Sermons by “The Rev. Della Wager Wells”

Emmanuel Church

Pentecost 16 – Where Everyone Knows Your Name – September 29, 2019

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.

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Pentecost 14: Context Is Everything, September 15, 2019

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.

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Pentecost 13: Prisoner of Love – September 8, 2019

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?

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