I suppose every now and then it is okay to have a boring sermon about legalisms, law, and all that dry stuff. So, today is the day. Seriously, I would like to look at an aspect of how we as a people have chosen or not chosen to live together with some kind of rule, or law, or common understanding of what it means to live in community….whether that community be a family or a town, city, county, state, country or within the global community.
Okay, where do we start?
Probably a good place to start is the Ten Commandments.
Thirty-five hundreds ago, Moses was at Mt. Sinai and we know that he received the Ten Commandments. He issued them to a community that resented Moses trying to impose rules of behavior and to blame God for it. Rules regarding the Sabbath, murder, lying about your neighbor and on and on. How to best live together and come up with some standards, beliefs, and patterns of good relationships.
As people who have evolved into families and communities over many years, we have found that we must have rules to live by and follow or we are in danger of losing ourselves as well as others.
The problems often with our laws and rules is that they turn out to be wrong. They diminish when they are meant to give us meaning and purpose. For instance, the Church has gone through tremendous upheaval over recent years on such issues as:
Women’s ordinations, gay rights, prayer book revisions and many other issues. I was in this pulpit preaching about using the new prayer book services to replace the 1928 Prayer Book back in the late 1960’s. I was ordained to the Priesthood here at Grace Memorial using the 1928 Prayer Book. The rules changed, people had a lot to say about the changes….pro and con…so it was an open discussion as it should be. It went on for years…and in many ways will continue.
I have the greatest respect for my Father who was a lawyer in Pecos, Texas, where I was raised. I first learned about law and the legal systems as a child growing up in West Texas listening to my Father speak to concerns that arose in his legal practice. He died several years after I was ordained and I have always missed him. I learned what it meant to disagree with my Father over many things while growing up. But, the one I remember most was his stand on what happened when the Supreme Court ruled on the integration of schools in the early 1950’s. My Father believed in the law at the time “separate but equal”. In other words, integration was a violation of what he saw to be the law of the land. I disagreed and was president of my high school senior class when we integrated in 1957 and at the same time he was elected to the school board as a write-in candidate on the subject opposing integration. So, I learned early that laws are in need of changing and we are constantly defining our system so it works better over the years as we grow together in our country.
But, again, how about religious law? Every faith community, every family has it’s own written and unwritten laws or norms it abides by for better or worse. Look at Ireland this past week. A sea change for prochoice and women’s rights in a country that has long been in opposition to what it is now defining in a new way.
And that brings us to our Gospel lesson today.
Jesus was at odds with the religious leaders of the day. They saw him as a threat to their authority and looked for ways to undermine him and his followers.
What happened in our lesson today? It was the Sabbath and many rules and regulations had grown up around keeping the Sabbath holy since the time of Moses. Apparently, from Jesus’ point of view had gone too far. And when his disciples were gathering food to eat on the Sabbath, they were criticized. When Jesus healed a man in the synagogue on the Sabbath, it was terrible according to the religious leaders. According to them, Jesus was doing away with the law, the tradition, and the sacred nature of the Sabbath from their point of view.
“And he said to the man with the withered hand, come forward. And He said to them, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill? But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger, He was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man “stretch out your hand”. He stretched it out and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
All of us know how much we need to have our rules and regulations and to discuss them. And, to add or subtract from them as we live together. Obviously, Jesus was trying to make a point that could not be heard by the religious authorities.
I just finished a book, “Midnight in Siberia” by David Greene. David Greene, the author, is a NPR reporter who was in Russia for many years and finally boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway that goes 9300 miles across Siberia. He stops at many villages and cities and interviews people. He wanted to hear from them of their hopes and dreams for their future as well as their understanding of Russia’s past. He was surprised how many people had a nostalgia for Stalin and the old Soviet regime. The fact that you were told what to do and the people felt security at the lack of participation in government. The author was looking for seeds of change and he found it but no real way to bring it about. The laws were set and the people were following them. One of the funniest moments in the book was at a train station in the middle of nowhere. There was a security point that everyone had to process their luggage like we do at the airport. It had always been there and people had to go though it. But, no one was on duty. The bells would go off but there was no one to check on why because no security guard was there. But, the people dutifully followed the rules and assumed that probably someone was watching them.
We are spoiled in our country because we know we have something to say about the rules we live by. The larger issue that I am concerned with in our country and throughout the world is the beginning of a loss of the meaning of international law. After World War II, the United Nations came into being. International law and the declaration of human rights were established along with the Security Council. The Security Council has had many good and bad moments. But, we as a country have had more than our share of dismissing international law over the years with our veto and actions. We violated international law when we unilaterally invaded Iraq in 2003. We violated international law with our torturing people after 09/11. And, we violated international law in regard to the State of Israel, the settlements, and the right of return for refugees, and military occupation. We violated international law when we declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. All in opposition to international law and yet we use our veto to keep from allowing international law to function. And of course, other countries do this also. I fear for the future if we continue to flaunt international law. It just encourages others to do the same. And we grow to be less of a model for other nations rather than the model we have always wanted to be.
We are still living out the learning of how to live in community together as nations within a world that receives information so fast we can’t even process it. We are presently being tested in our own country on whether we will honor our own rule of law.
It is important that we continue to listen to Jesus and find out how to proceed. As I read the Gospels, He is for good over evil, the nurturing of the human spirit in relationship with God and one another, that the emphasis of Love is the foundation of all human experience, and if Love is not a part of the equation God is not a part of it.
Jesus looked at the religious authorities and asked them how do you define what is right, to do good or to do nothing. To add to life or subtract from it.
Our laws and regulations in family, community, church, government, are all here to help us grow in Love together. When they are not accomplishing their purpose, we must act as individuals and communities to change them to reflect our need and respect and love for each other.
