Archives for May 2009

The power of the Holy Spirit is like the rising tide, Day of Pentecost (B) – May 31, 2009

(RCL) Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104: 25-35,37; Romans 8:22-27 or Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit game them ability.”

Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. While today’s Christians associate Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit, it would be incorrect to think that the Spirit was not in existence prior to the Pentecost celebration described in today’s reading from Acts. In fact, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church explains that in Old Testament times, the Spirit was understood as the “active but impersonal power of God.”

However, in the New Testament, the Spirit undergoes two developments. First, it is understood that the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon all Christians at their baptism. This morning’s reading from Acts is a prime example of this, as the Holy Spirit fills all those gathered in the form of violent wind and fire.

The second development of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, according to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, is that it is “personalized and given ethical content.” Examples of the personalized nature of the Spirit come from today’s reading from John, when we hear Jesus’ assurance that the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, will be sent to us and that the Spirit will be with us, and guide us, guiding us into all truth.

In First Corinthians we are assured that anyone united with the Lord becomes one with him in Spirit. Examples of the ethical content of the Spirit can also be found in today’s gospel reading. For example, Jesus tells us that the Spirit will “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”

Because we live in a world that is known by being seen, touched, and measured, the idea that the power of the Holy Spirit is at work within us at all times is a difficult concept for many Christians. But just because we cannot see, touch, or measure the Spirit, does not mean that its power is not at work. Gerard Fuller in his book Stories for All Seasons tells of a beached tanker:

“All day efforts had been made to return the huge vessel to the water, but with no success. Finally, the captain told all crews and companies to stop; he went to his cabin and waited. When the tide came in that night the waters lifted the thousand-ton tanker off the beach and carried it, light as a feather, back to the deep.”

The power of the Holy Spirit is like the rising tide – imperceptible, yet with the power to do far more than we can ever imagine. Even when we can’t see it, we can know that the Spirit is at work.

So the question for today is, “How can we, who live in a world that is wary of the mysterious, better connect and trust in the unseen power of the Spirit?”

First, we can remember that the Spirit acts in God’s time, not necessarily ours.

There’s a story about two young priests, both parents of school-aged children, both of whom had lost their spouses due to untimely deaths. One had lost his wife several years before, the other, only recently. One day they met over coffee, and the recently widowed priest asked his friend how he had endured such pain and loss.

The more seasoned priest used a metaphor to answer his friend’s question. He asked him to visualize walking through a beautiful, thick forest of ancient redwoods. Suddenly, there is a terrible sound, and one of the largest redwoods violently crashes to the ground. It is lying out of place, unnaturally on its side, roots exposed. An enormous hole in the forest floor is all that remains of its former life.

The priest then asked his friend to imagine returning to the site of the fallen tree years later. While the hole is still there, and always would be, the edges had softened. Where freshly exposed, barren dirt once was, ferns and wildflowers now grow. Water was now collecting in the hole, and wildlife would drink from the spot. And the fallen tree was slowly becoming part of the landscape. Over time, the scene had been transformed from a brutal, lifeless, unnatural one to one that, while still was out of place – after all, thriving redwoods should not fall in their prime – was at least now producing new life and beauty.

The Power of the Spirit is at work to transform even the most painful of circumstances, but we must remember that God’s time can sometimes take longer than we would wish.

The second thing we can do to better connect and trust in the Holy Spirit is to pray, knowing the Spirit is at work as our intercessor.

In Romans 8 we hear that “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” During these hard economic times when many of us feel fearful, it is important to remember to turn to prayer. There is a resource available through the national church’s Office of Stewardship called “Hope in Hard Times.” It suggests that we need to count our blessings as well as acknowledge our anxieties as we live through these anxious times. As we count both our blessings and our worries, it advises us to write them down and share them with someone we trust. Then we should share them with the Lord in prayer, knowing that the Spirit is with us even if our prayers seem inadequate.

And finally, to remain open to the power of the Spirit we must remain in motion. We must not withdraw into inaction, regardless of situation.

