Archives for 2018

Where Are You?, Pentecost 3(B) – June 10, 2018

Proper 5

Pentecost Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Genesis 3:8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35 

It’s a familiar scene: parents and grandparents lingering in conversation on the steps of the parish hall after coffee hour, as their children and grandchildren make the most of the beautiful early summer day. They scamper through the churchyard with cheerful squeals and, after a few moments of frolic, they decide to organize a game of hide and seek.

One little girl volunteers to be the “seeker,” and the other children scatter, searching out the perfect hiding place. The seeker begins her count: “Twenty… nineteen…eighteen…” One child scampers behind the bushes; another under the stairs… “thirteen…twelve…eleven…” Time is running short, and all the good hiding places have been snatched up! Quick! Behind the recycling bins! “Three…two…one…Ready or not, here I come!”

The seeker gleefully stomps around, looking under bushes and behind trees, calling out, “Where are you?”

The child’s joyful and innocent question rings out across the churchyard, but it also rings in our ears, drawing our attention to today’s reading from the third chapter of Genesis. The scene unfolding there is also familiar—and perhaps one of the most familiar scenes the world has ever known. Eden is the backdrop for the creation stories of both Christianity and Judaism, and although it is spoken of differently in the Qur’an, it nonetheless figures prominently in Islam.

By the time our reading begins in verse eight, the serpent (who by the way is never identified as Satan in Scripture) has already deceived Adam and Eve into disobeying God’s command. Now they are engaged in a hide and seek game of their own—and the stakes are high.

As they hunker down in the garden like children attempting to hide their trespasses, God seeks after them, fully aware that something has gone very, very wrong.

We listen as God calls out to them, “Where are you?”

This is the first question that God asks in Scripture and, as is the case with every good story, it is asked not just of the characters on the page and in the scene, but of every single one of us.

At once, the question assumes an answer—we are not where we should be—and poses yet another question—where should we be?

The last one hundred years have been marked by the exponential growth and sophistication of technology. The world is undoubtedly more connected than ever, but it may also be more distracted than ever. Scientists have long warned about the dangers of getting distracted by technology. When left unchecked, it can distract us from everything from our ability to have meaningful face-to-face conversations, to keeping our eyes on the road and off our screens as we drive.

So it is with our lives of faith.

In his commentary on the Book of Genesis, Walter Brueggemann suggests that the serpent in the Garden of Eden is the world’s first theologian because it is the serpent who convinces humankind to exchange obedience to God for theology about God.[1] If we think about God narrowly enough, we can distract ourselves into believing that we can think our way to salvation. Our knowledge becomes a means of self-preservation and protection, rather than a means of transmitting and communicating faith in the living God.

And yet, God cuts through our thick underbrush of words and ideas, persistently calling out to us, “Where are you?”

In the same way, when moments of tension invariably arise in our communities of faith, instead of turning to prayer and patient discernment, we get distracted by arguments and anxieties and self-interests, and so we take our ball and go home. We cut ourselves off from community and, in turn, we short-circuit the possibility of reconciliation.

God’s voice calls out after us as we stomp away, “Where are you?”

In order for us to consider this question, we must discern deeply as to where we are in relation to where God is inviting us. Discernment, though, is tricky. Much has been written about discernment, but decidedly less attention is afforded to the actual vocation of discernment.

One place to start is to take account of all that distracts us from living lives of faithfulness. Distractions may look different for different folks, but their central characteristic is the same: they draw our attention away from focusing on the life-giving parts of our lives.

We can become distracted from our relationships with friends and family, and even from our romantic partners. Work that once brought much joy to our lives can become occluded by the desire for position and power, influence and wealth. Even our days of rest and vacation can become muddled with concerns about what we might be missing at work or in the world. All these things distract us from the places in our lives that afford us peace and joy and love, and ultimately, they distract us from our life before God.

But we as individuals aren’t the only ones who can become distracted; our churches and communities of faith can get distracted, too. One way that churches become distracted is by focusing on innovation rather than faithfulness. When churches focus on innovation, they define themselves by their programs and ministries, rather than by their witness to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. They focus on the building rather than the builder.

Another way that churches can become distracted is by focusing on entertainment rather than transformation. When churches focus on entertainment, it is almost as if they exist in a vacuum. Walk in the doors, and it is as if you’ve entered another dimension, completely cut off from the cares and concerns of the real world. Here, the sky is always blue, the water is always calm, and the boat is never rocked. Sermons are as soft and as sweet as cream puffs, offering more self-help than Gospel. When churches fall into the trap of offering individual members a custom-ordered faith—sanding off every jagged edge and smoothing out every rough place—they possess about as much transformative power as the society club at prayer.

The possibilities for getting distracted in our lives, and particularly our lives of faith, are many. But the Good News is that ours is a God who, no matter where we wander or try and hide, relentlessly pursues us, calling out after us, “Where are you?” and inviting us back to Godself.

May we listen intently enough to hear God’s voice and discern deeply enough to answer God’s call.

Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 47-48, 54-55.

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is the editor of ModernMetanoia.org—a lectionary-based preaching resource authored exclusively by Millennial clergy, lay leaders, and teachers. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef, all while completing a doctorate at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 3 (B).

Bread, Law, and Spirit, Pentecost 2 (B) – June 3, 2018

Proper 4

Episcopal Sermon Pentecost


[RCL]: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:36

“During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night, the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”

Dennis, Matthew, and Sheila Fabricant Linn tell this story at the beginning of their book Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life as an introduction to the Ignatian concept of the Spiritual Examen, specifically teaching how to discern spirits of consolation and desolation in one’s life in a fairly simple way. Each day, a person asks, “Which moment am I most grateful for today?” and, “Which moment am I least grateful for today?” If those initial questions are not enough, the Linns suggest other questions that get at the same concept, such as, “When did I give and receive the most love today?” “When did I give and receive the least love today?” or, “When did I feel most alive today?” “When did I most feel life draining out of me?” The idea is that, over time, patterns emerge to help a person discern how God is calling him or her in life. In essence, when one follows this spiritual discipline, that person is sleeping with bread—truly holding on to what gives him or her life.

Most of us have asked the questions: “What am I supposed to do with my life?” “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose?” We often wish that we were like Samuel in our Old Testament lesson today, who heard God’s voice calling him directly. This theophany, or call narrative—the appearance of God or a representative of God in sound, vision, or through our other senses—also happens to Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, and Mary, just to name a few. In making themselves available to God, Samuel and the others’ lives are changed. They have a purpose given by God, but it may not have been what they were hoping for in their lives. Instead, the call is something they could not have asked for or even imagined, and it transforms the world.

