Archives for May 2006

We need to make our own pearls, 7 Easter (B) – 2006

May 28, 2006

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

Everybody knows that oysters sometimes make pearls; and that fascinating reality has been used to illustrate many a point. But here’s an old truth said in a new way, a way that gives it more power. It seems pearls aren’t automatic. When an oyster – who must ordinarily have an enviably calm life lying around eating soft, pleasant food – somehow gets a bit of sand inside its shell, then one of two things will happen. The oyster will create a pearl, or it will die. The pearl, a thing of beauty and value, is the oyster’s way of staying alive after something very irritating has gotten past its shell, into its heart.

That little bit of marine biology is background for today’s Gospel – not to present any sermonic pearls; be they pearls of wisdom, or pearls of great price. Instead, let’s examine the grain of sand, a bit of irritation, something small and rough that can slip past our shells and give us all something to work on. We – and indeed the church itself, in this and every generation – need to work on this bit of sand very carefully. It will not go away; and we will either make of it a pearl, or, in one way or another, we will die.

The grit, like the oyster’s sand, is well hidden in pleasant, soft food. The Gospel we just heard is a portion of what is called the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. It is after supper “in the night in which He was betrayed.” Jesus is praying for his disciples, and for us. He prays for our unity, for our joy, and for our safety and protection. Jesus says that we are not of the world, but that we should none the less remain in the world – for our ministry is to be in the world, and for the world.

Now remember, when Jesus says “world” here, He is not talking about the created order: rocks and trees and rabbits and things like that. He is talking about human society organized as it sees best for its own purposes.

He is talking about business as usual; about the government, the society, the culture, the various human institutions; the world in that sense, doing what it usually does.

And Jesus says of his disciples that the world has hated them because they are not of the world. This hatred is to be the fate, indeed it is to be a real, distinguishing mark, of all who follows Jesus. They are to stand out because they don’t really fit in.

The bit of grit is this: When was the last time the world hated you because you belong to Jesus and not to the world? When was the last time your faith so set you apart from business as usual that you were met with anger, ridicule, or hatred? How about a little bit of contempt? Mild dislike? How about a tiny bit of irritation?

Hey, maybe Jesus was wrong; maybe, these days, we really are of the world, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But somehow that’s doubtful. Or maybe the Kingdom of God has arrived, and we just missed everything about it except for how convenient it is for us. But that’s doubtful too.

We need to ask whether we have become so totally caught in our culture, become so totally of the world that we have to work hard to discover if we are different, and how we are different, and what it looks like for us to be different, and whether it is worth it to be different.

In many ways it was easier for the early church. As an occasionally persecuted minority in a pagan culture, a lot of things were clear. For example, Christians couldn’t attend the public games, they couldn’t hold several types of jobs, they couldn’t join the army, and so on. The world often ridiculed or hated them – and both sides pretty much knew why.

It’s not so easy these days. Modern attempts to come up with lists of popular things Christians can’t do have usually been rather silly. And we Episcopalians have been downright smug in pointing out that we aren’t like those people (you know, the Baptists, and others) who say you can’t dance or wear make-up or go to movies.

By the way, have you ever noticed that nobody ever really nails us on that? Instead of trying to establish God’s disapproval for the waltz or bingo, they could really hit home if they responded to our self-righteous lack of lists with another question. What if they said, “OK, have your martini and go to the dance, but before you do, tell me how your faith does affect your life; show me how it makes a difference.” That is the grit for us oysters.

One way we try to get out of this pinch can cause a lot of trouble. That way is saying that it is the Church’s job to fix the world so there will be no conflicts for us to worry about. So from time to time, we rear back and try to change everything within reach so we can be both righteous and of the world at the same time. We do that in all sorts of ways, from all sorts of directions. Now, on one level, this is good. It is very important that we engage the world and try very hard to make things better. We need to do this; but we need to avoid getting confused about what that means. And we get confused easily.

It is not hard to forget that God will bring in the Kingdom, not us. And even worse, we find it very easy to begin supporting what we think is a good cause, for Christian reasons, and then to end up holding onto the cause and forgetting the Christian part of it altogether. Of course, the best way to tell whether the cause or the Christianity is more important is by looking at how we treat people who don’t agree with our cause.

