Homily for my granddaughter’s baptism

I was honored and blessed to baptize my granddaughter, Rey Dorothea, into the family of Christ over the Thanksgiving weekend.  This is the homily from the service.


In the Name of God, who has taught us that whoever receives a little child in the name of Christ, receives Christ Himself. Amen
What a wonderful day for our families.
Looking around this chapel, it’s like turning the pages of a scrapbook: Past, present, and future are all here today.
I look at Corinna and Rey and remember that it was just three years ago that they were married, here at St. Mark’s.  We are surrounded by happy memories of that day. How blessed we have been.
And here is little Rey Dorothea, our heart’s joy–on the same pillow created for her own mother Corinna’s baptism.
As always, I defer to Carmela, who describes the details of Corinna’s baptism far better than I: “This pillow is called a “portenfant,” a traditional infant carrier.  My mother Catherine made it to carry Corinna down the street from our house to the little Episcopal Church in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where we were surrounded by monks from St. John’s Abbey, who were our colleagues.
Carmela continues: “I cannot remember too well what we served at the reception at our house after the baptism, but I do remember that your mother Dorothy and my mother basically did everything–cakes, little sandwiches, crostatas, cookies.  It was very homemade, but very nice.”
Baptisms have been significant in each of our families–Reynaldo and Susan Ramirez, Big Rey’s parents, remember that both Rey and his sister Jennifer, born one year apart, were baptized on the same day at All Saints Catholic Church in Los Angeles, far away from cold Minnesota, and at their reception Rey’s mother Susan served her famous Spanish rice,  gleefully consumed by all.
This afternoon at her baptism Rey Dorothea is surrounded in this chapel by holy women whose stories will be guides and inspiration throughout her life.
This beautiful Lady Chapel is a memorial to Fernanda Henry Wanamaker, who died in 1900.  I draw your attention to the altar, made of marble encased by a permanent silver covering.  The ceiling is the first known example of a stone vault in America.  Fernanda’s husband, Rodman Wanamaker, founder of the famous Philadelphia department store, gave this beautiful space to remind us of the central place of holy women throughout the history of the Church. So what an appropriate place to baptize our little girl.
If you look over there you will see the silver sculptures of Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Martha of Bethany, Saint Ursula, and there in the corner stands St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day is today, November 25, and on this day of the baptism of little Rey it is also the Name Day of her great-grandmother Catherine, who is here, and also the Name Day of her mother Corinna–whose full name is Corinna CATHERINE Dorothea–since the original Corinna was a pagan, and there is no Saint Corinna, Saint Catherine will have to do, and moreover little Rey will be inspired by the example of Saint Catherine, who is said to have defeated, in debate, the pagan philosophers of Alexandria, following the example of Saint Paul.
And let us not forget that just a few miles from this chapel is the Church of the Advocate, where in 1974 the first eleven women were ordained priests in The Episcopal Church.  They were the “Philadelphia Eleven,” and the crucifer that day was Barbara Clementine Harris, who would become the first female bishop to be consecrated in the history of the Anglican Communion.
These twelve women too will be models to little Rey of the power of faith and the necessity of joining struggles for justice and equality, particularly in this age of anxiety.
And Rey Dorothea’s female ancestors have also been fighters, and revolutionaries, and pioneers.
————Nanna Luccia, Carmela’s grandmother, who ran her own olive pressing business alone during the darkest days of World War II in Fascist Italy, not only sustaining her  family, but providing for the poor of the village.
————–My grandmother Eddie who was a strong advocate for racial equity in the Jim Crow Mississippi of the 1950’s, so much so that in 1956 horsemen of the Ku Klux Klan came to her house to frighten her into silence.
—————And Big Rey’s great grandmother Maria Ramirez stood with Mexican revolutionaries in her village in occupied Mexico against foreign oppressors.
She would not be silenced.
And that’s enough, because you know that this chapel is filled this afternoon with living examples of such women, and little Rey is surrounded by strong men as well, above all her father Big Rey.
Little Rey may be silent now, but just wait a few years.
“Let the little ones come to me,” Jesus says to us in the Gospel Father Sean has just proclaimed. Jesus was indignant that anyone would prevent children from drawing near to him.  “Do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God.  Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God, like a child, shall not enter it.”
Even as a tiny child, little Rey is now called to join the Christian community; the one body of Christ, with all these saints and loved ones I have named today, in professing the one faith in which they lived and died.
As we move now to baptize little Rey and we ourselves re-affirm this one faith, let us all strive to be children of God, children, grateful for the blessings of this world, grateful  that we have so much to offer to our newest little “peach.”  Grateful for the future she points to–days and years of watching her grow into a life and a future we cannot even imagine, but that God, in God’s goodness, has in store for her.
May God help us to bring Ray Dorothea to love all that is true and noble, just and pure, strong and courageous———following the example of our Lord, and Savior, Jesus Christ.
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Funeral Homily for the Rev. Deacon Lucinda “Pete” Dempesy-Sims

Pete picture

In the name of our loving God. Amen

She would not live to be a fine old age.

