Archives for April 2017

Our Particular Community, Easter 5 (A) – May 14, 2017

[RCL] Acts 7:55-60; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

The Scriptures this morning draw us to reflect on what it means to be community. We each have our own communities that we come here from on Sunday, but we are part of the larger community of the Christian faith—a community in which we can gather and from which we can gain wisdom, rejuvenation, and identity. Within each of our larger units of community, there are smaller ones, such as our families, our friendship circles, our schools, our churches, and our workplace communities. We define these in very particular ways.

But this way of defining a community is not a new thing that we in contemporary society invented. It has been going on from the time people could group together to share the responsibilities and burdens of survival. Identity in tribal cultures came from community, not from individual accomplishments. One thing that tribes knew is that they were stronger together and that to go off alone, you would eventually lose your mind or die.

In Jesus’ time, people identified themselves with being Jewish or Roman or Samaritan or one of the many other cultures and nations that were intermingling under Roman conquest. Jesus himself was Jewish and worked within the framework of being Jewish to call people back to God.

When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate a very particular definition of what it means to be community: We are the people who believe in the God who has been revealed to us decisively in Jesus Christ. As we say in Eucharistic Prayer A, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” This separates us as a community, just as it separated the community for whom the Gospel of John was written.

Our Gospel of John wasn’t written in one sitting. Instead, it was written over time to address the developing religious and pastoral needs of a particular community. We don’t know exact times, but given the evidence of what was happening in the social and historical context, we can understand this Gospel as originating in an early Christian community struggling to separate itself from first century Judaism—that is, sometime between 75-100 CE. The religious turmoil within emergent Judaism after 70 CE, when the Jewish temple was destroyed, is critical; the Gospel of John’s focused talk about “the Jews” and its prediction of expulsion, persecution, and martyrdom for believers readily displays the intra-Jewish conflict of the time. John’s community saw themselves to be a persecuted religious minority, expelled from the synagogue, their religious home, because of their faith in Jesus.

Of course, there were other religious beliefs swirling around during that time. The early Christians were also living within a Hellenistic society—meaning that much of the worldview held at that time was that of the Greeks—the principles, ideas, and pursuits associated with the contemporary Greek culture permeated the Mediterranean world. The way the Gospel of John was written is also influenced by this fact. This Gospel was written to a particular community in a particular time and place so that they could define themselves apart from the other religions that were around them. This Gospel helped define them as a community.

Things haven’t changed much since then. We have different religions and philosophies swirling around us in this modern age, too. So how do we define ourselves as Christians now? How do we live as Easter people? Defining ourselves doesn’t mean that we throw stones at others. Defining ourselves means that we live out our lives in a particular way as community so that people can clearly see what being a Christian means. In our lesson from the Book of Acts today, this meant that even unto death, Stephen echoed Jesus, asking God to receive his spirit and to forgive those who were murdering him. Stephen’s faithfulness compelled him to behave differently than someone who did not follow Jesus.

In our American culture, we are not persecuted in the same way that Stephen was or how Christians are treated in other parts of the world. This is nice and comfortable for us, but it often makes it more difficult to show the world how a community that follows Jesus defines itself. The media makes this even more difficult when it highlights Christians that manifest bigotry, hate, and judgment on their neighbors, lumping us all into that category together. How do we continue to define ourselves in the midst of this? How do we show that we are God’s people? What makes us different from Habitat for Humanity or the food bank? They do good works, too, right?

In our Gospel lesson, we have part of the answer. We know the way to the place that Jesus is going because we, by definition, claim to know Jesus as God incarnate—God with us—God’s own son. Jesus was always going to return to God the Father because they were inseparable. Jesus himself was and is simultaneously the access to and the embodiment of life with God. This is our particular belief that helps define us as a Christian community and because of this belief, we are to love Jesus by doing his works and by keeping his commandments: love God and love one another.

How have we defined ourselves in our own community as Episcopalians? What does it mean to be Episcopalian? When we begin to lose our own identity and lose our saltiness, we need to be recalled to the larger community of The Episcopal Church and to the extended Christian community.

