Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sermon; Easter 7A; Acts 1:6-14

Today is the 43rd day of Easter. This past Thursday, the 40th day of Easter, was the Feast of the Ascension. And while that feast is non-transferable, we still get readings and prayers referencing that event.

The apostles have been meeting together since the resurrection, originally trying to figure out what to do with themselves since Jesus died, but then reveling in his various appearances. For 40 days, according to Luke, the apostles spent time with Jesus putting the finishing touches on what they had learned over the past three years. But they still don't quite get it, asking, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

“Um . . .” Jesus responded, “let me think . . . No. It is not your job to worry about the restoration of kingdoms. But it IS your job to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” These are the last earthly words, according to Luke, spoken by Jesus; after which he ascended into heaven.

So here we are – the disciples have just gotten used to Jesus once again being with them when he tells them that they are to be witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth; and then . . . poof . . . up he goes. The disciples can do nothing but gaze up to the sky watching him disappear.

I don't fault them for this. Which of us would do otherwise? But there they stood, heads back, gazing and gawking up toward heaven. I wonder how long they would have stayed there like that if the angels hadn't appeared.

Luke doesn't call them angels, but they are – two men, white robes, suddenly appearing. He used roughly this same description at the tomb of Jesus when two angels appeared to the women. Anyway, these two angels come upon the apostles staring up to heaven and say, “Dudes, how long are you going to stand here like this?” This spurs them back to Jerusalem where they, and some others, devote themselves to prayer.

But that's not where this ends. If it did, the Bible would be a whole lot shorter than it is. No, this isn't where it ends, this is where it begins.

“And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

There's that word again – witness. Jesus is telling the apostles that they will be the ones to tell the story. They will be the ones to live out kingdom goals. They will be the ones to help break down walls. They will be the ones to strive for peace. They will be the ones to proclaim what Paul would eventually write – that there is no more Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ. They will be the ones to help usher in the kingdom of God.

And now this task has fallen to us. We have received power by virtue of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We are the inheritors of this mission to be witnesses for Christ in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Are you ready?

I hope so, because this is what the entire Easter season has been leading up to. Jesus wasn't resurrected from the dead just so he could perform a few extra miracles and throw some fish on the barbie. He was resurrected to give Mary the courage to be an apostle. He was resurrected to demonstrate to Thomas you don't need to touch his body to feel his presence. He was resurrected to move Peter from trinitarian denial to trinitarian love. He was resurrected to move us from passive witnesses of his life to being active witnesses of his life, death, and resurrection.

Today we are in the same place the apostles were on that Day of Ascension. It would be easy for us to simply stand around gazing in awe and wonder up to heaven. If you don't believe me, look at the high altar. I have been told by many people that they could just sit in a pew and gaze in awe and wonder at that piece of art – some to meditate and pray, some to soak in the details, some to admire its beauty. I've said the same thing myself. But, like the apostles before us, that is not what we are called to do. We are called to be witnesses for Christ.

That, you might protest, is a big job. It's so big that you may get overwhelmed by its bigness, paralyzed by the thought that there's no way we can reach to the ends of the earth. Luckily for us Jesus provides us with a blueprint for action.

The first thing we need to know is that we aren't being sent out without support. We will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us. We received that power at our baptism. We will be reminded of that power next week on the Day of Pentecost.

From there we are to be witnesses for Christ, proclaiming the good news in Hagerstown, Maryland and the Tri-State region, and to the ends of the earth.

Notice the order. Witness here first. Stay local. Stay focused. When you have figured out how to be a witness within your own community, then you can branch out into a larger area. The witness you provide will be passed from one person to another, connecting and spreading in a multitude of ways. Things we do here as witnesses can have an impact there.

We have moved to a post-resurrection, post-ascension world. Jesus has left us in charge of his mission. We are the ones to proclaim the kingdom of God is at hand. We are Christ's witnesses here, there, and everywhere. We are not called to stand in one place gazing into heaven; we are called to act.

