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).

A Week Late to the Resurrection: Wounded, Stubborn, Alive, Easter 2 (B) – April 8, 2018

Easter 2 Episcopal Sermon


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

Today, the first Sunday after Easter, is traditionally known as Low Sunday. Low Sunday—that’s a tremendously unflattering nickname for us as the Church. Last week we presented the triumph of the church year. We announced to the world the Good News of Jesus Christ: Jesus died and rose again to new life for love of us. And the result is that the next Sunday is the lowest attendance of the whole church year, all the way across Christendom. Ouch. Was it something we said?

It may well have been. It’s a shocking gospel, frankly quite hard to believe. It was hard to believe even for people who knew Jesus in person while he was alive and witnessed his many miracles. Today we tell the story of Doubting Thomas, the apostle who had to see to believe.

Thomas, along with Peter, is the most human of the disciples, and this story is rich with interesting questions. The first thing that we notice is that Thomas misses out on Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples. It’s Sunday night, and they have been locked in the Upper Room, afraid for their lives since Friday night.

But not Thomas. Where is he? Was he terrified and trying to hide by himself, not wanting to be found by the Romans right in the middle of a pack of ringleaders of Jesus’ rebellion? Was he instead full of stoic courage, the only one brave enough to venture out and bring back food to his friends?

Whatever it was, he was definitely not there when Jesus appeared in the locked Upper Room. He missed the Resurrection. Many of us can identify with that sort of frustrated futility. We wonder if we’re missing the Resurrection in a lot of areas in our lives. God is raising things to new life and our attention is elsewhere, checked out, missing in action, like Thomas.

Thomas does eventually show up with the rest of the disciples, and they tell him, “We have seen the Lord.” And what is he supposed to think? If he was the only one who had been brave enough to leave, he has watched his brothers and friends driven nearly mad with fear and grief over the last three days. He probably feels great compassion and love for them. They so desperately want their dead friend and leader not to have been condemned to death and executed, that they have dreamed up this vision they experienced.

And who knows, Thomas wouldn’t put it past Jesus to come to them as a ghost. Lord knows he did stranger things than that when he was alive. But he is no longer alive. He is dead, and Thomas knows that denying that won’t help anyone. It’s never brought back any of the rest of the family and friends he’s lost over the years, and it won’t bring back Jesus.

Thomas remains in this state, unable to trust the word of his friends, for an entire week. What was that week like for him? The rest of the disciples were floating on air knowing that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But where was Jesus for that week? And why did he leave the disciples alone? It’s like Low Sunday. Last Sunday we saw him raised from the dead. Now we’re back and starting to wonder, did we really see what we thought we saw? At least we have witnessed him alive. Thomas has had only his own stubbornness to keep him going.

Stubbornness and maybe a tiny spark of hope. Because what made Thomas stick around for an entire week with what he believed to be friends driven to delusions by grief? If Jesus was truly dead, there was nothing left for him anymore with this group of people. By all rights, he should have gone home to his fields or his fishing boat. Remaining with the disciples was a dead end—the longer they stayed together, the greater the danger of being arrested by the Romans. And spending time with them would only serve to bring home every minute of every day that their friend Jesus was dead.

But Thomas did stay. Is it possible that a small part of him wondered if this story his friends were telling him might possibly be true? He reveals himself a bit in his answer to their claim that they have seen the Lord. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

He doesn’t say, “You people are crazy, I’m leaving.” He sets up a hypothetical condition under which he will believe in the Resurrection. He’s laying out the challenge to Jesus. He’s saying, “Come and show me, Jesus, come and prove it to me. Just come to me, Jesus, on any terms.”

Thomas wants to be tough and uncaring and skeptical, but he loved Jesus. He is grieving as deeply as the others, and although they are now joyful since seeing him alive again, Thomas has had no such comfort. He’s throwing out this challenge to provoke Jesus into coming to them again, because Thomas just wants to see his friend. Ghost or vision or real person, it doesn’t matter.

And Jesus does not disappoint him. Thomas has had a grim week, the lone skeptic among the believers. But as soon as Jesus arrives, as soon as he bids them peace, he calls Thomas to him and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

How fascinating and revealing that even in his resurrected body, Jesus’ wounds remain. And how very appropriate to Thomas’ story, and our own story. Resurrection is possible for us in so many areas of our own lives. But our wounds remain, the scars that, painful as they were in the making, have made us indelibly who we are.

Jesus is resurrected to new life, but he’s still himself. And he helps Thomas recognize him through his wounds. That is a potent lesson for us. When we look at ourselves and at each other, part of the proof of our true resurrection is that the past is brought forward to coexist with the present. Our wounds are not erased as though they had never existed. They are still present but no longer cause us pain. They are proof to one another that we are new and whole, but it was our woundedness that got us to this day of resurrection in the first place.

There was one other thing that happened on Low Sunday in the early Church. Those who were baptized on Easter received a new white robe and wore it all week. On Low Sunday, they took it off and went back to their regular clothes. There’s something very poignant about that and our story of Thomas. Today is the day when the loud and public festivities are over, and we return to our normal, everyday lives. But today is also the Day of the Resurrection for Thomas. It is the day when the new white robe falls away and Thomas sees the wounds on Jesus’ body, the same physical person that he knew and loved and now recognizes as both wounded and whole, alive and breathing.

Can we recognize that same type of resurrection in ourselves? In each other? When the fancy Easter dresses and suits are put away for another year, what is left? Our same wounded selves that we fear to show to one another. But we need proof of the Resurrection, and we will only find it in each other. If we are brave enough to show each other our wounded places, we will find that they don’t hurt quite so much. We will find that we are indeed both wounded and healed.

