Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The 5th Sunday after Pentecost - June 28, 2015 - Varieties of Healing

The two healing miracles by Jesus (Jairus' daughter and the woman who touched his cloak) paint a picture of radical compassion.  They follow Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing a violent man who broke chains others used to restrain him, who howled day and night, and who cut himself with stones.  This scary scenario gives way to the healing of two much more sympathetic people.
Yet I think, taken as a trilogy, they show how broadly inclusive Jesus’ healing ministry was.  As signs of coming God’s reign, they offer hope that all sorts of disorders may be made right in the end.  As signs of divine – human relationships, they point to ways that God will reach out to us, even in very troubling times.
Jesus often helped people who were on the margins of society—the violent man and the hemorrhaging woman certainly were outcasts. But the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter took place in the home of a well-respected member of that community: a leader in the synagogue. Yet all were desperate and despairing. 
The violent man ran to Jesus and knelt before him. Mark reported that an “unclean” spirit in the man caused him to beg Jesus not to torment him.  Was he afraid of being healed? He sounded like someone who had fallen so far into despair that he believed healing was impossible. Yet Jesus appeared to be reading the man’s heart. Jesus would not let the violent man slip away, but he called out his despair and drew the violent man into a healing relationship.
Although a very important person, Jairus’ desperation could be seen in his falling at Jesus’ feet and begging him repeatedly to come and heal his dying daughter. How many times did he beg Jesus? Mark gives us the words of only one request.  Perhaps in the great crowd Jairus didn’t think he had been heard. Saying his plea over and over to get the healer’s attention worked, and Jesus left with him.
But as Jesus’ walked with Jairus, a very ill and desperate woman—probably an outcast because of her hemorrhaging—reached out to touch the cloak Jesus was wearing. When Jesus realized what had happened and demanded to know who touched him, the woman became fearful. Desperate as she considered what might happen because of her because of her boldness, she begged for mercy by falling at Jesus feet. He spoke gently to her and explained her faith in reaching out to him had allowed the gifts of God’s coming reign to be hers:  peace and healing or being made whole.
Jesus moves on toward the leader’s home. If Jairus was desperate before, now he was in complete despair as he was told his daughter had died. Jesus, too, had heard the news and told Jairus not to give into the fear of not having done enough to save his daughter. Professional mourners began their loud grieving. Jesus kicked them out, because he wasn't interested in being seen by the crowd as having magical power. He wanted the young girl’s parents and the disciples Peter, James and John, to see their fear of death wasn’t the final chapter. With the gentle words, “Talitha cum” Jesus calls the young girl to embrace life and healing. This healing was one more sign that God’s coming kingdom was stronger than their fears. It showed God’s working through Jesus to bring abundant life to the child’s fearful, despairing parents.
These three healing stories end, as we would want them to with the ill person cured.  But in our lives no matter how hard we pray, our friend or loved one is not cured.  Has God chosen to ignore us for some reason? Or is there randomness in who gets cured and who doesn’t?
These are tough questions with which we must struggle as people of faith. Yesterday I met a woman who explained to me that she had survived a bout with cancer. Then later as her husband was dying with dementia, she fell gravely ill as well and was hospitalized. A neighbor called a family member and said he must come to help them. As she told me the story, it appeared her healing came in knowing she had the loving support of that family member.  Yes, in the end she was cured through medical treatment, but her healing came first through that supportive relationship.
In Jesus, we can see how God can reach out to us to create a loving and healing relationship—a sign that God desires that we become well and whole. To put this in a more personal way, I have struggled over the past seven months after Fred’s death to feel that God was reaching out to me and offering healing. In my mind I knew God loved me, but in my heart I felt abandoned. Then a moment came when my heart knew, too.
Two weeks ago I preached about walking “by faith and not by sight.”  The Carmelite hymn about “Holy Darkness,” which we sang at Sr. Barbara’s life profession as a Carmelite and which I used to end that sermon, reminded my heart that God is present in the darkness of my grief. It reassured my heart that healing would come as I embraced the darkness of my grief as a holy time.  Being patient and waiting on God’s healing was one way of embracing my grief as a holy time.
When and how God’s healing will come will be different in each situation, as it was in the three accounts about Jesus’ healing we considered today.  But I can testify that it will come.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost - Walking by Faith

