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 26, 2005

The Work of the People -- Good Friday, 2005

St. David’s, Pepperell
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

We gather tonight to do together the Good Friday liturgy. The word liturgy comes from the Greek for "public service." Today, we generally translate it as "the work of the people." So we gather tonight to do the work of the people – to do our work. And the work before us today, in this liturgy, is to pray for the world.

There’s certainly plenty to pray about:
We are at war. People beloved of God and their families and friends are killing, and being killed by, other people beloved of God and their families and friends.
Children in other parts of the world are dying of AIDS in vast numbers. In fact, entire nations are being decimated by this, not curable but certainly treatable, plague.
People everywhere go to bed hungry and without shelter.
Our schools remain unsafe. Last week the headlines spoke of the most recent school "gunman." Next to the headline was the picture of a boy – a child. There was no "gunman" involved. Children are killing children.
And, even as we sit here, political points are being scored over the body of a helpless FL woman while those who love her fight rather than mourn.

This is the world we’re to pray for. It’s hard to know where to begin.
And sometimes it’s hard to know why to begin. For, no matter how hard we pray, when we leave here tonight it’s a good bet that all these problems/tragedies will still await us. The only thing we might well expect to change as a result of our prayer tonight is … us.

Which is a pity. Most of us would, I suspect, prefer magic prayer. You know, the kind of prayer where, if you get it just right, if you want it badly enough, if you pray hard enough – presto, it magically appears. We could fill this church to the rafters if we preached convincingly about that kind of prayer. But it would be a lie – or, at the very least, wishful thinking. We know better.

Instead of magic we get offered an opportunity to change ourselves. To turn our hearts to that which is, and those who are, broken. To turn our heads and our hands to doing God’s work of re-creation, restoration, blessing, healing, resurrection, in and for the world. Which is, of course, where any transformation starts.

It’s not as if we, God’s creation, really need magic, after all. There’s not a problem I listed that doesn’t have an answer within the grasp of willing human hands. You, or I, or even you and I, individually, may not have the power, the knowledge, the ability to repair all those wounds ourselves. But humankind as a whole?

There are enough resources on this planet to satisfy the needs of every living creature. We’ve sent people to the moon, decades ago, yet we can’t figure out how to distribute resources across the globe? We may not be able to stop death (but why would we want to. Death is a part of our lives and provides the context that gives poignancy and meaning.) We may not be able to stop death or to eradicate all disease, but we know how to stop an epidemic, and how to care for our ill, and even how to say good-bye to our dead.

It’s not that we, humankind, can’t do these things; it’s that we don’t want to – not enough, anyway.

And so we come here tonight to do our work. To pray for this broken world in the hope and faith that those prayers will change us. They’ll make us want that healing just a bit more, work for it just a bit harder, risk and sacrifice for it just a bit more courageously.

We come to shape ourselves more fully into who God intends us to be and to invite as much of the world as we can reach to join us in the journey.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Maundy Thursday/Purim, 2005

Maundy Thursday, 2005
St. David’s, Pepperell (MA)
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

By an interesting coincidence, this year Purim and Maundy Thursday fall on the same day. You may remember that we’ve celebrated Purim here the last few years (and will again, though belatedly, in a few weeks). We’ve been doing it ever since a few of my Rabbi friends and colleagues convinced me we were missing out on a good thing.

Purim is one of the particularly fun Jewish holy days. There are special foods, sweet treats, associated with it. Children, maybe children of all ages, dress up in costume and come to the synagogue to hear the reading of the Book of Esther – also known as the scroll or the Megillah. The entire book is read, giving us the phrase, “the whole Megillah.”

People cheer the heroes and boo the villains and have a grand old time telling the story of how Esther and her uncle Mordecai outfoxed Haman and saved the Jews in Persia from extermination, even turning the table on their enemy. It’s great fun and we’ve enjoyed sharing the tradition here at St. David’s.

