Thursday, May 24, 2012

Now we are among God

Easter 7-B       May 20, 2012
Acts 1:15-26; Ps. 68:1-20
1 John 5:9-15; John 17:11b-19

This 7th Sunday of Easter is the Sunday after the Ascension: we remember this time, 40 days after the resurrection, as the first time Jesus is not around his disciples. Jesus will no longer just pop in unexpectedly. Jesus will deliver no more new sermons, heal no more sick people, teach us any more new lessons – Jesus in the flesh, that is. What the church, and what our lessons today tell us, though, is the miraculous truth: Jesus still has power in our lives, to comfort, to inspire, to bless, to protect. That’s what this passage from the Gospel of John reminds us. Jesus prays for his disciples – for us – that we might be close to God.
During the Easter season we celebrate Christ's victory over death and in the Ascension we celebrate his entering into heaven; the two are not identical.

The Ascension is the taking of our human nature into the territory where we were never allowed to go. Our created nature -- our kind of people -- were cast out of paradise, and God posted cherubim at the gates to keep us out. Now, with Christ, our status is raised higher than the angels.

These days after the Ascension are curious times for the disciples. They are not sure what will happen next. Their whole identity as a community of disciples – of followers – is up for grabs. They know what they are NOT, but do now yet know what they will BECOME. They have to figure out what the bounds of their community is, now that Jesus is no longer there to chastise them for keeping some people out, and to encourage them to bring other people in. It is a liminal time, a time on the boundary, a time when they are about the cross the threshold – the limen, in Latin – and see what happens when they start to tell the Good News about Jesus life and ministry, and it spreads like wild fire.

As the Gospel of John records these words, Jesus seems to be warning the disciples about “the world.” This place into which they are supposed to go, preaching and teaching and healing, also includes “the evil one,” or the evil powers which can threaten to destroy them and their mission. Jesus’ disciples have been given this special gift – they are “set apart” for this work and mission, but the question is, just how far apart? Does the Ascension of Jesus mean we must necessarily be “out of this world” in order to be a follower of Jesus?

We all know of religious communities who are convinced that they must do exactly that: that they must separate themselves from the world which is, if not outright evil, at least distracting, with its temptations and innovations. But Jesus’ words encourage the disciples’ “set-apartness” as something to help them, not to change them or separate them from the rest of the human race. To be set apart is to be holy, as holy water is holy – it is “not fresher, purer or cleaner than other water; it has simply been set apart and assigned a role that distinguishes it.”

So to be set apart means to be equipped for God’s mission. We had a terrific Sunday last week, with lots of people here who were new or infrequent visitors to our community. We are praying weekly for the various outreach and service ministries we are engaged in. We are working on ways we can tell that big world out there about the treasures of faith and fellowship that we have found here. We know that we are called to be doers of the Word, and we like to do that, big time.

But when Jesus encouraged his disciples to be “set apart” from the world, perhaps that included standing back sometimes from all that “doing” that the world needs from us. Jesus encourages us to set ourselves apart so we can be refreshed, so we can live a rhythm of life not as the world would have us live, but as God would have us live. So we can live a rhythm of life that builds in refreshment, that intentionally connects us to God through prayer, that provides us with time to listen to the words of Jesus. To be set apart is to know in our own lives the reality of the abundant life that Jesus promises to those who follow him.

On this Sunday after the Ascension we remember that not only is God among us, in the person of Jesus, but through the ascension of Jesus into heaven, WE are now among God. We don’t have to work anywhere near as hard as we think we have to work to understand this, to feel this, to live this. We can do all the work God would have us do not because we are particularly holy or good at it; we can do all that work because we know Jesus is there with us, encouraging us on, every step of the way.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The two gardens that God loves

Easter 6-B         May 13, 2012
The Celebration of the Arts 
Acts 10:44-48
Chichester Psalms: 108; 100; 23; 2; 131; 133 
1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

We are surrounded today by beauty: by the beauty of this building, of the extraordinary art work that is in it, of the music we have heard – the voices and instruments. We have seen all this beauty framed by an astounding spring weekend: in the words of the hymn we will sing at the Offertory, God has tempered “fair with gentle air the sunshine and the rain,” and the “kindly earth with timely birth” has yielded “her fruits again.”

