Fire in the Rectory

Dean Mark Richardson preached this sermon on July 9, 2017, at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley. On July 5, the St. Clement’s rectory was the scene of a house fire.

We all gather this morning under quite different circumstances from just a week ago, stunned by the fire that took such a heavy toll on the home of the O’Neill family. Our hearts go out to Bruce, Michele and Jeremy in their grief over loss, and in the shock after such a trauma as this which takes its own time in passing.   

We are so grateful that everyone in the family is safe, and that Michele’s injuries will heal. In the news after fire, tornado, or earthquake, we often see people on camera standing in front of homes completely destroyed but thankful that their family members are safe. We feel that today. 

Sometimes, however, the hidden message is that we should only care about loss of life and be embarrassed about our grief over material things. But we do grieve over the loss of things and I think for good reason. Lost possessions are not just ‘things’; they represent deep and powerful memories and relationships in our personal histories. A message I heard over and over after the Oakland Hills fire of 1991 was that the possessions themselves were not alone the issue; they were symbols of our relationships, the carriers of family stories. The grief of loss is in the memories of life embedded in the objects no longer with us.

I’m guessing that Jeremy would have taken certain items to school with him this summer, not just because he could put them to good use, but because like mementos (Latin for ‘remembrances’) they would have been tangible reminders of the love and nurturing coming from family and friends in his youth, links to his personal history. These bonds will be there for him still, and now take a different form. 

Some of our congregation just returned from Family Camp at Bishop’s Ranch. For many years my own family took this to be an important annual ritual; our children would not let us miss it. And one of the reasons is that through life together, intentional and intensely lived through play and worship, building of friendship, sharing of family roles with each other’s children, we learned and we formed memories in ways that family and friends cannot do alone. I have this old bag that I painted during the family camp arts and crafts hour as our children worked away on similar projects at my side. It’s now an old tote bag, and I have better ones at home. But it brings back memories, affectionate connections with people, and inklings of a kind of mutual care into which God is drawing us.

The communities that followed Jesus needed to write down their memories of this transformative figure who had changed them. They did not leave it to immaterial passing thoughts. Rather, they committed to public record the key relationships of the Christ story, teachings and actions that clothed the wisdom they had received. It was a way of being in the world centered in relationship. And the stories contained objects we hang onto in our own recall of the story of Jesus: waters at the well and at baptism, bread and a cup of wine, fair linens and crosses and much more. The objects are made intelligible by linking us to the central figure of our faith, and to relationships, which are built into the meaning Jesus has for us.

The point of all of this is the link to the community dimension of our spiritual life at its core. We are more ourselves in the company of others, in our bonds of affection, than we are in isolation. Tragedy, whether by fire or by some other means, takes up back to these connection, to a faith deeply grounded in community. And our material lives, our possessions, are meaningful especially insofar as they are markers of relationships.

The famous words in Matthew this morning, bear repeating: “Come to me you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest; take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” These words, on the surface at least are not characteristic of what we know about the way of Jesus. His burden was not light, his path not easy. But he calls us to something that lightens our path because it is centered in him, and in a burden made lighter by bearing it together.  That’s exactly what a yoke is all about. Part of the truth in this luring into his presence is the sharing in the tasks and burdens of life.

I am mindful of the many times Bruce has been there to pray at the bed side, to be the pastoral friend, and one who gathers resources in support of someone in our community in a time of need. He leads pastorally in what is truly a community task that others in this congregation take on as well, of sharing the yoke of Christ’s ministry.

And now the O’Neills need our outstretched hands and hearts, our prayers and our love. Jesus gives us the image of making a task easier precisely because it is shared. It is the community dimension of our spiritual life.

In the end we have to name the difference between loss of possessions and loss of hope and lingering despair. We can lose one without losing the other. I want to take a moment to share a thought directly with the youngest O’Neill:  Jeremy, you are about to go away to college and there are lots of thing you would have taken with you, which you won’t be taking; they were lost in the fire. But something of more importance still lies before you, and it is the wonder and exploration of future possibilities. And this future anticipation will build on the bond of love that has ushered you forward at this point in your life—the love, nurturing and affection of family and friends. This is not lost but now placed in new perspective that will only be gained over time.

The truth about the Christian faith is that it is radically social; it is not about the journey of individual souls into life with God. It is much messier than that. The realism of our struggles together—our successes and our brokenness and yes our traumas—are brought to this altar where we ask God to transform the gifts of our imperfect lives so that we may be given as Christ’s own body for the life of the world. Jesus tells us to take on this yoke together and learn from him, united with one another in pure affection as we prayed in the collect.

 “Grant, O loving God, to all who are bound up in the effects of suffering and loss this day the sense of fellowship with others and the faith and knowledge of your love, and give them your peace which passes understanding, for the sake of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”