To those of us today who are used to being the gods of our own lives, this may sound terrifying. We may think we want to hear and know God’s call to us, but secretly we don’t, because it will change us. After all, when we are focused on living from a place of love and not fear, it does change us. The simple questions that the Linns propose in their book bring us slowly and gently closer to where God is beckoning. In truth, we are like Samuel, who hears God’s call but does not understand the call’s source. We need a variety of ways to help us discern whether the voice we are hearing in our lives is from God or our own desire. The Spiritual Examen is an excellent framework for this task.

Additionally, the Linns suggest talking with others about the answers to the two questions, in order to get a communal perspective. This is similar to the example set in Samuel’s call narrative, where he keeps hearing God’s voice, mistaking it for Eli’s, and finally gets advice from Eli about it. It is useful in our own faith journeys to talk with a person or small group of people who are faithful and trusted about where we hear God calling. Receiving an outside perspective can help us see things that we cannot see ourselves. In this way, we are able to say, “Here I am,” to God thoughtfully and with an openness of heart that occurs when we are supported in our exploration. This is life-giving and aids us in sleeping with bread, each in our own way.

Eating bread to sustain life is seen as a teachable moment in our Gospel story today. When the Pharisees criticize Jesus and his disciples for gleaning from the fields on the Sabbath, Jesus reminds them that when David, called by God and anointed by Samuel, was a fugitive being hunted by Saul, he stopped in the “house of God” for safety and food. The high priest gave David the consecrated bread that was reserved for priests in order to sustain the lives of David and his companions. Jesus highlights this story in conjunction with the reminder that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” The benefits of God benefit everyone, for God created the Sabbath, and to get mired in the rigidity of human law limits the scope of any benefits it may have held. The reason for the Sabbath was and is to promote life and praise God as our creator and liberator. The Pharisees knew this, but were focused on the letter of the law and not the spirit in which Jesus applies it. Jesus is directly stating that he is the Son of Man and Lord of the Sabbath, which affirms his authority and puts him in conflict with the Pharisees. Jesus is doing God’s will, while the Pharisees are focused on gathering evidence against him.

Jesus takes this life-giving stance even further in the synagogue when he cures the man with the withered hand, restoring him to wholeness and to his community, while at the same time knowing that the Pharisees were watching and hoping to gather more evidence against he who was scandalously claiming to be more than a mere mortal teacher. Human nature has not changed much in the intervening centuries. How often do we go to a worship service with a preconceived idea of what we should see or get or feel from it? We mount our own evidence against who is there and what they are doing. As with many things, we see or get or feel exactly what we put into an experience, and that often means we leave, like the Pharisees in this story, self-satisfied with the knowledge we were expecting—instead of open to God’s vision. Again, we find Jesus leading us by example, following God’s will and speaking God’s truth in the face of those who want to maintain the status quo.

These stories of Jesus bringing life and truth on the Sabbath are instructive to us today. How is the Sabbath life-giving for us? Do we keep the Sabbath with the same spirit as Jesus in these stories? Think about it this way: we see Jesus, the Son of God, healing and giving life, while the Pharisees and Herodians seek human vengeance to destroy life. Not just to slander him or do something to complicate Jesus’ life, but to outright destroy him. That choice of powerful language explicitly implies annihilation of another person. Herein lie the answers to understanding what the spirit of consolation and spirit of desolation are. How are we paying attention to the life-giving spirit of God in our own lives, and how can we support others in doing the same? When we find the spirit of desolation hovering within us, how do we return to following Jesus? Reflecting on those places of life-giving energy—where we light up and the world lights up with us—can refocus our eyes on the new thing that God is doing in our lives. Sometimes others have to hold the Christ light for us when we do not know the path, and sometimes others must share their bread with us, so we may sleep through the night, like the refugee children during the war. In turn, it is our commission to do the same for others, as Jesus did.

Discernment is a never-ending process that is part of our lifelong Christian faith. As we engage the questions of what gives us life and what does not in this season of our lives, God will beckon us to another path, another way to the heart of the Sabbath at another time. Where we find our grateful moments today may be different in ten or twenty years. The most important thing is that we continue to seek and follow Jesus wherever he leads us with truth and love. AMEN.

The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFTA is an Episcopal priest and Marriage and Family Therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota. She is serving part-time as the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle. She is also a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. Her favorite pastimes include hiking with her husband and beloved dog (Alvie Anne), reading, traveling, visiting with family and friends, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 2 (B).

The Ordinary and the Extraordinary, Trinity Sunday (B) – May 27, 2018

Pentecost Trinity Episcopal Sermon


[RCL]: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

Every extraordinary experience sparks from the ordinary. Take a moment and reflect on the moments that have made you who you are today. Some of them may be spectacular, earth-shattering, heartbreaking, and more. But when we really take the time to reflect on what made us who we are right now, today, this moment, we will come up with the names of people who have filled our lives. Little things they did or said to us, that they may not even remember today, but that stayed with us and changed us. In reflection, we will realize it was the mundane, weekly habits and rituals that ordered our lives, thus shaping us into the people we are today. This truth is a hint to us that God – our awesome, all-knowing, omnipotent God – is right there with us, taking what might be the most ordinary of moments and breathing that little extra into it, so that over time it becomes something extraordinary.

On a not-so-special night, full of curiosity, Nicodemus sought Jesus out for a conversation. Here we see God at work with that little extra. Jesus transforms what was an inconspicuous evening into a remarkable, life-changing event. By the end of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus is a new person. If someone asked him what made him who he was at that time, he may have found himself returning to this night.

The power of this Gospel is the way in which we readers, thousands of years later, are turned into witnesses. We become witnesses to not just fact-based, hard-nosed, “real news,” but to God’s reality on earth. We become witnesses, not to an ideology, but to the Movement of God. With the telling of a simple story, we are suddenly standing alongside Nicodemus, bound by our physical bodies and limited perspective, about to have our minds blown by a completely new way of seeing and being in the world.

In this particular story, we see Jesus launch the transformation of Nicodemus from questioning leader, in verse 1, to witness, in verse 11, to the Movement of God. The Movement of God is Trinitarian – physical, spiritual, and divine. It takes our full selves to be part of this movement. We cannot compartmentalize it to one hour or one day; we cannot compartmentalize it to a single choice and belief.

