Tuesday, May 24, 2011

To Believe and To Follow: Easter V Year A

In my 9 years of ministry, I have had the privilege of presiding at over a two dozen funerals.  And, I must confess, that I find these to be some of the most rewarding moments in ministry.  As I meet with families to prepare for the funeral, I am often struck by the magic of our lives.  The stories families tell reveal how everyday men and women, young and old, quietly serve others.  Every funeral reminds me that our daily lives are the greatest revelation of our faith and beliefs. 

Our reading from John’s Gospel is a common reading at funerals.  (It is my favorite choice.)  I suppose this is because this reading is full of comforting words, especially to those who grieve.  They remind us that there is place for everyone, including ourselves, in God’s kingdom.  They remind us that we do, in fact, know Jesus; that we have a deep knowledge and experience of God in our lives.  Most of all, there is peace in Jesus’ words.  He says to us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me.”  As we mourn those we love, these words speak to our hearts.  These words remind us that our belief in God offers us peace and comfort, even as we grieve. 

Chapter 14 of John’s Gospel falls in the middle of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse.”  This is the portion of John’s Gospel where he prepares the disciples for his death and all that will follow.  It begins with the washing of the disciples’ feet and ends with Jesus’ prayer for them.  Today’s portion reminds the disciples what it means to believe in Jesus.

Before we dive into this particular chapter of John’s Gospel, I want us to consider the Gospel as a whole.  John’s Gospel is written for a particular community.  This community is a group of Israelite Jews who believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  This belief means that they are now ostracized from the synagogue and the Jerusalem Temple.  John’s community, then, is discerning who they are: how does their faith in Jesus and the way they live weave together.  For this reason, John’s Gospel does not always speak fondly of religious leaders of the synagogue.   John’s Gospel is very particular; it speaks very plainly about what separates Jesus’ followers from other beliefs and ways of life.

It is not hard to imagine that the stories of Jesus’ last days with the disciples were very important.  To this day, I still remember and reflect on the last conversation I had with my grandfather.  Perhaps you have an important memory of someone you love who is no longer alive.  We return to these moments because, in the darkest hour of our grief, they give us hope.  For the same reason, John’s Gospel records these teachings of Jesus.  Surely, these texts offered them hope and strength as they endured exclusion and persecution.

Jesus tells the disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The disciples have chosen to follow Jesus, to believe He is the Messiah.  This means they believe Jesus is the path to God, the path to eternal life with God.  This choice had major consequences in their lives.  Remember, they had been banished from their worshipping community for their belief.  They must’ve had moments when they doubted or wondered if it was worth it.  These words affirm the belief of the disciples. 

There’s also an important revelation in these words of Jesus.  When Moses comes upon the burning bush, he asks for the name of God.  God tells him, “I am who I am.”  This is the name of God: I am.  Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as “I am”: I am the bread of life, I am the resurrection…  This one phrase binds Jesus to God like no other.  It is the revelation that Jesus and God are one and the same, another affirmation of the disciples’ belief.

Then Jesus says to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”  The implications of these words go far beyond the belief of the disciples.  They impact the everyday lives of the disciples.

Throughout His life, Jesus lived a particular way.  From the perspective of John’s Gospel, this way of life has certain characteristics.  It is a life of signs and wonders: water into wine, healing for the sick and the blind, abundant food for the hungry, life despite death.  The signs and wonders are more than physical miracles.  They are also revelations of God’s activity in the world.  Water into wine and a meal for thousands from five loaves and two fish reveal God’s abundance.  The healing of the sick and blind reveal God’s care for a wounded and broken creation.  The resurrection of Lazarus reveals the power of God’s life on behalf of creation.  The disciples were witnesses and accomplices to these miracles.  Now, they are more than allies; they are partners.  It is time for the disciples’ lives to reveal these same signs and wonders.  As the disciples follow Jesus’ way, they, too, become revelations of God’s activity in the world.

The words “I am the way, the truth and the life” trigger in us questions of religious plurality.  We may wonder, “Is Jesus the only way to God?”  These are valid questions.  And John’s Gospel is very exclusive.  Remember, this community of disciples had experienced exclusion themselves.  For them, their exclusion was a vehicle of assurance in the face of oppression.  My hope is that will not get bogged down in this question.  Instead, let’s examine ourselves, our belief and our lives.  As Jesus reveals God’s activity in creation, do we proclaim ourselves as His partners along the way?

