Sunday, June 26, 2022

Sermon; 3 Pentecost/Proper 8C; Luke 9:51-65

“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Today's gospel passage marks a change in focus. Today's gospel is roughly at the mid-point between the beginning of Luke and when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem at 19:29 ff. It marks a shift from a casual Jesus that outlines his ministry – good stories, miraculous healings, and some confrontations with Pharisees – to a literally deadly focus. Teachings, miracles, and confrontations still occur, but now the stakes become higher and we see the steady procession to Jerusalem and his Passion.

This journey to Jerusalem requires a lot from those who follow. It requires a willingness to leave our personal comforts behind to follow Christ to places unknown. It requires a willingness to put discipleship over and above social pressures of conformity. It requires us to look forward to what will be and not back to what was or how it used to be.

It's also important to note that it's after this change in focus when Jesus sends out 70 disciples to prepare and proclaim the coming of Christ. It's after this that he talks of openly acknowledging him as the Son of Man. It's after this when he speaks of being prepared in the middle of the night. It's after this when he talks of giving up everything to follow him.

But it's also important to note nothing that follows this reading – none of the parables, none of the confrontations, none of the healings – nothing, is presented as a requirement from Jesus. Everything is presented as an If/Then: If you choose to follow me, Then this is what will be expected of you. Jesus never says, “You MUST follow me.” With Jesus, it is always a choice to accept or to reject him. That same choice is also ours.

“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. They entered a village of the Samaritans, but they did not receive him.”

James and John take offense at how they are treated and ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

To be fair, there is scriptural precedence for this action. Fire from heaven came down and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. It consumed the sons of Aaron for offering an unholy sacrifice. It consumed some of the Israelites in the wilderness for complaining to God. Fire from heaven consumed 100 of King Ahaziah's men. So James and John may have simply believed that fire from heaven was an appropriate response to those who rejected God.

This response isn't limited to James and John, or any of those other stories I just referenced from the Old Testament. There are plenty of people in the here and now who would like nothing better than to see fire from heaven destroy their enemies and/or those whom they think act contrary to God's will.

Everything from female clergy to women who wear improper clothing to churches that don't hold to a particular “biblical” belief to lgbtq people and those who support them, to interracial marriage, to gun regulation to pro-choice, and anything else you can think of, is subject to someone somewhere calling for the wrath of God to eliminate those people with fire from heaven. The belief, I guess, is that those who don't hold to MY correct understanding of God and scripture are wrong and must be destroyed before they can lead others away from the truth.

“But he turned and rebuked them.”

Jesus rebuked them because violence isn't the answer. He rebuked them because we aren't here to force people to follow. He rebuked them because it's not up to us to dole out judgments and punishments. He rebuked them because fire from heaven is not how you love your neighbors.

Over in Matthew, Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”

The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction. It's an easy thing to want to destroy those who harm you. It's an easy thing to want to destroy those whom you think are causing problems. It's an easy thing to want to destroy those who reject the message you proclaim. It's an easy thing to want to destroy those who choose differently. And there is no shortage of people who take that easy road to destruction.

But you know what's difficult? Loving our neighbors is difficult. Loving those who make different choices than us is difficult. Loving those who have deeply held but different religious beliefs is difficult. Loving those who want to execute those who are different is difficult.

You know what else is difficult? Authentic discipleship is difficult. Being willing to be sent elsewhere is difficult. Making Jesus our number one priority is difficult. Not focusing on the good old days is difficult.

The longer I'm involved in Christianity the more I'm convinced that the narrow gate isn't accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior – it's the willingness to allow people to choose how they wish to live, loving them anyway, and focusing on your own daily discipleship.

From here on out Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. From here on out the choice to follow him is fraught with personal sacrifices that require us to put aside how the world does things in favor of taking up how Jesus does things. From here on out we are asked to take up our cross daily.

Following Jesus doesn't mean forcing our beliefs on others; and it certainly doesn't mean destroying those who differ from us. What it does mean is doing the best we can to live up to his expectations while also inviting others to join us on this journey; and then either helping them along the way or wishing them well on their own path.

May we have the courage to set our own faces toward Jerusalem and the compassion to not destroy others along the way.