This is difficult for us to grasp because our entire world is about compartmentalization. We count the minutes and hours of our days, divvying up our time for work, relationships, goals, celebrations, conversations, and chores. This is also difficult for us to grasp because so much of our lives is about reaching certain dates, milestones, and achievements. We live by the idea that once we reach that particular place, we will have “made it.” Nevertheless, the Movement of God blurs and smudges the lines by which we have ordered our lives. The Movement of God never stops. The Movement is, in essence, God’s full self – Father, Son, and Spirit – set loose in all of creation to breathe that extra into the ordinary.

During this late-night conversation, Jesus invites Nicodemus to wake up, be “born again,” move beyond the limits of his occupation and title and join the Movement. Jesus is not interested in simply answering Nicodemus’ questions, or giving him a summary highlighting the most important information that he can then mull over and decide whether he agrees or not. Jesus is inviting him to participate in an entirely new way of seeing and living—a way of seeing and living that only happens with the participation of his full self.

In The Divine Dance, Father Richard Rohr describes the Movement of God as flow. To join God’s movement is to step, jump, or dive into the flow of God’s full self with our full selves. The tide of God’s movement leads us to a way of life that is always growing, evolving, transforming; a way of life that is about unification, alignment, and action.

Like Nicodemus, it takes a little time for us to catch on. It’s hard to be moved from all that we know – this one body, this one life, our understanding of science and creation. Yet, even without fully understanding Jesus’ words, Nicodemus is caught up in the tide of conversation and can’t stop himself from asking, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus doesn’t back down. With Jesus’ response, we 21st-century readers are no longer merely observers of a late-night conversation. Jesus’ reply vibrates and echoes from the pages of the Bible to us, today. “You must be born from above.” With these words, Jesus calls us to move beyond dualistic thinking into a Trinitarian way of being, the place where our bodies, minds, souls, and spirits meet.

Jesus calls Nicodemus, and each of us here today, to live into the realization of all that we are. We are not just machines, a body moving by habit and functionality. We are not just spontaneous balls of unaware reactivity to the life being lived around us. God made us to be part of the Movement. While we struggle with discernment, wondering what God is truly calling us to, remember that the answer will always involve our full selves, it will involve our transformation (often over and over again), it will involve us physically moving, following the example of Jesus, and getting into it.

Consider the social movements we witness in history books and the news today. These movements do not appear from nowhere. They are products of an accumulation of factors, but we often wonder where they came from. Like the wind, we hear the sound of it and see the effects of these movements, but we do not always know where they came from or where they will go. Yet, once these movements are set into motion, we often speak of them as though they were inevitable. Isn’t this just like the Movement of God? Isn’t this exactly what Jesus is calling Nicodemus, and all of us, to join?

The Essence of God, our source of life, surrounds us. Often when we look back on our lives, we speak of the inevitability of God’s hold on us, even if we did not know it at the time. This story of Nicodemus is an opportunity to not just look back on our lives with this knowledge, but to move forward, fueled by it as witnesses to the transformative power of the Trinity. Jesus doesn’t just want us to pass on information like simple gossip. Jesus calls us to live fully immersed in the abundant life for which we were created.

Jesus knows we are suspicious. Jesus knows we are trapped by our need for tangible, provable facts. Yet, in this conversation, Jesus doesn’t stop there. We are called to join the Movement. Despite ourselves, we are made witnesses. We are not witnesses of our own understanding, but of God’s action, movement, in the world, for the world. Receive the testimony given to us by the Living Word who walked among us. Bear witness. Wake up. Be moved with your full self – your emotions, your mind, soul, and strength. Rise up. Join the Movement of God and breathe in that little extra that comes from the fullness of God with us.

Casey Cross is the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. You can read more of her sermons, devotions, thoughts, and youth ministry ideas at caseykcross.wordpress.com.

Download the sermon for Trinity Sunday (B).

This Sacred Discontinuity, Day of Pentecost (B) – May 20, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Pentecost


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

The Bible and the church year commemorate many moments of grace. One of these moments of grace is what we celebrate here on this day of Pentecost: how the Holy Spirit fell like fire upon the infant church, equipping that small assembly for their global mission, energizing that community with nothing less than the life of God.

Here are other moments of grace we remember from the church year and the Bible: the universe summoned into existence; Israel called to be God’s people; messages spoken by the prophets; Jesus born and baptized; his suffering and resurrection; his ascension into heaven; and the witness of countless martyrs and saints from many centuries and many places.

We recall these moments of grace, and they help us recognize where grace works in our lives. For what God brings about in that story which we hear in Scripture and present in worship, God also brings about on the more intimate stage of our lives. Time and again, we die with Christ and are raised with him; time and again, the Spirit energizes us for some new venture.

Moments of grace are manifest through Scripture and worship. Moments of grace are manifest in our not so ordinary lives.

Still other moments of grace are manifest in cosmic history and human history, still other occasions of sacred discontinuity when the Lord of life, the God of surprises, decides to do something new. We can recognize these as well; we can honor them.

Here are several such moments of grace: when human beings first controlled fire; when spoken language appeared; when the first gardens were cultivated; when people started making pottery.

The Bible and Christianity present a God who keeps doing things never done before, and often God does these things through human agency.

Yes, there are cycles in this world that repeat with obvious reliability: the changes of the seasons, the stages of a human life. But God is notorious for also doing what seems unprecedented, such as freeing his people from Egypt or raising his Son from the dead. These novelties belong to a plan and purpose we can only begin to recognize.

The Christian faith says that the Holy Spirit is ceaselessly at work in every moment of grace, not only the ones we celebrate in church. The Christian faith does not claim the Holy Spirit as a prisoner constrained by the Church. Far from it: the Holy Spirit, who is Creator and Giver of life, makes and sustains and brings to fulfillment every creature that exists.

The Holy Spirit is a subtle power, the secret force behind all beauty, truth, and goodness; every act of kindness and compassion; every wise insight and every noble decision. The Spirit’s work is apparent in the stars we see in the night sky and in the microscopic wonder of single-cell organisms. Travel at the speed of light if you can; you will never outrun the realm of the Spirit.

So then, moments of grace on whatever scale are not rare, but plentiful. To thrive in the Holy Spirit means that we become more adept at recognizing ways in which the Spirit operates.

