We are one in Christ Jesus

Second Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalm 42; Galations 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

All the other prophets have been killed, and Jezebel wants to kill Elijah. It’s not surprising that he runs and hides. An angel provides food and water for him, and tells him where to go. The word of the Lord tells him that the Lord is about to pass by. The Lord, the story says, was not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. The Lord appears with the “sound of sheer silence”. The Lord tells Elijah to return home, but you know he is being protected.

The Gospel reading from Luke tells the story of the man of Gerasene who was possessed by demons – so many they called themselves “Legion”. This man was frightening: he was naked, he lived in caves and not in a house. Like many unhoused people now, he spoke erratically and his behavior was unpredictable. He would be locked up and then “break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds”. I see men and women like this in my city neighborhood: there are places where they camp, sometimes even in the alley behind my house.

I am struck by how calm and kind Luke’s story is. Jesus talks to the demons, and he is even kind to them: he allows them to take over the herd of swine rather than “return to the abyss”. (It’s not so kind to the herd of swine, but that’s another story!) And he’s kind to the man: there’s no drama, just a calm engagement with a problem. After the demons leave, the man is dressed, and “in his right mind”. And people are terrified!

Paul tells the Galatians that their relationships with each other are fundamentally changed by baptism: all the things that would divide them are erased: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” We do not live in a world without distinctions, and Christians (myself included) are often inclined to posit one idea or another as the mark of a “real” Christian. But that’s not what Paul tells us. We are one in Christ Jesus. Sometimes I think that is the hardest message in the Bible!

Today is Juneteenth, a new Federal holiday that marks the day enslaved people in Texas learned that they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, issued more than two years earlier. The celebration, kept alive in Black communities particularly in the South, acknowledged how important freedom is. We celebrate that freedom, but also acknowledge the enslavement that made emancipation necessary. It is a good time to remember that in Christ, all boundaries are dissolved. The boundaries we police come not from Jesus, but from the world.

There’s so much here: the kindness and protection of the Lord, the breaking down of barriers and divisions. These stories challenge us to be kind, to simply do what is needed, and to avoid creating false distinctions. All of these are hard. What we need to do more often is to try to listen for God’s voice in the sound of sheer silence.

Mystery

Trinity Sunday: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15; Psalm 8

Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday in the church year focused on a doctrine, an idea. The readings point us to the doctrine, and to its mystery, but don’t give us much to work with.

The Trinity is a core doctrine of the church, one we affirm every Sunday when we recite the Creed. We believe in one God: the Father, Jesus Christ his Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three in one. When you sit down to think about it, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sometimes I’ve used the the functional interpretation: creator, redeemer, sustainer. But generally, I live with it as a mystery. I’ve come to think of the Trinity as the different ways that God is present in my life.

Most Christians I know will admit that at any given time, one person of the Trinity is closer to them than others, or one is more difficult for them. I’m usually most comfortable with God and Jesus, and least so with the Holy Spirit, but I’ve had times when I’ve argued with each. But if there’s something I take from today’s readings, it is that this balancing goes all the way back to Jesus.

Paul tells us that we have peace with God “through our Lord Jesus Christ”. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that they can’t understand now what he has to say, because they can’t bear it. It’s too hard. But the “Spirit of truth” will reveal them later. Well, that’s comforting: even the disciples needed to hear messages from different voices. More to the point, Jesus knows what any teacher knows: we are ready to hear things at different times.

As I live with the mystery of the Trinity, it helps me to remember that God comes to us in the way we can receive God.

The Day of Pentecost

Pentecost: Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 11:1-21; John 14:8-17, (25-27); Psalm 104:25-35, 37

Today is the day of Pentecost, the 5oth day after the Resurrection. We celebrate the presence of the spirit among us, and hear the story of the Spirit coming upon the disciples. Central to our readings today is the reading from Acts, where we hear that when the Spirit descends on the disciples, they are able to speak in all the languages of the Jews gathered in Jerusalem.

