Sermons by Katherine Ragsdale

Occasional Sermons by Episcopal priest, Katherine Hancock Ragsdale.

Location: Massachusetts

you can always google me at "Katherine Ragsdale" OR "Katherine Hancock Ragsdale"

Saturday, March 23, 2002

Easter Morning, 2002

8am (lost the 10am one)
St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

It’s Easter. One of our options is to go with the cultural flow. Enjoy a celebration of Spring, of new life and hope. Declare a moratorium on worry. A day, maybe even a season, of optimism.

But God and Jesus have never promised us an escape from our lives. Rather, they consistently lead us deeper into our lives and then redeem them.

Which is too bad. There are times when a little escapism seems like a very good idea. And, for a lot of people, this is one of those times. Six months later, the second wave of grief over Sept. 11 is rolling over the nation. Grief not only for those whose lives were lost or shattered that day, but also for lost innocence, for the things we will never be able to take for granted in the same way again. The second wave, even though the first has not really passed away. And what can we do in the face of it all?

And as we gather here in worship today, Jesus’ people, our sisters and brothers, Arab and Israeli alike, are living through, or dying in, the latest cataclysm in a flow of terror and despair that has come to seem eternal. And what can we do?

And it’s not just despair about the world around us that we face. It’s the world within us, too. Confessions have skyrocketed, as have teary visits. Call me a cynic but I don’t think sin is up. I think pain and despair are up. It has become harder to repress and ignore our own suffering – the big things and the little, day to day things, as well.

And, tempting though it may be, Easter is not really an invitation to try just a little harder to avoid it all or to enlist God’s help in repressing it.

Easter isn’t about sweet, pretty, sunshiny days. It’s about Resurrection. And only that which gets faced, taken to the cross, made and acknowledged as real, can be resurrected.

Resurrection isn’t about disappearance. It’s about transformation. Resurrection doesn’t ignore our experience; it doesn’t erase any part of who we are. It redeems them. It turns everything, everything, it touches to good. It turns injury to pardon, hatred to love, despair to hope, darkness to light, sadness to joy, doubt to faith, fear to confidence, turmoil to peace, death to life.

Over time I have come to know that to be true. Sometimes I find it easy to believe and embrace. Sometimes I can see it all around me. Other times it’s not so clear. When I am hurt or lonely or afraid, or just too tired or too sad, then I, like the disciples at the tomb, look for Jesus and see nothing but emptiness.

But because of the witness of the ages, as well as my own experience, I try to be more like the women than like Peter and Thomas. To hang around and wait. Hoping Jesus will call my name – as many times as necessary to get my attention. And I know that if I am attentive I will hear that, and, having heard it, I will see with new eyes. See the resurrection and redemption all around me and in me. See that there is nothing, seen or unseen, that does not become integrated into God’s plan. Nothing that does not get turned to joy.

Christ is risen and, because he is risen, so are we. Even if we can’t always see how. Don’t walk away in despair. Stay in hope. And, if you stay, you will see the resurrected Jesus and the redemption of everything that is, in the nation, the world, and your own heart and soul.

That’s the promise of Easter. Not as easy as a quick shot of blind optimism, perhaps, but oh so much richer.

Christ is risen and so are we – Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Easter Vigil, 2002

Easter Vigil 2002
St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

We stand here tonight at the cusp – post-Crucifixion, pre-Resurrection. We stand in the darkness remembering the despair of Jesus’ friends and followers; feeling our own despair – our own pain and losses -- kindled. We rehearse our sacred history – telling stories of the many times God’s people have stood in darkness and hopelessness and found, against all the odds, against all reason, their lives redeemed, restored, even resurrected. We stand here in darkness, with only this one small flame of hope to sustain us, trying to make sense of it all and trying to believe that the light will break through again.

Trying to make sense of it all. There’s an ancient theory offered to make sense of the Crucifixion. It’s the theory of the Atonement. That theory holds that this is all about a bill come due, a debt that had to be paid. The thinking is that the world is held in a delicate balance. That every sin must be atoned for, every debt paid. And since no human is sinless nor able to set right the sins we daily commit we would all have to die in the end – to give up our lives and souls for eternity – to pay our debts. The only way we can be saved is for someone else to pay our debt. But no one is sinless; no one has the capital to pay our way out. So God, loving us and unwilling to lose us, sent God’s own self, sinless, to live among us and take on our debt. The suffering and death of Jesus, according to the theory of the Atonement, pays for our sins and buys our salvation.

