Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 26 June 2011

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

As I looked at the lessons for this Sunday, I was grateful that Father’s Day was two Sundays ago, and that I did not have to deal with the reading from Genesis then. This story, known as “the binding of Isaac,” is usually interpreted as demonstrating Abraham’s great faith in God to do what God has promised (“I will make of you a great nation”) in spite of this “testing” of seemingly demanding child sacrifice. Elsewhere we know of the revulsion with which such an act, in and of itself, was regarded in ancient Israel—but here it appears that “It’s okay because God told me to do it.”

I have to confess, I don’t like this story. Not at all. God is either insane or insanely cruel, to even ask such a thing. Abraham would be in prison or on the Jerry Springer show for such an action, and where is Sarah in all this?

But the story is here, and we have to wrestle with it. What does it mean to go to the very edge of everything we think of as appropriate or suitable or “normal” and trust that even there, God is present and will act?

In looking at the reading from the letter to the Romans, we need to back up a few verses to get the context. Paul, addressing the Christians in Rome, reminds them that “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death…just as Christ has been raised from the dead, by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that…we might no longer be enslaved to sin, for whoever has died is free from sin.
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you (y’all) also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (6:2-11, roughly)

This is not about “sins” as in misdeeds, even willful ones. This is about “Sin” with a capital-S, the power in the universe that is inherently opposed to God’s very being. (Paul does not use the personification of resistance to God by naming it “Satan” or the devil, but that’s one way of thinking about this.) Paul assumes that everyone—absolutely everyone—is under the authority of some other power structure larger than him-or-herself. The image of “slaves to sin” states it explicitly—not meaning that anyone was a particularly notorious sinner, but that they were under the control and authority of something beyond themselves, which was NOT God. Which was, in fact, the opposite.

But NOW, Paul tells them, you have been given the power to abandon that other power structure, that other system of values, that other way of living—which is ultimately a dead end—and in the freedom which comes from God alone, you have come under the dominion and the authority of God’s household.

All through Easter season, we’ve been singing the verse above: “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” The idea is, that in dying, Christ is freed from the dominion of Sin-with-a-capital-S. He “goes out from that place” and is no longer a citizen of the country where that system is in control. Therefore he is no longer under that influence, where a dead end is the only available option.

In his resurrection from the dead, Christ is raised into a new dominion, a new place, a new country, a new reality—the kingdom and dominion of God. And the good news for us, as his followers, is that we are invited as citizens, as “slaves” however much we might dislike that word, into that new reality and new dominion as well. Out of the dead ends, out of the domination of the old system, into God’s dominion and family and household.

This is amazing stuff, and hard to get our arms or our brains around. And beyond that, even if we do manage to “figure it out” somehow—we don’t even get to take credit for it ourselves. It’s not something we DO at all, it is simply given. In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, it is accomplished without any contribution on our part whatsoever. “Christ, our passover, is sacrificed FOR US. Therefore, let us keep the feast.” We don’t get it by earning it or being more clever or skillful or wise or anything—it is God’s gift. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…

This is the good news of the Gospel. But it’s not always immediately good news to everyone. For those who want to think well of themselves, because they believe they have gotten their lives together by their own efforts and have earned the right to look down on “them people” who are still outside the inner circle, this word of grace is a call to think again. To change the mind, to go in a different direction. Metanoia, again.

When Jesus speaks to his followers this morning about “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” there is an implication behind that. Which is explicit, if again we back up a few verses. “I tell you, I have not come to bring peace, but rather division…Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (10:29)

This sounds like a word of anxiety, not grace. Certainly not peace. But again, context is everything.

Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus’ genealogy. An explicit tracing of his family heritage—and we, as southerners, get why that’s of interest. “Who are your people?”

These are his people. Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, King David and Solomon and all the rest. It is his pedigree, and his resume in a way—his qualification to be the Messiah, God’s chosen one. But the problem is, from the beginning of the story itself, the people who ought to get it, don’t; and the people who are outside the inner circle and should, by all logic, remain exactly there…they’re the ones who understand and come running to him. King Herod and the court officials should be the ones who understand about Bethlehem and the Messiah and all the rest, but it’s the wise men from the east—the foreigners, “Them People” again, who see the star and pack up to come find out what’s going on. Over and over this is a theme for Matthew’s gospel—those who get it, and come to find out, and those who do not, and turn away. Who cannot, or will not, hear the Good News because it challenges who they think God is, or who they think they are themselves.

