Sunday, May 21, 2017

Easter 6A

Easter 6A May 21, 2017 First of all, let me say how wonderful it is to be back with y’all today! I’d like to take a brief opportunity to thank you; I learned so much from you about how to love and be loved as a priest and her people. I continue to be deeply grateful for my time with you and for the continued friendships that have lasted over the years! Our gospel reading for today picks up right where we left off last week. Jesus is speaking to his disciples over the course of several chapters in John’s gospel that are known as the farewell discourse as Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for what is to come as they are gathered together in the Upper Room just before the Last Supper. He has just told them to not let their hearts be troubled and that he is going before them to prepare a place for them. In our reading for today, he promises that he will ask God to send them an Advocate who will be with them so that they shall not be orphaned. The King James Version actually translates it as “I will ask the Father to send you a Comforter” and he promises, “I will not leave you comfortless.” And doesn’t that sound lovely? When we, like the disciples, are faced with times of uncertainty and transition in our own lives, it is helpful to remember Jesus’s promised gift of the Holy Spirit to comfort us. I like to think of the Holy Spirit showing up, draping a nice down throw around my shoulders, giving me a cup of chamomile tea and patting me on the head and saying, “There, there, love. Everything’s going to be ok.” (maybe even with a charming British accent?) And sometimes the Holy Spirit does show up and do that. And in those times I am extremely grateful. But I have also learned that I cannot limit myself to that understanding of the Holy Spirit, because sometimes the work of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the life of the church is offered in different and unexpected ways. One of the presenters at the Preaching conference that we went to this past week, a United Methodist Bishop named Will Willimon said it this way: “Jesus promised us the Holy Spirit to teach us lessons we cannot learn on our own.” Three years ago, I was on an 8 week sabbatical in Hawaii where David was working for 10 months. Our family had a wonderful time and experienced so many unique and interesting things. One night, our friend Paul convinced both David and me to go skydiving with him and a group of our friends. (Let me just say I have no idea why I agreed to this! As most of you know, I am one of the least likely people to do agree to go skydiving. But I did.) As we went to bed the night before our skydiving trip, I lay awake for hours absolutely terrified. I lay there imagining what it was going to be like to stand in the doorway of the open side of the plane and to have to jump out into the great wide open. And I thought, “I don’t know how I’m going to do that.” But I had committed to going and didn’t want to back out. When the day finally arrived and we got all suited up for our jump, I was introduced to my tandem jumper, a very large Russian man named Viktor. As Viktor tried to make small talk with me, I think he quickly realized that a). I was absolutely terrified and b). I couldn’t talk much because I was trying not to throw up. We took off in the plane as Viktor wasis religiously checking and re-checking all the buckles and straps of our two harnesses, and all too quickly, it became our turn to go. The moment I had most feared loomed before me. I made my way to stand in the doorway of the plane thinking that there was no way I was going to be able to do this, when Viktor did something that surprised me. He shouted in my ear to sit down on the floor of the plane and dangle my legs out. I felt a certain degree of momentary relief as I followed his instructions, and the next thing I knew, I was out of the plane and hurtling through the great blue sky. Now, what I only realized later after talking to our friends was how Viktor and I actually got out of that plane. Our friends confessed how horrified they were to watch as Viktor actually threw me/us out of the airplane. And you know, as much as I like to see that lovely comforting Holy Spirit show up with a cup of tea and words of comfort, sometimes the Comforter shows up and, like Viktor, throws us out of the airplane because there is just no way we are getting out on our own. And thankfully, the Holy Spirit stays connected as we free fall for what seems like an eternity but is really only seconds and then deploys the parachute with a tremendous jerk that leads us to land (, sometimes softly, sometimes not), at our destination. How has the Holy Spirit has shown up in unexpected ways in your life or in the life of your parish during times of transition? In what ways might God be calling you to trust in the work of the Holy Spirit, as unexpected as it might be? What are the lessons that the Holy Spirit may be trying to teach you right now that you are not able to learn on your own? There are certain seasons in our lives when we are called, as followers of Jesus to wait and to watch, to open ourselves to new life that the Spirit is calling forthfor in us. These can be times of uncertainty and anxiety, but they can also be times when we grow in our faith, trusting in what another writer calls “the slow work of God.” The poet Jane Kenyon captures this openness to the unknown and the unexpected in her lovely poem Let Evening Come that I will share with you in closing. “Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon Let the light of late afternoon shine through chinks in the barn, moving up the bales as the sun moves down. Let the cricket take up chafing as a woman takes up her needles and her yarn. Let evening come. Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned in long grass. Let the stars appear and the moon disclose her silver horn. Let the fox go back to its sandy den. Let the wind die down. Let the shed go black inside. Let evening come. To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop in the oats, to air in the lung let evening come. Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Easter 5A