In the old traditions of the church, these are the Rogation Days: the time when we “rogare”, in Latin – when we ask God to bless the fields we plow and the crops we plant, when we pray for seasonable weather and a good harvest. In these less agricultural times, we ask God to bless all those who labor, and today, especially, all those artists and craftsmen and musicians whose work is to produce beautiful things.

This church sits in a garden, and this weekend, as most weekends, this church is filled with flowers – God’s most ephemeral bits of beauty are captured for a few hours. We live in a part of the world blessed by fertile soil and ample water. I find it amusing that in “fancier” cities, further away from fields and gardens, locally grown food is all the – high-priced – rage. We here in Central New York can take some of that “farm to table” bounty for granted. It is almost as though Jesus himself were our next door neighbor, our good friend who would share with us out of his great abundance all that we could want, or need, or enjoy.

The bountiful earth, this extraordinary art show, this beautiful music – these are all signs of God’s love. Our lessons today tell us over and over how much God loves us, and shows us this love in an over-flowing and spirit-filled way. 

How contrary those lessons are to the lessons the world tries to shove down our throats. How often are we made to feel NOT loveable? Let me count the ways: through advertising that reminds us we will never be as beautiful, or as thin, or as elegant that THAT girl; through hateful words that remind us that our skin color or family background or country of origin will prevent us from every REALLY BELONGING here; through economic disparities, reinforced generation after generation, that tell us that some people will always be poor and stuck in a rut and others will have the red carpet rolled out in front of them wherever they go.

Imagine two streets in our community. Imagine … this one, for example. Well tended lawns, bright blossoms, pavement swept clean, weeds kept at bay. Imagine another street, in downtown Syracuse, say. Broken sidewalks, weeds growing through cracks, trash collecting in corners, the once-lush canopy of elm trees that protected that street a long-faded memory.

These streets are a few miles apart. Both of these streets are in God’s garden. Both of these streets are loved by God. On both of these streets, live God’s friends. For the people who live on both of these streets, people who are told by the world in a variety of ways that they are maybe or maybe not loved – for all of these people, Jesus laid down his life. Jesus demonstrated that this love, this friendship is far more powerful than any of the negative messages, the cold shoulders, the violent rebuffs that the world can ever dish out.
Jesus loves us, yes, but Jesus also expects some things from us. “Abide in my love,” Jesus says. “Keep my commandments. Love one another as I have loved you.”

I once read of a Quaker biblical scholar, who lived in a time and a place wracked by violence and discord. There are “… two kinds of people in the world,” he said to his Quaker community:

… there are therefore people, and there are however people. Therefore people say, ‘There are children going to bed hungry in our community. Therefore …’ and they proceed to devise and define the ways in which they can meet the need in their community. However people make the same beginning statement – ‘There are children going to bed hungry in our community’ – but they follow it with, “However …’ and they explain why nothing can be done about it.[i]

We have experienced some extraordinary things this week. Artists have talked about how much they appreciate being able to show their works here – that they are asked to show their new, adventurous work, the new places where the spirit of their art is calling them. We, then, who view these works are not mere passive observers but witnesses, cheerleaders to these new and exciting expressions of risky creativity. We have listened to three amazing performances – and here again, those performances have been enriched, enhanced, made even more exciting by our being there to applaud them.

This week, in this Celebration of the Arts, we have seen what it means to be “therefore” people. We have experienced these flashes of the beauty of God’s creation, channeled through the work of these very talented artists. We hold these gifts in our hearts – and THEREFORE we can take them into the world that very much needs them. We know these gifts cannot be hoarded at the end of Jamar Drive. We know that God’s love and friendship spills out all around us, and that the more we share that love and friendship, the more we have, and will always have. As Jesus assures us, we CAN love one another. There is more than enough to go around: more than enough art, music, beauty, joy, connection and grace. More than enough flowers and rutabagas and sweet corn and apple pie. More than enough cookies and more than enough champagne.

Dear friends, if you are here for the first time, welcome. If you have been here before, welcome back. Thank you for being part of this Celebration of the Arts. Help us to take some of the blessings we have all received here out into all of the streets and all of the gardens that God loves.

