Hi friends – here is this week’s sermon. Those of you who follow me on social media may have seen that my college chaplain, the Rev. Charles Rice, passed away very unexpectedly this week. It did not feel right to preach, business as usual, without acknowledging not only this loss, but also the impact he had on my life. In a moment of grace unexpected, the lectionary had us on the Road to Emmaus this week. I could not have picked a more perfect scripture to preach on as I talked about the ways Rev. Rice embodied the incarnational love of God throughout his life and ministry.
Please keep the friends and family of Rev. Rice in your prayers, as well as the entire Ursinus College community. As I post this sermon, they are preparing for his funeral in Collegeville, PA. I so wish I could be there, but at this point in my pregnancy I just can’t travel that far by myself.
Rehoboth Congregational Church
April 30, 2017
Being That Incarnational Presence
My college chaplain, the Rev. Charles William Rice, died very unexpectedly this week. To say that I am shocked and devastated is an understatement. Today, as I think about the impact he had not only on me, but also on the tens of thousands of students he counseled throughout his 20-year tenure at Ursinus College, I am humbled by the inadequacy of words and am not entirely sure where to begin.
When Rev. Rice’s youngest son, Martin, was born, he asked me to do the welcome during worship on the Sunday he was dedicated. And, while I don’t remember why, for some reason, I was running late the morning of the dedication. So I ran into chapel about ten minutes after we were supposed to begin, clearly flustered, apologetic and upset. I stood behind the pulpit and looked down, because I was so mad at myself and embarrassed that I was that late. And I heard his voice, in this unmistakably commanding, yet calm tone that he always spoke in, say: “Breathe. Take your time. We’re not going anywhere.”
And so this morning I am remembering that moment and heeding those same words as I try to share with you all what this man meant to me, how he helped shape me into both the pastor and the person I am today and how we all can learn from his life and legacy.
Rev. Rice was born in Brooklyn in 1957. He went to New York City public schools and graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1979. He received his master of divinity in historical theology from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and continued on to do his doctoral studies at Syracuse University. He was ordained by the National/American Baptist Churches and later held standing with the United Church of Christ when he arrived at Ursinus in 1997.
I met Rev. Rice in 2004. I had gone through a process of discernment during my freshmen year of college and entered my sophomore year with a declared major of Philosophy & Religion, with the intent to go to seminary. Before I left for school that year, my mom asked me, “Have you met the chaplain yet?” When I told her no, but I had heard he was nice, she said, “You know, when you apply to seminary, they might think it’s weird if you went through four years of college and never actually met the chaplain.”
She had a point.
So I sent Rev. Rice an email and set up a meeting with him when I got on campus, which he ended up being over an hour late to because he got caught up in a conversation with a student on his way to the office.
Which, if you knew him, would not surprise you one bit.
Rev. Rice captivated my ministry-hungry heart from that very first conversation. He had an enormous passion for bringing students together, normalizing faith and creating conversation on campus. He enthusiastically encouraged our weekly student-run chapel service, which often times was something of a comedy of errors, but was always grace-filled and life-giving. When I arrived in Rehoboth six year ago, my Saturday night sermon writing made people nervous and kind of became a running joke. But the thing I never explained to you all was that when I was president of the chapel my senior year, Saturday night sermon writing was not a bad habit, it was a necessary survival skill, as Rev. Rice would commonly call me on Saturday, mid-late afternoon and say, “So I’m not going to make it to chapel tomorrow – any chance you can preach?”
Rev. Rice pushed his students, drawing out all of our potential, both as individuals and as groups. He not only talked about the importance of building bridges that would unite us, he showed us how and helped us out when things got hard.
Rev. Rice taught me the importance of gathering around a table and breaking bread with one another. At least once a month, we would all pile into his minivan after Sunday chapel for brunch. Other weeks, we would commandeer a group of tables in the dining hall and eat there. I always wondered what the tables full of hung-over students thought of us when we all walked in, dressed in our church clothes with a various assortment of bibles and music in tow.
I don’t think Rev. ever wondered that. He would just walk up to them, playfully slap them on their arms and backs and say good morning.
It did not have to be brunch, either. Rev. and I discussed theology over sushi while he taught me how to use chopsticks and told the waitress she was not allowed to bring me the fork I had asked for. On my 21st birthday, a blizzard shut down the east coast and prevented my parents from driving to Pennsylvania to take me out to dinner, so when the roads were finally cleared that night, Rev. called me and said he and his wife were taking me out instead.
Rev. Rice introduced me to Black Theology. He taught me that the Civil Rights Movement was about more than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. He filled my library with the brilliant and prophetic writings of James Baldwin, James Cone and Howard Thurman. He humbly, yet never apologetically, told me his story of what it was like to be a black man in America. He never his lost patience with my white-girl-from-Connecticut naivety as I stumbled to learn about and understand my own privilege. He is the reason that I believe today that black lives matter, even though, in an attempt to stay neutral, I have never once said those words from the pulpit or on social media.