Amen.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Sermon; Proper 7C; 1 Kings 19:1-15a; Luke 8:26-39

We are officially out of the liturgical season (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter) and have entered the long, green Season after Pentecost, or Ordinary Time. For those who don't know, Ordinary Time is so-called because of the sequential ordinal numbers. Additionally, we are currently on Track 1 of the RCL, which means we will hear roughly sequential stories from Kings and the Prophets. I mention this because the first lesson is not chosen to pair with the gospel reading. Even so, sometimes there is a common thread to be found in the two lessons.

The story of Elijah versus Ahab and Jezebel is one of the great stories of scripture. Elijah is the lone prophet faithful to the Lord. Ahab and Jezebel have committed murder and apostasy. They have killed prophets of the Lord and built altars and temples to Baal. For his part, Elijah executed 450 prophets of Baal and was generally a thorn in the side of Ahab and Jezebel.

After the incident with the prophets of Baal, Jezebel swears to kill Elijah so he runs and goes into hiding. While hiding in his cave the Lord passes by. It's here that Elijah hears a great wind, experiences an earthquake, and sees a blinding fire. In all of these loud and chaotic events Elijah witnesses, the Lord is not there. Then there came a sound of sheer silence. It was in the silence that the Lord spoke to Elijah.

In that space of sheer silence Elijah and the Lord had a conversation. God asks why Elijah is here holed up in a cave. Elijah says he's the only prophet of God left and everyone is out to kill him. Then the Lord says something interesting. God doesn't say to remain in hiding. He doesn't say to hide elsewhere. He says, “Go, return on your way.”

Return to your mission. Return to anoint people to serve the Lord. Return to doing what God has called you to do.

In today's gospel we hear of Jesus' encounter with the Gerasene demoniac. This story is also found in Matthew and Mark. In all three gospels it follows a series of teachings and parables, and the calming of the sea. After the eventful night on the water, Jesus and the boys reach the other side of the lake opposite Galilee, and they meet a demoniac as they are getting out of the boat. He was naked, lived in the tombs, and when he sees Jesus he yells out at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with us, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

I know in today's world we tend to dismiss demonic possessions and attribute that to any number of mental or physical illnesses. But whether this was really a spiritual possession or a form of mental illness isn't the issue. The issue is this man was tormented to the point where he lived in the tombs, naked, sometimes chained, and under guard.

The demon identifies itself/themselves as “Legion, for we are many.” I can't imagine what this man was experiencing with this. I can't imagine the number of voices he heard in his head telling him to attack people, scream at people, break his chains, and run away. Matthew says he was so fierce no one could pass by that way. Mark says he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones. The discordant, loud, random noise ringing in his head must have been unbearable.

That is, until he meets Jesus. Jesus sends the demons into a herd of swine who then run down the hill into the lake and drown. Jesus has someone find him some clothes. And now, for the first time in a very long time, the noise is gone. Now there is just the sound of sheer silence.

Clothed and in his right mind since who knows when, sitting next to the one who healed him, he says, “Please, I beg of you, let me go with you.” Can you blame him?

Instead of allowing him to come along, Jesus says, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”

In the sheer silence that followed the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, God tells Elijah, “Return on your way.” In the sheer silence that followed the cacophony of voices, the fierceness with which he barred people from passing by, the crying out, and the self-mutilation, Jesus tells the former demoniac, “Return to your home.”

We have entered the long Season after Pentecost. In this season we return to the journey of discipleship. We return to the studying of the depths of scripture. We return to proclaiming the mission of Christ. We return to listening to where God might be sending us.

I am hopeful that we have also entered a post-pandemic season. Not a post-COVID season, because we are stuck with that; but a post-pandemic season. A season where we begin returning to certain aspects of life. A season where we acknowledge the virus but move to return to our mission of worship, of welcome, of service, and of encouragement. A season where we return to our spiritual home where we are fed and nourished in body, mind, and soul.

We need to be careful, however, that we don't focus on returning to what was, but that we return to what could be.

The mission of Elijah was to call Israel to repentance and return to the Lord. God didn't call him out of the cave to return back to Ahab and Jezebel's territory, putting him in danger. God called him to return on his way. Jesus told the demoniac to return to his town, his people, his family and friends, and tell them what God had done for him.

We are also called to return. Not a return to old ways that could put us and those whom we serve in danger, but a return to our mission. That return doesn't have to be far off, as Jesus points out; but it can be done in our town among people we know.

As we return to this long, green season, let us also return to what and who we are called to be. Return to our tradition of placing Worship at the center of everything we do. Return to our Welcoming spirit where all are invited to be part of this community. Return to Serving people inside these walls and in the wider community. Return to Encouraging people to participate, learn, and evangelize.

