The Seventh Sunday of Easter 2021: A Sermon

Lessons

In eight days we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, and already today’s readings are setting us up for it. The reading from Acts picks up from Thursday’s Ascension Day reading, and brings us to the end of the 1st chapter; chapter 2 opens on the Day of Pentecost. The Gospel narrates the heart of Jesus’ prayer for the disciples: Protect them! Sanctify them (Make them holy)! And the Father’s response to that prayer is chiefly in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

To appreciate what’s going on in Jesus’ prayer, recall the scene toward the start of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers in which Gandalf the wizard and Pippin the hobbit are in conversation: “Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for, the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth” (1965, 34).

“[A] great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.” Something like that same combination of care, sorrow, and joy is present, I suspect, in Jesus’ face and certainly in his words. Here he is, hours away from Judas’ betrayal and the tender mercies of the Roman garrison, talking about “my joy made complete in themselves.”

The joy is intimately connected to God’s Name: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” Now that’s odd: they didn’t know God’s name? What’s going on here? It turns out that Jesus making God’s name known is multi-dimensional, each dimension inviting us to joy.

The fundamental revelation of God’s Name up to this point occurred when God through Moses brought Israel out of slavery. In that first conversation at the burning bush, God has announced his intention to deliver Israel from Egypt, and we get this interchange:
—If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?
—I AM WHO I AM.… Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’

“I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” The most frequent form of the name was probably pronounced “Yahweh” (in some older translations, “Jehovah”). In its abbreviated form it’s the ‘Jah’ in ‘Hallelujah’. Whatever the form, the Israelites learn the meaning of this Name in God’s actions for their liberation. They start out slaves; they end up free; that’s what ‘I am’ means. And periodically in the Old Testament we encounter this I AM again, particularly in the Greek translation with which Jesus and the NT writers —specifically John— would have been familiar:

  • See now that I AM. There is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand. (Deuteronomy 32:39; my translation)
  • You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I AM. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. (Isaiah 43:10; my translation)

In the Gospel according to John, Jesus takes up this name “I AM” in a whole series of statements:

  • Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (6:35)
  • Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (8:12)
  • So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” (10:7)
  • “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (10:11)
  • Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…” (11:25)
  • Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6)
  • “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” (15:1)

And in case we’re thinking “well, talk is cheap,” recall that Jesus says “I am the bread of life” after the feeding of the 5,000, “I am the light of the world” after giving sight to the blind, and “I am the resurrection and the life” just before calling Lazarus out of the tomb.

Nor did “I AM” always come with a predicate. Recall Jesus’ “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” (John 8:58 NAB). Again, when the disciples in a small boat in the middle of a big storm cry out in fear as they see Jesus walking towards them over the sea, Jesus responds, “I AM; do not be afraid” (John 6:20 my translation).

Yes, Jesus has made the Name known to the disciples. Jesus’ actions, Jesus’ words, Jesus’ very being have taken that divine name revealed to Moses to a whole new level. The Israelites were filled with joy when finally out of the Egyptian army’s clutches; as we remember the liberation God has accomplished for us through Jesus, a greater joy can be ours.

There is a second dimension to this “I have made your name known.” The first is the presence and power of “I AM;” the second is Jesus’ distinctive use of “Abba,” the Aramaic word children typically used to address their fathers. We have no evidence of Jesus’ contemporaries using the word to address God; it probably would have seemed far too intimate. Most of the time the Gospels translate it into Greek. Its one appearance in the Gospels during Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane —“Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mk 14.36)— is a window on Jesus’ customary usage. And the intimacy with God Jesus experienced —evident also through today’s Gospel text—is offered to the disciples. Here are the other two appearances in the New Testament:

  • For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15 NAB)
  • And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6 NRSV)

So Jesus making God’s Name known to the disciples isn’t simply about giving them —us— information, but about inviting us to participate ever more deeply in God, God our Abba, God the “I AM” who can bring out of any situation life, freedom, and joy.

