Friday, March 5, 2010
It was an amazing gift to have had the opportunity to travel around the Diocese of Wyoming with the other nominees. This is a wonderful place in which we are blessed to live. Most of the roads I had been on before and so the greatest gift for me was to be able to come into your churches and meet many of you, to witness the life of the Holy Spirit among you, to receive the graciousness of your hospitality and share in your concerns and hopes for the future.
I continue to believe and know deep within me that God does have a plan and vision for each of our congregations and I am more confident than ever that each of us has the gifts and ability, the faith to discern what it is God would have us do locally and beyond. There were so many moving moments as we were privileged to observe our faithful Episcopal communities with hearts and hands given to service.
I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to publicly thank all of you who made our journey a time of Blessing. I believe special thanks are due to the members of the transition committee who not only planned the journey but accompanied us on it -- desiring to attend to our every need. Your spirit of service and humility will always be cherished. I hope to post some new pictures from our walk about within the next few days thanks to my wife Jill who among her many talents takes some wonderful photographs. Thanks again to each and every one of you who were able to greet us and share your hopes and dreams for your churches, communities and for the Diocese of Wyoming.
Warmly, John Smylie
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Monday, February 1, 2010
John 17:6 -- 19
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Actions and words are both important but sometimes actions do speak louder than words. Jesus is coming to the end of his ministry. He knows his time is short. He is aware that before much longer his days of teaching and preaching with his disciples will come to an end, a brutal and terrifying end as he will be handed over, tortured, harassed, mocked and finally crucified. As our Lord approaches the end of his life he draws near to the source of life and in a way he summarizes the work that he has done in his prayer for his disciples. Every aspect of the prayer that our Lord offers in today's Gospel text he has already lived out through his life and teaching among his disciples and those who've come to him and who have been blessed by his ministry.
Jesus’ own life is a kind of perpetual prayer. His life is a continual offering of self to God and to those whom God has given him to serve. In today's Gospel text we hear his high priestly prayer, praying that the work he has done, the efforts he has made, the word he has spoken, the witness he has shown will not come to an end but will continue in those whom his father has given to him to serve. The prayer will be further confirmed as Jesus moves to his passion, those last days where he will show his ultimate care and concern for the whole human community as he willingly takes upon himself the sins of the whole world.
As we read his prayer we can be sure that it is offered for more than those disciples who were present to him during his lifetime on earth. As we open ourselves to our Lord and his prayer we may discover that his prayer is for us, for you and for me just as strongly as it was for James and John and Peter and all the disciples who knew him in the flesh. Perhaps today more than any other time the Christian Church needs to experience the power of our Lord's Prayer for his disciples.
At a recent dinner with some church friends we found ourselves contemplating the violence in the world and some of us expressed a feeling of helplessness. Some of us wondered out loud if we really could make a difference in the world today. First of all, Jesus prayer is very clear that Christians, our Lord's disciples are in the world. We are not called to be a spiritual people who separate ourselves from the world, rather our Lord knew very well that we were to participate in the world and he prays that like him, through our witness we would be equipped to change the world. Our call is to accept his word and his truth and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. During our conversation at dinner I found myself reflecting upon Jesus’ call to us all to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I firmly believe that Christianity, participating in the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, may be the best if not the only way to change the world and the violence within it. Unfortunately I'm afraid that most of us are more attached to our cultural and societal values than we are to the teachings of our Lord. Perhaps we are more attached to the things of the world, to the things God has made, than we are to the creator of all things.
One of the great witnesses for Christianity was St. Francis. St. Francis found in the Gospel text a way to live out the Gospel message in his time. He associated with the story of the rich young ruler found in the Gospel text, he found himself in the story, and unlike the rich young ruler in the Gospel text who went away from Jesus with a deep sadness unable to release his dependence upon his wealth, Francis went and gave away everything he had so that he could posess an unencumbered spirit and follow the Lord. He was not denouncing the world rather he was announcing his complete and utter faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and he believed that through taking on the call of holy poverty that his witness could reform the Church. Has Christianity lost its power? Is our Lord's ministry to simple for the complexity of today's world?
Our Lord knew we would be in the world, he said, "now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world..." I don't believe our Lord was naïve about the challenges that his disciples and his church would face from the world. Look at the challenges he faced in his world. He faced a corrupt religious system. He faced not only a corrupt political system as well, but he lived in a country that was occupied by an oppressor force, Rome. Yes, our Lord did not have the same technologies that we deal with; he likely didn't need to deal with issues like identity theft, or methamphetamine or reports of global warming or even nuclear warfare. But our Lord did have to face the same corruptible human nature that causes human sin to flourish.
In some small way the questions that were asked around the dinner table and the feelings of inadequacy are not all that different than the feelings our Lord expresses in his high priestly prayer. He prays that his life will make a difference, and his prayer suggests to us that he's not sure that it will or that it has. And yet his prayer provides us with another layer of assurance of our Lord's continuing care and power is available to us. Not only did Jesus teach with his healings and his word, he was the word, and he expressed the word through his actions most particularly at the cross.
Jesus prays that his disciples will be one as he and his father in heaven are one. It may make us wonder why this was such an important part of his prayer. Even in his ministry there was conflict among his disciples. We see the conflict before and after his death and resurrection. Peter often moves before the Lord, Thomas denies the communities word and witness as well as the Lord's resurrection, Judas betrays Jesus believing in his own idea of what a Messiah Liberator should be. Jesus must have been aware of the difficulty of holding a community together even in the short years when he wondered the land of Israel with his band of disciples. Certainly the Church has struggled with unity ever since our Lord's death and resurrection. New factions and splits within the Church continue at an alarming rate. Though there has been some movement towards ecumenism in this last century we still argue over aspects of the Gospel pointing fingers at one another, getting caught in self righteous and judgmental thinking while denying our Lord's desire that we all may be one. We are often more in allegiance with our own denominations and theologies, becoming inflexible and unable to agree to honor and respect follow Christians or even to simply gather as a people who believe that Jesus is Lord.
Our Lord strengthens us with his word. In his prayer he says, "I have given them your word." In John's Gospel we learned that the Word was made flesh and that word, is the word of our Lord's body and blood, life and action, his teaching and sacrifice, his passion, death and resurrection, his ascension and his continuing prayer and presence for and with us today. The word that we have is also the word of the New Testament which teaches us about the ministry of Jesus, a word that can come alive and even bring us into our Lord's presence. Our Lord gives us his word in action and in speech to strengthen us to participate in the world with the surety of his ministry working through us.
This seventh Sunday of Easter is a bit odd in its placement within the church year. This past Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day and now we find ourselves a week away from Pentecost. It was during these days that Jesus called his disciples to wait, to listen together and discover together what there ministry should be. They were equipped with the life and witness and word of their Lord but they were waiting for the Spirit. Perhaps during these days between the Ascension and Pentecost we too would be wise to gather together in one another's presence, quietly awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. The world brings us many challenges and most of us have likely gone through emotional and momentous occasions and we likely crave the presence of others who have walked that road. We may long to be with others who have faced this world and at times felt crushed by it, perhaps we need to gather in community because we have discovered a cancer, or are about to get married, or our first child is going off to college, or we have lost a friend, or we find we must stand against war and intolerance. Like those first disciples we can find comfort in being in the presence of someone who has been there with us, in the world, and the challenge of our experiences. Those first followers had 10 whole days to simply pray and wait and be together, to know in their hearts and in the eyes of each other that they had shared in some of the most momentous occasions in the history of the planet. This first important ministry of the church was a ministry of presence, of being together in waiting.
