“Hand-Me-Downs”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

November 6, 2016

Ephesians 1:11-23

 

One of the things that happens when you have a baby, if you’re lucky, is that you start receiving all kinds of hand-me-downs.  Sometimes people ask first to see what you might need; other times, bins and bags and boxes of stuff just appear as if out of nowhere.  And what a gift those hand-me-downs are.  Clothes worn for three weeks and then outgrown…  Burp cloths whose size and absorbency have been tried and tested on other spitup-stained shoulders…  Rattles and stuffed animals that are just the right size for tiny, clumsy fingers to grab…  Cradles slept in by generations of infants…  Bathtubs in which other tiny bodies have been washed clean…  Board books with teeth marks on the corners just to show how much they’ve been loved…  Bouncy seats and jumpers and rockers and swings…

What a gift those hand-me-downs are, for they carry the hard-earned wisdom of those who have walked this road before.  Mothers and fathers and daughters and sons who, by trial and error and disaster and lucky chance and sheer one-day-at-a-time perseverance, have found things that make this life more livable.  Grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins who have gathered up what they have received and what they have discovered for themselves and passed it all on to others (like us) who come after.

When I first started sewing name labels into our son’s clothing, much of which we received as hand-me-downs, I thought I’d cut the labels out again before passing those clothes on to their next recipients.  But then I realized how much I like to see the names of previous children on the tags.  Because their bodies are being kept warm by the same onesies and sweatshirts and pants and pajamas, Samuel is connected to Jamison, and Lev, and Eleanor, and Becky, and all the other children through whose lives those clothes passed before they came to us.  And he is connected to Maya, and Corbin, and all those who will wear them next.  And Matt and I are connected to the parents of those children, and to the ones who may have bought or given those clothes, and to all who love and care for all those kiddos—and so, to the great web of humanity and the joys and challenges we share.

 

The letter to the Ephesians says that our faith is like that.  Paul calls it our “inheritance in Christ.”  I call it our hand-me-downs.  It is passed on to us from God by way of the saints who have come before—and what a gift those hand-me-downs are.

There are the stories of our scriptures, passed down from person to person for centuries, even millennia.  They were oral tradition stories at first, recited from memory by those whose job it was to be the keepers of the communal story.  They were written down eventually on tablets and scrolls and parchment and papyrus, and copied by those whose job it was to help disseminate those stories, and carried from place to place to share the meaning and purpose and hope they brought to so many lives.  They were interpreted through the years in an ongoing, unfolding conversation among all who seek to live by their light—a conversation that we continue here, today and every day, as we listen to the voices of the past and add our own voices and perspectives to the still-speaking story of God’s people.

There are the songs of our faith, the hymns and anthems and voluntaries, the music that has lifted hearts in so many places for so many years.  Many of the same songs we sing now have rung out here on Woodstock Hill since the earliest days of colonial settlement in this place, and before that in Roxbury and Boston, and before that in England and Germany and the Netherlands.  They have been sung by so many voices in so many languages; they have echoed from so many instruments played by so many well-trained fingers and feet and mouths.  New favorites have been added along the way as times and tastes have changed, but the glory of God that music embodies remains constant and steadfast.

There are the practices of the church, the sacraments and rites that mark the holy moments of our lives.  In baptism, we are connected all the way back to Jesus, for we swim in the same waters that washed over his brow.  In communion, we feast with faithful people in every time and place, the Body of Christ that transcends geography and chronology, the great family of faith that is the church on earth and in heaven.  In weddings and funerals, we celebrate and mourn together the joy and the pain that human love can bring.  And we are connected to all who have participated in these rituals before, the great web of human experience of which our daily lives are a part.

There are the physical and financial resources on which we rely.  This building, built nearly 200 years ago by our ancestors in this congregation, and maintained and renovated and expanded and adapted to the needs of each time by those who held it in trust until they passed it on to us.  Our New Century Fund endowment and our memorial funds, given in gratitude and celebration of lives well-lived, and dedicated to enriching the lives of those who would come later, whose names and faces the donors might never know, but whose hearts are united in the love of Christ.

There are the missions we carry out, the opportunities to serve God and God’s people by supporting causes of justice and mercy and compassion and joy.  Caring for this corner of creation and the whole entire planet…  Supporting one another in this community and people across this country and this earth…  Feeding hungry people here at home and around the world…  Building up systems that help all people to flourish, especially those who are oppressed and suffering and on the margins, which is to say, the ones in whose presence Jesus can always be found…

We receive all these gifts as the hand-me-downs they are.  A bit worn and tattered, perhaps.  Not always shiny and new.  Bearing teeth marks and spitup stains, the marks of use by those who carried them to us.  Well-loved because they have mattered so much to so many.

 

On this All Saints Sunday, we remember the saints who have gone before, all our foremothers and forefathers who have passed on their hand-me-down faith to us.  And on this Stewardship Sunday, we pledge our resources and our commitment to the ones to whom we will, in turn, pass on all that we have received and all that we have discovered for ourselves so that the meaning and beauty we have known in God’s presence might continue to give light to other lives.

In a little while, we will celebrate communion together.  When you come to receive communion, you are invited to bring with you the names of those saints you are remembering today, written on the slips of colored paper you’ll find the in pew racks.  There are a few in each pew; feel free to borrow from neighboring pews if you have more saints to remember today.  You may add them to the displays on either side that represent the great cloud of witnesses who are present even now, through the great mystery of our faith, feasting with us at this table and continuing to gift us with their hand-me-downs.

You are also invited to bring with you your pledge card, so that after naming the saints who have handed down faith to you, and after being nourished in body and spirit by the meal Christ hands down to all his disciples, you might in turn pledge yourself to carrying on the ministries of this congregation, conducted in God’s name and by the combined power of the Holy Spirit and the communion of saints.

 

What a gift those hand-me-downs are, for they carry the hard-earned wisdom of those who have walked this road before.  Mothers and fathers and daughters and sons who, by trial and error and disaster and lucky chance and sheer one-day-at-a-time perseverance, have found things that make this life more livable.  Grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins who have gathered up what they have received and what they have discovered for themselves and passed it all on in gratitude and hope that they might do the same for us and for our descendants, too.

Let us give thanks for our hand-me-down faith, and for the saints who have passed it on to us.  And let us take our place in their ranks, for we, too, are part of the unfolding, still-speaking, never-ending story of God and God’s people.

 


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