Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Burial of Esther Chaney

The Burial of Esther Chaney
May 25, 2017

    Jesus said, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

My name is Fr. George Baum, and I am Rector of St. Timothy’s Church in Massillon.  Esther Chaney was a member of St. Paul’s in Canton, but the priest is away for the week, and I was asked to lead the service this afternoon, commending her to God’s care.  And for that reason, I didn’t know Esther.  I was not her priest, and I never met her.  I have no sense of her history, or her life, her accomplishments, or her struggles.  But I do know the most important thing about Esther, and it is this.

Esther Chaney was a baptized child of God.  Claimed as God’s own, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Water was poured over her head, and probably shockingly cold water at that.  She might have screamed out at that moment, or she might have been cooing quietly in her blanket.  I don’t know the details of her baptism, or her confirmation, or her daily life in the church throughout her years.  But I do know the most important thing about Esther’s life in the church, and it is this.

Esther Chaney was claimed as God’s own beloved in her baptism.  And in being claimed as God’s own, the Father, through the Holy Spirit, gave her to Jesus—body and soul.  Completely.  In Baptism, Esther was given over to Jesus, and in Jesus she lived out her days.  And here is the reason that is important . . .

Jesus said, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”  Though Esther is lost to us, as we continue our earthly pilgrimage, she was never, and is not now lost to God.  Jesus does not lose what is his.  We are precious in his sight, and he holds us tightly throughout our lives, even when we don’t notice that we are being held.  Esther was given to Jesus in Baptism.  Just as you were given to God in your Baptism.  Jesus is holding on to Esther, and Jesus is holding on to you.

Jesus said, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”  May we all trust in the promises of Jesus, and live our lives knowing that we too will be raised up on the last day.

Amen.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Washington High School Baccalaureate

Washington High School Baccalaureate
Massillon, OH
May 22, 2017

Good evening, and welcome to St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church.  I’m Fr. George Baum, and I’m the Rector here.  The 20th Rector, as a matter of fact.  You will walk past photos of my 19 predecessors in that little hallway on your way to refreshments after the service tonight.  And, you know, every time I enter this sanctuary for worship, I have to walk past all of them as well.  All those eyes staring down at me, reminding me that I am part of a very long tradition in the city of Massillon.  (And in my weaker moments, I sometimes imagine them saying, “Don’t screw it up, Baum!”) 

This congregation and this city grew up together.  The actress, Lillian Gish was a member of this church, but it’s probably more important to tell all of you that Coach Paul Brown was a member here as well.

And tomorrow, you all will graduate from an institution that has roots just as deep as this congregation.  Washington High School, and St. Timothy’s Church, and the city of Massillon have always been intertwined here in Stark County—from the very beginning—and those connections continue, as evidenced by the fact that you are here in this place tonight.

Some of you know what you will do in the fall, and some of you have no idea what you will do in the fall.  But I can pretty much guarantee that all of you will be surprised by what you experience this fall.  The unpredictability in life is what keeps it interesting, I think.  And in the midst of the chances and changes of our lives, it is the stability of institutions that keeps us grounded.  Places like our hometowns and childhood churches are places that welcome us back when we feel unstable, or just need a safe harbor.  I want you to know that St. Timothy’s will always welcome you with open arms, and that we are honored to be hosting you tonight.


I wish you God's richest blessings, and every happiness.
   

Sunday, May 21, 2017

YEAR A 2017 easter 6

Easter 6, 2017
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:7-18
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, this morning’s gospel text picks up where we left off last week, and that means that—even though we’re still in the Easter season—we’re still hearing about the night before Jesus dies.  And to make sense of this passage, we really need to keep one foot on each side of Easter, in a sense. 

Because, in the timeline of Jesus’ life, he has not yet died, but in the Church year, he has already died and is already risen.  So, we need to keep both of those times in mind when we hear these words from Jesus to his disciples.  And then, just to complicate things a little more, I’ll remind you that this text was written and first read maybe 100 years after Jesus’ death.  AND, here you and I are today, trying to understand it 1900 years after that.  In a sense, we’re all over the map as far as timelines, and that fits perfectly with today’s reading from Acts.  And, it also fits with my own personal view that time--as Doctor WHO says-- is really just a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.

Okay, but back to the text . . .  At this point in John’s gospel, Jesus is giving something of a pep talk to the disciples.  He is trying to encourage them in advance of his departure, and part of his reassurance is that he will be sending the Holy Spirit (or paraklete) to guide them into truth.  Now paraklete is a Greek word that gets translated something like, counselor, or comforter, or advocate.  Literally it means, a person called to your side.  Counselor, comforter, advocate.  And, to us, that usually gets interpreted as having something to do with a court of law.