Think how out of control they must have felt yet because they accept and respond to his word, because they are present to one another, because they realize the powerlessness of their present situation and just settle in to wait, they are ready to hear and respond when the empowering Spirit does come on Pentecost.
Are there places in your lives that feel like you fall in between the cracks? Are you one of those who feel overwhelmed by the world and unable to make a difference? Do you sense the familiar has gone and the new has not yet come along to replace it? Where you feel like you're just left staring up into the sky wondering what's going on? It is comforting to know God's Word and discover that our Lord himself felt this way at times. Our Lord at times needed to withdrawal from his disciples and simply hear the voice of his father. We need to hear Jesus words, and to wait together with other believers. It is a difficult place in which to be. We would much rather go off on our own to work things out, we'd much rather grab onto some plan, any plan so we have something to say for ourselves, and we'd much rather give friends caught in such places a quick and easy answer. But Jesus calls us to wait and to wait together. He promises that in the vulnerable place of admitting our powerlessness we will receive the ministry which will enable us to hear and respond to the Holy Spirit when clear direction does come.
Every age has its critical moments. Every generation has its challenges. Today we may be challenged by an ever increasing question, does Christianity matter? This is not a new question. St. Paul wrestled with this question when he said that if resurrection is not true, that if the resurrection didn't happen we Christians are the most to be pitied. We are a people of the resurrection. We have a Lord who has triumphed over sin and death. We have a Lord who was willing to not only share the word with us but to show the word to us. We have a Lord whose actions spoke louder than words when he was willing to be lashed by Roman authorities, spit upon by the crowd, betrayed by his own disciples and the religious authorities of his day. We have a Lord who was falsely judged by governmental authorities, a Lord who was persecuted because of his faithfulness. We have a Lord who was crowned with thorns, pierced with a spear and nailed to a cross. We have a Lord who anticipated the needs of his followers and prayed for them. We have a Lord who has been true to his promise to send an advocate the Holy Spirit to lead us and to guide us into all truth. We have a Lord who continues to nurture his church through his Word and through his presence in bread and wine, and in the people of God who share in his life because they know him as their Lord and dedicate their lives to serving him.
Our Lord prays for more than us to simply get by. Our Lord prays for us to be like him, to know in his strength, the source of grace found in an intimate relationship with his Holy Father. Our Lord prays we will discover the power of the Holy Spirit through the mediation found in himself. Our Lord prays for us to be in the world as he was in the world. Do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Do you believe in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit? Can you receive God's living Word to you today? If you answer yes then I invite you to take these last few days of this Easter season and wait upon the Lord to guide you into action. Let us be, “Into Christ and out to Serve."
Luke 24:44 -- 53
The Logical Conclusion
For several years I had the privilege of serving a congregation in upstate New York. There were many wonderful faithful people who are part of that congregation. Before I arrived the membership had decided to build a columbarium. Unlike many churches which create niches inside the church for burial this group of people decided to create a rather elaborate and visually attractive outdoor columbarium. The church was blessed with land. It was a fairly narrow plot that extended a great distance from Main Street down to a river that ran behind the church. One needed to go through a great long woods to get to the river as the total amount of property the church held was about 14 acres. The entrance to the columbarium was in the back of the parking lot. A walkway was created that extended about 50 yards and was wide enough for two people to walk together. At the end of the walkway a wall was constructed actually two walls one on either side of the walkway. The highest point of each wall was approximately 6 feet and the wall's gently sloped downward to the ground about 40 feet in both directions. Each marker on the wall corresponded with a plot in the ground. The columbarium was very lovely but difficult to use in the midst of the Western New York winters.
There were a few apple trees back behind the wall near where the plots in the ground were designated for people's ashes to be placed. The columbarium attracted much wildlife which was always lovely to look upon. There was one particular autumn burial service that I found myself quite annoyed at the messiness of the apples scattered on the ground. Some of them had rotted and were slippery if stepped upon and I felt they were in the way. Somehow I felt within me at that time that the placing of the ashes in the ground ought to be done in a cleaner setting. I mentioned this to one of the worship leaders who was assisting me at the service and she wisely said to me, "life can be messy sometimes." How right she was -- how right she is! Having an Apple free columbarium, having a sanitized place of burial would not have dulled the grief that those who were participating in the service felt. In fact the messiness of life that was bothering me may have ministered to others. Like the life that we were committing to the ground those apples had also been committed to their resting place. The whole setting actually proved to be a graphic straightforward and somewhat simple proclamation of the messiness of life and death.
The Christian gospel is much the same. The Gospel loses its power when it becomes too theoretical and spiritual; the Gospel loses its power when it becomes sanitized. The Gospel must always be tied to a body, to a story, and thus we are gathered on this Ascension Day to celebrate the embarrassingly graphic story of the Ascension -- Jesus body withdrawing, floating up and away.
There may be many among us who have a very difficult time when we think of the Ascension. There was a religion professor at Harvard who said that he might possibly be able to accept the idea of Jesus physical resurrection if it hadn't been for the ascension because he reasoned how could a physical body just goes straight up into space like that without going into orbit. One of his students decided at that point to become skeptical of academic religious classes. He is not the only one who shares that view there are others whom I would describe as liberal literalists who have shared his opinion, in fact one of the more published Bishops of the Episcopal Church shares this view.
What their comments showed was their narrow and limited minds’ ability to grasp the mystery of the incarnation. The fact is none of us will likely be able to grasp the fullness of the mystery of the incarnation yet we may grasp that the incarnation is always messy and unmanageable and a scandal to our refined sophisticated theological systems because it is always tied to a body, Jesus body and to our own bodies. Affirming and celebrating the Ascension is affirming that God gets fully involved in our flesh and blood existence, that he fully and mysteriously united himself to our flesh in the womb of Mary, that Jesus was not just God in a human being suit or a human being charged with the Spirit of God, but fully God and fully human; that this God -- man really suffered, bled, died, was cold and stiff and buried; that he was resurrected in the flesh: flesh changed and transformed, walking through doors, strangely appearing and disappearing, not always easily recognized, yet flesh nonetheless, eating fish, cooking breakfast, reaching out hand and side to be touched. St. Augustine once put it this way: "his bones were real bones; his sinews were real sinews; his wounds were real wounds. Whatever was touched was real; whatever was perceived was true. Man was touched; God was perceived. Flesh was touched; wisdom was perceived. Weakness was touched; power was perceived."
The Ascension is the logical conclusion to the incarnation. The incarnate Jesus didn't somehow split apart and the spirit return to the father, and the flesh to the earth. All of Jesus was welcomed into the grace and presence and nature of his father in Heaven and somehow, mind boggling to our limited understanding, our flesh, human flesh, eyes, ears, hands, side, are represented in the very Triune Godhead.
As we reflect upon our Lord's incarnation, we may become overwhelmed as we recognize that the very flesh that is ours has been made holy and has been raised to the glory of heaven by the ascension of our Lord. This flesh that constitutes our bodies was and still today is in a mysterious way, the very flesh that our Lord Jesus Christ himself wore. No other creature can claim this privilege. This is why the Angels bow down before us and serve us; the ascension of human flesh into heaven brought the greatest wound of all to Satan's pride. Of all the creatures and of all creation it is only this flesh that we bear that has been taken up into the Godhead.
The joyful hope of the Ascension is that we shall also be taken up, that our bodies, too, will be transformed and raised and united to the father in the body of his son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is the glorious inheritance to which we have been called in hope and in the meantime we have the promise that Christ truly abides with us here and now. We belong to God -- not in some mystical, spiritual sense, but in our down to earth eating and drinking, our touching and loving, our smelling and hearing. Our hands and feet, heads and bodies are redeemed and they belong to God. May we delight in the tangibleness of God's love coming to us through the gifts of Jesus body and blood as we receive his presence in bread and wine around his alter. And may we also delight in the tangibleness of loving embraces when we share the peace of God with one another, for we are the body of Christ, and as surely as he comes to us in bread and wine, he also comes to us in the warm bodies gathered in this place to praise him and to worship him.
