Maybe we’re the ones in the ditch ourselves, paralyzed by anxiety about the future, or broken by abuse and unhealthy relationships, or beaten up by disease and illness. God comes to us in our ditches of despair, stoops to our side to tend to our wounds and wash us with the baptismal waters of grace. God feeds us with a meal that brings healing; and entrusts us to each other’s care. “Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks. Anyone. Everyone. For all bear the fresh face of God who is Good.
In today’s reading, Jesus sends seventy people out ahead of him on a mission. Similar to the previous commissioning of the twelve disciples, he gives them specific instructions, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals. Greet no one on the road.” One translation says, Travel light. As modern-day disciples committed to God’s work in the word we begin to imagine what it looks like to travel light. What do we leave behind and what do we carry?
When we live outwardly in response to the truth that we have already been set free by Christ’s death and resurrection, we can welcome the stranger without fear, we can celebrate the diversity of love that our LGBTQ siblings express, we can live more gracefully upon this earth without the fear of scarcity convincing us to hoard our resources, and most of all, in the face of death, because of Christ we can still sing our song. That is the true freedom of a Christian.
You’re part of the movement now. The mantle is passed to you. So pray, march, sing. Swing low, sweet chariot. Swing low and pick up all who struggle to be loved and accepted. Swing low and pick up all hated by their families. Swing low and pick up immigrant children separated from their parents. Swing low and pick up those homeless or hopeless. And swing low and pick up even those gripped by fear and hate.
“Take a chill pill. Calm down. Relax.” Easier said than done. We seem hard-wired to freak out when anxiety or fear take over. It’s the “fight or flight” response, we’ve been told. Like animals reacting to threats to their safety, it’s natural for us to respond quickly, too. Calm is something we so fiercely desire, but often eludes us. Inner peace. The sense that everything is and will be okay. The assurance that God is with us. Elijah experiences this calm after the storm…the wild man in the gospel reading is restored to his right mind (what does that even mean?) What is this “holy chill?” And how might we be restored and made ready to on with our lives and our various callings?
Yet on St. John’s Day we recall the words of the canticle sung by John’s father, Zechariah. In God’s tender mercy and compassion, the dawn from high breaks upon us. This sun tilts toward us, shines on us. And not just us, all people—migrants and protestors, perpetrators and marchers, bigots and victims.
We pray, we yearn, we trust that this tilt is none other than the arc of justice, the mantle of divine grace, the sun of righteousness that is the sweet spot—the source of life itself.
So what are God’s pronouns? Our God who is and was is and is to come is all of them, AND more than we can even imagine: He who creates and orders life, she who nourishes and sustains, and they who flows and moves through us and all of creation to proclaim the good news of salvation for all. We are a people of endless potential, who serve a triune God of endless potential.
Holy Trinity is a Pentecost community. Our differences make life interesting and reveal that God loves diversity and is the very source of infinite variety. The Holy Spirit is the energy that unites us and challenges us to not only bang our diversity drum and say what a great church we are because we try to welcome everyone. Rather, we are empowered to move beyond mere acceptance of others to transformation. As we listen and learn from those most different from us—racially, ethnically, religiously, economically, politically—we become more. We discover new ways of thinking, serving, loving. We become transformed by this Spirit of God, this Advocate, the One that abides in us forever.
We pause for a moment on this feast day to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s ascension to be seated at the right hand of God. Jesus does not abandon us but empowers us through the Holy Spirit to be his body in the world. We are invited look for new beginnings, not dwell on the ending. Stop looking up to heaven to find the Holy One and start looking out. For Christ is among us now in bread and wine, and in this community, and in the love and light we share with others.
Fear, sadness, and anger may overcome us, but today we are also reminded that it is the Holy Spirit, the advocate, as Jesus says in our Gospel today, that God has sent to us to teach us and remind us of the peace that Jesus leaves with us, the peace Jesus gives to us, not as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Instead, like Lydia, Pastor Betty, and countless other powerful, persistent, prevailing women, let our hearts be opened by the Lord to this peace that surpasses all human understanding. Nevertheless the advocate, she persisted, and she prevailed.
