Pentecost and the power of love: A Sermon for Pentecost, 2018

“Come, Holy Spirit, descend upon this place and upon us, and fill us with the fire of your love.” Amen.

Today we celebrate Pentecost—the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, and the spread of the Spirit’s power and love throughout the world. We are also marking the end of our program year, and our young people are participating in the service, reading lessons and prayers, among other things. And then there are two baptisms as well. Such a celebratory feeling seems like a respite from our world. To rejoice, to come together as the body of Christ across all of the generations takes away from the distress and despair in the world around us. Continue reading

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Prayers Ascending: A Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, 2018

 

 Today is the 7thSunday of Easter, the season of Eastertide is drawing to a close. It will end next Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost. Today is also known as the Sunday after the Ascension because this past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. Although it’s a major feast day in the Church, we didn’t have a service here at Grace—if we had, almost no one would have attended. I know, because we tried it a couple of times. Continue reading

No longer servants but friends–A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2018

I’ve been feeling a bit reflective, perhaps even nostalgic over the last few weeks. That might not be at all surprising given that I observed my 60thbirthday two weeks ago. But it’s also likely due to the fact that I attended a memorial service for one of my aunts last month and reconnected with my cousins, and this past week, saw the death of another aunt, the last of my dad’s 10 siblings. It’s not just or primarily the grief, it’s the sense of time passing, the lives and the world in which those lives played out, receding into the past.

That sort of nostalgia is common—many of us look back on the world of our childhood as a magical, safe place and feel acutely how different the world is today than it was in the fifties or sixties. But of course, those of us who remember a safe, loving, nurturing past, are overlooking other aspects of those times—the racism and sexism, the overwhelming fear of nuclear war, and so many other things.

It’s also true that nostalgia of this sort is part of what brings many of us to church. We want the reassurance of tradition to sustain in uncertain and anxious times. We want familiar faces, familiar hymns, liturgy that we have memorized. As the world spins ever more quickly out of control, the stone walls of this church that have stood firmly for over 150 years, seem to provide a haven, an ark to protect us from the coming flood.

But of course, it’s not quite that simple. Changing demographics, changing culture, the rapid decline of Christianity in America present grave challenges to the future stability of even the congregation that meets within the solid walls of this building. None of this is new. We’ve been talking about it for years. And in recent months, many individuals and groups at Grace have been reading The Agile Church, by Dwight Zscheile, in which he talks about these changes and how the church might adapt and innovate to become more effective in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and connecting with our neighbors and larger community.

Still, there’s no little irony that we are reading a book called The Agile Churchhere at Grace. There’s really nothing agile about us. We’ve been here on this corner for over 175 yrs; this building has been here since 1858, the oldest building on Capitol Square, the oldest church in Madison, perhaps in Dane County. But I think Zscheile’s underlying point is absolutely correct. We have to change, we have to experiment and innovate as we seek to connect in new ways to our neighbors, and we have to be willing to fail in the process.

For all of this, we have significant precedent in scripture, nowhere more so than in the Book of Acts, a text that offers us insight into the development of the followers of the Way, as they called themselves, in the first years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Last week, we looked at the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, one of the most important early examples of the expansion of the good news of Jesus Christ outside of the Jewish and Jerusalem context in which it began.

This week we have part of another story that makes the same point. For whatever reason, we only get a small part of the story—the climax, with its conversion experience, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Gentiles, and Peter’s question, echoing the Eunuch’s words last week, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

But just who were these people? Our reading is the conclusion of the story of Cornelius the Centurion. Cornelius, we are told, was a god-fearer, someone attracted to the ethical standards and monotheism of Judaism. He had a vision one day that instructed him to send for Peter. As his emissaries were approaching the place where Peter was staying, it was about noon, and Peter was praying on the roof of the house. He had a vision in which a large sheet came down from heaven, and on the sheet were all manner of animals, all of them unclean. But a voice told him, “Take and eat.” Peter refused, and the scene was repeated two more times. Just as he was trying to figure out what the vision might mean, Cornelius’ messengers arrived. Peter and his companions went with them and he preached to Cornelius and his household. As he preached, the Holy Spirit came upon the gathering, including on the unbaptized Gentiles. And Peter asked the question, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Like the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, the story of Cornelius is a story of the gospel moving beyond its beginning among a small group of Jesus’ followers centered in Jerusalem, out into the world, and out among people quite unlike these Galileans. Acts will tell the story of the gospel reaching Rome, but it is a story not without conflict and dissent. The New Testament, both in Acts and in Paul’s letters show the tension that arose as the gospel was proclaimed among Gentiles. Many Jews and Jewish Christians were troubled by the expansion of the gospel to Gentiles, and the decision not to require converts to keep the commandments of Torah.

