Sermons by “The Rev. Della Wager Wells”
It’s been another active, wonderful week at Emmanuel. We had the EDS Pumpkin Parade Tuesday, and the churchyard was filled with amazing jackolanterns and whole families dressed in coordinating costumes. One of my favorites was our EDS student dressed as a rainbow – creatively made of bent pool noodles nested in a cloud of cotton batting, all worn on the back of her pink spangly dress. Mom was the sun, complete with a crown and wide wings of rays, and Dad was dressed as a parachuter, with helmet and front parachute pack carrying the infant sister.
I hadn’t had the foresight to plan a costume, and so was delighted to re-discover my black Wippell’s clerical cloak in my closet. I sailed out into the night with a miniature dragon and a Ninja Turtle concealed in its folds – who jumped out periodically to surprise parents and other unicorns, pirates, and princesses. I was a six-footed, cloaked Abouna, as the children call me, for Halloween.
From Halloween – All Hallows’ Eve – we look forward to All Saints’ Day, one of the major feast days of the church. All Saints’ Day occurs naturally on November 1, but as a major feast day of the church, takes precedence over The Lord’s Day, our weekly Sunday feast day, so we will actually celebrate All Saints’ Day on Sunday – November 3.
All Saints’ Day is the day when we remember that we are part of the communion of saints, as we say we believe in the Nicene Creed – all those holy ones who lived in ages past and are with us now and always. As one of the seven major feast days in The Episcopal Church, All Saints’ Day is also a time for baptism – and we will baptize a new member of the Christian community on Sunday!
I mentioned that the EDS children call me Abouna – and the reason they do is that Abouna is Arabic for priest. I just returned in June from a year’s fellowship at St. George’s College in Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world for Christians and Jews, and the third holiest city in the world – after Mecca and Medina – for Muslims.
In the Holy Land of the three Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – you often hear people speak of the land itself as the Fifth Gospel. The holy land gives us new insight into scripture and how God is trying to interact with us.
The particular rocks, dirt, caves, places, and homes – the actual physical surroundings of the holy family and other characters of scripture – provide resonance and context when we see where they lived, how they might have walked, how warm or cold – or wet or dry – it might have been, and what they might have had to eat, or seen along the roadside as they walked.
I am very grateful that we will welcome my dear friend, The Rev. Susan Lukens, Associate Dean Emerita of St. George’s College, Jerusalem, to join me to preach and concelebrate (a specific church word meaning co-preside at the Eucharist) on All Saints’ Day. Please join us Sunday as we welcome the newest member of our Christian family in baptism, discuss our experience with the Fifth Gospel, and explore our living relationship with the communion of saints and all our family we encounter in Christ.View Sermon
I was so very grateful for the Emmanuel community last Tuesday night! Emmanuel really turned out for Dinner With Della+, and it was a wonderful chance for us to talk a little and get to know each other better. I look forward to many more opportunities like that in the coming months.
Dinner With Della+ was the kickoff dinner for Emmanuel’s Foyer Groups – the small group dinners we plan to have at Emmanuel that were called Firesides in another incarnation at Emmanuel.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Foyer Groups originated from Coventry Cathedral’s International Ministry of Reconciliation, which arose after the Cathedral was destroyed in the Blitz. Shortly after the bombing, the Cathedral Provost was sifting through the rubble of the cathedral and found many of the old roof nails that had fallen among the ruins. He saw potential for redemption and reconciliation in the ruins and was inspired to have them twisted together to
form a cross.
This cross of nails and the words “Father, Forgive” became the unifying symbol of the Community of the Cross of Nails, the energy behind Coventry Cathedral’s International Ministry of Reconciliation. CCN, as the group is called, believes that understanding between peoples, nations, and ideologies can come only when people meet and know each other as individuals.
In 1967, the staff of the Coventry Cathedral began meeting together in small informal groups as a way of bridging the differences among us that can separate us from each other. They noticed that a powerful bond formed among the group, which they referred to as a foyer group. Foyer is French for home, or hearthside.
People had become more separated and isolated during the war, especially with the violence and destruction of the bombings. People’s differences got magnified, so people noticed more about how they were different than how they were alike. But in the small dinner groups, people got to know each other better – as fellow human beings – and they became fast friends. They spent time. They talked. They listened. And they shared a meal.
The Foyer movement spread first to the congregation of Coventry Cathedral and then out into the Anglican Communion. Today, many Episcopal churches throughout the United States have foyer groups that are great ways for people in the church to get together and get to know each other better – sharing experiences and common interests within friendly home surroundings, in a Christian context and while breaking bread together.View Sermon
The wind has become a little brisker over the past week or so, and the nights are cooler. The Emmanuel Day School has recess in the church yard several times each school day, and the sight of the children running and playing in the beautiful glancing Fall sunshine lifts up my heart.
The EDS children painted pumpkins this week, and they are now decorating the school windows into the Library, shining through with their orange glow in a new stained glass design. They have also read Pumpkin Jack, a wonderful story of a jackolantern’s harvest, carving, and then decay into the cooling earth before sending out new life in the spring.