Let us pray:
Holy, ascended Lord, you who sit in glory at the right hand of the father, you who come to us in the humble elements of bread and wine, you who touch us in the lives and hearts of our sisters and brothers, come now and fill us again with your very self as you have promised, that when you come again as the Angels foretold, we would be a holy people prepared to dance and delight with you forever and ever. Amen
John 15:9 -- 17
The Little Golf Club
Our Lord's new commandment, to love one another as he has loved us, is easier said than done. Love is such an overused word in our society and even in sermons that it's sometimes difficult to get a grip on what it is that love really means. Perhaps our Lord's love is particularly difficult to get a handle on because of the preconceived notions we may have about him. Sunday school images of the mild and gentle Jesus may come to mind. Never a harsh word spoken, a smile on his face, a sweetness in his spirit ready to tend to every one of our needs. This image of Jesus, an image that may come from childhood songs like, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, leaves out not only the challenging nature found in the way Jesus loves individuals, but the sacrificial nature that is profoundly expressed upon a Roman cross on a hillside outside of Jerusalem where he stretched out his arms of love.
His love may seem beyond our capacity to love and yet his love is available to each of us to embrace and to be embraced by. Some of us are blessed with examples of human love. Some have friends and family who have loved us into greater growth and nurtured us with loving actions. My grandfather loved golf. And in his profession he had the opportunity to take clients out golfing. He was a member of an upscale golf course in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He would regularly play rounds of golf with scores in the 70s. I never experienced his competitive nature and yet to be that good a golfer I know he must have been pushing himself throughout his golfing days. When I was a little boy my mother and I moved in with my grandfather because of my mom's divorce and my grandmother's death. I know that my grandfather loved having us there with him. It was a secure environment, one in which I always felt loved and cherished by him. I have memories of sitting on his lap as he sat on his large dark brown leather chair with his feet stretched out upon the ottoman and watching the Philadelphia Phillies in his den as he drank an occasional Miller Beer and smoked his unfiltered Camel cigarettes. Every now and then he would give me a wet kiss on the cheek and I would experience his weekend stubble. Looking back on that time I suspect that there was a mutual ministry going on between my grandfather and me. Because of the grief that I know he must have felt over the untimely death of his wife, to have his grandson living with him at a time of such deep vulnerability for him must have been a blessing. Without knowing I was ministering to him I'm sure I was, simply by being there, by receiving his affection, by enjoying his presence by wanting to be with him. I loved my grandfather and I'm certain he knew it.
One day he came home from the golf course with a little golf club. It was a real golf club one that had been sawed off at the pro shop. A new grip had been made for it and my granddad took me out to the backyard and he taught me how to take a swing with it at a real golf ball. I loved to go out into his backyard which at the time looked wonderfully large to me and my five year old body. I dug a few holes around the backyard and made a little course where I would find myself playing for hours. When my grandfather wasn't out playing golf with his friends I remember him out in the backyard with me. Though he did not bring his clubs to the backyard rather he brought a little trough and patiently dug up every single prickly weed so that I could run around in my bare feet. I didn't think much of my grandfather's labor back then but now as I look back I see that his digging out the prickly weeds was a labor of love. He was in his 60s at the time and I'm certain that working out under the hot blazing sun of the Pennsylvania summer, when he could have been inside sitting in the screened in porch or in his den enjoying the comfort of a day off, I'm certain that weeding was not his first choice for a weekend activity. He went out and dug up those weeds because he didn't want his grandson to hurt his feet or to lose his joy in playing in the backyard. Granddad had a gardener who did most of the yard care and I'm sure had he wanted to, he could have paid the gardener to do this work for him but rather he got down on his hands and knees to dig out the weeds so that I would not experience the pain of their prickly touch. My hunch is that my grandfather experienced some pain in digging out the weeds. The pain of bending over, possibly straining his back, experiencing the discomfort of those hot and humid days, looking back I recognize in that gesture that he loved me.
The little golf club that he made for me is another example of his love and invitation to share in his life. I don't think he was trying to make me a little golf pro, and I know that he wasn't seeking to live his life through me, rather he was inviting me to share in his life, he was inviting me to participate in an activity that brought him great pleasure -- great joy. That little golf club was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual truth, in a funny way that little golf club was a kind of sacrament between my grandfather and me it was a sign that we could be friends. The little golf club was a sign that we could share in an activity that would put us on equal footing. The little golf club was a sign of love. If anyone was a servant in this relationship it was my grandfather. It was my grandfather who served me by digging up the prickly weeds throughout his very large backyard. It was my grandfather who served me by spending some of his hard earned money on creating a custom-made golf club so we could share a playful time together. It was my grandfather who served me by opening up his house to my mother and me so we could live with him at a vulnerable time in her life, and our life, and in his life.
Our Lord invites us to love one another as he has loved us. His love is not found only in the big gestures, his love can be found in the little things of everyday life. There is a book that I have found helpful in counseling couples who are preparing for marriage and I think in a rather simple way it opens up some profound opportunities for understanding love. It's a book by Gary Chapman titled, "The Five Love Languages." For me the heart of the book is found in the understanding that there are particular ways that each of us know we are loved. One of the insights it shares is that it's more natural and obvious for us to give to another the language we need. The five love languages include, physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts and quality time. The challenge of the book to the reader is not so much to discover one's own love language but to discover your spouse's love language. And then once discovering your spouse's love language being willing to learn to communicate in a way your spouse will receive the love you share for him or her. I think the book is primarily about learning to give, at times it's about learning to surrender one's own way of doing things for the sake of building up the other. When our love languages are different it requires sacrifice to learn the other's language and to communicate it to him or her in a faithful and consistent way.
When couples begin to exercise the challenges that are found in the book there is a new sense of joy that often arrives in their relationship. Our Lord tells us that as we live into his commandments, and learn to receive and abide in his language of love just as he has learned and received and lives into his heavenly father's love, that we will find our joy increased. Our Lord wants the same joy that is in the relationship that he has with his Father in heaven to be in us not only in our relationship with the Lord but with one another.
Perhaps today we may be challenged to open ourselves to discover what it is we can lay down for those we love. Are their behaviors or attitudes that we hold more sacred than the people we've been given to care for, behaviors or attitudes that damage relationships rather than build them up? Some of us may have addictive personalities and may find ourselves struggling with abusive language, alcohol, rage or any of a thousand sins that keep us out of balance and unable to love as we have been loved by God. The love of our Lord given to each of us has the power to set us free. True love, loves the other into greater growth. Throughout Jesus life he is constantly challenging false perceptions, restrictive religious practices, injustice, hypocrisy and even the cultural norms of his day. Jesus does not love to gain power for himself, rather he loves to empower others. As we search the Gospel we will not find one soul who is outside his desire to lead into a healthy relationship with his heavenly father. Yes, it is true that his mission was primarily to the Jewish people, yet on occasion his ministry and mission would be interrupted by Gentiles whom he would affirm whenever he saw a depth of faith and commitment within them. Are there people in our lives whom we consider to be outsiders? Are there members of the human community who we count as unworthy of our love, our time, and our commitment?
