Easter 7, Year C, 2016

For the Celtic Service

Tonight we celebrate a marvelous concurrence – Mother’s Day and the feast Day of Julian of Norwich fall upon the same day.

Mother’s Day was not started by Hallmark as a sentimental celebration of maternal virtues. Mother’s Day was launched in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe as an act based in rage and grief. So many mothers had lost sons to the Civil War, that Howe was determined that mothers should meet to find new ways of moving forward as a country, so wars would become a thing of the past.

In her proclamation, she wrote,

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Let us meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let us then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, man as the brother of man, each bearing after his own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God!

Julia Ward Howe understood the deep suffering of mothers of soldiers and the power for change that can come from that suffering. Sadly, we still have too many opportunities for mothers to channel their grief for good. Just this week Sandra Bland’s mother testified before a Congressional panel. Last week the mothers of Michael Brown, Travon Martin and Eric Garner appeared in Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade. This year mothers Glennon Melton and Brene Brown and other members of the Compassion Collective have used Mother’s Day to raise money for families of suffering refugees and for American homeless youth. There is still so much suffering. There is still so much for work for all of us to do.

All that suffering and care taking takes its toll on us—men and women. What do we do with our grief? How to we keep our energy to do the work God calls us to do in the world?

Julian of Norwich was alive at a time of unimaginable suffering. The plague was killing people all around her. She was surrounded by death and poverty. She was an anchoress at an Abbey, and would have counseled those around her. In her writings she gives us a glimpse of the God who gave her comfort in such difficult times.

Julian experienced God both as father and mother. She uses language that feels very foreign since most of the expression of God we have are so masculine. She opens our imaginations to a different image and way of experiencing God.

She wrote:

I understand three ways of contemplating motherhood in God. First is the foundation of our nature’s creation; the second is his taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins; the third is the motherhood at work . . . and it is all one love.

For Julian, each member of the Trinity had a motherly element, whether the motherly work of creation, the motherly work of embodiment and nurture, or the motherly work of the Spirit.

For her, the answer to human suffering was to turn to God as a child turns to its mother. When we feel helpless, we do not need to despair, we simply turn to a loving God, who longs to mother us, to comfort us.

When she thought about reflecting on our own sin, she wrote,

But even when our falling and our wretchedness are shown to us, we are so much afraid and so greatly ashamed of ourselves that we scarcely know where we can put ourselves. But then our courteous Mother does not wish us to flee away, for nothing would be less pleasing to him; but he then wants us to behave like a child. For when it is distressed and frightened, it runs quickly to its mother; and if it can do no more, it calls to the mother for help with all its might. So he wants us to act as a meek child, saying: My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me.

While we may have to function like adults most of the time in our lives, especially when helping those who suffer, or suffering ourselves, Julian invites us to remember that we are God’s children. When we are before God, whether we imagine God as a mother or a father, we can release the illusion of control. We can collapse before God and seek comfort and strength, like a child does from its mother or father. God will comfort us, and then give us the strength we need for whatever the next step is in our lives.

Whatever battles you are fighting, whatever grief you are feeling, may God our loving mother give you the comfort and strength you need to carry on. Amen.

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Easter 3, Year C, 2016

What do you do the day after?

You have mourned Jesus’ death. You have been astonished by his empty grave. Your heart almost stopped when you saw him in person in the upper room.

But now, it’s the next day. What do you do?

If you’re Peter, you go fishing. Fishing is comfortable. Fishing has a rhythm and clear expectations. In your boat you know how to act, know what to expect.

What Peter does not expect is that he is going to see Jesus again. So, when a mysterious man tells Peter and the other disciples to place their nets on the side of the boat, they do. And when the nets hang heavy with fish as they draw them back into their boats, Peter has his moment of recognition. Apparently fishing is hot work, because Peter is naked. So, Peter frantically throws his clothes on and then splashes into the water, swimming as fast as he can to get to Jesus.

Jesus and the disciples share a breakfast of broiled fish, and then Jesus pulls Peter aside.

Jesus has had been plans for Peter since their first meeting. Jesus changed Peter’s name from Simon, because Peter means rock, and Jesus intends for Peter to be the rock on which the church will be built. But even after the resurrection, Peter is not quite ready. Peter thinks he can just go back to his old life, back to fishing. Jesus has other plans.