In the name of the Triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“No person ever steps in the same river twice,” the philosopher, Heraclitus,
said a long, long time ago, “for it’s not the same river and they are not the
As a field education student, I came to Grace Memorial with questions –
some philosophical, some practical – as well as the hope to learn something
about what it means to be a priest. In the past 9 months, the time it takes to
hatch a new human being: I have preached, right here; I have processed,
carrying the cross, the torches, the paschal candle, and the church banner; I
have carried the Gospel to be read, and I have read the Gospel aloud, in
Spanish, among a cacophony of Pentecost voices; I have dressed up like an
angel and danced with the children; I have made meals for our houseless
friends and neighbors, and I have served around this table; I have listened
to the anxieties of this community, and the hopes of this community, and
the joys of this community; and, I have had the true and unexpected
pleasure of joining a small group of pilgrims on a journey to Jesus’ own
Standing here today, looking out at all of you, I can say that I am not the
same man that I was when I first walked through those red doors.
Now, I’ve been told that everyone just has one sermon that they preach. Lay
or clergy, no matter what Sunday that it is, it’s just one . I thought when I
came here I knew what my one sermon was. I thought I had it down. I
thought it was a sermon about justice, or about challenging systems of
domination, of proclaiming Beloved Community in the name of Jesus.
But now, I don’t think the real one sermon that is at the core of a Christian
heart is one that they choose for themself. It’s not about what aligns best
with their political views. It’s not necessarily one that they want to preach.
But it’s the sermon that they have to preach, because it is the one sermon.
Discovering how to preach that one sermon in your own voice is a process
of formation and discernment, and it begins I think – at least for me – with
an acute sense of uncertainty.
Nicodemus, is uncertain. Nicodemus has questions – some philosophical,
some practice. Nicodemus is attempting to situate Jesus and his teaching
into a clear, logical framework. He’s applying what seems like
straightforward and accurate science to Jesus’ metaphor.
“You get born once, Jesus. Once. One time. What do you mean, ‘be
born from above?’ How can this old body of mine – which I have
subjected – mind you – to years of work, and stress, and the occasional
indulgence – how can it be new again? How can this mind of mine –
which has taken apart and inspected every precious story and belief
and dream that was ever given to me by my mother, my grandmother,
or my teachers – how can it see things new again?”
Jesus speaks poetry to Nicodemus, and Nicodemus simply doesn’t
understand how this poetry is logically coherent. Nicodemus wants it all to
make sense. And Jesus keeps pointing to the mystery.
Today is Trinity Sunday, which we might as well call “Mystery Sunday.”
This is a day that many preachers fear. And I’ll have you know, Martin – this
is the day that is notorious to give the seminarian Trinity Sunday. This is
the day. Give it to the Field Education Student. Have him explain the
greatest mystery in Christian doctrine. Sure. That’s great. And on his last
Thank you, Martin.
Elizabeth Johnson, in her book, Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal In
Christology, recounts this really beautiful story about St. Augustine and the
Trinity, which goes like this:
So, St. Augustine was walking on the beach, trying to figure out the
mystery of the Trinity. As he watched a little child with a pail trying to
put the sea into a hole he had dug in the sand, Augustine said, “You
cannot do that.” To this the child (actually an angel) replied, “Neither
can you fit the mystery of the Trinity into your finite mind.”
Done. Sermon’s over. Done.
No. But there’s so much value in that. There’s so much value in that.
All language is symbol. Words are images meant to represent ideas, some of
which are too expansive to fully encapsulate in a series of letters are sounds.
Trinity is one such word. Triune God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This
language is symbol, which is not to say that it is not real. Rather, it is the
realest of the real — so real, in fact, that the holes we dig in the sand with
our logic-shovels and our rationality-pails cannot contain it.
But at the heart of this symbol of Trinity is an invitation into the mystery of
God is calling us into relationship with God’s own relational nature.
We speak of God as three persons, undivided. God is at once the Creator of
all things, and the Redeemer of all things, and the Giver of Life to all things.
As Creator, God has made us. As Redeemer, God has walked with us. And
as Giver of Life, God is igniting a fire within us to speak a true word about
God’s love. Our very salvation is woven into this interconnection of
God’s invitation into the mystery of relationship is not only what makes
salvation occur, but it is what makes community come to life.
Relationship, I have learned, is the foundation of Grace Memorial Episcopal
This sanctuary is made beautiful every week through relationship. The
hymns of praise and thanksgiving we sing are made majestic through
relationship. People of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds are fed, and
educated, and inspired, and challenged here every day of the week through
relationship. You might say that is what church is: it is about being in
faithful relationship with each other, so that we can be in faithful
relationship with God.
Nine months ago, when I accepted the call to be in relationship with this
community, I did not expect that the most important thing I would learn
during this time, both through Martin’s own example and through the
example and witness of the entire community, is the value of relationship.
But it’s undeniable. And, its trinitarian.
The ethic of relationship which says that my humanity is bound up in your
humanity, and our shared humanity is animated by the very God who made
all things and who suffers and celebrates with us — woo — that is an
affirmation of the Triune God. You might not think you that get the Trinity
(I don’t all the time), but I have learned that if you show up here, and if you
love one another and you love God, and if you respond to the presence of
God by sharing that love with the world, then you are living into the
Trinity. Just trust in that.
To be a Christian is to be in relationship with a relational God who is
eternally seeking relationship with us. To be a Christian is to follow God
into relationship with all those who are led by God’s spirit, in and outside of
the Church; all those who, by following God’s Spirit are, in Paul’s words,
“children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs
Friends — Grace Memorial Episcopal Church — you do not need to know
with perfect certainty how to preach your one sermon in order to share the
good news that God loves you, that God has already saved you, and that
God is calling you to transform the world through the power of God’s own
loving, life-giving and liberating nature.