And we get confused when we forget that the Lord does not call us to be powerful or effective as the world sees power and effectiveness. The Lord calls us to be faithful – to live his life, to follow his steps. Part of that involves remembering that, of the twelve disciples, Judas was the most effective at using both money and the powers that be to get what he wanted. Just trying to fix things doesn’t get rid of our problems, either.

This is grit, not pearls. We don’t have a list of rules telling us how not to be of the world because we know that it isn’t that simple. Still, we do know, and we must never forget, that the way we treat each other, and the way we treat our bodies, and our time, and our money, and the things we call “mine” – these are and will remain very important. And our Lord has something to say about them. We also know that all the good works, reforms, and changes we make, as important as they are, will not take away the problem, either. This side of the Kingdom, the world as Jesus spoke of it of business as usual, this will always, in one or another, be the alternative to faithfulness, and not the means to it.

We need to make our own pearls, or we will die. We need to look honestly at the world, at the culture around us, and at we are – and who the Lord would have us be. We must always make choices. We may even discover that Jesus was right, and that, in one way or another, the world will hate us. But the Lord continues to pray for us, we are promised all of the help we need. And pearls come from the oddest places.

 — The Rev. James Liggett has been rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Big Spring, Texas since 1994. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Fr. Liggett and his wife Kathleen have a 20-year-old son.

The Ascension reveals God’s glory to us, Ascension Day (B) – 2006

May 26, 2006

Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47 or Psalm 93; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

In the rural county of Norfolk, England, there is a town known as Little Walsingham. Inside the town’s church, there are a number of altars — one of them dedicated to the Feast of the Ascension. It’s an unremarkable shrine, just a small table and few candles, but above it is a sculpture of clouds, carved in wood. From the midst of these clouds, there are two feet protruding, looking rather like the remains of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. As silly as it sounds, that’s the ascension: the resurrected Jesus is lifted up, and a cloud takes him out of sight.
This is the witness of holy scripture — of the very apostles themselves: while they were watching, Jesus was taken up, out of sight. They may very well have seen the bottoms of his sandals — as imagined at Little Walsingham — as he disappeared into the cloud. The Ascension of Jesus is one of only two recorded in sacred scripture, the other being that of Elijah. As improbable as it seems, the Ascension is a witnessed event, an actual phenomenon, a recorded fact — no metaphor here. As they were watching, Jesus is lifted up, and a cloud takes him out of their sight.

Imagine the testimony here, as if it were presented in a court of law today.

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“I do.”
“Name and occupation?”
“Luke, Apostle.”

There can be no more unimpeachable a witness, can there? And — in spite of all the places where the Bible makes no sense to us, or contradicts itself, or isn’t entirely clear about the details — here is testimony where the meaning is plain, and clear, and obvious. Jesus disappears into the clouds.

We can have faith that the Ascension actually happened.

So, why is the Ascension important to us? You may remember several years ago, when the weekly news magazines all featured lengthy stories about the resurrected Jesus. One of these gave details of a so-called “scientific” criticism of Easter story. The scientist alleges that Jesus — like Shakespeare’s Juliet — had not actually died, but was drugged. According to this theory, the three days’ in the tomb were just another “bad trip,” from which Jesus presumably awoke with a nasty hangover. There were, the scientist rightly points out, no witnesses to the resurrection; no one was there when Jesus started breathing again.

The scientist, of course, has a point; and it is a great mystery that so fundamental a tenet of our faith should be unproved. As unimaginably ridiculous as it sounds to us, the closest disciples and our Lord could have conspired in a great plot and deception — one that, if true, would shake the foundations of the church even today.

But could the apostles, in their sorrow and fear at the death of Jesus, and in their confusion at his many resurrection appearances — could they have imagined him flying? We do not have to imagine human flight: we have accomplished it. But, honestly, can we really believe that some uneducated, rural first-century peasants would make up something like this? As the kids say, “Not!”