St.Paul tells us in his second letter to the Christian community in Corinth that we who follow Jesus “walk by faith and not by sight.”  In doing so we become “a new creation.”  He writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see everything has become new.”  And in that state of being “a new creation,” we must live in the way God wants us to live—“. . . we make it our aim to please [the Lord].”
My goodness, it sounds so straightforward, doesn't it?  Yet we may not be exactly sure what walking in faith looks like. Does it mean coming to church for worship every Sunday we’re able? Does it mean contrasting what we believe against what others believe and standing firm for what we believe? Does it mean praying in a certain way? Does it mean never having a doubt about who God is or how God acts?
Walking in faith may well be something slightly different than answering ‘yes’ to any of these questions.  It may be acting with confidence that God will be who God is, and, yes, we’ll finally understand and “see” in God’s good time.
Walking in faith may look like rappelling down a cliff or a tall building—especially if you’re doing it for the very first time.  Bob Gilley—some of you know him—went (in a harness) over the edge and down the side of a 17 story building. He did this to raise money for Special Olympics and attached a video camera to himself to document his descent. Posted on Facebook, the video also contains voices.  Although all I could locate now were still photos, I think I remember hearing someone say, “Don’t look down.”
Parker Palmer, the theologian, recounts a similar experience of going down a 110 foot cliff in Outward Bound.  He describes the rope attached to his safety harness as a “gossamer strand.” After Palmer couldn't seem to get the hang of how he could control his descent, his instructor told him, “You are leaning to close to the rock face. You need to lean much farther back so your feet will grip the wall.”  Leaning back, further out over “the void” seemed foolhardy to Palmer, but finally he was able to lean back far enough so he could move slowly down the rock wall.  “Walking” by faith that the “gossamer strand” would hold him meant not looking into the void nor trying to look to the rock face for security.
So how does our “walking by faith” look from God’s point of view?  God sees us trusting that God’s work in us and in the world will be completed, unfolding slowly as it should. Jesus’ parables, recounted in the passage from Mark’s gospel that we heard today, depict such an unfolding.
There are two aspects of these parables that are important: the seed and the flourishing.  The seed begins the process by which God’s reign comes into being.  Tiny, spread upon the ground, beginning to sprout, the seed appears to be so insignificant.  Without having faith that the seed contains all that’s needed for the grain or the shrub to appear, we might not stay around for the flourishing. 
Mysterious and abundant growth of the reign of God happens in the same way as the grain grows from stalk to head to full head ready for God’s gathering in. Mysterious and abundant growth of the reign of God happens so God’s creatures—as the birds of the air do—may find safety there.  Some call this God’s economy:  the unmerited and mysterious reign of God comes to us not only as individuals, but also as members of a community.  God’s reign promises a time in which, like the field of grain, we will become ready for a harvest. God’s reign promises a time when we, like the birds of the air nesting in the shade of the mustard shrub, can rest in God’s generous love where we will find shaded protection.
We, just as the disciples did, may not be able to “walk in faith,”questioning in our sometimes frightening, frequently discouraging lives, whether God’s reign has been planted through Jesus and will indeed flourish and prosper for our well-being and that of the whole world.
In Carmelite spirituality God’s hiddenness seems to obscure God from us.  But in the darkness, if we keep silence, we can experience God’s reign as God reaches out to us in all the circumstances of our lives. This holy silence we keep will assist us when we are “walking in faith.” It can also illuminate this darkness in which God appears to hide.
I want end with some lyrics from a song written by Dan Schutte, a Roman Catholic and former Jesuit, to illustrate what it means to walk in faith even when your troubles seem overwhelming—as if you were going off the edge of a building or cliff into the void:

“Holy darkness, blessed night,
heaven's answer hidden from our sight.
As we await you, O God of silence,
we embrace your holy night.”

[God speaks]“I have tried you in fires of affliction;
I have taught your soul to grieve.
In the barren soil of your loneliness,
there I will plant my seed.”

“I have taught you the price of compassion;
you have stood before the grave.
Though my love can seem
like a raging storm,
this is the love that saves.”

