TESTIMONY SUNDAY The Richness of Rite One: Thoughts, Words, and Deeds
By Dave Ulrich
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Dave Ulrich, and I am honored to be speaking this morning and sharing my testimony to the power of the St. Paul’s community.
I grew up in Buffalo, NY and belonged to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where I was baptized and confirmed. I studied Romance Languages and Literatures in college, traveled the world as I could, and have spent the majority of my life in the classroom down the road at Nobles.
My connection to St. Paul’s stretches back as long as my time in the greater Boston area. I have been worshiping here steadily for the past twelve years, since Margaret and I moved our family into the old rectory just down the road.
I also currently serve as the Clerk for the Vestry, a position that has given me a much greater sense of the St. Paul’s community and the importance of congregational support for our life of faith.
Many of you know me, because I am a steady 8 o’clocker.
That said, some of you might not know me, because I am a steady 8 o’clocker.
I enjoy the 8 o’clock service for many reasons. In the summer and early fall months, I love the outdoor services, gazing at the sky and listening to the birdsong. In the winter months, I love the peaceful reflection of a near-empty nave. There is the added bonus that the service ends at 8:47, almost without fail.
Most of all, though, I love that the 8:00 Rite One is so focused on the WORD. There is no music, there is no procession, there are no frills.
There is simply the WORD.
As John renders creation in his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Why is the word so important? The word can be fleeting: Homer’s words are winged, they fly off tongues...
But words can also be captured, enshrined on the page, and shared from person to person, nation to nation, and generation to generation.
Like a good German Lutheran, I was raised by tradition to appreciate the text, a process made easier with Gutenberg’s printing of the Vulgate in the 1450s, and made almost imperative with Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517. You will usually find me in the back row with a New Testament in Latin, German, or whichever language is on my mind at the time.
At St. Paul’s, the importance of the Common Book of Prayer and the primacy of the Word made the Episcopal Church a ready home for one who loves language.
During Rite One, we are lulled by the richness of the ritual language. Week after week, we hear collects, prayers, confessions, absolutions, and sentiments of thanksgiving that have been repeated for centuries.
Phrases can roll of the tongue in rote recitation:
spirit of truth, unity, and concord. trusting in our own righteousness
all those who in this transitory life, are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity
heirs, though hope, of thy everlasting kingdom.
In these instances, we read aloud the voices of the past, and hear the words in the present, with this “congregation here present”. The antiquated language helps the modern mind to connect with throngs of parishioners from the past. The word is at once an utterance of history, of meditation, and of the moment.
Sometimes, however, these words that we have been reciting for decades resonate differently. Perhaps we hear a familiar phrase echoed in one of the readings. Perhaps a figure in the stained glass or a detail from the altar display catches our eye and colors the meaning of a familiar formula. Perhaps a word coincides with a sunbeam landing upon the eagle of the lectern, which casts the meaning in a new light.
In these instances, the Word becomes an inspiration. We hear the Word anew, with a distinct and deeper meaning.
On the one hand, we have the tradition of the Word, and the transformation of the Word on the other.
I would argue that both instances represent the work of the Holy Spirit.
IF WE LOOK AT TODAY’s READINGS:
This morning we heard readings from Exodus, the Psalms, and the Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians.
Exodus 33: 12-23: In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses is curious to see the Glory of the Lord: “If you have found favor with me, show me your ways.” The Lord replies, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Psalm 99: In today’s Psalm “They called on the Lord and he answered them.” “He spoke to them through a pillar of cloud,” and they “worshiped at his holy mountain”
Thessalonians 1:1-10 Paul writes in today’s Epistle to the Thessalonians that
“Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”
“You welcomed the message of joy given by the Holy Spirit”
What unites today’s Old Testament Reading, Psalm, and Epistle?
It is the same thing that unites all of us, this “congregation here present”– the Holy Spirit.
The passages proclaim the power of the Holy Spirit, and especially of the Holy Spirit through the use of language. (5:21).
AS I MENTIONED, I spend most of my time teaching language, literature, and history down the road. Much of my learning has been inspired by Scripture, and my fascination with words and my habit of bringing books to church began long ago. Allow a brief digression.
When I was younger, my father–an American history teacher, would take our family on trips across the US: Southern trips about Civil Rights, trips out west about American Expansion and Manifest Destiny. These trips altered my world view in notable ways.
These trips also encouraged my appreciation for words, texts, and language. I was an only child. There were not many ways to entertain myself. I didn’t have siblings to fight with, and electronic games were not yet available. I did have my violin, which is bad enough at that age... but think how bad it was in a confined space, while in motion. It was, as imagined, dreadful.