Many people will tell you this is important because the Spirit is our advocate and counselor before the judgment seat of God.  That is, the Spirit will argue on our behalf so that God will not smite us into everlasting damnation.  Essentially, that way of seeing things would lead us to these two conclusions:

1. God is inclined to judge us, and judge us harshly.  And,
2. The Holy Spirit is like the ultimate lawyer, defending each one of us against the punishments of this harsh judge.

To the first point there, I will just say that we believe—as we say in the Nicene Creed each Sunday—that Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead.  The judging God of popular imagination (you know, with the beard and the lightning bolt) is the Greek god Zeus, not the God of Abraham.  Jesus will judge us, and in case you’ve never heard it before, I’ll give you this spoiler alert: It turns out, Jesus loves you.  Enough to give up his life for you.  You do not need a defense attorney when you appear before Jesus, because he is the one who loves and welcomes you!

And, to the second point—that the Holy Spirit defends us in the Court of God—I want to remind you that God is united, not divided.  We do not need for one person of the Trinity to defend us against another.  It is just plain wrong to think that Jesus saves you from the wrath of the Father.  Or that the Holy Spirit argues God out of burning you forever.  It does not even make sense to think that the God who created you really wants to kill you with everlasting fire, and is only thwarted by that pesky Jesus fellow.  Or that God only decides not to punish you because that cracker jack lawyer the Holy Spirit has built an amazing case on your behalf.

But, just to be clear, the Episcopal Church is not a “confessional church.”  We don't come together because we all agree on theological doctrine and shared beliefs.  And that means, I will not spend much energy telling you what to believe, because we are a broad tent.  And that also means, you are certainly welcome and encouraged to disagree with me any given Sunday.

I will not often tell you exactly what you should believe about God; but I will often tell you what you should not believe about God.  And this is one of those days: I am telling you as clearly as I can . . . Do not believe that God’s true nature is one of punishment and damnation.  Do not believe that Jesus saves you from God.  Do not believe that the God who created you is actually out to kill you, or that you need an advocate in the court of the vengeful god Zeus.  There is no basis for believing those things . . . except that everyone else already believes them.

So, with my haranguing out of the way, if the Holy Spirit is not our heavenly lawyer, what then do we do with this idea of the Spirit being an Advocate, or Counselor?  Well, let’s try looking at it from a different perspective.  Jesus says he is sending an advocate.  Now what if Jesus is sending the Advocate to make God’s case TO us?  What if the Paraklete comes to our side to make God’s appeal to our judging hearts?  Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”  And notice he says, “another Advocate?”  Seems that maybe Jesus is the first Advocate, doesn’t it?   Like Jesus came to make the case, to show us the love of God in his words and deeds, and now another Advocate will come to continue to make the case to us.  But, “the case” seems the wrong term, really.  “The case” sounds like legal talk.  No, for this, we need something much more powerful: for this we need literature!

Have you ever read the play, “Cyrano de Bergerac?”  Or, seen the movie?  Or even the Steve Martin version, “Roxanne?”  Even if you haven’t, you kind of know the plot, I’m sure.  The large-nosed Cyrano loves Roxanne, but ends up putting his words into the mouth of Christian, and he captures Roxanne’s heart through this messenger, or advocate . . . and it’s hard to tell which one is the advocate for the other, in this play.  Now, you never want to press an analogy like this too far, but since we’re dealing with John’s gospel (where Jesus is called the Word), why not?  The great lengths that Christian and Cyrano go to in order to win Roxanne’s heart are perhaps a good glimpse of the effort that God goes through to win our hearts.  It’s not a court of law, you see?  It’s a romance!

In a romance, the Advocate is not sent to be our helper in the courtroom, but is sent by God to win our hearts.  What if God loved the world so much that he sent his only son?  Doesn’t Jesus show the ultimate depths of God’s love for you, in that he is willing to lay down his life proclaiming the love of God?  Jesus walks among us, preaches the Good News to us, and then . . . well . . . we don’t want to hear it.  His courtship is rejected in the Court of Human Hearts.

But God does not give up.  Here comes the Advocate to deliver the same message.  And, in an odd way, the Holy Spirit becomes like the Heavenly Postal-Carrier with a certified letter.  The Spirit has a word for you—the Word for you—and will make repeated delivery attempts throughout all your earthly days.  Neither rain nor snow nor dark of night will prevent this Counselor from the appointed rounds.  The Spirit knocks on your heart’s door with the message of God’s love, and will continue to do so forever, because forever is how long God’s love for you lasts.  Well beyond the grave, I might add.

And do you want to know the contents of the letter the Spirit is trying to deliver?  Of course you do!  I will tell you the most important part of the letter.  Jesus says it himself in today’s Gospel:  Because I live, you also will live.