In the book of Acts we hear the Spirit referred to as a rush of a violent wind. Imagine you’re sitting on the shore of your favorite body of water. There’s a brisk wind, and a small sailboat is just off shore. But the boat doesn’t have its sails up – just its bare mast. The winds become stronger and the currents push the vessel until finally it runs aground.

Think how different the outcome would have been if the captain had simply raised the sails and worked with the wind. Instead of being beached on the shore, helpless, the small craft could have moved with the wind, working with that unseen power to overcome the forces of the earthly currents.

The power of the Holy Spirit is working in each of our lives right now, but it requires us to be in motion in order to act. Complacency just isn’t allowed.

The power of the Holy Spirit: overwhelmingly powerful, yet an elusive concept for many Christians. But we can be assured that the Spirit is with us. The power of the Holy Spirit is with each and every one of us. This is the promise of Holy Scripture, and the Good News of today.

 

— The Rev. Suzanne E. Watson has worked at the Episcopal Church Center in New York for over three year in the areas of strategic planning and collaboration, Center direction, and small-church ministries. Prior to her current position, she served in congregations in New Zealand and Carmel, California. She is a graduate of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and a proud mum of three teens and a tween.

Seeking to be on the right path, 7 Easter (B) – 2009

May 24, 2009

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

We have arrived at the end of the Easter season in the church calendar. Throughout the season we heard the stories once again recounting the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and we read about how the apostles, disciples, and followers of Jesus adjusted to the idea of Scripture fulfilled.

Like the apostles, we have been given time, through the stories, to understand how this journey and especially how the resurrection helps us to be what we have been called to be. This has been a period of discernment as we redefine what Easter means and how it changes who we are and our lives.

Today’s gospel takes it to the next level. This is the point in our journey where we ask ourselves how God is calling us and what God is calling us to be and to do.

Discernment is no easy task. When each of the disciples was called by Jesus to follow him, we remember that most of them dropped what they were doing with hardly a second thought. We were amazed by their clarity and direction, and we certainly had to acknowledge the obvious charisma of Jesus. But now, when the disciples needed to fill the spot vacated by Judas, it becomes clear that discernment is not an easy process. Jesus has not called the next apostle; it is up to the community to act, using the model he left them.

Why isn’t it easy then to recognize a call, or to affirm a call, or to act on a call? There are the lucky few who seem to know, with great confidence, what they are called to do. For others it is not so obvious, but with any luck – or grace – they listen and act.

This reading from Acts seems all too familiar in the church. Whether it is calling a priest to a congregation, a bishop to a diocese, or any of the various other call processes, discernment is essential.

The apostles seem either to be overwhelmed by the process or just unable to grasp the need for discernment, because they end up making their choice by drawing lots. We might not want to admit it, but sometimes I think we do exactly the same thing personally and in community when we are trying to discern God’s will for us and our call. Discernment cannot come from the flip of a coin. Discernment is a difficult but necessary process. Without it, how could we even imagine following the path that has been set before us or using the gifts God gave us to do what we have been called to do?

How can we know what the process of discernment should look like? Some guidelines for us to consider are found in the gospel reading today. This reading describes what Jesus prays for us. Jesus prays that the community be protected from evil; that the community be unified; that the community fulfill Jesus’ joy; and that the life of the church be distinct from the life of the world.

His prayer brings to mind the particular outcomes we seek in a discernment process, especially when taken in the context of this post-Easter period: new life coming out of death. As the world seemed to crack open, allowing the new light of Christ to be seen, we begin to understand this new light as the warmth of security, the comfort of safety, and the hope found in love.

Jesus prayed that the community be protected from evil. Some Native people would say this is to walk the Red Road, or in a Christian sense, to walk the path of righteousness.

In many Native cultures, decisions are made by consensus. As you can imagine, this process takes some time, and the overall affect is a bonding of the community, drawing it together in a closely woven, interdependent life.

Fulfilling Jesus’ joy might be best understood as modeling our lives after Jesus’ life and living the gospel imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is why God gave his only begotten son to be fully human, so that he might bring the world back onto the path.

