The Rev. Stacy Williams Duncan
As I sat watching today’s procession, Canon Hannibal and I could not resist commenting to each other when we saw a particularly beautiful banner, or a set of acolytes with robes we didn’t recognize or hadn’t seen, or people that had come from a long way away. And throughout that time and as I’ve thought about this day all week long, a particular word has continued to come to mind. This is really awesome! It’s amazing. You are incredible to behold. And I use that word in all of its slang meaning this morning. You’re impressive. But I also use it in its theological context. “Awesome,” when used formally, means to inspire or to characterize awe. And you, surrounded by the stones of this holy building, do fill me with an overwhelming sense of reverence and admiration.
I am the senior chaplain at the girl’s school here on this close, and one of the gifts that I receive every week is to be cared for by the Cathedral acolytes and the Cathedral vergers. One of the other gifts that I have received is to spend a lot of my time with teenagers. And teenagers remind me on a regular basis that understanding “awesomeness” is a spiritual discipline. It is a spiritual act to point out things that are amazing, out of the ordinary. And it’s helpful that whenever we see something great, whether it be a beautiful seaside, an incredible piece of art, or even an amazing feat on the football field, to take a moment, to point it out to someone else, to mark that what you just experienced is out of the ordinary. It’s extra-ordinary. And so that’s part of what we do here today. We mark this day as significant. Above and beyond. Awesome.
If we listen carefully to the Gospel for today, we are told that we are the source of that awesomeness. Each one of us, along with all of those who have come before us, and all of those who will be here in future years, are the source of the greatness that we are experiencing in this holy place today. You are the light of the world. You, the shortest acolytes here, are the light of the world. You, who have come the farthest, are the light of the world. You, who had to miss something else that you really wanted to do today to be here, are the light of the world. You, who aren’t sure why you’re even here, are the light of the world. You, who look forward to this and wait for this day all year long, are the light of the world. You, who are wondering, “How many more years will I be able to carry that heavy cross?” are the light of the world. You, who think this all is a little bit ridiculous and silly, are the light of the world. You, each and every one of you, are the light of the world.
When I consider what it might mean really to be light in this confusing world, I am both honored by the trust that God has put in humanity and humbled by the awareness of how much that means. As both our Gospel and epistle reading tell us today, being the light of Christ comes with responsibility, and it requires that we continually work to grow and learn new things. Now some of you may have noticed—I’m going to try to do this without falling—some of you may have noticed that I have shoes on that typically priests don’t wear during processions. Can you see my Chucks? I want to tell you why I have my black Chuck Taylors on today and I want to tell you the story of the acolytes that those shoes honor.
When my husband, Joel Duncan, and I first met, we were in college and we attended church at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kansas City. Now after we’d been going for several months, Joel got approached by our priest and asked to join an acolyte team because they had seen that he knew something about acolyting. And at Grace and Holy Trinity at that point there were two types of acolyte teams. There were adult acolyte teams and there were teenage acolyte teams—the first and third Sunday and the second and fourth Sunday and never the twain shall meet. Now Joel was twenty years old, so it might make sense to put him on an adult acolyte team. But before you jump to that conclusion let me describe what Joel looked like at twenty years old. Joel was six feet one, like he is now, but about…many pounds less, skinny, thin. He wore his hair long, in fact so long that he would only cut it after he couldn’t hold it out straight. He always dressed up for church—he loved church—but he wore his hair back in a pony tail in a black beret that he took off right as he walked in the narthex and put back on right as he walked out the narthex. He often wore to church a large silver peace sign. So when the acolytes of the first and third Sunday team learned that this college student was going to be new on their team they raised a few eyebrows. They questioned whether he wouldn’t be better off on the teenage team. It didn’t take long, though, for them to discover that Joel’s ministry of acolyting and worship leadership came from a deep reverence for the church, and slowly they found themselves liking this kid, even inviting us out to Sunday lunch after church.