But it’s also serious. Before the happy climax of the story, when the tables are turned, it looks likely that Esther’s people will be utterly destroyed by the malice of another. The mighty will salve their egos at the expense of a host of the innocent. The only chance they have requires that Esther take a terrible risk. Esther, who was not known to be Jewish, who was a wife of the king and so probably could have “passed” and survived the massacre, Esther is called upon to risk execution in order to, maybe, save her people. And she does it. She says to her uncle, “Though I well may die in this endeavor, I will do it. Give me three days to spend with my friends to prepare myself for this and you gather all the Jews in the land to pray for me and for the success of our plan, and then I will do this, even though it lead to my death.”

And Mordecai said to Esther, “Who knows but that you were born for just such a time as this?”

“Who knows but that you were born for just such a time as this?”

Tonight, on Purim, we celebrate Maundy Thursday. Our celebration has three foci:

1) We Celebrate the Last Supper. Jesus, who was about to die to save his people,
gathered with his friends, his chosen family, for one last meal, one last time together. Every time we gather at the altar to break bread together we remember and re-create that moment. On this night, though, on Maundy Thursday, we take special note, and we give thanks, that, before dying for us, Jesus left us this memory; this tradition; this communion with all who have gone before us and all who will follow after us; this unfathomable sustenance for our own journeys.

We are invited, tonight and always, to bring to this altar our hope and our heartbreak, our vision and our fear, all that we have and all that we are, to be strengthened for our own work and to listen for the whisper of a voice saying to us, “Who knows but that you were born for just such a time as this?”

2) We remember and honor Jesus’ commandment to us. “Maundy” comes from the
Latin “mandatum” which means “commandment or mandate.” At that last supper Jesus gathered with his companions and began to wash their feet. Peter (isn’t it always Peter?) protested. It was not right that their friend, their teacher, their Rabbi, their leader and Lord should perform a task usually reserved to the most menial of servants.

And Jesus said – there is no shame in service. Service can be, should be, an act and expression of love. This is my commandment (mandate) to you – that you love one another as I have loved you. Love pays no attention to relative status as it washes or massages tired feet, binds wounds, lifts burdens …

And I wonder, did Peter, as his getting it wrong, once again, provided an opportunity for Jesus to teach us all, did Peter hear, “Who knows but that you may have been born for just such a time as this?”

3) Finally, our liturgy moves to the stripping of the altar in preparation for the horror
of tomorrow, Good Friday. Like the disciples, we are invited to watch and wait with Jesus as he prepares himself for what he must face. We go with him into prayer. We know something, perhaps, just a little, of what it means to pray his prayer of that night, “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass me by. But, thy will, not mine, be done.”

How often have we, in far less dire circumstances, but still with fervor, with passion, prayed the same thing – or at least the first half of it: “let this pass me by.”

How often have we been called to spend ourselves, to risk some small bit of ourselves (our prosperity, or prestige, or popularity), or even all of ourselves – our lives or all we live for? How often have we been called to use our gifts without counting the cost? How often have we quickly shut our eyes and ears to the need around us and the call to us? And, when the call creeps past our defenses and into our consciousness, how often have we prayed, “Let this cup pass me by?”

Jesus, too prayed: “Let this cup pass me by; but, not my will, but Thine, be done.”

Did he, perhaps, in that dark night of despair, hear a familiar voice saying, “Who knows but that you were born for just such a time as this?”

Tonight we come to the altar to be sustained by the food we are offered and by communion with a great community of saints.

We wash, and are washed, to remember the ways we are bound one to another in love manifested by service. Love and service given and love and service received – neither always easy.

We watch with Jesus through just a few moments of his agony of waiting, trying to claim for ourselves some small measure of the courage and love that makes such self-sacrifice, such self-fulfillment, possible.

And we learn to listen so that when our moment comes we will be able to hear and recognize the voice that whispers to us, "Who knows but that we were born for just such a time as this?"

Friday, March 18, 2005

A Word With Evangelicals (about abortion)

OK, this isn't really a sermon. It's a speech I just rediscovered. Although delivered almost 10 years ago the issues, alas, remain unresolved. If anything, they've simply grown more intense. It does, though, illustrate that the pro-choice community's call to "the other side" to work with us to make abortion less often necessary is not new. We've been pleading for help in giving women more options for a very long time.

