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The Rev. Heidi Kinner

So, often I hear the altar guild being compared to Mary, Martha, and the other faithful women of the gospel. Women who work quietly and meekly behind the scenes, never seeking their own glory and never rocking the boat. It is an image that carries a lot of truth. The members of the altar guild do a yeoman’s share of the daily work of the parish and are seldom listed in the church bulletin or applauded for getting the wine and lipstick out of the purificators!

However, that image doesn’t even begin to do justice to the first altar guild person that I ever met. I was nine and had just joined the local church choir. I’d only been there a couple of weeks when I met Mildred. She was the English teacher at the local middle school and was both awesome and terrible.

First of all, most of us children feared her because she was that arch-nemesis — the teacher, and a fierce one at that.

Secondly, most of the children’s parents were in awe of her, because she had been their English teacher.

Thirdly, she had been at St. Mary church since Moses was a boy and knew everyone and everything. Even the Vicar was a little afraid of her. She knew what was right and what was wrong. She made sure that the choir always bowed to the cross and the altar. She made sure that the Vicar didn’t stray from the appointed readings. She made sure the flowers were always the appropriate color, that people didn’t bring the post-service cups of tea into the nave, and that everything was set up properly for the Communion Service.

What I didn’t know until some years later, was that she deeply loved the Lord, and her church, and knew that what we did there was important and holy, and the only reason she seemed frightening was because she wanted all of us unruly children to understand the awesome mystery that we were a part of each Sunday.


So, as I prayed and prepared today’s sermon, I thought about Mildred, I realized that she was less a quiet Mary and much more a John the Baptist — fierce and committed.

And to be honest, most of the altar guild women that I have had the blessing to know and to work with have had that John the Baptist streak, and I have to thank God for it.

John the Baptist, Matthias Grünewald

Because you see, John the Baptist, a fiery herald who came preaching repentance to prepare the way for the Lord, was always pointing away from himself to Jesus. He was a little bit fierce, a whole lot committed, and willing to decrease for the increase of Christ.

And that, in my experience, is a much more accurate image for the altar guild.

Yes, I know that much of the daily work of the altar guild feels like housekeeping: ironing linens, making sure there is enough bread and wine, washing chalices, arranging flowers. But at the heart of the work is the reality that you are preparing the way for the church service and in so doing, preparing the ground upon which Jesus will once again meet his people around the communion table.

Think about all you do:

Those of you from small churches probably do some of the cleaning. Some of you may do the flowers; some of you may change the altar frontals; some of you may have charge of washing and ironing linens. All of these tasks serve to make the church beautiful and to remind those who come that they are entering a place set apart, a holy space. Your work helps those who come to worship begin to prepare in heart and mind for the glorious encounter with God in word and sacrament.

Those of you who set the books are preparing the way for the reading of the word of God. You are taking a small part in the proclamation of the gospel, the good news that Jesus dwelt among us and died to forgive our sins so that we might live. Yes, your part may seem small, but God has called you to do a part — we decrease as Jesus increases.

Those of you who prepare the elements and vessels for Communion. You are preparing the way for remembrance of the Last Supper and for the mystery of the sacrament, wherein we participate, in ways we cannot comprehend, in the heavenly banquet. Does it seem like too small a preparation to notice? Well it is not, for you are handling holy things and taking a part in the wonder of our encounter with the living God.

God has called each of you to his service to help prepare the way. And I hope you know what an amazing service that is. In the Old Testament, the only people permitted to handle the sacred vessels or other pieces of the Tabernacle and later the Temple, were the men of the tribe of Levi. They were set apart by God for a sacred duty. Now some of them were only permitted to carry the poles of the Tabernacle, and some the curtains. But they were all called by God for their task.

And that is the line of service that each of you stands in. God has called you to prepare the way for the people to again see the Lamb of God in worship each week. It is a wonderful calling, even if it does sometimes feel like housekeeping.

And I pray that some of you here today are a little like Mildred and a little like John the Baptist. Be a little fierce for God, for it helps nine-year-old choristers understand that God is holy and awesome. And stay devoted to God in your service, for that helps twelve-year-old choristers understand how much God loves us and how much, in Christ, we can love him back. And keep preparing the way for the Lord so that each week, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the gathered church will once again encounter the Lamb of God, Jesus, who takes away the sin of the world.


by The Rev. Heidi Kinner, Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham

Homily delivered at the 2008 Diocesan Altar Guild Festival in Alabama



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