There’s a lot more to the message, of course, but it all grows out of that main point: Because I live, you also will live

And the importance of that message just increases, because of the time confusion that I mentioned in the beginning.  Jesus is talking to the disciples in that room before his death.  But Jesus is also talking to the community in which the words were written 100 years after his death.  And Jesus is also talking to us, gathered here in Massillon 1900 years after that. 

AND, he’s making a promise to all these listeners throughout the centuries that we can fully live our lives right here and now, because he lives.  And at the same time, also making a promise to us about what will happen when our lives are over . . . in all these groups of listeners, across the ages, because he lives, we live, and also will live.  All the people, of every wibbly wobbly timey wimey space will live.  Both in the here and now, and in the final judgement.  Jesus is pleading his case, which the Spirit continues to plead to our hearts:  Because Jesus lives, we also will live.  And, because Jesus lives, we live . . . right here, right now.

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, comes to each one of us, constantly and continuously delivering the most important message in the universe:  Because Jesus lives, you will live.  Everything else in life grows out of that message.  It is a message of love, a message of forgiveness, a message to live your life without fear and trembling.  You don’t need an advocate to plead your case in the judgment court of Zeus and his thunderbolts.  But you do need an Advocate to plead God’s case before the disbelieving judgment of your own human heart.

We cannot come to Jesus unless the Father draws us.  And the Father draws us by sending the Son, and the Advocate to plead with our hearts.  And the Father, the Spirit, and the Son together draw us to this altar today, where with the saints of every wibbly wobbly time and place—with all of them—we meet the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread.

Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

YEAR A 2017 easter 5

Year A
Easter 5, 2017
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There is so much going on in today’s lessons, and there’s a risk they’ll all get jumbled into a mess if we don’t take a moment to at least say hello to them.

The first reading, from Acts, recounts the stoning of Stephen.  Brutal, and horrible, and senseless.  And, carried out by the religious leaders!  Their reaction to the gospel is unthinkable in our country today, but it still goes on elsewhere in our world.  Plenty of places in fact.  Christianity is still a dangerous road to travel, and we are offered no guarantees of protection.  But whatever may come, we trust in Jesus.  As Jesus says in today’s gospel, “Trust in God; trust also in me.”  Stephen did exactly that, and his dying words are recorded as, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.  From today’s Psalm we read, “Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O LORD, O God of truth.”  Into your hands I commend my spirit.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Into your hands, I commend my spirit.  For Stephen, for the Psalmist, and for Jesus.  The connection I want us to see here is the continued unfailing trust in God to receive our spirit.  When it all comes down to it, that is the most important part of our faith journey: trusting that God will indeed receive our spirit when it most matters.

So, back to the gospel text we just heard.  This is one of those times where, because of the lectionary,  we step out of the chronology of Jesus and the disciples, and we’re back to the Last Supper, before he was handed over to suffering and death.  Judas had just left the room to go and betray Jesus.  Jesus tells the disciples that he will be with them only a little longer, and that they will be known by their love for one another.  Peter says he will lay down his life for Jesus.  But Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times before the rooster crows.  And then, the very next sentence is where we pick up today:

Do not let your heart be troubled.  Huh?  After all that crazy information, do not let your heart be troubled?  And the language is strange, because “your” is plural, and “heart” is singular.  He’s talking to everyone in the room, but he’s talking as if they have just one heart . . . one collective heart, that is not to be troubled by what he is saying.  Then he gives them the reason not to be troubled: “Trust in God, and trust in me.”  It gets translated into “Believe in God,” in our translation, but the original word, pisteuo is closer to faith and trust, than it is to belief. 

And this distinction is important, because there really is a difference between belief and trust.  For example, I believe in democracy; but I trust in gravity.  My belief in democracy might influence my decisions and choices and attitudes, sure.  But my trust in gravity determines how I live my life.  From picking up a glass, to going outside without a rope, gravity is something you trust, and it would not usually occur to you to do otherwise.  Trusting in God and in Jesus is not something you choose to believe intellectually, or some preference for one thing over another.  In a sense, we cannot help but trust in Jesus.  It’s just the way we are.

And then Jesus follows up the Trust statement with something that seems puzzling to us, I think.  And it seems puzzling because it has been interpreted certain ways for so long that we automatically think we know what it means.  He says, “In my Father's house there are many dwelling places.”  Since we have fairly fixed ideas of what a house is, we picture a massive mansion somewhere, with marble floors and a Viking stove.  And, for many people, the best part about that image is that it is plural—places, or rooms—meaning we don’t ever have to run into the people we don’t like.

