Sunday, March 27, 2011


Girls at a village well

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 27, 2011. The lectionary readings are Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11 , Psalm 95, and John 4:5-42.

When I think of the season of Lent and of today’s Gospel story about the Samaritan woman at the well, I remember a particular church I went in, several years ago. It was Lent. There was purple on the altar and the pulpit and lectern, like most churches use for this season. The church also had a free-standing baptismal font in the back, near the main entrance. This meant that as one entered the church through the main doors, one would walk right by the baptismal font. It was usually filled with Holy Water, and one could take a little, perhaps make the sign of the cross with the wet finger, and remember one’s own baptism.

But on this particular day, as I walked into the church and walked by the font, I was surprised to find no water. There was no water, but the font was not empty. Instead, it was filled with sand and some sort of dried twigs. It made a point having to do with the season of Lent. This church was waiting on Easter for the font to be filled. It was waiting on Easter for new water and that particular congregation was reminding itself that it was waiting for Easter for new life. Until then, it would acknowledge its thirst.

Today’s scriptures are about thirst.

In the first reading we hear how the people of Israel feel like they’re about to die of thirst. It’s a literal thirst, to be sure. But it also seems to be a partly spiritual thirst. After wandering in the desert, they begin to wonder: Has the Lord forgotten us? Is Moses up to the task of leading us? They’re stuck in a cycle of bickering and fussing with each other, of feeling like they’re being tested. Will they ever be relieved of this thirst, this doubt, this frustration? God hears their prayer and Moses makes a miracle. As the psalmist sings, “He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers. He smote the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed.” (Psalm 78)

But water doesn’t always come so easily. In the Gospel, water is almost bargained over. We have this wonderful (if long) story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It takes place around water, with water, about water. It’s a great conversation between the woman and Jesus. There’s a give and take, a back and forth about it. The Samaritan woman is skeptical. She’s cautious. She wonders if Jesus is just another charmer whose promises are empty. But she still listens, because she’s thirsty for some good news, some glimmer of new life. Responding to her questions, Jesus explains about the water that he can give. He can give water that quenches thirst, water that washes, that completes us, and buoys us up into the loving arms of God.

This story is important because it shows us Jesus going outside the social norms of his day and moving beyond the racial and gender norms of his culture to befriend this Samaritan woman. It reminds us that Christian faith, at its best, moves outward, invites and encourages.

The story is also important because it shows us Jesus as the Lord of Creation—of all creation-- and that includes water. The water is physical and literal, but it is also spiritual. It symbolizes faith itself—our ability to believe that Jesus came, died and rose for us. The water is also hope—hope for God’s protection and guidance, hope for God’s good purposes in our lives and in our world, and hope for our eternal life in God. And finally, the water represents charity—water that is shared, faith that is shared, belief that is shared.

The Samaritan woman is offered living water by Jesus and it’s interesting to me to notice what she does and what she does NOT do. She does not commit herself to a life of meditation upon the water. She does not build a shrine there at the well, a shrine to spend all her days at. She does not start a new form of worship around the water. Instead, she becomes a disciple. She becomes a witness and she goes around telling people about Jesus. In other words, she doesn’t hoard the water or save it up for another dry spell. She goes out offering Living Water to others.

The season of Lent invites us to notice our thirst. For what do we hunger and thirst? Do you hunger for health or healing? For relationship, for someone to love or someone to love you back? Do you hunger for meaningful work, or for a new start with someone, or for some burst of new energy or creativity in your life? We don’t know exactly what was going on in the life of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well, but she had the faith to come thirst, and she had the courage to ask Jesus for water.

In a great old hymn from the 19th century, Fanny Crosby invites us to come.

Come with thy sins to the fountain, Come with thy burden of grief; Bury them deep in its waters, There thou wilt find a relief.

Come as thou art to the fountain, Jesus is waiting for thee; What though thy sins are like crimson, White as the snow they shall be.

Come and be healed at the fountain, List to the peace speaking voice; Over a sinner returning Now let the angels rejoice.

I began this morning by talking about a church I went into that had taken out the water from its baptismal font for the season of Lent. While I understand the imagery, and appreciate the attempt to use a visual to help people think about the season, I think the image can be confusing. Even though we thirst for all sorts of things. Even though we thirst for God, the font of living water is never empty. The church is NEVER without water, if we will look for it from God.

With the persistence, the tenacity, the honesty, and the faith of the woman at the well, let us ask God to quench our thirst not just at Easter, but this day and always.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Born from above

Nicodemus Coming to Jesus by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2011. The lectionary readings are Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121 , Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, and John 3:1-17 .