There is a third dimension to this “I have made your name known.” Jesus sends us out into the world to baptize in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. By the end of the New Testament, that is clearly the Name of God that Jesus has made known to the disciples. Our God, not a monolithic unity, but a community of love and joy into which we are invited to enter. Who is the God in whose presence we live? A loving Father, whose two arms, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, are constantly extended to strengthen, guide, embrace us. “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

You see, today’s Gospel text is pretty dense. I have tried to go for the core, the many ways Jesus has been revealing God’s Name —God’s reality, God’s character— to the disciples. Grasp this, and the rest falls into place: the deep gratitude in Jesus’ words, the awareness that all that he has is gift, Jesus’ trust in his Father’s continued care for the disciples, and the sense of passing the baton: You sent me into the world; I am sending them into the world. The world —the many ways we organize ourselves to shut out God— will do its worst, but will not succeed, any more than closing your eyes real tight, clenching your fists, and wishing real hard will keep the sun from coming up.

But all that falls into place only if we start with God. “I have made your name known…” Jesus said. Do not settle for anything less here. Do not get sidetracked. Life is too short to settle for anything less than “great joy, a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing.”

The Sixth Sunday of Easter 2021: A Sermon

Lessons

The first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Gentiles —Romans, mostly— while Peter was still preaching. And with that all the parts of Jesus’ commission and promise “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” begin to be fulfilled. For once this still very Jewish Church crosses the enormous cultural hurdles to preach to the Gentiles it’s a relatively short step to the ends of the earth. Once the doors are open to the Gentiles, it doesn’t matter much if they’re in Samaria, Salzburg, or Sun Prairie. “And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” indeed.

If we ask about the motor for that victory, there are two obvious answers. The first is the Holy Spirit. Who else but God’s Spirit could have given the apostles the backbone to stand before the Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire? But the second equally obvious answer is the love that has been the constant theme in our readings these past weeks. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And in another context Jesus said “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you…have love for one another.” All the things that Jesus could have said but didn’t: “if you have flawless theology; if you are without sin; if you…” Well, we might as well segue into Paul’s paean to love in 1st Corinthians: “if you speak with the tongues of angels and men…” Nope: “if you have love for one another.”

I thought very briefly about organizing this homily around the question “What does the Bible say about loving one another?” Then I quickly realized that that was absurd, because you wouldn’t be far wrong if you said that on the whole the Bible is about nothing else than loving God and loving one’s neighbor. So “What does the Bible say about loving one another?” would be a very long homily. Better, it’s something we spend our entire lives learning.

So the question pretty quickly became What might I say that would be useful to us here and now about “love one another”? Here are four themes to chew on: confession, generosity, no-fault, and forgiveness.

Confession. “Love one another” doesn’t get very far unless we’re willing to acknowledge ourselves as serious sinners. If my own experience is an indication, we’re ready to admit we’re sinners, but not serious sinners —that’s other folk. Years before I got married a friend described marriage as the ideal context for discovering the depth of one’s selfishness. He was right. And in the first years of marriage the times I came closest to throwing in the towel were the times in which my choices were to flee or acknowledge to myself just how selfish I was being. To which the Christian tradition with exquisite pastoral sensitivity says “Well, duh! What did you think Jesus died for, your parking tickets? So repent & learn how to love this woman.” How often do we walk away from each other because the relationship is an occasion of unwelcome self-knowledge?

Generosity. “Love one another” is about —to steal from St Paul— hoping all things, believing all things. St. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises put in best: “it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.”

So when we find ourselves mentally mapping a conflict in a way that puts the others entirely in the wrong and us entirely in the right, all the warning bells should be going off, first because we are offending against charity regarding the others, and secondly because this mapping blinds us to our own sinfulness. The sad thing about this is that all of us have been working hard since kindergarten at getting good at this sort of mapping, and by puberty it’s mostly instinctive. As with the barbarian hordes, so with us: following Jesus means laying down weapons that we’ve gotten very good at using.