If you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love? What hope or dream would you share? What advice would you offer? Jesus didn’t have a hospice team caring for him or a book outlining the four most important things to do or say before he died. And yet we hear his goodbye blessing in today’s gospel text. “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
In the same breath that we hear this command of Jesus to love one another, we also hear the story of Peter, who wasn’t so sure about who was included in this love. Could God really work among the people who were outside of the purity codes? Could the Holy Spirit really reside among those people who didn’t get it? Could God work among those people who were on the outside? Who were unclean?
If we are going to follow this message of Christ, this new commandment, that we love one another, then we recognize that the love of God has no boundaries. That means the Holy Spirit can be found in prisons and brokenness, in greedy rich people, in the meetings of conservatives and liberals, in immigration marches, in back alleys, on streets, and right here, among all of us gathered tonight.
Can you name your top five favorite Easter hymns or songs? Can you even name five? I bet if I asked you to do the same with Christmas carols, you’d come up a long list. How many Easter albums do you know by well-known recording artists? Yet it seems everyone makes a Christmas album. Doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Jewish, agnostic or church-going. Barbara Streisand, Karen Carpenter, Frank Sinatra, Michael Buble—they all sing of “Jesus, Lord at thy birth,” and “Son of God, love’s pure light.” And yet Easter is the principle Christian feast. It’s the real deal. It may surprise you to learn the two Easter songs featured in this sermon.
“Come and have breakfast.” A simple, and easy invitation from Jesus. I remember in the years that I was too afraid to darken the door of a church because of my queer identity, I never missed Sunday brunch with my friends. Brunch was my church. And, y’all, Jesus invented brunch. It’s all over the gospels, Jesus eating with everybody and anybody, anywhere, and getting flack for it. Jesus consistently teaches, preaches, and builds community over food, with food, and in the presence of food. Anywhere we practice this type of communion, Jesus is with us. Jesus feeds us and asks us to feed each other. Life is not always going to be easy, there will be hardships, without a doubt. We don’t deny the pain and suffering of bearing the weight of the cross, but we also can’t deny the power of the resurrection. My hope is that those of us who have been taught that faith is a constant struggle can gradually begin to relax into these moments where Jesus is asking us to be present and enjoy life.
Christ speaks words of peace and words of beauty to us this day—even amid our insecurities, our doubts, our pride, our indifference. May Easter open your eyes. To see the earth coming alive. To see the amazing gifts in each new day. To see the risen Christ among us in bread and wine. To see the image of God in our siblings, especially those most different from us. And finally, to see what you too often miss: that you are beautiful!
Today you may be here filled with fear and doubt and that is ok. Jesus is not waiting for us to get our house in order and open the door. Jesus is breaking the houses we lock ourselves up in offers to us peace and breathes on us the liberating Holy Spirit that frees us. And if that image is too abstract for you and you need something more real to touch and to taste, come to the table, and like Thomas, experience Jesus’ real presence with you. Through that real experience of resurrection, the Spirit is at work, giving us ordinary, fearful, doubting people extraordinary boldness to declare, “My Lord and my God.”
Vicar Noah Herren
September 22, 2018
Silence of Fear, Silence of Grace
A pastoral care professor at my seminary has a practice each time he speaks in public. He takes the time before speaking to look each person in the crowd in the eye, whether it is 6 people or 600 people. The larger the crowd, the longer the period of silence. And while most people appreciate the intimacy of eye contact, this extension of silence can create some discomfort.
Silence can come as a welcome break. A moment can be pregnant with silence as we wait in hopeful expectation. Silence can indicate fear or apprehension. We take moments of silence to honor those who have died or have been victimized in our society. In some cases, silence is necessary to protect ourselves from danger. Sometimes we long for silence when words are being spoken that we don’t want to hear. For all the speaking in our world, silence manifests in important and diverse ways. Silence serves as the space between words and action.
The disciples find themselves speechless, internally silenced, at several points. On the covert journey to Galilee, Jesus teaches of the betrayal, death, and resurrection that he will inevitably experience. The disciples don’t say anything because they don’t understand and they are afraid to ask. One commentary states: “Perhaps they do not want to understand this confusing message about a Messiah who suffers and dies. Or perhaps they are afraid to reveal their ignorance. Maybe they remember the rebuke Peter received at Caesarea Philippi and want to avoid similar humiliation.” We can try to surmise what the disciples were feeling or thinking. Ultimately, we learn that they are silenced by their fear and insecurity.
