Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Get Up—A Sermon Decidedly Not About Sheep

 Acts 9:36-43
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

We didn’t read the psalm assigned for today, Psalm 23, the Lord is My Shepherd, so you may not have been clued in that this set of texts qualifies as this year’s “Good Shepherd Sunday” lectionary. [You may have noticed that we sang Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us at the beginning, yeah?]

There are a handful of stories that Jesus tells about sheep, and so we have this week every year where we read one or two and then all preachers have to somehow figure out a way to tell people that they are or are not sheep, and that this is good news! Aside from the fact that I definitely befriended a sheep at the petting zoo on Picnic Day, I don’t really know a whole lot about them, and I don’t imagine that you do, either. [Unless, of course, sheep were under your care in FFA, Kenton.]

The interesting thing about this sheepy text is that it is paired with one of the most interesting and underrated stories in the whole New Testament. [Were you listening carefully during the reading from Acts?]

The story goes that in Judea, there was a coastal town called Joppa, and in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha. She was devoted to good works and to acts of charity. She became ill and died. Peter was nearby, in Lydda, so they sent for him right away. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Tabitha had made while she was with them.

This would be a lovely story of one of the first followers of Jesus, even if it ended here. Tabitha was devoted to good works and to acts of charity. Her fellow widows and dearest friends were devastated at her death. They celebrated her life among them by sharing with Peter the tangible proof of all that that she had given to them when she was alive. This is all that we know for certain about Tabitha. This is, to my knowledge, the only story about her. We know, from its few verses, that she was well-loved and a devoted disciple. Tabitha sounds to me like a classic church lady.

How many of you can think of someone from your home parish, or the parish you attend here in Davis, or the parish you work at, that you think resembles Tabitha? A sweet, kind woman who knits or sews or whatever the textile project of choice is in your congregation, and everyone loves her. And she’s like maybe 1000 years old. Okay, so picture her playing the role of Tabitha. When she dies, people will come to talk about the ways that she made their life better, and show off the quilt she made them when they went away to college. She’s a really nice lady.

But Tabitha’s story is not in our scripture because she was a really nice lady. Her story is in our scripture because Peter was called out to Joppa to resurrect her.

In this season of Easter, we have recently heard a pretty big resurrection story. And we often hear of another, the raising of Lazarus, which is important, too. But here, tucked away into the 9th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is the quick, quiet story of that time Peter raised Tabitha from the dead.

Did you know this story before today? Did you know there was a woman so devoted to the Christian life that St. Peter himself drew upon the power of God to bring her back to life?

Maybe our dearest Catholic brothers and sisters in the room are more familiar with her, as she is sometimes referred to as Saint Tabitha; the very unthorough google search I did of her was inconclusive as to whether or not she is, in fact, a saint. My main man Martin Luther, though, would certainly call her one. One of the most memorable things Marty left to us was the notion that each one of us is simultaneously saint and sinner.

I think that’s so helpful for us, living in a world of black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, Republican and Democrat. It is possible—it is necessary!—that we understand ourselves to be more than just one thing.

We can be all the things that we feel we are, all the time. We can be happy about something while being sad about something else. We can be excited about the future and worried about it at the same time. We can be grateful for the relationships that we have, and long for the ones that we don’t. We can be pretty confident right now, and have some doubts tomorrow. We can be kind in one minute, and snap at someone the next. None of these things make us only a good or only a bad person.

Like Sirius Black once said to Harry Potter, “the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters. We've all got both light and dark inside us.” He goes on to say that it only matters which we act on. That’s true, except we act on the light and the dark inside us, all the time. There’s no switch to flip. And that’s okay!

That’s sort of how grace works. We are beloved children of God, no matter what. Because we know that we are beloved, we are more able to act on the goodness we know to be somewhere in there. But we’re not completely sin-free, and we never will be. God knows that. God’s love is beyond that. Because Jesus lived, died, and lived again, we know that God has power over all the things that our world can throw at us.

There’s an awesomely bad hymn that I grew up singing called Every Morning is Easter Morning. Do you know it? I like it because it sounds like Jesus was resurrected to star in a Broadway musical. Hear me out:

Every morning is Easter morning, from now on!
Every day’s resurrection day—the past is over and gone!
Goodbye guilt, goodbye fear—good riddance!
Hello Lord, hello sun!
I am one of the Easter people; my new life has begun!