While we are working on returning, we also need to work on listening. Elijah couldn't return on his way until he heard God speaking in the sheer silence. The demoniac couldn't return to his home to proclaim the Good News until he heard Jesus speaking in the calm and silence of a right mind.

As we move into this new season and as we return to being the church more fully, let us not become so noisy that we can't hear what God may be saying to us. No matter what we are doing as individuals, as groups, as commissions, as vestry, or as any other part of this church, let us always remember to take time for silence so that we can hear how God might be calling us to return.

Amen.

Sunday, June 05, 2022

Sermon; Pentecost C; Gen. 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-11

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

Over the past several weeks I have been preaching on the newness of the Easter season. Easter is about resurrection and an empty tomb. It is about experiencing the life of the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, in the upper room, and here with us. Easter brings us images of the new heaven and new earth. All of these are part of seeing and living in new ways. I have said these are Easter messages that a Good Friday world needs to hear. That Easter message of newness – a new heaven and new earth, loving others as God loves you, the tree of life, and everything else we have heard this season – is set before us today with the stories from Genesis and Acts. These two stories reflect what is and what will be.

The Tower of Babel story has been used to explain many things over the centuries. Everything from the multitude of languages on earth to why towers were built in the first place to why groups of people are alienated to why people are scattered over the face of the earth are given as reasons for this story. The great thing about this is that there is no, one correct interpretation, leaving it open to further future interpretations. This wide swath of interpretations helps to establish scripture as pertinent to all ages.

One interpretation I read said this story wasn't really about the origin of many languages or about the desire to storm heaven through building projects, but that the purpose was to “make a name for ourselves lest we be scattered.” The author said, “The people want to become a self-sufficient elite who are free from any need to answer to others. They want to make a name for themselves so that they can say to their challengers, 'Who are you?'”

Over the past month or so I have seen many pro-patriarchy, anti-women, and racist posts from a variety of places. One woman proudly posted she earned her theological degree, which was met with an outcry from men that women had no business speaking, teaching, or pastoring in the Church. This was the reason, according to them, the Church was failing – because it allowed feminism and effeminate theology into its sacred walls. There was also the ongoing discussion/rant about women needing to wear modest clothing and avoid wearing leggings in order to keep men from committing sexual misconduct (I'm not kidding).

You may have heard about the sexual abuse report within the Southern Baptist Convention that came out two weeks ago. It is filled with stories and testimonies about predatory pastors abusing and raping women and girls. It is filled with stories of systematic cover-ups designed to protect the abusers, the pastors, and the denomination. It is filled with stories of abused women who were forced to publicly confess their sin of leading men astray with no accountability on the man's part. It is every bit as damning as the reports of abuse and cover-ups in the Roman Catholic Church. Overall it shows that the problem with abuse wasn't priestly celibacy but a patriarchal system that elevates men and denigrates women.

As far as I can tell, the response to the SBC report from the necessary parties has been either overtly quiet or to double down and protect the system and abusers by more vigorously attacking women and those who push for equality and transparency.

This is what a patriarchal system does. It creates an environment where women and children dare not speak up. It creates a system that hides abuse and protects the abusers. It creates a system where the victims are held responsible. It creates a system where the men are the only people with names worth knowing. It creates a system where male leaders are free from any need to answer to others because “biblical authority.” It creates a system where those in power can say to those who challenge or report them, “Who are you?”

Various churches and our society in general have created multiple Towers of Babel through patriarchy and racism that allow those with power and resources to say to women, people of color, children, and any other at-risk group, “Who are you?”

Who are you to think you can speak up? Who are you to think you can speak? Who are you to think you can lead? Who are you to think you have equal rights? Who are you to challenge me?

When we fail to listen to others we declare them null and void. For too long those in power have been declaring others null and void.

But there is a different way.

The story from Genesis raises questions about how we speak to others and how we listen. It points out that the people of Babel spoke without listening. It points out that there was no care for the other if there were barriers. Verse 7 is often translated as, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.” But it can also be translated as, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not listen to one another's speech.”

What does it mean to listen? How much better off would we be if we actually listened to the stories of those who suffer from abuse, racism, and other injustices?

We get a glimpse of this in the reading from Acts. Notice how often listening/hearing is mentioned: a SOUND like a violent wind; the crowd gathered at the SOUND; each one HEARD them, how is it we HEAR; in our own languages we HEAR them; LISTEN to what I say.

