The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
Proper 19B; 13 September, 2015
Prov 1:20-33; Ps 19
James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to participate in an incredible experience. Forty years ago, when the church was wrestling with the issue of whether women could be priests, those who favored it lost faith in the decades-long discussion and decided to take matters into their own hands. So, two sets of women were irregularly ordained: eleven in Philadelphia, and four women at St. Stephen’s and Incarnation, becoming the first of women ordained priests in (if not by) the Episcopal Church. Yesterday, the three surviving priests from St. Stephen’s were gathered in that church to tell their stories, to give thanks to God, and to exercise their ministries by consecrating bread and wine and offering it to us in the name of Jesus.
And so I sat there in that church, looking at these women, whose courage had made it possible for me to live this life -- for me to live as a wholehearted human being. Alison Palmer was tiny and slender (even smaller than I am). Betty Powell was tall, with a cascade of white hair. E. Lee McGee was nearly blind and in a wheelchair; she’s the one who helped pay my way to seminary. They were joined by Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Episcopal Church, and they each spoke of George Barrett, the bishop who had consecrated them, and who, twenty years later in Los Angeles, preached a sermon that opened my heart and let me know that God had made a home for me, a Jew, in the Episcopal Church. Most of us know that we stand on the shoulders of giants, but it is not often that you get to be in the same room with people who have risked everything to give you freedom, and to go up to them and say Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
But as I sat in the pew and looked at the four of them: two women standing, one woman with a seeing eye dog, and one fiery black preacher, I realized that I was looking at the faces of people who had changed forever our understanding of who God is. Thanks to their lives and their ministry, when Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” our answer is different than it used to be. These women have given us new eyes and new hearts.
It is easy for those of us who were not alive then, or were not Episcopalian then, to forget what it took to give us those eyes and those hearts, so if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share a couple of the stories they told. Alison Palmer told her family to stay away from the ordination because she feared for their lives. Many of them saw her celebrate for the first time yesterday, forty years late. Lee McGee, who was actually from St. Stephen and Incarnation, asked the rector for permission to make the customary two-hour prayer vigil in the sanctuary before she was ordained, and saw him turn away. He said, “We didn’t want to have to tell you this, but the police will go through the church that morning with bomb-sniffing dogs, and then the building will be sealed until the service starts.” The priest in the pew next to me, who had been there, told about sitting on the floor, because the church was so full, and having the man next to her jump up and object to the ordinations; it was good preparation, she said, for the objectors at her own. Alison Palmer told of later, when she was priest, and she was invited to help with Communion at a parish, and three women received from her, and the other hundred twenty people walked past her and chose the male rector.
And then there was the cost. Betty Powell talked of living thirty years with PTSD from the threats. William Wendt, the Rector of the parish, was inhibited from exercising priestly office for a full year. George Barrett, the ordaining bishop, could not exercise his own office for seven.
My point is this: we serve an incarnate God, and who we say God is is not a matter of words alone. It is written in the living flesh and blood of men, women, and children who have risked their reputations, their jobs, their families, and their very lives to show us who God is. So when Jesus asks us, as he asks each of his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, he’s not asking about words. He’s asking, “How do you live that I am?” How is your life different because I lived and died for you? What risks do you take, because you know I am with you? Whom do you honor because you believe I want you to? And what does your life show my other children about me?
The church year begins in winter, in the darkness of Advent, but because we also follow the school calendar, the Sunday after Labor Day always feels to me like the beginning of a new year. People are back from vacation (or from pretending that they are on vacation); the kids are in class; the formation offerings begin; books are waiting to be read; service opportunities to be seized. And so it is a good week to take a moment and sit with that question: How do you live that I am?
Here at St. Alban’s, we show who we believe God is in numerous ways. We show it in a congregation that is young and old, drawn from many races and nations, Spanish-speaking and English-speaking, gay and straight and even celibate. We show it in the presence of men and women behind the altar. We show it in the tenderness with which we raise our children in faith, tenderness which extends beyond our walls to the children at the Harriet Tubman School and Bishop Walker School in DC and at schools in South Sudan and in Jordan. We show it in the unconditional support we give our youth, and in the way we raise them to spread that love by repairing homes in Appalachia and serving food on the streets of DC. We show it by praising God in traditional hymns and in Negro spirituals and in the rich complexity of Bach and of Brahms and in Latino music, and even, from time to time, in jazz and African drums and first-century chant. We show it, above all, by the fact that every ministry by which we nurture our own community’s life also spills outside our walls and nurtures the life of those in need (which, sometimes, are ourselves). And when we say we are a mission-driven church, we do not mean that we are a church that does some work for other people who are not here; we mean that everything we do is aimed at nurturing the people of God, both those within our walls and those outside them, because God makes no distinctions. That’s how we show who God is.
But what about you? You, sitting in that pew? How do you live who God is?
St. Alban’s takes great joy in welcoming people at all points in the walk of faith. We welcome you who are seeking something in which to believe. We welcome you who glimpse God in snatches and then doubt what you have seen. We welcome you who believe, at least right now, until God shakes your faith to the core and pushes you to open your eyes and your heart ever wider. We welcome you -- each of you-- because every single one of those places is part of a genuine life of faith; if we do not doubt the ideas we have received and the ideas we have learned so far, we will never be able to transcend them and grow into the fulness of God.
But, here’s the thing: the God who relishes an honest struggle does not welcome a flaccid faith. We may all be struggling toward the light -- and some days, that light is hard to find -- but we do not have the option of sitting pretty and drinking tea and pretending that we have all the answers. Because God’s ways are higher than our ways, and if we think that we understand our God, God will make a monkey of us.
There’s an astonishing reversal in today’s Gospel: in one breath, Peter is proclaiming for the first time that Jesus is the Messiah, and in the very next breath -- the very next one! -- Jesus is calling him Satan. You see, once we think we know who God is, we are sorely tempted to think that God should act in ways we can predict. We try to pin God down like a butterfly on velvet, but God is living and active, and refuses to be pinned down. God refuses our categories, resists our certainties, gathers together a people more motley and strange and holy than we can imagine, and then pushes us to do miracles: to make God’s children more alive.
We gesture toward God in the creed, but we taste God in bread and wine. We let God into our flesh; we let God transform our flesh; because if we are ever going to know God, it will be in the flesh -- ours, and that of other people. Because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; if you would seek him, seek him there.
How you do live that I am?