It helps if you pretend to tap dance while you sing it. Okay, so, this song is like as cheesy as it is possible to be, right? Welcome to church music in the 1970s, I guess. Cheesiness notwithstanding, the lyrics of this song are right on. Every new day,  you are alive. Every new day, you are free. Every new day, you are so beloved by God, that the Holy Spirit is at work in you—as she was in Peter and in Tabitha—to show the world that they, too, can be alive and well. As the Easter people, you are literally shining examples of the love of God through Jesus. The powers of this world—fear, oppression, death—do not have the final say. God has the power to breathe new life into all of us. 

Our world has a habit of knocking people down. But like Peter said to Tabitha, God says to you, so simply, “get up.”

Because Jesus is risen, and Tabitha is risen, you, too, are risen. Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Verb My Nouns—A Sermon for Episcopal Service Corps Program Directors

I preached this sermon to my dearest colleagues, the Episcopal Service Corps Program Directors, at our spring meeting.

Acts 9:1-20
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

At the Belfry, where I routinely preach on Wednesday nights, we use the lectionary from the Sunday prior. Since there are no assigned texts for today in the daily lectionary, I was told I could choose. As an enneagram type six, my deep commitment to the authority of the lectionary—and anxiety about the near-infinite options—led me to just stick with what I know. My, uh, fairly insincere apologies to all y’all who have heard this scripture and a sermon on it already this weekend. At least once. You’re about to hear about it from me, now. You’re welcome.

Okay. So. I self-identify as a word nerd. It’s just too perfect that it rhymes. So, I noticed, as I was reading the texts for the first time, that they all have something in common, grammatically. Each pericope begins with a conjunctive adverb! Pause for enthusiastic response…

In the Acts of the Apostles, it is written, Meanwhile
In the Revelation of John, it is written, Then
In the Gospel According to John, it is written, After

So, in all three of these stories, we’re jumping into the middle of something. Something has happened before we’re involved, or something is happening simultaneously somewhere else, and now we’re just in the thick of it.

How true is it that we are, here and now, in the thick of the story of God? There are thousands of years of human history behind us, and untold myriads ahead. Any time we open the Bible, we’re being invited to participate in a story that already exists, and helping to write the story of the kingdom which is not yet.

Those of you who are my friends on various social media platforms may be tired of hearing about all of the podcasts that I listen to. Again, fairly insincere apologies. I was recently listening to some old episodes of On Being with Krista Tippet. She has the most classic public radio voice, right? Anyway, a couple of years ago, she was interviewing a man named Gordon Hempton, whose profession is as an “auditory ecologist.” He, admittedly, made up that title. But what Gordon does is travel the world, listening. He records the sounds of natural and human-made ecosystems, preserving the most pristine places through their landscapes of sound.

He talked about the importance of hearing for life. He said that there is no animal, that we know of, that has evolved a way to “turn off” the sense of hearing. No creature with ears has evolved a way to shut them, like we have our eyes. You may think that you can shut your ears off, like when you’re asleep. But there’s a biological reason that alarm clocks work. And that strange noises in your dark house creep you out. Your ears are always on the job.

Hearing is in all three of our texts today. The revelator heard every creature in heaven and on earth, singing; Saul and Ananais heard the voice of the Lord; Simon Peter heard the voice of his fellow disciple. And the Lord called Saul, Ananais, and Simon Peter by name. God is always speaking, so it’s a good thing that we are, technically, always hearing.

But this is where we get to dive into the semantic difference between hearing and listening. In this gospel story, Jesus and a handful of disciples have breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee. I bet there’s a reason why this author calls it by this less familiar name, but, it beats me. This was a place the disciples had been, before. When Peter said, “hey, guys, I’m going fishing,” and they joined him, I doubt there was a discussion of where to go. Probably an autopilot journey to where their boat was already docked. Since nothing about the last few weeks of their lives together had been very routine, a trip to their regular fishing spot would feel normalizing, comforting. As usual, it ends up being anything but.

We, readers of the Gospels are accustomed to Jesus waxing poetic, launching into parables with complex storylines or hard-to-decipher allegories. This time, Jesus enters the story with a simple yes-or-no question. He helps the disciples with an abundant catch--153 fish, as the story goes--and feeds them breakfast. He exchanges several lines of dialogue with Simon Peter, again, with the yes-or-no questions, and simple, declarative sentences. “Do you love me?” He asks, three times. Hearing “yes”, he says “feed my lambs”, “tend my sheep”, “feed my sheep”, “follow me”.  Simple instructions.

