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Sermon by Jay Hayden
A sermon preached by Jay Hayden, an Episcopal Life Together intern and teacher at Esperanza Academy, Lawrence, MA on May 5, 2013

Acts 16:9-15

Good morning!

You’ll have to bear with me because this is my first time on this side of the pulpit in over a decade since a Christmas Pageant where I played an overzealous Herod. In preparing for today's sermon, I went with my mother last week to my home church of St. John’s in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, hoping to get some inspiration, or at least instruction on how to preach. I went so far as to take notes, which made me feel like I was somehow cheating on a divine test, but I think they paid off.

I’m not going to lie; I’m still somewhat shocked to be standing in front of you all today. Last year I was working at an elementary school in Khon Kaen, Thailand teaching second grade math to 50 Thai kids, a world away from my New England home. When I had made my decision to come back to the states, I applied to as many teaching positions as I was qualified for. One of them was at the Esperanza Academy, an all girls middle school in Lawrence, MA. Low and behold, I had an interview two days after arriving from Bangkok, and, despite the jet lag, I managed to present myself well enough to secure the job. As the interview was wrapping up, the principle asked if I was comfortable living in an “intentional community”. Now, I had no idea what that entailed, but I needed the job, so I immediately said ‘yes’.

What she was talking about, I gradually learned, was Life Together. Life Together is a leadership development initiative run out of the Diocese of Massachusetts. It works with various congregations, non-profits and, for the first time this year, a small Episcopal school in the Merrimack Valley. Its goal is to make deep and lasting change in this state by providing interns to these organizations. My fellow interns and I, in return, receive extensive leadership training as well as solid spiritual development.

Spiritual development. Before joining Life Together, I honestly thought it was going to be easy. I had been raised in the Episcopal Church and served as an acolyte for almost a decade. What I was quickly faced with was the fact that I had been neglectful of my spirituality in my early twenties. Imagine that. This issue came to a head for me during the August training and I can remember collapsing in a chair outside the training house in Brookline honestly wondering what I had signed up for, and if I could deal with any more invitations to have God and Jesus in my life. This, by the way, was day two. I think part of my discomfort stemmed from frank discussions centered around Christianity, something I had not had since confirmation class, but a much larger part was my own lack of spiritual self care that was brought to the forefront.

Not one to give up, I stuck with it and was able to frame the discourse and dialogues so they fit into my own personal belief system, and hear the meaning and intention within the words. I’m glad I did, because by reawakening me to the importance of introspection and critical self-examination while keeping the larger framework of spiritual self-care at the forefront of my life, this year has been hugely transformative. At times I have been shocked at the power that spirituality, when nurtured properly, can have in a daily life.

So hear I stand, and I am again taken aback that I am preaching a sermon and again amazed at the transformation that can happen in such a short time. This odd trajectory, I think, parallels today's reading. What I took away from the travels of Paul and his followers, strangers in a strange land, was a marvel at their faith in their work and their willingness to keep going despite the long miles. There was a direct answering by Paul to God’s call.  This question of God’s calling is one that Life Together encourages us to come back to time and again. We have dedicated many hours of training into discerning who we are, what gifts we have, and how we can best use those gifts in our own answering.

For Paul and his followers, living into God’s call was to strive, despite the challenges and lack of a discernable outcome at the outset of their journey. I think I can relate most to the followers of Paul rather than to Paul himself. He received the word from God in a dream, the others had to go with faith that they were indeed living into what was intended for them. This path, I find, is often the harder one to walk.

And I love that the end result of all this travel, from Troas to Samothrace to Neapolis to Philippi, was to the benefit of just one woman. This echoes the sentiments of the staff at Esperanza, the mentality that “If I can be a benefit to just one girl, if I can be that difference that realigns just one life from a bad path, then my efforts will have been worth it.” Naturally, we strive for every one of our students to succeed, and often times are more focused on our shortcomings than our successes, but I’m sure that this mentality is at the core of every teacher in our school.

It is, ultimately, this mentality that saves us as teachers and keeps us going through the more challenging days. One of the key phrases I have kept in mind through this year is “in blessing others, we in turn are blessed.” And it is true, that many times, because of the work I have been doing, I have been blessed in seeing the most beautiful aspects of life.

I have had the honor of being a coach for Esperanza’s first soccer team. Not only was it a first for the school, it was a first time for me as a coach, as well as a first for the majority of the girls who had never stepped foot on a soccer pitch. As part of the coaching detail, I had to take the school van to away games. Now, driving a van full of middle school girls singing along to every last song on the radio at the top of their lungs might not sound like a blessing, I’ll admit. But on the ride home, even after a loss of 14 – 0, these girls were excited about how they played, and caring about and congratulating their teammates. Pride was in their voices as they talked about their game, and you could hear the joy of learning the skills required to play a new sport. I can always remember these times, and they will put a smile on my face.

These memories are one way I am blessed; another is in the lessons I have learned from my students. Earlier this year I was leading my 8th grade advisees in a discussion around our theme of the month, which at the time was commitment. I asked what some girls thought about what types of commitments they had and to share their responses. I had gone through most of the raised hands when one student said how she was committed to working to graduate college and have a profession in order to take care of her family in Lawrence as well as send money back to the Dominican Republic. The vigorous nodding was a visual affirmation that this sentiment was shared by many members of the now soon to be graduating 8th grade. As often happens in these advising sessions, or in class, or on the sports field, I end up learning more lessons from my students than I think they ever learn from me.

Now these are just two examples of how I am personally affected by my students, how my working for their betterment directly turns around and makes my life brighter. I was aware of their impact, but the depth to which they strengthen me was brought into sharp focus immediately following the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut. As an educator, hearing about that tragedy was intensely personal and the start of many difficult and nebulous discussions with both my students and colleagues. But one question I did not have was that intense personal struggle that I heard repeated by so many, that of, “what can I do?” In the wake of these tragic events, we are suddenly given a mirror, or a perspective on ourselves that we tend to largely ignore in our day-to-day lives. The fact that I could affirm to myself that I was already doing something made that difficult tragedy slightly more bearable. In the larger scope of all the world’s problems, I often think of it as a drop in a bucket, but it is the one that I am actively contributing. This clarity and assuredness during the Sandy Hook crisis, or any other of the many tragedies that have happened this year, has been a huge blessing and allowed me to keep going after looking in the mirror. It is in blessing others, that we are truly blessed.

Amen.

Last Published: May 9, 2013 6:10 PM