No-fault. “Love one another” is pretty much a no-fault policy. That’s the point of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Again, notice what he doesn’t say: not “if you remember that your brother or sister did something bad to you” or “if you remember that you did something bad to your brother or sister” but simply “if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you.” If the relationship’s broken, that’s the trigger, and whose “fault” it is…is irrelevant. What relationships need some TLC?

Forgiveness. “Love one another” is about forgiveness. The stakes here couldn’t be higher. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” I don’t know of anything harder than forgiveness, whether of others or of ourselves. Many times the best we can do is to pray for a little more openness to forgiveness.

And when it comes to forgiveness we need to be careful not to cut corners. People say: well, I forgive him, but see if I’ll trust/respect/talk to him again. That doesn’t work, and here’s why. It’s not simply that Jesus ties us forgiving others and God forgiving us together. It’s that the way we imagine God forgiving us is linked to how we forgive others. And God’s forgiveness is reckless and extravagant. The prodigal son gets new robes, the fattened calf, and a seat at the head table. The Epistles repeatedly celebrate our boldness and freedom of access to God’s presence. “[You have] made us worthy to stand before you” says one of the Eucharistic prayers. And this is the way we’re to forgive. It is an integral part of the freedom Jesus has won for us. The flip side: if we persist in forgiving at arm’s length (“I forgive you, but…”) we should not be surprised if we wake up one morning and discover that our image of God looks less like the prodigal’s father and more like the prodigal’s elder brother: well, you’re back, but don’t you dare make yourself at home.

“Love one another” It’s about being willing to learn the depth of our brokenness. It’s about putting the best interpretation possible on the conduct of our brothers and sisters.  It’s no-fault. It’s about forgiving as God forgives us: recklessly, extravagantly.

Let me leave you with a final image. Football games are usually won or lost in the trenches, the hard away-from-the-cameras work. It doesn’t matter who’s playing quarterback for the Packers if by the time he gets the ball the backfield is filled with guys wearing the wrong color jersey.

Loving each other when us each others are hard to love is that work in the trenches. There’s no glamour to it, but it wins games —and our Lord is out to win the world. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The Fifth Sunday of Easter: A Sermon

Lessons

There are many things we might wonder about in today’s Gospel. I’ve found myself wondering about two in particular, and these serve as the backbone for the sermon. First, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” What does ‘abide’ mean? What does it look like? Second, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” What’s the fruit Jesus is talking about?

“Abide.” If we’d read a little further in the Gospel we’d have heard “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (v.10). And then “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (v.12). It sounds like “abide” points to life in a community that includes Jesus and the disciples and—as we’ll see—the Father and the Spirit, which is so characterized by love that the author of the epistle can say flatly “God is love.”

The epistle—the Dummy’s guide to the Gospel—focuses on this love. What does it want to say? First, that the starting point is God’s love for us. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” That’s the starting point, the starting point of our history, the starting point for each day. Each day I awake to the world in which God showed his love by sending Jesus to give us life.

This is where the author focuses; he could equally have focused on God’s love shown in creation. And this love is so immediate that it’s easy not to notice it. Let’s try this: please shut your eyes. Pay attention to your breathing: inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling. Every breath: pure gift. Now open your eyes. There’s light, another great gift. We exist in a world saturated with God’s generosity, God’s love.

“Beloved, let us love one another,” because that’s the response that fits with our reality. Anything else is a fruitless and usually painful exercise in forcing a square peg into a round hole.

Just past the end of our Gospel reading Jesus says “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” And this reminds us that Jesus’ life is our clearest picture of what love looks like. Recall Jesus’ self-description that we heard last week: Jesus the Good Shepherd, tender with the sheep, but not pretending that the wolves are other than wolves. The good news: we don’t have to stay wolves.

