Mother Ann’s sermon preached on Jan. 22, 2023

Posted by on Sun, Jan 22, 2023 in Epiphany, Sermons

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Hermia

Jan. 22, 2023

This morning I’d like to introduce you to an old friend of mine named Hermia.  I want you to meet her because you and she already have something vital in common, as you will soon see.

I first met Hermia back in the fall of 1994 at St Thomas Episcopal Church in Medina, where I had been called as Associate Rector.  One important aspect of my new role was leading the midweek Eucharist and Bible Study, and Hermia was a stalwart presence at both. Feisty and slightly mischievous, peering resolutely at me through piercing aqua eyes, beneath a halo of silvering auburn hair, she was the resident authority on the “way back when” days at St Thomas.  Hermia was proud to tell me that she had been on the original faculty of the parish school, and since each morning began with chapel she had soon gotten to know the rector, Fr John Vruinck. He seemed to regard her lively personality as a welcome challenge, for he started inviting her to come on Sundays and take part in the parish Eucharist. Now Hermia had no problem with broadening her personal horizons, but this rector needed to realize that the Prayer Book’s poetic language about the “Body and Blood of Christ” just made no sense to her.  Bread was bread, wine was wine, and Jesus of Nazareth lived and died 2000 years ago.

“Just taste it and see,” Fr. Vruinck coaxed, but Sunday after Sunday as ushers moved down the aisles, Hermia held her ground in the pew.  Until one Sunday she didn’t.  She simply rose from her refuge, fell in with the flow of parishioners toward the altar, and knelt.  Raising outstretched hands alongside the others, she couldn’t say what she expected.  But as Fr Vruinck nestled the bread into her palm with the words “The Body of Christ,” the wafer softly pulsed—she swore to it—as if an invisible quiver of energy had been released. The expression of complete astonishment never left her eyes, no matter how many times she told the story.

After my six years at St Thomas our paths parted, and I came here to St Michael’s.  Eventually word reached me that Hermia’s health was failing, and she let her family know that she wished to be remembered through a memorial gift to this parish, whose life she had quietly followed from afar.  The chancel was being remodeled, and she had in mind a new altar rail, where people she’d never meet might experience the quiver of energy that had changed her life. And so it was that through the design and fabrication wizardry of our own Doug Birrell, a handsome white oak railing with hand patinaed posts became the support for our own outstretched hands.  If we’re as honest as Hermia, we have to admit that each time we take our place here and turn our hearts to God we still hardly know what to expect, and so our own astonishment never ends either.

For most of the Church’s life, from the Resurrection of Jesus through the Middle Ages, that kind of experience wasn’t remarkable at all.  Christians assumed that contact with the supernatural was the most natural thing in the world. Heaven and earth stood face to face, things spiritual and things material sharing in a single, all-embracing universe. Miracles did not contradict nature, they fulfilled it. The Church’s annals are crammed with accounts like Hermia’s: saints’ biographies, sermons, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, murals and sculptures all witness to the vibrant conversation carried on between Christians and their Creator. What would have been truly astonishing would have been for anyone to be unaware of this chatter.

But things began to change as the Middle Ages wound down, and the Scientific Revolution revved up. Spiritual realities silently lost ground.  They could not be probed through microscopes, telescopes and lab experiments, so there was no place for them in the stimulating new conversations.  Far more fascinating were calculations and applications managed through human ingenuity. When the Emperor Napoleon asked a famous chemist why God was never mentioned in his latest textbook, he bluntly replied “I have no need of that hypothesis.” With those seven words–“I have no need of that hypothesis”–the whole realm of spiritual experience got relegated to the margins of life, like some optional extra.

A second big mental shift occurred alongside the Scientific Revolution, and that was political revolution.  Listen to the drumbeats in America in 1776, and in France in 1789.  Established authorities on both sides of the Atlantic were toppled, and free individuals marched forward as the sole arbiters of themselves and their world.  Gone were the unquestioned claims traditional religion had made on individuals.  Now everyone was to be an independent expert on the topic of God, and relationships between heaven and earth became a matter of personal preference.

Hermia was brought up–as I was–in the enduring aftermath of these twin revolutions. We were taught to pay attention to the practical, proven dimensions of life that yielded social respect and material advantages.  These were the “real” things that really mattered.  Spiritual experience, if it existed at all, was passed over in silence.   

Conversion came for Hermia as an adult when she was invited into the church by someone she knew and trusted.  Once there, the beauty of the music and vestments, the reverence of the worshippers, the mystery of the Sacrament all combined to draw her forward, and see for herself–which she did.

Conversion came for me as a young child when my babysitter brought me to church. I heard the minister proclaim “I was glad, oh so glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.”  My three-year-old eyes swept the chancel and the stained glass windows and I said to myself, “Yeah, I am glad to be here!”

In today’s Gospel Jesus makes his way across Galilee calling out to people, “Come, follow me.” He is filled with confidence that simply coming close to him is the key. Coming confers the experience of watching heaven and earth stand face to face. Coming confirms the truth that contact with the supernatural can be the most natural thing in the world.  As the St Michael’s mission statement affirms, this congregation is committed to illuminating Christ’s love on the Eastside.  Our doors are open for everyone to come and see for themselves, to feel, to grasp, and to receive. Our mission is accomplished every time we invite a friend or neighbor to come and see alongside us, and they discover what we’ve discovered, and through it all Hermia just grins.  Amen.

© 2023 The Rev. Dr. Ann P. Lukens. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.