On the night before Easter, at the Great Vigil of Easter, the church gathers to hear again how God has been working to save his people, from the beginning of time. God saved the People of Israel. God saved those who met Jesus and followed him, and God saves us still. One of the scripture readings often heard in that liturgy is from the Book of Ezekiel (36:24-28). God says

I will . . . bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your impurities . . . A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you . . . .

A new heart and a new spirit. This promise comes when people are down and out. They’re tired. They’re beaten. They’ve almost given up. But God gives hope and God makes a promise. Easter, itself, with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, brings the ultimate in a new creation, and all of Easter is a prolonged celebration and meditation on what it means for us, that we have the hope of eternal life, but in today’s scripture, we get a foretaste of God’s life-giving Spirit. We get a glimmer of it in the first reading, and we get a close-up view in the Gospel.

The Reading from Genesis only mentions Abram. God tells Abram and Sarai to “get up and go.” God has a plan for them, and everything is going to be different. Abram and Sarai follow God into a new land, and it seems like over and over again, their faith is put to the test. If they had one view of how their life might go, how things might turn out, it seems like, at every corner, God does something else. This reaches a highpoint when God reveals to Abram and Sarai that they are going to have a child, even in their old age, and they both get a name-change marking the occasion. One would think that after all they had been through, they might be used to God’s way of seeming to change the nature of the game mid-course, but they don’t seem any more accustomed to it than we might be. When Sarah hears that she’s going to give birth at her old age, she laughs, and indeed, that’s how Isaac gets which means, “laughter, or she laughs.”

Laughter is a common response when we finally begin to see what might be unfolding for us in God’s plan. But before the laughter, there are other emotions: fear, loneliness, heartache, confusion, anger… you name it.

Nicodemus must have been going through some of this when he hears about Jesus. We don’t know what had changed or shifted in his life to put him in this place of potentiality, but whatever it was, Nicodemus was tired of the old. He had tried things his way. And so, cautiously at first, Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the night.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, one of the spiritual elite, a man of social standing and respect and probably known by many of the other religious leaders. He is referred to as the “ruler of the Jews,” so he must have been of special rank and authority. He knows the scriptures. He is educated. He can carry a conversation with the most sophisticated people around and he is nobody’s fool.

But somehow Nicodemus has also come to a turning point in his life. Something has to give. He notices that Jesus is unlike others. Jesus is more than a great teacher. There is something there that not only challenges the mind, but it also somehow makes a claim on the heart. Jesus makes a claim on his whole life. And so Nicodemus draws closer. He comes to meet Jesus by night. He comes by night because he has a lot to lose. He is hesitant. He is afraid.

Jesus tells him that if he wants to see the kingdom of God, he has to be born anew. Born of water and spirit. Born again. Born from above. Born with new belief that God loves the world so very much, that God has come into the world to save it through Jesus.

This is a game-change. Nicodemus probably thought he had life all planned out. Everything was in place, but now this. Nicodemus was fulfilled, or so his thought. He was full, for sure. He’s very “full.” He’s filled with information and knowledge. He’s filled with beliefs and opinions. He’s filled with years of religious practice, of fasting and almsgiving, and praying at the temple, and doing charitable work. Nicodemus has reached old age by living a good, careful and prudent life. And so, why the change now? What is Jesus talking about?

Because God has even more new life planned. And somehow through Nicodemus, others, too, are going to be saved.

It’s tempting (for me, at least) to thing of Lent as a natural time for spiritual growth. We can see things blooming and blossoming outdoors, and so we can imagine that it is within the normal and predictable order of things that growth might be taking new form in us, as well. And while some of that may be true, the kind of spiritual rebirth experienced by Nicodemus is anything but natural. It comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t follow the normal order of things. It involves his being “born again,” or to translate the phrase differently, Nicodemus is “born from above.”

Though we might like to imagine that life follows a predictable course, our actual living tells us otherwise, doesn’t it? A diagnosis from the doctor can change everything. A changing economy or downsizing can change everything. A disaster can change the life we thought we were living. A death of someone we love can disorient us and seem to change everything. And we find we’re in that wilderness place with Abram and Sarai, unable to see or hear God’s promise yet. We’re like Nicodemus stumbling in the dark, unable to make our way just yet, not seeing that there’s any light.

