My church has something where on Trinity Sunday two members of the graduating high school class each give a sermon. And last Sunday one of those people was me. The topic was my church life and the readings were Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 and the Gospel reading was Matthew 28:16-20. Here’s a link to the full text.
This what I came up with:
I suppose that for most people their first memory of church is something sweet. Maybe they were learning a Bible story in Godly Play or being held by a parent during the Christmas or Easter service. Mine, however, is not. I can recall at the age of three being deposited by my parents at the childcare room in the basement of St. John the Divine in Manhattan and screaming in panic until my father agreed to stay. Thankfully, I’ve since warmed up to religion and faith has become a very important part of my life.
As a young child in the church you come to faith through participation in church activities. Just going to services with your parents and going through the motions brings you closer to God.
From the ages of six to eight my family attended National Cathedral. We’d sit in the balcony in the back of the sanctuary, the place with the best view, and I’d stare at the massive stained glass windows. There were big circular ones with deep blues and scarlet reds, and one with a moon rock in the middle. It was made to look like three planets suspended in a starry sky and at the top, in the center of a violently red one, was the rock. This impressed young me quite a bit and made me feel very proud of my religion. My Catholic friends may have gotten to wear white dresses for their First Communion, but I had a moon rock.
Every Sunday when sunlight poured in through the windows lining the wall, casting multi colored shadows over the worshippers, I wondered if that was God was like: Someone who lit up beautiful windows and touched everyone with his light. And in a way I was right, God is light and goodness and he is with everyone always, bathing our lives in beauty. Of course, I couldn’t put it in those words yet, but I had already been touched by the wonderment of the Lord.
During the service I’d stand and kneel when my parents did and read haltingly from the red Book of Common Prayer my father held for me with his finger moving slowly under each word. I was so struck by the Lord’s Prayer and the way everyone said it together, all of their voices making such a rich powerful sound, that I memorized it, lying in the back seat of our mini van, not wearing my seat belt. Sorry Mom and Dad. I promise I always wear it now. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” I whispered to myself over and over again almost like it was a secret that I had with God. Religion was just beginning to make sense.
As I got older church began becoming more and more fun. I sang in the choir at Saint Columbus in Washington, D.C. for a few years, learning how to harmonize and fidgeting my way through services as the tag on my blue cassock scratched the back of my neck. Frequently, after making sure that I was hidden by the girl in front of me, I’d hold my arms out and pretend that the draping sleeves of my surplus were angel wings.
Every Sunday, I’d try to focus on the sermons, so determined to be a “good” Christian, but the only one I actually remember was the sermon in which the priest began by telling this story: When he was a young boy, he saw Evil Kenevil jump over fourteen buses on TV. Finding this feat particularly impressive, he set about creating his own jump. Now, his family had recently purchased a new refrigerator and some other large furniture, so that afternoon he dragged the boxes out of the garage, set up a ramp with a sheet of ply wood and a plastic chair and attempted his jump. Of course, this jump did not go as planned, and he crash landed, breaking his arm. I can’t recall what this was a metaphor for in the sermon, but it stuck with me the way that nothing else did from that age.
The idea that God is with us constantly, even when we are making incredibly stupid decisions was startling, and the next day when I crash into the U.S. mailbox a block from my house, I wondered if it was God who had helped make the bike tip over into the grass instead of the bone-breakingly hard concrete. As I picked myself up from the ground and peeled of the pieces of grass stuck to my hands I whispered, “Thank you, God.”
But I also learned something else from that sermon: worshipping God is not always a solemn and serious affair. Laughter and prayer can be rolled into one. God is with us in all moments. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says to the Apostles, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This passage usually gets quoted to someone when they are suffering, but it isn’t just limited to times of unhappiness and struggle. His presence is constant “always, to the end of age,” and the end of age includes times of joy and amusement. The next time you laugh, thank God for the goodness you are experiencing.