“Who will go for us?” God asks.
“Here I am,” we say.” “Send me.”
“Who will go for us?” God asks.
“Here I am,” we say.” “Send me.”
“Who will go for us?” God asks.
“Here I am,” we say.” “Send me.”
YES! You… you.. One more time:
“Who will go for us?” God asks.
“Here I am,” we say.” “Send me.”
That brought me here. And I don’t know where it’s going to lead you, I do
not know… I’m off book now…
I don’t know where God is leading you, but I know that God is calling you.
That is a true word.
I don’t know where God is leading you, but I know that God is calling you.
And I pray that you respond to call from God with courage. I pray that you
respond to God’s call with excitement, and imagination, and creativity, and
all of the talents that you have. And give them back to this community.
You’re already doing it! You are already living into that vision. I am so
excited to one day walk through those red doors again and discover how
God is continuing to move and work in this place.
It’s not about me being here. It’s not about Martin being here. It is about
the collective reality of this place. All of y’all.
The Lord will be praised.
What do the leaders of an oppressive system, an oppressive state, do in order to maintain control of those who suffer under their rule?
The first – and probably the most obvious answer to that question – is that the state will employ violence. In Jesus’ time, that violence most famously and most terrifyingly takes the form of the cross, a torturous way of killing a human being who resists the system or who calls the system in question.
The crosses that Jesus knew growing up, just like the cross from which he eventually hung, were erected in public places such as the gate to a city, and the dying person was hung low enough that a passerby could look them straight in the eye and see the fear and the agony there.
The message was clear. This is what happens when you resist.
A second possible answer to that question – and this is what I would like to focus on today – is that the state will do its best to nurture a scenario in which its citizens are fearful not just of the state but of one another, in which there is a culture of mutual suspicion. The state will encourage us to indulge the worst part of ourselves. It will pour fertiliser on our old bigotries, on the reptilian and tribal parts of our brain.
The state will invite us to say: I cannot trust you because you dress differently than me; because you speak another language; because you worship differently or you don’t worship at all; because you and I are different genders; because your skin is a different colour than mine, your passport a different colour than mine; because you don’t vote the way that I vote; because your Facebook feed looks different than mine.
The people who do not belong to my tribe, who do not look and act like me, are dangerous and suspicious. In a very real sense, they are less human than I am. I dare not talk with them, let alone work with them. And I need not mourn when the state sheds their blood. Maybe I will participate in that violence, maybe I will celebrate it.
Consider this tactic by an oppressive system. And then consider why Jesus and the movement that he began and the Spirit that he called into this world leaves such a system off balance and afraid.
What is it that happens on the day of Pentecost? What is it that happens in this story from the Book of Acts?
At one level, this is a story of something glorious and impossible happening. Fire, or something like fire (as tends to be the case when we describe mystical experiences, Luke, who writes the Book of Acts, is at or beyond the limit of words here) descends from heaven, it settles on the disciples, and they can suddenly speak in all sorts of new languages. And because of this mystical nature of this moment, the danger is in understanding it as something unbelievable or, at least, something utterly divorced from our own experience.
This is like a scene in Harry Potter, in which everyone abruptly has magic powers. It is really cool but it has nothing to do with my life or yours.
Let’s honour this text by pushing a little deeper.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when there is a reading in church that has the names of a whole lot of people or a whole lot of places, my eyes tend to glaze over. I sometimes suspect that the only one who is really paying close attention is the lector – there are some hard to pronounce place names in this list! But this is an instance in which I want to resist my glazedness, because these place names are a clue to the radical, the revolutionary nature of what the Spirit is doing here on Pentecost.
Here are people from all over: Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Egypt, Libya, Rome – the list goes on. Maybe we could recapture the holy and dangerous and subversive nature of this scene by imagining it in the present day. Some of the place names would be the same – the citizens of Egypt, Libya, and Rome are unchanged. But then let’s add Israelis and Palestinians, Syrians and Central Americans, North Koreans and Mexicans, Iraqis and Afghanis, folks from Portland and Deep in the Heart of Texas.
And maybe we could add in people who come not just from different places but who belong to different categories. In the crowd on the Day of Pentecost there are vegans and gun owners, environmentalists and transgender folk, lefties wearing sandals and conservatives wearing suits, Muslims and bikers and day labourers and musicians and bankers, people wearing pussy hats standing beside people wearing hats that say, “Make America Great Again.”
And suddenly, the Spirit like fire moves and all of these people are able to hear the Gospel. All of them are able to hear the good news, the story of Jesus in their own language.
The Holy Spirit shows up and things that divide us start to fall away. We are united by a love that looks like fire.
No wonder an oppressive system is afraid of this. This is dangerous stuff.
Today we are baptising Frances. And whenever I have the privilege of being present for the baptism of a small child, I think about an old classmate of mine who asked the question, “Why in the world do we baptise babies? They can’t consent, they can’t claim this faith for themselves. We should wait until they are grown up.”
My classmate did me a favour by posing that question. Because I knew that I disagreed with him – our own children were all baptised as infants, and Phoebe and I did and do feel good about that. But I realised that I had never really articulated why I thought that was a good and faithful practice. It certainly isn’t because I think that you need to be baptised to get into heaven or for God to love you.
My classmate’s question makes perfect sense for so long as we assume that baptism is, like so many things in our culture, an individualistic sacrament, that it is about me choosing Jesus, about me being saved. If that is right then, absolutely, we should wait until a person grows up and they can say “yes” for.
