Antigen & Animus

For weeks in the early months of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic our busyness slowed down enough for us to begin to process what was going on about us.  In this slowing down and looking about us, what became more conspicuous were the rifts and fissures in the social fabric of our country.  It seems ironic that the threatening presence of an antigen should make us so much more aware of the pervasive presence of ill-will – that is – animus among us.

The pervasiveness of animus is nothing new.  It has always been with us, and always will be with us on this side of the kingdom of heaven.  But as our awareness of this animus and its attendant manifestations increase we are prone to slip deeper into fearfulness and isolation.  Thus, it is understandable that in our fatigue that we want to get away from it – to stick our heads into the sand, if you will.

“As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.” 

The story of Jesus walking on the water is set in a similar circumstance of animus and its attendant fearfulness.  Yet with Jesus there is no overt expression of hate, only demonstrations of compassion for those who are foundering.

Before Jesus’ walk on the lake, he hears the horrific news that Herod has beheaded his cousin John in a foolish and fearful act of violence.  Foolish because Herod finds himself in an embarrassing situation – simultaneously trying impress his cunning stepdaughter and his dinner guests.  I think his embarrassment places him in a bind which angers him, and that his anger trumps any sense of compassion he may have for John – a man who both fascinates him and threatens his political power.  Rather than living with the tension of compassion for John, Herod gives in to animus.

Jesus is upset by this news and attempts to withdraw – to go into isolation to pray, but he is thwarted by the fearful crowd who is hungry for the peace and healing he has to offer.  Jesus knows he needs time away with his father, but his compassion for the crowd outweighs his personal need – at least for now.

Jesus meets the crowd’s need for healing, but more than that, he demonstrates for his disciples and the crowd the ability of compassion to provide abundance and to trump fear.  When the disciples are exhausted, hungry and in need of rest themselves, they ask Jesus to send the crowd away as if they are unwanted intruders.  But Jesus responds, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  In essence Jesus is telling the disciples, I know you are exhausted, but I also know that you have not yet explored the depths and power of compassion to satisfy an abundance of need – both yours and others.

It is only after this astounding lesson of compassion that Jesus finally sends the disciples to the other side of the lake, then he dismisses the crowd, and gets his time away with his Father.

The disciples’ journey across the lake would not normally be challenging, after all a number of them are water-men – accomplished fishermen – for whom this lake is their own back yard.  Being battered by the waves is not normally of consequence, but today has been a long and exhausting day, their reserves are spent and their fatigue is playing tricks with their imagination in the dark – besides, how often do you see someone walking across the water?  So, it is understandable that their bewildered minds get the better of them and they see a bogeyman rather than a friend and loved-one.

It is our impulsive and unguarded friend Peter who is not satisfied with Jesus’ assurance.  Nonetheless, Jesus is only too happy to offer Peter another demonstration of compassion in the face of fear, but it is Peter who can’t handle it.  In stepping out of the boat, Peter figuratively steps out of his comfort zone and into the real world where he, like us, quickly loses sight of the compassion offered him and founders amid the waves of animus.  Yet even in the face of animus, Jesus is there with outstretched hand to catch us in the midst of turbulent times to steady us and remind us that as his disciples he is always present to us so – that in turn – we can be fully present as bearers of compassion to others in the midst of the turbulence created by animus.  As followers of Christ Jesus, you and I are called to worship – that is –  to enter this figurative boat together upon troubled waters so set out amid the flood tide of animus as faithful witnesses of Christ’s compassion for those who are suffering and to satisfy an abundance of need.

As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to leave this safe place and to sail upon turbulent and fearful waters that roil with hate, extending the life-saving hand of compassion and presence of Christ to those foundering amid waves of hate.  We are called to see not the bogeymen, but to seek the face of Jesus Christ in the other.  Where Christ is not, there we are called to walk upon the waters of the void.

Righteousness v. Forbearance

I need to begin this homily by telling you I have spent entirely too much time with this story from the Old Testament.  If you’re familiar with the biblical Hebrew, it’s known as the Akedah or in English the Binding of Isaac.  

This story is an exegetical challenge.  We’ve all heard innumerable interpretations, but I’m willing to bet today you might just hear something new.  Now, having made that challenge, I am prepared to be taken down notch.  

This story is familiar, we hear it regularly, we know it well and we think of it in ways that have been presented to us over the years by innumerable preachers: whether as the testing of Abraham, the testing of Isaac, or the need to experience a sacrificial rite so Isaac can be fully claimed as Abraham’s son.  