A Word With Evangelicals
Mars Hill Forum
The Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale

Thank you for the invitation to speak with you tonight. I’ve been asked to pose to you what I consider to be the three toughest questions facing evangelicals who oppose a woman’s right to choose abortion. I am, of course, a pro-choice Christian. I speak to you tonight as an individual Christian trying my best to discern and act on the will of God for my life; and as a priest, who has vowed, before God and the people of God, to care for God’s people and most especially those who are poor, vulnerable, or oppressed; and as the President of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a coalition of 36 national organizations from over a dozen denominations and faith groups all of which support a woman’s right, and, indeed, acknowledge her responsibility, to make reproductive choices, including, sometimes, the choice to abort a fetus. Our coalition represents the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterians, the Disciples of Christ, the Moravian Church, and the reform, reconstructionist, and conservative movements of Judaism, the Unitarian Universalists, the American Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, and the YWCA, as well as the women’s caucuses of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Church of the Brethren.

This is the position from which I address you tonight. Although the Coalition is not an exclusively Christian organization, I am a Christian minister asked to address evangelical Christians and so my remarks tonight will assume that shared faith. And from this perspective I do see three questions. The first is one I would address to all of us, regardless of our position on choice. The second is more complex and specifically addresses areas where we disagree. The third has to do with how we disagree – with how Christians conduct ourselves in the midst of passionate disputes.

So, the first question – addressed to us all – is: what are we doing to reduce the need for abortions? None of us, regardless of our position on choice, approves of a world where pregnant women are faced with despair and see no viable options but to abort. But what are we doing, as God’s agents in the world, to change that situation?

Are we struggling – with the same fervor we invest in our anti or pro choice battles – to insure that women who wish to bear children can afford to do so? Are we working to reduce joblessness, to support wages that are sufficient to support families, to see that safe and affordable child care is available to every family that needs it, to provide adequate parental leave, and to assure that everyone has access to adequate health care?

Do we support comprehensive sexuality education and the availability of safe, affordable, and effective contraceptives so that those people who choose to have sex (including young people who choose to have sex) do not find themselves facing a pregnancy with which they are ill equipped to cope?

Finally, are we working to provide adoption services and supports so that those women who choose to bring their pregnancies to term but cannot care adequately for a child can see that child placed in a safe and loving home? And I mean every unwanted child, not just healthy, white infants.

Doing these things will not eliminate abortions. There will still be women whose health would be jeopardized by bringing a pregnancy to full term. Women who know that they cannot care for a child but who can also not face the prospect of nine months of intimate relationship with the developing fetus only to turn it over for adoption upon its birth. Women (and children) pregnant as the result of rape and incest.

No, we cannot eliminate the need for abortion. But we could dramatically reduce it. What are we doing to make our society more supportive of children and families? What are we doing to reduce the need for abortion?

My second question has to do with our areas of disagreement. But I need first to note those things about which I suspect we do agree. I suspect we agree on the marvelous goodness of God the Creator. I imagine you agree with me that all life, indeed all of creation, is sacred and that our stewardship of it is a holy trust given us by God in creation. I trust you believe, as I do, in the infinite love of God, revealed in Jesus, the Christ, through whom we have been redeemed and are offered, in every moment and circumstance of our lives, indeed, with every breath we take, are offered the opportunity to turn from sin and faithlessness and to bring our lives into conformity with God’s will and God’s plan for us.

These foundations of my faith are verified for me in Holy Scripture, by my faith tradition, and through my own experience as a person trying to live faithfully in this world. These are, in fact, not uncommon beliefs among the body of faithful Christians. Yet, although we may hold these foundational beliefs in common, it is also true that there are differences of opinion between faith groups, and even within faith groups, about what it means to put these beliefs into practice.

We differ as to whether faithful application of our beliefs requires vegetarianism, or tithing, or pacifism. We differ about whether capitalism is compatible with Christian faith and life. We disagree about whether conscientious objection to military service should be merely an option, or, instead, a requirement, of all Christians.