It’s an interesting theory, but not one that I find compelling. I’m not convinced by the idea of a bookkeeper God who demands payment from us for being the less than perfect creatures we were created to be. I’m certainly not inclined to worship such a God.

I’m more moved and convinced by what someone else (and I’m sorry I can’t remember who) once said: Crucifixion is not God’s response to human sin. It is human sin’s response to God’s Love.

We’ve talked before about the authorities killing Jesus because he threatened the status quo and, therefore, their positions. But we’re reminded in the various Passion readings that it was not only the Romans and temple authorities who called for the Crucifixion, but the regular folks as well – the folks who suffered under the status quo. This is, perhaps, harder to understand, bewildering even, unless we listen again to the Exodus story we heard tonight. The people of Israel, people who had suffered grievously in Egypt, became angry at Moses for leading them to freedom. Blessed with water in the desert, manna and quail from heaven, and freedom, they yearned for the life that they knew, that was familiar to them and they turned on Moses. So maybe it’s not a surprise that the people turned on Jesus. He threatened change – profound change – and change, even change for the better, is frightening.

But I want to suggest that the cry to crucify Jesus was rooted not just in fear of change but that it was the response of sin to God’s love.

Sin prefers to live in darkness. It grows in darkness. The light can kill it. Those of us gathered here don’t want to be sinners. We’d like to clean up our lives. We’d like to go down into those dark places and clean them out – or at least we’d like for them to be clean. But too often we take a look and are overwhelmed. There’s mold in that basement, and other bad stuff. It’s too big a job. So we close our eyes and close the door … and our sin flourishes undisturbed.

But Jesus, God’s very Love incarnate, just by being Jesus, exposes sin. Jesus, in his very being, by the way he lived his life: by his integrity, his steadfast refusal to compromise or to bully, by his sinlessness and authenticity, showed, in contrast, our sinfulness and inauthenticity. He turns on the lights. And sin’s response is to try to turn them off again.

Sin has another trick, as well – diversion. But it doesn’t work with Jesus. Jesus won’t bite. If he had just got mad and yelled, coerced, complained – if he had just done that, then the sinners could get mad in return. Their attention (our attention) could be drawn away from their own failings and focussed instead on the conflict. But Jesus would never bite. He never got drawn in. Never provided that escape. He didn’t say, “you must do this, you must stop that”. He said, “if you want what it is you see in me, eternal life, oneness with God, to be entirely and only what and who you were created to be, if you want these things, then here is what you must do. Follow me. Give away all your possessions, feed the hungry… But it’s entirely up to you.”

He would never bite. Never provide the conflict that provided the escape.

And so, when Jesus was around, when Jesus is around, there is no way to avoid that gaze that reflects back to us the depths and reality of ourselves.

And so all those things we can admit to in a pro-forma way: Oh yes, there’s mold in the basement. Bad thing, that. We’ll be wanting to do something about that. Or, as in the General Confession: We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have done those things which we ought not to have done and not done those things which we ought to have done… we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves, not loved God with our whole heart.

Or, more explicitly (from the Ash Wednesday confession):
we have been jealous of those more fortunate than ourselves.
We have been impatient with those who are different.
We’ve not been careful of the environment, failing to treat it as God’s own creation and to protect it for generations to come.
We’ve held onto resentments, refusing to forgive.
We’ve held onto pride, refusing to ask for, or accept, forgiveness.
We’ve spent our resources of money, time, and spirit in ways rooted more in fear than in generosity.
We’ve done things that were selfish.
We’ve said things that were hurtful – even destructive.
We’ve thought things that were uncharitable.
We’ve failed to commend the good/the God that is in us.
We’ve failed to use our talents – to spend ourselves.
We have sinned against God, against our neighbors, and against ourselves.

But, though we can read the words out when it comes to that place in our common prayers, we don’t really want to look deep inside and identify the ways those things are particularly, specifically, true about ourselves.

But – when we encounter Jesus, we have no choice. Standing next to his presence, his unflinching authenticity and sinlessness, every corner, every nook and cranny, of our souls is cast into clear, unavoidable, unambiguous, unrationalizable relief.