There is an interesting connection between the word interpreted as “dwelling places” and a temporary stopping point.  Some scholars say this word “monai” is something like a place set up to receive visitors traveling through.  Not a private place to kick back and live out your eternal retirement, but a public place to be welcomed after a long journey, with good food and a place to sleep, on the way.  When we go where Jesus is waiting, we don’t put out our hand to receive our personal room keys.  Instead, Jesus stretches out his arms to receive us.  A welcome to the party, if you will.

And then here’s the part of this little story that I really like.  Jesus ends his flowery speech with, “And you know the way to the place that I am going.”  Cut to: disciples shoving hands in their pockets, kicking the dirt, not wanting to be the one to ask the obvious question that they’re all thinking.  But leave it to Thomas to speak up.  Leave it to Thomas to be the one who wants factual statements and a road map.  Leave it to Thomas to look up and say, “Know the way?  We don’t even know where you’re going!  How can we possibly know ‘the way’?” 

And then I imagine Jesus looking at them all and saying, “Ahem.  People?  I AM the way!  Remember me?  The way, and the truth, and the life?  You don’t have to know where you’re going, because you know the way.”  Now of course, this is contrary to everything we learn about directions.  You get directions as a means to get where you’re going.  Knowing the way is never the point, is it?  Tell me the destination, and then the way is just details, because there are many paths. 

Jesus stands this on its head and says, you do not need to know the destination; you just need to know the way.  Remember?  Trust in God and in me?  If you know the way, you’ll end up where you’re supposed to, even if you don’t know the destination.  And you—people of St. Timothy—you know the way.  You are on a journey with Jesus; destination, unknown.  But you know the way.
We may not know exactly where we’re going in the end (and that’s an understatement if ever there was one), but we do know the way.  And because we trust in God and in Jesus, we can pray the prayer that the psalmist, and Jesus, and Stephen all prayed:  Into your hands, oh Lord, I commend my spirit. 

But, of course, that’s not enough for the disciples.  Jesus says, if you know me you will know the Father also, to which Phillip says, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”  Now, first of all, that is a ridiculous request . . . or, I should say, demand.  As anyone in the room that day would know, the only person EVER to have seen God in person was Moses, and then only God’s back, while hidden behind a rock, after God passed by.  Show us the Father.  Right!

But then Jesus says the most incredible thing: Jesus says, whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  Until this point in the entire Bible, God was considered the most frightening presence in all creation.  The scriptures say over and over, no one can see God’s face and live.  No one.  And yet, here is Jesus, the one the disciples love more than anyone, and he is saying, “The Father and I are one.”  You have seen the face of God because you have seen the face of Jesus.

Think of the implications of this!  God has been walking with them, eating with them, praying with them.  They are not hanging out with someone who happens to be tight with God.  They are in the very presence of God!  They know the way to the Father because Jesus is the way.  They trust God because they trust in Jesus.  Stephen prays that Jesus will receive his spirit.  Jesus and God are one; do not let your heart be troubled.  Because you know the way.  We do not need to be afraid, because Jesus is the way.  No matter how dark it gets, Jesus walks beside us, and shows us the way.

And when you come to the altar to receive Jesus again today, remember that the one you receive will be the same one waiting to receive your spirit at the end of your journey, stretching out his arms, and saying welcome home.

Amen. 

   

Sunday, May 7, 2017

YEAR A 2017 easter 4

Easter 4, 2017
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The fourth Sunday of Easter is also known as, “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  That’s because, every year, we read Psalm 23 and something from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd.  The gospel reading is a little different in each of the three years, and this year we get the section where Jesus also talks about being the gate, or the door.  But let’s start with the Psalm . . .

So, you’ve obviously heard Psalm 23 before, right?  You know, the Lord is my shepherd and all that?  If there’s one passage we can quote from memory, other than John 3:16, it’s probably Psalm 23.  We’ve heard it.  Many times.  Many, many times.  And I’d be willing to bet we’ve heard it so many times that we’ve stopped hearing it, to be honest.  Someone says, “the Lord is my shepherd,” and our mouths start moving along, until we realize it’s not the King James Version, but even then, the words just fly by.

Lord shepherd, pasture green, water still, cup overflowing, valley dark, house of the Lord, and . . . Forever.  Done.  But, let’s look at it more closely.

Psalm 23 begins and ends with a mention of the Lord: Yahweh.  It starts with, The Lord is my shepherd, and it ends with, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  Everything in between refers to God in the second or third person.  He makes me do this and that.  And then, you do this and that for me.  This flow goes from the sort of distant “Lord,” to the more familiar “him,” to the direct address of “you,” and then finally to sort of the conclusion, like therefore, I will dwell in God’s house forever.  In a sense, the flow becomes more intimate as it goes.