As we move forward from here, how will you live out that commission?


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sermon; Easter 6A; John 14:15-21

On this Sixth Sunday of Easter our gospel lesson continues in John's Farewell Discourse. Why, we may ask, in this Easter season when we spend 40 days with the resurrected Christ, are we hearing pre-resurrection stories and not post-resurrection stories? I think the answer is that, like the disciples before us, we also need to be prepared to be on our own.

Last week Jesus told us that he was going to prepare a place for us in his Father's house. After that departure we are told that he and the Father will give us another Advocate. This is the Holy Spirit who, like Jesus before, is unable to be received by the world. This is the gift given to us by Jesus and the Father to ensure that we will not be abandoned and orphaned.

I want to focus on two things one of my commentaries brought up: the first is the focus of, “you,” and the second is the subject of, “witness.”

Throughout the Farewell Discourse Jesus uses the word, “you.” I go to prepare a place for you; you know the way; I will do whatever you ask in my name; if you love me, you will keep the commandments; because I live, you will live; and others.

The authors of this commentary point out that this is a plural, or corporate, you; not an individual you. Why is this important?

This is important because we are reminded that Jesus is talking to the body of believers and that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a gift for the body of believers. Neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit are private possessions of any one individual. Yes, we may be called individually each by name to Christ. Yes, we may each receive a particular gift from the Holy Spirit. But those callings and those gifts are always made in the context of community.

When Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name,” we need to understand both that this is not an individual wish granting, and we need to ensure that what we ask for aligns with the will of God. This would explain why the prayer of Janis Joplin (O Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz) isn't a valid prayer, as well as why we need to constantly measure our values and mission against God's will.

Two good examples are a person who says, “I believe God wants me to do X.” Done properly, this is checked out by the community to help discern God's call. Or our kitchen project. Are we doing it because we want something shiny to keep up with other churches? Or are we doing it as a measure of good stewardship and giving us the ability to more effectively feed people?

What we do will be supported by Christ if we do it corporately with kingdom values.

The second part of this is witness. I spoke about being a witness briefly to the kids last week, and I'll elaborate on that here. Going back to my commentary, it says that this Spirit is a gift to all disciples, witnessing to the life of Christ.

What does it mean to be a witness? One meaning is to have seen something. We witness a car accident. We witness a great performance. We witness the sacrament of baptism being administered. We witness how Christ is active and present in our midst.

Another meaning is to be the person who testifies to what has been seen.

We are all witnesses in the first sense of the word. We have all seen the face of Christ in this place, as well as the workings of the Holy Spirit. We see the face of Christ in the people who are fed at the Community Cafe. We see the face of Christ in our visitors, showing hospitality and welcoming all. We are also the face of Christ to those people when we do those things.

The Holy Spirit is present here when we love each other and respect the dignity of every human being. The Holy Spirit is present here when we correctly balance our internal desires with external needs. And when we see these things we are witnesses to the presence of God.

But we could all probably do better at being that second type of witness – the witness that testifies to what you have seen. This isn't necessarily about going door-to-door with little episcopal tracts. It isn't about standing on the street corner with a big, floppy Book of Common Prayer . . . I mean, Bible. This is about looking for opportunities to testify to the faith.

Say grace at meals with company. Tell people about our involvement with Micah's Backpack, Bester School, Community Cafe, Mayfest, and others. Know why you are here and don't be ashamed to be that witness. As our Presiding Bishop reminded us, we pray for that opportunity every Sunday: “And now, Father, send us out . . . as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.”

So here we are on this Sixth Sunday of Easter. The Feast of the Ascension and Jesus' departure is imminent. Shortly we will be on our own, trying to live the best we can into the words of Christ.

Let us remember that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to this community. Let us continually work to align our life together and the goals we set with the will of God. Let us always reflect kingdom values.

Let us remember that we witnesses the presence and workings of the Holy Spirit in this place. Let us be witnesses of Christ's presence to the world around us.