But there’s something else that many of us may not be aware of; there’s another story exactly like this story except one character is changed.  This other story comes from the sacred texts of Islam – the Qu’ran.  The person who has been swapped out in that story or replaces Isaac is Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son; the son who is banished and sent away into the wilderness.  All the other actors are the same.  What is fundamentally different is how the child is presented.  So, in Genesis we know that Isaac doesn’t know fully what’s going to transpire, he only knows he is to help his father at the altar, then he is bound and placed on the altar.  In the story involving Ishmael there is no binding involved.  In contrast to Isaac, Ishmael is what is considered a reasonable character, and such he is capable for forbearance.  Ishmael understands that things in life sometimes are bigger and more important than he is, and he is willing for his father to realize his vision.  In the Qu’ranic version of this story Abraham has a vision that his son is to be righteous and in fact Ishmael is not righteous, Ishmael is reasonable and in his forbearance is willing to lay down his life so that Abraham could have a child who is righteous.  Can you imagine such a thing?  

We think so often of Muslims as being opposed to us, as being against us and yet they’re sharing the same stories but there’s a different interpretation.  What this makes me mindful of is our tendency as individuals, as a people, as a community, even as a nation to sometimes set our own perception, our own view of things above all others, to consider them to be absolutes and to have absolute certitude about the significance or the meaning of it; precious little forbearance.  I think this is why the emphasis in Isaac’s story is placed upon binding.  Righteousness sometimes needs to be bound, especially when righteousness strays to self-righteousness, when it becomes about one’s absolute certitude of their stance or their position, it needs to be constrained.  What does it mean to be constrained by forbearance?  A willingness to hear the other story, hear another perspective and to realize there is something to be learned in the other as well as in my own.  

So, this story is in fact a sequel to the whole story we’ve heard today.  With Isaac at its heart, it’s a sequel to the story we heard last week with Hagar and Ishmael.  It goes on to show that there is a need to rectify something that is amiss and that thing that is amiss is our inclination toward our own conviction.  

So, what are you and I prepared to sacrifice in this season of contentiousness, of rancor, of discord?  Are we willing to set aside our absolute certitude, are we willing to set aside our precious perspective or at least to hold it more lightly, not allow it to govern or dictate how we will perform or behave?  Are we willing to hold lightly our own righteous opinion?  These ask a lot of us given the rage and rancor we hear in the world about us, yet it’s a reasonable question.  I don’t know if it’s possible, but what we can do as individuals is acknowledge our own shortcomings and our own inadequacies and lean into forbearance – a willingness to at least listen to what the other has and say rather than to shut them down.  

So, remember this today, forbearance was prepared to be sacrificed for the sake of righteousness, and keep in mind that the only fully righteous person is our savior Jesus Christ.  It is Jesus Christ who reserves judgment upon us, and until we stand before him in judgment, we need to hold our righteousness more lightly and embrace more forbearance.

An Inconvenient Truth?

Here as we find ourselves in the middle of June, we have today a gift – an unlikely gift.  However, at the end of this homily you may in fact be inclined to say, where is the gift in this?  Nonetheless, I choose to call it a gift; and the gift we have today is a story rooted in fear and prejudice.  Again, what sort of gift is rooted in fear and prejudice you might say.  Well this particular story is what is termed an etiology, which is a fancy word for a reason or explanation for why something is as it is.

I think this story is a gift for us today because it sheds light on our present circumstance in the United States in this time where there’s so much rancor that revolves around the issue of race and a long history of abuse and marginalization of others.  This particular story is no random story, rather it’s a part of a 12-chapter narrative that reveals the flawed character of our biblical heroes; our matriarch Sarah and Abraham our patriarch and all that follow after them.

At the heart, literally and literarily, of this story is enslavement and prejudice; the latter justifying the former.  And I say literally and literarily at the heart because this story finds its foundation in the very middle of these 12 chapters, and the central theme and story of this is the relationship between Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Hagar, Sarah’s slave, the choices Sarah makes in this relationship, and Abraham’s complicity because he fails to take a stance.

The story begins when Abraham is visited by God and told that he will father a nation, that he will have his own children; and God says that he will have them by Sarah.  Abraham laughs, he doesn’t think this is possible.  Perhaps this is why Abraham presumably doesn’t tell Sarah about his encounter with God.  Thus, Sarah has no way of knowing what God has hold Abraham.  As the story progresses, Sarah is convinced that she is unable to bear children.  As a result of that fear or that concern about there not being a family for Abraham, Sarah takes her slave Hagar and gives her to Abraham to have children for him.  As a result, Hagar does in fact have a child, Ishmael, Abraham’s first born.  

Subsequently, Sarah does learn that she is to have a child.  This begins to change things, but not immediately because of high infant mortality.  Children very often didn’t survive to the point of being weaned, which may have been about three years.  So, until a child was weaned it wasn’t assumed that the child would survive.  Thus, when Isaac does survive a celebratory feast is held to mark the milestone. 

It is at this feast that Sarah, for the first time, has occasion to witness Ishmael playing with Isaac.  In that moment, some dread or fear that Ishmael as the oldest son will displace her son Isaac as the rightful inheritor of Abraham’s namesake.  As a result, she chooses to do something that is horrifying; she chooses to banish Hagar and her son Ishmael into the wilderness, to send them out; to dispose of them presumably to die.  Abraham does give them water and a loaf of bread but how far will that go to feed two in the wilderness?  