For the life of the church to be set apart or distinct from the rest of the world, Christians must first see themselves as sanctified, holy, and sacred beings. Knowing that God made us whole and holy from the very beginning, uniquely blessed with all the gifts we need to be God’s reflection in the world, sets us apart. Living in this way also makes it possible for others to see our gifts and to see God in us.

And as Christians, for what will we be known? Will we be known for damaging our mother earth out of greed to the point where we end life as we know it? Will we use our voice for justice and peace rather than to further violence and conflict? Will we invite prayerful contemplation in every decision, knowing that the answer is there, we only need to be still so we might hear God’s call?

Jesus’ simple but profound prayer in today’s gospel has the potential to be life-changing and life-giving. Imagine putting his prayer at the center of your own discernment process. Seeking to be on the right path, coming to understand this path after considering every angle, seeking to understand it through the lens of resurrection and God’s love will most certainly set us apart.

As we approach Pentecost, let us be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Let us move from the joy of Easter as a re-creation of new life with the hope that guides us all to be God’s love in the world.

 

— The Rev. Debbie Royals is a regional missioner for Native Ministry Development, based in the Diocese of Los Angeles. She is the Province VIII Indigenous People’s Network chair and a CREDO health faculty member.

This moment in the story of Jesus, Ascension Day (B) – 2009

May 21, 2009

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

“He came singing love, and He lived singing love
He died…singing love
He arose in silence
For the love to go on, we must make it our song
You and I be the singers!”

So begins a song from the New Zealand Hymnal. What was promised is removed for a time, so it can be more fully given.

This moment in the story of Jesus, God-with-us, is fascinating.

So much has happened. We have now walked through the story of His life, death, and resurrection. Now, with the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, so much more is promised – but not yet fully given.

Jesus’ last words in The Gospel According to Matthew restate the promise, “Remember: I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Yet, before we receive this gift in its fullness, we will pass through a time when it feels as if we’ve been left to our own devices. What is there to be learned in that time?

In our collect for this feast day of the Ascension, we recite that “our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”

We may have thought that Jesus came just for some of us, to redeem only a portion of God’s creation. Those who first followed Jesus and were blessed to be personally reconciled with the Risen Lord, face to face, and who returned to rejoin the fold – they probably believed that at first.

But in this magnificent mystery of Jesus’ Ascension, the glory shared so far with but a few radiates out to fill every corner of creation – including those places we had presumed were irredeemable.

The Ascension is essentially a festival of the future. By it, we see that the life we receive by faith has a destiny, and that destiny includes far more than we have yet asked or imagined.
We are called to move with God in the power of the Spirit as it is being given, to move outside our usual circle to seek and serve God’s presence and life in every corner of creation. This will be for us both a struggle and a delight.

Of course, we need to believe we share this calling and give ourselves to be lifted up by Christ and with Christ, allowing God to forgive and heal us, to send us forth empowered, just as Jesus was sent into the world. With Jesus, we are to be incarnate in daily life, to speak truth to power, to extend a healing touch to those from whom others would flee, and to be ready to take up the cross we are given daily. We are to follow Jesus, even through death, into new life.

Are we ready to embrace so full a calling for ourselves?

There is a wonderful mystery play from the Middle Ages about the Ascension. It is said that after Jesus was lifted up from the earth and was ascending to heaven, the two men dressed in white follow after, straining to catch up with Him. These angels cry out: “Jesus! Jesus! Wait for us!”

Jesus turns to greet them, and as they continue to ascend together, says: “Yes, my friends! Well done!”

One of the angels replies: “That is what we should say to you, dear Lord, for you have done all that has been asked of you! But what will happen next? Isn’t there more to be done?”

Jesus answers: “Well, of course! There is always more to be done! But weren’t you paying attention down there? Didn’t you hear me give them what they will come to call ‘the Great Commission’? Now they will go forth and baptize all people into my continuing life and work, reconciling the whole world to myself!”