Our beloved Pete has left us much too soon, and we all feel cheated.

Cheated of the years together and the good times to come.

Cheated of a chance for Cathy and Pete to grow old together.

Cheated of the chance for her to love and nurture and raise up another generation of our children.

Cheated of the opportunity for Pete to discern what was next for her in her life as a teacher and a deacon.

Cheated of one more chance to hear that rich, resonant laugh … to hear her yell, “It’s the nuts!” about something she thought was awesome … to watch her cuddle with the dogs.

Cheated of a chance for her to live out her call as a good shepherd — of animals, of people. For Pete there were no outcasts, just people and pets she had not rescued yet. She rescued all of us.

She would not live to be a fine old age, but today we give thanks for the way she changed our lives and the gifts she left us.

Pete’s life and ministry were devoted to showing dignity to people and to animals. When she listened to you, it was with her whole self, as if there was nothing more important in the world than what you had to say. When she looked at you, she really saw YOU.

She was proud to be a deacon. She was proud to be a mother to Patrick.

One of Pete’s proudest accomplishments was the creation of the pet food pantry at Ascension. When she learned that some of the patrons of the food pantry were giving the food they obtained there to their pets … because they could not afford to buy pet food … she saw a need.

She saw a way to give dignity to the pet owners, who were willing to go hungry themselves in order to feed their pets, and to the animals themselves.  As her friend Jaimie Marzullo says in the eulogy printed in your bulletin:

“Pete didn’t only LIKE animals; she respected them. She knew God moved in the relationships between animals and their humans. And more than that, she knew the binding power of people’s love for our pets, and had the wisdom to put that common ground to work uniting neighbors and healing broken souls.”

That ministry revitalized Ascension and gave the congregation an identity, one that they insist on maintaining as they merge with Good Shepherd. It inspired pet food pantries all across Western New York.

Pete worked for 40 years as a teacher of emotionally disturbed middle-school students — a challenge beyond the patience and wisdom of many of us. She said she’d keep doing it as long as it was still fun. The goal of her work was to give her students the dignity they were denied by much of the rest of the world.

There was one student, a young man named Jimmy. When he was having a hard time in class he’d ask to go meet with Miss Pete, and he’d go to her office and she’d play his favorite song, by Tom Jones. Now, I’m not going to embarrass us all by wiggling my hips like Tom Jones, but you know the words: “It’s not usual to be loved by anyone. It’s not unusual to have fun with anyone.” Jimmy would start dancing and lip-syncing, and he’d start smiling and calm down. Pete knew what Jimmy needed because she listened to him, and she helped him regain control, dignity and humanity — just as our Baptismal Covenant calls us to do.

Pete wasn’t afraid to call us on our own bad behavior. Ruth Tweidle, a matriarch at Ascension, would cast a disapproving look on people she didn’t know, apparently fearing they were about to steal her purse and her cigarettes. When Pete caught her, she’d tell her, “Ruthie, you can’t make that face at people!” Pete saw Christ in every person and respected the dignity of every human being.

Pete died surrounded by her dogs, the pets she rescued, and not far away, out in the barn, was her rescue donkey. She was an animal whisperer. She embraced all God’s creatures who had been thrown away, beaten up, disrespected and rejected. She was the Good Shepherd who laid down her life for her sheep.

At meetings she didn’t talk much, but when she did, everyone listened very carefully as she articulated wonderful wisdom that saw things clearly and came to the point. As she would have put it, she used her head for something besides a hat rack. She advised me as I worked to revitalize parts of our diocese, and I came to rely on that advice, to know Pete would always say what I needed to hear. Near the end of her life, when chemotherapy robbed her of her speaking voice, we could still hear her speaking through her actions, her life as a servant of dignity.

A week before Pete died, she met with me in my office. I thought she was coming to talk about her future as a deacon once she was restored to good health through radiation and chemotherapy. I felt a powerful push — I’ve had this inclination only once before — I knew that I needed to give her communion from the Reserved Sacrament. I did, and then she told me this:

“I am ready. If it is God’s will, I am ready to die. If it is God’s will for me to live, I am ready to live.” Her face radiated absolute peace and calm. It was a powerful moment I will never forget.

She would not live to be a fine old age. But in the living of her life, she is an icon for such a time as we face now.

I’m appalled to read about the Hollywood moguls, the media executives, the political figures who for years have sexually harassed and insulted and abused and disrespected both women and men, getting away with it, thinking it was their right — and about all the people who knew and looked the other way.

I’m appalled at the argument that we should maintain the monuments to Civil War heroes and politicians from the Confederacy — who dishonored other human beings by enslaving them, the ultimate form of dehumanization.

The great gift that Pete has given us is to help us recognize the ways others are treated with disrespect, are denied their dignity, are marginalized and ridiculed. This is a turning point.