The presumption here is that they’ve been banished to die in the wilderness.  And in fact, Hagar just about gives up, in fact she doesn’t just about give up, she does give up.  She lays Ishmael under a bush and goes a ways away so she doesn’t have to watch the child die.  She sits under a tree herself, fully expecting to die herself, where she laments her circumstance.  Ishmael apparently gives voice to it too because God hears Ishmael, God intervenes and redeems this otherwise gruesome story.  God intervenes and saves their lives, reveals to Hagar the well where they can find water, and tells her that Ishmael shall in fact grow up to be the patriarch of a people.  As such Hagar becomes the mother of a people.  God redeems the situation and their circumstance when Sarah had written them off and was ready to be done with them.

This story tells us so much about ourselves and our human nature that it is to me an undeniable reflection of our own stories, our own brokenness and our own insufficiency.  The thing is Sarah thought she had fixed a problem and yet what she had done in fact was actually just create more division, rancor and animosity.  She did not heal anything but rather broke it asunder, and yet Abraham’s family is still to this day divided and remains so.  It is in this place where we find ourselves standing today at the intersection of this millennia of dysfunction, hate, fear, rancor, prejudice, and racism.  Here we stand.  What are we to do and make of this?  

I think this is the second part of the gift today, this sometimes hard to hear and sometimes troubling story from the Gospel according to Matthew.  Jesus has been preparing his disciples to send them out into ministry, to cure the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the Kingdom of God has come near.  Yet before he sends them out, he tells him the story about the discord they will find themselves in.  

What is at the heart of the story he tells is Jesus and Jesus’ teaching.  Just as God reveals God’s preference or sense of justice to preserve the lives of outcasts and the marginalized, Jesus does the same.  He sends his disciples out to those who are marginalized and outcast by society and he warns the disciples that their mission and ministry will create rancor, hard feelings, and discord within their own families.  But in this discord, there is an invitation to us as followers of Jesus to enter a frank conversation among ourselves about the fear and prejudice in our lives – the legacy of Sarah and Abraham – that we bear and share even to this day.  It’s an invitation to understand how fear and prejudice affect our lives and affect our choices.  This too is may be something frightening to imagine and perhaps more desirable to avoid, just as Sarah chose what she thought was the easier – to dismiss and send away Hagar and Ishmael.  Instead we are called to draw in and to bring near, to open up, to make ourselves vulnerable to reconciliation as possible through frank and honest conversation because God is there in the midst of it showing God’s presence and preference for the lives of the outcasts and the marginalized  As we engage in this hard work, as we contemplate the possibility, may we give thanks to God for the opportunity and ask a blessing on our ability to be proper stewards of the gift and opportunity we are provided.

Harassed, but not helpless.

We are in a very transitional time in so many ways.  In a relatively insignificant but normal way this is the Sunday on which we return to worship in the parish hall here at Saint Michaels in the Hills.  This is also a time in which we transition from our normal busy program year to what is normally a little more sleepy, quiet time for the summer. 

This summer, however; I don’t anticipate it being very sleepy.  A few months ago, it was a little sleepy as we were adjusting to what it was like to be here in this place – in this new time of coronavirus, but now it is different.  There is so much going on as we we’re beginning to imagine what it is to re-emerge as a place of in-person worship where we’re able to include one another.  We’re not there yet but we are making our way.

But there’s also something different about this transitionary time.  So, normally in the summers we shift into our summer modes and maybe our summer locations, we’re less regular in our attendance; and the scripture that we often hear on a day like today might elude many of us, we might not actually hear it.  But today, we do hear it and perhaps with new ears because the times are different.  There’s so much going on in the world, and particularly in our own country with the anxiety and the heartache over the brutality we’ve seen, over the loss of life due to the pandemic, we are marking time in different ways and grappling with what it looks like.

Today, I think our lesson from the Gospel according to Matthew is one of those things that would have slipped by almost unnoticed were it not for the times, which caused me to look at it with new eyes.  Specifically, there is this aspect of Jesus, as he sees the crowds and has compassion for them because they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  I saw myself in that description in some respects, at least feeling harassed, not entirely helpless, but on a tether trying to find new ways of doing things and trying to reconcile that with the past and what we’ve done before.  But that took on even a different tone in the months since February as we became more and more aware of what I will call “extrajudicial” killings, at the hands of authorities or people associated with law enforcement, of Ahmaud Arbery, BreonnaTaylor, and most recently George Floyd.  These killings have brought a sore and periodically gaping wound back to the surface as a reminder of a tortured and denied past. 

Somehow something seems different this time.  Whether it is the level of outrage, or the ways in which we have seen law enforcement and protesters coming together to express their mutual grief and understanding and listening to one another for the first time perhaps in many years.  Now juxtapose that to those circumstances where they’re not talking to each other but just waling on each other in protest, in mutual hate and frustration.  

