It might be a vision from God, it might be your stomach growling: A Sermon for 5 Easter, 2019

Today marks the end of the program year for our Christian Formation program. It’s a custom here at Grace that on this day we recognize all those who have worked in our Christian formation program as teachers and as volunteers and to invite the children and youth in the program to participate in our service by serving as ushers, lectors, and Eucharistic ministers. Things are always a bit chaotic on this day, which is not necessarily a bad thing. We experience the full breadth and depth of our congregation—its diversity in ages. And we see concretely how our Christian formation program has grown over the last decade. This year we added a second class during the 10:00 service to accommodate that growth, and next year, we anticipate dividing the older group that meets at 9 into separate classes for middle and high schoolers. Much of the success of the program is due to the energy, passion, and creativity of Pat Werk, and also to all those volunteers whom we will recognize later in the service.

That’s all a sign of growth and change at Grace. While we might welcome such growth, it’s also important to recognize that growth brings with it some challenges. We may not know or recognize everyone who worships with us on Sunday mornings; the presence of children in our services can also make things a little more chaotic, and not just on this Sunday morning. And we are struggling with space. As we consider splitting the youth into two classes, finding space for the second class to meet will require some flexibility and creative thinking.

In the book of Acts, we read the story of the spread of the gospel and the growth in numbers of the followers of Jesus in the first years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Luke tells us a story full of drama and excitement but he also records some of the conflict that such growth involved. We see some of that conflict here, in the story of Peter and Cornelius.

Have you ever been in a situation where someone you respected, someone in authority told you to do something you had never done before, something that went against everything you had been taught, would have challenged your very sense of identity, who you were, how you understood yourself, your deepest values? Can you imagine that? How would you respond?

That’s just what happened to Peter. He was staying with Simon the Tanner in Joppa and as he waited for lunch, he had a vision that unsettled him and challenged his very sense of self. A cloth comes down, on it are all sorts of unclean animals. A voice calls to him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter refuses. The same thing happens three times, and just as the vision comes to an end, messengers sent by Cornelius knock at the door. Peter and some others go with them. Peter preaches to Cornelius’ household, the Holy Spirit comes down on those present, and Peter baptizes them.

We hear the second version of that story, as Peter retells it to the gathered community in Jerusalem after his return from Caesarea. It wasn’t a simple update from Peter to the home office. There was grave concern about what had happened while he was traveling:

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

In other words, they weren’t bothered that Peter had preached to Gentiles or that he had baptized them. What concerned them was that he had eaten with them. Peter had visited Cornelius, stayed with him for several days, and had eaten at his table. From Luke’s perspective, this all would have been offensive to observant Jews.

Let me take a moment to unpack this. It’s crucial to compare the New Testament accounts with what we know from other sources and in this case, Luke is mis-stating the nature of Jewish practice in the first century. Certainly, observant Jews maintained strict dietary laws—eating only those foods that were clean by biblical standards. That’s what was at stake in the vision Peter had. But the notion that as Luke records a bit earlier (Acts 10:28) “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile” is wrong. In 1stcentury Palestine, it would have been impossible for Jews not to have had contact with Gentiles. So Luke is depicting Judaism in negative terms here, and also caricaturing the position of Peter’s critics.

Now certainly there were important issues at stake. We will see the conflict again next week as we hear the story of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem and the so-called Jerusalem council. The question whether Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah needed to be circumcised and to follow Jewish dietary laws was an important one. From the perspective of 21stcentury Americans, it’s hard to understand what was at stake, and to take seriously the concerns around circumcision. We know how the story ended.

But given the resurgence of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Judaism, we must recognize when new testament texts and their authors present Judaism in negative light and provide cover for contemporary anti-semitism. This is one of those places. It’s obvious to us that circumcision and Jewish dietary laws no longer apply and we regard those who wanted to maintain them misguided. They were in a very different place. The relationship between the Jesus movement and Judaism was not defined. The emergence of two religions—Judaism and Christianity—was not at all an obvious development.

But there are other lessons for us here. We should think carefully about the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the ways in which our sacred texts and Christian history have led to persecution, anti-semitism, and ultimately the Holocaust.

We often look at the story of Acts, the spread of the Gospel, the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the resistance to that from certain parties and interpret our own experiences and the life of the 21stcentury church in light of that narrative. How many times have people said when change is happening in the church, that the Holy Spirit is moving or doing a new thing? When the question is asked that way, the speaker always is advocating that change is good, that the innovation is a faithful adaptation of our faith to new realities.