Have you noticed? The future constantly becomes the present on its way to becoming the past. As this happens, we must confront problems and challenges and tragedies. We must also open ourselves to obvious moments of grace, strange and unexpected gifts that appear in our lives, our communities, and in human and planetary history. Through such moments, the Holy Spirit acts and summons us to obedience, to creative cooperation with the high purposes of God.

A resource for our creative cooperation with the Holy Spirit is the vision offered by Thomas Berry. In his nineties when he died in 2009, Berry was an eminent cultural historian, an historian of religion, and a Christian, specifically a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist Order. The Great Work and other books he wrote late in life have become popular and influential, and Berry has sometimes been called “the leading spokesperson for the Earth.”

Berry believed that humanity in our time faces a moment of grace regarding the future of life on this planet.

He does not minimize the environmental disaster that confronts us on every side. “For the first time,” he tells us in The Great Work, “the planet is disturbed by humans in its geological structure and its biological functioning in a manner like the great cosmic forces that alter geological and biological structures of the planet…. So severe and irreversible is this deterioration that we might well believe those who tell us that we have only a brief period in which to reverse the deterioration that is settling over the Earth. Only recently has the deep pathos of the Earth situation begun to sink into our consciousness.”

While well-versed in the details of environmental disaster, Thomas Berry dares to point us ahead to a promising future when he announces that a “comprehensive change of consciousness is coming over the human community, especially in the industrial nations of the world. For the first time since the industrial age began we have a profound critique of its devastation, a certain withdrawal in dismay at what is happening, along with an enticing view of the possibilities before us.”

He then characterizes this moment of grace by contrasting one dream with another, claiming that the “distorted dream of an industrial technological paradise is being replaced by a more viable dream of a mutually enhancing human presence within an ever-renewing organic-based Earth community.”

Thomas Berry emphasizes that the old dream remains powerful. In The Christian Future and the Fate of the Earth, he assesses it, declaring, “there is no dream or entrancement in the history of Earth that has wrought the destruction that is taking place in the entrancement with industrial civilization. Such entrancement must be considered as a profound cultural pathology. It can be dealt with only by a correspondingly deep cultural therapy.”

In the Acts passage we heard this morning, Peter quotes the prophet Joel about how in the latter days, God will pour out his Spirit on all flesh, and the result will be people prophesying and experiencing visions and dreams. Joel’s prophecy came true in that moment of grace we call the first Christian Pentecost.

Our time is also the latter days and may well be a moment of grace, an occasion of sacred discontinuity when the Lord of life decides to do something new and do that something new through us.

Already the Holy Spirit has launched a great work: washing away the sin of our assault on the environment, inviting the Earth and humanity to a new reconciliation and peace.

For those with eyes to see, the Spirit is even now engaged in this unprecedented enterprise: inspiring scientists and environmentalists, activists and educators and legislators, business executives and farmers and urban planners, people of diverse religions and spiritualities, to take part together in a new and great work. Yes, the Holy Spirit is humble, moving among people everywhere, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged.

The newer generations of humanity include many who are responding to the Spirit’s lead with especially generous hearts. They are putting into effect the vision God has given them.

Today’s psalm declares that God sends forth his Spirit and thus renews the face of the earth.

This is a glorious truth! But will we all become partners in the divine renewal of this planet?

Will we recognize and welcome this current moment of grace, this divine discontinuity where the Lord is leading us to peace as we struggle with something unprecedented?

Will we act upon this opportunity, and will we do so in time?

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker lives in Greenbelt, Maryland with his wife Helena Mirtova and serves as priest associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beltsville, Md. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications). Many of his sermons appear on sermonwriter.com. He can be reached via Email at charleshoffacker8@gmail.com.

Download the sermon for the Day of Pentecost (B).

In the Space In-Between, Easter 7 (B) – May 13, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Easter


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

Today the Church gathers around the world in the space between: just a few days ago, the Church celebrated the feast of the Ascension and today the church finds itself on the threshold of something new. It isn’t quite here yet. We are invited on the Seventh Sunday of Easter to enter a period of waiting once more. But this period of waiting is a bit different; it’s the pause between the hope of the past and the hope for the future. It is sometimes hard to hold this space because we’re so eager to move on and find new direction. It is possible to treat this day as a preemptive Pentecost, but to do so misses one of the most important lessons of life. It is the in-between that invites us to find depth and to hold the anxiety and fears of the future at bay and embrace this one moment.

If you’ve ever stood at the door of a significant change in your life and found yourself anxious and waiting, longing for an answer or a direction in your life, you’ve experienced what psychologists and anthropologists call liminal space. Richard Rohr describes liminal space this way: “It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run… anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” It’s a very natural response to the uncertainty and ambiguity of this place. One finds oneself longing for the truth and structure of what was or of what will be. Uncertainty is not easy to live with.

In the uncertainty, Jesus doesn’t run away from the liminal space between his ministry and his crucifixion. Instead, he enters into that space and he reflects on the current state of the unknown. Jesus provides us with some idea of how to properly inhabit the space in-between the answers. Inhabiting the space in-between the answers is hard, but it is also most formative. Learning to live with the paradoxes of life and faith takes spiritual maturity. This Gospel text can be a confusing one for most of us to read, and it was only after considering that this text is a struggle in the space in-between that this passage might begin to make sense. Jesus seems to be looking back at his time with his disciples and his work in the world in certain places in the passage; in others, he speaks of his reunification with the Father in heaven and receiving once again the glory that was his from beyond time. Jesus’ discourse gives us this beautiful proclamation of his relationship with God the Father, with his disciples, and with the whole world.

Jesus speaks about his relationship with God and how he has proclaimed God’s word to the whole world. At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus says, “Since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” He goes on to discuss his mission and ministry in the world. He talks about the way that he has proclaimed God’s word to those whom God has given to Jesus. It does raise the question of whether he’s speaking just about his ministry to the disciples or to the whole world. There’s no real answer to that question in keeping with the paradox of liminal space—it is simply a question to which the answer may well be “both/and” as opposed to “either/or.”

Then Jesus bids us embrace yet another paradox as he proclaims God’s provision. The Word has come, that is, Jesus has come. The world has hated those who received Jesus because they do not belong to the world. But it’s worth asking the question: can one belong to both this world and the next? It seems a weird thing to suggest that those who belong to Jesus are citizens of both heaven and earth, and yet this is in keeping with the Gospel message, too. Nicodemus once came to Jesus seeking to understand the kingdom of God. Jesus explains that in order to see the kingdom, one must be born again. It left Nicodemus perplexed. He was so perplexed that he asked, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” It is a paradox in which we’re called to live.