But my classmate’s question stops making sense the instant that we assume that baptism is a sacrament of Pentecost. That it is a sacrament that, while it focuses on one person and that person’s family, is about the entire body of Christ. In baptism, a love like fire comes down among us. And we say to Frances and to one another: you are not alone. You are not alone in the beautiful messiness of this life. You are loved. By this community, by God. Your creator has made you holy. You are made in God’s image. You are with us in the Body of Christ, a Body that extends across time and across space. We say hallelujah and the church across the world says hallelujah and the angels in heaven say hallelujah.
The seed for this sermon – the fire starter, if you like on Pentecost – was a reflection that I found on the website of the folks behind the Poor People’s Campaign, behind the Moral Monday movement. These are people who are working to resuscitate Christianity as a moral voice in America. Not a moral voice in terms of tut-tutting people about sexuality – we’ve had a lot of that – but a moral voice focused on remembering our duty to the poor, remembering the dignity of every human being, including those outside of our borders.
This is a dangerous holiness. No wonder the oppressive system fears it. The system knows that people coming together and working together will change the world. We saw that in our country achieving marriage equality. And we see it now in teachers fighting for dignity and a living wage, we see it in students saying no more, declaring that our national love affair with guns will not and cannot be worth more than their lives.
No wonder the system in which Jesus lived and his friends lived tried so hard to destroy it. But this faith like fire will not be destroyed. No wonder that oppressive leaders since then, having failed to destroy this faith, have tried to domesticate it. But this faith like fire will not be domesticated.
The Spirit is among us. Her fire is falling upon us, burning away those old fears which we have been taught. After the fire we see that we are free, and we see each other. A firm comes down which is like freedom, which is like possibility, which is like imagination, which is like love. After the fire we see that the things that separated us were never of God, and we brush them aside like ash. After the fire we see the full humanity of one another – including the one with whom we disagree, including the one who oppresses us.
After the fire we see that we are bound together in God’s love.
The Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, says that when she welcomes newcomers to the parish at which she serves, she always shares with them the same message:
I want to guarantee you one thing, she tells the newcomers.
I want to guarantee you that this church will disappoint you.
I love that line. I love it for its directness, its vulnerability, its raw honesty. It is a line that I may start plagiarising when I welcome newcomers here to Grace. Although maybe I shouldn’t limit it to the newcomers. Maybe I should share this guarantee, this promise more broadly with everyone at Grace. Why not? Here goes:
I want to guarantee you that, whether this is your first week here or you have been here a year or ten years or sixty years, Grace Memorial Episcopal Church will disappoint you.
You will be disappointed when I say something foolish or, at least, something that doesn’t sit right with you. You will be disappointed when someone whom you love or respect or look to for approval does something or leaves something undone that leaves you feeling sad and stung. You will be disappointed when there is a power struggle over… What? What are the sorts of things that parishes have power struggles over? How the flowers are arranged or how coffee hour is set up or what kind of music we sing or what subjects we are allowed to talk about or what colour we paint the building.
Perhaps you have your own additions to that list of disappointments.
What will you do when the guaranteed happens and Grace Memorial Episcopal Church disappoints you? Or wait, that’s not right: I shouldn’t be phrasing Bolz-Weber’s question as though it were hypothetical. Unless you are really new here, this question isn’t hypothetical at all. It certainly isn’t hypothetical for me.
When Grace Memorial Episcopal Church disappointed you, what did you do?
I guess that I am captivated by Bolz-Weber’s powerful and dangerous and mischievous question, not only because it offers insight into this beloved and flawed community that we call church, but because it offers insight into our broader web of relationships within the world. You could apply her question to any cherished relationship, to any human connection that we hold in such high esteem that, whether or not we name this expectation out loud, we expect to be the kind of context in which disappointment doesn’t happen.
This is church. Disappointment shouldn’t happen here. This is a marriage. Disappointment shouldn’t happen here. This is my country. Disappointments shouldn’t happen here.
In a way, these relationships or people or places or ideas are victims of the very high esteem in which we hold them. When they turn out to be flawed, as everything this side of heaven is flawed, it feels kind of like a betrayal. As a consequence, we sometimes commit to these relationships with an unspoken reservation:
I am here, I am with you – until you disappoint me.
That’s why every good set of marriage vows names disappointment: We are together for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; for better and for worse.
Now, I want to throw in a significant caveat here before I go any further. What Bolz-Weber is talking about and what I am in turn talking about is not a scenario in which we stick it out no matter how screwed up it becomes. Sometimes a marriage dies. And the most compassionate and loving thing to do is to name that death via divorce. Sometimes a church has so unmoored from the Gospel that it is stuck a place in which it is celebrating patriarchy or homophobia or Islamophobia; in which it is preaching consumerism as though buying stuff were the Gospel; in which it is utterly forgetting its duty to the poor. If that church is unwilling or unable to change, then the most faithful thing you or I can do may be to move on and to respond to the Gospel of Christ elsewhere.
What we are talking about, in other words, is not a scenario in which we stay in a relationship not matter how great the cost to our integrity or to our joy. What we are talking about, rather, are the mostly healthy relationships in our lives (and I don’t know if this is pessimism or realism, but I’m going to suggest that our very best earthly relationships are mostly healthy; mostly healthy is the apex of what we will achieve during our sojourn on this earth) in which we periodically, predictably, and inevitably encounter disappointment.
What Bolz-Weber goes on to tell the folks at the newcomer gatherings is that when we encounter disappointment but we keep on showing up, then the Holy Spirit shows up as well.
Bolz-Weber’s advice is consistent with my own experience. A number of months ago, someone asked after my life, asked me how I was doing. And I told them: these days, I am having a lot of generative conflicts.