“In your deepest hour of darkness
I will give you wealth untold.
When the silence stills your spirit,
will my riches fill your soul.”

So how then shall we walk?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost and Memorial Day

How interesting a major feast of the church, Pentecost, intersects with major secular commemoration of those who died in our various wars, defending us and our values.  Can we find some connection between them?

Let’s consider Pentecost first.  The arrival of the Holy Spirit, promised by Christ, empowered his followers in amazing ways.  Every year we read the passage from the Book of Acts about the gathered disciples experiencing a violent wind and something like tongues of fire.  Then they were speaking ecstatically in a way they could be understood by folks who came from various regions.  They impressed onlookers as drunk!  What did this mean? Peter, the disciple no longer fearful for his safety, spoke out to let the questioners know how God had acted. Citing a prophecy from Joel, Peter explained that God’s power “in the last days” would manifest itself by the behavior of people and natural phenomena. The rich images of the end of time still fascinate us: “And [God] will show portents in the heaven above and on the earth below, blood, and fire and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the Lord’s great and glorious day.”

What excitement!  What hope for the end of the world of evil, pain, and division!  Yet we know that hope has not yet been realized. 

So we are left with the reality of Jesus’ absence.  He did not return as the first Christians had hoped.  The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses his concern about our human frailty when we have to rely on hope that God will not abandon us.  So we hear Paul’s encouragement that God’s Spirit will strengthen us and intercede for us so we do not lose hope.

Jesus’ explanation of what he intends for his disciples provides us with yet another picture of God’s Spirit.  The writer of John’s gospel calls this gift from God “the Spirit of truth, the Advocate.” The purpose of the Advocate is to help the disciples testify about who Jesus is by guiding them to the truth about Jesus.

Looking at these three portraits of the God’s Spirit, we may find ourselves favoring one point of view or the other—or maybe sometimes one and sometimes another.  But in all three cases the Spirit is active with us, because God does not want us to feel abandoned. Rather, the Spirit works to empower us, to engender hope and to guide us in seeing God’s revelation of God’s self in the world. All of this, of course, because Jesus could not remain on earth, and he recognized the sorrow his absence would cause.  And now the Spirit’s work continues in each our lives as we deal with evil, with pain, with our fear of death, with all things on this earth that try to separate us knowing God’s love.

This, perhaps, is the link that we can make this year between Pentecost and Memorial Day.  As we remember that those who have fallen in the battlefields or were lost at sea defending our way of life.

God’s Spirit can be with us in all circumstances, especially in those times when evil appears to triumph, when we feel powerless and when we wonder where God has gone.  We pray that the men and women who served our country in wartime and lost their lives were held in the Spirit’s embrace as they suffered and died.

How difficult is Memorial Day for those left behind? Retired Staff Sergeant Luke Murphy wrote an article for CNN online that speaks about this suffering: “As a wounded veteran who served two tours in Iraq, I've been asked to give speeches at Memorial Day celebrations. It's one of the hardest jobs I've ever done.  Veterans Day is easy.  Fourth of July, a piece of cake.  But Memorial Day, that's a tough one. Service members like me think about the soldiers we lost pretty often. I remember when [my friend] was alive, all the stuff we did -- the training, combat and even just hanging out together off duty. Then my mind usually goes to the day of his death. I remember where I was when I heard about it, or what it felt like to see him catastrophically wounded. I picture their faces. They're young; they never get old.”

Sgt. Murphy’s grief at the loss of soldiers who were his buddies could be where God’s Spirit finds work to do on this Memorial Day.  The Spirit would be walking with Sgt. Murphy through his grief, encouraging him and embracing him in God’s love.  The grief won’t and shouldn’t be forgotten, but can be redeemed by the Spirit “who intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

So let us rejoice today that God’s Spirit empowers us, sustains our hope, and guides us.  And let us also remember, with thanksgiving, those service members who gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives for us. Let us remember their sacrifice in silence . . . Amen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The 7th Sunday of Easter: Trusting in God: "Your Word Is Truth"

This summer the Episcopal Church through voting at General Convention will elect a new Presiding Bishop.  There are four candidates. One of the candidates, Bishop Michael Curry, spoke at our Diocesan Convention several years ago. I know a little bit about 2 of the others. All seem to be highly qualified. Yet I wonder if they realize the whirlwind that leading the Episcopal Church will be.