We live in the already and the not-yet of God’s kingdom. At the end of this passage, Jesus begins to talk about the need to be sanctified. Sanctified is simply a word that means to be set apart. It is in the already and the not-yet of God’s kingdom that Jesus asks that we be set apart for God’s work in the world just as he has already set himself apart and is about to set himself apart through the cross. Jesus says, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

This Gospel passage calls us to set ourselves apart for God’s purposes in the world. We hear that setting apart in our baptismal rites as we join a new family with an amazing responsibility. The purpose of the Gospel message is not that we would withdraw from society in order to be set apart, but that in living our lives faithful and true to the Good News, we would speak truth, create justice, and offer mercy. We who hear the words of the Gospel remember the message that God has given throughout history: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It is a simple profundity that the prophet offers. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. This is the example that Jesus sets for us in his life, death, and resurrection.

Jerrod McCormack is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Calgary, Anglican Church of Canada. He works as a spiritual care practitioner for the Alberta Health Service and is the manager of the bookstore at St. Mary’s University. He earned an A. Sc. in Pre-Medical Studies from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tenn., a B. Sc. in Biology from Tennessee Wesleyan College, Athens, Tenn., and a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky. He is married to Ali, and in their spare time they love to drive through the Rockies and stop for random photo opportunities.

Download the sermon for Easter 7 (B).

Wait. Pray., Ascension Day (B) – May 10, 2018

Episcopal sermon ascension


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

Today’s first reading and gospel form an unusual pair.  They both come from the two-volume work attributed to Luke the Evangelist.  One is from the end of the first volume, the book we call the Gospel according to Luke.  The other is from the start of the second volume, the book we call the Acts of the Apostles.

Both readings deal with events around the ascension of Jesus.  In each passage, Jesus promises his disciples that they will receive power from on high.  And in each passage, he tells them that they must stay in the city, they must wait, for the realization of this promise.

Their period of waiting is memorialized in the church year.  For here we are, on Ascension Day, which commemorates the return of Jesus to his Father.  Nine days must pass until the Day of Pentecost comes, when we commemorate that gift of power from on high.

This nine-day period is sometimes called Ascension Season.  It is the conclusion of the Great Fifty Days of Easter.  Thus, it appears as a season within a season.

For the first disciples, it was a time of remaining in Jerusalem. A time to wait, and a time to pray. It reminds us, who are later disciples of Jesus, of the role of prayer and waiting in our lives.

Prayer and waiting sound pretty safe until we remember that our society has little patience with those who decide to wait and pray. Ours is an action-oriented culture, action-oriented to a fault, so that many of us pass much of our time struggling with stress and weariness.

Our culture is no friend to prayer, either, except possibly prayer that reinforces the status quo.  But all authentic prayer is a response to God, and God has been known to be a change agent.

Moreover, prayer acknowledges our dependence on God, and our culture is, at heart, uncomfortable with an acknowledgment of dependence.  Our culture is independence-oriented, independence-oriented to a fault, so that many of us live and die in considerable isolation from one another.

In the face of all this, then, there is something subversive about coming to church on Ascension Day because this feast is not just a goodbye to Jesus as he makes his way home; it is an invitation to countercultural activities such as waiting and prayer.

On this day, our attention might well focus on the triumphant Christ as he, in ways past our understanding, ascends through all the heavens. Our attention might well rivet on how he ascends in his humanity, and that therefore we who are human, we who are his body, ascend together with him.

But today I would like us to consider instead those waiting, praying disciples gathered in Jerusalem, anticipating power from on high. What they do is countercultural by our standards.  They wait.  They pray.

But there is still more about them that makes our dominant culture uncomfortable.  They wait, they pray, not simply out of obedience. They wait, they pray, because they desire. They desire that promised power from on high and all that it makes possible.  Their desire is good and holy.

Ours is a culture that accepts desire only to trivialize it.  Our TV commercials sing hymns to hamburgers, they celebrate the glories of dish detergent.  Our politicians–many of them–incite our fears and jealousies, rather than help us desire greater justice.  Poets and artists, writers and film-makers are often not widely known among us unless they bend our desires in directions violent or sentimental in the manner of much popular culture.  Yes, we accept desire only to debase it, to turn its focus from what is finally desirable and authentically glorious toward the trivial and the tragic, things that have no future.

One of the most memorable sculptures of the last several centuries depicts the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila caught in a moment of ecstasy.  This work by Bernini is a very human presentation, yet the presence of the divine cannot be denied.  The sculpture presents the Holy One as manifest in this woman’s life, together with her desire for God.

Art like this seems a world away from our society’s cheapening of desire.  And so, as a society, we lack the ability to understand what, for Teresa, is the big deal.  Because we have trivialized passion, we have weakened our own ability to recognize a desire for that which is the greatest of all, namely God.

The days and seasons of the church calendar represent attitudes that remain important to us all the year round.  This is especially true now, during this Ascension Season.  Christ returns home to the Father, and the gathered disciples wait and pray and desire.  Their desire is for God, for the complete coming of the kingdom, for the power from on high that will make their lives bright torches.

Can we make their particular brand of waiting and prayer and especially desire hallmarks of our lives?  I believe this is possible.

Set free from cheapened forms of desire, from violence and from sentimentality, we can desire the One who is the most desirable.  This will renew our various desires so that they will no longer be frustrated or misdirected or frail.  Instead, these desires of ours will become worthy of the God who pierces the hearts of his saints with desire for himself because his heart is pierced with desire for us.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker lives in Greenbelt, Maryland with his wife Helena Mirtova and serves as priest associate at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beltsville, Maryland.  He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications).  Many of his sermons appear on sermonwriter.com.  He can be reached via email at charleshoffacker8@gmail.com.

Download the sermon for Ascension Day (B).

Abide With Me, Easter 6 (B) – May 6, 2018

Episcopal Sermon Easter


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

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
when other helpers fail and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, O abide with me.

 Abide with Me is a familiar hymn that Henry Francis Lyte penned while battling tuberculosis. What a thrilling prayer request: for God to abide with us always, and even more so when the “darkness deepens” or “other helpers fail.” But what does it mean for God to abide with us?