And so here ends the story, here ends the sermon, right? Just listen to those instructions, and then do ‘em. You wish you could be so lucky.

When Amity asked me if I’d preach today, I was like, “Oh, man, preaching to priests! I have to dig out all my best theological textbooks and explicate some really complex points where Lutherans and Episcopalians diverge!” And then I started reading, and writing, and hearing, and listening. And I remembered who you are. When you read these texts, and you hear these words of Jesus, you probably get out your to-do list and add “feed sheep” and “follow Jesus” to the very bottom, and then hope no one has noticed you just transfer them to next week’s to-do list…

And then in your sermon, you listed all of the sheep in our world that need tending and feeding. You listed all the ways in which we are not following Jesus. You challenged your congregation to do more feeding, more tending, more following. And you vowed to feed and tend them better, to follow Jesus better. Then you looked at that to-do list again.

Since you are an Episcopal Service Corps Program Director and/or Board Member and/or Executive Director, you have already done a good job of listening to these simple instructions. Helping to shepherd young adults through their journeys of faith and their searches for justice and their personal development is no small feat. I am routinely surprised by how many trips to Costco it takes to tend my particular flock.

Day in and day out you are tending. You are feeding. You are following. During recruitment, you’re even fishing. In doing all of this, you are inspiring and encouraging the young adults you serve to do the same. They’ll move through this year with varying degrees of success, having heard you--and maybe even listened--when you spoke. They’ll remember the ways in which you tended and fed. They’ll remember the ways in which you led by following.

As we sit in this particular time and place, we are in the thick of the story of God and we are in the thick of the story of Episcopal Service Corps. As we transition into a new era of Executive Directorship, we are grateful for the ways in which we have been tended and fed by Amity. As we celebrate the blessings in our programs, and lament the maybe less-than-stellar recruitment numbers, we are grateful to be part of a larger story.

As we go forward, together, keep up the good work. Feed, tend. But remember to also be fed, and be tended. Inasmuch as you are a shepherd, you are a sheep. And for that, thanks be to God.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Reach Out and Touch Faith—A Sermon on Thomas' Own, Personal Jesus

Acts 5:27-32
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

My friend Emily preached a sermon this week about Thomas, like everyone did who follows the Revised Common Lectionary. She said the usual things that we say about Thomas: he’s not there with the other disciples, he doubts that Jesus has risen, he demands to touch Jesus’ wounds, he gets the opportunity to do so, he believes, he proclaims. What a story, right?

I just love our friend Thomas, who was not convinced that his Savior was risen. His friends, the other disciples, are calling and responding—Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!—just as we have done…and yet Thomas is unsure. He has heard from people he trusts that this is the truth—Jesus the Christ is risen today! Hallelujah!

But Thomas thinks for a moment and says, “I don’t know, y’all. You saw him? I wish I could see him. I’d like to touch his wounds and hear his voice—as you have done—so that I may say, without a doubt, that he is risen.”

And that’s not really too much to ask, is it? The other disciples have seen and touched and heard, shouldn’t Thomas be afforded the same? The reason I brought up Emily’s sermon, is because of what she noticed about Thomas’ uncertainty. Emily is convinced that our friend Thomas was blind. “Thomas,” Emily says, “is [often] called the twin [in scripture]—perhaps because he is usually accompanied by someone to help him navigate busy, bustling streets.” Thomas has navigated the world with someone always by his side. Perhaps, sometimes, it was Jesus who guided him around corners and through crowds. But now, with Jesus gone, and his friends locked in the upper room, terrified, Thomas is, suddenly, out in the world alone.

Just a week earlier, Thomas had stood by and listened, helpless, like the rest of the disciples, as the empire crucified Jesus. Murdered this man who was his teacher, his friend, his Lord. We talk a lot about the trauma of crucifixion for the ones being crucified, certainly, but what about the witnesses? What about the trauma suffered by the disciples and their mothers? It is unlikely that in one week’s time Thomas has forgotten the sound of the nails being hammered into the flesh and wood, or the jeers of the crowd there, witnessing the same horrific scene, but mocking the life and death of Jesus. Thomas and his friends will not easily forget. Trauma like that will haunt their waking and their sleeping for a while yet.

And a week is no time to have grieved the loss of Jesus, either. Thomas may very well still be coming to terms with the idea that all of it even happened. Weren’t they just traveling the Palestinian countryside together, the whole community, a few weeks ago? Weren’t they just riding haphazardly on donkeys in to Jerusalem? Wasn’t Jesus just here?