We are a community of Christ and we have much work to do.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Sermon; Easter 5A; John 14:1-14

I have been focusing on faith this Easter season. The faith of the women at the tomb. The faith of Thomas. The faith of Cleopas and the other disciple at the breaking of the bread. The faith to accept whomever Jesus calls through the gate. And today we have both a continuation of last week's gate-keeping theme as well as a statement of a mature faith.

First, the continuation of last week. In summation I pointed out that Jesus was the gatekeeper, not us. It is not incumbent upon us, therefore, to protect our church or our turf by keeping the wrong people out. Instead, we need to recognize that this is Jesus' church and those gate-keeping duties belong to him. We need to have a faith that recognizes anyone who shows up at our doors has been called by Christ. If Christ calls them, then we accept them. Do we have the faith to relinquish control of gate-keeping duties to Christ?

This theme is picked up today when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

This statement has been used over the centuries to present an exclusionary view of Christianity. People have pulled this out of context to say, “We're right, you're wrong.” Or, on a more crass and dangerous level, “Unless you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, you're going to hell because no one gets to heaven except through him.”

That, in my opinion, is a very insecure form of faith. It requires certainty. It squashes honest questioning. Unlike Thomas, it removes room for doubts. And most importantly, it usurps gate-keeping responsibilities from Jesus to ourselves.

What if, however, instead of viewing this statement as limiting and exclusionary, we viewed it as broad and expansive? What if we viewed this as a hotel?

The NRSV translates v. 2 as, “In my Father's house are many dwelling-places.” Other versions translate this as “mansions” or “rooms.” Regardless of what translation you use, the implication is that there is plenty of room with God.

When we are traveling and need a place to stay, we go to a hotel. Hotels have many rooms. Some have rooms that seem downright palatial. And we are almost never refused a room. Granted, there are situations involving conventions, illegal activities, or sudden snowstorms. But in general, to get a room two things need to happen: 1) we need to stop and ask for one; and 2) the desk clerk, the gatekeeper, needs to assign us one.

Is it possible that what Jesus is saying about no one coming to the Father except through him isn't necessarily exclusionary but is a recognition that he will assign a room to anyone who stops and asks? Instead of us putting restrictions on who's in and who's out, can we open up the hotel doors and let Jesus, desk clerk and gatekeeper extraordinaire, allow in whomever he chooses?

Is our faith secure enough to allow for that possibility?

Which brings me to my second point: that of a mature faith.

The first part of this gospel passage has Jesus discussing his departure. This passage today is part of the larger Farewell Discourse. Judas has left to betray him and he is preparing the remaining disciples for what is to come, both immediately and in the long-term. Jesus says very clearly that he will come again and will take us to himself so that we will be reunited.

An immature faith stops there. An immature faith goes no farther. An immature faith reasons that, since Jesus is coming again, we don't need to do anything. This leads to some very problematic scenarios.

If Jesus is coming, all we need to do is believe. If Jesus is coming, we don't need to worry about the environment, clean water, melting ice caps, or the depletion and extinction of species. If Jesus is coming, we don't need to care for the poor, the hungry, or the homeless because Jesus will take care of all that when he comes back. Not only is this an immature faith, but it's also an incredibly selfish way to view the world.

A mature faith, on the other hand, will not be satisfied with a one-verse theology. A mature faith will engage with scripture and examine the whole. A mature faith will look for context. A mature faith will say, “What else is there?”

Looking at the totality of this passage, a person of a mature faith will notice this: “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father.”

In other words, we are not called to remain in a holding pattern doing nothing until Jesus returns – we are called to do the works of Christ.

What are those works? First, let's not confuse miracles with works. We won't be changing water to wine, raising the dead, or walking on water. Instead, we need to look at what Christ did in his life. He refused to condemn even one caught in sin, opting for restoration instead of eradication. He worked to feed people without judging why they needed food. He healed the sick without regard to pre-existing conditions. He spoke out against an establishment that put burdens on the lowest in society while looking for ways to make life even easier for the rich and powerful. He broke down walls instead of building them. He welcomed the foreigner.