Now, the Ascension is not somehow more important than the resurrection — nothing of the kind. Rather, as important as principles like incarnation and resurrection are to us as Christians, they are but glimpses of a total reality. The Christian mystery is of one piece: a seamless garment, of which the Ascension is but one aspect. Yet not even a lowly midwife tells of Jesus’ birth, and no one witnessed the moment of resurrection, but the Ascension is the aspect that people observed and documented and proved. The Ascension is important to us not because Jesus could only have entered into glory by this means — but because God chose to reveal that glory to those people of Galilee, who stood there, looking up in amazement.

The Ascension reveals God’s glory to us.

And what does the Ascension mean for us? How can we revel in the very moment we can prove we were abandoned by God? How can we celebrate that Jesus has been taken up, out of sight?

Hear now a story of an Englishman, who, when a very young boy, was taken to nursery school by his mother. Attentive to his anxiety about being abandoned, the boy’s mother leaned down, kissed her son, and said, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.” Each day, his mother would bid him farewell with those same words. Too young to recognize the paradox, the boy embraced his new existence and quickly adjusted to new and frightening surroundings. Day after day, and week after week, his mother bid the same farewell: “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.”

The boy grew into adulthood, and as a mature man was confronted with the reality of having to place his mother in a nursing home. She — now elderly and frail, with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease — barely recognized him, often forgot to eat, and simply could no longer care for herself. As he departed from her, leaving her in her new and frightening surroundings, he remembered her words. He leaned down, kissed his mother, and said, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving” — words his mother recognized even as she no longer recognized him. A tear appeared in her eye, as she clasped her hand and repeated, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.”

This is Jesus’ message on his departing. “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving” He is departing from us, out of our sight. We find ourselves in the new and frightening surroundings of this life, in a place where we are uncomfortable and often feel ill-equipped to carry on. And yet, we burn the paschal candle to indicate his closeness, we covenant ourselves to seek and serve him in all persons, we sing songs that tell of the wonders of his incarnation, we feel his very presence in bread and wine, and we hear the story of how — as the apostles were watching — he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. As Leo the Great wrote, “Even the blessed apostles, though they have been strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so much teaching, took fright at the cruel suffering of the Lord’s passion and could not accept his resurrection without hesitation. Yet they made such progress through his ascension that they now found joy in what had terrified them before.”

The Ascension helps us find joy in what had terrified us before.

These words carry particular poignancy in our time as we take fright at the cruel suffering we see in the world around us. Can it be that we who have been strengthened by so many miracles and instructed by so much teaching — that we may make such progress that we can find joy in what now terrifies us?

We can find joy, if we but follow the example of those blessed apostles. We can find joy, if we allow ourselves to have faith in the working out of God’s plan of salvation. We can find joy, if we believe that Jesus did rise up and vanish into a haze. That this unimaginable event was recorded — by the most reliable witnesses ever — offers proof of our faith. This Ascensiontide, we can find joy in what terrifies us and stretch our imaginations to hear Jesus, as his feet disappear into the clouds, say, “Good bye, my love. No one is leaving.”


— The Rev. Barrie Bates is curate at the Church of the Ascension, New York City, a doctoral student in Liturgical Studies at Drew University, and author, with the Rev. Robert J. Schwarz, of “Reflections on Liturgy at Ground Zero: How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song upon an Alien Soil?” in the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 59:4, Winter 2005. He is indebted to the Very Rev. Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, for inspiration for this sermon.

Loving our neighbor, 6 Easter (B) – 2006

May 21, 2006

Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

As we move from Easter to Pentecost our lessons highlight the broad spectrum of what the Christian faith brings to the people of God. The Gospel lesson and the Epistle remind us of the Commandments of God, while in Acts we hear of the necessity of baptism, even for those who may have already received the Holy Spirit. Finally the Psalm awakens us to one of David’s great songs of praise. Each Lesson is a message within itself. Today, though, let us concentrate on the message of 1 John and the Gospel of John: “For the love of God is this…”

Both the Epistle and the Gospel lesson are about the great commandment that God gives “to love one another as I have loved you.” Most of us have a basic understanding of this simple message. The question is: How well are we able follow this commandment of God?

1 John is a guideline to developing a fellowship with Christ. In our lesson we discover that it takes confidence in our lives to be able to relate to such a fellowship. To express the truth of love toward others as we love ourselves is no easy task. The great glory of our Christian faith is that it is gloriously secular. It is designed to prepare us for life and to fit us for living that life. God, indeed, created us to be that kind of person – to be confident, adequate, and full of the assurance that we can do that which God has planned for us.