The gospel reading from John reminds us of Jesus’ words to his disciples and us that, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9). To abide in Jesus’ love means to abide in Jesus because Jesus is love. In the gospel, Jesus lays out three benefits of abiding in him. First, abiding in Jesus means that the love of God is present in us, and, as a result, we can love like Jesus. Like most things, this is much harder than it sounds. Using Jesus as our model for love, many of us come up short and miss the mark. Jesus loved unconditionally and without judgment and without the need for reciprocity. Verse 13 spells out what it means to love as Jesus loves: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Crazy right? And definitely not humanly possible.

Wrong.

If we could turn our gaze to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for just a bit and remember how Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters tells what happened after King’s front porch was bombed while his wife and 10-week-old baby were inside:

“King walked out onto the front porch. Holding up his hand for silence, he tried to still the anger by speaking with an exaggerated peacefulness in his voice. Everything was all right, he said. ‘Don’t get panicky. Don’t do anything panicky. Don’t get your weapons. If you have weapons, take them home. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what Jesus said… We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.’” 

Indeed, Dr. King is just one example of the love of Jesus being humanly possible; there are others. This tells us that it’s possible for us all, with God’s help.

Second, abiding in Jesus and loving like Jesus creates the byproduct of joy. We become joyful and joy is present when Jesus abides with us and when we abide in Jesus’ love. Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10-11).

Later in Abide with Me, Lyte mentions the dimming of earth’s joys:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

In life, sometimes joy is hard to find: when disappointments and setbacks are the order of the day and God seems far or prayers seem unanswered. It is difficult to keep one’s joy when there is no hope or the walls seem to be caving in all around us.

Nehemiah 8:10, however, reminds us that the joy of the Lord is our strength. Whether the “joy of the Lord” here refers mainly to the joy the Lord has or to the joy the Lord gives us, we have no real hope of joy or strength unless God is joyful Godself (John 15:11). God cannot give us that which God ultimately does not have.

In Nehemiah’s story, we find a people who were in the midst of conflict. Hope was dwindling, and joy was a rare commodity. Nehemiah reaffirms the people as they hear the words from the Book of the Law of God that this is where we find our strength for life, for setbacks, disappointments, health crises, raising children, relationships, missions, everything. The strength we need for this life is found in the essential joy that God provides if we abide in him and in his love.

Thirdly, abiding in Jesus means that we are anointed to bear fruit that will last. Jesus says, “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” (John 15:16).

The proof is in the pudding. What fruits are you bearing? A good tree does not bear bad fruit. Jesus is serious about his disciples bearing fruit. Good fruit. Fruit that will last.

We have been anointed by Jesus, who abides in us, to bear fruit joyfully.

That appears several ways. One important way today is in how we are making disciples. How are we sharing and telling of this love that we embody and that radiates throughout our entire being and all whom we touch? How are we telling our faith stories with each other and especially with those who might not know Jesus for themselves? We are not called to practice an insular type of faith or Christianity; we aren’t called to stick to what we like and what’s comfortable. If Jesus abides in us, truly abides in us, this all comes somewhat naturally. This doesn’t make it easy.

But when Jesus abides in us, we can’t help but exude his love and ways and share them. We can’t help but be joyful in all things. And because the proof is in the pudding, the fruit we bear is good and pleasing in God’s sight.

Abiding with Jesus is exemplifying the love that God and Jesus share with each other and that we as a community are called to enact.[1] Like Lyte, if we acknowledge our helpless state and beseech Jesus to abide with us, teaching us to love like him, we can joyfully sing out in confidence:

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

[1] Keck, Leander E. The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke-John. Vol. 9. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

 

The Rev. Canon Arlette Benoit Joseph is the Canon for Transition Ministry in the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

Download the sermon for Easter 6 (B)

Is There an App for Abiding, Easter 5 (B) – April 29, 2018


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

Unfortunately, some of us feel that if we don’t check our smartphones every few minutes, we will miss out on something crucial, maybe the event of the year or the e-mail that will change the course of our lives. And it is even more embarrassing when we don’t seem to be aware that we are doing it, and someone brings it to our attention – often the person we should have been listening to!

A common lament, whether working in an office or as a full-time parent, is that there simply are not enough hours in the day. Schedules are too full, responsibilities too numerous and commitments too demanding. Given this, a common reason as to why we don’t eat better or exercise more or even pray more regularly is simply, “Who has the time?”

We can easily mishear the invitation in today’s gospel passage as yet another demand on our time. We can make the mistake of assuming that what often works well in one aspect of our lives, works equally well in our spiritual lives: in this case, the motto of every controlling and rushed person – which is all of us at one time or another – “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” But listen to Jesus today, “I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” And Jesus goes on to tell us very clearly who is doing the work, and it is not you or me, my friends. “He removes every branch in me that does not bear fruit.”

This image of the people of God as “God’s vineyard” is a very old one, going back to the Jewish psalms, as well as other places in the Old Testament. Listen to part of Psalm 80: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.” Again, notice that it is God who is doing all the planting here, not us. And think of all the other I AM statements found in the Gospel of John: “I AM the light of the world,” “I AM the gate,” “I AM the resurrection and the life.”

All these I AM statements in the Gospel of John point to the reality of God’s availability. It is ironic that Christianity has the reputation of being an other-worldly religion, focused almost exclusively on how to get into heaven. Maybe you have seen the bumpers stickers declaring, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” or “Friends don’t let friends miss out on heaven!” It may sound surprising, but this kind of theology of a “distant god” is what most of us are comfortable with, because it ultimately pushes God to the sidelines and we can remain in control. We are very good at being busy and taking responsibility, and we rather prefer this to being on the receiving end of change. But as Jesus says in today’s reading, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus addresses us twice with the phrase “I AM the vine.” There is a promise here. “I AM the vine, and you are the branches.” Jesus is asking each of us to simply be with him. This sounds deceptively easy. Listen to the words of the Collect for Purity, as if for the first time: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” It’s OK to relax a bit and stop worrying about hiding those parts of ourselves that we don’t want others, and surely not God, to see. We can abide with God, instead of busying ourselves to keep God at a distance.

The promise of Jesus, the Vine, the Gate, the Light, is abundant life here and now, not just in some future time. God is doing more in our lives than any of us are aware. God in Jesus is simply inviting each of us to take the time to notice. But the trick, of course, is to let God do what God needs to do and for us to get out of the way. Jesus is very clear on this point when he says: “I AM the vine, you are the branches.” That is what abiding in the power of the Word is all about, not placing impediments in God’s way by trying to do for ourselves what God wants to do for us: reshape our hearts, bodies and minds to receive the forgiveness being offered.