These are the works of Christ.

As we move through this Easter season, our faith is being challenged in two areas:

  1. Are we willing to see Christianity as inclusive rather than exclusive, offering a room to all who stop in and ask?
  2. Do we have a mature faith that urges us to do the works of Christ, even in the face of the same worldly opposition that he himself faced?

If we are able to do this, then we will be that much closer to seeing the kingdom of God in our midst.


Sunday, May 07, 2017

Sermon; Easter 4A; John 10:1-10

Our Easter journey of faith continues today with a pre-crucifixion story of the good shepherd. On Easter we saw the faith of the women at the tomb. Easter 2 gave us the determined faith of Thomas. Last week we heard the story of two disciples and their faith being elevated at the breaking of the bread. Today we have another faith story, that of Jesus the good shepherd.

Our Collect for today begins: “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people . . .” And the gospel passage from John certainly alludes to Jesus as the good shepherd. John records Jesus saying things like, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. The sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Add to that the words from Ps. 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and we have some powerful imagery of Jesus as the good shepherd.

Herein lies one problem with the lectionary . . . it doesn't always cover what you think it covers. How many of you heard the Collect, the Gospel, and the opening of my sermon and thought, “Oh, right, Jesus is the good shepherd?” But nowhere in today's gospel passage does Jesus refer to himself as the good shepherd. Let me read it to you again:

Re-read John 10:1-10

This is my fifth sermon on this particular Sunday (once every three years going back to 2005) and this may be the first time I have noticed this.

In this lectionary cycle, and in this particular gospel selection, Jesus is not the good shepherd – Jesus is the gate and/or the gatekeeper. In this passage, he is not the good shepherd who leads and protects the flock, he is the one through whom the sheep come in and go out. In this particular gospel selection, he is the one through whom we gain entry to salvation. I think that's significant.

As I pondered this image of Jesus as gate and gatekeeper, I struggled with how to express this new-to-me image instead of the traditional image of Jesus as good shepherd. What does it mean to see Jesus as the gate? What are the implications of Jesus as gatekeeper? And then I began to think about society in general and church in particular.

We make use of gatekeepers all the time. The role of the gatekeeper is to allow in and keep out certain individuals. Sometimes this is a formal role, sometimes it is an informal role. Sometimes it's a select few, other times it's a group effort.

When I was going through the discernment process for ordination I encountered a formal group of gatekeepers in the Commission on Ministry. In essence, the fate of my call was in their hands. They determined who was let into the process and who was kept out. One person said it was their job to make sure we don't ordain the wrong people.

An informal role occurs all too often in churches where the “old guard” overtly or covertly works to limit access to “their church” from newcomers. This could be by refusing to invite new people into the altar guild, as greeters, as coffee hour hosts, or any other group or committee. Or it could occur when the old guard turns over leadership to newbies, only to constantly tell them how to do things, or, in some cases, retake control because “we've never done it that way.”

Sometimes it's a select few, such as Dana Carvey's Church Lady from Saturday Night Live. Or maybe it's the few patriarchs and matriarchs who want to protect THEIR church. And sometimes it's a group effort, like an occurrence of the parish never voting onto the vestry one person who has put his or her name on the ballot for the past seven years. Or maybe it's those signals at coffee hour that we really don't want to talk with you.

Gatekeepers are known more for who they keep out. They are known for protecting their turf. And today we have an image of Jesus as gatekeeper. I don't think, though, that gatekeeper Jesus can be compared with the gatekeepers we know or have known.

One of the images of the church is that we are the flock of Christ. We are his sheep. If we are his sheep, note that it is not the sheep whom the gatekeeper excludes – it is the one trying to lead the sheep astray. The gatekeeper will only allow access to the one not trying to steal sheep.

