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Unexpected Joy - the 6th Sunday of Easter

Updated: May 10

Easter 6B: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98;

1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

May 5, 2024


Good morning, St. Aidan’s. And what a beautiful morning it is after yesterday’s abrupt rainy season return! Along with a number of you, I spent yesterday at Grace Cathedral where our diocese and many from well beyond gathered to participate in the ordination and consecration of Austin Keith Rios as our new bishop. Bishop Austin will technically be our Bishop Coadjutor, walking alongside Bishop Marc who remains our Bishop Diocesan until he officially retires at the end of July. As I wrote in this week’s Flame, this consecration is a rare occurrence in our diocese – since Bishop Marc was already a bishop when he came to us in 2006, the last time we ordained and consecrated a bishop for our diocese was in 1979 with Bishop Bill Swing. It was moving to see Bishop Swing at yesterday’s service (he had a small part, giving Bishop Austin a “Legacy Episcopal Ring”).

Participating in yesterday’s service was a truly powerful experience. Its deep joy caught me somewhat by surprise. To be sure, I expected it to be joyous, but as I have begun reflecting on the day, I am discovering that for me it has linked up with several earlier experiences, extending new growth on a long vine, to evoke imagery from the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel that we have been dwelling with over the last two weeks. No doubt this linkage is due in significant measure to the truly nourishing sermon given yesterday by Bishop Brian Cole of the Diocese of East Tennessee.[1] Bishop Cole shared that he had preached at his friend Austin’s ordination to the priesthood nineteen years earlier. After lifting up the joy of that day and this moment, he asked, what comes next? The answer: “back to reality.” We all laughed. But the invitation to that reality, offered to all of us together, was to make our way forward together in a contemplative spirit, in what the Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt called “a long, loving look at the real.”[2] This “loving look” opens space to respond to the real, to open ourselves to God’s future in part by looking lovingly and openly at the stories that came before the now, the stories that shape our experience of the present moment. No beginning is a pure beginning, Bishop Cole said. You are always starting in the midst of the stories that came before you stepped into the room, as well as the stories you bring with you into the now. The contemplative spirit of Bishop Cole’s sermon helped me experience yesterday’s service in connection to some earlier ones. Together, I find that these experiences are expressing Jesus’s call to abide in the love that he shared, that he basked in, with the divine Parent and with us. Dwelling in such love ushers in joy: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).                                                                                  


On March 24, 2001, I was a postulant for holy orders. And just as yesterday a number of people in the ordination process took part in the ordination, I lined up with my fellow postulants and candidates to make our way into Trinity Church in Copley Square for the ordination and consecration of Bud Cederholm who had been elected the previous December. I remember standing outside the church in a long line of people in white robes in the exuberant, expectant air. I remember one of my fellow postulants, who also had fabulous purple nail polish, doing a cartwheel in his robe alongside our line. I wasn’t doing any cartwheels but my mood was one of curiosity, cautious openness, hope.

The reason for my mood was that we postulants and candidates had just come from our annual retreat—we had driven directly from there to this ordination. At that retreat we had done an exercise. (I have told this story in a sermon at least once before – so some of you may be hearing it again, with a bit more context.) At the time I was openly gay but not yet openly trans. I was very much in the process of coming out to myself, clearer day by day that the binary of male and female failed to fully capture me. Although I was assigned female at birth, I knew I wasn’t a woman but I wasn’t sure how I was called to embody my complex experience of gender. At this postulant and candidates retreat, the exercise we happened to do was called “the circle of oppression.” To help one another become aware of the various, sometimes invisible realities that we each navigated, we (about thirty or forty of us) formed a circle around the room and momentarily stepped into the circle if a particular described experience or category applied to us. I imagined one of the prompts might be, “if you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer… step into the circle.” And I hoped that might not expose me in my in-progress gender discernment, as I really wasn’t ready to share it openly. It was 2001, trans was nowhere on the map of the gender and sexuality debates that were then afoot in the Episcopal Church or Anglican Communion. I felt precarious as a postulant, not sure if my gender might ultimately get me kicked out of the ordination process. So I was nervous, standing there. And then the leader said, “if you’re a woman, step into the circle.” I froze. Because that’s how I was read at that time – as a woman. And even if I didn’t yet know how I was called to embody my gender, I did know that category didn’t work for me. Yet I was still in it, and I valued what I had learned, how I had been formed my whole life, even as much was also painful. All of this was flashing through my mind as everyone else seemed to move easily into the circle or to stay out. I quietly wiggled my toe into the circle for a moment – that felt like the truth. I hoped no one had noticed. As soon as the exercise ended and the group dissipated, a former seminary classmate approached from across the circle. She said quietly, “I just wanted to say that I saw what you did in the circle. And I don’t know how you identify, but I wanted to share that my partner identifies as trans.” I was amazed. It was so unexpected to feel seen in that context, and in a way that left space for my ongoing becoming. I was exhilarated. Even if I couldn’t yet see the road ahead, or even if the church could support me on that wilderness road, as Weston evoked it in his wonderful sermon last week, I had a sense of accompaniment in mystery.