This epistle from John lays out the secret of this confidence we seek. It is in the fellowship of sharing the life of Jesus Christ. This confident life will be manifested as truth, righteousness, and love. This is authentic Christianity.

John is very specific about this fellowship. He says, “If we claim to know God, but yet walk in the darkness of disobedience, we are a liar.” Back in the second chapter of this same epistle, John says, “To claim to possess the Father and yet deny the deity and incarnation of the Son is to be a liar.” Finally, John says in chapter four, “You are a liar if you say you love God and yet do not love your brethren.” These actions are not genuine. As Christians we cannot have life both ways.

Often we are asked when talking about this expression of love, “What does it really mean to love my brother or sister? Who is my brother or sister?” In verse one we hear it said, “Everyone who believes that Jesus Christ has been born of God … is a child of God.” We are family. If we love the Father, we will likewise love the other children of the family. We are talking about the extended family of God. We are talking about relationship with each other in the body of Christ.

We ask ourselves, “Are we to love others who are not Christian?” Yes. We must find ways to share God’s creative love for them in ways they will understand. Non-Christians do not have to be outside the circle that makes up the family of God. If we are able to unconditionally love those in the family circle we know are believers, then we will be better able to love those outside that circle. The love of a Christian is never limited.

John says in verse three, “His commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.” As humans, there are times we simply do not agree. This is true within any family situation. There are times when we must do things that may offend one another. Does this mean that we don’t love that person? Not if we are keeping the commandments of God. It may mean that we need to find ways of better understanding each other. It may take great prayer on our part to override some prejudices or opinions we may have. Or it may take great prayer on our part to seek God’s wisdom in bringing us together for His sake and His glory.

Sometimes love must do unpleasant things. Sometimes love must be cruel to be kind. Back in the late 1980s “tough love” was a new buzz phrase for dealing with the crisis of drugs and other personal problems within family settings. It was not easy to intervene with someone you loved. At times we have to acknowledge in our relationships that “the rubber has met the road.” Then we must pause, regroup, and seek God’s enduring love for us and those we have tried to help in our own strength. God is the healer. He can heal our sinfulness, our hurts, our mistrust, and our inability to see the goodness in someone special to us. He can even heal our own self worth. It all comes back to obeying the commandments of God.

Finally, our Gospel – as the Gospel of Jesus always does – ties these commandments all together. Jesus says, “I am giving you these commandments that you may love one another.”

Jesus says the same thing as part of the greatest commandment. The first part is “to love God with all your heart, mind, strength, soul”; the second part is “to love your neighbor as yourself.” In this gospel Jesus emphasizes how our love for one another is how we show our love for God. The evidence that we follow Christ is not in our theology, or that we go to church. The evidence that we follow Christ is seen in how we treat one another.

Jesus taught many things, but the one thing he taught more than anything else was about love. It was not romantic love. It is that love that binds people together in a very relational and spiritual way. It is a love that thinks of the other before the self. It is the love that is willing to lay down one’s life for a friend. It is such love that Jesus is talking about.

He was describing a radical relationship, not just social acquaintances. He was talking about a lifestyle of love for one another because we need one another. Jesus set the example. Remember, He said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” His disciples – his friends – did not know it then, but Jesus was doing for them what he wanted them to do. It is also what he wants us to do.

Love and action are interconnected, bound up together. When we love like Jesus then we will want to follow the commands of God. When we love like Jesus, we will want to show it, not because we have to, but because we want to. Real love isn’t blind. It isn’t ignorant of the facts. Real love is love that continues despite the facts. Real love finds the way to move on despite failure and disappointment.

Does all this talk about love sound too simple? It may be simple, but it is not easy. Loving God is easy because God loved us first and God is perfect. Loving someone else – a member of the family of God – is much more difficult. We may be the best of friends, but we are humans, with our own unique sinful nature of expectations, judgments, lack of understanding, and frustration.

