Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

for Barry Busse

For Barry Busse
May 30, 2017
Isaiah 61:1-3
Psalm 121
Revelation 21:2-7
John 14:1-6

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

“God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  That is the promise for today.  And, one day, in the future, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

But today we cling to the promise for today:  “God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  There is no promise that we will not have reason for tears in this life.  Our hearts have been broken in the past, and they will break again.  Grief and mourning come to all of us.  There is no promise that we will not cry.

The promise is this: God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.  Not some of the tears.  Not the tears that make sense.  Every tear.  All the tears.  From the scraped knees of childhood, to the loss of those we love.  And the promise for the future tells us that one day, Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  But not today.  For now we still weep, but these tears will be wiped away.

I did not know Barry Busse.  But I know those who are weeping for him.  I never heard Barry sing.  But I know those who heard echoes of heaven in his voice.  God gives us the gifts of music, and theater, and teaching, and God gave all these to Barry in extra measure.  And the wonderful thing about those particular gifts is that they are always shared.  Always passed on.  Always cherished in the hearts and lives of others.  And though Barry is no longer with us, he is still present with us in the voices of his students, in the memories of those who saw him perform, and in the tears of those weep for his passing.

And Barry is also with us as we share in this Communion Celebration today.  In baptism, God claimed Barry forever, and Barry is among the saints of every time and every place who gather with us to share in this Eucharistic meal.

“God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  That is the promise for today.  And one day, in the future, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”  You and I still live in the mysterious and wonder-filled space between those two promises.  May God give us the grace to trust both in the promise for today, and especially in the promise to come.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

YEAR A 2017 easter 7

Easter 7, 2017
Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

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

As Albert Einstein said, “Time is an illusion.”  Perhaps part of what led Einstein to that conclusion was reading the Gospel according to John.  The other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are called “synoptic” gospels, because they sort of agree.  They have similar stories, with similar wording.  Two of them have the stories about Jesus’ birth, which we mash together into a pageant at Christmas time.  But John’s Gospel has no mention of the birth or the Temptation of Jesus, or the Transfiguration, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the Lord’s Prayer.

The synoptics, most scholars agree, were written together in a sense.  That is, they had common source material, or access to one another’s texts.  Some material is exactly the same in Matthew Mark and Luke, and much of the rest is very similar, with some exceptions.  But John’s gospel brings in all sorts of different stories and teachings, such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and what we call the Farewell Discourse.  John has completely different ideas about time too.

The Gospel of John starts at the beginning . . . of everything.  He puts Jesus there at creation: In the beginning was the Word, that is, Jesus.  Though the other Gospels don’t deny that Jesus is eternal, they all start their narrative with Jesus’ being born or being baptized.  Only John takes it back to the start of everything and lays it out: before there was anything, there was Jesus.  Time does not exist for John the way it exists for other writers.  He seems unwilling to be held back by the conventions of a linear progression of time.  For John, like Einstein, time is an illusion.

So, throughout John’s gospel, we can’t really tell where we are in the timeline of things.  In many cases, Jesus is talking about something to his disciples, but then the narrator steps in and explains that they didn’t understand because he had not yet risen from the dead.  It’s like we’re looking back with the author on things that have already happened, but are then tossed right back into the story in the next sentence.  Time moves forward and backward with John.

And the reason I tell you all this is because I want you to keep in mind that John is not all that interested in giving us an accurate account of the events of Jesus’ life, per se.  John seems much more interested in the point of Jesus’ life.  In his gospel, John does not so much care about the who what where and when; John wants to tell us why.  Which is why John gives us big sweeping statements about Jesus’ coming so that we might have life.  For John, the Kingdom of God gets replaced by life and everlasting life (which we’ll come back to in a bit).

So, as I mentioned earlier, one of the things John’s gospel includes is the so-called Farewell Discourse, which starts right after Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.  Jesus is giving all these explanations about why he does what he does, and what it means for the disciples, and so on.  And then, Jesus lifts his eyes heavenward and begins to pray, which is the beginning of today’s gospel reading.

