Hannah Mills, my great grandmother, five generations back, was born in 1839 in Lancashire, England. Her father, Isaac, worked as a dyer at a local cotton mill.
My great grandfather, five generations back, came to live with Hannah’s family following the death of his parents when he was a small child. Not being blood relatives, Jonathon and Hannah were married when she was nineteen and he was twenty-three.
In the late 1850’s Hannah and Jonathon converted to Mormonism. From family genealogy it appears that the rest of Hannah’s family remained members of the Church of England. This assumption is based in part on the fact that Hannah and Jonathon were married in the Manchester Cathedral December 20, 1857. The Manchester Cathedral, part of the Church of England, dates back to the 1600’s, and perhaps as early as the 700’s. The Mormon Church excommunicated Hannah and Jonathon for having their wedding in the Cathedral and it took them several years to earn their way back into the good graces of the Mormon Church.
On May 23, 1863, Hannah, four months pregnant, sailed to the United States with two small children, three year old William and her infant daughter named Harriet. Jonathon stayed behind to work, earning money to support his family as they made the long journey.
Hannah and her children, along with 430 other Mormons, crossed the Atlantic on a ship called the Antarctic. It was an old, whitewashed sailing vessel covered in tar. The ship leaked badly and the sailors spent most of their day bailing water. A measles outbreak took the lives of several people. A number of people were married on this seven week trip and a few babies were born. The water on the ship was contaminated and had to be boiled before it was consumed. Their meals consisted of hardtack and undercooked bacon. They arrived in New York on July 10th. The civil war was raging across the country. [i]
The Mormons travelled by ferry and train through Albany, Niagara, Detroit, and Chicago to St. Joseph, Missouri. From there they took a train to Florence, Nebraska, now a northern suburb of Omaha. There they met up with other members for the ox led wagon train journey across Nebraska, through Wyoming and over the Rocky Mountains. The wagons carried their possessions, the people walked. Hannah was 8 months pregnant by the time they arrived, having walked thirteen hundred miles during her last trimester. Somewhere along the way her baby Harriet died, one of the seven children and two adults who died on this journey. On October 9, a month after her arrival at her new home Hannah gave birth to a baby boy named Jacob. Jacob fathered Roland Parley Chatterton who fathered another son named Roland, who fathered my mother.
Hannah and Jonathon had thirteen children, nine of whom lived. Hannah died in childbirth on January 22, 1883 at the age of 43.
I often think of Hannah, the choices she made for her faith and the challenges she faced in her life. She stands for me as a powerful witness of one who undertook extraordinary measures to follow where she believed God was calling her.
Following where God calls is one of the themes in our scripture readings this morning. Jesus calls out to four men, well established as fishermen, and touches a restless cord within them. There was nothing else they could do but drop their nets and follow Jesus. Perhaps, as is often the case when one responds to a call from God, they were finally doing what was in their hearts all along.
Some suggest that we are born with God imprinted on our souls. This imprint of God, like the vibration of a musical note, resonates within us when we hear God’s voice. The imprint of God within us is potent enough to cause us to drop what we are doing and follow. [ii]
Augustine, a prominent and influential church leader who lived in the 4th century wrote “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” The imprint of God on our being leaves us restless until we find our way to God and understand how we are to follow. That is how it is with God, imprinted as we are with the memory of God on our souls from before our birth; we yearn to reconnect with God, a process that may take a life time.
Some suggest that those who have no language to articulate the longing inside, this imprinted memory of God, are people who are perpetually lost, for they have no idea what will finally quench the yearning within them.
Isaiah, the great prophet, speaks of this. The people who have lived in darkness have seen a great light, the Messiah, the one who will lead the people back to God. Returning to God is a process Christians have called Repentance, or in Greek, Metanoia.[iii] Repentance is a process of turning and returning to God.
Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians speaks to a church collapsing under the weight of dissention as they argue over the right way to live as Christians in community. By the time Paul writes his second letter to the Corinthians, having instructed them on the problems they are facing, specifically regarding proper baptism,[iv] Paul says simply, the only thing we need to do is recognize who we are following – Jesus. To follow Jesus means we love one another. If we see one another through a lens of love, first, then all other problems can be reconciled. Paul is not arguing for a naïve, romantic love. In many of his letters, Paul describes love as acting with integrity and compassion, honesty. This love manifests as a willingness to work through misunderstandings. This love creates the ability to be humble and support one another rather than insist on having one’s own way. This kind of love happens when people settle disagreements by speaking to one another directly instead of grumbling on the sidelines. Jesus too describes love this way – as speaking to one another directly, being humble in one’s opinion of one’s self, refraining from self-righteousness. This kind of love is not about pointing fingers and laying blame. This kind of love recognizes that we are to examine first our own behavior, take the log out of our own eye, and work on our own behavior, rather than criticize others. Love is responding from a position of compassion, listening, and forgiving seven times seventy times. Love builds community and sustains relationships. Love is what it feels like when our souls recognize God and we respond accordingly.
A friend of mine asked a confirmation class - "What is community?" One twelve year old responded - "We hold each other up. We support one another. We speak quietly to one another of God.”
Recently the Henry Nouwen Society on-line meditation offered this: “community….is first of all a quality of the heart. It grows from the spiritual knowledge that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another. Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own… (see Philippians 2:4).
Today we celebrate our life and ministry at our annual meeting. We will review our effort in 2013 to build community and to invest in the wellbeing of others. We will reflect on the ways in which we responded to God’s call within us – in quite remarkable ways! We’ll review the budget for 2014 and elect new members to the Vestry. We will honor the many ministries here. We will celebrate the gift each one of us is to the body of Christ. We will give thanks to Jan Timpko, who has officially retired, and honor her many years as our Parish Administrator. We will celebrate the love of God that resonates within this place now, as it has for nearly 150 years, as we strive to follow Jesus.
[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year A Third Sunday after the Epiphany
[iii] Process and Faith blog: http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2014-01-26/third-sunday-after-epiphany