Throughout human history, rulers were considered shepherds of the people.  Your king was your shepherd.  Those hearing or reading this psalm would not be thinking about sheep, like we do . . . even though we probably don’t know the first thing about sheep.  No, they would be thinking about a king, a leader, a ruler.  So, in the opening verse, they would be hearing, “God is my king, and I will want for nothing.”  And my king leads me to the promised land, where the water is calm, and the grass is green.  God my ruler revives my soul, and leads me to act with righteousness because what I do reflects upon him. 

And then, spoken directly to God, even though I am threatened by darkness and the threat of death, I will not be afraid because your might will protect me and give me confidence.  (A rod and staff are the tools of kings, not shepherds.)  You also ensure that I have enough to eat, even when others make me fearful, and my cup is always filled with the choice of drinks, and I look my best and am anointed by you.

Keeping in mind that the image is kingly (not shepherdly), it is quite startling actually that the psalm moves to this direct and intimate address.  People don’t call their rulers “you.”  The Queen is “Your Majesty,” not “Hey You1”  Kings and queens are addressed in the third person, and usually plural at that.  So there’s a shocking familiarity in this psalm that isn’t as apparent when we think of a shepherd.  This is God the psalmist is talking to!

And then it ends with my favorite part:  Even though we would expect to be chased by a king’s anger and wrath, instead, your goodness and mercy shall pursue me, chase me down, hunt me relentlessly for as long as I live.  It is not that God’s goodness and mercy follow me like a trained dog.  It’s more aggressive than that: like a border collie.  I cannot escape your goodness and mercy!  How crazy is that?  Not only do I not earn them, I cannot escape them!  And this is how I will live my life:  forever being chased down by God’s goodness and mercy.  The Lord is my shepherd, my ruler, my provider, my defender, the one whose mercy and goodness will never let me go.  We are blessed sheep, that’s for sure!

Now, before we move on to the gospel reading, a few words about sheep.  And it starts with some bad news: because you and I are disciples of Jesus, we are sheep.  And it’s probably not immediately obvious why that’s bad news.  But that’s because most of us don’t know all that much about sheep, here in Massillon.  And even if some of us did have a sheep or two, we probably wouldn’t really get the chance to see how dumb they really are.

Tracy Eichheim lives in Colorado and raises sheep for their wool.  As she says, “I am sure that every lamb is born with a brain.....however, they seem fearful that using it before the age of two will cause it to wear out prematurely. Before the age of two, it seems like most sheep have the I.Q. of a rock, after the age of two they do seem to get a little smarter, like maybe an intellectual head of cabbage.”

Sheep tend to follow a leader within their flock.  But nobody knows how that leader gets chosen.  Sometimes it’s the oldest; sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes it’s the biggest; sometimes it’s not.  If there is a male in the group, he might be the leader, but he leads from behind the flock . . . which might just be because any wolf attacking will start at the front of the group. 

Sheep won’t head out to pasture unless they are led.  If one sheep moves forward, the others will follow.  If nobody moves, nobody eats.  They’ll stand there and wait for food to appear.  In short: sheep are among the dumbest animals on the planet.  If nobody takes them to the food, they’ll pretty much starve.  And when they randomly lead and follow each other, they might find food, or they might fall off a cliff.  So, again, unfortunately, according to today’s readings, we are sheep.

But, dumb as sheep are, they can thrive and live full and happy lives, IF they have a shepherd.  They cannot find food or water on their own.  They cannot keep themselves away from dangerous predators or fight back when attacked.  But if sheep have a shepherd, they will live to see another day of grazing and living by cool streams of water, even though they might live in a desert like, say, Palestine.

We can divide today’s gospel into two parts.  In the first half, Jesus tells the disciples that the the true shepherd knows his sheep, and his sheep know him.  The sheep will follow the voice of their own shepherd, but will not follow the voice of the stranger or bandit because that’s not their shepherd. 

And please take note: Jesus does not say the sheep should not follow the voice of a stranger.  He doesn’t say the sheep had better not follow the voice of the stranger.  He says they will not follow stranger.  It is a given fact, not a goal or commandment.  The sheep will not follow a stranger.  The sheep don’t even hear the stranger!  It’s not a warning to sheep about how to behave; it just is how sheep are . . . sheep.

And after Jesus gives the disciples this image, we hear that “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”  They did not understand him, because they are sheep

So Jesus tries another image for them.  “I am the gate for the sheep.”  Okay.  A gate we get, right?  The gate opens, and the sheep can come inside.  Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”  Now it’s tempting to assume Jesus is referring to entering heaven, right?  In fact, many people use this as a text for an exclusive view of salvation.  You know, you can’t get to heaven unless you do it my way.  And that almost makes sense, except for one problem.