It’s easy for us, 1900 years on the other side of this development, all of us descendants of those who were once outsiders and welcomed in, to see all this as a natural, easy development. But the challenge for us is to discern where the Holy Spirit is calling us now—what sort of barriers and assumptions do we maintain that prevent the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ?

When we ask the question that way, we immediately jump to issues of diversity and inclusion, which are so very important, and have focused our energies as Christians for many years. But in some ways, the obvious issues may not always be the most pressing, or the most challenging.

Having preached on such matters repeatedly over the years, and for some of you, it may have become a bit tiresome, I would like to shift our perspective and think about other internal barriers that prevent us from allowing the spirit’s free movement. And it’s here that today’s gospel reading offers insight.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper.  He says some pretty remarkable things in this brief passage: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” Think about it, think about the eternity, the intimacy of that love of God the Father and God the Son—that’s the sort of love Jesus is talking about here, the love he has for his disciples, for us.

But then he goes on. , “I do not call you servants any longer, … but I have called you friends.” While we get the contrast between friend and servant—the change in status, the change in power dynamic, we probably don’t fully grasp the intimacy implied. For us, “friend” has become something casual—especially in the age of Facebook.

But friendship takes on even deeper meaning as Jesus says, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If we haven’t gotten the point earlier, by now it’s clear. The sort of friendship Jesus is talking about is nothing like contemporary notions of friendship. It’s all-encompassing. Of course, we’re meant to think of Jesus’ own love, love expressed on the cross. But we’re also meant to think back to the beginning of this section of John’s gospel, chapter 13, where the gospel begins his account of the Last Supper with the words, “And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And here, end means both the end of Jesus’ life as well as “to the fullest extent possible.”

That sort of love, the sort of love Jesus showed in his death as well as his life, is incomprehensible to us, even as we experience it. That he might be calling us to the same love is mind-boggling. But we shouldn’t regard it as yet another burden or demand. It is a logical extension of Jesus’ calling us his “friends.”

John’s gospel begins with that marvelous hymn, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It goes on to proclaim, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That Word made flesh now calls us “friend.” We are no longer servants or slaves, but friends.” It is a declaration of our shared identity with Christ, not just a relationship, but identity. That identity reaches beyond Jesus Christ to God. The love we share with Christ, that we abide in him and he in us, are reflections, extensions, of the love Jesus and the Father share. We abide in Christ as Christ abides in God.

Among other things, what this means is that we share in God’s mission in the world. We project God’s presence and love in the world. That’s why this commandment to love is so important. It’s not just our obligation; it’s evidence of who we are, of our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.

So to come back to my earlier question, what sort of barriers do we set up preventing the good news from reaching the world—well, perhaps the first barrier is within ourselves, a barrier that limits us from experiencing that intimacy, the fullness of God’s love, and because we can’t experience it, or don’t want to, we are unable to share it fully with others.

May we open ourselves to the depths and riches of God’s love, may we abide in that love, may we become friends with Jesus, and through his love and friendship, begin to share that same love and friendship with the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snatched up by the Spirit: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2018

This is one of the weeks of the Eucharistic lectionary when I have had to struggle extensively as I prepared this sermon. My struggle wasn’t with the dearth of material—over the years I’ve preached on both today’s gospel reading and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. And as you know, I have a particular fondness for the Gospel of John, for vineyards, and for that good old word “abiding, so I began working on the gospel reading, and was thinking about including a hefty dose of material from the epistle reading as well.” But I was struggling because I was trying to discern which direction to go, what the Spirit is saying to our church, Grace Church today. In fact, as I prepared for the Wednesday eucharist at Capital Lakes, I decided to focus on the gospel and epistle reading. A member who attended that service, joked that he enjoys seeing how my thoughts develop from Wednesday to Sunday. Well, he’s I for a surprise today. Continue reading

Called to be a community of Good Shepherds: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2018

We are in Eastertide, the season of Easter that extends until the Feast of Pentecost, this year on May 20. Our lectionary readings over this season have a certain trajectory. The past three Sundays, we have heard stories of encounters with the Risen Christ. With today’s gospel, we are moving in a different direction as our readings seem to explore what it means to be  beloved community living in the presence of the Risen Christ.