We disagree about whether women should be ordained, or infants Baptized, or whether to use wine or grape juice when we gather at table together. We disagree about whether Churches should offer sanctuary to refugees fleeing El Salvador or Haiti and about whether the government should respect that ancient concept of sanctuary. About whether our institutions should have divested their business interests in South Africa. About the intifada and the Persian Gulf War.

There are so many important issues about which we disagree passionately. Yet somehow we manage to disagree with mutual respect. We respect one another’s consciences and the faith that under girds them.

Why, then, is the issue of abortion different? Why do so many anti-choice Christians presume to deny pregnant women the right to consult, and act upon the dictates of, their own consciences? I respect your right to decide for yourselves what would be the most faithful response to your own unwanted, or untenable, pregnancy. Should you decide that abortion would be an inappropriate and faithless choice for you I would applaud your courage in making and living with hard decisions.

Why can you not show the same respect for others? It is not true that only those who do not know, or care about, God seek abortions or support the rights of those who do. On the contrary. If any one thing is demonstrably true from the last 20 years it is that people of faith, people of good will and informed conscience, disagree about when, if ever, abortion is an appropriate choice for a woman to make

That should not surprise us. That is the nature of moral discourse. It is characterized – always – by ambiguity, conflicting needs and values, and disagreement. It should also be characterized by mutual respect and tolerance.

I think of Evangelicals as a group characterized by respect for individual moral agency; a people who rely not on papal mandates or edicts from church bureaucracies, but on the discernment of individual conscience guided by prayer and Scripture. Why, then, do you so adamantly deny this moral agency, this respect for individual conscience, to pregnant women?

I imagine you will respond in one of two ways. That you will tell me that the Bible prohibits abortion and so there is no room for individual conscience. Yet surely you know this is not true. The Bible is silent on the subject. Or, perhaps you will try to tell me that abortion is the taking of a human life and this is proscribed by the Bible. Again, I would point out first that the Bible is, indeed, not so clear that it is always wrong to take a life. But, more to the point, to attribute personhood to a fetus begs the question.

This is, indeed, the crux of the moral discourse upon which we are engaged and the answer is not so easy as many anti-choice protestors would have it. The Bible does not make a claim for fetal personhood; indeed, it suggests otherwise. Science cannot make that claim for science cannot be expected to answer what is essentially a theological question.

The bottom line is that we disagree. Why can we not do so with tolerance and respect and without imposing our answers upon another’s conscience? We do so in so many other areas of serious and faith driven disagreement. Why not here? I must tell you that it appears to many of us that the answer to that question is that in this arena it is women who must make the final decision and that you do not respect the moral agency (or full personhood) of women simply because we are women.

My final question is related to the last. It has to do with how we disagree. Because I believe many of our diverse positions are rooted in our common faith, and because I believe that the members of Christ’s body have much to learn from one another – especially in those areas about which we disagree—I think it’s vitally important to all of us that we be able to engage one another in moral debate.

I confess that the liberal branch of the body has often thwarted this good end by failing to hear respectfully and consider seriously the arguments and insights of our conservative sisters and brothers. We have too often and too easily merely dismissed your perspectives as naïve, outdated, or evil.

I think, though, that we are not alone in this sin. Too often we have felt that our faith was not taken seriously; that you have dismissed us as slaves to current trends who don’t pray, or read the Bible, or care about the will of God.

When we dismiss each other so easily, we sin. We individual parts of Christ’s body say to one another, I have no need for you. We are foolish and we will be judged for it.

But far more serious than this is the violence that has come to characterize the struggle to eliminate safe and legal abortions. Doctors have been shot; one was killed. Clinics have been bombed. Doctors, nurses, and other health care workers have been stalked and harassed. Women have been accosted as they sought health care. Women who struggled, who sought godly counsel, who prayed, and then decided, with deep regret, but with a conviction that abortion was the best, and most faithful, choice available to them, have had to endure gauntlets of shrieking, insulting, frightening people, claiming to act in God’s name, as they sought to enter the clinics and act upon their decisions of conscience.