Today’s harassed but not helpless Gospel is one of the two gospel passages that describe the disciples being sent.  The disciples have been for some time now working with Jesus; listening to and being taught by him.  They’ve learned a great deal about what it means to be disciples.  This is only a few chapters on after the sermon on the Mount, so it’s all relatively fresh in our ears and Jesus doesn’t delay, he capitalizes on that freshness, that rawness of the moment; he says to his disciples that they are to go out, and as you go proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  The mission he sends them on is one of healing, one of restoration to wholeness of mind, body, and spirit.  Heaven knows we are direly in need of that at this time as a nation, as a community, as families, and as a worship community.  

These hurts and harassments are the hard things that we know have lingered in the background from time to time, which we have either chosen not to dwell on, or to turn a deaf ear to them.  But now, I think, is a time in which we have to choose to embrace this because this is what we are called to do, just as the disciples were called, to go forth and proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  

Now you may ask, “This is the Kingdom of heaven?” what’s going on around about us?  The answer is no, but what resembles the Kingdom of heaven are those of us who are willing to take up our mantle as disciples and follow the way of Jesus.  To take up his command to go and heal, to cast out demons, and to change the lives of the people that you visit.  

This is something that often falls on very few ears or sleepy ears during the normal middle of June, but this year is different.  It seems to me an appropriate time for us to be reminded of the call that we have to preach the gospel, and if necessary to use words.  

This is a time in which we are called to action: we are called to be healers, we are called to take in hand the balm of Gilead, that same balm which cures the wounded and heals the sin-sick soul.  To share that with those who are wounded, those who are sinners, and all who are in need of healing and restoration.  The balm of Gilead does not differentiate and frankly we cannot differentiate either, we must care, we must be on the right side of justice. 

Furthermore, as disciples we are to go out relatively ill equipped, carrying no purse, no coin, no food, no extra clothing, staying wherever you may.  This is not a call to comfort, complacency or luxury; it is a call to hardship and in that we are to confront hardship with love – love and the same balm of healing that we all are in need of.  

So, in the days to come I hope that you will take this charge seriously to set aside your hesitancy, your uncertainty, and to identify what is the side that we are called to take as disciples, and then to be about that healing.  It is not absolute, there is not black and there’s not white, very often it’s gray and ambiguous, but we’re still called into that space because it’s through being together even in those ambiguous circumstances that we are able to grow, we are changed, and we are able to change others.  

So, in the months to come you will be hearing more about this idea of growing, of creating sacred ground, space for us to gather as disciples faithfully to hear one another stories and to expand our understanding and our compassion for others because we are harassed and we are helpless and we need bearers of light and love and peace in our midst.  For your willingness to engage in this work, I say Thanks be to God.

“What is man that you should be mindful of him?”

There is a dear friend of mine who for a number of years was privileged to be part of a very large and well-resourced church staffed with as many as five priests at any given time.  Yet for some reason my friend Paul found himself year after year preaching on Trinity Sunday.  After years of this I think he just about exhausted every sort of metaphor or analogy he could come up with for the Trinity. 

Because of Paul’s experience I’ve always been a little daunted by Trinity Sunday.  This year though is a little different, we are in fact actually blessed I would say because our lectionary for this day is not full or overflowing with theological imagery or questions.  It’s pretty clear this Trinity Sunday, we have in fact one of my favorite readings of the entire Bible, the creation narrative from Genesis chapter one.  We have this beginning story which takes up in terms of time a majority of our time today and paired with it we have two other readings which are endings.  

The first is from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians in which he is writing farewell to the Corinthians.  He has concluded his time of ministry there, and at times it’s been tough as there have been questions of mixed motives. 

And then we have this a Gospel lesson in which the disciples have returned to Galilee to the mountain Jesus has spoken of, where they are to wait for him.  When Jesus comes to them he gives them his final charge to go make disciples of the nations and to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  So we have a beginning and then two other stories in which there are trinitarian salutations or directions.  Then there is, perhaps unnoticed by many of us, the Psalm.  There’s one verse in particular that stands out; the psalmist poses this wonder-riddled question, and I’m paraphrasing here, what is humankind O Lord that you should be mindful of us?  

What is humankind O Lord that you should be mindful of us?  In light of recent events of the weeks past and currently I think this is a wonderful question for us to consider and ponder today.  What is it about us that God sees value in? 

Heaven knows we have not been at our best of late.  In fact, I would argue that perhaps unlike the Holy Trinity we have been exhibiting behaviors that might be called an unholy trinity.  There has been the shameless taking of others’ lives, there has been grasping desire to dominate others, and there has been pathetic manipulation of our fears.  

Shameless, grasping, pathetic, not adjectives I would ascribe to the Holy Trinity by any stretch.  What is humankind O Lord that you should be mindful of us?  By these standards I would be inclined to say there is none whatsoever.  Yet the facts do not change, God is in fact mindful of us.  But why?  What is humankind that God should be mindful?  