Jesus sets before us a great task: to believe and to follow.  These should not be done lightly or casually.  To believe Jesus is one with God is a big deal.  It asks us to set aside our doubts and fears and trust the unknowable.  It requires our faith.  And once we believe, we make the decision to follow Jesus’ way.  This is a way of life that offers food for the hungry, healing for the sick, hope for the suffering.  It is a way of life that reveals God’s activity in the world.  I believe it was St. Francis who said, “Proclaim the Gospel always; when necessary, use words.”  It is our daily choices that sustain our faith because it is our daily lives that reveal God’s presence.  And, at the last day, our lives are the greatest revelations of who we follow and what we believe.  

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Most Reliable Shepherd: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Today is the fourth Sunday in Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday.  This day is a tradition in the Church year and I have christened it Wednesday of the Easter season.  It is our cue that the Easter season is half way over; we are on the downhill slope to Pentecost. For this reason, you may begin to notice a change in the character of our readings. 

Since Easter, we have focused on the Risen Christ. Jesus has appeared to three central groups of disciples: the women, the apostles and the less famous disciples.  These appearances bring a much needed sense of peace and hope to the disciples (and us). They reveal truths about Jesus as the Risen Christ and his authority.  Most of all, these stories offer ways for The Church to be in relationship with the Risen Christ.
  
Next week, our readings will begin to prepare us for “Life after The Ascension.” For three weeks, we return to Jesus’ teachings about discipleship.  He will encourage the faith and belief of the disciples. He will turn our attention to The Great Commandment, reminding us that God’s Way is the way of love.  These readings should encourage and direct us as we follow the Risen Christ.  

Today, then, is an in-between kind of day.  As we head towards Pentecost, our readings point us towards an essential ingredient of discipleship: relationship. Today, we remember that discipleship begins with deep reliance and trust in Jesus and one another.

Have you ever gone on a trip, a really long trip? Think about all you need: food, gas, clothing, money, oh(!) and a map. Have you ever traveled with children? Children add a whole set of necessary items: more food, more clothing and, perhaps some entertainment.  And then there’s everything that needs taken care of at home: house sitters, pet sitters or, even, baby sitters. Whatever the situation, if these basic needs are not met, you can be assured of trouble. And, then, even when you are prepared, the unexpected still lurks around the bend. These are the moments when the term reliable becomes especially important.  

Who do you call to help change the flat tire? Who do you trust to care for your animals, plants or children while you’re away? Who do you depend on? Most likely, they are people or companies that you trust: people you can rely on.
  
Discipleship is often likened to a journey. Maybe it’s because Jesus was always on the move, traveling throughout the countryside. Maybe it’s because we have some sense that life is not static; that our lives are dynamic and there is transformation that happens within us. Regardless, if we understand discipleship as a journey, then there are some essentials along the way. 

What do we need as we journey with Christ?  Psalm 23 and our readings from Acts this morning seem to be direct answers to this question. Both readings point to two kinds of needs for the discipleship journey: physical and spiritual. We need shelter, food, water and rest. We also need wisdom and discernment to follow and trust God’s way.  And, perhaps most of all, we need compassion and mercy.

Who do we rely on along the way? Psalm 23 points us towards our relationship with God. Acts reveals a particular kind of community. If we base our discipleship in these readings, then we can trust God and depend on each other. 

All of this seems simple and obvious. There’s really nothing new at all in what I’ve said. There is, though, something very risky in this way of life.

Imagine if I asked all of us to place all that we had on the altar. I mean everything: cash, check books, deeds to our cars and homes. And then, imagine I told you to trust me and I began to re-distribute everything according to each need.  Would you really put everything on the altar?  Is there anyone you would really trust in this kind of situation? What feelings would you have?  What would you be thinking? 

Now, I’m, obviously, not going to ask us to do this (whew!). I do, though, wonder: is there anyone we would trust this much? Would we do this for Jesus? Do we rely on God for all of our needs?
  
These are the hard questions of Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus affirms for us, with images of shepherds and sheep, that he is trustworthy, reliable. This is confirmed by the testament of the psalmist and the Early Church in Acts. Yet, somehow, when we ask ourselves to fully rely on God, we stumble. 

And, there’s that other question lurking in our readings today: how much do we rely on one another? The time I’ve spent in this community tells me there would be a resounding, yes, to this question. And, our readings ask us to go deeper, to put everything on the table with God and with one another.
  
This is the work of Christian discipleship, the core of Good Shepherd Sunday: relationship and community. Can we imagine that Christ is our companion, our friend, our colleague?  Can we imagine that we are partners in the life of discipleship? Of course we can. 