In such times, words often fail. When someone’s house burns down, the worse thing to say is, “You can rebuild.” When someone loses a child or tries to have a child and can’t, one of the worst things to say is, “You can always try again.” And when someone is out of work, though we don’t know what to say to be encouraging or helpful, it’s usually not so helpful for us to say, “You’ll find another job.”

While all these phrases are the things we say because we don’t know what to say, the person with the fire, the loss, the emptiness, is where he or she is. For us to want them to move into another place too quickly is to refuse to see where she or he is. These people (our friends, our family, ourselves) are in a place that feels wild and uncharted. It can feel like a place of loneliness, a place of death even, and a place of ashes. Words don’t sound the same in this place, even when we can hear them.

But while words often fail, we do have one another. When someone near us is struggling, it’s not always the most helpful thing to recommend books, or plot strategy, or offer words of encouragement- though all of these things (of course) have their place. The most powerful reminder of hope in God is to offer ourselves. If there is some part of us that has known God’s rebirth in our lives, if there is some part of us that has felt the rekindling of God’s spirit even when we had been down… if there is some part of us that can live as a witness to God’s power of new life, of new birth, then our presence itself can be a sign of hope for the person who is lost. Abraham and Sarah became spiritual leaders because they had been through the wilderness and survived. Nicodemus became helpful to others because he had gone through his own “dark night of the soul” and had been found by Light again, so he could witness to the light.

A friend of mine was recently reflecting on the time she lost her job a few years ago. With the loss of her job, not only did she lose her income, her health insurance, her sense of stability, but she also lost her identity, since her job was so much a part of her own self-understanding. But, as she puts it, after a while, she realized that she needed to believe in her own journey again. Though she had always thought she had life planned and plotted out, clearly, something else was going to happen. Life wasn’t over, just changed. She had lost one identity, but life was inviting her to find a new one. She had to regain belief in her own journey, that even though the pathway might be through the fog, with the help of others, and with the help of God, she would make it.

What we can offer the person or the people who are suffering is our own strength, witness, and support. If we can convey in some way that we, ourselves have known what it is to be lost in the wilderness and then born from above, this is the hope we can share.

Just a few weeks ago we observed Ash Wednesday. Though the liturgy and prayers of that day can sometimes feel heavy, the day allows us to re-locate ourselves in the drama of life, and death, and new life. We acknowledge the places that are broken and begin to clear away the wreckage. And we allow God to begin again with us. To re-frame the words of Psalm 51,

God helps us to hear of joy and gladness, that the body that was broken might rejoice. God creates a new heart, and a right spirit within us. God gives us the joy of his saving help again, and sustains us with his bountiful spirit. We are delivered from death, and given new lives for praise.

Jesus says that we can be born again. We can be born from above. This happens again and again and again. With God’s Spirit, we ARE (even now) being born from above.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ash Wednesday

A homily for Ash Wednesday, March 9, 2011. The lectionary readings are Joel 2:1-2,12-17, Psalm 103 or 103:8-14, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.

Often when Jesus tried to explain something about God, he used a story. Jesus told stories from long ago and stories from his own day. When I try to think through the various strains and struggles of Ash Wednesday, I think of a story. But I think of a story from a few years ago.

In 2004 Marilynne Robinson wrote a book called Gilead. The novel takes the form of a long letter from one man to his son. It’s a novel that is really filled stories and memories, with regrets and with hopes. John Ames is the narrator, and he’s a preacher from a family of preachers. In one story, Ames recalls the time that a nearby church had been struck by lightening and burned down. The pulpit was still left, but most of the pews had been reduced to firewood. The people had all gotten together to clean up what remained of the church. “It was like a camp meeting and a picnic,” Ames writes his son. It started raining, but lightly, like a mist. The people sang hymns like “Blessed Jesus” and “The Old Rugged Cross.” They gathered up all the burned books, and made two graves for them, one for the bibles and one for the hymnals. The minister said a prayer over them. The women put the food out while everyone kept working. Ames describes what it looked like with the rain so gently covering all that had burned. “The ashes turned liquid in the rain,” he says, “and the men who were working in the ruins got entirely black and filthy, till you would hardly know one from another.” Ames remembers that his father brought him a biscuit that was covered in soot from his father’s hands. When the child looks at it, his father looks back and says, “Never mind that.”

He says, “There’s nothing cleaner than ash.” [p. 95]

Nothing cleaner than ash.

That sounds strange. Most of us will wash our faces later, to get clean. Ashes seem to stain and are dirty, it makes little sense that they might be clean.