Borrowing from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, I think we can see attributes that Paul speaks of when he talks about the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  As I look back over the wreckage of the weeks past, I do see within all that is shameful glimpses of what is Holy.  There is manifest among us the grace of Jesus Christ to reach out to the person on the other side the hand of consolation and peace.  There is in fact the love of God for one to put oneself in harm’s way for the benefit of others whether it be first responders, the medical professionals who protect us to heal us, and help make us whole, or the legion of the unnamed, the invisible, those on the margin who can’t eke out a living wage, yet who dutifully go to their jobs to keep the logistical wheels turning so we may have the amenities, the food, the deliveries that we rely on in this time of isolation.  

What is humankind that God should be mindfulness us?  Finally, there is the communion of the Holy Spirit which listens to the other to hear and recall what they have to say and to give them the assurance that they are the beloved of God.  Grace, Love, and Communion; these three are the sometimes hard to see or easy to overlook trinity of God’s presence among us.  

May we in our time of need in the days and weeks to come keep our eyes peeled for this Holy Trinity, to recognize God in our midst, loving one another, having compassion for one another, and walking humbly with our God.  This is what will heal us, this is what will restore us; not the shamelessness, not the grasping and pathetic ploys for our attention.  No, it is the Holy Trinity: the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  And it is in these seemingly rare occasions or incidents that we see truly why God is mindful of us.  

God is mindful of humankind because God sees in these acts of love, of grace, and of communion the imprint of her image in our souls.  May you and I in the weeks and years to come continue to reveal the imprint the image of God within us that it may become what people desire and seek above all things.  And in our work may we forever say, thanks be to God!

“What does this mean?”

Welcome and good morning on this Day of Pentecost, this end of the season of Easter and the return to what we call Ordinary time.

Today is second, in my mind, only to Easter in that it marks the gift of the Holy Spirit to the people of God.  Particularly noteworthy amid the drama and action of the story from Acts there is this one question posed by those who are perplexed and amazed by what they have seen.  They ask this profound question, “What does this mean?”  Just what does this mean to us as we’re trying to process and understand the sensory overload we’ve just experienced?  

I think it’s important for us to understand there is a curious context that exists in these readings.  There is one Spirit, yet today we hear two stories of the gift of the Holy Spirit.  These stories take place on different days.  The first is on the Day of Resurrection as Jesus presents himself to the disciples in a room locked for fear of the Jews, and he greets them with “peace be with you.”  He does this twice before he gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit by he breathing upon them.

So why is there another story 50 days later of the giving of the Holy Spirit?  I think it helps to illuminate something we need to keep in mind.  While one story may stick more vividly in our mind, the other has a great deal to teach us as well.  And I think it is this: as time passes, we are changed.  At the beginning of the 50 days of Easter we see disciples, who are still in shock over Jesus’ resurrection, suddenly given the gift of the Holy Spirit on Sunday of the Resurrection, which has got to be a little disorienting in its own right.  Then Jesus spends 40 days with these same people tutoring, mentoring, teaching them and preparing them for his ultimate departure on the day of Ascension when he ascends into heaven to return to the right hand of God.  But not without again promising the Holy Spirit.  This time the difference is what has happened in those 40 days.  In that passage of time, the disciples have been transformed and changed, they have been disabused of the notion of returning to what was normal, the way things used to be, their old occupations.  Now they have been sent out into the world and told to follow Jesus and to love his sheep.  Now that they’ve heard this word and are prepared, only then does Jesus depart, but not before he promises the Holy Spirit and tells them to wait here until the coming of the advocate, the guide, the counselor, the Holy Spirit.  And it does come, 10 days later on the Day of Pentecost; it comes in a rush of violent wind and divided tongues as of fire.  It is really something to behold. 

This is a dramatically different outcome from what the disciples had just experienced 50 days earlier.  So, what is the meaning of this?  Well I think in many respects this story becomes a metaphor for our own experience.  Reflect back ten or eleven weeks to the middle of March.  We had just ended in-person worship because of the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.  We were reeling because we were no longer able to worship in ways that were normal or customary for us.  It was a terribly disruptive time and you may have even experienced, as I did, some grief over the loss of something dear to us, and confusion as to what was next.  I imagine this is what the disciples were feeling as they were gathered on Resurrection Sunday having heard stories about Jesus not being in the tomb and then having him there among them.  They were overjoyed I have no doubt, and perhaps shocked and wondering what is the meaning of this, while trying to process it all.  And here we find ourselves trying to process as well, now 50 days later on the Day of Pentecost and we have received yet again the power of the Holy Spirit, the indwelling of that spirit, and we are so overjoyed; but still there is the question, “What does this mean?”  

In a very few minutes we will be reminded of what this means as we renew our baptismal vows.  In this renewal we will be reminded of our choice to renounce Satan, to renounce evil in the world, and to follow God only.  We will reaffirm our faith: our belief in God; our belief in Jesus, his only son; and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  We will go on to make specific promises as to how we will live our lives.  

