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"

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Baptized Into the Fullness of Life

Katherine Ragsdale

In just a few minutes we’re going to go over to that font and Baptize this child into the life and death of Jesus Christ. We’re going to pledge, on her behalf, to “renounce all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God;*” to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever (we) fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord;” to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;” to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving (our) neighbors as (our)self;” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” We’re going to promise to teach her to model her life on the example of Jesus of Nazareth.

So the question I have for you is … Why would we want to do such a thing to this perfectly lovely baby, to this infant who has never done anything to us? You do remember what happened to this Jesus whom we’re pledging her to follow? He was killed – rejected by the religious authorities and executed by the State as a threat to the established order. All that striving for justice and respecting the dignity of every human being was wreaking havoc on the social policies and traditions of the age. And the folks in charge were having none of it. For the most part they still aren’t. They killed Jesus and a good number of his followers, and they’ve never stopped. The faces have changed, as have the methods and the excuses. All too often it’s those who call themselves followers of Jesus and purport to be defending the faith who are doing the killing, or at least, cheering on those who do. But the fact remains, those who truly work for justice for all people; who insist on standing up to the powers that oppress the children of God; who refuse to compromise their integrity or hide either their talents or their passionate indignation are too often killed – by governments, assassins, or the inexorable toll of poverty and marginalization. Never to turn back from the path Jesus mapped can land us into some dangerous places.

Even should this child we love manage to find a less dangerous route, we have still promised to do everything in our power to deny her the contemporary version of the good life. Not for her this season’s American dream – the self-absorbed search for endless self-gratification; the quest for beauty and power and money enough to satisfy every appetite; the cult of celebrity bought at the expense of the loser class. No, if we are successful in fulfilling the promises we are about to make, the vows we are about to take before God and one another, this child will be denied, will deny herself, everything that modern culture has taught us defines success.

Why would we deny her that? Because we want for her so very much more.

We have learned, from our sacred texts; from our forebears and teachers; perhaps from our own experience, we have learned that money and prestige and power and beauty and celebrity and things can never assuage our deepest fears or sate our greatest hungers. They may sometimes bring pleasure but the pleasure is fleeting and never fully satisfies. We want more than that for this child. We want this child to have the rich, full, deep life that, paradoxically, can never be reached through the unrelenting attention to self-fulfillment that television and ad agencies preach from their bully pulpits.

Many years ago I had a dream. I still think of it as a dream about my vocation to the ministry. In this dream I, along with many other travelers, was invited into a grand castle. We were tired and hungry and our beautiful host invited us into a huge formal dining room. A wide table ran the length of the room, piled high with every food one could imagine. Heaping platters of roasted meats, bright vegetables swimming in exquisite sauces, vast bowls of dew-bespeckled fruits ready to burst their skins with ripeness covered the full length and breadth of the table. The aromas alone made us weak-kneed with desire. Our host smiled and urged us to eat to our hearts’ content. There was, she assured us, no end to the banquet before us. Her servants would replenish the feast as quickly as we could eat it. No platter, bowl, or goblet would ever become empty.

And suddenly I knew – this was not real food. It was merely an illusion. It had no substance to nourish us nor would it ever ease our hunger. Quite the contrary. We were so very hungry and this mock food looked like it should satisfy and delight us. If we began to eat it, its inability to truly feed us would make us hungrier still. With each bite we took we would become more desperate for sustenance and would crave the feast that appeared to be before us even more. We would seize more and more, quickly becoming captives at the table, unable to stop desperately ingesting the illusion that then left us hungrier, and more desperate, with each bite. Eventually we would starve – waste away and die – having spent the balance of our lives in this devil’s playground with all our energies devoted to ingesting that which could never bring us life or joy or satisfaction.

My job, in this dream, was to stop us before we took that first bite and became trapped, unable to pull ourselves away from the fake castle and its table, unable to return to the less glamorous, but ever so much more substantial and sustaining, real world. Our job, which we take on this day, is to teach this child the difference between illusions that will destroy the good within her and things of substance upon which she can build a life worthy of her talents and her passion.

Here is what we have come to know. A life devoted merely to self-gratification, to sating our appetites, to the endless search for pleasure, will never satisfy the deep hunger within. And the more we devote ourselves to such a quest the smaller we become as we struggle to deform ourselves into creatures petty enough to be so easily satisfied. We were created to be more than that. We were created to be big … vast … infinite. We were created to be one with God, the force that creates and animates and sustains all that is, seen and unseen, known and yet to be discovered. We were created to know, and fall daily deeper in love with, the wondrous grandeur and complexity of the whole created order. We were created to take our part in the care and keeping and unfolding of that creation, to play our part in a holy task that began before history and will continue beyond the scope of our imagining.