In this passage Jesus is telling us that the sheep have free access in and out. Jesus is telling us that those who enter through the gate, through him, will have abundant life. The shepherd is calling us, and it is those who listen to that call and come to the gate who will have abundant life.

What does this mean for us? It means that we are not gatekeepers; Jesus is the only gatekeeper. It means we don't have to work so hard to protect OUR church or our turf, because this turf and this church belongs to Jesus. It means that if anyone shows up at our doors, we must understand that they heard the voice of Christ and the gatekeeper of all is granting them access.

Is our faith strong enough to turn over those duties to Jesus? Is our faith strong enough to allow everyone and anyone who shows up access to this sheepfold?

I would hope the answer is yes.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sermon; Easter 3A; Luke 24:13-35

One the first day of the week, two of Jesus' followers were going to a village called Emmaus.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the details that we miss the overall point of the story. Sometimes we try so hard to make a story factual that we miss its Truth. For instance, there are people who try so very hard to make the six days of creation a factual reconstruction of six days that they miss the overarching Truth that God created.

Today's gospel story is similar in that there have been many people who have tried hard to find the factual location of Emmaus. Up until now that hasn't happened. No location for this town has ever been found. And of the suggested places, it seems to be a case of forcing an explanation in order to prove the factuality of the gospels. If we do that, we just might miss the Truth of the gospel.

I suppose at this point we could mimic Pilate and ask, “What is truth?” And we could have a whole discussion around not only truth, but are there variations of truth, are some things more true than others, and what is the difference between truth and fact. For instance, “God created,” is Truth; but the facts don't support the story that God created in six, literal, 24-hour days. There are many places in scripture we can do this.

As Christians we tend to focus on the New Testament, especially the gospels, when looking for truth. Virgin birth: fact or truth? Walking on water: fact or truth? Crucifixion: fact or truth? Resurrection: fact or truth? Some may be both. Some may point to only one. But as I read through scripture, both Old and New Testaments, I am coming to the conclusion that there is one overarching Truth, and that is this: God is with us.

God is with us in the garden.
God is with us in the impossible.
God is with us in our joys.
God is with us in our sufferings and sorrows.
God is with us in life.
God is with us in death.
And today's gospel story reminds us of this most basic Truth – God is with us.

Post-resurrection Jesus joins two disciples in the afternoon/early evening of the Day of Resurrection. They are walking to Emmaus – but that isn't the point of the story; which is why Emmaus has never been factually located. These two disciples, Luke says, were sad in the aftermath of the crucifixion and following the news that some women had seen angels proclaiming Jesus was alive. It's probably safe to say that Cleopas and the other disciple were both traumatized and confused. Like Mary Magdalene before them, it's no wonder they didn't recognize Jesus.

In this traumatized and confused state, in their sadness, God is with them.

During this walk Jesus asks what they've been discussing, and they say, “Have you not heard about the things that have happened these past few days?” Jesus, playing dumb, says, “What things?”

This reminds me of the time in the garden when Adam and Eve were hiding after eating the forbidden fruit. “Where are you?” asks God. God knows perfectly well where they are. Jesus knows perfectly well what they are talking about. But this is a good way to get them to tell the story.

In that telling of the story, God is with them.

While their story was factually correct, it missed the truth of the event. So Jesus fills them in on what they overlooked, getting them to see things in a new way.

In their learning, God is with them.

As they drew near to their destination Jesus continued on his way, but they invite this stranger to stay with them, for evening was at hand.

In their hospitality, God is with them.

What follows is the climax of the story. At the Last Supper Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it, and said, “Take, eat. This is my body; do this in remembrance of me.” And here, on the first day of the week, the Day of Resurrection, we have an account of the very first celebration of Holy Communion.

The three of them gathered around a table for the evening meal. Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. It was in this act of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving that the disciples' eyes were opened. It was then that they recognized this stranger for who he was – Jesus Christ.