The Pentecost reading from Acts corrects the problem we encounter in Genesis at the Tower of Babel. Whereas the people of Babel were focused on making a name for themselves, on creating a system of not needing to answer to others, of dismissing others with a petulant, “Who are you?” and of a fear of being scattered by God, the story from Acts is directly opposed to those things.

In Acts the focus is on establishing the name of God with the people, of creating a system of answering God's call, of welcoming outsiders, and of a willingness to allow God to send (scatter) us where we need to go. In Babel we saw a breakdown of the community of God. In Acts we see that community of God being reestablished.

The breakdown of the community of God at Babel was a direct result of people wanting to make a name for themselves. It was a direct result of people not listening to what others were saying. It was a direct result of self-importance so one could say to another, “Who are you?”

We face the same issues today. There are people willing to do, or not do, anything in order to make a name for themselves. We have leaders who don't listen to what others are saying. People become so puffed up with self-importance that they can say to another, “Who are you?” And in the case of religious leaders, they, like the story in Genesis, can falsely claim, “God ordained this.”

The beginning of the reversal of the Babel story is the Pentecost story. In the aftermath of the resurrection we need to not focus on making names for ourselves, but to work to glorify the name of God. We need to learn to listen to others in order to help heal our divisions. We need to ask, “Who are you?” not to make the other person null and void, but to listen to their stories in an effort to make their lives worthwhile and meaningful.

Pentecost is a fun story about the presence of the Holy Spirit, about the apostles speaking in other languages, and about people hearing that message. But it is also about having the courage to speak up about our faith and, in light of the Babel story, about our willingness to listen.

May we elevate God over self. May we ask, “Who are you?” to learn and not denigrate. May we listen to the stories of others. May we have the will to unite rather than the desire to divide. May we have the courage to speak of our faith in ways that others will hear.

May our proclamation of, “Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia,”

help to bring us together rather than drive us apart.

Amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Sermon; Easter 6C; Rev. 21:10, 22 - 22:5

Sermon Easter 6C Rev. 21:10, 22 – 22:5

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Easter is the season of newness. It is the season of the empty tomb and resurrection. It is the season of new beginnings. It is the season of experiencing the risen Christ: from Emmaus to the upper room to the beach to here. It is the season of seeing in new ways. It is the season of being brought out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.

Today's reading from Revelation reflects this newness. It reflects life over death. It reflects God with us. It reflects a change in how we both see and experience God.

Last week John saw the holy city of God coming down from heaven. Today we get a glimpse of what that city looks like. Its temple is God and the Lamb. They are its light and nations will walk by that light. It will always be day, so the gates will never be shut. The river of life flows from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the city street. The tree of life grows there, producing twelve kinds of fruit each month and its leaves are for the healing of the nations. The name of God will be written on the foreheads of his servants.

I don't know if we can take this vision literally, in that this is what heaven looks like; but we can certainly take it to understand that this is what John literally saw. John does his best to convey what he is seeing, but how do you adequately describe the presence of God?

The group that studied Revelation last year did a deep dive into this book. I won't do that deep dive, but there are a few points I want to touch on.

In an age when cities were built with gates designed to protect their citizens from wild animals and marauding enemies, John sees the city of God as a city with gates. As with any city at that time, the city gates are open during the day and closed at night. But note this: the gates will never be shut because there is no night. There is no night because the light of the glory of God and the Lamb makes the sun and moon unnecessary.

These gates are always open, thereby allowing everyone access to God at all times.

I'm reminded of Hymn 490: In him there is no darkness at all. The day and the night are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart Lord Jesus.

The angel showed John the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from God. All rivers have a source, and the source of this river is God and the Lamb themselves. This is the living water, the river of life of which Jesus spoke in Chapters 4 & 7 of the Gospel of John. This water is crystal clear, free from any impurities. People have a way of contaminating things – from the environment to holy scripture; but this is pure, uncontaminated, live-giving water that only God can give.

On either side of the river is the tree of life. The last time we heard about the tree of life was back in Genesis after Adam and Eve ate from that other tree and got themselves expelled by God to ensure they don't eat from this one, thereby living for ever. It's not until Revelation where the tree makes a return. This tree was there at the beginning, and now it's here at the end. Humanity was not ready to live for ever in the beginning; but now, at the end, we apparently are. We began in a unified relationship with God, and we will end in a unified relationship with God.

The leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. Not just for the healing of the children or people of God, but for the healing of the nations. From every race, tongue, tribe, and nation people will come to God. This healing of the nations underscores God's desire from Genesis 12 that all nations will be blessed through Abraham. It encompasses the universal salvation of people through those mighty acts of Jesus Christ. It may also include the healing of those nations that rebelled against God.

And here I'm reminded of Hymn 470: There's a wideness in God's mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There is welcome for the sinner, there is healing in his blood.

In that walk through Revelation I told the people it was a book of hope, not fear. It is a book of reconciliation. It is also a book of worship, and if you are paying attention, you can see the fingerprints of Revelation all through our liturgy, especially at Holy Communion. From the Peace which flows from Christ, to the Sanctus, through the memorial acclamation, and to the holy food that is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, our liturgy is Revelation in a nutshell.

What would happen if we saw what we do here not as a Sunday obligation – “I can't golf today, I have to go to Church” – but as the embodiment of Revelation? What if we sang as if we could see angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven swirling around us? This is not an exercise in or of our imaginations, but it is an acknowledgment that we are indeed in the midst of heaven.

Acknowledging that, living into that, may encourage us to make sure our gates are open to all who choose to enter. It would encourage us to offer the water of life to those who are desperately thirsty. It would encourage us to feed people from the tree of life that grows in this place.

We invite people in not to gain new members but to allow them the joys of living in the light. We invite people in to quench their thirsty souls. We invite people in to partake of holy food. We invite people in because this, right here, is the city of God.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia.

May we be the light to the world around us that brings people in to the light of God. May we be the people who offer the food and drink of God for hungry and thirsty souls. May we be the people and the place who provide health and healing to a world in desperate need of that.

In short, may we be the newness of the Good News of God in Christ to an old and tired world.

May we be the Easter message a Good Friday world needs to hear.

Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Sermon; Easter 5C; Acts 11:1-18, Rev. 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

Alleluia. Christ is Risen. The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia.

Easter is the season of new life. It is the season of the empty tomb and resurrection. It is the season of seeing Christ with us on the way to Emmaus, in the upper room, and on the beach. It is the season of the Ascension and learning to see in new ways. It is the season of ending old habits and living into new ways of being. This newness is a driving theme in all of today's lessons.

The gospel passage is from the beginning of the Farewell Discourse, that long monologue where Jesus talks about his impending death and how the eleven are to order their lives. He gives them a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. But how was that a new commandment? When asked what the greatest law/commandment was, Jesus himself said, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” How is this new?

It's new because, as St. Augustine pointed out, we are not to love as people tend to love others: through physical attraction or through like-mindedness or in any other limited way. Now we are to love others as Jesus loved us: with the eyes of God, unlimited, unabashedly, self-sacrificially. We are to love others as we imagine God loving us. That's what makes this a new commandment.

We see newness in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. Ever since Genesis 12 the descendants of Abraham had seen themselves as God's chosen people. What's new here is Peter's recognition that all of humanity are God's chosen people. What's new is that we are not called to keep separated from outsiders in a vain attempt to avoid contamination, degradation, and becoming unclean and profane. What's new is a recognition that God welcomes all, and that all are welcome into the Church through the waters of baptism.

In Revelation newness is front and center. John writes, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. I saw the holy city of God coming down from heaven, and he will dwell with them.” What's new is an understanding that we will not be taken away up to heaven to escape the woes of the earth, but that God will make all things new and that God will come DOWN to live with us. All things will be made new and the thirsty will be given water.

The Easter Season is all about newness: new life, new beginnings, new relationships, new understandings. But we would be remiss if we only saw this newness in the Sunday scripture readings.

Sometimes working in the Church can be . . . I don't want to say, “depressing,” . . . but . . . “not always joyful.” How's that?

I bring this up because lately, and I don't know why – maybe it's the proximity of General Convention this July – I've been seeing more posts on social media about the decline of the Church in general, and the Episcopal church specifically One graph showed how many members TEC has lost since 1980. It's a graph that anti-church people and evangelicals in particular love to pounce on to “prove” how the church is either irrelevant or too liberal. One member of a group I'm on posted that he's got a lot of reasons to leave the Church but is too stubborn, and wonders what that means for others who aren't as stubborn? One article was titled, “With an average age of 70, the Episcopal church is quite literally dying,” and had an image of skeletons dancing around the Episcopal shield.