Rev. Rice flew me all over the country so I could attend conferences that would expand my education and help me discern my call to ministry. And while I know those conferences were supposed to be about education and enrichment, he never expected anything in return; he just wanted me to have a positive experience. In fact when I called him once from a layover in Charlotte to let him know that my roommate, who attended the conference with me, and I had been “bumped” from our flight – and I used quotes around the word “bumped”, because what actually happened was that the gate attendant offered a free flight to anyone willing to give up their seats and since we 1) did not want to go to class that night and 2) loved the prospect of a spring break getaway, jumped quickly at the opportunity – he simply said, “Did you at least get a free flight out of the deal?”
And when I sheepishly admitted that yes, in fact, we did get a free flight out a flight that was originally paid for by the school, he said, “Huh. Well, good for you.”
I have never met a man with so much discipline, but also compassion. He was not afraid to tell me one day that the paper I turned in was one of the worst things he had ever read, but then call me the next day to tell me how wonderful my sermon had been in chapel that morning. He pushed me to the limits of my own boundaries and then helped me find new ones. He encouraged me when I needed encouragement, scolded me when I needed scolding and loved me – and all of us – unconditionally, all the time.
This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Gospel of Luke; it is known as the Road to Emmaus and it describes an encounter between two disciples – one by the name of Cleopas – and Jesus. The two disciples were traveling to the village of Emmaus when Jesus appeared to them, but they did not recognize him. They told him what had happened over the past several days, that Jesus of Nazareth had been crucified, but then three days later the tomb was found empty. They told Jesus that the women had astounded them when they told everyone they saw the angels at the tomb, but that they still had not seen for themselves what had happened.
When they arrived in Emmaus, the two disciples invited Jesus to stay with them. While he was there, Jesus sat down to eat with them; he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them and “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him”
That is one of my favorite lines of scripture – “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” – because I think more often than not, we – all of us, in our lifetime – also need to open our eyes and recognize the presence of the resurrected Christ in our midst.
I was listening to a podcast last year and one of the hosts was commenting on internet bullying and how easy it is to type something offensive, insensitive or snarky to someone and hit submit without thinking twice. She said something that has stuck with me to this day: “I think we all need to sit down and have actual conversations, where we can look into each other’s eyes and see one another’s humanity.”
Christianity is about this exact incarnational presence that she as describing. Jesus came into this world so that God could live in human flesh, understand human suffering, temptation and imperfections and yet find a way to redeem us anyway. The God in the Gospel narrative is not a far away and distant God, but a God that walks with us on our journey, that stands in our presence and that never gives us on us.
This is incarnational love. This is what the disciples saw when they opened their eyes and recognized Jesus in Emmaus. This is what they experienced when Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it.
I believe, as people of faith, we are called to not only open our eyes and see this incarnational love all around us, but to also be that presence to one another, as well. We are called to show up and to be present, just like Jesus did throughout his life and especially here on the road to Emmaus.
The day Rev. Rice died, a friend of mine from college texted me. She mentioned that she wished she had emailed him more recently and thanked him for everything he had done for her. I had a similar sentiment, but pointed out that, knowing him, he was never really great with the whole email thing anyway. She agreed and said, “He was always focused on the here and now. Late to everything, but gave you his all when you were with him.”
And that, my friends, is incarnational love. That is what it means to show up and be present with someone in the moments when they need it most, to give them a space where they can recognize the see and recognize God’s resurrecting power. That was what Rev. Rice did for us. That is what he demonstrated to us and tried fervently to teach us how to do in our own lives, as well.
I believe that, as Christians, this is what we are called to do. We are called to show up, to be the incarnational presence of the resurrected Christ to our friends and even to our enemies. We are called to be present, to give one another our all in the moment, because that might be exactly what they need. We are called to stand in the imperfectly human presence of one another, because that is what Jesus demonstrated through his life, death and resurrection.
People need to know that resurrection is possible. They need to believe that God is in their midst. They need to feel like they are not alone. When Jesus appeared on the road to Emmaus, the disciples saw this for themselves.
And today, we are called to ensure others see this for themselves as well.
So friends, as I remember and grieve the loss of a man that had a profound impact on me, as both pastor and person, I encourage you all to think about what this incarnational presence means, both for you and also for the people you meet along your journey.
And then meet one another on the road to Emmaus. Be the presence of the resurrected Christ so that others will open their eyes and recognize it in their midst. Know that you can and will make a difference in the lives of the people you meet along your journey.
Believe in that incarnational love. Recognize that incarnational power. Be that incarnational presence of the resurrected Christ.
And have confidence that someone will open their eyes and recognize God’s work in you. And together we will continue to write this Christian story.
Thanks be to God!