We’re gathered this evening to do two things, one of them ordinary and the other extraordinary. The first thing is to say thanks to the Altar Guild, something churches do fairly regularly. The second is to recognize Linda Roeckelein for fifty years of service. (She started here when she was five years old—you probably read about it in the papers.) Fifty years of doing anything in a sustained way is out of the ordinary. Fifty years of working with sacred vessels, floral arrangements, and the people who maintain and create them is really unheard of. So let me say a word first about the Guild and its work and then second a word about Linda.

I’m a preacher, and we preachers like to speak about the biblical texts we’re given for an occasion. I’m sorry to say that tonight the church’s lectionary hasn’t given me very much to work with. The story of Jonah’s call to prophecy and his flight from his task and subsequent swallowing by a great fish [Jonah 1:1-17a] is a wonderful tale, but it’s not much help when praising those who serve the church. And Jesus’s warning that we will all be hated because of his name [Matthew 10:16-23] doesn’t really speak to the occasion either. Yet because of my abiding faith that, if you hang with it long enough, the lectionary will always give you something to work with, I have found these words from Psalm 11 that might just do when recognizing members of an altar guild:

For the LORD is righteous;
he delights in righteous deeds; *
and the just shall see his face. [Psalm 11:8]

Because we call ourselves the “national cathedral”, and because we inhabit Washington D.C., in all our language around here we tend to define “righteousness” as “doing important stuff”: inaugurating presidents, hosting public policy summits, standing up for this or that public issue. All those endeavors qualify as “important stuff”, but a night like this one calls us to remember what cathedrals are here for in the first place. The word cathedral is shorthand for cathedral church, and the most important of the many things all churches do is to pray. And because we are a cathedral church in the Anglican tradition, the central way we pray is to pray liturgically. To be sure, we encourage private devotion and other forms of worship, but central to our life together are the church’s two dominical sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism and then all the other liturgical actions related to them: marriage, ordination, confirmation, burial, not to mention our regular round of daily offices.

Worshipping liturgically is hard work. It requires not just sitting and thinking but getting up, moving around, and, well, working with a lot of hardware: patens, chalices, pyxes, ciboria, pitchers, lavabo bowls, and the like. And because we are who we are we want that hardware to be not only useful; we want it to be beautiful. And we want not only hardware: we want what we might call the “software” of vestments and linens, and the even softer ware of flowers. To be sure, we could praise God authentically without all these things, but we couldn’t do that in our own particular way if we didn’t have silver and silk and linen and the bold and gracious floral arrangements that consistently decorate all the altars of this cathedral church.

So when Psalm 11 reminds us that,

…the LORD is righteous;
he delights in righteous deeds; *
and the just shall see his face. [Psalm 11:8]

we should hear this word as one deep form of thanks and affirmation for what the members of our Altar Guild do. Maintaining all the hard- and soft-ware of a big operation like this is serious work. We could not pray liturgically the way we do without that work. Those of us who stand up and perform in this space usually get all the attention. But those of us who do so know to whom really all the attention belongs: the women and men of the Altar Guild who make the rest of what happens here possible in the first place. Speaking for all of us who preside and preach in this place: thank you for the generous, selfless ways in which you serve the cathedral and beautify our common space. We literally could not do it without you.

That’s my word to the Guild as a whole. And now to Linda. You know, searching tonight’s scriptures I finally did find a verse that might say something about Linda Roeckelein’s fifty years here:

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. [Matthew 10:16]

When you behold someone as sweet and gracious as Linda, the idea of being as canny as a snake doesn’t immediately come to mind. But in recognizing Linda Roeckelein we honor not only her extraordinary ability to arrange flowers and take care of the vessels we use in the service. We honor Linda for her ability to pull this whole enterprise off not in an artistic vacuum but with the likes of flesh and blood human beings. Arranging flowers and caring for linens and silver requires managing the people who work with them. And as I’ve observed Linda at work in my time here, I’ve been impressed with more than her aesthetic abilities. I’ve seen the way she guides and inspires the women who work with her to aspire to new heights of creativity in their flower arranging, the way she supports those who care for the vessels of the altar. Leading an Altar Guild requires more than good taste. It requires great interpersonal skill, the ability to guide and motivate the people you work with. It means that to do Linda’s work you have to be wise as a servant and innocent as a dove.

There is no place I know of in America or in all of the Anglican Communion that manages the accouterments of liturgical worship as well as we do here. The beauty and dignity of our flowers and linen and silver are no accident: they derive from visionary, dedicated work by all the members of the Altar Guild and especially from the leadership of the faithful, brilliant woman who leads them. So how do you say thank you to a woman like that—one who leads others in doing righteous deeds, one who is herself as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove?

The only way I could think for the cathedral community to honor Linda and the women and men who work so closely with her tonight is to do what I have done, and what I am pleased to announce tonight. On my recommendation to the bishop, and our joint recommendation to the chapter, and the chapter’s enthusiastic approval, I am pleased tonight to name Linda Roeckelein as an Honorary Canon of the Cathedral Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Linda, our liturgical prayer in this space and the space itself would not be the same without you. Please know of our high admiration and deep gratitude for all you and your companions do. May God continue to bless you and to bless us through you, and may tonight be not just a summation but the commencement of another generous span of time in wise, righteous service in the house of God. Amen.


The Very Rev. Gary Hall