Once the sheep are in the holding pen, they just stand there, remember?  There’s no food, no water, no nothing except a bunch of other sheep.  The holding pen is not the final destination for the sheep, which is why Jesus also says, they will “go out and find pasture.”  The important thing for sheep is not to get into the holding pen.  The more important thing for sheep is to go out and find pasture.  The holding pen keeps them safe overnight perhaps, but it does not provide sustenance.  It does not provide life. 

And this is important because, Jesus finishes by saying, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Life is not found in standing around, in the holding pen.  Life is found in following the shepherd to the food.  Abundant life, in fact, following the shepherd’s voice that you already hear and know, because you are his sheep.  We follow his voice, not some strangers’.  He leads us out for green pastures, and he leads us back in to find safety. 

This morning, the Good Shepherd is calling you out of your pew to come to the green pastures of this altar, where you will find the live-giving food and drink of new and unending life in him.

And then, the Good Shepherd will call all of us out of this place, to go out into the world, following his voice, to proclaim the redemption of all creation because of the risen Christ.  And, in following our shepherd’s voice, this is how you and I will live our lives:  forever being chased down by God’s unrelenting goodness and mercy, and we too shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Amen.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

YEAR A 2017 easter 3

Easter 3, 2017
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

There are a few Sundays in the Church year when the best sermon following the Gospel is simply to point at the Altar, and sit down.  This is one of those Sundays.  “He had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  Point at the Altar.  Any questions?

But, at the risk of over explaining, let’s start with anesthesia.  As you know, doctors give you anesthesia to dull your sense of pain, so that they can introduce difficult things, like scalpels and shifting your organs around.  The anesthesia is what allows them to do what has to be done to—hopefully—make you better.  To heal you.  (This is relevant, I promise.)

And sometimes, for our own self-preservation, grief acts like an anesthetic.  The pain of deep loss is sometimes shut out by shutting down.  The process of mourning can make us oblivious to what is around us, in order that we might have time to be healed.

In today’s Gospel reading, two disciples are walking down the road, talking about the awful things that have happened in the past few days.  Their friend and beloved Rabbi has been brutally executed and buried in a tomb.  And they have heard rumors of his rising from the dead.  And they are terribly confused and heartbroken as they walk together on the road.

And, suddenly, a stranger appears to them, and starts walking with them.  (And this is where the anesthesia comes in.)  We are told that “Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”  The very person they are talking about, the resurrected Christ of God is suddenly walking with them, the one they were just talking about, and they do not know it is Jesus because “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”

They’ve been kept from seeing what is obvious to us.  They have been “put under,” in a sense, by grief, and they don’t recognize the person who is talking to them.  As they are walking together, the disciples are able to very clearly recite the expectations they had of Jesus.  It’s almost a credal statement when you look at it:

Cleopas says, “Jesus of Nazareth, was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. It is now the third day since these things took place.”

It’s a great opening for a creed, right?  But it’s missing the good parts.  It uses “hope” in a past tense: we had hoped.  And it proclaims the tomb empty, but that does nothing to make hope present tense.  They’re confused, and disappointed, and grieving, and—remember—under the anesthesia.  They are being prevented from seeing that it is Jesus they are telling all this to.  We, of course, know it’s Jesus.  But the “patients” do not.

And it seems kind of unfair that Jesus says to them “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”  That’s like the doctor taunting you for not noticing that she is performing surgery on you.  Can the disciples be blamed for not knowing that it is Jesus when, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”?  It’s not their fault they don’t recognize him!

But a closer look reveals that Jesus is not taunting them for not recognizing him on the road.  No, what Jesus is talking about is their inability to connect the dots.  To close the deal.  They’ve got the setup perfectly, they have all the pieces, but they’re missing the main point.  When Cleopas rattles off that narrative creed thing, he stops at the grave, and that is why he uses “hoped” in the past tense, saying, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  All the clues are laid out in front of them, but their grief stops them from seeing the crucial connection.  In a sense, they don’t believe the resurrection because they didn’t expect the pain and suffering of the Messiah.

The disciples were under the impression that Jesus cannot be the Messiah because he has suffered and died, rather than ridden into Jerusalem on a white stallion with an army of elves behind him.  These disciples, like many, figure that the Messiah cannot suffer and die and then still be the one in whom they had hoped.  And that is why Jesus asks them, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?"

And so now, under the anesthesia of not recognizing the resurrected Jesus, Jesus will do what needs to be done.  He begins with Moses and all the prophets, and shows them how the scriptures point to exactly what has happened.  Jesus can explain to them why he is the answer to their hopes.  Why he is the one to redeem Israel.  And, because they do not recognize him, they can take all this in, without the distraction of the resurrection.  Because of the anesthesia, right?

They’re catching on, but they still don’t see Jesus.  They can tell something is happening as he talks to them (they say that their hearts were burning within them), but the one talking is still a stranger in their eyes.  Still the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what has happened these past few days.  And then they come to the place where the disciples are planning to stay the night, Jesus acts like he’s going to walk on.  They plead with him to stay the night and he says, okay.