Peter has always been passionate about Jesus, but impetuous. And he’s just denied being Jesus’ follower three times. And so Jesus and Peter need to have a little conversation, a literal come-to-Jesus.

Jesus does not berate, Peter. He simply asks Peter if he loves him. Peter, ever passionate cries “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you!” This pattern repeats a total of three times, perhaps reversing the three fold denial of Jesus that happened previously. Each time Peter replies “You know that I love you!”, Jesus tells him to feed or tend to Jesus’ sheep.

Peter’s future is not in fishing. Peter’s future is giving God’s people spiritual food. In Matthew’s Gospel we have the Great Commission, in which Jesus tells his followers to go out into the world and spread the good news. In the Gospel of John we have this intimate conversation between Jesus and Peter. Peter is loved by Jesus, even after his denial. Peter has experienced the power of God in the resurrected Jesus. Peter has first hand understanding that Jesus loves us just as we are, but also has big plans for us.

When we encounter the Risen Christ in our own lives, whether at the moment of our baptism, an experience at the Eucharist, or an encounter with another Christian, we will never be the same again. A relationship with Christ is not just about this deep sense of being loved and forgiven, but is about being propelled forward in a life of faith.

First, I want to get at this sense of being loved and forgiven. Some of us are given a message when we are young that we are not enough, that we are unloveable. We believe that if we come before God, we are inviting his judgment and condemnation. But that is not the God that Jesus reveals to us. Jesus reveals a God who is able and willing to love a hot mess like Peter who abandoned him at Jesus’ real time of need. Jesus loves Peter in the midst of his imperfection. Notice that in that conversation, Jesus calls Peter: Simon, Son of John. Each time, Jesus drives home the point that he has known Peter since he was Simon. He has loved Peter since before Simon was transformed into Peter. He knows who Peter has been, and who Peter can be.

Jesus’ desire for Peter is for him to leaving fishing behind, and take up shepherding. Not sheep, like David and Moses before him, but shepherding human beings. Jesus wants people to be cared for, to be told the life giving news of the resurrection.

And Peter does it. Peter goes on to be the rock of the Church. He becomes a mature leader who helps the early church figure out what it means to follow a resurrected Jesus. Cowardly Peter bravely stands before the Sanhedrin authorities and claims his faith openly. He is given a vision that helps him understand that Jesus’ good news is not just meant for those of Jewish descent, but is for everyone. He begins the churches in Antioch and Rome. Peter changes the world.

Let me be clear. We do not earn God’s love by going out and doing what he wants us to do. The love always comes first. Part of the experience of being beloved of God is realizing we are worth something.   Peter was probably drowning in shame by the time he encountered Jesus on that beach, but by the time his encounter with Jesus was over, he was healed and ready to do big things for God.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has been in the news this week because through some reporting and a DNA test, during Holy Week he learned that the man who raised him, Gavin Welby, an alcoholic whose ability to father was spotty at best, was not actually his father. His real biological father, Anthony Montague Brown, was a co-worker of his mother’s when they both worked for Winston Churchill. Justin Welby’s past was not the past of someone you would think would end up being the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Welby has long felt a deep sense of God’s love for him. The entire Telegraph article is worth a read, but one of the most moving parts is Welby’s response to the reporter’s question about whether he had found, in God, the father he had lacked in Gavin Welby. Welby replied,

“Yes!,” … “It wasn’t part of the package I was being sold. I thought it was about forgiveness, repentance and new life, which are all very important. But finding in the midst of looking after my father that here was a Father who was perfectly dependable and utterly true and who knew me deeply and loved me much more certainly, was a surprise beyond belief, wonderful.”

Welby experienced that profound parental love of God before he was called to do big things. God loved him first, then sent him out into the world.

God sees something in each of us. He sees the artist, the leader, the communicator, the compassionate heart—whatever our special gifts are. He knows who we have been, he knows our mistakes, but he also knows our potential.

God knows that with his love, we each have the potential to bring God’s kingdom a little closer to fruition. Some of us are called to fight for justice. Some of us are called to be reconcilers. Some of us are called to be teachers of God’s story. Some of us are called to spread God’s message of hope in a sometimes bleak world. Some of us are called to be prayer warriors. We are all called to help each other along the way.

And we don’t have to have some flashy job in the Kingdom like Peter or Justin Welby. We will do our work for God in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our offices.

I’ll leave you today with two questions this week.