And yet what we enact today has a lot to do with our being made clean. We take on ashes as a sign of penance, as an outward expression of what we might sometimes feel inwardly. That we have done bad things. That we have misused God’s gifts. In just a few minutes we take on ashes and say Psalm 51. The ashes begin to clean. We pray a litany of penitence, and they clean a little more. And then we hear words of promise. We are promised that God pardons and absolves, that we will be forgiven, that God forgets our sins. We hear the promise that we can be made clean, that we will be made clean. And so, there is nothing, really, cleaner than ash.

In the Gospel, Jesus assumes that his disciples will be taking on various spiritual disciplines. He doesn’t say, “If you give alms, if you pray, if you fast.” Jesus says, WHEN you give money, WHEN you pray, WHEN you fast. Don’t make such a big deal out of it. There’s no need to show off. This is not a spiritual competition. Rather, be honest. Learn humility. Put your heart in the right place. Come clean.

Lent began as a season of preparation, and it was especially meant for the preparation of those to be baptized at Easter. At their baptism, the brand new Christian was be outfitted in a white garment-- a new, clean, white garment. The Church says to these people, whether adults or children, “you have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment and bring it unstained to the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ so that you may have eternal life.

The Good News for us is that this promise is not just for those being baptized. It is for all of us who are open to God’s grace and forgiveness.

Beginning with clean, black ashes, in this new season, may we be made holy and new.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Transfigured by Forebears

A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, March 6, 2011. The lectionary readings are Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21, and Matthew 17:1-9.

I’m reading a book by a chef named Gabrielle Hamilton. [Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Random House, 2011.] She runs a little restaurant called Prune in New York, and she’s known for being as up front and honest in her speaking as she is in her cooking. Her food is unpretentious and uncomplicated, but creative and nurturing. The book tells part of why both she and her food are the way they are.

She begins the book by describing these amazing summer parties given by her family when she was growing up. As she describes the building of the charcoal fire, the roasting of lambs, the lighting of luminaries through a meadow, and then all the interesting, creative people who would attend, it’s tempting to read that description and think, “wow, what a childhood. I might be a famous chef, too, if I grew up that way,” with a French mother and an artist father who both seem a little “larger than life.”

But then, Hamilton reveals that childhood was not only a long summer party. Her parents divorce. The family goes in different directions, and the whole picture changes. I realize that the story sounds the way it does, the people seem the way they do, because of Hamilton’s telling. By deeply engaging her family (and indeed, through the rest of the book, by deeply engaging other significant people in her life) the author grows stronger. She grows into herself.

I don’t think it’s too much to say that she is “transfigured” by those who have gone before her. She is transfigured by her forbears.

I like that word, “forebear.” Not only does it avoid the awkward construction of having to say both “forefather and foremother,” but it is also more expressive and personal somehow than simply saying “ancestor.” A forebear is someone who has gone before us—whether related to us by blood or by some other means, but a forebear also puts into my mind the idea that even as I might “carry” a forebear with me (inside my head, inside my heart, sometimes in my appearance, in my way of speech, or in my mannerisms), my forebears also sometimes carry me. The memory of them, the presence of them sometimes carries me and gives me strength.

I think this happens for Jesus in today’s Gospel. He and some of his disciples go up a mountain. Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t say what they were doing, whether they were all at prayer, or just Jesus was praying alone, whether they were discussing theology, or simply taking a hike. But there in the midst of their day, Moses and Elijah appear. This appearance is not random, but very specifically related to Jesus. It’s often understood that the appearance of Moses represents the Law of God, and the appearance of Elijah represents the tradition of the prophets. Their presence endorses Jesus as the fulfillment of those two great traditions in Judaism. And then to underscore the meaning of the vision to the disciples, the scripture says Jesus was “transfigured before them.” His face shines like the sun. His clothes begin to glimmer. And then the disciples hear the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

The presence of Moses and Elijah should not be underestimated. The first reading from Exodus reminds us of the power of Moses. He received the Ten Commandments from God. He was the go-between for the people with God. God worked through Moses to liberate the people from slavery in Egypt. Moses walked with them through the desert. Moses led them to the very edge of the Promised Land. As if Moses were not enough, Elijah is there, too.

Elijah was believed to have raised people from the dead, brought fire down from heaven, and then when his time was ended on earth, Elijah was thought to have been taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire.

Moses and Elijah were powerful people for Jesus to contend with. He could have chosen a different way of dealing with them. He might have set himself up as being so different from the old ways as to be almost unrecognizable. But instead, Jesus made peace with these two powerful traditions within Judaism. He made peace with his spiritual forebears. And through that process, he was transfigured—he was changed with more strength, with more purpose, with a deeper sense of God’s presence and power.