We come today to Baptize this child, beloved of God and us, into the fullness of life. We come to begin the life-long process of reminding her that someone as gifted and precious as she can never be reduced to mere appetite and ambition – and neither can any other of the children of God, gifted and precious in their own right. We come to begin teaching her that she matters and what she does matters, that every choice she makes shapes the world for better or for worse. Every time she meets the world with greed or jealousy or malice she will make the world that much meaner a place. Every time she embraces the world with integrity, love, respect, and peace she will make the world that much more holy a place. We come to remind her that she is a part of creation, intricately and intimately linked to everyone and everything that is. We come to encourage her to spend her life exploring and enhancing those connections.

We come to remind her that she has it within her to walk a path of holiness and righteousness and we come to pledge her our support. We ask her to do this not because it will make her life easier, for it is unlikely that it will. Probably it will make her life far more difficult than it would be if she chose a more self-absorbed path … a smaller path. The path of holiness and righteousness may someday get her killed, it will certainly bring her hardships, but it will assuredly make her whole. In knowing and embracing her connection to the whole of creation she will become big: bigger than any solitary soul has it within itself to be; big enough to be God’s own partner in the on-going creation of all that is; big enough to know a peace and joy and fullness of life that simply is not available to the self-referential, that cannot be contained by those who have made themselves small.

We come to Baptize her into the fullness of life.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday, 2005
St. David’s, Pepperell (MA)
Katherine Ragsdale

It’s Palm Sunday, the longest morning in Christendom. It’s not your imagination; this really is going on forever. The problem is that we’re doing two liturgies, two days, in one today. We started with the Palm Sunday liturgy and then, with the reading of the Passion that we just completed, moved into Good Friday as well.

So why does the Church do this to us?

I’m inclined to tell you that you have no one to blame but yourselves, but the truth is, we have lots of people throughout the Church and around the world to blame. We do two liturgies today because we know that a lot of you won’t be here on Good Friday. And we also know that Easter without Good Friday is as hollow and as nutritious as one of those big chocolate bunnies your kids will find in their Easter baskets.

A free floating Easter of new clothes, bunnies, peeps, jelly beans, and the occasional joyful acknowledgement that Christ is risen can provide a nice spiritual sugar high – but it does not nourish us, it will not sustain us, and it trivializes God’s great work in our lives. So, knowing that, but knowing also that, short of tying us to our chairs and prying our jaws open, it’s not always possible to get us to take what’s good for us, the Church, in its wisdom, has decided to cram as much of the important stuff as possible into a meal we’re reasonably likely to eat. You can think of Palm Sunday as a regular family dinner wherein all the familiar dishes have been vitamin fortified.

First, we’re given Palm Sunday and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In this part of our liturgy we’re reminded what it was the people wanted, what they were looking for. They expected a military savior who would end their oppression and get revenge. The lust for revenge is not alien to the people of God. We may be warned not to indulge it but there’s no point in pretending we’re strangers to it. Check the Psalms. The psalmists lament their grief and oppression, their pain and their loss. But what they’re really mad about is that the people who did it to them keep getting away with it. People hoped for, expected that Jesus was, the one who would smite their enemies as well as restoring justice.

Their first clue that they were not going to get what they were expecting should have come when he arrived. He rode into town not on a horse, the symbol of military might in that time, he didn’t ride in perched atop a tank. He came in on a donkey, more like an old VW van. This Jesus came not to conquer but to preach a new way; to announce that, all appearances notwithstanding, Empire could not, would not, prevail; and to stand firm in those proclamations even though it meant that the Empire would kill him, as he knew it would, as he knew it, being Empire, must.

But this morning we see the people, people not unlike us, still hoping for an easy way out – for someone to fight and sacrifice for them; to conquer for them; to win, for them, a peace that no one else can, in fact, bestow.
And when, on Good Friday, the chickens come home to roost, when the full weight of Empire fell upon this itinerate preacher, this son of a Nazarene carpenter, this apostle of peace – those people, people not unlike you, not unlike me, those people turned on him. Disappointed, angry that he wasn’t what they expected, they threw him to the wolves. Even his followers, who kind-of got it, distanced themselves – "I don’t know him; he is nothing to me."

These stories of dashed hope, betrayal, failure, despair, cowardice, and fear… these are our stories. These are what get taken to the cross and the tomb with Jesus on Good Friday. These are what get redeemed, these are the people who get resurrected, on Easter.

Easter does not promise us that everything will be pretty; it doesn’t tell us that we can just forget our problems, put our miseries and shortcomings behind us. Holy Week teaches us that we achieve resurrection, redemption, and Easter glory not by turning our back on these things or going around them, but by going through them and coming out, with Jesus, on the other side.

Easter is not here yet. Don’t rush it. May you, instead, enter fully into this time of the Passion and have a blessed Holy Week.


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