Thomas was a week late to the Resurrection, but he made it all the same. Where do you find yourself today? There is still time for you to come back to life. Reach out to touch the wounded, living Jesus and feel him touch your wounded, living soul.

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest, recently named an Evangelism Catalyst for the Diocese of Indianapolis, who currently serves at St. Francis In-The-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana.  She is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. She has contributed to Lectionary Homiletics, the Young Clergy Women’s Project journal Fidelia’s Sisters, and other publications. She is a researcher and community ministry grant consultant for the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and a founding partner in the newly-forming women’s spirituality collective The Hive (www.thehiveapiary.com).  Find more of her work at her website, Roof Crashers & Hem Grabbers (www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com).

Download the sermon for Easter 2 (B).

Look Again, Easter (B) – April 1, 2018

Episcopal Easter Sermon


[RCL] Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18 or Mark 16:1-8

In the darkness on the third day after their rabbi’s execution, three women check one last time to make sure they have everything they need. Followers of Jesus in his lifetime, they want to be faithful to their teacher in death. Jesus had been robbed of a proper Jewish burial as his death came right on the verge of the Sabbath. The women intend to make this one thing right in a universe turned hopelessly away from God. The Twelve are hiding in a locked room with other disciples for fear they will be found out as followers of Jesus. Meanwhile, the women prepare to be at the tomb as dawn breaks.

In purely human terms, the story of the would-be Messiah from Nazareth in Galilee has come to a brutal end. For the Roman colonial government, Jesus is a minor statistic, yet another Jewish revolutionary crucified in Rome’s ongoing efforts to preserve the peace in Palestine. The ringleader, Jesus, has been publically and cruelly killed. His disciples have vanished for fear of a similar fate. For the keepers of the status quo, this has been a successful Passover festival. Jesus’ movement is buried with its leader.

The women arrive at the tomb and looming large is an insurmountable obstacle between them and their task. The women know they don’t have the strength to budge the great stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. As they walk to the garden, they wonder, “Who will roll the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”

Our Gospel reading for this morning tells us that the women then looked up. The original Greek text [anablepo] for this can also mean the women looked again. The women come upon the tomb and as they expected, the stone is rolled in front of the entrance. They don’t stand a chance of getting near Jesus on their own. Then they look again, or perhaps do a double take, and realize that the stone has been rolled away.

Mark has already prepared us for this need to do a double take. It works something like bi-focal vision in Mark’s Gospel. Twice in the Gospel, Jesus has healed blind men and allowed them to see again. The word used to describe the two blind men seeing again is the same one used here, to look again [anablepo]. Already in those stories of healing the blind, there was a sense in which spiritual healing allowed the men to see again with physical sight.

In Mark’s Gospel, faith gives us the ability to see the world as God sees it. We gain bifocal vision. When we look with the eyes of the world, we see the obstacles and problems. The stone blocks our path and it is too large for us to even budge. We look with the eyes of faith and a different picture comes into focus. God has already removed the obstacles that we could not remove by our own power.

This is seen most clearly in the Easter story. The three women are blocked by an obstacle, which they stood no chance of removing on their own. They ask one another, “Who will roll away the stone?” Yet, when they look again through the eyes of faith, they see that the stone has already been rolled away. The Greek here is in the perfect tense. The stone that blocks their way is already long gone when they do the Easter double take and see the world as God sees it.

What are the stones that need to be rolled away in your life? Is the obstacle one of relationships that can’t be made right? Or is your path blocked by an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or some other destructive cycle from which you don’t have the power to break free? All of us can find our way blocked by obstacles too big to budge. The story of Easter tells us that God offers the ultimate leverage to remove the obstacles in your way.

If you rely on your own might, your own abilities, your own wisdom, the stone in your way will be more than you can face. Period. But, when you have the courage to admit you don’t have the power to remove the obstacle, you can turn the problem over to God. Then with the eyes of faith, you may come in time to see that the insurmountable obstacle has been rolled away.

Yet, that is not the end of the Gospel reading. The Bible is if nothing else, the most realistic of books, and today’s reading is no exception. The women enter the tomb to find an angel, a divine messenger, with the news that Jesus has been raised from the dead and has gone ahead of his disciples to Galilee. It would be wonderful to report that the women were immediately filled with joy.

Instead, we are told that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome fled from the tomb seized by terror and stricken with awe. Rather than spreading the joy of resurrection, we are told, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

It is there that the reading ends. Mark’s Gospel offers the challenge of a circular story. The Gospel begins with Jesus in Galilee challenging people to come and follow him; at the close of the story, Jesus has once more gone ahead into Galilee holding out the offer of discipleship to any who will come and follow him.

What about you? Would you have the courage to leave the empty tomb and go back to Galilee to take up the task of being Jesus’ disciple now that you know the way of discipleship led to the cross and the grave? Even with the triumph of Easter, we can fearfully retreat now that we know the cost of discipleship.

The Gospel offers a dual challenge this Easter. The first is to look at the very real obstacles in your life with the eyes of faith. The things that you are powerless to change are not obstacles to God. Through grace, you can see that God has already removed the problems plaguing you, if you just have the faith to push ahead.

But the second prong of the challenge of the Gospel comes when you push ahead. Just as the women found the stone rolled away only to be struck dumb with terror and awe at the news of Jesus’ resurrection, we too can lose our focus and stop seeing the world as God sees it. The second challenge then is the harder one. Once you have seen that God can remove the obstacles blocking your way, then you must follow where Jesus leads.