All Jesus is saying, is that this is how it will be for his followers. And not to be surprised when it happens. “Whoever does receive you, I’m there too. And God is there also. And even the littlest and least significant gesture (a cup of water) done with me in mind, is an outward and visible sign of that grace that is present, right then, in that moment and place.”

How are we challenged by the Gospel this morning? How does the word of God’s amazing grace and power to overthrow the systems of the world we live in, invite us into a new way of thinking, and living? How are we, like Isaac, released from our bondage by God’s providence and mercy? And how are we prepared to follow the risen Christ, through the waters of death and rebirth, into that new kingdom?

I wonder…

Friday, June 24, 2011

Trinity Sunday, Year A, 19 June 2011

Psalm 8, Genesis 1:1-2:4, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-2
Preached by Rev. Erwin Veale

“God in three persons, blessed trinity.” The hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” is one of my favorites. It reminds me of happy days in church as a child and the seedling days of my faith journey. It is bittersweet, too, because it was the one hymn sung at the funeral of a friend. It was one of his favorites.
When the death of a friend fractures our soul how will we respond? When the other hurtful events of life come our way what will we do? Will we still look for the Light of Christ to shine through the prism pieces to make a rainbow shine through or will we stay bitter and angry? It’s hard to choose the first one, I know. It is a choice, though.
I think of this hymn today as we celebrate together Trinity Sunday. I smile, I’m even tempted to laugh out loud, as I think of how many times I’ve supplied in a variety of congregations on this first Sunday after Pentecost. Preaching about the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is simple, right?

However we approach our understanding of this mystery my we honor what I believe to be another profound truth: Our loving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit has created, still sustains, and will forever protect all things bright and beautiful. And that includes us. Thanks be to God.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Day of Pentecost, Year A, June 12, 2011

Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

I want to tell you the story of a hat. But not just any hat. This was a very special hat.

This Hat was created to be like no other hat, ever.

She had a small oval face, pleasant but not particularly notable. Rather empty and vacant-looking, in fact. On either side—Antlers! Swirling up into the air, swooping and sweeping and swinging around to create all sorts of exuberant patterns. Or maybe they were flames of fire. Or ribbons. In any case, there was a lot of energy there in those swooping, sweeping, swinging sidebars.

This Hat was made for a purpose, to make others take notice. And they did.

When she would go out, all the other hats would notice her, and look at her with that sneaky sideways squinty look, you know… “There she goes again. Who does she think she is, making all that hullabaloo? She needs to learn her place.”

The Hat didn’t mind. She knew who she was, and what she was about. So she just let those other hats give her those sideways squinty looks.

And then one day, an invitation arrived, to a Very Important Wedding. A Royal Wedding, in fact. All the Very Important Hats would be there, with their Very Important People below them. And this Hat was invited.

So on the day of the wedding, she went into church on top of her Very Important Person. As they entered, the other hats saw her, and gave her that sneaky sideways squinty look like they always did. “Look at her, making such a commotion. Who does she think she is? She really ought to learn her place.”

She went into the church , and was seated behind a VERY VERY Important Hat indeed. And every time the photographers and television cameras turned to look at the Very Very Important Hat and her Very Very Important Person, the other Hat was in the picture too.

She had a purpose for being there, you see. She was there to remind all those other Hats about a Hat who was absent, who had not been invited to the Very Important Wedding. Every time she was seen, and someone wondered “What is SHE doing here?” they had to remember the other hat—and the other person—who had not been invited. Who had not been welcomed. Who had been ignored, and kept away.

That hat was there to make those Very Important Hats—and their Very Important People—a little bit uncomfortable. Or maybe more than a little bit. She was there for a reason.

By now you are wondering, what on earth does this hypothetical hat have to do with the Day of Pentecost, which we celebrate today?

Listen again to the Epistle…

(1 Corinthians 12:3b-13))

No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Each of us was given some manifestation of the Holy Spirit, for the common good.

We didn’t earn these gifts. We didn’t go out and buy them, or pick them off a tree, or find them in the washing machine when we cleaned out the lint trap. There were given to us, free and clear and not even the least little bit because of our doing.

“To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom …”, and knowledge, and faith, and healing, and so on… and all with a purpose. All this with a single goal in mind: that God’s people shall be made more and more into the image and likeness of Christ. More and more converted and transformed into the body of Christ in this world.

Your gift is your gift. You did not choose it, but it was chosen for you. (As Jesus tells the disciples in the Upper Room, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16) And it may be that you’ve looked at some other gift, someone else’s particular (or even peculiar) adornment with that same sideways squinty look, wishing that you could have had that gift. That you could have worn that hat instead.