What I mean by “generative conflict” it is the sort of intense or fierce conversation, maybe even the sort of fight, that when you risk having it, teaches you a whole bunch about your neighbour, about yourself, about God. It is a conversation that is hard work. But it is a conversation that generates stuff: it generates compassion, connection, communion. It generates love.
These are the sorts of conversations of encounters in which we remember that we are made by God for interconnection, for relationship. These are the moments in which we catch a glimpse of what, in South African theology, is called Ubuntu. Not Descartes’ hyper-individualistic, “I think, therefore I am,” but “I am because you are.” Ubuntu says that it is in encounter with the other, including disappointing encounters with the other – maybe in a way that we can’t quite name, especially in disappointing encounter with the other – that we see that the other is made in the image of God, and that we, too, are made in God’s image.
The Gospel of John is perplexing and surprising and beautiful and paradoxical. This is the Gospel in which Jesus doesn’t tell parables. It is the Gospel that maybe features the most human, down to earth Jesus: in John, Jesus starts his earthly ministry at a party; and it is John that contains the staggering words, Jesus wept. And it is the Gospel in which Jesus, when he talks, sound most like a mystic, most like someone plugged into a cosmic secret.
Today we hear him say to the one whom he calls Father: Protect my disciples so that they may be one, as we are one.
Maybe it is that awesome oneness that Bolz-Weber is getting at when she says that the Holy Spirit shows up when we power through disappointment and keep on showing up ourselves, maybe that is what Desmond Tutu and others are getting at when they speak of Ubuntu.
I can’t quantify this. But I know that I have experienced it. I know that when I have risked an intense conversation, when have I risked conflict, when I have risked telling the truth and deeply listening for the truth in return, when I have listened to another human being in love – a human being with whom I felt disappointment and, as or more often, a human being who felt disappointment in me – God has been there. And something has shifted.
When we show up after the disappointment, Jesus shows up too. And if we let him, Jesus will do what he does: he will heal and teach and maybe even cast out a few of our demons. And we are surprised to realise that our disappointment has turned into understanding, surprised to notice that we are there, that we are one, that Jesus is with us, together.
 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Life of a Sinner & Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 54-55.
 This line – and much of the thinking that surrounds it – is indebted to: Ron Rolheiser, “Fidelity – Our Greatest Gift to Others,” Ron Rolheiser, OMI, accessed May 11, 2018, http://ronrolheiser.com/fidelity-our-greatest-gift-to-others/#.WcUonoprxE4.
 On Sunday morn, I had an unscripted thought here about my own history of conflict avoidance. You can hear it on the recording if you like.
This morning we hear a conversion story. A story about one of those experiences in which we have a God sighting and we come away changed – or, at least, we come away invited to change. This particular conversion story takes place in the Book of Acts.
The Book of Acts is written by Luke, by the same person who wrote the third Gospel. As far as we know, Luke is the only one of the four evangelists who felt a call to write a sequel to the story of Jesus. In Vestry, we have been reading the Book of Acts, chapter by chapter, for the last number of months to begin our meetings. During the season of Easter, the lectionary invites us to read from Acts on Sunday morning in lieu of reading from the Old Testament.
Today we encounter the staggering story of Philip meeting and baptising this unnamed stranger, a person identified to us only by his country of origin and the condition of his body. This is the Ethiopian eunuch.
Now, my guess is that, generally speaking, when we read this story, we focus on the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, on how he chooses Christ and, therefore, he chooses baptism.. If we focus on Philip at all, it is to note that he is doing what a Christian is supposed to do, which is to say he is engaging in evangelism. So, Philip is the converter, the eunuch is the converted. And that’s a good and a fair and a faithful reading of this story But today, I’d like do something different and shine the light on Philip. Drawing on an argument advanced by the marvellous Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, I’d like to wonder:
What if this story is actually about the conversion of Philip?
Philip, like Jesus, is a faithful Jew. And as such, he is thoroughly aware of the prohibition to be found in Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (I don’t know if, when you were making your way to church this morning, you expected to hear a reference to crushed testicles but, hey, hooray for the Bible.) The eunuch’s body – could we say his disability? – disqualifies him from full participation in the Kingdom of God. Throw into the mix that he is a foreigner, an immigrant – a category that, then and now, renders him suspect – and that, coming from Ethiopia, his skin is probably darker than Philip’s, and Philip has lots of cultural reasons to exclude this guy.
And maybe that is exactly what Philip would do. Except that Philip hears the voice of the Spirit: Get up and go over to the chariot and join it. Philip obeys. These words, Get up and go, may sound familiar to you: one of the reasons is that they are the very words that Jonah hears in the book that bears his name: Get up and go to Nineveh. Jonah is a reluctant prophet. But Philip is not: did you notice the verb that comes next in this story? It says Philip ran up to the chariot. This is someone who listens when he hears the Spirit.
Is Philip jogging beside the chariot when he sees that the eunuch has a scroll in his hand, and he hears that he is reading from Isaiah? (Philip hears, by the way, because this is a time and a place in which it is unusual to read silently – there is actually an ancient document in which someone comments on how amazing one of his fellow scholars is because when that scholar reads, his lips don’t move.) Philip and the eunuch have a conversation, the eunuch invites him into the chariot, Philip climbs up beside him.
And then Philip and this suspicious, physically limited foreigner proceed to share in an in-depth Bible study.
During the study, Philip tells him about Jesus. And it is after the telling that his new traveling companion sees the water and he utters those amazing words, “What is to keep me from being baptised?”
