Finding Our Home: A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter

This sermon, offered by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on April 23, 2017 at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, is built on the readings assigned for the Second Sunday of Easter, year A in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

This sermon was preached without a text form the center aisle.  What follow is a transcript of the attached recording.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Please be seated.

I don’t know about you all but I feel a little sorry Thomas. We have a three-year lectionary cycle and so our readings for any given Sunday change every year on a three-year rotating basis, with the exception of just a few, and today being one of them. Every year on the Sunday after Easter, when we celebrate the feast of the resurrection, we trot Thomas out and let him say these difficult words.

Now, I don’t know if we can imagine what it was like for him in that moment but I’ve got an idea for a way that might get us close. So I want to try something, and it’s a little interactive so you’re going to have to participate…

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

But unless I see the mark of the the nails in his hand…

(faintly from the congregation)  But unless I see the mark of the nails… (laughter)

Ooooh! See! You guys were right there… You can imagine what that would be like! It would be really hard!

Thomas walks into the room where all of his friends, his companions for these past three years are gathered and they greet him with this joyous news, tell him about an event that he wasn’t a part of, and he doesn’t want to believe them. He asks to see some evidence; “Let me see the body, show me the flesh and blood, show me the wounds, and then I’ll believe what you’re telling me.

It’s really interesting how all of this moves forward. It would seem that Thomas doesn’t believe that this was the same person who hung on the cross, whom his friends have met, and who has been raised from the dead. He wants some factual evidence.

But sometime later when Jesus shows up for a second time, Thomas now present in the room, and Jesus offers him the factual evidence he’s required, Thomas doesn’t say “Oh wow! There are the wounds! It really is you! You’re the one! Wow! My friends were right and you’ve been raised from the dead!”

What he says instead is, My Lord and my God!”

That doesn’t sound like a response to factual evidence to me. It doesn’t sound like some switched has been flipped for him, some Christian apologetic has finally convinced him that this is all true. Something much deeper has happened in this moment. I think that in this moment Thomas has come to trust, to trust.

Ten years ago Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, wrote this book called Tokens of Trust and here’s how he opens chapter 1.

“A few years ago the British philosopher Onora O’Neill, argued in some broadcast lectures that our society was suffering from a crisis of trust…”

 

“It isn’t simply that we have become remarkably cynical in many of our attitudes, that we approach people in public life with unusual levels of suspicion, it’s also, more disturbingly, that we don’t feel the great institutions of our society are working for us. This means we are unhappy and mistrustful about our educational system, our healthcare service and police – let alone our representatives in government.”  (Tokens of Trust p. 3)

Ten years ago… suffering from a crisis in trust… maybe we can understand what’s going on in Thomas’s mind in this moment.

So we need to talk a little bit about the word “believe.” Thomas says unless I have this evidence I won’t believe. Jesus shows up and says, “See my wounds. Put your hands in them. Do not doubt but believe.” And Thomas says, “My Lord and my God. I trust in you,” and Jesus credits him in that moment with belief.

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Have you trusted because you can see me?”

All throughout John’s Gospel the words believe and belief are relational words. They are verbs that have to do with trusting in… Not so much believing facts, not so much in believing in data and evidence, but coming to trust in someone in some thing.

Shortly after the introduction that I read to you from Rowan Williams’s book he’s talking about the fact that we, as a community, gather every Sunday and we say these words together

 “We believe in God the father Almighty…”

And he tweaks that word “believe” the same way that John would have us tweak it. Williams says

“It is the beginning of a series of statements about where I find in the anchorage of my life, where I find solid ground, where I find home.” (Tokens of Trust p. 6)

In a world and a culture where trust is a difficult thing, where we can’t believe, or we need to question the sources of information that we once relied on, where we’re not sure who’s telling us the truth and who is working to forward their own agenda, we need to have something in which we can trust, an Anchorage, solid ground, home.

And so what we do every week is come here together, to this place, and say, “We trust, we find our anchorage, solid ground, home it’s here in this place, and in this person Jesus of Nazareth, and in the God whom he made manifest and describes, whose behavior he exhibited here in this world, that we trust.

Jesus says to the disciples there in that upper room “Just as the father has sent me I now send you” and he breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. And so having been shored up, having been rooted, having been given our ground where we live and move and have our being, Jesus sends us out in the world to invite others to come home, to hold tightly to what it is that we trust, and to share that with others.