Do not wish it. Your gift is your gift, it was chosen for you. That hat was made just for you.

Every gift, every skill, every experience, even every struggle and challenge, has a place. I do not believe that God desires anyone to experience suffering; I do believe that God can, and does, act in and through any experience, including suffering and disaster. The image of the healthy well-functioning body, the complex psychological and physical system which knows instantly of distress in the extremities or deep within the core, gives us an image of what this “Body of Christ” business might be about. All the parts are different—they do different things, they look very different from one another. All are necessary; all the parts are “for” one another. In just a few sentences, Paul reminds his hearers that “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (I Cor. 12:26)

When Jesus speaks to his friends in the gospel reading, we are told that it was evening, “on that day.” What day?

The day of Resurrection—Easter Day. We’ve gone through the fifty days of Easter season and we’re right back where we started from: With the disciples in the upper room, locked inside, windows shuttered, in fear of what might happen next. And Jesus is there, right there with them. What does he say? “Peace be with you!” No recrimination, no blame, no “Look what you did to me!” He does show them his hands and his side, but not to put them on a guilt trip—they’re already doing that well enough to themselves!

Peace be with you. Not once, but twice. And then the giving of the Holy Spirit—this is John’s version of the story of Pentecost.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
(Peterson: If you forgive someone’s sins, they are gone for good.
If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”)

This gift, he gives to everyone. Not just the select few.
All can forgive sins.

Not all have wisdom, or knowledge, or healing gifts, or all the rest. But forgiveness is for all.

On the day of Pentecost they were together in one place. On the day after Pentecost, they all went in a thousand directions, as the Spirit led them out to tell the good news they had received. To share the gifts they had been given.

There are lots of different ways of being Christ’s body in the world. Lots of outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace which is ours, not by our own doing, but as gift.

What is your outward and visible sign? What does it look like, that unique, particular, even peculiar hat, specially crafted and chosen for you? And…what will you do with it?

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A, 5 June 2011

Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

“He will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end…We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

We’ll say these words together in a few minutes. We say them every Sunday, so easily and quickly that they can fly by without our ever really taking notice of them. What do we think we’re talking about?

Thursday night I went to Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant for dinner, over on Wheeler Road. When I arrived I was seated in the dining room, where I listened to a man seated at the next table tell his dinner companions about his exact views on “the coming kingdom of God,” and exactly how to get there, and exactly who would be welcome. And what would become of those who didn’t learn the secret handshake, in time to enter this exclusive club before disaster struck.

I was fortunate that this individual’s remarks were not directly addressed to me, but I kept wondering if I was on a TV reality show. The level of anger and hate and aggression in this man’s voice and body language were palpable in the room. As the waitress dropped the bill at my table I remarked “Y’all do get all kinds of folks in here.” She rolled her eyes. “Yes, we certainly do!”

This man believed that he knew—beyond a shadow of a doubt—how it was going to happen. If I’d had the nerve to ask, he’d have probably been willing to tell me when and where as well.

The international foolishness a couple of weeks ago, with the followers of the radio evangelist Harold Camping predicting the beginning of the end on May 21st, is another instance of the same impulse, the same desire. The disciples ask the question in the reading from Acts this morning: Is this the time? Will the end of the world as we’ve known it, the restoration of all things, happen right away? Is God going to jump in and punish our enemies and fix all our problems?

And Jesus answers them: You don’t get to know that. Period. Full stop.

And then he’s gone.

Traditional representations of Jesus’ ascension shows a view of Jesus’ feet only, peeking out of the bottom of a cloud, as the disciples stand below, slack-jawed, looking up into the sky.

Two men dressed in white robes—a literary convention telling us that these are the heavenly messengers, sent to explain what’s going on—speak to the disciples. “Why are you standing around with your mouths hanging open? He’ll be back, just as you saw him depart. But stick around…don’t go anywhere just yet.”

The disciples are in a very in-between place just now. They’ve seen one chapter of the story end, in front of their very eyes—but the new chapter hasn’t quite started just yet. So they’re in-between…which is a very uncomfortable place to be.

We’ve all been there, in those uncomfortable in-between places. In some ways it is the human condition—to be on our way from birth to death, and always transitioning from one thing to another. We get comfortable in one place, or one condition or state in life, only to discover that we are called to go from that place or condition, to somewhere or something else. God may be timeless and unchanging, but God’s people are the heirs of Abraham and Sarah, who left their homeland to follow God’s call into in strange and foreign places.