Who here has an iPhone? You know the three dots that show up when someone is typing a text message but it’s not quite complete? That’s how I imagine the disciple’s response at the house in Capernaum. Jesus asks a pointed question, “What were you arguing about on the way?”, and blankly they stare, trying to formulate any kind of answer but coming up short. This also makes me think of my sons, who like to argue frequently about ridiculous things…especially in the backseat of the car…on a long journey. And then that deer-in-the-headlights look when they are called on it, because they know deep down…that whatever the argument is, it’s not really the point. So, it’s at this place that we find the disciples: filled with fear, insecurity, and misunderstanding…and the only way that feels safe to respond…is with silence. The disciples did not need to speak for Jesus to extend grace. Jesus did not demand an answer from them. Jesus does not avoid hard topics, but neither does he attack the disciples with a truth hammer. Jesus intervenes as any good teacher would, with patience and a concrete example.
The bible storybook my grandmother read me as a child had a version of Jesus and the children. A clean blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy sat on white Jesus’ lap with a happy grin. After studying this text, I’d have to make a few edits to my grandmother’s storybook. Obviously, the first change would be to modify the ethnicity of the characters to a more accurately representation. Then, I would scruff up the child a bit, put some dirt on his (or her) face and hands, and morph the happy smile to an expression of wonder mixed with a bit of helplessness and fear. Finally, I’d remove the child from Jesus’ lap and place her in the midst of a towering crowd of confused and frustrated men, so the power dynamic at play cannot be missed. The great overshadowing the least. With these updates, the scene shifts from an idealistic cartoon to something more like recent images in the news.
We tend to romanticize and project our current view of children into this narrative. Why wouldn’t we? It’s beautiful to imagine Jesus hanging with the kids, kind of like its Vacation Bible School or Sunday School. Programs where our children are valued and honored at places like Holy Trinity. However, what is actually happening is that Jesus is literally taking up one of the least regarded members of his society to illustrate his lesson. This was a political and theological statement from Jesus, not an act of sentimentality. He tells the disciples, not only must you be like this child (a servant who has no social status or regard), you must also welcome those who are the least in our society. You must embrace this child as I am doing. In a time of uncertainty and fear, the disciples are scrambling to determine where they fit in their known world order. And Jesus says, if you follow me, the world you know is turned upside down, flipped on its head where the last are first and the first are last. He helps us them along by filling their silent moments of fear with his message of unending grace. The gospel that Jesus proclaims is grace for all, regardless of social status, race, color, creed, religion, income, age, gender, citizenship, ability, credit score, sexual orientation, or any other category we use to divide and stratify humanity. Jesus extends his arms of mercy and justice to embrace every. single. human. and we are called to do the same.
I encountered a message written on a storefront window on Southport. “This is not your practice life. That which matters the most should never give way to that which matters the least.” This actually sounds like pretty decent advice to me…about priorities, integrity. It even sounds like something we might read in our Bible…some conventional wisdom from somewhere like Proverbs. It feels fantastic to boldly proclaim such phrases…breaking through the silence with our certainty. Yet if we replace a few words here, we begin to see how easy it is to slip into a worldview that damages and overlooks the marginalized. “Those who matter the most should never give way to those who matter the least.” It’s exactly this kind of messaging that Jesus counters in his teaching. The human hands and human societal structures that would betray Jesus and tread over the lowest in society are still alive and well in our world today…and in ourselves. Yet God’s grace still abounds where we fall short.
Jesus message is not one that elicits an easy, quick, or certain response. It’s a difficult message that often leaves us stunned and silent. It’s requires responding to hard teachings and questions that cause our worldviews to be overturned. Like the disciples, we may be silenced by fear and insecurity. Like the disciples we may try to cling to safety by remaining silent. Like the disciples, we may secretly strive to find our location in a familiar worldview. Grace flows in, around, and through these spaces of silence. The good news is that, as Christians, grace serves as our space between words and action…when fear and uncertainty silence us.
As we gather at God’s table of radical welcome, rest in the silent wisdom that grace is for us and for all. In the silence receive the mystery that is beyond words. Amen.
There are many ways to meet an ideal spouse, if you can find one. Consider the story of someone who put out their list of 25 qualities for an ideal spouse and married the person three years later. Proverbs ends with a poem about the “ideal wife” and Jesus talks about greatness. What virtues motivate us?