God is the transforming power within the family. As a community of faith we are called to be a family gathered together in the name of Jesus Christ. When we do that, we find ways to love each other, and our joy increases and becomes complete.

Loving our neighbor … our brothers and sisters … is a long-term commitment. It requires us to take one step at a time. It takes the reality that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. In the life of a believing Christian that is the greatest day of our lives. That is the time and place when God’s unconditional love reached out and touched us. Good Friday brings us to Easter, Easter brings us to Pentecost, and Pentecost allows us to express through our gifts of the Holy Spirit the love God has for us and for his family.

That is the sort of love Jesus was talking about. Is that the sort of love we are able to give?


— Harry Denman is a lay communicant of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Broken Arrow, Okla. He has been an active Episcopalian for more than 40 years. He and his wife, Emma, live in an independent retirement community.

Abide in me as I abide in you, 5 Easter (B) – 2006

May 14, 2006

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Theologians through the ages have written about Christians’ penchant for a “milquetoast Jesus,” who is, in today’s parlance, something of a wimp. Dorothy Sayers, better known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries than her essays, wrote in exasperation in her book The Greatest Drama Ever Staged:

“We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

We don’t have to look very far to see this image played out in liturgy and song. Think of the hymn:

Awake, awake to love and work!
The lark is in the sky;
The fields are wet with diamond dew;
The worlds awake to cry
Their blessings on the Lord of life,
As He goes meekly by.

Jesus is depicted here as meekly passing by.

Walk into church halls across the land, and any depictions of Jesus will be soft, solemn, composed.

The scripture passage we call “The Beatitudes” – or as the writer Robert Schuller publicized them, “the Be (Happy) Attitudes” – is much preferred over Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the temple. Jesus welcoming children is more often cited as descriptive of our Lord than his pronouncement “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” In an odd sort of way, all of this is consistent, too, with our current trends toward inactivity and obesity. Overall, in our lives as in our faith, it is much more comfortable to sit still – to take a load off and rest awhile – than to be active.

Jesus tells his disciples, “Abide in me.” Oh, this is comforting! These words are alluring and welcoming and warm. We love to hear the reassurance that comes with our Lord inviting us into a kind of security, a resting in the everlasting arms of Jesus just like the old hymn proclaims. These words have been offered for generations as words of comfort. They declare the loving goodness of Jesus, the gentle savior.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. … Abide in me as I abide in you. … If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

Good news! Comforting and encouraging words! But is that all? So often this seems to be the sense of this lesson, indeed of the entire Gospel message and of Jesus. But there’s more to it than that. If we stop with the comforting words, we miss the message.

This passage also includes the message of pruning, and being thrown away, and withering – of being thrown into the fire and burned. That is the part we often don’t hear, and it is sobering.

The message of Jesus is clear when read closely and in its entirety: he expects something of us. He is not meek and mild, and doesn’t expect us to be. Our call is his call.

Another excerpt from this same gospel reading demonstrates. “Abide in me as I abide in you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” These words are from the same gospel reading, and even use the admonition “Abide in me.” But listen closely to the difference: “Abide in me as I abide in you.

How many ways can we say this today?
– Quid pro quo.
– No such thing as a free lunch.
– What goes around comes around.

In other sayings of Jesus we hear:
– Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
– Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
– Love one another as God loves us.

However it’s phrased, it’s a two-part deal. The responsibility goes both ways. There is mutuality, reciprocity, an even exchange. Just as Jesus is not the meek and mild savior, neither are his disciples expected to be lazy and inactive.

The image of the vineyard is common throughout Old Testament scriptures and was a familiar image for Israel. Perhaps it was rooted in the Garden of Eden and the tension between being cast out and longing for return. Vineyard language – rich, harvest language – is used throughout the Hebrew scriptures to describe Israel and the promise of God’s restored goodness. Here, though, the vineyard language describes our relationship to God through Jesus, and makes clear the expectations of discipleship.

This is the time of year when many of us (gardeners at heart), begin planting seeds, or hailing off to the local nursery for bedding plants, or tending the shoots emerging from winter soil. We know that just because we want something to grow doesn’t guarantee that it will. We also know that getting our roses to bloom means cutting back the canes; that encouraging the growth of the tomato plants means pinching off the gangly stems; that getting a second bloom from the impatiens, or the pansies, or the sweet peas and zinnias, means cutting back the early flowers.