As Christians, we are not called to be like everyone else and as Episcopalians, we have our own distinct flavor. Bishop Brian Prior of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota asks this question in his blog from May 2014: “If someone were to stop at a gas station and ask where your church was, how would the gas station attendant answer?” Great question. Would the attendant look at you blankly? Give a vague answer? Or would he or she say, “Oh, that church! That’s the church where this, this, and this happens!” What is our identity in the wider community? What do we want to be known for?

Here are some further questions to ponder this week: What do we value about being Christians in our community? What is God calling us to as the Episcopal presence in our community? How do we define ourselves, as the community for whom the Gospel of John was written defined itself?

May God give us wisdom and courage to live into the answers. Amen.

The Rev. Danáe M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFTA is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is serving part-time as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. She is also the Director of The Episcopal Center for Embodied Faith, a website repository for resources for the intersection between our bodies and faith, and a proud member of Thank God for Sex, a psycho-educational group that puts on community education events to promote healing for those who have shame around their bodies, sexuality, and faith.Mother Danáe uses art, music, drama, poetry, and movement in counseling, spiritual direction, and creation of ritual, especially for pregnancy and infant loss. She is an alumna of The Young Clergy Women Project and has written for their online magazine Fidelia’s Sisters and their Advent devotional published by Chalice Press, as well as being a contributing writer to the Episcopal Church’s online ministry “Sermons that Work.” Mother Danáe is also one of the contributors of the book Still a Mother: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement that was released in February 2016 by Judson Press. Additionally, she developed and produced the verbatim play “Naming the Un-Named: Stories of Fertility Struggle” with playwright Amanda Aikman. Her favorite past times include hiking with her husband and beloved dog, reading, traveling, visiting with family and friends, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke. o Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

Mother Danáe uses art, music, drama, poetry, and movement in counseling, spiritual direction, and creation of ritual, especially for pregnancy and infant loss. She is an alumna of The Young Clergy Women Project and has written for their online magazine Fidelia’s Sisters and their Advent devotional published by Chalice Press, as well as being a contributing writer to the Episcopal Church’s online ministry “Sermons that Work.” Mother Danáe is also one of the contributors of the book Still a Mother: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement that was released in February 2016 by Judson Press. Additionally, she developed and produced the verbatim play “Naming the Un-Named: Stories of Fertility Struggle” with playwright Amanda Aikman.

Her favorite pastimes include hiking with her husband and beloved dog, reading, traveling, visiting with family and friends, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke. o Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

Download the sermon for Easter 5(A).

The One I Feed, Easter 4 (A) – May 7, 2017

[RCL] Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10; Psalm 23

An Episcopal bishop who served many years ago in the upper Midwest of the United States used to love telling stories he had learned from the Native Americans of the area, many of whom were Episcopalians. Here is one of them.

A wise man among the Indians – many Native Americans in the Midwest prefer to be called Indians – was asked by his grandson about the conflict and discord in the world. The elder reflected for a moment and then replied, “My child, there are two dogs battling within my heart. One is full of anger, hatred, and rage. The other is full of love, forgiveness, and peace.” The old man paused, and he and his grandson sat for a moment in silence by the side of the stream. Finally, the boy spoke again, “Grandfather, which dog will win the battle in your heart? The one filled with hatred, or the one filled with love?” The old man looked at his grandson and replied, “The one I feed will win.”

Our world today, decades later, is still untamed and full of conflict. We can see it daily on our televisions and read about it online. We do not have to drive very far in our cars to feel it even on our streets. The world is a dangerous place, whether we live in the Middle East or the American Midwest. Yet, the conflict we experience is not truly there on our streets or in our neighborhoods — much less in lands far from us. The conflict is always fought out in the human heart. The Indian sage was right. Too many of us still feed the dogs of hatred and rage.

