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The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Living Epistle by Nancy McArdle

Good morning, friends. My name is Nancy McArdle, and I’m so pleased to share my Living Epistle on Cambridge’s “Meet Your Neighbor Day”. 34 years ago this week, I was a new neighbor here, eager (but nervous) to meet the people of this parish and hopefully to get to know God deeper through them. I had just turned 22 and moved here from PA to go to graduate school. I was looking for a church that would fit my somewhat unusual religious background.
I was raised in liberal Catholicism, with a heavy dose of Irish culture and Democratic politics mixed in, which all blended together with folk masses, grape boycotts, and Irish rebel songs. However, one Sunday when I was about 11, our more conservative priest asked our congregation to lobby Congress in opposition to abortion rights. My mother (who as a teen had been queen of the Catholic Federation ball and later was a Catholic school teacher) raised her hand during the service and said that, while she would not have an abortion herself, she believed in a woman’s right to choose. Trust me, confronting a priest in public in this way was never, ever, ever done, and we were made very, very unwelcome in that parish.
For the next few years, I was in a bit of a religious wilderness. But when I was 15, a revival swept through my public high school, and through a youth fellowship I came to know Jesus in a much more personal way and made a decision to turn my life over to God as much as I knew how. Although when I realized that this experience is what was commonly known as being “born again” the political associations of that term made me exceptionally queasy. But I could not deny, and didn’t want to deny, the intense feelings of God’s loving presence, joy, and intimacy and, honestly, the conviction that the gospel just made sense to me, balancing God’s justice and mercy.
My next few years were an adventure in trying to integrate what I still valued and identified with in liberal Catholicism and the new vibrancy of my faith and my desire to grow in Christ. In college I was introduced to the Episcopal Church, and I thought –“hey, wait a minute, it has all the good things about the Catholic church and fewer of the bad things.” When I moved to Somerville, I joined the Christian Fellowship at Harvard and the chaplain pointed me to St. James’s.
Now if you stick around here long enough, you will no doubt be in a meeting where you are asked “what brought you to St. James’s and why do you stay?” Everyone has their own story.
I stay because I’ve see the Holy Spirit work here, and that’s where I want to be. Sometimes it’s a physically palpable feeling like when we sing the S. African song Akanamadla on Easter morning, and I feel the spirit
rising in me year after year. Or watching people kneel and receive communion together, people I’ve known for years as they’ve lived through joys and struggles. Sometimes it’s hearing a startling truth in a sermon or just the way the light comes in that window, and I feel like a layer of film has been removed from my eyes, and everything seems really real.
But I do know enough not to rely on feelings alone for evidence of the Spirit. I also see that evidence in the care of our parishioners for each other in pain and joy. As our dear sister, Yvette Verdieu, says, “Life is a journey.”
People we love die, and we grieve and grieve and grieve, and there are untold other causes of suffering. No matter how many times I think I might have a handle on why God allows such suffering, this mystery still comes back and kicks me in the teeth. At the same time, there are deep joys, new friendships, babies, healings and the amazing beauty of this earth, our island home. I often have a hard time trying to hold the joys and the pain in balance in my mind and prayers. Recently, our Life Together fellow, Meredith Wade, shared a poem by Abbie Goldberg that says:
“all the joy in the world does not cancel out all the pain, and all the pain in the world does not cancel out all the joy.”
And that helps me. In all these situations, we hold each other up to God in prayer and do our best to carry each others burdens and share our joys. Not to say that we are a perfect parish (because we are not perfect people,) and we absolutely fall short sometimes—becoming impatient, anxious, or failing to see the best in each others actions or intentions. But the parish is a place to practice becoming more like Jesus and hopefully we can face our shortcomings and continue to grow in grace. I also see the Spirit’s working in how we reach out to our neighbor beyond our walls ---from the prison ministry to the food pantry to our sanctuary work and the many missions we work with or support near or far.
This is God’s world and these are the people who God created and loves. As our brother, Allen Perez, says, “the path to God or to the fundamental understanding of God passes through the heartfelt practice of “loving your neighbor”. As we do this work, we understand that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain”-- that we are joining in God’s mission. But at the same time I often think of the words of President Kennedy in his inaugural address, when he said ”here on earth God's work must truly be our own.“ (and as an aside –how much do I miss a President who can express high ideals in eloquent language” -- a lot!)
Speaking of neighbors, as I was hanging balloons outside the church this morning, I saw a man I didn’t know sweeping in front of the church. As he was wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers hat (and I’m from Pgh) I started a conversation about our hometown and, of course, about football. Turns out he had grown up attending the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pgh (the one that had been attacked) and just moved here a year ago. He was meeting a friend across the street for breakfast, and when he saw a man in a suit sweeping the sidewalk (Eric Maynard) he decided to come over to help. That’s being a neighbor. Lastly, I see the Spirit in the many gifts that God pours out on us. Chief among these is the gift of God’s son, Jesus, as a sign of His self-giving love, who would give his own life to break down what separates us from Godand who won the victory over death.
But another, relatively unique gift to this parish is our diversity in Christ which helps us challenge the prejudices we all hold by allowing us to see our true relationship as members of Christ’s body. We are: old, young, and in between, black, white, brown, rich, poor, middle-class, different genders, sexual orientations, nationalities, body shapes and sizes, having different abilities and challenges. We also have a range of religious backgrounds and beliefs including no belief except a desire to love and learn, and those of us who say, ”Lord I believe, Help my unbelief 4 ”. As we worship, serve, and just be together, we learn more and more that the God who unites us is stronger than what might divide us and that we are most like Jesus when we see that all people are our neighbors.
While it was not “Meet Your Neighbor Day” that day, I’m so glad that 34 years ago, the people of St. James’s greeted me as a neighbor, a friend, and a sister in Christ. Amen.