The three women that morning did break free from fear. We know that they were all active in the earliest Christian church. They found the courage to follow Jesus even after they had learned the cost they might have to one day pay for their faith in him.

Jesus will remove the obstacles from your path if you will stop trying to remove them by your own might. Then he will give you the grace to continue the journey. The path is open to each of us. Jesus is still out there beckoning, “Follow me” to those who listen. We only need respond by faith and say yes to the invitation.

For Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Amen. 

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on mostly church development related topics at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for Easter (B).

Note: To see Easter sermons for RCL Year B based on alternative lectionary readings, please click here.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Easter A – April 16, 2017

[RCL] Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18

We, the faithful in Christ, gather this morning, not just with our friends and families, but also with Christians around the world and across time, joyfully proclaiming what is perhaps the most ancient creed in Christendom: Christ is risen! For the next fifty days, this great and powerful Easter proclamation will mark our liturgy, define our purpose, and affirm our most deeply held belief.

Of course, proclaiming that joyful phrase today amidst the beautiful flowers, the gorgeous music, and in the company of those we love comes easily for most, if not all of us. And yet, for as much as we enjoy the more festive aspects of Easter, the truth is that these things, by themselves, don’t tell the whole story.

Along with praise-filled shouts of “Alleluia,” the whole story of Easter also includes shouts of war and hate; of fear and pain; of confusion and misunderstanding. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom, and in the shadow of war and violence that plague our streets and our planet, these emotions are viscerally familiar to all of us. And although we may lose sight of it here this morning, these emotions also filled the hearts of the faithful on that first Easter morning.

The Gospel of John sets the scene: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.” Then, John tells us, she ran to share the news with the others. And while John doesn’t tell us this part himself, when people get news, they don’t typically run unless it’s really good news or really bad news!

Mary, it seems fair to say, is distraught—shocked that the body of her beloved Lord isn’t in the tomb where he had been laid just three days ago. When she reaches the other disciples with the news, they take off running as well, reaching the tomb only to confirm what Mary had told them. They depart, their hopes dashed; their Easter alleluias muted.

This is where Easter ended: The disciples returned home—confused, saddened, and unsure of what would happen next. John tells us that they “as yet…did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

And who could blame them really? They had put so much trust in Jesus, only to have it squashed by powers and principalities. What were they to do now? Where would they go? Who would they believe in next?  These were the questions that raced through the disciples’ minds as they came to grips with their grief and disappointment.

But Mary wasn’t ready to let go just yet.

Mary stays behind, weeping while she examines the emptiness of the tomb, making sure that no detail or clue goes unseen or unexamined—desperately searching for some shred of evidence; grasping for even the faintest possibility.

Just then, she sees two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. They ask her why she is weeping and she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

We can hear the weight of grief in her voice. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all had similar moments to the one Mary is experiencing. Moments when we’ve found ourselves desperately searching for God, only to be met with emptiness and sadness. Have you ever come to church, yearning for the peace and comfort of the sacraments, only to find that God doesn’t seem to be there? Has your prayer life ever felt dry and fallow? Have you ever found yourself wondering whether church itself might be futile?

In moments like these, we find ourselves in a kind of spiritual mourning, wondering where Jesus has gone, and why he seems to have been taken away. St. John of the Cross called these moments the “Dark Night of the Soul”—when prayer, sacrament, and community no longer bring comfort, and the transcendence of God’s presence seems to have evaporated.[1]

There is a well-meaning tendency among many Christians—especially those who have never wrestled deeply with their faith—to liken these moments to a kind of spiritual weakness. “If you only prayed a little harder or believed a little deeper or trusted a little more, then everything would be okay,” they tell us. We needn’t look much further than the shelves of our local bookstore for a seemingly endless litany of books offering prescriptions that promise to fix our spiritual life.

But as the Trappist monk and priest Thomas Keating reminds us, “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside of us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal.”[2]

In other words, we can’t work our way into God’s good graces because God doesn’t deal in performance evaluations and goals and targets. God doesn’t show up on our time or in a manner of our choosing; and our relationship with God cannot be converted into a checklist or a “how to” guidebook.

This is the lesson that Mary learned on that first Easter, and it’s the one that God is still trying to teach us 2,000 years later. In the midst of her desperate search for clues about what might have happened to Jesus’ body, a man walks by and asks Mary why she is so distraught. And desperately hoping that he would know something she didn’t, she says, “If you know where he is—if you’ve taken him somewhere else—just tell me where and I will take him myself.” If you will just tell me what to do or where to go, I’ll do it! It’s as if she’s saying, “Give me a target! Give me a goal! What are the five simple steps that I need to accomplish?”

And that’s when it happens: Jesus calls her by name! “Mary!” And when she hears it, she is overcome! She cries out, “Rabbouni! Teacher!”

With these words, Mary experiences the very first Easter moment! She realizes that Christ’s difficult and at times unbelievable teachings are true—that what he promised at the Last Supper has come to pass!

Mary’s witness to the first Easter is about far more than beautiful worship and festive celebrations. Mary brings us face to face with the depths of our humanity. Her witness is a mosaic of the human experience—grief and joy; uncertainty and affirmation; depression and determination. This is the true witness of Easter!

Even in the depths of our despair and grief, when things just seem to keep piling up with no end in sight, and even when we just don’t know if we believe it anymore, the God made known to us in Jesus Christ has a way of showing up where we least expect him!

But if we’re not careful, we’ll close the book as if the story ends right here. Mary recognizes the Resurrected Lord and everyone lives happily ever after. But this isn’t the end of the story. In fact, if we keep reading, we realize that Easter isn’t a story at all! It’s a commissioning!