When the current Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori visited Delaware this past winter, she met with various groups up and down the state. I went to a lunch meeting in Celeste Cox’s home and found myself sitting next to her as we balanced our plates on our laps. We chatted briefly and I told her how proud I was of the Episcopal Church under her leadership. I added that she has suffered a lot of criticism, much of it unfair.  She replied, “It goes with the territory.”

For a long while in our history the Presiding Bishop was simply the most senior bishop and remained a diocesan bishop, except when needed to preside over the House of Bishops.  So, although it wasn't by lot, the longevity of one bishop vs. others meant that no one “stood” for the office. Since 1919 the PB has been elected.

What if the “election” process looked like the way Matthias was chosen: praying for God to see which person would be best and then casting lots (in a carefully supervised and video taped moment).  Historically, casting lots was done using sticks with markings, stones with symbols that were thrown into a small area, and then the result was interpreted. I imagine sometimes the interpretation could have been problematic with disagreements among observers.  So the best way today might simply be to draw straws, one with the shortest straw (the loser) becomes Presiding Bishop.

This description offends our democratic sensibilities, I think.  Although many of us profess to try to discern where God may be leading us when we make a decision, it would be hard—were I a General Convention delegate—to give up my vote for Presiding Bishop.  I would prayerfully vote, but that would be my limit. 

Perhaps what the disciples understood God to be like allowed them to trust this ancient method of choosing leadership. The passage we just heard from the 17th chapter of John’s gospel tells how Jesus understood the one he called “Father.”  What has been called Jesus’ high priestly prayer depicts God as the One who acted and who will continue to act—the One who has given and will continue to give.

God acted in giving the disciples to Jesus. God gave Jesus the words the disciples needed to hear to understand the truth of Jesus.  God will act to protect the disciples in his name, so they may enter the relationship that the Father and the Son have and experience joy in doing that.  God will act to protect them from “the evil one.” Finally, God will sanctify them, setting them apart for the sacred task of mission, testifying to the truth of God’s revelation of God’s self in Jesus..

Because Jesus spoke this prayer as a plea on behalf of his disciples, it may well resonate with us today as followers of the risen Christ. Jesus’s prayer shows that he “entrusts the future to God.”  The community of his followers will understand that their life together “rests in and depends on God’s care.” The intimate relationship conveyed by the tone of Jesus’ words offers a glimpse of how we may relate to God as well. We can envision a future “in which God’s governance and care of [us] is complete” and “in which the experience of God’s love for [us] is realized.”*

But in the meantime we have been set apart for the sacred mission of testifying to God’s revelation of God’s self in Jesus.  If that sounds a bit abstract, it is.  But it can be made very real in the way we live and the way we explain our choices to others.  The Vestry is reading and discussing a book by Dr. Eric Law called “Holy Currencies.”  In it he suggests ways in which a Christian community can “spend” and “receive” certain parts of its life together to renew itself and enrich its ministry to serve. 

One currency he describes is “the currency of truth.” Giving and receiving “truth” means encouraging respectful sharing and listening to all possible points of view about a particular issue. I was reminded of our “holy conversations” about same-sex marriage, guns, and the death penalty several years ago. (I did use some techniques I learned in a workshop with Eric Law during a clergy retreat.)  Choosing to participate in these and following the guidelines, we may have found ourselves more aware of God’s presence as we listened to folks who held opinions quite different than our own.  If we can become so aware of God’s presence in a situation where people disagree, then perhaps “casting lots” does not appear quite as antiquated as it first looks to modern eyes.

I’d like to close with a doxology written by Eric Law (which can be sung to the traditional tune):
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Circling the earth so all may grow
Vanquishing fear so all may life
Widening grace so all may live” 

May we see ourselves and our ministries as filled with God’s joy and grace, so God may be revealed through who we are and in what we do.