So, they all go inside, and they sit down at a table together.  And now see if this part reminds you of anything . . .

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”  You’ve heard that around, right?  As in, every Sunday morning, right?  At the table with friends, blessed the bread and broke and gave it to them.  Yes, that’s familiar, because we’ve heard it before.  But this part is different: 

Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  Isn’t that the strangest thing?  It’s like as long as they just think he’s some stranger who hasn’t heard about what has happened, he is with them physically.  As soon as they recognize him to be Jesus, in the breaking of the bread, he disappears . . . .

Now granted, it sounds a little trippy and all, but it’s almost as if the bread becomes his body, isn’t it?  They can see Jesus in the breaking of the bread.  They recognize Jesus in the bread.

And when they get back to the other disciples, they tell what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  But there’s an interesting thing that is left unsaid in this whole story.

When Jesus meets the disciples on the road, they are heartbroken and confused.  At no point in the story does it say the disciples became happy and understood.  At no point does the text say that Jesus made everyone live happily ever after.  It’s not as if the presence of Jesus replaces or ignores our sadness and pain. 

Jesus comes to meet them on their walk, in the midst of their blinding sorrow and pain.  And yet their hearts are burning within them as he opens the scriptures to them.  Meeting them where they are; not judging them in their blindness.  And in the breaking of the bread, they recognize the risen Lord who has been with them all along.

Jesus does not take away pain and sadness.  What Jesus does is introduce hope and comfort.  The promise of the resurrection brings hope.  The presence of Jesus, made known to us in the bread, brings comfort.  Can we have hope while still being sad?  Oh yes!  Can we experience comfort while still being in pain?  Most assuredly.  And in the bread and wine, the resurrected Christ is made known to us, no matter our present circumstances.

As we heard, the disciples were confused and grieving on their journey.  Maybe you have that today as well: some sadness, or worry, or bitterness that is the anesthesia, keeping you from hearing clearly the resurrection story.  For those disciples, breaking bread with Jesus opened their eyes to see that he was with them, had been completely present with them on their walk, and has indeed been raised from the dead.  You and I share their recognition of the Risen One, here today.

I would like you to listen to today’s Collect one more time:

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

YEAR A 2017 easter 2

Easter 2, 2017
Acts 5:27-32
Psalm 150
Revelation 1:4-8
John 20:19-31

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Doubting Thomas.  That’s what we call him isn’t it?  In fact, we even use that term on other people when they don’t believe something.  Doubting Thomas, like Debbie Downer, or Nervous Nellie.  Except, in the case of Thomas, he was an actual person, whose name gets dragged through the mud and used to torment our friends and family.

And let me just start here:  The word “doubt” is nowhere in this Gospel text—at least in the original language.  What we have is the word for “without faith,” which is different from actively doubting.  You can’t have something by deciding to have it, you know?  Thomas does not doubt; Thomas lacks faith, or belief, or trust.  The disciples tell him this crazy story about Jesus appearing to them, and he does not—or cannot—believe it.  So we forever call him Doubting Thomas.  Totally not fair to Thomas!

And the second thing to point out is that the rest of the disciples had the same reaction to Mary Magdalene’s story just two verses before the part about Thomas.  She told them what Jesus had told her to do, go and tell the others that she had seen him alive.  And—I’m guessing here, but—the fact that they’re all hiding in a locked room for fear of the strangers outside suggests maybe they didn’t exactly take her words to heart.  And so until Jesus comes to visit them, the other disciples also do not believe.  It’s not just Thomas who lacks faith.

But the worst injustice of being forever branded Doubting Thomas is that Thomas is the first one to make a faith confession!  It is only Thomas who cries out, “My Lord and my God!”  We have a whole day dedicated to the Confession of Peter, because he calls Jesus the Son of God.  But look how much more dramatic and—in fact, faith-filled—Thomas’ confession is!  My Lord and my God.  Not a trace of doubt there.  Seems more fitting to call him Thomas the Enthusiastic, or maybe Fangirl Thomas.  He should be remembered for his faith, not his lack of it.

Which will necessarily bring us to ask how he got this faith.  But first we have to back up in the story to that initial visit from Jesus, when the other disciples were cowering in fear, afraid to open the door.  The text even says, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews,” which means they are afraid of their friends, their families, and even of themselves, since they are Jews living in Jerusalem, after all.  They are afraid, and worried, and unsettled, and anything but at peace.

