Monday, May 16, 2011

Good Shepherd Sunday (4 Easter), Year A, May 15, 2011

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; I Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

One of my all-time favorite recordings is Emmylou Harris’ version of the song “Green Pastures” from the album Down From the Mountain. Harris sings this country paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm with all the artistry of the trained musician, and all the simplicity of a young child. I will not attempt to sing it for you this morning, but I would advise you to go and check Youtube or I-tunes (if you do that sort of thing), or the Augusta Public Library if you don’t. It’s worth a listen.

I’ve had that song in my head all week, working on the readings. The fourth Sunday of Easter season is always dedicated to the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and so today we remember our neighbors on Walton Way, and other congregations for whom this is their patronal feast.

The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is one we know very well, or at least we’ve seen it a lot. The most popular image shows the shepherd (a young man) with the lost sheep slung around his neck, coming back to the gathering of the other sheep who are waiting very patiently for his return.

But there’s something missing in the Gospel lesson today, something that isn’t actually there. Notice Jesus’ words: I am the gate for the sheep…I am the gate.” In this gospel passage, he never calls himself the shepherd; he calls himself the gate. (He does call himself the shepherd elsewhere, but that’s another sermon altogether…)

The gospel of John is filled with examples of Jesus making “I am…” statements. I am the vine/you all are the branches. (15:5) I am the light of the world. (8:12) I am the bread of life. (6:35) And all of these “I am…” statements are signposts. They are to point us, the readers and hearers, back to the original “I AM” statement—made by God to Moses, in that encounter with the burning bush, when Moses asked “If I go back to Pharaoh as you say, and tell him ‘Let my people go’, who shall I say has sent me?” And God answered him “Tell them ‘I AM’ has sent you.”

All of the “I Am”-s in John’s gospel remind us over and over of what the author is at pains to keep in front of us—that Jesus is one with God, not only as God’s messenger, but God’s own self, present in this world. That he is the I-AM.

I am the gate. Whoever enters by me…will go out and come in, and find pasture. The thief comes to kill and to steal and to destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

In the early centuries of the Christian church, throughout the Sundays of Easter season, those who were newly baptized would sit near the front of the room, dressed in their white baptismal robes. They would have been almost entirely adults, most of whom had come to Christianity from one of the pagan religions, or no religion at all. They would have known what it meant to have run away from the voice of strangers, false leaders whose voice would lead them “on to despair.” Now they were hearing the voice of their true shepherd and guide, who is also (by his own self-description) the gate—the way in, and the way out.

It occurs to me that, in addition to Psalm 23, we need Psalm 24 today. Look in the Prayer Book, on page 614, verses 7-10.

Lift up your heads, O gates;
Lift them high, O everlasting doors;
And the King of glory shall come in.

“Who is this King of glory?”
The Lord, strong and mighty,
The Lord, mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O gates;
Lift them high, O everlasting doors;
And the King of glory shall come in.

“Who is he, this King of glory?”
The Lord of hosts,
He is the king of glory.”

For those of us with Handel’s Messiah on our internal soundtrack, it’s hard to divorce this passage from the season of Advent. But, since many things can be (and are) true at once, we will assume that this likewise is a timeless truth. Open up, you gates and doors—something, some ONE, is waiting to enter!

Gates keep out the threatening others. Wolves and coyotes and sheep rustlers, in this morning’s gospel; invaders and conquering armies and thieves and robbers—“them people”—in other cases.
Gates also keep anyone from leaving. Jesus and his hearers all knew that once the city gates of Jerusalem were locked every night, nobody was going outside until morning.

I am the gate, Jesus says. What sort of gate?

He is the true gate. “The thief comes only to steal and kill…I come to bring life.”
He is the open gate. “Those who come in and out through me will find good pasture…”

And he is the destroyer of gates.

Traditional Eastern Orthodox icons of the Anastasis (often incorrectly called the Resurrection in the West) show Jesus rising from the grave, reaching down and grabbing the wrists of Adam and Eve, bringing them into the light, and along with them all the souls bound in the darkness and shadow of death. They are surrounded by broken chains and shackles, which have shattered at Jesus’ coming. Satan is bound, pushed down into the darkness, often depicted as having been impaled by the Cross. Jesus himself stands on two boards, arranged in the shape of a cross—the broken gates of hell itself.