The two angels look at one another somewhat hesitantly, and then look back at Jesus. One of them cautiously says: “Well, certainly we heard all that. But haven’t you been paying attention to them? Do you really think you can count on that lot?”

“He’s right, you know,” the other angel says. “Honestly, what’s your back-up plan? What will you do if those you have left behind don’t continue your work?”

Jesus pauses for a moment and then says, simply, “There is no back-up plan.”

There is no back-up plan because the grace set free by the Resurrection, the Ascension, and ultimately the gift of the Holy Spirit is sufficient to affect God’s plan of salvation. The abiding question is whether and how we will choose to join in that work. Will we participate fully in the mending of creation, or will we choose to stand back and watch from a comfortable distance? And what a tragedy that would be, a choice to refuse the invitation to be fully alive.

It is a gift of love, this calling we have received to be as Jesus was and do as Jesus did, as members of Christ’s body. By baptism, we are embraced and challenged to receive the love God offers us in Jesus, and then to move out to share that love unconditionally.

We can choose not to move with God as the life of God radiates out to fill all of creation. We can choose to turn inward and cling to what we have previously recognized as signs of God’s presence among us. Or we can turn in our circles of faith and face outward, rejoicing to recognize and celebrate where God is present and active, even with many who will continue to serve God’s purpose while totally unaware of it.

There is a word in this for each of us personally. Most of us gravitate toward a limited circle of acquaintances, a comfort zone, to which we stay near. So much of our life energy goes into maintaining the borders of that comfort zone, and keeping close to that safe place. And that is a shame. For we know in our hearts that when fully alive, we will find ourselves stepping out of that circle again and again, to discover the Reign of God in ever new ways.

There is a word in this for us as a church and as congregations as well. In these most challenging and difficult times, with great change underway in our finances, our culture, and our global relationships, most will try to keep steering church life back to our personal comfort zones, to hold on dearly to church life as we’ve always known it. But the Risen and Ascended Lord, who is filling all things, beckons us to step out of our comfort zone and discover new ways to celebrate life and love, and to share boldly in the work of reconciling the whole world to God.

All of creation is being filled with the life and healing power of God. When we remember this, it changes how we experience everything. For then we will have confidence that whatever we are called to endure now will lead us in God’s time and in God’s way to be raised and lifted up with Jesus to draw the whole world into deeper companionship with God and one another in Christ.

This truly is grace.

A wonderful prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book, is born of this very moment in our salvation history:

Lord,
it is night.

The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world
and of our own lives
rest in you.

The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day.
new joys,
new possibilities.

In your name we pray.
Amen.

 

— Steve Kelsey is missioner of the Greater Hartford Regional Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. Over the years he has been privileged to minister primarily with smaller, more remote congregations in New England, Alaska, New York, and Northern Michigan.

We are they, 6 Easter (B) – 2009

May 17, 2009

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

In the Acts of the Apostles, we see our Christian Church in its earliest, most perfect and probably most idealized form. There were no buildings, doctrines, vestments, or rituals; just the power of the Holy Spirit giving the preached Word of God the power to transform death into life, making the lost found, the captive free, the lame to walk, the blind to see, and giving the hopeless hope.

For whom is the gift of the Holy Spirit intended: some or all? And to whom are we, if fortunate enough to have received the gift of God’s Spirit, going to give it: some or all?

In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we hear preaching that explodes the myth of “us and them” and “we and they.”

We are they.

Our passage from Acts begins, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard he word.” We need to remind ourselves of all the marvelous things that have happened in this tenth chapter of Acts to appreciate the new song, as the 98th Psalm reminds us, that we are called to sing to the Lord, “for God has done marvelous things.” How marvelous that the Resurrection of Christ is not for the few, but for the many!

At the beginning of the chapter, we hear of Cornelius, a Roman soldier of rank, prestige, and honor. He’s wealthy, owns slaves, and may have gained all he had through pillage and plunder. He would’ve been, to the faithful and observant Jew, which includes Simon Peter, a person of derision, maybe disgust, and probably hatred for participating in the oppression of Israel and the economic exploitation of the people so as to provide for the glories of Rome. So, Peter will be quite surprised when God makes it clear that Cornelius is loved by God, too, and there is nothing that Peter can do about it.