Once Mary recognizes Jesus, he says to her, “…Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” The moment that Mary leaves the garden, the Good News of Easter gets loose and begins to transform the world! Mary bears witness to the fact that, even in the face of death itself, God will have the last word!

Through her first Easter witness, Mary teaches us that grief and joy, uncertainty and affirmation, desperation and determination, are all inescapable parts of our humanity. She teaches us that our lives of faith aren’t about success or opportunities for advancement; rather, they are holy mysteries that will surprise, unsettle, and transform us. But most important of all, she teaches us that in the resurrection of our Lord Christ, we know that love, hope, and peace will ultimately prevail!

And so, in this Eastertide, may we proclaim that Christ is risen, not simply in church, but also in the world around us. May we proclaim it, not simply with our lips, but also with our hands and hearts. And as we live into the joy and promise of Easter, may we go forth into the world, looking for the Resurrected Christ in places we may not expect.

May we search for Christ amidst those who are cast down and rejected; among those who have nobody to care for them; and in the company of those who have never known the loving embrace of friendship. The world needs this now, perhaps more than ever before. But most of all, may we not simply proclaim the Good News, may we also believe it so that the whole world may see Christ in their midst and proclaim, “The Lord is risen indeed!”

Alleluia!

Written by the Rev. Marshall A. Jolly, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies). His published works include essays on Christian social engagement, theology in the public square, and preaching, appearing most recently in the Journal of Appalachian Studies and the Anglican Theological Review. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia, a preaching resource authored by Millennials, and enjoys exploring the nearby Appalachian foothills with his wife Elizabeth.

[1] See TJ Tetzlaff’s essay for Easter Day (Year C), entitled, “The Unlikely Evangelist” in Modern Metanoia 14 March 2016, http://modernmetanoia.org/2016/03/14/easter-day-c-the-unlikely-evangelist/

[2] Thomas Keating, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), 38.

Download the sermon for Easter.

Being God’s Glory, Easter 7 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21; John 17:20-26; Psalm 97

Imagine thousands of people dressed in white clothes for the Feast of the Epiphany singing, praying, and waiting with anticipation outside a church near the Red Sea in Ethiopia. The faithful sway side-to-side singing praises to God in thanksgiving for Jesus Christ. There are shouts of jubilation when the bishop exits the cathedral holding a replica stone tablet of the Ten Commandments taken from the cathedral’s altar. Those gathered exhibit ecstatic exuberance because the bishop carries the Ten Commandments stone tablet that consecrates the cathedral into the crowd of people, and in doing so consecrates and makes the people holy. It is a symbol of God’s presence and glory dwelling with the people.

Raymond Brown in his book, The Gospel According to John, reminds us that the ark is an important biblical symbol. Those sealed inside Noah’s Ark survived the flood. The Hebrew people journeyed to the Promised Land following the Ark of the Covenant, holding the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets. Early Christian writers referred to Jesus as the Tabernacle or Ark of God since Jesus embodied God’s glory.[1]

Jesus prays to God in John 17:22, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” The recognition of God’s glory occurs early in scripture. For the Hebrew people, God’s glory was the visible manifestation of God’s acts of power.[2] The people saw the invisible God in God’s visible actions: parting of the Red Sea; crumbling the walls of Jericho; building Solomon’s Temple.[3] Jesus is the embodiment of divine glory. God becomes visible in Jesus Christ and his followers see his acts of power. The disciples witness God’s chief act of power in resurrecting Jesus from the dead.

Today is the Sunday after Ascension Thursday and the last Sunday before Pentecost. Jesus leaves the disciples to return to God on Ascension Day. The disciples wait for Jesus to send the promised Holy Spirit who is the manifestation of God’s glory. Waiting for the Holy Spirit gives Jesus’ followers the opportunity to reflect on “seeing his glory.” Jesus prays in John 17:24 that his followers see his glory. To see Jesus’ glory, his acts of power, goes beyond observing his ministry. “To see” in this sense means to contemplate on, to look deeper.[4] Perhaps the disciples asked themselves if others would see in them the same glory the disciples saw in Jesus.

Do people in the world look at the Church, the Ark of Salvation, and see the glory or the deeds of power God gives us? Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry was dynamic, expressive of love and expressed in love.[5] The Holy Spirit brings the indwelling of that love to those who follow Jesus. God calls us to share Christ’s love with the world. 

A visible example of God’s love is a Diocese of North Carolina ministry, A Moveable Feast: Food for the Body; Food for the Soul. This ministry happens in and around a 28-foot mobile “food truck” covered in neon dry erase marker graffiti. The food truck contains a prayer chapel and a small kitchen for heating chili or warming beverages. Guests use markers to write prayers and blessings on the inside walls and on the food truck’s exterior. A Moveable Feast drifts and zooms around the diocese as a ministry to young adult communities sometimes ignored by traditional campus ministries—community college students, young adults in rural areas, and those transitioning directly from high school to the workforce. The food truck is not a permanent fixture. Staff members and volunteers work to engage young adults, helping build relationships with local Episcopal churches to help minister to and support young adults through their experience of the food truck. When the food truck leaves, the Episcopal presence remains. This truck offers food for the soul. [6]

The Moveable Feast is an example of modern day disciples embracing the glory and the works of power, Jesus gives his followers. Connecting young adults with churches models Jesus by engaging the world to make a difference. Holy food for holy people is a part of our Eucharistic prayer, with the clergy presenting the consecrated bread and wine to the congregation before the invitation to receive communion. Can we as followers of Jesus Christ be God’s visible glory in the world through our words and actions? The Body and Blood of Christ transform us. God’s glory dwells with us. Be a holy presence in the world. Jesus did not ascend to leave us alone. The Holy Spirit will come and guide us.