Hopefully, now, you can hear Jesus’ words as the beautiful invitation it truly is: “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

This sermon, written by the Rev. Stephen P. Hagerty, was originally published for Easter 5 (B) on May 6, 2012.

Download the sermon for Easter 5 (B).

The Good Shepherd, Easter 4 (B) – April 22, 2018

Easter Sermon Episcopal


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

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Today’s gospel text uses an image that may be lost on many of us, an image that we may know from childhood stories — but not firsthand experience. Jesus, living in the first century, talking to people who know livestock and agriculture in their hearts and bones, tells his disciples, his friends, us, that he is the Good Shepherd.

We hear this story, or parts of it, year after year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. We hear it when Jesus has not only laid down his life for his friends, but has taken it back up, defeating death, sin, and the grave. His disciples hear it before Jesus has even gotten back to Jerusalem. The disciples are where they were through all of Lent — hearing Jesus predict his death, in disbelief at it, and somewhat perplexed. They don’t think he’s going to die. We know he’s died and risen again.

Our text today is the second half of Jesus’ describing himself as the Good Shepherd, a story split in two over the course of church years. Today, Jesus makes the distinction between himself, the Good Shepherd, and the hired hand. “The Good Shepherd,” Jesus says, “is willing to die. They’ll get down with the sheep even when the wolf comes. They’ll give up their own life to save the sheep.”

He contrasts this with the hired hand, someone whose work is seasonal but who isn’t invested in the sheep or the property. “The hired hand,” Jesus says, “says, ‘Nope! I’m outta here!’ when the wolf comes.” The hired hand’s work is probably temporary anyway, depending on the season and need. Why would they stick around when a wolf comes? Depending on the shepherd’s fairness and practices, there may not have been any guarantee that they would be paid. When a wolf comes with no human to guard against it, that leaves the sheep scattered — or worse, gobbled up.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” This second half of Jesus’ Good Shepherd narrative is remarkably tender, vulnerable, and human. Shepherds were dirty, hungry, and scrappy. They lived out mostly on their own with a vast responsibility. Their only company was sheep, and they had to learn to love them.

Jesus is telling his disciples then and now that this is how he cares for us. He’s not a leader who is around just long enough to get paid. He’s not there to just do the easy work. Jesus the Good Shepherd has come to offer salvation: salvation through love, self-giving, tenderness, and vulnerability.

The chapel at General Seminary in New York is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Each year, dozens of students move from all over the world, following God to lead God’s people. Many are not from New York City, and don’t know what kinds of wolves they may face there, from temptation and vice to greed and violence. At the center of their campus is a chapel dedicated to Jesus the Good Shepherd, who knows his own and whose own know him.

The centerpiece of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd is, yes, a sculpture of Jesus the Good Shepherd. This sculpture is not a traditional one, where Jesus has a sheep slung over his shoulders, carrying it back from a rescue. This Jesus looks out at the seminarians and knows them — as they hope to know him. In his left hand, he holds a shepherd’s crook, a crozier, herding sheep as the ultimate overseer of the Church. In his right? A lamb held close to his chest, the way many of us might hold a cat we love. He stands looking out over the chapel, a place of silence and solace amid the noise and excitement of New York, with another sheep at his side. This sheep is leaned against Jesus, relying on him for support, demonstrating affection with touch. Jesus knows his own, and his own know him.

Before the plot, his trial, his execution, or his resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples that he lays his life down for his sheep. He protects them from the wolves. He brings them life. He tells his disciples, too, that there are other sheep to which he must attend, others who follow him, but that aren’t a part of the fold they know, the fold of which they are part.

Before our passage today, Jesus has just told the disciples that he is the gate, the pathway for attaining salvation — and tells them even still they don’t know it all. He will attend to these other sheep and there will be one flock, one people who have been brought to salvation. Jesus the Good Shepherd doesn’t give his disciples directions right now on who is in or who is out. He doesn’t give a timeline for when this one flock will be achieved. What he says more than once, though, is that those who are his know him, and he knows them. He says that he loves them, and that he lays down his life for them.

Jesus is giving his disciples an Easter message before he’s even been crucified. “I lay down my life in order to take it up again… I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Jesus the Good Shepherd doesn’t run from the wolves, he gets in the muck with the sheep and loves us. We started learning about that when God became human and let Godself be bound to our earthly, fleshy limitations.

He holds us close to his chest or lets us lean on him when we need to be held and touched, and he faces the greatest enemy we have: death. He does by his own will, not because he’s compelled to. He does it from his desire, not to satisfy a blood necessity. He does it on his own, not to appease the Creator’s wrath. “For this reason the Father loves me,” Jesus says, “because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”

Jesus lays down his life and takes it up again. He beats death, hell, and the grave, all the wolves we’ll ever face, and the adversary — Satan — himself. Jesus lays down his life and takes it up again, alleluia! Jesus the Good Shepherd loves his own, loving them to the point of death — and loving them even through death, to raise them from death, to bring salvation.

Jesus the Good Shepherd isn’t a Precious Moments painting or collectible, however sweet that may feel or seem. Love — love enough to lay down one’s life and take it back up again — isn’t only sweet and it isn’t only a moment. It’s earthy and dirty. It’s dangerous and deadly. But this is Jesus the resurrected Christ, alleluia. The Good Shepherd who knows his own, whose own know him, who lays down his life for them — even when the hired hand won’t.

Jesus the Good Shepherd is tender, affectionate, and vulnerable. As he tends to us in Bread and Wine, getting back into the physical, touchable reality of humanity — like a shepherd in the wild fields — he joins us to his life, his life that he laid down and took back up. Jesus the Good Shepherd knows us as his own, and we know him. Amen. 

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Joseph – St. John Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Wash. He began this cure in September 2017. Before moving to the Seattle area, he served as Working Group Head for Communications for the Diocese of California in San Francisco. When not priesting or lifting, Joseph grabs a whistle as a soccer referee. He and his husband Brandon live in Seattle with their cats Maggie and Stanton.

Download the sermon for Easter 4 (B).

Jesus Comes to Coffee Hour, Easter 3 (B) – April 15, 2018

Episcopal Easter 3 Sermon


[RCL]: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

The language of scripture is, for the most part, a graceful and formal language.