This re-immersion in our baptismal vows is essential for us today as we stand ten or eleven weeks on at another transition point – an inflection point – in our own existence as Saint Michael’s in the Hills, in this community surrounding us here in Toledo and beyond into Northwest Ohio.  In this place, what does it mean to be followers of Christ with this renewed gift and this opportunity to imagine what the future looks like for us?  Today quite literally marks the beginning of a new phase in our Diocese where we can begin to imagine and plan for what it means to encounter in-person worship again with all the practical constraints and realities of the time.  

Perhaps not what we had bargained for, but this is where we find ourselves and this is where your vestry, your staff, and church leadership as a body, and in fact the entire Diocese, are discerning our way forward toward what this means to us at this time.  Just as it was for the disciples, this is not an opportunity to turn around and go back to doing just what we were doing, that which is so familiar and beloved; rather this is the time to look at that which is being done in new ways that protect each and every one of us as children of God from harm, while still meeting our spiritual needs and appetites. 

So, at this time I ask your prayers for our Bishops of the Diocese of Ohio, for the staff and committees of the Diocese, and for your leadership in vestry here at Saint Michael’s in the Hills as we discern our way forward.  May we be grounded in the love of Christ that we have witnessed on Good Friday, on Easter Sunday, on the Day of the Ascension, and today as we have finally received the gift of the counselor as promised.  May we now be so empowered as the first disciples were as we move forward in gratitude, in imagination, in creativity, and in discernment of what it looks like to be a church in this new age, in this new time; moving forward grateful for what we have learned and experienced in the past, not conformed by it rather supported by it and standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and leaning into the new way forward as guided by Jesus’ love and the power of the Holy Spirit.  Thanks be to God.

“Love one another as I have loved you.”

A little over a week ago, as the clergy of the diocese were gathered in conference with our Bishop, we had the distinct pleasure of being joined in that conversation by the Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.  We got to spend two hours in conversation with him, which was an amazing experience.

The one thing that really struck me in that conversation was the reminder of Good Friday.  Why it resonated so much with me was because in this present moment – six weeks on – we feel like we’re still living Good Friday in some respects.  It’s as if time stopped yet the world continued to move but we’re not able to get beyond that place of grief and remorse and wondering just what has happened.  In this time of pandemic I sense a similarity because we also are isolating in place, there are lockdowns and there are restrictions on our movements; and there’s been uncertainty and inability to make decisions.

For the first time in my life, I imagine that I can sense or guess what the apostles must have felt: an uncertainty and confusion as to what does it mean as one is still standing at the foot of this terror that has occurred upon the cross.  This murder, this act of violence being wreaked upon this person.  We may view it much the same way, this uncertainty about what comes next as we watch the world being ravaged about us as well.

Now there is a slightly different tension, six weeks on we find ourselves now yearning to return to what is normal.  Yet what came up in our conversations with Bishop Curry was this realization that we won’t return to normal, there is no going back.  Just as in our theology, Christ died on the cross and there is no going back to what was before; we are at a point in history, an inflection point, a pivot point, and we must discern how to move forward.

There may be so few times in life where we can so fully relate to the apostles’ experience.  This morning as we stand here just days after the Ascension we will hear shortly the collect for the day in which the petition is made to God, “do not do not leave us comfortless.”  Comfortless, not comfortable, not complacent and at ease, but “do not leave us comfortless”.

We won’t be entirely comfortable, there is uncertainty, and we don’t know precisely what the way forward looks like.  However, what we can reflect upon and resolve is to realize that while we don’t know with certainty yet, we may have progressed to that place with the apostles where just before the Ascension Jesus is still teaching and talking to his apostles.  Just before he leaves they pose the question, “Lord is this the time?”

Is this the time in which we no longer lock down?  Is this the time in which we return to worshipping publicly and in person?  Is this the time when we will fill this nave again?  Jesus answers, “It is not for you to know.”  Can we abide in Jesus’ instruction that it is not for us to entirely know?

Not knowing cuts so hard against our grain.  It certainly cuts hard against what we see transpiring about us in media and in public where we want to know!  Our individual need to know – to be certain – is outstripping our ability to love, and we are beginning to insist upon our individual rights.

The irony of that for me as I stand here as a Christian and looking back on Good Friday is what would the world look like today if Christ had insisted upon his individual right as the son of God?  What if he had chosen to take himself down from the cross and not to offer himself as sacrifice for us and for our redemption?  I hesitate to think of what it would be like, yet I know it would be a vastly different world than it is, probably more ordered by our self-interest – our personal preferences.

Instead the example we have is Christ, who gave himself up for us sacrificially.  You may say, well it was just a one-time thing, he didn’t mean to do it.”  But no, Jesus told us on Maundy Thursday, about 45 days ago, at the Last Supper when he had washed the apostles’ feet, he gave us his final commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Have you ever unpacked this commandment and its consequences?  Because the example that he gives us is death on the cross, offering ourselves and abandoning our own self-interest in the interest of the common good.  This I think is where we find ourselves in this time of pandemic; are we putting our own interests so far ahead of the common interest of those around us and those we profess to love in the interest of our own preferences?