Download the sermon for Easter 7C.

Written by The Reverend Jemonde Taylor

The Reverend Jemonde Taylor is the eleventh rector of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh, NC. Jemonde serves the Diocese of NC by being co-chair of the Nominating Committee for the XII Bishop Diocesan. He also served as a member of Diocesan Council. He is a consultant to the Office of Black Ministries of The Episcopal Church. Prior to serving Saint Ambrose, Jemonde was priest missioner at Saint Michael and All Angels Church, Dallas, TX as a part of the Lilly Program. Jemonde studies the spirituality, worship, and history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and leads pilgrimages to Ethiopia for Epiphany.


[1] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 29 of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980), 779.

[2] Ibid. , 503.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. , 502.

[5] Ibid. , 776.

[6] “Caitlyn Darnell and A Movable Feast Win Special UTO 125th Anniversary Grant.” The Episcopal Diocese of NC. July 2015. Web. 25 April 2016.

Hope for the Future, Ascension Day (C) – 2016

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

It’s a tragic thing to witness someone who does not have hope or dreams for the future. Part of our human nature is to envision a better tomorrow and strive for new accomplishments and realities. When this part of our nature dies, the whole person eventually gives up and dies. Many times our deepest desires are birthed in our most primal need for family, love, acceptance, and self-realization. When dreams and hopes are not fulfilled as we envisioned, we may face a crisis of faith as we struggle to make sense of the harsh reality of life. Jesus’ disciples lived in a time of repressed hopes and dreams that were squelched by foreign powers and internal competing political and religious factions. Their religious leaders did little to help keep hope alive, but rather burdened the people with endless rules and regulations that were impossible to fulfill.

Israel existed as a vassal state under the control of other nations for much of its long and checkered history. First it was the Assyrians and Babylonians, and then the Persians followed by the Macedonians, and finally the Romans. After centuries of rebellion and armed struggle to gain their freedom, the people of Israel held on tightly to the hope of reestablishing the Davidic line on the throne in Jerusalem. When Jesus appeared on the scene, the disciples were well steeped in this nationalistic dream. Just before Jesus ascended into Heaven the disciples asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

It is apparent that they were still looking at the events that transpired over the previous three years through earthly eyes. They were holding tightly onto the hope that Israel would be delivered from Roman hegemony and Jesus would become their king despite his assertion that his kingdom was not of this world. It is difficult to let go of dreams we’ve held on to for so long, especially dreams that give us the strength to endure hardships and injustice.

The disciples were members of a subjugated people, living under Roman law, and members of a despised race. It’s understandable that they held on tightly to the hope of a better life, one where they could reach their fullest potential and be able to live their lives as a free people. What they failed to see, however, was that Christ promised this very thing, but not in the manner in which they had dreamed. They were not yet able to let go of their national dream and open themselves to receiving the greater blessing that God had in store for them.

They were not able to envision the impact they would have on the Roman Empire and the world at large. Their view of life was still shaped by their limited vision that was focused on statehood and local politics. Little did they know that in just a few decades Rome would completely destroy Jerusalem, their temple, and their way of life. But out of the smoldering embers would rise a Church, one that transcended ethnic and political barriers, one in which Christ predicted that even the Gates of Hell could not prevail.

Like the disciples, we too seek a life where we can achieve our fullest potential and feel as if we have a purpose for living and make a difference, that our existence has some deeper meaning than just getting by until we finally die. For many of us, we have a deep desire to be needed and wanted by others. We may long to make an impact on those around us and be remembered as someone whose life was not lived in vain. Our view of life is often shaped by our own limited vision we have of life and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We may define ourselves by what others say or do to us.

Sometimes we live our lives as a subjugated people, ones who are enslaved by our fears, doubts, feelings of inferiority, and our seemingly unmet need to love and be loved. We hold tightly onto things and people that we believe will bring us wholeness and happiness. The tighter we hold, however, the emptier we feel.

Eventually we give in and negotiate a truce with that which makes us miserable, much like the leaders of Israel did with the Romans. Or, we get angry and rebel against what is taking away life’s joy and impeding our goals and we find ourselves constantly at war with others and ourselves. This was the plight of the zealots of Jesus’ day. Either way, we miss the point of Jesus’ purpose, just as the disciples did when he spoke to them prior to his ascension.

Sometimes when we lose the object of our affection we see that which is greater and more meaningful. It’s a painful process, but one in which we can gain great insight, blessing, and peace. We are asked to let go of those things we hold dear to our heart and love deeply, as well as those things that hold us captive and slowly extinguish our hopes and dreams, and ascend with Christ to that place where we are glorified with him. Christ’s ascension is a reminder of the Kingdom of God within our hearts, and of the ever-present Spirit of God, watching over and protecting us as we spread the light of Jesus’ truth throughout the world. Jesus completed His earthly mission of bringing salvation to all people and was physically lifted up from this world into Heaven. The meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection is given in the Ascension. Having completed His mission in this world as the Savior, He returned to the God in heaven and raised earth to heaven with him!

Jesus glorified humanity when He returned to God and reunited us with God. Jesus took on our human nature and then deified this human nature by taking his body to heaven and giving it a place of honor at the right hand of God. With Christ, human nature also ascends and consummates the union of God and human. He took with him all of humanity’s weaknesses and frailties – our fear, insecurity, feeling of rejection, hurts, anger, disappointments, despair, doubt, pettiness, resentment, bitterness – and transformed us into his image. Christ’s redemptive ministry was not complete until he returned to God in bodily form. By doing so, he made a way for all of humanity to experience God’s healing both in spirit and body.