Then Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of them.  And the first thing he says?  “Peace be with you.”  And, forgive me, but this is another case where we get the wrong word in the translation.  Because it’s not in the subjunctive . . . by which I mean, it’s not a wish, or a blessing, or a hope for the future.  It’s a present-tense proclamation: Peace is with you.  They are frightened, and Jesus says, peace is with you, and it’s true!  He’s totally right about that.  Peace is with them.  And, as we heard, “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”

And, it is important to note that Jesus meets them where they are and how they are.  There are no conditions, no need for supercharged faith or diligent prayer, or confidence that Jesus will show up.  They don’t need to get peaceful in order for Jesus to give them peace.  In fact, quite the opposite, right?  It is their lack of peace that prompts Jesus to put them at peace.  They have locked the door in fear, to prevent anyone from finding them, and Jesus appears in the midst of them and gives them exactly what they need at that moment: peace.

The point I want to make here is that when Jesus speaks things, they become present reality.  He says “peace is with you,” and it is.  He says “rise up and walk,” and someone does.  He says “your sins are forgiven,” and they are.  Jesus speaks things into existence.  And we could take a half-hour sidetrack here discussing his presence at the creation of the world, when everything that is was spoken into existence, but we will leave that for another day.  Suffice it to say, Jesus speaks things into being true.  We mustn’t get sidetracked because we’ve still got Thomas’ bad name to work on . . .

So, we have that first encounter with the disciples, on a Sunday, when they are gathered together behind locked doors.  The next Sunday, they are gathered together again, and Thomas is with them.  At some point during the week, or maybe at several points during the week, the disciples told Thomas about Jesus’ visiting them, that Jesus was in fact alive.  And Thomas says the words that give him his bad name: "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.”

Now, admittedly, this sounds closer to doubting than a lack of faith, right?  I mean, he’s pretty adamant here.  But what if we back off a bit, and consider that it’s not necessarily an act of defiance.  It could very easily be taken as Thomas just stating the disappointing facts: Unless I see him with my own eyes, I will not have faith.  We tend to read it as defiant stubbornness, but just for a moment, imagine it instead as sad resignation.  Think of a crestfallen Thomas bemoaning his own inability to believe without having the same experience as the other disciples.  “I’ll never be able to have faith unless Jesus comes to poor old Thomas,” followed by heavy sigh with slumped shoulders, like Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh stories.  “It’ll never work.”

And then, guess what?  Well, you already know of course.  Jesus comes back this Sunday as well!  Here he is, suddenly appearing again and proclaiming again, “Peace is with you.”  And does he throw Thomas out for his lack of faith?  Does he turn his back to Thomas for not believing the incredible story about his appearance?  Of course not.  And, perhaps more importantly, he does not require anything of Thomas.  He doesn’t say, “I told you so;”  he doesn’t call him Doubting Thomas.  No, Jesus meets Thomas right where he is and says, “Do not doubt but believe.”  But that’s just our bad translation getting in the way again.  Because what Jesus says is, “Do not be faithless, but be faith-filled.”

And just like that, Jesus speaks the faithfulness of Thomas into existence, because the next thing we see is his profound confession of faith:  My Lord and my God!  Jesus tells Thomas that he is filled with faith, and he is.  Thomas does not set out to acquire this faith.  He does nothing apart from hear the words of Jesus, and he goes from being faithless to being faithful.  Jesus speaks, and it is so.  And not in a halfhearted way, either.  Thomas hears these words, and proclaims Jesus as his Lord and God.  Didn’t see that coming, right?

And then here is the best part of this story.  (You know, the part where it’s about us.)  Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Whoever Thomas might have thought Jesus meant by “those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” it definitely includes all of us.  We have not seen the mark of the nails in his hands, and still here we are.  Blessed are we.  We did not lock the doors when we gathered on this Sunday, and yet we believe.  Blessed are we.

Jesus met the cowering disciples on a Sunday morning where they were: locked in a room, and fearing to proclaim their faith to the world outside.  Jesus met Thomas the unbeliever on a Sunday morning where he was: stuck in a trap of being unable to believe, and facing a life of isolation because of unbelief.  And in both cases, Jesus declared peace, brought courage and faith, and prepared them to turn the world upside down through their proclamation.

Which leads us back to right here, right now.  We too are gathered on a Sunday, just like the disciples and Thomas.  And we bring what we bring: our insecurities, our faithlessness, our uncertainty about the future.  Jesus does not demand that we meet some litmus test before he shows up.  He does not require our faithfulness or enthusiasm for him to show up.  No, Jesus is here because he has promised to be here.  In the breaking of the bread, in the community gathered.

The peace of the Lord is always with you.  You may not feel it, you may not believe it, you might even doubt it; but it is true, because Jesus speaks things into existence.  The peace of God changes people.  You and I are changed because Jesus gives us his peace and declares us to be faithful witnesses.  We are Easter people, because the Lord is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!

Amen