January 23, 2022: Sermon Preached by The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund

Year C; FB.3 Epiphany, Annual Meeting, 1.23.2022

I Corinthians 12:12-31a; Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna 155CE

Polycarp of Smyrna was a second century Christian bishop and martyr. He was a follower of St. John and was a leader deeply influenced by St. Paul’s writings. We know of him from the letters he wrote to the community of Philippi in Macedonia. Across the Aegean, he was the bishop of Smyrna which is now Izmir, Turkey. In seminary, we learned about the early Apostolic Fathers of the first and second centuries. Bishop Polycarp was a class favorite of ours…I think mostly because of his name. A classmate even named her toy terrier, “Polycarp!”

In Greek, Polycarp means, “much fruit.” This bishop certainly lived a long and “fruitful” life. He was 86 when the pagan Roman troops came to arrest him for his Christian faith. In my Rector’s Annual Report for 2021 I shared excerpts from Bishop Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians. You can hear that his language and teachings resemble St. Paul when he writes,

“I rejoice with you greatly in the Lord Jesus Christ because you have assumed the pattern of true love and have rightly helped on their way those who were in chains…I am glad…that your deep-rooted faith…still abides and continues to bear fruit in the life-giving power of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

On my sabbatical trip, we visited the site of ancient Smyrna. Sitting on the excavated steps of the agora, in the early morning bright sunshine of Izmir, Turkey, we learned about Bishop and Martyr Polycarp. Our tour guide was an intelligent, accomplished Muslim woman from Istanbul. I loved the juxtaposition of her story-telling of the Christian martyr Polycarp and the surrounding city that had statues and posters of Ataturk, Father of Modern Muslim Turkey.

Our tour guide explained that in this part of Asia Minor, in the second century, persecution of Christians was a concentrated act of the authorities. There was a glorious arena where for entertainment Christians were being mauled by wild beasts. A mob rose against Polycarp that called for his death.

One biographer tells the story this way:

“It was a Friday afternoon. Polycarp was resting upstairs in a country home. [The armed posse] came in as if they were arresting a dangerous criminal.”

“Polycarp’s friends wanted to sneak him out, but he refused, saying, ‘God’s will be done’….in one of the most touching instances of Christian grace imaginable, Polycarp welcomed his captors as if they were friends, talked with them and ordered that food and drink be served to them. Then Polycarp made one request: one hour to pray before they took him away.” (Christianity.com; Ken Curtis, PhD)

I remember looking at the bright morning sun of the busy coastal city of Izmir, Turkey and saying, “Wow! This is an example of Christian hospitality. This is what I came to experience.”

I don’t expect the depth of martyrdom or sacrifice when WE speak of Christian Hospitality. We don’t live in such an unstable setting as this. We assemble freely to worship in-person and on line. We preach truth to power without being arrested. We study topics of racial justice that are challenging. We serve Christ as a body with the openness of St. Paul’s words we heard today in First Corinthians, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free…the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor…”

I invite you to read our Annual Report to learn the depth of our love, hospitality, faith and fruit-bearing! For example, Carol Martin steadfastly led the Outreach Ministry to connect with the needs of the community and the world with proceeds from our Yuletide Fair and anonymous donor angel funds. You will be inspired as you read about our deep commitment to service and generosity in the second year of this pandemic. Thank you.

And so, we are entering our third year adjusting to the pandemic.

On Friday afternoon, the members of St. Paul’s Vestry met in the Great Hall for our traditional farewell and thank-you ritual for our outgoing Vestry members. Nancy Whitehouse and I came to the kitchen to prepare refreshments of coffee and hot water for tea and instant cocoa. We knew hot drinks would be welcome on that very cold day! Last year, when we had this gathering, Bob Jackson introduced the Vestry to a hot drink “cocktail” that we all fell in love with: hot cocoa powder in hot coffee. Try it! You’ll like it!

As we set up on Friday, Nancy exclaimed, “I miss hospitality so much!” We reminisced about our love of coffee hour, of pangs of sorrow as we remembered Jo Belknap who was always one of the last to leave, chatting away and laughing with friends and guests. Nancy and I talked about the bustling of the Christmas Fairs in that room, the spring festivals we had – the Renaissance Fair of 2019 where Nick Smith was king! And the greater community summer gatherings we sponsored for five years with the Abyssinian Meeting House of Portland to celebrate Juneteenth.

The pandemic has significantly altered our lives, the way we worship and the ministries we love so much. It has altered, but not squelched our fruit-bearing, our hospitality, the ministries we are called to and our love and care for each other (thank you, Susan McCracken, Jean Mulligan and the Lay Pastoral Visitors!). We brilliantly and with resilience have found our way forward.

Our glimpse forward is full of life and love and hope from our fruit-bearing body of Christ. The glimpse of the past way we utilized the kitchen and Great Hall inspired Caroline Russell to fund the flooring and painting for the very reason of hospitality as her and her parents’ legacy. We thank her.

Yet, I recognize our longing to be free and rid of the pandemic constraints and worries. Oh, my friends! We aretired. We have deep longing to be together uninhibited by “precautions” and to connecting physically with our neighbors. We are supremely ready for this pandemic to end.

But pandemic or not, “…you have assumed the pattern of true love…and your deep-rooted faith…continues to bear fruit in the life-giving power of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We hear these words of Polycarp and say, “That’s us, by the life-giving power of our Lord Jesus Christ! Our way forward is through him!”