Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter - Grace Church, Oxford

This weekend I am with the Rev. Al Zadig and the people of Grace Church in Oxford. The welcome sign shown to my left is a first for me - something like 27 congregations in the past eleven months, but now at last I'm famous!

While the gospel for today is one of my very favorites (the Road to Emmaus) I have preached on it many times, and decided on this third Sunday of Easter to focus on the  reading from Acts, which can be found here, from the second chapter.

It is an honor to be here today, among all of you at Grace Church, Oxford. Do you know that you are one of five parishes in our diocese called Grace? The other four are all west of us. In the Berkshires, there is Grace Church of the Southern Berkshires in Great Barrington, and Grace Church in Dalton. And then moving east to the Pioneer Valley there is Grace Church, Chicopee and Grace Church, Amherst. But here in Worcester County there is just one: Grace Church, Oxford.

I want to share with you a poem by Luci Shaw, that comes from a collection entitled A Widening Light: Poems of the IncarnationThe particular poem I want to share is called “Judas, Peter.”

because we are all
betrayers, taking
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
but if we find grace to cry and wait
after the voice of morning
has crowed in our ears
clearly enough
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask each again
do you love me

Did you hear that? We would despair of our own lives, because of our own choices, but if we find grace to cry and wait after the voice of morning has crowed in our ears clearly enough to break our hearts, he will be there to ask again, do you love me? There is that word, grace, for all of you. The reference at the end of course is to that lakeside encounter between Peter and risen Christ. Do you remember? Jesus says to Peter, do you love me? Yes. Peter, do you love me? Yes. Peter, do you love me? Lord why are you asking me this three times, you know that I love you? Oh yeah, now I remember. Because I said I do not know the man. I do not know the man. I do not know the man…

Grace, after our biggest failures—grace to cry and wait. Amazing grace that breaks our hearts and gives us second and third chances.  Because our betrayals and denials are never the end of the story. That’s why Peter matters so much for us. Because he didn’t always get it right. What he did do, again and again, is to put his whole trust in God’s love.

Notice, then, with me, that Peter, that Good Friday denier, has something to say in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. He is a new man, a man who has learned to love again. He has found his voice:

Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the multitude, "Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him"… So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.                                   

That is what Easter looks like when it takes hold of our lives! Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! And this has everything to do with the grace being made manifest here in Oxford and the new life that is continuing to emerge.

This third Sunday of Easter and the Easter life I see here at Grace Church suggest two things to me which are really two sides of one Easter coin. One is about God and one is about us. First of all, our God really is a god of second chances. The whole point of Easter is that death does not get the final word. The whole point of Easter is that even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Three times! The whole point of Easter is that forgiveness trumps vengeance and love triumphs over fear. Always , because God does not desire the death of sinners, but that they might turn and live.

This is not just a New Testament idea—it’s a thread through the whole of what we call the Old Testament. Really, it’s there. Ask your rector! But it culminates in the Easter story. It culminates in the story of this rabbi, this messiah, who is victorious over the grave and who reveals to us who God is: the God who brooded over creation in the beginning, and the God who even now has begun making new heavens and a new earth, and wiping every tear away. We aren’t there yet, for sure. There is work to be done including a role for us. But Easter is about that new beginning and new life.

This leads to the second side of the coin, and that is what Peter models for us what it means to be the Church together - what authentic faith looks like in every generation. It is way too easy in this life to get stuck, and when we get stuck it can lead to despair. Judas hangs himself because he cannot imagine that God will really forgive him or make things new again. And despair is always a threat for us as well, even when the end is not so tragic or dramatic. It is easy in this life to get bound up in fear and guilt over what we did in the past and unable to imagine the possibility of what God may yet use us to do a new thing. So Peter is not a saint because he always gets it right. The Scriptures are very clear that he does not get it right very often, in fact. But he trusts that God is a God of second chances and of new beginnings. He trusts Easter isn’t just about what happened to Jesus’ dead body but about what happens to us. That rooster’s crowing becomes a lesson in humility that leads to new life, rather than a humiliation that leads to death.

This takes us to the very heart of the good news: we are not called to be perfect, but to live as a forgiven people. We are called, with God’s help, to repent and return to the Lord when we mess it up, and to begin again and again and again. To learn that, and to live it, is to enter into more fully into the Paschal Mystery – and it is to become the “Easter people” God means for us to become. Grace in action. 

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