If something is growing where it doesn’t belong, we pull it out and call it a weed. If something is dead, or not growing well, we cut it off. If something is too big, or too small, we move it, stake it, tie it back. This is what John’s gospel describes of God and the disciples’ learning process. Gardening is not an armchair activity, and neither is faith. There are choices to be made. It is difficult work.

This passage from John’s gospel utilizes the image of vinedresser and vineyard to describe the relationship between God and Christian believers. What is the purpose of such care and tending? That we will bear fruit. That we may perhaps have a clearer understanding of our relationship to the vine.

Today is Mother’s Day. Many of us are mothers. Many of us have mothers. Any understanding of motherhood includes cajoling, guiding, and giving – as well as taking away, in the form of grounding, being put on “time out,” or being sent to our room. Isn’t this a bit like God’s role as the Vinedresser? God tends, mother guides. God counsels, mother teaches. God prunes, mother takes away, or puts on “time out,” or in some way lets us know that we will behave!

In both cases, the aim is to grow good fruit. For Mother, we are to become strong and wise and educated and courageous and ethical and use very good table manners. For God, well, for God we are to abide in God. Abide. Find our home in. Stake our claim in.

That sounds so easy, doesn’t it? We have only to glance again at the epistle reading from 1 John to realize how hard this is. We must love our brothers and sisters.

Imagine this in the family scenario: What does Mother do when we don’t love our brothers and sisters? Remember the old expression “gettin’ smacked upside the head”? John’s gospel uses the more elegant language of pruning to describe the vineyard scene, but it amounts to the same thing. We are to grow, to develop, to learn well from our teachers and to live the life to which we are called. And it’s hard work.

All of this conviction that we are called and expected to answer our Lord’s love with action, with fruit bearing, is rooted in our baptism with the promise “I will, with God’s help.” There’s that give-and-take construction again. In this Easter season it is good to remember that for the earliest Christians, baptism was the claiming of faith and being claimed by God. It was the nurturing and tending of the seedling until the tender shoot grew strong. The preparation for baptism took months and even years to accomplish because of all there was to learn and do in order to take on an active role in the community of faith. We stand on the shoulders of these saints in our present-day faith, charged to remember that the activity of faith is not easy or optional.

“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Jesus said. This doesn’t mean settle down, it means get busy.


— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religion and philosophy at Park University near Kansas City, following twelve years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys growing roses, raising children, and making chocolate desserts.

Ours is the story of an Easter people, 4 Easter (B) – 2006

May 7, 2006

Acts 4:5-12;Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

This is the story of an Easter people on a Sunday morning, welcoming a visitor who steps in off the street.

“Hi! My name is Joe” his name tag reads as he stands in the parish hall at coffee hour. He looks a little out of sorts, standing by coffee urn, a sugared doughnut snowing on his shirt.

Joe has just moved to the area. He is starting a new life in a new town, and he’s trying out a new idea. He thinks there may be a home for him here, in this church, among these people, who all seem already to know each other’s names. Joe hasn’t been inside a church in years. He remembers only vaguely a place with high ceilings. He recalls wondering as a boy if the high ceilings were meant to hold God in up under the rafters. Where else would God be?

Someone comes up to greet Joe and says, “Hi, My name is William – but everyone calls me Sparky.” It is obvious by his nickname, that Sparky has a history here. Sparky has a story, and a place in a bigger story here. He shares affectionate ties to other people who are part of that story, too.

Joe returns the following Sunday and the one after that, and soon after that he notices that the altar hangings are a different color. A few of the hymns become familiar. The little girl who sits with her parents in the pew behind him finally smiles at him when he turns around to pass the peace.

After several months, he misses a few Sundays because of a surgical procedure that keeps him home in bed recuperating. He is surprised when a parishioner calls to ask about him. Joe has never been missed before.

He is equally touched when he finds that his name has been added to the prayer list. He signs up to help cook at the annual parish pancake supper. Joe discovers he has a knack for flipping pancakes and is affectionately given the nickname “Flip” by other members of the cooking crew. “Flip” sticks, and that’s what everyone calls him now.