  1. Where in your life is God trying to show you his love for you?
  2. How is God asking you to share that love with others?

Amen.

 

 

 

Easter Vigil, Year C, 2016

Fire and water.

Only these two elemental symbols can capture the mystery of the Easter Vigil.

We start with fire, burning a hole in the darkness created by Christ’s death.

From the stars of creation, to the burning bush, to the pillar of fire and smoke that led the Israelites in the wilderness; throughout history God has used fire to point to himself. Fire has a numinous, dangerous quality. It illuminates, but it can destroy. It can warm, or consume. Fire points at God’s power and his mystery.

We defiantly light a new fire on Holy Saturday though Christ lies dead in the tomb. That fire is a symbol of Christ’s eternal light. It hovers on top of the Paschal candle. The candle reminds us that nothing can extinguish Christ’s light, not even death.

Water is a thread through many of our readings tonight. Water covered the Earth at the beginning of Creation. Life was born out of that water. Water contained the potential for everything that is now our world. God used that same life giving water to demolish the human race during the time of Noah. God made a new start with us, and water was what he used to cleanse his canvas. He saved the Israelites from the Egyptians by parting water and then provided thirsty Israelites water from a rock in answer to their unbelief. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans that through water we are baptized in Christ’s death. Water drowns and cleans us so we can stand before God, ready to participate in Christ’s life.

We will sprinkle Liam delicately tonight, but in the first baptisms, he would have been plunged into a river and then brought out gasping for air. The death of his old life would have been clearer than with our polite ritual. But God is doing the same work in Liam tonight as he has done for all of us baptized. He is putting to death what was old in Liam, and awakening new life in him. Liam will receive a Christ candle, a reminder that Christ’s fire now burns in his heart. A reminder that Liam no longer needs to fear death, no longer needs to fear anything, because the power of God resides within him.

The powers of death and darkness have no hold over us. They have been defeated by Christ’s resurrection. There is nothing that can now separate us from God. His fire is eternally kindled in our hearts.

My final words are taken from John Chrysostom’s famous Easter Vigil sermon:

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

 

Easter 7, Year B, 2015

In November of last year, the advice columnist known as “Dear Prudence” received a heartbreaking letter. A twenty five year old woman wrote in to ask advice about what she should do about a gift her dying mother had given her ten years earlier. Her mother, sick with cancer, wrote her daughter a beautiful letter for every adult occasion in her life she could imagine—graduation, wedding, birth of her children. The mother intended these as an opportunity for her daughter to know how loved she was, but now that the daughter was an adult, these letters hung over her head and made it difficult for her to get closure over her mother’s death. She wanted to know what Prudence thought she should do—read all the letters now and get them over with, or honor her mother’s wishes and open them one by one.

Adult parent child relationship are complicated, aren’t they? This young woman’s mother never intended for the letters to upset her, and Prudence assured the young woman that her mother would just want her to be happy, whether that meant reading the letters or putting them away indefinitely.

Whether a parent is dying or just sending a young adult child off into the world, the parent has to wrestle with what it means to care for and direct this person while still giving him or her the independence to make their own choices and mistakes. We live in an age in which parents are so involved with their children they have a hard time letting go. My college professor friends all have stories of parents calling to argue about a grade their 19 or 20 year old got on a paper. Sending a child out into the world is really, really hard. Learning to let go is even harder.

Over the last few Sundays, we have been reading parts of what is called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. In the Gospel of John, before Jesus is killed in Jerusalem, he spends three chapters telling his disciples everything he wants them to know before he dies. All the things we’ve been preaching about the last few weeks—the images of the vine and branches, abiding, keeping the commandments—all of these are from this long speech Jesus makes. He also prepares them for the coming of the Holy Spirit. He wants them to know everything they need to live life as followers of God after he is no longer with them.

Yet, Jesus knows that he could talk his disciples ears off and it still would not prepare them adequately for what is about to come. He loves them and he is genuinely concerned about them, but he knows he cannot control them.

So Jesus prays. Today’s reading is the prayer Jesus prays immediately after his farewell discourse.