Transfiguration occurs for Jesus when he recognizes, when he befriends, and when he accepts his spiritual forebears. It happens for us in similar ways. It happens in a variety of areas.

Transfiguration happens in institutions. As a parish that is one hundred years old this year, we have the opportunity for unearthing some of our history, picking it up, and looking at it closely. We can explore how we came to be an independent congregation from St. Alban’s. We can look at the role the parish played in some of the major events of the diocese and the world. We can give thanks (especially on hot days) that this was the first congregation in the diocese to be air-conditioned. (But we can also be aware that most of that HVAC system remains the original equipment and needs to be replaced.) It’s an opportunity for us to study our history, but then decide what we want to do about it. Do we live into the future with an idealized version of what we should be? Or do we get about making our own history, while still being thankful and mindful of the past?

Transfiguration happens in leadership roles, whether one is the head of a women’s circle, the coach of a soccer team, or the CFO of a company. As the rector, I encounter possibilities for transfiguration in my role. All Souls has had some strong rectors. But each new priest has had to deal with the legacy of his forebears. Henry Hatch Dent Sterrett had to follow his father, Dr. James MacBride Sterrett, a dynamic and well-loved priest. Rev. Blackwelder had to follow the powerful legacy of what had been essentially a family business of the Sterretts. Rev. Mackov had to follow Blackwelder, a well-known personality in the local media, and a conservative force in the diocese. Rev. Cave had problems of his own, though some of this may have been in reaction to the powerful legacies he followed. And Father Van Dooren stepped into a church that was largely empty, with stained-glass windows covered with soot, and yet, he found a handful of people thirsty for the Spirit of God. And now, here I am. I don’t have Moses and Elijah looking over my back, but sometimes it feels like my forebears are just as formidable.

We all encounter these opportunities for transfiguration—in our work, in our families, in our organizations, and in our personal relationships. We become transfigured by our forebears when we recognize, we befriend, and we accept.

Recognizing. It’s important to recognize the forces of history and presence that are alive and well around us and in us. Notice them, acknowledge them. Thank them for showing up. Learn about them. What motivated them? What led them on? What held them back? What shaped them?

Befriending. But then, the second step in transfiguration has to do with befriending the forebears. Befriending simply means coming to terms. While we thanked the forebears in noticing their presence, in befriending, we also might shake their hands and thank them to leave now, their work is done. Befriending may include forgiveness. But the coming to terms with our ancestors, our forerunners, the ghosts in our closets, the spirits that invade our relationships (the former spouses or partners)—the befriending of our forebears will allow for the third aspect of transfiguration: acceptance.

Accepting. Having acknowledged, having made some attempt to befriend, God helps us accept who we are in our current position, or relationship, or standing. We can accept all that’s gone into the equation, and we can look forward to the future with new faith and with the confidence that we are not alone. God allows us to move along with the Communion of Saints (and the community of sinners).

I know a lot of people are familiar with the little poem or saying called “Footprints in the Sand.” The poem is about looking over one’s life and noticing that during the hardest times, there appears to be only one set of footprints in the sand. The speaker wonders where God has been during those times, only to hear that those places, with only one set of footprints, are the places where God carried him. This idea can be a powerful reminder that we’re never alone. But in reality, I don’t think the true picture looks like those photographs and posters of “Footprints in the Sand.” At least not for me. Instead of just one set of footprints during the difficult times, I think the picture looks more like a beach party has happened, or a mob scene of confused and unconnected footprints, a whole cluster of footprints, representing all of those who have held me up, prodded me from the past, or taken my hand to lead me into the future.

To imagine the Transfiguration as including a transforming of relationships is in no way to diminish the presence of God or the moments that seem miraculous. It is, instead, simply to affirm that often, God transfigures us with help of other people, God working through them to change us, and get us ready for whatever lies ahead.

For Jesus, the Transfiguration changed him and strengthened him for the way to Jerusalem, the way that would go through the Cross, through death and into resurrection.

As we enter into a new season of Lent this next week, may God continue to work through us toward transfiguration and renewal.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Remembering Mary Anne Hitchcock (1929-2011)

The Bean Feast by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)

A homily for the Celebration of the Life of Mary Anne Hitchcock. The scripture readings were Wisdom 2:1-5,9; Psalm 23, Revelation 21:2-7, and John 2:1-11.