“Beloved, let us love one another.” Why do we find that so difficult? We live in a world saturated with God’s love, but it’s also a world in rebellion against God, so it’s very hard not to learn from a very early age that it’s everyone for themselves. Money, power, status: whatever I think I need to stay safe: I’m going to hold that tight. That limits the love I can risk.

It’s something like that story of the guy hiking in the mountains. His foot slips and he goes off the edge of the trail, just managing to grab a root to halt what would be a very long descent. He cries for help. A voice that could only be divine responds “I’m here and will help you…Let go of the root.” The guy thinks for a long moment and then responds “Is anyone else up there?”

We’re fearful folk, living in a world that encourages us to tell ourselves stories that don’t start with God and don’t end with God. As long as I’m holding onto that root—whatever it is that I think assures my security—my hand can’t reach out to my neighbor. Happily, working at “love one another” makes it easier to remember to tell ourselves stories that are true.

Before I move on, here’s another take on love from Thomas Merton: “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

“Abide in me as I abide in you.”

“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” What’s the fruit Jesus is talking about? At the start of our reading we hear “I am the true vine.” Throughout the Old Testament the vine is a symbol for Israel, perhaps most importantly in Isaiah’s parable:

1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

And a few verses later:

7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry!

Justice and righteousness: Isaiah’s shorthand for a healthy community, a community—recalling Jesus’ summary of the law—characterized by love of God and neighbor. Since Jesus is constantly playing off images in his Scripture (our “Old Testament”) I think this is what the fruit is about: a community of love. A community, therefore, with open borders, receiving with open arms folk like the Ethiopian eunuch Philip received in the reading from Acts.

Philip, by the way, is the Deacon Philip, not the Apostle Philip (see Acts 8:1). Deacons often do far more than their job description would suggest. And this portrait of Philip, opening his heart and Scripture to this Ethiopian isn’t a bad portrait of a deacon whose presence we miss today. There will, God willing, be time to give him a well-earned “thank you.” And there’s time to follow his example, opening our hearts to our neighbors. But back to the Epistle…

Love of God and neighbor. It’s so easy—fatally easy—to think that these are two separate issues. But if there’s anything our reading from the epistle wants to say, it’s that there’s no space between these two loves. Loving God and not loving the neighbor? Not simply a bad idea, but simply impossible. Or, more precisely, if I love god and don’t love my neighbor, it’s not Jesus’ God that I’m loving.

“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.”
“Beloved, let us love one another.”

The world is such that it’s easy to forget that we’re in a story that begins and ends with God’s love. Forgetful, our memories need all the help they can get. This is why the Book of Common Prayer starts with the Daily Office, an extended exercise in jogging our memory. And towards the end of that section… Please grab a copy and turn to page 136. Pages 137-140 contain short forms for the morning, noon, early evening, and the close of the day. In the coming week, notice when it’s hard to remember. See if any of these forms might be useful.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter 2021: A Sermon

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I would guess that this is the one congregation in the diocese [Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Sun Prairie WI] that does not need to be reminded of the importance of this image. A little celebration is in order.

Recall that “shepherd” is an image that works on multiple levels. In ancient Israel folk would be familiar with shepherds, and most would know first-hand the importance of good shepherds who were attentive to their sheep, gentle with the weak, strong against their predators. And not only in Israel but throughout the ancient near east rulers, whether good or evil, liked to be celebrated as good shepherds of their people.

King David had confessed “The Lord is my shepherd,” using the Name that later became too holy to be pronounced, which scholars usually vocalize as Yahweh. And here Jesus is saying not “The Lord is the good shepherd” but “I am the good shepherd.” It’s that way of speaking that pointed his followers to the confessions hammered out centuries later, such as the Nicene Creed that we’ll use later in this Mass: “very God of very God.”

And one of Ezekiel’s most profound promises of Jesus’ coming (Ezek 34) picks up the image:

“Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them– to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.”

