Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013, Year C

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
Preached by Ian Lasch

           My mother has a plaque hanging in her kitchen right by the door that says, "I know God won't give me anything I can't handle. I just wish he didn't trust me so much." It's attributed to Mother Teresa, and it’s a wonderful sentiment. The only problem is that, at least in my experience, it isn't entirely true. You see, we live in a world where bad things can and do happen, even to the best of us. We live in a world where the celebration of the end of a marathon in Boston can change in an instant to the horror of three deaths and nearly 200 injuries, dozens of which required amputation, or where a quiet night in a quiet town outside of Waco can turn into the tragedy of a dozen killed and two hundred injured out of a community of just 2,500. We live in a world where, all too often, we’re given more, sometimes much more, than we alone can handle. What comfort do we have in a world like this?

          That is likely the same question that was being asked by the friends and family of Tabitha in our reading from Acts. Tabitha was a disciple of Christ, about whom we know only that "she was devoted to good works and acts of charity." In the midst of doing good things, still she was torn from them. Her friends are consumed with grief. They send for the apostle Peter, but when he gets there, they are still overwhelmed. Unable to understand or to cope, they simply weep. Bad things, it seems, can happen to good people. But in his letter to the Romans, Paul says that just as we were baptized into Christ's death, we are baptized into his resurrection, and we could have no clearer example than Tabitha. Our comfort is that she dies, and then she lives. The resurrection is hers, and it is ours.

          What comfort do we have in a world like this? Well, John wrote us a prophecy that applies just as much in our time as it did in his. This portion of the Revelation is set in the midst of the opening of the seven seals, the part of the book so harrowing that it’s what gave the word apocalyptic its meaning. The four horsemen are unleashed with the first four seals. With the fifth, the souls of those slaughtered for the word of God have cried out for judgment and vengeance... and been told to wait. With the sixth, there is a great earthquake, the sun goes black, the full moon becomes like blood, stars fall to the earth, the sky vanishes, and mountains and islands are moved. Everyone on earth hides in caves, fearing the wrath of the Lord. As John is asked, "Who are these, robed in white?" the seventh seal awaits, which will give seven angels seven trumpets, which will unleash yet more horrors on the world. We know the answer must be important, because it's one of only two or three places in the entire book where the images shown to John are explained. But our answer doesn’t come from John himself; John can’t say. He’s witnessing horror and tragedy, image after image, not unlike the photos from Boston and from West that we’ve seen on TV for the past week. In the midst of all this awfulness and suffering, John gives up. He doesn't know who those robed in white are. In his misery he fails to recognize himself. Just as we, reading these words in the wake of tragedy millennia later, fail to recognize ourselves. You see, it’s us, all of us, who are robed in white. We are the faithful of God who have washed our robes white in the blood of the Lamb, both at the time of our baptism and every week, here, at His table. Our comfort is that this is not some future prophecy that may yet come to pass, but a promise to each and every one of us, for now and forever, that we will hunger and thirst no more. Sun and scorching heat and terror will not strike us. The Lamb will be our shepherd and he will guide us to the springs of the water of life.

          What comfort do we have in a world like this? The comfort of Christ, our Good Shepherd, telling us today that we, his sheep, hear his voice. That he knows us, and not just as some acquaintance. He knows us so thoroughly that he feels, as intimately as we do, our pain and suffering – even in times like these, horrific beyond comprehension. He knows us so thoroughly that he even knows our doubt. We have a savior who understands what it means to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Knowing our pain and our doubt, he promises that no one and nothing will ever snatch us out of his hand.

Though we may sometimes be given more than we can handle alone, thanks be to God, we don’t have to. You see, our comfort is that we also live in a world where our Good Shepherd is always with us. We live in a world where, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need fear no evil. Because we live in a world where when we struggle, and when we suffer, and when we weep... God wipes away every tear from our eyes.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Third Sunday of Easter, Year C, April 14, 2013

John 21:1-19
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

Once again, as it has been for many years on this day…

          …the annual pilgrimage to the holy city has taken place;

Once again… within the gates of the sacred precincts,

          …the necessary rituals have been enacted with all due decorum and ceremony;

Once again…the holy pilgrims are preparing to depart and return home.

          Indeed, some have already departed.  

Peter and James and John, Nathaniel and Thomas the other disciples have left Jerusalem and returned to Galilee in the north, back home again.   

(What? You thought I was talking about a golf tournament?**)   

Once again, it has been a grand and glorious festival.