In the taking, blessing, breaking, and giving, God is with them.

Like Mary, their eyes were opened and Jesus disappears from their sight. They immediately run back to where the other disciples are staying to give them the good news. This is something that must be proclaimed. Upon their return they find the other disciples all abuzz because Jesus has appeared to Simon Peter. Cleopas and the other disciple share their good news about the living Christ and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

In their joy, God is with them.

This is the Truth of the gospel.
In our sorrows, God is with us.
In our hospitality, God is with us.
In our learning, God is with us.
In our joy, God is with us.
In the breaking of bread, God is with us.
In our proclamation of the Good News of the risen Christ to others, God is with us.

This is the Truth of the gospel and all of scripture: God is with us.

Let's not get so caught up in finding Emmaus that we miss that most basic Truth.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sermon; Easter 2A; John 20:19-31

“When it was evening of the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you'.”

So begins this gospel story that we hear every year on the Second Sunday of Easter. It begins on the evening of the Day of Resurrection with Jesus appearing in the midst of the disciples, and it ends a week later, today, with yet another appearance and a proclamation of faith. And because we hear this same passage every year on this Sunday, and because Thomas is a key player, this passage developed the unfortunate subtitle of “The Story of Doubting Thomas.” But, like Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, it's time to put that moniker to rest. Because this is not a story of doubt, it's a story of faith.

The passage today begins on the evening of the Day of Resurrection where the disciples had met behind locked doors out of fear. Let's go back to the morning of that first day.

Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early in the morning only to find it open and empty. She runs back to tell Peter and John. They run to the tomb where they also see it open and empty. One believes, but, in an odd turn of phrasing, neither understood. Peter and John return to their homes leaving Mary once again alone, where follows her own experience of Jesus. She then goes to tell the disciples that she has seen the risen Lord.

You need to piece together the story at this point by looking at the other three gospels, but what follows is a story of dismissal, doubt, and belief. And nowhere do we have a version of a disciple moving to immediate belief on that momentous day.

Now, here we are, on the evening of the first day and the disciples have locked themselves away out of fear. Many times in scripture are the people of God admonished to be not afraid. Several times in the life of Jesus he has told the disciples to have no fear. Yet here they are, hiding behind locked doors out of fear.

But not all of the disciples are there. Thomas is missing. Why? Where was he? My hypothesis is that at the death of Judas, their treasurer, Thomas offered to take on that role. I'm betting that he was down at the bank updating the signature card. And if you've ever had to do this, you know it always takes longer than planned. But whatever it was, he was otherwise detained.

Back to that locked house. Jesus simply arrives in their midst and says, “Peace be with you,” once again trying to relieve their fears. And in what looks like an attempt to prove that he is not an apparition or someone other than Jesus, he shows them his hands and his side. Then he gives them a mission – As I was sent, so are you sent. He gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit and lays upon them the responsibility since entrusted to the Church through today – forgiving and retaining sins.

This event seems to remove their sense of fear because a week later, today, they are once again in the house, but the doors are not locked. This time, though, Thomas is with them. And once again Jesus appears to them inside the house. Jesus turns to Thomas and offers his hands and side with a request to not doubt but to believe. Hundreds of years of artwork aside, the gospel never actually records that Thomas did in fact place his hands in Christ's wounds. Thomas sees and believes.

We then get Jesus' statement, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” This statement has often been taken as a condemnation of Thomas' demand to see Jesus before believing. But this isn't a condemnation – it is a future reassurance. It is a recognition that Jesus' work, or I should say, the work of the disciples and of the Church, is not finished. The disciples' work, the church's work, our work, continues on into the future, and Jesus is reassuring those future generations that they will be just as blessed as Thomas was. He is reassuring future generations that belief, faith, and blessings are not predicated on actually seeing the risen Christ.

Except that they are.