*Gail R. O’Day, Reflections on John 17: 1-26, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p.797-8

Monday, May 4, 2015

The 5th Sunday of Easter - God Abides in Us and We in God: Bearing Fruit?

As you know, before I preach I pray.  I created the prayer to bring the experience of preaching and listening into a relationship.  You, I and God make up the relationship.  “ Gracious God, be in our hearts; be our minds; be in our lives—and help is to live in your Holy Word.”

God’s Holy Word as scripture should by my preaching and by your listening be broken open in such a way that God can be better known.  We can never understand God fully.  But as my grandson would say, “You can try.”  “Trying” in this context means approaching the Liturgy of the Word—the reading of scripture and the preaching—with an open heart and with an attentive and open mind. God’s revelation of God’s self can happen in the relationship we have created today—a relationship may seem quite momentary, ephemeral—but the feelings and perceptions that arise in this momentary relationship can be carried forward in our lives beyond  these walls.  You may not remember my words—I don’t even remember them for very long—but the experience of feelings and perceptions engendered can last through the hours and days and weeks to come.

The final phrase of my prayer becomes important now.  To “live in God’s Holy Word” doesn’t means to keep all the commandments.  That would be to live by God’s Word.”  To “live in God Word” is to dwell in relationship with God—perhaps we might say “abide.”

“Abide” that word comes up again and again from both the first letter of John and and from the passage from John’s gospel:

“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

The literal translation from the Greek in 1 John that talks about God abiding in us and we in God sounds a bit strange but helps to clarify the epistle writer’s meaning: “the God in us stays” and “in him we stay.”  The same verb is used by Jesus in describing the relationship between the vine and the branches: “the one staying in me and I in him . . .”

So “abide”—yes, an old fashioned word—could refer to the modern concept of “hanging out with” or just “hanging with.”  And, in a more theological sense, since these texts are speaking about God and humans, “being in relationship with.”  Not, of course, just you and God—but you, God, and other folk.

When we abide in in Jesus, the vine, there lots of branches. More than than the fact that many branches are all connected to Jesus, there is the issue of these branches bearing fruit or not.  The fruit referred to in Jesus’ illustration takes its life and achieves its purpose of nourishing humankind only in relationship with the central vine.  So God stays in us and we in God.

Because God’s Holy Word is more than scripture, it is Jesus and God’s creative power.  The writer of Genesis uses this phrase with each act of creation, “And God said . . .”  The writer of John’s gospel tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  So when we “live in God’s Holy Word,” we become part of a relationship that will make our lives fruitful signs do the coming of God’s reign.

As I was thinking about “abiding” this week and through “abiding” bearing fruit, my mind kept coming back to the two tragedies in the news this week: the devastating earthquake in Nepal and the street violence in Baltimore. 

In Nepal the local rescuers worked and worked, even after they thought all the survivors had been rescued.  They continued their tasks, I believe, because of their relationship to the people in the destroyed communities. They were abiding, staying at their tasks, because of the relationships  they lived in with others of that community. 

In Baltimore, I heard a report that clergy who served in the area of the unrest did their best to connect with young people and their parents on Tuesday after Monday’s looting and burning.  They sought to remind them that this community where they lived, you could say “abided,” would not be made better through acts of destruction. Their relationships in the community were important, and working together in those relationships they could advocate for the change they desired.  Did this make a difference? It’s hard to say, since other factors changed on Tuesday as well.  Did the people of the neighborhood who came out to help clean up the streets on Tuesday make a difference? Again hard to say, but this showed people recognizing that they live in relationship—abiding in a place with others—and need to bear fruit in that relationship.

So there is God’s abiding in us and we in God, our living in God’s Holy Word, and our living in communities with relationships connecting us to each other—and to God, even if the people with whom we are abiding don’t understand God as we do. What can this look like for each of us? What can this look like for our parish?  Can our commitment—with God’s help—to staying in relationship and bearing fruit be a sign of God’s coming reign?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The 3rd Sunday of Easter - Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior

Ichthys, the Greek word for fish, came to carry special meaning for Christians.  Each letter of this word in the Greek alphabet stands for a part of Jesus’ name and title: iota, Jesus; chi, Christ; theta, God’s; upsilon, son; sigma, Savior.
Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior: this was Peter’s proclamation we heard from the Acts of the Apostles.  What led to this forceful preaching about who Jesus was?  Here’s how Chapter 3 begins: “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple.” Instead of giving the man alms, Peter pronounced him healed in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Then Peter asks the crowd why are they staring at him and John. A modern equivalent might be, “Whatcha looking at me for?” Then he launches into an explanation of who Jesus is.  He tells his listeners that the God of their ancestors, glorified in Jesus, gave Peter the power to pronounce healing for the man who was lame.  Then he exhorts them to repent and place their faith in Jesus.
This isn't a gentle exhorting. Peter placed blame for Jesus’ crucifixion on these folks(even if they weren’t present), as being part of the crowd who demanded “a murderer” be set free. Then he claims they really didn't know what they were doing. But if they repent and turn to God things will be made right for them—their sins forgiven.
How did Peter become so bold?  Remember his denials on the night of Jesus’ arrest?  He became so bold through his interaction with the resurrected Christ. Our gospel reading today contains one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.
What makes Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances so life-giving? How could this have made the disciples bold?  Luke tells a four-part account this post-resurrection appearance.  Each of the four parts leads toward the conclusion that the resurrected Christ, though changed, was as real as he had been when they had traveled with him.  He wasn't a figment of their imagination. He wasn’t a ghost.
Jesus’ resurrection troubles many folks today.  How can something as out-of-the-ordinary as resurrection be possible? It cannot be verified through reproducing the phenomenon.  Nor have we been able to discover some biological or physical explanation.
Well, Jesus’ disciples were not any more ready to believe in resurrection than modern folk may be. People in the first century did believe in ghosts.  So the disciples feared they were seeing one when Jesus suddenly appeared among them.
But “faith seeking understanding” cannot be considered out of line here.  On Maundy Thursday someone asked me what did I think would have happened if Jesus’ disciples were never convinced that the resurrection had happened—or if it really hadn’t happened.   I answered the question by saying I think the Jesus movement would have failed.  Author John Updike penned these words to make this point very eloquently in his poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”
“Make no mistake: if he rose at all / it was as His body; if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules / reknit, the amino acids rekindle, / the Church will fall.”
What Jesus does next are the four steps I mentioned earlier that lead to the disciples having faith in the resurrection. He greets them with peace and tells them to look and see the wounds.  Then he asks them to touch him. Next he asks for a piece of fish to eat—neither ghosts or figments of one’s imagination consume food. Finally, he explained the scriptures concerning him. Luke described their minds as being opened.  Now they could accept Jesus’ resurrection!
Can we imagine ourselves in this group of disciples?  Have we ever wondered about Jesus’ miracles, the signs and wonders Jesus did in the gospels—could they have been real or something else? And finally Jesus’ resurrection—how was that possible?  We should be able to find ourselves in the same frame of mind they were in: glimmers of faith in shadows of doubt.
What can we do? We don’t have the resurrected Jesus in our midst to see, to touch and to give a bit of fish. But we do have the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and all those letters written by St. Paul and others. By listening to the scriptures being read each Sunday, by reading them as devotions, and finally by studying them, we, too, can have our minds opened to understand who Jesus of Nazareth is: “Jesus Christ, God’s son, Savior.”
And in addition to these holy scriptures, we have experiences that can lead us to faith in Christ.  Many find the natural world with its diversity of flora and fauna as testifying to God’s greatness. Then we may be able to go the next step to believe, as Peter said in the temple that day: that “the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant, Jesus.”
And in addition to these holy scriptures, we have holy communion which we also call Eucharist from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.”  As the bread and the wine are consecrated and we receive them, we may become acutely aware of Christ’s presence with us. In these elements, as we understand the great mystery of our faith, we can see, touch and taste Christ, using our senses, as the gathered disciples did that day.
Yes, in our giving thanks for the blessings we have received from God, we may come realize that the resurrected Christ is as close to us as our breath—perhaps the most important of all the blessings we have received, the gift of our very lives.  Then we do indeed give thanks for Jesus Christ, God’s son, Savior!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The 2nd Sunday of Easter - Living in Unity, Living in Diversity: A Wide Embrace