We know this world too well. The New York Times ran an update today on CEO salaries in 2020. Some examples:

  • Norwegian Cruise Lines $36M
  • Hilton $56M
  • Paycom $211M

No wonder there’s not enough for everyone else when many at the top are incapable of saying “enough.”

Ezekiel continues in this vein for a good stretch. Then:

“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”

So that day in Jerusalem, Jesus’ “I am the good shepherd:” I imagine Ezekiel hearing it and smiling…or pumping his fist.

Jesus the good shepherd, come that we might have life, and have it abundantly: green pastures, still waters. In a world in which too many leaders point to paths that lead nowhere, offer solutions that are worse than the problem, very good news. Jesus the good shepherd: that’s an image—a promise—to hand onto. And sometimes we find ourselves hanging onto it for a good stretch.

Now, it doesn’t take going around the block many times before we wonder what this image is really promising, whether we can rely on that promise. And here David can help us. For the psalm that starts “the Lord is my shepherd” contains not only the comforting words about the green pastures and still waters, but also the business about walking through the valley of the shadow of death, There’s a table spread—but “in the presence of those who trouble me.” That sounds like David’s life. And perhaps one of the reasons we’re given such a full account of David’s life (most of the two books of Samuel) is to watch the Lord as David’s shepherd through all of it.

Near the end of the psalm: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” “Follow:” that’s perhaps one of the most regrettable translations in the entire Bible. Literally: pursue. My enemies may be fast; the Lord’s goodness and mercy are faster.

What happens if we move from David’s poetry into the prose of our lives? We know that in this life good Christian lives can end badly and painfully. This is why Paul, talking about our hope in the resurrection says “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Perhaps David pointed toward this in the last line of the psalm: “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” Death doesn’t play the last card.

But there’s another truth, equally important. John’s first letter, a sort of “Dummy’s Guide to the Gospel” spells it out: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us [that’s the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep part]—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” So the Shepherd’s action becomes a model for our action. We are taken up, as it were, into the Shepherd’s work. So yes, there’s still the valley of the shadow of death. And John’s telling us not to let any Christian walk it alone. John continues: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

“Who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Here we might return to that NYT article. It turns out that none of the virtues are stand-alone—even love. If I don’t know how to say “enough,” my capacity to love will be severely limited. That’s perhaps the most important take-away from that article: whatever the issue, am I able to say “enough”?

It’s important to notice that John isn’t an outlier. The same Gospel in which we hear “I am the good shepherd” tells of the Good Shepherd’s command to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

“Jesus, the Good Shepherd” is first about Jesus; it is immediately also about how his followers are to follow: loving “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” And it is through these followers, by the way, that Jesus does much of the shepherding: love is the lubricant that allows us to receive and give what we need from each other.

So the command to love extends only as far as the church walls? Obviously not. It focuses on “one another” because if we’re not working on that there’s little hope that we’ll be of much use to those outside the walls. If we are working on that, the walls will be no barrier.

Let’s circle back to Ezekiel:

“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”

It’s reasonably clear that the abundant life Jesus brings is about much more than the fortunes of individuals, though it’s not less than that. The Shepherd’s out to set the world right, restore our institutions so that they serve, and stop destroying. But here’s where it gets confusing. In our experience setting the world right usually involves a large army and a great deal of violence. Jesus’ strategy is different. So Jesus really isn’t trying to set the world right, but limiting himself to something more modest, something simply interior? No. He’s out to set the world right, but armies and violence don’t cut deep enough. Jesus knows this is confusing, which is why we have parables like the mustard seed: the beginnings seem laughably insignificant, but, oh, the end product.

So, yes, working on this “love each other” business, the church walls are no barrier. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matt. 13:33).

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Amen. Alleluia. Alleluia.