Faith doesn't come from evidence. A one-time event, such as the Resurrection or seeing the wounds in Christ's hands and side, or some other “mountain top experience,” may begin the process of faith, but faith and belief don't spring up fully formed at that time. Faith is a journey. Faith is, like Paul attested to, not a sprint but a marathon. And as we move through our life of faith, as we come to believe without seeing, we are able to see where we once couldn't. Like Mary at the tomb, we are able to have our eyes opened. As we journey through faith, we (hopefully) begin to seek and serve Christ in all persons.

Today we are gathered together in one place like the disciples were gathered together in one place. Are we gathered in fear, afraid to tell people on the outside about the Resurrection? Or are we gathered in preparation to be sent out with the power of the Holy Spirit?

If it's the latter, are we ready to both be Christ and see Christ? It is in our being Christ that we reach out our hands in love inviting people to be a part of this faith journey. And it is in the seeing Christ in others that we might look upon those wounded by the world and offer a place of healing.

If anything, today's gospel should remind us that everyone is on a journey, and everyone falls somewhere between Mary Magdalene and Thomas.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Sermon; Easter Day A; 2017

Our eyes deceive us. They blind us to what is real and make us believe what isn’t there – just ask anyone who’s seen a magic show. And when we see the familiar in unfamiliar places, it blocks our minds from recognizing both what and who we know.

Have you ever been part of a group that meets on a semi-regular basis? It might be church, but I was thinking of something a little different. Maybe it’s the Lions or Rotary or a bridge group or something of that nature that meets either once a month, or maybe weekly for a certain time of year. You get to know them fairly well within that group.

But here’s what happens, or at least what happens to me: while knowing the people in the group, it’s hard to know them outside the group. We compartmentalize them into a certain place in our lives. So when we head off to the Rotary meeting we know we’ll see Tom, Dick, Harry and Jane. We know this because that’s the setting we expect them. But what happens if we run into those people in the dairy aisle at Martins or Weis? The chances are pretty good that we’ll recognize their face but not quite grasp their name or why we should know them. I hate that.

A good example of this is when I happened to be channel surfing one day and came across an old episode of Andy Griffith. A young actor, probably all of 25, was playing the part of the new town doctor and he looked very familiar. I knew I had seen him in another place, but I couldn’t identify him in this unfamiliar place. I spent over half the show trying to figure out why I recognized him.

We’ve all done this from time to time. We see someone out of context and we rack our brains trying to figure out why and from where we know them. The problem is that we are blinded by sight. Our eyes deceive us, like at a magic show. They block our minds from recognizing the person standing in front of us.

Mary Magdalene was in the same position on that first Easter morning. According to Luke, she had been one of Jesus’ disciples for quite some time. Luke implies that Jesus had healed Mary of seven demons. He also writes that she helped provide resources for Jesus and the disciples. If she was indeed a long-time disciple of Jesus, she would have followed him into the towns and villages where he healed the sick, cured the lame and raised the dead. In other words, Mary was used to seeing Jesus as the center of attention in the midst of large crowds. This motif continued up through the Passion. You can’t get a much bigger crowd than the one that sang “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, or the one that screamed for Jesus’ crucifixion a few days later.

We were right there with her. We were part of the crowd that marched with our palm branches. We were part of the crowd that waved those palms and shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” We were part of the crowd that clamored for the release of Barabbas. And we were part of the crowed that shouted, “Crucify him!”

But now, in today’s gospel, there are no more crowds. Jesus is dead. Deserted by his disciples, nailed to a cross, crucified until dead, and buried in a borrowed tomb, John writes that only Mary returned to that lonely tomb in the garden to mourn the loss of the man who changed her life forever. She returned to pay tribute to the man who healed her of her demons and saved her life. So she goes to the tomb, alone, to be with her thoughts, memories and prayers.

In her experience, in all of our experiences, dead people stay dead. Although we believe in the resurrection, we can’t say exactly what it looks like. We live with the duality of the faith of resurrection belief held in tension with the fact that we’ve never seen it. Dead people stay dead. So it’s not surprising that when Mary arrives at the empty tomb she assumes the body has been stolen. And it is under that assumption that she returns to town to tell the other disciples, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.”

