|St Aidan's, Photo A.M.Clark. Episcopal, Transgender, and Rainbow Flags Flying|
A Sermon for the Installation of the Rev. Dr Cameron E. Partridge as Rector
St Aidan's Episcopal Church, San Francisco
September 9, 2017
Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 146; 2 Cor 5: 17-20; John 15: 9-16
I first want to say just how lovely it is to be here. Thank you Cameron and Kateri, to Bishop Andrus, and all of you for the great adventure of being in this church together. There is always a need for the church to celebrate, but there is something particularly striking about doing so at a time when there are so many people in this world who are struggling and fearful. With the entire state of Florida and the coastal south awaiting hurricane Irma, with whole islands in the Caribbean already destroyed and Houston still unsure of what it will take to rebuild, with the news this week about DACA, an earthquake in Mexico, brinksmanship over North Korea as well, it can feel almost out of sync to celebrate. So I just want to honor that the realities of the world are much on our minds and hearts, and that our celebration happens in this world, not out of it.
I recently re-read Jeanette Winterson’s Memoir, Why be happy when you can be normal. Cameron actually lent it to me when it came out five years ago—one of the tragedies of not living in the same place anymore is that I don’t have him around to lend me books. I’m the one who requests things from the library and end up getting new books nine months after they’re published. But it popped up on the “available now” list of kindle books from the library and I was excited to look at it again.
Winterson is a novelist. All of her books have the most wonderful magical realist sense about them, when people invoke the laws of physics to explain their feelings for each other but then go out and walk on water when they need to go home. Her imagination was hard won: she was adopted as an infant by a Christian Pentecostal family and emotionally and physically abused. She grew up in Northern England—not as far north as St Aidan and Lindisfarne, but far enough from London for it to seem like another country. There were only six books in the house, nearly all of which were either the Bible or Biblical commentary.
|Photo A.M. Clark|
Her mother talked about how it had been the devil who had led her to the crib to adopt Jeanette instead of another child. When Jeanette is caught in bed with a girlfriend at age 15 her mother arranges for the two of them to be unmasked in the congregation as abominations to the Lord. They are each put through a three day exorcism. Still, Jeanette has her own books and her own life. When her mother finds the books (hidden under her bed, she discovers about 72 of them make for one layer before starting another), she burns them all—there are advantages to sticking with the library—but by that point the damage was done. She had read the books, she had known love with her girlfriend. The genie was out of the bottle. Jeanette knew that the world was wider than the confines of her mother’s violence. And once her own books were gone, she decided she could write her own. Word by word, she quite literally wrote herself into a new story.
Jeanette Winterson does not, I am guessing, identify as a Christian these days, but her story is a resurrection story. The way she talks about stories as salvific and love as redeeming resonates deeply with how we are called to see Scripture and love one another in this world. As the book of Joshua invites us, this is how we figure out what it means to walk forward, not to stray to the right or the left, to keep God’s word in your mouth. This is what she writes:
The intensity of a story releases into a bigger space than the one it occupied in time and place. The story crosses the threshold from my world into yours. We meet each other on the steps of the story. Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home –they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space (60).
As Christians, we meet inside Scripture. It is our home. As we grow and our lives change, we understand the world anew and as we understand ourselves as part of it. In Scripture, we move into the world where Jesus turns water into wine and transforms suffering into wholeness. Where we sit with him on the way to Jerusalem, being called together as friends, eating at the table as one body and of one blood. Where St Paul calls reconciliation to us, telling us that Christ has entrusted this ministry to us. We enter Scripture and see where the young adult worried about her DACA status feels the power of community marching in the streets, bold and strong, as the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea. Her feet are dry. Where those who rejected hear Jesus say, "Come! Come to the table and eat your fill. There is enough for everyone." Where those who have nothing are given everything. Where our hands help to prepare the feast. All of this happens in Scripture, and we bring it back with us in and out of time.
In and out of time, each of us.
Most importantly, we don't do this work alone. It’s all fine and good to talk about The Church or The Body of Christ most generically, but the work of the Christian faith is done in the context of actual people in actual places in actual parishes. As God pitches a tent with humanity in the particular time and space of Jesus, so, too, St Aidan’s and Cameron are given to each other as you are camped together here in this time and place. You have been called uniquely together to answer a particular call, but you are part of a lineage of Christians who have done this work for hundreds of years, each in their own way.
The idea of lineage is important, as clergy and people, particularly in these days. White supremacy did not just appear. Xenophobia did not only just emerge as a good strategy for consolidating power and whipping up fear. The denial of climate change isn’t the latest technique for making more money in the short term and leaving the consequences for later. You know this, and this is work you were already doing. Cameron knows this, and it was work he was already doing. Where you sit today is to join your work together, in this particular time and in this particular place, to listen for where God is calling you to go together.
This is who you are: you will be people of peace and justice and witness. You will be a place of welcome and grace for those who perhaps have not had such an easy go of it in other places. And it will not be simple. You will each disappoint each other. But inside your love for each other and for God’s creation, the shimmering reality of God’s love, of friendship with Jesus and all God’s people, will be the beating heart under your feet.
I want to finish with Winterson’s words once more. She's talking here about happiness, but also the limits of it. There will be plenty of happiness. You will have moments of transcendent joy and absolute hilarity (which I hope for you, because Cameron’s laugh, as you have probably noticed, is possibly the most infectious laughI have ever heard). But it’s not just about happiness. It’s not just about getting the budget met, or the auction organized, or getting more kids in Sunday School to grow the congregation. Those are important, but they’re not the whole story.Here’s what Winterson says.
If the sun is shining, stand in it –yes, yes, yes. Happy times are great, but happy times pass–they have to –because time passes. The pursuit of happiness is more elusive; it is lifelong, and it is not goal-centred. What you are pursuing is meaning –a meaningful life... The pursuit isn’t all or nothing –it’s all AND nothing. Like all Quest Stories. When I was born I became the visible corner of a folded map. The map has more than one route. More than one destination. The map that is the unfolding self is not exactly leading anywhere. The arrow that says YOU ARE HERE is your first coordinate. There is a lot that you can’t change... But you can pack for the journey (24-25).
All blessings, all prayers, all hope, to you, Cameron and St Aidan’s on this journey. Amen.