life was cut short; about why God chose to call his servant Chris home; there is no doubt about where Chris has gone.
A few weeks ago – although it quite literally feels like a lifetime ago – Chris was sitting in this very space – right there in the front row – as we baptized his niece, Lydia. He was having a good day and he was so clearly thrilled to be here to mark this special occasion. His mother, Linda, recently shared with me that Lydia was wearing the same white baptismal gown in which Chris was baptized.
And what a profound connection. Because in baptism we are buried with Christ in his death and raised with him in his resurrection. In baptism we are marked as Christ’s own forever. Not for awhile or only if we’re on our best behavior. But forever. A forever that begins as the sign of the cross is made upon our foreheads and continues to mark us as Christ’s own even as we remember, in our humanity, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
On Thursday night as the family was gathered at Heather and Chris’ home on Hersey Street, I administered the Episcopal Church’s version of Last Rites. Chris was resting comfortably and quietly as we said the Litany and I anointed him for the final time – again making that sign of the cross on his forehead in remembrance that he would always belong to God. At the end of our time together he slowly but quite deliberately reached out and took Heather’s hand. It was a moment that transcended words. A moment that spoke volumes about Chris’ priorities in this life.
And in the same way, at virtually the same moment, Jesus was reaching his hand out to Chris; welcoming him home into that place where there is no pain or suffering or grief but only life eternal.
Everyone sitting here in this packed church has been indelibly changed for having known Christopher Henderson – Topher to so many of you. For those who have known him and loved him, know that he will always be a part of you. That while his body was broken his spirit will never die.
And so we’re left with a choice. You can either be defined by death or defined by resurrection. Chris chose to be defined by resurrection; he chose to live as an inspiration to others – not that he would necessarily admit that. But his grace and humor and humanity will survive and inspire us long after this day. And that’s the legacy he leaves behind for each one of us. I encourage you to reflect upon the ways in which your life and the priorities that define you might be transformed for having known this remarkable man. That is his living, lasting legacy. And life is too short and precious to be lived any other way.
And finally, to Heather and Colin, Chris will always be a part of your family because he will always be a part of you. Just as nothing can separate us from the love of God – not even death – so nothing can separate you from Chris’ loving presence – not even death. And that is the good news in the midst of our sorrow. That is the resurrection hope in the midst of our despair. And it is why “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
I never post sermons on my blog because, frankly, no one checks out a blog to read a sermon. But I had so much fun preaching at the installation of my friend Rick Swanson as the new rector of St. John’s in the Mountains in Stowe, Vermont, that I decided to go against my unwritten rule. Plus, Rick likes to see his name in lights. Even if those lights are the ever-so-dim lights of my blog.
I’d never been to Stowe and had barely ever stepped foot in Vermont. My first impression when I stepped out of the car in the midst of the quaint village was that the place smelled like cow manure. Literally. But that just added to the charm. And according to both Rick and Bryna we’re taking a family trip out there to ski in February. Who knew?
It was a privilege to preach on such an occasion and it reminded me that close friends so enrich this whole journey of life.
The Installation of the Rev. Rick Swanson as
Rector of St. John’s in the Mountains, Stowe, Vermont
November 16, 2010
Preached by the Rev. Tim Schenck
One of the great things about being a new rector, and I’ve had the experience twice now, is that for a short time people actually do believe you can walk on water. And I don’t know about Rick but I’ve never seen a need to dissuade anyone of this notion. That seems to happen soon enough all on its own. But the start of a new pastoral relationship is a heady time for both rector and congregation. Tremendous energy and enthusiasm pulsates throughout the community, the sense of hope and anticipation and excitement is tangible. You’d have to be half dead not to feel it this very night.
The reality is that if you read any parish profile it quickly becomes clear what the parish seeks in a new rector – an excellent preacher, an able administrator, a compassionate pastor, an engaging teacher, a gifted writer, an active listener, an extroverted introvert with a knowledge of plumbing who never sleeps. In other words, they seek the Messiah.