The Third Sunday of Easter 2021: A Sermon

Sam Kamaleson, a constant source of wisdom and encouragement at World Vision International during my years there, used to talk about the gift of Jesus’ story and our story becoming one story. That and Rowan Williams’ description of intercession as simply holding the subject of our intercession together with Jesus inspired a good bit of this sermon.

Lessons

In today’s collect—the prayer that we use to collect, to center ourselves before the Scripture readings—we prayed “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.” It turns out that that prayer captures something central to today’s readings.

In today’s Gospel Jesus lays out the disciples’ task. They are witnesses, and in God’s generosity that dovetails with the promised proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations.

That, so to speak, is the theory. Our reading from Acts gives us an example of the practice. The lectionary choses to begin the reading with Peter addressing the people, which is odd, because the people are only interested in listening to Peter because of what just happened: entering the temple, Peter had, in Jesus’ name, healed a beggar lame from birth, who is now “walking and leaping and praising God.” Had Peter not started speaking the crowd would have demanded that he give some explanation.

So what happened? Luke sets the scene: “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms.”

Now, not only in 1st century Jerusalem, but in most times and places we expect to encounter numerous beggars at the entrances to holy places. The cathedrals of Bucharest, Manila, or Santo Domingo come to mind. The beggers easily become part of the landscape, and are typically not the object of the attendees’ attention. But, the text tells us, “Peter looked intently at him.”

We might wonder if something of Jesus had rubbed off on Peter. The Gospels tell a number of stories of the disciples screening folk who want Jesus’ attention. From earlier in Luke’s Gospel: “People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it.” Jesus will have none of it: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (18:15-16). “You are my witnesses” does not mean “You are my bouncers.” And if little children, then others at the bottom of the status pyramid, even this beggar lame from birth.

So “Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.” This is Peter’s imagination at work. Despite the societal script in which beggars are simply part of the landscape, Peter’s imagination has put this beggar and Jesus into the same frame, and moments later the beggar is “walking and leaping and praising God.”

So, understandably, a crowd gathers, and that’s where our reading starts. But to start the reading there—with all due respect to the folk who put these reading schedules together—is to miss the point. The witness with which Jesus entrusts the disciples begins not with Peter addressing the crowd, but with Peter’s imagination, with Peter’s mental map. Two elements, Jesus and the beggar, which could easily have stayed far apart, come together, and something beautiful happens. “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.”

When we think about witness or evangelism, we often think of words. And if the standard is the eloquence of Peter or Paul… Today’s reading gives us another approach. Most days we encounter some combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Where does our imagination place Jesus in these encounters? Truth be told, sometimes our imagination has no interest in placing Jesus anywhere near these encounters—so that’s where our work starts. “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.”

There’s an interior dimension to the Acts story as well. That beggar lame from birth that so easily becomes simply part of the landscape: perhaps like parts of our lives, situations, relationships, wounds whose pain is simply part of the landscape. What happens if we put Jesus in the same frame? Unlike Peter, but like most Christians in most times and places, we may have no idea what Jesus might be able to do. But that’s where Paul gives us some encouragement. Halfway through his letter to the Ephesians: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine…” “Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work.”

The Second Sunday of Easter: A Sermon 2021

Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

Today’s Gospel tells of Jesus’ appearance on two successive Sundays. Since today correlates with that second appearance, let’s focus mostly on it. There are two surprises there. The first is that Jesus shows up again. The first appearance looked like a one-off event: Jesus gave them the promised Spirit and gave them their marching orders. But here he is.

The bigger surprise is that Thomas is present. It would have been so easy for him to be absent. Imagine: eight days of the others celebrating Easter & Thomas still observing Good Friday. Altar Guild: what liturgical color would you use to keep everyone happy? Thomas could have written them off as gullible; they could have written Thomas off as faithless.

But there they were, together. Given all the issues over which we Christians have split, whether Jesus is alive or dead sounds like it’s at the serious end of the spectrum. But there they are—together.