In Jesus’ death and resurrection from the dead, the gates of hell are broken. Shattered. Ripped down from their hinges. Those who were bound in darkness and despair, rise up at the voice of the one who calls them by name, as he leads them out, going ahead of them into the light of Easter morning.
This event, the Harrowing of Hell, has somewhat fallen out of our awareness as Christians. And yet we speak of it every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed: He descended to the dead. Why? To set them free. To do for them what he did—and does—for all of us. Hell is empty. We may try to put ourselves—or others—back in it. And we’re good at doing just that. But that’s us, trying to play God. Jesus keeps calling us, in the voice we will recognize and trust, if we listen. And even if we don’t listen…he still keeps calling us into the light.

How are we called out, out of our own darkness and despair? Out of our own little daily deaths, into the abundant life Jesus promises?
Out of legalism, imagining that we must somehow earn God’s forgiveness before we can be worthy—into ecstatic, foolish, exuberant joy that we are forgiven, simply because God loves us and will have us for his own?
Out of consumerism, which tells us that we are only as valuable as our bank accounts or the quantity of possessions we have—into a profound awareness of the abundance which God has bestowed upon us, that all may have enough and to spare?
Out of any and every “-ism” that ever was or shall be, that seeks to produce the illusion of safety by slamming those diabolical gates and keeping out “them people”—out of our own self-imposed captivity, into the gateless archways through which God’s people come streaming, from north and south and east and west, into the kingdom of Christ’s resurrection.

New life. Abundant life. Here, in this life, right now. Right here.

May it be so for us. May it be so among us.

Green Pastures
Troubles and trials often betray us
Causing the weary body to stray
But we shall walk beside the still waters
With the Good Shepherd leading the way.

Chorus: Going up home to live in green pastures
Where we shall live, and die nevermore;
Even the Lord will be in that number
When we shall reach that heavenly shore.

Those who have strayed were sought by the master
He who once gave his life for the sheep
Out on the mountain, still he is searching,
Bringing them in, for ever to keep. (Chorus)

We will not heed the voice of a stranger
For he would lead us on to despair;
Following on with Jesus our savior
We shall all reach that country so fair. (Chorus)


Monday, May 9, 2011

The Third Sunday of Easter, Year A, 8 May 2011

Luke 24:13-35
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

At our spring Clergy Conference this week, one of my colleagues remarked that when he looked at the Sunday scriptures his first thought was: “What am I going to do with this?” I wanted to slap him. If the Episcopal Church did not require its preachers to deal with a lectionary, I would preach every week on either the Prodigal Son or the Road to Emmaus—because for me these are two of the key gospel stories. God’s unconditional welcome, and God’s triumph, manifested in the breaking of bread at the dinner table.

Let’s look at this story. “On the same day two of the disciples were going to a village called Emmaus…” On what day?
The day of resurrection. Easter day, in the afternoon. Mary and Joanna and Magdalena and the others had gone that morning to the tomb and seen angels, who told them “Jesus is not here, he is risen as he told you.” But they hadn’t seen him yet. So they were, all of them, confused and bewildered and amazed. What is going on here?
And these two travelers are also wondering “What is going on here?” as they walk together, talking about all of these strange things. And then a third traveler joins them, but they do not know who he is. The stranger asks them “What are you talking about?” They are amazed at the question. “Don’t you know what all has happened here in Jerusalem the last few days?” “No, tell me…”
And they begin to tell him about Jesus, and all that had happened. The crucifixion, and the news from the women that morning about the angels and the empty tomb. But “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
We’ve been talking about seeing and perceiving and understanding a lot at St. Augustine’s this spring. Our Lenten Wednesday Series was all about our windows here in the church, and learning to read and speak the language of the windows. It’s been a struggle, because it’s not always obvious, even though the images are right there in front of us. Sometimes we don’t see what is right under our noses.

These two disciples, Cleopas and the other one, have no reason to expect to see anything out of the ordinary. They’re on their way to Emmaus, a few miles from Jerusalem, and they know every landmark on the way and every rut and bump in the road. Ho hum, nothing new here. Same old-same old. Or so they think.