Now just in case you started to roll your eyes a little bit in the last few minutes, we need to acknowledge Thomas’s presence in the midst of all this and our ability to relate to him. Because Thomas, and we don’t know how he’s been wounded or how he’s been shaped by his culture and his time, he’s often credited I think with being a scientist and needing some scientific evidence. Maybe that’s what’s going on here, but I think fundamentally what’s happening in him is an inability to trust. Sometimes life comes at us in ways it makes it difficult for us to trust. That’s why I’m so grateful for Thomas’s presence in this story. Jesus could have taken any route, any measure, to help us to find our way to recognize the importance and value of trust. John the gospeler or could have crafted his story differently and moved us to the same point, but if they had excised Thomas from the story then I think we would’ve all left here afraid at the possibility that life would somehow steal away from us, even for a fleeting moment, our ability to trust.

So Thomas stands here in our midst, Thomas with whom we’ve discovered we can in fact identify, and asks for what he needs. “I need Jesus to come back and to show me, to show me! I know you all say you’ve seen him but I need him to show me! And Thomas authorizes, empowers, gives us permission to say those same words.

So I’d like to tell you that in 30 seconds I’ve arranged to have Jesus come through the locked doors here, and stand in our midst, and offer us his wounds. That would be great but I don’t think it’s likely to happen.

What we do have however in this space, gathered together, are the wounds of people we love, people who have been hurt, people who have survived that hurt. We ourselves who bear our scars into this place and dare to stand up every Sunday and say we believe! We believe in a God who loves us beyond measure, who has proven to us that we will never be abandoned and never be alone, a God who has told us that we all have value, and are worthy of dignity and respect; a God who tells us that what God wants for us more than anything is life in his name.

Thomas took a great risk by standing up in the middle of that room and saying I won’t believe unless I get to see this list of things. I think we take a similar risk when we stand up together and say, “We believe, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, despite the pain that I have experienced, despite the pain that people I love are feeling right at this moment. We believe. We trust in the one who came to set us free, to allow us to walk in the light, and to give us life tinged with, suffused with, glowing with eternity.

Thanks be to God for Thomas who helps us to see. Thanks be to God for Jesus who comes back to us again and again. And thanks be to God for this community where we can wrestle and struggle find God in one another.

Amen.

 

Williams, Rowan. Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007. Print.

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Go to Galilee. There You Will Meet Him: A sermon for Easter Day 2017

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on Easter Day 2017, is built around the readings assigned for Easter Day in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

 

 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Thank you. I so needed to hear that this morning…. Please be seated.

I really needed to be here this morning; to sing these hymns, to tell this story, to proclaim that Christ, Emmanuel, God among us, is alive and present with us here and now…

And then to have you, the Church gathered, affirm that proclamation with joy and conviction. I think maybe I can breathe now….

You might think that a little strange. We do this every year. We have been doing this for almost 2,000 years and without fail, every year, the tomb is still empty. In fact, the tomb has been so reliably empty that we gather every week and together we say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Every year, every week, every day, God’s unfailing, unconditional love; the truth that nothing, not even death, can separate us from that love; God’s promise to be with us always, even to the end of the age, is reliably, without fail, true! Every year, every week, every day… the same…

But we all know that not every year, every week, every day is the same.

Some years are harder than others.

Some years tragedy and loss, pain and fear seem to rise from the ashes of defeat and assert themselves in ways that threaten to overwhelm us.

We are an Easter People. We claim this moment of resurrection, of rebirth, a world made news by God’s love, as the key to the way we understand ourselves, one another, the world around us, and God.

But sometimes the circumstances of life, our own lives, the life of our community, the life of the world in which we live, can break our hearts in ways that we aren’t sure can be mended and we run the risk of finding ourselves stuck in Good Friday.

I have talked with an awful lot of people over the last six months who have felt the weight of Good Friday sinking into their bones, trying to lay claim and lay waste, and  I have to confess to you that I have been there too.

It may have sounded strange to you when I shared how badly I needed to hear our Easter proclamation this morning, but among the truths that we proclaim it’s important to name Good Friday, to make space for our varied experience of life, and to point in this moment of truth telling we are not alone.

Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” arrived at the tomb this morning their hearts broken their hopes and dreams dashed. While other accounts of the story have them arriving to anoint Jesus for burial, Matthew offers no explanation for their coming. We can only assume that their grief and suffering they come to the only place that makes sense, the place where Jesus’s body has been laid. What is next healed their broken hearts but it might just as easily have stopped them altogether.