But we start today in Genesis, with the story of the building of the tower of Babel. “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.” They sought to “make a name for themselves” and build a tower that reached to heaven. The Lord is disturbed by their ambition, and fearful of what they might choose in the future: “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them”. The Lord then says, “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

The confusion of language divided the nations of the world. The story from Acts tells a story of connection. The Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples and gives them the gift of tongues, so that they can be understood by everyone in Jerusalem: all can hear the story of “God’s deeds of power”. This is a healing of the brokenness of the world. It is sufficiently astonishing that Peter needs to tell his listeners that they are not drunk, “It is only nine o’clock in the morning”!

In the Gospel, Jesus promises that those who believe in him “will do greater works than these”, because He will be with God. “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” This is an extraordinary promise; and one that many of us may have trouble believing. I don’t think I know anyone all of whose prayers have been answered; they certainly have not always been answered in the way we hoped. Jesus has that covered: “I do not give to you as the world gives”.

Jesus also tells us that those who love him will keep his commandments. This too is a difficult message to believe: those who love Jesus (or at least claim to) have done many things which seem far from his commandments. Certainly the actions of Jesus’ followers have not always been marked by love of one another!

We still live in a broken world. During Easter season, we do not say the confession: its absence is a reminder that our sins are forgiven by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Today was the first time since Easter that we have confessed our sins. Jesus ends his message to his disciples telling that that the Holy Spirit will be with them, and “will remind you of all that I have said to you”. Even the disciples would need reminders. We certainly do too.

We live in the world of Babel, where the Holy Spirit may help us bridge the divides of language and culture, but does not erase them. Those divisions get in the way of our following all Jesus’ commandments. The promise of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is with us, and if we let it, can heal the divisions among us. The question for us is always, will we listen?

You have loved them

Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

We face this week remembering the 19 children and 2 teachers who died in a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, as well as the 10 who were killed at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York two weeks ago. Their families are in our hearts and prayers. Each time the news tells us of another mass shooting, my heart breaks, not only for the new victims, but those who suffered a year ago, or two, or ten or twenty. And not just the families of those who died, but the children who survived, often watching friends die. A twitter thread this week reminded me that the survivors of 1999’s Columbine massacre are now parents themselves, watching their children be trained to protect themselves from the kind of shooting they had survived.

We all hope that we do not have to face what families in Uvalde and Buffalo have faced in recent weeks. But all of us will face grief. When people die, we grieve; our grief is intensified when death is unexpected. The death of children is particularly painful, as we imagine the lives they might have led. Watching a parent grieve the death of a child is the most painful thing I have ever seen. It’s not surprising that Michelangelo’s Pietà is such a powerful sculpture.

Where does this leave us in Easter season? As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, what do we do with our human grief when those we love and care for die? What, if anything, can today’s readings offer us? The Psalm reminds us (v. 10) that “The Lord loves those who hate evil”. It doesn’t say anything about those who are evil, but it asks us to hate evil deeds.

The story of Paul and Silas reminds us that suffering is not new. The account we read in Acts provides a graphic account of how they were beaten before being thrown into jail. The story of Paul and Silas singing in jail inspired those arrested on freedom rides and sit ins in the 1960s. It also, like so many of the passages from Acts we have read this Easter season, reminds us that the core of the Gospel, for Paul at least, was simple: “Believe on the Lord Jesus”. His jailer and his whole household are baptized immediately.

Revelation also keeps it (somewhat) simple this week: “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Jesus’ prayer in John 17 insists that “[you] have loved them even as you have loved me”.

We are not promised that nothing bad will happen to us. Certainly Paul’s life and that of the other disciples demonstrates that following Jesus was not an easy path. And grief is a part of that: John’s gospel tells us that Jesus addresses his grieving mother from the cross. There is a long tradition of art and poetry focused on Mary and her grief: we see our own pain in hers. But there is also another offer: that we are loved as God loves Jesus, and that anyone who wishes may take the water of life as a gift. There is grief, and there is God’s love. We hold on to the love to carry us through grief.

Michelangelo, Pieta (Photo by Juan Romero, CC BY-SA 4.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Michelangelo%27s_Piet%C3%A0,St_Peter%27s_Basilica(1498%E2%80%9399).jpg

Sometimes it’s simple

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; john 5:1-9.

