Sermon – October 29, 2017

Feast of St. Luke (October 22, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

Readings: Sir. 38:1-4, 6-10, 12-14; Ps. 147; 2 Tim. 4:5-13; Lk. 4:14-21

At the end of his second letter to Timothy, Paul reports that all of his friends and supporters have deserted him. Demas has left for Thessalonica; another man named Crescens has departed for Galatia, and Titus is now in Dalmatia (4:10). Earlier in the letter, Paul tells us “all who are in Asia have turned away from me” (1:15). Things have gotten bad. Add to this the fact that Paul is probably writing from a prison in Rome, with more than a faint awareness that the end is drawing near. As he says, “the time of my departure has come” (4:6).

It’s a bleak picture, but there is one person who has remained with Paul to the end. “Only Luke is with me,” Paul reports (4:11). When everyone has vanished, when envy has turned would-be allies into enemies, when the new-fangled Jesus movement is suddenly no longer so fashionable, when the iron grip of earthly power is about to squeeze out what little air is left, Luke remains. Luke abides. “Only Luke is with me.” They are just five words, but they are among the most poignant of the New Testament. They suggest that Luke, our namesake, the saint whose feast we observe today, was different. While the disciples couldn’t stay awake one hour with Christ in Gethsemane, while Peter denied Jesus three times, while the churches that Paul planted in Corinth and Galatia disagreed and divided, and while even Barnabas, Paul’s fellow pioneer in the Gentile mission, went his separate way, Luke remained faithful.

So what made him different? Who is this Luke that we call ourselves by? The only other reference Paul makes to Luke comes in Colossians, where he calls him the “beloved physician” (4:14). That tells us something about how he made a living, but it still leaves a lot out. For more, we have to turn to the Acts of the Apostles, one of the two New Testament books that Luke authored. Luke does not mention himself in the narrative, but we do occasionally catch him switching from the third-person narrator voice to a more intimate, first-person plural voice. In Chapter 16, for example, Paul sees a vision of a man who invites him to go Macedonia. It is at this point that Luke drops the third-person voice and says, “we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia” (16:10). This same “we” travels to Philippi, where we can deduce Luke remains for some seven years before later rejoining Paul in a Greek city called Troas. Putting the pieces together, Luke would have been associated with Paul for about ten years, from around 50 to 60AD, following him to Rome, where he kept Paul company during his imprisonment and until his death.

From this backstory, one of the most interesting things we learn about Luke is that he was among the first Gentile converts to the faith. Luke is not just the only Gentile author of a Gospel, he is the only Gentile author of any New Testament book. Perhaps owing to his outsider status, Luke saw things differently. In his writings, he often focuses on the people who escape the attention of others. Often these are Gentiles like himself. Luke is the only Gospel writer to include the parable of the Good Samaritan, the most striking example of how Jesus redefines belonging and unsettles our assumptions about who counts as our neighbor. It is also Luke’s Jesus who reminds his audience of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian (4:25-27), two Gentile recipients of the favor of Old Testament prophets.

Women also feature prominently in Luke’s Gospel. It is Luke who provides the account of the Visitation between Mary and Elizabeth, as well as Mary’s famous Magnificat, with its soaring vision of social reversal, wherein the proud are scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up, and the hungry are filled with good things (1:51-53).

The theme of social reversal echoes throughout Luke’s Gospel. It is there in today’s Gospel reading from Chapter 4, where Jesus stands up in a synagogue in Nazareth and declares the year of the Lord’s favor, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (4:18-19). Luke’s listeners would have recognized this as the ancient practice of Jubilee, which entailed the emancipation of indentured slaves, the return of lost landholdings, and the forgiveness of debts, nullifying social injustices and bringing society back into just equilibrium. For Luke, the kingdom of God was a this-worldly reality, something dawning now, with real implications for how individuals treated one another. Thus in his version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says not, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” but “Blessed are the poor,” for “theirs is the kingdom of God.” He does not say that marginalized members of society will be blessed in the future, but, “Blessed are you who are hungry now… blessed are you who weep now” (6:21). They will have a reward in heaven, but even now they are touched by the new reality that Christ brings. Pointedly, Luke also includes a series of woes for the rich and those who are full and laughing. Things are about to change for them as well, whether they are prepared to acknowledge it or not. In view of these commitments, it is not entirely surprising to discover that Luke’s Gospel is the one where we find the parable of the Prodigal Son. With its emphasis upon unconditional forgiveness and re-integration of the least deserving, it crystallizes the overall message of Luke’s Gospel: the kingdom is at hand, lives are in the process of being transformed, and the signs of this transformation are all around us.

Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, reads like a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, continuing many of these same themes. Midway through the book, Paul’s opponents say in exasperation: “These people… have been turning the world upside down” (17:6). Even those who oppose the movement see what is at hand. For Luke, the signs of this new reality are many. Some are famously radical, such as the sharing of possessions. As Luke reports, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all” (2:44-45). But not all of them are so radical. Some are deceptively simple. One is the breaking of bread: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (2:46). Another entails new forms of communication and the overcoming of longstanding barriers to mutual understanding. Repeatedly, the presence of the Spirit is found where historically divided groups find themselves mixing: Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor. No sooner are the apostles sure of the direction of this new movement then it veers off course, into another strange direction. Many of the leaders thought it was a movement for one people only, but now they find themselves surrounded by outsiders like Luke. Their community has expanded. New faces can be seen, new voices can be heard. Many thought the faith was measured in external obedience to the law, and now they find that the faith claims their innermost desires and motivations as well. Some of the new Gentile upstarts think they can leave behind their Jewish brethren, but Paul reminds them that Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it. The covenant is not replaced, but opened. The vision is not one community superseding the other, but historically divided communities sharing life together. Luke should know: he is one of the Gentiles now included in the covenant, a man whose faith has made him a descendant of Abraham and heir of the promise. The gospel promise, the sign of the spirit, the reality of the kingdom, is life together.

If we need further evidence, look no further than Luke’s unlikely friendship with Paul. Here for all the world to see is a different possibility: friendship that breaks down the dividing wall of hostility. Jew and Gentile, former Pharisee and Greek, bound together in common purpose, to the very end. “Only Luke is with me.” The words sound a little different knowing who Luke is, an outsider who not only joins Paul in friendship, but also proves his staying power. A friendship across barriers is not merely possible, but can endure, even amidst developments that seem to reverse everything the kingdom stands for.

Indeed, at the end of Paul’s life, people have begun to give up on this kingdom. The Roman Empire is crushing its followers one by one. The poor remain poor. The powerful remain powerful. And yet exactly at the point when things grow the grimmest, Paul sees the evidence of this kingdom in his friend. His friend, the one most different from him, is the one who makes the kingdom real for him. Luke shouldn’t be here. He should be where Demas, Barnabas, and everyone else has gone. But he hasn’t. He has stayed. He has abided. He has remained faithful to his friend, and in remaining faithful to his friend, he has remained faithful to the world as he now knows it, and faithful to the God who graciously makes its possible. Luke teaches us this: keeping faith in the kingdom means keeping company with those who belong to the kingdom, living out those new relationships that make up the kingdom. Keeping faith means keeping company. It means remaining friends. Paul’s friendship with Luke is part of what allows him to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

As we gather today to celebrate the 170th anniversary of the founding of our community, we find ourselves coming back to something very basic and true. Like Paul at the end of his life, we live at a time when we see very few signs of Christ’s kingdom. The poor remain poor. The captives remain captive. For many of us, the kingdom is something to long for, something we will experience in the future age. Yet when we read of Luke’s simple but profound capacity to stay the course and keep company with his friend to the end, we are reminded of the ordinary fabric with which the kingdom is woven. That fabric is you and me, and the thread is friendship, friendship across boundaries, friendship that shouldn’t be possible but is because Christ has opened a new kind of community where Samaritans become neighbors to Jews, where Gentiles befriend former Pharisees, where the abandoned and imprisoned are remembered, and where absence is filled with presence. Presence. That is what Paul most wanted, and that is the one thing Luke could give him. It is the hardest thing to find and the easiest thing to give. All that it requires is that we see that it is ours to give, that each of us can give it.

That is what each of us gives in being a part of this community. That is the high calling of any community that gathers under Luke’s name: to be a people that abides, a community that keeps faith in God’s kingdom by keeping faith in the friendships God makes possible when we give each other the gift of our presence. “Only Luke was with me.” May the same continue to be said of us. Amen.

Sermon October 1, 2017

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2017
Ezeckiel 18:1-4,25-32; Phillipians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Rev. John Hayes

We miss the point of scripture if we think it speaks about some ancient far distant debacle. We miss much of the meaning of the scriptures when we do not have the context.

