Pentecost 10, August 9, 2009

The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley, Bishop of Connecticut (ret.)

I Kings 19:4-8

 John 6:35, 41-51

The year is 1955. I was a young priest, serving Trinity Church in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a tense time in that city – very much a southern city confronted by the changes brought on by the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court of the year before which had ordered the desegregation of racially-segregated schools. Trinity Church was in a neighborhood in transition, its sturdy single-family homes in the path of real estate interests which were block-busting, scaring white residents to sell to an expanding African-American population being forced out of neighborhoods closer to downtown which were being bulldozed in a citywide plan of urban renewal.

In the course of a vestry meeting, one of the members interrupted the agenda to ask, “Father Walmsley, are you going to let any of those Negroes who are coming to our early Sunday morning service join the Church. I think the vestry should discuss that.” I was quick to answer, “You know that they are parishioners of All Saints Church in the neighborhood that is being torn down. Any person who is baptized and confirmed is of course a member of the Episcopal Church, not just a parish, and as long as they notify Fr. Nicholson at All Saints of their plans, of course they may transfer here. So that’s not a subject for the vestry to debate. I realize that you have feelings about this. And I’m willing for us to talk as long as you want after we finish our vestry business.

We had a very short vestry meeting. Most of the members stayed to talk. Some were angry, others fearful about what it would mean to be a biracial church in a segregated city. We adjourned after a while to the coffee shop in the hotel down the street, and closed it at 11:00 o’clock. We closed the bar there at 1:00 a.m., before the last members of the vestry finally broke up and went home.

What came of that intense discussion? You may be surprised. Nobody left Trinity Church. We regularly had visitors because our Sunday worship was in the forefront of the kind of changes which we take for granted here at Holy Cross, and I’m sure some of the visitors didn’t come back. But some came because they saw that we were witnessing to a vision of the church with which they wanted to associate.

Today, as part of our summer series on worship at Holy Cross, we are paying attention to that act which in a way divides the service into two parts. We’ve considered the first part in previous weeks, how our hearts and minds are fed by the word of God, how scripture deepens our understanding of God’s revelation of God’s self, which the person preaching seeks to relate to our lives in the here and now. And last Sunday, Father John talked about how in our prayers we gather up our lives and the lives of those around us. Next week, we will begun to consider how we are fed by the way Jesus comes to us in the bread and wine, the body and the blood of holy communion.

But today, these two parts of the service are joined together as the presiding minister repeats the words of Jesus spoken to the disciples in the upper room on the evening of Easter: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you.” In a few moments, I will recall that promise as I say, “The peace of our Lord Jesus be with you,” to which the answer will be, “And also with you.” And then we scramble about. Because our numbers at Holy Cross are not great, we can look a good number of people in the eye and say those words. We can honor someone when she or he is celebrating an event, a birthday or a new job or graduating from high school. We can recognize the pain someone is going through if we know they have had an illness or are facing surgery. We can, in short, translate our prayer for them into a kind of personal engagement. In the eastern churches, the event is celebrated with a holy kiss. We westerners do it by shaking hands or a brief embrace, or simply speaking the word.

Think of our worship this way. What we’ve been doing up to now has changed us inwardly. We have perhaps let go of something that we brought with us which is a burden. We’ve been moved by the Good News which was in the lessons we just heard – Elijah was fed in the wilderness and gained enough strength to go off into the wilderness on Mt. Horeb (that’s another name for Mt. Sinai) for a period of fasting and prayer. Or the crowd listening to Jesus were reminded that as the Hebrew people were sustained by food in the wilderness given by God, so Jesus himself comes to us as bread for eternal life. The Peace within our service is not a version of the coffee hour, a chance to catch up on the news of the week. It is a moment in which we remember.. Take that word apart: we are re-membered, re-joined to the special relationship we have with Jesus, and thereby re-joined to one another.

I began my homily with the story of what happened to us at Trinity Church in St. Louis, because I think that what took hold of us there – a small congregation apprehensive about the changes taking place around us – is that we found a kind of peace, inner confidence, willingness to take a risk. We found that as individuals, yes. But we found it together and we became a source of support to one another. And by golly, the next few years in that place were really exciting. We didn’t act out of our own strength, but out of a kind of peace and a sense of adventure given to us by the one who looked with love and compassion on his followers that night in the upper room and said, “My peace I give to you.”

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