My first reaction to many questions is, “It’s complicated”. Is this really what God wants? Should I do it this way or that way? How does how we got here shape what I should do? Today’s readings remind me that it does not have to be complicated. Sometimes, you need to just do it.

Paul sees a vision, so he goes to Macedonia. Lydia urges him to come stay at her home, and he does. There’s no debate or weighing options. Paul sees a need and responds; he’s offered housing, he accepts.

Similarly, Jesus responds to the sick man at the Sheep Gate-who had been there 38 years-with a simple question. “Do you want to be made whole?” The man answers indirectly, explaining why he hasn’t been able to get into the pool. Jesus’ response is simple: “Stand up, take your mat, and walk.” And the man did.

My challenge for the week ahead is to figure out when I’m making something too complicated. When am I overthinking? When is there a simple response? Maybe, sometimes, I can just do.

Who belongs?

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 11:1-18: Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Yesterday a young white man, who had bought into the theory of the great replacement, murdered ten Black people in Buffalo. The shootings of Asian women in Dallas earlier this week appear to have been motivated by anti-Asian racism. Other shootings in recent years have targeted Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Mexicans, as well as the LGBTQ community. These communities are targeted as outsiders, polluting (in some way) society. So it is a matter of good timing that today’s reading from Acts provides an account of the process whereby Peter came to include gentiles in the Church.

In Acts, Peter returns to Jerusalem and is criticized by the “circumsized believers” (the Jews) and asked why he went to “uncircumsized men” (gentiles) and ate with them. This is a question about purity, one that Jesus had faced as well. Peter describes his journey: he did not initially want to engage with the gentiles. When his vision orders him to get up, to “kill and eat”, Peter refuses, saying “‘nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth'”. The voice from heaven tells him, “‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'” This exchange is repeated two more times before the vision ends.

When three men arrive at the house where Peter was, the spirit told him to go with them, and “not make a distinction between them and us”. He follows the men to a house, where the host tells him that he had a vision that he should send for Simon, called Peter, for a “message by which you and your whole household will be saved”. Peter tells his critics that when he began to speak, “he Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning”.

As far as Peter was concerned, if they received the Holy Spirit as the disciples had in Jerusalem, they were included in the Church. And his critics were silenced, saying, “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life”. They were forced to see that God acted in ways they did not expect. It is hard to exaggerate what a transformative experience this was for both Peter and the other disciples in Jerusalem.

Today we still struggle, in both church and in the world, with questions of who belongs. Sitting in the Diocese of San Joaquin, where a former bishop tried to take the diocese out of the Episcopal church over the ordination of a gay bishop, we are familiar with these debates in the church. But desire for exclusion exists outside the church as well, motivating a wide range of political groups. Whether they are anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, anti-Black, anti-gay, or anti-trans, they seek to define some group or groups as outside the boundaries of “us”.

Who belongs? Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: love one another. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Or, in the two great commandments, those who love God and love their neighbor. In the words of our Baptismal Covenant, we should “seek and serve Christ in all people”. At the end of the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus asks his listeners, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36). Here being a neighbor is not a fact, but an action. Similarly, for Jesus, love is an action, not a feeling.

In the account from Acts, Peter is taking the teachings of Jesus into a new context, bringing new people into the church. We, as Christians, are constantly challenged with understanding the Gospel in a world very different from the one Jesus lived in. Who belongs, in our church or in our community? How are we neighbors to them?

If we follow Peter, and the parable of the Good Samaritan, we find ourselves looking to behavior. Peter saw that his audience of gentiles had received the Holy Spirit just as the disciples had. Jesus saw that the Samaritan acted as a neighbor to a man in need. We too need to be neighbors to those in need.

Who belongs? Those who love God and love their neighbor. This is not, Peter tells us, passive. And he, as well as other Christians in Jerusalem, had to admit that their boundaries had been wrong.

We can be neighbors to everyone in need. But we can also say that if you are excluding people from your idea of neighbors, whether because of race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gender identity or any other characteristic, you are not showing the love that Christ ordered us to show to each other.