What is not readily apparent in the reading from the prophet Ezekiel is that his words are spoken to the Jews now living in exile in Babylon. They had forgotten how to live according to God’s way. War came and the city and temple were destroyed and all the people with talent and resources carted off to Babylon. They are longing for home and now wondering whom to blame for their plight. They want to blame it on their parent’s sins. See they want to believe they are merely victims of bad fate they did not create.

God tells them to knock off the kvetching already, and wise up. This idea you have that you are suffering for your parents’ misdeeds is way off base. Nice try. You brought exile on yourself. Sin has consequences.

We misread things if we think of God sitting up above on his throne, crankily and arbitrarily meeting out punishments for those who break his law. God’s law merely points the way of human flourishing. When we sin – and we all sin – when we give into temptation to lie, steal, cheat even in small, subtle, but corrupting ways – our lives do not work and we live in exile. Exile from our true selves, exile from each other, and ultimately exile from God. We look to blame our environment, our relationship, our upbringing – someone, anyone, but ourselves.

God wants to shatter that misperception. God tells us to look no further than the mirror. We freely choose exile over relationship and integrity that are our true calling.

As a people and a nation we sin – we neglect the widow, the orphan, the impoverished –our economic and legal justice become a laughable tragic pretense – we worship false gods of security, wealth, military might, racial superiority – we greedily foolishly plunder the resources of this good earth – and our collective life show every sign of deterioration. We also now live in an exile of our own creation, exile from our true home. And now we are ruled by foreign, wicked powers of state and corporate greed that make a mockery of our true national values. And we would like to have someone else to blame.

As God says: “O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?”

Exile is a terrible fate. To be far from home, defenseless and lost, at the mercy of others. The exile of sin is made all the more terrible by the realization that we freely chose our fate.

For home is not really a place. Home in essence is relationship. When we sin – personally or collectively – we are not in right relationship with ourselves and our true nature, and ultimately we exile ourselves from God our only true home. When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God – he speaks of our ultimate home in relationship with God and each other when God’s law is obeyed and human life truly flourishes.

More than five hundred years after the return from exile in Babylon, after Jerusalem and its temple rebuilt more splendidly than ever, many Jews still felt that they were very much in exile and were expectedly longing for the restoration of their true home. To the alarm of the chief priests and elders, many were coming to believe that Jesus might be the Messiah to usher in that new age of peace and freedom.

It is important to know that the piece of Matthew’s gospel read comes immediately after the entry to the city on Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the temple of money changers. So the chief priests and elders are not asking an idle philosophical question of Jesus, when they want to know “by what authority are you doing these things”. This Jesus has come to Jerusalem with renown as a man of God, one who heals the sick and afflicted, who casts out demons, who even the week before raised Lazarus from the dead. Who does such deeds? This Jesus is clearly intent on overturning the established religious order, the status quo that the chief priests and elders had so much invested in – position, security, power and wealth.

They try to give Jesus enough rope to hang himself with their question. They hope to catch him exposing himself as a fake or better blaspheming by claiming to be the Messiah. But Jesus like a good astute rabbi, answers their question with another, one that puts them in an impotent bind. They can only answer, “I don’t know”. If you can’t answer my question, we don’t have to worry about yours.

Then Jesus tells the parable of two sons – one who was initially reluctant but then was obedient, and the other who offers compliance readily, but then betrays the promise. He asks them, “Which did the will of the father?”

The chief priests and elders fall right into his rhetorical trap and answer that of course, only the first son was really obedient. Then Jesus lowers the boom, shatters their pretensions and self-delusion: Jesus tells them they actually are just like the disobedient second son and headed for catastrophe. Repentant sinners – the tax collectors and prostitutes – are like the first son and will enter God’s kingdom. They faced themselves honestly and returned to right relationship to God and amended their ways.

Everyone sins and needs forgiveness. Echoing the words of Ezekiel, Jesus makes it clear that those who sin and repent, those who turn homewards and make their lives right with God, will live and flourish. God’s forgiveness and mercy are bottomless, but we can only access it with sorrowful and truthful recognition of our sin. Those who repent will be saved and those who in their spiritual pride or self-sufficient complacency think they have no need of repentance condemn themselves to exile from all that is good, from their true home.

Bonheoffer told us that when we complain about having tepid faith we should examine where we are failing in obedience. Faith means immersion in the truth about our existence, the truth of our sinfulness, and the truth of our need of God. But more than that faith means immersion in relationship with the living God who knows us and loves us from all eternity and wants us to come to our full humanity.

What does that full humanity look like?

The only fully human being is Jesus. And when we come to our full humanity we will – as Paul has it – let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. We could just as well translate “mind” as “heart”. Knowing and loving are of a piece. To know God is to love God; to love God is to love God. To know and love God is to know how far from God we have allowed ourselves to fall and to know our sin and to have heart felt remorse for our sin, and to long for release from our self-imposed exile to our only true home. When we turn from sin and open ourselves to God’s new life in the Holy Spirit our lives are broken open, transformed, and restored.

Each of us in his or her own unique idiom, in his or her own unique life circumstances, is called by God to repentance, to put on the mind and heart of Christ, and to show forth the self-emptying love of Christ, broken and given for the life of this broken, wicked world, lost in exile.

Perhaps that is our only hope of ending the tragic exile and beginning our journey home.

May it be so.

Sermon – August 13, 2017

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 13, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess
Readings: Gen. 37:1-4. 12-28; Ps. 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; Rom. 10:5-15; Matt. 14:22-33

This past week, and especially over the last twenty-four hours, my thoughts have frequently returned to a conversation that President Obama shared with the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson near the end of his final term in office. The conversation took place in Des Moines, Iowa and was later published in the New York Review of Books.[1] It seemed like a radical idea then: the leader of the free world taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down with a celebrated author to reflect on race, democracy, and the state of our republic. It seems even more radical now. Both President Obama and Robinson were astutely aware that sometimes having such conversations is one of the most important things we can do, especially in the face of the challenges that presently confront us.

Obama had been a fan of Robinson’s novels, especially her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gilead. But what had recently caught his eye was a new essay she had written. It was called, “Fear.” In it, she writes: “There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”[2]

For Robinson, the signs of America’s fearfulness are not hard to find. They are there in our gun culture, our anxieties about terrorism, our fear of immigrants, our race relations, our obsessions about our declining stature in the world, and the pervasive conviction that our safety at home is only as secure as the next military venture abroad. Obama picks up the point: “[T]here’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time… I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.” Robinson underscores the perils of this resurgent outlook: “I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people… But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seems as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with.” This is when people stop talking and start shouting.

In her essay, Robinson admits, “There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day.” For many in our country, fear is a real, warranted, and everyday experience. But legitimate fear and fearfulness are two different things. “Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. It is clear enough, to an objective observer at least, with whom one would choose to share a crisis, whose judgment be trusted when sound judgment is most needed.” “Granting the perils of the world,” she continues, “it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism.”

This brings Obama and Robinson to the second part of her thesis: fear is not a Christian habit of mind. Christians, Robinson points out, pray, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” “Christ,” she affirms, “is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved… As Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls.” Yet both Obama and Robinson pause over the fact that it is often Christians who are the ones losing their souls, the ones most prone to fear a loss of their material condition, and thus the ones most prone to stoke a fear of the other who might take it away from them. Obama asks Robinson, “How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy, and our civil discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?” Robinson responds, “Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk… I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves, and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously.” “Christianity,” she concludes, “is profoundly counterintuitive—‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.”

This morning’s Gospel passage does not hide the fact that Christian disciples are prone to fear, and it has something to say about the particular kind of fear to which they are especially vulnerable. Jesus has just finished feeding the five thousand when he sends the disciples on a boat across the Sea of Galilee; meanwhile, he retreats to pray on a nearby mountain (14:23). In the evening, a storm comes and tosses the boat about the waves. Strikingly, the passage says nothing about fear at this point. If the disciples are not fearful, they should be. It is a fierce storm and their lives are endangered. Yet it is only in the early morning, when a mysterious apparition appears on the water that the disciples become “terrified,” mistaking Jesus for a ghost (14:26). Notice the difference between real and indiscriminate fear. What they should fear they don’t, and what they do fear they shouldn’t. Their fear is based upon a profound, and tragic, misapprehension. Here is the one they have been journeying with the entire time, the fulfillment of their every desire, yet they don’t recognize him. Worse, they take him for something to be feared, something shunned, rejected, turned away from. They fear what they most desperately need.

This, of course, is not the only time that the disciples mistake the identity of Jesus. On the road to Emmaus, the disciples walk with Jesus discussing all the details of the crucifixion and resurrection, completely unaware that the one with whom they are walking is Jesus himself (Lk. 24:13-35). They think Jesus doesn’t want to be bothered with children, and they are firmly rebuked (Matt. 19:13-14); they think he shouldn’t suffer, and Jesus declares, “Get behind me, Satan” (16:21-23). Jesus says that in the last judgment, when the righteous come to the throne of his glory, he will say, “Depart from me… for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (25:42-43). The surprise of the Gospel is that Jesus is constantly appearing in the guise of the stranger, upending our expectations, throwing out our assumptions, calling us, pushing us, compelling us beyond the boundaries that we have set for ourselves, into new relationships, new constellations, new possibilities. That is the good news of the Gospel: that what is strange and what initially might seem off-putting or even worthy of fear is in fact what we most want, what we most need, the basis of redemption, the continuation of our perfection.