He has poured every ounce of love and wisdom into his disciples that he can, but now he turns to the source of all that love and wisdom. We get to eavesdrop on this incredibly tender and intimate prayer. Jesus acknowledges that every word he had to give his followers belongs to God. And even these beloved disciples belong to God. He then says “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”

Isn’t that tender? Jesus knows his followers have been changed by being around him. They are no longer aligned with the values of the world. They have become Jesus people, more concerned about loving God and neighbor than following the rules. Jesus knows that this transformation puts them at real risk. Jesus knows that people will hate them for it. Jesus knows that the evil spiritual forces in the world will do their best to take back these men and women from God. He does not pray that his disciples will have radical success and change the world. He does not pray that they would glorify his name and make him the most popular God in the land. He prays for their protection. He has come to really love these people. He does not want to leave them. He worries what will happen to them after he’s gone.

We are in the season of graduations and I think of all the men and women saying similar prayers for their children. Hoping their children will retain their integrity and sense of selves as they go off to college or work or the military. Hoping their children will be kept safe physically, but also spiritually and emotionally. Hoping they will choose career paths that will lead to lives of integrity. Hoping they will find romantic partners that will treasure and honor them.

There is something so poignant to me that even Jesus, God incarnate, faced the same limits of control that we do. Even he could not guarantee that the people he loved would be safe and secure. Even he, at the end of the day, had to turn to God and pray for God’s intervention in the life of his beloved friends.

This is part of the finitude of being human. We cannot control the people we love. Even when they are still in our homes! No matter how clearly we see the choices our family or friends should make we cannot force them to make those choices. All we can do is share our best wisdom, set appropriate boundaries, and pray.

But those prayers we pray are not just the last result of anxious people! Jesus wasn’t praying to his Father just to blow off some steam. Jesus trusted his Father completely. He knew that his Father loved the disciples as much as Jesus did. He also knew that the Father was preparing to send the Holy Spirit, as a comfort and advocate for God’s people.

We live in an uncertain world. The people we love will make bad choices and will have bad things happen to them. But they are never alone and we are never alone. God loves us and is with us no matter what happens in our lives. And he is with the people we love.

The young woman who wrote to Dear Prudence had lost her mother, but she was surrounded by love. She described a doting father, caring siblings, and referred to her own upcoming wedding. Her mother faced her own finitude, but other people were able to carry out the holy work of loving this young woman.

And that’s the other piece of this puzzle, isn’t it? Because God uses us, the Body of Christ, to love one another and help one another now that Jesus has ascended. The Holy Spirit gives us the power to take care of each other and love people who aren’t even in our family.

The online community Togetherrising, which is a group of people moved by the writings of Glennon Melton, had their annual Love Flash Mob this week. Glennon had her readers nominate the people they see who are heroes in their community and Togetherrising raised $250,000 from her readers to make these heroes’ dreams come true. My favorite story so far is the story of a nine year old girl named Hailey, who for four years has been devoted to caring for homeless people. Her work started with giving a homeless person a sandwich, but ballooned into keeping a garden for homeless people so they could have fresh vegetables, and raising money for and building temporary shelters for homeless people in her community. Her mom said that she would not want anything material for herself, so all the money raised in honor of this child is being poured back into building ten additional shelters for homeless people in her community. Now, just imagine all the families of these homeless people, some of whom must be terribly worried for them, or even feel guilt that for whatever reason cannot help them. They may have no idea that God is working through this nine year old child to give their loved ones help that meets them where they are and conveys that the universe still deems them worthy of respect, dignity, and love.

You are not the only person who is in charge of helping and loving the people you love. God is at work in creative, surprising ways. Your people will have friends, mentors, spouses, counselors, pastors who will do the work of God in their lives. The burden of their success or even their safety is not on your shoulders. Keep praying for your people, keep loving your people, and know that Jesus joins you in prayer and trusts in God’s radical all encompassing love.

And look around, because God may be calling you to be the Body of Christ for someone else’s special person. God may be calling you to be the answer to a frantic, hopeful prayer. You are part of God’s radical, generous love story.

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

Easter 5, Year B, 2015

Seventeen years ago, the Coen brothers released a movie called The Big Lebowski.  The plot of this movie is incredibly complicated and not necessary to rehash here.  In summary, a dead beat named Jeffrey Lebowski is confused with a millionaire named Jeffrey Lebowski and all kinds of hijinks ensue.  The dead beat Jeffrey Lewbowski calls himself the Dude and is as laid back as that name might connote.  He is unshaven, probably unwashed, and a total slacker.  He has no apparent job, and his only serious relationship is with his bowling buddies.  In short, he is not particularly admirable.