I’m not so sure. There’s a passage in Deuteronomy that I’ve always found helpful here. The text is addressing the rise of false prophets and raises the question of how to distinguish true from false prophecy. Well, the answer that’s offered isn’t particularly reassuring—basically the advice is to wait and see whether the prophecy comes true. In other words, you can’t really distinguish true and false prophecy until after the fact.

Our congregation is experiencing change. The Episcopal Church is experiencing change, Christianity in America and worldwide is experiencing change. We may be uncomfortable with some of those changes; we may welcome them but as faithful Christians our ultimate task is to discern the work of the spirit, to listen to scripture and tradition, to pay attention to voices on all sides of an issue, and seek God’s wisdom and will in the midst of it, recognizing that our perspective might not be correct in the long run.

And the vision we receive, the voice that tells us, “Get up, kill and eat” may be heaven. It may also be our stomachs growling.

 

 

 

 

The Disciple named Tabitha: A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2019

When I was a boy, one Wednesday a month, my mother would drop me off at my grandfather’s house to spend the day while she took my grandmother and my sisters to the church to what was called “Sewing.” The women of the church gathered together to work on quilts, comforters, and other sewing projects that would be donated to relief sales or sent to people in need—after natural disasters, for example. I’m not sure when or if the custom ended, if it died out like so many other customs did with our changing culture. Continue reading

Easter Encounters, Easter Relationships: A Sermon for Easter, 2019

I’ve long been fascinated with cemeteries. When I lived in Massachusetts, I loved to walk through old graveyards—the Old Granary Burying Ground in Boston, or the old graveyard in Newburyport. They are places of history and witnesses to the lives of those who are buried there.

As a priest, I’ve buried people in family plots in almost forgotten cemeteries in Greenville, SC, or in rural cemeteries throughout Southern Wisconsin. But increasingly, as our culture changes and we are less connected to family and to place, we find other ways to remember our loved ones and the notion of visiting a cemetery to mourn or remember a dear friend or family member is increasingly uncommon.

Not so in the first century. Mary Magdalene came to Jesus’ tomb while she was still raw with grief. The other gospels offer an explanation for the appearance of the women at the tomb—they come to anoint Jesus’ body with spices and ointment for burial. Mary Magdalene came to the to grieve. Her grief is the grief shared by humans everywhere at the loss of a loved one. It’s a grief we’ve all experienced. No doubt, some of you carry such grief in your hearts this morning.

But her grief is especially familiar to those who have lost friends and family members in an untimely fashion, and especially those who grieve the deaths of those they love because of the violence, oppression, and hate of other humans. No doubt, in her grief is also fear, and anger, impotence and rage.

Imagine her surprise, her horror when she discovers that the tomb is empty, a final indignity to her friend. He couldn’t even be allowed to rest in peace. In fear and anger she runs to her friends, to tell them what has happened, to share the outrage. Peter and the other, the beloved disciple run to see, look at the empty tomb, see the discarded grave clothes and leave.

Mary stays behind, lingering in the garden, lingering with her fears and doubts, lingering with her dashed hopes. The angel tells her what has happened—but she cannot take it all in. She can’t understand the meaning of his words. And so she turns. She sees the gardener, deciding to ask him where Jesus’ body was taken.

And in that moment, everything changes. He calls her by name; the mist of incomprehension is cleared from her eyes, and she knows him, “Rabbouni, Teacher,” she cries out. Suddenly Mary, and all of us, experience the world, our lives made new in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The risen Christ transforms her grief into joy. In his presence, she experiences the power of God’s love.

I’m not expecting you to understand or make sense of the resurrection. I am asking you to believe it, to experience it. I’m hoping you’ll experience it like Mary Magdalene did, in that moment that Jesus called her name. I’m hoping you’ll experience that flash of recognition, suddenly knowing Jesus Christ, knowing yourself, and knowing the possibility of resurrection in your own life.

For the resurrection is not just about an empty tomb and a two thousand year old story. It is about relationship, with God in Jesus Christ. It’s experiencing a God who overcomes death, a God who created us and the world, a God who in Jesus Christ is making a new creation in ourselves and in the world. It is a story about a God who doesn’t give up, a God who doesn’t abandon us to our own devices and desires. As Rowan Williams has said, “the resurrection is at least in part about the sheer toughness and persistence of God’s love.”