I’ve kept watch many times with folks who are getting ready to die, and with their families. It is a desperately hard place, and the great temptation is to try to do something, try to fix it, try to somehow make it better. But other than bringing hot coffee and cold water and kleenex and just sitting there, being together, there’s usually not a lot to DO. The work is in the waiting, and it is hard work indeed.

The disciples are told today to wait. That something is going to happen, and they need to be together when it does. So they go to the place where they last were together with Jesus, in that upper room where they ate their last meal together, and they wait. Someone brought food, someone else water, someone else a vessel of wine, someone else brought pillows and blankets, and some first-century version of hot coffee and kleenex.

They are gathered in expectation that SOMETHING is going to happen. But what—and when—and how—they do not know. (You’ll have to come back next week to hear what does happen…)

The Gospel lesson, a part of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, reflects this in-between waiting as well. He has washed the disciples’ feet, and told them that this—loving service and care for one another—is to be the sign by which his followers will be recognized, by one another and by all the world. And he is on his way to the cross, which in John’s gospel is Jesus’ ultimate triumph over the powers of death and destruction and disaster. In his death is the new beginning of all things, prepared before the beginning of all things.

In the garden, in this in-between place, Jesus prays. Not for himself—not for deliverance from his coming trials—but for his followers. For those whom God has brought to him—Peter and Mary and John and Martha and James and John and Magdalene. And Marilyn, and Liz, and Naomi and Helen; Lynn and John and Faye, and Gary and Toni and Robert and Emily, Kim and Charlie, and Genie and Mort and Kai and Bekka and Josh and Maddy and Nancy and Bob…for all of us.

The writer of John’s gospel is adamant in understanding—and in expecting us, the readers, to understand—that Jesus and the Father are one. That in seeing Jesus in human form, the disciples and followers saw and experienced God present in this world.

And this Jesus, now, prays for his followers: “That they may be one, as you, O God, and I, are one.”

It would appear, from this passage, that it is Jesus’ intention that his followers—which includes every one of us—should experience a connection with, and presence of God, just as much as Jesus himself does.

We talked about this in Bible study on Wednesday morning. I drew pictures on the whiteboard in the vestry room—a ring of three double-headed arrows pointing back and forth between God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The vocabulary word for the day was—and is—Perichoresis. (Per-ih-kor-EE-sis) This used to be translated as “interpenetration,” and referred to the active inter-relatedness of the three persons of the Trinity.

From the Greek: Peri, meaning around or about or “in the vicinity of.”
Choresis, from the root word “Choreo”, where we get the English words Choral, chorale, and carol. A verse-and-refrain musical structure, where a soloist sang the verses, the whole group sang the refrain, and the participants held hands and danced in a circle together.
So better than “interpenetration,” we use the word perichoresis to describe the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as three eternal dance partners.

And apparently, Jesus wants us in the dance too.

“That they may all be one, as you, O God, and I are one.”

By this prayer, Jesus asks God to ask us—all of us, each and every one—asks God to invite us into the dance. To bring us into a relationship, a way of being, that transforms us, and everyone around us, in ways that we cannot begin to imagine.

Now, for those of us for whom dancing is not second nature (or even third, for that matter) this may not register as good news. Two left feet, right here...or so we may think.

The old African proverb comes to mind:
If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance.

It’s not about perfection, or some external checklist that we have to work through in order to make ourselves good enough for God to love and welcome us. (In fact, that’s the false gospel the guy in the restaurant the other night was preaching—that we somehow have to EARN God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness.) Dear friends, if you take home nothing else from church today, take this with you: We do not earn the love of God by our good-doing; nor do we lose the love of God by our not-good-doing. We are loved by God—each and all of us—unconditionally and without exception, because that is who and what God is.

The most we can do—the most we can ever do, and this also by God prompting us through the Holy Spirit in our own day—is to say “Yes, thank you, I would love to dance.” And step out onto the floor, leaning on the Everlasting Arms.

May it be so in us; may it be so among us.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A, 29 May 2011

Acts 17:22-31; I Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

“My dear Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in all things.”
In our reading from Acts this morning, Paul is standing in the Areopagus, an open air gathering place in the city of Athens (Greece, by the way…not the one up the road here…) addressing the his most educated audience thus far. And his most self-satisfied. “Preaching to Boston”…or Savannah…or Charleston. He begins talking to them “where they are”…using the objects, and literature, they already know and live with.