[i] Henry Joel Cadbury (1883-1974), Professor of Divinity at Harvard University. Quoted in Synthesis: A Weekly Resource for Preaching and Worship in the Episcopal Tradition (May 8, 1994)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Jesus is our Mother Vine

Easter 5 B         May 6, 2012
Acts 8:26-40; Ps. 22
1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Who knows what the Mother Vine is? It is an enormous grape vine, discovered by early European settlers to North Carolina. It was cultivated by the native people for centuries. English and German farmers took grafts from it, grew new vines from it – it truly is the root and branch of North America. As the 16th explorers reported, Roanoke Island was 

“so full of grapes, as the very beating and surge of the Sea overflowed them. . . .” … “in all the world the like abundance is not to be found.”[i]

St. John did not make up the vine as a symbol of connection. From the beginning of time, of course, humans have received sustenance from vines, cultivated them, cared for them, pruned them, carried them as precious goods when they moved to new homes and new lands. Mysterious and powerful, vines connect us not only to each other but to the source of all life. The true vine, as Jesus would say, connects us to God. Jesus is our Mother Vine.

As a metaphor for the Christian life, this one of the vine and branches runs the risk of being over-done – perhaps we are so familiar with it, that it loses some of its evocative power. To say that “I am the vine, you are the branches” is a simple description of Christian community is like saying that “love one another” means “let’s be nice.” Let’s not sell these phrases short just because they are familiar.

Being connected to the vine can be hard work. We are in relationship with Jesus, the Mother Vine, and we are in relationship with the other branches, with each other. We all know, from an early age, that not all relationships are easy. Even connections that cannot be easily severed can be difficult. As a friend of mine said,

… we can all name some strange branches: a crazy aunt, the rigid co-worker, odd and peculiar saints.[ii]

Being connected to the vine can be hard work, in that Jesus expects us to … produce! I always find it kind of shocking to read about non-producing branches being lopped off and thrown into the fire – what happened to the part about Jesus being nice??? -- but of course all gardeners know the value of pruning, how a diseased limb can threaten a whole plant, how a vine that becomes straggly and dry can sap the life right out. Jesus, the nurturing mother vine, becomes Jesus the ruthless vintner. God has a stake in this vine, these branches. God wants us to do something more than just reach our tendrils up to the sky.

There is another word in this passage, and from the passage from the first letter of John, that is also deceptively easy: abide. Jesus expects us to abide him, as he abides in us. “Abide” conjures up kind of a passive relationship, but look: this abiding comes in the same paragraph as the admonition to bear fruit. Produce or be lopped off is hardly the cozy “snuggle down under the comforter with me” kind of abiding. This word “abide,” scholars tell us, implies activity:

… to abide in a relationship means to be steadfast, to endure, to carry on despite challenges and changes. … [God] remains our rooted vine and asks us to sustain each other, not in a superficial ‘have a nice day” way but in communion with each other, to be present to each other, to be in solidarity with each other.[iii]

So here: let’s pretend that this is the mother vine, the vine that connects from the heart of God out into the world. Take hold of this vine. And if you can’t hold on to the vine, hold on to the person next to you, who is connected to the vine.

This is the vine. We are the branches. Jesus calls us to abide with each other, to do the hard and sustaining work of staying connected to each other. Jesus expects each of us, holding on to this vine, to bear fruit. To be productive. To be active participants in the reign of God, in the world as God has created it to be.

Think of it: St. David’s is part of the mother vine. What fruit do we bear – here, in this community, in this place – that helps bring about the reign of God? What are the things that we do that need to be lopped off, that do not produce the fruit, that do not help us to abide in God, that do not help us to connect to this mother vine?

This vine does not stop at the church door. The fruit we bear is not just for ourselves, for our own comfort and enjoyment. It is very easy in a church community to regard these four walls as the known universe. But the vine keeps growing. It bursts the boundaries, cracks the windows, breaks open the doors. If we are holding on, as we are supposed to, the vine will take us with it, out into the world, out into that big, risky world.

As a parish community, we are about to enter into our own big, risky venture: the Celebration of the Arts. Hold on to this vine, and think about that branch. Think about the Celebration of the Arts in relation to this Mother Vine. Think about when the Celebration of the Arts first sprouted from this vine. Think about the fruit it has borne over the years. Think about what has been good and precious and life-giving about the Celebration of the Arts, about how it has connected with the love and the glory of God. What do we have to prune from this branch, what do we have to change, in order to keep growing those good and precious and life-giving things into a sustainable future? 

Where is this vine taking us? What is God calling forth from us, in the Celebration of the Arts? How will God abide in us this week?