Now it is time to go home, to get back to normal. 

Except that Normal has moved. 

Normal is no longer where it was, when it was last seen.

Normal fled the night they walked with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,

          and there Judas met them with the temple authorities,

          and Jesus was arrested and led away under guard,

          and all the mechanism of the Roman imperial political system was set in motion against him.   

Normal was destroyed on Friday when Jesus hung on the cross for three hours,

          and then cried out one last time and was silent.

Normal was redefined at dawn on the third day,

          when Mary Magdalene stood weeping at the entrance to the empty tomb,

          and then realized in shock that the one whom she had mistaken for the Gardener

          was her beloved Rabbi and friend, risen from the dead.

          At first, she did not recognize him.

          She didn’t know who he was. 

          And then all at once, she knew.

          And that knowing changed everything.   

Peter and Andrew, James and John and the others have all been in Jerusalem, they have all been at the festival, they have all seen all of these things—and they are ready to get back to normal.  Whatever that might look like. 

“I’m going fishing,” Peter declares.  “We will go with you,” they answer.  Resurrection or no resurrection, they still have to make a living.  Fishing is what they know.  So that’s what they do.  All night and into the early morning hours.  They cast the nets, and draw them in.  Over and over.  And nothing—not one undersized lake trout, not one old shoe, not one broken piece of pottery.  Nothing. 

They are back home again in Galilee, fishing in Lake Tiberius, also known as the Sea of Galilee.   It was here that Jesus had established his reputation by walking on the water, stilling the storm, and feeding thousands of people with bread and fish.  They are back in familiar territory; they know the habits of these fish in this lake.  They are doing the best the know how to do, and yet it just doesn’t seem to be getting them anywhere.  They are tired, they are discouraged, they are wondering “What is wrong here?  I just don’t get it.” 

Perhaps you know that feeling as well.  I know I do.  When we do our best, and seem to be getting nowhere at all.  Heart and soul all in, and yet nothing—not even an old waterlogged shoe.

At dawn, the weary fishermen see someone standing on the beach.  It is hard to see anything after the long night, and they don’t know who is calling to them: “You haven’t caught anything there, have you?”  “No, nothing.”  (Peter probably appended some smart-aleck comment under his breath about the wiseacre knowing so much about fishing over there…)  “Cast the nets once more, and you will find some.” 

And they cast the nets once more.  And something begins to happen.  The ropes begin to pull, the surface of the water begins to splash and boil with tails and fins flipping and flopping, eyes and gills sparkling blue and silver, red and gold in the morning sunlight.  They seize the ropes and haul with all their strength to bring the nets into the boat, nets that groan and strain under the stress of trying to hold the abundance of fish.  They see what their eyes had longed to see; they know what their hearts had desired to know.  “Normal,” once more, was shifted from its customary place. 

All at once, they knew.

And that knowing changed everything. 

Peter is the first to speak the word: It is the Lord!  In his quick-tempered enthusiasm he jumps into the water and makes for the shore as fast as he can; the others stay in the boat and follow as quickly as they are able.   

Jesus greets them, with a fire for warmth, and a meal of fish and bread. 

A small breakfast gathering is enough; there is no need to feed five thousand hungry pilgrims today.  They do not talk much; there is no need for much talk today. 

This is “the third time” we are told, that Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection.

Now back at home in their ordinary circumstances,

          Jesus is present with them in their daily occupations.

The frustrations and setbacks of those daily occupations

          have been miraculously transformed by Jesus’ presence with them.

 Jesus meets them where they are, and feeds them a simple meal, in the midst of their everyday lives.   

This is now what Normal looks like. 

Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?”  Not once, but three times. 

Three times Peter is invited to affirm what Peter had three times denied,

          on the night of Jesus’ arrest. 

Three times he had been asked “Do you know this man?” and had said No;

Three times Jesus brings him back home to himself, asking him “Do you love me?” 

There is no rejection; there is no judgment;

          There is only welcome and warmth, and a simple meal,

          and the chance to say “Yes, I love you” for real and for ever.

Last of all, he tells them:  Follow me.  Come with me Peter, walk the way that I will show you.  Come with me, James and John.  Come with me, Nathaniel and Thomas.  You don’t know where the way will lead you, but you know who your leader is.  You don’t know all the twists and turns of the journey, but you walk in the light of the risen Christ, who goes before you and leads you deep into the life and heart of God. 

That invitation is for us as well.

Come and eat the simple meal.  Come and be welcomed and forgiven and restored.

