A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

photo of AVC sanctuary
Sermon: That Our Joy May Be Complete

That Our Joy May Be Complete

May 16, 2021


Rev. Anne Deneen, recently retired pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Lanesville, served as our guest preacher on Sunday, May 16, 2021.

First, I want to thank your pastor for inviting me to come and preach today— Pastor Sue is a dear friend, as are many of you, and it’s a pleasure to come as a guest to your gathering.

I’ve long admired Annisquam Village Church, and have known your ministers as dear and valued colleagues, through the years—our congregations shared various services, both with each other, and also the larger Cape Ann interfaith community. It’s in that context, as interfaith colleagues that your pastor and I became friends.

A few years ago, she and some of our interfaith Cape Ann clergy colleagues were discussing the variety of religious and spiritual backgrounds of the people we serve, that many people have multiple spiritual roots. They find meaning in more than one faith tradition—or perhaps they identify their spirituality as non-religious—we were pondering this.At the time, Reverend Sue was serving as an interspiritual and interfaith chaplain. She said something I haven’t forgotten, and I have been thinking about it ever since—and I’m so happy to be able to bring that back to you this morning.

Reverend Sue, said “maybe interspiritual is really the way we are in the 21st century.”

Perhaps it will help if I give an example: in our family alone, we share four major world religions: Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian. For some beautiful reason, this diversity of wisdom illumines and informs our spiritual lives. It enriches us.

One of the gifts I’ve experienced in this church, this Annisquam Village Church, has been a hospitality to the rich diversity and variety of spiritual experiences of the people who come here.I remember hearing how Swami Vivekenanda came here in 1893on his way to the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago. As you know, his presence here made this a pilgrimage site for Hindus.When the Hindu members of our family came to visit—they wanted to come here to AVC, and see the steps where Viveknanda stood.

As you welcomed that interspiritual encounter then in 1893, so you continue to welcome those encounters now.

I experience you as a community that recognizes and receives, the divine in one another, your past and present capacity for welcome bears witness to that. That’s a huge gift in a world that feels too polarized.

The pandemic, too, has heightened all of our awareness that our lives are interdependent, intimately intertwined. I think of this gift of awareness of our interconnection, our interdependence,as I considered today’s Gospel lesson. For Christians it is the season of Easter—and last Thursday, Christians celebrated the Ascension of Jesus— Next Sunday is Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.Thus, we are in an in-between Sunday—a waiting and wondering Sunday.

If we put ourselves in the place of the disciples, Jesus has just left us, forty days after his resurrection.He’s blessed us and asked us to wait for the gift of the Spirit.Then, he is taken up into God—Many artists have depicted this scene with Jesus’ feet slowly disappearing into the clouds, the disciples left beneath him—we don’t know how it happened, but we’re left behind, unsure of what’s coming next. We wonder what Jesus intends for us; what is going to happen now?

This beautiful Gospel is offered in that context of waiting and wondering, It is often read on this Sunday, because here Jesus prays, for his followers of all times and places, as they and we face a future we do not yet know, emerging from a pandemic perhaps, amidst all the fear and sorrow, the loss of so many lives.  If we are in any doubt about what Jesus wants for us, Jesus’ beautiful prayer offers consolation, direction and hope. For here, in this prayer, Jesus repeats again and again, his desire that we be one with God, even as he is one.

The 17th chapter of John is known as Jesus’ priestly prayer—The whole chapter is a prayer—we’re only reading a small excerpt from it. One of the commentators on this passage calls it the other Lord’s Prayer. Here, we listen in on how Jesus prays for us. We tune in to his Spirit—and have a chance to see what goes on in his heart. Jesus talks about what he has done—How everything Jesus has given us has come from God, a total offering of love, a prayer that reveals the breadth, depth, height of God’s generosity. jesus asks God to protect us, to guard our relationship with him—All mine are yours, and yours are mine, Jesus prays—there’s a sense of continual movement, a flow of care and protection, of belonging, of holiness between Jesus and God and us. He entrusts us to God, interceding on our behalf, praying for us, just as we pray for others, for those we love, and for people we’ve never met. He doesn’t pray that we be taken out of this world, but that we remain here, staying, remaining as people who abide and live in God.

He prays that God will help us, reminding God, and us, that we are always in union with God.“Father protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, even as we are one.”

Jesus prayed then, and prays now, continually for us, asking on our behalf that we discover and experience that intimate relationship, this divine union, our interdependence with God.and not only that, Jesus prays we may be one, interdependent then, not only with God, but with each other, for this reason: that our joy is made complete.

The English mystic Julian of Norwich calls this experience of interconnection, of union with God and other, “oneing.” Oneing as a verb.  She writes: paradoxically: “between God and our soul, there is no between.”

Matthew Fox writes of her religious experience of divine union, in his book, Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic—and Beyond. Julian lived her entire life during the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century. As Fox tells her story, he describes her as someone who has a spirituality that can survive the trauma of a pandemic. Her recognition of the divine being at-one with everything and everyone is a corner-stone for that resilient spirituality. She knows she is not separate from God or creation, but intimately joined to all. Julian’s capacity to recognize her own oneness with God, and God’s oneness with all that is, undoes the illusion that we are separate from one another.

We can’t separate our breath from our bodies and remain alive—so it is with God’s union with us. 

Like all mystics, Julian moved beyond the sense of a separate independent self. She saw God shining through the interdependent whole of creation. Her union with God was unshakeable; her practice of prayer became a place of stability to face into the tumult of her time. So it can be for us. She spoke of prayer as a path of oneness: “the fruit and purpose of prayer is to be onedwith and like God in all things.” 

Jesus, in this beautiful passage of John, is doing just that—calling us to union with God, a union no farther away than our breath, this present, this here and now. Jesus is praying, as Julian did, in the immediacy of this moment—Jesus is awake to his interdependence, his one-ness with God, and he prays that for us, too.The awareness of our interdependence, in creation, in relationship, this deep and profound connection we all have this aliveness, this one-ing, is a prayer of who we really are—in this present moment.

It’s what another mystic named Brother Lawrence called the practice of the presence of God—in prayer, as we are living our lives, breathing in, breathing out, remembering who we are. 

It is not far off. 

And what’s more, such prayer can be a place of stability for us, too, a resilient stance of openness, a beautiful way of prayer that leads to a life where everyone and everything shines with God. 

May we know such prayer. May we know such joy. May our joy be complete.