Why did they stay together? Perhaps simple garden-variety virtues like faithfulness, patience, humility. Perhaps Jesus having washed their feet, told them to love each other, and then all of them abandoning him in the garden: perhaps those shared experiences had something to do with it. The Evangelist doesn’t explain it; I suspect we’re supposed to wonder about it.

There’s an additional element we might consider. Recall the beginning of today’s reading, “and the doors…locked for fear of the Jews.” Particularly during Holy Week we struggle with this language because of the ways it’s been used to encourage hatred and violence directed towards the Jews. How might we better hear it? Among the various possibilities here’s one I wonder about.

Consider these elements in John’s Gospel: In the prologue we read “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” In that long dialogue with the Samaritan woman Jesus himself affirms “salvation is from the Jews.” Later, toward the end of the story of the healing of the man born blind:

Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

Being chosen (elect) and owning that identity carries its own danger: the temptation to coopt that identity, to weaponize it, to make God a prop in the unending quest for security and status. Something like this is at work in the misuse of the practice of qorban: “But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father” (Matt. 15:5).

Back to John’s prologue: “But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children” (CEB). So now those who believe are also at risk. Those who believe are now also Jesus’ “own people.” That’s Jesus’ choice, not ours. Recall Jesus’ words: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” The image of God that comes with our shared humanity involves its own dangers. Built to lower specs, we’d be far less dangerous to ourselves and those around us. How much more self-identifying as the elect!

Now, while “chosen” and “elect” are not common Episcopal self-designations, the substance is there in our worship. At baptism: “We receive you into the household of God.” At the Eucharist: “you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son.” And the line from the hymn “The Church’s one foundation:” “Elect from every nation…”

If something like this is right, then the anti-Jewish reading is disastrous not only for the Jews, but for us, blinding us to the Gospel’s clear warning. Many of John’s uses of “the Jews” carry an implicit warning: we who believe are equally vulnerable to misusing our calling. Many of John’s uses of “the Jews” reverberate with the divine pain: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

So, if we wish to paraphrase the text, we might use “the elect” in place of “the Jews,” for instance, “the doors…locked for fear of the elect.” That might keep us on our toes. That might remind us of Paul’s counsel to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

And, returning to the main thread of this sermon, an awareness of their vulnerability qua believers would not have been a bad reason to stay together during that strange week.

This choice to stay together has consequences. Consider the beginning of our reading from Acts:

32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

The whole group “of one heart and soul.” That doesn’t come out of nowhere; the decisions that led to the apostles being together that second Sunday prepared the ground. And here’s the thing: Luke moves from that to “With great power the apostles gave their testimony.” Does Luke want us to wonder about the connection between being “of one heart and soul” and the persuasive power of the testimony?

Sometimes we’re more or less comfortably among the other believers, wondering what is wrong with Thomas. Sometimes we’re channeling Thomas, wondering what is wrong with our community. In both situations today’s Gospel challenges us to hang in together: who knows how we might together encounter the risen Jesus?

Easter Sunday: A Sermon (2021)


Isaiah 25:6-9
; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; Mark 16:1-8

Alleluia. Christ is risen…

We have lost so much over the past year: friends and relatives, assets, opportunities. Our celebration today in no way minimizes or discounts this. We celebrate today because with Jesus’ resurrection the tide has turned; death doesn’t get to play the last card.

Isaiah pretty much writes the script for our celebration:

7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death forever. (“y aniquilará la muerte para siempre”)

Or from Isaiah’s contemporary, Hosea:

14 I will ransom them from the power of the grave;
I will redeem them from death:
O death, I will be thy plagues;
O grave, I will be thy destruction: (13:14 KJV)

It would have been easy for Mark the evangelist to follow this script. Instead, he gives us an Easter morning that ends with “So they [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And that, in our best and earliest manuscripts, is how his Gospel ends. What is Mark doing?