And yet, this character became a cult sensation.  People LOVE the Dude and people still quote his famous line, “The Dude abides. . .”

“The Dude abides.”  This, I think is the core of what is loveable about Lebowski.  Abide here not only describes his endurance of this farcical plot, but his attitude about life.  He is not here to act, or accomplish.  He exists merely to abide.  And this slacker attitude is so counter cultural to everything we are taught to be.

From the moment a doctor puts us through an APGAR test when we are born, we spend our lives being measured.  We take tests to get into Kindergarten.  We are measured at every well visit and told how we compare to other children.  We take standardized test after standardized test and then once we are thrust into the adult world we still compare ourselves with others—but now we compete over race times, and salary, and promotions.  We are taught to work hard and achieve.  And so the Dude enchants us with his extraordinarily laid back approach to life.  He becomes a fantasy of another way to live—one in which we have no responsibilities, no one against whom to compete.

The idea of abiding is both enticing to us and makes us nervous.  We don’t know how to abide, but we suspect if we started to abide, we might never get off the couch again.

And yet, here in the Gospel of John we have Jesus telling us to do just that.

Well, Jesus tells us to abide, but Jesus’ idea of abiding is pretty different from the Big Lebowski’s.  Where the Dude’s abiding is not rooted in anything beyond his own desires, Jesus’ idea of abiding is about deep connection with God.

Jesus envisions himself as a vine tended by his Father.  He envisions us as branches in the vine.  With this image he invites us to “abide in him, as I abide in you”.  Branches, of course, don’t just lie next to a vine.  The substance of the vine becomes the substance of the branch.  The same water and nutrients that pour through the vine, pour through the branches.  The vine doesn’t boss the branches around, the vine provides everything the branch might need to grow.

The branches don’t just sit around enjoying slurping up all the vine’s nutrients, either.  The branches produce fruit.

In our life of faith, we can take the messages we receive from our culture and think that to love God we have to constantly be producing something.  We have to retreats, and mission trips, and outreach projects and fundraisers.  We have to put up billboards and bake for coffee hour and make a million crafts for VBS!

But the picture of the life of faith that Jesus paints for us in this parable is not one of frantic work.  Jesus paints a picture of a quiet, nurturing relationship in which we are so connected to Jesus through prayer that our lives start to change and we start to bear fruit.

Bearing fruit is not about producing frantic actions on our part, but about shaping our character.  The Apostle Paul writes that these fruits are:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Staying connected to the vine through prayer, allows the Holy Spirit to shape us.  Abiding leads to a rich spiritual life.

This development of a spiritual life can lead us to right action.  Instead of frantically “doing” to get the world’s approval, when we abide, we are able to discern what actions are in line with God and which are just the little ego strokes we like to give ourselves every so often.

Abiding in God can give us deep courage.

I have been so struck this week by what is happening in Baltimore as you start to dig below the surface media coverage.

If my city was experiencing the tensions Baltimore is now facing, it would be sorely tempting for me just to stay inside and bar the doors!  Ignoring huge problems seems like a reasonable solution to someone not abiding in Jesus.

But so many people are showing the fruits of the spirit in Baltimore.  Teachers and principals at area high schools are trying desperately to make their student feel heard and safe.  Community centers threw together spur of the moment day care centers for families who had to work despite schools being closed Monday.  Children and adults were out on the street first thing in the morning, cleaning up and claiming their community. Clergy and faithful lay people who have been out on the streets for days, marching and praying and offering communion to anyone who will have it.

I imagine many of these souls are people who abide.  I imagine many of these people deeply know the love of God and have had their character shaped by a lifetime of prayer and Christian community.  They know that loving God always results in loving people.  Being a branch means being connected to the vine, but also reaching out to all the other branches.  Every branch is connected to the same vine.  We all belong to each other.

As you know, a handful of us here at St. Paul’s have been taking an enneagram class with Sarah Tremaine.  The enneagram is a map of the human condition, in a way, and each of the nine personality types has some very particular disconnect with God.  A particular way in which their branch doesn’t quite connect with the vine. What has struck me about the class is how the way to heal that disconnect is universal—be in prayer and meditation.  The way that prayer and meditation is shaped may look slightly different for each of the nine types, but the core to healing is connection with God.  Whether you are being blocked by your fear or your perfectionism, or your inability to follow through, or the way you bulldoze through life—whatever your issue, abiding with God, reconnecting with the vine, will help you become more whole and more balanced.