Easter 5A-2017 May 14, 2017 “Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’” Our lectionary crafters have given us as a gospel today on this 5th Sunday of Easter, that is the gospel reading that is most often chosen by bewildered and grieving families as they plan a loved one’s funeral. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Strangely appropriate today as we mark a very definite ending here. The context of this gospel is also important to us. This portion of John’s gospel is known as “the farewell discourse.” Jesus has told his disciples that he is going to be betrayed and handed over to die. The disciples are understandably bewildered, frightened, shocked, saddened and in denial as they hear Jesus say these words to them all gathered together in the upper room where they are about to eat their Last Supper. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jesus says this to those whom he loves because he knows that things are about to get very much worse for them before they get better. That is the nature of this life of death and resurrection that every follower of Jesus is baptized into. We see this truth writ large in the story of Stephen and the beginning of the early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem that is today’s Acts reading. Again, context is important here. Stephen has been chosen by the community of believers in Jerusalem as one of the first deacons, selected to serve the community to free up the 12 apostles to “focus on prayer and …serving the word.” Stephen and the others are selected because they are “men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” And Stephen really lives into this, the writer of Acts tells us: “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” But the leaders of the synagogue take issue with Stephen; they argue with him but cannot stand up to him, so they form a plot against Stephen. “They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses…” against him. So, standing before the council, Stephen preaches a sermon about the salvation history of the people of Israel: about Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses and the way that God worked through all of them to bring about salvation, now come to fulfillment in the person of Jesus. And Stephen’s preaching enrages the people in the council, and they take him out, and they stone him. And as devastating a blow as that must have been to the early Christians in Jerusalem, it does not end there. Stephen’s death begins a severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and all but the apostles become scattered throughout the countryside. Saul begins “ravaging the church” by going into peoples’ houses and dragging men and women off to prison. It definitely gets much worse for the church in Jerusalem. But, history tells us that this moment in time is the real beginning of the spreading of the good news beyond Jerusalem, as “those who were scattered [go about] from place to place, proclaiming the word.” It was the church father Tertullian who named this truth when we wrote, “The blood of the martyrs becomes the seed of the church.” Truly, in the pattern of death and resurrection, it often gets worse before it gets better. There’s a passage of scripture that Bishop Gray quoted at various times over the course of his Episcopate. I was thinking about it last week, and so I went searching for it. It is another way of summing up the heart of this cruciform life that we are called to, the pattern of death and resurrection that is found in all of our lives, whether we embrace it or not. The passage is from the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph, as you know, was his father’s favorite, and so his brothers sold him into slavery where all manner of indignities happened to him which culminated in him being falsely imprisoned in a foreign land. But God intervenes and positions Joseph, through the use of his special gift of interpreting dreams, in a position where Joseph is able to save an entire generation of people in Egypt and beyond from famine. At the end of the story, when Joseph and his brothers are re-united, the brothers are concerned that Joseph will enact revenge upon them for their mistreatment of him, and Joseph responds, with a clear statement of resurrection and forgiveness: “What you meant for evil, God meant for good…” We put our hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We know, even when things seem to be at their worst that God’s love is stronger than anything, even death. We trust the truth that is found in both Joseph’s and Stephen’s stories: What other people mean for evil, God can and will use for good. And we know that sometimes, things have to get worse before they can get better.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year A