This Sunday is informally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Each year in the lectionary cycle, the gospel reading is taken from John 10, which contains Jesus’ discourse or sermon on the image of the good shepherd, sheep, and the gate of the sheepfold. Each year, the psalm appointed for the day is Psalm 23—The Lord is my Shepherd.

Each year, as I prepare to preach on this Sunday, I confront the same fundamental conflict or problem. On the one hand, there is the power and appeal of imagery that has persisted in the Christian imagination for two thousand years: the Good Shepherd. There is the familiarity of Psalm 23, one of the first portions of scripture I ever memorized, and I can probably still recite it using the language of the authorized, King James version.

On the other hand, I always find myself fighting against that imagery. There’s the individualistic, sugar-coated piety of the ubiquitous, kitschy paintings of Jesus in a white robe, surrounded by white lambs, and blond-haired blue-eyed, smiling children. There’s the paternalism and infantilization of laypeople as sheep, and clergy as shepherds or pastors. There’s the not-so-subtle seduction of a simpler, less-complicated, pre-industrial world, where we can escape the complexities, ambiguities, and challenges of contemporary life and rest in the comfort of green pastures and still waters.

As appealing and comforting this imagery is, I also find it deeply problematic, and its very familiarity can make finding a preaching word difficult.

Our reading comes half-way through the chapter, so Jesus has been using the imagery of the good shepherd, sheep, the sheepfold and gate at great length already. It’s also helpful to remember that the whole of this discourse comes immediately after the long story of Jesus healing the man born blind, a story in which there is conflict between Jesus, the blind man, and the Pharisees, a story also in which the blind man comes to know Jesus through the sound of his voice.

In our passage, Jesus begins with the statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” He contrasts the behavior and character of the shepherd with the hired hand and we are likely to think of the adjective “good” in light of that, contrasting the “good shepherd” with the “bad” hired hand. But in this instance, the underlying Greek word has a slightly different connotation. We could translate it as noble, or ideal or model shepherd—in fact the contrast might better be understood as being between honor and shame, than between good and bad, or good and evil.

Does that matter? Well, it might, if we think about what Jesus is saying as a description of the ideal shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep—and immediately we’re put in mind of the cross, and of Jesus’ words to his disciples at the last supper: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (jn 15:13), a theme repeated in the lesson from I John that we heard this morning.

In fact, both this aspect of the ideal shepherd, that he lays down his life for his sheep, and the second aspect emphasized in today’s gospel, that the shepherd knows his sheep by name—are obvious to us readers of John’ gospel, approaching this passage after cross and resurrection. For we have seen the true, the model shepherd in action, laying down his life for his friends, for us, on the cross, and calling his own by their name, as he called Mary Magdalene in the garden and in that moment, she knew her Lord.

In other words, in the Gospel of John, we are not only given Jesus’ words about the character and behavior of the good shepherd, John also provides us with the paradigmatic example of the Good Shepherd, Jesus himself, the one who laid down his life for his friends; the one who knew his friends by name.

But there is also a challenge here. While the image of the Good Shepherd seems to invite us into a place of comfort, peace, and security, sheep under the protective care of the shepherd, within the walls of an enclosure, the image itself, as well as Jesus’ words, encourage us to think differently. The reading from I John seems almost to be a commentary on Jesus’ words here. The writer seems to say to us, yes, Jesus did lay down his life for us, but in response we are to lay down our lives for others. There’s no security blanket here, no protective wall, only the example of Jesus calling us out into the world, calling us to love others in the same way, and with the same consequences as he did.

On top of that, continuing the imagery, the walls within which the Good Shepherd gathers the flock are not closed off from the world. Though he may know us, and his own, by name, Jesus is also calling others into relationship. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”

This statement offers an important corrective to other tendencies in scripture, and our own proclivities to remain within the familiar and the comfortable. We like the security and comfort of the Good Shepherd. We want to be nurtured and protected, but Jesus is also prodding us outward, into those difficult encounters with the strange, the other, the uncomfortable.