Peter and John run to the tomb and Mary follows. After examining the tomb for themselves, they return to their homes, deserting Mary just as they had deserted Jesus days earlier and leaving her alone. She’s as alone in her grief now as surely as Jesus was alone after his arrest that awful night seemingly so long ago.

Through her tears she looks into the tomb to reaffirm what she had seen earlier, or, rather, what she had NOT seen, and she sees two angels where the body should have been. “Woman,” they ask, “why are you crying?”

She turns away and answers, “Because they have taken away my Lord.”

Maybe she turns away from the angels because she doesn’t want to embarrass herself by crying in front of them. Maybe she turns away because that’s how she can keep her composure. Maybe she turns away because if they can’t see her cry, they’ll leave her alone. Maybe she turns away because if she can’t see them, then she can maintain her feeling of being alone.

But when she turns away, she is confronted with another man. She came to the tomb to be in a quiet place and mourn the death of her Lord. This place is anything but quiet as it’s turned into a major hub of post-funeral activity. There’s not much worse than trying to escape to a peaceful, quiet place for some quality alone time only to be continually interrupted.

Turning away from the angels she is now is confronted with another man who is also asking her whom she is looking for. She sees the man, but her eyes deceive her. She is blinded by her own sight. And those eyes blind her to the reality of the resurrection. They see a familiar face in an unfamiliar place. The face is familiar, but there are no crowds. The face is familiar, but Jesus is dead. Like the actor in Andy Griffith, the face is familiar, but the setting was wrong. Her eyes deceive her and convince her she’s talking with the gardener. And because she wants to be alone, because she’s fed up with all these intruders, rather than continue to face this latest intruder, she turns again.

Our eyes deceive us. We are often blinded by our sight. When I meet a familiar face in an unfamiliar place, I try to keep them talking in the hopes that their voice will trigger my memory of why I know the person. I did the same thing with Andy Griffith – I closed my eyes and let his voice tell me who he was.
Mary has turned away a second time. She’s moved from sorrow to anger as all these people keep interrupting her and she demands to know where this lowly gardener has taken her Lord, the one person she has come to love more than any other.

Puzzling over this young actor on Andy Griffith and closing my eyes, no longer blinded by sight, I heard the calm and soothing voice of Fr. Mulcahey from M*A*S*H. And Mary, blinded by sight and having turned away, is now able to hear a familiar and gentle voice. It is the same voice that healed the sick and raised the dead. It is the same voice that said to her, “Your demons have left, you are healed.” That same voice now says, “Mary.”

NOW she knows! It’s not the gardener, it’s Jesus! And she turns and throws herself at his feet in a wave of emotional relief and in the complete knowledge and understanding of the risen Christ. This is the same Jesus that her eyes and mind deceived her from recognizing. What her eyes could not accept, her heart and soul now did.

This, I think, is one of the things Jesus is calling us to do – to stop being deceived by what we see, to stop being blinded by sight, and to find the familiar face of Jesus in unfamiliar places. This is more than seeing Rotary members at Martins, or identifying an actor from an old TV show. This is recognizing that the familiar Jesus we’ve come to know in this place is now residing in very unfamiliar places and faces.

Jesus is resurrected and he’s asking us to turn from what our eyes are telling us to look at what our heart and soul now. If the homeless, sick, destitute and those we define as Others remain homeless, sick, destitute and Other, then the resurrection is pointless. If we ourselves can’t find a way to see the resurrected Jesus in unfamiliar places, then the resurrection is pointless. The resurrection moves us from death to life. The resurrection allows us to see things like we’ve never seen them before. The resurrection changes us if we are not blinded by seeing things how we’ve always seen them.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

As we go forth from here into the world, how will that proclamation and the knowledge that Christ is alive change what you see?