The other day I saw a bumper sticker on the back of a black Ford pickup truck that said, "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" In this age of terrorism and of religious intolerance I find myself wondering if we Christians are not given a unique call. As we study the teachings of our Lord and open ourselves to the teachings of other religions we may well find that the one profound difference between them is our Lord's challenge to love more deeply than may appear humanly possible. When Jesus said love one another as I have loved you it's impossible to not consider our enemies and those who are different from us. Jesus did not say love only those whom you are comfortable with. Jesus did not say that we should only love those who go to church every Sunday. Jesus did not say that we should only love Christians. Jesus did not say that we should only love one another. Jesus said we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And he showed us through his own life that he meant what he said, when he was stretched out his own body upon the hard wood of the cross he embraced all those who had crucified him. He embraced the religious authorities whose only solution was to get rid of him. He embraced the Roman government officials whose system of justice had failed and whose soldiers had driven the nails through his hands and his feet. He embraced his disciples who had abandoned him. Our Lord's call to love one another as he has loved us, is not only for those that we are comfortable with. I believe the us that he is talking about is the whole human community and we who know the love of our Lord may be in a position as we receive the love of our Lord to show forth his saving grace which is the only grace that can bring lasting peace to a world which once again is close to the brink of destruction.
We are not helpless, we have a helper in the Holy Spirit. We are not hopeless, our hope is in the Lord. We are not useless for we can offer ourselves to our Lord's purpose. We are not victims, rather we are called to be healers. Christians throughout time have been given a unique gift and that gift is a relationship with the living God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Our call is to love one another as our Lord has loved us. Our call is not so much to make converts for our Lord as it is to teach the world to become friends with our Lord. Perhaps we can look around us today asking God to open our eyes and our hearts to the possibilities around us to reflect and show his amazing grace and love. Is there someone in your neighborhood, someone in your family, someone who is an outsider, perhaps they are from another religious tradition, perhaps they have no religious tradition, perhaps they are grumpy or abusive or just downright nasty. It doesn't matter, our Lord was indiscriminate in his gift of love. When he stretched out his arms of love on the hardwood of the cross he stretch them out for everyone and we are invited to love one another as he has loved us, we are invited to stretch out our lives for every one as well. The Gospel challenges us. Our gestures of love may be as simple as making a little golf club and pulling up prickly weeds so the children in the neighborhood can have a place to play. Some of us will be given larger opportunities to make a difference in the world, what is important is not the opportunity we are given but that we take the opportunity we are given and use it as an arena where we can show how great and vast is the love of God by reflecting the love of Christ. To love as Jesus loved is not to ram the love of Christ down another's throat, it is not to force the love of Christ on another, but rather it is to love one another into greater growth with the love of Christ, having ourselves been loved into greater growth by the love of Christ.
John 10:11 -- 18
Fred and Barney
I grew up in the suburbs, in a community outside of lower Manhattan. There were no sheep in our neighborhood in fact there were no farms. In Southern New Jersey there were farms the grew wonderful corn and tomatoes, in fact some might be amused to know that the slogan on New Jersey's license plate has been, "the Garden State." Amused because so many of us who live in this fine country have only had the experience of New Jersey which can be found along the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. Our Lord grew up in a completely different kind of culture than is found in northern or southern New Jersey. His was more of an agrarian society, shepherds were a part of his experience as he grew up. Perhaps there were times in his youth when he was sent out to watch the flock, having to protect it from the beasts of the night. We really don't know if Jesus ever did the work of an actual shepherd yet there's no doubt he heard the stories of King David in his youth and learned how he protected his flock driving off Lions with his sling.
In the late 1980s I purchased a home in Orchard Park, New York. It used to be a rather large farm but at the time when we purchased it is only retained a little over two acres. The house was built in 1813 and next to it was a gentle stream. Most of the land was in the backyard, the property was in the shape of a triangle with only a small portion touching the road in front. The previous owners had dug a hole in the back yard and filled it with water so they could keep some ducks. The pond was stagnant as there was no source of fresh water except what little water could be pumped from the stream that ran by the House. We decided that we would test our hand at raising livestock, though I must admit a good deal of my motivation for having sheep in the backyard was to avoid having to mow the lawn. It just made sense to me to have animals to munch on the grass to their nourishment rather than having me spend most of my weekend tending the rather large lawn. We put a fence up around the pond and eventually purchased two sheep who we named Fred and Barney. We must've been influenced by the Flintstones.
The children would go out and enjoy the sheep from time to time, but mostly Fred and Barney were on their own. We soon discovered that they possessed a rather unpleasant scent and were quite dirty. We were obviously not prepared to be shepherds certainly not very good shepherds. The dramatic event happened a few months after we had the sheep. One afternoon when I was inside the house I began to hear unusual bleatings from the two of them. I could hear that they were screaming in the backyard. I went outside to discover that two large dogs had been attacking the sheep. They had managed to get over the fence and they had Barney and Fred in their jaws. It was a gruesome sight and very upsetting. One of the dogs was an Alaskan Husky and the other a Malamud. These dogs were clearly hungry and violent. I went into the house and retrieved my shotgun, held the dogs at bay while Betsy got a hold of the local sheriff to come take the dogs away. Had I wanted to I could have exacted vengeance upon those animals and shot them. I did not feel like a very good Shepherd. My sheep were injured, the metaphorical wolf was successful in his attack. The sheriff eventually did arrive and at the same time the owners of the dogs arrived as well. I think they were somewhat horrified to see me holding a gun on them as they now cowered in one corner of the pen. Even though I had the right to shoot them had I wanted to, they had left the sheep after I scared them away and I saw no use in putting them to death even though their attack brought death to both Fred and Barney. The owners told me the dogs had escaped a few days before and I think they must have been listening to the police scanner when they heard the reports of the dogs having attacked the sheep and the address where this all took place. The owners did make restitution to me for the cost of the sheep but the trauma of losing them could never be covered.
Jesus is the good Shepherd not only does he know us each by name but he knows everything about us and he still tends to us. Jesus is the good Shepherd who knows our strengths and our weaknesses. He knows our good habits and our bad ones. He knows you and he knows me. He knows when we are on a diet and sneak food in the middle of the night. He knows when we want to escape responsibility and blame others for our mistakes. He knows when we want to hide from him and from one another. He knows our need to be loved and understood and at times protected. Jesus knows that for each of us there will be times of ups and downs; he understands and knows of the peculiar nature of each of our personalities; Jesus knows our struggles and our fears. Jesus knows when the wolf is at our door. Jesus is the good Shepherd who is willing to die for the sheep, but not only was he willing to die for the sheep, for you and for me he really did die at the cross where he overcame the greatest foe -- death itself.
The image of the good Shepherd may be the most popular image in Christian art. It has certainly been an image that we have seen and has been portrayed over centuries of Christian tradition. In the time of Jesus the Shepherd did not hold a prominent position, in fact it was a lowly position in the hierarchical working world of our Lord's Day. Christian tradition has understood the role of the Shepherd as something and someone to be valued. Over time the role of the Shepherd became equated with qualities and values which were held in high esteem. The Shepherd would need to exercise leadership, leading the flock to safety and leading to flock to nourishment. The Shepherd would need to exercise courage, protecting the flock at times from the overwhelming violence of nature found in predatory animals, unexpected storms and even in the hardships of twisted ankles and accidents. The Shepherd would need to exercise strength, strength to endure the rugged wilderness into which he would take the sheep, strength to endure the loneliness that leadership would often bring him, strength to endure the hardships of a nomadic life and strength to assist the vulnerable sheep whenever there was a need. The Shepherd would also need to exercise tenacity. He must be focused, alert and ready at any moment to protect the sheep from any challenge at any time.