May we in this time of waiting, where self-interest seems prepared to set aside the common good all of God’s children; may we in this time reflect upon Jesus’ commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.”  Just as Elijah left behind his mantle as he ascended into heaven in the flaming chariot, the mantle that fell to the ground for Elisha to take up, we too as disciples of Christ, followers of Jesus, in our baptismal covenant have taken up the mantle that Christ left for us, “to love one another as I have loved you.”  May we in this time of waiting reflect upon the mantle that has been left to us, and may that be our guide as we move forward.  In Christ’s name I ask.  Amen.

“In [whom] we live and move and have our being.”

In today’s gospel lesson we find Jesus among his disciples in a period not entirely unlike our own.  In this period of isolation and distance keeping following the Last Supper, Jesus is teaching his disciples and preparing them for what he knows is coming – that he will no longer be with them.  In this context Jesus reminds them that, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.”[1]

I’m sure this is confusing to the disciples; in this circumstance they don’t fully understand what’s about to happen; yet they must sense that something is looming.  And what is this promise of another Advocate?

Let’s back up and spend a moment with the expression “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”  As a reminder, his commandments are: love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your mind and with all your spirit; second to love your neighbor as yourself; and finally to love one another as I have loved you.  The latter is a reference to Jesus’ washing of the disciples feet.

Because Jesus knows his people will feel abandoned, forlorn, and forgotten he promises the Holy Spirit – the Advocate, which we will celebrate in just two short weeks.  But more importantly he’s given them the commandments as a touchstone, as a reference point for how to live their lives, as a reminder why he came.  But what are we to make of this in this time?  How do we unpack it?

This is where I think the circumstance that Paul finds himself in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostle is so helpful today.  You see, Paul is in Athens spreading the gospel.  He is in awe of all the altars he sees to various and sundry gods.  But the one that has caught his eye is this altar to an unknown god.

Now Paul is an experienced teacher and is accustomed to speaking before groups but he seems to find this particular group daunting.  He is in Athens at the Aeropagus a gathering place of councils and philosophers to discuss items of interest.  Paul has been asked to explain this Way of Jesus that he follows.  Wisely he adapts to his hosts’ context so that they may imagine themselves in his story.  To accomplish this he taps into an expression very well known to them, “In [whom] we live and move and have our being.”  You are likely familiar with this sentence.  If you’ve spent much time with the prayers of the Prayer Book you’ve probably come across this expression.  We often think it is scriptural, and well it is scriptural.  While it is found in the Bible, it’s not Christian in its origin.  Paul is actually reaching back centuries into renown Greek philosophical discourse to tap into the public consciousness of this gathering and using something that they know very well; an expression they thought referred to their relationship with their God Zeus.  Paul is claiming this expression for the Way of Jesus.

So what is the significance of this to us?  I think the import of it for us today as we stand in our own time of uncertainty, wondering how we function in relative isolation and remove from one another is that it answers the questions; how are we the church in this place, how do we extend our reach beyond these doors?

As Paul unpacked a Greek understanding of existence in an uncertain time, we too can unpack a distilled understanding of the commandments of love to remind ourselves of the one in whom we live and move and have our being.  These commandments are still the context for our existence in these strange times.  My prayer for each of us this week and in the weeks to come is that we may in our moments of anxiety, of stress, of discomfort remember that as commandment keepers we love Jesus, and are in turn loved by our Creator, our Redeemer, and are accompanied by our Advocate.  Thanks be to God in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

[1] John 14:15-16

“I am the gate.”

This Sunday is often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday, which strikes me as a bit of bait and switch.  You see, while we have the 23rd Psalm – “The Lord is my shepherd” – in our Gospel lesson Jesus tells us he is the gate, not the shepherd.

I don’t know, perhaps the lectionary for this Sunday has shifted over the years.  After all, in the very next story of the Gospel according John Jesus does in fact refer to himself as the good shepherd; but that is not part of today’s story.  So, for today, what are we to make of “I am the gate?”

Perhaps we should begin with the psalm; this comfortingly lovely pastoral psalm that refreshes us whether we are at ease or in distress.  The 23rd Psalm spans green pastures and still waters to the valley of the shadow of death and those who trouble us.  There is only one thing that spans the distance of such images as heaven and hell, and that is the love of God as revealed in the resurrected Jesus Christ.  But, for today, Jesus is not the shepherd; he is the gate.

Let me share with you different gate story – a story from my time in Kansas.  Three years ago, a dear friend of mine was telling me about his friend – a rancher in western Kansas.  That year, before western Kansas was blanketed with snow, they were dealing with out of control prairie fires.  If you are familiar with prairie fires you know controlled burns to be life-giving – returning nutrients into the ground, destroying weeds, and encouraging the growth of new grass for grazing.  But you will also know they can become life-consuming fires that rage out of control destroying personal property and livestock.  Three years ago, this was the experience of our sisters and brothers in western Kansas.