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (14:27). Those are Jesus’ words of assurance to his fearful disciples in the boat. There is nothing to be afraid of here. On the contrary, he is saying, “I’m here to help you through the storm. I’m here to help calm the wind. Step out of your indiscriminate fear and walk with me.” In this story, it is always the miracle of walking on water that gets our attention, but for me, the real miracle here is that for a moment, Peter actually overcomes his fear. It may only be for a moment, but there he is, not perhaps ready to walk with Jesus, but at least ready to sink for him. And I sometimes wonder if that is all Jesus wants from us: not to walk on water, but to get over our fear of sinking, though sink we may and sink we will. Indeed, maybe getting ourselves wet is what we need; deep down, maybe that is what we really want. It is what Jesus wants for us, and he does not want us to be afraid of it.

In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul quotes from Isaiah, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame” (10:11, quoting Isa. 28:16). That is the promise of those who are willing to risk everything they have to encounter Jesus wherever he will lead them, in whatever guise he assumes. In him, there is no distinction between Jew or Greek (10:12). Those familiar boundaries, those bearings that limit our interactions with one another, are no longer the map or compass for our feet. Jesus is leading us into wonderfully new alliances and partnerships, possibilities that we would have dreamed of like Joseph if we had not the fear of his brothers. Paul says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (10:13, echoing Joel 2:32), and that is what Peter does in his fear: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (14:28). And Jesus says, “Come.” Just stepping out of the boat, venturing the possibility that what we indiscriminately fear may be what we need, is what discipleship with Jesus is all about.

We are no doubt living through a storm. It feels like the wind is against us. There is a real risk that in these uncertain times we might lose our souls. God knows we have lost them before. I think the loss of one’s soul is something worth fearing. And so I think we should be very alarmed by what we are seeing in this country, by what transpired yesterday in Charlottesville, and what is happening in many other cities and towns. This is a storm worth fearing. But in the midst of this storm, we must also look out into the stormy waves and try to recognize and hear the call of Jesus, considering how Jesus may be calling us to weigh our fears, to examine our habits of thought, to re-assess our identities and privileges, and discern among our fears which may in fact be gifts, invitations to step into new waters, to step outside the existing limits we have set for ourselves.

This is a season in which we have the opportunity to re-assess the legacy of the past, and the particular the damage that racism has done in our country. It is a season in which we have the opportunity to revisit the meaning of historical events and figures, and challenge old myths that have survived too long. For white Christians such as myself, it is a time to confess and repent for our continued complicity in systems of oppression. It is a time for prophetic outrage, for denouncing resurgent forms of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate. As Christians, we have the opportunity to challenge the very fear of addressing these issues, asking these questions, and saying these things. We have the opportunity to model what frank and honest conversations can look like, and in doing so, we have the opportunity to model the sound judgment and peace that Jesus brings to each of us as the author of our salvation, the one calling us from the deep into new identities, into a new memory of the past, a new experience of the present, and a new dream for the future. Let us not fear that call. Let us help each other embrace it. Amen.

  1. The conversation took place on September 14, 2015. It was published in two parts in The New York Review of Books, Nov. 5 and 19.
  2. Marilynne Robinson, “Fear,” published in The Givenness of Things (New York: Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 2015), 124-140.

Sermon – July 16, 2017

Homily
Sunday, July 15, 2017
John M Hayes

Homily: Isaiah 55:10-13,Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 (Parable of Sower and Seed)

We’ve heard Jesus’ parables many, many times. They are comforting and familiar, maybe sometimes numbingly so. We might nod with recognition, oh yes this one again. But if we do, we are only hearing the parable at the surface level. If we try to penetrate its meaning, we find ourselves coming to the limits of our ordinary understanding and we find our reassuring familiarity crumbles. This is what the parable intends, to break open our ordinary way of seeing and break through to a new consciousness.

When in our ordinary mind we hear this parable of the sower and the seed, we set to thinking that we want to be the fertile good soil. We might want to do a little weeding of sin, a little more attention to prayer, but we can certainly be good soil with a little effort. Our ego mind so quickly thinks in terms of control and self-improvement.

No one wants to be shallow and rocky soil, or choked with thorny weeds, and unable to sustain life. Shallow, rocky soil cannot hold water and it cannot yield to the seed’s germination. The thorny weeds are the world, the flesh and the devil, the forces of evil that overtake our lives and crowd out life and wisdom. No one certainly wants to be the hard path that everyone walks all over and even the birds take advantage of.

The truth is that all of us are all of these simultaneously all the time. As surely as we have parts of ourselves that manage to be good soil, there are places in us that are hard and resistant to the seed of God’s word, defeating the work of God’s spirit within. There are unconverted parts of ourselves attached to our secret or not-so-secret idolatries.

The point of the story isn’t that we need to shape up and become nothing but good soil. That would be fine if it was possible, but we all know better. As much as we struggle with ourselves, we all know sin has a hold on us and the good we want to do we do not do. That’s the fallen human condition.

Don’t be discouraged. This is the parable of the sower and the seed. Its not about us. This is not the parable of the dirt.

Out of God’s bottomless seed bag of extravagant senseless love, the seed just keeps coming at us. It will keep coming for all eternity. God is never stingy with his seed. God showers us with seed, all of us, all the way down, the good, the bad and the ugly parts of us. God doesn’t go away in disgust. God doesn’t keep his seed for just the worthy.

The seed is God’s word that germinates, breaks open and takes root and flowers. The word of God is God’s own self, the seed of Christ sown in the human heart. As Isaiah has it: “…so shall my word be that does out from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose”.

God works on us from the outside and the inside.

There are parts of us that can receive the seed. Good soil we might remember is not inert dead stuff, but very much teeming with invisible microorganisms and bacteria that break down what is dead and decayed and transforms it into soil that receives seed and bears new life. We cannot make ourselves into good soil, but God can.

The Spirit of God works within us in just that way. Breaking down what is dead, breaking down what is hard and resistant, making fertile what was wasteland. In the reading from Romans we hear: “for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death…He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwells in you”.

We should note that the abundance of the seed and the extravagance of the sower are matched by what God can accomplish in the human heart. Jesus says, ‘as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty”. If the seed is God’s word, indeed God’s very person, then what grows from that seed is God’s very life, God’s life for the life of this broken wicked world that God loves and tirelessly redeems.

May we all bear God’s seed in our hearts and God’s life for the world.

Sermon – July 9, 2017

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (July 9, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

Readings: Zech 9:9-12; Ps. 145:8-15; Rom. 7:15-25a; Matt. 11:16-19, 25-30

In the climactic scene of his Confessions, the fourth century bishop and theologian St. Augustine finds himself alone in a garden. It’s not a mountaintop, but it may as well be, as it has taken him a long, arduous journey to get here. As a child, he resisted the entreaties of his devout mother, and spent much of his youth carousing with friends and enjoying various forbidden pleasures. His brilliance won him early academic fame, yet the philosophical fads of the time failed to satisfy his restless mind. It was the unlikely combination of eloquence and wisdom that he found in the great bishop of Milan, Ambrose, that prompted Augustine to reconsider Christianity, and he came to the conclusion that it offered the most compelling worldview, providing answers to his deepest questions about the origins of the universe and the nature of evil. But he still could not bring himself to make the decisive move. He could not will himself to believe.

Things come to a head in the garden. What is stopping him from crossing over? The conflict is not so much in his head as in his heart. He feels torn between the new desire welling up within him for the life of faith, and all the old desires that he could once indulge without thought but are now rapidly fading from view. Augustine is badgered by voices: “Do you imagine you will be able to live without these things?” (8.11.26). The problem, as Augustine comes to articulate it, is located in his will. It’s not the familiar tension between mind and body, where the body refuses to obey the mind’s commands; no, his body stands at attention, prepared to receive its orders. The problem is that he is caught between two wills, one leaping forward towards a new future, the other dragged from behind by the past, and he stands in the middle of them, paralyzed, unable to move, unable to mediate between them, unable to believe.