The kids are conducting their own Pumpkin Jack science experiment now in the school. Go see Pumpkin Jack and the two pumpkins that grew from last year’s reenactment of the story!
Fall is a time of harvest, and a time of ingathering. As we come back together, and gather inside as the weather changes, we see how much our community matters. This is a season of the liturgical year, as well as the secular year, that we come inside, gather together, and give thanks to God for our many blessings, especially those we have been given to love, and all those who love us.
We have had wonderful news in EDS. EDS Director Carissa Perkowski and teacher Sarah Evans have just announced new additions to their families, both expected in April of 2020. Carissa plans to work remotely, beginning in late March, ably assisted by Miss Kate and Miss Terri, as well as the EDS School Committee, headed by Debbie Venancio. I will also be available for onsite response to Carissa’s wise guidance.
I am also really looking forward to Dinner with Della+ on Tuesday, October 22! This potluck dinner (signup sheets by the door in the Library!) will be the kickoff for our Foyer Groups, called Firesides in a former incarnation at Emmanuel.
We’re calling it Dinner With Della+, because I hope that it will give me an opportunity to get to know you better – and for you to get to know me. Please come join us for conversation about our community at Emmanuel, Foyer Groups, and how first century Christians worshiped in house churches – each other’s homes.View Sermon
When I was growing up in Watertown, New York – way upstate near the Thousand Islands Bridge over the St. Lawrence River – I just loved our potluck dinners at church. In lots of ways, Emmanuel reminds me of Trinity Episcopal Church in Watertown.
Many of my favorite childhood memories are of Trinity – the stage in the Parish Hall, much like the one in Emmanuel Day School now, with its red velvet curtains hanging in thick folds we could roll ourselves into and hide in. The big church kitchen, where my grandmother and her happy crowd of friends chopped countless onions for casseroles and made giant salads for Wednesday Night Supper. The gym in the basement, where, despite my complete inability to shoot a basket, we played kickball and dodgeball during the months when the snow drifts were too high to play ball outside. And the nave, gorgeous – like Emmanuel’s – its sturdy ship’s hull ceiling showing us that we were safe, no matter what the rough seas of winter weather or life brought.
Wednesday Night Supper was my favorite. My friend Jane’s mother made a casserole she called Inside Outside Ravioli, and it’s still the first thing that comes to mind when I think of church suppers. Large shell pasta with homemade Bolognese sauce, spinach, sharp cheddar cheese, and other yummy secret ingredients, Mrs. Spencer’s Inside Outside Ravioli seemed like the church community itself to me as a child – a big, warm, mixed up casserole of nourishing comfort, security, and love.
On October 22, we are planning an Emmanuel Church potluck supper. We’re calling it Dinner With Della+, because I hope that it will give us all an opportunity to get to know each other better. The potluck supper will also be the kickoff of Emmanuel’s Foyer Groups, which the Emmanuel Community
used to call Firesides.
The Old French meaning of the word Foyer is hearth or hearthside, and it evokes an image of warmth, hospitality, and comfort. We welcome old friends, family members, and newcomers into our homes by gathering around a fire or these days, in a kitchen – close to where food is being prepared, for fellowship.View Sermon
I am really looking forward to my first Blessing of the Animals at Emmanuel Church on Sunday. The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi is one of my favorite feast days in our church year, not only because I am a well-known animal lover (although that’s indeed a thing!), but also because I find St. Francis’s teachings and prayers so inspiring. St. Francis is remembered to have lived and taught peace and reconciliation, both among human beings and in the natural world – a holistic kind of unity that honors our incarnate world as God’s own creation.
Why do we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi with a Blessing of the Animals? We remember St. Francis for, among other things, his dedication to preaching the gospel. It is said that he preached to the birds of the air, and they listened to him, and that he once convinced a wolf that was terrorizing a village not to hurt people or livestock any more, but to wait peaceably and patiently for the villagers to feed him. The wolf lived out his days, the story goes, cared for and beloved by the villagers.
Our pets bring out our gentlest selves – our tender, patient, loving sides. Their trust, loyalty, and affection reminds us of our own best parts. We come together to notice and bless those holy responses and the relationships with our pets that inspire them, inspiring us to walk in love and peace in all of God’s creation. We remember St. Francis with the Prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.View Sermon
Over my past four weeks at Emmanuel Church, I have come to understand some things about living in New England and about the Emmanuel community. First, Newport is gorgeous in the Fall! Of course, Newport was also beautiful in the summer, but over the past few weeks, as the temperatures have dropped, the leaves on the trees have started to turn to warm reds and vibrant yellows, and the sunlight reaches us at a new angle. As I look out my window at our Emmanuel Day School children playing in the churchyard at recess, my heart fills with the beauty of the season and with gratitude for our life in community at Emmanuel.