The fires experienced by this particular rancher were so intense that they destroyed a large part of his herd and most of his fencing.  But not all of his herd was killed by the fire, about 200 survived; however, they were so badly injured that he had to destroy them himself with the help of a neighbor.  The pasture was empty but for the carcasses of his herd, even the fencing was gone.  All that remained was the steel gate and cattle guard, which was still closed and locked.

Having completed what needed to be done, the rancher could have driven a beeline direct to wherever he needed to go, but he chose to drive through the gate.  His neighbor clambered out of the cab to unlock and open the gate.  As the rancher pulled through the gate, he paused and told his friend, “Leave it open, there’s nothing to keep in.”

The rancher’s words reflect a kind of Kansan stoicism, but I choose to see them as a faithful optimism.  Not so much because the pasture will grow again, or because the fence will be rebuilt, or because there will be another herd, but because the gate is the one thing that was present through it all.  Through the heavenly greening of the pasture, and through the hellish destruction of everything around it.

The gate was there and is still there; and the rancher, who could have left the scene of all this devastation by any direction, chose – whether by habit or intention – to go through the gate; and not only to go through but to leave it open.  I imagine the Lord is most pleased with this act.

The gate is there in that pasture in the presence of peace and green pastures, and in the presence of death and destruction.  Paraphrasing part of the 23rd Psalm, “Surely your goodness and mercy are present to me in all the circumstances of my life.”

Jesus, the gate, is also present to us in all the circumstances of our life, whether they be pandemics or what we imagine hell must be like.  When your path becomes rough going imagine that the rough patches are the precarious and uneven footing of the cattle guard at the gate, a reminder that you are in the gate and walking with Jesus.  And recall that Jesus loves you so much that he suffered the worst the world could offer – even death on a cross – and came back to us to reveal his resurrected glory – a preview of the eternal life that awaits us all.

My charge to you today is to bring the destruction and hell in your life to the open gate before this altar.  Allow that which stands between you and the gate to fall through the cattle guard so that you may walk unencumbered through the gate into eternal life.  So be it.

“Were our hearts not burning within us?”

Today we once more find ourselves between scriptural milestones. At one, we hear of maybe 12-plus disciples gathered in a private room just now hearing “rumors” of Jesus’ missing body. At the same time, two other disciples, perhaps thinking the promise of a new kingdom has failed, are already on the road heading home. At another mile marker, we hear of yet another glimpse of the future, in which Peter continues his address to the gathered crowd at Pentecost. His appeal is so compelling that about 3,000 people are baptized. Oh that we might experience such clarity in our own time!

But how do we bridge the distance between these two milestones? At one we find a dispirited group, who seem about ready to pack it in; yet at the other the same group is speaking with convincing clarity and authority. In the disrupted journey between these milestones, what helps this motley crew of disciples keep it together and emerge as the foundation upon which our Church is built? I argue that it is: their formation as disciples; Jesus’ presence – past and present; their continued gathering in community; and trusting Jesus’ promise of being “clothed with power from on high.”[1]

And then there is the uncanny coincidence of the alignment of these readings and where we find ourselves standing today. Separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles, what our stories share in common are parallel senses of disorientation and uncertainty.

Whereas the disciples are sheltering in a hiding place, disoriented by days of wondering about what just happened to their dreams of messiahship and kingdom, and facing seven weeks of uncertainty and wondering what’s next; we find ourselves weeks into this pandemic still trying to sort out the who, what, when, why, where and how of our circumstance, and facing an undeterminable number of weeks of uncertainty, and wondering what’s next.

What are we to make of these uncanny parallels? One suggestion is to recognize that while this experience is novel to many of us and justifiably disconcerting, it is nothing new in God’s creation. It has been, is, and will be; thus it behooves us to remember our history just as Jesus tells us in the breaking of the bread, “Do this for the remembrance of me.” Even in the midst of suffering, mourning, and uncertainty there is the sacramental remembrance of Jesus’ eternal presence.

It is in the blessing and breaking of the bread that Jesus is revealed to us and through us over and over again. What begins in the narrative of the Eucharistic prayer reaches it’s crescendo in the fraction – the breaking of the bread following the Lord’s Prayer. Whether we physically partake or spiritually partake of this Communion, we are present as the body, sharing as the body, and revealed as the body of Christ to one another and the world through our shared sacramental journey.

This is the certainty – the answer to what is to come for us. In concert with the sacrament of Holy Communion and each other we have Jesus to guide us on this journey through a disrupted present toward a future that will be revealed bit by bit as we are restored once again to wholeness of mind, body and spirit. Then we will recall, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”[2]

[1] Luke 24:49b

[2] Ibid., v. 32.