There’s an earthquake, the stone is rolled away, and an angel of the Lord whose appearance was like lightning and whose clothes were as white as snow sat upon the stone and spoke to them. The guards, who were there to keep watch over the tomb, fainted dead away, but the women who had come to the tomb with their bleeding hearts their hands kept their senses and their wits about them, and received the gift that changed the world forever.

“Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

So they left the tomb with fear great joy and ran to tell his disciples. Imagine how that joy was multiplied when on their way to tell the disciples Jesus himself greets them. He says to them, “Greetings.” They fall to their knees at his feet and worship him. Here in the midst of fulfilling the mission that they have been given, to go tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead, they are given the gift of Jesus presence and they find him on their way to Galilee. The two “Marys” then go to the disciples with a new message.

Jesus says to them,

“Do not afraid; tell my brothers to go to Galilee there they will see me.”

That message has the power to mend our broken and bleeding hearts, to make us whole, to give us hope again, and to send us into the world search in search of the risen Christ.

But it’s not without good reason that both the angel of the Lord and Jesus start their messages to those they address with the words, “Do not be afraid.”

once our hearts have been broken, once our dreams have been dashed, it gets harder the venture out into the world. It get harder to risk being hurt again. It gets harder to make ourselves vulnerable in that way by hoping beyond hope that the promises, which we have been given, are in fact true.

Good Friday is always lurking on the periphery waiting to assert its hold on us, waiting to creep into our consciousness, and to dark our vision and our ability to see. That’s why, I think, both the Angel and Jesus himself, in the post-resurrection appearances, tell us to search for Jesus in Galilee.

Galilee, near the place where Jesus was born, the place where in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus spends half 0f the chapters devoted to describing his ministry. The other half being devoted to his Journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Galilee, the place where Jesus preached, taught, and showed us the way to heaven, where he healed the sick, where for a sinners, where he cast out demons, where he taught us that the way to experience a life that is suffused with and color forever by the eternal, is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. It is there, in that place, in Galilee that we will meet him.

We will meet him there in the loving signatures of the people write us cards expressing their understanding of our grief and pain in ways that only someone loves us can understand. We’ll find him there in the eyes of the people who with compassion turn to the people on the margins and the oppressed, and offer them a hand, lifting them up so that we might all stand together. It’s there in Galilee in communities that gather around the risen Christ and offer the proclamation that we shared this morning, that he will meet him, that we will feel his love, and where we will know that we are never alone.

So no matter how you came in here this morning, whether it was with your broken heart in your hand and the weight of Good Friday riding on shoulders, or whether it was to have reaffirmed and strengthened the sense of joy and peace that you feel knowing that God is alive and present, even if you only came this morning for the Easter Egg Hunt… It is good that we are here.

Jesus said this to the Mary’s, go and tell my brothers, and my sisters, to go to Galilee. There they will see me. This my brothers and sisters, is Galilee…

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Where Were They When They Crucified Our Lord? A sermon for Good Friday 2017

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on April 14, 2017, is built on the readings assigned for Good Friday in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

If this sermon sounds familiar to you that is probably because it is the sermon, with a few tweaks and a little fine tuning, that I offered on Good Friday last year.

Many of you know that I am a musician.  As a musician, I know that the same riff, or melodic figure, can sound very different when played against a different chord.  The harmonic context against which a melody is heard has a huge impact on the way that we hear, receive and interpret that melody.  I thought that this sermon worked last year.  But based on the feedback I received today I believe that this sermon works even better in our current “harmonic context.”  Oh how I wish that were not the case….

 

Good Friday Sermon 2017

“What is truth?” I wonder how Pilate spoke those words? Was he sincere? Did he utter them with a plaintive longing in his voice? Was it merely a rhetorical question? Or…. Did he ask it with a derisive sneer?

The story would seem to indicate that, at least at first, Pilate was trying to discern the truth. He goes out to meet the crowd that is clamoring for Jesus’s death and asks, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” He comes back inside to question Jesus and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  “What have you done?”

He goes back outside and tells the crowd that He can find no case against him and offers to release him, but the crowd continues to insist that Jesus be put to death.

So, seeking to placate the crowd, Pilate has Jesus flogged, and, understanding Jesus to be innocent, and trying to honor the truth as he understood it, again tries to release him.

But the crowd roars for Jesus’ death and tells Pilate that Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God.

Pilate returns to Jesus and continues to ask him questions, still trying to understand, still seeking the truth, almost begging Jesus to respond and spare himself the fate the crowd demands.