Last night, we baptized two people; this morning we will baptize two more, Grant and Luke Flannery. They will be baptized by their grandfather, Rev. Floyd Schoenhals, who already knows them intimately and has called them by name many times. In baptism, we are all called by name by Jesus, we all enter into relationship with him, and whoever we are, whatever we have done we are made new in that moment. Called by name, recognized by Jesus Christ, marked as Christ’s own forever.

In our world, there are so many voices, so many people who try to name us, to tell us who we are, and what our worth and value is. We are bombarded by imagery and advertising that holds up impossible ideals of beauty, wealth, and success, that tells us repeatedly, endlessly that unless we do this, or buy this, or have these, we are of no worth. We live in a culture where still, the color of our skin, our national origin, our gender or sexual identity, our educational attainment, defines who we are, what our value is. We internalize those messages and sometimes we are filled with self-loathing, insecurities. Often those messages and identities shape our lives, our futures, our destinies.

When Jesus said, “Mary” he broke through all of the barriers in her life that prevented her from knowing him fully. When Jesus said, “Mary” he removed the mists of incomprehension from her eyes and from her heart. When Jesus said “Mary” he also says all of our names, inviting us into relationship with him, inviting us to know and experience him fully, inviting us to experience the wonder and persistence of God’s love.

Just as Jesus called “Mary,” he calls us, inviting us into relationship, inviting us into experiencing the risen Christ, inviting us to experience transformed humanity, the world made new by the God’s creative love. Jesus calls us by name. He tells us who we are, his beloved children, marked as his own forever.

When the Risen Christ calls us by name and invites us into relationship, the power of resurrection begins to transform us and our lives, making us new creations, remaking us in his image and likeness.

We mustn’t let it end there, however, not with our own experience of the wonder and persistence of God’s love. Like Mary, our joy should be so great, our hearts so overflowing that we want to share the good news of that love, inviting others into relationship with Jesus Christ, calling others by name as he called us by name, making present to them the transforming power of new life in Christ, inviting them to experience the power of resurrection.

Living the Easter story: A Sermon for the Easter Vigil, 2019

A few minutes ago, we baptized Adrian and Roland. If my math is correct, Adrian celebrated his 30thbirthday yesterday; Roland was born on January 15, so he’s just over 3 months old. Adrian has a story he tells about himself, where he came from, who he is. Roland’s story is just beginning and he isn’t able to tell it yet.

But tonight, both of them entered into another story, the story of salvation. We heard some of those highlights in the series of readings from Old Testament, beginning with Creation, the Flood, and the deliverance at the Red Sea. We heard another version of that story in Paul’s description of baptism from the letter to the Romans: Continue reading

Scandal and Glory: A Sermon for Good Friday, 2019

We have heard again the dramatic, heart-breaking story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution as recorded in the Gospel of John. For those of us who know it well, it is a story that grips us with gut-wrenching power. It also may repel us because of the ways it has been interpreted, the ways we’ve internalized the story and meaning of the crucifixion, and in John’s case the unrelenting, offensive anti-Judaism that jumps out at us. Continue reading

Walking, Riding, Dying: A Homily for Palm/Passion Sunday, 2019

How many miles had Jesus walked on his long journey to Jerusalem? Way back in chapter 9, Luke tells us “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” But even before that, he had been walking throughout Galilee. He had walked and along the way he had healed and taught. Now, finally, as he approaches Jerusalem, he instructs his disciples to fetch a donkey so he could ride on it for a bit.

He may have been tired. He may have been full of anxiety and fear about what would happen in Jerusalem, but he didn’t ask for a donkey so that the final leg of his journey would be less taxing. He wanted to ride on a donkey to make a point—to stage a demonstration. It’s a clear reference to Zechariah 9:9: Continue reading

The Disciple who poured out love: A Sermon for Lent 5C, 2019

A few days ago, I had one of those uncomfortable encounters I have from time to time in Madison. I had stopped into Barrique’s for a cup of coffee, and sat down at a table to read through the latest Isthmus edition. There were two well-dressed men at the next table having a conversation. One of them saw me and began to ask me about the shelter. What followed was a fifteen minute rant about the evils of homelessness and the need to construct a shelter somewhere else than downtown. Their brilliant idea was to put it down by the Alliant Center, far away from their places of business and residence downtown, far enough away that they wouldn’t be bothered by homeless people, or presumably by panhandlers because they could not get downtown anymore. Continue reading