Who belongs? From the beginning, the Church has struggled with this question. In today’s readings, both Jesus and Peter offer an answer. If we follow the Spirit, we know, like the early Christians in Acts, God has given “the repentance that leads to life” not just to “us”, but to those we least expect. And so we welcome all who will try, with us, to love one another.

With the disciples

Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus appears to be solitary. He is not alone, but while others hear the voice, only Paul saw Jesus. His companions lead the now blind Paul into the city, where there is a house where he can sit for three days. We don’t know anything about those three days, other than that he neither ate nor drank.

There are lots of visions in the story of Paul on the road to Damascus: the light that blinds Paul, his vision of Ananias coming to him, and Ananias’ vision of Jesus. The Lord asks Ananias to go help a known persecutor of his followers, and it’s not surprising that Ananias initially balks. But he is convinced, and goes to lay his hands on Saul. Saul/Paul regains his sight, is baptized, then eats. Then “for several days he was with the disciples in Damascus”.

Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus changed his life, but for the rest of the book of Acts (and in his letters) he is always in communities. Being a disciple is not solitary: you are always reaching out to new disciples, and connected to other disciples. The Christian life oscillates, for most of us, between the individual and communal. We pray individually, we have our own experiences of the divine, but we worship together, and we serve together.

All the appearances of Jesus to his disciples (after appearing to Mary in the garden) are to them in a group, whether all of them gathered in a room, two on the road to Emmaus, or the group hanging out at the Sea of Tiberias going fishing. Yet while Jesus is with a group, his interrogation focuses only on Simon Peter: Do you love me? Simon’s repeated assurances that he does lead to the commands to “Feed my lambs”, “Tend my sheep”, and “Feed my sheep”.

The question is always to us as individuals: do you love me? If you do, then you tend to and feed the sheep and lambs. For both Peter and Paul, that meant making their whole lives about proclaiming the good news; both suffered imprisonment and death. They were both alone and worked with other disciples.

How do we tend the sheep and feed them today? Our service and ministries are one way. Worshiping together is another. Other work of feeding and tending comes through our daily work. We do this, as did Peter and Paul, with other disciples, who tend to us and feed us, as we tend and feed others.

Do you love me? The question comes to us as individuals, but we answer it in community.

Resurrection

Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 5: 27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20-19-31

This Sunday is one of the Sundays where we get the same reading each year: on the second Sunday of Easter, we hear the story of Thomas: doubting Thomas, as he is often known. I suspect I am not alone in having a soft spot in my heart for Thomas, who gives all of us permission to ask questions, to talk about what we sometimes can’t believe because we can’t understand.

Every Sunday, we say the creed: we affirm belief. But I know from conversations with many people over the years that there are things that almost all of us have trouble with. The Resurrection is high on the list. What exactly do we mean by it? how do we understand it? The story of Thomas reminds us that such questions go back to the time right after it all happened. Thomas needs to see Jesus to believe the stories he has heard.

I don’t think that when the disciples talked about seeing the risen Christ, he was back like he was before the crucifixion. In today’s gospel, the first time Jesus appears to the disciples, he enters a room whose doors are locked; the next week, he enters again, “although the doors were shut”. Other Resurrection appearances are equally strange: on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) Jesus appears walking next to the two men, but as soon as they recognize him, he disappears. Jesus is embodied after the Resurrection, enough for Thomas to feel his hands and his side; but he is able to move through doors and appear and disappear in mysterious ways.

The Resurrection is something new. It’s not the world we know. We are constantly trying to learn what this mystery means. If, like Thomas, we are sometimes confused and asking questions, it’s not surprising. We are waiting, Paul tells us, for a “new heaven and a new earth” (2 Peter 3:13). There are moments when the shape of that new heaven and new earth are clear. The other moments, when the outlines are vague, are times when I am reassured by Thomas’s questions, reminded that I’m trying to understand something outside my experience.