Now keep in mind, starting with that foot washing, Jesus has been telling the disciples everything he wants them to know.  Everything.  It’s like the World’s Greatest Catechism Class.  But, now he begins to pray.  Straight from what is a long lecture of deep material into a “let’s pray” conclusion.  The disciples’ heads are surely spinning, trying to grasp some very heavy theology, and if they’re anything like us, they are not really going to follow along as Jesus starts praying.  After three chapters of deep concepts, they’re probably ready to just kind of zone out and let Jesus pray.

But Jesus lifts his eyes and starts praying.  And what does Jesus pray for?  His disciples.  He prays for us.  Well, okay, he starts with some very weighty concepts that only John would write down . . . they are mine and what’s mine is yours as you are me and we are all together, and now you’re thinking “coo coo cachoo.” . . . because this is obviously where the Beatles got the idea for the song, “I am the Walrus.”  But at the end of those confusing phrases, which take a better mind than mine to understand, we get this: “Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

When Jesus prays to the Father, it is God talking to God.  A united God having a conversation with God.  When Jesus asks God for something, it is not in an effort to change God’s mind.  Jesus is not trying to persuade himself to do something for us, you see?  Jesus prays to the Father, in front of the disciples, so that they will hear him doing so.  It’s like, the point of the prayer is to let the disciples know that these things are already done.  They can trust that they are protected and will be one, as God is one.

And then here’s a classic moment from John that Einstein would appreciate:  Jesus says, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.”  Picture the scene.  He’s right there with the disciples.  He’s not only in the world, he’s in the room, in front of their bowed heads and peeking eyes, saying, “I am no longer in the world.”  It would be awfully strange in any other Gospel, but in John’s World we look for the why, not the who what where when.

“I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.”  The disciples and Jesus are sitting in the same room when he says this.  If he is no longer in the world, then they are no longer in the world.  And, if they are in the world, then he is in the world.  You see what this means?  There’s kind of a bridge between “in the world” and “not in the world.”  If Jesus is ascended and yet in the room, and the disciples are in that room and yet with Jesus . . . Well, for one thing, it means that Jesus is not bound by the physical limitations of time and space.  But, as Einstein said, “Time is an illusion.”

So take time out of the picture completely and just use statements of what we believe:  Jesus is present with us, but is also no longer in the world.  Jesus is praying to the Father (which is kind of like God thinking aloud) that we would be protected, and that we would be one as God is one.  God is with us, and protecting us, and actually wants what is best for us: That we would have eternal life.

I said we’d come back to eternal life, and here we are.  Jesus says, “this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

You notice how very different that is from saying, “And when they die, may they all go to heaven.”  In the other gospels, Matthew Mark and Luke, Jesus often talks about the Kingdom of God, or heaven.  121 times in fact, whereas John only uses the term five times.  In John’s gospel, Jesus uses life, and eternal life, rather than kingdom and heaven.  Life, and eternal life.  And in this prayer we heard today, Jesus even tells us what eternal life means: “That they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

That is eternal life.  Knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ, the one sent by God.

One of the stumbling blocks of John’s Gospel is that he often leaves us with more questions than answers.  And the immediate question from us today is, Well, what does it mean to know God and Jesus Christ?  To be honest, I think the answer can be different for every single person.  But it has hints of being about a relationship, doesn’t it?  To know God and Jesus Christ implies we spend some time with them.  Read about them.  Talk to them.  Get to know their friends—the ones we call the saints.  Throughout our lives, we come to know God and Jesus Christ, just as Jesus prayed that we might.

To know God, and to know Jesus Christ.  And here’s what I truly love about getting to know someone: The chance to share a meal together.  To break bread together.  Coming to someone’s house to share bread and wine builds bridges that span the meager bounds of time.  And when you come to share this meal of the body and blood of Jesus, God comes to you in a way only John could understand.  In the world, and not in the world.  Truly present, yet truly ascended.  And in this meal, we are united as one—just as Jesus and the Father and the Spirit are one—with the saints of every time and every place.  And for us, this is proof that Einstein was indeed right: Time is an illusion.  And for that, I am very grateful indeed.


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.


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.


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.



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.