“How foolish and slow of heart you are!” their traveling companion cries out to them. In the Bible, “Heart” usually refers to the Will, to human intentionality. Here, the meaning is slightly different. It seems to have something to do with perception, comprehension, understanding. He’s asking them, “Don’t you get it?”
He begins to interpret the scriptures—that is, the prophets and the psalms to them, concerning the role and work of the Lord’s Messiah. They have a good rabbinic conversation as they walk along together.
At their parting of the ways, Cleopas and his friend urge the stranger to come in and have supper and stay overnight, which he does.

“When he was at the table with them he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Sound familiar?
“Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’”
Their eyes were opened. They saw—for the first time in Luke’s gospel—the risen Christ, at the moment that the bread was broken and shared.
“Were not our hearts burning within us…?” This is not the kind of heartburn that asks for bicarbonate of soda or an antacid tablet—this is the heart rising in joy, perceiving by intuition even before full awareness dawns. Their hearts were warmed because they knew, even before they knew it, that something amazing was at hand. That their world was about to change in ways they could not begin to imagine.

How clever of Jesus, to reveal himself in conversation and the stories of scripture.
How clever of him, to show himself to them most fully at an ordinary dinner table, in the breaking of a loaf of bread. In an act, a gesture, so completely ordinary and unremarkable that only eyes truly opened by God, only hearts truly filled with the Holy Spirit, could have seen anything extraordinary in it at all. And there, they saw everything at once.

In the remarkable movie Babette’s Feast, the title character is the housekeeper for a pair of unmarried elderly sisters in Denmark. A refugee from civil war, Babette is a stranger in the tiny, close-knit and highly religious village where the sisters have lived all their lives. She takes care of the sisters, and through their various ministries to the village, ultimately she takes care of all of the townspeople. One day word comes to the village that Babette has won the French national lottery: ten thousand francs—an enormous sum. The villagers all assume that she will now take the money and return to Paris. But before she does, she asks permission to cook a real French dinner for the sisters and their guests, in honor of the birthday of their father, the pious clergyman who founded this little community where they live.

In the course of consuming this amazing meal, and the conversation at the table that accompanies it, old suspicions and long-held ill feelings between the townsfolk simply vanish, and every person who sits at Babette’s feast goes away changed forever. They are no longer who they were, when they sat down at the beginning. They see—they perceive in their hearts—that the world itself is full of glory and wonder, and they themselves are filled with that same wonder and glory.

How clever of Babette, to serve them a meal that would transform them from the heart, inside-out.
How clever of her, to work such a miracle in a rough kitchen, and at a plain wooden table, in a tiny house in an obscure corner of the Danish coastline.
How clever, that the act of eating and drinking together, with eyes to see and hearts to understand, might tranform old hurts and wounds, hardness of heart and stubbornness of soul, into wonder and joy in the presence and glory of God’s good creation. Might transform God’s people more and more into the image and likeness of the risen Christ himself.

Will you pray with me?

Open our eyes, O God, to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.

Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the Bread.

Easter Day 2011, Year A, April 24, 2011

Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Sadness, sleeplessness, frantic confusion, panic, incomprehension, bewilderment. The disciples are worn out—they don’t know what to do. They saw Him on the cross on Friday morning, they saw him laid in the tomb that afternoon as the sun was going down. And now—the tomb is open, there’s no body inside. What are they to think?

Mary stands, at the end of her strength, at the end of her wits, at the end of her rope. In her tears and confusion and grief she doesn’t even really look at the mysterious figure who appears at her side.

Until he calls her by name. “Mary…”
Then she sees…through her tears, through her pain, through her bewilderment, the One who is there, right there with her.

“Do not hold on to me.” Do not cling to me, do not hold me in a bear hug as if for dear life itself, for there is work to do. We cannot stay here in the garden alone, as pleasant as that might be. I have work to do, and so do you. Go, and tell the others what you have seen and heard. And I will meet you later.

And she does. She goes and tells Peter and John and James and Andrew and all of them. And then Peter, in our Acts reading this morning, goes and tells Cornelius and all his family and household. And Paul writes and preaches to his congregations around the Mediterranean basin. And they all told others too.