I am the type of person who is always convinced a new organizing system is going to help whatever feeling of disconnect I am currently experiencing.  Surely a new system for my closet or a new way to file papers on my desk will make everything better!  But when huge issues like an earthquake in Nepal or unrest in Baltimore come up, I feel truly overwhelmed.  Target does not sell a single thing that can help the thousands of families who have lost loved ones or people who feel hopeless and marginalized.

But this image of a nurturing vine and loving vine grower can be so helpful and healing to us in big crises.  Because even if we can’t directly solve institutional racism or rescue hurting people, we can stay connected to God, who will lead us to help in the small ways we can.  And by staying connected to God, we also somehow stay connected to those strangers who are suffering, since they are branches on the same vine, after all.  Our prayers reach them, and theirs reach us.

So, abiding is not the work of slackers.  Abiding is the deep work of people who want to break through their own unhealthy patterns and connect to a deeply loving God.  Abiding is for those who have the courage to connect deeply to fellow human beings, even those very different from them.  Abiding is for those humble enough to realize that their own frantic actions or passionate Facebook statuses are not going to solve the world’s problems.

Abiding is for us.  God’s gift to a people who he loves.  May we ever be his fruitful branches.

Amen.

Easter 4, 2015 (Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church)

Good morning!

It is such a treat to be at Amherst Presbyterian Church this morning!  Having the family all get into one car on Sunday morning is a rare experience for us.

While it can feel like Matt and I have two very different congregations, or flocks, being here with you on Good Shepherd Sunday is a great reminder that really we are all, Presbyterian or Episcopalian, part of Jesus’ one big flock of sheep.

When we think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we often think of the story from Luke, in which Jesus compares himself to a shepherd who has a flock of 100 sheep, but when one goes missing, he drops everything to find that sheep.  That passage gives us a feeling of deep security—that no matter what happens to us in our lives, we know Jesus will stay with us.

But our passage today is getting to a slightly different aspect of the Good Shepherd.  And our story really begins at the beginning of the 9th chapter of John.

The Pharisees are shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you, because Jesus has healed a blind man. As you know, Jesus was all about taking people who had been exiled from their flocks by disease or demon possession or blindness and healing them so they could re-join community.

The Pharisees, rather than delighting in the blind man’s return to his flock—his return to community—are immediately suspicious and begin a line of inquiry into the healing.  First they are convinced he’s lying, and after interviewing him twice and confirming with his family that he had been born blind, they are so annoyed by the claims he makes about Jesus, that they exile him once again and force him to leave the city.

Usually when Jesus heals someone, we never hear from that character again.  But in this instance, Jesus is so outraged by the Pharisees’ treatment of this man, that he seeks the exiled man out and has this deeply profound conversation with him, in which he reveals that he is the Son of Man.  Jesus treats the man, not as someone who should be exiled, but as someone who is special enough to understand Jesus’ divine nature.

And when the Pharisees start huffing and puffing again, Jesus tells this story about the Good Shepherd.

He compares the Pharisees to a hired hand.  The Pharisees are supposed to be taking care of God’s people, but somehow along the way they have lost track. They have become more interested in rules than in welcoming all people to God’s flock.  If a true threat comes to attack the sheep, the hired hand will run away.  The Pharisees, despite their best intentions, do not have God’s people’s best interests at heart.

Jesus goes on to say that in contrast to the unreliable hired hand, he is the good shepherd.  He foreshadows his own death when he explains that the good shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.  Jesus is utterly and totally committed to his flock.  Whether he is tracking down the formerly blind man, or walking towards his death in Jerusalem, the Jesus of the Gospel of John is completely in control and completely loving.

This love he has for humanity isn’t rooted in how wonderful we are.  After all, we are the kind of people to berate a blind man for being healed!  Jesus’ love for us is ultimately rooted in the love he has been given from his Father. Jesus is able to love us, because his Father loves him and his Father loves us.  Jesus invites us into that loving relationship as we become members of his flock.

In fact, it is in the Gospel of John where Jesus instructs his disciples to “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  What makes our Christian communities distinctive—or what should make our Christian communities distinctive—is the love we have for one another.