Someone overhears Flip talk about how much he enjoyed skiing in college. His name comes up when the youth group asks for another driver and chaperon for their winter ski trip. He agrees to go, and though he is not a particularly outgoing guy, the kids appreciate his low-key way of making sure no one is left out, and everyone has a good time. They ask him if he would teach their Christian Ed class next year.

The class, under Flip’s supervision, decides to raise money to buy children’s books for an after-school tutoring program the church has taken on as a community outreach project.

They decide to serve a pancake breakfast the first Sunday of every month after the early service. The donations they receive generously support their book-buying project. Flip encourages some of them to volunteer as tutors as well. Friendships develop, and the children are sent home with presents at Christmastime, every gift chosen with a particular child in mind, his name printed in big letters on the tag.

This is the story of an Easter people, called by Jesus, to call his own, each by name, often quietly, without a lot of fuss, into his abiding love. Through the voices personal and particular, of those who gather to be his Church, he calls his own to him. Many in the world are listening for that voice, sometimes discovering their own true names for the first time, spoken through it.

It is a voice heard in the compassionate concern expressed by a neighbor who shares a cup of tea with a frail shut-in. It is heard in the invitations extended to co-workers who belong to no faith community, but may be wiling to give one a try. It is heard in the story of the Good Shepherd read for the first time to a group of pre-schoolers. They know wolves are no laughing matter.

Faithfully, year in and year out, the gathered body of Christ stands watch. Through lean budget years and fat ones, the gathered Body of Christ learns that to stand watch with the staying power of the Good Shepherd is truly a labor of love.

The daily routine, of standing with those sheep day in and day out, is not particularly exciting. How easy it would be to fall asleep. How tempting to leave for a while and seek out a more spectacular view than the pasture has to offer. Forget the wolves; they haven’t been seen for a while, so maybe they are no longer out there in the trees, waiting. The hired hand’s not such a bad guy. Why not trust him with the job? He seems reliable enough.

Christ calls the Church to abide in his love, to stay alert, and to risk its life to protect those who are so easily overlooked by a world too impatient and uninterested to stay with them. Christ’s love abides in his Church. He lives here, he is not passing through. He does not turn and run. Through the spirit he has given us, we know that love abides in us; Love has made a home and settled here. Love hangs around, explores the neighborhood, introduces itself, tells stories about where it came from and how it got here. Love invites company in to sit and visit. Love offers refreshment.

Where love comes to abide, space must be cleared for the guests who will come to visit and stay. There is room no longer for storing such bulky furnishings as petty insecurities, self-importance, jealousy, and contempt. Others will be arriving soon. When love moves in, the word gets out.

Where love abides, activity may not look like much on the surface. It may appear no more exciting than watching a shepherd watch his sheep. Abiding love sometimes just stands there, too, like the shepherd, watching, so that you’d hardly know anything is happening at all. You’d never guess the wolf prowls about behind the trees.

Abiding love keeps the wolf at bay, greeting people at the door and handing them bulletins. It sits in the chair next to the bed holding hands, saying a prayer, turning back fear. Love stops by and calls up just to check in, unconvinced that the hired help will follow through. Love cooks pancakes.

Love stands still and scans the horizon, watching out for the stragglers and the ones who never quite measure up. Love stands still and holds out a hand to those who get knocked down again and again. Who but love searches out the ones no one else misses when they are not around?

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” John writes in his epistle. This love may not often take us into the action-packed drama of Peter and John standing as prisoners in the midst of the assembled powers of Jerusalem, witnessing to the healing power of the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. More often the boldness that God requires manifests itself in no greater action than shaking someone’s hand, learning her name, or signing your own.

Ours is the story of an Easter people, gathered on a green pasture, taking note of the lay of the land. Over there predators hide behind quick fixes and bright promises. Beyond that rocky outcrop a spring-fed stream flows clear. The path to it must be kept clear and open. In this open space no high ceiling holds in God. Listen and you can hear His voice calling your name. Follow it.

— The Rev. Mary H. Ogus is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Clinton, North Carolina. A graduate of the M. Div. and STM programs at the General Seminary in NYC, she is in her second year of parish ministry.