Shortly before God arranges an introduction of Peter to Cornelius, God gives the well-meaning-yet-often-befuddled Peter a vision of a four-cornered sheet full of animals that would make Peter unclean if he even touched them, much less ate them. Peter may not follow the rules, but he certainly knows them. “Kill, and eat,” a voice says to Peter.

“By no means, Lord,” Peter replies, even though he is famished, “for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”

The voice replies, “What God has made clean, you shall not call profane.”

Then the clean Peter meets the unclean Cornelius. God has made Cornelius, too, and it is not for Peter to call him profane. In God’s economy, the lost are just as much God’s as the found. Clearly, as the Acts of the Apostles makes abundantly clear, the ones who are being saved by Christ are not to stand still waiting for the lost to come to them. Peter has been sent to Cornelius, not the other way around.

Peter preaches a sermon that begins with these words of the new song, full of the marvelous things of Christ’s resurrection: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” It is during this sermon that the passage before us takes place: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”

Cornelius and his unclean cohorts receive the gospel message with abandon, like the people of Nineveh did when Jonah prophesied, and the Holy Spirit pours in and blows through their unclean lives just as surely as the Spirit does ours. “The circumcised believers,” Acts 10:45 tells us, “were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

Every time the verb “astound” or the noun “astonishment” shows up in scripture, pay close attention, because chances are there is an example of God acting in our lives as God wants, not as we want God to act.

When the understanding of a Biblical passage turns on understanding the rite of circumcision, we are rightly uncomfortable to go into detail. Simply put, the circumcised believe they are clean and that the uncircumcised, like Cornelius and those named gentiles, are permanently unclean. We can see the tectonic shift underway; we can hear a new song being sung: What God has made no one shall deem unclean.

Peter finishes his sermon directed not at the ones being converted, but to the smug and certain who already think that their Christian faith and forgiveness by God makes them privileged over others. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The Church is but a few days old, yet the congregants are already complaining among themselves, conspiring to send a letter to their equivalent of the bishop and standing committee, complaining that even the gentiles – yes the gentiles, can you believe such a thing? – have accepted the word of God.

We can almost hear them saying, “Who is sitting in my pew?” And “I am all for inclusion, as long as we don’t lower our musical standards.” And “We shouldn’t have to print the leaflet just because it’s easier for people who don’t know how to use the prayer book!”

We are not the hosts at God’s table; we are guests ourselves. We aren’t called to welcome as much as to act like we have been welcomed ourselves into the grace of God. We don’t forgive the sins of others; we testify that our sins have been forgiven. We are all beggars hungry for the bread of God, telling the other beggars where the bread may be found.

Jesus made it all quite simple: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Too many Christians believe that we are called simply to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and that when we achieve that belief, it somehow separates us from those who don’t. We fall into the sin of believing that we are clean, and those who don’t believe are unclean.

But as the philosopher Kierkegaard observed, “Christianity is not a doctrine to be taught, but a life to be lived.”

Are we called to believe in resurrection, and teach it as doctrine, or are we called to practice resurrection in the life that we live?

Jesus instructs that we are to practice resurrection when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

We go astray when the Risen Christ is worshiped but not followed. To love one another is a call to action, modeled on Jesus’ love for the disciples. For the people with whom we are called to share the Good News of the resurrection, their future in the faith is often dependent on our ability to practice resurrection and not just preach it.

To practice resurrection with the very substance of our lives will be a constant expansion of our capacity to love. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

Take a moment and look around. Who is not here? There are so many, but they will not come to us. We must go to them, not in arrogance, but in humility. We must go with a love that shows resurrection to be substantive and life-giving, not as a doctrine. We must show a love so sacrificial, charitable, welcoming, and abundant that it reveals that we would give our very life so that they would receive that transforming love imparted by the resurrection.