With all due respect, none of those graphs, statements, or articles are Easter messages. That people are “leaving in droves,” or that we aren't gaining members, or that people are dying, are not Ester messages – they are Good Friday messages. We don't need Good Friday messages, we need Easter messages.

The first thing to remember is this: Over the three days of his Passion, Jesus lost almost all of his membership, as most of the disciples ran away into hiding. Over the course of time, almost all of the disciples were martyred, and they all died without seeing his second coming. Additionally, one of the issues that Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians had to address was the death of Christians who believed Jesus would come back in their lifetime. In other words, the Church has always had to deal with times of dwindling membership and dying communicants.

The second thing to remember and to which to pay attention is that Good Friday messages focus not on growth, but on stagnation. Good Friday messages focus not on newness but on maintaining the status quo. Good Friday messages focus not on how things could be but on what has been lost. Good Friday messages focus not on discipleship but on membership. Good Friday messages focus not on hope but on fear. And Good Friday messages focus not on life but on death.

We are not in the business of acquiring new members. We are (or we should be) in the business of creating disciples. We are not in the business of competing with other Christian churches. We are, however, in the business of living to the best of our ability as Christians as expressed in the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal church.

Certain believers criticized Peter for associating with people traditionally seen as profane and unclean. But Peter, a faithful Jew and a man who never ate anything profane or unclean, three times experienced a vision from God which he interprets and explains as God decreeing all humans as holy and clean. If we are willing to step into the newness that Peter is describing, if we are willing to have a wider view of who God calls clean, then who are those people whom our society sees as profane and unclean, and how might we help cleanse them? We're looking for new and creative ways to minister to people in need, maybe it's time we think about acquiring a mobile laundry/shower service.

The apostle John sees a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, a place where God dwells among his people and not in some far off gilded throne room. We worship in the beauty of holiness, that is a fact. But let us never forget that this space is reflective of God dwelling with us, and let us strive to provide all who enter here water for their thirsty souls.

Jesus gives us a new commandment: to love others as he has loved us. This is a love from God. This is a love that sees every person as worthy of our love just as we see ourselves as being worthy of God's love. That's not always easy, and sometimes it's downright difficult. But if our first thoughts are, “I love you as God loves me,” then we just might stand a chance of making it work.

We are in the Easter Season, the season of newness and resurrection, of new life out of death, of ending old habits and living into new ones. The Episcopal church may have an average age of 70, but remember that disciples can be made at any age. Remember that this is the season not of recruiting new members, but forming new disciples. This is the time of seeing new groups of people cleansed. It is the time of seeing new groups of people loved. Good Friday is all around us, but we must not become disheartened. Instead, let us remember to live into the newness of life that is Easter and keep moving forward. How well we do that will depend on how excited you are to be here.

Amen.

Sunday, May 08, 2022

Sermon; Easter 4C; Acts 9:36-43

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

We are roughly halfway through the Easter season. This is the season of celebrating Christ's victory over death. This is the season of experiencing the presence of the risen Christ amongst us. This is the season of the empty tomb, of disciples who doubt, of disciples who are comforted and assured, of remembering the new commandment to love each other, and of watching Jesus ascend to the heavens. This is the season of alleluias and new beginnings. Almost all of this is reflected in the passage from Acts.

In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity, sewing tunics and other clothing which she either sold to raise necessary funds or gave away to those in need. While those specific actions aren't stated in the passage, Tabitha's good works and acts of charity certainly lead themselves to doing just that.

As with most bible passages there is more than one way to read/interpret the text/story. One way is to read it as a news story from the early Church, as a no-frills just the facts report. Tabitha of Joppa, a disciple of Christ and purveyor of fine clothing, died in her home last Friday. She was later raised to life by Peter, one of the original apostles. It's another ho-hum miracle story we are so accustomed to.

But if we look past the rather orderly account of this event, we find that this story is an Easter story.

Like Jesus, Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. Like Jesus, Tabitha died and her body was prepared for burial. Like Jesus, those who knew her wept and mourned. Like Jesus, she is raised to life (an important distinction is that she was raised to life, she was not resurrected).

Tabitha has a victory of sorts over death. Her family, friends, and other disciples will experience the presence of Tabitha's risen presence. Those who mourned are comforted. Those who knew her and know of this story can shout, “Alleluia!” As I mentioned, even though Tabitha was raised and not resurrected, I wonder if this event stirred up a new beginning of sorts. I'm reminded of the Proper Preface to Communion in the Burial Rite where it says, “for your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.” How was Tabitha's life changed after this event?