As an alternative to the violin in vehicles, my parents got me Archie comics, journals, and plenty of books. As I grew older and our trips fanned out farther afield, I found myself in the backseat of Audis in Switzerland and Italy, this time with Berlitz phrasebooks and scribbling index cards of phrases to try out in hotels and restaurants during our travels.
One of these trips occasioned a pivotal moment in my linguistic trajectory: We arrived in Venice, and 11-year old me stated “Ho fatto una prenotazione. Mi chiamo ULRICH”. The mustachioed hotelier in Venice burst into a bright smile, and through the use of language, an ordinary transaction became an extraordinary event (at least to 11-year old me).
The power of the Word, to connect, transform, and inspire.
In addition to Berlitz phrase books and cassette paks, I began to collect New Testaments in various languages. There was a store in Buffalo on Main St. I used to go with my father and spend my weekly allowance to pick up volumes in all sorts of languages: Dutch, Hmong, Arabic, Latin, Swahili. I collected them as I traveled, or asked others to pick them up fo rme on their travels.
As a language learning tool, the Bible is pretty remarkable; the divisions of the Old and New Testament in book, chapter, and verse make passages easy to find, and the proper names help to navigate the text and decipher new writing systems. The language of the gospels is
also relatively simple and applicable to everyday life–think of the descriptions of eating, gathering, family issues, or the daily scenes portrayed in the parables.
Whenever I purchase a new New Testament, the first passage that I always read is ACTS 2: 1-11:
2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
I love this passage for many reasons. It is a hopeful New Testament corrective of the spiteful Old Testament confusion of languages in Genesis 11’s Tower of Babel. The passage also serves as a visual Map of the Eastern Mediterranean, and no doubt inspired my current areas of study. Most importantly, though, it highlights the presence of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Word to bring together a community of faith.
The Holy Spirit continues to be the aspect of the Trinity that is most present in my life, from the far reaches of the world to right here in Dedham, Massachusetts.
I am also a runner and the XC coach as Nobles. Some of you are familiar with my account on social media #justlaceup, where I encourage others to share the beauty we find when we just lace up and get out the door. Now, I have many gripes against social media (I have two sons and I teach high school, after all), but this practice of taking pictures along my run of things that catch my eye has helped to build a community of runners. It also, frankly, gives these old legs an excuse to take a break. But mostly, it serves as a meditation.
On my daily walks and runs, I cannot help but behold the marvel of creation around us. Reflections in puddles of water, a bird in flight, the design of a stone wall, a pattern of berries, or vibrant explosions of leaves on the trees. This practice has helped me focus on details, while also appreciating the greater world around me. I cannot help but sense the Holy Spirit, and hear another echo of Rite One:
“Open, O Lord, the eyes of all people to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works, that rejoicing in thy whole creation, they may honor thee with their substance, and be faithful stewards of thy bounty.”
I experience a similar sensation as I sit on the lawn of the rectory for the 8:00 service, of course, with the canopy of trees, the gravestones in the cemetery, and the glint of the cross on the steeple. But I also sense it in this sanctuary: the embroidery of the cushions as we take communion, the red, yellow, and pinks of the wall trim, the metalwork here behind me, in the hymns, and, of course, in the words of Rite One. These are details of the Holy Spirit that speak to us and draw us closer as a community.
AND WHAT THEN OF TODAY’S GOSPEL?
In today’s readings, we go from themes of celestial communication (“show me your ways”, “messages of joy”) and natural phenomena (“pillars of cloud”, “worship at the mountain”) to the very terrestrial issue of taxation. From spiritual connection to cold, hard cash.
In Matthew 22:12-22, when Jesus is questioned about taxes in order to have his words twisted against him, he replies, “Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” Upon inspecting the coin, which would have been like this one bearing the image of Tiberius Caesar, Jesus remarks “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
I often make the point in my classes that we can use coins as another form of TEXT. We can read them for information about rulers, architectural structures, and economic systems of the past. A coin can connect us with the past, and is still of value in the present. As such, this coin of Tiberius is in many ways similar to the words of Scripture and of Rite One. It is of value in the present because it connects us with the past.
When I was a young boy, there were a lot of coins spent in the Buffalo Bible Store. And while they were not coins of Tiberius, they did bring the Word of the Holy Spirit into the present.
It all returns to the power of the Word, of tradition, and of transformation. I close with a few more words of Rite One:
it is very meet, right, and our bounden duty. by thought, word, and deed.
Perhaps these words and others will resonate differently today.
My challenge for you today, as we kick off our Stewardship campaign, is to think of our duty as a community of faith. Can we go from thoughts of improving our community of faith to deeds that will make it so? I urge you to consider both the word and the coin as ways to connect with the traditions of the past, and to make possible the transformations in the future for “this congregation here present”.
“We humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in.”