The challenge put before us today is to deepen our relationships: to spend more time with Christ and to share more of our lives with one another.
  
Reliance and trust make us vulnerable to the hazards of the world and one another; they are also essential in the life of discipleship. When we practice vulnerability, we are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.  This transformation draws us closer to God and God’s kingdom and this is the cornerstone of our faith.

There’s another important aspect of today’s readings. The community between Christ and the disciples is never wholly to their benefit. The shepherd calls the sheep outHe guides and directs them as they strive into the world. We, a community of disciples, are also called out. Jesus invites us to share the community we have, with Him and one another, outside these walls. 
  
With 71 grocery bags given to Salvation Army as an example, we are already doing this work. The invitation of Good Shepherd Sunday is to “keep it up.”  This is more than a pat on the back.  It is an invitation to go deeper, to offer more of ourselves.  71 grocery bags is a symbol of something deep growing within us: a growing community with Christ and one another.

This community will take time. It will take courage and strength. It will take trust and risk. Most of all, it asks us to listen for Christ’s voice, to rely on His strength and to follow Him in all we do.

Peace be with you,
Amy+

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Those days...

Four and a half years ago, our son was born 5 weeks early.  His birth came three days after the Texas State Fair and one day after his sister stuck five rocks up his nose.  He was born by c-section and the surgery was rather traumatic.  He was transverse (sideways) and the doctors had a hard time getting him out.  To hear my husband tell the story, it is funny and scary.  Although he was early, he was a good size and no one was really worried about him. 

EXCEPT he wasn't breathing very well.  They observed him in the nursery and several hours later they came to tell me that he was going to the NICU.

Now, I don't need to tell you how scary that was.  I will tell you that this was only the beginning.  Although our son towered in size over all the babies in the NICU, there is still nothing like seeing YOUR CHILD attached to machines and tubes.  At times, I felt torn between thanks and anger; peace and fear.

Today, our son is a typical four year old.  He woke up this morning dancing, singing and making noise.  He also fell half way down the stairs.  It's a good reminder that every day is risky.

I write all of this today because some dear friends of ours just had their second child.  He, too, had a traumatic birth and is in the NICU.  Today, the mom will go home from the hospital.  It got me thinking about that day four and half years ago when we left our son in the hospital.

Here's what I sent them:

****

I suppose there are many days in our lives that are like no other: the day we finish school, the first time we fall in love, the day we're married...There is, though, no day like today.

This is the day...when you are deemed well enough to leave the hospital.  Of course, this is reason for thanksgiving: good care from nurses and doctors means she successfully came through a traumatic and invasive surgery.

This is the day...when your baby stays in the hospital.  And for this too we may give thanks: good care from doctors and nurses means he is recovering and healing. 

And, this is not how you imagined this day would be. 

This is the day...when there will be an empty spot in the car. 
This is the day...when the house will be too quiet.
This is the day...when you will want to be in two places at once: holding your baby at home and holding your baby in the hospital.
This is the day...when you will be angry at every family who has brought their baby home from the hospital.
This is the day...when you'll wonder: was it me? 
This is the day...when everyone will try to help you and none of it will be enough.
This is the day...when your emotions will swirl around you so fast it may be hard to hold on.
This is the day...when you give yourself permission to feel all those feelings.
This is the day...when you discover you have the ability to love more than you ever thought you could imagine.
This is the day...when all those who love you will surround you with a great bubble of love and prayers.
This is the day...when you have a really hard conversation with God.

The good news is it's only a day.  When you finally allow yourself to fall asleep, you'll wake up and discover that you made it through the night.  You'll wish you could fly to the hospital.  You'll walk into the NICU, see your son and breathe a great sigh.

This is a day like no other.  May you find strength and courage all around you as you face the day

****

May God grant each of us calm strength and courage, patience and wisdom as face whatever the day may bring.

Peace,
Amy+

Monday, May 9, 2011

The First Post Is Always Anticlimactic

It's been ages since I've created a place to "publicly" store my musings on life.  I've started again, primarily because I've begun a new path in my vocational life: Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Danville, KY.  I felt like it was time to have a place to collect, at least, my sermons and then perhaps some other thoughts I might have.  This will be a good way for Trinity to know me AND to keep in touch with all of our "Big D" friends and family.

That's all for now.  Watch this space for more to come.  Like I said, kinda anticlimactic!

Peace,
Amy