“I see how religious you are. How careful to honor all the potential gods and goddesses, even the ones you’ve never heard of.” They’re covered up in temples and shrines and altars in Athens, on every corner and in every public place.
“But now, Athenians…Let me tell you of something you ought to know…The One God, creator of all things, ruler of all things, has acted. Has done something so noteworthy that I have come all this way to tell you about it. All of these things we’ve made, and imagined, and cooked up that we think will bring blessing and keep away disaster—forget that! God is more than you—or any of us—can even begin to imagine. Certainly more than we can make up ourselves. God doesn’t need all of this stuff from us—God created everything in the first place. Everything that exists, and all of us.”

For the Athenians, this is—was—a new worldview. From many gods and goddesses, to one only. And one who not only creates all things, but then proves to be victorious over death itself by raising his chosen one, Jesus, from the dead.

Paul goes and meets his hearers where they are. He uses language they understand, quotes poetry they recognize, points to ordinary objects in the vicinity, and uses all of this to tell them about what God, in Jesus, has done. Is doing, even then.

What would it look like for the followers of Jesus, in 21st century America—in Augusta, Georgia—to meet people out there, where they live and work and hang out? Not expecting them to come in here, and learn our language and objects of worship, but going out and learning who THEY are, engaging them in conversation, where they are right now? I wonder…

When Jesus speaks to his friends in the gospel, he’s also using language they understand, and pointing out the reality they are living in already, to bring them further along in their faith. “Those who have my commandments and keep them are the ones who love me, and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

He’s just washed their feet—gotten down on the ground with a bowl and a towel— performed an action so embarrassingly servile that Peter is utterly aghast. “JESUS, Jesus, what are you DOING down there??” And then after all that, he tells them “Now look y’all—you saw what I just did? That’s what it looks like, in this kingdom of mine where you’re all so eager to have the second-in-command position. It’s not about having others doing stuff for you and you lording it over them; in fact, it’s the other way around.”

“If you love me, keep my commandments.” The English composer and musician Thomas Tallis set those words to music, several hundred years ago, and I can’t NOT hear the opening chords when I read these verses. And Jesus has already given his followers that new commandment, that Mandatum Novum (as it is called in Latin) from which we get our English phrase “Maundy Thursday.” Namely: Love one another, as I have loved you. Care for one another, as I have cared for you. This is what it looks like.

And when you do, I will be there.

He’s getting them ready, you see.
1) For the disciples in the gospel story, he’s getting them ready for his departure.
2) For the first hearers and readers of John’s gospel, he’s getting them ready for their own life and ministry, without those early disciples and apostles. The second, or even third generation of Jesus’ followers, are being reminded of what they have already experienced—that when they are gathered to worship, and when they go out into the world to serve in Christ’s name, he is with them. The Holy Spirit, the Advocate, whom they already know, oh so well.
3) For us, two thousand years later and on the other side of the world, he is getting us ready, strengthening us, also. Reminding us of what we know—that we are not alone. That we are not left as orphans, but that we have a Father in heaven; we have an elder brother in Jesus; that we have a sister and companion in the Holy Spirit who blows where she wishes, and seldom in directions that we expect. And not always in directions, or ways that we even would choose, all things considered.

Now, we don’t have to say yes to all this. We can resist and refuse, of course…we always have that option. God will never force us to follow. We can try to go it alone, or have things our own way. But then…just maybe…we might discover that we are resisting and refusing God’s action, in our time, in and among and through us. Just because it makes us nervous, or uncomfortable, or challenges us somehow.

“Do not fear what they fear” says the writer of First Peter. “Do not be intimidated…but always be prepared to make a defense of the hope that is in you.” That hope we carry, and share (I hope we share!) when opportunity presents itself—that Christ suffered death, once for all (All means all, by the way. All. Everyone. No exceptions) in order to bring us all to God. As sons of Adam and daughters of Eve we all share in the fall of creation; as brothers and sisters of Jesus, crucified and risen, we all share in the resurrection and restoration. We didn’t earn it; we don’t deserve it; it is given because God loves us and will have us, even with and in spite of our resistances and hesitations and refusals.

This Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension. It is no accident that our epistle reading points in that direction at the end: reminding the hearers of their “...baptism, [which is] not the removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” Because of the resurrection, death no longer has the last word. Because of the Ascension, our physical bodies and the created order itself are redeemed and brought into God’s dominion. Because of Jesus, the world itself is changed, and all of us along with it.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is good news worth sharing.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

5th Sunday of Easter, Year A, May 22,2011

1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

When I was growing up, I loved spending time at my grandparents’ house. This was a place where I experienced absolute acceptance, and love, and welcome. To this day, a certain smell—a combination of laundry soap, fabric softener, and lemon cookies—immediately transports me back to their kitchen in Liberty, Texas. The toys and books I played with at their house were mostly ones that had belonged to my mother and uncle when they were children—slightly worn around the edges, but well-loved. Best of all was a mesh sack filled with real wooden building blocks. Mostly just cubes, but some were triangles or semicircular or other shapes. I would spend hours on the floor playing with them…sometimes with a plan in mind, sometimes just going for height, to see how tall I could make the tower before it all fell—CRASH!—to the floor. Even as a bored teenager, when I would visit my grandparents I would sneak over to the closet where the blocks were kept, and play with them in the front room where nobody could see.

In the passage from the First Letter of Peter, the author is “playing with building blocks.” He’s using the imagery of the great Temple in Jerusalem to describe the new relationship between God and God’s people. The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed; now they themselves will be the temple. Not a house made with hands, of stone or wood or concrete beams…but of people, who together make up the dwelling place of God. Here on this earth, in this world.

YOU (all) were once no people; now you (all) are God’s own people.

You (all) are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, the ones set apart “to offer spiritual sacrifices through Jesus Christ.” The language of priesthood is used in two ways in the New Testament: Jesus, and the baptized community. Individual leaders were not “priests”; it was the role and right of the congregations to speak of God to the world, and pray to God for the well-being of the world.

It’s useful to remember always that the destruction of the temple in 70 AD was a seminal event in the life of most of the people we meet in the New Testament. In the loss of the temple, the author of I Peter is re-appropriating this idea of intercession and offering of spiritual sacrifice, relocating it as the work of the entire community.
What does it mean to have been the recipients of mercy? Of absolute forgiveness, and inclusion, and welcome? For that, says the author of First Peter, is who we are. Not by our own deserving, or because we earned it by following the rules or living up to some impossible standard—but just because God, in the person and work of Jesus Christ, has made it so.

In the gospel reading from John, Jesus is getting the disciples ready for his departure. In a very few hours he will be arrested, and imprisoned, and executed. He is getting them ready, by reminding them of what they already know.

“I AM” the way. And the truth. And the life. Again with “I AM” statements…reminding us, two thousand years later, of what John’s author wants us to be absolutely clear about: that this Jesus is God’s own self-revelation in the world in which we live. “Show us the Father!” Philip asks, and you can just see Jesus placing his face in his hands. “Phil, buddy—where have you been?” I am in God; God is in me; there is no difference. And you (all) too, will share in this reality.

To the first hearers of John’s gospel, this was not new news at all. But it was something that they needed to hear again; an essential reality of which they sometimes needed to be reminded. They were wondering, after many years, “Is this it?” Jesus had not returned to earth in bodily form, as they had been expecting. Most of those who had known Jesus in the days of his human existence had themselves died. So now what are we supposed to do?

Let’s just say that getting rid of all human responsibilities, and sitting on a mountaintop waiting for the Second Coming didn’t seem to be on Jesus’ agenda for his followers. Not then; not yesterday or today or tomorrow.

“There is a place prepared for you (all)”…but before that, something else. Whether the day of going home is soon, even as soon as yesterday or many years in the future, until then there is something else. “You (all) will do the works that I do, and even greater works than these.”

He has washed their feet—an act of complete service and care, disregarding all the social conventions of the day. He has gotten himself a reputation for hanging out with the absolute wrongest kind of people, and eating and drinking and talking with them. He has healed the sick and given sight to the blind, and raised the dead. And “You all”—he says—meaning them, and us too—“will do even greater things.”

Are we ourselves able to see the work of God’s Spirit even now, in our lives as Christ’s hands and eyes and ears in this world? Do we expect that we would? And if not, why not?
To live in faith does not mean that we ask no questions; it does not mean that we are forever satisfied with easy answers, or that we do not seek to understand more deeply the mysteries of the universe, be they physical or metaphysical—but that at the bottom of it all, is a trust that God is God, and we are beloved. No matter what we’ve done, or left undone; no matter who we are or think we ought to be, but only and all for love.

We love, as well and as fully as we are able, because God in Christ has loved us first.

“Through many dangers, toils and snares, we have already come;
‘Tis grace that’s brought us safe thus far, and grace shall lead us home.”