You who argue against abortion in the name of God must stand up and clearly and unequivocally oppose this violence and the violent rhetoric that spawns it. This violence is enacted in the name of pro-life Christians. This violence is perpetrated in your name. If you do not clearly, constantly, and publicly denounce this violence, you implicitly condone it. Furthermore, the name of God is invoked in support of this terrorism. That, it seems to me, is blasphemy. It is not something I would like to have to answer for at the day of judgment.

And so my question to you is – what are you doing, what will you do, to put an end to this terrorism? What will you do to assure that the members of Christ’s body can engage in moral discourse, can disagree, even passionately, without disrespecting, or killing, one another?

Those, then, are my three questions to you, and, in some cases, to all of us. I look forward to your questions and comments.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Dry Bones

5 Lent, Year A
Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
St. David’s Pepperell

We talked last week about the progression of Gospel stories we’ve been hearing the last few weeks. Three weeks ago we had the story of Nicodemus, a successful man, a powerful man, a man of substance, who, one day came to Jesus to say, in essence, “There must be more. What must I do to find this God in whose name you clearly act?” And Jesus tells him that finding God, finding eternal life, is not just a matter of one more thing to accomplish or possess, it’s not the capstone to a resume. It requires a total reorienting of life. It requires being born again. And more, he tells him that this rebirth is his for the asking.

Two weeks ago, we get the story of the Samaritan woman, the woman at the well. This woman, through some combination of bad choices, bad luck, and bad treatment at the hands of those she should have been able to depend on, has been relegated to the margins of society. One suspects that there isn’t much to her life but survival. She has been cast out of the relationships, the society, that might have brought her joy. But Jesus says to her, “I can bring you water that will quench any thirst you have – forever. It will be for you a well-spring of eternal life bubbling up within you, always.” He promises to remake her life.

Last week it was the story of the blind beggar. Through no fault of his own, blind since birth, his options and possibilities were severely limited. He spent his time begging. One wonders where there could be joy, or the possibility of fulfillment for him. And for him Jesus ups the ante. Jesus reaches to the ground, and takes dust, and spits into it, and puts the mud on the man’s eyes and gives him something he has never known – sight. In taking up dust Jesus reminds us of the creation story. In Genesis God created humankind from the dust of the earth. In this story Jesus re-creates the blind man from the dust of the earth. Not merely re-born, this man is re-created.

And then today the stakes rise even higher. Lazarus is dead. And not just kind-of dead. Not that, standing on the verge deciding which way to go (come to the Light. No, come back to your body, to us!) kind of death. Lazarus is really, really dead. He’s been dead for four days. He’s beginning to decompose and to stink. He’s dead. And Jesus gives him his life again. It’s a powerful story, but even more powerful, for me, anyway, is the Ezekiel story with which it is paired this morning.

Ezekiel sees the whole people of Israel not merely as dead and decomposing. He sees them so far gone that there is nothing left of them but scattered bones. Dry bones. Bones almost ready to return to dust. Desolate. There is no hope to be found, nothing to hold onto. And yet God says, “I will take up these bones, and put them back together. I will hang flesh upon them and I will breathe life into them. I will remake you and I will restore you to life and will give you a land of your own. You will be my people and you will know life and joy and all the fullness of my promise.”

I suspect all of us can find ourselves, our story, in one of these stories. Many of us have been around long enough that we can probably find our stories in most, maybe all, of these stories. But, for those of you who are young yet, let me say a few words about how these stories are reflected, or will be reflected, in your lives.

You’re a bright, talented, and charming bunch. I have no doubt that the future holds many great things for you. But the story of Nicodemus reminds us that, no matter how many awards you may win, how much money you may earn, how much cool stuff you may accumulate, none of it will ever be enough, by itself to bring you true joy and peace. Without a connection to God and to other people whom you love, without people and principles in your life that matter to you more than life itself, without God, all the awards and possessions won’t be enough to make you truly happy. You will always be left wanting more. Nothing will satisfy. But, even if you make the mistake of trying to find happiness through power or possessions, no matter how far down that wrong road you may go, God will always be there, waiting to turn your life around for you, to let you be born again, to have another chance.