Augustine discovers that willing something and being able to do it are two different things. The distinction is subtle, but something confirmed by a variety of everyday experiences. Think of the time you wanted to move your leg but couldn’t because it was in a cast; when you wanted to see what was stirring in the corner of the room but couldn’t because the electricity had gone out; or when you wanted to drive home but couldn’t because your car was out of gas. In each of these situations there is some limiting factor that prevents you from doing what you want to do. Often times what prevents us from doing what we want lies outside ourselves; in some cases, it might be a weather condition or in other cases, a person or some societal injustice deprives us of the freedom to do what we want. In the garden, Augustine is wrestling with another kind of constraint, one that is not external, but internal, imposed not from without, but from within, a product of many years of acting in particular ways. He is wrestling with the force of sin, which manifests itself in the form of habit. What may have started as an experiment has become a way of life, a set of patterns that not only constrains his body, but also his desires. Now as he feels a new desire stirring within himself, he finds that he cannot act upon it, but immediately feels his old habits pushing up against, resisting, and negating it. It is one will against another, and given the internal resistance, he is unable to will one thing singly and wholeheartedly. He’s torn between the will to believe and the will not to believe. Here the difference between willing something and being able to do it is felt in the will itself. The thing standing between him and belief is himself.

The scene reads like an extended commentary on this morning’s epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Note how Paul draws attention to the same basic distinction between willing and being able to do what we will: “I can will what is right,” he writes, “but I cannot do it” (7:18). Paul, the convert to the Jesus movement, is further along than Augustine in the garden. He is struggling not so much with the will to believe, but the will to do right in the course of one’s faith journey. It’s a struggle that may resonate more deeply with many of us here, and one no less intense than Augustine’s. Somewhere between willing what is right and actually doing it, there is a gap, a breakdown. Like Augustine, Paul is not struggling with external constraints, although he could easily point to religious persecution as a hindrance to belief. For him, the relevant constraints are within. He says that while his “inmost self” (7:22) delights in the law of the Lord, there is also the “sin that dwells within [him]” (7:17), which operates like a law of necessity, pulling him in a direction he does not want to go. So antithetical is this impulse to the desire he feels for God, he says he does not even feel like the agent of his sins. As he puts it, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (7:20). It is like the external Paul, whom we know through his actions, is a different person from the internal Paul, whom we know through his will. One follows the law of sin, the other the law of God; one constrains his members, making his body feel like a prison, the other stirs a desire for what is right, making him feel free.

While some of their language is different, both Augustine and Paul land in basically the same place: they are unable to do what they will. Some may leave these accounts feeling skeptical: if we don’t do what we will, then we never willed it to begin with, right? As it says, “You shall know them by their fruits.” Maybe the will is an invention of our minds, designed to excuse our actual behavior through an appeal to an inner realm where things allegedly stand different. None of us enjoy hearing from the person who has offended us, “I didn’t really mean it.” Sometimes willing and doing are the same.

But sometimes they are not. The last thing Augustine and Paul are trying to do is excuse their behavior. Their behavior is precisely what disturbs them, and they are trying to get to the bottom of it. In pointing to the possibility of a gap between what we want and what we do, they are showing us something of the depths of the human being and how complex we really are. Whitman was right: we contain multitudes. We will not one thing, but multiple things, all the time. We experience various and conflicting loves, impulses, appetites, and passions. We feel pushed in one direction, and then another, and then another. That is who we are. Yet if this were not enough to handle, we complicate things by denying this is the case. We deny that it’s a struggle to do what’s right. We tell each other that all is fine inside. Worse, we try to convince ourselves of the same thing.

What’s striking about Paul and Augustine is how honest they are about the fact that they are so internally divided. They may exhibit other pathologies, but denial is not one of them. Paul comes right out and says it: “I do not understand my own actions!” (7:14). Augustine puts it no less emphatically: “Within the house of my spirit the violent conflict raged on” (8.8.19). As intense as this struggle is, it’s easy to forget that to get to the point of feeling and acknowledging such a struggle is itself a sign of enormous spiritual growth. Note that Augustine only experiences the intensity of the internal struggle near the end of his book, at the conclusion of his journey. He has gone most of his life unburdened by his sins and unwilling to change; it’s only after considerable intellectual growth and exposure to compelling models of moral excellence that he begins to find new desires stirring within. Paul, too, did not have any second thoughts when he was persecuting the church; it’s only after his conversion that he begins to feel the internal tension.

On this point, ethicists like to speak of the difference between two kinds of vice: one they call intemperance and the other incontinence. Intemperance is when the passions overwhelm us to the point that we experience no opposition or reflection. We are simply unconscious slaves to sin, asleep at the wheel. For those suffering from the vice of incontinence, the problem is slightly different. They know the good and actually want it, but they feel held back by the weight of past decisions. While they cannot overcome the temptation to sin and eventually yield, they at least have a conscience. Paul and Augustine are both narrating different forms of incontinence. It’s not where they want to be. But that they have gotten past intemperance is saying something. They are conscious. They are awake. They are no longer in denial. That’s further than a lot of people get.

Still, experiencing this internal struggle is no fun, and it stands in marked contrast to what Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel lesson. “Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Rest is the exact thing Augustine and Paul do not have, but it is what Jesus promises. How can this be? Jesus does not say that belief will be free of any challenge. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” he says (11:29). Jesus is clear that it is a yoke that his disciples are being asked to harness. Elsewhere he frames it even stronger terms, challenging his disciples to take up their cross and follow him (see Matt. 10:38). The gate, as we know, is narrow and the road hard that leads to life (7:14). But Jesus goes on to say, “my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (11:30). Therein lies the paradox of faith: it is yoke, but an easy one, a burden, yet a light one.

Paul and Augustine have made dramatically clear in what the yoke and burden consists: brutal honesty about how things really stand with us, the pathos of unfulfilled longing, the impotence of willing but not being able to do. As the first part of the Gospel reading shows us, Jesus’ message is a yoke and a burden to sinners, as he criticizes the present generation for not responding to his call for repentance. “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” (11:17). Jesus says “woe” to those who do not hear the message of judgment and repentance. So he brings a yoke. The law he fulfills and holds before us is a burden. We are constantly reminded of how far we fall short of it. But this very awareness of sin also has the strange quality of a liberation. “If it had not been for the law,” Paul says, “I would not know sin” (Rom. 7:7). We can now face reality. We can now tell the truth about ourselves. We can stop telling myths about ourselves. We can put a stop to the denial. It’s an opportunity to step into the light, and if at first the light feels unbearable, by it we will shortly begin to see.

If facing the truth about ourselves entails struggle, it is not a struggle we bear alone. Jesus chooses his images carefully. The image of the yoke is one of his most carefully chosen. A yoke is a harness shared by two oxen that multiplies their power to the extent that it lessens the burden each bears. Jesus gives us his yoke, and he bears it beside us, making an unbearable load light. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul asks. He knows the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (24-25). Jesus is carrying the load beside us, tilling the ground of our sin, laying the seed of our redemption, preparing the harvest of our perfection.

The real wonder is the discovery that God has been doing this long before we become aware of it. I hate to spoil things, but in that climatic scene that I mentioned from the Confessions, Augustine does finally convert. The details are the stuff of legend. Just as Augustine is at his wit’s end, literally pulling out his hair because he cannot overcome his divided will, a mysterious vision of Lady Continence appears, the beauty of which causes him to weep uncontrollably. He then hears something even more mysterious, the voice of a young child singing, “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read” (8.12.29). Augustine picks up his Bible and opens to Romans, where it says, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires” (13:14). Instantly, he is converted.

Most commentators take the child’s voice to be a symbol for grace: when we reach the end of our capacities, God takes over, lifting the obstacles that constrain our will, and freeing us to love Him with singleness and purity of heart. Yet the Confessions is not about a dramatic conversion story. It is the story of how Augustine becomes aware of God’s presence throughout the whole of his life. The real drama comes in the operation of Augustine’s memory, in the joy that accompanies the discovery of God’s intimate movement at every point of his life: his birth, his education, his promiscuous adolescence, his loves, his losses, his philosophical searching, and yes, all those wrenching, internal struggles. “You were ever present to me,” Augustine writes, “mercifully angry, sprinkling very bitter disappointments over all my unlawful pleasures, so that I might seek a pleasure free from all disappointment” (2.3.4). Later, reflecting upon a decisive encounter, he puts it this way, “Unknowingly I was led by you to him, so that through him I might be led, knowingly, to you” (5.13.24). What was so unbearable as he went through it is revealed as fantastically light and joyous when he discovers that God was present through all of it. Even the darkest moments take on infinite value when, through the work of memory, God waits to meet us there.

The memory of sin, whether in the form of habit or shame, is what holds most of us back, preventing us from walking into the new life that Christ offers us. What if sin itself, the struggle we feel within ourselves between willing the good and actually doing it—what if that very struggle was revealed as a manifestation of grace? As a sign that we have already been touched, that God is already more intimately present to us than our own inmost self (3.6.11)? What if our every remembered heartache were an entry point through which we were able to know and experience God, and what if every present struggle was already an experience of the God whose yoke is easy and burden light? What if sin was not an end but a beginning?

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee,” says Augustine. And God says to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Amen.