I sometimes used to wonder where Mary got her training for Coffee Hour. She had well-developed skills for elbowing her way to the food, early and often. When I learned that she had spent some of her childhood in New York City, I wondered if perhaps she had trained at Zabar’s, or maybe she developed her skills closer by at Rodman’s on any given Saturday morning. Or maybe because she was small, she learned early on that she had to stick up for herself. Having one sibling who was 10 years older, again—she had make herself known. And that, she did.

Mary made herself known to us with her brilliant red hair, with her voice that was very willing to be raised (whether it was over changes to the language of prayer, or a question at a parish meeting). And she made herself known with her fantastic, patriotic, Cat-in-the-Hat kind of headpiece. With talk of the upcoming royal wedding in England, several of us yesterday were talking about the little hat-like things some British women wear, called “fascinators.” Well, when Mary put on her red, white, and blue hat, she not only fascinated, she surprised, startled, and astounded, as well.

Before my time at All Souls, Mary and Gloria Wilson were a team. But being the best of friends did not stop them for minute from arguing with one another—up the sidewalk, into the narthex, and right into the pew—whether the preaching was preaching or the choir was singing, if they had an argument to finish, they were going to finish it.

I don’t know what Mary said the very first time I met her, but somewhere near our first meeting, I remember her looking up at me (sort of sideways) and almost accusing me, “So, you’re the new priest! Welcome. Hope you like us and will stay a while.” And then, just as I was beginning to warm to her, she continued. “I have a question.” (Yes?, I wondered). “When are we going to sing some of the ‘old hymns.?’”
I think I tried to respond as diplomatically as possible and change the subject. And though we never talked about hymns for a funeral, I hope that Mary would approve of the hymns for today.

Mary was never afraid to speak up. She was like another Mary, Mary the Mother of Jesus, who appears in today’s Gospel. They’re at a wedding in Cana and there is a disaster, a disaster Mary Hitchcock would have completely understood. They’ve run out of wine, and Jesus’ mother (in good Mary Hitchcock fashion) points it out.

“They have no wine,” she points out. But Jesus doesn’t seem to appreciate the comment. He hears it as a call to action, and he’s not really meaning to be busy right now. But he obliges his mother.

Mary (the Mother of God, that is) knew when there was a potential for a good party. And lucky for her, for the wedding guests, and for Christian tradition, Jesus got busy. After an initial reluctance to perform a miracle then and there (we can imagine him looking at her saying something to the effect of, “Oh, Mom, not now.” But a miracle is made. Water is turned into wine, and St. John calls this the “first of his signs.” That is to tell us that this miracle, this sign, is simply a foretaste of much bigger, much better things to come. The significance of the Wedding at Cana is not that Jesus attended a wedding party. It’s not even that Jesus can so parlor tricks at his mother’s request. Instead, this story shows us something about God’s love. God’s love overflows like water after a torrential downpour, like juice running freely as grapes are pressed, and as we’ll hear on Good Friday, like the water of life flowing out of the side of Jesus Christ, as he shows us the extent of God’s love for us on the cross.

God’s love and mercy are overflowing, unbounded, ever-surprising, and never-ending.

Mary Hitchcock is not the only person to know that the Kingdom of God has a lot of food in it. Another Mary, Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher, known as M.F.K. Fisher, said

“Food for the soul is a part of all religion.” “Food for the soul is a part of all religion, as . . . savages know when they roast a tiger’s heart for their god, as Christians know when they partake of the Body and Blood at the mystical feast of Holy Communion. That is why there can be an equal significance in a sumptuous banquet for five thousand heroes, with the king sitting on his iron throne and minstrels singing above the sound of gnawed bones and clinking cups, or in a piece of dry bread eaten alone by a man lifting his eyes unto the hills.” [Here Let us Feast: A Book of Banquets (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986) xiv, reprinted from 1946 Viking Press.]

We can be thankful that when we get to heaven, there will be something like the Zagat Survey to all the best places to eat up there. And Mary Hitchcock will be our guide.

Until then, we will miss her. We will miss hearing her voice, trying to answer her questions, seeing her all over the District, wherever there is a street fair or festival. And we will miss her at this altar and at the tables in the Undercroft, places where we exchanged laughter and love.

I mentioned that Mary used to ask me, “When are we going to sing some of the old hymns.” Today, after Communion, rather than kneel as we often do, I invite you to stand with me and sing a hymn that I think Mary would agree is among the best of the “old hymns,” “Leaning on the everlasting arms of God.” It can be sung with gratitude for a life well lived and with joy that Mary now sings and celebrates, and eats and drinks, right along side us in the Communion of Saints.


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