And, like the Samaritan woman, you may from time to time be treated badly by others. They may make fun of you, or shut you out, because of mistakes you’ve made or because of things completely beyond your control. But, as Jesus reminded the Samaritan woman, God loves us – no matter what. And God knows, and helps us to know, what things really matter. But, to tell the truth, while all of us get teased sometimes, and it’s never fun, we’re still not likely to be treated really badly or really unfairly – not as unfairly as people who are poor, or disabled, or who don’t speak English very well yet. And because we know that God loves those people just as much as God loves us, and because we’ve been Baptized and promised to help God make the world run, we have a responsibility to stand up for everyone who is treated badly. We’re not allowed to join in when others make fun of them, or are unfair to them – but, more than that, we’re required to stand up for them, to stand beside them.

Then there’s the story of the blind man. He was born with limitations. Maybe you haven’t discovered any limitations yet. Maybe everything you’ve really worked hard at you’ve been able to do. And that is wonderful. But it’s also true that everyone has limitations, and, sooner or later, we begin to discover them. For example, you may have your heart set on being a pro-basketball star, but if you only grow to be 5’3” it’s probably just not going to happen. And it you grow to be 6’6” and broad-shouldered you’re probably not going to be able to be a jockey – no matter how hard you try. And it’s a hard thing when you have your heart set on something and then discover that your limitations mean you’ll never have it. But here’s what God promises. God promises that, if our limitations keep us from doing what our heart is set on, God can re-set our heart. And will if we let Her. God can re-set our hearts on things that we really can do, things better than we could have thought up on our own, things that will bring us more joy than we ever could have dreamed of.

Finally there’s the Lazarus story, and its companion story of the dry bones. This is a hard, hard story about loss. I trust most of you have never experienced anything like this. I hope you never will. But, in the course of a long life, many people do. This is a story about losing everything and everyone that matters. It’s about looking at the world and seeing nothing that brings you joy and no hope of finding it. It’s about what it’s like when you can’t even figure out what to do to try to make things better because every direction you look you find nothing. Everything you do seems pointless. You can’t figure out any way to fix it and you can’t find even the tiniest shred of hope – not even one small seed left to plant and pray over. All is dust and ashes.

I hope you never, ever, experience that but I can tell you that some of the adults in this room right now have. And they’ve come out the other side. Because, even in the face of all that, God still promises to be with us and to put us and our lives back together again. If you ever face such a horrible time and you can’t remember anything else, remember that – God promises to be with us and to put our lives back together again.

Sisters and Brothers, these Lenten stories remind us that Lent is our story. And if Lent is our story, so, too is Easter. Whether we find ourselves at this moment, like Nicodemus, at the height of our success or, like the people of Israel in Ezekiel’s time, in our most abject despair, we are, in either case, lodged firmly in this unfolding Lenten/Easter story. Nothing, neither heights nor depths, can separate us from the love of God. The stories of God’s encounters with the people God loves are our stories.

We are not promised perfect lives or easy lives. But we are promised that we can know the fullness of life. We can be reborn with hearts centered on those things which bring joy and peace. We can be sustained, through good times and bad, with a sense of purpose, a sense of ourselves, that is not contingent on the circumstances of our lives.

And, in the times of our deepest despair, when we can find no blessings, no hope, no reason to go on, we still belong to the God who says,

“I can and I will take up the scattered, dry, desolate bones of your life and dreams and hang new flesh upon them,

and put a new heart within them,

and breathe new life into them.

New life.

I will give you new life.

And I will give you your new heart’s desire.

I will put you in your own land,

I will bring you home,

and I will be your God.

And when you see me do these things you will know that I am God

and that I love you more than words can tell.

I will never abandon you.”

This is the Easter promise given to all of us who find our stories in Lent. Once again, beloved in Christ, I invite you to a holy Lent. In these last, climactic weeks find your story or stories here. Enter into your own stories. Claim them. And then bring them to the Easter feast to claim, as well, the Easter promise.


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