Sermon – June 25, 2017

Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 25, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

Readings: Jer. 20:7-13; Ps. 69:8-11, (12-17), 18-20; Rom. 6:1b-11; Matt. 10-:24-39

Well, he has done it again. In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus has managed to unsettle some of our deepest held assumptions about him, leaving us to wonder if we ever knew him to begin with. “Don’t think I have come to bring peace,” he says. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Did we hear that right? Jesus has not come to bring peace? Did he not just say five short chapters ago, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (5:9)? And has he not instructed his disciples to turn the other cheek, love their enemies, and forgive seventy times seven times? Will he not soon tell Peter in the garden of Gethsemane to put his sword away, saying “those who live by the sword die by the sword?” (26:52). Will he not choose to submit to the humiliation of the cross instead of taking up arms against his unjust accusers? “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you” (John 14:27)—those are the words we associate with Jesus. That’s what sums up the life and ministry of the God we know and love so much. So what is this business of “not coming to bring peace”? Has Jesus had a mental lapse? Or is something else going on?

Even at this early stage of his ministry, Jesus seems to be aware that certain assumptions are spreading, and a particular reputation is growing around him. The words, “Don’t think I have come to bring peace,” suggest that a good number of people already think that they’ve got him figured out and that his message can basically be boiled down to one of peace. And why wouldn’t they? Remember that many of those in Jesus’ audience would have been expecting the Messiah, the long-delayed heir to the Davidic throne whose reign, by all accounts, was understood to usher in an age of perpetual peace. They would have known the words of Isaiah well:

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
Authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace
For the throne of David and his kingdom (9:6-7).

Micah prophesies of the day when the people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (4:3, see also Isa. 2:2-4), and Zechariah proclaims that the Messiah “shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from the sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (9:10). To assume Jesus has come to bring peace is high praise; it is a reflection of the conviction that he is the Messiah. And if his followers assume that his proclaiming of the kingdom is the beginning of the reign of peace, then who can blame them for that?

Yet as this morning’s Old Testament lesson reminds us, the message of the Hebrew prophets was about more than peace. The promise of peace was caught up in a much more difficult message about judgment and repentance. Jeremiah is known to most of us as the author of that singularly beautiful word of counsel, “Seek the peace of the city… for in its peace you will find your peace” (29:7). Yet look at where Jeremiah’s message has landed him in our reading this morning: “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me… For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (20:7-8). Jeremiah is abandoned and alone, assailed on all sides by critics, accusers, and despisers. This is because, like the other prophets, he has made any talk of peace conditional upon a dramatic reckoning with Israel’s moral behavior. His audience honors peace with their lips (14:19), but not with their lives.

For from the least to the greatest of them
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
where there is no peace.’
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not ashamed,
they did not know how to blush (6:13-15).

Jeremiah warns, “Woe to you, O Jerusalem… How long will it be before you are made clean?” (13:25, 27). But his entreaties have fallen on deaf ears. The people don’t listen, and the result is a catastrophe: their city is laid waste, their families are torn apart, and the people are carried off into captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah’s first word is not peace, but a sword, a clarion call to wake up, repent, and return to the ways of the Lord. “Act with justice and righteousness,” he declares, “and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place” (22:3).

It sounds a little like the famous words of Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, work for justice.”[1] It certainly makes peace something more demanding than is typically recognized, more than merely the absence of violence and something more like the positive presence of social justice and right relationship, what the Hebrew word shalom captures so powerfully. Augustine may come closest to the Hebrew notion when he defines peace as the “tranquility of order,” which he understood as a harmonious concord reaching from the family to the marketplace and city.[2] In every great social struggle for civil rights, one sees its participants trying to articulate this basic point, that any peace worth the name demands something more, that the opposition of justice and peace is falsely posed.

This is captured vividly in an influential document that circulated during the Apartheid struggle in South Africa. Authored by a number of church leaders and theologians, the Kairos Document took inspiration from the biblical concept of kairos, or the decisive moment of truth, when the Spirit moves in a way that brings a particular social arrangement or pattern of behavior to a moral and spiritual head.[3] In 1985, the authors believed that South Africa had reached such a point, but felt held back by those calling for a more gradualist approach that traded in the language of peace and reconciliation. The authors did not mince words:

There are conflicts that can only be described as the struggle between justice and injustice, good and evil, God and the devil… We are supposed to do away with evil, injustice, oppression and sin – not come to terms with it… In our situation in South Africa today it would be totally unchristian to plead for reconciliation and peace before the present injustice has been removed (292).

Like the Hebrew prophets, the authors of the Kairos Document desired peace, but a certain kind of peace: “There is nothing that we want more than true reconciliation and genuine peace – the peace that God wants and not the peace the world wants” (292). Noting that in John 14:27 Jesus not only gives his peace to his disciples, but explicitly says, “I do not give as the world gives,” the Kairos authors add, “The peace that God wants is based upon truth, repentance, justice, and love. The peace that the world offers us is a unity that compromises the truth, covers over injustice and oppression and is totally motivated by selfishness” (292). It is at this point that the authors refer to this morning Gospel passage, saying:

At this stage, like Jesus, we must expose this false peace, confront our oppressors and sow dissension… It would be quite wrong to try to preserve ‘peace’ and ‘unity’ at all costs, even at the cost of truth and justice and, worse still, at the cost of thousands of young lives. As disciples of Jesus we should rather promote truth and justice and life at all costs, even at the costs of creating conflict, disunity and dissension along the way (292).

They conclude, “There can be no real peace without justice and repentance” (292).

Reading the document now, some three decades after it was written, it speaks with a certain moral clarity that has been vindicated by the wholesale rejection of apartheid and the political re-ordering that followed in the wake of the 1994 elections (although the work of remedying structural justice has a long way to go). Its appeal to the language of reconciliation has also been vindicated by that great monument to peace, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has inspired so many peace processes throughout the world. Yet the document was not popular at the time, and its authors were not naïve about what its understanding of the demands of the kingdom would mean for them personally. It would mean slander and libel, threats to their lives, and charges that they were too political or Communist or unChristian. But Jesus does not promise his followers praise. As it was for the prophets, so it is with his disciples.

This morning’s Gospel lesson concludes his great missionary discourse, his commissioning of the first twelve disciples to go out and announce that the kingdom of God has come near, to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons (10:7-8). He tells them to take nothing with them and refuse payment. He is clear about the kind of reception they will receive, likening them to sheep sent into the midst of wolves (10:16). This mission will cause pushback. When Jesus calls disciples to throw down their nets and leave the dead to bury the dead, they should not expect their families to feel flattered. As he says, his mission will cause division. It will set sons against fathers, daughters against mothers, and daughters-in-law against mothers-in-law (10:35-36). An unjust peace, an unholy concord has been in place too long, and again, like the prophets of old, Jesus has come to unsettle the order of things. The coming of the kingdom means everything has changed, and a new social order is dawning. But if anyone thinks this will happen without resistance, they are fooling themselves. So the disciples will have to be prepared to count the cost. “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (10:38-39).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another 20th century Christian acquainted with the cost of discipleship, famously said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[4] Hardly a winsome strategy for church growth, it nonetheless captures much of what is at stake in the kind of peace Christ offers his followers. We only get true peace, the peace worth the name, the peace of the kingdom, the peace that Christ gives, if we venture with him to the cross and allow all that we are, all that our society is, to die and rise with him. This is the message that Paul leaves us with in Romans. Are we in sin anymore? By no means! In Christ’s death, all sin has died. In his resurrection, we rise to new life. But we cannot experience this new life in any other way than through death. That’s the deal. The paradoxical wisdom of the cross is that life only gushes forth if there is first a death, the death of the sin and injustice that sweeps over and holds our world in bondage. Paul says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin” (6:6-7). In Christ’s death, our sin dies. Our society’s sin—its violence, its structural injustice, its discrimination, its killings, its resistance to reform—dies as well. It must die if there is to be a true experience of the kingdom, a kingdom that is truly peaceable because it is a kingdom where death has truly lost its sting. Because we have died, because we have been willing to face our sin, because we have been willing to confront our injustice, now we can walk in newness of life. Now we can walk in peace. In death, life. In justice, peace. Just as there is no life without death, there is no peace without the justice of God. Amen.

  1. “Message of His Holiness Pope Paul VI for the Celebration of the Day of Peace,” 1 January 1972.
  2. Augustine, City of God XIX.13
  3. The Kairos Document, reprinted in Andrew Bradstock and Christopher Rowland, Radical Christian Writings: A Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 286-304.
  4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959 [1937]), 89.

Sermon – May 28, 2017

Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 28, 2017
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Rev. John M. Hayes

Acts 1:6-14, 1 Peter 4:12-14;5:6-11, John 17:1-11

The poet T.S. Elliott wrote “humans cannot bear too much reality”

Today we observe the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. We’ve all seen those Sunday school pictures and stained glass windows of resurrected Jesus taking off to the heavens and his astonished apostles looking up as he takes his leave. Up up and away. Such images now seem as improbable and even quaint and perhaps make the ascension an easy reality to dismiss as a mythological curiosity we could more easily live with.