The angel asked the disciples why they were looking into the sky where Jesus had just ascended. We often find ourselves doing the same thing even today. We look heavenward for answers, but the answers we look for are found right here. They are in front of us and in our hearts where God dwells. The answers are found in the people whom God brings into our lives, and they are revealed in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Christ’s redemptive work on the cross was completed when he ascended into Heaven. There he intercedes for us in bodily form as we go about his business here on Earth. We have been redeemed, not only in our spirits but also in the flesh through Christ’s ascension.

Paul writes that the suffering of this present time is not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. Mortal flesh has been glorified in Christ, and along with that our dreams and hopes have also been sanctified. Go and live life to its fullest, don’t lose hope, keep on dreaming, live righteously and fight for righteous causes, and love lavishly. Amen.

Download the sermon for Ascension Day C.

Written by The Reverend Deacon Timothy G. Warren

The Rev. Deacon Timothy G. Warren is the founder and pastor of St. Francis, an emergent outreach ministry in California’s High Desert Region, and founder/president of Lifeskills Development, a newly formed nonprofit dedicated to providing assistance to at-risk young adults.

 

Look to the Lord, Easter 6 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29 or John 5:1-9; Psalm 67

There is something perplexing and difficult at the heart of the Christian faith. This perplexing something is the central value of the Kingdom of God; the primary, identifying characteristic of the Christian Church at its best and the clearest picture we have of our relationship with Jesus and his relationship with us.

At the same time, this perplexing and difficult something at the heart of our faith is both the best description we have been given of who God is and the clearest command our Lord gives to us. It’s a quality or a type of relationship, and it’s proclaimed as the greatest, strongest, and most persistent gift we are given.

It’s what the Gospel today talks about. The English word is “love” and that’s really a shame. The early church was smarter than we are. The early church knew that this difficult and perplexing quality of relationship was a new thing, its own thing, revealed by Jesus and in Jesus. So, when the early church talked about this new thing, it pretty much invented a new word. The church took a seldom used, vague and antiquated Greek term and used it to describe what it was talking about. The Greek word, we all know, is Agape.

The advantage of doing this was that every time the Church used this word, people would know exactly what was being talked about—they would know that what was meant was the command of Christ, the life of God, the goal of the Christian and the greatest power in creation. It meant that, and nothing else. There was really no other meaning for Agape. This was real handy; it avoided confusion. Also, by doing this, nobody thought they knew what the word meant until they learned it from the Lord and through the Church.

We haven’t been that smart. We took that precise and specific Greek word “Agape”, and we ended up translating it as one of the most vague, most misused and abused words in the English language. We call it “love”, a word with a jillion meanings. So, most of the time when we hear the word “love” used in the Bible we think we know what it means. But we almost certainly don’t. Instead, we’re probably confusing agape with one of those jillion other things that the word “love” means in English.

So we hear Jesus saying, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” and we actually think we understand what Jesus is talking about. After all, we love our new car; and we love chocolate; and we love our spouses and our kids; we love to go fishing; Romeo loved Juliet; and – judging from bumper stickers – we love every conceivable breed of dog and cat – and many cities. Or at least we “heart” them, which I guess means love. And none of that has any real connection to what John is talking about when he says that God is Love, or with what Jesus is commanding us to do when he commands us to love him or one another. When we love in any of those other ways we are not keeping the Lord’s commandment, we are not imitating the nature of God.

The word is a problem. The King James Version of the Bible generally used “charity” instead, which has some advantages – at least it’s not erotic and it’s clearly voluntary. No one comes home from a long weekend and says, “I’m so happy, I just fell in charity with Elbert.” But, for better or worse, “charity” got taken over by other non-profits and really doesn’t work these days. We’re stuck with “love,” but I wish we weren’t.

All of this is to say that when we hear the word “love” used by and about Jesus Christ, God, and the Christian community, we cannot automatically assume we know what it means. Certainly, when we talk to non-Christians about love, we can safely assume that they do not know what it means. Ordinary English usage seldom gives us even a hint of what the Bible is talking about. Yet this peculiar difficult and perplexing thing is both the purpose of our lives and the way to that purpose.

Listen: There is only one way to learn what the Christian faith is talking about when it talks about love. There is only one way to discover which of all the different experiences we have are really experiences of love in this sense. There is only one way to know what we are commanded to do when we are commanded by our Lord to love God and one another. Only one.

We can learn of love – Christian love, agape – only from Jesus Christ. Period. It’s only from knowing him: from knowing what he said and what he did, who he was and who he is, that we can know what love is. Until we realize this we will always miss the point. The call to love is a call to Jesus: to know him, to live his life, and to walk his path. The Bible, theologians, living examples, saints and other greats of the faith, these can help, but only if we know Jesus first. You see, the truth of the matter is that there is no single, precise, definition of Christian love, of agape. There is, instead, a person, Jesus of Nazareth, who lives it and who shows us what it is and who gives it to us that we may show and give that same love to the world.

Last week we heard Jesus say, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” So says the Lord to the Church. What does this love mean, what does it look like? To discover this, we have to look to Jesus. And when we do that, the first thing we see is that it has nothing to do with how we feel inside; it’s about how we choose to act; it’s about what we do. So, we know that, in part, love looks like turning one cheek when the other has been hurt; it looks like going two miles when one mile is unfairly asked; it looks like offering prayers in response to insults.