Perhaps at times Christian tradition has forgotten these qualities of the Shepherd focusing instead on values such as gentleness. Often Jesus is portrayed with a lamb upon his shoulders, a gentle Jesus carrying a vulnerable creature. We also may associate the Shepherd's work with dependability, seeing the Shepherd as one who is always there, rain or shine, night or day always available always dependable even more so than US postal workers.. And of course the Shepherd can be associated with one who is given trust. Though the Shepherd likely does not own the flock which he tends he is trusted with care of the flock, trusted to do whatever it takes to keep the flock safe from the dangers which surround it. The shepherd is trusted to bring the flock home when the season of grazing is over.
It may be good for us to merge the sweeter images of gentleness, dependability and trust with the more realistic images of strength and courage and leadership. To only focus on the gentleness of our Lord is to make our Lord a Sunday school Jesus, one who is sweet without strength, one who is tender without tenacity.
The Gospel texts points to the difference between the hired man and a good Shepherd. The hired man is there on a temporary basis and to receive some monetary gain. The hired man is not invested in the sheep and likely doesn't have a relationship with the sheep except for his own self-interest. The hired man cares about himself not the sheep while the owner personally cares about each member of the flock. The owner is willing to risk his own life for the sheep he serves and in our Lord's case the owner gives his own life for the sheep he loves.
The hired hand runs from the wolf while the good Shepherd stays to defend the flock. Who is the wolf? Ultimately the wolf is the devil and all of the tools of the devil that come to steal life. The wolf is the one whose intention is to kill and to destroy. Our Lord's death upon the cross was not only so we would have a way to heaven, his sacrifice is for more than that. Our Lord's willingness to lay down his life for us provides us with protection and freedom today. Our Lord came to give us life, abundant life all the days of our life. The wolf is the one who attacks us and who seeks to steal our joy. The wolf is the one who would seek to make our lives so focused on ourselves and our own problems that all we notice are our problems while missing the abundance that is present in our Lord at all times and in all places and in every moment. The wolf desires to fill us with fears and worries causing us to complain and to gossip and to experience a sickness of soul that comes with these behaviors.
We may think that it's our job to fight the wolf. We may think that it's up to us to overcome our fears and worries all by ourselves. But I suspect most of us have discovered that the more we have tried to stop feelings like anger or fear or worry the more we think about them and the worse they get. The sheep were never supposed to fight the wolf, their job was to run away from the wolf, to run to the Shepherd and ask for help. Jesus is here as our good Shepherd. He is here in his sacramental presence. He is here in the Gospel, the good news. He is here in the fellowship we share with one another and our job whenever we face a wolf in our lives is to run to Jesus. Let us run to our Lord today from whatever circumstances may be binding us and causing us to live in fear or worry or with a complaining and critical spirit. Let us run to Jesus today and give thanks for he knows us each deeply and fully and by name.
Our Lord wants us to do more than run to him he wants us to share in his ministry of shepherding. As we find strength in running to Jesus, as we receive the grace that he is always more ready to give them we to receive, we will discover that we are strengthened to shepherd others with his love working through us. Some of us may be called to shepherd our youth. I was never an outstanding basketball player but I really enjoy basketball and when the opportunity presented itself for me to assist a coach who was having problems with his schedule I jumped at the opportunity. In a small way by being present as an assistant coach and by caring for those seventh and eighth grade girls who were part of the team, I was able to be a shepherd and share in Christ's shepherding ministry. There was one moment when one of the girls seemed to be overcome by inner fears and anxieties. I took her aside during practice along with her mother who was also present and prayed with her, I know that prayer made a difference, not that the prayer was so powerful, what I know was that the love of Christ was in me for that child. Both mother and child felt cared for. There are opportunities all around us to share in the shepherding ministry of our Lord, we simply need to open our eyes wide enough to see them.
Some of us are called to shepherd adults. Sometimes particularly difficult experiences that we may have faced like a death, a divorce, alcoholism in the family or other challenging circumstances may give us a special sensitivity to those whom we see around us struggling with similar concerns. Others of us may be gifted in teaching and will have the opportunity to nurture others in the understanding of the Scriptures. Shepherding comes in all sizes, shapes and forms. And as long as we find ourselves running to Jesus to be shepherded by him we will also find ourselves equipped by him and ready to reach out to others.
On this day let us pause for a moment to express our gratitude to our Lord Jesus Christ who is the good Shepherd. And let us pray that the example he gives us in laying down his life for us will strengthen us to give to others who are in need of his grace and shepherding love.
John 15:1 -- 8
Weed and Feed
I think some people are natural born gardeners. Our Lord grew up in a society that was familiar with agriculture. The images that he used to explain the ways of his Father in Heaven are familiar to his audience. Growing up, my closest experience to agriculture was living in, "the Garden State." Most people when they pass through New Jersey are surprised to see that expression on the license plate of vehicles registered in New Jersey. Most folks traveling through New Jersey experience the megalopolis, the corridor between New York City and Washington, DC. My closest experience to an agricultural society growing up in New Jersey was mowing the lawn. But I have to admit I still believe New Jersey has the best tomatoes in the United States.
More recently I have found myself blessed with an opportunity to get a bit closer to the land and to understand its ways. Four years after the death of my first wife I married a farm girl. She grew up in central Washington State and worked on her family's wheat farm. She loves her gardens and creates little areas around our house and yard that are designed to bring pleasure to all. She has a gift and yet it's obvious that the gift is supported by long hours of work, weeding and pruning and taking care of the plants and flowers, protecting them from the elements and from the deer that delight especially in the tulips.
Not long ago Jill, my wife, asked me to see if I could get the string trimmer working again. After checking a few things and reloading the string in the string trimmer, giving it some fresh fuel I was able to get it started. Jill has higher standards than I do when it comes to the beauty of the yard but it gives me pleasure to bring her pleasure and so I found myself taking the string trimmer and whacking away at the edges of the property, at the edges of her gardens, and around trees where the grass tends to grow a bit higher because the mower can't get quite as close as the trimmer. Sometime after giving all those areas a good buzz cut my dear wife asked me if I had been aware that one of the plants around the tree which has the bird feeder attached to it was not a weed. No, I had no idea that one of the plants I had just trimmed was a gift from a friend. It was green and it was growing tall and it looked like a weed to me. She then proceeded to tell me that the plant was growing better than it ever had. She hadn't noticed my original unintentional pruning job. But because of cutting back the plant it now had grown fuller, and thicker than it ever had been before. She then took me over to the plant and showed me how well it was growing while also educating me in a way that I wouldn't get overzealous with the string trimmer in the future.
It seems to me that Jesus is suggesting that the Word of God is like a giant string trimmer for the people of God. Our Lord scatters the word with grace, in his teaching and in his example. The Word of God comes into us and as it takes hold it is designed to remove areas in our life which keep us from God while making room for God to dwell within us. The Word of God not only provides us with an opportunity for growth it provides us with the possibility of greater health. Just like that plant, the good plant underneath the tree with the bird feeder, was blessed by an unintentional pruning, so too and even more the good intention of our Lord in casting his word upon us can prune us, cutting away growth that is unnecessary growth that may even stunt the fullness of our being, pruning that serves to provide space and room for God's better growth and life to shine forth and become apparent in and through us.
As we reflect upon our congregation there may be aspects in our life as a community that needs pruning as well. No doubt at times the church needs weeding and pruning. At times we develop bad theologies, like thinking we must be all things to all people. When we do this, when we think this way we often become almost nothing to anyone. When congregations seek to be all things to all people they are usually operating out of their own ideas rather than making room for the Word of God to dwell within them. When congregations seek to be all things to all people, they can become so scattered and unfocused that almost nothing of worth can grow within them. When congregations are pruned by the Word of God, when congregations listen and discover the guidance of the Holy Spirit unique to its identity, congregations become fruitful and noticed and make a difference not only among the membership but in the larger community in which they are situated.