We follow a shepherd who sought out and welcomed every kind of person.  The wealthy, the poor, the old, the young, the healthy and the invalid were all invited to follow Jesus.  Jesus broke down the barriers between people and God, but also broke down the barriers between people themselves.  The Good Shepherd’s flock now truly contains every type of person you could imagine from communities across the world.

Including people who are different from the mainstream in our flocks can be challenging.  We are more comfortable with people who look like us, who have stories to which we can relate.  But just as Jesus always looked outward to gather in more and more people into his flock, we too are called to open our minds to who belongs.

In 2003, at Trinity Episcopal church in Torrington, CT, the Rev. Audrey Scanlan and Children’s minister Linda Snyder got a phone call from a parishioner who had a son with autism.  Bringing his son to a regular church service was proving extremely challenging.  His son did not have the executive function to sit quietly for an hour and changes in light and sound could be deeply upsetting to the child.  Audrey and Linda worked with the family to create a church service to which this child and his friends could be fully themselves.  One in which they were not required to sit still and in which the liturgy was simple, hands on and consistent.  The service was a huge success.  Many families in the community who had felt completely isolated from church, finally felt welcomed back into the flock.  Audrey and Linda published a curriculum called Rhythms of Grace and many churches across the country now use programs like it to welcome to church members of the community who ordinarily would not feel comfortable or welcome in a church service.

Providing a way for children with autism to worship Jesus in a safe environment is the way Trinity Episcopal Church decided to live like Jesus’ flock.  But each church community has its own set of opportunities.  If Sweet Briar does close, Amherst will undergo a transformation over the next few years.  You don’t know who will buy the property, what kind of people will be moving to town or what their needs might be.

But our Good Shepherd invites us to keep our eyes open and our hearts welcoming.  Just as we take care of each other in love, we also reach out in love, ready to incorporate whoever needs us into our life together.

The Good Shepherd will lead us—whether we are here at Amherst Pres or up the road at St. Paul’s Episcopal.  All we have to do is follow.

Amen.

Easter 2, Homily for Celtic Service, Year B, 2014

Poor Thomas.

The disciples have been huddled together for a week, terrified after Jesus’ body has been missing from the tomb.  Thomas is out picking up some sandwiches or getting a breath a fresh air and misses Jesus’ visit to the disciples completely!

When he gets back they are all abuzz with their amazing encounter.  Thomas is skeptical.  Or maybe Thomas is just protecting his heart.  He is grieving Jesus, he misses his friend.  It sounds way too good to be true that Jesus could be alive.  He wants evidence.  He wants to put his hands in the holes that pierced his side.

And yet, when Jesus reappears, all of Thomas’ defenses fall away.  Once he encounters the living, resurrected Jesus, Thomas doesn’t need proof.  It is enough for Thomas to be in his Lord’s presence.  Encountering the living God eliminates all his skepticism.

We live in a skeptical age.  We live in an age where we just assume someone will eventually hack into our email or steal our credit card number.  We assume all celebrities will eventually disappoint us and we just wait for our heroes to fall.  We live in a culture that chews up half truth and scandal for breakfast every morning.

We arm ourselves with cynicism and sarcasm and dark humor, because we believe it protects us from our grief and fear.  We grieve the loss of the world’s innocence and we fear for our own well being and the well being of those we love.

Thomas’ good news, is our good news, too.  Jesus is resurrected.

The light defeats the dark.  Love wins.  No matter how hard the forces of darkness, death and despair try to attack us, ultimately Jesus’ light and love will defeat them.  Sometimes that light may seem like a tiny flicker in a pitch black dungeon, but by the end of time that flicker of light will illuminate all of creation.

And we get to help spread that light by living lives that are full of joy and hope and trust—the antidote to our skeptical age.

At Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton I met a lovely woman from India who was a Keralan Christian.  I had never heard of such a thing, but it turns out that when Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in Kerala, India in the 1480s to evangelize the local population, they found a thriving Christianity already present.  No one in the Roman Catholic world had any idea this Christian community existed.  What a moment of holy surprise for these priests to realize that Jesus had over 1000 years on them in Kerala!

The Keralan Christians trace their faith all the way back to a missionary disciple named Thomas.  Thomas’s moment of faith in the upper room transformed his entire life. Legend has it that our Thomas traveled thousands of miles during his life, joyfully sharing his faith in Jesus across the world.

May Thomas be our guide as we discover with delight, over and over again, the power of the real presence of Christ in our lives.  And like Thomas, may we share that delight with others.

Amen.