The only way for sin to avoid looking at itself when confronted with Jesus is to create a diversion, to pick a fight. And Jesus won’t play along – he won’t fight.

So sin kills him.

People like us did it once. They nailed him to a cross to get away from that confrontation. We do it – every time we turn him into a plastic icon rather than a real presence in our lives. Every time we close our eyes or turn away to avoid letting him live in us. Every time we mouth the words without letting them penetrate to the places where we really live. Sin, our sin killed and kills him.

But then there’s Love.

Jesus’ love that goes to his death rather than be untrue to God, himself, or us.

LOVE that knowingly walks the path that leads to his own torment in order to show us who and whose we are and who and how we can be.

LOVE that, knowing it is our sin, our choices, that killed and kill him, goes to his death loving us still, praying for us still. And then comes back – to us.

Love bears all things – even our sins.
believes all things – believes in us still
hopes all things – that we will, indeed, embrace our own salvation, claim the love that is there for, with, and in us.
endures all things – the agony of as-yet unrequited love, as-yet unfulfilled hopes.

Love never dies. Jesus’ love, God’s love, never dies. But neither does the love given to us to live in us. Within us still, every one of us, is love.

Love that can find the faith to look Jesus, our God, in the eye and not flinch from what we see of ourselves there.

Love that is able to accept the understanding and forgiveness and LOVE which we see in response.

Love that has the courage to surrender itself to LOVE and open itself to be changed – to be healed.

Love, in us, will allow LOVE to wash away our sins and make us clean and whole and authentic.

Sin kills in order that it might continue to hide in darkened confinement.

Love endures the agonies and the ecstasies of birthing new life.

Even now Jesus is arising to offer his embrace to those he loves – to us.

And, just like those who crucified him, and those who followed, and gave their lives to, him, we have within us – each of us – sin and love.

With which will you greet his return?

Good Friday, 2002

Good Friday, (noon) 2002
Ecumenical – 7 Last Words – Service*
St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

* This was pieced together from notes made a few days after the homily was preached. For context – earlier that morning the news had reported that Israeli tanks had surrounded, and were bombing, a building in which Arafat was trapped. This launched the newest round of active conflict that has not yet abated. It was also the first Holy Week and Easter following 9/11/01 and answers seemed in short supply.

This was preached as one of seven short homilies at an ecumenical service.

He said, ‘it is finished’ and he gave up his spirit.

The night before he was crucified, our Lord Jesus Christ celebrated the feast of the Passover with his family of choice. But, before he broke the bread, he washed their feet and he said, “remember what I have done for you … I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. By this shall the world know that you are my disciples: that you love one another.”

Actually, this “new commandment” was not entirely new. Jesus himself had said before,
Shema Yisroel – Hear, O Israel,
‘The Lord your God is one God
and you shall love the Lord Your God
with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.’
This is the first and great commandment
And the second is like unto it
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’

Want to know what the bible says about something? Anything?
Shema Yisroel

Love your neighbor. Not like your neighbor, mind you. That’s nice when it happens. It makes that whole loving thing so much easier and more pleasant. But we are not commanded to like, or feel affection for, one another. Or to piously pretend that we do.

We’re commanded to love. To take to heart the other’s best interest as if it were our own. To care about and for one another with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength. Even when it means personal loss. Even when it means giving something up.

“Jesus, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.” Having done all he could do and suffered all he could suffer for us, he gave up all that was left – his spirit – for us. He chose to die, to let go his spirit, for love of us.

And today our Lord’s beloved people, his sisters and brothers – our sisters and brothers, through him and through Eve – fight and die. For pretty much the same reason people always have. For a place to call home. For a place to put down roots, to tend flocks, grow crops or do business, to raise children, worship God as they have been taught, to grow old and die and be returned to the earth from which they came. Both sides – all sides – of the conflict fight for these things.

And they also fight from the lust for revenge – born from the bitterness of lives lived in terror, dispossession, and indignity.

And we who live in the magnificent isolation of our wealth, ocean borders, and might of arms – we who have never (unless we are American Indians or Japanese Americans 60 or more years old) have never known any credible fear, much less the reality, of loss of our own home – our own land – we in this illusion of isolation have, perhaps, found it too easy to forget the plight of our sisters and brothers in the Middle East.