Useful discomfort

Sunday of the Passion/ Palm Sunday: Luke 19:28-40; Isaiah 50: 4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 23:1-49

Today is the Sunday of emotional and spiritual whiplash. We begin our service waiving palms and singing Hosanna, and then the church gives us the trailer for coming attractions, so we end with Jesus dead. Jesus enters Jerusalem cheered by throngs on the roadside, and leaves it on his way to be crucified. It’s a lot. Some churches stay with the Palms and hosannas, leaving the Passion for later in the week. But I’m always glad they come together

The conjunction of palms and the Passion means we can’t be too comfortable. The readings are grounded in faith, with Isaiah’s proclamation that “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty. The Psalmist is a little more anxious: “I have heard the whispering of the crowd . . . they plot to take my life”; but still, “But as for me, I have trusted in you, O Lord”, so “Make your face to shine upon your servant/ and in your loving-kindness save me.” Threat and faith are both there.

The Passion narrative is oten read as a play, with a narrator and speaking parts, with most of the congregation as a chorus. When I have participated in such readings, the hardest part is when all of us, as the crowd, have to call for Jesus’ death: we’re all part of the story. A few times I have served as the narrator, and the best part was that I didn’t have to join in. What we learn, again and again, is that we all fail sometimes.

In the longer version of the Passion narrative (Luke 22:14-23-56), we are reminded that even Jesus’ closest followers failed repeatedly. He chooses a few to join him in prayer at Gethsemane, and they fall asleep. Peter, on whom Jesus promises to build his church, denies his relation to Jesus. And these people were his close companions, who had been with him on a daily basis.

Jesus is joined on the cross by two thieves, one of whom taunts Jesus by asking him to save them all. The other, often seen as the good thief, acknowledges his guilt and asks Jesus to remember him. The poet and theologian John Shea reminds us: “I am both thieves/ scrounging for the kingdom/ and cursing the cross.”1 We all are.

We spend Holy Week going back and forth. We’re never allowed to settle in one place. The movement back and forth provides a reminder of our frailty; it makes me a little less sure of my virtue. If we don’t rush to Easter, we can use the time to become more honest with ourselves.

1John Shea, “Prayer to Jesus”, in The Hour of the Unexpected (1977), p. 12

Extravagance

Fifth Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Phillippians 3: 4b-14; John 12:1-8

When I came to live in Merced, the passages of scripture that speak of water in the desert took on new meaning. “I will make a way in the wilderness/ and rivers in the desert”, Isaiah promises us. The psalmist, in rejoicing that the Lord had restored the fortunes of Zion, adds, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord/
like the watercourses of the Negev”. All of this, Isaiah tells us, is because the Lord is “about to do a new thing”.

The Hebrew scriptures today are full of promise, of joy and celebration. It’s a bit odd to see this in the middle of Lent, but that’s what we’ve got. It is a reminder of the promise: after all, we know the end of the story. It is why Paul can celebrate “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.

In the midst of all this, the gospel may seem a bit surprising. It is six days before the Passover, and Jesus is with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Martha is serving. And then Mary, instead of sitting and listening as at other times, herself serves. She takes a pound of expensive perfume, puts it on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. This gesture is both extravagant and erotic, expressing love and intimacy.

In the exchange that follows, when Judas suggests the value of the nard might more usefully given to the poor, Jesus pushes back. The perfume had been bought for the day of his burial, and he will not always be with them. Extravagance is not unreasonable with those who face death. I’ve known people with cancer diagnoses who immediately start crossing things off their bucket lists: they visit places they have always wanted to visit, or return to favorite places; they spend time with those they love. When time was finite, they used resources to celebrate life.

The gifts I have appreciated the most are the least expected: the ones that come not at birthdays or Christmas, but on a random day. And they are not always expensive, but they represent care and affection. That is true of all gifts: what resonates is the relationship they carry. As Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with nard, she tells him what he means to her.

Sometimes this passage is read with a focus on “You always have the poor with you”, suggesting we don’t need to do anything for the poor. But that misses the point. Mary celebrates Jesus’ presence, and takes something valuable to serve him, to care for his feet. That’s not wrong, we’re told. If we are to celebrate the new thing that God is doing, how do we do it? What are our extravagances?