Mark is probably doing a number of things; let’s focus on one probability. Fear, because Jesus’ resurrection isn’t about returning to normal. It’s the beginning of a new creation. The women have a new and unfamiliar world to navigate—no wonder they’re afraid.

Peter’s sermon in our Acts reading helps us flesh this out. Growing up, all of Peter’s notions and dreams of God’s victory had involved the vindication of the Jews and everyone else heading for the very end of the line. But here he is in the home of Cornelius, an officer whose military has been brutally oppressing the Jews for some time: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality… [Jesus] went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil… everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Peter’s world has been thoroughly turned upside down.

This turning did not happen easily. You may recall that prior to this scene God sends Peter a private vision—repeated three times, and sends a messenger to Cornelius’ home with instructions as to how to locate and invite Peter. Peter was no more interested in having his world turned upside down than we are. But he consented, so that non-Jews like us could hear the good news.

To bring this into sharper focus, recall Conan, as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. “What is best in life? To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” In the aftermath of a hard-fought election and the failed insurrection at the Capitol in January, Conan’s words continue to echo. But if we follow Jesus (“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”) that’s not our script. That has no place in Jesus’ new creation.

The fear Mark describes shows up in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13) (“trabajen con temor y temblor en su salvación). Which world are the Philippians assuming, the dog-eat-dog world of the Empire, or God’s new creation? The tactics they’re deploying: at home in the old creation or in the new? So “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

So, by all means, let us celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. And let us remember that it’s not about getting back to normal, but about the birth of a new creation that we spend a lifetime getting used to, and in which some “fear and trembling” is not out of place.

Alleluia. The Christ is risen…

September 30 Post Script

Friends, I took a tumble off my bike a bit ago. It turns out that breaking the fall broke an arm. So ignoring the discomfort in typing is probably not prudent. I look forward to resuming these posts after a few weeks of healing.

Re the Daily Office Readings September 30 Anno Domini 2020

Photo by elCarito

The Lessons: Hosea 4:11-19; Acts 21:15-26; Luke 5:27-39

“No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”

Perhaps these are simply parables in the spirit of Ecclesiastes 3:1 (“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”); both fasting and feasting have their place. But once uttered, they’re, well, ominous. Jesus and the Pharisees, Paul and the Jerusalem leaders: studies in pouring new wine into old wineskins? “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Perhaps it’s like that poor camel and the needle’s eye: “”For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Or perhaps the tearing of the cloth/wineskins turns out to redemptive? “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19b-20).

And then just when the parables might be coming into focus, that last bit: “And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’” So it’s not a matter of old=bad, new=good. And even the tension between old and new may not be the last word.  Perhaps relevant: the brief interchange (unique to Matthew) at the end of a long series of parables: “’Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes’. And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old’” (Matt. 13:51-52).

Re the Daily Office Readings September 29 Anno Domini 2020

Holy Michael & All Angels

Quino

The Lessons: Job 38:1-7; Hebrews 1:1-14

2020 does focus the question of how to celebrate this feast. The temptation is to head directly to Ps 91:11-13 (“For he will command his angels concerning you…”), despite its role in Jesus’ temptation. And if we don’t highlight their protection? Here’s one of Mary Calvert’s prayers (from Pocket Celtic Prayers):

May the saints and angels be with me
From the top of my head
To the soles of my feet.

In the company of your saints
I would live this day;
As they lived their lives for you
So may I live this day.

With them to you I bring
My morning praise;
Heavenly chorus I would echo
In my morning praise.

Where they for ever dwell
There would I be;
In heaven to live with you
There may I be.

Or this from St. Patrick’s Breastplate:

I bind unto myself the power
of the great love of cherubim;
the sweet “Well done” in judgment hour;
the service of the seraphim;
confessors’ faith, apostles’ word,
the patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls;
all good deeds done unto the Lord,
and purity of virgin souls.