Think about all those places we go where we want safety, security, comfort. Church, yes, where we don’t want to deal with hard issues, or difficult people, or strangers. But apparently also, for many of us, encountering people unlike ourselves creates fear. Think about walking up State Street and dealing with panhandlers; or the horrific story that went viral this week about the African-American men who were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks, simply because they were waiting for someone and didn’t purchase anything. We want all of the spaces in which we work, and play, and live safe—and we bring down the full power of a militarized police to make sure that all of those spaces are comfortable for us.

But what would it be like if we opened up our hearts, our selves, our communities, our congregation, to the challenging and unsettling encounter with the stranger, the outcast, the other? What if we allowed those encounters to take place, not on our terms, but on their terms. I was deeply moved by another story I read this week, one that came across the Episcopal News Service, about churches that had made the commitment not to call the police when confronted with difficult or challenging people or situations. The reasoning goes that too often such incidents escalate quickly, that mental illness, homelessness, and other behaviors or conditions are criminalized, that an encounter of the police with people, especially people of color, too often end in violence and arrest, as we saw in Philadelphia, and as we indeed see on the streets of Madison as well.

That’s one way that the words of this gospel reading take us out of still waters and green pastures, out of the protective enclosure, and into the world, the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus reminds us that his call goes out into the world, to others, that he offers relationship,  abundant life to people who make us uncomfortable and unsettle our assumptions. He laid down his life for them as well.

He calls us, too, not only to be sheep, but also to be shepherds, to lay down our lives for others, to invite others into relationship with him. As a congregation, we are having conversations in a number of venues, among a number of groups, about our outreach into the community, about building relationships with our neighbors. As those conversations take place, and as we strategize next steps, I hope that we will take seriously Jesus’ example. As he laid down his life for his friends, may we be challenged to offer ourselves in similar ways, sharing our love and our faith. May we invite others into relationship with Jesus. May our community increasingly reflect and embody the diversity in our city and may our invitation to others be an invitation to us as well, an invitation to grow, and to change, and to experience more fully the abundant life that is relationship in and with Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breathed into Resurrection Community: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, 2018

 

 Are you tired of this weather already? Snow last week, snow forecast for tonight and tomorrow morning, bitter cold. It feels more like February than April, and while we didn’t have a particularly hard winter, this prolonged cold has put me in a rather bad mood, and I’ve got a persistent cough. The daffodil and tulip bulbs that we carefully planted last fall and nursed throughout the winter in the garage that are intended  to go in our window boxes are in full bloom, but they’re in the house, not outside, because it’s just too cold for them. Continue reading

Named, known, and loved by the Risen Christ: A Sermon for Easter, 2018

   Vilas Memorial Window, Grace Episcopal Church

 

 I was fortunate as a college professor that I taught at small liberal arts college where the number of students in my courses never exceeded 30. This was back before the age of smart phones and our department had a camera that some of my colleagues used on the first day of class to take photos of their students so they could put faces to names more quickly.

In my own experience, I learned that if I called the roll for two weeks, by the end of that time, I would know the students’ names by heart. Of course, they made it easier for me because they always sat in the same seat in the room. It would often happen that I would encounter a student on the sidewalk or in the library two or three years after I’d had them in class. I could recall where they sat in the room, what their final grade was, but often their name would be a complete mystery. Usually, several nights later I would suddenly wake up and there it was, on my lips, the name of that student.

The same thing happens at church, of course. If you’ve visited a few times, it’s likely I’m going to remember your face—but unless I see your name written out, it will take quite some time for me to remember it. There are also some people who come regularly whose name I don’t know—often, it’s because they want to remain invisible, or unnoticed. And then there’s the phenomenon of me walking into a restaurant or grocery store out of uniform, and encountering someone from church or someone I know from some other official capacity. They’ll take a second look, a puzzled expression comes on their face, and finally, I will end the suspense. Without a collar, it’s as if I’m in disguise (well, to be honest, sometimes I am in disguise).