Easter is all about Jesus defeating death and leading us to new life. By his death he destroyed death. Easter reminds us that Christ made all things new. But to get to Easter we must go through Good Friday. To get to new life, we must die. This story from Acts is an Easter story in that Tabitha died to an old life and was raised to new life. Not new in the resurrected sense, but new in that she died, was raised, and things are now new and different.

This is a story not only about Tabitha, but also about the Church.

We have come through a two-year pandemic. Both literally and figuratively part of us has died. Whether that is a ministry that ended due to COVID concerns or whether it is a feeling that we don't know where to go from here, there is no doubt that part of us died.

Like the widows wept over Tabitha, we may also weep over what we have lost. That is an okay thing to do. We weep over what was lost any number of times – a lost job, the death of a friend or family member, a divorce. But this is an Easter story. In that story is new life. In that story there is hope. It's this new life and hope which Tabitha awakens to. It's that new life and hope which the Church looks forward to.

This parish states that we are here to Worship, Welcome, Serve, and Encourage, with Worship being our primary focus.

Worship takes primacy because the whole point of the Christian community is to worship the Lord and give him our thanks and praise. Worship in the Episcopal church has a lot of moving parts. We aren't going to change that, but what might be new is how you are involved. As we come into a new way of being, how might you offer your gifts as we gather to worship?

Welcome is another area where newness abounds. We are, and have been, well past the time when we could rely on the name Saint John's to attract people. We need to be forthright with evangelism and comfortable in telling our stories to people. What is it about this place that sustained you through the pandemic and how do you see Saint John's active in the world around us? We need to be comfortable with our stories so that we can welcome people to join us. We also need to broaden our vision by welcoming those who are not like us. We need to be willing to welcome crying babies and messy adults.

Who are we Serving? We had that figured out BC (Before COVID). But things have changed. Can we figure out how to serve people in a safe way? Community Cafe was good, but do we need to figure out a new way of bringing meals to people? Or maybe we can be more active in helping Shelter residents apply for jobs or learn basic life skills. As of right now, the Saint John's Family Shelter is the only family shelter in Hagerstown, and as of right now it is full, and this past weekend we had to turn away a wife, husband, and their four children because, quite literally, there is no room in the inn. Should we partner with the Shelter and look for a second building or find ways to support affordable housing?

In a world that is living with COVID as a permanent endemic presence, how can we Encourage people? Through education about the Christian faith, being a community where all people are loved, offering meaningful worship, how can we encourage people in our current environment?

These are a lot of open-ended questions, and we don't need answers today. But like an artist staring at a new, blank canvass, or a homeowner moving into their new, empty house, we have a lot of openness, a lot of newness, a lot of life before us. It's tempting to go back to the way it was, but that's not possible. What is possible is new life and how we expand our vision to embrace it.

New life can bring doubts: see Thomas and the other nameless and doubting disciples. New life can bring fear: see Mark's account of the women at the tomb who ran away in fear saying nothing to anyone. New life can drive us to look for comfort in old habits: See Peter and the other disciples who chose to go fishing last week. New life can also bring excitement, energy, and opportunity.

I don't know what Tabitha did differently after being raised and experiencing new life, but I'm willing to bet it was an opportunity not to be wasted. Like Tabitha we are on the cusp of being raised. Like Tabitha we have a new, blank canvass to re-imagine how we will be the Church and live into our call. Like Tabitha, we have an opportunity to explore how we might do things differently.

We are living an Easter story. How will you choose to participate?

Amen.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Sermon; Easter 2022

Alleluia.  Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

The tomb is empty. Jesus is not here, for he is among the living, not the dead. This is the ultimate good news – that death no longer has dominion over us. This doesn't mean we aren't affected by death, because we are. It's hard for us to lose a friend, family member, or someone we love and respect. What this means, though, is that life is changed, not ended.

We see this in today's beautiful gospel story of Mary Magdalene going to the tomb. We all know dead people don't leave their tombs, so it was perfectly natural for Mary to confuse Jesus with the gardener. She was mourning the loss of her friend and teacher, and now she's in shock because the body is gone. But in a very intimate and touching scene, Jesus speaks her name. In that instant she knows he is alive. She knows death has lost its sting. She knows life is changed, not ended.