I moved to here when I was twelve and Leigh invited me to church one morning after we had had a sleepover. Bleary eyed, I walked down the steps to the basement room where I was immediately dubbed E Four and jammed onto the E couch with all the other girls whose names started with E. It was a cheerful and quite overwhelming initiation into the group, and I loved it. The lesson for the day was to read a passage from the Bible, and after having one lobbed at my head by one of the boys I flipped through the pages. Despite having considered myself a Christian for quite a while, I had never actually read the Bible. I mean, I had listened to the Readings and Gospel every Sunday during the service, but I had never done it on my own. I carefully read the passage and waited for what I thought would be a series of reading comprehension questions. Instead, we were asked: “What does Jesus mean? Why does he say this? How can you apply this to your own life?”
My head screamed, “YES!” the way my dad did on Wednesday when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. This was exactly what I needed. Faith was no longer just about stories and going through the motions of the service. You didn’t need a priest to always interpret the Bible for you. It was more about actively reading the Bible and discussing it with others. It meant coming to your own conclusions. And it was endlessly fascinating and wonderful.
One Sunday after church it started to snow, and as I trudged through the parking lot, wishing that I owned snow boots, I was struck by the miracle of it all. The fact that there was snow that fell from the sky and that every flake looked different. The way that the some of tiny arms of the snowflakes were big enough for me to see and that there were hundreds, if not thousands, more I couldn’t. Smaller and smaller. Tinier and tinier. All the way down to their electrons zooming in orbit, creating bonds with the other atoms. And the same elements that held the snow together also held me together. These bonds were almost like the way Leigh and I had crossed our arms, clasped each other’s hands, leaned back, and swung ourselves in a circle as fast as we could during coffee hour. The way that we had laughed when we stopped, thoroughly dizzy, and stumbled into Anastasia while the world seemed to rock back and forth. God had given the world these gifts, and I felt drunk on the love and faith I was experiencing.
This reminds me the First Reading today. God transforms “a formless void” into an earth replete with vegetation, animals, and humankind. He is there at every level of existence. “And God saw that it was good.”
One of the most important things I discovered at church was the community we have in Christ, the way that our love of God brings us together.
I am so thankful for the time I have spent with everyone in Rite-13. The hours that we spent laughing and being goofy when we should have been paying attention to our teachers. The two lock-ins where we ran around the church all night testing out all of the different classrooms to find one that was the best to hang out in and being scared to fall asleep because someone might do something to you.
I am thankful for J2A. Preparing for confirmation. The way we felt when the bishop put his hands on our head and our sponsor gripped our shoulder and hearing the emphatic “amen” that meant that we were now true adult members of the church. The pilgrimage we took to Boston. All of the walking and the places of worship. Hanging out at night on the roof of the convent. Time spent in the airport waiting and waiting and waiting for the plane. Flying home late at night in different, scarily small plane entirely exhausted.
I am thankful for the children and the choir. The laugher of the children in Godly Play. The kindness and sweetness of the choristers. Our two choirmasters patience and love of music. The songs we’ve learned and sung.
I am thankful for my teachers. The way they cared for our spiritual education. Their patience, enthusiasm, and care.
I am thankful for the church community. The Outreach committee and all of their events. My mother. Walking in circles around a table, putting supplies in backpacks. Crying while chopping up an absurd number of onions for the soup kitchen. The smiling faces of the children we are sending to school in Kenya. The love with which the members of the congregation treat each other. The kindness I experienced last year when I was sick. The events like Hanging of the Greens and the Talent Show. The mission trip to Appalachia. Building, The McCoys, Hours of Apples to Apples. Swimming in the waterfall. Times when I look around and think God is in this space, in all of these people, and I am at peace.
Lastly, I am thankful for our rector and assistant rector. Their leadership, empathy, sermons, devotion to God and Christ.
As we look to the future and the beginnings of a life forged without the security of home, we need not fear. Christ will be there with us on this journey. The homesickness of those first few days will be made easier by the comfort we take in his presence. He will be there on those late nights of homework the same ways he’s been there for our entire lives. Someone for us to talk to and pray to when the stress feels like it’s too much. And he will also be present in our moments of joy and laughter, times when the beauty of the world feels infinite. We are never alone.
“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of age.”