Christ our Dwelling Place

 

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins, Woman of Faith and Secretary of Labor (1933-1945)

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14,2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10, and John 14:1-14

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel includes a passage that often gives a word of hope and assurance, especially in the face of grief and uncertainty. But Jesus’ words also work for the day-to-day, the nitty-gritty, and any time and any place where trouble threatens. Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But he doesn’t just say that so that we might have a roadmap to heaven. It’s a roadmap for living, a roadmap for THIS life.  As such, it’s a roadmap that involves a choice, a place, and what might be called a “posse.”

“Let not your hearts be troubled” can sometimes sound so pious and “stained-glass-like” that we can miss some of the nuance in its meaning. “Don’t let your heart be troubled” suggests that we have a choice in the matter, and that’s good news. We can choose whether to have troubled hearts, or untroubled hearts. This suggests that we’re not always spineless victims when trouble comes. We might not have any power over the situation or the thing, but we can choose how we react. We can choose how we let it get to us. We can choose whether to let it trouble our heart or not.

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have the culmination of chapters 6 and 7. Stephen is chosen as the first deacon, someone to coordinate the distribution of food and care for the widows. But the religious leaders of his day don’t like the new arrangement. They feel threatened and plot to do him in. They throw together a mock trial to accuse Stephen of blasphemy. But there, even in the midst of the trial, Stephen makes a choice. He lets himself be emptied, so that the Holy Spirit has room to work. Stephen lets go of his will, his cleverness, his resourcefulness, his connections—and he lets God take over. And there in the middle of his trial he receives a vision, a vision of heaven opening and God offering welcome and power and love. The mob can’t handle this, and Stephen is stoned to death, becoming the Church’s very first martyr.

Most of us are unlikely to be put in Stephen’s situation, but some of the binds we find ourselves in can seem just as tight, just as hopeless. St. Stephen and countless others have CHOSEN not to let their hearts be troubled, but to believe in God, and to believe that God has a way.

Jesus talks about a place for us. Like Tony sings to Maria in West Side Story, like Virginia Woolf longed for in her essay, like Carrie Underwood sings today,—there’s something in us that longs for another place, a better place. But that place is not just physical. It’s not geographic. It’s psychological, it’s intellectual, it’s spiritual. We long for a place where our hearts, souls, and minds are free to grow and develop as God intends, unrestricted by custom or expectation or background or any other thing.

When Jesus says “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he’s not talking public housing. He’s not talking retirement villages in Florida. He’s talking about SPACE, space that has the unique qualities both of being expansive and of being safe. Jesus goes before us to prepare a way, if we follow him, he leads us where we need to be.

When trouble comes, there’s a choice involved (as to how we respond) and there’s a place up ahead (where all becomes clear) but perhaps even more important; in addition to being promised a choice and a place, we also have a posse.

We might think of a “posse” as a bunch of people brought together in a Western to go and catch the bad guys, or might know “posse’ as more of a street term.  In fact, The Urban Dictionary defines posse as “your crew, your homies, a group of friends, people who may or may not have your back.” In Medieval Latin, the posse comitatus meant literally, the “power of the county.” And this is how it came to refer to a common law idea of a group of people who were given authority to catch criminals.

But those early apostles were also called together as a posse.  They were given authority by the Holy Spirit. Every time the disciples ask Jesus where he’s going, how they might get there, what do they should do about this or that— each time, Jesus answers with relationship.

He says: You have seen me and known me, you have known God the Father. Believe and we are in you. You have all you need. You have one another.

Thomas asks more questions. Philip asks more questions, but later, after the crucifixion and resurrection, they begin to see what Jesus means. They have each other—they have their posse—but it’s a special band of people who’ve got your back, and when they get tired, the Holy Spirit steps in. In other words, “we’re covered, we’re good to go, we’re protected, strengthened, and enlivened for the mission of God in our world.”

On this day that’s celebrated as Mothers’ Day in our country, I think of someone who understood today’s Gospel and followed the Way, the Truth, and the Light in a complicated world.  Yesterday, in the Episcopal Church, we commemorated a woman named Frances Perkins.  Perkins was a New Yorker, educated at Mt. Holyoke and Columbia, and especially when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire happened in 1911, killing 145 workers, Frances Perkins was especially compelled to advocate for workers.  Her passion caught the attention of the newly President Franklin Roosevelt, who asked her to consider being her Secretary of Labor.

Frances had a choice to make.  Should she stay in NY and do what she could?  Should she devote more time to her husband and her daughter (both of whom, today, would probably be diagnosed with manic depression)?  Or should she go forward.

As she moved to Washington, France Perkins found a church home at St. James Church, Capitol Hill.  There, she would attend Morning Prayer and have coffee with the rector afterwards.  It is said that many of her ideas were prayed over and then talked about in the rectory—ideas like a minimum wage for workers, a legal age to keep children out of the workplace, the program that would become Social Security, and other programs that changed the lives of many.

And finally, as lonely as it must have been to be the first woman cabinet member in Washington, Frances Perkins knew she was surrounded by other people of faith—praying for her, praying with her.

Trouble, difficulty, and challenge all come our way.  That’s a part of life, even when we have faith.  But we always have a choice on how to respond.  We have place that is a presence.  And we have a posse.

W.H. Auden says it so beautifully when he writes in the chorus of his Christmas Oratorio

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

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

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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