Now I’ve known Rick for many years; I went to seminary with Rick; he’s the godfather of my eldest son; we’ve prayed together and gone to Wrigley Field together; Rick taught a low churchman from the Diocese of Maryland how to swing a thurible and gradually nudged me up the candlestick in my personal piety. And there’s one thing you should know about Rick: he is not the Messiah (and, boy, have I always wanted to proclaim that from the pulpit).
But if he’s not the Messiah, Rick is someone who is very clear about his identity – the baptismal covenant is at the core of his being. He understands that he is first and foremost a child of God. And he is a child of God because he, like all of us, has been washed in the water of baptism.
Rick is a man of prayer, a priest who truly understands that all ministry flows from the baptismal font out into the world. He will minister both with and to you and his presence will be a profound blessing to this community as it has been in my own life. He may not be the Messiah and, fortunately for all of you, neither does he have a Messiah-complex. But his whole sense of being points toward the Messiah. In Rick, you have called a faithful leader and a true partner in ministry. And I am confident that you will all be enriched by his ministry as he will be mutually enriched by yours. (And I will be enriched by having a place to stay during ski season.)
It’s telling that the gospel chosen for this occasion is the baptism of Jesus. With his baptism at the hand of John in the River Jordan, Jesus’ public ministry begins. It is the start of something new; a recognition that things have changed; and an acknowledgment that Jesus has been called to a specific ministry of salvation.
Baptism is for us, as it was for Jesus, a transformative moment in our lives. Of course most of us don’t have the slightest memory of the moment that our relationship with God in Christ was fully initiated through baptism. That’s what happens when we’re baptized as infants. But more important than remembering the specific event is that we live into our baptismal covenants throughout our lives. And that is ultimately what you have called Rick to do. To walk with you as you continually strive to live out your baptismal covenants in this place and in the world.
Now you may well ask, “If Jesus was God’s son, why did he need to be baptized?” This is the sort of question that stops Sunday School teachers and priests dead in their tracks. I once received a phone call from a panicked Sunday School teacher who was asked this very question. Fortunately the teacher did the smart thing – she told the child it was an excellent question and that she’d discuss it the following week. In the meantime she started scrambling for the answer. Of course the next week the kid had no idea why she was even bringing up the topic.
I’ve always seen the baptism of Jesus as not so much for Jesus but for us. The drama of the heavens opening and the dove descending are a public affirmation of what both God and Jesus already knew: that Jesus was God’s son. This was a clear sign to those who observed the baptism, and to us as well, that God was doing something new. It was a sign that a new age had dawned. And in this same way tonight’s Celebration of New Ministry isn’t as much for Rick alone as it is for the entire community of St. John’s in the Mountains. The gospel has, of course, been preached in this place for many years but tonight we mark a new leg on your continuing journey of life and faith. One that includes a new rector but one that doesn’t change the essentials of your witness to Jesus Christ here in the mountains of Vermont.
And moving forward in ministry, your refrain as a community of faith must echo the responses of the baptismal covenant. It must be “With God’s help.” Because you can have the greatest programs in the world; cutting edge, shiny new programs; and you can have the most cared for and tended to facilities in all of Christendom; and you can have the best liturgy in the Diocese of Vermont (and knowing Rick you soon will). But without God’s help none of it matters. It becomes busy work or empty ritual without the context of covenant with God. Without divine relationship the bones remain dry.
As you enter into this new relationship, know that Rick will not just wade in the water with you; he’ll dive right into that deep well of baptismal relationship. He will seek not just to do ministry but to continually strive for transformation with and among you.
So I apologize for letting you in on the secret that Rick isn’t actually the Messiah. But I do pray that this will be a fruitful pastoral relationship for many years to come. Rick does have an amazing array of gifts and you are blessed to have him among you as priest, pastor, friend, and fellow child of God. May you revel in this relationship and be drawn ever more deeply into the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.