Directly from that experience, we all went to the ordination of Bishop Bud in Boston. After my colleague finished his cartwheeling, we processed into the quire where I had a near front row seat for the consecration. During communion my experience with the circle continued to flow in my heart, when the hymn began. It was “One Bread, One Body,” a hymn we sing here from time to time.[3] “One bread, one body, one Lord of all,” it goes, “one cup of blessing which we bless. And we though many throughout the earth, we are one body” – it is the Pauline body of Christ image. A similar sentiment to the image of the vine. Then the verse took up the hymn of Galatians 3:28: “Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man no more….” As we sang those words, the no more cascaded over me in a wave of joy. I felt such liberation—these binaries were declared null, relinquished, in a sense sung away. As with the circle, I felt spaciousness, a deep hope in the space of church, in communion, in the abiding love of the vine into which we are all grafted in a way that caught me so off-guard. It’s not that in that moment I thought everything would always be alright forever. I knew the church would mess up again. And it has. I knew it might well cause me pain down the road, and that was true. But in that moment of vulnerability and discernment I had experienced something that up to that point I hadn’t yet allowed myself to believe was possible. I had experienced it in a group setting, in hymnody, at communion, in an ordination—and of a bishop, no less.

This two-part memory bubbled to the surface yesterday as I stood once again in a quire, robed in white, in a service of ordination and consecration, this time in the mist of the Eucharistic prayer. With Elaina LeGault and others I was behind the altar, and the incredible choir – not only that of Grace Cathedral but of others from around the diocese – was singing the Sanctus. As I closed my eyes and took it in, I could hear their individual voices singing, as if directly into my ears. The sound washed over me, uplifting me. That sense of all the company of heaven joining in our song was so palpable. There was a current of love, divine love that fills the whole earth with its glory, flowing among us, calling us to abide with and in it, to share it, carrying it out in the form of this holy meal, and into the world, into the mission of healing and justice to which God calls us again and again. I felt the joy of Jesus that he has said he wants us to have and to spill out in our lives, that this joy may be complete. In that moment and as I shared communion a few minutes later, I felt the current of the experiences, the stories that had brought me to that moment—the stories in the middle of which we begin again and again, as Bishop Cole invited us to contemplate.

And so, dear friends, this morning I invite us all to take up the call of our gospel this morning: to abide in love, to receive the joy of Christ, to take a long, loving look at the real, with gratitude for the God who is with us in all times and places, for the hope that God’s people – even the church, friends – can grow and change, collectively answering the call to embody and share God’s astounding good news. Thanks be to God for the people who show such possibility to us, who strengthen us when we feel faint and overwhelmed, for Jesus Christ the true vine who nourishes us in love and unexpected joy.


[1] The recorded livestream of the service can be found at this link, and Bishop Cole’s sermon starts at ~1 hour 41 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1fWki7tfNY&t=7064s

[2] An unpacking of this definition of contemplation can be found at https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/a-long-loving-look-at-the-real/

[3] John B. Foley, SJ , “One Bread, One Body” in Lift Every Voice and Sing II (New York: Church Publishing, 1993), p. 151, drawing on Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 & 12:4, and Galatians 3:28.

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