Pilate is frightened. The crowd’s charge, Jesus’ responses have him beginning to recognize that there is something going on here that is beyond him, something that he doesn’t understand… and he continues to work the crowd trying to find a way to have Jesus released…

And then something devastating happens…

The crowd finds a way to turn their threats against Pilate…

“If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”

Pontius Pilate was a mid level bureaucrat, a career military man and politician whose position rested on his ability to curry favor with those above him, especially with the Emperor.

If word got back to Rome that he had released someone who was undermining Cesar’s claims to divinity, Cesar’s claim to divine kingship, if he released someone who was seeking to usurp the basis of the Emperor’s power… Pilate’s career, maybe even his life, would be over.

The fear that Pilate felt as he began to approach the truth about Jesus was suddenly supplanted by fear for his own career, fear for his status and rank in society, fear for his position in the only hierarchy he knew and understood.

So in this moment of crisis, Pilate turns his back on truth and condemns an innocent man.

He turns his back on truth…

Jesus told Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Apparently Pilate wasn’t listening.

Jesus told us that we are all, all of us, beloved of God. This truth that Jesus proclaimed has the power to break down the walls that divide us, to heal the instinctual tribalism that causes us to see the world as “us” and “them,” to reconcile us one to another and to God.

Jesus told us that we are all, all of us, children of the same God and that we are called to care for the weak and the poor, the disenfranchised, those on the margins, the alien in our midst, even those who have harmed or wronged us!

The truth that Jesus proclaimed has the power to bring our border conflicts, our police actions, our wars to an end.

Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

And he taught us that the way to true life, a life that is shaped by and infused with the eternal, comes through loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and through loving our neighbor as ourselves.

When push came to shove, and the harsh political realities of believing and living by the truth to which Jesus testified became clear… Pilate stopped listening to the truth and, instead, bought into the false promises of demagoguery and empire…

Demagoguery and Empire cannot abide this truth and so, when it is confronted by The Truth, it seeks to destroy it…

It seeks to destroy The Truth

Here’s the thing….

Jesus didn’t just give voice to truth… he himself is The Truth.

Jesus, Emanuel, God among us. Jesus, The Truth, manifest in our midst, trying to help us to grasp the reality, that we, all of us, with all of our scars, imperfections and flaws, are beloved of God, have value in God’s sight, and are worthy of dignity, respect, of love.

Jesus’s words, his testimony, his teaching countered the claims and lies of empire.

Jesus, The Truth’s very presence among us, represents a challenge to the fear, competition, scapegoating, and the tribalism that fuels and undergirds empire… so empire had him killed.

Rome killed The Truth to suppress its voice and oppress a people.

Pilate killed The Truth to suppress its voice and protect his own position, status, and power.

The temple authorities killed The Truth to suppress its voice and protect a way of life, their traditions, their religion, their heritage… all of which supported their power and their privileged place in society.

Today, standing at the foot of the cross we look upon the work of empire and we are called to acknowledge and confess

The evil we have done

The evil that enslaves us

And the evil done on our behalf

Whenever we fail to care for the poor, the hungry, the naked, or the prisoner, we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.

Whenever we diminish, degrade, or dehumanize another in order to maintain our power, status or privilege… we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.

Whenever we scapegoat a person, or a people, in order to justify their oppression and our own acts of aggression… we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.

Whenever we deny our connection to, and responsibility for one another, whenever we deny a child of God the dignity and respect that, by virtue of our common origins, belong to all of us… we are here standing at the foot of the cross.

We are here standing at the foot of the cross…

So why is it that when we sing, we ask, “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?”

I think that we want to hear that song as filled with pathos and shared grief. We sing those words in search of others who share our pain and dismay at the spectacle of The Truth, dead, nailed to a tree, its side pierced, its breath stolen away. We sing that hymn as observers of an event that happened long ago in a land far, far away…

But the truth is that we, we are standing right here, at the foot of the cross… and right now, around the world, and here at home, the voice of demagoguery and empire is ringing out, telling its lies, looking for people to devour in its insatiable appetite for destruction and death.

The question isn’t so much “Where you there?

Against this backdrop of fear mongering, of incitement, of tribalism; against empire’s howl of rage and confusion at the threat to its power and privilege, we must hear the words of this hymn as a call to action.

The question this hymn is truly asking is “will we be there?”

Will we be there when they try, again and again, to crucify our Lord?

Will we be there to raise The Voice of Truth in protest?

Will we be there, risking the wrath of empire and proclaiming the kingship of The Truth?

Will we be there beginning to heal the wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ…. by following his commandment and loving one another as he has loved us…

Or will God’s people someday look back at us and ask,

“Where were they, when they crucified our Lord?”