Of course for the ancients rising was their most natural way to express what they experienced when Jesus departed his earthly companions. But they well understood heaven is a different relational reality not a distant place. For us a more apt spatial image might be that Jesus goes into the depths of God’s reality.

The Ascension is the culmination and completion of the Resurrection: Christ crucified is risen from the dead, and after brief appearances in his resurrected body now is taken into the fullness of God’s reality. The circle is closed. Humanity and divinity are now forever fused, heaven and earth forever joined in the person of Jesus. Perhaps the full realization of that reality and its implications is too much reality to bear.

That all this doesn’t make sense should not surprise us. The disciples lived with Jesus on intimate terms for two or three years, and after all his clear and direct warning about his fate they are shocked by the crucifixion and in the complete dark about the meaning of the resurrection. Jesus is with them another forty days after and still they are only slightly less clueless about the meaning of Jesus and his mission for humanity. We can be forgiven for being a bit dim ourselves.

The new reality that is almost too much to bear is this. We are made for new life, life as God intended, life together in a world where we are finally free of the eons of the exploitation, oppression, war and racism that characterize too much human life.

In John’s gospel this morning, Jesus tells them ‘I came so that you might have eternal life/ zoe aionos’. We might think as many do – great Jesus died for our sins so we can go to heaven when we die. If you think that’s what Jesus means, listen to the next sentence: “Father, this is eternal life that they may know you, the only and true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

To know Jesus is to know God. That is “know” in the biblical sense – know with our heart and mind and all that we are. And there is only one way we acquire this knowing: by the Holy Spirit that dwells in the depths of every human heart. On our own we are lost to our own sinfulness. In Jesus, humanity has entered the Godhead; every human being has within a spark of God’s presence and life. Our fates are joined – God is with us, for us eternally.

God draws us to know God not so much that we can have a beautiful mystical experience and get all blissed out. Those moments happen and they are beautiful and graced; they come and they go. They convince our dull self-centered selves of the reality of God and the immediacy of God’s presence. But that kind of thing is meant to get our attention and open our hearts to the difficult to bear reality that we live in God and God lives in us.

Jesus is no sooner gone up, up and away, when the disciples are admonished by two angels: ‘Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” You have work to do, get busy now.

To know Jesus is to know God. To know Jesus is to know God at work in this still wicked and broken world that stills longs for God’s approach, that pines for the day of God’s kingdom realized when justice and peace finally reign and every human cry and tear wept finds its resolution and meaning.

We share the ancient Jewish belief that there are two ages; our present time of exile and the promised day of God’s kingdom when God’s rule finally and fully extends to human life. God in Jesus came to join us in this age to initiate the breaking in of God’s rule.

Jesus ascends not to a distant unreachable dimension. Jesus ascends and now is present and alive everywhere. In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus says “Split a block of wood and there I am.” Jesus is present and alive in his people, in the church. And he has work for us to do.

God uses us to remake humanity very much in need of healing and repair. God uses each of us in a unique way to extend God’s rule to this wicked broken world. In the reading of the first epistle of Peter we are reminded that if we are true to our calling we need to be prepared to suffer as Christ suffered.

 

Like the disciples we don’t need to look to the heavens. That’s not where God is at and that’s not where Jesus comes from. Let us look into the depths of our own hearts and look to each other to know the almost unbearable reality that the indwelling Spirit of Jesus is real and alive and each of us has a job to do to make Jesus real and alive in this world.

To him be the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon – May 14, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 14, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess
Readings: Acts 7:55-60; Ps. 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Pet. 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

How well can you really know another person? An unexpected event in the life of a friend or an acquaintance—something they say or do, something you couldn’t imagine them saying or doing before they said or did it—causes us to doubt if we ever knew the person to begin with. Maybe it is an offensive comment, or an act of betrayal, or something even more serious. They’ve broken the law. They’ve hurt someone. They’ve hurt themselves. In sorting through the shock or disappointment, we find ourselves saying, “I thought I knew him.” “I guess I did not know her at all.”

It is at such moments that we begin to wonder if the depths of the human heart are too vast to really know, that perhaps the distance separating our outward appearance from the inward state of our soul is too much to measure. Maybe there are limits to how much we can know each other. Can I really feel your pain? Can you really capture all the emotional complexities and contradictory impulses that I may be experiencing at this moment, let alone all those feelings that I might experience over the course of an entire lifetime? Who among us feels they have mastered these things within themselves? How could we say we “know” them in others?

Yet despite this, each of us still holds fast to the conviction that in our various relationships, there are certain things that others should know about us. Indeed, we expect it, to the point of presumption. If we have spent any significant time with another person, if we have traveled more than a few miles on the same road together, we expect them to know our likes and dislikes, our pleasures and pet peeves: that I like chocolate, and you like vanilla; that I need two cups of coffee in the morning and you don’t like to talk during sunsets. These aren’t insignificant things. If two people have been together long and one person doesn’t know these things about the other, the objection is not, “Oh, you’ve missed a few these things about me” but “you must not know me.” We feel in such instances that something central to who we are has been missed, leading us to wonder if the other person really knows us at all. In such moments we find ourselves coming back to that feeling of being opaque to one another, not because it is impossible to know another person, but because, more simply, we let each other down. We fail to read the signs. We don’t pay attention.

Is it so different with God? In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is talking with his disciples, having just finished washing their feet and sharing a final meal together. He has informed them that he will be leaving soon and some will betray him. The disciples are understandably distressed, so he seeks to comfort them. “Do not be troubled,” he says. “If I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going” (14:1-4). Thomas, ever the skeptic, wonders what place he could be talking about, and moreover, what the way to this place could be. Jesus famously responds, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (14:6).

Jesus’ response gets us into the heart of his complex relationship to the Father, one of the major themes of John’s Gospel. It is not the first time Jesus mentions this relationship. Throughout his ministry, he has repeatedly reminded his followers that whatever he does, whether it is healing, teaching, or miracles, he does in the power of the One who sent him. Indeed, just before washing their feet, Jesus emphasizes the point, saying, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me” (12:44). If his disciples have been paying attention, they will have understood that in both his words and actions, Jesus really cannot be grasped as an autonomous individual. From the beginning, his ministry has had a reflective quality, always pointing beyond himself. He has never been just Jesus. He has always been Jesus in relation to the Father. To isolate Jesus would not simply entail losing a part of his identity, but to lose Jesus himself. For Jesus’ entire point is that his identity is, in its very essence, a relationship. There is no Jesus without the Father, and just as importantly, no Father without Jesus. To know Jesus is to know the Father, and to know the Father is to know Jesus.

If this kind of Trinitarian theology makes your head spin (we haven’t even mentioned the Spirit), then you are not alone. The disciple Philip is similarly perplexed. He attempts a resolution in the form of a request: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8). That it is Philip who asks this question is significant. Philip has been with Jesus since the very beginning, the third disciple called after Andrew and Peter. It was Philip who initially said to Nathaniel, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote” (1:45). From very early on, Philip appears to get it. He knows Jesus is not just another religious reformer, but the long promised Messiah. Yet as we follow Philip, we’re not entirely sure what to make of him. At the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus tests him, asking where they will buy enough bread for the people to eat, to which Philip responds, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (6:7). An accurate observation, but not exactly a vote of confidence. We can presume that Philip would have been present at most of Jesus’ other miracles, as well as his various sermons and discourses. We also know he is present in Chapter 12, when Jesus addresses some visiting Greeks, saying, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (12:26).

So Philip would have been familiar with this business of Jesus being related to the Father. Yet it is this same Philip, the one who had spent all of this time with Jesus, who asks, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8). It’s one of those questions that expose the truth of the whole relationship, and Jesus responds with one of the most poignant sentences in all of Scripture: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (14:9). We have arrived at the decisive moment, when all that one thought could go unspoken now must be said aloud. It’s the moment when one person has realized that it may be possible that the one thing that is most important to who they are, the most central and defining feature of their identity, is the one thing that the other person has missed. What was the relationship about if this has not been understood? Does the person realize that in asking for one thing more, they are denying what the other person has offered the entire time? Jesus responds as any of us would respond, “How could you say that?” It’s a phrase that registers our shock and surprise when all that we assumed can be assumed no longer. “How could you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (14:9-10). In effect, Jesus is saying, “Don’t you know that the thing you are asking for is standing right here? Haven’t you seen how the Father is already present in everything I have done? How could you have been following me all this time, witnessing all I have said and done, and not seen that? Have we missed each other?”