We know that it looks like a father welcoming home a son who was lost; like paying a full day’s wage to a worker who showed up an hour before quitting time—and it looks like rejoicing in each of these. It looks like losing your life in the hope of finding it; and it looks like obedience to a God who will tell us neither the specifics of our task nor the consequences of our faithfulness.

It looks like all of that, and much, much more. But really, finally, and at its clearest, it looks like this. It looks like a cross—it looks like the cross. This is what we Christians really mean when we talk about love. And if we ever mean anything else, then we most certainly mean something less—and we are unfaithful to our Lord, and we mock his commandment. This cross (without the pretty symbols) is what it means for God to love us; this is what it means for us to love one another. You won’t find this on bumper stickers, in cheap novels, or in plain brown envelopes. But it can be found.

That’s really the central thing I have to say about love. We must constantly be reminded of this, lest we confuse our Lord with either Pollyanna or Hugh Hefner, and thus reduce our faith to another cheap route to self-delusion or to empty self-gratification.

So, to find out what John means when he says that God is love, or to discover what it looks like to love one another as Jesus has loved us, we do not look deep within our selves, we do not look around us, or at our families, or at our society or at the natural world. Instead, we look to the Lord, and to his life—to all of his life. There we will find, in all its depth and simplicity, what we Christians really mean when we talk about love. And there we will find life.

Download the sermon for Easter 6C.

Written by The Reverend James Liggett

The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

By This Everyone Will Know That You Are My Disciples, Easter 5 (C) -2016

[RCL] Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens! Praise the Lord from the earth! Let us praise the name of the Lord, for God’s name only is exalted, God’s splendor is over earth and heaven. Amen.

Today’s readings situate the early church within the Jewish culture of first century Judea. The passage from the Acts of the Apostles depicts Jesus’ early followers as observant Jews and the beginnings of the Church as rooted within Judaism struggling to define what this new way of life means for them.

The writer of the Revelation to John is also situated within the Jewish tradition and in these writings; we have an example of Christian visionary literature built on the foundations of Jewish apocalypses. A revelation or apocalypse is generally a first-person narrative in which the writer relates one or more visions about the future and/or the heavenly world. The image of the divine throne and the precise layout of the heavenly city contain echoes of Ezekiel 1 and Ezekiel 40 – 42, while the new heaven and a new earth and the absence of weeping and crying are echoes of Isaiah 65. Indeed even the reference to the holy city Jerusalem supports an essentially Jewish frame of reference. The text as a whole is a glorious act of worship, telling a story of God’s enduring presence in the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. The vision ends on a note of hope and faith.

In today’s gospel, Jesus announces his impending death to his disciples and offers comfort and instructions for how they should behave when he is gone. John the Evangelist takes pains throughout his gospel to distinguish the Jewish followers of Jesus from “the Jews,” those who have not accepted Jesus as the Son of God and path to salvation. “You will look for me,” Jesus says to the disciples, possibly to tell them of new ways in which they will find him after his departure. New ways such as what Peter discovered when he went to the Gentile household of Cornelius. Jesus emphasizes how his followers are to behave when he is gone in the famous words of John 13:34-35 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

These instructions form the basis of pastoral care and service in Christian life and community, from the time of the earliest Christians forward. Jesuit professor Bruce Morrill, in his book Divine Worship and Human Healing: Liturgical Theology at the Margins of Life and Death, writes:

“What distinguished the followers of Jesus and successive generations of Christians was their outreach to the poor and sick, the practical love they demonstrated in openly forming fellowship groups (local churches) that actively reached out in service to the poor, the hungry, and the sick.”

An element of early Christian practice that impressed pagan observers was their shunning of social boundaries in caring for the sick and needy in times of trouble.

These early Christians were called to follow Jesus’ instructions: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In fact, according to Rodney Stark, author of The Rise of Christianity and an authority on the sociology of religion, poor Christians in the ancient world were healthier and happier than their poor pagan neighbors. Christians cared for one another. They took up collections to support their elders and orphaned children. They offered each other simple nursing care in epidemics. They offered strong community in chaotic times. Stark writes in Christian History Magazine:

“To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity and hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate fellowship. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.”

These early Christians were called to follow Jesus’ instructions: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Can we say the same today, of our churches, in our cities? Are we taking care of one another? Offering charity and hope? Providing fellowship to newcomers, strangers, orphans and widows?

The beautiful language of the King James version of today’s passage from Revelation contains the words: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, And there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away.” How can the promises of Revelation be applied in a pastoral context? How can we aid and comfort one another? Certainly, we can’t take away all sorrows, old age, chronic pain, death. We are unlikely to alter the path of armies or the destruction of natural disasters. Can we bring a note of hope and faith in the midst of pain, chaos, despair? Can we reach out to victims of destruction and exile?

Certainly what we can do is reach out to our neighbors, remembering that the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles as well as the circumcised. We can love another. We can assure one another that we are all integral parts of a living community, a community both within and without our church walls. By worshipping together, praising God as our Jewish and early Christian forebears did, we join in community and are strengthened in faith as we are soaked in trust and love for one another. In liturgical worship, gathered in Christ’s name, we form the basis for worshipping God in ethical service. These manifestations of God’s glory are distinct yet vitally related works of the same Holy Spirit. Our liturgical worship is both an end and a means. Our communities can stand as a witness to our neighbors of our spiritual commitment and joyful determination to love and serve. We are sent out by the Holy Spirit to love one another, to pastor to one another, to reach out to those whom we may serve, in ways great and small.