Everything has been ruined. The man who was supposed to bring about the kingdom of God has been wrenched from their grasp. They’ve been thrown into darkness.

With all this rattling around in his mind, what does it feel like to hear the other disciples proclaim that Jesus is risen from the dead? “‘We have seen the Lord!’ they teasingly announce to the one whose eyes do not see, the one who was not there, the one who faced his own fear outside their safely locked room.”

Thomas has been told that Jesus is not dead—Jesus is alive! He was here! But Thomas is sure that, last week, they told him Jesus had died. Was that real? Did that happen? Was it not Jesus whose face he’d cradled in a final goodbye? Was it not Jesus nailed to the cross, after all? Was this all some kind of trick? Or, what if the disciples are mistaken? What if it is an impostor claiming to be their Lord? Thomas needs to touch this man who claims to be the risen Christ and touch those wounds. This is important. Thomas does not ask that Jesus perform a miracle. Thomas does not ask that Jesus break bread with them. Thomas wants to touch the wounds—Thomas wants to know that the resurrected Jesus continues to be the crucified Jesus. That all of it was real. That Thomas did witness his friend die, and that that friend who really did die is really now raised.

And as he has always done, Jesus appears at just the right time. Jesus knows what Thomas needs. “Put your finger here and see my hands,” Jesus says. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” And so, in touching the familiar hands of his friend, Thomas recognizes the resurrected Jesus—the one whose torture and death he had witnessed just two weeks before. It was true, what his friends had said! He is risen! Thomas recognized him, exclaiming “My Lord and My God!”

Now, I don’t know if Emily is right about Thomas’ eyesight. But she’s right about his faith. Thomas’ understanding of Jesus, of the power of God, of the movement of the Spirit, was not based on his ability to see and interpret and rationalize. Thomas knew that the Christian life was about reaching out a hand, experiencing human brokenness, and believing in that connection.

It’s okay if you’re not convinced that Jesus was dead and is now alive. You didn’t see it happen. A good way, I think—and Thomas would probably agree—to investigate, is to reach out. Look around, as you are able, and see the human brokenness all around us. Reach out. Take a risk. Make a connection with someone you’re unsure about. Open your scared, vulnerable self, so that someone might reach out to you. 

We are not eyewitnesses of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. But we are, daily, reaching out and touching the wounds of the world. And the healing that is happening in Christian communities where people are not afraid, that’s where I’m convinced. That out of death, we are surprised by life. That out of sorrow, we are surprised by joy. That out of fear, we are surprised by courage.

We are the body of Christ. Broken and made whole.

Dying, he destroyed our death. Rising, he restored our life. The Lord Jesus comes in glory. Amen.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Work — A Sermon on the Women of Easter

Isaiah 65:17-25
Luke 24:1-12

Grace and peace from God our creator,  hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you always.

Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

Happy Easter, dear ones!  He who was once dead is alive again! We who were once dead are alive again! Thanks be to God!

But let's step back a second. When we were last here together it was Lent. We were still in the dark.  Y'all went on spring break, and some of us spent some of Holy Week together.  I felt like it was a huge bummer that we didn't get to have Holy Week here together at the Belfry.  We sort of leapt from Lent to Easter, without the all-important Triduum in between. And I think there's something really special about those three days. There is of course a reason why we call it Holy Week. There is, of course, a reason why every church across the world celebrates, in some fashion, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. This year I was particularly moved by Holy Saturday. And this year's Easter scripture still sort of sits in that Holy Saturday place of unknowing.

Let me try to explain.  We don't have to try very hard to imagine the experience that the disciples had on Friday. We get a really good idea from the story about the pain of that day. We get vivid description of the action that happens between Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death.  It's chaos. And all the gospels tell us about the Easter Sunday morning event. But what was happening on Saturday? On Saturday, Jesus was dead in the tomb.  On Saturday, everyone wept. On Saturday, everyone grieved. On Saturday everyone wondered, “what's next?” On Saturday, everyone doubted.

Except, it seems, these women. The story tells us that “on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” Because it was the Sabbath they probably didn't prepare them on Saturday,  but they probably prepared to prepare them. On Saturday, the women busied themselves with what funeral practices, what rituals, still needed to be performed. On Saturday the women mourned the loss of their friend, their teacher, their son,  by doing what women often do—the dirty work.