But, though we may not know the bitterness of dispossession, we have, in these last months, nonetheless, come to know something of the lust for revenge.

Perhaps our Christian discipline, that Love by which our Lord says we are to be known, perhaps that Love has helped us conquer the blood-lust. Perhaps some, maybe many, of us have turned aside from thoughts of revenge. But I doubt there are any among us who can say that the urge never entered their minds. We now know something, just a very little, about what it means to live with fear and insecurity. We know something about frustration, feelings of powerlessness, and the lust for revenge.

Perhaps it’s just a little harder to dismiss the devastating suffering that marks each day as something happening to those people – over there.

Perhaps we can remember that those people of Jesus – Arab and Israeli alike – are our people, too. And we can work with all our heart and spirit and mind and strength to figure out what it means to love them – and then do that.

I don’t know what that would mean giving up. Jesus gave up even his spirit.

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem.

Friday, March 22, 2002

Maundy Thursday, 2002

Maundy Thursday, 2002
St. David’s, Pepperell
(as best as can be pieced together from notes)

So much is going on tonight. So many things are packed into this service. We’re in the midst of Passiontide. As we enter the spirit of the season, commemorating our history, we gather to wait with our Lord whose crucifixion we know is soon to come. We remember his command to love and service and we remember, and re-enact, the Last Supper he shared with his disciples and, through the Church’s sacraments, with us.
Every time we gather together to make Eucharist we re-enact and commemorate the Last Supper. But we especially on Maundy Thursday are we called to remember where this tradition comes from and what it means for us – what it calls us to.
On this last night before the Crucifixion Jesus gathered with his friends, as Jews still do today and have done this week, to celebrate the Passover. The Passover meal was a time of remembering. When God visited Egypt with the final plague, the death of each firstborn, in order to encourage Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go, he "passed over" the houses of the Jews, sparing their children and leaving them free to make their exodus. And they were told to remember this mighty act. Each year since the fall of the temple and the diaspora Jews have gathered wherever they may be to eat a seder meal together and to remember who and whose they are.
So, too, we gather. Every Sunday we gather to recreate that meal and remember who and whose we are. The trick, then, is to remember what it is we’re supposed to be remembering. And that’s where Maundy Thursday comes in. On this night we take special care to commemorate that Last Supper and to remember what it is we are called to remember every week, every day, every moment of our lives.
It’s too easy, and too tempting, to think that what we are called to remember, and to do, is to come to this table regularly. But on this night we remember that, when his friends had gathered, Jesus began to wash their feet. And, when Peter protested that such service was beneath his Lord and Master, Jesus said that any who would lead ( and any who would follow Jesus) must serve – and must love. Remember how I have served you, he told them. And remember how I have loved you.
He doesn’t say – remember to eat and drink regularly. He says whenever you do, do it in remembrance of me. Remember how I loved you and served you and follow my example. Whenever you do this. By "this" does he mean "celebrate the Passover" (an annual event)? Or does he mean "at every meal’? Or "whenever you happen to gather for any purpose"?
It’s not clear. He doesn’t really say. And so over the years the Church has tried to figure out how often to do this commemoration. And I think the question we need to ask is not "how often must we do this to satisfy Jesus’ commandment" (because he didn’t say), but "how often must we do it in order to satisfy our own hunger?" We need regular sustenance to keep away the gnawing of doubt, despair, and sin. We need regular sustenance to give us the strength to do the things Jesus did clearly command us to do – to remember to love through service.
A lot of rules around all this have developed over the centuries. We’re not told by Jesus, "do this every week." We’re guided to that by our own need and hunger and by the advice of a Church which has noticed how very much the people of God need that regular sustenance. We’re not told by Jesus to be careful not to spill the wine and to treat the elements with respect. We have come to do that out of our love for the one we remember whenever we re-enact this feast.
What we are told – what matters most – is to love one another. And our ability to do that is rooted in the love Jesus first showed us – the love he teaches us, the love for him that we nurture in ourselves every time we gather like this.
Tonight we are invited to wait and watch. We watch to learn how to love. We wait because we do love. We wait with Jesus because we have come to know him and love him and because it’s all there is left to do. We love him because he has taught us how – because he first loved us.
Remember what we have been ordered to do. But, tonight, wait and watch –to fit us for the task.

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