As the body of Christ here and now, we are called to follow Jesus’ instructions: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Go in Peace. Remember the Poor.

Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter 5C.

Written by Susan Butterworth
Susan Butterworth is a Master of Divinity candidate at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her area of special competency is Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is currently an intern with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is in the process of writing a thesis and planned book on the anti-apartheid work of the Anglican dean of Johannesburg Cathedral, Gonville ffrench-Beytagh. 

The Good Shepherd, Easter 4 (C) – 2016

[RCL] Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

Today many churches will celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, especially those parishes and congregations that have “Good Shepherd” in their titles. “The Good Shepherd” is a title that Jesus used for himself in a famous section of the Gospel of John in which he declares, “I am the Good Shepherd.” The passage is so meaningful for the Christian understanding of who Jesus of Nazareth is that parts of it are appointed for this Sunday in all three years of the Church’s lectionary.

The background and implications of Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd make it particularly consequential. Throughout the Old Testament—but with special pointedness in the prophetic books—the kings and other rulers of Israel and Judah are called shepherds. This designation makes sense because kings and rulers were entrusted with looking out for the welfare of God’s people. They were responsible for defending them from attack, for administering justice, for taking care of the poor and needy, and for making provisions for the worship of the Lord.

As the Hebrew prophets make clear, however, the rulers of Israel and Judah failed on every count. They “fed themselves and not the flock,” and they had “scattered the sheep of the Lord’s flock”. They proclaimed the hope that the Lord would intervene on behalf of the people, God would be their true Shepherd. God spoke to Ezekiel promising:

“I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.”

Throughout the Psalms the Lord is presented as the Shepherd of Israel and the one who guides the people like a flock. The best-known example of the Bible’s shepherd-imagery for God is the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 23. Many Christians know its words by heart:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.”

In rich symbolism, the psalm movingly depicts God as the true king of Israel and shepherd of God’s people. God gives them everything they need, and nothing is missing from God’s generous provisions. Sustenance, refreshment, beauty, and safety are all to be found among the Lord’s gifts for God’s people. The Lord’s strength defends them from their oppressors and saves them from dangers the way a shepherd protects their sheep from wolves, bears, and lions:

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

God’s people rejoice, surrounded by the abundance of God’s love forever:

“Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

This understanding of God as the Shepherd of Israel forms the backdrop for Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John.

Jesus begins what is known as the Good Shepherd discourse by describing the relationship between the sheep and the shepherd: God knows them by name, and they recognize God’s voice. The relationship is direct and personal. God is not some far-off deity who is uninterested in God’s people. God loves them and calls them by name.

Like the Old Testament prophets Jesus contrasts the Lord’s care for people with the failure of the Jewish leaders who came before him. He exposes them as false shepherds. Instead of caring for the flock of God they were thieves and robbers from whom the sheep needed protection. Jesus insists that the false shepherds only came “to kill, to rob, and to destroy” but that he came to save the sheep and to give them “abundant life”. Jesus teaches that as Israel’s true Shepherd, the long-awaited Messiah, he knows us, loves us, and provides for us with the same knowledge, love, and care that God, Israel’s Lord, offers to God’s people. He even promises us the gift of eternal life.

By laying claim to the role of the Good Shepherd, Jesus is claiming for himself a position reserved for God alone as becomes evident from the section of the Gospel we hear in today’s readings. The crowd demands that Jesus answer them clearly whether or not he is the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus further angers them by telling them that they really ought to have discovered that for themselves when they had heard him teaching and when he had done might signs before their eyes, but they had not listened or seen because they were not God’s sheep. He appears to rile them even more by pressing the question further. He declares, “The Father and I are one.” It was a remarkable statement, and it provoked a dramatic response—the crowd took stones in order to kill Jesus!

There appeared to be no two ways about it: Either Jesus was correct, and he was the Good Shepherd being opposed by some outsider sheep, or he was a blasphemer who deserved the harshest punishment. The crowd’s violent reaction further illustrates the importance of the question that faces every person: Who is this Jesus? Is he a blasphemer, or is he who he says he is? Is this Jesus the Christ? Is he the Good Shepherd?

In his book Mere Christianity, Anglican layman and theologian C.S. Lewis suggested that one might ask if perhaps Jesus was simply a lunatic, but that no one who listened to Jesus’ message about the care and the loving protection of God could seriously argue that Jesus was a madman. Therefore, instead of simply dismissing what Jesus says, we must take his claims seriously.

Many who first heard Jesus’ claims to be one with God demanded evidence, signs that would demonstrate the truth of what he said. They wanted proof. Jesus gave them an answer when declared, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own, and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me; but I lay it down of my own accord, and I have power to take it up again.” The proof that Jesus gives that he is the Good Shepherd is his loving self-sacrifice for the people of God and the power of his resurrection. Put another way, Good Friday and Easter Morning are the proof that Jesus of Nazareth is who he says he is.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, we ought to celebrate God’s great love as it is revealed in Jesus Christ’s total gift of himself on our behalf. He is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep and took it up again, and it is he who has given us the abundance of eternal life. As Christians we receive this gift as we hear Jesus’ voice calling us each by name and as we trust him with our whole life in the knowledge that commended to the Savior’s keeping we shall never ripped away from God’s love. Amen.

Download the sermon for Easter 4C.

Written by The Reverend Dr. John J. Lynch

The Rev. Dr. John J. Lynch is the rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church in Yorktown, Virginia, having previously served in the Diocese of Honduras. He is also the Province III Chaplain to the Order of the Daughters of the King. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Father Lynch writes and publishes the Spanish-language blog “El Cura de Dos Mundos”.