But the movement from mourning to shock to joy is a process, sometimes a very slow process.

All four gospels tell a resurrection story – that's the point of a gospel. But all four have their own particular spin on it. Matthew has Mary Magdalene and another Mary at the tomb, an earthquake, an angel, a meeting in Galilee, and some doubting disciples. Mark has our resurrection window: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome, and a young man. He also has the women running away saying nothing to anyone. Luke has Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others, two men, a story told to the male disciples, and disbelief. John has the story we just heard.

I bring this up, or point this out, not to discredit or cause doubt about the gospels or wonder why none of the stories match other than the inclusion of Mary Magdalene and a risen Christ. I bring them up to show that each story has a different way of telling the story, and in no story is the belief in the resurrected Christ instantaneous. There is joy, yes. But there is also doubt, caution, and even fear. This resurrection thing was good news. It is good news. The question is: How will we approach it?

If you have been attending the Triduum services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, you will recall that I spent a lot of time comparing those services to the COVID pandemic. Maundy Thursday recalls the Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples left separated, alone, and being stripped of that which had bound them together. I recalled the onset of COVID, our last Communion meal here, and how we were left separated, alone, and being stripped of that which bound us together as COVID took over.

Good Friday recalls the Passion, crucifixion, and death of Christ. It reminds us that Jesus died without his friends close by, but surrounded by a few women keeping vigil at the foot of the cross. I recalled it was during COVID that people were dying, unable to be with family and/or friends, but being surrounded by a few nurses keeping vigil at the foot of their beds. On Good Friday we are faced with the death of Christ. On this Good Friday we were faced with the death of thousands of people due to COVID.

But the good news is that there is resurrection. There is new life. Life is changed, not ended.

In the four resurrection stories we see joy and doubt and caution and fear. When Mary understood who was calling her name, she joyfully reached out to hug him and joyfully told the disciples he was alive. Thomas (most famously) and several other disciples doubted the story of Jesus' resurrection. Peter goes to investigate the empty tomb, but then returns home being cautious not to stir up trouble. Women run from the tomb in fear, saying nothing to anyone.

We are hopefully coming out of the COVID pandemic. As we do, we see joy and doubt and caution and fear. There is joy in being able to see all our faces and sing freely. There is doubt that the green phase we are currently experiencing can hold. There is caution that we shouldn't move too fast (as evidenced by our continued request to wear masks) because you never know how bad the next variant might be. There is fear that by relaxing safety protocols we open ourselves up to another shut down and more deaths. But there is hope.

The resurrection of Christ is THE point of the gospels. The resurrection promises that life is changed, not ended, that sin and death no longer have dominion over us, that Satan is finally beat down, and that we are alive in the Lord. This is the story of the gospels – that life wins. But even with those promises, even with the witnesses to the empty tomb, even with seeing Jesus appear in a locked room or on the beach, the men and women who followed Jesus express different emotions and need to come to terms with the resurrection event in their own way and in their own time.

The resurrection is good news, but it still took some time for people to process that good news and get to a point where they freely proclaimed that news. It took time, but they eventually got there. Belief came. Resurrection was proclaimed. New life grew.

As we come out of COVID we are seeing in any number of ways that life is changed, not ended. Despite what we have experienced over these past two years we are finally seeing that COVID no longer has dominion over us. But even with the positive things we've seen lately – lower case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths – we all have different emotions and will come to terms with all of this in our own way in our own time.

These past two years have been one, long extended Holy Week. Alone, isolated, we have witnessed the death and burial of innocent people. We have mourned their loss. But now, hopefully, there are signs of new life and resurrection. As we come out of COVID, know there is new life; but also know that we will each process this journey differently.

We have all been touched by COVID. We have also all been touched by the resurrection. There is no going back to before COVID. There is no going back to before the resurrection. In moving forward from both there is joy and doubt and caution and fear. With respects to COVID, may we come to a place where we once again experience joy in our lives. With respects to the resurrection, may we come to a place where we can joyfully proclaim that good news to the world around us.

In the past few weeks, I have seen faces of joy as the hoped-for end to COVID seems within reach. Today is Easter, the Day of Resurrection, and I see faces of joy as the hoped-for promise of new life is proclaimed. May this be the time we are able to find joy in lives changed. May this be the time we move from a fear of what was to the joy of what will be. May this Easter allow the suppressed joy of the past two years finally break free upon the world in a loud shout

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!