And Philip realises that, the color of his companion’s skin notwithstanding, his country of origin notwithstanding, Deuteronomy 23:1 notwithstanding, the answer to his new friend’s question is:
As soon as Philip’s new friend is baptised, Philip is pulled away by the Spirit: like his master, the resurrected Jesus, Philip vanishes, reappearing in another town. And there in that new town, Luke tells us, he proclaims the good news.
I’m curious about that good news. While there is little doubt that the good news that Philip proclaims is the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I wonder if he is also proclaiming the good news of his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. If Philip is like most of his neighbors, then before he had this encounter, he reckoned that God’s love wasn’t intended for people like the guy in the chariot – that there were walls between him and this disabled foreigner, and that God’s love was contained within the walls. But by the end of their time together, he understood that God’s love was vastly more expansive than anyone had told him.
Philip is converted.
There is a clue in the text that Luke is inviting us to read this story in that fashion, and that is in the way that he sets it up. As you may remember, it is also Luke who gives us the story that we sometimes call the Good Samaritan. In that story, there is a dangerous wilderness road. And there is a suspicious foreigner who turns out to be plugged into the Kingdom of God. And in this story from Acts, there is a dangerous wilderness road – as you may remember, Luke underlines its wild nature right at the start of the story – and there is a dangerous foreigner who is plugged into the Kingdom of God.
If that’s right, if this story is not just about the conversion of the guy in the chariot but also about the conversion of Philip, then I wonder: what does this story have to teach you and me? Because scripture is always, sooner or later, about you and me. This story is about your conversion and mine.
Maybe the question that this story is inviting us to ask is: What walls do we imagine that God has built? And who do we imagine is outside of them?
If this were a different kind of congregation with a different kind of values, I might talk now about the church’s awful history of excluding GLBTQ folks. But I’m not going to go there today because, for north of 90% of us gathered here this morning, it is self-evident that God loves and welcomes GLBTQ people. That isn’t, in other words, a particularly challenging message for us.
In order to find the challenge, I’d like us to think about who we imagine might be outside of God’s love. Who do you imagine is appropriately excluded and unworthy?
God says: These walls you built? They were never my stuff. They were always a human thing. I am going around that wall and above that wall and through that wall. And I invite you to meet me on the outside. I invite you to risk heeding the call of the Spirit. Meet me in the chariot with that dangerous stranger. Climb into the chariot and be converted.
 When I gave this sermon on Sunday morn, I had a quasi-digression here about the cinematic phenomenon known as Easter Eggs. I haven’t reproduced that digression here. If it is of interest to you, you can find it in the recording of this sermon.
As Christians, we proclaim the person of Jesus to be our model for humanity and our understanding of God. The reflection of God for us is in the New Testament and primarily in the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. John’s gospel primarily portrays the Divinity of Jesus. The other gospels are more in touch with the humanity of Jesus.
In John’s gospel today, we have the words of Jesus, “I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays his life for the good of the sheep.”
In the pastoral world of the first century, sheep and shepherds were a large part of the culture. Today, in our busy life we tend to only see movies or pictures of pastoral scenes but it is a powerful image.
John has a way of defining Jesus that hints at the story of Moses and the burning bush in the Book of Exodus. Remember that story? Moses is tending the flock of sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro. He has left Egypt and Moses is confronted by God who reveals the name of God in a way that has never been revealed before. It is in the midst of a burning bush that is not consumed. Moses is directed by God to rescue the Israelites from Egypt. Moses wants to be able to say who sent him. Moses receives the answer from God, “I am who I am. Tell them I am has sent me to you.”
John’s Gospel refers to Jesus using the statement, “I AM” any number of times. It is as though symbolically John wants to refer to the “I AM who I AM” from the burning bush to the quotation of Jesus. Please note that the following statements from John begin with, “I AM”.
“I am the bread of life.” John 6
“I am the light of the world.” John 8
“I am the door. If anyone enters, he will be saved.” John 10
“I am the resurrection and the life.” John 11
“I am the way, the truth and the life.” John 14
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” John 15
“I am the good Shepherd.” John 10
Yes, I am who I am. The grounding of God in all humanity and especially in the person of Jesus.
This past New Year’s Eve, I had a very different experience. My wife and I were in Paris with our daughter, her husband and their two children, our grandchildren. I had never heard of the Paris Catacombs before. I assumed they were like the catacombs in Rome. Wrong. We went to the catacombs in Paris and it was very interesting to say the least.
There are 180 miles of tunnels that lie 50 to 75 feet underneath Paris. The tunnels are centuries old and were cut out of solid rock. Miners cut out the rock to build the city of Paris. They mined the rock over many centuries.
In the late 1780s, Paris had a crisis. A plague struck and people were dying by the thousands. There was no place to bury them and a health crisis continued throughout the city.
Finally, the bodies were buried in the underground tunnels. The idea caught on to the point that over the next 50 years all of the cemeteries within the city of Paris were emptied so that buildings could be built in Paris over where the cemeteries has been. For years there would be workers digging up graves every night and transporting the bones to the underground tunnels. Six million people have their bones stacked in the underground tunnels. I asked the questions about head stones and found out they were used for paving the streets.
I recount this story because as I looked on the stacked skulls and bones, I thought of them as living, breathing human beings who at one point in time had their hopes and dreams, their families, their thoughts, their feelings. They lived out their lives in the presence of each other and in the presence of God. Many of them would have related to the person of Jesus. They had their secrets. They had their fears. They had their enemies. They had their loved ones. They were a people who were a part of evil, good, prayer, war, love, revolution, freedom, hate and resistance. Yes, a small moment of history with six million people stacked together. Who were they? Who are we? Six million people stacked on top of each other.
I am who I am. Each person had been a part of the knowledge of their unique and individual I am. They had been mothers, fathers, solders, doctors, children, sailors, politicians, poets, priests and teachers. They made history.
