The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope preaches at the 2019 National Acolyte Festival at Washington National Cathedral.
In the name of our living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Wow! Some years ago I had the great fortune to attend the installation of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury, England, and we all liked to think that they know how to do a procession, but let me tell you, they had nothing on all of you. Now that is what I call a procession! Joining all of my colleagues at the Cathedral, we so look forward to this every year—an opportunity to lift up your ministry, the things that you so freely and generously give to the glory of God. As a former acolyte myself, I have to tell you, that it is such a humbling privilege to have the opportunity to preach at this very important service this morning.
Perhaps like some of you, I served in a little teeny church in South Texas. There were about 3000 people in my hometown and pretty much everyone was Roman Catholic or Baptist, except seemingly a handful of families, including my own. In our little church, my older brother, whom I adored and still do, when he became tall enough and strong enough, he put on that white alb and became the crucifer and I watched him and I thought that it was just magical. Like everything, I wanted to follow him and I’m sure that I was the pesky younger sister, but I remember how proud I was when I was finally tall enough and strong enough to carry the cross myself.
Perhaps like some of you, I was blessed with mentors, including the priest at our church, but also my father. My father was the one who trained the acolytes and the servers and I could tell from him what an important role and responsibility that was. He took it very seriously, which meant that I was supposed to take it very seriously. I saw all of you this morning. You’re taking it very seriously, but hopefully having a little fun in the process as well.
Well, years later when our town became smaller and smaller and there were no children to carry the cross, my father continued as the acolyte in that little church well into his upper eighties until he no longer had the strength to carry the cross. But I knew how important it was—impressed upon me at a young age, which has only deepened over the years—what a role and responsibility each one of us has in helping to lead worship.
We often talk about how it’s a team that comes together to offer to the glory of God our praise and our worship. I’d like to offer for your consideration this morning, rather than a sports analogy, a musical one. In many ways, when I think about what we lift up in worship and liturgy, it reminds me of a spiritual symphony. All of us are members of the orchestra who have a part to play, but each part is inextricably interconnected. As the service continues from movement to movement, each part is critical, working together—not as performance, but to lift up prayer and praise to our God.
Over the years I’ve also come to appreciate that we carry much more in our hands when we are in worship than a cross or a torch or a streamer or a banner or a prayer book or a song book or a missal. We are carrying the hopes and the dreams and the sorrows and the joys of everyone gathered who’ve come together as a community of faith to lift up what is on their hearts and in their spirit in praise and prayer to our God.
It’s a helpful reminder when we look at today’s gospel lesson where we encounter the disciples who’ve been journeying with Jesus. Just before the passage you heard, Jesus has told the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and die and be resurrected. He no sooner gets that out then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, start angling for power and position. I’m convinced, even though the Bible doesn’t tell us so, that James and John must’ve spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., elbowing their way for power and position. But what does Jesus tell them? What does Jesus tell you and me? That if we seek to be followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to serve, not to be served. The very word acolyte, at its root means server. You are living into a tradition that is ancient in its application. Each one of us seeks to lift up all the cares and concerns of those around us.
I was reminded of that so powerfully almost a year ago at this cathedral. I suspect many of you watched some of the very prominent funerals that our cathedral was privileged to host: the funeral service for Senator John McCain and President George Herbert Walker Bush. But in October, just about a year ago, this cathedral had the opportunity to host a service of Thanksgiving and Remembrance of Matthew Shepard. When I thought and was praying about this day and what stories to share with you, I discovered that this very day, October 12th, 21 years ago, was the day that Matthew Shepard died. It was all the confirmation that I needed from God that I was to share this story. Matthew Shepard was 21 years old when he was brutally beaten and left on a fence to die in an anti-gay hate crime. Twenty years later, his parents felt that this cathedral, a house of prayer for all people, was the place where we might come together as a nation to remember and celebrate the life of that young man.
On that day, our acolytes had a lot of memorable experiences, but one acolyte in particular had something extraordinary happen which he tried to capture in a poem that I want to read for you today with one minor modification. The acolyte, Clark Klitenic, is now a baseball player at Duke University. He was an athlete, a scholar and an acolyte, and he wrote this:
Waiting/or Matthew Shepard’s
Funeral Service at the Washington National Cathedral to Begin
Waiting for Matthew Shepard’s funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral to begin I stood in place holding my ground and my processional torch and a woman came down to me she cradled half empty an unlocked ziplock half filled with dirt she asked are you carrying the torch? I said yes cause I thought I was and let me tell you she looked me dead in my eyes and told me I can put some of this here dirt in your torch ‘s collar it ‘s from his hometown in Wyoming I said ok only right then and there smack in that moment I knew my torch couldn’t be a torch anymore it was something like a heaven and she wasn’t just a woman cause she hugged me so tight she had to be an angel and the dust wasn’t dirt it was Matthew Shepard it was Wyoming it was a little black boy in Mississippi it was eleven jews in Pittsburgh it was Adam it was Eve it was you it was me so how the hell are you gonna tell me that my torch’s flame was just a flame. That’s where my itch started. I wasn’t really carrying a torch before right then and there but if I carry mine and you yours then we could really go somewhere.
My brothers and sisters, always remember that you are carrying much more in your physical hands than a cross and a torch and a banner and a streamer and a missile and a hymn book. You are carrying and bearing the light and life and transformative love of Jesus Christ to a hurting world that desperately needs to receive all, all you have to offer. God bless you and thank you. Amen.