There was a time in my life when I found that I needed to be pruned of some bad thinking. Early on in the Ministry I somehow developed a theology of availability. It seemed to me that it was part of the role of the Minister to be available to all people at all times. I figured God was available at all times and as his minister it was my job to reflect God as best I could and I took on the theology of availability. At the time I was serving in a rather demanding congregation, their demands were not unreasonable and their needs were real, the problem was that they were more than I could handle. People were dying and the grief surrounding the deaths was great. There were members of the congregation who had severe health challenges; one of the members who was a bridge leader in the congregation had serious heart problems. After corrective surgery gone awry he went into a coma in which he stayed for five months before his untimely death. His challenge alone was difficult for the whole congregation and I was seeking to take care of everyone in a way that I found myself working 14 hour days with no days off and this pattern lasted for over three months. Having developed a theology of availability, which seemed to be appreciated by the congregation, I found myself close to having a nervous breakdown. I could feel myself coming unglued. At that time I had not yet named the core problem. Not having had a day off for months I informed vestry of the congregation that I would be leaving town for six days, that I needed to go away and try to recharge my batteries and get a handle on my life.
I got on an airplane and flew down to Florida. My parents at that time owned a home on an island which was walking distance from a beach. Each day I spent several hours on the beach in quiet contemplation, walking and praying until I discovered that my theology of availability was a prideful attempt to play God. What I also discovered was that I was available to everyone except God, those closest to me namely my family, and myself. The theology of availability had caused me to break the great Commandment, I did not love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength and I did not love myself. The pruning that I needed at that time was to first confess my wrong thinking and then to adjust my life in a way that I could allow God to be God and to simply serve as his minister, one day at a time seeking his guidance for each day. At that time I created a discipline for myself; I got out my appointment book and scheduled for the next year a daily appointment with the Lord. Each day I blocked off the hour between four and five in the afternoon as a time to work on the relationship between God and myself. When members of the congregation would ask me if I could see them during that hour I would look at my appointment book and tell them that I was sorry that I already had an appointment scheduled for that time. The congregation survived my new discipline, my family enjoyed seeing me again, I became a healthier person, the Lord and I strengthened our relationship and I discovered that by putting God first the needs that I needed to attend to as a minister of the Lord became more grace filled. I'd be thinking of folks that I needed to see and while making a visit to the hospital, the elevator doors would open and there standing in front of me would be the very folks that I knew I needed to call upon. I discovered as I gave my life and will to God, as I gave him each day, each day became richer, fuller and more abundant. I think that's what God's pruning does, as we open ourselves to being pruned by God we discover that as painful as the pruning may be at the moment of pruning, our lives do become richer, fuller and more abundant.
We are invited to abide in God and we are reminded that our Lord abides in us. We may want to ask ourselves the question in what or in whom do we abide? Our congregations may abide in a spirit of trying to be all things to all people. I found myself abiding in false thinking that I needed to be present to all people as God was present to all people. Some congregations think that if they can be like another congregation all their problems will be solved. These congregations may be full of good intentions but perhaps they're missing the point of the Lord's call to them. Our Lord calls individuals and congregations to abide in him and to discover his abiding presence in us. The temptation to individuals is to abide in the culture rather than the Lord. The culture misleads us into believing that we will be satisfied if we get a bigger house, a more fuel-efficient car, a better job, more money, or countless other things that promise satisfaction but rarely if ever produce fruit.
We are promised much fruit in our lives as we abide in Jesus and receive his abiding presence already in us, given to us in baptism, refreshed in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul describes what our Lord's fruit looks like in his letter to the Galatians. He points out that the fruit of a life lived in the Lord is a life that's characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, generosity and by other characteristics that reflect the presence of our Lord. St. Paul also points out in the same letter what happens when a life does not abide in the Lord. He points out the behaviors that occur when a life abides in the wrong things. Those lives reflect the sins of jealousy and anger, quarrels and factions, drunkenness and envy and things like that. Our Lord makes it very clear that a life that is not centered and grounded in the abiding presence of God Almighty is an empty life, a fruitless life an unsatisfying life.
If we are to look at ourselves as a field or a garden in which our Lord comes to dwell, and if we are to look at the fields and gardens that are a part of our experience it's very easy to discover that there are good plants and there are weeds in our fields, in our gardens and in our lives. Both the good plants and the weeds need to be dealt with. Our Lord desires to kill the weeds, just as he desires to remove the sins from our life. And our Lord desires to prune the good plants within our gardens, not because he wants to hurt us or cut us back or slow us down, but simply because he wants to make more room, more space for his good fruit to be produced within us, in our communities and in our lives. We are told that as we abide in our Lord we can ask for whatever we wish and it will be done for us. It seems to me the key statement in that phrase is abiding in the Lord. It seems to me as we abide in the Lord we will only ask for the right things. Abiding in the Lord doesn't give us license to ask for things that are selfish or hurtful or outside of God's will. As we abide in our Lord and our Lord's word abides in us, as we spend time each day in our congregation and in our lives seeking our Lord's direction and purpose we will discover God's glory and we will discover God's blessing in the fruitfulness of our lives as we are given the privilege of serving those around us with his love, his joy, his patience, his faithfulness. As we abide in the Lord and our Lord abides in us we will discover the deep pleasure of discipleship, for our Lord's disciples are not only his servants but we are his friends and companions. Let us find pleasure in presenting our lives to our Lord and to those whom the Lord has given us to serve, and let us pray that our Lord will come and do the work of gardening that he needs to do within us and within our communities that he may be glorified, that the world may be served and that we may be blessed as he abides in us and we in him. To the glory of God. Amen
Luke 24: 36b -- 48
The Five Senses
In the Gospel text there is an opportunity to meet Jesus using every one of our senses. The disciples have an opportunity here to see him, to hear him, to touch him, to smell and taste with him. Every one of the senses is used for recognition of the Lord. Perhaps in this text we might also look to heighten and enliven our senses as we also seek to receive the wonder of his resurrection.
Telling our stories to one another is a natural and very human thing to do. The disciples are telling their stories in awe and wonder. They are amazed at what there experience is opening to them. Telling stories with one another allows them to put into words and to try to make sense of the overwhelming news and circumstances of Jesus resurrection. Something so unexpected has happened in their lives that they seek to find a way to make sense of the events and thus they talk with one another, share with one another, and tell their stories.
It's often the unexpected event, the unplanned experience that attracts our attention and makes a story come most alive. Clearly the fact that Jesus had been seen after such a horrendous and excruciating death was an unexpected event for the disciples, for everyone. A story, telling stories is a way to process the unexpected and that's exactly what the disciples were doing when Jesus appeared again. They were processing, making sense of the events after the crucifixion, reorienting themselves to the wonder that was around them by the sharing of their stories with one another.
Stories remain a wonderful way for us to process the extraordinary. One of the miracles that continues today to happen around us is the miracle of two becoming one. The miracle of a wedding, when a man and a woman make promises and vows to one another an invisible miracle takes place. There are outward and visible signs which the congregation sees during the wedding ceremony but there's also an inward and spiritual truth which is invisible to us all -- the two become one. I think because of the high level of mystery which occurs during a wedding ceremony we often attach ourselves to the humorous and human mistakes which seem to happen at almost every wedding ceremony. We take hold of the concrete events and use them to shape the story in which we seek to communicate the wonder of a deeper truth. Recently at the end of a perfect wedding ceremony the minister introduced the couple mistakenly using the bride's last name, the congregation roared in laughter, the father of the groom and the father of the bride walked across the aisle and shook each other's hands, the minister embarrassingly tried again, this time getting it right using the groom's last name. A week later the bride came into the church office to share this story with the parish secretary; somehow this little mistake became a way for her, for them to describe the joy of what had happened in their lives. Stories give us a way to understand the unexpected and the wonderful.