Well, a few months later some things began to happen, and some of the teenagers needed to serve on the first and third Sundays or they were going to have to quit being acolytes. And one of the doctors who was on the adult team discovered that his new call schedule meant that he could no longer be on one of the adult teams. And so there was great crisis. And in the midst of this, our acolyte coordinator moved out of town. And so our priest came to Joel and asked him to serve as the new acolyte coordinator. At the time I did not realize how subversive that one request was. I remember Joel saying to Peter, “Why me?” He said, “Because I think you can talk to both the adults and teenagers.”
One of the first questions that came up in Joel’s new ministry as acolyte coordinator was, “What were the appropriate shoes to wear on Sunday mornings?” And I suspect none of you have ever had that conversation before. Never. But Joel, in some wisdom I’ve only come to understand is inherent for him, began to say, “Let’s not talk about shoes yet. Let’s talk about why we love to acolyte. How do you feel when you’re behind the altar? What is it like when you wash the hands of your priest? What does it mean for you to carry that first cross in that first set?” And as soon as they all stopped talking about what kind of shoes to wear, or if shorts were ok under an acolyte robe, and instead talked about what acolyting meant to them, the community began to change. By sharing how they felt when they stood at the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer or carried the cross, why they were willing to get up early on Sunday mornings, the teenagers and adults both discovered that they all shared the same love of liturgy and commitment to God’s church. They learned that it didn’t matter if you wore Ferragamo pumps or Payless tennis shoes, homemade Italian loafers or Chuck Taylors.
Now, as an aside, I am not saying that you all should start wearing whatever shoes you want. I’m saying you should be in conversation. In the end that group of acolytes decided that any dark pair of shoes was fine, which meant that some of the women gave up wearing slingback open toed sandals and some of the kids gave up wearing their bright colored Nikes. Everybody compromised. What mattered was the spirit of your service, the love for God that you were manifesting every time you served.
During those two years I watched the transformation of this acolyte community from a distance, as one of the leaders of the youth group where the teenagers would talk about was going on, and as the fiancé and then wife of the person trying to coordinate a conversation among many different people. And I learned so many lessons that I continue to draw upon today. But most important is the lesson that our epistle points out to us today. The epistle reminds us to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you. It is much easier to grow together, to live together, to forgive each other, if we first clothe ourselves with the spiritual gifts of compassion and kindness, humility and patience. And that is something that I believe that every liturgical leader and acolyte I’ve ever known desires to do. But sometimes on busy Sunday mornings it’s very difficult.
I’m not sure about how your Sunday mornings go, but during my years as a parish priest and now on Friday mornings when we get ready for our school-wide Cathedral service here in this space, I often find myself rushing to make sure everything is done, making sure that everyone who’s on the schedule actually showed up, covering for the people who called in sick, trying to find and make sure that we all are ready to go so that our community can worship. In the midst of all the things that must get done, I often find it difficult to take time to put on my liturgical robes, much less clothe myself with the spiritual gifts that are necessary to worship with an open heart.
And early in my priesthood, someone taught me something that I offer to you today. It was one of those really crazy mornings when no one seemed to show up and everything seemed to go wrong and we were getting late and the musicians were anxious to begin and Sunday school was anxious because it might mean that we were going to get out late. And I rushed into the sacristy just ready to throw on my robes and there in our vestry room was a retired bishop who would spend many of his Sundays with us. And he saw me and he said, “Stacy, do you have a moment for me to show you something?” And I wanted to say, “Absolutely not! Can’t you see what’s happening?” Instead, I stood and listened—or at least pretended to listen. I think in my heart I did listen. I watched as he picked up his stole and held it, and he kissed the cross that was embroidered there and he said, “Do you know why I do this every time I put it on?” And I said, “I think so.” And he said, “For me, in the midst of the haste of every Sunday morning, this is the ritual that reminds me: putting on the spiritual clothing of Christ is more important than putting on any robe or stole.”
Since that day I too have tried to remind myself to take a moment to put on my spiritual clothing. And I invite you, the next time you tie your cincture, put on your surplice, or put that cross around your neck, take one moment and remember: You are the light of the world.