It’s one of the most human moments in the Gospels, yet it is a moment where the disciples are coming to grips with the real divinity of their Lord. They have walked this entire time with their rabbi thinking he is a good teacher, thinking he is a good person, thinking he offers a different way in the world. Disciples such as Philip even believe he is the Messiah. They obviously think highly of him. After all, they’ve given up their lives for him. But despite everything he has said and done, they still don’t believe he gives them everything there is to know or experience about God. They continue to believe there must be something else that Jesus doesn’t quite capture. There must be something else about God that Jesus doesn’t quite show us. Show us something more. Show us the Father. Show us the God who hides up in the heavens. Show us the God who can answer our questions about how things came to be and how things will end. Show us the God who can answer our questions about why we suffer. Show us the God who can take responsibility for all that is wrong with the world. Show us the God who can make things better.

It’s not just the disciples who make these demands. We make them too. In making them, we, like Philip, make plain what we really believe about Jesus: that he does not teach us enough about God. That he does not reveal enough of God. That he is not God enough. If we hear disappointment in Jesus’ voice when Philip makes the demand for the Father, it’s because Jesus occupies a position not unlike the spouse, friend, or parent who has been asked to show more, at precisely the moment when they believe they have already given all that they are. In such moments, the demand for more is not really a sign that more actually needs to be given, but that what has been given has yet to be acknowledged.

The strange mystery of Jesus is that he is not Jesus alone, but a being in relation with the Father and the Spirit, that his identity is relational. When he discloses his self, he discloses this relation. To ask for the Father is not only to miss what Jesus has done in the Father, it is to miss who Jesus is. To know Jesus is to know Jesus in relationship with the Father. When Jesus gives himself to his disciples, he gives them this identity. He gives them this relationship.

This may explain why, in his response to Philip, Jesus puts the emphasis on the time they have spent together: “Have I been with you all this time”? Philip should know Jesus by now because of the time they have spent together, because of the relationship they have shared. And anyone who has spent any time with Jesus will know he is always directing attention away from himself, to the source and end of his mission, to the One who sent him, as well as all those he has gathered around himself. To know Jesus is to know those with whom he exists in relationship. To know Jesus is to enter into those same relationships.

What is this but an invitation to rediscover our identity as images of God? For if God is a relation, and we are created in the image of God, our very deepest self must be relational. The depths that we feel insides ourselves, the innumerable contradictions, impulses, and desires, are a sign that we are at bottom not self-contained, but a reflection of a deeper mystery, an image of a relationship. Our inability to know ourselves reminds us that we are not just ourselves, and our inability to fully know one another confirms the same truth. But our intuition that we can disclose not just a part of our self, but the whole of our selves to one another, and this can become known, and made the basis of an ongoing relationship, is a confirmation of the deeper truth that we are created in the image of a self-disclosing God, a God who wishes to be known. We can know this God in our willingness to disclose ourselves to one another, and our willingness to accept those disclosures, which train us in accepting the disclosure of a God who has already disclosed everything there is to know about him, which is His very self. Amen.

Sermon – May 7, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2017
Rev. Jane Mayrer
John 10:1-10

Tell us, O Lord, what we need to hear, and show us what we need to do, to be followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.

There is an article in the current issue of The Atlantic magazine that seeks to understand “why conservative evangelicals lined up behind Trump.” This is a question a number of people are asking: How could so many conservative Christians [the figure is 81 percent] have voted for a thrice-married adulterer who ran a gambling empire and bragged about assaulting women, and who rarely goes to church?” There is a photograph of President Trump at a rally of evangelical Christians: a mass of white faces, mostly young people. A woman is holding up her young child for Trump to kiss. A big sign reads “Thank you Lord Jesus, for President Trump.” The article examines this state of affairs from a sociological perspective, considering the nature of evangelical Christianity, its origins in America, and how it has evolved to its current practice today. My own take on the situation is not sociological but theological. Evangelical “Christians” are no longer paying attention to Jesus. The thieves has gotten into the sheepfold, and the sheep are listening to their voices.

Religion gone astray is not a new phenomenon. Jesus thought that had happened in the Judaism of his day. When he told the parable we have in today’s Gospel lesson about sheep and shepherds and thieves and bandits, he was engaged in a controversy we might recognize, namely, a contest between “real” facts and “alternative” facts. Jesus has restored sight to a man blind from birth. This healing happened on the Sabbath, a day on which good Jews did no work. Instead of the healing causing everyone to praise God for the miracle of restored sight, it generated controversy about the blind man and about Jesus. Who is for real, here? The question divided the crowd, the man’s friends and acquaintances. Was the “so-called” healed blind man for real? Was he the same man they had known to be blind ever since he was born? Or was he someone else who just looked like the man they knew. They took the controversy to their religious leaders, who wanted to know if Jesus is for real. “Yes, he’s for real,” the man who experienced the miracle insisted, even though he could not explain the miracle. If Jesus weren’t real, how else could he have restored the man’s sight? “No, he’s not for real,” the religious leaders insisted. In a confused logic familiar to us, the religious leaders concluded that because Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, Jesus was a sinner; and everyone knew that sinners cannot heal. So, the religious leaders accused the healed blind man of making up alternative facts, since what the man said had happened did not fit into their perception of God’s reality.

Jesus responded – not with debate, but with a story – a parable. And he used the everyday, ordinary experience familiar to the people who heard him – sheep herding. At night, a family’s sheep were kept inside an enclosure to protect the sheep from wandering around and disappearing, and to prevent them from being attacked by predatory animals. In the morning, the owner of the sheep, the shepherd, would lead his sheep out of the pen to pasture and water.

Often, families would share resources by keeping several different flocks of sheep within one sheepfold. They might hire a gatekeeper to watch over the sheep at night to make sure that none escaped or were stolen. The shepherds would arrive in the morning to take their sheep to pasture and water. Each would assemble his own flock from the larger crowd with a distinctive call, which his sheep would recognize and follow. There was a close, intimate relationship between the shepherd and his sheep, much like our relationship with the animal members of our household. The shepherd knew each of his sheep as well as we know our dog or cat. Likewise, the sheep knew and trusted their human caretaker. They knew his voice; they knew it was safe to follow him. And, they would not go off with a stranger, someone whose voice they did not recognize.

The crowd to whom Jesus spoke was confused. They understood sheep farming, but they did not understand why Jesus seemed to have changed the subject by suddenly talking about it. But, of course, Jesus was not talking about shepherding. He was talking about himself and the reality of who he was – and is – as opposed to the religious leaders and the reality of who they are. And he was using the power of metaphor to describe this reality. Jesus is like a shepherd, who loves and cares for his sheep. The religious leaders are like thieves and bandits. The real shepherd, the true shepherd, calls his sheep by name and leads them to good pasture and clear water. The false shepherd, the thief and bandit, comes to steal and kill and destroy. Jesus the shepherd gives abundant life. The thief brings death. The choice of whom to follow – the shepherd or the thief – depends on voice recognition that comes from relationship.

And that is our challenge today, just as it was in Jesus’ time. Today we hear many voices calling to us and offering us an abundant life, a safe, secure life. There are voices that tell us that buying stuff and gratifying our wants will make us happy. If we drive a certain car, or wear certain clothes, or purchase whatever item is being advertised, we will look right, feel right, and be like all those people out there who are living full and satisfied lives. Abundant life is equated with having an abundance of possessions. The problem with these voices is that they do not deliver what they promise. Obsession with possessions generates anxiety, depression, and despair. These voices rob us of joy and peace of mind.

Then there are voices telling us that to be acceptable and accepted, we must look a certain way, be from a certain place, come from the “right” people, speak in a certain way, hold certain beliefs. These same voices warn us to exclude people who are not like “us,” who do not look, or dress, or talk like us. These voices tell us our safety depends upon fearing strangers. They tell us we must protect ourselves with weapons and walls. But these voices do not deliver what they promise. Instead, they beget fear, hatred, and death. They rob us of safety and security.

The voices I’ve described are secular voices that come to us from the world. But these voices – rather than being challenged and influenced by the church – have instead crept into the church. So, we have churches that preach a prosperity gospel, which says that how much God loves you is measured by how much stuff you have. The membership of our churches today reflects the history of slavery and segregation that churches not only failed to condemn, but embraced. And now that, finally, the church is beginning to confront the sin of racism, it still seeks to exclude “others” not like “us” regarding sexual orientation.

I recently met a woman at a community meeting who asked me whether she would be welcome here at St. Luke’s, since she was no longer welcome at the church she had been attending. I said, of course she would be welcome; St. Luke’s welcomes everyone. Then I asked her why she was no longer welcome at the other church. She replied, the welcome was withdrawn when her partner, a woman, came to church with her.

And then, we have the church telling us that bringing guns to church is necessary for our safety, even though Jesus, while being arrested, specifically ordered his disciple Peter to put down his sword. It is not only churches in the south that advocate arming their members, Here, in our own diocese, there are parishes that oppose the resolution that requires all parishes in the diocese to be gun-free zones. The “right” to own and carry guns must be exercised, even on church property – because we are afraid.