While there are some places, and some groups, where we want to remain anonymous, there are also times when, as the theme song to the 1980s sitcom Cheers, put it: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

That moment in John’s gospel where Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name is intimate, dramatic, and revelatory. It’s a moment captured in the image on today’s service bulletin, courtesy of a last-minute request I made to our Communications Coordinator, Peggy Frain, a photo of one of the panels from the Vilas Window which is to my right.

But let’s step back a moment and explore this wonderful story in greater detail. The Gospel of John is wonderful, perplexing, challenging, at times, infuriating. It provides us so much imagery, so many ideas, tantalizing nuggets of information that it’s easy to get caught up in the detail and over interpret, or read too much into relatively minor points. Still, there is so much here—first, unlike in the other gospels where Mary Magdalene is accompanied by other women, and they have a set purpose in mind, anointing Jesus’ body with burial spices, in John, Mary comes alone, and for no particular purpose (Nicodemus took care of the embalming earlier).

In the other gospels, the women come at the break of day, here Mary comes at night—which reminds us of other nights in the gospel, the night early on when Nicodemus came to Jesus; the night a few days earlier, when Judas left Jesus and the others on his mission of betrayal; the night or darkness, throughout the gospel that stands in contrast to the light of Christ. We might infer that Mary herself is coming in the night, because she doesn’t know the light…

Then there’s the footrace between Peter and the beloved disciple, a race one by the other disciple, but he waits, and lets Peter enter first. There is the careful detail describing how the linen grave clothes are arranged, and the observation that the beloved disciple sees and believes, though what precisely he believes isn’t clear.

But back to Mary. After Peter and the Beloved Disciple go home after their morning run, probably stopping for coffee along the way, Mary stays behind in the garden, overwhelmed by grief. Probably, she’s still struggling to understand what’s happened, not quite believing that the tomb is empty. For the first time, she decides to look inside for herself, perhaps wondering what the other disciples had seen when they entered. Instead of grave clothes, she sees two angels who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Mary’s response is partly bewilderment, partly a declaration of faith. While she can’t make sense of the scene in front of her, by refering to Jesus as her Lord, she proclaims her belief that, all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is (or was) the Son of God.

In the middle of her encounter with the angels, Mary senses another presence behind her and turns. John puts it succinctly, and lets we the readers in on the secret before Mary figures it out: “…saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.” We know it’s Jesus, and John writes it in such a way that we want to know how or when Mary will figure it out.

Jesus calls her by name and the eyes of her soul are opened. She recognizes him and calls him, “Rabbouni” Teacher. It’s a poignant, powerful moment, and it’s not just about Mary finally figuring out who Jesus is. Rather, when he calls her by name, he tells her who she is, and their relationship is restored and deepened. Mary is known and loved by Jesus and when he calls her by name, she enters into that love and knowledge.

We live in a world in which our lives are played out for the world to see. We share intimate details and photos of ourselves on facebook or instagram; we are connected to people across the globe via twitter and engage in debate and controversy with people we’ve never met face to face. Our personal details are mined for our political and shopping preferences and our efforts to maintain personal privacy rarely succeed.

Still, in all of that, the intimacy we so often desire remains elusive. Our mobility, jobs that require our attention and focus far beyond forty hours a week, the temptations of social media, mean that our relationships are tentative, often shallow, temporary. We want to hide so much of ourselves from others, out of fear or shame.

“Mary,” Jesus said. And in that instant, the veil that separated the two of them in the garden fell away and Mary saw her Lord. He called her by name, and not only did she recognize him, she also came to understand and know herself, in relationship with Jesus, and known, and loved, by him.

The Risen Christ calls us by name, knows us by name. When we hear his voice, we begin to know ourselves and are invited into relationship with him, to become his.

The Risen Christ stands before us in the garden. The Risen Christ comes to us in bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast. The Risen Christ encounters us in the community gathered to hear the proclamation of the Word. The Risen Christ encounters us in the faces of the outcast, the homeless and hungry, the widow and orphan, in immigrants, prisoners, the LGBT community.

The Risen Christ calls us by name, inviting us into relationship with him. He invites us to bring all of our baggage, all of our wounds and scars, all of our sins and brokenness. When we hear his voice, and answer his call, we become whole and healed, loved and known by him. May the sound of his voice fill you with joy, heal your brokenness, dry your tears. May we all know the joy and love of the Risen Christ. Thanks Be to God!