There’s that one place in Paul’s epistles where he uses a word we don’t use in polite company. There is more than one instance of whining, of rudeness, even of insult. Of course, there are the stories of things we don’t associate with a godly people: incest, drunkenness, rape, murder, adultery, prostitution, and so on.

But for the most part, it’s a lovely story, a formal telling, of a people’s history and experience in a cleaned-up, sometimes methodical, sometimes poetic way.

That is also a cleaned-up way of saying that it’s sometimes not very interesting.

Different versions have attempted a variety of styles to deliver the message. The Jerusalem Bible is widely credited with the most beautiful language, at least in the Old Testament books. The New English Bible was a breakthrough of sorts in rendering a compromise, readable, accurate text. Good News for Modern Man has been popular because of both its ready accessibility as a paperback and its language, which for lots of people is more approachable and less intimidating than the traditional King James Version. For those who have trouble with sophisticated English language, it’s a whole lot easier to understand. It just isn’t accurate to the original texts in a variety of ways. The New International and a few others more popular among conservative Christians are more readable still, though these, too, suffer from inaccuracy.

Still, the most popular and for some, the only “real” Bible, the King James Version (KJV), is the least accurate of all. Generations of Christians are familiar with it because of its language and cadence in poetry, its use in Handel’s Messiah, and its basis for many of our Christmas hymns. The Revised Standard Version, and more recently the New Revised Standard, at least strives for an accurate transliteration from the original languages—but in the process, it renders a rather “wooden” text.

The result of all of this—the years of familiarity with texts we’re accustomed to hearing—is that we think we know what they’re saying. We tune out some readings after the first few words are read because we already know what it’s going to say.

C’mon, admit it. We all do it.

We grow up identifying passages by subjects: The Last Supper. Or by movie adaptation: The Charlton Heston Part. Or by a name given to it even if that’s not really what it’s about: Doubting Thomas.

It gives us a handle. But in so doing, it also lets us be lazy in looking at the story for new, even deeper, meaning.

It can be an interesting exercise to take a look at some of the familiar stories in the Bible and imagine new names. Consider, for example, the Parable of the Unjust Judge, that story of the woman who comes to the judge demanding justice, asking again and again and again before the judge gives in and gives her what she asks. How might we understand that parable differently if we called it How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?

Today, we read from the Gospel of Luke about Jesus joining the disciples for a meal after he had been crucified and laid in the tomb. Shall we call it Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

What we usually hear and what is usually preached out of this passage is that Jesus says, “Peace.” The disciples are their usual frightened, doubtful, selves. Jesus reassures them and offers proof that he is the Son of God. Then there is a long statement of faith which rehearses the history of expecting a Messiah.

It’s great drama, but it probably didn’t happen quite that way. In any event, Luke wasn’t there as a witness. Let’s consider a different focus in this lesson.

More than one person has observed that Jesus showed up wherever there was food. That’s promising!

So, consider the story again: the great drama of the cross is over. The disciples are talking. Jesus shows up and says, “Hey.” In today’s language, he might even ask, “What are you guys looking at?” Jesus then asks all of the disciples gathered together: “Have you got anything to eat?”

Do you see why it might be appropriate to rename this Jesus Comes to Coffee Hour?

“Do you have anything to eat?”

That has to be one of the great questions of the Bible, right up there with Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and Jesus asking Peter, “Who do you say I am?”

“Have you got anything to eat?”

We could also call this passage Jesus Gets Right to the Point, because eating and food are so basic, so necessary, so very ordinary, and so very much a part of human life.

In Luke’s Gospel, the story is told in a way that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity—and being human, it makes sense that he would first inquire about food. Being dead for three days and rising again is hungry work! But wait: having risen from the dead, would he need to eat? Would he even be able to eat?

If he’s not asking for food because he’s hungry, then what else might be going on here?

This may be as simple as Luke wanting to emphasize that the Christ of God is human as well as divine. Asking for food and eating in front of the bewildered disciples is pretty human.

It may be that simple.

But there is another possibility. Luke had firmly established that Jesus was human. He didn’t need to interject this tidbit between Jesus reassuring the disciples that he wasn’t a ghost and a lengthy statement about God’s Messiah.

It’s unnecessary unless it has particular meaning.

Luke was Greek, writing for a Greek audience. The popular religions of the Greek world were the mystery cults, where gods and goddesses—for the most part, goddesses—were worshipped from a distance of fear and awe, or regard for the divinity and other-worldliness of a far-off deity.

Jesus brought a different understanding of God. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He was God as one of us, God in human flesh.

This passage in Luke may be akin to the story about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. They were so wrapped up in Jesus as their Lord that they had trouble letting him be one of them. And in this passage in Luke, the disciples are so caught up in their misery, their fear, their doubt—that they forget their deeply-ingrained instincts of hospitality: 

When a stranger visits, when a guest comes among you, you don’t huddle in a corner, you invite them in.

The disciples forgot their manners. Jesus reminded them.

Jesus reminded them in the simplest way that he was human, one of them, and he would only enter into their community if invited.

Jesus has done his part. We have to do ours.

Two thousand years later, we still prefer the divinity of Christ to the humanity of Jesus.

In the glory and grandeur of our Easter celebrations, we forget the reminder of Christmas: that Jesus was God in human flesh.

That is the mystery, the wonder, the miracle of the one we call Jesus the Christ.

Certainly, Luke’s Jesus reminds us that he’s human, but there is more to it than that; to enter into our hearts, our lives, our community, he wants to be—indeed needs to be—invited.

Jesus was born into a tradition of absolute, compulsory hospitality. It’s what he lived. It’s what he taught. And it is what we are called to and to be.

Offering hospitality to Jesus on a personal level is the stuff of altar calls in the best of Baptist tradition: “Invite Jesus into your heart today! C’mon down!”

It is also the foundation of community, whether household or congregation. Coffee hour, our family dinners, any meal where people gather, gives us a chance to practice what we preach.

The next time you offer someone a cup of coffee, a bottle of water, a glass of milk, offer them the knowledge and love of Jesus, as well.

The Rev. Machrina Blasdell teaches religious studies courses online for Park University, with her greatest interest following the development and idiosyncrasies of religion in today’s world.  She enjoys time with her family, a number of cats and many roses, and delights in working with dark chocolate.

Download the sermon for Easter 3 (B).