Yesterday, EDS had its opening family picnic out on the lawn, with Mr. Christopher, community celebrity children’s musician, leading in the fun. Even though the rain came earlier than we had hoped, the beauty of the Fall afternoon, together with the warmth of community, music, children, and fun, was more than a fair trade for having to end a few minutes early.
In these weeks as the seasons have changed, the members of our Property Committee (Debbie Venancio, Ron and Pam Fleming, Ed Gosling, Dave Monroe, Kevin Venancio, and Anne Sherman) have been working their usual magic keeping our beautiful church building and grounds in their best condition. Mother Anita and Steve also put their very best into maintaining our beautiful church and grounds for many years, and every time I look around, I am grateful for all that these wonderful community members have done – and continue to do!
I’ve had our community on my mind a great deal over these last weeks, and that perspective affected my view of our gospel reading this week – the Rich Man and Lazarus, which means God has helped him. The parable contains a lot more particular detail about how the Rich Man and Lazarus look than we often see in the gospels – some of it genuinely cringe-worthy. We read both of the elegance of the Rich Man’s clothing – he’s dressed in purple and fine linen – and of Lazarus, who lies outside the Rich Man’s gates. Lazarus is covered with sores and is terribly hungry; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
Remember Jesus doesn’t give us details that aren’t important. Why does Jesus give us this gruesome image of Lazarus’s sores alongside the Rich Man’s purple and fine linen? Well of course there’s an economic message and a sharing message in that detail. But there is also a community message. Jesus is giving us these high-contrast images – these details – to show us what we miss when we don’t truly see each other, and know each other as neighbors and community members.
I have found Emmanuel a warm and welcoming place – a loving, concerned, safe environment filled with neighborliness and mutual concern – kind of like the old TV show Cheers, where everybody knows your name. I am so very honored to be in community at Emmanuel Church as we see and greet each other in gratitude for our lives together in Christ.View Sermon
As Professor Fennimore of the A.D. Garrett crime thrillers is fond of saying, Context is everything. Whenever we look back – whether on our tragedies or our triumphs – we stand in a different place than we did when we first experienced those events. Time has moved along. We simply see and experience the world in a different way. Even if we’re walking on the same dirt, we are under a different sky, in a new day. The context is different, and our perspective at any point comes from that context.
In our Old Testament reading this week, we can see a difference in perspective playing out. Moses is up on Mount Sinai in the cloud of God’s glory when chaos breaks loose back down the mountain with the Israelites. Moses has left his brother Aaron in charge, and Aaron has just made the Israelites a golden calf to worship as their god.
And God is furious! Get right back down that mountain, Moses, and straighten all this out, God roars.
But is God really furious? And was the Israelites’ action really that unreasonable?
When we imagine ourselves in different places we see things differently, and maybe that’s what God is trying to show Moses. Up on top of Mount Sinai, God has been talking with Moses. That’s really heady stuff. It might be easy to lose sight of what things are like down at the bottom.
The Israelites have gotten really tired. They’ve been waiting for Moses to come back for forty days and forty nights, which, even if it’s a metaphor, is a really long time. And they don’t even know yet that God has just told Moses never to make an idol. So what happens next? God tells Moses to get himself back down that mountain and sort all this out before God clears the slate and restarts Moses’s leadership with a brand new people.
And then Moses starts to empathize with the Israelites. Moses implores God to remember that God brought these same Israelites out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand. Why would God give up now, Moses asks.
As Moses reasons with God, he explains God’s own kindness and mercy to the Israelites, putting himself back into the context of the Israelites. Moses learns God’s own compassion by explaining God’s compassion to God. Was God really furious? Context is everything.View Sermon
On Sunday, August 25, 2019, churches all over the United States joined together to toll their bells to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved African people in North America. The bells rang for four minutes, the Aquidneck Island churches at noon, and others together at different hours throughout the day.
We share in this difficult history here in Rhode Island as closely as the areas of our country where enslaved peoples worked on plantations, and built some of the most familiar and important structures of our American democracy – the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings. Profits from slavery and related businesses in Rhode Island and other areas of New England helped to fund some of our oldest and best-known institutions of higher learning.
These are really difficult subjects to talk about. But without the gracious friction of our dialogue, we can’t begin the process of listening, in mutual respect and learning, that can lead to self-knowledge, insight, cultural humility, and understanding.
In our epistle reading this week, the Letter to Philemon, it is interesting that Paul doesn’t condemn slavery outright, even though the very same St. Paul wrote in the Letter to the Galatians in Christ there is no slave or free.
Instead, in the Letter to Philemon, Paul asks his old friend Philemon to free Philemon’s escaped slave Onesimus, who has become like a son to Paul while Paul has been in prison in Rome. Paul assumes the place of prisoner, reversing the power arrangement in the three-way relationship among Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.
Paul calls Onesimus his own heart and beloved son and refers to Philemon as his debtor, re-framing and re-contextualizing our understanding of their roles in society.
This paradoxical reversal stops us and helps us to see power and authority in new places. How can we release ourselves from bondage by becoming prisoners of love as Paul said he had become?View Sermon