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”  Psalm 133 reminds us this unity is like precious oil or the dew which falls on Mount Zion.  These are indeed signs of God’s blessing, so unity among kin folk must also reflect God’s blessing.
Psalm 23 contains these words:  “ . . . you [God] anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. / Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
The baptismal rite we experienced last Sunday contains the outward and visible signs of water and oil. The person being baptized becomes a member of Christ’s body immediately—blessed and sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
In the 17th chapter of John’s gospel Jesus prays these words of intercession for his disciples: “All mine are yours and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.
What’s happened? Right from the beginning, even among those closest to Jesus during his lifetime, there has been disagreement. We heard that Thomas would not believe what the other disciples told him about Jesus’ appearance where they were staying.  By his refusal he’s saying that these men and, most likely women, were not reliable witnesses.  Thomas felt his own eyes and hands could be trusted to evaluate the truth of the situation, but no one else's.  John doesn't report the other disciples’ reaction to his dismissing their testimony.
Did he make them angry? Or did they just shake their heads and say that’s just the way Thomas is? We do know from the rest of this story in John that Thomas wasn't put out of the group of disciples, who hid from the religious authorities behind a locked door. He was with them a week later when Jesus returned and showed him the marks of his crucifixion.
The reading from Acts talked about the group of believers who “were of one heart and soul.”  In response to the apostles’ testimony and God’s grace they received through that testimony worked to bridge the gap between the well-off and the poor of that early Christian community.  Samuel Balentine, a professor of Old Testament, described this sharing of resources “when occasions of need arose” grew out of “a  fundamental imperative to care for one another.”  He described a good neighbor as “one who responds to those in need with mercy and compassion.” So the potential for division between those who had property (lands or houses) and the poor  followers of this new movement was overcome with a very generous response.
Then we have evidence of  division from the first epistle of John.  The author of this letter begins by proclaiming his authority because of what he had seen and heard “concerning the word of life.”  He wrote that the fellowship among those were “eye witnesses” and those who only had heard testimony about Jesus would be a joy for him.  His language implied that a division between these two groups had caused him pain.  Now he urges all of them to confess their sins and accept forgiveness through Jesus’ work.  If they are able to do this, they can walk in “the light” of Christ and be in fellowship “with one another.”  Fellowship with one another means that joy will be shared.  Sinfulness will cause division.  Accepting that we do sin, but wanting to walk in the light of Christ, then offering and accepting forgiveness can heal the division.
As I was thinking through the issue of unity and division in our readings today, I began to realize how important this issue is for us today.  While the unity spoken about in the psalm may be a tribal sort of unity, the unity or fellowship spoken of in the reading from first epistle of John and in Jesus’ words of blessing in the gospel reading imply a unity that is broadly inclusive.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 
Our Christian unity, if inclusive, should not rest on uniformity of ideas or beliefs.  Rather it should rest on how supportive and compassionate we are.  It should rest on our willingness to admit when we have fallen short of our desire to walk in the light of Christ.  It should rest on our offering and accepting forgiveness in order to create a joy-filled fellowship.  It should rest on our accepting where each of us is in our faith journey.  If there is a “Thomas” among us, we show the same tolerance for his or her concerns as Jesus did. And, yes, our unity must be centered on Christ.
I worked in a school a long time ago where the guidance secretary and I thought a lot alike.  Because I had the responsibility for making sure the records for special needs students were in order, the secretary and I chatted frequently.  Sometimes an administrator or another staff member would do something that really irritated both of us.  Then we would say that if only “they” would put the two of us in charge, things would run smoothly and be done right.  Our musings were a good way to let off steam, but our being dictators would not have been a good way to build fellowship—no matter how right we may have been!
         Rather, fellowship must be built on the unity that comes through working to create trust and acting with compassion.  Unity does not depend on defining “right” and “wrong,” but being willing to dwell with others in the uncertainty found in the diversity needed to include the whole world: “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate . . . Jesus Christ, the Righteous, and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”  With that said, knowing we can depend on God’s grace, now we can relax and concentrate on loving our neighbors!

                *Samuel Balentine in "Feasting on the Word - Year B - Vol. 2," p. 385.