Many will say, “I can’t go so far as giving my life.” Let us then say, “We believe in the resurrection,” and testify to that belief with what our earthly lives reveal about our faith in God.

When the worship ends, the service begins. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”

So let us ask God for what we need and go, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Alleluia, Alleluia.

 

— The Rev. Timothy B. Safford is rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia.

The work of the Holy Spirit, 5 Easter (B) – 2009

May 10, 2009

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Philip the Deacon was one of the seven appointed deacons Luke mentions in the sixth chapter of Acts, and he is perhaps more properly thought of as Philip the Evangelist. His preaching mission in Samaria not only brought the followers of Simon Magus to be baptized as followers of Jesus, but also converted the magician himself, who was amazed at the signs and miracles that were taking place around Philip’s preaching. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Philip is nudged by an angel of the Lord to put himself in the way of meeting a very powerful person indeed: the chief treasurer, who was also a eunuch, from the court of the Candace of Ethiopia.

This ancient Chief Financial Officer had been up to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home down the wilderness road to Gaza on the coast. Philip saw the great chariot and the man in it, reading aloud from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. After the Spirit tells Philip to join the eunuch in his chariot, the two men began reading Isaiah together, and Philip explained what we would call one of the “Suffering Servant” songs as a reference to Jesus. After further conversation, the man was baptized and Philip moved on again, as it says in verse 38, “snatched away by the Spirit of the Lord.”

The section is part of Luke’s careful literary composition. It shows in the first few chapters of Acts, before Paul’s conversion and travels, that the Good News of Jesus Christ crossed several boundaries in a rapid and Spirit-filled expansion of apostolic witness – as it says in verse 8, “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Like the people of Samaria, who were considered only half-Jews, the Ethiopian convert is beyond the social boundary of Temple Judaism in Jerusalem. He is presumably still a gentile, but given his interest in Isaiah, he might well have been one of the God-fearers who clustered around synagogues at this time. At any rate, when he is baptized by Deacon Philip, the unnamed foreigner of wealth, power, and influence becomes a representative of the spread of the gospel to gentiles.

The epistle reading for today is one of those ecstatic pieces of John on the subject of love. Its thrust echoes the gospel reading in which Jesus holds forth about uniting together in him and with him like branches on a grapevine. Only with such uniting love, and with such persistent steadiness of “abiding” can we be sure of bearing the fruits of the Spirit. As we move through the Easter season, the thrust of the Holy Spirit in the workings of new life in Christ comes more to the forefront.

Deacon Philip’s evangelism is not usually equated with the work of love, but he embodies the commandment to love our neighbors, especially when those neighbors are strangers, people who are entirely “other.” Practicing evangelism is often no more and no less than learning how to encounter strangers with the openness and readiness of Jesus himself. And Philip shows us how there is a whole lot of love that needs to be expressed on the way to conversion and baptism.

Deacon Philip seized the opportunity to join the Ethiopian on the man’s own terms, reading what he was reading, answering the man’s questions, bringing the conversation around to Jesus. To proclaim our faith in the risen Jesus as a work of love among all our neighbors needs the gentle nudges as well as the motivating powers of the Holy Spirit. And we had best abide firmly and deeply rooted, planted in the ways of Jesus himself.

Recall the Jesus portrayed in Luke’s gospel, the Jesus who encountered strangers and loved them as if they were his kinfolk – whether they were lepers who needed to be touched to be healed, a nameless woman bleeding to death, a young girl who was deaf, a Roman centurion. The list in Luke and in the other gospels goes on and on.

The work of the Holy Spirit that brings us deeper into new life in the risen Christ is the same work of the Holy Spirit that teaches us to love the strangers we encounter, and how to honor and respect the dignity and integrity of the “other,” the “different” and the “alien” among us.

 

— The Reverend Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity, an Episcopal church in Brooklyn, New York.

Only one voice knows us by name, 4 Easter (B) – 2009

May 3, 2009

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

As is often the case, what is not included in our lessons may be of utmost importance in our hearing what is going on in these lessons.