The disciple’s eyes betrayed them. Even in the midst of telling their stories to one another, in the midst of seeking to recognize the wonder and glory of Jesus resurrection, when he shows up again and they see him in front of them with their own eyes, they think it's a ghost. Perhaps as human beings we need more than one sense to confirm the wonder of a miracle. They still seem to have little or no context in which to make sense of what has happened to their lord and friend. Even though Jesus is right among them and they see him before them they are still unable to process the wonder of it all with their eyes alone. When Betsy, the mother of my two children died, it was in the middle of the night, 2:30 in the morning. I lit a number of candles to soften the light not wanting to turn on the glare of the fluorescent lights which were present in our kitchen/family room where her hospice bed was placed. I got the children out of their beds and brought them into the room so we could have prayers at the time of death for their mother. After the prayers both of them went back to bed and I stayed and waited for the gentleman from the funeral home to come and take her body to prepare it for burial. The next morning my son Nathan did not believe that his mother had died the night before. He wondered why she was no longer in the house. Even though he saw her with his own eyes he could not take in the awful truth of that event. Perhaps it was the flickering candlelight that made his mother look as if she might still be breathing, perhaps it was the fact that death felt so unreal as he looked upon his very young mother, whatever it was his eyes betrayed him and he could not believe that his mother had died. A few days later he and I opened the closed casket so he could see again for himself what he did not believe when he saw her the first time on that very shadowy night. The disciples did not trust their eyes -- the only way they could make sense of what they were seeing, was to say that they were seeing a ghost. How could it be real that Jesus was among them? How could it be real Nathan wondered, that his vibrant and young mother had died.
The disciples needed to hear the words of Jesus. They needed to hear his voice and experience his challenging words that were so familiar to them. "Peace be with you." They needed peace as their minds were racing to make sense of what they were experiencing. They had no context to receive the wonder of what was before them. This was all new. Jesus visits them with the familiar, by challenging them as he had challenged them throughout the entirety of his ministry, their ministry together. "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself." Their eyes have betrayed them, thinking they were seeing a ghost, but upon hearing him speak they appear willing to go a little farther in their understanding. One can imagine that like Mary who heard her Lord's voice at the tomb, who heard Jesus say her name and then recognized that it was Jesus speaking with her, one can imagine the disciples fearful hearts and racing minds, beating more easily and slowing down.
But still, seeing and hearing is not enough for them and Jesus knows it. He uses another one of the human senses to help the disciples make sense of this magnificent and transforming miracle. Death is conquered life has triumphed, Jesus is risen and our Lord uses every human method possible to communicate the glory of what has happened to his disciples. He says to them, "Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."
They see him, they hear him speaking and now they have the opportunity to touch him but they still find themselves disbelieving. What will it take for the disciples to believe the wonder of their Lord's resurrection? Perhaps we could ask the same question of ourselves. What does it take for us to know and believe and allow the truth of Jesus Christ rising from the dead to impact our lives? In a sense our Lord is moving from the abstract to the concrete as he directs the disciple’s attention and focus towards touch, then smell and taste. Vision and hearing are senses that are outside of us. Both of them are somewhat abstract. We see and process the world around us, bringing what we see inside our minds to hold against other images that we have seen throughout our lives, and we make sense of the images through our past experiences of sight. Hearing is also an abstract concept. We hear the sounds of the world around us and bring them into our minds and make sense of them, interpreting them by the rest of the experiences of sound that we have had throughout our lives. Touch on the other hand gets us more involved. In a way touch is a more intimate sense. Our Lord invites his disciples into a continuing intimate relationship with him. No doubt he had touched them and they had touched him as they gathered in prayer, walked together throughout the land of Israel, and embraced when they had been apart and greeted one another again on those occasions when they were away from each other, and we may imagine countless other opportunities as touch allowed for greater intimacy between Jesus and his followers. And now in resurrected form our Lord invites his disciples to reconnect with an intimacy that they had known with him in the past. Through touch the disciples now were beginning to experience a new feeling, the feeling of joy.
Yet they needed more. They could see him, they could hear him and they could touch him, yet they needed more. And so our Lord says to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" Broiled fish, they gave him a piece of broiled fish. How many times we wonder had Jesus and his disciples enjoyed a plate full of broiled fish caught from the Sea of Galilee. No doubt they had sat around the campfire at the end of a long day, broiling fish breathing in the aroma of its sweet smell cooking upon the charcoal fire. No doubt the smell of broiled fish was a point of connection -- another way of recognition between the disciples and our Lord. There are some smells in our life that transport us back to different times. The smell of rain in the summer upon hot asphalt is one of those stirring smells for me that always captures my imagination. I know a woman who after her husband's death kept his unwashed bathrobe so she could put its arms around her and take a deep breath of his smell which was still upon it. To breathe his scent filled her with wonderful memories of their life and marriage together. There is a church in New Jersey that used to fill the front of the sanctuary with tall fresh-cut Christmas trees. The smell of the pine within the sanctuary became the smell of Christmas for most of those who attended. The smell of the pine became a vital part and reminder of the story of our Lord's Nativity for the congregation in that place. For Jesus and his disciples no doubt the smell of broiled fish elicited many good memories that allowed for a further connection between them now in this most remarkable moment of resurrection.
And then he ate the fish. Sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste, Jesus meets his disciples with all five senses. I think perhaps that eating together is what made his resurrection most real to them. The experience of eating together, when we get outside of our fast food world is another place of deep intimacy. Why is it that when we gather as family and friends in one another's homes we most often gather in the kitchen or around the grill? Why is it when we want to get to know another person we most often do so in the context of a meal or a coffee and a muffin? I once dated a girl when I was in my late teens who found it very difficult to share a meal with me, I don't think it was because I was such a messy eater but rather because she felt so vulnerable in sharing food. Eating together invites the participants to experience quality time. Time when we can explore one another's thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes and insights. Time in the kitchen is usually the warmest time where the real stuff of life is talked about. In a sense what Jesus does in this gospel is gives his disciple’s time with him in the kitchen as they eat broiled fish, time to recognize and know and internalize and share the miracle of resurrection.
Perhaps we will see in this gospel text how much our Lord desires his disciples which includes every one of us to receive him. We can see in this text our Lord's desire to break through our five senses, using each of them to allow us to attain the absolute magnificence of sharing in his resurrection. So today we pray Lord that you will opened our eyes to see you and opened our ears to hear you. Lord we pray that we will reach out and touch you as we touch the body of Christ in brothers and sisters, and bread and wine. Lord Jesus we pray that we will breathe in the aroma of your faithfulness and smell the sweetness of your presence and we pray that we will taste your goodness, at the altar and in potluck supper's and in church picnics and in every place where there are two or three gathered in your name and you are in the midst of us. Amen
John 20:19 -- 31
On the evening of that day, that first Easter Day, the disciples were gathered together, but as yet none of them had seen their risen Lord. There they were behind locked doors. We can begin to imagine the thoughts they held within their minds, we can almost sense and feel the depth of their fears, we can listen for their quiet conversation among themselves as they questioned everything, and of course there in the middle of the room are the deepest feelings of guilt because they had scattered and abandoned their Lord at the point of his greatest need, and yet the fact that they had gathered together suggests to us that there was still a glimmer of hope within them, in this small community. Yes they had scattered at his arrest in the garden. The one who did stay nearby so he could find out what was going on, Peter, ended up denying that he knew Jesus at all. He who had promised he would never deny his Lord denied him three times. Most of them hadn't even been witnesses to the crucifixion, they were all ready far away from that place of horror, not wanting to be snapped into it themselves. Now they were hiding behind closed and locked doors. Yet even behind those doors they sensed the darkness over the land and then the rumors began trickling in, that it was over, that Jesus was dead. Perhaps they began to hear bits and pieces of what he had said from the cross. Feeling guilty, feeling overwhelmed, feeling disappointed in themselves, and barely able to look at one another, one can imagine that there was no joy in that Sabbath for the disciples. There was no delighting in the goodness of God's gifts. Perhaps they even wondered if God was still present or even if there was a God. Particularly because one of their own had been the betrayer they may have wondered if they could ever trust anyone or anything again. They had entrusted their life to Jesus and he was gone now. Yet as the new week began, they started to find one another, gathered behind locked and closed doors perhaps they began to open up with one another; they needed to talk, too grieve, to share their silence together. Then more rumors. The women said they'd seen him. John believed them; he saw the empty grave clothes. Others said they heard his body had been stolen and the officials would be very eager to find someone upon which to place the blame. Perhaps it was best for them to remain huddled away behind closed and locked doors, best to keep a very low profile.
