The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Sunday, October 15, 2017
A Celebration of Our Elders
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
We have been wanting to do something like this celebration today for a long time, aware as we are of the incredible gift of our older members in this congregation. Today we are celebrating and honoring our elders, the wonderful saints among us who give us such blessings. What a beautiful day to gather.
Just who are these elders? The term ‘elder’ has elicited some confusion here. Some folks, familiar with other church denominations, have wondered if we are ordaining people to a new ministry in the church, the ministry of elder. Some among those we are honoring today have reacted with amusement or sometimes a little prickliness to being called an elder – me? Really?? Some folks feeling anxious about their age were worrying that we were going to call them elders and stand them up in front of everyone – I’m looking at you, midlife crisis people. Well, rest assured – if we didn’t tell you personally that we were going to celebrate you today, then you can relax because we’re not going to call on you. And if we did invite you and talk you into being here, it’s not because we’re going to lay a new set of responsibilities on you. It really is pure celebration, of some of our dear ones in this congregation. Our secret formula for selection was this: we looked at our database and pulled up everyone above a certain age – at least, those whose birth years we knew, of course, those who were willing to share that information at some point – and we invited them to be here. We didn’t filter for wisdom or good advice or sober conduct of life – we just did it by known age. And because Americans are so silly about age, I’m not even going to say from the pulpit what that age was. You can ask an elder if you want to find out.
But there’s much more than demographics at work here. These elders among us are treasures of wisdom and experience, people with perspective. Some of them have known St Michael’s for decades; some of them are relatively new. Some of them have held pretty much every volunteer role there is to have in the church; some of them have maintained a faithful presence in the pews. Every one of them is a model of faith, whether they believe that or not. Every one of them helps make the tapestry of this community that much richer.
In your bulletin there’s an insert created by Jeannie Terepka, who spoke with many of the elders we’re honoring today. She asked them their thoughts and memories and highlights of their time at St Michael’s, and you can read in that insert their collective musings: St Michael’s is an anchor. St Michael’s is welcoming. My St Michael’s friends are a part of me. We are a worshipping people. The Holy Spirit visits this place. God loves you through St Michael’s. As Jeannie noted, it’s a remarkably coherent picture of this community, even though it is a composite from people with a wide range of experiences of this place.
And looking at the individuals we’re honoring today, a remarkably coherent picture develops as well. Jeannie asked our elders what they see in St Michael’s; well, our dear elders, here’s what we see in you. We’re celebrating today people like Margaret Cotterell, whose peppery loving wisdom has taught us what it looks like to be our best selves. Edgar Dawson, who comes to more church services than any of us, including the clergy, and knows where all the bones are buried here – literally. Hank and Virginia Smit, whose thoughtful gentleness bathes you with warmth when you meet them. Jim and Pamela Morton, who have done more to open the doors of the Episcopal Church than anyone in their years at the cathedral. Paula Franklin, with her smarts and sass. Lucille Donovan, who remembers roller skating to church at St Jude’s as a young girl and I think might roller skate to church still if the streets would just quiet down enough. Naomi Bullard, who loves on you but often lets slip a dangerous sense of humor. Vivian Gumbs, who continues to outdress everyone; unless it’s Juanita Jones, with her glamorous joie de vivre. Dorothy Johnson, with pies and laughter that fill you up inside; Helen Benford, with her practical nurse’s wisdom about what needs doing right now. Willeen Smith, with a deep sense of what is right and the willingness to push for it. John Uss, who gathers and cooks for and nourishes community with everything he does. BJ and Neil Lawrence, whose leadership meant so much to the sustaining of this church; June Gordon-Fenty, who sees right through you but is too kind to say so; Rachel Jones, who sees right through you and tells you so right out. Ed Bagwell, who is the embodiment of cool and yet somehow makes you feel like you’re cool too. Charlotte Patton, with her keen and restless mind, her honest and persistent questions. Joyce Dixon, a pillar of ladylike strength; Betty Mosedale, who lights up the room with her smile. George and Doris Campbell, whose saltiness has kept us laughing and seasoned our community for so long, and who have been telling me they were moving for years – but they claim that today really is, honestly, their last Sunday here – we will miss you so much. And Deacon Lawrence Schacht, who has always been for me the picture of faithful love and trueheartedness, tied up with a wonderfully wicked sense of the world. And others, many others, who couldn’t be here today but who have given this place so much over the years. And those we have loved and lost and carry still in our hearts – like Frances Harvan, and Wesley Henderson, and Agatha Humphrey, and more.
And the remarkably coherent picture that emerges from all of these shining individuals is this: warmth; laughter and a rollicking good sense of humor; compassion and faith that shows itself in action for the good of others. Wisdom, in other words, wisdom in all of its forms. The wisdom that comes from knowing what can happen, for good and for ill; knowing what people can do, the good and the bad of it – and knowing what God can do anyway. That through all things, God is here. And so we’d better be here as well.
That’s why we switched the gospel reading today to the story of Anna and Simeon – examples from the beginning of Jesus’ life of two elders who know the power of faithful persistence. Like our own elders, Anna and Simeon show up regularly to the Temple, there in worship and prayer, in patient expectation. Imagine all the years of their faithful attendance, the friendship they shared with each other, the model they were to younger people coming and going in the Temple. They have seen much, both joy and suffering. And now they know enough to be present – to be present and to recognize when God comes in the form of a little baby boy. They see and recognize and sing out with joy to tell all the world about the good news of God among us. They know that God is with us, all along.
Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi,
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Our elders at St Michael’s tell us the same thing. Not just by their words, though I have found good counsel from many of them. But by their action, their persistent presence, their willingness to show up – to make the effort, sometimes all too great, to come here and be among us, to pray. They show us what it looks like to rejoice always – even in pain and loss. They remind us that God is near, through everything. They teach us not to worry, because God’s peace is more than enough. Our elders give us the gift of these teachings – and the rest of us, in turn, give that grace also to them and to one another. We give our love and faithfulness and care and compassion to our elders and to all who come to this place. There’s a reason we all come together in community, young and old, rich and poor, from all walks of life. Left to our own selves or our own little groups, we too readily fall into worry and fretfulness and anxiety, fearing God is absent. In community here, we see and are reminded of God’s presence – and of the great goodness at the heart of things. We’re not made to go it alone. Here we receive the gift of living faith together.
So we thank God for our elders, our teachers and guides in the faith – for the way they have gone before us and made this place what it is today; for the way they are present among us now and show us who God is. And for how they allow us to care for them in return, the gift of mutuality, in this family of love.
As Paul tells the Philippians, so we all tell each other: Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – keep on doing these things – and the God of peace will be with you. Amen.