Jesus’ voice calls us to a much different reality. Jesus’s voice is the voice of love. We are loved. God loves us, accepts us, forgives us. And because God loves us, we do not have to fear or reject others. Jesus’ voice calls us to love, hope, peace – the true abundant life. Metaphor often speaks clearer than description. So. I offer a poem by Andrew King, entitled “Pasture,” in which we can hear the voice of Jesus calling us by name to abundant life:

There is a place we can find, a good place
like quiet meadows where flowers spread,
like green grasses by gentle streams;
a place where the heart feels nourished,
where the mind is hopeful, unhurried,
where the spirit is glad and at peace.
We’ll name this place fulfillment,
we’ll name it healing and thankfulness,
we’ll name this good place pasture
for there we seek to feed.
And there is a voice we can hear that calls us,
a gentle voice, melodious
a voice like songbirds and laughter
like a mother comforting her children,
like a shepherd calling his sheep.
We’ll name this voice acceptance,
we’ll name it mercy and forgiveness,
we’ll name it the voice of God’s love,
inviting us gently to feed.
It invites us to enter pasture
when we think we’re too hurting to listen,
too angry or grieving or fearful
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.
It invites us to enter pasture
when we’re sure we’re too busy to listen,
too burdened or worried or pressured
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.
It says: Come in and go out and find pasture.
It says: We are safe with the shepherd of all sheep.
It says: Meadows await us, in this moment.
It says: Rest in love. Where you are. Joyfully feed.

AMEN.

Sermon – April 23, 2017

God Does Not Leave Us Alone
Jeremy Funk
April 23, 2017
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Baltimore, MD
John 20:19–31

Around this time last year my dad was diagnosed with myeloma, a smoldering but incurable blood cancer. The same disease took his father thirty years ago. When he found out, Grandpa Funk had already begun to experience pain from the cancer, and he lived just a year and a half after the diagnosis. By contrast, when Dad got the news he felt no symptoms. As shocking as last year’s determination was for our family, we’re grateful to know that the diagnosis came early and that current treatments may allow the cancer to be more or less managed, potentially for years, with targeted radiation and chemotherapy. Last month, though, Dad felt his first symptom: back pain. So he went in for radiation and is scheduled to begin chemo this summer.

I have listened to Easter sermons all my life. Growing up in evangelical churches, I heard preaching aimed to persuade me that the stories of the empty tomb are eyewitness accounts and that the details of the resurrection stories happened exactly, factually, as our gospels tell them. Yet as I’ve moved into midlife and away from self-identifying as evangelical, I’ve also heard Easter preaching downplay the uniqueness of the resurrection and link it more or less with the cycles of death and rebirth that happen as seasons change.

Last week Helen and I visited family in New York City and worshiped at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church (St. Bart’s for short). A brass ensemble, an organist, two separate adult choirs, a children’s choir, and the congregation offered joyful music in the grand and cheery space. After listening to the Scripture lessons, I settled in for another Easter sermon. We heard a good message, no doubt helpful to many, and I later came to realize that I didn’t hear the Easter news I needed that morning. And because the news I heard wasn’t the news I needed, during the sermon I felt alone in the festive community.

The preacher began by acknowledging how impossible it is for many of us to believe the Easter Day stories as history. His overarching message was an assurance that despite grim political, economic, and environmental realities today, there is a hope. Along the way he suggested that the good news of Easter is not about overcoming death but about overcoming fear, and that resurrection may not be so strange after all—because life teaches us that in time bad things can often lead to good things.

Right after the service I began to reflect on my time at St. Bart’s. I was not at all surprised that I loved singing Easter hymns in a space like a cathedral, or that I relished listening to brass and choral music there. I was surprised though at my negative reaction to the proclamation I heard, and in these past days I’ve tried to tease out the reasons for that reaction.

Of course proclaiming the Easter gospel is not easy. What specifically makes the Easter news good? Is Easter news good mostly because Jesus’s bodily resurrection was a historical event that foreshadows our own future bodily resurrections? Or is Easter news good mostly because we know from Easter that the God of hope is active in the world here and now? Is the good news of Easter about overcoming death or overcoming fear? Maybe the best news of all is that Easter news is good for so many reasons.

At St. Bart’s last week I didn’t need to hear about only a vague, nameless hope during hopeless times. I needed a reminder that the source of hope is God, who raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit living among us. I didn’t need to hear that Easter news is not about overcoming death. I needed a reminder that even in death, God does not leave us alone: God has given us Jesus. In Jesus, God has given us a human being like ourselves, who has died and risen, and who lives today as one with God. By raising him to life, God has made Jesus Lord over death, and our Lord Jesus will accompany us whenever we must cross the valley of death’s shadow, and whenever a loved one must make that journey and leave us behind. God never leaves us alone. That’s the Easter news I needed last week. It’s the Easter news I need today.

I don’t know about your experience, but mine has taught me that life often feels worse late at night. Anxiety is a bird that tries to nest in my brain right around bedtime. First it flits from branch to branch, chirping gloom about my health or about the state of my loved ones or about the state the world. Once I pause to recognize it’s there, the little bird finally begins to fly away.

According to today’s gospel, Jesus’s friends aren’t much different. Of course they’re processing awful events: Jesus’s death and the demise of his movement. And night brings real fear that Jesus’s enemies will come after them. So the doors are locked. But our Easter news today is that God does not leave us alone, and suddenly here is Jesus, newly alive, and forgiving old friends who had abandoned him hours before his death. Here is Jesus, breathing new life into their weary bodies and dead-tired selves. Here is Jesus, granting peace, peace, peace.

We learn from our gospel reading today that Thomas is missing when the risen Jesus meets his friends Easter evening. We don’t know why Thomas is absent this night, but we do know that from the start Thomas had thrown in his lot with Jesus. The first time John’s gospel gives him words to speak, Thomas knows that Jesus almost got killed in Judea when last there. Still Thomas follows his teacher back to the region so that Jesus can be with Mary and Martha while they mourn the death of their brother Lazarus. When the decision to return to Judea had been made, John’s gospel says, “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” If that’s not throwing in your lot, I don’t know what is.

When Thomas talks next in John’s gospel, it’s to interrupt Jesus’s last major block of teaching before he is taken away to die. Jesus is explaining to his friends his connection to God the Father and his imminent glorification and union with God through crucifixion and resurrection. Says Jesus, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas says, no we don’t: “‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’”

So if one thing is certain, it’s that Thomas is an all-or-nothing kind of guy, someone who calls things as he sees them, who takes the good with the bad, who seldom grins but always bears it. Maybe he plays hooky on Easter because to his mind the most clear-eyed way to handle these difficult days is to let go his hopes and desires about Jesus and the movement.

God never leaves us alone; this is our Easter news. But sometimes God meets us even—maybe especially—when we feel alone within our community. Alone in a festive community is how I felt listening to a sermon in New York City last week. And alone in his community is probably how Thomas felt during the week after Easter. For days he hears from his friends that they have seen the Lord as if with new eyes, heard him as if with new ears, and felt his energizing Spirit surge within them.

One commentator on the Gospel of John has said that in this gospel the state of belief or believing signals that a disciple is in relationship with Jesus. A believing disciple is a follower who is abiding with Jesus. After he hears what he missed Easter night, Thomas does not want to be left out. He wants only what his friends have experienced—an encounter with the risen Christ, a new start for a changed but still-significant relationship: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And Jesus does not leave Thomas alone. In vivid language Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds: “Put your finger here and see my hands,” he says. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Says Jesus, don’t stand outside the circle of relationship anymore. Enter again, stay in relationship with me.

Thomas’s response is to offer a full-throated confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas realizes that in the risen Jesus, the human and the divine have been forever knit together. Never, whether in life or in death, does God leave us alone. God has given us Jesus, a human being who lives one with God, scars and all.

My father is living with cancer, and I live with physical disability. So I am heartened by the physicality of Jesus’s invitation to Thomas and to us. Wherever he meets us—in community, alone, or alone in community—Jesus comes to us as the Lord who knows human embodiment. We are not told whether Thomas does in fact reach out and touch his Lord’s hands and side. But we trust that Christ’s Spirit enlivens our bodies. So each week when we gather here, I have an opportunity—you have the opportunity—by the power of the Holy Spirit to receive hugs and handshakes of peace from the body of Christ, just as his first disciples did that Easter evening.

At the high point of our service, the Eucharist, we give thanks for the physicality of Jesus’s invitation to us as we share his body and blood. The bread and wine make concrete the truth that in Jesus God has not left us alone. Those around us may feel strangers to us. No one here may understand the gloom or the joy we have recently been through. Yet we take this meal together in the confidence that we are not alone. God in Christ is here, and in the power of Christ’s Spirit, we join together in God’s love, a love stronger than death. Amen.