"When it was evening of the day of the resurrection, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."
Jesus then showed them his hands and his side, he showed them the vivid evidence that this was he who had been with them before his death, by showing them what had happened to him, the cause of death, and they were overjoyed to see him.
About a week later a meeting like this happened again. This time it was Thomas one of the 12 who is doubtful about all these resurrection rumors. He had not been there for the first gathering. Poor Thomas, so often getting the short end of the stick for being the skeptic. But his disbelief was no more or less than that of the others at first. The only difference was that the testimony the other disciples refuse to believe was that of women no doubt much easier for them to dismiss. Thomas dismissed the testimony of the other disciples, perhaps thinking of them sharing in a collective delusion. Perhaps he believed that rather than facing the truth of the grief and the death of their Lord they had determined to invent a story upon which they could carry on without facing the excruciating pain of the loss of Jesus. How could they have come to this conclusion without him he may have wondered? But then Jesus came and stood among them again, this time with Thomas present, and again he said, "Peace be with you." Jesus then said to Thomas, "put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."
Jesus came to the disciples as a bearer of peace. His greeting was so much more than a mere gesture of recognition, so much more then, "hello, how are you?" Its structure suggests that it was a formula of revelation similar to those used in extraordinary visitations, such as Gideon's meeting with the Angels or Daniel's visions and its connotations are, "peace be restored to you." That little gathering of disciples on that first Easter Day was far from being peaceful. Even upon the arrival of their crucified friend who was able to appear in the room with them through locked doors, even then, one can imagine that there was no peace within them. These disciples, locked within themselves, locked in fear, in disappointment and self-loathing, in anger and helplessness were nowhere near to experiencing peace. They needed the strong words of the Lord to comfort them and they needed to see his hands and his side to affirm that, yes he was the same rabbi they had loved and known and deserted at his cross, that this marvelous and extraordinary experience had a definite continuity with their past. He came to them even when they had run from him. He found them when they were hiding behind locked doors. He spoke peace to them with the strength that they had known before his death and when their eyes were finally opened, "then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord." And Thomas who struggled so, being left out in the first visitation and who was in disbelief of his brothers experience, proclaims in his experience of the risen Lord, "my Lord and my God!"
In this brief and powerful story from the Gospel of John, we see the trajectory of faith. We see fear turned to joy; we see the doubt of Thomas turned to the most powerful confession of faith in all of the New Testament, we see a retreat and inwardness and fear and hiding turned to an apostolic sending out in the power of God's own the Holy Spirit. Thomas proclamation of faith can still be found upon the lips of believers. An old friend used to say those words, "my Lord and my God!" Each time she received communion. As her priest I found myself moved by her faithfulness. Even though it was I who placed the body of Christ in her outstretched hands it was she who was strengthening my faith through a proclamation which I believe was made through her in the power of the Spirit.
And now we, as recipients of that apostolic mission, some 2000 years later, gather on this second Sunday of the Easter season. I suspect that among us there are still locked doors. We still spend a certain amount of time locked up within ourselves. Isn't it true that we lock other people out of our lives at times? Whenever there is someone we've refuse to forgive we lock them out and in refusing to forgive we lock up a part of ourselves as well. What if Jesus had locked the disciples from him because of his bitterness at their betrayal -- if that was the case he would not be the Jesus we know and love. Jesus forgives the disciples, he comes to them in their betrayal, and he finds them and unlocks the doors of their hearts and their lives. Sometimes we may lock out a spouse or a child or a coworker. Sometimes we lock out whole groups of people and nations. Over these last few years we have been tempted to lock out those who have chosen the Muslim faith from any possibility of grace, often stereotyping their faith as radical and violent, while refusing to learn the more peaceful nature of its beginnings and intentions. Perhaps our ears are just as attuned to rumors as the disciple’s ears were in that first Sunday of the resurrection. Perhaps today our hearts and our world is just as needful of hearing those strong words of peace that Jesus spoke, as the disciples were 2000 years ago. How can we know true peace? A peace that is more than an individualistic emotional high. A peace that does not close its eyes to the blighting of our environment. Or to the oppression of the poor. Or the suicidal violence of nation against nation with the threat of nuclear weapons always looming around us? We need not rehearse the litany of woes we have all become so accustomed to living with. Some may tempted to wonder if to seek true peace in the midst of this kind of broken world in which we live, isn't a rather naïve optimism?
The doors were locked, but Jesus came anyway. And as he spoke peace he showed them his hands and his side. Peace without wounds is no peace at all. Only the one who bears the marks of our deepest common disgrace can dare to say: peace be with you, for he alone knows the devastating price that our alienation from God has cost. Jesus was no unfortunate martyr; neither was he a revolutionary hero, or a mystical genius who came before his time. He was the Lord of heaven and earth who took on human flesh in the womb of Mary to demonstrate for all time and eternity that God and humankind are meant to be in an intimate fellowship. And the gates of hell did not and will not prevail against that precious and intimate bond of love. And all the sin and fear, all the callousness, and hand-washing cowardice, all the denial and betrayal and ignorance and mockery did not and will not prevail. As the world turned black that Friday, it seemed that they would, it seemed that there was no place in heaven or earth for this Jesus to dwell and he was torn asunder between the two by gaping wounds.
He showed them his hands and his side and they were glad. And they knew that his peace was real. There was room in the wounded side of Jesus for all of Peter's denials, for the disciples scattering, for their fears and questions and for Thomas’ headstrong empiricism. There was room even for Judas betrayal had he turned to receive it. And there is room in the wounded side of Jesus for you and for me, for all of our inwardness, our defensiveness, our anger, our fear, our betrayals and our cowardice. Yes, there is room in Jesus side for you and for me.
We cannot be peacemakers; we cannot hold together the chaos and violence of our world, of our economic brutality or military defense system. And when we really open our eyes to the horrors of the possibilities our leaders continually toy with, we are left with a feeling of dread and the inability to cope. I cannot tell you how often I hear the frustration among believers who feel that there's nothing they can do to make a difference in the world. We cannot bear or heal the brokenness of our poor planet with good intentions or powerful slogans or hard work or political clout. In and of ourselves, we cannot speak peace. But empowered by the breath of the Son of Man who can bring life when all doors are locked and hopes are gone, and empowered by the Spirit who hovered over the watery chaos at creation, and empowered by the Spirit of Jesus who bore and healed the brokenness of our planet, we can speak peace.
Jesus said, "Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you." And as we are sent out to speak peace to our world, our word will only be believable so long as we bear the wounds of its brokenness.