It is often the women in our communities who go about these behind-the-scenes activities that hold our communities together.  In the midst of the confusion and terror of Jesus’ friends and family members, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women are mixing spices. They're mixing spices to take with them back to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body, because that is what Jewish women did when someone beloved died. They couldn't be sure of much in that time of turmoil, but they could be sure that their rituals were meaningful and necessary. So they mixed spices. And then they went.

But when they went inside the tomb, they did not find the body of Jesus.

Can you even imagine?

They’ve made this arduous trek, in the dark, alone. “The women who went to the grave of their beloved friend that Easter morning had done so at great risk to themselves. For it was the grave of a convicted political criminal. Guards stood watch, ready to report the identities of those who dared expose themselves as his supporters.”[1]

When they arrived, the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. Imagine their panic. Imagine their heartbreak. Imagine their distress.

Lo and behold, “while they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground,  but the men said to them,  ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen’” (Luke 24:4-5).

With all the trauma and chaos of the last 48 hours of their lives, it surprises me, and it doesn’t surprise me, that these women hear this and trust it. They hear this and trust it enough to go running home to the rest of their friends and family and proclaim it as true.

When the women returned to where the rest of the apostles were hiding and told them of the wonder that they had just witnessed,  they were met with rolled eyes and disbelief. Their words were taken as an “idle tale”, it says. [Quick aside: the testimony of women was not admissible in court during this time; this is why we have Peter running to the tomb as well, so that he could stand as witness.]

But, “it strikes me that the courage of those women is the first sign of a resurrection faith on that morning, even before an empty tomb is discovered,”[2] and the words “He is risen!” have been uttered.

These women are the Easter people. And so, too, are we. Hear this, and trust me: Jesus the Christ is risen.

In the days following Jesus’ resurrection, “[the apostles] saw him, received messages from him, and were different because of it.”[3] In these days following our celebration of Easter—for the season of Easter is 50 days long—where will you see the Risen Christ?  how will you be different because of it?  how will you explain to people still incredulous this fantastic story you know to be true?

Though you may be hung up on the mechanics and the biology of it all, do not let the historicity of the Resurrection be the first and last question you ask. “Jesus's resurrection is an event that is ultimately beyond the confines of our ability to understand or reason. As mystery, the only way we can hope to ‘get’ the resurrection is to live it. The empty tomb is thus not an ending, but a beginning, an invitation to each of us to birth and rebirth the Divine in the confines of our own lives and histories.”[4]

As the Easter people we have work to do. “Easter people refuse to give in to the powers of darkness and death; they persevere against the seemingly overwhelming odds.”[5] As you and I are the Easter people, we must continue the ministry that Jesus handed over to the apostle—the word apostle meaning “one who is sent”.  So as they were sent, you are sent. To preach good news to the poor, liberation to the oppressed, freedom to the captive, life to the dead.

“Then and now powers and principalities to say no to resistance but God says yes to life. Death does not have the last word. Each new Christian generation has Easter experiences that demand the absurd proclamation, ‘He is alive!’”[6]

Each week when we commune together,  we say some ritually important words.  Some liturgies ask us to proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. So as we live into this season of Easter,  let us boldly proclaim it so.  Let us live in the resurrection as we have been freed to live.  Let us tell the story of God-with-us.  

Christ is risen! Hallelujah!

Monday, March 21, 2016

I happened to be driving.

On the 80 today, the driver of a white pickup truck gave me the finger as he passed. I wish I meant a thumbs up, but obviously I don't.

I assume that he did so because of the bumper stickers adhered to the back of my car. 

They express a lot of opinions in a kind of similar wheelhouse, I think, being that that wheelhouse is mine. 

Mostly they have to do with love, I think.

And so it always surprises me when people respond the way that this man has. This is not the first time this has happened, and likely won't be the last. 

I'm lucky (I was going to say he is lucky, but, truly, I am lucky) that this happened while I was listening to an old On Being episode in which Krista is interviewing Mary Oliver. You know, the poet? I've gushed about her work before

She was telling me about poetry being a "life-cherishing force" and, because of that, I am responding to his action with this, instead of anything rude or hateful in return.

Right before he passed me, she had just read "I Happened to be Standing", a poem in which she notices the sounds of prayer in the wild. And so I am going to cherish life today and focus not on him, in particular, ever again, but rather listen to prayer in the wild and pray in my natural habitat.

Because that's what Mary Oliver would have me do. Mary Oliver would not have me hold any number of fingers in the air, unless they are holding a pen.