And my guess is that some of them may have been my relatives and your relatives. I could probable find my DNA and we are the recipients of their decisions, their commitments, their mistakes and their stories.
“I am the good Shepherd.” And Jesus comes among us to show us the way. We stray from the way and we get lost along the way. We return to the way.
Each of us is on our own journey. Each of us claims the, “I am” of our own humanity. I am who I am…..there has never been another person like me and there never will be. There has never been another person like you and there never will be.
We bring to our own moments the uniqueness of our own humanity. Each of us is unique, gifted and we discover who we are as we journey along the way. We hear Jesus say, “I AM” in all of those statements I read earlier. When we accept the person of Jesus, we find him to be grounded in all our humanity and we know the God of all creation. As I looked at all those stacked bones in Paris, I could not help but wonder how the humanity of those individuals has been influenced by Jesus. I will never know. But, what I do know is in the here and now of my own life.
I do know the good Shepherd, I do know something of the mystery of God in the burning bush, “I am who I am” God tells Moses. I am the reflection of this God Jesus tell us in John’s gospel. I personally accept this for myself. I am and you are the reflections of this same living God.
Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them:
Peace be with you.
They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them:
Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet;
see that it is I myself.
In the Gospel of Luke, the resurrected Jesus visits his disciples twice. Jesus first comes to them in the story that we call the Road to Emmaus: two friends, rocked by the injustice and the trauma of the crucifixion, are walking away from Jerusalem when they encounter a stranger. This stranger says to them: How come you guys are sad?
The friends are in disbelief. It turns out that they have just met the only person in the world who has not heard about the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, about the last meal and the washing of feet, about the betrayal in the garden, about the trial before Pilate, about the cross.
And so they tell the stranger the story as they walk. And when they reach their destination and the stranger makes to keep on going, they invite him in to share a meal. It is in sharing a meal that they understand that it is Jesus who is with them. And then Jesus is gone.
The two friends run back to Jerusalem to tell everyone else what has happened.
The friends’ story ends with word that we sometimes say or sing here in church.
The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
Immediately after they get back home, Luke tells us the story that we hear this morning. Indeed, Luke makes it clear that the Jesus’ two appearances are consecutive not just in the text but they are also consecutive as the disciples experience them. The one happens right after the other. The lectionary cuts off the opening words that we find in Luke: “While they were talking about this.” While they were talking about what had just happened in Emmaus, “Jesus himself stood among the disciples.”
Luke tells that these two stories, these two appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his friends, are interconnected, that we are to understand them together.
In the story that we hear today there is, as on the Road to Emmaus, confusion. And this time there is the additional element of fear. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” But peace is not what his friends feel. They feel something more like panic. They reckon that they are encountering a ghost.
But then something wonderful and strange happens.
Now, I have seen enough action movies and read enough fantasy novels to know that when you think that a beloved character is dead but they really are not, what that character generally does when they reappear is to explain how they avoided the avalanche by hiding in a cave, how they escaped the villain’s laser beam by using the mirror hidden in their shoe, how the bullet was stopped by the Bible in their pocket.
The hero’s friends say: We thought that you were dead! And the hero replies: I’m just fine. See?
But when Jesus’ friends say: We thought that you were dead! Jesus replies:
You were right. I was dead. Look at the mortal wounds on my body.
And somehow, it is in seeing the wounds that they understand that they are not looking at a ghost but, rather, that they are talking to their teacher and friend.
Is there an equivalent to the end of the Emmaus story here? The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. And the disciples knew the Lord Jesus…
in his woundedness and pain.
What do these consecutive stories in the Gospel of Luke tell us about who Jesus is?
Let’s try out an answer or two to that question. This won’t be – this can’t be – an exhaustive list. The resurrection of Jesus pushes the boundaries of our understanding, of our imagination, of our faith. The resurrection always contains more meaning that we could hope to define. But here is a beginning.
Knowing Jesus in bread and in hurt means that God is to be found in the peak and the pit of human experience. Bread – in Jesus’ time and ours – is a symbol of celebration. Right now, we live in a ritually impoverished time. But we still understand that a necessary component of marking a big occasion is food. It would be odd to have a birthday party without cake, to have a wedding in which you sent everyone away without feeding them. We understand that breaking bread marks a joyous occasion.
Sometimes we stand on a mountaintop (be it a literal or a figurative mountaintop) in which we encounter God, in which we reach out and touch God’s face. And when we come down from the mountain, we say, “God was with us.” And we’re right.
Sometimes we have a near miss in a car or we dodge some other kind of disaster and, as we sit shaking under the streetlight, we say that God was with us. And we’re right when we say that.
Jesus in bread tells us that God is present in these moments. But Jesus in his woundedness tells us that Jesus is with us in what the psalms call the pit as well. Jesus is with us when the other car doesn’t miss, when it hits us square on and the metal crumples, when our lives change or end in an instant. Jesus is with us on the day that we start the chemo. Jesus is with us when we sign the papers finalizing the divorce. Jesus is with us when we get the phone call that changes everything.
A second way of reading bread and hurt – and I can’t decide if this is contradictory or complementary – is that Jesus is present not just in the peak and the pit but also in the everyday. There is nothing more normal, more daily than sitting down for a meal. We name this normality in the Lord’s Prayer: give us today our daily bread. A kitchen is where life happens. The resurrected Jesus says that God is with us not just in the peak and the valley but also in the valley when we are wandering around buying groceries or working on our taxes or vacuuming.
And if bread is everyday, so is hurt. There is nothing more normal, more daily than suffering. To live any kind of life is to know pain, to know disappointment, to know injustice, to know grief. All of us are coming here wounded. And Jesus is with us in that too.