Jesus knew this fact at least as well as we do, for his world was really not much different from our own. Indeed, many of the conflicts of his time and his land are with us even today, their unfortunate victims spilling over into refugee camps and resettlement centers across Africa, Europe and parts of Asia. The human heart does not change so quickly or easily. And, the world today still has its share of “thieves and bandits,” as Jesus calls them in our Gospel account today, ready to snatch and scatter the flock.

We in the West like to think that we are in control, that no one can hurt us if we just build a wall tall enough to keep them out, and that no problem is so intractable that it cannot be solved. All we need, we are tempted to believe, is a little common sense and some well-honed negotiating skills. After all, that is how deals are done. Yet events of the past few years must make us doubt our most cherished convictions. We actually do not have our act together. And, we remain as vulnerable to our own sinfulness, gullibility, and the blandishments of contemporary life as to far-off terrorists and revolutionaries.

Left to our own rhetorical devices, we might not have chosen dirty, bleating, vulnerable sheep as the appropriate image for ourselves as Christians populating this sleek post-modern world of digital efficiencies and sophisticated technological solutions. Surely, we share precious little DNA with ewes and rams after all. Yet as one animal behaviorist also reminds us, “We spent quite a long time evolving together” with our animal cousins. So, like it or not we probably have more in common with the sheep of Jesus’ story than we care to admit. Despite its thin veneer of order and discipline, humankind remains as messy and chaotic as is a flock of sheep without a shepherd.

The shepherds of Jesus’ day endured sun and rain for days or weeks on end and were often as dirty and smelly as the flocks they tended. No smartly-styled business casual attire for them. But unlike their oblivious ovine charges, shepherds then as now were ever vigilant and uncomplaining, watching for danger and trouble, providing pasture and allaying the thirst of their flocks. The shepherd knew his sheep as no one else. And the sheep followed him, as Jesus tells us, “because they know his voice.”

Jesus speaks of himself in this Gospel passage as “the gate for the sheep.” Some scholars contend that shepherds of the period would often place their own bodies across the small opening or aperture of the sheep enclosure during times of peril, risking their lives for the sake of their flock. Perhaps it is this image of the shepherd as human gate that Jesus has in mind with this metaphor; his own presence stretched out, as on a cross, bridging the disciples’ –and our own — base insecurities. “Whoever enters by me,” he assures us, “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

The hymns sung today at church will likely not include the Whiffenpoof song but the words are nevertheless apt and worth remembering. “We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way. Baa, baa, baa.” It is all too easy to lose direction — to lose our bearings and a sense of who we are and where we are going in our lives. It is all too easy, in other words, to go astray like lost sheep. But it is just then that we are most vulnerable to the “thieves and bandits” of the world, most vulnerable to the more destructive animal instincts that lurk in every human heart, our own included.

This is certainly worth bleating about, of course, but it does not make us somehow notorious sinners. It is hard to imagine vicious sheep after all. Still, we are all too familiar with the well-known story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Even today there is wisdom in Aesop’s ancient fable. Appearances can be deceiving. Each of us is capable of sin and hurt. There are always creatures at war within our hearts, hidden beneath our warm woolens and tasteful tweeds. Which of them shall we feed?

The old bishop often concluded his story of the Indian teacher with a kind of postscript: “Which one of the dogs will win?” asked the boy of his grandfather. “The one I feed will win,” replied the elder. But then he continued, “My child, feeding one dog or the other is only part of the answer. For the Great Spirit feeds each of us—and it is from the Great Spirit that we first learn to feed others at all.”

We are all fed by the Great Spirit of mercy and forgiveness this Easter season. People everywhere, ourselves included, are starving for the Spirit’s love and compassion. We have come to the Paschal banquet ready to keep the feast, eager to partake of the Lord’s abundance and be nourished for the journey ahead. But the world around us is still a place of famine and danger. And, the human heart ever yearns to hear the voice of the shepherd who brings peace and God’s reconciling love. As we have been fed, so must we now feed others in Christ’s name.

The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church in Budapest, Hungary, and an area dean in the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Visit our Saint Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com and like us. Isten hozott!

 

Download the sermon for Easter 4 (A).