For instance, in Acts, a lame man has been healed, and Peter and John have been hauled before some sort of ecclesiastical court to explain why the lame man is not still lame. And our gospel narrative begins way back in Chapter 8 where Jesus is accused of being possessed by a demon, then in Chapter 9 he heals the blind man by the Pool of Siloam.

Then comes one of the great “I AM” passages, “I am the good shepherd,” which we have a portion of this morning, and which ends:

“There was again a great division among them because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon and is mad; why listen to him?’ Others said, ‘These are not the saying of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’”

Which perhaps asks the central question, “Why listen to him?” Why listen to Jesus? Why do we listen to Jesus at all?

After all, there are so many others competing for our attention. There is, of course, the president and all his official and unofficial spokespersons now issuing almost daily speeches and announcements to direct our attention away from the country’s problems and instead focus on their agenda. Then there are mayors and governors all demanding we listen to them. There are corporate interests trying to convince us to use more and more of their products. There are commercial interests on TV, in the paper, on the radio, and calling us at home every day trying to market and sell more things, more services, and put us deeper into debt. There are family members unhappy with the family, there are neighbors unhappy with the neighborhood, there are immigrants looking for some shred of dignity, there are talk show hosts who know it all, and of course every lay person, deacon, priest, and bishop trying to convince us that they know what is best for the church.

Like those at the end of the story and those in the Acts of the Apostles who are offended by what Jesus says and does, there are all these competing interests and voices trying to get us to turn away from Jesus and turn our lives over to them instead.

Lord, you have spread a table before us in the presence of those who trouble us. Lord, we know that you want us to listen to you. Lord, if you are listening for just one minute, just for one second of one minute, can you please shut out all the competing voices, interests, merchants, politicians and commentators for just a few minutes of silence? Lord, can you please still the waters, can you please make us lie down in green pastures, can your rod and your staff please, Lord, comfort us, touch us, protect us and heal us? Lord, please give us the time, the place, and the space to listen to you!

When we look and listen to the shrill voices that surround us on all sides every day, we begin to know the plight of the one who gave us the Twenty-Third Psalm. And if we are paying attention at all, we will stop and listen for the Good Shepherd – the Beautiful One. We will stop and listen for Jesus. And what we will hear if we are listening closely is just two words: “I am.”

For people of faith, for people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, those are the only two words we need to hear: “I am.”

Jesus says, “I am.” The people of God have heard these words before. Standing barefoot, in front of a bush that burns and is not consumed, we hear a voice and we ask, like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, “Who are you?”

The answer comes back, “I am who I am. … I am what I will be. … just tell them I AM sent you.”

The one who says “I am,” also says, “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep.”

Let’s pause for just a moment and understand what is being said here. We are known. We all want nothing more than to be known. We spend a lifetime looking for relationships, reflecting on experiences, searching for someone who knows us, or even more fundamentally, we search to know ourselves. There is no doubt about it, the most fundamental human condition is a desire to be known.

All these other voices competing for our attention do not really want to know us. They can’t possibly know us. But there is one who does. The one who says, “I am,” wants to know us. In fact the one who says, “I am,” already knows us just as the Father knows him.

God knows us. And in that knowledge, we know God. If we really let ourselves hear what Jesus is saying, we can come to know God. Not a lot of propositions about God, not things about God, but we can experience the reality that is God.

This naturally frightens us. But such fear is not mere sentiment, but rather manifests itself in a way of life, as the First Letter of John speaks about it – a way of life that shows we respect the majesty and power of the God who says, “I am.” A life that ought to lay down its life for another.

As verse 16 says: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuse help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

For those who listen to Jesus, the shepherd becomes the Paschal lamb slain on the feast of the Passover to save us from our sins, and we are the sheep of his pasture. We are poor sheep like those he tends and leads beside still waters. We become his people, his body and blood for the world.

There are many competing voices. But only one voice calls us each by name. Only one voice knows us by name. Only one voice speaks the great, “I am.” That voice is Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.