Come walk the way of my holy pilgrims, good people of St. Augustine of Canterbury Church.   

We don’t know for sure where or when Jesus will appear—but when he appears, we will know.   

And that knowing will, and does, change everything.  


** This sermon was preached on the Sunday of the 2013 Masters’ Tournament in Augusta.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Easter Day: The Gardener. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

I Corinthians 15:19-26
John 20:1-18
Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

Alleluia!  Christ is risen! 

They knew that he was dead.  That much was beyond question.  Mary Magdalene, Peter, John the Beloved Disciple, Nicodemus, Mary his mother…they had seen it happen.  They had heard the screams and cries of pain, the crack of the leg bones of the crucified men being broken to hasten death, the final gasps for breath.  They had held him in their arms, washed his body and wrapped it in the strips of linen.  They had placed him in the cave, had heard the stone being rolled into place and finally the dry, dusty silence that followed.   

They had been silent all that night, and the following day and night.  It was the feast of the Passover, a great day of rejoicing and celebrating in Jerusalem, and the noise of the crowds of pilgrims was tremendous.  Mary, Peter, John, the others…they did not celebrate.  They might go through the motions, prepare the meal and set the table, but their hearts found it impossible to celebrate the day.   

I wonder if, sometimes, we find ourselves out of sequence with the calendar?  I wonder if anyone came here today knowing (or imagining) that you “ought” to feel a certain way, but don’t?  As your pastor, I know a few stories—your own Good Friday sufferings, and the struggles that many of you are facing, on your own behalf or that of loved ones.   

That sorrow and struggle and suffering continues to affect us all, that much is beyond question.  That the world itself, in every place, from Augusta, Georgia to Augusta, Maine, from Atlanta to Australia, still wrestles with the powers of sin and death; that too is beyond question or doubt.  Our garden here beside the church is a cemetery, and I frequently encounter people who come to be there, early in the morning, or late in the evening.  Their presence bears witness to this ongoing struggle.  They come to be with; they come to remember.  Not expecting anything in particular.   

When the worst thing that could happen, had happened, and the powers of death and destruction had had the final word, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.  Not expecting anything in particular, early on that first day of the week; she just wanted to be near him.  She just wanted to “be with.” 

What she and the others find there is inexplicable.  It wasn’t merely “they couldn’t believe their eyes”; it simply wasn’t possible.  They saw him on the cross; they washed his lifeless body with their own hands, they laid him in the cave themselves.  To learn that this was not a grave robbery, not some twisted prank, left no explanation whatsoever.  They all are beyond confused; not knowing how to proceed or what to do next.  Peter and John drift off, heading home perhaps, or looking for the first-century equivalent of Starbucks before beginning the day. 

Mary remains: still confused, still bewildered, still frustrated beyond words.  Perhaps we know that feeling?  When there is nothing to be done, no real solution to the problem, and seemingly no way out.  All we can do, it appears, is remain there in the moment. 

She sees two figures in white robes—messengers, which is the primary meaning of the word “angel.”  She doesn’t recognize them as such, just at the moment.  We usually recognize angels only after the fact—but that’s another sermon altogether. 

She stands, still confused, still weeping.  Still not seeing what she doesn’t expect to see. 

The gardener—as she supposes—comes up to her. And asks her: “Whom do you seek?  Whom are you looking for?”  

We’ve heard that question before, earlier in the Gospel of John.  When Jesus was in another garden, in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, before he was arrested, twice he asked the authorities who came to arrest him: Whom are you looking for?  And twice they answered him: Jesus of Nazareth. 

This is the third time that question comes from Jesus’ lips.

The answer is the same, but not the same at all. 

Mary cannot see; she cannot recognize; she can barely speak. 

In her grief and confusion, she is like one close to death herself. 

Until he calls her name.

Until he calls her, by name. 

Then she hears.  Then she sees.  Then she speaks.

Then the breath of life comes into her,  as it did in another garden, in Eden, when God created life at the beginning of all things.   

Her shock and amazement and incredulity is just that—she didn’t expect to find him at all.  He was dead; he was buried; he was gone; that was it.  Game over. 

But God had something else in mind.  When the worst that could happen, did happen, and the powers of death and destruction had had the final word, God had another word after that.  And that word brought new life out of old death; breathed the breath of life into dust and ashes.  Faced with the worst that human sin and suffering could do, God did something even more wonderful.  A new creation comes to birth, by the power and mercy and love of God for all the creation.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death; the destruction of death has begun.  Christ first; in God’s good time, all the rest of us with him.   