4th Sunday of Easter-Year A May 7, 2017 “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” In some ways, those 11 words sum up the entirety of the gospel, of Jesus’s ministry, of his crucifixion and resurrection, and how we, his followers are called to be in this world. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” But what does it mean? For us? For our church? For our lives? For our world? “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” This heart of the good news needs to be set alongside the heart of the human condition for us to be able to understand how and why it is good news. The heart of the human condition is that each of us wants to know and believe and understand that we matter. And Jesus showed us this: We matter to God. Our deepest fear is that we do not matter. But the truth of abundant life is that each of us matters to God. You matter to God. And at some point or another, each and every one of us suffers. In that suffering, we need to know that we matter to God, that our suffering matters—God is not indifferent to it. Our readings today point to this; they reassure us of this truth of abundant life. You and your suffering matter to God: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,/ I shall fear no evil; /for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me./ You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; / you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over./ Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,/ and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.” And in the epistle: “It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” You matter to God. The other piece of Jesus’s promise of having life abundantly is to live out of a place where we know and trust that each and every one of us matters to God. So the flip side of this is really at the heart of all of our sinfulness, isn’t it? Not believing or knowing that each of us matters to God, not living like each of us matters to God, and therefore not treating other people like they matter to God. Most of the time we don’t mean to do this. We get busy. We become too preoccupied with our own lives. We don’t take the time to really listen to other people, to see other people, to try to understand what causes them to do what they do. Most of the time we don’t mean to treat people like they don’t matter. But we do. Each and every one of us. And I know when I reflect back on those times, I am deeply and truly sorry. That’s a part of being human too. Each and every one of us matters to God, and each and every one of us falls short of living into this fully, abundantly. So we forgive one another because each of us matters to God. So, if this abundant life that Jesus offers and promises us comes out of a place of knowing and acting like each of us matters to God, then how do we go about doing this better, more fully, living more abundantly? It is actually more simple that you might think. Back before I went to seminary, when I was working downtown at Stewpot, I was heavily influenced by my time spent in the daily chapel service at there, just before the noon meal. This service was open to anyone (but not required), so it was not uncommon for the congregation to be made up of other Stewpot employees like me, members of the homeless community who were coming to eat their one, sure meal of the day, elderly folk who couldn’t survive on their Social Security and came to eat a free meal to help stretch that money a little farther every month, adults with mental disabilities who lived in the area personal care homes and who were really looking for a safe community, and different members from Jackson-area churches who came to help serve the meal on that particular day—folks from law offices downtown, work-at-home moms who wanted to offer their time while their kids were at school, newly retired folks who were wrestling with finding new meaning and purpose in their lives. That chapel service was the most diverse community I have ever been a part of, truly a cross-section of humanity. And the chapel convener, a man named Don London, had an exercise that he liked to do during chapel (at least once a quarter). He would start chapel by quoting John 3:16 (the King James version): “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And he would say it again: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And then he would say, “How many ‘whosoevers’ do I have in here today?” And the regulars, who knew the drill, would raise their hands quickly. But it would take the volunteers a little bit longer to figure it out. I’d see them look around the room, and tentatively raise their own hands, claiming their status as a “whosoever” too, until a hand from every person in the room was raised. And then Don would say, “This is what you need to remember, as you get ready to go out into the world. God loves you, and I love you too. God loves you, and I love you too. Now. Turn around. Shake your neighbor’s hand. Look him or her in the eye, and say it to them. ‘God loves you, and I love you too’.” And then he would wait for us to do it. And pretty soon, it would take on a life of itself. People were not content to just tell it to their immediate neighbors in that chapel, they wanted to say it to every person in that room: “Gove loves you, and I love you too.” And what I learned from Don and those people in that chapel is that it is never too late to claim the abundant life that Jesus offers. It is never too late to begin or to begin again. It is never too late to claim for yourself that you matter to God, and to help each and every person you come into contact know and remember that truth for themselves. “God loves you, and I love you too.” Let’s try it and see what happens. Turn to your neighbor, reach out your hand, look them in the eye and say to them, “God loves you, and I love you too.” Now, get up from your seat. And go find someone who is seated somewhere else in the church. Take their hand, look them in the eye, and tell them “God loves you, and I love you too.” Now do it with five more people. Tell them that they matter to God and to you. “God loves you, and I love you too.” This is what it means to live the good news that is revealed in the Resurrected Christ. It is to live our lives as if each and every one of us matters to God. To proclaim with our very lives the good news of abundant life to a needy world, “God loves you, and I love you too.”