Whether we are talking about peak or pit or valley, in the resurrection, we see holy confirmation of what we see across Jesus’ life before he went to the cross: that Jesus shares with us in everything; that the promise of Christmas is true and Jesus really is Emmanuel, God with us.
Maybe another way of expressing God’s steadfast presence is to say that knowing Jesus in bread and in hurt means that God’s great qualities are not so much power and might as they are vulnerability and solidarity. God is willing to risk sharing with us in our joy and our pain. In the resurrected Christ, we see proof that Jesus knows life in its hard and beautiful fullness. Jesus breaks the bread and he shows us his wounds and he says: I know life completely. I have risked sharing it with you, and I have celebrated and suffered as a consequence. There is nothing so mundane that you cannot say to me: Lord, you know what this is like. There is nothing so awful or unfair that you cannot say to me: Lord, you know what this is like.
I wonder. I wonder if the solidarity and vulnerability of God are what we are talking about when we use the word communion.
The late author and theologian Nancy Eiesland wrote extensively about her understanding of faith as a person with a physical disability. Eiesland tells the story of leading a Bible study with a group of people with spinal cord injuries, more than one of whom were operating their wheelchairs with a sip-puff, with a straw that allows the person in the chair to control its speed and direction. Eiesland says that she asked the gathered group of people:
How would you know if God was with you and understood your experience?
After a long pause, a young man replied: If God was in a sip-puff, maybe God would understand.
Eiesland suggests that when Jesus shows his wounds to us that he is demonstrating that this young man got his wish. Jesus says: Look at my disability, look at what the new normal is for me. In the bread, Jesus says that he is with us in our joy. And in his woundedness, Jesus says that he is with us in our pain.
I am here in the sip-puff. I am the one being waterboarded in the secret room. I am the one being evicted with nowhere to go. I am the one being deported to a country he doesn’t know after 20 years in America. I am the one who is gunned down in the school shooting.
The vulnerability and the solidarity of the resurrection are an embodiment of what Jesus teaches us when he says: Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.
God is not watching from a distance. God literally has skin in the game. And as a consequence, God is deeply and personally invested in healing, in justice, in creativity, in love, in reconciliation.
Jesus breaks the bread.
Jesus show us his wounds.
See that it is I myself.
I have a story I’d like to tell.
No, I have a story I have to tell.
This story is impossible. You’re not going to believe me.
But I have to tell this story. I have to tell it even though I know you won’t believe me.
I have to tell it because it happened. I was there, and it happened, and I have to tell you about it.
Some of you were there, and if you were there you will be able to testify to the truth of my story, even though you were standing in a slightly different place in the room, and even though you may not have heard everything perfectly.
But if you were there
you will know that my story is true,
and you will also need to tell the story,
because people aren’t going to believe us.
But I cannot stress this enough — we have to tell this story.
We have to tell the world what happened, because what happened changed things. It changed everything.
What happened started something new.
Something that has been waiting to happen forever.
And now is that moment. And we saw its beginning.
We were there, and all those who weren’t there will need to hear this story.
And some of them will believe us.
Some of them will hear the words
pouring forth from our hearts,
and the words will be balm
that soothes their woundedness.
They will hear the words
and they will recognize
something that sounds like God,
and they will be inspired
to share that feeling that
wells up in them
with someone else
who isn’t in the room.
They will tell others about what they heard,
and they will testify to that feeling
that welled up in them
when we talked
about what happened,
and they will connect that feeling
to the livingness of God,
and they will be right to do so,
because the living God
who moved their heart to feel
is the same living God
who gave us the words to speak,
and is the same living God
who caused to happen
that thing we saw.
And we do not have language for what we saw.
We cannot explain it perfectly.
We will need new words.
We will need scrolls,
and internets of
We will need centuries
of new words
to describe that moment we had.
We will need to rewrite the meaning of every history ever told.
We will need to give our children new names;
to draw new maps;
to sing new melodies.
We will need a new culture because of that moment we had together.
And some of them will not believe us.
Some of them will not think it real,
this moment that we had.
But we cannot let that disbelief stop us from telling this story.
Because if death, itself, was conquered,
and what we saw what was we saw,
then certainly disbelief can be overcome.
Thomas proved that.
And so did we.
Who among us could before we saw with our own eyes?
But they will not have seen.
What we need is to tell the story
— for them and for us —
and we need to let our own hearts
be softened by the memory
of what we saw.
We need to describe Jerusalem
on the morning it happened.
We need to talk about
the way the sky looked after it happened.
We need to talk about
how our entire life felt like a drop of water in the
ocean of God,
and how no metaphor
could be expansive enough,
and how every metaphor
gets us a little closer
to the feeling of
We need to risk sounding crazy,
to risk sounding irrational,
to risk not making sense.
Because what just happened is absurd, isn’t it?
What just happened to us happened, didn’t it?
If it did,
Does that mean sin has lost its hold?
Does that mean that we are finally home,
and that this exile of our souls, and bodies, and lives
is finally done?
Even more, could it mean that
God can suffer, too?
Was he not God?
Did he not die?
I know he did,
but he rose, too.
So, what of God,
who does not die or let the words of peace and love
stay in the tomb?
This is new!
So, we have to tell this story.
We have to keep telling this story.
Because when we tell this story,
we point to the
that is unfolding all around us.
will want to understand,
and they will understand
what it felt like,
and then they will know
what it feels like,
and then they will come alive
in the new world
which God is creating
all around us.
That is why we tell the story.
That is why we say, CHRIST IS RISEN!
Because we were there.
And we saw it.
We touched him.
And now we have to tell this story.
You have to tell this story.