[ii] Chris Murphy, from a sermon preached Easter 5-B 2009
[iii] Bren Murphy, from a sermon preached Easter 5-B 2009

Sunday, May 6, 2012

How do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd?

Easter 4-b       April 29, 2012
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

Many times over the last weekend, when a group of us went on our pilgrimage to New York, we acted like Good Shepherds. It wasn’t just the adults, keeping track of our teenagers. We all kept watch over each other. At one point, two of our group called me up – cell phones are a great thing! – to ask where we were, and had we gone on ahead without them? Oh my gosh, I thought, standing on the packed sidewalk of Wall Street. Had I left Simon and Miles behind? Or were they just better at keeping watch over me? It took a little maneuvering through the crowd, but we were soon reunited.

Believe it or not, there was a time when the term “Good Shepherd” would have been an oxymoron – it would have been impossible to conceive a shepherd as “good.” It would have been like saying, a “good politician.” To the ears of those who heard Jesus say these words, this term would have been an odd one indeed. Rabbis would have included shepherds as one of those occupations to be avoided. Shepherds were considered dishonest. They were accused of leading their flock to graze in other people’s pastures, or of stealing lambs from other people’s flocks. In fact an ancient Jewish commentary on Psalm 23 says, “There is no more disreputable occupation that that of a shepherd.”[i]
Sitting here in our very modern building, we have to rely completely on our imaginations to take us back to those places we read about in the Bible, or when I talk about things from other centuries of church life in my sermons. But standing, as we often did, in the vastness of the Cathedral of St, John the Divine, time seemed to compress and expand around us. We sat beneath soaring arches and climbed narrow staircases up to extraordinary heights. We saw monuments to scores of dead people but also walked through a contemporary art installation raising the specter of drought and extinction due to global climate change. We worshipped in an ancient space built in the 20th century, just wearing our jeans and sweatshirts. All around us were images from all centuries and all religions, carved into stone and depicted in stained glass and imbedded in the floor under our feet. All of those images were meant to guide us – like when the early Christians said “good Shepherd,” which evoked an image which was to guide them.

In the early days of the church, before Christians were widely accepted, the Good Shepherd was an image of protection. God was seen as a dependable leader, unlike the frightening and unreliable Roman Empire. By the 4th century, when the Roman Empire itself had made Christianity the official religion, other images emerged of the Good Shepherd, especially in mausoleums and cemeteries. Now the Good Shepherd would be your guide after death, leading you to everlasting life.

We live in a complicated world – sometimes dangerous, sometimes beautiful, always complex and extraordinarily diverse. In a place as jam-packed as New York, we can glimpse all of that, from the serene, park-like beauty of the Cathedral, to clamor of the subway and the rush of commerce, to the confused place that was the World Trade Center. We were lucky to get into the recently opened 9-11 Memorial, but we had to pass through a labyrinth of security screenings and metal detectors and uniformed guards, to get to that place of reflection on what is no longer there.

How do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in this middle of all of that? In the middle of our own complicated, diverse, conflicting and beautiful lives? In this world where we hear many voices calling our names?

In our gospel reading, we see that Jesus contrasts the Good Shepherd, the one who leads, who serves, who will even lay down his life for those in his care, with the hired hand, the one who at no point is willing to give up anything. Rather than serve, the hired hand clings desperately to what he has. The writer of the first letter of John knows these “hired hands” and is appalled by them: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

Even in a world where the hired hands wear all the bling and scream out to get our attention, there are people who hear the Good Shepherd. They are the ones who lay down their lives every day, who give of themselves and find abundance and joy. Their sacrifices bring food to the hungry and hope to the despairing. They are the glue of compassion in a society that is often broken and scattered by all the wolves that are so familiar to us.

We had to get packed up early from the Cathedral last Sunday morning, because the rooms we slept in – rooms which Monday through Friday housed a day care center and after school program for young children – those very rooms were being transformed into a place of hospitality, serving breakfast to people who had no where else to eat that day – people who likely had no home to sleep in the night before. The Good Shepherd called them in that chilly, damp morning – called them by name and gave them a hot breakfast.

The Good Shepherd called, and people came in, to unlock the doors, and to cook the meal, and to set up tables and to serve.

The Good Shepherd called them by name, and they heard his voice.

Listen: the Good Shepherd is calling us, too.

[i] Midrash, Psalm 23:2; cited by Michael Johnston, Easter 4-B, April 20, 1997.