If we wonder how to honor Pete, how to keep her alive within us, it has to be in a renewed commitment to dignity and respect. To assert ourselves as people of faith and renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. To say “No,” to say “Enough,” to say, “There is a better way.”

Our reading from Thessalonians offers us comfort — “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We live in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, knowing that one day we will be reunited with Pete. “The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together … and so we shall always be with the Lord.”

Tom Broad, the rector at Grace Church in Randolph, shared this thought with me: “Those whose earthly pilgrimage ends go on to a life more real than the one we enjoy here. They live just over the horizon of our finite sight. In Jesus we remain connected with those we love but see no longer. Our love for them gives us a foretaste of eternal life. And it is in Christ’s love for both the living and the dead that my hope for an eternal reunion rests and will rise.”

She would not live to be a fine old age. In the time she had with us, she lived richly and deeply into her diaconal vows: to be “modest and humble, strong and constant, to observe the discipline of Christ.” Through her life and teachings many came to know and love Christ. She shared in Christ’s service, and now she has “come to the unending glory of him who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever.”

Pete’s death reminds us that we never know how much time we have together, and therefore to treasure the time we have. In the words of the great Colombian novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez:

If I knew that today would be the last time I’d see you, I would hug you tight and pray the Lord be the keeper of your soul. If I knew that this would be the last time you pass through this door, I’d embrace you, kiss you, and call you back for one more. If I knew that this would be the last time I would hear your voice, I’d take hold of each word to be able to hear it over and over again. If I knew this would be the last time I’d see you, I’d tell you I love you, and would not just assume foolishly you know it already.”

Our dear Pete: Know how much you are loved. Know how grateful we are. May we all be as strong an oak of righteousness as you, as loving a Good Shepherd, and may the saints in heaven rejoice to welcome you home.


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Turning Prayer Into Action

I wish that I could say that I was shocked by the shooting on Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

I am deeply saddened by the senseless deaths of innocent people who had sought only to seek the presence of Christ and join together in worship and fellowship.  I am deeply grieved by the deaths of children in particular, in what should have been a safe place for them.

However, I cannot say that I am shocked.  After Columbine and Aurora, Orlando and Las Vegas, Newtown and San Bernardino and Charleston and many, many others, I am, sadly, no longer shocked when these mass shootings happen.

The fact that mass shootings no longer shock me is, I find, testament to the problem.

Whenever one of these shootings happens we offer our thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families, we look for the motive of the shooter, we debate whether the gun was obtained legally or not, we dig into the mental health history of the shooter, we tell the stories of some of the victims and then we move on with our day to day lives until the next shooting.

It has almost become rote.  We know what will be said by all of the participants.  We know the steps, we know the words.  We can almost move through it without truly engaging.

I participate in a lot of Baptisms.  One of the parts of the Baptismal liturgy that gets less attention than the Baptismal Covenant is the renunciations.  I have been thinking for the last day or so about the middle renunciation.  The person being baptized or their parents and god parents make this renunciation “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”

We don’t think a lot about what that means.  But I have come to believe that one of the ways that the evil powers of this world corrupt and destroy the creatures of God is by convincing us that there is nothing that we can do about the violence that seems to be growing exponentially in our country.

We are heading into the season of Advent, the time in the Church year when we are called to pray and to act to prepare the way for the coming of the kingdom of God.  I can state with absolute certainty that in the kingdom of God people are not shot in churches or schools or movie theaters or concerts or any of the other places that have been venues for violence.

I will be spending this Advent praying for discernment of how to effectively act to bring our nation closer to the kingdom of God.  I ask that each and every one of you commit to joining me in this.

I will be sending out a reflection each of the first three Sundays in Advent.  I invite you to join with me in reflection, discernment and prayer.

I do not yet have an answer about what we can do, but I renounce the evil power of this world that tells us that there is nothing that we can do and that we must just accept the escalation of violence in our world.

I do know what I said in my sermon at our Convention Eucharist just over a week ago, “…worship is what inspires us to action to be the face of God in all those whom we encounter.”

I do know that without action, without love made visible through action, the words of our prayers are noisy gongs and clanging symbols.

I think about our own Bishop Brent in the aftermath of World War I.  He was horrified by the needless slaughter of so many people in the war. He walked around the battlefields of France and brought back to Buffalo fragments of French cathedrals blown apart by German shelling. He put the fragments on the walls of the cathedral to remind people the terrible cost of violence (the fragments are still there today). He wanted people to be surrounded by these fragments as they prayed at our cathedral, believing that God would inspire action to respond effectively to this violence.

What emerged from that prayer was the first step toward the World Council of Churches, a forum for unity and peace of almost all Christians. We have in our midst an example of the practical power of prayer.

I invite you now into a time when we engage in the practical power of power.  I invite you to join with me in discerning how we turn our prayers into action in our own time.

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