And so we are here, two thousand years later and half a world away. Because someone told us. We heard a word, somewhere from someone, that there was good news here. Rumors of resurrection. Stories of salvation. Tales of transformed lives—not just in some vague future time far in the future, after death—but now, here, in this life, in this world. And so we came looking, and wondering. Hoping that it might be so.

And what do you see? Flowers—yes! The floral guild has gone berserk this time! And a very decorated room, and a well-scrubbed congregation. We do clean up well. What else do you see?

A vessel of water, where new birth takes place. An open book, telling of the mighty acts of God among and through God’s people in the past. A group of Jesus’ followers, any one of whom can tell you stories of God’s action and salvation in their own lives.

And a table, set with silver and candles, bread and wine, where in eating and drinking together we meet again the Risen Christ present among us, just as he was for Peter and John, Magdalene and Mary and Martha and all the others.

From this table we are sent, with Mary and Martha and Peter and John, and Augustine and Matthew and Brigid and David and all the others, to tell what we have seen and heard. That Death itself is overcome by Life; that catastrophe and destruction are swallowed up in God’s salvation. We have heard more than rumors of resurrection—and Jesus tells Mary, and us—Go. Tell the others. I will meet you there.

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion, Year A, April 17, 2011

Matthew 26:14--27:66
Preached by Rev. jason Haddox

“Woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

In a moment of utter despair, George Bailey, the protagonist in Frank Capra’s movie It’s A Wonderful Life, wishes just that thing—that he had never been born. And his prayer is heard and answered. He is allowed the privilege of seeing his hometown as it would have been if he had never existed. And it is a dreadful sight.

His brother Harry is dead—because George was not there to rescue him when he fell through thin ice, out skating one winter day. His mother is living in poverty and bitterness, widowed and utterly alone. His three children do not exist, for he himself was never born. The neighborhood of Bailey Park, a pleasant community of homes for hardworking families, is no home for anyone except the dead—it is a cemetery. “Potter’s Field”—a not-so-subtle allusion to another verse in the Passion narrative we have just heard.

To say, even in desperation, that “it would be better not to have been born” is a dreadful thing indeed.

But what if it had been so? What if Judas Iscariot had not been born, or not been around that day to do what he did?
What if Pontius Pilate had heeded the advice of his wife, and let Jesus go free?
What if the story had been different?

From the moment that Jesus prays in the garden, with the disciples sleeping in the background, “Father…your will be done,” it is all already finished. There is ironic truth in the taunt later, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” The drama that has been set in motion will be played out to its appointed end. It will not—it cannot—be otherwise.

We move from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify” with terrible swiftness—it cannot be otherwise, for we are fickle, we human beings. Idolatry is our natural condition, and the higher the pedestals we place beneath our idols, the farther and more swiftly they fall when we find our own plans and agendas disappointed or confounded.

We hope, as Christians, as followers of Jesus, that we would have done otherwise. We would like to imagine that we would, at least, have been there with Mary and Magdelena and Mrs. Zebedee, with Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus, to watch and wait—and not to run away. Perhaps we would have. Perhaps.

All that they—and we—can do now is watch, and wait, and keep faith by so doing.

Watching and waiting leads to perception. And although perception is closely linked to reality, it is not necessarily the same thing. What we perceive is our working reality, but there is often more to it than just our perception at a given moment.

Jesus groans from the cross, “My God…why have you forsaken me?” He speaks from what he feels—ultimate abandonment and betrayal.
But the story does not end there.

Mary and Magdelena and Mrs. Zebedee sit near the place of burial, as Joseph and Nicodemus heave the stone into place across the mouth of the tomb, shrouding themselves in loss and grief and sorrow.
But the story does not end there.

The disciples are hiding, behind locked doors, in fear and despair and shame. Perhaps feeling that it would have been better if they themselves had never been born.
But the story does not end there either.

Abandonment, grief, shame and despair, fear of loss and loss itself—all these things, and more—Jesus and his followers knew, in all their fullness and terror.
But the story does not end there.

Come back again, and see—for there is more. Even in the very heart of despair and grief and death itself, God is doing a new thing. Wait, and watch; come, and see…