She didn’t expect it at all.  None of them did.  Nor do we.

This week, in those places and situations where you are quite sure that it’s all over, the end has come, no way out…look for the angels.  You may not recognize them at first.  That’s okay. Look for the gardener, as you may suppose him or her to be, who comes to call you, in the midst of confusion and sadness and incomprehension.  Who comes, and calls you by name.  Who comes into all our places of death and destruction, to bring good news of God’s life and unconquerable love.   

And then, go tell the others.   For it is good news, today and tomorrow and all the days to come. 

Alleluia, Christ is risen!


Easter Vigil

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox
Genesis 1:  “So Good!”

Noah, the Ark, the Rainbow: “Never Again”

Exodus: The Red Sea, remembrance and liberation, Miriam and the women dancing on the sea shore; “We Remember”
Isaiah 55: Come to the water, be washed and filled, welcomed and restored. 

“My ways are not your ways…my word goes forth and accomplishes what it intends.”   

“Come, get up, come to the waters!” the prophet cries.  Come and be refreshed; eat and drink, food and wine provided by a generous host!  We hear God’s promise to the exiles, the people of Israel in captivity, as the prophet Isaiah calls them to throw themselves into God’s abundance.  We hear an invitation to enter into this richness, this generous place.  “Not for money, not for a price.”  Not earned or deserved by our own cleverness or accomplishments or education, not bought by large bank accounts or inherited in trust funds—but offered freely to all, without condition or qualification.  The exiles have wandered far away; now they are called to turn their wanderings back to the source of Life. 

Back to the one who spoke all things—ALL THINGS—into being in the beginning, and cried out over them: It is “SO GOOD!”  (Let them echo—prompt them if they don’t)  To return and know that it is God whom they seek in their wanderings; and that it is God who has been seeking them and chasing after them and longing for them all along.  That as they walked……in the Garden with Adam and Eve and felt the warm sunshine on their shoulders and the coolness of the grass under their feet; …as they walked with Noah and his companions out of the smelly, creaky Ark and felt that thick gloppy mud between their toes; …as they walked with the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground, and danced on the sand with Moses and Miriam and the mothers and sisters, …that God has walked with them all along the way.  That they were never along in that walking.   

The feet of faith carried Adam and Eve, and Noah and Isaiah, and Miriam and Moses. 

The feet of faith carried Jesus as he fed the hungry, and healed the sick, as he welcomed the outsiders and strangers, forgave sinners, ate and drank with the wrong sort of people and proclaimed God’s kingdom among those who followed him.

The feet of faith even took Jesus to the cross and death itself.    

The feet of faith carried Mary Magdalene and Peter and John, early on the morning of the third day, to the garden where Jesus was buried, to discover that the tomb was empty, the stone rolled back. 
And the feet of faith carried Mary Magdalene, the “apostle to the apostles” to tell the others: I have seen the Lord!” 

And those same feet carry us in the journey of faith here this morning.  We come, O so early!  We come with weary feet, aching feet, calloused and crusty and corn-covered feet; we come with young tiny feet, strong vigorous feet, joyous dancing feet.  We experience the stories of God’s mighty acts, again and again to save, to set free, to restore, to seek and find that which was lost; to make new that which had grown old; to breathe the breath of life into that which was dead and buried and almost forgotten.  We hear these stories and they are OUR stories.  We too come, gathered as the People of God, walking the journey of faith together, carried on the feet of faith (our own or someone else’s) learning again and again what that means to follow the way of Christ and how to do it. 

We come today bringing new travelers on the journey of faith.  Annaliese Raine is old enough to begin the journey by her own say-so, but not without a good deal of help in the rough places;  Liam Holder and Ehlana Orin have yet to take even a first step.  And that is all just as it should be—for none of us can walk this journey of faith by ourselves, or without help.  In baptism we begin the journey; a single event takes place, and we spend the rest of our lives figuring out what that means, and how to live as a result of that event.   

In a moment we will pray for Annaliese and Liam and Ehlana, and for ourselves as well—that the presence and gifts of the Holy Spirit will be bestowed upon us all, for renewal and refreshment, forgiveness and cleansing, nourishment and strength.  “Not for money, not for a price,” as Isaiah says, but because God loves us and will have us for God’s own.  We hear the stories—we tell them again to each other—and we remember.  We remember. We remember.  And it is SO GOOD.