November 26, 2015
Ms. Judith Kniffin-Shattuck
As some of you may know, I am a “cradle Episcopalian” and a life long member of this church. Most of my childhood was spent at the old parish house at the corner of Church and Wall Streets, where I attended Sunday School, participated in the Girls’ Friendly Society and sang in the first Girls’ Choir at the 9:15 service. (Yes, there was an original girls choir in the 1950’s at Trinity.) Never in my dreams, however, did I imagine I would someday preach a homily here.
I am grateful that my parents felt that I should receive a Christian education, although they rarely attended church themselves, preferring to go out to breakfast with another couple who had a child in my Sunday School class. My maternal grandmother was also a life long member of Trinity and I usually accompanied her after dinner on Sunday afternoons to the 5 pm Evensong. I remember being awed by the magnificence of this great building, the windows, the organ, the music and choirs, and the solemnity and beauty of the service, the words of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer etched in my heart for a lifetime.
My grandmother was my spiritual mentor and I am grateful to her for showing me the way one lives a Christian life. Although she was often in pain, she demonstrated her faith in the words of the General Thanksgiving, “with a truly thankful heart, showing forth her praise, not only with her lips, but in her life, by giving up herself to God’s service and by walking before God in holiness and righteousness all the days of her life.” I remember that she was steadfast in prayer and singing and playing hymns on a small organ in her bedroom. She was known throughout the neighborhood for taking in stray cats and dogs, stray children and even the stray stranger who needed a meal.
When Joe asked me a few years ago to consider giving a homily on Thanksgiving I declined. This year I felt this was the time to accept the invitation. (Joe can be really persuasive.) It was not, however, without a “quid pro quo.” If I would preach today, he and our friend Jim would share Thanksgiving dinner with me this afternoon.
Joe advised that I should not feel an exhaustive exegesis of the scripture readings was required. When I read the appointed readings for today I found they were very familiar.
The first memory that came to mind was of a retreat many years ago at Wisdom House in Litchfield that involved singing hymns regularly throughout the three day weekend. One of the first hymns we sang was “I Am the Bread of Life”, #334 in the hymnal. It resonated with many of us and several times during the weekend someone would ask if we could sing it again. The words of the refrain, repeated several times, were stirring – “And I will raise them up on the last day!”
The first reading depicts how even when God’s people were wandering in the desert, God provided manna from heaven. Even though I was thoroughly churched as a child, in late adolescence, I fell away from the church. After writing an honors paper my freshman year in college on the Holocaust and the position of both the German Protestant Church and the Roman Catholic Church, I became intensely interested in Judaism, attending services at several synagogues and taking classes that explored the history of Judaism. Eventually, I took a number of comparative religion courses and attended services of both eastern and western faith traditions. I was, in many ways, wandering in my own desert but I believe now that all I experienced was God’s “manna” to nourish my searching soul.
During the fall semester in 1972, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer and I made a decision to return to New Haven permanently at the end of the semester to be with her and my father. On Christmas Eve I made a last minute decision to attend the 11 pm service at Trinity.
From the moment I entered the sanctuary, choosing to sit near the rear of the church and far over to the left side, I was overcome with emotion and the realization that I had “come home” – home to my church family and to the beauty, power and majesty of a glorious worship tradition.
Lawson Willard, Rector throughout my childhood, had retired and Craig Biddle and Andy Fiddler were the new Rector and Assistant. Craig’s sermon that evening was based on the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, a story about a stuffed velvet toy rabbit loved literally to shreds by a young boy. Eventually, the toy is forgotten and then discarded as the boy grows up, The story ends with the wonderful news that the rabbit, torn, dirty, with its stuffing falling out, goes to a beautiful peaceful place where he becomes”REAL” cavorting with other living real rabbits having been made whole and beautiful once more. I cried throughout the remainder of the service experiencing a profound sense, beyond description, when I received the Eucharist that my very soul was being nourished and sustained. I felt then, and continue to feel, that when I am at the altar rail or in the communion circle, that it is there that I am in true communion with Christ receiving the earthly bread and the spiritual food of His most precious body and blood.
The 2nd reading teaches the core of this theology. Christ begins by saying I AM the bread of life. Throughout the Gospels when Christ begins his teaching with the phrase I AM, the name for God in the old Testament, we know these are the elusive yet fundamental doctrinal concepts of his priesthood. Here, we come to understand that the bread of life is not only grain and and the other fruits of creation, but also the bread of life, the gift of Christ himself, to nourish our souls and dwell within us.
These gifts, for the nourishment of both our bodies and souls, are all part of God’s abounding Grace. We know from the the catechism of the church, that Grace means God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved. By Grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.
But what should be our response to God’s abundant Grace? The first and greatest commandment tells us to love God with our whole heart and soul and to have no other gods before Him and the second commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. All else flows from the first two. I think we learn and grow in maturity as our faith develops and we come to understand that loving God and our neighbors as ourselves means our response is what my grandmother’s faith embodied, to have a truly humble and thankful heart, and as a result of that understanding to feel profound gratitude and seek to show forth in our lives that gratitude as the prayer says “by doing all good works that He has prepared for us to walk in”, to give thanks for the very gift of life, and to acknowledge “His immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps today, with so much of the world in chaos, the unprecedented migration of millions of refugees fleeing war, violence and death, we are more aware than ever of the blessings in our own lives. Last Sunday evening, on the PBS program, Religion and Ethics News Weekly, the results of a recent survey showed that when asked what the Thanksgiving holiday meant to them, a majority of people said “the need to give thanks for all the blessings in their lives”. The second greatest number said to “spend time with family and friends.” Way down on the list were food, football and shopping.
Today I am thankful for so many things, God’s grace in so many forms, the love of family and friends, the wonder of human expression in art, music and drama , the overwhelming beauty of nature glimpsed fleetingly from time to time, the past opportunities to work for social justice, the gifts of laughter and tears, and to know that through both joys and sorrows, I have continuously learned more about God, myself and others.
As some of you know, three and a half years ago I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, stage three ( there is no stage four) an incurable type of cancer where a complete permanent remission is considered so rare as to be miraculous; the goal is to halt the progression of the disease at whatever stage it was discovered for as long as possible. After a long acute treatment phase, with infusion chemo and radiation therapy, I have been stable for the past year and a half. I know my faith sustained me throughout, allowing me to let go of despair, anger, depression, loneliness and fear. I am grateful that this has led me to an understanding that death is but one final part of our temporal existence.
A week ago, following a PET scan, I learned that my cancer has advanced. The scan found tumors in the bones of both legs. The prognosis and treatment plan are still being formulated by the blood cancer oncology team at Smilow.
I find my comfort and solace during this uncertainty in words from Psalm 18. :The Lord is my strength, my stronghold, my rock in whom I put my trust.” Though fear and anxiety well up and roll over me, “I have called upon the Lord, He hears my voice and reaches down from on high to grasp and support me.” I trust that faith and God’s grace will continue to comfort me.
Like the velveteen rabbit of that Christmas Eve sermon – I trust that I will, at death, find myself in a beautiful place where pain and sorrow are no more, made “REAL”, and whole once again. My wounds will be healed, my “stuffing” no longer hanging out, my tears dried and forgotten, at home with God. And so, I am, above all else, profoundly grateful for the promise of life eternal in Christ Jesus. AMEN